November 19, 2015
The annual Dayton, Ohio, book fair took place last weekend. It’s a bookaholic’s mecca — a huge room filled with used books in various categories going for $1 to $3. I typically look for first editions to fill holes in my collections, as well as books I’ve read on loan from a library and want to own, let alone books to read.
Some years I find an unusual book, and by that I mean it strikes me as unusual for its subject matter or, say, the book design. That happened several years ago, when I purchased a hardbound copy of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov). The book was originally published in the Soviet Union in 1966 but heavily censored to the point of destroying the sense of the book. Anatoli escaped the Soviet Union in 1969 and brought with him films taken of the original, uncensored manuscript. This is that book, which records the author’s experience under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Making my copy even more unique, I recently had it signed by William Vollman, novelist and National Book Award winner, who listed the book among what he thinks are the best works of war fiction and non-fiction in his New York Times “By the Book” interview.
At this year’s fair, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible in a first edition and (bonus!) signed on the title page. I also picked up Maggie Shipstead’s novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012. A library copy sat on my reading table for a few weeks, and then I returned it unread. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, a copy without its dust jacket, landed in the shopping cart because I’ve always wanted to read this novel about a Vietnam war correspondent who gets into the heroin trade. Dog Soldiers shared the 1975 National Book Award with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams and was named among Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Robert Stone died this year. Regarding Thomas Williams, the Los Angeles Times describes him “as unknown now as if he’d never written anything” in a review of The Hair of Harold Roux reissued in paperback.
Also in the cart, Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe. I’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II espionage novels that tell not only a great story but do so with historical detail. I found an advanced reading copy for Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller to accompany the hardbound copy I own, and a first edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read Middlesex and, in all honesty, I bought the book (with a pristine dust jacket) in case I get the opportunity to meet Mr. Eugenides and get his signature.
Finally, this year’s unusual book is Joiner by James Whitehead, the version reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 1991. This is Whitehead’s only novel, originally published in 1971, about “a young athlete’s spiritual breakdown, his exploits as NFL tackle, father, lover, killer, intellectual, and teacher, and his ultimate redemption” (from the back of the book). Something about it just called to me, and so into the shopping cart it went for $1.50.
November 11, 2015
Pushkin Vertigo is a new crime imprint, launched this fall by publishing house Pushkin Press. Its focus is tour-de-force international crime novels written between the 1920s and 1970s. The imprint’s name is a nod to Hitchcock’s film Vertigo, starring Kim Novak, that was created from the novel written in 1954 by French authorial partners Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
I discovered this new imprint during a visit to The Mysterious Bookshop on Warren Street in New York’s Tribeca, a large room filled with new releases, paperbacks, signed first editions, and much more by way of crime/mystery/suspense/detective reading. The colorful paperbacks caught my eye with their distinctive design and then got my attention by the recommendation of the store manager, Ian Kern. As much as I review new books, I’m always searching through those from the past where good stories — riveting stories — can be found.
I Was Jack Mortimer, one of the first books to be published by Pushkin Vertigo, initially arrived on the reading scene in 1933, published in German. It was twice adapted for the movies, the story of a cab driver who delivers a strikingly sophisticated woman to her destination and then begins stalking her. But here is not the heart of the story. Ferdinand Sponer soon picks up another fare, the American Jack Mortimer, who gets shot in the back seat of his cab. A series of screwed-up efforts by Sponer to get help paints a false picture of himself as the murderer.
The story, set in 1930s Vienna, Austria, starts interestingly but slowly, and then soon ramps up into high intrigue due to the many unpredictable complications and twists in plot that create this puzzling murder mystery. The book is only 186 pages, short enough to gobble up in a weekend, as is Vertigo (189 pages). “Did You Know?” is a feature in the Pushkin Vertigo end pages, providing historical information regarding the authors, the books and/or the stories — such as the social and intellectual upheaval of 20th-century Austria for I Was Jack Mortimer and the successful writing partnership of Boileau and Narcejac that spanned four decades for Vertigo.
Of the first six books now being sold, while I can recommend I Was Jack Mortimer and Vertigo, the store manager at The Mysterious Bookshop said his customers have praised The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. Below are the other three books currently available. Check out Pushkin Vertigo’s website for more information.
November 5, 2015
I’m one who reads the acknowledgements at the back of books. Those mile-long, effusive thanks for all the people who’ve helped the author become an author and/or write the book. I like how this conventional page that typically presents a formidable list of names can shed light on the network of literary others associated with the author, as well as on how the book came together.
Jonathan Evison’s acknowledgements in his new book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, go beyond the typical, deserving a shout-out. It is one of the best I’ve ever read.
“The author would like to gratefully acknowledge to [sic] following people: first, the courageous women in my life, the women who have nurtured me, educated me, disciplined me, sacrificed for me, suffered for me, and never forsaken me; my mom, my grandma, my sisters, my wife, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, to name a few. The women who have often settled for less, the women who’ve never quite gotten their fair share, who have soldiered on in the face of inequity, frustration, and despair, who have forgiven beyond reasonable measure, absorbed beyond reasonable expectation, and given, given, given with no promise of recompense. I wanted to thank them with this portrait of one woman, inspired by all of them, from the moment of her conception, to her last breath.”
That one woman is 78-year-old Harriet Chance, whose fictional life Evison reveals with quirky brilliance, using a jocular Master of Ceremonies as a guide through Harriet’s reflections of her past life, “pinballing across the decades” between 1936 and 2015. Without sentiment, he advises, explains and encourages, creating a humorous, uplifting narrative despite the darkness that shadows Harriet’s life — the absence and bullying of Harriet’s husband, Bernard, throughout their long marriage; her parents’ indifference when she was a child; her troubled daughter Caroline, who embraced drugs, alcohol and theft; her best friend’s duplicity; and the law degree that got put aside for marriage and kids.
In the present, the widowed, 78-year-old Harriet receives a call about an Alaskan cruise that Bernard won in a silent auction before his death. Her children discourage her, but off Harriet goes to board the ship, even though her best friend Mildred backs out of the trip at the last minute. The first night on the boat, Harriet learns a startling truth about her past and, in response, gets drunk and messy in the boat’s bar, making a fool of herself with a plateful of crab legs and too many glasses of white wine. Out of the blue, the next day, her estranged daughter Caroline joins her on the boat, for infuriating reasons.
While Harriet marches through the gift shops of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan; makes amends with her daughter; befriends another cruiser, the morbidly obese Kurt Pickens; and attempts to make the best of the trip, she also mentally tries to put her life together in a way that makes sense. Why did she fail to hold the attention of her elusive husband? Why did Caroline become a misfit? How is it her devotion and servitude didn’t help her relationships with Bernard and Caroline? What happened to the frank, uncompromising, funny, tough woman she saw in her other self that wanted to become a lawyer?
“Ding-dong-ding, thwack-thwack-thwack, how on earth did we arrive way back here, Harriet? It’s 1946, and Vaughn Monroe is on the radio. If you listen closely, you can still hear them celebrating victory in Times Square,” says the MC, introducing us to a chapter when Harriet is nine-years-old. This is no ordinary life study, thanks not only to the MC but also the appearances of dead Bernard, popping up in the earthly realm to talk to Harriet, although he’s not sure what he’s trying to accomplish — and he’s getting himself in trouble with Heaven’s Chief Transitional Officer, Carmichael.
Bravo to Evison for pulling off the quirkiness without schmaltz and also departing from the heavy dysfunctional family story with a light touch, an insightful nod to life’s disappointments and a big hand for living one day, one week, one year at a time to the best of one’s abilities, and that includes with courage and forgiveness.
October 28, 2015
By page 50, I was tempted to put this book aside. The author writes without establishing an emotional connection to her protagonists, Paulina and Fran, and I thought I was in for a lackluster read. And yet, when I realized these shallow art school students are caricatured and not meant to be cared about, I mentally stepped back to read the book through an unaffected lens.
I observed the behavior on the page as one would watch an incomprehensible but entertaining play in which friendship is discarded as casually as a used match (and then picked up and put in the trash and then retrieved from the trash). Also, sex is more a commodity of power and self-importance among the art students than an act of love. Paulina and Fran are self-absorbed, arrogant, dishonest, frivolous, jealous and petty. While attending their New England art school, they live without serious consideration for the future, all the while imagining they will live glorious, famous lives. Nowhere in the story are academics or serious artistic values embraced. And if it’s not already obvious, self-image is of prime importance, as is perfect, dreamy curly hair.
This may seem distasteful, but once I let go of my emotional expectations, what was distasteful turned funny, and Rachel B. Glaser’s inventiveness sparkled. The story popped with energy and smart one-liners. Glaser reveals the girls’ silly, valueless existence with sharp wit, laughable scenes and a breezy narrative that sweeps through the pages with the dazzle of a happy Prima Donna.
The plot is thin but made robust with a fill-up of aforementioned wit. Paulina and Fran’s friendship begins during a 10-day college trip to Norway and ends when they’re back in the States. This break-up happens when Paulina dumps her boyfriend Julian and Fran hops into bed and a romantic relationship with him. The girls become competitive yet are haunted by an ever-present yearning for one another. Graduation arrives and strips away their illusions of self-glory: Fran paints houses in Upstate New York before moving to a dull cubicle job in Ohio; Paulina becomes homeless and then makes it big selling an invented curly hair product in Manhattan.
Paulina & Fran gives an exaggerated, lampooning glimpse into the life of art students, dreaming big as if fame arrives magically without the necessary hard work and integrity. Indeed, the Age of Artistic Youth comes across as an everlasting high. In one scene, where Paulina and Fran are dancing at a college party, author Rachel B. Glaser writes:
“The forgotten eighties song came on again, the synthesizer stirring up feelings, and everyone screamed the sound of youth loving youth. Everyone was in the same big mood.”
The story ends with distant orbiting of the girls around Julian and each other that’s altogether perfect albeit without hope. We know it’s doubtful they’ll land in a future that’s secure and successful unless they change, becoming more reality-savvy. The terrific lampooning aside, I wistfully wanted the ending to hint at their evolving maturity, if only for the girls to begin to realize, however slightly, that the best life is the one that’s not all about oneself.
October 20, 2015
I put aside Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning behemoth City On Fire to read Karen E. Bender’s story collection, Refund. City On Fire is engrossing, no doubt there, definitely a good novel to sink into, but I just wanted to step aside for a moment – reading Hallberg’s 900+ pages is a huge investment in reading time, and these 13 collected stories provided the perfect, temporary wayside.
They are tied together by a theme of money — how it rules and changes American lives and the emotional damage and exhaustion that creates. The characters are financially trapped by their jobs, some needing second and third jobs, some getting fired and struggling to make ends meet, some unable to get off the sofa to do anything but go to the job. They are blind to the happiness and security present in togetherness with others, which is the way Bender infuses the stories with hope – because the solution is right there – available — for most of the characters.
These characters include a life-long swindler on an Alaskan cruise, the executive producer of a hit TV game show called “Anything For Money,” a loan officer, an appliance doctor, a political candidate, artists and more. They are funny, familiar, heartbreaking and relatable. In the title story, probably my favorite, a woman astronomically increases the amount a couple owes her as a refund for subletting their apartment in New York when the 9-11 terrorist attack happens. It’s an unforgettable story about money’s inability to replace that aforementioned togetherness.
The author uses a dramatic event to ignite her plots, such as a school shooting that opens “The Sea Turtle Hospital.” The story is about the assistant kindergarten teacher, alone after moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend and then breaking up with him – and about her student, Keisha. No one comes for either of them after the shooting, so the teacher takes Keisha to the sea turtle hospital by the ocean. There they meet the blind turtle Hugh, bumping into the walls of his tank with no way out. The teacher and Keisha imagine what it would be like if Hugh regained his sight, and when they do that, it’s impossible not to think of a metaphor for everyone who is burdened by money’s influence regaining sight of life’s purpose and meaning:
“Maybe, I had said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the deep blue water.”
One day, I was stopped at a forever red stoplight. I picked Refund up off the passenger seat and began reading. I completely let go of my surroundings, violating my rule for stoplight reading that requires me to peripherally be aware of the red brake lights of the car in front of me in order to know when to put the book down. I shouldn’t read at stoplights, I suppose, and this book is a case in point: It grabbed and dragged me into the story so fast I fell out of my present reality, woken by the driver behind me firmly pressing the horn. Huh? What?
The title of this post is a tip of the hat to James Carville and the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.
October 7, 2015
“Did You Ever Have a Family” appeared on the Man Booker longlist of prize candidates for 2015. It did not make it to the shortlist. (The winner from the shortlist will be announced October 13.) This beguiling novel is now among the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award in fiction. (The shortlist will be announced October 14.) I provide this information simply to showcase the attention the book is getting from this season’s major literature awards.
I recently recorded the following review of “Did You Ever Have a Family” for broadcast on WOSU 89.7 fm.
Mid-way through Bill Clegg’s debut novel, his main character June Reid, a divorced mother in her 50’s, poses the question that is the book’s title. She asks it out of fatigued exasperation, weeping on a log in the woods outside her house in Wells, Connecticut, speaking to the sister of her daughter’s fiancé. Did you ever have a family? It’s an odd question because — of course Pru has a family. Her brother Will is marrying June’s daughter Lolly — and Pru’s parents are flying in the next day for the wedding.
What Clegg frames for emphasis here is June’s despair over the conflict between herself and Lolly. They haven’t gotten along since the divorce, and now June doesn’t want her ex-husband sleeping at the house the night before the wedding, but Lolly insists.
Ultimately, this deeply felt story is about bearing up through tragedy, but by taking this question for the book’s title, Clegg wants to draw us to that moment in the woods as if to say, no matter the state of a family, if you lose it, you lose everything, and June loses everything. The night before the wedding, her house explodes from a gas leak. The wedding couple, June’s ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke die in the blast. Why June is alive is one of the questions pushing forward the narrative, along with the larger question of why the gas leak occurred.
Clegg deftly uses a handful of character viewpoints in dedicated chapters to tell the story. There’s the wedding florist and caterer, the father of the groom and owners of a motel on the Pacific Ocean where Will and Lolly once stayed. June leaves Connecticut and settles at the motel. She abandons Lydia, the mother of Luke whom gossips speculate caused the catastrophe. Lydia, for comfort, clings to the attention of a persistent, flirtatious phone solicitor.
Each character’s offering is compulsively readable as Clegg progressively connects the players not just through heartbreak but also secrets and regrets from the past. The story isn’t as much melancholy as poignant, illustrating the classic truth that disasters make us see what we can lose. It’s also redemptive, as Clegg enlightens June and Lydia in truth and hope. “All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company,” one character says in the end, providing simple wisdom for daily purpose.
September 24, 2015
There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.
I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.
The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”
I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.
I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.
Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.
I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:
“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”
Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:
“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”
Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:
“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”
In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.
August 31, 2015
I can’t let this day (or night) pass without a mention of Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, an engaging and shocking, brief novel set in a river city called Grandport, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, during the mid-20th century. The book is unfortunately out of print, but it’s available from used bookstores, where I found my copy. I wasn’t looking for it; however, like many used books I bring into my house, I found it irresistible and put it with all the other books in the “hope to read” pile. Well, I’ve been going through that pile.
Erskine Caldwell (1903 -1987) wrote prolifically — non-fiction, novels and short stories — to a vast, international readership. He’s frequently described as one of the most widely read literary figures of the twentieth century. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are his most acclaimed and best-known novels, both published in the 1930’s, classic literature about the hopelessly rural poor in the American South. These two books, and a few others of the many Caldwell wrote, get mentions in articles about him, but I haven’t found any mention of The Last Night of Summer, published in 1963. Caldwell’s later books received less critical attention.
Even though it’s not among his best, or most spoken about, The Last Night of Summer is riveting. First, though, you have to get past the deceptively slow beginning, where an old-fashioned sense of sexual propriety versus risk suggests the story may be an outdated bog of a read. A young Roma Henderson propositions her boss and business owner, the middle-aged Brooks Ingraham, begging him to come to her apartment that night. It’s a big deal that she addresses him — for the first time — as Brooks, instead of Mr. Ingraham, to give an example of the era. But hang on — as Brooks decides to take Roma up on her offer, cheating on his cold, demanding, wealthy wife, the story quickly gives way to unexpected consequences. Indeed, in less than 200 pages, Caldwell produces a startling plot that involves adultery, murder, a car wreck, assault and robbery, rape and prostitution. The prose lacks elegance — Caldwell was known for his direct style — but that makes the story more unsettling. There’s no fluff to soften the grit of what’s happening. The prose also includes unusual, colorful parenthetical inner thoughts of characters and also author commentary, such as the following:
(“You can’t blame a country boy like Brooks too much for stepping up out of his class and marrying a rich woman like Maureen. Maybe he didn’t find out till it was too late that she wasn’t going to let his mother and father come to the wedding or invite them to her house ever since, and after that it was too late for him to put his foot down and do something about it. …What Maureen wanted from the start was a tall handsome man like Brooks to take her to the country club dances and to show him off at parties, and she had the money to get what she wanted.”)
Thunderstorms roll in and pound the city. This wild, stormy weather gives the book its title, for the storms are known to occur the last night of summer, bringing an end to all the hot days and nights in the flat delta country surrounding Grandport. But something else also happens: People on this night are driven to do things they’ve had on their minds all summer long, before it’s too late. And so they do, in this surprising page-turner with its old-fashioned attitudes and direct, sensational action.
August 26, 2015
The first two pages of Stuart Neville’s new Irish crime novel paint a chilling scene: Two brothers, 12 and 14 years old, are covered in blood and wrapped in each others arms as they listen to approaching police sirens. They know the police will soon witness a brutal murder scene. The brief prologue sets up not only the novel’s main crime, but also the brothers’ dangerous dependence on one another. Their powerful, emotional unity fuels the tension and smartly keeps us off guard.
Seven years later, Ciaran Devine, the younger brother, makes headlines in Northern Ireland’s newspapers as the “schoolboy killer” being released from jail. He served time for the murder of his foster father in that disturbing opening scene, having confessed to the crime. Thomas, the older brother, served less jail time as an accessory and has waited two years for Ciaran’s release. Ciaran’s probation officer, Paula Cunningham, is advised to allow Ciaran to see Thomas as soon as possible because “Thomas always seems to put Ciaran back on track.”
The brothers’ renewed togetherness feels edgy and suspicious, especially for Cunningham as she works to integrate Ciaran back into society. There’s an overarching question about which brother actually committed the crime, heightening her concerns. DCI Serena Flanagan, the only officer who was able to communicate with the frightened 12-year-old Ciaran, believes he confessed to protect his older brother. Daniel Rolston, the son of the murdered man, also doubts the law punished the right boy.
Rolston further unsettles an already disturbing situation by stalking the newly freed Ciaran and accosting Cunningham, all the while causing disturbances at his workplace. He seems mentally off kilter and acts beyond the law, driven by his obsession for truth. Meanwhile, Flanagan behaves inappropriately with Ciaran to get him to tell the truth about his confession, and Thomas is getting angry at the way Rolston, Cunningham and Flanagan are meddling with his brother’s past.
Even when the big question about the confession gets answered, author Stuart Neville doesn’t give us relief. He holds us in fearful limbo over the brothers’ intentions, which increasingly become deadly. I kept wondering how far the depraved Thomas would go to keep Ciaran and himself together and isolated from the world that doesn’t understand them. Cunningham and Flanagan become targets on his protective radar screen, creating nerve-wracking moments, especially given Neville’s sympathetic characterization of Flanagan.
Scenes in Those We Left Behind work together with flawless, syncopated dark magic and genuinely evoked characters; however, there are a few, insignificant hiccups: In one situation, a search team overlooks what would appear to be an obvious clue; in another, police protection at the house of Cunningham isn’t offered and that feels like an oversight; in another, no usage of cell phones feels odd. These are small pebbles, though, and not boulders impeding the emotionally charged fluency of action.
I’m always apprehensive nearing the end of crime novels and mysteries that have successfully seduced me. I get concerned the edge-of-the-seat questions will be wrapped up too simply, with the author throwing down a sigh of relief and a detective’s stamp of completion. That’s not the case with Those We Left Behind, which stays in the upper levels of intensity that drive the best of its genre. The story retains its creepiness, rooted in the sibling dependence, to the very end, with a movie-worthy final scene taking place beside the Irish Sea.
Those We Left Behind is Stuart Neville’s sixth crime/mystery novel. It’s being described as the first in a series that will follow DCI Serena Flanagan.
August 13, 2015
Letter books can be big and tedious, running north of 400 pages and lacking the richness of plot. Put another way, rarely do you read “compelling” and “intriguing” in reviews of such books; however, the intimate voice of letter writing can drive seductive page-turning, at least for me. After that, it’s the time period and then, typically, a celebrity life that can create drama from daily details. For Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, there is much more due to a unique, wondrous connection between them — the southern writer and the crime novelist, the one a Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Optimist’s Daughter) and the other a recipient of the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America (the MWA’s highest honor recognizing lifetime achievement). This connection is from literature, but it builds into deep affection and love, making the reading far from “big and tedious.” Their letters are filled with references about books and the writing life, and underlying their words is an intimacy from companionable souls. Chapter titles reveal some of what I’m saying:
- “If one of your letters could be rotten there’d be nothing sound left in heaven or on earth.”
- “I dreamed I was sending you the dream I was dreaming.”
- “Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.”
- “What we need is one another.”
Now, here is the point I want to get to: the sharing of a short story that came to my attention within the letters.
In the summer of 1973, Macdonald’s editor asked him to put together a mystery and suspense anthology, “a fairly thick one comprising novels, novellas, and short stories.” Macdonald and Welty swapped ideas of possible inclusions, and I went in search of one of them — “The Walker” by Patrick O’Brian, a short story — because of what they said about it. Welty sent a copy of it to Macdonald who responded, “It’s a terribly powerful story — one of those stories that stays with you forever, I suspect, like a terribly bad dream — and I hope to use it.” Welty then remarked that the story had stayed with her for years and, in another letter, wrote: “What you say about ‘The Walker’ & the reader’s being trapped with complicity expresses or explains the awful hold it has, which I could not have put my finger on, or never had.”
I had to read this story to experience and discover what they were saying about it, but The Walker and Other Stories by Patrick O’Brian is out of print. Nevertheless, I found the story at the library in another collection written by Patrick O’Brian, The Rendezvous and Other Stories. Only 10 pages, “The Walker” is everything Welty and Macdonald said about it — that awful hold it has. It is indeed terribly powerful, chilling and unforgettable, and a few days later I read it again.
July 29, 2015
Trigger Mortis by Anthony Horowitz
James Bond fans can look forward to a new 007 thriller with Trigger Mortis being released September 9 both in the UK and USA. While Ian Fleming’s estate has worked with other authors in the past to publish new books using the deceased novelist’s spy (Jeffrey Deaver, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd), this is the first time an author uses one of Fleming’s Bond girls: Pussy Galore from Goldfinger, Ian Fleming’s Bond novels published in 1959, is back.
The story takes place in 1957, two years after the conclusion of Goldfinger. From the publisher’s website, here’s some of what it’s about:
“The world’s most famous spy, James Bond, has just returned victorious from his showdown with Auric Goldfinger in Fort Knox. By his side is the glamorous and streetwise Pussy Galore, who played no small part in his success. As they settle down in London, the odds of Galore taming the debonair bachelor seem slim—but she herself is a creature not so easily caught.
Meanwhile, the struggle for superiority between the Soviet Union and the West is escalating. In an attempt to demonstrate Soviet strength, SMERSH plans to sabotage an international Grand Prix in the hot zone of West Germany. At the Nürburgring Racing Circuit, Bond must play a high-speed game of cat and mouse to stop them, but when he observes a secretive meeting between SMERSH’s driver and a notorious Korean millionaire, it becomes clear that this is just the infamous organization’s opening move.”
Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism by John Norris
Mary McGrory (1918 – 2004) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her columns about Watergate in The Washington Star. She covered 12 Presidential campaigns and major American events, from the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2003. From the publisher’s website, here’s some insight into McGrory:
“Behind the scenes she flirted, drank, cajoled, and jousted with the most important figures in American life, breaking all the rules in the journalism textbook. Her writing was admired and feared by such notables as Lyndon Johnson (who also tried to seduce her) and her friend Bobby Kennedy who observed, ‘Mary is so gentle—until she gets behind a typewriter.’ Her soirees, filled with Supreme Court justices, senators, interns, and copy boys alike, were legendary.”
Author John Norris wrote an article in the May/June 2014 Politico Magazine about McGrory, and it mentions the Johnson seduction. Here’s an excerpt from the article. McGrory has just learned that President Lyndon B. Johnson is on his way to her apartment:
“A Bostonian ever proud of her Irish roots, McGrory had adored President John F. Kennedy, and she had been a constant behind-the-scenes presence during the Camelot years. So she was no stranger to power, but the impromptu nature of Johnson’s visit was unnerving.
McGrory invited him in and offered the president a drink. They engaged in some friendly small talk until Johnson, tumbler of scotch in his large hand, finally put his cards on the table. “Mary, I am crazy about you,” he confessed. He wanted to sleep with her.
Then, in what has to be one of the most awkward and unromantic propositions in presidential history, Johnson tried to make the case that since McGrory had always admired Kennedy, she should now transfer her affections to him.”
Those who’ve read Robert A. Caro’s The Passage of Power will understand what’s behind Johnson’s thinking. (And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.)
Publisher’s Weekly says, “The book is a rich portrait, and will likely encourage readers to seek more of McGrory’s groundbreaking writing.” Kirkus Reviews says, “Norris is plainly in love with his fascinating subject, which is not only McGrory, but newspaper journalism in general.”
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen, the author Time Magazine put on their August 23, 2010, cover under the title Great American Novelist, is publishing this new novel in September. Kirkus Reviews describes it as: “A twisty but controlled epic that merges large and small concerns: loose nukes and absent parents, government surveillance and bad sex, gory murder and fine art.” Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Though the novel lacks resonance, its pieces fit together with stunning craftsmanship.”
Purity is a California girl and recent college graduate, who interns for an organization in Bolivia run by the charismatic leader Andreas Wolf. Wolf is trafficking in the world’s secrets, and he’s on the lam (sounding very similar to Julian Assange). Description from the publisher’s website includes the following:
“Young Pip Tyler doesn’t know who she is. She knows that her real name is Purity, that she’s saddled with $130,000 in student debt, that she’s squatting with anarchists in Oakland, and that her relationship with her mother–her only family–is hazardous. But she doesn’t have a clue who her father is, why her mother chose to live as a recluse with an invented name, or how she’ll ever have a normal life.
Enter the Germans. A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip to an internship in South America with The Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world–including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins.”
July 14, 2015
Harper Lee’s second novel became available to readers today. Go Set a Watchman is the book Ms. Lee wrote prior to her classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Some could say it was the first draft. In the late 1950’s, Ms. Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co. saw within that first manuscript a stronger story in the flashbacks of the protagonist Jean Louise Finch (a.k.a. Scout). She sent Ms. Lee back to her typewriter to write that other book, and To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Go Set a Watchman was never published until now.
“Ms. Lee said she had thought the draft of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ had been lost or destroyed. Then last fall, Tonja Carter, her friend and lawyer, discovered the manuscript in a secure place where Ms. Lee keeps her archives, attached to an original typed manuscript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ According to Ms. Lee’s publisher, Ms. Carter didn’t understand what she had stumbled on at first, until she realized that the passages weren’t from Ms. Lee’s first and only novel.”
A July 3rd article in The New York Times casts doubt on whether or not this is the first discovery of the manuscript. From that article, with the title “Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought,” there’s this:
“But another narrative has emerged that suggests the discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee’s literary agent, to appraise a ‘Mockingbird’ manuscript for insurance and other purposes.
“The discrepancy between the two accounts raises questions about whether the book was lost and accidentally recovered, and about why Ms. Lee would not have sought to publish it earlier.”
Today’s New York Times reports Ms. Carter’s revised version of her discovery story in “A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origins and Hints of a Third Book:”
“The new statements from Ms. Carter, who has been a central figure in bringing the novel to publication, feature some discrepancies with her earlier accounts of the book’s discovery, which could revive skepticism about ‘Watchman’s’ provenance even as bookstores and readers across the country are celebrating its release.”
I read To Kill a Mockingbird a long time ago. I didn’t think re-reading it would be best in my approach to Go Set a Watchman, especially considering this new novel came first; however, I wanted to get my thoughts into the arena of Harper Lee’s life and work. And so, below, to share, are the online places I visited to reacquaint myself with the story of Scout and Atticus Finch. Like many, I will be reading the new novel over the next few days.
Garrison Keillor’s review of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles R. Shields gives a peek at Ms. Lee’s struggle to create her famous novel. As you would expect from Keillor, it’s an enjoyable review that includes the following:
“If you were going to draw a movie from this book, you’d start on York Avenue in Manhattan on a cold winter night in the late 1950’s. Pages of manuscript fluttering out of an apartment window and then a young woman, weeping, picking them up out of the snow. She is an airline ticket clerk and she has been working at her typewriter late at night ever since she came to the city over her parents’ objections in 1949. She is on her own. Her childhood pal, Truman, an effeminate boy befriended by the boyish girl, is nearby but out of range, flying high, a heralded young novelist (‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’) with a Broadway musical in the works. In his wake, she strikes people as dumpy and distant. She perseveres. In November 1956, she walks into an agent’s office at 18 East 41st Street with five short stories in hand, and is encouraged. On Christmas Day, at her friends Michael and Joy Brown’s town house on East 50th, they present her with a gift, a note — ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ She is bowled over by their generosity. A year later, she has the beginnings of a novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ which becomes ‘Atticus,’ which, under the tutelage of a patient editor at Lippincott named Tay Hohoff (‘dressed in a business suit with her steel gray hair pulled tightly behind her, . . . short and rail-thin with an aristocratic profile and a voice raspy from cigarettes’), after the cold winter night breakdown, she finishes in the summer of 1959.”
“Engrossing first novel of rare excellence”
This sentence is from a 1960 review of To Kill a Mockingbird, which appeared July 17 in the Chicago Tribune. The review also includes this:
“The first-person narrator is a pistol of a little girl about to enter first grade just after the narrative starts; her nickname is Scout. She has a brother, Jem, four years her senior. Her father is a widowed lawyer named Atticus. Then there is a little boy her own age — Dill — who comes each summer to visit in Maycomb, Ala., during the mid 1930s.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird will never stop being a good book, and it will never stop inspiring good people.”
This review by a young reader in The Guardian is from a series featuring book reviews by young readers ages 7 to 18. It includes this:
“To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, and distinguishes it from just following the law. Even the titular quote: ‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird’ is in itself an allegory for this message.”
Robert Duvall’s movie debut
And finally, a review summary of the 1962 movie of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch is widely known for the famous role, but who knew or remembered this is Robert Duvall’s movie debut as Boo Radley?
“While Robinson’s trial gives the film its momentum, there are plenty of anecdotal occurrences before and after the court date … especially Scout’s reactions to, and relationship with, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his movie debut), the reclusive ‘village idiot’ who turns out to be her salvation when she is attacked by a venomous bigot.”
July 8, 2015
I have a habit whereby I borrow books from the library, and yet I know I won’t be reading them because I don’t have time, what with the reading schedule already packed. But I want to pretend I can and will read them, and so I take them out of the library and look at them on a table in my house. Not stacks of them. Just a couple. It’s like renting an expensive diamond necklace that’s far beyond one’s financial means for ownership and wearing it for a night at an exclusive event. I once read somewhere that’s what celebrities do when they attend the Oscars. They wear the jewelry and take it back. For me, I keep the books and then take them back. The habit occasionally leads me to a purchase, thinking I’ll read the book during that fabled time we all hope for called “some day.” And so to share, here are three recently published books, two fiction and one non-fiction, currently in my house on loan from the library.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
A timely thriller you may have heard about, considering it’s made an appearance on The New York Times best-seller list in their Sunday Book Review. The narrative situation is an extreme drought in the American Southwest with states engaging in violence and corruption over the dwindling supply. Rumors of a game-changing water source come to light in Phoenix, prompting Las Vegas “water knife” Angel Velasquez, described on the dust jacket as detective, assassin and spy working for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, to investigate the rumors. Why I borrowed the book: The thriller aspect, the timely concept and curiosity about the protagonist, as well as the near future setting, feel intriguing. Seems like a good summer selection for the beach, the pool or the porch.
The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams) by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski
The Inklings met weekly in nearby pubs and the academic rooms of C. S. Lewis in Oxford, England. They were a group of friends and colleagues who (quoting from the publisher/dust jacket) discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles through woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of their times. The Zaleskis explain the reason for focusing on the four, out of the several Inklings, because they are the best known of the group and also the most original, as writers and thinkers. Why I borrowed the book: For 10 years with a beloved group of friends, I read the books of C. S. Lewis. Like the Inklings, we called ourselves The Clivers, for Clive Staples Lewis. I’ve read 45 pages into this 500+ page tome and have discovered it promises to be a wonderful book. I’ll probably buy it.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
This is a Holocaust story narrated by a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto, thieving with other children for survival. He’s rescued by a doctor known throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights, and in the story he’s in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. From the dust jacket: “Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape — as his mentor suspected he could — to spread word about the atrocities?” Why I borrowed the book: No doubt a dark topic and difficult reading; however, commentary about the book indicates the story richly evolves into more than the darkness and that author Jim Shepard lightens it with the very human way he brings the characters to life. Also, there’s bravery. Also, I would like to get to know the work of Jim Shepard.
June 25, 2015
Author James Salter died on Friday, June 19. His death shocked his devoted fans, having nothing to do with it being unexpected. He was 90 years old. The shock has everything to do with recognizing what we’ve lost: A writer who created perfect sentences and characters that flowed altogether into engaging, beautiful and moving stories. The quality of his writing style, his history as a combat pilot during the Korean War, his enduring classic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) all speak to Salter’s rich life and literary legacy; and yet, many readers don’t know him. He’s been ubiquitously described as “a writer’s writer” and a favorite of critics. The New York Times obituary headline reads, “James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90.” Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda captured the essence of Salter in The Washington Post when he wrote, “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”
With the media reacting to his death, I read many articles about James Salter this week, particularly to find out if something I recalled about the author was indeed true: that he once owned a bread company in Columbus, Ohio. I’d heard of it from a general conversation along the way, sometime, somewhere, many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that it was confirmed during an unusual conversation at Barnes & Noble.
I approached the information desk to inquire if they had a copy of the then new book Lucky Girls: Stories (P.S.) by Nell Freudenberger. The man at the desk, tall, older, sophisticated, remarked, “Oh, that’s a very good book.” I rarely if ever encounter someone who knows literature at the B&N information desk, and by that I mean such a book as Freudenberger’s debut story collection that was relatively unknown and not among the popular books. My filter was off, and I blurted, “How would you know?” Not meaning to be rude, I made the comment in shock that he recognized the title, let alone that he had read the book. I was more trying to ask out of curiosity, “How and why do you know this book exists? Where did you hear about it?”
He didn’t flinch, rather kept looking up the title and said, “I read the books of authors who come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop.” That’s the creative writing program in Iowa City famous for graduating some of America’s best authors. I explained why I’d asked, and he agreed about the lack of literary knowledge at the information desk. He said, in so many words, he was a duck out of water and introduced himself as Dennis Howard. And then he said it, the astonishing statement that he knew James Salter and they had owned a bread company together.
It was called Pane. I remember the storefront on Columbus’ Grandview Avenue back in the 1990s. It was where Vino Vino, a restaurant and wine bar, is now located. A few years later at a used and rare bookstore, I purchased a first edition of James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories signed by Salter. Beneath his name he wrote, “Pane 1/19/95.” I never saw Dennis Howard again at that Barnes & Noble.
Of all that I read about James Salter this week, I only found this one reference to Pane and Ohio, in a New Yorker article from April 2013: “The movie money didn’t last; he lost a lot of it years ago when he and a friend opened a bakery in Ohio. The venture failed, sticking Salter with heavy debts and a heavy heart.”
If you’ve never read the work of James Salter, I recommend first reading his autobiography Burning the Days. It’s one of my favorite memoirs, as I was hooked by Salter’s stories about being a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, a writer in Manhattan and a script writer in Hollywood. The memoir is a treasure trove of books to put on the reading list from his mentions of authors he knew and books he read. I went on the hunt for two novels he mentions, now out of print: Disenchantment by C. E. Montague, recommended to Salter by his agent, and Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw, of which Salter writes:
“[Irwin Shaw] had the most difficult time of his life with that book. It had taken four years. He wrote it as a play first but it was no good. Then he wrote a hundred pages of the book and again gave up, but his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins, persuaded him to go on. It eventually sold more copies than anything he ever wrote.”
I also recommend reading Salter’s short stories, such as in his collections Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night: Stories (2005), particularly the story “Last Night” in the latter. All That Is (2013), his final book and novel, spent time on The New York Times best-seller list but got mixed reviews.
Thank you for your wonderful books, James Salter. Rest in peace.
June 13, 2015
Every once in a while — but not very often — I read a book that’s so good I don’t stop to take notes. I also refrain from putting sticky notes beside significant passages for quick reference. I’m so caught up in what’s going on that any pause feels like too much of an interruption. The Defence is one of those books, a fast-paced, clever albeit far-fetched legal thriller set in New York City. I read it breathlessly, breezing through the concise chapters, filled with anticipation of what would happen next, riveted and wondering to the very end.
Within the first few pages, ex-con, trial lawyer, former alcoholic protagonist Eddie Flynn is kidnapped by Russian mobsters who’ve placed a bomb inside Eddie’s coat. Their boss, Olek Volchek, is on trial for murder, and Eddie, who hasn’t practiced law in a year, is being forced to represent him. To ensure cooperation, Volchek’s thugs have kidnapped Flynn’s 10-year-old daughter Amy.
Four different law firms already have said Volchek is impossible to defend. His case is a slam dunk for the impressive prosecutor, Miriam Sullivan. Her star witness, Little Benny, was the hit man hired by Volchek, and he got caught at the scene of the murder. Little Benny’s fully prepared to give up his boss. Volchek’s plan for Eddie is not to secure a verdict of innocence. He wants Eddie to bring the bomb into the courtroom and blow up Benny. Eddie, however, convinces Volchek to at least let him try to win the case. He has 31 hours to pull it off.
Eddie’s definitely in a bind, but being an ex-con, he’s got instincts, insights, quick-thinking and sticky fingers that allow him to manipulate his captors. His talents create surprising twists and turns, as do the many things Eddie discovers about Volchek and his men. Eddie’s back story of why he became a con artist, what caused him to leave the con game, how he became a trial lawyer and why he quit and became a drunk calls upon our sympathy and makes him all the more likable. Best of all, the way Eddie ticks makes him a fun guy to take us on this narrative roller-coaster ride filled with clever hi-jinks, scamming, conspiracies and a line-up of tense moments that feel like Eddie is doomed.
I’m not one to have patience with improbable scenarios. The exception, however, is when the plot construction and character composition is so well done I ignore that little voice inside my head that rings the implausible bell because, who cares! The tension never lets up in The Defence and, equally important, neither does the entertainment that includes a “turned” FBI agent, a jury consultant who reads lips, Ninja bikers and a Mafia strongman who goes by the name Lizard (you don’t want to know). Author Steve Cavanagh pulls it off brilliantly, while Eddie channels the advice of his father, a con man himself, who told Eddie to always “hold it together no matter what.” And he does.
Now comes the part where I may disappoint you, my fellow Americans. The Defence is published by Orion books in the United Kingdom and slated for publication by Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in the United States in 2016, according to an email from the author. That said, new and used copies can be purchased on Amazon, some shipping from the U.K. Readers who use the library, Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook will need to wait for the U.S. release.
Finally, a tip for readers who love mysteries, suspense and thrillers: The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City is where I found my copy of The Defence. I shop there as a book collector, able to get first editions of new, signed books by authors in the United Kingdom. They’ve sold out of The Defence; however, The Mysterious Bookshop has several Crime book clubs that might interest you, including The British Crime Collectors Club “for collectors of ‘true first editions’ published in the United Kingdom, as well as those who can’t wait for the US release date.” That would be me. Maybe it’s you, too.