January 26, 2012
The following new and relatively new books are sitting on my desk, only they’re not physically present on my desk. They’re represented by pieces of paper torn from pages in book review publications. I consider this growing handful of paper a reading table of sorts. Actually, it’s a control measure due to books now living on the floor in my house, something I said I would never allow. Clearly, books on the floor is a sign I need to control my literary acquisitions. Hence, this style of reading table that gathers paper as a first step versus impulsively acquiring at first love.
I share these books because readers who don’t comb book review journals, especially those from London, may not be aware of them.
Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
NYRB Classics recently published this Georges Simenon novel, Act of Passion, about a successful doctor who abandons his comfortable married life to pursue and attempt to possess a love interest. Sounds like a common plotline; however, in the hands of Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, the story’s probably a well-crafted stunner. The Times Literary Supplement writes, “Simenon creates a character both compelling and repulsive, clear-eyed and deluded at the same time.” The novel was originally published in 1947 in France as Lettre à mon juge, a more fitting title to the story, considering it’s written as an apology letter from the doctor to the magistrate in his murder trial. Act of Passion is translated by the late Louise Varèse.
Julia by Otto de Kat
Perhaps it’s unfair to list this novel because it’s not published (yet?) in the U.S., although you can still purchase it online. I’ve come across it a few times in U.K. reviews, and it’s one I’ve got my eye on. Julia by Otto de Kat was originally published in Dutch in 2008 and recently translated into English by Ina Rilke. This slight, 168-page novel concerns a Dutchman’s encounter with a woman (Julia Berger) for a brief time in Germany, 1938. From The Independent: “De Kat’s ambition of theme is served by astonishing tautness of construction and spareness of language, beautifully rendered by Ina Rilke. And, most movingly, the novel offers us glimpses of uncompromising virtue, not always in expected places.”
The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
Canadian author Emma Donoghue may bring to mind her best-selling Room, a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a kidnapping. She also wrote The Sealed Letter. It was published in the U.S. and Canada in 2008, before Room. It’s historical fiction based on a scandalous Victorian divorce in 1860′s London. Picador recently published it for the first time in the U.K. It was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, where it got my attention. On Donoghue’s website, a quote from the Daily Mail says it’s ”a page-turning drama packed with sex, passion and intrigue.” Also, according to The New York Times review in 2008: “the plot is psychologically informed, fast paced and eminently readable.”
The Manuscript of Great Expectations: From the Townshend Collection, Wisbech by Charles Dickens
This book intrigues me because of the opportunity to experience an author’s decision-making, word by word, sentence by sentence, as he brings a story to life. It’s an exact reproduction in color and size of the hand-written manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The museum that owns the 1860 manuscript collaborated with Cambridge University Press to produce the original papers in book format for the first time (according to this article in The Guardian). I love that The Guardian provides a gallery view you can click through for a taste of what’s inside the book. What a wonder to think this is how books used to be written. Pen and ink seems so much more of an intimate, demanding experience with words than typing.
The New Granta Book of Travel
edited by Liz Jobey, introduction by Jonathan Raban
This collection of travel narratives will be available in the U.S. April 2012. It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in travel memoirs. One of my long-time favorites is Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare. More recently, I wanted to read but didn’t Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. And so here, a collection of diverse travels essays calling to me. From The Independent: “What’s particularly interesting is how it illuminates the diversity of modern travel. In ‘Arrival’ we have an asylum seeker’s first experience of coming to Britain. Albino Ochero-Okello’s poignant tale turns the idea of travel for pleasure on its head. For a refugee, travel is a means of survival.’” Also, reading the book’s introduction via Amazon’s preview option, Jonathan Raban describes an essay about a Victorian-style imperial expedition into the heart of the Congo as well as a walk in East Ayrshire – ”Her journey lasts an hour or so, and covers perhaps a mile, but one need not travel far or for long to travel deep…”
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
I became a Penelope Lively fan with her Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, so a new book always gets my attention. How It All Began is getting positive reviews by the major U.S. papers, a story that starts with the mugging of a retired schoolteacher in London and then unfolds with the resulting consequences. The publisher’s website says, “Through a richly conceived and colorful cast of characters, Penelope Lively explores the powerful role of chance in people’s lives and deftly illustrates how our paths can be altered irrevocably by someone we will never even meet.” Sounds like another good one — How It All Began is Lively’s 20th work of fiction.
January 9, 2012
I’ll start with the ending, but I’m not going to reveal what happens in this story about Deputy Sheriff Ogden Walker, who “wouldn’t know a clue if it jumped up and bit him on his pecker.” I’m going to tell you that I got angry. Reading the last two pages of this triple murder mystery, I thought I’d been duped. I thought the author, Percival Everett, had written this suspenseful story about an unusual detective, exploring issues of racism, loyalty, identity and a purposed life – all the while keeping me guessing about who committed the murders — and then he writes a conclusion that’s unbelievable and feels like a smack in the face.
Call me frustrated and furious, except a persistent internal voice suggested I might have missed something along the way. Assumption is a literary class act, and I couldn’t imagine Everett would blow off the ending. It just didn’t fit. So I went back through the book looking for clues to herald the surprise ending, and I found them, demonstrating Everett’s written not only a remarkable crime novel off the typical grid, but also a cautionary message about the danger of assumption.
Deputy Sheriff Ogden Walker, a former employee of the U.S. Military Police, works for Sheriff Bucky Paz in the fictional “middle of no place” Plata County, New Mexico. His boss gives him free rein, despite Walker’s unorthodox ways, but then the quirky but reliable Sheriff Paz is pretty much into being left alone to eat his doughnuts. Don’t think for a minute we’re getting a tired policeman-doughnut cliché here. The Mrs. sends a nutritional bag of carrots to the office with her large hubby to replace the high calorie sweets, and the play between the foods and the frustrated fat man, who’s always looking for the easy button, is a trip. So, too, is Walker’s sharp wit, frequently given.
The murdered dead that turn up in this book include a bigoted woman no one much liked, two prostitutes who try to scam their pimp and a game and fish patrolman. Walker seems to get strung along while solving them, but his nose to the trail inevitably unfolds the mysteries that have clever, unpredictable twists and turns. He ends up in bars and brothels in Denver, a car dealership in Albuquerque and a nursing home in Tempe in search of answers, as well as the surrounding canyons and desert. This emotionally detached deputy rarely carries his gun and appears undaunted by threatening situations. Some say he has a messiah complex.
The crimes occur in three loosely connected sections of the book. You’ll have to read very carefully not to be whomped with the ending like I was. Although, even if you do read carefully, you’ll still be whomped, I’m sure, because Everett is playing a lot of cards in this well-crafted novel. Each one is designed to fit into a fanned out, calculated display that illustrates nothing makes sense in the way we perceive it to make sense. And that ending? Our thoughts and beliefs about people we know may not be their reality. It’s a kind of assumption that messed with me in the end. (Point made via experience.) Bravo, Mr. Everett.