December 4, 2013
If you’re looking for storytelling that will involve you with character complexities, intriguing plots and memorable settings, you’ll find all that here, and more.
Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a young woman when she became the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century, condemned for murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. She’s given over in protective custody to a farm family of a government official for the months preceding her execution. Agnes’s presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and two girls who must come to terms with the convict’s sympathetic humanity.
The isolated northern Icelandic landscape invites us into its gorgeous beauty and treacherous reality. The how and why details of the murders unfold as Agnes reveals her story to a visiting novice priest who struggles with knowing how to provide spiritual comfort and hope to a murderess. So, too, we learn of her impoverished life as a landless workmaid leading up to the crime.
The story interchanges between Agnes’s intimate first person inner thoughts and confessions to the priest, and then the objective tension-building third person view of the other characters. Hannah Kent writes with compassionate authority, deeply engaging us in the soul of human love and crime. In the Author’s Note at book’s end, she tells us she has knit together Agnes’s story in Burial Rites based on known and established facts, stating “events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.” This stunning novel entreats insight into how certainty leaves no entry point for the light of truth.
The title of this novel that drove me to read late into the night comes from the first day of the First World War’s Battle of the Somme. “Once the shelling was over, of the 100,000 British troops who attacked the German lines July 1, 1916, 20,000 were killed and over 40,000 were wounded. It was the single worst day in deaths and casualties in British military history.” (source: PBS.org)
The story begins earlier, in 1913, with the lives of four young men that will be changed by the war and, specifically, the battle – a time when we are introduced to their normal lives as a London store clerk fascinated by bicycles (Frank); a cathedral organist in Gloucester (Benedict); a British entrepreneur in New York City (Harry); and a village boy assisting the local blacksmith and doctor in Corbie, France (Jean-Baptiste).
Chapters are dedicated to each character as the story unfolds. In the beginning, I questioned whether or not I’d be able to remember all their life threads and signature details; however, that concern disappeared quickly – author Elizabeth Speller lures us into caring about each character’s decisions, motives, needs and fate with realism, surprise and emotional gravitas. They are the reason I kept turning the pages, wanting to know their outcomes.
Frank enters the war as a military bicycle messenger; Benedict joins up with his friend Theo, whom he secretly, romantically loves; Harry leaves the safety of America to join his fellow countrymen in battle in the midst of his father’s death and a major inheritance; and Jean-Baptiste joins the army to run from his mother’s shocking affair with the doctor. Speller magically connects the four lives in a way that’s moving and unforgettable as she explores their need for freedom, self-direction, hope, love and life purpose.
As we head into the 100 year anniversary of World War I in 2014, The First of July — captivating in storytelling and elegant in style — deserves a place at the top of the reading list. For this year, 2013, it’s among my year’s favorites.
November 20, 2013
Photojournalist Ulrich Mack worked for the German magazine Quick (which in German means ‘live’ or ‘swift’) during the 1960s. He covered President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s four-day visit to Germany, June 23 to 26, 1963. JFK visited Cologne, Bonn, Hanau, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and West Berlin in what Kennedy in Berlin — Mack’s previously unpublished collection of photographs – describes as an unprecedented event that followed a precise protocol.
An exception to what was planned became history in West Berlin, when Kennedy went off script before 450,000 people at Schöneberg City Hall, giving the famous Cold War speech that included the closing line: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner.)
The book is organized by city, each introduced by the hourly itinerary and followed by pages filled with Ulrich Mack’s black-and-white photos, including the ticker-tape procession down the main street of West Berlin with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, mayor of Berlin; and his stop at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point at the Berlin Wall between West and East Berlin, where Kennedy stands atop the observation deck. The book contains close to 100 photos selected by Ulrich Mack. Many are of Kennedy walking among massive crowds and passing them in a motorcade.
“They now rejoiced all the more, applauded, waved, pushed, and shoved to see a president who visibly enjoyed basking in the crowd’s adulation. As an aside, it should be noted that the Lincoln Continental that had been flown in was the same car in which Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.”
Ulrich Mack got close enough to capture Kennedy’s relaxed, engaged expressions, his charismatic smile, as well as portraits of the people of the young Federal Republic of Germany hoping to glimpse the most powerful man in the world.
Photos of officials standing with Kennedy lack their identification, which is mildly frustrating.
Many books have been published this year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. This book captures four famous days that occurred five months prior to that tragic event. With the secret service in their dark sunglasses walking beside Kennedy’s vehicle, or standing on the foot boards, or, as is one agent, peering out from the back seat of that Lincoln Continental — seated where Jackie Kennedy would ride in Dallas — they seem so ill equipped to protect JFK should the crowd, let alone a sniper, go after him.
Photographs in Kennedy in Berlin are by Ulrich Mack; essays in the book are by Jasper von Altenbockum, Egon Bahr and Hans-Michael Koetzle.
November 12, 2013
Michael Pocalyko’s financial thriller is one of the most intricately and uniquely plotted novels I’ve ever read that maintains its integrity of suspense and credibility ‘til the very end. Its elements of intrigue are so diverse — cast wide among a World War II mystery, Wall Street power plays, political drama and international wealth conspiracies, let alone the occasional murder – I kept thinking there’s no way this story is going to come together in the end without feeling forced or manipulated. And yet it does, impressively and brilliantly.
It’s worth noting the author’s background: Mr. Pocalyko (pronounced “poe-calico”) is CEO of Monticello Capital, a boutique investment bank in Washington D.C. His credentials read like the bio of a Tom Clancy character – combat aviator, Navy commander, political candidate, venture capitalist and global corporate chair. Given fiction often draws from an author’s experience, this gives you an idea of The Navigator’s flavor, and of its rich action and realism.
At the center of the drama is the world’s first trillion-dollar private Wall Street deal for the launch of a new global company named ViroSat, or what some are calling “Internet Next.” It’s a worldwide system of integrated satellites and remote receiving stations that’s so vast it surpasses existing Internet and international telecommunication networks — and it’s beyond regulatory reach.
Pulling the deal together is Warren Hunter of Wall Street investment bank Compton Sizemore. Warren is an arrogant, polished negotiator whose razor-sharp insight elevates him to hero status. He’s financing the deal with four-fifths debt and one-fifth equity. Put another way, total required for the ViroSat deal is $1.37 trillion in new debt and $287.7 billion in equity. Where Warren is to source that equity creates the mystery, along with those wanting to stop Warren from closing the deal, including a former communist spy, deceptive entrepreneurs and people who aren’t who they say they are.
Meanwhile, Warren’s older brother Rick Yeager finds himself unemployed in Washington D. C. when the financial company he joins on his first day gets busted by the FBI for the illegal way it moves “scads” of other people’s money. He also finds himself back in touch with his ex-wife Julia, who works for a U.S. senator hot to get legislative oversight on the ViroSat deal. At the same time, strangely, Rick inherits a former financial client’s estate after she dies in a suspicious car accident. And then there’s Dutch, Warren and Rick’s father, a World War II combat air pilot seconded to military intelligence, now weakened and confused by Alzheimer’s. Pocalyko skillfully orchestrates these many narrative threads, suggesting connection, but it’s not until the end when we understand the why and how of it.
A lot needs to be explained about ViroSat’s capital financing and how massive amounts of money work and move. Pocalyko does a fine job of making sure his readers understand without talking down to us. But with that comes a heavy presence of exposition, i.e., explaining and narratively diagramming how money works in such a deal and also how Wall Street and Washington D.C. play in the arena. While informative, the exposition leaches the prose of color and excitement, rendering this story more interesting than gripping.
At one point, early in The Navigator, Warren whispers to ViroSat’s principal Japanese venture partner, who’s got cold feet: “Business is war. Kill or be killed.” The comment sets the stage for this expertly plotted debut and the memorable Warren Hunter.
October 18, 2013
Adam Langer’s The Salinger Contract explores the challenges, pitfalls and perils of making a living as a novelist. It’s a highly entertaining story, wildly implausible and yet completely addicting for the inventiveness, humor and lively prose style. Adam Langer is not only the author’s name but also the narrator’s name, in a quirky nod to those aforementioned challenges.
Narrator Adam is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, and former editor of a New York City literary magazine for which he interviewed famous authors. One of those authors was Connor Joyce, who reappears in Adam’s life at a Bloomington going-out-of-business Borders bookstore, where Connor is giving a reading of his new thriller. When Adam’s toddler Beatrice sees a photo of Connor, she’s frightened. Adam looks back on the moment and thinks it was a sign he should have heeded.
That’s because Adam becomes Connor’s confidante in a bizarre quagmire that involves writing a novel for a mysterious book collector, Dex Dunford. The wealthy Dex, guarded by a gun-toting Eastern European bodyguard, makes an offer Connor, on the down-swell of his best-selling career, can’t refuse. It’s the answer to his financial worries, worth millions, but the requirements of the agreement bond Connor to the nefarious book collector and his menacing henchman in ways that threaten Connor’s life and risk his marriage.
At the root of the agreement is the stipulation that no one can ever know about the unpublished book that will reside in Dex’s private library. And in good company, I might add. Dex’s collection includes original, unpublished manuscripts by Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Harper Lee.
The Salinger Contract is a send-up of the business of books — writing, publishing and collecting — grabbing us with the intrigue of a crime I can’t reveal because that would ruin the book’s cleverness. And the power of the story, its winning element, is that very cleverness. There’s never a dull moment, and book lovers will relish the plot twist of a book written solely for one reader. Adam considers: “Maybe the idea of trying to write for the masses was foolish and egotistical; maybe all that mattered was communing with one other human being.”
Adam is an inviting narrator. Connor is a colorful protagonist. But Dex wins the trophy for unusual provocateur. He’s sophisticated and yet creepy, in a Big Brother sort of way.
As Adam hears more and more about Connor’s story, things don’t add up and doubt sets in. Adam also begins to resent how Connor involves him — having to constantly hear about the high-stakes adventure — and yet, in the end, we come to learn there’s good reason for it. The story wraps up with the same entertaining surprise, energy and humor that make this book a blast to read.
October 1, 2013
In this soul-stirring coming-of-age novel, Mark Slouka envelops us with a familiar yearning, a looking back to the high school years, a period of time that keeps a piece of you. He does it so successfully the nostalgic tone lingers, like an advertising jingle, each time you put the book down. And it draws you back to the book, that beckoning siren of an intimate fictional world, the prose at times poetic and melancholy, at other times conversationally brisk and intelligently funny, as it recounts the tight bond between narrator Jon Mosher and his buddy Ray Cappicciano.
What unites the teen-aged boys is their desire to get out of small-town, go-nowhere Brewster, New York, where they feel trapped by its oppressive sameness and their broken families. It is 1968, they are sophomores, Jon a runner and Ray a street fighter. They meet over lunch in the school cafeteria, and soon it becomes evident their similarity is more about what lies behind their hatred of Brewster — their loneliness — than the town itself. The two boys spend hours together walking — in the woods, around the reservoir, along the railroad tracks and between their distant homes. “It was all we had,” Jon says. Their friendship gives them sanctuary away from their painfully unloving parents who, in Jon’s case, ignore him after the tragic death of his brother, and, in Ray’s case, leave him (his mother) and abuse him (his ex-cop father). Their friendship gives them the trust and love they get nowhere else.
The plot gently moves forward, its power not in the action but the boys Slouka keeps us focused on, as Jon excels on the school’s track team and Ray continually gets into fights, disappearing for days and then reappearing beat-up. Through the three years they spend together, they hang out, watch Ray’s baby brother, Gene, and avoid parents and teachers. When they stay at each other’s houses we get uncomfortable scenes where the parents belittle their own sons and engage the friend with weird, unreserved hospitality. The boys’ bond of friendship never wavers, even when Karen Dorsey becomes Ray’s girlfriend. Instead, they include Karen in its strength and compassion. Jon describes the romance as “intended” and “inevitable,” even though Ray and Karen are opposites: “the delinquent and the debutante, darkness and light, the hair-trigger brawler bleeding in the mud and the girl who sees the heart in him.”
Slouka’s characters jump to life with vivid personalities: Ray’s creepy, drunk father, Jon’s severely depressed mother and their other high-school friend, Frank, a Jesus-loving javelin thrower who’s a fan of Perry Como. And then, there’s Mr. Falvo, the American history teacher and Jon’s track coach, who made me laugh out loud. He’s described as “not a simple guy,” the uplift in this novel barking encouragement at the students with humor and wit, “a happy man…condemned to love this world the way a father might love his convict son. Helplessly. Knowing better.” In the background, as distant presence, the Vietnam War draft hovers and Woodstock makes history. The radio plays Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Doors.
Near the end of Brewster, Jon learns to accept his wins and losses. He realizes, “You run the race you run — there’s always going to be something,” as he begins to understand the imperfection of track events and also of the world around him. His friendship with Ray, though, is one of endurance and deep love, impervious to such flaws. And yet, beyond the confines of school, the flawed, real world forces Jon and Ray in an unwanted direction, creating a powerful and heartbreaking conclusion.
September 19, 2013
It’s the third week of the month, and three new books look interesting. So I went with the 3-on-3 theme. Two of the books have historical underpinnings, while the third is the once-a-decade phenom from Donna Tartt. All three are at or beyond 400 pages. That’s something I’m seeing more and more — large page counts — which signals readers still want to get lost in a good, long story.
Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
Published by Atlantic Monthly
The first book in a new series by the author of the popular Inspector Troy series. Then We Take Berlin spans post-World War II to the Cold War in 1963 with London’s East End Joe Wilderness, at times thief, scammer and spy. From the publisher: “Joe Wilderness is a World War II orphan, a condition that he thinks excuses him from common morality. He’s a cat burglar, cardsharp, and Cockney ‘wide boy,’ and the last thing he wants is to get drafted. But in 1946 he finds himself in the Royal Air Force, facing a stretch in military prison, when along comes Lt. Colonel Burne-Jones to tell him that MI6 has better use for his talents.”
The Ice-Cold Heaven by Mirko Bonné
Published by Overlook
Author Bonné fictionalizes Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 trip to the Antarctic by adding a 17-year-old stowaway named Merce Blackboro to the ship Endurance. From the publisher: “Richly imagined and gripping right up the very last page, Ice-Cold Heaven traces Shackleton’s legendary and heroic adventure through the ice and explores the relationships between these men who were lost to the world for 635 days.” The Ice-Cold Heaven is scheduled for release this coming Tuesday.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Published by Little, Brown
The author of The Secret History and The Little Friend provides readers with another mega-page novel, her third, that Kirkus Reviews gives a star and describes as: “A long-awaited, elegant meditation on love, memory and the haunting power of art.” And yet, Publisher’s Weekly says, “with more economy to the brushstrokes, it might have been great.” Just goes to show one person’s great read is another person’s disappointment. Plot description from the publisher: “Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.” The Goldfinch will be available end of October.
September 11, 2013
This year, Europa Editions brings Caryl Férey’s Mapuche to English-speaking readers. Europa Editions publishes literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world. Mapuche is translated from the French by Steven Rendall, and it’s one of the most fascinating and intensely engaging novels I’ve read all year.
A transvestite, Luz, appears to be randomly murdered one night at the Buenos Aires docks where she works. The police aren’t interested in finding the killer, so Miguel, a.k.a. Paula, also a “tranny,” seeks the help of her friend Jana, a sculptress and the eponymous Mapuche — Jana is descended from indigenous Argentine Mapuche, who were driven from their native land in the late 19th century. When Jana tries to hire private investigator Reubén Calderon, he refuses to get involved with the Luz murder – Reubén concerns himself only with los desaparecidos, the thousands of innocent people who disappeared and were tortured during the repressive Argentine dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.
Reubén himself was abducted in 1978, but he returned from the torture and exile, unlike his father and sister. Both Jana and Reubén are emotionally broken, but they are mentally strong and fiercely loyal to speaking out for those who’ve been silenced and dispossessed. They come together in purpose when a photographer and daughter of a prominent industrialist vanishes, and there’s a connection between her and the transvestite, Luz.
Layered with complexity, never faltering in its tension, Mapuche unfolds in scenes of pursuit, confrontation, history and investigative untangling. Each new level of intrigue is smartly paced, and the cliffhangers are so gripping in some scenes it’s hard not to find relief by reading ahead. (I’m not one to read ahead and yet, I couldn’t stand the intensity and so flipped the pages ahead but didn’t read them, as if the act itself could offer relief in the pause.) And then, there is romance, drawing us in even closer to these two colorful and very likable protagonists.
There are torture scenes, and they are horrific; however, Férey describes these scenes just enough to illustrate what’s happening and then retreats before it becomes unbearable (at least for this reader). What makes this dark, fast-paced shocker so powerful is the plot’s deep roots in Argentine history, and the brutality is part of that history.
Mapuche is brilliantly conceived, thrilling crime fiction.
September 3, 2013
Speed Week took place at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah a few weeks ago. The New York Times gave the time-trial event a full page in their sports section (predominantly photos). Normally, I would’ve glanced at it and turned the page without stopping; however, I’d just finished Rachel Kushner’s remarkably astute and deeply engaging new novel, The Flamethrowers.
The narrator is a Nevada girl everyone calls Reno, nicknamed for her hometown where she grew up among reckless and unsentimental people. She’s in her 20s, a motorcycle rider and aspiring artist who, as she’s introduced to us, is riding her Moto Valera to the Bonneville event. She wants to drive the elite Italian motorcycle at high velocity and then photograph the tracks in the salt as an art project, something to do with the landscape relating to speed and movement. Reno lives in New York with her boyfriend Sandro Valera, a successful, middle-aged artist who’s somewhat estranged from his rich Milanese family and uncomfortable with Reno’s love of his father’s self-created bike.
The story primarily takes place in the mid-1970s New York, specifically the SoHo art scene. Reno is a captivating narrator, driven by the unformed life goals of an innocent. Kushner sensitively uses her to explore and connect incongruous concepts — art, speed and revolution. In doing so, she builds an alluring world of radical individuality, ambition, love and idealism. The Flamethrowers is hard to put down at times, not because it’s a page-turner — far from it — but because of how Kushner so creatively spins these ideas and involves us.
When Reno takes her turn on the salt flats, a massive gust of wind shoves her sideways and forces her down. To get the medical help she needs for her injuries, she claims to be a member of the Valera racing team that’s present to break a land speed record with their driver Didi Bombonato in a rocket-engine vehicle, the Spirit of Italy. The team takes her under their protective wing and gives her a chance to drive the Spirit of Italy. She sets a new speed record for women, and Reno returns to New York triumphant. The Valera team invites her to participate in a company event the following spring — an opportunity she can’t pass up; however, her association with the Valera team, she tells us, is “the beginning of the end for me, some kind of end, although I didn’t see things that way at the time.”
The narrative frequently detours into other stories, times and places, most significantly in the telling of how Sandro’s father grew his company, taking us to Alexandria, Egypt; Milan and forests in Brazil. Another example is a minor character’s involvement in 1960s New York, the revolutionary East Village. These detours richly unfold and yet dangerously flirt with losing the reader, being they are unnecessary to advancing the Reno-Sandro plot. And yet, they are developmentally important to the concepts Kushner is so brilliantly bringing together.
After Bonneville, Reno gets more involved in the SoHo art scene, attending gallery openings and dinners with Sandro and his friend Ronnie Fontaine. A street mugging influences the reluctant Sandro to support Reno in the upcoming photo shoot and publicity tour with his family’s company and go with her. While they are in Italy, militant factory workers rise up in protest, including the Valera workers, and Reno’s days of love and art turn into betrayal and social anarchy. This is not to her ruin, though, rather a transformation is at hand — Reno begins to recognize the need to move on and becomes once again just a girl on a motorcycle entering a new landscape.
August 12, 2013
Here’s a literary thriller to shake up the dog days of summer. This is A. X. Ahmad’s debut, well constructed in pacing and surprises for a first. If he writes more thrillers like this one, Ahmad demonstrates he has the talent to become a notable in the genre.
The Caretaker is about deception, political intrigue, class discrimination and cultural misunderstanding. It takes place on Martha’s Vineyard, in Boston and on the disputed Siachen Glacier, which is a no man’s land in the Himalaya Mountains between India and Pakistan. Both countries claim the territory and while not at war over it, there are military skirmishes in the snow-blinding environment.
A U.S. senator provides the charismatic mystery. Senator Clayton Neals, the longest-serving African-American senator, is currently in the limelight for brokering a successful deal with the North Koreans for the release of a Korean-American journalist. He’s basking in the national praise but clearly nervous about something. Behind that lies the reason the novel’s protagonist, Ranjit Singh, unwittingly gets snared into a mess of wrong-doing.
Ranjit is a Sikh immigrant and a landscaper on the Vineyard, barely making ends meet for his family. He’s the humble caretaker of the novel’s title, given the responsibility to watch over summer homes of the rich and powerful during winter months, including the Senator’s posh residence. Living in a neglected rental house in which the furnace quits, Ranjit temporarily moves his wife and daughter into the Senator’s house until he can figure out a solution. One night, two mysterious men break in. These aren’t ordinary thieves. They’re carrying guns with silencers.
The plot immediately gets deliciously intricate and complicated, with Ranjit becoming hunted prey by these mysterious men; his wife and daughter being locked up by Homeland Security; and microfilm with nuclear weapon information falling into Ranjit’s possession. Ranjit’s on the run, living in Boston’s Chinatown, trying to get to the Senator in City Hall Plaza and seeking help at Harvard from the Senator’s wife, Anna, with whom he’s been romantically involved. You think you know who can be trusted and who can’t, as events unfold, but it’s never clear until the end.
Adding to the narrative draw is Ranjit’s back story. He’s the former captain of an elite army squadron in India, and he’s haunted by a mission that went wrong on the Siachen Glacier. It’s a compelling second plot line, vividly created, and expertly connected to Ranjit’s nightmare on Martha’s Vineyard.
There’s an episode near the end of The Caretaker that undermines the quick pace for several pages. Also, the tense final roll-out of dramatic scenes feels slightly more than what’s needed. These are minor quibbles, though, for a thriller that seduces. Much credit goes to Ranjit, who engages us with his vulnerability, dignity and ethical motivations right up to the end.
July 30, 2013
The Man Booker 2013 longlist is out, the baker’s dozen that precedes the shortlist of six, both chosen by a panel of judges as worthy contenders for Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
The Man Booker prize is given each year to an author from Britain, the Republic of Ireland, Zimbabwe or a Commonwealth nation. This year’s longlist represents seven different countries, with a mix of debut and established novelists. One of the most surprising novels on the list is The Spinning Heart by Irish author Donal Ryan, if simply for the fact it was rejected 47 times before it finally got published — signifying the importance of persistence, which, for authors, goes hand-in-hand with courage.
Below are the 13 novels with links to their Man Booker summaries (click on the titles) and other pages. Verdicts from Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly, the U.S. book review industry magazines, are included with some. Keep in mind publication information listed is to the best of what I could find and current as of this blog post date. In other words, publishers may change their minds.
- The Man Booker shortlist comes out September 10.
- The winner will be announced October 15.
Six Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Currently Available in the U.S.
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Published this month in the U.S., Five Star Billionaire is described by the publisher as “an expansive, eye-opening novel that captures the vibrancy of China today” via the immigrant experience of five characters. Praise abounds overseas for this novel, but Kirkus describes it as “clunky” and Publisher’s Weekly as “disappointing.”
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Kirkus says this novel is “masterly” and “profoundly moving” in its starred review, and Britain’s The Guardian is praiseworthy but complains about small irritations of style. The plot links disparate stories (as McCann did in his National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin) that are connected by a transatlantic theme, spanning generations.
Harvest by Jim Crace
Given a starred review by both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, the plot involves dark influences that overcome a small English village. From a review in The New York Times: “In its poetry of the precarious hereafter, Harvest calls to mind J. M. Coetzee’s finest and most allegorical novel, Waiting for the Barbarians.”
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Published in the U.S. earlier this year, Publisher’s Weekly calls this novel “absorbing” and Kirkus, in a starred review, calls it “a masterpiece, pure and simple.” The story is about a woman finding a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl. Kirkus also writes: “These are characters we care for deeply, imparting vital life lessons through the magic of storytelling.”
The Testament of Mary by Colim Tóibín
Published in the U.S. end of 2012, this is a slim book that gives the life and death of Jesus from his mother Mary’s perspective. A fictional story narrated by Mary that veers north of Christian doctrine. Kirkus describes it as “a work suffused with mystery and wonder.” An NPR review calls it, “Lovely, understated and powerfully sad.”
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
Published in the U.S. in May this year, this novel received critical praise for the writing style and its moving, fresh narrative voice. The story is about a 10-year-old girl surviving a difficult life in Zimbabwe and then is abruptly moved to the American Midwest to live with an aunt and uncle.
Two Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Soon to be Published in the U.S.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Scheduled for release in the U.S. in October 2013 and at a hefty 848 pages, the story is about a young woman on trial for murder in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Granta says it “has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device.”
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Set to be published in the U.S. this September, this novel is about two brothers who are close but vastly different, one choosing a scientific research career in America and the other rebelling at home against poverty and inequality. Takes place during the 1960s. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a formidable and beautiful book.”
The Remaining Five — No U.S. Publication Date Listed at this Time
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
Eve Harris’s debut is about an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in London and a 19-year-old Jewish girl facing up to marriage with a stranger. Set for publication in the U.K. September 2013.
The Kills by Richard House
A political thriller spread over four books that yield 1,000 pages of reading. Involves a military base in Iraq. Published in the U.K. Available from other sellers on Amazon — search using the author’s name for best results.
Unexploded by Alison Macleod
A WWII story set in Brighton, England, involving a family and a German Jewish painter imprisoned in a local internment camp. Due out in the U.K. in September 2013.
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson
A teenager living with Hungarian relatives in a tiny flat in West London runs from the crushing home environment but finds herself in a worse place. Set to be published in the U.K. in a few weeks.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
About the impact of Ireland’s financial crisis on a small Irish town. Published in the U.K. Listed as “Currently Unavailable” on Amazon from other sellers. The publisher’s website lists it as out of stock.
July 19, 2013
Neil Gaiman’s new novel begins sensibly enough: A middle-aged man breaks away from a family funeral to visit his boyhood home. The countryside fields he once knew are now consumed with a housing development, but a neighbor’s farm still exists. Our nameless narrator in The Ocean at the End of the Lane finds Old Mrs. Hempstock still living there, the grandmother to his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, and she directs him toward the duck pond, which Lettie once called an ocean.
From here on, we get an odd story about an adult remembering childhood events. It is fantastical and magical in its plot components, as we enter what the narrator believed and feared when an opal miner boarding at the boy’s family house committed suicide in the family car over financial losses. His greed unleashes a monster that resides on Hempstock farmland. Lettie renders it powerless, only something goes wrong and the monster manifests itself as the boy’s new nanny, Ursula Monkton.
The action builds slowly, almost too slowly, but finally gets its urgency when the narrator’s father, overwhelmed by Ursula’s power, almost kills his son. The boy seeks refuge at the Hempstock farm where Lettie’s mother and grandmother comfort him with creamy, rich foods and snip and stitch the fabric of time to protect him. All three of the Hempstock women are mysteriously empowered and have access to time beyond the human dimension.
If this sounds like a child’s monster story, it’s not. The fantasy defies adult logic because it is shaped by a seven-year-old’s perspective of the adult world. Neil Gaiman gives us a vivid narrative feast for what that looks like – turning suicide, financial worries, adult rules and a confused understanding of trust into palpable fear and distortion. Of Ursula Monkton, Gaiman writes:
“She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty.”
In the end, the boy survives all the nasties, but we know, in advance, that will be true by virtue of the middle-aged man sitting on a bench by the duck pond that Lettie called an ocean.
This review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane was recorded for broadcast on WOSU Public Media 89.7 FM.
June 25, 2013
Christian Wiman is the editor of Poetry magazine, the oldest magazine of verse in the world, founded in 1912 by Harriet Monroe. Monroe discovered and gave early promotion in the magazine to many then unknown poets who became famous, such as Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Vachel Lindsay, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Wiman, himself a poet, wrote an essay about despair and faith seven years ago that went viral in print anthologies, church services and reading groups, as well as online. Letters poured in regarding this essay he describes as “my entire existence crammed into eight pages.” The response surprised him and, according to the preface of his new book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, brought to light a need for continued dialogue — with himself and this hungry audience — on the topic of understanding his faith in God while living with the diagnosis of an incurable but unpredictable cancer.
My Bright Abyss is composed of thoughts, what Wiman calls prose fragments, organized into chapters. It is part memoir, part meditation and part probing of “that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.” Throughout, Wiman quotes passages from poems to expand on a point, including the work of Osip Mandelstam, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. In one chapter, he mentions the three living novelists whose work means the most to him: Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping and Gilead) and Fanny Howe (Indivisible).
Wiman writes compellingly about the yin and yang of his faith; what lies beyond the temporal landscape of modern life; and why we don’t really begin to know life until we’re faced with death. Below is the first paragraph to the chapter “Hive of Nerves.” There are many quote-worthy paragraphs and sentences in the book. This is the one I kept coming back to:
“At a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to ‘give ourselves a break’ before we implode. Everyone has some means of relief — tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday — but the very way in which those activities are framed as apart from regular life suggests the extent to which that relief is temporary (if even that: a couple of us admit that our ‘recreational’ activities partake of the same simmering, near-obsessive panic as the rest of our lives). There is something circular and static to our conversation, which doesn’t end so much as fizzle indeterminately out, and though there is always some comfort in comparing maladies, I am left with the uneasy feeling that my own private anxieties have actually increased by becoming momentarily collective — or not, not that, increased by not becoming collective, increased by the reinforcement of my loneliness within the collective context, like that penetrating but enervating stab of self one feels sometimes in an anonymous crowd. It is a full day later before it occurs to me that not once, not in any form, not even with the ghost of a suggestion, did any of us mention God.”
The American Scholar in its Winter 2009 issue published the first chapter of My Bright Abyss — you can read it here. The subtitle perfectly expresses the heart of the complete book: I never felt the pain of unbelief until I believed. But belief itself is hardly painless.
The original essay Wiman wrote seven years ago also can be found in The American Scholar.
On June 30, 2013, Christian Wiman will leave his post as editor of Poetry magazine. Don Share, the magazine’s senior editor, will become the new editor on July 1, 2013.
June 17, 2013
Patrick McGrath’s talent for writing dark, psychological stories and for creeping out his readers holds a firm place in Gothic literature. Constance, his newest psychological tale, features the unstable Constance Schuyler, a New York girl who marries Sidney Klein, a professor 20 years her senior. Soon, Constance is suspicious of Sidney, believing his love is a sham; however, he convincingly projects a desire to protect his fragile wife. Sidney frequently encourages her to share her worries and concerns with him, especially regarding her hatred for her father. Daddy, always spelled with a capital “D,” lives in a massive, isolated old family house perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. He’s the reason Constance rages deep inside with paranoid resentment, which infects her interactions with the world.
It is the 1960s. Constance and Sidney live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The location lends a dark touch to the atmosphere because this is a time when the now gentrified location groaned with drunks, whores and drugs. Hovering over the city is the long, drawn out demolition of New York’s original Penn Station, a metaphor illustrating the city’s structural breakdown and a senseless destruction of beauty. It also visually represents the structural demise of Constance’s sense of self when the big Daddy reveals a dark family secret that validates why all her life Constance felt neglected by him, and why he worshiped her younger sister, Iris.
By giving us the viewpoints both of the paranoid Constance and the doting Sidney in alternating chapters, McGrath creates an uncertainty about Constance’s reality, and it effectively keeps us off-balance. But no matter how effectively McGrath’s style takes hold in Constance, the blame-it-on-a-parent theme lacks originality. Also, it feels more wearisome than inviting. Even the family secret lands with a bit of a thump, revealing poor decisions more than an unusual, shocking disclosure. And that isolated old house on the hill reeks of an easy prop.
Not all is lost, though. Suicides, love affairs and that famous Patrick McGrath creepiness sustain engagement, despite the eye-rolling daddy issues. Also, Iris, Constance’s sister, provides morally corrupt color when she moves to New York City and lives near the newlyweds. And Howard, Sidney’s young son who comes to Manhattan to live with him and Constance, injects a bright spot into the morbid heaviness.
Constance refuses to see a psychologist, and so Sydney remains her main connection to reality beyond her Daddy obsession. He hangs in there through her bizarre behavior because Howard needs a family, after the death of his mother. Even Constance realizes this, but how — and if — she’s going to rid herself of Daddy in her head and forget about that house on the hill is what haunts Sidney– and leaves us wondering — at the end of this elemental psychological tale.
June 6, 2013
Nathan Lochmueller narrates a wildly amusing story in Brian Kimberling’s debut novel, Snapper. He’s a bird researcher in state forests located in south central Indiana. He’s no ornithologist – it’s circumstance that puts him in the woods at 5 a.m. calculating nest heights and terrain slope as well as variations in songbird migration times. In his personal life, he haplessly pursues the predictably unfaithful Lola, a girl he’s known since college and who lives next door to Gerald, Nathan’s boss.
This fictional story is told in 13 chapters that bring us Polaroid scenes from Nathan’s adventures. What predominates is the oddity of what’s taking place – a snapping turtle chopping off the thumb of Nathan’s best friend; a German shepherd that yodels and one day retrieves a human bone from a cemetery; and highway patrol officers stopping at a diner in Santa Claus, Indiana, to answer kid’s letters to St. Nick. Meanwhile, Nathan crisscrosses the southern counties counting birds for the Department of Natural Resources and observing bald eagles for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He encounters hostile armed men and a killer tornado while on the job. He also dabbles in sabotage, attempting to save hardwood trees from logging companies by eliminating the small dot on the bark that identifies a tree as a candidate for take-down. Nathan does this by carving Lola’s name over the dot.
Nathan’s relationship with Lola is vague and lacks a strong narrative thread. She makes occasional appearances that don’t mean much. There’s also little development to Nathan’s life – the chapters tend to read more like vignettes than a plot with events rising to a crucial turning point. Nathan’s smart retorts, wit and cynicism, as well as his clever observations, are what make this story so highly entertaining. Each chapter engages us less with wonder about Nathan’s life and more with his enjoyable storytelling. And then there’s southern Indiana, a colorful character in its own right with its townships, mudscapes and tropical-like forests; a place where national debates are carried out on bumper stickers and highway signs.
Eventually Nathan loses his bird-watching job due to an accident that impairs his hearing. He finds employment in Vermont at a raptor rehabilitation center. When he returns to Indiana to show his British girlfriend where he grew up, we understand why he claims Indiana as his beloved lifelong confusion in this enchanting and very fun new novel.
Acknowledgement: The title of this blog post is a nod to The Trashmen’s 1960′s “Surfin’ Bird.”