May 13, 2013
Author James Patterson asked this question recently with a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review that also asked, “Who will save our books? Our bookstores? Our libraries?” The ad also appeared in Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly. Perhaps it should also appear in The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post for more impact, given their audiences. Readers, critics, booksellers and book buyers, who read the aforementioned three, already preach this sermon.
Message aside, the NYT ad includes 37 book titles that create a great reading list — a wide variety ranging from Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Stephen King’s Different Seasons to John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Introducing the list, Patterson asks:
“If there are no bookstores, no libraries, no serious publishers with passionate, dedicated, idealistic editors, what will happen to our literature? Who will discover and mentor new writers? Who will publish our important books? What will happen if there are no more books like these?”
Click on the image to get a readable view of the books and the rest of the ad. (You should see a magnifying glass, so you can click again to zoom in.) Check off the books you’ve read and whatever remains, I’d say you’ve got a great summer reading list. Note: Publisher’s Weekly produced the ad on a wrap-around cover, which included eight additional books. Those eight appear below the image.
Lush Life by Richard Price
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
What Is the What by Dave Eggers
The World According to Garp by John Irving
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
May 4, 2013
I’ve been shuffling books about Flannery O’Connor among my to-be-read stacks since 2009, when Brad Gooch published his acclaimed biography of the southern writer. Then The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor edited by Sally Fitzgerald landed next to Gooch’s book, as did Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. All this after I had re-read Flannery’s novel Wise Blood because someone, in some literary publication (I can’t recall which one), said Wise Blood is the #1 novel about religion ever written. My college reading of it didn’t stick, so I took another look.
It’s no wonder, then, I snatched up Carlene Bauer’s new novel Frances and Bernard, which loosely imagines a love relationship between O’Connor and New England poet Robert Lowell. By loosely, I mean the plot stretches far beyond reality’s home base. Case in point, Flannery suffered from lupus, diagnosed when she was 25, and Bauer’s Frances is perfectly healthy. She’s also from Philadelphia, and Flannery lived in Georgia.
But Bauer never intended to mirror the lives of these two literary giants. In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, she said, “I didn’t want to write historical fiction, but I want readers to know that it was the temperaments, minds, and voices of these specific people that set me off. As I was writing, though, I forgot that they were them; I used the information I’d been given, but they became my people. I want people to read it and think about Frances and Bernard.”
Written in letters and set during the 1950′s, Frances and Bernard draws in its readers with the emotional force of those “temperaments, minds and voices.” Most impressive is Bauer’s ability to capture the essence of the delicate tightrope the two walk between friendship and passion. Bernard fiercely desires Frances, while Frances resists, fearful of his large personality and determined to devote her life to writing. In their correspondence, they energetically discuss their Catholic faith and literary lives; their needs and fears about family and love; and their unique, strong-minded differences driven in Bernard by clinical madness and in Frances by self-imposed remove. The two write from Maine, Italy, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.
You don’t have to be familiar with the lives of Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell to enjoy this book. That’s a good thing; however, knowing there’s a connection to these two literary giants is distracting. As the relationship unfolded between Frances and Bernard, I couldn’t stop wondering how much of it belonged to O’Connor and Lowell. But the distraction is a minor complaint compared to the magnetic story that captivates, warmly and insistently. Indeed, reading this small, exquisite novel is like discovering a packet of letters in the attic and sitting right down on the floor to read them, lost in the epistolary intimacy with the day slipping away.
April 24, 2013
Oh how I wish book-selling would forever stay in the trusted hands of the independents. This bookshop is a perfect example for the why of that. It’s a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with new, collectible and signed mystery and crime books. In the center are tables displaying new, old and favored books to browse, and working behind desks is that rare species, the knowledgeable bookseller.
This is The Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Tribeca, or TriBeCa, referring to the district that’s the “Triangle Below Canal Street.” The photo to the left below was taken by my traveling companion while I browsed the shop in a state of hysterical joy. On the main display table, I discovered not only American editions of new books, but also their British counterparts in first editions.
For book collectors, that’s a big deal. If you’re collecting the works of a British author, say, Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel, the American first edition of their novels sold here are not the real firsts, and online access to those real firsts is not always easy, or guaranteed.
A few years ago, British author A. S. Byatt spoke at a local university. Knowing about this in advance, I purchased her new novel The Children’s Book from the London Review Bookshop, so I could get her signature on the British edition. The British edition cost double the American edition, mostly due to shipping, but I didn’t mind. Also, I knew it was a gamble as to whether or not what came in the mail would be a first edition because the novel had been out for several months in the U.K. If the LRB shop did have a first, it was likely buried under a group of later printings. In other words, if I had lived in London, I would’ve gone to the store and digged for the possibility of it, which often proves fruitful. Alas, the gamble didn’t pay off. I now have a signed fourth printing of the British edition of The Children’s Book and a signed first American edition.
So here, on the main display table of books at The Mysterious Bookshop, was the recognizable dust jacket of Kate Atkinson’s new novel that’s been getting a lot of attention. Beside it, a completely different dust jacket for the same book, which I knew was the British edition – and it was a first British edition, signed by Kate Atkinson. I flipped through and petted that book so many times the bookseller casually remarked, of all the books I was deciding to buy, obviously that was the one I really wanted. He was right.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a girl named Ursula Todd born in 1910 only to die and be born over and over again throughout the century. From Atkinson’s website: “What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”
I also bought The Beauty of Murder by British author A. K. Benedict. This is Benedict’s debut and not yet published in the U.S. (The bookseller told me it’s not confirmed whether or not it will be.) The premise of this mystery was too intriguing to pass up. From inside the dust jacket: “As [Stephen] Killigan [a senior lecturer at Cambridge] traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”
Should that description intrigue you, too, you can buy The Beauty of Murder online from The Mysterious Bookshop. Also, you can sign up for their newsletter, and if you want the booksellers to make selections for you, they have seven Crime Clubs that send you a book a month. (I love those kinds of surprises in the mail!)
March 25, 2013
When you pick up a novel written by Sam Savage, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll enter the world of an unusual, smart, blunt, amusing, first-person narrator struggling with failed art. This is Savage’s distinctive signature. As example, Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife is narrated by a well-read rat living above a dying Boston bookstore. After that came Andy Whittaker, narrating the terrific Cry of the Sloth. He’s a tart, cynical editor of a failing literary magazine who ridicules the puffery of self-aggrandizing writers and snobbish arts organizations.
These narrators aren’t hopeless whiners. They expound, rationalize and ruminate with clever commentary, diverting humor and knowing wit while coming to terms with their lives. With their bold, entertaining presence, they hook us into the story. There’s typically not much action, but their outlandish tendencies and refreshing attitudes remove the need because these narrators seduce us with their very personalities.
Now, in The Way of the Dog, we have Harold Nivenson, a decrepit old man in a decaying Victorian house in a gentrified neighborhood living on the first floor of what he calls his lair. He’s surrounded by paintings hung on every inch of the walls that were collected during his life as a failed artist. His days are spent observing beyond his front window the happy, active, middle-aged neighbors he likens to Walt Disney dwarves. (My favorite is the tall, bicycle-riding couple he calls “the spandexed giraffes.”) They’re also spent tolerating the in-and-out presence of his ex-wife and tax attorney son who clean up the place, impose routine and plot to bring a real estate agent and art appraiser into the house.
Savage writes Harold’s story in an addictive, rhythmic monologue. It’s poetic in its short paragraphs that creatively cascade into a story that explains why Harold failed to make anything of himself. We hear about the “sibling torture regime” in childhood, when his brother and sister hid one piece of his beloved puzzles, so they could never be completed; his squandered inheritance and his obsession with Peter Meininger, a painter, friend and rival.
Harold supported Meininger and allowed him and his groupies to live in his house. The relationship of Harold as provider and patron supplanted Harold’s own purpose in life, so when Meininger moved out, Harold lost his sense of place in the world and came close to losing his sanity. Thanks to Roy, however, he steered clear of the “howling emptiness” of his soul.
Roy was Harold’s dog, and his needs saved Harold by providing structure and meaning to a day. In hindsight, Harold realizes Roy and his canine nature can guide him to live peacefully now, and that realization changes him. It’s the kind of wisdom you read and want to remember.
“Every day is all there is. The past does not exist. The future does not exist. What holds past and future together is memory and what holds memory together are stories, and dogs don’t tell themselves stories.”
March 8, 2013
Reviewers describe the author Tessa Hadley as being “a meticulous stylist” (National Public Radio); “clear-sighted” (The Guardian); and “a close observer of her characters’ inner worlds” (New York Times Book Review). The consistency of these descriptions (“Hadley’s craft is expertly honed…” Irish Times) told me here is an author I need to experience. In other words, she’s too important to overlook.
Naturally, when I picked up her new collection of short stories, Married Love, I expected to be stunned with the power literature can deliver, but by the third story, I was underwhelmed. What was I missing? I didn’t experience her widely praised precise style and acute perception. I didn’t find myself surprised by exceptional storytelling. But I also didn’t doubt it existed — one can’t be the expert with all types of books and writing — yet I couldn’t believe I’d be so far out of the loop. I put the book down.
Weeks later, looking for a story to read in a limited time slot, I picked it up again and began reading “The Trojan Prince,” the fourth story. I figured I’d chug through it, but then it happened. I was reading as if on a different level, caught up in Hadley’s precise illustration of how we chose adventure over the ordinary, experiencing this common desire with a kind of “aha!” discovery as a boy becomes friends with his more wealthy cousin and another distant relative. And then, her language — it had begun to sing for me — “The two girls pet James and tease him as if he were a pretty, comical doll.”
Was it just this story? I paged back to the second story, “A Mouthful of Cut Glass,” and saw Hadley’s talent again now, as not before, the unique discernment. Here it pierces how we discount our roots when we leave home as university students, but then fall back into our childhood mentality when we return home. “The past’s important,” a character says in another story, “The Godchildren,” and we come to understand Hadley is pressing this point — no matter how much we disassociate from family relations, the impact they have on us remains.
Some switch flipped and turned me on to Hadley’s fine storytelling, and it stayed on ’til the end of the collection. I marveled at how she unravels the small burdens that stamp our lives and how I could experience them with fresh understanding. Yes, the fiction of Tessa Hadley is not to be missed. Even so, not everyone will enjoy Married Love. The stories may be too uneventful in plot, too subtle in conclusion, and yet, therein is their power. If you want to see life in its pinpricks of light, I recommend the collection and suggest you start with “The Trojan Prince.”
Tessa Hadley is the author of four novels: Accidents in the Home, Everything Will Be All Right, The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Married Love is her second collection of short stories. Her previous collection is Sunstroke.
January 29, 2013
Information about French author Michèle Halberstadt on the rear flap of her new book La Petite led me to research French awards. She’s won several, including the Drouot Literary Prize for her novel The Pianist in the Dark. The Drouot is given for a work of fiction in which the narration refers to the universe of art. Halberstadt also received the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honor given to both soldiers and civilians for outstanding achievements. For civilians, it recognizes work that enhances the reputation of France through arts, sciences, business and other fields. Paul McCartney is a recipient, as is Gustav Flaubert, who famously penned Madame Bovary. And then there’s the Ordre National du Mérite that’s given for distinguished achievement.
These honors provide a weighty albeit unofficial afterword to La Petite, a memoir about Halberstadt’s childhood attempt at suicide. They demonstrate her life victory over letting others define what and who you are.
Barely more than 100 pages, La Petite takes place in Paris 1968. It opens with a 12-year-old Halberstadt swallowing assorted pills from the family medicine cabinet with five glasses of water. She then goes to school, forcing herself to stay conscious as long as possible, so she can succeed in her mission to disappear from what she considers to be a collapse of her self-respect. Before noon, she falls asleep in science class.
Halberstadt drops back in time to write about the events that drove her to suicide, beginning with the unexpected death of her adored grandfather, who cherished her. She could tell him everything. He was her anchor, saving her from isolation — Halberstadt describes herself in 1968 as a gray mouse in brown glasses inadequate in school classes and lacking not only distinction but also friends.
She became quiet and withdrawn in her grief. Everyday scenes at school and home illustrate the gross misunderstanding of her behavior by teachers and family. They think she’s become incorrigible, little aware their disapproval and rejection is accumulating and increasing her despair.
This accomplished author effectively employs spare, precise sentences. She aims for intuitive comprehension from her readers, not emotional commiseration, and she succeeds, inviting us into this delicate, unadorned world with incidents in which there is no blame, only statement. We arrive again at the scene of her suicide attempt toward the book’s end but now intimately familiar with her isolated internal world. At the hospital, we celebrate the young Halberstadt’s transformation when she realizes in a private moment, “My life depends on me, not on others.” And when she tells herself, “Expect nothing from others; charge into the fray. Run smack into life instead of watching it pass by.”
Forty-five years later, I’d say she’s done just that.
January 7, 2013
Some books are pure entertainment, and this novel is just that. Even the author’s pseudonym, Magnus Flyte, indicates the fun that awaits readers – a magic-infused adventure written by a collaborative duo who don’t take themselves too seriously. Their humor combined with history about Prague (where the story takes place) and enticing details about Beethoven’s work and life (the expertise of the protagonist) make this novel much more than a whimsical ride. I’m not one to read much fantasy-imbued literature (it’s difficult for me to surrender to it), but this one kept me turning the pages – City of Dark Magic is fast-paced, historically rich, tartly humorous, clever, completely improbable and yet believable within its context of murder and supernatural mayhem.
Getting into trouble with her sensitive nose, overactive libido and inquiring mind is protagonist Sarah Weston, a Harvard doctoral candidate in musicology who accepts a summer assignment in Prague to curate a noble family’s collection of Beethoven’s manuscripts, letters and other documents. Their museum at Prague Castle is preparing for its grand opening at summer’s end to display the centuries-old family treasures regained from the thievery of the Nazis and communists. Sarah gets involved romantically and as a fellow sleuth with Max, the American heir to the collection. He’s connected through his mother to a princely Bohemian heritage, and he’s responsible for reassembling his family’s lost fortune. It appears he’s being undermined by his distant Italian cousin, who believes she is the rightful heir to such responsibility.
The story flies past, engaging us with a multitude of threats to the collection and the people connected to it. A cast of colorful characters keeps Sarah and us guessing to what’s going on with the collection, including a 400-year-old dwarf who protects Max and Sarah, a conniving U.S. senator seeking to destroy self-incriminating letters hidden in the museum and quirky academics working on treasures, from weapons to Delft blue china.
A hallucinogenic drug adds an element of time travel to this fun read, allowing its taker to observe the past, similar to Scrooge on his time travels with Marley’s ghost. This gives Sarah a chance to experience Beethoven close-up. More seriously, she gets caught up in Max’s need to find the formula for this past-enhancing drug. Meanwhile, academics are turning up dead, and Sarah becomes a modern-day Nancy Drew in pursuit of the truth.
The story verges close to over populating itself with sub-plots and clues; and yet, Magnus Flyte pulls it off by flawlessly keeping us focused, never confused, on the questions immediately before Sarah as the pages turn – Will the senator be revealed for her crimes? Is the Italian cousin killing people? Are the dwarf and Max to be trusted? And who indeed is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved? We’re taken through winding tunnels beneath Prague Castle, invited into secret rooms and guided through Prague’s historical monuments and locations, such as St. Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge and Wenceslas Square, all made easy to follow by a map inside the front cover.
The mysteries collide into a satisfying conclusion at summer’s end with the museum’s gala opening. Magnus Flyte does a nice job of tying up loose ends in the final pages and also creates an opening for more adventures in Prague, should Sarah choose to say yes.
One more thing to commend Mr. Flyte on – memorable narrative moments, such as this one, about Sarah playing the opening of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique:
“She played on, finding solace, courage, fortitude, and a kindred spirit in a piece of music written in 1830, a series of notes scrawled on the page that sprang from the imagination of one man, who was reaching out across time, through this violin, to tell her that he knew exactly how she was feeling, how strange and frightening and intoxicating life could be.”
December 28, 2012
Several years ago, after Christmas Eve church services, in the car just before driving home, I surprised each of my friends with a gift-wrapped book. These friends aren’t constant readers of literature, rather occasional readers of a variety of book types, which required careful thinking on my part, guided by gut instinct, when making the selections. The gift for me was their joy, as I saw their excitement over a new book chosen just for them.
I’ve kept the tradition since that first time, and this year the books were given at a dinner held at my house before the Christmas Eve service. Place cards indicated where each person was to sit. A gift-wrapped book, selected for that person, sat on the place mat. The challenge this year included two guests visiting from Texas, the mother and sister of one of my friends.
So here’s how I went about my selections this year for each friend and the visitors, Christmas 2012.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The first year I gave this friend Water for Elephants. Last year, I gave her The Hunger Games. She’s one of those readers who reads a book obsessively, unable to put it down. Indeed, the house could be burning, and she would move her chair to the lawn and keep reading. I’ve known a few readers like this — they have to schedule when they read because once they start, they’ll ignore responsibilities, including the need to sleep, which is why I wrote on her card, “Something to keep you up all night.” Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel about Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition between magicians who fall in love seemed the perfect story for all-night reading.
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I gave this classic collection of short stories to my friend who’s in seminary school. Several months ago, she asked me about Flannery O’Connor because she’d heard references in class to this mid-20th century southern author. O’Connor is famous for her Gothic style, Catholicism and religious themes. This collection, published in 1955, came after O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood (1952) and confirmed her place in classic literature. Caroline Gordon wrote in her 1955 New York Times review: ”In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary.” I thought my friend would want to be “in the know” for when O’Connor is mentioned again in her presence.
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
The friend who received this book is typically a non-fiction reader. I recall her once telling me she enjoyed Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This friend’s interests include politics (she’s a great conversationalist on this topic) and the health industry, particularly in regard to managing one’s good health. So this best-seller seemed like something that would captivate her and, indeed, she seemed very excited about it. The book is Candace Millard’s account of James Garfield’s rise to the American presidency, the assassination attempt he survived and the botched medical attention that followed, which he didn’t survive. Destiny of the Republic won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I gave this book to my friend’s mother visiting from Texas. Not knowing mom’s interests, let alone whether or not she read novels, I thought there’d be a good chance she’d be absorbed by Jodi Picoult’s page-turning storytelling — in particular, this story about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. My friend’s mother interacts with kids, volunteering at a local school, so I thought the central character might win her interest. In this best-selling novel, that central character is Jacob Hunt, who struggles to interact socially and is suspected in the murder of his tutor.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I wrote in the card for this gift that I was giving something to remind my friend to follow her heart. She is one who does follow her heart, and in 2011 her heart was broken by an unexpected tragedy. It was gut instinct that told me to give this book to her, perhaps in hopes that she continues to follow her heart, no matter what. Coelho’s story is about a shepherd boy who, in his search for worldly treasure, along the way, finds wisdom and the most meaningful treasure found within oneself. When this gift was opened, one person at the dinner table said enthusiastically that she’d been meaning to read The Alchemist; another said she had tried it but couldn’t get into it. So, we’ll see how this turns out. I’ve bombed before with this friend, giving her Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which is now code for “bad choice” between us. (It’s the second time I’ve given Bellow’s Pulitzer award-winner to someone as a gift, and it wasn’t liked– let alone finished — that time, either. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift is one of my favorite books.)
One Day by David Nicholls
This is the novel I selected for my friend’s sister, visiting from Texas. I didn’t know if she read novels but figured, even if she didn’t, this one would win her attention. It’s a great beach read or a by-the-fire read for its absorbing story about a romantic relationship that spans 20 years, which we experience in snapshots on July 15 — the one day — every year. The story about Emma and Dexter is engaging, romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s neither too light nor too complicated, hence a good choice, I thought, for someone I didn’t know.
December 20, 2012
Ian McEwan’s newest novel Sweet Tooth is not his first fiction set during the era of Cold War espionage. More than twenty-years ago, he published The Innocent about a British electrician turned Berlin spy. It’s a more sober take on the spy industry than the lighter Sweet Tooth and seemed more interesting to me. In addition, although Sweet Tooth is being praised, it’s flawed, according to some critics — Publisher’s Weekly in its August 2012 forecast gave the novel a negative review, and Maureen Corrigan more recently called McEwan out on his nasty tone. All this said, I got distracted with another one of McEwan’s novels that I found along my way to picking up The Innocent. In full disclosure, it wasn’t the story line alone that interested me, but also, having read a few tomes, the small page count — Black Dogs is less than 200 pages.
It’s a tightly focused novel about a married British couple who live separately due to ideological differences developed shortly after their wedding in 1946: the husband, Bernard Tremaine, is steadfastly invested in communist philosophy, and his wife, June, once his partner in the communist cause, unexpectedly turns to God and a spiritual life after a frightening and illuminating experience. That experience involves the black dogs of the book’s title, former Nazi Gestapo-trained creatures running wild in southern France after World War II. During the Tremaine’s honeymoon, on a hiking tour, June wanders off alone and fights off an attack by the dogs. Only, there’s no mere survival here, rather an encounter with evil and a saving light.
Narrated by their son-in-law Jeremy, who’s writing June’s memoir that morphs into a biography that morphs into a divagation, the story resonates with engaging family intimacy, as well as politics and events from 1946 to 1989. In one part of the book, Jeremy meets with June in 1987 during her last days in hospice care. In another, he travels to the Brandenburg Gate in 1989 with Bernard to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in another, he tells the story of how he met his wife, Jenny Tremaine, in 1981.
It is not until the last section of the book that Jeremy explains in full June’s encounter with the dogs, when she believes she came face to face with evil. At one point, Jeremy finds two pages of shorthand dating from the last conversation he had with June, a month before she died, where she says:
“‘The evil I’m talking about lives in us all. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself. Then it sinks back and waits. It’s something in our hearts.
“‘I can see you think I’m a crank. It doesn’t matter. This is what I know. Human nature, the human heart, the spirit, the soul, consciousness itself — call it what you like — in the end, it’s all we’ve got to work with. It has to develop and expand, or the sum of our misery will never diminish. My own small discovery has been that this change is possible, it is within our power. Without a revolution of the inner life, however slow, all our big designs are worthless. The work we have to do is with ourselves if we’re ever going to be at peace with each other. I’m not saying it’ll happen. There’s a good chance it won’t. I’m saying it’s our only chance. If it does, and it could take generations, the good that flows from it will shape our societies in an unprogrammed, unforeseen way, under the control of no single group of people or set of ideas…’”
Bernard accuses June of mythologizing the dogs and engaging in hocus pocus. His own revolution is of another kind, indicated in a rebuttal that Jeremy imagines: “‘As for the inner life, my dear boy, try having one of those on an empty stomach. Or without clean water. Or when you’re sharing a room with seven others.’”
The power of Black Dogs resides in how McEwan plays Bernard and June against one another through Jeremy’s relationship with each of them, probing fantasy versus reality and how we bend facts to fit an idea. It moves slowly, but the pace fits the short page count, as well as the emphasis not on drama but the characters’ relationships and philosophies. In the end, it’s left to you, the reader, to decide what you think about Bernard’s idealistic politics and June’s black dogs. Either way, you’ll find yourself pondering the separate beliefs of this unusual fictional couple, and the existence of those roaming black dogs.
December 10, 2012
Not only are we deluged with shopping opportunities during the holiday season, we’re also deluged with “best books of the year” lists. There are the long lists, labeled notables and favorites, organized by fiction and non-fiction, as well as top 10 lists, which are the summa cum laude stars of both genres. I thought about these lists being similar to the Miss America Pageant, where 53 contestants (50 states plus Washington D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) are whittled down to the top 10. But that’s where the comparison ends. There are no five finalists followed by a winner among these annual best book lists. Also, there are no uniform selection criteria. For example, not everyone produces a long list of bests, rather only their top 10. In addition, some lists mix fiction and non-fiction; some fiction lists include mysteries and poetry, while others don’t; and, continuing to mix things up, judges range from readers to authors to editors. There’s a lot of noise in this end-of-year book list mania.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see where there was agreement among the lists, so I cross-referenced four best fiction lists of 2012. I worked with two magazines and two newspapers: Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine known for its rigorous standards. Publisher’s Weekly is a news magazine for the publishing industry that also publishes reviews.
A note about the calculation: I used the long lists of best/notable fiction for 2012, not the top 10, as I was going for that equivalent of the 53 Miss America contestants. But then I noticed the top 10 selections for The Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly stand apart from their long lists, while the top 10 selections for The New York Times and top 25 for Kirkus are included in their long lists. So I pulled the fiction in the top 10 lists of The Post and PW into their long lists, to keep the data even.
The number of books on the lists came to this: Publisher’s Weekly 24, Kirkus 100, The Post 55 and The Times 53. Among all four lists, five books are listed in common: two short story collections (one by Junot Diaz, the other by Alice Munro) and three novels. They are the books whose cover illustrations you see on this page.
The one book that surprised me is Beautiful Ruins, a novel I’d heard about but didn’t read in 2012. Here, end of year, it is a beauty that steps out of the crowd. Another surprise is the 2012 National Book Award winner for fiction, The Round House by Louise Erdrich – it did not get a common nod from the four publications. More specific, it didn’t make the Kirkus list.
I’m not sure this cross-referencing accomplishes anything other than to satisfy a curiosity on my part. Because there’s a million ways to spin this and no real reach toward sparkling truth, due to lack of list conformity. But I’m thinking this final five is a good bet for a successful gift for a friend or family member, or a good read for yourself. One note of caution, though: many readers have told me they liked Mantel’s historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies, but it was an endurance read, i.e. some said they slogged through it.
For me, this cross-referencing was an exercise that gave some definition to the onslaught of bests lists, with some hoorays and boos along the way – such as for Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which shows on three of the lists I cross-referenced (hooray!); and for Lawrence Osborne’s seductive novel The Forgiven, which is ignored by the four lists (boo!), although I was glad to see The Economist and Library Journal give it a shout out. Best of all, I’ve discovered two books I want to read: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden. McFadden’s novel appears on the lists of The Post and The NYT.
November 28, 2012
The best war novels come from those who’ve participated in the conflicts. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried immediately comes to mind as does Karl Marlantes’ more recent Matterhorn, both about the Vietnam War. And then there’s Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I and considered to be one of the greatest war novels ever written. Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds about the 21st Century’s Iraq conflict is likely to join this canon of bests. He gives us a deeply affecting story about two soldiers who become friends during basic training and fight alongside in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq. (I’m assuming Al Tafar is a fictional reference for the real city, Tal Afar.)
Lead by a steely Sgt. Sterling, who tolerates nothing less than an unfeeling approach to fulfilling their duty, 21-year-old Private Bartle and 18-year-old Private Murphy follow him and keep going despite their overwhelming shock, fear and uncertainty. They take cues from him to be calloused and indifferent so as to stay sane, while they patrol and clear the streets of the city under siege and witness gruesome deaths. Private Bartle is the narrator, now almost 30 years old and looking back, speaking to us with an engaging, sorrowful voice about the experience in Al Tafar and a promise he made Murph’s mother to bring her son home safely — a promise that became a responsiblity, then a burden and finally a compassionate crime. A promise, Bartle tells us, he couldn’t keep.
The book is divided into chapters that alternate between Bartle and Murph’s time in Al Tafar and Bartle’s end-of-tour homecoming to Virginia. It’s a slick means of creating vivid emotional understanding of the effect of war on a soldier while engaged in combat as well as after, let alone creating a murmuring intrigue about what happens to Murph. Halfway through the book, we still don’t know the answer, but we know it is destroying Bartle at home, when he’s no longer a soldier, where he isolates himself, quietly tormented by his guilt and everyone who says “thank you” and calls him a hero. His spill of inner thoughts both in Al Tafar and at home is reflective, unforgettable prose poetry that so lost me in the beauty of the writing I had to reread passages to know what they had said.
Bartle’s inner life and perceptions are the real story here, interpreting what it’s like to be a soldier with visceral truth that transcends the literalness of non-fiction. I will warn that a few times what he witnesses is unbearable — a body bomb, a soldier killed in action with gunfire to his gut, let alone what’s visited upon his friend Murph — and yet Powers carefully measures the level of detail so the horrors of war don’t overwhelm and drive us away but build the story about how they can destroy one soldier and not another. When Bartle’s mother asks him what happened to him in Iraq, Bartle, in this beautiful passage, tells us:
“That’s not even the question, I thought. How is that the question? How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery. The dominoes of moments, lined up symmetrically, then tumbling backward against the hazy and unsure push of cause, showed only that a fall is every object’s destiny. It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.”
The Yellow Birds was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award in fiction, won by Louise Erdrich for The Round House. Kevin Powers served in the U.S. Army in 2004 and 2005 in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, as a machine gunner. He earned an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry.
November 5, 2012
What would you do if you found a naked woman floating face down in the swimming pool of your summer vacation villa? The British characters who make such a discovery in this brief, complex and stunning drama don’t reach for their cell phones. It’s July 1994, and we weren’t all addicted to portable electronics then. They also don’t – true to British, stoic reserve – panic and run for a land phone. They’re not sure the woman is dead. (She’s not). It’s a droll and inconvenient moment for the vacationers as the woman they come to know as Kitty Finch rises Venus-like from the pool and frantically searches for her clothes.
The setting is southern France, outside Nice. The vacationers are two couples: Isabel, a war correspondent struggling with an identity crisis; her husband Joe, a famous poet who’s haunted by his Holocaust childhood; their 14-year-old daughter, Nina; and their bankrupt friends, London shop owners Laura and Mitchell. The languorous summer activities provide the perfect tepid backdrop for the explosion about to be visited upon them, with Kitty as the igniter and their personal troubles the unexploded bomb. It starts when Isabel invites Kitty to stay with them (without consulting the others). Clearly, she’s baiting her philandering husband. Soon, to make it worse, the group learns the young, beautiful Kitty intentionally arrived at their villa in pursuit of the poet. More than a fan, she feels she has a “nerve contact” with Joe, and she’s written a poem she wants him to read.
Had the author Deborah Levy opened Swimming Home with the pool scene, she would have set us up with a mildly intriguing premise, but she ramps it up by giving us a glimpse of what’s to come in less than 300 words that begin the story. The future moment takes place in a car on a mountain road with Kitty a menacing force and Joe regretful over their fling in a hotel room. Levy writes, “When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.” The foreknowledge from this scene creates foreboding that lasts ‘til the end — because the Brits fail to fear Kitty, and we’ve been introduced to a smidgen of the deadly ending.
Day by day the disturbed, often incoherent Kitty mocks Mitchell, woos the teenager Nina, studies the area’s flowers (she says she’s a botanist) and randomly dresses in her birthday suit. The Brits are so caught up in themselves they either can’t see Kitty’s danger or they doubt it. Levy writes, “…[Mitchell] couldn’t work out why he thought someone as sad as she was might be dangerous.” They tolerate her odd behavior just as they tolerate the cloudy pool water and the mouse in the kitchen.
Swimming Home is highly entertaining and profoundly unsettling for the human flaws that make the vacationers so vulnerable. Levy sustains masterful control over Kitty’s slow-building intent to manipulate herself into Joe’s psyche, all the while portraying a wider lens that encompasses the relational complexities of the other characters. That includes not only the vacationers but also the villa’s hippy caretaker, a café owner in lust with Nina and an 80-year-old neighbor, Madeleine Sheridan, who’s a retired physician. Madeleine is the Greek chorus that warns of “the mad girl with her halo of red hair,” knowing first-hand that Kitty is mentally ill.
The book gets its title from the poem Kitty wants Joe to read. She hopes he’ll discuss it with her when he invites her for cocktails at a nearby, upscale hotel on day seven of her stay at the villa. Needless to say, discussion is not what’s foremost on Joe’s mind. And then comes the mountain road scene revealed in part to us in the beginning, followed by a gasp-worthy ending that’s brilliantly executed with Levy’s incisive brevity and vivid prose.
Written in 157 pages, Swimming Home, short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is a shocking story about the limits we push for love and the denials we invest in to keep it.
October 21, 2012
I’m delighted NYRB Classics Series has re-printed the long out-of-print Thomas Tryon novel The Other, newly available again this month. I read the chilling bestseller with complete absorption during my teens in the 1970s. It left me rattled, though, disturbed by how it so successfully lured me into its darkness and twisted my reality. I’ve never forgotten that uncomfortable feeling it gave me, which became a haunting of sorts, apt for the book and this Halloween month. All these years it’s stoked an inner voice telling me to re-read the book and face again what rattled me. Well, here’s my chance.
NYRB writes in its description, “Thomas Tryon’s best-selling novel about a home-grown monster is an eerie examination of the darkness that dwells within everyone.” That home-grown monster refers to identical 13-year-old twins, Holland and Niles Perry, the one evil, the other good. Their relationship is frighteningly close — they know each other’s thoughts in a way that appears supernatural. At their family’s New England farm one summer in the 1930s, their father comes to an accidental death, and then ”…the family–the whole town–is shaken and bewildered by the advent of a horrifying series of inexplicable deaths and disasters.” (That quoted line comes from the dust jacket of the original hardcover edition of the book.)
Writing about this horror novel is challenging because one has to be extraordinarily careful not to reveal too much. Likely that’s why the new NYRB edition has an afterword and not an introduction by Dan Chaon, whose most recent book is story collection Stay Awake. The restraint required in an introduction to The Other, so as not to give away or even suggest the plot’s deepest secret before readers have entered the story, would be too limiting for a creative introductory analysis.
The novel was first published in 1971 (the same year as William Blatty’s The Exorcist), and while it received wide praise, one New York Times critic called The Other implausible, and some readers over the years have complained they were bored in the beginning, i.e. it took a while for them to be hooked. That’s a small minority. I offer the information here, though, to prepare you in case you, too, are not hooked immediately. Stick with it, because millions of readers found this book riveting — it sold more than 3.5 million copies. The Fawcett paperback edition in 1972 alone sold 2,810,000 copies, as reported by the NYT February 11, 1973.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the novel when it first came out, “Truly extraordinary, truly — it’s one of those books over which everybody will take leave of their senses, all seven of them.”
A final note, regarding 20th-century bestsellers: I found a website related to an English course at the University of Virgina that used best-selling 20th-century American literature as a means of understanding 20th-century America. The course, offered in the fall of 2002, required students to read bestsellers and complete information about them in an online database that includes – and of likely interest to book collectors:
- a bibliographical description of the first edition
- publication history
- reception history
- an analysis of the work in its cultural and literary contexts
September 27, 2012
Here’s a thriller that will unnerve you. It’s populated by regular guys who met at Princeton and, since graduation, for the following nine years, get together for annual weekends of golf at posh resorts. Only this year they gather at the modest suburban Jersey home of the narrator Will Walker, a musician who’s trying to save money to open his own studio. He’s not as financially flush as his friends – Nolan Albright, running for a U.S. Senate seat in Missouri; Evan Wolff, aiming for partner status in a NYC law firm; and Jeffrey Hocks, a California dotcom millionaire – but Will’s just as bright and ambitious. Indeed, these are hardworking guys with careers, wives, girlfriends and kids-on-the-way who this one weekend just want to kick back, drink, tee-up and talk about college days. Their ordinariness casts tension over the story because they look like us, or people we know, and the combination of circumstances illustrates how easily honest, conventional life can be railroaded into crime.
Will announces the crime in the novel’s first line: “It almost didn’t happen — the kidnapping and everything after.” He also alludes to the slight of chance that would’ve avoided the kidnapping, had Will not convinced Jeffrey to join the group when he called to cancel. Because the nightmare starts when Jeffrey bizarrely steals not only cash from the register of a convenience store but also grabs the cashier and shoves her into the back seat of the car where Will and Nolan wait, mildly inebriated from dinner and a practice round of golf, thinking Jeffrey’s buying antacids. Jeffrey shouts “Drive!” to Will, who speeds out of the parking lot, believing the girl’s sick or injured and needs to get to a hospital.
Quickly it becomes clear Jeffrey has forced the girl into the car against her will, and they’ve got a situation at hand that could put them in jail. Jeffrey claims he robbed the store because he’s broke, no more a millionaire, and when he took the cash, he panicked, thinking the girl would call the police. Everything snowballs out of control, fueled by misjudgments and ignored voices of reason. Jeffrey, Nolan and Will hold the girl hostage in the sound-proof recording studio where Will works. There’s bargaining with the girl, fist-fights among the friends and close calls of discovery from outsiders. Evan, detained by his work in New York, escapes being involved in the crime, but his friends turn to him for legal counsel. In the face of Evan’s incredulity and judgment, Will thinks Evan can’t possibly understand how the kidnapping happened, and so fast. He thinks, you weren’t there.
The Three-Day Affair is as much about an accidental crime as it is about how people ignore the instinct to do what’s right. It’s also about a bad side of friendship — the untrustworthy side that devastates. The plot is precisely executed right up to the startling ending with come-out-of-nowhere surprises. There’s even one moment near the mid-point of the book when I felt the author Michael Kardos winks at his readers with a tip-off to where his story is going. If you catch it, you’ll be impressed by Kardos’ original storytelling, as I was, and find yourself turning pages even more intrigued by the big “ifs” hanging over the lives of Will, Nolan and Jeffrey — if these friends from Princeton will get back to their normal lives, and if that’s even possible.