July 21, 2016
Six Four has caught my attention not as much for the story as for the fact that it sold one million copies in six days in Japan, according to its publisher (via The Guardian). Author Hideo Yokoyama is hugely popular in Japan for his crime novels and often likened to Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author who penned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. From The Independent: “Like Stieg Larsson, with whom he has been (unhelpfully) compared, he is a driven workaholic and, like the late Swedish writer, suffered a heart attack after working continuously without breaks for many hours.”
The plot of this immense book (640 pages) is typical crime-novel fare. In 1989, a seven-year-old Tokyo schoolgirl was kidnapped, ransomed and murdered. The killer was never identified or found, and the Japanese public neither forgot nor forgave the botched investigation. In 2002, Inspector Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s family on the latest anniversary of the crime. Mikami is the police press director. He takes a look at the case file and discovers an anomaly. From the publisher’s book description: “He could never imagine what he would uncover. He would never have looked if he’d known what he would find.”
From what I’ve read about the book in several publications, much of the story is spent delving into police bureaucracy, hierarchy, procedure and corruption. While such detail can be antithetical to what one would expect in a page-turning crime thriller, it sets this book apart. Reviewers agree time invested in the long story is well worth it, claiming readers will find themselves involved, gripped and rewarded. The Guardian calls Six Four a “binge read.”
The Times Literary Supplement writes,“The denouement is surprising, but there are no neat endings to the various strands of this well-written epic tale, which reads beautifully in Jonathan Lloyd-Davies’s translation. Six Four is far more a monument to the idiosyncrasies of Japanese bureaucratic life than it is a simple detective story.”
The Japan Times writes: “Yokoyama’s strength lies in his portrayal of the police: the stifling hierarchy, the politics and duplicity Mikami has to navigate. In true police-procedural fashion Six Four takes its time to reach its conclusion, all the while fleshing out characters who are headed for a denouement that is as original as it is ingenious.”
The Guardian writes: “The plot would grip in any language but, for readers in the west, there is extra fascination in Six Four being not just a police procedural but a guide book to Japan. Some of the local details – such as the cops’ repeated concerns with ‘losing face’ – might have been rejected by an English writer on Japan as too stereotypical. Other material, though, is educationally exotic.”
All of this fascinates me and, given the time, I’d jump into this book for the adventure of it. The Guardian writes: “It’s very different, in tone, narrative and style, from almost anything else out there.” I don’t often read that – or say that myself – about a book. Six Four is Yokoyama’s sixth novel and the first to be translated into English. It’s not been published by a U.S. publisher, but it’s released in Britain by Quercus, translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies. You can order it online. Maybe by the time – and if – it arrives in the U.S., I’ll have reading space and be ready for it.
June 23, 2016
It’s always fun to check out what the literary community believes is “best in show” for novels. Here are three major international awards and their winners, recently announced.
International Dublin Literary Award
Akhil Sharma wrote seven thousand pages over twelve and a half years to produce his 224 page novel Family Life. The story is based on the author’s own experience, according to an article he wrote for The New Yorker. (The article reveals the technical difficulties Mr. Sharma encountered writing the book.) Nominations for this award, formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, are received from public libraries in cities all over the world. Family Life was selected from 160 contenders nominated by librarians in 118 cities and 43 countries. The prestigious award recognizes both writers and translators. Mr. Sharma is the third American author to win the International Dublin Literary Award in its 21 year history. Here’s the plot summary of his novel, from the publisher’s description: “Growing up in Delhi in 1978, eight-year-old Ajay Mishra and his older brother Birju play cricket on the streets, eagerly waiting for the day they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more—until tragedy strikes. Young Ajay prays to a God he envisions as Superman, searching for direction amid the ruins of his family’s new life. Heart-wrenching and darkly funny, Family Life is a universal story of a boy torn between duty and his own survival.”
Man Booker International Award
The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has a new focus this year – to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction in translation. The prize money, divided equally between the author and the translator, is now awarded annually for a single work of fiction. Prior to 2016, the Man Booker International Award highlighted one living writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage and was announced every two years. The 2016 award went to South Korean author Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. The novel’s spare prose tells an unsettling story of a woman who, after a disturbing dream, stops eating meat. Her husband and family react with shock, anger and disapproval, as if Yeong-hye has committed an unforgivable crime. What unfolds is a difficult family story about Yeong-hye’s emotional demise and her family’s controlling abuse and angry incomprehension. From the Man Booker International Award website: “As her rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, Yeong-hye spirals further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing, and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.”
Baileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize)
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is the UK’s annual international book award for fiction written by a woman. According to the award website, founded in 1996, the Prize was set up to celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women throughout the world. This year’s winner — The Glorious Heresies written by Irish writer Lisa McInerney — is about life on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society. Set in the dark, underbelly of the city of Cork, the story brings together several misfits after a murder, including a 15-year-old drug dealer, his alcoholic father, a prostitute and a gangland boss. From the publisher’s press release: “In this gritty, darkly comic novel, McInerney crafts a twisted web of shifting loyalties and betrayals while interrogating notions of salvation, shame, and the legacy of Ireland’s past attitudes towards sex and family. She quietly explores money, violence, and the unbreakable bonds we form with each other through the story of one accidental murder and its rippling effects on five people who exist on the fringes of Ireland’s post-crash society.” From a review in Britain’s Telegraph: “The Glorious Heresies is a spectacular debut … Tough and tender, gothic and lyrical, it is a head-spinning, stomach-churning state-of-the-nation novel about a nation falling apart.” The Guardian’s more tempered review says “the energy level flags in the final third of the book, as the characters keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to less compelling effect.” The book is scheduled for release in the United States in August.
June 9, 2016
David Foenkinos’ astonishing new novel tells a fictionalized true story of the life and artistic work of Charlotte Salomon, a Jewish German girl who lived from 1917 to 1943. It’s a familiar Holocaust story told with exceptional difference — the narrative is a vertical stack of sentences that breathe intensity and authorial passion. “Her life has become my obsession,” this experienced French novelist tells us. He saw an exhibition of Life? or Theater?, Charlotte Salomon’s autobiographical artwork, and became overwhelmed with soul-reaching connection. “I am an occupied country,” he confesses.
The novel begins with Charlotte’s namesake, her mother’s sister, who exited life without warning by jumping off a bridge when she was 18 years old. Thirteen years later, Charlotte’s mother is affected by the same depressive condition and consequence. Charlotte is left to be raised by nannies and a father devoted to his medical career. He marries again to an opera star, who brings joy and the cultural life of Berlin into their home. Charlotte falls in love with Albert, her stepmother’s voice coach, and attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Except, it is the 1930’s when Hitler comes to power. Charlotte is robbed of deserved recognition at the Academy. Her father is taken away by Nazi officials and then returned, broken and unequivocally aware of the danger to his Jewish family. Charlotte is sent to live in southern France with her grandparents, despite her hysterical resistance. At the train station, her lover Albert whispers in her ear, “May you never forget that I believe in you.”
The author interjects himself into the narrative in a way that heightens our sensitivity to the story. The effect is mesmerizing, drawing us into his passionate desire to know everything about his subject. He visits Charlotte’s childhood home and grade school in Berlin, her refuge in southern France and the office of a doctor who treated her. The doctor, recognizing Charlotte’s artistic genius, tells her she must paint, despite the world’s darkness. It is the 1940s. Charlotte has endured and escaped an internment camp for Germans and suffered the loss of her grandmother, yet another suicide. She secludes herself and creates hundreds of paintings with text and music that becomes Life? or Theater? When completed, Charlotte gives it to the trusted doctor for safekeeping, declaring to him, “It is my whole life.”
Not long after, Charlotte is denounced anonymously to the Nazis. She’s sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she dies at the age of 26. Her father and stepmother survive the war, and in 1961 produce a catalog and exhibition of Life? or Theater? Briefly, Charlotte Salomon becomes famous. In 1971, her parents bequeath Life? or Theater? to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.
To experience Charlotte’s artwork in Life? or Theater? is to understand the author’s passion and –after reading the novel — to feel more deeply this piercing, tender story.
The paintings are accessible on the website of the Jewish History Museum under Special Collections. The image above is captured from the museum’s online exhibit.
Charlotte by David Foenkinos is translated from the French by Sam Taylor.
May 23, 2016
A little over a week ago, during a post-presentation Q&A, a woman from the back row said she loved the current Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and then she asked if I could recommend another good book for her. The request silenced me. It always does, that ask by a stranger for the title of a good book. And yet, I expect myself to be able to casually toss out answers.
When independent bookstores flourished, the bookseller, over time, got to know a patron’s reading tastes and could provide personalized recommendations for good books. Today, Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s automatic “matches” of what you might like to read, based on past online book searches and purchases, is the impersonal opposite — their technology lacks the ability to capture nuance in reading desire and taste.
For me, making recommendations for strangers is a shot in the dark. Without knowing the person’s reading patterns and history, I don’t have a feel for what works for them in a novel. Is it the drama and romance? The captivating, complex characters whose fictional stories are unforgettable? The tension of the World War II European setting? Is it violence and intrigue or moving relationships? I’ve had many successes but also many failures in trying to take that shot in the dark.
I came out of my temporary stupor with an answer for the woman in the back row, sharing with her two novels that came to mind and are personal favorites. I qualified the answer, explaining Stoner by John Williams could lack the level of drama she might want (although it’s an international best-seller) and Mapuche by Carl Férey might be too violent (its plot draws from Argentina’s violent time of the “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983). Ever since that brief exchange, however, I’ve felt as if I didn’t provide a thoughtful enough response — because she mentioned Doerr’s novel, and I could’ve used it as my starting point. I could’ve tried for an “automatic match” à la online book-selling. And so…
Dear Woman in the Back Row,
I’ve pondered your request, considering what I could have otherwise suggested for you to read. Here are three novels I’m thinking you might enjoy. They have a World War II connection, which might appeal to you, since you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See. They’re not new books, but ones from the past known to have captivated many readers. Maybe you haven’t read them.
Winds of War by Herman Wouk is the first volume of Wouk’s popular World War II epic. It mentally kidnapped me during a long-ago summer, and I think back to that time fondly, reading Wouk’s novel on a commuter train, during lunch hours and by the pool, lost in the story. From the book’s description: “Wouk’s spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events — and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II — as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war’s maelstrom.” The second novel in the epic drama is War and Remembrance.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, focuses on protagonist Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a London hospital bed,remembering kaleidoscopic fragments from her past that recall her life as a newspaper correspondent, historical novelist and mother. At the center is her memory of a brief love affair in Cairo, Egypt, during World War II, with a British tank officer on leave. While not on the level of “spellbinding,” as is Wouk’s epic, it’s nevertheless a moving, memorable story that also captivated me.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is based on the true story of a working class couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the German front lines during the war, they became resisters. From the book’s description: “With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.” Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket on my copy of the book: “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.”
April 28, 2016
Early on in my reading of Rob Spillman’s new memoir, someone asked me why it was written. She didn’t ask what it was about but instead went to the heart of what we expect in a memoir — that compelling tragedy, dysfunction or adventure driving the writer to share, hopefully, a page-turning shocker or an engaging seducer. All I could think to say in answer was that All Tomorrow’s Parties is a coming-of-age story, which doesn’t really answer why the memoir was written. It also doesn’t offer much incentive to grab the book and start reading.
Nuala O’Faolain, in the introduction to her 1996 best-selling memoir Are You Somebody?, tells of being approached by people scrutinizing her face, thinking they recognized her, and asking, “Are you somebody?” This happened during the 10 years she wrote a column for the Irish Times, and her photo accompanied the column. When a publisher asked her to turn her columns into a book, she considered these small brushes with fame and used the question for the title of her book:
“I’m not anybody in terms of the world, but then, who decides what a somebody is? How is a somebody made? I’ve never done anything remarkable; neither have most people. Yet most people, like me, feel remarkable. That self-importance welled up inside me. I had the desire to give an account of my life. I was finished with furtiveness. I sat down to write the introduction, and I summoned my pride. I turned it into a memoir.”
Rob Spillman, according to O’Faolain’s comments, isn’t “a somebody.” He’s the editor of Tin House magazine and editorial advisor for Tin House Books (a publishing house that turns out terrific novels, I might add). His memoir takes us on a journey of self-discovery during an interesting time in history, and while this may not be the stuff of a remarkable life, it’s pleasant to read.
Born in 1964 to American musicians, Spillman spent his childhood 200 miles behind the Iron Curtain in West Berlin; however, All Tomorrow’s Parties begins not with childhood, but with the 25-year-old Spillman attending a rave in East Berlin with his wife Elissa. This is after the fall of the Berlin Wall and before reunification. In alternating chapters, we go back and forth between this young adult time and his childhood and teen years. We learn that Spillman’s mother left when he was four years old, and Spillman’s constant exposure to his father’s career as a passionate pianist immersed him in the artistic life. Concert halls became his playground. But the father and son didn’t stay forever behind the Iron Curtain, leaving West Berlin when Spillman’s father accepted a position at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The young Spillman reconnected with his mother, staying with her during the school year in Baltimore, and then with his father during summers, attending the Aspen Music Festival and School.
Spillman’s deep yearning to live a life driven by an artistic passion — as his father was driven by his passion for the piano — thematically threads together the years. So, too, does his desperate want to be considered a Berliner, setting him apart in the United States and giving him a place to call home. Pain, confusion, failure and rebellion dominated his youthful American years. The teen-aged Spillman sailed through high school with academic excellence only to flunk out of college. He describes this time as living in “a drunken, womanizing haze.” During his time in Europe with his wife, the 25-year-old Spillman attempted to live a Bohemian life, lingering over but not committing to a half-baked novel. He thought returning to East Berlin during the historic changes of 1989 would define him and make him real, but that’s not what happened.
The book’s title comes from a 1967 song by The Velvet Underground, and it aptly captures a chasing of self, as if tomorrow holds the answer. For Spillman, when the answer finally arrives, it’s shallow. He fails to go deep into his enlightenment, and it comes across as all too common; however, the answer does bring him home. Back to the question I was asked in the beginning about the book, having finished it, I would respond as I did originally, but I would likely refer to O’Faolain’s commentary about writing a memoir and being a somebody. O’Faolain certainly proved you don’t have to be celebrity or tragedian to have a memoir-worthy life, but you do have to have something more than shallow enlightenment.
April 8, 2016
In the early 1840s, a young Walt Whitman worked as a journalist and wrote average fiction, poetry and editorials that, according to debut author J. Aaron Sanders, were “overwrought, sentimental, and derivative.” Not much later, in 1855, Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, poetry that upended the classical metered schema and now holds a place of significance in the canon of literature. Sanders takes a fictional pen to imagining what those gap years could’ve looked like. In doing so, he’s created a fast-paced, compulsively readable historical mystery set in 1843 New York City with Whitman as protagonist and sleuth. It may feel odd to think of the esteemed 19th century literary figure as a young journalist pursuing truth in a murder case, but it works, and tremendously well.
Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery opens with the public hanging of Whitman’s friend, Lena Stowe, who’s convicted of murdering her husband, Abraham. Our protagonist knows neither would have done what New York City officials and police put forth as fact – that Abraham murdered his mistress Mary Rogers and tossed her body in the Hudson River after he learned she was pregnant and botched the abortion – and that Lena murdered her husband in a jealous rage. Even to the public, it appears to be a clear-cut case, but Whitman believes Abe’s death is connected to the resurrectionists, grave robbers with whom Abe conducted business.
Abe and Lena ran a medical college for women. Like all medical school directors at the time, they needed cadavers for anatomical dissection. The only way to get the cadavers was via Samuel Clement, a strongman in the criminal bodysnatchng trade. Adding to the difficulty for the Stowe’s medical school, the practice of dissection was considered sacrilegious, causing morally outraged people to protest at their front door. It was believed a dissected body could not resurrect to heaven. Abe attempted to push through legislation that would provide a legal way for medical colleges to acquire cadavers, which would put Clement out of business. That, according to Whitman, screamed motive for Clement to murder Abe. As Whitman travels down the rabbit hole of discovery into this underground world of the resurrectionists, he puts his life at risk, and that of his editor and dear friend, Henry Saunders.
Speakers of the Dead includes historical figure Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate medical school in the United States, and also the famous writer Edgar Allan Poe, who in reality attempted to solve the true, sensational New York City Mary Rogers murder with his stories. In the Author’s Note to the book, Sanders writes: “The problem for Poe was that, by the time he published the trilogy of stories, new theories about the death of Rogers had emerged, rendering Poe’s own theories useless.” Sanders cleverly imagines a very drunk Poe collaborating with Whitman one night in a cemetery in a scene that quickly becomes an entertaining hot mess.
Speakers of the Dead: A Walt Whitman Mystery may cause Whitman scholars to roll their eyes, but for the rest of us, it’s colorful mystery reading filled with secrets and gross misdeeds that keep the light on well into the night. Whitman’s romantic interest in Henry Saunders adds emotional drama, while his fearless approaches toward corrupt politicians and criminals adds edginess. Meanwhile, public protests rage before the Stowe’s medical college where Elizabeth Blackwell and other female medical students continue to study after the Stowe’s deaths, and they fear for their lives. Along the way, Mr. Whitman, journalist, poet and sleuth, gets closer to the truth of what really happened to Mary Rodgers and Abraham Stowe, during his energetic, vilifying and surprising investigation.
March 23, 2016
The bookshelf here beside me contains many of the paperback classics I read in college. I’ve kept them all these years of my life, packing them up and moving them wherever I’ve gone. You’d recognize them — Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Dickens’ Hard Times, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of MidLothian, and on I could go. But what’s missing on these shelves are the science fiction classics I read: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and others I can’t recall. I think I gave them away or left them behind somewhere.
I never leave books behind. My double-stacked shelves and books on top of books on top of books on top of tables are a testament to that, but science fiction isn’t what I like to read. So why did I recently pick up Charlie Jane Anders’ new book, a sci-fi fantasy, All the Birds in the Sky?
What I’ve learned from reading Anders’ science fiction fantasy novel (which I enjoyed) and other science fiction I’ve tried and enjoyed (Jeff Vandermeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy, Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear) is that I’m okay with science fiction as long as there’s not a new world I need to understand with a tongue-twisting vocabulary of geographic labels, human class hierarchies and referential touch points that don’t stick with me. The previously mentioned books didn’t have that. The Southern Reach Trilogy, in fact, captivated me.
A couple months ago, I asked Mark, a manager at Half Price Books who often joins the WOSU book show, to recommend a science fiction book for me. Mark reads a lot of science fiction, and he handed me Neil Stephenson’s popular novel Snow Crash, which The New York Times said is “brilliantly realized.” By page two, I’m reading about the arachnofiber weave of the Deliverator’s uniform, the Giga Highlands and a Burbclave, which cause my reading mind to stumble and freeze. (Darn it!) For perspective, I tell myself, I suppose this is similar to someone wanting to read one of those classic novels I listed above but choking on Victorian prose or falling asleep over it. To make the point, I’ll just type in here the first line of The Heart of Midlothian: “The times have changed in nothing more (we follow as we were wont the manuscript of Peter Pattieson) than in the rapid conveyance of intelligence and communication betwixt one part of Scotland and another.”)
All the Birds in the Sky smoothly rides on uber technology, which includes an intelligent super computer, emotional robots and an antigravity machine. It also engages the mystical, with a parliamentary tree populated by talking birds sitting in council. The story begins with an overwhelmed, young witch named Patricia Delfine, who understands what they’re saying and also struggles to understand her powers. She befriends the super-smart Lawrence Armstead at school, a geeky, bullied boy who’s invented a time machine that jumps ahead two seconds, so he can escape the bullies’ torments. This middle school section of the story lacks provocative intrigue and falls short in texture and energy compared to the rest of the book, when 10 years later, the two friends come together again in San Francisco. Patricia consorts with other witches, and Lawrence creates a wormhole generator that opens a pathway to infinity. His boss wants to assure the preservation of the human race in case of a doomsday scenario. Patricia’s full powers come into play when that day arrives, going to war to destroy Lawrence’s gravity-defying machine because it will tear a hole in the earth and destroy the natural world — those creatures whose languages Patricia understands. Meanwhile, these two protagonists who are at odds with one another are also in difficult love.
Even though Anders wrestles with global catastrophe and ethical issues, she doesn’t take herself or the robots and super machines too seriously. There’s plenty of humor, and the story sparkles with inventiveness. In the end, everything wraps up believably, and not too neatly, either, which makes the story even more credible. And so, I’ll add All the Birds in the Sky to the list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed, but you won’t find it on my bookshelves. I borrowed it from the library. And Snow Crash? That’s right here, tempting me to try it again before I next see Mark, and return it.
March 10, 2016
A philosophy book may cause some to shrug with indifference, but Sarah Bakewell has a knack for making big ideas and their thinkers fascinating and readable. She achieved such excellence and readability with her book How to Live: A Life of Montaigne In One Question and 20 Attempts At an Answer about Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne is best known for perfecting the essay as a literary genre.
Last week, Bakewell’s new book arrived with a focus on existentialism.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Others received rave forecasting reviews, with Library Journal issuing the verdict: “Highly recommended for anyone who thinks.” An interesting cast of characters populates the book, aside from those in the long title, including political theorist Hannah Arendt, authors Iris Murdoch and James Baldwin, and more. From the publisher’s website:
“Interweaving biography and philosophy, [At the Existentialist Café] is the epic account of passionate encounters — fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships — and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.”
You can read a short excerpt here. Bakewell’s How to Live, by the way, won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.
Soon to be published is what strikes me as a quirky and potentially fascinating anthology of childhood infatuations with celebrated media stars or iconic characters. Contributors in Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush include Carrie Fisher, Stephen King, James Franco and Jodi Picoult, plus others. Crushes range from Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie in the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show to Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
Here’s the opening for Jodi Picoult’s contribution, when she’s six years old and running away from home:
“I stuffed a toothbrush, a hairbrush, and a change of clothes into my pillowcase, I scrawled a note for my mother and left it on my bureau. Then I sneaked downstairs and slipped out the back door into the smothering heat of an August night, intent on running away to be with the one person I was certain would appreciate me.
“The note read: I have gone to live with Donny Osmond. Don’t try to come after me.”
If existentialists and media crushes don’t interest you, perhaps Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England for 44 years, will. Author John Guy writes about the Tudor queen, daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, at the height of her power using new archival material.
“In this magisterial biography of England’s most ambitious Tudor queen, John Guy introduces us to a woman who is refreshingly unfamiliar: at once powerful and vulnerable, willful and afraid. In these essential and misunderstood forgotten years, Elizabeth confronts challenges at home and abroad: war against the Catholic powers of France and Spain, revolt in Ireland, an economic crisis that triggered riots in the streets of London, and a conspiracy to place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on her throne. For a while she was smitten by a much younger man, but could she allow herself to act on that passion and still keep her throne?”
February 25, 2016
This week, I’ve been reading Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn. It’s a captivating biography, uniquely written, beautifully illustrated and constructed with glossy paper and a stitched binding that make the book a handsome object. The “uniquely written” part refers to the fact that author Julia Blackburn had not much to go on for her subject, no hordes of correspondence or archived papers. She acknowledges early on she had more evidence of her subject’s absence than anything else. And so she takes us with her on the search for information, building on bits of facts and memories gathered from her visits to the places and people connected to John Craske, the Norfolk fisherman turned fishmonger turned invalid turned artist with whom she became fascinated.
John Craske was born in 1881 in Sherringham, a seaside town on England’s east coast. At age eleven, he went to sea as a fisherman, following in the career path of his father and grandfather. In 1905, he left the sea to start a fish business in nearby Dereham and, in 1908, he married his wife Laura. In 1917, John Craske got called to serve in the Great War but ended up in the hospital with influenza. He never fully recovered from the illness, from then on falling into “harmless mental stupors” that no one could diagnose. For the rest of his life, he was debilitated by weakness, relying on a wheelchair and staying in bed much of the time.
In 1923, John Craske began creating paintings of boats and the sea that he loved. Julia Blackburn writes: “I cannot begin to explain how much the pictures impressed me. They were images of the sea and boats on the sea and the coast seen from a boat, but they were also images of life itself and its precariousness and how we struggle to keep afloat and to stay alive in the face of fear and uncertainty.”
When John Craske could no longer stand and paint, he turned to embroidery, which he could do while in bed. Of the many pieces he created, there’s an embroidered portrayal of the World War II 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk that’s approximately 11 feet long and 25 inches wide. He created it from what he heard in radio newscasts and stories of veterans. It was John Craske’s last work. He died in 1943 before it was finished.
The author’s husband, Herman, is here and there mentioned in the book, accompanying her or listening to her. And then, in the last 100 pages, there’s a sadness when he dies. Julia Blackburn finds refuge and comfort in John Craske’s life and the book she needs to finish.
Several of John Craske’s paintings and embroideries lie in the back rooms of homes and museums, neglected, faded and stacked against a wall, where Julia Blackburn found them. But Threads isn’t about fame, or the loss of it, rather about beautiful art, the tough world of early 20th century Norfolk fishermen, and one man’s life and talent that got mislaid over time, now rediscovered in a wonderful biography.
Note: Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn is published in England by Jonathan Cape and not yet published in the United States.
February 10, 2016
Somewhere in the literary publications I read, briefly and separately, I learned about the 20th century Jewish Austrian writers Stefan Zweig (1881 – 1942) and Joseph Roth (1894 – 1939). NYRB Classics brought Zweig’s books back into print, and Wes Anderson paid homage to the author in his 2014 hit movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was inspired by Zweig’s work. Regarding Roth, I came across a mention of Michael Hofmann’s translation of his novel The Radetzky March, and it so intrigued me that I’ve got it in my head to read only Hofmann’s translation of this great novel.
All of this then propelled me toward Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann and translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway. Newly released, it is the perfect representation of what one calls a “gem” in a book – small, tightly contained, emotionally evocative, historically fascinating and shining in all its points of narrative. Within its pages, Weidermann focuses on the summer of 1936 and the friendship of these two writers who vacationed in Ostend, Belgium, a seaside resort town, where they experienced a respite from Europe’s political turmoil.
Zweig by then was a world star of literature, outselling all other German authors around the world; however, his books had been been burned in Berlin, and his German publisher no longer was allowed to publish him. Zweig’s marriage was falling apart, as he preferred his young lover, Lotte Altmann; and his house in Vienna, searched by police in 1934, no longer felt safe. Weidermann tells us this world-famous writer was shy and insecure, which his demanding wife found to be intolerable. Roth, similarly, suffered a life crisis that year, his books also banned right at the time when he’d written novels with the greatest potential to elevate his recognition — The Radetsky March and Job. He was moneyless, alcoholic, leading an unheroic life, enormously vulnerable and dependent financially on Zweig who, in Ostend, bought him a new suit and paid for his hotel room. Roth, in return, wrote a scene that helped Zweig in his current novel, where he’d been stymied by the action.
Weidermann delves into the heart of the exile story, with Roth and Zweig unable to safely return to their beloved Austria. He also skillfully includes stories about the émigré journalists, poets and playwrights that became part of Zweig and Roth’s circle in Ostend. Together that summer of 1936, the small group drank, wrote, gathered at the cafés, swam, laughed and kept each other hopeful, while Austria signed an agreement with Nazi Germany; the world allowed itself to be deceived by the Berlin Summer Olympics; the shocking trial of Etkar Andre took place in Hamburg; and Jewish journalist and poet Stefan Lux committed suicide during a session of the League of Nations in Geneva.
Ostend is a story about friendship and what it means to have to say farewell to a way of life. It’s written with a unique style of insight and historic reporting that combine to create a direct yet compassionate narrative voice. And it’s filled with wonderful lines, such as the description about Roth as a monarchist, his belief described as “a sweet lie that he tells himself day after day to make life and his own clarity and knowledge endurable. It is why one becomes a writer, to see the world another way and wish it into otherness, to describe it as other than it is and will become.”
You can browse the books of Stefan Zweig on the New York Review of Books Classics website. In addition, George Prochnik’s biography of Zweig, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, published in 2014, received praise. As for Roth, Michael Hoffmann wrote in The Guardian, “Everything he wrote is worth my time and anyone’s.”
January 27, 2016
My favorite way to read a classic novel is in a used, hardbound, battered edition that’s been read and handled by many readers, its pages soft from wear, yellowed, dog-eared and smudged; its dust jacket nicked and bruised; and its edges bumped and dented. And of course, there’s that sweet, musty old book smell transporting me into library stacks and used bookstores. You can buy the scent now in soy candles, but I don’t think that works without the experience of the old book you can flip through and touch. It’s just not the same.
I recently finished John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. I picked up an old, handled library copy at a used book fair. Library-cancelled stamps abound on the end papers, and the checkout card pocket is ripped off. Someone’s name is written in sloppy script at the top of the first page. The interior pages smell musty and feel soft to the touch, worn from longtime turning. The textures gave me the feeling I had in my hand a book that was read by many, starting in 1964 when it was first published in the United States. Richard Burton starred in the 1965 movie that followed. He played the protagonist Alec Leamas, a long-standing, experienced British spy who’s recalled from his post in Berlin after he loses one more agent, killed by the East Germans, at the Berlin Wall.
Leamas believes this is the end of his career with British Intelligence, that it’s time to come in from the cold; however, he’s given one more assignment to dupe the East Germans into thinking he’s a defector, in order to drive them toward thinking the mastermind and head of their own spy agency is a double agent.
I’m of the same opinion as author Graham Greene whose back-of-the-book blurb on my copy says, “The best spy story I have ever read.” The New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in 1964 agreed, adding: “Whether The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is better than Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy or Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden or Mr. Greene’s own The Confidential Agent is inconsequential. What matters is that it belongs on the same shelf.”
How much more fun it is to have read this 1960’s best-seller in its original form than in a new paperback. I also intend to read an old copy of Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came: no dust jacket on this book, the binding cracked, the pages yellowed and bookishly fragrant. Tucked inside is a map of Malabar Farm State Park, Bromfield’s famous Ohio home, and someone’s typed list of books written by Bromfield. This classic novel became a movie with Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in 1939. A remake came out in 1955 with Richard Burton and Lana Turner.
And then there’s a copy I have of The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, a 1935 copy inscribed by my grandmother Margaret to her husband, my grandfather William H. Rose, on August 5, 1935: no dust jacket, frayed and faded binding cloth, and pages that feel smooth as silk. Isn’t this what old books are all about? They remind us they once sat in other libraries and in other hands, providing a literary sense of eternal time. PBS aired Galsworthy’s story on Masterpiece Theater.
January 18, 2016
The first woman in England to play the leading stage role of Tess in Thomas Hardy’s classic novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles acted in an amateur theater near Hardy’s home in Dorset County on the coast of the English Channel. Hardy directed the 1924 production and insisted the young woman be cast for the part because of her resemblance to her mother, whose unforgettable beauty inspired Hardy to create Tess more than 30 years earlier, in 1891. The radiant actress, Gertrude Bugler, was the very incarnation of Tess, and Hardy became infatuated with her, although he didn’t act on his desires — Hardy was 84 years old, and Gertrude was in her 20’s, a wife and mother to a new baby. Nevertheless, Hardy wrote poems about Gertrude, including one imagining their elopement. His affection made his second wife, Florence, distraught with jealousy.
Christopher Nicholson has written an absorbing novel about this historic emotional tryst, using alternating perspectives of Hardy (who at the time was the wealthiest author in England), Gertrude and Florence. He seduces us with a lyric narrative about desires of the heart that never age. Also, he atmospherically evokes the place and time with elegant images and rich writing that’s not fussy, such as when he writes: “The broth steamed, and the silver of the spoons shone in the candlelight.”
The story takes place the winter Gertrude plays Tess in the local theater. It opens with Hardy, over tea at his house with Gertrude, wanting to recommend the beauty for the same leading role in a London theater, giving Gertrude the break of a lifetime. Needless to say, she’s thrilled by the opportunity. The novel’s dramatic arc rises and falls under the consequences that result from this simple offer — and with surprising intensity, primarily due to Florence’s anxious personality that’s captured with realistic pitch and verve.
Preoccupied with her poor health and distraught by the darkness of their country home, the 45-year-old Florence desperately and repeatedly implores her husband to trim the surrounding, overgrown pine trees. Hardy refuses, convinced these trees he planted when he built the cottage have human qualities. She feels shunned by his lack of sensitivity and love for his literary work. When Florence notices his attraction to Gertrude, she begins another, self-pitying rant that belittles the actress, attempting to convince Hardy the girl is neither beautiful nor talented enough to hold a London stage. “All you think of is her. I am no one, no one, no one,” she says.
Gertrude is an unaware innocent caught in the middle of the Hardys’ marital drama. She knows Thomas Hardy cares for her but believes it’s nothing more than admiration for her stage talent. Unfortunately, she pays a life-changing price without ever having done anything wrong other than exist as a beautiful and talented actress. Hardy dies three years later, and Gertrude brings us the conclusion in a calm voice that expresses a perspective of understanding and forgiveness.
The talented Christopher Nicholson successfully evokes a time in Thomas Hardy’s life that may be little known to readers in a story that is deeply affecting — including the real, famous moment when Hardy said to Gertrude at their last meeting, “If anyone asks you if you knew Thomas Hardy, say, ‘Yes, he was my friend.’ ”
January 5, 2016
There are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?
In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.
Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.
The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.
December 29, 2015
My friends and I gather for dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. Afterwards, we walk up the street to attend services at a neighborhood church. This gathering has become a beloved annual tradition, and part of that tradition is a book I specially select for each friend. Here are the ones I gave this year, and why.
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison
This brought a whoop of joy when unwrapped, telling me I’d hit the mark, which is not always an easy thing to accomplish, even for a book critic with a wide, sweeping scope of available books. My friend is not only a successful entrepreneur but also an ordained minister, who’s very well read in all things spiritual. Nevertheless, even though this story has been told many times by great authors throughout the ages of literature, I thought this new take on it would interest her. The Boston Globe wrote this:
“What inspired Kathryn Harrison to suit up and step into this intimidating ring? Harrison offered this clue in a 2012 New York Times op-ed, ‘Joan of Arc: Enduring Power.’ The mythic heroine, who was burned at the stake, ‘was feverish in her determination to succeed at what was, by anyone’s measure, a preposterous mission,’ Harrison writes. ‘[She] defied every limitation placed on a woman of the late Middle Ages.’”
Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is described as a weaving together of historical fact, myth, folklore, scripture, artistic representations and centuries of scholarly and critical interpretation.
Baking: 60 Sensational Treats You Can Pull Off in a Snap by the Editors of Food52
A departure from the stories I typically give, this selection came from my visit to Kitchen Arts & Letters, an inspiring, small bookstore between 93rd and 94th streets on Lexington Avenue in New York City. My friend who loves to bake, and brings the most delicious desserts to our friend gatherings, came to mind. So I asked the store clerk to help me make a selection for her: something different but easy, yet enticing for a knowledgeable baker. Baking is what he pulled from the shelf, a collection of recipes that fall under categories such as special occasion cakes, everyday cakes, custardy cakes and puddings, fruit desserts and savory baked goods, to name a few. They are from the Food52 editors who“believe that if you want to eat better, and you want to help change our food system, you need to cook. Maybe not all the time, but some.”
The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delaney Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Molly Peacock
I gave this book to a friend who came to the Christmas Eve dinner for the first time this year. I’m not sure she’s a reader, and I’m not even sure I selected well for her, but something drove me to pick Molly Peacock’s biography. It’s a gorgeously produced and moving story about an ordinary woman in the 18th century whose late-in-life artistic work is now in the British Museum. I wrote about it here on TLC in 2012, beginning with this:
“Imagine everything you’ve done in your life — all the activities you’ve pursued that didn’t seem to have any significance beyond daily life — evolving into your finest work at the end of your life: beautifully, miraculously, unbidden and without purpose. That is the story of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788).”
My friend, in recent years, has courageously faced challenges in her work life that limited her ability to fully use her skills and expertise. She was patient and hopeful in a situation most people would allow to depress and defeat them. This true story seemed to be of my friend’s story, and so it came to mind as the perfect gift.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I was a little worried the friend I thought of for this book might already have discovered Elena Ferrante’s popular Neapolitan Series. She likes books about evolving relationships, and this is a perfect fit for her. Fortunately, it was a surprise. My Brilliant Friend is first in a four-novel series that has captured readers, including myself. It is the story of two best friends growing up in a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, Italy. Together, they navigate the tough streets, but when it comes to school, Elena continues on into upper grades while Lila goes to work in her father’s shoe shop. Nevertheless, they remain closely tied to one another, yet their friendship struggles with their emerging individuality and independence. Below, in an earlier TLC blog post, you can read about the fourth and final book in the series that won critic’s attention this year.
The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith
This is another departure (a children’s book), and for a friend who would’ve been at the table but this year traveled during the holiday. Before she left, I gave her this gorgeous children’s book, described as a tale for all ages. It won Waterstones Book of the Year 2015 award, surpassing such popular novels as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, let alone Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life that was nominated for the Man Booker and National Book awards. Waterstones is the largest bookselling chain in the United Kingdom. The story is about a fox whose only friend is a star, which lights the fox’s way in life. One night, the star does not appear, and fox huddles, overcome with sadness, in his den until it’s time to search for his friend. “Have you seen my star?” he asks the trees in the forest. From the author, in The Guardian:
“’I was thinking about how in life, if you hold on to something too tightly, you lose it, so to love something you have to let it go, and I wrote the story around that. It relates to so many situations – everyone has suffered – and it came together for me with losing my mum at an early age,’ said Bickford-Smith. ‘Children seem to love the idea of the friends and the crazy illustrations, while adults like the concept of things being tough, but coming out the other side.’”
I selected The Fox and the Star for this friend because we’ve shared together the grief experience, her for a friend and me for my father. Author Coralie Bickford-Smith says inspiration for the book came from William Blake’s poem “Eternity” and from the designs of William Morris. Below is a page spread from the book.