September 20, 2016
Many readers tell me they start The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and then quickly give up because it’s too confusing. That’s not surprising. In this author’s fourth novel, which he believed to be his best, Faulkner challenges readers by shifting abruptly in time between past and present, let alone starting the book with a demanding first-person narration by the mentally challenged Benjy Compson. The novel is a 20th century classic, the one many believe they should read if they’re going to read or ‘tackle’ Faulkner. I typically recommend Absalom, Absalom! instead because it’s the novel among Faulkner’s great ones that I enjoyed most.
I have doubt, though, about that recommendation. I haven’t read all of Faulkner’s novels. Maybe I should recommend the scandalous, dark potboiler Sanctuary that Faulkner wrote to make money – and that attracted reader attention to his work for the first time. Except readers want to read an important Faulkner novel, just like they want to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. You can’t preen about having read Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as Young Man like you can preen about having read Ulysses – and like you can preen about having read The Sound and the Fury. It’s not escape or an unputdownable reading experience that’s at play here. It’s an accomplishment.
The doubt about my Faulkner recommendation also comes from being fascinated by Faulkner as a person. When I blurt out that I love Faulkner, it doesn’t mean I love his books, rather all that is of him: his life in Oxford, Mississippi, at his home Rowan Oak; his script writing days in Hollywood, working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and film director Howard Hawks; his long road to getting published, the richness of his imagined Yoknapatawpha County, how his work progressed and the effect literary critic and editor Malcolm Cowley* had on his reputation; his speeches and essays that speak thoughtfully and intellectually about the human condition; and his individuality.
The last page of William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection, a photography book illustrating Faulkner’s life, tells of a typewritten note appended to the back of a framed portrait of Faulkner taken by photographer Jack Cofield. The note says:
“I once read a statement by Rudyard Kipling (made, I think, in one of his last interviews in London), which I think applies to Bill Faulkner the man as well as William Faulkner the author: ‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it you’ll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’ Bill Faulkner lived up to this principle to a T.”
The Culture Trip’s The Nine Best Books by William Faulkner You Should Read describes the prose of Sanctuary as “considerably more fluid than a lot of Faulkner’s denser novels, and thus easier to grasp for readers less familiar with the author’s particular style of writing.” It describes The Sound and the Fury as “a notoriously arduous and disturbing read, whose often disorienting narration requires patience and persistence.”
In Flavorwire’s The 50 Best Southern Novels Ever Written, eight of the 50 are by Faulkner. No wonder they refer to him as “that titan of American letters.” Among the eight, The Sound and the Fury is called his best novel, while Absalom, Absalom! is called “the greatest Southern novel every written.” That’s enough for me to continue recommending it as the one to read. As for me, I have a desire to keep reading Faulkner, but it has to be the right time. To randomly pick up one of the titan’s complex novels as a next book to read feels like selecting a complex, expensive wine to drink when you’re thirsty. One needs to be ready to read Faulkner.
*Malcolm Cowley and the Nobel Prize: By 1944, William Faulkner was off the literary radar screen. “His seventeen books were effectively out of print and seemed likely to remain in that condition, since there was no public demand for them,” Malcolm Cowley writes in The Faulkner-Cowley File. Cowley, recognizing Faulkner’s neglected genius, brought his literature back into public focus with The Portable Faulkner, published by The Viking Press in 1946, which Cowley edited and introduced. Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. Speaking of that prize, I recommend reading Faulkner’s short, moving acceptance speech in which he says, “the basest of all things is to be afraid.” His words resonate today, including this famous quote:
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
September 1, 2016
I’ve always been one to love the feel of a book: the softness of an age-old paperback with a loose cover in my hands, or the heft of an epic novel the size of a microwave on my lap. I’m also a sniffer, with an automatic impulse that pulls a book up to my nose, so I can smell the paper. It never occurred to me that pressing my nose into the middle of a book would be considered odd behavior, until a stranger stared at me with an expression of having observed a weirdo.
Given this, I suppose it’s not odd to admit that I spent precious time on a weekend afternoon in search of a more pleasing edition of a book I had started reading and had to put down because it felt too stiff in my hands.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to read Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. When I found a paperback of Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, at a Half Price Books Clearance Sale, I took it as a sign that it was time to begin. This trilogy is considered to be among the best in World War I fiction, right up there with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Of its three books — Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — the trilogy’s third book was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize.
I was pretty excited to start reading, until a few pages into Regeneration I felt dissatisfied and whiny about the way the book felt: There was no softness of the pages typical to paperbacks and no flexibility to the spine. The cover felt like rigid cardboard. It was like missing the scruffiness of an old shoe or the comfort of a familiar sweatshirt. Silly as it seemed, I stopped reading and drove to the library and then a Half Price Bookstore and then a used bookstore to find a better book. (This may be a bibliomaniac’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)
I’ve rejected a book to pick up a better translation, but this is the first time I’ve driven around town looking for a better tactile experience in a book. The hard-bound library book could’ve worked but, at this point, I gave in to all my pickiness and put it back because I didn’t like the abstract illustration. At Half Price Books, I found a great copy, but there was handwriting and underlining on the pages. At the used bookstore, in the history section, on the very top shelf, I found a paperback copy that worked — the softness, the flexibility and enough of a smell were present. I felt victorious.
And then this: I got to the cash register and told the bookseller that I didn’t like the paperback I already owned. Yes, here I was spending money on yet another copy of the same book. I didn’t offer any details, as I pulled my original copy out of my purse and showed it to him. He reached for it and immediately frowned. He said, “It’s very stiff.” All my feelings of silliness dissolved. I eagerly agreed and then went home to read this great book that felt just right.
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.
November 19, 2015
The annual Dayton, Ohio, book fair took place last weekend. It’s a bookaholic’s mecca — a huge room filled with used books in various categories going for $1 to $3. I typically look for first editions to fill holes in my collections, as well as books I’ve read on loan from a library and want to own, let alone books to read.
Some years I find an unusual book, and by that I mean it strikes me as unusual for its subject matter or, say, the book design. That happened several years ago, when I purchased a hardbound copy of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov). The book was originally published in the Soviet Union in 1966 but heavily censored to the point of destroying the sense of the book. Anatoli escaped the Soviet Union in 1969 and brought with him films taken of the original, uncensored manuscript. This is that book, which records the author’s experience under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Making my copy even more unique, I recently had it signed by William Vollman, novelist and National Book Award winner, who listed the book among what he thinks are the best works of war fiction and non-fiction in his New York Times “By the Book” interview.
At this year’s fair, I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible in a first edition and (bonus!) signed on the title page. I also picked up Maggie Shipstead’s novel Seating Arrangements, published in 2012. A library copy sat on my reading table for a few weeks, and then I returned it unread. Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, a copy without its dust jacket, landed in the shopping cart because I’ve always wanted to read this novel about a Vietnam war correspondent who gets into the heroin trade. Dog Soldiers shared the 1975 National Book Award with The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams and was named among Time Magazine’s 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Robert Stone died this year. Regarding Thomas Williams, the Los Angeles Times describes him “as unknown now as if he’d never written anything” in a review of The Hair of Harold Roux reissued in paperback.
Also in the cart, Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe. I’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II espionage novels that tell not only a great story but do so with historical detail. I found an advanced reading copy for Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller to accompany the hardbound copy I own, and a first edition of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex. I haven’t read Middlesex and, in all honesty, I bought the book (with a pristine dust jacket) in case I get the opportunity to meet Mr. Eugenides and get his signature.
Finally, this year’s unusual book is Joiner by James Whitehead, the version reprinted by University of Arkansas Press in 1991. This is Whitehead’s only novel, originally published in 1971, about “a young athlete’s spiritual breakdown, his exploits as NFL tackle, father, lover, killer, intellectual, and teacher, and his ultimate redemption” (from the back of the book). Something about it just called to me, and so into the shopping cart it went for $1.50.
August 31, 2015
I can’t let this day (or night) pass without a mention of Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, an engaging and shocking, brief novel set in a river city called Grandport, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, during the mid-20th century. The book is unfortunately out of print, but it’s available from used bookstores, where I found my copy. I wasn’t looking for it; however, like many used books I bring into my house, I found it irresistible and put it with all the other books in the “hope to read” pile. Well, I’ve been going through that pile.
Erskine Caldwell (1903 -1987) wrote prolifically — non-fiction, novels and short stories — to a vast, international readership. He’s frequently described as one of the most widely read literary figures of the twentieth century. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are his most acclaimed and best-known novels, both published in the 1930’s, classic literature about the hopelessly rural poor in the American South. These two books, and a few others of the many Caldwell wrote, get mentions in articles about him, but I haven’t found any mention of The Last Night of Summer, published in 1963. Caldwell’s later books received less critical attention.
Even though it’s not among his best, or most spoken about, The Last Night of Summer is riveting. First, though, you have to get past the deceptively slow beginning, where an old-fashioned sense of sexual propriety versus risk suggests the story may be an outdated bog of a read. A young Roma Henderson propositions her boss and business owner, the middle-aged Brooks Ingraham, begging him to come to her apartment that night. It’s a big deal that she addresses him — for the first time — as Brooks, instead of Mr. Ingraham, to give an example of the era. But hang on — as Brooks decides to take Roma up on her offer, cheating on his cold, demanding, wealthy wife, the story quickly gives way to unexpected consequences. Indeed, in less than 200 pages, Caldwell produces a startling plot that involves adultery, murder, a car wreck, assault and robbery, rape and prostitution. The prose lacks elegance — Caldwell was known for his direct style — but that makes the story more unsettling. There’s no fluff to soften the grit of what’s happening. The prose also includes unusual, colorful parenthetical inner thoughts of characters and also author commentary, such as the following:
(“You can’t blame a country boy like Brooks too much for stepping up out of his class and marrying a rich woman like Maureen. Maybe he didn’t find out till it was too late that she wasn’t going to let his mother and father come to the wedding or invite them to her house ever since, and after that it was too late for him to put his foot down and do something about it. …What Maureen wanted from the start was a tall handsome man like Brooks to take her to the country club dances and to show him off at parties, and she had the money to get what she wanted.”)
Thunderstorms roll in and pound the city. This wild, stormy weather gives the book its title, for the storms are known to occur the last night of summer, bringing an end to all the hot days and nights in the flat delta country surrounding Grandport. But something else also happens: People on this night are driven to do things they’ve had on their minds all summer long, before it’s too late. And so they do, in this surprising page-turner with its old-fashioned attitudes and direct, sensational action.
August 13, 2015
Letter books can be big and tedious, running north of 400 pages and lacking the richness of plot. Put another way, rarely do you read “compelling” and “intriguing” in reviews of such books; however, the intimate voice of letter writing can drive seductive page-turning, at least for me. After that, it’s the time period and then, typically, a celebrity life that can create drama from daily details. For Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, there is much more due to a unique, wondrous connection between them — the southern writer and the crime novelist, the one a Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Optimist’s Daughter) and the other a recipient of the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America (the MWA’s highest honor recognizing lifetime achievement). This connection is from literature, but it builds into deep affection and love, making the reading far from “big and tedious.” Their letters are filled with references about books and the writing life, and underlying their words is an intimacy from companionable souls. Chapter titles reveal some of what I’m saying:
- “If one of your letters could be rotten there’d be nothing sound left in heaven or on earth.”
- “I dreamed I was sending you the dream I was dreaming.”
- “Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.”
- “What we need is one another.”
Now, here is the point I want to get to: the sharing of a short story that came to my attention within the letters.
In the summer of 1973, Macdonald’s editor asked him to put together a mystery and suspense anthology, “a fairly thick one comprising novels, novellas, and short stories.” Macdonald and Welty swapped ideas of possible inclusions, and I went in search of one of them — “The Walker” by Patrick O’Brian, a short story — because of what they said about it. Welty sent a copy of it to Macdonald who responded, “It’s a terribly powerful story — one of those stories that stays with you forever, I suspect, like a terribly bad dream — and I hope to use it.” Welty then remarked that the story had stayed with her for years and, in another letter, wrote: “What you say about ‘The Walker’ & the reader’s being trapped with complicity expresses or explains the awful hold it has, which I could not have put my finger on, or never had.”
I had to read this story to experience and discover what they were saying about it, but The Walker and Other Stories by Patrick O’Brian is out of print. Nevertheless, I found the story at the library in another collection written by Patrick O’Brian, The Rendezvous and Other Stories. Only 10 pages, “The Walker” is everything Welty and Macdonald said about it — that awful hold it has. It is indeed terribly powerful, chilling and unforgettable, and a few days later I read it again.
June 25, 2015
Author James Salter died on Friday, June 19. His death shocked his devoted fans, having nothing to do with it being unexpected. He was 90 years old. The shock has everything to do with recognizing what we’ve lost: A writer who created perfect sentences and characters that flowed altogether into engaging, beautiful and moving stories. The quality of his writing style, his history as a combat pilot during the Korean War, his enduring classic A Sport and a Pastime (1967) all speak to Salter’s rich life and literary legacy; and yet, many readers don’t know him. He’s been ubiquitously described as “a writer’s writer” and a favorite of critics. The New York Times obituary headline reads, “James Salter, a ‘Writer’s Writer’ Short on Sales but Long on Acclaim, Dies at 90.” Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michael Dirda captured the essence of Salter in The Washington Post when he wrote, “He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”
With the media reacting to his death, I read many articles about James Salter this week, particularly to find out if something I recalled about the author was indeed true: that he once owned a bread company in Columbus, Ohio. I’d heard of it from a general conversation along the way, sometime, somewhere, many years ago, but it wasn’t until 2003 that it was confirmed during an unusual conversation at Barnes & Noble.
I approached the information desk to inquire if they had a copy of the then new book Lucky Girls: Stories (P.S.) by Nell Freudenberger. The man at the desk, tall, older, sophisticated, remarked, “Oh, that’s a very good book.” I rarely if ever encounter someone who knows literature at the B&N information desk, and by that I mean such a book as Freudenberger’s debut story collection that was relatively unknown and not among the popular books. My filter was off, and I blurted, “How would you know?” Not meaning to be rude, I made the comment in shock that he recognized the title, let alone that he had read the book. I was more trying to ask out of curiosity, “How and why do you know this book exists? Where did you hear about it?”
He didn’t flinch, rather kept looking up the title and said, “I read the books of authors who come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop.” That’s the creative writing program in Iowa City famous for graduating some of America’s best authors. I explained why I’d asked, and he agreed about the lack of literary knowledge at the information desk. He said, in so many words, he was a duck out of water and introduced himself as Dennis Howard. And then he said it, the astonishing statement that he knew James Salter and they had owned a bread company together.
It was called Pane. I remember the storefront on Columbus’ Grandview Avenue back in the 1990s. It was where Vino Vino, a restaurant and wine bar, is now located. A few years later at a used and rare bookstore, I purchased a first edition of James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories signed by Salter. Beneath his name he wrote, “Pane 1/19/95.” I never saw Dennis Howard again at that Barnes & Noble.
Of all that I read about James Salter this week, I only found this one reference to Pane and Ohio, in a New Yorker article from April 2013: “The movie money didn’t last; he lost a lot of it years ago when he and a friend opened a bakery in Ohio. The venture failed, sticking Salter with heavy debts and a heavy heart.”
If you’ve never read the work of James Salter, I recommend first reading his autobiography Burning the Days. It’s one of my favorite memoirs, as I was hooked by Salter’s stories about being a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War, a writer in Manhattan and a script writer in Hollywood. The memoir is a treasure trove of books to put on the reading list from his mentions of authors he knew and books he read. I went on the hunt for two novels he mentions, now out of print: Disenchantment by C. E. Montague, recommended to Salter by his agent, and Lucy Crown by Irwin Shaw, of which Salter writes:
“[Irwin Shaw] had the most difficult time of his life with that book. It had taken four years. He wrote it as a play first but it was no good. Then he wrote a hundred pages of the book and again gave up, but his editor at Random House, Saxe Commins, persuaded him to go on. It eventually sold more copies than anything he ever wrote.”
I also recommend reading Salter’s short stories, such as in his collections Dusk and Other Stories (1988) and Last Night: Stories (2005), particularly the story “Last Night” in the latter. All That Is (2013), his final book and novel, spent time on The New York Times best-seller list but got mixed reviews.
Thank you for your wonderful books, James Salter. Rest in peace.
June 13, 2015
Every once in a while — but not very often — I read a book that’s so good I don’t stop to take notes. I also refrain from putting sticky notes beside significant passages for quick reference. I’m so caught up in what’s going on that any pause feels like too much of an interruption. The Defence is one of those books, a fast-paced, clever albeit far-fetched legal thriller set in New York City. I read it breathlessly, breezing through the concise chapters, filled with anticipation of what would happen next, riveted and wondering to the very end.
Within the first few pages, ex-con, trial lawyer, former alcoholic protagonist Eddie Flynn is kidnapped by Russian mobsters who’ve placed a bomb inside Eddie’s coat. Their boss, Olek Volchek, is on trial for murder, and Eddie, who hasn’t practiced law in a year, is being forced to represent him. To ensure cooperation, Volchek’s thugs have kidnapped Flynn’s 10-year-old daughter Amy.
Four different law firms already have said Volchek is impossible to defend. His case is a slam dunk for the impressive prosecutor, Miriam Sullivan. Her star witness, Little Benny, was the hit man hired by Volchek, and he got caught at the scene of the murder. Little Benny’s fully prepared to give up his boss. Volchek’s plan for Eddie is not to secure a verdict of innocence. He wants Eddie to bring the bomb into the courtroom and blow up Benny. Eddie, however, convinces Volchek to at least let him try to win the case. He has 31 hours to pull it off.
Eddie’s definitely in a bind, but being an ex-con, he’s got instincts, insights, quick-thinking and sticky fingers that allow him to manipulate his captors. His talents create surprising twists and turns, as do the many things Eddie discovers about Volchek and his men. Eddie’s back story of why he became a con artist, what caused him to leave the con game, how he became a trial lawyer and why he quit and became a drunk calls upon our sympathy and makes him all the more likable. Best of all, the way Eddie ticks makes him a fun guy to take us on this narrative roller-coaster ride filled with clever hi-jinks, scamming, conspiracies and a line-up of tense moments that feel like Eddie is doomed.
I’m not one to have patience with improbable scenarios. The exception, however, is when the plot construction and character composition is so well done I ignore that little voice inside my head that rings the implausible bell because, who cares! The tension never lets up in The Defence and, equally important, neither does the entertainment that includes a “turned” FBI agent, a jury consultant who reads lips, Ninja bikers and a Mafia strongman who goes by the name Lizard (you don’t want to know). Author Steve Cavanagh pulls it off brilliantly, while Eddie channels the advice of his father, a con man himself, who told Eddie to always “hold it together no matter what.” And he does.
Now comes the part where I may disappoint you, my fellow Americans. The Defence is published by Orion books in the United Kingdom and slated for publication by Flatiron Books (Macmillan) in the United States in 2016, according to an email from the author. That said, new and used copies can be purchased on Amazon, some shipping from the U.K. Readers who use the library, Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook will need to wait for the U.S. release.
Finally, a tip for readers who love mysteries, suspense and thrillers: The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City is where I found my copy of The Defence. I shop there as a book collector, able to get first editions of new, signed books by authors in the United Kingdom. They’ve sold out of The Defence; however, The Mysterious Bookshop has several Crime book clubs that might interest you, including The British Crime Collectors Club “for collectors of ‘true first editions’ published in the United Kingdom, as well as those who can’t wait for the US release date.” That would be me. Maybe it’s you, too.
January 4, 2015
I always keep an eye on old books — or perhaps I should describe them as “books published not so recently” — and squeeze them in between reading the onslaught of new books grabbing my attention. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for life in this, a reminder not to overlook the old and used that just might offer a great treasure or teach something new.
And so, here are three fictional stories from 1993, 2009 and 1930 to start a new year. In each of them, I found myself involved and entertained.
The Man Who Was Late by Louis Begley
I discovered Louis Begley’s alluring second novel The Man Who Was Late in a rare and used bookshop. It’s what you would call a “mannered” novel in that the rhythm and tone of the prose carry a hint of formality, as the narrator Jack reflects on the life of his Harvard classmate, Ben. They are the closest of friends, with disparate backgrounds: Jack is East Coast upper class and Ben the Jersey son of Jewish refugees. The language creates what’s compelling about the story, a bit of remove that reflects Ben’s reserved character. He is a charming, high-profile international investment banker and lover of many women. But he holds the world at bay to protect his loneliness. Ben’s affair with Jack’s cousin Véronique in Paris forces him to confront painful realities about who he is and what he’s done with his life, burdened by believing he missed the proverbial boat in securing a place in the good life. The Man Who Was Late, published in 1993, ultimately is a love story, but you come away holding in afterthoughts a moving, unforgettable character portrait. Of note: Louis Begley won high praise for his first novel Wartime Lies. It was listed among the best books of 1991 and nominated for the National Book Award that year.
Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan
The Wall Street Journal listed Harry Dolan’s The Last Dead Girl as one of 2014’s best mysteries, but when the book came out earlier in the year, I found more enthusiastic reviews for his 2009 mystery Bad Things Happen. It’s Dolan’s first novel, and it introduces his character David Loogan in his David Loogan Series. The Last Dead Girl is #3 and the prequel to Bad Things Happen. The final clincher for me to read the old rather than the new Dolan book was its “you won’t figure it out” description of twists and turns. That is indeed true, making Bad Things Happen intriguing high-entertainment. The easy-going, suspicious, criminally inclined Loogan is hired as an editor of mystery magazine Gray Streets in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Gray Streets publisher Tom Kristoll lures him into hiding the body of a dead man (no questions asked) and then ends up dead himself. Two more murders follow, and the detective on the case is torn between thinking Loogan is a suspect versus an ally in finding the truth. The story is all-at-once suspenseful, fast-paced and written with a light touch of humor. Very fun to read.
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
For many readers, this may be a so-what recommendation. Georges Simenon’s prolific outpouring of Inspector Maigret crime novels during the mid-20th century is legendary. Also, many likely are familiar with the Inspector Maigret PBS television series starring Michael Gambon. But the full monty of Maigret novels has been unavailable for some time, and hard to access. A few years ago, I wrote here on TLC about my unsuccessful attempt to get my hands on the first Maigret novel. Now it’s here, thanks to Penguin Books that’s publishing new English versions of all Simenon’s Maigret books, 75 in total. The first, Pietr the Latvian (newly translated by David Bellos), was originally published in serial format in 1930. It features the 45-year-old Inspector Maigret hunting a notorious international swindler. The narrative style is far from great prose, but that’s not what I’m looking for when I turn to Simenon. I want a reading snack, and he always delivers: suspenseful, plot-driven, quick-to-read (usually south of 200 pages) and very satisfying crime stories. I speed right over such laughable writing as:
“It could’ve sounded merely grotesque. But it did not! It was fearsome! Tragic! Terrifying!”
From The New York Times: “Penguin said it was working with the Brazilian company Companhia das Letras and the Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert ‘to develop haunting, evocative covers that will offer a window to Maigret’s dangerous world and allow readers new and old to identify the series.'”
August 3, 2014
The Man Booker Longlist was announced several days ago. It’s one of my favorite annual literary announcements because the list typically broadens my reading life to include diverse titles from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, Republic of Ireland and Zimbabwe. But this year, the dynamic is different due to the decision to include American books. In other words, unfortunately, there’s not so much unique discovery and surprise — that “broadening” — as before.
The Longlist of 13 books is below, divided by their current availability in the U.S. I’ll clarify this availability in the U.S. as hardbound versions, as I’m not sure if/how e-books might be made available from the U.K. That said, The Wake is e-book available only, anywhere, right now. Keep in mind publishers are moving up dates for some of the books because of the nomination. I’ve got my eye on Niall Williams, Richard Flanagan and David Mitchell for reading opportunities. Maybe they’ll enter the winning stretch.
The Shortlist of six novels will be announced September 9. The winner will be announced October 14.
Seven Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Presently Available in the U.S.
History of the Rain by Niall Williams
Bibliophiles take note: There are three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books figuring into this story in which a bedridden woman is in search of her father. Much of that search, I gather, is from his books. Publisher’s Weekly says the “new novel has a unique voice and a droll, comic tone that takes a surprising, serious turn.” Kirkus describes it as: “A rambling, soft-hearted Irish family saga stuffed with eccentricity, literature, anecdotes, mythology, humor and heartbreak…”
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
U.S. author Hustvedt focuses on artist/protagonist Harriet Burden who creates a hoax to prove gender bias in the art world. The NYRB review in its current edition (8/14/14) says this novel “…comes across more as a straitened feminist concept-piece than satisfactory storytelling.” The Rumpus review responds to the novel more positively, describing it as “dizzying, deeply felt.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
U.S. author Fowler’s unforgettable novel is narrated by Rosemary Cooke about unusual family circumstances while she was growing up, specifically about her sister Fern. I recommend if you chose to read the book, do so without reading too much about it. It’s got a clincher that’s best discovered on your own and that too many reviews give away. A terrific book I read, discussed and recommended last year.
Orfeo by Richard Powers
In this novel, composer protagonist 70-year-old Peter Els ends up on the lam when Homeland Security discovers his home-based biochemical engineering lab, where Peter pursues an innocent hobby. It’s called “engrossing” by The Washington Post and considered an emotional engager by the reviewer in The New York Times. U.S. author Powers is a National Book Award winner for The Echomaker.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
U.S. author Ferris’s third novel received rave reviews this year. And it’s not only Longlisted by the Man Booker but also the International Dylan Thomas Prize. The story focuses on a dentist struggling with life’s meaning who has his identity stolen. From the publisher’s website: “What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the real thing.”
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Via the publisher’s website: “Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next. Set in the three years after the Norman invasion of 1066, The Wake will tell the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders.” Be sure to check out the book’s full description, so you’re aware of the unique narrative voice. At this point, e-book availability only from this Irish author.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Starred reviews by Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, the story features an unnamed hero who leaves New York to start a new life in Dubai working for a wealthy family as a “family officer.” The publisher describes this novel as “a tale of alienation and heartbreak in Dubai.” Irishman O’Neill lives in New York. His residence is likely the reason some media outlets say there are five Americans on the Man Booker Longlist and others say there are four.
Three Novels on the Man Booker Longlist Soon to be Published in the U.S.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Australian author Richard Flanagan focuses his new story on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma. Reviewer for The Telegraph calls is “graceful and unfathomable.” Reviewer in The Guardian writes: “Flanagan’s novel is a grand examination of what it is to be a good man and a bad man in the one flesh and, above all, of how hard it is to live after survival.” In 2009, I recommended Flanagan’s novel Wanting for its lyric narrative voice but cautioned about its failure to ground readers in the plot’s historical timelines. (August)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Irish author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize twice prior to this. Both Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly have “star” reviewed this book that strikes as an unusual story spanning the life of Holly Sykes, a protagonist that’s described as a “lightning rod for psychic phenomena.” She runs away when she’s 15 years old and encounters other-worldly forces in the English countryside. Events affect her and others’ lives ever onward into the future. (September)
Us by David Nicholls
British author Nicholls writes about a man hoping to save his marriage. The publisher’s description says “Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head.” Available in October 2014 and highly anticipated due to the popularity of his last book, One Day.
The Remaining Three — With 2015 or No Dates Listed
J by Howard Jacobson
British author Jacobson won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. His new novel is a futuristic love story. Howard Jacobson is a frequent presence on Man Booker Longlists. Scheduled to be published in the U.K. in August but, in the U.S., not until March 2015.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Description on the Man Booker site says it is a novel about art’s versatility. To be published September in the U.K. No date listed for the U.S.
June 16, 2014
The Undertaking opens with a wedding, but it’s not a typical exchange of romantic vows. A German soldier named Peter Faber commits to Katharina Spinell from the battlefield. Her photo is tied to a nearby post of a barbed wire fence. A thousand miles away in Berlin, at exactly the same moment, Katharina commits to Peter in a similar ceremony. They’ve never met. Both are taking part in a war pact that ensures honeymoon leave for Peter and a widow’s pension for Katharina in the event of Peter’s death.
It’s a unique premise for a World War II novel that Audrey Magee, in an interview with her editor, says she discovered in conversation with a German restaurant owner. He spoke of his WWII experiences as a transport pilot and happened to mention that he married a woman he’d never met so he could get honeymoon leave. The concept fascinated this talented first-time author and helped shape the structure of a novel that had been brewing for a long time.
Regarding that brewing, Magee describes an earlier incident involving a visit to Dachau with a Jewish-American man. The concentration camp was closed, so they walked the perimeter and met a German woman tending her garden who’d lived all her life next to the camp. In a heated discussion, Magee heard from the woman an everyday existence lived with a blind eye turned to what was happening during the war, even next door. This, too, helped shaped The Undertaking.
Magee writes this unforgettable novel in spare prose that’s void of elaborate description and inner thoughts of the characters. The dialogue is written with a staccato rhythm. But don’t for a moment think the result is a dry story. It’s instead quite profound and vivid in its stark portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. Not much description or explanation is needed – their delusion speaks for itself, as does their selfishness and casual cruelty.
Surprisingly, during their honeymoon in Berlin, Katharina and Peter like each other and even fall in love. After their short time together, Peter returns to the Eastern Front where he faces the monumental Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Katharina enters the upper echelons of Nazi social society.
Shortly after Peter leaves, Katharina and her parents get to move into a luxury home due to their connection to the Führer’s inner circle. The apartment is filled with the previous owner’s lavish belongings. Katharina’s mother chillingly says, “It’s our turn now … our turn at the good life.” Katharina’s father trashes the library books and also a white marble bust of the composer Mendelssohn, which is later replaced with Wagner. In this instance, as in many others, the novel’s power is drawn from what’s implied and what we already know from history.
The narrative superbly goes back and forth between Katharina and Peter’s worlds, the one filled with cakes and holiday parties, the other with battles, horrific starvation and bitter cold. Their belief in a normal life with each other at the end of the war sustains their hope, but the bombing of Berlin and the defeat at Stalingrad change everything.
Katharina and Peter’s WWII story grips us with unsettling power from beginning to end in this magnificent new book. It is scheduled for publication end of the summer. Eager readers, however, can purchase the U.K. edition (the real first edition) from The Mysterious Bookshop — their books are signed firsts, a treasure for collectors, and because of that and the U.K. origin, you’ll pay a bit more.
May 8, 2014
Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.
Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)
Best Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger
Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.
The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.
William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.
Best Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood
I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.
Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”
What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.
Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.
Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.
January 23, 2014
You wouldn’t immediately conclude Norwegian by Night is a crime novel by the cover illustration. That little boy in his Viking hat is too endearing. And yet, he’s a child on the run in Oslo, Norway, protected by American Jew, former Marine and Korean War vet, 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz – the man standing beside him, who made the hat.
While murder and revenge fuel the plot, at the book’s heart is a moving story about an old man, a recent widower, haunted by his Korean War experiences and his son’s death in the Vietnam War. Sheldon engages in imagined conversations with his son Saul as well as with other dead persons: Mario, who soldiered with Sheldon during the Korean War and Bill, a pawn shop owner in New York City where Sheldon spent his career repairing watches.
Sheldon has recently moved to land of the trolls (his label) to live with his grand-daughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband, Lars, a video game developer. Rhea, concerned for her grandfather’s loneliness and dementia, convinced him to move in with her. One day, alone in the apartment, Sheldon opens the door to a distressed Serbian neighbor and her six-year-old son. They need to hide from the son’s violent father, who raped the woman when she lived in Kosovo, a victim of the Serbian and Kosovo Albanian conflict. The Kosovar has come to Norway to get his son, conceived during the rape. Sheldon and the boy, hiding in a closet, hear him murder the woman.
Sheldon grasps his protective responsibility with the courage of someone who has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s a momentous opportunity for this proud veteran who encouraged his son to fight for America and suffers the guilt of his death. Now, here is a chance to save someone else’s son. Sheldon steals and lies and thieves his way through Oslo to get the boy he calls Paul to safety. Steadfast, acerbic Oslo police chief Sigrid Ødegård and her police force look for the missing old man and boy, as do men from Kosovo, wanting to abduct the boy.
Half the fun in this novel is the topic of Sheldon’s “debatable” dementia. This octogenarian argues he’s not losing his memory, rather finding coherence in a past that’s rushing in unbidden during his last years, demanding reason and closure. Author Derek B. Miller portrays him as spunky, outspoken, often belligerent, disrespectful and fearless, rather than old and senile. Indeed, Sheldon with his Penthouse coffee mug, Danielle Steel reading selection and suspicion of North Koreans stalking his every move warrants a place in the Colorful Characters Hall of Fame.
As for that Viking hat sported by the boy on the book’s cover, when the old man places it on Paul’s head and puts him in front of a mirror, Sheldon exclaims: “‘Paul the Viking! Paul the Completely Disguised Albanian Kid Who Is Not on the Run Through the Norwegian Hinterland with an Old Fool. What do you think?'” Kicker is, the boy doesn’t speak English, and Sheldon doesn’t speak Norwegian.
There’s a final showdown at Rhea and Lars’ summer cabin in the woods, where Sheldon seeks safety. Here he employs military tactics he learned during his soldiering days and lives up to his spectacular personality. The ending is very satisfying, as is Norwegian by Night altogether, delving into issues that concern aging and memory, war crimes and revenge – two themes Derek B. Miller integrates with savvy, dry wit and serious questions into an unsettling, shocking crime story.
October 18, 2013
Adam Langer’s The Salinger Contract explores the challenges, pitfalls and perils of making a living as a novelist. It’s a highly entertaining story, wildly implausible and yet completely addicting for the inventiveness, humor and lively prose style. Adam Langer is not only the author’s name but also the narrator’s name, in a quirky nod to those aforementioned challenges.
Narrator Adam is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, and former editor of a New York City literary magazine for which he interviewed famous authors. One of those authors was Connor Joyce, who reappears in Adam’s life at a Bloomington going-out-of-business Borders bookstore, where Connor is giving a reading of his new thriller. When Adam’s toddler Beatrice sees a photo of Connor, she’s frightened. Adam looks back on the moment and thinks it was a sign he should have heeded.
That’s because Adam becomes Connor’s confidante in a bizarre quagmire that involves writing a novel for a mysterious book collector, Dex Dunford. The wealthy Dex, guarded by a gun-toting Eastern European bodyguard, makes an offer Connor, on the down-swell of his best-selling career, can’t refuse. It’s the answer to his financial worries, worth millions, but the requirements of the agreement bond Connor to the nefarious book collector and his menacing henchman in ways that threaten Connor’s life and risk his marriage.
At the root of the agreement is the stipulation that no one can ever know about the unpublished book that will reside in Dex’s private library. And in good company, I might add. Dex’s collection includes original, unpublished manuscripts by Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and Harper Lee.
The Salinger Contract is a send-up of the business of books — writing, publishing and collecting — grabbing us with the intrigue of a crime I can’t reveal because that would ruin the book’s cleverness. And the power of the story, its winning element, is that very cleverness. There’s never a dull moment, and book lovers will relish the plot twist of a book written solely for one reader. Adam considers: “Maybe the idea of trying to write for the masses was foolish and egotistical; maybe all that mattered was communing with one other human being.”
Adam is an inviting narrator. Connor is a colorful protagonist. But Dex wins the trophy for unusual provocateur. He’s sophisticated and yet creepy, in a Big Brother sort of way.
As Adam hears more and more about Connor’s story, things don’t add up and doubt sets in. Adam also begins to resent how Connor involves him — having to constantly hear about the high-stakes adventure — and yet, in the end, we come to learn there’s good reason for it. The story wraps up with the same entertaining surprise, energy and humor that make this book a blast to read.