Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.

Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.

An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.

In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”

These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.

In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.

One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.

There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.

So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.

*Best-selling author Richard Russo and Man Booker winner Penelope Lively are both publishing story collections in May: Trajectory by Russo and The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Lively.

New this month

March 1, 2017

stranger-in-the-woods-by-michael-finkelThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
When my life gets chaotic and frustrating, I’ll make insincere but wistful “ditch the rat race” announcements, something along the lines of, “I’m buying an Airstream and moving to Montana!” Well, here’s a guy who actually walked away from it all. When he was 20 years old, Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, abandoned his car and disappeared into the woods. According to the book description, he wasn’t frustrated or angry, rather he simply preferred to live alone, which he did for 27 years: “Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death.” Knight got arrested for stealing food, bringing him out of the woods and back into civilization in 2013. Michael Finkel caught up with him to write Stranger in the Woods. Forecasts from Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly praise the book for the questions it poses about solitude and life meaning in these modern times.

exit-west-by-mohsin-hamidExit West by Mohsin Hamid
This new novel by the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells a timely story of migration. Saeed and Nadia are young lovers in an unidentified country that is descending into a civil war and tearing apart their city. They flee for their lives, joining other migrants in search of safety, finding their way to Mykonos Island in Greece, London and San Francisco. They don’t travel across treacherous waters or make long treks over dangerous lands, rather they go through doors that open up and function as portals to other places in the world. The Washington Post writes: “If in its physical and perilous immediacy Nadia and Saeed’s condition is alien to the mass of us, Exit West makes a final, certain declaration of affinity: ‘We are all migrants through time.’” Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star and writes, “One of the most bittersweet love stories in modern memory and a book to savor even while despairing of its truths.”

sorry-to-disrupt-the-peace-by-patty-yumi-cottrellSorry to Disrupt the Peace
by Patti Yumi Cottrell

In this debut novel, a 32-year-old woman in Manhattan gets word that her adoptive brother has taken his own life. Like her brother, Helen is Korean American and also adopted. She knows she must investigate the reasons for the suicide and buys a one-way ticket to the family home in Milwaukee. From the book’s description: “But what starts as a detective’s hunt for clues soon becomes Helen’s confrontation of her own place in the world — why she’s estranged from her past (she hasn’t seen her adoptive parents in five years), and what she is doing with her life as a counselor for troubled youth.” Publisher’s Weekly, in its starred review, writes: “Cottrell gives Helen the impossible task of understanding what would drive another person to suicide, and the result is complex and mysterious, yet, in the end, deeply human and empathetic.” Meanwhile, the publisher describes the novel as “a bleakly comic tour de force that’s by turns poignant, uproariously funny, and viscerally unsettling.”

 

fever-dreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
When setting out to read this creepy new novel, be prepared to be initially confused over who is speaking and why. That’s because Samanta Schweblin doesn’t spell out what’s happening with dramatic set-up or a comforting prologue. Instead, she drops us directly into a nightmare where we are as clueless about what’s going on as the two main characters in conversation. It’s a brilliant technique. The initial confusion doesn’t last beyond the first two or three pages. Soon you’ll come to understand the conversationalists are Amanda, who is dying in a rural hospital, and a boy named David, who is sitting on her bed and interrogating her about the cause of her abrupt illness. He insistently urges the feverish woman to concentrate on what’s important, to not waste time, to be observant. “We have to find the exact moment,” he says in this cautionary tale. “We want to know how it starts.” I can say without a doubt the story creates a page-turning frenzy right up to the end. Highly recommended for everyone, but especially for fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

six-four-by-hideo-yokoyamaSix Four by Hideo Yokoyama
Readers of The Longest Chapter may recognize this book. I wrote about it last summer, when I read in publishing periodicals that it sold more than one million copies within the first week of publication in Japan. Six Four wasn’t available in the U.S. at that time, but it is this month, and if you’re looking for a gripping wallop of a book, this is it. What’s so surprising is that much of the narrative is about the politics and bureaucracy of police work in Japan. That sounds dry, but it’s just as fascinating as the sensational, unsolved kidnapping from 14 years ago that is generating questions. Press director and former criminal investigator Yoshinobu Mikami must arrange a visit by the police commissioner to the girl’s father on the latest anniversary of his daughter’s disappearance and murder, but the father refuses to see the commissioner. Mikami can’t figure out why, and he’s finding other matters related to the case that are resulting in a maze of official closed doors. The page count is daunting, at just over 500 pages, but don’t let that intimidate you. Yokoyama’s captivating narrative, short chapters and unusual police scenarios should have you hooked before page 100.

the-shadow-of-the-windThe Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Anyone who already has read this intriguing page-turner will attest to its addictive plot. This international best-seller, originally published in the U.S. in 2004, begins with a rare and used bookstore owner taking his 10-year-old son Daniel to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an ancient, vast library that’s “a labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves”  where  “…books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands.” Visitors are allowed to take and become the keeper of one book, and Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. He’s completely entranced by the story and wants to read more books by Carax and discovers someone has systematically been destroying them. Indeed, Daniel may now own the one remaining copy of Carax’s literary efforts. His need to know why, and what happened to Carax, takes us into an engrossing world of mystery, murder and doomed love in 1940’s bookish Barcelona. The plot perfectly twists and turns in so many perplexing directions it’s hard to turn out the reading light and go to bed.

in-the-heat-of-the-nightIn 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.

While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.

When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:

“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”

Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:

“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”

In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

Letters from bewilderment

January 18, 2017

the-correspondence-by-j-d-danielsJD. Daniels deserves high praise in this essay collection for his droll narrative style and razor-sharp insight. Sometimes he’s deliciously funny. Other times he describes life situations with perfect cleverness. Always, he calls it like it is. There’s a moment in one of the essays when he describes a waterfront bum walking toward him, the kind of guy whose darkly tanned, wrinkled skin has spent a lifetime in the sun. Daniels tells us, “He looked like a wallet someone had been sitting on for forty years.” In the essay about Kentucky, he writes: “…I ate a plate of biscuits and sausage gravy that would almost have fit into a football stadium.” And that deliciously funny part of the equation? “When Martha was a little girl and asked her father why she had so many freckles, he told her she had been standing behind the cow when it farted.”

The Correspondence is a small, unpretentious book in appearance – no dust jacket or colorful, eye-catching illustration – yet it’s large and affecting in its content. The six essays are written as letters, although they’re not addressed to anyone in particular; if anything, they are written for that unseen audience we all talk to in our private moments. In the majority of the essays, Daniels’ writes about significant times in his young life. His singular authorial voice sings with sarcasm, confusion and casual wonder, which altogether are magnetically seductive.

In the best essay, “Letter to Cambridge,” Daniels tells of the time he joined a fight club to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He’s a self-described bookish, hairy, skinny guy getting pummeled by hulks with shaved heads. He even signs up to fight in tournaments where he’s clearly the underdog. In one of those droll moments that are so entertaining to read, his doctor reacts indifferently to Daniels’ broken nose, pointing him toward the X-ray room without pity or concern for his repeated, pointless injuries. Only, they’re not pointless. Daniels tells us he came to fighting after years of self-destruction. He writes: “You learn a lot about yourself when you train to failure, when you go out to the edge of your ability…”

In another great essay, “Letter to Majorca,” it’s several years later, and Daniels continues to be unsure about what he should be doing with his life. He signs up to work on a 43 foot boat with four Israelis off the coast of Spain. He encounters an overwhelming sea sickness and a language barrier, yet he finds focus in the daily work. The captain tells him, orders make you stupid, figure it out for yourself, and although Daniels breezes past this comment, we recognize its significance to his unsettled state.

There’s no sentiment in these six essays, no grabbing at our emotions, rather an alluring genius that traps us with its smart twists and turns. It’s in full play in “Letter to Kentucky,” the state where Daniels grew up. He names places he passes, as he travels the roadways on his visit, such as Cash Xpress and Mister Money, Xtreme Auto Sounds, the Heart of Fire City Church, Urban Creek Holiness Church, Jimbo’s 4-Lane Tobacco, the Federal Correctional Institution and, my favorite, Chain Saw World.  The essay is about nostalgia and the roots of Daniels’ bewilderment.

The remaining three essays lack the power of the ones I’ve mentioned, although they retain the bold remarks and colorful detours in storytelling. They’re just not as well-rounded in their delivery. Even so, they don’t diminish this unusual debut that heralds a promising future for J. D. Daniels.

the-life-you-save-may-be-your-ownOver the years, I’ve given books to friends who come to my house for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a joy for me and them, this book carefully selected and then placed on the table to function as their place card. Below are the selections I made this year and the reasons behind my decisions.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie
I’ll start with a misfire. It’s not the book you see here. This actually was my first choice, but I second guessed myself and instead gave Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air. With Kalanithi’s book being front and center in the media and on bestseller lists, I knew I was risking that my friend would already have read the book, and indeed she had. That was the misfire, i.e., not listening to my gut instinct. With my first choice on hand, I was able to get it to her the next day — Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, focused on the literary life and religious faith of mid-20th century writers Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. I thought my friend, an entrepreneur and ordained minister, who enjoys deep, thoughtful topics, would find many pause-worthy moments in Elie’s acclaimed work that The New York Times described as “a freeze frame from another era of the perennial search for truth.”

the-snow-childThe Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I always look for an absorbing novel for this friend. She’s one of those readers who will stay up all night to find out what happens next. She tells me she must plan her reading so as to miss not just sleep, but also appointments or anything else that would get in the way of The End. And so this novel, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and penned by the lyric Alaskan native author, came to mind for its intrigue of an unusual child’s presence in the lives of a struggling couple. Jack and Mable are trying to make a life together in 1920’s frontier Alaska when the snow child comes into their lives, but is the child fantasy or reality? Ivey released a new novel this past summer, To the Bright Edge of the World, but I selected her first novel because my friend is a specialist in early child education. I thought the combined mystery and child focus would deeply absorb her.

upstreamUpstream: Selected Essays
by Mary Oliver
Oliver is a popular poet whose beautiful words, philosophies and insights transport readers into the natural world and its wisdom. Among forests, rivers, ponds and fields, she presents a kind of peace and acceptance that transcends the hysteria of modern life. An example is her poem “Am I Not Among the Early Risers” in which she writes: “What will ambition do for me that the fox, appearing suddenly / at the top of the field, / her eyes sharp and confident as she stared into mine / has not already done?/” Oliver’s new collection of essays seemed like a no-brainer for this friend who loves poetry and the outdoors. These essays have been gathered together as a sort of autobiography, with Oliver reflecting on the natural world, as well as topics from childhood and her adult writing life. As much as I knew my friend would enjoy the book, though, I afterwards wondered if I should’ve reached for something more unexpected. Oliver’s essays are a best-seller, like Kalanithi’s memoir, and while my friend hadn’t read it, upon opening it, she recognized it. Is there more magic in receiving a book that’s completely unknown?

between-the-world-and-meBetween the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Speaking of bestsellers, here’s another one. I tend to avoid the bestseller list because it is the go-to source for many when they want a book selection – and the list is so limiting, given the phenomenal choices beyond it. Alas, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ phenomenal book also came to mind. I selected it for a friend who read Hillbilly Elegy and loved it. I don’t believe she’s an avid, even frequent reader, and so I thought giving her this important, highly lauded book about ideas of race would capture her attention. Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it’s like to be black in America today. It’s universally described as “required reading.” Between the World and Me won the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and came in as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

rosemaryRosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Here is another friend whose reading habits I believe are spotty, at best, and by that I mean it’s possible she doesn’t think to read, except maybe when someone hands her a book. Given the Kennedy family story continues to fascinate this nation of readers, I thought this new biography of a lesser-known Kennedy daughter — sibling of the famous Jack, Robert and Ted, her brothers of political fame — would capture my friend’s interest. Rosemary Kennedy was intellectually disabled and kept as a family secret. It’s a tragic story that is the reason her Kennedy relatives established and supported government opportunities and resources for the disabled. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, author Kate Clifford Larson said of Rosemary: “She was virtually hidden for decades, but the siblings apparently — or so it has been said — that they were not aware of what happened to Rosemary, or where she was, for nearly 20 years. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate … but they had learned not to ask, and so they didn’t ask.”

Speak, Memory by Vlaspeak-memorydimir Nabokov
Finally, a classic autobiography chosen for a friend who has become an avid reader, one who keeps a list of books to be read, frequents the library and reads every day. She posed a challenge in that I know she reads this blog, and so I didn’t feel I could select from anything I’d written about here. Likely, if it was a good match, she would already have it on her list. I’ve given her literary novels she has loved and not loved so much (yet she has read every page); and then, I remembered she loved Friday Night Lights, a book I recommended a while back. I took that non-fiction cue and immediately this beloved memoir by Nabokov came to mind for its nostalgia, beautiful writing and Nabokov’s insight into his Russian childhood. It struck as a perfect combination of literary style and a true story that my friend would enjoy. From the Humanities article Why Nabokov’s Speak Memory Still Speaks to Us: “After closing the pages of Speak, Memory, John Updike, no slouch himself as a prose stylist, was carried away.” I hope the same for my friend.

a-christmas-carolI haven’t been much in the holiday spirit this year. It’s been hard to allow it into an already full schedule. Meanwhile, sitting before me has been a new, special edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I borrowed it from the library, wanting to look at the photos of Dickens’ original manuscript pages that are included. Each page in his handwriting is positioned opposite a page of what it says in print.

It occurred to me to read the book, but why read this well-known story? I know what happens from all the TV and stage adaptations I’ve seen: The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, whose visitations transform him into a generous man. And yet, maybe the story would light up my Christmas spirit. So I began to read it.

The conversation between Scrooge and his nephew at the beginning of the story is where it grabbed me. Because the nephew, who enters Scrooge’s business on Christmas Eve to invite him to Christmas dinner, doesn’t easily give up when verbally attacked by Scrooge, who snarls:

“What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”

The nephew retorts: “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”

Dickens sustains their opposition in a momentous argument, driving home how firmly Scrooge is encased in his bitterness and his nephew in hope.

christmascarol1

A bit later in the story, the girlfriend of a young Ebenezer breaks up with him in a similarly memorable rejection scene shown to Scrooge by the Spirit of Christmas Past. She eloquently speaks about how Scrooge has changed, identifying why, and so I newly became aware of what fueled Scrooge’s life choices.

“You fear the world too much,” she says. “All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its reproach.”

The transformation of the man alone is not what felt strongest to me in this reading of The Christmas Carol, rather the impact of these and other moments that took my attention in meaningful directions.

Also, Dickens’ descriptions gave much to think about, such as when the Spirit of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a ship on “the black and heaving sea” where he witnesses men isolated by their work –“dark, ghostly figures in their several stations” – and yet they are humming Christmas carols and speaking of “bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it.”

Note to self: Those men at sea didn’t need to be participating in all the seasonal busyness and galas to have the Christmas spirit. It resides in their hearts. And so with carols playing and several trees glittering in the house, I stopped being so hard on myself. Perhaps I’m more in the spirit than I’ve thought.

christmascarol2

Tiny Tim, the son of Bob Cratchit, who works for Scrooge, speaks the story’s hallmark last line: “God Bless Us Every One!” But it’s the previous line that lingered with me: “And it was always said of [Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

This unique edition includes a foreword by author Colm Tóibín and introduction by Declan Kiely, chief literary curator of The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, where Dickens’ original, hand-written manuscript resides and is displayed at Christmastime.

news-of-the-worldThere are many moments in this small, enticing novel that showcase its excellence, with one that particularly stands out for me. It’s when a 10-year-old girl is perplexed by windows. For four years, she has lived with Kiowa Indians, who kidnapped her after murdering her family. Now she’s being returned to relatives, but she’s lost all acclimation to her former life: “There were drapes hanging in front of the windows against all logic. She did not know why one would make windows in a stone wall and put glass in them and then cover them over with cloth.”  The phrase against all logic is the power punch. How silly of us to shut out the natural world. To live separately from the outdoors, rather than with it, something the girl must unlearn.

The half-savage Johanna Leonberger steadily, suspiciously observes Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. He’s transporting her from Witchita Falls, through the heart of Texas, to Castroville, just outside San Antonio. Not an easy trip in 1870. The unsettled territory between towns is lawless, populated by raiders, vigilantes and Indians. It’s also a politically unstable time during Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Captain’s been paid a $50 gold coin to make the difficult journey. Still, he’s annoyed by the imposition, which he can’t honorably refuse: Kidd drifts from town to town reading newspapers to audiences in assembly halls at ten cents per person. A trip to Castroville is do-able, more so than for the men hauling freight, who have no business in the area. Also, the Captain will protect her.

These are two of fiction’s strongest, most colorful characters I’ve come across in recent books. Captain Kidd is a 71-year-old widow, who fought and lived through the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War. His experience, self-confidence, moral character, insight and empathy get him and the girl through the uncertainty of the three-week journey. So, too, does money he receives from reading articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Memphis Daily Appeal, London Times and other newspapers to the public. Meanwhile, the dark blonde, freckled Johanna remains a Kiowa at heart, from a tribe for whom “the baseline of human life was courage.” She’s wise beyond her years and so her choices – and how she interacts with the Captain – provide insight on the nature of her Indian soul.

Not surprising, News of the World is showing up on lists for notable and best novels of the 2016 year. The interesting time in history and unique bond between the Captain and Johanna deliver a solid masterpiece of perfect storytelling. News of the World also was a candidate for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction.

do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine-thienI’m listening to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations due to Madeleine Thien’s absorbing epic novel, set in 20th century China. Sparrow, one of the main characters and a composer, passionately embraces the Variations and notably this recording. For a week I’ve been listening to it — I wanted to experience what the gifted Sparrow was hearing.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing spans a large chunk of time from the early years of Mao Zedong’s rise to power through the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square – essentially 1949 through 1989. It follows the lives of three musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music: Sparrow, who’s working on the final movement of his symphony; his cousin Zhuli, a violin prodigy living with Sparrow’s family after her parents are denounced and sentenced to hard labor; and Jiang Kai, a brilliant pianist, orphaned by the sweeping famine of Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1962). Together and apart, the composer, violinist and pianist remain devoted friends and musicians who struggle through the terrifying repression of Mao Zedong’s communism, including the Cultural Revolution that began in the late 1960s.

Their fates are deeply involving, as one would want from an epic story. Also, the historical perspective pierces with an unsettling recollection of China’s violent, cruel past where people were randomly accused of crimes against the state, tortured and sent to labor camps. The detail of the music, which the three study, share and keep close to themselves, uplifts the narrative with inspired joy. For those who know and love classical music, there’s a thrill of satisfying recognition.

In this small paragraph toward the book’s end, Sparrow is now a husband and father working at a factory. He long ago had to abandon his symphony, due to repressive communist rule. Here he listens to the Goldberg Variations.

It was dawn by the time Sparrow cycled home from the factory. The 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations rippled through his headphones, and the music felt both long and momentary. For this new recording, Glenn Gould had instilled a continuous tempo, a pulse, so that all thirty variations more clearly belonged to a unified piece. A few weeks after the 1981 recording was released, Glenn Gould had died suddenly at the age of fifty. Sparrow had not learned of Gould’s death until years later, and convinced himself the radio announcer was mistaken. So much so that a few months ago, when a letter from Kai mentioned the death of Glenn Gould, Sparrow had been upset by it all over again. What kind of a man had the celebrated pianist been? he wondered. If Gould had been prevented from playing the piano for twenty years, what other form might his music have taken?

Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins in December 1990, when Sparrow’s teen-aged daughter Ai-Ming arrives in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the home of Jiang Kai’s daughter and widow. She becomes close to them, and through Ai-Ming’s storytelling about the past, the lives of the musicians and their extended families come to life. Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It’s a large, engrossing novel.

When I talk to you

November 22, 2016

The first page of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir may put you off for its darkness. She confesses she has changed, that she is no longer the cheerful person she has been throughout her adult life (she is now in her late 80s). There’s no bitterness, she says, rather a recognition she knows what’s happening. “I don’t belong here anymore,” she writes. “Perhaps it’s an acceptance of death, or a lack of will. I’m slowing down.”

The book is only 100 pages, and she’s not writing it to you, the reader. She’s writing to her father, and that keeps the emotional burden from pulling you in too close. It’s like secretly overhearing Marceline talk to him in the next room, safely hearing difficult material without demands. So I wouldn’t put the book down just yet.

but-you-did-not-come-backMarceline is a Holocaust survivor. When she was 15 years old, she and her father were arrested by the Vichy government’s militia at their château in southern France and deported to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. While the book is concerned with telling a Holocaust story, it is also firmly in the realm of doing what books do so well: putting us in someone else’s life to walk the proverbial mile in their shoes.

Marceline’s one-way conversation with her father, who never returned from Auschwitz, accomplishes this with meaningful clarity. She tells her father about her time in Birkenau, with particular emphasis on the small note he managed to get to her via a messenger. She remembers only the salutation and closing, not the essence of the message, and that torments her. She recalls the time they saw each other, when she marched by his camp. And she explains how she left Birkenau, spent a short time at Bergen-Belsen and then worked in a factory at Raguhn near Leipzig, Germany. When the war ended, she describes walking toward the Americans in Prague, and away from the Russians. “Where were you? All I could think about was you. But I didn’t try to find you among the others. That’s not how we’d be together.”

The effort here is not a capturing of facts, rather an intimate sharing. She knows her father will understand her life, when so many others have not understood it. That’s particularly true about coming home to a mother who wanted life to continue normally for Marceline, with a wedding and children. “If you had been there, you wouldn’t have been able to bear her questions, you would have told Mama to be quiet. You also would have told her to let me sleep on the floor. She didn’t want to understand that I couldn’t stand the comfort of a bed anymore.”

The adult years take Marceline into a career as a documentary film-maker, giving her purpose, and she finds a deep connection with her second husband, giving her the love she needs. In the last pages of the book, there is concern that “everything is getting tense again,” referring to “threats that sounded like echoes from the past” and “policemen outside of synagogues but I do not want to be someone who needs protection.”

This is profoundly moving literature, with the last pages expressing a trust Marceline brings to her telling of the story. This trust allows her to be vulnerable — and us to be immersed in an important life story. “When I talk to you, I don’t feel consoled. But I release what is clasped tightly in my heart.”

constellation-cover-260x390Constellation is Adrien Bosc’s first novel. It’s based on the true story of the October 28, 1949, crash of the Air France F-BAZN Lockheed Constellation passenger airplane. More than a simple re-telling of the event, Bosc connects the dots of chance decisions and unusual incidents that occurred before and after the accident. While he chillingly recreates the tragedy, he builds a theme of coincidence.

One of the passengers on the Constellation was Marcel Cerdan, the French middle-weight world boxing champion. He was taking the Paris-to-New-York flight to recapture his title at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with Jake LaMotta, a.k.a. the Bronx Bull. Cerdan originally was scheduled on a later flight, but Cerdan’s lover, the famous French singer Edith Piaf, begged him to move up his date of departure, so they could spend more time together in New York. Giving priority seating to the celebrity’s last-minute reservation, which included his manager Jo Longman and friend Paul Genser, Air France bumped a newlywed couple returning from their honeymoon and a woman. Lucky for them. The plane crashed into a mountain while attempting to land at the Santa Maria airport in the Azores, an archipelago of islands west of Portugal.  None of the 37 passengers or 11 crew members survived.

Bosc delves into the lives of other passengers and their reasons for flying, including Ginette Neveu, a famous French violin virtuoso, scheduled to go on tour in America. A violin apprentice, who helped maintain her Stradivarius violin, was to accompany her, but Neveu asked him to delay his departure. He traded in his plane ticket for a trans-Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner. (The Stradivarius was never recovered from the wreckage.) Air travel in the 1940’s was a luxury, but a young spool operator in a textile mill was on the flight. Her wealthy godmother in Detroit had made her the sole heir to her estate and purchased the girl’s ticket on the doomed flight, which she otherwise would not have been able to afford. On October 26, a successful artist on a Paris-to-New-York flight gave his seat to an actress, who had too much luggage. He got transferred to the October 27 Air France F-BAZN flight. Bosc also writes about Kay Kamen, the merchandising genius behind Disney products, including the Mickey Mouse watch. He was on the flight not out of chance, but the dots rather suggest an unusual fate. Disney wanted to disengage from Kamen’s company and bring the merchandising business in-house.

The story is powerful, building on curiosity and dread all the way to the investigation into why the plane went off course. As each page is turned, there’s a stunning coming-together of Bosc’s information, with theory and conjecture, that’s carefully drawing a constellation of people and how they came to board — or be affected by — the flight. The story does have its flaws, but they don’t interfere with the enticement of this brief story. One is the author’s out-of-the-blue, awkward insertion of his voice midway through the book, and another is occasional references to places and people that aren’t clarified. “A vast confluence of causes determines the most unlikely result. Forty-eight people, forty-eight agents of uncertainty enfolded within a series of innumerable reasons, fate is always a question of perspective,” Bosc writes.

Marcel Cerdan visited a fortune-teller in Paris in early October. She warned him not to fly, but Cerdan didn’t take her seriously. She felt so strongly about her premonition that a week later she sent Cerdan a letter telling him to avoid air travel, especially on Fridays. He continued to ignore her, even though he had superstitious tendencies, such as holding fast to pregame rituals to ensure a winning game. The Air France F-BAZN Constellation crashed on a Friday.

when-in-french-by-laruen-collinsThroughout my adult years, I’ve sporadically tried to become fluent in French, drawn by an unrelenting desire to converse casually and flawlessly in this language I studied in high school. This has led me several times down the subscription path to French language audio magazines, such as  Champs-Elysées and Bien-Dire, as well as to the print magazine Paris Match. Each time I subscribe, I enthusiastically embrace the prospect of French reading and learning, only to abandon the effort shortly after.

One year, I took private French lessons on Saturdays. I hauled myself out of bed for the early morning sessions on the other side of town, feeling more lost than proficient during the brain-twisting 90 minutes of only-speak-in-French conversations and tutorials. The accountability of meeting with a teacher kept me going, and I got to be pretty good. I was able to hold my own in a French conversation with a French-speaking customer in a coffee shop, and I could understand random French blurt-outs in movies. Even so, I let the tutoring go, tired of getting up so early and wanting my Saturday mornings at home.

Lauren Collins’ decision to learn French wasn’t a casual choice, like mine. While living in London as a staff writer for The New Yorker, she fell in love with a Frenchman from Bordeaux. They moved to Geneva, Switzerland, and married. Collins, from North Carolina, opens her new memoir about the challenges of learning French with an uneasy meeting at the Geneva apartment with a chimney sweep arriving for the annual, mandatory cleaning. She fumbles her way through the service call and later tells us she felt untethered and displaced living in a non-English speaking country. “’Language, as much as land, is a place,’ she writes. ‘To be cut off from it is to be, in a sense, homeless.’”

Much of her fumbling also occurs in her communications with husband Olivier, who is fluent in English. It’s not so much about speaking French with him as it is about the two of them culturally understanding each other — Olivier’s French literalism butts up against her American enthusiasm. Some of the liveliest moments in the book occur when the two get testy with each other over nuance in meaning, such as when Collins said she would clean the kitchen, and Olivier asked why she said “clean” when she meant “tidy up”.

There’s more to this delightful memoir than personal experience. Collins expertly detours into topics about the nature of language – fascinating topics – such as the controversies of bilingualism in the United States and France; the assimilation of English words into the French language (which the French government tries to stop); untranslatable words and translations gone wrong; and the importance of not just learning the words of a language but understanding its culture, as she experienced with Olivier.

As one would expect from a writer at The New Yorker, Collins’ prose is concise and rich with investigative details. And yet it’s not clear if she ever mastered speaking French. This, of course, I wanted to know about in depth, with all the excruciating moments of confusion. I also wanted to know more about her successes and failures in conversations not just with Olivier but in public. Did she ever become good enough so as not to feel homeless surrounded by French speakers? Does she now think in French? Can she follow conversations and understand French radio and TV?

I recently signed up yet again for another French learning experience, this time with an app that uses Victor Hugo (yes, that Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables) and French-speaking extraterrestrials. They are very funny, smart and definitely not teacherly, which I like. Every day the app sends me a lesson and story, plus personalized corrections — all in French, no English — that take 10 minutes, maybe 15. So far so good. (I think it’s the ET factor that’s making the difference.) Mais, nous verrons si je peux garder avec elle. (We’ll see if I keep with it.)

 

Britain’s Man Booker Prize is given to the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom. According to the Man Booker website, contenders must be novels originally written in English and published in the UK in the year of the prize, regardless of the nationality of their author. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and published by a registered UK imprint; self-published novels are not eligible.

Below are this year’s six finalists. Two are from the United States. The others are from the UK and Canada. All are available in the US. The winner is to be announced on October 25.

the-sellout-by-paul-beattyThe Sellout by Paul Beatty
The narrator from Dickens, California, (a city that’s been disappeared, which he’s trying to get back on the map) initiates the unthinkable when he reinstates slavery and segregates the local high school. But hold on — it’s a “biting satire,” according to the publisher’s website, about “a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court  … It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality — the black Chinese restaurant.” The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly listed Beatty’s comic novel among their Best Books of 2015. Also, it won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction.

hot-milk-by-deborah-levyHot Milk by Debra Levy
Levy’s previous novel, Swimming Home, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker 2012 prize, is an unforgettable story I recommend. (A family arrives at their vacation villa and finds an attractive woman swimming in the villa’s pool. And from there, it gets interesting.) Hot Milk, Levy’s new novel, promises to be similarly intriguing. Bloomsbury, the publisher, writes on their website: “Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant — their very last chance — in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.” From The Guardian: “This isn’t a long novel, but it is dense in the way a poem is dense, rich with meaning poured into its simple language.”

his-bloody-project-by-graeme-macrae-burnetHis Bloody Project
by
Graeme Macrae Burnet
This novel had me from the forecasts, portending to be one of those “gripping” novels that hook you ‘til the end. Skyhorse Publishing lays out the book’s premise: “A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?” The narrative is multi-layered, including a collection of documents (e.g., medical reports, psychological evaluations) and the accused’s memoir. Skyhorse describes it as “both thrilling and luridly entertaining from an exceptional new voice.”

eileen-by-ottessa-moshfeghEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ever since its publication in the United States last year, Moshfegh’s novel kept popping up and enticing me to read it – from rave reviews to being a contender for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. When it got short listed for the Man Booker I thought, okay, that’s it, I surrender. My hesitancy was only that I wasn’t in the mood for one more “girl crime” or “wicked girl” book. Now, having read this brilliant novel, I not only see why it received high marks but wonder why it didn’t win more awards. It’s a classic novel, whose perverted narrator is of the memorable kind, like Humbert Humbert (Lolita) or Frederick Clegg (The Collector). In 1964, Eileen works in a juvenile boy’s prison and lives with her constantly drunk father in a mess of a suburban home. Then, an enigmatic woman is hired by prison administration. Eileen wants to please her, and she falls into a dark situation that changes the course of her life. What’s brilliant about this book is the patience the author gives to her narrator, slowly letting her interior story unfold to a highly rewarding conclusion.

all-that-man-is-by-david-szalayAll That Man Is by David Szalay
This Man Booker nominee is a collection of nine connected short stories. From the website of the US publisher, Graywolf Press: “Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving — in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel — to understand what it means to be alive, here and now.” A few critics have mentioned running out to read Szalay’s previous novels and, by that, indicate talent not to be overlooked. The Guardian writes: “But if you are unfamiliar with [Szalay’s] work, let me urge you to read him since, on this evidence, he is one of those rare writers with skill in all the disciplines that first-rate fiction requires.”

do-not-say-we-have-nothing-by-madeleine-thien Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien

Of all six, this novel is the one door-stopper at more than 400 pages. But it’s an epic story, and epics tend to warrant the length. From the publisher’s website: “Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations — those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming.” A talented pianist, a brilliant composer and a violin prodigy are among the characters. From the Man Booker website: “It is a story of revolutionary idealism, music, and silence, in which three musicians – the shy and brilliant composer Sparrow, the violin prodigy Zhuli, and the enigmatic pianist Kai – struggle during China’s relentless Cultural Revolution to remain loyal to one another and to the music they have devoted their lives to.”

William Faulkner's 4th novel

Photo From Books That Shaped America

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.

Photo From Sotheby's

Photo From Sotheby’s

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.”

Photo From Heritage Auctions

Photo From Heritage Auctions

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.”

A bibliomaniac’s burden

September 1, 2016

Regeneration by Pat Barker_1

The original “stiff” paperback

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 — RegenerationThe 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.

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