March 29, 2017
I purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)
The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.
Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”
I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.
“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”
February 14, 2017
Fever 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 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 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.
January 26, 2017
In 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.
December 29, 2016
Over 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 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.
Upstream: 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 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.
Rosemary: 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 Vladimir 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.
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.