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.

Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of their 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2015. Below are their three award-winning adult novels that, by what you’ll read here, might drive you to throw aside all responsibility and read non-stop.

You can get the full list of award-winners, including Best Fact Crime, Best Critical/Biographical, Best Short Story, Best Juvenile, Young Adult, TV Episode Teleplay and others on TheEdgars.com. The award nominees also are listed on the website, providing a wealth of good reading opportunities.

Let Me Die in His FootstepsBest Novel
Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy

Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times praised Lori Roy’s novel, calling out, among many things, her exceptional use of language and her skill in balancing two narrative timelines – one in 1936 and the other in 1952. The book’s overview description begins: “On a dark Kentucky night in 1952, exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place, hoping to see her future in the water. Instead, she finds a body, and Annie’s future becomes inextricably tied with her family’s dark past.” The Washington Post writes: “Although the pacing of Let Me Die is drowsy and its steady infusions of folk wisdom (especially about ripening young females) grow somewhat stale, Roy excels in depicting the menace lurking in the natural world.” Let Me Die in His Footsteps is Roy’s second Edgar – she won the award in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author for Bent Road in 2012.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh NguyenBest First Novel by an American Author
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguygen

Pulitzer Prize winners were announced April 18, including The Sympathizer for fiction. Ten days later, on April 28, Mystery Writers of America announced Viet Thanh Nguygen’s The Sympathizer as the winner of the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel by an American Author. Viet Thanh Nguygen is associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His story is narrated by a Vietnamese army captain of divided loyalties, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent in America after the end of the Vietnam War. From The Guardian’s review of the book:The Sympathizer can be read as a spy novel, a war novel, an immigrant novel, a novel of ideas, a political novel, a campus novel, a novel about the movies, and a novel, yes, about other novels. This overreaching mixture leads to occasional missteps that matter little set against the greater result: a bold, artful and globally minded reimagining of the Vietnam war and its interwoven private and public legacies.” The Sympathizer made it onto many 2015 end-of-the-year “best” lists, highly praised by the critics. Thousands of readers give it a thumbs up on Goodreads.

The Long and Faraway GoneBest Paperback Original
The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

Both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly gave stars to Berney’s mystery novel in their forecasts. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Edgar Award–finalist Berney (Whiplash River) will raise a lump in the throats of many of his readers with this sorrowful account of two people’s efforts to come to terms with devastating trauma.”  Kirkus concluded its commentary of The Long and Faraway Gone with a compelling comment and also a rare command: “A mystery with a deep, wounded heart. Read it.” From the publisher’s summary: “In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives.” Marilyn Stasio in her New York Times review writes: “Berney tells both their stories with supreme sensitivity, exploring ‘the landscape of memory’ that keeps shifting beneath our feet, opening up the graves of all those ghosts we thought we’d buried.”

Bookfair loot

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.

Dayton Book Fair 2015

 

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 Dayton Book Fair Purchases_2015the 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 EuropeI’m a big fan of Alan Furst’s World War II Joinerespionage 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.

The lesson of the book critic

September 24, 2015

There’s not been much activity here on TLC this month. That’s because all I want to do is read, and when I finish a book, all I want to do is pick up the next one. But all I want to read are the books on my reading table. The ones I’ve been saying I’ll get to eventually — the ones I keep re-arranging into different pile configurations: Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, Louis Bromfield’s 1926 Pulitzer Prize-winner Early Autumn, Michael Crummey’s second novel The Wreckage, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery Gaudy Night, Declan Kiberd’s nonfiction book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, John le Carré’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Kathleen Jones’ biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller, to name a few.

I don’t seem to be interested in the new books being published this fall, aside from Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which I keep intending to read, but then I pick up another book. The galley sits on my dining room table like a spaniel patiently waiting for a biscuit. I’ve actually dusted it. Meanwhile, I reread Lord of the Flies. I finished the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St Aubyn, finally completing the Booker-nominated Mother’s Milk and At Last. I read John O’Hara’s National Book Award winner 10 North Frederick and Erskine Caldwell’s The Last Night of Summer, written about in the previous post. I read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks mystery, published in 1989, The Hanging Valley, the fourth in his detective series I began long ago.

The other night I combed through the forecasts of new books coming out in October and November, and then I proceeded to start reading Fragments by Jack Fuller. Originally published in 1984 and reissued by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, Fragments is counted among the best Vietnam novels – Michiko Kakutani, in her review for The New York Times, February 1984, described it as an “elegantly executed” story about “the uses of memory – to transcend, not simply to recapture, the past.”

I bought Fragments three years ago and then delayed the gratification of reading it. I think that’s what’s gotten to me – the employment of delayed gratification, mixed with hope and promise, isn’t holding the pile steady anymore. I’ve come to think this may be due to a deepening feeling that constantly advancing forward to read the next new book is becoming a chase when, right under my nose, terrific, published-in-the-past books are in my house waiting to be read. Put another way, delayed gratification is beginning to feel more like neglect.

I’ll still be reading new books (I have to, I want to!), but as for the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, it looks like their day has arrived. At least, for now.

Here are three I’m moving toward, after I finish Fragments.

I don’t know how I found The Last of the Just. It was originally published by Editions du Seuil, Paris (Le Dernier des Justes), in 1959. It won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary prize in France awarded by the Académie Française. The English translation followed in 1960 by Atheneum House. The novel, a literary sensation during its time, must’ve been referenced by someone, or mentioned in something I read, which then took me down the discovery trail. The Herald Tribune is quoted on the back of the book, saying: “A drama that seizes you and will not let you go.” From Overlook Press, which issued the novel in paperback in 2000, here’s a story summary:

“On March 11, 1185, in the old Anglican city of York, the Jews of the city were brutally massacred by their townsmen. As legend has it, God blessed the only survivor of this medieval pogrom, Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, as one of the Lamed-Vov, the thirty-six Just Men of Jewish tradition, a blessing which extended to one Levy of each succeeding generation. This terrifying and remarkable legacy is traced over eight centuries, from the Spanish Inquisition, to expulsions from England, France, Portugal, Germany, and Russia, and to the small Polish village of Zemyock, where the Levys settle for two centuries in relative peace. It is in the twentieth century that Ernie Levy emerges, The Last of the Just, in 1920s Germany, as Hitler’s sinister star is on the rise and the agonies of Auschwitz loom on the horizon.”

The Lesson of the Master by Henry JamesHenry James’ The Lesson of the Master is part of the Melville House series The Art of the Novella. Others in this series include, to name just two out of many, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. From the dust jacket description about The Lesson of the Master:

“With extraordinary psychological insight and devastating wit, the novella captures the ambiguities of a life devoted to art, and the choices artists must make. They were choices the expatriate James knew well by the time he published the novella in the Universal Review in 1888, and the work reveals him at the height of his powers.”

Odd that I would want to read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain first, the third in his American Trilogy, preceded by American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Why not start at the beginning? I own almost all of Roth’s novels, including these two. But like other books I pick up or select along my reading and book-buying paths, this one sparkled and got singled out. So I’m trusting there’s a strong reason I dropped The Human Stain onto my delayed gratification pile. On the back of my Vintage International paperback, there’s this summary:

“Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk’s secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled.”

In 2012, Philip Roth wrote an Open Letter to Wikipedia in The New Yorker about incorrect information on the site concerning his inspiration for The Human Stain. He mentions Wikipedia’s response to his attempt to fix the misstatement — they said they required secondary attribution (as if the author wouldn’t know the inspiration of his own novel). Wikipedia currently references Roth’s letter and incorporates the correction.

On June 17, the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award will be announced. This is one of my favorite annual awards to watch, as it progresses through a phenomenally long long-list of nominated novels (142 this year) into a short-list of 10 that yields the winner. The IMPAC always provides a great reading list of novels, from which I’ve discovered brilliant authors from different countries, but it is more a personal favorite because of its premise: Nominations are made by librarians from around the world, those wonderful people who watch, know, present, recommend and curate books for the public to read. They see hundreds of books move through their lending institutions and can showcase those that may not be getting the attention they deserve.

Past International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winners have been Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas (2009), The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010) and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2011) – novels I’ve read and can recommend.

One requirement: In order to be considered for the IMPAC award, the novel must have be written in English or translated into English.

The 2015 shortlist below includes several titles that have been mentioned here on TLC. You’ll also find Richard Flanagan’s popular 2014 Man Booker Prize-winner among the candidates.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australian)
Nominated by four libraries from Australia and the United States

I recommended Burial Rites to several book groups. It’s a compelling story inspired by the real life fate of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a young woman who was the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century. She was condemned for murder. Prior to the execution, she was held in protective custody by the farm family of a government official. In the story, Agnes’ presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and their daughters, who wrestle with the convict’s sympathetic humanity. Among the librarian comments: “This meticulously researched novel provides a vivid voice for Agnes and those who shared her last days. Kent uses her powerfully drawn characters and compelling narrative to bring the time and events to life.”

Horses of GodHorses of God by Mahi Binebine (Moroccan)
Nominated by Chicago Public Library, United States
Translated from the French

This novel appeared on TLC in a list of books by French authors that I’d culled from the 2015 IMPAC longlist. It’s one of those novels that not only tells an engaging story but leaves the reader stunned by the awareness of how poverty and the promises of Islam can together create a young suicide bomber. It’s a phenomenal novel, brief (under 200 pages) and told in spare prose. BineBine focuses on four childhood friends growing up in the impoverished shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a suburb of Casablanca. The story has roots in fact: On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The comment from the Chicago library includes: “This novel by Moroccan author Binebine concerns young boys who become suicide bombers, and it upends much of what is often assumed about such lives.”

Someone by Alice McDermottSomeone by Alice McDermott (American)
Nominated by the Veria Central Public Library, Greece

I’m a big fan of Alice McDermott since a long time ago when I read her second novel, That Night. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. McDermott has written several more novels — I also loved Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award (1998). McDermott is an uncontested master when it comes to portraying everyday life among Irish Americans, as she does with Marie Commeford in Someone. Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews gave starred reviews to the novel, and it’s been praised to the heights by many readers.  The librarian comment includes: “A novel that shows how indefinite and ordinary but also beautiful a life can be when you have someone to share it with.”

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Australian)
Nominated by four Australian libraries

Flanagan’s fictional take on the WWII Japanese POW experience and the “death railways” built in Burma is rooted in his father’s connection to the historical event. The protagonist is surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who struggles to treat and save suffering POWs working with him on the railroad. He is haunted by a love affair he had with his uncle’s wife two years earlier. Rave reviews abound; however, Kirkus Reviews came after Flanagan for flowery descriptions about the love affair, saying they border on the likes of a “swoon-worthy bodice ripper.” Among the librarians’ comments: “Flanagan’s novel explores love and death, the horror of war, and the nature of heroism.”

K by Bernardo KucinskiK by Bernardo Kucinski (Brazilian)
Nominated by two libraries from Brazil
Translated from the Portugese

K will be available in the United States on July 31. It’s the story of a father searching for his daughter who “disappeared” during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Forecasts for the novel prior to its American publication aren’t out there, from my search results, but from what the nominating librarian says, K promises to be an unforgettable page-turner. It’s based on a real story from the author’s life — Kucinski’s younger sister disappeared in 1973. From the book’s publisher, Latin America Bureau: “As the author says, ‘Everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened’.” From the librarians’ comments: “…a remarkable book written in sparse language hovering between memoir and novel, a compelling tale almost impossible to put down.”

Harvest, a novelHarvest by Jim Crace (British)
Nominated by a library from Switzerland and one from the United States

I’m not a big fan of Jim Crace due to personal taste, not professional critique. There’s something about his storytelling that, as a common reader, doesn’t appeal to me. I often think I should give his work another chance because he’s frequently among award nominees and his work is highly regarded. Harvest, for example, was also nominated for the 2014 Man Booker award. The story takes place in an isolated English farming village where the stable of the manor house burns down. Fingers are pointed at newcomers to the village. Witchcraft and revenge come into thematic play. Among the librarians’ comments:  “…tightly plotted; less than a week passes from the moment smoke is sighted until the book’s fateful outcome, and yet once underway, we have the sense that everything is inevitable.”

Brief Loves That Live ForeverBrief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine (French, Russian-born)
Nominated by Bibliothèque de la Part-Dieu, Lyon, France

I’ve made the comment here on TLC that Andreï Makine is an author whose work, given the time, I’d chain-read. After I finished his novel Music of Life, I only wanted to keep reading whatever he wrote. Brief Loves That Live Forever will be available to U.S. readers in August. The Guardian begins their review of the book with this: “Siberian-born Andreï Makine’s latest novel lives in the memory long after the last page is turned. In a series of interlocking episodes the narrator – like Makine, an orphan – guides us through the totalitarian world of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Makine’s prose is both spare and meditative, and leads us deep into the memories of a world that is now gone.” Among the librarian’s comments: “…sober and powerful style of history and love stories from the Soviet time to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prose of big sensibility, quiet in suggestion.”

TransAtlantic, a novelTransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Irish)
Nominated by six libraries from Canada, Ireland, Britain and the United States

Within this novel are the stories of Frederick Douglass on an international lecture tour in Ireland in 1845; the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1919 by two WWI aviators headed for Ireland; and Senator George Mitchell’s 1998 peace talks in Northern Ireland. McCann weaves together the disparate stories into what many praised as a compelling narrative, much as he did with Let the Great World Spin, which won the 2011 IMPAC Award. Among the librarians’ comments:TransAtlantic is a delight to read. Through writing that is both lyrically lush and detailed, the reader meets fascinating characters, historically grounded in the 19th and 20th centuries, who are deftly linked through their connections to Ireland and America.”

Sparta by Roxana RobinsonSparta by Roxana Robinson (American)
Nominated by the San Diego Library, United States

With all the hub-bub over Phil Klay’s award-winning story collection about Iraq soldiers, Redeployment, I missed this novel about a soldier returning home from the same war after four years of duty. From the publisher’s description of Sparta: “His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can’t imagine his future, can’t recover his past, and can’t bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that’s constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.” Lots of praise from the media, except Kirkus Reviews described it as “well-intentioned but flawed.” The librarian’s comment: “A searing portrayal of the experience of a classics scholar and Iraq war veteran who returns home from the war to find he no longer belongs in either world.”

Americanah by C.Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigerian)
Nominated by 11 libraries from Canada, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and the United States

Winner of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Americanah tells the story of teenagers Ifemelu and Obinze who fall in love in Nigeria when it’s under military dictatorship. Everyone is leaving, including Ifemelu to study in the United States. Obinze is unable to join her and finds his way, illegally, to London. Years later they reconnect. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Soap-operatic in spots, but a fine adult love story with locations both exotic and familiar.” Among the librarians’ comments: “A love story, an immigration story, and a portrait of race in America. Authentic and captivating.”

These are the days that forecast and ramp up to summer blockbusters and beach reads. I don’t see a standout yet, as we had last year with All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s recent 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction; however, it’s early in the game.

Below are three novels and two books of non-fiction that caught my eye and interest. Maybe they’ll catch yours.

"The Cost of Courage" by Charles KaiserThe Cost of Courage by Charles Kaiser (June)
Charles Kaiser is a former reporter for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This is his third book of non-fiction and likely to be a big hit during this time of popular interest for World War II stories, both fiction and non-fiction. The Cost of Courage recounts the true story of the Boulloche family’s participation in the French resistance. According to the publisher, it is the first time the family has cooperated with an author to share their ordeal.  A quick summary: Andre Boulloche, coordinating all the Resistance movements in the nine northern regions of France, was betrayed by an associate, arrested by the Gestapo and sent to (and survived) Nazi concentration camps. His sisters took over the fight of resistance until the end of the war. Publisher’s Weekly writes: “Kaiser’s use of Andre’s first-person narration can be distracting, but otherwise this is a riveting paean to unsung war heroes in occupied France.” Kirkus Reviews gives it a star and writes: “At once heroic and heartbreaking, this story leaves an indelible mark.” Kaiser’s website states: “The book is a nonfiction thriller, a love story, and a mini-history of World War II in Europe.”

"The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley" by Jeremy MasseyThe Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey (May)
Black comedy and intrigue in this debut novel tell the story of 42-year-old Paddy Buckley who’s working for Gallagher’s, a funeral home in Dublin, Ireland. He’s involved in a hit-and-run that kills Donal Cullen, the brother of a notorious Irish mobster. From the publisher’s website: “The next morning, the Cullen family calls Gallagher’s to oversee the funeral arrangements. Paddy, to his dismay, is given the task of meeting with the grieving Vincent Cullen, Dublin’s crime boss, and Cullen’s entourage. When events go awry, Paddy is plunged into an unexpected eddy of intrigue, deceit, and treachery.” Kirkus Reviews writes: “Highly readable and entertaining, though far-fetched in key moments, the novel benefits especially from Massey’s mostly restrained, deadpan Irish sense of humor.” Massey is a third-generation undertaker who worked with his father for many years at the family firm in Dublin. The publisher describes the book as “by turns a thriller, a love story, and a black comedy of ill manners.”

"Our Souls at Night" by Kent HarufOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (May)
Kent Haruf, widely known for his best-seller Plain Song and for setting his novels in the fictional Holt, Colorado, died this past December at the age of 71, but not before completing Our Souls at Night. It tells the story of Addie Moore and Louis Waters who discover comfort with one another in their old age. They don’t know each other very well, but Addie asks Louis to sleep with her. It’s not a sexual proposition, rather a desire to get through the night with companionship. Needless to say, the small town’s gossip mill goes into high gear. This is a short narrative – under 200 pages. Publisher’s Weekly gives it a star and describes Our Souls at Night as a “gripping and tender novel.”

 

"The Little Paris Bookshop" by Nina GeorgeThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (June)
The Little Paris Bookshop is a German best-seller newly translated into English. According to the author’s website, it has ranked among the top 10 novels on the best-seller list of Germany’s Spiegel magazine since May 2013 and has sold more than 500,000 copies. The novel tells the story of a bookseller, Jean Perdu, who sells books from a floating barge on the Seine. From the publisher’s website: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened.” Kirkus Reviews describes The Little Paris Bookshop as a charming novel.

"Meanwhile There Are Letters" edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom NolanMeanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (June)
I love reading books that are collections of letters. The intimacy in the written voice, long lost these days with electronic mail and tweets, bring us into the interior worlds of those who are writing privately to each other. It’s like reading someone’s diary. This new collection documents a 13-year epistolary friendship between crime novelist Ross Macdonald, famous for his fictional Detective Lew Archer, and southern novelist and short story writer Eudora Welty, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Optimist’s Daughter. I wonder: What brought them together? And what did they find in each other that kept them writing for 13 years? Kirkus Reviews gives the book a star, writing: “An intimate, luminous portrait of a friendship.”

 

 

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 BegleyThe 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 DolanBad 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 SimenonPietr 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.'”

What’s in your living room?

December 24, 2014

Here by Richard McGuireIf you casually flip through Richard McGuire’s new graphic novel, it won’t take long to realize the same view of one corner of a living room is the story. It’s about the events that take place in that space over thousands of years.

Each two-page spread depicts the corner, with a window on the left and a fireplace on the right, at different moments throughout time. The room’s decorations change according to the trends of decades, as do the hairstyles and clothing of the people. Some of these people reappear throughout the book, their emotions and moments captured and sometimes played out in mini stories.

The upper corner of the left page states the year of the living room. Windowed time capsules layered over the main illustration reflect past and future events that have and will occur in and around that very corner of space. Sometimes the living room isn’t even present, illustrating time before the house existed, such as in prehistoric and colonial times, as well as after the house disappears in the future, when rising waters of climate change roll in, or after the earth is destroyed and a new one begins. This is not as much a book to read as it is to experience, turning the pages and pouring over the history of one space throughout time.

The Living Room

Richard McGuire began this project 25 years ago when his first iteration of the concept appeared in the comics journal Raw, co-edited at the time by Art Spiegelman, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus.

Bison

According to an article in The New York Times, the concept moved toward development into a book, but Mr. McGuire couldn’t make it work and put away the project. And then, the death of his parents and an older sister “brought him back to the project with renewed energy and a mountain of source material.” The living room is from his childhood home.

In some illustrations, reactions or occurrences in one year reflect an event in the past, such as in this one below, where a woman in 1992 is reading on the sofa by the living room window, surrounded by a forest that populated the space in 1609. In the forest, a woman says, “Tell me a story,” to her companion.

Tell me a story
In 1763, we see a man chopping down a tree in the forest, which eventually will be replaced with houses. In 1989, a family member is telling a joke that in an abstract way relates to the loss of the trees.

Chopping down tree

During colonial times, a brick house existed on land across the street from Mr. McGuire’s 20th century suburban house. Ben Franklin makes an appearance at the colonial residence in one of the mini stories. In 1783, the house burns down. In the overlay of time in the living room, 1989, a man has a coughing fit, as if reacting to the smoke.

Burning house

The illustrations span a time range of 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175. In between, emotions of sorrow, joy, confusion and happiness play out, as well as experiences of birth, accident and death. Below, in 2005, a family member is losing his hearing while in 1964, a group plays a game of charades (“Sounds like,” the man says); in 2111, ocean waters swirl where once the house stood; and in 2006, a phone rings that nobody answers.

2111_water

The Morgan Library & Museum exhibited Richard McGuire’s work this past fall. “Sharing a Sofa with Dinosaurs,” an article in The New York Times, provides a slide show from the exhibit that gives an idea of how Mr. McGuire put the book together. He’s done it with such a seductive draw that it’s hard to stop turning the pages, creating a need to keep observing the fascinating life details as they unfold. You’ll come away thinking differently about a room you live in, specifically what happened in its space years before you ever existed — and what will happen years in the future, after you’re gone.

Dora BruderThe Nobel Foundation gave French author Patrick Modiano the coveted Nobel Prize in Literature 2014 this past October.  He’s written 17 novels during his career, but few are available in English translation. Yale University Press and University of California Press in November released Suspended Sentences and Dora Bruder, respectively. David R. Godine published Modiano before he won the prize with Missing Person and Honeymoon, as well as the children’s book Catherine Certitude.

I’ve picked up a copy of Dora Bruder, which I’m looking forward to reading. Meanwhile, my curiosity about books originally published in French led me to the recently announced longlist for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And when I say longlist, I mean indeed a long list — there are 142 nominees. The titles are nominated for the award by libraries worldwide. The award goes to a single work of fiction that must be published in English. According to the organization’s press release, this year’s candidates were nominated by libraries in 114 cities and 39 countries.

Eight of the nominees are books translated from the French into English. I’ve listed the eight novels here, with beginning sentences from their overview descriptions. The Read More will take you to the full overview on the website of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. All eight appear to be available with online booksellers. Éric Reinhardt’s novel, at this point in time, is only available as an ebook and Andreï Makine’s novel I found on Amazon but not Barnes & Noble.

Horses of GodHorses of God by Mahi Binebine;
translated by Lulu  Norman
Published in English by Tinhouse.
Published in French as Les étoiles de Sidi Moumen.

“On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers launched a series of attacks throughout Casablanca. It was the deadliest attack in Morocco’s history. The bombers came from the shantytowns of Sidi Moumen, a poor suburb on the edge of a dump whose impoverished residents rarely if ever set foot in the cosmopolitan city at their doorstep. Mahi Binebine’s novel Horses of God follows four childhood friends growing up in Sidi Moumen as they make the life-changing decisions that will lead them to become Islamist martyrs.” Read more.

Return to KillybegsReturn to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon;
translated by Ursula Meany Scott
Published in English by Lilliput Press.
Published in French as Retour à Killybegs.

“Tyrone Meehan, damned as an informer, ekes out his days in Donegal, awaiting his killers. ‘Now that everything is out in the open, they will all speak in my place – the IRA, the British, my family, my close friends, journalists I’ve never even met. Some of them will go so far as to explain how and why I ended up a traitor…’” Read more.

For SureFor Sure by France Daigle;
translated from by Robert Majzels
Published in English by House of Anansi.
Published in French as Pour sur.

“For Sure is among other things a labyrinth, a maze, an exploration of the folly of numbers, a repository, a defense and an illustration of the Chiac language. Written in dazzling prose — which is occasionally interrupted by surprising bits of information, biography, and definitions that appear on the page — Daigle perfectly captures the essence of a place and offers us a reflection on minority cultures and their obsession with language.” Read more.

Nothing Holds Back the NightNothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan; translated by George Miller
Published in English by Bloomsbury.
Published in French as Rien ne s’oppose a la nuit.

“Only a teenager when Delphine was born, Lucile raised two daughters largely alone. She was a former child model from a Bohemian family, younger and more glamorous than the other mothers: always in lipstick, wayward and wonderful. But as Delphine grew up, Lucile’s occasional sadness gave way to overwhelming despair and delusion.” Read more.

Saving MozartSaving Mozart by Raphael Jerusalmy;
translated by Howard Curtis
Published in English by Europa Editions.
Published in French as Sauver Mozart.

“Raphaël Jerusalmy’s debut novel takes the form of the journal of Otto J. Steiner, a former music critic of Jewish descent suffering from tuberculosis in a Salzburg sanatorium in 1939. Drained by his illness and isolated in the gloomy sanatorium, Steiner finds solace only in music. He is horrified to learn that the Nazis’ are transforming a Mozart festival into a fascist event.” Read more.

Brief Loves That Live ForeverBrief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine;
translated by Geoffrey Strachan
Published in English by Maclehose Press.
Published in French as Le livre des brèves amours éternelles.

“In Soviet Russia the desire for freedom is also a desire for the freedom to love. Lovers live as outlaws, traitors to the collective spirit, and love is more intense when it feels like an act of resistance. Now entering middle age, an orphan recalls the fleeting moments that have never left him…” Read more.

Update 4.5.15: The author’s last name was incorrectly spelled as Maldine. The correct spelling is Makine.

Life FormLife Form by Amélie Nothomb;
translated by Alison Anderson
Published by Europa Editions.
Published in French language as Une forme de vie.

“Here is a new work of fiction by the always surprising Nothomb that subverts any attempts at categorization; a smart, singular, surreal novel about personality and philosophy, trauma and healing, solitude and human connection from one of Europe’s most talked about and beloved authors. One morning, the heroine of this book, a well-known author named Amélie Nothomb, receives a letter from one of her readers – an American soldier stationed in Iraq by the name of Melvin Mapple.” Read more.

The Victoria SystemThe Victoria System by Éric Reinhardt;
translated by Sam Taylor
Published as an ebook by Penguin Books.
Published in the French language as Le système Victoria.

“David Kolski never sleeps with the same woman twice – apart from his wife. Then he meets Victoria. Head of people at a multinational company, by day she is a ruthless executive in a lightning-paced, high-pressured whirlwind of power and productivity. By night she likes good wine, luxurious hotel rooms, and abandoning herself to her sexual fantasies.” Read more.

The IMPAC shortlist from the 142 longlist will be announced April 15, 2015. The winner will be announced June 17, 2015. Of note: the longlist includes 37 American novels.

This is not a beach-read list, rather the “required” reading I’ve set forth for myself as a tip of the hat to the summers of my youth, when I had assigned summer reading lists. From all those summers, I only remember Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court assigned during two separate summers. I struggled through them — probably why they’re the ones I remember — confused by and uninterested in the plots. I should reread them as an adult because they may simply be classics that were wasted on my youth, but not this summer. I have three classics I want to read before Labor Day arrives, tucked in among the new books that are always ongoing.

Ten North Frederick by John O'HaraTen North Frederick by John O’Hara
Penguin Classics began re-issuing John O’Hara’s books last year to coincide with the new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio, reminding us that writer Fran Lebowitz famously called O’Hara “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” (She said it in an interview with The Paris Review.) O’Hara chronicled the world of the upper class and its wealth, ambitions and discontent. He’s best known for his first novel Appointment in Samarra, but also BUtterfield 8, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Ten North Frederick won the National Book Award in 1956. It focuses on the public and private life of the politically ambitious Joe Chapin in the fictional Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. From the Penguin description: “… as his daughter looks back on his life, a different man emerges: one in conflict with his ambitious and shrewish wife, terrified that the misdeeds of his children will dash his political dreams, and in love with a model half his age.” John O’Hara is thought to be one of the most prominent American writers in the 20th century.

A New Life by Bernard MalamudA New Life by Bernard Malamud
This is Bernard Malamud’s third novel after The Natural and The Assistant. It tells the story of Sy Levin, “formerly a drunkard,” relocating to the Pacific Northwest to teach English at Cascadia College and start the eponymous new life. He doesn’t fully realize Cascadia is not a liberal arts institution, rather an agricultural college. Further, the positive change he anticipates for his life doesn’t exactly materialize. What draws me to spend time reading this book is not only having loved Malamud’s The Magic Barrel and Dubin’s Lives, but also Jonathan Lethem’s claim that A New Life is Malamud’s “funniest and most embracing, an underrated masterpiece.” You can read more of Lethem’s comments in the book’s introduction via a preview. A New Life was a finalist for the 1962 National Book Award in fiction along with Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. The award, in a surprising upset, went to Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer.

The Mountain Lion by Jean StaffordThe Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
There’s a common saying among addicted readers that we keep buying more and more books, with less and less time to read them, because it fuels the hope that the time one day will be there. And so here’s my self-reveal: I purchased my copy of The Mountain Lion at Three Lives & Co. in New York in December 2009. It is the story of a young sister and brother, Molly and Ralph, who leave Los Angeles to summer on an uncle’s ranch in Colorado. From the book’s back cover: “There the children encounter an enchanting new world — savage, direct, beautiful, untamed — to which, over the next few years, they will return regularly, enjoying a delicious double life. And yet at the same time this other sphere, about which they are both so passionate, threatens to come between their passionate attachment to each other.” This is Jean Stafford’s most highly acclaimed novel, published in 1947. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1970 for her Collected Stories. “Jean Stafford: Diamond in a Rough Life” by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post (2007) showcases her forgotten talent and work.

 

 

Many years ago, I took piano lessons at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago on Michigan Avenue. I was a hobbyist, an amateur, playing technically difficult pieces, practicing nights and weekends around my 9-to-5 job. I also practiced during my lunch hours, in the practice rooms at the Conservatory that was near to where I worked. One day, riding the elevator back to my desk, an executive seconded to the company from London, England, asked about the piano music I carried in my arms. We were the only two on the elevator taking us to the 52nd floor.

He told me that he studied the piano once and had intended to make it his profession. He was accepted at the London Conservatory of Music, but on the first day, he didn’t show up at class. In fact, he walked away from the conservatory and the career forever, fearful and intimidated by what it would take to succeed. He also walked away from the piano, never touching it again. While he was cool and calm, I heard a wrenching personal trauma. He admitted that, seeing my music, a yearning for the piano rose up in him, what Alan Rusbridger in Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible refers to as one’s musical inner life — or creative DNA — tugging at the soul.

"Play It Again" by Alan RusbridgerRusbridger “mucked around on the piano” for most of his life, aided by the fact he’s an excellent sight reader. In his 50s, he became inspired to push himself to a greater understanding of the instrument by learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Opus 23, a tremendously challenging piece both technically and musically, one of the hardest piano compositions in the canon to master. He gave himself one year to do it, practicing 20 minutes a day. The goal was to not just play the Ballade, which he could get away with by skating over the tricky parts or creating workarounds or fudging on the fingering and pedaling, but to learn it properly.

Here’s the kicker: Rusbridger is editor of the Guardian, one of the most distinguished newspapers in the world. It’s not unusual for him to leave work after midnight and in the morning attend a breakfast meeting. He travels the world for speaking engagements and panels, fields hundreds of daily emails and is always on-call running a major newspaper with “a hum of low-level stress much of the time, with periodic eruptions of great tension.”( He tells a fascinating story of flying to Tripoli to secure the release of a Guardian journalist held in prison somewhere in Libya.) Little did he know that the year he committed to learning the Ballade would be an unusually dramatic year for the newspaper due to the publication partnership with WikiLeaks and breaking the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It was also the year of the Arab Spring and the Japanese tsunami. In other words, if you think you don’t have time to pursue your passion in life, think again. It’s one of the major messages in this book: “Essentially, you do have the time; you just don’t realise (sic) it,” Rusbridger writes.

There are additional thoughtful points made in Rusbridger’s Play It Again. For example, he explores the concept that social success alone in one’s life — status, career, family, financial gain, etc. — is not enough for a satisfying life, and middle-age can be a time to reclaim ignored passions. He tells us progress is not always linear, and breakthroughs come with patience.

The book is formatted as diary entries, a perfect way to bring us into his daily newspaper life, as well as his musical life. It’s a balance of politics and culture, personal and public lives, as well as a venue that allows Rusbridger to share interviews with experts on topics such as memory (he struggles to memorize music), the difference between amateur and professional pianists, the recording industry’s effect on perfection required by concert pianists and the future of newspapers.

Granted, this book isn’t for everyone — if you don’t read music and/or don’t have an interest in the piano, your eyes will glaze over in the long technical passages about the Ballade, let alone the interviews with famous pianists, including Daniel BarenboimEmanuel Ax and Murray Perahia. For me, it was a chance to sink into a world I’ve missed.

Play It Again interior pages

I walked away from the American Conservatory after a rather difficult performance of the first movement of Schumann’s A minor piano concerto, but I didn’t walk away from the piano forever, like the British executive on the elevator. More like Rusbridger before he took on the Ballade, I find myself endlessly replaying the pieces I know, and not all that well. I’m not inclined to take on the Ballade, but there’s the Bach Toccata in D major BWV912 I want to play. To Rusbridger’s point, I told a piano tuner I couldn’t play it, and he said, “Yes you can.” I said, “No, I can’t.” Back and forth we comically argued beside my piano, until the tuner said what I knew he was going to say: “You just have to commit the time to it.” Play It Again is about just that, with Rusbridger reminding us to get on with one’s life ambitions.

 

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve HarrisI almost always have a book in my hand when I’m standing in line at the Northstar Café, where I occasionally get dinner after my workout. Often, I get approached and conversations start because of the book. One time, the restaurant “greeter” told me about his sister who loves to read and described the tables at her house overflowing with books. And then there was the professor, who jumped out of her chair to talk with me about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a young adult novel about the capture and interrogation of a young British secret agent in Nazi-occupied France.

More recently, the girl at the register taking my order asked me if the book I had with me was any good. I was reading The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, a surprisingly addictive novel. There was a long line, so I quickly summarized the book’s plot about a 19-year-old, headstrong girl who’s getting married to a 20-year-old thoughtful young man, both from an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in London. The girl taking my order seemed interested, and then she told me she had a hard time finding good books. She said her mother gave her books, but she didn’t like them.

I asked, “What kind do you like?” She said stories with romance and real life scenarios. To me, that meant no dystopian universes, vampires, zombies or fantastic thrillers, and also no romance novels (or she would’ve said “romance novels”, indicating the genre).  She started to write down the Eve Harris title, and I said, “Why not let me give you a list.”

I’ll admit, the list didn’t come easily. I sensed she was a casual reader, who could easily live without reading, likely a result of not being matched with books that are right for her. It’s easier to make recommendations to a perpetual reader who can’t seem to find a good book at the moment — you can ask for favorite books they’ve read in the past, and that offers indicators. In retrospect, I should’ve asked what books her mother gave her.

I thought it best to suggest a combination of guaranteed good reads, as well as something beyond the parameters of what she might normally choose, or come across, e.g. literary novels, but they couldn’t be too intimidating in size and depth (such as Donna Tartt’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner or a Hilary Mantel door stopper). The literary novels would need to be engaging, moving and entertaining.

And so here’s what I quickly scribbled on a napkin.

The guaranteed good reads were One Day by David Nicholls and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, both with romance, both page-turners and real-life situations.

Next was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a great story of love, Hollywood drama and heart-grabbing characters, although a bit risky because of her age, which, I guessed, was in the 20’s. Beautiful Ruins takes much of its story from the filming of Cleopatra in Italy with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, way before her time.

Also, the book I was reading, The Marrying of Chani Kauffman by Eve Harris, not only because she saw it, but also because it’s a type of book she won’t likely come across, and it’s really quite good. Perhaps a bit of a risk, as I wasn’t sure if she’d be drawn into the cultural theme, but still I believed there was a good chance she might love it.

And finally, for a surprise factor, a memoir, Half a Life by Darin Strauss because of its moving, true story of how one event for an 18-year-old boy reverberated through the rest of his life. Not a thick book, plus easy to read and hard to put down. Also, I thought it would fascinate her. I believe it came to mind because I talked about it in a group-setting once with an audience in their 20’s and 30’s — and I recall the room becoming completely silent, as I explained how Darin Strauss’s story so eloquently shows us what guilt looks like, as well as  forgiveness and empathy.

Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is a notable literary achievement that hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1983, the year it was published. The movie hit theaters February this year. Since I hadn’t read the book, I thought I’d see the movie, but it got horrible reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, a friend casually claimed Winter’s Tale as her favorite book. I’d never until that moment heard her make a statement like that about any book, and so the comment hung with me, urging me to consider reading Helprin’s novel; however, it’s a big deal for me to commit to reading a voluminous, long-ago published book, when I need to keep up with reading new publications. But then I saw the movie tie-in edition of the novel and, ever a romantic, that pushed me over the edge into reading this thicker-than-a-bread-loaf book that’s north of 700 pages.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

Movie tie-in edition

Let me say right away that the illustration of the movie tie-in falsely gives the impression Winter’s Tale is a love story. It’s not that at all. The illustration showcases merely the beginning, when the Irish burglar and master mechanic Peter Lake breaks into the Manhattan mansion of newspaper publisher Isaac Penn and falls in love with his daughter, Beverly, who’s dying of consumption. Their union ignites the story’s enchanted mood, but it is not the Full Monty of Helprin’s magical fantasy that spans the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century, predominantly in New York City. Suffice it to say, Winter’s Tale comprises several plot lines, and it became the most perfect book for me to read during Lent, leading up to this Easter week of resurrection, because while it is a complex story about many things, at its heart, Winter’s Tale is about defying time and death.

Peter Lake is the central, saving hero in this engrossing story whose ageless reappearance, 85 years after he vanishes into a field of clouds, signals victory over clock-bound time. Other principal characters include Hardesty Marratta, a California man who rejects a phenomenal inheritance to seek “the just city”; Virginia Gamely (who marries Hardesty) and her verbally acrobatic mother Mrs. Gamely, both from the mystical Lake of the Coheeries, where inhabitants live through the cruelest winters; Harry Penn, who takes over his father’s newspaper business; and his managing editor Praeger de Pinto, who becomes a New York City mayor.

Winter's Tale original cover illustration

Original book cover

These and others have large and small roles in a masterfully planned staging of  a mythic New York City; however, the story’s expansive, otherworldly reach extends beyond their roles into a realm of higher forces at work in this life. I can’t imagine any movie coming close to capturing the profound messaging about time, justice, balance, suffering, humility and ultimate purpose. There’s no easy way I could even capture it here. To that point, consider another principal character, Athansor, a magnificent white horse that symbolizes forbearance and triumph. His leaps are so powerful he flies, many times removing Peter Lake from the dangerous, criminal mitts of Pearly Soames, who’s ever after destroying the man who seeks truth. Athansor’s breathtaking presence on the page creates a kind of wonder and hope that’s hard to quantify.

And so I join the many others through the years who’ve read and claimed Winter’s Tale as an extraordinary book. It proved more than worthy of the time away from new releases, consuming me with its sumptuous narrative and embedded wisdom, which includes  this comment made by Mrs. Gamely to her daughter Virginia:

“No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I? For, if I did, I was wrong. If you won’t take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey out of you.”

“Ich bin ein Berliner”

November 20, 2013

Kennedy in Berlin by Ulrich MackPhotojournalist Ulrich Mack worked for the German magazine Quick (which in German means ‘live’ or ‘swift’) during the 1960s. He covered President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s four-day visit to Germany, June 23 to 26, 1963. JFK visited Cologne, Bonn, Hanau, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and West Berlin in what Kennedy in BerlinMack’s previously unpublished collection of photographs — describes as an unprecedented event that followed a precise protocol.

An exception to what was planned became history in West Berlin, when Kennedy went off script before 450,000 people at Schöneberg City Hall, giving the famous Cold War speech that included the closing line: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner.)

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

The book is organized by city, each introduced by the hourly itinerary and followed by pages filled with Ulrich Mack’s black-and-white photos, including the ticker-tape procession down the main street of West Berlin with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt, mayor of Berlin; and his stop at Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point at the Berlin Wall between West and East Berlin, where Kennedy stands atop the observation deck. The book contains close to 100 photos selected by Ulrich Mack. Many are of Kennedy walking among massive crowds and passing them in a motorcade.

“They now rejoiced all the more, applauded, waved, pushed, and shoved to see a president who visibly enjoyed basking in the crowd’s adulation. As an aside, it should be noted that the Lincoln Continental that had been flown in was the same car in which Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.”

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

Ulrich Mack got close enough to capture Kennedy’s relaxed, engaged expressions, his charismatic smile, as well as portraits of the people of the young Federal Republic of Germany hoping to glimpse the most powerful man in the world.

Photos of officials standing with Kennedy lack their identification, which is mildly frustrating.

From "Kennedy in Berlin"

Many books have been published this year in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. This book captures four famous days that occurred five months prior to that tragic event. With the secret service in their dark sunglasses walking beside Kennedy’s vehicle, or standing on the foot boards, or, as is one agent, peering out from the back seat of that Lincoln Continental — seated where Jackie Kennedy would ride in Dallas — they seem so ill equipped to protect JFK should the crowd, let alone a sniper, go after him.

Kennedy's Berlin speech

Photographs in Kennedy in Berlin are by Ulrich Mack; essays in the book are by  Jasper von Altenbockum, Egon Bahr and Hans-Michael Koetzle.

Field Notes on Science & NatureIt’s odd that a dedicated literary fiction reader (me) would gravitate to a book about recording observations and experiences in the natural world. Especially considering I did everything possible to avoid science classes in high school and college, not always successfully. No matter how hard I studied the material for tests, in fact knew the material, I barely scraped past getting a C+; and yet, Field Notes on Science & Nature keeps drawing me into its pages.

Some of the essays are ‘memoir-ish’ in style. Others are more data-oriented. They all, however, relate stories from the field. Contributors, such as those exampled below, write about how they got started keeping field notebooks, their methodology, their love for what they do and their adventures. Photos and illustrations accompanying the essays invite close perusal for their originality. They are reproductions from actual pages in the authors’ field journals — drawings, lists, handwritten notes, outlines and diagrams. There are 12 essays in all.

Field data form & typical notebook page

  • George B. Schaller, a scientist who’s pioneered studies of endangered and little-known animals, writes about observing lions in the Serengeti plains and tracking mountain gorillas in the Congo and the chiru on the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Bernd Heinrich, a scientific naturalist and marathon runner, writes about note-taking. His life and observations about plants, insects and animals are a testament to what we can see along the way, if we look.
  • Jonathan Kingdon, a zoological illustrator, ecologist, writer and researcher tells us “the humblest field record is always an act of translation.” He writes about why he relies on manual drawing and not the camera to capture his observations of animal anatomy and behavior.
  • Jenny Keller, a science illustrator whose work has appeared in Scientific American and National Geographic, also writes about drawing as an observational tool.
  • Erick Greene studies animal behavior and ecology and answers the question, “Why keep a field notebook?”
  • Kenn Kauffman, world-renowned birder, writes about keeping lists of bird species observed — how on the one hand it can be an obsessive game and on the other a contribution to scientific knowledge.

Even if something like this doesn’t float your reading boat, it might be good to keep in mind for the naturalist on your holiday list in the upcoming months. It’s a beautifully produced book that Harvard Press published 2 years ago. You can get a peek at it in this slide show on the Harvard Press website.

Color swatches & red sea fan

Finally, here’s a gem from the essay called “Letters to the Future,” a quote with the title A Note on Permanence:

“Don’t trust your memory, it will trip you up, what is clear now will grow obscure; what is found will be lost. Write down everything in full; time so spent now will be time saved in the end, when you offer your researches to the discriminating public. Don’t be satisfied with a dry-as-dust item: clothe a skeleton of fact and breathe life into it with thoughts that glow; let the paper smell of the woods. There’s a pulse in each new fact; catch the rhythm before it dies.” (Eliot Coues, Field Ornithologyy, 1874)

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