House of Names by Colm ToibinThe story of King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra is a well-known tragedy in Greek mythology penned by the classical Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Contemporary Irish author Colm Tóibín (The Testament of Mary, Brooklyn, Nora Webster) re-imagines it with mesmerizing effect in his new novel. It’s a grim plot, where murder requires justice and justice results in more murder, spinning a never-ending circle of deadly revenge. Thankfully, Tóibín deftly invests in each protagonist’s emotions and needs in a way that mitigates the horrific bloodshed. Indeed, Tóibín has a powerful talent for intensely inhabiting the minds of his characters, and House of Names is no exception.

Agamemnon’s soldiers are land-bound by the wind-less weather that prevents them from sailing their ships into battle. Their leader lures his wife and beautiful daughter Iphigenia to the army’s camp, telling them Iphigenia is to marry the soldier Achilles. Instead, Agamemnon uses Iphigenia to appease the gods and kills her as a sacrifice. The wind arrives, and his army sets sail. Clytemnestra returns to the palace, devastated and filled with vengeance.

With conniving, murderous manipulation, she takes control of the palace guards and governing elders. She releases the prisoner Aegisthus from the palace dungeon and embraces him as her lover and evil co-conspirator. When the victorious Agamemnon returns from war, that night, Clytemnestra stabs him in the neck. Meanwhile, Aegisthus locks her daughter Electra in the palace dungeon and abducts her son Orestes, imprisoning him in the countryside. In response to Clytemnestra’s demand that her son be brought home, Aegisthus replies with power-grabbing steadiness, “I will decide when it is the right time for him to return. I will be the one who decides that.”

After Clytemnestra’s vivid, fateful narrative, we enter the world of Orestes, who escapes his captors. With two fellow escapees, he finds safety on a farm owned by an old woman. There he lives in peace and exile, unknowing of the fate of his family. And then we hear from Electra, aware of what happened to her father and of the evil that lurks in the palace corridors. She daily visits her father’s grave and waits for the return of Orestes, so they can avenge Agamemnon’s murder. Of all the protagonists, Orestes brings gentleness to the story with his innocence. It’s a stark contrast when he returns to the palace, bringing with him a sense of peace from the farm and the deep love he experienced there. And yet, Orestes is the heir to the throne, and justice for his father’s murder requires more killing.

Even if you know this story from Greek history lessons, or the opera Elektra by Richard Strauss, you will not know it like this. The lyric storytelling brings a human understanding to this bloody story, given from within the agony of those involved. For me, the book was hard to put down. And in the end, there’s a kind of hope that begins to rise, with hints of new leadership entering the palace that’s more reasonable and less vengeful.

I’m one who reads the acknowledgements at the back of books. Those mile-long, effusive thanks for all the people who’ve helped the author become an author and/or write the book. I like how this conventional page that typically presents a formidable list of names can shed light on the network of literary others associated with the author, as well as on how the book came together.

Jonathan Evison’s acknowledgements in his new book, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, go beyond the typical, deserving a shout-out. It is one of the best I’ve ever read.

“The author would like to gratefully acknowledge to [sic] following people: first, the courageous women in my life, the women who have nurtured me, educated me, disciplined me, sacrificed for me, suffered for me, and never forsaken me; my mom, my grandma, my sisters, my wife, and my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hanford, to name a few. The women who have often settled for less, the women who’ve never quite gotten their fair share, who have soldiered on in the face of inequity, frustration, and despair, who have forgiven beyond reasonable measure, absorbed beyond reasonable expectation, and given, given, given with no promise of recompense. I wanted to thank them with this portrait of one woman, inspired by all of them, from the moment of her conception, to her last breath.”

This Is Your Life Harriet Chance by Jonathan EvisonThat one woman is 78-year-old Harriet Chance, whose fictional life Evison reveals with quirky brilliance, using a jocular Master of Ceremonies as a guide through Harriet’s reflections of her past life, “pinballing across the decades” between 1936 and 2015. Without sentiment, he advises, explains and encourages, creating a humorous, uplifting narrative despite the darkness that shadows Harriet’s life — the absence and bullying of Harriet’s husband, Bernard, throughout their long marriage; her parents’ indifference when she was a child; her troubled daughter Caroline, who embraced drugs, alcohol and theft; her best friend’s duplicity; and the law degree that got put aside for marriage and kids.

In the present, the widowed, 78-year-old Harriet receives a call about an Alaskan cruise that Bernard won in a silent auction before his death.  Her children discourage her, but off Harriet goes to board the ship, even though her best friend Mildred backs out of the trip at the last minute. The first night on the boat, Harriet learns a startling truth about her past and, in response, gets drunk and messy in the boat’s bar, making a fool of herself with a plateful of crab legs and too many glasses of white wine. Out of the blue, the next day, her estranged daughter Caroline joins her on the boat, for infuriating reasons.

While Harriet marches through the gift shops of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan; makes amends with her daughter; befriends another cruiser, the morbidly obese Kurt Pickens; and attempts to make the best of the trip, she also mentally tries to put her life together in a way that makes sense. Why did she fail to hold the attention of her elusive husband? Why did Caroline become a misfit? How is it her devotion and servitude didn’t help her relationships with Bernard and Caroline? What happened to the frank, uncompromising, funny, tough woman she saw in her other self that wanted to become a lawyer?

“Ding-dong-ding, thwack-thwack-thwack, how on earth did we arrive way back here, Harriet? It’s 1946, and Vaughn Monroe is on the radio. If you listen closely, you can still hear them celebrating victory in Times Square,” says the MC, introducing us to a chapter when Harriet is nine-years-old. This is no ordinary life study, thanks not only to the MC but also the appearances of dead Bernard, popping up in the earthly realm to talk to Harriet, although he’s not sure what he’s trying to accomplish — and he’s getting himself in trouble with Heaven’s Chief Transitional Officer, Carmichael.

Bravo to Evison for pulling off the quirkiness without schmaltz and also departing from the heavy dysfunctional family story with a light touch, an insightful nod to life’s disappointments and a big hand for living one day, one week, one year at a time to the best of one’s abilities, and that includes with courage and forgiveness.

Paulina and Fran by Rachel B. GlaserBy page 50, I was tempted to put this book aside. The author writes without establishing an emotional connection to her protagonists, Paulina and Fran, and I thought I was in for a lackluster read. And yet, when I realized these shallow art school students are caricatured and not meant to be cared about, I mentally stepped back to read the book through an unaffected lens.

I observed the behavior on the page as one would watch an incomprehensible but entertaining play in which friendship is discarded as casually as a used match (and then picked up and put in the trash and then retrieved from the trash). Also, sex is more a commodity of power and self-importance among the art students than an act of love. Paulina and Fran are self-absorbed, arrogant, dishonest, frivolous, jealous and petty. While attending their New England art school, they live without serious consideration for the future, all the while imagining they will live glorious, famous lives. Nowhere in the story are academics or serious artistic values embraced. And if it’s not already obvious, self-image is of prime importance, as is perfect, dreamy curly hair.

This may seem distasteful, but once I let go of my emotional expectations, what was distasteful turned funny, and Rachel B. Glaser’s inventiveness sparkled. The story popped with energy and smart one-liners. Glaser reveals the girls’ silly, valueless existence with sharp wit, laughable scenes and a breezy narrative that sweeps through the pages with the dazzle of a happy Prima Donna.

The plot is thin but made robust with a fill-up of aforementioned wit. Paulina and Fran’s friendship begins during a 10-day college trip to Norway and ends when they’re back in the States. This break-up happens when Paulina dumps her boyfriend Julian and Fran hops into bed and a romantic relationship with him. The girls become competitive yet are haunted by an ever-present yearning for one another. Graduation arrives and strips away their illusions of self-glory: Fran paints houses in Upstate New York before moving to a dull cubicle job in Ohio; Paulina becomes homeless and then makes it big selling an invented curly hair product in Manhattan.

Paulina & Fran gives an exaggerated, lampooning glimpse into the life of art students, dreaming big as if fame arrives magically without the necessary hard work and integrity. Indeed, the Age of Artistic Youth comes across as an everlasting high. In one scene, where Paulina and Fran are dancing at a college party, author Rachel B. Glaser writes:

“The forgotten eighties song came on again, the synthesizer stirring up feelings, and everyone screamed the sound of youth loving youth. Everyone was in the same big mood.”

The story ends with distant orbiting of the girls around Julian and each other that’s altogether perfect albeit without hope. We know it’s doubtful they’ll land in a future that’s secure and successful unless they change, becoming more reality-savvy. The terrific lampooning aside, I wistfully wanted the ending to hint at their evolving maturity, if only for the girls to begin to realize, however slightly, that the best life is the one that’s not all about oneself.

It’s the economy, stupid

October 20, 2015

Refund by Karen E. BenderI put aside Garth Risk Hallberg’s stunning behemoth City On Fire to read Karen E. Bender’s story collection, Refund. City On Fire is engrossing, no doubt there, definitely a good novel to sink into, but I just wanted to step aside for a moment – reading Hallberg’s 900+ pages is a huge investment in reading time, and these 13 collected stories provided the perfect, temporary wayside.

They are tied together by a theme of money — how it rules and changes American lives and the emotional damage and exhaustion that creates. The characters are financially trapped by their jobs, some needing second and third jobs, some getting fired and struggling to make ends meet, some unable to get off the sofa to do anything but go to the job. They are blind to the happiness and security present in togetherness with others, which is the way Bender infuses the stories with hope – because the solution is right there – available — for most of the characters.

These characters include a life-long swindler on an Alaskan cruise, the executive producer of a hit TV game show called “Anything For Money,” a loan officer, an appliance doctor, a political candidate, artists and more. They are funny, familiar, heartbreaking and relatable. In the title story, probably my favorite, a woman astronomically increases the amount a couple owes her as a refund for subletting their apartment in New York when the 9-11 terrorist attack happens. It’s an unforgettable story about money’s inability to replace that aforementioned togetherness.

The author uses a dramatic event to ignite her plots, such as a school shooting that opens “The Sea Turtle Hospital.” The story is about the assistant kindergarten teacher, alone after moving to North Carolina with her boyfriend and then breaking up with him – and about her student, Keisha. No one comes for either of them after the shooting, so the teacher takes Keisha to the sea turtle hospital by the ocean. There they meet the blind turtle Hugh, bumping into the walls of his tank with no way out. The teacher and Keisha imagine what it would be like if Hugh regained his sight, and when they do that, it’s impossible not to think of a metaphor for everyone who is burdened by money’s influence regaining sight of life’s purpose and meaning:

“Maybe, I had said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the deep blue water.”

One day, I was stopped at a forever red stoplight. I picked Refund up off the passenger seat and began reading. I completely let go of my surroundings, violating my rule for stoplight reading that requires me to peripherally be aware of the red brake lights of the car in front of me in order to know when to put the book down. I shouldn’t read at stoplights, I suppose, and this book is a case in point: It grabbed and dragged me into the story so fast I fell out of my present reality, woken by the driver behind me firmly pressing the horn. Huh? What?

Refund by Karen E. Bender is in the final running for the National Book Award in fiction. Winners in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and young people’s literature will be announced November 18.

The title of this post is a tip of the hat to James Carville and the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign.

 

 

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg“Did You Ever Have a Family” appeared on the Man Booker longlist of prize candidates for 2015. It did not make it to the shortlist. (The winner from the shortlist will be announced October 13.) This beguiling novel is now among the longlist of nominees for the National Book Award in fiction. (The shortlist will be announced October 14.) I provide this information simply to showcase the attention the book is getting from this season’s major literature awards.

I recently recorded the following review of “Did You Ever Have a Family” for broadcast on WOSU 89.7 fm.

Mid-way through Bill Clegg’s debut novel, his main character June Reid, a divorced mother in her 50’s, poses the question that is the book’s title. She asks it out of fatigued exasperation, weeping on a log in the woods outside her house in Wells, Connecticut, speaking to the sister of her daughter’s fiancé. Did you ever have a family? It’s an odd question because — of course Pru has a family. Her brother Will is marrying June’s daughter Lolly — and Pru’s parents are flying in the next day for the wedding.

What Clegg frames for emphasis here is June’s despair over the conflict between herself and Lolly. They haven’t gotten along since the divorce, and now June doesn’t want her ex-husband sleeping at the house the night before the wedding, but Lolly insists.

Ultimately, this deeply felt story is about bearing up through tragedy, but by taking this question for the book’s title, Clegg wants to draw us to that moment in the woods as if to say, no matter the state of a family, if you lose it, you lose everything, and June loses everything. The night before the wedding, her house explodes from a gas leak. The wedding couple, June’s ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke die in the blast. Why June is alive is one of the questions pushing forward the narrative, along with the larger question of why the gas leak occurred.

Clegg deftly uses a handful of character viewpoints in dedicated chapters to tell the story. There’s the wedding florist and caterer, the father of the groom and owners of a motel on the Pacific Ocean where Will and Lolly once stayed. June leaves Connecticut and settles at the motel. She abandons Lydia, the mother of Luke whom gossips speculate caused the catastrophe. Lydia, for comfort, clings to the attention of a persistent, flirtatious phone solicitor.

Each character’s offering is compulsively readable as Clegg progressively connects the players not just through heartbreak but also secrets and regrets from the past. The story isn’t as much melancholy as poignant, illustrating the classic truth that disasters make us see what we can lose. It’s also redemptive, as Clegg enlightens June and Lydia in truth and hope. “All we can do is play our parts and keep each other company,” one character says in the end, providing simple wisdom for daily purpose.

The Given World by Marian PalaiaThe Given World is curiously inviting. Not much in the action creates intrigue or question, and yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages. The narrator is a Montana woman named Riley, who physically lives forward into time but remains emotionally stuck in the disappearance of her older brother during the Vietnam War. Something about her, and the way she speaks, kept me reading.

The only time we see Riley and her older brother interacting is in one chapter, on the family farm, months before Mick leaves for college. It’s enough, though, because the scenes perfectly capture nine-year-old Riley enchanted by her protective, wiser brother. He is the center of her world.  The day he begins packing for college, Riley throws stones at him from the roof of the house and then falls and injures herself. We understand how desperate she feels. Four years later, in 1968, when Riley is 13, the Army informs the family that Mick is missing in Vietnam.

We next read about Riley when she’s 16 years old, hooked on mescaline and romantically involved with Darrell, a young man from an Indian reservation near the farm. Darrell devastates her with news of his upcoming departure for Vietnam. Riley gets pregnant and leaves the baby with her parents, moving briefly to Missoula and then permanently to San Francisco. There she works as a driver for the San Francisco Chronicle and then as a bartender.

Riley gets caught in a vortex of incomprehensible loss, taking drugs, drinking and pushing people away, perpetuating a cycle of attachment and loss with those who come into her life. The cycle becomes routine, even predictable, which fulfills the thematic purpose of the story but in the middle slows it down, dampening the initial allure; however, the magic returns, when Riley leaves San Francisco.

Author Marian Palaia evokes, without overstatement, the turbulent atmosphere of the Vietnam era, the California drug culture and the AIDS epidemic in the 1970s and ‘80s. She also adeptly inserts information about Riley’s brother, Mick, throughout the narrative, so we learn what happened to him — that he dropped out of college to enlist, and he fought with the 25th Infantry in Cu Chi as a tunnel rat.

Toward the end of the book, Riley heads back home to Montana. She makes no excuse to her parents for the many wrong choices she made, recognizing a broken heart for a brother who never returned from Vietnam does not deserve to be judged. In that, we hear her begin to move on, in this wise, debut novel with a hugely satisfying ending.

A woman who never compromised

November 11, 2014

Florence Gordon by Brian Moore

Florence Gordon is a renowned feminist, activist and writer whose heyday in the 1970’s marked her as a hero of the Women’s Movement. She is the Big Gorilla in this novel’s cast of characters, a touchstone of truth and one of a kind, to say the least: an intense, blunt, intimidating 75-year-old woman who’s intolerant of distractions. In one scene, annoyed by a friend who constantly checks her BlackBerry, Florence grabs the device and throws it into a pitcher of sangria.

The book’s dramatic pulses lie within the uncertainties Florence’s son Daniel, his wife Janine and their daughter Emily bring to the story. They are temporarily living near Florence on the Upper West Side of New York, thanks to a fellowship Janine is pursuing in psychology. Janine is attracted to her supervisor and tests the waters of an affair. Daniel discovers her attempts and suffers what appears to be a heart attack while Janine attends an out-of-town conference with her lover. Nineteen-year-old Emily also is out of town, exploring sex and drugs with a problematic ex-boyfriend.

Janine’s fellowship is about the complicated relationship between our intentions and our impulses, between the parts of ourselves that seem to be under our control and the parts of ourselves that don’t. Author Brian Morton tugs at us with this concept as Daniel, Janine and Emily wrestle with their confusions and desires. They exist in contrast to the majestic Florence for whom, as Morton writes, “There was no corridor of uncertainty between the decision and the act.”

What makes this novel so engaging is that the characters, living these profound concepts, are funny, colorful and warmly human. Their story is written in precise, upbeat prose with a seductive energy. Morton explores ideas about the Women’s Movement, aging with grace and dignity, and living with integrity.

Florence is unaware of her family’s trials. She keeps herself removed from family and friends, and yet she inspires them.

“Florence’s success had shaken something loose inside Janine. Florence was a woman who had never compromised. And now, at long last, she was reaping the fruits of her courage. So the question, Janine thought, is this: If I exercised a bravery in my own life equivalent to that which Florence has exercised in hers, what would I be doing? What would I be doing differently?”

Meanwhile, Florence writes her memoir, participates on panels and enjoys a renewed celebrity status due to a prominent New York Times book review that describes her as a national treasure. However, her left foot begins to drag. It’s annoying at first, and then, after medical tests, it becomes the beginning of this memorable character’s final challenge. She faces it, not surprisingly, with conviction, giving her family — and us, as readers — an example of what it’s like to live boldly with trust in one’s beliefs.

"The Hour of Lead" by Bruce HolbertWhen I read an author’s second novel — and I’ve not read the first one — I feel like I’ve walked into a show in the second act. I’m not talking about novels in a series, such as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or detective sequences. This is about literary novels or stand-alones, and it happens especially when the first book, the author’s debut, is a five-star stunner that I’ve missed for one reason or another.

When the second novel comes out, I’m eager to get acquainted with the new, lauded writer. My expectations are high. I’m thinking I’ll be swept away with awesomeness, but many times the second novel doesn’t measure up to expectations created from what I’ve read about the amazing debut. That’s where I stand with The Hour of Lead, Bruce Holbert’s new, second novel.

Similar to his first novel (which I haven’t read), it takes us deep into the culture of the American West in Washington state. The Hour of Lead, without a doubt, is written with gorgeous prose, the kind that loops around a thought in long, poetic sentences, evoking impressionistic images of the territory. The strength of the story lies in a tragedy that takes place in 1918, in the first pages, and rings in an echo throughout the rest of the book: A monumental snow storm suddenly sweeps into Lincoln County, Washington, taking the life of protagonist Matt Lawson’s twin brother and father. The event permanently unsettles Matt’s sense of himself. He’s unable to fully love and remains constantly vulnerable to simmering rage. We care about him, and that’s what saves this otherwise problematic novel.

Matt as a teenager, alone with his mother, continues to run the family farm. Wendy, the grocer’s daughter, becomes Matt’s first and only love, but their relationship is shattered by a gross misunderstanding. Wendy delivers her rejection with a gunshot wound, and Matt vanishes like an injured animal. He finds jobs away from home, eventually settling in as a dedicated workman for a 70-year-old man whose lazy son gambles and drinks. Meanwhile, Wendy, feeling guilty, moves in with Matt’s mother to help on the farm.

Nineteen years pass until Matt is able to face Wendy again. His return comes at a time when the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is breaking apart the area’s farms. So, too, at this point, does the story break apart. Events are colorful, violent and dramatic, but they equate to plot movement without engagement, and lose our emotional tie to the heart of the story — of Matt as a broken man, who knows being the one survivor of the snow storm changed him forever and confesses to Wendy, “I’m not right.” Also, those gorgeous sentences begin to feel forced and wrestled.

Matt and Wendy marry, raise two children and scrape by with Matt’s job on the Coulee Dam. Their story ends in Hallmark fashion, surrounded by grandchildren. What we are to make of it all, I’m not sure, with no sense of resolution or meaning – no fundamental gift from the storytelling given to us upon the last page, where the author is merely clever and has lost the atmosphere and pull of Matt’s story.

Whether or not I read Bruce Holbert’s first novel, Lonesome Animals, remains to be determined. Reading a debut after the second novel isn’t the same as experiencing an author’s first, fresh, exciting burst onto the literary scene. Meanwhile, I just finished Tom Rachmann’s debut The Imperfectionists, published four years ago. It’s a terrific novel about editors and reporters working for an English newspaper based in Rome, now out in paperback. I read it because Rachmann’s second novel is out this summer, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers. I wanted to be ready for it.

 

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.S.

The Undertaking opens with a wedding, but it’s not a typical exchange of romantic vows. A German soldier named Peter Faber commits to Katharina Spinell from the battlefield. Her photo is tied to a nearby post of a barbed wire fence. A thousand miles away in Berlin, at exactly the same moment, Katharina commits to Peter in a similar ceremony. They’ve never met. Both are taking part in a war pact that ensures honeymoon leave for Peter and a widow’s pension for Katharina in the event of Peter’s death.

It’s a unique premise for a World War II novel that Audrey Magee, in an interview with her editor, says she discovered in conversation with a  German restaurant owner. He spoke of his WWII experiences as a transport pilot and happened to mention that he married a woman he’d never met so he could get honeymoon leave. The concept fascinated this talented first-time author and helped shape the structure of a novel that had been brewing for a long time.

Regarding that brewing, Magee describes an earlier incident involving a visit to Dachau with a Jewish-American man. The concentration camp was closed, so they walked the perimeter and met a German woman tending her garden who’d lived all her life next to the camp. In a heated discussion, Magee heard from the woman an everyday existence lived with a blind eye turned to what was happening during the war, even next door. This, too, helped shaped The Undertaking.

Magee writes this unforgettable novel in spare prose that’s void of elaborate description and inner thoughts of the characters. The dialogue is written with a staccato rhythm. But don’t for a moment think the result is a dry story. It’s instead quite profound and vivid in its stark portrayal of ordinary Germans waiting for the war to be over, with Germany as the ruling empire, Berlin at the center of the world. Not much description or explanation is needed – their delusion speaks for itself, as does their selfishness and casual cruelty.

The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

First edition, published in the U.K.

Surprisingly, during their honeymoon in Berlin, Katharina and Peter like each other and even fall in love. After their short time together, Peter returns to the Eastern Front where he faces the monumental Battle of Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Katharina enters the upper echelons of Nazi social society.

Shortly after Peter leaves, Katharina and her parents get to move into a luxury home due to their connection to the Führer’s inner circle. The apartment is filled with the previous owner’s lavish belongings. Katharina’s mother chillingly says, “It’s our turn now … our turn at the good life.” Katharina’s father trashes the library books and also a white marble bust of the composer Mendelssohn, which is later replaced with Wagner.  In this instance, as in many others, the novel’s power is drawn from what’s implied and what we already know from history.

The narrative superbly goes back and forth between Katharina and Peter’s worlds, the one filled with cakes and holiday parties, the other with battles, horrific starvation and bitter cold. Their belief in a normal life with each other at the end of the war sustains their hope, but the bombing of Berlin and the defeat at Stalingrad change everything.

Katharina and Peter’s WWII story grips us with unsettling power from beginning to end in this magnificent new book. It is scheduled for publication end of the summer. Eager readers, however, can purchase the U.K. edition (the real first edition) from The Mysterious Bookshop — their books are signed firsts, a treasure for collectors, and because of that and the U.K. origin, you’ll pay a bit more.

Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.

Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)

Ordinary Grace by William Kent KruegerBest Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.

The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.

William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.

The Wicked Girls by Alex MarwoodBest Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood

I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.

Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”

What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.

Best Short Story

Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.

Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.

 

Redeployment by Phil KlayI want to begin with a scene from one of the 12 stories in Phil Klay’s debut to illustrate the collection’s impact when communicating what it’s like to be a soldier and a U.S. Marine. Klay, a Dartmouth graduate, is a former U.S. Marine who served in the Iraq conflict, and so we know his imagined storytelling draws from personal exposure and perhaps experience. All the narrators in Redeployment speak to us in the first person. They are U.S. Marines predominantly in Iraq but also Afghanistan. In this one scene from the title story, Sergeant Price has just returned to civilian life. His wife takes him shopping in the city.

What he sees are windows. Everywhere. People walking past them “like it’s no big deal.” The last time he walked down a city street, it was in Fallujah with heavily armed fellow Marines methodically scanning rooftops and windows for anything out-of-place because in the city “there’s a million places they can kill you from.” In the safe American city, our narrator startles several times, checking for his weapon, but it’s not there. Everything inside him is wired for high alert. His wife gives him clothes to try on in American Eagle Outfitters, and once inside the dressing room, Sgt. Price doesn’t want to come out. In this brief scene, the pressure on a returning soldier to calibrate extremes seizes us with piercing clarity.

In the shortest story, Klay fills the narrative with military acronyms without defining them and so immerses us in the lingo. The technique is powerful, telling less a story than putting us inside the military atmosphere: “EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.”

These U.S. Marines we spend time with in Redeployment wrestle with the honor and thrill of being war heroes and the guilt of their actions. They don’t want people back home to thank them or say they respect them or act like some caring person. They yearn for women but cannot connect to them beyond sexual need. And once out of the war, they live a discrepancy between us and them that’s stressfully noble and heart-rending. One veteran, pressed to tell stories, fabricates details and spins them according to what he thinks the civilian listeners want to hear, until one time he tells the truth, and he never tells another story again.

Klay digs deeply, honestly and convincingly into the inner lives of his men, using a range of narrators — from a solider in psychological operations to one in mortuary affairs; from an artillery gunner to an adjutant; from a military chaplain to a foreign service officer. What they all have in common is  experience in a place that lives and breathes daily violence and defies civilian comprehension, including the dissonant concept of killing that equates to a good day’s work. In one story, soldiers dance naked on a rooftop to incite insurgents to open fire, creating an opportunity for the Marines to fire back and inflate their kill stats.

Redeployment falls under the category of essential storytelling that takes us away from this world and then puts us back in it with a firmer grip on our perception of the Marine combat experience. It’s impressive, enduring fictional truth that’s so effective we know, with our deepest feelings, what lies behind the military chaplain’s statement when he says, “Most Marines are good kids. Really good kids. But it’s like they say, this is a morally bruising battlefield.”

 

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerFew novels capture me as did this one, Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his Southern Reach Trilogy. To say I couldn’t put it down doesn’t do justice to the ever-present sense of the story that followed me for days. When I wasn’t reading Annihiliation, I was thinking about reading it, spellbound by VanderMeer’s eerie Area X and the biologist who is persistent in her desire to understand it. She is among four women, including an anthropologist, psychologist and surveyor, who comprise the twelfth expedition sent by the Southern Reach, a clandestine government agency, to map the terrain, collect specimens and document the mysteries of this formerly inhabited wilderness. For 30 years, Area X, adjacent to a military base, has been cut off from civilization because of an environmental catastrophe, according to a vague official statement.

As the women hike from the border to the coastal base camp, they experience a pristine, empty landscape and take note of a derelict lighthouse in the distance, a symbol of the old order. And yet, they know something malevolent exists within the Eden-like environment. Members of the second expedition committed suicide. Members of the third shot each other. Members of the eleventh, that included the biologist’s husband, disbanded and returned to their families by unknown means with altered personalities.

On the fourth day, they discover a tunnel — or is it an underground tower? —  that is neither on their maps nor in documents left by their predecessors. Words written in raised, fern-like moss cling to the left wall, churned out by an incomprehensible force from the tunnel’s depths. When the biologist leans close to study the cursive writing, a burst of spores enter her nose and heighten her senses, changing her in ways that provide clarity and a visible brightness.

Bizarre as this sounds, the plot is delivered with such sophisticated storytelling, it doesn’t seem bizarre at all. Instead, the indefinable threat that’s underlying every moment, every action and every page credibly puts us on edge in this concisely written tale of chilling, inexplicable occurrences. In addition, VanderMeer keeps us unsettled with questions about things that don’t make sense. Why does the Southern Reach continue sending expeditions? Why did they lie during training? Why do people keep volunteering to go?

The biologist narrates with a powerful combination of intelligence, curiosity and vulnerability that’s riveting. Her self-contained nature sets her apart from the others, who quickly succumb to the breaking powers of Area X. She enters the lighthouse alone, where she discovers a pile of discarded journals kept by previous expeditions, including one written by her husband. And she plumbs the furthest depths of the tunnel alone and encounters the writer of the words in an experience that is fantastical and complex — an encounter with “the most beautiful, the most terrible thing” she inadequately calls the Crawler.

I rarely care whether or not I read future books in a series, even if I was riveted by the first book. But that’s not true for the Southern Reach Trilogy. I’m impatient for the next installment. I want back into Area X, and I need to find out what’s happening with the biologist. At the end of Annihilation, she makes a decision, and I want to know where it will take her. Also, I want all those other questions answered. I simply have to know.

The three volumes of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy will be published in 2014: Annihilation (out now), Authority (May 2014) and Acceptance (September 2014).

Norwegian by NightYou wouldn’t immediately conclude Norwegian by Night is a crime novel by the cover illustration. That little boy in his Viking hat is too endearing. And yet, he’s a child on the run in Oslo, Norway, protected by American Jew, former Marine and Korean War vet, 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz – the man standing beside him, who made the hat.

While murder and revenge fuel the plot, at the book’s heart is a moving story about an old man, a recent widower, haunted by his Korean War experiences and his son’s death in the Vietnam War. Sheldon engages in imagined conversations with his son Saul as well as with other dead persons: Mario, who soldiered with Sheldon during the Korean War and Bill, a pawn shop owner in New York City where Sheldon spent his career repairing watches.

Sheldon has recently moved to land of the trolls (his label) to live with his grand-daughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband, Lars, a video game developer. Rhea, concerned for her grandfather’s loneliness and dementia, convinced him to move in with her. One day, alone in the apartment, Sheldon opens the door to a distressed Serbian neighbor and her six-year-old son. They need to hide from the son’s violent father, who raped the woman when she lived in Kosovo, a victim of the Serbian and Kosovo Albanian conflict. The Kosovar has come to Norway to get his son, conceived during the rape. Sheldon and the boy, hiding in a closet, hear him murder the woman.

Sheldon grasps his protective responsibility with the courage of someone who has nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s a momentous opportunity for this proud veteran who encouraged his son to fight for America and suffers the guilt of his death. Now, here is a chance to save someone else’s son.  Sheldon steals and lies and thieves his way through Oslo to get the boy he calls Paul to safety.  Steadfast, acerbic Oslo police chief Sigrid Ødegård and her police force look for the missing old man and boy, as do men from Kosovo, wanting to abduct the boy.

Half the fun in this novel is the topic of Sheldon’s “debatable” dementia. This octogenarian argues he’s not losing his memory, rather finding coherence in a past that’s rushing in unbidden during his last years, demanding reason and closure. Author Derek B. Miller portrays him as spunky, outspoken, often belligerent, disrespectful and fearless, rather than old and senile. Indeed, Sheldon with his Penthouse coffee mug, Danielle Steel reading selection and suspicion of North Koreans stalking his every move warrants a place in the Colorful Characters Hall of Fame.

As for that Viking hat sported by the boy on the book’s cover, when the old man places it on Paul’s head and puts him in front of a mirror, Sheldon exclaims: “‘Paul the Viking! Paul the Completely Disguised Albanian Kid Who Is Not on the Run Through the Norwegian Hinterland with an Old Fool. What do you think?'” Kicker is, the boy doesn’t speak English, and Sheldon doesn’t speak Norwegian.

There’s a final showdown at Rhea and Lars’ summer cabin in the woods, where Sheldon seeks safety. Here he employs military tactics he learned during his soldiering days and lives up to his spectacular personality. The ending is very satisfying, as is Norwegian by Night altogether, delving into issues that concern aging and memory, war crimes and revenge – two themes Derek B. Miller integrates with savvy, dry wit and serious questions into an unsettling, shocking crime story.

Signed copy of Norwegian by Night

You run the race you run

October 1, 2013

Brewster_ARC_11_28.inddIn this soul-stirring coming-of-age novel, Mark Slouka envelops us with a familiar yearning, a looking back to the high school years, a period of time that keeps a piece of you. He does it so successfully the nostalgic tone lingers, like an advertising jingle, each time you put the book down. And it draws you back to the book, that beckoning siren of an intimate fictional world, the prose at times poetic and melancholy, at other times conversationally brisk and intelligently funny, as it recounts the tight bond between narrator Jon Mosher and his buddy Ray Cappicciano.

What unites the teen-aged boys is their desire to get out of small-town, go-nowhere Brewster, New York, where they feel trapped by its oppressive sameness and their broken families. It is 1968, they are sophomores, Jon a runner and Ray a street fighter. They meet over lunch in the school cafeteria, and soon it becomes evident their similarity is more about what lies behind their hatred of Brewster — their loneliness — than the town itself. The two boys spend hours together walking — in the woods, around the reservoir, along the railroad tracks and between their distant homes. “It was all we had,” Jon says. Their friendship gives them sanctuary away from their painfully unloving parents who, in Jon’s case, ignore him after the tragic death of his brother, and, in Ray’s case, leave him (his mother) and abuse him (his ex-cop father). Their friendship gives them the trust and love they get nowhere else.

The plot gently moves forward, its power not in the action but the boys Slouka keeps us focused on, as Jon excels on the school’s track team and Ray continually gets into fights, disappearing for days and then reappearing beat-up. Through the three years they spend together, they hang out, watch Ray’s baby brother, Gene, and avoid parents and teachers. When they stay at each other’s houses we get uncomfortable scenes where the parents belittle their own sons and engage the friend with weird, unreserved hospitality. The boys’ bond of friendship never wavers, even when Karen Dorsey becomes Ray’s girlfriend. Instead, they include Karen in its strength and compassion. Jon describes the romance as “intended” and “inevitable,” even though Ray and Karen are opposites: “the delinquent and the debutante, darkness and light, the hair-trigger brawler bleeding in the mud and the girl who sees the heart in him.”

Slouka’s characters jump to life with vivid personalities: Ray’s creepy, drunk father, Jon’s severely depressed mother and their other high-school friend, Frank, a Jesus-loving javelin thrower who’s a fan of Perry Como. And then, there’s Mr. Falvo, the American history teacher and Jon’s track coach, who made me laugh out loud. He’s described as “not a simple guy,” the uplift in this novel barking encouragement at the students with humor and wit, “a happy man…condemned to love this world the way a father might love his convict son. Helplessly. Knowing better.” In the background, as distant presence, the Vietnam War draft hovers and Woodstock makes history. The radio plays Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Doors.

Near the end of Brewster, Jon learns to accept his wins and losses. He realizes, “You run the race you run — there’s always going to be something,” as he begins to understand the imperfection of track events and also of the world around him. His friendship with Ray, though, is one of endurance and deep love, impervious to such flaws. And yet, beyond the confines of school, the flawed, real world forces Jon and Ray in an unwanted direction, creating a powerful and heartbreaking conclusion.

Justice for the disappeared

September 11, 2013

Mapuche by Caryl FereyThis year, Europa Editions brings Caryl Férey’s Mapuche to English-speaking readers. Europa Editions publishes literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world. Mapuche is translated from the French by Steven Rendall, and it’s one of the most fascinating and intensely engaging novels I’ve read all year.

A transvestite, Luz, appears to be randomly murdered one night at the Buenos Aires docks where she works. The police aren’t interested in finding the killer, so Miguel, a.k.a. Paula, also a “tranny,” seeks the help of her friend Jana, a sculptress and the eponymous Mapuche — Jana is descended from indigenous Argentine Mapuche, who were driven from their native land in the late 19th century. When Jana tries to hire private investigator Reubén Calderon, he refuses to get involved with the Luz murder – Reubén concerns himself only with los desaparecidos, the thousands of innocent people who disappeared and were tortured during the repressive Argentine dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Reubén himself was abducted in 1978, but he returned from the torture and exile, unlike his father and sister. Both Jana and Reubén are emotionally broken, but they are mentally strong and fiercely loyal to speaking out for those who’ve been silenced and dispossessed. They come together in purpose when a photographer and daughter of a prominent industrialist vanishes, and there’s a connection between her and the transvestite, Luz.

Layered with complexity, never faltering in its tension, Mapuche unfolds in scenes of pursuit, confrontation, history and investigative untangling. Each new level of intrigue is smartly paced, and the cliffhangers are so gripping in some scenes it’s hard not to find relief by reading ahead. (I’m not one to read ahead and yet, I couldn’t stand the intensity and so flipped the pages ahead but didn’t read them, as if the act itself could offer relief in the pause.) And then, there is romance, drawing us in even closer to these two colorful and very likable protagonists.

There are torture scenes, and they are horrific; however, Férey describes these scenes just enough to illustrate what’s happening and then retreats before it becomes unbearable (at least for this reader).  What makes this dark, fast-paced shocker so powerful is the plot’s deep roots in Argentine history, and the brutality is part of that history.

Mapuche is brilliantly conceived, thrilling crime fiction.

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