Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Barbarian Nurseries

I have to compare The Barbarian Nurseries to The Help. Both novels are about the inequities between the moneyed and their domestic servants and shine a light on the plight of those the majority opts to keep voiceless in society. And. I'll be honest I am not a big fan of the novel The Help.

We all know the story that The Help tells correct? Ok then moving on to The Barbarian Nurseries by HéctorTobar. In this contemporary novel the Torres-Thompson family of Los Angeles and their illegal Mexican housekeeper, Araceli become the center of a media storm. Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson and their three young children are currently on a downwardly mobile, downsizing spree after comfortable affluence. They have excised the gardener and the nanny and now only have their housekeeper as their badge of success.

When the troubles in their marriage accelerate into an argument that sends Maureen through a glass coffee table she flees with the baby. In the meantime Scott needs his break and he goes off to make himself feel better with another woman. Neither Maureen nor Scott has bothered to tell Araceli that she is now alone and in charge of the two young boys.

Having no instructions from their parents and indeed not knowing where Maureen and Scott are and when they will be back, Araceli decides to bring the boys to their Grandfather’s home in a different part of L.A. This is no simple over the river and through the woods trip to Grandfather’s house. Araceli has only a vague idea of how to get where she feels compelled to bring the boys for their own wellbeing. Their journey is a trip through a reality that verses the economically and socially cloistered lives of the status seeking Torres-Thompsons.

Tobar takes this framework and escalates the plot twists into an all too believable frenzy. The parents and the missing maid with children in tow are the stuff that media circuses feed off of. Tobar spares no character, no social concern, no popular theory his inventive, warts and all scrutiny in this mesmerizing novel.

So? The Help and The Barbarian Nurseries? They both have an important message to impart about the shamefully real circumstances of oppressed people in a free, wealthy nation and are written by talented storytellers. However The Help is ultimately a feel good victory of the morally worthy underdog story whereas The Barbarian Nurseries is a more honest and therefore more scathing novel that doesn’t allow the reader the safety of either distance or deniability. A+.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Leopard

You know, back in the day I would have thought that in the fictional universe Cabot Cove was the murder capitol of the world but I have since realized, as we all have, that title belongs to Scandinavia. Just in case there are any doubts here is the new Harry Hole novel, The Leopard, by Jo Nesbø to reinforce my opinion.

In his previous novel Nesbø had Harry catching a serial killer known as The Snowman and almost losing himself in the process.  In The Leopard Nesbø finds another multiple murderer for Harry to investigate. Apparently there’s a lot of that going around in Norway.  Not to worry however Harry Hole is here to if not make sense of it then to at least put the bad guys behind bars.

Harry is my go to read among the Scandinavian crime spree novels. I never fell under the spell of Steig Larson or Henning Menkell but Jo Nesbø gets the job done for me. Harry has many of the classic detective attributes: problems with authority, a wealth of failed relationships and a liking for all the things that are bad for him but Nesbø is talented enough to make all that fresh.

The plot of The Leopard? Nesbø knows how to make it big, fast moving, stuffed with good characters and keep everything one step ahead of his readers. You will not hear any details or a summary from me. I don’t want to give away a morsel of a mystery if I can help it.  Suffice to say that The Leopard is every bit as good, as intense and as satisfying as Nesbø’s other (Excellent!) Harry Hole novels.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Got A Kindle Fire So Why Am I Complaining?

I have never desired an e-reader. There are aesthetic reasons, textural reasons, shopping reasons and the biggest reason of all. I simply do not want to turn a book on in order to read it. Being a reader to me is something exciting, enjoyable sometimes beyond measure, private (Yes, I blog reviews but only one other human who knows me knows that I do that and thus it shall ever be.) and completely devoid of technology. I do not want a book with an “On” button.

Last month a dear friend of mine was given an Amazon Kindle Fire as a party favor. Take a moment and imagine that life. Not only is this friend no reader but she has all the tech toys she wants. If as the result of a Christmas miracle she should suddenly want to read she could do so quite easily on I this-es and that-s.

So dear friend sent me this Kindle Fire with a note saying, “I know you don’t want this but try it and pass it on if you hate it.” I have followed her instructions. The outcome is that after playing with the Kindle and reading on the Kindle off and on for 3 weeks I do hate it. Not only is this machine boring and s-l-o-w but it’s ugly. The  layout of the ‘home page’, the carousel thing and the fact that these images cannot be altered and arranged on a background of my choosing instead of the hideous faux wooden bookcase (What is the point of that by the way? Is the unpleasant looking shelving supposed to lull me into thinking that in my hands is a marvelous library?) offends my sensibilities.

I don’t like the name of the thing either, Kindle Fire. Owwww… it will kindle you’re love of reading. Seriously? This was the best thinking that a giant, global company like Amazon could come up with? People got paid for thinking up this name and deciding that it was the right choice? What kind of world do we live in?

The Fire part? Why? It’s so hot, it will burning up the competition, set your mind on fire? Or perhaps it’s Amazon’s not so subtle hope that paper books will now only be good for setting on fire and using as kindling?

I have no problem with others liking e-readers. Go your own way people. My way is the kill a tree and make me a book out of it way. The Kindle Fire formerly known as mine has a new master, my nephew. He’s happy to have it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Catherine the Great verses Charles Dickens

I read a lot of biographies but I almost never (and by that I mean never I think) review them here. Why? I somehow don't feel qualified to do that. I'm no historian or scholar so I cannot comment on accuracy or compare the newest bio of Jack Big Cheese with the book that was considered the definitive bio of Jack when it was released five years ago. However I somehow do feel equal to the task of sharing my opinions on fiction. 

Go figure. We all have issues.

The last two biographies I read were so completely satisfying, entertaining and enlightening that I am forced to write about them. I don’t want anyone who has the slightest interest in these two books to pass on them for any reason. Reviewing these biographies is not a wave of change but rather my continuing, overwhelming desire to force the books that I enjoy onto others. Let the nagging begin.

Must read #1 is Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. You already know the basics of Dickens life going into this book so why read the bio? As readers all that enriches your reading experience is worth investigating and that’s what this book will do. Not only does Tomlinson tell Dickens’ story but she also tells the story of his novels. In a sense reading Charles Dickens is like taking an amazing course on Victorian history, the life of Charles Dickens and the novels of Dickens given by the professor of your dreams.

The biggest surprise for me regarding Charles Dickens: A Life? It was the extent of which money controlled his life. The fear of not having it, the many ways he earned it, money verses art and the amount of money he needed.

Must read #2 is Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie. Again you know the basics so why read the bio? Well there is the woman herself. A truly unique, ahead of her time, heroine and then there is the mystery of Russia. Massie does justice to them both. Massie explains how a minor German princess became one of the most powerful leaders in history with all the juicy enthusiasm of a novelist and all the big picture insight of a Monday morning quarterback.

The biggest surprise? The control that Catherine was able to take over her own life despite having to kowtow to an Empress that could change Catherine’s life with as much effort as it takes to swat a fly. Catherine the Great might be the ultimate example of reinventing yourself.

Massie and Tomalin are no Johnny-come-lately-s to writing amazing biographies. They each have a rich pile of work under their belt. In Charles Dickens and Catherine the Great they have chosen subjects worthy of their attention and our fascination. They are masters at the creation of great reading out of thorough research. No small feat. You don’t read Charles Dickens: A Life and Catherine the Great Portrait of a Woman so much as you settle in with two spellbinding storytellers who happily acquaint you with the fascinating life and times of the most remarkable people you wish you had met.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Hummingbird's Daughter

The Hummingbird’s Daughter is the kind of ask no questions novel that you surrender yourself to.  Author Luis Alberto Urrea has based his novel on the life of his Aunt Teresita, the “Saint of Cabors”. If even half of the events in the book really happened then Aunt Teresita had an amazing life. Teresita’s life is a series journeys between poverty, revolutions and miracles.
Teresita was born out of wedlock in 1873 to a fourteen year old Yaqui girl and a rich rancher near the Mexico-Arizona border. Despite living in gut wrenching poverty Teresita shows that she has “gifts” and comes to the attention of the local medicine woman who takes Teresita on as an apprentice. This leads to Teresita being taken into her Father’s home and recognized by him as his daughter. When this happy ending is brutally torn apart it paves the way for the miracle that changes Teresita’s forever.
Teresita’s life is a pilgrimage. Among disenfranchised, the believers, the native peoples and the working class Mexicans her healing gifts win her a passionate following. Teresita’s own belief in her powers is not as steadfast. Those abilities also make her a person of interest to the Mexican government and the Catholic Church.       
Urrea’s writing captures the scope that a cradle to grave story requires by coupling Teresita’s story with a larger view of the period and by removing Terrsita’s halo. His portrait of the “Saint of Cabors” does not whitewash the woman that Teresita was or the people who surrounded her.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter is a storyteller’s novel. The writing is lush, the story is equal parts sacred and profane and it moves at an agreeably leisurely pace.

P.S. These are the many covers The Hummingbird’s Daughter has had. The edition I read had this cover on the left, an earlier edition had the cover bellow. These paperback covers are so pedestrian, so expecte. They are generic historical fiction covers #4 and #2. Snooze.

The big winner is the original hardcover. Isn’t this gorgeous? Why wasn’t this cover used on the paperback?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bright and Distant Shores

Set in the late 1800’s, Dominic Smith’s third novel, Bright and Distant Shores follows a Heart of Darkness template. It is the kind of historical fiction that takes men out of their natural elements, puts them in worlds where they should never be and then adds a crisis.

Following a vogue of the time a Chicago insurance kingpin Hale Gray finances an expedition to the South Seas to gather up an array of Melanesian artifacts with which to decorate his new skyscraper. Seems the perfect collection to celebrate the latest World’s Tallest Building, right? Along with the weapons, bowls and other crafts the expedition is also charged with bringing back several natives. Hmmm…

Enter the historical novel’s required orphan, Owen. Owen is the son of a late demolitions expert from the South Side.  A previous trip to Melanesia brought Owen to the attention of Gray and that led to him to hire Owen to lead a new voyage to Melanesia in order to plunder. Owen leaves the girl he loves behind and off he goes. Trouble starts almost immediately. The crew is made up of ex-cons and Jethro the spoiled son of Gray who is brought on as the expedition’s resident naturalist despite his lack of any useful experience in that area.

Owen is not happy about Gray’s insistence that some natives, related by blood, be brought back to Chicago. However despite Owens misgivings Argus Niu, a failed warrior turned Protestant  mission houseboy and his sister Malini are selected to make the return trip along with the handicrafts and wild animals. Once in the city Argus and Malini are forced to perform in racist and degrading parodies of native life.

The history in Bright and Distant Shores is interesting, the characters are strong with good backstories but it is in the blurring of worlds that this novel really excels. We start out knowing where the divide is between civilization and the wild and then Dominic Smith slowly erases that line. Bright and Distant Shores is impressively propelled by writing that entertains and questions.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Tides of War

It’s always considered a great compliment when you can say that a work of nonfiction reads like fiction but when fiction reads like nonfiction? Not so good.

Historian Stella Tillyard has written several acclaimed history books including the bestselling (and excellent) The Aristocrats*. Now she has turned her fascination with the Regency Period into a first novel, Tides of War set during the Peninsula War. This period is well known territory for Georgette Heyer fans. Of course it is also the time of Pride and Prejudice but since Austen didn’t write about the politics of the day these two novels might as well take place on different planets.

Tides of War is the story of newlyweds James and Harriet Raven and their dealings with every other person in Spain and England from 1812 to 1815. True, sort of. The Ravens do interact intimately with: the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, Nathan Rothschild, Fredric Winsor, Goya and then all the  various other historical figures who flit in and out in cameo roles,  a few  mistresses, illegitimate offspring, hundreds of soldiers, politicians, scientists and servants by the score. I estimate that by page 50 you will have been introduced to approximately 40 different characters.

Somewhere in this crush of interesting characters is a terrific historical novel. The problem is that Tillyard was not able to leave out any scrap of research or insightful anecdote she came across in order for the story to come through. It is in there. You get glimpses of it amidst all the facts along with some absolutely gorgeous descriptions of everything from the first days of gaslight to the battlefields in Spain. There is certainly a good novelist in Tillyard and a very good novel buried in Tides of War but unfortunately there wasn’t a good editor bringing them both together.

*Sadly The Aristocrats in out of print in the U.S. at the moment. It is worth trying to find in your library or a used bookstore.  It was made into an outstanding  miniseries that was every bit as good as the book. You might like that as well. I did.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Death Comes to Pemberley

It is a truth universally acknowledged that fan fiction is a sad pastiche of greater writing. Is this still true when P.D. James is the fan? The short answer is a yes, but…

In her new crime novel, Death Comes to Pemberley, James creates a murder mystery for Darcy and Elizabeth to play Nick and Nora with. Darcy and Elizabeth have now been married for 6 years, they have an heir and a spare and are in general thriving. That is until sister Lydia shows up hysterical, a search has to be made for Wickham and when his is found he’s bending over a fresh corpse.

James uses her expert eye for detail, thorough research on life and law in Georgian England and obvious love of Jane Austen to great effect then  has fun with it all. James adds bonus Austen references for the sharp-eyed to spot but she also adds her own non-Jane interests to the novel. Unlike life in Austenland, James’ early 1800’s English gentry feel the effects of the Napoleonic wars and other then current events.
Darcy who in Pride and Prejudice is a straight out of stock romantic hero becomes a fully fledged, three dimensional character in Death Comes to Pemberley.  He gets much more of the story from James than he did from Austen’s pen. Meanwhile at times Elizabeth comes across a tad duller compared to her former sparkling self.

You are not going to read Death Comes to Pemberley to get a mystery the caliber of a James’ Adam Dalgliesh book nor will you read it to discover a new Jane Austen. This novel falls enjoyably enough in between those two high water marks. It gives you the opportunity to spend time with beloved characters, do a little sleuthing and reward yourself for your Austen knowledge

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nanjing Requiem

One of the novels I have been looking forward to the most this fall is Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin. Alas…my expectations, very high after Jin’s previous six novels, were not met.
In 1937 Japanese troops took control of the Chinese capital of Nanjing from the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese then literally wreaked havoc on the civilians of Nanjing. In just the starting weeks of the occupation Japanese soldiers killed over 250,000 men, women and children and 20,000 women and girls were raped. As the weeks went on these numbers escalated.  
Jin has mixed a number of real historical and fictional characters from this horror and built his novel about Nanjing around them. His main pull from real life is Minnie Vautrin. Vautrin was an American missionary who tried to protect the thousands of civilians who came to the college she worked at, Ginling Girls College, seeking asylum.
There are a lot of amazing storytelling bones here and Ha Jin has proven many times before that he can write.  However his concise, documentary style doesn’t serve him well here. After an incredible, atmospheric beginning the novels stalls. Jin’s technique doesn’t fulfill the emotional need this horrendous story creates. The distance between Jin’s writing and the events of the novel is too great.
You might wonder why this shameful episode in history isn’t more widely known but then that would leave you  to wonder about how many other episodes just as horrific as this there are that you have never heard of. What happened in Nanking is something everyone should know more about but don’t bother with Nanjing Requiem. Go directly to Iris Chang's excellent The Rape of Nanking instead.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bring Up the Bodies

Is today my birthday? Is it Christmas? No. Is it the happiest day of the year? Oh yes it is!!!! The pub date for Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall was announced today. How wonderful is that? I know it is an un-measurable amount of wonderful.

This truly anticipated novel will be released in Britain in May 2012. The U.S. edition will be published in the fall of 2012. Five months later? What the heck? I'm not waiting that long I'll get it from Britain. Does my girl Hilary's U.S. publisher really think that I would be content to let whole other continents have this book months before I do?

Previously we were told that the title would be The Mirror and the Light but that has been changed. The title will now be Bring Up the Bodies.
It's like I have a new reason to live.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


One of the reasons that I like to mystery novels is their diversity. Not the same old, same old part where someone is killed that’s a given. I mean the settings.  You can pass through menopause and beyond waiting for contemporary, non-American novelists to be translated into English but because of the insatiable appetite of mystery fans, foreign mystery writers get translated into English more frequently than their fiction writing counterparts. And. If that weren’t enough there are always the mystery books written in English but set in faraway lands. Many is the happy day that a good mystery has fulfilled my need to read about Elsewhere.

The same can be said for historical mysteries. Hilary Mantel is not finished with the sequel to Wolf Hall yet (Hurry up!) so I need to keep occupied. A nice tagalong with a detective before there was such a thing or the court dressmaker who cannot help but solve the murder of Madame Le Somesuch because she is just that smart and nosy can really keep a girl steeped in life as it once was. The lovely bonus is that often a historical mystery is also a mystery set across an ocean from me.

So…that leads me to Devil-Devil by Graeme Kent. A first for me this mystery is set in the Solomon Islands. And! It takes place in the early 1960’s. Could this be a win-win for me? Another new place and time to explore via the troubles of a gumshoe.

Ben Kella was born on the island of Malaita but educated in the Western tradition. He attended Catholic schools, was sent to college in Australia and then worked with the both the London and Manhattan police agencies. He is a man who wears two hats within his community. He is a sergeant in the Islands’ police force and an Aofia. That means that he has the hereditary job of peacekeeper of the Lau people. On the surface it would seem that these jobs could nicely dovetail one another but no. He is straddling two different worlds. Neither the British colonials nor the native islanders trust him or accept him as their own.

Author Kent makes the good decision of having Sergeant Kella already involved in a few cases at the start of Devil-Devil. There is no down time to the main mystery. We are going to learn about this country and this detective all at once. Kella is dealing with the cargo cult (Fascinating!), a kidnapping, smuggling, been cursed by a local shaman and failed to find a missing anthropologist…now onto the main event.   

It is the unearthing of a skeleton brings Sergeant Kella and Sister Conchita of the Marist Mission Sisters together. Conchita is an American nun working on the islands. She, like every nun you have ever read about, has trouble with authority. Surprise. This young missionary has a chore list the sight of which could break your back nevertheless she is going to find the time to help solve some crimes. Conchita is a lively and interesting character but I would have liked her personality to be a little less expected.

The chemistry between Kella and Conchita, the dying days of colonialism, the lingering memories of WWII (Guadalcanal was one of the many battles fought on the Islands.), corruption, the political and social tensions of the times, and the culture of the Solomon Islands all combine in Kent’s hands to become an exotic and interesting backdrop for this mystery novel. The real win here though is Kent’s depiction of Kella. The Sergeant is complex but not in the stereotypical loner with issues, bad relationships and maybe an addiction way. Kella reads as a real product of all that goes on around him. He sees all the shades of gray in his two jobs, has a sense of humor and a strong desire to do the best for his country even when it conflicts with justice.
Devil-Devil is a strong and winning start of a new series that looks like it has a lot of room for more great stories. Not to mention thought-provoking information on an area of the world underrepresented in western fiction.

Book two, One Blood will be released in February 2012. I am looking forward to it!

Friday, November 11, 2011

King of the Badgers

The new novel by Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers, is an ambitious state of the nation novel. It is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying dissection of a community. It satirizes, illuminates and exposes current manners and mindsets in Great Britain.

Taking apart middle class snobbery and pretensions is not a new endeavor for Hensher.  In a terrific earlier novel, The NorthernClemency he did the same thing on a much smaller scale and in a historical context. The distance that history provides gives a writer the luxury of faux hindsight. Hensher doesn’t get that gift in King of the Badgers. His world in this new novel is contemporary and he works hard to keep it relevant.  

Hensher uses a missing child from the wrong side of the tracks as the catalyst to peel away the picture postcard pretty of the seaside town of Hanmouth.  The missing child isn’t from one of the many sanitized into respectability families. Eight year old China O’Connor and her patchwork family are residents of the public housing that the more comfortable citizens of Hanmouth do not acknowledge as part of their town.  China’s mother is a woman with many children, all from different fathers. When your last name is Rockefeller or Vanderbilt in some social circles this method of breeding would be considered acceptable but when you live in Hanmouth and your last name is O’Connor this type of parent makes you trash.
Do not for a minute think that this book is a mystery novel. Despite the kidnapping of China and its effect on all of the characters in the novel this is no detective story. Poor China gets the ball rolling but even a missing child cannot break through the self absorption of these people.

The mighty of Hanmouth see China’s disappearance as a vindication of their desires for more protection from…from everything really. One of the sad truths of the novel is the characters desires to be accepted and at the same time be free to express all the behaviors that they fear will label them as unacceptable.

The bigger canvas of King of the Badgers allows Hensher to impress us with his skills in manipulating a large cast of characters. It also provides a broader menu of pretensions to penetrate.  He is certainly up to the task. Each of the many characters has a complete story and a role to play in this cross section of life lived in the proverbial nice place to live. However the book is not a revelation a minute soap opera. There is a slightly documentary tone to the novel that juxtaposes nicely with the humorous elements of the book as it reinforces the honesty of Hensler’s portrait.
P.S. That cover? What the heck? Who was on crack the day that was selected? Believe it or not it looks even worse in person. It looks like a cover you would find on a local historical society cookbook. Painful.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Usually my first gesture to Christmas is tuning my kitchen and car radios in to the all Christmas music all the time stationright before Thanksgiving.  This year I have a whole new and exciting holiday herald! I have the new Flavia de Luce mystery I AmHalf-Sick Of Shadows by Alan Bradley.

Ah Flavia. My girl. The eleven year old chemistry queen and whodunit heroine returns for her fourth foray into Miss Marple-ville. Flavia is working on a super glue that will prove the existence of Santa Claus, her sisters are honing their wicked stepsister skills and the Colonel has responded to tough financial times by renting out the family home to a film company. Enter the dead actress ready for her close up.

This is a mystery so good luck thinking I am giving up any more of the plot. Open up I Am Half-Sick of Shadows and discover it for yourself. While you do that you will be sending a hundred silent thank yous to author Alan Bradley for creating Flavia, for keeping her engaging and for her classically cozy mysteries.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Cat's Table Part 2

One more important thing about The Cat's Table...it's going to win next year's Man Booker.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cat's Table

The Cat’sTable was not a book I picked to read. I haven’t always had the best luck with Michael Ondaatje , The Cat’s Table is a coming of age story which is not my favorite kind of tale and the book it is short. Shortness has nothing to do with quality of course but it does have everything to do with what attracts me to a book. Oh yeah and it has an incredibly awful cover.
Why did I read The Cat’s Table? I had gotten sent a copy and set it aside to pass onto someone else. A few days later I was on my way out and needed a book to fit in a small bag…voila. The reading gods smiled on me that day.
The Cat’s Table is superb. It is a graceful and charming look back by a man at a unique experience he had decades ago as a boy. Ondaatje perfectly presents the wispy difference between what children know, what they are told and what they see.  In the 1950’s young Michael is sent alone by boat from his home in what was then called Ceylon to begin a new life in England. He was told that his mother would be there waiting for him. The reasons for this change in his life are unknown to him.
On board the Oronsay Michael is assigned to the Cat’s Table. That is the table furthest away from the height of society on board at the Captain’s Table. At his table Michael meets two other boys his age also traveling without supervision and a group of adults odd ball enough to interest the boys at loose ends: a man who dismantles ships, a botanist, a tailor and a pianist who offers advice via jazz history and experienced enough to offer unique wisdom.  
The boys have the advantage of being of little importance to any authority figure on the ship. They travel between first and third classes exploring every corner of the Oronsay, eating in the covered lifeboats, discovering the prisoner, the millionaire with hydrophobia, finding the mural of the naked woman, etc. They are temporary Huckleberry Finns in a Neverland that is a distinct moment in time for each of them.
The ultimate success of The Cat’s Table is twofold.  First is Ondaatje’s ability to keep his adult narrator from over stepping into the past. He allows his boyhood self to discover and experience the moments of this voyage that will shape his life without the burden of constant adult hindsight.
The second victory is Ondaatje’s writing. Magical. If you are bored by perfect sentences, if lyrical phrasing is too everyday for you to be bothered with then by all means make the mistake I almost did and skip The Cat’s Table. If not read it and be transported.

P.S. The cover? Awful. It looks like a grainy photography from a true crime book. All it needs is an arrow superimposed somewhere on the hull of the ship with a caption that reads, "Body of Henry Robinson discovered here."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Emperor of Lies

Low and behold it’s another non-detective novel from Sweden.  That’s my second in a couple weeks. Could this be a publishing trend? Or is it that this novel The Emperor of Lies and The Long Ships  are the only two Swedish novels that do not involve Perps.

Back in the land of Heidi and gruesome murder mysteries, The Emperor of Lies was big bestseller. It is a prize winning novel about the Lodzghetto by Steve Sem-Sandberg. Thanks to Sarah Death it has been translated into English.

The novel is based on historical fact in more ways than its location and time period. Sem-Sandberg has used Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski to center his story. Rumkowski, a Jew, was convinced that he could show the Nazi s that Jews were an indispensible labor force. He was put in charge of the ghetto and petitioned the Nazi s for food and money in exchange for labor. He got part of what he wanted. In trade for labor the ghetto got food although not as much as they actually needed. They had no resources to provide any food for themselves.

You don’t get any more evil villains than Nazis and The Emperor of Lies makes the most of them. Their evilness in the creation of Lodz is compounded by their more intimate actions of wickedness throughout the novel. This is all brought off very well by Sem-Sandberg but it is the unexpected bad guy that takes Emperor out of the realm of Nazi atrocity novel #874,000 and makes it fascinating reading.  This surprise is Rumkowski. Sem-Sandberg manipulates a page turning slow build up from heart-in-the-right-place-if-misguided-Father-figure-autocrat to Nazi stooge.

There is a density to Sem-Sandberg’s storytelling that at the start of the novel was a problem for me. He doesn’t begin the book at the beginning of the ghetto’s history or with any explanation and I felt that my ignorance was getting in the way of my reading.  My knowledge was bare bones at best. About 60 pages in to the novel I took a break and did a little research. This made all the difference for me. I re-started the book and was much more comfortable with Sem-Sandberg’s measured doling out of the ghetto’s history.

I did not become enough of a scholar to tell what other characters in the story might be real. My guess is that the bulk of the characters are entirely fictional.  Sem-Sandberg is not completely successful in making his very large cast of characters three dimensional. All the main players are well constructed, interesting and Jew or not capable of a great deal of moral ambiguity. However there are many people who walk on and off the arena for varying amounts of time and story exposition without anything other than physical characteristics that distinguishes them from one another.

I was hypnotized by The Emperor of Lies. The detail of daily life in the ghetto that Steve Sem-Sandberg recreates is as mesmerizing as it is overwhelming.  It was history that I knew nothing about presented in a fascinating multilevel narrative. Sem-Sandberg has left sentiment out of his novel. There are some heroics and much courage but there is also the story of 300,000 humans living in a very small space under a daily promise of death from disease, starvation, the neighbor who wants their apartment and the Nazis. That is a powerful scenario.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Elizabeth Street

It's been a while since I have read an American immigrant story. For years they were a staple of my reading then I got out of the habit. I wasn't sure why but after reading Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano I may have the answer. Cliches.
Elizabeth Street is the story of one woman's immigrant experience. In the early days of the twentieth century Giovanna Costa leaves her home in Italy with all of it's ties and tragedies to find out what has happened to her husband and make a new life in New York. With this new life comes new happiness and new problems. Giovanna's struggles to push her family out of poverty and into prosperity are a mish mash of every Taylor Caldwall, Belva Plain, Howard Fast and John Jakes novel you ever read.
Fabiano hits all the high points including tragic love, crushing poverty, unimaginably horrible tenements, the Black Hand, kidnapping, extortion, tested loyalties, etc. Not to worry though because Giovanna is that most common of all historical novel's elements--Ta Da-- The Woman Ahead Of Her Time. Sigh.
Elizabeth Street does have interesting history and credible settings. Carving out a life for yourself as an immigrant in New York City at the turn of the century would have taken extraordinary courage and perserverance and Fabiano pays believable hommage to all those difficulties. Fabiano also does a good job alternating the narrative between Giovanna's story and the present day but by the end of the book it's just another story you have read before.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top Chef Texas

I am a huge Top Chef fan. I watch all the Top Chef variations but it is the original that makes my heart flutter. The new season starts in a few weeks and this time around the action will be in Texas. I should be all happiness, right? Alas, I am not.
Short answer is because I'm shallow. Long answer is this picture:
Padma and Tom in denim. That dress and Tom's mom jeans. This is disturbing my friend. Is this clothing trend going to continue all season? Will we be subjected to the judges wearing cowboy hats and bandannas and ---God forbid---chaps? Will we be seeing a new version of Justin and Britney's infamous matching denim outfits?

The Long Ships

Who knew? Long before the Swedes wrote mysteries about gloomy detectives and women victimized in horrific ways they sometimes wrote amazingly vigorous adventure stories. Go figure. 

Have you ever read The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson? This transporting tale was originally published in Sweden during World War II as two separate novels. Then it was published here as one book in 1955. It has been in and out of print here ever since. It is currently it is available in a New York Review Books edition.

The Long Ships takes place in the tenth century AD. It has a lot of Vikings, some Spanish Moors, Irish Monks, Scandinavian royalty, intrigue and a wealth of Grade A storytelling. You know that bad guys don’t  get any more epic that the Vikings of old. The Vikings were a fearsome, fearless, take what they wanted  marauders that communities from Scandinavian to the Mediterranean dreaded.  Our young hero, Red Orm is kidnapped when the Vikings attack his village in Denmark.  He is forced to take an oar on one of their long ships and it looks as though his fate is sealed. He will from now on be doomed to live the short hard life of an oarsman/slave. Could this be the end of our hero? Of course not there are 400 more marvelous pages to go.

What a treat this novel was!!! Everything about the scope of The Long Ships is far-reaching: the events, the characters, the settings, the history and the ideas. Then when you add in the excellent writing and enthusiastic scholarship…Voila! Reading magic!

Are there other things out there by Bengtsson that have been translated (I would hope that if there were the translations were done by Michael Meyer.)into English? I hope so!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Death Comes To Pemberly

You have probably heard that P.D. James has a new mystery coming out in December. It is called Death Comes To Pemberly. Here is the publisher's description:

Best-selling British novelist P. D. James has written a new book that picks up where Pride and Prejudice left off and introduces a decidedly sinister twist to the Jane Austen classic: a deadly crime. DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY will be published by Knopf on December 6th, it was announced today by Sonny Mehta, Chairman and Editor in Chief.
Set in 1803 at Pemberley, the Darcy family estate, five years after Austen concluded her original story, James’ new novel finds Elizabeth and Darcy happily married, with two fine sons, and enjoying regular visits from Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband Bingley. There is talk about the prospect of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana, lingering resentment over the elopement of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia with the dishonorable Wickham, and rumors that war will soon break out between England and France.
Still, life continues at Pemberley, and preparations are being made for the annual ball. But on the evening before it is to take place, the idyll is suddenly shattered. There are gunshots and screams, a body is discovered in the woods, and all at once the story evolves into a murder mystery — one recognizable as P. D. James at her best, yet conveyed with all the charm and wit of Jane Austen.
“I have to apologize to Jane Austen,” says James, “for involving her beloved Elizabeth in a murder investigation. It has been a joy to revisit Pride and Prejudice and to discover, as one always does, new delight and fresh insights. This fusion of my two enthusiasms–for the novels of Jane Austen and for writing detective novels–has given me great pleasure.”

Okay. We all love P.D. James and we all love Jane Austen. I'm going to buy Death Comes To Pemberly, I am going to read it and there is no doubt in my mind that I'm going to thoroughly enjoy it. So riddle me this. Why does this make me feel that either P.D. or Jane Austen Fever has now jumped the shark?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Marriage Plot

If you have read Jeffery Eugenides then you know that the man’s writing is dazzling. He can put words together in ways that can be operatic both in their pathos and humor. It’s the same in his latest novel, The Marriage Plot plus a tremendous amount of references to novels. Best of both worlds, right? You get to wallow in magnificent writing and be rewarded for being well read.

Unfortunately for me the three main characters in The Marriage Plot left me cold. The novel is a love triangle stuffed with ideas and 80’s nostalgia. Nothing wrong with that! There is Mitchell, Leonard and the object of their affections, Madeleine. All three are students at Brown University. Madeleine is a newly graduated English major which in English translates into not equipped to leave the cloistered campus world and find a job. Leonard is the broody rebel who captures her heart but his brilliance and outsider appeal hide serious problems and best-pal-good-guy Mitchell is in love with Madeleine while she wants to be--sigh-- just friends.

Madeleine’s love of 19th century literature seems to have doomed her to live out their romantic entanglements. She’s Dorothea Brooke the entitled, earnest young woman who gets chained to the man that her own illusions forced her to choose while the man that could have made her happy is going to satisfy himself by living a life devoted to the good of others.

If I adored Middlemarch why can’t adore The Marriage Plot? Maybe it’s the distance. Middlemarch was written in 1869. Reading it 150 years later I can accept Dorothea’s vanity, her uncompromising belief in her ability to support the intellectual endeavors of her husband with irritation but complete belief.  Madeleine is a contemporary. That makes me judge her more harshly. I find her character to be less believably constructed than Leonard (The most successful of Eugenedes creations in the novel.)and the stalwart Mitchell. Her love of novels aside, Madeleine is a bright, articulate blank, an any-woman who over the years sees things more clearly but doesn’t grow up.

Woe is me. Loved the writing but couldn’t connect with the characters. That’s it in a nutshell.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

River of Smoke

River of Smoke is author Amitav Ghosh’s second novel in his trilogy about the opium trade in Southeast Asia. Book one, Sea of Poppies, began the story in 1838 India. It brought together diverse participants in the opium production biz including a widowed opium farmer, French orphans, a bankrupt Raj and a mulatto ship’s captain from America. They and pretty near a cast of thousands all ended up together on the ship Ibis that eventually took them away from the poppy fields along the Ganges and on to Canton.

On the way to Canton, the Ibis, with its load of indentured servants (Slaves for all intensive purposes.) runs into two other ships headed in the same direction. The Anahita which is carrying the largest cargo of opium ever sent from India to China and the Redruth. The Redruth is the ship of horticulturalist, Frederick Penrose who is determined to plunder China’s legendary supply of ‘magical’ plants. The powerful storm that nearly destroys the three ships on the way to Canton continues to affect the survivors’ loyalties, agendas and fears on dry land.

In Sea of Poppies the variety of the characters was large but the geography relatively small. River of Smoke follows the same pattern. There is a wide variety of people and of nationalities in a somewhat confined area. Within Canton is Fanqui-town, a separate city for foreigners. It is a United Nations of Crime. An area seemingly dedicated to keeping the scourge of China, opium addiction, going strong. It is the place where shady independent and foreign government sanctioned businessmen expound the virtues of free trade while the Emperor’s men wage war on the traders’ favorite commodity. 

The numbers of characters in River of Smoke multiply as quickly as the subplots do. For me this is a good thing. I like big, chunky novels with enough characters and situations to fill my imagination. Ghosh is well equipped to handle this mighty population he’s created. He moves them in and out of each other’s lives believably and entertainingly with enough complexity and authority to make you want to play hokey and enjoy it all at your leisure.
I do have one complaint with both Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The colloquial language. Rather it’s the lack of a glossary for the colloquial language. I would like to know what the words “gubbrowed” and “sakubays” mean. Is that asking too much?

My lack of 19th century multilingual-ness aside, River of Smoke is both an excellent sequel to Sea of Poppies and a fabulous stand alone novel. It is rich and rewarding. It is also unique. This is not storytelling via the victor’s perspective. Here is the tale you haven’t heard, the underside of history. The depth of character development, plotting, historical detail and social awareness that Amitav Ghosh has filled River of Smoke with makes this a feast for the reader.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Instruments of Darkness

Mystery series are all about character. The mystery can be the twisty-est ever, the settings creepy enough to give your shivers the shivers and the dialog straight out of The Thin Man BUT if the detectives are not charismatic, intriguing and entertaining your interest in the series will die along with the murder victim in book one.  Luckily this is not the case in ImogenRobertson’s series of mystery novels.
Robertson’s detectives are Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. Robertson introduces us to them in her novel  Instruments of Darkness. Harriet is the wife of an officer in His Majesty’s Navy and Gabirel is a reclusive anatomist who 30 years ago stepped away from his titled and troubled family. The year is 1780 so there is no such thing as a detective professional or amateur. These two come together after the discovery of a body on the border between Harriet and her husband’s property and the neighboring estate, Thornleigh Hall.

After this set up the plot moves along agreeably. There are: missing heirs, an emotionally and physically disfigured veteran from the Redcoat side of the American Revolution, a stolen signet ring, a rich husband hovering over his grave, a much younger morally questionable wife, a mob taking over London in an anti-Catholic passion (The Gordon Riots.) and the burgeoning, sometimes  unlawful sciences of the period. In short Instruments of Darkness has chapter after chapter of satisfying melodrama, mystery and characters.

However, it is primarily Harriet and Gabriel who Robertson wants you invested in. If you think too much about what you are reading you may wonder at a respectable woman’s involvement with an unmarried man in solving a murder in 1780 but chances are anyone who picks up any kind of historical fiction is already well versed in the historical novelists’ most frequent creation;  the woman ahead of her time. Aside from this typical anachronism Robertson has struck gold with the Harriet-Gabriel combo. They each bring an out of the ordinary perspective to the events along with complex personal lives and terrific chemistry.

In the subsequent books in this series Anatomy of Murder and Island of Bones Imogene Robertson opens up her detectives private lives even more—much to the readers delight-- and expands our knowledge of Georgian England. The history of the period is obviously something Robertson knows a lot about. She definitely has the gift for using her research to the advantage of the narrative.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

There but for the

It’s been quite a Kaufman and Hart week for me. First the retelling of their play You Can't Take It With You in the form of Aravind Adiga's excellent new novel, Last Man In Tower and now the Kaufman and Hart classic, The Man Who Came To Dinner gets a makeover from author Ali Smith. Smith’s novel is There but for the.  Yup. There but for the.

The Man Who Came to Dinner is the story of an unwanted guest. In the play the critic of the day (That day being the early 1940’s), Sheridan Whiteside is on a speaking tour when he breaks his leg at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Stanley in Mesalia, Ohio. In the course of his recovery he takes over their house and the lives of all around him. Whiteside is an acerbic and ungrateful guest/patient/Emperor whom all cannot wait to see the back of.

Ali Smith has taken the idea of the unwanted guest and pushed it to a newly distressing and realistic level.  The start of it all is quite simple. At a dinner party in Greenwich sometime between the main course and dessert, Miles goes upstairs and locks himself in the spare room. After he is discovered and refuses to leave he slips a note under the door to reassure his unhappy hosts that he is fine. He has water in the attached bathroom and could they please keep in mind that he is a vegetarian. In response the host slips a slice of ham under the door in hopes of driving the interloper out.

In The but for the, Smith tells the story of how Miles came to be a squatter through his friends, well acquaintances really.  There’s Mark, one of the invited guests who brought the uninvited Miles along with him, May an elderly woman who has lived through the blitz and the loss of a child, Anna a young woman who met Miles when they were both on a High School field trip and the academic couple who bring their own party crasher, their ten year old daughter, with them. None of these people know Miles well. It turns out that they all have had some sort of experience with Miles that gains importance in hindsight.  Miles however, the incredibly intrusive presence that comes to rule the household remains mysterious.

The reluctant hosts of Miles feed the media sensation that they allow their situation to create. In fact they start it by calling a reporter instead of the police when Miles’ habitation begins. Soon they are selling T-shirts and other “Milo Merchandise” to the crowds who come by for a look.

I think the genius of There but for the is Ali Smith’s decision to have Miles stay hidden. In The Man Who Came to Dinner, Whiteside is the continually visible irritant. A self important despot whose uses his celebrity and sarcasm to expose and to mock. Miles separation of himself from society is his power over it and the reader.

Smith has a virtuoso’s gift for the right word in the amazingly right place. From the awkwardness of the title to through the hope springs eternal plan for the dinner party, to Miles annexing of the bathroom, to the disintegration and rebirth of the lives his odd behavior illicit she makes energetic choices that tell the story as well as illustrate all the intimacies and alienations of modern life. Like Miles all of Smith’s characters in There but for the are both present and absent from their lives.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Betrayal

In The Siege, her novel set during the 900 day siege of Leningrad, Helen Dunmore created a can’t-look-away portrait of a city and people in unimaginable circumstances. Her map of motives, loyalties and escalating struggle is spellbinding.  Now Dunmore has brought us a sequel to that excellent novel, The Betrayal. This new book is the next chapter in the lives of Anna, Andrei and Kolya.

The Betrayal is set ten years after the end of the siege. Anna, the daughter of a dissident writer, and Andrei have married and are raising Anna’s little brother the now teenaged Kolya. Anna works in a daycare, Andrei is a pediatrician and Kolya is sullen. It is spring, Leningrad has been rebuilt and replanted but Stalin is still in power so everyone still lives in fear. During the siege you feared Germans, starvation and freezing to death now you fear your neighbors, your hopes and your government.

The plot in The Betrayal is touched off by a sick boy, Gorya. He is brought into the hospital where Andrei works. The boys’ symptoms coupled with his parentage set off warning signals for the first doctor who examines him and he is palmed off on the dedicated and too politically trusting Andrei. Gorya’s father is a powerful man in the government and party, Volkov.  It is Andrei who has to tell Volkov and his wife the bad news. Gorya has cancer. His leg will need to be amputated but even that extreme is no guarantee that Gorya will recover. So the stage is set of the collapse of the fragile safety Anna’s family has enjoyed.

The research behind The Betrayal is meticulous. Dunmore uses it wisely to escalate the action in the novel and not to hit you over the head with facts. The day to day details of her characters lives, jobs and of Leningrad are all intriguingly laid out within the history of the period to recreate this world of suspicion. Dunmore shows us that her characters have already seen the worst life has to offer and are now willing themselves to believe that this fear filled everyday can be normal.

The one weakness in The Betrayal is the unassailable goodness of Anna and Andrei. It’s not quite believable to see these survivors of the siege as emotionally stable as Dunmore portrays them to be. This makes everything in the story a little less complicated than it could be.

The Betrayal is an intelligent and captivating novel. Helen Dunmore writes with an effortless clarity that belies her research and careful plotting. You certainly do not have to have read The Siege to enjoy this new novel but if you do (Or have!) then the journey of Dunmore’s characters is that much more absorbing!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Last Man In Tower

A couple years ago author AravindAdiga had a big critical and commercial hit with the Man Booker winning The White Tiger. It was a funny, gritty, grisly, wonderful, contemporary Horatio Alger/ Kind Hearts and Coronets story set in India. Adiga’s new novel, Last Man In Tower, can be described with all the same adjectives (and then some) except this time he’s not creating his version of a dark rags to riches story but the classic Kaufman and Hart play, You Can’t Take It With You.

The tower itself is Tower A in an apartment complex that is handily situated near both the slums and the airport in Mumbai. Tower A isn’t the bright pink it used to be, has any number of maintenance issues but it does boast the Vishram Society. The Society is made up of the residents of the tower. They are a close knit, middle class proud, virtuous group.  When the Tower first opened it was for Catholics only. Diversity was gradual, in the 1960’s Hindus were admitted followed by Muslims in the 1980’s. They may gossip about each other but they are devoted to one another and if not over the moon happy they are at least trying.

Enter the villain. Dharmen Shah, ruthless real estate developer. Shah wants to demolish the apartment complex in order to make way for luxury redevelopments. He and his jack of all mayhem Shanmugham have already emptied Tower B. That one was easy-pickings. It was filled with young executives eager to rise in the world. Tower A however is proving more difficult. Its residents are long term and consider the tower their home.

So far so very You Can’t Take It With You. In the play the grasping industrialist needs to buy the homestead of the poor but honest family (Along with every house on the block.) in order to build a factory and make even more money on the backs of the oppressed.  There the moral center of the story, the man who can stand up to Big Business is the family patriarch Grandpa, Lionel Barrymore in the movie. In Last Man in Tower the shining guidepost, the man who wants to save them all is Masterji. He becomes the leader of the opposition. The residents form an unofficial parliament to try and stop the evil developer played in the movie by the unsung Edward Arnold and in the book by Dharmen Shah.

Now the play/movie and the novel diverge. The play celebrates the mythical homespun virtues of the populace, love and individuality. Last Man In Tower is more complex. The residents are close but not blood and their problems are not the adorable problems of a 1930’s fantasy. They are unified in saving their homes but for how long can they hold out against the offers of money, which they could all use and when money doesn’t work, the threats of violence?

Adiga pulls out his amazing talents and provides us with all the fascinating particulars of the residents and the developer.  Their motives, weakness and eccentricities are illustrated with deceptive simplicity. Adiga leads us down the path we expect to follow since we know that the underdog is the good guy and the rich guy is the villain. Then something happens and the reader is challenged. Is it so bad to want more? To not feel compelled to look out for everyone? Does the past need to be preserved? Is progress the same as greed? Does righteousness go hand and hand with narcissism?

Last Man In Tower is an even stronger novel than White Tiger. Aravind Adiga has taken a well worn idea and made it his own. He takes a hard view of personal and public corruption in Last Man In Tower. However instead of relentlessly, humorlessly grinding his axe on every page he fills the narrative with a Dickensian  passion for social evils wrapped around a wide ranging plot that balances absurdity and disgusted honesty with varied and colorful characters. The bonuses for readers are the sudden discoveries of poignancy and fraudulence among Adiga’s shifting relationships and politics.