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.