Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin It is difficult to convey the pleasure and excitement with which I read this history of Jane Franklin Mecom. Lepore carefully reconstructs the period in which the Franklins lived and pieces together the life of Franklin’s sister from fragments—using a few of the many letters she wrote to her famous brother, Benjamin Franklin. She forces one realize again what historical research requires, and how much we miss. But one comes away from Jane’s Book of Ages with wonder and awe at how much Lepore was able to capture through her assiduous researches.

Jane was the youngest of eight living children of Abiah and Josiah Franklin, six years younger than the youngest son, her famous and favorite brother, Benjamin. Franklin’s was a family of tradesmen, soapmakers, saddlemakers, candlemakers, and printers. Jane was born in late March 1712, married at fifteen and lived until early May 1794. She was eighty-three.

Jane Mecom née Franklin birthed some thirteen or fourteen children, most of whom preceded her in death. It is now thought that the family may have been tubercular, for they did not thrive, were languishing in health, layabout in deed, and several went mad if they survived beyond their twenties. “Very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impedements and Arive to any Grat Degre of superiority in Understanding.” Providence. So few are able to overcome the meanness of their birth and life to achieve something meaningful. Her brother did. In a different world, she might have been his equal.

Jane was scarcely free from child-raising her entire life. She admits that “tho they give grat Pleasure in common yet the Noise of them is some times troublesome.” And “I write among so much noise & confusion that if I had any thing of consequence I could no Recolect it.” She yearned to hear news of “Politicks” and every detail of the lives of her brother and her extended family. She loved to read and often asked that specific books be sent to her so that she could add them to her library.

This is thrilling history not only because of the momentous times in which Jane lived—through the cloth and tea boycotts in Boston, the battles at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and the longer war for independence that became the birth of the nation. She was a intimate correspondent with one of the most famous designers of the Constitution and loved and was beloved of him all her life.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this history is the fact that Lepore was able to construct it at all, given that so little remained of the woman and her chattel. Lepore has labored mightily to reconstruct this intimate portrait of a woman, her life, and locale. And this history does what all great histories do: they make us yearn to read more, discover more, learn all we can.


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Friday, December 20, 2013

The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen

The Heart of the Plate Houghton Mifflin Harcourt deserves much credit for making this book as beautiful as it is. They have really made it the standard to reach. Katzen has done her cool line drawings--now in color!--on the endpages so with her tasty, (can I say thoughtful?), modern recipes her unique talents are again on display.

Now that I have had a chance to work with it a bit, I decided Katzen has chosen some real winners here. Her soups and salads are lovely to look at and probably worth the price of the book alone. She guides the beginner through the steps so that success can be yours right from the start.

I will say that she picked already favorites of mine, e.g., I cook greens almost every night and I often use the onion, garlic, red pepper combination that she recommends. I don't know if it is really appropriate to complain that some of the dishes are so simple as to make the cookbook shortly irrelevant. Most people are actively looking for simple and memorable and so great we can eat it again and again without dragging the cookbook out each time. She gets that and delivers.

But Mashed Parsnips? She has a whole section about mashing things up...cauliflower, broccoli, peas. At first I thought: if it is fresh, it seems a sin to mash it up. It was such a mystery, I tried it...three vegetables: carrots, parnips and peas. Let me tell you something: it was terrific! I especially liked it left over, room temperature, as a dip for crackers. It is infinitely more interesting, pretty, and exciting than any of the usual dips featuring cheese or (god forbid!) sour cream. And for lunch or as a snack as you are preparing a real dinner, this may just the thing to make you a happy person.

She has an interesting sauces and dressings section which is useful for folks on the go. You can dip crudités or drizzle over roasted veggies...(what is better tasting and easier to cook than roasted veggies?) I like her use of pomegranate molasses. What else I like: sometimes folks have difficulty figuring out what vegans eat. She very naturally makes meals of vegetables and grains that do not include cheese or dairy and reminds us that, by the way, this is vegan. It is a very unobtrusive way to introduce vegan entrees to the mainstream and show everyone how really very simple it can be to cook for vegans.

I also like the "light" quality of the recipes. There were one or two recipes that gave me pause: Bulgur with Spaghetti, and Banana Cheese Empanadas. I think she is just daring us to try them. She also has one that sounds kind of intriguing: Toasted Barley Dumplings. As a side, it can take care of the carb portion of a vegetable meal.

Truth is, The Moosewood Cookbook: Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant, Ithaca, New York was something like the second cookbook I ever owned. Katzen therefore had an outsized influence on my eating habits. I still admire what she can do. What she has produced here is exciting because it gives new clues to intriguing combinations of things I like already.

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Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls David Sedaris just keeps on bringing the ridiculousness of our lives to the fore, forcing us to look, really look at some of our less heroic moments...and laugh. What a (sometimes hysterical) relief it is to know that our own stupidity or failures are not unique to ourselves. He also tells us what we look like to others when we are less than our better selves. I often wonder what it would be like to be laughing along with his listening crowd, only to come to recognize some of the stories he is relating. "I was there!" would certainly better than "That was me!"

My favorite Sedaris bits come when he is talking about his experiences travelling or learning a new language. In this new book he has a section about taking planes that had me shaking with laughter…how people, especially Americans, put on their most ragged clothes to travel across the world or across the country mystifies both him and me. “I want to be comfortable,” I have heard travelers wearing worn sweat pants explain, as though wearing silks and cashmere is not comfortable. Cost is not really an issue: anyone flying to China or Australia can certainly spring for a new sweater.

But I was also surprised this time how some of Sedaris’ jokes felt edgy, jagged, and hurtful. I realize that beating up on his Dad is one of his schticks. And if what he says in the beginning of this series of routines were true, about his Dad beating him and blaspheming him as a kid, then I guess his Dad is getting off easy by being the brunt of his jokes as Sedaris travels around the world broadcasting to everyone who will listen. But I long ago learned that hurtful things said “in jest” are not really funny to anyone but the jester.

Sedaris talks a little about how he makes up his routines by keeping a journal as he travels. He spends time taking brief notes when something strikes him as remarkable, and then he spends a lot of time typing it up into what was so remarkable about it so that he can remember it clearly. His endless stories are not things “that just come to mind:” he really works at it, even if it means he doesn’t have time to see all the sights in those great places he visits on his speaking tours.

My least favorite part of this book was a special section he created because he discovered that young people liked to use his work as dramatic monologues. He didn’t think his previous work had enough of the elements that would make a dramatic monologue successful, so he set about making something new just for those folks interested to try it themselves. I thought perhaps these would be better with someone else doing the reading…a droll young woman, perhaps, or a dull young boy.

Anyway, Sedaris is always interesting for what he sees about the world and dares to speak.


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Monday, December 16, 2013

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson

Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Story (Walt Longmire #9.1)
Johnson has gifted us a short, white-knuckled Christmas story that is likely to become a classic. We all know Sheriff Longmire and how he took over the chief law enforcement job in Absaroka County from old Lucian Connally. This story brings them back working together again on a cold and stormy night--Christmas Eve in Montana back in 1988.

This mad twosome seems to go out of its way to test the edges of possibility. In this story, they are doing it for all the right reasons, and at a time when most folks want to be cuddling at home with their families. Central to the action is an old copy of A Christmas Carol which you might want to glance at before or after this slim 100-page novella, just to put you in the mood. This story is just long enough to read after you have laid out gifts “from Santa” under the tree and before heading up to bed.

Bourbon is Connally’s drink of choice…you may want to salute him with a glass after reading this little act of crazy heroism. It does make a good story, a nice little gift for Santa to enjoy, just as though he/she were sitting around with his/her ‘buds’ telling tall tales late into the night…

Merry Christmas, one and all! Hope your year was a great one, but if it wasn’t, 2014 is just around the corner and you can begin again. This little novella is a gift you give yourself. It can be downloaded instantly or ordered in paper from the retailer or your choice using those percentage-off coupons you must be getting in your mailbox. Treat yourself!


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A Tale for theTime Being by Ruth Ozeki

Hardcover, 422 pagesPub March 12th 2013 by Viking ISBN13: 9780670026630

Every picture I’ve seen of Ruth Ozeki shows her smiling broadly, like a woman who knows what happy is. How then, I wondered as I began this wonderful, fabulous, crazy novel, does she have her main characters contemplate suicide? This disconnect was one spur to my reading, and the other was the clarion voice and view of teenager Nao who told us of her life in Japan.

Ozeki does what great authors (e.g., Morrison, Saramago, Kertész) do: she takes critical, current questions we face as human beings on earth and makes us think about them. She also offers answers, something for which I admire her even more. She allows us to realize that there are people of great talent and humility out there who are willing to put their wealth, time, even lives on the line for the least of us. She makes us look at the world in a new way. She gives us hope.

I have placed Ozeki among the greats, but she is less somber than the others often are. She is playful. She is funny. She is real. I attribute this ease of handling big issues to Ozeki’s life as a Zen Buddhist priest. There was not a moment I was not rapt in her vision. This novel is a mystery, slowly unfolding, about a young girl whose diary washes up on a Canadian island some years after the tsunami disaster in Japan. The girl tells of her life and that of her parents after they moved back to Japan from America in the dot com downturn. It is not a happy time, and both the young girl and her father contemplate suicide. Her hundred-and-four-year-old-great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, discourages this path.

Parallel to this are the lives of Ruth (who rescued the diary), her husband Oliver, and their cat Pesto. All live near Whaletown, a locality on a small island off the coast of Vancouver. She is a writer, he is a land artist, and the cat is a pest. Ruth claims to experience writer’s block, but at the same time she admits to dream-like sessions where she writes for hours, unconscious, only to awake and reread what she has written with surprise and awe. It is difficult for me to imagine a woman with Ozeki’s vivid imagination having writer’s block, but I think many of us can write…we just can’t always write meaningfully on a specific topic whenever we sit down. Writer’s block, dreaming, same thing.

There is also something bigger here, a discussion of wave theory and quantum theory. If one has time, and inclination, there is something larger behind the ordinary story of a girl displaced and despondent, or a woman with writer’s block, though both can be related to these larger theories of how the world works. And I like to think that Haruki Number Two was on to something with his work in origami, bending and folding and placing two dissimilar moments in time next to one another, so closely that they align and form something new.

If I were a graduate student in literature, I might just like to take on the notion of dreams in the works of Pynchon (Bleeding Edge) and Ozeki (For the Time Being). There is something impactful in the dreams we often disregard, and perhaps we should pay attention.

Anyway, there is nothing new in being despairing about the evil in the world, or the possibility of multiple outcomes. “Nothing is new, if you buy the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.” We can use our knowledge for evil or good, and there have to be enough good folks left alive to keep bad folk in check. We must struggle on to make a difference in outcomes.

I.Loved.This.Book.


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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Home by Toni Morrison

Home

Toni Morrison reminds us that home has no physical boundary nor any physical location but is always about love. We find home wherever “our people” be.


Morrison reads the novel for Random House Audio and she reads it slowly, like poetry, like she means every word and every word has a meaning. She sets the scene in the late fifties, early sixties, in a time we may have forgotten. The Korean War has ended but Blacks still do not have the right to vote. A young soldier comes ‘home’, his mind disarranged, and finds himself imprisoned with no explanation. But the army had been “good to him” and told him not to worry about those episodes he has…

His sister has managed without him, but misses him. She has just gotten a job with a doctor who treats mostly poor patients, some of whom die from his treatments…and then shes gets sick, too, because that doctor is trying to create a new series of drugs or instruments and, well, he used her as a subject.

But there is nothing that can be done, because this is just the way it is…was…and home has so many meanings. Home is where we are, no matter we like it or not.

Toni Morrison makes rainbows from rainy days and does what writers might aspire to: to tell the god-awful truth in language so clear and so bald and so beautiful that we read it to know…to know what home really is, what our world really is, what we really are.


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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pinkerton's Great Detective by Beau Riffenburgh

Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland
For folks who imagine themselves interested in working for the Secret Service, Homeland Security, the FBI, or as a spy, this book can tell you what it was like in the way back in America. You may find you don’t have the constitution for it after all.


This book is subtitled “The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland,” if that really was his name. McParland began his undercover career in the anthracite mines of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania reporting on the murderous Molly Maguires in 1875. Remarkably, he was so intent upon keeping himself alive amidst the mayhem, he didn’t get to reporting on killings until after the deeds were done. Such was the violence of the crimes that first-hand observer McParland got physically ill…the stress of undercover work gave him severe intestinal problems and his hair fell out in handfuls.

Years of trials and testimony regarding events in Pennsylvania followed and then McParland went West, presumably to get away from those that knew his face. He pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and worked to bring down strikers working with the Western Federation of Miners. Almost from the start, I admit I found myself disliking this “devout Catholic” who came to be “powerful, successful, and respected…Even decades later the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was still honoring him for his work…as well as for his devotion to the [Denver] parish and his many contributions to the building of Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.” My reservations about the man and my conflicted feelings about law enforcement in the early days of the West undoubtedly tell more about me than McParland. Perhaps popular movies about the period influence me still.

This dogged and detailed history is a must read for those interested in the Molly Maguires, The Wild Bunch, or the beginnings of Pinkerton’s undercover investigations and expansion out West. For those with a more cursory interest, flipping through will yield nuggets that stay with you on your journey to understand our historical underpinnings.


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GIVEAWAY -- Foreign Gods, Inc. by Okey Ndibe -- ends 12/17/13

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Soho Press is publishing Okey Ndibe's second novel Foreign Gods, Inc in early January 2014. I was fortunate enough to get two Advance Reader copies of this novel and would be happy to share one of my copies with an interested reader of my blog. You will certainly receive it in time for Christmas.

Ikechukwu Uzondu, though a recent magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College, is driving a cab in New York City. He has a thick Nigerian accent, a gambling habit, and a manipulative ex-wife. When Ike hears that an art boutique in New York is looking for authentic foreign deities, he hatches a scheme to return to his native village to steal the effigy of Ngene, the god of war. While this might sound like a bad idea even to those of us who don't believe in "the gods," Ike seems to think it will solve his problems. It may, but perhaps not in the way he is hoping.

I haven't had the chance to read this title myself, but I thought I'd share my extra copy now in case someone out there wants to read it with me, and possibly post a review in this blog. We can do a conversational question-and-answer review, or just each write our own thinking.

Sign up below with the secure form below. We only have seven days for this giveaway so don't delay!

12/17/13: We have a winner! Thank you everyone!

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Edisto by Padgett Powell

Edisto For years I’d heard about folks interested to get a first edition copy of this novel, so I’d assumed it was a classic. Written in the time before Goodreads, it does not have a long history of reviews there, but I trust many members have read this classic since it first came out in 1985. Republished now as an ebook under the aegis of Open Road Media, this little gem gets a new airing.

A young boy grows up in his single mother’s beachside home in South Carolina. She works all day as a professor so often leaves him to his own devices. He makes friends among the locals, his maid’s friends, and chums at the local public school. Thinking that a little encouragement from birth might make a difference in his development into a writer of repute, his mother surrounds his crib with classic literature. He is given a notebook in which to record his adventures.

Our boy, Simons (pronounced Simmons) Everson Manigault, is twelve. He has a vocabulary that belies his chronological age, but there is much about the world he still needs to learn. The mysteries of adulthood top his list.

Written in dialect and in the sketchy way of a journal, this may be a little hard to follow at first, but rewards the reader in the end. I recommend plowing through, for by the end you have entered into the language, the time, the place, and the ethos. Circling back to the start once again, you will realize how much you understood, and how much you would still like to glean from this marvelous harvest. We understand, deep in our bones, what has happened here, and how the world, truly a mystery to an adolescent who has no grasp of larger issues, appears to unfurl in all its tattered glory.

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Where was I when this came out in 2007? When I discovered this title recently in someone else’s TBR list, I immediately added to my own. The novel is an absurdist romp with a heart of gold (and romance). I belly-laughed through the first bits, looked askance at the portion where the Prime Minister’s aide imagines a quiz show in Pakistan, and couldn’t wait to find out the result of the ridiculous, bound-to-fail salmon fishery in Yemen. I wanted to believe, as the sheik says.

This worthy novel has already been made into a Golden Globe-nominated film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt which was released in 2011. I look forward to seeing what Director Lasse Hallström has done with the absurdist concepts, poking fun at government spending on dubious projects which serve only to keep current officials election-worthy. Torday captures the dueling-memo mentality of government bureaucracies competing for limited funds, and the stilted, unsexy email correspondences of working spouses.

And yet, there is more than mere farce in the developing faith our fisheries expert has in the doomed project, and in his blossoming love for his “estate agent” colleague. I listened to the 2007 Orion production of the audiobook supported by a full cast including Downton Abbey star Samantha Bond (you’ll recognize her voice immediately) along with John Sessions, Andrew Sachs, Andrew Marr and many more. The audiobook is a brilliant success as each character is enunciated by actors with great skills. This audiobook production ranks among the best I have heard in recent years and is well worth seeking out.

I look forward also to seeking out more of Torday’s titles. And I adore the covers for his books. I note the publisher remains an imprint of George Weidenfeld & Nicholson throughout his list. These exceptionally fine covers could be done in-house at the publishers, but more likely they are created by a friend. What a great gift to the author, and to us, to see two artistic talents melded. Kudos Torday, et al!


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Friday, December 6, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

The Testament of Mary Those of us who grew up listening to Bible stories may enjoy this chance to reimagine the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As we listen to the clear and (should I say?) bitter tones of Meryl Streep reading Tóibín’s words, we realize that not much had been said of Mary in the Bible, as though she had been an unimportant part of the life of Jesus. Or perhaps, using a modern-day sensibility, she shunned the limelight, and others sought to protect her anonymity and her right to privacy by nearly erasing her from the proceedings. Rethinking the story suddenly makes the whole series of events leading to the death of Jesus fresh again, completely vital, and filled with horror.

I was awakened to this performance by a review by Charles Isherwood in the 11/24/13 NYT book review section. Isherwood tells us that this story was conceived as a dramatic monologue performed by the Irish actress Marie Mullen in Dublin in 2011, and was later expanded into a book, which was then shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

The audio of this short novella is a mere three hours, but it is filled with new slants on old miracles like the death and resurrection of Lazarus, the changing of water into wine, walking on water, among others. It tells of the crucifixion and the rising again. But what it did specifically for me at this time of year was to remind me again of the reason for Christmas, something we all need to be reminded of every year.

As literature, this short novella churned the creative juices and made me realize we all came away from those stories with ideas about how it could have played out, though I was too young at the time to imagine the pain a mother would experience watching her son be broken. There is a historical basis for much of what is written in the Bible though perhaps the interpretations are embellished and imagined. It behooves us to take the opportunity to reexamine these stories and ideas once again, whenever we can, to see if it sheds new light on our understanding of the underpinnings of our beliefs.

I also relish the opportunity to challenge my own knowledge of and understanding of “the facts of the case” and see how those facts fit with what Tóibín has shared with us. I am reminded once again how surprised I am when I discover my own sentiments in the mouth of another, one who lived hundreds (and this case, thousands) of years before me. When we hear of the governance and trials taking place, do we imagine that these people had no sense of justice? How else could a system of courts and hearings and trials, no matter how flawed, have come into being? I loved being reminded of these things, and I encourage you to have a look, no matter your religious background. These stories are part of the underpinnings of much of the political structures in the Western world, like it or not, and it is fruitful to be reminded.


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Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America George Packer returned from several years overseas writing about problems of the United States in the world, never imagining that the United States would become his next subject. But he was appalled with the condition of America when he returned and wondered what had happened to our forward momentum. In reading this book, you may feel the perplexity I had in the beginning, for his stories are wide-ranging and diverse and seem to bear no relation to one another. But slowly the accretion of pages, stories, and facts begin to take their toll and we begin to glimpse the outlines of our recent past and possible reasons for it. And something akin to a slow-burning rage may take hold in your breast.

Packer might be flint to dry tinder—many of us know what we think might be wrong with governance, banks, farming, energy policy, education—Packer hits all the hot, dry, sore spots in his round-the-country assessment in the form of interviews. He does not paint a flattering picture of anyone, really, (which one of us is perfect?) but neither is he completely negative except for the portrait of Newt Gingrich. Newt looks and sounds like a megalomaniac on the level of Ron Hubbard and according to Packer may have been the beginning of Washington’s political dysfunction and discourtesy. If Newt had left Washington when he was thrown out of office, we may have been saved, but he stayed around tinkering with political leadership using money and words. But Newt is not single-handedly responsible. We have ourselves to thank.

Packer allows us to imagine our own choices, had we other people’s lives. He is explanatory rather than judgmental. He shows us the curve of the earth and allows us to use our experience and observation to draw our own conclusions. And he is radicalizing me. I realize my own collection of facts, tempered by my education and experience, have caused within me a slow-burning anger over the widening inequality and waste of our vast resources, both human and soil-based. I do not admire the men and women of our Congress and I do not admire the echelons of wealthy bankers and corporate executives. I do not aspire to, nor do I wish my children to aspire to, their ranks. I want them to realize they are us, albeit with money they frankly do not deserve.

Packer is not prescriptive so the answers must come from within ourselves. But he does point out that the 99% have already staged a mass action in Occupy Wall Street. Deep feelings of injustice already roil through our cities and countryside. Now is the time to learn the skills you will need should your house be lost in a tornado, an earthquake, a flood, or a firestorm. Now is the time to be the leaders you wish your Congresspeople were. Now is the time to think for ourselves. Think. Soon, it will be time to short Wall Street.


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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ham: Slices of a Life by Sam Harris

Sam Harris is among the lucky ones…one of the lucky ones who survived high school in Oklahoma as a young gay man in the pre-acceptance days and got away…got away to Nashville, Broadway and finally to Hollywood where he survived his own early success as a belt-‘em-out white man singing songs made famous by black women. Now, as a proud father himself and looking back, he shares the highs and lows and the realities of a show business life.

It is a joy to read of someone who finds and nourishes within themselves a great talent. Despite the expected barriers to success, Harris managed to hopscotch his way to major milestones and to patch together something we call a successful career. Every life can be fascinating, but a meteoric rise is breathtaking…like the time he opened for his idol, Aretha Franklin, on a cold winter weekend in Cleveland.

For Sam Harris fans, this book is a necessity. Harris takes us through moments of great affirmation (the swelling applause of adoring crowds including a Carnegie Hall performance at 23 years old), shares moments of great intimacy (the birthing of his boy, Cooper), and uncovers moments of great pain and sorrow (his high school suicide attempt and later, the recognition of his alcoholism). He is one to whom the sound of people clapping is a magic balm making all the trials and tribulations of a life spent in the limelight go away.

And now my admission: I had never heard of Sam Harris. I had to look him up and play a couple Youtube freebies to get an idea of his range. But it doesn’t matter if you know him and his music or not. His memoir was instructive to me for the poignancy in the stories of his high school years when he recognized and agonized over the discovery that he was different. The stories revealing the truth behind the high profile openings, the adulation, and the famous friends are likewise instructive. I’m just glad he got to do what he loved, to be with someone he loves, and to experience the joy and pain of raising a child. These things offer the real applause in a life.

The writing gives us a sense of the man. He is able to laugh at himself and the circumstances in which he finds himself, which is probably why he survived the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ And he is funny, whether singing, writing, or living. (“Do you mean funny….or funny?”) But I wouldn’t compare him to Sedaris and Rakoff--his skills would not be shown to advantage in this triptych. Rather, I would simply say he is a funny white gay man with a big voice who survived his talent. He is worth reading for these successes alone.


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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs Oh yes, this is great storytelling. This wonderfully atmospheric novel-in-miniature is more like a giant short story with a surprise ending. There are a limited number of characters—one, really—whom we get to see in great detail. And there is a creepy sense of foreboding we get right from the start. This story features a confused and angry woman who did all the right things but found her life empty anyway. Well, welcome to adulthood, my little pretty.

Boston. A would-be artist teaches elementary school. She is unmarried at thirty-seven years old. Time is ticking over. One of the children in her class is son of Sirena and Shakhar, both of whom enjoy their very special child and also have lives in which they strive every day to create or explain the world.

I loved what one reviewer said about the “woman upstairs” being one’s head and the “downstairs” being one’s heart and genitals. And I was riveted by the talk about art, the creative process and moments of inspiration. And by golly, I wanted to shake that perfectly capable Woman Upstairs to her senses.



[I knew, right from the moment Nora, our narrator, told us about the cameras set up to capture reactions to “Wonderland” that those cameras were going to capture something no one expected. I waited, and every time the cameras were mentioned, I got a thrill, and the impetus to carry on. I was perplexed, then, that the story was almost done and nothing had been mentioned, but then…there it was.

I would have thought that Nora’s sexual encounter with Sirena’s husband would have been more distressing to see on film, but I am not one to argue about niceties. If watching a public display of her masturbation scene was thing that got her up off the couch, I’m all for it. She didn’t kill anyone: herself or her friends, though death hung over the novel like a pall. She made miniatures of suicide scenes, for goodness’ sake! and talked often about her mother’s death. Instead, as though giving voice to a curse, she swears to start living. I had to laugh. I certainly hope she does start grabbing life with both hands because we get one chance at this, and her time was rapidly running out.

And no, I am not surprised that this was the one film among five that “sold out.” I don’t think her friends liked her less for knowing that about her. I also don’t think they could have convinced Nora to leave it in the film, had she known about it, which is probably why they didn’t tell her. But maybe they could have, to be fair. Nora’s masturbation scene was one of the early, really true, unscripted reactions to the scenery and since most of us seek the real thing in works of art, and I think Messud got this part right.]


Good job, Messud!

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief This 2013 National Book shortlist nominee for the Nonfiction Award is in many ways a classic of investigative journalism. There is practically nothing Wright left out about the ways and means the Church of Scientology was established and how it continues. Considering the Church is shrouded in secrecy and its documents confidential, this was a strenuous bit of digging. His thoughts at the end of the book are enlightening, especially the bit about art—how this church seems deficient in artworks, though one could reasonably argue that it is based on the most convincing fiction ever written. And what is good fiction if not art?

I am not going to deny that listening on audio to this book was almost unbearable. It wasn’t the delivery nor the writing that overwhelmed me, but the subject matter. Wright begins this massive investigation with an introduction that concludes with the following paragraph:
”I have spent much of my career examining the effects of religious belief on people’s lives—historically, a far more profound influence on society and individuals than politics, which is the subject of so much journalism. I was drawn to write this book by the questions that so many people have about Scientology. What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? Why do popular personalities associate themselves with a faith that is likely to create a kind of public relations martyrdom? These questions are not unique to Scientology, but they certainly underscore the conversation. In attempting to answer them in this book, I hope we can learn something about what might be called the process of belief. Few Scientologists have had a conversion experience—a sudden, radical reorientation of one’s life; more common is a gradual, wholehearted acceptance of propositions that might have been regarded as unacceptable or absurd at the outset, as well as the incremental surrender of will on the part of people who have been promised enhanced power and authority. One can see by this example the motor that propels all great social movements, for good or ill.”

What we find, after reading or listening to Wright’s testimony, is that many people find a group, a type of acceptance, and a structure of belief that gives them guidance on how to act. Most are normal, everyday people who want to be good, and perhaps want even more—celebrity, for instance, since the Church places celebrities in an enhanced position of authority in their hierarchy. They want to be better people, to be leaders, to be listened to. Just as people flocked to read Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” people flocked to hear Hubbard, who used many of Carnegie’s tenets in his own writings, among other things. He also used his own research to create an elaborate step program for believers, promising more power and authority the higher one rose in the levels.

Hubbard comes across as delusional, or a clever illusionist who struggled all his life to find a way to achieve the glory and attention he thought he deserved. According to documents uncovered by Wright, Hubbard lied about his military record and the illnesses he suffered. He was a science fiction writer of some repute before his stint in the military, and could research and write easily and with some coherence. He sought stability in his financial income and managed to put his skills to work creating an elaborate “religion” that required booth paying for the “step” materials as well as unquestioning fealty and obedience on pain of punishment—not in the afterlife as the Christians do, but in the here and now—by imprisonment and slave labor.

It didn’t take me long to understand that Hubbard was not someone I would believe to get me across the street safely, let alone allow him to tell me how to think. But Wright goes on and on, piling fact upon data until finally he concludes that religions are seldom built on strict truth anyway but beliefs, and that most religions, when examined for their grounding in historical fact come up short. (Disclaimer: I was a Catholic once. I came to think the Catholic Church was a large, empty mitre, but that was back after I’d stopped being indoctrinated daily in my near-teens.)

No matter what Scientologists believe, Wright’s book is a damning assessment of the Church of Scientology, pointing out instances of criminal behavior and flagrant abuse still going on. These activities are so egregious that I barely had the stomach to listen to it. When we get to the part about Tom Cruise and his Church activities and behaviors, it read like a gossip column but with the libelous parts still in. Cruise denies all of it, but we get a picture of what his life must be like as a superstar. If you needed reminding never to envy someone else his/her life, you’ve got it here.

The Church probably should be stripped of its designation as a religion which, because of its tax status, keeps the church alive. The wealth mostly goes to keeping the top ranking officers in handmade shoes and designer clothes. But I just can’t bear to spend another minute thinking about Hubbard and his team—it feels like a sin.


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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge Okay, here’s what I think: more women need to read this book. Looking over the reviews I note that most are from men who have read everything Pynchon has written. I hadn’t read anything by him (no, not even Gravity's Rainbow) and I thought the time was right for me to begin. He is considered a writer of great stature and I couldn’t remember why I ignored him.

This is a valentine to women. Even the title refers to women, in all its interpretations: The bloody edge of a knife held against the neck of the forces that will subjugate us; the (monthly) bleeding forward edge of an insurgency resistant to control; the bleeding heart of a mother's love for her children and the fury that unleashes itself when they are threatened. This story is about cool (mostly), calculating (sometimes) resistance against the machine. And it is so funny. I found myself shaking with laughter about three-quarters of the way through. His humor is cumulative. At some point you have to crack a smile, snort at a joke, choke out a guffaw.

I also didn’t know Pynchon was reclusive. My first thought that came to mind when learning this was that he doesn’t like the rest of us very much and can’t stand to interact. But that doesn’t appear to be the case from reading this book. Don’t think for a moment that because he is not in view, we are not in view. He is relentless in his observation, prodding and measuring our postures and attitudes. He apes us, “cans” us for future use. Now I know why he insists on anonymity: the better to catch us at our unconscious most. (best?)

But he likes us. He is gentle with his characters and the characters are us. Except Gabriel Ice. Pynchon is not nice to Ice, the cold industrialist who will collaborate with the forces of evil to achieve power at any cost to others. There is a thick vein of paranoia pushing the narrative forward: “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen…you can never have enough.”

Pynchon is described in articles about him as an ”incomparable mimic,” which may be why, reading this latest novel, I thought he was Jewish. The novel in set in New York in 2001 and he has captured the speech patterns, the attitudes, the atmosphere precisely, though perhaps with more wit and humor than we usually enjoy there. This is a man who mines deeply what he encounters in his experience.

The first 85 pages or so may have been deliberately obscure--to keep out day-trippers perhaps--but starting any book is complicated, and this has lots of characters to introduce, including the Deep Web. We all get lost there the first time in. He tells us to hold on: “'It's all right, the dialogue boxes assure her, 'it's part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost.'” After this point, he becomes positively lucid.

He helps us along by including a woman for those of us “whose eyes glaze over” without a woman in the story. In fact, he makes her the lead: Maxine. She is a fraud investigator who’s had her license revoked, leaving her free to use slightly-less-than-perfectly-straight methods to find out about her clients and the objects of their scrutiny. She can also pack a Beretta. (I told you forensic accounting was hot: check out the Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton.)

Maxine is a mother first and last, wife, and skeptic with antennae for a scam. She enjoys a wide circle of dubious contacts on the margins, and has an erotic liaison with an ambiguous hosiery-shredding King Lud Windust, a government (double?) agent. In the post internet boom of the nineties one firm, hashslingrz, the brainchild of Gabriel Ice, has come on her radar.

This feast of symbols has a larger message that is not too difficult to understand, but mostly it is just a fun ride. Not having encountered Pynchon before gave me an advantage, perhaps. I certainly didn’t think he was more difficult than others I have read, Bolaño for one, Pamuk for another. And he was a lot funnier. I did find myself wondering who is this guy?

Little is known of Pynchon the man, but a few souls have attempted to share what they’ve found out, including a 2013 vulture.com article by Boris Kachka: “For much of his life he would flee crowds and cities, dipping a toe into cultures and communities and then leaving and skewering them in turn.”

So this is what I’ve been able to glean about him from reading the book: he watches a lot of movies; he listens to music; he has a wide circle of friends who preserve his deliberate inconspicuousness. He listens. He observes. But does he read? Voraciously. Everything. But does he read novels? Recent novels? I think he does. I trust he does.

I like to think Pynchon has a measure of stability and pleasure in his home life now. Bleeding Edge doesn’t have the emptiness and alienation I associate with someone who is completely outside the life the rest of us enjoy. He is one of us.

I wish him well. Good vibes, coming your way.

The following writings will help immeasurably with your understanding of the novel. For a writer, Pynchon has a remarkably small body of published work, but he is consistent.

Pynchon on Sloth

Pynchon Review of Love in the Time of Cholera

Is it OK to be a Luddite?

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Couture Sewing: The Couture Cardigan Jacket by Claire B. Shaeffer

Couture Sewing: The Couture Cardigan Jacket: Sewing secrets from a Chanel colletorNetgalley kindly gave this for me to review, and I am pleased to say secrets are uncovered and mysteries unveiled. While I am not the type to actually wear a couture jacket (a Chanel jacket with jeans, say, is not my favorite combination) I do admit to admiring the luxury of the material and the exquisite craftsmanship of the creation.

There were a number of techniques discussed here that could be applied to effect on other projects one wanted to upgrade to the level of fine art. For instance, you may have wondered why certain items of clothing you have owed (or borrowed from a friend or relative) lasted so well, and could take the abuse of daily living without showing the effects. Perhaps sometime you admired the drape of a jacket fabric without knowing quite how they achieved that custom fit. Without taking the garment apart, you were never going to uncover the mystery.

Author Claudia Shaeffer does all that for us and more. She shows us the machine and hand sewing techniques for each stage of the jacket process. One part I found most interesting was the cutting and seam-marking. It may seem obvious to some, but thread-marking the seams rather than using some other marker is clearly superior to anything else I can think of when one is cutting from a large piece of fabric with an obvious graphic. (I am not talking about Chanel jackets here, but using unique fabrics for specialized projects).

Buttonholing, sleeve side vents, applying gimp trim and pockets are all discussed, and it should come as no surprise that good results comes from careful attention to detail and patient hand sewing techniques. These are projects in which one must revel in the process rather than simply the product. But with the right kind of desire, one can produce lovely, long-lasting and unique pieces of clothing art…and it doesn’t have to look like Chanel unless you want it to.

Shaeffer includes high-quality and useful close-up pictures in the book of the techniques she describes, and has many gorgeous photographs of Chanel jackets through the years. While I did not see the DVD included with the book, it must be an equally useful master course in couture fitting. For an aspiring tailor, clothing designer, or seamstress, to find a teacher for these techniques is as rare as hen’s teeth. Artisans that can do these things can rarely explain it. Shaeffer has done that AND produced a book with beautiful, clear photographs that you can reference again and again as you struggle to achieve something unique.

As I went to post this review, I discovered that Claire B. Shaeffer has an entire line of books and DVD sets on couture sewing techniques. Her line is wonderfully priced by the indispensable craft publisher Taunton Press. Creating works of art by hand makes better people of us—those who appreciate the time and effort involved in success and failure and beauty. We begin to understand talent, patience, perseverance…those things that will make a difference to us in our lives and loves. If you know an aspiring fabric-ator, the name Claire B. Shaeffer is a useful name to know.


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Monday, November 18, 2013

The First Thanksgiving by Nathaniel Philbrick

The First ThanksgivingThanksgiving is just around the corner and I am delighted to be able to suggest something that will give you fascinating tidbits of U.S. history to talk about with your relatives over turkey. It is a short (!) but juicy monograph on the Pilgrim's first year that leaves you wanting to know more. Living in New England myself, I was astounded to hear about the cougars...I now hear they are back!

The historian Nathaniel Philbrick won the National Book Award in the year 2000 for his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, and years later he won the 2007 Massachusetts Book Award for Nonfiction for Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Penguin has now issued a 50-page excerpt from that later book entitled The First Thanksgiving that narrows the larger story to the first year the Pilgrims stole corn stored by a tribe of Indians on Cape Cod before landing in December 1620 in Plymouth Bay. They chose a place to live, which happened to be the same location an earlier settlement had died of disease leaving human skulls above ground for those after them to find. Philbrick reminds us of the cougars once native to New England and the long history of attempted settlements and the skeptical Indian tribes, some of whom had English speakers who had travelled to Europe.

This remarkable short monograph describes a discreet period of time that will whet your appetite for more history. In his preface, Philbrick reminds us that the peace that graced the Pilgrims first years deteriorated into some of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history in the time of those first Pilgrim's children. That fighting would be called King Philip's War.

This book is available only as an ebook and is for sale for a tiny fee in the usual places, e.g., Amazon, B&N. I think it would make a great Thanksgiving gift for history-minded hosts or hostesses with ereaders. I read a copy obtained through Netgalley.

By the way, Philbrick suggests that venison may have been the main meal on Thanksgiving, though migrating fowl and fish were probably also on the menu.

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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers
I had a second opportunity to review this title and my second attempt was published in the online journal Avatar Review. The link is here. Below was my first attempt after reading the novel in 2013.

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”The flamethrowers with their twin tanks, and their gas mask were Sandro’s favorite of the assault company dolls. The asbestos sweater and balloon pants and gauntlet gloves you could outfit them with so they could not carbonize when they set a woods on fire. A woods or bunker or enemy machine gun nest, depending. A supply line of trucks or a laddered stack of bodies, depending.

The flamethrowers could have been from a different century, both brutal and ancient and at the same time horribly modern. The flame oil in the twin tanks they carried was five parts tar oil and one part crude, and they had a little canister of carbon dioxide and an automatic igniter and a belt pouch with spare igniters. The flamethrower was never, ever defensive. He was pure offense…a harbinger of death…

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were…cumbersome and heavy and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said…”

This astonishing meditation on art, rebellion, wealth creation, love, truth, and friendship kept me rapt throughout, but I am not going to lie to you. This is a big work, with lots of moving pieces, and it takes more time to process than others might. I’m not sure I got it all. If art is meant to inspire, to challenge, or to change the viewer, this work succeeded on all counts.
“Difficult to even talk about…I feel changed. Like, say my mind is a sweater. And a loose thread gets tugged at, pulled and pulled until the sweater unravels and there’s only a big fluffy pile of yarn. You can make something with it, that pile of yarn, but it will never be a sweater again. That’s the state of things.”

It is the late ‘70s. Reno is a young drifter with pretensions to art. She lands in New York and hangs at the edges of a group whose composition changes with the inclinations of Sandro and Ronnie. Sandro, Ronnie, and Gianni, the men Reno spends her time with and learns from, are central but elusive figures in this drama. Sandro’s father, the man who teaches Sandro about how life really works, is also a central but elusive figure.

Reno is, literally and figuratively, a printer’s reference, a human Caucasian face against which film color corrections could be matched to a referent. Subliminally viewed, if at all, her face might sometimes leave an afterimage. Only filmmakers and projectionists knew of her existence. “Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.”

When we first see her, Reno is riding a fast motorcycle in the desert and later photographs her tracks. Sandro elevates her work by calling this a type of ‘land art.’ She wipes out, smashing the motorcycle, but her efforts lead to a larger success in setting a land speed record—more sport than art. She travels to Italy to promote the bike she rode in the Southwest desert.

I have seen references to this as a “feminist” novel. It would not have occurred to me to say that, though there is some movement of a young, untried woman towards a greater understanding of her place in the world who then begins to take charge of her freedom. She also has a glimpse, towards the end of the story, of the men in her life not merely as simple stock images or disposable short outtakes of a larger film. “Cropping can make outcomes so ambiguous…” These are men with all the feelings and dreams, histories and futures of men and she is growing up.

Reno as a character is particularly attractive in that she is able, in the course of this novel, to go off without a lover, rent an apartment on her own, and ride a motorcycle about New York City. This may be the dream of any young person anywhere: it is not feminism, but life. But what held me were the ideas about art, about looking, about believing, about making the effort.

Reno’s friend Giddle believed herself to be a performance artist of sorts, but somewhere along the way she lost the thread, the point. Sandro made empty boxes. Ronnie photographed beat-up women. Reno made short films of street life. The art created by these folk, and the folk themselves when we first meet them, are stock images, referents for life. But by the end we have had growth and all are in the process of becoming.

Sandro’s father has a critical role in this novel. The backdrop of his powerful and moneyed world of making tires for racing vehicles represents the old guard against which the artists and Italian Red Brigade demonstrators were rebelling. Yet he was a rebel in his time. The father taught Sandro important truths about the world: that there is evil and greed; that power matters; that guns don’t always fire as advertised; that Flamethrowers can be clumsy targets rather than objects of envy. Flamethrowers’ fire often ran back up the hose and consumed the perpetrator.

Kushner held me spellbound with her descriptions of New York’s art scene in the ‘70s. Using Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning Just Kids as a referent, we get a similar feeling of a young, edgy, trial-by-error art scene. I can’t help but wonder how closely she captured the riots in Italy in the same period.

Something happens in this masterwork that is all internal. It left me looking about myself, contemplative, silent. The poet Marianne Moore wrote that “the deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.” I reread most of it to see if I could untangle it in my mind. I got bits and pieces straightened, but ended up with more questions. But to me this is a sweet confusion. We don’t often have the opportunity to enjoy works of this quality.

A lot of this book is concerned with film. I can imagine this book as a film done in the European tradition—lots of long, slow panning shots and minimal dialogue—following the storyline, such as it is. Would be as confusing and absorbing as the book, I imagine. Kudos to Kushner.


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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

GIVEAWAY -- Pinkerton's Great Detective by Beau Riffenburgh -- ends 11/25/2013

Pinkerton's Great Detective

Viking Penguin has generously added Beau Riffenburgh's new book, Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland to my TBR shelves and has offered a giveaway to one interested reader of my blog. The book hits bookstores November 18th, and I will begin reading shortly after that. One lucky winner will get a copy about the time I begin reading, so we can read it together, have a dual post, AND have a Q & A with the author if the winner is interested.


With the holiday season approaching, we all find our planned reading languishes while we spend time with family and friends and catch up on the year. But we must have some interesting reading to talk about when the group gets together, and this book sounds like it will fit the bill. Below is the jacket and marketing material from Viking. I'll have more news on this title when I read it later in November. This looks like a great "Dad" title, or for the undercover provocateur in your family. Perhaps you'd like to discover the secrets of trailing someone undetected? After all, if Pinkerton inspired Conan Doyle, I'm sure there is something in here for all of us mystery lovers. Sign up below!
"Beau Riffenburgh digs deep into the recently released Pinkerton National Detective Agency archives to compile the first biography of James McParland, the legendary Pinkerton detective who took down the Molly Maguires and the Wild Bunch.

In October of 1873, Allen Pinkerton, the head of the legendary detective agency that carried his name, picked a hitherto unknown, twenty-nine-year-old agent named James McParland to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a mysterious and brutal Irish-American brotherhood responsible for sabotage and at least sixteen assassinations in the Pennsylvania coalfields. Dressed as a tramp and posing as a counterfeiter and fugitive from a murder charge, McParland set out for Pennsylvania, knowing he faced certain death if members of the brotherhood found out he was a Pinkerton’s agent. For almost two years, McParland worked undercover, eventually being drawn into their inner circle before bringing them to justice in a series of nine trials. That was only the beginning…

PINKERTON’S GREAT DETECTIVE brings readers along on McParland’s most challenging cases: from young McParland’s infiltration of the Molly Maguires to his hunt for the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch to his controversial investigation of the Western Federation of Mines in the assassination of Idaho’s former governor—a case that he took on at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt. So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented a meeting between him and Sherlock Holmes; he was referred to by those seeking his services, by newspapers around the country reporting his cases, and even by criminals as “The Great Detective”. Filled with outlaws and criminals, detectives and lawmen, PINKERTON’S GREAT DETECTIVE shines a light upon the celebrated secretive agency and its premier sleuth.

Beau Riffenburgh has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of the academic staff for fifteen years. He has written numerous books on exploration, including Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition. He lives in Llanarthne, Wales, UK."

I have a winner for the giveaway! Many thanks everybody!

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Friday, November 1, 2013

The 7th Woman by Frédérique Molay

The 7th Woman At the end of my review for The Prone Gunman by Manchette, I mentioned that I have been choosing things “French” over all others since watching the TV series Spiral on Netflix streaming. This latest read was Winner of France's prestigious Prix du Quai des Orfèvres for best crime fiction in 2007 and has won slightly higher marks on Goodreads than other winners of that prize in recent years. It is also one of the few that have been translated into English.

In this novel we are treated to a crime that looks remarkably like the one featured on Spiral, the TV series. The French are far more graphic on TV and perhaps in literature than is usually acceptable in America, so one has overcome one’s shock at the material before one can relax into the central mystery: who is doing such vicious things to women and why?

On the TV series I’d already learned the close relationship between prosecutors, investigating judges, and lawyers in the French system and how a victim must often face the perpetrator in the magistrate’s office so I could seamlessly enjoy the way Molay described the characters for each piece of the justice system and how they worked together. Any one of the above personages could be a stumbling block in reaching a just outcome, if they did not have the same goals.

And of course, in the TV movie we are treated to brilliant overhead and street shots of Paris and its neighborhoods, so when Molay mentions Place de la Bastille, the Place de la Republique, and the Cathédrale Notre Dame with its galerie des chimères, it is all a little easier to imagine.

That having been said, I don’t think the French are accustomed to police procedurals the way British, American, or even Scandinavian authors, screenwriters and audiences are since we would see many more of them if they were more commonly found. One writer on French cinema, however, says that there is a long tradition of gritty French police dramas that rival what we have in America. And of course, there have been great French crime writers like Dominique Manotti who have managed to create crime stories distinctly French, but I cannot understand why crime books are not more translated, if they are written at all. I sense Molay is trying something in the American style.

One observation I would make regarding this style is that American police procedurals have advanced to the point where detailed explanations of a policeman’s choices in handling a case are rarely given. The reader is allowed to follow on behind the cop a step or two, catching up when they can, working out clues to police decisions as well as the murderer’s as they race along behind the writer. The reader actually learns on the job. Sadly, Molay’s book ignores these useful methods for involving the reader, and we are told, in greater detail than perhaps necessary, every thought and instinct of our investigator and our killer. We don’t really need to know that much. We should be able to intuit these things by watching what the figures do.

Additionally, French men and women have a sexual way of interacting all the time, even in polite society and business situations, which might be refreshing but is certainly unique and perhaps even somewhat mystifying. American, Canadian, and British men are so much better trained in sexual politics by 2013. Women in these countries almost never hear a sexist putdown any more. It is considered the depths of gauche, and I believe most men find it now distasteful (and positively dangerous to their careers) to acknowledge agreement with such ideas. It would almost certainly doom the man to non-hetero coupling unless they wanted to pay for it. The author acknowledges the retrograde nature of these ideas, but that they are still heard in the law offices (even in fiction) is shocking.

However, there is here still that Paris magic that makes one want to read French crime novels that elucidate and explain in some small way the great ‘je ne sais quoi’ of Parisian living. Molay has published at least two other novels in this Nico Sirsky series, all of which appear to be available in French if not English, on Amazon. Tooth for a Tooth was published by Fayard in 2011, and Lunch in the Grass was published in 2012. The author did publish another mystery entitled Welcome to Murderland, published in 2008, but it does not appear to be part of the Nico Sirsky series.

I would love to see more French police dramas, in book form or on the screen, and find that the publisher for this translated novel, Le French Book, has a whole list of translated titles for the Francophiles among us. So click on the link above and find your new favorite. I received the galley of this title from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


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Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop

I am reading this mystery way early from its publication date early in 2014 because I thought I wanted to read a horror story for Halloween. Many folks have already posted their reviews of this title, so I don’t feel like I have to wait to tell you about it.

This book would be the perfect vehicle to scare the living daylights out of an adolescent boy, since it captures many of those fears we all share but which an adult might recognize for what they are: simply fears rather than truths. Ordinary-seeming events turn toxic in this story very quickly.

A Boy Scout troop plans a weekend learning survival skills on a small and remote island off northeastern Canada. The Scout Master is the genial town doctor, and he insists the boys leave their cell phones and other electronic gear behind on the mainland so that they can concentrate on the task at hand. Unfortunately, the one shortwave radio available for the scoutmaster’s use is wrecked early on by an unforeseen visitor to the island. Things rapidly deteriorate from there.

Paralleling and periodically interrupting the straightforward action of the story are a series of documents explaining and relating the series of events on the mainland that led to the circumstances facing the boys on the island. We are even given the outcome of the weekend long before the end of the story, but read on to see how it played out on the ground.

The grisly and graphic details of the deaths that occurred are sure to keep young boys reading far into the night, for they will be able to see their friends and enemies portrayed as character types and will be able to guess who will survive and who will not. They may not be right in their guesses, which I expect will thrill them all the more.

One thoughtful Goodreads review posits that this title is targeted to juveniles and that this title would more likely appeal to boys rather than girls. She is very probably right in this, as girls have a tendency to mature slightly earlier and being the physically weaker sex, usually do not like to dwell on the ways they can be harmed. But I don’t think our reviewer gives enough credit to the author for having successfully winkled out those things that scare us (all of us) silly, for instance, worms swimming up your pee-hole. I have never met the man (or woman) for whom this is not terrifying.

That having been said, there were holes enough in the thinking or actions of the characters that the story did not keep me awake at night. But as a catalogue of those things that scare us, yes, our author did a fine job. Nick Cutter is a pen name for a popular Canadian author, Craig Davidson, who writes books that have been compared to Chuck Palahniuk. This year Davidson was longlisted for Canada's most prestigious and monied literature prize, the Scotiabank Giller. Cutter was likewise successful with this title, and has produced a popular cult novel that will be passed from hand to hand and whispered over late at night.

I thought the book entirely appropriate for 13-18 year olds. There is some bullying behaviors but the violence is occasionally so over-the-top that it can be classified in the "fears" category rather than taken for reality. There is precious little attention paid to girls or sex since this is a camp for the manly arts and the boys are focused on staying alive on an island, so their thoughts rarely stray off-site.


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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Prone Gunman
The novel is so tightly plotted one can barely tear oneself away. It is slim enough to read in an evening, however, if you are so inclined. Manchette wrote screen plays also, and the writing in this novel is spare enough to read almost as an outline with its own stage directions.

A hitman completes what he thinks is his final job, deposits his take with his financial advisor, then heads back to find the woman he left behind whom he hopes is still waiting for him ten years later. She hasn’t been waiting.

Machette is a master of cool, though his hitman does betray his nerves on occasion, by irritability, or by a tightening of the lips. The language is so un-upholstered, we zip along from one hideout to another, watching our hitman eliminate threats until his old boss comes hunting him down—for more work, or to close his file—we can’t be sure.

It occurs to me that someone learning a language could use this book to effect. Sentences are short and punchy and generally only have one clause:
"To get back to Paris, they headed towards Orléans, where they got on Autoroute A10. It was cold but dry. The little van went fast."
A generation of thriller writers benefitted from Manchette’s oeuvre. He brings the thrill back into the genre. How Manchette manages to grab (and hold) us with so little verbiage is the real mystery.

City Lights Books publishes this novel and 3 to Kill. The New York Review of Books publishes Fatale. I have been heavy into things French since beginning the TV series available to stream on Netflix called SPIRAL. If you haven't seen it, you are missing something grand.


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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Duffy by Dan Kavanagh

”What wrecked it all were two things: honesty and sex. Duffy, like most coppers, had a slightly flexible approach to the truth. You had to if you wanted to survive: not survive as a copper, but survive within yourself. The zealots who saw truth as indivisible ended up either A10 or the cuckoo farm. Most of the time you stuck to the truth as closely as you could, but were prepared to bend with the breeze if necessary. Sometimes, for instance, it might be necessary to tell a little lie, fiddle your notebook just a bit, in order to make sure that a much bigger lie didn’t get to pass itself off as the truth. On those occasions you felt bad for a bit, though you knew you didn’t have any choice in the matter.

But Duffy, like most coppers, knew that you always drew a line somewhere. You might tidy up your verbals a bit, fiddle your evidence slightly, forget a little something, but you always knew why you were doing it: you were fixing the record in favor of justice…”

Dan Kavanagh is the pen name of Julian Barnes, that prize-winning novelist we all admire so well. Here he allows his imagination to run free among the whores, bent coppers, dirty-bookshop owners, and crime lords in London’s Soho district and shows us once again his extraordinary talent. First published in 1986, this short novel (how I appreciate Barnes’ brevity once again) showcases Barnes’ sense of humor, his broad sense of inclusion, and his deep knowledge of human motivation.

This is the seedier side of London, but at no point do we feel the despair one might expect to find. Rather, a burble of laughter percolates gently through wild scenes of double-crosses and paybacks, with our bi-sexual ex-copper Duffy showing us the way.
”McKechnie rose to shake hands with Duffy. He was a bit surprised how short the security man was, but he looked quite strong. He also looked a bit of a faggot to McKechnie’s eye. He wondered about that gold stud in his ear. Was it just fashion, or was it some sort of sexual signal? McKechnie didn’t know any more. In the old days you knew precisely where you were: all the codes were worked out, you could tell who did and who didn’t, who was and who wasn’t. Even a few years ago you could still not go wildly wrong; but nowadays the only way of being quite sure who was what and who did what was when you asked your secretary to clean your glasses and she took off her knickers to do it with.”

As far as I know, Barnes only wrote four Duffy novels, all published in the 1980s. They can be purchased individually or as an Omnibus. This is a tasty treat for those who admire a well-written crime story from someone with a devilish sense of funny.


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Monday, October 21, 2013

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro

Dear Life: StoriesI have read Alice Munro time and again over the years, not with compulsion but with curiosity, and her stories never entirely worked for me. If I might be so bold, I might say that there seemed too many words. There is a book of hers which seems the height of her skills, however, written in 2001: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. In it one senses a muscularity and an ease that is not as noticeable in some of her other collections.

So, this may be a meditation on Nobel Prizes for Literature as well as a review of Munro’s latest collection. The Nobel Committee has confounded me on occasion, but I have always thought they must know more, have read more, knew the big picture. And perhaps they do. But still I wonder about some of their choices in the past, specifically Mo Yan and Elfriede Jelinek. However, after reading the stories in this book and trying to review it which meant I had to look closer at what worked and what didn’t, I get it. There is something quite remarkable about someone who has spent her life writing short stories, not stories “as practice for a novel” as she once remarked. With her skill she elevates the story to literature that stands on its own, yes, like the Russian greats.

Friends of mine have said their favorite story in Dear Life is “Amundsen.” I agree it is a wonderful story: delicious, dark, complete. Another I would choose for the favorites category is “Corrie,” which slyly reveals human nature and has a propulsion all its own. There is a moment of real tension towards the end of that story that makes us imagine all that can come of our not-so-lofty moral choices.

Another thing about Munro’s work: it feels Canadian. It doesn’t feel American, European, or any other thing. She mentions trees and shrubs and birds common to North America, but somehow the place she writes about feels distant, a little lonely, a little chilly, a little spare. Towards the end of this collection, in “Night”, Munro locates us more specifically:
”This conversation with my mother would probably have taken place in the Easter holidays, when all the snowstorms and snow mountains had vanished and the creeks were in flood, laying hold of anything they could get at, and the brazen summer was just looming ahead. Our climate had no dallying, no mercies.”

There is a difference between stories written recently, looking back fifty years and stories written fifty years ago. I don’t know why. Theoretically, one could make the two merge until indistinguishable from one another. While part of it may be simply the author’s personal growth in confidence, language skills, or in wisdom, it might have something to do with that wider view that we all share now that simply was not imaginable fifty years ago. Individual universes were so small then.

What strikes me about Dear Life is how old some of the stories seem. Some are placed in the 1950s, some in the 1960s or 70s; some (e.g., “Amundsen”, “Train”) may even have been written then. What gives me that impression is hard to say. Her characters are from a different time. I suspect Munro had at least some of these stories in a drawer somewhere and she pulled them out years later to discover there is something there after all. She polished them with the knowledge and skills she has now, and voilà!

There is nothing wrong with this, in case you were thinking I was being critical. All life-long writers must have bits and pieces put away, like any crafter, who finally sees the value of a piece made early on, either for its bluntness or because the writer’s instincts were developed even then. Writers can do whatever they think they can get away with, and since Munro has said more than once “this is the last of it,” one somehow imagines that this is the last of what she’d had in the drawer, with a few new ones thrown in because she couldn’t help herself.

Now that she is recognized with a Nobel, one wonders if she won’t just scribble along just as always, for posterity’s sake. Unless, and I guess some writers feel this way, it was always difficult to write, bleeding like that onto the page, imagining someone else’s life, but doing it under compulsion. Perhaps she’s been saying she is no longer feeling that compulsion, and is happy to allow her legacy to speak for itself. Fair enough.


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