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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