Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Paperback, 192 pages Published April 19th 2011 by Bellevue Literary Press (first published January 1st 2011) Original Title The Sojourn ISBN 1934137340 (ISBN13: 9781934137345)Literary AwardsJulia Ward Howe Prize Nominee (2012), Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Fiction (2012), Chautauqua Prize (2012), National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2011)

This novel reminds me of a story a father might tell a son in long sections, by the fire of a remote cabin in the woods, perhaps over a period of years. It has no heights nor moments of extreme tension, but has a sort of inevitability to it, like a melody that sounds familiar but that we listen to with eyes wide and head canted to catch phrases that are new and put together in surprising ways.

The literature of World War I makes one a pacifist. Some of the best writing about that time forces upon one the futility of war. This is another to add to that canon. The use of language makes this novel special, as does the rich imagining of a young man’s life, and the angle: our narrator is a sharpshooter, a sniper, a marksman. The war looks different from a mountain hide and through the crosshairs of a precision scope, given that this work required hunting one’s target like an animal of prey. The best equipment and a gold braid inspire a degree of freedom and uncontested passage through forward lines. But the soul-destroying fact of the war just takes a little longer with these well-trained and disciplined boy soldiers.

The graceful arc of the story brings the reader full circle, through a life lived in the space of years. We feel older, too, when we close the book, and sit back to say simply, “it is done.” No pyrotechnics, just gorgeous language and solid storytelling. This is a man’s novel—it notices and mentions those things that men know and think and experience. Women will like it because it casts some light on a man and thoughts he wouldn’t ever articulate. It is Krivak’s first novel and it was published by the Bellevue Literary Press, which also published the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers. From the publishers's website:
The aim of the Bellevue Literary Press is to produce original authoritative and literary works, both fiction and nonfiction, that focus on relationships to the human body, illness, health, and healing and range the intersection of the sciences and the arts.

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Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing

Brooks has once again charmed us back into a century we thought we’d never see again with this story of 17th century settlers to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. The lush descriptions of a wild and wind-swept coast and her descriptions of Harvard College and Cambridge resonate like a memory. Her use of language is so particular, formal, and historically correct, that one feels it a foreign tongue, strange to hear and awkward to speak. But with time one thanks the author for making the effort, for it becomes one with the story—that odd formality, the strange manners, the strong religious cant.

Our narrator, a minister’s daughter, tells of one native resident of that island upon which she settled with her family and to whom she has given the English name Caleb. One would think the language of the time too restrictive to describe the wonders of that superlative man’s contours, but we come away with an abiding desire to see and touch that countenance. But the heart and experiences of our narrator is truly the center of this novel, and we see her start as a modest young girl slow to speak in company to an outspoken woman, educated the only way possible at the time: by listening at the door of the buttery as she completed her chores.

Brooks gives us a fictional story based on a real event in which there is a sweet and enduring but unrequited love that feels most contemporary. This is a great story for high school booklists, especially those summer lists before school begins. It entirely involves the readers’ sense of justice and resurrects a curiosity about the past that lies buried in the breast of most of us. And the descriptions of the northeast coast and its fragrances are almost as good as going there.

I listened to the Penguin Audio version of this book, read brilliantly and with deep cognition and clear tone by Jennifer Ehle.

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American Chick in Saudi Arabia by Jean Sasson

American Chick in Saudi Arabia

You’ve imagined it of course—wearing a black abāya, the robe that covers a person from head to foot with a cloth screen where one’s eyes are. And you’ve thought about black in all that Mideast heat. It almost seems, doesn't it, that the men are afraid of women, that they have to tie them up so and put every obstruction in their way? After all, [some sarcasm here] what mightn’t these pesky women get up to if they weren’t thoroughly hampered? It would be laughable if it weren't so ridiculous. I can't help but get the niggling notion that those men that insist on such restrictive clothing for women must have so little control of themselves that they are more afraid of what they themselves would do when presented with feminine beauty than they are afraid of what women would do.

Sasson, perhaps best known for a number of books about prominent women in Muslim countries, has cleverly taken advantage of electronic formats to give us a taste of her own personal history. In this 78-page installment, she tell us of her early years in the Saudi kingdom when she recognized the constraints under which women there lived and when she developed her determination to form bonds with women of all backgrounds who wanted a free-thinking American friend.

We are invited to view the life Sasson experienced in the late 1970’s, and are treated to remembrances of events and reconstructions of conversations which bring home to us the realities of life in Saudi. Sasson bravely reveals her early naïveté, and shares with us her dawning realization of what it would take to change the attitudes which constrain women: women must have their own support groups but men must also be a part of any changes that take place. And now, thirty years later, the resistance to giving women a measure of freedom lives on, lessened only a little.

Like all good memoirs, this is open and candid, revealing as much about the author as about the country she seeks to unveil. This segment covers Sasson’s first years in Saudi. Later segments should address her extensive travel throughout Muslim countries, and the writing of many biographies. I’d known of Sasson for many years before picking up Growing Up bin Laden, a truly remarkable look inside the marriage of a man known throughout the world for his single-minded and bloody pursuit of his beliefs. What struck me then was the access Sasson enjoyed, and the detail she chose to share with us. In her memoir, we see the younger version of the woman who was later able to write that book.

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The Quilter's Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini

The Quilter's Apprentice (Elm Creek Quilts, #1)

I am a quilter. I should state that at the outset. But I don't make quilts like many other people make quilts. I admire lots of tiny little pieces and stitches, but mine are...mine. They sometimes resemble something you've seen before, but sometimes they are something completely different. It depends on the fabric. Fabric is usually my starting point, not the pattern. Anyway…

I initially resisted this series but I was desperate one day for an audiobook and my library had this first in the series. What kept me listening was partly the story: it reminded me of anything by Maeve Binchy because so many of readers’ wildest desires are quilted in that we can't resist. The other reason was that the speech patterns and cadence of the reader was so similar to the speaking voice of a person I know that I listened simply to hear how she would react to situations and how she would pronounce words.

Chiaverini is really very good. I enjoyed imagining the world created here, and like every other quilter out there, would love to have opportunities like those described in this novel. It is an excellent beginning to a series which I am sure has inspired more than one quilt. Chiaverini generously shares terms, techniques, and quilt names, all of which are candy to those of us who attempt these things every day. Even describing such things to someone outside the circle is difficult, but Chiaverini manages very well. She is the teacher we all wish we had.

I love the voice of the reader for the Playaway audiobook, Christina Moore. I have tried to locate a copy of the Mp3 audio file for my friend whose voice Christina’s resembles, but have not been able to locate a digital copy outside of a library. I will continue to try to find a digital download for my friend, but encourage interested “readers” to listen to any of the series books that Christina narrrates, especially since, if you are working on a quilt, it is a wonderful story to keep you working far after you would have thought you were finished for the day.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Lehrer comes at this topic with a goal: to see what we can and should be doing to improve the innovation successes in the United States. He tries to explain moments of inspiration and examples of ongoing innovation and uses anecdotes to illustrate. He has an easy style, tackles a very big subject, and comes at it from many angles. It’s interesting. Best of all, his work can be discussed, refuted, and improved upon. That’s where he was leading us all along.

There is something very sexy and energizing about the topic itself. We all like to think of a moment or two when we had a creative breakthrough. Some people have a lot more of them than others. Some actually take their moments to the bank. What does it take, and do we have it?

I grew up in a time when it seemed prudent to be cautious about talking about one’s great ideas. This book says that in fact, we’d do better to share our ideas as much as possible, since interactions improve the product and/or chance of success. Our great idea might lead someone else to make the breakthrough product or service, but hopefully our interactions with others will fine tune our idea to better serve its purpose.

Lehrer’s main point is that interactions and collaboration are essential to a flowering of inspiration and innovation. Companies that force interaction by their layout, or studies collaborated by several authors in frequent face-to-face interactions, intensify the creative atmosphere and may more often develop a product that will be widely accepted. On a larger scale, cities force face-to-face interactions among all kinds of people we wouldn’t ordinarily run into in our daily routines, and thus foster a creative atmosphere that cannot be replicated.

Lehrer takes a stab at a subject bound to create some controversy. He posits that Shakespeare was a great playwright, but his particular genius was only possible at the time when he wrote: playwriting was flourishing, and there was much Shakespeare learned (and stole) from his contemporaries and from enthusiastic audiences. But Shakespeare usually improved upon the ideas he appropriated. From here Lehrer makes a case that copyright laws in the U.S. should be loosened so that people can improve upon out-of-date patents or patents that slightly missed their target audiences.

Finally, he deals with failure. Every creative person fails. It’s part of the process. If eighty percent of success is just showing up, the rest is perseverance. “Art is work” and breakthroughs often come when we give our brains a rest from rigor and give it time to process all it has taken in. The rigor is first, the idea second, the solution last. But in the end, there may still be a little bit of magic.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 261 pages Pub 2011 by Bloomsbury (first published 2010) ISBN13: 9781608195220 Literary Awards National Book Award for Fiction (2011), New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award Nominee (2012), ALA Alex Award (2012), Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee for Fiction (2012), Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Nominee for Fiction (2012) International DUBLIN Literary Award Nominee (2013)

There is a moment in the beginning of this book when I want to put the book down (the birthing of puppies). There is a point in the middle when I breathe raggedly, as though from a gut punch (Ward’s description of the dog fight). And there are long stretches at the end of this book when I cannot take my horrified eyes from the page, when I feel my insides crumbling and my heart breaking and my memories reeling and I know I have read something extraordinary.

Jesmyn Ward just gives us words, but words like none other has written. She has put them together in a way that creates a world apart but with all the love, pain, pathos, hope, fear, and loyalty that we will recognize from the finest examples of our literature. When she describes the color and texture of a man’s arm, or the watery pressure of a new pregnancy, or the terror of discovering rising water through the floorboards of one’s living room, Jesmyn Ward has caught that thing as though it were alive.

When I try to say in a few words the story of this novel, everything I write is inadequate. A poor family lives outside a town but near the coast in Mississippi. Our narrator is fourteen with hair that frames her head “like a pillow.” She has three brothers, a father that drinks too much, and several paramours but one in particular. Katrina hits and we experience the storm.

This is classic literature, and, difficult as it may seem at first, wholly appropriate for teens. It is a little like saying A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah is a teen title. That book, about a teen forced into soldiering in Sierra Leone, is similarly hard-hitting. It might be better for our teens to know than not to know. They are exposed to so much anyway--a little reality might improve their outlook. I wouldn't "require" this novel, but I would add it to reading lists. Teens can do much worse than experience the exquisite sense of language in this wholly original work.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Fistful of Collars by Spencer Quinn

A Fistful of Collars

One cannot help but wonder how long Spencer Quinn can go on with a series featuring a canine narrator. Each time I open one I expect this will be his swan song, but the author simply doesn’t flag--each new book in the series is as entertaining as the last! He manages to inhabit the minds-eye of a dog looking at human habits and create a voice for what a dog may think. If you imagine this cannot be funny for the fifth time, think again. Quinn has done it.

This is perfect beach reading. It puts you in a good mood, ready to laugh. It doesn’t take a lot of concentration to wonder how the pair, Bernie & Chet, are going to manage the investigations they get involved in. Bernie is perpetually broke; he keeps buying Porsches & wrecking them; and Chet tells us the background on each of the perps. He tells us things about them no self-respecting narrator would bother with: how they smell, for instance.

In this book, we are treated to a close-up of the film industry. Little Charlie, Bernie’s son, gets a speaking role! Which makes one think…Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were film stars…perhaps one day the name Chet will be in lights?!

This book is due to be released in September 2012. You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats

The heart of this novel is set in Burma, pre-WWII. The author Sendker was correspondent in America and Asia for Stern, the weekly German news magazine, for some years. This is his first novel. Sendker was successful and very clever in his choice of subject. In making the setting a mountain province of Burma, a country not much opened to the outside and stuck in a pre-WWII lifestyle, things had not changed significantly since the 1950s and if they had, very few English-speaking eyewitnesses would be able to refute it.

In addition, Sendker gave his main character a disability, blindness, which gave Sendker the latitude to describe through the voice of another person what the main character was meant to be seeing. Not only does this help us, but it helps the author, in that readers are a little like a blind men: the author must describe everyday things giving focus to sounds, smells, colors. If the reader has any experience in a Southeast Asian country, the descriptions trigger unforgettable memories.

But Sendker did more than just excel in describing what any reader could see. He delved into the psyche of the Burmese and showed us folk tales, beliefs, habits, and ways of living. A novel is always suspect in what it reveals, but in this case we can understand as outsiders understand, and are given a way into a South Asia culture that is so remote and so different from modern-day Western culture.

All this and I haven’t mentioned the novel is a love story. But not an ordinary love story—it tells of a love that any of us would be happy to call our own. Some reviewers call this a fairy tale, but I would merely say it was an especially daring and insightful attempt to create a plausible story that works on many levels. And so it does.

Special kudos go to Other Press, for republishing this story at this time of the opening of Myanmar to the outside world (2012, originally published 2002), and to Blackstone Audio for making a very good audio version of the title with American-accented Cassandra Campbell. The Americans in the novel were so much less spiritual, likeable, and accepting than the Burmese that one can see the stark contrast in our approaches to the world. Let’s hope these differences do not keep us apart. We’d all do better if we had just a little more influence on one another.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

The Great Northern Express by Howard Frank Mosher

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home

I love fishing stories. Lord know why, since I can remember only fishing a couple of times in my life. There is something about the sinuous dance of the line, the exotic choice of flies, the murmur of water, the glint of sun that mesmerizes me. And perhaps there is something about that wily fisherman hatching his next story in the big outdoors that makes even failure seem like a good day.

Howard Frank Mosher did not write a fish story. Well, not really. But it felt like one. He gives us long, lazy, drawling storytelling as he rolls from one state to another on his cross-country book tour. You might say he was casting a line in all those independents he visited: some holes were dry and some were hopping. In bookstore readings with an author we get perhaps an hour of the author’s time, giving a reading, telling anecdotes. In The Great Northern Express we have hours of stories, the best ones, about what it is like to live in a mill town in far north New England, to be an author, to travel the country flogging one’s wares in a vehicle so ragged that every mile gained is both a prayer and a miracle.

We learn of the man and his life, his influences, his decisions, his joys and cankers. And we get some of the best yankee backcountry jawing around. More than once, he reminded me of the classic book Go With Me by Castle Freeman about northeastern Yankees sitting around an abandoned chair factory for fun.

I’m glad Mosher took his long-promised trip, but I wish he’d had more time for fishing.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Anatomy Of A Disappearancea Novel

This story is a novel, but reads like a memoir. Judging from the short biography about the author on Goodreads, one must assume Matar is “writing what he knows,” since the thread of the novel closely follows the arc of his life. In real life his father, a former Libyan government minister, is persecuted by the Gaddafi regime, and is subsequently kidnapped. In the novel, we know the family is in exile in Cairo, but we never learn the country from which they fled.

Matar is extravagantly talented: his sentences are polished, measured, clear, and hold the hint of portent. I must admit to an intense curiosity about the details of a life and the thoughts of a wealthy young man, in this case the fictional Nuri, from the Middle East attending a private boarding school in England. I am privy to his innermost thoughts, and can sit in on dinners in places I will never go.

But with great wealth comes great responsibility, and Nuri’s background and the kidnapping of his father weighs heavily on him. He makes some friends, but he is very reserved and careful and alone for a teen. Those of us living in the U.S. with no great history, no great wealth, and no visible class distinctions, have no real barriers either. It is easy to forget how lucky we are.

I listened to the audio of this title, published by Books on Tape and narrated by Steve West. The work is read with real cognizance, the sentences savored. It is a curious and unusual book, and interesting for that and for the skill of the author. This is a perfectly reasonable book for high school students to read and discuss, for it follows a young man through his high school years, and presents a world both familiar and foreign.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill

Killed At The Whim Of A Hat (Jimm Juree, #1)

Cotterill, author of the unique Dr. Siri series set in Laos and beginning with The Coroner’s Lunch, writes a new series for us. This time he features a youngish Thai female reporter, scouring the southern countryside for crime stories to place in the national newspaper she had to leave behind in Chiang Mai. She has kept her distance from predatory men by declaring herself lesbian, but she is no such thing. In a country where sex and sex changes are advertised, declaring herself homosexual elicits from her family no more than a sigh of regret for the children she will not have.

Cotterill seems to be trying a little harder in this series to channel a young, hip newspaper reporter, but it does make this reader wonder again how he managed to create the incomparable Dr. Siri, who must have been at least as distant in age and background. Two mysteries intertwine in this first book of the new series and both are satisfactorily resolved in the end, though both are so unlikely that they are probably drawn from life. More importantly, Cotterill gives us a group of characters so rich, varied, and full of life that we long to see them again soon.

I listened to the audio of this book, produced by HighBridge audio and read by Jeany Park. Ms. Park’s over-the-top reading gives each of her characters distinctive voices, including one that sent me reaching back in time. If you’ve ever seen the television production of Brideshead Revisited, you will remember a character with an unforgettable speaking voice: Joseph Beattie played the flaming homosexual Anthony Blanche. Ms. Park manages to resurrect that voice for the gay policeman so completely, one is charmed. Add to that our main character’s transvestite sister, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a body-building brother, and a set of Buddhists. But my favorite character might still be the wily old granddad. He barely had a speaking part, yet managed to see around corners and several steps ahead on resolving a difficult case.

Cotterill has such a deep understanding of Southeast Asia that one is always interested to see which thread he will pick to weave his story. Whichever it is, each story is so infused with the life and culture of his subject country that one feels positively transported. I will always want to read what he comes up with next.

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Monday, May 14, 2012

If Jack's in Love by Stephen Wetta

If Jack's in Love

Wetta has written that rare novel that can truly be called a “crossover,” in the sense that it speaks to adults just as it speaks to teens. It raises questions that are not really resolved, and speaks to the nature of fiction itself. If we change just one thing in one’s life, does that make all the rest a fiction?

Jack presents us with two alternate histories: one in which his brother is transgresser, and one in which his brother is transgressed upon. In the first history, his father is a rough and a cad, while in the second, he is vulnerable yet protective of his sons. The fact that alternative histories are presented tells us something about Jack’s ambivalence, though one of the histories lay on the cutting room floor at the end of the novel.

I remember those days of childhood when one begins to perceive the outlines of “truth;” when another person’s truth is not precisely as we ourselves have observed it to be. We begin to suspect those others; we begin to suspect ourselves.

This is a book, I guess, about love. But it seems more a book about a family (“Families live on loyalty more than love…”), or perhaps just a young boy: a young boy just discerning the truth about people, about his family, about his neighborhood, about black people and Jewish people, about policemen and villains.

It is a story of a stiff-spined boy who grew into a stiff-spined man. He claims to have had a brother and father who taught him forgiveness could be weakness. He was saved by his mother, a kind woman, though she recognized some failing in him: “You’ll be a lot harder than your father or brother ever were. You’ll never do anything wrong, not you. But my God you’re going to be hard.” Jack may have thought that was a good thing—a carapace of steel should save him from the vagaries of love and loyalty.

Jack Witcher begins his story when he is thirteen and “already tragic.” Exceptionally imaginative, he has a hard time sorting truth from fiction, and creates an alternate universe in which the haunting experience of finding a corpse in the woods merges with the perfectly normal wish for an older brother to get his come-uppance and his parents’ divorce to be explained. “Maybe I might have killed him.” Jack is uncertain exactly how to deal with an unruly older brother, but one thing is clear. He’ll create a story in which that brother is dealt with severely. How much is truth and how much is fiction? That is where we will differ.

Sometimes when I am confused about something, my head feels filled with white noise; Jack’s confusion produces a cacophony and Wetta captures the mind-buzz perfectly:
”I started thinking about the hot shack and the pissy mattress and the cicadas. I saw myself lying in all that stink with a knife in my chest. Meanwhile the gnats and the mosquitoes and the bees and the flies and the wasps kept buzzing. Add to that the airplanes and the jet fighters leaving vapor trails and the helicopters and the lawn mowers on Lewis Street and the vacuum cleaners and the other appliances and the fans and the air conditioners and the traffic north on Cherokee and the traffic south on Matson and the trains on the tracks beside the river and the chemical and pharmaceutical plants next to the interstate pumping pollution into the air and the barking of neighborhood dogs and the frogs croaking along the banks of the creek and the snapping and buzzing from the satellites circling the earth and the cicadas in my mind that never stopped singing." (p. 298)

This may be a good book to carry on the family vacation this summer. It has clever observances that make us laugh out loud, it raises social issues, and it plays with our sense of reality. It might make for good conversation around the campfire, on the lake, or at the dinner table.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

Waiting for Sunrise

Lysander Reif, actor and hapless lover, is given brief speaking parts in Waiting… through the prop of a diary prepared for his Viennese psychoanalyst. Otherwise we watch in wonder (a laugh behind our smile) as this young British pawn in pre-WWI Vienna is turned this way and that in canny and knowing hands and is subjected to the voracious appetites of more mature personalities. Lysander, like the Shakespearean character of that name in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, experiences a magical twist in his affections from the tall, fair, svelte Blanche to the dark-haired and gamine Hettie while at the same time being “run” by British Intelligence.

Never boring and never entirely serious, Boyd’s novel allows us to enjoy romping good theatre: he portrays agonizingly real motivations and maneuvers which leave our hero momentarily on the defensive. But Lysander is nothing if not imaginative and resourceful, and he finds ways to sort through the complicated set of constraints he is handed, while at the same time mentally discarding or recategorizing the bits he doesn’t choose to remember.

Boyd’s writing is magic, for it is big fiction—big and complicated enough for one to want to get lost in for days. It is wry and funny and true enough. It is always a pleasure to have a new novel of his to look forward to—one never knows where he will lead. Certainly I never expected sexual dysfunction and the psychoanalyst’s couch, but that added to our attraction to the immensely-likeable Lysander, young innocent that he was, and wily interpreter of truth that he turned out to be.

I freely admit, however, that I am still not exactly sure if I "got" the final pieces of the book. I have a feeling I might have misinterpreted the final sleight of hand by our fine, and by this time, thoroughly grown-up Lysander. Boyd could have wiped the smile off our lips by hurting our main man, but he chose not to, and I thank him for that. But Lysander had borne the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and was far wiser than just by half.

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The Woman with the Bouquet by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

This classic collection of stories by Schmitt are so reminiscent of great short story writers of the past, e.g., du Maupassant, Poe, Bierce, that one irresistibly turns to see when this collection was published. Originally called La rêveuse d'Ostende and published in 2007, the stories have the feel of institutions already, for they highlight human motivations and peculiarities no matter what the period of time.

A favorite story, “Perfect Crime,” so completely captures a person’s frustration with their spouse and their ill-thought-out revenge, that one feels this cautionary tale is as sure to stay in one’s memory as long any life lesson personally learned in far more painful fashion.

“The Dreamer from Ostend” was the longest in the collection and felt positively Victorian in its shocking eroticism and the measured revelation of long-buried secrets tightly guarded. It reminds one of the stimulative power of a long, slow strip tease.

The corrupting influences of fiction are addressed in “Trashy Reading,” and one who has ever shivered in fear on a dark and windy night can attest to the force of imagination in keeping us alert and prepared just in case…

Our imagination is also under the microscope in the title story, for when presented with a conundrum we readers will bring to bear our experiences and fears and our deepest emotions in solving the mystery. Schmitt thus shows us how writing the story is only half the show, while reading it--with the attendant imaginative constructions--is at least as important. It is the author acknowledging us readers with a bow that makes us lower our eyes in embarrassment and delight. Kudos right back, Schmitt! This classic collection of stories is sure to delight many.

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room

Europe between the wars is heady in its mix of optimism and foreboding, and both impel the reader’s involvement in this story of the unlikely meeting between a Czech Jewish capitalist and his wife in Venice to a brash and forward-looking minimalist Austrian architect. The result is the Landauer House of the story with its famed der Glasraum. The author adds a note that ”raum” in German means much more than “room”: it also encompasses “space,” “volume,” and “zone” in its expansive meanings. And this is literally what the architect of the novel intended: that outside is in and inside is out and the space and light he captured are the art he intended to achieve.

The novel mirrors the architecture: magnificent and sprawling, yet contained, the expansive room with glass sides reveals all. The motivations of the characters are not hidden; flaws and beauty are apparent. If this book were a piece of music, it might be a piano sonata in several movements, for music rings throughout the house and this book. Special note is made of a young composer, Vitezslava Kaprálová, who died at 25 years of age the day France fell to the Germans in the world-encompassing European conflict of the 20th century.

But the book is more than the house, or the glass room. It is the intimate history of several intersecting lives of that period, and later, when they meet again. It is compulsive reading, for its revelations were shocking then, and even to us now. The european-ness of the novel is strong, like a flavor, a color, or a sound. We become reacquainted with the Czech word lίtost, the unbearable sadness of being, and are reminded of the deep and now ghostly scars of war.

A bravo performance by Mawer, whose other works I shall follow with avidity.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

Land of Marvels

In the early part of the 20th century many foreign interests intersected in the Middle East. Barry Unsworth sketches with preternatural skill a British archeologist fruitlessly toiling for years over a dig he finds it increasingly difficult to sustain financially. Stress is added by German railroad and American petroleum contractors encroaching on his stake which he is desperate to believe will yield results shortly.

The years leading up to the Great War in Europe were prime for many men of industry, particularly for those in petroleum prospecting. Unsworth shares stories of how those times might have looked, using historical events to bracket his imaginings. It is his characterizations of personalities that ring so true—Lord Rampling, the British industrialist who tramples truth “for the glory of the British empire” while being out-deceived by a loping and sun-bleached American engineer who plays representatives from all countries against his own company’s interests.

The tension builds to the last pages, when we learn WWI has begun in Europe, and when that storm has passed, the land we’d seen as a large fragment of the disintegrated Ottoman Empire has become something quite new—a vast new country called Iraq, which had never before been home to a single nation.

Erudite, stimulating, large in scope and small in detail, this is a novel to restore one’s interest, should it ever flag, in fiction.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Cairo Diary by Maxime Chattam

The Cairo Diary

I like everything about the concept of this novel. There are intertwined mysteries, one set in 1920s Egypt with a male British detective investigator and one set in 21st century France with a strong female protagonist who works in a forensic science unit. The first mystery infects the second, though the threads never become tangled. This is handled by the finding of the old diary of a detective in Cairo by a French woman seeking refuge in a remote and ancient stone monastery that is, if not neglected exactly, not easily renovated, which contributes to feelings of abandonment and heightening one’s sense of doom.

The Cairo mystery was clearly the most urgent, and the best part of the book, should you get there, is the ending. The writing was perhaps a little uneven, and the author inserted jarring references (like music, clothing types, or naming the author Agatha Christie) which tended to pull the reader from alignment to distance. Additionally, when I began the mystery, I did not realize that the author was a man. That might explain why the female characters seemed colder and more distant than I would ordinarily expect, as a woman. Chattam did well, but there was something not quite spot-on about his characterizations that kept me conscious of my role as reader and bystander.

This reader had only a couple of weak possibilities for solving the damnably gruesome and elusive central case. I note here that Europeans seem to have a greater tolerance for specificity when describing horrors, and as a result I found myself squirming uncomfortably as the tortures and degradations wrecked upon the victims of crimes in early 20th century Cairo were described in fulsome detail. I still cannot quite see why it was necessary for the author to pause in the forward action of the mystery to describe truly despicable acts in such detail.

All that being said, the concept was excellent. Writers take note. I’m sure Chattam is being celebrated already, but judicious editing will bring him into the mainstream.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores