The Emperor’s Children is about three friends, all of whom had attended Brown University. Now living in New York City, all three are about to enter their thirties without having made their mark on the world, something they felt, with their Ivy League educations, they were destined to do. The action begins in the spring of 2001. The characters experience the shock of nine eleven, yet the trauma does not, for the most part, materially alter their lives.
I thought Claire Messud told this story masterfully. The writing was wonderful, enlivened both by effortless wit and her deep empathy for her characters. So when I heard that she had a new novel coming out, I was filled with happy anticipation.
Here’s how The Woman Upstairs begins:
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
The narrator, one Nora Eldridge, goes on to spew out copious amounts of rage, liberally laced with profanity. She obviously doesn’t give a hoot regarding whom she offends or scandalizes. (And trust me, she wouldn’t have said “hoot.”)
Now some might call this a powerful, even a bravura performance. As for me, I wanted to throw the book across the room. Or at least, close it, sigh deeply, and move on to something else. (It is, after all, a library book, so one doesn’t want to damage the merchandise.) After all, why should I care about this irritating woman and her seemingly endless list of grievances?
Nora Eldridge is what the French used to term (and possible still do) “une femme d’un certain age.” In her early forties, childless and never married, she’s by profession an elementary school teacher (irony of ironies). By aspiration, however, she is an artist. One of her students is an attractive little boy named Reza Shahid. When Reza’s mother Sirena comes in for a conference, she and Nora discover that they have much in common. Sirena is also an artist. She’s Italian; her husband Skandar is Lebanese. They have planned a one year stay in Boston. As the days progress, Nora becomes closer and more intensely involved in the lives of all three members of the Shahid family.
Now it does not take predictive genius to intuit that this tangle of relationships will probably culminate in some kind of crisis. What exactly will happen, though, the reader is left to guess. The problem is, has the reader been made to care enough that this speculation is worth entering upon? I’m on the fence about this question; in fact, I’m on the fence about the entire book. The kind of novel I most enjoy is one in which events seem to unfold naturally and spontaneously and yet with a certain inevitability. You know the kind of thing I mean – you’re halfway through the book before you take stock of how much you’ve actually read. But with The Woman Upstairs, I was aware of the plot machinery being manipulated. It’s as if the author was thinking, Now what can I cause to happen in Nora’s life that will illuminate her character and at the same time drive the plot forward? Oh I know: I’ll have her meet this family: an appealing young boy, an artist mother, an attractive, slightly mysterious father – and I’ll add a combustible element or two and see what happens.
In other words, the set-up struck me as contrived. And yet….
There’s some powerful writing in this novel. At one point, Nora is fighting her way through what is for her, as for so many unhappy people, the worst time of the year. She has spent it with her aging aunt and father; the talk has been mostly about friends and acquaintances with serious and in some cases terminal illnesses, and who was taking care of whom.
I was, by then, burning, not sleeping. Who would do the same for me, in my dotage? Who would be my good girl?….No: I derived a certain bitter thrill thinking that I’d manage to the end on my own, a thrill of denial and austerity, a thrill not unlike a dieter’s pleasure at her gnawing stomach. I will be continent. I will continue. I will not spill into the lives of others, greedily sucking and wanting and needing. I will not, I will ask nothing, of anyone; I’ll just burn, from the inside out, self-immolating like those monks doused in gasoline. Spontaneous combustion, almost. Almost.
She ends this tirade by hurling profanity at Christmas.
At times, one is grateful for the Shahid complication. Otherwise, this novel would be one long rant. But more than that: it would be one long howl of pain. Beneath all the anger, there is clearly a woman who is being driven around the bend by an almost paralyzing loneliness. Allusions to T.S. Eliot, the early twentieth century’s great poet of anxiety and dread, appear frequently. When Nora firs meets Sirena, she is powerfully struck by the sensation of encountering a kindred spirit:
It was the strangest feeling, of relief and alarm at the same time. Like seeing a ghost. like seeing a ghost or having an epiphany–who is he who walks always beside you?–a feeling that you have no choice but to trust completely.
Nora needs desperately to make just such a connection. She’d spent years nursing her mother through her final illness, and as a result, felt bereft. She struggles to articulate the experience, and its aftermath, so Sirena will understand:
And I told her about how I used to paint big messy pictures, but how when my mother was sick, and for all the years she was dying, one small capacity at a time, I stopped being able to paint, stopped being able to make any big gestures at all, and turned instead to little things, to rooms the size of show boxes, Joseph Cornell-scaled dioramas, as if these, at least, could not be taken from me–these are the fragments I have shored against my ruin.
As I was reading The Woman Upstairs, I kept pausing to analyze my feelings about Nora. Did I pity her? Admire her? Something in between? At times she annoyed me; at other times she aroused feelings of compassion. Interestingly, in a recent interview with Claire Messud in Publishers Weekly, the interview asks if she, Messud, would want to be friends with a woman like Nora Eldridge , whose outlook on life is “almost unbearably grim.” Messud responds with a tirade of her own:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.
Whether you can enjoy a novel whose central character is not very sympathetic is a question worth pondering. Indeed, I have pondered it, along with other readers, at various book club discussions. And the fact is, The Woman Upstairs would make a terrific book club selection. By the second chapter, I was dying to talk to someone about it; the feeling only intensified as I read on.
One more comment about this novel. Unlike many works of contemporary fiction – including crime fiction – this novel has a terrific ending. You could say that in a matter of moments, the Woman Upstairs attains something that she’s been striving for all along: a purpose driven life. Is there an irony in how this comes about? I’m not sure. It’s one of the many things I need to discuss with you, after you’ve read the book.
Or can we just say five crime fiction titles and leave it at that? Well, anyway, lest we get bogged down in these nice distinctions, let’s forge ahead with specifics:
I’ve been a fan of John Harvey’s novels since the days when he was writing about Charlie Resnick, an extremely appealing detective who lived and worked in Nottingham. The last entry in this series, Cold in Hand, came out in 2008. There was a gap of ten years between that title and Last Rites, the one that preceded it. Meanwhile, Harvey had created a new character, retired policeman Frank Elder. Recently, yet more protagonists have been created.
Good Bait is a standalone – or it is considered thus, I suppose, until or unless Karen Shields and/or Trevor Cordon appear in subsequent books. DCI Shields is based in London; DI Cordon, in Cornwall. They’re both involved in separate investigations, which, as the novel progresses, tend more and more to converge. With this kind of narrative, I often find that one thread is more vivid than the other. So it is in this case. Trevor Cordon is pursuing an inquiry on his own time – one that, for him, has a distinctly personal element.
Generally speaking, I liked Good Bait, though I found myself becoming somewhat impatient with it from time to time. John Harvey is a reliably skilled and intelligent writer. So: recommended, but not with wild enthusiasm.
I’m a big fan of the novels of Karin Fossum. In recent years, she’s been the author of some of my favorite mysteries. The Caller is about a series of practical jokes being played on strangers by a feckless youth. As the story proceeds, the jokes become increasingly sinister, causing more and more pain for innocent individuals. As is characteristic of much Scandinavian crime fiction, the sense of dread mounts steadily and inexorably as events unfold.
As with Fossum’s other books, the writing is spare and beautiful. She’s master of the plot-driven novel whose characters are fully fleshed out and intriguing, if not always likeable. One who most definitely is likable is her series protagonist, Inspector Konrad Sejer. Among his other winning character traits, Sejer loves dogs. His beloved (and outsized!) Leonberger having passed from the scene, he’s now the proud owner of a Shar Pei named Frank.
I want so much to recommend this book, but I feel that I must give fair warning: Late in the narrative, a terrible thing happens to a child, and for this reader at least, the event is described in more detail than was strictly necessary.
Jessica Mann reviews crime fiction for The Literary Review. She also writes novels in the genre. Some years ago, I read A Kind of Healthy Grave, which features series character Tamara Hoyland. I’ve been enjoying Mann’s reviews in the aforementioned magazine for several years now, so I decided to read another of her novels. As I was looking for something set in Cornwall, I chose A Private Inquiry.
Barbara Pomeroy is an arbitration judge. Her profession consists of rendering a decision as to whether a given development project can go forward in the location for which it is intended. It’s a job that demands intellectual rigor, scrupulous fairness, and a great deal of traveling. She loves it.
With her husband Colin and son Toby, Barbara lives in St. Ives, a town on the coast of Cornwall famed for its rich concentration of artists. Colin himself is a painter who is slowly but surely gaining recognition. Barbara must perforce spend much time away from her family, and it is while she’s away that a mysterious newcomer to St. Ives begins to insinuate herself into their small family circle.
The other major character in this novel is Dr. Fidelis Berlin, a child psychologist and specialist in parent child relationships. A breast cancer survivor, Dr. Berlin is unmarried and has no children of her own.
A Private Inquiry is a work of psychological suspense rather than of police procedure. Although the hardback is a mere 176 pages, the author creates a rich, fully realized world, peopled with complex characters whose fates are of paramount importance. The writing is terrific. The puzzle at the novel’s heart is cunning and compelling. (A Private Inquiry was a finalist for the 1996 Gold Dagger Award.)
I raced through this book and was sorry when it ended. Very highly recommended. (Alas, it is neither owned at Howard County Library nor currently in print in the U.S. I got a perfectly good copy from a third party seller on Amazon. That copy is now available for loan.)
I so enjoyed A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming that I decided to read another work by him. I chose The Trinity Six, partly because it concerns that most notorious (and endlessly fascinating) clutch of spies, the Cambridge Five. Sam Gaddis, a divorced academic short on funds, gets a tip about a spy scandal that could have international reverberations. Problem: anyone who gets near this subject tends to end up dead – or at least, missing. Still, Gaddis knows there could be a book in this – a sensational book, and one that could aid him in his solvency dilemma. And so he sets out to pin down the truth – or lack thereof – of the allegations in question. This is, naturally, is always a dangerous mission in a novel of espionage.
Gaddis’s quest has him careening all over Europe and Russia. He himself soon becomes as much the object of pursuit as the pursuer. There’s danger around every corner! And this was one of my problems with The Trinity Six. It makes use of the standard tropes of the genre without adding anything terrifically unique to them. Yes, there’s suspense; yes, there’s moral ambiguity. But the plot was so complicated that I gave up trying to tease out the various threads and had to be content to simply hang in there for the wild ride. Parts of it were fun. Other parts were baffling.
So: The Trinity Six had its enjoyable moments, but for this reader, it lacked the charm and the compelling quality of A Foreign Country. Still, Charles Cumming is at the forefront of the new wave of espionage authors, and deservedly so. He’s a good writer, and I would definitely read another novel by him.
Here’s a video interview of Cumming conducted by Dominic West:
Finally, we come to Chelsea Mansions, the eleventh entry in the series featuring DCI David Brock and DI Kathy Kolla. Barry Maitland’s meticulously crafted procedurals set in London are among my favorites. This one gets off to a flying start with an act that is both audacious and outrageous: the murder of a seventy-year-old American woman, committed in the street in broad daylight, in full view of aghast onlookers. Another killing soon follows, the victim this time being a Russian businessman.Could there possibly be a relationship between these two apparently disparate events?
Brock and Kolla are soon on the case, but Brock can’t be, for long. He is taken ill with a mysterious ailment. Kathy is beside herself with worry about this man who is both her mentor and her close friend. Meanwhile, one John Greenslade, a Canadian linguistics professor in town for a conference, becomes involved in the investigation. Greenslade seems just as anxious about David Brock’s illness as Kathy is. This puzzles Kathy, with good reason.
These and other tantalizing questions are not amenable to easy answers. Kathy and her team are dogged and skillful investigators. Brock’s indisposition has left Kathy in charge, with nearly disastrous consequences. She’s so good at her job, she’s almost too good – at least, in the estimation of certain people.
Other titles I’ve read in this series are The Marx Sisters, All My Enemies, Babel, No Trace, and Dark Mirror. If pressed for a recommendation, I’d choose The Marx Sisters or Dark Mirror, but really I’ve very much enjoyed them all. And that most definitely includes Chelsea Mansions. There is something of a story arc in this series, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the novels in strict chronological order – that is, unless you’re compulsive about such things. (And you know who you are!)
Regarding The Golden Egg: the truth is that for me, Donna Leon can pretty much do no wrong. She’s right up there with Ruth Rendell, in that respect. I was reasonably certain that The Golden Egg would not disappoint, and I was right. The story centers on the somewhat mysterious death of a man who has led an extremely constrained existence. He appears to have been deaf, possibly even developmentally disabled. He certainly had no language with which to express himself. Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola, a professor of English literature, had frequently seen this person at their neighborhood dry cleaner’s shop. They did not know his name.
I always learn things of value from these novels. At one point, Brunetti is observing the activity of a colony of cats that live in what he terms a cat condominium, a structure expressly set up for their use in front of the church across the street from the police station. ‘Unruly creatures, cats,’ he think to himself, ‘and profoundly, incorrigibly disobedient.’ Turns out that the Commissario likes cats and would be happy to have one or two in his home, were it not for the fact of Paola’s allergies. He then recalls this line of poetry:
‘For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.’
This quotation is from a poem entitled “Jubilate Agno,” written by Christopher Smart. This is a lengthy work, consisting of four fragments and running to some twelve hundred lines. In the poem’s best known section, Smart praises his cat Jeoffrey and speaks lovingly of what he perceives as the feline’s relationship with God. From 1757 to1763, Smart was confined to two different asylums for the mentally ill. It was while he was resident in the first, St .Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, that he composed Jubilate Agno. During this period, it is believed that Jeoffrey was his sole companion.
I very much like the use Leon makes in these novels of the third person limited point of view. It has allowed her readers over the years to attain a kind of intellectual and emotional intimacy with Guido Brunetti. The pace of her narratives is not necessarily swift. Sometimes, in fact, it seems downright leisurely. There’s a reason for this. Time must be allowed for pithy observations of Venice, in all its uniqueness and peculiarity. (Leon, a native of New Jersey, has dwelt in La Serenissima for some thirty years.) Likewise, the reader gets to spend time en famille with Brunetti, Paola, and their two children, Chiara and Raffi. This last is one of the chief pleasures of this series. This is a close and devoted family. Meals are taken together, including lunch – on weekdays – very civilized. The meals are invariably delicious; Paola is a terrific cook. The conversation at table is often both bracing and raucous. Here, Brunetti has just a told a joke they’ve all heard many times before: “Chiara slapped her hands over her ears, knowing what was coming. Paola sighed; Raffi ate.” They all chime in at different parts of the story.
The cacophony gradually ebbs. This is how Brunetti experiences the rest of the meal:
He ate the rest of the dinner, though he didn’t know what it was he was eating. He drank a glass of wine, left the second one unfinished, drunk with the words that crossed the table, their different meanings, the fact that they indicate time: future and past; that they indicated whether something had been done or was still to do; that they expressed people’s feelings: anger was not a blow, regret was not tears. Atone point, Paola expressed a wish and used the subjunctive, and Brunetti felt himself close to tears at the beauty of the intellectual complexity of it: she could speak about what was not, could invent an alternative reality.
In all my years of ardent crime fiction consumption, this was a first for me: a policeman – or any fictional character, for that matter – ready to cry over the use of the subjunctive! (As a great fan of the subjunctive mood, or rather, the correct deployment of same, I really appreciated this odd but illuminating interval.)
Guido Brunetti is a born and bred Venetian. Its culture, its folkways, are deeply embedded in his make-up. He no longer attends church, but one thing he does firmly believe in is the unique and special status of his native city. This brief exchange with a member of his team, herself newly arrived from Naples, pretty well sums it up:
As they passed San Giorgio, she turned to Brunetti and asked, in an entirely normal voice, “Do you ever get tired of all this beauty?”
His gaze passed beyond her to the clouds scuttling behind the dome. “Never.” The answer was automatic, unconsidered, true.
I haven’t said much about the plot of this novel. As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t read Leon’s novels primarily for their plots, but because they give me the chance to hang out with an exceptionally appealing group of people in a wonderful place.. But in fact, The Golden Egg relates a particularly gripping and ultimately bleak story. When he learns the truth about the actions of certain individuals, especially a certain woman, Brunetti is gutted. It takes all of his natural resilience to lift his spirits in the face of this egregious example of just how far some people will go in the pursuit of easy money. A walk alone on the Beach at the Lido is his chosen restorative.
Blogger Lizzie Hayes recently had a chance to interview Donna Leon. Here’s her delightful write-up of the experience.
Here’s my favorite video of Venice. For me, it captures the allure and the mystery of the place. The music is The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni) by Antonio Vivaldi; the violinist, Federico Agostini:
Click here to read the story of the dramatic ‘rediscovery’ of Vivaldi’s music.
Miss Etta Lin was recently spotted taking her ease in the Cayman Islands. Here she is, gazing thoughtfully out to sea, clutching her trusty No.4 yellow bucket: Here Etta models the latest in leisure wear for the preschool set. She is clearly pleased with this delightful garment! (Note the color coordinated shoes.)
[Picture credits: Mom, Dad, grandparents – basically anyone present with a camera or a smartphone!]
It is time – past time! – for me to bid farewell to The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath. I’ve already written about this remarkable book, in conjunction with a discussion of this author’s mystery White Heat. I liked the mystery, with some reservations, but I love The Long Exile, with no reservations. Here are some of the reasons why:
The little boy would have spent his first few months of life in Maggie’s amiut. There he would have lain warm and naked, the filling in a sandwich of animal fur and human skin. His earliest view of a landscape, one whose contours he would never forget, would have been the rise and fall of his mother’s strong, sealskin-scented back. When he was hungry, his mother would have lifted him from the hood and put him to her breast. When he shat, she would have cleaned his naked skin with her hair. For months he would have slept, watching the Arctic world go by, and dreamed. By the time summer came he would probably have already been eating what would become the mainstay of his diet, seal meat, chewed and softened by Maggie. Already the breezes and the low contours of the land would have been familiar to him. He would have had a strong sense of where he was.
The only land lying between the d’Iberville and northern Siberia, 1,500 miles distant across the polar ice cap, was the mountainous ice capped terrain of Ellesmere Island. It was a forbidding place. Layers of peaks stretched back as far as the eye could see like a great army waiting the call to march. Ice mist glittered from the crags and drifted into the air and it would have been easy for anyone of a superstitious nature to suspect the island of being some kind of rocky anteroom to eternity, an in-between world where discarded spirits and the souls of never-born children curled up from the high peaks like mist and real life was just a dimming dream.
McGrath is exceptionally eloquent when describing the deprivation and terror experienced by the Inuit during that first harrowing winter on Ellesmere Island:
On 15 October 1953, the sun set over Ellesmere Island for the last time that year. For the next four months the Inuit would be living in perpetual darkness. On good days, when the clouds were drawn back, the sea ice reflected the moon’s glow and so long as the Inuit were out on the ice, they could see their footprints. On bad days, and most days were bad days, they could not tell what was beneath or above or around them, nor in which direction they were travelling or even when their journey, however short, might end. The Inuit of Inukjuak had no word for the void that opened up around them. At first, they tried to carry on with the routine they had worked so hard to establish while there was still light….But the dark exhausted them and pretty soon it was almost impossible to maintain a routine. Their body clocks broke down and the brain could not tell whether it was day or night or something in between. The absence of light made hunting an almost daily terror. Though they could no longer see it, the constant creaking and cracking of the ice reminded them that they were surrounded. The ice around the Lindstrom Peninsula often broke open without warning and floes were blown away on the high winds. Rime frost and beached ice collected at the shore and right at the sea’s edge the smooth spread of the ancient ice foot gave way to rough ice rubble and pressure ridges. The hunters had not had time to learn the position of all the contradictory currents and eddies in the sound before the dark came down, and they did not know where the ice was at its most unstable. Around the cracks there were patches of rotting ice and, beyond these, smooth fields of the open sea ice interrupted by immense, embedded icebergs.
Later, when a new family arrives, they must endure the same awful privations:
After a few days, the Flahertys discovered that their internal clocks had broken, waking them at all hours and disturbing their sleep. In the dark, everything seemed at the same time simpler and more complex. Objects became silhouettes whose sharp outlines obscured detail. Their own fingers dissolved into tentacles floating in a sea of contradictory impressions. Adults felt shorter, children taller, eyelashes felt thicker, noses more fleshy. The others, who had gone through it all before, attempted to reassure them, but there were so many bewildering new sensations that it was impossible to feel comforted.
It was decades before the injury done to these people was acknowledged by the government of Canada. Redress for these wrongs was obtained by the formation of a new legislative entity: Nunavut, created on April 1, 1999. Nunavut means “Our Land” in the Inuktitut language. At 787,155 square miles, it comprises one fifth of Canada’s land mass and is the fifth largest country subdivision in the world.
The government made further reparations by establishing a fund containing ten million Canadian dollars, the purpose of which was “…to provide housing, travel, pensions and compensation for the sixteen families who were relocated to the High Arctic in 1953 and 1955 and their descendants.” McGrath adds that there were calls for the government to issue an official apology to those whose lives were blighted, and in some cases lost, due to the Arctic relocation. At the time of her writing, however, no such gesture had been forthcoming. (The Long Exile was published in 2006.)
The story of the Inuit of Inukjuak and their forcible removal to Ellesmere Island is one of suffering, endurance, and ultimately, vindication and triumph. It is told with compassion and conviction by Melanie McGrath. The reviewers in both Booklist and Publishers Weekly used the word “riveting” to describe this narrative. The Long Exile is a masterful recounting of a story that needed to be told. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
RECEIVE ME FALLING by Erika Robuck. Bea described this novel as historical fiction with some supernatural elements. This was Robuck’s first novel, self-published in 2009. Her second and third books have been published by NAL/Penguin. You can learn more about her at www.erikarobuck.com. Bea Also informed us that Erika Robuck is a local author. Howard County Library does not currently own RECEIVE ME FALLING, but it does own Robuck’s second novel, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL. (Her latest, Call Me Zelda, is scheduled to be reviewed this week in the Washington Post.)
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson was recommended by Lorraine. Subtitled ‘The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,’ this magisterial account has garnered numerous awards and accolades. The reviewer in Bookmarks Magazine states: “In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson has composed a masterpiece of narrative journalism on a subject vital to our national identity, as compelling as it is heartbreaking and hopeful.” It so happened that Wilkerson was giving a talk at the library that evening; the event was filled to capacity.
From the Amazon.com review of Snow In August: “In 1940s Brooklyn, friendship between an 11-year-old Irish Catholic boy and an elderly Jewish rabbi might seem as unlikely as, well, snow in August. But the relationship between young Michael Devlin and Rabbi Judah Hirsch is only one of the many miracles large and small contained in Pete Hamill’s novel.” Robin also enjoys Lisa Scottoline’s legal thrillers.
THE ROUND HOUSE by Louise Erdrich was recommended by Caroline. From the book description on Amazon: “One of the most revered novelists of our time—a brilliant chronicler of Native-American life—Louise Erdrich returns to the territory of her bestselling, Pulitzer Prize finalist The Plague of Doves with The Round House, transporting readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. It is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.” This novel won the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction.
BURNT MOUNTAIN by Anne Rivers Siddons was recommended by Emma. From the Booklist review: “Siddons mixes in a touch of the supernatural to bring the novel to an exciting climax, but what’s most appealing here is the layered family drama and the lush world Thayer inhabits…A master storyteller with a remarkable track record, bestselling Siddons returns to her signature Southern setting in her newest blend of emotional realism and a sliver of magic.”
SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan was recommended by Phyllis. Called “tightly crafted” and “exquisitely executed” in USA Today, this novel has an opening that grabs you by the throat: “My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British Security Service. I didn’t return safely. Within eighteen months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, although he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.” Called “the connoisseur of dread” by Daniel Zalewski in a New Yorker Magazine feature piece, Ian McEwan is one of my absolute favorite writers. I greatly enjoyed SWEET TOOTH, but my favorite McEwan novel is probably ENDURING LOVE, a tale of obsession and the strange twists of fate that are part of the human condition.
SWEET TEA REVENGE by Laura Childs and THE SNOW CHILD by Eowyn Ivey were both recommended by Dottie. Laura Childs is the popular author of the Tea Shop series and the Scrapbooking series, mysteries which are usually classed in the ‘cozy’ subgenre. THE SNOW CHILD was Amazon.com’s selection for Best Book of the Month for February of last year: “In her haunting, evocative debut Eowyn Ivey stakes her claim on a Russian fairy tale, daring the reader–and the characters–to be lulled into thinking they know the ending. But, as with the Alaskan wilderness, there’s far more here than meets the eye.” In his review of this novel for the Washington Post, Ron Charles says: “The real magic of The Snow Child is that it’s never as simple as it seems, never moves exactly in the direction you think it must…Sad as the story often is, with its haunting fairy-tale ending, what I remember best are the scenes of unabashed joy.”
THE GRAVEDIGGER’S DAUGHTER by Joyce Carol Oates made a powerful impression on Connie. She spoke of the novel with quiet and compelling eloquence. From the Publisher’s Weekly review: “At the beginning of Oates’s 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence.” Sounds harrowing, but remember – this is Joyce Carol Oates. I admire the amazingly prolific Oates; I especially like her short stories. But she can be kind of scary….
Connie also recommended the novels of R.J. Ellory, two of the best known of which are A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE and A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS. Ellory has a rather unique life story.
KITCHEN TABLE WISDOM: STORIES THAT HEAL by Rachel Naomi Remen was Peggy’s recommendation. She said that this book had been given to her as a gift during a difficult time in her life, and that it had helped her enormously. This is the book description furnished by Amazon: “Praised by everyone from Bernie Siegel to Daniel Goleman to Larry Dossey, Rachel Remen has a unique perspective on healing rooted in her background as a physician, a professor of medicine, a therapist, and a long-term survivor of chronic illness. In a deeply moving and down-to-earth collection of true stories, this prominent physician shows us life in all its power and mystery and reminds us that the things we cannot measure may be the things that ultimately sustain and enrich our lives.”
THREE WEEKS IN DECEMBER by Audrey Schulman and A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George were both recommended by Barbara, who spoke with deep conviction about the first title. The action in Three Weeks in December takes place in Rwanda, in two distinct time periods: 1899 and 2000. This novel was of special interest to Barbara because she’s been to Rwanda and greatly admires the people of that country and what they’ve been able to achieve, despite a horrific history. (If you get on the Amazon page for this title, you’ll see numerous customer raves.) Here’s the book description Amazon provides for THE GOOD AMERICAN: “It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead (“What’s the difference? They’re both new“), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.”
STILL ALICE by Lisa Genova and LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson were both recommended by Rita. The first is the story of Alice Howland, a distinguished Harvard professor who at age fifty is suddenly and unexpectedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s. As for LIFE AFTER LIFE, the plot description on the Amazon page begins with this question: “What if you could live again and again, until you got it right?” It goes on: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born to an English banker and his wife. She dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in a variety of ways, while the young century marches on towards its second cataclysmic world war.” LIFE AFTER LIFE has gotten mixed reviews, but Rita liked it very much and gave persuasive reasons for her opinion.
Kate Atkinson wrote one of my favorite books of the past decade: CASE HISTORIES was at once almost unbearably poignant and genuinely funny; in addition, it’s one of the most elegantly structured novels I’ve ever read. I’ve not enjoyed any of her subsequent books anywhere near as much, but I’m going to try Life After Life, especially since the group has selected it for future discussion.
MAN IN THE WOODS by Scott Spencer was DruAnne’s recommendation. From Bookmarks Magazine: “What happens if we’re not made to pay for our crimes? This question lies at the heart of Man in the Woods, a psychological and philosophical thriller about belief, guilt, responsibility, love, religion, and the randomness of life.” From the starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Spencer, a deft explorer of obsessive love and violence, confronts the consequences of doing wrong for all the right reasons in his exquisite latest.” DruAnne emphasized the fact that the moral questions implicit in this narrative make it an especially good choice for discussion. I was pleased by that observation, as it provided a nice segue into the first title I was presenting to the group:
Josephine Tey’s BRAT FARRAR, written in 1950, is the story of an audacious imposture and its far reaching consequences. The story plays out against a pastoral setting in England, where the love and knowledge of horses reigns supreme. In particular, it’s the story of the Ashby family and their country home Latchetts. A serene peace resides there – until the sudden reappearance of Patrick Ashby, the long absent son and heir to the estate. It’s as if he’s returned from the dead…. The moral crisis that occurs at this novel’s climax creates an almost claustrophobic tension. The first time I read it, I was riveted.
I can never talk about BRAT FARRAR without also mentioning another novel by Tey, written in 1949, called THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR. As with the Dorothy L Sayers classic GAUDY NIGHT, there is no actual murder in this mystery; still, a deeply sinister force is doing its malign work.The story centers on two women who have a monstrous accusation leveled against them. Marion Sharpe and her mother have recently taken up residence in a house called The Franchise, in the village of Milford. Their dearest wish is to eke out their savings in peace and quiet, but instead they find themselves at the center of a firestorm with absolutely no idea how they got there, or how to get out. That is, until an unassuming solicitor named Robert Blair somewhat reluctantly answers their plea for help.
Josephine Tey is something of a mystery herself. Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh; she wrote novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms. She was born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1896. Little is known concerning her personal life, although some details have been filled on this site. Having been ill for some time, she ultimately died of cancer in 1952. She’d been secretive about her illness, as about almost everything else, and her death came as a profound shock to those who knew her.
Tey wrote eight novels that can be considered crime fiction. Detective Inspector Alan Grant, her series character, appears in six of them. Her most famous novel is The Daughter of Time, which I read ages ago and probably should revisit one of these days. But in the meantime, I’ve developed a huge fondness for the two above discussed titles.
Joesphine Tey is often grouped with four of her contemporaries: Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio March, Margery Allingham, and Agatha Christie. Together, these writers are sometimes referred to as “the Grandes Dames” of Britain’s first Golden Age of crime fiction.
(A word on Ngaio Marsh: my three favorite novels by her are The Nursing Home Murder, A Clutch of Constables, and most especially Death in s White Tie. There’s a nicely done two-season traversal of her works available on DVD, featuring Patrick Malahyde as Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn. These DVD’s are owned by the Howard County Library System.)
We had two submissions from book lovers who were unable to attend our session on Thursday. Here’s what Jeannie kindly sent via email:
The books I was going to mention are “Mao – The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang, which is a detailed history of Mao; very clearly biased against Mao, but who can blame her — she cites 70 million Chinese deaths because of him. It’s long and tedious at times, but ultimately very intriguing. Now I’m in the midst of reading “Bound Feet and Western Dress” by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang, which is a biography by an American- born woman of Chinese descent about her great Aunt who lived through many dramatic cultural changes. I’m not an historian and know next to nothing about China but I’ve grown more and more interested through historical novels and our recent readings.
Finally, THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald was suggested by Doris, in view of the fact that a new film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is due to be released on May 10. Several years ago, another book group I’m in revisited GATSBY in tandem with DOUBLE BIND by Chris Bohjalian. The latter contains story elements from the Fitzgerald classic, and treats the events in the lives of Jay Gatsby and Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the others as though they actually happened. Although I did not care for Bohjalian’s novel, I enjoyed revisiting THE GREAT GATSBY and along with it, the bittersweet life story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
This was one of the most stimulating, even revelatory discussions I’ve had the pleasure to be present at in quite some time. What a pleasure it was to be among such eloquent and impassioned book lovers! Heartfelt thanks are owing to my AAUW colleagues and friends.