June 2013: So far, it’s been a very good year in books

June 25, 2013 at 1:20 am (Best of 2013, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Recommended reading:


 bilde      The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. I remain ambivalent about this novel. At times it struck me as whiny and self-indulgent, but at other times, it seemed insightful and even profound. I admire the way in which the author sustained the edgy, angry mood.

13722330   A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks. This work is subtitled “A Novel in Five Parts.” To me, it seemed like a collection of five novellas, with very little connecting one to the other. Still, with Faulks you can depend on wonderful writing and a lively imagination. (My favorite among his works is A Week in December.)

sweettooth_Doubleday_329  Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. McEwan is one of my favorite writers, and I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of the hapless Serena Frome, an intelligent, ambitious woman tripped up repeatedly the yearnings of her vulnerable heart. Sweet Tooth is compulsively readable and highly entertaining, but it doesn’t achieve profundity, and I don’t think McEwan had that intention here anyway. For that extra dimension, I recommend Saturday and Enduring Love.

Crime fiction

 Advertise  Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers. This discussion choice presented some challenges for the Usual Suspects, but members gamely persevered. (That perseverance is one of the reasons I like this group so much.) The latter part of the novel contained a detailed description of a cricket game calculated to cause glazed eyes in all but the most ardent sports fan. Still, it IS Dorothy L. Sayers and her inimitable creation, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Harvey,_John,_Good_Bait       Good Bait by John Harvey. A good, solid procedural, but perhaps not on a par with Harvey’s beloved Charlie Resnick novels.

141379260        The Caller by Karin Fossum. Fossum is my current favorite among the Scandinavians, but this otherwise compelling novel contained a scene involving a child crime victim that was sufficiently nasty that I felt duty bound to warn would-be readers of its presence. (How I wish that authors I admire wouldn’t do this!)

9781250006943        Chelsea Mansions by Barry Maitland. The latest entry in the Brock and Kolla series, a favorite of mine. A story with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of heart as well.

16115714       The Golden Egg by Donna Leon. The always reliable Leon delivers once more. A sad and poignant tale, filled with the humane compassion that are the hallmarks of her exceptionally appealing protagonist, Commissario Guido Brunetti. And of course the city of Venice, simultaneously vibrant and decadent, is like a character itself.

BlackhouseCover      The Black House by Peter May.Somewhat overstuffed with regard to the plot, but the lore and legend of the Isle of Lewis are genuinely fascinating. The description of the stranger-than-fiction annual event called the guga harvest alone is worth the price of admission.

ar-303259945maxw638       The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher. A nicely done historical mystery set in the year 1912. The protagonist, Sebastian Becker was formerly in the employ of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the U.S. As this novel begins, he’s back in his native England and working for a UK public body called the Masters of Lunacy. He’s been sent by his boss to look into the affairs of a wealthy aristocrat whose behavior has become increasingly erratic.

Passion   Act of Passion by Georges Simenon. For me, Simenon’s ‘romans durs’ – hard novels – are the polar opposite of the Maigret novels. The latter follow the classic police procedural formula. Maigret’s presence, and that of his team at the Quai des Orfevres, provide reassurance that the crime will be solved and order restored. But in a novel like Act of Passion, you have no idea what’s going to happen next – only that things will go from tense to tenser, as you read on, spellbound and filled with dread.


 AnneBoleyn    The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir. Will we ever tire of the story of the doomed queen? As I finished Bring Up the Bodies, the second entry in Hilary Mantel’s magisterial trilogy, I experienced a powerful desire to know more of the facts in the case of Anne Boleyn. I did not hesitate to select a biography by Alison Weir, an acknowledged master of this turbulent era of English history. (I just discovered that there is yet another book just out on the subject: The Creation of Anne Boleyn:  a new look at England’s most notorious queen, by Susan Bordo.)


The above titles were very fine indeed. But the following were truly exceptional:

Crime fiction

 hitme2   Hit Me by Lawrence Block. Who would have thought that the exploits of a professional hit man could be so endlessly entertaining? That wily old pro Lawrence Block has come up with an inventive and original take on a crime fiction staple, the killer for hire.

privateinquiry   A Private Inquiry by Jessica Mann. I was looking for a novel set in Cornwall, and this one filled the bill beautifully. Barbara Pomeroy is an arbitration judge, a powerful position that allows her to render decisions in matters concerning real estate development projects. Although based with her husband and son in St. Ives, Barbara travels a great deal for her work, which she loves. But in her absence, a sinister force begins to insinuate itself into her family’s life. A novel of psychological suspense that features both a compulsive narrative and thoroughly engaging characters.

foreign  A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming. Easily the best novel of espionage I’ve read in recent years; beautifully written, cunningly plotted, and featuring an exceptionally sympathetic protagonist.

 a-dark-anatomy-by-robin-blake-98-p   A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake. Blake’s historical mystery takes place in 1740 and is set in Preston, Lancashire. (Lancashire is in the North of England, to the west of Yorkshire.) Coroner Titus Cragg is called to a gruesome murder scene. The victim is the wife of Ramilles Brockletower, the local squire and a personage of considerable eminence in the region. He had chosen his bride while in the West Indies; she had never been a good fit back in England. Local gossip went so far as  to assert that Dolores Brockletower dabbled in witchcraft. But Titus Cragg cannot be dealing solely with  idle talk. He must overcome the reluctance of  numerous townspeople  in order to get at the shocking truth about the killing, and the even more shocking truth about who Dolores Brockletower really is.
I haven’t had a chance to write about A Dark Anatomy, but I want to say right here that I absolutely loved this book. What a vivid, utterly believably recreation of a time past Robin Blake has given us! I hated for it to end, and can only hope there’s another in the works.


 turn-of-screw   The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (audio). Every couple of years, I feel compelled to return to this book. Sometimes I read it; this time, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Flo Gibson. Each time I revisit James’s immensely disturbing masterpiece, I come away with some new insight, but also yet again with the realization that the mystery at its heart is, as ever, ambiguous and impenetrable.

Contemporary fiction

 764073   When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. I tend to be skeptical of the claim that book clubs often introduce you to the delights of a new reading experience. This is one case in which that actually did happen. Otsuka’s two novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and its prequel of sorts, The Buddha in the Attic, were recent discussion choices of the AAUW Readers (suggested, in fact, by my book loving friend Emma). Emperor affected me deeply. It deals with the fate of a family swept up in the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Julie Otsuka’s writing is elegant, restrained and precise. Just below the surface there runs a current of barely restrained rage. a rage that is not given full expression until the novel nears its end. A real tour de force, powerful and immensely moving.

  13602426   The Round House by Louise Erdrich. I’ve been meaning to read something by this esteemed author for quite some time. The recommendation given at the AAUW Readers Bring – a -Book session last month convinced me that The Round House was the one to try. This novel is about an Ojibwe family, Geraldine, Bazil and Joe Coutts. They reside on a reservation in North Dakota, and their story is told by thirteen-year-old Joe. Erdrich gets the voice of this teenager memorably and exactly right. Her depiction of life “on the res” is laced with humor and pathos – completely convincing and just as completely unforgettable.


 Give-Me-Everything-You-Have    Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, by James Lasdun. An immensely disturbing and riveting read. Lasdun’s experience with an obsessive former student provides on object lesson in the perils of the technology revolution. (James Lasdun is a terrific writer whose gifts deserve wider recognition than they have thus far garnered.)

longexile   The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, by Melanie McGrath. Until I read this book, I was completely ignorant of this tale of massive injustice.  The ultimate vindication of the Inuit People does not lessen the sense of outrage at what was done to them by officials of the Canadian government and the RCMP some sixty years ago. It’s a story that needed to be told, and Melanie McGrath does a masterful job of telling it.

 1504664     Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet. Born in Glasgow Scotland in 1906, Gilbert Highet taught the classics at Columbia University from 1938 to 1971. During that time, his charismatic classroom presence became legendary. Poets in a Landscape is part history, part travelogue, and wholly magical. Every page is animated by Highet’s deep knowledge and love of Italy, both past and present:

It is good for us to think of Catullus returning to his northland from enervating Asia or corrupt Rome, and, for a time, being happy in ‘relief long-sought, where the mind drops its burdens.’ Yet he was a man doomed to misery. We come closer to his soul when, with his single small volume of poems (a promise of far richer possibilities unfulfilled) in our hand, we stand above the endlessly rolling waves that beat on Sirmio, and watch the olive trees, twisted into shapes like those of tormented prisoners, tossing their arms wildly in the air, and feel upon our faces the  tearful violence of the restless and passionate wind.

From start to finish, a transcendent reading experience.

The New York Review Books reissue of Poets in a Landscape. The painting is by Nicolas Poussin.

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A strange and felicitous confluence

June 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm (books, Russophilia)

advertise  strongpoisoncover1

In April, I composed a biographical sketch of Dorothy L. Sayers. It was meant as a prelude to a post about the Usual Suspects’ discussion of Murder Must Advertise. Among the nuggets I included in the biography was a brief mention of Sayers’s unhappy love affair with one John Cournos. I’ve gleaned from more than one source that Cournos was the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. ( I’m pleased to note that this blog entry was selected for inclusion on the Dorothy L. Sayers Facebook page.)

Joseph Epstein’s luminous piece on Nikolai Gogol and his seminal work of fiction, Dead Souls, appeared in the  May 3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article’s title was “Surveying the Surging Immensity of Life;”  the subject, one of the great geniuses in an era of Russian literary genius.  Dead Souls, published in Russia in 1842, is a novel I’ve long wanted to read. Epstein’s  eloquent retrospective was a powerful motivator. I got the book from the library. It was a rather singular edition, put out by an outfit called Wildside Press. I can find no date of publication anywhere. The translation is by one C.J. Hogarth.  9781592247196_p0_v1_s260x420

Yesterday, I began leafing through the opening pages of this volume when I was stopped in my tracks by the name of the person who wrote the introduction. It was – is –

John Cournos.  JohnCournos

In the aforementioned blog post I characterized John Cournos as “a self-important writer and ideologue.” This is certainly the impression one gains from reading about his involvement with Sayers. But he appears also to have been a genuinely learned person gifted with a superior intellect. Cournos was born Ivan Grigorievich Korshun in Zhitomir, Russia, in 1881. His parents were of Russian-Jewish background, and although his first language was Yiddish, he eventually gained mastery of Russian, Hebrew, German, and English. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was ten years old. He relocated to London in 1912, where, years later, he crossed paths with Dorothy L. Sayers. Click here for more information on the life and works of John Cournos.


I had seen this painting of Gogol before:

Nikolai Gogol, by Anton Moller

Nikolai Gogol, by Anton Moller

But the author’s Wikipedia entry featured a daguerreotype that I’d not previously been aware of:  NV_GogolThe photographer’s name is Sergey Lvovich Levitsky.  Levitsky_R.S._-_portrait_of_Levitsky_S.L._-_1890  As I researched this individual, I could not help but marvel that I’d never before heard of him. The Wikipedia entry states that Levitsky “…is considered one of the patriarchs of Russian photography and one of Europe’s most important early photographic pioneers, inventors and innovators.” And indeed he took some striking pictures, including some of the Russian imperial family:


Official engagement portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra, 1894

Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, aand their daughter Olga, 1896

Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, aand their daughter Olga, 1896

Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga, andd the infant Maria, 1899

Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga, andd the infant Maria, 1899


This is  John Cournos’s description of the plot of Dead Souls:

It was the day of serfdom in Russia, and a man’s standing was often judged by the number of “souls” he possessed. There was a periodical census of serfs, say once every ten or twenty years. This being the case, an owner had to pay a tax on every “soul” registered in the last census, though some of the serfs might have died in the meantime. Nevertheless, the system had its material advantages, inasmuch as an owner might borrow money from a bank on the “dead souls” no less than on the living ones. The plan of Chichikov, Gogol’s hero-villain, was therefore to make a journey through Russia and buy up the “dead souls,” at  reduced rates of course, saving their owners the government tax, and acquiring for himself a list of fictitious serfs, which he meant to mortgage to a bank for a considerable  sum. With this money he would buy an estate and some real life serfs, and make the beginning of a fortune.

I had to smile as I read this. Yet another scam artist on the loose! Whatever the country, whatever the time period, some things never change.

Dead Souls has recently been translated by Donald Rayfield, an emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian literature at Queen Mary, University of London. One critic hailed the new translation as “…a tour de force of art and scholarship—and the most authoritative, accurate, and readable edition of Dead Souls available in English.”  DeadsoulsgogolThis is a New York Review Books Classics edition. This publisher is doing an outstanding job of making available great, and sometimes unfairly neglected, works from the past.

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