Some great reading this summer

September 19, 2014 at 1:42 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, True crime)

The fact is, I’ve fallen hopelessly behind in reviewing my recent reads. This does not mean that they’ve been disappointing. On the contrary, they’ve been exceptionally good – in a couple of cases, even great. And virtually all of them merit serious consideration by book discussion groups. (In cases where I’ve previously written about a work, I’ve provided links.)

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MYSTERY

AFTER I’M GONE by Laura Lippman

Yet another gem from Lippman, a beloved local institution. Here she talks about her latest novel  at Washington’s Politics and Prose, another beloved local institution. I found very interesting her insistence on the distinction between a plot that’s ‘inspired by,’ as opposed to ‘based on,’ actual events and/or persons.

THE RESISTANCE MAN by Martin Walker.

My only problem with this latest entry in the Bruno Chief of Police series is that the complexity of the plot tended to interfere with the immersion in the food and wine of France’s fabulous Dordogne region. And I simply could not get enough of Bruno’s endlessly tangled love life and the antics of his new basset hound puppy Balzac. (Said canine serves to remind Bruno that he really must get back to reading the classics, a timely reminder for  this reader as well.)

BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD – Kjell Eriksson

NO MAN’S NIGHTINGALE – Ruth Rendell

I confess to possessing no objectivity concerning the works of Baroness Rendell of Babergh. She could write advertising copy (as Dorothy L Sayers did so entertainingly) and I would no doubt be enthralled. I’m partial to the Wexford procedurals, but really, anything will do. Her latest, The Girl Next Door, is due out next month.

heroichistorymain   Childrenact

FICTION

THE INVENTION OF WINGS – Sue Monk Kidd

I would not have read this book had it not been a selection of the AAUW Readers. It’s turned out to be the classic case of reluctance turned into enthusiasm.
I’d tried to read Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and I hadn’t cared for it. I thought the author was trying too hard to create a mystical aura; in addition, the characters seemed stereotypical. In my view, that is not true of The Invention of Wings. For one thing, the novel is based on the actual lives of the Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sister from South Carolina who traveled north to become Quakers and fervent abolitionists in the early years of the nineteenth century. Their story is compelling, but even more compelling is the story of their slaves. Kidd relates their ghastly lot, and the suffering of their fellows in bondage, without pulling any punches. It is a story that is both enraging and excruciating.

There are a few instances of awkward writing in this novel, but not enough to spoil the reading experience. Altogether, I’d say it’s a triumph of historical fiction and a timely reminder – for such reminders are always needed – of the specific horrors suffered by innocent people at the hands of those who “owned” them, who professed themselves good Christians, and who were happy to delude themselves and their fellows with false bromides and senseless justifications concerning their “peculiar institution.”

THE CHILDREN ACT – Ian McEwan

I read no reviews. My anticipation was great. I wanted this consummately gifted writer to astonish me once again.

And he did.

In a recent New Yorker review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, James Wood makes the claim that in our time, the novel has lost its cultural relevance and in consequence has forsaken the search for meaning, aiming instead to deliver nothing deeper than an engrossing tale:

Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Madox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

Soon after reading this piece by Woods, I was riveted by a passage filled with almost unbearable tension in The Children Act. The stakes could not have been higher nor the dilemma more profound, and the resolution depended on the judgment of a single individual.

At that moment, I could think of no more powerful refutation of Woods’s contention. In the masterful hands of Ian McEwan, meaning could not be less of a bore. It is, in fact, everything.

517TC8v42uL  weightwater

SPARTA – Roxana Robinson

Yet another book I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been a book club ‘assignment.’ This story of a young Iraq war veteran’s difficult return to civilian life is both poignant and hard hitting. Robinson’s writing is exquisite.

AN OFFICER AND A SPY – Thomas Harris

THE WEIGHT OF WATER – Anita Shreve

Somehow I’d never gotten around to reading anything by Shreve, an extremely well liked author among readers of contemporary fiction. I chose The Weight of Water because the plot involves the revisiting of an appalling double murder that took place in 1873 on the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. The crime is usually referred to by the name Smuttynose,  the name of the actual island on which the murders occurred.

I’d never heard of the killings on Smuttynose – never heard of the Isles of Shoals, for that matter – before encountering the story in Harold Schechter’s true crime anthology. Having read almost all of the selections in that book, I have to say that this is the crime that I have found  most haunting. This is no doubt due in part to Celia Thaxter’s powerful retelling of events. Her piece is entitled “A Memorable Murder;” it was first published in 1875 in the Atlantic Monthly, as the magazine was then called. I’d never before heard of Celia Thaxter. She turns out to have been an exceptional person, one well worth knowing about.She was a native of the Isles of Shoals, and was living on Appledore, one of the other islands, when the crime took place on Smuttynose.

Celia Yhaxter's Garden by Childe Hassam, 1890

Celia Thaxter’s Garden by Childe Hassam, 1890

Past and present kept colliding with each other in The Weight of Water. The material was well handled; I very much enjoyed the novel.

STONER – John Williams

Last June, my friend Cristina returned from several weeks touring Europe with the news: “Everyone’s reading Stoner over there!”

Published in 1965 and achieving at the time only middling success, Stoner has been revived to great acclaimed, championed by the likes of Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes.

William Stoner is a college professor of modest means and even more modest aspirations. In some ways fate is cruel to him, but perhaps not more than it is to any man or woman striving for a modicum of happiness and success in this life. Stoner reminds me in some ways of The Wife of Martin Guerre: in both novels, the narrative commences with great restraint, only to become increasingly powerful  as the story progresses. In both books, the ending comes close to being shattering.

I remember being at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s celebrated American Wing several years ago and feeling distinctly intrigued by this painting:

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900, by Thomas Eakins

The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900, by Thomas Eakins

The subject seemed to be worn down by some unnamed burden of sorrow. As it turns out, Mr. Kenton himself is something of an enigma. I thought it an apt choice for the cover of the reissue of Stoner from New York Review Books.  9781590171998

John Williams’s novel is intensely moving; at times, almost devastating. The writing is marvelous.

515nd+DNWNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  AMERICAN ROMANTIC – Ward Just

Like Stoner, this is the story of a man’s life, from youth to old age. Harry Sanders works for the U.S. Foreign Service. As the novel opens, he’s a young attache in Southeast Asia – probably Vietnam, though Just does not specify. While on duty there, he meets a German aid worker based on a nearby hospital ship. Harry and Sieglinde fall passionately in love. Then chance and circumstance separate them.

The remainder of Harry’s work life and his ever evolving personal life both makes for an absorbing story, but as so often happens, the intense drama of his first assignment and his first love affair is never quite duplicated.

Ward Just is a veteran fiction writer and newspaper reporter. His accomplishments in both fields have been recognized. (He was the Washington Post’s Vietnam correspondent.) This high praise for American Romantic from Kirkus Reviews is entirely justified (no pun intended, but hey, why not?).

At lunch this past Monday, my friend Angie was praising the opening chapter of The Children Act. I agree with her that it sets  the tone beautifully for what comes next. But I think the so-called Prelude to the first chapter of American Romantic is even more striking. Traveling  by boat, Harry Sanders penetrates deep into the jungle. His purpose is to inspect some projects that have been initiated in certain villages. He’s particularly interested in a clinic established in one of them. But when he gets there, he’s greeted by a sight that poignant, tragic, and terrible all at once. It’s an amazing scene, perfectly rendered.

NONFICTION

A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL – Ben Macintyre

THE FAMILY ROMANOV: MURDER, REBELLION, AND THE FALL OF IMPERIAL RUSSIA – Candace Fleming

9780446505291_custom-23fe53489fb5d8b63d49b9438870d36cb5735940-s99-c85  THE GOOD NURSE – Charles Graeber

The book’s full title is The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder. Once again, I was reading for a discussion group, the Usual Suspects this time.  I confess I was somewhat dismayed by the first few pages, as the writing struck me as awkward, even clumsy. But it doesn’t take Charles Graeber long to hit his stride, and once he does… Let’s put it this way: I did nothing for three days but read The Good Nurse, all the while exclaiming over and over again, Oh no, not again, oh my God…. Nurse Charlie Cullen began committing his depredations in the 1980’s while employed at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, New Jersey. My father was almost certainly a patient there at that time, so this tale gained an extra creepy dimension for me as a result.

The Good Nurse is a different kind of true crime book. Cullen’s  crimes were accomplished through stealth and trickery. Many times the authorities and medical experts had trouble determining whether a crime had actually been committed. Cullen’s callous abuse of his position of trust in life-or-death situations makes for horrific reading. I admire Charles Graeber for being able to penetrate the thicket of this medical mystery and by doing so, exposing it to the light of day. A number of hospitals and health care facilities do not come off well in Graeber’s telling. But in fairness there are some heroes in this narrative as well. If they hadn’t pushed for the truth, Cullen’s crime spree might have lasted even longer than the sixteen years that it did go on.

TRUE CRIME: AN AMERICAN ANTHOLOGY – Harold Schechter, editor

I’ve already written about this terrific anthology; there will be more to come, as I continue preparing for the True Crime course I’ll be teaching next February and March.

1 Comment

  1. WORDMAN said,

    John Williams’ Stoner is a rare treat. Whilst reading Williams’ words, words that began to breathe the moment my eyes touched upon them, I completely lost sight of myself. Not a glimmer of me existed until the glow subsided, days after I turned the last page. This is a grand story and Williams is a grand storyteller. And, you are right about Eakins’ Portrait of The Thinker – perfect cover for this book.

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