Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's resolution

Looking over the past few months of my book blog, I'm a bit disturbed about the paucity of finished books. I blame the presidential campaign in part because I spent a lot of time watching cable television coverage for background for my twice weekly MarketWatch column and this cut into my prime reading time in the early evening.

I'd like once again to envisage reading at least a book a week, as I did after discovering the blog from Nina Sakovitch and her project to read a book a day. This doesn't mean I won't continue to read a number of books at the same time -- one or two in print, maybe an e-book and an audiobook. But I would like for books finished and reviewed here to average four or five a month -- one a week.

I consider film and television to be viable alternatives to the benefits we derive from good books -- entertainment, information, a feeling for real-life issues, a widening of horizons, and, often, emotional catharsis. But too much of the time I spend in front of the TV is wasted on vacuous programming. Yes, we are all entitled to down time -- wasted time -- but I think I overindulge.

Some of the books I read may be as empty as these TV shows, but generally they have some redeeming quality in a sense of place, a sly humor, a quality of writing that is entertaining and, for me as a writer, instructive. Most of the books I read offer the benefits listed above in far greater measure than all but the very best on TV, so I think my time is better spent with them.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

It's hard not to like Michael Chabon and to appreciate the rambunctious quality of his prose. After the dazzling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, he succeeds again in this book in creating a world that is coherent in itself while outside the bounds of normal experience.

The bestseller is famously about an alternate history of a Jewish homeland after the war, when the attempt to establish a Jewish refuge in Palestine fails. Instead, a sizable population is settled in Alaska, where, in a cross between an American Indian reservation and Hong Kong, they are leased a specific district in Sitka for 60 years. The action of the novel takes place in the weeks just before the Reversion -- the end of the lease -- when the district reverts to American control and most of the Jews must find a different home.

But this is much more than just an entertaining alternate history, clever as it is. This is a largely successful effort to capture in a story that is equal parts satire and thriller the entire sweep of Jewish history, from the irony of being the Chosen People to the undying hope for a Messiah.

The protagonist, Meyer Landsman (the first of many punny names, with Willie Dick being one of the most awful punned names since Pussy Galore), is a detective who, in the manner of all hard-boiled detectives, has gone to seed over a woman. When a junkie is murdered in his flophouse hotel, Landsmann sets out to find the killer even as the countdown begins for his jurisdiction to vanish. The search for the murderer, which he must eventually pursue after he has been suspended from the police force, leads him to discover a conspiratorial plot to change history and give Jews a new homeland.

Chabon's alternate history, like all good works in this genre, is not that different from real history. The Sitka district, with the Jewish population crowded into a tightly limited space, is a fanciful version of the ghettos in Warsaw and other cities prior to the war. The establishment of a post-Sitka territory is depicted as a heinous act of terrorism, sponsored by a certain Western government for blatantly cynical motives. In the view of many, of course, this description fits the establishment of the state of Israel.

Chabon luxuriates in the language and traditions of Central European Jews, punning in Yiddish, extrapolating and inventing from real traditions to create new arcane customs and foods. His language is prolix and florid, and at times tiring, but relentlessly imaginative and usually compelling. His descriptions are gritty and detailed, his images vivid, the overall atmosphere tellingly rendered.

There are many strands woven into the plot -- the theme of chess and why people are obsessed with it, the racial rivalries between Alaska's native Indians and "Americans" as well as with the transplanted Jewish population, the relations between fathers and sons and between husbands and wives, and ex-wives. All together, these plot lines create a rich texture for the reader while unraveling the mystery moves the plot along.

Fittingly, it all ends on an ambivalent note with the future very uncertain. Landsman seems to have found his footing again, and probably regained the love of his ex-wife, so it can all be seen as a redemption, but in the sense of being a vindication of the redeeming sort of life Landsman had always attempted to live.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reading and drinking

Having made the point in the previous post that I am widening the scope of this blog partly to avoid giving the impression that I spend all my time eating and drinking, given the much greater frequency of posting on my food blog, here my first post is about drinking.

It doesn't make much sense to call interim posts "Current reading" and for lack of a better title, much of my current reading is concerned with drinking. I'm regularly reading Philip Greene's To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion and I have started a Hemingway countdown on the food blog, akin to the famous Julia Child blog -- 52 weeks, 55 cocktails! At the present rate, I'll be done in far fewer than 52 weeks.

I'm using the cocktail entries then as a way to explore Hemingway's short stories, most of which I've never read. I've had the Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway sitting on my shelf for eons, and now when Greene cites one of the stories as mentioning the cocktail in question, I read that story. Needless to say, the stories themselves go well beyond the mention of the cocktail. More on them later.

I'm also reading How to Love Wine by Eric Asimov, the wine critic for the New York Times -- and Isaac Asimov's nephew! He has a refreshing take on wine appreciation, debunking the wine snobs and their slavish devotion to points and trends. It's music to my ears. I stopped going to Calvert Woodley, at least on Saturday mornings, because I couldn't stand the press of balding, gray-haired, pot-bellied men (like myself!) airing their opinions (unlike me!) about wine and chasing the latest recommendation from the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post. There's too much good wine out there and taste is too subjective to pretend that there is a canon of wines that one must have and those that must be avoided.

The other nonfiction book I'm reading is Napoleon: Life, Legacy, and Image: A Biography, which I'm reviewing for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It's a good read, but I'll save my comments for the review, which I'll cross-post here.

I'm having another go at Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and I'm making much better progress than when I tried before and abandoned it. Chabon is unquestionably a good writer, but his prolix language is sometimes tough going and his characters are not always so sympathetic -- like the protagonist Meyer Landsmann in this book. But his wit and irony are engaging and this is a marvelous alternate history. It was a recent conversation with Fred Pollack that sent me back to this book, as he was praising Chabon's newest, Telegraph Avenue. Fred, a poet who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, has never steered me wrong.

Bedside reading is The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer, one of the discoveries I made recently on the remainder shelf at Politics & Prose. The writing is elegant, if a bit studied. I'm not big on coming of age stories, but the appeal for me here is the re-creation of the world of the 1950s -- the world I grew up in. The format of linked stories is also just right for periodic reading.

On audiobooks, I'm "reading" Robert Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography. I'm still not ready to listen to books while I'm walking the dog, but I am now making more of an effort to listen to books when I'm in the car for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Kaplan is something of a soulmate for me because he pays so much attention to geography, which is the basis for my book, The New Superregions of Europe.

Blog posts

I've decided I need to widen the scope of this blog. Up until now I have generally only blogged a type of book review when I finish a book. As a result, the rate of posts has been pretty low. I read most every day, but there are many books I start and put aside, especially since I'm usually reading a number of books at once.

Also, in the meantime, my blogging has evolved. When I started it was almost grudging -- I resisted blogging for a long time because I write for a living and this seemed like writing for a hobby. In the meantime, I've come to see blogging as a professional activity. I am a writer and blogging has become a major medium for writers. I have several of my own blogs and have started ghostwriting a blog for Andrea about her practice. I've re-jiggered my mediabistro profile to feature blogging, though admittedly I've had no queries since I did.

I'm posting like crazy to my food blog -- now called my food and drinks blog -- and people may well get the idea I'm so busy eating and drinking I never have time to read. But, as I said, I'm reading all the time. So I'd like to make this blog more supple, posting more often about books I'm reading, more or less as the spirit takes me. A book may be mentioned once and never again if I lay it aside. Or when I finish a book, the final comment may not be the same complete review as before because of previous comments I've made. I can perhaps try to link to earlier comments, but given the spotty nature of the search function of blogspot -- odd, considering it is a Google product -- that may not always work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Devil's Waters

This thriller by David Robbins has a lot going for it. It involves the very topical Somali pirates and features a little-known crack military team, the U.S. Air Force Pararescue jumpers. The action is situated in Somalia, Djibouti and a French freighter in the Gulf of Aden, all suitably exotic.

Robbins is an accomplished writer and keeps the pace moving. His descriptions are crisp and his grasp of military operations and hardware is authoritative, so that the book has a solid feel to it. Interestingly, he alternates the point of view between the Somali pirates, led by Yusuf Raage and his cousin, and the American "PJs", led by LB DiNardo. Robbins gives Raage a surprising depth of characterization with a certain amount of sympathy for what drives the Somalis to piracy. The airmen are placed in some brutal situations, and even though they are hard-bitten, they don't remain unaffected.

Perhaps because Robbins has set the bar so high in this altogether compelling thriller, I found myself missing a little more depth in the American protagonists, and especially LB. What we see of his interior life is fairly flat and the banter among the PJ team doesn't really substitute for characterization that gives the reader any empathy. In fact, I found I had more sympathy for Yusuf and his clan than for the PJs. As a result, LB -- this "call signal" stands for Little Bastard -- lives up to his nickname, unfortunately for a reader who would like to identify more with the hero.

The callous cynicism behind a plot that involves a secret shipment of a super-weapon to Iran is just credible enough and there are other highlights -- such as the bitter and broken Russian captain of the freighter, Drozdov. The enigmatic Russian scientist, Irina, is less convincing. Her appearances are too intermittent and too much of her story is told rather than shown. And the tease of a potential relationship with LB helps neither plot nor characterization.

The action is good but the post-climactic denouement involves too much telling as a new character comes in to tie up the loose ends.

I came across this book because Robbins had a review in the Washington Independent Review of Books and his bio described him as a novelist living in Richmond. For the first time, I took advantage of my Amazon Prime privilege of "borrowing" an e-book. It turns out that these can only be read on Kindle devices, not apps -- I guess so that they are able to take it back -- which is not ideal for me, since my first-generation Kindle is not always convenient to read. (Authors, btw, do get a payment each time a book is borrowed.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Remainders: Get 'em While They Last

My riff on remainders appeared today in The Washington Independent Review of Books under the appealing new heading of "Slow Reads":
I’ve discovered a partial cure for the condition that afflicts many of us: not being able to go into Politics & Prose, our great local independent bookstore, without buying a bag full of books. Now, I go directly to the remainder shelves and do my shopping among the bargain books. I still come away with several books but spend a lot less money.
Remainders are those copies of hardcovers and trade paperbacks that the publisher sells at a steep discount to make room in the warehouse and get inventory off its account books. Because they are the end game in a production method that is in the process of disappearing, remainders will soon be an historic artifact.
What I like about shopping for remainders at P&P is that somebody has made an effort to find good books to put on the bargain shelf. These may be by well known authors, but often they’re by writers you’ve never read.
In a book culture too often in the grip of group-think — book clubs all reading the same handful of bestsellers that get reviewed and promoted just for that audience — it may seem quaint to pick up a book and buy it just because you like what you see in sampling a few pages. We all consider our time so precious that the idea of reading a book that hasn’t been vetted by one of the arbiters of popular culture seems extremely risky.
At Barnes & Noble, which seems to acquire its bargain books by the container load, you are indeed taking your chances on buying something that could be a waste of time. But at an independent like P&P, which has already filtered out much of the detritus, dipping into remainders can be quite rewarding.
In earlier forays on the remainder shelves, I have discovered new writers and reconnected with others I’d forgotten. For instance, I once picked up Simon Mawer’s The Gospel of Judas as a remainder. It was an intriguing book that I liked well enough to buy another novel of his (at full price!), The Glass Room, which I loved. He is now one of my favorite authors. Another time, I came across Forgetfulness by Ward Just, which was apt enough, because I’d forgotten that I really liked his novel The Translator when I’d read it years earlier.
Just, of course, is a prolific and well established mid-list author who fortunately has a base of readers who consistently buy his books at full price. Authors don’t get any money from the sale of remainders, so he’s hardly relying on my purchase of a remainder copy to make a living. But it made me much likelier to look for his new books and consider buying them. For his part, Mawer has advanced to being a certified book-club-worthy author.
On a recent trip to the remainder shelves, I picked up four books — for the price of one! One was I Curse the River of Time by the Norwegian author Per Petterson, who became relatively well known in this country for Out Stealing Horses. Another was The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer, whom I’d never heard of but who utterly charmed me with the opening pages of this book. A third novel was City of Veils by ZoĆ« Ferraris, a mystery thriller set in Saudi Arabia.
I hadn’t seen reviews of any of these titles and never heard of two of the authors. It may well be that I won’t like the books as much as I did the opening pages. But I only paid a little more for each than I would for a triple-grande cappuccino.
The fourth book was nonfiction, The Battle for Christendom by Frank Welsh, an account of the crucial role in European history played by the Council of Constance in the 15th century. Welsh argues that we pay too much attention to Western Europe in our study of history and ignore important events in Central and Eastern Europe. Constance, he claims, was more important than Agincourt in European history. In any case, it appealed to my fascination with the invisible borders running through the continent that I discovered while researching my own book, The New Superregions of Europe.
So a good haul, I think, which may end up just adding to the unread volumes on my bookshelf but could well afford me hours of pleasure, enhanced by the fact that I discovered these all on my own (with a little help from the P&P elves).
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His latest book is The Grand Mirage.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Passage

This 872-page post-apocalyptic thriller by Justin Cronin seemed interminable. It is well written and had its moments but I begrudge the way it pushed other books to the side for the weeks it took me to read it.

It is a fantasy saga that aspires to the same cult status as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, but it not  nearly so compelling as those classics. The first third of the book, which takes place in the Time Before -- the proximate future leading up to the apocalyptic event -- was for me the best part of the book. When the narrative picks up a hundred years later, describing the world of the human survivors and the nasty vampire-like creatures transformed by a virus (called variously virals, smokes and dracs), there are moments of action and suspense punctuated by long periods of tedium as Cronin laboriously details the social structure and way of life in the Colony, an outpost of human survivors where the days are numbered by failing batteries needed to power the lights and keep the virals at bay during the night.

It is an intriguing and coherent world and Cronin's writing is consistently literate and at time quite captivating. But it just goes on and on and on way too long. It takes us down multiple labyrinths into the minds of various characters who then disappear from the narrative. Why? Yes, we get it that some of the virals practice mind control, but we don't need to see it repeated in several characters we don't care about and won't see ever again.

Cronin is color blind in depicting his characters, with both human heroes and virals being both white and black, and race is only occasionally or never indicated. The Jaxons, for instance, Theo and Peter, are presumably black because of certain details in the family history and the description of their "Auntie". Amy is clearly white because her mother is surprised to find so many black people in Memphis. In other cases, names indicate a Latino or Indian heritage. Race is simply not important in this post-apocalyptic world where people are just happy to be with other humans.

I do have a weakness for the genre, which is probably why I stayed with this book through the tedious parts. I like catastrophe films, too; there's just something appealing about disasters that threaten humankind. I'm not a big fan of zombies or vampires, but Cronin does add some original twists to his creatures that make them more interesting.

The author is a bit heavy-handed about fate and destiny and things meant to be. If there is a solution to these enigmas, he doesn't disclose it in this book, the first volume of what is already a series following the release this summer of the sequel, The Twelve. When all is said and done, I liked this book well enough and the world it created, but I'm not sure I'll wade through an over-long sequel any time soon.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Siege of Krishnapur

J.G. Farrell's epic of the East India Company's rule on the subcontinent and the 1857 mutiny is a compelling action story, but it is above all a savage satire and a novel of ideas. His success at combining these genres into a literate masterpiece won him the Booker Prize in 1973.

Farrell depicts in biting detail the fatuousness of British rule in India as the colonialists preserved their Victorian preoccupations in a fundamentally hostile environment. They were largely clueless -- as Farrell's protagonist, the Collector, observes -- about the culture around them and smugly disregarded how their new subjects chafed under their rule. Still, the mutiny itself was not really a surprise. The only surprise was that it took so long to put it down and the cost was high.

The physical environment was also hostile. Farrell relentlessly pictures the unrelenting heat, the blistering weather of India's northern plain, where the fictional Krishnapur, like the Lucknow it is based on, is located. During the siege itself, the role of the heat in amplifying the ever increasing hardships is almost nauseating -- the rot, the smell, the cholera, the death. The horrifying invasion late in the siege of the cockchafers -- little black bugs who descended on the Residence by the million -- matches anything Hollywood has put on the screen. Even in this scene, however, Farrell manages a hilarious take on Victorian prudishness.

The precision of the language and description, ranging from a discussion of German rationalism to details on gunnery, makes the novel so tangible the reader has no trouble inserting himself into the scene. Especially the terminology to describe British life in India, with its assortment of servants and privileges, transports the reader back to this time.

As brutal as he is in satirizing the motives and values of the imperialists, Farrell nonetheless depicts the casual courage and residual integrity of some of the characters. The fact is that some of them survive the five-month siege in the face of long odds and as a rule recover from the ordeal to resume an ordinary life back home.

Farrell says in a brief note that he relied on numerous firsthand accounts from the Lucknow siege and the details of the hardships have as a result a terrifying authenticity.

As Pankaj Mishra notes in an introduction to the edition I read, Farrell keeps the Indians themselves largely offstage. The one Indian character, a local maharajah, is a weak and puzzling addition to the narrative. The introduction, by the way, reads better as an afterword because it offers so many details of the plot it is in some ways a spoiler.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I want to read Ghost Road by Pat Barker, so I thought I should start with the first book of the trilogy to lead up to it as the third one. I did not realize that the action of the novel is not actually in the war theater but in a psychiatric hospital where the reader is exposed to the horror of the trenches in the psychic damage it does to the soldiers.

Nor did I realize that the characters were largely real historical characters -- not only the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but the doctor who treated them, William Rivers.

The horror is still there, as Barker relates the traumas that led these men to lose the power of speech or in other ways find physical expression for the grisly sights they were exposed to. But this setting allows her to approach in a more nuanced way the real dilemmas between duty and sanity, courage and cowardice, discipline and empathy.

One of the more moving dramatizations for me was when Sassoon visited a club in Edinburgh and while waiting for Rivers to have lunch speculated on the inevitable hostility between old men and young men, with the former demanding that the latter give up their lives for decisions made by the old men. Along with Rivers' own growing ambivalence as an older man charged with returning these younger men to battle, this casts the dilemma in a very poignant way.

We look back on World War I as an unmitigated tragedy and an incomprehensible orgy of self-destruction. Barker's drama gives us more of an insight into how hitherto sane people could make such bad decisions. Sassoon ultimately decides to return to France; his life is spared and he lives to a ripe old age. Owen, like so many talented young men in his generation, is not so lucky.

The point of trying to understand the contemporary thinking about that war is to have a better feeling for the moral dilemmas of our own time. The choices we are faced with will also look much clearer in history's rear-view mirror. We have to make the choices in our own fog of war, however, and Barker's ambivalent psychological landscape gives us some idea of how difficult that is.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the Woods

Tana French's police procedural set in Dublin won an Edgar and has genuine literary ambitions, not pretensions. It is a layered novel with a depth of characterization seldom found in mysteries and a rare descriptive power.

That said, I have several issues with it. In terms of style, I find it generally overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs and long, flowery sentences. Partly for this reason, it is at 429 pages at least 100 pages too long, if not more.

But that is not the only reason. The narrator/protagonist, Rob Ryan, spends an interminable amount of time ruminating on himself in an increasingly narcissistic fashion. These self-therapy sessions are too long and repetitive.

It is venturesome for a woman to write a first-person male character, and this male detective has noticeably feminine sensibilities. The result is to make this a chick-lit version of the hard-boiled detective novel, explaining why it is so popular with book clubs and why it came with such an enthusiastic recommendation from a woman friend. Just as a woman character written by a man is most often a fantasy version of how a man pictures what goes on in a woman's mind, this is something of a fantasy about how the male mind works. Ryan's thoughts and preoccupations simply do not ring true, nor do his reactions to developments in his relationship with his detective partner, Cassie Maddox.

That is just the prerequisite for a more serious criticism. A mirror image of this book -- one written by a man with a woman protagonist portrayed in the way French handles her male character -- would be attacked as misogynist. The men in this book are either super saps or simpletons and the reader ends up having very little sympathy for any of them. Ryan is the sappiest, but he's not the only one, while fellow detective Sam O'Neill is a simpleton. The women characters, as a rule, are much better drawn and more convincing.

French's literary ambition trumps her skill as a mystery writer because the plot is ultimately unsatisfying. The actual solution is fairly obvious from the beginning and most of the book is devoted to a red herring the size of a whale -- which is not the role of red herrings in a mystery. The whole premise of the book -- that Ryan and Maddox randomly catch a case that has such reverberations with his past -- is far-fetched and their approach to the case requires too much suspension of disbelief.

The Irish setting is interesting and the procedural details are mostly convincing. One jarring note for an American reader is French's Irish preoccupation with smoking. The characters live in the era of mobile phones but enjoy their smokes as though there was never any evidence that cigarettes cause cancer. It might well be realistic but it can be as off-putting for an American reader as someone lighting up in the living room.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Are my bookshelves obsolete?

Here is my new posting at the Washington Independent Review of Books:

I’ve accumulated hundreds of books over the years, and most of them are proudly displayed in bookcases adorning several rooms in my house. I’ve read most of these books; others are waiting for that moment when they will be just what I need or want to read.
Periodically, I cull the collection and give some of my books away for a library sale. Sometimes I regret it, when something comes up that makes me want to look at one of the  books again.
But in my last bout of book removal, a new question occurred to me: Do I really need to keep so many books in the age of e-books and print on demand? Increasingly, no book is really out of print. Even if I might someday want to look again at a book I’ve read, I could easily obtain a new copy.
The point was driven home to me as I mulled whether to give away my precious collection of Travis McGee books. I bought them in the U.K. mass paperback edition more than 30 years ago when I was living in Europe, and I’ve lovingly packed and unpacked them through several moves, along with other collections of mystery series.
In his new novel, Madman’s Thirst, Larry De Maria mentioned John D. MacDonald’s classy writing in the Travis McGee series, and I thought maybe I should pick up one of the old books and read it again. So I selected one at random and discovered, to my surprise and dismay, that the print was so small and the pages so yellowed it was virtually unreadable with my older eyes. Large print in mass paperbacks is a relatively new phenomenon, catering, I suppose, to the boomer audience.
But, it turns out, the Travis McGee series is readily available in a new mass paperback edition for $7.99 a novel — the price of two Starbucks cappuccinos. So I obtained a new copy of the first novel in the series, in much larger print and on much whiter paper, to see if I really did want to re-read these stories.
But what a disappointment that the book on my shelf was no good to me! It was like a wine aficionado discovering that a vintage bottle stored in the cellar for years had turned to vinegar.
My book collection consists of a lot of fiction, a large batch of nonfiction books, most of which I acquired in connection with my work as a journalist or for research on my own books, and a good many cookbooks.
Let’s say I keep the books I haven’t read yet and some of the cookbooks, but acknowledge the reality that I can let go of the rest, knowing that virtually any book is retrievable if I want to re-read or consult it again. I could empty my bookshelves and get rid of most of my bookcases.
But that would be a big change for me. My vision of an intellectual — an academic, a writer, any reader — is of bookcases stuffed with books, stacks of books on available flat spaces, books lining a wall and creating their own colorful patterns.
Now, however, my entire book collection could be easily held on a Kindle or an iPad, in a more accessible and often more readable format than the heavy, cumbersome print editions I’ve schlepped around for decades. Today’s intellectual has a sleek Mac on a bare desk.
Those shelves lined with books fulfill an additional function, though. In another sign of age, or perhaps just information overload, I have trouble sometimes remembering what books I’ve read. The passive knowledge is there. If someone mentions a book, I can usually remember whether I read it or not. But the active knowledge, the memory of knowing what titles I’ve read, which books I particularly liked or which, indeed, I may want to read again — that may or may not be there on any given day.
Then all I have to do is go to my bookcase, look along at the familiar titles, those volumes that I’ve packed, unpacked and shelved so often, and I remember that, yes, indeed, I liked those Travis McGee books  the vicarious thrill of living on a houseboat in Florida, taking  retirement in installments, fishing with a philosopher friend named Meyer, even though I don’t particularly like boats, Florida or fishing. It doesn’t matter if I don’t or can’t pick up that particular book and read it again. Just seeing it on the shelf is enough to bring it all back.
My bookshelves are an index to my life as a reader — something like an external hard drive, I guess. If they are obsolete, so am I.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reader's block

Not sure if this is similar to writer's block or if it even really exists, but I'm having trouble finding a book that keeps my interest. I know that reading can be moody -- sometimes you're just in the mood for one kind of book or writing and not for others -- but I'm having more trouble keeping my interest in books that I'm happy to start.

For instance, I discovered the limits of my enthusiasm for Candice Proctor, after finishing the three books she co-authored with her husband Steve Harris under the pseudonym C.S. Graham, by plunging into the first of her historical novels featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, What Angels Fear, which she writes under the name C.S. Harris. As with the other series, this is well-written, with vivid descriptions and good sense of place, though perhaps a little richer with adjectives and adverbs. What I realized as I got further into the book, however, is that this is closer to the romance fiction the author writes under her own name than it is to the thrillers I like. While not exactly a bodice ripper, there's a bit too much focus on the characters' attractive attributes and the plot itself seems overladen with the interactions between people rather than the mystery lurking there somewhere. In short, the author fails to sustain any sense of real suspense as she gets caught up with St. Cyr's relations with his former lover. So I've abandoned it for now.

Because I really liked the four books by Jess Walter that I've read, I've had a fifth, Land of the Blind, sitting on my shelf for sometime. This is his second published novel and features the Spokane detective from his first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, Caroline Mabry. Or so I was led to believe. In fact, Mabry, at least in the first part of the book, is only the frame for what becomes a first-person coming of age story by a somewhat unsympathetic individual that is picked up as a homeless derelict. It still benefits from Walter's glittery prose, but I found myself developing a distaste for the character and the world he inhabits. This may be a tribute to the author's creative power, but the fact is I'm not in the mood to be in that world right now. It is a legitimate plot device -- though of course a stretch to accept that this derelict is actually writing out the narration on a legal pad -- but it's a bit of a bait and switch as far as I'm concerned. In addition, while it is accepted in detective fiction for the protagonist to the anguished and depressed, Mabry is a bit too downbeat considering we don't get to see much of her. Perhaps the book goes on to give her a greater role and a way out of her funk, but that will have to be for another time.

So now I've gone back to my iPad and my collection of indie e-books, returning to Red Right Return by John Cunningham, a first-person story about a discredited pilot based in Key West. So far, so good, so we'll see if he can get me over my reader's block.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal in memoriam

Gore Vidal seemed such a force of nature it was surprising to hear that he died at age 86. He has been in some respects a role model for me as a writer. I admired his graceful style, his trenchant analysis and wit, his versatility as a writer of satire, historical fiction, screenplays, and essays.

However, I often found his novels cold and soulless, more about style than feeling. Julian I liked for his irreverence, and Lincoln and Burr for making these historical figures so real. I liked the left-wing slant of his political and social criticism. His notion that the Establishment runs the country with the president as a front man has never been more apt as in this age of Citizens United and a candidate as robotic as Mitt Romney.

I also liked his epicurean lifestyle (though not his sexual libertinism) and his long sojourn in Ravello. How long will any of his work last? Does Gore Vidal have any sort of legacy, literary or otherwise? Hard to say. I don't think his books are great literature and he may be one of those larger than life characters that people will look back at and scratch their heads at why he seemed so prominent.

But he was a witty, intelligent renaissance man, a prodigious writer, and an important ingredient in the tempestuous cultural milieu of my generation. His time is past and he probably will not be greatly missed, but the qualities of skepticism, irony and irreverence he brought to both his fiction and nonfiction are more important than ever in these days of political polarization.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Archangel Project

I somehow find this series by C.S. Graham irresistible. It may be the high quality of the writing, with its vivid descriptions and razor-sharp pacing; or it may be the two highly sympathetic main characters, Tobie Guinness and Jax Alexander; or it may even be the unabashedly left-wing politics. The remote viewing, complete with Tobie's sincere doubts and Jax's ironic mocking, is also undeniably an element.

This book is the first in the series, but the characters and formula are already pretty well developed. The action is launched through a remote viewing. The CIA in the person of maverick Jax gets involved in spite of its skepticism. The Keystone Kops special ops people fail to eliminate or stop Tobie. When all else fails, a second remote viewing session on the run helps the heroes over the final hurdle.

The venue here is New Orleans, still recovering from Katrina, where the authors behind the pseudonym actually live. The city itself becomes one of the characters in a picture that does not airbrush out the problems. The plot once again is nefarious, reaching to the very upper levels of the government. The sad thing is, it doesn't even sound that far-fetched.

But now I will be taking an enforced break from the series, because I've read the three books that have been published. I imagine, though, I will pre-order the next one when I can.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Taste of War

My "Snapshot" review appeared in Washington Independent Review of Books:

by Lizzie Collingham
634 pp.
This fascinating book about the role of food in World War II is exhaustively researched, well written in the way that British dons know how to write, and probably the definitive work on the subject. Collingham documents how the desire for food resources provided much of the motivation for going to war; how the need to feed both the military and civilians during the war dictated much of the strategy; and how a truly worldwide war radically disrupted a food-supply network that was already global in scope. She traces the successes and failures of various countries in coping with food supplies during the war — how Britain, for instance, kept civilians on the home front reasonably well fed but failed miserably in supplying the colonies and let millions in Bengal die of famine. She relates how the United States suffered virtually no rationing but developed methods of producing, processing and packaging food that have led to our current industrialized food supply. Because of the density of detail, this long book will appeal more to devotees of World War II history (who will see the conflict from a new perspective) and to those interested in the history of nutrition than to the general reader. The only real flaw perhaps is that the author’s narrow focus can be reductive: The reader could get the impression that Hitler went to war only to capture the grain fields in Ukraine or that the Allies’ entire shipping strategy was based on food supplies. But on the whole, Collingham provides new insights into an aspect of the war that movie dramas or standard histories rarely touch on: War or no war, people have to eat, a monumental challenge to leaders in every country.
Darrell Delamaide

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Janus Stone

This quirky "archaeological cozy" by Elly Griffiths is an oddly compelling read. The second book featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, it is very British and very female in a way that would not necessarily appeal to me. But I've had a soft spot for mysteries involving archaeology since Agatha Christie set some of her Hercule Poirot stories at the type of digs her husband worked on, so I picked this up when I saw it on a table at Politics & Prose.

The language is more pointedly British than in some other British writers I've been reading, perhaps because the setting and action are in such down-to-earth everyday situations. So there are plenty of references to lorries (trucks), boots (trunks), crisps (chips), torches (flashlights), and so on. In addition, the newly pregnant protagonist is quite focused on the growing child within her, the prospect of motherhood, the craziness of hormones, and so on.

The pace is not very fast and the plot, while neat, relies on a number of unlikely coincidences and a very high incidence of little girls dying mysteriously. Nonetheless, the author's voice, focused almost exclusively on Ruth's point of view, and the sympathetic main characters make the confection work. There is a droll undertone and gentle self-mockery to Ruth's character that are easy to identify with. The DCI on the case, as he was apparently in the first book of the series, The Crossing Places, is Harry Nelson, and his combination of gruff exterior and tender interior bring Albert Finney in his middle years to mind.

The story, set in the windswept marshes of Norfolk, involves the discovery during excavation of a Roman site of a young girl's skeleton in circumstances suggesting she might have been the victim of a pagan ritual sacrifice. The cast of characters, besides Ruth and Nelson, includes an archaeologist consultant, a part-time druid, various members of the local CID and assorted colleagues of Ruth's from the university, with a cameo appearance by her born-again parents, who strongly disapprove of her prospective single motherhood.

This little corner of Norfolk seems to have as much adultery as one of John Updike's suburbs. Sleeping with other people's spouses is the thing grown-ups do here (perhaps that's why it's called adultery). Ruth is pregnant after a one-night stand with Nelson (no spoiler, this is all in the opening pages), who is of course happily married to the beautiful Michelle and very fond of his two daughters. Ruth's best friend is apparently a scalp hunter currently sleeping with Ruth's department head, and futilely hoping he will leave his wife. Other sexual activity is intimated, but none of this interferes with the narration.

The story develops slowly and the pace only picks up in about the last fifth of the book. Some of the red herrings are belabored. The author can't decide whether to make Father Hennessy, the director of a children's home located at one time on the archaeological site, a sympathetic character or an ambivalent suspect. Also, for no apparent reason, she at one point throws in the totally extraneous fact the writes SJ after his name, only to observe that Ruth has no idea what it means. So the reference remains totally superfluous and even annoying, given that it's very unlikely a Jesuit would be director of a children's home. (One is left with the impression that Griffiths herself has no idea what SJ means.)

On balance, enjoyable, but no compelling reason to read the previous or the next book in the series.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Babylonian Codex

No sooner had I abandoned my attempt to re-read the old, yellowed copy of my Travis McGee book than I picked up a second thriller by C.S. Graham and was as captivated by it as I was by the first one I read, The Solomon Effect.

What these books have beyond good, solid writing and sympathetic characters is that they are witty and intelligent. Also, they are real travelogues and packed with the kind of arcane trivia that I personally like a lot.

There are realistic thrillers and less-realistic thrillers, and these books by the husband-and-wife writing team of Candice Proctor and Steven Harris fall into the latter category. Aside from the reliance on the paranormal phenomenon of remote viewing, they have plots which depart from real-life scenarios into the fantastic and even apocalyptic. But they are rooted enough in the world of fact that one is willing to suspend disbelief.

The historical details, like the descriptions of the various venues, come across as authoritative. Whether its descriptions of biblical texts or a scene in Marrakesh, the narrative rings true. If there is a meeting at the Jefferson Memorial, you are there, but if the characters are standing on an ancient mosaic in an obscure Spanish town, you are there, too.

And once again, the relationship between October Guinness and Jax Alexander is an entertaining and sympathetic one. So I read the book in just a couple of days. All that said, however, it was not quite as good as the first one I read, maybe just because it was the second one. The remote viewing, the characters, the writing were a little less fresh and original the second time around.

The plot, too, was somewhat formulaic, with many of the same elements as in the other book. Once again, a controlled remote viewing session launches the action, and is followed later in the book by a second session, on the run and less controlled. Once again, the bad guys include a number of high-ranking government officials with special ops crews that are remarkably and consistently inept when it comes to eliminating our heroes. Once again, there is a subplot involving an innocent third character who supplies the missing key that enables our heroes to follow through on their mission. Once again, Tobie and Jax crisscross oceans and countries following the twists and turns of the plot.

I'm curious to see if the same formula is followed in the first book of the series, The Archangel Project, or in whatever new book the authors come up with to continue the series.

One of the Amazon reviews complained about the "politics" of the book, and indeed the radical leftist view of the authors is more apparent in this book than in the other one. But since I have a lot of sympathy for this political viewpoint, it is one of the things I enjoy the most. And in this book, even though I have described the  notion of a biblical codex leading some right-wing nut jobs into transforming the U.S. into a theocracy as a fantastic and apocalyptic plot line, it is rooted in some disturbingly real facts. The authors' portrayal of "dominionists" in our military industrial complex is based on much actual documentation and makes Hillary Clinton's remark about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" seem like an understatement.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Travis McGee

I'm in the process of sorting through my books to donate some to the library. I do this with some hesitation because virtually every time in the past that I've gotten rid of some books, I end up missing one or another at some point.

But keeping so many print books is looking increasingly anachronistic. Many, many books are now always "in print", either as actual print books or ebooks (though many are not!), so odds are that book I end up missing will probably be available in one fashion or another. Besides, even though we devote a considerable amount of space to bookshelves, I'm running out of shelf space.

So in the first triage, I boxed a number of my mystery-thriller "collections" -- the many volumes of Brother Cadfael, Emma Lathen, Ross McDonald, and John D. MacDonald, specifically his Travis McGee series. I'm letting the boxes sit in the basement for a while to make sure I really am ready to give these books away. I've gone back and re-sorted some boxes and reclaimed some of the books for keeping a while longer.

Then Larry De Maria had one of his characters in Madman's Thirst mention the art of John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee character. Right, I thought. There is a model for lucid narrative style. So I retrieved one of the books from the boxed collections. I mostly bought these paperbacks in Europe so they tend to be UK editions. The Travis McGee books were from Pan.

I discovered to my dismay that these cheap paperbacks were printed in an era when very small print was considered acceptable and on paper stock that yellows dramatically with age. In short, they are virtually unreadable. It's a bit like keeping a vintage wine for so long that when you open it it's turned to brown muck.

So I may want to re-acquaint myself with Travis McGee but it's not going to be with the copies that I've kept for 20 to 30 years and schlepped through a good half a dozen moves. Travis is of course still in print, as befits a classic. From what I was able to read in my yellowed copy, however, it is an open question just how much of Travis I want to re-visit. There are some aspects -- most notably his chauvinism -- that are somewhat dated (and were already at the time it comes back to me).

There are good models for style who are not so dated -- one of my current favorites is C.S. Graham -- so I might be just as well off blazing new trails. In any case, I've ordered a new copy of the first Travis McGee, A Deep Blue Goodbye, so we'll see.

Update: No traction. Good writing but very dated. MacDonald's chauvinism, as expressed in Travis McGee's patronizing attitude toward women, annoyed me when I originally read these books and by today's mores is unsympathetic. So I'm ready to let go of this series and let it be just a happy memory.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Madman's Thirst

Jake Scarne is back and author Lawrence De Maria has concocted another one of his potent mixtures of mystery, murder, finance and corruption in an entertaining tale involving the brutal rape and murder of a teenage girl, a shadowy real estate magnate and an indomitable private eye with gourmet tastes.

A longtime journalist, De Maria seems to have saved his juiciest stories for his fiction, and this one once again steps behind the scenes of a big city's power brokers -- an influential financial magazine and a local newspaper on the media side against greedy business interests and the best politicians money can buy on the other side.

Scarne, who first appeared in Sound of Blood, is still recovering from the hard knocks he took in that novel but is drawn into this case when the teenager's murder rocks Staten Island and information comes to light that it may not have been a random burglary gone bad but a targeted assassination to get her newspaper editor father off an investigation into some suspect property deals in the borough.

De Maria has a real flair with bad guys. As in Elmore Leonard's gritty novels, the villains here have personalities and preoccupations of their own. They are by and large not very bright, but some even have their own twisted integrity and professional pride. The really irredeemable bad guys usually meet an appropriately grisly end, so justice does prevail. But some others -- those with the redeeming qualities -- at times can even be allies for Scarne as he picks his lonely way through big-city corruption to solve his case.

De Maria inserts a number of novel twists and turns into the plot, and comes up with an attempt on Scarne's life as innovative as any bizarre situation ever faced by James Bond. (No spoilers, but it involves a deadly machine run amok.)

Scarne is still recovering from his white-hot romance in the earlier book, so his ongoing dalliance with Emerald Shields, scion in a media family eerily similar to the Forbes clan, lacks the passion of his previous romance. It doesn't stop him from being mildly flirtatious with other women his investigation brings him into contact with.

The pace is good, though there is perhaps still too much detail about what Scarne eats and drinks. It's not really all that interesting and rarely germane to the plot. Likewise, we sometimes spend too much time with characters who are not integral to the action. These by-plays may add to the overall texture of the novel, but in a book that needs to be a little bit shorter, some of them could have been sacrificed.

But these are quibbles with what is an overall very satisfying trip once again into that De Maria-land (a third novel, Capriati's Blood, explores the same milieu with a different hero) that is probably much closer to reality than we would like to think. There's thrills, there's spills, and the good guys mostly win. What's not to like.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Solomon Effect

I'm not a fan of paranormal fiction, or at least I've always thought I wasn't. I'm not sure remote viewing counts as paranormal, but since it is a psychic phenomenon it probably does. However, this novel by C.S. Graham, the pseudonym for Steven Harris and Candice Proctor, is an excellent thriller by any measure, with remote viewing playing a relatively minor role.

The writing is crisp and sophisticated, with vivid descriptions and deft narrative. The plot is ingenious, and the settings in Kaliningrad, Germany, Beirut and the U.S. are all brought to life. One of the most winning aspects is the banter between October Guinness and her sometime partner Jax Alexander, which, perhaps because it is a husband-and-wife writing team, manages to convey some real chemistry between the two.

I don't usually like to cast the characters of a book with real actors, but by coincidence I happen to be catching up on two series with actors that would be ideal for the main roles. Tobie is easy to imagine as Mireille Enos, the diminutive strawberry blonde from "The Killing," while Matt Passmore from "The Glades" has the laconic insouciance to play Jax.

The authors are great at instilling sympathy for the good guys -- you really care about Tobie and Jax and Stefan, the young Russian kid who is an important witness to help our heroes unravel the plot, which involves a deadly cargo recovered from a sunken World War II German submarine -- the Sword of Solomon that gives the book its title. The villains, by contrast, are two-dimensional and hard to take seriously. Relying on Nazi evil is a little shopworn for a modern thriller, but the authors find a novel twist to freshen it up. The depiction of a post-Cold War rivalry with Russia is more original.

I've actually been to Kaliningrad and the authors capture its unique situation well -- the former prestigious capital of East Prussia, Koenigsberg, ravaged by war and Soviet occupation, is a historic and geographic anomaly as today's Russian exclave. It is a great setting for this type of thriller. But another anomalous location, Beirut, also comes vividly to live in the novel and even the brief trip to Bremen seems firsthand.

At 389 pages, the book is a trifle long. There's perhaps too much back-and-forth among the various levels of villains, and Tobie and Jax could take a slightly less circuitous route to solving their mystery. The writing is good enough that the reader stays with it, but I think the book would have had more impact had it been a little more taut.

In any case, I'm ready to read more from C.S. Graham and from C.S. Harris, Proctor's other pseudonym.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This of course is not a book but a film by Roland Emmerich about the true author of Shakespeare's plays, Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford. The movie got mixed reviews and predictably met a lot of resistance from people who simply don't want to hear it.

It doesn't matter obviously who actually wrote the plays. Whoever it was is dead, and the treasure for mankind is the corpus of literature this author left behind. And yet, curious minds want to know and we always look for further meaning in works of literature by trying to get to know the author's mind better.

This is really the point of Mark Anderson's Shakespeare by Another Name, which I bought the day after viewing the film on DVD. He traces the main details of Oxford's life and notes the overlap in the plays, and it truly does give insight into the work. It was like going to the presentation by Simon Mawer at Politics & Prose the other night and having him explain that his new book, Trapeze, was inspired by his WAAF mother, who actually knew someone like his protagonist, a woman parachuted into France as an agent during the war, and by his father, a pilot who flew missions to drop these agents.

I've been an "Oxfordian" for some time actually. When I went on my fasting cure at a spa on Lake Constance in the late 1980s, I had a lot of time to read and spent much of it reading Charlton Ogburn's The Mystery of Shakespeare. It opened my eyes to the controversy that has been brewing for centuries over the authorship because the idea that the historic Will Shakespere of Stratford-on-Avon was the author was so patently improbable.

As Derek Jacobi intones in a "prologue" in the movie, the fact that Shakespeare died many years after the last play appeared and had no books or manuscripts to bequeath alone is suspicious. He made no mention of any writings in his will and the sole documentary evidence we have of his existence largely deals with his activity as a grain merchant.

The academic establishment nonetheless vehemently defends his authorship. As the torturous Wikipedia article notes, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were from a similarly un-aristocratic background, and we just happen to know more about them because of, er, their education and their manuscripts. Imagine!

Can anyone really believe that a writer whose worth was widely recognized by contemporaries could die such an obscure death and leave so few traces behind? It's not only Marlowe and Jonson, we know more about Dante and Chaucer and virtually every minute of Goethe's life has been documented. The historical record for this 16th century writer is virtually as thin as it is for Homer or the historical Jesus.

The movie itself is quite good, I thought, though too hard to follow because of all the backward and forward in time. Vanessa Redgrave puts Judi Dench and her eight-minute Oscar to shame with her portrayal of Elizabeth and Rhys Ifans transforms himself into a completely different person to portray Oxford. His sensitive depiction of Oxford's devotion to the power of words make the achievement of the plays freshly memorable. The awe of the other playwrights hearing the magic of this poetry for the first time is infectious.

I'm toying with the idea of embarking on a "Shakespeare project" -- namely, to read the Anderson book, the recent book by Kurt Kreiler and perhaps re-read the Ogburn book (I still have it!) while re-reading or reading the plays themselves. It might be fun to experiment with the functionalities of ebooks while reading -- highlighting, notes, bookmarks. I've already downloaded the Complete Shakespeare (for $1.99!) and will experiment with the Signet annotated editions. If this actually materializes, I may create a separate blog and Twitter account for it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tender Is the Night

It seemed like a good idea to pick up a masterpiece from one of America's greatest writers and immerse myself in some deathless prose and this new effort to read F. Scott Fitzgerald's second-best known work had its rewards.

For instance: "Amiens was an echoing purple town, still sad with the war, as some railroad stations were:--the Gare du Nord and Waterloo station in London. In the daytime one is deflated by such towns, with their little trolley cars of twenty years ago crossing the great gray cobble-stoned squares in front of the cathedral, and the very weather seems to have a quality of the past, faded weather like that of old photographs. But after dark all that is most satisfactory in French life swims back into the picture--the sprightly tarts, the mean arguing with a hundred Voilas in the cafes, the couples drifting, head to head, toward the satisfactory inexpensiveness of nowhere."

But Fitzgerald is famously a captive of his times and his racism and anti-semitism are rude and offensive. Since I'm not a student who must finish the book, I'm abandoning it about halfway through after a "nigger scrap" resulted in a dead "Negro" who is mostly viewed as an embarrassment.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Snowman

Jo Nesbo is a very good writer. His vivid descriptions, deft characterizations, and a prose that is clear and lucid even in translation all carry a reader along through a plot that seems to me overlong (512 pages in the paperback edition!), with too many twists and coincidences to really hold water.

The metaphor of the snowman is a brilliant focus for a police procedural in chilly Norway, and helps draw the reader along, too. However, while I understand why writers are drawn to serial killers -- it makes it easier really to impose a plot on an empty slate rather than have to deal with the triteness of conventional murders, it allows bodies to pile up -- it is for these very reasons something of a cop out.

My other problem with The Snowman and Nesbo is that I find his hero, Harry Hole, a bit hackneyed and ultimately somewhat tiresome. The loner detective, troubled by his demons, battling with alcoholism, unable to hold on to a woman has been a cliche for decades already. Hole (and was Nesbo really thinking about an English-speaking audience when he came up with this name?) brings a brooding Nordic twist to the formula, but it is still the same old formula. I can't imagine that I will want to go through another novel with poor old Harry.

But there's a lot to be said for good writing. And, as I've said before, I do like the Nordic venues. After visiting Oslo and Bergen, it's easy for me to picture the scenes in this novel, the distances in between. But for sheer adventure and novelty in northern climes, I found C.L. Withers Castle Cape more satisfying. His writing doesn't (yet) have the depth and texture of Nesbo's, but I found the Alaska thriller much harder to put down.

The Snowman was a bit exasperating in how elusive Hole found his villain. The character himself said you should focus on the least likely person as your suspect, and when I did that I got the right person much more quickly than Harry did. This is one of the reasons that I did put the book down fairly often and felt at times like I was plodding through.

One of the more amusing quirks of the Nesbo novels is his fascination with American presidents. Redbreast begins with Clinton's trip to Norway (who remembers that besides the Norwegians?). This book dates the action with radio reports of who is being elected or taking office in the White House. It is surely just a wry comment about how much attention the rest of the world pays to our politics, while we freely ignore whatever is going on elsewhere.

This book is better than Redbreast -- the plot is inherently more intriguing and the writing more sure-footed. In fact, I would imagine Nesbo has reached his peak. I would read another book of his if he moves away from Harry Hole, if reviews indicated it was written at this level. But goodbye Harry.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Show Time

My review of Show Time by Phil Harvey appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books today:

Phil Harvey has crafted a psychological thriller that takes reality shows, and in fact much of our popular culture, just one step further into a realm of true horror. His novel about the ultimate survivor program places seven flawed individuals on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan as winter approaches.
Each one who survives wins $200,000, but the producers clearly expect that not all will collect the money. The individuals ― four men and three women ― are carefully selected for not being well balanced, in the assumption that this will lead to sex, violence and other action that will boost ratings.
Television viewers follow the fate of the seven participants through a series of cameras and mics mounted on the island, as well as shots from an orbiting satellite and a drone that passes over the island. The seven (victims, one is tempted to say) are each given a certain amount of food, which is not enough to last the seven months they are to stay there, as well as varied tools ― a flashlight for one, a map for another, a couple of rifles with a few dozen bullets.
Ambrose, a compulsive gambler who enters the contest to pay off his debts, emerges as the natural leader of the group. Though married, he pairs off with Cecily, who is also married and who had the good sense to put on several extra pounds before beginning the contest. Other contestants include a Navy Seal who communicates in two-word mumbles, an African American who has made his way through society conforming to racial stereotypes, a bisexual woman who maintains a regimen of exercise and yoga, a model with certain nymphomaniac tendencies and a tightly wrapped young man full of resentment who refuses to cooperate in joint survival strategies.
The novel realistically conveys a certain preoccupation with sex among these seven nubile people in survival mode. Maureen, the model, plays a key role for the participants as well as for the show’s audience. No matter how titillating the sexual expression of emotion may be for the viewers, it is, in Harvey’s skilled hands, simply a natural mechanism for coping with the need to survive.
The narrative becomes increasingly chilling ― both literally and figuratively ― as the mild autumn days, when the participants have ample food from their stocks and the island’s wildlife, give way to the cold and ice and snow of a Michigan winter. Under Ambrose’s leadership, the survival crew develops a strategy for rationing supplies, sharing game and even creating a “clear zone” where they can disable enough of the mics and cameras to have a place for meetings that are not overheard by the producers or the audience.
That is how they are able to hatch a staged drama of their own to play a trick on the producers and get some measure of revenge for being exploited. Their deception  works until a careless remark on a hidden mic gives it away; the producers then violate the terms of the contract by intervening in the action and guiding the situation to their satisfaction.
While there is some mystery in all this, the author reveals in the opening chapter that one of the participants has died, creating the inevitable dilemma of every survival drama in which  people are faced with starvation. Part of the suspense is how the other six contestants reach that point and how they resolve it.
But it is mostly Harvey’s skill in delving into the psychology of the individuals that keeps the reader turning the pages. And he does it not through any heavy-handed interior monologues but through the dialogue and interaction of the individuals. The book would easily lend itself not only to a successful movie script but to an intense stage play.
The reader comes to know these individuals, to sympathize with them in spite of ― eventually even because of ― their flaws, and to root for them in their fight against not only nature but also the unnatural culture that has put them in their situation.
The producers, led by Janice, who is a virtual sociopath, remain cardboard foils for this action. They are simply part of the hostile environment challenging the contestants. One or two of the plot twists require a heavy dose of suspended disbelief from the reader. Harvey maintains a quiet buildup of suspense, but the climax and denouement may not reach the intensity expected by some readers.
So don’t expect fireworks. There is plenty of drama in this novel, but it remains subtle. There is catharsis, but it is not complete. In this sense, the novel is more realistic than its somewhat contrived plot, or even some of the reality shows it is based on, might suggest. It is a thinking reader’s psychological thriller and as such a thoroughly entertaining read.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rogue Island

Bruce DeSilva has produced a well-written, well-edited but only mildly entertaining noir novel featuring a hero so obviously modeled on himself that it gets in the way of the story. The author succumbs to one of my pet peeves in these debut novels -- he inflicts his personal tastes and preferences on the reader in lieu of doing any genuine characterization.

DeSilva's author photo features him with a big stogie and his fictional hero Liam Mulligan distinguishes himself every few pages by "firing up" or "sparking up" a "cuban" with virtually everyone he talks to. In fact, it appears the secret to being a successful investigative reporter is to develop a cigar-smoker's network. Not that Mulligan is notably successful in his investigation although there are intimations of past glory (a 10-year-old Pulitzer gets a passing mention). We don't really know much about Mulligan in fact -- how old he is, what he looks like, or what he likes besides cigars and the Red Sox (and women) -- except that he never grew up.

Like most of the other characters in this book, Mulligan borders on caricature, and caricatures that are decades out of date. It's almost jarring when a cell phone is mentioned. The newsroom rivalries, the bookie, the strip joint are all pushed just a bit beyond the point where you want to suspend disbelief that people really talk and act like that.

But perhaps Providence, R.I. is really like that. We are told that DeSilva had a 41-year career as a newspaperman, so he must know. He does of course lament the decline and fall of newspapers and, after telling us what an irremediable mix of crime and corruption his hometown is, wants us to believe it will be worse off when the newspaper is gone.

As to the story itself: The plot about a serial arsonist torching buildings in a narrowly restricted neighborhood is fairly predictable. What little suspense there is tends to get lost in all the cigar-smoking, adolescent fumbling, and other childish antics of our ageless hero.

It's a little hard to understand how this book won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. DeSilva makes it clear in his acknowledgments that he cultivated a dozen established crime fiction authors as he wrote the book, so perhaps that is part of the explanation. It tells you something about how literary awards get awarded.

For me, this novel is further evidence that self-published works can easily compete for readers' favor. Personally, I found Capriati's Blood  -- written by another veteran newspaperman, Lawrence DeMaria -- a much better read. It was leaner, more credible, less predictable and equally effective in conveying a sense of place (Staten Island in this case) as this Edgar Award winner from Tom Doherty's Forge imprint.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Mike Bloomberg used to talk about one of the advantages old-fashioned newspapers have over digital news services like his -- random access. Paging through a newspaper, readers can find stories they didn't know they were interested in because of the size of the story or headline, the accompanying photo, its location in the paper and on the page, the very fact that it made the cut and got into print. None of this is possible in a screenful of headlines streaming by in front of you.

Likewise, browsing a bookstore is random access. There is no algorithm putting only those books in front of you that your past purchases would indicate you like, or showing you only those books that millions of others have bought. If you go into Politics & Prose, someone who knows something about books chose to put this title where you could see it, even though you had no idea you were looking for it. This is how I found Snowdrops. 

A.D. Miller's novel of contemporary Russia portrays corruption at every level. Framed as narrator Nick Platt's written confession to his English fiancee, the story is about what happened in his last winter in Moscow, where he had spent three years for his law firm. The title refers to corpses that are buried or left in the snow over the long Russian winter, only to emerge as rotting evidence during the spring thaw, making it difficult to ascertain the causes of death or to pursue any malefactors. A friend of Nick's Russian neighbor is one such snowdrop, but it is a metaphor for other types of corruption that take place over this final winter.

The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and is beautifully written, with a lucid economy of language that keeps the narrative moving but makes every page a quiet delight. Take this description of the Cossack, a shady Russian businessman that Nick's firm is helping with project finance:
We passed the document to the Cossack. He turned the first page, turned it back again, pushed the file away, sat back in his chair, and puffed out his cheeks. He looked around as if he was waiting for something else to happen -- a strip show, maybe, or a stabbing. The blue and gold onion domes of the Novospassky Monastery winked at us through the ninth-floor window from across the Moscow River.
Then he started making jokes. The Cossack had one of those senses of humour that are really a kind of warfare. Laughing at his jokes made you feel guilty, not laughing at them made you feel endangered. His personal inquiries always felt like the prelude to blackmail.
The main narrative revolves around Nick's encounter with Masha as he helps her and her sister Katya chase off a purse snatcher in the Metro. A bachelor intoxicated in a timid English way with the licentiousness of post-Soviet Moscow, Nick is intrigued by the willowy Masha and her "growelly" voice. Masha and Katya have come from Murmansk to seek their fortunes in Moscow. Nick fears he may not be as rich or powerful as Masha was hoping for but that there might be hope for him anyway.

Somewhat to his surprise, a relationship develops. He goes clubbing with the two girls, Masha ends up in his bed, his dreams come true and they become lovers. He accompanies the two girls to a magical stay in a dacha and a sensual episode in the banya. They introduce him to their aunt, a babuschka who ended up with a large apartment in central Moscow through the privatisation that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. The aunt wants to trade his now-valuable apartment for a smaller flat on the fringes of Moscow, where she has a view of the countryside. The two girls have found a deal for her where she gets the new apartment and $50,000 in exchange for her old apartment, and ask Nick to help draw up the paperwork.

The reader knows from Nick's statements foreshadowing the end that this does not turn out well. Nick comes to suspect that the apartment trade, like the Cossack's oil project in the Arctic, may not be totally on the level. And yet in both cases he is willing to play along. The Cossack's deal is no more shady than most of the transactions his law firm handles. They have all the documents properly stamped and a surveyor has certified the suitability of the site and progress of the work there. On the apartment deal, Nick is able to gather all the appropriate papers for the aunt's side of the transaction.

As Nick readily confesses to his prospective wife, he felt much bigger in Russia than in England. He cuts short a sad trip home for Christmas where he is once again dismayed at the blandness of his parents' existence. In Russia, there was danger, there was excitement, there was an electricity in the air that made the challenges of the cold, the ubiquitous bribery and the borderline sense of lawlessness all worthwhile.

He knows that things are not what they seem, but the lure of Masha's charms on the one hand, and the chance to score a big one for the firm on the other hand, keep him going in the wrong direction, eyes wide open.

Miller's portrayal of wild and woolly Moscow rings true from everything one reads about the post-Soviet gangsterism. Nick cannot escape its corrupting influence -- but not because he is soft and innocent. Rather, Miller's point seems to be, because we all are as corrupt as the Russians at heart, even though we have put a thin veneer of civilization over the raw brutality that reigns in Moscow.

Miller maintains the atmosphere of quiet intensity throughout the narrative. There is suspense, even though the reader has a good idea of how things are going to end. Every once in a while, there is a false note -- a metaphor that is too stretched, a turn of phrase that is too cute -- but it is a debut novel. The reader remains sympathetic to Nick while facing the full extent of his corruption, but his fiancee would be crazy to marry him after reading this confession. It is, one senses by the end of the book, his way of punishing himself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


This book by David Hagberg and former Senator Byron Dorgan is disappointing. It has many elements for a successful thriller, including the input of a genuine Washington insider, but simply fails to come together.

*Spoiler alert* For starters, there is never a "blowout." While the specter of an accident in an experiment involving billions of coal-eating microbes producing methane is invoked early, a terrorist attack apparently designed to achieve that fails and that's the last you hear of it.

Instead, you have an incompetent psychopath mercenary who not only fails the first time, but fails in a second attempt to sabotage a top-secret "initiative" in Dorgan's home state of North Dakota to solve America's dependence on foreign oil by developing the ultimate clean coal -- one that doesn't have to be mined or burned but simply converted to methane, which can then be burned cleanly to fuel turbines generating electricity.

Not going to happen, but it's not a bad premise for an energy thriller. Hagberg is apparently an accomplished thriller writer and the book is easy to read. Not surprisingly, given Dorgan's involvement, it is politically correct to the nth degree and the hero is an Afghan amputee veteran who has returned home to the quiet life as sheriff in the county where this top-secret experiment is masquerading as a generating station.

There is blood and gore and a lot of time spent in the mind of the psychopath, whose motives and objectives are a jumble. The sheriff is brave, dependable, divorced by a wife who didn't sign on for life in North Dakota. His love interest is a spunky journalist, who happens to be the daughter of the general heading up the initiative, and who is amenable to quashing journalistic scoops and spending her life in said North Dakota with the sheriff.

Venezuela plays the heavy, suborning the attacks on the initiative, decapitating a special U.S. envoy, and ultimately bearing the full military wrath of the United States of America.

Even the authenticity that would be the chief benefit of Dorgan's participation comes into question when in the space of a single paragraph the authors make two geopolitical mistakes that would have embarrassed Sarah Palin. As a President Thompson is ruminating on his full plate, he thinks of a China that refuses to "devalue" its currency -- when in fact, of course, the problem is that China won't allow its currency to increase in value -- and of a "European Economic Union" on the verge of imploding -- when in fact, of course, the current European Union replaced the European Economic Community without ever being called the European Economic Union.

Small details, but telling, and it does not mean that Dorgan does not or did not know better when he was in the Senate. I'm just saying.

So give this book a pass and find a better way to spend your time.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Voyage of the Narwhal

Andrea Barrett's novel about the era of discovery and exploration in the Arctic is intoxicating. Especially for me after a diet of mysteries and thrillers that are often entertaining but rarely memorable, reading truly literary fiction by a master is like breathing pure oxygen.

What makes it "literary" is the combination of prose that is exquisite and robust at the same time; characters that are subtle and nuanced; and a riveting plot with emotional undercurrents that address basic human desires. Barrett puts this all in a package that is also seamlessly entertaining.

The main character is Erasmus Welles, a natural historian who in modern parlance would be called a loser. He picks the wrong expeditions to accompany, the ones deemed largely to be a failure and which are forgotten or remembered only with embarrassment. He is too self-effacing and honest in an age and profession where the self-aggrandizing egomaniacs willing to stretch the truth and even lie -- like the historical Kane or Erasmus's fictional nemesis Zeke -- are the ones who get the recognition and the glory.

The novel tells the tale of one of the many expeditions in the mid-19th century that set out to find the famous explorer Franklin, who was lost with his crew in the Arctic. It is Erasmus's childhood friend Zeke Vorhees who has raised the finance and planned the voyage who asks him to accompany the expedition as natural historian, collecting samples and documenting their trip into little-known Arctic waters.

The trick of Arctic exploration was to use the short window of late summer when ice packs had thawed enough to allow ships to pass and to find your way back before the onset of winter closed off all escape and forced an ice-packed crew to spend the long winter in the Arctic. The fact that Zeke wanted to be provisioned for the eventuality of spending the winter, Erasmus realized too late, indicated that he was willing to take that chance if it was necessary to fulfilling his ambition of either finding Franklin or exploring previously uncharted waters.

For these voyages were primarily about ambition. Barrett is a master at portraying the passion that motivated  these 19th-century scientists, discovering and cataloging nature in all its aspects, as she displayed in the collection of novellas in Servants of the Map. This was Erasmus's main motivation. He grew up in a Philadelphia household where his father -- much like Indiana Jones' father as portrayed by Sean Connery -- was obsessed with arcane learning and indoctrinated his children -- especially the four sons Erasmus, Linnaeus, Humboldt and Copernicus -- in his love of learning and discovery.

But Erasmus is not immune to the ambition of getting the recognition and glory -- and indeed, money -- that accrued to these explorers who enthralled the public with their books and lectures after they returned. These adventurers, for all their self-aggrandizing faults, received the adulation then that we now give to celebrities with far less achievement. His earlier voyage to the Antarctic was a failure and he sees a chance to redeem his reputation in this new voyage.

The ship, the Narwhal, is named after the peculiar whales of the Arctic waters that have a single long horn protruding from their heads. It sets out with considerable fanfare from Philadelphia with Zeke as commander, Erasmus as natural historian and his second, a whaling captain as "sailing master," a surgeon, a cook, a carpenter and a small crew.

During the voyage to these exotic outposts in Greenland and northern Canada, the story is about the tension between Zeke and his crew, with Erasmus caught in the middle. Erasmus is drawn to the surgeon, Dr. Boerhaave, himself an amateur natural historian, and the young Irish immigrant cook, Ned Lynd, who apparently was a minor character in Barrett's earlier Ship Fever, which won a National Book Award. In harrowing detail, drawing on numerous journals of real explorers from that period, Barrett depicts the hardships of the voyage and the privations and dangers that set in once they are immobilized for the long, dark winter.

Interlaced through it is Barrett's wonderfully exact descriptions of the minutiae of flora and fauna that so impassioned the natural historians who filled those fusty museums with all those glass cases of bones and shells and produced all those engravings in lovingly crafted books. The reader learns to relish the very obscurity of the places and things described by the author.

But the end of the voyage and the return of the travelers is not the end of the story. It is in fact the aftermath of the voyage as it plays out again in Philadelphia where the themes of ambition and failure and betrayal so tellingly introduced in the harsh Arctic landscape come to fruition in an urban setting different than ours but easily recognizable.

Erasmus's sister, Lavinia, who was betrothed to Zeke, waits like Penelope for the return of her beloved. Another childhood friend of the Welles, Alexandra, whose family has fallen on hard times, stays with her as a paid companion. The artistically inclined Alexandra gets involved in producing the engravings for the book of an earlier Arctic explorer, the real-life Kane.

When the remnant of the Narwhal crew returns (given the hardship of the voyage it is not a spoiler to reveal that not every one makes it back), it is their interaction with the two women and Erasmus's brother Copernicus, a painter of some renown, that makes for a long second act.

A subtext to the human drama is the depiction of how these explorers, for all their human failings, enriched our understanding of the world. While the whalers who rescued the Narwhal crew derided city dandies like Zeke and Erasmus who made a big deal of "discovering" and naming places they were long familiar with, bringing back the knowledge was in fact an important contribution. No matter that some of these men were virtual charlatans in exaggerating or dissembling their discoveries, in glossing over their cruelties and errors. Their reports, their sketches, their specimens were nonetheless a vitally important contribution to the advancement of scientific understanding.

I went through my science phase as a child and can easily relate to the fascination of Erasmus for discovering and collecting things. It is in fact the childlike enthusiasm of these early explorers that provides much of the energy of Barrett's historical fiction.

But whether you share this enthusiasm or not, the harsh human lessons of Barrett's drama have a universal appeal that will reward any reader. The thrill of Arctic exploration, the discovery of new and unexpected places, the time travel to the Philadelphia and Washington of a young and energetic America -- all these are bonuses just to be enjoyed. I was a big fan of Barrett after Servants of the Map, and now I'm a devoted fan.