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.