Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's been a long time since I ripped through a 600-page book as quickly as I did with this alternate history thriller by C.J. Sansom. It's another variation on the theme of Hitler winning the war. This time, Lord Halifax becomes British prime minister in 1940 instead of Churchill and signs a separate peace with Germany.

The story picks up in 1952 as a disaffected civil servant, David Fitzgerald, joins the resistance, led by a Churchill in hiding, opposing the pro-Nazi government of Lord Beaverbrook. He photographs secret documents in the Dominions Office where he works, playing on the affections of a coworker to get access to files. Then he is given a special mission to rescue an Oxford classmate, Frank Muncaster, who has been confined to an asylum after he pushed his brother out a second-floor window in his home. His brother, a scientist working on weapons research in the U.S., had confided information on his project to Frank, who was horrified and went into a rage at the information.

The plot turns on this, admittedly, far-fetched premise, but part of Sansom's artistry is that he convinces the reader to go along with it. If any novelist's task is to make the reader care about his characters, Sansom achieves this with flying colors. He carefully controls the suspense as he takes time to explore extensive backstories not only for David, but for Frank, for David's wife Sarah, and eventually for the German Gestapo agent set on their trail, Gunther Hoth.

David and Sarah have lost their only child, who died in a tumble down the stairs. David learned from his mother on her deathbed that she was Jewish, a fact concealed after her family immigrated to Ireland, making him half-Jewish -- or, as he reminds his friend in the novel, since there is no such thing as a half-Jew in the Nazi world, making him Jewish. The only other person who knows this is his father, safely emigrated to New Zealand, but David lives in fear his secret will be revealed.

Much of the narrative tension comes from the growing strain between David and Sarah, as he pursues his life of secrets and lies. She of course first suspects an affair, and David's mission-related flirtation with his coworker fuels this suspicion. There is also the fragile trust between Frank and David, who was one of Frank's few friends in university. Frank is unstable, an odd child bullied and shunned through school and fearful of the secret he has learned from his brother.

And so the plot progresses through a credibly rendered 1950s London unmarked by the ravages of a war that never took place, with forays to the asylum in Birmingham, and eventually the flight of Frank, David, and his resistance colleagues as they seek to keep Frank and his secret out of clutches of the German, or even the collaborating British.

This builds to a satisfying climax over a couple of hundred pages as the resistance mission scrambles to achieve its goal against the backdrop of an ailing Hitler nearing death and the prospect of civil war in Germany over his succession. Sansom even makes an historic smog in London an important factor in the plot.

Sansom is a skilled writer and the book is a pleasure to read. I had read Dissolution and perhaps another one of the Shardlake novels, set in Elizabethan England, as well as Winter in Madrid, but I am fascinated by these alternate histories. This one bears comparison to Fatherland and is at least as good if not better.

There is evidence of sloppy or nonexistent editing. A car's headlights are turned off twice within the space of a paragraph. We are told one of David's resistance colleagues bonded with Frank after sharing the story of her brother, but then several pages later treated to a scene where she is actually doing the sharing.

But these scarcely interfere with the flow of the narrative, enlivened by sharp sketches of the other characters -- David's pompous superior at work, a Special Branch officer assigned to work with the Gestapo in tracking down Frank, a female resistance operative who falls in love with David while assisting him in the rescue of Frank, complicating his strained relationship with Sarah, and several other skillfully drawn minor characters who don't remain two-dimensional plot devices.

Sansom discloses in passing in the acknowledgements that he was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer during the writing of the book and underwent (apparently successful) treatment, making his accomplishment even more admirable.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Instruments of Darkness

This noir thriller by Robert Wilson brings the Gold Coast of West Africa to life in all its seedy and seamy glory. The hero, Bruce Medway, shuttles back and forth between Togo, Benin and Ghana, with forays into Nigeria and a glimpse of Ivory Coast, the way the rest of us go to Baltimore or Arlington. The lawless chaos that coexists in the coastal capitals of Lome, Cotonou and Accra with the country club gentility of the white expat population is the ideal setting for a convoluted mystery involving smuggling, drugs, payoffs and treachery.

Wilson is a good writer who makes this background vivid and believable. I enjoyed his bestseller, A Small Death in Lisbon, but was unfamiliar with these earlier thrillers set in Africa until I came upon this book in the second-hand bookstore in Austin, South Congress Books. Apparently they were largely unavailable in the U.S. until the success of Lisbon.

The first-person narration is done with a jaunty, if sometimes forced, humor, but witty enough to make you laugh out loud on occasion. However, none of the characters, including the narrator, elicit any consistent sympathy from the reader. Characters that appear quirky and eccentric eventually are unmasked to be psychopathic or sadistic in a way that requires too much suspension of disbelief. The array of women characters are vampy and have an almost fetishist obsession with smoking. Medway's travails -- a succession of beatings, captivity and brushes with death -- matches Dick Francis's characters in its relentless masochism. Motivations are murky and some characters are strictly utilitarian, fulfilling their role in the plot without engaging the reader.

It is, in short, not a great book, though quite readable. It could be the indelible atmosphere of expat life in West Africa will draw me back to one of the three other novels Wilson sets in this world, but maybe not.

Friday, December 12, 2014

An Officer and a Spy

I actually thought this novel by Robert Harris would be a kind of alternate history, like his Fatherland, using the Dreyfus Affair as a springboard for an imaginative historical thriller.

But it is a dramatic retelling of the Dreyfus Affair, based on the voluminous documents and featuring the historical characters -- first and foremost Georges Picquart, the army officer who stubbornly followed the evidence clearing Dreyfus and leading eventually to his exoneration.

As Zola exclaimed at one point in the novel (who knows, perhaps he really said this), "Such a tale has never been told." It is totally gripping. Minute details of the original trial, the second trial that once gain found Dreyfus guilty and the denouement of exoneration, which might have been tedious in less gifted hands, become a mountain of clues worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason.

It is told in the first person from Picquart's point of view, so there is no moralizing, no distance, no distractions. It is about the intricate framing of a Jewish officer through misplaced zeal and the determination of an officer, who thought Dreyfus was guilty and was unwittingly even part of the conspiracy to frame him, who was willing to put honor above ambition and follow the trail that showed it was indeed someone else who delivered those trifling secrets to the Germans, that Dreyfus was simply a convenient (Jewish) scapegoat, that the coverup of the this miscarriage of justice was worse than the crime itself.

Picquart is immensely sympathetic, though not unflawed. Dreyfus, on the other hand, is portrayed as decidedly unsympathetic, possessed of a stiff pride and arrogance that did nothing to help his cause. Both were terribly wronged by the army they loved, but both returned to service. Dreyfus actually came out of the reserves to fight in World War I and died in the 1930s. Picquart became Minister of War and was spared the tragedy of the war when he died falling of his horse.

The novel is a lovely map of Paris, each street there today as it was in 1895. Picquart meets Zola, Debussy and a host of other personalities from that period in the City of Light. The glory and shame of France live side by side in this fin-de-siecle cocoon that has such a dark underbelly.

I feel immeasurably enriched to have such a detailed understanding of the Dreyfus Affair. Its role in history can hardly be underestimated and the New York Times had a headline this week about growing anti-semitism in France. Plus ca change!

A wonderful book.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Water's Edge

Karin Fossum is not just another Scandinavian writer cashing in on the current fashion for detective stories from that region. Her spare, direct narration has more in common with classic hardboiled than with the florid Stieg Larsson, and only slightly less florid Jo Nesbo. Her Oslo detective, Konrad Sejer, does not suffer the inner torment of a Kurt Wallander or Harry Hole or Erlandur.

Fossum sketches in the bleak northern landscapes that are so essential to Scandinavian noir. But her focus is more on the quirky relationships that alternate between terse exchanges and more extended riffs between characters. One of her hallmarks, apparently, is the time she spends with minor characters -- as, in this instance, with the couple who find the body of the abused boy that opens this case. We see much more the interior life of the wife, Kristine Ris, than we do of Sejer himself. And in many ways, the novel is as much her story as it is Sejer's and his effort to solve the mystery of first one pedophile killing and then the disappearance of a second boy.

But Sejer's conversations with his Dr. Watson, Jacob Skarre, on why they became policemen and what is the positive contribution they can make are also entertaining, and somehow manage not to interrupt the flow of the narrative, but in fact let the reader catch his breath before galloping off after the next clue.

Another hallmark of Fossum's tales, it seems, is some sympathy for the villain. She neatly creates the circumstances that contribute to their flaws without any liberal, heart-on-sleeve gushing. It is Sejer's insight into this human condition that enables him to unravel the mystery, ignore the red herrings, double back on overlooked clues, and try to mend the damage to those who are not directly the victims of the crime -- or rather the killing, but it is not sure in some cases that a crime has been committed.

Sejer tracks down the perpetrator of the deaths in this mystery. Fossum leaves some sympathy for them as well as for other characters who might just as easily have found themselves branded as criminals if they had been equally unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm curious now to read a second Fossum novel with Sejer to see how many of these traits are repeated.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Dog

Joseph O'Neill's novel is a brilliant satire on many levels. He is bitingly, nastily funny about expatriate life in Dubai, sparing neither the foreigners nor the natives. By the same token, the legal and financial professions, globally operating millionaire families, "family offices," consulting, all become objects of the author's derision.

At a deeper level, however, the books is a frightening take on the loss of integrity and even of identity in a world fractured by the Internet and social networking. The unnamed narrator sends imaginary e-mails; obsessively googles his ex-girlfriend, stopping only when he fails to find her among the persons bearing her name; becomes himself the victim of “search libel” as malicious googlers manipulate the autocomplete algorithm so that his distinctive name comes up with “embezzlement,” “sexual harassment,” and other diatribes attached to it.

I wrote in a recent WIRoB blog post that historical and post-apocalyptic novels are so popular these days because it allows the authors to strip away the distractions of contemporary life that make it so diffuse. O’Neill, however, has succeeded in making that the subject of his novel.
All this rendered in a perpetually dazzling language that is so dense that even the relatively short book can take some time to read.

There is not much of a plot. Rather, the action is more like the twist of a kaleidoscope that throws the jumble of the hero’s life into a new pattern. A lawyer, the narrator leaves a job that has become uncomfortable after he breaks up with his girlfriend to become the Dubai-based director of a “family office” for the extended family of an old Levantine friend.

Inevitably, for all his pride in fashioning disclaimers and limiting his legal liability, he become involved in a probe of family dealings that leaves him vulnerable and exposed.

The disappearance of a casual friend that the narrator knows from scuba diving, Ted Wilson, appears to drive the narrative at the beginning, as it emerges that the friend was a closet bigamist, lending a certain fascination to the American wife who comes to Dubai in search of her husband only to leave disillusioned when a second wife surfaces there.

But this vanish person is really just another metaphor for the loss of self, and the hero’s fascination for Mrs. Ted Wilson is part of a fantasy life that blurs with real life through the power of the Web.
The narrative is one long interior monologue, with flashbacks gradually filling in the background that led to the hero’s presence in Dubai. It is unsparingly frank, as the hero discloses his activities with pornography and prostitutes, his own feelings of inadequacy, how he was in fact “cheating” on his girlfriend by withholding any emotional interaction.

Beneath it all, however, he is somehow searching for a shred of authenticity, if not exactly integrity. As the denouement approaches, he faces the choice of being bounced again to another country by events seemingly beyond his control, or accepting consequences that would in a technical sense be unjust.

He takes inspiration, in a final burst of irony from the author, in the example of Conrad Black, the newspaper magnate who was eventually jailed for a number of financial crimes. Imprisonment, the narrator muses, at least puts a limit to culpability. “It’s certainly true that so long as he’s inside, he can hardly be punished more.”

Netherland was a book about expatriates and rootlessness as well. Though different in style, this book is thematically very much in keeping with the other. To examine these themes, so topical in our times, in such wildly variant fashion is a virtuoso performance by the author.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Catching up

I've been neglecting my blogs. This is due in part to being busy with work. Also, I have the feeling blogging is a bit passe. And for this blog in particular I had gotten into a rut of viewing it as a book review blog, rather than a reading blog.

I have been posting only when I finish a book and if there are any readers they must be amazed at how few books I read. I don't read enough, but I read more books than I finish. For my book group, for instance, I usually make an effort to read some of the book, but I haven't finished that many.

I really liked Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne and read a good half of it. I loved his historical sense, his authoritative chronicle of the Comanches and the early Texas settlers and his vivid descriptions of the terrain. In our book group discussion, several participants said it went downhill in the second part with the actual description of Quanah Parker. That gave me little incentive to want to finish the book.

I also liked Night Soldiers by Alan Furst. I read about a third of it and may get back to it. Some book group members found it too brutal. I have to admit I was losing sympathy for the main character, as I often do for Furst's main character (liking is one thing, sympathy another). I did, however, appreciate his depiction of the deplorable Stalinist mentality, where the practice is so at odds with the ideal. The hero's recruiter in the Bulgarian village represented the ideal, while his training in the NKVD was the reality.

I've also been doing more reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books -- two thrillers I was not too excited about. The first was Marc Levy's Replay, which was really juvenile, and the second was Ben Mezrich's Seven Wonders, which was more entertaining but pretty shallow. I've signed up for another one, The Empire of the Night by Robert Olen Butler, which will interrupt my reading of The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, a book I really like and will finish and review here.

Also, I've been writing a monthly blog for WIRoB, Words for Thought, which are musings about reading and how books fit into our cultural milieu.

So I am doing a considerable amount of reading, and some writing about it that doesn't appear here. I've decided to be more flexible about what and when I write here, so my posting should be more frequent -- at least until I give up on blogging altogether.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Last Policeman

Hank Palace has finally achieved his childhood dream of becoming a detective in the Concord Police Department. The only hitch is that shortly afterwards it was announced that a comet was on a path to collide with the earth in a few months, and was likely to destroy all life on the planet.

This "pre-apocalyptic" setting turns Ben H. Winters' police procedural into a psychological thriller. In many ways, the imminent collision with the comet is itself apocalyptic as the structures of industrial society gradually corrode and crumble. Companies go bankrupt, the telecommunications infrastructure collapses in pieces, and, not surprisingly, suicides spike.

So when a mild-mannered actuary expert is found dead with a belt around his neck tied to the doorknob -- the more efficient way of suicide by hanging, we are told -- it is logical to assume that he is simply another "hanger." But Hank is not comfortable with this verdict. The victim had shown no suicidal tendencies; there was no note; there were other bruises unaccounted for.

The question is, however, what does it matter -- suicide or murder? Why work hard to bring a killer to justice when everyone is doomed to die in just a few months? Hank's colleagues scoff at him and tease him about his unaccountable obsession. At one point, he becomes frustrated and tells the medical examiner that he may not be the type of person for an end-of-the-world scenario. To which she replies that he may be the only type suited to it.

This is the nub of the novel. What is it that keeps a man bound to duty even in the face of imminent catastrophe? An engaged reader is confronted with the question of how he or she would react in a similar situation. It is a tribute to Winters' skill as a writer in creating this improbable situation in way that you ask yourself this question seriously.

It is in a sense the human condition writ large, because each of us faces imminent doom. But our individual doom does not obviate the need for laws to govern society and police to enforce them. With life as we know it about to end, any prison term -- whether for murder or a minor infraction -- is a virtual life sentence.

This is the backdrop for Hank's investigation into the life and sudden death of the insurance employee who was a whiz at actuarial tables and an obsessive observer of the deadly comet's progress. Hank encounters a long-lost childhood friend of the victim who recently reestablished contact; his estranged sister, a midwife, and her husband, a preacher newly specialized in end-of-the-world counseling; a colleague at work who seemed unaccountably concerned about the victim; his boss, and others, any of whom could be suspect in what Hank stubbornly believes to be a murder.

All of this is told in a quirky first person, with Hank able to say things like "holy moly" with a straight face. He is sympathetic because there is at least a little bit of Hank in each of us -- an idealist who want to hold on to some shred of naivete and pursue a life that is above all honorable.

Winters apparently intends chronicle these last six months of life on earth in a trilogy, and has already published the second volume. What fun.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Dog Stars

Peter Heller's post-apocalyptic novel grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It took a few pages to get used to the style -- paragraphs with extra separation and sentence fragments. But these are graphic and linguistic representations of the fragmented world left after a virulent flu and blood disease have killed most of the planet's inhabitants.

The first-person narrator, Hig, is himself fragmented. Much of what he cherished has been destroyed, but he goes on surviving without being sure why. He put a pillow over his wife's face at her urgent request to end her suffering at the end and has been emotionally shut down since then. Such consolation as there is comes from his dog, Jasper, and some activities that were hobbies before and now are useful survival skills -- hunting, fishing, flying.

He lives in a hangar at a small airfield in Colorado and patrols the "perimeter" he and his partner, Bangley, have set up in an ancient Cessna. For mankind has been reduced to savagery in a truly kill or be killed environment. Intruders are killed without any questions asked. Hig worries that Bangley, a weapons expert with an uncertain past, will eliminate him if he outlives his usefulness as a comrade in arms.

What disrupts this dystopian existence is a cryptic radio call he intercepts in the plane one day, indicating there may be a functional settlement in Grand Junction. Eventually, Hig sets out to track this signal and has his first encounter with other people that does not end in death for one side or the other and rekindles long-dormant emotions.

The first-person narration works well in this context. There are so few people, there is little for an omniscient narrator to know. Hig's flat, fragmented narration is nonetheless eloquent, sometimes lyrical and often poignant, without any pretension or artifice. The reader's enormous sympathy for his plight and the suspense of the story propel you through the book.

Heller, a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as a magazine writer and author of several nonfiction books, has a disciplined command of language. The prose, the story, the narration are extremely lean, trimmed of any distraction or unnecessary detail -- a kind of post-modern Hemingway.

Can a post-apocalyptic novel have a happy ending? Everything is relative when people are stripped of civilization. Suffice it to say Heller's view is ever so slightly more hopeful than that of Cormac McCarthy in The Road -- but there are no guarantees.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Bitter Cross

Simon Mawer's historical novel, his second, is a grim portrayal of corruption and betrayal. As with his later The Gospel of Judas, it is about an illicit love affair involving a man of God who betrays his vow of celibacy, giving the lovers a shred of happiness but dooming them to death and separation.

What's evident already in this early work is Mawer's wonderful command of language, a diction that is rich -- perhaps a little over-rich waiting for the discipline of later works -- and a literary quality that gives his prose a texture even as he tells a compelling story.

The story here concerns Gerard Paulet, one of handful of English Knights of Malta to survive Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, who along with his comrades ends  up in exile at the order's headquarters in Malta. The Knights of St. John themselves are in exile, having been driven out of Rhodes to the small island in the Mediterranean that Mawer describes with the scorn of one who actually lived there.

His details of the knights, their galleys, their ships, the geography of the Mediterranean match a David Mitchell or Patrick Leigh-Fermor in their precision and arcane knowledge. Presumably the history, too, is accurate. It makes for a colorful background for the tortured affair between Paulet and the widowed princess of the island, Vittoria Pignatelli. It is, as with the affairs in Gospel and The Glass Room, an irresistible passion that brooks no denial -- not a choice, but a destiny. There is nothing Platonic about it, the happiness comes from carnal knowledge in defiance not only of Paulet's vows but the rigid social convention, which, as Vittoria's brother patiently explains to Paulet, does not allow a noblewoman like his sister to have an affair with someone below her station, for the knight is only "gentle."

The two lovers remain true to each other but there is distrust, which feeds on the betrayal of those around them as they are caught up in the intrigues of Renaissance Italy, the fight against the Turks for the control of the Mediterranean and Europe, and the dying throes of a crusading military order that has outlived its purpose.

There are intimations of the denoument because the story is told in the first person by an aged and broken Paulet, living out his days peacefully in the knights' priory in Rome. The author skillfully weaves the story backward and forward in time, maintaining the suspense not of what happens, but how and why.

Paulet is convincingly complex, torn as the protagonist in Gospel not only by the broken vows but the loss of faith as the joy of human coupling undermines belief in a religion that demands celibacy for its holy men. He nonetheless tries to preserve a certain semblance of honor, though his ambivalence in the climactic end of the novel leaves the reader uncertain how far he succeeds.

Much of the plot turns on his suspect "adoption" of a Muslim boy captured during a raid. His account of why and how he took the boy as his ward seems incomplete -- there is no sufficient motivation given. Later, given the turn of events, the reader begins to suspect that he is in fact an unreliable narrator, that he has not told the whole story.

The book is a downer. The cynicism is all-pervading, leavened with only the faintest glimmer of hope that the shared passion of Paulet and Vittoria is sufficient for redemption. It is, in the moral morass of Renaissance Europe, a true emotion, however many vows and conventions are broken. It sets the themes that run through Mawer's later novels, different as they are in setting and context.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra doesn't make it easy for the reader in this masterful novel, an amazingly accomplished work for a debut novel by a young author. But the payoff is there -- it is a truly moving, enlightening trip to hell and at least part of the way back.

The fact that his novel was passed over for both the Pulitzer and National Book Award shows the futility -- and perhaps the corruption -- of these literary prizes. Whatever merit one finds in the winners, it's worth keeping in the mind that the best books often get overlooked.

Marra leads the reader unflinchingly into the very depths of the inferno, describing five days at the very low point of the rebellion in Chechnya. The reader sees, feels almost, the deprivation, the misery, the fear, and ultimately the harrowing pain of people caught up in a war they never asked for.

Marra brings it down to a single village and town, to six main characters, and tells their story over the five days, flashing back to the past, and, innovatively, into the future. There is Akhmed, the incompetent doctor and would-be artist; Sonja, the ever-so-competent Russian surgeon; Natasha, her sister, sold into prostitution and addiction; Khassan, the local intellectual who treats Akhmed like his son; Dokka, Akhmed's neighbor and friend; and Ramzan, Khassan's son, who turns informer for the Russians.

The narrative shuttles back and forth through time and the reader has to fit the pieces together as they become available. In our book group, someone mentioned that Marra had been criticized for coincidences. But they were not coincidences, only cause and effect, as would have been clear in a chronological narrative. It is a narrative full of artifice, but so artfully done that the reader scarcely notices, caught up in the characters and their harrowing passage.

What is hardest for the reader is not this literary challenge, however, but simply the horror of the Chechnyan rebellion -- the torture, the maiming, the amputations, the "disappearances," the daily terror, the frightening randomness of life and death. It is the complete breakdown of civilized life, with familial devotion and some sense of honor the only threads that keep one going.

The title refers to a medical dictionary's definition of life as a constellation of vital phenomena and that is Marra's whole point. Life does go on, even in these horrific circumstances. There is a past, and there is a future, and the author gives glimpses of both. This is simply a very bad passage in that sweep of individual history. Half of the main characters survive and live on into quieter times; the other half are victims of fate's arbitrary hand. None of them is in control of their lives; they are only, barely, in control of their response to the hands they are dealt.

One of our book group members said he stopped after reading four-fifths of the book because he simply could not face going back to the Landfill -- the open pits where the Russians kept their Chechnyan prisoners for torture -- a second time.

When Marra has his characters look back to a time when buses arrived at busstops to take people to work, where the local hospital had one of the best oncology departments in the Soviet Union, when the deprivation of war makes one pine for "the relative generosity of totalitarianism," he raises the question of whether freedom is always worth it. It is not a rhetorical question. Were Chechnyans better off in the Soviet Union or even under the yoke of the Russian Federation? Were Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein? Were Egyptians happier under Mubarak?

In our group, a recent visitor to Cuba said many people there had told him they were quite happy under Castro. The had the basic necessities of life and as much as their neighbors.

Marra doesn't broach any of these questions. He tells a story about people. But in showing every painful detail of their lives, he plants the questions in the mind of the reader. His characters are too busy surviving to philosophize. That is left to us after we've put the book down and taken a deep breath.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Telex From Cuba

Rachel Kushner's novel about American expatriates in the waning days of the Batista regime vividly describes the beauty and appeal of Cuba. She immerses the reader in the life of families attached to the United Fruit Company's sugar operations in eastern Cuba and the nearby nickel mine operated by the U.S. government.

Our book group read this on the recommendation of a member who read it before visiting Cuba. He liked it then and liked it even better re-reading it after his trip. The book made me feel like I'd visited Cuba, too. However, I have several issues with it. There are too many characters and too many points of view. Particularly bad, in my view, is shifting from one first person narrator to several other third-person POVs. The characters were not sharply enough delineated, so names and roles became a muddle for someone reading it over several weeks. There were vivid scenes and the narrative held together over several years because we are familiar with the arc -- Batista's ill-fated and corrupt regime succumbing to Castro's revolution.

What worked well was the depiction of how clueless the expats were, with their feeble complaints about the tropics, their racism and bigotry, their pathetic efforts to preserve a semblance of stateside life. The particular trap of the expat who is earning more money and/or living better than they could at home -- similar to the plight of the British couple in Hilary Mantel's Eight Months on Ghazzah Street -- was very well sketched. Several of the characters grew up in the eight years covered, but it is hardly a coming of age. Rather the author wants to view the corruption of the adults and their ambivalent relations with the Cubans and Haitians that worked for them through their innocent eyes.

The rogue arms salesman and sometime rebel, Christian La Maziere -- apparently an historical figure -- was the cynical counterpoint to this hypocrisy. He is actually more fully developed as a character than any of the others, but he is too sleazy and unsympathetic to really carry the narrative. Castro makes a cameo appearance but remains a blur. A popular courtesan, sillily named Rachel K, wafts through the book without making much of an impact.

Despite its strengths, then, the book ultimately was unsatisfying on a dramatic, aesthetic level. The epilogue was particularly flat -- too true to the disappointments of maturity as we learn the banal destinies of these kids grown up. I'm perplexed that this book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008, just as Kushner's second novel, The Flame Throwers, was also shortlisted. Who does she know?

The book was worthwhile for its depictions of Cuba but I'm in no hurry to read the second book.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

World War Z

This "oral history" by Max Brooks is surprisingly funny. I say surprisingly because it is after all about a post-apocalyptic war against zombies and the movie ostensibly based on the book was an earnest thriller. The book, however, is an at times brilliant satire, parodying everyone from the military to politicians to journalists.

Zombies have become an acceptable metaphor for any kind of catastrophe, whether terrorists or pandemics or natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. The satire here is in the response to the catastrophe. There are the military who recount how ridiculous it was to stage a battle with zombies using the high-tech weaponry stockpiled so expensively. What they really needed was a medieval halberd to slice through the brains of the undead. There was the White House aide who explained why they had to keep the news of a zombie virus outbreak from the public because it would alarm them and distract them from the other political objectives the White House had in mind.

There were a host of other voices recorded in a faux-interview deadpan modeled on Studs Terkel's oral history of World War 2. The threat has been, mostly, overcome, and the interviews trace its rise and fall in more or less chronological order. I may have missed something, but I saw no trace of the movie plot and the supposed antidote discovered by Brad Pitt.

I'm in a bit of a zombie period, having binge-watched "The Walking Dead" ahead of the recent season finale (and, I'll confess, re-watching some episodes now). There is a comforting predictability about the threat from a zombie. They drag their feet, they moan, they have on clear goal in mind, and they are relatively easily dispatched if you have a halberd-like instrument at hand. They do, of course, nonetheless manage to claim a certain number of victims, usually when they come in such numbers that they overwhelm their prey.

My theory about the current enthusiasm for zombies is that they are metaphor for Alzheimer's, the bane of the boomers. Particularly in "The Walking Dead," there are characters who have trouble accepting that these reanimated corpses aren't still somehow the people they once loved. The fact is, of course, that those people are gone. In much the same way, the frightening reality of Alzheimer's is that the personalities we loved and who loved us are also gone, really gone, and aren't coming back.

The other factor is that there is no nuance in the zombie threat. They want to tear you to shreds and eat you, period. There's no room for temporizing or pretending there is any solution to the threat except eliminating it, though part of the satire in Brooks' book is the difficulty people have in accepting that at the beginning.

In any case, there is no horror in World War Z. There is some gore, the occasional poignant moment. But the no-nonsense narrative style succeeds best when seen as a take-off on our own often pretentious and ineffectual response to threats.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Farm Dies Once a Year

Here is my review from Washington Independent Review of Books:

If you’ve ever shopped at a farmer’s market, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’ve never shopped at one, this account of life on a fruit and vegetable farm in Pennsylvania will make you want to try it. And if you regularly shop at the New Morning Farmmarket in Washington, D.C. — as I have for the past several years — Crawford’s intensely personal memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is a must-read.

Four decades ago, Crawford’s parents started New Morning Farm, and although the name came from a Bob Dylan album, the farm was not some hippy-ish return to nature. From the beginning, the project entailed the hard work and heartbreak that goes with working the land. Crawford’s father abandoned law school in the 1970s to take up farming, and over the years, his father turned New Morning Farm into a successful business that grosses half a million dollars a year — though after paying for wages, seed, equipment, and maintenance, the net proceeds make for a modest income.

At 31, Crawford, dissatisfied with his work at a museum in Cambridge, Mass., and the lack of direction in his life, returned to his family’s farm during the summer season. He joined the staff of apprentices in taking care of the myriad tasks on the farm: planting, trimming, staking, and harvesting the strawberries, squash, lettuce, cabbage, basil, tomatoes, and other crops. With vivid language, Crawford describes this work as hot, buggy, and dirty, stretching into 13- and 14-hour days at the height of the season. Unlike his previous job at the museum, where he worked on projects that “had a checklist, a clear set of milestones,” farming allowed him to immerse himself “in the summer, a wide, warm ocean with no shore in sight and no landmarks to swim toward.”

But A Farm Dies Once a Year is about more than vegetables or farming. It is about fathers and sons, childhood and trauma, roots and ambitions. It is about self-discovery and self-fulfillment — those elusive goals that may be permanently beyond our reach.

Much of the book deals with Crawford’s father, a man he clearly admires and respects despite being keenly aware of his father’s flaws — notably the emotional distance that his all-consuming passion for making a go of the farm sometimes created. When Crawford returned to the farm, he attempted to construct a primitive shelter for himself and his girlfriend, and his father pointed out that the posts for the platform weren’t “true,” so the whole structure would wobble and collapse. “Finding these kinds of mistakes was my father’s specialty,” Crawford mused in one of his many riffs on his father. His father’s business for 40 years required “tempering his enthusiasms with an obsessive attention to detail”: “He looked over a freshly plowed field and saw where the drainage would be bad, examined a truckload of ripe peaches and picked out the first ones to rot, looked at a new puppy and saw the dead chickens it would eventually drag into the yard.”

Crawford also returned to the farm to find out more about a dramatic incident that had marked his childhood — the murder of his father’s close friend who also had left the city to take up farming. The killing capped a banal argument over barking dogs that annoyed the horses of an alcoholic neighbor, who, Crawford concluded, harbored a deeper resentment of city folks invading the countryside. This violent act left Crawford insecure and worried about his parents’ safety.

Crawford’s fears resurfaced the summer he returned. He and his father had a tense encounter with some locals as his father showed him around the farm his father owned before New Morning. After the murder of his father’s friend, Crawford became aware that even minor tensions have the potential to explode in violence, and his unease about the murder prompted him to visit the murdered man’s farm and even to seek out his daughter in Maine. Dealing with this trauma was one facet of Crawford’s coming to terms with his roots.

A Farm Dies Once a Year reaches a climax (of sorts) when the author describes his trip to Washington, D.C., for the Saturday morning market in a schoolyard in Cleveland Park, the culmination of the week of farming and harvesting. His rendition of his father’s patter as he roamed around the market, touting this kohlrabi, that batch of corn, these green beans at the peak of perfection, is so spot-on that it vouches for the accuracy of all his other observations.

It is in fact the vividness and economy of the author’s narration — his attention to detail in a language that is lean and colorful — that makes this book, along with the subject itself, such compelling reading. Often earnest, A Farm Dies Once a Year is punctuated with a wry humor directed sometimes at Crawford, sometimes at his parents or others, but always good-natured.

Crawford makes it clear from the outset that he never saw farming as his life, and none of his epiphanies over the summer change his mind. Nonetheless, watching the apprentices’ late afternoon activities at the end of the summer, he vividly describes the tug this place has for him: “I suddenly wanted to find my mother and father and tell them that I loved them. I wanted to stay there forever in the hollow, closed off from the world, in the shelter I’d built, with a table and a chair, a bed and full bookshelf. I wanted my grave dug under the black walnut, with Sarah’s there beside it, our children to plant a forsythia there that would bloom in the spring, the first yellow flowers of March. I wanted our bones to molder and the stone to grow dim, the rain to seep into the box and the tree roots to grow down through it, and someday the creek to rise and wash us all away.”

But the antics of the apprentices in the barnyard break the spell of that moment, and Crawford acknowledges that the farm will not last forever. Eventually, Crawford leaves the farm, moves to San Francisco, and gets a job in a natural food store that specializes in produce, which, he notes, is much easier than working in the fields.

Crawford does not belabor the title of his memoir. Even though his return to the farm gave him some insight about himself, it did not resolve his questions about the direction of his life However, he leaves us with the implication that knowing ourselves, like life on the farm, is not a one-time event, but a succession of seasons, each with its own harvest.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt's long and compelling novel is a joy to read. While it appears at times to be a Dickensian romp through quirky characters and picaresque events, in the end it is a philosophical morality tale, articulating as well as anything else I've read what life is all about.

The plot has holes. Big one: After opening in the present day, most of the book is a long flashback to more than a decade before, and yet there are cellphones then, too, and texting, which would mean the "present" is in the future, because texting didn't exist 11 or 12 years ago. Small one: Theo despaired when told by the consulate in Amsterdam it would take 10 days to get a replacement passport, whereas these can be had in an afternoon.

In the meantime, though, there are so many delicious scenes of wonderfully observed detail. The writing, even a critical reviewer in the Washington Independent Review of Books conceded, is superb. As I wrote in a blog post in WIRoB: "For me, that superb writing, which seems to offer a surprise on every page, is what makes the book so compelling. There are flaws in the plot, in the characterization, and there is a whole lot of suspension of disbelief called for — it is, in part, a fantasy, really. But for some of us, it is the glittery prose itself that is the reward. Tartt’s ever-so-precise diction recalls Flaubert’s never-ending search for “le mot juste” — just the right word. It is not only because the book is 700+ pages long, but that every page is like a polished diamond of language that you can understand why it took 10 years to write."

I am not as enamored of Boris as some readers. He is the "bad boy" that women in particular seem sympathetic to. Theo's life could have taken a completely different course if he had never met Boris, so in a sense, this is really Boris's story. But in the author's hands, this is Theo's life and it is the life that he draws his very moving conclusions about in the last pages. Life is random, out of our control. It is an illusion that we have choices, beyond what we make of the life fate hands us.

There are other characters, all of them vivid, but none of them achieving the depth of these two. Hobie, Andy, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, Pippa, Theo's father. The two characters who die in the explosion, Theo's mother and Welty, are present long beyond their death.

The metaphor of the painting is effective as a symbol of Theo's life -- both the painting itself, cast among the waves of chance to survive, and the subject of the painting, that poor little chained bird. I personally found Theo, and particularly his drug use, often distasteful, yet he retained my sympathy. His hopeless love for Pippa is so much like Pip's love for Estella, and his great expectations are equally illusory. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but a lovely read and a moving story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sense of an Ending

I was captivated by Julian Barnes' elegant writing, his mordant wit, his wrestling with questions of memory and identity. I happily put up with his unreliable and ultimately unsympathetic narrator to see what twist or surprise he had in store next.

Our book group discussion somewhat deflated my admiration, however, as members took issue with anomalies in the plot, the narrowness of the narrator's view, the banality of his life. Presumably, however, Barnes crafted all of this intentionally; it's unlikely that anything was left to chance in so short a book.

What sticks with me still is that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives -- but that's all we have. We forget things, we remember things wrong, we come to consider as fact things that may never really have happened. Barnes' narrator, Tony Webster, was self-delusional, obsessive, narcissistic -- an extreme case, in short. Yet what he dramatizes as the tragedy of his life is a reasonably banal story of a relationship that went sour, an unstable friend with poor judgment, and, sadly, a child born with mental deficiencies.

The narrator's remorse -- Barnes makes a point of its linguistic root to bite again or bite back -- at the key misunderstanding and mis-communication in his life is something that may mark any of us, even if to a lesser extent. In all his efforts to smooth out his narrative, this is a central thing he cannot change and it leads, as the end of the book makes clear, to great unrest.

There are apparently websites speculating about hidden meanings in the book, and some of the book group members spent a good deal of time trolling through these. I'm not sure it needs all that and I didn't find the result of their research that helpful.

Did it deserve the Man Booker Prize? Who cares? Barnes hardly needs the distinction to be recognized as a great writer. I'm not sure this spare book will stand in my mind as much as Flaubert's Parrot or Arthur & George -- the two previous books of his that I've read. It does,  however, encourage me to keep reading him, perhaps picking up his History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, which I've had sitting on my shelf for eons.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding Camlann

It was the striking photograph of a Welsh landscape with dark mountains and lowering sky, punctuated by autumnal yellow and green pastures that drew me to this book with its odd title and unknown author. The back cover copy explained it is about an archaeologist (always a favorite of mine) who teams up with a Welsh linguist to find the real King Arthur. Who can resist?

In fact, Sean Pidgeon has produced a beautifully written esoteric mystery that falls into a sub-genre I'm tempted to call the intellectual thriller. The jacket copy compares it to Possession, though the obscure medieval works traced here are not as accessible as the Victorian poetry of A.S. Byatt's novel. The unfamiliar Welsh history and the baffling Welsh names threaten at times to tip from mysterious into overwhelming. But Pidgeon manages nonetheless to compel the reader to follow his hero and heroine as they track literary clues to the real Arthur's gravesite in a tightly plotted novel that involves a love triangle and betrayal at several levels.

Best of all, it has a penetrating sense of place as Pidgeon patiently takes his characters through the English and Welsh landscapes. The Arthurian legend has its origins in the borderlands between the two countries, so rarely separated in history despite the fervent nationalism on both sides. The novel gropes into a past of monasteries founded and dissolved, poets preserving history in a bardic tradition, coded descriptions that evolve with the language and must be deciphered to find the truth.

So it has as much of the Da Vinci Code as it does Possession, though considerably more sophisticated. Likewise, the romance is a genuine love affair and much more adult than anything in Dan Brown's books. It is not a murder mystery, though a fatal factory explosion lurks in the background and a death that appears to be an accident may be something else. The characters are well drawn and sympathetic -- even the less savory ones.

Who was Arthur? He was not the chivalrous king of the Round Table in Thomas Malory and certainly not the Roman soldier of the lame Clive Owen movie. The archaeologist and linguist, aided by the crotchety Oxford don, find a different explanation, along with the documentary evidence to support their thesis. The book is about their quest, and less about its achievement.

The Camlann of the title refers to the legend of Arthur's final battle, during which he was fatally wounded. The allusion was lost on me; though I've read Morte d'Arthur and other books about Arthur, the site of the final battle was not something I retained. The novel was supposedly selected by the Book of the Month Club and QPB, but you wonder if it would find a wider audience with a different title. I came across it only because it was on the display table at Politics & Prose. Like I say, the cover drew me in, and when I started reading it I finished it quickly.

The mystery and beauty of the landscape is evokes so effectively that I began looking up hiking tours in Wales to visit this terrain and see it for myself. I passed briefly through Wales on one of my research trips for Superregions, taking the ferry across the Irish Sea to northwest Wales. I acquired by slate tablet with a Celtic cross there. I've often felt an affinity for Wales and Celtic history -- one of the possible origins of the name Darrell is Celtic.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel upped her game from the already high level of Wolf Hall in this sequel chronicling the further career of Thomas Cromwell and the sad fate of Anne Boleyn. As she did with Thomas More, Mantel is at pains to demythologize "Anne of the Thousand Days" and portray her as a scheming, vindictive harridan while not actually pronouncing a verdict on her alleged adultery and incest.

But if Anne Boleyn is the object of the action in this new book, Cromwell is still the subject and Mantel continues to probe every nuance of this complex character -- who may or may not have anything to do with the historical figure -- in her mellifluous prose. It is tempting to quote passages where she veers so effortlessly from lyrical description to hard-nosed dialogue; the sly, witty asides; the breathtaking insights into mixed motives. Instead, I would just say: Read this book; it repays you on every page.

Mantel portrays Cromwell's relentless campaign against Anne Boleyn as a calculated if belated revenge for Wolsey's downfall. He implicates various court figures in the charges of treason and adultery on the basis of their role in cheering the fall from grace of his mentor. The workings of Cromwell's mind are described so gracefully you scarcely realize how genuinely vindictive he is. But the author also intimates how Cromwell's machinations bear the seeds of his own destruction. Harry Percy, hounded into perjury and disgrace by Cromwell, acutely observes that he must know what lies in store for him from a king who toppled Wolsey, beheaded More, and condemned the erstwhile love of his life to death.

Mantel also manages to maintain the reader's sympathy for the monstrous Henry VIII, even while portraying him as a narcissistic, psychopathic tyrant. His charm, his charisma beckon across the centuries in a re-creation that remains fresh despite all the books and movies that have already portrayed this historical giant.

The brief glimpses of a convulsed Europe, divided by religion and dynastic rivalries provide a colorful backdrop the drama in England. But doctrines and foreign dynasties both remain subordinated to the central issue of maintaining the Tudor succession -- the end that justifies all of Cromwell's and Henry's actions.

Not to be overlooked is the elemental barbarity of the age that produced Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Torture and beheading are bad enough, but the intimations of being hanged, drawn and quartered are unspeakably gross to modern sensibilities. The subjugation to tyranny in a land proud of the rule of law is another historical theme that offends our sense of democracy. But the hypocrisy of the case built against Anne Boleyn -- based on innuendo rather than evidence and hiding the real political motives behind fabricated conspiracies -- holds lessons for our own time and country, where one political party fueled by corporate funds works to create an alternative reality to dupe the public.

There is to be a third book and a third trip to the gallows to finish the Cromwell saga. Can't wait.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Humanoids

This book group selection of Jack Williamson's classic scifi depiction of a world ruled by robots took me back to a childhood (mis)spent immersed in science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederik Pohl, Andre Norton -- you name it, I read it. This book, which I may or may not have read, was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which I subscribed to. My first efforts at writing (age 10 or so) were science fiction stories that actually earned rejection slips at the magazines I submitted them to.

Unfortunately, our group felt that this book had been written by someone only slightly older, largely due to the clumsy narrative. Much of the actual language, I felt, was not that bad, but the story and characters are a bit of a jumble, making you feel the author neglected to read the earlier installments as he was writing the next one.

The main issue though -- is man better off coddled and protected from his own worst instincts or is individual freedom preferable even though it leads to unhappy and perhaps even fatal choices -- came through in spite of the writer's shortcomings. To my surprise, there were actually some in our group who thought maybe that Clay Forester at the end of the book, programmed now to accept the humanoids guarding him from actions that might make him unhappy, was indeed better off.

At least it shows the allure of that promise and explains the appeal of Frank Ironsmith, the character who from the beginning embraced the "salvation" brought by the humanoids. For myself, however, and I would have thought for anyone who cherishes free will and individuality, Forester's long resistance to the stifling solicitude of the robots is the more natural reaction.

The group discussed science fiction, robots and Asimov's three laws, and paraphysical phenomena (which plays a subordinate role in the novel). Again to my surprise no one but myself seemed to believe that telepathy, telekinesis or teleportation was really possible, saying there was no evidence that the human mind was capable of such feats.

Who needs evidence when you have imagination?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Earthly Delights

The first book in Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series was recommended by a friend as a good audiobook for a road trip. It fulfilled that purpose as a light, mildly humorous mystery featuring some good scenes in a bakery and a look at faraway Melbourne.

The main character was generally entertaining. Her apartment house, modeled quirkily on an old Roman building, was studded with equally quirky neighbors. The plot did not shy away from the seedier aspects of Melbourne's drug scene and, briefly, its S&M hangout.

Sound like fun? Not so much. Chapman is something of an anti-heroine -- she's fat, she terribly misses the smoking habit she gave up three years ago, she lives a dull life as a baker that makes her susceptible to a romance that seems so improbable you suspect the guy as the villain [*spoiler alert*] up to the moment the book ends and he's still a good guy.

The over-convoluted plot involves a series of junkie overdoses as someone intentionally or unintentionally is selling heroine too pure for consumption, parallel to an escalating harassment of the women in the apartment building that seems increasingly threatening. There is also the soup truck with Corinna's love interest, the junkie teenager who undergoes a remarkable conversion into an able baker's apprentice, and assorted red herrings from the local witch, a transvestite neighbor and retired wise old professor. If it all sounds a bit contrived, it's because it is.

Nonetheless, it helped pass the time for us on a long drive, and was easier to listen to than some more serious audiobooks we have tried.