****The Underground Railroad


photo: Kimberly Vardeman, creative commons license

By Colson Whitehead – I was glad my book group chose this winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which made the longlist for the Man Booker Prize AND was chosen by Oprah’s Book Club. I searched vainly for hours for the photo I’d seen of President Obama carrying it. Thinking he too had read it also gladdened my heart.

Now that I’ve actually read it, I am triply gladdened. Certainly it raises painful issues and reminders of our country’s difficult history (Make America Great Again?). Those issues are worth confronting repeatedly and anew, society-wide, and as individuals who read books. Their consequences are still with us and all around us. The Civil Rights era did not erase the past, confer respect or opportunity on all our fellow-citizens, or assure a conflict-free future, just as giving women the vote did not solve the problems of inequality and sexual harassment for women.

The experiences of Whitehead’s protagonist, the slave Cora (Cora was an alternative name for the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld; or was Whitehead thinking “heart”?), property of a cotton plantation-owning family in Georgia, are not unfamiliar. Yet Whitehead gives his writing an immediacy that powers the story forward and makes it painfully fresh, as Cora encounters one difficulty after another. Her mother is the only slave to have successfully escaped the Randall Plantation, and Cora, alternately admiring her mother’s gumption and hating her for her abandonment, is determined, somehow, to follow her.

In a device best termed magical realism, Whitehead’s underground railroad is a real railroad. It runs in darkened tunnels and has rails and locomotives. Yet, this initially awkward metaphor brings the actual conditions of slave escape to light in a new way, when we learn it’s a railroad with no fixed schedule, uncertain destinations, and ambiguity about whether routes or stations are even open.

As it’s usually used, the term “underground railroad” conjures what we know about railroads and timetables and reliably running trains and certainties at the other end of the line. In Whitehead’s metaphor, those certainties are upended. If a stationmaster has been found out, a station may be closed. And he is gone. Whether he was black or white, helping a runaway slave was deadly business.

Whitehead’s writing is straightforward, yet evocative: “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant trying.”

Not unexpectedly, America comes in for some sharp criticism for the discrepancy between its high ideals and low practices—not only slavery, but also the massacre and theft of American Indian lands. To someone like Cora and her friend Caesar, core American notions of equality and justice were irrelevant to their lived reality. “All men are created equal,” the white man thinks, “unless we decide you are not a man.”

A year ago, Amazon announced plans for a mini-series based on this book. It may be true to the book, but who knows? The book pulls no punches, and reading it is a much more complicated experience than learning Cora’s story.

A Fresh Crop of Movies Based on 2017 Books

Los Angeles, Hollywood

photo: James Gubera, creative commons license

I wish a bang-up movie would be made from James Joyce’s Ulysses, so I could watch it and no longer feel guilty I’ve never read this nearly 700-page classic. OK, I’m a heretic.

As for lesser works, this same time-saving compulsion makes me glad Paula Hawkins’s new book, Into the Water, is among the 2017 novels being prepped for the tv or the movies. Having seen the film of her so-so debut, The Girl on the Train, I don’t want to spend more than two hours on the new story, if that.

Shayna Murphy in the BookBub Blog has compiled a list of 22 recent books en route to screens large and small. No surprise that Stephen King’s 700+ page Sleeping Beauties, written with his younger son Owen, is on the list, despite tepid reviews. Ditto James Patterson and David Ellis’s Black Book, whose protagonists and plot Kirkus Reviews deemed “more memorable than Patterson’s managed in quite a while.”

I’m delighted that Reese Witherspoon’s production company snapped up Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for television. Like her remarkable earlier mystery, Everything I Never Told You, it’s about family secrets under the deceptively placid surface of suburbia. I’m also excited about plans for a movie of Artemis—another futuristic tale by Andy Weir, whose book The Martian translated so effectively to film in 2015—and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, set in our Civil War past, which won this year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope Hollywood doesn’t make a hash of them.

Some critics considered Don Winslow’s disappointing book The Force to have been a victim of early interest in making a movie out of it. The characters turned to cardboard and the complexity of his much better The Cartel went out the window. In his story, Manhattan reveals itself to be top-to-bottom corrupt, unbelievably so. And, yes, that movie is coming 3/1/19. Maybe playwright David Mamet can save it.

Two fine literary authors are in the movie mix: Alice McDermott for The Ninth Hour and Jennifer Egan for Manhattan Beach. About this book, Alexandra Schwartz writes that, to Egan, 9/11 felt “like the end of something—the United States’ sense of itself as king of the world” and the new book, set in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s, was a backwards look to “what was the beginning of that something.” My book group loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man called Ove, which I didn’t have a chance to read (or see on film), and now a television series is planned for his book, Beartown.

All in all, some tantalizing screen-time coming up.

*****His Bloody Project

Scottish Policeman - 1882

Original photo, c. 1882 by Peter Swanson, reproduced by Dave Conner, creative commons

By Graeme Macrae Burnet, narrated by Antony Ferguson. This remarkable faux “true-crime” thriller was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and an immersive, inventive fable it is. The conceit is that the author, in researching his family history, uncovers a 17-year-old relative named Roderick Macrae, who in 1869 stood trial in Inverness, Scotland, in a notorious triple murder case. In trying to get to the bottom of this episode, the author has assembled a variety of original documents. He presents this evidence, and the reader must weigh it along with the court.

After some prefatory remarks, the story picks up steam in the longest section of the book, a confession written by Roddy himself. Opinion at the time, the author notes, held it was entirely unlikely that a barely educated crofter, living in desperately reduced circumstances, could write such a literate account of himself and his life.

Roddy freely admits he committed the murders. The nub of the case is whether he was in his right mind when doing so and whether the then rather new insanity defense is appropriate. His victims were Lachlan Mackenzie, the autocratic and vindictive constable of the area, who seems, for various reasons and an inherent meanness, intent on breaking apart the Macrae family; Mackenzie’s 15-year-old daughter Flora, whom Roddy has gone walking with a few times and hopes to romance; and Mackenzie’s three-year-old son Danny.

In describing life in the tiny, poverty-struck village of Culduie, Roddy’s memoir recounts a great many petty tyrannies visited on the family by Mackenzie, which might (or might not) be sufficient motivation for murder. Since Roddy’s mother died in childbirth, the Macrae family has lurched through life, bathed in grief and laid low by privation. From Roddy’s confession as well as other testimony, readers gain a detailed picture of daily life and the knife-edge on which survival depends. Fans of strong courtroom dramas will relish the way the courtroom scenes in the book both reveal and conceal.

The audiobook was narrated by Antony Ferguson. He gives sufficient variety to the speech of the characters to make them both easily identifiable and compelling individuals, from the engaging Roddy to the condescending psychiatrist and prison doctor, whom author Burnet based on the real-life J Bruce Thomson, to the ostensibly straightforward journalistic accounts.

The format of this book makes it unusual in crime fiction. It is a more literary version of the dossier approach used by Dennis Wheatley, in such classics as Murder Off Miami and The Malinsay Massacre, which our family loved to read and solve.

*****The Sellout

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.

Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.

Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.

At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.

His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.

We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.

However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.

The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.

It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”

I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.

Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.

****The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Thailand-Burma Death Railway, Pacific Theater

Hellfire Pass (photo: David Diliff, creative commons license, CC BY SA 2.5)

By Richard Flanagan, read by David Atlas – This epic tale from a Tasmanian author won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It centers on the life of Dorrigo Evans, a young surgeon, before, during, and after World War II, when he eventually becomes regarded as an Australian war hero.

A notorious womanizer in later life, Dorrigo can never recapture his early passion for Amy, the young wife of his uncle, and their lost love. Their affair was cut short when he received his orders to ship out and he had no chance to say good-bye to her then, or ever, because of two lies.

During the war, his unit is captured by the Japanese. Its members are forced, despite illness, injury, starvation, and dangerously impossible conditions to work on a railway “for the Emperor,” the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. An estimated 112,000 Asian forced laborers and Allied prisoners of war died during its construction. If you’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, you have an inkling. Flanagan’s own father was a survivor of the Death Railway and died the day Richard told him this novel was finally finished. “He trusted me not to get his story wrong,” Flanagan has said.

Because Dorrigo is a surgeon and an officer, the Japanese don’t require him to work on the construction, but he is plenty busy managing the desperately ill and dying men in his care.

After the war, the narrative takes a detour to tell us the fate of several characters from the camp—its head man, Major Nakamura; the reviled Korean contract guard the prisoners called the Goanna; and a group of ex-prisoners who have an alcohol-fueled rendezvous in memory of one of their fallen.

The climactic (or climatic, given its meteorological link) section of the book involves Dorrigo’s attempts to rescue his wife and children from the devastating fires overtaking a large swath of Tasmania near the capital of Hobart, another real-life event that took place in 1967.

Even though the book is described as “a love story unfolding over half a century,” I thought Flanagan’s best, most moving writing involved the prisoner of war camp. His detailed portrayals of several of the men, especially one named Darky Gardiner, are vivid and compelling. The author did a service in trying to explain the inexplicable when he also probed the character of the camp overlords.

Americans generally know less about World War II’s Pacific Theater than events in Europe, though it was no less horrifying. Some readers may be turned off by the violence of the book, but it’s a war story as well as a romance, and war is not romantic. Stick with it, and you’ll have an indelible picture of the suffering inflicted and endured. Atlas’s narration is straightforward and true.

The book’s title—a metaphor for the railway itself—comes from a famous book by Japanese poet Bashō, which Flanagan’s character Colonel Kota (a beheading expert) says “sums up in one book the genius of the Japanese spirit.” Flanagan explained in an excellent interview in The Telegraph, “I wanted to use what was most beautiful and extraordinary in their culture in writing a book about what was most terrible, because I thought that might liberate me from judgment. And it did help me.”

Wolf Halls

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

A lot of Wolf Hall for one weekend–the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, and on Sunday, the first episode of the BBC’s 6-part television version. Author Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and part II of her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (on stage later this spring), edited and reportedly likes both rather similar versions.

Having enjoyed these books, I felt well prepared for their intricate power politics, not to mention the confusing English naming conventions, in which the Duke of Norfolk is sometimes called “Norfolk” and sometimes by his given name, Thomas Howard (all anyone needs to know is that in any Henry VIII story, Norfolk is never a good guy). But the theater audience was on the ball, got the jokes, followed the plot, and enjoyed the show terrifically. I know I did. Of course, Mantel’s narratives (combined, almost 950 pages) were stripped down for both stage and tv, yet the essentials powerfully remained.

On stage, the leads were Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn). Miles’s Cromwell comes on slowly, but strongly. After his mentor Cardinal Wolsey is exiled, he finds a place at Henry’s court by following the advice “Stand in his light until he can’t help but notice you.” But Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, and the nobility never let him forget it.

He makes himself indispensable at every turn, particularly when it comes to the King’s Great Matter: having his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he is free to marry Anne Boleyn—partly out of lust and partly in the quest for a male heir. Here’s where the politics get dicey. England and Catherine are Catholic, and the Pope won’t agree to ending the marriage. Henry’s rupture with Rome over this issue led to formation of the Church of England, with him at its head. The split occurred in the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation, supported by Anne. For some, this was heresy, and heretics risked burning.

Catherine won’t agree to an annulment, in large part because it would make her daughter Mary a bastard. Anne presses for her daughter Elizabeth to head the line of succession. Eventually, Henry tires of Anne’s badgering and . . . oh, wait. That’s Bring Up the Bodies, coming to theaters later this spring and to tv later in the series.

Meanwhile, in the television version, accomplished actor Mark Rylance is Cromwell, skinny Damian Lewis, wearing a hugely padded costume, is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn. In only an hour, the seeds of the controversy are laid, and we haven’t heard much from Catherine, Henry, and Anne yet. Rylance, too, is a taciturn Cromwell, though you have the impression he misses nothing.

In the theatrical version, the costumes are lush, but the set was beyond minimal, no time for shifting setting in the fast-paced scene-changes. Yet I didn’t feel deprived. This minimalism allowed the drama to dominate. Switching to the tv version, it’s obvious how much time is spent walking from room to room and place to place when sets are involved. Both versions: time well spent.

Looking for Something Good to Read?


(photo: Nico Cavallotto, Creative Commons)

The stack of books I’m excited to read in 2015 is already pretty high, and to make room, sorted the books of 2014—keep, donate, donate, keep, keep. Handling them again and in writing last week’s post on the 11 very best, I couldn’t help thinking how many more really good ones there were! All 22 **** books of the past year.

Mysteries & Thrillers

  • Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook – originally I gave this 3 stars, but when I couldn’t stop thinking about it, slapped on a fourth
  • The Golden Hour by Todd Moss—believable political thriller, awesome first novel
  • Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin—an always-satisfying outing with Edinburgh’s Inspector John Rebus
  • Mystery Girl by David Gordon—a wacky Hollywood tale with oddball characters and LOL dialog
  • The Cottoncrest Curse by Michael H. Rubin—I met Rubin, so bought his book about late-1800s murders on a Louisiana plantation. So glad I did!
  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger—won all the big mystery world prizes in 2013
  • Spycraft by Robert Wallace, H. Keith Melton, and Henry Robert Schlesinger—non-fiction, describing the technologies of espionage (and avoiding recent scandals entirely)
  • The Reversal by Michael Connelly—Harry Bosch AND Mickey Haller
  • The Cold, Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty—really makes his Belfast-during-the-Troubles setting work for him

Other Fiction

 Biography, History, Politics

Great Places

  • The White Rock by Hugh Thomson—adventurers still discovering lost Inca outposts
  • The Danube by Nick Thorpe—from the Black Sea to the river’s origins in Germany
  • The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich—this sociologist walked more than 6000 miles of NYC streets and talked to everybody

 Stephen King

book, imagination

(Cinzia A. Rizzo, flickr.com, CC license)

Winners’ Circle Too Tight?

Japanese print, road, stream

Flanagan’s book’s title is from a 17th c. Japanese epic poem (photo: wikimedia.org)

The day after the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize longlist was announced last summer, UK publisher Tom Chalmers expressed his doubts. While he noted the importance of book prizes as “an increasingly key route through which to discover and champion the best writers, to elevate and highlight the brilliant above the masses of books now being published every year,” they too often fall short, he thinks, by making safe choices.

Still, he pointed to a couple of happy exceptions: the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Award that went to The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and the Bailey’s Women Prize for Fiction that went to A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.

Unfortunately, this year’s Man Booker longlist caused him to make “a quick check of the calendar to confirm I was still in 2014. In fact, in this Millennium.” Last year’s Man Booker prize was the 826-page doorstop The Luminaries, by Elizabeth Catton, while the big U.S. prize, the Pulitzer, went to Donna Tartt’s 784-page The Goldfinch, an award promptly subjected to rampant second-guessing (though not as much as the consternation in the U.S. literary world in 2012, when the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded no fiction prize at all). I read and liked both of these Big Books, anomalous as they are in a world where 350 pages seems the upper limit on publishers’ risk-taking.

As for the Booker, Chalmers doesn’t object to the new addition of U.S. authors to the pool of potential longlistees—though some of the prize-winning authors do, feeling people from smaller Commonwealth nations will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Americans. Case in point: The 2014 winner, Richard Flanagan, is from Tasmania, which most Americans couldn’t find on a map. He won with a book about World War II, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, based on his father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war. (Flanagan dedicated the book to his father, who died the day he was told the book was finally finished.)

Chalmers does object to the rules change that allows automatic entries for previous winners. And he notes the selection committee’s neglect of independent publishers. These factors shift the prize toward the familiar, the safe, when it should be “discovering and highlighting the most exciting, dynamic and talented writing.” I want the winnowing role played by awards judges to help me find the best-written books. It will be disappointing if it becomes just an insiders’ club.

**** The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton –  Narrated by Mark Meadows – 29 hours, 14 minutes — When will I learn I can read faster than I can listen? This book was an interesting choice for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, as its style is so “unmodern” and seemingly born of the era it describes: the 1866 New Zealand gold fields. Catton expertly weaves together the stories of a half-dozen principal characters and at least a dozen more half-principal (or half-principled) ones trying to unravel the mystery behind a series of local events–a disappearance, a possible attempted suicide, and the death of a drunkard with a fortune in gold hidden in his cabin. At first the story is a deliberate muddle, but as the seemingly disconnected actions of this multitude of characters is brought to light, the reader assembles a gigantic, delightful literary jigsaw. Mark Meadows does an amazing job developing a unique voice for each character and delivering the reading with pizazz. But it’s a lot to keep track of. Much as I admire his reading, I recommend the print version. (1/25)

Books of 2013

2013 – PRINT

**** Glimmer Train – Winter 2014 – Ten short stories, an interview with author Ben Marcus, and one in the series of “Silenced Voices.” The editors start this issue by noting research on the good effects that reading literary fiction has on the brain. Self-serving, ok, but believable! An interesting thought from the interviewer about Marcus’s book The Flame Alphabet: “(In) Protestant evangelicalism, at least in the United States, . . . the emphasis is on literal interpretation. In contrast, with Hebrew, the literal interpretation of a word is considered the lowest form of interpretation.” Ans.: “And isn’t the idea of faith, really, that you have to put aside your rationality? . . . I think the rabbi is almost going one step further and saying, ‘If you even think you are understanding this, you are on the wrong track.'”

**** House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski A book whose form is almost as complicated as its content. Full review here.

*** A Twist of Orchids – Michelle Wan – I’m surprised the review Amazon quotes calls this book “electrifying.” It was anything but. A sweet mystery with hardly any menace. If I were more interested in the characters, I might have turned the pages faster. One of the “Death in the Dordogne” mysteries and a nice sense of place.

**** The Shadow Girls – Henning Mankell – Quite a departure from his Kurt Wallander detective series, and a clever framing for what in less skilled hands would be a lecture on the perfidy of Sweden’s (and all developed countries’) restrictive immigration laws. The main character, acclaimed poet Jesper Humlin, is surrounded by people who talk past him and involve him in frustrating and funny conversations that go nowhere. Serendipitously, he meets a trio of young women–two of whom are in the country illegally and the third who lives in a repressive immigrant household–all of whom want to learn to write, to make themselves visible through documenting their stories. He decides to help them and learns about a Sweden he barely knew exists.

**** Black Swan Green – David Mitchell – If you ever needed to understand the psychology of bullying, it’s all here in Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical first-person story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor–secret poet, indifferent athlete, and creative genius at avoiding the words that might, on any given day, trigger his stammer. The boys in school are rough on each other and the girls are learning how to be. I’m sorry that odd Madame Crommelynck didn’t stay on the scene longer. A tutorial on British teen slang in the early 1980’s, a voice I thought I’d tire of, but instead became attached to.

** The Spy’s Bedside Book – Graham Greene & Hugh Greene (brothers) – More vacation reading and very light. Mostly brief excerpts from pre-1960 spy novels and real-life spy chronicles. They share a kind of innocence about that trade that we lost after 1963, when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared and destroyed any remaining illusions about the glamor of a trade plied in labyrinths of betrayal.

** Dracula: Prince of Many Faces – Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally – While this book, written by two Boston College history professors, has positive reviews on Amazon, I can recommend it only for those with very strong stomachs. It’s a well researched story of the 15th century Romanian leader who ruled Wallachia–not Transylvania, as the Bram Stoker novel would have it. I read it in preparation for a recent visit to Romania (including the medieval castle where the real Dracula was imprisoned for many years), but half-way through decided I knew enough. Too much, in fact.

*** Glimmer Train – Fall 2012 – Yes, I’m a year behind. Short stories in this issue contain lots of fire and ice and, as always, include several by award-winning writers. “Finis,” by Alexi Zentner, begins conventionally, but then the page split into two columns as alternative scenarios play out (did he leave her, passed out on her bed, or did he turn his truck around and go back to spend the night?). There are four of these two-column interruptions, and one of each pair of alternatives would bring the story to an end at that point. Also liked “Sure Gravity” by Jennifer Tomscha.

**** Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor – In 1934, when he was 19, British travel writer Fermor was in the midst of a walking tour across Europe. This book describes the second stage of that journey, in a Hungary and Transylvania that are now lost to history, war, and, at last, modernization. His appreciation of the countryside and its people of all classes makes him welcome wherever he goes (on a £1 per day allowance!), and he at times sleeps outdoors and at times in the grand kastély of people to whom others he’s met have provided introductions. A little slow-moving, as a walking tour should be. If you want to feel you’ve been there, this works. The book would have benefited from a couple of maps!

*** A Traitor to Memory – Elizabeth George – This 700+ page psychological mystery in the Inspector Lynley series has much going for it: strong recurring characters, interesting minor characters, complex plot, and excellent writing (more about George’s strong sense of dialog here). But rather too many rehashes of the potential murder suspects–and too much memory-groping by the main non-detective character, violinist Gideon Davies. Took a while to realize (my fault) that the interspersed entries from the diary Gideon keeps for his psychiatrist began at an earlier time and moved forward somewhat behind the main detective story. They cover several months, whereas the main plot resolves in a few days. As a result, “who knew what when” became difficult to track. Admirably risky plot device. Liked the ambiguous ending, too.

**** Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives – Lauren B. Davis – Of all the ways a character’s relationships with other people and with the world can go wrong, most of them are represented here. Davis’s collection of short stories is an exploration of voices, characters, and human dilemmas that have serious staying power. By turns funny, appalling, and illuminating, like life.

*** The Vintage Caper – Peter Mayle – A frothy adventure about French wineries and wine collectors, taking place mostly in Marseille. No real chills here, so it won’t satisfy readers who like a little blood on the table. Mayle, as always is pleasant and fun and knows his terroir.

**** Glimmer Train Winter 2009 – This issue wasn’t quite the downer of the Spring 2013 issue, reviewed earlier this year. Several nice stories about friendship over time, a funny story about two pairs of sisters, and only one about terminal illness. One or two I’m still puzzling over. So many talented short story writers out there!

*** Hell to Pay – George P. Pelecanos. Nobody writes about the gritty side of Washington, D.C., like George Pelecanos. A lifelong Washingtonian, he sees the city’s scandalous power imbalances clearly and, in this novel, any political glamor is so far removed from the lives of young black residents, Congress and the Administration might as well be on another planet altogether. Easy to see why Pelecanos was one of the go-to writers for The Wire. It’s a straight detective novel, with a hefty dose of violence that may be too much for some readers, great dialog, and a strong and likeable main character.

*** The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd. Picked this up at the library book sale, since I knew it had good press when it came out a decade ago. It’s a sweet fantasy, set in South Carolina in 1964, and while I found the story superficially engaging, it too soon lapsed into feel-good stereotypes. Oh, if only there were such perfect homes as the Boatwright sisters provided to runaway Lily Owens. I’m not surprised Hollywood picked it up. The best part was the voice of the protagonist and narrator, Lily. Kidd nailed that nicely: “She stared at the bee and shook her head. ‘If you get stung, don’t come whining to me,’ she said, ’cause I ain’t gonna care.’ That was a lie.”

**** A Darkness More Than Night – Michael Connelly. You know you’re in the hands of a master detective novelist from the first page. No cheap tricks. The crisp plot is more complicated than you think. You care about the protagonists. The outcome is important. Not Connelly’s most recent–it’s from 2001–but still a fun read.

**** The Potomac Runs Through It – Tom Gore. This memoir was a fun read for me, because I know some of the principals. I could easily envision them engaged in all the rituals and shenanigans that a group of guys who’ve known each other for years would get up to on weekends of serious fishing interrupted by misadventure. The joy of true camaraderie comes through on every page. Nicely written, well drawn characters. A simple pleasure, just like the events it recounts. Gore’s dry humor kept me smiling. An example: “one unnamed member suggested we supplement our refreshment choices with boxes of supermarket wines–vintages of Thursday–but we said no, the cheaper stuff is just fine.”

***** The Empty Room – Lauren B. Davis. Living in the head of a serious alcoholic is exhausting, even for a day! Lauren Davis takes us inside in this tour de force, alternating the pain of Colleen Kerrigan’s current “worst-day-of-her-life” with flashbacks to the stumbles and fractured relationships that got her where she is. Did you ever look at someone who drinks too much and think, How can she do that? You find out. Along with pain are flashes of intelligent humor and personal insight that give hope those flickers, if nurtured, can lead to a better result than what addiction–and the pretty fairies in the bottle–have in store for her. A wonderful book, and anyone with alcoholics in the family will find greater understanding and validation here.

**** White Teeth – Zadie Smith. Her amazing first novel, published in 2000. Truly enjoyed her On Beauty, too. She has a remarkable ability to capture the rhythms of her characters’ speech–the Indian and Jamaican and Arab immigrants and a repellent family of touchy-feely Brits whom I can hear talking, right off the page. The book is a tribute to unlikely friendship and a lament about all we do not understand and cannot control within our own families and, thus, speaks to everyone. It’s full of ripe language and bursting with perfect similes: “Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.” Beautiful job.

**** Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? – Marion Meade. Oh, my. While we think of the Algonquin Round Table and its witty, literate crowd in a glittering, fantasy Gatsby  light, this book is a cold dose of reality. While there was wit, these legendary personalities floated on a river of booze. And drowned. Dorothy worked hard on her writing, in spurts, but overall was a model of financial and interpersonal irresponsibility. This detailed biography is an enormous accomplishment, inasmuch as she left no personal papers, unless (which appears more than a possibility), they were destroyed by her literary executor, Lillian Hellman. The book is a fully drawn picture of an era–several eras, in fact–from Prohibition through the Army-McCarthy hearings and the blacklists of the 1950’s. The characters around her including the likes of Harold Ross, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and so many others, most of whom died well before their time.

*** A Noble Radiance by Donna Leon. This book is one of Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries, which are set in Venice. While ethical erosion in the Italian judicial system (for anyone needing to be reminded) and sensationalism in the news media, against both of which which Brunetti strives for truth, make an amusing background to her books, the foreground in this book was not all that interesting. Brunetti deserves wilier adversaries of more inherent interest and psychological complexity. A beach read.

*** The Survivor – Gregg Hurwitz. Hurwitz really knows how to accelerate the roller-coaster of suspense. One challenge for thriller writers must be to constantly up the ante with new, more horrifying threats. While this was a page-turning read, it had a few too many implausibilities built up around the grisly actions of the Russian mobsters chasing our hero, a man with a troubled past (any other kind?), in need of repairing his family relations (of course), and, to boot, an incipient case of ALS, which saps his physical abilities at all the wrong moments (naturally).

***** Victoria’s Daughters – Jerrold M. Packard. For full review see 6/2/13 blog post. My only quibble: throwing in a few more dates would help.

*** The Thing about Thugs – Tabish Khair. A multi-narrator, multi-layered story of a series of grisly beheadings in 19th century London that embroils phrenologists, Indian lascars, underground Mole people (maybe), a self-promoting journalist, a passel of drunk Irishmen, and a baffled police detective in trying to find the perpetrators. It also jumps back and forth in time. I became confused. A “the lady or the tiger” ending wasn’t very satisfactory, either. But some beautiful writing, like this: “With dawn now limning the horizon, the dark masts of ships seem to stand solitary and mute, aspiring to heaven but failing to reach it; the riggings are spread like empty nets.” And a few lines later, “At that instant, the morning or the wind passes a thin blade across the belly of the clouds to the east and sunlight spills out like blood.” Nice.

*** Glimmer Train Spring 2013. A premier literary journal, to which I’ve subscribed from near its 1990 inception. This quarter’s nine stories dealt with: a son’s substance abuse and his father’s death; painful divorce; adult children who abuse drugs to deal with a father’s neglect (also the death and dismemberment for burial of a horse and stillborn colt); death of an adult son (I quite liked this one); miscarriage; a paraplegic’s pilgrimage to the site of his musician hero’s suicide; unrootedness; how-to guide for Israeli immigrants to New York (eerily reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box“); woman picking her Powerball numbers whose husband is dying and whose sons were 1) in prison, 2) dead, and 3) fled with the neighbor’s pregnant wife. Great line from this last one: “As Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, Poverty abhors an empty bedroom.”

***** Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver. Her 2012 book was dinged for being too polemical (the issue is global warming), but I found it complex and beautifully written, and if the characters were waxing on about their concerns, they did so in character. The protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is caught between two world views: the mind-opening perspective of a scientist who comes to her small Tennessee sheep farm to study an unusual biological phenomenon, and that of her family and community, who resist the notion of climate change on religious grounds. Granted, the latter viewpoint is not presented as persuasively (at least to me) as the former, but focusing the hopes and dreams of everyone involved one the fate of an errant swarm of monarch butterflies was a brilliant conception that allowed KIngsolver to tell many small personal stories, as well as one giant one affecting all humanity.

*** The Lullaby of Polish Girls – Dagmara Dominczyk. This new coming-of-age novel reveals the essential rudderlessness of three young women from Kielce, Poland. Two spend at least part of their lives in the United States, but are drawn back to Kielce, and each other. Much in the book is handled well, though more depth would be desirable, and I felt by the end I was develop a smokers’ cough.

** Assassin’s Code – Jonathan Maberry. This book has 2.5 more stars from Amazon reviewers than I gave it. A thriller involving nukes, Iranian oil fields, Muslim-Christian conflicts dating to the Crusades, and, alas, the Upierczi. That’s Russian for vampires. I met the author and know his books are way popular, and, reading the glowing reviews, wanted to give it a chance. It’s a good, fast-paced thriller that would have been better without the fangs. They didn’t make it scarier, just harder to believe in. Oh, and I forgot the Sabbatarians (vampire-hunting adepts born on a Saturday), who must have cornered the Iranian market in garlic. Vampires, zombies, werewolves? Reality is plenty scary enough.

*** The Wrong Man – David Ellis. Not to be confused with the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock/Henry Fonda flick, this thriller is strong on legal strategy and details–Ellis is a lawyer–but weak on character development. And I knew that woman was a wrong number from her first appearance. A few plot “huhs?” as well.

****Contagious: Why Things Catch On – Jonah Berger. I’m not a big fan of the breezy, self-help writing style. But there’s good information here, not as engaging as Malcolm Gladwell, but useful nonetheless for everyone who is promoting something (that’s pretty much all of us!). I blogged about this one.

***The White Queen – Philippa Gregory. Elizabeth Woodville (who, if my family’s spurious genealogy were actually correct, would be one of my ancestors), wife of England’s Edward IV, and mother of the two little princes murdered at the behest of their uncle, Richard III, narrates her own story. On the strength of her beauty, she rose from commoner to Queen, caught up in the endless battles between Edward (House of York), the Lancastrians, and his own brothers. Too much “witches and spells” for my taste; the reality of her increasingly precarious situation was drama enough. Long on plot–rather, plots–ordinary writing, and only the narrator is a well developed character.

**** Fifth Chinese Daughter – Jade Snow Wong. First published in 1945, this charming autobiography of a Chinese-American girl growing up in San Francisco is a model of simplicity in the writing, as well as a rounded picture of the many adaptations her family makes to living in America and in changing times. Not deeply emotional, but fittingly so.

***** Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn. This was on many top-of-2012 mystery/first novel/you-name-it “best-of” lists, and it is great!  Two manipulative people in a boa constrictor – jaguar deathmatch. I thought the last bit lost steam, but a tour-de-force of character development. Well worth the time.

***Autopsy – Milton Helpern with Bernard Knight. This memoir of Milton Helpern, “The World’s Greatest Medical Detective” isn’t for the faint-hearted. Helpern worked in New York City’s medical examiner’s office for more than 40 years and was its chief from 1954 to 1973. Although technology may have changed, what remains fascinating–and invaluable to crime writers–is the philosophy he used in tackling many of the era’s most challenging homicide cases.

***** The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Colorful profile of Paris around the turn of the 20th Century, in particular the demimonde, the artists, the gangsters, and the anarchists who kept the pot boiling. And, trying to keep the lid on, the Sureté, with its accelerating use of scientific methods of detection and criminal identification. Full review here.

*** The Fault in Our Stars – John Green. Young adult fiction with great reviews. I’d hoped to like it better. About a young cancer patient dealing with her disease, her parents, and her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend. Plot predictable and, in some developments, unbelievable.

***** Telegraph Avenue  – Michael Chabon. Fanciful, beautiful writing. Complicated, vivid characters. About so much–a failing vintage record store, a too-outspoken midwife, relationships between parents and sons.

**** Swamplandia! – Karen Russell. Nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer. Wonderful writing, but sometimes stumbles. Fascinating plot about a family living on the edge of the world, running an Everglades theme park, and the mutability of reality.

**** The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco. Characteristically dense and convoluted. About a 19th c. forger and spy and “split personality” who ends up creating a fictional screed against the Jews, which we recognize as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Church, the Masons, the Jesuits. They’re all there.

2013 Audio (links are to audio versions)

***** The Dinner – Herman Koch (read by Clive Mantle). The cover design of this book sums it up. A “nice dinner out” turns into an emotional conflagration, when two brothers–one a rising politician, one an inactivated teacher–and their wives meet one evening at a trendy restaurant. Talk about an unreliable narrator! Not Clive Mantle, who wields his voice like a butcher knife when expressing the contempt the story’s first-person narrator feels for his more successful sibling. He is so sly and witty as he punctures the absurd pretensions typical of today’s upscale restaurants that the reader (me!) is totally on his side, until . . . a snowball of doubt creeps in, and starts rolling down the mountainside. Wonderful!

**** The Professor of Truth – James Robertson (read by Cameron Stewart). Superb narration of this fascinating book, a fictional interpretation of the plane crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, and one husband’s relentless 20-year effort to find those responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter. It’s a beautifully written mystery tale, a story of self-discovery, and a search in a cavern of secrets with a penlight. What is most important is what Alan Teiling finally finds out about himself, some 20 years on, and what it is to let your life be absorbed in pursuit of the unknowable, however high-minded the quest. Semi-based on real characters, and the perils of reinterpreting a controversial reality are explored here.

** One Fearful Yellow Eye – John D. MacDonald (narrated by Robert Petkoff). I didn’t remember reading any of the legendary Travis McGee novels, and bought this one on sale. Published in 1966 it was a real walk back through time. And not a very pleasant one. The women characters were treated like bimbos or diabolical schemers. At least MacDonald (through first-person narrator McGee) acknowledged that the idea of a manly man, like McGee, using his lovemaking expertise to thaw the Ice Maiden, was a bit of a ridiculous cliche, but then, he used it! Twice!! Also, a deus ex machina of eye-rolling proportions. Curiosity satisfied.

**** Spilled Blood – Brian Freeman (narrated by Joe Barrett). Winner of the International Thriller Writers’ best book of the year, it shows you can write a thriller without over-the-top viciousness (though there is some, of course) or making the stakes unbelievably stratospheric. Two towns and a growing animosity between them, as the industry in one town slowly poisons the children of the other. Or not. Nice reading, too.

***** Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (narrated by Oliver Wyman). A finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, I can’t recommend this book too highly. For a war novel, there’s almost no war in it, remarkably; it’s about the victory tour given to the young members of Bravo squad who performed a particularly brave Iraq action fortuitously (or not, depending) caught by Fox News cameras. The culmination of their stateside tour and most of the action of the book takes place at the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium. There, the disconnect between what they know and have seen and the flatulent patriotism of everyday Americans approaches–and probably surpasses–irreconcilability. Karl Marlantes (author of the unforgettable Vietnam novel, Matterhorn) calls it “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal parts and oh, so well written. If you don’t appreciate irony, you won’t like it. And narrator Oliver Wyman–whom I at first thought I didn’t like–is a genius.

**** Live by Night – Dennis Lehane (narrated by Jim Frangione). This book won the 2013 Edgar award for Best Novel, and Ben Affleck is making his next movie out of it. The story takes place in Boston, Tampa (Ybor City), and Havana mostly during the Prohibition Era. While the logistics of managing a criminal enterprise were interesting, the times when things were going well for protagonist Joe Coughlin are too idealized. Not convincing. It’s the bad guys against the badder guys, and while I rooted for Joe in tough situations, did I really care? And his means of escape from one really tight spot (cement overshoes) was so obvious even I saw it coming.

**** The Increment – David Ignatius (narrated by Dick Hill). There’s one too-thinly explained “huh?” in this book, although the situation is interesting–a scientist working in Iran’s secret nuclear program begins an outreach to the CIA, and while the Administration is all for going in, guns blazing, our hero–CIA Agent Harry Pappas–is desperate to wait and see what the data the U.S. is being sent really mean.

**** Broken Harbor – Tana French (narrated by Stephen Hogan). Broken Harbor tells the story of the investigation of a triple homicide–dad, 2 kids (mum survives)–that at first appears to be an inside job, then the work of a man who’s been spying on them from the empty house next door. When he’s arrested, unfortunately, we were only a few hours into a 20-hour audio book, so you know it won’t hold. Too much navel-gazing by the first-person narrator, Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy. Great depiction of his mentally unbalanced sister. The two principal characters–Kennedy and the family survivor–suffer from the same perfectionist ethos, and you see where this is going way ahead of time. Judicious editing, and a lot of it, would have made a better book.

**** The Expats – Chris Pavone (narrated expertly by Iranian-American film & TV actor Mozhan Marno). This top-ranked debut thriller of 2012 was a fun listen. Engaging plot as hero Kate Moore discovers more secrets about her husband’s activities than she herself is hiding. The twists at the end keep coming, requiring the reader to keep reevaluating all that has gone before. Just when you think you’ve got it . . . This book received good reviews and had a lot of publisher promotion. Interesting the Amazon reviews are rather middling.

**** The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin. A witty, fast-paced mystery featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen, who solves a murder in 24 hours with the help of a menagerie of scholars, students, and bumblers. Published in 1946, the book’s madcap tone evokes a prewar innocence that never was. Fun, and my grandma could read it.

**** What It Is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes. This nonfiction book explores the physical, mental, and primarily spiritual demands that War makes on young soldiers. And for which they are not prepared. Marlantes used many of the illustrative episodes from the Vietnam War in this book as the touchstone for his wonderful novel, Matterhorn. He also compares that experience to what today’s veterans face. This is a thought-provoking book, a little redundant at times. It bears rereading to grasp the entirety of his message.

**** The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers. A 2012 “Best Book” by an Iraq War veteran, among the first good books to come out of that conflict. The war scenes–ennui punctuated by terror–are well written, but don’t break new ground. The depiction and impact of PTSD, however, is excellent. Important reading.

**** The Case of the Missing ServantTarquin Hall. Part of a series of what might be called Indian-cozy mysteries. No grim violence. Amusing, charming, evocative of the subcontinent, and beautifully narrated.

**** The Black Echo – Michael Connelly. His first novel (1992), introducing Detective Harry Bosch (and one of his three novels with Black in the title). He’s not a full strength yet, but Connelly always delivers a good read. The title refers to the Vietnam War’s “tunnel rats.”