Comfortable Ambiguity

pond

photo: Jill111, creative commons license

Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:

In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!

If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.

But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.

As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.

Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.

***Animal Instinct: Human Zoo

Elephant - Sam Felder

photo: Sam Felder, creative commons license

By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.

Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.

The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.

Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”

Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.

The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.

Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.

****Yesterday’s News

Ace Atkins, motorcycle

(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)

By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.

In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.

Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.

The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.

Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.

This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.

Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.

*****Paper Ghosts

photographer

photo: Chris Dorward, creative commons license

Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.

Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.

The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.

Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.

Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.

Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.

Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.

This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.

This is the third missing-sister book I’ve read recently, all strong. The others were Jenny Quintana’s The Missing Girl and Chris Whitaker’s All the Wicked Girls.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob

cell phone camera

photo: rocksee, creative commons license

By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.

She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.

Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.

Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.

The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”

But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.

From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.

Walter Mosley’s Advice for Author Readings

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter MosleyWalter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”

He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”

Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.

Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”

He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.

Check out more of his wisdom in this recent interview.

Good Health, Good Luck, Good Reading

Beer

photo: Phil King, creative commons license

Here are a few of my favorite books by Irish writers. Grab one of these books and pour yourself something tarry. Sláinte!

Literature

    • Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the Man Booker Prize for its recounting of the life of a 10-year-old Dublin boy whose family is on the eve of destruction.
    • The Gathering by Anne Enright, another Booker prize-winner “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping” says The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading last year under auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.
    • The Year of the French is a wonderful historical tale (part of a trilogy) by American writer Thomas Flanagan. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Don’t know who Wolf Tone was? Read this and you will.
    • The International by Glenn Patterson, another writer who has appeared in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.
    • You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

Crime/Thrillers

  • Tana French is an American who’s lived in Dublin for nearly thirty years. In her books about the Dublin Murder Squad, she has created what might be termed an ensemble production, as each department member takes a turn in the leading role. Of these, I’ve read Broken Harbor, featuring Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy.
  • The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville won the LA Times Book Prize for its depiction of an IRA assassin unable to come to terms with his past. Edge-of-your seat.
  • Adrian McKinty writes about crime in his native Belfast amidst the Troubles. His detective, Sean Duffy, is a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The Cold, Cold Ground is first in the series. The 2017 entry—which I would want to read based on the title alone—is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly. I recommend the audio versions for the super narration by Gerard Doyle.


Finally, to quote another notable Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Any of these is worth more than one pass!

****The Missing Girl

junk shop

photo: anyjazz65, creative commons license

Written by Jenny Quintana – In this debut psychological thriller, narrator Anna Flores returns to England after her mother’s death to do what needs to be done—quickly—before returning to her life she’s made in sunny Greece. The gloom and wet of approaching winter practically seep into her bones, and making her escape turns out to be much more difficult than she hopes. And, like all villages (at least in mysteries!), Anna’s childhood home has its dark secrets.

She finds herself burdened by the house and all its memory-filled contents, the divestiture of her father’s second-hand shop, the House of Flores, the encounters with friends and neighbors from her youth.  Though she has been away for three decades, the house, the shop, the people remind her incessantly about the one thing she will not find: her sister Gabriella.

Anna was 12 and her sister 15 in the autumn of 1982 when Gabriella disappeared without a trace. The chapters alternate between the current day and the year Gabriella went missing. You don’t learn much about the decades in between; it’s as if Anna’s life went on pause when she lost her sister.

Anna’s mother, who had been a so-so manager of the shop after her husband’s death, has inexplicably contracted to do a house clearance for Lemon Tree Cottage, a dwelling with painful memories for Anna. In part out of guilt over abandoning her mother for so long, she resolves, with some reluctance, to finish up this last job for her.

Quintana gets the psychology of the piece just right: the dynamic between the two girls, Anna’s adoration of her sister and obsession with finding her, the differing relationships the girls have with their parents, the grief that haunts them after Gabriella disappears, and the lengths Anna will go to in order to deny the possibility Gabriella is dead. The voice of the youthful Anna and the 40-year-old Anna are handled believably.

Long after the police gave up the search, little Anna persisted. One focus of her ill-conceived investigations was Lemon Tree Cottage and its mysterious occupants. Now, decades later, she has a chance to go through every scrap of belongings from the cottage, and she is drawn back into her researches, knowing and expecting she will find nothing.

Quintana has a smooth, absorbing writing style that carries you deeper and deeper into the complicated past of the Flores family. Instead of graphic violence, she chooses to explore the long tail of evil.

***Know Me Now

Scottish Highlands

Scottish Highlands photo by Paul Wordingham, creative commons license

By CJ Carver – This is the third in a crime thriller series featuring former MI5 operative Dan Forrester and Yorkshire-area Detective Constable Lucy Davies. It takes place in the Scottish highlands, where, as a youth, Dan spent his summer vacations. His father and three university friends reunited there each year, and their four children, all approximately the same age, grew up together.

The children now have well-established careers of their own. Gustav created a clinic in Isterberg, Germany; Christopher took up genetic engineering of superstrains of rice and has a lab near Duncaid; audacious former-tomboy Sophie does something for the government in London; and Dan joined MI5. Although this rundown suggests a large number of core characters, Carver does a good job of making them distinct enough to avoid confusion.

Though Christopher and his wife are having a rough patch, their situation grows tragically worse when their thirteen-year-old son Connor dies, in what the police seem too hasty in labeling a suicide. Dan persuades his friend Lucy to take a few days off and join him in Duncaid to look into the case. Carver does such a good job describing the damp, oppressive, grey highland atmosphere, you may feel compelled to put on a jumper—or two—while you ponder why a doctor’s patients are dying too young.

Then news arrives that Dan’s father has been murdered in Germany. The unlikely coincidence that two family members of this tight-knit group died within days of each other strikes them all. What is the connection? Someone is determined that Dan not discover it, and his probing soon puts himself, his wife, and his newborn son at risk. In light of the very tangible threats, his motivation for continuing to investigate—and some of the other characters’ motivations as well—aren’t as believable as they might be.

Lucy has a form of synesthesia, and in situations of high emotion sees certain colors. She’s a bit of an oddball, trying to hide what she views as dysfunctions in her personality. Dan also has a quirk, in that his memory has gaping holes from his past work with MI5. Although Carver tends to provide a dump of backstory about characters that becomes a drag on the narrative, I wish she’d more fully explored these two interesting mental conditions, which could bear strongly on Lucy and Dan’s ability to do their work, for good or ill.

This entry into the crowded Scottish crime fiction field (Tartan Noir!) employs a straightforward, clear style, and the plot clicks right along. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for literary flourishes and subtext, which the book lacks, and it includes perhaps a few too many coincidences. However, it raises questions about biomedical technology and its possibilities well worth thoughtful consideration.

A Mysterious Affair & the Ur-Story

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Last Saturday the Princeton Arts Council hosted an afternoon conference featuring an impressive gang of mystery and crime writers who ply their trade between New York and Philadelphia. A first of its kind, in my memory at least, it drew around a hundred writers and readers and fans.

Panels talked about writing stories set in a region—does it matter whether you’ve actually been there? Or, when is Google Earth not enough?—and stories where the author can’t have been there, because they’re set in a different historical time—how much research do you really need? Even stories set in the future, in the case of some thrillers—is research even important? Don’t you just make it up?

Audience members asked the burning question: how do people react when the find out you write about murder? And, while this prompted some humorous replies, in fact, most people are fascinated. They often say they would like to write a mystery themselves, though few end up doing it. Panelists encouraged them to. As to how they manage writing, other jobs, families, and so on, panelist Jeff Cohen (who writes as E.J. Copperman) had the best reply: “If you can swing it, it helps to have a wife with a full-time job.”

Guest of Honor S. J. Rozan, a mystery writer with 15 novels, more than 60 short stories, and  multiple awards on her c.v., gave the keynote. She talked about how genre writers—crime (including mystery and thrillers), romance, Westerns, science fiction, and she’d include coming-of-age—are still disparaged as “not literature,” yet remain wildly popular.

Why is that? She said genre writing can be distinguished by having an ur-story, a fundamental story line. Readers (and moviegoers) expect and take comfort in those ur-stories and in their very predictability, and writers violate the established genre conventions at their peril. The ur-story in the romance genre is “love conquers all”; in science fiction, it’s “what it is to be human.” Mysteries and thrillers, despite their uncountable variations, have ur-stories too, she maintains. In mystery, it’s “here’s why this happened”—attractive in a world where so much seems inexplicable—and in thrillers, it’s “is there time?” This last manifests itself in the frequently encountered literal “ticking clock” that thriller protagonists are trying to beat.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell maintained there is a single ur-story underlying all fiction, ancient to 21c. This has led to the “hero’s journey” school of story construction, in which a protagonist is marched through a call to adventure, begins a quest, overcomes trials, brings home the goods, and so on. That fundamental storyline can be detected in Rozan’s more descriptive genre-specific ur-stories. Whatever it is, however it’s aggregated or subdivided, we love hearing and seeing the ur-story over and over in books, on stage, and in the movies.

The event, sponsored by Princeton’s Cloak & Dagger bookstore, was co-hosted by the local chapters of two organizations I belong to: Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime.