***Selection Day

Mumbai, cricket

photo: David Brossard, creative commons license

By Aravind Adiga, narrated by Sartaj Garewal – Adiga’s 2017 novel purports to be about two brothers, growing up in a Mumbai slum, under the obsessive protection of their cricket-crazy father—a helicopter parent with a swinging cricket bat for a rotor blade. Adiga’s debut novel The White Tiger was such a witty, penetrating exploration of economics and capitalism and how they affect the average person (and a winner of the Man Booker Prize) that I eagerly awaited this one. If he can make economics entertaining, cricket should be a snap, right?

To read the book, it thankfully isn’t necessary to understand cricket’s impenetrable mysteries. The novel is in essence a coming-of-age story, a story of when to hold on to parental values and when to abandon them, of the choices that come the boys’ way and what they do with them, and the intrusions of fate.

There are some wonderful characters: the boys Radha Kumar and his principal rival in cricket and in life, his younger brother Manju, their clueless dad—the lowly chutney salesman Mohan—and the local cricket talent scout Tommy Sir, among many others. Years of effort are guiding the boys’ efforts to “selection day,” when just a couple of up-and-coming 17-year-olds will be chosen to play for Bombay Cricket. That one day will make the boys’ future or break their father’s heart. Possibly both.

One of the best aspects of the book is the relationship between the boys. Said Carmela Ciuraru in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Adiga superbly captures the intimacy between the two brothers, as they bicker, tease and protect each other” and as Manju struggles with his sexuality. Also entertaining were the cricket officials’ efforts to keep the father away from the playing fields. Anyone who’s been especially close to a brother or who’s observed the obsessive parents at their children’s sporting events can identify with the dilemmas of this striving family. Again, says Ciuraru, Adiga’s take is “both satirical and affectionate as he shows how the sport is less a means of lifting gifted kids out of poverty than reinforcing boundaries of privilege in rather ruthless ways.”

The book begins three years before the Selection Day in which Radha will participate and a short concluding section takes place eleven years later. As a tremendous fan of audio books, I was quite disappointed in the narration by Sartaj Garewal and believe it is at least partly responsible for my not becoming fully engaged with this book. Read a print version.

*****Blue Light Yokohama

Tokyo - Rainbow Bridge

photo: mytokyoguide.wordpress.com, used with permission

By Nicolás Obregón – What an entertaining debut! Told almost exclusively from the perspective of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Inspector Kosuke Iwata, it’s a multilayered police procedural involving murder, official corruption, and dangerous secrets.

A brief prologue set in 1996 describes the death of a woman who jumped from a dangling cable car into the sea, despite the efforts of police detective Hideo Akashi to save her. Fifteen years later, Akashi is investigating the quadruple murder of a Korean family. In the midst of his investigation, he commits suicide by jumping off Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge (pictured above). No one knows why. This theme of falling pervades the novel and ties together many of its strands, past and present.

The brass at the police department asks their newest detective, U.S.-trained (and therefore highly suspect) Iwata to pick up Akashi’s investigation of the family’s murder. Iwata is aided by Assistant Inspector Sakai, transferred from the Missing Persons department to work with him. These two inexperienced homicide detectives are assigned such a complex investigation because the department is short-handed, having lost Akashi, and is focused instead on another of his cases, the mysterious death of high-profile actress. A little racism creeps in, as well; as Iwata’s supervisor explains, “The family were Korean, so not exactly front-page news.”

Iwata and Sakai manage to get along rather well, considering. He is haunted by memories of his childhood in an orphanage, and she is a feisty young woman whose reflexive prickliness provides a lively counterpoint of humor. (I loved her!)

Iwata and Sakai haven’t made much progress in their investigation when the lonely widow of a judge is murdered. Striking details at the crime scene are similar to the Korean family’s case. Though Iwata and Sakai energetically pursue multiple lines of inquiry, they cannot begin to figure out what links these deaths until he starts breaking rules.

The author, who has lived in Japan, not only evocatively describes the physical and social settings of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong, he also carefully explores Iwata’s complex interior life and motivations. The atmosphere he creates is dense with possibilities and a bit dreamlike.  This is in part because a dozen or so mysteriously poetic lines repeatedly float through the detective’s mind: “The lights of the city are so pretty”; “I walk and walk, swaying, like a small boat in your arms.” You don’t learn the origin of these lines until well along—a song that is the source of the book’s title (hear it here).

But Obregón is a more subtle writer than that, and the title also echoes other blue lights. A local suicide prevention program uses them, based on the supposition that the color blue is calming. The flashing blue lights of police cars, another recurrent Obregón image, would belie that assumption. Blue Light Yokohama is an immersive police procedural that uses its exotic setting and distinctive characters to great effect.

****The Expatriates

Hong Kong - aotaro

photo: aotaro, creative commons license

By Janice Y.K. Lee – In December I read Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, only to realize her second book was the January selection of my book club. I now feel quite immersed in the fascinating multicultural community of Hong Kong. This book, which takes place in the current era, is told from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong for indefinite periods.

Mercy is a young, single Korean-American graduate of Columbia University who can’t seem to get started in a career or a relationship. This would be no surprise to the Korean fortune-tellers back in Flushing who threw a pall over her future when they said her life would be muddled and full of bad luck. Margaret is a happily married mother of three on whom terrible tragedy falls. And Hilary, who has a husband and gobs of family money but lacks the one thing she thinks would make her happiest—a child of her own. In the hothouse, insulated community of Hong Kong that Lee describes, the three women’s stories inevitably intertwine.

“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. . . . They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”

For the women, Hong Kong is a revelation. Everyone has help—the near-invisible Chinese maids and cooks and nannies and drivers. The married ones have come for their husband’s job and left their own careers, if they had them, mostly behind. Freedom from whole categories of daily routine enables a different, more demanding social life. Luncheons, the club. And a fixation on motherhood. Lee is a beautiful writer and an expert observer of people, creating many moments that are funny as well as painful.

Each of the women finds herself in key situations that probably never would have existed stateside. And how that will eventually play out is in her own hands. While I never did understand Mercy’s inability or unwillingness to get hold of her future—she’s like the smooth side of velcro—and while New York Times reviewer Maggie Pouncey complains that too much of Margaret’s suffering occurs off-stage, the book was nevertheless an absorbing read. Perhaps we’re observing the characters more with a weak pair of binoculars than a magnifying glass, but we see a lot of the landscape that shapes their actions.

****Love & Treasure


photo: kansaikate, creative commons license

By Ayelet Waldman – This lovely novel opens with a prologue set in 2013, involving elderly Jack Wiseman and his granddaughter Natalie. Her new husband has abandoned her, and she’s just quit her Manhattan attorney’s job to come stay with Jack in Red Hook, Maine, and her beloved grandfather is dying. It’s questionable which of them needs more tender care.

Searching a drawer, Jack runs across a worn black pouch containing a jeweled peacock dangling on a chain. “Whose was it?” Natalie asks, her curiosity aroused. “Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know.” He charges her with the near-impossible task of returning it to its rightful owner, which will require unraveling its history.

The book then reveals how the pendant came into Jack’s hands at the close of World War II. It had been one item among thousands and thousands on the Hungarian Gold Train, a 42-car freight train the Germans were using to remove valuables—most of them looted from Hungarian Jews—to Berlin. The train was seized by French troops and finally came under U.S. military control and the contents warehoused in Salzburg, Austria. (The U.S. government kept most details about the Hungarian Gold Train secret for 50 years.)

Items were pilfered from the horde by thieves and the soldiers guarding it; U.S. military commanders used the warehouse as a department store for outfitting their quarters with fine china, silverware, crystal, furniture, and oriental rugs. Jack, in charge of the loot, had to comply with his superiors’ orders and was constantly frustrated at his inability to protect and preserve these treasures, much less return them to their rightful owners. His responsibilities as a soldier and as a Jew are at war within him.

Waldman writes compellingly about Jack’s situation and the treatment of the Displaced Persons flooding Salzburg, many of whom were concentration camp survivors. He meets one, a Hungarian with flame-red hair, Ilona Jakab, and falls in love. Jack keeps the peacock pendant in her memory, but never loses the feeling that taking it was dishonorable.

In her quest to fulfill her grandfather’s charge to find the pendant’s rightful present-day owner, Natalie travels to Budapest and finds much more than she expects. That section of the book is a treasure hunt, a mystery story, and a romance.

The last major section of the book dips back in time to 1913. It’s narrated by a libidinous psychiatrist charged with “treating” Nina S., an early suffragist who wears the pendant, and whom he rapidly concludes is quite sane, just at odds with her repressive father.

Natalie, Ilona, and Nina are interesting, compelling characters in challenging situations. Waldman doesn’t tell a good story once, but three times. Descriptions are vivid, characters’ motivations heartfelt, and conversations witty and spirited. Occasionally, she may be a little heavy-handed, and occasionally a verbal anachronism or clunky love scene sneaks in, but overall, the stories have strong narrative power. I don’t quite understand all the carping about this book in the mainstream media—each reviewer seeming to fixate on some different issue. I found it not only an exploration of conflicting loyalties, identity, and the struggle to be honorable, but also a fascinating historical mystery.

Love & Treasure is certainly timely, given recent renewed attention to the issue of Nazi plunder. The peacock pendant, silent witness to the pain and abuse of history, is the treasure in Waldman’s story, but love is the constant.

*****Black Wings Has My Angel


(photo: pixelblume, creative commons license)

By Elliott Chaze – A 2016 reissue, this noir crime novel by a Mississippi newspaperman, originally published in 1954, is a roller-coaster of a read—lightning fast and a lot of fun. At the outset, an escaped prisoner using the name Tim Sunblade has just finished a stint working on an oil drilling rig.

To rid himself of four months of grime, he takes a nice long bath at a cheap hotel. The comforts of the bath put him in mind of having a little female companionship, and with the bellman’s aid he meets Virginia. They turn out to be quite a team. His plan is to head west (isn’t that the classic American criminal’s destination—the wide open spaces?). Virginia’s look and demeanor suggest she’s not just a hotel tramp, and eventually he learns she’s on the lam herself, fleeing the New York City cops.

The book is full of sly dialog. When Tim discovers her call-girl past, Virginia tells him she used to “go with” various Army officers, who were always talking about “the big picture.” “Do I make it clear, Tim? About what is the big picture?” she asks. “You make it clear that your wartime activities were not on the enlisted level.”

Virginia is accustomed to rolling in dough, literally, and more than a bit money-mad, so she encourages Tim’s plan to rob an armored car in Denver and dispose of it in an abandoned mine shaft they’ve found in the Rockies. Flush with their cash, they hit the road again until a drive through a small town turns out to be a big mistake.

It’s a first-person narrative, and Chaze has captured the voice of Sunblade terrifically well. A bit bemused by life’s twists and turns, but resigned to them. Loving and hating Virginia in fairly equal amounts and never quite trusting her. Too much whiskey and too many cigarettes.

In the introduction to this reissue. Barry Gifford calls Black Wings a gem that still sparkles, and though author Chaze wrote several other novels, none of them stack up to it. A New Orleans native, Chaze worked for the Associated Press, served in the Second World War, then settled in Mississippi. He lived a time in Denver as well, which is perhaps why the book’s locations are so well drawn.

He working in various capacities for The Hattiesburg American, for a decade as its city editor. His newspaper training shows in the economy and precision of his prose, and even when events are dire, the narrator’s detached view allows his wry humor to surface. Though Sunblade doesn’t often dwell on Life’s Larger Questions, I was struck by this observation: “Life is a rental proposition with no lease.” That’s exactly the kind of thing Tim Sunblade would say.

I don’t give very many books five stars, but in this one, every word is perfect. A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

***Naked Shall I Return

Cliff House fire, San Francisco

(photo: Ed Blerman, creative commons license)

By Christopher Bartley – Noir mysteries set in the 1930s are delicious. Noir mysteries set in the 1930s in San Francisco’s Chinatown are as tasty as a platter of Peking duck. In this complex novel, protagonist and career criminal Ross Duncan is launched on a mysterious quest. An an elusive couple wants him to locate a thing—they’ve never seen it and can’t really describe it—called the Blue Orb, which legend says holds the key to immortality.

Whether Duncan believes this or not is immaterial. The couple also agrees to help him fence a load of stolen jewels that will bankroll him for a good long while and for that reason alone, he’s game. He encounters a succession of interesting characters—opium den impresarios, antiques experts, people whose legends precede them—whose help he might be able to use in locating the Blue Orb. Too bad they keep being murdered before they can provide much assistance.

This book has shady characters galore, a beautiful dame out to bed Duncan, and a plot with more twists and turns than a Chinese Dragon. As it happens, he keeps meeting people connected to Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House who were present when it was destroyed in the famous 1907 fire. That the Blue Orb was smuggled out of tunnels under Cliff House on that fateful day is just one theory about its fate that Duncan must run to ground.

I wouldn’t have heard about this entertaining book if it weren’t for a review on the Crime Fiction Lover website—a great source for tips about the latest thriller, mystery, and crime novels, author interviews, and the like. Some of my reviews appear there too.

***Madame Bovary: Provincial Ways

Madame Bovary

(graphic: wikimedia)

I’m envious of the women in my book group who are native French speakers and able to read Gustave Flaubert’s classic in its original language. I read the 2010 English translation by noted American short story writer and essayist Lydia Davis, one of the 19 produced since the book’s 1856 publication. Her intent, she has said, was “to do what I think hasn’t been done, which is to create a well-written translation that’s also very close, very faithful to the French.” Here is a Julian Barnes essay comparing notable translations, including Davis’s, across the generations. If you want to read Madame Bovary, I suggest at least skimming Barnes’s essay to  find a translation suited to your reading preferences.

The novel is a period piece, set in a particular, rather dreary locale, and not all periods and settings wear as well in terms of interest over 160 years. When Madame Bovary was published, the government said the novel was a danger to morality and religion and put Flaubert and his publisher on trial, though they were acquitted. However, in general, “provincial French woman has affairs with doltish men” is no longer a riveting or scandalous storyline, and “spends more than she should” is the modern way of life. Likewise, the beliefs and foibles Flaubert pokes fun at (conventional and bourgeois views, including religion, chief among them) are of varying relevance today. In an Introduction Davis quotes Nabokov’s view that, in Madame Bovary, “the ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined,” and it is those sly revelations about society and how people move in it, rather than plot, that give the modern reader the greatest satisfaction.

Reader tastes have changed not just with regard to content, but regarding style, too, and a book about that same period written today would be very different from Flaubert’s approach. One consequence of what now seems a rather disordered style is that Madame’s character never quite came into focus for me. She is motivated by the ill-considered whims of a moment, a pliant object for the men around her, and rarely self-actuated until of course the end. It turns out, as Barnes notes in his essay, that translator Davis doesn’t actually much like her, or the book. Interesting.

As an exemplar of realist fiction, Madame Bovary was a path breaking book. Unlike most novels that came before, it didn’t romanticize (in the literary sense) or try to draw moral lessons—the lessons were clear from the book’s events and their consequences. Flaubert’s intention was to make the novel not just not “romantic,” but anti-romantic, in that Madame’s susceptibility to and pursuit of romanticism and shallow gratification are what cause her downfall. Occasionally, thought, the authorial voice does make a judgment in the nature of a delicious truism, for example: (about the lovers) “She was as weary of him as he was tired of her. Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”

Translator Davis in an introduction says this novel’s “radical nature is paradoxically difficult for us to see: its approach is familiar to us for the very reason that Madame Bovary permanently changed the way novels were written thereafter.”

****On the Road with Del and Louise

Route 66, highway, Arizona

(photo: wikimedia.org)

By Art Taylor– Is it OK to say a book by a male author is “charming”? Regardless of possible gender-bias, this book is. Del and Louise are a couple brought together by crime. They met when Del was robbing the 7-11 in Eagle Nest, New Mexico, where Louise worked. They stay together during a succession of American-style self-reinventions aimed at getting a “fresh start,” reinventions that invariably wind up in one shady enterprise or another, and they ultimately . . . well, read the book and find out.

Taylor is an award-winning short story writer, and the individual chapters of this picaresque could stand alone. In fact, the first two chapters have done so, in past issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I first read and admired his work. His stories have won numerous Derringer, Agatha, and Macavity awards and are frequently anthologized.

What’s especially fun about On the Road is how well Taylor develops the two principal characters. Del wants to do right, to get straight, but it just isn’t happening, and Louise isn’t above a little larceny herself, if it promotes the couple’s welfare. Del’s intelligence is complemented by Louise’s cleverness in a pinch, and Del’s planning skills by Louise’s gut instincts. Together, they are a “doing the best they can” pair and their story is filled with humor and insight into human failings. The people they meet along the way have plenty of those, as they do themselves.

Their adventures are recounted by Louise in a straightforward and wry narrative voice that includes plenty of insight into her own shortcomings. Although the text is relatively unembellished, Taylor allows himself some spot-on literary flourishes (for instance, when he describes an early morning near Taos as “the sun creeping up, the boil not yet on the day”) and comic bits: “If that first winery we went to was upper crust, the bar in Napa was sure the bottom of the pie.”

Their travels take them from New Mexico to Victorville and Napa Valley, California, then to a comically disastrous scene in a Las Vegas wedding chapel (do I even need to say “cheesy”?). A stint in the North Dakota oil fields proves financially rewarding and emotionally bankrupting. There, Louise learns anew that “The reasons you do things don’t always make up for the doing of them.” Finally they reach North Carolina, Louise’s home state, and her acerbic mother Cora. Her relentless belittling and undermining of Del are priceless, as if all the wicked thrusts and jabs of a lifetime must be desperately delivered in one short visit.

Taylor has created an enjoyable tale and some nerve-wracking adventures without the need for a gruesome body count or far-fetched end-of-the-word-as-we-know-it scenarios. Because the story is so grounded in imperfect humanity and told so convincingly, we share Del and Louise’s bumpy ride, rooting for them every mile of the way. While their lives will never be trouble-free, the reader senses they will always be good.

A longer version of this review appeared on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

Home State Advantage

Indian women, saris

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

For so many reasons, New Jersey is the home state to some great fiction. The stories of the immigrants who settled here, hard by New York and Philadelphia, and their descendants (Tony Soprano!) make an interesting stew of cultures, habits, and personalities. Early immigrants created distinctive Irish, Italian, Hungarian, and Polish communities, and immigration hasn’t stopped. The state’s new settlers come from Central America, from China and South Asia, from Russia and the Middle East. These different cultures rubbing up against each other create the spark for fiction and the promise of individual reinvention.

Food for storytelling can come from the scandal and corruption in high places and low, from city halls to the offices of New Jersey congressmen (the movie American Hustle). The huge contrasts in wealth between the urban core of predominantly black and poor cities, like Newark, Camden, and Trenton and the multi-ethnic, but whiter towns and suburbs create sharp fault lines and slippages that can crush the people caught between (The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, non-fiction).

Atlantic City, Boardwalk, hot dog stand

(photo: Chris Goldberg, creative commons license)

Then there’s our setting. New Jersey has the shore, with all the beauty and hucksterism thereunto—Atlantic City, the boardwalk, Asbury Park—and a big dose of beach nostalgia, like Burt Lancaster’s classic movie line, “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days” (Atlantic City). Out-of-staters familiar with the industrial concentration surrounding the New Jersey turnpike near Newark Airport snicker at the nickname “The Garden State,” but it is that, too—rural farms, horses, the lonely Pine Barrens, the Delaware Water Gap.

It’s a state packed full of contrasts. No wonder Tobias Carroll’s entertaining Literary Field Guide to New Jersey for Oysterbooks contains so many riches. Or, as the article’s subhead has it, “Sometimes the best way to understand New Jersey is to make stuff up.” Here are four Jersey tomatoes Carroll picked:

  • Richard Price’s books, especially Clockers, reportedly his best and in my to-read stack, about the fictional town of Dempsey (Newark and Jersey City) and the unending urban war on drugs: “Price pressure-cooks the city down to its dense, searing essentials” said The Village Voice.
  • Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, about a family that relocated from Delhi to central New Jersey—possibly right around the corner from me—“a note-perfect evocation of life in the middle of the state,” Carroll says. Born in Delhi, Sharma grew up in Edison, New Jersey.
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a coming-of-age novel set in a small town in the northern part of the state. Born in the Dominican Republic, Díaz grew up in Parlin, New Jersey.
  • New Jersey Noir – a collection of short stories about crime set in New Jersey by various authors and edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

The state has nurtured fiction writers as diverse as Judy Blume (Elizabeth, N.J.), Philip Roth (Newark), Ntozake Shange (Trenton), Joyce Carol Oates (Princeton), William Carlos Williams (Rutherford), Janet Evanovich (South River), Chang-Rae Lee (Princeton), George R. R. Martin (Bayonne), and Lauren B. Davis (Princeton). They and hundreds of others grew up in, live and teach in, and have written about The Garden State in all its kaleidoscopic variety.

Novelist as Theater Director

theater, stage

(photo: wikimedia)

A thrilling weekend in Williamstown and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a group of serious theater lovers—four plays in three days and rich presentations in-between. Unexpectedly, one of these presentations—a detailed review of the steps of play production—mirrored many of the challenges an author faces in preparing a work of fiction. Let me explain.

Once a theater company decides to produce a particular play its first step is to hire a director who will create the theatrical production. The director {the “author,” in this analogy and here you have to bear with me} helps build the creative team and find the cast {characters}, blocks the play and decides who does what when {plot}, and guides the aesthetic process of the production {editing}.

A large creative design team is needed to help put the play together. These designers take on various tasks, in keeping with the director’s vision for the play and what this specific production is to convey. While of course a director starts with a script, just as an author begins with a more or less firm idea, the way a play emerges in its staging is unique to each production. Literary critics have decided there are only about a half-dozen basic plots, which suggests much of what differentiates the tens of thousands of novels published each year results from loosely analogous attention to the same creative elements a play director must consider.

In theater, set design establishes the physical world of the play; costumes, makeup, and props help define characters. In novels, authors must use description of the scene, and the appearance and clothing of the characters for exactly the same purpose. Lighting and sound design help create a play’s mood and tell the audience “where to look,” just as authors establish mood and focus attention—or, in the case of a mysteries, misdirect it—on key information. Dialect coaches make sure the words come out the way a character of a given era, nationality, and class would say them, and on the page, dialog has to ring true, too.

Choreographers and fight directors design the more complex or risky stage action. Stage-fights have to be both safe and realistic. (Realistic is easy, we were told, safe is hard.) Fiction has similar problems. A battle between two people or a hundred has to seem dangerous—even when it involves a continuing character who we know will survive to appear in the next book. At the same time, heroes must escape in a plausible way. They can’t get off too easily. A recent thriller I read had a confusing scene near the end, in which it wasn’t clear which shooters were inside their cars, in the street, along the wall, or wherever. I couldn’t visualize it, even after three re-reads. In my writing group, we call this a problem in choreography.

While the theater director has a whole team to take care of these essential component parts, the novelist works solo.

In casting a play, a director thinks about the skills and personalities of potential actors, and whether they can fill their roles. The author likewise must decide what type of person to create for the role they will play in the novel. How much can people such as those they describe believably stretch when facing the demands the plot places on them? How are other characters likely to react to them? At the same time, they must avoid creating stereotypes and “stock characters,” who would move through the novel like cardboard cutouts.

The whole process of rehearsing a play—from the initial read-through, to the blocking, through final rehearsals—echoes the editing process. Plays aren’t rehearsed just once; it takes time and myriad adjustments and refinements for all the creative parts to mesh together. Similarly, thinking of a novel draft as similar to a theater production, it’s easy to see the kinds of editing an author must do: tuning up all aspects of design/description, focus, realism, choreography, and character development to best serve the ultimate product—that best-selling, award-winning novel taking shape in the theater of the author’s mind.