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