Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Lost Cityby David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann (Doubleday, 2009) would be a perfect gift for any dad on Father’s Day. Or for anyone, male or female, who enjoys a bit of history, a bit of mystery, and a lot of (true) adventure. Although reading it doesn’t provide quite the same adrenaline rush as say, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm, it definitely deserves a place next to them on any bookshelf. Certainly, fans of those two books won’t be disappointed with Grann’s tale.

The author, a staff writer at The New Yorker, combines first rate reporting skills, an engaging style, and an adventurous spirit to tell the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett, his 21 year old son, and his son’s best friend disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while looking for remnants of the fabled once flourishing and wealthy City of Z. Before that final, fateful expedition, Fawcett had made six successful, groundbreaking, and health destroying treks through the deepest jungles of the Amazon, all in pursuit of geographical knowledge. But he was determined not to give up his dream of finding that tantalizing lost City of Z. As Grann pores over maps and diaries and visits Fawcett relatives, he decides to retrace Fawcett’s last journey through the “green hell” of the Amazon and see what he can find out for himself. He does so, accompanied by his samba dancer guide, and despite the fact that he’s unable to read a map, is likely to get lost in his home borough of Brooklyn, has bad eyesight, and has never been what you would call an outdoorsy sort of guy.

One of the reasons I like books like this is that you tend to pick up a lot of tangential information as you’re reading along. Following Grann following Fawcett, we learn about the founding of Britain’s Royal Geographic Society, the great explorers of the 19th century, the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World on Fawcett, and of the many dangerous and frequently deadly insects, fish, and parasites that would seemingly put anyone in their right mind off a trip into the great rainforest of the Amazon. Luckily for those of us who take our adventures vicariously, it didn’t deter either Fawcett or Grann. 


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A Most Wanted Man

Most Wanted

by John Le Carré

I don’t do a lot of rereading these days (time is short and the world of new books that I want to read is large), but an author whose books I find myself returning to time and again is John Le Carré. My absolute favorite is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I also love The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener, Smiley’s PeopleA Perfect Spy; really pretty much all his novels except The Honourable Schoolboy, which I remember as being so unbearably sad that I’ve never been able to bring myself to pick it up again. I reread Le Carré so often because I appreciate and share his jaundiced view of human motives (especially when it comes to the machinations of governments), and enjoy watching how that all plays out within the intricate plots he dreams up. From his early novels on, he’s made no effort to hide his skepticism and disapproval regarding many of the sub rosa activities carried out by Her Majesty’s spy service, Britain’s MI6, nor his frequent unhappiness about MI6’s relationship with its American cousins (that would be our CIA.) Bush administration supporters be forewarned: in this book, like his last one, Le Carré makes no secret of the fact that he despises what America’s government has been up to in its effort to deal with the threat of international terrorism in the post 9/11 world.

In A Most Wanted Man (Scribner, 2008), Le Carré plays with a convention that Alfred Hitchcock also favored — that of the innocent man caught up in events that will either make him or break him. Issa, an illegal Muslim immigrant, half–Russian, half–Chechen, arrives in Hamburg, Germany, stating that his only desire is to become a doctor so he can return to Chechnya and practice medicine among those who need him most. His world collides with Tommy Brue’s when Annabel, a young, idealistic, and very attractive German civil rights lawyer who is working to prevent Issa’s deportation by the German government, discovers that Issa has evidence linking his own father, a former Soviet general, with Tommy’s father, who began Brue Freres, a private British bank now located in Hamburg. Soon the representatives of various national spy services begin to gather. Is Issa who he says he is, or is he part of a terrorist plot to wreak havoc and rain death on western countries? The Germans, nervous about young Muslim illegals, want him off their soil as quickly as possible. They’re especially sensitive about the fact that he’s come to Hamburg, since many of the terrorists involved in 9/11 lived and planned their terrorist activities in that city. The British government wants to use Issa for its own ends, while the Americans know in their heart of hearts he’s lying from the word go. The novel, like all of Le Carré’s oeuvre, is both suspenseful and cynical. I found that I dreaded turning every page because I was afraid of what was going to happen to Tommy, Annabel, and Issa, but I couldn’t stop reading it.

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Little Bee

Little Beeby Chris Cleave

When Sarah O’Rourke, the editor of a Vogue–ish monthly in Britain, takes her husband on a junket to a Nigerian resort in what she knows will likely be a futile attempt to save her marriage (futile because she’s not all that keen to save it), they become forever and fatally linked to the lives of two African sisters. We’re pretty far into the novel before we learn what actually occurred that day on what was supposed to have been a bucolic beach. In fact, we first meet Little Bee, the youngest of the sisters, two years after the events on the beach, when she’s uneasily residing at a detention center in England. She is spooked by the past and, fearful of every encounter, always planning various ways to kill herself, should “the men” ever come near her again. The events in Nigeria, how and why Little Bee and Sarah reconnect in England, and what follows their reunion, form the basis of Little Bee (Simon & Schuster, 2009), an unforgettable novel by Chris Cleave.

Cleave’s writing is breathtaking and the story will, quite simply, break your heart. He moves readers effortlessly between the points of view of both women, so that we come to understand both Little Bee’s and Sarah’s thoughts, as well as the various actions they are forced by choice and circumstance to take. Cleave’s decision to make Sarah not always either totally admirable or even entirely likeable (although her actions on that beach in Nigeria seem to me to be honorable), goes a long way toward making her much more three-dimensional and real than many fictional characters seem to be. Because of the solid characterizations, the dynamite ending, and the particulars of the plot, Little Bee is an excellent choice for book groups.

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Narrow Dog to Indian River

Narrow Dogby Terry Darlington

I was laughing pretty much all the time I was reading Terry Darlington’s delightful Narrow Dog to Indian River (Delta, 2009). Despite their ages (70s) and the fact that it had never been done before, Terry and his wife Monica leave their home in Stone, England to take their narrowboat, “Phyllis May” (named for Terry’s mother, who, though many years dead, sometimes reappears in odd places), on the 1,150 mile Intercoastal Waterway from Virginia down to the Gulf of Mexico, accompanied by their whippet, Jim. A narrowboat, as I learned, is also known as a canal boat; it’s six feet, ten inches wide (Jim, the whippet, is about six inches wide) and 60 feet long, with a top speed of 6.2 miles per hour. It’s perfect for cruising the canals of Europe, but perhaps not so great for the open water that the Darlingtons will encounter on their journey. Nonetheless, the trio set out, encountering — as Terry relates in hilarious vignettes — ice storms, high seas, piranhas, chiggers, the southern phenomena of sweet tea, grits, good ‘ole boys and their families and lots of that hospitality the region is known for (despite Jim’s behavior at Christmas, which I’m still chuckling about). While I don’t think I’m brave enough to ever reproduce the trip the Darlingtons made, reading this made me think about ( a) getting a whippet and, (b) taking a narrowboat trip through the canals in England.

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Revelationby C.J. Sansom

Every fiction writer not only has to bring the setting of his work to life, but must convince the reader that the story and characters make sense for that time and place. For writers who choose to write about the distant past, this usually requires a great deal of research, in order to ensure that both the plot and dialogue are believable in the context of that time period, as well as to avoid any anachronisms. (You can’t have an 18th century murderer being found guilty by a jury as a result of DNA testing, to give a blatant example.) Revelation (Viking, 2009), C. J. Sansom’s fourth novel featuring Matthew Shardlake, is a model for aspiring historical novelists and an enormous pleasure for historical fiction readers. Set during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, Sansom uses the beliefs and events of the time to create an exciting (and occasionally gruesome) mystery. Court politics and serial murder both come within Shardlake’s purview in Revelation.

The year is 1543, and King Henry VIII, desperately in love with the widowed Catherine Parr, is hoping to make her his sixth wife. While the machinations of a royal courtship – and one with deep consequences for the religious life of England – proceed, a particularly vicious killer, who is taking his cues from the biblical Book of Revelation, sets off on his murderous path, with his first victim being one of Matthew’s closest friends, a fellow lawyer. At the same time, Matthew is representing the interests of a young man whose religious fervor has gotten him locked up in Bedlam, and whose release might mean that he’s burned at the stake by the conservatives fighting for domination of the Church of England. When I finished this mystery, I felt that I knew enough about 16th century London not only to be able to find my way around that rapidly growing city, but that I qualified for an advanced degree in Tudor history. I’m in awe of Sansom’s talents as an historical novelist. This is the first of the Shardlake novels that I’ve read, but Samsom includes enough of his main character’s backstory in this volume so as to make that not a problem. I was, however, left with enough curiosity that I’ve put the three earlier books in the series on reserve at the library and am eagerly waiting for them to arrive.

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Whatever Makes You Happy

Whateverby William Sutcliffe

Is there any phrase, when spoken by a parent to a child, more potentially ambiguous than “whatever makes you happy?” It could be taken as a straightforward expression of the wish for your happiness. And isn’t that a sentiment that we all want from our parents? But it could also have a subtext: “Of course, I only want for you whatever makes you happy, but I know better than you what that is, so if you’d just do what I want, you’ll be happy. I’m sure of it.” That latter sentiment (thinly veiled as the former) is the metaphorical engine driving the entertaining plot of William Sutcliffe’s Whatever Makes You Happy (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Carol, Helen and Gillian, who have been friends since their sons were babes in arms, share similar frustrations with their now 34–year–old offspring. These stalwart young men are not only not married (and, therefore, offer no prospect of grandchildren), but they seldom bother to call, not even for the de rigueur holidays, like Mother’s Day. They’re not interested in sharing their experiences, and since leaving home, not one has ever expressed any interest whatsoever in a nice long visit from their mothers. So the three moms decide to take matters into their own hands: each one, with no advance warning, will drop in on her son for a week’s stay, or at least until she’s finally come to understand her son’s choices and decisions. Naturally, the unexpected arrival and protracted visit of their mothers means there are radical changes ahead for Paul, Matt and Daniel. Both mothers and sons, and even fathers and daughters, will enjoy this often hilarious tale (there’s a wonderful scene at a cocktail party that I still chuckle over), in which Sutcliffe reaffirms the central place that mothers and sons have in each other’s lives.

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Tinkersby Paul Harding

Sometimes good things really do arrive in small packages. That’s certainly the case with Paul Harding’s first novel Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009). At only a very brief 192 pages, it still packs an emotional punch that books of three times its length often lack. It’s a novel that you’ll want to savor for its stunning yet economical use of language, for its descriptions of nature, of illness and health, and for its profound understanding of humanity’s deepest needs and desires for family and home. I found reading it to be an incredibly moving experience, yet Harding is in such control of his material that it never devolves into mushiness or becomes maudlin.

George Washington Crosby has spent his entire adult life tinkering with and repairing the most intricate of clocks. Now, lying close to death in his own home, surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren, George’s thoughts drift between the present and the past. He thinks back to his chaotic childhood as the eldest child of a traveling salesman whose success in life was severely limited by his epilepsy. He muses on his mother, a woman worn down by her fate as the wife of a failure, and he reconsiders his own life as a man, a husband, and a father. If I could choose two chapters to read aloud – and this book begs to be read aloud – one would be the account of George’s father’s strange, once–a–year meeting with a hermit residing deep in the woods, and the other would be the description of how to build a nest. Together, it seems to me, they encapsulate Harding’s worldview.

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