Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Caveman’s Valentine

caveman's-valentineby George Dawes Green

Although he went on to write two nicely reviewed novels — The Juror and the recently published Ravens —  I found both of them to be a bit too scary for my taste. But I absolutely loved George Dawes Green’s very first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, published way back in 1994.  (I am so happy it’s back in print from Grand Central Publishing.) It’s a page-turner with wonderfully three-dimensional characters.  Bad things happen, but nothing absolutely too awful to bear. Romulus Ledbetter, the caveman of the title, is a Juilliard-trained classical pianist.  He’s also homeless and a paranoid schizophrenic.  (He would say that he isn’t, technically, homeless, since he lives in a cave in Manhattan’s Linwood Park.)  In the time that isn’t taken up with searching for food in dumpsters, Romulus wages war against the sinister Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, whom Rom believes is beaming down totally dangerous Y rays from the Chrysler Building.  These rays are the direct cause of all the ills facing humankind, and Rom is convinced he must find Stuyvesant and stop him.  He’s diverted from his quest because one Valentine’s Day morning, Romulus discovers a dead body lying in front of his cave. Driven to find the murderer, he must reconnect with the world he’d long ago left behind, including his daughter, a policewoman, all the while coping (or not) with his schizophrenia, his hatred of Stuyvesant, and the “civilized” world.

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He Who Fears the Wolf

He-Who-Fears-the-Wolfby Karin Fossum

One of the welcome trends we’ve been seeing over the last few years is that American publishers (a few of them, anyway) are realizing that American readers may — just may — be interested in novels from other countries, written by foreign authors and offered to us translated into English. Oh, we’ve always had Simenon, of course, and years ago the marvelous Swedish husband and wife writing team, of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series of mysteries about Martin Beck and his team of detectives at the Central Bureau of Investigation in Stockholm, but they’ve been exceptions at best (or, rather, the best of exceptions);  and in the case of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, their books have been out of print for years.  But little by little, the rest of the world is creeping onto library and bookstore shelves, particularly in the mystery sections, especially writers from Scandinavia.  Henning Mankell is probably the first author who fits into this category that comes to mind, but there are many others to be enjoyed by the discerning reader who enjoys dark and moody psychological thrillers, as well as a general lack of sunshine and joy.  One of my favorites is a Norwegian author named Karin Fossum. He Who Fears the Wolf (Harvest Books, 1006) is the second novel to be translated by Felicity David, following  Don’t Look Back, which first introduced policeman Konrad Sejer.  When an elderly woman is found murdered in her secluded house in the Norwegian countryside, the only suspect is a schizophrenic man who has escaped from the local asylum where he’s been incarcerated.  And the only witness to the crime is a disturbed teenage boy, whose hobby is killing crows with his bow and arrow.  As Sejer works his way through the meager clues that are available, his work is complicated by the attitudes of many of the inhabitants of the small town where the killing took place.  Despite that, Sejer comes to believe that the perpetrator of another crime — this one a bank robbery and hostage taking — is also somehow involved in the murder.  Fossum explores not only the psyches of these three wounded souls, but also delves into Sejer’s inner life, revealing a lonely, no-longer-young cop, who is still grieving over the death of his wife.  And if you enjoy this as much as I did, don’t miss Fossum’s newest, The Water’s Edge.

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The Night Inspector

The-Night-Inspectorby Frederick Busch

Frederick Busch’s novel, The Night Inspector (Ballantine, 2000),  isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. (In fact, I fear that Busch himself is known to only a relatively small group of readers; but we’re rabid about loving his books.) The Night Inspector will please fans of historical fiction, those who simply love good writing, and anyone interested in the life and times of Herman Melville, author, of course, of the brilliant short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Moby Dick, and other works. Busch’s novel takes place mainly in Manhattan, just after the end of the War Between the States. The main character, Will Bartholomew, spent his army years as a Union sharpshooter, until the day a bullet from an enemy’s gun horribly disfigured him. Because most of his face was shot away, Bartholomew now wears a papier-mâché mask at all times. Along with Herman Melville, now working as a customs inspector with his writing career apparently at an end, and Jessie, a beautiful Creole prostitute, Bartholomew concocts a plan to rescue a group of black children who are still being held by their owners, despite the abolishment of slavery. Busch has captured in vivid, evocative prose New York of the late 1860s, with its unbridgeable chasms between social classes, its casual cruelties, and its myriad of pleasures and dangers. At the same time, the flashbacks describing Bartholomew’s experiences during the Civil War are graphic enough to give most readers nightmares. (I found it impossible not to visualize them.) Sadly, Frederick Busch died when he was only 65; the literary world lost a great teacher and a productive, imaginative writer. If you’ve never read anything by him, drop everything and start now.  Two of my favorite books of his are Girls and Harry and Catherine, but Don’t Tell Anyone is an amazing collection of short stories. In fact, except for Busch’s Closing Arguments, a novel which freaked me out, I can honestly recommend without reservation everything that he wrote.

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A Tale of Survival and Courage

Skeletons-on-the-ZaharaI’ve been having a lot of fun working on my new book – Book Lust to Go (due out sometime in 2010).  It’ll be filled with armchair travel and adventure books, novels set in foreign countries, all the history they’ll let me shoehorn in — that sort of book. I’m sure you get the picture.  The reading has been heavenly.  One thing I’ve been struck by is how many of the armchair adventure sort feature people who have chosen to go on these risky journeys — Jon Krakauer’s marvelous Into Thin Air comes immediately to mind, of course, as do Bill Bryson, who chose to walk the Appalachian Trail, and Tony Horwitz who set off for Baghdad without a map. But the men described in Dean King’s Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival (Little, Brown, 2005 ended up where they did purely by chance.  In August of 1815, twelve crewmembers (including three officers) from the Connecticut merchant brig Commerce were shipwrecked off the western coast of Africa, enslaved by a Bedouin tribe, and forced to accompany their captors — by foot and by camelback — on a seemingly endless, desperately grueling, and bone-dry trek through the sands of the western Sahara desert (now part of Morocco).  Which of the crew, if any, will survive the unspeakable horrors, misery, and deprivation they face?  And if they do survive, how will they ever make it back across the Atlantic to home and family?  King based his book on two first-person accounts of the hellish experience the men underwent:  The first was called, quite simply, Sufferings in Africa.  It was written by James Riley, the captain of the Commerce, and was originally published in 1817.  The second, written by Archibald Robbins, an “able seaman” aboard the Commerce, appeared in 1818.  From these two works, King has constructed a gripping, page-turning narrative — a tale of survival and courage in the most dire of circumstances.  The fact that as this story was unfolding alongside a parallel story of survival and courage in the face of dire circumstances — the abduction and enslavement in the “New World” of African native men, women, and children — makes King’s book especially ironic.

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The Anthologist

The-Anthologistby Nicholson Baker

I’ve discovered over my years of reading that voice is incredibly important to me – whether the story is told in the voice of an omniscient narrator or in the first person, I simply need to be captivated by the way the story is told in order to get into it and keep reading. For that reason, among several others, Nicholson Baker’s new novel, The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster, 2009), was a delight to read.  It’s the story of Paul Chowder, published (but not to such great acclaim) poet, hired to compile an anthology called Only Rhyme and write the introduction, justifying his belief that rhyme used to hold a primary place in poetry but is now sadly lacking in the work of most modern poets.  The trouble is that he is totally blocked on writing the introduction.  The collateral damage of being unable to write is that his girlfriend, Roz, has left him.  What I loved about Paul is that he loves the poets I do, poets you hardly hear about anymore: Sara Teasdale and Howard Moss, to name two.  And it was just fascinating to read about poetry, about meter and scansion, and the role of rhyme.  My Facebook friend Harvey Freedenberg did a splendid job reviewing the novel for Shelf Awareness – you can read it here: http://news.shelf-awareness.com/ar/theshelf/2009-08-24/book_review_i_the_anthologist_i.html

But don’t stop with the review.  Any poetry lover – whether writer or not – should pick up Baker’s book.

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Two Remarkable Women

Sometimes people’s lives get overlooked when history is remembered and retold.  (And more often than not, these people are often of the female sort.)  Neither of these two women was familiar to me before I encountered their biographies, but I don’t think I’ll forget either of them for a long time.

Gertrude-BellGertrude Bell has been called both the female T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and the woman who invented Iraq.  Both descriptions, as we learn from Georgina Howell’s riveting biography, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations (FSG, 2007), are justified by the facts of this remarkable woman’s life.  Born in 1868 to a wealthy British family, she had a life full of firsts for her gender: she was the first woman to achieve a First in Modern History at Oxford; the first to win a prize from the Royal Geographical Society; and the first female British Intelligence Officer. After graduating from Oxford, she visited Tehran and, much as T.E. Lawrence did, fell in love with the Middle East. She ended up devoting a good portion of her life to understanding its complexities and shaping its future.  She was also an intrepid mountain climber (there’s a pulse-pounding account here of one of her ascents in the Alps); organized the care of the wounded in France during World War I; and somewhat surprisingly, spoke out passionately against women’s suffrage in England. She taught herself to speak and read Arabic and Persian, and in the years leading up to World War I, explored the desert terrain by camel, always accompanied by a devoted group of servants who toted along everything that might be needed by a proper British lady on such a journey, including pistols, a canvas bath, tea sets (one imagines they were Spode or Wedgwood), evening gowns, fur stoles, and Zeiss telescopes to serve as gifts to the tribal leaders she met along the way. Following the War to End All Wars, she drew up, on behalf of the British government, the boundaries of a new country to be carved out of the sands of Mesopotamia, and picked Faisal, son of a tribal chief from Mecca, to be Iraq’s first king.  Howell, who clearly fell in love with her subject while she was researching and writing this book, has given us a compulsively readable and information-packed account of the life of one of the most fascinating women of the last 150 years. I highly recommend it for biography fans, history buffs, or any reader with an interest in the deep background of events playing out in the Middle East today.  

Dancing-to-the-PrecipiceI am so grateful to Caroline Moorehead for writing such a readable, riveting, and informative biography of an incredible woman, who was, before I read this book, entirely unknown to me.  This not-knowing is somewhat surprising, since Lucie’s own memoir has never been out of print, ever since it was published in the 19th century, five decades after her death.  In Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era (Harper, 2009), Moorehead illuminates a tumultuous period in French history, all seen through the life of her subject, who was intelligent, charming, politically astute, and lucky.  That she survived the guillotine during the turbulence of the French Revolution when many of her friends and family did not, certainly attests to the astuteness and the luck.  After you read the book,  you’ll see how apt the other two adjectives are as well.  She was born in 1770; her father, Arthur Dillon, was an upper-class Irishman who came to France with the exiled James II.  When James returned to England, Arthur remained and married one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting (a position Lucie herself would later hold).  At a time when young women were expected to marry advantageously and at the whim of their elders, Lucie chose her own husband, Frédéric, the son of Louis XVI’s Minister of War.  Moorehead’s descriptions of the French court are evocative; at the same time, she depicts the growing discontent among France’s liberal thinkers like Lucie and her immediate family, who wanted to rein in the powers of the king, and turn France into a constitutional monarchy. During the Terror that followed the storming of the Bastille and Robespierre’s reforms, Lucie and her family were forced into hiding and finally made their way to the U.S., settling on a farm near Albany, where Lucie became friends with many of the movers and shakers of the new country, including Alexander Hamilton.  They returned to France, thinking peace and safety were at hand, only to be forced to leave again – this time to London.  They returned home to France when Napoleon first assumed power (Lucie just happened to be related to Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, by marriage).  Among much else, she happened to be in Brussels during what would be Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

I have to say that the facts of Lucie’s life are only a small part of what makes this biography so rich for readers.  There are of course the personal sorrows (many pregnancies ending in miscarriages, births and then early deaths of her children – all but one died before they reached age 30) and the roller coaster-like events that she lived through, all of which would seemingly have laid low many a lesser spirit.  But it’s Lucie herself who carries us through the pages, and Moorehead’s adroit use of Lucie’s own writing to illuminate a time and a place.  French history was never really my thing – I’ve always been much more of an Anglophile – but this biography awakened an interest in me that I never knew was there.  And, in the end, isn’t that what reading is all about?

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