Monthly Archives: November 2009

You’ll Never Know

Tyler_YouNeverKnowcoverby Carol Tyler

It says something that three of my favorite books this year are comics or, as they’re known among the intelligentsia, graphic novels. Actually, these are all more-or-less-memoirs:  Emmanuel Guibert et al’s The Photographer, David Small’s Stitches, and now Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know (Fantagraphics, 2009).  I’m not quite sure what exactly it does say, and feel quite unable to think through the whole thing right now, but surely it has to do with the quality of comics and my general disenchantment with much fiction these days.  (Arrghh. That’s more thinking about the why of it than I wanted to do.) 

You’ll Never Know is the story of the author/illustrator’s relationship with her father, his relationship to his wife, and his refusal — for most of Carol’s life — to talk about, or even acknowledge, his experiences overseas in World War II.  I loved the way she makes her parents seem as real to us as they are to her, and how adroitly she weaves their stories with her own.  While you’re reading this book, you have both a visceral sense of time passing inexorably (and you can see it in the drawings of her parents), how our experiences shape us (whether we acknowledge them, or even remember them, or not), and how the past — both recent and distant — influences the present.  Because the text and pictures are so engrossing, I was able to overlook the (admittedly small number of) typos — “insures” for “ensures” and “it’s” for “its,” for example.  Typos like that normally drive me crazy and frequently make me give up on a book I’m reading; but Tyler’s book was so captivating that when I encountered them, they gave me a momentary twinge of regret (“Why couldn’t an editor have caught that?”) and then I went on because I didn’t want to stop.  This is the first book of a proposed trilogy.  I am very much looking forward to books two and three.

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Brat Farrar

Brat-Farrarby Josephine Tey

If I had to choose a favorite mystery novel, I think I’d pick Josephine Tey’s, Brat Farrar (Touchstone, 1997).  I have now read Brat Farrar so many times that I’ve had to replace several worn out copies.  I’ve always heard that Tey, who published little more than a handful of novels between 1927 and 1952, had trouble coming up with plots; so she frequently borrowed stories she had read in newspapers and then composed a novel based loosely around those details.  (This is certainly the case with her novel, The Franchise Affair, which happens to be possibly my second all time favorite mystery novel.)  Even a brief outline of Brat Farrar reveals a familiar plot: A young man masquerades as the heir to a fortune and nearly gets away with it.  But Tey turns this summary on its head and the result is an emotionally satisfying novel that answers less who-done-it than how-and-why it was done.  The title character, Brat Farrar, returns to England after spending many years in Canada working as a ranch hand.  He is sitting peacefully in a restaurant one day when a total stranger comes up to him, addresses him as Simon, and asks him how come he’s able to lounge around London when his 21st birthday is rapidly approaching (which means that as eldest son he’ll come into a not-inconsiderable inheritance). Shouldn’t he be home helping with the plans for the gala occasion?  At first Brat is merely surprised at being mistaken for Simon Ashby, heir to Latchetts, an English country estate devoted to horse breeding, then he’s intrigued when the stranger comes up with an apparently perfect plan, one with a big financial payoff for both men.  Brat will simply pretend that he’s Patrick, the first-born twin and therefore the rightful heir.  But Patrick disappeared when he was about 13, and has long been presumed dead.  Brat, as Patrick, will return to the family, collect his inheritance, split it with the stranger, who turns out to be a close family friend of the Ashby’s, and then disappear again. After some intensive coaching, Brat infiltrates himself into the life of the Ashby family, only to discover that things are seldom what they seem, and an easy con turns potentially deadly.

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The Book of the Bard

The-Book-of-Williamby Paul Collins

It’s not much of an exaggeration at all for me to say that if Paul Collins happened to write a book about – say – the history of Seattle as recounted through its Yellow Pages, I’d immediately request it from my neighborhood library and probably spend the next few days doing nothing but reading it.  That is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything that Collins has ever written, I’d follow him — literarily — everywhere.  I am happy to report that his newest offering is another must read: perfect for history buffs, Shakespeare fans, and anyone who enjoys learning – painlessly – about a slightly abstruse topic.

The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World (Bloomsbury, 2009) explores the fate of the collection of the Bard of Avon’s plays that was assembled and edited after his death by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. In describing the peregrinations of this collection of plays over the next 400 years, Collins introduces us to a wide assemblage of folks whose lives and interests, as readers, writers, or publishers, had an impact on the world of Shakespeareana. He describes the role of various editors and Shakespeare scholars in the history of the folio, including Samuel Johnson (who worked on an edition of the plays and evidently read even while he was eating), poet Alexander Pope, and Henry Clay Folger, the one-time president of Standard Oil of New York and great amasser of everything Shakespeare (and who, along with his wife, founded the Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. that bears his name). With wit and good will (ha!), not to mention an unabashed enthusiasm for his topic, Collins helps us understand the importance to the world of the First Folio, how publishing has changed (and not) since the 16th century, and what’s known about the fate of the approximately 1,000 copies that were originally printed of Heminge and Condell’s manuscript.  Collins writes history the way you wish every historian did: accessible, interesting, and meaningful.  I interviewed Collins on my television show and was totally charmed.

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Reissues Wish List

If I were in charge of a publishing house, these are the books I’d reprint in a Seattle second. I once hoped that someone would be interested in reprinting them all in a “Book Lust Reissues” series; but, I suppose, since the prospects for selling thousands of these are minimal, even though they’re all terrific reads, well-written (whatever that means), not particularly dated, and would add so much to the enjoyment of many readers, that’ll never happen — Sigh.  In any case, I’d buy them up by the caseload and give them to all my friends:

Lee Colgate’s Oh, Be Careful

Merle Miller’s A Gay and Melancholy Sound (and his other novels)

All of Gladys Taber’s books

All of Elizabeth Cadell’s novels

All of D.E. Stevenson’s novels

All the thrillers Howard Fast wrote as E.V. Cunningham with girls’ names as titles, especially Phyllis – a great cold war thriller

All of Betty Cavanna’s novels

All of Peggy Goodin’s novels

All of Ruth Doan McDougall’s novels, especially One Minus One and The Cost of Living  (Only The Cheerleader and Snowy are in print. The Cheerleader, especially, is fabulous; but I’d love to see her other books available, too.)

Kit Reed’s At War as Children

 Kaye Starbird’s The Lion in the Lei Shop

 All of Mary Stolz’s teen novels (I can provide a list if requested.)

 Nora Johnson’s A Step Beyond Innocence

 Diane Johnson’s Loving Hands at Home

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The Unknown Soldier

the-unknown-soldierby Gerald Seymour

Gerald Seymour’s exciting, indeed, almost irresistible, The Unknown Soldier (Overlook, 2005), moves the spy novel ever more decisively in the direction it’s been going lately — no more bad Russians (except the oligarchy), good-bye to le Carré’s Karla and his clones in lesser fictions, and hello terrorists.  In Seymour’s case, the search for a suspected terrorist, a detainee mistakenly released from prison on Guantanamo, takes place in the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian desert—a place so alien, foreign, and inherently dangerous that only the Bedouin tribesmen can exist there.  But American and British agents believe that a member of Al-Qaeda is crossing the sands with a load of Stinger missiles and the murder of Westerners on his mind.  Can all that superior American technology locate him in the empty vastness of the Rub’ al Khālī, as the desert area is known?  Like all good spy novels, this raises important ancillary issues:  Do two wrongs ever make a right?  Is murder justified in the name of patriotism?  Is it ever right to betray your country?  Seymour’s characters are three-dimensional, the plot moves along smartly (great for an airplane trip), and the politics are enlightening.  (Another novel with the Rub’ al Khālī as its setting is Josephine Tey’s The Singing Sands, one of the saddest mysteries I’ve ever read.)

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The Skull Mantra

skull-mantra-eliot-pattisonby Eliot Pattison

I’ve never stopped suggesting Eliot Pattison’s thriller, The Skull Mantra (Minotaur, 2008), to mystery fans; and it has a place in my permanent book collection. It won a well-deserved Edgar award for Best First Novel when it was published in 1999. Pattison introduces Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents. Then a local Chinese official is discovered — headless — near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. A Chinese colonel assigns Shan to solve the case.  It’s clear that the Colonel expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk, and he tries bribing Shan with more food and better living conditions to accede to his directive.  As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the Colonel, survive inhumane conditions, and finally solve a complex mystery, we’re introduced to a singular and stunning country, its people, and its customs. I’ve seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting (Tony Hillerman comes close) in all of its contradictions, difficulties, and beauty.  Though Shan takes center stage, the real hero of this novel is Tibet, during its ongoing struggle for freedom from China.

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