Thursday, December 31, 2009

Together, Alone

This beautifully-written memoir by the multi-talented, Susan Wittig Albert is a wonderful meditation about what it means to live in the world. Her mature sensibility of "place" as more than just the location where you are takes the reader into various understandings of an individual's lived experience of history, contemplation, meditation, writing, silence, spirituality and choice.

She writes about the deliberate choices she made in mid-life, from college professor and administrator to full-time author and gardener. Her concern with the natural environment of where she lives in the Texas hill country--the plants, trees, waterways and fauna--seems to have deepened over time. She has a healthily fearful appreciation of the limits of what the earth can do, and give, and likewise has many insightful thoughts on the matter. The second half of the book was mostly about Albert's experiences of going to a "silence" retreat in a remote corner of southeast Texas (Kenedy County), which allows her to craft some beautiful set pieces on the natural history of the area. I had no idea there were nilgai running the plains of Kenedy County!

The other theme of the book is about understanding one's individuality; for example, her own place in a marriage, in doing work of her own. Albert's perspective on this seems to be influenced by certain Eastern philosophies and religions, but this is a neutral observation as she is not at all preachy or condescending, nor does she posit her own views as somehow superior to others.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for an enjoyable, informative read by an author whose sensibilities I appreciate more and more with every book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Writing Class

The Writing Class (Picador 2009) is an enjoyable entertainment from the unpredictable but very talented Jincy Willett. Although the mystery puzzle seems a bit cliche as a plot device, it really doesn't matter as there are frequent moments of brilliant writing in this sometimes sad, often funny novel. Willett is a perceptive writer, and probably a wholly dedicated teacher.

Willett laces the depths of human feeling and emotion through her characters in the most unexpected ways, especially in the strong lead character, extension professor of creative writing, Amy Gallup. One cannot help but draw similarities between Gallup and Willett, which is perhaps what gives Gallup her human heart and sense of professionalism in its most soldiering sense, replete with duty, honor, anxiety, joy.

Gallup is a one-hit-wonder semi-famous author who is in a decades-long dry spell and teaches writing courses at the local university extension to make ends meet. She is an identifiable character especially because of the private moments of her fear, resilience, love and care we are privileged to witness. She represents a large segment of successful, single American women who lead independent but somewhat lonely lives not always by choice and not always without fear; we don't often see these vulnerable sides portrayed in such original, funny and ultimately winning scenes.

The writing class itself is populated by seemingly misfit types that one might expect at a university extension writing class. When an anonymous interloper starts leaving bizarre notes and signs to the class, Amy is on edge: The Killer, as they call him, could be any one her students! But she soldiers on, and it is in balancing the large cast of supporting characters (the many members of the writing class) where Willett stumbles a bit.

The Writing Class is a wholly original work, but for me the puzzle (and people's subsequent actions/reactions to events unfolding around it) was difficult to buy. I recommend it nonetheless for Willett's incredibly satisfying creation of Amy Gallup. And because it is a valuable book and de facto book of advice about how to become a good writer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Enduring

Welcome to Stay More, Arkansas and the magical world of Latha Bourne, one of the most singularly interesting characters in all of American fiction. Donald Harington's Enduring (Toby Press, 2009) is a beautiful, expansive novel and perhaps one of the most engrossing and fascinating works I have ever read. It follows the life of Latha Bourne, her entire life so far, from cradle to the age of something past 100.

Like all of Harington's books, there is no need to read them in any kind of order or sequence as Mr. Harington writes as a storyteller first, and he does it so artfully that every novel exists as its own creation--I myself have read his novels in different orders and have been rewarded in my own experience. There is no earthly way a reader will get lost in this book, other than in its enchantment and delicious plot. In fact this book itself may be a good place to start if it's your first Harington novel. If you read it you'll see why.

Latha Bourne is one of the most beautiful heroines in all of literature, and she is also one of the most independent and enduring. I loved learning about her family, her troubles, her "exile" and sojourn, and triumphant return to Stay More. Along the way, we meet and admire, perhaps fall in love with, a large cast of major and minor players (Every Dill, Doc Swain, the Duckworths, the Whitters, Dawny, Dan, Sharon, Larry, the Ingledews and Chisms and a few other surprises), all of whom--almost by magic--leave an indelible mark on the mind of the reader, the only place where in fact they exist. The settings vary from Stay More, Jasper, Little Rock, and Tennessee. I can't give away much more because I risk spoiling so many beautiful surprises that are best encountered in your reading.

The book is told as a wonderful story, as if around a campfire or an old fashioned gathering, and I couldn't help myself but want to visit this place sometime, to see if I could sit with Latha on her front porch, or near the dogtrot, and have a glass of lemonade and learn about the history of her mythical, inviting, beckoning hamlet.

Mr. Harington is well-known for his playful wordplay and musical language, and his impeccable comedic timing--all of which are present here. But he is not usually given his due as the master of suspense and plot he is... ENDURING is a testament to those talents. I turned the final page with a great deal of satisfaction and also without a clue where the hours went, the hours I spent happily traveling through Latha Bourne's remarkable life.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Defending Angels

I had been looking forward to reading Mary Stanton's Defending Angels (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008) for quite a while. It had been sitting in my "to be read" pile for some time before I finally got to it this week. The premise was intriguing--a young Savannah attorney, Bree Winston-Beaufort, assumes the law practice of her late uncle. Soon she learns it is no ordinary law, but Celestial Law that she'll be expected to practice, where the clients are dead and must be defended in Celestial Court. Obviously it is a paranormal mystery, and that was fine with me, in fact I was excited to break into that genre a little (although I enjoy Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books). Bree assembles a crack team of support staff to help her defend a dead client (whose murder she also must solve), and is guided throughout by mysterious advice from her former law professor. Sometimes the allusions to all things celestial came off as corny rather than clever: Her sister Angelica breezes into town and stays with Bree; the law practice is in an old mansion near a Murderer's Cemetary on Angelcus Street. You get the idea.

Unfortunately, this book was terribly disappointing and not at all what I expected. Certainly it is up to every author to write the kind of book they want, and many will differ from my view of this book.

Bree does not seem to have any savvy or even curiosity. She approaches almost anything that people tell her with an "Oh well" approach. It was difficult, too, to understand much of Bree's motivation. Too often, Bree feels like she just sort of lets stuff happen to her rather than question or express genuine concern. I did not find her to be a very sympathetic character, which is another of book's several problems. The dialogue and backstory felt like filler, not contributing to substantive plot points. The large supporting cast of characters is odd and underdeveloped.

Originally I thought the concept was interesting and innovative, but the more I read, the more it seemed to closely echo Albert Brooks's 1991 film, Defending Your Life. The central puzzle of this book was rather simple, and thus not very compelling as a mystery.

I personally think Ms. Stanton does not make full use of the Savannah, Georgia setting, in fact what could be the perfect setting for this kind of mystery. I did not get any real sense that place was important, inasmuch as Savannah's mysterious, Gothic details were not an integral part of the story, which seems like a lost opportunity.

Perhaps the order was too tall for a book like this: to create a whole new system of law (basically) and set your character to work in it, a character trained in the codified laws of Georgia. It required quite a bit of world-building that just seemed missing: You've got to have the basic system of law itself, then the new Celestial Law, then the local authorities, usual suspects, etc. In addition there is the paranormal element, which here feels contrived. I won't spoil the actual happenings for those interested in reading it for themselves.

Finally, I was increasingly annoyed by the heavy quotations from Milton and others at the beginning of every chapter. They did not contribute to the story (as do, for example, the herb lore at the beginning of chapters in the China Bayles series by Susan Wittig Albert), and seemed woefully dissonant with the novel itself.

Ms. Stanton (who also writes as Claudia Bishop) deserves credit for trying to branch out in a very different direction than the typical "cozy" mystery. She succeeded in that regard, but the story itself does not.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Murder is Binding

Lorna Barrett (the nom de plume of writer Lorraine Bartlett) has written an excellent first mystery novel in Murder is Binding (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008). The setting is the small town of Stoneham, New Hampshire, where local developer Bob Kelly has leased downtown property to a series of small bookshop owners (each shop focuses on a particular genre, like cookbooks, mystery, history, etc.). Tricia Miles, the owner of mystery bookshop Haven't Got a Clue, is the lead character in this story and in the series.

When the owner of Tricia's neighboring store, Doris Gleason of The Cookery, turns up dead, Tricia is left to sort out the mess in order to provide peace of mind not only for herself, but for the tranquil Stoneham. Tricia's sister, Angelica breezes into town for what turns out to be more than just a short visit, and ends up helping Tricia solve the murder. What's more, the sheriff is intent to pin the Doris's murder on Tricia. The "cozy" meter registers pretty high here: small, idyllic town (more like paradise... a town full of bookstores!); Tricia lives above her bookshop; Angelica is a gourmet cook; a meddling sheriff; and more.

Lorna Barrett is a mystery writer of great talent. I especially appreciated the way she brought the retail environment of Haven't Got a Clue to life, a venue I suspect that will provide endless opportunities for future plots (Susan Wittig Albert has used China Bayles's herb business in this way for upwards of 17 books!). Barrett is also part of a new generation of cozy writers who have endowed their characters with complicated social relationships. The subplot of familial fractures in the sister-bond between Tricia and Angelica will offer many opportunities to really understand the motivation for these characters in future novels, as it did in Binding. She also touched on the generational problems we all will face in the characters of Mr. Everett, Grace and Doris Gleason (I won't spoil the plot by giving details!). At the end of the book, I was also left wondering if Mr. Everett and Grace have a future together?

There are other themes Ms. Barrett may pursue, such as community development and the arrival of "big box" stores in small towns (a theme also present in Sheila Connolly's One Bad Apple, a cozy set in neighboring Massachusetts). I'm also looking forward to the development of Angelica's relocation to Stoneham, and how that affects her relationship with Tricia (and her business).

My only quarrel is with the character of Sheriff Wendy Adams, whose motivation was somewhat difficult to believe. If Adams is to be Tricia's foil throughout the series, we will need to learn much more about her and her background. I realize this is not a police procedural, but it seems that any sheriff (even in a small town) would want to give the aesthetic of a proper investigation. This is not a major criticism and certainly does not detract from the many enjoyments of the novel. Personally I didn't find any redeeming quality in Adams, and I'd like to see her knocked off (or moved away) soon, but I am only a reader and it is always up to the author to populate the universe they create.

The action toward the last third of the book was downright suspenseful, and the climactic scene (in the bookshop of course) is much more realistic than one typically finds in a cozy mystery. I applaud Ms. Barrett's first outing and look forward to the next installments.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bloodroot

In Bloodroot (Berkley, 2001) Susan Wittig Albert has written a novel that probes the depths of generational family secrets through a multi-layered story of kinship bonds and lost loves. China Bayles, Albert's venerable protagonist of (currently) seventeen published novels and many short stories, has left the relatively comfortable confines of her herb business in Pecan Springs, Texas to join her mother, Leatha and Aunt Tullie at Jordan's Crossing, the Coldwell family plantation in the Yazoo Valley of Mississippi. What is supposed to be a short trip to help her mother and Aunt Tullie get the plantation affairs in order turns into a labyrinthine exploration of the generations of families who have lived on the plantation, and the mysteries surrounding their legacies.

Albert is not a writer who shies away from tough issues, and though some classify the China Bayles novels as "cozy," Bloodroot is anything but. In addition to a fever-pitch climactic scene, she tackles such subjects as the repercussions of inherited disease; Native American land rights; several varieties of "forbidden love" and other topics. China's investigation of the present-day affairs of the plantation lead her head-on into the buried secrets of her ancestors' past. The body count was three as far as I could tell, and even though only one takes place in the present, they're all very relevant for China as she seeks to set the affairs of the plantation in order.


Although readers accustomed to the series will miss the presence of regulars like McQuaid and Ruby, Bloodroot works very well as a stand-alone novel. Albert is at the top of her writing game here, magically evoking the deeply atmospheric and beautiful environment of rural Mississippi on the page. Her handling of a number of complex story lines has never been better.


This book brought to mind several interesting perspectives on family secrets and the nature of history. We often tend to view the past as quaint, we romanticize it. But our ancestors faced all sorts of difficult relationships, economic hardships, deaths, etc. Sure the time period and cultural context was different, but they were human experiences all the same. China's realization of this, which is never preachy, reveals a tender strain of love that binds and separates her relatives.


Albert's emphasis on love and remembrance shows us, in some way, why we do the things we do. We don't know the extent of what people have faced in their lives that leads them to be the kinds of people they are. Often such events are purposely buried, but never forgotten. They haunt the present in more ways than we might anticipate.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Over the Bridge

Muhammad al-Bisatie's creative vision is on full display in this compact narrative, Over the Bridge (American University in Cairo Press, 2006) that blurs the line between reality and dream worlds. It begins with an Egyptian bureaucrat who, in a scheme to fatten his meager take-home pay, exploits his position in the notoriously chaotic government and "invents" on paper a complete small city in Upper Egypt. And as a proper "city," al-Khalidya has govermnet officials who need to be paid. When the checks for al-Khalidya are issued, he cashes them himself.

Yet what begins as a quiet fraud evolves into the protagonist's continuing descent into quasi-madness. He becomes obssessed with his new creation, the village, and builds a model of it. He begins to imagine the lives of its inhabitants, and the structural violence of city life comes into sharper relief the more he imagines. He becomes a kind of godplayer.

He turned out the light in the room and lay down on the bed,the model twinkling atop the desk. Feeling pleased, he rested his head on his bent arm.
El-Bisatie's technique also becomes somewhat blurry as the narrative proceeds, and as a reader we are sometimes confused about the setting or happenings: is it in the bureaucrat's real world or his make-believe, or is it both at the same time? Are his waking actions more viable or real than his dream world actions, and how can we tell them apart? Echoes of Borges and Garcia Marquez give this novel its sense of magic realism and wonder.

While the plot becomes a little less interesting as it goes on, we come to understand the very existence of a village in Upper Egypt doesn't matter very much to those beyond its inhabitants, least of all to the Egyptian bureaucracy. And thus the novel can be read as a kind of disturbing allegory.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Somewhere Towards the End

Diana Athill's beautifully-written new book, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 2009) has the unique quality of being a memoir of being very old and happy about it without the maudlin set pieces or generic nostalgia one might expect in a fin de siecle.

The 90-year-old Athill was during her 20th century career a notable British editor who worked with Andre Deutsch in setting up one of Europe's most-respected publishing houses. She worked with such authors as Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth and John Updike to name a few. She has also been, occasionally, an author herself of several highly-respected volumes, mostly memoirs but also a book of short stories and one novel (the one, she says, she "squeezed" out).

Somewhere Towards the End is composed to sixteen relatively short chapters, all of which center on Athill's experience of being, as she terms it, "very old." She has had a rich and varied life, not necessarily glamorous but well-lived. Although she has never had (nor wanted) children, it is clear she is a motherly figure in the way she has taken care of people in her life, including her mother and a past lover.

Athill, who frankly discusses topics such as being post-sexual, not being around to see the full growth of a tree she has planted, and so on, relies very little on metaphor to make her points, instead filling the pages with concrete little treasures of experience, such as this passage when she discusses her pleasure in being around young people:

"So if when you are old a beloved child happens to look at you as if he or she thinks (even if mistakenly!) that you are wise and kind: what a blessing!... [it] does make you feel like a better person while it's going on and for an hour or two afterwards... It does seem to me that the young nowadays are often more sophisticated than I used to be, and that many of them... relate to their elders more easily than we did; but I am convinced that one should never, never expect them to want one's company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that."


Her spirited championing of youth belies the stereotype of the rebellious youth we think many "old people" maintain, and so in her writing Athill breaks another stereotype that many of us have about old people, namely that they are narrow thinkers, static and unwilling to change and so very much "post life." Among many other points to ponder, the book made me think that it is somewhat ironic, of course, that old people should be so marginalized in Western societies given the universal inevitability of growing old (and dying). In one of the more moving passages of the book, Athill writes:

"What dies is not a life's value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self's awareness of itself... That is what is so disconcerting to an onlooker, because unless someone slips away while unconscious, a person who is just about to die is still fully alive and fully her or himself... The difference between being and non-being is both so abrupt and so vast that it remains shocking even though it happens to every living thing that is, was, or ever will be."


Far from being a depressing swan song, Somewhere Towards the End is a wonderfully uplifting and amazing exploration of what it is to be alive and human.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Off the Beaten Bookshelf #2

Taxi is an interesting patchwork of a novel by the freshly-minted Egyptian journalist-commentator-filmmaker cum writer Khaled al-Khamissi. The fifty-eight chapters that comprise this unusual book represent fifty-eight separate taxi rides taken by the narrator, who is merely the guise of a thinly-veiled al-Khamissi. This work is, in some sense, an ethnographic novel in that it attempts to portray the working lives of Cairo’s 80,000+ taxi drivers through punctuated scenes (chapters) which are a cross-section of that part of society.

Al-Khamissi’s portrayal of the Cairene cabby is definitely sympathetic though not patronizing. While giving due credence to the unique social and political perspectives that taxi drivers maintain by virtue of their near-constant physical presence on the maddening city streets, he does not shy away from revealing some of the wackier encounters with those drivers who spout conspiracy theories, conservatism and tales of faux poverty.

There are moments of knowing and astute political irony in Taxi. An example of the meta-critique of Egyptian government that pervades the book occurs in chapter seven, where the driver laments Egypt’s arcane statutes regarding seatbelts and the myriad laws and tariffs and cost of it all to be borne by the poor taxi driver. At the end of that particular encounter after mentioning how he skirts the law by only installing a decorative rather than functional seat belt to appease the authorities, the driver tells the narrator: “We live a lie and believe it. The government’s only role is to check that we believe the lie, don’t you think?”

Mr. al-Khamissi works hard at being representational of the whole of Egyptian society through the work of the commentary and dialogue offered by his characters. Yet in his desire for a complete cross-section of Cairo taxi culture all of the offstage laboring by the author began to seep into the text. The first twenty-five episodes are interesting and insightful but they eventually began to feel like a gimmick and came perilously close to monotony. If it were a television series it would have been canceled after half a season.

But it is not episodic television, it is is a book, and its annoyances do not detract from its originality as an interesting new voice in pop-Arab fiction. The chapters provide often captivating nuggets of insight into the concerns and ebbs and flows of daily life in one of the world’s largest cities, and most important countries. A helpful glossary in the back is included for readers less familiar with details of the culture.

Jonathan Wright’s English translation of the colloquial Egyptian Arabic is good though a bit uneven. Yet Wright is to be commended for taking a frenetic text and rendering it into something readable and perhaps appealing for an English-speaking audience. We ought to have more popular fiction in translation and not just higher-brow literary novels (Taxi has been on Arabic language bestsellers lists for more than a year).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Asking for Murder

The third and perhaps final installment in Roberta Isleib's Advice Column mystery series, Asking for Murder (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008), is a very fine testament to the pleasures of familiarity one gains from returning to a solid series. It's always a treat when one of your new favorite authors hits one out of the park. And here, I'm happy to report, Isleib's penned another winner.

Inherent in the etymology of familiarity is the idea of family--and certainly Dr. Rebecca Butterman and the other characters of coastal Connecticut that populate these novels have come to represent a kind of "literary family." Luckily, even readers who enter the series with this book will find uncommon familiarity since Ms. Isleib does an effortless job of evoking characters, settings and ambiance for the uninitiated. But what makes such family/familiarity pleasurable in Asking for Murder?
  1. Isleib has described and immersed us in an environment so real that we only need sketches of description--a busy highway, the hunger pains of a busy professional, a rainy day, the wall decor in a psychologist's office--to bring us into the story. These sketches are the touchstones of another world that help us imagine what it would be like to live/work/play/eat/love there. We jump from touchstone to touchstone, like boulders in a wide river, over the arc of the narrative. And in the context of the novel we are free to imagine the spaces between the rocks upon which the story is built.
  2. We have such a good understanding of our protagonist, Rebecca Butterman that we can begin to anticipate (but not necessarily predict, and this is a fine distinction) how she will react in given circumstances. The art of this fiction, though, is that Rebecca is not merely a pawn run through the maze of a story. She is fundamentally changed by her experience. In Asking for Murder she must learn about a novel type of psychological therapy (sandplay or sand tray therapy, influenced by Carl Jung's emphasis on the subconscious). The reader learns along with Rebecca how this fascinating therapy works. And, Rebecca is always working out her emotional experience through the exercise of writing her advice column.
  3. The supporting cast of characters are integral to the story. Rebecca's psychologist friend, Annabelle Hart, is found badly beaten at the beginning of the story and this is the driving mystery throughout the book: Who would beat Dr. Hart within an inch of her life? As Rebecca attempts to answer that question, she must confront not only Annabelle's family and friends but also her league of patients. No one is free of suspicion. Meanwhile the first (and only) dead body doesn't turn up until more than halfway through. How interesting!
  4. The premise of the story is believable. Because both Dr. Butterman and Dr. Hart are clinical psychologists, we can easily believe that they would frequently be in contact with all manner of "strange" individuals--even ones in their own families. Beyond the premise, there are enough day-to-day happenings in Rebecca's life that we can easily imagine her as we might our friends or ourselves... sleeping, cooking, eating, meeting people, playing with pets, following up on responsibilities, etc.
  5. There are important questions in Rebecca's life that remain unanswered. Since these involve her personal relationships and have little bearing on the solution to the central mystery of this book, the reader is not disappointed that they remain unanswered. Rather, this reader is anxious to find out what happens between Rebecca and Detective Meigs. And what develops between Rebecca and her estranged father? How does her sister, Janice ultimately react? Will Rebecca ever resolve her ambivalent feelings about Mark?
I was more than a little sad to close the final chapter in this book knowing there was not another one waiting. I recently read an online interview with Ms. Isleib wherein she mentioned there were no immediate plans for any more books in this series and that she was at work on a stand-alone novel. It would be a darn shame for mystery lovers if this is Dr. Rebecca Butterman's swan song, but given its fine writing and satisfying resolution, Asking for Murder would not be a disastrous coda to a very confident and well-written mystery series.