Friday, December 19, 2014

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

The Arsonist, by Sue Miller, is an engaging novel that explores human relationships in their many dimensions.

Frankie Rowley has just returned to her parents' summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire. She has been employed as a relief worker in Africa for many years. Now in her early 40s, Frankie is disillusioned with her life's work; she questions the impact she has had on regions plagued by famine and war. We, the readers, are given a picture of her life abroad - the constant tension, the hordes of sick and starving people, the threat of violence by warring factions.

Now, having the benefit of distance, Frankie realizes she was never a part of the fabric of this society. She and other aid workers lived in gated communities with a variety of servants. Unlike the people she helped by day, Frankie and others could retreat to safe quarters in the evening. She accepted the class division as natural, even though she felt alienated from genuine relationships. Likewise, her romantic encounters were highly charged but emotionally empty. There was no sense of permanency in any part of her life.

Seeking resolution, Frankie returns home to think about her next career move. Unintentionally, she walks into the very situation she has spent her life avoiding - personal entanglements. First, her parents are facing the health issues confronting many in later years. Her mother, Silvia, has become a caretaker for her father, now afflicted with dementia. And for the first time, Silvia makes Frankie her unwilling confidant, confessing to marital issues that Frankie did not know existed.

The second entanglement is with Bud Jacobs, the owner of the town newspaper. He, too, has sought an escape from a former life -that of a Washington journalist and unhappily married man. He meets Frankie while covering the rash of fires, labelled arson, that have plagued the summer homes of residents. Like Frankie, he feels a sense of dislocation and is at loose ends.

Miller is empathetic toward her characters and we sympathize even with the suspected arsonist. She also accurately depicts the class divisions inherent in any tourist town - the wealthy summer residents vs. those who live and work in the town year-round. The reader is given to wonder if arson is the result of this tension.

As Ron Charles of the Washington Post concludes:

Set against the acts of a serial arsonist, which in turn, are set against the attacks of African terrorists, these ordinary folks' hopes and fears could seem small and petty, the kindling for some bitter satire about American self-absorption. But that's the continuing miracle of Miller's compelling storytelling: She knows these people matter, and as she moves gently from one character's perspective to another, her sensitive delineation of their lives convinces us of that, too.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brief Encounters by Dick Cavett

Those of you who are literate and in tune with the publishing world probably already know that Dick Cavett has been contributing a column to the New York Times for a number of years. As someone who only gets his news from Twitter, I was surprised to discover this fact, while delighted to learn that a number of these (new to me) columns have been assembled in the book Brief Encounters.

I'm officially a member of the David Letterman fan demographic but in my mind there have only really been two talk show hosts - Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. Erudite while still allowing his guests to lead the conversation, the line that Cavett was able to comfortably walk between respecting old Hollywood (not surprising since he got his start writing for Jack Paar, Jerry Lewis and Carson) and welcoming the love generation's new heroes is something for any talk show host to try to emulate.

The columns collected in this book cover two main subjects: personal memories and insights and celebrity encounters. While there were some enjoyable moments in the former, I was mostly on board for the latter. We get special reminiscences of celebrities who had recently passed, such as Jonathan Winters (in a hilarious column that makes you want to hunt his appearances down on YouTube), James Gandolfini and Eddie Fisher (though his name is merely an excuse to pay tribute to George S. Kaufman).

Lest you think that the book is merely a tribute to long-gone entertainers, well, I suppose it largely is. Some of these are quite moving, such as the Winters tribute or Cavett's memories of schoolmates long gone. But there are also many laugh out loud moments, such as the story of Laurel and Hardy's encounter in front of the Christmas tree. The book slows down in the multiple chapters about Cavett's dreams but they're easy to skip.

It's easy to hear this book in the author's voice while you're reading it, and even easier if you listen to it on CD, since Cavett is the reader. The book's also a great bathroom reader, with most chapters reaching no more than 5 pages. I finished this book in five days and I'm a sloooooow reader, so you might enjoy knocking it off in an evening! A fun, fun book!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Edward Forbes Smiley III was a charming man, a family man with a good sense of humor who was a consummate dealer of rare maps. He was also a fraud. Smiley came from a solidly middle class background and though he had siblings he spent a lot of time in the library as a child. He went to an "experimental" private school and a small academically good college where he was the guy "that just knew more than anyone else." After college followed a girlfriend to London, where he fell in love with old maps.

In 1979, when Smiley (who called himself "Forbes") was 23 he found a job in B. Altman and Company's rare books department. Using the job as an internship he studied Altman's inventory and the rare maps in the New York Public Library. He acquired quite a bit of knowledge and in 1987 decided that he would start trading in the maps, starting his own company "E. Forbes Smiley III."

Smiley started the company by buying a rare atlas, taking it apart and then selling off the individual maps. Map sales at the time were done on the "gentleman's agreement' method - money doesn't necessarily change hands at the time of sale but there are deposits and promises of checks. Smiley's check for the first atlas bounced. The seller of the atlas waited for weeks while Smiley sold off pieces of the atlas to make some money. This lack of financial acumen would be Smiley's downfall. He continued in the rare map market for years, building up a client base and making money.

On June 8, 2005 Smiley's world came to an abrupt halt when an exacto knife fell out of his pocket while in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. The librarian saw it and alerted security. Then the library staff started going through the items Smiley had looked at and they discovered that maps were missing. The FBI was brought in and Smiley's downfall was complete.  Smiley was charged with stealing 108 maps even though the searches showed 256 maps were missing from a variety of world class institutions. He served 3 years and 6 days in a federal prison.

This was an interesting book. Maybe because I'm interested in old maps but also because it documents the world of rare map trading and the history of some of the missing maps. The library's maps were woefully unprotected, the dealers worked on handshake deals and the provenance of the maps is never really looked at. It was a recipe for fraud. Some of the institutions didn't even say anything publicly because they didn't want any bad publicity to effect their donations! This is not your normal light holiday read but it will serve as an interesting one!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

A first novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris is easy to read and hard to put down.

The setting of the novel is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in a suburb of London. The subject is marriage and family relationships revolving around marriage, with a focus in on two couples. Chani Kaufman and Baruch Levy are a young, newly met and newly engaged couple, about to be married. Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and Rebbetzin Rebecca have been married for nearly 30 years, but are having difficulties in their relationship.

All four main characters are portrayed as interesting and complex individuals living and loving and seeking a balance between their ultra Orthodox world and the modern world. There is much humor in the telling, as well as discussion of serious issues of family, life styles, and faith. The inter-related stories are told from differing and alternating points of view, which adds to the feeling of "I must keep reading to find out what is going to happen"

Reviewers have compared the book to two other recent novels, The Innocents by Francesca Segal and I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits. Those who enjoy the works of Allegra Goodman or Tova Mirvis would also enjoy The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. If you want to read more about the author and her first novel, here is one review which includes an interview:

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami's latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, is a coming of age tale that is both timeless and existential. The main character, Tsukuru, lacks any quality that makes him stand out. "I've always seen myself as an empty person, lacking color and identity," he says. (p. 177) In high school, he befriends 4 students and they become inseparable. But when he goes to Tokyo to college, these friends cut him off without explanation. And Tsukuru does not ask for one. Instead, he falls into a depression, thinking only of death.

Now thirty-six years old, he meets a mysterious woman, Sara, with whom he has an affair. It is Sara who sees his emotional growth as stunted and frozen in adolescence. She gives him an ultimatum - find his former friends and determine the reason they shunned him.

Thematically, the novel examines the journey motif in which Tsukuru's travels take him as far away as Finland. But as he locates and speaks with his boyhood friends, Tsukuru travels deeper into his own psyche. The growth of the character and the development of his self-perception is one of the strengths of the novel.

As with all of Murakami's books, his characters suffer from a sense of otherness and alienation.No one seems truly connected to the people around them. The image of the sea of commuters at the railway station, heads cast downward, is likely a metaphor for the book as whole.

To quote Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings and The Ten Year Nap:

Colorless Tsukuru's mystery is solved before the end, but the mystery of the spell that the great Murakami casts over his readers, myself included, goes, as ever, unsolved. The novel feels like a riddle, a puzzle, or maybe, actually, more like a haiku: full of beauty, strangeness, and color, thousands of syllables long. (NPR, All Things Considered, August 18, 2014)

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko

Austin Voronkov is Russian. He has fled his violent homeland for the safety of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he falls in love with Julia and works as an engineer. Austin stays connected with his homeland by joining Russian social clubs and lecture societies. In 1920 he and others are arrested at a club and deported under the assumption that they are communist sympathizers. Under duress, Austin inadvertently confessed to being anarchist. He and Julia move to Paris, then other parts of Europe, virtually stateless as they begin their family and try to find a home.

Because of the anarchy charge, and deportation, no nation will accept him except Mexico, where they eventually settle. As he struggles to get his family back to the U.S., Austin is advised that sending his wife and children ahead of him will make it easier for him to seek U.S. citizenship. It should only take a month or so, he is told....but it takes much longer for him to be reunited with his beloved family.

The writing in this debut novel is excellent, and the author is a wonderful story teller. This is NOT a fast paced beach read that fits into that "light but good" category. It is what I call "a thinker." You will want to read this book slowly, appreciate the writing, identify with what Austin is going through. I had so many questions at the end that I want to re-read it, which means it will be great for book club discussions.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Harry Quebert is a writer of some renown. He wrote one massively popular best seller and another book that was equally well received and he now teaches writing for a small but prestigious university. His protege is Marcus Goldman, an insecure but talented college student. Marcus believes in Harry and Harry believes in Marcus. Harry is always explaining writing by using larger life lessons (i.e. knowing the importance of how to fall.) Marcus takes these to heart. Fast forward and Marcus has written his own best seller, but he now has writers block and has only months to finish his next book or he will be in violation of his contract. He goes to visit Harry and the Nolla Kellergan case is once again in the spotlight. His publisher wants Marcus to write about the case. This is story line number one.

Story line number two is the disappearance of Nolla Kellergan from a small New Hampshire town in 1975. This coincidentally is when Harry was living in the town and working on his book. It being a small town, Harry and Nola knew each other. Nolla was 15 year old girl, the daughter of a minister, and desperately in love with Harry. Now, 30 years later, her body is discovered and  Harry becomes a suspect in her murder.

Story line number three is the life of Nolla herself. She could actually be a whole book.

This giant (640 pages) book is new to the United States. An international best seller, I was actually reading it while a  British friend of mine was reading it in England. That should be enough to get you to read this. This book took some getting used to. Multiple story lines all intertwined and each one could be an entire book all on it's own. That said I really liked this book. The jumping between story lines wasn't distracting, it actually added to my interest. The characters are all interesting, in a some what weird sort of way and that also adds to the appeal. The translation is good and the dialogue easy to read - just be prepared for its length!

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