Friday, April 29, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Set in the late 1700's Andrew Taylor's The Anatomy of Ghosts is a mystery set in Cambridge University's Jerusalem College. The college is a small one and had been started by the ancestors of Lady Anne Oldershaw. The story opens with one woman (Mrs. Whitcote) wandering through the streets of Cambridge into the Jerusalem College gardens and another young woman dying before she can be the sacrifice for a group of collegians known as the Holy Ghost Club.

In London, John Holdworth is a book seller. His young son drowns in the Thames. His wife spends most of her time mourning her son while in the company of a medium who claims to be able to relay messages from the woman's dead son. After trying to get his wife some help, Holdworth writes a book debunking ghost sightings. This book, called The Anatomy of Ghosts has some success throughout London. Lady Oldershaw is familiar with the book.

Lady Oldershaw hires Holdworth to catalog and organize a large private library belonging to her late husband. She has another plan for Holdworth as well - she really wants to discuss ghost sightings. Her son, Frank, a student at Jerusalem College, has been institutionalized after losing his mind after seeing what he believes to be the ghost of Mrs. Whitcote. Frank was being initiated into the Holy Ghost Club the night he saw the ghost. Lady Oldershaw sends Holdworth to Cambridge to investigate what exactly happened to her son.

After all that background, the story finally starts. The set up takes along time and while interesting, the prose is difficult to find a rhythm in. It is evocative of another time - the time period the book is set in. Once you get used to the somewhat stilted language the story is a good one. There are plenty of secrets being kept at Jerusalem College and plenty of people who don't want their secrets out. Holdworth is a man you would want to know, Lady Oldershaw is a good example of an overprotective mother used to getting her way and Frank is the wild, rich college boy. The Holy Ghost Club is the secret society. They all come together is a somewhat surprising way. And the end of the story and the explanations of the ghost sightings is really clever.

Despite the slow start I enjoyed the book. It's a little bit creepy, but a good mystery overall.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

The History of Love

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss, masterfully weaves together disparate lives in the shadow of the Holocaust. Leo Gursky and Alma were in their late teens in 1941, when Hitler invaded Poland. Alma escaped to New York. But Leo remained behind, hiding in the woods and perfecting the art of becoming invisible. He was 21 years old, and had already written three books in honor of his beloved. One of these, "The History of Love," becomes a focal point in the Krauss novel and affects the lives of those who read it.

"But it is not the only piece of writing here to do so," writes Megan Harlan of the San Francisco Chronicle. "For Krauss' novel abounds with myriad literary documents--journal entries, letters, lists, translations, excerpts from autobiography--penned by her characters, and done so in cleverly distinctive styles that spark each personality to life. Their role in Krauss' tricky, intriguing plot suggests that all writing, no matter how private or obscure, is potentially filled with transformative power and sometimes in ways neither author nor reader could hope to imagine." (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, May 1, 2005)

The characters in The History of Love, particularly Leo Gursky and fourteen year old Alma Singer (named for the character in Leo Gursky's novel) seem so alive they could step off the page. Krauss deals with themes of loneliness and alienation masterfully, and we both laugh and cry at Gursky's antics to avoid being unnoticed. Similarly, the quirkiness of Alma and her brother, Bird, play powerfully into these themes. The reader smiles at Bird's belief that he is among the Lamed Vahviks--one of the 36 sainted people who, according to Hasidic lore, will save the world. We are unsure of whether Bird is psychotic, or merely "unusual." Like Leo Gursky, he is both comic and sad. The reader wonders whether his mother's despondency and his father's death entice this sensitive boy into the realm of his imagination. As Bird helps his sister unravel the clues behind a letter, we are drawn into the mystery. The book becomes a page-turner whose loose ends come together on Bird's final journal entry.

If you enjoy reading books with endearing characters, exquisite writing, and an engaging plot, you will relish The History of Love. This book places Nicole Krauss among the best authors of our time.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Informationist

This is a great book. It pulls you in right from the beginning with a flight through the jungle and just keeps going.

The Informationist is a story about an androgynous woman named Vanessa Michael Monroe. She has a mysterious past even though she will admit to being the child of missionaries in Cameroon, where she was born. Monroe (who goes by the name Michael) deals in information. For the right price she will secure any information you require.

She is hired to find Emily Burbank who disappeared in Africa while travelling with 2 men she met on a safari. Emily's mother has died and Emily stands to inherit money if she can be found. Her stepfather, Richard Burbank, is a billionaire oil man and he is financing the search. Previous searches have shown that Emily is most likely dead. Burbank forces Michael to work with Miles Bradford, an ex-special forces member who works for Burbank. Michael and Bradford do not get along especially after it becomes clear that a third party is tracking them and sabotaging the search.

Michael's past is slowly revealed throughout the story in short vignettes. And her past includes some very un-missionary like events. Including the murder of Peter, a man who not only taught her all her martial arts skills but tormented her until his death. Michael has an interesting assortment of people she has befriended throughout her previous jobs. These people are called upon to help her find Emily.

The comparisons to Lisbeth Salander from the Larsson trilogy will be inevitable. Michael is a strong woman with a mysterious past, she possesses skills that allow her to succeed and she has an assortment of people she can count on for help. This is a great story and is well written with just the right amount of twists and surprises. The pacing is fast and it pulls the reader along through the story. But, the characters develop slowly. I read this book in a weekend. I could not put it down.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Great House

Great House, by Nicole Krauss, is a haunting novel, unconventional in structure, poetic in language, and rich in universal themes. Through its four narrators, the novel is woven into a tapestry of separate stories--stories which pose questions about alienation and love. The book explores the impact of history--how events shape our psyches and impact on those we love. It explores the nature of inheritance and the function of memory as lives are reconstructed after great loss. Whether it be the Holocaust, or the experience of war, life for those affected will never be the same.

The book begins with the story of Nadia, a writer who limits her contact with the outside world in order to write. She has given up everything--husband, the idea of children, friends--for her art. Her most cherished possession is a desk "loaned" to her by a Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky. The desk, upon which she writes her books, becomes her trusted companion over a span of 27 years. When she relinquishes it into the possession of Daniel's supposed daughter, and believes it is sent to Israel, Nadia no longer knows who she is or what her life means. She goes to Israel not to find the desk, but to find the self she has lost.

Thus, we are introduced to the desk, the object that loosely connects some, but not all, of the characters. There is a second writer in this book--Lotte. Lotte was a child when the SS rounded up her family in October of 1938. She lived with them for a year, and then took a chaperone visa to escort a group of children to the U.S. Her parents were ultimately killed, and Lotte was left to live with the guilt of her choice. She becomes a published author, but lives emotionally detached from her husband. Like Nadia, the desk is her most cherished possession, given to her by a former lover. She eventually gives this desk to the poet Daniel Varsky, a man 30 years her junior. We never fully know why.

Then there is Weitz, an antiques dealer. Weitz is also a Holocaust survivor, having left Hungary in 1949 at the age of 21. In 1944, a stone was hurled into the window of his father's study, and life, as he knew it, ended. His father, a scholar of history, died on a death march to the Reich. As Weitz recalls to Lotte's husband when he comes looking for his father's desk: "He wrote at an enormous desk with many drawers, and when I was very young I believed that two thousand years were stored in those drawers...(p. 284)" He goes on to describe his obsession with finding this last piece of furniture that would recreate the study he knew as a child. "...The one searching for this desk isn't like the others...He doesn't have the capacity to forget just a little. His memory is more real to him, more precise, than the life he lives, which becomes more and more vague to him." (p. 276)

The Holocaust's impact went beyond those it directly touched. After her death, Lotte's husband realizes that he never comprehended the enormity of her guilt. Nor could he understand later decisions she made that most would find abhorrent. Similarly, Weitz travels with his two children throughout Europe, never giving them a stable home. His obsession with finding possessions plundered by the Nazis and replicating rooms that exist only in memory negate the needs of his own children. Both become emotionally stunted--prisoners of a past that is not their own.

There is yet one more narrator--an Israeli prosecutor who is mourning the death of his wife. The desk does not play a role in this poignant story, which concerns estrangement and the psychological toll of war. Puzzled by his son's guilt over the death of a fellow soldier, his father ponders, "Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed. Why is it that the same thing that destroys one does not destroy another?" (p. 190)

In a radio interview on KCRW's Bookworm (December 9, 2010), Nicole Krauss explains that Great House is a book about doubt--moral doubt, self-doubt, the reader's doubt. " What is it to make a life in the shadow of doubt?" ( Great House is a work of immense depth, an attempt to analyze the impact of experience, memory, and parental love (often gone wrong) upon generations. It is the effort of a great writer to explore questions without clear answers. And it is her gift to enable her readers to do the same.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Tiger

I love a good thriller and I have to say this work of non-fiction fulfills every thriller requirement there is. The Tiger by John Vaillant takes place in far eastern Russia in the late 1990's. The cast of characters includes the intrepid federal agent, the deceased, the local residents looking for revenge, and the stalker - the tiger.

The area of Russia known as the "taiga" is a harsh land. Cold, desolate, remote and full of animals that think a human is food. Markov was a man who lived, hunted and tried to survive in the area. He was familiar with the harsh living conditions and had a somewhat successful business trapping and selling the skins of various animals. However he ran into an animal that didn't agree with him. Markov as a matter of survival, took some of the meat from a tiger's kill. Not a smart thing to do but if you are starving it makes all the sense in the world. Markov was one man. There were approximately 450 tigers living in the taiga at the time. One of them was not pleased that Markov had taken some of his meat.

A tiger is a huge animal. Hundreds of pounds of muscle and brain that is hungry all the time. Most people attacked by a tiger do not live to tell the tale. The force of an attacking tiger has been compared to having a piano dropped on you from a second story window. Crushing. But a tiger is not just a killing machine. He is smart. He remembers. He is vengeful against those that have hurt him. The people who live in the taiga believe that if they don't harm a tiger it will not harm you.

Deaths in the taiga, especially deaths by tigers are investigated by the Inspection Tiger team. This small group of men are responsible for not only the safety of the taiga land and its human residents but they are responsible for the safety of the tigers. Tiger meat and bones are believed to cure a number of ailments from sore muscles to impotency. But the tigers are protected animals world wide and they cannot be hunted for sport or commerce. The Inspection Tiger team was notified of Markov's death by a local resident. When the team arrived they could not believe what they saw.

There was literally nothing left of Markov. A boot with some bone still in it, various pieces of his clothing and some bone fragments. The tiger had literally eaten almost all of him. And his dog. Trush, the leader of the Inspection Tiger team had seen tiger kills before but nothing like this. An experienced tracker, Trush soon realized that Markov had not died while stalking the tiger, Markov died after the tiger stalked and hunted him.

Trush put together various scenarios by following the tiger's tracks. The tracks were easy to follow. The tiger was injured and had an odd gait. In addition the tiger's paw prints were larger that a man's hand. This was a huge tiger. Large enough to drag a full grown man between his legs (which he did with Markov). Within 2 weeks of Markov's death the tiger struck again. Now the local residents were terrified. They wanted that tiger gone.

Trush's team secured an order to kill the tiger and the hunt began. They followed the tiger for more than 2 weeks before the trackers and the tiger met up in a quiet clearing. It did not remain quiet for long. The tiger attacked Trush and the other hunters attacked the tiger. This time the tiger lost.

This book is fascinating. Not only does it tell the tale of the rogue tiger, it delves into the psychological aspects of both humans who hunt and the animals they hunt. Both human and animal can be in the same physical space but they experience the space differently. Tigers are territorial like humans. They will defend what they perceive to be theirs. The tiger who killed Markov was doing just that.

The psychology of the tiger was interesting and frightening at the same time. The people who occupy the taiga are a breed unto themselves. Trying to move into the 21st century, they still believe in old myths and the old ways. I literally could not put this book down. While I knew how it ended, the story of how the Inspection Tiger team arrived at the ending is well worth the read.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

I will admit that I love trivia. Absolutely useless facts that just float around in my brain until I happen to need them for something. So the Encyclopedia of the Exquisite was made just for me. The book contains 300 pages of information about things that are billed as "elegant delights." And delights they are. They are also a great means of escaping the dark winter days.

A short page or two explanation of each subject is given. The entries are in alphabetical order for easy perusing. Starting with aerostation (the art of hot air ballooning) and ending with yes - billed as "a word used to express willingness or agreement" the book covers items and their true meanings that are lost in today's world. Think unicorns. However, the book does have some factual items. Among others, there are interesting sections on Kumari, the living goddesses of Nepal and obsidian, which is a black volcanic glass.

While this book is no great literary achievement it is the kind of book that is just interesting. A way to relax and maybe improve your mind.

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