Monday, August 31, 2009


For those of you who have read Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky (see Anna's blog for a refresher), you will enjoy the article in today's NY Times reflecting on the life of Bowles as we approach the 60th anniversary of the publication of this novel. For would-be writers, take heart: the publisher who had paid him an advance rejected the manuscript because it was "not a novel."

If you haven't read this book, now would be a good time.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Speak and Listen

In 2003 Jon McGregor was twenty-six when his first novel was published in Britain and nominated for the Booker Prize. “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” is a haunting story of the events that transpire over a day, on a block of row houses outside London at the end of summer.

There are two narrators who describe the events. One is the poetic storyteller who brings us into each of the flats on the street, identifying the characters only by the number on their doors…“the boy from number eighteen” who collects weird junk, “in number sixteen, the man with the young daughter…” who could not save his wife from a burning house, ect. The alternate narrator is a young girl who lived on the street and is telling the events that happened as she relives them three years later.

The storyteller brings us into the homes and minds of the many characters who live on the street. We learn their stories, their hopes, and their fears as the day unfolds in an unremarkable way. But the young girl has elusively told us, on page 7, that as the day ended something tragic and unexpected happened on the street that all the neighbors watched, transfixed and stunned. The event itself is not revealed until the novel’s conclusion.

An underlying theme of the story is the secrets that the people on the block are hiding from each other. The man with the scarred hands,(in number 16) tells his daughter, “…if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?”

Jon McGregor has written a good novel that can be difficult to follow because of the structure. Not having names, but only flat numbers to identify the characters, makes it difficult to immediately distinguish one character from another. The build up to the startling ending scene made it anti-climactic for me, but style of writing, which is very poetic and colorful, and the strange twist of events at the end of the story made this a very enjoyable read.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Right and Wrong

One of the perks of using LibraryThing is the Early Reviewers promotion. Each month they offer you a chance to receive a newly published book prior to general release. There are many requests for these books, so you don't always get one, but occasionally you do. So each month I look over the list and pick books I think might interest me. I try to avoid books about plucky young mothers, vampires, sci fi, and divorced older women finding love in exotic locales. But I'm a sucker for cop stories. So when I saw the book Rizzo's War, a first novel by Lou Manfredo, who worked for twenty-five years in the Brooklyn criminal justice system, I went for it.

Because it was a first novel, I assumed the book would not be very well publicized, but I was definitely wrong about that. The first page blurb trumpets a Major Marketing Campaign with a first printing of 100,000 copies. What's more, the book contains a Promotional Sampler CD read by Bobby Cannavale (loved him in “The Station Agent”).

So, is Lou Manfredo the next Richard Price?
Well, not exactly. Not many crime writers can match Price's ear for dialogue and his gritty descriptions of the cops and perps in the urban landscape. I doubt that Price, when describing detectives reworking older cases, would have said they were “clearing them slowly like stout, mature trees in a dark, foreboding forestry”. Ouch. But Mancuso does some things well. He certainly know his Bensonhurst geography. And he knows police work.

The plot is familiar – veteran detective Joe Rizzo is paired with ambitious, idealistic rookie detective Mike McQueen, who respects Rizzo but isn't sure he trusts him. Joe's mantra is: “There's no wrong. There's no right. There just is”. As they work a politically sensitive case involving the disappearance of a powerful councilman's daughter, they are led down a twisted path that takes them from biker gang hangouts to church rectories. And in the end (surprise!) the young rookie learns the wisdom of Joe's mantra.

Although the prose was sometimes awkward, I enjoyed the authenticity of the characters, and the cases they worked, the compromises they made, even the restaurants they ate in, all rang true. I admire that Manfredo tried to do more than just tell a detective story; he attempted to deal with the moral ambiguities that his characters faced.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Wrinkle in Time

Audrey Niffenegeger’s debut novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife” is now a number one best seller and a movie based on the book will come out this week. I usually will try to read the book before I see the movie but I was somewhat dubious when I purchased this rather large book. After reading this 537 page book in a very short time I am happy to say that this is a wonderful first novel by a skillful and innovative writer.

The "Time Traveler’s Wife" is a story about a man who is an involuntary Time Traveler. This is a complicated phenomenon which the author has carefully structured so that the reader can follow and understand, for the most part, what it can mean to travel in time. The main characters are Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire. They first meet in 1977 in the meadow behind Clare’s house when she is six and Henry is thirty eight. Henry continues to visit Clare in the meadow as she is growing up and he is time traveling. She is fascinated by Henry and feels that she is completely connected to him. But they don’t meet in real time until 1991 when Clare is twenty and Henry is twenty eight. Henry doesn’t recognize Clare because he was thirty eight when he first met her in the meadow. Confusing? Not really, because the author skillfully begins each chapter with the exact date and the corresponding ages of Henry and Clare to orient the reader. Each chapter is written in the first person narrative using both Henry and Clare’s perspectives.

Time Travel is a very interesting concept and it makes for an exciting, suspense filled story. As Clare and Henry fall in love and attempt to have a “normal life” Henry’s travels can be both amusing and frightening. He will disappear without warning, leaving his clothes behind. Then he will arrive in a past or future time naked and not sure where he is, which can be funny but also troublesome and dangerous. But the author never lets the plot get too convoluted.

In an attempt to make their lives more normal Henry goes to a doctor to cure him of his chrono-displacement. There is an very interesting medical component but this is ultimately a love story based on unconditional love and trust that spans a lifetime. Audrey Niffenegger has written an imaginative, poignant story that I did not want to put down or to end. The characters are real, passionate and believable. This is a book I highly recommend and I hope will translate to a great movie.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Western Love

Good news – another Ron Carlson book has arrived. Our Book Club recently read and loved his “Five Skies” - spare but elegant prose, beautifully rendered characters, wonderful descriptions of the stark beauty of the western landscape. Does The Signal deliver more of the same? It does.

As before, we have a strong but damaged man. This time his name is Mack, and his struggles to hold on to his family's Wyoming ranch have led him to crime and alcohol, and have cost him his marriage. Now he has a chance for some semblance of peace and redemption. His ex-wife Vonnie has agreed to take one last fishing trip with him in the mountains, a trip they have taken each September for ten years. But Mack has another motive. He is secretly receiving a signal on his hidden Blackberry that may lead him to a piece of equipment his shady employer wants to recover. Carlson doesn't reveal much detail about this mission, but as the trip progresses the tension mounts, and the book becomes both the examination of a failed marriage and a terrifying thriller.

What can I say about Carlson's prose? One critic calls him “Hemingway without the misogyny and self-parody”. He has wonderful descriptions of the Wind River range, a glacier-carved mountain range in central Wyoming (I was there once and can attest to its stark beauty). Through flashbacks he shows us how Mack got to where he is. These include understated but emotional scenes with his father, whose sudden death still haunts Mack, and warm and funny scenes of his early romance with Vonnie. Does it pack the wallop that “Five Skies” did for me? Maybe not quite. The characters are a little less complex and nuanced, the plot a little more revved up. But I'm nitpicking. Ron Carlson's taut, elegant writing is a joy to read.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Classic Revisited

What Happened to Anna K. - I loved Tolstoy's “Anna Karenina” so I was tempted by the title, and since I was already on a Russian kick I decided to try it. But why would anyone attempt to update a masterpiece? In Irina Reyn's re-imagining of the classic story, the characters are Russian Jewish immigrants living in Queens and Manhattan. Anna is married to a well-to-do older businessman named Alex, a marriage which has allowed her to escape the immigrant community of Rego Park, Queens, for an expensive apartment on the Upper East Side. But she is a romantic, and at a New Year's party given by her cousin Katia's family, she meets Katia's boyfriend David and is smitten. Meanwhile Lev, a former schoolmate of Katia's, has long harbored a secret passion for her.

Got it? It's Vronsky and Anna, Kitty and Levin. And it's not as if you don't know how it's all going to turn out (Spoiler alert: the number 6 train). So what kept me reading? Partly because I admired Reyn's cleverness. In the original version Anna inadvertently reveals her feelings for Vronsky to her husband when they are watching a horse race and she reacts emotionally to Vronsky's fall. In Reyn's version, David is running the New York Marathon when the fall occurs. Nice touch.

Reyn, herself an immigrant, creates a vivid picture of the Russian Bukharian-Jewish community in Queens. The restaurants and discount clothing stores, the rituals at weddings and parties, even the descriptions of Anna's wardrobe, all seemed grounded in reality. Her writing is full of humor, and she does good job of getting inside Anna's head, of convincing us that a twenty-first century American might struggle with the same passions and fears as a nineteenth century Russian. I would certainly never recommend that you read this book instead of the original, but it provides an entertaining re-invention and is a great reminder of the universality of Tolstoy's classic.