Book Review: In the City of Bikes

In the City of Bikes - Pete Jordan

If you’ve followed Pax Plena for any length of time, you probably know that I harbor a long-suffering interest in cycling. In good faith, I can’t call myself an avid cyclist having ridden all of 21 miles since I picked up a road bike here in New Zealand. But it is fair to say that I’m a cycling enthusiast. Naturally, when I received word about Pete Jordan’s somewhat autobiographical history of cycling in Amsterdam, well, it didn’t take long to catch my attention and post a review, once the book had traversed the Pacific.

I usually don’t review works of non-fiction, but Jordan’s book In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist (Publisher: Harper Perennial; On Sale: April 16, 2013; Cost: $15.99), was a pleasant exception to the stereotype of the somber historical tome. Jordan ably makes the history of cycling in Amsterdam an entertaining read. As a survivor of high school AP European History, lo, so many years ago, I can personally attest to the fact that making history ‘fun’ is not an easy task. I’m honestly not really sure why this is the case. In most situations, history/reality are more entertaining than even the best of fiction, as recent debacles involving the Obama Administration indicate.

Even so, Jordan opens the book with a bit of autobiography explaining his love of all things bike and his incipient, young hope of making American cities more cycling friendly. It’s all quaint really. Like most urban planning majors, Jordan was without a permanent place of employ upon graduation. And, having recently gotten married, it apparently seemed a swell adventure to fold up shop, under the thin auspices of a university study abroad program, and move to Amsterdam, Cycling Mecca of the World.

Once there, however, Jordan tacitly adopts a mistress as he falls head-over-heels in love with the Venice of the North. The rest of the book follows suit accordingly, mixing an abiding love for Amsterdam with the honestly fascinating history of the city’s own love affair with cycling. I realize, having described the work so far, that it would be easy to dismiss Mr. Jordan as an overly libidinous Bill Bryson. This is my fault, not Pete Jordan’s. His history of cycling in Amsterdam is actually quite poignant in its own right. Consider this brief excerpt from the book describing the end of the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam: 

During their time in Holland, the Nazis had stolen everything that hadn’t been nailed down. If it had been nailed down, they got a crowbar, pried it free and stole it – then they stole the crowbar. Factories were picked clean of both finished products and the machinery itself. Hospitals, museums, laboratories, libraries, etc. were looted…and of the 4 million bicycles, only 2 million remained, most of which were – as one observe at the time put it – in “extremely poor condition.” p.237 – 238.

Though this excerpt isn’t exactly ‘fun,’ it is quite intriguing to gain such a pithy understanding of the depth and breath of the Nazi occupation of the Dutch and their principle means of transport. As Jordan describes the increasingly desperate situation of the Germans during WWII and the increasingly draconian regulations they placed on the Amsterdam cyclists, it’s quite easy to grasp and sympathize with their plight even though the events occurred some four generations ago. By the by, instances of history like this make me eminently thankful for America’s much maligned Second Amendment. 

Fortunately, not all of the history is entwined with the atrocities of World War II. Among Pete Jordan’s more autobiographical accounts, he explains his wife’s choice to cycle to the hospital to deliver their first-born son – who, incidentally, was not wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a bike basket:

Two weeks after the baby’s due date, we went to the hospital to have the labor induced. To get to the hospital, we could have taken a bus or a taxi. But since she’d been cycling pretty much every day since the baby’s conception – this day seemed no different – Amy Joy rode her bike to the hospital to give birth. Eventually…out came a baby boy. We named him Ferris. p.289.

Aside from the fact that his son enjoys a certifiably awesome name, the conversant style above is typical of the vast majority of the book. Readers not only gain a better understanding of the history of cycling in Amsterdam, but also a fine insight into the author and his family during what was surely a formative time in their lives. It’s enough to hope one can cycle down to the local pub and grab an Amstel Light with Jordan, et al. Well, certainly grabbing a brewski with Mr. Jordan at any rate. Amstel Light is crap beer. 

Book Review: Yesterday’s Sun

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Fate is a funny thing. In general, we tend to operate under the assumption that our decisions are freely made apart from some predetermined end – spare the errant Calvinist among us. But Amanda Brooke’s novel Yesterday’s Sun (Publisher: HarperCollins; On Sale: Feb. 12, 2013; Cost: $14.99) challenges this convention with an interesting story about human choice amid the reality of insight into a dark fate.

The bulk of the story focuses on Holly and Tom. The two newlyweds have just left the smoggy streets of London for the fresh air of the countryside. Tom dutifully works long hours as an investigative reporter for a local TV station. His assignments take him far and wide while Holly struggles at home as an artist of moderate renown. Naturally, the two never lack for money.

As the couple settle down for a life of country living, Holly finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to fit into a community with which she has no friends, no attachments and no genuine desire to change her situation. The malaise leaves Holly far more interested in settling into the new place than she should be. Eventually, her rummaging unearths a peculiar stone tucked away with a mysterious past and strange properties that give Holly a glance into a nightmarish future.

At this point, I’m a bit concerned at giving away too much of the plot. This is a concern I always have where novels have an element of mystery to contain. But it is sufficient to say that Holly finds a stone that reveals much of her future, providing answers to questions that she could never otherwise know, answers related to future children, her husband’s career, and even her own death. The whole revelation is poignantly written and leaves much for readers to consider. The best summary of the novel comes shortly after Holly discovers the stone’s prognosticatory properties:

“The choice of path isn’t free? What does that mean? Does it mean I have no free choice or does it mean something else? You said there was a price to pay.” p.175.

As I read Ms. Brooke’s novel three related questions came to mind and remained in my mind throughout. The first question involved whether such knowledge of the future is so powerful as to be altogether maddening. The second question was how such knowledge of the future might impact one’s life in the present. And the third question was how knowledge of another’s future might impact ones dealings with others. In sum, three classic questions, really, about the nature and utility of fate and its impacts on one’s relationship to the self and one’s relationship to others.

First, Holly’s discovery of the mystical moon stone provides clues and insights into her own death. This topic by definition is a morbid one; one we humans tend to avoid and when we cannot avoid the matter, it is one we tend to handle awkwardly, as recent diplomatic kerfuffles regarding the death of Lady Thatcher indicate.

But assuming it were possible to know one’s expiration date, so to speak, how would this impact life itself? It strikes me that it’d be quite difficult to enjoy much of anything – particularly as life’s end neared. Imagine waking up next to a spouse or partner and realizing day by day that the end was rapidly approaching. I suppose this accurately reflects our lot in life but the rub comes in the knowing – the day, time, and perhaps even manner of one’s end. This knowledge is at least deeply troubling, and even assuming it is not maddening, then it is certainly troublesome enough to turn one into a bit of a nihilist, which is its own special brand of mad.

Second, I suppose that knowledge of one’s mortality would also initiate a number of profound changes within an individual. It’s not difficult to imagine one with knowledge of their end who becomes a compulsive planner. For if nothing else, death sets the ultimate deadline of deadlines. Procrastination simply will not do. Knowledge of the day of one’s death might also have the effect of making an individual a superb manager. Envision being able to delegate tasks or manage one’s obligations with the crystal clear knowledge of whether the issue will matter in the end. Not interested in the afternoon, work social? Don’t go. It won’t matter when you’re dead. More inclined to take the trip than, save for retirement? Take the trip – or for that matter, don’t, depending upon the proximity of retirement and one’s untimely demise. 

And in many ways that’s the attitude Holly takes in the novel. Once she catches a glimpse into her future, she makes decisions based upon what she presumes to be inevitable. The result is that she transforms as a person. From one that is as self-centered as any young spouse without obligations might be, to one of abject selflessness as she considers the future of her husband and child rather than her own. She gains perspective. She reconsiders her priorities. Such is the clarity of mortality.

Finally, inner change is relatively uninteresting unless it is manifested in some external form, and indeed the novel abounds in examples of Holly reconfiguring her priorities in relationships with others. Rather than indulge the artistic whimsy of a wealthy client, Holly stands up to the client and asserts her own artistic expression. This is an important moment in the novel because Holly finally realizes that her inner principle of honesty is more important than any commission she might receive. I suppose this might be a bit Pollyanna-ish but the sentiment is easily mocked because so few of us live in a manner that is true to ourselves. 

The knowledge of her end also transform’s Holly’s interactions with her family and friends in a number of ways. With her husband, she begins to promptly encourage him to pursue his passions rather than weighing him down with admonitions. It’s remarkable, really, to see how their relationship transforms when this occurs, leaving one to wonder whether more marriages might be better off with an ounce of preventative encouragement than with a pound of curative apology. With family and others, Holly becomes much more open. With one friend, in particular, she allows herself to be much more vulnerable in sharing her secrets. The sense is that the burden of knowledge of the future is too much for any one person to bear and so Holly shares it with a person who is non-judgmental enough to listen. This is true of many of life’s burdens. The natural question that follows is why we try so hard to keep our problems hidden, rather than seeking the cathartic help we need. And I think these responses closely mirror what many others would do in a similar situation. Relationships with loved ones, friends – these things would all take precedence over a number of competing obligations, including professional ones. We also would probably be more apt to live lives of truth rather than lives that conform to perceived social mores.

When times becomes our most precious commodity, it’s amazing how one’s priorities can change. 

One of the great benefits of reading a work like Brooke’s is that it forces readers to reconsider their priorities. We may not know the day and date of our death, but it is within each of us to live this day as if it were our last. And that’s what Brooke’s work reminds us of. A moment spent with a friend, watching a baby jump in his bouncer, or having a drink with a spouse or partner, these simplicities make life worthwhile. And Ms. Brooke’s eminently readable novel brings that thought to the fore of a reader’s mind. 

Book Review: Canada

Canada - Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Canada (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Jan. 22, 2013; Cost: $10.67) made its way to me upon the release of the paperback version in late January. The press release described the work as a “suspenseful story of misadventure and malevolence that explores large themes of identity, culpability, and the ineluctable bonds that tie us to the past.” After a double check of the word ineluctable (viz., unavoidable), I can’t say that I entirely agree with the characterization. 

Ford’s novel is fundamentally about families and choices. Granted, the family in this particular story is highly dysfunctional, dark and, in many respect, morbid. Then again, so are most families. But actual malevolence factors into the tale only tangentially. 

The story tracks the life of Dell Parsons a high school-age boy with a twin sister named Berner. The two are an eclectic mix of ethnicities for the 1960s, born to a Jewish mother and a “Scotch-Irish, Alabama backwoods,” Air Force veteran, father. Ford develops these disparate origins quite well in Dell’s telling of his life’s story. The mother is described as an intellectual with somewhat romantic dreams of self-betterment, while the father is described as having all charm and no commonsense – in other words, a prime candidate for elected office in today’s America. 

But the story occurs in the 1960s and times are hard in Great Falls, Montana. Obviously, the life choices the parents will make set the story on an ineluctable path toward familial disintegration. But what makes the story unique is the perspective of choice it takes as events unfold. The American dream, at least in a libertarian sense, envisions individuals possessing the freedom to make choices in life so that they can further their lot as an individual. One telling of the dream might include a person rising from modest origins, making good decisions that lead him to enter into a successful career of some sort. But what makes Ford’s story about choices unique is that he explores, in depth, the ramifications of individuals making poor choices, and how these choices shape the course of events for the next generations – in this case Dell and his sister Berner.  

The dust jacket reveals that Dell’s parents will ultimately rob a bank. So, sharing this bit of information will not give away a major part of the plot that a reader would not have otherwise known. But even more interesting than the robbery is the psychology that informs the parents’ decision-making. Ultimately, the process is as much tragic as it is comic: two perfectly reasonable people decide that the best way to mitigate their present difficulties is to rob a bank. The conclusion is inexplicable, and one might be tempted to criticize Ford for being overly dramatic – that is until the multitude of stupid decisions that people make on a daily basis are also considered. American prisons are full of people who made bad decisions along the way – and that merely represents the percentage of people who were caught and held accountable for their actions. 

In this way, Ford’s book is truly unique. It challenges Americans, in particular, to think about the faith we have in our perceptions of the American dream and whether human nature actually allows us to make the good decisions that the American dream depends on. Of course, the title of the novel is no mistake either. Only a novelist as clever as Ford would use our understated neighbors to the North to critique America’s understanding of itself. 

Of course, much more happens after the parents bank robbery, including an incident of incest and the separation of the twins as an indication of the very different life choices they would make. Dell winds up in Canada living with a suspect in a decades old murder back in Michigan, while Berner heads off for the urban temptations of San Francisco. Perhaps demonstrating a bit of wisdom, the story follows Dell and his life in the wilds of Saskatchewan, including his squalid living conditions and the shock of having no one in his life who really cares. 

But in honesty this reads like Ford’s attempt to bring some catharsis to the story, rather than an elemental aspect of the novel itself. It’s interesting, but not essential. Really, parts two and three read like a different novel entirely. Ford’s admittedly minimalist prose remains but the novel loses some of Dell’s introspection. The writing alone will be enough to keep readers turning to the end. But the meat of the novel is all in part one.

Ford’s novel isn’t a beach read. In fact, I wonder whether the novel will generate much of a popular following at all. As a culture we tend not to reward talents which make us confront realities and perceptions we find uncomfortable. Of course, Ford’s work causes us to question the very essence of American exceptionalism and opportunity, so it is fair to say the book creates questions that some might find irreverent, if not nationalistically blasphemous. And because of this intrepidity, I suspect Canada will help to further solidify Richard Ford’s reputation as a serious, thoughtful novelist – assuming his Pulitzer Prize didn’t already have the same effect. 

Book Review: Petroleum Venus

Petroleum Venus - Snegirev

In ye olden days of Mother Russia, Muscovites self-medicated away their nihilism with a bit of vodka and a trusty revolver. According to Alexander Snegirev’s latest novel Petroleum Venus (Publisher: Glas Publishing; On Sale: 5 Feb. 2013; Cost: $15.00), this has progressed to relentlessly mocking one’s Down syndrome child until feelings of parental fidelity bloom afresh. 

The novel traces the life of Fyodor Ovchinnikov, a high-flying architect who is bound for the beaches of Miami when his life is upended by his parents’ untimely demise. Their sudden death leaves Fyodor to care for the teenage son that he abandoned long ago. For anyone curious as to Fyodor’s moral dilemma regarding his son Vanya, Fyodor helpfully shares his deepest contradictions quite early on in the novel’s pages: 

I was totally confused: torn by love for my son, but hating him because he’d spoiled my life at the very outset. p.24

Seems rather forthright. But for those in search of greater depth to Fyodor’s character, Snegirev tends more toward candor than intellectual variances. The statement above sums up the entirety of Fyodor’s inner conflict – one that is somehow stretched for another 180+ pages.

To give Russia’s Debut Prize winner a bit more credit, Snegirev’s forthrightness actually comes across as an attempt at brutal honesty rather than a latent effort to make Fyodor’s character seem deliberately like a jerk. But given how predictable the plot is, the theme of honesty is really so overt as to be off-putting. Another example of Snegirev’s gratuitous attempt at shock value comes later in the novel where Fyodor’s love interest Sonya (could she be named anything else?) has a meeting with a client that is ruined by Vanya when he corrects the client’s description of him as a “retard.”

When the meeting implodes, Sonya berates Fyodor and Vanya:

“I’m a down!” she mimicked Vanya. “You’ve really got something to be proud of there!” p.141

SPOILER ALERT: Of course, Fyodor’s response to the outburst is to love Vanya all the more. But the emotional and intellectual transition in Fyodor’s character from “hating him” [Vanya] to loving him is too abrupt to seem feasible. Yet the schtick is reintroduced time and time again for the better part of the entire book – that is until Snegirev mercifully kills off Vanya’s character in the end.

Assuming my premonitions above are unpersuasive, know that on the plus side, the book is a quick read. Where his characters lack depth and his themes lack development, Snegirev’s writing eases the pain by taking readers between hither and yon at a swift pace.

Alas, that’s still two hours of my life that I’ll never get back.   

Book Review: The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk

I’m not typically keen on works that push the envelope of fiction. I tend to like my literature the way I like my music. Classic. Major keys. Straight out of the Great American Song Book. But I have to say that Nell Leyshon’s latest novella,The Colour of Milk (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: January 2013; Cost: $14.95) is by far one of the more creatively written works I’ve read in recent months. And to Ms. Leyshon’s credit, it’s rather difficult to put down.

The novel traces the life of 15 year old Mary who is one of four girls born to a local farmer. Mary has the unfortunate luck of being both sharp-witted and physically disabled, a fact that makes her a liability in the eyes of her father who would rather have had a boy than a girl, and an able-bodied girl than a disabled one. Making matters even more frustrating for readers is the fact that Mary’s mother is a complete invertebrate, a passive soul who would rather see her three daughters severely punished than save them from a life of hardship and abuse. 

Mary’s elderly, invalid Grandfather is in a similar strait of ignominy amongst the family, spending his time in a cupboard beneath the stairs. Or perhaps that’s a different story. At any rate, theirs is the most honest and innocent relationship of the entire novel in that it’s not based upon any sort of quid pro quo. The grandfather loves his granddaughter unconditionally and the granddaughter loves her grandfather. Not to mention that she’s really the only person in the family to give a damn about the ailing old man.

Before the reader has the opportunity to get extremely upset with Mary’s parents, the poor lass is shipped off down the road to the local vicar’s house to tend to the minister’s dying wife. The arrangement is a hasty one, with the vicar paying Mary’s father a sum for her services as a housekeeper, whilst providing her room and board as she learns the trade of managing a household. Naturally, none of this occurs with even the facade of Mary’s consent.     

From this point, the story progresses rapidly when Mary begins to learn to read. Accordingly, the entire novel is written in lowercase, giving readers a true sense of Mary’s voice and the mental struggles she endures. In fact, it’s this theme of endurance that underpins much of the novel. Leyshon’s work challenges readers to consider their own limits in a situation of hardship – particularly the price one would be willing to pay for the gift of literacy (a gift that in most Western countries we take for granted). Mary’s lot in the story is very much imbued with this conundrum and the resolution of matters isn’t an obviously moral one.  

While I won’t reveal much more of the plot, I will add a word of caution for those interested. Mary’s situation could easily be read from the perspective of a modern, feminist social commentary on female opportunities in the 1830s. But, given that Jane Austen has more or less run the field in this sub-genre, a much better way of understanding Leyshon’s work is to appreciate the existential value it provides – think Camus’s The Stranger rather than Pride and Prejudice. Leyshon’s work requires that readers undertake a moral assessment at nearly every turn, underscoring how so much of life is lived in neither black nor white but in the monochrome of grey.

In all, it’s difficult not to recommend a novel that challenges one to question so many assumptions. Not to mention the fact that the work is well written and told from a truly unique perspective. All of the above, of course, is a tribute to this pithy author who manages to say much while writing fairly little.  

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Book Review: The Cove

A number of books made their way into print during the holiday crunch. None were so beautifully melancholic as Ron Rash’s The Cove (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: November 6, 2012; Cost: $14.99). From page one, the work is imbued with a tangible sense of sadness that amplifies the several, dark themes of the novel, ranging from xenophobia and isolation, to the question of unrequited love and the elusiveness of joy. When these elements are coupled with Rash’s masterful storytelling, the work is as beautifully tragic as it is beautifully written.

The tale follows the lives of Laurel and Hank Shelton, a recently orphaned set of siblings in their early 20s, trying to eek out an existence in the hollow of a foreboding, granite outlet known as the cove. Set during the waning months of World War I, much of the Mars Hill community has struggled to cope with the rising costs of war, including Hank Shelton, whose left arm remained somewhere in France as a result.

Upon Hank’s return, the humdrum of rebuilding the Sheltons’ farm is shaken when a mute transient named Walter happens upon the seclusion of the cove. The man proves an able worker, quickly earning the trust of Laurel and eventually Hank, although his past remains a mystery. For Laurel the chance encounter is particularly intriguing, since Walter is both an eligible bachelor and ignorant of the local lore surrounding her family, the cove and a peculiar birthmark on her leg. For Hank, Walter’s arrival is a golden opportunity to finish the necessary repairs on the farm and to leave his sister in in the care of a husband who can provide a good life for her.

Despite being cut from the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, love blooms amidst the craggy environs of the cove, perhaps as it inevitably should. Rash paints the relationship between Laurel and Walter as one of awkward innocence, rather than one of heated attraction but the approach works, giving an air of realism and honesty to the coupling. After all, most relationships are awkward at first. Only the best ones progress to being awkward in bed.

Being a tragedy, I am reluctant to divulge much more of the plot for fear of giving away some of the novel’s twists and the ending. But one theme that bears some discussion is the relationship between an individual’s landscape and their perception of reality. Rash argues that the area in which a person is reared can have tremendous ramifications for how a person perceives their lot in life. Or as he puts it, “landscape is destiny.”

On the one hand, the connection between peoples and their lands is nothing new. Cultures on every habitable part of the world have fought and died over this very concept. But Rash takes this idea and localizes it to create one of the most unique motifs in literatures – the suggestions that the landscapes surrounding us can permanently alter, for better or worse, how we perceive life itself.

Naturally, I doubt the application of Rash’s theory, but in the novel the fiction works quite well. For the Sheltons, the gloomy depths of the cove mark the beginning of a mournful provenance that runs throughout the novel. As a reader, this creates a perversely compelling dichotomy – over and over again I hoped for the best, while the characters seemed only to hope for not the worst.

Managing such low character expectations in a novel would be difficult were it not for the role of the cove itself in dashing so many hopes for both Laurel and Hank. The granite cliff creating the cove is a constant presence in the novel, lurking behind whatever joy that manages to seep into its shadows, ready to snuff out any mirth like a candle in the winter’s air. Yet, the landmark is idle, no more a character in the novel than the Great War. The hope that keeps one turning, page after page is that the characters can make an escape from such a dreary place.

Laurel Shelton describes long suffering as follows:

Waiting for her life to begin. Still waiting a year after her father’s death. But now she felt something was about to happen, maybe already had happened, a beginning this stranger might be apart of. p.47

Here, the cove serves the role as a barrier to time for Laurel, placing her life on hold, preventing her from embracing any other reality beside the doldrums of its confines.

Finally, what makes Rash’s novel particularly compelling is that he provides glimpses of the happiness that might have been, perhaps in a different place, a different era, under different circumstances. Readers have little doubt that the novel is a tragedy going in, but Rash does a powerful job of lulling readers into meditative sense of security before the bell tolls.

As love finds Walter and Laurel, she steps outside the cabin to reflect:

This was something rarer. Happiness, Laurel thought, that must be what this is. She picked up the kindling and went inside. She and Walter and Hank stayed by the hearth past mid-night, and no one spoke and no one seemed to want to, as if a single utterance might break some benevolent spell that had been cast over the cabin. p.135

For just a moment, it’s easy to forget that further tragedy awaits the trio inside the cabin. It’s easy to forget the work that went into the farm repairs in the preceding chapters, the circumstances which brought Walter to the cove, and the xenophobia against German-Americans running rampant in the nearby town.

In fiction as in life, it’s easy to sit by the hearth and enjoy the warmth. Of course, this happiness cannot last long in either realm. Life is simply too messy, too brutish, and too short, to borrow a bit from Hobbes. In Rash’s world, we are reminded how these quiet moments can be an opiate for the cold of the present.

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Book Review Preview

Between travel plans and home renovations, the first few weeks of 2013 have been consumed with nearly every task imaginable except for reading.

The books mentioned in my last dispatch are certainly in the queue, but I was excited to share another book with you that is releasing in paperback later this month with a review from yours truly to follow.

According to the press release:

CANADA, the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, is a powerful, suspenseful story of misadventure and malevolence that explores large themes of identity, culpability, and the ineluctable bonds that tie us to the past. Ford’s first book in nearly six years, it is a compulsively-readable, uncompromising tale in which a host of transgressions—including bank robbery, kidnapping, abandonment and murder—shape the life of its protagonist: a fifteen-year-old boy compelled to forge his own way when his insular family implodes. With prose at once spare and luminous, Ford renders the desolate beauty of Montana and Saskatchewan as only a great writer can, providing the perfect backdrop for this spellbinding look at the dark side of the American experience.

Again, I hope to have the review posted soon. For those wanting to snag a copy in advance, the novel releases in paperback on January 22, 2013.

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Winter Books Reviews – 2013

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It seems no sooner did I resolve to post more often then the first week of the new year slipped away.

Much is afoot here in the Sooner State. My family and I are planning a temporary relocation to New Zealand (more on that later) and it seems like the paperwork for our visa applications will never end.

Closer to home, I am planning three book reviews for the winter months – all of which look quite promising. Here’s a brief run down of coming attractions:

Ron Rash’s The Cove debuted in the Spring of 2012. The paperback came out recently, reprinting the haunting tale of an outcast girl, and a mysterious wanderer who happens upon her isolated homestead.

Alexander Snegirev’s Petroleum Venus is set for release next month. The book is on he shortlist for the Russian National Bestseller Prize. The novel depicts the relationship between a single father and his soon who was born with Down’s syndrome.

Finally, Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk was released in late December. The slim book explores the temptations of a young father’s daughter as she leaves the family farm to work for an aging couple living nearby. The young girl is introduced to knowledge of the intellectual and carnal variety as she is forced to grapple with the consequences of both.

In all, a busy schedule but one that hopefully generates many more conversations to come. As always, stay tuned.

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Book Review: The Stockholm Octavo

The Stockholm OctavoThe best novels are the ones that keep you up until 4AM, wearily turning page after page, too enthralled to sleep. The best of the best transport readers into a new reality crafted by the author and demand that readers consider something bigger than the plot itself. The truly exceptional test one’s understanding of the novel as a work of art, using mere words to touch the elusive realm of beauty. It is rare that any author is able to pull off such a feat and rarer still when a first-time author pulls it off so convincingly. But Ms. Karen Engelmann’s debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo (Publisher: Ecco; On Sale: Oct. 23, 2012 ; Cost: $26.99), is a true gem that manages to accomplish all of the above through a compelling storyline, simple yet beautiful prose, and a thought-provoking exploration of the Divine. 

By way of plot, Engelmann’s novel follows the exploits of middling bureaucrat Emil Larsson, an ambitious customs agent, stalking the ports of Stockholm during the age of monarchial revolution in the late 18th Century. Despite being of marriageable age, Mr. Larsson’s will to wed is limited by his penchant for booze, women and cards. While indulging lady luck amid the dank card rooms of Gray Friars Alley, Emil becomes well acquainted with the establishment’s proprietress, and soon receives an unsolicited offer from Mrs. Sparrow to read his cards in a special ritual called the octavo.

The eight card affair aims to disclose the eight individuals who will become central to Emil’s quest for “love and connection.” Rather than being a simple search for love like so many novels, Engelmann’s work combines the mystery of the card reading tradition with the political intrigue of the times, introducing readers to a host of memorable characters ranging from scheming aristocratic ladies, to wily peasant girls, to the King of Sweden himself, Gustav III.

The diverse gaggle of characters make the story memorable in its own right, though the plot is admittedly somewhat complex. Throughout the story, Emil is obliged to find his love only by delving into the political and social intrigue besetting the Swedish Court. This makes for numerous plot twists and character nuances that require paying careful attention to each member of Emil’s octavo – in addition to the numerous minor characters associated with the crème de la creme of Swedish society as portrayed in the novel. Ultimately, the book deftly incorporates the assassination of King Gustav III with Emil’s quest for love rather seamlessly, making it a story that can appeal to both male and female readers. In fact, so broad is the appeal that I would be shocked if the story doesn’t hit the silver screen in the near future (a real home run for Harper Collins imprimatur, Ecco).  

While the story itself is fantastic, happily, there are many more reasons to pick up Ms. Engelmann’s book, not the least of which include the beauty with which she spins her lengthy yarn. One pitfall of many first-time authors (and writers in general) is the unfortunate penchant of writing in a style far too rococo to be engaging. The borderline between beautiful writing and the kitsch is quite fine, indeed. Ms. Engelmann seems to intuitively understand this and avoids crossing the threshold of the melodramatic. This allows her simply exquisite writing to capture the description of scenes without being overly floral.

Consider this brief excerpt describing an evening Emil spends with Christian and Margo Nordén, an important husband/wife duo who operate an upscale, French boutique dedicated to the craft of producing women’s fans. Emil notes:

I treasure that exact moment: the scent of lemon oil, the warmth of the yellow-striped room in the candlelight, the delicious wine, lovely manners, and image of the two of them that pointed to a deep connection to the world and everything, everyone in it – the Octavo grown infinite. It made me both lighthearted and sorrowful. p.199.

At risk of overusing the word, what makes Engelmann’s writing beautiful is its ability to relate the thoughts and experiences of the novel’s characters in such a way that readers immediately understand the unwritten and unspoken thoughts being communicated within the story. The excerpt above demonstrates an obvious closeness between the characters, typified by Engelmann’s description of the room, the lighting, and even the taste of the wine being served. But these details, indeed the entire scene, is only intended to buttress a readers’ understanding of the Nordéns’ relationship as a foil for the same sort of connection being sought by Emil in the novel. The result is that the audience understands what Emil is looking for without the need of the author to coarsely state the obvious. In Engelmann’s case, beauty is subtlety. 

The gift of expression within The Stockholm Octavo actually speaks to the greater philosophy of relationship residing at the core of the novel – a discussion spanning the entire length of the book. At the core of Emil Larsson’s search for love is his search for connection with other people. The magic of Mrs. Sparrow’s octavo is that it is supposed to reveal those people who can further this end. But the ultimate lesson of the octavo is very different from early perceptions of its powers. At the end of the work, long after the plot has been more or less resolved, Emil frames his understanding of events as follows: 

I think the Octavo exists in a dimension all its own: defining the here and now, reaching back into the past, and influencing the future – like some great edifice eternally rising. If you decide to enter, you will indeed be reborn. The Octavo is the architecture of relationships that we build ourselves, and with which we build the world. p.409.

Engelmann’s philosophy of relationship is best defined as the courage to allow others into our lives. While Emil is searching for love, he is obliged to entertain the graces and schemes of a number of people with whom he never would have otherwise engaged. He is repeatedly described as a loner, who must venture beyond the comforts of his lodgings in order to fulfill his octavo’s quest. Along the way, he develops an “architecture of relationships” beginning with the owner of Gray Friars Alley, Mrs. Sparrow, and encompassing individuals at various levels of Swedish society. To state matters tritely, Emil exits his comfort zone and becomes embroiled in a matter of state that fills his life with excitement, adventure and perhaps love. In this way, Engelmann reminds readers of how utterly dependent we are upon those in our lives to add to its quality. And while the benefits of relationship are seldom amorous, relationships defined by philia and agape are just as important.

On the matter of theology, Engelmann presents a view of faith that is both unorthodox and skeptical of so-called, organized religions. Of God, Mrs. Sparrow notes: 

I believe that God is no father, but an infinite cipher, and that is best expressed in the eight. Eight is the ancient symbol of eternity. p.14

This strikes me as a fair enough point to contest – although envisioning God as a symbol for the infinite, an abstract mathematical notation, isn’t quite as warm as thinking about God as a loving Father. Similarly, Engelmann presents key, female protagonist Johanna Grey as the victim of a mother given over to religious fervor:

Johanna’s mother, exceptionally devout, declared that adorning oneself in garments of color was an affront to the Almighty. Human beings were born colorless, meant to spend their lives in prayer until crossing the bridge of death into a brilliant Paradise. p.63

In contrast to the bright colors of avarice found in the Nordéns shop and the tempting quarters of the villainess Uzanne, oozing with sensuality and treachery, Johanna’s Mother viewed a life void of color as the true mark of the consecrated. With all due respect to Apple’s wonderful exploration into the realm of minimalist design, Engelmann’s point is that the monochromatic life seldom begets true happiness. Life requires a certain hue that is found outside the moral artifices of black and white. Sometimes the deep red of a dress, or the blue eyes of a lover are necessary to make the daily grind worthwhile. 

And so we are left with a novel that brings description to life through a rich, thoroughly original plot\ that is coupled with both a profound rumination on life and musings about humanity’s relationship with itself and the divine.

Not a bad run at all for a novice author. 

Book Review: The Accomplice

One of my many, minor vices is the thriller/mystery novel genre. Turning the dial back to the 5th grade, I remember reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and shattering the “Book It” records for my classroom. If memory serves me correctly, this also sparked a lifelong fascination with Pizza Hut pizzas.

More recently, the works of Brad Metzler and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Kostova, Dan Brown, and Ken Follett, have all captured some of my early forays into reading. Each author spins a yarn that can rival the latest blockbuster movie, while most importantly leaving me unable to put the book down. Having read Charles Robbins’ debut novel The Accomplice (Publisher: St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books; On Sale: Sept. 4, 2012 ; Cost: $24.99), I’m pleased to have discovered an author with a similar gift.

For those outside the I-495 Beltway (that is to say the honest people of our great and blessed land), Charles Robbins is a former Congressional staffer and communications director for the late Sen. Arlen Specter’s ill-fated 1996 Presidential bid. His novel explores “what happens when ambition and power meet in the midst of a world filled with ruthless characters willing to do whatever it takes to win” – which basically means sex scandals, corrupt politicians, and backstabbing campaign operatives. Hope and change, indeed.

Being somewhat of a very minor, ex-politico, the subject matter was intriguing from my first glance at the press release. Political types tend to be a fairly incestuous brood, and no matter what one’s scruples, it seems that everyone loves a good political sex scandal. Just ask Mark Sanford.

Robbins captures this appeal to the prurient interest in a way that is eminently consistent with good storytelling and political intrigue. From clandestine meetings with vulnerable campaign volunteers (p.113), to cozy luncheons with the candidate’s wife (p.241) (Which, incidentally, takes place at Piccola Italia restaurant in downtown Manchester, NH – home to the best broccoli, chicken and penne I’ve ever eaten), Robbins takes readers into the seedy underbelly of major political campaigns where ethics and idealism meet realpolitick.

The plot is, of course, much more interesting than salaciousness for its own sake. Drawing from his political background and his bygone days as a print newsman, Robbins’ tale is also rich in the details of internal, campaign subterfuge, pitting the objectives of campaign bosses against the pseudo-power of local party elites (p.259). By the time Robbins winds up his thriller, a murder and a financial scandal have embroiled the once idealistic staffer who serves as the novel’s the main character.

Naturally, I realize that the plot summary above (which purposefully tries to obscure anything that might give away the ending and any important subplots) does a supreme injustice to the actual writing and the work itself. This highlights, I think, a basic tension in the mystery/thriller genre itself – whether a work is defined by its plot or by its pace. The former requires a great deal of focus on the events of the novel and the characters that appear front and center throughout. Novels defined by their pace, on the other hand, tend to move confidently ahead, pulling readers to the next line, paragraph, and page almost involuntarily. These are the kinds of books that you can read into the wee small hours of the morning and never miss that the world has long been fast asleep.

It should be obvious that Robbins’ work hails from the clan of books defined by their pace. Those seeking exquisite prose would do well never to open any book in this genre but this is particularly true of Robbins’ debut piece. The language is coarse yet purposeful. Almost utilitarian. As if the words themselves are a hinderance to the story being told in the mind’s eye.

Robbins’ idea is not to wow readers with his doubtless, ample Princeton vocabulary. The goal is to suck readers into the abyss of campaign life and the ethical dilemmas, or lack thereof, facing all those who dare to enter Roosevelt’s arena. This makes it very easy to become absorbed in the story and to stalk the dank hotel rooms of the campaign trail along with Henry Hatten.

In all, the novel is a timely release, particularly with the election taking place today. For the political junkies and mystery enthusiasts among us, Robbins’ tale will fit nicely into a fall reading list. My view from the cheap seats is that it’s an excellent read from an engaging, new author. Here’s hoping Mr. Robbins’ first work is not his last.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad