Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Road to Hell

Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the first part of his epic poem Divine Comedy, has inspired many tributes since it was written seven centuries ago. From writers like Milton and Marx, to Craig Johnson, Dante's poetic vision of hell has influenced literature. Musicians, from opera to Celtic music, have based their works on some themes of this same poem. Many painters have tried to depict the reality of what Dante wrote. Wildly popular in its time, it was the first work of literature written in the vernacular and thus accessible to every man or woman (if they could read). It is on the list of books I plan to read.

Dan Brown is well known for tackling historical subjects and causing great controversies over some of his ideas. There were plenty of readers who couldn't separate fact from fiction in his early works. In Inferno (Doubleday, 2013), Brown confronts modern problems facing the world today.

(Warning: Lots of plot description ahead, but not mystery spoilers.)

The saga begins when Robert Langdon wakes up from a nightmare, shouting. He finds himself in a hospital bed with absolutely no recollection of how he'd gotten there. Or where he'd been. He assumes he must have been in an accident, because he has stitches in his head––as well as amnesia.

In his nightmare, he'd been calling out something that sounds like "very sorry." It is not until he looks out the window that he realizes that he is in Italy––Florence to be specific. He is positive that he began his day at Harvard, where he is well known as a professor of Art History and Symbology.

A doctor comes into his room and introduces herself as Sienna Brooks, but before many more words come out of her mouth, an armed assassin bolts into the room, kills one person and is aiming for Langdon. Sienna pulls him into another room and they escape. And so it begins, a chase unlike any other. Langdon and Sienna are on the run, but they don't know who is on their heels or why they are in someone's sights. From past experience, Langdon should have considered a secret organization plot, but then he was having memory problems.

La Mappa dell’Inferno by Sandro Botticelli
Their first bolthole is Sienna's sparsely furnished apartment, and their first order of business is to call the American Consulate. Sienna goes next door to find Robert some clothes and he takes a moment to look through Sienna's computer for the latest news to see if it offers any insight into what has brought him to this city. But there is nothing. Then, Langdon has just about enough time to take off his hospital gown and cover his heinie, when Sienna shows him a hidden pocket in the back of his jacket––which she has had the foresight to bring along, despite their haste. In the pocket is a mechanism that projects an image.

In this case, it is Sandro Botticelli's La Mappa dell’ Inferno (The Map of Hell), one of the more frightening visions of the afterlife ever created. As Langdon looks at it closely, he sees that there have been some alterations in the artwork and he sees things that have also been manifesting in his recent nightmares of white-haired women, blood-red rivers and the stench of death. There is also the image of a plague mask, a uniquely shaped mask with a long beak. Doctors treating plague victims, who felt the long beak kept the pestilence from reaching their nostrils, wore it. The disease also known as The Black Death killed about a third of the population in the 14th century.

This piece of artwork was a tribute to the work that has become one of the world's most celebrated writings, Dante's Inferno, which presents the poet's macabre vision of his trip through the nine levels of hell that had tortures for specific types of sins. The painting reveals a subterranean funnel of suffering with fire, brimstone and sewage, with Satan himself waiting at the bottom.

The inspection of the image is interrupted by the squeal of tires and sirens, as police cars pull up and what appears to be an armed squad of soldiers with death or capture on their minds thunder up the stairs. Langdon and Sienna flee out the back way, thinking that the US government is after them as well.

Porta Romana
For  Langdon, the most serious problem is that he has no memory. His key strength is his eidetic memory, which is his main intellectual asset. He is accustomed to recall every little detail of what he sees around him, so he struggles as he looks at the painting to puzzle out the changes made to the image. He feels sure that interpreting these changes will provide the clues he needs to help understand what has been happening to him. He decides the first clue is "seek and you shall find," a phrase written on the Botticelli painting.

Sienna's asset is a mind of incredible genius that it has set her apart from all her peers most of her life; but she lacks the art education to help Langdon.

The one thought that comes to Langdon's mind is that what he had been saying during that nightmare was "Vasari," not "very sorry," and he had to have been referring to Giorgio Vasari, an Italian painter and architect who has painted a mural at the Palazzo Vecchio. The twosome head there, and on the way Robert catches a glimpse of the white-haired woman from his dreams.

Museo Casa di Dante
To follow Langdon's scavenger hunt for clues, the author takes the couple on a historical journey through the notable sights of Florence, not missing many. Beginning at the Porta Romana part of the old walled city, they hie to the Istituto statale d'arte. They rush from there through the famous Boboli Gardens and into the Palazzo Pitti.

Sneaking out through the Buontalenti Grotto, they dash into the Palazzo Vecchio where they hasten to the Hall of Five Hundred and then escape through the Hall of Geographical Maps.

Now there comes a charge through Robert's mind, with memories and revelations hitting him like jolts of electricity.

Hall of Maps
They spring to the Museo Casa di Dante that leads to Chiesa di Santa Margherita de' Cerchi and, finally, they dart to the Baptistery of San Giovanni, with doors by Ghiberti, where they find Dante's death mask, in which there are clues that lead them to Venice and Saint Mark's Square.

Are you tired yet? This is the first rest the two have had. I needed a rest for sure! I took one.

San Giovanni
While the dynamic duo is running in circles, a great push is being made to understand the death of a well-known scientist, Bertrand Zobrist, a gene engineer, and to seek and find the legacy that he left the world before he killed himself by jumping out a high window. He was a Transhumanist who espoused a philosophy that humans should use all available technologies to engineer their own species to make it stronger, leading to survival of the fittest. Mostly, these Transhumanists are scientific futurists, visionaries and apocalyptic thinkers; believers that the end is coming and that drastic action is needed to be taken to save the future of the species.

To Zobrist, the main problem facing the world today is overpopulation. Zobrist claimed that he felt trapped on a ship where the passengers doubled every hour in geometric progression, while he tried desperately to build a lifeboat before the ship sunk under its own weight. He advocated throwing half of the people overboard. He felt the 14th-century bubonic plague was a boon to society, which was more healthy, wealthy and wise after the population was decimated––and this is what led to the Renaissance. He pushed for a similar drastic solution. Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, the head of the World Health Organization, expects the worst. Of course, the reader accepts that the paths of Langdon and Sienna's two searches are bound to intersect.

Doge's Palace, Venice

Meanwhile, the intrepid pair find a clue at The Horses of Saint Mark, speed through Doge's Palace in Venice and finally scurry to some of Dante's favorite places––like the Baptistery of San Giovanni where Dante was baptized––which leads to St. Mark's Chiesa d'Oro, where Dante met his lifelong love, Beatrice, and where Langdon and Sienna gain additional insights.

The trail leads now 1,000 miles to Istanbul, and they fly (hope they serve nuts on the plane; they haven't eaten for a long time) to the crossroads of Europe and, lastly, they race to the Hagia Sophia, the eighth wonder of the world, an amalgamation of Christian and Islamic art and architecture. I have to stop here before I completely spoil the mystery.

Hagia Sophia
You can guess that I found the endless descriptions a bit daunting. Hardly a page was without a detailed description of some fabulous church, castle, city square, or in-depth sketch of a famous personage of historical significance. One reason I really enjoyed the illustrated versions of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons is because the truism was true: a picture is worth a thousand words. The hundreds of visual images in those books brought the descriptions to life.

Readers who gravitate to codes and symbols will enjoy parts of Brown's Inferno. Firenzophiles will appreciate the travelogue, and history enthusiasts will learn a lot.

It seemed that whenever the plot got thin or repetitive, Brown tried to dazzle his audience with art, architecture and historical name-dropping. But as with other books from Dan Brown, I had to think and was left pondering the following from Dante’s Inferno: The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.

What would I be willing to do to save humanity? Something to mull over in these hot-as-Hades days.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Two for the Hammock: Dunant and Hiaasen

How's the summer reading going so far? Hitting rough seas or sailing through books like a dolphin goes through waves?

My own reading hasn't been on cruise control. It's been warmer than usual on California's Central Coast, and I've found it too easy to accelerate from zero to crabby. This has made me very finicky about books. Some need to wait until it's a little cooler. Take Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget (Europa, July 2013). The reviews for this French noir are excellent, but they contain words like "languid" and "exquisite Gallic ennui." As eager as I am to meet tired Perpignan cops Sebag and Molino, I'll wait until I'm not so heat exhausted myself. Likewise, I'll postpone the literary horror Red Moon by Benjamin Percy (Grand Central, 2013), described as "a cross between Stephen King and the Michael Chabon of The Yiddish Policemen's Union." Its lycan terrorists sound too energetic for my current listless self. It might be time to cool off with James M. Tabor's Frozen Solid, a tense thriller set at the South Pole, published in 2013 by Ballantine. It supposedly reads like "Andromeda Strain meets The Thing." No need to break into a mental sweat for that, and a lot of fun, I hope.

Here's a dissimilar duo that recently hit the spot:

As soon as I opened Sarah Dunant's Blood & Beauty: The Borgias: A Novel (Random House, 2013), I wanted to yell "that's amore!" One finds a historical note describing the city-states of Italy, family trees of these city-states' rulers, and a map of Italy at the turn of the 15th century before the story begins on August 11, 1492, with the papal election of the Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who will reign as Pope Alexander VI.

While the animal on the Borgia family crest is the bull, "everyone knows it is the cunning of the fox that runs in the family." Wily Alexander, who is both warm and ruthless, immediately sets out to amass wealth and political power through his much-loved children by his mistress Vannozza dei Caanei: cold Cesare, who resigns his cardinalcy to become a formidable politician and a genius as a soldier; beautiful Lucrezia, who enters into three politically advantageous marriages, and is close to Cesare; Jofré, the youngest, marries Sancia of Aragon for political reasons, and she then has affairs with Jofré's older brothers; Juan marries and has two children before he is murdered in 1497.

Can you think of any other family dynasty more in need of a good public relations firm than the Borgias? Through her depiction of history and psychological portraits, Dunant shows that they were more than an incestuous family of crafty murderers. They were a brutal family, but they lived in brutal times. Blood & Beauty, which ends in 1502, will be followed by another Borgias book. Given Dunant's fascinating characters, story-telling talents, and rich prose, I'll definitely read it.

It's a long way from 15th-century Italy to present-day Florida, but there are still people determined to make money and gain power through deviousness.

It's very comforting, when you're feeling kinda grumpy and sweaty, to read the crime fiction of Florida native Carl Hiaasen, in which he uses black comedy to savage the greedy, the corrupt, and the ignorant who are ruining the environment of his beloved state. His 2013 book, Bad Monkey (Alfred A. Knopf), doesn't rank with his best, but it's still plenty entertaining for people who don't have issues with raunchiness, gross-out moments, or bad language; and who enjoy oddball characters, zany plots, and poking fun at South Florida.

The story involves Andrew Yancy of the Monroe County sheriff's department, who did something bad in public with a portable vacuum cleaner to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend's husband, and Yancy will be busted down to restaurant inspector as a result. He will do anything to get his badge back, and a window of opportunity opens when the sheriff asks him to drive a severed human arm—caught by a tourist fishing on his Florida Keys honeymoon, of course—up to Miami.

There are only 250-300 of these tiny Key deer
left. They are about 2-feet high at the shoulder.
Now, you won't believe the bizarre directions the plot takes from these facts: Miami forensic pathologist Rosa Campesino is pretty and adventurous, as well as smart; Eve Stripling recognizes the severed arm as wearing her husband Nick's wedding ring and is accused by her stepdaughter Caitlin of killing him; Christopher Grunion is breaking ground on a resort at Lizard Cay in the Bahamas, displacing and angering Neville, owner of a monkey that appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean; developer Evan Shook is building a spec McMansion on the lot next to Yancy's house, and Yancy passionately hates the McMansion; and Yancy's ex-girlfriend, Bonnie Witt, is wanted in Oklahoma. There you go.

Tonight, instead of visiting the South Pole via Frozen Solid, I'm reading A.S.A. Harrison's The Silent Wife, which features alternating character portraits of Todd and Jodi, a man and wife in a marriage deteriorating to murder. I'm emulating the conditions of the South Pole, however, by accompanying Harrison's book with homemade salted caramel ice cream. I should have accompanied Blood & Beauty with an Italian gelato, and Bad Monkey with coconut ice cream, but I try not to plug in my ice cream machine when no one else is home. I'm sure you're good enough detectives that I don't need to tell you why.

I'd love to hear how your own summer reading is going.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Leighton Gage

We're very sorry to report that Leighton Gage has passed away. In addition to writing the wonderful Chief Inspector Mario Silva series set in Brazil, Leighton was a kind and generous man. We'll miss him.

Here's the announcement on Murder Is Everywhere:

SUNDAY, JULY 28, 2013


We at Murder is Everywhere are leaving the stage dark today in honor of the memory of our dear colleague, mentor and friend Leighton Gage who passed away yesterday. This is the announcement of his passing by his daughter, Melina Gage Ratcliffe:
"My mother, my sisters and I are devastated to announce the passing of our father, Leighton Gage. Thank you friends and family for all the love and support. 
A message from Eide Gage:
'My Dearest Friends,
The light of my life was extinguished last night.
Leight passed to eternity peacefully in his sleep.
Should we cry because he died or smile because he lived?'"

Sunday...From all of us at Murder Is Everywhere...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review of Ferdinand von Schirach's The Collini Case

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

When I first picked up this book, I was struck by how short it is. I estimated 40,000 words; that would make it a novella under some of the varying definitions of the word.

The Wikipedia entry for the term "novella" also notes that: "For the German writer, a novella is a fictional narrative of indeterminate length––a few pages to hundreds––restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end." That definition fits this story perfectly.

The book begins with a dry description of the contemporary killing of 85-year-old Hans Meyer in the Brandenburg Suite at Berlin's famed Adlon Hotel. It's no mystery who killed Meyer. Fabrizio Collini, a recently retired worker at Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart, turns himself in immediately.

Caspar Leinen, a newly-qualified lawyer, is appointed to represent Collini in his murder trial. Only after his appointment does Leinen learn that the murder victim is his first love's grandfather, a man with whom Leinen himself spent many happy hours in his boyhood. Complicating matters further, Collini politely, but determinedly, declines to tell Leinen why he killed Meyer.

Whatever his professional ethical obligations are, Leinen feels morally compelled to do everything he can to find out why Collini killed Meyer. The results of Leinen's investigation play out in the course of the dramatic trial, and not only provide one heck of a Wendepunkt, but also raise complex questions about the nature of justice.

There is nothing sensationalistic about the treatment of the trial's turning point. The description of the trial is engrossing, and notable for the many differences in German criminal procedure from US procedure. The tone of the book is deliberate and detached; the language direct and unadorned.  Somehow, though, that gives it an almost searing effect, and I found myself still thinking about the book several weeks after reading it. Anyone who enjoys legal thrillers should find this an unusual, but satisfying and thought-provoking read.

Ferdinand von Schirach isn't a name well-known in the US, but he has two previous well-received collections of crime short stories, titled Crime and Guilt. The Collini Case, his first novel, was a sensation in Germany when it was published there in 2011.

That last name, von Schirach, might have caught your eye if you're a student of World War II history. Ferdinand is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth organization, who was convicted at Nuremberg of crimes against humanity and served 20 years in Spandau Prison. Ferdinand is a prominent criminal lawyer in Germany.

I can't say more without spoiling the book, but Ferdinand has been open about how his family's past affected his writing of this book. If you would like to read a moving essay by Ferdinand about his Vergangenheitsbewältigung (one of those wonderful German portmanteau words, meaning the process of coming to terms with the past), you can find it here (Part 1) and here (Part 2). However, it would be best that you not read this essay before reading The Collini Case.

The Collini Case will be published in the US on August 1, by Viking.

Note: The publisher provided me with an advance review copy of The Collini Case.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Eyes Have It

Eva's Eye: An Inspector Sejer Mystery by Karin Fossum

For people like me, who prefer to read series in order, the vagaries of international publishing can be maddening, but here we finally have the first of the Inspector Konrad Sejer stories.

Eva Magnus is a divorced woman and an artist with a seven-year-old daughter, Emma. They live on a meager grant from the Arts Council and the infrequent sale of one of Eva's unusual paintings. One April day, as the ice is breaking and she and Emma walk along the river, they find a partly decomposed body washed up. Eva takes one look at it and goes to a nearby call box to phone the police, but makes a personal call instead. Then she lures Emma away from the scene with the promise of a rare treat, a McDonald's meal with a prize.

The body is identified as Egil Einarsson, age 38, married and father of a six-year-old son. He had been reported missing by his wife six months previously, just a few days after the still-unsolved strangling of a local woman, Maya Durban. He had been stabbed numerous times before being dumped into the river, and the coroner estimates that he has been dead since his disappearance, or shortly thereafter. Sejer wonders if there might be a connection between these two violent deaths, so close in time and place.

Despite the engaging character of Sejer, established at once in this first novel, and the charming human touches, the story was bleak. The whodunnit became clear fairly early, but the why kept me reading, and provided quite a twist. It was a very well-crafted procedural, but like many of the northern European mysteries, left me faintly depressed at the futility of it all.

Dante's Wood by Lynne Raimondo

At age 46, D. Mark Angelotti lost his vision due to an unsuspected genetic condition that struck him almost totally blind within a few months. After Mark spends a year adjusting to his situation, his boss, Sep Brennan, implies strongly that the Americans with Disabilities Act notwithstanding, it was time for him to come back to work––after all, a psychiatrist doesn't need to see his patients to treat them. On Mark's first day back, Nate Dickerson, a powerful surgeon, and his wife Judith come to him for help with their 18-year-old son, Charlie. The boy has a rare genetic condition that renders him intellectually stunted and incapable of ever living independently. Charlie, a handsome, shy, good-natured kid, has been having nightmares, and his mother is convinced that the art teacher at the training facility he attends every day has been sexually molesting him.

After interviewing Charlie, Mark determines that he has no issues other than those of any young sexually mature man. Judith had withdrawn her son from sex education class ("I didn't want him getting any ideas") so the boy has no idea what is happening to him during his nighttime erections. When he explains to the parents that ignorance is more likely to make Charlie a victim than to protect him, Nate chuckles and says he will take care of it. Six months later, Charlie is arrested for murdering his art teacher. When it is found that she was pregnant with Charlie's baby, Mark's career––as well as Charlie's freedom––are in jeopardy.

The legal system's handling of the mentally disabled Charlie in this story is horrific; they let him waive his Miranda rights (which he doesn't understand) and coax a "confession," with neither parents nor a lawyer present, then incarcerate him in the general population of people awaiting trial––with sadly predictable results. The legal complications of allowing Mark to testify for the defense open him up to questioning by the prosecutor, which seems to hurt Charlie's case more than it helps.

I changed my mind several times over the course of this book, but the ending still surprised me. It will be worth rereading to look for any clues the author may have dropped as well as to reenter Mark's fascinating and sometimes frightening world. Dante's Wood is an astonishingly well-plotted and written first novel, with unusual legal and medical elements, and I hope the author intends to make a series of her blind wise-cracking psychiatrist.

Eye Sleuth (A Dr. Yoko Mystery) by Hazel Dawkins

I had never heard of the field of behavioral optometry, which is a fairly new branch of vision science that attempts to correct not vision itself, but the peripheral physiology of seeing. From Wikipedia:
"Behavioral vision care is concerned with impact of visual "skills" on performing visual tasks. Various behaviors and poor performance during visual tasks may suggest non-optimal visual skills. For example this could manifest as eyestrain or adopting poor posture (e.g. leaning in too close to visual material). Another examples could be difficulty understanding maps, difficulty recalling visual information, difficulty completing jigsaws and difficulty drawing/copying/interpreting visual information."
There is some evidence that the therapy can also help with cognitive learning disorders like ADHD and dyslexia.

Yoko Kamimura is a sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) and a behavioral optometrist at SUNY, the State University of New York. In addition to working at the children's clinic, she compiles and edits the notes of Dr. Forrest Anders, a genius in the field, who has been developing revolutionary new optometric equipment. Yoko is dashing out for lunch one day when a strange woman tugs on her arm and says in Japanese, "This is a warning. There is danger." Yoko stared in disbelief as the woman falls to the ground, fatally shot.

The police seem disinclined to believe that Yoko had no connection with Mary Sakamoto, the murdered woman, or that her warning meant that Yoko's life might be in danger. A few days later, Yoko is meeting her godmother, widow of a Swedish diplomat, at the National Arts Club, for lunch. Yoko goes into the bar to wait for her. Through the beautiful stained glass ceiling she sees the shadows of two people struggling on a balcony above. One shoves the other over, and the ceiling shatters as her godmother, Lanny, breaks her fall by clinging precariously to the gridwork. Yoko looks up to see a face twisted with rage looking over the balcony. She is completely confused; was this the danger Mary Sakamoto had been warning her about?

This is a nice, light, cozy mystery; first in a series that takes place in and around several New York City landmarks. I'm still not sure I understand behavioral optometry and what it does, but I enjoyed the characters enough to try the next book in the series.

Note: I received a free review copy of Karin Fossum's Eva's Eye, which will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on August 6, 2013. Similar reviews may be posted on various websites under my user names there.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Pandora's Box of Sorting Books

Summer is a good time to give the house a sweep. Books are taking over and some must leave. Others must go back onto shelves. Sorting takes all my will power because the temptation to sit down and read is almost overwhelming. Here are some of the books I've already sorted.

One of the characters in T. Jefferson Parker's The Fallen notes that a man's life can change in a moment. Something happens and life is divided into what went before and what comes after. For Det. Robbie Brownlaw, it's a fall from a six-story building. Afterward, he can see colored shapes that give away a speaker's emotional state. His ability to detect lies comes in handy when Robbie looks into the death of Garrett Asplundh, a member of the San Diego Ethics Authority Enforcement Unit that investigates corruption in civic leaders. Garrett was killed shortly before a meeting with his estranged wife, Stella.

In addition to Robbie, many of The Fallen's other characters have fallen in a life-altering way. Into a swimming pool, prey, in and out of love, from grace, into depression, from moral uprightness, under someone's thumb. Twenty-nine-year-old Robbie, who narrates this standalone, would make a great series protagonist because he's honest and insightful. We grow close to characters Robbie and Garrett as the murder investigation proceeds. I loved this book and I'll give it away so someone else will enjoy it too.

Mary Webb's Precious Bane, beautifully written in a Shropshire dialect, transports a reader to life in rural Shropshire in the early 1800s. Narrator Prue Sarn deals with the social awkwardness created by her cleft lip, while her greedy brother Gideon, who "eats" his father's sins at his funeral in order to take over the Sarn farm and house, bowls over anyone who stands between him and money. Reading Webb is more fun than Thomas Hardy. This is the 1924 book that inspired Stella Gibbons' blackly comic Cold Comfort Farm, and I'm lending them both to a friend.

Sometimes airplane reading demands characters who constantly chase each other around, like those in Once a Spy by Keith Thomson. It's narrated by Charlie Clark, a gambler who spends 364 days a year at Aqueduct Racetrack and is deep in debt to a Ukrainian heavy. Charlie very rarely sees his father, Drummond, but now Charlie gets a call from a social worker because Drummond is wandering around the snowy Brooklyn streets in his pajamas. Although Charlie thinks Drummond retired from a job selling washing machines, Drummond was actually a crack American spy. (The washing machine salesman/spy is homage to Graham Greene's vacuum cleaner salesman/spy in Our Man in Havana.) Drummond suffers from dementia and is under surveillance by the NSA, because his old colleagues are worried that he may leak top secrets.

Drummond isn't a "cranky old geezer" like some characters Sister Mary Murderous mentioned here. Instead, he's a sweetly forgetful man with startling periods of lucidity, brought about by deadly danger, in which he turns into a James Bond figure. Charlie and Drummond hit the road, pursued by spooks. It's nonstop action and double crosses but Drummond and Charlie now have a chance to build the father-son relationship that Drummond's career made impossible. Into the giveaway box this goes.

Michael Underwood is the pen name of John Michael Evelyn, who drew on his own career in writing his legal mysteries. I like his 1981 standalone book, Hand of Fate, which begins with the facts of the case against Frank Wimble, accused of killing his wife. There isn't much evidence, only a skeletal hand bearing a wedding ring. The puzzle is put together piece by piece in the courtroom.

I like to re-read my old British mysteries when I can't settle on what to read. This one isn't action packed. It's for times when you want reassurance that the world is a civilized place where reason and logic prevail. Back onto the shelf.

My sorting and packing will take forever and will be undone by new additions. Is anyone capable of quickly sorting books? Please share your methods.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review of Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

In 1985, Greta Wells, of Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, is sliding deeper and deeper into an unshakeable depression. Her brother Felix has died from AIDs, and Greta's longtime lover, Nathan, has left her for another woman. The only person left in her life is her flamboyant aunt, Ruth, who lives downstairs.

Other methods having failed, Greta decides to try electroconvulsive therapy to shake off her depression. After the first of 24 planned sessions, she wakes up in her bedroom at Patchin Place, but everything looks different. And it is different, because inside and outside Patchin Place, it's late 1918. Greta is still Greta and aunt Ruth still lives downstairs, but Felix is alive and Nathan is married to Greta. After the second treatment, she finds herself in 1941, and after the third, back in 1985.

After only brief moments of disorientation, Greta immediately understands what has happened to her and she revels in each new-found world: "It seemed so possible that I could be somewhere else, again, that each morning would unfold anew like a pop-up book of possible lives."

As Greta cycles through the different worlds, she observes her various selves and the people she loves, and the different choices they've all made, in part because of the times they live in. And, as Ruth observes, she's always trying to make things better, to save those she loves from the wreckage.

I didn't so much read this book as fall into it. Before the story's text began, it felt magical, with its antique-style maps of Manhattan and Greenwich Village. Though it's a time-travel book, it's not about the technicalities and paradoxes of time travel. Greta's travels through time are simply the way she explores other possibilities for her life.

A not-so-antique map. Patchin Pl. is upper right.
Although the book is more about Greta's relationships than time travel, part of the book's magic is in its evocation of New York in days gone by. In that way, it reminded me of that classic of time-travel New York, Jack Finney's  Time and Again. Like its protagonist, Greta isn't so caught up in her personal concerns that she misses out on all the beauty of the alternative worlds. She exults, "I was that visitor who comes to a country and finds it charming and ridiculous all at once."

Even during times of trouble and heartbreak, Greer's characters don't just inhabit their lives; they appreciate every experience and are fully aware of all that surrounds them. As Aunt Ruth observes, "Life, it's so unlikely. It's so much better than we think it is, isn't it?"

Andrew Sean Greer, author of the 2004 best-seller, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, is a simply sublime writer. His characters are engaging, his storytelling mesmerizing and I marked many passages for re-reading, just for the pleasure of rolling his words around in my head again.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells was published on June 25, by Ecco, and I'm willing to bet it will (deservedly) be on many book club reading lists in the coming year.

Note: I received a free publisher's review copy of the book. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, and other reviewing sites under my user names there.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Late to the Party

Surely I'm not the only one who's never caught an episode of American Idol, seen the movie Titanic, or read The Hunger Games. And maybe you, like me, have found your head spinning while binge-watching Mad Men episodes out of sequence or reading a series book when you haven't read any of the ones before it. Sometimes, if you skip even one or two series books, you have a brain-bruising task just figuring out what the heck happened since you last checked in.

This is my current experience with Brian Freemantle's Red Star Falling (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013), sixteenth in the Charlie Muffin series that began in 1977 with Charlie M, and third in the Red Star Trilogy after Red Star Rising and Red Star Burning.

It's been several years since I spent any time with the wily and insubordinate Charlie Muffin. He's a British Secret Service agent, a Columbo type whose rumpled clothes and stretched-out Hush Puppies enable him to blend into any crowd, shadow his man, or disappear. There's no one better at spycraft. Yet, because he neither looks nor acts the part, he's been the target of Machiavellian maneuvers by MI6 and the CIA almost as often as the FSB (formerly, the KGB), who's been after him for 30 years.

David Hemmings plays Charlie M
As Red Star Falling begins, MI6 and MI5 folks are sitting around a table. They're attempting to fix the blame for Charlie's wounding and capture at a Moscow airport. Before the airport fiasco, Charlie had uncovered a triple agent in an FSB plot against America so audacious, I laughed out loud. Now, the intelligence services of three countries are furious, and they're juggling the fallout like spinning plates on hand sticks. Charlie's secret wife, Natalia Fedova, who is an FSB colonel, and their daughter, Sasha, as well as a couple of other high-value Russian defectors, are in the hands of the British; an FSB agent is being held by the CIA; and Charlie and several other British agents are prisoners in Russia.

It's a sophisticated case of wheels within wheels, and much of the action consists of talk. MI6 director Gerald Monsford, an inveterate schemer, wanted to have Charlie, an MI5 agent, killed; now he tries to pull the wool over wary MI5 eyes, much to his own deputy's disgust. Similarly, the CIA and FBI distrust each other. Natalia, of the FSB, wants to help her husband, Charlie, but her English handlers wonder about her loyalties. Charlie tries to outwit his Russian interrogators and figure out whether his wife and child are safe and who at home betrayed him. After this brain food, I'll head back to the first two in the Red Star Trilogy.

Sometimes my desire to read the most recent book in a series makes me read the first series book first. I want to read Oliver Pötzsch's fourth book, The Poisoned Pilgrim (translated from the German by Lee Chadeayne, and published on July 16, 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), so I read the first, The Hangman's Daughter: A Historical Novel. It creates an amazingly detailed picture of life in the Bavarian village of Schongau in the mid-1600s and features appealing main characters.

German writer Pötzsch descends from an ancient and famous line of hangmen, the Kuisls. The hangman was considered such a dishonorable profession—despite people's avidity when it came to watching people executed—that hangmen's children married into other hangmen's families, and the job passed down through generations. In the book's prologue, we meet one of the Kuisls, 12-year-old Jakob, witnessing his father botch the execution of a young woman in 1624. It was almost too much for me and Jakob, who swears never to take up his father's vocation. But 35 years later, Jakob is Schongau's executioner and the town council's torturer.

In the late 1500s, Schongau executed 69 witches.
When the dead body of a young boy is pulled from the river, village residents are horrified to see a
witchcraft symbol on his shoulder. Because the boy was known to visit the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, suspicion quickly falls on her, and she is jailed. Town aldermen have many reasons—social, political, and financial—to want Stechlin to quickly confess, but she refuses, and Jakob is instructed to make her confess before the secretary of Bavaria's Duke-Elector arrives in several days. Jakob believes Stechlin is innocent, and he sets out to prove it with the help of Simon Fronwieser, the local doctor's son, who is love with Jakob's beautiful daughter, Magdalena. As more children bearing the mark die or disappear, the tension increases exponentially until the book's satisfying finish.

I can now happily read later series books, including The Poisoned Pilgrim.

The last time I was in Portland, Oregon, I picked up Volume 3 of Russ Kick's The Graphic Canon. This three-volume anthology depicts some of the world's greatest literature in comics and visual art by 100 artists, such as Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Roberta Gregory, Yeji Yun, and Vicki Nerino. (See here for a complete list of featured works and artists.) Volume 3 begins with Robert Conrad's Heart of Darkness and ends with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It was much too beautiful for me, and I also needed to ooh and aah my way through Volumes 1 (The Epic of Gilgamesh to Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos) and 2 (Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray).

But enough from me. Take a gander at Volume 3, below, as editor Kick kindly flips through the book for you. You can also view Volumes 1 and 2 on video, too.

Trying to make sense of a series book when you haven't read its predecessors can be trying, but in a way, it's like meeting an interesting person and getting better acquainted as he or she shares history and adds more information. It's impossible to get to every party right on time, or to read every series in order, but don't let that prevent you from partying anyway.