A Sudden Light — Book Review (and Giveaway!)

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Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest. I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
Garth Stein, A Sudden Light

Yesterday, while he was fitting me for new sneakers, the salesman asked me what my favorite book was. (How did the subject come up, you wonder? Never one to waste a moment of potential reading time, I was reading a book while waiting my turn in the shoe store.) I told him that was an impossible question to answer — I could only give him a list of my favorite books. “No,” he said. “You have to pick one. I’ll start. Mine is Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.”

OK, I thought. Fair enough. I wanted to get my sneakers and move on with my day. So I said the first book that popped into my mind: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  When I described the book, he was fascinated — it turns out he is an auto racing fan AND a dog owner. Not that those characteristics are necessary for a person to enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, but that lucky coincidence made it a sure bet. When the salesman told me he “still likes paper books” and that he didn’t think there were any bookstores left in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I gave him directions to Lake Forest Book Store, 10 minutes away from the shoe store. I hope he went.

Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t my favorite book (as I said, there’s no such thing) 9780061537967but it is a book that I hold close to my heart. I’ve read it, reread it, underlined favorite passages, and listened to it on audio. No critic would call it a literary masterpiece — it’s not multi-layered, it’s sentimental, and the writing, while lovely, is not distinctive. It’s more what I would call a little jewel of a book — not ambitious in its scope, but perfect at what it sets out to do. Enzo, the dog who narrates the book, has a voice that no reader will ever forget. I hate to use the word “uplifting”, but that’s what this book is, even with the inevitable sadness at the end.

Stein published The Art of Racing in the Rain in 2008, so it’s been a six-year wait for his fourth novel, A Sudden Light. (Stein is also the author of two previous novels, which I haven’t yet read.) A Sudden Light has some elements in common with The Art of Racing in the Rain: the Seattle setting, a compelling narrator — in this case, a precocious 14-year-old boy — and an air of mysticism.

Trevor Riddell’s  bankrupt, recently separated father, Jones, brings him to his grandfather’s mansion (Riddell House) in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father and his Aunt Serena from carrying out their plan. Trevor badly wants the plan to succeed, because he thinks that if his father has money in the bank he and his mother will be more likely to reconcile.

A Sudden Light is told from the perspective of Trevor as an adult, telling the story of the fateful summer when he lived at Riddell House with his grandfather (who may or may not have dementia), his Aunt Serena (who may be mentally ill, evil, or perhaps both), and his  father (who is a lost soul, trying to find his way back to his wife and his son, and to come to terms with his dysfunctional family). Trevor’s voice captivated me right away, and I read eagerly for the first third of the book.

Then things became problematic for me. Trevor discovers (too easily) old family diaries and letters that reveal many ugly secrets. He encounters a ghost, who helpfully fills in the missing parts of the sordid Riddell family history. Aunt Serena, Trevor’s father’s sister, who has never married and lives with her father as his caretaker, displays increasingly erratic and sinister behavior. I found it especially creepy that she always addresses Trevor’s father as “Brother Jones”.  She — like some of her Riddell ancestors — was too much of a stock villain to be a believable character.

I should admit I have a problem with ghosts. I think they are usually a silly plot device. Usually, when a ghost appears in a novel, that is the moment when I lose interest. That didn’t happen right away in this book, because I held out hope that the ghost was a figment of Trevor’s imagination. I don’t want to give anything away, but the ghosts do turn out to be other than what they originally seem. Still, not long after the ghost showed up. I began finding the story contrived and unbelievable. I’m not sure why I can easily accept a dog as a narrator, but not a ghost as a character. Maybe it’s because it is a fact, accepted by every sane human being, that dogs do not narrate books, while apparently there are reasonable people who believe in ghosts.

Trevor Riddell is one of those people. He has a difficult time convincing his mother, a brilliant scholar of comparative literature, that the Riddell House ghosts exist: “‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I thought you were making up stories — going a little crazy in this house with your imagination and nothing to keep you occupied. I didn’t know how to believe you. I’m so sorry'”. Trevor’s mother has spent her life as an agnostic, accepting the inexplicable. The connection Trevor feels with the ghosts of his ancestors helps him develop a faith that sustains him:

Perhaps that’s what life is about–the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.

I’d love to hear what other readers think of A Sudden Light. I have a hardcover copy (untouched by me; I read the ARC) to give away. Here’s how it works:

  • To enter, leave a comment or email me at bksonthetable@gmail.com.
  • The giveaway is eligible to followers of Books on the Table in the United States.
  • Winners will be chosen randomly on November 5 and notified by email.
  • There are over 30 other blogs participating in the literary blog hop and they are offering some great giveaways, so check them out!

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Nonfiction Friday — 10 Favorite Survival Books

9780141001821MI just saw a preview for the movie version of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. (And by the way, when did the word “trailer” creep into common usage, replacing the unpretentious and much more accurate “preview”?) Seeing a clip from the movie –which included a glimpse of the deadly white whale — reminded me how much I enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick’s enthralling account of the survivors of the sinking of the Essex. (It won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.) I’ve had a strange fascination with survival stories, especially those that take place at sea, ever since childhood.

I grew up near the ocean, and spent most of my summers on boats. I remember lying in my cozy bunk at night, reading Survive the Savage Sea (originally published in 1973, and still in print) by the light of a little battery-powered lamp. Dougal Robertson’s book describes how his boat was sunk by a pod of killer whales, and how his family managed to survive for 38 days in a little dinghy with few provisions. As I recall, they had little more than a bag of onions and some fruit. I felt a little guilty when I complained about the stale cereal and canned vegetables we ate on our boat.

When I ran out of tales of shipwrecked sailors, I turned to adventure on land. Alive, by Piers Paul Read, was shocking and gruesome– so it was right up my 14-year-old alley. I don’t think my tastes have evolved much, because I continue to be intrigued by true stories of bravery in the face of danger. The best one I’ve read recently is In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides. Sides, a journalist and historian, has written several other excellent works of nonfiction; I especially liked Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission, about a daring raid on a POW camp in the Philippines.

Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of an historical event. 9780385535373Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, takes place at the other end of the world. The book (originally published in 1959) was just re-issued in honor of the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s amazing expedition. It’s deservedly a classic. And it’s more uplifting than many survival stories; Shackleton’s entire crew survived their ordeal.

Several members of Teddy Roosevelt’s party in The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard, were not so lucky. After he lost the presidential election in 1912, Roosevelt planned an expedition to explore the River of Doubt, a previously unmapped tributary of the Amazon. I recommend this book over and over — it’s on its way to becoming a classic in adventure literature.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, has to be one of the most moving stories of survival ever written. All I can say is that if you haven’t read it, you should. I also think it should be required reading for all high school students. Especially the ones who think they’re deprived if they don’t have the latest iPhone.

9780061988349Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, by Mitchell Zuckerman, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured. This book didn’t get the attention it deserved when it was published, but it’s one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read.

Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Heretic Who Led History’s Greatest Mutiny, by Mike Dash, has it all: shipwreck . . . mutiny . . . murder . . . and survival. When a Dutch ship sinks off the coast of Australia, the survivors take refuge on a desert island — where they are at the mercy of a fanatical band of mutineers. It’s another “truth is stranger than fiction” story that reads like a thriller.

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That9780374280604 Set Them Free, by Héctor Tobar, probably shouldn’t be listed as one of my favorites — because I haven’t read it yet. But I have heard so many glowing reviews from trusted sources that I am pretty sure I am going to love it. Here’s what the Los Angeles Times reviewer has to say:

The miners’ journey into the underworld and their miraculous return is an epic tale for all time. In his new book, Deep Down Dark, journalist and former Times staffer Héctor Tobar proves equal to the occasion. Weaving together the drama of the miners’ harrowing ordeal below ground with the anguish of families and rescuers on the surface, Tobar delivers a masterful account of exile and human longing, of triumph in the face of all odds. Taut with suspense and moments of tenderness and replete with a cast of unforgettable characters, Deep Down Dark ranks with the best of adventure literature.

What determines whether a person survives an ordeal? Obviously, luck is the most important factor — but, as all these books show us, some people possess an indomitable spirit. Louis Zamperini, hero of Unbroken, says:

Yet a part of you still believes you can fight and survive no matter what your mind knows. It’s not so strange. Where there’s still life, there’s still hope. What happens is up to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WWW Wednesday

What did you just finish reading? What are you currently reading? What do you think you’ll read next?

short-and-tragic-life-of-robert-peace-9781476731902_lgLast night, I finished The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. It was a miserable,rainy day in Chicago, and I was lucky enough to spend most of the day reading. Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers. I can’t imagine a better book for book club discussions. To learn more, read the excellent review in the New York Times.

I’m reading two other books right now — An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award) and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I always like to have at least two books in progress, one paper book and one e-book. I much prefer reading “real” books, but I love reading in bed, and in the interest of marital harmony, I stick to e-books late at night.

9780802122940An Unnecessary Woman is about Aaliyah, a 72-year-old retired bookseller living alone in Beirut, translating her favorite books into Arabic:

I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.

In an NPR interview, the author says the book asks this question:, “How do we balance an inner life with an outer life and how important is each?” I’m really savoring this book — although I’m still rooting for All the Light We Cannot See to win the National Book Award.

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to 9780385535373helping people who have been denied fair treatment in the justice system.  One early review refers to Stevenson as a modern-day “Atticus Finch” — which is ironic, because Stevenson reminds us that Atticus Finch actually lost his case in To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve just read the first couple of chapters, but I’m finding the book fascinating and eye-opening.

What’s up next? My book club will be discussing Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng at our November meeting, and I can’t wait to start In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. Jeff and I will both be reading that, because we have plans to get together with another couple and talk about it over dinner. What about you? What’s on your list?

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An Unabashed Sales Pitch for Author Events

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly reading from The Tilted World

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly reading from The Tilted World

Author events are often memorable experiences; when things go right, they can be magical. (I dislike calling them “readings” or “signings”. Yes, author events almost always include reading and signing — but events that truly connect readers and authors involve much more than that.) There’s something very special about meeting an author and hearing him or her read from and discuss a beloved book.  I feel very fortunate I’ve had the chance to hear some incredible authors read from their work — Chris Bohjalian, Ann Hood, Elizabeth Berg, M.L. Stedman, Jan-Philipp Sendker, Gillian Flynn, Bob Spitz, Melanie Benjamin, Lisa Genova, Robert Kurson . . . too many to list. I’ll never forget choking up as I listened to Richard Russo describing how his mother’s example taught him to fall in love with reading.

However . . . so much can go wrong with author events. Maybe hardly anyone shows up, and it’s embarrassing and awkward for all involved. Perhaps the author reads . . . and reads . . . and reads, not noticing that the audience is shifting in their seats. Maybe the author gives a terrific presentation, reads a lovely teaser from the book, answers some interesting questions . . . and then everyone departs without buying the book. Or possibly we’ve misjudged the size of the crowd, and we run out of chairs — or worse, books.  And there are the inevitable  problems that prevent authors from arriving at the venue: flight cancellations, traffic jams, weather issues (which have included flooding and blizzards), and family emergencies. We organized an event with ornithologist David Sibley and his plane suffered a bird strike. You just can’t anticipate everything that might happen.

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Anton DiSclafani at a luncheon in her honor

Almost without exception, authors are gracious and delightful people, surprisingly skilled at public speaking and answering questions from readers. (I say “surprisingly” because I imagine many of them are introverts and need to make a huge effort to be outgoing.) I’m sure they hear the same questions over and over: “What’s your writing routine””; “Where do you get your ideas?”; “What have you been reading lately?”; “What’s your next book about?”; ad infinitum — but they nearly always respond warmly and enthusiastically.

At a booksellers’ conference, I once was seated at a lunch table with six or seven authors. They spent the entire meal one-upping each other with tales of their most humiliating events. I had a few anecdotes of my own to add — including the time the author told the audience not to buy the book from our store, because it was “cheaper on Amazon”.

Without getting involved in a discussion about Amazon (which is far beyond the scope of this blog post), let me say one thing: Amazon does not bring authors to your community. Publishers decide which authors to send on tour and then pay for them to come to a bookstore, library, or community center near you. Someone from your local bookstore coordinates the arrangements with the publisher,  finds a location, orders the books, publicizes the event — and then crosses his or her fingers that you show up,  and maybe even buy the book the author is promoting. More often than not, author events are free. I’ve attended more than I can count, and I don’t think I’ve ever left thinking that I wasted my time — even when I thought the event was close to disastrous. There’s always something to learn.

I know not everyone is lucky enough to live in an area where author events are frequently held. I am envious of New Yorkers, who seem to have dozens of events to choose from every day of the week. As publishers’ budgets get tighter, fewer and fewer authors are sent on tour. Some authors go on the road at their own expense, organizing their travel and gratefully accepting invitations from book clubs. There are very few prima donnas among authors. (We did have a request from one well-known author for a particular brand of tea, but that’s unusual.) I hope you have the chance to go to an author event soon — it’s the best entertainment bargain available!

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Gutenberg’s Apprentice — Book Review

9780062336019Books everywhere, and costing less than manuscripts — in quantities that simply stun the mind. Imagine how the world would look if anyone could buy one.
Johann Fust, to his son, Peter Schoeffer

What needs has any man, besides those needs we share with beasts? And then I knew: he has to read.
Johann Gutenberg, to his apprentice, Peter Schoeffer

Mass-produced books were a radical concept in 1450. Peter Schoeffer — who would become Johann Gutenberg’s apprentice and later, “the wealthy founder of the greatest printing house in all of Germany” — initially scoffs at the idea. Trained as a scribe, Peter sees the printed page as “a crude and ugly copy of the best that man can do.”

Peter’s adoptive father, Johann Fust, a wealthy merchant and bookseller in Mainz, provides Gutenberg with financial backing. His investment includes Peter’s labor as an apprentice in Gutenberg’s hellish workshop, working 14 hours a day “sweating, stoking, crushing, pouring.”

They cast no letters for the whole first month. Instead they smelted, wreathed in noxious smokes, to try to find a metal alloy that would hold. They stooped around the forge like witches, eyes red-rimmed, hands black, their faces draped in clotted veils.

Throughout his relationship with Gutenberg, Peter never learns what drives the brilliant and abrasive “madman”:

What kind of man was this? What kind of stunted and inhuman being, to whom Peter had been yoked? For all the years he worked with him, he tried to understand. The truth was that he never really knew. Peter came as close as anyone: he’d seen the master’s childlike wonder and delight, and then the darkness that erupted, demons lurking just beneath the surface every time.

three-men-readingOf course, Gutenberg’s Apprentice is historical fiction. Little is known about the personalities and motivations of the novel’s three major characters — Gutenberg, Schoeffer, and Fust. That is the beauty (and the danger) of historical fiction. The novelist is able to imagine the interior lives of people who left behind few records of their thoughts and dreams. In an interview, author Alix Christie paraphrases Hilary Mantel:  “Writers of historical fiction stand on the shoulders of giants – the scholars who actually excavate the past.”

Alix Christie uses a clever and effective framing device to tell Peter Schoeffer’s story. The novel begins with, and is punctuated by, the 60-year-old Schoeffer’s conversations with Abbot Trithemius, a monk who wants to learn about “the true beginning of the glorious art of printing”.  Peter is reluctant to “blacken the master’s name” and reveal the crucial roles he and  Fust played in Gutenberg’s enterprise. He wonders if “what they made will prove a force for good or ill”.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is rich with historical detail — perhaps too rich for some readers. The politics of church and state in medieval Mainz were corrupt and complicated, with feuds involving church authorities, merchants, and townspeople. In 1462, Archbishop Adolf II sacked the city, killing hundreds of citizens. While it’s important to understand the political and religious climate in Mainz during the time Gutenberg’s Apprentice takes place, the sheer amount of detail can be confusing and at times detracts from the main storyline.

Christie, like the hero of her novel, was apprenticed at a young age to master printers, starting with her grandfather. She now owns and operates a 1910 letterpress. In 2001, she read a brief article in the New York Times about new discoveries that scholars of early printing were making about Gutenberg’s first types. Her interest sparked, she learned that Gutenberg was not a lone genius, as previously believed, but succeeded with the help of two key partners.

The invention of the printing press — believed by many historians to be humanity’s most important invention since the wheel — transformed society in ways that Gutenberg and his contemporaries could never have envisioned. In a letter to readers, Christie says: “My aim was not simply to record history, but to explore the interior struggles of people living in a time of cataclysmic change with eerie echoes of our own”.  Digital technology has profoundly changed our society — and in ways that pioneers of the computer age never anticipated.

It’s interesting that Christie chose a quotation from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs for one of the novel’s epigraphs. I read recently that Jobs, like many other technology engineers, didn’t let his young children use iPads and iPhones. Digital technology, like the printed word, is powerful. Christie comments in an interview, “There is an uneasiness, a concern among some, that these magical devices are changing something essential in our nature.”

I have always loved books — not just reading them, but feeling the weight of them in my hands and looking at them on my shelves (and on my tables, my floors, in my car . . . everywhere). I feel comforted when I am in a room surrounded by books. Recently, though, I’ve been reading more e-books, and I enjoy the convenience when traveling and the ability to read in bed in the dark. But reading an e-book just isn’t the same experience for me. Reading Gutenberg’s Apprentice made me wonder how much of our pleasure in reading has to do with reading words printed in ink on paper.

Jason Merkoski (one of the developers of the Kindle) says, “I think we’ve made a proverbial pact with the devil in digitizing our words”. Merkoski, who says he “worked in a modern version of Gutenberg’s workshop” wrote a book called Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading, in which he waxes poetic about his love of print books (“If you’re like me, you’re passionate about books as things you can touch, that you can dog-ear or annotate, and that have covers you’ve come to enjoy”) but then goes on to say that reading is becoming a technology-based experience and that the culture of reading is evolving in a positive way.

Merkoski’s book is certainly self-serving, but he raises some interesting questions. Physical books, he says, have limitations and e-books are their natural continuation, adding to the reading experience. E-books, according to Merkoski, enhance reading by making what was once “primarily a solitary and individual activity” a social experience. What do you think? Are e-books the next step in an evolutionary process that hasn’t moved forward substantially since the 15th century? Or are they, as Peter Schoeffer might say, “crude and ugly” facsimiles of “real” books?

The Gutenberg Bible was unveiled at the first Frankfurt Book Fair (founded by Peter Schoeffer) in 1454 — 560 years ago this week.  Happy Birthday to the publishing industry!

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10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)

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Liar Temptress Soldier Spy — Book Review

Liar Temptress Soldier SpyShe risked everything that is dear to man — friends — fortune — comfort — health — life itself — all for the one absorbing desire of her heart — that slavery might be abolished and the union preserved.
Epitaph on Elizabeth Van Lew’s tombstone

If your only exposure to feisty Civil War women is fictional heroine Scarlett O’Hara, you are missing out on some fascinating literature about real-life heroines. Last week, I reviewed I Shall Be Near to You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s historical novel based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Wakeman, like hundreds of other women, assumed the identity of a man and fought in the Civil War. Now I’m reading Neverhome, by Laird Hunt, another historical novel inspired by the letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

Rosetta makes a cameo appearance in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Karen Abbott’s rollicking chronicle of the exploits of four female spies.  When Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy with a very high opinion of herself, was arrested and imprisoned, her guard was “Private Lyons Wakeman” of the 153rd New York:

When Belle blew kisses to the blue-eyed, five-foot-tall soldier she was unwittingly flirting with a woman: twenty-year-old Sarah Rosetta Wakeman who had left her home in upstate New York a year earlier and reinvented herself as a man. She signed many of her letters home “Rosetta”, confident that her true identity would remain secret as long as she needed it to be.

Truth is certainly stranger than fiction, an adage that Abbott demonstrates in Liar Temptress Soldier Spy. Many events seem unbelievable; I kept having to remind myself I was reading history, not historical fiction.  Abbott skillfully weaves the stories of each of the four women into one suspenseful narrative. Divided into five parts — one section for each of the war years, plus a final section about the women’s lives after the war — the book is much more than a collection of stories about four brave and independent women. It’s a painstakingly constructed history of the Civil War, based on the experiences of women who “chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war”. Each woman’s distinct personality comes to life on the page, thanks to the diaries, letters, archival notes, transcripts, and family stories that Abbott used in her research.

Belle Boyd literally got away with murder — she shot a Union soldier in her own home and then dared his compatriots to shoot her: “‘Only those who are cowards shoot women,’ she said, and spread open her arms. ‘Now shoot!'” She was later exonerated, and began a career in espionage, always looking for the chance to become the center of attention. Infatuated with Stonewall Jackson, she seized the opportunity to deliver a message to the general:

Hope, fear, the love of life, and the determination to serve my country to the last, conspired to fill my heart with more than feminine courage, and to lend preternatural strength and swiftness to my limbs. I often marvel, and even shudder, when I reflect how I cleared the fields, and bounded over the fences with an agility of a deer.

Belle, as Abbott frequently (and amusingly) makes clear, did not suffer from a lack of self-esteem.

Widow Rose O’Neal Greenhow ran the Confederate spy ring in Washington, D.C., conducting affairs with Northern politicians  to gather information and using her own eight-year-old daughter to pass along intelligence. After Allan Pinkerton arrested her, she was imprisoned and eventually exiled to the South, where she continued her espionage activities. Jefferson Davis sent her as his emissary overseas to “court the French and British elite, in the hope she might rally support for the Confederacy”.

Emma Edmonds escaped a miserable family situation by disguising herself as “Frank Thompson” and joining the Union Army. She took cross-dressing to a new level when she carried out spy missions behind enemy lines “with yet another layer of disguise, a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman”.  Her daring acts of espionage were often the product of her own creative thinking, and also reflected her personal beliefs about slavery:

Emma went out of her way to interact with slaves whenever she had the chance, listening to their stories and hoping she might one day teach them. Her choice to disguise herself again as a slave was, in her current circumstances, the best way she knew to show empathy.

Although she lived in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth Van Lew was an abolitionist. She enlisted the help of her beloved servant, Mary Jane (a well-educated “free person of color”), in her espionage activities. She placed Mary Jane as a “sleeper agent” in the Confederate White House as an “excellent house servant” to First Lady Varina Davis. Mary Jane played the part of a “simple, illiterate maid, obsequious in manner and bumbling in speech  . . . No one would think twice when she cleaned the president’s library, lingering as she dusted the desk piled with maps of fortifications and statistics about his troops”.

The title of Abbott’s book pays homage to John le Carré’s classic spy novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy isn’t just about women in the Civil War; it’s about espionage in general.  Like le Carré’s novel, Abbott’s study of Civil War espionage is about treachery and betrayal. The motives of female spies are as varied as the motives of male spies — belief in a cause; egotism; attraction to danger; escape from difficulty or heartache.

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy is a fascinating and illuminating reading experience. Abbott’s attention to detail shows not only in her exhaustive notes, but in the many excellent black and white photographs she includes. I also really appreciate the inventive titles she gives to each chapter.  The chapter titles help set the tone in an apt and colorful way. Abbott could have started with “Chapter One”, but she decided on “The Fastest Girl in Virginia (Or Anywhere Else For That Matter) “.  Already, the reader knows something about Belle Boyd, and about the kind of history book this is going to be.

Highly recommended!

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