Monthly Archives: August 2013

Tana French – “Broken Harbor”

A few months ago on this blog, when I wrote about Daniel Silva’s The Fallen Angel, I mentioned that I don’t ordinarily read books out of order.  It’s not my usual modus operandi, but sometimes, I make an exception, as I did for The Fallen Angel.  This week, I made another, for Broken Harbor by Tana French, the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad series.  My only defense is that sometimes a book sounds so compelling, so intriguing, that I just can’t help diving right in, regardless of possible spoilers or the potential failure to fully appreciate the story in the proper context.

Was it worth it?  In this case, absolutely.

The novel opens with a gruesome crime in an semi-abandoned luxury development outside of Dublin, with Detective Mick Kennedy (accompanied by a rookie partner) dispatched to investigate it.  Jenny Spain lies in intensive care, the victim of the same brutal attack that left her husband Pat and their two young children dead.  The Spains’ home (the scene of the crime) is puzzling, providing conflicting information about its inhabitants, and raising more questions than answers.  The house is beautiful, pristine, and obviously well-loved – except for the gaping holes in its walls.  An unusual number of high-end baby monitors aim their cameras at these openings, watching for … what?  These peculiarities, combined with other evidence, indicate that the Spains were afraid of something or someone, but was that fear the origin of this assault?  And did this perceived threat come from inside or outside their home?

The crime is made all the more horrific by its location, which has unsettling associations for Mick.  Years ago, this half-built neighborhood was known as of Broken Harbor, the seaside village where his family went for their annual two week vacation.  It’s also the site of their family tragedy, one that continues to haunt the detective, shaping his life even now.  His younger sister Dina was even more damaged by this event, and Mick’s unexpected return to their shared past pushes her perilously close to the edge of her already precarious sanity.

The novel unfolds with deliberate slowness after the gut-wrenching discovery of the crime, gradually peeling back the layers of the past for both the victims and Mick.  Of sheer necessity, the investigation must be deeply invasive, prying into every aspect of the Spains’ lives, relevant or otherwise.  The plot is tightly woven, with dark twists and turns as the detectives attempt to fit all the evidence into a shape that makes sense, but then are forced to rearrange the puzzle as new pieces emerge.  It is just as much a psychological exploration as murder mystery, even with murder at the heart of the story.  The why is just as much, if not more important, than the who – the latter almost serving as a tool in the service of unearthing the former.

Mick Kennedy himself is a compelling narrator, an upstanding if flawed man who is all too aware of his own failings and frailties.  He takes his job as an officer of the law seriously, seeking justice to the best of his ability, and consequently faced with terrible choices.  Being deeply damaged, he erects emotional walls between himself and the rest of the world, yet remains remarkably empathetic and insightful.  He cares deeply for others, far more than he would have even the reader know, hiding behind a facade of (admittedly justified) arrogance and pragmatism.  But then again, every other character here is equally layered and complex, unspeakably, undeniably human.  We sympathize with their mistakes, understanding their decisions even as we see the fallout of the poor ones.

Broken Harbor makes you ache, for all the loneliness and unhappiness that permeates even the most ordinary of lives.  So much emptiness, so many lives in shambles, so many clinging desperately to normality and safety, when both are just illusions.  Sometimes there are no satisfactory answers, even when you discover the why behind a tragedy.  Even after the culprit is found, nothing will ever be the same again for those involved, investigator and victim alike.  Sometimes the only thing left to do at the end of the day, as Mick does, is curl up with your loved ones and wait for the dawn.



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James McBride – “The Good Lord Bird”

This week’s book prompted a brief dispute between my mother and myself about the lyrics to John Brown’s Body, wherein I had to convince her that a word was “moldering” and not “smoldering”, because it makes absolutely no sense for a body in the grave to be on fire.  Yes, I have a severely warped sense of humor.

However, that trait (or flaw) works out quite nicely, as a warped sense of humor dominates The Good Lord Bird by James McBride.  It’s an account of John Brown’s exploits from the Pottawatomie Massacre and Bleeding Kansas in 1856 to the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry in October of 1859, as seen through the eyes of Henry Shackleford, a young slave rescued and “freed” by Brown in a tavern brawl.  Henry, newly christened “Little Onion” by Brown, then accompanies Brown and his followers as a combination mascot and good luck charm.  In the process, he is blessed (or cursed) with an up-close-and-personal look at some of the most volatile and significant events and figures leading up to the Civil War.

Oh, and everyone thinks he’s a girl.

As a consequence of this misapprehension, the situations that Onion finds himself in along the way are ludicrous, and would be side-splittingly funny, were they not also fraught with so much danger.  A young boy, disguised as a girl, working as a servant in a frontier brothel with no one the wiser as to his true gender?  Hilarious – until you think about it a little harder and realize that he would almost certainly be killed were he to be discovered.

This strange dichotomy between humor and horror persists throughout the novel, giving it the flavor of an unbelievably perilous roller coaster ride.  The narrative walks a very fine line here, exploring the grim tragedy of the era with a light-heartened tone, and yet never quite tipping over into outright farce.  There is laughter here, but laughter with an edge to it.

This is inevitable, really, as the issues explored throughout the novel are very serious indeed, and any humor extracted from the narrative must, of necessity, come from some very dark places.  It takes place, after all, in one of the most explosive periods in our nation’s history, and centers around one of the most divisive figures of the era.  Throughout the text, Onion muses deeply on slavery, freedom, survival and the very nature of personal identity.  The threat of violence is ever-present, and is often far more than a threat.  Some levity is needed to lighten what would otherwise be a meditation of some very grim topics.

Onion is truly outrageous as a narrator, describing people and events exactly as he sees them: pulling no punches and sparing no one’s dignity.  Practically every notable figure that he encounters (with the possible exception of Harriet Tubman) is revealed to have all too visible feet of clay.  He is equally honest about his own failings and mistakes, which are legion.  Although still very young – barely fifteen when the novel ends – he is incredibly perceptive, seeing all too clearly through the lies and hypocrisy on both sides of the conflict.  In the process, he must navigate a very perilous journey between surviving and developing his own identity, which are all too often mutually exclusive.

McBride’s Brown charges across the page, a man possessed and consumed by one idea, consuming everything else in his path.  He may be completely insane, but also principled, utterly dedicated to his cause, and kind to everyone around him.  Even Onion’s relentless cynicism can’t diminish his commitment to his goal of ending slavery.  He is a man on a mission from God, and nothing (not even common sense) is going to get in his way.

John Brown may dominate the action, but this is Onion’s story, Onion’s voice from beginning to end.  Everything and everyone is seen and interpreted through his eyes.  He speaks from the perspective of an old man looking back on the misadventures of his youth, and it is impossible to tell how much of his tale is “true”, how much is exaggerated, and how much is fabricated completely.

In the end, though, the veracity (or lack thereof)  becomes completely irrelevant: all that matters is that he tells an incredible story, and tells it well.


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“The Painted Girls” – Cathy Marie Buchanan

I was fortunate enough to attend college very close to The Clark Art Institute (and several other art museums), although I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity nearly as much as I should have – hindsight is 20/20, and I was usually too worn out from swim practice.  Still, I did visit on occasion, mostly because the Clark is home to one of my favorite works of art: one of the 28 bronze castings of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years.  When I was younger, before I could appreciate the detail and artistry of it, I loved the idea of this particular work simply because the statue had a real tutu and hair ribbon.

Degas’ model for the piece, Marie van Goethem, and her older sister Antoinette are the subject of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, a haunting and lovely novel that manages to be both heart-wrenching and heart-warming simultaneously.  It is a detailed, exquisitely crafted depiction of Époque Paris, but one completely devoid of glamour.  For the van Goethem sisters, art, ballet and great literature are merely a means of survival, nothing more.  Their lives consist almost entirely of devastating compromise – what must we do today so we may eat tomorrow?

After the sudden death of their father, the girls must find some means of supplementing their mother’s scant income as a laundress.  Marie joins the dance  school of the Paris Opera, eventually gaining admittance to the corps de ballet there.  Along the way, she becomes one of Degas’ favorite models and poses for many of his works, including Little Dancer – earning five to six francs per four-hour sitting.  Antoinette becomes an extra in the stage adaptation of L’Assommoir by Émile Zola.  In the process, she falls in love with Émile Abadie, a dangerous young man who soon goes on trial for murder.

This event sets the two sisters on a collision course, even as their conflicting goals and aspirations drive them emotionally further and further apart.  The narrative alternates between Marie and Antoinette (interspersed with newspaper excerpts, art reviews and court transcripts), giving us a devastating view of the wedges life drive between them.  Marie is continually exhausted between the rigors of dancing and the other jobs she must take on the side; Antoinette is so blinded by her love that she can see no one and nothing else.  Both know all too well the bitter taste of despair and desperation, as they consistently face impossibly difficult choices – and rarely do they make the right decisions.  They are the daughters of the Parisian underworld, forced to grow up far too soon, snatching moments of happiness wherever they can find them.  Eventually, both women manage to survive and even thrive, but there is no fairytale ending here, no easy road to success.

In the process, Buchanan also unveils the reality of life for Marie and the other dancers who populate Degas’ paintings.  It’s a startling contrast, between the beauty of art and the hardship and squalor of the world behind it.  Not that this should be any surprise to those who know ballet – a close look at a dancer’s feet will immediately destroy all illusions about the grace and effortlessness onstage.  This makes the novel’s title strikingly apt: now we see the real girls, behind the painted ones.

In reality, we know very little about Marie from the historical record, beyond a few sparse facts concerning her career as a dancer and model; less still about Antoinette.  However, they did exist.  Émile Abadie was also a real individual, and Degas’ pastels of him and one of his cohorts was exhibited alongside the original wax version of Little Dancer.  There’s no evidence that he had any other connection to the van Goethem sisters, but Buchanan ties them together marvelously, asking that tantalizing question, “What if…?”  The result is a work of fascinating conjecture, positing one “might-have-been” from the bare bones of fact, perfectly capturing the agonizing decisions we all face in the pursuit of love and survival.


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“Leonardo and the Last Supper” – Ross King

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually know a lot about art – I didn’t take a single art history class in college, even though it was a popular major.  In my defense,  the introductory courses in the subject consisted mostly of lectures from slides in a darkened auditorium – a formula guaranteed to send me to sleep, no matter how interesting the subject or speaker, as many of my classmates will attest.  Still, I do love art, considering that most family vacations while I was growing up consisted of trips to museums.

Apparently, this fascination also translates into a liking for works of non-fiction that look at history through art – or at least told with the help of pretty pictures, as can be seen from several of my earlier posts.  This week is no exception, since I’m looking at Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King.  I regret nothing.

In his book, King explores every single aspect of one of the most beloved and influential works of art in history, from the social and political backdrop against which da Vinci worked to his artistic techniques to the choices of food he painted into the scene.  This enthralling narrative is incredibly detailed, providing an enormous amount of context and back story for both the artist and his masterpiece.  Along the way, we are treated to a wonderful and humanizing portrait of da Vinci as a flamboyant, complex individual, full of foibles, flaws and eccentricities, despite his reputation of towering genius.  It comes as a relief to learn that he struggled to master Latin his entire life, never fully succeeding – and had trouble with basic math!

When he began work on The Last Supper in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci was not the renowned artist that he would later become.  He had a reputation, all right, but one as a genius who never finished anything!  He was widely acknowledged to be brilliant, but completely undependable, rarely if ever completing any of his commissions, and jumping haphazardly from one project to the next.  These characteristics did not change; he would continue in this vein for the rest of his life.  Moreover, he had never done any painting on such a large scale, and had no experience working in fresco, the assigned medium.  In  his own eyes, he was an engineer, not a painter.

From this point forward, King’s account is the story of Leonardo’s transformation in public perception, of his journey from unpredictable and unreliable genius to one of the greatest artists of all time.  The Last Supper is the work that created and then cemented Leonardo’s reputation, even more so than the Mona Lisa (which did not become well-known until the nineteenth century).  In the artistic world, it was a game-changer, forever altering the standards by which painters were with Leonardo’s revolutionary attention to detail, his use of color, light and movement.  Unfortunately, the mural’s deterioration over the centuries (and near destruction during World War II, as seen in Saving Italy by Robert Edsel), means that we must rely on various copies and reproductions to fully appreciate his masterpiece.

In the process, King thoroughly explores all the urban legends and popular rumors associated with both Leonardo and his most famous work – for instance, the persistent story that the same individual modeled for the faces of both Christ and Judas, the former in childhood and the latter decades later, after a life of sin.  However, he is also quick to place those tales in the historical context, and quickly dismisses those that don’t match the facts – or common sense.  King acknowledges the limits of the historical record; he does not hesitate to state when something is unknown or unknowable.  He offers theories and possibilities, but only states as fact what can actually be proved.

As an added bonus, King also debunks every theory about The Last Supper as set forth by Dan Brown, systematically and methodically.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code – as a work of fiction.  The truth behind the painting, however, is even more compelling.


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