“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” – Karen Abbott

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail:
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

                -Rudyard Kipling, “The Female of the Species”

With Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott, I’m trying something new: reviewing a second title by an author I’ve already written about. When choosing books for this blog, I try very hard to cover as wide a range as possible. In this particular instance, however, I just couldn’t help myself. I absolutely loved American Rose, Abbott’s 2010 biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, which I shared with you in May of last year. In my defense, this new book isn’t even out yet (we’re launching it on September 3rd) and I absolutely gobbled down the advanced reader sent to us by her publisher; if I couldn’t even wait the few months till pub date to read it, there’s simply no way I could resist reviewing it immediately.

What Abbott presents to us is the story of four very different women (two on each side of the American Civil War), all of whom chafed at the restrictions that society imposed upon them, and who were determined to change the course of the conflict in any way they could. As she makes very clear in the introduction, there was a sharp contrast between all the things women couldn’t do during the war (vote, run for office, fight, have any official influence on politics whatsoever), and all of the extraordinary things they actually did – but I won’t ruin the book by spelling all of the latter out here. For all that her subjects were so severely limited by the lack of a Y chromosome, they managed to make said limits work for them, to use their gender not only as a tool, but as a weapon, a shield, and camouflage, as the occasion called for each in turn, or even all at the same time.

There’s Belle Boyd, described as “the fastest girl in Virginia (or anywhere else for that matter)”, a staunch Confederate, and the epitome of a rebellious teenager. She begins her exploits by shooting a Union soldier who was menacing her mother … and she only grows more flamboyant and outrageous from there, even running through a hail of bullets to deliver a message to Stonewall Jackson in the middle of a battle. Acting on what she believes to be a divine calling, Emma Thompson, enlists in the Union army under the alias of Frank, and serves in turn as a medic, courier and military scout – but she had already been living as a man for two years before the war even began! At several points in her spying career for the army, she is a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman; the various levels of her identity and subterfuge, how she juggles who she is with who she is pretending to be, are enough to make your head spin, and yet somehow she pulls it off.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew are spiders, operating in the hearts of Washington and Richmond respectively, heading up increasingly complex, clever, and effective spy networks under the very noses of the authorities – even though their sympathies were well known to those in charge. Despite both women sitting in the middle of delicate and far-flung webs of information and treachery, and with behavior raising more than a few eyebrows even before the war, in other respects, they could not be more different. Rose was a widowed Washington socialite with a scandalous reputation, numerous lovers, an outrageous temper, and more than a touch of Mata Hari to her espionage work; she relied on her friendships with men in power to obtain the information that she passed on the Confederacy, or in her diplomatic work in Europe. In contrast, Elizabeth was a wealthy, reclusive, socially impeccable spinster from a family looked at slightly askance for its abolitionist leanings, who hid her doings behind nerves of steel and an flawless facade of gentility.

It is made very clear throughout that these women did not (and could not) operate in a vacuum, and so they are surrounded by huge, wonderful, amazingly described supporting casts. In particular, there is one individual inextricably entwined with the story of Elizabeth Van Lew: Mary Jane Bowers, a former slave that Van Lew managed to insert into the household of Jefferson and Varina Davis as a servant. An educated, literate servant with an eidetic memory, who in the course of cleaning Jefferson Davis’ study managed to examine every piece of paper that crossed the president’s desk. One tiny link in the much larger chain of Elizabeth’s spy network, one small piece of the whole, but an absolutely crucial one.

Just as she did with burlesque in American Rose, even as Abbott tells the story of several extraordinary women, she also brings the world around them to life with delicious tidbits: tantalizing snippets that somehow manage to capture the entirety of a specific time and place, encapsulating despite their brevity. It’s the little things that bring the war to life: blackberries as a cure for diarrhea, boots and shoes made on a straight last, “neither right nor left, and must be broken into one or the other”. In addition, she dots the narrative with mini-cliffhangers, switching from one storyline to another at crucial moments, skillfully ratcheting up and drawing out the tension. It gives an inkling of the strain under which all four women lived, never knowing what would happen next, or if today would be the day that they were caught, exposed, or captured.

Among the four, I doubt that Abbott could find a wider variety of personalities, characters and exploits if she tried, so they do an excellent job of covering all the possible roles a woman could (and frequently did) take on during the war. Which is wonderful for us, because they only tell a small part of the story, while also representing something far greater than themselves. The four she focuses on were unique, no doubt about that, but they were not unusual for their time and place, and so they must stand in for and serve as examples of the many, many other women who accomplished equally remarkable things, and yet about which we know nothing. This is an aspect of history that rarely appears in the official record, and as such is story that needs to be told, over and over again, until it becomes an integral part of the mainstream narrative.

~ Paige

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David and Goliath (reviewed by Hunter Coleman)

Malcolm Gladwell, the titan of nonfiction with the gravity defying hair, is seated back at his throne again with his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. This time around, Gladwell takes on the notion of the underdog, and how contrary to what many may believe – or at the very least, believe that they believe – having disadvantages can, in reality, be a tremendous asset.

The book begins with a discussion of the two title characters. In Mr. Gladwell’s hands, this familiar story, like so many stories in his books, become even more remarkable by his ability to better elucidate on some of the finer details.  Far from being an overwhelming benefit, Goliath’s size is a hindrance, and he never stands a chance against the shepherd boy.  By the time Gladwell is finished pointing out all the bits and pieces of the story that you’ve probably ignored for years, you say, “Oh, of course. That makes perfect sense.” The best nonfiction books do that, after all. As he points out at the end of the introduction, “All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong”

Those readers who have enjoyed Gladwell’s previous books will certainly find much to savor in David and Goliath. His ability to connect diverse topics under his theses umbrella keeps his writing constantly fresh and exciting.  When you read this book, you are presented with an intellectual smorgasbord that includes Nazi air raids, a 9-year-old girls’ basketball team led to victory by a man who has never played the game, a dyslexic movie producer cutting major deals while working in the mail room, Vietnam war planners, California prison inmates, doctors at a hospital struggling to end suffering in a child’s leukemia wing, and much, much more.

Readers of one of Gladwell’s previous books, Outliers, will surely notice a discrepancy in his hypotheses. There, he wrote of the principle of “cumulative advantage.”  That is, strengths breed further strengths. The best writer in freshman English is encouraged to write more, and becomes a better writer. The best hitter on the baseball team is given more practice time, and excels further than his teammates. On the other hand, David and Goliath tells us that those people who possess seemingly disadvantages often become stronger by having to overcome them. So, which is it? Do advantages breed further advantages (Outliers) or do disadvantages breed advantages (David and Goliath)? The answer, obviously, is both. “If you take away a child’s mother or father,” he writes, to name just one example, “you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force.”
Hunter Coleman

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“The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin

To the Owner of This Bookstore:

This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.

Yours,

Maya’s Mother

 – The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Lately, I seem to be primarily reading (and therefore, writing) about murder, deception and other grim topics : Blood Will Out, Missing You, Ripper … yep, definitely a pattern starting to develop. So this time around, I was trying very hard to change trajectory and treat myself (and everyone reading this) to something different. I succeeded on that front, but in the process, I also managed to dive headfirst into a book that was sweet and charming and wreaked absolute havoc on my emotions. HAVOC. And I don’t even know exactly which emotions, precisely, because I’m all tangled up in a big wibbly-wobbly ball of feelings. Trying to parse them out, separate awwww! from *sniffle*, and analyze things rationally is just like letting a kitten play with a skein of yarn: tugging on one strand just yanks everything else with it, and you end up with a tangled snarl, one that’s worse than before. My brain hurts, my heart is slightly bruised, I surrender!

It’s amazing, really, how the right book has the power to utterly and completely knock your world off its axis, and leave you walking around slightly stunned. Everything else just seems faint and far away, and all the other people just keep going, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. No, Jake, I can’t make a sign or ring up a sale or answer the phone right now, because I am in emotional turmoil, dang it! Every reader knows the feeling. You smile and nod and carry on superficially, but the whole time, you’re absolutely dying inside because a book just stabbed you through the heart with words. Painful, beautiful, treacherous words.

With The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, however, it’s a good pain … wow, I’m really starting to mix my metaphors here, but as much as you simply ache by the end, you’re also strangely uplifted. It’s just so overflowing with joy and love, even while tempered with the bittersweet tang of pain and loss; but then again, what would a book about people (real, honest people in all their beautiful, inexplicable complexity) be without that tinge of sadness? And it’s not just love for people, or places: what spoke to me most of all was the almost overwhelming love for books of all kinds and the written word in all forms. Not terribly surprising, considering the title character, and the legacy he leaves to everyone whose life he has touched.

A. J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, the only bookstore on Alice Island. As the novel opens, his life is in utter shambles, in both the personal and professional sense. He’s a recent widower, has hallucinations about his deceased wife, typically ends the day by drinking himself to sleep, his bookstore is practically hemorrhaging money (and he really can’t be bothered to sell books anyway), and he is well on the way to completely isolating himself from the world; suffice it to say, he is definitely not in a good mental place at this point. To make matters even worse, his most prized possession, a rare collection of early Poe poems, has been stolen. He’s essentially drowning, just floundering his way through each day: he’s not even living at this point, merely existing.

His life (such as it is) is then turned completely upside down on the night when he comes back from his evening run and discovers that someone has left a little girl in the bookstore, a brief note of explanation pinned to her Elmo doll. Against all odds and expectations (including his own!), he keeps her. Raising a child is not something he can do on his own, of course, and so he finds himself opening up to the world, creating himself anew in the process, and having an incalculable impact on everyone on the island and beyond. Granted, it’s a plot that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Silas Marner (ok, my knowledge comes solely from faint childhood recollections of Wishbone no judgment, please, it was a fantastic show) but the journey A. J. makes is so enjoyable that you honestly don’t care.

I blasted through the book in just a few short hours, absolutely enthralled, and as a result, I’m fairly certain I missed quite a bit: there’s a lot more to this book that you might think from a quick plot description. It’s full of hidden gems, phrases and descriptions and bits and pieces, everything tucked away underneath the marshmallow-y surface, all deliciously sweet and delightfully seductive and deceptively simple-seeming. On the one hand, I desperately want to re-read it, to savor it anew and see what I skimmed past the first time, but on the other hand, if I do … I just might cry. I was barely holding it together as I finished, although I was smiling at the same time.

It’s an exploration, almost, into the very best of human nature, with all its vagaries and unpredictability, but never forgetting how flawed even the best person can be, and vice versa. The characters, all of them, seem to have a rare and enviable knack: that of somehow creating something good and wonderful out of unimaginable tragedy. Hold on, that last description isn’t quite accurate, simply because the tragedies in the novel are all too imaginable: the type of tragedy and sadness that we hear about and read about and experience every day, and yet is still truly earth-shattering when it comes. And yet, in spite of it all, the characters carry on and rise above, and in the process build something magical; indeed, something little short of miraculous.

~Paige

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“Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

“You made a deal with the Shadowman?!”

“He was very charismatic!”

-The Princess and the Frog

We all have different ways of dealing with trauma, betrayal, or the complete upheaval of something we fundamentally believed in: mine usually involves crying to my mom and truly ungodly amounts of chocolate. Then, once the initial emotional outburst has passed (however long that might take), we have to come to terms with what has happened, and incorporate it into our new, permanently altered worldview. Blood Will Out is Walter Kirn’s attempt along those lines: to reconcile a long-believed fiction with the devastating truth, and to figure out how and why he could be so grossly deceived, rebuilding his own self-image in the process.

In short, the book is the story of Kirn’s friendship with the man the world knew as Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Gerhartsreiter), and the aftermath of the revelation that his friend of nearly a decade was not only a fraud and a con artist, but also a murderer. It’s not an account of Clark’s life, or of his crimes and trial, but a dual exploration into the natures of and the relationship between the two men, and an attempt to exorcise personal demons. The book is about Kirn as much as it is about Clark, as the author explores the roots of their friendship, and reflects uncomfortably on his own susceptibility to Clark’s deceptions. I sincerely hope that writing this, putting his experiences into words, was cathartic for Kirn – I honestly cannot begin to imagine the what all of this meant to him, or to the others who knew and were fooled by Clark in any and all of his incarnations. The guilt, shame and bewilderment he feels is made all too clear when he describes himselfas the perfect mark: not just a victim, but a collaborator in Clark’s crime, complicit by his very silence and failure to challenge his friend’s contradictions and absurdities.

He’s not alone in that, considering the sheer number of people taken in by Gerhartsreiter (or whatever you want to call him – how do you refer to someone with no real identity?) over the years; we meet several of them in the book, as witnesses during Clark’s 2013 trial for the 1985 murder of Jonathan Sohus. It’s … strange, really, strange and ultimately dishonest, the sense of smug superiority that even the most gullible of us (me included!) initially and automatically feel when reading about the exploits of a con artist. We fool ourselves, thinking, oh, I could never fall for that. Deep down inside, however, we have to acknowledge upon further reflection, that oh, yes, I would – Clark would have taken us in just as easily. Kirn is in the unenviable position of not even having the superficial fiction to comfort himself with; instead, he is forced to accept and come to terms with his own credulity. The only difference between himself and those on the witness stand is that he doesn’t have to admit in open court, on the record, exactly how he was deceived.

In his quest to understand, to find out the how and the why, Kirn paints Clark as an evil parasite, using some truly lovely descriptions to conjure off someone maliciously leeching off everyone around him: he is “a brain tick. He crawled into your hair and fed on your life through a puncture in your scalp”; he was “worse than a murderer… a cannibal of souls.” Nothing about Clark is original – everything is lifted, borrowed or stolen from someone else, or even works of fiction. He transforms himself, becoming a character, someone from a book or a movie, playing a role out in real life; literally as well as figuratively, since almost every aspect of the Sohus murder was stolen from classic film. During the trial, Kirn even hosts his own private “2013 Clark Rockefeller Film Festival” as he plows through Hitchcock and other movies, finding horrifying similarities between the defendant and the screen at almost every turn.

In plugging Clark into fictional settings (and encouraging others to do so) and deconstructing his inspirations, it’s as if Kirn is trying to find some way to categorize him, to explain him and render him understandable and recognizable, less alien and more familiar. To an extent, he is successful, learning far more about Clark from his private film festival than he did in all their years of acquaintance, or sitting in a courtroom, listening to the parade of evidence. It’s a method familiar to me, and I found myself doing the exact same thing as I read; as regular readers may have surmised by now, that’s how I approach any book, drawing wacky comparisons that really only make sense in my somewhat addled brain. It’s the Miss Marple method of crime-solving; once you figure out how an individual reminds you of someone else, someone you knew well, you can begin to predict behavior, assign guilt and prove innocence. My parallels were a bit less lofty than the ones Clark drew from and that Kirn discovered through his research (Terry Pratchett, Disney, and the Anastasia pretender Anna Anderson, among others), but the principle is the same. Once you put a name and a label on something, can recognize it and categorize it, it becomes less terrifying; it’s comforting and reassuring to know that my mind isn’t the only one that operates along those lines.

Ultimately, however, in spite of speculation, theories and interviews, Clark Rockefeller is never made less enigmatic and puzzling. It’s impossible to know what is going on inside his head – everything else is guesswork and surmise. He’s a liar, who never speaks honestly, never defends himself but with another falsehood. There’s simply no way to know how accurate Kirn’s analysis is, whether he’s right on the money or way off base. No one knows, or likely will ever know, the real Clark Rockefeller, Christopher Chichester, Chip Smith or evern Christian Gerhartsreiter … if such an individual can even be said to exist.

~Paige

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“Missing You” by Harlan Coben

“What” and “If” are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if?

 

Letters to Juliet

As much as I loved having my parents read aloud to me when I was little, plus the fact that story time was my favorite part of the day in elementary school, I haven’t had much to do with audio books as an adult. I’m a fast reader, so I get impatient with the slower pace that comes with listening , and for longer or more serious books I worry that I’ll miss something important if my attention wanders at the wrong moment (which it will – on occasion, I have the attention span of a fruit fly, so this is a legitimate … oooh, shiny!).

This doesn’t, however, mean that I don’t appreciate the sheer power of the spoken word: quite the opposite. Which is actually another reason why I usually avoid having someone else read a book to me, especially for the first time: we all have our own interpretations of a work, which will of necessity creep into how we read it aloud, and that in turn can’t help but color how the listeners hear and view the piece. The first time I encounter a book, I want my thoughts and impressions to be mine, not filtered through someone else, however wonderful they may be.

The right reading, the right voice, the right inflection, can make all the difference in how we view a work: it can be a complete game-changer. In undergrad, I was on the staff of the student literary magazine, and part of our vetting process for all poetry submissions was to read each piece out loud before we discussed it and voted on it. On one memorable occasion, after I volunteered to read one of my favorites from that week’s selection, that year’s senior editor informed us all that he didn’t like that particular poem at all … until he heard it aloud.

In this particular case, it was a reading that prompted me to move Missing You up to the very top of my lengthy “To-Read” list, as part of our online event with the author, Harlan Coben, on March 25th. In preparation for the event, I’d studied the publisher’s blurb, skimmed the dust jacket, and then mentally filed the novel away under, “Intriguing, very much so – explore later”. As part of the evening (which was awesome, by the way, seriously, anyone who didn’t stop by missed out), Mr. Coben read a few choice pages from the first chapter, detailing a pretty crucial moment that actually jumpstarts the whole plot, and I was hooked.

It’s a novel predicated on the incredible power of “What If?” (something that also came up at length during our event with the author – Mr. Coben had a lot to say about its uses for a writer and a storyteller), and based on a pretty ubiquitous impulse: that of looking up and possibly reconnecting with an ex, the proverbial one that got away. We’ve all had it, fought against it, were seriously embarrassed by it. There are even apps designed to prevent you from stupidly (or drunkenly) giving in to it; even as you know what a truly terrible idea it would be… you still want to.

As the novel opens, Kat Donovan, an NYPD detective like her father and grandfather before her, has managed to quash that impulse pretty well over the past eighteen years, with the exception of a few moments of drunk-Googling (her words, not mine). And it certainly wasn’t her idea to sign up for online dating – the year-long membership to YouAreJustMyType.com was gift from her friend Stacey. As she browses through the profiles (among the ManStallions and LadySatisfiers -seriously?), she spots a very familiar photo – older, certainly but still recognizable as Jeff, the man she was engaged to almost two decades ago, and who walked out on her shortly after the murder of her father. She agonizes about all the possibilities of this discovery for several days … before giving in and contacting him.

Sending that one message to her former fiancé rocks Kat’s world and sends her plummeting down the rabbit hole, over the rainbow, or through the looking glass (pick your metaphor) and completely overturning what she had always believed to be true: about Jeff, about her father’s murder, about those closest to her, about herself … about everything. Her message and the consequences thereof springboard into a whole series of revelations that are on par with Luke, I am your father. And that’s just on the purely personal level: along the way, Kat stumbles upon the trail a diabolically clever and truly horrifying predator. It’s a messy, almost impossibly complicated tangle, that only begins to unravel after she tugs on a single thread.

Beyond the what-ifs, beyond the coincidence and heartbreak, the real conflict of the novel comes from the choice between speaking and not speaking, between knowing and not knowing: the unending ache of uncertainty versus the heartbreak of the truth. Kat has spent much of her adult life haunted by unanswered questions; a lot of crucial information has been deliberately kept from her by those who care about her and only want to protect her from further pain (along with protecting themselves, but that’s an entirely different matter). When it comes to the past, her mother is far happier not knowing, content with the illusion of memory or the memory of illusions (pick one). Kat is different: she simply can’t stop digging, can’t stop poking at the past, can’t stop picking at the scabs of barely healed wounds. She’s a cop, with all the instincts that entails: something smells fishy, and she can’t rest in blissful ignorance. She needs to know, needs to find out … and she does.

~Paige

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One Year Anniversary – WOW, Has It Really Been That Long?

As of tomorrow (March 27, 2014), it will be exactly one year since I started writing this blog. Weird to contemplate, actually, because it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. Then again, it also doesn’t feel like I’ve been working here at the Booksmith for more than eighteen months, so, there you go. Time flies.

In the past 364 days, I’ve discussed 34 books with everyone out there (plus the two additional titles reviewed by Hunter and Mike – thanks, guys!). Some of those were brand-new, hot off the presses; others were a little older, whether by weeks or months or even years, in some cases. On a rare few occasions, I took a sneak peek at titles that hadn’t yet come out – the miracle of the ARC, which always gives me an illicit thrill, getting to read something before everyone else. All of them – old, new and in between – absolutely spectacular. But then again, anytime someone actually pays me to read great books and then blather on about how amazing they are (with free license to geek out and squee as needed) is a good day’s work.

Not that it isn’t nerve-wracking, trying to distill a sometimes lengthy and usually complex book down to its essence … particularly when the author is stopping by for a signing. The worst (or best, depending on your point of view) example of that particular hurdle was during our event with James McBride last August for The Good Lord Bird: Jake actually had me print out a copy of that week’s review for him. Luckily, he was unbelievably nice, and oh-so-politely ignored my bout of hyperventilation. Once I got past that, we had a fantastic chat about my take on the novel: he found it interesting that I zeroed in on the edge of discomfort hidden in all the funny bits, but I guess that’s just my weird sense of humor, and also explains why I cringe every time Arrested Development comes on. So. Much. AWKWARD.

Potentially having to face the author afterwards isn’t even the toughest part of writing a review, or of streamlining my thoughts and responses to a book into something both coherent and concise. Even getting started can be a challenge, especially when you’re trying to pass judgment on something you could never hope to equal. To me, the most intimidating thing in the world is a blank Word document: all that clean, white emptiness on the screen, berating me for not being clever enough to fill it up with effortless, fluid brilliance. Such a formal space, and for whatever reason, I feel as though everything I type up has to be perfect from the very beginning: complete sentences, organized thoughts, with a proper beginning, middle, and end. Much easier to just dash ideas out by hand first, and then rewrite and revise from there, once I have somewhere to start. So, instead, I read with a pen and legal pad at my elbow, jotting done anything that pops into my head as I go – which means that I read a lot more deeply and thoroughly than I otherwise would. Without something to slow me down, I speed-read, just blasting through the text, and often miss crucial stuff in my eagerness to find out what happens next. It’s almost … meditative, working through a book while taking notes and documenting my reactions, and it certainly helps me pick out the important bits from everything else swimming around in my brain.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that my reading taste was varied and eclectic, but I prefer to think of that as an asset rather than a liability, giving everyone a representative sample of all of the amazing stuff on our shelves. Of course, we’re such a weird little joint anyway, since every book in the store is signed, and as a result, we have an unusually mixed selection. Of the thirty-four books I reviewed for you in the past year, nine have been non-fiction, and many of the others have been historical fiction, often heavily rooted in and inspired by fact. The novels have featured an astonishingly wide variety of character, setting and plot, all magnificent, with plenty of genre-defying mish-mash that doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular category. There’s been both art and science, tragedy and joy, humor and grief. There have been books that challenged me, confused me, or enraged me – sometimes all at once. Others have left me in tears, or fits of the giggles, or both, and still more titles completely overwhelmed me with warm fuzzy feelings.

Writing these reviews requires me to walk a tantalizingly fine line, somehow trying to balance “Oooh, this tidbit is fantastic, I have to share it with everyone” against “Oh, wait, darn it, mustn’t ruin the book!” I do my best to avoid spoilers, but it’s unbelievably tough on occasion to restrain myself, and keep from blurting out all of the good stuff. This is especially true when the parts that make a book so amazing are also what makes it unique, and therefore must be left for the reader to discover on their own. Boo. Hiss. Still, there are worse problems to have than the need for that particular type of self-censoring: too often a really outstanding book leaves me at a loss for words, and it’s a struggle to find a way to adequately describe it. I’ll take word vomit of awesome any day.

Okay, enough crazy rambling. It’s been an eventful year, from hosting Khaled Hosseini in June, to being snowed in at the store overnight in January and almost having to cancel our event with James Scott as a result, with tons of amazing authors, and an overabundance of fantastic reads. So, here’s to another one, hopefully just as full of great books as the last!

~Paige

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“Ripper” by Isabel Allende

“The problem was not finding answers; it was knowing which questions to ask.”

 

– Ripper, Isabel Allende

It’s very hard, if not close to impossible, to summarize Ripper by Isabel Allende, and to put my finger on the heart of the novel: mostly because there is simply so much going on within its pages.  I love crime novels (in case this wasn’t already apparent), and Ripper certainly falls into that category, but at the same time, it’s … denser.  To leave it at that description is akin to comparing glazed doughnuts with cake ones: similar in shape, both delicious, addictive and satisfying, but the latter has so much more substance to it.

There are crimes, of course: brutal murders, a cunning killer and a terrifying abduction.  But they are woven into a much larger tapestry, one that comprises the world and relationships of two extraordinary women:  Indiana Jackson, a free-spirited holistic healer, and her disconcertingly precocious daughter, Amanda.  Both gradually find themselves drawn into the web of said cunning killer, along with almost everyone they care about, but that web in turn is part of something much greater.

At first, the murders are only personal to Amanda insofar as her father, Deputy Chief Bob Martín, is in charge of investigating them, and she can milk him and his colleagues for information, with the help of her grandfather.  Her more direct involvement stemmed from her participation in the online role-playing mystery game Ripper, when as game-master, she convinced her fellow players to shift from trying to solve fictional murders in 19th century murders London to investigating real ones in the present.  It’s an intellectual puzzle for them, a challenge and a distraction from real life, at least until the game becomes all too real.  The police even listen to the conclusions the players draw and give their suggestions fair consideration as a series of increasingly bizarre and seemingly unrelated crimes gradually grow into the work of a truly nasty serial killer – and then it’s all hands on deck when Indiana is abducted by the same.

The tension builds up steadily throughout, but with excruciating slowness, Allende tightening the screws one agonizing twist at a time.  The novel is spell-binding and hypnotic, and yet you have no idea where the plot is taking you almost until the very end.  And yet the tension isn’t just about the murders, or the race to solve them, but it operates on a far more personal level as well.  At sixteen years old, Amanda is dealing with a set of fairly extensive growing pains, trying to sort out her place in the world: very mature in some aspects of her life, but still a child in others.  She’s spoiled, reckless, and sees herself as superior to everyone around her.  This attitude is partially justified by her ferocious intellect, but subsequently countered by her lack of real-world experience.  Indiana lives very much in the now, with a passion to help everyone she encounters and an almost painfully naive belief in the innate goodness of humanity – something her ex-husband finds utterly maddening.  At present, she finds herself caught between two very different men: her long-standing relationship with wealthy socialite Alan is contrasted with her more recent and deep but platonic friendship with scarred former Navy SEAL Ryan, a man with powerful demons of his own.

All of this makes for a dense tangle of plot, setting and character (of which the city of San Francisco is one in its own right), and yet Allende guides the reader through with a deft and sure hand.  The novel is packed full of really rich descriptions of people and places, bursting with sight and sound and smell.  There is a huge cast, each painted in loving yet concise detail, even for the most minor of chatacters, and yet you never feel lost or overwhelmed by the flood of descriptions.  At the same time, however, Allende still hides as much as she reveals, giving up information only when she’s ready, and not before.  The events of the novel are laid out day-by-day, marching along in a deceptive progression that is anything but orderly.  It’s a compressed timeline, as the crimes occur over a six month span, but with roots deep into the past.   Allende takes us on a purposeful meandering through the lives of the characters, where even the most mundane details will later acquire great significance – but since you don’t know what will matter later, you find yourself squirreling away every delicious tidbit for further consideration.

At one point in the novel, Amanda discusses the formula for a successful crime novel with her grandfather, an aspiring author, explicitly comparing them to auto sacramentales: morality plays in medieval Spain, allegories of the struggle between Good and Evil.  In the plays, Good always triumphed over Evil, but Evil had the most interesting role, and Amanda believes that crime thrillers operate on the same principle.  This is not how Ripper plays out: it focuses primarily on the lives of ordinary people, mostly good, some otherwise, but always flawed, some very much so.  Good doesn’t triumph absolutely, and Evil isn’t the primary focus – just the impact its actions have on everyone involved.  At its heart, Ripper deals with life, where nothing and no one is as they first appear, with Allende slowly peeling away the layers to reveal what’s hidden underneath, and keeping you guessing until the very last moment.

~Paige

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“The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards” – Kristopher Jansma

“Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?’ I don’t think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn’t done it once—do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are.”

Rudyard Kipling, “How the Leopard Got His Spots”

 

If you believe you are the author of this book,
please contact Haslett & Grouse Publishers
(New York, New York) at your first convenience.

I can’t help but admire the narrator of Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, for sheer audacity, chutzpah and inventiveness, at least in a Catch Me If You Can, Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen sort of way – the ease with which he creates, steals and discards identities and realities is truly remarkable. We never learn his real name, only who he pretends to be – which is constantly changing.   At the same time, however, I was left feeling kinda dirty and sketchy as a result of that approval, because he’s so fundamentally self-centered, utterly ruthless, endlessly manipulative and completely dishonest.  He’s clever, sympathetic and relatable, but in no way likeable, and he does some pretty despicable things during the course of the novel.  In addition, my admiration is more than a little tinged with pity: because of his facility for invention and deception, nothing and no one is ever quite real to him (not even himself) except for what he’s made up.

The only time the narrator ever comes close to telling the truth is in his fiction, no matter how hard he tries to disguise it or dress it up.  He bases all of his work on real people and places and events, mining everything in his life for inspiration, and then twisting it, ever so slightly.  He gives his characters new names and mannerisms, places them in new settings, but the truth still shines through.  On the advice of one of his college professors, he adopts as his writing mantra “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).  He embellishes, elevates, distorts and transposes, but he never makes anything up in his writing – only in his life.

The novel follows the narrator’s development as a writer, beginning in childhood and continuing from there, but it’s also a meditation on the nature of fiction, storytelling and reality, revolving around the his relationship with the truth – or lack thereof.  It’s a fascinating journey, as we follow him around the world, from his childhood home, a college in New England and New York City, to Dubai, Sri Lanka, Africa, Iceland, Luxembourg and circling back to where everything began.  And yet all of these exotic settings are just backdrop to the real story of him.

It’s also the story of the two most important individuals in the narrator’s life, with whom he forms a “vicious little circle”, a curious and bizarre relationship of obsession and envy, of attraction and repulsion, of manipulation and need.  The first is Julian McGann, whom the narrator meets in college – a fellow writer and endless rival, a wild and moody eccentric who lives on the extremes of everything and ignores the mainstream.  Julian is the more talented, or at least the more successful, of the two (which only feeds the narrator’s already powerful feelings of inadequacy), and are in constant competition despite their close friendship.  The other is Evelyn, Julian’s friend from Choate and an aspiring actress, for whom the narrator nurtures an intense and burning passion that is almost entirely one-sided.  There are explosions and separations among the three – how could there not be, with such volatile personalities?  And yet they draw apart and come together again, always repeating the same pattern, until the narrator is finally brought up against the reality that is (rather than the one he has created) and there is the potential for change.

What makes the narrator so compelling and yet so discomfiting is the inescapable conclusion  that he is us, only without any kind of braking system, lacking all sense of restraint.  Everyone does many of the things he does, we all lie and deceive … just not to the same extent.  Many of his impulses and desires are achingly familiar, as are his responses, only taken to the furthest possible extreme.  Like most of us, he reinvents himself in college, crafting an entirely new persona as he revels in this new setting, where no one knows anything about him – but it’s rare that anyone wipes the slate so completely as he does, or does so with such frequency thereafter.  On occasion, everyone tweaks the truth a little bit, just to make a better story, but he rewrites it from whole cloth, or invents it entirely.  I know all too well the inadequacy that comes from comparing your own work to another, where you always, always believe that someone else’s writing is better.  We all meet people we envy, and wish we could become, even if most of us never take the steps necessary to do so.

The novel ends the only way it possibly could: back where it began, with a revelation on the part of the narrator and a resolution for his future, both cut short.  In a confrontation with his past, he realizes that he can no longer keep up his ever-changing series of charades, and resolves to do better, be better – to change his spots, so to speak.  And yet, right before the tale breaks off, he seems to be continuing his old pattern of cutting and running whenever cold, hard facts collide with the fiction he creates and subsequently blow up in his face.  We simply don’t know, like the wobbling top at the end of Inception, and frankly, I think everything would be ruined if it ended any other way.  It’s perfect, exactly as it is, even with all the frustration and uncertainty, O Best Beloved.

~Paige

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“The Kept” by James Scott

“You can’t shoot ghosts, son.”

-The Kept, James Scott

It seems peculiarly appropriate to be writing this review now, in the wake of all the crazy winter weather we’ve been having.  Non-southerners, quit snickering, a few inches is indeed paralyzing down here: our signing with James Scott was nearly snowed out a few weeks ago … it was almost too apt.  But now it’s pushing 70 degrees, so once again, order is restored.

As The Kept opens in the winter of 1897, Elspeth Howell is returning home after a four month absence, during which she was working as a midwife in a nearby town.  As she approaches the isolated family farm, however, a sense of desperate unease is triggered by nothing: the complete absence of ordinary sights, sounds, or even smells, playing perfectly into the cliché of “it’s quiet … too quiet”.  Her disquiet is justified – her husband and four of their five children have been brutally murdered, leaving twelve-year-old Caleb as the only survivor of the bloody attack that came seemingly out of nowhere.  Mother and son then embark on a quest to track down their family’s killers (three men wearing red scarves), but said quest is as much a journey into family history as it is a hunt for justice.  That goal is really the merest tip of the iceberg, where they must untangle the threads of the past in order to understand what happened on the farm … and above all, why.

We begin the novel seeing the Howells as a relatively ordinary family, with little unusual about them: as she walks home, Elspeth is preoccupied with missing her husband and running over the gifts she’s bringing the children, having kept meticulous lists so that no one is left out.  Despite their initial appearance, there is a great deal more seething and bubbling below the surface of this family, as we gradually come to the realization that the Howells are anything but ordinary.  The reality of the family, of their origins and of their past, is much darker than you’d expect from the opening pages.  They’ve lived in total and deliberate isolation, deathly afraid of someone discovering and breaching that isolation.  In fact, the first thing we learn about Elspeth is that she is a sinner, and she worries constantly about the consequences of those sins, and the enemies she’s made along the way, coming home to roost.  Very little about this family makes sense, especially at first, but the more you learn about them, the more you wonder and the more questions are raised.

Caleb and Elspeth each have their own demons, both haunted even before the traumatizing attack, and the situation isn’t helped by their tense, strange, almost nonexistent relationship: for all intents and purposes, they’re virtual strangers.  Elspeth’s husband, Jorah, was the primary care-giver for the children while she spent long periods of time away from home: she barely knew any of “the” children, as she refers to them, rather than “her” children.  Caleb has deliberately isolated himself from the rest of the family, choosing to live in the barn rather than the house and avoiding his father – a choice that no doubt saved his life.

As the novel progresses and as the pair travels away from the farm, both Elspeth and Caleb grow and change, inevitably so.  Elspeth is forced to confront her own past and the spreading ramifications of her actions: ripples in a pool, consequences that she never expected, and carrying a lot of guilty knowledge.  For the first time, she also begins to grow into the role of parent, protecting Caleb from things he isn’t ready to understand, trying to shield him from the world and her own secrets.  As tempting as it is to unburden herself and share the weight of her guilt with Caleb, she can’t bring herself to be that selfish, for the first time truly acting like his mother.  In a parallel journey, Caleb … grows up, and is forced to reconcile the inherent contradictions of humanity, contradictions that drove him to the barn in the first place, despite how confusing and unnerving he finds the world outside their farm.

Even beyond Caleb and Elspeth, everyone in this novel, everyone they encounter has secrets and unsavory things to hide.  All of the characters have so many stories, a whole lifetime of them, and yet all we get are fragments – which is frustrating and tantalizing and achingly true.  Elspeth does not even fully understand her own story, her own past – how can she possibly understand anyone else?

Caleb and Elspeth’s journey takes them both backwards and forwards in time, all at once, as they seek both vengeance in the present and future, and answers and understanding of the attack in the past – and yet they discover to their sorrow that the past cannot be changed, cannot be made whole, no matter how far you travel into it, or how much you wish to.  It’s a dark, hard, cruel world that Scott creates: Frank, one of the few truly decent characters they encounter, who does his best to help them, fears for the world his unborn child is about to enter.  By the novel’s end, their quest is over … and yet nothing is resolved, making it almost an exercise in futility, one turn of the wheel in the endless cycle of violence, vengeance and deception.

~Paige

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February 19, 2014 · 5:37 pm

“Flora” by Gail Godwin

“Wait a minute!” she cried.  “I think I know who you are, now.  You’re that haunted little girl, aren’t you?”

“I’d never thought about it that way,” I told her,” but I suppose I am.”

 – Gail Godwin, Flora

I’ve read many, many books that made me think, made me question, and puzzled me, but it’s rare that a novel really gets stuck in my head, lodged in my brain and refusing to budge, where I honestly can’t decide what, precisely, I think about it and how it makes me feel.  Flora by Gail Godwin is one such anomaly; how I see it, how I interpret the characters changes from moment to moment, and keeps changing, no matter how long I think about it!  I keep turning it over and over in my head, toying with all the varied nuances of plot and character, completely unable to come to any firm conclusions or opinion; it’s haunting and frustrating and enthralling.

Which I suppose is only appropriate, in a very meta sort of way, considering that Flora‘s narrator, Helen Anstruther, has done the exact same thing in-story with the events of the novel, and particularly with the title character, over the course of several decades; she’s never managed to come to any satisfactory conclusions about the summer of 1945, either.  Flora especially remains a conundrum to Helen, something totally beyond her ken, even years later.  Because she hasn’t been able to sort things out in her mind, it’s not surprising that I haven’t, either.

At age ten (almost eleven, as she makes very clear), Helen’s world had already spun off its axis even before the summer began, with the death of her beloved grandmother – who was not only her primary caregiver, but also her best friend.  Because her father cannot leave her alone for several months while he leaves town to do construction work in nearby Oak Ridge, Tennessee as part of the war effort, he invites her deceased mother’s first cousin, the titular Flora, to come care for his daughter.  Between Flora’s inability to drive and the isolated location of their home, coupled with a polio outbreak in town that leads to an informal quarantine, the two young women spend the summer in an almost complete vacuum, rarely leaving the house and hosting very few visitors.

Flora is only twenty-two, still very much a girl herself, and Helen quite frankly sees herself as the more mature of the pair.  She’s also a stark contrast to everyone Helen has grown-up with, with ready tears and openly, almost nakedly emotional, especially compared to Nonie, Helen’s dignified and reticent grandmother, and also her laconic and sarcastic father.  She has no layers, no depth: everything she feels is on display for the world to see.

The relationship between Helen and Flora is at the heart of the novel, and it is a curious one: uncertain and compelling, heart-breaking and intense, and above all, fraught with complications.  From the very beginning of their acquaintance, nearly everything about Flora irritates Helen, because, to put it simply, Flora isn’t Nonie.  In fact, Flora is as different from Nonie as it’s possible to be, and so she represents, in very physical form, every way that Helen’s world has turned upside down since her grandmother’s death and her father’s departure.  She’s embarrassed and annoyed with Flora’s ready emotions and easy familiarity and affection, and deeply resents all the changes Flora has brought into her life – so naturally, she lashes out.  The summer ends tragically for everyone concerned, and even years later, Helen questions how much of that tragedy was her responsibility and how much can be attributed to fate.

It’s a novel of remorse, and regret for things that cannot be changed.  Helen is carrying an almost staggering weight of guilt, remorse and responsibility for the shoulders of a ten-year-old as the summer begins, even if most of it exists only in her own mind, and that weight only increases as the days go by, haunted as she is by what might have been.  She blames herself for things that are only tangentially her fault, if at all.   Intensely imaginative and introspective, her deepest desire is for nothing else to change, and for her world to settle back into place.  Due to Nonie’s influence, she dwells very much upon the past and the stories her grandmother told her about their family, holding them close to her heart.  Unfortunately, not only does she think about the past constantly, she also romanticizes it, and sees nothing unusual about her lonely upbringing.  Flora is the first to bring to her attention how odd and isolated her life has been, which only deepens Helen’s resentment; no one likes have their illusions cracked and shattered.

My sympathy for Helen shifts constantly, alternating between seeing her as a lonely, grieving child, acting out because she’s so recently lost everything familiar to her, and a mini-Machiavelli, feeling superior to everyone around her and manipulating them just because she can.  Of course, this vacillation is precisely what makes the novel so interesting and compelling.  I found myself reading passages over and over again, teasing out nuances that might possibly help me make up my mind.  There’s so many emotions at work here, so much bubbling and seething beneath the surface, so many things that Helen was too young at the time to comprehend, let alone articulate.  Just as Helen debates her own complicity in the events of the summer and wonders how much was her fault, so too do we as the reader, and it’s a heartbreaking, fascinating conversation.

~Paige

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