Friday, July 30, 2010

THE SEA by John Banville (2006)

In Banville's Booker Prize-winning novel, middle-aged Irishman Max Morden goes to the coast following the death of his wife Anna. There he reminisces about his childhood spent in the company of the enigmatic Grace family, summer visitors to The Cedars where Max is staying with the intention of writing about his life.

The prose is beautiful and the decription evocative of Ireland's west coast island villages and like any good storyteller Banville knows how to create a voice that is compelling and authentic. Early on in the narrative I easily abandoned the notion that I was actually reading and instead felt swept away by Morden's life experiences both past and present.

Banville, the novelist, knows how to keep you enthralled as he reveals layer after layer of secret and confidence between both his characters and his audience. It is a perfectly structured novel and it would be difficult to imagine that he could write anyone that's better than THE SEA.

CITY OF FALLING ANGELS by John Berendt (2005)

When Teatro La Fenice burned to the ground in 1996, Venetians were outraged and heartbroken. Was it arson? A mafia hit? Mere accident?

In CITY OF FALLING ANGELS, New Yorker John Berendt tries to get to the bottom of what started the fire and in the process finds himself whirling headfirst into the complicated layers of Venetian social codes.

At one fundraising formal dinner he sits beside the Rat King, an entrepreneur who caters to the geographic tastes of rats as he develops his poisons designed to dry out their little rodent corpses. So, Italian rats nosh toxic pasta, the Dutch ones prefer a hint of cheese and salmon and the American ones scarf down granules with the styrofoam and plastic base of takeout containers.

Other intriguing characters include the Murano glassblower Archimedes Seguso who created extraordinary vases with the coloured flames of the Fenice fire leaping and licking through a darkened background and the serial gerontophile Jane who first cozied up to Peggy Guggenheim and then to Ezra Pound's widow Olga Rudge.

If you are planning a trip to Venice, then Berendt's book must be in your travel bag. He is excellent entertaining and edifying company.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

INNOCENT by Scott Turow (2010)

Judge Rusty Sabich and P.A. Tommy Molto go head-to-head again twenty years after Molto prosecuted Sabich for a murder which he didn't commit in Turow's legendary courtroom drama PRESUMED INNOCENT. This time the stakes are raised because Sabich is now accused of killing his wife of 35 years, Barbara.

It's a complicated case because Barbara was also being treated for bipolar disorder and as such taking a wide range of pharmacopeia and was known certainly to her family as someone easily inflamed. Barbara's health issues aside, Rusty had recently consulted a high-powered divorce lawyer, and had had an affair with a much younger woman, one of his talented law clerks.

Rusty's strained relationship with his son Nat is another fly in the ointment, though Nat is certainly prepared to support his father no matter what.

In his trademark taut style and through his ability to make the banality of courtroom drama seem gripping, Turow delivers a story with enough credible twists and turns to give you whiplash as you read.

INNOCENT is worth the hype.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

CRUSADER'S CROSS by James Lee Burke (2005)

Dave Robicheaux is struggling with sobriety when he hears a deathbed confession from a former schoolmate who claims to have witnessed the murder of a young woman Dave and his brother Jimmie met on Galveston Beach in their youth, a pretty young woman named Ida Durbin upon whom Jimmie had an incurable crush. Unfortunately, Ida was a hooker who had ties to the mob and soon after they met she was abducted and disappeared.

Helen Soileau, Dave's former P.D. boss, gives him back his badge and supports him in his quest to out a couple of dirty red-necked cops who make it quite clear that any sniffing around he's doing about Ida Durbin is not welcome. Add the brutal serial murders of local women, the unstable but politically influential Chalons clan, and the appearance of Sister Molly, a renegade Catholic nun, and Dave's got more than his own work cut out for him. Luckily, he has his longtime pal Clete Purcel, a P.I. who knows how to push everyone's buttons, in his back pocket.

The plot gallops apace right through to its satisfying end, but not before Dave is forced to come face to face with his own demons over and over again. Read James Lee Burke--with 25+ books under his belt, he sure know what he's doing.

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

A New York Times bestseller, THE HELP follows Miss Skeeter, a recent university grad who returns to her Jackson, Mississippi ante-bellum home with hopes of finding a job in publishing in the wider world. It is 1962 and the Civil Rights movement is blossoming with sit-ins at lunch counters, public marches led by Dr. King and Rosa Parks sitting where her tired bones need to on a segregated bus. Yet, all Skeeter hears about from her mother and her girlfriends is constant nagging about securing a suitable husband and their challenges with their coloured maids.

Aibileen, a wise black maid raising her 17th white child, is the vocal counterpoint to Miss Skeeter and it's through their clandestine collaboration that more than just the two of them could get in hot water. Although Miss Skeeter is progressive in her ideas about civil rights and the value of all people regardless of skin colour, most of her peers continue to believe that their coloured help who raise their white children are less than equal and even insist that they use separate washrooms built especially for them.

THE HELP is an artifact of Southern ways--times through which white women both depended on and resented their hired coloured help and felt entitled to treat them as if they were personal slaves. It is also the story of a dissenting voice who values the genuine relationships that those same undervalued and hardworking women have with the children in their care.

THE YEAR OF FINDING MEMORY by Judy Fong Bates (2010)

Opening with the startling phrase, "not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972," Judy Fong Bates faces head on the shame that she has felt since her then-80-year-old father's suicide, completed in the basement of her parents' Toronto home after a lunch that her twenty-something self had shared with them at their table.

Thirty-five years later she embarks on a journey to China with her much older half-brothers to their parents' ancestral villages. With her lo fan husband Michael in tow, Fong Bates expects merely to tag along; however, what she discovers there about both her mother and father alters her perspective of the unhappy past that they shared. No longer is she able to view them as simply disappointed and bitter in their Canadian life that she experienced with them in small-town Ontario.

What is completely heartbreaking about Fong Bates's discovery is the hero's welcome that her father would routinely receive when he returned to China to visit relatives and townsfolk whom he had supported financially for years through remittances sent home from his modest life as a free-but-indentured laundryman.

Some family secrets are meant to be told. Make room for wonder in THE YEAR OF FINDING MEMORY.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

HITCH-22 by Christopher Hitchens (2010)

The British-born, recent American, Citizen Hitchens, with his expected shining wit and sharp quill dishes the dirt about himself in this completely engrossing memoir.

I read it slowly to absorb his syntax and his wisdom and his complete lack of preciousness that the genre almost always delivers in saccharine doses.

Where else could you discover that Omar Sharif had been Edward Said's "gym-shoe wielding sadistic head prefect" at boarding school? Or that Nora Ephron thought "Deep Throat" was a non-story because his actual identity (Mark Felt) was far less interesting than the conjectured spooks? Or that Auden and Trotsky lived in the same run-down apartment building in NYC?

What I am most envious of is Hitchens' peerless relationship with longtime amigo and fellow scribbler Martin Amis. Their "friendship has always been perfectly cloudless. It is a love whose month is ever May."

Lucky sods.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Recently, at a conference in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to hear Wes Moore speak about the formative events in his remarkable life and how through good luck and the support of real mentors he was able to change his attitude and become a genuine leader.

THE OTHER WES MOORE tells the stories of two Wes Moores, both of them involved as children in criminal activities. The Wes Moore I met, through the sacrifice of several family members, attended Valley Forge Military College (which he initially resisted), studied International Relations at Johns Hopkins, completed his M.A. as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, served in Afghanistan, worked as a White House fellow assigned to Condaleeza Rice and was a featured speaker at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And, he's only 32.

When the Baltimore papers ran a story about Wes's Rhodes scholarship, they also ran a story about another Wes Moore who had participated in a botched robbery of a jewelry store that resulted in the death of an off-duty police officer. Wes decided to write a letter to the other Wes Moore, now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. What came out of their correspondence and subsequent visits in jail is recounted in this powerful memoir. As Moore observes, "the chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

BLOOD FROM A STONE by Frances Fyfield (2008)

In a piece called "Why Crime Fiction is Good for You," Ian Rankin names a few top flight writers (Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Val McDermid, Michael Dibdin), including Frances Fyfield, whose books are not only committed to the general expectations of the genre, but also manage to peel away layers of social problems through character exposition and development just as the illustrious Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle did in the 19th century.

BLOOD FROM A STONE is the first Fyfield novel I've read and it won't be the last. At the outset, the wealthy and successful criminal barrister Marianne Shearer plummets to her death in her finery from the balcony of a chic boutique hotel in Kensington. Through a series of cryptic clues left behind by the deceased, fellow lawyers Thomas Nobel and Peter Friel discover uncomfortable truths about their client, including the dark reality that in her most recent gruesome case Shearer knowingly sacrificed an innocent witness to a let a criminal walk free. The question is why and the answer is mind-blowing.

Fyfield knows how to pace her plot and to reveal just enough about her characters to keep you flipping pages well into the night.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

ANNABEL by Kathleen Winter (2010)

Acceptance, not its weaker cousin tolerance, is at the heart of Winter's gorgeous first novel where there is a found poem on each page. See what I mean?

he saw beauty
equal in the body of any youth
male or female
apricots growing on their own tree
right where they belonged

Or what about this one?

sadness all sons and daughters feel
sadness that stings
then melts
in a fresh wind

It's 1968 in a small Labrador town where everyone knows each other's business. When Jacinta Blake is ready to deliver her first child, she is supported by neighboring women, including Thomasina Montague who has presided over many births before. Jacinta gives birth while her trapper husband Treadway goes about his routine in the kitchen unaware that on this day their lives will be irrevocably altered.

Jacinta's baby is a rare hermaphrodite, born with both male and female sexual organs and Jacinta, Thomasina and Treadway intend to keep this truth a secret from their little community. They name the baby Wayne and a series of surgeries and hormone therapy help to forge his male identity. When Thomasina's only child, a daughter named Annabel, drowns with her father in an accident on the river, she begins to refer to Wayne privately as Annabel. Soon, Wayne begins to identify with his shadow female self by the same name.

In addition to being an unconventional bildungsroman, ANNABEL is a story about how we all strive for acceptance from those we love and from ourselves.

I hope to see this remarkable book on all of the important short lists for 2010. ANNABEL certainly deserves the literary recognition and the wider readership that such recognition brings.

Monday, July 05, 2010

CADILLAC JUKEBOX by James Lee Burke (1996)

While I was in Philadelphia last week I ran out of reading material and found the local Borders bookstore near City Hall where I scoured the mystery section for a familiar author. Luckily there was a James Lee Burke title I hadn't yet read. If you haven't already found your way to him or to his daughter Alafair Burke, you must.

Burke's (pater) Dave Robicheaux books are set in Louisiana and he writes so convincingly of the place that you'll find yourself wiping sweat from your brow in sympathy with his characters even from the air-conditioned cool of your hotel room.

In CADILLAC JUKEBOX, Buford LaRose, the inheritor of a wealthy Southern family, is elected governor and strange things start to happen. Robicheaux is offered a job as the head of state police (which he routinely rejects), an out-of-town documentary filmmaker is slain, and the governor's wife Karyn tries to seduce Dave--though he's happily married to Bootsie. With a supporting cast of ne'er-do-wells and his trusty friends Batiste and Clete Purcell, Dave discovers the truths about the past and the present and it seems that no-one is safe in Iberia Parish.

SMART WOMEN (1983), SUMMER SISTERS (1998) and FOREVER (1975) by Judy Blume

I haven't picked up a Judy Blume title since the summer of 1976 when I read DEENIE, because I was terrified that like the title character in that tween novel I might end up wearing a back brace for scoliosis. Luckily, I grew almost 6 inches that summer and pretty much straightened myself out. Up until then I'd read her age-appropriate books including OTHERWISE KNOWN AS SHEILA THE GREAT, STARRING SALLY J. FREEMAN AS HERSELF, TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, ARE YOU THERE GOD, IT'S ME MARGARET and BLUBBER. I loved the humour and the real way those kids spoke and behaved and I wanted to live in NYC near Central Park like they did. In addition to Beverly Cleary's books about Beezus, Ramona and Henry, I credit Judy Blume with really turning me on to reading for the complete delight it offers when you disappear into that time and space.

When I started following @judyblume on Twitter recently, I decided I would pick up where I left off 35 years ago. So, I finally read FOREVER and now understand why I simply couldn't get a copy as a gift when I was 12, and chuckle now at Blume's homage to LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER--a reference that would have certainly been lost on me then. But, Ralph? I ask you is there a penis name any more ridiculous than that?

SMART WOMEN and SUMMER SISTERS are written for adult readers and both address love lost and found in young adulthood and middle-age. Though the stories are entirely predictable, the characters are genuine and demonstrate real problems great and small that we all experience. If you're feeling nostalgic for cognac, hot-tubs, rides in pick-up trucks, or Martha's Vineyard, reach for one of these breezy summer reads to toss in your beach bag.