The ninth book in the Detective Armand Gamache series is a completely lovable installment. Gamache must locate a missing person with a false identity at the same time he has to survive the destruction of his stable of best assistants. Little by little Gamache’s superiors have transferred all the best detectives out of his unit and placed them in lackey jobs in the Montreal police department. More terrifying, still, is that Gamache’s right hand man and close confidante, Beauvoir has not only been taken away, but Beauvoir is addicted to painkillers and his mental health is deteriorating rapidly. A phone call arrives from one of Gamache’s friends in the tiny, off-the-grid community of Three Pines. An old woman who had planned to come for the Christmas holiday has failed to arrive. The combined mysteries of the missing person and the motive for who might be attempting to disable Gamache’s capacities to investigate are carefully and exquisitely plotted. Warm tea, comic relief, and old friends bustle about Three Pines and welcome you to get cozy while you, the reader, work with the Chief Inspector to solve his latest cases.
What an interesting idea. Mix together a memoir of family history in the old Soviet Union with some Soviet history and the signature foods of the USSR’s distinct eras: Tsarist Russia, Russian Revolution, Leninism, Stalisnism, Brezhnev, Glasnost, Putin. Then the author and her mother, both accomplished cooks, prepare feasts redolent of each decade since 1910 and invite Soviet emigres to reminisce about the smells of an pre-Stalin cornucopia or the despair of waiting on a 1970s bread line. Perhaps because the author’s mother tongue is Russian, there is a kind of reverse construction to sentences and chapters that makes the text thick as stew. The second paragraph of Chapter six, for example, “1960s: Corn, Communism, Caviar” opens with this sentence, “Coarse and damp was the bread waiting at the end of the line.” The three strands of the book — von Bremzen’s family history, the story of the rise and fall of the USSR, and foods of a century — are all palatable, but in the end the flavors don’t quite meld into one delicious dish.
Lionel Esrog, along with three friends, is plucked from a Brooklyn orphanage by Frank Minna, a self-made detective and small time Brooklyn nogoodnik. Early in the book, Minna walks into a trap leaving his four offspring to solve the mystery of what happened to their boss. Lionel lets you know in the opening lines that he has Tourette’s Syndrome. He obsesses on numbers and patterns, word tensions explode in his mind and burst from his lips: EAT ME, BAILY! As he works to solve the mystery, Lionel becomes a full human being, far deeper, funnier, and more intelligent than we, or anyone around him, gives him credit for. His fellow Brooklynites refer to him as FreakShow, and we do, too, until slowly we recognize how automatically we have categorized Lionel because of his ticks and squirms. The supporting cast, including the entire borough, are superbly rendered. Every voice retaining its original Italian, Jewish, or out-of-city origins with precise adjustments for the age of the speaker. The mystery is fun and funny enough, but Motherless Brooklyn is a must-read because its characters and sense of place lodge in your head like one of Lionel’s numerical obsessions, a friendly itcth that cannot be ignored.
The year is 1845. The city of New York has grown a little too quickly from 50,000 to half a million. The potato blight has recently struck Ireland and now starving Irish immigrants are arriving by the boatload creating friction with resident Protestants whose fear of a Papist takeover is breeding abhorrent levels of prejudice. New York is a city of pestilence, prostitution, fires, pigs, mud, crime, and hunger and in 1845 its first police force is created to establish some order. Timothy Wilde is the city’s first crime detective and he spends his days tracking across lower Manhattan searching for a serial killer of young children. All the evidence suggests that Protestants are ritually murdering Catholic children in hopes of frightening the Irish back across the Atlantic. The strength of this mystery is what we learn about mid-Nineteenth Century New York City. The imagery is fantastic. Unfortunately, Timothy Wilde is just an ordinary detective, not quite endearing enough to make me want to get involved in his second case.
Before Jesus was the Christ (Savior), he was Jesus of Nazareth. This book does its best to set the scene in First Century Palestine. The Romans rule their far-flung, not-very-important outpost on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and do so with typical Roman efficiency and brutality. Only it isn’t working. The Jews of Palestine are having a difficult time living beneath authoritarian rule of an outside government that insists it’s ruler is a God. Complicating matters among Jews in the region is the Temple cult dominated by a handful of power-crazed Pharisees. Messiahs are a shekel a dozen, each promising some variation of escape from hunger, brutality, and corruption. By cross-referencing Roman documents from the period, archaeological evidence, and the Gospels, Reza Aslan takes his hand at reconstructing a historical Jesus who emerges from all the Messiahs in the Middle East as the one who makes it. Aslan’s contextualization of the geography and the era are extremely informative. His guesswork about who Jesus was and what he might have been really like as a man are superficial at best because so little documentation is available. He finishes the book, however, with the transformation of Jesus the man into Jesus the Son of God by analyzing the context in which the Gospels, especially Paul’s, were written. Naturally, for the deeply religious much of the book will be blasphemy.
Jun Do, a North Korean John Doe, lives many lives. He is an orphan in a camp for throw-away children, he undergoes pain training and learns to fight in abject darkness in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, he becomes a spy, a kidnapper, a prisoner, and an army commander. That is more than is possible for anyone in North Korea where life is too often a drudge from morning factory or field work until evening when the electricity is turned off. Yet, in Adam Johnson’s capable hands several clear images emerge. North Korea is awful. (For fuller and more accurate depictions, read Escape from Camp 14 or Nothing to Envy.) While reawakening us to the horrors of totalitarian rule, Johnson also gets us to consider whether a person is only the sum of his or her actions or, rather, actions might be dictated by circumstance and a person is somehow more intrinsic. Are we the sum of our stories, or as in North Korea, are stories too subject to stretch and warp? As Jun Do spends a lifetime navigating North Korea he also has heart and courage, enough of both to inspire others. Not to be overlooked, either, are jibes at America appearing in the guise of North Korean hyperbole. As the Dear Leader’s nightly broadcasts on loudspeakers make all too clear, the United States really is a place where one in six are hungry, the poor live in the streets, and neither justice nor access to health care are free. This one might be better to listen to as an audio book. The readers are terrific.
World War II came to an end in large measure because the Russian Army came to the aid of the Allied Forces. Irate at having lost twenty million citizens, Stalin’s troops raced into Germany to crush the Nazi Army. Their war prize was control over the countries of Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia. Initially welcomed as liberators, Stalin’s communists enforced brutal dictatorships across the bloc. Dissenters were shipped to Siberia, tortured, or disappeared. Economies fell under total state control. Freedoms of the press, dissent, religion, even thought were strictly and forcefully prohibited. Anne Applebaum’s book is a comprehensive survey of how these countries were crushed, by whom, for what purpose, and in what time frame. Divided by subject matter — religion, economy, industry, etc. — Applebaum provides myriad examples first from Poland, then Hungary, and then Germany. Repeat. The net result is a prize winning piece of research (National Book Award Finalist and a Pulitzer), but a book that is no more interesting to read than a communist manifesto orated during a May Day march.
Sheldon Horowitz is 82-years-old with a prostate, he lets us know right away, the size of a watermelon. After his wife’s recent death he is schlepped to Oslo, Norway to be cared for by his granddaughter and her inscrutable Norwegian husband. All Norwegians, he says, are like boy scouts. They all seem so good and upstanding and emotionless. Horowitz may or may not be senile, but he has some repenting to do for not having been old enough to fight the god damn Nazis during World War II. He gets the chance to make amends when an upstairs neighbor in need of shelter from her abusive boyfriend is absorbed, with her son, into Sheldon’s apartment. Only the vicious neighbor busts down the door, murders the girlfriend while Sheldon and the boy hide, and Sheldon relying on skills he may or may not have learned as a soldier in the Korean War takes flight with the woman’s young son. Norwegian by Night combines the suspense of a thriller with some serious pondering about the meaning and value of memory. A very fun read.
Roughly sixty years after the event, Charles Dickens takes his hand to historical fiction, doing his best to recount the French Revolution. Simultaneously ambitious, and at least for Dickens, concise, he covers several decades of history, but accomplishes this by following only a handful of characters. What he does most effectively is describe the madness that overcomes ordinary Frenchmen, here represented by the LaFarges, who, caught up in revolutionary fever, call out anyone currently or formerly aristocratic for a date with La Guillotine. For a Nineteenth Century writer Dickens does a creditable job of creating a few characters with ambiguity. Charles Darnay is a French nobleman seeking to distance himself from the his family’s aristocratic indecency. Dr. Manette, a former Bastille prisoner, dotes on his daughter, Lucie, but he too keeps a secret. Lucie, unfortunately, is a paper-thin personage: pure, pretty, faultless. The contradiction of stiff upper-lip, repressed Brits to their rip-off-their-shirts French peers is a subtext. You have to like writing from this period. Dickens got paid by the word so he’s verbose. For a book whose characters number fewer than you’d find in many plays, there is a lot of excess. A Tale does best when it recounts dialogue and is slowest when Dickens pulls out his broad historical brush.
It took great courage to write this book. Anyone that has ever crossed the Church of Scientology has, pursuant to church ideology, been hounded by goons, lawsuits (enough to bankrupt nearly anyone), private investigators, and vicious media attacks. Lawrence Wright had to know it was coming when he started the book, but then again he did win the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of Al Qaeda. There are three major components to Going Clear. The first is a thorough biography of its founder L. Ron Hubbard and there is no escaping the conclusion that the man was a lying, delusional, paranoid schizophrenic. Part 2 describes the Church of Scientology’s doctrines as created by Hubbard and embodied by long-time leader David Miscavige. Wright focuses much of his attention on the upper echelons of the Church — the Sea Org — and its alleged human rights abuses of its parishioners: kidnapping, isolation, physical and mental subjugation. The other area of interest for both Wright and the Church is its courtship of celebrities like Kirstie Allie, John Travolta, and Tom Cruise. Part 3 is a summary of abuses particularly as they are laid upon former members trying to escape the Church’s “Billion Year Contract.” The footnotes are as interesting as the text in that every allegation is categorically denied by the Church creating a dichotomy of, “Wright says vs. The Church Says.” Even if one-tenth of the Church’s accuser’s stories are valid the Church would have an awful lot of explaining to do. Wright does not dwell on any benefits the Church provides. Surely there must be many for anyone to even consider joining. Others may react to the book by quickly concluding that Hubbard was a nutter and so are Scientologists. On the other hand I found myself with my jaw dropping wider with every chapter at the absurdity and viciousness of the Church’s behavior. That’s good writing.