In late Victorian England, a telegraphist discovers a watch in his flat. The watch is exquisitely expensive but does not open to tell the time for several months until an alarm sounds just minutes before a bomb planted by Irish nationalists would have killed its new owner. Our shell-shocked clerk hunts up the Japanese immigrant who built the watch and the two enter into a friendship that is cross-cultural, perhaps latently homosexual, but still wrapped beneath Victorian prudence. Unfortunate for the plot the watchmaker is clairvoyant with an almost unlimited ability to foretell the future. He can also construct mechanical beasts from clock parts that behave with anthropomorphic emotions and chemical concoctions that control the weather. Having assembled a leading character with unexplained and unlikely superpowers allows the author to create coincidences and outcomes that are beyond credulity. Combined with insufficient editing — it isn’t always clear who owns the dialogue — reading to the end becomes extremely laborious. To my shock this book has been nominated for several prizes.
In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
It seems to me that even mediocre authors can write tragedies. As long as a protagonist is reasonably sympathetic and something awful occurs, the reader is left feeling sad. It is a whole lot harder to write a credible love story and yet Nina George has succeeded in assembling a novel of sublime passion about characters who love one another, lose one another and their internal compasses, and find love and themselves once again. Jean Perdu, a Parisian bookseller, has a lover that leaves him without explanation, irrevocably breaking his heart. A new, appropriately aged, attractive, female neighbor moves into an upstairs apartment, weeping copious tears over a recent divorce. Perdu prescribes books to enhance her crying. Then he leaves on a journey by boat through France’s canals and through his memories. France’s landscape and Perdu’s mind shine brightly. The production of this audio book were excellent, too, bringing the handful of characters in this tight little play lovingly to life.
The second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova. Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin. The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist. All the women in the book have breasts and nipples. Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence. But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.
It is the middle of the fifth century, though you would have to know that on your own, as there is no indication in the book, and the Roman Empire is coming to an end. For Rome the benefit of maintaining its long-term occupation of Great Britain is no longer worth the cost and it withdraws its forces. Aquila, an 18-year-old Roman soldier, having lived his entire life in Britain deserts the Roman army only to be instantly subdued by the first invasion of Saxons. In this book, Saxons are brutish vikings, and despite the fact they are to become the forebears of the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain, they are described as not much more than seafaring guerillas. Written ostensibly as a children’s book in 1959, and winner of many awards, now more than half a century later, The Lantern Bearers can be difficult to penetrate. It presumes mastery of mid-century British language interspersed with working knowledge of early British history. As historical fiction runs, this one is not all bad, but by today’s standards the characters are thin and the plot more than a little contrived.
The Arbat is a Moscow neighborhood; its children are the teens and twenty-somethings caught up in Stalin’s increasingly repressive communism of the 1930s. These youth are generally supportive of the socialist ideals that brought communists to power in the years when they were born, are anxious to uplift of the proletariat and at the same time enjoy the vices and virtues of cafes, restaurants, and urban nightlife. One of their own, however, Sasha Pankratov, is exiled to Siberia on charges that are unfairly enforced by a mid-level government apparatchik. Stalin is portrayed throughout as an increasingly paranoid and unstable megalomaniac. Sasha’s friends blindly feel their way into an increasingly uncertain future — the rule of law is vanishing, Germany is increasingly militaristic, government is less trustworthy — and Sasha must decide how to make meaning with what is left of his life in a world with other exiles surviving among Siberian peasants. Rybakov wrote this book while still under communist rule and released it just as perestroika was first opening the USSR. My mother’s Russian immigrant friend was a child of the Arbat and says the book is spot on accurate.
Gyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history. We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel. The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors. While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied. Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom. Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel. Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening. The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.
Maybe the tenth in the series of mysteries for Chief Detective of the Quebec Surete, Armand Gamache. Having recently retired to Three Pines, now former chief Gamache is asked to locate artist, Peter Morrow, wife of Clara, who has been missing for a year. Author Louise Penny is returning to her roots, too, as the first in this series was also about the power of art and psychology of artists. Penny is also experimenting. There is no murder to open the story. In fact, the whole novel revolves around a missing person, which is to say, nothing really happens, and while the first half feels patient and funny, the second half is plodding and so devoid of action that it gets a little boring. Still, the main characters are warm and inviting and after a bit, I’m sure I’ll go on to subsequent mysteries.
In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.
Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.