Archive for November, 2015

Have Elephant, Will Investigate

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, by Vaseem Khan, (Redhook, Hatchette Book Group), 320 pages, release date 15 September, 2015

Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is a delightful read, a blend of mystery, humor, and cultural introduction. The book opens on the day Inspector Chopra begins a forced, early retirement for health reasons. Two events upend his life at this moment when his days should be becoming simpler: he stumbles upon a drowning case that’s being rushed to a determination of suicide, despite conflicting evidence; he also receives a baby elephant courtesy of a distant and eccentric uncle.

Khan’s characters (the “good guys,” anyway) are engaging and quirky, the sort of people a reader quickly comes to like and to view as pleasant companions. As a result, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra is one of those un-put-downable books that keeps readers up late into the night, unwilling to abandon the engaging company in which they’ve found themselves.

If you, or someone you know, could do with several hours of enjoyable, original reading, you’ll be well-served by Inspector Chopra.

November 27 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Young Adult Title: What Is the “All-Seeing Eye?”

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye: A Novel, by Tania del Rio, illustrated by Will Staehle, (Quirk Books, Random House), 256 pages, release date 24 November, 2015

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye is a feast of a book for young(er) readers. It pairs text and illustration throughout, in a way that almost makes it a graphic novel, though the text is as rich as in a novel-novel. Warren the 13th depicts a world comprised of a mix of the ordinary, the magical, and (to a lesser extent) the steampunk.

Warren, who is thirteen (well, almost), as well as being the 13th, is an orphaned heir to a once-grand hotel currently managed by an exceptionally lazy uncle and an aunt determined to pull all she can out of the property before it falls under Warren’s control. What Aunt Anaconda most wants is a mysterious object said to be hidden at the hotel: the All-Seeing Eye. No one knows what, exactly, the Eye is; Annaconda, a witch deprived of most of her powers, believes it will return her to full, malevolent magical strength.

Warren the 13th jumps from action scene to action scene, maintaining a pace that will keep young readers engaged. Its unusual juxtapositions of people and events, along with its unanticipated revelations keeps it feeling fresh throughout its 256 pages. The humorous illustrations work with, not instead of the plot.

If you’re looking for a gift for a child who isn’t quite ready for the density of the later Harry Potter books, Warren the 13th will provide delicious reading in the meantime.

November 24 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Salem Revisited

The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff, (Little, Brown and Company), 512 pages, release date 27 October, 2015.

I actually finished reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches back in August, but I keep putting off writing a review because I’m daunted by the challenge of doing this book justice. The Witches is a major piece of work—detailed, carefully researched, complexly woven, and insightful.

Schiff explores the life experiences of the accusers, both before and after the witch hunts began, asking worthwhile questions about what it meant to be growing up female in Salem’s rigid, male-dominated society. Schiff’s Salem is not at all quaint. It’s a theocratic police state able to terrorize even its most powerful citizens.

I’ve read a number of books on these events in Salem, but Schiff managed to surprise me with historical details I was unaware of. Salem’s village book of trasactions was retranscibed after the witch trials, omitting all material from late January through early December for that year. Many of the girls among the accusers came from outside Salem, worked as servants, and had survived Indian massacres in other parts of the region. Death by pressing is a process that takes days, not hours, as I’d always assumed. Cotton Mather prayed for the death of a son-in-law he didn’t like, and happily accepted credit when the young man died unexpectedly. Schiff doesn’t just present these points as statements of fact, she ponders their implications and lets readers ponder with her. The Witches is a book that will have you questioning human nature, the role of religion, communal hysteria.

In addition, Schiff is a marvelous prose stylist. My advance copy of the book is full of underlined sentences and exclamation marks noting passages that I found particularly striking. She writes of “the coincidence-free sector between faith and paranoia.” She describes one unscrupulous character as “an opportunistic shape-shifter, nearly invertebrate in his loyalties.” She warns that studying events in Salem too closely can lead one “to see patterns that are not necessarily there, like a hyper-perspicacious assassination buff or… for that matter, like a witchcraft judge.” She even manages to work Albus Dumbledore into a footnote.

The Witches is a meaty, rewarding read that continually repays readers for the time they spend with it. It is, quite simply, an exceptional work of nonfiction.

November 19 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Painted Heresies

The Master of the Prado: A Novel, by Javier Sierra, (Atria Books), 320 pages, release date 17 November, 2015

Javier Sierra’s The Master of the Prado fits into the relatively new genre of literary-detective-meets-heretical-information; think Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco or The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It is, however, its own creature, and has a sort of gentleness that balances the anxiety and frenzy one usually finds in this genre.

While The Master of the Prado is a novel, Sierra makes himself the book’s central character, presenting it as an account based on one of his own rediscovered notebooks. While taking a break from his studies, the youthful Sierra spends time in the Prado, where he meets Luis Fovel, a man of about seventy, with an extensive knowledge of art history and the ways in which art has been used to encode religious principles that were considered heretical at the time the art was created.

Fovel’s tales trace a path of intertwined, encoded messages through several centuries of art: including works by El Greco, Titian, Bosch, Botticelli, Breughel, and Raphael. Sierra is Fovel’s eager student, soaking up this information and coming to view these artworks through a spiritual perspective.

Sierra begins further investigations on his own, then finds himself being trailed by Julian de Prada, who claims to be an “inspector,” through he never clarifies what it is he inspects or whom he works for. De Prada is obsessed with Fovel, warning Sierra of the dangers of Fovel’s non-rationalist views.

As this brief summary indicates, The Master of the Prado is a less convoluted work than many in the genre, which strengthens it. The questions Sierra finds himself asking are interesting enough on their own. They don’t need to be supported by an excess of conspiracy theories or obscurities. Readers can set their own pace as they follow Sierra’s metaphysical quest, rather than having to juggle multiple, conflicting plot lines.

The other real pleasure of The Master of the Prado is its illustrations—high-quality reproductions of the many artworks discussed by Favel and Sierra. Being able to view these artworks as the central characters discuss them also allows readers to feel as if they’re accompanying Sierra, rather than watching him from a distance.

November 17 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Holmesian Feast

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, ed. by Otto Penzler, (Pantheon), 816 pages, release date 27 October, 2015, hardcover editing $40, paperback edition $25

By the pound, by the page, by sheer number of stories—The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is a wonderful buy. Otto Penzler has gathered a marvelous collection of Holmes stories ranging from early parodies to recent variations. Each story is provided with an introduction giving information about the time in which it was written, the author’s other writing, the reception of the story.  It’s just one giant feast with all sorts of dishes, and one can devour it without ever feeling overfull.

“The Unique ‘Hamlet'”tells the story of a Shakespeare bibliographer in desperation over the theft of a rare edition of this play: “There he lay, a magnificent ruin, with his head on the fringed border [of the rug] and his feet in the coal scuttle; and sealed within his motionless lips was the amazing story he had come to tell—for that it was amazing we could not doubt in light of out client’s extraordinary behavior.”

“The Late Sherlock Holmes,” a satire penned by Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend J. M. Barrie, presents a series of sensationalist news stories in which Watson is arrested for Holmes’ murder after Holmes disappears at Reichenbach Falls. The press reports call into question Watson’s version of events on that day: “nothing can be clearer than that Holmes had ample time to shoot Moriarty after the latter hove in sight. But even allowing that Holmes was unarmed, why did not Moriarty shoot him? Had he no pistols either? This is the acme of absurdity… It may be added from information provided to us from a safe source, that the police do not expect to find [the individual sighted at Reichenbach] was Moriarty, but rather AN ACCOMPLICE OF WATSON’S” [emphasis from the original].

“The Drood Mystery” has Holmes solving the fate of Edwin Drood—the murdered hero of Dickens’ unfinished novel. The tone here is brisk and irreverent. Watson tells us that one individual is “exactly the pompous Tory jackass that Holmes had described.” He also mentions “a singularly obnoxious boy, whom we found in the street, flinging stones at the passers-by.” After the boy provides a key bit of information Watson describes Holmes “giving the imp sixpence, ‘here’s something for you. And here,’ [Holmes] continued, reversing the boy over his knee, and giving him a sound spanking, ‘here is something else for you.'”

In “The Ruby of Khitmandu,” a parody featuring Holmes and Watson equivalents, the breathless (and rather gormless) narrator tells us “What I said I cannot remember. If I could, I would not report it. I believe I wept.” In “Sherlock Holmes vs. Conan Doyle,” Holmes tells a client “it [detecting] save me from ennui—it and cocaine.”

I could provide endless delectable morsels from this Holmesian feast, but I hope by now the point is clear: if you enjoy Holmes, you need this book. Yes, need it.

November 11 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Black Dancer in Pre-Civil War America

Juba!: A Novel, by Walter Dean Myers, (Amistad, HarperCollins), 208 pages, release date 13 October, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades 8 and up

Juba! is an interesting work of fiction grounded in fact. Yes, there was a Master Juba, an African American dancer who performed in the U.S. and England in the pre-Civil War era. Yes, Charles Dickens saw him perform more than once and wrote about his dancing.

The time in which this novel is set is one of contradictions. Half of America is free; the other half is slave-owning. Minstrel shows featuring white men dressed as caricatures of black men were popular, particularly in the north. On the other hand, skilled African-American performers were under-appreciated, expected to “coon it up” and make themselves objects of demeaning humor.

Juba! covers a period of several years in the life of Master Juba as he struggles to win fame as a “serious” dancer. His mastery of folk dance forms, including the many jigs recently brought to America by Irish immigrants, is exceptional. Nonetheless, he can’t find steady work as a performer. One major triumph in the US leads nowhere. He then travels England with a minstrel show, the one real black man in a troupe of whites performing in blackface.

Meyer’s novel is written in first person, which allows Master Juba to comment on his own experiences. We can spend time seeing the world through his eyes, wrestling with the unfairness and contradictions that shape his world. Middle-school students will find Master Juba an interesting companion who can both inspire and pose questions.

I’d hoped this would be the sort of young adult novel that would transcend its genre, but sadly, this wasn’t the case. As I read Juba! I was conscious of the simplification of its style and narrative. It doesn’t operate on a level of complexity that adult readers will find satisfactory. However, as a text geared at ‘tween or teen readers (which is how the publisher markets it) it offers an interesting read. I’m glad I read it. Now I’m looking for the adult novel that can give me a richer sense of what Master Juba’s life was like.

November 09 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The March of History on a Single City Block

750 Years in Paris, by Vincent Mahé, (Nobrow Ltd.), 120 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

The only words in 750 Years in Paris are on the book’s final page, which offers a selected historical timeline. You may see an “Ostel de la Brasse” sign on 16th Century building or a “Je Suis Charlie” placard carried by a protester in 2015, but there’s no text beyond a few words appearing here and there in the illustrations. The book’s illustrations provide the narrative quite well on their own.

750 Years in Paris is the illustrated history of a single Parisian building from 1265 through 2015. As you work through the book, the left page always tells you the year; the right page is filled top-to-bottom with an illustration of the building as it existed at that point in time.

Though I can imagine sharing this book with someone younger, this is really a grown-ups’ picture book tracing the waves of prosperity and violence that have alternated though much of history. There’s military conflict a-plenty: the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and the German Occupation of World War II. There’s also internal conflict: the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants, the Fronde (a 1648 insurrection against the royal government), the storming of the Bastille and the consequent Reign of Terror, the July 1830 revolution that overthrew Charles X, the Paris Commune Socialist Uprising, strikes and student riots of 1968. Natural disaster in the form of the Black Death, fire, and flooding also makes an appearance.

This history isn’t as bleak as that group of lists might suggest. There are moments of celebration: processions, the 1853 rebuilding of Paris, the opening of the Métro—even France’s 1998 World Cup victory. If one looks closely, the illustrations are filled with moments of celebration and hope, even during the dark times. Cats scamper across rooftops; storks nest on top of chimneys. Children climb trees, fly kites, and find other amusements.

750 Years in Paris is a picture book; it’s also an invitation to reflect on what it means to be human. And it will be a real treat for francophiles. Given the profusion and detail of illustrations, 750 Years in Paris is well worth its price of $29.

November 05 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Tomorrow Is Just Like Today

Numero Zero, by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 208 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

At its best, Umberto Eco’s writing sweeps readers along tsunami-like, daring them to stay afloat amidst the flood of word and idea. However, this description applies equally to Eco’s writing at its worst. Numero Zero falls occasionally into the first of those two categories, but unfortunately spends most of its time in the latter.

The premise is pure Eco: a team of writers is putting together “zero versions” (sample issues) of a magazine never really intended to be published. The magazine, titled Domani (Tomorrow), has the avowed, if unlikely goal, of publishing news in print before it reaches the pubic via other means. In essence, Domani will predict the future. The novel’s narrator, an unevenly employed ghost writer, has been charged with documenting the process by which Domani is created. That way, if the magazine fails, which it’s intended to do, the head of the project will emerge from the mess with a book that can be published under his own name.

Unfortunately, Numero Zero feels both truncated and overlong. A few of the characters (one in particular) offer rambling discourses. The others never quite emerge from this shadow of language. Dialogue seems intended to take the place of character development, but it simply isn’t up to the task.

Ultimately, Numero Zero is a book about how news is generated, the dance among innuendo, disinformation, and occasional fact that readers are fed on a daily basis through print and television. To publish tomorrow’s news today requires a good deal of guesswork and an ability to dress these vagaries in a way that so meets readers’ expectations that they fail to notice the lack of substance. Here’s the thing of it: this isn’t new news. Readers of the sort who read Eco already approach the media cynically.



November 03 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Novel of Art in Wartime

The Muralist, by B. A. Shapiro, (Algonquin Books), 352 pages, release date 3 November, 2015

B. A. Shapiro’s work will already be familiar to many readers because of the success of her novel The Art Forger. The Muralist is a match for The Art Forger in terms of engaging, fast-paced reading, but it also probes larger questions than the earlier book did.

The Muralist features two main characters: Danielle Abrams, living in the present day and working at an art auction house, having given up her aspirations to become an artist herself, and Danielle’s great-aunt Alizée Benoit, who was an artist with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during FDR’s presidency. It’s Alizée’s story that drives the novel. Alizée is Jewish, the only member of her family to have moved from France to the U.S. before the start of World War II. She simultaneously struggles to bring her family to the U.S. and to develop a new kind of art, one that will later become known as Abstract Expressionism.

Alizée crosses paths with many major figures in World War II-era America. Shapiro has her working alongside real WPA artists who would later become famous: Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. While Rothko and Pollock feel politics has no place in art, as European Jews struggle to escape the advancing Nazi army—and as they are turned away from virtually all Allied countries—Alizée begins to question the worth of art outside of politics. As Alizée works to develop an art form that is both political and abstract, she becomes acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt, who purchases on of Alizée’s paintings.

Then, suddenly, Alizée disappears, never to be heard from again. Despite the best efforts of Rothko, Pollock, Krasner, Roosevelt, and members of Alizée’s family, no trace of her can be found. Danielle’s half of the story has her attempting to uncover the fate of her great-aunt and to prove that a set of unattributed paintings are her great-aunt’s work.

The novel begins somewhat slowly, but builds to a point where it is genuinely difficult to put down. Readers who’ve lived through or after World War II know of the genocide that is about to occur. Like Alizée, most won’t be able to understand the failure of major political figures to see this genocide coming and to work against it. The discussions among the WPA artists, as invented by Shapiro, become increasingly significant within this context. The issue of the role of politics in art is seen not just as a question of aesthetics, but a question of what the artist’s role (and our own) is in a world full of injustice.

This is a novel that readers will feel compelled to race through and that will stay with them long after they’ve finished reading.

November 02 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »