January 11, 2015

Eyes of the Scientific Revolution

What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution, by Lawrence Lipking, (Cornell University Press), 312 pages, released October 7, 2014

Lawrence Lipking’s What Galileo Saw is a demanding and interesting read. What Lipking is trying to get at is the role of imagination in the scientific revolution. What kinds of worlds did Galileo or Kepler, for example, have to imagine as a result of their observations? Can we observe their imaginations at work in detailed readings of their illustrations that accompanied their scientific writing? Lipking assumes his audience has a solid background in the history of science and familiarity with the different approaches that have been taken in recent biographies of the scientists he discusses. Most readers will have to move through this book slowly, but the effort will be repaid with new ways of understanding how imagination can lead to revolution.

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January 09, 2015

A U.S. Gay Rights Pioneer in His Own Voice

Gay is Good: The Life and Letters of Gay Rights Pioneer Franklin Kameny, ed. by Michael G. Long, (Syracuse University Press), 400 pages, released 28 November, 2014

I hadn’t heard of Franklin Kameny before I started reading this book. He’s a fascinating man: fierce, furious, articulate, and brave. Kameny’s activism began after he was fired from his position as an astronomer with the U.S. Army’s Map Service in 1957 because he was gay. Rather than retreating in silence and shame Kameny became a remarkable activist for gay civil rights. At the start, he thought of this crusade as his own, asking to be treated as an individual, rather than being lumped into a class of people. Before long, however, he came to see himself as activist working on behalf of all gay people, trying not just to win his own job back, but to ensure equal employment for all gay men and lesbians.

Kameny’s activism originally took the form of an ongoing, detailed letter writing campaign addressed at key political figures of his time, including President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He filed suit to be reinstated in his job, lost twice in lower courts, then was denied certiorari (a writ ordering a review of a lower court decision) by the U.S. Supreme Court. This was the first civil rights case based on sexual orientation put before the Court and marks a turning point in gay and U.S. history, despite his request for review being denied. He fought to end sodomy laws and to remove the listing of homosexuality as a mental illness from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Reading through Kameny’s letters is a delight. He constructs thoughtful, detailed arguments. He holds politicians to the claims they make about individual and group rights. This isn’t a book one can skim over or rush through. Kameny’s letters demand that today’s readers (like those he first addressed through this correspondence) give his subject the attention it deserves. While he may have engaged in political sloganeering in other gay rights work, in these letters he builds detailed claims with ample evidence.

If you’re interested in the history of the gay rights movement or in the history of social change in the U.S. over the last sixty years, you’ll want to spend time with this essential book.

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January 07, 2015

Flavia in the New World

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel, by Alan Bradley, (Delacorte Press), 416 Pages, released January 6, 2015

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is the sort of character one can’t help but grow increasingly fond of over time. Simultaneously melodramatic and deeply rational, Flavia ricochets between hyperbole and precise experiments in organic chemistry. Again, she’s set a mystery to solve—this time at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada—and sorts things out nicely.

The real pleasure of these books, though, is not the plot so much as Flavia’s personality and way of looking at the world.

Flavia on being sent to school in Canada: “‘Banished!’ There is no sadder word in the English language. The very sound of it—like echoing iron gates crashing closed behind you; like steel bolts being shot shut—makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it? ‘Banished!'”

Flavia describing an adult she’s fallen afoul of: “Her voice was as sharp as elderly cheese.”

Flavia on the Anglican mindset: “She was the only person in the hall looking at us. Everyone else was looking studiously away, as Anglicans invariably do when faced with group embarrassment.”

Flavia on being less than truthful: “Was it wrong to be so deceitful? Well, yes, it probably was. But if God hadn’t wanted me to be the way I am, He would have arranged to have me born a haddock instead of Flavia de Luce—wouldn’t He?”

This latest novel in the series, like the others, is one to pick up when in need of some fast-paced, larger (and funnier) than life action. Flavia is a comfort for the disheartened spirit and a joy for those already content.

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January 06, 2015

A YA Novel Exploring Family as Blessing and Burden

My Cousin’s Keeper, by Simon French, (Candlewick), 240 pages, released September 9, 2014

My Cousin’s Keeper is a problem novel. The problem—eleven-year-old Kieran’s best friend moved away two years ago and ever since then he’s been struggling to gain a place in the “in” crowd, but the arrival of his “weird” cousin Bon throws his life off-kilter. Bon is living with their grandmother, sleeping over at Kieran’s home, and attending Kieran’s school. To complicate matters, Bon has somehow managed to become best friends with the cute girl Kieran has a crush on.

Because such novels usually end happily, or reasonably so, one can predict much of the action in this book. But having a good sense of what’s to come doesn’t matter when the writing is solid and the characters are engaging—and that’s the case here.

Simon has a knack for avoiding all good/all bad dichotomies. The characters have their short-comings. For Kieran that short-coming is his willingness to participate in activities and pranks that make him uncomfortable in the hopes that doing so will cement his place in the boys’ social hierarchy.

My Cousin’s Keeper, marketed to grades 3 through 7, offers a worthwhile read for children trying to make their way in the world, who are still learning how to stand up for what they most believe in. The fact that there are two significant, strong female characters means this is a book that boys and girls both should appreciate.

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January 05, 2015

When the Ground Stopped Shaking in Haiti

God Loves Haiti: A Novel, by Dimitry Elias Léger, (Amistad), 272 pages, release date January 6, 2015

Dimitry Elias Léger’s God Loves Haiti is a surprising and engaging read. Set in Port-au-Prince during and in the days immediately following the Haitian earthquake, the book focuses on a group of fictional characters who hold what are real positions in Haitian politics (President, ex-President, First Lady, and a young political activist). This leads to a certain amount of speculation. To what extent is the novel a general commentary on the nature of Haitian politics and society? To what extent is it a specific examination of the behavior of somewhat disguised, but real people who were key figures in events post-earthquake?

The ex-President is a former Catholic priest now living in South Africa, rather like Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former two-time president of Haiti who completed neither term in office because of military coups. His character seems most closely aligned with a real-world equivalent, but he’s also the least significant of the novel’s central characters. The President, First Lady, and activist are more distinct from their real-world counterparts. The fictional characters may share some thoughts and attitudes with the real-world individuals, but their biographies differ enough to prevent one reading the novel as thinly disguised nonfiction.

The novel is set during the earthquake, but the central characters are major figures whose experiences are far different from those of ordinary Haitians. As a result, the reader observes the earthquake, but doesn’t really experience it. The destruction always seems to be just outside the novel’s action.

Nonetheless, God Loves Haiti offers a fascinating glimpse of life in this nation, its pre-earthquake challenges, and the way those challenges are increased exponentially by the disaster. During a visit to New York to meet with various heads of state at the U.N., the President is shown a chart estimating the rubble from the Haitian quake to be twenty times that produced in the destruction of the World Trade Center. He finds himself musing:

It took New York one entire year to clear the rubble of its ground zero, and nearly ten years later they had yet to finish constructing a worthy replacement, and that disaster was located in the center of one of the wealthiest cities in the world…. If politics and grief could paralyze mighty New York, how much time will the Haitians need?

Léger deftly balances tragedy and dark humor, which keeps the novel from becoming overwhelming. A love triangle between three of the main characters plays out in surprising ways that acknowledge, but serve as counterpoint to, the destruction. This is a book well worth reading and one that leaves me looking forward to Léger’s next work.

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January 01, 2015

The Best of 2014

The usual format in “best of” lists for books seems to be separate lists for fiction and non-fiction, with ten titles for each. I’ve read much more fiction than nonfiction in the last year, so I’m compromising and creating a single, fifteen-item list that combines fiction and nonfiction. The books are arranged in reverse alphabetical order by title (because it isn’t fair that A always gets to go first).

The link in the header for each book will take you to the publisher’s page for that title. The link in the body of my comments will take you to the full review that I published last year.

*****

Tehran at Twilight, by Salar Abdoh, (Akashic Books)

Abdoh’s Iran is a place where the question isn’t if one has been complicit, but rather the extent of one’s complicity. Malek Reza, the novel’s protagonist, is an Iranian-American, one who initially supported the Iranian revolution, but moved to the U.S. with his father when the revolutionary government became as violent towards its own citizens as the shah’s had been. As Reza notes near the end of the book, “Change always carried a price. Often that price was that there would be no change at all.” Reza’s best friend, Sina Vafa, has returned to Iran after he and Reza finished their educations at U.C. Berkeley. Vafa is still committed to the revolution despite its disappointments, still eager to engage in clandestine activity in Iran or in surrounding countries. Tehran at Twilight opens when, after years of separation, Vafa contacts Reza, asking him to return to Iran and—upon Reza’s return—asking him to accept Vafa’s power of attorney. This request, not surprisingly, is more complex than it seems, ultimately sundering the two men’s friendship.

*****

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, by John Boyne (Henry Holt and Co.)

Alfie Summerfield, the central character of Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, is five when his father volunteers for the British Army at the start of World War I. He’s an interesting, quirky kid, with a child’s sense of time: “Georgie and Margie [Alfie’s parents] had been very old when they got married—he [Alfie] knew that much. His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.” At first, Alfie’s father writes regularly, but then the letters stop coming. Alfie’s mum tells Alfie his dad is on a secret mission, but Alfie grow less and less sure of her honesty as his father’s absence grows more extended. Alfie and his mum quickly become “perilously close to penury,” as she puts it. She works double shifts at a hospital, waking him before she leaves for work in the morning. Now the man of the family, Alfie cuts school and spends four days a week at King’s Cross Station shining shoes in order to make a few pennies to slip into his mother’s purse. When Alfie see his father’s name on a document dropped at King’s Cross by a physician, he begins his own search for his father.

*****

The Sacred River: A Novel, by Wendy Wallace, (Scribner)

The Sacred River focuses on three women: a mother, Louisa; her sister-in-law, Yael; and Louisa’s daughter, Harriet. Harriet, now in her early twenties, is consumptive. She’s spent her years as an invalid studying texts on ancient Egypt, particularly hieroglyphs, and convinces her doctor to tell her parents that travel to Egypt is essential for her health. So Louisa and Harriet, accompanied by the spinster, Yael, set sail. As it turns out, Egypt is good for Harriet’s health, easing her breathing and also giving her life a sense of purpose that it’s lacked before. Harriet is able to participate in archaeological work, sketching paintings and glyphs in a recently discovered tomb. Yael also finds a new sense of purpose in Egypt, one suited to her Christian beliefs and her inherent feminism. Louisa, meanwhile, is confronted with a past that, as a cover copy-writer might put it, she’d “prefer to keep buried.”

*****

Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clements, (Random House)

Prayers for the Stolen is primarily set in a small hillside community in Guerero, not far from Acapulco, where “Everyone’s goal was to never come back.” This community is a shadow of its former self—now divided by the highway to Acapulco, it’s been fragmented; all the males have left for work in the U.S. and most have broken ties with the wives and children left behind; and the women who remain are at the mercy of the members of the drug cartels that flourish in the area. It’s the women in this book who are “the stolen,” kidnapped by cartel members either for personal use or to be sold for profit. The central characters in this book are a quartet of teen-aged girls growing up under the strict eyes of their mothers who do all they can, first to pass their daughters off as sons, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make their daughters ugly in hopes that this will spare them from abduction: hair is cut short and badly, teeth are deliberately stained with magic marker. These four are Paula, a remarkable beauty; Estefani, whose mother is dying of AIDS; Maria, the illegitimate half-sister of the book’s narrator; and the narrator herself, Ladydi (as in England’s Lady Di). Through Ladydi’s voice, Clement’s book walks a fine balance, presenting the difficulties of the characters’ day-to-day lives in a neutral tone that keeps the events described from becoming unbearable for the reader, but that at the same time adds to the misery depicted, since this tone makes it clear that the events being narrated are ordinary—not moments of unusual terror or suffering. This is the way life is on Ladydi’s hillside.

*****

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured, by Kathryn Harrison, (Doubleday)

Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured is the best biography I’ve read in quite some time—probably the best one I’ve read in years. In fact, Harrison’s book is something like four books in one (or perhaps the best pages of four different biographies excised and stitched together within a new cover. There’s the straightforward biography; the discussion of the way Joan’s life has been interpreted in the arts (theatre, film, painting); the consideration of Joan in the notions of gender prevalent in her own time; and a very interesting comparison of Joan with Christ. Harrison is a perceptive, eclectic thinker, and being able to savor four hundred pages of her research and reflections on Joan of Arc is an exceptional treat.

*****

I Called Him Necktie, by Milena Michiko Flasar, translated by Sheila Dickie, (New Vessel Press)

The promotional material I found online for I Called Him Necktie claims “This is the Japanese Catcher in the Rye for the 21st Century.” Audacious as this claim may seem, I think it’s accurate.  The narrator Taguchi Hiro is a hikikomori—one of the estimated 100,000 to 320,000 (data provided by the author) Japanese young people overwhelmed by this highly competitive society who “refuse to leave their parents’ house, shut themselves in their rooms and reduce their contact with the family to the minimum.” Hiro has begun to leave the family home unobserved, spending long stretches of time sitting on a favorite bench in a local park. It’s at this park that Hiro meets “Necktie,” an unemployed businessman who has not been able to tell his wife about the loss of his job and who leaves home each day as if he were still going to work. Hiro and Necktie are compelling characters, deeply troubled, but easy to understand and identify with. Hiro has abandoned societal expectations; Necktie is unable to abandon them, despite his own desires and circumstances. As the two trepidatiously build a friendship they strengthen one another. Hiro recounts stories of classmates with burdens similar to his own; Necktie reveals the tragedy lying in his own past.

*****

Fives and Twenty-Fives: A Novel, by Michael Pitre, (Bloomsbury USA)

Fives and Twenty-Fives, set in Iraq, focuses on the lives of three characters, depicting these through a series of first-person narratives interwoven with “official” documents that also address these characters’ experiences. These characters are all part of an engineering team responsible for filling potholes in occupied areas. Donovan, a young lieutenant responsible for leading one of these road crews, is hindered (as well as embarrassed) by his lack of military experience. Doc Pleasant, the medic for that crew, faces the impossible task of trying to return bodies to wholeness after explosions and fire fights have torn them to pieces. “Dodge,” their Iraqi interpreter, loves heavy metal music and, before the war broke out, was writing a thesis on Huckleberry Finn. As one might expect, Fives and Twenty-Fives makes for a brutal sort of reading, which is precisely why this such a valuable book. Writing cannot begin to replicate combat experience, but truly fine writing can at least give readers a glimpse at the vast desolation and destructiveness of combat, a sense of standing at the edge of an unseeable chasm of almost infinite width and depth.

*****

F: A Novel, by Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Carol Janeway, (Pantheon)

F is one of those novels that a reader picks up because the premise is interesting—something that will either be brilliant or disastrous. Arthur, a father who doesn’t believe in hypnotism, abandons his family after being told by a hypnotist that he must seriously pursue his dream of being a writer. He becomes a famous author; his sons spend their lives responding to his abandonment in different ways. Martin becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric become an investment adviser, juggling accounts like Bernie Madoff while over-medicating himself. Ivan, a painter, finds himself unable to produce his own artwork. Bottom line: brilliant. This book is brilliant. Each of the chapters has a different perspective. The story of the hypnosis is told in omniscient, third person style. The next three chapters are each presented in first person, each narrated by one of the three sons. Imbedded among these chapters is one of the stories Arthur writes after abandoning his family. The book ends in third-person again, this time focusing on Arthur’s granddaughter (Eric’s daughter) Marie.

*****

The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky, (New Directions)

The End of Days is powerfully built. The structure is original; the scope is broad. If I had to say what it’s about, I’d have to give three answers:

1. It’s a sequence of five “novels,” each a life story of the same woman. With a few events changed, the course of her life expands. In the first “novel” of this novel, she dies as an infant of what is most probably Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. By the time the reader reaches the fifth and final “novel,” she’s lived a long life, become an acclaimed writer, and is living in an assisted care facility.

2. It’s a devastating depiction of the many waves of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 20th Century.

3. Finally, it’s an examination of the hopes behind and the subsequent betrayal of European socialism, beginning with anti-WWI pacifism, extending through much of the history of the Soviet Union, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Remarkably, The End of Days, succeeds at doing all of these without sacrificing any one of them to another.

*****

Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West in Dialogue with and Edited by Christa Buschendorf, (Beacon Press)

In Black Prophetic Fire, Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf wrestle with two questions: “Are we witnessing the death of Black prophetic fire in our time? Are we experiencing the demise of the Black prophetic tradition in present-day America?” West and Buschendorf address their questions through a series of conversations (later edited by Buschendorf) each focusing on a diffferent Black prophet and the movement that prophet was a part of: Frederick Douglass; W. E. B. Du Bois; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Ella Baker; Malcolm X; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. For the reader, getting to “eavesdrop” on these conversations is an exhilarating and challenging experience. Both scholars have such extensive knowledge in multiple academic fields, that their dialogues become lessons by extension—not because the writers’ tone is didactic, but because few other thinkers would be capable of synthesizing and analyzing this disparate material. Simply put, this is the most intellectually and ethically engaging book I’ve read in years.

*****

Be Safe I Love You, by Cara Hoffman (Simon and Schuster)

Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follows soldier Lauren Clay on her first few days home following a tour of duty in Iraq. There’s a strong arc to this story: unsatisfactory meetings with old friends and family leading to Lauren’s decision to take her younger brother on a survivalist journey through a remote area of Canada in midwinter. Suspenseful as that narrative is, the real heart of the book is the characters and their wrestling with questions of identity. What makes this book exceptional is what people think, not what they do. Lauren, not surprisingly, has the roughest time of it, unable to drop her vigilance and expectation of command (she was an NCO) as she returns to civilian life. The characters around Lauren struggle with their own displacements. Her high school boyfriend has moved on to college and resents reminders of his working class origins. Her best friend’s early motherhood has limited her to minimum-wage jobs despite her outstanding high school record. There are “the Patricks” three brilliant, but failed men and a choir director who lost a promising career to alcoholism. All of these characters are drawn with a detail and honesty that makes them simultaneously sympathetic and irritating.

*****

The Angel of Losses: A Novel, by Stephanie Feldman, (Ecco)

Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses is a marvel of a book, a put-on-your-stranded-on-a-deserted-island-list book. The Angel of Losses, set in present-day New York and New Jersey, is narrated by Marjorie Burke, a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on the character of the wandering Jew. Marjorie is pulled from the world of the scholarly to the fantastic when she discovers handwritten versions of the White Magician stories her grandfather told when she was a child. These alternate versions, featuring the White Rebbe, are found in journals he left behind at the time of his death—journals he’d wanted destroyed. The Angel of Losses moves effortlessly from present to past, from “real” narrative to the White Rebbe folktales and their variations. Its scope is broad, covering centuries and grappling with questions of faith, destiny, and free will; at the same time, it offers human details, the sort that keep the characters vivid and engaging, even within the larger context.

*****

The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel, by Nina Siegel, (Nan A. Talese, Random House)

Nina Siegel’s The Anatomy Lesson is one of those wonderful novels that’s as solid in its realization as it is in its conception. The novel tells the back back story of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, that wonderful work commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons in 1632. The surgeons and city functionaries are pictured gathered round a corpse, as one of their group explains the anatomy of the forearm. The light in the picture falls downward, illuminating the corpse, while placing the other figures in shadow, making death look like life and life like death. The novel is written in an array of first-person voices, with occasional third person framing, all of whom are identified in ways suitable to the dissection process. We have “The Body,” Adriaen Adriaenszoon, the thief whose execution will provide the corpse for the dissection; “The Hands,” Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, who conducts the autopsy; “The Heart,” Adriaen’s lover Flora, pregnant with his child, who hopes to win his acquittal or, failing that, to claim his remains for burial; “The Mouth,” Jan Fetchet, dealer in curiosities and all manner of goods, who also serves as preparator for the Surgeon’s Guild, claiming and cleaning the bodies of the executed who will become the focus of dissections; “The Mind,” René Descartes, who like Dr. Tulp dreams of finding the location of the soul within the body; and “The Eyes,” Rembrandt himself, with connections to every other character in the book from thief to surgeon. We also get occasional excepts from the journal of a conservator working on the painting in the present day.

*****

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel, by Anthony Doerr, (Scribner)

Set in World War II France and Germany, All the Light We Cannot See is my favorite kind of novel: long, rich, populated by a range of imperfect characters, some who try to transcend that imperfection, others who cannot see it. The cast of characters includes Marie-Laure, blind since age six, with a quick mind and a great deal of self-confidence; her father, locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris; Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, an agoraphobic haunted by ghosts since he returned from World War I; the great-uncle’s elderly housekeeper, who finds the courage to join the French resistance; Werner, a German orphan who is a prodigy in the creation and repair of radios; Werner’s sister Jutta, left behind when Werner is accepted into a science academy for Hitler Youth that offers more political indoctrination than science; and a whole host of others. Anthony Doerr brings this wide assembly of individuals to life, moving among them, slowly drawing them nearer one another, fleshing each of them out so that even those we might expect to be stereotypes are much more multifaceted. And among these multifaceted characters lies a multifaceted stone: a diamond with a legendary history. In less able hands, the diamond would have dominated this story, which would have degenerated into a variation on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s the characters who are the heart of All the Light We Cannot See. There are a few we hate, but for the most part, we can’t help but see the better parts of them. The question is whether they will discover these better selves in time to make a difference of some sort in a world quite literally in flames.

*****

Above the East China Sea: A Novel, by Sarah Bird, (Random House)

Above the East China Sea moves among several settings: the U.S. military base on Okinawa in the present day and Okinawa outside of the base; Okinawa during World War II when the Island served as a defensive barrier between Japan and U.S. warships; the Okinawan spirit world, led by spirits called kami. This book is the story of two young women and is narrated in their voices. The first, Luz James, is a military brat (a term she uses to describe herself), daughter of a single mother. Luz’s world has been torn apart by her older sister’s unexpected enlistment in the Air Force and her death in Afghanistan. The second young woman is Tamiko Kokuba, an Okinawan originally a fanatical supporter of Japan (many Okinawans at the time considered it a compliment to be mistaken for Japanese), who works in the cave hospitals set up on the island for the Japanese forces, and who, pregnant at age fifteen after being raped by soldiers on both sides of the conflict, chooses to commit suicide. Luz and Tamiko’s paths cross in both literal and spiritual senses as Luz contemplates suicide and Tamiko waits for a body to house her spirit. At several moments I was sure I’d guessed how these two different crises would be resolved, but Bird’s nuanced story-telling keeps adding complexity to the narrative, taking it to deeper, richer places than I’d imagined.

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December 30, 2014

The World After Reichenbach Falls

Moriarty: A Novel, by Anthony Horowitz, (Harper), 304 pages, released December 9, 2014

One of the big questions for fans of Sherlock Holmes is the events of the three-year gap between the “death” of Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls and the Great Detective’s reappearance three years later. Anthony Horowitz, author of Moriarty, gives us a glimpse of this time, the first few weeks after Reichenbach when the disappearance of Holmes and Moriarty has left a gap at the peak of London’s criminal world.

Crime in London is spiking, becoming more violent and less “honorable.” A Pinkerton agent called Frederick Chase, recently arrived in London, may know why: he’s on the trail of American crime boss Clarence Devereux, who originally planned to partner with Moriarty and now hopes to take control of Moriarty’s criminal network. Chase finds himself partnered with Inspector Athelney Jones—a figure who appeared in several of the original Holmes stories and who has enthusiastically studied Holmes’ methods.

Watching (if reading can be described as watching) these two men build a relationship of increasing trust and grapple with crimes of international importance (before the book is over, they’ll have met Robert Todd Lincoln, the U.S. legate to Britain) is a delight. Jones is the quicker of the two, reading signs that Chase misses, but Chase is the more athletic. Eventually, these two men find themselves discussing the possibility of setting up their own consulting detective agency to fill the gap left by Holmes’ death.

Horowitz is a master of the just-one-more-chapter style of writing that makes a good detective novel so hard to put down. He parcels out information bit by bit, simultaneously feeding his readers and keeping them hungry.

If you’re a fan of Holmes, you’ll want to read Moriarty and start piecing together the tale of a London that’s lost the Great Detective.

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December 29, 2014

Pasta as Food, Pasta as Art

Flour + Water: Pasta, by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi, (Ten Speed Press), 288 pages, 100 photos, 75 recipes, released September 30, 2014

Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water is one of those cookbooks that completely transcends the genre. It’s got history, culture, and philosophy—and is so gorgeous it could serve as a coffee-table art book as well.

If you own a pasta machine (or just received one as a holiday gift), you definitely need this book. It has multiple dough recipes. It also has detailed photos illustrating the shaping you’ll need to do with many kinds of pasta post-machine. This is a book that can take you from the basics to levels of culinary complexity that are almost unimaginable until you’ve seen them documented.

But, even if you don’t own a pasta machine, this is a book worth looking at. For each of the recipes, McNaughton includes information on the best store-bought pasta substitutions. The fact that he does this makes what otherwise might be a daunting book approachable: first, because it simplifies the work demanded of a cook and, second, because it clearly signals McNaughton’s openness to different levels of ability and available time. He doesn’t make you feel like a culinary leper if you can’t match his competence and commitment.

He provides background information on all the dishes: the regions they come from, the way particular pasta shapes reflect local culture, the history of the different cheeses used, why and how different regions came to produce specific meats. In other words, Flour + Water makes for fascinating reading, even if you never try a single recipe yourself.

Some of the recipes are things I never would try myself—Squid Ink Chitarra with Sea Urchin, Tomatoes, and Chiles anyone? Or how about Red Wine Rigatoni with Beef Cheeks and Parsnips?

On the other hand, there are also recipes that make me want to head to the kitchen immediately. The mix of speck, braised cabbage, potato, and fontina sounds great—though I’d probably substitute prosciutto for the speck. I’m pretty sure some variation on the Asparagus Caramelle with Brown Butter and Meyer Lemon will be showing up on my dinner table in the next few days.

You can read Flour + Water the way you’d read any high-quality nonfiction or you can use it as a how-to book that will have you producing amazing dishes (with or without a pasta machine).

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December 28, 2014

One More for the “Best Of” List

The End of Days, by Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky, (New Directions), 256 pages, released November 11, 2014

I’m glad I managed to get Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days read before the end of the year because it definitely belongs on my 2014 “Best Of” list.

The End of Days is powerfully built. The structure is original; the scope is broad. If I had to say what it’s about, I’d have to give three answers:

1. It’s a sequence of five “novels,” each a life story of the same woman. With a few events changed, the course of her life expands. In the first “novel” of this novel, she dies as an infant of what is most probably Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. By the time the reader reaches the fifth and final “novel,” she’s lived a long life, become an acclaimed writer, and is living in an assisted care facility.

2. It’s a devastating depiction of the many waves of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 20th Century.

3. Finally, it’s an examination of the hopes behind and the subsequent betrayal of European socialism, beginning with anti-WWI pacifism, extending through much of the history of the Soviet Union, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Remarkably, The End of Days, succeeds at doing all of these without sacrificing any one of them to another.

The End of Days requires slow, careful reading. Part of this may result from the German original. I don’t know enough to say for sure, but I suspect that many of its muti-layered, multi-directional sentences are a result of the language it was originally written in.  The blessing of this demanding style is that it requires one to read at a pace that allows for close attention to details.

The End of Days is the sort of novel one should read when one is ready to do some real work in reading—and to reap the rewards this work generates. None of the central character’s lives ends well, but by watching her path through each of them, we are confronted with many of the failings of the century we’ve just left behind.

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December 26, 2014

Uncovering the Lives of Archaeologists

Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble, by Marilyn Johnson, (Harper), 288 pages, released November 11, 2014

Marilyn Johnson would make a fascinating dinner guest—at least, that’s what her books lead me to believe. She’s written quirky, fascinating books about obituary writers (The Dead Beat) and librarians (This Book is Overdue!), and now one on archaeologists.

I’m pretty sure that every child who knew the word archaeologist wanted to be one, at least for a few years. In fourth grade I fantasized about living alone in the Egyptian desert and spending my days unearthing treasures from the time of the pharaohs. Marilyn Johnson had her own version of the antiquarian dream: “I assumed that everyone in the sandbox wanted to grow up to become an archaeologist. I spent my childhood digging with garden tools, hypnotically absorbed in the hunt for fossils.”

While archaeology is a much less glamorous career than it appeared to be in our childhood dreams, it is every bit as interesting as we thought it would be, making Lives in Ruins a truly pleasurable read. Johnson shadows a variety of archaeologists: a couple in Barbados leading a field school focusing on historical sites, an underwater archaeologist, an expert on alcoholic beverages of the past, a woman who’s spent her life excavating on a Greek Island that has no potable water.

Lives in Ruins is engaging in its entirety, but I was particularly struck by one of the later chapters: “Archaeology in a Dangerous World.” This chapter recounts recent collaborations between archaeologists and the military, a modern-day group of “Monuments Men” (and Women) formed after the pillaging of the museum in Baghdad during the early days of the U.S. occupation. Archaeologists now train many ground soldiers to spot unexcavated ruins, so they can avoid damaging them when possible. When the U.S. bombed Libya, archaeologists quickly compiled a list of the country’s most important archaeological sites—non of which were struck by U.S. bombs during the conflict.

One of the most ingenious products of this collaboration has been the production of decks of playing cards distributed to G.I.s heading overseas. There are card sets for Iraq, Egypt, and Afghanistan:

[R]egular fifty-two-card decks, but with images and information about archaeological practices, famous cultural sites, and notable artifacts; the revers sides [can] be pieced together to form a map of the most iconic site for each country.

Whether you’re a lover of history, science, or anthropology—or even a fan of Indiana Jones—this book will provide you with delightful hours of reading.

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