August 06, 2015

As Memory Disappears

The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time, by Jonathan Kozol, (Crown), 320 Pages, release date 2 June, 2015

Jonathan Kozol is a solid writer, author of a number of books on education and inequality in the U.S. In The Theft of Memory he takes on a different, more personal topic: his father’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease. Not surprisingly, the father is as notable as his son. Harry Kozol trained at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and became a well-known specialist in brain disorders.

The Theft of Memory makes for poignant reading. We see flashes of Harry Kozol’s brilliance, but we also see his own awareness of the disease that is steadily reducing his memories, his sense of self. Jonathan Kozol’s narrative ability keeps readers engaged with Harry Kozol’s progress, even when the father becomes difficult, offensive, or simply seems to fade away as a personality.

I found that this was a book I had to read in installments because of its topic. Even for readers who haven’t witnessed someone else’s Alzheimer’s disease, the possibility that one may become that compromised person, trying to create meaning and security in a world with fewer and fewer memories, is difficult. We read the story of Harry Kozol, but we don’t know whether we are reading a version of our own story as well.

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August 04, 2015

Small Masterpieces

Music for Wartime: Stories, by Rebecca Makkai, (Viking), 240 pages, released 23 June, 2015

Rebecca Makkai won praise last year for her novel The Hundred-Year House, but she’s perhaps best known as a writer of short stories—and she’s just had a new collection of stories, Music for Wartime, released in June. I enjoyed House, but I like the stories even better.

Makkai creates unusual characters in moments of crisis—with some of these crises more significant than others. War is ever-present, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. She gives us three music students killed during World War II, a musicologist attempting to document the songs of a culture being annihilated,  a political prisoner who takes on another man’s life, a miniature Johann Sebastian Bach who materializes in a present-day highrise apartment.

Makkai’s writing is peppered with little gems of sentences. “To claim one ancestor would be to claim them all, even the ones on the wrong sides of those decisive moral battles of history.” “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the movies about caring for transplanted historical people, it’s never to take them out in public.” “The glorious present tense—that blindest of tenses, ignoring all context, all past and future failures.” “After forty, you look how you deserve to.”

If you’re looking for short fiction that will surprise you, provoke you, and place you firmly within worlds you’d never have imagined on you own, you’ll appreciate Music for Wartime.

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August 03, 2015

A Victorian Police Procedural

Two Bronze Pennies: A Police Procedural Set in Late 19th-Century England (D.I. Tom Harper Mysteries), by Chris Nickson, (Severn House), 224 pages, release date 1 August, 2015

Two Bronze Pennies provides a disparate set of tales. On the one hand, Detective Inspector Tom Harper has been charged with finding the perpetrator of a series of anti-Jewish murders in Leeds. This community, made up primarily of immigrants and their England-born children is tight-lipped and angry. Harper has difficulty getting the information he needs. He also worries that retaliative violence may break out at any moment.

On the other hand, Harper is also charged with assisting Capitaine Bertrand Muyrere, a French detective investigating the disappearance of Louie LePrince, the French inventor of “moving pictures” (sorry, Edison). LePrince was a historical figure and did disappear on September 16, 1890.

Harper is aided by his wife Annabelle, a self-sufficient pub owner with a bit more tact than the detective possesses. As a pub owner, she has an income significantly greater than Harper’s, which makes for some interesting moments between the pair.

If you enjoy historical mysteries, especially those carefully grounded in fact, Two Bronze Pennies will provide you with satisfying reading, taking you beyond the usual depictions of Victorian England to a complex, volatile time.

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July 30, 2015

Interpreting Shakespeare

Great Shakespeare Actors: Burbage to Branagh, by Stanley Wells, (Oxford University Press), 288 pages, release date 23 June, 2015

Stanley Wells’ Great Shakespeare Actors is a wonderful read for fans of theatre, literature, and history. Besides providing us with descriptions of some of history’s great actors at work, Wells gives readers a sense of the evolving understanding of Shakespeare’s works and of actors’ interpretations of them: “There is, we might say, no such thing as a play: there are only scripts which come to life in different ways each time they are performed.”

Wells is working with challenging material. We have very little documentary evidence regarding early performers of the plays, sometimes a single painting, sometimes not even that. He provides illustrations wherever possible, and the number of these increase as the book progresses.

Wells looks at the types of roles these early actors were known for and at first-person accounts of viewing plays in order to attempt a written portrait of their work. For example, given their differences as texts, it’s likely the roles of Falstaff and Macbeth’s porter were written for different actors: the first a clown (perhaps the era’s Will Ferrell); the second a much darker sort of comic (maybe a Lewis Black).

Wells also moves us from the era of men-only acting to today’s gender-inclusive theatre, and he pays attention to male roles mastered by women (Sarah Bernhardt’s Hamlet, for instance), as well as the historical use of boys to play female characters. Why do so many of Shakespeare’s female characters find themselves in situations that require cross-dressing? For the plot, yes, but also to get boy actors out of skirts whenever possible.

Given that Great Shakespeare Actors is a static text attempting to depict a highly plastic medium, at times the reader will have difficulty “seeing” what Wells sees as he writes. Nonetheless, the specificity of Wells’ writing brings to life performances that remain almost undocumented.


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July 26, 2015

When “Good Enough” Becomes “Just Right”

Crooked Heart: A Novel, by Lissa Evans, (Harper), 288 pages, release date 28 July, 2015.

Lissa Evan’s Crooked Heart is set in England at the onset of World War II. Ten-year-old Noel lives in Hampstead Heath with his godmother Mattie, a former Suffragette, who possesses a free spirit and fierce intellect. Their life together is chaotic and joyful, but then Maddie develops senile dementia. After her death, Noel first lives with her second cousin and his wife—a ploddingly predictable pair, who don’t quite know what to make of him. They’re rather relieved to send him away from London with other child evacuees. So Noel finds himself in a third home, living with Vee, who supports her son and mother with odd jobs. Her son does little; her mother writes long letters of advice to Winston Churchill. Vee dreams of cons that could get her out of her precarious financial state, if only she were organized and confident enough to manage them. That’s where Noel’s intellect and preternatural calm come into play…

I absolutely loved every minute I spent reading this book. Evans juggles the bleak, the comic, and the hopeful, keeping each of them aloft throughout the novel. No one in this novel is likeable on first meeting, but as Evans gives us time to get to know these characters we find ourselves first understanding, then caring deeply about them. This is absolutely a five-star read. Each moment you spend with it will feel like a small gift to yourself.

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July 23, 2015

Schoolboys Fighting for a Free Denmark

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club, by Phillip Hoose, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 208 pages, released 12 May, 2015

Phillip Hoose’s The Boys Who Challenged Hitler carefully documents a piece of World War II history that is well known in Denmark, but that we in the U.S. know very little (nothing, really, in my case) about. This is history worth knowing and celebrating.

During World War II, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark had very different relationships with Nazi Germany. Sweden was allowed to remain neutral, but was expected to trade with Germany. Norway waged war against the Nazis. Denmark surrendered to Germany without struggle in order to preserve some modicum of home rule under Nazi occupation.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler tells the story of a group of Danish school boys who were ashamed of Danish capitulation. They felt betrayed by their country’s leadership. When most Danes appeared to accept occupation as a fait acompli, the boys decided to fight—they became saboteurs, calling themselves “The Churchill Club.” Riding bicycles and operating outside of school hours they stole German weapons, destroyed German vehicles, set fire to plants in Denmark producing goods for Germany, and used graffiti to inspire others to similar acts. Ultimately they were captured and imprisoned, but by then Danish resistance was growing.

Phillip Hoose wrote this book after extensive interviews with Knud Petersen and makes the most of this material. The book alternates between passages recounting this story via an omniscient narrator and lengthy passages in Pedersen’s own voice. It’s sort of like watching a Ken Burns documentary: you’re given some facts, then have those facts expanded upon in a voice from the era that’s being focused on. This balance works well, contextualizing the things Pedersen has to say while keeping his voice prominent.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is being marketed as a title for readers between the ages of 12 and 18, but readers beyond either end of that range may enjoy it as well.

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July 21, 2015

A Remarkable Detective Living in “Interesting” Times

Six and a Half Deadly Sins: A Dr. Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos, by Colin Cotterill, (Soho Crime), release date 19 May, 2015

The Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries first appeared in 2004 and have been coming out regularly since, so I’m a bit late to the party—but I am very, very glad I made it. The novels are set in late 1970s Laos. Vietnam has invaded Cambodia (after years of supporting Pol Pot), China is about to invade Laos, and Laos is attempting to rebuild itself as a communist nation after its own civil war.

Six and a Half Deadly Sins is peopled with a marvelous array of characters. Dr. Siri Paiboun is a retired ex-national coroner for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He’s married to Madame Daeng, a former operative for the rebel forces and, until recently, owner of a noodle house. Siri’s best friend, Civilai Songsawat was formerly a member of the Democratic Republic’s politburo, and is still called in on special projects from time to time.

This trio find themselves tracking down a series of sins (traditional woven skirts), the first of which arrived unexpectedly by post at Siri’s home with an amputated finger sewn into the hem. The search takes them north to a region near the Chinese/Lao border where tensions between the two peoples are constant, where contact among them is frequent, and where they are often working at cross purposes.

The real delight of this novel (and, I assume, the series) is that it functions on multiple levels. The history and politics are detailed, easing readers into a clear timeline of a period and region they may (or may not) remember, but which they probably never understood in detail. Characters from the spirit world appear occasionally, especially a number of restless souls who inhabit Siri—chief among them the transsexual Auntie Bpoo. Cotterill is particularly good at providing back story in ways that don’t interfere with the current narrative, which allows new readers to become acquainted with the characters quickly.

Whether you go back to the beginning of the series, The Coroner’s Lunch, or jump in midway with Six and a Half Deadly Sins, this series will provide you with entertainment, history, and a wonderful cast of characters.

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July 18, 2015

In Brief: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson, (Crown), 448 pages, release date 10 March, 2015

At one time, I had a friend whose mother had fled Nazi Germany and traveled by steamer to the U.S. Apparently, a particularly eerie part of that ocean voyage was passing locations where other ships had been sunk. The vessels were gone, but she would see a scattering of goods on the ocean’s surface—a chair, a doll—that briefly and poignantly told the story of what had transpired. I never heard the story directly from my friend’s mother, so I don’t know how much of the version I got was apocryphal, but the image has stuck with me.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake tells the story of one such ship in engaging detail. One knows from the start how this story will end, but that knowledge makes the reading more compelling, rather than less.

For the most part, Larson’s writing is solid. There’s an odd leitmotif of the color pink running through Dead Wake, which seems strange—why pink? why does/did this color stand out to Larson?—but that peccadillo doesn’t detract from the narrative. When you’re looking for an engaging work of nonfiction that is emotionally, as well as intellectually, engaging, Dead Wake will serve you well.

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July 16, 2015

Colonialism and the Original Thugs

The Strangler Vine, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 384 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

The Strangler Vine was published at the end of March, so this review comes a bit late, but I nonetheless wanted to give this book the praise it deserves. The Strangler Vine is an historical mystery that transcends its genre, offering insight into the period in which its set: late 1930s India.

India at this time was under the rule of the East India Company, a privately owned business that also served as government. The Company had its own army; it made and enforced laws across the territory it held. This was a time when, with the right amount of money, one could purchase an officer’s position in the British Army. Joining the East India Company’s army didn’t necessarily carry a price, but it helped to have the right connections. Many second (or third or fourth) sons chose to seek their fortunes in India, since family resources were traditionally devoted to ensuring the success of the eldest son.

The Strangler Vine‘s narrator, William Avory, is one such younger son. He’s arrived in India, but has not yet been assigned to a regiment and is running up debts, both for the necessities of daily life and because of his tendency to participate in, and then lose, card games. Avory is given a shot at redemption. He’s been ordered to accompany a renegade ex-officer, Jeremiah Blake, on a hunt for a missing poet/novelist, whose recent roman a clef has the British community in Calcutta in an uproar. The East India Company would like to return this writer to England before he can make any more trouble for them.

Blake is an odd character: a superb linguist and misanthrope with the rational powers of Sherlock Holmes, all embodied within a man who has abandoned much of British culture and adopted local practices. Avory, an idealist who’s bought the claims that the East India Company is in India for the Indians’ own good, has no idea how to deal with this brilliant, taciturn, and uncivilized man.

As Blake and Avory pursue their mission they encounter more mysteries than just the author’s disappearance. The author was reportedly researching a long, narrative poem focusing on the Thuggee band, a group said to kill in the name of Kali, then to rob their victims afterward. There are questions about the methods used to identify, prosecute, and punish Thugs. There are also questions about whether there are really any Thugs at all. One local ruler, said to harbor Thugs, faces an attempted assassination.

One can read this mystery novel as a mystery—but it also provides a fascinating look into the ethos of British colonial culture and its impacts upon the lives of the colonized. Several of the novel’s central characters are historical figures, and Carter provides useful biographical sketches of them in an afterword. Carter’s prose is engaging to read, and it’s made even more engaging by her choice of topic and period detail.

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July 14, 2015

Basket Girl on the Run

The Executioner’s Daughter, by Jane Hardstaff, (Egmont USA), 288 pages, release date 14 July, 2015, recommended for grades 3-7

I have mixed feelings about The Executioner’s Daughter, but I think those are largely a result of being fifty-plus years old and having definite ideas about how Tudor England should be portrayed. For younger readers (the publisher recommends grades 3 through 7), this book is going to be an exciting read.

Moss, the central character, lives with her father in the Tower of London. He’s the executioner, which makes her the “Basket Girl,” the one responsible for carrying decapitated heads back from the scaffold. Not surprisingly, she loathes this job, but her father insists that they can’t leave the Tower because he’s a criminal and will be executed himself unless he continues with his duties.

The book opens with the execution of Thomas More and continues on through the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour (information that probably mattered more to me than it would to younger readers). Moss is attuned to and distressed by the changing fortunes of those around her, particularly once she’s also given the job of delivering meals to the condemned.

Moss dreams of life in London and of traveling along the Thames, although she knows very little about either. When she finds a passage out of the Tower new adventures begin, for which she’s ill-prepared, but which she faces bravely. She befriends a river boy, Salter; learns a great deal about lives both much more wretched and much more elevated than her own; both flees and hunts the ominous “ragged man”; and learns that she may be destined to die at the hands of the Riverwitch once she reaches the age of twelve.

As I said, I think the readers this book is aimed at will find it un-put-downable, even if it doesn’t translate well to the adult market. Issues of justice, the lives of the poor and the royal, death, magic, and a girl fighting to define herself—these all make The Executioner’s Daughter a compelling read for older children.

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