Poetry, Paternity, and the Cold War

The Neruda Case: A Novel, by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis, (Hardcover: Riverhead, 2012; Paperback: Riverhead Trade, 2013)

I fell in love with The Neruda Case when I first saw the cover of the 2012 hardback edition. I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time, but I’ve never forgotten it. So a few months ago, I was delighted to see a copy of it on remainder at my local independent bookstore, Bookshop Santa Cruz.

This is one of the cases when the book itself is every bit as wonderful as the cover, offering a narrative that functions on several levels.

First, The Neruda Case is a darn good detective novel. Cayetano Brulé, originally from Cuba, now living in Chile with his Chilean wife whom he met in New York, is struggling to create himself. His marriage is falling apart. He’s never managed a real career since his move to Chile. Now, he’s trying to set himself up as a detective—and his first client is an aging Neruda, soon to die of cancer. The poet, childless in his 80s wants Brulé to track down a former lover and her daughter—who may or may not be his child.

On another level, The Neruda Case is a novel of the cold war world, and particularly of the failure of the socialist experiment in Chile led by democratically elected Salvador Allende and toppled by Chilean generals with U.S. support. Allende’s presidency lasted three years. The military dictatorship that followed lasted for seventeen.

Brulé’s investigations take him to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany, Bolivia and back to Chile—so we see not only the Chilean experience, but also life in each of these nations during the cold war.

Since I read this novel in translation, I can’t say anything definitive about Ampuero’s prose style, but if De Robertis’s translation is any indication, he is the master of the long, rich sentence. Let me give you one example of these sentences, this describing the current President of Chile and the nation itself:

President Bachelet was a clear sign that this stiletto of land, which extended from the Atacama Desert (the most arid and inhospitable one on the planet) to the South Pole, and which balanced between the fierce waves of the Pacific and the eternal snows of the Andes, always on the brink of collapsing with all its people and goods into the ocean’s depths, was a unique place, inimitable and changing, that swung vertiginously from euphoria to depression, or from soidarity to individualism, like one of those complicated hieroglyphs from the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann that no one could entirely decipher, and that one loved or hated, depending on the circumstances, changes in mood, or color of the season.

Now, that’s a sentence! An entire book of such prose would overwhelm, but Ampuero knows when and how much to serve up. These occasional sentences emerge delightfully every few pages or so—like sips of a good wine accompanying a hearty meal.

Keep your eyes open for a copy of this book and give it a read. You’ll have the fun of a detective story paired with a haunting look back at recent history.


Magic and Magic

The Hawley Book of the Dead: A Novel, by Chrysler Szarian, (Ballantine Books), 352 pages, released 23 September, 2014

The Hawley Book of the Dead is a gripping thriller: the tale of a woman who’s a magician and also is magic. Her particular gift is the ability to disappear instantly, which adds considerably to shows she and her husband, also a magician, perform in Las Vegas.

Reve (short for Revelation, an old family name) finds her life turned upside down when an unknown person puts live bullets in a gun used in performances. In front of an audience she shoots her husband in the chest, killing him almost instantly.

Reve realizes that someone is stalking her, planning more violence against her family, so at the urging of her grandmother she returns to Hawley Five Corners, an abandoned town deep in the New England woods, where her family has roots.

At this point, the book moves into the realm of the supernatural. Reve is learning family history that her grandmother has withheld for years. There are ancestresses accused of witchcraft, magical connections to a sort of fairy folk who went underground after the arrival of humans to their lands, and devices with magical powers.

This is escapist reading, in the good sense of the word. It’s paced quickly and keeps offering new complications. When you need to take a vacation between the pages of a book, The Hawley Book of the Dead will work nicely.

Documenting Congo

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunmen: An Ordinary Family’s Extraordinary Tale of Love, Loss, and Survival in Congo, by Lisa J. Shannon, (PublicAffairs), 240 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

I finished Lisa J. Shannon’s Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman a week ago and have spent a good chunk of the time since then mulling over what, exactly, I have to say about the book. The subject matter is timely; the author has done important work on behalf of Congolese women.

The history of Congo since its “discovery” has been brutal. For some three decades, Congo was unique in being the only African colony owned by a private individual: King Leopold of Belgium. Leopold’s Congo was a hell of forced labor on rubber plantations. “Control” of native Congolese was documented through the removal, collection, and counting of Congolese hands. Yes, hands. Over the course of Leopold’s rule, the population of Congo fell by perhaps as much as one-third. After an international campaign to end Leopold’s rule there, Congo became a colony of Belgium in 1908.

Congo achieved independence in 1960. After more than a century of occupation and uncompensated export of Congo’s resources, independence presented significant challenges. Although Congo had a population of roughly 15.25 million at that time, Shannon notes that “When the Congolese people gained their independence… only nineteen Congolese people had college degrees and fewer than fourteen thousand were enrolled in secondary school.” Congo’s first democratically elected president, Patrice Lamumba was killed in 1961, most likely with CIA cooperation motivated by the growing ties between Congo and the Soviet Union.

The history of Congolese independence is one of constant civil war. Multiple guerilla militias have preyed upon the Congolese people, most recently Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In 2005 Kony and four other members of the LRA were indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, including genocide, forced relocation of populations, child sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers. It is this Congo in which Shannon’s narrative takes place.

Shannon is the founder of Run for Congo Women, a series of thirty-mile runs held in multiple locations with the goal of raising awareness of and support for Congolese women. Her first book, 2010’s A Thousand Sisters, tells of her experiences visiting Congolese villages and interviewing women affected by the violence.

Mama Koko and the Hundred Gunman chronicles Shannon’s second trip to Congo. Along with her friend Francisca Thelin, she travels to Thelin’s home village of Dungu. While the women’s purposes are complimentary, they are different enough to create a tension that lies in the heart of this book. Thelin, whose family has lost members to the LRA, is more interested in a visit home to spend time reconnecting with her remaining family members. Shannon is determined to document the recent violence using Thelin as an interpreter to such an extent that Thelin has much less time with her family than she’s hoped. In addition, Shannon’s and Thelin’s experiences documenting the violence are significantly different in that Thelin is related to nearly every Congolese individual interviewed. Unlike Shannon, for Thelin, these aren’t “just” atrocities—they’re family stories.

Because of Shannon’s and Thelin’s competing purposes, I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading the book at times. Shannon notes when Thelin is a less-than-enthusiastic interpreter and records Thelin’s repeated requests for more family time. Yes, these stories need to be told, but it feels wrong to have their telling depend a woman who has already lost so much to the conflicts in Congo.

That said, one of the strengths of Shannon’s book is that it offers more than a series of descrptions of atrocities. Shannon provides historical background to contextualize the current state of Congo. She also provides suggestions about how readers can contribute to the movement for peace and justice in Congo. Among the groups she highlights are Invisible Children, the Enough Project, Resolve, and Women for Women International.

In a way, the tension at the heart of this book feels appropriate. It feels right that the process of gathering this information should be uncomfortable and that Shannon documents this discomfort so carefully, even at the risk of making herself less appealing to readers.

Magic and Music

Echo: A Novel, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, (Scholastic Press), 592 pages, release date 24 February, 2015

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo is a young adult novel that transcends the genre. Yes, younger readers will enjoy this book, but its magic works for adults too.

Echo presents a trio of real-world stories framed by a fairy tale—and all of these are connected by one very unusual harmonica. The harmonica is graced with the voices of three captive princesses who will be released only after they have saved a soul. From this magical beginning, the harmonica moves to our world, traveling from one owner to another and transforming all their lives: there’s Otto, in Nazi Germany in 1933; Mike, in an orphan’s home in Philadelphia in 1935; and Ivy, in 1942, whose family is taking care of the home of a Japanese farming family who have been interned as the U.S. enters World War II.

This is a long novel, really three novels and a fairy tale, but it never drags. Each of the central characters is deeply engaging, shaped in some way by music and wrestling with some of the biggest challenges of the times they live in. If you know any younger readers who are looking for a book they can settle into for a long stay, Echo will suit your needs well. And, Echo will provide the same enjoyment for older readers who can appreciate a tale touched by magic.

Searching for Truth in a Demon-Haunted World

Plague Land: A Novel, by S.D. Sykes, (Pegasus Crime), 336 pages

A historical mystery with the word plague in the title and a cover featuring a painting by Bruegel the Elder—who could resist? Plague Land is a great read on multiple levels: a solid mystery, a detailed depiction of life in rural England in the mid-1300s, and also a study of the role of Plague in reshaping the political and social order of the time.

For the first third or so of this novel, I thought I was reading something pretty good, but not necessarily great. Later in my reading, I realized that Plague Land was the first thing I reached for when I unexpectedly awoke at 6 a.m. On a Saturday. It takes a special novel to trump an extra few hours of sleep on the weekend.

The narrator and central character, Oswald de Lacy, a third son destined for life as a monk, is called home as lord of the manor after his father and two older brothers are struck down by Plague. Not long after his return home, a murder is uncovered. Oswald, an agnostic who nonetheless was comfortable with his life in the monastery, is already having enough trouble stepping into his unexpected new role. Then the local priest starts stirring up the community claiming the murder is the work of cynocephalae, demon-possessed, dog-headed men.

At first Oswald is something of a cypher. He tells his story, but shares little of his inner life, so while readers are engaged by events, they feel at arm’s distance from him. But slowly Oswald’s actions begin to speak for him, and as readers learn more about his world-view he becomes increasingly interesting.

Though the plot is less complex, this novel reminds me (in a good way) of Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A young postulant who remains innocent of the “ways of the world” is troubled by the new view of humanity he’s gaining. His mentor, in this case the apothecary at the monastery where Oswald’s been living, tries to interpret the world for him, simultaneously protecting and enlightening him.

I bought this book for the cover, and I have no regrets. Sykes’ blend of puzzle, history, and analysis makes for fascinating reading.

Thinking About Food

Relae: A Book of Ideas, by Christian F. Puglisi, (Ten Speed Press), 448 pages, released November 11, 2014

If you know any foodies, particularly foodies who take their own cooking seriously, Relae could make a striking gift book. The book shares the name of author Christian F. Puglisi’s Copenhagen restaurant. This is a substantial book, filled with gorgeous photos, and beautifully bound in a sort of eco-industrial style.

Relae isn’t really a cookbook, though is has a generous recipe collection. Instead, it is, as its cover states, a book of ideas. The idea sections begin the book and are marked by notches in the manner of an unabridged dictionary. Headings include “Liquids,” “Animal,” “Manipulations,” “Texture,” and “Theory.” Each section is composed of a series of short (usually two-page) essays. The “Liquids” section, for example, has essays titled “Water,” “Wine,” “Fruit Vinegars,” and “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.”

One of the pleasures of this book is asdsifting through the essays, using them as starting places for one’s own culinary explorations. For example, I hadn’t thought of water quality as an issue in cooking—it comes out of the tap, and I use it. Puglisi, however, has a special water-processing system also used by one high-end Copenhagen coffee roaster. (I also learned from my wife that her employer, the U.S. coffee roasting company Peet’s, triple filters all the water used in the roasting process and in the drinks they serve at their retail shops.) While this might seem pretentious at first, Puglisi reminds us that “A cup of coffee is 99 percent water…. It doesn’t take a degree in chemistry to figure out that when reducing a stock… as the water evaporates [it becomes] even tougher for all the flavors and aromas to come through.” These are the kind of ruminations at the heart of Relae.

Many of recipes in Relae strike my non-Scandinavian palate as quixotic: Lumpfish Roe, Daikon, and Almonds; Pickled Skate, Mussels, and Celery Root; Potato, Seaweed, and Peccorino. Fankly, I really won’t be using the recipe half of the book except for a few of the “Herbivorous Starters” (otherwise will have some of old good ones from foodora.no/chain/ch4wc/munchies). Cooking them will require determined searching-out of ingredients and plenty of time for the multi-step preparations.

If you’re looking for a book of recipes you can serve for dinner on weeknights, Relae won’t do you any good. It may even be too ambitious for your more complex entertainment cooking. But if you like thinking about cooking and food in all its various forms, you’ll find Relae a title to pick up for interesting reading.

Rejoice! There’s a New Russell-Holmes Novel

Dreaming Spies: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, by Laurie R. King, (Bantam), 352 pages, release date 17 February, 2015

If you haven’t read any of Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes novels, you need to get started. This series began well and has grown richer over time. King’s version of Holmes balances the distance of Conan Doyle’s original by pairing him with Mary Russell, a significantly younger scholar of theology and, as the series progresses, his wife. Russell reads Holmes well, which gives readers insight into his methods and moods without turning him into an inappropriately open character.

Russell and Holmes have traveled around the world on their cases: across the British Isles, to Palestine, to Portugal, and to San Francisco. Now, in Dreaming Spies, Russell and Holmes are returning from San Francisco on a steamer with ports of call in India and Japan. On ship, they meet Haruki Sato a gymnast/ninja/servant of the emperor who involves them in one of her cases.

What’s particularly fun about this book is that it offers a pair of closely related adventures, first in Japan, then in Oxford. We get to see Russell and Holmes mastering Japanese culture, then get to see Sato in their world. King keeps the plot twists going until the very end. Readers see parts of the path ahead of the detectives, but there are many bends in the road that can’t be looked beyond before they’re reached.

As long-time readers of this series know, once one enters the world of Russell and Holmes one is eager to return there again and again. These two brilliant, oddly gifted individuals are a delight to spend time with. If you’ve never met them, give yourself the pleasure of making their acquaintance. And if you have met them, well, you don’t need me to tell you how much you’ll enjoy their new adventure.

A House that Holds a Family

This House is Not for Sale: A Novel, by E. C. Osondu, (Harper), 192 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

While the title makes clear that This House Is Not for Sale is a novel, I felt it read more like a collection of short stories. Each chapter is focused on a different character (with the exception of one character who gets two chapters). The common threads that hold these stories together are Grandpa, the patriarch of the family, and the house itself.

This book is set in a neighborhood that is transitioning from tradition to modernity within an unnamed African country. The family who live here are extensive: a collection of blood relatives; any number of non-relatives who have achieved the status of “Auntie” or “Uncle”; a collection of children who work for Grandpa and serve as collateral on monies their parent have borrowed from him; and a constantly changing group of the homeless and those down on their luck.

Most of the stories/chapters have smallish arcs. A cousin newly arrived from another area impresses the other children with his worldly knowledge, most of which is inaccurate at best. A peddler of cloth and women’s clothes move up the economic ladder and back down again.

This is a book to read when one feels settled enough to enjoy its slow pace and to appreciate the process of getting to know the characters.

More Possibilities from Nicky Epstein

Knitting Block by Block: 150 Blocks for Sweaters, Scarves, Bags, Toys, Afghans, and More, by Nicky Epstein, (Potter Craft), 240 pages, release date 9 November 2010

Nicky Epstein is a remarkably prolific designer with the ability to come up with truly original ideas again and again. I first discovered this when I can across her book Knitting on the Edge, which offers a compendium of edgings and cast-ons that a creative knitter can use to design her own pieces or to add a distinctive touch to a piece knitted from a commercial pattern. This book was followed by Knitting Over the Edge and Knitting Beyond the Edge, which offered more ideas for designing or customizing knits.

Knitting Block by Block is another Epstein book in this tradition. While it does offer a smattering of patterns for garments and accessories what Knitting Block by Block really offers is patterns for knit blocks. It’s up to the knitter to choose the blocks she likes and to make them for her own purposes. Blocks can, of course, become pillows. They can also become afghans and shawls. Turning blocks into finished garments is a more dicey matter—a sweater made exclusively of blocks with no shaping won’t do anything for most figures.

Although Knitting Block by Block contains some blocks that a beginning knitter could manage, this really isn’t a book for beginners. Many of the blocks require more advanced skills like stranded color work, different types of grafts, ruffles, and the making of 3-D embellishments.

The mix of blocks here ranges from the beautiful to the what-was-she-thinking-of? Beautiful blocks include some of the lace patterns and mutli-dimensional Celtic knots. The what-was-she-thinking-of? blocks include knit squares with random holes in them, a square appliqued with ribbons and zippers, and one decorated with ping-pong ball sized knit puffs that look like popcorn stitches gone bubonic.

If you’re a knitter who enjoys cooking up her own projects you’ll find inspiration here, though some of the blocks are really not much different from the stitch patterns one can find in any good stitch dictionary. Epstein will give you a lot to think about and play with. It’s up to you how wild you want to get.


A Family Madness

He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird and His Daughter’s Quest to Know Him, by Mimi Baird and Eve Claxton, (Crown), 272 pages, release date 17 February, 2015

Mimi Baird and Eve Claxton’s He Wanted the Moon is a fascinating and humane examination of the treatment of mental illness and its impact on one family beginning in the 1940s. This is the story of Mimi Baird’s father, his bipolar disorder, and her relationship with him. When I say humane, I don’t mean that the treatment given the patient was humane. Rather, the authors’ approach is humane: deeply respectful of Dr. Perry Baird’s gifts, intelligence, and inner strength.

The treatment Dr. Baird receives is often less than humane—straight-jacketing, immobilization with ice packs, insulin induced comas. The events in He Wanted the Moon take place well before bipolar disorder was seen as having a chemical origin. The goal of treatment was less to enable patients to return to full functioning in the “real” world, and more to pacify patients so that they could continue to be institutionalized. Interestingly enough, Dr. Baird suspected the chemical origins of the disorder he suffered from and, when he was stable, conducted research in this area.

Most of the first half of He Wanted the Moon is a memoir written by Dr. Baird chronicling one round of his institutionalizations and his escape from the worst of these institutions. This means that Dr. Baird has his own voice in the discussion of his life—and his voice is largely rational, occasionally becoming less so during his manic phases.

In the first half of the book, Mimi Baird provides some contextual information for Dr. Baird’s text. In the second half of the book,  she recounts her efforts to learn more about her father—efforts that culminated in the publication of this book.

He Wanted the Moon is valuable for several reasons: for the insight it gives into the recent history of mental health care, for the introduction to the very interesting Dr. Baird, and for its honest consideration of the impact mental illness can have within a family and across generations. We can read He Wanted the Moon as history, removed from our immediate experiences—but the struggle of a family to cope with the illness of one of its members is every bit as relevant today as it was during Dr. Baird’s lifetime. Some of the shame associated with mental illness has decreased, but those facing it—and their families—still encounter significant stigma and obstacles.