Finding True Norse: The Half-Drowned King


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Review: The Half-Drowned King, by Linnea Hartsuyker
Harper, 2017. 423 pp. $28

You’ve heard this before: A young warrior, cheated of his birthright by his cruel stepfather, dreams of restoring his lands and honor. But to do so, he’s left his ancestral home to seek glory and wealth. While he’s away, his beloved sister, who depends on him for protection, falls vulnerable to enemies who covet her for her beauty and spirit. And just as he’s about to return, a treacherous assassination attempt almost succeeds, which reveals that he has powerful foes united against him.

But where this novel differs from others that deal with similar themes and rely on similar characters is the setting, ninth-century Norway. It’s a key moment in that country’s history, when Harald Fair-Hair, a young, charismatic leader, is trying to bring myriad jealous, quarreling kings to heel and make a nation of them under his rule. It’s a strange concept, nationhood, and not everyone can get his mind around it; each chieftain worries that his claims and ambitions will be forfeit, and that he’ll owe fealty to a boy who’s done nothing special.

Harald Fair-Hair, rendered in the fourteenth-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbok (courtesy Árni Magnússon Institute, Iceland, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Hartsuyker captures that feeling well, without succumbing to the temptation to permit her best and brightest characters to see into the future, which would be trite as well as improbable. Rather, she lets her two main characters hold ideas that set them apart from their contemporaries, but without overdoing it. Ragnvald, the warrior who fights to regain his birthright, sees value in a single, united kingdom, which would end the constant internal feuds and provide a stronger defense against foreign raiders. He also wonders why innocent relatives of wrongdoers must be punished, or why, after a successful battle, the victors should rape, kill, and pillage at will, wreaking violence on people who can’t hurt them anymore. But Ragnvald’s not especially enlightened beyond his time. Like every other Norseman who calls himself a man, he believes insults are a fighting matter, a dangerous quality for the irascible sort he is. And like everyone else, he’s very superstitious, as when he battles what he thinks is a dead man’s spirit:

A silhouette at first against the charcoal sky, it lurched over the uneven ground. With every step it stumbled, only to recover its balance just before falling. Its clumsiness made it seem more implacable, as though it would plow over and through anything that lay in its path. It had been a big man in life, broad and bearded. Now the face seemed dark, the beard matted. Far-off lightning crackled behind it. Ragnvald stood staring at it for a moment before recovering enough to draw his sword.

Meanwhile, Ragnvald’s sister, Svanhild, has yearnings and a quick mind considered unwomanly by some. She longs to escape their stepfather and the lecherous suitor he’s arranged for her, and she dreams of taking to sea, visiting other places, even–dare she think it–marrying a raider. She has little fear of talking back to men or challenging their political beliefs, which makes her the ninth-century equivalent of a firecracker. But, just as her brother is no Abraham Lincoln, she’s no feminist, for she never assumes that her role in life could be anything other than wife and mother, or that her sons would grow up to be anything other than sturdy warriors. Hartsuyker doesn’t push too far.

She plots her story well. Nothing goes as planned, so no-and-furthermore thrives in this icy north, and simmering tempers provide all the heat anybody needs. But The Half-Drowned King, though it has its share of fighting, is more about the politics of ever-shifting alliances, how a wise leader looks beyond immediate advantage, and how Ragnvald and Svanhild hew their separate paths. Hartsuyker does the politics especially well and uses her command of Norse ways–their system of justice, for example–to great effect.

The Half-Drowned King makes for interesting historical fiction because of its setting, but it’s less satisfying in its characters, who, despite their quirks, resemble talking heads. Hartsuyker tells the story almost entirely through dialogue, and she often recaps what her characters have just said, as if it weren’t already clear. The lack of contractions can sound stilted, and you sometimes get the feeling that the speakers are expecting a bard to turn their declarations into song–which, in fact, happens occasionally.

Reflection usually comes in brief, half-illuminating bursts. Consider this example: “Her mixture of innocence and ruthlessness was charming, and he could never decide whether he wanted her to keep her pretty pictures of the world, or learn his own cruel lessons.” It’s an explanation in trite language, not an exploration, and the implied emotional transition–which whizzes by like an arrow–deserves more.

The same could be said of The Half-Drowned King, a readable but not memorable novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Venetian Theatrics: Ascension


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Review: Ascension, by Gregory Dowling
St. Martin’s, 2015. 298 pp. $26

Alvise Marangon doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a perfect spy. He thinks he’s the perfect cicerone, who guides English tourists through his native mideighteenth-century Venice, showing them the architecture and history or the gaming tables and brothels, depending on their taste. Alvise even speaks fluent English, having spent many of his formative years in London, and he has a prodigious memory for useless facts guaranteed to fascinate the occasional British clergyman come to sneer at (and be secretly thrilled by) the popish decadence they think is Venice.

The return of the Bucentaur to the Molo on Ascension Day by Canaletto, 1730 (courtesy the Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Trouble is, cicerones don’t earn much, and though Alvise has developed a working partnership with Bepi, the gondolier with whom he splits his fees, he’s perennially short of cash. But he has two qualities in play from the first sentences of this beguiling, atmospheric thriller, and so long as he gives them free reign, adventure will never be far behind. To wit: Alvise shoots his mouth off and indulges his impetuous curiosity. And in Venice, where half the populace is watching the other half, those habits will get you in a heap of trouble, pronto, for the secret service is everywhere.

The story begins as Alvise and Bepi accompany two Englishmen to their hotel. The younger visitor is the proverbial wastrel, bent on losing his money at the gaming tables and in the fleshpots, whereas his companion, a tutor entrusted with his scholarly and moral education, is supposed to apply restraint. To Alvise, the pair seem typical of other visitors:

The young man looked amiable enough; he was gazing around at the scene with frank interest. Presumably all very different from the decorous orderliness of his home, where his mother would have bidden him farewell with a stately bow of the head and his father with a manly handshake. Here at Fusina, a family of Venetians were exchanging raucous shouts, hand-slaps, kisses and lively embraces with relatives who had crossed the lagoon to meet them. Gondoliers and servants in bright liveries were transferring parcels and trunks to waiting boats and yelling at one another for no apparent reason, and across the lagoon the towers and domes of Venice shimmered in the golden haze of spring sunlight. The scene appeared to fluster the tutor. . . .

And yet, appearances deceive. Rather quickly, Alvise senses that Shackleford, the tutor, has less than a passing familiarity with his profession, and that the visitors have come to Venice for a singular purpose other than sightseeing. Naturally, Alvise does his best to learn what they’re after, but when unknown intruders ransack the Englishmen’s baggage, and Shackleford disappears only to be found dead, the cicerone winds up in jail for his troubles. Since no Venetian sparrow falls without the knowledge (if not consent) of the secret service, they take a keen interest in the young tourist guide.

From then on, Alvise’s in for the ride of his life–and so is the reader. Dowling knows Venice intimately–he’s lived and taught there more than thirty years–so you can hear, see, smell, and taste the city in all its finery and decay. But there’s atmosphere, and then there’s atmosphere. The second-most important character in Ascension, after Alvise, is Venice, in its love of spectacle and gossip; intrigue around every corner; the delight in masks and concealment; the squalor, magnificence, and corruption. Dowling casts his Venice as a place where performers who know their role are the ones to succeed. Sure enough, Alvise has his theatrical gifts, which is why the secret service wants to talk to him.

But nothing comes easily, and “no; and furthermores” spring up like mushrooms. (Risotto con funghi, anyone?) From a forbidden, seditious book to a Rosicrucian cult to an eccentric nobleman nursing a grudge to a theater to the state shipbuilding apparatus, Alvise must bluff his way into and out of danger–and of course, getting in sometimes proves all too easy. But what he discovers is nothing less than a threat to the Serene Republic itself, timed to take place on the celebrations surrounding the Feast of the Ascension.

My only quibble about the novel is the nifty, not to say incredible, way in which Alvise escapes certain physical constraints. But I don’t think anyone will mind; I didn’t. Ascension is not only good fun, I note an undercurrent of political commentary that seems topical–the desire, in certain right-wing quarters, for strongman rule to create fear and respect among the “rabble.”

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Class Conflict: The Summer Before the War


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Review: The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2017. 479 pp. $28

That last, idyllic English summer of 1914, Hugh Grange, a young medical student, has come to rural Sussex to visit his beloved Aunt Agatha and Uncle John. As the protegé of a famous surgeon who has all but invited him to marry his pretty daughter, Hugh may be forgiven for thinking he has the world on a string. However, two obstacles emerge to his plans.

Obviously, one is the coming conflict, of which just about everyone remains blithely ignorant in this lovely town of Rye. The other is Beatrice Nash, a young woman hired to teach Latin at the Rye grammar school, a subject traditionally a male preserve. She owes her job to Aunt Agatha, a closet feminist but no “suffragette,” who has politicked, plotted, and flattered to get the old-boy network to accept her protegée. Beatrice is intellectual, serious, and a freethinker–much like Hugh–whereas the surgeon’s daughter is a flirt, a twit, and a social climber. So there’s even less doubt whom he’ll prefer than what’s about to happen to Europe.

That predictability plagues much of The Summer Before the War. Simonson sets her battle lines right away, so that you can tell the good guys from the bad guys, or, when there’s less question of good versus bad, who’ll survive and who won’t. Her upper-class characters are completely detestable, but they’re stick figures, mere attitudes on two legs, and therefore easy targets. To cast doubt on what seems ordained, Simonson employs the “no–and futhermore,” often with skill, but toward the end especially, the story feels contrived and resolutions too neat. It doesn’t help that the novel has one or two superfluous subplots.

But to give The Summer Before the War the credit it deserves, Simonson has a knack for social conflict, and she portrays the pecking order of Rye with wit and verve. The never-ending battle against small-mindedness, gossips, sexism, and class snobbery consumes much energy in these pages, and the repartée between Hugh and his rakish cousin, Daniel, makes fun reading. (It’s a bit surprising how neither young man seems to have a home other than that of their aunt and uncle, but I’m glad they don’t.)

Rye Grammar School, which last held classes in 1907, as it appeared in 2010 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Beatrice’s struggles are more compelling. She has to play the upright spinster so that the school worthies will hire her, because only a young woman of irreproachable character may come in contact with impressionable youth. Meanwhile, of course, said worthies have nothing but contempt for these lower-class children and would never lift a finger to help them, whereas Beatrice actually believes she can bring light into their lives. Further, having catered to a domineering, scholarly father who has recently died, Beatrice should, in theory, have her meager inheritance, but (male) trustees prevent her from touching it. They, and others, assume that a “girl” of twenty-three can’t be independent without losing her virtue, a criticism that extends to her desire to write books. These are the parts of The Summer Before the War that I like best.

But I like the humor too. Consider this description of an oak-paneled anteroom:

. . . between two large windows, an imposing, green malachite bust of Cromwell on a matching plinth so floridly carved with vines and flowers that Cromwell himself would surely have had it destroyed. Hugh was not familiar with any connection of the Earl North family to Cromwell. Perhaps, he thought, there was none and that was why the ugly heirloom had been consigned to oaken purgatory to intimidate unwanted guests.

The Summer Before the War unfolds at a leisurely pace, for the most part. I don’t mind that, and I regret that so few authors these days tell stories that way; they probably figure their readers won’t have the patience. They may be right, but I don’t think length is the problem. It’s depth. We That Are Left and A Gentleman in Moscow, for instance, succeed by showing their characters’ inner lives so thoroughly that I don’t care how many pages go by. Conversely, when Simonson narrates an intricate story with half-full characters whose inner lives she tells in shorthand (“he felt such-and-such”), that’s when I become conscious of page numbers.

I don’t mean to blame Simonson or single her out; I happened to read her at a moment when I’m redefining my standards. Many, if not most, novelists follow some version of what she does, which for me these days means that I can borrow a stack of promising books from the library and find only one or two that intrigue me past the opening pages. The Summer Before the War would have pleased me more had the author plumbed her main subject and characters to the greater depth.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Jewish Brother Against Brother: All Other Nights


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Review: All Other Nights, by Dara Horn
Norton, 2009. 363 pp. $15

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” So goes the first of the Four Questions asked at the Passover seder by the youngest person there.

And that youngest person, in many ways, is nineteen-year-old Jacob Rappaport, who flees his New York mercantile family in 1861 to join the army. He’s escaping an arranged marriage in which he’s a financial pawn–traded like human chattel, if you will–and the army seems the best alternative. It never occurs to him that he could simply decline the marriage, nor does he anticipate the Civil War, which breaks out a few months later.

The following year, 1862, the word no eludes Private Rappaport once more when his superiors in the Eighteenth New York press him to undertake a mission behind enemy lines in New Orleans. They want him to poison his Uncle Harry, who, their intelligence tells them, leads a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Vulnerable to their shaming, anti-Semitic blandishments, Jacob agrees, which of course only confirms them in their prejudices. And when he returns from this mission, they’ve got another assignment–inveigle his way into the home of a Jewish Virginia merchant he’s met through his father’s business and marry one of the daughters. They’re Confederate spies, apparently.

This sounds absolutely preposterous, but the genius of All Other Nights is that when you read it, your disbelief drops away. It’s not just that Horn has thoroughly researched daily life during the Civil War, Jewish communities of the 1860s, espionage, manners, or a dozen other things, though she has. It’s that I believe how lost Jacob is, how he longs for the same things as the people he’s working to betray, those human qualities so precious in wartime–kindness, a ready ear, acceptance, love. He’s enchanted to find that those qualities still exist, and he’s not being two-faced when he offers them in return, which makes him sympathetic.

He thought of the filthy camps where he had slept and eaten for most of the past year, the mud-coated tents and the vomit-stained blankets on ordinary nights, and then the choking smell of already rotting flesh on those howling twilit evenings when he had clawed his way off battlefields, the night air riven with the long screams of those not yet dead. It suddenly seemed impossible to him that those places and this room could exist in the same world. He looked around the table at the faces of the chattering Levy daughters and imagined that this room was a sealed compartment in time and space, with an entire world contained within it–an alternative world, independent from reality, where this house with its lights and laughter and beautiful girls had somehow, impossibly, become his home.

Film enthusiasts will notice that Jacob’s attempt to marry into this family parallels an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, Notorious (in which Ingrid Bergman marries Claude Rains and reports what happens in the house to Cary Grant). But if you’re going to borrow, take from the best, and Horn has done brilliantly, alternately thwarting and rewarding Jacob so often he doesn’t know which way is up. It’s “no–and furthermore” taken to dizzying heights. Hitchcock would be delighted.

Judah P. Benjamin, circa 1856, then U.S. senator from Louisiana (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Into this mix, Horn throws Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederacy’s secretary of state, a fascinating figure. Through him, as with Jacob, she shows how difficult it was to be Jewish, but even more, a Jewish statesman. Horn gives Benjamin an eloquent line, “All Hebrews know that there is nothing honorable about subjugation and defeat,” an epitaph for the Lost Cause that one wishes the South had embraced.

I’ve complained when authors use their characters’ Jewishness as a tool or symbol, and that it feels skin-deep at best. But here, the Jews are real, as is their complex calculus required to navigate a hostile, bigoted world. Every move Jacob makes becomes freighted with anxious meanings, except when he’s among his brethren. But since those brethren are southern, he still can’t be himself, so the tension never lets up.

Despite my admiration for All Other Nights, I think the book could have been shorter; there’s a packed feel to it. The New Orleans segment, Jacob’s first adventure, seems unnecessary and less plausible than the rest. But that part does contain a beautiful scene, a Passover seder in which slaves bring to the table the matzo and bitter herbs, reminders of biblical slavery in Egypt. How Jacob’s southern cousins manage to overlook the irony fascinates him–another way of saying that even if it’s packed too full, All Other Nights always has something to say.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Awakening in Egypt: Dreamers of the Day


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Review: Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2008. 249 pp. $15

Agnes Shanklin, a forty-year-old Ohio schoolteacher, knows she’s ugly, drab, incompetent, ungrateful, unworthy, and just about un-everything else. How does she know this? Why, her sainted mother, may she rest in peace, told her so every day, and Mumma’s voice still resounds in Agnes’s head every time the still-dutiful daughter dares call a thought her own.

But it’s 1921, and the influenza pandemic that has killed even more people than the First World War has set Agnes free. Her entire family has died, including Mumma, which results in a financial windfall–three estates to inherit–but, most important, nothing to stop Agnes from learning what life can be like when nobody’s degrading her. On a whim–a new experience in itself–she shops in the fanciest department store in town and manages to hold off the maternal yammer in her ear while she acquires a bob haircut and an up-to-the-minute wardrobe. Thus equipped, she decides to expand her horizons and take a vacation, another first. Her destination is Cairo, and her only companion will be her dachshund, Rosie.

Egypt might seem an unusual destination for Agnes, but she recalls, with excitement, a lecture she attended about Lawrence of Arabia. And it’s nothing short of wonderful that when she reaches Cairo, she meets the man himself–and Winston Churchill, Britain’s minister for the colonies, and Gertrude Bell, the famous Arabist and traveler in the Middle East. They’re in Cairo to negotiate an agreement ancillary to the Treaty of Versailles that will redraw the map as we essentially know it today. Agnes, at first abashed to be in such august company, gradually scrapes her confidence together and contributes to dinner-table conversation about colonial politics, crossing swords with Churchill and Bell.

Lowell Thomas’s 1919 photo of T. E. Lawrence (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

That description illustrates the charm with which Russell has imbued Dreamers of the Day. In the abstract, it seems completely implausible that an Ohio schoolteacher could crash a diplomatic party, let alone be welcomed into its midst, yet Russell makes that work. There seems no reason to doubt that when their paths cross at the best hotel in town, Agnes will be swept up into dinner parties and social excursions. What’s more, I love Russell’s characterizations of the diplomats, especially that of Lawrence, who comes across as more sensitive and thoughtful by half than anyone else there, and believably so. Russell says she’s let the famous characters speak the words they wrote or were ascribed to them in multiple sources, and I believe that too.

The best historical novelists render the period through their characters’ internal lives so that you can practically breathe the atmosphere on the page. So it is here, from the second paragraph:

You must try to feel the hope and amazement of those years. Anything seemed possible–the end of ignorance, the end of disease, the end of poverty. Physics and chemistry, medicine and engineering were breaking through old boundaries. In the cities, skyscrapers shredded clouds. Trucks and automobiles were crowding out horse-drawn cabs and drays in the boulevards below. The pavement was clean: no stinking piles of dung, no buzz of flies.

However, this viewpoint also demonstrates the chief weakness of Dreamers of the Day. The sense emerges both between the lines and in them that Agnes realizes what the future will hold, a dramatic irony that needs no emphasis, since the reader already knows that the diplomats failed utterly to create peace in the Middle East. Her uninformed skepticism, especially balanced against the more optimistic views of Bell and Lawrence, sounds forced and artificial. The “hope and amazement of those years” might have served Russell better in Agnes’s mouth.

Russell compensates somewhat by letting Agnes fall in love with a man who may or may not be a German spy. Karl offers a political counterpoint to the Brits, but he also shows her attention and kindness and even tells her forthrightly that Mumma doesn’t sound very nice at all. I like this part and wish there had been more of it, for Dreamers of the Day works best when the politics share the narrative rather than overwhelm it.

That’s why I don’t understand the last chapter, which drops into magical realism, a mode I dislike and one at odds with the book. It’s there, I think, to allow Agnes to soapbox about subsequent politics–another no-no–when the real story ends in Cairo.

Not only that, but as someone who admires Russell’s skill and diligence, I’m startled that she cuts corners about Gallipoli, Churchill’s great failure. I like her take that Churchill was a such a narcissist, he’d never miss a chance to rehash the campaign and exonerate himself. But the scene relies on so many historical inaccuracies, he sounds like an ignorant fool, and that’s plain wrong.

So I think that, unlike Doc, which I reviewed in these pages and liked very much, Russell gets ahead of herself in Dreamers of the Day; despite some fun bits, it doesn’t quite come together.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Luckiest Man in Russia: A Gentleman in Moscow


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Review: A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
Viking, 2016. 462 pp. $27

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov goes before a Soviet tribunal in 1922, he’s not sentenced to death as an aristocratic bloodsucker, which surprises more than a few people, himself included. Rather, because he penned a famous poem in 1913 that the new powers believe presaged the revolution, Rostov will now spend the rest of his life where he’s lived the past few years, in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Of course, the authorities kick him out of his old suite and take most of his property, which comes as a shock.

The attic cubbyhole they’ve allowed him causes an even greater shock, for it has no view of the city and is barely large enough to turn around in. As a Former Person, Rostov must understand that he has no rights, which is to say that if he steps outside the hotel, they’ll shoot him. They’re watching, waiting for him to crack, rather like scientists who’ve designed a social experiment. They’ve assumed that the aristocratic bubble he’s always lived in, represented now by the grand hotel, will pop, and he’ll asphyxiate.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow, as it appeared in 2007 (courtesy NVO, via Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, the Soviets have it wrong, though that’s not immediately apparent. At first, Rostov supposes that survival means hope, and that he can foster the will to survive like other outcasts before him by mastering his physical circumstances:

Like Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Isle of Despair, the Count would maintain his resolve by committing to the business of practicalities. Having dispensed with dreams of quick discovery, the world’s Crusoes seek shelter and a source of fresh water; they teach themselves to make fire from flint; they study the island’s topography, its climate, its flora and fauna, all the while keeping their eyes trained for sails on the horizon and footprints in the sand.

But that can’t be enough, and A Gentleman in Moscow pays full tribute to strong narrative and “no–and furthermore.” Towles constantly ups the ante, to remarkable effect, considering that Rostov’s world is so circumscribed–further proof that tension lies within the mind, not in grand plot points. So it is that one day, Nina, a nine-year-old who always dresses in yellow, approaches the count’s restaurant table and boldly asks him why he shaved off his mustache. From that moment, his journey takes a different, higher trajectory, during which he learns to embrace his captivity and turn it into rich emotional and intellectual experience–a life well lived. Despite official expectations, the Former Person has found social oxygen and breathes deeply once more, a true triumph of the spirit.

Towles goes further, however. A friend tells Rostov that he’s the luckiest man in Russia, because, though captive, he’s insulated against the seemingly random terrors the regime inflicts on its citizens. The true genius of A Gentleman in Moscow is how Towles melds the two stories, Rostov’s and Russia’s. Rostov’s search for how to live a good life mirrors that of his country crawling out from under centuries of serfdom, bloodbath, and destruction, much of it self-inflicted. As he works through trying to cope, how to interpret life, how to treat people, what happiness means, and problems brought about by change, he also represents Russia in its myriad facets; the personal stands for and becomes the political, the social, the national.

Tolstoy, anyone? Not to go overboard, but there’s no doubt that A Gentleman in Moscow is an ambitious attempt at a Russian novel, including the discursive discussions about every theme under the sun. It’s also mostly successful, I think, its sole failing a tendency to make Rostov’s adventures a little too marvelous and therefore incredible; this is Soviet Russia, after all. Nevertheless, Towles’s love for literature triumphs, for his is a literate and literary book, with legitimate roots in the Russian masters. Not only is the scope, discursiveness, and person-as-universe Tolstoyan, Count Rostov calls to mind his namesake in War and Peace, a genial but feckless soldier, a good-time boy who turns devoted family man. Other Russian literary references abound; for instance, Nina’s yellow clothes evoke Crime and Punishment, in which Dostoyevsky uses that color to symbolize imprisonment, literal or figurative.

If you’ve read these writers, you’ll chuckle often at A Gentleman in Moscow, as when you meet Marshal Kutuzov, the hotel cat named for the general and Tolstoyan character who defeated Napoleon (both cat and human have one eye). And even if you haven’t read its predecessors, A Gentleman in Moscow will still be great fun and thought-provoking. Towles has set the bar very high.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Death and Taxes: We That Are Left


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Review: We That Are Left, by Clare Clark
Houghton, 2015. 450 pp. $28

What a marvelous bunch these Melvilles are, minor Hampshire aristocracy who keep the new twentieth century at arm’s length. Sir Aubrey Melville, Bart., cares for nothing except his estate, Ellinghurst, whose manse is an architectural oddity, and whose three-hundred-year history he’s been writing forever. As for Lady Melville, if snobbery were a lethal weapon, she’d have as much blood on her hands as Jack the Ripper. The Melville children–Theo, Phyllis, and Jessica, in descending order–know her as Eleanor, the only intimacy she allows them, though Theo occupies a throne in her heart. Phyllis has withdrawn from the family in favor of books, angering Jessica in particular, who craves excitement and dotes on Theo, a selfish, mercurial bully who likes nothing better than to take horrifying risks and push others to do likewise.

The lonely sailor trying to stay afloat in this maelstrom of dysfunction is Oskar Grunewald, a fatherless young boy, son of a family friend. When in the Melville children’s company, he’s either ignored or targeted for abuse, just as he is at school. But you know he’ll be the hinge on which the narrative turns; the typically pointless prologue tells you so. And you also know, because of the title, the year the real action begins (1910), and an epigraph dating from the First World War, that the Melvilles are in for it. We That Are Left evokes a familiar theme in fiction, Edwardian gentry struggling to understand–or, more accurately, refusing to understand–that they’re dinosaurs. Untimely death and estate taxes will destroy their way of life, but more than that, unavoidable social changes are coming, and their cosseted world will never be the same.

Punch cartoon satirizing the changes in women’s dress, 1901-11, published in the U.S., 1921 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

But if this message sounds familiar, as narrated in, say, Philip Rock’s Passing Bells, Clark goes much deeper. Her characters live what they say and believe, so that you never feel they’re talking heads, a collection of opinions. With one exception, Clark reveals their inner lives so naturally and vividly that in understanding them, you see their milieu and its ferment as clearly as if you were standing there. And since most of her characters other than Oskar are disagreeable, it’s a rare feat to make them compelling, let alone to stretch their story to 450 pages and keep you riveted. How does she do this? One passage, from Oskar’s perspective, gives a glimpse:

It was as if the nerves in him had been magnetised, irresistibly drawing sensation to his eyes, his lungs, his brain, his skin, until the intensity of it was almost too much to bear. He walked along the familiar streets in a daze of seeing, overcome by the greenness of the lawns and the blueness of the sky and the perfect pewter gleam of the cobbles beneath his feet, struck time and again by the loveliness of things he had somehow never noticed before: the round glass panes in an overhanging upper window like bottoms of bottles, the splintery grey grain of a warped medieval lintel, the straining neck and gripping claws of a pockmarked gargoyle clinging for dear life to a narrow ledge, its mouth stretched wide and its veined wings raised and half-opened, ready for flight. He had not thought the world so full of ordinary marvels.

Oskar’s in love, of course. But Clark never has to tell you that; she renders a primary emotion in its full physical intensity, without any mention of rapid heartbeat or breath. (That Oskar’s studying physics accounts for the metaphors about magnetism and colors.) I admire this artistry very much, which goes far beyond use of prose, and certainly not the kind that explodes like fireworks or calls attention to itself, which Clark’s doesn’t anyway. Rather, I enter Oskar’s mind and heart, just as I do those of the less sympathetic characters like Jessica, who’s selfish, spoiled, and manipulative. I don’t have to like her, but I can see her point of view and care about how she learns about life.

That said, not everyone will sit still for a long, character-driven novel, especially one that takes fifty pages to get going. There’s too much talk of theoretical physics, which, aside from being technical, rather too baldly fits the theme of the laws of nature challenged. And though Clark stands above many authors I’ve read recently for her gift at writing character, she’s taken shortcuts with Eleanor, who’s got little to show except her obsessive love for Theo, her only boy. It’s also startling that the ending, though prefigured by the needless prologue, feels like an improbable reversal, almost Dickensian in content, and melodramatic besides.

Even so, I enjoyed We That Are Left and learned something about writing novels.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Child Love: The Light Between Oceans


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Review: The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman
Scribner, 2012. 343 pp. $25

Tom Sherbourne returns to his native Australia after the First World War deeply disturbed by what he saw and did and seeking solitude. He has nothing and no one to hold onto, and he finds what he thinks is the perfect job, tending a lighthouse on a forlorn island off the Australian coast. There, no one will ask him about his past, and his exacting, meticulous duties will keep him busy for the months that stretch between brief shore leaves.

Tom wonders why he survived the war when so many others didn’t or came home physically or emotionally maimed. But that’s not the only trauma to trouble his dreams. His mother left home when he was a young boy–or did his father, a cold tyrant with no access to any feelings except anger, throw her out? Either way, both have passed from Tom’s life, and his brother Cecil, the favored son due to inherit the family business, is equally unapproachable in Tom’s eyes, though it’s not clear why. But it’s enough to know that Tom Sherbourne has no family to speak of, or to.

Supplies being unloaded for South Solitary Island lighthouse, Australia, 1946, unknown photographer (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, on shore leave, he meets Isabelle Graysmark, a spirited, adventurous young woman, and they’re immediately attracted. Tom, much older and badly bruised, distrusts the vulnerability where tender feelings lead, and she practically has to convince him to marry her. He dares hope that Izzy will be his reward, however undeserved, for having survived a miserable childhood and the war. For her part, Izzy believes implicitly that she couldn’t have found a more loyal, steadfast, and loving husband, or a more nurturing father for their children. She only wishes he’d tell her what happened to him before they met.

To their delight, Izzy becomes pregnant almost immediately but miscarries–and again, and again. Each time, she blames herself, and what’s worse, she can’t understand his reaction. He aches for her, he’s sad and sorry, but he’s not devastated for himself. He cherishes their lives together as the first tenderness he’s ever known, a gift that many soldiers serving under him never got the chance to receive. He understands what she doesn’t, that life is often unfair, and that there’s no malign intent involved or blame to pass around, only bad luck and circumstance. But Izzy thinks his gratitude for what they have means that he’s cold and hurtful, incapable of feeling. And one night, when a rowboat lands near the lighthouse carrying a dead man and a young infant, the Sherbournes make a desperate decision that will mark their lives and others’.

The Light Between Oceans is an accomplished novel, and Stedman’s first. At its best, the narrative touches the lyrical and depth of insight and makes them one. Consider Tom’s first view of the island, before he meets Izzy:

Hundreds of feet above sea level, he was mesmerized by the drop to the ocean crashing against the cliffs directly below. The water sloshed like white paint, milky-thick, the foam occasionally scraped off long enough to reveal a deep blue undercoat. At the other end of the island, a row of immense boulders created a break against the surf and left the water inside it as calm as a bath. He had the impression he was hanging from the sky, not rising from the earth. Very slowly, he turned a full circle, taking in the nothingness of it all. It seemed his lungs could never be large enough to breathe in this much air, his eyes could never see this much space, nor could he hear the full extent of the rolling, roaring ocean. For the briefest moment, he had no edges.

It’s a good novelist who can make beautiful sentences draw the reader into a character’s inner life without calling attention to themselves. And in focusing her characters on the most primal attachment, that for a child, Stedman evokes tremendous power from a relatively simple story. I say relatively because she requires more coincidence and suspension of disbelief than I like, but once you get past that, there’s no denying the passions or the moral issues involved.

I have a harder time getting around Izzy’s character. I like how the spontaneous girlishness hides other, dangerous levels, but–without giving away too much–I think she becomes unglued, and by the time I finished the book, I didn’t like her much. Liking a main character isn’t requisite, but I wanted to feel more sympathy for her than I did, and I might have, had she struggled with the momentous decision that drives the narrative or consider how it might affect someone else. Instead, she sets her mind and seldom thinks about it again–refuses to, even.

All the same, Stedman’s a very good writer, and The Light Between Oceans will make you think.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

One Big (Almost) Happy Family: Kiss Carlo


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Review: Kiss Carlo, by Adriana Trigiani
Harper, 2017. 524 pp. $28

Nicky Castone drives a cab for the family business in South Philadelphia in 1949. But it’s not his family, exactly, for when his parents died, the Palazzinis, his Aunt Jo and Uncle Dominic, took him in and have treated him as their own ever since. His aunt, uncle, and army of cousins assume that Nicky will follow the same path they have. He’ll marry his fiancée of seven years, Peachy DePino, drive a hack as he’s always done, and live with his bride in the rambling Palazzini house on Montrose Street. He’ll father children, be a regular at church, and sit down to his Aunt Jo’s fabulous cooking every day. That’s what life’s supposed to be, and since the Second World War is over and business is good, why not?

Troop 152 observes Scout Sunday at St. Francis de Sales Church in Philadelphia, 1949 (courtesy Bernie Kelley and Bruce Andersen, via Wikimedia Commons)

Why, indeed? What Nicky hasn’t told anyone–certainly not Peachy, who’s an even straighter arrow than his kinsmen–is that he moonlights at a struggling neighborhood theater. He does everything for the Borelli Theater that anyone backstage can do–clean the floors, hold the prompt book, you name it; that’s Nicky Castone, ever helpful, ever self-effacing. But one night, an emergency forces the prompter into playing Sebastian, a lead role in Twelfth Night, opposite the director, Calla Borelli, to whom he’s attracted.

Much hinges on that fateful moment, from which point forth, our Nicky is a different man, no longer content to follow his cousins’ path, though he loves them and worships his Aunt Jo. I won’t tell you how he tries to break free or the scrapes he gets into, some of which are howlingly funny. Just a hint, though: The Carlo of the title is an ambassador from an Italian mountain village who takes ship for the United States and the Pennsylvania town once settled by the villagers. When his path crosses Nicky’s, hi-jinks ensue.

Humor is therefore the great strength of Kiss Carlo, and Trigiani lovingly re-creates this South Philly Italian clan. There’s a pair of feuding brothers who “severed ties over money, the cause of every split in every Italian family since the Etruscans,” during which “the grievances stacked up, one upon the other, like soggy layers of wedding pastries on a Venetian table. Then it got personal.” Through these observations, which pepper the narrative, and characters who never lack for a quip, Trigiani captures the postwar striving, the ambitions, the jealousies:

Jo’s simple gold wedding band remained on her hand, but Nancy [her sister-in-law] traded up. The prongs on Nancy’s modest quarter-carat diamond engagement ring were stretched to accommodate the glitzy three-and-a-half-carat upgrade. The delicate gold chain around Nancy’s neck was replaced with one as thick as a strand of pappardelle, from which dangled a new medal more miraculous than a pope’s.

The geniality and generosity Trigiani displays toward her characters and readers go far to make Kiss Carlo enjoyable, funny, and occasionally thoughtful, a paean to those who follow their star in life no matter what anyone says and risk everything to be happy. It’s a nice message and good tonic. In particular, I like how Trigiani makes Nicky (and others) suffer to get where they’re going. For the most part, there are no easy fixes here, and plenty of reversals.

Nevertheless, she rescues her characters in the end, and it feels forced, just like the sepia-toned harmony in which they bask. This is 1949, after all, and racial and ethnic tensions weren’t in hiding, not in South Philadelphia or anywhere else. Yet the Palazzini business has an African-American dispatcher, Mrs. Mooney, and not only would one ever dream of casting a slur, you get the feeling she’d be welcome in the family. Likewise, one Palazzini daughter-in-law, Elsa, is a Polish war bride (read: Jewish) who survived “by working in a hospital,” a miracle that goes unexplained. As the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, Elsa suffers no apparent trauma, seems perfectly happy among devout Italian Catholics, yet when she announces that she wishes to attend synagogue once more, no one blows a gasket. It’s all in the family.

It’s that desire, understandable but unreal, to rescue absolutely everyone that mars Kiss Carlo for me. Maybe it works for Nicky, but when his attempt at self-liberation inspires Mrs. Mooney and Elsa to break free as well, that’s pushing it. Developing those supblots to their pleasant but dubious conclusions also makes the novel longer than it should be. As a light confection with its sober side, Kiss Carlo would have worked better than the many-layered pastry it is. The layers aren’t soggy, but they can’t bear the weight put on them.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Life As a Messenger: News of the World


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Review: News of the World, by Paulette Jiles
Morrow, 2016. 213 pp. $23

The protagonist of this engaging, thoughtful novel, Jefferson Kyle Kidd, has an unusual profession. An itinerant version of a town crier, he travels the Texas frontier in 1870, reading carefully selected stories from out-of-town newspapers and charges his listeners a dime admission. Captain Kidd, as he’s known, dresses to project an image of an educated, experienced person of wide understanding, a role that comes easily, and chooses those stories that he thinks will fire the imaginations of his audience. He’s seldom wrong.

But it’s not just the captain’s profession or bearing that set him apart. A veteran of two wars, including that of 1812, and a southerner whose sons-in-law died for the Confederacy, Kidd has too much empathy to resort to race prejudice, reserving his hatred for viciousness, bullying, or predatory behavior. He likes his roving life, or so he believes, and there’s no tonic like his own company. And yet, he’s begun to realize that all isn’t what it could be.

He had become impatient of trouble and other people’s emotions. His life seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled, and it was something that had only come upon him lately. A slow dullness had seeped into him like coal gas and he did not know what to do about it except seek out quiet and solitude. He was always impatient to get the readings over with now.

After this particular reading, he greets Britt Johnson, a black freedman whom he calls friend, who has a favor to ask. Britt has been given a fifty-dollar gold piece to bring a young girl to San Antonio, a four-hundred mile trip, returning her to her aunt and uncle following several years’ captivity with the Kiowas. Britt doesn’t want the job, partly because his two companions and he have urgent business elsewhere, but mostly because transporting a white girl would likely get him lynched. Kidd doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone, especially a ten-year-old who acts half-feral and will probably bolt at the first chance she gets. He’s raised two daughters, so he’s “done with all that,” he’s in his seventies, and he’s had enough trouble. But he can’t turn away from a friend, and the girl’s an orphan, after all, and no doubt saw the Kiowa kill her parents. She needs help.

“In Summer, Kiowa,” 1898, Frank A. Rinehart’s platinum, hand-colored print (courtesy Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Johanna, as Kidd calls her, is a handful and then some. She has no use for shoes, clothes as he understands them, table manners, kindness, or conversation–not that he speaks Kiowa or that she remembers English. And yes, Johanna does try to run away. But she also possesses wilderness skills that he appreciates (except when she misuses them in embarrassing ways) and courage under fire, which tells him she’s seen armed combat. As you’d expect, over time and circumstance, the two unwilling traveling companions learn each other, a little, and protect each other a lot.

They have several adventures that don’t turn out the way they anticipate; Jiles understands how to work the “no–and furthermore.” The reason they work, however, is that each connects to Kidd’s outlook, particularly his views of the cultural and racial divides that lead people to hate perfect strangers simply for what they (apparently) represent. It’s a clear-eyed lesson and as up-to-date as you could want, but it’s also a primer on how to write a novel. The exposition of the theme and the main character’s inner life are inseparable, and this is why he’s such a winning protagonist. For Kidd, who’s seen much of life and is looking forward to rest and peace and quiet during his final years–and who therefore has a certain perspective on younger people scurrying around–the question becomes, What does it all mean?

And his answer, which fits his profession, his difficult errand, and his refusal to take himself too seriously, is very simple. “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news.” He wonders whether each person has just one message to bring through life, which may or may not have anything to do directly with the bearer, but you have no choice. You have to carry it.

In reading News of the World, that idea gives me something to think about.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.