Category Archives: Books Worth Keeping

Plenty of books are worth reading once.
These selections are good enough that they deserve shelf space; to be remembered and referred to, and to cherish the prospect of one day experiencing them again.

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke

 First in the ‘Highway 59’ series of crime procedurals set in East Texas near the border of Louisiana, this volume also moves the genre into African American rural life, a niche I’m not aware of being plumbed before. And plumbed is appropriate, as Locke’s goal is clearly to illuminate the hidden depths and conduits of life at the very edge of subsistence. Geneva Sweet’s one-room restaurant/barber shop is hand built and about as ramshackle as it gets, yet it is the only economic support of several lives, and the only social connector for black folks in the small community of Lark, Texas, just as the roadhouse bar down the road is the only one for whites. (Note that church is barely present in this tale, contrary to the image so often projected, of church going and church connections being the glue that holds rural life together. Appears to be an intentional choice by the author, not an oversight – these people are driven far more by family and race than any other gospels, far more by appetites and expedience than any high-flown morals or principals, which seem to reside only within the conflicted minds of well-off outsiders.)  

 Insiders and outsiders is also a strong theme here, in particular, the ways in which those who were born and raised in a place quickly become outsiders once they leave, yet retain the place and connection in ways that surface forcefully under duress. Both Darren Mathews, the Texas Ranger protagonist, and Michael Wright, one of two murder victims, and even Joe Sweet, whose history predates the action, have struggled with that, and eventually paid great prices for the disconnect. The degree to which those who have never left can become stunted by their limited exposure and consumption is equally well-expressed, particularly in a passage regarding murderer Keith Dale who “had never been north of Oklahoma, thought the world outside Texas was a cesspool of race mixing and confusion about who built this country, spics and nigs with their hands out begging for this that and the other, never doing a decent day’s work in their lives, but even still they were coming for our jobs, coming for our wives and daughters…”

I’m not rushing out to try a ‘fried pie’ just now, and still amazed that a dinner party for nine people justifies picking up ‘seven pounds of brisket’ and ‘a couple of chickens’, but that just shows how far my background is from this setting. The references to Texas blues and the musician’s lifestyle, on the other hand, were effective means to connect with what is certainly new ground for plenty of other readers as well.  (Any novel which features 1955 Les Paul as its Rosebud has got my instant attention….). 

A captivating read and clearly intended to establish a character and setting for a series (after this 2018 release, a second installment titled Heaven My Home came out in 2019.). Whether or not I’ll follow that up is still in doubt, but I can well imagine there’s an audience for it. Whether that audience is primarily African American, or not will be worth noting.

P. S.:  To read Blue bird, Bluebird right after Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective is to be impressed with the many ways in which contemporary novelists are broadening the settings, preoccupations and appeal of the crime genre, while clearly working off its traditions of darkness, corruption, the reticence of hard men and the redemptive power of drink, memory and an attractive woman. Plu ca change…

The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem

 A contemporary noir, loosely-framed by the protagonist’s despair at the election of the ‘orange monster’ and the economic and cultural divides it reflects, but also deeply embedded in broader 21 st century dislocation and despair.

Intriguingly, Lethem tells the tale thru the voice of Phoebe Siegler, a refugee from the urban entertainment/media complex, rather than Charles Heist (what a surname choice that is!), his idiosyncratic detective. This allows for more thoughtfully-analytic observations by the character, and a more literate tone than would the latter. It also makes for some brave writing, as Lethem voices Phoebe’s sexual longings and encounters with Charles. One would love to know what female readers feel about his level of success, but to me it rang true, if perhaps a bit enhanced by what a man hopes a woman is seeing. Lethem also finds something new in the L A area by choosing for his locations the little-known towns of Upland and Clarement; the resort hermitage of Mt. Baldy (a personal touchstone, having driven, hiked and skied there) and the Mohave Desert just over the mountains from the big city. The tenuous economics of these locales, and the multitudinous opportunity for misfits to isolate themselves resemble the same raw ingredients which Southern writers have long mined from their home turf, but being still part of LA makes for a freshness and perhaps a more accessible connection to readers not of the sub-Mason Dixon world. Interesting and engaging, but I’m not hungry to read another installment, if indeed this is the start of a series (a possibility suggested by the ending, but inconsistent with Lethem’s intellectual adventurousness, nor his career path and to date).

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, A Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

A back-cover quite, credited to The Observer newspaper, notes that this “will surely become a vital crib for generations of students to come,” and this reader agrees entirely. Ackroyd’s lucid and fluid contemporary-language version is certainly the only way I would have gotten through this artifact; deciphering even just the chapter titles in the original Old-English is enough to tell me I’d never have made it.

As with many other ‘classics,’ one of the main values derived from reading Chaucer’s tales has been to glimpse inside the minds and thoughts of that earlier time.   What preoccupied the literate Londoner in the fourteenth century? Marriage, power, religion and the appetites for sex, food and drink, it seems, and in approximately that order.

Another obvious value of this volume is for its role in the early evolution of literature, acting as bridge between millennia of oral legends, folk tales, fables and religious parables, allegories and sermons and the later arrival of personal stories, those concerned with particular individuals who may be neither hero nor villain, maiden nor slut, but unique and messily-realistic combinations and contrasts of opposites. We see here a transitional stage between the archetypes within the tales (nearly every knight is appallingly-brave and virtuous, nearly every young woman is the most beautiful, chaste and compliant in her land) and the beginnings of dramatic characterization in the diverse and earthy travelers who tell them.

Even with Ackroyd as intermediary though, Chaucer is not an easy read. Many of the tales feel pointless, several redundant, and a couple seem to have been just cut off in mid-telling – leaving one to wonder whether some pages have been lost to history, or is that perhaps evidence of just how new and unself-conscious the infant art of fiction-writing was at the time (and prior to invention of that indispensable tool, the Editor). The religious paeans are also off-putting; tedious paragraphs and pages of dedication to the Holy Mother, or protestations of one’s faith, all the way down to Chaucer’s own ‘Retractions,’ which is not, as modern minds expect, a rescinding of what he has written earlier, but a ‘retraction’ in the sense of pulling away; taking his leave while beseeching the reader, ‘for the mercy of God, to pray for me…’ and so on. Pronouncing all that he has written, to be sinful and without merit, the author protests that despite having taken the pains to record and clearly enjoy these sinful tails, he is actually the most pious of men.

A remarkable piece of cultural history, presented in a generous and helpful manner by this modern retelling; truly the “crib” this reader need to ever become familiar with this oft-cited relic.

The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra

We Americans tend to see the war in Afghanistan through the lens of our own involvement – how many U.S. troops lost, how many U. S. billions spent, how much progress toward making that nation over in our own image. This brief and poetic novel, the author’s fifth to be published in the English language, sets the history in a different light, showing on the one hand that the disorder in Afghanistan verifiably predates US involvement (original copyright is 2002, and the action is clearly pre 9-11) and on the other that the damage and suffering of the Afghan people goes far deeper and wider than anything we have paid for our involvement (speaking of course of the USA as a whole; not those particular few individuals who have given so much, and sometimes all).

This is a tight narrative, the comings and goings of two married couples in a few narrow streets and run-down buildings of Kabul over the course of a few days, maybe a week. In that time though, lives are ruined and lost, hopes dashed, resurrected and swamped by the reality of a nation that has been at war for decades and is now at the mercy of fanaticism and men’s worst impulses claiming to serve their best. As with much middle-eastern fiction I’ve read, the language can be rather florid and some of the characters’ internal reflections feel over-dramatized, more performances of the author than real human thought. At other times though, Khadra’s characters speak honestly of emotions real people strain to conceal, if they even admit to themselves. (A prime example is one man’s participation in the public execution-by-stoning of a prostitute – which even he cannot explain or defend.) The portrait of how one lives when nearly everything has been taken away or coopted for the oppressors’ purposes is eye-opening. Reading it during the Covid 19 shutdown is yet another reminder that I’ve still got it very, very easy, even in what we think of as a period of distress.

Building slowly, the story reaches its climax in the thoughts and action not of the husbands – as one might expect for a tale set under the patriarchy of Islamic culture and Sharia law – but of their wives. Zunaira, the educated and worldly beauty whose life has devolved into an exile inside her own shabby home, gives way to a moment’s impulse, with tragic consequences. Then, Musarrat, the miserable and terminally-ill wife of a part-time jailer and Taliban collaborator has a contrasting moment of transcendent insight, compassion and love; forces which are so out of place in this environment they strain credulity. Regardless, her vision propels the climactic act of selflessness which is, unfortunately, doomed by circumstance and habituation, as is all hope in the universe of this novel.

That the story itself can be conceived, written and published is the only thread of optimism one brings away from the reading but then, sometimes it only takes a single thread to unravel an entire knitting.

(Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a male former-Algerian army officer, who the liner notes say adopted that name to avoid government scrutiny of his writings.  If is unclear just how much the choice of the feminine reflects his convictions, but this novel sincerely presents women’s lives with much more importance and sympathy than conservative Islamic culture grants them.)

 

A Single Thread, Tracy Chevalier

As a ‘surplus’ woman in an England still reeling fourteen years after the 1918 end of The Great War in which two-million young men of her generation were wiped away, Violet Speedwell struggles to find any trace of meaning or purpose in her life. Brother, fiancé and father all dead, mother an intolerably-abusive emotional wreck and her opportunities deeply constrained by gender, custom and the dearth of even marginally-desirable suitors, her only sense of achievement comes from having moved-out to a boarding house room in the next city and managing to live on her own, though that living is marginal at best. Desperate nostalgia for the warmth of child-time church visits (one possible interpretation of the novel’s title) leads her to discover ‘the Broderers,’ a group of women engaged in embroidering new soft goods for Winchester Cathedral. It is that encounter which allows her to forge some tenuous personal connections and so drives this totally-engaging and moving tale.

This is necessarily a narrow tale, as Violet’s life is limited by circumstance and prejudices, yet the author uncovers sensuality in a hungry woman’s reactions to food and drink, entrepreneurialism in others’ efforts to survive when their jobs are lost to bigotry, and even a range of sexuality. The illicit love of two women is treated with empathy and honor, making clear that it is love for its own sake (‘their own sakes’?) not just a make-do for the lack of eligible men, as some of their compatriots rationalize it. Violet’s own romance, a sparse affair with a married man devoted to caring for a wife tormented by the wartime death of their only son, is doomed in most senses, yet still nurtures them both in important respects, even before it produces the slender thread of permanent connection that restores meaning to each of them and to the novel’s title.

Along the way we learn about embroidery bell-ringing and church customs, and are reminded of how material our modern lives have become as we see Violet live with barely more than a suitcase-full of possessions. We also discover real artistic ambition and achievement in women (the actual historical figure of  Miss Louisa Pesel, in particular) whom we might otherwise dismiss as slaves to convention, decoration and rote following of recipe.

More than any of Chevalier’s earlier novels, this one opened my eyes to what she is really doing, correcting the lack of female figures in familiar moments of cultural history by novelizing them through a female point of view. From the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, to the paintings of Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the writings of Wm. Blake in Burning Bright and the discoveries of Darwin and early fossil hunters in Remarkable Creatures, Chevalier illustrates that women were present and integral to the work for which men have been so lauded. Not only that, but those women’s contributions were made under duress and restrictions far greater than the men ever faced.

Each volume entertains and enlightens at the same time they serve, both singly and as a body, that very worthwhile social purpose. Brava, Ms. Chevalier, brava.

Boudica, Vanessa Collingridge

Subtitled ‘The Life and Times of Britain’s Legendary Warrior Queen,’ this hefty volume turns its narrative outward from the individual to her context, becoming in effect a survey of the entire history of Britain as a nation and a people, lensed around the largely-mythical warrior queen. While at times that feels digressive or indulgent, in the end it provided this Yankee with plenty of useful insight into how a group of disparate warring tribes evolved into a world power and an important culture.

Collingridge writes somewhat as one would expect of a television presenter, lots of grand characterizations mixed with occasional insertions of her first person (‘I was nearing the end of my search for the legend’ sort of stuff) but has clearly done a great deal of research, with frequent source citations and an impressive bibliography. The sense is of an author eager to demonstrate she has qualifications above and beyond her popular success and it mostly works, despite some unfortunate lapses in editing and copy-proofing.

The first 150 pages or so hardly deals with the title character, but gives instead an overview of Rome’s imperial grasping toward, and eventual invasions of, the British Isles. The depth of that background at first seems odd, but then makes sense as it places the eventual tribal rebellion in a proper context. More than that, it makes abundantly clear that there was no ‘Britain’ or ‘England’ until the Romans conceptualized it as a way to refer to the region they claimed to have conquered. Once Boudica (or Boudicca, or Bodicea; the variations due to different hearings, translations and monkish typographical errors) herself comes on the stage, we realize that almost nothing is factually known about her; whatever spelling one uses, she is largely the fabrication of other authors down the ages, starting with the writings of her Roman opponents, Caesar (the single contemporary), Tacitus (writing decades after) and Dio (another hundred years removed). Their meager and un-confirmable portraits, which Collingridge points out are most-certainly biased by their politics, have then been repeated, massaged and embellished over the ages. Several middle chapters then recount the rebellious Queen’s battles and eventual demise, a tale which is surprisingly brief, even fluffed out with plenty of speculative recreation and embellishment. The third and concluding part of the volume is again more substantial, as it depicts the morphing of Boudica’s story and image to serve the changing needs of the British people and politics at various stages of their history through nearly two thousand years to the present (Boudica and Princess Diana making a particularly interesting pairing).

Along the way one learns that Druids are not originally Welsh or even British, but of continental origin, as is the term Celtic and even the La Tene art style which we today refer to as ‘Celtic design.’ Nor are present day Druids in any real way connected to the historic ones – so little is known about what the original Druids actually believed or did, that any modern versions are really just fabrications by poets and others from the Romantic period onward. How New Age-y! On the related subject of archaeology, Collingridge voices appreciation for the findings of ‘metal detectorists’ who scour the countryside in search of finds. In the end though, the reader’s dawning realization that not one of the objects found to date can actually be tied to Boudica herself only emphasizes that all talk about her is speculation, at best, or fiction, at worst.

A rewarding read (with some judicious skimming now and then, when the pedantry gets excessive), Boudica ultimately affords enough detail and insights to be well worth the journey.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman certainly has a knack for taking fantasy in titillating new directions. Mixing legend with pop culture, bridging generations and phases of life, his is an impressive improvisational-seeming voice; loose and loud and reasonably sound in its coherence and payoff.

Richard Mayhew, protagonist this time around, is a decent mensch, a modern everyman who seems just as lost in his own world as he will become lost in the underworld he discovers as a result of one decent – and so, uncharacteristic – act. Such a mensch, in fact, that his survival and eventual semi-triumph are a bit implausible, though satisfying nonetheless. The characters who surround him are pleasingly off –beat and appealing and their adventures offer enough cliff-hanging to keep one deeply involved.

Underneath it all, there glimmer a few bits of insight into human frailty, relationships and the failings of society. Just enough to ground this fantasy in reality and assuage the guilt of reading such fluff.

Yes, a pleasure all the way. Well done, Mr. Gaiman, well done.