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.

Christine Falls, Benjamin Black

Irish literary figure and Booker Prize winner John Banville adopts a pen name to begin a mystery series centered on Dublin pathologist Quirke. (I finished the novel unsure whether that is first name or last, nor of what is the other to go with it. Could be my lack of retention, or could be author’s intent to create one more bit of mystery which he can  choose to reveal for greater impact at some later date, ala Inspector ‘Morse’).

Black or Banville, there is still an impressive attention to framing detail; sometimes to excess.  Inventive descriptions as well, though some are less apt if you stop to picture what the words actually mean, rather than just listening to their melody in quick reading.  His characters too, are interesting enough in the moment, but not a little typecast if examined at all closely.  Still, their motivations are considered and valid, their conflicts and difficult choices are well-applied to drive dialogue if not plot, and all of it is much more real than, say, a Hammett, a King or a Fleming would do.

This is 1950’s Ireland too, and perhaps those stereotypes were more pervasive and real in that time and place. Surely Banville knows much better than I, so we roll with it.  What begins rather slowly builds a fair degree of tension and becomes, by the second half, a stay-up-late-to-finish-it experience, with little of the hangover that comes from having been manipulated or toyed with.  There’s also very little resort to gore, gunplay or car chases, though plenty of bar scenes, cigarette fondling and coffee/tea/wine drinking to give the impression of far more action than really occurs. Like most mysteries, it’s really all about distressed and disaffected people talking – and not talking – to one another about events which happened in the past or offscreen.

All in all, a very credible diversion, even if Quirke is not yet someone I’d really like to spend time with.  Worth a go at the second in the series though, to see where it all is headed, as this author is far too skilled to settle for just piling up the bodies and counting coup of capital crimes solved. 

Day of the Dead, Nicci French

This eighth volume in the Frieda Klein mystery series by husband and wife team Niccci Gerrard and Sean French is a highly satisfying wrap-up to their extended opus.   Playing with London geography as much as criminology and psychology, the novels are effective thrillers, yet give us more than enough human reality to make the journey more rewarding than disposable. 

Klein herself is astute and knowledgeable, but not unbelievably so, as with a Holmes or Poirot.  A bit more clever and self-aware than the rest of us – or the police she must often work around – but still flawed and capable of error, and clearly working very hard to maintain the equanimity which is her most notable characteristic.   Her preoccupation with the hidden rivers beneath the city is entertaining and enlightening and a very apt metaphor for all the things that lurk beneath the surface of any life or community – history, loss, violence, community. And caring and love as well. 

A rich cast of supporting characters give Klein much to live for, and the reader much reason to dread and care about the twists and turns of each mystery.  That her friend Josef, who plays a crucial role at several junctures, is an off-the-books & off-the-back-of-the-truck handyman/builder and an immigrant of questionable legality, serves as comment on the current state of relations and economics in England, and greater Europe as well.  Here and elsewhere the series takes the critique of British class prejudices which was (perhaps) implicit back in the days of Agatha Christie and became more palpable in the work of P. D. James and others, to a level appropriate to our times.  Even the trope of MI5 lurking in the background of British life is toyed with, without being given a free-pass on its morality.   Nicci French clearly feel more sympathy for the lower-middle and working-classes than peers, pliticians and captains of industry.

Seasoned plotters with at least eleven other novels behind them, Nicci French create credible crimes with enough complexity that the brutality involved need not be belabored.  From the start of this series, they established a through line – the mysterious, clever and ruthless villain Dean Reeve – to bridge from volume to volume, but were wise enough to detour into several largely-separate mysteries for some of the volumes, before tying it all back to Reeve for the ultimate resolution.

Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels come to mind, as another example of a single story played out over multiple volumes. This Klein series numbers only about than half that one’s volumes, and does not involve anything like the historic reconstruction of O’Brien’s work, but it is sufficiently substantial to be, arguably, a similar achievement within its genre.  (Or perhaps there are other mystery series out there with a similar combination of who-done-it and where is it all going and the arc of lives lived out, and I have just not yet encountered them.)

I read the series more or less as they came out, so not knowing if or how the authors would play it out.  Suspect it might be even more rewarding to read them now, knowing where each fits in the overall arc.  Someday, if I have the time…

Entirely satisfying – except in the sense that one is so very sorry to know the series has ended and there will be no more Frieda Klein novels to look forward to.  Not that Nicci French couldn’t write more – there is at least one very large red herring left in this sea on which to hook a sequel – but the reflections voiced through their characters suggest pretty clearly that they have done what they wanted to do here and have moved on. 

 Darn.

A Taste for Death, P. D. James

The so called “Queen of Crime” strikes a chord for Jennifer and I as this page-turner is set in and about London’s Paddington and Holland Park neighborhoods, locales quite familiar and ear to our own hearts.  Aside from that, it is a very capable example of the genre – full of pretentious aristocrats dragging out a lifestyle which mostly died a century ago, struggling wage-slaves navigating the drear of a stagnant British economy and bureaucracy, everyday murders with creepily daft suspects and perpetrators and nearly everyone searching for someone to hold onto, whether sexually or just emotionally.

At 500 pages in paperback, A Taste for Death allows one to escape to James’ world for a satisfyingly-long time, and generally holds the attention well.  Her Adam Dalgliesh is a comfortable mentor to both subordinates and the reader, his character established long ago in other novels, so the heat is more upon Inspector Kate Miskin and Chief Inspector John Massingham to provide somewhere to hang our sympathies.  This we can do, as Kate has satisfying vulnerabilities and baggage, while Massingham plays the cad and insensitive throwback. 

James follows formula to a degree, but throws in twists and turns.  One – a sudden fainting spell of young Darrell – seems arbitrarily concocted to avoid a brutality which might have been too much, but then another – the novel’s final death – is just the opposite; an even-greater brutality which shocks, reminding us there is a price for hanging about with murder and making clear the author’s desire to give us something more than drawing room theater.

James was 66 by this writing (1986) but shows considerable energy and enterprise in both the volume and originality of the work; sufficient to nudge the boundaries of the murder-mystery genre without any risk to her place in its top tier of practitioners.  I’ll be reading more of here when I need a comfortable escape from the truly-murderous present.

(Intriguing note, the author spent decades working in law enforcement and government positions but is also, officially, ‘Baroness James of Holland Park,’ so whether her characters are embodying or lamenting the existence of their nation’s baggage of nobility and class, it seems she is speaking from experience.)

In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathanial Philbrick

Had my eyes on this historical account for a while, maybe as far back as when it was first published in 1999, but only now got around to it – thank you 2020 lifestyle changes.  Worth the read, as it is informative and mostly captivating, but not as weighty as I’d imagined from the reviews and PR.  The actual Essex story is not enough to fill a volume, so it’s been well-buttressed with digressions on the history of whaling and particularly the island of Nantucket, from which the Essex sailed (and which is also, not coincidentally, the author’s adopted home and professional focus).  Another interesting offshoot is the description of how details of the journey have even come to be known, a dramatic stew of journals, spoken word, interested reporters and long-lost documents re-appearing unexpectedly.   With all that background, the actual shipwreck is a minor event, over almost before it has begun – simply because that is the way it happened. The castaway’s travails take up more space and yet feel a bit mundane – not because they are not epic and dramatic, but perhaps because they and other similar escapes have been absorbed as part of our common history and have thus lost some of their impact. 

The author does a great job finding additional angles to explore, including the racial (black men were relatively welcome to become whalers not so much because their employers were colorblind as because being a whaler was a terrible occupation and few white men would sink so low; did black castaways die first because of how poorly they had been fed and treated prior to the wreck, or due more overt prejudice?), the environmental (whaling grounds became depleted by over-harvesting forcing ships farther out into the unknown sea, with sometimes deadly consequences; and a single whaling crew could devastate the ecology of a small Pacific island in days, undoing nature’s work of centuries), and the role of gender (how Nantucket women found independence and self-definition marrying men who would be away from home for years at a time, return for a couple of months between sailings, and often die while their families were still young).

Despite those points, this is, at its heart, a tale of humans eating other humans’ remains in order to survive, and even killing some of their own to do so.  Philbrick is clear about the moral dilemmas this presents, and especially the effects which surviving such a situation can have on the perpetrators’ psyches, both at the time and in the later years of those lucky enough to survive.  It is perhaps here that the book is most intriguing, as we see how Captain Pollard attempted to pursue his career despite later misfortunes, ending up a beloved failure in his hometown.  The exegeses of others are no less individual and interesting; and remind us once again of the resilience of humans when they have even small support of family, community, faith, or a combination thereof.

In the Heart of the Sea is still worth reading and ruminating upon, even if its story feels narrow and inconsequential at this moment of profound national dangers.

(Note – there is also a 2015 movie based the book, but given the gruesomeness of the castaways’ journey, I’m not sure if I want to see it on the big screen…)

These Truths, Jill Lepore

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate book for this time (summer 2020 – the lead-up to The Trump Election) and place (anywhere, USA). Lepore employs her awesome knowledge of US history to remind us who we are and enlighten us as to who, what and where we come from. 

This she does with all the drama and detail of an excellent novel, using individuals and their words to illustrate each minute point of disagreement, argument and compromise.  And it is that last which sticks in this reader’s mind; how our constitution and form of government, rather than being the immaculate perfection suggested by those who laud them in defense of their own (usually reactionary) purposes, are and always have been the flawed result of a process that not only pressured, but actually required persons of principle to accept results which complied only partly to their principles.

Another eye -opener is the limited role which rigid principles have played in our history.  Had all the persons alive during the founding refused to compromise on their principles, there would quite simply be no USA.  Perhaps a miscellany of separate states (with some still slave-owning up to the present?), perhaps some component of a prolonged British Empire, or perhaps something even more strange to us – a continent divided horizontally somewhere near the Mason Dixon line into an  enormous Mexico and equally expansive Canada.  This thread illuminates also the role of fundamentalism in elevating disagreements to become fights and, not in- frequently, wars.  Lepore cites many different sorts of fundamentalism – religious, capitalist, democratic, constitutional, etc., considering how they often interrelate and how our current state of technical evolution has enhanced them and so lead us into the legislative paralysis we are currently experiencing.

Another oh-so timely note: without overtly linking herself to the BLM movement or 1619 project, the author’s contention on race is unmissable: that distinctions on the fallacious basis of skin color and the dominance of wealthy property owners over a more-populous slaving/working  class are as intrinsic to our background as is the love of democracy and equality, if not even more so.

No brief description can do this effort justice, just as any less-expansive book would fail to do its subject justice.  Fascinating and depressing, These Truths can also remind us that turmoil such as we are living through today is no stranger to the USA, any more than it is a stranger to all the nations, cultures and civilizations humans have spawned and discarded over the millennia.

All of which places These Truths is very high on the list of most valuable volumes I’ve read in years.

Deacon King Kong, James McBride

The author of The Good Lord Bird and other works takes us on an expedition into Walter Mosley territory – and a rewarding expedition it is. Set in 1969 Brooklyn under the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, it is also a picture of a neighborhood in transition, from the stickball, ring-a-levio and neighborly numbers-games of its elderly characters’ remembered childhoods, to the heroin-fueled entrepreneurialism of insatiably-greedy young drug-lords and mafia wanna-bes.

As in The Good Lord Bird, McBride revels in dialect and anecdote.  The language is casual and unlearned, full of nicknames, asides, put-downs and epithets that would be verboten in contemporary conversation. The characters too, emphasize what a different world it was back then – the oldsters on whom the action centers being uniformly quirky, folksy and stout of heart.  The young and rising who bedevil them are nearly as uniform in their vulgarity, thoughtlessness and despicability. It is telling too, that the one young man who redeems himself does so though the unlikely route of minor league baseball, a throwback ambition if ever there was one.  (Having grown up not too far away from this place and time, though infinitely far from its hardships, I can recall the reverence with which the ‘national pastime’ was held in those days and parts, and the phantom hope it offered, of escape from all that is unholy).

Race is, of course, a (the?) major theme here, how the ‘coloreds’ moved in after the docks died and the Italians moved on to more fertile ground; how blacks and whites existed in separate virtual civilizations veneered upon the same streets.  How Irish cops had been part of the glue holding it all together, till the stakes grew too high (thank you, drug money) and forced everyone to choose a side and hold it with their life.  How irrelevant most of the white man’s world and morality is to those kept down by them, and how, in this telling, a few resilient souls can even manage to bridge the divides and find a better life on their own terms.  (An aging cop, for example, finds happiness with the daughter of an Italian mobster, whose wife years ago ensured the family’s future by purchasing a Bronx bagel shop with the imprisoned goombah’s cash stash, allowing McBride to opine that you don’t need to be Jewish to make a kosher killing in New York.)

Deacon King Kong’s crime-scene of a plot aims for a sort of urban picaresque, with an old drunk named Sportcoat as through-line, humankind’s earliest art object (the Venus of Willendorf) as its MacGuffin and several oddball romances to give it color and warmth.  Despite frequent descents into over-long conversational riffs, there is enough mystery and eventfulness to carry it along, and the eventual resolution is plenty satisfying so long as one does not look to closely.  Goodness triumphs to a far greater degree than the undercurrents have suggested it should, and the characters for whom one has been taught to root end up – for the most part – intact and even improved in their circumstances.

All in all, a joyful love song for a lost culture (if it is to be believed; I am certainly not one who would know) and for the importance of community over easy assumptions, easy money and taking the easy way out. 

(and no, that did not start out as a reference to Mosely’s Easy Rawlins character, but may as well end there…)

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson

A splendid telling of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Britain, 1940 to 1941, as the vile German war began its malignant blooming.  Drawing from the absurd wealth of diaries, letters and official records which exist from that time, Larson shows us the British Bulldog’s personality, character and lifestyle, as well as those of his family and closest confidants, while epic episodes of politics, drama and suffering provide the footlights’ glare.

Whatever else one may think of WSC, he was certainly an individual; his willingness to exhibit personal idiosyncrasies – and even his unclothed person – suggest someone who had been raised under the gaze of servants and caretakers, grown up in the glare of the media and by old age must simply have assumed everything about him was already public, so why hide it.

On a less salutary note, it is impossible to dismiss the luxury of British upper class existence, even in the midst of The Blitz.  Debs debut and the posh pose in clubs, gardens and elegant dining rooms even as soldiers die in far off places and civilians around the block.  Churchill has his preferred vintage of bubbly and brandy, his cigars and twice-daily baths and weekends at a country house to entertain family and friends – along with those officials whose cooperation he ensures by such bonding.  Most creepy of all, are the civilians in their gardens, lying back on the grass to follow aerial battles between friend and foe.  Forebears of us all, perhaps, watching disaster footage on the TV or internet from an even greater remove.

The greatest impression for this reader, given the date and place of reading (August, 2020, USA) is the contrast between one larger than life character and another. Where Trump demeans everything he touches, Churchill raised Britain from nation to ideal, elevated Beaverbrook (for just one example) from greedy industrialist to miracle worker, and uplifted each casualty of the war from cipher to symbol of heroic sacrifice in a just cause.  His speeches raised not only the ‘rabble’ but thinking minds as well and were driven not by hatred of the enemy but by love of its victims.  A subtle difference, perhaps, to some, but a crucial one. Would that all leaders had such character.

How splendid and fortuitous that the Eurocentric world had a leader like Churchill ready to step up when the future turned so very dark and cloudy.  And how splendid that later generations have authors like Larson to show us yet another angle from which to appreciate their value and their stature. 

The Three Body Problem

Geek fiction of the sci/poli sort. Set within the landscape of China’s autocratic-socialist movements and brigades, this first of a three volume series considers the possibility of ‘First Contact’ with alien life as a matter of existential fear and conviction. Fear, on the one hand, that an advanced civilization will take over and obliterate us,  and conviction, on the other, that we ourselves have devolved so much we’ve become a malignancy on the earth and the universe – or, to quote a current political figure about an invasion of a different sort – “what have you got to lose?”

Liu is a citizen and resident of the PRC, not an ethnic Chinese educated or residing in the west, which may explain why the events and rhythm of the book feel so plodding and academic; one suspects they reflect expectations and tastes shaped by decades of bureaucratic media and arts.   His detailed and historicist attention to the physics behind the story is informative, but similarly derails a central tenet of what one normally expects in a popular novel – drama. Add to that characters whose individuality is expressed only in the very narrow and internalized manner allowed by their society’s emphasis on conformity, obedience and reticence, and you end up with something rather challenging to get through, despite what seems a fluid translation from the original Mandarin.

Still, Liu is intelligent, knowledgeable and original, so one is very curious to see where it all will go (as well as whether the pace will pick up in future volumes). Maybe worth the time…

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).