A Book Review: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

Marcus Zusak published The Book Thief in 2005, and despite his initial personal misgivings, it was an instant success.  It is a story of ordinary people trying to survive under extraordinary conditions, and a girl who loved books.

It is also a mournful story, and not one that you can simply close the cover and walk away from, it follows you.  It seeks answers to thorny questions – it forces uncomfortable responses.

What is immediately clear is Marcus Zusak is a sensitive writer.  His idea for the book began in Zusak’s childhood – his parents of Austrian-German descent grew up under Nazi rule.  After having a family, they told their stories to their children around the kitchen table.  Zusak remembered those stories, and they became the soil in which The Book Thief grew.  (Random House, 2009) (Book photo, Amazon.com)

Zusak provides a surprise on the first page –we meet the narrator — Death.  Not the arrogant Death of John Donne, or Milton’s incestuous Death, or even a specter with sickle.   Zusak’s Death is sympathetic, beyond this, there is something more, it is in his voice, he cares.

Death is the observer throughout the life of the main character, 10-year-old orphaned Liesel Meminger, her foster family and their village.  Liesel is the real book thief.  Liesel’s first theft occurs when she deftly pockets a fallen book at her brother’s grave, it is a copy of the Gravediggers Handbook. While watching this petty theft, Death’s interest in Liesel is piqued. It is Liesel’s first, but not last, theft of a book.  When she stole the book, Liesel did not even know what it was about, because she could not read. (Ghetto: photo courtesy of Pixaby).

Liesel arrives in Molching, a fictional German village not far from Dachau and the setting of the novel. Both Liesel’s mother and father have been deported, and Liesel is left in the care of foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.    A cast of characters appear, loving Rudy the next-door neighbor, and Max Vandenburg, a Jew seeking refuge in the Hubermann basement.  Ultimately, it is Hans’ patient tutoring and encouragement that teaches Liesel how to read using the Gravedigger’s Handbook as a primer.  At once, Liesel’s love of reading takes over her life and her desire for more books overtake caution.

In one instance, Liesel risks her life and the lives of her foster parents when she boldly removes a still smoldering book from a pile of burned books in Molching’s square.  Had she been caught, the possible punishment was deportation and death, not just for her, but Max and the Hubermanns as well.

Yet in spite of the ever-present danger surrounding her, Liesel continues her search for ever more books, all the while blithely ignoring the risk of being caught.  The danger and fear of everyone increase along with threat of more Allied bombings.

Zusak drew this tale from ordinary people’s real experiences living under Hitler’s rule.   It was the ordinary people who hid, fed and clothed frightened Jews in their homes, in basements, attics, and whenever possible, somehow, managed to keep their precious books safe.

Yet, the story of Liesel’s is not an isolated one, there are still many real-life stories that have not been told.  What we do know, thanks to Antonio Iturbe, is the story of  The Librarian of Auschwitz.  Dita Kraus, was the actual Librarian of Auschwitz.  At 14-years of age, Kraus risked her life to protect a scanty library – a collection of tattered and disintegrating books – mere pages—so that there could be a type of school for the children of Auschwitz. It was their only opportunity to learn and so they might hear a story before they too disappeared.

Other European Jews, while fleeing for their lives, managed to find the means to protect and preserve their books. In Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books (2004), hundreds of people did just that, and in doing so, preserved their history and saved a dying language, Yiddish.

Lansky spent over 25 years searching for Yiddish books and in the end, he found a million.  Before WWII, Yiddish was the common language among European Jews. The books stood as the record of their history, their lives, and their language.

When Jews were forced to abandon the only countries they had ever known, these books were what kept them together. Knowing they might never return they took their books and in doing so, saved their culture and their language.

While Liesel may be a fictional character, the time and events in which Liesel lived were real.  Of the many others who took great risks to save their books, we may never know, but we can acknowledge their sacrifices and be grateful for the books they saved.

The hard question is, if pressed would we do the same?

 

References

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief. New York :Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | ‘THE BOOK THIEF,’ BY MARKUS ZUSAK  Fighting for Their Lives Review JOHN GREENMAY 14, 2006. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/books/review/14greenj.html

The Literary Traveler. Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (January 22, 2013). Katy Kelleher  https://www.literarytraveler.com/books/review-of-the-book-thief-by-markus-zusak/

Markus Zusak Markus Zusak’s compelling appointment with Death BookPage interview by Linda M. Castellitto March 2006 https://bookpage.com/interviews/8341-markus-zusak-teen#.XO_Z-YhKiUk

It’s a steal. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Ardagh The Guardian.Sat 6 Jan 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/jan/06/featuresreviews.guardianreview26  Philip

The failurist: Markus Zusak at TEDxSydney 2014   Ted Talks 2014 TEDx Talks Published on Jun 14, 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-_8QIdm4hA

Interview with Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief  Random House Kids Published on May 1, 2009 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7B8ioiZz7M

World Over – 2016-04-07 – ‘The Book Thief’ author, Markus Zusak with Raymond Arroyo   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFSxzc12y6A

Iturbe, Antonio.  The Librarian of Auschwitz translated by Lilit Thwaites Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) (2017).

Lansky, Aaron (2004). Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. p. 289. ISBN 1-56512-429-4.

 Milton’s Satanic Trinity in Paradise Lost by Dr Taylor Marshallhttps://taylormarshall.com/2007/11/miltons-satanic-trinity-in-paradise.html

 A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and foster for homeless animals.

 

 

 

Watching the Watcher: Navigating Venice with Commissario Brunetti

 

 

My heart speeds up on news that Donna Leon’s got a new police procedural, because I love her Guido Brunetti. Not in a romantic way, of course—I must respect his deep fidelity to his wife Paola, an expert on Henry James and Italian cooking—but because it’s another blissful chance to follow Brunetti through Venice, watch him navigate the internal politics of the Venice Questura, and think with him as he solves a murder. Another murder.

Leon invites us in by using Brunetti’s point of view, letting us share his reflections and observations.

Barely computer literate, he relies for key financial and personal investigations on the astounding internet skill of Signorina Elettra Zorzi, secretary to his adversary and boss, Palermo native Vice-Questore Patta. Brunetti thinks of Zorzi as “quick-witted, radiant—the other adjectives that presented themselves all suggested light and visibility.” Neither we nor Brunetti question how she manages to get her hands on such information. Leon amplifies the mystery of Zorzi’s improbable presence in police headquarters by Brunetti’s frequent observations of Zorzi’s clothes, which reflect her precision and elegance. But Brunetti’s observations also remind the reader that he’s a Venetian through and through, thus susceptible to and respectful of beauty:

Behind her desk, looking as though she was there only to meet the photographers from Vogue, sat Signorina Elettra Zorzi, today arrayed, as were the lilies of the field, in a white crepe de chine dress that fell in diagonal, but decidedly provocative, folds across her bosom. (Death and Judgment)

Or:

Her blouse, he noticed, was the colour of beetroot and had white buttons down the front and on the cuff. It fell with the liquid grace of silk. (The Temptation of Forgiveness)

On the dark side, we also see Brunetti’s adversaries at the Questura through his visual observations of the two Palermo natives, Vice-Questore Patta and Lieutenant Scarpa. Here’s the “universally despised” Scarpa:

Scarpa propelled himself away from the door jamb with a quick shove of his left shoulder. One instant he’d been lounging casually; the next he was upright and much taller. The speed with which he uncoiled his easy, limp posturing reminded Brunetti of snakes he’d seen in television documentaries: leave them alone and they lie coiled, still as death; make a sound and they become a whiplash unbraiding in the sun, multiplying the range within which they can strike.

We get it, Guido. Through your eyes we get Scarpa’s character completely, just as we do with the boss, Vice-Questore Patta. In the following scene Patta wants Brunetti to investigate a leak from the Questura that apparently reflects badly on Patta:

Uncertain how to respond…Brunetti returned his glance to his superior’s jacket and the hand-stitched buttonholes. Beauty was where you found it, and it was always comforting to see.

When Patta demands what Brunetti’s looking at, Brunetti responds honestly that he’s admiring the buttonholes. But when Patta insinuates that Brunetti must know about the leaks because his subordinates talk to him:

Hearing Patta’s suspicion relaxed Brunetti and told him that, though the subject might be new, the old, adversarial order had been restored. He tossed away his momentary warming towards Patta and returned to his native good sense.

His native good sense requires eternal caution as to Palermitans. In later books Leon makes Patta more layered, almost sympathetic—but Brunetti can’t drop his defenses:

“Ah, good morning, Commissario. Please have a seat, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” Patta said, giving a toothy smile that set Brunetti’s own teeth on edge.

“Yes, Vice Questore?” Brunetti inquired neutrally.

“Actually,” Patta began, his teeth now hidden behind his lips, perhaps being sharpened for their next appearance. “It’s about my…it’s about my wife.

“Ah,” was all Brunetti would permit himself. He decided it would be best to seek shelter, so placed a look of mild concern on his face and hid behind that. (Unto Us a Son is Given, 2019)

Leon similarly uses Brunetti’s interactions with his Questura allies to deepen their characters. In the same book, probing the possibility of a drug motive with his hard-working Inspector Vianello, Brunetti inquires about Vianello’s own experience with drugs:

Vianello laughed at Brunetti’s tone and said, “I try to keep some secrets, Guido.”

Just that laugh, that response, tells us the trust level between the two. We all know that how a boss interacts with subordinates exposes the boss’s character. Brunetti trusts his inspector, who returns the favor. Later, trying to respond to a plea for information from his own father-in-law, Brunetti asks Vianello to lunch:

When Vianello demonstrated no desire to discuss the varieties of religious experience, Brunetti thought he’d take further advantage of his friend’s good sense and said, “I’d like to have your opinion about something else, Lorenzo,” using his first name and thus signaling that this was a personal matter.

Had Vianello been a deer grazing in a forest, he could have been no more alert to the change in the normal sounds around him. He raised his head quickly from what he was eating, set his fork down, and gave his attention to his friend.

Here’s another of many examples of how Leon uses Brunetti’s point of view, his visual observations and reactions, to color the atmosphere of a mystery. At the beginning Brunetti has climbed the stairs to his office:

On his desk, Brunetti found what he did not want to find…He had last seen it, perhaps two months ago, when it had spent a week in his in-tray, resting there in the manner of a person a friend brings to dinner, who drinks too much, says nothing during the meal, and then refuses to leave even after the other guests are long gone. (The Temptation of Forgiveness, 2018)

What an image. We feel ourselves standing there with Brunetti, looking at a report we (and Brunetti) do not want to touch. But he’s obliged to deal with it. We feel how Brunetti values good manners and proper behavior, how he would distrust a breach of hospitality. We feel the shivery intrusion of murder just from the unwelcome sight of that sheet of paper in the in-tray, and Brunetti’s unwelcome recognition that he must pick up that paper.

Donna Leon uses other points of view as well—see the beginning of Acqua Alta, where she puts us in the heads of an opera singer and her partner describing the invasion of their apartment by two men who beat up the partner.

Still, I find Leon’s use of Brunetti’s point of view to build the characters of his compatriots and adversaries at the Questura succeeds in giving us one of the most satisfying cast of characters in police procedurals. Brunetti’s point of view, with his idiosyncratic observation of visual detail, provides a sense of immediacy. We practically breathe the atmosphere of the Questura and its inhabitants; at the same time we see into Brunetti’s own character. With good reason, Brunetti’s the man we love to follow through the streets and canals of Venice. As he walks along, allowing us to hear his thoughts, wonder what he’s wondering, and see what he’s seeing, we’re with him as he thinks his way to the solution. We trust Brunetti to lead us there, to finally unmask the murderer. We’re with him all the way.

Next time, thoughts on Fred Vargas and another commissario—Commissaire Jean-Louis Adamsberg of Paris.

***

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

Well Said

by K.P. Gresham

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Recognize that book quote? They’re the five favorite words of Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. A great line to live by if you need to move on from a tragedy, but not very motivational when it’s time to write another blog!

I am in awe of the memorable lines written by different authors. Several changed how I look at life.

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” This quote from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott helped me discover my own strength in the time of challenge–a sense of control when surrounded by chaos.

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another).” This line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird pointed out that not every Bible quoting Religious Righter is a Christian. This was an important lesson for me as a preacher’s kid. Following the love commanded in the Bible is quite different from using the Bible as a weapon of hate.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” J.K. Rowling wrote this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s good to dream, but keep your reality healthy and fun. Considering how much “dreaming” goes into writing, this was solid advice to continue having a life while creating a make-believe world.

Did these gems just appear on the page as the author spewed creativity through her fingers? Or were these planned little hints artfully dropped into a book that was impossible to put down?

Many quotes have become part of our every day dialogue. That small phrase, regardless of the mood and time of the book’s setting, suddenly becomes the perfect way to express our present day thoughts.

“Winter is coming.” (Games of Thrones by George R. R. Martin) We use this when we know something bad is about to happen.

“Lead on, McDuff.” (The last words of the title character in Shakespeare’s MacBeth) Simply put, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Oh, wait. That’s a quote from Admiral Glasgow Farragut, but you get my drift, right?

What phrases or quotes from books have inspired you? Which ones do you quote in your head when different situations confront you? I’ll bet you have a few. If so, they’ve become a part of your fabric.

Great authors, whether by design or simple genius, put together words that speak to our souls. These phrases are woven into the framework of our culture.

My hope is that my stories, in their creative reality, use the best words to capture real moments of life through the lives of my characters. My greatest responsibility is to express the emotions of my truths through my characters and to make sure those truths are well said.

Author, Author: Josephine Tey–Occupying the Hinterland

by M. K. Waller

On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.

The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his  becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.

Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.

Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby,  Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.

So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.

But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.

We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know  what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.

P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.

Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.

“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”

He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.

And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”

The Daughter of Time, named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.

My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.

(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)

Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.

I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:

“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”

***

A complete list of Josephine Tey’s mysteries is found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Tey.

***

Sources:

Robert Barnard’s fine introduction to the works of Josephine Tey, published by Simon and Schuster.

Barbara C. Sealock, “Queen of Crime: No Mystery in the Charm of P.D. James.” Chicago Tribune, March 31, 1985.

Wikipedia

***

M. K. Waller’s short stories appear in Austin Mystery Writers‘ crime fiction anthologies, MURDER ON WHEELS and LONE STAR LAWLESS. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

Book Review: Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

 

by Francine Paino

I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.

I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.

With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.  

The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age.  Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.

Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?

After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.

Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all.  On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?   

A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.  

 Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.   

***

Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant.  She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.

In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.

Read more about Francine at her website.

Confessions of a Closet Re-Reader: Le Carré and his Characters

by Helen Currie Foster

In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadiman challenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”

Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s  guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.

“John Le Carre” by Krimidoedal licensed under CC BY-3.0

One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness  and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”

Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!

For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:

From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)

A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:

Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.

He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.

In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.

And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.

Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:

Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.

Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:

Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.

Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):

Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.

Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:

[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”

Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.

“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”

“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.

Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.

But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running

When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.

No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley.  A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.  

For re-reading? Where’s that Hershey bar?

***

 

 

Helen Currie Foster

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery novels, the most recent of which is GHOST NEXT DOOR. For more information about Helen and her books, see her website.

 

 

Three Days at Wrigley Field

 


by K. P. Gresham

 

Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!

Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.

Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins. And I come by it honestly. Blame my father, Ed Gabel.

Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series. Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship. That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs. I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes. I was a Cub fan from conception.

Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together. I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games. Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.

When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.

Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me. Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing. Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).

I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.

Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.

To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating. I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.

***

K. P. Gresham is author of the Matt Hayden mysteries.

 

It Begins with One Step – A Book Review of WILD by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

by Renee Kimball

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”

― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cheryl Strayed” by Moxie68 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all womenboth young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.

Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.

What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a fewmany more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.

She began her journey of 1100 miles alonethe Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summerthe hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walkall day, until she was physically forced to stop.

“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”

Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertaintyon the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.

She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her  boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.

“Ritter Range” by Steve Dunleavy from Lake Tahoe, NV, United States is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.

She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back homebut she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyesunrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving gracethoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and lovenow, out of reach forever. 

Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywherethe overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.

Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.

Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselveswe survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s storyyou may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.

Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.

“Pacific Crest Trail,” Public Domain

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

***

Related 

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York.: Vintage Books, 2013.

Sachs, Amy. 20 Cheryl Strayed Quotes To Inspire You When You’re Feeling Lost.

Arreola, Cristina. 11 Cheryl Strayed Quotes from “Wild” That Will Inspire Your Own Live-Changing Journey.

CHERYL STRAYED: Best-Selling Author and Co-Host of Dear Sugar Radio

***

Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

Sometimes You Need A Break—

Helen Currie Foster

 

 

Posted by Helen Currie Foster

 

—from news, winter, deadlines, calamities. Two books did the trick for me this February, one old, one new: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) and Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom (1960).

First, Kingsolver, so inventive, alternates chapters between two protagonists in two centuries, one woman (contemporary), one man (1870 or so, during Grant’s administration). They occupy the same unsound house built in Vineland, New Jersey, a utopian venture built by the charismatic Captain Landis.

We first meet Willa, an unemployed writer whose magazine has evaporated; her PhD husband Iano has lost tenure and his pension when his last college cratered and now is lucky to have snagged a one-year contract as an adjunct at an unenviable college in now impoverished Vineland. They live in a falling-down house, trying to support Iano’s abrasive dying father, their “successful” Harvard MBA Zeke who’s saddled with over $100,000 in student debt while working gratis at a Boston startup, and Tig, their dreadlocked iconoclastic daughter, just returned from Cuba, where (she says) everyone is poor but has good healthcare and knows they must keep ancient cars repaired. Willa’s family is “unsheltered” in many ways: despite all their struggle to fulfill the American dream they grew up with—that hard academic work would lead to financial security—they face uncertain income, family struggles, and a collapsing 155 year old house. Tig preaches a different doctrine, battering her parents with the news that their American dream no longer exists. In chapter one Willa learns that the house which keeps them together, on which she must pay the mortgage, is too unsound to repair, and that her son Zeke’s partner has just committed suicide, leaving him with a weeks-old infant.

Segue to chapter two, where we meet our male protagonist Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic young Harvard-trained botanist. Thatcher has just learned that the Vineland house where his young wife insists she must live, with her little sister and her ferocious aunt, was improperly constructed, is structurally unsound, and requires unexpected repairs which Thatcher cannot afford but is expected to undertake. As the new science teacher at the Vineland high school where he proposes to teach the thrilling theory of evolution, Thatcher encounters implacable hostility from the principal and from Vineland’s all-dominating and deeply corrupt founder, Captain Landis.

As disasters mount for Willa’s family she desperately searches for evidence that her house merits a grant for historic preservation funds.

As Thatcher faces rejection by his principal, which may cost him his job, he meets his mysterious next-door neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-trained botanist and empirical scientist. At their first encounter she’s engrossed in an experiment: timing a Venus flytrap as it slowly ingests the tip of her own finger. Thatcher is enthralled.

For Willa and Thatcher, the house is unsound. Supposedly utopian Vineland, corrupt and ignorant. Thatcher’s marriage, built on sand. Willa’s family, disintegrating into poverty. The imagined good life for which Willa and Iano worked, for which Thatcher studied? Unattainable.

And yet these vivid and believable characters persist. As Tig pushes Willa toward a new way to live outside an outdated dream, as Mary Treat inspires Thatcher to recapture his life amid redwoods and deserts, the two protagonists push into new territory—unsheltered by the old, looking for the new.

Kingsolver’s hugely contemporary novel satisfies deeply. Her strong science background, never pedantic, conveys the heady excitement of young botanists struggling against those refusing to accept empirical science (a social split we still face), while her creation of a family caught in the collapse of traditional American social ladders, trying to survive in the perilous gig economy, resonates with today’s headlines. Kingsolver erects signposts pointing at least one route to hope: the courage to relinquish old shibboleths that no longer support, but strangle, creative growth. Attention must be paid: survival requires strenuous creativity. Darwin rewritten?

Unsheltered offered me one break. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute’s 24th and last novel (1960), provided another. Trustee, one of the top fiction bestsellers of 1960, introduces Keith Stewart, a pale, pudgy, mild-mannered Glaswegian, who lives with his shop-clerk wife Katie in the undistinguished London suburb called West Ealing (Shute’s birthplace). In his basement toolroom Keith makes actual working models—little steam engines, tiny clocks, pocket-sized turbines that run on a dropper-ful of gasoline. He publishes instructions for these models in the “Miniature Mechanic,” a magazine popular with amateur engineers worldwide. Keith’s considerable fan mail (including anxious questions about how to wind an armature) puts him in touch with admirers worldwide. He makes little money but loves his work.

He and his wife have no children. His sister brings her ten-year old Janice to stay with Keith and Katie while the sister and her navy officer husband sail their boat across the world, intending to land in Vancouver and start a business. They, and their boat, disappear. Keith learns he is Janice’s trustee. He learns Janice’s sole potential asset is a bag of diamonds possibly stashed on the boat. Keith has never left England, and cannot afford airfare to Vancouver. Nevertheless, he sets out to fulfill his duties as trustee, learning to stand watch on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific, to set a course, to—well, no spoilers. The tale becomes an irresistible seafaring yarn. Yes, it feels dated, taking us back to post-WWII Britain, still poor and austere, and the brash contrast of post-war entrepreneurial America.

Shute himself worked as an aircraft engineer in the thirties, first with de Havilland and then Vickers (his biography is titled Sliderule). He then moved to Australia. Like Kingsolver’s characters, Shute himself sought a new world with new lessons. But his Keith Stewart takes a different tack; he can’t abandon ship, because, after all, he’s a trustee. You too might like watching how Keith Stewart serves.

This Monday morning I’m back from the Pacific, back in the now-infamous Austin traffic, back staring at thousands of cars stopped dead on Bee Cave Road. Maybe I need to think about lessons from Tig and Keith Stewart. About…new ways to live?

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice Greer MacDonald mystery series.

Welcome from the Ink-Stained Wretches

 

INK: The black liquor with which men write.

STAIN: Blot; discoloration 

WRETCH: A miserable mortal; a worthless sorry creature.

Six Ink-Stained Wretches—metaphorically speaking—have gathered to write about our profession: reading and writing.

We write and publish in a variety of genres and on a number of topics: short stories, novels, flash fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. We write mystery and suspense, ghost stories, literary fiction, humor, book reviews, literary criticism, scholarly articles, and more. We read widely for both pleasure and instruction.

We use no ink, we display no stains, and we’re certainly not wretched—well, sometimes we feel wretched; there’s that writer’s block thing, you know—but in the tradition of earlier ink-stained wretches, we immerse ourselves in words.

And once a week we’ll share our love of them.

The Ink-Stained Wretches

For their names, hover your pointer over each image.
Read more about them at  The Wretches.