No matter what they tell you, Texas isn’t all cowboys and cactus and bullets and brush.
Texas is also BOOKS, and this weekend there’s proof: This morning, the Texas Book Festival opens on the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin. Exhibitor tents and food trucks will line N. Congress Avenue from Colorado Street, on the west side of the Capitol, clear down to 8th Street. An international slate of authors—John Grisham, Malcolm Gladwell, Sarah Bird, Elizabeth Crook, Alexander McCall Smith, and Terry Tempest Williams among them— will speak and sign books, and appear on panels. There will be books for display and for sale.
BULLET BOOKS is the brainchild of Manning Wolfe, author of the Merrit Bridges, Lady Lawyer series. Each Bullet Book is co-authored by Manning and another writer of crime fiction. The books are short, designed to be read in two to three hours—the length of a plane or train ride, or an afternoon spent lying under an umbrella on the beach.
Twelve Bullet Books will be introduced today. They range from mystery to suspense to thriller. Among the characters are spies, lawyers, terrorists, gun runners, trash collectors, and teachers. Settings range from courtrooms, to classrooms, to comedy clubs, to embassies.
A trailer for each book appears on the website. Here’s a look at the trailer for Bullet Book #1, Bill Rogers’ KILLER SET DROP THE MIC:
Trailers for the other books can be viewed on the Bullet Books website (links below). Follow the link to Youtube if you’d rather watch there.
By the way, Bullet Books Speed Reads will meet an even wider audience next weekend at Bouchercon, the largest annual international convention of mystery readers and writers, which will take place in Dallas, October 31-November 3. Billy Kring, Laura Oles, Kay Kendall, Jay Brandon, Bill Rodgers, Manning Wolfe will participate in a Co-Authoring Panel, October 31 at 2:30 p.m.
Eleven Bullet Books authors will attend the convention. They’ll sign on November 2 at 3:30 p.m.
If you’re anywhere near Austin this weekend, stop by the Capitol and see a side of Texas that doesn’t get nearly enough press.
And be sure to visit the Starpath booth and let Manning Wolfe and the other authors introduce you to Bullet Books Speed Reads.
An author can get great mileage by giving the point of view to a Watson sort of character. The Watson can be present for all events, hear all dialogue and see all clues—while not understanding them. The Reader feels clever for having grasped the significance of clues the Watson missed or smellmisunderstood. The Watson can admire Sherlock’s astounding mental feats while deploring Sherlock’s shortcomings (sometimes his manners, sometimes cocaine). Meanwhile the reader can identify with the Watson and can experience, perhaps, the feel and sound and… yes, the SMELL of a scene, while Sherlock is detecting or explaining arcana.
The best Watson I’ve met is…a dog. Yes, it’s Chet, the large (hundred-pounder!) companion and partner of detective Bernie Little in the Chet and Bernie Series. Spencer Quinn (nom de … plume? Or de tail?) of Peter Abrahams is the genius who most recently gave us The Heart of Barkness.
You say you won’t read a mystery told by a dog? I’m not a dog person, and that’s what I said too, turning my inadequate human nose up in the air. (I have donkeys, not dogs.)
Then I met Chet. Chet opened up the astounding sensory richness of the world that lies beyond human (that is, Bernie’s) detection, and, particularly, the world of smell.
Here’s a scene—a scent?—from The Dog Who Knew Too Much:
“Autumn didn’t mention your sense of humor.” Anya gave him a not-very-friendly look when she said that, but at the same time I picked up a scent coming off her—faint but unmistakable—that meant she was starting to like Bernie. Nothing about humans is simple: I’ve learned that lots of times in my career.
Here’s Chet using his ears as well, when Bernie is banging on the door of the RV where he hopes to find Lotty Pilgrim, the country-western star accused of murder In The Heart of Darkness:
Silence from inside. Then came footsteps, very soft, but there’s no such thing as footsteps too soft for my ears. Also I could hear breathing on the other side of the door. Plus there were smells of cigarette smoke, coffee, and perfume—and the specific smell of Lotty Pilgrim, which had an interesting milky quality. The door might as well not have been there.
At least in my case. Did Bernie realize Lotty was standing pretty much right in front of us? He raised his voice. “Lotty? Lotty?” Raised it to a level that meant the answer to my question was no.
No answer from Lotty. The milky smell changed, went the tiniest bit sour. I’ve tasted milk both sour and not, don’t like either kind. Water’s my drink. The best I ever tasted came right out of a rock, but no time to go into that now.
Right there, we see Chet’s astounding ears in action, and his nose. We learn exactly what Lotty could smell like to our human noses, if only the dadgum door weren’t in the way. We learn that Chet can detect that some emotion—fear?—has turned Lotty’s milky smell “the tiniest bit sour.” Then we may wonder whether our human noses could possibly notice, at a subliminal level, what Chet detects as smell? Is our human sense of smell so low-level (Chet’s opinion) that our minds can’t really register certain smells as smells? Instead, perhaps our minds register an emotion, a suspicion, instead of a smell. That is, if we’re on Lotty’s side of the door, which Bernie is not, at least here.
Bernie and Chet make a great team. Chet hears a faraway car sneaking across the desert toward Bernie, way before Bernie hears it. Chet tries to let Bernie know…but Bernie’s slow on the uptake. We readers know peril impends. Listen, Bernie! Pay attention! He won’t, but not until the last second, when Chet must leap into action.
My love affair with Chet is not just his sheer joyousness. It’s his masterful specificity about smell. Here he is, on the job, searching a mountain campsite for traces of a lost boy camper:
When it comes to nighttime security, you can’t go wrong by sniffing around.
Nothing new to pick up, the scents of the boys still all over the place—although growing fainter—plus Bernie’s scent, Turk’s, and my own, the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupçon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir. Chet the Jet was in the vicinity, wherever that was, exactly.
Here’s a challenge for you dog people. Give us as detailed a description of your dog’s smell as Chet’s description of his own! Oh, okay, I’ll try to do the same for my donkeys. In November.
Last month I was bemoaning the stinginess of some of my favorite writers in using smells in their writing. Maybe Virginia Woolf—hey, she loved her dogs, wrote about her dogs, doubtless could have described their smells as well as Chet described his, if the times, or the Times Literary Supplement, had permitted—will rise to the challenge. Watch this space.
Image of dog by CT70 via Pixabay
Image of man by StockSnap via Pixabay
Image of mink stole, public domain, via Wikipedia
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. She earned a BA from Wellesley College, an MA from the University of Texas, and a JD from the University of Michigan.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
I’m a fiction writer, and my world pretty much revolves around my profession. My friends, my colleagues, my editors, my publicists are comprised mostly of people in the writing business. To make that world even smaller, I write mysteries, and I love to read mysteries. Noir, suspense, thriller, cozies, you name it, I’m in. Sisters in Crime, I love you! Writers League of Texas? You’re the best! Austin Mystery Writers? Your support and critiques are off the charts.
I existed in a happy, but small little world of people who get together to figure out how best to kill other people. (Fictionally, of course.)
Marni, a good friend of mine from water aerobics, invited me to join her book club. I asked what do you read? She gave me the list for that year’s selection.
I knew one or two of the novels by name recognition. The rest? Not so much. Surprised that I was so poorly read across the genres, I joined Marni’s book club. I also quickly learned that not only was I not well-read, I’d lost touch with folks in the real world as well.
It’s been seven years since I joined that club, and I have no intention of leaving any time soon.
Interested in a narrative about the rise of communism in Russia? Check out TheGentleman from Moscow by Amor Towles. World War II stories from Italy? Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Okay, you’re more into the French point of view? Check out Wolves at the Door: America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith Pearson. Okay, the last two were historical narrative fiction, but I learned so much from reading them.
I’m figuring with seven years at one book a month, that puts 84 books in my head that I probably would have never read. 84 books which used styles I’d never heard of before. 84 books of history, biographies, tragedies, comedies, science, science fiction–one of our group’s main goals is to read across the genres and experience new writers and subjects. I’ve read first person, second person, and third person POVs. Books that have been written in present and past tense, as well as time travels. This experience has been a microcosm of study on subjects I knew about, but had never really studied.
All right. Not every book was great. But as a writer I learned a great deal from those selections as well. Too many characters? After a while I didn’t care about any of them. Switching point of view from sentence to sentence? What a pain in the neck for the reader. No description of setting? Little to no sense of character development? A cop out ending? Yeah. They drove me nuts. BUT that also provided me with a cautionary tale to avoid those pitfalls.
What’s the book club’s biggest pay-off? The friendships I’ve had the privilege to develop with these well-educated, well-traveled, successful women. (Men aren’t banned. They just don’t ever come.) And we have a great time. Wine and snacks are involved. We always discuss the authors and their backgrounds, oftentimes showing You Tube author interviews. Some of us are very opinionated (me!), but the atmosphere is never hostile or uncomfortable. We genuinely want to hear each other’s opinions and personal experiences that relate to the book, all the while trying to figure out what we’ll recommend when the time comes for the next selections.
So authors, consider joining a book club that takes you out of your genre. Besides expanding your writing skills, you’ll have a doggone good time!
K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling show and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, I.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.
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)
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.
“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.
“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.
In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadimanchallenged 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.
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.
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?