Archive for the ‘Going… Going… Gone.’ Category

marycelesteWhat are the odds? The evening news tells of an abandoned ship sailing the Atlantic filled with cannibal rats. On a recent episode of PBS’s Sherlock, a reference is made to the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Then the novel I’m reading, Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, digital galley), includes an abandoned ship, a chapter titled “The Giant Rat of Sumatra” and Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Synchronicity. Serendipity. Martin makes elegant use of both as she stitches fact and fiction about shipwrecks, spiritualism, and Doyle flexing his storytelling skills. He is one of many fascinated by the actual mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brig found floating at sea in 1872 with her cargo intact, her crew nowhere to be found. He even writes a bizarre tale about such a ship where a passenger goes berserk and murders all aboard, presenting it as an authentic account. Traveling in America in the 1894, he savors his new fame, not realizing that Philadelphia medium Violet Petra has a link to the tragedy. He thinks Violet is truly clairvoyant, but journalist Phoebe Grant is certain she’s a fake. Writing from multiple perspectives, Martin offers a story as rich and strange as one of Doyle’s. Full fathom five . . .

harrisRobert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, digital galley) recounts the infamous Dreyfus Affair from the viewpoint of an actual French army officer, George Picquart, who like many of his compatriots believes Capt. Alfred Dreyfus is a traitor. But shortly after Dreyfus is stripped of his rank in 1895 and shipped off to Devil’s Island, Picquart is promoted to head the military’s counterespionage unit and finds evidence that another spy has been passing secrets to the Germans. He also realizes that Dreyfus is the victim of a anti-Semitic conspiracy by military higher-ups, who aren’t pleased by Picquart’s investigation and derail his career. Harris unravels the complexities of the case with a novelist’s flair and a historian’s eye for detail, but I didn’t find it as thrilling as his novels The Ghost, Enigma or Archangel, where he allowed his imagination free rein.

inventionSomething similar occurs in Sue Monk Kidd’s involving The Invention of Wings (Viking, digital galley), which was inspired by the life of Sarah Grimke, a real-life abolitionist and feminist from Charleston, S.C. It’s a matter of record, Kidd writes in an afterward, that Sarah was presented with a house slave, 10-year-old Hetty, on her 11th birthday. The real Hetty died young, but Kidd re-imagines her as spirited and resourceful “Handful,” who is more pragmatic about her fate than precocious Sarah, who tries to emancipate her. When that fails, she teaches Hetty to read, and both girls are severely punished. Their friendship is tested by time and distance — Sarah finding refuge in Quaker Philadelphia, Hetty still a slave in the Grimke household — but both persevere in their ambitions and ideals. The dual narratives work well for the most part, but Hetty’s story is more harrowing and heartbreaking. Although Sarah’s accomplishments are many and laudable, she just isn’t as compelling a character when contrasted with the imagined Hetty. Both are strong women, but Hetty is more memorable, more real.

mrsblakeApril Smith is quick to write that while the circumstances of her new novel are factual, the majority of the characters are fictional. Still, A Star for Mrs. Blake (Knopf, digital galley),  has the veracity of real lives and true emotion. In 1931, Cora Blake is a librarian in a Maine fishing village whose only son died in World War I. As a “Gold Star Mother,” she joins a group of other women on a government-sponsored trip to France to visit the graves of the fallen and bid a final goodbye. The group line-up is familiar from central casting — the Boston society matron, the Jewish farmer’s wife under her husband’s thumb, the Irish maid. A Southern black seamstress has the same surname as a woman recently released from a mental hospital, but the group’s escorts, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hammond  and nurse Lily Barnett, quickly resolve the mix-up. The voyage over and the visit to the Meuse-Argonne is crowded with incident: flirtations, affairs, a scandal, a secret or two. Cora remains the star of the story; of particular interest is her friendship with a badly scarred war reporter who wears a tin mask and her relationship with the good man who waits for her at home. Throughout, Smith’s lovely writing elevates the story above  sentimental predictability.

underskyAs someone who learned to read from A Child’s Garden of Verses and has long been fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s life and works, I had great expectations of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Random House, digital galley). The Scottish writer and his plucky, older American wife Fanny Osbourne had a-larger-than-life romance and marriage marked by RSL’s health troubles, frequent travel to exotic locales and career conflicts. And it’s still a good story, although Horan’s workaday prose threatens to rob Louis and Fanny of all vitality, turning them into characters who profess passion — for art and literature, for one another, for a wide and starry life — but who never leap off the page. Maybe someone should make a movie. . .

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rosieAfter several months together, my mom and I are rubbing off on one another. I’ve started watching Jeopardy again, which can make me feel both intellectually superior (you don’t recognize the names of Charlotte’s babies from Charlotte’s Web?) and incredibly stupid (the only stuff I know about physics is from The Big Bang Theory). Now, though, I’ve got Mom watching Big Bang and we can yell out “What is Higgs boson?” with the best of them, if we weren’t such polite Southern ladies.

So I know Mom — and all fans of Dr. Sheldon Cooper — will like Graeme Simsion’s fine and funny first novel The Rosie Project (Simon & Schuster, library hardcover), which is narrated by Don Tillman, an Australian version of Sheldon. He’s a little older than Sheldon — 39 — and is a professor of genetics as opposed to physics, but like Sheldon, he’s a brilliant yet socially inept research scientist. That Don is as endearingly unaware is soon apparent as he delivers a lecture on Asperger’s without realizing he’s describing his own behavior. He does know that he’s a disaster when it comes to women (no second dates), and so conceives The Wife Project in hopes of finding the perfect partner.

His two friends — philandering psych prof Gene and his therapist wife Claudia — suggest that the 16-page questionnaire might intimidate, even anger, most women, but Don proceeds. Grad student Rosie Jarvis fails as a potential partner — she smokes and is chronically late — but she needs Don’s help tracing her biological father. So begins The Father Project, which finds  Don acquiring amazing skills as a bartender so as to collect DNA samples. It’s one of the laugh-aloud moments in a series of hilarious set pieces as Don and Rosie figure out their fraught relationship and that love is both art and science. I haven’t had so much fun since I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Where’d You Go, Bernadette or Lexicon — all entertaining tales that make me feel smarter than I really am. Bazinga!

joshilynJoshilyn Jackson’s Someone Else’s Love Story (HarperCollins, advance reading copy) is a warmly funny novel with quirky characters who don’t know their own hearts — at least not yet. When Georgia college student and single mom Shandi gets mixed-up in a convenience-store robbery, she thinks it’s Destiny that handsome William comes to her and young Natty’s rescue. But her efforts to insert herself into the research scientist’s life are thwarted by her best buddy Walcott, William’s protective friend Paula, and William’s grief over the loss of his wife and child. She also has to cope with her still-feuding divorced parents and the question of Natty’s unknown father; Shandi fell asleep at a fraternity party three years ago and woke up pregnant.  Perhaps William’s research skills could help her search. Oh, Shandi, be careful what you wish for.

Jackson’s use of multiple points-of-view and flashbacks can be disconcerting, but unlike Shandi, she knows exactly where she’s going. I followed the twists and turns with pleasure.

chipIn Elizabeth Hand’s touching Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol (Open Road Media, digital galley), holidays are hard for lawyer Brendan Keegan. But so are regular days — not because he’s divorced and a recovering alcoholic but because he has an autistic 4-year-old son, Peter. “One day you had a toddler who’d always been a little colicky, but who smiled when he saw you. The next day you had a changeling, a child carved of wood who screamed if you touched him and whose eyes were always fixed on some bright horizon his parents could never see.”

This Christmas might be different, though, thanks to Brendan’s childhood friend Tony Kemper, a former 70s punk rocker whose glory days are long gone. Currently unemployed and broke, good-humored Tony moves in with Brendan and Peter, bringing his goofy obsession with Chip Crockett, the iconic host of a long-ago children’s TV show.

Hand’s short novel was originally serialized online in 2000, and is being issued as e-book for the first time. Proceeds are being donated to Autism Speaks in honor of Anne Marie Murphy, a special education teacher who was killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. Be sure to read Hand’s Author’s Note at book’s beginning, as well her original Afterword.

mansellJill Mansell writes British chick-lit with flair, and in her new Don’t Want to Miss a Thing (Sourcebooks, digital galley), she puts her own spin on the single-guy-with-baby tale. Dexter Yates suddenly discards his London playboy lifestyle when he decides to care for his late sister’s eight-month-old daughter Delphi, but he still causes quite the stir when he moves to a quaint Cotswolds village (is there any other kind?).

Next-door neighbor Molly is a successful cartoonist and seems to be a perfect match for Dex, except for the local lord courting her and a local doctor pursuing Dex. Miscues, misunderstandings and mishaps ensue as Mansell juggles several  love affairs. Happy endings guaranteed.

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Company’s coming, and I’m trying to clean up the stacks. Here are four, oddly assorted books I’m putting in my “going, going, gone” box. It’s time they called somewhere else home:

Angel, city of, (Pocket Pulse), a paperback novelization of the series premiere by Nancy Holder: I remain an ardent Buffy/Angel/Joss Whedon fan, but my loyalty does not extend to books based on teleplays. I don’t know where this came from, but it appears to have never been read. I’ll keep my DVD.

Final Payments (Random House), a book club hardcover edition of Mary Gordon’s fine 1978 debut novel. Gordon has moved on, and so have I.

Henry and Cato (Viking), a used hardcover of Iris Murdoch’s 1976 novel about two boyhood friends whose lives intersect as grown-ups in complex ways. At least that’s what I remember. For those who like Murdoch.

Prayers for Rain (Harper Torch), a beat-up paperback copy of Dennis Lehane’s fifth crime novel in the wonderful Patick Kenzie-Angie Gennaro series. This edition also includes the first chapters of the previous four books, including Gone, Baby, Gone and my favorite, Darkness, Take My Hand. I think this must have been a traveling copy — I always have at least one book in my pocketbook — because of its condition. My pristine hardcover Lehanes remain in my care.

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As promised in About this Blog, I’m hoping to release into the literary wild one old book for every new book that enters my house. At some point, I might even donate two or four or more for every new book. However, I have tried this method before of pruning my jungle without much success.

The New York Times recently asked six authors and one bookseller on what books to cull and what to keep. I rather wish I could be as realistic as Jane Smiley, but my sentiments are with Joshua Ferris:  “Home is Where Your Books Are.”  And even after Chang-rae Lee offers his criteria for all the books he wants to throw away, he says, “But I know I won’t.”

Oh, dear. I’m counting on all BBFs (best book friends) who read this blog to help me by holding me accountable. If I go too long without posting a “Going, going, gone,” demand to see my latest annotated list of books I can live without.

This week I part with three, all old, gently used mass-market paperbacks.

The Five Bells and Bladebone by Martha Grimes, the ninth entry in her witty Richard Jury crime series titled after English pubs. This is actually one of my favorites, where a corpse falls out of a rosewood secretary, and antiques dealer Marshall Trueblood proclaims: “I bought the desk, not the body; send it back.”  I’m keeping my hardcover copy.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler, the masterful and poignant story of the Tull family of Baltimore. Again, I have a hardcover.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction, by J.D. Salinger, which was Salinger’s last published book about the Glass family. I’ve had this copy since college, and after skimming it this past week, I have no plans to read it again, so out it goes. I do like the last line: “Just go to bed, now.  Quickly. Quickly and slowly.”

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