Friday, January 29, 2010

Long Lost Literary Love

Everyone loves a love story. Authors have been mining the pain and passion of long lost, unrequited, and reunited love for as long as literature has been written. Love is gained and love is lost; one lover rejects the other; lovers are separated for days, weeks, years, or even life. Sometimes they come together; sometimes the separation is painfully permanent, leaving lovers to waste away of lovesickness. The heartaches of love stories transcend the dime store romance novel and, in the hands of the right writer, become award-winning and literary masterpieces and classics. This list is a small representation of those fine novels and when you’re through with them, you’ll be yearning to fall in love with these books all over again.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt, 1990, Random House (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Romance)

When two modern academics, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, uncover the secret love affair between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the stage is set for the unfolding of two remarkable love stories. Even as they bicker over the ownership of newly found love letters, journals, and poems of the eminent Victorians, Roland and Maud fall so deeply into the mysteries of the past that they too begin a romance together. And since author A.S. Byatt skillfully recreates the long lost love letters, journals, and poems of the 19th century lovers, the reader is able to witness the passionately doomed--because both are married to other people--relationship between Randolph and Christabel that made waves so long ago. Roland and Maud’s investigation could really shake up the literary world and could supply them both with enough literary power to reshape the scholarship on both renowned poets. But as the past yields its secrets, Roland and Maud are loathe to betray the confidences they’re discovered, even though the parties involved have been dead and gone for decades. Still, the power of Randolph and Christabel’s passion lingers on their 19th century pages (and on Byatt’s modern ones) and past and present begin to coexist in the most exceptional ways. The dual love stories are companionably accompanied by commentary on scholarship, feminism, social class, and the rigors of academic detective work. And since it is the rich details of the loves, passions and sacrifices, both past and present, of these four distinct people that drive the story, Possession is both smartly literary and highly readable. That unique blend won its author the most prestigious literature awards in England (the Man Booker Prize) and Ireland (the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize). Possession has been hailed as an international best seller, a modern classic, and a love story for the ages.

Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2002, Doubleday (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

It is 1935, the eve of World War II, and strange things are happening at the elegant Tallis family estate in the rich English countryside. The parents are away, and the children will play. The youngest is thirteen-year-old Briony, an odd, observant girl with grand plans for her newest literary masterpiece, a play that she wants her visiting cousins to put on for her much-admired big brother Leon. Gorgeous sister Cecilia is the object of desire for the housemaid’s smart and handsome son Robbie. When Briony intercepts some correspondence and misreads some signals between Robbie and Cecilia, her overactive imagination puts a sinister twist on words and actions. And when the evening ends with a violent assault on cousin Lola, it is Briony’s testimony alone that incriminates Robbie. Robbie is arrested and sent to prison and, through an early release, to war. Cecilia, furious and scornful of her little sister’s accusation, sweeps out of the family home and begins a career nursing wounded soldiers in London. Five years pass, and Briony, now an eighteen-year-old nursing student, is laboring under the impression that she may have been very, very wrong. As Briony attempts to bridge the gap between what she saw and what happened, author Ian McEwan unfolds a plot of what-ifs and might-have-beens. Robbie struggles to survive the horrors of war, Cecilia clings to a few precious memories, and Briony woefully strives to make amends. There are surprises and twists, life-altering tragedies and small glimmers of hope, and an ending that brings the interweaving stories together into a heart-wrenching finale that won’t easily be forgotten. A Booker Prize finalist and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Atonement is a haunting tale of love, memory, doubt, and truth.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005, Faber and Faber, originally published in 1989 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

In the age of gentility that reigned in England’s upper classes, even into the 20th century, it was servants who made the great estates of the great men run like clockwork. Stevens, a dignified gentleman’s gentleman, has served thirty-five years in the service of Lord Darlington and has reached the pinnacle of his profession as head butler. Reserved, proper, and polite, Stevens has dedicated his life to the stiff upper lip. His behavior was correct and impassive when his father lay dying upstairs while Lord Darlington entertained politicians and dignitaries in the pre-World War II days; he was aloof with the beguiling and spirited housekeeper Miss Kenton. But as Stevens ages in the face of approaching changes in the 1950s and 60s, his mask of severity begins to slip and his controlled demeanor begins to crumble under the realization that he has been wallowing in self-deception for most of his life. Lord Darlington is not a “great man,” Miss Kenton became Mrs. Benn long ago, and Stevens is left without ever have experienced any of the simple joys of daily life—including that all-powerful life-altering emotion, love. A final meeting between Stevens and the former (now divorced) housekeeper, which the novel builds to with suspense and style, decides our stoic butler’s fate. Author Kazuo Ishiguro is an Englishman of Japanese descent; when The Remains of the Day was published in England in 1989 it struck deep chords with its native readers and was awarded the Booker Prize. Even for American readers, who lack a history of rigid class structure that’s quite as long, the plight of Stevens is moving and poignant, especially when told in the elegant and precise prose of Ishiguro. A tale of opportunities lost and found, The Remains of the Day is an insightful and illuminating read.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, 2007, Vintage Books, originally published 1988 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Author Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his striking novel One Hundred Years of Solitude; his next book, Love in the Time of Cholera, was just as critically acclaimed and beloved by readers, and the winner of the still-prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Prize . When the distinguished Dr. Juvenal Urbino passes away at an advanced age after a long life, his wife, seventy-year-old Fermina Daza, is none too shocked by the reappearance of her long-lost lover Florentino Ariza, who has been carrying a torch for over fifty years. As Florentino re-declares his love, the reader is plunged back in time to the original affirmation and to all the sweet romance of Florentino and Fermina’s youthful courtship. But Fermina rejects Florentino as a symptom of puppy love and enters into a marriage of more means and security than passion. Florentino holds no grudge, and though he takes many a lover over the years, he never loses sight of his first--and only--real object of desire. Meanwhile, somewhat to everyone’s surprise, Fermina’s marriage to Juvenal Urbino is successful one, with companionship, children, and even genuine affection. But when young love in the form of an eighty-plus-year-old Florentino rears its head once again, all bets are off. García Márquez’s characters are comic and tragic—Florentino, for example, writes love poems, on demand, for other romantics—and loveable and a bit mystical, as is his rendering of the lush beauties of Central America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vivid and intense, Love in the Time of Cholera is timeless story and an intricately layered study of love in all its forms.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende, 2008, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1999 (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

One day in 1833, in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile, a baby girl is left on a doorstep. The doorstep belongs to a Jeremy Sommers and his sister Rose, aristocratic Brits with a successful import-export business; very soon the baby belongs to them too. Their new adopted daughter, Eliza, is raised prim and proper with all the privileges of her station. Rose and Jeremy hope for an advantageous marriage and a life of ease, but Eliza, now a spirited sixteen-year-old, has her own plans. Madly in love with a lowly clerk, Eliza is determined to follow when he takes off for the California Gold Rush of 1849. But Eliza is pregnant, and life as a stowaway in the bowls of a ship doesn’t agree with her. Luckily the shipboard cook, Tao Chi’en, is a kind and generous man who takes Eliza under his wing and nurses her through her miscarriage. Tao has his own difficult life story—poverty, hard labor, a brief glimmer of hope when he’s trained as an acupuncturist, and then disaster again when he’s shanghaied out of Hong Kong and forced to work onboard. But Eliza proves to be as great a boon to Tao as he is to her, and the unlikely pair disembarks together in bustling San Francisco. Tao becomes a master healer in Chinatown and Eliza assists him (always with an eye out for her long lost love). But the Sommers back in Chile have won’t give up hope of finding her again, and meanwhile Eliza grows more attached to Tao and the unique freedom of their life together. A resident of both Chile and California, author Isabel Allende knows her history and lovingly packs her story full of romance, adventure, rich historical detail, and complex human dramas. Daughter of Fortune is a Booklist Editor’s Choice, an Oprah’s Book Club selection, prequel to the equally excellent Portrait in Sepia, and a sheer delight to read.

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, 2005, W.W. Norton and Co. (Literary Fiction)

Leo Gursky is an old man, pining away for his long lost love and waiting for the last big event of his life: his death. He’s so alone in the world that he goes out and makes a minor spectacle of himself—dropping his change, spilling his popcorn—just to make sure someone has noticed him. Once a promising writer, Leo traded his pen for a career as a locksmith after he escaped the Nazis during World War II. Alma Singer is a fourteen-year-old girl trying to find a cure for the permanent sadness her mother’s been wrapped in ever since the death of her father seven years ago. Alma thinks the answer might lie in the book her mother is translating, an obscure story called The History of Love. The narration alternates between Leo and Alma and the reader also gets glimpses of the moving, elegantly written History of Love and its mysterious author. As the threads of the storylines weave together to reveal the secrets of Leo’s love affair (including the attempts of a fellow writer to woe Leo’s true love) and the eccentricities of Alma’s family (like her little brother’s Messiah complex), the novel becomes unputdownable. Old Leo and little Alma are an unlikely pair, but they are both survivors of great personal loss. Despite this, neither character is ever depressing—instead they’re winsome and witty, Alma with her love of survival guides and Leo with his old-man charm. Author Nicole Krauss (who won the William Saroyan International Prize for her efforts) writes her characters with tenderness and real feeling, and it doesn’t take long before we’re deeply invested in their lives and loves. So invested, in fact, that we’ll be thinking about The History of Love’s beautiful interlocking friendships and romances long after we’ve turned the last page.

“Brokeback Mountain” in Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx, 2000, Scribner (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Romance/ Short Stories)

Before “Brokeback Mountain” was a critically acclaimed and controversial film from director Ang Lee, it was a small love story tucked in the pages of author Annie Proulx’s collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The stories share a common setting—the big sky open country of Wyoming—and have common themes of love, family, and emotional survival as well. But “Brokeback Mountain” is certainly one of the more memorable tales. Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are roughnecks, country boys brought up through hard work to expect a life of more of the same. When they meet on a job one summer in 1963, herding sheep up and down Brokeback Mountain, they don’t expect to fall in love—and certainly not with each other. But when a sudden, almost wordless passion overwhelms them, Jack and Ennis welcome a chance at real human connection. After their summer fling, the cowboys return to their separate lives and as the years pass, those lives include steady jobs, wives, and children. These scenes of traditional domesticity are forever disturbed when Jack and Ennis reunite and rekindle what becomes a twenty-year love affair. These twenty years, despite the closeness Jack and Ennis share, are not easy—for the couple, for their families, or for the reader. Proulx’s terse, straight-forward prose is ideally suited to conveying the pent-up pains and passions of these unbreakable men who know how they feel but haven’t the words, means, or opportunities to declare it. The Close Range collection was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of the year and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (which Proulx won in 1993 for her novel The Shipping News); “Brokeback Mountain” was singled out for an O. Henry Award and The New Yorker won a National Magazine Award for Fiction when it published the story first in 1998. The gender and orientation of the lovers in “Brokeback Mountain” may be other than ordinary, but few can deny the heart-wrenching power of this simple country story.  In 2005 the story was published in a volume of its own, and paired with the cinematic screenplay.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, 2000, Random House (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

1939, Brooklyn, New York: Sammy Klayman is a short-legged bull of a boy with grandiose dreams of making it big in the burgeoning field of comic books. 1939, Prague, Czechoslovakia: Sammy’s teenage cousin Josef Kavalier is a talented artist and a student of Harry Houdini-style illusion and escape. When the Nazis rear their ugly heads, Jewish Josef makes a daring and miraculous escape to take refuge with his American relations. Sammy immediately recognizes his cousin’s talent and, by combining his knack for storytelling with Josef’s unmatched illustrative style, the duo reinvents themselves as Sam Clay and Joe Kavalier and sets out to take the comics world by storm. Their offering is Tom Mayflower, “The Escapist,” a masked hero with powers of illusion and a blossoming mythology to match that of Superman’s. The young men revel in their success and Joe has big plans to save money and rescue the rest of his family, particularly his young brother Tommy, but lovely, talented, modern Rosa Saks provides a tempting and lasting distraction. When the war begins to encroach on the romance and adventure of their lives in New York, Joe abandons his cousin and girlfriend for a stint fighting Nazis—only to find himself stationed at the top of the world in not-so-green Greenland. Sam, desperately needing a fresh start as his small comic empire crumbles beneath him, is left to be the shoulder Rosa cries on, and when the trio reunites in 1953, their lives have been irreparably altered. The reader is completely riveted through all this by the sole power of Sam and Joe and Rosa’s characters—few literary characters are more real and true than these. With Kavalier and Clay, author Michael Chabon has created a mid-century New York that is classic and perfect, complete with an entertaining history of the Golden Age of Comic Books, a nuanced portrait of the European immigrant experience, and an exploration of the stifling gender and sexual roles of the 1940s and 50s, all wrapped up in high adventure, true love, and virtuoso storytelling. The novel is a Pulitzer Prize winner, a New York Times Notable Book, and nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award; it’s near perfect and not to be forgotten.

Note:  Michael Chabon loves comics every bit as much as his characers Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay do, so much so, in fact, that, with the help of artists at Dark Horse Comics, he created real comic books about The Escapist.  The comic series is a terrific companion to the novel.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, 2000, McClelland and Stewart (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Science Fiction)

Winner of the esteemed Booker Prize and the Crime Writers' Association Dashiell Hammett Award, The Blind Assassin is one of recent literature’s most successful variations on the novel within the novel. It’s the story of two privileged sisters who share a secluded, uneven upbringing in the years between World War I and World War II. Laura, the younger sister, dies when her car goes off a bridge. Iris, the elder, is the survivor—of Laura, of her parents, of her husband, and of her history, which she narrates to us in all its failed glory. Iris is an old woman when she looks back on her life; she’s writing her memoirs to record the truths of her life. One of those truths is her sister’s book, published posthumously and titled The Blind Assassin. We get Laura’s novel in small doses scattered among Iris’s memories. It’s the story of a young socialite and her passionate affair with a blue-collar man—and there’s a bonus story-within-a-story here too, as the nameless man spins a science-fiction tale of violence and passion for his equally nameless lover. As the stories unfold, we become convinced we know the identities of the lovers in Laura’s books--and then, as the lines between history, longing, fact, and fiction blur and blend, we second-guess ourselves and the enigma of these sisters’ lives and loves becomes deeper and stranger and that much more compelling. The moody touches of mystery are complimented by newspaper articles that document events in Iris and Laura’s lives—Communist scares, political interests, war news, high-society teas and cotillions, balls and dinners, marriages and alliances. Every storyline within author Margaret Atwood’s pages is gripping, but it is Iris--long-since disillusioned by the cruel and subtle realities of life--who really has our attention. Atwood writes Iris with a sharp intelligence and a sympathetic eye, and Iris in turn addresses the reader with a dry wit as she reveals the missteps of her life. The Blind Assassin is a book that cannot be easily categorized—its part fictionalized memoir, historical fiction, science fiction, romance, and Greek tragedy. It is instead a book that should be read and lingered over, absorbed and nurtured for all the subtle surprises it holds.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Advanced ABCs


Easy as 1 2 3, A B C? No way. The alphabet, believe it or not, holds many secrets behind its sing-songsy façade. The alphabet can be tricky (C can take the place of K or S), sneaky (like Y, the sometimes vowel, sometimes consonant), loyal (Q is rarely without U), and strange (how many words really start with X anyway?). And then there’s all the troublesome fun that the alphabet can get into when letters combine: H’s affairs with C, P, S and T; I and E’s constant bickering over who goes first; the gleeful sounds of double Es and the mournful noise of double Os. The English language has many faults and foibles, and the books listed here prove that the alphabet is not just for kids anymore. If you think you know your ABCs, turn the pages of these inventive alphabets and think again.

The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, 1997, Harcourt Books, originally published 1963 (Fiction/ Humor)

A is for apple and B is for bear? Not quite. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears.” Children don’t learn their ABCs in this abecedarian; instead they’re killed off in twenty-six delightfully wicked ways, ending with “Y is for Yorrick whose head was knocked in” and “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin.” Author and illustrator Edward Gorey (1925-2000) combined a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, a fanciful style of crosshatched pen-and-ink drawings, and a ghoulish charm to create picture books for adults. The Gashlycrumb Tinies is one of his most famous (or infamous) works. His tiny Edwardian-era children with their proper English names (like Desmond, Neville, and Maud) dwell in stately sitting rooms, smother under rugs, and are mortally damaged by axes, awls, and tacks. In any other author’s hands, the destruction of an alphabet’s-worth of kiddies would be either tactless or downright silly. But Gorey’s slim volume of sweetly rhyming couplets and comically macabre drawings is nothing short of subtle, clever, fine, and funny.

The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Gris Grimly, 2008, HarperCollins (Children’s Fiction)


A boy, a girl, and a pet gazelle sneak away from dear old dad and fall into a dark, dank, ABC-filled underground to search for treasure in this ghastly-good picture book that’s more for adults than it is for children. After all, the author of this alphabet is Neil Gaiman, whose other critically-acclaimed children’s books feature beasts out for blood (Wolves in the Walls), obsessively possessive mothers (Coraline), and serial killers (The Graveyard Book; a Newbery winner no less). And when the girl is kidnapped by a decidedly icky ogre and the boy and the gazelle must fight through a nightmarish labyrinth to free her, Gaiman’s colorful partner-in-crime, Gris Grimly, picks up the pace with his spine-tingling illustrations that mix shades of beige and black with splashes of faded reds and pinks. Then, this creepy-crawly alphabet slithers and slinks, and occasionally calls for help as monsters, madmen, fiends, and freaks crowd the pages and threaten readers with this “unreliable” and mysterious alphabet. Rhyming couplets run through the familiar “A is for…” formula and request the watchful eye of the reader to help save the kids and spot the mysteries on the page. The Dangerous Alphabet may be a bit to chilling for children, but its otherworldly tone is sophisticated fantasy in pictorial, alphabetical form.

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, 2006, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, originally published 1936 (Mystery)

Alice Ascher of Andover is murdered. Betty Barnard of Bexhill-on-Sea is killed. Then Sir Carmichael Clarke of Churston is found dead. Does anyone detect a pattern here? Dapper detective Hercule Poirot certainly does. In fact, prior to each of these alphabetical murders, Poirot receives a taunting note from the killer, giving the time and place of the murder—but Poirot and the police only find dead bodies. And next to the bodies is an ABC Railway Guide. It all seems to be the work of a homicidal maniac, a serial killer who dispatches death in alphabetical order. But then the fourth murder—D in Doncaster—goes awry, and every other chapter or so the standard third-person narrative switches to the point-of-view of a vague, confused fellow who just happens to be named Alexander Bonaparte Cust. This is one of author Agatha Christie’s best mysteries, and Christie (1890-1976) is known as the Queen of Crime. Hercule Poirot is her most famous detective. The neat, eccentric Belgian sleuth with egg-shaped head and sleek mustachios uses his “little grey cells” to observe, reflect, and come up with a flawless solution to every aspect of a seemingly impossible to solve crime. Poirot very nearly meets his match in The ABC Murders, which, even after nearly seventy-five years, remains one of the most ingenious little whodunits out there.

A is for Alibi: A Kinsey Millhone Mystery by Sue Grafton, 2008, St. Martin’s Griffin Press, originally published 1982 (Mystery)


Today, author Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books are guaranteed best-sellers. But back in 1982, Kinsey was just starting out. Eight years before the novel begins, divorce lawyer Laurence Fife is murdered and his attractive young second wife, Nikki, is convicted and sent to prison. When Nikki gets out on parole, she claims innocence and hires Kinsey, an ex-cop and private investigator, to find the real killer. Fife was a womanizer, a lousy husband, who was killed in a rather unusual way—the allergy pills he took were actually poisoned oleander capsules. When Kinsey uncovers another death—also eight years old, also with oleander disguised as harmless medicine—she begins to suspect that this more than just a case of a philandering husband. She tracks down Fife’s business partners, his secretary, his grown children, his former mistresses. The clues lead from Kinsey’s little corner office in Santa Teresa, California to the bright lights of Los Vegas, and readers peer over the intrepid P.I.’s shoulder every step of the way. Kinsey is of the old-fashioned, hard-boiled school of detectives—a loner who’s fully prepared to do things her way, especially when her way is the hard way. Taking risks is all part of the fun for Kinsey, and this case might just have enough menace to satisfy. Grafton has a fine eye for people and places, but it’s the introduction of Kinsey as a fresh new face in the mystery genre that makes A is for Alibi memorable. Kinsey Millhone is, for all her hard-headed gruffness, a truly likable heroine—smart and wry and tough as nails. Grafton has a specific timeline set for Kinsey’s adventures; A is for Alibi is set in 1982 and the final mystery, already titled Z is for Zero, will coincide with Kinsey’s fortieth birthday in 1990, meaning the entire series takes place over eight years. With twenty-six books total (U is for Undertow is the most recent, published in 2009), the reader is guaranteed to know and love Kinsey from A to Z.

The Wonderful O by James Thurber, illustrated by Marc Simont, 2009, New York Review Children’s Collection, originally published 1957 (Children’s Fiction)


When a wacky pirate named Black and his fellow buccaneer Littlejack land on an island that doesn’t yield up treasure as quickly as the scurvy knaves would like, Black takes out his anger by stripping the land of the letter O, which he’s hated every since his mother got stuck in a porthole and had to be pushed out instead of pulled in. Lacking this valuable vowel means big changes for the island of Ooroo—which is now known as just “r.” Geese have to stay together—if one wanders off, it risks becoming a forbidden goose. Owls can’t hoot—they can’t even be owls. Cats can’t meow, dogs are verboten. The islanders can’t read books, or cook food, or even live in houses. Instead, they have to read magazines, eat snacks, and live in shacks. Shoe becomes she and woe becomes we; life gets very confusing indeed. But these folk are not about to give up without a fight. They keep their poodle dogs—they just speak French and proclaim their canines to be chiens caniche. They meet secretly in the forest where they utter the prohibited letter in hushed but defiant whispers. And, led by clever Andreus and the even wiser Andrea, they refuse to give up on hope, love, valor, and freedom. This children’s classic, first published in 1957, has been rediscovered the republished as part of the New York Review Children’s Collection. Author James Thurber’s wordplay is remarkable—the rhythm of the narrative dips and dives and sings and rhymes, and the jaunty illustrations by Marc Simont add vigor and zest to a sprightly little fable that is already instructive, creative, worldly, and wise.

Ella Minnow Pea:  A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn, 2001, MacAdam/ Cage (Fiction)


“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The island nation of Nollop is founded in honor of Nevin Nollop, the man who created this popular pangram (a sentence that contains all the letters of the alphabet). The residents live in peace—until letters start falling from the inscription of the pangram on Nollop’s memorial statue. The all-powerful government Council rules that these letters can no longer be spoken or written and as they disappear from the statue, they also disappear from the novel. Teenage Ella Minnow Pea is a reader of literature, a writer of letters, and like most of the people on Nollop, has a real way with words. Ella and her cousin Tassie write to each other (the novel is an epistolary one) and form an underground movement to resist the Council’s decision and the fierce consequences that occur when you forget to spell every word out in your mind before you speak it. But standing firm and thinking fast only get the islanders so far—it’s hard to tell anyone what you’ve done when you’ve lost E and D (no –ed past tense endings), and word substitution can only get you so far (“sun” becomes “yellow sphere” when U tumbles to the ground). Soon only Ella and the reader are left to scramble for a solution that will save the island nation from madness and silence. Clever and entertaining, Ella Minnow Pea is a race against time before all the letters fall and language is lost forever. With a healthy dose of fantasy and creativity, author Mark Dunn uses the absurd to get serious about government power and freedom of speech. The English language is stretched to its limits and before you know it, Ella Minnow Pea will have you fighting for the rights of ABC, XYZ, and everything in between.

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; with Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory by Roy Blount Jr., 2008, Straus and Giroux (Nonfiction, Humor)


Author Roy Blount loves letters. He loves words. He loves their sounds, their combinations, their meaning, their roots and parts and histories and foreign companions. And as a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, a regular panelist on the NPR quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and a usage consultant for the American Heritage Dictionary, Blount has been lucky enough to make a living with his love of language in all its written and spoken forms. Alphabet Juice is a dictionary, of sorts, or an encyclopedia; at least its entries are arranged in a standard A to Z format. But the stupendous subtitle of should supply enough of a hint that this book is interested in sheer fun as much as it is in fact, in the secret origins of the word “stock,” in the joy inherent in the phrase “speckled pup,” in explaining what a “spoonerism” is—and that’s just a few entries from the S section. There are also entries on “tallywacker,” “hmmmm,” “cowlick,” “King Taufa’ahau,” and the controversial “ain’t.” Blount waxes poetic about each letter (such as his detailed discussion of Homer Simpson’s infamous utterance “D’oh!” in D’s entry), makes lists of the best one- and two- and three-word sentences (Touché. Jesus wept. The game’s afoot.), and drops names, literary allusions, and pop culture references a plenty. Blount himself acts as a keen and chatty guide through his engaging lexicon; it’s the kind of friendly book that you pick up, put down, flip through, pass around, and come back to over and over again. The passion in Alphabet Juice knows no bounds, and the reader will be utterly swept away by the glorious surprises of the good old ABCs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

If Animals Were Authors

Elephants can remember and dogs are man’s best friend, but there’s a lot more to the animal kingdom than that. When writers take on an animal’s perspective, the thoughts and ideas of entire new species become available for all manner of memoirs, mysteries, romances, and adventures. Cats turn literary; bears have better things to do than hibernate all winter. Wolves and leopards describe life in the wild in their own words; even quiet critters like lambs and bunny rabbits get in on the action. Readers won’t be too surprised to discover that these furry critters share the same problems of their human counterparts: jealousies, triumphs, failures, secrets. This means that animal tales are every bit as powerful, poignant, and page-turning as books about people, and with a decidedly original point of view. If animals could talk, oh the stories they would tell!

Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann, 2007, Doubleday/ Flying Dolphin Press (Mystery)

When George the shepherd is murdered, his sheep are understandably upset. George may not have been the best shepherd (he did stuff calcium tablets down their throats every now and then, after all, and put a fence around his tomatoes) but he was their shepherd. He gave them hay and a place to graze; he talked to them and even read books out loud. But now George is dead in the grass, stabbed through with a spade, and his flock wants justice. George’s sheep may be better at grazing, but led by inquisitive Miss Maple; Othello, the black sheep of the bunch; Melmoth, who disappeared long ago; and Mopple the Whale, who’s always hungry but can remember anything, this herd has a mystery to solve. And what with flock mentality getting in the way of sleuthing and the common problem of human-sheep misunderstandings and miscommunications, it is a wooly problem indeed. First-time German author Leonie Swann writes with a straight-faced focus that graces these unlikely detectives with personality, charm, and even the occasional existential dilemma. Human characters, like the terrifying butcher Ham and the charismatic new shepherd Gabriel, take on new dimensions when seen through the eyes of the suspicious sheep, and it is those sheep the reader will be rooting for. Three Bags Full is darkly humorous and joyfully ingenious all at the same time, making it a fresh and funny entry in the mystery genre. Don’t count on this flock of fellows obediently jumping fences to put you to sleep; these baa-baa black sheep will keep readers up all night turning the pages instead.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle, 1996, Doubleday (Fiction)

Eccentric university professor Arthur Bramhall hides his new book manuscript under a tree in the Maine woods for safe-keeping. Much to his chagrin, it doesn’t work. His briefcase is found by a foraging bear who, while not the sharpest tool in the shed, knows that he’s got a hit on his hands—er, paws. Renaming himself Hal Jam, the bear sets off to New York City to take the literary world by storm. The book, Destiny and Desire, has lots of sex and fishing and becomes an instant bestseller. Hal Jam is suddenly a much sought after celebrity, pursued by the literary press, Hollywood agents, and pretty girls. Hal Jam, big, clumsy, often bewildered by his new human identity and confounded by the things people say and do, somehow manages to get along swimmingly—because even though he’s still very much a bear, the people around him see and hear only what they want to see and hear. Meanwhile, old Arthur Bramhall, completely distraught over the loss of his book, has taken refuge in the woods and has begun to exhibit distinctly ursine characteristics. The many outrageous situations that arise from these cases of switched mistaken identity are clever and funny and original. The publishing business is satirized with zest and good humor, as are academics, publicists, agents, and politicians. Author William Kotzwinkle’s varied career includes the novelization of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and his children’s book series Walter the Farting Dog, making him something of an expert in quirky unconventionality. It’s all in good fun, and The Bear Went Over the Mountain a great deal of fun indeed.

The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily by Dino Buzzati, 2003, New York Review Children’s Collection, originally published in 1947 (Children’s Fiction)

First published in 1947, author Dino Buzzati’s sprightly fable chronicles a period of forgotten history in Sicily’s ancient and noble past. During an especially frigid winter, starving bears leave their mountain home and come down to the valley, where humans dwell, in search of food and warmth. Led by valiant King Leander (who is also searching for his long-lost bear cub son Tony), handsome Saltpetre, Marzipan the inventor, and sharp-eyed Dandelion, the bears tackle an army of wild boars, ghosts, a sea serpent, the ruthless Grand Duke, and maybe-good maybe-bad Professor Ambrose. This colorful story is further brightened by a wryly intimate and teasing tone, stylish illustrations, a smattering of sweetly rhyming poems, and smartly drawn characters both animal and human. The New York Review Children’s Collection is a series of previously out-of-print children’s books republished and repackaged in attractive editions for new generations to enjoy. The editors picked a real gem with The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily and its remarkable ability to convey adult themes to young readers with subtlety and understanding. Talking animals may be a hallmark of children’s literature, but The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily is a sophisticated, elegant little tale about war, corruption, courage, and humility that is as much intelligent allegory as it is whimsical fairy tale.

Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard by Patrick O’Brian, 2000, W.W. Norton, originally published in 1930 (Fiction)

Author Patrick O’Brian (1914-2000) is best known for his best-selling and well-loved Aubrey and Maturin books, a series of historical fiction novels about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin and their adventures on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. But long before O’Brian began richly describing the lives of Aubrey and Maturin, he was just a sickly kid passing the time with pen, paper, and imagination. Caesar: The Life Story of a Panda-Leopard is his first novel, written when he was just twelve years old and published at the tender age of fifteen. It’s a slim little book, but it already demonstrates the O’Brian uncanny ability to transform stiff facts into detailed storytelling. Caesar is a panda-leopard, the son of the union between a male panda bear and a female snow leopard. Caesar himself has more of the leopard in him, since he begins stalking, hunting, and killing almost as soon as he can toddle out of his cave after his mother. Caesar’s adventures include forest fires, battles with wild boars and wolves, the hunting of humans, capture by humans, a stint in a cage followed by a trusting relationship with a man, and his eventual return to the wild. Nature is indeed “red of tooth and claw”; young O’Brian was clearly in favor of an unsentimental narrative style. The writing is matter-of-fact, without any contemplation or reflection, though there is plenty of dry wit and—it is clearly the work of an adolescent, but the attention to detail and the fascination with the natural world still make for a compelling read, particularly for O’Brian’s many die-hard fans.

Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, 2002, Modern Library Classics, originally published in 1903 and 1906 (Fiction)

Call of the Wild and White Fang, both by author Jack London, are two of the best known and best loved books ever narrated by a couple of canines. In Call of the Wild, a pampered pup named Buck is dog-napped and transported to Yukon wilderness, where he makes an ideal sled dog for a number of alternately cruel and kind human masters before heeding to his natural instincts. White Fang is the antithesis of Call of the Wild and its companion novel, the story of a wild half-wolf who, slowly but surely, finds comfort and joy in human companionship. Both Buck and White Fang are tough, hard-working dogs with mad survival skills, and they’re going to need every ounce of their strength, common sense, and instinct to survive the threatening mix of nature and man that they each face. The setting of both novels is the stark, cold wilderness of Alaska during the Klondike gold rush, and that atmospheric, barren land is as much a character as any of the desperate men, women, or animals who inhabit it. Call of the Wild and White Fang are classics; there are dozens of editions available to readers, including graphic novel adaptations. The 2002 Modern Library edition presents both novels in one volume, along with another bleak but gripping Jack London short story, To Build a Fire.

The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy, 1998, H. Holt (Fiction)

In The White Bone, a herd of African elephants face challenges so immense as to dwarf even their hefty bulk. Drought has ravaged the once-rich grasslands and humans hunt them for their ivory tusks with brutal regularity. Young Mud is a female elephant adopted by one herd after her own was wiped out by hunters. Mud has a kind adoptive mother in She-Scares, a best friend in fellow youngster Date Bed, and even something of a love interest in a young bull named Tall Time. In fact, Mud is expecting her first calf. But this potentially joyous occasion is significantly marred when her family is slaughtered by poachers. Mud sets out to find the mythical White Bone, a legendary artifact that will lead the finder to the Safe Place. Her quest is not an easy one for elephant or reader; author Barbara Gowdy doesn’t hold back when describing the violence, tragedy, and despair that accompanies the near-extinction of an entire species. The White Bone is a difficult read in other ways as well; the kinship and names of the elephants get complicated at times. Each female of the herd is named She-something, the “something” beginning with the same letter as the matriarch elephant’s name (She-Swaggers, She-Demands); the cow elephants get these names when they reach maturity and before that are known by other names; male bull elephants keep their childhood names; and it takes awhile before the reader is fully immersed in the elephants’ vocabulary (a “big fly” is an ostrich, “hindleggers” are humans). Gowdy’s intention with her detailed family trees and glossaries is to instill her animals with the same intricate histories, families, and memories that people are both blessed and cursed with. Elephants never forget, and Gowdy has gifted her cast of gray-eared giants with so much empathy and emotion that her human readers surely won’t forget, either.

Waiting for Gertrude: A Graveyard Gothic by Bill Richardson, 2003, Thomas Dunne Books (Fiction)

The famous Parisian cemetery of Père-Lachaise holds the mortal remains of such famous and varied celebrities as scandalous 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde, Victorian-era stage and silent screen actress Sarah Bernhardt, the master-composer Chopin, and rock star playboy Jim Morrison. The cemetery is also home to any number of stray cats, and in author Bill Richardson’s playful novel, the souls of the renowned deceased are reborn in feline form. Oscar is a moody, moony lovesick kitty; the tradition of leaving love letters on Chopin’s tomb means he’s the cats’ postmaster general. Jim Morrison is a big, bold tomcat looking to get laid, and Sarah Bernhardt’s fake leg has been stolen, which is just one of several unusual thefts that have been plaguing the graveyard. There’s a mystery in Père-Lachaise, one waiting to unfold in a dramatic burst of a climax at the annual Christmas pageant, complete with sex, intrigue, feuds, and unrequited love. But for Alice B. Toklas, a quiet puss who keeps to herself, life is about waiting. In her human life, Alice was the long-time romantic partner of famed writer Gertrude Stein. Alice outlived Gertrude by many years and was hoping for a swift reunion in the afterlife, but Gertrude has yet to be reincarnated with whiskers and tail, so Alice waits and watches. Told as a series of interwoven episodes and through intercepted letters that the cats write to each other, the mystery at the graveyard and the nine lives of these soulful cats is an inventive, thoughtful, fanciful piece of work.

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe, 2006, Atheneum Press, originally published in 1979 (Children’s Fiction, Mystery)

Harold is a dog who takes his work very seriously. He knows how to sit and speak. He knows which member of his family (little brother Toby) is most likely to feed him cupcakes under the table. And, teamed with Chester the cat, Harold knows a bit about detective work. Chester, a bookworm of a feline, is the mastermind crime-solver, but he appears to have met his match one dark and stormy night when the family brings home... a tiny baby rabbit. The little fellow was found in a movie theater during a showing of Dracula (Toby nearly sat on him) and he’s quickly welcomed as a new pet. But soon some suspicious goings-on--Bunnicula sneaking out of his cage, vegetables drained white--lead Chester to suspect that Bunnicula is a vampire in rabbit form. Chester’s attempts to warn the family are hilariously misunderstood, leaving faithful Harold to worry about cat and rabbit alike. Few people have as much personality as the animals in Bunnicula, and husband and wife authors Deborah and James Howe write Harold with good old boy charm and Chester with an irresistible manic energy. Bunnicula proves that dogs, cats, and bunny rabbits knew the popularity and power of vampires long before Twilight and True Blood  made blood-suckers trendy. An imaginative spoof on literary legend, Bunnicula is a “rabbit-tale of mystery” that’s been delighting readers of all ages for thirty years.

Friday, January 8, 2010

How to Read Two Books at Once

The only thing better than reading a book is reading two books. You don’t hold a book in each hand; you read a story-within-a-story, a novel-within-a-novel. It’s a fairly simple literary technique--a character in the book reads or writes or finds or remembers a book of his or her own and you, the reader, read them both--but the result is an intricate web of stories that weave in and out of each other, merging and dividing and running parallel to ultimately complement each other. And the reader gets two stories for the price of one, the best of both worlds, and some of the most creative and innovative novels on the bookshelf.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, 2000, McClelland and Stewart (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin is one of recent literature’s most successful variations on the novel-within-the-novel. It’s the story of two privileged sisters who share a secluded, uneven upbringing in the years between World War I and World War II. Laura, the younger sister, dies when her car goes off a bridge. Iris, the elder, is the survivor—of Laura, of her parents, of her husband, and of her history, which she narrates to us in all its failed glory. Iris is an old woman when she looks back on her life; she’s writing her memoirs to record the truths of her life. One of those truths is her sister’s book, published posthumously and titled The Blind Assassin. We get Laura’s novel in small doses scattered among Iris’s memories. It’s the story of a young socialite and her passionate affair with a blue-collar man—and there’s a bonus story-within-a-story here too, as the nameless man spins a science-fiction tale of violence and romance for his equally nameless lover. Every storyline within author Margaret Atwood’s pages is gripping, but it is Iris--long-since disillusioned by the cruel and subtle realities of life--who really has our attention. Atwood writes Iris with a sharp intelligence and a sympathetic eye, but it is through all the combined and nested stories that we fully understand how often we purposely overlook what’s in plain sight, and how poignantly we regret it when we see the truth at last.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, 2008, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1962 (Literary Fiction)

Anna Wulf is a writer. In a black notebook she writes about her experiences in African years ago; in a red notebook she records her thoughts about politics, particularly her leftist and Communist leanings. A yellow notebook is an autobiographical novel. Anna’s diary is a blue notebook. The reader reads all the notebooks, as well as a novel-within-the-novel called Free Women, which tells Anna’s story from an omniscient narrator’s point of view. All these stories are intricate and complex, which reflects the book’s post-World War II England setting. Anna and the women of her generation experienced unprecedented freedoms during the war, and the population is waiting to see how that independence will play out and where it will ultimately lead. As Anna ruminates on motherhood, romance, and friendship (particularly her relationship with her best friend, Molly), her fragmented writing styles merge with her complicated lifestyle. With the weight of the postmodern world on her shoulders, Anna ties the threads of her many lives together in one final notebook, a golden notebook that will make sense of it all. When The Golden Notebook was first published in 1962, author Doris Lessing was hailed as a new feminist voice. But in the forty-plus years since its publication, it is the story's intimate prose and strong narrative voice that have rung true for readers. 

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, 2005, W.W. Norton and Co. (Literary Fiction)

Leo Gursky is an old man waiting for the last big event of his life: his death. He’s so alone in the world that he goes out and makes a minor spectacle of himself—dropping his change, spilling his popcorn—just to make sure someone has noticed him. Alma Singer is a fourteen-year-old girl trying to find a cure for the permanent sadness her mother’s been wrapped in ever since the death of her father seven years ago. Alma thinks the answer might lie in the book her mother is translating, an obscure story called The History of Love. The narration alternates between Leo and Alma and the reader also gets glimpses of the moving, elegantly written History of Love and its mysterious author. As the threads of the storyline weave together in the most intimate ways, the novel becomes unputdownable. Leo and Alma are an unlikely pair—Leo pines for his long-lost love; Alma’s little brother thinks he’s the Messiah; Leo escaped to America from Nazi-occupied Poland; Alma’s hobby is identifying edible wild plants—but they are both survivors of great personal loss. Author Nicole Krauss writes about her characters with tenderness and real feeling, and it doesn’t take long before we’re deeply invested in their lives. So invested, in fact, that we’ll be thinking about the beautiful interlocking stories of The History of Love long after we’ve turned the last page.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer, 2002, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Everything is Illuminated begins with the comically fractured English stylings of one Alex Perchov, a cocky young Ukrainian man who manages to think he’s God’s gift to women even while his cranky grandfather hollers at him and his grandfather’s faux-seeing eye dog slobbers nearby. But Alex is irresistible as he narrates the story of how he translated for “the hero,” an American student named Jonathon Safran Foer (yep, just like the author) who searched for the Ukrainian woman who may (or may not) have saved his Jewish grandfather during World War II. Alex sends his musings on their travels back to Jonathon and receives chapters of a novel that Jonathon is writing, a novel about the history of a small Eastern European village that begins in 1791 and is as chock-full of quirky characters and haunting histories as the real story of finding (or not finding) the Ukrainian woman. For the villagers of the novel-within-the-novel, the horrors of World War II are waiting in the future; for Alex and Jonathon, those same horrors are ready to rear their heads from the ugly past at every turn. Despite the overshadowing presence of war and tragedy, Everything is Illuminated is at heart a kitschy, endearing work that blends fables and magical realism into the kind of truly original story that we all long to read.

(Note: Jonathon Safran Foer is married to Nicole Krauss, author of the aforementioned History of Love. There are distinct similarities between their works—Jewish characters seeking for clues in the World War II-scarred past, for example, plus the whole novel-within-the-novel thing—but the books vary greatly in style and tone. Still, it certainly is intriguing to imagine this highly gifted couple living and writing together in New York City.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, 2005, Harper Perennial (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

It was a dark and stormy night. Sitting around the fire in the rainy gloom of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her poet-boyfriend Percy Shelley, and their host told ghost stories to scare the bejeezus out of each other. Mary later became Mary Shelley and her ghost story became the legendary masterpiece Frankenstein. Shelley himself, we know, quickly gave up his ghost story to encourage his new wife to publish hers. Their host on that fateful night was none other than poet extraordinaire Lord Byron. He wrote a few hundred words about the mysterious death of an old man, and left it at that—or did he? Thus we reach the premise of John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land. We get to read this long-lost novel, painstakingly imagined by Crowley, as a mad, gothic story about the sensational life of one Ali Sane. It is accompanied by thoughtful footnotes from Byron’s daughter Ada, who, besides saving her estranged father’s manuscript from her scorned mother, was a brilliant mathematician in her own right. And finally, we read emails to and from Alexandra Novak. Alexandra is researching Ada’s life for a website about women scientists, and she stumbles across a series of complex numerical columns that Ada wrote in the mid-19th century. To decode this mystery, Alexandra must turn to her own estranged father, who is also an expert Byron scholar. This circular plot pairs the romantic style of Lord Byron with modern communications and advanced math—no easy feat. But Crowley almost perfectly mimics Byron, and he breathes real life into the characters of Ada and Alexandra as they attempt to reconnect and recreate a vision of their lives that they never fully had. Rewriting an actual lost novel is one of the more intricate ways to incorporate a story within a story, but Crowley is well up to the challenge.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, 1993, Everyman’s Library, originally published 1979 (Literary Fiction)

This book opens by telling both you and the character of The Reader what the experience of reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino is like. After a few pages, however, The Reader realizes that his copy of this book has a printer’s error. He goes back to the bookstore to get a new copy, meets Another Reader who has the same problem and flirts with her, and is told that all the Calvino books are hopeless misprinted and what he’s been reading is actually a book by Polish writer. The Reader goes home with what he hopes is finally the right volume, reads for a few pages, and then discovers that no, this book is the wrong book too. Back to the bookstore, back to another tantalizing interaction with Another Reader, and back home again with a new book that’s supposed to be the book he’s been trying to read all along—but isn’t. This happens ten times (talk about novels within novels!) and we, the readers (not The Readers), are very content to go along for the ride. It may sound confusing, but the real author Italo Calvino (who died in 1985) has long been revered as a master of avant-garde and experimental fiction. It’s not every writer who can begin ten separate novels that differ in tone and style and genre and still make them entertaining; it’s not every writer who can marry the solitary (and at times frustrating) act of reading with a story about a blooming romance that’s sparked by that very same solitary (and at times frustrating) act of reading. But Calvino does it—with wit, with charm, and with superior skill.