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Pearl's Picks for October 2008

Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey (2007)

One of the best reasons to give Janet Lee Carey's Dragon's Keep to young teens (especially girls) is that it's a page-turning fantasy filled with well-drawn, three-dimensional characters (both human and otherwise). Because one exciting episode (and chapter) no sooner ends than another one begins, Carey's book would have made a wonderful serial, if only there were a magazine for teens that did that kind of thing. Way back in the mists of time, the mage Merlin prophesied that the 21st queen of Wilde Island would accomplish three feats - she would redeem the family name; she would bring peace with the wave of her hand; and she would restore the glory of her home land, now menaced regularly by dragons. And Princess Rosalind Pendragon, the young heroine of Dragon's Keep, is to be the 21st queen of the land. But Rosalind has a secret that only her mother, the 20th queen, knows - she was born with a dragon's talon instead of the fourth finger of her left hand. All her life Rosalind has been forced by her mother to wear golden gloves to hide her deformity, lest she be taken for a witch and banished or killed; she's also had to endure the visits and ministrations of countless healers brought in by the queen to attempt to remove Rosalind's "flaw." It's only when Rosalind is kidnapped by a dragon and forced to work as a nursemaid to his motherless children, that she begins to understand that her flaw is intricately bound up with her fate, and that to accept the one is to begin the fulfillment of the other. Another good reason to suggest this book to teen readers is that the issues it raises - self-acceptance being probably the most important - make it a perfect choice for a teen/parent book discussion.

Palace Council by Stephen Carter (2008)

Stephen Carter's third novel, Palace Council, is, like his first two (The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White), a mystery woven into an engrossing family saga. Palace Council begins in 1952, when 20 well-known and influential men secretly gather to formulate a plot that will determine the course of history. Two years later, Eddie Wesley, one of Harlem's up-and-coming young writers, stumbles over the dead body of a prominent lawyer and as a result becomes aware of the existence of this top-secret group. Who is on the membership list? What is their ultimate goal? And, even more importantly to Eddie, does the disappearance of his idealistic younger sister, June, trained as a lawyer, have anything to do with them? Along with the love of his life, Aurelia Treene (whose husband, it turns out, is intimately involved with the cabal), Eddie searches for answers to these questions for two decades, in the process meeting such luminaries of the period as J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and even Langston Hughes. The mystery aside, Carter's illuminating evocation of Harlem's upper class black society is one of the strengths of this novel (as it was in his earlier two). If you're always on the hunt for a satisfying novel in which it's easy to lose yourself in the plot and the lives of the characters, Carter is a good author to know about.

The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service by Andrew Meier (2008)

Ford Madox Ford begins The Good Soldier, his classic novel of love and betrayal, with the sentence "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." I thought of that line often as I read Andrew Meier's The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin's Secret Service. It could easily have been the first line of this fine biography of Cy Oggins, and it would have been doubly heartbreaking because the story Meier tells is true. Cy Oggins and his wife, Nerma, fell in love with Communism as teenagers. They saw the movement as offering a solution to the poverty, racism, and labor issues confronting America in the 1920s. Cy was recruited into Russia's intricate spy network when he was a student at Columbia University. He was, as Meier put it, "caught in the thrall of the Soviet dream." By the time he was 30, in 1928, Cy, frequently accompanied by his wife, was traveling throughout Europe and the Far East in the Soviet underground. Then, in 1939, Oggins was arrested in Moscow by the KGB, and sent to the Gulag with thousands of other criminals and "politicals." After he served his eight-year sentence, he was brought back to Moscow and murdered by a direct order of Stalin's. The Oggins' story came to light only accidentally - Meier, a reporter, was interviewing survivors of Norilsk, site of one of Stalin's labor camps, and almost idly asked if there were any Americans among the Korean, Russian, French, Swede, and Afghan prisoners. "Yes," a French survivor said. Learning that the American's name was Cyrus Oggins, Meier managed to follow a series of faint clues and reconstruct Oggins's story: one of youthful idealism, a story that ended with his betrayal, and finally his murder, by the system he idealized.

Hospital by Julie Salamon (2008)

In general, I love books that take me behind the scenes of an organization and show me the personalities who make it work (or not work, as the case may be). I'm always amazed at how an author can get everyone to reveal so much about themselves, their co-workers, and the institution itself, but evidently that's a prime skill of a crackerjack investigative reporter. Julie Salamon is such a reporter, and, I'm happy to say, her new book Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids, an account of the year that Salamon spent observing and talking to staff at all levels at Brooklyn's Maimonides Medical Center, makes for an absorbing reading experience, perhaps especially for those of us not working in the field of medicine. Maimonides is a salad bowl of ethnicities, reflecting its location in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood. Approximately 67 different languages are spoken in and around the hospital, including Hebrew, Urdu, Spanish, Russian, and several different Chinese dialects. Among the many people whose stories she includes are the CEO; the head of the Emergency Department; a California surfer who comes to the Brooklyn hospital as a Resident; the head of the new Cancer Center; nurses; ambulance drivers; patients; and more. What we learn from Salamon is this: a hospital's mission is to do good - to cure people of their diseases, to manage their pain, to make their births and deaths as easy and humane as possible. But it also has to make money. All the issues that are confounding the world of healthcare these days, from reams of paperwork, to the complications of a patient's insurance coverage (or lack thereof), to finding caring and competent workers, to providing all the new bells and whistles of diagnosis and treatment without losing the personal touch, can be found in Salamon's book. Hospital is both a tribute to the dedicated and hardworking (if sometimes contentious, cantankerous, and petty) staff, and an unsentimental look at one particular American hospital today.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)

Readers who enjoyed Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road will especially want to check out Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, because the two books most definitely are similar in tone and style. It's hard for me to imagine a dedicated reader who wasn't charmed by Hanff's novel (or the movie made from it), just as it's a pretty good bet that booklovers will enjoy Shaffer and Barrows' novel. I've always had a particular fondness for novels written as a series of letters, like Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, and Hanff's book, so the fact that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is also an epistolary novel was an added bonus. Shaffer and Barrows bring vividly to life a particular place: the island of Guernsey, located off the coast of Normandy. They also bring to life a particular era: Guernsey was the only part of Britain to be occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The occupation lasted for four years, from 1940 to 1944, an event that is central to the novel's plot. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams and his neighbors strike up a correspondence with London author Juliet Ashton in 1946, they have no idea how that friendship will change their lives. The relationships between characters, as well as their histories and quirks, are revealed as letters wend their way to and from London and Guernsey. To their enduring credit, Shaffer and Barrows have taken what is a fairly predictable love story (there was never a doubt in my mind who was going to end up with whom by the time the last page was turned), but have managed to make it fresh.

The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo (2008)

If you were to pick one of the most unusual spots in the world in which to set a novel, the setting of Jeff Talarigo's The Ginseng Hunter would be a good choice: it takes place in a valley in China located along the Tumen River, which divides the country from North Korea. At the turn of the 21st century, the narrator, a nameless, solitary, middle-aged man who's half Chinese and half Korean, makes a meager living selling the ginseng he digs from the ground - limiting himself, as his father taught him, to picking one root a day. Once a month, except when winter makes the roads impassable, he goes to the nearest city, Yanji, an eight-hour walk away, where he sells his ginseng, buys provisions, and visits a prostitute. But political events in the larger world begin to intrude on his clockwork existence: Chinese soldiers have dug foxholes close to the Tumen, and dead bodies are seen floating in the river; an unfamiliar child steals food from his garden; and a truck driver tells him about how easy it is to earn money by turning North Korean refugees in to the local authorities. On one of his visits to Yanji, the young prostitute whom he regularly sees begs him to help her find a better life. What should he do? How involved in another's life does he want to become? Woven into this story is another: the harrowing tale of a mother and daughter facing starvation under the brutal regime of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-il. Talarigo's second novel (his first as The Pearl Diver) is not an easy book to read, because its subject matter - political oppression, loneliness, and the madness of grief - is so overwhelmingly sad. Nonetheless, I highly recommend it - the prose is spare and immaculate, the description of life in the narrator's valley is simultaneously vivid and bleak, and the depiction of the best and worst of what mankind is capable can only encourage us to be better people.

The Suicide Index Joan Wickersham (2008)

Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order is brave, unflinching, and quite simply not to be missed. It's one of those rare books that will haunt you for a long time after you finish it. There is nothing over the top or hysterical about the way Wickersham writes about this momentous event in her family. Rather, the reader intimately understands Wickersham's heartfelt desire to understand what brought her 61-year-old father to wake up one morning, take his wife a cup of coffee and leave it on her bedside table as she slept, and then go into his study, pick up a gun, and shoot himself to death. Wickersham's writing is gorgeous - restrained and lyrical at the same time; there's not an extraneous word or ounce of fat in the book. In trying to comprehend what happened, Wickersham uses the format of an index to impose an order and shape on what appears to be a chaotic, perhaps random, act of her father's. She rethinks all she knows about his life - his miserable childhood, his thorny marriage to her mother, his business problems, his health, and wonders how these all add up to suicide. There's a line from a poem by David Posner that has always stuck in my mind: "Suffering was never an exact science." That says to me, in the same way that Wickersham's amazing memoir does, that you just have to accept that you will never know people completely or ever know, really, why people choose to kill themselves. After her father's death, Wickersham finds there's a bond between those whose life has been touched by the suicide of someone they love: they are the victims of an event that has marked them forever. There are memorable passages aplenty in Wickersham's book, some of them in the chapter called "Suicide: readings in the literature of," including this one by William Maxwell: "The suicide doesn't go alone, he takes everybody with him." But what I will always remember is Wickersham's tragic conclusion: "When you kill yourself, you kill every memory everyone has of you. You're saying 'I'm gone and you can't even be sure who it is that's gone, because you never knew me.'"

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (1998)

The only person I know who possibly loves Jerome K. Jerome's book (see above) more than I do is Connie Willis. She says in the dedication of her delectable novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, that she first learned about Three Men in a Boat from Robert Heinlein's novel for teens, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, which, when I come to think about it, is undoubtedly where I first heard about it as well. Willis has written an inventive, comical tale of time travel that is a loving homage to both Jerome's book and the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Set in the late 21st century, our hero, Ned Henry, works in Oxford, England, where he's been caught up (as the whole time travel department seems to have been) in helping Lady Schrapnell rebuild Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed by the Nazis during World War II. And Lady Schrapnell is bound and determined to make everything in the new building as authentic as possible. Ned is tasked with unearthing a particular and particularly hideous artifact from the Victorian period that was once in the church, known to all and sundry as the bishop's bird stump. (I'll refrain from telling you why Lady Schrapnell is determined to find it, as you'll enjoy discovering the reason yourself.) After much bouncing back and forth between the 1940s and the 21st century, Ned has an especially bad case of jet lag (here called time lag), but force of circumstance (and an attempt to escape from the clutches of Lady Schrapnell) sends him back to the year 1888. His job is to return something that another time traveler has, somehow, managed to bring forward to the 21st century, although that's quite contrary to the long-held belief that it's impossible to take artifacts from the past into the present without altering history. Unfortunately, Ned's time lag is so bad that he misses hearing (or mis-hears) what he's supposed to be returning - is it a fan? a cab? - as well as who he's supposed to meet in 1888, and where he's supposed to meet him or her, all of which causes numerous charming complications. Besides the imperious Lady Schrapnell and Ned, other 21st century characters include Ned's time-traveling compatriots, Verity Kindle and Carruthers, and their boss, Mr. Dunworthy. The Victorian-era cast includes Tossie and her cat Lady Arjumand, Terence St. Trewes and his dog Cyril (think Montmorency in Jerome's book), and Baine the butler, all of whom play important roles in the delightfully involved plot. Willis has left the door open for a sequel, but since it's been over a decade since To Say Nothing of the Dog was published, I fear that, alas, there may not be one forthcoming. (Perhaps if we all besiege her with pleas, she'll indulge us.) I had the great pleasure of interviewing Connie Willis on my television show, Book Lust with Nancy Pearl, and our half-hour conversation just flew by. She doesn't take herself overly seriously, wears her knowledge of history, science fiction, and literature lightly, and has a marvelous (and infectious) sense of humor. You can watch the interview by typing "Seattle Channel" and "Connie Willis" into a search engine. And finally, for those who don't consider themselves fans of science fiction, I should say that Connie Willis is a science fiction writer who takes less interest in the mechanics of time travel than in exploring its effects. We don't get a scientific explanation how time travel works, we're just placed in a world where it does.

Title available via inter-library loan

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (2008)

These days I've been treating myself to reading or rereading all of Georgette Heyer's novels in the order in which they're being reissued by Sourcebooks (in lovely trade paperback editions). Although they've not yet reprinted my favorites (those being The Grand Sophy, Sylvester, Arabella, and The Reluctant Widow), I just finished Black Sheep, which now joins the other four on my "absolutely best of the best list." So even though I included Heyer's An Infamous Army in March's Pearl's Picks, I feel compelled to rave about Black Sheep. Abigail Wendover is beautiful, smart, and high-spirited. She's also, at age 28, well past the optimal marriageable age for an upper class Regency woman. She and her also-unmarried and much older sister are raising their orphaned heiress niece, Fanny. Fanny has most unfortunately fallen in love with a cad of a fellow named Stacy Calverleigh (who's obviously after her not inconsiderable inheritance). In attempting to break up the relationship, Abigail finds herself forced to spend more time than she wishes with Stacy's uncle Miles (the black sheep of the title), who has just returned to England from years spent womanizing and making a fortune in India. Miles is strong-willed, unconventionally handsome, and witty enough that he can invariably bring Abigail to giggles, even when she's furious at him (which is almost always). Obviously these two are going to get together (this is a romance, after all), but you can have faith that Heyer's going to throw a lot of obstacles in the putative lovers' way. Heyer's writing is both clever and droll - the closest to Jane Austen that you'll get - but I found myself chuckling over all the Regency era slang that Heyer uses: "a fit of the dismals" seemed pretty easy to decode, as did "slow-top," but what about "lobcock," "scaff and raff," or "turnip-sucker"? And what does "quizzes" mean when it's not referring to tests but rather describing a group of women? And what is a "brummish" story? (Context will usually give you some idea, but Google "regency slang", if you really want to know.) Perhaps the worldwide legion of Georgette Heyer fans can join forces and bring some of these words back into common usage - I think stating that you're having (or are in) "a fit of the dismals" is so much more descriptive than saying that you're feeling blue, don't you?

Title available via inter-library loan

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Every year about this time I go back to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog): there are few other books I know of that are as reliably funny, no matter how many times I reread them. Jerome describes a boat trip up the Thames from London to Oxford, undertaken by 'J,' the narrator, and his friends George and Harris. The three (exemplars par excellence of the Victorian gentleman hypochondriac) undertake the journey in order to attain a healthier life, see the countryside, and experience nature's beauties and bounties. The only passenger along for the expedition who's not entirely thrilled about it is Montmorency, a small fox terrier. Jerome's writing is sublimely dry and understated; his descriptions of J, Harris, and George (to say nothing of the dog) struggling (ineptly, for the most part) to cope with the ABCs of boating and camping, as well as their experiences as tourists, make it difficult not to chortle aloud in a most undignified manner quite unbefitting, I'm sure, those who were reading the book when it was first published in 1889. Like many other readers, I'm sure one of my favorite parts is when Harris gets lost in the maze at Hampton Court. Here's an example of Jerome's style, a description of one of the quartet's first days on the water:

The idea, overnight, had been that we should get up early in the morning, fling off our rugs and shawls, and, throwing back the canvas, spring into the river with a joyous shout, and revel in a long delicious swim. Somehow, now the morning had come, the notion seemed less tempting. The water looked damp and chilly: the wind felt cold.

'Well, who's going to be first in?' said Harris at last.

There was no rush for precedence. George settled the matter so far as he was concerned by retiring into the boat and pulling on his socks. Montmorency gave vent to an involuntary howl, as if merely thinking of the thing had given him the horrors; and Harris said it would be so difficult to get into the boat again, and went back and sorted out his trousers.

I just love the way the line, "spring into the river with a joyous shout," is followed by everyone thinking better of the whole idea - is there a camper among us who hasn't had those identical feelings?

Title available via inter-library loan

The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald (1996)

To the hard-boiled mystery plots made popular by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who, in a much reprinted essay first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944 called "The Simple Art of Murder," advocated taking murders out of the drawing room and into the streets, where they belong), Ross MacDonald added an interest in, and thorough knowledge of, Freudian theory. MacDonald's novels, set in and around Santa Barbara and other Southern California cities (although they have invented names), are marked by their complex (but never confusing) plots and their emotionally wounded, often young, characters, as well as a writing style that has had an enormous influence on contemporary mystery writers like Sue Grafton and Robert Parker. In a MacDonald novel (here comes Freud) the past is never far away. The sins of the fathers (and/or mothers) are always, always, visited on the next generation. His novels don't have to be read in order, and, if you're not familiar with MacDonald, The Underground Man is a good place to start. (That it's been influential since it was first published is undeniable: in an unprecedented move, John Leonard reviewed the novel on the front page of The New York Times Book Review when it was published in 1971.) In the course of tracking down a child kidnapped by his father, Lew Archer (MacDonald's detective, who covers up his essentially romantic nature with a loner, tough-guy exterior) must contend with a wildfire threatening the homes of some of the wealthiest residents of the area, as well as a family's deepest held secrets - secrets whose repercussions have spilled into the present and led not only to a murder in the present, but evidence of murders that occurred in the preceding generation. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard is reprinting all of MacDonald's works, which should make all mystery fans very happy.

Title available via inter-library loan

A Kitten Tale by Eric Rohmann (2008)

In A Kitten Tale, Caldecott Medal winner (for My Friend Rabbit) Eric Rohmann gracefully combines a sweet story and irresistible pictures with a comforting message to children about facing new experiences. With the changing of the seasons from spring to summer, and then on to autumn, three little kittens start to worry about winter and snow - it'll be cold, it'll be wet, it'll cover everything up - but most of all, it'll be different from what they know. But whenever the three voice their fears, the fourth kitten just says, "I can't wait." And when one day the kittens wake up and find that there's snow outside the window, the fourth kitten leaves his fearful brothers and sisters, goes out through the cat-door, and discovers that snow is "cold and wet and covers everything!" But even better, he sees that there's great fun to be had. As the other kittens watch him out the window and see how much he's having, they decide to join him. The drawings of the kittens are adorable; Rohmann has given each a distinct personality. Mostly you just want to reach into the book and rub each kitten's tummy until it purrs with delight.