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Selections for September 2008

Previously by Allan Ahlberg (2007)

Allan Ahlberg's whimsical take on the world comes through clearly in all of his books for young children, but perhaps never more so than in Previously, where he teams up with artist Bruce Ingram to produce a charming concatenation of some familiar fairy tales. Beginning with Goldilocks arriving home after her adventure with the three bears, author and illustrator tell her story backwards, so to speak, by describing what she had been doing "previously." The final "previously" has her walking in the woods, prior to coming upon the house of the three bears, where she bumped into Jack (of climbing the beanstalk fame). As his story progresses backwards, it turns out that he's the same Jack who tumbled down the hill with his sister Jill, and that the two of them had encountered the Frog Prince, who (before he was turned into a frog) had fallen in love with "a disappearing girl named.Cinderella," who had collided with the Gingerbread Man and his retinue, and so on and so on, until the very satisfying conclusion. Reading this book aloud to 4 to 8-year-old children is a delight. Not only will they take great pleasure in repeating "previously" with you each time it appears (nearly 30 times) in the text, but they'll appreciate Ahlberg's word pictures--The Frog, "sitting on the window sill/with a sorrowful look in his eye/and a crown on his head;" or Goldilocks, who "had been humming a tune/and having a little skip by herself in the dark woods." Beginning with the deliberately childlike pencil drawings on the endpapers, Ingram's pictures offer a colorful and clever complement for Ahlberg's quirky text. Just take a look at the picture of the poor Frog Prince watching Jack and Jill arguing at the breakfast table and you'll see what I mean.

City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008)

Leningrad in 1942 may seem to be a strange setting for a novel that is best described as a lively, good-hearted buddy tale, but there it is, and if you enjoy the élan of movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, here's the novelistic equivalent. (When I told a friend how much I enjoyed reading David Benioff's City of Thieves, he replied that he bet there was already a screenplay of it in the hands of the young actor Shia LaBeouf. I can but hope that it's true, because it would make a most entertaining film.) The novel begins with an account of a visit between the author and his grandfather, Lev, during which he presses his elderly relative for information about what happened to him in World War II; what follows is his grandfather's tale. But there's a catch. How reliable is the older man's story? When David tries to get answers to some of his specific questions, his grandfather tells him that since he's a writer, he should just make it up. So how much is truth and how much fiction? Maybe it doesn't matter. Certainly, each reader will answer the question differently after finishing City of Thieves. In 1942, Leningrad was deep into the throes of a 900-day siege by the Germans, who were determined to starve the Russians into submission. Lev Beniov, too young for the army and too old to accompany his mother and sister when they leave the dangers of Leningrad for a hoped-for safety in the countryside, is arrested and imprisoned by the police for ignoring the curfew and looting a dead Nazi paratrooper, a crime punishable by execution. His cellmate is Kolya, who seems to Lev to be the very opposite of himself: Kolya is high-spirited, good looking, knows the ways of the world (and women), and is courageous, self-confident, and reckless. His crime is desertion from the army, and he, too, is condemned to death. But the two get an unexpected reprieve: a Russian colonel offers them a chance to escape the firing squad on the condition that within the next five days they bring him a dozen eggs to be used in his daughter's wedding cake. This seemingly impossible task propels the improbable duo into a series of both wacky (meeting up with a pair of urban cannibals) and dangerous (an encounter with a fearless and dedicated group of Russian partisans, one of whose members is a beautiful young woman) adventures, both inside and outside the starving city. This page-turner is not only engrossing, but it has the added value of bringing a particular historical time and a place to life. Make reading and discussing it a third of a book discussion group trifecta: it fits well with Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad and Harrison Salisbury's comprehensive but very readable non-fiction account, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad.

Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald (2005)

Even if Conspiracy of Fools by Kurt Eichenwald weren't such mesmerizing and instructive reading, I still would have kept turning the pages, in a state of stunned bemusement, for the simple satisfaction of having my generally pessimistic view of human nature confirmed. The subject of Eichenwald's investigative journalism is Enron, and his characters seem to miss no opportunity to display cupidity, avarice, and just plain dishonesty (not to mention stupidity--or at least awe-inspiring incompetence). Eichenwald (who writes for The New York Times) takes us through the days, weeks, and years leading up to Enron's ignoble collapse at the hands of Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lay, and Andrew Fastow, who, along with their bankers, their accountants, and numerous underlings, all colluded in shady deals, sleight-of-hand tricks with the bottom line, and a disregard for their employees, their investors (except for themselves), and the good of the country. One can only hope that Enron is not representative of most corporate culture. Call me naïve, but I found this book infinitely depressing. Still, it's definitely worth reading.

Death of a Cozy Writer: A St. Just Mystery by G. M. Malliet (2008)

Here's a recipe for a classic cozy whodunit. Take one irascible, manipulative, cold (but wildly successful) mystery writer, Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk. (His fictional detective, Miss Rampling, is a near clone of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.) Beauclerk-Fisk takes great and twisted delight in controlling his family by threatening to change his will, so into the mix throw in three sons and a daughter (one is wealthy, one is a drunk, one is a layabout, and all are terrified of their father); add an ex-wife; two unexpected announcements; and a longtime cook who (possibly) knows more than just how to create phenomenal meals. Have everyone come together in a large country house in Cambridgeshire. Outcome? Not one, but two murders most violent. Enter Detective Chief Inspector St. Just to investigate, ignore the red herrings, and finally bring all the survivors together to unveil the truth behind the deaths. G.M. Malliet's Death of a Cozy Writer is a heartfelt (and successful) homage to the great novels of Britain's Golden Age of Mysteries, which lasted from about 1913 to the beginning of World War II: a time when Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh's writing careers were in full bloom.

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso (2008)

A belief that sustains many of us (or at least something we desperately hope) is that any disease that might befall us will be within the scope of the medical establishment to cure or contain. Unfortunately, that's not always the case, as poet Sarah Manguso discovered, when, as a college junior, a baffling illness high-jacked her life. It turned out (after many mis-diagnoses, late-night runs to emergency rooms, blood exchanges, stays in the psych ward as a result of severe depression, and various other indignities to the mind and body that patients routinely suffer) that she had an extremely rare autoimmune disease known as CIDP (which stands for Chronic Idiopathic Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy). It's related to Guillain-Barré syndrome, in which a gradual numbness and later paralysis takes over the body and, as Manguso tells us early in this grueling memoir, ".may resolve spontaneously, relapse and remiss indefinitely, or progress and terminate in death." Manguso's lyrical memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, written almost 11 years after the disease's first symptom--numb feet--first appeared, and several years after she went into remission, is best described as a prose poem. It's written as a series of three or four line impressions of what was going on in her life. As engrossing (and somewhat terrifying) as the description of the course of her illness is, what makes this book so memorable is Manguso's command of the language she uses, struggling to find ways of describing what's happening to her body in words that are precise, economical, and unhackneyed. The wonder is that she succeeds so beautifully: in the last chapter, Manguso writes: "This is suffering's lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize."

Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World by David Maraniss (2008)

After finishing David Maraniss's Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World in the midst of the 2008 Summer Games, I was struck by how technology has changed the Olympics and our relationship to it. As opposed to the Rome Olympics, which took place nearly half a century ago, when television coverage was, at best, limited and spotty, now we can comfortably sit and watch hour after hour of the competitions. Just for starters, we're able to take in the opening ceremony, swimming matches, track and field events, gymnastics, rowing, volleyball, and cycling, to name just a few of the competitions I've watched. Plus, many athletes have their own blogs, so we can read their impressions, as well as a host of blogs from those attending the games in Beijing. So what's the point of reading about a series of athletic events that took place so long ago? In fact, Maraniss's book makes fascinating reading for both sports fans and history buffs. (I count myself a member of both groups, and was therefore doubly into it.) You can certainly read it for the pure enjoyment of getting up close and personal with some American athletes at the height of their talent, including Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolph, as well as men and women at the start of their careers in the summer of 1960. (The best example here is Cassius Clay, a sweet-talking, flirty 18-year-old, well before he morphed into his life as Muhammad Ali.) Maraniss also offers accounts of competitors from other countries, whose names and achievements I was not familiar with, but whose stories thrilled me. One of these was the Ethiopian marathoner (and eventual winner of the event), Abebe Bikila, who ran the streets of Rome barefoot and about whom one American marathoner inaccurately predicted, "There's one guy we don't have to worry about." But, as we're reminded throughout the 400-plus pages of the book, the summer games of 1960 might well have been nicknamed "The Cold War Olympics." With tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. running awfully high, both sides felt that Olympic victories would be useful for propaganda purposes. (In fact this was the first Olympics that the Russians decisively outscored the U.S. in the medal tally--a real blow to America's sense of superiority) The Olympics never seem to be controversy free, and the executive board of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, led by the legendary Avery Brundage, had to deal with issues arising out of South Africa, whose system of apartheid appeared to be incompatible with the nondiscrimination clause of the Olympic Charter. Their biggest headache, however, seems ironic, given that the 2008 Olympics are in China: it was deciding how to handle the delegation from the Republic of China (also known as Taiwan, or Formosa). The IOC decided that those athletes had to compete as Taiwanese, or in any case, not use the word "China" in their designation, or else they would not be allowed to compete in the Games.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (1994)

If you're the sort of person who has always turned first to the comics section in the daily paper in order to see what's happening with Cathy, or Dick Tracy, or what the folks on Gasoline Alley were up to, or if you used to spend your allowance on Superman or Archie and Veronica or Little Lulu comics, I suspect you've occasionally wondered what it is about the medium that drew you in. And even those with a comics-free childhood cannot help but notice the surge these days in the publication (and popularity) of comic books for adults, teens, and children, which in general have taken on the more genteel designation "graphic novels." (You can get a good sense of the diversity available in this medium by taking a look at books like Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen series, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, and Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot.) In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, cartoonist Scott McCloud does a terrific job of answering these questions and more: What's so darn appealing about the comics form, anyway? Why are so many people of all ages hooked on comics? Why are comics arranged on the page the way they are? How do you read them--do you look at the picture first and then read the text? Why do people's words appear in those balloons? Why are they spaced out in those little boxes? Why are they called comics even when they're not really funny? How do cartoonists combine "showing" and "telling" to best effect? How do cartoonists create motion in still pictures? What about emotion? Is there a generally accepted language of cartooning art? I consider myself a relative newbie in the world of comics (although I did spend my allowance following the exploits of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica, much to the dismay of my parents), and McCloud's book was an invaluable part of my learning experience. I promise you, after reading this, you'll have an increased respect for the comic artist's work and you'll certainly never look at a comic or graphic novel (whatever you choose to call it) in the same way again.

Metzger's Dog by Thomas Perry (2003)

Perhaps all you need to know to decide whether or not to read Thomas Perry's thriller Metzger's Dog is that Dr. Henry Metzger happens to be a cat. So, if you're hankering for a humorous crime story, you can't do better than this one. The delectably complicated plot revolves around Leroy "Chinese" Gordon and his group of anti-social pals, who break into a UCLA professor's office in order to score some cocaine, but find, instead, detailed instructions for bringing a major urban city to its knees. Think Los Angeles, think traffic, think roadblocks, think gridlock--then think what the CIA might do after phase one plays itself out, in order to stop these geniuses from producing further mayhem. It's up to agent Ben Porterfield to try to broker a deal with Chinese, his friends, and his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend, Margaret, as well as Metzger and his dog. Perry went on to write many more novels (he's best known for his Jane Whitefield thrillers), but this has always been my favorite. I've always wished that Perry would write a sequel to this, and I'm thrilled it's back in print.

Title available via inter-library loan

Origin of Haloes by Kristen Den Hartog (2005)

I really enjoyed Origin of Haloes by Canadian writer Kristen den Hartog. It's a sensitive and emotionally satisfying novel about the choices we make, for good or for ill, and the secrets that can eat away at our lives and the lives of those we love the best. When Olympic-caliber gymnast Kay Clancy gets pregnant in high school (her seducer is a parent's worse nightmare; I was wincing throughout this section of the novel), she marries nice-guy Joe LeBlanc, never telling him who the father of her child is. This decision will come to haunt the whole family, casting a dark spell over Joe and Kay, as well as their children. den Hartog intertwines the four year cycle of the Olympics into her novel, giving American readers insight into the games from a Canadian viewpoint. While I was reading this novel I was particularly reminded of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, partly, I think, because den Hartog is equally talented at her descriptions of a particular place and time, and partly because she also offers an emotionally wrenching, yet satisfying, picture of what it's like growing up in the shadow of loss.

Title available via inter-library loan

Fidelity by Grace Paley (2008)

Before her death (at 84) last year, Grace Paley finished what would be her final book, a collection of poems called Fidelity. Although I've long been a fan of Paley's brilliant short fiction--her voice is unmistakable and, once encountered, never forgotten--I'd never read much of her poetry. But after being thoroughly drawn into the poems in Fidelity, I definitely want to go back and see what I've missed. These poems, written in the last years of her life, deal primarily with aging and with love and death, with those larger themes woven into poems about friendship and family relationships. All the poems are marked, like her fiction, with her distinctive voice, her deadpan humor, and her take on the ways of the world. Reading them is not a depressing experience, despite the subject matter. They are, though, especially poignant because both reader and writer are aware of what's just over the horizon. One of my favorites in the collection is called "An Occasional Speech at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gathering." (The extra spaces between the words in the poems are correct; a good question to ask oneself or one's bookgroup is why Paley chose to space out her words that way, and why those particular words were chosen to be set apart.) It begins: "Anyone who gets to be/eighty years old says thank you/to the One in charge then im-/mediately begins to complain" and goes on to talk about the ironies of the very first Thanksgiving. And here's the beginning of "On Occasion": "I forget the names of my friends/and the names of the flowers in/my garden my friends remind me/Grace it's us.the flowers just/stand there stunned by the sun." But the best poem, the most moving and true poem, in the book is "Sisters." It is an exquisite tribute to those people no longer in her life. In the course of the poem Paley tells us: "I wanted to say that/my friends were dying/but have now become absent the word dead is correct/but inappropriate" and ends "their fidelity to the idea that/it is possible with only a little extra anguish/to live in this world at an absolute minimum/loving brainy sexual energetic redeemed." Which would be a perfect line for Paley's gravestone.

Thrillers: The Kennedy Assassination

Two dandy thrillers that take as their central tenet that the conclusions of the Warren Commission about the 1963 death of John F. Kennedy are wrong wrong wrong, are The Berlin Conspiracy by Tom Gabbay and Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn. Both McCarry and Gabbay offer ingenious, different from one another, and page-turningly plausible scenarios to answer the questions of why the assassination happened and who was ultimately responsible. You don't need to be a conspiracy buff to enjoy these--you just have to be someone who's looking for nicely written, well-plotted and intelligent suspense fiction. Alan Furst and John le Carré fans who haven't read either or both of these outstanding thrillers have a definite treat in store.

The Berlin Conspiracy by Tom Gabbay (2007)

In The Berlin Conspiracy, disgruntled ex-CIA contract agent Jack Teller is brought out of his retirement and sent to Berlin in the fall of 1963 after an East German government official claims that he has important information for the U.S. about a pending plot to kill the American president when he's on German soil. The possible informant, who insists that he will tell what he knows only to Jack, brings news of a conspiracy that reaches from East Berlin to the highest levels of American government.

Title available via inter-library loan

The Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry (2005)

The Tears of Autumn, originally published in 1974, features McCarry's recurring main character, CIA agent Paul Christopher, who believes that he knows who was ultimately responsible for Kennedy's assassination. But when he raises his theories with his boss, he finds that they run counter to the "official" governmental views, and he's basically forbidden to discuss them. So Paul quits his job and sets out to verify his beliefs. Tracking down the truth takes him all over the globe, from Vietnam to Africa to Europe to the highest levels of the U.S. government.