The Woods–Harlan Coben (Audio)

I will not say the writing in this novel was at classic level, unless it is classic murder mystery prose.  These types of weaknesses become more apparent in audio, where you read at the narrator’s speed rather than letter your eyes fly over the words as you look for the next clue.

The premise was interesting, which was what led me to purchase this from Audible.  The son of Russian immigrants turned New Jersey prosecutor is in the midst of a difficult rape case when the decades-old disappearance/murder of his sister and three other summer campers resurfaces in the shape of a middle-aged man’s body found in an alley that seems to be one of the missing campers.

Paul Copeland, “Cope,” is a widower (his rich beautiful perfect wife died of cancer six years previously) with a young daughter.  His father is recently deceased and his last words, to find her, haunt Cope.  Fortunately, he has a saint for a sister-in-law and a jovial brother-in-law who help pick up the slack with his daughter when the overpaid nanny is unable to care for her.  He has a solid moral center, but he lied to investigators the summer his sister disappeared.  He left cabin guard duty to sneak into the woods and make love to his girlfriend.  He lied, of course, to protect her, but our hackles go up a little.  Lies from a prosecutor?

The Woods is full of stock characters, including Cope’s lead investigator, Muse, a middle-aged, single woman who wears practical shoes and, although reed thin, eats like a horse.   Cope’s teenage love is an alcoholic English professor with a doctorate in psychology whose students all post positive online reviews of her classes.  Her father, the owner of the summer camp, is a stock aged hippie, complete with vintage yellow VW Beetle.  And, yes, because Cope is the son of Russian immigrants, the KGB makes an appearance.

I cannot say with confidence that I would have listened to this book had I known the level of writing, which became distracting to the point that my husband and children were mocking it when they were in the car when I was listening to it.  The end was also disappointing–cliche and vague.  If you like a book that lets you make fun of it or you want a quick beach read, The Woods might suffice.

Finished 6/21/15

Secrecy–Rupert Thomson

In my mid-forties, the physical experience of a book is becoming more and more significant to my reading experience.  Secrecy by Other Press was a joy for the eyes from the start.  The title begins with the tracery of a medieval illuminated initial.  The cover stock is thick and a flap folds in for the publisher’s plot teaser.  The stock itself seems aged and water-stained.  Designer Archie Ferguson seems to have designed a cover that catered directly to me.  When I opened the pages, the physical pleasure of the book continued.  The print size is large without seeming like it was meant for my grandmother and the margins are large.  My eyes smiled.

Secrecy is a quick read, perhaps in part due to the larger print size, but also due to a quick story without too many intricate details that require re-reading.  Zummo is a Sicilian wax sculptor who fled home in the wake of rumors of necrophilia.  His brother tormented him throughout their childhood and there is some question about Zummo’s parentage.  He begins the story with a visit to a nun, the wife of the Grand Duke Cosimo III of the infamous Medici Florence.  The novel is the story he tells her and her response.  Cosimo became Zummo’s patron, commissioning grotesquely beautiful works recreating the decay of the plague that haunted seventeenth-century Italy.  He also makes a secret commission–a beautiful woman–that seems to contradict all of Cosimo’s harsh prohibitions against adultery and sodomy and various other sexual sins.  Because it is seventeenth-century Italy the villain is, of course, an evil hypocritical Dominican friar, Stufa.  Zummo demonstrates the depths of his humanity in a foil to Stufa’s inhumanity and we know a showdown is looming.  Add a beautiful apothecary’s niece whose own parentage is also in question and the triangle is complete.

Secrecy‘s plot is not demanding.  For someone who enjoys this time period, reading this beautifully designed novel was like curling up with a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough–comforting, yummy, and easy to swallow if not all that nutritious.

Finished 6/16/15

The Girl on the Train–Paula Hawkins (Audio)

I love procedural crime novels for their predictability, but once in awhile it is thrilling to find an author who can design a murder mystery that is truly suspenseful from page one to the end.  Paula Hawkins begins her novel mysteriously.  A woman is riding on a train.  We are not sure from where to where or why, but Hawkins shows us immediately into her heart.  She is an outsider who watches people from the train.  Hawkins slowly  reveals bits and pieces of Rachel’s story and then expands the lens to her ex-husband and his new family, their neighbors, and her roommate.  Even when the lens is expanded Hawkins slowly changes our view of Rachel. Eventually the narration rotates between Rachel, Anna (the second wife of Rachel’s ex), and Megan (Anna’s neighbor who had disappeared) and Hawkins destabilizes our trust in the narrative.  Who sees things closest to how they really are?  What are the women not telling us?  How can we triangulate their stories and reveal more than they intended?  Even Rachel does not trust her own narration as she struggles to regain a memory from a black out that niggles at the corners of her mind.

Hawkins populates her novel with red herrings and potential culprits.  At one point I suspected everyone except the lead detective investigating Megan’s disappearance.  Her cast of characters are complex.  Only Detective Riley seems drawn from the stock characters of the mystery genre.  These complex characters and the small twists in their stories are what contribute to Hawkins’ sustaining the thrill.  She takes us into the neuroses of the narrators and makes us feel strongly about them.  I cheered for Rachel even while suspecting her of murder.  Hawkins leads us to empathize with Anna, who is stalked by her husband’s ex-wife, and then to despise her as a judgmental hypocritical homewrecker.  She plays with our emotions so that we are not sure we can trust ourselves as readers.  Even after Hawkins reveals the guilty party, she continues to hold us in suspense until the bitter end.  I could not stop listening.

The Girl on the Train is reminiscent of Gone Girl and, although I love Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl cannot compare to the suspense of The Girl on the Train.  I eagerly await Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel.

Finished 6/14/15

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them–Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown is not a historian or an archaeologist, but she holds a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Penn and has authored several books on Norse topics (http://www.nasw.org/users/nmb/bio.html).  In the Ivory Vikings, Brown explores the various stories and scholarly theories surrounding the beautiful Lewis chessmen.  She says in the introduction that “their story questions the economics behind the Viking voyages to the West, explores the Viking impact on Scotland, and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for almost five hundred years….It reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome’s rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed.”  The chessmen also, she asserts, bring to light the story of the craftswomen, Margaret the Adroit of Iceland, who is referenced as the creator of the chessmen in the subtitle.

Brown draws beautiful portraits of the pieces then explores what scholars have said about them before digging into the Icelandic sagas and the Norse history that suggest potential sites for the chessmen’s creation.  She emphasizes the isolation of anything written in Icelandic and the priority given to anything written in English.  Brown favors Skalholt, the seat of Bishop Pall and the possible site of Margaret the Adroit’s workshop.  Unfortunately, Skalholt has been occupied over various centuries and excavating to the twelfth-century layer is nearly impossible.

Along the way Brown explores walrus hunting and the uses for walrus products, including the tusks, from which the Lewis chessmen are made.  She traces decorative motifs in wooden church portals and Bishop Pall’s ivory crozier.  In doing so she traces the wide trade networks of the Vikings and the history of chess itself, which began in India and traveled through Arab networks to the west.  Brown’s sympathy for the Vikings sneaks in, as when she notes that, although we hear of the brutality of Viking raids on monasteries, we do not hear of the brutality of Charlemagne’s men as they conquered and forced the conversion of the Saxons.  “We deplore the brutality of the Vikings,” she writes, “but not the atrocities of the Emperor of the West.”  The Vikings seem terrible because they did not play by the rules.

Vikings were lured to Iceland and Greenland in part by walrus.  The lure of Christianity for the Viking kings was more complicated and seems to have begun, at least in part, to smooth trade partnerships.  Once the connection became deeper, education, the church, and politics wove a complex web between the Norse and the rest of Europe.  Educated Icelanders created an alphabet in which the Icelandic sagas were composed.  Christianity brought rules that limited the definition of family to monogamous couples transmitting property and title through primogeniture, but the Norse did not submit quickly to these rules.  Their priests (and bishops) continued to marry.  Brown is fascinated by the gesture of the Lewis queens–one hand on their cheeks.

Margaret of Adroit appears in the Saga of Bishop Pall. She was the wife of a high priest who carved beautiful pieces, such as an altarpiece and a crozier.  The politics of her time were nearly as complicated as the modern politics surrounding the attribution of the Lewis chessmen.  The British Museum currently lists them as made in Norway, which is a bit of a fudge since Norway held sway over so much of the North in the twelfth century.  Even the National Museum of Scotland recently supported the Norwegian theory (centered on Trondheim).  A spirited group, however, have been forwarding the Icelandic theory and adding the fine visual arts to the literary arts of the medieval Icelandic sagas.  Despite all of the history, literature, art history, archaeology, and politics, the mystery from Brown’s subtitle remains and the woman who made them remains conjecture.  Brown closes with a quote from archaeologist Birna Larusdottir, who excavated the fishing village of Siglunes, where more chess pieces were found.  “They were making chessmen in Iceland at the same time as the Lewis chessmen were made,” she said.  “We can say that.”  The mystery remains, but thanks to Brown and the Lewis chessmen, I know more about the world from which they came than I did before I opened the Ivory Vikings’ pages.

Finished 6/14/15

The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Shame and Honor in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century–Joel Harrington

Medieval justice.  The phrase brings to mind, for many of us influenced by popular culture, something less than just.  Cruel and imaginative tortures and punishments.  Joel Harrington demonstrates, through the well-contextualized life of one executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, that the early modern’s cities’ search for justice and order, administered by the growing municipal governments as well as larger states, led to an increase in torture and executions.  In an era with limited forensic science, torture was the surest way to learn the facts of a case.  Governments agonized over the forms of torture, in what order they should be used, and when they should be stopped.  Many crimes were punished with fines or flogging, some with exile from the city.  Heinous crimes or repeat offenses were dealt with through execution, but even here the government agonized over method.  The goal of early modern execution was not to create a spectacle of excessive physical suffering, but to demonstrate that the society operated according to laws overseen by the city fathers.  Many judgments noted that an execution was ordered in mercy, for instance beheading rather than hanging.  Burning at the stake could be done after the executioner broke someone’s neck or with a bag of gunpowder around the neck to facilitate a faster death.  Even hanging could be made less painful by having the executioner’s assistant hang on the condemned’s legs to hasten strangulation.  There was, Harrington explains, no trap door hangings and so no swift deaths from snapped necks.  Hanging was a slow strangle if done purely.  The most difficult execution to comprehend, perhaps, for a modern audience, is death by the wheel, in which the condemned was pinned to the ground with supports beneath his or her joints and beaten to death by the executioner using a large wooden wheel.  I wanted to know more about the origin of this punishment, about what had made anyone decide that breaking someone with a wheel rather than any other blunt object was preferable.  Perhaps the wheel also hastened death by beating someone’s body all over at once rather than one area at a time as would be possible with a cudgel.  Once broken, the condemned’s body would be attached to a wheel on a pole and the corpse left exposed for the birds. As further proof that executions were not spectacles of excessive physical pain, Harrington relates cases in which executioners were stoned or otherwise attacked my mobs when they botched an execution, such as requiring several blows in a beheading or overseeing a burning that went on too long before actual death.

Executions were at their height in the sixteenth century and diminished rapidly in the seventeenth and eighteenth as, Harrington postulates, governments became more secure in their authority, having performed it repeatedly throughout the sixteenth.  Harrington’s executioner, Meister Frantz Schmidt, served his career as the city of Nuremberg’s executioner during this high point.

I began this review with medieval justice because the phrase is often invoked to critique modern justice systems, but the sixteenth century was not medieval. It belongs to the early modern period and the growing power of national monarchies, emerging structures of national identity that overlapped, coincided, or even conflicted with changing religious identities in the wake of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations.  The story of how governments used their handling of crime and punishment to build authority and gain the trust of their citizens is one story line.

Another involves the Schmidt family’s efforts to escape the dishonor of execution.  Even though governments needed the executioners to build and buttress their reputations as guardians of justice and even though society needed executioners to be the public face of the maintenance of law and order, the gory nature of their work made executioners outcasts much like butchers and others who dealt in death and blood.  Meister Frantz Schmidt’s father became an executioner at the command of his lord.  He was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Bamberg needed an executioner and the office was empty.  Pressed into service, Schmidt’s family became tainted and left the ranks of polite society.  Frantz’s father encouraged him to change their situation and, when Frantz followed in his father’s footsteps (other trades no longer being open to him), he began keeping a journal of his official work that ultimately documented 394 executions and hundreds of other punishments over his forty-five years as Nuremberg’s executioner.  Frantz documented the crime with which the condemned had been found guilty and, as the years went on, added more about the criminal pasts of the condemned as he saw the same people come before him for punishments and, eventually, execution.  His entries are sober, as was he.  Unlike many executioners, who sought solace in drink to escape the realities of the violence and, perhaps, the social injustices heaped on the executioners and their families, Meister Frantz Schmidt remained sober throughout his life, drinking neither on or off the job.  His sobriety and his skill at his job, his professionalism, allowed him to negotiate very good terms for his employment as well as a pension.  Near the end of his life, his record, both in terms of people who knew and had worked with him and the written record of his career through his journal, earned for him an imperial restitution of honor.

The role of honor in the sixteenth century is a third story line.  The Schmidt family needs to demonstrate their honor despite their dishonorable profession.  Those accused of crimes are often condemned through a demonstrated lack of honor.  The city government pursues, punishes, and executes criminals to build and maintain its own honor.  The Nuremberg citizens refuse to socialize with the Schmidt family because to do so would taint their own honor.  Honor is a currency harder to accumulate than gold and much more quickly dissipated.  Honor is an internal value, but, more importantly, an external standard to which individuals, families, and groups needed to perform.  This story line takes Harrington into the history of gender and sexuality and allows him to integrate women into a story otherwise dominated by men.  Harrington is blunt about the limited choices available to women that often put them under the purview of the court.

In a fourth story line, Harrington analyzes Meister Frantz Schmidt’s views of his job over time.  The spare youthful entries that simply mark the facts of judgment and punishment or execution are replaced by longer entries that tell stories about the condemned and seek to put their violation of the law and society’s norms in a larger context, to make sense of their choices.  His own life choices and limitations influence his views.  For example, Harrington argues that Frantz struggled to understand people who set aside their privilege, their honor, to commit useless crimes or to ruin the honor of others.

When Frantz’ honor is restored by the imperial court, he asks to be allowed to continue his work as a healer, which was part of a sixteenth-century executioners job, as odd as that may sound to us.  Executioners were allowed, and expected, to treat external wounds.  At its most basic, prisoners damaged in interrogation needed to be whole and hale on their execution days, another proof that the sixteenth-century justice system was not simply a sadistic spectacle.  Executioners gained reputations as efficient healers, some better than others, and Frantz seems to have read or been informed of key medical treatises of his day that made him a valuable healer.  He was not simply peddling charms and amulets, although such healing was part of the mix of early modern medicine.  He was so good that his successor as executioner repeatedly complained that he was stealing his clients.

Harrington starts with Frantz’ journal, which he happened upon in a German bookstore, and he leads us through his journey as a historian to make sense of what was in its pages.  He looks at Nuremberg municipal records as well as those from other cities.  He integrates literature of the time as well as period drawings.  He is fortunate that Meister Frantz Schmidt was Nuremberg executioner during the period in which the famed Nuremberg Chronicle was compiled and printed in all of its glory, so he is able to share with us woodcuts of the town and even Frantz at work executing criminals.

Like Jill Lepore’s recent work on Jane Franklin, Harrington seeks to present to us the life of an ordinary person (though perhaps less ordinary than Jane in that he was a government official) through his subject’s own words put into context by a larger historical study.  Both are highly successful, but Harrington is more successful in keeping Frantz’s story always in focus and not let the master narratives (the rise of the state, for instance) take over. Once again, this book is a model of popular history done very well.

Finished 6/11/15

The Slap–Christos Tsioklas (Audio)

I was intrigued by the previews for the US TV series, The Slap, so when I saw the novel on Audible, I put it in my cart.  I don’t know what I expected, but it was not what I got.

A backyard cookout is the occasion of the title incident.  The toddler-aged son of a troubled couple (he is an alcoholic, she is searching for identity and still breastfeeding her nearly-four-year-old child) is out of control and seemingly without boundaries.  His behavior is annoying all of the guests, but when he threatens to hit the child of another guest, that child’s father steps in, speaks to the child, and then administers a slap.  Half of the guests seem relieved and supportive and the other half seem horrified.  Under and over those feelings are affairs, in-law tensions, ethnic tensions, youthful hurts.  What seems to be a happy middle-class group of people is revealed to be a hot mess.  The host’s husband is having an affair with her teenage, orphaned assistant whose best friend is young closeted gay man.  The assailant is the cousin of the host’s husband and a man whose violent, philandering father seems to have left his imprint on his son.  Both come from Greek immigrants who made their lives in Australia after fleeing from a chaotic post-war Greece.  Although immigrants themselves, their parents hold prejudices against Muslims (Muzzies) and the hostess, their daughter-in-law, “The Indian,” whose parents were more recent Indian immigrants.

The assailant has made it in middle-class terms.  He has a beautiful, expensive showcase home and a beautiful showcase wife.  Neither satisfies him.  His cousin, married to “The Indian” is a handsome man and a secure government employee married to a beautiful successful women who owns her own veterinary clinic.  His children are well-behaved and attractive.  He, too, is unsatisfied and seeks validation from other women.

“The Indian’s” best friends are the lost mother of the slapped toddler and a single, successful screenwriter for a popular soap opera who, shortly after the slap, quits her job to write the novel she has been talking about for years and aborts the child conceived with her much younger boy-toy actor boyfriend.

No one is satisfied with their success.  No one is family-focused.  Children and spouses are accessories.  Christos is sickened by while maybe empathizing with the lost middle class, but his view is very masculine-centered.  Of the five central female figures, one lies about being molested, one sucks up to her daughter-in-law in person while verbally abusing her behind her back, another aborts a child conceived with a man she likes if not loves because it will ruin her life options, another uses her child to mask her own lack of purpose and identity and the misery in her marriage, and the last cheats on her husband while away on business and stays with him in large part because they look good together.  While the men are mostly not admirable (the philandering cousins provide many coarse-language scenes that reflect a horrible view of women as sexual conquests), the saving grace is Manolo, “The Indian’s” father-in-law, who genuinely loves his daughter-in-law  and is crushed when he realizes she does not classify him as real family, and who reflects on the sacrifices he and his wife made for their children and questions what those sacrifices gained.  He sees his son and nephew more clearly than anyone in the novel sees themselves.

If you Google The Slap or read the Amazon reviews, you will quickly find that this is a polarizing book.  This book was not what I expected and it was not a perfect work of art, but it did provide a window onto one view of middle-class Australian society and its divisions, angsts, and failures and, in some places, it made me think.  I did not enjoy listening to this book (which likely was influenced by the seemingly relentless pop-up coarse and completely male-focused sex scenes that were themselves like periodic slaps), but it is not a book I will forget.   And that is something.

Finished 5/30/15

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time–Mark Haddon (Audio)

It has been an interesting week for finishing a book that has been out a long time because its Broadway adaptation made headlines at the Tony awards.

This book has been on my reading list for awhile, but I am particularly glad that I listened to it because hearing Christopher narrate his story was crucial to understanding who he was.  Had I read the novel, I would have imagined my own inflections and pacing, not the pacing and inflections of an autistic British teenager.

Haddon’s novel was published 2003.  Big Bang Theory premiered 2007.  Both have had a huge impact on the popular understanding of autism with Haddon’s novel breaking the ground, but Big Bang having wider reach.  Because I watched Big Bang long before I listened to Curious Incident, I could not help but hear Sheldon in Christopher’s voice.  In 2003 Haddon’s portrait of an autistic teen would have been masterful at showing us that a young man who seemed to belong with the special needs children at his school did have special, but different, needs.  The boy who screamed in the store because his mother touched him was the same boy who passed his maths A-levels with flying colors.  He was also the same boy whose (to us) irrational fear drove him to overcome other (to us) irrational fears to travel to his mother, Odysseus-style.

Although at first I was disappointed that the murder of Wellington was not the mystery, I was intrigued by what had happened to his mother and then by how his mother would respond to a real-life teenaged Christopher whom she had abandoned.  As a parent, I agonized with Christopher’s father when he ventured to London to plead with him for his forgiveness and frantically reassured him that he was trustworthy.  As a stepparent, I felt his frustration that he had to argue his trustworthiness compared to a woman who had abandoned both son and husband for a neighbor’s husband and a new life in the city.

The Curious Incident was a sweet story.  I am not sure I understand its enduring popularity or the pull of its Broadway adaptation (and living in the rural Midwest that will likely remain a mystery).  I wish I had gotten to it in 2004.

Finished 6/2/15