Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"The Frozen Thames" by Helen Humphreys

"The Frozen Thames" by Helen Humphreys

Reviewed By Alan Cheuse
Chicago Tribune

Canadian writer Helen Humphreys deals in her lovely prose experiment, "The Frozen Thames," with a kind of creation—the way that water turns to ice in winter—in 40 winters to be exact, 40 winters over the course of seven centuries.

Over and over again the Thames freezes. Birds freeze and fall from the air. Londoners face the cold and danger and pleasure of river ice. Boatmen lament the loss of free-flowing water; the poor sometimes freeze in mid-crossing; lovers embrace there; plague victims suffer there; royalty celebrates this mystery of physics and chemistry.

As Humphreys has a lady-in-waiting to the 32-year-old Queen Elizabeth I soliloquize in the mid-1600s, "The ice is new to us. The old ways of behaving don't seem to apply here. ... It is as though, in the very fact that the river froze, anything else might suddenly become possible as well."

Reading this inventive little volume, with a bit of a shiver, you know what it must have been like for Adam and Eve to see ice for the first time.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

'House of Cards' By William D. Cohan

'House of Cards' By William D. Cohan

Reviewed By Chuck Leddy
Boston Globe

William D. Cohan opens his economic narrative with Bear Stearns's dramatic March 2008 collapse, which concluded with a Federal Reserve-backed, last-minute merger with investment titan J.P. Morgan.

As Cohan's meticulous analysis makes clear, the investment bank's plunge was caused by a combination of factors, including a lack of internal controls, disengaged leadership, inadequate regulatory oversight by the US government, a plunging housing market, and Bear Stearns's overexposure to mortgage-backed securities.

Cohan, himself a former Wall Street investment banker, describes the rise and fall of Bear Stearns, detailing how its swashbuckling corporate culture and brutal internal politics undermined the bank at a time when the financial system suffered a liquidity crisis. Bear Stearns's customers and creditors, Cohan shows, reacted to the bank's overexposure to subprime mortgages in a predictable way: Customers began pulling their money out, and creditors stopped lending.

This liquidity crisis doomed the bank and kicked off the near-collapse of our entire financial system. Cohan explains why federal officials intervened last March: "Their concern was that the financial system had become increasingly fragile . . . and Bear Stearns's failure might cause tsunami-like damage if it was not contained." Cohan quotes a Morgan insider regarding its absorption of Bear Stearns: "This is insane. Why would you ever want to take on this piece of [expletive], other than out of some sort of patriotic sense of obligation?"

After describing the dramatic March collapse of Bear Stearns, Cohan goes back to discuss the beginnings of the bank. He discusses its "opportunistic culture" suspicious of theory. "If you made money for the firm," notes Cohan, you were given latitude to run things the way you wanted. "This haphazard strategy is key to understanding what happened in March 2008."

For example, when Bear Stearns got into the booming hedge fund markets by setting up its own line, it made money based largely on betting on the skyrocketing housing market in the form of mortgage-backed securities. Yet as abuses in the subprime housing sector began emerging, the housing market dipped and so did the value of Bear Stearns's securities. By the end, Bear Stearns would have billions of dollars of debt and a portfolio of toxic assets that nobody wanted to buy or accept as collateral.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

"World's End" by Pablo Neruda

"World's End" by Pablo Neruda
Reviewed By Richard Rayner
LA Times

"World's End," originally published in Spanish in 1969, toward the end of the career of the great poet Pablo Neruda (he died in 1973, soon after the coup that killed his friend and compatriot Chilean President Salvador Allende), is a book-length sequence that weaves together the personal and the political, the public and the private, the domestic and the global. For Neruda, poetry meant much more than the expression of emotion and personality. It was a sacred way of being and came with duties. He wrote poetry to explain himself to himself, but he had a mission to shape the world too. He was opposed to W.H. Auden's famous declaration: "Poetry makes nothing happen."

Ambitious in every sense

Neruda didn't buy that for a moment. For him, poetry could change everything. He lived a life of passionate engagement and his work was ambitious in every sense. He was, as American poet Campbell McGrath has written, "president of Pablo Neruda Enterprises / director of the great public works project: Pablo Neruda." "World's End" -- here translated into English in full for the first time by William O'Daly in a bilingual edition -- balances nothing less than the tumult of a century against a lifetime's personal vision.

Neruda personally experienced many key historical events (the Spanish Civil War, for example, in which his friend and fellow poet Lorca was assassinated) and bore witness to others. Here he rants full-on against U.S. involvement in Vietnam: "Why were they compelled to kill / innocents so far from home, / while the crimes pour cream / into the pockets of Chicago? / Why go so far to kill / Why go so far to die?" Elsewhere he rebukes (and excuses) himself for having believed in the tyrant Stalin for too long, remaining loyal to "el partido" even when other leading writers and intellectuals drawn, like him, to Marxism and the Soviet Union during the turbulence of the 1930s, had long since rejected Moscow's leash. "I was unaware of that which we were unaware," he writes. "But light was discovered / and we recovered our reason: / not for any man or his crime / would we throw the good / into the cellar of the wicked."

This may not seem like much of a mea culpa, but Neruda the idealist struggled to come to terms with the failure of the Soviet experiment even while he railed against an America that, he believed, had moved dangerously beyond the traditions of freedom and democracy expounded by Lincoln and Whitman, the poet whom Neruda revered above all others. Neruda described "World's End" as his "bitter book," and one of its subjects, certainly, is disillusion. "I have taken a kick / from time and it is now a mess, / the sad box of my life," he writes. "I cannot show people / my collection of shivers: / I felt lonely in a house / riddled with leaks / in a downpour that heard no appeal."

The desolation recalls his earlier groundbreaking book "Residence on Earth." There's the same sense of life turned to ashes and strangeness, wonderfully expressed. But in Neruda the possibility of revival is never far away. That's why so many readers throughout the world still rely upon him. He sings of despair in tones that soon thrill again, using his verse like a shaft of light, cross-examining the darkness so that a switch can be turned, or a metaphor spun magically into something that sustains. "As a poet baker / I prepare the fire, the flour, / the leavening, the heart, / and I, involved up to the elbows, / kneading the light of the oven, / the green water of language, / so the bread that happens to me / sells itself in the bakery."

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Friday, March 27, 2009

“Cheever: A Life” By Blake Bailey

“Cheever: A Life” By Blake Bailey

Reviewed By Bret Anthony Johnston
New York Times

Blake Bailey’s “Cheever: A Life” opens with a reference to the time John Cheever emerged, presumably drunk and definitely naked, from his Boston apartment. It was seven years before his death, a winter evening when he was to accompany John Updike to the symphony. His books were out of print, his marriage on the verge of collapse and his ambiguous sexual orientation a daily torment. He had taken to walking the streets and drinking with bums. Upon discovering Cheever in this compromised state, Updike, as he described it, “primly concentrated on wedging him into his clothes.” Afterward they went to Symphony Hall as if nothing unusual had occurred. Essentially, nothing had.

Bringing the lives of writers’ writers to the reading public is Mr. Bailey’s specialty. In “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” (2003) he delivered a sensitive and powerful portrait of the vastly underappreciated author of “The Easter Parade” and “Revolutionary Road.” Following Yates with Cheever makes sense. Both men waged desperate, lifelong battles with alcoholism, and Cheever, like Yates, spent his career attacking the hypocrisy of suburban life in keenly observed, downhearted narratives. Ultimately, though, their career trajectories diverged. After publishing three story collections and the novels “The Wapshot Chronicle” and “The Wapshot Scandal,” Cheever was hailed as “Ovid in Ossining” by Time magazine in a 1964 cover story — he also made the cover of Newsweek in 1977 with the release of his novel “Falconer” — while Yates remained a critical darling ignored by readers.

Yates never had a story in The New Yorker, whereas Cheever published a staggering 121 stories there. Most of those stories, Mr. Bailey writes, were born of autobiography or notes recorded in Cheever’s journal, a voluminous daily accounting maintained, Cheever said, as “a means of refreshing my memory.” (Only a fraction of the journal — 4,300 typed, single-space pages — has been published, but Mr. Bailey had total access.)

Cheever wrote conventional and experimental stories alike, though in fiction, as in life, he was obsessed with the dark secrets of the middle class. In “The Enormous Radio,” one of his masterpieces, a married couple find that their new radio inexplicably allows them to eavesdrop on their neighbors. The Westcotts “overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.”

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Monday, March 23, 2009

"Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve" by Giaconda Belli

"Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand: A Novel of Adam and Eve" by Giaconda Belli

Reviewed By Susan Salter Reynolds
Chicago Tribune

The creation story is the best improv exercise ever invented. Creation and destruction, self and no-self, story and history, fiction and nonfiction chase themselves in endless circles. The creation story is the Mobius strip, the double helix, the pattern language of art.

For an artist to take it on, she must feel that she is really ready to take it on. It is an act of calligraphy—too much ego, and the mirror that is the story cracks, the pool ripples. Narcissus remains deluded. Told with pure intent, imagination and clarity, the story is generous, capacious. The story becomes The Story.

So you will be glad to hear that Gioconda Belli, who is not a restrained sort of writer, keeps her creation story simple. First, she peels off the old layers of morality—her creation story is hardly a cautionary tale. Second, good and evil, if they exist at all, are two sides of the same state of being. The lovers, who try to figure out who this "Other" is and why he punished them so harshly, even wonder whether the serpent is God's Eve, if the serpent was taken from the Other, just as Eve was from Adam.

This is important, for if there is a new, evolved religion, surely it must embrace the possibility that we are pure at heart, that we do the best we can. To Belli's Adam and Eve, things that are good feel good; things that are bad feel bad. Belli's Eve sincerely believes that God wouldn't have put the tree or the fruit or the knowledge of good and evil in their path unless he had wanted them to partake.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Hardcover Nonfiction Bestsellers, March 8-14

Compiled By The Boston Globe

1. Outliers
By Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown.
2. Last Lion
By the Team at the Boston Globe. Simon & Schuster.
3. The Yankee Years
By Joe Torre and Tom Verducci. Doubleday.
4. The Lost City of Z
By David Grann. Doubleday.
5. The Gardner Heist
By Ulrich Boser. Collins.
6. The Inaugural Address 2009
By Barack Obama. Penguin.
7. Animals Make Us Human
By Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
8. Food Matters
By Mark Bittman. Simon & Schuster.
9. Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man
By Steve Harvey. Amistad.
10. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics
By Ina Garten. Clarkson Potter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

'Stealing MySpace' By Julia Angwin

'Stealing MySpace' By Julia Angwin

Reviewed By Janet Maslin
New York Times

There’s at least one story that has never been told on the no-holds-barred social networking Web site MySpace. That story is the chaotic, action-packed history of MySpace itself. Now Julia Angwin, a technology and media reporter for The Wall Street Journal, has done prodigious digging into the shady business practices, trailer-park aesthetics, lucky accidents and borderline personality types that have allowed MySpace to tap into the American psyche.

Her account is necessarily convoluted. But like the site itself, Ms. Angwin’s book about this, “Stealing MySpace,” is accessible to anyone, except during its most intensive dissections of deal-making. Overall, you needn’t know a portal from a platform to follow thihttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifs sprawling, rollicking Internet history.

There are many books about how tech stars struck it rich in Silicon Valley. “Stealing MySpace” isn’t one of them. This isn’t a tale of shy computer geeks making billions by creating perfect algorithms. Instead it’s about rogue marketers cobbling together half-baked plans, trying reckless gambits, relying on a “get it out fast, fix it later” philosophy and never bothering to worry about the consequences. With its Santa Monica corporate ambience and utter lack of scruples, Ms. Angwin says, MySpace qualifies as “a Hollywood-style media company — one where crazy creative people run the show, and nobody really knows what makes a hit or a flop.”

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Monday, March 16, 2009

'Etta' By Gerald Kolpan

'Etta' By Gerald Kolpan

Reviewed by Caroline Berson
Philadelphia Inquirer

Our heroine is dead before the tale can begin. The opening pages deliver the obituary of Lorinda Jameson Carr, an 80-year-old woman remembered for her philanthropic work and sharpshooting skills. Her adult life is well chronicled by the New York Herald Tribune, but "little is known of Mrs. Carr's early life."

And thus our story begins, not as a novel built on suspense, but rather on bringing to life a little-known member of the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang and capturing the mood of the Wild West.

According to historians, Etta Place was either a prostitute or a schoolteacher who, through unknown means, was rumored to be the girlfriend or wife of Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid.

Gerald Kolpan's version of history opens on a gentleman's farm in 1898 Philadelphia, where Lorinda Jameson, celebrated debutante and daring horseback rider, lives with her alcoholic father. Lorinda's lifestyle disintegrates when her father commits suicide rather than deal with his growing debt.

In a meeting with the family lawyer, Lorinda learns that one of her father's lenders is a notorious Sicilian gang.

"Your poor father had been laid to considerable debt by a cabal of gamblers, unscrupulous and desperate men who preyed upon your father's weakness for horse betting, no doubt with his enthusiastic support," the lawyer says. "Like the remainder of his creditors, these villains have contacted this office and informed me of their need to be remunerated . . . [or] they shall be forced into actions that will mean suffering for any whom your father loved in life."

To escape their promised revenge, Lorinda accepts a new name - Miss Etta Place - and travels west to Colorado, where she serves travelers as a Harvey Girl waitress. Etta soon realizes that her incomparable beauty attracts unwanted advances and is forced to extremes to defend her pure character. She escapes to "Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming territory. Somewhere between the beginning of nowhere and the end of nothing."

Here she finds herself in the company of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Kolpan first mentions the well-known outlaws by including a wanted poster in his narrative, one that identifies their criminal occupations as "bank robber and highwaymen, train robber, cattle and horse thief." These stark depictions are later softened by introducing different perspectives. Kolpan breaks away from his journalism training to reveal the souls in his novel through diary entries, newspaper articles, personal letters, and straight third-person narrative.

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'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell

'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell

Reviewed By Laila Lalami
LA Times

Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In "The Kindly Ones," the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.

"The Kindly Ones" is ostensibly the memoir of Maximilien Aue, a legal scholar who joins the main intelligence branch within the SS and slowly rises through the echelons of power. As a Nazi officer, he witnesses or participates in the major events of World War II -- the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad, the massacres in Auschwitz -- but evades capture after the fall of the Third Reich. He flees to France, uses his prewar connections to start a lace business, marries, has children and grandchildren, and leads the quiet life of a petit bourgeois.

In occasional flashbacks, the reader discovers a few details about Aue's birth and upbringing. When Aue was just a young boy, his father, a German veteran of World War I, went to visit a relative and never returned. Aue's mother then married a Frenchman, moving the family to the Côte d'Azur. For several years, Aue carried on an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una, until the two were found out and swiftly separated. Aue later has many homosexual encounters because, he says, he hopes to replicate his sister's sexual pleasures with him. If you think this story is unpleasant, or convoluted, or tragically Greek, wait until you get to the last third of the book.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Alan Moore, author of "Watchmen," reinvented the comic book

By Christopher Borrelli and Robert K. Elder
Chicago Tribune

Over the past 30 years, author Alan Moore has almost single-handedly reinvented the comic book, transforming its language, broadening its scope and deepening its intellect. So, naturally, Hollywood has been poaching his stories for years, the most egregious being the 2003 loud and dumb adaptation of his otherwise highly literate "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

There also have been films based on his works, such as "Constantine," "From Hell" and a glossy but tonally faithful version of "V for Vendetta"; both last year's "The Dark Knight" and Tim Burton's original " Batman" owe a debt to Moore's "Batman: The Killing Joke."

This weekend, however, we get director Zack Snyder's sprawling adaptation of " Watchmen," Moore's most celebrated creation. Initially a 12-issue series with artist Dave Gibbons, the collected volume has become one of the most acclaimed graphic novels ever, hailed by Time magazine as one of the best 100 novels of the 20th Century. It's about aging superheroes, nuclear politics and social engineering.

That said, Moore has sworn off movie profits inspired by his books; he recently told the Los Angeles Times that he is opposed to movies based on his work. About "Watchmen" he said, "I will be spitting venom all over it for months to come." As with most of his comics, Moore has insisted "Watchmen" is "inherently unfilmable," heresy in this time of inevitable big-screen adaptation.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Dead Silence" By Randy Wayne White

"Dead Silence" By Randy Wayne White

Review By Randy Wayne White
Miami Herald

It's a long way, literally and figuratively, from the funky fictional marina at Dinkin's Bay on Florida's southwest coast to the Hamptons of Long Island, but these two disparate settings form the backdrop for the latest -- and extremely engaging -- thriller from Randy Wayne White.

The book, of course, features the complex and enigmatic Doc Ford. For the uninitiated, the un-hip and the uninformed, Dr. Marion Ford is a marine biologist with a dark and secret past. Essentially he was a black-ops assassin, and that past -- as it has done in each of White's 15 previous Doc Ford novels -- threatens to come back to bite him in Dead Silence.

The story opens with Ford dispatching an ex-NFL player who has murdered a friend of Ford's. Doc swims out to the man's anchored boat, then bodily tows him out into the Gulf and dumps him. Cut to the Explorer's Club, where Ford is meeting up with another ex-clandestine agent with the aim of getting back into the business and -- not coincidentally -- to meet Sen. Barbara Hayes-Sorrento. While waiting, Ford witnesses her attempted kidnapping from a taxi out on the street. He intervenes, saving her with an axe he plucks from the hallowed club's walls (once used by Edmund Hillary) but the kidnappers escape with the senator's passenger, a teenage Native American who won a trip to New York in an essay contest.

Complicated enough already, but of course, the plot thickens quickly. The senator, a friend and potential paramour, heads a committee looking into an extraordinary cache of memorabilia, documents and treasure compiled by the recently expired Fidel Castro, and the early conjecture is that the kidnappers are Castro loyalists intent on ransoming for the warehouse full of Castro's stuff.

The hitch is they may have gotten more than they bargained for by taking the kid, Will Chaser, who not only seduced, then blackmailed his Minnesota teacher into writing the winning essay, but is one resourceful, bad-ass little dude.

Ford gets the go-ahead from the senator, the FBI, and his old black-ops boss, and after a trip back to Florida to arm himself and pick up his old friend Tomlinson, a clairvoyant, hippy, Zen-master doper, he tracks the bad guys to a horse farm in the Hamptons, which just happens to be right in Tomlinson's old neighborhood.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Bonnie and Clyde: The legend of the bank robbers returns

By Craig Wilson

Writer Jeff Guinn is standing in the middle of Route 154, eight miles south of this hardscrabble village in Louisiana's Bienville Parish.

The only sound is the wind whispering through the pine forest that seems to go on for miles around.

"Just look at this," he says. "It's perfect."

He gestures toward a slight curve in the lonely stretch of highway a quarter-mile to the north. It's around this bend that a cordoba gray Ford V-8 sedan came barreling along on a warm spring morning in 1934. A six-man posse, standing on a red clay knoll and hidden by the brush and pines that hugged the then-dirt road, was waiting.

May 23 will mark the 75th anniversary of the ambush that killed two of the most notorious and romanticized criminals in American history — an ambush immortalized in a famous blood-drenched scene from Bonnie and Clyde, the 1967 film that starred a glamorous Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. The day is not passing unnoticed.

Two new books on thttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifhe couple are about to hit stores, and the movies are taking an interest again: Filming starts this spring on a 21st-century version starring Hilary Duff and Kevin Zegers.

Too bad Bonnie and Clyde aren't still around. They'd love the attention. Bonnie dreamed of being in the movies.

Guinn, whose Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (Simon & Schuster, 366 pp., $27) goes on sale Tuesday, put 16,000 miles on his car researching his book over two years. He traveled the same roads the deadly duo did on their two-year, multi-state rampage that took them as far west as Arizona and as far north as Minnesota. They killed at least 11 people along the way.

Guinn's travels also took him to this desolate ambush site an hour east of Shreveport. He even slept in his car and ate sausages and beans from a can, just like Bonnie and Clyde.

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'Beyond Uncertainty' by David C. Cassidy

'Beyond Uncertainty' by David C. Cassidy

Reviewed By Sara Lippincott
LA Times

In June 1925, while recuperating from hay fever on the pollen-free island of Helgoland in the North Sea, Werner Heisenberg conceived of the first mechanics for quantum theory -- a way to actually do it. He was 23 years old. Physicists are said to do their best work when they are barely out of their teens; this is a signal example. Until Heisenberg's breakthrough -- which soon came to be called matrix mechanics, because it manipulated matrices, or lattices, of numbers, with weird but satisfying results -- there was no real connection between Niels Bohr's semiclassical picture of quantum physics and the ground.

Two years later, Heisenberg came up with his now-famous (and widely co-opted by philosophers and playwrights) uncertainty principle, which in essence says you can't simultaneously pin down the location and momentum of a subatomic particle. It is one of the pillars of the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory, which upended classical Newtonian physics and revealed matter and energy as fundamentally discontinuous and unpredictable. End of physics lecture.

I have a photograph of Heisenberg on the wall of my office, taken shortly before his Helgoland epiphany. It's up there because for some reason it makes me feel good. Wearing a sweater that his mom might have knitted, he's smiling radiantly at the camera. The same photo is reproduced in "Beyond Uncertainty," David C. Cassidy's new biography of this controversial 20th century giant, in which he observes that in "snapshots of Heisenberg as a young man, he always appears radiant, confident, alert, and pleasant."

References to his subject's radiance and good nature even in the darker days of his later life occur throughout the book. It is also an excellent piece of science writing; in a chapter titled "Determining Uncertainty," Cassidy gives the clearest explanation I have ever come across of the mind-boggling arcana of quantum physics.

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"The Cradle" By Patrick Somerville

"The Cradle" By Patrick Somerville

Reviewed By Janet Maslin

At the start of Patrick Somerville’s magical debut novel, a very pregnant woman named Marissa Bishop makes a request. In the short time before her first baby is due, Marissa would like her husband, Matt, to go find the cradle in which her mother, Caroline, once rocked her.

Caroline walked out on her husband and daughter when Marissa was a teenager. Ten days afterward and not coincidentally, a burglar emptied the house of everything Caroline wanted to take with her. Out came the good stuff, cradle and all.

“You can find anything,” Marissa tells her husband encouragingly. “You’re Matt. Where are my keys?” Yes, Matt has the persistence for this odd assignment. But it will send him roaming through unexpected regions of the Midwest, and of the heart.

Mr. Somerville has the chops to keep this story from softening into the generic mush suggested by his premise. As the jacket copy for “The Cradle” puts it, during the search “Matt makes a discovery that will forever change Marissa’s life, and faces a decision that will challenge everything he has ever known.” How often have you read this kind of synopsis? How wearyingly do track-down-a-secret novels conform to this pattern?

And how reflexively do authors crosscut, as Mr. Somerville does here, between two seemingly unrelated stories that turn out to be closely linked? Mr. Somerville uses even that creaky tactic to poignantly good effect. In a streamlined 200-page book that works as a fully conceived novel, he tells an endearing story full of genuinely surprising turns. And while Matt is quietly and whimsically buffeted by fortune, there’s no Gump or Garp in him. Though it takes a while for Mr. Somerville to reveal this, Matt is deeply serious about what first sounded like a purely capricious mission.

The primary focus of “The Cradle” is clear: this is a book about family ties, some ruptured, some restored. And Matt understands what his wife is really seeking. She does not want her new family to fall apart the way her old one did. The cradle will be her talisman. So what if that cradle is barely an heirloom? So what if it came into Marissa’s family when her grandmother bought it at a yard sale? “There’s another link,” Marissa insists to Matt. “Her hauling it home that day.” Matt loves his wife too much to do anything but agree.

So off he goes, away from Milwaukee and toward anyone who may cast light on Caroline’s whereabouts. His first stop, on the trail of Caroline’s half-sister: a house where “the yard gave off few signs of interested human control” and a cat sits staring out the window. “From time to time, Matt stared straight back at it and tried to send it mental signals: I am not your enemy, I am not your enemy” he thinks. Mr. Somerville adds, “Then, later: meow.”

There is a cradle in this house, he tells himself. There are spider webs on its porch, says the woman who lives there. So Matt winds up doing household chores before he can ask if she knows anything about Caroline. “I do,” says the woman. “But do you know anything about plumbing?”

This part of “The Cradle” takes place in 1997. Other, interspersed sections involve a woman named Renee and take place a decade later. Renee and her husband, Bill, have a 19-year-old son who is leaving for Iraq. “Their son was going to war,” Mr. Somerville writes. “This was the week he would disappear and become an idea.” When Renee turns on a television, she is spooked by the apocalyptic sight of a fire at a chemical plant in Milwaukee. By not-quite-coincidence, it’s the plant where Matt worked in 1997.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

'A Mind at Peace' by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

'A Mind at Peace' by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar

Reviewed By Richard Eder
LA Times

Istanbul's inhabitants have called it "the city of two continents," part of it lying in Europe and part in Asia, with the waters of the Bosphorus joining them. Or separating them.

Which, though? The question is about national identity, not geography. Turkey has struggled with the question, certainly since Kemal Atatürk overthrew the Ottoman sultans in the early 1900s and imposed a Westernizing rule over an Eastern culture that remains part resistant and unassimilated to this day.

The theme has been famously treated by the novelist Orhan Pamuk. His "Snow" displays an indisputably Westernized writer's painful doubts about a century of forced transformation; one that not only remains stuck halfway but also, along with its benefits, has supressed some of the richness of the older heritage.

It is also the theme of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's honeyed, searching and melancholy epic, written in the 1940s and only now translated into English. "A Mind at Peace" is far more elusive and diffuse than Pamuk's work. Much of it is difficult to gain access to for a non-Turkish reader, with its reams of talk about varieties of traditional music, and involved weighings of Turkish writers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The translation suggests English spoken with a foreign accent, and it lurches with oddity. This of course is a difficulty; at the same time, it has the transporting quality of such an accent, imparting in the reader the heartbeat of an unfamiliar world.(Would we even remember Marlene Dietrich if she'd spoken Oxbridge English?)

In any case, Tanpinar (1901-1962) has produced a work that, despite its long and (to us) obscure side trips, creates a portrait of a city and a culture -- Istanbul on the eve of World War II -- that seems like the land of Cockaigne, magical and lost. His novel is as much about its setting and colors (the green of an Emerald City) as about the stories and wonderfully eccentric and varied panoply of characters.

The play of sun on water, the Bosphorus ferries that ply back and forth to villa-studded islands, the lights that star its shores, the glint of bluefish netted at night, are also characters. At one point, the lovers at the center of the book reflect that these things, quite as much as each other, are the heart of their aching, doomed summer affair.

Doomed because Mumtaz, a young intellectual besotted with Baudelaire and weightless cogitating; and Nuran, an older woman from an established family and divorced, perhaps temporarily, from a faithless husband, come to represent Turkey's East-West divide. The life and artistry that Tanpinar gives to the ardor and fragility of their affair occupy his book's middle section, which stands as one of the 20th century's notable literary love stories and cultural watersheds.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

“The Believers” By Zoe Heller

“The Believers” By Zoe Heller

Reviewed By Michiko Kakutani
New York Times

Nearly all the characters in Zoë Heller’s ambitious new novel, “The Believers,” are true believers. Though each chooses a different vehicle of worship — socialism, liberal humanism, orthodox Judaism or the New Age gospel of self-improvement — they are all in thrall to their own certainty, self-righteous about their own beliefs and contemptuous of anyone dimwitted enough to disagree. They are also believers in their own mythologies: the roles in which they have been cast by their parents or children or followers, the personas they have had thrust upon them and have, over the years, internalized as their own. Zeal is their default setting; sanctimony, their favorite defense.

Whereas Ms. Heller’s two previous novels — “Everything You Know” and “What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal” — were slender tour de forces that used distasteful narrators to explore the related theme of self-delusion and the gap between private feelings and public perceptions, “The Believers” is a considerably larger and messier undertaking. It attempts to give us a group portrait of a wildly dysfunctional family, even as it tackles the big theme of certainty and its discontents.

Ms. Heller, who has worked as a journalist for publications like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and this novel showcases her copious gifts, including a scathing, Waugh-like wit; an unerring ear for the absurdities of contemporary speech; and a native-born Brit’s radar for class and status distinctions. But “The Believers” is also a somewhat scattershot production: brilliant at times; at others, oddly unfocused.

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