Review: Reading Camus’ “The Plague” During The Pandemic

The Stranger by Albert Camus was my least favorite book in eight years of French classes. It wasn’t the language, since I was a solid French student, thanks in part to a French-speaking mother. I just couldn’t relate to the story at all–too young, I guess–so I never bothered to try anything else of that author until this past week.

That’s when I read an article in The Guardian which reported that novels about epidemics were selling like crazy in Europe, including books by Stephen King, Dean Koontz–and of course Camus’ 1947 classic The Plague.

It’s set in the grim, dull, very un-scenic Mediterranean town of Oran in French-controlled Algeria where business seems people’s main preoccupation until it’s suddenly swept by wave after wave of dying bloody rats.  Everywhere.  Apartment building stairways, street corners, markets, cafés. Citizens are grossed out and complain to the authorities, and massive clean-ups go into effect day after day after day.  Then the rats vanish.

Problem solved.  Until people start showing signs of the bubonic plague.  In scenes that will seem eerily familiar, slow-moving officials wonder whether they should actually use the word “plague” or not because it might cause alarm, and the public notices they put up alerting people to guard their health are mealy-mouthed and not specific enough.

That all changes when the walled city is shut down completely, with guards at the gates preventing anyone from leaving.  With limited telephone service (it’s the late 1940s, after all), everyone is cut off from neighboring cities, towns, and France itself except by telegrams of ten words.  At first it seems this must be temporary.

Then dread spreads through the populace as there’s no end in sight and the death toll is so high that it’s reported daily rather than weekly in a vain attempt to make the numbers seem less alarming.  It’s hard not to think of the U.S. Surgeon general talking on CNN recently about the importance and difficulty of “messaging.”  Or a president not wanting a cruise ship to unload its passengers because that would supposedly increase the numbers of the infected–as if being aboard a ship puts them in an alternate universe.

Conditions worse, rationing and irrational behavior become the new reality.  At the center of this unrelenting storm is Doctor Rieux who first observed signs of the plague in his patients.  As the story progresses, he’s overwhelmed, overworked, and understandably hardened by the horrors he faces, yet he argues “That’s no reason to give up.”

The book is filled with people risking their lives to care for the ill and dying not because they’re heroes, but because it’s the right thing to do.  They contrast with the scores of citizens who have unavoidably succumbed to a habit of despair that’s “worse than despair itself.”

Reading The Plague is surprisingly cathartic in our anxious, uncertain time.  It’s surprisingly beautiful. The translation is subtle and fluid, the writing quietly lyrical even when describing the grim realities facing a city under furious, relentless siege.

It was four in the afternoon.  The town was warming up to boiling-point under a sultry sky.  Nobody was about, all shops were shuttered.  Cottard and Rambert walked some distance without speaking,m under the arcades.  This was an hour of the day when the plague lay low, so to speak; the silence, the extinction of al color and movement, might have been due as much to the fierce sunlight as to the epidemic, and there was no telling if the air was heavy with menace or merely with dust and heat.

Their emotional suffering and isolation is total.  Compare that with our own potential situation. Even if millions of us were quarantined like the population in Italy, France, or Spain.  We would have texting, Skype and countless ways to stay in touch with people outside our zones.  Our lives would be painfully disrupted, yes, but we wouldn’t necessarily feel like the citizens of Camus’s Oran who were were abandoned to what felt like solitary confinement.  Cold comfort, maybe, but comfort all the same.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

Review: Washington’s Retirement Was Anything But Dull

Like other school kids, I was steeped in reading about the Father of Our Country from elementary school onward, but my fascination with George Washington had a personal backdrop.  I lived in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and our apartment building was on Ft. Washington Avenue.  My high school was named after him as well.

It created a sort of kinship which was deepened by studying his famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island where he promised that the new nation “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  More than that, he wrote that Jews were not going to be less equal than Christians: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” (Slavery, of course, was a giant asterisk to this discussion)

How could a son of Holocaust survivors who came to American for freedom not admire a man like the author of that letter?  A man who could have been king if he wanted to, given how so many people idolized him.  But at the end of his second term as president, having steered the fledgling nation from revolution to democracy, he chose to ride off to his Virginia estate, leaving politics and governing behind because the quiet life of a farmer with large holdings suited him best.  He faded gently from the scene, appropriately aloof from politics.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In fact, Horn shows through brilliant use of contemporary letters and newspapers from a wide range of figures that Washington may have been offstage but he was as deeply embroiled in politics as ever.  He scrupulously followed every twist and turn of the rivalry between the two parties forming around President Adams and Vice President Jefferson and was keenly alert to the threat of war with our former ally France.  And for anyone who knows Alexander Hamilton only from the musical, he cuts a much less dashing figure here, and had delusions of grandeur.  But then Hamilton fits the general turmoil of jockeying for position against a background of tremendous political and global instability.  Many of our Founders and their supporters had their diva moments.

In the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, you feel the sorrowful isolation of Washington who complains of “Having staked my life–my reputation–my fortune–my ease, tranquility & happiness–in support of the government of our country” when at every turn fate might undo all that effort and plunge the United States into bloody chaos.

Yet there’s the wildly comic dithering about what kind of insignia officers for the new army being formed should be wearing, and you wonder how anyone could be so concerned with minutiae at a time when war with France was looming–or seemed to be.

Horn’s deft use of letters reveals the daily reality of Washington’s “retirement” and his recruitment as commander-in-chief.  President Adams realized that Washington was the best person to lead a newly strengthened army in case the French decided to invade the US.  He did not have to be on the scene to be caught in the tug of war between Republicans and Federalists and affected by war fever.  Just as important was his abiding concern about the legacy he left behind in his voluminous papers.

And if you thought our current political climate was newly poisonous, think again.  The scheming and invective between various factions around Washington before and after he left the White House were every bit as vicious, cruel, and divisive as today.  The main difference is the speed at which the poison spread and the tools used to spread it.  The rhetoric employed today to eviscerate your opponents is a lot more juvenile and not remotely as witty, either.

This book is everything you could ask for from a popular biography. It’s beautifully written, dramatic, compelling, colorful, revelatory, refreshing, sometimes hilarious and sometimes shocking–and at times it reads like a thriller.

Best of all, it makes Washington relatable and human, not a portrait, not a monument.  That’s the author’s greatest achievement.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, several public radio stations, and had his own on-air book show where he interviewed authors like Salman Rushdie and Erica Jong.

 

 

 

Review: Russian-born Producer Takes Readers Through The Looking Glass

Russia has been in the news for the last few years but mostly in terms of election interference, the war in Ukraine, or climate change.  Information about what the country is really like doesn’t seem to interest journalists or their editors.

Luckily for us, Russian-born TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has done a deep dive about his experience making documentaries there and meeting people from aspiring small town models to obscenely powerful oligarchs.  Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible examines a country that shifts like a kaleidoscope on steroids as its leaders stealthily fight for global supremacy and tens of billions of dollars illegally slosh through its economy in often unchartable ways.  A country that seems to have lost its mind in the rush to grab wealth wherever it can.

One thing you can count on with today’s Russia is insane impermanence, especially in Moscow. The city itself is in a perpetual paroxysm of building and rebuilding, and the author’s descriptions of those changes are so memorable. “Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left empty in the dirty snow.”

This re-invention frenzy dwarfs anything that Americans have experienced. People become wealthy there with the speed of light and for “its new heroes, life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”   The whole book captures the bizarre reality that has taken hold of Russia and squeezed it dry, while making some people so desperate to feel positive that they’re hypnotized by TV charlatans and self-help cult leaders.

Corruption and bribery rule in every sphere of life, whether getting a driver’s license or snagging exemptions from being drafted into the army.  That’s simply how things get done.  But one of the most egregious examples is the Sochi Olympics.  Those games cost tens of billions more than the previous Olympics–the extra money just drifted away.

That’s what seems to happen across the country with one venture after another, and much of that money has been buying real estate, soccer teams, fabulous art, and companies in London and all across Europe.  Rapacious, dangerously charming Russians seem to have colonized that city, appearing as brash arrivistes but slowly becoming “classy” and moving on from plush city addresses to country estates.

Deep Russian paranoia is stoked by state-controlled media that makes Fox TV seem as anodyne as a chirpy Hallmark greeting card. Against an apocalyptic backdrop, it constantly warns viewers against “Gay-Europa,” Western fascists and the CIA infesting Ukraine, Western plans for genocide against Russia, and “American-sponsored fascists crucifying Russian children on the squares of Ukrainian towns.”

That media machine has produced weeping women who testified to those appalling horrors.  Of course they were fake. It’s all fake news meant to keep the government in power and hide the reality of corruption so widespread that you can’t say it permeates the state. It is the state.

The author notes that the Kremlin “has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-millionm-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”

You have to wonder if this is a warning to readers that the same thing could happen in Western countries, perhaps with less drama and less notice–because who could imagine it possible?

Lev Raphael  has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets since the mid-1990s.

 

 

Review: Is Garth Greenwell Really A Genius?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out.  When he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my many years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then, my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and being well hung.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book and my iPad screen didn’t glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dumb to understand the two hours you’d just sat through.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.

Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: “Sword of Kings” is Another Bernard Cornwell Triumph

The best historical novels create a world so immersive that you don’t just live inside of it while read the book, you carry that world with you for days or weeks afterward, and see everything around you through new eyes. That’s the genius of Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon tales set in early medieval England, books that make him the king of this genre.

England in fact does not exist as a country in the period he explores.  The land is divided into rival kingdoms and they themselves are split between Christians and Danes.  Standing athwart two very different religious and political cultures is a hero who knows both of them intimately: Uhtred, Lord of Bebbannburg, which is a redoutable fortress in Northumbria, the last Kingdom ruled by a pagan king.

Each of these books is epic in scope but as intimate as a confession, thanks to that unforgettable narrator in a series with a cast of thousands: priests, lords, soldiers, slaves, wives, peasants, children, traitors, spies, royalty, raiders, lords, thugs, runaways, starvelings, sailors, witches. All of them are as real as your neighbors, thanks to Cornwell’s quick brush strokes and his sly humor.

His prose is brisk but never mechanical. He can find poetry in the rush of water under a bridge or the changing light at dusk, and even in the gory slide of a sword into a man’s guts. Cornwell doesn’t hold anything back in portraying the brutality of this period which he evokes through its sites and sights, sounds, and smell and the way people dwell on the importance of dreams and find omens at every turn.

Uhtred was born Christian but raised by Danes and his heart is pagan.  Despite that reality, he’s served Christian kings through sometimes bizarre twists of fate he hasn’t been able to escape.  Fate is inexorable he keeps saying, and events keep proving him right.

The Lord of Bebbanburg is a keen strategist and fierce warrior, but first and foremost a man of honor who values keeping an oath even if it takes him into danger, which it does time and again.  Why?  Because he believes that a man leaves nothing behind when he dies but his reputation.  And yet, as he says, “We seek it, we prize it, and then it turns on us like a cornered wolf.”

In this book Uhtred is a grandfather but as a brave as ever and no less determined to fulfill the oaths he’s sworn to keep, which paradoxically bind him to the dead King Alfred who dreamed of one vast English-speaking Christian land uniting all the warring kingdoms.

Uhtred’s first mission seems hopeless amid the turmoil sure to follow the death of King Edward: rescue a queen and kill a king.  That adventure involves unique dangers, amazing hand-to-hand combat, a breathtaking battle at sea and a remarkable chase scene, capped by a humiliation as profound as anything Uhtred has suffered in the previous 11 books.

Though he may be battered and battle-scarred, he’s still remarkably thoughtful, and he’s still a man of bold action.  After a crushing defeat when someone advises rest, his longtime comrade in arms violently disagrees: “He must fight.  He’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  He doesn’t lie in a bed feeling sorry for himself.  Uhtred of Bebbanburg puts on his mail, straps on a sword, and takes death to his enemies.”

The stakes here are higher than ever: in the battle between Danes and Christians, should the Christians keep expanding their reach, they will eventually swallow his native Northumbria and change his life and the life of everyone he knows and loves forever.

The prize-winning author of 26 books in many genres, Lev Raphael teaches creative writing and offers editing services at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: The Strange History of Lotharingia

I’ve been a Simon Winder fan ever since he published his hilarious cultural exposé James Bond: The Man Who Saved Britain.  I read it while traveling and laughed so hard and so often that I startled people around me in airports and on planes.  I just couldn’t help myself.

I was more circumspect when Winder launched a trilogy about the tangled history of German-speaking peoples and their friends and foes with Germania.  I made sure that I read that book and its follow-up Danubia at home.  I laughed even more, but this time only my dogs were startled.

Those books are a unique combination of memoir, travelogue, history, and cultural commentary filtered through an exceedingly wry sense of often self-deprecating humor.  They are very British.  Where does his new book and the last volume in the trilogy take us? A land that most people have never heard of: Lotharingia.

Okay, it may sound like a country in a Marx Brothers movie, but it’s real.  Well, it was real.  It’s the part of Charlemagne’s Empire that lay between France and Germany and today is roughly where you find The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France and Switzerland.  The region has seen umpteen battles as one ruler or country after another sought to control it or even small parts of it.  Winder jokes about the blizzard of battles, some of them started over nothing, and crazy rulers like the French king who thought he was made of glass.

It’s all true, all wildly fascinating, and Winder’s colorful images are wonderful.  Here’s how he describes  Burgundy, one of the many lands to rise–for a time–out of Lotharingia’s chaos: “In many ways the Burgundian state as it developed was like a vast strangler-fig around the borders of France, from the English Channel to the Alps, both crushing France and living off of it, using the haziness of Lotharingia to intersperse itself in spaces in between.”

Winder has spent years exploring the remotest corners of this area, is steeped in its tangled history, and makes erudite and thought-provoking observations on every single page.  He invokes the region’s many rivers more than once, and at times you may feel yourself on a languorous river cruise while you read, enjoying the fantastic views.

It’s a great voyage because you don’t have to put up with annoyances like people around you taking endless selfies and calling home to check on their Amazon deliveries.  Along the way you discover mind-blowing art, fabulous treasure, bizarre monuments, and tranquil oases that might make you want to start packing your bags.

Winder is a perfect tour guide.  He’s witty, affable, erudite, and engaging.  He has a brilliant eye for the weird, picturesque or goofy detail, whether noting a king or emperor’s unusual name or pointing out that sacred relics in medieval Europe were as common as penny candy.

Encyclopedic and consistently entertaining, this is a perfect gift for fans of well-written travelogues, history, and memoir.  Winder’s personal and family wanderings are as much fun as following his exploration of the most luxuriant royal family trees that ever sprang from Lotharingia’s extravagantly fertile soil.

Lev Raphael is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery and has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Jerusalem Report, Bibliobuffet, Lambda Book Report, and Michigan Radio.

 

Review: “The Siberian Dilemma” is a Must-read Thriller

Once American intelligence agencies verified that Russian interfered in the 2016 election, it behooved all thinking Americans to inform themselves about our long term enemy, an enemy many of us thought was no longer a potent threat.

You couldn’t start anywhere better than with the crime novels of Martin Cruz Smith. They present a wide-ranging, richly-textured portrait of the ailing, corrupt Soviet Union collapsing and slowly turning into an even more corrupt money-mad kleptocracy. The touchstone for all this upheaval is the cynical, battered hero Arkady Renko.

Renko should have risen much higher than he has as a police inspector, because his father was a famous general in The Great Patriotic War (WW II).  But he disobeys orders, won’t cut corners, and won’t accept cover-ups. In other words: he’s honest. It hasn’t done him any good in the old order and it’s even less helpful in the new one where everything is for sale.  In fact, it almost gets him killed more than once.

His latest dangerous case sends him to Siberia in search of his testy journalist girlfriend Tatiana who’s risking her life researching a story about oligarchs and oil–and much more than she’s let him know about.  Siberia is “where strange things happened and stranger things were just around the corner…It was a zone on the edge where planes of existence overlapped.  Nothing was inexplicable.”

But everything is potentially lethal.  When Arkady lands in the grim Siberian city of Chita, the chatty cab driver laughingly warns him, “Don’t go by first impressions.  It gets worse.  A few days ago an oil tanker on a train headed to Moscow exploded two kilometers from the station.  It went up in flames for no good reason.  They say you could have seen the blast from the moon.”

Renko asks if that happens often there and the driver says, “It’s Chita.  Anything can happen.”

And anything does, as Arkady is the subject of more violence in this book than ever before, or perhaps more accurately, violence unlike anything he could have imagined.

I’ve read all of the previous novels twice and look forward to reading them again. They’re beautifully written, but not in such a way as to interfere with the narrative. Every word serves the story, like these quietly ominous lines from  Three Stations:  “Yegor’s name was like a drop of ink in water. Everything took a darker shade.”

Line by line he’s also one of the funniest novelists we have, and Renko’s sly insolence when dealing with his nasty boss Zurin is one of the highlights of the series.  Their barbed relationships doesn’t prepare you, though, for a shocking request Zurin makes near the end of the book that could not only change Renko’s life but change the course of Russian history.  And while the characters may be fictional, their prototypes are not.

“Brilliant” may be an over-used word for  reviewers, and so is “stunning”–but both of them fit.  There’s more to say than that, however.  Martin Cruz Smith has been writing an epic history of contemporary Russia that should have earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature by now.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and other publications, online journals, and radio stations.  He is the author of 26 books in many journals and teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

Review: Are Your Jeans Poisoning the Planet?

That’s right.  Your role in contributing to climate chaos isn’t just based on the SUV you drive that gets crappy gas mileage, or the plastic bottles you keep buying, or the ways you waste energy at home.  A key component is the jeans you just can’t stop purchasing.

You’re probably wearing jeans as you read this–half the planet does on most days.  That’s according to the eye-opening new book Fashionopolis which explores the global clothing industry–an industry that employs one out of six people around the world–and how it’s contributing to environmental catastrophe.

Jeans are made of cotton, a crop that requires vast amounts of water and pesticides.  Making jeans and stone washing them to create various levels of chic also involves far more water than you can imagine, with the attendant waste and pollution from the chemicals needed to dye them added to the toxic mix.  And it’s not just drinking water that this overpopulated planet is running low on–it’s water used in manufacturing “fast fashion,” throwaway clothes.

But you love your jeans, right?  They’re popular, comfortable, fashionable, and many brands are cheap.  That relatively low average cost contributes to environmental degradation and fosters inhumanity.  Just like five-dollar t-shirts, jeans are often made by grossly underpaid, maltreated workers in Third World countries. Many of them are locked into factories behind guarded, barbed wire fences and work in conditions as deplorable and unsafe as early 19th century sweatshops were in New York.  Maybe even worse.  Fatal fires, illnesses, building collapses are endemic in that garment gulag.

Journalist Dana Thomas is an expert, knowledgeable, riveting guide taking us from Bangladesh to Belgravia to Brooklyn as she explores the role of jeans, the garment industry, and the global clothing supply chain and how it’s all strangling our planet.  In colorful scenes, portraits of key figures in the world of fashion, and insightful interviews, she brings to light how “fast fashion” like the clothes sold by Zara is choking our air, dirtying our water, and filling our garbage dumps.

Yes.  The number one item in dumps around the world is clothing that people have worn maybe just once and then tossed because they wanted something new right away.  Think about that the next time you buy something just to photo yourself wearing it for Instagram and pitch it the next day.

During her travels around the world, we learn how the ever-expanding use of cotton has revolutionized and poisoned the world, how the indigo plant lost out to dyes because they’re cheaper, how NAFTA has made the situation worse, and how workers have suffered illness, injury, and even death.

Is there hope?  Hell, yes.  Sustainability is a concept slowly taking hold in Fashionopolis, as is slow fashion, “a growing movement of makers, designers, merchants, and manufacturers who, in response to fast fashion and globalization, have significantly dialed back their pace and financial ambition, freeing themselves to focus more on creating items with inherent value, curating the customer experience, and reducing environmental impact.”

Thought-provoking, thorough, revelatory and darkly entertaining, this is a must-read book for anyone concerned about climate change.  It might make you consider joining an environmental action group like Extinction Rebellion.  At the very least, it’s bound to make you think harder about what you wear and why you might be making choices that have global consequences.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He’s reviewed books for Huffington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as on public radio stations in Michigan.

Review: “The Bookshop” is a Haunting Tale of Dangerous Dreams

If you’re thinking of watching The Bookshop starring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy on Amazon Prime, wait. Read the short novel it’s based on first.  The movie adds touches of romance and intensifies Penelope Fitzgerald’s drama in ways that don’t betray the novel, but do make the story less subtle.  More than that, the dispassionate, incisive narrative is gone, with the exception of some voice overs.

This short novel contains a world of heartbreak and cruelty.   In the late 1950s, Florence Green decides to live her dream and open a book shop in a small English coastal town.  The building she chooses for her home and business is damp, decayed, and mournful.  Her courage seems more like naivety.

Though the shop seems to start off well, the portents are not good from the very beginning.  The town seems a dead end and suffers regular devastation.  Its name is warning enough: Hardborough.

“The town itself was an island between sea and river, muttering and drawing into itself as soon as it felt cold.  Every fifty years or so it had lost, as though careless or indifferent to such things, another means of communication.  By 1850 the [river] had ceased to be navigable and the wharfs and ferries rotted away.  In 1910 the swing bridge fell in, and since then all traffic had to go ten miles round by Saxford in order to cross the river.  In 1920 the old railway was closed….The great floods of 1953 caught the seas wall and caved it in, so that the harbour mouth was dangerous to cross, except at very low tide.”

Later on we learn that new homes have been and washed out to sea by erosion, a force that works on Florence herself.

In a town this besieged and small, everyone knows every step Florence takes.  More and more it seems people are leagued against her, egged on by a wealthy doyenne who says she wants the house Florence has leased to become an arts center–that’s supposedly her dream.  But what this arbitrary, rich woman really wants is to deny anyone else a place of even minor honor and notoriety.  She dreams about power, not culture.  She employs rumor and worse to get her way and to ruin Florence, whose love of books is overflowing, but whose knowledge of the world is very flawed.

Fitzgerald excels at small, cutting descriptions of people, like this one about Milo North, someone vaguely employed by the BBC who worms his way into Florence’s life:

“What seemed delicacy in him was usually a way of avoiding trouble; what seemed like sympathy was the instinct to avoid trouble before it started…His emotions, from lack of exercise, had disappeared almost altogether.  Adaptability and curiosity, he had found, did just as well.”

The movie gives viewers a sort of happy or redemptive ending, but the novel is hauntingly unsparing–and Florence’s home itself is haunted.  Though The Bookshop is quite short, there’s an epic feel to this rich and thoughtful novel that might make you want to read it again as soon as you’re done.

Lev Raphael teaches one-on-one online workshops at  writewithouborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery, most recently State University of Murder.

 

Review: For Halloween, Agatha Christie Says “Boo!”

I fell in love with Agatha Christie and crime fiction back in junior high and read every one of her books available at our local public library.  I was captivated by her mastery of plot even then, and now, when I re-read her, I feel an even deeper sense of awe.  She was a superb story-teller, subtle and devious and delightful.  No wonder she’s been so wildly popular for nearly a century–only the Bible and Shakespeare have surpassed her in sales.

Just in time for Halloween, William Morrow has a sweet treat for Christie fans: a collection of almost two dozen creepy and ghostly tales.  It opens with a bang.  The title story revolves around Simone, an enervated medium in Paris fearful of her last séance before marriage.  Why do these séances make her so weary?  Why is she afraid of her client, a woman grieving for a lost child?  The answers are suitably shocking and grotesque.

There’s a wealth of fun reading after that.  Christie offers a neat twist on inheritance stories in “Wireless.”  “The Mystery of the Blue Jar” deftly deals with a WWI veteran’s shell-shock–or does it? “The Blue Geranium” is one of several stories where dreams play an unusual and possibly supernatural part.

Hercule Poirot uses his little gray cells to uncover a murder in “The Dream,” a story that veteran mystery readers might find a bit too easy to unravel.  But watching him amaze a room of suspects by his ratiocination is always a treat.  In “the Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael,” Miss Marple profits from decades of observing human nature under a microscope in her village.  She deftly explains that a ghost story she hears over dinner is actually a tale of murder.  And what a murder!  The planning is fiendishly clever.

That indomitable village sleuth also appears in “The Idol House of Astarte,” a classic story of the supernatural with a femme fatale at its center, and told by a clergyman.  It raises the age-old question of whether a place or home can be “imbued or saturated with good or evil influences which can make their power felt.”  Miss Marple handily dismisses the many bizarre possible solutions to a strange set of crimes at a house party, but doubts still linger.

In “The Fourth Man,” a nighttime conversation in a train compartment about a famous split personality case turns very dark when one of the four men in the compartment claims to have inside information about the people involved.  What he reveals shatters the complacency of the other three–a doctor, lawyer, and minister–who discover that their view of reality is more limited than they imagined.

Christie explores that idea in more than one story, as when a “doctor of the soul” says that he doesn’t believe that spirits can be earthbound and haunt a particular place, but he has more than once seen “a kind of blind groping towards justice–a subterranean moving of blind forces, always working obscurely towards that end. . .”

Justice is served throughout the collection, most deliciously in my very favorite story, which is also one of the shortest.  “The Wife of the Kenite” follows a German veteran of WW I to his unexpected destiny in South Africa.  It’s chilling fiction, gorgeously written and perfectly wrought.

The shadow of that war looms over many of the tales. Even though they explore the supernatural and dark themes like avarice, jealousy, and revenge, they’re often quite funny. Poirot’s complaints when he gets to Egypt in “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb” are priceless.  And then there’s Christie’s satire of inarticulate English gentlemen “who dislike any form of emotion, and find it peculiarly hard to explain their mental processes in words.”

Flashes of lovely character assessment like that and quickly evocative description are just some of the many delights in a collection that offers entertainment, suspense, deep human interest–and mystery, of course. Mystery of more than one kind, that is, since the eerie last story suggests that the “supernatural is only the natural of which the laws are not yet understood.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books including nine Nick Hoffman mysteries, most recently State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.