The Strangler Vine.

M.J. Carter’s historical novel The Strangler Vine has the feel of a murder mystery without an actual murder, instead sending its two central characters on a quest in 1837 India to find a missing Briton who disappeared into the north, likely of his own volition, but whose importance to the East India Company has grown in his absence. It’s a fast read thanks to the tremendous narrative greed in the story and the yin/yang Carter created in her two protagonists, but I found the dialogue completely inappropriate for the time period, as she gives her characters modern vernacular and even sensibilities that feel very out of place in this setting.

The story opens with the young Captain (soon to be Lieutenant) William Avery in Calcutta, chosen seemingly as a last resort, to delivery a message to the reclusive company agent Jeremiah Blake and later to accompany Blake on the mission to find the missing author and poet Xavier Mountstuart (which sounds like an Orioles prospect), who has stirred up quite a bit of trouble with the publication of a novel that paints both the Company and the behavior of British expats on the subcontinent in a rather unfavorable light. This comes just as the Company is trying to expand its influence over greater portions of what we know now as India, which at the time was split into many nation-states or local fiefdoms as with pre-unification Italy, and the disappearance of the author has only further complicated the efforts to bring more of the region under the British company’s control. The Europeans are also combatting the plague of Thuggee, a supposed band of marauding bandits who worship the goddess Kali; rob and murder travelers in heinous, ritualistic fashion; and threaten stability in the region as well as local trade. (Thuggee, or at least the campaign against it, was real, and the English word “thug” is derived from its name.) A handful of real historical personages, including the famed William Sleeman, appear in the book, so portions of the story will be obvious if you happen to know something about the time period.

The core suspense story in The Stranger Vine is well-crafted and manages some unpredictable elements even though you’ll see some of the ending coming because we know some of the macro results of the British role in India (especially that the Company was eventually removed from power and replaced by a colonial administration that lasted until independence and Partition in 1948, creating the modern borders of India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh). There’s a bit of a whodunit here, but the identity of the ultimate bad guy is subordinate to the journey, which Carter animates with strong action sequences and vivid descriptions of both the landscape and the various battles that befall our heroes. Blake is the stronger of the two main characters, an erudite humanist unhinged by the death of his native wife, disillusioned by the Company yet still nominally in its employ, and a spy-like investigator who keeps Avery in the dark for much of the story. Avery, while amiable in his naivete, is more simply drawn and serves as a chronicler whose involvement in the action of the plot is less than Blake’s in total but includes a couple of high points that allow for some character development.

However, Carter hasn’t captured the vocabulary or rhythm of speech from the time period – an observation I make based on novels I’ve read from that era – and has given some of her characters decidedly 21st-century views. When a man makes a (sexual) pass at Avery, the religious 21-year-old politely rebuffs the attempt and the matter is simply dropped – difficult to accept in an era when homosexuality was illegal and seen as a grievous sin. Blake’s concern for the plight of locals under the Company may have been apposite for the time, yet he speaks and acts with an egalitarian perspective that would mark him as a progressive in 2017, let alone in the 1830s. And the antagonists of the story, notably those with the Company who seek to control the subcontinent, are kind of not racist enough, with their opinions of locals marked more by cultural elitism than outright prejudice – the Indian people need the Brits to install a government, to teach them democracy, to raise them out of heathenism, but in a paternalist sense rather than the overt bigotry I’d expect from that time. (She hints at phrenology once in the book, but only to have Blake dismiss it as junk science.)

If you prefer to read for story, The Stranger Vine will be among the more satisfying contemporary novels you read; the plot works, and even with Carter’s missteps in dialogue, she never talks down to the reader or takes easy outs with her characters. I would still say I really enjoyed the book even as the inaccurate tone irked me, because there’s something so meticulous about the story’s construction. It’s merely a bit flawed, but in a way that may only matter to certain readers.

The Vorrh & the Erstwhile.

The British author-painter B. Catling’s dark, surrealist novels The Vorrh and its sequel, The Erstwhile, reflect his background as an artist while also drawing on the traditions of magical realism from postcolonial literary lights like Gabriel García Márquez. Set in in a fictional German colony in central Africa between the two world wars, where the forest known as the Vorrh functions as a Gaia-like sentient entity, the novels explore an expansive tapestry of characters and settings that Catling manages to weave together in totally unexpected ways.

I read The Vorrh, the first book in the trilogy (with book three, The Cloven, due out next May), back in January of 2016, while I was out with a respiratory infection that nearly put me in the hospital, with fevers of 102-103 every day for almost a full week, so I never reviewed the book here and probably don’t remember it as well as I think I do … although if ever there was a novel to be read while feverish and slightly delusional, The Vorrh is it. Catling spends a lot of that book building his world, including the mythology of the forest, which can cause people to lose their memories after just a few hours inside its boundaries, and the real/unreal city of Essenwald located at its edge, where German authorities and businessmen live and attempt to exploit the area’s natural resources, a city relocated brick-by-brick from the homeland. The novel introduces many major characters who’ll appear again in The Erstwhile, including Ishmael, the cyclops-man of uncertain origin; Ghertrude and Cyrena, two sheltered women of Essenwald; and the Mutter family, who maintain a house with mysterious denizens in its basement. The first novel also introduces Williams, the explorer who seeks to traverse the Vorrh but loses much in the process, and Tsungali, the native who seeks to kill Williams for his own murky reasons. Little is clear, by design, including the ways in which these characters’ stories will meet, recombine, and separate over the course of the trilogy.

The Erstwhile starts to elucidate some of what’s happening in the Vorrh and what the Vorrh itself seems to be doing outside of the city, including the beings of the book’s title, fallen angels in semi-human form who have been forgotten by God and live bizarre, parallel existences around the forest, with several of them now residing in European hospitals where they’re studied by researchers. Sidrus, a secondary character in book one where he tries to protect Williams from Tsungali, takes on a larger role here as he seeks to avenge himself against his enemies, including Ishmael. William Blake, himself a painter and poet, appears briefly on its pages, as his painting Nebuchadnezzar adorns the book’s cover and, it turns out, is a painting of one of the Erstwhile. Ghertrude gives birth, only to find that the basement-dwelling Kin have other plans for the child. Ishmael finds himself called upon by the city’s business leaders to try to find the Limboia, native timber workers whose minds have been erased by years of working in the Vorrh, but who disappeared without a trace some years earlier, because Ishmael is the only man known to have spent significant time in the forest without losing his mind. We also meet the aged German theology professor Hector Schumann, who becomes a central character as he meets the various Erstwhile living in facilities in Germany and England, and whose connection to these beings and the Vorrh itself remains a mystery even at the end of book two.

Catling has woven himself quite a story through two-thirds of the series, one that I’m still not entirely convinced he can complete in satisfying fashion in the third book given how involved and strange the various threads have been so far. The first book could stand on its own because he’d created a new world that was credible and yet impossible, with richly drawn characters and evocative prose that gave depth and color to his otherworldly setting. Crafting a coherent story with this many characters across multiple locales is another matter, however, and The Erstwhile moves everything forward without much resolution – which may come in The Cloven, although the ending of The Erstwhile was a particularly unsatisfying given how the characters got to that point (including a needlessly graphic torture-murder). That specific event at the book’s conclusion needs further elucidation in book three, as does Schumann’s role in all of this, and where the child Rowena fits in, and what exactly the Vorrh is trying to achieve for itself. Catling has certainly set up a difficult task for the third book, but so much of these first two books compelled me to keep reading that I’m going to continue to see just how he manages to resolve all of these plots.

Next up: I just finished Barry Estabrook’s expose of the modern pork industry, Pig Tales, and have begun my friend Jay Jaffe’s upcoming The Cooperstown Casebook, due out July 25th.

Love and Friendship.

My latest Insider post discusses why September prospect callups are a thing of the past.

If it’s possible for a Jane Austen work to be unknown, her novella Lady Susan likely qualifies. Written before her six completed novels but unpublished until fifty years after her death, the shortepistolary work tells the story of the widowed Susan’s attempts to marry off her daughter to a wealthy, amiable dunce, as well as her own juggling of affairs with two men, one the married Lord Mainwaring, one her sister-in-law’s brother Reginald de Courcy. As in most of Austen’s works, Lady Susan is full of dry wit, and the pressing need for women of that era to marry well for their own financial security is a major plot point.

American director Whit Stillman adapted the work for the 2016 film Love & Friendship (amazoniTunes), which peculiarly takes its name from an entirely separate work written by Austen as a teenager (with the title misspelled as “Love & Freindship”) and stars Kate Beckinsale as the conniving seductress of the novella’s title. Stillman’s direction is heavyhanded at times, but the dialogue is sharp and sparkling, while the key performances, especially Beckinsale’s, absolutely carry the film.

As the movie opens, Lady Susan is seen leaving the Mainwarings’ estate, having been thrown out by Lady Mainwaring – who is in hysterics every time she’s on screen – and arrives at Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s sister and her family, having nowhere else to go. Shortly after her arrival, she begins her temptation of Reginald, the young, handsome brother of Lady Vernon, an eligible bachelor who is intelligent but naive and quickly succumbs to the beautiful and more worldly Lady Susan’s efforts. The plot thickens when Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, arrives, trailed by the amiable dunce Sir James Martin, who has £10,000 a year and is as dumb as a sack of hair (although one of the script’s greatest strengths is making comedy gold of Sir James’ stupidity). Frederica wants no part of Sir James, while Lady Susan, who cares little for her daughter except as a means to a lucrative end, tries to put her maternal foot down, a move that eventually causes a conflict between her and her late husband’s entire family.

Austen’s plots are all straightforward, but she never crafted another central character as venal as Lady Susan, whom Beckinsale plays to the hilt as by turns coquettish and condescending. Beckinsale, now 43, fits Austen’s description of Lady Susan (“from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older”) quite well, but given her history of playing one-dimensional characters in mass-market action films, her acting prowess here came as a pleasant surprise; her performance drips with disdain for just about everyone around her, except her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who appears to live vicariously through her avaricious friend. (The character’s nationality is unspecified in Austen’s novella, and Sevigny’s American accent is jarring amidst all of the upper-class British characers.) Beckinsale has to drive the film, as she’s at the center of every strand of the plot, but she does so with alacrity.

The one other key performance is Tom Bennett’s turn as Sir James Martin, looking and sounding a bit like Discount Colin Firth but managing to pull off his performance of an extremely likable, well-meaning dimwit, to the point where the viewer has real empathy for him even while understanding why Frederica might balk at his companionship. Although the trailer highlighted Sir James’ confusion over Churchill boasting neither church nor hill, his scene around the “twelve commandments” was the film’s real comic highlight.

We get just a bit of Stephen Fry as Lady Johnson’s husband and Lady Mainwaring’s guardian, but he’s woefully underutilized, as are Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as DeCourcy’s parents. But the novella itself comprises mostly letters from Lady Susan, so Stillman’s script had to invent much of the dialogue and reimagine most of the characters beyond hers. He was more deft with that than with some of the peculiar shots in the film, from the odd way the characters are introduced to the strange close-ups we get of characters (one near the end of Lord Mainwaring looked like a mistake) at various points. Lady Susan is a trifle of a story compared to Austen’s novels, so the challenge for Stillman here was greater than it might have been in adapting Emma or Persuasion, but he and Beckinsale in particular have developed it into a fast-paced, often hilarious movie where no one gets what they want yet Lady Susan still seems to come out on top.

In the Light of What We Know.

My ranking of the top 25 MLB players under age 25 is up for Insiders, and I held a Klawchat today.

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, is one of the most intellectual, erudite, epic novels I’ve ever read. Rahman, born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh and raised in England, shows the polymathic range of David Foster Wallace, the facility with language of Graham Greene, and the scope of Anthony Powell, crafting a story that takes place on three continents, across a war, a financial collapse, in slums and drawing rooms, all to delve into the mystery of one man’s search for an unknown solution.

The nameless narrator of In the Light of What We Know is its Nick Jenkins, a man largely apart from the action, yet our sole lens into the story whose occasional forays into the narrative have stark consequences. The main character is his friend Zafar, Sylheti-born like Rahman, raised in England yet always aware of his separate status from both the white English aristocracy but even from others of South Asian descent who were raised in different circumstances. Zafar has been off the grid – or merely off the narrator’s radar – for about seven years when he shows up on the latter’s doorstep, looking haggard, with a long story to tell that forms the basis of the novel. The tale he unfolds comes in nonlinear chunks with frequent interruptions and asides by the narrator, and it is up to the reader to piece things together.

Zafar himself is also a polymath, a genius at mathematics with a particular obsession for Gödel’s incompleteness theorems (which state, in short, that arithmetic is not a complete system, so there will be statements within it that cannot be proved within the system itself) who makes his first mark on the world in financial analysis. The narrator ends up with a job in derivatives trading thanks to a good word from Zafar, eventually building a portfolio of credit default swaps and CMOs that, of course, proved highly profitable until one day it wasn’t. Zafar, meanwhile, walks away from one career after another, following his peripatetic mind to law school, back to south Asia to work in human rights in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and eventually the post-Taliban Kabul, with many stops intertwined with his affair with the patrician Emily Hampton-Wyvern, for whom Zafar falls hard enough that he can never quite recover.

As Zafar, who resists his friend’s entreaties to turn these recollections into a formal memoir, recounts his life story in these disparate soliloquies, the picture of the man emerges first in sketch, then in greyscale, but never quite in full-color focus. He remains scarred by certain key instances from his childhood: the derailed train he was supposed to be on, the shame over his ‘unpronounceable’ (read: non-English) given name, his poverty in England, a cringe-comic scene in the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room. Zafar’s development isn’t so much arrested as undefined; he yearns for the completeness in his life that mathematicians believed they had found in arithmetic before Gödel blew it up. Finding repeated disappointments, inexplicable tragedies, and systemic racism wherever he travels, he walks away from one successful career, launches a second, only to find himself back in Kabul with Emily after their first split, a second meeting that leads to an engagement, a revelation, and the closest thing the novel has to a plot climax.

The narrator is in the story a few times, notably in the betrayal of his friendship that seems to be at least one reason, if not the sole one, that Zafar has shown up on his friend’s doorstep in September, 2008, just as the markets are collapsing, the narrator has been fired (perhaps scapegoated) for his firm’s losses, and the narrator’s wife has moved out. This involvement makes it clear the narrator is not as disinterested as he appeared to be, although Rahman doesn’t give us reason to question his reliability; instead, however, it may drive the questions he has the narrator pose to Zafar – or not pose – to tease out the latter’s multi-threaded story.

When the novel does reach its conclusion in Kabul, Zafar learns multiple things that once again upset his precarious mental state, leading to the novel’s one shocking turn as well as the end of Zafar’s stay with his narrator, even though he hasn’t finished so many of the threads of his story. (What exactly happened during his return to Bangladesh at age 12, after the train wreck, is never revealed.) Instead, Rahman deals us the devatasting one-two punch of a the narrator’s own realization of the impact of his betrayal on top of Zafar’s discovery that he lacked the agency he believed he had in his work and life.

Rahman makes implicit and explicit references to more fields of study than I could count, from number theory to quantum physics, from Graham Greene (whose novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, both amazing works of literature, pop up frequently here) to Kierkegaard, from carpentry to classical art. The author infuses Zafar with much of this knowledge and the odd mixture of passions or obsessions, including dropping him into the Hampton-Wyvern’s drawing room as the outsider observing their absurd, stiff-upper-lip lives with a mixture of bemusement and resentment to subtle comedic effect. Elsewhere in the novel, however, Rahman uses Zafar’s breadth and depth of knowledge to allow him to manipulate conversations or see through subterfuges in ways that draw secondary characters out of themselves, often by unnerving them with his probing questions, producing dialogue of a caliber I’ve scarcely seen in contemporary or classic fiction. It’s a tour de force of a novel, an arduous read that simultaneously pays homage to the western canon while upending it entirely from its very non-western vantage point.

In the Light of What We Know won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction in 2014, putting Rahman in company with Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and E.M. Forster.

Next up: The Collected Stories of John Cheever, the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner I have yet to read.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.

The Man Within.

Graham Greene is one of my favorite novelists, period; I’ve read more novels of his than of any other author save P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Greene wrote twenty-six novels, two of which he later repudiated and which have been out of print for over eighty years, and divided his works into serious novels and mere “entertainments,” the latter typically what we’d now call spy novels, although some of his entertainments, like my favorite work of his, Our Man in Havana, still had serious themes and the distinction seems arbitrary when one has the vantage point of reading his entire oeuvre. His first novel, The Man Within, foreshadows the potential dichotomy in his work, as a suspense novel with a tragic-romantic component, themes of Christian morality and guilt, and a central character grappling with fundamental questions of right and wrong.

Francis Andrews, the novel’s protagonist, is on the run as the novel begins, fleeing his former smuggling mates after betraying them to the authorities. After three days on the run without sleep, he stumbles into a hovel occupied by a young woman, Elizabeth, watching over the corpse of her just-dead guardian, an encounter that begins with her threatening Francis with a gun but improbably turns into a Victorian romance. Their entanglement comes apart when Elizabeth persuades Francis to follow through on his anonymous letter and go to Lewes to testify against the smugglers, who stand accused of killing an officer of the law when the authorities caught them on a local beach – but who remain so popular with the townsfolk that securing a conviction is very unlikely. Francis, who labels himself a coward throughout the book, in contrast to his fearless (and likely sociopathic) smuggler father, faces choice after choice to put what is right over his own skin, a path that endangers Elizabeth and himself before a strange ending allows Francis to make one last stab at finding some measure of courage.

The Man Within was published when Greene was 25, and it reads more like an homage to British literature of the 19th century than a novel of its time; it came four years after The Great Gatsby appeared, three years after The Sun Also Rises, and seven years after Joyce ushered in postmodernism with Ulysses, all of which makes Greene’s first stab at a novel seem quaint in comparison. His second novel, Orient Express (also published as Stamboul Train), was a pure “entertainment,” a thriller set on the train that Christie made famous two years later. While that novel had elements of romance between the characters, those threads were more cynical in nature, dispensing with the naïve take on love Greene displayed in The Man Within, which has Greene’s voice in evidence but without the life experience he might have needed to craft his later works, both the serious “Catholic novels” and the thrillers that made his reputation. The most interesting character in this book gets relatively little screen time or development – Carlyon, Francis’ patron on the smuggling ship, a friend who filled in as a father figure, and who was most directly hurt by Francis’ ultimate betrayal and who is hunting Francis with the intention to kill him. That relationship, prior to the anonymous letter, isn’t well fleshed-out, and Carlyon is drawn too thinly for a character that would have to be complex to generate the remorse he does in Andrews.

Greene himself later derided this book as “hopelessly romantic,” but at least allowed this one to remain in print whereas the next two novels he wrote were, in his view, so bad that he renounced them and let them fall out of print. The Man Within stands more as a work of historical interest, as it shows Greene the storyteller learning his craft in a work that would probably rank as very good had it come from most novelists but, from one of the masters of 20th century literature, feels immature and a bit hollow.

Next up: I’ve finished Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and started William Faulnker’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel A Fable.

Einstein’s Cosmos plus seven other books.

I’ve fallen way behind in book reviews, so rather than procrastinate further and get upset with myself for letting this many pile up, here are my thoughts on eight books I’ve read recently.

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku does a remarkable job of taking a dense scientific topic and making it accessible in Einstein’s Cosmos, part of the same Great Discoveries series that includes Everything and More by David Foster Wallace and Incompleteness by Rebecca Goldstein. Part biography of Einstein, part survey course in theoretical physics, Einstein’s Cosmos takes the reader back to Einstein’s childhood, dispelling some myths about his youth and eventually leading to the best lay explanation of special relativity I’ve come across. Kaku doesn’t stint on some of Einstein’s less flattering moments, such as his early opposition to quantum field theory, but presents him as a man of great principle as well as an uncommon ability to visualize difficult problems in physics, a skill that first allowed him to formulate the theory of special relativity by asking what would happen if he could chase a beam of light while he himself was traveling at the speed of light. Kaku has to give the reader a substantial amount of information to get to the point of special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy, including a basic discussion of Maxwell’s equations, four partial differential equations that describe the formation and behavior of electromagnetic fields (above the quantum level, which Maxwell’s equations can only approximate). None of this is easy, but Kaku’s explanations are accessible even if you’ve never taken calculus, because his focus is on the meaning of these formulas and theories rather than on their precise functions. He also gives color the portrait of Einstein, who was an eccentric and widely beloved figure, without reducing him to caricature by repeating old tropes about him being a terrible student (he was a superb student when he cared about the subject) or a mere patent clerk (university politics kept him out of academia at first, not a lack of skill or background). I recommend it very highly if you’re at all interested in the man or his discoveries and, like me, are a long way removed from any coursework that might otherwise be necessary to understand it.

Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief tells the story of rare map dealer turned thief E. Forbes Smiley III, and follows in the footsteps of an earlier book about another crook who cut rare maps from ancient atlases, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. While Blanding’s book is better written and organized, giving a breezy history of cartography and explaining why some of these maps are so rare, the subject of the book, Smiley, is a fairly milquetoast character, even when Blanding tries to give him more dimension by talking about his attempts to remake a small town in rural Maine. This sort of non-fiction book tends to work best when the central narrative involves a literal or figurative chase, but Blanding spends scant time on the portion of Smiley’s story between the discovery that he may have taken some maps (or even that maps were missing) to his arrest. Harvey’s book, on the other hand, tells the story of the appropriately-named Gilbert Bland, an antiques dealer with no apparent personality, by turning into more of an old-fashioned crime book, documenting his crimes and the process of tracking him down in a way that covers up Bland’s lack of character. Both books are solid reads in their own rights, with Blanding’s shorter and more tightly organized, while Harvey’s has more narrative greed.

I’m still gradually working my way through the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners, and read two winners from the 1990s that were good-not-great, although in one case I could at least easily understand why it won. Steven Millhauer’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer reads like a fable, detailing the titular character’s rise from his youth as the son of a cigar-store owner to successful hotelier and entrepreneur, only to find with each new venture that his ambition is unsated, eventually pushing himself to build a hotel so grandiose that it fails. Along the way, Dressler marries the wrong woman, an entirely unconvincing subplot that undermined much of the novel’s narrative force. I could see the Pulitzer committee loving the book for its exploration of the superficiality of the American Dream.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, later adapted into a Best Picture-nominated film that starred three of the best actresses of its specific time (Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman, who won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf), seemed to fit the Pulitzer Committee’s loose standards less, but was a more literary, well-rounded work. Cunningham crafts three vaguely interconnected novellas and weaves them together with frequent shifts between them, setting them in three different times, with the only overt connection via Mrs. Dalloway: one story follows Woolf as she’s writing it, the other two revolve around women who’ve read the book and felt a deep connection to it. I would probably have enjoyed or appreciated The Hours more if I’d actually liked Mrs. Dalloway or had at least read it more recently, although the way Cunningham eventually connects the two non-Woolf stories, while somewhat predictable, is touching without devolving into mere sentiment, and still left me wanting more of that unified storyline.

I love Evelyn Waugh’s novels, but Helena, a short work of historical fiction, did nothing for me. It’s missing most of his trademark humor, instead telling a fictionalized version of the life of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, who made a pilgrimage to Syriana and, according to legend, rediscovered the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Waugh converted to Catholicism after writing his first novel, Vile Bodies, and while there are strains of his religious belief through all of his later works, Helena feels maudlin and ends with a passage that you might characterize as magical realism depending on your point of view on Christianity. Waugh apparently considered this one of his best novels, but since his satirical prose and eye were what made him a great novelist, Helena feels inconsequential in comparison.

William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, winner of a National Book Award in 1982, came recommended by my friend Samantha, an avid bibliophile who favors shorter fiction where I go for novels. So Long is a 135-page novella that explores loss and memory through the eyes of an old man remembering his broken connection with a friend when the latter’s father committed a shocking murder. The narrator goes back to the time of the murder and recounts the circumstances that led up to it, although I imagine his account is supposed to be unreliable (as with the imagined recollections of the narrator of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime). Maxwell depicts the life of the small town in Southern Illinois in often painful detail, walking through the minds of the three principals in the affair that led to the murder, and actually devotes little page time to his friend, the unfortunately-named Cletus, whom I couldn’t picture as anything but a slack-jawed yokel.

Dodie Smith’s name may not be familiar to you, but you know her work: She wrote the children’s book that Disney adapted for 101 Dalmatians. She also wrote a novel, I Capture the Castle, that’s highly regarded in England but seems to have never caught on here, perhaps because its subject is so very British. The 1949 novel starts out like a Jane Austen book: Two sisters move into a remote castle with their author father, who subsequently falls into severe writer’s block and finds himself unable to produce another novel – or any income, with the girls’ stepmother only barely more able to provide. A wealthy family moves into the neighborhood, with two very eligible bachelor sons, one of whom takes a fancy to the narrator’s sister … but Smith avoids the predictable and crafts a compelling narrative by having the younger sister, Cassandra, tell the story through her journal, with scrupulous honesty. I was hoping for a little more humor, but the seventeen-year-old narrator’s voice doesn’t have Austen’s wry comic style. The descriptions of the family’s privations early in the book wore on, but the denouement justified much of the time spent to get there.

The final book in this list gets the shortest writeup. Cesare Pavere’s The Moon and the Bonfires tells of an Italian expatriate’s return to his hometown after the devastation of the Mussolini regime and the second World War, and the tragedies he uncovers while obviously hoping to return to a town unchanged. Without any knowledge of the specific history of Italy under fascism, however, I failed to connect with the story or any of the characters. The isolation of the protagonist and the sparse prose reminded me of Camus, and not in a good way.

The Buried Giant.

I held a Klawchat on Thursday, and I reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nomianted family boardgame Broom Service for Paste.

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote two of my all-time favorite novels, the very British stiff-upper-lip story The Remains of the Day and the brilliant dystopian tragedy Never Let Me Go, along with a handful of lesser books that featured his gorgeous prose but couldn’t match the two peaks for storycraft. His latest novel, The Buried Giant ($5.99 for Kindle right now), is a welcome return to form for the English author, offering a plot of simple scenes that lends itself to vast philosophical interpretation, in an unfamiliar milieu that blends beautifully (if anachronistically) with his classical prose.

The Buried Giant takes place in pre-medieval England, where the Saxons are gradually taking over from the native Britons and the land is shrouded in a mist that has caused all people enveloped within it to lose access to many of their long-term memories. An old couple within one settlement, built into a hillside network of caves, sets off on a journey to visit their son, who has moved to another village for reasons no longer clear to his parents, Axl and Beatrice. The pilgrimage goes awry quickly – unsurprising, as the pair don’t even know where their son might be – as they’re co-opted into a larger endeavor involving the warrior Wistan, a mysterious orphan Edwin, the Arthurian knight Gawain, and a dragon whose actual existence is unclear until the very end of the book.

Ishiguro’s Victorian phrasings are stilted in the mouths of his Germanic and Celtic characters, but the language seems to fit his fabulist aims – and, of course, an accurate rendering of their language would leave the book unreadable. Fable it is, however, without the pedantry of traditional fables, instead opening up ruminations on the weight of cultural trauma, coming to grips with the sins of the past, and our individual and collective abilities to move on with or without those memories. Is our ability to forget, at least at a superficial level, an asset or a liability? Is there true reconciliation without reckoning?

Axl and Beatrice end up in between two forces taking contrary approaches to these questions, one seeking to lift the fog, the other to preserve it, and are given the choice of sides to support, knowing that neither option is perfect. Choosing to lift the fog may advance the cause of the people of the region, but expose dormant conflicts between the two of them that have been lost to the mist. It’s the question every country’s leaders face after some horrible internal conflagration or genocide: will the long-term gains from a “truth and reconciliation” commission exceed the short-term pain and renewed enmity from reopening wounds so recently closed?

Ishiguro paints his characters in broad strokes here because the mist he’s created all but demands it; the characters feel round but vague, as if the mist itself is between the reader and the page. The precise, modern English in which the characters speak only adds to the perceived distance from us to the action – and there is action, by the way, not just a Tolkienesque walk through New Zealand landscapes with a lot of talking. Ishiguro plays with his narrative prerogative, shifting his view at times away from Axl and Beatrice, although they remain at the heart of the book, such as scenes that serve to emphasize the objection entrenched forces might have to any reexamination of the past. Oligarchy takes a beating here, but The Buried Giant is no polemic, so while Ishiguro concludes the book with a firm decision by the main characters, the ending is neither happy nor straightforward, much as post-war authorities must struggle with the question of lifting the fogs over their battered nations and dealing with the sins of the recent past.

Next up: Anita Okrent’s book on artificial langages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon), In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius.

Black August.

My latest boardgame review, of the family-friendly boardgame Flea Market, is now up at Paste.

Molly Knight’s fabulous book on the 2013-14 Dodgers, The Best Team Money Can Buy, is finally out today, and if you haven’t already bought it, click that link and do so, or buy the iBooks version here.

I cannot for the life of me remember how I heard about Dennis Wheatley’s novel Black August (currently $6.15 for Kindle), the first of about a dozen he wrote that featured the dashing journalist Gregory Sallust, who was apparently an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. I’d had it on the amazon shopping list for ages, and had thought it was some other detective novel until I cracked it open and realized it was nothing of the sort. Black August is a violent dystopian adventure novel, highbrow pulp fiction with a significant body count, where Sallust ends up leading a core group of main characters through an utterly bombastic but entertaining trek through a collapsing United Kingdom.

Set before World War II, Black August begins with the accelerating fall of the British economy, coupled with a rise in Communist riots and sabotage that eventually bring down the state. Sallust is a minor character in the first quarter of the book, but ends up the leader of a band of refugees from London who first try to flee to the West Indies on a Royal Navy ship and eventually set up a sort of survivalist commune in southern England. None of their plans work out in the end, but it’s a cracking good time watching them try and fail, as long as you don’t mind watching a bunch of redshirts come to bloody deaths by gunfire.

Sallust quickly establishes himself on the page as a charismatic force, a man of bottomless optimism and an equally indefatigable supply of plans, typically illegal ones, although the question of law and order in a post-collapse England is a fair one. He’s brilliant, coldly rational, hellbent on self-preservation, and, unlike Mr. Bond, not the least bit romantic – he views the two women he takes into his motley crew as liabilities, at least at first. While there are some streaks of misogyny in the story, at least viewed from today’s vantage point, it’s a nice change from most novels of the sort to have the protagonist not just unable to get the girl, but flat-out uninterested. (Perhaps that’s part of why I like Nero Wolfe; the man loves his meals and his orchids, and that’s all.) There are romances within Black August; it would be unrealistic to run a group of people through this gauntlet without anyone coupling up. Wheatley just keeps much of that secondary to Sallust’s derring-do.

Like most popular fiction, there’s a bit of the ridiculous in how often the central characters in Black August survive their ordeals, especially with the sheer number of shell casings scattered across the book’s pages. Wheatley kills off a number of named characters, but the core half-dozen or so face lots of peril but always come out of it barely any worse for the wear. Characters who are shot but not mortally wounded seem to recover quickly as well. It’s the price you pay to read this kind of sophisticated adventure novel; the author has to give you danger, but he can’t kill off too many of the main characters.

I’d be curious if any of you have experience with Wheatley’s other works, some of which involved Sallust and many of which centered around the occult. While Black August was generally good fun to read, I didn’t finish it with any feeling that I needed to follow the character into the next book.

Mother’s Milk.

I have an Insider post up today on ten All-Star candidates, five who I think belong and five who probably shouldn’t make the cut. I’ll also hold a Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels first came to my attention somewhere around five years ago in an email exchange with a blogger whose name I don’t remember, but whom I’d contacted because we seemed to have a significant overlap in our literary tastes. She was a particular fan of Graham Greene’s work, as am I, and I asked if she had similar authors whose work she’d recommend. She mentioned St. Aubyn and specifically the novel Mother’s Milk, which is actually the fourth in the five-novel sequence, although it’s quite readable without the background of the previous three novels, and, by what I could tell from reading interviews with St. Aubyn, not quite as dismal as the first.

These highly autobiographical novels revolve around Patrick Melrose, whose childhood and early adulthood greatly resemble those of St. Aubyn, including the physically and sexually abusive father and the complicit, emotionally detached mother. By Mother’s Milk, Patrick is married with two young sons: Robert, Patrick’s mini-me, with an impossibly advanced vocabulary and talent for sarcasm; and Thomas, an infant at the start of the novel and Patrick’s rival for the attention of Mary, Patrick’s wife. This roman á clef is full of mordant humor, with Patrick and Robert providing the kind of sardonic and often obnoxious observations that call Greene’s work to mind but with Waugh’s merciless wit. But amongst the ripostes is a serious examination of Patrick’s attempts to escape the life carved out for him by his parents, and then to try to give something better to Robert and Thomas than he was able to receive for himself.

St. Aubyn begins the book more from Robert’s perspective than Patrick’s, as Robert’s world is upended by the arrival of a baby brother, while we get glimpses of Patrick molding Robert into a younger version of himself: a spectator to his own life, brimming with clever arguments and incisive quips that often fluster the adults with whom he comes in contact. From there, the focus shifts (or, I suppose, returns, based on the three previous novels) to Patrick and his deteriorating marriage. Feeling abandoned by his wife in favor of their new child, Patrick first engages in a fairly stupid affair with an ex-girlfriend, then falls into the bottle, sabotaging most of the relationships in his life along the way … yet the story remains both humorous and surprisingly hopeful. This isn’t The Lost Weekend, where he has to hit some sort of bottom before he can turn himself around, nor is it a cautionary tale where he destroys everything before he has a chance to turn himself around. That lack of artifice gives the novel a base of relaism that makes the humor that much more effective: St. Aubyn, through his stand-in Patrick, cracks wise as a coping mechanism, but refuses to give up on his main character.