Sunday, June 27, 2010

Aimee Bender writes a touching portrait of a family in pain.

I heard this book reviewed on KCRW, and I was immediately taken with its tender evocation of the pain even a loving family can provoke. This novel is poetically written and deeply melancholy. I recommend it for readers who can take that sort of thing.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (292 pages, Doubleday, $25.95)is a remarkable novel. Rose Edelstein is the central character. Her parents are loving, if distracted, and Rose feels sure that they love her older brother Joseph more than they love her. Her sense of alienation, at home, at school, and even with her friends is palpable, and she spends her time trying to get closer to her mother, who is always a little off-hand with her, or with her brother, who has very little time for her, or her father, who buries himself in work.

For her ninth birthday, her mother prepares her what is thought to be her favorite cake, a chocolate lemon cake. She knows that her mother is going out of her way to make this cake for her, and she is prepared to enjoy it if only because of the occasion, but then she fully expects to like it too. Imagine her surprise and discomfort, then, when she bites into and tastes, without knowing why, her mother’s desperation and frustration.

From that moment, she finds that she cannot eat anything without tasting such uncomfortable facts about how it was made. Every supper at her home is a kind of torture, because she feels as if she is seeing into her mother’s soul. At school it is even worse, for she tastes the bitterness of the kitchen workers and the horrors of life in the school cafeteria.

To protect herself she eats packaged junk food as often as she can. That has a rather tasteless, factory flavor, which, although not pleasant, is at least not painful in the way all the other food in her life seems to be.

She copes rather well for someone with such a severe disability. When she talks about it, she is treated like a freak, so she more or less keeps it to herself. There is one exception to this rule. Her egghead brother’s best friend, George, who is also an egghead, is kind enough to her that she talks about her problem. He becomes fascinated and even tries to help.

As she struggles with her own special capacity, she reports about what is going on in her family, as any teenager with special powers might. She watches as her brother self-destructs by first screwing up his college applications and then seeming to fall off the face of the earth. She feels his pain deeply and tries to help him cope with the stresses of his life. She also tries to help her mother, whose extramarital affair she tastes in a supper her mother prepares for her when Rose is about twelve years old. She doesn’t let her mother know what she knows until she is over twenty.

Her father is a mystery to her, but when, after Joseph’s disappearance, she and he start to grow closer, she begins to realize that he may hold the key to all their odd behavior.

As it happens, Rose ends up in a restaurant, where her food abilities serve her well. She finds people who appreciate what she can taste in food, like where it is from or whether or not it is organic. Rose ends up functioning in a society she has more or less created for herself.

This is a very touching novel, as beautifully written as it is melancholy about the state of human relations.

Aimee Bender

Purchase a copy at Vroman's, Powell's, or Amazon.

David Liss takes on the British East India Trading Company in his latest tale of the eighteenth century.

I reviewed David Liss’s novel The Conspiracy of Paper some time ago in my Orange County Register Blog. He has written a few more titles in this series, but I have missed them somehow. But now that I’ve read his latest installment, I will certainly go back and fill in the blanks.

The Devil’s Company

“Company” in the title of David Liss’s latest Benjamin Weaver tale is used in two senses. It is company in the sense of “the company one keeps,” and in this novel, The Devil’s Company (381 pages, Ballentine Books, $15), that sense of the term applies directly to Benjamin and his friends and associates. But it also coveys a company in the sense of a “joint stock company,” the early eighteenth-century forebears to the multi-national corporation. Mutli-national does give something of the wrong impression, however, since the British East India Company was first and foremost a British concern and its main arm for the establishment of an empire around the globe.

In 1722, when this novel is set, these aspirations were only just being articulated publicly. At the same time, there was unrest, on the part of local wool merchants and silk weavers, who felt that the imported fabric, which was so cheaply and beautifully produced in India, was doing them out of their livelihoods. Liss’s novel is about this issue, and he throws his pugilistic hero into the middle of this very muddle.

Benjamin is asked to infiltrate the East India Company in order to discover what happened to a certain individual called Absolom Pepper. Benjamin has no interest in taking on the company; but the man who hires him to do so, Jerome Cobb, seems little less than a cultivated gangster. He threatens those closest to Benjamin with imprisonment for debt—a debt he has assumed in order to control matters in this way—and Benjamin sees no alternative but to comply.

This gives the novelist, David Liss, the opportunity to tell us about the inner workings of the East India Company. When Benjamin is thrown into the thick of things, he very quickly realizes what a corrupt organization it is. Half of what they do seems questionably legal, and the other half is clearly outside the law. But another thing he discovers, as he trips over other spies in his midst, is that the British government is willing to turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of the company because those in government realize what an important key it is to their aspirations of international expansion.

There is a range of colorful characters in this novel; all the businessmen, the workers, and the spies are richly drawn. The evocative Celia Glade, who is as adept at disguises as Benjamin himself, proves to be an accomplished adversary - or is she is an ally? Benjamin has a difficult time making that distinction.

Benjamin is Jewish, of Portuguese origin, and this gives Liss the opportunity to talk a lot about anti-Semitism in early eighteenth-century Europe. He also takes on the men known as mollies, who frequent a tavern known as Mother Clap’s. He sends Benjamin in search of a witness at the exact moment when the so-called Molly House was raided by the authorities, and it makes it clear that the men who were apprehended during that raid were in serious trouble, both in prison and before the magistrates.

Liss does a wonderful job of evoking the age, and he tells a story that is as instructive as it is entertaining. As I say, I enjoyed this novel enough to go back and read about Benjamin’s earlier adventures.

David Liss

Pick up a copy at Amazon, Powell's or Vroman's.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jill Dawson recreates Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester in a charming biographical novel.

I saw Jill Dawson’s novel in a local bookstore. I couldn’t recognize her name, but when I read the description of the story about Rupert Brooke and Cambridge, England, just before the First World War, I knew it would be intriguing.

The Great Lover

Jill Dawson’s The Great Lover (310 pages, Harper Perennial, $13.99) tells a story about Rupert Brooke, the early twentieth-century poet, and his imagined involvement with a servant girl at the Orchard Inn in Grantchester, England.

Grantchester lies just outside Cambridge in England, and Brooke made it famous by moving there and writing about it in his poetry in the years just before World War I. Brooke was trying to write a fellowship thesis for King’s College, but he spent his time worrying about his future, scribbling verses he was not sure he liked, and trying to date women as a way of persuading himself that his sodomitical impulses were not definitive.

Existing, as he did, on the fringes of Bloomsbury meant that he knew and entertained many who are familiar from that circle. James and Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf (née Stephen), Ka [Katherine] Cox, Gwen Darwin and Jacques Reverat, Augustus John: all these figures make their appearance in this novel, and the perspective Jill Dawson offers is both refreshing and informative.

Dawson is able to do this by way of her narrator, Nell Golightly, a maid-of-all-work at the Orchard, who has a great way with words and a healthy distance from everything that is happening around her. Well, at least it starts as a healthy distance, but before too long she finds herself rather falling for this handsome and disarming young man. I say disarming because one of her early encounters with him occurs when he is striding back from the river naked after an early morning swim. She sees him naked and erect, and try as she might to ignore him, she can only marvel as he chatters to his penis and slips past her into his room.

Little by little he charms her with bits of conversation and with discussion about his friends, his poems, and even the women in his life. Brooke seems to be infatuated with various girls, and with a certain Noel Olivier in particular, but it seems he is unable to remain committed to any relationship. Nell wonders whether he might be in love with the idea of love, and only rarely does she allow herself to imagine any portion of his emotional life for herself. Dawson creates a wonderful character in Nell, and this character does a lot to make the narrative come alive.

The other central narrator is Rupert Brooke himself, in his letters and his diary entries, some of which Dawson has quoted verbatim from available materials. When she doesn’t quote, she expands her material. She does so always in utterly convincing ways, and Brooke comes across as conflicted and self-involved and very much like the young man he probably was.

Because Nell does all of Brooke’s laundry and because she even washes his sheets, she is the only one who knows some of what transpires between Brooke and his male friends when everyone is asleep. At first the information of his sodomy shocks her, but quickly she puts it together with his background, his time in all-male school and university, and, in a sense, with his class. This also consoles her for not receiving his greater attention. He is not really interested in women, she tells herself.

While reading his own account, we come to know how unsettled all this is. Not only is he conflicted about his relations with men, he keeps trying to persuade himself to have sexual relations with a woman, and for one reason or another, that is hard to manage. The women of his class and position are intimidating to the point of making him impotent, and he finds himself more and more drawn to someone open and direct like Nell.

Dawson tells the story of their almost getting together and of all the other encounters Brooke has in this turbulent time of his life. She also takes him through, and largely explains, a nervous breakdown just after Cambridge; she follows him on various European excursions; and finally she explores his journey to the South Seas.

This novel offers a truly wonderful portrait of Rupert Brooke, and it does a superb job of recreating that magical moment in English history. She also creates a splendid character in Nell Golightly and gives her a story that is moving in its own terms and in the ways in which it helps to reveal the character of Rupert Brooke.
This is a superb novel, and I hope it gains a wide readership.

Jill Dawson

Available at Amazon, Powell's, and Vroman's.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Iain Pears weaves a mystery about banking and corporate finance—in the nineteenth century.

I have enjoyed Iain Pears’s art-historical mysteries and his first longer historical fiction, The Instance of the Finger Post. The new novel looked intriguing, but I hesitated to start it because of its size. And even when I did start reading it, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina. But Pears hooked me before too long, and I am now ready to rank it among the best historical thrillers I have read.

Stone’s Fall

Iain Pears’s new novel, Stone’s Fall (594 pages, Spiegel & Grau, $16) takes us into the world of high finance, corporate greed, and British espionage in the years leading up to the First World War. Pears sets his novel in England, France, and Italy, moving back and forth among them as his characters do, and he employs several different narrators, who in Gothic novel fashion, draw us deeper and deeper into what becomes a riveting personal narrative before its close.

As the novel opens, Matthew Braddock is hired by a wealthy society widow, Lady Ravenscliff, to investigate circumstances surrounding the death of her husband John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff, who had somehow fallen from his second story window some weeks before. Lady Ravenscliff wants to know how this accident could have happened—her husband was afraid of heights and never went near an open window—and she also wants Matthew to discover a formerly unacknowledged child to whom Stone leaves a fortune in his will.

Matthew’s investigations, which take him far out of his comfort zone as a newspaper reporter, confront him with the realities and deceptions of high finance. For one thing, he is surprised and confused that the financial state of Stone’s vast corporate empire is kept secret from investors and the public at large. It seems that the financial well-being of Stone’s companies has been undermined by a series of massive withdrawals that cannot be easily explained. Matthew is confused about the finances, and he has to bring in some friends from the newspaper to help him read the columns of figures; but not only is something secretive going on in the drama of the financial records—and Pears makes this unpromising material deeply dramatic—but also the ways in which financial markets are manipulated by the holding back of crucial news leaves Matthew in awe.

As Matthew investigates these matters for Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, he also begins to fall in love with her. This is complicated and unrewarding in the end, but it compels him into the complex background of the greatest financial empire of the age. The more he discovers, of course, the more wary he becomes of the woman who has hired him. And when the first part of the novel ends, he has satisfied her in one way—he knows where the missing money has been going—but he is in no way clear about who the mysterious child might be.

It takes two more narratives to tell the whole story. One is by John Cort, a British spy who also seems close to Elizabeth and who knows something about her background. He tells a story about a penniless orphan who makes her way in the world by pretending to be someone she is not, and who ends up marrying John Stone, one of the wealthiest men in the world. Cort tells of Elizabeth’s checkered career, but he also makes it clear that Elizabeth always says that John Stone was the love of her life. His story gets close to the heart of some secret about these personal affairs and their relation to the finance of World War I.

For the full story to emerge, however, it takes one further narrative, that of John Stone himself. In this fascinating narrative, Pears gives us a romance of financial wheeling and dealing. The story takes us back to Venice in the middle of the nineteenth century, and it tells the story of love, betrayal, and the kinds of deceptions by which a huge financial empire could get its start. This section also reorders our understanding of everything that has come before; and not only does Pears unravel every financial complexity, but he also makes sense of the deep personal discomfort that has been brooding in the novel all along.

Stone’s Fall is a great novel to stick in your suitcase and take with you for summer reading. It’s long enough to keep you going for several days, and it has enough historical and cultural atmosphere to make you imagine you are on a foreign journey even if you go no further than the local pool. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

Iain Pears

Get it at Vroman's, Powell's or Amazon.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nina Revoyr revisits turbulent times in Los Angeles.

This novel, recommended by a friend, complicates what we might think we understand about race politics in Los Angeles. It tells a riveting story in an intriguing way.


Nina Revoyr’s second novel, Southland (348 pages, Akashic Books, $15.95), is narrated by Jackie Ishida, a lesbian law student, who has grown up in suburban Los Angeles and is pulled into the past when her beloved Japanese grandfather dies. After his death, she talks to her aunt, and she discovers that her grandfather had bequeathed his corner market in the Crenshaw District—long since sold and even boarded up—to a certain black kid who has worked with him. When Jackie starts to explore this history—her aunt has asked her to find the kid, Curtis Martindale--she finds herself more and more intrigued. Why did old Frank Sakai leave the store, or the $38,000 in proceeds from selling it, to this young African American?

As she begins her exploration, Jackie meets Lanier, a young black man who works in a social service center in the neighborhood of the store. Lanier does wonderful things for the kids in the neighborhood, and he knows some of the history that Jackie is pursuing. She very quickly learns that Curtis is one of four black kids who were left to die in the store’s freezer during the turbulence of the Watts Riots in 1965.

Needless to say, this complicates matters considerably. Lanier thinks he knows the perpetrator, a bigoted Irish cop who seemed to have it out for all the black kids in the neighborhood. When they talk to an African American policeman in hopes to find out more about the case, they find that the doors of inquiry are slammed in their faces.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from exploring further. By following connections and even vague leads, they discover a lot about the boys who were killed and about Curtis especially. While all this is transpiring, Jackie is also discovering a lot about her roots. She did not really know the extent of her grandfather’s commitment to that store in the Crenshaw, nor did she know what a family-oriented mixed race neighborhood it had once been.

Jackie is also confronting the limitations of her relationship with Laura, the white woman on the mayor’s staff, with whom she has been involved for some years. Her work on the Curtis Martindale case makes her more political, political in ways that Laura does not understand, and Jackie finds herself drawing closer to her Japanese-American law school buddy, Rebecca. At first, Jackie feels no attraction to Rebecca because she is too much like herself; but as her investigations teach her a new appreciation of her family’s history, it also draws her closer to someone like Rebecca, who understands the complexity she is facing.

What Jackie discovers is truly complicated, and Revoyr unpeels the story layer by layer, moving back and forth between 1965 and 1994 (the time in which the story is set) and several points in between. Jackie learns both that the obvious villains are not always as bad as they seem and that intra-racial conflict can be as intense as any other kinds of violence.

She also learns something about the intimacy of relations between Japanese Americans and African Americans in the Crenshaw District in the 1960’s. The ending of the novel is not entirely surprising, but then I don’t think Revoyr means it to be. Instead, it is compelling in ways that this remarkable novel has led us to expect.

Nina Revoyr

Get it at Powell's, Vroman's, or Amazon.

Ian McEwan brings an anti-hero to vivid (and unpleasant) life.

I like Ian McEwan’s novels. This might not be one of his greatest, but it is interesting nonetheless.


Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, Solar (287 pages, Nan A. TAlese/Doubleday, $26.95) tells the story of a feckless philandering Nobel Prize winner, an overweight, middle-aged physicist who has dedicated himself to find alternative modes of energy production.

The Nobel Prize is well behind Michael Beard, the hero, when the novel opens. In some ways it even embarrasses him—he wonders sometimes whether his earlier ideas aren’t outmoded—but that does not stop him from trading on its value; and several of his sinecures can be directly connected to his stature as a Nobel winner.

When the novel opens, however, Michael is much more obsessed with his (fifth) wife Patrice, who is having an affair with the lummox who did some work for them in their Belsize Park (London) home. Michael is seemingly devastated by his wife’s infidelity, and he hardly feels chastened when she throws his own “eleven affairs in five years” in his face. It seems that our miserable cuckold is himself an incorrigible womanizer, and the novel shows him courting and bedding various women and fantasizing about even more.

He is not a good-looking man, but the novel postulates the notion that there are beautiful women who might want to “rescue” an unfocused intellectual like Michael, and he takes this notion for all its worth. Each wife seems younger and more beautiful than the last; but however perfect, they always part after a few years.

In the course of dealing with Patrice’s infidelity, Michael goes through the motions of running a think tank about alternative fuels, and early in the novel he is thinking about house-based turbines that might change the ways electricity reaches homes. Michael does not really feel this plan is feasible; but he also knows that the government wants results, and constructing a few prototypes seems harmless enough.

One of the brainy post-grads at the think tank, one who seems to know Michael’s earlier work and respect him deeply, tries to persuade him to turn his attention to solar energy. Tom Aldous, the young geeky enthusiast, makes some of the novel’s most impassioned speeches, which form the heart of this bizarre narrative.

When Tom dies, and that is a complicated story in itself, he leaves Michael his various files on solar energy, and when the novel jumps ahead from 2000 to 2009, we now see Michael as a worldwide authority on solar energy with some seventeen different patents. He is himself making impassioned speeches about the power of the sun, and as we hear Tom’s voice in what Michael says, we also recognize that he has left Tom’s name out of all the claims to solar energy that he is making.

This is a sad tale—Michael is almost as grotesque to himself as he becomes to us readers—but it is also a fascinating one. It is compelling about solar energy, of course, almost in spite of itself, but it is also intriguing about the nature of fame and the ways in which intellectual sophistication and personal corruption can go hand in hand.

I know some reviewers have talked about some personal issue McEwan might be working out in this novel. I don’t know enough about his personal life to follow this line of argument, but I would say that the novelist who created this character and situation has thought long and hard about the meaning of fame, about sexual neediness, and about what intellectual property really means.

Ian McEwan

Available at Powell's, Amazon and Vroman's.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sophie Hannah writes a family thriller

Sophie Hannah is a new name to me, but the praise for her two earlier novels is considerable. I decided to start with the latest novel. If I like it, I can always go back to the earlier ones.

The Wrong Mother

Sophie Hannah’s The Wrong Mother (415 pages, Penguin, $15) centers on family homicide. When mother and daughter, Geraldine and Lucy Bretherick, are found murdered—or was it suicide and murder?—seasoned detective Simon Waterhouse and his partner Sam Kombothekra disagree about motive and the definition of what happened. Sam is happy to settle for suicide/murder because there was an incriminating diary—on Geraldine’s laptop—which complains about maternal responsibilities, and there was also a vaguely final-sounding suicide note as well. But Simon isn’t so sure. Neither the diary nor the suicide note is persuasive, and Simon is ready to point the finger at the aloof and rather condescending husband and father, Mark Bretherick.

When Sally Thorning—herself a stressed out mom with a distracted hubby (Nick) and two darling and feisty children—sees the television account of the murders, she does a double-take. It seems that sometime earlier, she had a week away from her family, and during that week she had an affair with a Mark Bretherick, who described his wife Geraldine and his daughter Lucy. Imagine her surprise, however, when the Mark she knows and the one on the television are not the same man at all.

As Sally tries to figure out her puzzle—and she would like to inform the police without revealing the incriminating details of her marital infidelity—she finds odd and inexplicable things happening to her: someone tries to push her in front of a bus; she feels that she is being followed; and all her friends seem to be acting strangely.

As Simon and Sam pursue their various leads, Simon turns to two people for help. Instead of asking the local professional authority about family annihilation, he turns to a Cambridge professor who has also written on the topic. This professor, Jonathan Hey, is a much more articulate and perceptive interlocutor, and he helps Simon get a handle on the crime. For one thing, he tells Simon, woman rarely commit crimes of this kind. Husbands, out of revenge or anger, sometimes kill a wife and children, but mothers, except in exceptional culturally-determined cases, rarely do.

The other person Simon talks to is his former partner, Sergeant Charlie Zailer, a woman with whom Simon has a complicated relationship. I’m sure the earlier novels in this series will explain both why Charlie and Simon no longer work together and what the nature of the frisson between them really is. For now, however, Charlie helps Simon with some details of the case.

Before the detectives get too close to solving the case, two more bodies are discovered buried in Mark Bretherick’s garden. This begins to suggest something more than an isolated crime, and the entire case becomes bigger and more complicated than anyone had imagined it would.

Sally Thorning is abducted—her fears were more than justified—and her jailer is the man with whom she had the affair. Now she knows he is not Mark Bretherick, but she is not sure who he is. When she discovers that he is inseminating her with his semen when she is unconscious, she is desperate to escape from him, but he insists that he wants a happy family life with her, even as he waves a gun in her face to keep her from leaving him.

It takes the police a very long time even to figure out that Sally is missing—her abductor used her phone to text her husband with the news that she was sent abroad on a business trip—but as they do find her, other details of the case fall into place.

Still, the conclusion is surprising, and Sophie Hannah deserves praise for the complications to her plot and the way in which the crime unravels. She is a masterful story-teller, and I think I will look for her earlier two novels. I will also watch for any new ones that come along.

Sophie Hannah

Available at Powell's, Amazon, and Vroman's.