Recommended Reading: The Furies, by Natalie Haynes

photo (120)When I picked up The Furies*, Natalie Haynes’s debut novel, I think I was expecting to read something akin to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, given the ingredients the two novels share: Greek drama, a school setting, and a newcomer drawn into the lives of a pre-existing group.

Like The Secret History, The Furies is a gripping book with expertly paced psychological drama, but it’s very much its own story (and an excellent one at that), a tale of obsession and grief.

Successful up-and-coming theatre director Alex Morris leaves London for strikingly gloomy Edinburgh after the untimely death of her fiancé. Attempting to flee from her memories and her grief, Alex takes an old friend up on an offer: to teach drama to students enrolled in The Unit, a school for “troubled” students who have been removed from their regular schools.

The students are angry, anxious, bored, and difficult, but not hopeless; even in her dank basement classroom, Alex finds herself making headway with all her classes, except for one.

This group of five teenagers resists, in one way or another, her attempts to connect with them, until they start reading Greek tragedy together. Carly, Luke, Mel, Annika, and Jono take to the tales of rage and pain with gusto, helped in part by Alex’s willingness to meet them where they are and to allow them to twine together their own interests with their reading.

Progress is slow, and Alex often finds herself overwhelmed by the five students’ struggles outside the classroom, which she picks up in bits and pieces. And slowly we see that at least one of her students shows more than the normal fascination about a teacher’s personal life when it comes to Alex — much more. And that fascination could force Alex to confront her own fury.

Describing her future students to Alex about her future students, her friend says,

‘We take the ones who didn’t function well elsewhere, for whatever reason: they’ve been bullied, or they are bullies, or they don’t fit in, or whatever. The ones for whom we might actually be able to make a difference. But our aim is to get these children back into mainstream schools, if we possible can. [. . . ] We also lose some because they can’t function here any more successfully than they did at other schools. Even safety nets have holes in them, you know.’ (8-9)

One senses that he has the same plan in mind for Alex; he thinks that the school might make a difference for her. Though the plot hinges on her students, whether Alex herself will fall through a hole in the safety net is the novel’s crucial dramatic question.

The Furies is not, mercifully, an inspirational teacher-swoops-in-to-save-underprivileged-kids story, or a bereaved-adult-learns-to-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life story. Ms. Haynes resists stereotypes and easy answers in favor of what I’d call empathetic realism. Though mostly told from Alex’s perspective, the novel also includes diary entries by one of the students that flesh out events and help readers piece together the unfolding drama; Ms. Haynes is very adept at writing teenagers. As a former teenager, teacher (of students much less surly than Alex’s, to be fair), and person lost the depths of grief, I can attest to just how much this novel gets right.

The Furies is a suspenseful and moving novel—quite an achievement—and highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

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Recommended Reading: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistJessie Burton’s The Miniaturist* begins with the well-attended funeral of a person with no friends, and that’s just the beginning of its many mysteries.

Months before this funeral, Petronella Oortman steps up, alone, to the door of her new husband’s house. Johannes Brandt is not home — a state of affairs that’s nearly normal, as she comes to learn — and she faces the household servants and her new sister-in-law on her own. Like the second Mrs. DeWinter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Nella is young, inexperienced, and unaccustomed to great wealth. And like Mrs. Danvers, Nella’s sister-in-law Marin knows weakness when she sees it.

It is 1686.

Amsterdam is prosperous, pious, and deeply committed to maintaining the appearance of both. Johannes is a highly successful merchant, but success has its perils, of course. He keeps Nella at a distance, though she does manage to glean a little information about his professional life. It’s when he gives her a wedding gift — a cabinet intricately designed as a replica of their house — that the narrative takes off. It is an unusual and expensive gift on its own, but Johannes also gives Nella carte blanche to “furnish” the house as she likes.

She contacts a miniaturist, and soon she finds that the miniaturists productions are eerily perfect. They’re beautifully crafted, but the level of detail suggests that the miniaturist knows more about the household than a stranger should.

As Nella settles into her new life, she attempts to unravel the secrets all around her — the miniaturist’s, her husband’s, Marin’s — and finds some unraveled for her without any trying. And not one of those secrets is safe.

Ms. Burton’s painterly writing brings late-seventeenth-century Amsterdam to blooming life. The sensory detail of the novel is remarkable (a dog “moves like spilled liquid, masterless, a chess piece rolling out of place” [115]), almost calculated to outshine the still-lifes we know from museums that hang in the Brandts’ home.

The pace of revelation is excellent, the characters are interesting (I do love fascinating, unlikeable women like Marin). I liked the novel’s unflinching gaze at its own unpleasant events, too. My quibble is with the ending; part of it was too neatly tied off, and part of it felt withheld, in an unsatisfying way. Given the whole of the book, however, this a minor critique, and shouldn’t stop you from picking up The Miniaturist.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Out Today and Recommended: The Map Thief, by Michael Blanding

photo (82)For years, E. Forbes Smiley III seemed to be the kind of man who matched his name’s connotations: moneyed, educated, successful. An antiquarian map dealer, Smiley shuttled between both sides of the Atlantic, becoming an expert in valuable and rare maps, particularly early maps of New England.

He was also stealing them.

In The Map Thief*, Michael Blanding investigates the paradox that Smiley represents. How could a man who treasured maps, who taught himself about them by poring over them in some of the world’s finest libraries, desecrate the very documents he valued and betray the people who shared his interests?

Mr. Blanding delves into Smiley’s life and work, bringing to life Smiley’s quixotic attempt to shape the world to fit his vision. (For instance, Smiley tried to reinvigorate a Maine town on his own, without much consideration of residents’ input, which turned into a spectacular failure.) His friends came up with the term “Forbes dollars”: “a personal accounting system in which Smiley always spent less than he had and was always owed more than he was” (83). As his career progressed, Smiley sank deeper into debt, impulsively buying maps even if he didn’t have the funds ready to pay for them.

In one instance, Smiley bought a rare atlas from another dealer for $50,000. When his check bounced, the other dealer demanded the atlas back, but it was too late: “he had taken the atlas apart right on the train up to Boston, selling several charts of Boston Harbor to Leventhal and keeping the rest, hoping to sell them to other clients to recoup the cost. [. . . ] he [the other dealer] couldn’t help but be appalled that Smiley had so cavalierly taken apart a book with less than ten known copies in the world” (73).

If the thought of Smiley tearing apart an atlas he (ostensibly) bought makes you shudder, the actual thefts will repel you. The gravity of the thefts — the number, the institutions affected, the rarity of the works taken, the fact that many are still unrecovered — is simply outrageous; Smiley’s prison sentence seems ridiculously light. I’ve had the privilege of handling two or three rare books, and the thought of someone opening one too swiftly sets my heart racing — the thought of someone ripping out a page is painful.

Though Smiley is the subject of The Map Thief, and Mr. Blanding places him in the context of the lively and sometimes strange world of rare map aficionados (dealers, collectors, and librarians), the book shines brightest when Mr. Blanding recounts the history of the rare maps themselves and the people who created them. The research is meticulous, and the historical characters fascinating. The book includes several full-color plates of some of the maps discussed in the text, and they’re just glorious (this comes, by the way, from a person whose only displayed map is one of Middle Earth). If you aren’t a map person before you read this book, you very well may be one afterward.

Tomorrow: An Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Recommended Reading: Next Life Might Be Kinder and I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

Howard Norman is the kind of writer who gives you the bad news up front. Take the opening paragraph of his best-known novel, The Bird Artist (1994):

My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.

(If you haven’t read The Bird Artist, you should rectify the situation immediately.)

photo 1 (18)Mr. Norman’s new novel (out last week), Next Life Might Be Kinder*, begins: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex hotel, she did not leave me.” It’s a bold strategy, to declare in one’s opening sentence the plot points other writers might build toward — but for Mr. Norman, the strategy always works.

Writer Sam Lattimore, Next Life Might Be Kinder‘s narrator, finds himself living in a small cottage hours away from the Essex Hotel, where he and his wife spent the early months — the only months — of their marriage. He’s meeting with a therapist, evading the film director who bought the rights to his tragic story — and the director’s assistant, and seeing his wife on the beach at night. He’s angry, and he’s desperately in love with Elizabeth. As the novel unfolds, Sam recalls how he and Elizabeth fell in love, what their life was like before she died, and the lurking menace of Alphonse Padgett.

Mr. Norman’s writing is, as ever, beautiful. The characters — Sam, Elizabeth, Sam’s new neighbors Cynthia and Philip, Dr. Nissensen the therapist, the unhinged Norwegian film director, even Marghanita Laski, whose work is the subject of Elizabeth’s dissertation — are finely delineated. Objects and places are imbued with significance; the two-page chapter called “Still Life with Underwood Typewriter,” which describes Elizabeth’s desk, is the best characterization-by-catalogue I’ve ever read.

Elizabeth’s appearances to Sam are mysterious, but never campy or sentimental. Sam loves his wife immensely but doesn’t sanctify her: “And I don’t need metaphor to try and elevate her to a deity. She is just Elizabeth. She made good soups and stews. She was writing a book. She used pencils” (80). Next Life Might Be Kinder is, quite simply, a perfect exploration of the particularities of grief.

photo 2 (15)After I finished the novel — in two sittings — I happened upon a review that mentioned its relationship to some of the writing in I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, a memoir by Mr. Norman published last year. I went to the library and read it immediately, then bought my own copy, because it’s a wonderful memoir, and I’ve never much liked the genre. In five sections, Mr. Norman explores pivotal periods in his life; several of the events echo in Next Life Might Be Kinder.

I’ll let the writer himself summarize I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place:

What is remembered here? A bookmobile and an elusive father in the Midwest. A landscape painter whose plane crashed in Saskatchewan. A murder-suicide in my family’s house. A Quagmiriut Inuit rock band specializing in the songs of John Lennon. And in Vermont, a missing cat, a well drilling, and my older brother’s requests to be smuggled into Canada. If there is one thing that connects these disparate experiences, it is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes — Northern California, Nova Scotia, Vermont, the Arctic — and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through. Often I just wanted to look at birds for days on end, shore birds in particular. (xi-xii)

These are beautiful books, and highly recommended.

*I received a copy of Next Life Might Be Kinder from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

New and Recommended Reading: Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden

Anthropology meets sci-fi meets adventure meets myth-making meets bildungsroman meets philosophy in Chris Beckett’s remarkable new novel, Dark Eden*.

photo (65)On a planet without a visible sun, the Family lives in the glow of phosphorescent trees, waiting to be rescued by the people of their ancestors. Time is measured in terms of “wakings” and “womb-times”; Siren-like singing panthers kill in the forest, and giant worms lurk in the glowing trees. Eden is a frightening place even before the Family’s internal problems are taken into account. Years of inbreeding have produced genetic abnormalities in the small population; their vocabulary is dwindling; their oral tradition and laws and methods of keeping the peace are all strained to the point of breaking. Even food is becoming scarce.

The 532 inhabitants of Eden hear legends of a world where “lecky-tricity” made things move, where there was a sun in the sky, where people could make ships that left the world itself. And soon, the stories tell them, a “Landing Veekle” will take them back to that world.

But young John Redlantern isn’t content to wait. A cross between Prometheus and Cain, John wants to explore beyond the Family’s living area and hunting grounds, to remake Eden as a permanent home for the Family. He wants to do the unthinkable: traverse Snowy Dark, where the cold can kill and the darkness is absolute. It’s dangerous, and worse, it’s heretical. What will happen to the Family if their most closely-held beliefs are challenged?

Dark Eden‘s world-building is excellent, and refreshing, since it’s neither Star-Trekkian (gadgets and gizmos and talking computers) nor Hunger Games-style dystopian (our own world in a terrible mess). Don’t get me wrong — I love Star Trek and The Hunger Games. But it’s wonderful to read something fresh, that answers a question I wish I’d thought to ask: what would a primitive culture look like if it evolved on an alien planet from a tiny population with prior experience of technology and advanced culture?

It turns out that the intentions of the initial population matter a great deal; the Family’s founders attempted to give their children a good chance at long-term survival, insisting, for instance, that children go to school, that histories be preserved, that women and men are equal. As I mentioned above, the gender politics in the novel are fascinating; the Family doesn’t quite have a matriarchal power structure, but paternity isn’t tracked and sexual violence is unheard of in Eden.

One of Dark Eden’s best aspects is the author’s attention to linguistic detail. Over generations, vocabulary changes and some kinds of speech atrophy (oh, my poor subjunctive!). So, for example, in the Family’s oral/aural culture, some pronunciations are off (“lecky-trickety”), and intensifiers like “very” have been lost. To convey that something is “very cold,” John Redlantern or Tina Spiketree would say, “cold cold.” On the other hand, English slang (“bloke”) and personal euphemisms (“slipping” for “sex”) remain, perfectly out of place in an alien world.

Dark Eden‘s story is John Redlantern’s, in many respects, but he is not the sole narrator. Mr. Beckett chooses his other narrators carefully to give a rounded perspective on the world and John’s actions. Given the limited vocabulary all the narrators work with, the resulting polyphony is all the more impressive. This is literary sci-fi at its best, and highly recommended reading.

Tomorrow: An interview with Chris Beckett, author of Dark Eden

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

photo (57)Strange Bodies* is a Frankenstein for the twenty-first century, an engrossing, frightening, funny meditation on technology, memory, language, and the nature of identity. It’s speculative fiction meets literary fiction, and it’s a great read. Marcel Theroux is better known on the other side of the Atlantic, but I do hope Strange Bodies grants him a devoted American readership.

(After all, the novel made me, of all people, want to read Samuel Johnson, so you know it’s good.)

Dr. Nicholas Slopen is dead, but it’s very easy to forget that fact as you read his “testimony,” taken from a flash drive given to an old friend (like Mary Shelley’s classic, Strange Bodies is a frame narrative.).  In life, Nicky had a troubled marriage, a sputtering career as a professor of eighteenth-century literature (specializing in Johnson), and some very strange run-ins with wealthy people claiming to have discovered a cache of never-before-seen papers in Johnson’s hand.  The only trouble is, if Nicky Slope is dead, who’s the “I” narrating his story?

I won’t give too much of the plot away — have a look at the the books several epigraphs, some of the best chosen I’ve ever seen, and you’ll get an idea or two — but the book is more than its twists and bumps in the night. Mr. Theroux clearly enjoys playing with the conventions of mystery and monster novels, and even the lowbrow literary thriller,  but it’s when he lets his own style loose that the novel really shines. His imaginings of Johnson’s reactions to twenty-first-century London are blindingly funny and sad at the same time. And his knack for description is wonderful. Take this sentence:

“Every time I came back, Vera seemed more lovely; her eyes behind their thickly made-up lashes tender with sympathy, her broad mouth with its liverish lipstick, the touch of her gloved hand on my knee fierce and protective like the raised wing of a mother swan” (113).

I love the contrast of the vaguely ghoulish “liverish” lips and the maternal tenderness of the “raised wing of a mother swan.” Elsewhere in the novel, the descriptions are mordant;  he suggests that overindulgence in Bikram yoga has turned a woman to gristle (for the life of me I can’t find the page number on that). Hilarious. Actually, considering the novel’s grim premise, I found myself laughing more than expected.

Strange Bodies is smart and literary and scary, all at once. If you read it, you’ll be wondering why you haven’t read Marcel Theroux before.

* My thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Palmerino, by Melissa Pritchard

PalmerinoThe life of British writer Violet Paget — better known by her nom de plume and male persona, Vernon Lee — seems ripe for novelization. Born into an intellectual family, Violet/Vernon was considered quite ugly (though I confess that every picture I’ve seen belies this assessment), but also brilliant, gifted especially with language. She spent most of her life in Europe, where she held court in a kind of salon at Palmerino, a villa near Florence. The constellation of writers and thinkers in her orbit reads like a who’s who of a late-Victorian anthology: Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater. One of her best childhood friends was John Singer Sargent.

Violet/Vernon wrote supernatural fiction and researched aesthetics, and was one of the first people to study empathy and art. (This link between science and art explains why Palmerino is published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small, nonprofit press dedicated to publishing works that connect art and science.)

Melissa Pritchard’s Palmerino defied my expectations in its structure and plot. I though I’d be reading a straightforward exploration of Violet/Vernon’s life and loves, perhaps featuring one of her several lesbian relationships. And indeed, the novel is about Violet/Vernon’s life, and about her relationships with Mary Robinson and Kit Anstruther-Thomson in particular.

However, Ms. Pritchard approaches her subject through a framing device, following the fictional American novelist Sylvia as she takes up residence at Palmerino to begin work on a novel about Vernon Lee. The perspective alternates among Sylvia, V. (apparently the ghostly voice of Violet/Vernon in the present), and Sylvia’s narrative of Vernon’s world. Ms. Pritchard is selective about the parts of Vernon’s biography included, so the effect is rather like piecing together a puzzle. For example, we see particularly vivid scenes from V.’s childhood and adolescence which bear on her future as a thinker and writer. The elided sections speak through silence, like the turns between stanzas in poetry.

Palmerino incorporates elements of biography, supernatural fiction, and historical fiction as it explores the nature of research,, genius loci, loneliness, and eroticism — and it’s a fascinating, unexpected way to enter into Vernon Lee’s life. Highly recommended.

Tomorrow on the blog: An interview with Melissa Pritchard, author of Palmerino.

Note: I received this copy through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Ah, Iceland. We meet at last. Almost.

Books are modes of conveyance, right?

Books are modes of conveyance, right?

My husband has had a thing for Iceland since long before we met; he listened to Sigur Rós before it was everyone’s favorite inspiring music (Glósóli was the first song on the first mix-CD he made for me—yes, you read that right— and would have been our son’s birth song, had it not been for that pesky emergency C-section). He’s wanted to visit for ages, and when I win the lottery, I’m booking us a flight.

I can’t claim that Iceland holds the same appeal for me as it does for Mr. O, but Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites brings the stark, relentless landscape into such focus that now I’m itching to see the land, the grey sea, and the ice-blue sky. I’m not much for landscapes, as I mentioned when I wrote about Bay of Fires, but this is the second book this year to make me care deeply about its characters’ surroundings.

The jacket copy (and Goodreads summary) will tell you right off the bat that this novel is an exploration of the last months of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman publicly beheaded in Iceland, so I don’t feel too bad about telling you too. Before her execution, she’s placed as a worker-prisoner with an unwilling family for a few months while a priest tries to save her soul; instead, they hear her story. That’s what I like to call a dramatic situation.

The action of the novel moves toward the inexorable end with grace and sure footing, even if the same can’t always be said for Agnes. At first I was a little thrown by the unconventional structure (letters and documents interspersed with third-person narration and first-person narration from Agnes’s viewpoint), but by the end of the novel, I loved it. The structure regulated the pacing, and eventually the narratives meld together in perfect synchronization.

One word kept coming to me over and over as I read:

Endurance.

Not the Shackletonian type of endurance, but the kind of constant scraping by that leaves blisters that never heal. Agnes endures abandonment after abandonment until the warmest home she finds is with her keepers, her best company a nervous priest and a sharp-seeing middle-aged woman who also waits for certain death (that reliable killer of nineteenth-century female characters — tuberculosis) but no execution date.

In the world Ms. Kent recreates, even the comparatively well-off in nineteenth-century Iceland are engaged in survival tasks every day. We see Icelandic families collecting dung for fires, slaughtering sheep, knitting clothes, making blood sausage, scavenging a beached whale, gathering in the harvest, trying not to freeze. Agnes remembers feeding tallow candles to children at one farm while she ate boiled leather — because they were starving.

Furthermore, people in this story are forced to endure each other. In each household, people sleep all together — masters and servants, parents and children — in one room. Conversations are overheard, stories and gossip spread like an oil slick on the wave. There’s no way to escape, especially in the winter, when the snow closes in.

Reading this book made me think how shocking it is that we’ve managed to endure as a species, when for a long time, for many people, even the simplest pleasures were the faintest sparks in an existence spent fighting for physical survival.