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I happened upon Death in August by Marco Vichi as I was browsing about for an Indie Thursday purchase. I couldn’t resist the cover, a vintage Florence streetscape with the famed Palazzo Vecchio clock tower in the distance, all diffused by a red-orange sunset. The cover, and the title, seemed perfect to me, as it was of those sultry days in late August.

This is the first of several mysteries based in Florence, Italy, featuring Inspector Bordelli, and I’m psyched (as always) to have discovered a great new detective series. I’d like to compare the inspector to Hercule Poirot, but Bordelli is not at all fastidious or dignified. He actually reminded me more of an Italian Columbo: rumpled, ruminative, and tenacious. Although the victim looked to have died in an asthma attack, Bordelli “couldn’t get the image of the woman’s corpse out of his mind. Murder, he thought. Leaning his back against the wall, he breathed deeply and looked up at the sky, seeking the moonlight behind the thick clouds.”

Like Columbo, Bordelli circles around a few key suspects, playing a sort of cat-and-mouse game as he closes the trap around the guilty party. This is a slow-burning potboiler, and Vichi keeps the thread of suspense going. But, there are no formulaic cliffhangers or gratuitous ‘evil-twin’ plot surprises—phew.

The book also reminded me of P.D. James‘s works, in that it is well written and heavy on atmosphere. “The sky had opened and the moon was visible. [Bordelli] stopped in front of the gate and looked at the villa from a distance, fascinated by the decay wrought by time. It pleased him to see that things, and not only people, suffered the wear and tear of age.”

Vichi gives us wonderful glimpses of life in Florence, as Bordelli attends a funeral in the famed Santa Croce, lunches at his special table in a trattoria’s kitchen, and drives about the hilly, circuitous streets. “Reaching the Lungarno, he crossed the Ponte alle Grazie and turned, as always to look up at the church of San Miniato al Monte, his favourite. Its white façade always had the same effect, whether from up close or far away.”

Set in the 1963, the book captures a time when Florence was quiet and deserted in August, and those who remained lay awake swatting mosquitoes amid the fumes of zampironi coils. “It was almost nine, always the most melancholy time of the day for Bordelli. Down on the street, somebody called after his dog. The swallows were gobbling up insects, flying low and screeching between the buildings.”

Also, as it’s the 1960s, Bordelli has vivid and troubling memories of his time fighting the Nazis in World War II, some of which are shared in flashbacks. These memories are fueled by the real-life experiences of the author’s father who regaled him with vivid accounts from when Vichi was a little boy. In fact the Inspector’s eager and dogged protégé, Gavino Piras, turns out to be the son of one of his comrades-in-arms. Upon first meeting him, Bordelli “felt at once very sad and very pleased.”

From Sicily, Piras is one of the many compelling characters we meet in Death in August. However, there aren’t any developed women characters. They are either decorous, aged signoras or lusty gals whom Bordelli oogles. There are a few awkward, and pretty icky, moments. Inside joke, the inspector’s name is translated as ‘Commissioner Brothels’ on the author’s website.

Notwithstanding, I highly recommend this read. I’m eager to delve into book two, Death and the Olive Grove. I know there are UK paperback editions out there. But, I just loved the look and feel of the Pegasus Crime hardcover (the U.S. debut) so I hope it won’t be long before they publish the next one.

Death in August: Spotlight in Publishers Weekly

Marco Vichi Interviewed by Publishers Weekly

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Moonshine here does not mean Tennessee hooch, though this being Wodehouse, the characters tend to reach for potent liquid bracers at key plot points. Here, moonshine takes the British connotation of nonsense or silliness. Certainly, this novel has a carefree absurdity which reminded me a bit of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Wodehouse was devoted to Shakespeare.) There is a cast of wacky characters all gathered at Walsingford Hall, which is repeatedly described as one of England’s ugliest country houses, “in all its revolting hideousness.” The summer retreat proves a hotspot for all sorts of mix-ups, including crossed identities, romantic entanglements, and chases down country lanes, as well as through the many closets of Walsingford Hall.

The story starts off on a languorous summer day. The guests idled over croquet and sunbathed by the river, while cows grazed in the distance. To this, enters Miss Prudence Whitaker, “who spoke in a cold crisp voice which sounded in the drowsy stillness like ice tinkling in a pitcher.” We soon learn that Prudence is somewhat of a hotel manager, and these are paying guests. Her boss, Sir Buckstone Abbot, is short on cash, and the setup is a bit like Downton Abbey meets the “Island of Misfit Toys.”

The brooding Sir Buckstone does not feel that he is getting paid enough to have these interlopers trampling about his house, drinking his port, and asking for waffles at breakfast. “A bee buzzed past his nose and he gave it a cold look.” Indeed, his financial predicament had engendered in him a great admiration for the money-squeezing character of Shylock.

Sir Buckstone’s daughter Jane has her own troubles. “It ruffles a girl of sensibility, who shortly after breakfast has heard the man she loves called a twerp and … a few hours later, at luncheon, described as a kickworthy heel.”

There are also two befuddled, and rather Bertie Wooster-esque, brothers named Vanringham. Joe, an aspiring playwright, spends his time doodling mustaches on the statues that decorate the grounds. “There is nothing like creative work in fine weather for releasing the artistic spririt.” His brother Tubby, also a daydreamer, “from the age of fourteen onward, had been unable to see a girl on the distant horizon without wanting to send her violets and secure her telephone number.”

Into this, pushes in the brash, uninvited, “blighter” of an American relative, Mr. Sam Bullpitt, who is actually a process server chasing down one of the aforementioned Vanringhams.

The other guests serve as obstacles and comic relief in this roundabout game of chase. Upon discovering that Tubby (last seen attempting to read a dullish mystery called “Murder at Bilbury Manor”) has disappeared, Joe interrupts the golf practice of an aged Mr. Waugh-Bonner.

“‘My name is Vanringham. My brother was sitting under the cedar.’

‘Hey? Oh, you mean that young fellow? You his brother?’

‘Yes, Have you seen him?’

‘Of course I have seen him.’

‘Where?’

‘Sitting under the cedar,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, with the manner of a man answering an easy one, and turned to address his ball.

It seemed for a moment as if there might be murder at Walsingford Hall as well as at Bilbury Manor, but, with a powerful effort, Joe restrained himself from snatching the putter from this obtuse septuagenarian and beating out his brains, if you could call them that. He even waited until the other had completed his stoke—another miss.

‘He’s not sitting there now.’

‘Of course, he’s not. How could he be when he’s gone for a walk?’

‘Walk? Where?’

‘Where what?’

‘Which way was he heading and when did he leave?’

‘Started out along the Walsingford road twenty minutes ago,’ said Mr Waugh-Bonner, and snorted irritably as his companion left him like a bullet from a gun. He disliked all young men, but he hated jumpy ones.”

There are several other eccentric characters—the ‘kickworthy’ fortune hunter Adrian Peake, the faux Czech Princess Dwornitzcheck, a shuffling butler named Pollen, and the waffle-requesting Mr Chinnery, to whom Sir Buckstone owes a large sum of money—and several of them seem to be chasing each other about.

Slight spoiler alert: there is a dust-up in which Joe Vanringham is set upon by a group of large, menacing, factory workers. Turns out, it’s a biscuit factory (that’s what the Brits call cookies), and suddenly the cookie makers seem much more comedy than tragedy. They all end up slinging pints, not fists, at the local pub. It is Wodehouse after all.

I don’t want to downplay this masterpiece as complete gush. Wodehouse was markedly cerebral, and he was alone, unequaled, in his ability to write smart, and most hilarious, novels. Nary a page goes by without a reference to classical Greek or Roman mythology, Classical Opera, Shakespeare, or British history. Joe Vanringham, before he secures a room at Walsingford Hall, feels himself “a peri at the gate of Paradise.”  But that is for another blog post. Always, Wodehouse does it so seamlessly, that a reader could completely miss these citations and just enjoy the comedic flow.

The plot is delightfully fluffy and bubbles along in a series of inane incidents that highlight the joys of summertime in the English countryside. Yes, I laughed and smiled on every page—a perfect sunny, summer read.

P.G. Wodehouse via Wikipedia

The Paris Review Interview of P.G. Wodehouse

The P.G. Wodehouse Society

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Like many readers, I was confused and disheartened when the Pulitzer Prize announced there would be no award for fiction this year. For booklovers, and especially for writers, that would be like the Academy Awards announcing there would be no Best Picture. Huh?

Turns out, the Pulitzer jurors were just as shocked as the rest of us. They came up with three finalists: The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, Swamplandia by Karen Russell, and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Perhaps too many choices, because the Pulitzer Board, also basically a committee, could not pick one either. Really, this is just another case of death by committee and not a commentary on American letters.

This is not the first time the Pulitzer crew has punted on fiction. Somewhat shockingly, they rejected Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1941, which the judges had picked unanimously, but Columbia’s then president deemed offensive. Two other seminal works were also overlooked that year: The Heart is Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers and Native Son by Richard Wright

The same thing happened in 1974 when the jury voted for Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, again unanimously, but the board overruled. Other important books that year included Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, Burr by Gore Vidal, Breakfast of Champions by Vonnegut, and Sula by Toni Morrison.

Three years later, the Jury picked Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, but the Board gave no prize. Two biggies they also skipped over: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron and Roots by Alex Haley.

There are several other notable misses in Pulitzer history. There was no award in 1920, even though Winesburg Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, was eligible. Again in 1954, though both A Good Man is Hard to Find & Other Stories by Flannery O’Conner and Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin were in the offing. Ten years later, another blackout in 1964, even though Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was eligible—that stings. But, so were V  by Thomas Pynchon and Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. Note, Where the Wild Things Are and Hop on Pop also came out then—so it was boon year for American readers.

In 1971, they passed over Deliverance by James Dickey, as well as Being There by Jerzy Kosinski and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Now I’m not arguing that that any one of these books should have won the Pulitzer—though others might. What I’m saying is that past years which yielded no Pulitzer for Fiction were all still fairly robust ones for American letters.

2011 was no different. Indeed, Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize just announced that three novels written by American women made the six-book shortlist: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

On Twitter, via the hashtag #TwitterPulitzer, readers and bookstores have nominated The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (I thought this was a tour de force), The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and several other must-read contenders. Check it out for reading ideas or to post your own #TwitterPulitzer winner.

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I’ve been surprised to hear that many of my friends who saw War Horse—the play on Broadway or the new Steven Spielberg film—did not know that both were based on a wonderful novel by Michael Morpurgo.  For some reason, Morpurgo, who was the Children’s Laureate of the UK, is not that well-known in the states. He has written dozens of children’s books, which are extremely popular in the UK, and indeed, worldwide. Some, like It’s a Dog’s Life and The Butterfly Lion, are geared to early readers. War Horse is one of his several fine young-adult novels.

The story is of Joey, a Devon farm horse, who is drafted into World War I, and Albert, the boy who enlists and vows to find his horse. Morpurgo did not want the book to be partisan, so Joey ends up working in turn on the British and the German sides. We see the humanity, kindness, and brutality of both. Morpurgo paints a picture of how WWI impacted civilians as well as soldiers. The book holds close to historical details, with the new agonies of trench warfare, machine guns, and gas. There’s a moving scene of Joey getting caught in no-man’s-land between the fronts, and also Albert fights in the pivotal Second Battle of the Somme. Morpurgo brilliantly invokes the foolhardy, specious, “charge-of-the-light-brigade” gallantry that would send a cavalry into battle against modern heavy artillery. Whether he is writing about people or animals, Morpurgo creates memorable characters. I particularly loved the gruff but noble workhorse Topthorn.

Another book by Morpurgo that I strongly recommend is Private Peaceful. Also set during WWI, it is an affectionate and wrenching story about Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful and his brother Charlie, who become soldiers together.

After their father is killed in an accident, the two brothers struggle to help their mother keep the family together, now that they no longer have claim to the tenant farm where they live. Morpurgo highlights the resolute and capricious power that the landed gentry had over their laborers—an authority that ultimately forces the brothers off to war at an early age. This class conflict is mirrored by the brutish behavior of some of the officers in the trenches. Again with attention to historical accuracy, Morpurgo focuses on a lesser-known, barbaric injustice faced by many of the rank-and-file soldiers in the British army in the early 20th-century.

The book is told in flashbacks by Tommo, who lied about his age so he could go along when his older brother was drafted. “They’ve gone now, and I’m alone at last. I have the whole night ahead of me, and I won’t waste a single moment of it. I shan’t sleep it away. I won’t dream it away, either.” I was hooked from Tommo’s first line. Also, the pacing that alternated real-time with the past had me ripping through the pages. The countdown felt a bit like an episode of the TV show 24—with the suspense, and the sense of dread, compounding. I finished Private Peaceful in one sitting.

In addition to some lovely vignettes of life in the Devonshire countryside, there is also a charming, understated tween love triangle, which sparkled with the refreshing, best-friend dynamic of childhood romance. Though his books are targeted to young readers, Morpurgo insists they are “stories for everyone.” And I must say I am steadily plowing through them, relieved to find that he is so prolific.

Although the children’s book market has been booming, there is a lot of dodgy, poorly-written, mishmash out there—such as the hackneyed “kitten”, “rainbow”, and “weather” fairy series. And don’t get me started on the fad of celebrity children’s books. Ugh. Do you really want your kids reading this stuff?

Parents looking for quality, compelling books for their children should browse the virtual bookshelf on Morpurgo’s website. Not only are his many books beautifully-crafted with wonderful characters (there are lots of animals and there’s lots of history), but these books are downright satisfying page-turners … for readers of any age.

Fueled by Movie Buzz, War Horse Breaks into Top 50 Bestsellers

War Horse: the Novel

Private Peaceful

Michael Morpurgo’s Virtual Bookshelf and Website

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“You go into a fugue state of exhaustion and inspiration.”

Head Waiter Mike Scalise offered the most apt description of the Bread Loaf experience. Don’t look for any such wisdom in these thoughts. I just can’t let go of the mountain and the memories:

 

Fireplaces that looked decorative on day one turned out to be vital.

Brief reactivation of Ross White’s phantom Twitter and Facebook accounts.

David Shields’s self-described “fiction driveby shootings.”

Every day, growing lore about the Nut Shack.

So many beautiful words and beautiful moments in the Little Theater.

Best Couple we hope are a couple: Tamara Choudhury and Jeff Stauch

Best Couple we know are a couple: Alan Carl and Benjamin Roesch.

Best Couple who really aren’t a couple (happily for their suitors): Lauren Edmondson and Liz Wykoff.

Still in awe of the fabulous waiters and staff. Such talent…such multitasking!!

The girl pack getting their fun on: Trish Woolwine, Alex Beers, Angie Chatman, Amy Schriebman Walter, Claudia Zuluaga, and Molly Absolon.

Kalapana Mohan at a too early 8 am after the first barn dance, radiant in a beautiful Indian-print Kameez tunic, hair perfectly in place. Asked how she was feeling post dance: “Very … very bad.”

Waiter flashmob to Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

Staff flashmob to Hall and Oates’s Rich Girl.

Wishing I’d had more time reading in those Adirondack chairs.

Alan Heathcock ghostbusting in Robert Frost’s cabin.

Philip Levine … stand-up comic.

Kris Bigalk and Señor Squirrel.

Every other person on crutches.

If only Charles Baxter’s lecture on “undoings” had come earlier in the conference.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s black Stetson: Western hot.

Nate Brown’s bow ties: handsome devil.

Chad Frisbee’s dancing shirt: 70’s sexois.

Jeff Stauch’s rainy-day speedo: no comment.

Turns out, alcohol does not prevent BLARS.

Suspicious repeat fire alarms in Cherry.

Unreal full moon.

All too real howling at moon.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s special box of writing wisdom.

Noreen Cargill working magic in the office at all hours of day and night.

The person who smells a waiter is a fool.” –Shuchi Saraswat. Though in fact, Shuchi and the waiters smelled and looked (and sang) beautiful(ly). Especially compared to the rest of us.

Oh, we just loved our moments in the Blue Parlor. Laughed and cried. Thank you Harriet Clark!

Blue Parlor Best Supporting Actor: photographer and sommelier Rolf Yngve.

Badass runners: Dave Essinger, Molly Absolon, Jeff Stauch, and Mike Kerlin.

Wondering each day:
A.)  What hat will Alan Heathcock wear?
B.) What will be on Rob Kaplan’s T-shirt?
C.) What name will they give to today’s stew?

All other questions anticipated and answered by the genius and in-depth daily reporting of The Crumb!

Another scoop for The Crumb!

Poet Laureate Philip Levine and Ross White, getting another scoop for The Crumb.

Amy Schriebman Walter every day in the Apple Cellar writing poetry.

One Minute in Heaven: General Contributors read from the hallowed podium … to ourselves.

(Thank you to Ru Freeman, Nicholas Boggs, and the 3 others who attended.)

Slice of Heaven: Courtney Maum’s Missed Opportunity.

Miss, missing that mountain air.

Best late-night antics and stamina: Richard Bausch tied with the waiters. Ok, the waiters really took this category, but the indomitable Bausch gave them a run for their money.

Bestest and Most Wonderful Presence (even when he wasn’t there): Tim Manley!

Michael Collier dancing on the table at the barn dance … got it on film.

Somehow all were unscathed after the body-slamming mosh fest during Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Top complaint on the feedback forms: “There should always be bacon the morning after a barn dance.”

Wishing I could hit replay and do it all over again.

Just like I’m replaying all the Bread Loaf lectures and readings on iTunes.

“What a remarkable time in literary Brigadoon.” Sharon Gelman.

Barely the tip of the iceberg. I know I missed a lot. A laptop conked me on the head during the shuttle up to Bread Loaf, so my own fugue state was also a semi-concussed one.

Does anyone else still hear that bell ringing?

 

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Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.
–Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Like most muggles, I raced to see Deathly Hallows Part 2. But for me, Harry Potter is really all about the books. I read the first two to humor my niece, but Prisoner of Azkaban hooked me. I joined the crowds for the midnight release of the next four books, and, wow, was it inspiring to see so many kids so jazzed about reading. I admit I had a Larry David moment at the final book party, when I seriously considered taking advantage of the fact that I was a foot taller than most of those elbowing me. But reason prevailed, and I let the kids push past. It was their moment.

Harry Potter Book SeriesIn my day, there was a dearth of books for tweens and early teens. Once you’d outgrown Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys, there wasn’t much left. I read and reread Little Women and The Lord of the Rings. And though my sister had lent me Pride and Prejudice, I couldn’t yet appreciate it.

My parents had always encouraged reading, but we hit a few bumps during those years. I got about 30 pages into Jaws by Peter Benchley, before it was confiscated for violent and non-PG content. When my brother brought The Godfather on a car trip, Dad was skeptical. A scowl spread across his face as he flipped through the pages—again not appropriate for a 12-year-old. Without a word, he rolled down the passenger window (Mom was driving) and tossed the book out. Literally (and literary) defenestration. A belated thank you to the local Rotary Club, who had adopted that stretch of highway for cleanup.

After that, Dad got us reading biographies, but now, Harry Potter has spawned a boom in Young Adult literature. Before, when I gave a tween a book (instead of some digital distraction), said child often eyed me with suspicion. Since Harry Potter, my stock has gone up. Now it’s hard to find a book these kids haven’t read. The best gift, however, is the one JK Rowling gave to generations of children … the joy of reading.

Did you like the Harry Potter books better than the movies? Which was your favorite book?

Harry Potter Book Series

JK Rowling Official Site

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

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Last week, the editors of the New York Times Magazine conducted a poll via Twitter:  “What are your top 5 fiction books?”  My feed lit up with a stream of titles: The Great Gatsby, Infinite Jest, Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre.  It was like a reader’s stock ticker with books instead of companies. Every morning, I logged on to see what would come next: Ulysses, The Awakening, The Godfather, Moby-Dick.  I was enthralled—so much so that I could not respond myself.

How could I pick? I was the keyboard equivalent of struck speechless, which seemed ironic as I am not known for being short on words.  Should I simply list all five Jane Austen novels? Ok, there are six but Mansfield Park, really?  Or, I could go with the first five Harry Potter novels, but that leaves “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” still alive.  I would need to include Anna Karenina, but what about Vanity Fair? I didn’t want to keep to the classics, having just read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.  And, what about my less cerebral favorites?  I could not put down Michael Crichton’s Timeline, and who did not love Confessions of a Shopaholic?  I’ve read Aunts Aren’t Gentleman three times, but alas NYT Magazine specified one could not include “all Wodehouse” as an entry. Luckily, they also limited it to fiction, or I would not have been able to leave out Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai or David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.

Finally, I closed my eyes and just typed: Cold Mountain, Suite Française, The English Patient, Wuthering Heights, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban. Instant remorse set in. I was like Sir Galahad on Monty Python’s Bridge of Death. “Blue, no green … aaahhhhh!”

That’s why I’m so hooked on books.  On any given day, my list of favorites changes.  I have just read Tim Winton’s radiant story collection, The Turning, and I’m now deep into George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings … so please no Dance with Dragons spoilers.

Can you pick 5 fiction favorites?  What are they?

NYT Magazine Editors Top Fiction Five

Twitter Picks Top Fiction Five

NYT Magazine Editors Top Five Non-fiction books

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