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Archive for October, 2015

This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

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In today’s column, I review Howard Frank Mosher’s God’s Kingdom and Castle Freeman Jr.’s The Devil in the Valley. Mosher’s book is a historical novel set in a village in Vermont near the Quebec border and Freeman’s is a re-telling of the classic story of a man selling his soul to the devil — with a decidedly different outcome than readers may expect, and also set in rural Vermont.

Here’s a taste of the column:

“God’s Kingdom” by Howard Frank Mosher is set in 1950s Vermont, in a village near the Canadian border called Kingdom Common. It’s a novel about Jim Kinneson, son of the local newspaper editor, and his family, who have lived in the Common for generations. Through a series of stories about Jim’s teen years, Mosher touches on concerns of the time and illuminates the past. And there is plenty of past in Kingdom Common — from troubles between Native Americans and settlers, to the Underground Railroad, to the burning of a settlement of former slaves.

In Castle Freeman Jr.’s “The Devil in the Valley,” a stranger named Dangerfield visits retired teacher and frustrated writer Langdon Taft to offer a deal: Taft can enjoy “talents” for seven months and then belong to Dangerfield’s “firm. But Taft is different from other clients.

You can read the rest in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News or online at the paper’s website.

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The heroine of Everybody Rise, if you can call her that, is Evelyn Beegan, whose social climbing mother has done her very best to teach Evelyn to fit in with her prep school peers. When the book opens, Evelyn is 26, living in New York just before the Great Recession, and working for People Like Us, an exclusive social media site targeting the rich and well connected crowd she so desperately wants to belong to. She’s convinced if she can deliver the old money members PLU is looking for her life will be perfect. So she learns everything she can about Camilla Rutherford, the alpha girl of New York’s socialite scene, and her circle, pretends to be a part of their world, and begins to get invited to parties and benefits and even the committee organizing one of New York’s debutante balls. She can sense she’s “being seen” and is finally, happily — or so she thinks — one of “them” at last.

But weekends in the Hamptons, expensive tickets, designer clothes, “three-times-a-week blowouts” and “just the right toiletries” are massively expensive. Clifford writes, “The prices struck her as high at first, but she found that, freeingly, the more she spent, the less she cared.” Evelyn finagles money from her parents, stops opening her bills, and instead opens more credit card accounts. By the time her friend Charlotte tries to help her get organized, she’s $65,000 in debt on one card alone. And then her father is indicted for bribery and sued by the other partners in his litigation firm. Evelyn’s carefully curated life begins to fall apart. All the lies she told to seem privileged and respectable catch up with her. When she realizes her parents are about to lose everything and her father is going to prison, she makes one last stab at leveraging her “position” to try and save herself and her parents from disgrace.

I won’t give away what happens but I’ll say that if you think Evelyn sounds ridiculous, you’re not far wrong. It’s hard to like a victim of her own pretentions. And yet, readers know she’s going to learn from the error of her ways, like heroines of nineteenth century novels of manners. I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it. The greed and excess Clifford portrays is hard to take and the redemption seems half-hearted; I got the impression at the end of the book that given the chance, Evelyn would bag a banker and live the way she was trying to on her own.

Everybody Rise is an interesting, entertaining read but one that left me feeling slightly sick. I guess that’s because this novel is a socioeconomic horror story.

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This week, a fellow librarian’s debut novel in The Mindful Reader Column.

Here’s the beginning:

“Concord resident Max Wirestone‘s debut novel, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, is a “geek” mystery.  As library director in New Durham, he noticed many geeks (devoted, possibly even immersive fans of gaming, the internet, comics, and/or related topics) also liked mysteries. So he decided to write a book for both geeks and mystery lovers. I don’t know if Wirestone invented the geek mystery sub-genre, but I can say The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.”

Read the rest here.

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There are a lot of new books that interest me but lately I’ve turned to the “to be read” shelves to try to chip away at the endless piles of books I have been meaning to get to. Part defense mechanism to keep the Computer Scientist from “tidying” the bookshelves? Maybe. Also, there is comfort in the familiar, and often books I buy are by favorite authors or on favorite topics.  Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Drabble. This was no exception, even though it was a little bit depressing. First of all it’s a novel set in the early 80’s and many of the socio-political issues Drabble mentions are still prevalent — wars, middle east conflicts, economic disparity, cultural misunderstanding, lack of equal opportunity for women, and so on. Also this is a novel about a circle of London friends in middle age, and they’re all a damn sight more successful than I am.

But they are people I’d want to know. Kate Armstrong is a writer specializing in women’s issues. She’s a single mother in London, living what seems to be a fairly charmed life. Except for the hate mail she gets, and the person she thinks it’s from. And several other stressful things. One of the biggest is the end of her long relationship with her best friend Evelyn’s husband, Ted. When Evelyn ends up in the hospital, caught in the midst of a domestic dispute in her job as a social worker, Kate sits with the children until Ted can get home. Then she sits with Ted, talking, and thinks, “They would gaze at one another forever, good friends perhaps, old allies, old enemies, across this impossible void, trying new voices, new gestures, making true efforts to hear, to listen, to understand.But hopelessly, hopelessly.”

She goes on a few sentences later, “Men and women can never be close. They can hardly speak to one another in the same language. But they are compelled, forever, to try, and therefore even in defeat there is no peace.” Drabble looks at that question, of whether men and women speak the same language, through Kate’s complicated web of family and friends, and through Hugo’s and Evelyn’s perspectives as well. The Middle Ground may be about middle age but it’s also about the space between people, even people who are very close.

Drabble makes this very complex thing crystalize in small moments. Her characters and their thoughts drive the novel; to me this is far more compelling than a page turner (although I sometimes crave those as well) even if it’s harder to read a book like this is tiny snippets before bed. I love immersing myself in imagined lives, messy and meaningful as my own is, entirely unrecognizable and simultaneously entirely recognizable. To paraphrase Paul Harding, Drabble’s work is true in a way I’ve always known to be true, but written in a way I’ve never read before.

When I read Drabble’s fiction I am left feeling a little better about the world and little bit expanded, in heart and mind. Which is why I read. Also on my to-be-read shelf, Drabble’s memoir, A Pattern in the Carpet, which was a birthday gift from a book-loving friend. I look forward to reading it soon.

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