Heartwood 5:4 – Journey by Moonlight

Journey by MoonlightWith the encroaching demands of respectability hovering over his life as a lawyer and confirmed bourgeoisie, Mihály leaves Budapest with his wife Erzsi for their honeymoon in Italy. But he seems to be happier wandering the dark back streets of Venice alone than spending time with his new wife. While at an outdoor café in Ravenna, János, an old rival of Mihály’s, speeds up on a scooter and urges him (while also insulting Erzsi) to help him find their mutual friend, Ervin, who recently became a monk and is living somewhere in northern Italy. This blast from the past launches Mihály on adventures and misadventures that find him boarding (accidentally?) a train that takes him on an Italian sojourn away from his new wife, feeling his sanity ebbing upon the edge of a psychic whirlpool, and foremost, seeking some kind of resolution to a past dominated by his deep friendship with the enigmatic and death-obsessed brother-and-sister, Tamás and Éva Ulpius.

At the center of the quest is the spirit of Tamás, who committed suicide young, and Mihály’s realization that he has always been in love with Éva. Hungarian author, Antal Szerb has fun weaving various plotlines together in a casually-paced and satisfying fashion, reconnecting the remaining far-flung friends in ways that are filled with mystery and ambiguity. The story unfolds with unexpected developments and insights in ways that are warm, exploratory, intelligent, paradoxical, sensitive and, at times, ridiculous (but never gratuitously so, never over-the-top).

So what can you expect to find in Journey by Moonlight? Life and death, infatuation and love, the struggle against conformity. The intensities of youthful friendships. Romanticism, individuality, spirituality, the piled-up ruins of history. Impermanence and the lure of the past. The seeming link between eroticism and death. The supernatural is another recurring theme. Is there an afterlife? Do spirits of the dead return? And beneath it all – amid the ambiance of Venice, Tuscany and Rome – the question of whether it is better to die than to sacrifice the ideals of youth to the mundane concerns of the workaday world.

This book really got under my skin and, even with its fixation on mortality, I’d say it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent years.

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A review in Words without Borders calls Journey by Moonlight a “masterpiece of high modernism,” and notes that “Szerb’s novel has rightly become a cult classic in Hungary, a book read by all Hungarian students in much the same way that American students read J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.” It goes on to list some of Szerb’s accomplishments: “president of the Hungarian Literary Academy by the age of thirty-two, full professor at Szeged University by the time he published Journey by Moonlight, two-time winner of the Baumgarten Prize (1935, 1937), brilliant literary scholar (An Outline of English Literature (1929), History of Hungarian Literature (1934), History of World Literature (3 vols., 1934)) and talented translator of writers and critics such as J. Huizinga, R. B. Sheridan, P. G. Wodehouse, and Henry Walpole.” Szerb was placed in a forced-labor camp in 1944 and died there in 1945.

Spot-Lit for August 2015

Spot-Lit

An embarrassment of riches is coming your way in August (and it’s a shame that many worthy contenders had to be left off this list).

See in particular The Journey by Sergio Pitol, considered by those in the know to be one of the greatest living Spanish language writers (this is the second book in his Trilogy of Memory which is being translated this year into English for the first time).

Adventurous readers might also want to check out the Complete Stories by the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.

Best Boy, by Eli Gottlieb, delivers a moving look at autism in middle age.

Haruki Murakami fans get a pair of early works (long out of print), and new books are on the way by popular authors Alice Hoffman, Louise Penny and Ivan Doig (the novel he completed just before his death earlier this year).

Cozy fans can reconnect with Simon Brett’s Mrs. Pargeter after a sixteen-year absence, and readers of creepier crime fiction might consider Karin Fossum’s The Drowned Boy.

For a dark, cataclysmic fantasy take a look at N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season.

Readers looking for new talent might want to try Drunken Botanist author Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun, Vu Tran’s thriller Dragonfish, or Lauren Holmes collection of stories about navigating the new adult world, Barbara the Slut.

Of course there’s more I haven’t mentioned – click on the book cover montage below to see all the titles in the list, read reviews or place holds.

montageNotable New Fiction 2015 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Fear the Banana Man

We didn’t have any urban legends in the neighborhood I grew up in. Not unless you count the story about Timmy eating yellow snow and it ended up being radioactive snow and now there’s a super hero called Pee Boy, but that’s a whole different story. As a kid, we kept our boogeymen where they belonged: in the closet and under the bed. And sometimes in the bathtub behind the shower curtain that flutters when there’s no breeze. Creepy. Where was I? Oh. Urban legends. Which brings me to the book What We Knew by Barbara Stewart.

whatweknew16-year-old Tracy and her best friend Lisa have the entire summer stretching out in front of them. They spend the hot nights drinking wine coolers and smoking pot in the jerk Trent’s bedroom. (Trent’s a jerk because he’d trip a 3-year-old just to watch him fall down and cry.) One night as the group of drunken teenagers walk around town, they start to talk about Banana Man. Banana Man is a boogeyman/pedophile urban legend who supposedly lives in a shack in the woods. He’s called the Banana Man because…..well, what does a banana look like? Yeah. Gross.

All the kids in the town have grown up hearing the legend of Banana Man: that he kidnaps small children and that they’re never seen again. While wandering the town, Trent says he knows where the boogeyman’s house is in the woods. Like a bunch of dumb teens in a horror movie they traipse out into the darkness (the only way you’re going to get me out into the woods at night where there might be some paranormal thing happening is to spike my Captain Crunch with Ketamine). This is the point where I started yelling at the book like I do when I watch horror movies: “Why are you going into the basement? Oh, the basement light doesn’t work? Better go all the way to the bottom of the stairs and call out ‘Who’s there?’ so the killer/monster can find you faster.”

This drunken Scooby Gang find a rambling structure of boards and tarps, not even a shack but a Frankenstein house cobbled together from found parts. Inside, there’s furniture, a piano, and a kitchen with boxed food in it. And a collection of glass eyes. GLASS EYES. People have been dumping stuff in the woods for years and the Banana Man collected it. There’s no sign of the boogeyman himself. The teens set about wrecking the place, breaking dishes, tearing cupboards apart. Trent, being the jerk that he is, pees in a corner. Tracy becomes uneasy and they all begin to freak each other out and run. Lisa loses her necklace and a flip-flop.

This is the beginning of the terror for Tracy and Lisa.

Lisa’s mom works the night shift at a local diner. Her strict stepfather works days so it’s up to Lisa to watch over her 11-year-old sister Katie. After going to the Banana Man’s tarp house in the woods, Lisa becomes obsessed with it. She wants to go back to find her necklace and her lost flip-flop. She also thinks the Banana Man has been coming into her room. She even wakes up one morning to find a glass eye on her dresser. Lisa’s paranoia starts to get to Tracy. Her friend’s fear invades every part of Tracy’s daily life, from her relationship with her boyfriend to her feelings about her deadbeat father and her mother who is struggling to pick up the pieces of her life.

Lisa begins to deteriorate further, pushing Tracy and everyone else away. Other secrets increase the sense of paranoia and fear with dark deeds coming to light. Tracy is sitting on her own secret, something that happened that she hasn’t told Lisa about, something she’s not sure she ever wants to talk about.

I thought What We Knew would be a book about a supernatural entity living in the woods that preys on young people. Actually, it’s more about long hot summer days and nights with your future spread out in front of you, but still not being able to let go of your past. There are secrets that are destroying you on the inside, but you believe it’ll be better to keep everything in. It’s about seeing your parents as something other than parents. It’s about trying to be a best friend and feeling like you’ve failed miserably.

Darkly intense and full of teenage despair and ennui, What We Knew will make you face your fears. And make you think twice about venturing into the woods in the night. Or during the middle of the day. Or any time at all.

Crazy Man, Crazy!

As an avid follower of my blog posts you are undoubtedly aware that my 2015 has featured a lamentable dearth of palatable fiction. Yet even now things begin to look upperly. Finally I have achieved literary contentment, finding a tale about which to crow to the heavens: By the gods, read this book!

Bedlam detective

The Bedlam Detective by Stephen Gallagher is everything a book should be. Set in 1912 England, our main character Sebastian Becker, a former police office and Pinkerton agent, works for the British government’s Masters of Lunacy observing men of property (i.e. peers) whose sanity is in question. It’s a low-paying job with no prestige and Becker’s fortunes have fallen rather far.

This decline is due largely to the situation of his son Robert who is autistic but high-functioning. Sebastian and his wife are told that the boy is dull-witted, not suitable for a respectable job. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. The boy is brilliant (as he will demonstrate to his father!) but hindered by social limitations. Whilst living in America they hear of a school in England that makes the effort to work with children like Robert, so they quickly return to their homeland. However, the best job Sebastian is able to obtain is that of the “Bedlam detective.”

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Our tale opens with Becker looking into the case of a highly-respected peer, Sir Owain Lancaster, who, upon returning from a disastrous South American expedition, has seemingly lost some of the crayons in his box so to speak. During Becker’s investigation, two girls are abused and murdered on the peer’s property, mirroring a similar incident from 15 years previous when two girls survived a comparable attack. One girl (now woman) has no memory of the tragedy and the other will not speak of it. While investigating Sir Owain’s sanity Sebastian also becomes involved in the murder inquiry as he believes Lancaster to be a likely suspect.

Sir Owain, on the other hand, believes that huge, invisible beasts were responsible for the attacks; the same beasts that followed him home from the Amazon jungle; the same beasts that killed hundreds in his entourage. In fact, the only survivors of the expedition were Lancaster and his botanist, a man who is now locked away in a mental institution after attacking his sister. Hmmm. Huge invisible beasts. Alive while everyone else is dead. It begins to seem that Sir Owain’s sanity isn’t really in question, it’s non-existent. But does this mean that he killed the expedition party and/or abused and killed children?

So to summarize: sordid mystery, down-on-luck protagonist, lunacy and a cursed expedition worthy of Lovecraft’s or Conan Doyle’s pen. Add to that a traveling freak show, glimpses into the nascent film industry and a seemingly sane asylum inmate. The mix is stunning. And of course it wouldn’t work were not the writing exquisite. So if you’re ready for a tumble into the world 100 years past and the horrors that it concealed, by the gods, read this book!

My 2015 Summer Reading List

Ahhh summer! Freshly mowed lawns and the sound of sprinklers, grilled corn on the cob and cold slices of juicy watermelon and summer reading. Definitely summer reading. My summer memories are filled with trips to the downtown library, coming home with a stack of hardbacks and afternoons reading.

Most summers I make two reading lists — one for me and one for our grandbabies. I get reading ideas from best seller lists, from what’s on the shelf, and by asking co-workers what they’ve read lately. Quite a few of their suggestions are on my list. Here it is:

index (4)I have currently dropped everything else to read  Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, former Senior Orca Trainer at SeaWorld. John Hargrove loves killer whales. He was elated after finally realizing his dream to perform with orcas at SeaWorld. Once on staff, however, Hargrove began to realize that all was not right behind the corporation’s shiny, happy facade. I highly recommend this book and the film Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, the notorious performing whale who has taken the lives of several people while in captivity.

index (6)I am listening to David McCullough read his impeccably researched and brilliantly written book, The Wright Brothers. It offers a rare portal into the turn of the century, but more than that it helps us understand ourselves as Americans. To say that focused perseverance is the key to the Wright Brother’s story would be an understatement. David McCullough demonstrates the fortitude of the brothers in the context of the family which made them possible. This book has been highly acclaimed and it lives up to every accolade. Read it!

index (7)The World’s Strongest Librarian is by Josh Hanagarne. He writes about everything: his parents, his doubts about his Mormon faith, his Tourette’s and the problems it causes, and his search to find a meaningful career. And he makes the reader want to keep reading. I’m glad that he described the reasons why he thinks books and reading are important. He also makes an impassioned plea for the future of libraries. For that, I thank him from the bottom of my library-loving heart. But most of all, his is an amazing story. You’ll be glad you read it.

index (8)The Heir Apparent:  A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley is more than a biography of the playboy prince. The whole family gets into the act. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and she thought he was stupid and lazy. He was pretty much stuck being the heir apparent for 60 years and made up for it by being a notorious gambler, glutton and womanizer. Surprisingly very few scandals had any impact on him and eventually he became very popular with the English people. He also spent a lot of time on the continent and by the time he became king, he was a very adept diplomat. His main worry diplomatically was his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who was very paranoid and Edward thought war with Germany was inevitable. Having died in 1910 Edward didn’t live to see his fears come to pass. This is an interesting book for lovers of the British monarchy.

index (1)index (2)indexindex (3)That’s a lot of non-fiction! How about a novel for some real summer reading? I have any and all of the works of Kent Haruf on my list thanks to the recommendation of fellow librarian Sarah who says that his writing is simply beautiful. All of his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado which is loosely based on Yuma, Colorado, an early residence of Haruf in the 1980’s. These books are fabulous as his wonderful writing is reminiscent of Steinbeck. They come highly recommended and should be cherished as the author recently passed away and there won’t be anymore. I want to carry these around all summer if only for the beautiful covers.

indexA Room With A View by E.M. Forster portrays the love of a British woman for an expatriate living in Italy. For Forster, Italy is a country which represents the forces of true passion. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Forster‘s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself constrained by the claustrophobic influence of her British guardians, who encourage her to take up with a well-connected boor. When she regrets that her hotel room has no view, a member of the lower class offers to trade rooms with her.

index (1)And one more! I have to add Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee to this list. This long-awaited sequel will chronicle the adulthood of Scout in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Will this be another courtroom drama? Since it is set in the 1950’s, will it reference the civil rights movement? What’s gonna happen? Will they make it into a movie? We’ll have to wait for the book to be published on July 14th to find out.

 

And finally, here’s (part of) the pile of books for the grandbabies:

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So, that’s it for my summer reading lists. I hope that you have one and I’d love to know what’s on your list. Have you read any good books lately?

Spot-Lit for July 2015

Spot-Lit

Many a popular author is back with a new book this July, including To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee! You’ll also find a handful of excellent first novels, and a lively mix of mysteries, suspense, science fiction and fantasy.

Click the book cover montage below and then the Full Display button beside each title to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

Notable New Fiction in the Everett Public Library catalog

Notable New Fiction 2015 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Jeepers Creepers Where’d You Get Those Peepers?

I once saw something that almost made me go crazy. I was in the ladies changing room at the public pool. I was putting my socks on (I dress and undress in a bathroom stall because like a normal woman, I hate my body) and all of a sudden the room turned into an 80 year old’s version of Girls Gone Wild. Boobs and nether regions flapping around, sagging butts, sagging fronts. Sagging everything. I didn’t know my eyes could snap so fast to the ceiling so I wouldn’t see anything.

Then again, this was from a 17 year old’s view. Now almost 38, I admire the comfort and ease with which these woman glide around the locker room naked, talking in groups like they’re having a cocktail on someone’s back porch. Will I ever reach that ease? God no. I‘d change my clothes in the trunk of my car before getting undressed in front of anyone.

birdboxJosh Malerman’s dystopian novel Bird Box centers on Malorie who seems utterly unflappable. She moves into an apartment with her sister Shannon and then goes out on a date and gets knocked up. Oh yeah, also the world is coming to an end and in the most horrific way possible. There are news reports out of Russia of people going insane, killing themselves or violently killing anyone around them. But that’s okay with Malorie because it’s happening far away. Over There. It’s not happening Here. Plus, she’s pregnant so that kind of gets in the way of thinking about some bizarre plague happening worlds away.

But IT begins to move across Canada and into the United states. People start hanging themselves from trees, entire families killing themselves or being killed by a loved one. No one is positive about what is happening. The consensus is that a person sees something so horrible that the only thing to do is kill themselves or anyone near them. The sisters haven’t heard from their parents in days so you know that’s not good. They stop leaving the house, even for groceries. Shannon stays glued to the television watching the mess unfold. Malorie isn’t paying attention because she’s knocked up, hasn’t told the father yet and you know, generally busy creating life and trying not to think too much about the future.

She barely notices her sister covering all of the mirrors and windows, getting spooked and paranoid. Soon, there are rumors that people are seeing “creatures” ( a less panic-inducing word than monsters) as in “There’s something in my backyard, something not found in any episode of National Geographic.” But nobody knows what these creatures look like because they’re all busy boarding up windows, putting up heavy curtains and keeping their eyes squeezed shut. Malorie sees an ad in a newspaper that says a group of people have gotten together in a safe place to ride this thing out. Sounds good. Sounds bad. It could be a house of serial killers but by this time, the world’s gone to hell and she’s pregnant and trying not to think about giving birth in a world where one look at a ‘creature’ can send you stark raving mad. I think I would ignore my pregnancy: “Oh that? That’s a nacho gut. I love nachos.”

So she figures “Screw it, I don’t want to be alone at the end of the world.  Let me go find these people and hopefully they won’t try to kill or eat me or eat me and kill me.  Whatever.”

While she’s heavy with both pregnancy (or nacho gut) and dread she’s pretty cool-headed. She goes to this house in an abandoned neighborhood. She gets to the door and knocks. Someone on the other side asks if she’s alone and tells her to close her eyes. The door opens, she scurries in, and the door is slammed behind her. She opens her eyes and sees some very terrified but normal people in the room. At least they don’t look like cannibals. Yet. They look like what they are: scared people who have no idea what’s going to happen to them.

This small group lives the next few months as a tight-knit group. They all have their chores: like walking down a path in the backyard to the well to get clean water but doing it while their eyes are clapped shut. There is a cellar stocked with canned goods but that will last them only so long. Some of the men go out to gather more supplies. This takes days because it’s kind of hard to find a can of soup in a neighbor’s cupboard when your eyes are shut tight.

Malorie is getting huge, beginning to wonder how on earth is she going to give birth when there are no staffed hospitals. It seems like a whole lot of nothing is happening because there’s this group of scared people hanging out in a house where nobody can look out the window or go get a pail of water with their eyes open. But there’s this thick tension, the kind of tension that makes you want to jump out a window. The group can’t stay there forever. Food is going to run out and someone’s going to open their eyes while getting water (it’s kind of like when someone says “Don’t touch that wall because I just painted it.” What’s the first thing you do? Reach out and touch it.)

But then someone comes to the door. A man with a briefcase. Do they let him in or send him on his way? He gives off a bad vibe. His smile is too shiny and he holds onto that briefcase like it has the last set of shiny teeth trapped inside and only he can be their keeper. The group begins to whisper and fight amongst one another. Do they ask him to leave? Demand to see what’s in the case? The guy is obviously trying to divide them and set them fighting and it works.

A big bad happens. I wish I could write these reviews and be coyly mysterious without giving anything away but I’m incapable of that. It’s more likely that I’ll end up confusing everyone. And myself. Which happens a lot. Let’s just say there’s a lot of blood, confusion, the birth of twins, the world is still at an end and people are still going around blind-folded.

Told alternately (and with mega skill) between pregnant Malorie surviving the breakdown of the world and Malorie five years later as she takes her children away from the only safe place they know because it is no longer safe, Bird Box is more than a tale about the end of the world. It’s about finding people to ride out the end of the world with. And about monsters that may or may not exist and damn it, open your eyes so you can see them even if it drives you into murderous madness.