Heartwood 7:3 – The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

About a year ago, New Directions rereleased Helen DeWitt’s long out-of-print novel, The Last Samurai, which was accompanied by quite a bit of publicity, including this post on LitHub featuring glowing testimonials from various booksellers. But the buzz seemed to die down quickly in the months following, at least in the online spaces I haunt, so here’s my small effort to call attention once again to this remarkable book.

The cover of the reissue features an extreme-wide-angle, upside-down-and-tilted photo of subway cars in The Tube. It almost shouts challenging text ahead, which both increased my anticipation and made me a bit nervous, but I breathed a little easier as I flipped the pages of DeWitt’s Prologue which is immediately immersive, intelligent, and a bit snarky – it ends with a bang, promising great things ahead. I challenge anyone to read the Prologue and not be tempted to dive into the rest of the book.

At its most stripped-down, the story is about a single woman (Sibylla) who is raising and educating a genius child (Ludo) in London. She supports them by doing low-wage data entry work at home – work that is frequently interrupted to field the many questions from her precocious son. I don’t think there are many novels out there that could be considered page-turners which also, in the course of the narrative, explore the rudiments of Greek and Japanese, the educational ideas of John Stuart Mill, the artistry and deeper meanings beneath Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or touch on such subjects as solid state physics, the principles of aerodynamics, or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

But a page-turner it is. This is one of those books I could hardly wait to get back to every time I had to leave off reading. That’s not to say, however, that it won’t rub any number of readers the wrong way. I was put off at times by Ludo’s extreme braininess, and by Sibylla’s occasional pedantry and condescension. Others, I imagine, will be skimming the lessons in Greek, Kanji, and the “distributive principle of multiplication.” Stylistically, you should be prepared for paragraphs that simply trail off, a variable use of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps when Sibylla gets worked up (especially against barbarism and the aesthetic excesses of certain writers and painters). And if you respond as I did, you may well come away from this regretting the quality of your own education and feeling that you wasted your youth (though also inspired, somehow, that maybe it’s not too late to catch up).

As Ludo grows up he becomes more obsessed with discovering who his father is, and though Sibylla will not help him with this, he corners her into dropping clues and making slips which he then pursues. With the film Seven Samurai always playing in the background, it may not surprise you to learn that Ludo has narrowed the field down to seven possible candidates. Much of the impetus for Ludo’s wide-ranging study comes from the specialized interests of these seven men, as he prepares himself to potentially encounter his father as a worthy opponent in the spirit of a samurai. The last half of the book includes Ludo hunting down these individuals, and these diverse tales should certainly please readers who enjoy following a character through various adventures and storylines.

I’m not sure how actively I’ll be attempting to teach myself Greek, but you can add my voice to those who found this an ambitious, inspired, unique, and totally successful piece of writing.

Spot-Lit for May 2017

Spot-Lit

This month’s list of fiction receiving the praise of reviewers, booksellers, and librarians from across the country includes quite a few titles with international settings or dealing with the subject of immigration.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

The Race for the Roses

I’m not much for holidays and birthdays can kick it, but the first Saturday in May? That’s a day to celebrate.

I grew up in Saratoga Springs, a small city in upstate New York famous for it’s “Health, History and Horses.” Just outside of town lies Saratoga Battlefield, where the turning point of the American Revolution was fought. Throughout town there are natural springs with water famed for its restorative properties (if you can get over the rotten egg smell) that once brought celebrities, socialites and presidents to town. But Saratoga’s proudest reputation is as the Graveyard of Champions. Our racecourse, which first opened a month after the Battle of Gettysburg, is known for producing some of the most shocking upsets in racing history. This is where a horse fittingly named Upset beat the great Man o’ War, where Secretariat fell to Onion, and the latest Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah was defeated by Keen Ice. Like I said: health, history AND HORSES.

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My sweet Saratoga home

All of this is to say that I am very excited for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby when 20 spoiled three-year-olds will sprint a mile and a quarter vying for a blanket of roses, a spot in the record books, and a cool 1.425 million dollars. If you want to catch Derby fever, it’s not too late! We have plenty of great books to help you dive into the proud, storied, and often shady world of racing.

I can’t possibly start this list with anyone other than Dick Francis. Before becoming a prolific and celebrated mystery writer, Francis was a champion Steeplechase jockey in Britain. He even had the distinction of riding the Queen Mother’s horses for several years. After retiring, he brought his deep love and extensive knowledge of the sport to his writing, crafting clever mysteries with plots orbiting the world of racing. What truly sets Francis’ novels apart is his devotion to research. Whether his protagonist is a meteorologist, a lawyer, a veterinarian or a photographer, Francis clearly did his homework and I’ve always learned new and interesting facts from these fast-paced thrillers.

33a80220-c935-0132-4594-0ebc4eccb42fYou can’t really go wrong with any of Francis’ novels, but I’d suggest starting with his first. Dead Cert follows Alan York, a young jockey who witnesses the death of a fellow rider in a mid-race fall. York believes that this death was no accident, and he is determined to bring his friend’s killers to justice, no matter the cost. This cagey mystery in not only a wonderful introduction to Francis’ writing, it also features one of my all-time favorite chase scenes.

But enough with the Brits, you say, the Kentucky Derby is an American race! Fair enough. There are plenty of racing stories about desperation, cruelty and corruption at the racetrack. Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award Winner, Lord of Misrule, is proof of that. Gordon brings you into the world of Indian Mound Downs, a run-down racetrack in 1970’s West Virginia. This novel follows a cast of hard-luck characters as they strive for their small slice of racing glory, be it through hard work, wisdom, deception, or methods far more sinister.

For even darker fare you can head to Kentucky, the heart of the American racing industry. The scope of C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings makes it difficult to summarize. This work spans the latter half of the 20th Century telling the story of a cruel and wealthy horseman determined to make racing history, his willful daughter, and a groom who helps tend to their horses. The picture Morgan paints is often ugly and does not flinch from confronting the lingering legacy of racism and bigotry in both the world of racing and America at large. This is a gut punch of a novel and goes far beyond the world of horses, but it’s also a fascinating look inside racing’s troubled world.

Scorpio-paperback-websiteIf you want your racing stories with a supernatural flare, try Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. On a small island surrounded by cruel stormy seas, lives revolve around a yearly race. But these races use no ordinary horses. Instead the jockeys ride on water horses, wild and unpredictable creatures that are herded from the sea and ridden by only the bravest, most reckless young men on the island. That is until Puck enters the race. Puck is the first female rider to ever enter the race, and many would love to see her fail. This is not an option for Puck, however; her family’s house and land depend on the outcome of the race. If this pressure is not enough for a young orphan trying to support her siblings, Puck must also fight to ignore her growing feelings for the race’s returning champion, a quiet young man with his own haunted past.

exterminator_cover_0Finally, I’ve got something for the history buffs. If you ask a casual racing fan about the winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby, Exterminator, you are likely to get a blank stare. I’ll admit, I had never heard of him before reading Eliza McGraw’s Here Comes Exterminator!: The Long Shot Horse, the Great War, and the Making of an American Hero. Exterminator was a fascinating horse, a long-shot turned hero who raced an astounding 99 times in his career. McGraw expertly weaves Exterminator’s story into a larger saga that captures a snapshot of the United States in the years surrounding World War I, a traumatic time filled in equal measures with ebullient glamour and puritanical temperance.

Hopefully you are now feeling some small sliver of my excitement for Saturday’s race. And if you want to know who I like to win, you’ll have to find me in the Library.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

Spot-Lit for April 2017

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors (along with some previously unpublished stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald) – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm. Those of you on the lookout for new writers might want to consider the much-buzzed debuts Marlena and American War.

But don’t stop there, click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Spot-Lit for March 2017

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new novels and story collections of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2017 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

Heartwood 7:2 – Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia

target-in-the-nightTarget in the Night by feted, recently deceased, Argentinian author Ricardo Piglia is a beautifully constructed novel featuring a number of interrelated stories, distinctly individualized characters, and stylish storytelling.

On its surface we have the murder of Tony Durán who came from the U.S. to a provincial town outside of Buenos Aires with lots of cash and a connection to the twin Belladona sisters. Attempting to solve Durán’s murder is Croce, the quixotic, Holmesian detective who has a long history of butting heads with local prosecutor Cueto.

The murder involved a knifing and the apparent use of a defunct dumbwaiter to lower down cash from the victim’s hotel room. The latter may also have provided the means of escape for a small person. Indeed the chief suspect is a Japanese jockey by the name of Yoshio, and his alleged act is being called a crime of passion. Other suspects include various members of the Belladona family, and a different jockey, who may have been paid to make the hit as he was in need of cash to buy a beloved, injured horse.

Woven into the story are scenes at the racetrack, the Belladona brothers and their fortress-like factory for cutting-edge automotive prototypes on the outskirts of town, a reporter (Renzi) from the city who has come to report on the murder, and a slowly unfolding history of the town and life on the Argentinian pampas that brings to mind García Márquez’s mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Belladona family are prominent citizens in the community but are described as being currently at war with each other. We learn of their family history in ways that are fascinating and add layers of intrigue. For example, Renzi has a long talk with the twin, Sophia (eventually leading to intimacy), which unfolds episodically throughout the novel. And Renzi discovers more details about the Belladonna family with the help of the town’s efficient archivist, Rosa, revealing a family schism and the attempt to appropriate the Belladona factory and surrounding lands through a corporate takeover.

In addition to all this, Piglia’s various characters have peculiar interests that include a fascination with language and syntax, dreams and the work of Carl Jung, literature and philosophy, quasi-mysticism, rationalism, madness, perception and the idée fixe. Target in the Night is a wonderful amalgam of detective story and classical tragedy told in voices that vary from Chandler to Pynchon to Bolaño. Readers in need of cleanly wrapped up narratives should probably look elsewhere, but for those who are open to ambiguity and enjoy finely realized characters, myriad subject matter, and punchy yet graceful writing — definitely give this book a look.

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Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night) was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 2011. For more about the author see the Piglia Dossier in the first issue of the new journal, Latin American Literature Today.