Category Archives: Uncategorized

Dr. Siri Paiboun, coroner of Laos

Coroners lunchI’ve started many mysteries that I’ve never finished. I have trouble finding the ones that hold my interest and are well written. What do I mean by well written? For starters, the dialogue should sound like real people are speaking. The author should know how to use the grammar and syntax of the English language correctly, including setting an appropriate level of colloquial and formal language. I’m always surprised at the number of books I can’t read because the English language is improperly used. (For example, I came across a novel–well reviewed–where the author wrote “slowly by slowly” instead of “little by little.) The characters should be well delineated so that the reader recognizes them and their motivation every time they appear on the page. There’s more, but enough ranting.

I’ve been listening to a mystery series that fills all my criteria: the Dr. Siri Paiboun series by Colin Cotterill. O joy; there are 14 of them. I’m currently listening to the fourth one, Anarchy and Old Dogs, and feel like I’ve made new friends. That’s how vivid and delicious they are. Dr. Siri Paiboun is the national coroner in Laos when the series begins in 1975. The Pathet Lao have recently taken control of Laos and Siri, an aging revolutionary, is assigned to be the national coroner, a job he doesn’t want. As a faithful (but cynical) Communist cadre, he has no choice but to accept the job. The bodies that come to him contain secrets and the good doctor is compelled to solve the mysteries of their deaths, along with his nurse Dtui, his old friend Civilai, and a few others. In the first novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, Siri discovers that he is the reincarnation of a thousand year old shaman, which explains his nightly ghost-infested dreams. I don’t usually care for books where the spirit world plays a role, but the author never uses the apparitions as a deus ex machina. They are part of the spiritual folk life of the Laotian people and provide an interesting–and sometimes scary–dimension to the good doctor’s crime solving skills.

There’s also humor: very dry, very droll, and funny enough that I often laugh out loud. The crimes themselves are often gruesome, but take place offstage. Siri, who received his medical degree in Paris, loves the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon, and often sighs about how everything works out so neatly for inspector Maigret, but not for him. There’s lots of mid-twentieth century Laotian and Vietnamese history that’s dropped into the stories, mainly as background to the characters; it’s quite interesting and always neatly done. The aging coroner and his friends stay up late and drink too much, pondering their lives and the mysteries that come their way. Usually there are two or three mysteries to solve and sometimes the details are a little obscure, but it hardly matters. I can feel the heat and the tension before the monsoon breaks, taste the terrible coffee, hear the sounds of the mosquitoes. and rejoice that I have lots of time left to spend in good company.

 

 

The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker

Limits of worldThere are many books about family secrets and the toxic effects they have on family life. Many of them are formulaic but fun to read anyway, mainly to see what complications the author has dreamed up. The Limits of the World goes far beyond the formula. I picked it up because of the excellent pre-publication reviews and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is easily explained: Urmila and Premchand Chandaria came to the U.S. from their family home in Nairobi, Kenya. Premchand, a doctor, found satisfying medical work in Ohio and they raised their son, Sunil, there. The secret is that before Sunil there was another son, Bimal, who lives in Kenya with Urmila’s sister and brother-in-law. Sunil was never told he had a brother. Bimal is injured in a car accident and Urmila rushes the family off to Nairobi to see her firstborn. Sunil, a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, has a secret of his own: he is married to Amy, who is not East Indian. Sunil learns that he has a brother; Urmila learns that Sunil has married out of their culture; and Amy finds it difficult to cope with Urmila’s aggressive disapproval.

Acker’s sensitivity to all these concerns is tied together by Sunil’s philosophical studies. He’s working on his dissertation, struggling with his belief that there exists a morality that stands outside of culture. He’s stalled in the writing and Harvard may cut off his funding. All the characters struggle with the choices they’ve made and Acker renders their angst with clarity and compassion. The Kirkus reviewer wrote, “It’s a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don’t always hear what’s being said.”

Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel

Ninth St WomenThe subtitle of this wonderful book is: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art. Mary Gabriel’s brick-like book is an excursion through the artistic world of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s as Abstract Expressionism took the art world by storm. These five women were in the thick of it, inspired and inspiring. They were driven to be artists despite the demeaning critics (women couldn’t make good art they were told); despite the early ridiculing of Abstract Expressionism; and despite those who wanted them to just nurture the male artists who were doing the “real” work.

Gabriel tells the stories of each of the five. Beyond that, she brings the reader into the bohemian milieu that developed around the artists, male and female, especially the Ninth Street East Village neighborhood where they lived, painted, drank, fought, loved, and partied. What raucous lives they lived! They often made bad decisions but produced great paintings. Gabriel writes about the women’s relationships with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Larry Rivers, Mike Goldberg, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and many others. Money was mostly scarce since there were no buyers for the works for many years. 

There’s so much content in this book that it’s hard to know how to explain its effect on the reader in a few paragraphs. Gabriel incorporates the social history which influenced the artists, like the turbulence of the 1930s and early 1940s that brought abstraction into being. In tandem with the personal stories, the result is total immersion in a heady, gossipy, intellectual world. The five women of the title were more than painters; they were part of the intellectual underpinnings of the movement in fundamental ways. It’s an absorbing, exhausting, thrilling experience to read about their lives.

 

 

Annelies by David Gillham

AnneliesIn the past decade, several authors have used Anne Frank’s story as a basis for novels that imagine, “what if.” What if Anne’s sister Margo had survived and come to the U.S., what would her life be like? That was the novel Margo by Jillian Cantor. In another recent novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, by Ellen Feldman, imagines what Peter’s life would be like if he came to the U.S. , assimilates, marries, and tries to hide the past, only to be blindsided by the publication of Anne’s diary.  But no one, to my knowledge, has done what Gillham has done in the novel Annelies; that is, to imagine that Anne herself survives and returns to Amsterdam and tries to pick up the remnants of her life. That’s the premise of Annelies.

Gillham starts with the Franks’ life before they were betrayed and sent to the camps. In this part, he’s relying on known facts for the most part, and, of course, Anne’s diary. Once Anne return from the camps, Gillham is on his own. We all have feelings about Anne, we feel we know her. This is a brave thing for a writer to do. Can he possibly succeed in developing a character for the survivor Anne, that people will recognize as the Anne in the diary? And there’s also Anne’s father, Otto, who returns to Amsterdam.  Otto wants to put it all behind him; Anne can’t do that–she’s filled with anger and survivors’ guilt– and their relationship is very tense. She makes some bad decisions; can’t seem to find her footing; she’s churlish about her father’s new wife. Does the story work? I think that’s something you have to determine for yourself; I don’t want to give away more than I’ve said. It wasn’t a complete success for me, but I think that it could generate some interesting discussion, not just about Anne but about the decisions that authors make when they write historical fiction. 

Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer

Flight PortfolioOrringer got lots of press for her previous novel, The Invisible Bridge, a Holocaust novel about 2 brothers. Flight Portfolio (Knopf/Doubleday, May, 2019) is also a Holocaust story, but very different. Orringer has imagined the life of Varian Fry, a real-life rescuer of Jewish artists, writers, and philosophers and the first American citizen to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. In 1940, Varian Fry traveled to Marseille carrying three thousand dollars and a list of imperiled artists and writers he hoped to help escape within a few weeks. Instead, he stayed more than a year, working to procure false documents, amass emergency funds, and arrange journeys across Spain and Portugal, where the refugees would embark for safer ports. His many clients included Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Marc Chagall, and the race against time to save them. 

 Fry, a non-Jew, was came from a wealthy family, was educated in classics at Harvard; altogether an unlikely hero in this cause. By taking on this task, of saving Jewish artists and intellectuals, he was thrust into a position of making choices, terrible choices. Everything I just said is in the historical record. 

But Orringer’s not deeply concerned with the historical record about Fry’s personality–she’s writing a novel. She had to create a fully-realized character in Fry, along with the historical figures he saved and those who worked with–and against–him. Orringer’s choices make for a very interesting story that reads very much like a thriller. For one thing, she chose to pick up the hints in Fry’s life that he was a homosexual. An old lover contacts him in Marseille and that newly revived relationship becomes an important part of the plot. Was Fry truly homosexual? We don’t know for sure. She also recreated the personalities of the artists and writers Fry rescued, so it’s quite a tour de force of weaving historical and fictional characters together. It’s a tale of forbidden love, high-stakes adventure, and unimaginable courage. It gripped me immediately and I had a hard time putting it down.  

The writing is beautiful–dense and lush without being heavy, evoking the dangers and beauties of southern France and stolen pleasures in wartime. In her hands, Marseille becomes a living, breathing place and the people Fry works with, who risk their lives to help in his mission, enter our hearts.  And, the story deals with the moral issues, choosing which artists and writers get saved, and why them and not everybody. Fry is torn by these questions and so is the reader. Well paced, great characters, political and moral issues, compelling plot…it’s a great story. 

Note: some people I know who’ve read Flight Portfolio were upset because Orringer took liberties with Fry’s life that go far beyond the historical record. If Orringer wanted to create a character based on so much speculation, so this argument goes, she shouldn’t have used real names. I disagree. The book is much more powerful for being based on Fry’s real life experiences. Does that argument mean that she would have had to create fictional characters to replace Chagall, Arendt, Duchamp, etc.? I had no trouble reading this novel as Orringer’s “take” on what might have been. Read it and decide for yourself!

Hunting for the right answer

Early in my library career I worked at Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, the library system that served the suburbs around Minneapolis (long before the city and county libraries merged). My first job at HCL was at the headquarters location, where I was expected to find answers to questions that couldn’t be answered out in the branch libraries. We received the questions on slips of paper and went off to find the answers to such questions as, “How do I make a smoke cooker out of an old barrel?” or  “How can I disguise the taste of bacon fat in the cookies I bake?”, or my favorite, “How do they raise the dead in the Voodoo?” This was long before the Internet; we took all the questions seriously and did our best to find answers. I used printed magazine and journal indexes, browsed the book collection and the pamphlet file, used my intuition about where to find answers, and only rarely sent off answers of “can’t find anything.” It was a great education in reference work; I became fluent in the Dewey Decimal system and subject heading searches. When I later went back to working at the reference desk, facing the real people with their questions, I had good preparation for whatever came my way.

There were occasionally questions from readers trying to find a book or story they had once read, or heard about but didn’t have complete information, i.e., author or title. Sometimes the titles were garbled. Sometimes you would recognize the book or story from your own reading, or you would know a subject specialist to ask. It was like a treasure hunt and finding the answer was very rewarding. So this article, from the website Atlas Obscura, about the New York Public Library staff who work on such questions was a treat for me to read. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too. Click here.

The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Winter SoldierI read and enjoyed Mason’s The Piano Tuner when it came out in 2003 so I downloaded a galley of his new book, The Winter Soldier, from Edelweiss as soon as I could and read it in three great gulps. Since it’s set during and just after World War I, the reader already has some idea of the horrors, chaos and privations in store. Most of the World War I books I’ve read have been set in France or England. The Winter Soldier is set in the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly in the Carpathian Mountains, which arc from the current Czech Republic to Romania. In the novel, the high, lonely villages give the story a ghostly feeling, although the ghosts here are in the characters’ heads. The idea of borders and border crossings recurs as the characters reinvent themselves or lose themselves. They’ve all crossed into unknown territory in their lives; no one is left unscathed.

Lucius, the protagonist, is a young doctor, son of a wealthy family. He’s halfway through medical school in Vienna when the novel opens. The War has just begun. Due to shortages of doctors in the field, he is offered the chance to work in a hospital in the town of Lemnowice. Idealistically, he expects to find a fully functioning hospital where he can gain, from the other doctors, the clinical experience he lacks. What he finds there is only Margarete, an enthusiastic young nursing sister who knows far more than he does about what needs to be done. The soldiers who arrive at the hospital are not just wounded in body, but in spirit as well. Lucius learns to make do with inadequate supplies, amputating legs, arms, hands, and feet in an effort to vanquish the infections they can’t control.

As the war continues, Lucius, Margarete and their orderlies begin to see  men whose minds have become unhinged from the terrors they’ve seen. In particular, a soldier arrives one winter night in a wheelbarrow, curled up, mute. Lucius tries all the psychotropic medicines in his small arsenal but initially nothing will make the man speak, eat, or leave his pallet. Finally, slowly, something works to loosen up his limbs and tongue. He can briefly cross the border and return to life, but what will be his fate? Lucius and Margarete struggle with their attachment to each other and to the patient. As the war heats up in Carpathians, the borders that define their attachments become stronger. Lucius makes decisions that haunt him in the years after the war.

In some ways, this wonderful novel reminded me of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Mason’s writing is fluid and lyrical, his characters step off the page. The pacing is taut; there were times when I had to slow down to savor the language, putting aside my fears for the characters. The book is due out in September, but now that it’s the end of July, that doesn’t seem so far away.