The Dead Key

My wife and I enjoy audiobooks on our long car trips — the hours and miles disappear — so as we prepared for our vacation excursion last month we decided to download the debut novel of someone we actually know.

D.M. Pulley’s 2014 thriller takes place in Cleveland during two different eras. In 1998, a young structural engineer named Iris is assigned to inspect a bank building that’s been abandoned for two decades. As Iris stumbles across secrets that were buried when the bank suddenly closed, we also get the story of Beatrice, an employee of the bank when it closed in 1977. Their timelines converge in a vault of safe deposit boxes, many of them left unopened when the bank shut its door. And as the title indicates, both characters come across a key that could literally unlock the mystery that lead to the bank’s closure.

I’ve been analyzing books with multiple timelines recently, and like the novel I most recently examined, Pulley’s work alternates chapters between the two timelines, and begins each chapter with a date. Each timeline also advances in a linear fashion. Keeping track of the timeliness is relatively easy, which is especially important for an audibook.

This was a great selection for our two-day drive. The story is suspenseful without being melodramatic or scary; Pulley keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next, and both Iris and Beatrice (who admittedly are a little too similar to each other for my tastes) are easy to root for. Cleveland natives will enjoy the local references, yet the book isn’t so provincial that it can’t be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the city. The audiobook reading by Emily Sutton-Smith is also engaging. This book made us keep our rest stops short so that we could continue listening, a sure sign you’ve made the right choice.

The Divine Comedy

Some books can’t merely be read; they must be studied. Dante’s epic 14th century poem is an amazingly complex work, expertly combining ancient Greek and Roman literature, Christian theology, human psychology, and contemporary politics. If you don’t read the endnotes, you miss a lot of the work’s value.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the approach I took on my recently completed first reading of the text. I used the same approach that’s worked well for my reading of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Thomas Malory — download an audiobook and read along to the recital. I chose the Robin Kirkpatrick translation, as Audible had a matching recording. The performance, done by Kirkpatrick and two other readers, is fine, but the experience was unsatisfying because I realized how much I was missing by not stopping the recording and checking the notes.

I can say I’ve finally read the work, but I’m a long way from appreciating it.

Several moments do stand out from this initial reading, one in particular during Canto 24 of Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil encounter a thief, named Vanni Fucci in Dante’s text but translated by Kirkpatrick as Johnny Fucci. Anglicizing the name makes this character more relatable to readers like myself, and I also appreciate that Kirkpatrick doesn’t attempt to whitewash Johnny’s blasphemous diatribe against God. I did not expect to see an f-bomb, but there it was on line 2 of Canto 25. According to Wikipedia, Vanni Fucci has been used by a couple contemporary writers, and should the situation arise I might use him in one of my own stories.

Should I decide to read Dante again, I’ll take the studious approach I used for Ulysses — do the Great Courses overview, then read a canto or two at a time, flipping back to the notes whenever one’s available. That’s going to be a long project, but I picked up enough of the work’s majesty to know the experience will be worthwhile.

The People Could Fly

Virginia Hamilton’s 1985 collection of American Black folktales can be read as children’s literature. Audible certainly does, as it lists the collection in its Children’s Audiobooks section, and Andrew Barnes reads the tales like a grandfather entertaining a pack of toddlers. Yet the book also includes notes about the origin and development of these tales, making it a viable ethnographic study. I was hoping for more of the latter when I downloaded this book, and while I didn’t get what I expected I still found it valuable.

The tales are divided into four thematic chapters. The opening chapter focuses on animal tales, and I found it a bit disappointing, mostly because the stories about talking rabbits, bears, lions, foxes, and alligators reminded me more of Uncle Remus than Zora Neale Hurston. Barnes’ often over-the-top exuberance reinforced the impression that the tales were being told solely for entertainment, without any appreciation for their underlying meaning or significance.

Subsequent chapters, however, left a better impression. Hamilton provides good notes on the origin of the magical and exaggerated reality tales in the second chapter, and Barnes’ reading, while still spirited, no longer dominates the stories — he doesn’t need to alter his voice much to show the scariness of the Hairy Man. The third chapter, supernatural tales, demonstrates the complex role of the devil and forbidden magic, and the final chapter on slave tales of freedom is a triumph, ending in the magnificent title story.

It’s a book more for kids than for scholars. If you can accept that aspect, as well as Barnes’ hyperbolic delivery and the unspectacular bluegrass musical interludes, you’ll find it enjoyable.

Silas Marner

Silas MarnerA first for me — an audiobook review inspired by a blog comment.

George Eliot’s 1861 novel reminded me a great deal of Dickens, but without the cloying sentimentality or excessive length that characterize much of the latter’s work. Set in early nineteenth century rural England, the tale’s title character is a working-class weaver forced by an unjust accusation into a life of miserly solitude. His fate intersects with the life of an upper-middle-class family desperate to hold on to its privilege. When a baby literally walks into his life (a Dickensian moment, the only part of the novel that seemed contrived), Marner experiences what his life could have been had he not been falsely accused and convicted as a young man.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable work (and thanks again to Dave Z’art for the recommendation).  Marner is not a hero by any definition, yet his simplicity and humility make him engaging. Eliot also conveys his condition without delving into pathos. The interaction between Marner and the family of Squire Cass seemed genuine; their attempts to communicate with each other are blocked by the awareness of their class difference. What I probably enjoyed most was the ending. Marner attempts to right the false accusation which had begun his time in solitude, and a more sentimental novelist would probably have given him this satisfaction. Eliot, however, uses this moment to make an ironic comment about the rise of the English middle class, and chooses to underscore the message Marner has learned in his journey: the wealth he has found in his unlikely family is far greater than the gold he’s lost along the way.

Andrew Sachs doesn’t interject a lot of personality in his audiobook performance, as his character voices don’t have a great deal of variety. Yet for a work as strong as this, it’s better for the narrator to stay out of the way.

Zorba the Greek

At the start of my book and audiobook reviews, I typically explain what motivated my choice. For Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel, inspiration came from a boyhood enjoyment of instrumental music. I liked all kinds of popular music back in the day, but songs with a lively beat and no singing were a particular joy. Without the interpretation implied by lyrics, I was free to relate to the music however I pleased. This lead to a fondness for Sousa marches, and for contemporary artists like Herb Alpert. I loved Alpert’s trumpet, and his version of the theme song from the 1964 film based on Kazantzakis’ novel was a particular pleasure, so much so that I knew I’d have to read the book someday. Nearly half a century later, I finally purchsed the audiobook. I prefer to be more impressed by the enduring power of youthful passions than dismayed at the amount of time I spent watching ball games or bad movies instead. Fortunately, lengthy anticipation did not this time lead to disappointment. The relationship between the novel’s first-person narrator and titular character could easily have descended into any number of binary cliches — man of mind/man of body, curiosity/appetite, urban/rural — both characters come alive as distinctive personalities, and their bond takes them to some genuinely unexpected places and inspires philosophical insights from both of them. George Guidall’s performance on the audiobook was solid enough to make two weeks of car trips enjoyable. Unfortunately, the experience wasn’t entirely satisfying. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a work that needed to be studied, yet by their nature audiobooks don’t lend themselves well to analysis, unless you hit rewind frequently and use a voice recorder for taking notes. There was little opportunity to investigate some of the historical and cultural references, or analyze challenging passages. One scene in which a female character perishes in a horrific fashion left me very uneasy, but there was no opportunity to investigate that moment. As much as I enjoyed the audiobook, I know I didn’t catch all the novel’s complexities; the kid who enjoyed Herb Alpert’s rapid-fire notes feels a little cheated, so maybe next time I’m on vacation I’ll get the full experience of reading the darn thing.

Fatherland

I’ve been fascinated lately with novels that explore alternative histories of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve read about America being overtaken by populist tyrant , electing a Nazi sympathizer, and losing the Second World War and being occupied by the German Reich. Robert Harris’ 1992 novel is the first I’ve read where America hasn’t been the focus, and it provides the most realistic vision of what could have happened in this turbulent era of world history.

For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Germany is able to capture both Moscow and London in this world. This gives the Nazis control of most of Europe, which is where they stop their expansion. There is no change in the Pacific war, as America defeats Japan with atomic weapons. By 1964, the year in which the novel takes place, Germany and the United States have been in an extended Cold War, similar to what actually occurred between the USA and USSR in our reality.

While the scenario leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered (how did the Nazis discover the British had deciphered their encoded messages? why did the Russian forces collapse?), this parallel world does seem authentic. Hitler’s ambitions were Euro-centric, and launching an attack across the Atlantic would have left him vulnerable at home. Had Britain fallen, America would have no base to launch an invasion of Europe, and would have focused attention to the war in the Pacific. An extended Nazi regime makes Europe a much different world in this era, while America remains relatively unchanged; not an ideal situation by any standard, but one that seems altogether plausible.

But Fatherland isn’t an alternative history text. It’s a detective story focused on two principal characters, a German police officer with no great love for National Socialism and an American diplomat. They team up to investigate the murder of a Nazi official, and as they dig deeper they discover that the unconfirmed rumors about the fate of Germany’s Jews turn out to be very much true. The pace is steady, the characters engaging, and its conclusion leaves you satisfied yet curious to know what happens next — a rare and pleasing feat.

Of all the alternative histories I’ve read so far, this has been the most satisfying. The audiobook performance by Michael Jayston wasn’t memorable, but didn’t detract from the writing, which is really all you want from a reading.

It Can’t Happen Here

I’m fascinated by 1930s America, and have a lot of interest in alternative histories that imagine the United States being conquered by the Axis powers or electing an overt ally of fascists governments. Yet it’s one thing to ask what woulda happened decades after the fact; it’s quite another to imagine what could happen in the near future.

Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel regained its popularity in 2016, with many critics comparing its central character, Buzz Windrip (modeled closely after Huey Long), to Donald Trump. To me, those analyses — here’s one, and here’s another — seem almost self-evident. Windrip becomes president by promising voters economic prosperity with the aw shucks persona of a political outsider, which is all you need to know about what happened on the first Tuesday in November 2016. Like Windrip, The Fraud has no problem telling his followers want they to believe, regardless of its truth.

Despite the novel’s relevance to today’s politics, I’m more interested in the world created by its author. In that regard, I don’t find the first part of Lewis’ novel particularly convincing; Windrip’s victorious campaign in the 1936 Presidential election seems improbable, and even less so are parts of his subsequent dismantling of American government, such as eliminating state boundaries and replacing them with administrative districts. What seems far more believable is the resistance movement started by rural newspaper publisher Doremus Jessup. Much as “The Plot Against America” focuses on one family’s struggle to survive Charles Lindbergh’s authoritarian reign, “It Can’t Happen Here” is at its best when it shows small-town Americans fighting to retain their freedom and dignity after their world falls into political chaos.

Grover Gardner’s audiobook performance is steady but unspectacular. His voice for Windrip is appealingly folksy, but none of the other characters stand out, even Jessup. Perhaps because of my interest in the era, I’m discovering that I’m far more interested in reading and analyzing these works about 1930s America than I am in listening to someone recite them to me as I drive. But listening is still preferable to not being exposed to it at all, so I would still recommend the audiobook to anyone interested in the novel.

The Plot Against America

Plot against usa.jpgA national celebrity with no political experience wins the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Running against a Democrat with strong connections throughout Washington, the celebrity Republican’s candidacy is considered a long-shot at first. However, the Republication runs a populist “America First” campaign that taps into America’s distrust of career politicians, and eventually wins a decisive Electoral College victory. After taking office, the new president meets with tyrannical leaders of nations once hostile to the United States. Years later, information showing the president received assistance from one of those foreign dictatorships comes to light.

Perhaps the only time fiction is stranger than truth, is when a work of the imagination predicts the actual future.

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history of America in the World War II era, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, and then signs agreements with Germany and Japan that keep the United States out of of the global conflict. I downloaded the audiobook (which features an outstanding performance by the late Ron Silver) because I have a fascination with this period of history, and enjoy fictive tales of how history could have turned out differently. I had no idea the book’s plot so eerily paralleled the rise to power of The Fraud, but the similarities cannot be ignored. (I should note that after the 2016 election and shortly before his death, the author denied making any attempt to comment on modern American politics.)

While Lindbergh’s election and subsequent actions are the primary events in the novel, most of the action centers around a fictionalized version of Roth’s family and other Jewish households in Newark, New Jersey. After taking office, Lindbergh establishes the Office of American Absorption, which temporarily relocates Jewish youth into Christian communities. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to eliminate Judaism through cultural assimilation, and by showing how the campaign affects a single family, the devastating impact of the alternative history becomes very real.

The novel is riveting until it reaches its epilogue, which provides an implausible explanation which excuses Lindbergh’s behavior. This ending is a major disappointment, and its portrayal of Lindbergh is so inconsistent with the earlier part of the novel that I wonder if the author was pressured to write the epilogue. It’s hard to imagine a writer of Roth’s reputation would succumb to that pressure, but the epilogue definitely reads like a capitulation.

But in spite of this disappointment, the novel is a major success, and especially insightful for anyone seeking to understand how authoritarianism could come to power in the United States.

1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler

The two-decade period between the world wars fascinates me. A devastating conflict and worldwide pandemic (the misnamed Spanish Flu accounted for far more fatalities than the war) was followed by an explosion of wealth in developed countries, and then an implosion of financial markets across the globe. Technological advances were balanced with a growing interest in eugenics; life expectancy increased, but working conditions deteriorated.

Tobias Straumann’s 2019 book focuses on the economic instability of Germany. Straumann is not the first historian to blame the Treaty of Versailles for Germany’s inter-war financial crisis, but his in-depth investigation of the numerous attempts to alleviate the Germany’s war-time debt obligations is insightful. Hitler of necessity has to play a prominent role in the narrative, but Straumann’s use of him is adept, almost literary; as he does in the cover illustration shown on this post, the Nazi leader lurks in the margins, only occasionally stepping forth to be quoted, but when the Germany economy collapses at the end of the book, his rise to the chancellorship seems inevitable.

In his introduction, Straumann states he was inspired to write this book by the European debt crises in the early years of the current decade. While it would be interesting to compare the economics of the 1930s and 2010s, no comparison is actually made. It’s an unfortunate omission, as seeing how the two decades responded could have made studying the 1930s seem more relevant.

The prose style is scholarly, and aside from Hitler no memorable characters emerge from the text. Fortunately, the audiobook reading by Nigel Patterson moves at a clear and brisk pace, giving life to the often dry text. Overall, if you share my interest in this era, or are intrigued by international finances, this book is definitely worth your time.

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)I’m generally not a fan of mysteries, as they tend to overemphasize plot at the expense of characterization. Stieg Larsson’s 2005 thriller, however, showcases complex relationships among the cast of characters, in particular the two leads, the brilliant yet awkward Lisbeth Salander, who is also the novel’s title character, and unlucky but determined journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Mikael and Lisbeth are hired to investigate a decades-old mystery involving a wealthy Swedish family. The more they find out, the deeper in trouble they find themselves in. The pace is perfect, a steady stream of action that never bogs down or goes too fast. The mystery is intricate, but not overly byzantine, and the resolution is satisfying.

The subplots involving the two characters are just as compelling, and complement the main action well. Mikael seeks redemption for a libel case he has lost, while Lisbeth struggles with sexually exploitation and assault. The experience is like having two good side dishes along with a very good entree; instead of overpowering the meal, the sides make you appreciate the entree more.

After completing the audiobook, I realized that I probably would have enjoyed more as a reader than a listener. The performance by Simon Vance is good, although there was one section that drove me absolutely bonkers: during a long email exchange, Vance reads the full header of each message, with the To and From (including the full email address of each, including the domain name) as well as the Subject, complete with the RE:. “Enough already!” I screamed at my car’s speaker after the third or fourth message. It was an unnecessary and distracting part in an otherwise solid reading.

Overall, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an outstanding novel, and is a perfect companion on a long road trip, even with the excessive reading of the emails.