Unraveling the girl she was

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

A GIRL’S STORY. By Annie Ernaux. Seven Stories Press. 160 pages. $18.95

Annie Ernaux

Shame and humiliation. She spent two nights with a man, then fixated on him, in 1958, earning the name “whore around the edges” from her colleagues. She carried that shame with her for 58 years, until she decided to write a book about how that girl’s life was “… endowed by shame’s vast memory.”

The result is this marvelous autofiction, in which an accomplished, prize-winning novelist considers an 18-year old petit bourgeois provincial girl. She does not fictionalize the girl, but deconstructs “…the girl I was.” She approaches the girl as “…a stranger who imparts her memory” to her. When she has merged with the girl, she steps into the “terrain” of her past —“socially, familial and sexual.”  Once there, she “…writes to unearth something that emerges from the creases when a story is unfolded.”

A flood of “somethings” emerges — poems, movies, pieces of clothing, looks on peoples’ faces, denial. She covers things rarely mentioned in literature, like the “muddle” that occurs when one tries to find “…a way to earn a living,” as she stumbles into and out of a teaching career. With an immediacy to her prose, captured aptly by the translation here, she writes  “endangered, as when one is writing about the living.” Her immersion into that girl’s life takes her to a park bench in England, totally unexpected, where she recognizes the moment “… I started to make a literary being of myself.”

Few writers can match Annie Ernaux’s concision, as she strives to “…make one feel the immense breadth and depth of a summer of youth in the two hours it takes to read one hundred pages.” And her stark images stand out in memory; nowhere else will you find Kant and the phrase “sperm in the mouth” in the same paragraph (if you do, let me know).

Her remarkable journey to realization and resolution comes to us as if A Girl’s Story were told by “… people we hear talking about her through a door.”  It is both revealing, and riveting.

 

 

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Has crime fighting ever been so enchanting?

What could be better than to be transported to the Perigord in France at a time not so long ago when no one had heard of COVID-19 and spend a little time with Bruno, chief of police and chef extraordinaire as he solves crimes, prepares delicacies and lives the good life? Bob Moyer suggests that you let Martin Walker take you there.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE SHOOTING AT CHATEAU ROCK: A Bruno, Chief of Police Novel. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 305 pages. $25.95

Things are popping in pre-pandemic Perigord. Ivan is back in St. Denis with his new girl friend/chef from Japan, and the restaurant menu changed again. Bruno is adjusting to supervision of the entire police region, although the increased salary doesn’t really compensate for the increased responsibility. Pamela has taken Bruno back into her bed, but she’s been a bit chilly lately. Old man Driant, that  “chaud lapin” or hot rabbit, was found dead, an apparent heart attack, with a bottle of Viagra on his bedstand and a black hair on his pillow. Bruno suspects something is awry; the old man disinherited his children, and deeded his house and insurance over to a fancy retirement home just opened down the road. Balzac the dog has a big day coming up, his first time at stud Bruno’s ex, Isobel, will come down from Paris, and she and Bruno will help him along. Gilles, who came from Paris to marry Fabiola the doctor, is writing a book about the unrest in Ukraine.

But the big news – the Chateau Rock is up for sale. Purchased years ago by a famous rock ’n’ roller named Mcrae, the estate has been a minor tourist attraction, and his family’s home. The kids grew up there, they’re off to college, and his wife wants to find the rest of her life. The kids bring a passel of their pals to spend the summer, pilling out of a van to gorge on a gazpacho made by Bruno in one of Walker’s usual painstaking recipes. The group includes the son’s girlfriend, the daughter of a Russian pal of Putin.

The shooting, you say? Don’t hold your breath. It happens late in the book. Rest assured, however, that it will make St. Denis an international center involving finance, participants from France, Russia, Ukraine and Cypros, helicopters, swat teams, a sniper and Bruno.

Not as much food porn this time, although there is a lengthy preparation for lamb shanks that will send some readers slobbering. Martin Walker puts a lot of detail into the construction of a chicken coop for the animals left behind by Monsieur Driant. Pamela’s going to keep them. As for myself, I’m off to make Bruno’s ouef mimosa. Does any one know where I can get some alumettes?

 

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Not Bosch, but a determined reporter

If you need a good detective story to read, Bob Moyer can help you out. Here he takes a look at the latest from Michael Connelly.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FAIR WARNING. By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown and Company. 417 pages. $29.

He’s not Harry Bosch.

Poor Jack McEvoy. He has appeared in only three Michael Connelly novels, and Harry has been in umpteen. A comparison is inevitable, and Jack doesn’t come out too well. Harry is a principled detective who stays the course and comes up with a killer. Jack is a reporter who will kill for a story, and even throw his girl friend under the bus to get one — which he has done. Harry has taken a dismissal and retirement from the force with dignity and a certain stoic grace. The last time we saw Jack, he was a star reporter with a bestseller, a new car and fancy digs. Now, a few years later, he’s driving the same car, living in a smaller apartment, and working for an online news agency called Fair Warning, desperate for another big story. He’s not Harry Bosch.

He’s more interesting.

When a pair of detectives braces him about the death of a woman he dated once a year ago, he senses a bigger story. As he dives in, he discovers a deeper pattern of murders, involving a DNA ancestry website. The cops don’t want him interfering, his editor doesn’t want him wasting time on something that won’t bring in money, but here’s where Harry and Jack have something in common — they’re relentless when they get a whiff of the truth.

Jack’s investigation takes him closer to the serial killer and into the unregulated world of DNA samples. The further Jack goes, the more people die, the more he is endangered. The plot here is classic Connelly, with twists right up to the very end.

The book is a testament to real journalism, and a textbook example of how to research and write a story. Connelly was an investigative reporter in another life, and Jack feels like an alter ego to that reporter. Harry Bosch is not Jack — but Michael Connelly might just be.

 

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A dangerous trap

Bob Moyer reviews the latest John Sandford Prey novel starring Lucas Davenport. If you like what he’s describing, and haven’t yet encountered this series, you have some reading to do. Enjoy.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MASKED PREY. By John Sandford. G.P. Putnam. 416 pages. $29.

Over the course of 29 previous Prey novels, John Sandford has revealed a few things about Marshall Lucas Davenport. He operates outside of most federal agencies, at the discretion of a few powerful men. He can be collaborative and witty, especially with his cohorts Bob and Rae. He has a panoply of polo shirts, all varying colors, and at least a couple of handmade suits. He collects guns, both legal and illegal. Most of all, however, he is a hunter. “I hunt,” he tells a colleague. “That’s what I do.”

In this case, his Prey is a group or person who has put up a website called 1919, neo-Nazi code for SS. It’s pictures of high-profile politicians’ children, accompanied by rightwing screeds. It’s an offering, daring someone to take action. No crime has been committed, the FBI can’t do anything — here comes Lucas.

He investigates a series of rightwing groups that could have been copied and pasted from the latest Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, most of them “anti-whatever.”  To the author’s credit, he does not make these straw men to be blown down, but fleshed-out characters, giving body to some far-right thinking. His creations are characters, not caricatures. Davenport’s instincts finally lead him to the source of the website. Next, he has to find out if anyone, a “lone wolf,” has taken up the challenge.

Of course they have, early on. That is part of the tension here, as Davenport turns his attention to his next Prey —a Jason Bourne fan who thinks “The country was being invaded by people of inferior cultures and inferior races. The real, vital white America was being submerged.”  He’s out there, but Davenport has no idea where. Proving once again how relentless and ruthless he can be, he baits a dangerous trap all by himself. Of course.

Sandford is a master of taking the plot on unexpected turns, and Davenport is just the one to follow them. Be assured that he will be back to hunt another Prey.

 

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Striking out

What’s wrong with Major League Baseball? Paul O’Connor, a longtime fan, takes a look at two books published decades ago that warn us about the problems facing the sport now – and no, it’s not all about the pandemic.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BALL FOUR: THE FINAL PITCH. By Jim Bouton. Audible Studios. 1970. 20 hours. Free to Audible customers.

CAN’T ANYBODY HERE PLAY THIS GAME: THE IMPROBABLE SAGA OF THE NEW YORK METS’ FIRST YEAR. By Jimmy Breslin. Ivan R. Dee Publishing (reprint edition). 1963. Softcover. 126 pages $12.95.

Major League Baseball is a mess, and COVID-19 is only minutely responsible.

In the past half-century, baseball has gone from the National Pastime to an athletic afterthought. The game is too slow. Ticket prices are too high. Too many Americans no longer care.

Jackie Robinson might have broken the color barrier and given the Civil Rights Movement momentum, but African Americans today can’t be coaxed into the game, a game that every year is increasingly staffed with foreign players.

The owners are greedy. The players are greedy. In the middle of a national public health crisis, with the season on hold, the two sides could not agree on how to play a few games and give us an athletic diversion. Instead, an abbreviated season will proceed by ownership fiat.

If Jimmy Breslin and Jim Bouton could be brought back to life, they might both say, “Of course. We warned you a half century ago that the game was headed for trouble.”

While neither of their books is best remembered as prophecies on the future of the game, the criticisms both made, Breslin in 1963 and Bouton in 1970, stand out today.

Breslin, in his 126-page history of the first year of the New York Mets’ existence, repeatedly speaks to the greed that drove National League owners to first fleece Joan Payson, owner of the Mets, for the right to own a team and then left her with a collection of players unmatched for ineptitude in the sport’s history.

Bouton, in his memoir of the 1969 season, spoke of the same greed on the part of owners regarding players. This greed eventually led to the strengthening of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the end of the reserve clauses that tied players to one team and, therefore, to the escalation of salaries and ticket prices.

In one of the epilogues included in the 20-hour recording, one written years after the book was published, Bouton speculates that had owners simply been fairer to players in earlier years they wouldn’t be paying multi-million dollar salaries in the present.

When the two authors aren’t speaking to the greed of the owners, they retell the kind of stories that made us love baseball in previous lifetimes. Breslin, who was probably the funniest columnist working in New York at the time, goes into hilarious detail regarding the Mets and their ineptitude. They managed to lose games on bone-headed plays that, honestly, my Little League teammates knew better than to make when I was 12. Bouton, who wrote one of the first inside-the-locker-room tell-all books, has stories that are so funny that he, in reading his own book for Audible Studios, can’t help but laugh out loud more than 40 years later. It is one of the charms of the audiobook.

But Bouton, in 1970, noticed one of the biggest flaws baseball faces on the field today – pace. The game was too slow, he said, and that was before managers changed pitchers three times per inning and batters retightened their batting gloves between every pitch. He said that young people were too accustomed to a faster pace of life, and baseball needed to speed it up.

Breslin’s talents were widely known, but it took everyone by surprise that a broken-down starting pitcher, struggling to make it back into the big leagues as a knuckleball-throwing reliever, could master the art of sentence construction as well as Bouton did. His short diary entries rarely run more than a paragraph or two. The result is a narrative that possesses the very thing baseball needs today – a quickened pace of play.

Bouton was a master of characterization through the anecdote. His tales of such fellow players and coaches as Sal Maglie and Frank Crosetti are the embodiment of the writer’s directive to “show, don’t tell.”

Breslin, who may have been handed the best anti-hero material of all time, need only retell the baseball mistakes of such players as Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman to get his readers laughing out loud. Add Breslin’s talent, and it is almost an unhealthy read, one that threatens bodily harm from too vigorous laughter.

Both writers have almost perfect timing in the telling of their stories, also. A daily newspaper column in New York and a season in a bullpen are great incubators for wise guys and their wisecracks.

While both writers clearly love baseball, their books tell of baseball dystopia, Breslin’s on the field and in the boardroom, Bouton’s in the locker room and on road trips. While Breslin’s book was well received at the time, Bouton’s earned him a lifetime of animosity from other players and the baseball establishment. But Time magazine listed it as one of the 100 most important books of nonfiction, and the New York Public Library included it on its list of books of the century.

I doubt Ball Four would find a publisher today. It is horribly sexist. This is Mad Men without the suits and ties. It makes the central argument of the Me Too movement.

But while Bouton may have been behind the times with regard to gender, he was way ahead with regard to race. It is astounding to listen to Bouton’s 50-year-old words about racial injustice during our current national reckoning over race relations. Almost everything we’re discussing now Bouton said in his book.

God, I miss baseball, but each year I see a game played more for corporate interests and less for the fan. Breslin and Bouton warned us. The owners didn’t listen.

 

 

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Watch out, Chicago…

Bob Moyer is my hero. Undeterred by all that’s going on in the world around us, he keeps  reviewing books so the rest of us will have some idea of what to read when we want some respite.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DEAD LAND. By Sara Paretsky. William Morrow. 405 pages. $28.99

Private eye V.I. Warshawski has certain triggers that set her off:  Don’t mess with her family, don’t mess with the downtrodden and vulnerable, and, especially, don’t mess with Chicago.

Author Sara Paretsky has provided Vic, as she is known, that perfect trifecta. Attending a community meeting with her goddaughter Bernie, she witnesses an altercation between two committee members, one of them Bernie’s nerdy boyfriend. On the way home, they stop by to check on a once-famous singer, now down on her luck, out on the street. Within hours, the boyfriend is dead, and the singer has disappeared. Vic can’t help herself; she immediately looks into the murder, and tries to find the singer. Before long, she knows something bigger is behind the cases  —her neighbor starts being nice to her.

The woman, a lawyer, has been trying to evict Vic for years. Her law firm wants to find the singer, so she has been instructed to play nice. It seems they represented the murderer of the singer’s boyfriend, the event that sent the woman into a downward spiral. And somehow their interest involves a toy piano the singer plays.

The path Vic follows leads all the way from a proposed development on the Chicago lakeshore to the days of the “disappeared” in Pinochet’s Chile. In her search, she falls down a cliff face, is shot at and is threatened by the head of a city agency. At the bottom of it all is the simple truth behind much of Chicago politics:  “Pay to Play.”

Inexorably steely in spite of her wounds and threats, Vic exposes the rotten underbelly of Chicago’s politics. She gets help from her colleague, journalist Murray Ryerson, and, of course, her neighbor Mr. Contreras. Along the way, she  (and the reader) gets to spend time with Bear, a key character’s dog. Somehow, her commitment to that dog brings more depth to the story than one would expect. This time around, Vic shows a vulnerability greater than before, complementing her stellar capacities as a detective. Dead Land is a highlight in this venerable series.

 

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A storm brewing…

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WEATHER. By Jenny Offill. Alfred A.  Knopf. 224 pages. $23.95.

Lucy toggles.

“Toggles” is the word author Jenny Offill used in a recent interview to describe the interior switching in the life of her narrator. In this remarkable exploration of the effect of climate change on a woman’s life, Lucy moves back and forth between two worlds. On one hand, she does the stuff we all have to do to stay alive. She’s a wife and mother who plays with her child, fixes meals for the family, works as a librarian at the college where she didn’t finish her dissertation. She assists her mentor, a “prepper” guru, with her correspondence, takes a car service to work, even though she can’t afford it, and she meets a man on the bus, flirts with him, but doesn’t go any further. She counsels her mother, tries to help her addictive brother, and gives the woman outside her library money

On the other hand, she has a preoccupation – Weather. The dilemma of living ethically in a damaged world consumes her from time to time, even moment to moment. The guy she meets on the bus asks her what she’s afraid of; she answers “… dentistry, humiliation, scarcity. ”  She overhears someone on the bus say it’s important to be on the alert for ”the decisive moment. ” He’s talking about 20th century photography, but she’s “… talking bout twenty-first century everything. ” When asked what she’s good at, she rattles off a full page of survival skills. 

These thoughts surface, in what passes for a narrative here, as fragments. A signature of Offill’s style, used to great effect in her previous novel Dept.  Of Speculation, these fragments can be as short as a random fact about the weather, or as lengthy as an entire domestic scene. Quotes from her mentor’s lectures, questions from correspondence, even a joke surface in Lucy’s consciousness. 

 The sometimes heavy, sometimes humorous episodes produce a sense of urgency contrasting with a normalcy of inaction, and, ultimately, a disintegrating narrative. The flicking back and forth builds to an unresolved tension at the end of the book, an anxiety not just for Lucy, but also for the reader – how responsible are we for the whole world?

Weather is a book of our time, for our time.  

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Business as usual – or is it?

Thanks to Bob Moyer, here’s another British detective novel series I’ll have to try.  Hmm, I see it’s been a TV series too. 

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: A DCI Banks Novel. By Peter Robinson. William Morrow. 336 pages. $28.99.

In the beginning, a young Syrian boy is found stuffed in a garbage bin.  In the end — the very end — DCI Banks comes up with the killer.

In between, the reader gets to follow along as the engaging and competent crew of police officers working with Banks carry on as usual. They follow leads, knock on doors, drink tea with suspects and old ladies and cover a lot of ground before they meet with Banks in a pub, where they drink various varieties of English beer. The murder was committed near a housing estate, and the clues lead them to an estate complete with its own vigilante crew; a nearby estate slightly down at the heels; and a devastated, deserted estate about to be torn down, a site full of drug dealings and popup brothels. Banks leaves his team to troll the premises while he braces the fat cats.

Like the shady developer cum tough guy who plans to build on the site. He’s implicated because of the dodgy company he keeps, and Banks keeps after him. When he’s not following leads, the DCI hangs out at home brooding about his pathetic personal life, drinking and playing a wide variety of music, which allows the author to display his wide-ranging taste (The Blues Dialogues by Rachel Barton Pines is exceptional). There’s little urgency but a lot of procedure to events leading up to the crime’s resolution.

The urgency here is in the subplot played out by Banks’ friend Zelda. A survivor of sex trafficking, she works with the police now as a facial recognition expert. She suspects that her boss was just murdered by the people who abducted and raped her, and then sold her. She sets out to find her abductor, and her progress produces significant tension — What will she do if she finds him, and what will happen to her?  The plot is a fine counterpoint to the familiar progress of Banks’ team and leaves a thread dangling for the next book in the series. 

Neither a quick read nor an edge-of-the-seat thriller, Peter Robinson’s latest still satisfies.

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A beach read, and more

I’ve followed Kristy Woodson Harvey’s writing career from the beginning, and I’ve enjoyed every step of the journey.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

FEELS LIKE FALLING. By Kristy Woodson Harvey. Gallery Books, Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $16.99, paperback.

Whether you’re heading to one of the recently re-opened beaches or passing the time at home, Kristy Woodson Harvey offers a new book likely to enhance your leisure time.

Harvey, a graduate of the UNC Chapel Hill journalism school, has been making quite a name for herself as a fiction writer over the last five or so years. She’s published two previous stand-alone novels and the Peachtree Bluff trilogy, all well received.

Though Harvey lives in Beaufort along what’s become known as North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, and readers who know that area will find that Peachtree Bluff seems mighty familiar, the series is officially set on Georgia’s coast. (Harvey said in an interview when the series debuted that someone at the publishing house thought there were too many novels set on North Carolina’s coast.)

But this new, stand-alone novel comes unapologetically home to the shores of North Carolina.

As with her other books, those who like to slot books into genres will call this one something like Dixie Chick Lit. It’s definitely a contemporary Southern novel, and because it’s mostly about the lives and concerns of women, most of its readers will be women.

But don’t let any of that make you think this is a shallow, clichéd or overly trendy book. Far from it. Once again, Harvey has pulled off the impressive feat of writing a novel that’s highly entertaining, fairly light reading, but also well written. Her books have complex, well-developed characters who often defy stereotypes. They take on serious issues a lot of women face, and they offer uplifting messages without seeming preachy.

Harvey is adept at using multiple points of view. This time, there are two primary characters whose very different lives intersect more or less by chance. Gray Howard is a well-to-do entrepreneur who built her own company and seems to lead the perfect life. She has her business, a husband and a darling son, and she gets to spend every summer at her beach house and the club at Cape Carolina.

Only this summer, she’s dealing with the recent death of her mother, her sister’s marriage to someone who seems a lot like a cult leader, and her husband’s decision to leave her in favor of the young executive assistant Gray had hired to help him with his job in her company. Oh, and her husband wants to share custody of their son and take half the business she built.

Diana Harrington, meanwhile, lives a life that could hardly be more different. She’s dealt with one disappointment after another. Having just left the latest in a series of no-good boyfriends, she’s reduced to living in her beat-up car. 

After Gray learns she inadvertently contributed to Diana’s getting fired from her job, she invites Diana to come to work for her and live in the guesthouse.

An unlikely friendship develops, one that turns out to be good for both of them as they work their way through changes in their lives and their attitudes. We follow their halting attempts to figure things out, reinvent their lives and learn from their mistakes, and we see how their unlikely friendship helps them both. There are wisdom and insight here, wrapped in a story that’s fun to read.

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Short and not sweet

Bob Moyer just keeps on reading, finding books to recommend for the entertainment and edification of the rest of us socially distanced folks. He’s a trouper!

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO. By Walter Mosley. Mulholland Books. 176 pages. $24.

It’s too short.

The brevity of Walter Mosley’s latest book deprives us of the chance to relish at length his mastery of the underworld where detective Leonid McGill moves with such grace. Once a criminal fixer, McGill left that world but didn’t lose his connections. Mosley takes us to places in Manhattan nobody else sees, such as the subterranean cell where the stocky private eye likes to “question” people, and the hospital in a high rise that has a secret entrance and exit for people who can’t go to any other hospital.

That’s where Leonid puts Catfish Worry, the Mississippi bluesman who came to New York for his help. He has a letter that he needs to deliver to the daughter of Charles Sternman, the richest man in New York, from her grandmother. Catfish is her grandfather, and Sternman’s father. He has to go to the hospital because Sternman hired a hit man, who shot him. 

Sternman is a familiar character in a Mosley book, a man of light skin, self-loathing and racist, sometimes lethally so. It takes Leonid the length of the book to get the letter delivered. Along the path, he throws light on the other world Mosley illuminates for the reader — the plight of black lives in America. In his books, you know that “…a poor woman wasn’t going to get a fair trial; that the laws are for the rich to pick the pockets of everyone else; and that, at the crux of it, the only real law was the one that nature provides.” 

Mosley brings a new depth to Leonid this time out, affected by his son, Twill, and by Catfish’s grandson, and Catfish, who puts “…to song what make a grown man cry.” Their presence, their voices, give Leonid “…kinship to all of them, more biology than psychology, more mortal than divine.” As his son Twill says, ”Pop, I never heard you talk like that before.”

The struggle to deliver the letter to the granddaughter is a carefully crafted, profound parable for the obstacles thrown up for the black man and woman in America. Profound, but too short.

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