On the brink, as seen by one who’s been there

Wondering why there’s a war in Ukraine? This book might shed some light – on that, and on what else might be over “the edge.”

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

LESSONS FROM THE EDGE: A MEMOIR. By Marie Jovanovitch. Harper Audio. 17 hours, 11 minutes. $37. Also available in hardback. Mariner Books. 416 pages. $30.

Bear with me if you’ve seen this movie.

A dedicated civil servant is fighting for truth, justice and the American way when the narrative flips. The bad guys frame our hero, fabricating evidence that he or she is the criminal or traitor.  Jimmy Stewart would be the perfect lead.

Unfortunately, this is not a trite piece of fiction. It’s the true-life story of Marie Jovanovitch, a self-described live-by-the-rules introverted career foreign service officer who got in the way of Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and a corrupt crowd of Ukrainians.

 Jovanovich emerged into public view in mid-2019 from the obscurity of her U.S. foreign service career. She’d spent most of her professional life working in American embassies in Russia and the capitals of former Soviet republics. Her focus was fighting corruption by holding the governments of Ukraine, Kyrgystan and Armenia to the reform promises they’d made to secure American and Western aid.

In short, Jovanovich was a pain in the ass to kleptocrats who sought to siphon off sizeable portions of the aid packages and their country’s wealth for their own benefit. From the summer of 2016 until late spring of 2019, as U.S. ambassador, she was doing that very thing in Ukraine, sometimes with the help of elected reformers there and sometimes with the resistance of holdovers. But she faced constant resistance from former officials of a pro-Russia government who were plotting both to get back into power and to tilt Ukraine’s allegiances to Moscow.

Giuliani had an idea. Create a narrative that former Vice President Joe Biden was involved in the Ukrainian corruption and get the Ukrainian government to open an investigation. Trump loved the idea, but Jovanovich was a problem. She stood in the way. Her reform efforts were aimed at the very people the two Americans needed to create this lie. Thus, they fabricated stories alleging she was also corrupt and got them into American far-right media such as The Hill newspaper and Fox News.

To those who followed the congressional hearings leading to Trump’s first impeachment, Jovanovich should be recognizable. She testified twice, once in private, later in public. In time, she was cleared.

The impeachment testimony and the Ukraine ordeal are only the ending for Jovanovich, and the story she tells of her earlier life and career are fascinating. She was born in Montreal in 1958, the daughter of two stateless Russian emigres. They had fled the Soviet Union after their parents had sided with the white forces in the Civil War of the early 1920s.

The parents met in Montreal, married, had children and then moved to Kent, Conn., where Marie’s father taught at a prestigious prep school. She attended Princeton, worked in the advertising world and eventually entered the foreign service.

The first half of her memoir focuses on her personal development and the institutional sexism she faced both at Princeton and in the foreign service. It is also an entertaining primer on life working for the State Department.

The second half of the book focuses on her assignments, and at times I felt as if I were reading a historical novel, one of those books where the author contrives a character who serendipitously arrives in a place just as a major event occurs. For example, see Pug Henry in Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War.

 Jovanovich’s presence in these former Soviet republics provides a succinct review of Vladimir Putin’s prolonged efforts to subvert reform and pro-Western movements in these republics, to spread disinformation and to reel these countries back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

 For those of us who were not paying attention, I’ll only say that we missed a lot, and much of what we missed is germane to the current war in Ukraine.

  She concludes with a warning, that the U.S. teetered on the brink of becoming the kind of corrupt state she worked hard to help reform, and that that danger remains.

  This is an entertaining and enlightening story, well written and, in the audio version, well read by the author.

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Dark, eerie – and beautiful

Paul O’Connor may have grown up in Connecticut, gone to college in Indiana and spent many productive decades in North Carolina, but there’s a lot of Ireland in him. He’s discovered a book by an Irish author that’s not exactly new – published in 2017 – and not usually what would be Paul’s cup of whiskey. But he’s entranced, and he tells us why.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE DEAD HOUSE. By Billy O’Callaghan. Arcade. 216 pages. $16.99.

The southwestern-most corner of Ireland is the eeriest place I’ve ever been.

When I first visited the area in 1973, the craggy topography and unusual vegetation, intensified by the howling winds, driving rains and threatening black clouds raging off the Atlantic, explained to me how the Irish can believe in the supernatural. As I drove down a deserted single-lane road lined with vegetation pressing both sides of my car, I expected the Banshee, a leprechaun or some other mystical fairy to attack.

Billy O’Callaghan sets his ghost story, The Dead House, in West Cork, just across a narrow bay from the Iveragh Peninsula from which my ancestors emigrated in the late 18th century. In this 2017 Irish Book Award winner, he writes that the landscape has a “rare light and aura of ancient magic.”

Michael Simmons, retired for health reasons from a career as an artists’ agent, narrates the story of Maggie Turner, an artist he represents. He discovered her while she was a student and helped her become successful in British art circles. A true friendship developed and, after her boyfriend seriously beat her, Michael provided a safe place to recover.

Already psychologically fragile, Maggie senses she must get away. She leaves England, eventually finding an abandoned cottage in the most isolated corner of West Cork, an area of landscapes and light perfect for her style of painting. But it is also a place that Michael and other friends fear will be too isolated for Maggie. They fear that the solation will unsettle her more than even city life. At least in London or Dublin she would have the support of friends.

Six weeks later, the cottage renovated to livable standards, Maggie hosts Michael and two female friends – one, Alison, is Michael’s future wife – for a weekend housewarming. Amid the hiking, eating and whiskey drinking, a Ouija Board is produced and a supernatural string of events unfolds.

It’s been said that the Irish speak English as beautifully as the French speak their language. And in O’Callaghan’s writing, those lovely Irish conversations make beautiful dialogue. His descriptions left me reaching for the yellow under-liner numerous times, uselessly, of course, because these were library books.

I did think, however, to bookmark his fine description of the mood after the Ouija Board experience:

There was something blocked about that whiskey-fueled aftermath. What had occurred lay around us like the taint of pepper in the air, a slow poison that once tasted cannot be easily forgotten.

I don’t read ghost stories. Have never read a Stephen King novel. Almost didn’t read this one, except that I’d just discovered O’Callaghan; only The Dead House and his spectacular The Boatman and Other Stories were in the local library. Some authors are worth reading just for their sentences, even if their story is not your type. O’Callaghan is that kind of author.

As a ghost story, others will have to judge The Dead House. I see it more as an insight into that dark, eerie side of Ireland that often gets overshadowed by the merrymaking and Guinness. The book’s cover notes say it is a “dread-inducing psychological thriller.” I’ll just comment that the story creeped me out, which is what ghost stories are supposed to do, right?

Telling his story a decade after the climactic events, narrator Michael and his wife were still dealing with it, and at two points in the novel, Michael paraphrases William Faulkner’s famous line that “the past is never dead; it’s not even past,” applying it to Irish history rather than American.

Maggie was unable to escape the past and, as the novel ends, Michael and Alison are finding that they can’t either.

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All this and COVID too

Bob Moyer reviews a Michael Connelly detective thriller that came out late last year. If you missed it in the holiday/pandemic craziness, you’ll thank him.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE DARK HOURS. By Michael Connelly. Little, Brown. 388 pages. $29.

She hates taking her mask up and down for a sip of coffee, she picks her desk on the night shift to avoid cops who don’t cover their mouths, she turns away when she talks to witnesses, she had COVID in November, and on New Year’s Eve, she’s not sure she’s immune.

The pandemic is killing Detective Rene Ballard.

She’s who Harry Bosch used to be before he retired — the rule breaker, the loner, the relentless cop who keeps after the truth until they get it. Author Connelly has come up with a worthwhile female to step into the place Bosch occupied. Bosch is still around in this latest procedural by the acclaimed master, but he’s a supportive sidekick. Ballard needs one, because Connelly has loaded her down with problems, and the pandemic is just one of them.

Connelly works his magic here, with the way he weaves the pandemic into her daily life. It’s just one more stress added to the lack of confidence the public shows toward cops since George Floyd, the burnt-out cops who just shuffle through their days, and, of course the procedures and politics of the L.A. Police Department. On top of everything else, Ballard ends up working two cases at once.

The first case looks like a pair of serial rapists. She’s supposed to pair up with a detective from the sex crimes squad, but the woman’s a slacker. Ballard ends up doing both their jobs. She also picks up a murder that looked like an accident — gunfire on New Year’s Eve — but Ballard establishes that it was a hit. She manages to keep from handing it over to the daytime murder squad until she basically solves the crime, while also figuring out the m.o. of the rapists. To do all this, she works both night and day, and has to call on Bosch for backup. Stretched, sleep-deprived, she makes some questionable, out-of-line decisions that get her both suspended and almost killed. Those scenes are some of the best Connelly has come up with in recent books.

Connelly leaves both Ballard and the reader wondering what will she do in the next installment — keep working for the department, or go to work with Bosch. Either way, the reader wins.

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Life and love in spite of the horrors

Bob Moyer likes mysteries, detective stories and other fiction, but he also has a more serious side.  In his nonfiction-reading mode, he’s often a student of the Holocaust. This book, he says, is very real – and, thank goodness, also a story of survival and even happiness.

INTO THE FOREST. By Rebecca Frankel. St. Martin’s Press. 335 pages. $28.99.

Authenticity. It’s a quality essential to engaging the reader of nonfiction, reassuring us that the author is not only accurate but also empathic with the subject. That comfort is especially important in stories like the one considered here, in which there is little recorded history, no official records and years of neglect—survivors of the Holocaust who fled to the Polish forests. Author Frankel has traced with the help of two survivors the horrific but compelling survival of the Rabinowitz family. Her fealty to their truth is palpable through the surmises and suppositions that are made about their journey from a village in Poland to a city in America.

The author begins with a reunion in New York of Mimi, the mother, with a boy whose life she fortuitously saved during a “selection” in Poland during the Holocaust. The author returns to that meeting as a bookend to the travails of the family close to the end of the book. After that introduction, she draws a vivid sketch of the village, the meeting of the couple, their children and village life. With dispatch she then descends into the fear and dread that arrives with the German occupation—the random selections for killing, the constant intimidation, the cruelty of the soldiers. She vividly portrays the desperation of an entire family hiding in a space carved out of the ground beneath the floor boards of a house, a space with not enough room to stand up in let alone move, all for days. Finally, the couple with their two daughters flee to the primeval forest nearby, where they join hundreds of others.

In this 534-square-mile refuge, the story takes on even more urgency. To the family’s advantage, the father is an expert woodsman. To their disadvantage, everyone knows it, and follows him wherever he goes, as the family has to move from place to place to avoid detection. They live in constant fear of discovery, not just from periodic sweeps of German forces, but also Polish collaborators, untrustworthy Russian troops sent to sabotage the Germans, and Polish partisans. Here the detail not available anywhere else arises in the narrative—the daughter who runs through the woods feeling the freedom of running even in the atmosphere of doom, the daughter who steals food from her family for the promise of a trinket from a fellow refugee, the boy with frozen feet who can’t wear his boots. Frankel fleshes out the two-year timeline with details drawn from the family experience and supported with what little research has been carried out. She creates scenes that make us want to look away but compel us to keep watching, until the Russian forces liberate the forest in 1944.

The rest of the story is almost a fairy tale, as the family moves from the devastation of their village to the coast of Italy and then the United States, where they thrive. There, in New York, Mimi meets the boy she saved, and he meets Rochelle, now Ruth, the oldest daughter. They marry, he becomes a rabbi, and then Frankel’s family rabbi since she was five. That is the link that leads to five years of research, much of it sitting in Ruth’s kitchen talking to her. Their relationship, as well as the one with the other daughter, Tonia (now Toby), is the pillar Frankel built her book on, and the source of the authenticity she brings to her narrative. She has backed that research with eight pages of acknowledgments at the end of the book, all to create, as the book cover says, “A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph, and Love.”  The result is as much of a page-turner as you will read this year.

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Another delicious crime entre’e

Thanks to Bob Moyer, I have another addition to my already lengthy must-read list. Martin Walker’s Bruno novels are pure pleasure, even if they do make me hungry.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE COLDEST CASE. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 315 pages, $27.

In a Bruno, Chief of Police novel, the past is never past; it’s always present. Author Martin Walker consistently pries a piece out of the storied past of the French Dordogne region, and attaches a murder to it, with unvarying ingenuity. For added interest, he usually makes the event significant enough to attract national and/or international attention to the case and the small town of St. Denis. Each series installment, complete with a claque of consistent characters in a Perigordian atmosphere, provides ample entertainment.

The latest issue is no exception. Bruno takes a skull from The Coldest Case in the region, a 30-year-old murder, and has it forensically reconstructed. The result, with a little DNA help, leads to a local inhabitant. He may, or may not, have been there 30 years ago. While Bruno collects clues, the German government releases previously unseen Stasi files from East Germany. The suspect may or may not be in those files, but they are unavailable to France — they’ve only been released to the British and American governments. That omission creates a political kerfuffle, incited by a pundit based in—of course—St. Denis. Add a wildfire created by global warming bearing down on the region, and Bruno has ample opportunity to display his boundless ingenuity, solving the crime while reporters, government agents and the fire descend on St. Denis.

Of course, the crime and accompanying accoutrements are just camouflage for Bruno’s true love — cooking. Once again, the centerpiece of the story is an eight-page dinner Bruno prepares for everyone drawn into the case. By the time the ecrivesses a la nage are washed down with the chilled Monbazillac, both the diners and the reader are sated.

Just as the co-op vineyard in St. Denis produces a consistently good wine each year, so Walker comes up with a tasty product as well. The Coldest Case is vintage Bruno.

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The questions that haunt us

Paul O’Connor reviews a historical novel that tells a good story while examining questions that are still with Americans today.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

BLACK CLOUD RISING. By David Wright Falade’. Atlantic Monthly Press`. 290 pages, hardcover. $27.

In late fall 1863, the Union Army’s African Brigade marched southward from its Fortress Freedom encampment near Portsmouth, Va., through the Great Dismal Swamp and into northeastern North Carolina. Under the command of a one-armed general determined to punish rebel irregulars, the brigade was also on a mission to liberate thousands of people still held in bondage.

Using this historical event as his setting, David Wright Falade’ has crafted an insightful novel that examines the meaning of freedom, human relations in a time of immense social change, and class stratification. It is the story of recently freed people trying to understand, and cope with, their new reality and of a white population refusing to accept it.

Richard Etheridge is a former slave, in his early twenties, who was raised on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island. His mother was a slave, his father her owner. His parentage gives him elevated status among the homestead’s slaves. His father shows him some preference, allowing his white daughter to teach him, her half-brother, to read and write while his father’s white nephew, who lives with the family, is Richard’s regular companion in childhood.

But when Union forces liberate Roanoke Island, Richard and many of his fellow male slaves join the U.S. Army and the African Brigade, much to the displeasure of his father, half-sister and cousin.

The brigade’s march involves ambushes, reprisals against bushwhacker homes and leaders, and a real skirmish or two, but Black Cloud Rising employs combat only to aid in its examination of the relationships between and among its many strong characters.

Among the black soldiers, there is friction based on previous station, with Richard being the obvious target. He is a sergeant, and a good soldier. He obeys orders from his white officers and expects his soldiers to do the same. Most do. But Revere, also a sergeant, and a man who has been rebellious since boyhood, boils with hostility toward whites and any black man who is less angry than he, namely Richard.

Others in the brigade do not understand their new status as freedmen, and what it means in their lives. They address their officers not as “sir,” but as “massah,” leaving the white officers uncomfortable and looking to Richard to teach his troops proper military address.

The troops hold a myriad of perspectives. One earnestly asks Richard what it means to be free; he has no concept of it. Others contemplate a return to Africa and debate it at night:  Should they go or should they stay? Are they Africans, or Americans, or something else?

The white officers are similarly clueless. Richard finds himself tutoring an earnest colonel on the proper approach to disciplining and addressing “colored troops,” approaches that differ because of history from those he would employ with white troops.

The book, however, revolves around Richard, his hopes, dreams, ambitions, regrets and past. He lives uncomfortably with the knowledge that he accepted the preferential treatment he received from his father and half-sister, worrying that in doing so he betrayed his mother, who despised the man who had impregnated her. Revere torments him for accepting the crumbs of respect thrown him by his father, and those taunts stay with Richard until the final page.

Black Cloud Rising is a prize of a read. It is wonderfully written and developed. The characters are vivid. The tension, as the mission nears its conclusion in late December, is as good as that in any spy thriller I’ve read lately.

Most important, Black Cloud Rising provides a new approach to discussing race, placing it in a piece of historical fiction that is highly relevant in a country that, even today, still has not answered the questions these characters pose.

 

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Courage and care under fire

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ANGELS OF THE PACIFIC. By Elise Hooper. William Morrow. 358 pages. $16.99, paperback.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, or maybe there’s renewed interest among Americans in World War II. Whatever the reason, this is the second historical novel about Americans in World War II that I’ve read in as many months. Both books are well done, and both are more thoughtful and revealing about the profound effects of war on individuals than many of the World War II action books and movies I’ve encountered over the years.

The first was Still Points by Barry Lee Swanson, an author who lives in North Carolina. As I said in a review that ran in the Greensboro News & Record and the Winston-Salem Journal (https://journalnow.com/entertainment/books/book-review-still-points-a-poignantly-told-war-story-by-north-carolina-author-barry-lee/article_faefd844-a61d-11ec-82fc-5301bdd4d207.html) on March 18, Swanson artfully draws on the real story of his wife’s late uncle, as recorded in his journal and letters home. The result is a well written, gripping and poignant book that reminds us of the hardships and sacrifices that the generation of Americans who came of age during World War II experienced.

Elise Hooper’s Angels of the Pacific is also based on true stories, although not as directly as Swanson’s. In a Q&A  at book’s end, Hooper says that she was inspired by the service of her grandfather in the Navy during the war. Like so many World War II veterans, however, her grandfather rarely talked much about his war days, except in general terms. Hooper began researching the war, and in accounts of the U.S. Army and Navy nurses who eventually came to be known as the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor, she found her story.

It’s a good story, and she tells it well, deftly alternating between the viewpoints of Tess Abbott, am American Army nurse, and Flor Dalisay, a Filipina university student who lives with her family in Manila.

Tess, an orphan raised by her older sister, joined the Army nursing corps in hopes of adding a little adventure to her life and escaping the hardships of the Great Depression. She’s enjoying life in the beautiful Philippines, and her shy personality is beginning to blossom amid the friendship of other young nurses. But news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor is quickly followed by devastating Japanese attacks on the American-controlled Philippines.  To their horror, the nurses realize they are being abandoned when Gen. Douglas MacArthur is forced to leave the islands.

Through the attacks, Tess and the other nurses keep working, under great hardship, until they are captured by invading Japanese troops. Eventually, they are moved to an internment camp for prisoners of war in Manila, where they continue working as best they can while suffering cruel and humiliating treatment, starvation and disease. Four years pass before they are liberated after American troops retake the Philippines amid fierce fighting.

Flor, meanwhile, not content to stand meekly by while the Japanese take over her homeland, finds ways to help the growing underground resistance efforts. Risking her own safety and even her life, she bravely does what she can.

The two young women’s paths eventually cross, brought together by their humanitarian efforts and their mutual desire to defeat the Japanese.

This is a novel of hardship, heroism and the horrors of war for civilians as well as the military. This is also a novel of heartwarming stories of brave young women who find friendship and even love in the midst of those horrors.

Like Still Points, Angels of the Pacific educated me even as it provided compelling reading.

 

 

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Murder, monks and mirth

Bob Moyer is back with a review of a book with plenty of “outlandish humor.”

FELONIOUS MONK. By William Kotzwinkle. Blackstone Publishing. 278 pages. $26.99.

William Kotzwinkle may be the most famous author you’ve never heard of. He has sold more than 10 million books across a swath of genres: the cult ‘70s favorite The Fan Man, the heart-rending Swimmer in The Secret Sea, the dystopian Dr. Rat, the novelization of E.T., the graphic novel Herr Nightingale and The Satin Woman, and that favorite of children of all ages, Walter the Farting Dog picture-books series. To this and other titles, he has added a new genre—comic noir.

The title, Felonious Monk, hints of the wry, often outlandish humor that suffuses his work. His narratives match Donald Westlake’s for outrageous, and Robert B. Parker’s for wit. In his first book in some years, the author gives us Tommy Martini, the scion of a “made” Mafia family. Tommy was deposited in a Mexican monastery to keep him from facing a murder charge. He has spent years as a monk, trying to control his temper with medication and meditation.

His tranquility is tried when his crooked priest of an uncle dies and leaves him his house, his money—and a few possibly lethal problems. When Tommy shows up in Paloma, Arizona, a town rife with “cartoon spirituality,” he encounters a set of characters that want to take grievances against his uncle out on him. He loses his medicine and all control when he is attacked. Fortunately, he’s a big guy with a big punch and a cousin who has a cement-truck connection.

Tommy, however, has more than a temper problem; he has a temptation problem. He takes up with a spiritual con artist who turns out to be as murderous as she is beauteous. He spends the second half of the book just trying to stay alive.

He’s successful, of course, and returns to the sanctity of the monastery, flush with cash, back in training and ready for another adventure that he probably can’t refuse. Let’s hope Kotzwinkle can’t refuse a sequel.

 

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Lost Generation, lost opportunity

Paul O’Connor, esteemed newspaperman and professor, makes it a practice not to review – or even to finish reading – books he really doesn’t like. Keep that in mind as you read his take on a historical novel about books and authors in Paris a century ago.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE PARIS BOOKSELLER. By Kerri Maher. Berkley. 306 pages. $26, hardcover.

 

For fans of The Lost Generation, Kerri Maher’s The Paris Bookseller offers the prospects of an exciting inside look at the authors we most cherish a century later, all wrapped around the inner story of a miracle-working bookseller.

 

Unfortunately, this historical novel delivers something short of what we might expect.

 

Sylvia Beach is a name often overlooked in literature lectures about that era, but her bookstore and lending library may have been as important to this generation of authors as the salons of the much-better-known Gertrude Stein. An argument might also be made that, in publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses despite powerful opposition, Beach made the greater contribution to 20th century literature.

 

The Paris Bookseller opens in 1917, as World War I rages in France. Beach arrives in Paris from the United States and finds an exceptional bookstore, A. Monnier Bookseller, at 7 rue de l’Odeon. There she befriends – actually falls in love with — the owner, Adrienne Monnier, and acquaints herself with the many artistic luminaries who frequent the shop.

 

Beach returns to Paris in 1918 after a stint in the Balkans and has an idea: Open an English language bookshop and lending-library around the corner from A. Monnier.

 

The rest is history: The shop, Shakespeare & Co., is an immediate modest success. It draws all nature of American ex-pat, British and European customers and becomes the so-called “third place” for many of the people who now populate our Norton anthologies of 20th century literature.

 

Joyce is chief among them. He has been serializing chapters of his Ulysses in an American literary magazine but has been unable to find a publisher for the complete book. U.S. prudishness has led to the Post Office’s seizure of the magazine and a trial of its two publishers on smut charges. No publisher will touch the book.

 

Beach publishes it herself, a demanding undertaking that nearly breaks her financially and emotionally. This is also when we come to understand that working with Joyce is not easy.

 

While that’s the main story line of Maher’s book, there are others. There are Beach’s relationships with her mother, her sister and with Adrienne. Ernest Hemingway pops in and out of the book. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda make cameos. John Dos Passos ventures by, as do photographers, composers, conductors, all sorts of gifted people.

 

Because of this, the novel lacks focus. While Ulysses is the most prominent storyline, the novel is not about the publication of that masterpiece. There are too many storylines, many of them uninteresting and too brief. Or uninteresting and too long. One might argue that the main storyline is the challenge of keeping a bookstore afloat. If so, that needed greater emphasis.

 

The answer to that criticism, of course, is to say, “if you are going to write a biography of a person, you have to include all of those storylines.” But this isn’t a biography. It is a piece of historical fiction, and it does not work well as such.

 

The Paris Bookseller represents a lost opportunity. The material has such potential as a piece of creative nonfiction, where Maher could have used the wealth of prime historical material she researched in a biographical sketch. The read would have been much truer.

 

Another problem lies in Maher’s fictional dialogue. The conversations between Sylvia and Adrienne sound contrived – the lovers speak in complete sentences, all the time – and there is no depth to the relationship she presents us with. As for Hemingway, Maher has him sound like a game-show host, as if he were a pleasant and untroubled guy!

 

There’s the problem with this review: It reads as if I hated the book. But I made myself a promise a few years back: If I really hate a book, I stop reading and return it to the shelf. I didn’t do that. 

 

This may be a flawed piece of fiction, but the nonfiction in it is sufficiently interesting that I plodded on to page 306, and then read the author’s note, as I suspect others will, too. 

 

Readers may be disappointed, but not entirely. 

 

 

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When things get really strange…

Paul O’Connor reviews a novel that transcends categories while revealing a lot about human nature.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE ANOMALY. By Herve’ Le Tellier. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Other Press. 391 pp. $16.95, softcover.

On March 10, 2021, Air France Flight 006, high above international waters off the coast of Nova Scotia, encounters a massive storm that the meteorologists had not forecast. Unable to get around or above the storm and with just minutes’ warning, the pilot and crew ready the passengers for what will be a dangerously rough ride.

It is so rough, including stretches of free fall toward the water, that even the airline’s most experienced international pilot, Capt. David Markle, doubts the plane will survive. Then the plane breaks out of the storm into calm skies and bright sunlight. Markle reconnects with JFK International Airport traffic control and things get weird.

AF 006 had not traveled through a meteorological storm; it had come through a physical anomaly. The disturbance will upend the lives of the 250 passengers and crew and their families. It will also leave the reader of this thriller, originally written in French in 2020 and published in English in 2021, wondering just what the hell he or she is reading: Science fiction, philosophical fantasy or psycho-babble. Maybe something else?

Whatever it is, it is gripping. The winner of the Goncourt Prize, awarded to the author of the “best and most imaginative prose work of the year” in French literature, The Anomaly takes us through the lives of a select number of passengers both before March 10 and after. And here’s a suggestion for the reader: Pay attention to the dates that begin most chapters.

To avoid a reveal, I’ll just say that something happened when the plane transited that “storm” that science fiction writers have imagined before. I remember a movie about an aircraft carrier and a big storm in the Pacific Ocean, for example. And there’s a Netflix series, too. But the science fiction is just supporting cast here.

The brilliance of this novel is Le Tellier’s depiction of the human reactions to the anomaly. Before the U.S. government reveals what has happened, it forms an expert committee of religious leaders. Quite humorously, they don’t agree on much, but the reader gets a quick primer on world religions. At the same time, other government groups formulate responses that rival, in their stupidity, Schitt’s Creek reruns.

Once the news is public. the reaction runs the gamut of human personalities. Some characters adjust positively; others do not. Church people have a strong negative reaction. The military is confounded. The intelligence services are suspicious. Children find it a lark, and a Nigerian rap singer finds liberation.

And the reader will most likely keep asking: “Yikes, how would I react in this situation?”

To further confuse, or maybe entice us, there is one character, a writer and translator of literature, who gets an inspiration after the flight, quickly dashes off a philosophical tome, mails it to his editor and then jumps to his death. The book is published posthumously as The Anomaly, and the sample quotations cited in our novel are beyond the understanding of this reviewer. Oh, and the book immediately becomes an international bestseller, which, of course the book I’m reviewing, also called The Anomaly, became.

For the reader of the typical bestseller fiction available in airport bookstores, The Anomaly will be a huge upgrade. This is a novel of great complexity and human observation.

But it might make you a little wary of any Air France flight from Paris to JFK.

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