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[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell


” What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[726] The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt


” For years I’d been wallowing in a hothouse of wasteful sorrow: Pippa Pippa Pippa, exhilaration and despair, it was never-ending, incidents of virtually no significance threw me to the stars or plunged me into speechless depressions . . . Worse, my love for Pippa was muddied up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother’s death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. ” (Ch.10, ii, p.632)

The Goldfinch is a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. At 962 pages in paperback, the size could be stalling. It revolves around Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. He miraculously survives an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch, a token of his memory, and which later becomes the object of barter of criminals and collectors. He’s taken the masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to save it. This man, Welty, also gave him a signet ring that leads the boy to the house of a charming furniture restorer named James Hobart, a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to comes to terms with his loss.

Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction. (Ch.4, xii, p.207)

If Hobie is the father figure who has a better sense of the boy and treats him as a companion and conversationalist in his own right, Theo’s own father is the unreliable knucklehead who is steeped in substance abuse. Trying to cheat Theo’s education fund, his father is as much a rogue as Hobie as the anchor.

Despite his checkered fate, Theo is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish, and does very silly things. To save Hobie’s struggling antiques store he sells masterful reproductions as originals. He is drenched in nostalgia of the past, in this ruthless loop of searching. He epitomizes the pathetic “good person” who makes all the wrong decisions. All the ridiculous convolutions hinge on his keeping the painting which is classified as a crime. But Tartt imparts in him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine gent; Boris is his partners in crime while in Las Vegas. They show us how one can never draw a sharp line between good and bad. Neither has a point to exist without the other.

The book probes into questions of human achievement and the human soul. But at times Tartt can be heavy-handed and indulgent in theorizing and philosophizing. The harangue of an explanation tacked on at the end is necessary, but could have been done more lightly. That all said, The Goldfinch is a rewarding journey that teaches the moral about outward appearance versus inward significance. It does offer a glimpse of hope at the end as Theo awakens to the truth that there is no such thing as perfection and pulchritude. It has the addictive quality of a Victorian novel—it reminds me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and escapades it also evokes of Wilkie Collins. It’s a book of epic scale in terms of its ambitious theme: art may addict, but art also saves one from the sadness of human beings pushing and struggling to live.

962 pp. Little Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[725] The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin


” He has read enough to know there are no collections where each story is perfect. Some hits. Some misses. If you’re lucky, a standout. And in the end, people only remember the standouts anyway, and they don’t remember those for very long. ” (Part II, The Bookseller, p.249)

Though my taste runs to books that are less sentimental than The Stories Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character is impossible not to love. Fikry owns Island Books on Alice Island off Massachusetts, a summer destination. He’s not yet 40 but already widowed, his wife, Nic, dead in an auto accident. He’s lonesome, cantankerous, and a bit of a literary snob who only stocks high-brow literature. In a way, he lives in this bubble of a dream where he yearns for a distinct narrative.

Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time. (Part I, A Good Man is Hard to Find, p.92)

Island Books drifts toward bankruptcy. Then, within a few weeks, his collectible copy of Poe’s Tamerlane is pilfered from the store, and 2-year-old Maya is deposited at his bookstore with an instruction note from her mother. Fikry cannot bear to leave the precocious child to the system once it becomes apparent that her single mother, a matriculating Harvard student, has drowned herself in the sea. He adopts Maya, spurred by her immediate attachment in him. The decision to take up parenthood reinvigorates his life and his bookstore, and along comes an overdue romance with Amelia Loman, a book rep. It takes four years for him to ask her out. Even the whole town has warmed up to this man who had been so snobbish and cold.

Bookstores attract the right kind of folk. Good people like A.J. and Amelia. And I like talking about books with people who like talking about books. I like paper. I like how it feels, and I like the feel of a book in my back pocket. (Part II, The Bookseller, p.255)

Zevin is not heavy-handed on the romance department, but the book is paced by a few unexpected turns and complications. Any potholes in the plot are quickly smoothed over. The life of A.J. Fikry makes me smile and provokes empathy at the same time. A little bundle of joy and redemption changes his life forever. It’s all very modest and earnest. He quickly figures out that books and reading can bind lives as surely as any shred love. The book takes its course and comes back in full circle where everything is explained and tied up in a bow. I love the chapter headers that are brief notes, like shelf-talkers, that A.J. writes to Maya. They are small expressions of a parent’s love as well as odes to books and the written words.

258 pp. Algonquin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[723] The Accident – Chris Pavone


” Who was the villain in this story? ” (Ch.54, p.486)

The Accident is a thriller about publishing. It concerns a manuscript by an anonymous writer that is so earth-shattering that people in the publishing world would kill to get their hands on it. The manuscript is sent to Isabel Reed, a New York literary agent renowned for her discretion. She knows how delicately the book needs to be handled. So while she pitches the manuscript to the best editor she knows, Jeffrey Fielder, the proof, also titled “The Accident,” has already gone into covert circulation. Her assistant read it secretly and blabbed drunkenly to her friends and posted about it on Facebook. It has even been photocopied by a subsidiary-right person hoping to see it in Hollywood. This means great danger to anyone who has come in contact with the manuscript, let alone Isabel herself.

There were the densely woven secrets he and Charlie Wolfe had been sharing for two decades, and the portion that he’d been keeping to himself There was also the new possibility that Charlie actually wanted him dead. (Ch.17, p.147)

Everyone sees the bombshell of the manuscript is the opportunity for a break. The publisher sees it as the life-saver to a company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. All of which brings reader to Charlie Wolfe, a man who is the subject of the manuscript. His own media empire sustains on “de-newsing” the news, with a content bias toward gossip, innuendo, voyeurism and scandal. It pinches CIA’s nerves that exposure of Wolfe’s malpractice, which helps further the cause of the USA more or less, would compromise national security.

So the book proceeds with twist and turn galore. The unfortunate thing is that it’s easier for Pavone to conjure up shocking dramatic turns, abrupt killings, and unexpected connections than it is for him to come up with anything truly damning about Wolfe. The so-called secret is nothing but hyped. That said, The Accident is filled with keen, bittersweet observations about the publishing world. It pays tribute to the permanence of written word and the printed matter—that there is a validation, a legitimacy conferred by having a story out there in a physical form.

509 pp. Faber & Faber UK. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[722] The Day After Tomorrow – Allan Folsom


” That the creature was innately evil, had caused the deaths of two people and horribly and inexorably gnarled Paul Osburn’s own life from childhood on, seemed, at this point, to have little meaning. It was enough to have gotten the beast this far. ” (Ch.35, p.161)

The Day After Tomorrow is a thrill ride right from the beginning. Set in 1996, but hinged on a murder thirty years ago, the thriller weaves together three stories of global intrigue that bear no connection at a glance. A doctor has to confront his father’s killer; a detective investigates a series of horrible murders in which victims were all decapitated; an international organization devises a master plan of apocalyptic dimensions.

Something told him they weren’t, that somehow, in some way, the two wholly disparate situations were intertwined. And the coupling, though he had absolutely no evidence to back it up—had to be Osburn. (Ch.59,p.285)

Paul Osburn is an American surgeon who has never been able to close the emotional door on his father’s gruesome killing—right in front of his eyes. When he recognizes the man in a Parisian café, he attacks him with a blind, burst of uncontrollable rage, and thus plunging himself into a conspiracy, a neo-Nazi cabal to resurrect the Third Reich. Osburn soon tracks down and identifies his father’s killer as Albert Merriman, a career criminal supposedly dead since 1967. Osburn plans to eliminate Merriman after forcing out the truth of the murder, but a violent twist leaves him with no answer but another name, Erwin Scholl, who hired Merriman to kill four other men, all involved in the design and development of equipment for ultra-low temperature surgery. It seems like everyone who has a sixth degree of separation with this hired assassin is brutally eliminated, and Merriman himself is shot by an assailant Osburn believes to be in the hire of Scholl.

Perhaps what he had learned was already too much. He though of Karolin Henniger and her son, running from him in the alley. How many more had died because of his own personal quest? Most had been totally innocent. (Ch.127, p.615)

Osburn’s search for answer and attempt at closure have opened a Pandora box so dangerous that, in order to preserve its secret, the Organization would kill at all expenses. LAPD McVeg is recruited to investigate the series of murders of seven victims who show evidence of being kept in a cryogenic freezer. As the three plot fronts slowly converge, a series of violent sabotages aimed at McVeg and Osburn thwarts them from getting to the bottom of the matter which is shocking, believable and ludicrous at the same time.

The book just flies through a relentlessly breakneck speed, which aptly balances the heavy politics. The implications of what unfolds at the end could be disturbing—how a so-called elitist group determined to create a supremacy race at the expense of innocent lives. Those who helped contribute to the ambitious plan were put to death for the purpose of discretion. There’s something very spine-chilling about the spiritual and scientific affirmation of the whole master plan.

725 pp. Hachette Books. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[721] Well-Schooled in Murder – Elizabeth George


” He wouldn’t sneak. That’s what it came down to, didn’t it? That’s the sum total of what he’d learned at Bredgar Chambers. To withhold the truth out of loyalty to one’s mates. How pathetic. What miserable creatures these places breed. ” (Ch.22, p.394)

Well-Schooled in Murder is set in the late 1980s, at Bredgar Chambers, an elite public school in the south of England founded in 1489. It’s a mystery that revolves around the strict yet unwritten code of behavior prevalent at independent schools which dictates that under circumstances must pupils ever tell on their schoolmates, no matter what they have done. When a 13-year-old boy goes missing one Friday afternoon and two days later is found dead in a church-yard an hour’s drive away, Inspector Lynley and his partner, Sergeant Havers, are up against a student body sealed in silence.

The pupils began to file out of the chapel—row after row of them, standing tall, their eyes straight ahead, their uniforms pressed, their hair neatly combed, their faces fresh. They must know, he thought, all of them.They’ve known all along. (Ch.17, p.288)

What appears first to be an elaborate ruse orchestrated by the boy to allow himself a weekend of freedom quickly points to murder of a disturbing and gruesome manner. He was found nude, with signs of being tortured—evidence that points to sadism, homosexuality, and molestation, so detrimental to the school’s reputation that the headmaster puts a lid on the incident. So begins a twisted, convoluted, and emotionally draining story as the Scotland Yard pair takes on a pointed exploration into both the written and unwritten codes of confidentiality that transcend the conduct of pupils. Even the adults, the teachers, the housemasters and headmaster have dark secrets they prefer buried.

George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. These elements of guilt, remorse, and honor take Lynley, Havers, and the reader through multiple dead ends that cannot immediately account for the full picture of Matthew Whateley’s murder but instead reveals the dark nature of humans. Before the final pages that lift the veil and reveal the true face of the murderer, the same elements of guilt and honor are part and parcel of the failing of a dozen people.

There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation. Nobody is what he seems and nobody is above suspicion. Several people are tangentially involved in the boy’s death but without their knowing. The complex rabbit warren of relationships would be key to solving the case. The book offers a piercing study of the education of a gentleman and his responsibilities and valor. Although the perpetrator is brought to justice, the wreck and ruin of all the lives that touch this investigation is truly the most chilling part of the story. After all, as this book goes, it all comes down to how one defies murder and love.

414 pp. Bantam Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow] Read in Phuket, Thailand

[720] A Coffin for Dimitrios – Eric Ambler


” Ingenuity is never a substitute for intelligence. ” (Ch.15, p.292)

After finishing A Coffin for Dimitrios, a spy fiction set in the beginning of World War Two, one can see that Ambler’s mix of swift pacing, believable protagonists, and thrilling locales proves an untold influence on those who took up spy-story pen in his wake. The book, originally published in 1939, really holds up as a startling, elegant masterpiece of espionage fiction.

The story is simple but intriguing. Chance encounter with a Turkish colonel in Istanbul leaves writer Charles Latimer mesmerized at a mysterious, elusive personality, Dimitrio Markopoulos, whose body was pulled out of the Bosphorous. Curiosity piqued, and burned with a desire to account for this person, Latimer conducts his own investigation into Dimitrios’s life and death, putting him into a world of political maneuvers, assassination, espionage, and drug trafficking. He’s in contact with a colorful cast of shady characters across Europe who are not so much ruffians but as victims and confidents of Dimitrios.

Even though Ambler spends the bulk of the book poking fun at his protagonist’s idealized concepts of murder and philosophizing about human nature, the story-telling itself is engaging. The prose is light-footed and solid despite the complexity of the international intrigue it depicts, from Turkey to Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, France and Germany. Underlying the protagonist’s probe of his notorious subject is also a picture of the shifting allegiances leading to World War Two.

The Dimitrios emerged from Latimer’s investigation is a man of many faces, identities, and facets. By no means he’s good: he has used people’s dim wits, has played upon their religious fanaticism, has taken advantage of their simplicity with a skill that’s sophisticated and terrifying. He is a murderer, a robber, a drug peddler, an assassin, a pimp, a thief, a spy, a white slaver, a bully, and a financier. Dimitrios is not evil, he’s only logical and consistent in a world on the brink of belligerency. He curries the favor and works to his own benefits. He polishes the fine arts of survival. Equally intriguing is the writer-cum-amateur investigator. Ambler takes an ordinary man of a writer and drops him in the middle of extraordinary events beyond his imagination that will put him in danger, test his mettle and reveal his inner survivor.

304 pp. Vintage Crime. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow] Read in Pattaya, Thailand


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