From Arizona to Iceland: A Summer 2012 Reading List

In honor of the summer solstice today, I thought I’d put together a list of books I’m very much looking forward to reading this summer. A few of these are new releases (or soon-to-be releases), a couple are older titles. All of them should be entertaining, which is what you obviously want in a summer book–a blazing sun and 50%+ humidity can make it hard to focus on denser tomes–although not everything on this list is, perhaps, a traditional ‘beach read.’ I seem to have also planned myself an armchair world tour, starting in the U.S. and working my way half way around the world before I’m done.

Any particular book that you, dear readers, are looking forward to dipping into whilst poolside this summer?

The American Southwest

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

NYRB is bringing out this title by Hughes, a New Mexico-based mystery writer and critic (1904 – 1993), in July. I am not familiar with Hughes’ work (she was the author of 14 noirs and detective novels), but am intrigued by at least two other of her better-known works, the quirkily titled The Cross-Eyed Bear, and In a Lonely Place, which was made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. The Expendable Man seems like a good place to start, though, particularly because I’m always on the look-out for books that accurately capture Arizona (my ‘homeland’). And the plot doesn’t sound half bad, either. From the description on the NYRB website:

“It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man.” And Hugh Denismore, a young doctor driving his mother’s Cadillac from Los Angeles to Phoenix, is eminently educated and civilized. He is privileged, would seem to have the world at his feet, even. Then why does the sight of a few redneck teenagers disconcert him? Why is he reluctant to pick up a disheveled girl hitchhiking along the desert highway? And why is he the first person the police suspect when she is found dead in Arizona a few days later?

Switzerland, (East) Germany, Israel

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

I was delighted to receive a review copy of this title, forthcoming from Open Letter Press in September 2012. The book, which I’ve just started, is a sort of literary “Choose Your Own Adventure” loosely modeled “on the true story of Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose fabricated 1995 Holocaust memoir transfixed the reading public.” The Canvas contains two interconnected narratives which tell the respective tales of Jan Wechsler, a Jewish publisher and writer living in Berlin who receives a mysterious suitcase one Shabbos afternoon, and Amnon Zichroni, an Orthodox student of the Talmud who was born in Israel and is then sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland.

Part of the fun this book promises is the format–the two stories begin opposite and upside down from one another and read toward the center of the book. As it explains on the cover, “There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel. Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action. Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.”(For what it’s worth, I started with Jan Weschler’s story and already know that one of his opening chapters–in which he talks about the way books, particularly borrowed ones, are inexorably wrapped up in past memories–will remain with me for a long time. It’s just wonderful so far.)

Norway

It’s Fine by Me by Per Petterson, Translated from the Norwegian by Don Barlett

I believe that this book was already published in English in 2011, but Graywolf Press is bringing out another edition this coming October. It’s Fine by Me finds frequent Petterson stand-in Arvid Jansen (the narrator from the remarkable I Curse the River of Time and also In the Wake) in his youth, befriending Audun, a troubled new kid at his school who shares Arvid’s love of authors like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Per Tim Parks in The Guardian:

“…this edgy bildungsroman makes explicit what many will already have suspected: for Petterson, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter. For those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.”

I think Arvid Jansen is a marvelous, complicated character, and I think Petterson has done a remarkable thing in carrying him through multiple novels and multiple points of his life. (Also interesting is the fact that (I think) Arvid doesn’t actually narrate It’s Fine by Me–I think Audun does.) I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

England

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
Another NYRB title, Angel is the story of a dreamy shopgirl in Edwardian England who rises above her circumstances to become a successful author wealthy manor-mistress. I’ll be coming to this book with prior–although perhaps inaccurate–expectations: it was the basis for François Ozon’s opulent, lavishly campy romp of a film, starring Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. I don’t know how the movie relates to the source novel yet, but on its own, its a rather delightful feat of melodrama, if you’re into that sort of thing, which I certainly am.

Based on what I’ve read about Taylor and Angel–Sam Jordison’s recent post in The Guardian’s Books Blog, “Rediscovering Elizabeth Taylor–the brilliant novelist,” is good for quick context–I won’t be surprised if the novel strikes a more serious, reflective tone, but either way, I’ll definitely be interested in comparing the original and its adaptation.

Iceland

The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness (Translated from the Icelandic by Magnus Magnusson)

I’m slowly but surely working my way through the cornerstones of Icelandic literature–the Sagas and the novels of Iceland’s only Nobel laureate to date, Halldór Laxness. Thus far, I’ve read The Great Weaver from Kashmir, one of Halldór’s early novels and certainly an interesting introduction to his oeuvre, even if it isn’t one of his ‘larger’ works. I’ve also read (and loved) Under the Glacier, which contains one of my all-time favorite quotes: “Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity.”

I’ve read about half each of Independent People and Iceland’s Bell, and was greatly enjoying both when I got distracted in my reading–not finishing in these instances is not indicative of the books’ quality, for sure. But until I get the beginning of both of these half-read novels out of my head so that I can start them again fresh, I would like to read another one of Halldór’s ‘lighter’ novels. The Fish Can Sing, set in the small settlement of Brekkukot and told through the eyes of the orphan Álfgrímur, who–from what I can tell from pieced-together summaries–spends the book reflecting on his simple upbringing, storytelling, and the larger, (Danish) world outside of Brekkukot . I believe there’s an opera singer involved, too.

This is perhaps a measly pitch for reading the book, but it sounds wonderful to me. There’s a good review by M.A. Orthofer over at The Complete Review, and that site also archives a number of other reviews of the book, too.


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A Mini Mystery to Ponder Over the Long Weekend (And Beyond)…

For those armchair detectives out there who also love winning free stuff, the UK-based Book Depository is holding an eight (business) day competition to solve the “mystery of Damian Blade’s death.” The winner will receive 50 crime novels, “[r]anging from good ol’ noir and Victorian creepy to Scandinavian and downright bloody…” Here are the terms of the competition, per their website:

All you need to do is solve the mystery of Damian Blade’s death. How did Damian die? What is the cause of death in this peculiar case? We will present you with a story and give you eight clues on eight working days via our blog, starting Thursday May 24. We will use Facebook and Twitter to alert you to them.

Your first entry will be the one that counts and there will be a draw from all the correct answers; make sure you take the time to examine all 8 clues thoroughly and solve the mystery to be in with a chance to win 50 nail-biting crime books.

The prize cache is not an astounding mix of titles, but still pretty dependable, including The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Killer Inside Me, Stig Larsson’s complete Millennium series (eh…), some mass market thrillers (James Patterson etc.), a handful of classic noirs, and even one of Melville House’s new crime releases, He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond. Worth competing for, I’d say, especially since the first clues have been rather adorably rendered. The first one is below; the rest (and full instructions/FAQs) can be found on the Book Depository website, here.

FIRST CLUE

It’s nearing midnight. Damian Blade is lying dead next to his beloved, albeit moth-eaten armchair. Perhaps you wouldn’t be able to tell immediately but, make no mistake, curious friend, Damian stopped breathing two hours ago. There is no murder weapon to be found. The room is locked from the inside and the absence of life is deafening…

Fun Reads for Friday: Dancing Books, Nancy Pearl’s Wishlist, New Libraries, and Library Phantoms

Happy Friday!

Stop-Motion Bookstore Dance-a-Thon

This stop-motion video, “The Joy of Books,” is making its way around the internet. The (unnamed?) couple who made the video staged this after-hours book dance-a-thon in Toronto’s Type bookstore, which gives me yet another reason to go back to Toronto.

Nancy Pearl Gets Her Own Book Line

The inimitable Nancy Pearl, librarian for the masses, is partnering with Amazon to kick off her own line of reissued books: Book Lust Rediscoveries. The line, which will release six of Pearl’s “favorite, presently out-of-print books” every year, has already announced its first two titles: A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller and After Life by Rhian Ellis. (The latter sounds particularly good to me.) Nancy has blogged about her “Reissues Wish List” before now–maybe we can guess what some of her future titles will be from this 2009 list. This is another example of Amazon using its new publishing power for good–I’m really looking forward to these (re)releases.

Canada Water Library — Review” (Rowan Moore, Guardian Architecture section, December 3, 2011)

Like libraries? Apparently, the Southwark neighborhood of London is the place for you. Not only have the    good people of Southwark decided to maintain all twelve of their existing libraries (it would be interesting to know what the size of the population that uses these libraries is), they upped the ante and decided to build a brand new one in the heart of a former shipping district, called Canada Water, within the old Surrey Commercial Docks area. “Ever since the 1980s, the intention has been to regenerate [the area], both to bring business and create something like a town centre.”

The article has a lot to say about this flagging process of regeneration and some of the features around the new Canada Water library, as well as about the building itself. Some highlights:

The best form for a reading room is wide and horizontal, but there was not enough space for this at ground level, squeezed between the tube exit and the waterside. So the reading room is at the top, with the building widening as it ascends to make space for it, with the added benefit that the most important part of the building is placed high up – if not in the clouds, at least sufficiently far from the ground to feel removed and a little dreamy, as a library should.

Raised, it makes occasion for the spiral staircase, which in turn makes the business of going somewhere for a book into a little event or ceremony, rather than a sideways drift such as you might make into a supermarket.

From a practical question – how to put a library on a site too small for it – comes the pleasure of the architecture. Within the ample volume of the reading room, zigzagging shelves create more intimate places in a way almost reminiscent of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But while it doesn’t, apparently, “achieve Scandinavian levels of craftsmanship,” says Moore, “…the important thing about the Canada Water library is that a new public place has been created, where the architecture contributes to and expands the experience of using it.”

The Library Phantom Returns!” (Robert Krulwich, NPR, November 30, 2011)

In September 2011, I posted about an anonymous book-loving book artist who was leaving incredibly intricate, beautiful sculpture tributes in libraries and literary organizations all over Scotland. After a bit of a hiatus, the artist left three more amazing creations in the Scottish Poetry Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Room at the Writer’s Museum. These will apparently be the last of the mystery sculptures (there have been ten in all). Said the artist (in a short, third-person statement): “It’s important that a story is not too long………does not become tedious……….”You need to know when to end a story,” she thought.”

The statement also indicates that the artist is not a professional–“this was the first time she had dissected books and used them simply because they seemed fitting.” Which makes these creations all the more fabulous. (I also just love her sense of humor–the T-Rex bursting out of The Lost World.) She called these sculptures “a tiny gesture.”

Spontaneous Reads: Loitering with Intent

One of the benefits of working at a university is that you not only have access to the library, you also get to keep books out for a whole lot longer than you do from the public library. So perched on one of my bookshelves at home, I have a rather large stack of books that caught my eye at one time or another when browsing through the stacks at Bobst, which I am slowly but surely making my way through. Loitering with Intent is just such a title, and my second Muriel Spark novel this year.

There’s a great write-up of the novel at The Complete Review here. Benjamin Anastas also wrote a really nice piece for Bookforum about it in 2002, which doubles as a truly comprehensive take-down of Ian McEwan’s Antonement. His piece is called “Rejoice, Stupid: The Novels of Muriel Spark,” which I’ll quote briefly:

“Woe to the writer with only hundreds of words at his disposal to describe the wonders, the wit, the seriousness of purpose applied with feather-light touch to be savored in Spark’s finest work

Duly noted. My own, less comprehensive review is below.

***

Loitering with Intent is a delightful, effervescent sort of story, but hard to put your finger on. For one thing, (and here I’m generalizing on the basis of just two of her books) Spark is at once an extremely exacting author–with sharp observations about characters and situations and a really well-defined sense of narrative and prose rhythms–while also seeming to be a rather carefree one. She reuses phrases that catch her fancy to excess (the “English Rose” designation gets really tired out in Loitering) and seems to have no interest in maintaining narrative suspense, but rather drops in summary paragraphs mid-way through the book which reveal how everything is going to turn out in the end. (I actually rather like the latter quality, being a big skip-to-the-end-so-I-can-see-if-I-guessed-right sort of reader, myself, but it’s unusual for an author, to be sure.)

Loitering also flirts a little bit with po-mo narrative tropes without ever really following through on them (which I also appreciate). Fleur, the struggling but lighthearted author-heroine of the story, finds that after taking a job as a secretary of a private Autobiographical Association, the people she meets and the events of her life begin more and more to resemble things that she’s written in her novel. For much of the book, she maintains that any similarity between her life and her art is coincidental, until finally demurring,

“…even if I had invented the characters after, not before, I had gone to work at Sir Quentin’s–even if I had been moved to portray those poor people in fictional form, they would not have been recognizable, even to themselves…Such as I am, I’m an artist, not a reporter.”

Nevertheless, this overlap complicates things: Fleur’s book is stolen by her employer who begins quoting lines to her that her characters have said. He steals passages and writes them into the memoirs of his association members, as well as using her as a character in the invented sordid affairs that he includes in these “biographies” as well. In a late scene, Fleur’s employer tricks her in the same way that a character in her novel is tricked, and although she has an inkling of the connection, she doesn’t believe it: “It seemed quite unlikely that my own novel could be entering into my life to such an extent.”

Overall, however, what’s actually unusual about Loitering with Intent is how much fun it is. A lot happens–a lot of dramatic, heavy sorts of events and twists which in the hands of another author could have taken on an entirely different tone. Try out this summary: In the wake of World War II, a young, single, impoverished female author writes a promising novel, only to have it stolen by her devious employer who tries to use its very words and plot against her and ruin her chances at success.

It sounds grim, right? But it’s not. Spark makes this story an adventure, and even tells the reader intermittently that the bad guy is going to get what he deserves, that the heroine will triumph, and that above all, there will be joy. “What a wonderful thing it was to be a woman and an artist in the twentieth century,” Fleur notes several times, even in the midst of all her troubles. It’s all just so exciting to her: “I do dearly love a turn of events.”

But if there’s any one quote that will really give you the take-away of this book, it’s Fleur’s own catchphrase: “I go on my way rejoicing.” And so might we all.

Mr. Fox

My latest review is of twenty-six-year-old Helen Oyeyemi’s fourth novel (again: she’s 26 and this is her fourth published novel), Mr. Fox. Oyeyemi is Nigerian by birth, but was raised in London, and brings a variety of storytelling traditions to bear on her writing. Her first novel, The Icarus Girl incorporates Nigerian mythology; her second, The Opposite House, draws on Cuban folklore and Santaria. Her White is for Witching has been said to take inspiration from Gothic traditions–such as the work of Edgar Allen Poe–and now, with her latest work, she delves into the myriad legends, folktales, and fairy tales about the villainous Bluebeard. (There are actually a handful of other interesting literary references within the book, such as an oblique allusion to Wilkie Collins’ Armadale. These are delightful not simply because they reveal how widely-read Oyeyemi is, but also because they aren’t generally the first references that might come to mind. Armadale, for instance, is hardly the first Wilkie Collins novel that most people would think of, if they know of its existence at all. I certainly didn’t. But I digress…)

Oyeyemi is a consummate storyteller and so even though metafictional, post-modern literary experiments are often not my thing, I found myself steadily sucked into the complex, fantastical, and often eerily disturbing stories and fictional platforms that are created within Mr.Fox. This was my first Oyeyemi novel, but I’ll definitely be reading more of hers in the future.

Mr. Fox has received quite a few rave reviews. See author Aimee Bender’s piece in The New York Times Book Review here; Liz Coville wrote about the book for NPR Books here.

My own review of Mr. Fox was published on The Second Pass. Read it on that website here, or see the full text below.

***

“You have to change. . . . You kill women. You’re a serial killer. Can you grasp that?” So says Mary Foxe, the fictional creation and erstwhile muse of St. John (S.J.) Fox, a 1930s-era author with a penchant for subjecting his female characters to grisly (he says “meaningful”) deaths and dismemberments. A quick survey: a bride saws off her limbs and bleeds to death at the altar; a housewife hangs herself over a ruined dinner; a husband beheads his wife, thinking he would “replace her head when he wished for her to speak.” Tired of being subjected to such fates herself, Mary Foxe — apparently unbound by the pages of the books in which she has existed — casually appears in S.J.’s study and challenges her progenitor to enter a fictional world of her own making, one where he just might find himself the victim for a change.

As those who are well-versed in European folkloric traditions will have guessed, Mr. Fox, the fourth novel by 26-year-old Helen Oyeyemi, takes its inspiration from the myriad fairy tales and traditional narratives about murderous men luring attractive young women to their deaths. Oyeyemi’s novel references Bluebeard and the famous French character based on the 15th century soldier/serial killer Gilles de Rais, and also draws from the Grimm Brothers’ tale “Fitcher’s Bird,” a Victorian ballad about a werefox named Reynardine, the German folk character of the Robber Bridegroom, and, of course, the English fairy tale “Mister Fox.”

The heroine of “Mister Fox” (which coined the refrain “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold”) is Lady Mary, who witnesses her dashing suitor, Mr. Fox, chopping off the hand of a young woman before dragging her to certain death in his castle’s “bloody chamber.” The stalwart Mary escapes with the young woman’s hand, and later reveals Mr. Fox as the villain he is by telling the “dream” she had of the young woman’s murder and furnishing the hand as evidence. Bluebeard mythology includes several tales in which the female characters safely escape in the end, but in the context of Oyeyemi’s novel, “Mister Fox” is all the more noteworthy because the heroine bests her would-be murderer with her storytelling.

While this framework provides a rich context (most of the aforementioned murderers and heroines make appearances within the book), Oyeyemi’s novel is not a simple retelling of the Bluebeard legend or a bland metafictional exercise in which author becomes character and vice versa. There are no exact parallels or allegorical stand-ins. Through S.J. and Mary’s dueling narratives, Mr. Fox submerses us in a series of inventive, complex worlds, each uniquely voiced and easily standing on its own. Within one story, a young governess and writer enters into a troubling correspondence with a famous author; in another, a Yoruba woman barters with a mysterious man named Reynardine to recover her dead lover. “Hide, Seek” is about an Egyptian boy and his adoptive mother, who are building a woman piece by piece with art works they find all over the world. “Some Foxes” tells of a fox and a young woman who fall in love. The result is nothing short of pyrotechnic: this is classical, magical storytelling at its finest.

S.J. and Mary’s fantastical tales are juxtaposed with real-life scenes from the marriage of S.J. and his wife Daphne, blurring fiction and reality until it’s difficult to distinguish one from the other. The often dangerous fusion of fact and fiction, reality and text, is a recurrent concern in the novel. For S.J., there is no harm in routinely victimizing women in his stories because “[i]t’s not real . . . It’s all just a lot of games.” For Mary, this sets a dangerous precedent. “What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic,” she says.

People read what you write and they say, “Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,” and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre — but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it makes dramatic sense; it was because “nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman”; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.

It’s possible to read in Mary’s impassioned speech the sort of logic that guides Parental Advisory labels, but it becomes clear that Oyeyemi is making the case that the very act of creation, of storytelling and writing, has the potential to be violent and dangerous. The storyteller must understand the gravity of this process, because in creating a story, one is, in a sense, creating him- or herself. We see this repeated several times in Mr. Fox: an abusive father forcibly writes text all over the body of his wife until she leaps about chirping, “Am I in the poem? Or is the poem in me?” In one chilling scene, Mr. Fox himself “remembers” deliberately killing Mary Foxe, only to figure out that he’s recalling a story he once wrote about a jilted lover.

Oyeyemi raises this theme of authorial responsibility without offering any well-defined conclusions. But she is a masterful storyteller, and fearless in creating tales whose conclusions are never as straightforward as “The End.”

Fun Reads for Friday

One Book on the Shelf

After moving to London and discovering that the Travel Bookshop (of Notting Hill fame) had closed, a “new-Londoner and ex-bookseller” decided that she’d visit every bookstore in London (with a few caveats). As she explains:

“It’s a way for me to see more of London, spend more of my time around books and, perhaps, help the bookshops in some way.

I’m still working on my grand plan and questions seem to arise quicker than I can answer them, a nowhere-near-exhaustive list being:

What counts as a bookshop? (Not sure)   What counts as London? (Zones 1-3)   Will booksellers want to talk to me? (Hopefully!)   Will I have to visit the naughty bookshops of Soho? (Yes…)   Will I embarrass myself in some uber-cool comic bookshop? (Probably)   Does Waterstone’s count? (As an ex-W’stones, I think they may have to!)   Will I have to visit those super intimidating posh ones near St James’ Park? (Yes)”

She’s also got a Tumblr blog (that’s a photo-based blog for you uninitiated) on the same project, if you’re more visually inclined: http://onebookontheshelf.tumblr.com/

***

For those of you who routinely Win the Internet, you’ve probably already seen this fun feature from BuzzFeed:

Awesome Stacks of Books Found in Offices

This is exactly what it sounds like. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Our friends at The L:


And from NPR‘s “Fresh Air” Office:


A nicely thematic shot of the bookshelves at Archie Comics:

***

Library Thing Catalog for The People’s Library (created by librarians taking part in the Occupy Wall Street protest)

This continues to fascinate me. Not only did they create an outdoor, all-donation, volunteer-run, topically-relevant library on the fly, they created a catalog for it. When I bookmarked this link, they were just short of 1,000 books. Now, they have 1,185. Even if they don’t have a lot of details for each title, that’s a ton of books to catalog that fast. And honestly, Library Thing is a bit clunky: I was going to create a catalog for my home library and gave up because I found the interface unwieldy. So kudos to the librarians and catalogers of TPL. Even if the protesters had been evicted today as planned, I think that (aside/apart from the protest itself) these library volunteers would have accomplished a pretty impressive feat.

***

Free Samples of the National Book Award Finalists (via Galley Cat)

Free samples of nominated titles in all genres: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature.

Aiding and Abetting

I’m planning a trip to Scotland in the not-so-distant future and so I thought it would be a good time to familiarize myself with the work of Muriel Spark. I gather from the little I’ve read about Ms. Spark thus far that Aiding and Abetting is not one of her more “important” works, but as a slim volume of truly imaginative, satirical, and irreverent fun, I think it really holds up. For a work of less than 200 pages, there’s just an incredible amount of plot—three equally creative and crazily spiraling plot lines all together—but somehow she makes it work. There are books in which “nothing happens” and yet everything happens. This, I would say, is a book that demonstrates the opposite principal. There’s a lot going on, and yet, very little has come to anything at the end of the novel.

Aiding and Abetting takes a historically factual murder case as its (loose) premise. In 1974, the 7th Earl of Lucan (nicknamed Lucky), an inveterate and generally unsuccessful gambler, decided to murder his wife. Instead, he accidentally murdered his children’s nanny and only injured his wife. He went into hiding the same night, and was never found by the police. It’s generally assumed that he was able to evade capture because he had the help of a network of other titled friends in England, who for various reasons, elected to help him escape rather than turn him in for his crime.

From here, Spark “absorbed creatively” and “metamorphosed” Lord Lucan’s story, blending it with a parallel tale of Hildegard Wolf, a famed German psychiatrist whose unorthodox method of spending most of her clients’ very expensive sessions talking about herself has gained her a high level of prestige in Paris, where she now lives. Dr. Wolf has a secret of her own, however: as an impoverished student in Germany, she infamously defrauded faithful Catholics all over Europe by posing as a stigmatic. When she was exposed, Dr. Wolf (then “Blessed Beate Pappenheim, the Stigmatic of Munich”), escaped the country, went into hiding, and completely reinvented herself as a successful, but actually uncertified psychiatrist.

The story begins as Dr. Wolf is introduced to not one, but two, Lord Lucans, both of whom want to employ her as their psychiatrist, and both of whom attempt to blackmail her on the basis of her background as a false saint. Spark adds one last thread to the increasingly complicated—but not difficult to follow—plot: the daughter of one of Lucan’s former friends and one of his former gambling partners are both engaged in an impromptu manhunt for Lucan, who they are certain is still alive.

I gobbled the story down easily over the course of a rainy weekend (the would-be hurricane Irene); the novel is broken down into 19, short, segmented chapters which each follow one or two of the running storylines. It’s made for fast reading. And while the psychology employed throughout the book is not particularly deep or convincing, there is a delightful, whimsical absurdity that forgives any false analysis that Spark might throw in. It’s all very much kept at the level of farce. Consider the reaction of Jean-Pierre, Hildegard’s companion of five years, when she finally reveals her past to him: “Why…did you not tell me before about your exciting early life as a stigmatic?”

The novel is not without more complex themes, of course. Overall, it could be argued to be a book about self-created myths, about the false personas that everyone creates to hide either their real selves, or the selves they no longer choose to be. We are who we choose to say we are; we are the product of the stories we tell about ourselves. And there’s always some truth in those stories. Hildegard, for instance, continues to insist—even while on the run, fearing exposure from her blackmailers—that “I caused miracles. I really did cure some people. Strangely enough I did.” The story that she told about herself—that she was a blessed stigmatic—may have been untrue, but it was real enough to feel like a genuine miracle to the people who believed in her.

The one element of the novel that I felt a bit ill at ease with was the final sequence wherein one of Hildegard’s patients, a grandson of a chief in central Africa, arranges for both Lucans to be invited to Africa (therefore out of Hildegard’s hair), only for one of the men to be eaten by cannibals.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the level of absurdity in this crazy ending is just pitch perfect, and on a narrative level, I’m actually all for the cannibals. Unfortunately, for a book published in 2001 and set in the 1990s, this turn of plot (and the various scenes of dialog leading up to it) has a rather anachronistic, Olde Worlde colonialism about it. The chief is referred to as “a wily fellow” who later decides that his grandsons “would benefit by consuming an earl.” In the best case scenario, this seems a reductive portrait of an African chief; in the worse, it’s simply ethnocentric and racist. It doesn’t help that a Mexican character earlier in the book is referred to as a “sage brown fellow.” It’s possible in both cases that Spark is affecting the prejudices of her emphatically stupid and dull Lord, but I’m not sure these scenes can be attributed to character flaws—it’s a little too implicit in the narrative itself.

For sheer imagination, flowing plot, and a dark sense of humor, though, the book is rather stellar. I look forward to reading more of Spark’s work in the future.