Stuck In The Past (And I Feel Fine)

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The interior of the Key West Library at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 1021 Duval St., in the 1930s. Photo from the Monroe County Library collection.

My reading so far this year has been almost exclusively historical fiction (with two exceptions, one good and one not-so-much).

I went on a Bernard Cornwell binge, picking up the Saxon Chronicles with the second volume, The Pale Horseman, then gobbling down the the next five after that in fairly short order (The Lords of the North, Sword Song, Death of Kings, The Burning Land, The Pagan Lord). I did this even though I’m not sure this is the best way to read this series. I got a little tired of Uhtred sometimes. But these are fine adventure tales and now I feel a tiny bit more educated about the history of England before it was England and the various Norse incursions. If you like the TV show Vikings, these are definitely worth a read.

I read The Day of Atonement by David Liss, a writer of historical fiction whom I’ve admired since I reviewed his book The Whiskey Rebels for Solares Hill back in the day. This new one is an interesting take on European historical fiction, set in the 18th century with the hero being a Portuguese Jew who is forced to flee to England as a boy and returns to take his revenge. Another fine adventure tale.

Not historical: on the recommendation of Cheryl Tan, I read Man V. Nature by Diane Cook. It’s a book of short stories and the first published work of fiction by a former This American Life Producer (yay, radio!). Dystopian on the rocks from a woman’s perspective. If you like the world of George Saunders, check these out and keep an eye on Cook.

In February, around the time that Fifty Shades of Grey movie hype was reaching full cry, I retreated to much-better works of romance written by another E. James — this is Eloisa James, who writes very good historical romances (and in real life is Mary Bly, a professor of literature at Fordham). The books I read this time were her Duchess Quartet (even though they don’t all feature duchesses, whatever) — not quite as good as some of her more recent titles but enjoyable nonetheless and if you want some enjoyable entertainment with some sex in it and possibly unrealistic romantic scenarios — skip Fifty Shades and read her instead.

I also caught up on a couple of historical crime series in my favorite period — the Tudors! Treachery by S.J. Parris wasn’t published in the U.S., so far as I can tell, so I broke down and ordered a copy from Amazon UK. It’s the fourth in her Giordano Bruno series and it’s as good if not better than the predecessors. I continue to have concerns about her hero’s future prospects, based on the fate that befell the real-life Bruno. But I enjoy these stories anyway.

And finally got around to An Air of Treason, the latest from P.F. Chisholm, aka Patricia Finney when she’s writing her excellent series about Sir Robert Carey, cousin/nephew of Queen Elizabeth. And this one has a couple cameos from QE I herself, along with Carey’s usual entertaining way with the ladies and his enemies.

I got an early look Dennis Lehane’s third novel about the Coughlin family, World Gone By, because I reviewed it for The Miami Herald. If you follow the link you’ll see I liked the book a lot — it continues the story of Joe Coughlin, the center of the previous book, Live By Night. This one is set in the 1940s and while Joe hasn’t left the world of organized crime he’s stepping back from running the show. As you can imagine, though, extricating yourself and protecting those you love isn’t that easy, even for an exceptionally smart guy like Joe. I think this book stands on its own though it would be enriched by having read Live By Night and even the first in the series, The Given Day. Apparently, Lehane’s contemporary crime fiction sells much better, which is a shame if it discourages him or his publishers from more books like this.

The best and worst for last. The best book I’ve read so far this year is another work of historical fiction: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a National Book Award finalist, for good reason. It’s an immersive novel set during World War II, with the intertwining stories of a blind French girl and a talented German radio operator. The chapters are really short so it has the page-turning propulsion of a thriller but with beautiful writing that makes you simultaneously want to slow down and savor it. Just a great read, on just about every level.

Not so great: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. This is disappointing because it came at the recommendation of a reading friend whose tastes are very similar to mine. While I don’t read a lot of thrillers, I enjoy them occasionally (I liked Red Sparrow a lot when I read it last year). This one had promise, coming from a veteran screenwriter — I have come to trust that writers from the world of screens know how to craft stories. But this one, while far better written than, say, the works of Dan Brown, hit my plausibility buttons too many times. I *know* these are not supposed to be realistic. I enjoy James Bond and Jason Bourne movies. But the idea that this one guy would be at the center of all these events that happen to all collide at one place on the Turkish coast? Oh well. I did finish it even though it was annoying me and I didn’t really care how our hero was going to save the world. Since then I’ve been bouncing off a couple different books, which is REALLY annoying. Which has led me to conclude: I’d rather be immersed in a book I don’t like all that much than not immersed at all. Is there a name for that syndrome?

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Bones & Pie. Just Go.

Key West has long been absurdly fortunate in its theater offerings, punching way above its weight for a small town. The combination of talented locals who choose to live here and generous patrons who spend winters here and support theater companies leads to some productions that you would be happy to see on almost any stage in America.

Chad Newman, in "The Nightwatchman." Photo by Nick Doll.

Chad Newman, in “The Nightwatchman.” Photo by Nick Doll.

Now there’s something new under our sun.  On The Rock Productions was founded by New York theater veterans Juliet Gray and Landon Bradbary and Key West native photographer/artist/director Mike Marrero. They are bringing locally written pieces to a new island stage, at the Key West Community Theater on Eaton Street. Their first production is called Bones & Pie.

If you are in or near Key West and you are interested in local culture, theater, history or creative endeavor, you should go see this production. It’s five short plays, ranging from a quick sketch to a piece that my husband Mark called a “cuzzy bubba tour de force.” He meant that as a compliment, and it’s so deserving.

In recent years, the summer One Night Stand theater project at The Studios of Key West and the 72-Hour Film Challenge at the Tropic Cinema have shown what local talent can do, and the audiences have been appreciative. And sold out — in the depths of summer. Now that same spirit is getting more sustained wintertime attention and the results are impressive on just about every level. Two highlights for me: “The Nightwatchman” by Eric Weinberger, performed as a monologue by Chad Newman. Wow. If he dropped or flubbed a line I sure couldn’t tell and my attention was held the entire time. (I have a short attention span.) The other was the finale, “Locura” by Mike Marrero. That’s the cuzzy-bubba-tour-de-force and it’s a two-person piece. Maybe that’s called a duologue? Landon Bradbary and Brandon Beach are two local boys who recount their (mis)adventures at the cockfights and beyond. It gets to levels of Conch culture and character that rarely make it to the page much less the screen. And it’s immensely powerful in performance.

So like I said … just go. Bones & Pie runs Wednesday through Saturdays, through Feb. 15. You can get tickets at Keystix. You will want to be able to tell people later that you saw this one.

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Friends of the Library Lecture Series

mewshaw-pic (2)If you’re interested in books, writers and just hearing interesting stories from smart people — and you happen to be near Key West — it’s that time of year. Mondays are the Friends of the Library lecture series, when you get to hear writers and other interesting people talk … for free!

The first lecture of the series is this Monday, Jan. 19, at the Lecture Series’ temporary new home, the Community Theater of Key West, 512 Eaton St. That’s across the street from the new Studios of Key West, where the series will eventually be held.

And this lecture should be particularly interesting: Michael Mewshaw will be talking about his new book, Sympathy for the Devil, recalling his 40-year friendship with Gore Vidal. Those of us who were here for Vidal’s appearance at the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar know firsthand that, even in his final years, he lived up to his reputation as a fearless provocateur who said exactly what he thought.

The lectures continue every Monday through late March. The schedule is available on the Friends of the Library website. See you there.

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My year in books

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The TBR stack is not helped by the holidays and the Key West Literary Seminar.

I never read enough new books to come up with a top 10 of those like the pros do. But I do like to look back on what I read and come up with some recommendations. I read less than usual this year for which I can only blame one thing: radio. Two months of intensive radio school at Transom, and lots of freelancing when I got home, for radio and print, meant I didn’t have as much brain capacity for serious reading as I usually do. Still, I managed to read a few dozen books and made some discoveries.

Favorite work of fiction, overall: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it’s because it’s the last book I completed in 2014, but I don’t think so. I think this story collection would have stuck with me no matter when in the year I’d read it. Stone Mattress is Atwood’s first story collection in almost a decade and she’s still got it. The stories are dystopian without despair, funny and elemental and shockingly perceptive about our most intense fears. And hopes, too. Lots about aging, which is increasingly terrifying, but Atwood’s wit and humanity make it somehow easy to go down.

Favorite work of nonfiction, overall: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

I don’t remember hearing about Michael Finkel’s fall from journalistic grace, when he was fired from the New York Times Magazine after making some stuff up. He was no Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass but what he did was bad enough to get him justifiably disgraced. Soon after — in fact at the very moment his disgrace was going public — he learned that his identity had been appropriated by a man accused of murdering his wife and children in Oregon. Finkel, having nothing else to do, struck up a correspondence and eventually a friendship of sorts with his pretender. The book is everything its subtitle promises and there’s no question Finkel is a terrific writer. Read it now and you’ll be extra-informed when the movie version, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, comes out later this year. More on this book in my September reading roundup.

Favorite work of nonfiction in which I am mentioned in the acknowledgments: The Shelf: From LES to LEQ: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose 

Full disclosure: I know Phyllis, who spends winters in Key West, and I am even mentioned in this book though not by name. She asked me about library weeding practices when I was working at the Key West Library. This book, though, is not about that so much as it is about the delights and perils of semi-random reading. She chose a shelf, not at random but a shelf nonetheless from her library in New York and doggedly read her way through. Her reports are entertaining, sometimes depressing but always enlightening. And she reminded me of the dwindling pleasures of browsing, of just finding a book by accident. You have to do that on purpose these days.

Favorite historical fiction series: Emmanuel Cooper series by Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar last year and was a revelation for many of us. I’m fond of historical crime fiction anyway, and her books are exactly why I love that genre — because it’s a way to enter another era and follow a character in a time and place there is no other way to reach. And because it’s crime fiction, the fissures in society are exposed. This is especially true in Nunn’s series, which is set in early 1950s South Africa, just as apartheid is taking hold. Our hero, Emmanuel Cooper, is a World War II veteran-turned-detective who has connections at many levels of society and has to navigate an increasingly irrational world while maintaining his integrity. The fact that they’re beautifully written doesn’t hurt, either.

Favorite contemporary fiction series: Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith

You’re probably aware that Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling. I picked up the first in this series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, mostly out of curiosity to see if her insanely readable style would translate from YA fantasy to adult crime fiction. It does, and Cormoran is a wonderfully interesting lead, an Afghanistan war veteran who’s lost his leg and his posh fiancee. And he’s the son of a Boomer rock star. But I really fell in love with this series with the second volume, The Silkworm — so much that I wish Rowling would quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups she’s doing and just focus on Cormoran. How many books is it going to take before he and his assistant, Robin, acknowledge that they’re falling for each other???

Favorite graphic work: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

It’s not really a graphic novel or even a memoir in the style of Fun Home — Hyperbole and a Half is a compilation from Brosh’s blog posts. But it is so brilliant and funny and honest and all of the things that make me so happy that the Internet exists to give people like Brosh a platform. Just read it.

Favorite romance novel: Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne

I’m reading a little less romance in recent months (increasing employment? Proximity to the Key West Literary Seminar?) — but I read a bunch over the summer and fall and the best by far as the latest in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series. Half the time I want to push these books on people who dismiss the entire genre as Fifty Shades of Grey-like in their writing. Half the time, I feel like those people don’t really deserve to get a fun, smart read like this anyway.

Favorite cap to a supernatural trilogy: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

I re-read the first two volumes in this series (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night) in preparation for reviewing this book for The Miami Herald … and they got better on re-reading. And she brought it all together in the final volume. Brava! Even though I kind of hate it when a series I love wraps up after only three books, I also appreciate that the author has created a world and a story and moved on .. so we’re not all left hanging out there, Westeros-style. A close second in trilogy-capping goes to The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, which I also reviewed for the Herald and also liked very much.

Favorite beginning to a new supernatural trilogy: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

I just happened upon this in a really nice bookstore in Falmouth last spring. And when I saw the blurb from Eloisa James calling it something like a love child of Jane Austen and Doctor Who .. I was all in. It’s got time travel. It’s got romance. It’s got intrigue. Just read the damned thing and hope Ridgway doesn’t take too long coming up with the next installment.

Favorite book that won me over despite my cynical attitude: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I picked this up at the same bookstore in Falmouth — I just had to get some reading in after a few weeks of intensive listening — despite some reservations. Because I have a default contrarian attitude toward books like this that are book club/library patron favorites. My fear, I guess, is that they will be manipulative, or treacly, or not as well written as everyone tells me they are (I’m still getting over having to read Ya-Ya Sisterhood for a book club like 15 years ago). But since this one was about books, I gave it a try anyway and damned if I wasn’t charmed, entertained, touched, all of that. A really nice story.

 

 

 

 

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Starring Alicia Zuckerman and Judy Blume: Miami Book Fair and more

sally j book cover I’m not going to the Miami Book Fair this year, which makes me sad — especially since I’m going to miss my friend and editor/producer Alicia Zuckerman’s event with Judy Blume Saturday afternoon, about the Sally J. Freedman Reality Tour, a project Alicia worked really hard on. While Judy is best known for books like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Forever and the Fudge series, Sally J. Freedman is her most autobiographical book. It’s set in Miami Beach in the late ’40s, the same time Judy lived there as a kid. It’s been close to 40 years since I read it and I can still remember details like the fear/dread/excitement of Sally’s conviction that one of their neighbors was actually Adolf Hitler in disguise — and the pain of being stung by a man ‘o war jellyfish.

Even if you can’t make it to the event, check out the story online at WLRN’s website — along with the slide show and the accompanying tour of Judy’s Miami Beach. It’s good stuff, and more than just nostalgia especially if you know and love Miami Beach.

I also wanted to post a couple of recent book reviews I wrote for The Miami Herald. The first was the final book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War series, The King’s Curse.* More recently, I wrote about The Forgers by Bradford Morrow, a fine crime novel especially for those who like books about books and fans of 19th century gothic dread. And may I once again sing the praises of my alma mater, The Miami Herald, and editor Connie Ogle for continuing to publish book reviews and news about books and even pay local freelancers to write them? Many a larger newspaper has given up the effort entirely and just runs wire. Like the Book Fair and the great bookstore Books & Books, Connie and her team are irrefutable evidence that South Florida is a far more literary place than you’d guess.

* I liked this book a lot and the series as a whole has helped lead me to more of an interest in the Wars of the Roses, the run-up to the Tudor era. My favorites were probably The White Queen, about Elizabeth Woodville who married Edward IV, and The Lady of the Rivers, about Woodville’s mother Jocasta. Others, especially The Red Queen, about Margaret Beaufort, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, about Anne Neville, I found more of a slog — probably because the women who were telling the story seemed so unhappy and powerless. Well, Beaufort wasn’t exactly powerless — she did successfully maneuver to get her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne. But she was just a drag to live inside of for a couple hundred pages. I wound up watching the Starz mini-series based on the books, The White Queen, and got into it eventually. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s jonesing for the next season of Game of Thrones, especially since George R.R. Martin has repeatedly said that his Song of Ice & Fire books are rooted in the Wars of the Roses.

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Highly Recommended Reading: The Silkworm

silkwormEven though I’ve been reading fairly steadily (if not especially voraciously last month), it’s been a long while since something blew me away like my last read: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, who published the first book in this private detective series under a pseudonym because she didn’t want it to be overwhelmed by Harry Potter hype.

Her identity came out fairly soon after publication anyway and she’s continuing with the series and I’m so glad she is. In fact, after reading this installment, I wish she’d quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups I see reference to occasionally and just settle down with Cormoran Strike. Because it is great.

Cormoran Strike is in some ways a classic private eye — smart but isolated, cynical but still generous enough to offer help to people who need it whether it’s his accidental-temp-turned-assistant Robin, or in this book, his hapless client who is her own worst enemy.

I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary crime fiction though I am trying to increase the proportion. And my favorite is Kate Atkinson, who has recently taken her attention from her excellent Jackson Brodie series to write more literary fiction (I resisted the quote marks! Praise me!!!). Reading Galbraith/Rowling reminds me a lot of the Brodie series because of what both writers do best — character and sly humor, without spilling over into the over-the-top territory of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard. In these books the people seem like real people only more interesting. And both stay mostly focused on our heroes, who are not entirely heroic but entirely human, but also offer occasional points of view from other characters — Atkinson more than Galbraith, who sticks just to Robin as an alternative. Anyway if you’re looking for a satisfying relatively quick read and you’ve got a touch of Anglophilia — or you are just sick of waiting for Atkinson to get back to Brodie — give these a try. The first is called The Cuckoo’s Calling and it’s good enough that I kept going to the second, but I’m saying she’s really hit her stride with The Silkworm.

If you’re in the Keys and you have a library card both titles are available in print. The first is also available as an audiobook, the second as an ebook. If you’re in the Keys and you don’t have a library card, head to your nearest library and get a library card.

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What I Read Last Month: October

lump of coalIt didn’t take long for hubris to catch up and whap me upside the head. After my gold star bragging reading record in September, in October I seem to have read … almost nothing. I had my reasons. First and foremost: Work. I got to work on a magazine project, and I produced a radio feature story, which takes a lot of time. Plus: Fantasy Fest! That takes a lot of time. So anyway here is my paltry list for October. It’s almost all romance, too, which is indicative that I’m feeling taxed enough to want some not-too-taxing reading.

Invisible City by Julia Dahl. I actually read that one in late September but forgot to include it in last month’s post. First in a series of contemporary crime fiction — I really liked the protagonist, a young reporter who winds up investigating her personal roots when a Hasidic woman is murdered in Brooklyn.

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau — Second in a historical crime series set during Henry VIII’s England, starring young Joanna Stafford who was a novice until her convent got dissolved as part of the Reformation. I liked this book, too, maybe more than the first in the series, The Crown.

Never Judge A Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean — Historical romance, read as an advanced review copy, last book in a quartet. I liked it fine — love a woman who hides as a man and runs a gambling hell to boot. I even went back and re-read the earlier installments in the series, A Rogue By Any Other Name, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and No Good Duke Goes Unpunished. They’re all very well done; my favorite is probably One Good Early because I’m a sucker for a nerd heroine.

And I read one graphic novel: Arrow: Year One. I liked it better than Wonder Woman last month, possibly because I know the character better after mainlining a couple dozen Arrow episodes in the last month or so. That’s my other excuse for not reading a lot in October — I watched quite a bit of TV. My husband and I got addicted to Manhattan, a drama set at Los Alamos during the Manhattan project. The whole series is on Hulu Plus and it’s very well done. On my own, I got addicted to watching Arrow, catching up on the first two seasons on Netflix just as the new one started on Hulu. And I am now watching four, count ’em four comics-based hourlong dramas: Agents of Shield, Arrow, Gotham and the Flash. That’s a lot for not having cable. But they’re all pretty good.

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