The next two months' picks
The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain – (128 pages) - 1934
The Postman Always Rings Twice - James M. Cain – (128 pages) - 1934
It is sometimes easy to trace a literary genre to its source, and James M. Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, is the noir novel that paved the way for all the noir fiction that followed. The famous film starring Lana Turner and John Garfield is notoriously dark, but the novel offers even more despair and hopelessness. It is a short book--little more than a novella--but its searing characterization and depiction of tawdry greed and lust is branded into every reader's memory.
Frank Chambers, a drifter, is dropped from the back of a truck at a rundown rural diner. When he spots Cora, the owner's wife, he instantly decides to stay. The sexy young woman, married to Nick, a violent and thuggish boor, is equally attracted to the younger man and sees him as her way out of her hopeless, boring life. They begin a clandestine affair and plot to kill Nick, beginning their own journey toward destruction.
Dermaphoria - Craig Clevenger - (214 pages) - 2005
Clevenger's second novel (after 2002's The Contortionist's Handbook) opens with a classic grabber: an amnesiac man awakes in jail with a woman's name—Desiree—on his lips. Prodded by a pushy police detective, that man (his name is Eric Ashworth, he's told) must sift through the contents of his drug-addled brain to explain his only memory: "A ball of fire rising from a flaming house. Nails melting like slivers of silent wax. Beams and shingles collapsing into a pile of burning dust...." Released on bail, Eric checks into a flophouse and attempts to separate his ongoing drug hallucinations from reality. To aid him in this quest he turns to the doubtful promise of yet another drug, a powerful hallucinogen known on the street as Skin, Cradle or Derma. Eric's trip toward understanding, as well as the reader's, twists through exotic visions that may or not be real. It's a long, painful process, but eventually Eric puts it all together and learns who he is—and the terrible thing that he's done. This is a sometimes brilliant, heavily stylized novel whose psychedelic prose and labyrinthine story line will enthrall some readers and enrage others. At one point Clevenger counsels both Eric and the reader: "Anything is possible and nothing is possible. They're the same thing." Yes, that's it exactly.
Howards End - E. M. Forster – (256 pages) - 1910
Howards End is a novel by E. M. Forster which tells a story of class struggle in turn-of-the-century England. The main theme is the difficulties, and also the benefits, of relationships between members of different social classes. The book is about three families in England at the beginning of the twentieth century. The three families represent different gradations of the Edwardian middle class: the Wilcoxes, who are rich capitalists with a fortune made in the Colonies; the half-German Schlegel siblings, who represent the intellectual bourgeoisie and have a lot in common with the real-life Bloomsbury Group; and the Basts, a couple who are struggling members of the lower-middle class.
The Great Fire - Shirley Hazzard - (288 pages) - 2003
It’s a National book award winner. (From the New Yorker) Hazzard is nothing if not discriminating. Hierarchies of feeling, perception, and taste abound in her writing, and this novel—her first in more than twenty years—takes on the very notion of what it means to be civilized. The fire of the title refers primarily to the atomic bombing of Japan, but also to the possibility of transcendent passion in its aftermath. In 1947, a thirty-two-year-old English war hero visiting Hiroshima during the occupation finds himself billeted in a compound overseen by a boorish Australian brigadier and his scheming wife. He is immediately enchanted, however, by the couple's children—a brilliant, sickly young man and his adoring sister—who prove to be prisoners in a different sort of conflict. In the ensuing love story, Hazzard's moral refinement occasionally veers toward preciosity, but such lapses are counterbalanced by her bracing conviction that we either build or destroy the world we want to live in with our every word and gesture.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera –(320 pages) -1999
In one of the finer modern ironies of the life-imitates-art sort, the country that Kundera seemed to be writing about when he talked about Czechoslovakia is, thanks to the latest political redefinitions, no longer precisely there. This kind of disappearance and reappearance is, partly, what Kundera explores in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In this polymorphous work -- now a novel, now autobiography, now a philosophical treatise -- Kundera discusses life, music, sex, philosophy, literature and politics in ways that are rarely politically correct, never classifiable but always original, entertaining and definitely brilliant
The Girl Who Married A Lion and Other Tales from Africa - Alexander McCall Smith (208 pages) - 2004
Straying from the safety net of a bestselling series (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, etc.), Smith tells 40 traditional African folk tales with his by now signature humor, simplicity and reverence for African culture. With an introductory letter from No. 1 Lady Detective Mma Ramotswe as a preface, he sets the literary stage for a nostalgic stroll down his own personal memory lane. Born and raised in what is now Zimbabwe, Smith began collecting these stories as a child and combines them with several he gleaned from a friend who interviewed natives of Botswana. Many of the stories parallel classic Western tales, from Aesop to Mother Goose. The ubiquitous wolf-in-sheep's-clothing fable becomes a parable about a girl who unwittingly marries a lion. Other stories deal with familiar themes ranging from ingratitude (in "Head Tree," a man cured of a tree growing out of his head does not pay the charm woman her due) to vanity (in "Greater Than Lion," a hare outwits a conceited and boastful lion). However, many are uniquely African, such as the stories that explain why the elephant and hyena live far from people or how baboons became so lazy. These are pithy, engaging tales, as habit-forming as peanuts.
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson – (336 pages) – 2005
In this ambitious fourth novel from Whitbread winner Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum), private detective Jackson Brodie—ex-cop, ex-husband and weekend dad—takes on three cases involving past crimes that occurred in and around London. The first case introduces two middle-aged sisters who, after the death of their vile, distant father, look again into the disappearance of their beloved sister Olivia, last seen at three years old, while they were camping under the stars during an oppressive heat wave. A retired lawyer who lives only on the fumes of possible justice next enlists Jackson's aid in solving the brutal killing of his grown daughter 10 years earlier. In the third dog-eared case file, the sibling of an infamous ax-bludgeoner seeks a reunion with her niece, who as a baby was a witness to murder. Jackson's reluctant persistence heats up these cold cases and by happenstance leads him to reassess his own painful history. The humility of the extraordinary, unabashed characters is skillfully revealed with humor and surprise.
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil - John Berendt - ( 400 pgs) - 1994
Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands--each worthy of its own book--and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt's loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. "Eccentrics thrive in Savannah," he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town's water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book's second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah's host with the most, kills his "friend" Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed--or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.
Farewell, My Lovely – Raymond Chandler – (304 pages) – 1940
A chance encounter with hulking ex-con Moose Malloy on Los Angeles' Central Avenue, the part that is "not yet all negro", gets Philip Marlowe into all kinds of trouble. Just released from prison, Malloy is looking for his one-time girlfriend, red-haired Velma, whom he last saw eight years ago. Later that afternoon, Marlowe is hired by Lindsay Marriott to assist in handing over an $8,000 ransom for a rare jade necklace owned by a woman friend of Marriott's. However, at the isolated meeting point—a lonely country road in the middle of the night—Marlowe is knocked out. When Marlowe comes to, he chances upon a passerby, Anne Riordan, who has found Marriott murdered.
The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett - (224 pages) - 1930
In The Maltese Falcon, the best known of Hammett's Sam Spade novels, Spade is tough enough to bluff the toughest thugs and hold off the police, risking his reputation when a beautiful woman begs for his help, while knowing that betrayal may deal him a new hand in the next moment.
Spade's partner is murdered on a stakeout; the cops blame him for the killing; a beautiful redhead with a heartbreaking story appears and disappears; grotesque villains demand a payoff he can't provide; and everyone wants a fabulously valuable gold statuette of a falcon, created as tribute for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Who has it? And what will it take to get it back? Spade's solution is as complicated as the motives of the seekers assembled in his hotel room, but the truth can be a cold comfort indeed. If you only know the movie, read the book
A Surfeit of Lampreys - Ngaio Marsh – (304 pages) - 1941
"It is difficult to choose a novel by Ngaio Marsh to place in this section of the Bastulli Mystery Library because, let's face it, all of her work may be considered Classic Mystery Literature. Consequently we will rely on HRF Keating's choice: The Surfeit of the Lampreys (a.k.a. Death of a Peer). The story follows the typical Marsh structure so dear to authors such as PD James: eighty introductory pages introducing characters, plots and leading up to the crime. Then enter hero Inspector Roderick Alleyn and the hunt for the culprit commences. Very theatrical, one of the most interesting aspects is the portrayal of the Lamprey family, very strange, very British in their old fashion ways, but also very witty. Marsh seems to want to show how the English Victorian aristocracy had difficulty in adapting to a world that was changing both socially as well as economically. In conclusion, we believe that this novel is an excellent starting point for whoever wishes to begin to admire Ngaio Marsh's work."
Knots and Crosses – Ian Rankin – (256 pages) - 1987
It is the first of the Inspector Rebus novels. Once John Rebus was a Para, served in the elite SAS. Now he's an Edinburgh policeman who spends time evading his memories and missing promotion opportunities. Then there is the small matter of the brutal abduction and murder of two young girls and a third missing. Detective Sergeant John Rebus, smoking and drinking too much, his own daughter spirited away by his estranged wife, is one of many policemen hunting the killer. Then the messages begin: knotted string and matchstick crosses taunt Rebus with a puzzle only he can solve
Labels: Books January and February 2008