The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar Archives

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Eleven

December 17th, 2014

Hang on to your Christmas hats, readers–it’s going to be a wild ride as I catch up on nearly a week of Calendar posts!

There will be more nonfiction (yesterday’s post on “Fictitious Dishes” was a nod to that fact), but today I’m returning to a novel as my choice.

Today’s selection may mark the first time I’ve ever recommended a Western.

“Far As the Eye Can See: A Novel” by Robert Bausch

Far As the Eye Can SeeA few months back, my editor at Washingtonian magazine and I decided it would be a good idea for me to interview brothers Richard and Robert Bausch, who may well be the only pair of literary novelists who are also identical twins. The Bausches were raised here in the DC area, I’ve ready quite a few of their books, and it happened that Richard (who now lives in California) was going to be in Northern Virginia for George Mason University’s annual Fall for the Book festival. It all worked out, and I think readers will enjoy the result.

The interview meant that I also needed to read the latest books by both men: Richard’s “Before, During, After” was released in August, and Robert’s “Far As the Eye Can See” came out in November. I’ll admit when I saw the book jacket for the latter, my heart sank. I’ve never been a big fan of the Western genre, in any medium, mostly because I dislike the black-and-white thinking behind black hats and white hats.

However, I knew enough of Robert Bausch’s writing to know that his version of a Western was not going to be a simplistic one, and I was right: “Far As the Eye Can See” has to be this year’s most surprising read for me, not just because Bausch subverts the simplistic Western, but because while he does so, he includes several remarkable female characters you’ll keep thinking about long after you’ve turned the last page. Bobby Hale, whose Union Army career is somewhat checkered, heads west to escape war’s trouble and strife–but he finds plenty more of it the further he travels.

I want to tell you more, but I don’t want to deprive you of a single moment of this large-hearted novel that manages to be at once an adventure tale, a love story, a battle account, and an elegy for a world gone by. Even if you guess the kicker (it’s historical, and a big one), you’ll never guess Bobby Hale’s perspective on it, and that scene alone is worth the price of admission. In other words, you’ll get several times your money’s worth in reading “Far As the Eye Can See,” a masterfully written and plotted Western that I adored.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Ten

December 17th, 2014

Yes, yes, I’m behind a few days. Are your holiday cards all written and sent? Have you finished shopping for gifts? How about baking and cooking?

::Sob:: as I might say on Twitter. I don’t mean to be so cranky. It’s just been a busy week and I wish I could at least keep current in one area out of all of those.

Which is why I’m going to get caught up. Right now! Advent isn’t over, and neither is this Calendar.

However, I’ll keep this particular entry short and sweet, just like some of the items in today’s book.

“Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals” by Dinah Fried

Fictitious DishesHunger brought on by literary content is a special kind of hunger, because it isn’t about physical emptiness or direct temptation; it’s about connecting with a character or situation through food that you may never actually taste. I personally know at least a dozen people (probably more) who have wanted to try Turkish Delight ever since reading “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” but have never even seen the British candy version. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. Literary hunger cannot be sated through consumption of actual food; it’s not about the food, but about what that food represents. The Turkish Delight on offer in Lewis’s novel connotes temptation, perfection, the idea of absolute deliciousness. Feasting on a box of the real thing could never measure up. Our reaches exceed our grasps, and this imaginative ability is why literature is so powerful.

That’s why it matters not a bit that not all of the meals depicted in Dinah Fried’s “Fictitious Dishes” look yummy. I’m not sure if I could stomach Mr. Leopold Bloom’s grilled mutton kidneys “which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine,” but Fried’s gorgeous photo (which includes toast, butter, and tea, all served on period porcelain) brings me straight into the world of “Ulysses” by James Joyce, an Ireland I’ll never walk through but can experience all the same. I’d also pass on the “Gravity’s Rainbow” banana-sandwich buffet, the “Valley of the Dolls” pill platter, and Gregor Samsa’s rotting-foods-on-a-newspaper–but each of these photographs does just what it should like the grilled kidneys: Jettisons me straight back into the world of a book I read years ago.

Of course, some of the tableaux look scrumptious, like the Trasks’ meal in “East of Eden:” Potato salad! Peach pie! How about linden-leaf tea and madeleines, from Proust? Those madeleines have long stood for exactly the experience I’m describing and Fried captures in this surprising, evocative look at some of our most viscerally remembered reads. But the contrast between the dishes I might not want to eat, and those that looked tempting, reminds me that it’s the writing that makes the meals, and not the other way around. Man (and woman) cannot live on bread alone.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Nine

December 12th, 2014

When I plan this Calendar ( we can say it’s annual, now, given that I’m stumbling through the second year in a row, right?), I make a list of 25 books that I want to include–but I don’t plan the order in which I’ll include them. Each day’s selection winds up being as much a surprise to me as to readers, and that’s part of what keeps me going. I like choosing at the last minute, depending on my mood and the other things going on in the world to make each day’s “lucky dip” book special.

But today I have a happy, less whimsical reason for picking today’s novel: It’s won an award!

“Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel” by Tiphanie Yanique

Land of Love and DrowningThe first section of Yanique’s glorious debut novel is lovely and interesting, but the story really begins in the second section, with a sentence that electrified me: “I is the historian of the family.” Meet Anette (sic) Bradshaw, narrator of a story set in and around three generations of her family, beginning with the 1917 transfer of her home The Virgin Islands from the Danish to the Americans and continuing to largely sad modern-day life of natives like the Bradshaws.

Anette has a twin sister, Eeona, who is much her elder and much her opposite. Eeona, fragile and beautiful and fussy, epitomizes the colonial life, in which (no matter the country being colonized) invaders attempt to recreate their home traditions in a climate, geography, and culture utterly inhospitable to them. Meanwhile, the younger, sturdier, and far more vibrant Anette represents the indigenous life and people of the Islands. That life and those people may not always speak or behave in ways that are comprehensible to their colonizers–and Yanique’s is one of the best novels illuminating that truth I’ve ever read. As the fortunes of the Bradshaw family rise and fall and fall, their pride and lust and otherworldly abilities continue, and Yanique seems to ask why the hell shouldn’t they? Who says that everyone should behave properly, think rationally, and respect those who do?

I have a friend who once told me “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The Bradshaws would agree. Yanique might not, because she’s written a novel worth reading that is written astoundingly well. I just hope readers won’t be so entertained that they miss the big issues at stake. In the hands of the right book group, this could be a novel that changes people’s minds and hearts.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Eight

December 9th, 2014

Today is a kind of Literary Advent Calendar twofer, since one book I loved reminded me of another. On a few of  the “Best of 2014″ lists is We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel by Matthew Thomas, a quietly devastating account of a mid-20th-century Irish-American family’s journey with Alzheimer’s Disease. I cannot recommend it to you strongly enough; it’s a book that lives up to the hype of phrases such as “It’s destined to be a classic.” It truly is destined to be a classic, because Thomas’s clear, strong prose is married to a deep compassion for human frailty along with an artist’s eye for the essential.

We Are Not Ourselves also happens to be a portrait of America as immigrant nation, by which I mean that Thomas recognizes the striving behind the life that Eileen Tumulty and Ed Leary create after they meet and marry in the early 1960s. a yearning for the best of the American dream that Thomas juxtaposes starkly with the sluggish pull of early-onset dementia.

That great and terrible American drive reminded me a novel I reviewed earlier this year for Washingtonian magazine.

“The Pink Suit: A Novel” by Nicole Mary Kelby

The Pink Suit- A NovelTwo couples stand side by side at the heart of Kelby’s jewelbox of a novel about the iconic bloodstained Chanel skirt and jacket that represent one of our country’s saddest national moments, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. in 1963. The two couples are President and Mrs. Kennedy, of course–but less obviously are Kelby’s creations, Kate and Patrick. Kate is the seamstress at the historical Chez Ninon, a New York studio that specialized in knocking off the work of Parisian couturiers, often with their cooperation. With her nerves of steel and steady hands, essential when working with pricey fabrics, Kate is given the task of fashioning the closest thing to a real Chanel suit that Jackie Kennedy will ever have, since the era would not sanction a First Lady wearing clothes not Made in America.

As Kate works on The Suit, she slowly begins a courtship with Patrick, who is both her local butcher and one of her oldest friends in the then mostly Irish enclave of Inwood, Manhattan’s northernmost neighborhood. Although some critics found Kate an empty character, especially in comparison to the lavish details about what goes into a piece of Chanel couture, I thought the stark differences between necessarily fussy tailoring and workaday Inwood compelling. Both Kate and Patrick bear the weight of heritage (they eventually move back to Ireland, after their marriage) on shoulders already heavy with the demands of making enough money to pay the bills and taking care of aging parents. The frivolously fuchsia fluff that even sticks in Kate’s hair as she coaxes fresh-from-France tweed into submission seems a world away from the blood and bones that Patrick works with every day.

Kelby reminds us that Kennedy wanted his wife to have her Chanel as a gesture of forgiveness, and while the “For what?” is properly glossed over in historical terms, today we all know the answer–just as we all know that it takes frivolity and artistry, along with blood and bones and guts, to sustain a marriage. Kate sometimes yearns for more of the fluff and glamor that she is partially privy to behind the scenes at Chez Ninon, but there they refer to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy as “The Wife,” a chilling reminder of how hollow her role sometimes was. In sticking to her own path and heart, Kate ultimately gains her own true life.

Yet the suit, and not its seamstress, is what we remember. I highly recommend this small, sharp book for all fans of historical fiction.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Seven

December 8th, 2014

Last weekend we went to see “The Theory of Everything,” a film that guarantees Eddie Redmayne an Oscar nod (at least) for his portrayal of Dr. Stephen Hawking from university days through middle age. While I adored Felicity Jones’s sympathetic performance as Hawking’s first wife Jane, I thought there must be more to the story–so I decided to read Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoir “Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen.”

As I’d suspected, the real story of Hawking’s early decades coping with motor neuron disease (which we call ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and advancing his academic career have much more to do with his spouse’s help and determination than anyone would credit from the movie. This hit home for me in a passage where Jane Hawking describes how after her husband wins yet another important award, a female faculty member at Caltech (where the Hawkings had moved for an academic sojourn) told her that “while everyone else was praising his courage and brilliance–in a land where success is adored and failure deplored–she had said to herself that there must be someone equally courageous behind him or he simply would not be there.”

No one gets anywhere completely alone, but in the case of Hawking, he quite literally could not have gone anywhere without his wife’s assistance. By this point in their story, Stephen Hawking cannot physically do anything for himself except control a motorized wheelchair. His mind functioned brilliantly, but without someone to care for him, it too would have quickly dulled.

The Hawkings lived at the end of an era in which distaff sacrifice in marriage was often a given, and one of the persistent chords in the book is Jane Hawking’s struggle to advance her own academic career as a scholar of medieval Spanish poetry. She ultimately receives her doctorate, but admits in many passages that her work came after Stephen’s, and also after her own priorities as a wife and mother.

Which is all to say that today’s Calendar pick is one of the strangest and best I read this year.

“Shirley: A Novel” by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley-A NovelPriorities as a wife and mother also overwhelm the narrator of this tale, one Rose Nemser, whose husband friend has come to teach at Bennington College in the same English Department with poet Stanley Edgar Hyman and his irascible, celebrated author wife Shirley Jackson.

If you’re a Jackson fan already (and if not, why not? We should talk…), Rose Nemser, teenaged, pregnant, and vaguely “off,” will resonate. She’s just like Eleanor in “The Haunting of Hill House,” which means she misguidedly believes that being married automatically makes her a grownup and therefore someone whom other grownups will pay attention–which also means this is where any similarities to Jane Hawking end. Unlike Jane, who walked with open eyes into a union bound to face difficulties, Rose has hopes that her own marriage will turn out something like Jackson’s, although she doesn’t understand (at first or perhaps ever) exactly what compromises that entails.

Stanley takes Fred under his crotchety wing, while Shirley seems entranced by every aspect of Rose’s life and personality. At first one things “Poor Rose! Every novelist is a sort of vampire…” but the tables are turned so quickly and cleverly that the conceit is worthy of Jackson herself. (There is a great deal of Jackson on display throughout Scarf Merrell’s novel, the kind of homage that filmmakers often accord their favorite directors.)

Shirley works as a coming-of-age story for Rose, as a fisheye lens on the Hyman household, and as a sharp slice-of-life on a 1960s New England college campus. Does it also succeed as a novel of suspense? That’s up for debate, and I know some critics don’t think it does. I, however, think that Scarf Merrell intends the local murder (loosely based on a real case) less as a plot mover than as atmosphere. As Rose comes closer and closer to the heart of what makes Shirley Jackson tick, she also learns more and more about the many menacing ways in which the world treats women of all ages.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Six

December 7th, 2014

This year for Advent I skipped giving my beloved spouse chocolate and went straight for the thing he likes even more (which is saying something; he has never met a chocolate dessert he didn’t like): Gin. Somehow, while doing research for a book-development project I’m working on, I found a link to this awesome website and discovered that they make “Ginvent Calendars.” (For those of you not as enamored of the aromatic stuff as Mr. Bethanne is, they also offer seasonal calendars filled with scotch, vodka, tequila, and more…)

Each day in December is represented by a little door, just like in more traditional Advent calendars, and behind each one is a little bottle filled with a dram of fine gin, labeled and stoppered with wax. Quite elegant, really, and quite serendipitous. One of this week’s choices delighted us both so much that we’ve vowed to buy a bottle, whereas last night’s selection was completely boring.

That serendipity goes for books, too, especially those you request from friends. You may adore someone in person or online–but will you adore her writing? I am slow and cautious about saying “Please send me a copy of your book” for that very reason. (I’m more likely to accept when someone asks me, because I am nothing if not a people pleaser, and yes, I’m trying to shed my skin.)

But a few months back, I decided to take the risk when I saw that two of my favorite Twitter friends and authors had collaborated on a novel.

“The End of the Sentence: A Novel” by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard

The_End_of_the_Sentence_by_Maria_Dahvana_Headley_and_Kat_HowardHow to succinctly describe this elegant, eerie, deeply meaningful book? (Or did I just do so?) Dahvana Headley and Howard collaborate so seamlessly that after less than a page I’d completely forgotten there was one author, let alone two: The voice of this mythologically tinged ghostly murder mystery captures the reader immediately, and the rest is less a matter of that voice not letting you go than you holding on for dear life.

The beating heart of this slim novel is Dusha Chuchonnyhoof, who is a ghost (remember, a ghost isn’t the term for just any apparition; it technically means a departed soul whose business with the living isn’t finished). Chuchonnyhoof resides in a house whose newest occupant, Malcolm Mays, is attempting to escape past sins. Soon Mays finds that Chuchonnyhoof’s initial welcome (which includes all sorts of delicious, perfectly cooked treats in the icebox) conceals a strange, macabre task he wishes Mays to complete for him.

Dahvana Headley and Howard have some epic literary chops between them; the former may be best known for her stunt memoir The Year of Yes, but she’s co-edited with Neil Gaiman and won some impressive accolades. Howard, a “recovering academic” whose fiction has been performed on NPR, is also a competitive fencer. Together, they’ve created a book that raises as many questions as it answers–and in this case, that’s not a criticism in the slightest. The women effortlessly dart back and forth between different forms and layers of world mythologies, entwining trickster tales, creation stories, and angry gods into a rich stew. By the time Mays understands exactly what it is his shadowy correspondent really wants, he’s so embroiled in the story that he can’t exit–he has to wait for the end of his own sentence.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the book is that you truly don’t need to know or understand a thing about any of the myths, superstitions, and ideas that the authors bring up; although the reader is plunged headfirst into the action, symbolism is revealed with perfect pacing. Everyone reaches the end of this sentence as they should. Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard have pulled off a dark, delicious feat, and they offer a story that you can easily read in one sitting–good thing, too. You will not want to fall asleep at any point while devouring this modern yet timeless work of suspense and horror.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Five

December 5th, 2014

In Day Four’s post I talked about darkness and despair. I wish I hadn’t been reminded of it again, but this afternoon Rolling Stone magazine retracted its article about The University of Virginia, “A Rape on Campus.”

It is not my place here, on this blog or in this series, to dissect the Rolling Stone editorial ethos. But it is my place to point out books that relate to our culture, and on my Advent Calendar list already was the perfect choice for today.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing: A Novel by Eimear McBride

A Girl Is A Half-Formed ThingI recently sat down and interviewed Eimear McBride for VQR; unfortunately, that interview won’t be live for a few weeks, but I tell you that I spoke with her because otherwise after reading this challenging, harrowing, brilliant novel you’d never otherwise believe that its author is a happy woman–serious and thoughtful and angry at the way the world treats women–but also happy, witty, and whole.

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing follows the life and fate of a young woman whose older brother survived brain-tumor surgery–but not well. In the wake of her father’s desertion and her mother’s overattention to that brother, the narrator finds herself enduring neglect and abuse. There are so many moments in which McBride literally makes old things new through her style that I vow to re-read this book before the new year. She has said (and not just to me) that she struggled for a few years with completing her manuscript until one day on the bus she opened James Joyce’s Ulysses, “and then I knew what I wanted to do.”

While McBride’s prose is Joycean, it’s not mimicry. She’s found a whole new way to tell a story, in fragments and phrases and near-missed moments that are the literary equivalent of  seeing fragments of broken china or glass fly up from the floor at the moment of impact. At one early point the narrator says “I am boldness incarnate, little madam little miss,” echoing her mother’s misplaced anger during a toddler bath time, and it seems that her identity as brazen is suddenly set.

It will be suddenly shattered during puberty, when the bourgeois uncle molests her, an act that will shadow the rest of her very short existence. Even though McBride’s narrator is fictional, I cry real tears with real feeling for her. Or maybe I am crying for the “Jackie” of Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s Rolling Stone piece. Or for the Roxane Gay of “Our Story” over at The Butter. Or for any of the millions of women, now and then and soon, who will endure the horror of rape and be labeled as brazen instead of broken.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day Four

December 5th, 2014

It’s been a dark day, a blot on everyone’s escutcheon. Many of us are wondering how it can be that a homicide goes unpunished. My heart has been heavy.

Although I don’t put this Calendar together with any message of religious faith, I was reminded as I thought about how to write today’s post that the Christian season of Advent is a season that takes place during the darkest days of the year. Early church fathers knew that people had been celebrating those days with feasts of light and warmth for thousands and thousands of years; they deliberately decided to place the liturgical weeks leading up to a celebration of Christ’s birth (we can all agree, can’t we, that Christ wasn’t actually born on December 25th? Please, no comments about how “Jesus is the reason for the season”).

That choice made sense culturally–and psychologically. Humans need community, and as the days grow short, gathering around fires (and candles, and strings of lights) helps us feel less alone and less cold.

If you, like me are dismayed by the verdict in the Garner case, head towards the light–not necessarily the one at the end of Advent, but the one that involves meeting with other people. Share your despair, then choose change. (See yesterday’s Calendar entry for a book that asks relevant questions.)

Today’s book pick is, in the spirit of lighting an Advent candle, lighter and funnier, although still about serious issues.

Dear Committee Members by Julie SchumacherYou may not have been an English major in college (spoiler alert: I wasn’t!), but if you were fortunate enough to attend college, you took at least one English class–so you’ll recognize the special sauce from which Julie Schumacher has fashioned the narrator of her epistolary novel of academia. Jason Fitger, professor of English and creative writing at the fictional Payne University, is a mix of bitterness, craftiness, and neediness, and the result tastes better than Schadenfreude. Professor Fitger has lots and lots of recommendation and reference letters to write, some of them sincere and some of them exercises in frustration–especially the ones in which he is forced to plead with his academically more powerful ex wife.

Schumacher takes Sayre’s Law (“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. That is why academic politics are so bitter”) and builds a tiny world from it–high comedy in a low-stakes place. Anyone who loved Lucky Jim, Pictures from an Institution, or Moo will love the humor and snark in Dear Committee Members. Jason Fitger’s writing career is foundering as badly as his department–while Payne English programs face more and more cuts, the Economics Department, one floor up, keeps getting more and more funding. Some students are brilliant and can’t leave, while dullards ask for job references with alacrity.

Had the author stopped at snark, reading her novel would still be a complete delight; even in his cups, Jason Fitger signs letters to his new department chair “Cordially and with a hearty welcome to the madhouse” and damns student requests with the faintest praise (“diligent”). However, Schumacher provides enough glimpses of Fitger’s passion for his field and sympathy for his charges that what might be fine comedy is raised to the level of social commentary. Anyone who cares about the future of reading, writing, and misanthropy should read this novel immediately.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day Three

December 3rd, 2014

One of the best parts of putting together this day-by-day guide to some of my favorite books this year is that I can suddenly remember, between posts, a great book I’d forgotten all about. That happened to me yesterday. I’ll write about that book soon, but not just yet, because today’s selection seems so important to me. I’m glad it’s made a couple of lists so far. It should be on more, in my opinion.

There’s been a lot of discussion about diverse books this year, pioneered by this smart woman and her #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag. Once my Calendar is complete, you’ll see that it includes titles by writers of many different genders, races, ethnicities, and faiths. That’s not because I set a purposeful course to read with diversity in mind, either–although it’s not a bad idea to do so. I prefer to think of it as resulting from a world in which we more and more have opportunities to hear many voices. There still aren’t enough of those opportunities. We need more, and we shouldn’t lag in seeking them out, either.

Today’s selection is all about the search for authenticity, and the price we pay in that search.

Your Face in Mine by Jess RowPerhaps you haven’t watched the wonderful new comedy “Transparent” yet, which features Jeffrey Tambor in one of the best performances of his career as a divorced husband and father of three named Mort who is transitioning to a new life as Moira. Tambor’s acting as Mort/Moira is gentle, nuanced, and brave, a 180-degree turn from his “Arrested Development” role as George Bluth, Senior. At one point, dressed, coiffed, and groomed as Moira (but still pre-op), the character speaks with his daughter, who says “How long have you been dressing up as a woman?” Without a pause, Mort/Moira takes her hand and says “Oh honey, I’ve been dressing up as a man my whole life. This is me.”

Many of us, fortunate to be born in bodies that match our minds and souls, struggle to comprehend the transgender path. It isn’t always easy to watch someone reject one identity and put on another–especially if that person’s first identity was one we adored or counted on for our own. But what if you were born in a body that didn’t match your mind or soul because that body was the wrong race?

This is the galvanic idea behind Jess Row’s novel Your Face in Mine. A man walks down the street, a little soft in the middle and in the middle of a life that’s too hard: His wife and child have been killed in a car crash. To continue the Paul Simon paraphrase, Kelly Thorndike needs a shot at redemption. He’s recently moved home to Baltimore in order to steer an ailing public-radio station out of its doldrums, although only he and upper management know that beyond the doldrums lies a shut down. As he ambles along, a stranger calls out to him, an African-American man. As he draws closer, Kelly realizes the man is one of his oldest friends, Martin–who used to be white and Jewish.

Martin reveals that he’s undergone a radical new procedure called “racial reassignment surgery,” having his skin, hair, features–every aspect of his physiognomy–altered so that he doesn’t just pass as a black man, but is a black man. He has a new life that includes a beautiful, accomplished African-American wife and children (adopted; he’s sold his wife on the idea that he’s sterile, because the one thing that couldn’t be altered were his genes). Martin lives, works, and socializes in the city’s black community, and he doesn’t want to change a thing. However, he tells Kelly, he does want to share his story, at last. His old pal convinces Kelly to act as his journalistic mouthpiece. Soon Kelly has gone down a rabbit hole of research and manipulation, the latter showing up as Martin reveals his true colors–neither black nor white, but green (as in dollars) all the way.

Had Row stopped there and made this book a plot-driven one in which Kelly has to outwit a greedy Martin, it might be OK, and even entertaining. He goes further, however, and brings Kelly Thorndike to the brink of a personal impasse. I don’t want to provide any spoilers at all, so I’ve even glossed over a couple of details here. Row asks some huge questions in this novel, and they go beyond the shade of someone’s skin or the arrangement of skin and cartilage beneath their clothes. What do we need from the people we love the most? How do we belong when we’ve been left behind, by an accident of birth or a catastrophe? Does a community consist of beliefs and deeds, or are we tied together by appearances and transactions?

I quite liked Adam Plunkett’s piece about the contemporary novel of ideas that came out earlier this year; in it, he discussed books by Nigerian-born novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole. It’s ironic–or maybe it’s not ironic–that another terrific novel of ideas this year is by Row, a Caucasian who now practices Zen Buddhism. Like Adichie’s and Cole’s books, Row’s will make you think. We need more diverse books–and we need more diversity of thought. Jess Row provides that.

The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar 2014, Day Two

December 2nd, 2014

Thank you all so much for your RTs and comments on my Day One post. If I can help introduce anyone to a new book? My work here is done.

Putting together this Calendar is a challenge not just because I have to limit my list to 25 titles, but because I have to choose which title to feature each day. Should I juxtapose wildly different books? Line up several with similarities? It’s a happy dilemma.

Today I’ve decided to share the historical novel that knocked my socks off this year.

The Miniaturist: A Novel by Jessie Burton

The MiniaturistI’ve long been a sucker for historical fiction the way other readers are suckers for anything with vampires in it. I can’t resist carefully researched dialect or a minutely described weskit, and I’m especially idiotic about plots that involve little-known facts. Tell me that a new novel revolves around a Jacobean priest’s hole located in Buckingham Palace and I’ll follow you anywhere.

I understand and acknowledge this weakness, and sometimes I try to steer clear of shiny book jackets that promise grim Paris Commune atmosphere, or long discourses on the contents of medieval Welsh cupboards. After all, I have a lot of titles in my TBR pile. I can’t stop everything each time a new volume of history and mystery comes in the mail. So when I opened one package to find Jessie Burton’s debut novel, The Miniaturist, I put it aside, thinking it was just another nice, safe, accessible novel about a woman in complicated antique clothing who discovers that her earrings were once in a famous painting but are actually valuable fossils belonging to the deposed sultan of a little-known land far, far away.

Yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic–but in service of making an apology to Ms. Burton. I was wrong, entirely wrong; The Miniaturist is that rare, true thing, a historical novel that manages to be fresh without being naive and surprising without being crafty. Like many of its genre fellows, Burton’s book is based on an artwork, in this case an elaborate miniature version of a 17th-century Amsterdam merchant’s townhouse. The original, shown in the book’s frontispiece, belonged to a woman named Pernilla Oortman. You can almost picture Jessie Burton seeing that relic and thinking “Thereby hangs a tale…”

The remarkable part is that Burton fashions not just a novel, but a whole world around Nella Oortman’s marriage, household, and interest in her finicky cabinet. After a few dozen pages, I was so subsumed by Nella’s strange, puritanical environs that I didn’t mind whether or not the mystery of the miniaturist (who keeps sending tiny, ominous artifacts to the Oortman residence), especially because the characters wearing musty dark Mitteleuropa garments are so skillfully drawn that they could be people in modern-day Washington, DC.

By the time Nella learns why she’s receiving the miniatures, why her husband is so distant, and why he guards his stores of sugar so closely, the wheels are already in motion for the destruction of the life she’s barely come to know. Set against the background of a Holland consumed by fire and brimstone, yet beguiled by lust and sweetmeats, The Miniaturist is that rare historical novel both men and women will love. Trust me: I gave it to my favorite football-obsessed middle-aged publisher sales rep, who devoured it on the plane to this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and asked me if I knew of any more like it.

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