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Archive for the ‘Setting’ Category

IllusionSeparateness

As human beings we are all connected, even across time. Small acts of kindness or a single act of brutality may have repercussions down through the years and perhaps even across generations. During World War II, a baby was placed in a girl’s arms in Paris. She raised the baby as her own son and told him a romantic version of his origins. Almost two decades later as a young man in the United States, he realizes that his circumcision means that he was almost certainly Jewish and learns what that meant for his chances of survival in World War II Paris.

Simon Van Booy’s haunting novel starts in 2010 with a series of coincidental meetings. An elderly man in California cradles a new rest home patient as he dies. Then the story jumps around through disparate people in different decades and on different continents and at various points in their lives. The people portrayed in the first decades of the 2000s are largely unaware that they are connected to horrific and sometimes heartwarming events in the battlefields of WWII France sixty years earlier. It is a compelling story told through vignettes painted in sparing poetic language.  It only as you read on that you can build up the picture of the connections between the characters, in many cases connections that they themselves will never know. There is the mystery of what happened to John during the war and minor characters who suggest or carry out small acts of kindness that show how lives are entwined  throughout the decades.

The Illusion of Separateness is a quick read and a memorable story that raised the possibility of redemption, the power of love, and the healing in human connections. I recommend it for fans of  literary fiction. Read it in a quiet moment to savor the language, the story and web of connections as they build up.

Check the WRL catalog for The Illusion of Separateness.

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flashCapitalism is great. When it works, it transfers money from people willing to take risks to people who have risks worth taking. Sure, the eventual payoff to both is in proportion to the risk, and the risk is in proportion to the vision, but the overall purpose is to move idle money to the places that can put it to use. Capitalism is great. When it works.

And then there are the parasites.

In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis tells the story of a bunch of regular guys who decided to drag one group of parasites into the light so the markets could understand how and why they had become hosts. The parasites had a simple business model. Someone sends out an offer to buy United Widgets at $1.00, the parasite would see his offer, and go buy the available shares at $1.00. Then he’d offer them to the buyer for $1.01. A penny a share of pure profit, no risk, no real value added. But how did he see the spread between the two?

He figured out that placing his computer server just a little closer to the server that executes trades would buy enough lag time that he could spot the opening and get the jump on real investors. The smart guy and his cronies started at milliseconds and wrung every angle until they were down to beating legitimate investors by nanoseconds. These weren’t the small-time investors, either—institutional investors managing billions of dollars couldn’t figure out why they were constantly paying higher prices when the computer said right there that they should have gotten it for less. They’d scratch their heads and pay the higher cost.

But there were people in the system who caught on to the parasites. Instead of cashing their knowledge in for a few million bucks, these regular guys decided they were going to put the markets back on an equal footing. (Well, as equal as it could be.) There are too many for me to credit in this post, but basically they were organized and inspired by Brad Katsuyama, a low-key guy working for the low-key Royal Bank of Canada. For my money (what’s left of it after the markets got hold of it), he should be recognized as a genuine hero. But his discovery about lag time was only the tip of the fraud, and his real courage came out when he brought his findings and his solutions to those institutional investors. Their reaction—and the way he finally convinced them that he had a viable solution—shows that sometimes heroism doesn’t happen in a flash. Heroism takes work.

As for the parasites? A friend once told me, “Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered.”  When I look around, it seems that the parasites, and the pigs, are actually doing better than everyone else. Capitalism is great. When it works.

Check the WRL catalog for Flash Boys

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foreignIt’s a staple of spy thrillers that your friends are sometimes as dangerous, if not more so, than your enemies. After all, the main survival mechanism in espionage is paranoia. Is this colleague a spy? Is that one undermining my missions, going rogue, or threatening my budget? Is the agent from an allied power spying on me? The advent of women in both real world and fiction espionage has increased that problem geometrically and given thriller writers a new topic to explore.

Could woman, that most domesticated and docile of creatures, turn on her former masters and take her revenge in ways a man can’t comprehend?

That’s the problem that dominates the minds of the top administrators at Vauxhall Cross, headquarters of Britain’s MI6. A new chief has been named, and it’s (gasp) a woman! Amanda Levene has mastered every challenge at MI6 and has succeeded to the office no woman has ever held before. Well, some of the old boys say, it’s political correctness. Others say that she’s a lightweight incapable of shifting her parochial interests to the larger picture. Some hint that maybe she’s slept her way to the top. In short, every rationalization successful women everywhere have faced is thrown at Levene, with the added element that these resentful men have the intelligence resources of an entire nation ready to take her down.

Unfortunately, they have ammunition. Six weeks before taking the chair, she’s disappeared, taking with her the highest-level knowledge the agency has. And those who may or may not be loyal to her can’t turn their assets loose to find her without airing the dirty laundry. So they go outside MI6 to recruit their searcher.

Thomas Kell is perfect for the job. One of the most experienced field agents they had, he was let go in the wake of a prisoner torture scandal in Afghanistan. For seven months he’s drifted along, promising himself that he’ll start writing that book, that he’ll apply for that security job, that he’ll take up a hobby. But his days have passed in drinking and feuding with his estranged wife. So the prospect of going back out into the field is his shot at personal and perhaps professional redemption, and without bureaucrats peeking over his shoulder he has a chance at doing the job his way.

Using whatever assets he can muster, Kell picks up Levene’s trail and follows it to a surprising end, one which offers an understandable explanation for her disappearance, but also carries within it the potential for destroying Levene’s career. And in clearing up some of the minor details, he turns up a far deeper threat than anyone, including Levene, can imagine.

The path Cummings creates in finding Levene is interesting and somewhat exciting, filled with the kind of tactical planning and surveillance that espionage thriller readers have come to expect. He also mixes in a group of secondary characters who provide some comic relief in their efforts to help Kell, and does a brilliant job describing Kell’s journey across the Mediterranean aboard an overnight ferry crossing. But once the main plot takes off, A Foreign Country moves into the big time, and Cummings handles both plotting and characterization with confidence. Plus he shows that a woman can unquestionably do the job as well as any man.

Check the WRL catalog for A Foreign Country

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closeThere’s no easy way to put this. Chris Bohjalian has written a book that is almost too difficult to read. Not because of the language, which is spot on. Not because of the characters, which ring true. Not because of the structure, which easily shifts between past and present. Not because of the plot, which is both frighteningly plausible and the everyday experience of too many people. When you add them all up, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands becomes unbearable even as Bohjalian demands that you bear witness.

The setup is simple enough. A 16-year old girl, rebellious and unfocused, has nonstop fights with her parents and well-meaning but ineffectual teachers. She’s fairly new to the area, having been dragged to northeast Vermont by her parents’ jobs, and she hasn’t made the transition well. The only thing she’s got going for her is her love of Emily Dickinson. (Side note Emily shares with us—take any Emily Dickinson poem and sing it to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. Perfect match!) Then the nuclear power plant where her parents work suffers a catastrophe, and Emily Shepard, with thousands of others, is forced to evacuate. Unlike them, she carries the burden of her name, because her father is blamed for the disaster.

Emily makes her way to Burlington, where she stays on the edges of the relief efforts, unable to make up a coherent story. Eventually the aid runs out and Emily is forced onto her own. She has few options, so her life quickly spirals out of control. She finds shelter wherever she can, stealing clothes and food and turning tricks at the local truck stop for cash. Other homeless girls give her advice, but one especially changes Emily’s life when she teaches Emily how to cut herself. The catharsis that this self-punishment brings doesn’t last, but razor blades and Bactine are cheap and plentiful.

Emily experiences an awakening when she finds a nine-year-old runaway boy and takes him under her wing. Cameron has been shuffled from one foster home to the next and suffered one beating too many, so he’s set out on his own. She makes it look like he’s in the company of a responsible adult, and helps provide little extras, like food, to him. In turn, he teaches Emily how to build an igloo out of trash bags stuffed with leaves, and the two live together on the lake ice with other homeless people. But the lake won’t stay frozen forever; nor can Emily keep Cameron forever. Eventually Emily is drawn home, traveling into the radioactive zone that surrounds the plant.

The meltdown offers a metaphor, a reason why a seemingly privileged kid would set out to live in squalor and degradation. It unfortunately stands in for the conditions that cause so many teens to run away from home and cast themselves into a world where no one ultimately cares if they live. Bohjalian doesn’t spare the reader any of the details of that life. It is a life he is too familiar with, working as he does with community agencies that serve homeless teens in his town. It’s a life he opens our eyes to, even when we want to close them.

Check the WRL catalog for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

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spyHave you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.

Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.

Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB.  He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.

Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.

Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche.  While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.

Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends

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TaleofHilltopFarmWhy does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.

And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.

On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.

Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.

The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).

The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.

These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.

*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.

 

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BeatrixPottersGardeningLifeA rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.

If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.

For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).

As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.

Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.

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