Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell


I loved reading this novel and was sorry to see it come to an end.  It had been on my radar for sometime and I moved it to the top of my reading list when I found out Rebecca Cantrell was coming to the area for a book signing.  I'm now looking forward to reading the second Hannah Vogel novel, A Night of Long Knives, which was just released in June.

Set in 1931 Berlin A Trace of Smoke is a skillfully written mystery/thriller with a literary sensibility.  I was hooked on the first page.  This richly detailed story does not get bogged down by the details because the details are so organic to the story. Hannah Vogel and the surrounding cast of characters are vivid flesh and blood people.  Their lives are in flux due to the aftermath of The Great War and the rise of the Nazi Party, which is poised to take control of not only the city, but of Germany.  Some people, such as Hannah's Jewish friend Sarah and her brother, have fled Germany while others are trying to negotiate the shifting political landscape.  As a result, the climate is one of increasing distrust, suspicion, and violence.  

Hannah has just discovered something horrible when we meet her on the first pages.  The brother that she practically raised as her own son, Ernst, had been distant from her for the last six months and now he's dead.  Murdered.  Hannah  sees his picture in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the Alexanderplatz police station and must keep the information to herself.  He was fished out of the water, naked, with no signs of violence on his body other than a single stab wound through his heart.  Hannah is a crime reporter and was at the police station for her weekly Monday meeting with a contact who gives her access to reports for potential stories about the murders, rapes, and other crimes committed over the weekend.

She tells no one that Ernst is dead because she, like her dead brother, currently has no identity papers.  Hannah and Ernst had loaned their identity papers to Sarah and her brother who used the papers to escape from the increasingly violent antisemitism of the Nazis.  They used the papers and posed as Hannah and Ernst going on vacation to America.  If Hannah were to report Ernst's death, all could be lost for Sarah and her brother.  So for now she keeps her own brother's murder to herself, at least until the identity papers are returned, and starts her own investigation into the murder.

Hannah's brother was gay and the star performer at the El Dorado, a posh drag club, and that's her first investigative stop.  Although he's the star attraction, Hannah is surprised to find that his coworkers at the bar aren't all that upset he's gone missing.  Apparently he's disappeared like this for a few days in the past.  But are some not upset because they're the murderers and know he's dead?

The story starts to unfold from there and includes a rich cast of characters, some who have been celebrated and/or decried as representing the "decadence" of Wiemar Berlin: drag queens, gay Nazis, prostitutes whose specialties are advertised by the boots they wear, as well as a powerful lawyer, reporters, Jewish shop owners and peddlers trying to maintain their livelihood in the only home they've ever know, an attractive banker and his daughter, an orphaned boy, and a cat named Mitzi.

Some of the details I didn't particularly notice at first because they are so skillfully woven into the fabric of the narrative, such as this example which is so revealing of Hannah's character and life:
After breakfast, I cleaned the apartment, like every other week for as long as I could remember.  Anton helped me scrub the floor and wipe down the table.  The last time I changed the sheets, Ernst had been alive.  The time before that, Sarah had been living in Berlin and my identity papers were safely in my pocket.  What would my life be like the next time I changed the sheets?
I read a few paragraphs beyond these lines and then stopped in my tracks to reflect on how seamlessly Cantrell had woven this important aspect of Hannah's character into the narrative.  Hannah, we're informed earlier, was raised to be a wife and mother, as were most middle class women of the time period, and the quote above reflects that fact.  However, it also clearly reveals how her life shapes her thinking.  It is such a subtle but profound detail, one of those things that seeps into your brain while reading that you may not notice but that makes the character and story all the richer.

From my experience growing up with a mother and aunts who were raised in Germany between the 1920s-1940s, German women don't simply take their household chores seriously.  Its something deeper than a duty, its a part of who they are.  There's no drama surrounding chores--no bitching and moaning or lamenting--the work just gets done.  And it gets done perfectly.  You wash and clean.  I think of the scene in The Reader when another German woman named Hanna (Hanna Schmitz) cleans up the young boy she doesn't even know as well as the sidewalk where he gets sick.  Even my high school German teacher went off one day about the importance of cleaning what cannot even be seen: your undergarments.  She thought there was nothing more detestable than a young girl or boy who looked good on the outside, but who wore dirty undergarments.  Sounds like she had issues, doesn't it?

Back to the book: I attended Rebecca Cantrell's book signing on Monday night.  (It was a joint signing with Shane Gericke whose books are set in Naperville, IL).  One questioner asked Cantrell how she was able to write a novel that reads so convincingly like its in the present when we all know the horrific outcome of Nazi rule.  Cantrell said that of course no one back then knew what would happen, so when researching the time period she stops reading research sources at the date/year she's currently writing about in an attempt to make sure Hannah doesn't know about events that she shouldn't yet know about.

And this was a great learning experience for me:  Cantrell said she is careful to ensure that Hannah and other characters only comment on things that they would notice and not on historical detail.  This made so much sense to me and really brought home why the sheet changing scene made such an impact on me.  It also helped me understand why some historical fiction may seem to have all the right stuff, yet it doesn't ring true or gets bogged down in details: we don't notice physical details and reoccurring events in our own lives unless there's a reason for it, so why include such detail in a story unless it is somehow integral to character development or the story?

I was happy to hear that Cantrell has plans to write a total of nine Hannah Vogel mysteries: three pre-war, three during the war, and three post-war.  A trilogy of trilogies.  A Trace of Smoke will appeal to fans of Philip Kerr, Joseph Kanon, Robert Harris, WWII buffs, and mystery readers who enjoy strong and believable women investigators.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Titillating news for Kafka fans

Just ran across this titillating news from Publisher's Weekly--

Kafka Safety Deposit Boxes Being Opened

Craig Morgan Teicher -- July 19th, 2010

Ten safety deposit boxes containing papers left by Franz Kafka to his friend and executor Max Brod, are being opened by court order in Tel-Aviv and Switzerland, where they are housed, according to Haaretz.  The boxes, which had been unopened for 40 years, belong to Eva Hoffe, who was Brod’s secretary.  Here’s more from the story:
Researchers and experts from Israel and Germany believe that some of the boxes may contain manuscripts by Kafka, widely considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, or documents that can shed additional light on the mysterious life of the artist.
The scene sounds like it came out of a movie, with suited lawyers barging into a bank where some of the boxes were kept, court order in hand, while Eva Hoffe charged in screaming in an effort to stop the boxes from being opened.  Apparently, there is a long and complicated saga leading up to this even, involving Haaretz itself filing a suit to have these papers made public.

At present, all that’s slated to happen is that the lawyers will compile an inventory of what’s in the boxes.  Then it will be up to a court to judge whether their contents are the private property of Hoffe or whether they should be transferred to a public archive.  Perhaps, for Kafka fans and scholars, there is interesting news on the way…

Source: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/?p=437

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

My grade school copy
One of the things I've discovered about myself is that it's not always a good idea for me to read a new novel when on vacation.  If the novel is really, really good it can get in the way of me getting out and being fully present to experience new things. If I'm at the beach, I usually read ocean or sea-faring related type books that I haven't read before because part of my day is dedicated to laying on the beach reading.  But for my recent cruise to Alaska, I wanted to experience not only the ports that we'd be visiting, I wanted to spend time with my family and experience the ship as well.

So I decided to take only one novel with me and to choose one that I'd already read.  I did also take a few massage therapy related books, but that's a different story.  For years now, since I fell in love with Willa Cather, I've been thinking about re-reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.  In many of Cather's novel, as in The Good Earth, The Land is the foundation of life and the number one ingredient for living the good life.

I first read The Good Earth in Ms. Lecture's 7th or 8th grade English class.  That was about 32 years ago.  Wow, how time flies.  What put it in the forefront of my book choices now was the release of Hilary Spurling's new book Pearl Buck in China.  NPR's Fresh Air recently featured a great review of Spurling's book by Maureen Corrigan which you can listen to here.

My younger self enjoyed reading The Good Earth.  My Mom telling me it was one of her favorite novels probably helped spur me on at the time.  My Mom is from Germany and it fascinated me when I was a kid to know that she had read some of the same books in German that I was then beginning to read.

From my first reading I recalled a noble peasant who was a hard-working man who loved the land.  I vividly remembered the opening scene when the son wakes up and gets his father hot water to drink.  I also vaguely remembered a scene of him going to the great house.  Beyond these things I didn't remember much.

My older self enjoyed reading The Good Earth as well. There certainly were times when I hated to have to put it down or couldn't wait to get back to it.  There's a reason the book has been in print since its release in 1931.  Its a grand narrative about the life of Wang Lung, a poor peasant from Anhwei Provence in east-central China.  The opening of the book is Wang's wedding day and he's excited that this will be the last day he'll have to get out of bed, start the fire, and take hot water to his old father.  Tomorrow morning his wife will do all that as well as bring him his own hot water.  I'm sure my younger self thought something like: lame! he has to take his dad hot water every morning???  Why can't the old man get it for himself???  My "more mature" self can relate to Wang's desire to lounge in bed and have someone else bring him hot water.

Here's a brief synopsis:
Wang Lung's wife is O-lan, a slave from the great house in town, a dynasty which is on the way out due to adult children who think there's a never ending waterfall of money available for them and the opium addiction of the parents.  To survive, the family has resorted to selling off their land piecemeal.  With the slave-like help of O-lan, Wang Lung works hard on the land, has children (boys and girls, but sons are all that count), and eventually buys more land.  A famine hits and the family is forced to flee to Kiangsu, a big city, to wade out the hardship.  Wang Lung drives a rickshaw while O-lan, the old father, and children beg.  When they are able to return to the land, Wang Lung continues to work hard and buy more land and when the great house in town is overrun by revolt, he comes into some money that gives him the financial push that will allow him to eventually enter the highest economic bracket in the area.  Eventually, however, egos start to collided and Wang Lung's life isn't as simple as it used to be.

I'll stop there at the risk of spoiling anything for those of you who might read the book.  There's lust, foot binding, greedy and lazy relatives, bandits, infanticide, prostitutes, more opium addiction, dirty soldiers, heart break, and discontented sons.  It's a beautiful and sometimes painful story to read, but one that will stay with you for a long time if you choose to read it.  And I hope you do.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Library: Sitka, Alaska


320 Harbor Drive
Sitka, AK 99835


Our second port of call in Alaska was Sitka.  Instead of the library being the first thing I saw in town, it happened to be the last thing I saw before it was time to re-board and so I didn't have a lot of time to look around.

The Sitka Library was established in 1923.  The current building was a gift from Sitka resident Theodore Kettleson in 1967 and is named after him.  An addition in 1983 doubled the size of the library.  I found these statistics about the library on Wikipedia: It receives about 100,000 guests annually and houses a collection of 75,000 books, audiobooks, music recordings, reference resources, videos (DVD and VHS) as well as an assortment of Alaskan and national periodicals. Its annual circulation is 133,000.  Pretty impressive for a town of around 9,000 inhabitants.

When you first walk into the library there is a cluster of computer stations.  All of the computer terminals were in use and the library was hopping when I was there.  Patrons where everywhere--a wonderful situation!--and so I didn't want to be rude and take a bunch of pictures inside since they'd all contain people who probably value their privacy.  However, there were two things I couldn't resist taking pictures of inside the library. The first is a shot of the poster below.


Not sure about the connection between libraries and Route 66, but since I've seen this poster I'm kicking myself for not taking pictures of libraries along the way when we drove The Mother Road a few years ago.  Because I had already delayed the polite but very busy librarian from getting back into the room she need to get to (this poster is on a door between two rooms and so my derriere was blocking her way), I didn't want to further interfere with her work by asking if the poster was from a promotional reading program that they'd done or is a generic library poster. If anyone who reads this post knows if there's some history behind this poster, I'd love to hear about it.

The second picture that I couldn't resist taking is the view of the Sitka Sound from the library's reading area.


That's our ship in the background.  The clouds were low and it was rainy when I took the picture, so you don't get a sense of the mountains all around, but, still, even on a rainy day I can't imagine getting much reading done with such a view!

I'll leave you with a view from right outside the library.





Thursday, July 8, 2010

Coming in November: Mark Twain's Autobiography, Vol 1

The first volume of Mark Twain's Autobiography is due out on November 15, 2010.  He dictated the autobiography and ordered that it not be published until 100 years after his death when he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent."  Twain died in 1910 and here we are 100 years later when Americans and the world are still joyfully reading, debating, and censoring his writing.

I realize November is a long way off, but today The Huffington Post has an interesting and informative video about this publishing milestone and Twain, which you can click here to watch. The project editors read a few quotes from the autobiography and you can see the "vault" where Twain's papers are kept.

If you're interested, you can further explore The Mark Twain Papers and Project at UC Berkeley here.

I'm excited--this makes me want to read more Twain.  I vaguely remember reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was younger, but Twain is one of those writers that I've read more about than I've actually read his writing.

I'm particularly looking forward to reading his travel writing for which my appetite was wetted by a recent podcast from PRI's The World -- The World's Books Podcast with Bill Marx (episode #35) about Twain's travel writing, his impact, and reputation.  You can find the episode here.

And the next time I'm in Connecticut, I hope to be in Hartford when his home/museum is actually open instead of peeping through the windows like some hungry street urchin watching diners in a swank restaurant.



Monday, July 5, 2010

Library: Juneau, Alaska

Downtown branch: 292 Marine Way, Juneau, Alaska, 99801

Built: 1988
Cost: $3.8 million
Size: 18,000 square feet
Holdings: 70,000 volumes
Users: 300,000

I'm just home from vacation--went on my first cruise and it was to Alaska, a state I've wanted to visit since I was a little kid.  Being the book nerd that I am, my goal was to visit the library and one bookstore in each port.  Although I didn't have much time to explore the libraries or bookstores that I visited, it was fun to find them and have at least a few minutes to look around.

First stop was Juneau.  Here's a picture from the deck of the ship as we're docking.  I didn't realize at the time that we were docking right next to the library!  I had read online about the library's beautiful stained glass windows, so I was assuming the library was some quaint old building.  Well, we all know what can happen when we assume.

Painting on the sea side of library's wall by Dan DeRoux is taken from a historic photograph from 1887 when the steamship Ancon arrived in Juneau.  The faces in the painting are those of Juneau pioneers.
When I got off the ship I asked the guide on the dock if she could point me to the library.  She raised her arm and pointed to the top of the parking garage next to us.  The guide explained that when it was time to build the new library, the locals insisted on a parking garage because parking space is so hard to find in Juneau.  The town itself has a huge land mass, but the actual town area is squeezed in-between the shoreline and the steep mountains. There are actually three public libraries in Juneau.  The one I visited is the downtown branch.

As you walk into the entrance of the parking garage/library there are two elevators inside.  The one on the right is the express to the library, which I thought was pretty cool.  A young woman waiting for the elevator explained that although both elevators go to the top floor--to the library--at night you want to be sure to take the express because the other elevator can be creepy when it opens onto the parking floors at night.


I didn't know what to expect from a library that's on top of a parking garage.  My first thought, I admit, was on the skeptical side.  However, when the elevator doors opened I was greeted by an inviting, curvy path that drew me into the heart of the library.  As you can see from the picture to the left, the gentle curve of the path and walls create a feeling of tranquility.  After the hustle and bustle of getting off the ship and walking through the crowd of fellow tourists, a feeling of calmness came over me when I stepped off the elevator.






To the right when you walk off the elevator is the stunning stained glass window that I had read about. The glass was created by Bruce Elliot.  The library's pamphlet describes it as expressing "the metamorphosis of migrating salmon into a totemic salmon design."  Its a huge window that looks beautiful whether the sun is out or not (that saying about weather in Alaska changing from minute to minute is really true.  I've heard many states claim that concept--they say it here in Chicago--but it is completely true in Alaska).  Below are two details of the stained glass:



totemic salmon design

Juneau through the stained glass



Inside the library
The heart of the library was very calm and quiet with a number of people using the resources as you can see from the picture to the left.  The backside of the library, the side that faces the sea, is all window.  There's a large outdoor balcony that you can walk out onto.  As our ship was docking there were some family members on the balcony waving to a Holland America employee that was returning home to Juneau.



Below is a picture of our ship that I took from the balcony.  I imagine it would be wonderful to sit on one of the benches on the balcony and read a book when there's not a big cruise ship blocking your view of the sea.
ms Rotterdam, Holland America Line
The last picture is of the metal sculpture on the wall of the library that faces the street (opposite from the side with the painting/the sea side).  It was created by Ray Peck, Jr.

The Juneau library was wonderful and I was so thrilled to be able to visit it.  I only wish that I'd had more time to look around at their holdings.

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