What to Read (Listen to) Next

51M04zBndRL._SL150_  After reading Sam Anderson’s teaser in the New York Times Sunday magazine – New Sentences from Dan Brown’s Origin: A Novel – I ordered the book on line from my library, but I am number 297 on the waiting list.  Although I read Brown’s The Da Vinci Code years ago, I steered away from his other books when Tom Hanks became the image of Robert Langdon – I had imagined Pierce Brosnan as the professor/adventurer.

Origin is number five in the series with Robert Langdon,  and this one promises the secrets of the universe with predictions for the future.  Anderson actually makes the case for not reading the book, but Peter Conrad for The Observer says it may the antidote to the real world –  ” a specimen of phoney fiction, expertly designed to confuse the credulous…{Dan Brown’s} deranged fantasy increasingly looks like our daily reality…”

Sounds like fun and I have too many credits on Audible – maybe I’ll just listen to the abridged version, or maybe instead –

download Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing.51C0X7VufEL._SL150_

What are you listening to?

 

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Golden Hill – A Novel of Old New York

9781501163876_p0_v4_s192x300   Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill mixes Shakespearean plot twists with an adventurous tale of Manhattan in the eighteenth century, thirty years before the American Revolution.  Richard Smith, an Englishman who mysteriously arrives on a ship from London, immediately goes to the New York City colony counting-house on Golden Hill Street, and demands cash for a thousand pound note – the equivalent of a cashier’s check for almost two hundred thousand dollars today.     Smith offers no explanation about the purpose of his visit or his identity, and seems determined to keep the local merchants wondering if they should trust him. Smith’s mishaps and attempts at love at first seem to follow the plot of a Shakespearean comedy, but Spufford has more at stake in using disguises and insidious politics than Shakespeare’s comedic rivalry.

As Richard Smith nonchalantly continues to refuse how he will distribute the funds once he has them in hand, his cool demeanor arouses suspicions – is he a spy from the King?  a wealthy man’s son sent to prepare for a royal visit?  a confabulator? prestidigitator?  actor?  The counting house master responsible for distributing the funds to him would prefer him proven unworthy and a scam artist, so he could refuse giving him the money.

In the sixty days before Christmas, when the note is due, Smith manages to be robbed, fall in love, go to debtor’s prison, and be tried in court for murder.  Nevertheless, his secret remains until the last pages.  The narrator pauses the action intermittently to address the reader, using short soliloquies to provide an insider’s view – one who already knows the outcome and the characters’ motivations.  The identity of the narrator is also surprisingly revealed at the end of the story.

Because Spufford uses the formal language and sentence structure of colonial America for his characters and for the narration, the rhythm of the book seems strange at first.  I had to slow down, even rereading from the beginning when I found myself lost; however,  once I had identified Richard Smith as a sympathetic scoundrel, I was anxious to discover what would happen to him next.  Nothing seems to deter him as he cleverly manages to dine on credit after his money purse is stolen, or escape a bloodthirsty mob at the Guy Fawkes bonfire.  At times, the action is fast and hilarious, then slowing into the lull before the next storm of catastrophes.

With a reference to Shakespeare’s dueling lovers in Much Ado About Nothing, the narrator compares their combative relationship to that of Richard Smith and the counting house master’s daughter, Tabitha, who resembles Shakespeare’s shrew Katherine more than the witty Beatrice.  Spufford takes the relationship back and forth, having the characters verbally sparring with well-matched minds and creating sexual tension with the hope of an alliance.

When Smith’s true identity is revealed, with a flourish in the final scene that includes an episode worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza, the story has new purpose.  All of Smith’s witty banter and swashbuckling behavior comes together in a sobering and worthwhile delivery.    With a clever plot and an endearing hero, Spufford delivers an historical tale worth reading, forcing the reader to transport to that earlier time, immersed in the old world and its rich language – with a final tribute to those determined to change the status quo.

Short Stories

thumbnail_IMG_4133    After listening to Lauren Groff read her short story “Dogs Go Wolf” in the New Yorker about two little girls, ages four and seven, left behind on a deserted island, I thought about why I preferred novels to short stories.  In Groff’s voice, the little girls came alive, their trials of fear and hunger seemed more acute than if I had read about it.  Their misery continues through a half hour – or six pages in the New Yorker – getting more and more horrible, until they eventually fall into a stupor – “two little girls made of air.”  To distract from the horror, Groff inserts a promise of their future – one becoming a lawyer, the other married – before returning to the blazing sun and the little wolves they’ve become.   By the end of the story, they are rescued, but the gap in their lives seems hollow in the short description of the incident on the island that made them whoever they became.   Perhaps Groff will write more in a novel.  I’d like to know more about these brave souls.

Short stories offer a quick glimpse into a moment of the characters’ lives.  Edith Pearlman and Jane Gardam have successfully navigated the difficulty of the short – both offering soundbites worth remembering.  I am looking forward to reading Penelope Lively’s collection in “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.”  When I write, I prefer the short story, as difficult as it may be to condense, to spending years with the characters of a novel – but maybe that will change.

For now, the short story is a quick diversion, and when well-written, has a lot to offer, but I still prefer immersing myself in the novel.  Claire Messud’s two little girls in “The Burning Girl” have me mesmerized right now, and I am glad to have them with me for longer than a short.

Do you have a preference?  short story or novel?

To hear Groff’s story – listen to the podcast here

Reviews of Other Books by Groff:

Summer Thrillers

When the sun is hot, I like fast and furious stories I can read in a sitting. Here are a few:

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

If you are a fan of Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, or Gillian Flynn, Lapena’s thriller has the same riveting flair. The drama centers around the kidnapping of a baby left alone while the parents attend a dinner party next door. Lapena switches tracks often, teasing the reader with possible motives and perpetrators. I read the book in one sitting to confirm my suspicions, but the villain was a surprise.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

With the famous New York Barbizon Hotel as the setting, Fiona Davis connects women pursuing careers as secretaries and models in the 1950’s to a twenty-first century journalist looking for a good story. When modern day Rose Lewin discovers the past of an elderly woman who has remained living in the hotel now converted into condominiums, she uncovers a possible murder and switched identities within the historic context of the hotel’s glamour. The story seems too long, but Davis offers historically correct content about the era and enough drama to sustain the reader’s curiosity. 

Now Reading: Sting by Sandra Brown

and Listening to: The Breakdown by B. A. Paris

I Am Ready to Listen

My Audible credits are piling up, and I decided to use them all before I cancel my subscription.  Although my library is full of books I have yet to hear, I am not discouraged. Short British mysteries, Maggie Smith and Julia Child biographies have kept me company as I walk, but heavy plots requiring attention tend to collect moss – started, stopped, ignored, replaced by a library book in print.  Flanagan’s Road to the Deep North still lingers – waiting to be heard on a long flight with no escape.

Five credits – five books:

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  1. Joanna Kavenna called Ali Smith’s first in a four-part series – Autumn – “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities…” in her review for The Guardian.  A symphony?  A candidate for an audiobook.
  2. Recently published Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders has a cast of 166 voices, including David Sedaris.
  3. Since I am number 279 on the library wait list, John Grisham’s The Whistler is a good candidate, promising fast-paced thrills.
  4. Melk Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge looked like a quick way to get life-style advice when I skimmed it in the bookstore, especially coupled with Rinzler’s The Buddha Walks into a Bar (already on my iPod).
  5. Finally (possibly because I have been reading articles about challenging the brain to prevent Alzheimer’s lately), the last book is French Short Stories (in French, of course).

Now I am ready to cancel my subscription.  But wait, those clever marketers have offered me a reprieve – 90 days on hold, a pause instead of a stop.  If I have not listened to my last five books by Spring, I may have the courage to really cancel.