National Book Critic’s Circle Award

220px-Golden_Globe_TrophyAward season is in full swing in Hollywood with glamorous gowns and inarticulate acceptance speeches, but the lists of prize winning books for the year is adding to my reading list.  The latest announcement from the National Book Critic’s Award has The Goldfinch at the top of the list that I gave gold stars (my review), and inspired me to find Tartt’s first acclaimed book – The Secret History – a dark murder mystery which I am reading now.  Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being stays with me, not only for my affinity with news from the Japan tsunami but also for its haunting reminder of how difficult finding one’s “place” can be (my review).

Need a few more books to add to your pile?

The 2013 National Book Critic’s Award Finalists for Fiction:

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
  • Someone by Alice McDermott
  • The Infatuations by Javier Marias

And Nonfiction:

  •  Going Clear by Lawrence Wright (the church of Scientology)
  • The Unwinding by  George Packer (American institutions)
  •  Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy
  • Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sherri Fink
  • Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel
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The Great Gatsby

cugat_1Before seeing the new movie version of The Great Gatsby, I wanted to reread the book.  Images of Robert Redford still emerge when I think of that West Egg mansion; before replacing them with Leo, I wanted Fitzgerald’s words again.

In an interview, the current movie’s Director claimed that more copies of the book had been sold during the weeks of the movie preview than in Fitzgerald’s lifetime.  A publishing disaster that did not meet the expectations raised by his first bestselling novel – “This Side of Paradise” – The Great Gatsby’s biggest sales were to Fitzgerald himself, who bought copies to thin the shelves, and sold the movie rights to the book for a mere $16,000.

Fitzgerald’s language is sometimes florid, always precise, and wickedly elusive with double entendre.  The author claimed that “Gatsby started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself…”   Knowing Fitzgerald’s doomed romantic life and reading his descriptions of shallow “careless” characters with opulent parties and lifestyle, it’s easy to imagine the “Jazz Age” – even without the expensive Hollywood sets.

Of course, the book is always better than the movie and the Hollywood ending usually strays from the author’s – this movie is no exception, yet the famous words that end the novel and are inscribed on the Fitzgerald gravestone are the same:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

But if you really want to enjoy the show, forget the 3D glasses and read or re-read the book first.  You will thrill at the many echoes of Fitzgerald’s words.

Check out my review of   Z – A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Mission to Paris

World War II is brewing in 1933, Hitler is intimidating the Parisians while misleading Chamberlain, and a Hollywood actor born in Vienna is an enticing tool for both sides in Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris.

The plot stumbles along slowly as screen star Fredric Stahl gets comfortable in Paris and begins work on his new war movie.  Stahl naively underestimates the political power of the German forces around him, and prefers to think of the Paris of his youth.  He’s accidentally assaulted in a street protest, and is threatened by a German Nazi officer who breaks into his Paris hotel, but the action is more insidious than outright lethal.

Stahl is easy to like despite his tedious innocent-abroad persona.  He is as comfortable drinking beer in a backdoor saloon as he is sipping champagne at a society soirée.  As he acquires a political conscience, strong women add to the intrigue: svelte Russian actress and superspy Olga Orlova, Nazi sympathizer and society hostess Baroness von Reschke, socialite and lover Kiki, and demure seamstress and Polish political exile Renate Steiner.

After witnessing the infamous Kristallnacht, halfway through the book, Stahl finally becomes the undercover agent you’ve been waiting for, and the action escalates into spy thriller mode.   Stahl successfully passes on war secrets while undercover as the movie star under the direction of a wry American embassy official.  When the cast and crew relocate to Hungary to shoot a scene in a castle, the danger of passing through Germany changes his fate.  A finale includes a romantic getaway with assassins in hot pursuit.

Although this is Furst’s twelfth spy thriller, it is my first encounter with his historical espionage tales, often compared to those of John le Carré – an intelligent blend of history and drama with enough suspense to keep you turning pages.  Through Furst’s characters, the fear of pre-war Paris seemed real; not even a famous Hollywood actor could escape the terrorizing hammer of the Nazis.

The novel ends in 1939, a year before France was attacked by Germany “on 10 May, 1943, and surrendered on 21 June”  – and three years before the July, 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ Paris roundup of Jews used by Tatania de Rosnay in Sarah’s Key (targeted for discussion soon by one of my book groups).  Furst provides the historical foundation for that event in Mission to Paris by clearly addressing the French complicity with the Nazis.

The Movie That Inspired Reading the Book

With a British cast of veteran stars, I expected to enjoy the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,”  and I did.  Although all the storylines were resolved happily in the end – a true Hollywood ritual – I wanted to know more about the characters than the two-hour production allowed.  So, I sought out the book that inspired the movie – Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things.  

I found the original but my Kindle changed the title to reflect the movie fame; so far I like it as much as the movie – not only for the descriptions of India but also for the positive spin on getting older. See the movie; read the book.

An Excerpt from These Foolish Things

Sealed into their compound the residents lived in a world which was, in many ways, more familiar than the England they had left behind. It was an England of Catherine Cookson paperbacks and clicking knitting needles, of Kraft Dairylea portions and a certain Proustian recall. Now the summer was over the mali was planting out English annuals – marigolds and cosmea – widely spaced in damp depressions of earth. Evelyn itched to get her hands on the flowerbeds; gardeners here knew nothing about colour and mass.

Outside the walls, India clamoured. So many people, such need and desperation. Evelyn had only ventured out a few times; she found the experience disorientating. The moment she stepped through the gate beggars stirred and clambered to their feet. Skeletal dogs nosed through heaps of rubbish. Even the holy cows, wandering between the cars, were cruelly thin. And then there was the legless young man, sitting on his trolley in the midst of the exhaust smoke.


The Apothecary

As Leonardo Di Capario and Clint Eastwood immortalize J. Edgar Hoover in a new biopic, Maile Meloy finds inspiration in the fictional lives of a Hollywood family on Hoover’s “list” who avoid testifying against their friends by relocating to London in The Apothecary. At a time when children were taught to duck and cover under their desks as protection from a bomb, and everyone was suspected to be a Russian spy, Meloy neatly connects history to fantasy in a clever mystery.

Susan is a Nancy Drew-like detective, homesick for America and feeling more than the usual angst about being in a new school. The local apothecary offers her a powder to help her adjust to her new surroundings, but when he is kidnapped by Germans, she finds herself embroiled in a spy thriller with his son, Benjamin, to save the local apothecary and possibly the world from nuclear disaster. Their immediate mission is to protect the Pharmacopeio, the apothecary’s book of mysterious formula, using plants to evoke extraordinary phenomena.

Of course, their curiosity has them applying the book’s strange recipes almost immediately. They create elixirs that turn them temporarily into birds to escape their pursuers or make them invisible in a funny sequence of preteen angst. Ian Schoenherr’s black and white graphics, sprinkled throughout the narrative, generate an other-worldly aura, and Meloy adds characters to keep the action suspenseful and humorous: Pip, the handsome street-wise boy straight out of Dickens, who can pick locks and finesse adults as well as children; Mr. Danby, the Latin teacher/war hero, who may be playing both sides of the spy game; Shiskin, the bumbling Russian double-agent; Jin Lo, the young beautiful and smart Chinese chemist.

The Apothecary is fun to read; suspend your belief and enjoy a world of impossible solutions. And imagine, if you were able to turn into a bird to fly away for a while, what kind of bird would you be?

This is Meloy’s first novel for young readers, but her other books – for adults –  include a short story collection – Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It  and the novel Liars and Saints.