December 2008

Photo by *TONI.R used under a Creative Commons license.

Nicola Barker, Darkmans (Harper Perennial, 2007).
Daniel Beede, on the high side of 60, is estranged from his son, Kane, though they live together in a flat in Ashford, England, near the northern terminus of the Chunnel.  A welter of other characters are linked to them in various ways: Gaffar, a Kurdish refugee; Elen, a podiatrist; Isidore, Elen’s troubled husband; Kelly, who has more mouth than smarts; and many others.  Ashford has the troubles of a modern town — traffic, development — but the book is haunted by a centuries-old jester.  Trying to sum up the plot is a fool’s errand, but do not be deterred by the book’s length — Barker’s prose beguiles  and sweeps along, and the pages fly by.

Here is a short bio of Barker.  Patrick Ness (The Guardian) says Barker’s linguistic energy never lets up. Sylvian Brownrigg (The New York Times) calls it a broad, funny, deeply strange book. Hugo Barnacle (London Times) says the bulk of the book is inventive, witty and well staged. Matt Thorne (The Independent) says it’s all about chatter. Laura Miller (Salon) calls it fat and sassy, vulgar and brainy.  Nick Owchar (LA Times) thinks it’s for readers who enjoy nimble wordplay. Alan DeNiro calls it full of paradoxes. dovegreyreader says it checks in as the ultimate latter-day social novel. Kerry Clare says it will leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by the most marvelous train. Suzanne Kleid (KQED) says it’s the first 838-page novel that has ever seemed too short. Kirsty thinks it’s an eminently readable doorstop. Stewart McAbney couldn’t break the shell to engage with what was going on. Curt Gardner is glad he discovered it.  Matt Todd calls it a surprisingly tight and restrained affair.  Gwen Dawson gave it three stars out of five.  Jo Case says it may be the best book she’s ever read.  Justin Bauer (Philadelphia City Paper) says Barker sets a full table. Tom Payne (Telegraph) thinks it could easily become a cult book.  Stephen Lang calls it a modern-day ghost story about the past.  Robyn Ettely says it sure moved along. Sea says some parts are like a bad dream the reader has the privilege of being in but not suffering. David found it bleak yet funny.  John Self thinks Barker gets away with quirkiness.  Peter Konieczy says Barker’s sort of history is clogged with all sorts of debris that floats up at unexpected moments. Barry is tempted to say it’s a book about a man who wants to have repairs done to his house.  Victoria calls it the epitome of creative unruliness.  Jessica Coleman says your book group shouldn’t read it.  Kimberley says it’s a story about history.  Gale says it leaves a reader feeling unsettled.  asd would marry Barker if she weren’t straight.  Vikram Johri says Barker’s sleight-of-hand works on several levels.  kirsty was left feeling that she wasn’t clever enough. Carl Kessler found it unreadable, and quotes a sentence. Brandon Keim says Barker’s prose layers banality on top of virtuosity on vernacular on OCD, emulsifies it with compassion, bakes it in a casserole dish of curiosity.  Tyler Cowen thought it underrated.  Alex Clark interviewed Barker for the Guardian. Marshal Zeringue has another interview.  Here is Mary McCallum on Barker’s desk.

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Photo of the Great Dismal Swamp by heymarchetti used under a Creative Commons license.

Charles Royster, The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company: A Story of George Washington’s Times (Vintage, 2000).
On both sides of the Virginia-North Carolina border, but mostly on the north side of the border in Virginia, not far from the ocean, lies the Great Dismal Swamp.  In 1763, a group of investors, among them the war hero George Washington and other notables, founded the Dismal Swamp Company to drain, develop and profit from this land. This history of the company is a window into the finances and dealings of Virginia’s eighteenth-century elite, who made their fortunes speculating on land and growing tobacco and usually owed staggering debts in London.

Here is Royster’s bio at Louisiana State University, where he teaches.  Nate Oman says the narrative works nicely.  Mangum calls it a fine book but thinks it falls a bit short of its potential.  Dennis Berman (Business Week) says it requires uncommon endurance.  T.S. says Royster synthesizes political and business history.  Bibb Edwards read it on the swamp.  Elizabeth H. Smith collects writings on the Great Dismal Swamp. John Tidwell wrote about the swamp for American Heritage. Here is the site for the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge — 250 years later, still wild.

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Photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman used under a Creative Commons license.

Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2004).
A hefty and comprehensive history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from December, 1979, when Soviet troops invaded, to September, 2001. Coll, formerly managing editor of the The Washington Post and now a writer with The New Yorker, has spent his time in the archives, and he conveys the effects of domestic politics in the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. The dominant arm of the U.S. government was the CIA, which engaged first with Afghans fighting the Soviets, and then fitfully with pro-Western factions after the Soviet withdrawal. Though no criticism of Coll, readers will wish he could continue the account through to the present. The book won a Pulitzer.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Coll. Google BookSearch has all sorts of good stuff, including an excerpt. Sudheer Apte says Coll weaves together a coherent narrative. von Richthofen says it’s equal parts thrilling espionage cat and mouse dashed with the inescapable feeling of impending doom. Baltar calls it the story of one missed opportunity after another. Joshua Foust says it’s an up-close look at how foreign policy is crafted, bungled, and short-handed. Amer Latif (Naval War College Review) calls it useful, if overly long. Martin Wisse says it’s fascinating but depressing. Deano thinks it’s gripping and well-written. American Pundit calls it challenging and interesting. T R Santhanakrishnan says Coll offers profound insight. Barack Obama read it days before the election. Here is Coll at the World Affairs Council. Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interviewed Coll on Democracy Now! Coll chatted at You can watch Harry Kreisler interview Coll, or Coll on the Charlie Rose show. Suzy Hansen interviewed Coll for Salon. And here is more from WordPress blogs.

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The infernal smile of Moscow
Photo of Moscow by Anastasiy Safari used under a Creative Commons license.

Michael Frayn, The Russian Interpreter (Faber and Faber, 2005).
Originally published in 1966, a novel of intrigue that works as a sketch of the mental geography of Moscow during the Cold War for Western visitors. Paul Manning, an English graduate student at Moscow University, falls in with Raya, a mercurial Russian. Things grow more complicated when the object of her affections shifts from Manning to Gordon Proctor-Gould, a British businessman who employs Manning to work on the side as a translator, not least because Raya speaks no English and Proctor-Gould no Russian. Under these circumstances, things would be strained even with the pervasive sense that other agendas, perhaps related to national security interests, are at stake. The Moscow depicted here is now more than forty years old, but surely not all has changed. The novel won the Hawthornden Prize in 1967.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Frayn. Here is more about Frayn. Via Google BookSearch, this excerpt of Merritt Mosely’s Understanding Michael Frayn discusses The Russian Interpreter. In 2005, Frayn described how he drew on his experiences as an exchange student in Moscow. Simon McLeish says it shows the influence of Evelyn Waugh.  Marcy Kahan, who says the novel summons up a comic yet hideously claustrophobic Moscow, interviewed Frayn for Bomb.

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