February 2010


Hotel Europejski
Photo of the Hotel Europejski by afagen used under a Creative Commons license.

Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw (Random House, 2008).
A spy novel set mostly in Warsaw in 1937, with the French military attache at the center of a complex cast of characters.  Furst is the master of atmospherics, of recapturing the mood and feel of a Europe on the brink of war.  His Warsaw is long, long gone, so this is hardly a guide to modern Poland, but that is the fun of it.  I liked this one more than Furst’s last few, and I really like all of them.

Here is Furst’s site. Here is Wikipedia on Furst. Take a look at Google Books. Tracee has an excerpt. Janet Maslin (The New York Times) says Furst can invest even the most humdrum situation with elegant acuity. Jonathan Shapiro likens Furst to Chopin. Fred Hasson says Furst’s depictions of old-world Europe are documentary and nostalgic. Jake Seliger was disappointed. David H. Schleicher was a little disappointed. Anna wasn’t. Oliver Marre (The Guardian) thinks Furst’s mastery of period detail is extraordinary. Listen to Furst read from the book. Jesse Kornbluth says the genius of the novel is that small people have large effects. Jonathan Yardley (The Washington Post) says it’s entertaining from first page to last. Steven E. Alford (The Houston Chronicle) says it brings an exotic world of sex and intrigue that is instantly recognizable as Furstland. Michael Lee calls Furst a master of setting. Clea Simon (Boston Phoenix) says Furst fans will recognize the small struggles of ordinary people as war clouds gather. Michael Kenney (The Boston Globe) says it conveys the sense of atmosphere. Alessandra Stanley (The New York Times) says it’s smarter and more soulful than most espionage novels. Mark Feeney (New York Observer) calls Furst’s novels suave, expert and very nearly weightless. Dan Cryer (San Francisco Chronicle) thinks a spark is missing. Jeff Lipshaw recommends it. Sandy Nawrot was disappointed that Warsaw’s essence wasn’t more developed. Jenny says Furst goes above and beyond the espionage genre. Liz Nichols offers a brief summary. Scott Timberg asks if any working novelist sketches atmosphere as well as Furst, and has a story about Furst’s awesome recall. Meghan liked it. Mark Johnson says Furst has a rare talent of allowing readers to experience his locations. Kenneth Crowe was unhappy with the ending. John League wishes it were longer. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says it hits a nice balance between familiarity and novelty. Michael Carlson says Furst recalls Eric Ambler. Here is an interview with Furst. Here is another with Beyond the Books. John Marshall interviewed him for The Daily Beast. Matt Poland interviewed him for Splice Today. Paul Constant interviewed him for The Stranger. Listen to Furst on KQED’s Forum. Or listen to this interview with Lewis FrumkesWatch Furst with Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show. Bookmarks links to many published reviewsThe New York Times uses the book as an entree to modern Warsaw, and Willard B. Moore enjoys the meal. CNN’s Kasla Ostrowski recommends it over your breakfast in Warsaw. And Furst picks five of his favorite spy novels.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

New Mexico Sunrise
Photo by Dave.Patrick used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Bradford, Red Sky At Morning (Harper Perennial, 1999).
A coming-of-age story about teenaged Josh Arnold.  After his father enlists in the Navy during World War II, Josh and his mother move from Alabama to Sagrado, New Mexico — a fictionalized Santa Fe — for Josh’s senior year of high school.  The story is autobiographical in part; Bradford moved to Santa Fe when he was twelve. First published in 1968, and written with a lovely and dry sense of humor. Not to be confused with the 2004 book of the same title by James Gustave Speth.

Bradford passed away in 2002; here is The New York Times‘ obituary. Orrin says it’s one of the great coming-of-age tales and one of the funniest books in any genre. Bunny Terry reads it at least once a year because (among other things) it reminds her how much she loves New Mexico. New Mexico writer Michael McGarrity tells everyone who comes to Santa Fe that this is a book they need to read. Jay Miller says it captures the essence of Santa Fe. Karen Fayeth calls it a quintessential New Mexico read. Sarah Wolf calls it a beautifully rendered portrait of New Mexico and its people. Julie says it’s a well-written and engaging book. Dr. Angeline Theisen is a Red Sky At Morning missionary; she’s it’s a cure for malaise. Dinged Corners says it’s one of American literature’s most complex and engaging coming-of-age stories. Jeane Nevarez says it’s a good read. Patrick O’Hannigan calls it the most under-rated of great American novels. On the other hand, Bryan R. Terry hated it and still detests it. The publisher offers this reading guide. When you’re done with the book, you can watch the 1971 movie.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Zandvoort dune
Photo by maessive used under a Creative Commons license.

Marcel Möring, The Dream Room (William Morrow, 2002).
A concise and graceful novella about a number of things all at once: coming of age, flight, a fragile family.  At the outset, the narrator, David, is an adolescent in the 1960s, but the story moves both backward and forward by decades. Möring, an acclaimed Dutch author, uses a light touch in painting a story that may be largely autobiographical.

Here is Möring’s site.  The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature offers this information about him. Marianne Brace profiled him for The Independent. The Complete Review says that while it isn’t perfect, it is exceptional; it also provides links, including reviews in German, French and Dutch. Justine Jordan (The Guardian) calls it a miracle of compression: everything is significant, yet nothing is laboured. Alfred Hickling (The Guardian) says it’s effortlessly written, charmingly drawn, and as light as the thermals on which early airmen drifted. Carol Jiménez says it is magical how the story emerges rather than evolves. Zulfikar Abbany (The Observer) sees too much missing between the pages.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Night walk
Photo by marie-II used under a Creative Commons license.

Willem Fredrik Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (Overlook, 2008).
A thriller about the occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, and more. Too short to serve in the army, Henri Osewoudt runs a tobacco shop in V, but after the country is occupied, he finds himself aiding the resistance under the direction of Dorbeck, an army officer who could be his twin. When the war is over, though, Osewoudt struggles to establish his bona fides.  The action moves all over Holland, from The Hague to Amsterdam to Lunteren to Breda, but much of it centers on Voorschoten and Leiden. The book forces you to turn the pages, but don’t turn them too fast — there is more going on here. This edition is Ina Rilke’s recent translation.

William Rycroft gives this introduction to Hermans. The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature offers this. Wikipedia’s page on him is here. The Complete Review describes it as a dark novel of a hapless soul trying to do right but in over his head. Stuart McGurk (The Financial Times) says it’s both an existential romp and a witty parable. Neel Mukherjee (The Telegraph) says it’s an edgy, uneasy novel about the human condition, effortlessly disguised as a thriller. Scott Esposito says it’s a riveting detective story and more. John Baker says the narrative is both a metaphysical mystery and a straight-forward wartime thriller. John Self appreciated the existential elements more than the plot of the thriller. Ben McNally says it’s action packed and psychologically irresistible. James Smith says Hermans leaves the reader in a crepuscular world of half-truths. Lizzy Siddal calls it increasingly Kafkaesque. Peter Guttridge (The Guardian) calls it brilliant. It made the longlist for the Best Translated Book of 2008 (more here).

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Herengracht at dawn
Photo of Amsterdam by Marcel Germain used under a Creative Commons license.

Harry Mulisch, The Assault (Pantheon, 1986).
A novel about World War II and its long aftermath in Holland.  In the winter of 1945, with liberation anticipated but not arrived, a collaborator, a policeman, is killed near the house of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk in Haarlem.  He leaves his hometown for Amsterdam but the consequences of the incident return to Anton again and again, as subsequent events cast new light on that night.  A short novel, with its own mysteries to be resolved, originally published in 1982, and told in five episodes.  The quality of the translation has been criticized — I wouldn’t know, but I enjoyed what I read.

Mulisch’s site is here. Here are pages about him at Wikipedia and The Complete Review. Mulisch turned 80 not long ago, and Josh Lacey (The Guardian) wished him a happy birthday. Ben Naparstek (The Age) also marked the day. The Complete Review calls it a strong, well-written novel about war, guilt and fate. Danny Yee says it’s an intense and powerful work, hard to put down. R.S. sees parallels to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. The Bad Bohemian calls it a fine, thought-provoking read. Janice L. Willms sees a marvelous study of the caprices of memory. Nina Sankovitch says it’s a powerful novel. James says it’s one of the best novels he’s read. Nette Menke recommends it for insight into Dutch culture. Samantha recommends it as Netherlands reading. Nikki posts some favorite passages. According to elln, it is haunting and fascinating. And the World’s Smallest Book Group gave it four thumbs up. In an overview of modern Dutch literature, Margot Dijkgraaf calls it a perfectly structured, gripping narrative. Back in the day, Janet Maslin (The New York Times) reviewed the 1986 movie.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

For Van der Heijden ring ALL THREE of the RED bells
Photo by .m for matthijs used under a Creative Commons license.

Sean Condon, My ‘Dam Life (Lonely Planet, 2003).
A decade ago, Australian writer and funnyman Condon and his wife moved to Amsterdam, where she had a job editing a magazine.  It folded almost immediately, but the two of them stayed on, scrabbling for housing and work, and eventually this book.  Though Condon can be cloyingly self-absorbed, his book gives an outsider’s perspective on Amsterdam unlike that which most tourists will get.

Condon’s site is not uninteresting. Hans J.W. Werner calls it a treat, a travel book that’s not a travel book. Shriram Krishnamurthi calls it a moody, introspective book, sometimes horrifying but almost always compelling. Lonneke van Holland was ticked off a day later. Pip Farquharson says it’s realistic, witty and humourous. Don Heller calls it hilarious. Ian Sanders was amused. Alasdair Kay did this profile/interview. Jay Lee ought a copy from Condon in Amsterdam.

Buy it at Amazon.com.