Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Covenant with Death

by Stephen Becker
Kindle Reissue Open Road Media    2016
Originally published 1964
240 pages     Literary Fiction   

I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading the copy of A Covenant with Death, provided by the publishers, except to note that it was a reissue of a novel by a popular 20th century author, Stephen Becker. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be a profound meditation on the nature of justice and of capital punishment in the guise of a courtroom procedural.

It is summer 1923, and a small town in New Mexico is rocked by the murder of a young housewife, Louise Talbot. She lives in the same block as Ben Lewis, a 28-year-old, who has just been chosen by the governor of New Mexico to be a circuit court judge. The governor owed his life to Ben's father, and out of respect, gives the honor of a judgeship to his son, a recent law school graduate.

Of course, Louise's husband is suspected immediately of her death and is arraigned for the murder. An older circuit court judge takes the case, and Ben attends the court sessions to learn what he can about courtroom routines. However, Ben has a lot of things on his mind. He is living with his widowed mother, which for the most part goes well, but he also has a lot of romance problems that his mother keeps trying to solve. We only know the case and the trial from Ben's point of  view, and his view is clouded by his worries that he is not worthy of being a judge and his ability to dispense justice, when he is so young and untried. 

A shocking event occurs just when the older judge is going on vacation, and Ben is now faced with a life or death situation on which he must rule. As we read his actions and his musings, we see him mature into a fine judge who is able to understand the nature of justice and dispense a decision that is awe inspiring.

One reviewer says that  A Covenant with Death is "one of the finest fictional explorations of the nature of justice in the history of American literature." Others compare it to Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird as an outstanding courtroom drama. On the other hand, it is much more than a courtroom drama. It is also the depiction life in a small New Mexico town, which adds greatly to the storytelling. Most tellingly, it relates a young man's journey into maturity and responsibility. That, to me, was one of the most magnificent parts of the novel—how Ben's understanding of justice matures when he is faced with dispensing life-or-death justice. 

Stephen Becker died in 1999 after a long career as an author, translator, and professor of English. He concentrated on the "moral and social complexities of law and justice. In his books, the rigidity and absoluteness of law collides with human values—especially the need for expiation, mercy and compassion." (in Gale Contemporary Authors). Frankly, I was so pleased to happen upon this book. It is definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time. A Covenant with Death is only available for download. There will be no hard copy in this reissue.

There is a movie version that was released in 1967. Many of the movie reviews, however, say that the book was much better than the movie. I think that I just want to savor the memory of this outstanding novel, and not bother my brain with an inferior movie.

The publisher has shared an excerpt of the novel. This passage sets up the initial mystery of who killed Louise Talbot.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

After the Crash

by Michael Bussi
Hachette    2015
376 pages     Mystery

After the Crash by Michael Bussi is pure mystery-lovers' escapism—implausible but intriguing at the same time. The events of the book occur in the 1980s and 1990s, and the story is all woven together by a report written by a private investigator, Credule Grand-Duc,  eighteen years after the crash of an airliner in the Jural mountains in 1980. 

The plane had been on a trip from Istanbul to Paris. On the plane were two families with infant daughters, Emilie and Lyse-Rose; one returning to a rich family and the other returning to a working class family. Only one infant survives and captures the media's attention as "the miracle baby", but it is impossible to deduce which of the two babies has survived. The de Carville family (the rich grandparents, of course) hire Grand-Duc to use whatever means possible to solve the mystery within 18 years. Much of the novel evolves in 1998 as the eighteen years end. Lyse-Rose's sister, Malvina de Carville, and Emilie's brother, Marc Vitral, have spent much of their lives also trying to solve the mystery. The surviving girl is now affectionately called Lylie, a combination of both babies' names, and she is the first to to receive Grand-Duc's report. She then promptly disappears, and the reader doesn't know until the end of the book where she has gone.

You ask, "Why didn't they just use DNA testing to prove which girl survived?" Well, Grand-Duc did conduct the test, after the test was developed, but much of the plot takes place before the DNA test was invented. The mystery is perplexing, which is what makes this novel so attractive; the reader is completely caught  up in trying to figure things out, and the author leaves little clues that worry the reader's brain until the mystery is solved. It is the story of class, family ties, love, and obsession.

Bussi is a French writer and professor.After the Crash is his first international success and the first of his novels to be translated into English. (The translator is Sam Taylor). This book has sold nearly one million copies and appeared in American book stores this week. 
He is quite well known in France but

The headline in the Boston Globe review says "it's best to just enjoy the ride," and I would agree. There is much that is implausible. "Parts of “After the Crash” have elements of over-the-top Gothic melodrama, evoking everything from V.C. Andrews’s “Flowers in the Attic” to cheesy horror movies, but Bussi’s tucked a lot of enjoyable — and enjoyably surprising — pieces into his puzzle as well, making the novel a drawn-out, page-turning tease." I do have to mention that I was disappointed in the ending. I felt that Bussi rushed the conclusion. The ride had left me completely drained, and as I closed the book, I sighed and felt totally let down. Was it still a fun ride? Absolutely.

 Early on in my reading of After the Crash, I was reminded of a plane crash novel that I read several years ago, The Three, by Sarah Lotz. Although a bit more apocalyptic, The Three is chilling reading and equally as interesting. Check it out as well. 

 The review in the Boston Globe.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Slade House

by David Mitchell
Random House    2015
256 pages     Horror

Slade House is a novel I would not have read—horror is not a genre I generally choose,--but  it was short; it came with a cute little box; and the reviews were great. In actuality, it isn't really a horror story, but more of a ghost story,  although there is a haunted house, soul-eating vampires, and plenty of suspense. 

Every nine years, an estate called Slade House appears behind a high wall in an alley off a London street. The estate is approached only by a small door in the wall.  A pair of twins live in that house, and when the house appears, they find ingenious ways to eat the soul of an unsuspecting but appropriately lured trespasser. The fun begins in 1979 and continues over five chapters, each chapter nine years later. The reader knows something bad is going to happen in each chapter as do many of the victims. One character is heard to say, "Something bad's happening in this house, Sal. We need to get out!" 

This is one of the touches of humor that creeps into the plot at opportune times. For instance, one character says, "This is all sounding a bit 'DaVinci Code' for me." The humor lightens the perspective of the book, and the reader soon realizes that Mitchell has written the book in good fun. It might be called "horror light."  
Reviewers say that it is a sequel to The Bone Clocks, and that while Slade House is Mitchell's most "accessible" novel, it doesn't show off the depth of his talent. The Huffington Post reviewer concludes: "Tightly crafted and suspenseful yet warmly human, Slade House is the ultimate spooky nursery tale for adults." For my part, I enjoyed Slade House immensely, and that is enough for me. 

The Review in the New York Times.
The review in the Huffington Post.

The Read Harder Challenge, 2016

I am going to attempt the Read Harder Challenge for 2016. I think that it looks like a lot of fun. Anyone want to join me?

You will find the challenge below. A larger version of the challenge can be downloaded from the Book Riot Website. The article on the Book Riot website links to the New York Public Library which has some suggestions of books for us, and there is also a Goodreads Read Harder Challenge Discussion Board, which I am also joining. 

Don't be put off by the first challenge—to read a horror book. While I was on vacation, I read Slade House by David Mitchell, which is short and not too horrifying, although it does have a couple of soul-sucking vampires in it! I'll post a short review of it today or tomorrow. By the way, I don't intend to read the books in order. 

Expand your reading horizons. Read harder!


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

My Brilliant Friend

by Elena Ferrante
Europa     2012
331 Pages    Literary Fiction

My Brilliant Friend was a Christmas gift from my brilliant childhood friend, and I have been obsessed with it for several days. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an Italian author, and there are four books in her Neapolitan Series about the lifelong friendship between two girls. Lila and Elena. The fourth book in the series, The Story of The Lost Child, was named one of the 10 best books of 2015 by the New York Times.

My Brilliant Friend is told by Elena, and most of it focuses on her relationship with Lila, beginning when they become friends in first grade until they are about 17. Lila is the daughter of a shoemaker; Elena's father is a porter at city hall. These are the years immediately following World War II, and times are tough. The girls live in a poor neighborhood of Naples, where work is valued and education is not. Elena is enamored with Lila, who is scrappy and independent, while she, on the other hand, is obedient and studious. Both girls are very bright and competitive at school. Both love learning. Both are the products of their environments.
Slowly the economy of Naples picks up and the lives of the families improves. We begin to understand that Elena will become educated and Lila will be stuck in the neighborhood, working as a cobbler in her father's shop. As Lila matures she becomes very beautiful and loved by the neighborhood boys, while Elena remains dumpy and studious. Lila is the litmus test for all of Elena's aspirations; she must bounce all the events of her life off Lila. Lila, on the other hand, wants to learn so badly that she becomes Elena's tutor by getting books out of the library to learn the same things Elena is learning. The elementary school teacher encourages both girls, but it is only Elena who remains in school.

Nothing much out of the ordinary happens, but the book is so brilliantly written that the reader hangs on every word. As I was reading My Brilliant Friend, I kept asking myself the question—"What is so compelling about this book?"  The New Yorker calls Ferrante's books "remarkable, lucid, austerely honest." Another word often used in reviews of this book is bildungsroman.  I had to look that one up—it means a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education. And indeed, that comprises the majority of the book, but we are only privvy to Elena's inner thoughts, and not Lila's. We only see Lila through Elena's eyes, and we witness the enormous changes happening to the lives of the girls as they reach adulthood. There are so many characters in the book that there is a index of characters at the beginning of the book, and believe me, I had to look at it frequently.

There is so much that women can relate to in this novel—best friends, dolls, puberty, the arrival of boys in a girl's life, and finally separation as the young women follow their separate destinies. In some ways, the book reminded me of West Side Story—the gritty neighborhood, the posturing boys trying to be men, the dialect of the street, the loss of opportunity. What Elena has that everyone else lacks is the chance for an education, which will in later volumes, take her away from the neighborhood.

As I was reading, I remembered acutely my 13-year-old daughter being told by her best friend of 6 years that they couldn't be friends anymore because they had "nothing in common." My daughter was crushed. I told her that she and her friend had everything in common and her friend would come back to her. That is what happened, and they remain friends to this day. This is the type of friendship that Elena and Lila would understand.

Then, of course, we must mention the mysterious author, Elena Ferrante. This picture, which I found on Google, may or may not be Ferrante. She chooses to remain anonymous because she feels that novels should stand on their own without the insertion of the author's personality. All interviews are done in writing. We must also consider the masterful translator, Ann Goldstein. This book would not have been quite so powerfully appealing without such a great translation.

I highly recommend My Brilliant Friend. I will soon begin book two, The Story of a New Name. In an interview with the New York Times, Ferrante said that she considers herself a storyteller first. I am eager to continue the story.

The New Yorker review of Ferante's books.
The interview in the New York Times.