Secrets and the Novels of Tana French

In the last few years TV detective series have often filled our evenings – “The Fall,” The Killing,” “Jack Taylor,” “Happy Valley.” There is something silent about these procedurals – you have to guess what’s going on in the minds of complicated detectives with craggy or beautiful, always expressive faces.

But we get inner narration by observant detectives in Tana French’s “The Dublin Murder Squad Mysteries.” These books are mysteries for sure, but even more they tell of place (Ireland) and the doings of complex characters.

In the first book, “In The Woods,” murder detective, Rob Ryan, investigates a crime that takes place near the woods where, when he was 12, he was traumatized and his two best friends disappeared forever. Memories and secrets from that mystery impinge on the present.

The woods are central, “I remembered, too, the three of us finding a secret garden, somewhere in the heart of the wood. Behind some hidden wall or doorway, it had been. Fruit trees run wild, apple, cherry pear: broken marble fountains, trickles of water still bubbling along tracks green with moss and worn deep into the stone; great ivy-draped statues in every corner feet wild with weeds, arms and heads cracked away and scattered among long grass and Queen Anne’s lace. Gray dawn light, the swish of our feet and dew on our bare legs.”

Characters appear in one book and float into the next (six so far). Cassie Maddox, Rob’s partner, becomes the protagonist of the second book, “The Likeness.” She goes undercover to join a group of students living in an old house – the house nearly a character in the book. Years later Cassie still dreams of it: “The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood doves, lazy somewhere outside.”

And it’s Ireland – where wind blows “rain-spatter in your face…,” the economic bubble has burst, but the language is still rich. French gives us bucolic rural settings and Dublin’s police headquarters, all modern garish office spaces inside, and then outside: “…old, ornate red brick and marble with battlements and turrets and worn carvings of saints in unexpected places. In winter, on foggy evenings, crossing the cobblestones is like walking through Dickens – hazy old streetlamps throwing odd-angled shadows, bells pealing in the cathedrals nearby, every footstep ricocheting into darkness….”

Coincidences and narratives of friendships that mightn’t ring true for every reader occur in these books, but I’ll accept those improbabilities in exchange for the descriptions and the action. And it’s rare to have books both so literate and so deliciously moreish.

Here is winter reading!

kindle

 

Reading – Winter or Summer

Once, in a conversation with our English friends, our older son described himself as an Anglophile. I was silently tickled. His love differs from mine – he knows British history. He’s a fine resource, if inclined, to sort out Edwards and Henrys and their places in the whole scheme. And like his dad, he’s read so much about Churchill and the history of World War II that he’s a great back up for my literary approach.

Most times when reading I just succumb to this English prejudice. The wordsmith shares this bent, and has a particular fondness for the period just before the First World War. So for anyone who might share our proclivity, here are a couple of books from this winter.

Helen Simonson doesn’t live in the UK anymore, but she grew up in Rye in Sussex, and she returns there in “The Summer Before the War,” the Edwardian summer before war rumor became reality. At first I had doubts about this book because of the seemingly inconsequential village doings: the activities of a forward thinking aunt, her two nephews, and a new schoolteacher. But the very ordinariness of those summer days and predictable, if limited, lives are exactly what’s shattered by the awful reality of war. By the end of the book I appreciated the structure and cared about the characters.

Louis de Bernières’s “The Dust That Falls From Dreams” is an even larger family saga. It’s a lovely fat book that follows four sisters from one family, and the five brothers who live on either side of their large county house south of London. An inseparable group, the nine are young when the book opens and tight in the way of childhood friends.

And then the war happens and affects them all, whether they go as soldiers or nurses or stay on the home front. And when de Bernières brings them home afterwards, they’re changed, and they return to an altered world. Both the wordsmith and I found ourselves stalling toward the end, not wanting to part from this group of characters and the privilege of reading their lives.

Cross the channel quickly and fast forward to the Second World War and an American author for a third possibility. Mrs. Hughes recommended “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah as a great book for a long airplane trip. And it is. Set mostly in occupied France, with romance and adventurous crossings of the Pyrenees, it’s the story of two sisters and the war’s impact on their lives – a tale of German occupation and French resistance. Sometimes scary and sometimes sad, it’s a very satisfying page-turner.

All these books are so readable, so engaging. So perfect for summer.

Frances lap sitting

“The Past”

A friend who reads for her day job as an editor, but reads much for pleasure as well, spent a spring-hinting-at-summer afternoon lying on her couch in sunshine reading Tessa Hadley’s new book, “The Past.” That would be a delicious way to read this book, but any way would be good to read this or another of Hadley’s fine books.

“The Past” is about four grown up siblings returning to a family home for one last summer holiday. Hadley’s plots and characters are convincing in their complexities and motivations, but I love Hadley for the precise descriptions of ordinary things she uses to build her novels.

Hadley’s word choices sometimes remain just out of reach in my internal dictionary, so I’m glad I read her latest book on my Kindle. Touching the screen enabled me to instantly define: “hieratic,” (of or concerning priests), “propitiate,” (to win or regain the favor of a god, spirit or person by doing something that pleases them), “louche,” (disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way), and “anodyne,” (not likely to provoke dissent or offense). In a paper book I might have guessed at meanings and kept going – and missed out.

Hadley describes a character reading a book: “She kicked off her shoes and after a while she would slip for warmth into that consoling space between the eiderdown and the top blanket.” “Consoling space” seems just right, not in bed or on the bed, but in a space slightly illicit – and so pleasurable.

And this, when a character tries to get a nasty image out of her mind: “The real evening was brimming and steady around her like a counter-argument to horror, its midges swarming and multiplying in the last nooks of yellow sunshine.”

Just as “nooks of yellow sunshine” comfort, ordinary beauty often provides solace. Here in the old garden: “At least it was an afternoon of balmy warmth, its sunlight diffused because the air was dense with seed floss, transparent-winged midges, pollen; light flickered on the grass, and under the silver birch leaf-shadows shifted, blotting their penny-shapes upon one another.

And the old house itself is a strong presence: “…something plaintive in the thin light of the hall with its grey and white tiled floor and thin old rugs faded to red-mud colour. There was always a moment of adjustment as the shabby, needy actuality of the place settled over their too-hopeful idea of it.”

Hadley gets the three sisters and their brother as they reunite, “All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another’s personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.”

Hadley’s words fill this post about her book – and that’s as it should be – they’re terrific.

telephone 1

Gertrude Bell

Lately I’ve been longing for another Ferrante or Knausgaard experience, that long abandonment of present to the narrative world. A hefty and engrossing biography, Georgina Howell’s “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” satisfied.

Born in 1868 into a wealthy family from the north of England and one of the first women educated at Oxford, Bell – mountain climber, explorer, historian, archaeologist, writer, linguist – became one of those redoubtable English women of the 19th Century who broke with convention. The Victorian era began to crumble in her lifetime, spurred in part by women who, in spite of still wearing long, tiny-waisted dresses and big hats, began to agitate for education and freedom from male supervision.

Bell’s greatest renown comes from her journeys in Arabia, adventurous by any measure as she crossed empty deserts, explored ancient historical sites, and got to know chieftains of nomadic tribes. Her travels ring with names now sadly familiar in a modern context.

Because of her deep knowledge of the Middle East, Bell took part in the historic negotiations after World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, which imposed borders on ancient peoples and lands (a contribution not without controversy). Part of the fascination of the book is to read now about a time before these nation states.

To people back in England Bell probably seemed just a spinster, but Howell uses Bell’s rich letters to weave into her story the two, ultimately sad, but passionate romances of Bell’s life.

We travel so lightly nowadays with our easy outfits, roller bags, and airplanes – the two-page listing of what Bell took on one of her expeditions boggles the mind. Howell writes of a 1913 expedition: “She would take plenty of luggage this time and be ready for anything. First, there were her two English-made tents, one for bathing and sleeping in, one for eating and writing, both with a loose flap that could be tied back, laced shut, or used as a shady canopy. She ordered more of the skirts that she had designed with her tailor for riding horses in the Middle East: neither side-saddle habit nor breeches, but an ankle-length divided skirt with an apron panel. In the saddle, she would sweep this backward and gather the surplus material behind her and to one side, where it looked in profile like a bustle. When she dismounted, the panel fell around her like an apron and concealed the division. She bought lace and tucked-lawn evening gowns for dinners with consuls and sheikhs, for sitting at a dining-table at an embassy or cross-legged on a carpet in a tent.”

There’s more, lots more on her list, from a caseful of shoes and boots, candlesticks and linen sheets to a crate of revolvers.

What a life she lived – and what a great pleasure to read Howell’s book about it.

g. bell color 2

 

 

On Painting

For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”

So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.

Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.

While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.

Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”

James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”

Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”

Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!

(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)

Art Students League book cover

Change It Up

This first month of a new year, I’m thinking about change – who likes it, who loathes it, and about my conflicted relationship to it. I’m envious of people who began life with a childhood in one place, aware that my peripatetic childhood inclines me to motion. And I’ve always thought it a mistake to be so eager to change things in some way.

And then I read a wonderful article (here) by the novelist Jhumpa Lahirie about her passion for the Italian language, an obsession pursued so ably she can write eloquently in Italian (translated here by Ferrante’s translator). Lahirie says writing in Italian makes her a “tougher, freer writer, who, taking root again, grows in a different way.” She writes:

“One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch – of the entire universe and all it contains – is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep without which we would stand still.”

Born in America to immigrant parents from West Bengal, Lahirie describes her mother as coping with that move by “a refusal to modify her aspect,” while Lahirie always felt for herself an “insistence on transforming.” Lahirie’s embrace of change is so strong:

“The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.”

Oblivion!

She ties change to her reason for art: “I think the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.”

Lahirie acknowledges changes can be small – “at times subtle,” and they can be a “salvation or a loss” – maybe some of both. She finds much positive in the act of change itself. Viewing change as positive puts me in mind of the resistance born of negatives associated with change – risk and fear and their relatives.

I like Lahirie’s view better – making change happen with permission and encouragement!

Amaryllis changing

 

“All The Light We Cannot See – and Dark

Reality kept intruding into my re-reading of Anthony Doerr’s novel, “All The Light We Cannot See,” a book I initially avoided out of fear but read this summer with great pleasure.

The book is about Werner, a small, white-haired German orphan boy who “likes to interrogate the world,” and Marie-Laure, blinded by cataracts at the age of six, daughter of the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Chapters within the book’s complicated structure slide open the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure during the years from 1934 to 1944 and beyond, as smoothly as the intricate puzzle boxes Marie-Laure’s father constructs for her. He also builds a detailed miniature model of their Paris neighborhood to help her learn to navigate the real one by herself.

Smell, touch, and sound describe Marie-Laure’s reality. At the museum, “Botany smells like glue and blotter paper and pressed flowers. Paleontology smells like rock dust, bone dust.” “The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil.” “Everything is composed of webs and lattices and upheavals of sound and texture.”

Werner and his sister Jutta find a primitive radio, take it apart, put it back together and hear music and broadcasts from far away in France – magic, a miracle. Werner’s gift with electronics provides his escape from work in the coal mine where his father died. He’s trained and then assigned to a special unit in the German army, searching out and destroying unauthorized transmitters.

When the Germans arrive to occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee, clutching the priceless and cursed diamond (or a copy), which is at the heart of the book’s mystery . After walking through war-ravaged countryside, they arrive at Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast to live with Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne. He resides in a skinny four-story house that hides a transmitter in the attic.

The woman who cares for Etienne, Madam Manec, greets the famished Marie-Laure with the fragrance and sizzle of “egg, spinach, melting cheese.” Madam Manec is 76-years old, and brave in the way of French resistance fighters – who have always seemed the bravest possible people to me.

Last week during a long day in Seattle of reading the book on ferries and in waiting rooms, we drove home through a wind and rain storm to find the driveway littered with tree debris and our house lightless on the dark bluff. A scramble for flashlights and candles restored a dimmer familiarity.

After snuffing candles and going upstairs, curious about Marie-Laure’s world, I crept back down without my headlamp to get an extra blanket. I grasped the stair rail and felt for each step, suddenly uncertain about depth and number. I thought how limited my perception in the dark and how rich Doerr makes Marie-Laure’s world.

But it’s Madame Manec I think of today, my heart aching, after a friendly soccer game between old enemies, a rock concert, and cafes in Paris became scenes of devastation and sorrow. I wish Parisians her courage, wish for light in the City of Light.

 

International Postcard#1