Find the Ark of the Covenant!

Come with me, History Channel buffs, on an utterly fictitious but chronologically inaccurate adventure!

…and so at last, after incredible effort, we have the map. Yellowed with age, torn and stained along the folds, but we have it, just as the late Professor Ozymandias intended. Quite an honor, his trusting this to me. Course he might still be alive; can’t tell about these rumors the natives spread. They call the old man Professor because he’s wily, knows what’s what even though of course he’s basically ignorant, leaves it all up to Mohammed. Looked me in the eye and asked me what I was searching for? So I told him, for science, man! Has to be done, you see. Knowledge is power. The problem now is how we’re to interpret his confounding scratches. Dammit, why couldn’t the man be more clear? These childish drawing of mountains and rivers can’t be too far from his village, but where exactly? Suppose that one’s the Nile, but what’s the other, then? Can’t even tell which way is north.

Right then, we’d best to proceed cautiously. A visit to the British Museum (Department of Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities), to get an expert opinion. Sounds like the best plan, get a solid foundation for the enterprise, put it on a proper scientific footing.

Look out, man, there’s Percy, Percy Fawcett that is, loitering about the entrance. I wonder who he’s waiting for? I hear some Amazon chieftain spun him a story about a lost city deep in the Brazilian forest, and now he’s obsessed. Gold a foot deep, you know the kind of legends they have. Best keep our distance; I understand the man’s gone half-mad, chasing his South American chimera. Him and that Hiram Bingham, there’s another one for buying into fables. Lost jungle civilizations! Of course there were some cities once, decent kinds of places those Indians built. Bloody-minded savages, but they knew how to use stone, can’t deny it, but naturally they couldn’t keep it going, Nothing but ruins out there now.

Oh, here come those Emersons; avoid them, too. They’re always panting to find out what everyone else is up to, sticking their noses up at your dig and reading you a lecture. That Amelia woman with her umbrellas! And that dark-eyed son of theirs, always creeping about! Paranoid, the whole pack of them, although to be fair that little blond beauty is worth keeping an eye on. Worse, though, I hear they brought a native back home with them and insist on treating the boy like family! Can’t have that; sets a bad precedent. People need to stay where they’re put. Ah, Budge, there you are old chap. That’s Mr. A.E. Wallis Budge to you, yes, this is my assistant, very pleased and all that. Here we are then, we’ve found it, you see, and we await your expertise to confirm what we’re pretty sure we know, what? The true destination, Egypt herself, mother of civilizations, answer to all the great riddles.

What do mean, Greece?! Impossible!

Yes, I know Evan’s aiming for Crete, got some idea of a lost Atlantis there, just befuddled romancing! But that’s Arthur for you, looking to upset the history books. Can’t just accept what’s right in front of his face, rather believe in fairy tales! It’s the Professor’s question popping up again, isn’t it? What are you searching for? Well, what’s the point of more little stone goddesses? Comely things, I have to say, big rounds tits, but no real value. But now the Ark, there’s answers there. Establishes the facts, ya see? Important to stay on top of these discoveries.

What’s that? Oh, that’s how it is, is it? Troy? You can’t be serious! I’m looking for history, not mythology! It’s outrageous how this rubbish persists. The Greeks have enough to be proud of, don’t they, always rubbing our noses in it? Anyway that’s over in Turkey. I hear things, you see, I know all about this German fellow, this grocer Schliemann. Not even a gentleman! And proving my point, he went and stole that site right out from under poor Calvert. Thinks he’ll find Priam’s treasure, I suppose? Well, let them fight over the rubble at Hisarlik, we have better things to do. Everything Greek worth having is already in Europe. I’d as soon embark for Jerusalem and deal with the locals there. Bless its hallowed ground, but there’s never been anything there but Roman rubbish.

No, Africa’s the place! Wait till you see the Sphinx! Looks at you from eternity, she does. And the pyramids! Unbelievable! Makes you appreciate those ancients; they knew a thing or two. A tremendous loss, mysterious ancient people. But then Africa itself! Solomon’s mines! And the Ark! I know as sure as I’m looking at you it rests in Africa, and with this map I’ll prove it! Find this secret oasis the Professor talks about, lost out in the Sahara. He knew all about the Ark, described it to me perfectly, like he was reading the description straight out of the Bible! I tell you, he’s a smart one. You should have seen him, a face like a dried walnut but eyes that saw inside your soul. Gave me the creeps sometimes. And this strange little laugh, more like a cough: heh, heh, heh. What do you suppose he’s there himself, alive after all? Either way, I’ll bring the Ark to England. Teach that cheap showman Belzoni a thing or two.

Ah hah! I knew it! Of course it’s Egypt. Off we go, then! Come along. We can take ship at Portsmouth, be there in no time. Then the Cairo Museum for a start; they know me well there. Just you see to our supplies. And let me have that map.

Mind you, it’s Howard Carter we’ll need to watch out for, once we arrive, him and that patron of his, Carnarvon, always urging him on. Dogged, determined fellow, Carter. None too scrupulous, either. Curse the pair of them! Lucky for us, they’re wasting their time this season, out in the Valley of the Kings where everything’s been looted eons ago. Can’t imagine what they’re thinking.

Ah, the adventuring life! What could be better? And the ladies love it, too. You know my reputation there, I expect, white or native. They all love an explorer, hey? My late partner’s sister, now she was a beauty! Married some minor baronet, I think. She always said a strong nose was a sign of a strong character. Liked the trim figure, too. She asked me the same: What are you searching for? So I told her, Maybe for you, my dear. That was pretty good, wasn’t it?

Well, this will entail some heavy expense, I’m afraid: supplies, camels, and porters. The Professor estimates five weeks’ journey. Thank God for the locals, what? They’ll get us properly on our way. The only difficulty I can foresee is them running off in fright, but I think we can bribe them to continue on, if necessary. Don’t think it will occur, in any event. They trust their Professor, and they’ll follow his advice. They like me well enough, too. It’s because I treat them fair, man to man.

Ah, a message? Thank you, boy. Now, what’s this? From Mrs. Amelia Peabody Emerson. How very formal! And what does she have to say? “I wish you good luck on your journey, Colonel Brexit.” Now that was decent of her. Well done.


NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.

Photo credits: Adam Woodrow, CIMG3481 (CC BY 2.0) / Carlo Raso, The Ark of the Covenant, Sanctuary of Holy House at Loreto / Keith Yahl, The Great Pyramid of Giza (CC BY 2.0)

The Oscars: A Partisan Rant

I wasn’t intending to do this; it’s over, it’s all been said, and even I’m tired of it. Except, movies matter to me, and as the major art form of our time they should matter to everyone, they should be understood as more than a superhero distraction. And now the Oscars.

I mean come on.

So first off, I’ve been examining my own reactions on viewing Green Book, which I admit I greatly enjoyed. It’s an endearing, well-written, and finely acted movie. I want to say I had qualms, and I did, but they weren’t specific; it was more an overall unease. Green Book is also a manipulative, feel-good film, but what, exactly, did I feel so good about? Today, having examined my response, I think it comes down to pride. If you identify with the white character, the movie is a congratulatory slap on the back. When it comes to racism you can be proud of yourself. That’s why I left the theatre with that happy-ending glow.

Well, crap.

While I have certain issues with Roma, it’s an incredible, beautiful film, and wonderfully acted. But of course it’s in black-and-white, and in Spanish, and about a housemaid, and worst of all from Netflix, that upstart challenger to the way things are clearly supposed to be. The Favourite, for all its admitted brilliance, irritated me; I don’t take pleasure from watching women at each other’s throats. I don’t find that particularly funny. So I understand the limited recognition given the first, if I can’t forgive it. And I don’t too much mind the partial snubbing of the second. And then A Star is Born, an ostensibly serious film, neglected to endorse any social cause whatsoever, instead promoting authenticity. Hollywood was not amused.

Netflix also financed the restoration of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, for over forty years the legendary “greatest film never made” and included on many top ten lists this past year, including my own. Its completion was nothing short of miraculous, granting us a new masterpiece from a filmmaker still far ahead of his time. Unfortunately it takes a fortune to campaign for an Oscar these days, and Netflix chose to support Roma. That’s understandable, even admirable; what isn’t is the rumor that the Academy was approached about some special recognition for the TOSOTW team but rejected the idea.

What can be said for either Bohemian Rhapsody or Vice, two films that aren’t even good enough to be considered mediocre? How could they be nominated for Best Picture? And why weren’t all ten of the available slots taken? Did no one see the wonderful Shoplifters? Or Zama? Or Burning? Are we only allowing one foreign film to be nominated for Best Picture, and that only once every couple of decades? Then what about Support the Girls, or the luminous If Beale Street Could Talk? As to the latter, it’s worth noting that James Baldwin’s novel wasn’t particularly successful when first published back in 1974. No one then was interested in hearing about a falsely imprisoned black man, or police racism. We’d moved past all that.

I imagine the final Best Actor voting results as a list with Rami Malek’s teeth on top, right over Christian Bale’s prosthetics, then Viggo Mortensen’s weight gain at third, and Bradley Cooper’s beard coming in fourth. Willem Dafoe was so outclassed in the ostentatious disguise category.

So let’s consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has spent the balance of the past year royally screwing up in its attempt to revive viewer interest in its broadcast. Forgetting, I suppose, that the Oscars aren’t the People’s Choice awards, but have something to do with rewarding excellence. Remarkably enough, they somewhat succeeded in boosting viewership; I think people tuned in hoping for a train wreck. Or possibly it was that Bradley Cooper – Lady Gaga thing.

Popularity is all very well when it comes to finances, but it tends to chase excellence out to the art houses. I can name exceptions: God knows Dunkirk or Get Out should have won over The Shape of Water last year. Anything should have won over The Shape of Water, even the terrible Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (In case you’re interested, the actual best picture of 2017 was The Florida Project, which wasn’t even nominated, what with fortune favoring the financially fortunate.)

All this rambling discourse because something about all this both infuriates and scares me. It might be the general dearth of excellent, provocative movies, although as I say, they do exist. Black Panther was so close, if ultimately just that tiny bit too comic book; it inspired earnest discussion – imagine that! Maybe it’s the unabashed divide between superhero fans and art house patrons that disturbs me, or the recent influx of similar films advocating for preapproved purposes like drugs or conversion therapy. Maybe it’s the insidious idea that popularity really does signify quality, or maybe it’s the equally stupid notion that it means the exact opposite. Maybe it’s all the new Oscar voters with their own agendas, decisively shoving forward or pushing back, or the preferential ballot system, or the people who, as a SAG voter friend of mine once told me, “usually just find something they love and stop there.” Why bother to see all the films nominated? Did Olivia Coleman win over Glenn Close because not enough voters bothered to watch The Wife?

See, it’s not just me, we’re all so everywhere anymore, and this year’s Oscar results reflect our fragmented reality. Obviously too many of us are in whatever place voted for Green Book as Best Picture. Maybe it’s only surprising that we were surprised. Maybe movie goers were always crass and self-indulgent; people do want fun and thrills and self-affirmation and that’s fine, except that too often it’s all they want. And again, all this really matters to me, and should matter to everyone. Movies are not incidental to contemporary culture, they’re central, only these days too many other things come first, and art for art’s sake, that hoary bromide, is an afterthought at best, and at worst righteously overruled.

And that’s what’s wrong; that’s what’s driving me crazy. That, and the fact that not enough people seem to care. But we have to care, and we have to try harder, especially now that everything’s so available for streaming. Even if there are subtitles, even if there isn’t a heartwarming happy ending, even if we actually have to think. Even if we have to put our own presumptions and prejudices and passions aside for one entire minute and just listen.

Art is supposed to lead and astonish and question and enlighten and overthrow.

Not placate. Not pamper. Not even, necessarily, please.

Movies matter, and we need to honor them properly.


NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.

Photo credits: Oscars, David Torcivia (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Global Panorama, Oscar Award Image Courtesy Davidlohr Bueso (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Filmstrip by Mike Jennings (CC BY 2.0)

In February

“Don’t you wish you had a job like mine? All you have to do is think up a certain number of words! Plus, you can repeat words! And they don’t even have to be true!”

Dave Barry

It’s February, and if the days are a tiny bit longer they’re also a whole lot colder, and I despair. Time to search the bottom shelves of my bedroom bookcase for words to lighten the heart, evoke unexpected laughter, and impart an irrational hope of spring. Those dusty shelves hold a trove of the best in humor writing, select examples of that delicate, exacting art so vastly different from comedy writing, where words are meant to be spoken aloud. Literary humor, by contrast, while seemingly easy and offhand, is precisely timed to the rhythm of the reading mind, and at its best forges a poetry of delighted surprise. 

Once of an age to actually buy my own books, I turned into a fervent Dave Barry fan; he and Dostoevsky hugely influenced my own writing. I discovered David Sedaris, too, but while I appreciate Sedaris’ cleverness I don’t sufficiently relate. (I do like P.J. O’Rourke but there we’re getting political which is not my intent, so never mind. Ditto Molly Ivins and my lengthy fascination with William F. Buckley, Jr.; I’m a sucker for erudite wit.) And while I adore George Carlin his books tend more towards transcribed jokes. Of course both Barry and Sedaris stand on the shoulders of S.J. Perelman (ah, The Swiss Family Perelman!) and H. Allen Smith, while Smith and Perelman are true disciples of Mark Twain, the granddaddy of them all. Winter’s a perfect time to travel with The Innocents Abroad, or head out west with Roughing It (but be careful, Twain had some pretty rough later years).

But I’m getting ahead of myself: my adolescent introduction to the genre was Jean Kerr’s The Snake Has All the Lines, a collection of magazine pieces from the late playwright and wife of theatre critic Walter Kerr, providentially delivered into my hands via some Book of the Month Club. That volume and her other collections, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and Penny Candy, proved a proto-feminist instruction manual on how to be an admittedly imperfect yet unabashedly intelligent writer and mother. Kerr is never political and never openly angry, and although today we urgently need to be both those things, we don’t need to be them all the time and I repeat, it’s February.  

Since I initially read on limited funds but had easy access to both libraries and used bookstalls, a lot of what I consumed was published between the world wars, if not earlier. Take the immensely enjoyable Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Emily Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner. But get started on Kimbrough and she leads you on to European rivers and dances at Bryn Mawr or out across America on the early lecture circuit, with no talk shows but train stops and women’s clubs. I have an entire half-shelf of Kimbrough, and also a couple of paperbacks from Skinner, who’s no slouch at the genre in her own right.

And there are those wonderful tales from Ruth McKenney, most notably of course My Sister Eileen and the other Eileen stories. Read them to brave early Greenwich Village and make your way in life in the big city, even while the backstory breaks your heart. (You can Google it if you don’t know it, but don’t.) And from the 1950s there’s Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and its sequel, Raising Demons, both packed with sharp observations on softball and clothespin dolls and witchcraft and children turning into adults, and both as remarkable as her horror stories. Eventually, of course, I reached Erma Bombeck’s suburbia, a fine enough place to spend some free time, but again I don’t genuinely relate. Too much domestic emphasis, I feel, for a woman who lived such a large life. I haven’t kept much from her canon. 

At some point I stumbled upon, then cherished, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu stories (My Family and Other Animals, etc.) , which I suppose could reasonably be considered fiction, plus I’m a big Lawrence Durrell fan. (There are these issues; feel free to look that one up.) Even so, I love G. Durrell’s sense of the ridiculous and regularly reread the trilogy, if not his African books.)

Okay, while I’m on the topic, there’s outright fiction on those bottom shelves, too. Try Hotel Bemelmans by Ludwig Bemelmans, particularly the chapter No Trouble at All. Or just read that chapter; I’m sure it’s anthologized as a short story somewhere. Find it. Trust me. Or you might like E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels. Or from Patrick Dennis (of Auntie Mame fame, but here again be cautious because he’s had some serious misses) there’s The Joyous Season and Genius, both somewhat dated but still fun. If you’d prefer something a little more current, I recommend Joe Keenan’s Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz. I have some quibbles with the pacing but they made me laugh out loud. And please don’t ignore the late, much missed Donald E. Westlake (specifically when he’s writing under the name Donald E. Westlake). I like most of the Dortmunder series, in fact a couple of those books are terrific, but Brothers Keepers and Dancing Aztecs are also favorites. Dancing Aztecs is the 1970s.

A few more unique, precious volumes I return to over and over: Margery Sharp’s Cluny Brown, all about a plumber’s daughter working as a housemaid in pre-World War II England. A Garden of Cucumbers by Poyntz Tyler: endearing, supercilious, and a word-lover’s treasure. And Instant Gold by Frank O’Rourke, a modern fable that just plain makes me happy.

See, that first robin will be here before you know it! And as any one of the above authors would no doubt point out, it will probably freeze to death.

Some of the older works mentioned here have happily been reissued, but if you can’t find the book you want anywhere, go at once to Amazon owns it now, but it remains a miracle of reader wish fulfillment: “If only I could search every used bookstore in the entire world!” Now you can.


NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.

Photo credits: Christo Drummkopf, life among the savages (CC by 2.0) / Nathan, DSC00100 (CC by 2.0) / Irina – Susan Durkee portrait of Mark Twain (CC by 2.0)

My Own Eve Babitz Obsession

Probably it’s too soon for me to me to be diving into this trend, but Eve is very much on my mind right now. For one thing, I have a massive hangover. For another, I’m in a February funk and inclined to be jealous of those sunny, smoggy L.A. days she describes in those books of hers that pretend to be fiction but are blatantly based on her own utterly insane life.

Wonderfully formed pieces lacking remorse, just right there in your face like her take on sex. So many of her love affairs are public record: Harrison Ford, Jim Morrison, Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin (she told him to wear that white suit), and on and on. There’s never any hint of coyness or manipulation, she’s just fully there, shockingly entire yet pure. No wonder that famous photo with Marcel Duchamp works so well: Eve with her face hidden but her fulsome nakedness on display, him bent over his chess game, entirely in his head, and both divinely oblivious.

I am so envious of her days with no pleasure declined, no curiosity unrelieved, everything just see and take. I love it, the whole sex and drugs scene of the late sixties and seventies. What a perfect vicar she is for all of us so weighted down with responsibility and stratagems and fear. Worrying about getting hurt and also about who we might ourselves hurt, entrenched in our rules and laws and other boring nonsense.

It takes a narcissist I suppose, but Eve’s got an unflinching and unmistakably loving eye, because that’s what loving means. And she’s got the language of a woman raised on the best literature, the sense and rhythm of it is in her blood and bone, all that instinctive selection and refinement and pacing and purpose. She’s an artist in the service of art and nothing else ever, and so she’s also separate, isolated. 

And she’s all the craze these #MeToo feminist days, especially among the millennials, and I suspect for all the wrong reasons, taken totally out of context. Naturally there’s a recent biography (Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. by Lili Anolik), a truly pathetic if unintentionally hilarious one worth reading for its key to all those roman a clef identities, but equally for its wonderful subtext. The author practically harasses her legendary but reclusive subject in order to promote herself, to claim literary equality with Babitz and Joan Didion to boot with a rudely inserted thesis on the novel to justify it all, and just – no. Lauding Slow Days, Fast Company over the fresher, freer Eve’s Hollywood because who needs all that joy? Oh, you have to read it to enjoy both these woman playing each other, and for the way Eve somehow forgets the other’s name every time they meet, and cadges meals, and then flicks her away like cigarette ash.

Not that Eve smokes or does drugs or even drinks anymore; AA helped there, and others have stepped in to steady the always wobbly writer now this resurrection is bringing in some fresh funds.

But Eve, following a devastating accident in which half her body was burned (thankfully not her face or feet), took a hard right turn, politically. I find this interesting and perhaps disturbing, speaking here as the author of an entire novel concerning a woman who took a hard right turn, and why, and what happened afterward. So I’ve been examining Eve through her writing to try to figure this out, in effect to remember what I was thinking then myself.

Is Eve’s conservative stance a defiant declaration of independence, a projection of her old fear, as she put it, of being adjectivized? I think that’s part of it. But Eve, who noticed everything (the black music blaring over a very white party in Sex and Rage) apparently never feels the urge to interfere; she observes, and that’s it. Why bother with politics when you have a life? So instead she watches the L.A. riots from a suite at the Chateau Marmont, merely regretting the destruction of familiar sites. Or so she implies, and it matches what we know of her. So maybe the ground was tilled all along, just waiting for the right seed. Maybe it has something to so with what’s always been missing from Eve, all the usual internalized cultural crap, the need to be good. But what do I know?

Except I know that the artist always protects the artist, whatever it takes. So that’s happening.

Photo credits: Chateau Marmont by Kelly Smith (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Hollywood by LWYang (CC by 2.0)

(PLEASE NOTE: The sale on the Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City ends on February 15th, so right now it’s as low as it goes. BUT before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Really, do that.)

My Year In Fiction

From delightful discoveries to over-hyped disappointments, counting down a year’s fiction reading from best to worst:

Milkman by Anna Burns: what goes through a young girl’s mind when male sexual privilege inexorably encroaches, endless partisan violence cautions against caring, and virulent rumor ruthlessly inflates the innocent into the unforgiveable? Milkman is a word-loving but miraculously never word-drunk narrative, and while everything’s a little too conveniently resolved, this stream-of-consciousness barrage from an exaggerated rather than unimaginable everywhere is outrageously relevant and involving.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer: in which an author sets off on a road trip comedy of errors, all to avoid the painful wedding of his ex-boyfriend. First I kind of poo-pooed this extended pun, and then I realized I’d fallen in love with it.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: exquisite, memorable, a puzzle with music that’s much more than the sum of its parts. (The answer is right on the tip of my soul.)

When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: the first an unanswered question, a numbingly brutal immersion into war in Japan; the second an unrelenting yet placid nightmare, a hellish, accurate analogy of the human condition. Read them both.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Like Dickens for grownups, this grudgingly adventurous bildungsroman takes a young slave from Barbados by balloon, to Nova Scotia by ship, then on to the Arctic and America and England. Science, art, and romance are on board, while a nicely reasoned maturity awaits on shore. It’s all fairly preposterous but wildly imaginative, insightful, and sane.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano: a bit of a letdown in that I could see where it was going, and far from Bolano’s best, but nevertheless a superb trip through the conscience of a country.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: this one has the best depiction of malignant narcissism I’ve ever encountered, plus a compelling young heroine and tense, edge-of-your-seat action.

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeliene Thein: a child’s experience of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, a memory journey of both miles and years, a cyclic reaching out for recovery.

Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan: the very best snarky escapism, and thank you for the footnotes, Mr. Kwan, they were lovely.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo: Bejing, youth and eagerness, movie making, struggles – it’s slight but nothing can squash the delicate joy infusing this novel.

Alias Grace by Margret Atwood: NO, NO, NO! What a cheap, cowardly solution, and it matters. Show her as she is, what she was forced to become, because there’s the true tragedy. The factual history of Grace Marks, the 19th century maid convicted for her part in a murder, carries this book despite a nonsensical, mitigating out.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko: an oddly moving book on Chinese immigrants and a boy deserted by his mother, having to adjust to adoptive parents, to become another person with different tastes and perhaps expunged memories. I remember this one clearly despite myself, despite not even liking the characters that much. They keep hanging around like unwanted friends.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson: here’s a writer just having some fun, so I did too. As with The Diamond Age it starts with an absolutely genius concept but kind of runs down. He does this, and it makes me furious. 

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn: a suspenseful novel featuring some nicely timed surprises, one of which works quite well. I guessed the villain of the piece immediately, but still a pretty neat little thriller.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje: an atmospheric WWII tale with a mild shock to catch you up with this business of war, adolescence, and the overlooked consequences that filter down to disregarded lives.

Nobody’s Son by Mark Slouka: this one was odd, but interesting. It’s the usual look back at troubled parents and a traumatic childhood, but it carefully constructs its narrative in order to abruptly refute it – the end. What?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: contemporary feminism in the style of Little Women. See my Literary Rant here. Want to talk about the difference between organic writing and writing about whatever’s in the headlines?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple: fun enough, I guess, but the satiric and the serious seemed out of step, and neither idea quite got where it needed to get. All in all an interesting trip to a decent if not exactly valid resolution, so fine.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: cultural appropriation, time, and race music on a literal and very dark ride into the Deep South.

What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin: a just okay Hollywood mystery in hindsight.

Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: this story of two female filmmakers bored me; an earnest examination of two basically uninteresting people.

The Girls by Emma Cline: a major disappointment, a pale, exploitative effort that plays around the edges of the Manson insanity but never uncovers anything central or compelling.

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: a husband loses himself in Greece, the wife follows, and nothing much else happens, certainly nothing interesting.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: damply disappointing, just no fun.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Suskind: I hated this book.

Bonus: New additions to some favorite mystery series:

The Knowledge: A Richard Jury Mystery by Martha Grimes: it’s exactly what you’d expect, with a black cab ride to a secret pub, and Melrose Plant with a clever little girl on safari in Africa. So basically all’s right in that particular world, thank you very much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel by Robert Galbraith: what a relief to see these characters getting their silly lives back on track. Also there’s a mystery at Parliament and some upper and lower class characters and so on.

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton: her excellent last letter.

The Inspector Gamache series (all 14 books) by Louise Perry: because I needed a rehabilitative stretch this summer so took a virtual vacation in Quebec, then suffered some months waiting for the final Gamache adventure, a satisfactory farewell. If you’re not familiar, there’s a perfect hero, a quaint, near-magical village, mysteries of the usual type, political machinations, intelligence, and a rather wicked wit.

(PLEASE NOTE: The Kindle version of Worthy of This Great City is on special, priced as low as it’s going to go. (I was planning on a holiday sale, but I was busy and forgot.) Before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)

Photo credits: Dorine Ruter, Book (CC BY 2.0) / aehdeschaine, Books about books (CC BY-ND 2.0)