25 February 2012

Too complicated by half

Sue Scriven comes to our house regularly to help us stave off the dust bunnies, sticky crud on the dining room table, and general sediments of daily living. We are grateful and usually enjoy a week after she's been here because we don't have to dust or vacuum much. The following week we grumble and clean.

Sue knows about all the reading that gets done here and recently recommended The Coffee Trader, a book by David Liss. When I went to the library, that book wasn't on the shelf, but Liss' first book, A Conspiracy of Paper, was. So I brought it home.

The book, though written a dozen years ago and set in early-18th century London, is full of contemporary American memes. Like presidential candidate Ron Paul, there were lots of people in old London who were fearful of the "new" paper money. Like many 21st century politicians, there were many people worried about the "new fangled" national debt. And there were entrepreneurs and con men hawking derivatives based on the national debt and even lotteries based on the derivatives. Oh, and there were criminals working behind the scenes to create financial panics and sell forged shares of financial companies and ponzi scheme investments. ["There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good." - Stephen Colbert]

At the end of the book, when it was too late to matter to me, Liss explains that "British money in the eighteenth century broke down this way: twelve pence equaled a shilling, five shillings a crown, twenty shillings a pound, and twenty-one shillings a guinea." (Remember these are the same people who came up inches, feet, yards, perches, and miles.) That complicated currency probably made sense to people who used it and didn't have much of it. A London laborer, Liss says, "might earn twenty pounds a year." Nevertheless, it seems overly complex from my 21st century vantage point. So does the story that Liss tells.

If I saw a diagram of the plot, I might admire the cleverness that went in to creating it and the creativity that linked elements. But, it was over complicated by half.

Same goes for the story telling in my mind. Maybe I am just a streamlined reader thrown back into a horse-and-buggy environment. But while trying to recreate the feeling of 18th century London, Liss spends a lot more time describing things that seem irrelevant than I thought necessary. When he wants to move the story along, the author can have a character send a message by street urchin across the city and get a reply in a couple hours and a couple paragraphs. Other times he takes pages of dialogue to reveal one tiny bit of information. I spent a lot of time frustratedly skimming for details that mattered.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book to me was that the main character was a non-practicing Jew in the London of 1720. After a career as a bare knuckle boxer and petty criminal, his uncle tries to bring him back into "the tribe" and an observant family. (In some scenes I was reminded of the outsider Easy Rawlins from Walter Mosley novels, and his struggles to reenter respectable society.) The anti-Semitism and legal restrictions on the roles Jews could play just a few decades after being allowed into the country were another of those things I was vaguely aware of, but had never thought about in detail. (BTW, that new national debt and the decision to allow Jews to once again live in England were related to the English Civil War, the Commonwealth of England, and Oliver Cromwell. Without a king, the nation had to borrow money to finance itself. And that borrowing required an international banking network. Since Jewish bankers in Holland were keys to the economic success there, Cromwell sought to expand the bankers' activities to England. That meant he promoted toleration and Jewish immigration.)

I might be tempted to pick up another of Liss' novels when I have lots of down time to enjoy the leisurely story telling, but I will know not to expect contemporary pacing. I'll still probably skim for relevancies, though. Maybe I should have begun with The Coffee Trader.

Have you read A Conspiracy of Paper or another of Liss' books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

13 February 2012

Dan was right, again

A couple years ago, Dan Conrad said that Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? was one of the best books he'd read that year.

I've had mixed experiences with Atkinson's novels. Case Histories was really good. I couldn't even convince myself to finish Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The last half of Started Early, Took My Dog was good, but it took me a lot of work to get to the good bits.

Hoping for the best, I picked up Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News? the last time I was at the Northfield Library.

I was confused at the beginning, not because of how Atkinson wrote it, but beause I thought I'd already read the book. But I knew I hadn't read this one. Finally, I remembered that the stories in this book were in one of the BBC productions called Case Histories. The BBC producers created a miniseries out of the first three novels featuring Jackson Brodie. The setting of the first scenes in When Will There Be Good News? was different from the televised version, but the basic story was the same. Confusion resolved I read on.

There were fewer characters waved around as red herrings in the beginning than in Atkinson's other books, so I found it easier to keep track of what was going on. I also had vague memories of the television version, but I didn't remember a lot of details. I'm glad I didn't, because it made reading the stories better.

There are three stories in the book that revolve around the main characters. And there are interesting connections between the characters -- as there are in the other novels Atkinson has written.

I agree with Dan. This is the best of Atkinson's books I have read so far. Jackson Brodie, the "star" of several books, is relegated to a minor role in most of this book. He's in the hospital after nearly being killed in a train wreck. Not to worry, he heals enough and becomes a vital part of resolving things. And he's the victim of major fraud.

Brodie survives the train wreck because of first aid applied by a 16-year-old who was staying at her tutor's house next to the tracks. The tutor's car accident caused the train wreck. The teenager is also a nanny for a doctor and her baby. The doc and the baby go missing under suspicious circumstances. One of Brodie's old flames, still on the police force, is the lead investigator in that case. Oh, and the young nanny also has a brother who is dealing heroin and not being honest with his suppliers. Just to bring things full circle, there's a 30-year-old back story that ties the doctor to Jackson Brodie.

Jackson Brodie survived the train wreck and the loss of his wealth. The teenager who was the link between all the stories inherited part of her tutor's estate and is headed to university. The doc and her baby survived and got some revenge. There are loose ends that lead to the next book.

More Kate Atkinson? We'll see. There's so much to read and not enough time.

Have you read When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.

08 February 2012

Sacred Treasure

On the top of Gary Sankary's Best of 2011 Reading List was Rabbi Mark Glickman's book Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah. The subtitle is "The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic."

Gary explained to me (and probably to most of us) that a "Genizah is a storeroom/closet/attic that synagogues use to store scared texts that are no longer legible or usable." Often the old documents a genizah are collected and buried in a cemetery. But, the The Ben Ezra Synagogue Genizah had basically never been emptied since the synagogue was founded in the 9th century CE.

Scottish sisters on a Victorian-era adventure in Cairo bought an old document from the Ben Ezra Genizah they couldn't identify, in spite of their expertise in ancient languages. Cambridge don, Rabbi Solomon Schechter identified it for them. It was a one-page fragment of "a Hebrew manuscript of the book of Ben Sira or as it became known in Greek, Ecclesiasticus. Today that book is found in the Catholic Bible, it was excluded from the Hebrew and King James versions." It had been written around the year 900.

That discovery sent Rabbi Schechter out looking for funding and then off to Cairo. There he found the Genizah stuffed with hundreds of thousands of documents. The Genizah which began as a place to store old sacred documents had become a place to store old written documents of all kinds.

In Sacred Treasure, Rabbi Glickman tells the story of the Cairo trove of documents. Rabbi Schechter is only the first in a century-long line of scholars who have worked to identify, read, analyze, and catalog the thousands of documents.

Rabbi Glickman looking into the Cairo Gehizah, Photo: Jacob Glickman

Back in the '70s, I spent a lot of time volunteering on archaeolgical field work projects. I have a real appreciation for the careful work that goes into uncovering and interpreting material culture from long ago. I still recall the thrill of uncovering a large clam shell, cleaning it off, drawing it into the unit's map for its level, and photographing it. When it came time to remove the shell, I (we, because no one can do all this alone) found a small, 800-year-old corn cob under it. Wow!

So, there was Rabbi Scechter, peering into a room full of a thousand years' of history. He was able to purchase most of the documents and take them to England. Back in Cambridge, he began the process of cataloging, reading, translating, identifying, and understanding documents. It was tedious and tremendously exciting work. I understand that. What would any philosopher, historian, or religious scholar give to find something written by Moses Maimonides? What was the value of many things written by the famous sage? But that just begins to tell the story of what was found in the Cairo Genizah.

Rabbi Glickman does a great job of telling this story in all its complexity. He profiles the people and the problems -- like institutional competition. I really appreciated how well the various threads of the story track in Rabbi Glickman's skilled narrative.

I learned that Medieval and modern Jewish religious movements are as numerous and varied as Protestant demoninations. If I thought about my little knowledge of Israeli politics, I sort of knew that, but reading about the varieties of Jewish ritual and rules made that diversity come alive. Rabbi Glickman makes a point of that and a few other ways that the Genizah's contents illuminate the present as well as the past.

I wish he'd written more about what the documents tell us about beliefs, worship, diet, families, law, economics, and other things that are described in the Cairo documents. But, this is not a long, scholarly tome. It's an adventure story. And a darn good one.

Thanks, Gary for recommending the book. I'm passing on his recommendation.

It's not hard to get the book. It's available from Amazon.com. I ordered my directly from Rabbi Mark Glickman, 15030 232nd Ave. NE, Woodinville, WA 98077. The cost is $24.99 plus $3.50 shipping (Continental US) and $2.25 tax if you have it delivered to an address in the state of Washington. And he'll autograph your copy.

If you read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

Expedition: Genizah, Rabbi Glickman's web site
"Cairo Genizah author describes treasure trove" from The Jewish Review
"Cairo’s Jewish medieval manuscripts" from PRI's The World (includes some great photos, including the one above)

01 February 2012

Writing by recipe

I'm beginning to think that somebody, somewhere wrote an instruction manual for mystery writers and that Kate Atkinson and Camilla Läckberg followed the instructions.

I thought that the first Kate Atkinson novel I read, Case Histories, was well done. I even liked the way she began the book -- in snippets of story that seemed unrelated until well into the book. I wasn't quite as taken by the second Atkinson mystery I read, Started Early, Took My Dog. Alerted by my earlier experience, I began taking notes early in the reading. It still didn't measure up by my lights.

Then I tried to read Atkinson's first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. I couldn't convince myself to even finish that one. Okay, it was her first try. But it won awards! Not from me.

Dan Conrad wrote a comment on my description of trying to read Behind the Scenes... about Camilla Läckberg's The Preacher. (I'd forgotten until I looked up the blog entry.) He was disappointed after reading Läckberg's The Ice Princess.

So I headed into The Preacher without Dan's warning in my head or The Ice Princess experience.

First of all, Läckberg must have read the same instructions that Atkinson did. I didn't take notes, but there were time when I wished I had. The first half of the book is made up of bits and pieces of story and characters in little seemingly random order. Trying to get a handle on who is who and what's going on in the various settings is a chore. Not enough to disuade me from reading on, but a chore. The only bits that are clearly identifiable are two-page descriptions of sadistic, misogynistic torture that are scattered throughout the book. After the first two of those, I just skipped the rest of them.

And there's so much filler in this 400-page book. Where was the persuasive editor to convince the author that losing 100-150 pages would not be a disaster. Of course you couldn't tell all the stories and you couldn't describe all the details, but the novel would be better. Write another book with the things you leave out.

So, the main story, crazy as it is, is okay. If Läckberg's early book had a strong, active woman character, this one doesn't. It might have helped. The side and back stories seemed really superfluous to me. I wanted this to be a "choose your own adventure" type of book which gave me choices at the end of chapters about what story I wanted to continue and which ones to abandon.

No such luck.

I still want to go back and read The Ice Princess. I hope Läckberg wrote that one before she read the instruction manual about writing a bunch of little stories, cutting them into 3-paragraph sections, and then randomly pasting them onto pages in the first half of the book.

Have you read The Preacher or The Ice Princess? What did you think of it (them)? Write and tell this little bit of the world.