Monday, December 30, 2013

December reading roundup, bye-bye 2013

 Chatty Cathy back once again to recap the month. Actually it's two months; life has been hectic and full here at casa mia so  it's been tough breaking away for a few moments of book journaling time. Actually, hectic isn't the word -- more like just plain crazy.  And it's not over yet.

So here we go:
November and December were set aside for fiction that had something to do with cults -- not cult fiction, which is always fun, but fictional cults.

I started out with Messiah, by Gore Vidal,  followed by Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk.   Next up came The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover, which I absolutely loved; there's so much craziness in this book that the 400+ pages went by quickly. There's a sequel being released in March and it's killing me to wait.  The final entry in this list, although I'm currently reading Jeannette Turner Hospital's excellent Oyster,  is Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse, written 85 years ago.  Scoff if you will -- it's still a great book.  In fact, all of these novels are older -- checking out this category in what's current led nowhere except to YA novels which I just don't do.  I had also planned to read The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq, and Patricia Duncker's The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge, but didn't quite get there, so they'll be thrown into the January mix.

The rest of the books over the last two months are

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton (not yet discussed; coming soon)
Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam (not yet discussed; coming soon)

Borderfield Blues, by Corey Lynn Fayman
The Restless Engineer, by Jac Wright
The Fire Dance, by Helene Tursten (out in January, but thanks to Soho I had an ARC)

The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel, which I must say is the best book I've read all year

weird fiction/horror/fantasy/sci-fi
The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring, which is really historical fiction, but does mess around with a famously-haunted house

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    --  I need to regroup since I haven't had much time to organize; so I'll table this one for later.

 2) Added to the  wishlist this last two months: 

 crime fiction:
nothing here, actually
 general fiction/literature:
Nemesis, by Philip Roth
 The Search for Klingsor, by Jorge Volpi
Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maughan
the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
nothing here

The Heir Apparent: A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince, by Jane Ridley

3) Books bought these last two months:

  • Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout (nonfiction/biography)
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (nonfiction/history)
  • Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel (nonfiction)
  • Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry (fiction/literature)
  •  The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (fiction/literature)
  • The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta (fiction/literature)
  • It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (fiction/literature)

4The book group read Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam mid-December. Except for one person who read it the day prior to the group meeting, we all loved this book; two members of the group went on to read Gardam's Old Filth on their own because they love Gardam's writing so very much.

5) Currently reading Oyster, by Jeannette Turner Hospital and The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.

That's it, along with a fond farewell to 2013 -- it was a good but crazy year.  To all, a peaceful new year, filled with health, love and happiness.  And of course, a giant stack of books to get you through the year. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

A book not to be missed: Thank You For Your Service, by David Finkel

Sarah Crichton Books (FSG), 2013
256 pp


"When you have a solider of that caliber, you know when he's broken, and when he's broken, he's gotta be fixed."

Rarely in life does a book come along that has me telling everyone I know that they have to read it. I just finished  Thank You For Your Service, and if you have friends or family returning from military deployment, you may find this book to be an invaluable resource.  Yes, there are a number of books on PTSD out there on the market already, but trust me -- you will have never read anything like this one.

Mr. Finkel's prior book The Good Soldiers (which I haven't yet read) had him embedded with men in an army battalion in Baghdad during the 2007 surge. Thank You For Your Service finds him embedded yet again, but this time here in the US, after the soldiers' deployments are finished.   As the dustjacket blurb states, "He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments"  in a period he calls the "after-war," as these men begin the process of trying to recover.  The book focuses on soldiers returning with "the invisible wounds of this war, including traumatic brain injury,  post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety," causing emotional, mental and physical scars, often  finding their outlet in spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug abuse and sometimes suicide.  But it's not just the men --  the author also offers the viewpoints and voices of  wives or girlfriends who try to adjust to their men being home but broken.  In most cases, the women are simply not equipped to handle the changes and they often wonder what happened to the men they said goodbye to at the start of  their deployment.

While anything I write can't do the raw power of this book the justice it deserves, you can read my thoughts here at my nonfiction page.  I will say that the soldiers and their families who agreed to participate in Finkel's work did so knowing that everything would be public and on the record, and this openness is what makes this book so haunting. Sometimes I had to put the book down, regroup emotionally, and then come back to it -- and when a book can do this, the author has done an excellent job. Definitely a no-miss read that stay on your mind long after the cover has been closed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

They may not be famous, but these are my best reads of the year

It's just about a week away from the end of 2013, and I must say, it was a fine year for reading. If you're at all curious, you can click here for the entire list of books read in 2013.  Like everyone else, I had my favorites, some I liked okay and some that just didn't work for me. Unlike a lot of people,  I read very few books that ever make it to the NY Times bestseller list, but that's okay. I just do my thing and it makes me very happy.

The most outstanding book for me this year is David Finkel's  Thank You For Your Service, (FSG) which shook me to the core.  It is a very well-crafted and intense work of journalism, where the author has embedded himself within the families of soldiers whose deployments in the middle east were over.  It focuses on the vets' mental health after their sometimes horrific experiences during the war, the effects on themselves and their families; it also turns the spotlight on the people who've dedicated themselves to trying to fix the people underneath the soldier.  It is, in a word, superb.

now on to the others:

-- fiction/literature

I can't pick just one favorite in this category, because I read so many books that have stuck with me. So, books published this year that I loved most this year were

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid 

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcon
We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf
Night of the Rambler, by Montague Kobbe
followed by the previously-published

 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Oil on Water, by Helon Habila
American Rust, by 
The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa 
A Friend of the Earth, by T.C. Boyle
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien 
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover 
Messiah, by Gore Vidal
-- crime fiction --  

Published this year in the world of crime fiction,  The Killing of Emma Gross by Damien Seaman (Five Leaves) was my favorite novel, proving that there are good crime books to be found outside of the mainstream publishers and authors. In fact, this year, my top three favorites came from indie publishers, the other two being

21:37 by Mariusz Czubaj (Stork Press)
A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Piñeiro (Bitter Lemon Press)

Other favorites published in 2013 are

The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri
 Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura
Treasure Hunt, by Andrea Camilleri
Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, by Fred Vargas
Holy Orders, by Benjamin Black
Two Soldiers, by Roslund and Hellstrom
The Fame Thief, by Timothy Hallinan

followed by the previously-published 

 Crashed, by Timothy Hallinan and
Little Elvises, by Timothy Hallinan
They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, by Horace McCoy

--weird fiction/fantasy/sci-fi--

In the realm of the strange, speculative and weird, my favorite book wasn't published this year, but in 2012-- Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, is just filled with some of the weirdest stories I've ever read. Right up my weirdness alley. 

Of the books published this year in this category, I really enjoyed

Revenge, by Yoko Ogawa
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron
NOS4A2, by Joe Hill
The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

followed by the previously-published 

Occultation, by Laird Barron
The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron
Last Days, by Adam Nevill
To Charles Fort, With Love, by Caitlin Kiernan
The Shining, by Stephen King

I also want to mention The Circle, by Dave Eggers, which although it wasn't the best example of writing in this category, really got under my skin because of the potential and caused me to buy a brand new copy of Orwell's 1984 after I finished it.

And last, but definitely not least, there's the nonfiction category, of which this year,

-- nonfiction -- 

The Brothers, by Stephen Kinzer,  turned out to be my favorite (after Thank You For Your Service).   It's an eye-opening, well-researched and intelligently-constructed examination of  the Dulles brothers,  both of whom had a huge role in America's politics and foreign policy for decades and  helped shaped the geopolitical world we live in.

Published in 2013 and worthy of highest praise and accolades are

Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff
Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright
Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker
Midnight in Mexico, by Alfredo Corchado
The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan
The Price of Justice, by Laurence Leamer
So that's it -- another year gone, although next year's lineup is already looking really fine and promising.  Happiest of holidays, and a peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year to all.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

*The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett

Vintage Crime/Random House, 1989
originally published 1929
231 pp


I realize that the last three novels I've written about have been older, but this novel of American crime fiction hearkens back to the end of the 1920s.  It might be old, but like the others I've written about, it still yields a lot of entertainment power.  The Dain Curse first made its appearance in Black Mask magazine as a serial released between October 1928 and January 1929; it was his second Continental Op story after Red Harvest.  It may not be Hammett's best, but I still had a lot of fun with it. I mean, seriously -- you have a whacked-out bunch of people involved in a crazy cult, a wealthy drug-addicted, simpering heroine who just might be the victim of a curse, an old house by the sea, a man hiding a secret identity, and of course, a number of murders before you get to the end.

If you're interested, I've posted my discussion of this book at my crime page  ;  if you know Hammett only from his Maltese Falcon and have never read anything else by him,  you're in for a treat. Go on over and take a look!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

another oldie: *The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover

Grove Press, 2000
originally published 1966
441 pp


"...there is a logic to everything ...even the irrational..."

 I loved this book.  I'm going to read the sequel, The Brunists' Day of Wrath, when it comes out in 2014 from Dzanc books -- I don't want to wait until March, so close on the heels of finishing the original novel, but well, I suppose I don't have much of a choice in the matter. As the book blurb on the back cover notes, The Origin of the Brunists won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for Best First Novel, but imho, it certainly doesn't read like a first novel.

At its heart, the book is an account of the rise of a religious cult and the resulting religious fervor coming on the heels of  a terrible mine disaster, but really, that statement is way too simplistic.  It begins with a prologue as the people in the cult, known as the Brunists, have gathered the day before the second coming on a hill they've named the Mount of Redemption.  A terrible event occurs, one that goes on to find its way into the very legends, myths and art of the religion.  This part is related by a new convert, who seems slightly confused.  The rest of the novel reveals what happened leading up to that event and beyond, beginning with the disaster at the mine, an event which will ultimately leave an entire town and several lives in chaos. 

The Brunists take their name from a coal miner named Giovanni Bruno, who just prior to the disaster has been getting a lot of crap from fellow workers to the point of making him cry.  Another victim of hazing is a new guy who is saved by a miner named Oxford Clemens (his friends call him Ferd), and off the two of them go to have a quiet smoke.  Lighting up sets off an explosion; in the confusion down below, a group of miners got lost and then  barricaded themselves to wait for help. Bruno is with them, but off on his own; the others die, and Bruno is saved, although pretty damaged by the carbon monoxide.  Another miner, the Reverend Ely Collins of the Church of the Nazarene, is also killed, but had written a note to his wife Clara and daughter Elaine that Clara takes as a message that reveals the day of the second coming. She also hears that Ely reportedly saw a white bird, "like a dove,"  in the mine just before the explosion.  Bruno is in a coma, but when he wakes up (still damaged), he mutters some strange words about a white bird and a visitation from the Virgin Mary in the mine.  While Clara is convinced that Ely was sending her some kind of message about "God's final judgment," another person is concerned that she never received advanced warning about the disaster from her guide Domiron, who allowed her to communicate with "higher forces." This is Elaine Norton, a substitute teacher who has been kicked out of a few towns after townspeople started noticing her strange preoccupation with teenaged boys. Elaine has notebooks dating back years filled with Domiron's communications; now she believes that they were forced to leave their last town for a specific purpose. She becomes involved with Clara, Bruno and Bruno's sister Marcella, as do a few other of Clara's friends and a lawyer who's into numerology named Ralph Himebaugh -- who become the founding members of this new religion. Chronicling it all is Justin Miller, a former hometown athlete who'd been brought back to the town to run the newspaper.  Justin tends to see everything as "a game," and while researching the Brunist story that he knows is going to make him a lot of money, he falls for Marcella and comes up with a plan to "rescue" her.  The new Nazarene reverend Abner Baxter is suspicious of the Brunists and gets things stirred up; the town banker enlists the help of some of the disaster survivors to form a Common Sense Committee in the wake of rumors of the mine closing to try to keep a lid on things so that the Brunists don't drive away potential interest or business for West Condon's future.  All of these people and their stories (including Baxter's kids who form their own group called The Black Hand) come together at the Mount of Redemption, coming full circle back to the beginning of the novel, and then a little beyond.

With lots of humor interspersed throughout the book, this is one of the craziest novels I've ever read. Aside from the new religion, which imho isn't the real focus of this book but rather the centerpiece around which the characters react, the author really gets into small-town life and minds, the workings of power and politics, and how seemingly "normal" people can get caught up in their own various forms of madness and mania.  I'd say it's  a novel about the people of West Condon much more than anything else.  The author is a genius when it comes to the characters -- and it's really incredibly tough to believe that this was Mr. Coover's first novel.  It does take some time and attention to get through, not because it's difficult to read, but because the author so carefully and slowly develops the  frenzy that occurs not just among the Brunists, but the craziness occurring  throughout the entire town. It also shows that no matter what sort of community these people find themselves in, even in "A community of good will,"  everything eventually comes down to matters of self interest -- a very non-idealistic view that makes this book well worth reading.  Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

... sigh...

Oh my.

It's been a rough two weeks -- not due to the holidays or anything but because a company whose name I will not mention has seen fit not to renew my original domain name and my blog went byebye. I've been scrambling.  All of my pages connected with this one have been autorenewed, but I lost the original and had to redo everything.  Luckily, very luckily as it turns out, I had exported everything into my hard drive, so the only thing not working is the flag counter, but what the heck. It was definitely an eye-opening experience -- I learned more than I ever wanted to know about what goes on when you click your enter button and you're taken to a website.  When you go to get a new domain name, it's easy to acquire, but then trying to make it actually work is something else all together if your brain doesn't quite get how everything goes together.   So -- I have a new domain (which is now,  and I can start posting again tomorrow.  

I haven't been idle -- I've finished The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover (not for the faint of heart reading wise), Jane Gardam's Crusoe's Daughter, which I loved, the newest novel by Helene Tursten in her Irene Huss series, and The Race Underground (nonfiction), by Doug Most.  And I've finally started The Luminaries -- yay! So there's definitely a lot to catch up on.

I'm just glad to be back.

Monday, November 25, 2013

*Messiah, by Gore Vidal; *Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk

We're finally moved in upstairs again since the remodel (yay!), so  I can find everything once more and now I actually have time to get back to the books about fictional cults I've set aside to read this month. I think I'll be carrying the list into December, because there are quite a few more I want to get to.  For now, here are two incredible novels that I most highly recommend.

Up first: Gore Vidal's Messiah.

Penguin, 1998
originally published 1954
256 pp


"If this thing spreads it will become organized. If it becomes organized, secondary considerations will obscure the point."

 If ever there was a reason to take a break  from reading what's on the New York Times bestseller list or  from current fiction, this book is it.  Going onto the favorites list for 2013, this novel is simply amazing.  Considering it was first published in 1954, it's surprisingly current and definitely way ahead of its time.  In this book, a new religion is born, and a simple message offered by a charismatic young man becomes organized, publicized, bureaucratized and ultimately bastardized before it encompasses the entire non-Islamic world.  It's highly satirical, funny in a dark humor sort of way, and makes you appreciate how perceptive this author must have been, considering all of the events coming out of  messianic cults over the last few decades.

Eugene Luther (which is actually Gore Vidal's real name) has been living in Egypt for the last fifty years under an assumed name.  He is working on an account of "that original crisis" that sent him there, which began when he was introduced to a former embalmer by the name of John Cave ("a pair of initials calculated to amaze the innocent").   Luther meets him through Iris Mortimer, a woman to whom he was introduced by another character, Clarissa.  On a visit to California,  he first hears Cave speak at a small gathering, and somewhat "against his will" Luther realizes that he was totally absorbed.  As Iris notes, "There's something in oneself which stirs and comes alive at his touch, through his agency."   Cave's message is relatively simple: "it is good to die."  This was the sole vision of John Cave, at first anyway; everything changes when Cave is put in the hands of  publicist Paul Himmell and his erstwhile partner, Jungian analyst Dr. Stokharin, and Cavite Inc. is born. It's Iris who notes that
"a society which knows what we know, which believes in Cave and what he says, will be a pleasanter place in which to live, less anxious, more tolerant." 
Himmell puts Cave on television and his popularity soars -- but to Himmell and his investors, Cave has become a product. While Luther has misgivings about the whole religion phenomena, telling the Cavite Board of Directors that they will
 "... do more harm than good by attempting to supplant old dogmas and customs with new dogmas. It will be the same in the end, except that the old is less  militant, less dangerous than a new order imposed by enthusiasts,"  

he readily accepts being drafted to supply background on Cave, to give him a "respectful ancestry," and soon he is also drafting dialogues, supposedly containing doctrine that becomes the basis of "Cavesword," the new religion. Millions of people are enticed by Cave's TV presence, and Cavesword spreads like wildfire, despite threats posed by leaders of Christianity, and despite Luther's growing misgivings.

But Cave sells -- and  becomes even more popular when Cave, a natural recluse,  is kept away from crowds allowing a mystique and mythology to grow.  It isn't long before Cavesword spawns centers in all major cities run by Residents and Communicators; nonconformists are "swayed" toward Cavesword in these places; eventually they become centers where practitioners can commit suicide.  As the story gets closer to why Luther is living in Egypt under an assumed name, it also starts taking on even more frightening tones.

This is, of course, a barebones outline of plot; this is another one you really can't get a feel for without reading it, but Messiah is simply put, an outstanding novel.  It seems to parallels the rise of Christianity, including the dissenters, the overlaying of old traditions to make new ones, the schisms, and mythologies that grew out of historical reality.  It examines the relationship between postwar American anxieties and the need for some kind of larger-than-life solution to offer people beyond the old, superstition-based religions.  It also looks at television's ability as the ultimate medium of persuasion -- considering that this book was written in 1954, that's an incredibly farsighted vision on Vidal's part.  But really, the best thing about this book is the realization that comes to Luther as he comes to understand his real role vis-a-vis  John Cave; sadly it's at the end so I can't really spill it.  It is however, a revelation that had me thinking about this novel long after I'd finished it -- in fact, the same is true of the entire book.  There is so much more to discuss, but if I wrote all I really wanted to, it would be more like a paper rather than a review.  Messiah is also first book I've ever read by Gore Vidal, and I absolutely love the way he wrote -- so much so that I've already picked up two more of his books.  It's as good or better than much of the fiction coming out currently, so if you're into great writing, excellent plotting and a story that causes you to sit and mull over what you've just read, you really can't make a much better choice than this one.  It shouldn't be pooh-poohed just because it's nearly 60 years old ... you'd think after reading it that the author somehow had access to news of the future.  Superlative. That's my final word.

Next:  Survivor, by Chuck Palahniuk

Anchor Books, 2000
(originally published 1999)
289 pp


"You're going up and up and up and not getting anywhere. It's the illusion of progress. What you want to think about is your salvation." 

Going from Vidal's sublime Messiah to Palahniuk's ridiculously sublime Survivor isn't such a great leap, really.  There are a few shared ideas between the two books, for example, the importance of television as a medium for publicity and maximum exposure, the "messiah" as commodity in the hands of publicists and agents, and the reimagining of historical fact into a mythology designed for public consumption.  At the same time, only Chuck Palahniuk can write like Chuck Palahniuk, throwing in some very pointed barbs at American lifestyles.  As I noted somewhere, this book has some very disturbing scenes, but god help me, I couldn't help but laugh.

If you haven't yet read this novel, you might get a little confused like I did when I opened the first page. I thought my book had been screwed up in the binding process -- it starts on page 289, with chapter 47.  It's gimmicky, but it really does work.  Survivor is the story of Tender Branson, who, when we first meet him, is on an airplane minus passengers and pilot, the former having been deplaned shortly after takeoff and the latter having parachuted after giving tips to Branson about how to keep the plane in the air after the pilot jumps, the amount of time before all four engines flame out, etc.  Branson is the sole occupant of the plane, and is now telling his true life story to the airplane's black box which will survive the inevitable plane crash.  He wants to get it clear right away that he is no murderer; getting from the beginning to the end when he finally reveals the reasons behind clearing his name is the journey the reader makes through the novel.

And what a story it is.  Prior to sitting in the cockpit, Branson's adult life was one as a "full-time drudge," and part-time god."  His day job was slaving away at housecleaning for wealthy employers, guided by a day planner, so that at any given hour of his workday, he and his employers know what he's doing. He's interrupted periodically by calls from his boss, who asks him questions about such topics as how to eat lobster correctly at an upcoming dinner, which forks to use, that sort of thing.  Tender Branson is a whiz at home economics; he spent his life being schooled in running the perfect home.  He is also, as we discover shortly after meeting him, a member of the federal Survivor Retention Program, which affords him a caseworker with whom he meets each week, a tiny apartment with a shared hallway bathroom, free government cheese and a bus pass.  Branson grew up in the Nebraska church district colony of the Creedish; at age 17 he was baptized and sent out as a labor missionary.  This was the common practice of the Creedish; all boys but the first-born sons (all named Adam)  went out into the world to work and shared the name of Tender. The girls who were not chosen as wives for the first-born sons went out to work as well, sharing the name of Biddy.   Back home, the Adams and their wives had children, children and more children, and the children spent their lives learning a particular trade.  There were rules for living on the outside, though -- no dancing, no listening to broadcast media, and the biggest one of all was this one:
 "If the members of the church district colony felt summoned by God, rejoice. When the apocalypse was imminent, celebrate, and all Creedish must deliver themselves unto God, amen."
While Tender Branson is cleaning grout and getting bloodstains out of leather, the word comes that the Creedish in Nebraska have been delivered; he is taken into the Survival Retention program so that he doesn't off himself.  There are rashes of suicides among the survivors, and at some point, Tender becomes the only surviving member of the cult (well, as far as the authorities know), and thanks to a savvy agent whose job it is to make cult suicide look "fresh and exciting every time around,"   is turned into a new messiah for the people.

As Tender's lifestory is recorded for posterity, the author takes potshots at different facets of American culture that blend into Tender's experience.  For example, while being refitted as a "new guru" for people who need to "make sense of their risk-free boredom of a lifestyle,"  he climbs the "stairmaster to heaven," and is wardrobed, told what to say, and pumped full of botox, steroids, drugs etc in order to make him media perfect. As his agent tells him,
"Nobody wants to worship you if you have the same problems, the same bad breath and messy hair and hangnails as a regular person." 
Sitting in the cockpit, Branson reflects that "Reality means you live until you die...The real truth is nobody wants reality."

There are also riffs on diagnosing yourself via the DSM with the disorders of the day, things people pray for here combined into his "Book of Very Common Prayer,"  people being so busy with working and making money that they don't have time to enjoy their gardens, but one of the biggest ideas that comes out of this story is based on how to find salvation in the face of  boredom that comes from sameness  and having no control over your own life.

As I said earlier, it's not all funny, because there are some pretty tragic things described in here, but I defy anyone not to laugh while reading this book.  Fantastic novel -- if you haven't read it, go and get yourself a copy soon.  I love Chuck Palahniuk because he's such a great satirist, expressing questions about life in terms everyone can understand and recognize.  Another one not to be missed. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

book discussion: At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón

Riverhead, 2013
384 pp

arc - my thanks to the publisher and to LibraryThing's early reviewers program

"...the play is different every time."

Some time ago I read this author's Lost City Radio, and loved it. Absolutely. Now he's back with At Night We Walk in Circles, and I loved this one even more. The blurb describing what's on the inside doesn't even come close to describing what actually happens in this character-based novel, which I would say focuses largely on identity, how past events come to be re-imagined, and the effects of blurring the thin line between reality and artificiality.

Set in a South American country somewhere (likely Peru based on a number of clues in the story),   the novel opens with the story of Diciembre, a theatrical group formed by a group of "radical students" at the city's Conservatory during the war. Their slogan was "Theater for the People," and they often went out into the "conflict zone," where'd they perform plays.  It was risky, but then again, being in the city also had its hazards: Henry Nuñez, the lead actor and author of the play The Idiot President, was arrested and sent to prison. His crime was one of "incitement," and he remained there from April through November, 1986, incarcerated as a terrorist.  From his prison cell, he made a radio broadcast, a "jailhouse interview" heard by many people, but by one person in particular who at 8 years old, was so impressed that Henry became his hero.  This is Nelson, who became intrigued about the occupation of "playwright," and who already had been making up his own dialogues about a girl with whom he was secretly in love, sometimes acting them out for his brother.  His brother explains that a playwright is someone who makes up conversations and calls them scripts, much like what Nelson had already been doing. It was then that Nelson decided that he wanted to do that as well -- it became his dream to become a playwright.

As the wartime curfews continued, Diciembre staged all-night shows such featuring such entertainments as "pop reworkings of Garcia Lorca," "stentorian readings of Brazilian soap opera scripts," and "anything that kept audiences awake and laughing through what might have otherwise been the long, lonely hours of curfew." As the 80s closed, and into the 90s, the troupe was a shadow of what it used to be. Things were changing in the country as well -- the capital had been "reimagined" in such a way that made it seem that no "unpleasant history" had ever happened there.   In  2000, the anniversary of Diciembre's founding prompted some of its "veterans" to mark the event somehow, and they decided it might be fitting to take The Idiot President on tour out in the countryside.  Henry was brought in from his now-quieter life to participate, "but only if a new actor could be found to join." His friend Patalarga is on board, and enter Nelson, now a theater student at the Conservatory, who ultimately gets the third part.  The timing is perfect and Nelson needs an escape, especially since  the woman he loves has set up house with someone else, and since the death of his father, he can't leave mother for his long-awaited trip to the US.  As the men wait at the bus station before they are taken away, Henry tells Nelson that they're "entering the world of the play now...its constructed  universe," and that he should "give in to it." As the narrator tells us, the beginning of the tour is  "when the trouble began." 

We learn all of this background and more  from a first-person narrator, who has only appeared some 13 pages into the book (well, in my ARC copy anyway).  His very presence signifies that something is not right -- that something has gone wrong with Nelson. Later, we also discover that he is trying to "decipher the mystery" around a "brief encounter" between himself and Nelson, by interviewing
 "his confidantes, his lovers, his classmates, people who'd seen fit to trust me, as if by sharing their various recollections, we could together accomplish something on his behalf. Re-create him. Reanimate him. Bring him back into the world." 
Using these interviews and words from Nelson's journals, he tries to piece together the chain of events that started with Nelson going on a tour for a play with two other actors, because he feels some kind of bond with Nelson.   The thing is though, that each person he interviews knows Nelson from a different vantage point, from  different situations in which Nelson has played different parts, so that eventually we find that there are  a number of different Nelsons.  How then is it possible to know the true Nelson? Is it possible at all?  Even he is aware of himself as an actor -- at the last drink he had with his brother he came to the realization that everyone, including himself, is always acting. When all is said and done, and as you come to the end of the story, you start to wonder if even Nelson really knows who he is any longer.   What I find striking about this book is that it is built around actors, their roles, performances, scripts and improvisations -- all tools used to create  illusion.

Re the title:  As Henry asks earlier, when he talks to the narrator about walking in circles while in prison,  "how do you set a play in a world that denies your characters any agency?"  I'm not exactly sure, but I think this statement may provide some clue.

 At Night We Walk in Circles is definitely not easygoing as far as the reading.  This book could be the easily be included in  a literary  or  history course, one that spends most of the semester analyzing it. All the same, I love this writer's work and this one I can only describe as hypnotic and haunting, mixed with a touch of very dark humor at times.  Highly recommended -- take it very slow, though.  It's not a book you want to rush through.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Knopf/McSweeney's Books, 2013
491 pp


"...any information that eludes us, anything that's not accessible, prevents us from being perfect."
                                                  -- 287

Let me start here with how I felt about this book when I turned the last page and closed the cover. The words "holy sh*t" came out of my mouth, and I was tempted to go disconnect myself from every social media site I'm on. As far as the book itself, I didn't think it was perfect; in fact, it is a bit contrived, but still a very timely read, one that gave me a case of the willies.

The story focuses on Mae Holland, who when we meet her, is working in a dead-end job until recruited by her best friend Annie, who works at a tech company called The Circle, and is in the upper echelons known as the Gang of 40, "privy to its most secret plans and data." One of the founders designed the Circle's "Unified Operating System," which
"combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy -- users' social media profiles, their payment systems, their various passwords, their email accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests."
He also invented TruYou, "one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person," where you had to use your real name, which "tied to your credit cards, your bank," and your personal identity, basically did away with online anonymity. TruYou is presented as a system beneficial to the customer, since he/she wouldn't have to remember multiple user names, multiple passwords, etc. In fact, everything that the company does is "beneficial" in some way, for example, microchips embedded in bone to prevent kidnappings or to easily locate missing children, other measures designed to prevent crimes, and technologies to make everyone and everything accountable via transparency provided by built-in cameras. And all the while, The Circle monitors everything that's going on, boosting the slogan "All that happens must be known." Its point of view is that privacy begets secrets, secrets beget lies, lies beget impropriety, and that the only answer is to be completely open about everything. In short, "If you aren't transparent, what are you hiding?"

As Mae gets into her job, and gets sucked into the community aspect of the company, she not only gets swept up in all of The Circle's potential, but also develops her own unflinching desire for success, doing all that she can to make herself well known. Soon enough she quickly becomes a rising star with designs on getting into the top ranks.  Now, if this book were only about Mae and her ambition, well, that story's been done already, but The Circle offers a look at how promises of utopia can easily turn into a nightmare. The company has designs on making things so that eventually "all government and all life" would be "channeled through one network," with no escape from being "tracked, cradle to grave." In the world of The Circle, there will be no protection -- the by-then transparent politicians who "owe their reputations" to this company could be easily ruined by getting involved against it.

While I don't think this book is so great on character development or prose, it made me stop several times while reading to think about what I'd just read. I spent a lot more time thinking about it when I was finished, mainly about what the repercussions could be if technology induces us to give over all of our private information to one single entity that controls and monitors all information flow and all of our personal activities, vs the benefits that the technologies might offer. Yes, this book is didactic, and yes, there's zero subtlety here in terms of the message that is meant to come across, but it is definitely a thought provoker.

This book has gotten incredibly mixed reviews, so it is one that should be judged not by other-reader opinion, but by your own reading of it. I've seen everything from "this book is utter crap" to someone calling it essential reading, so the range of reader response is huge. In my opinion, it's a very timely book to be reading right now, and if it gives you a case of the willies, it's because the future described in here should scare the crap out of you.

ps/ after reading this book, I bought a brand-new copy of Orwell's 1984. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
336 pp

arc (a big thank you to the publishers!)

To put it rather bluntly, this book is not very popular among fans of Diane Setterfield's previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale, who I suppose wanted something more along the same lines in her new novel,  Bellman and Black and didn't get it.  I sort of feel like one of the lone holdouts -- I actually liked this book.  Then again, I went into it without any expectations:  even though I also liked The Thirteenth Tale,  I wasn't expecting this one to be a carbon copy.  I still don't understand why people come unglued when a particular favorite author goes off in a different way than in previous books -- as I've said so many times, it's very unfair and limiting to the writer when readers tend to expect the same thing over and over again. 

Set in the Victorian era, as a boy of ten, William Bellman, his cousin Charles and their friend Luke were hanging out on a summer day, and Will tells the others he can hit a bird that was in a tree "half a field away." He had fashioned a perfect slingshot, picked the perfect stone, and launched it, hitting a black bird against all odds. The other boys were impressed; Will was "sick at heart, proud, abashed, guilty."  On his way home he glances back to where the bird had fallen and notices a congregation of rooks, all looking in his direction, and he also thinks he sees a boy dressed all in black. He's obviously haunted by what he's done, and while he spends a half week in bed with a fever,  he starts to apply what the author calls "his ten year old genius and power" to "forgetting." William's adult life starts out promising -- he is helping his uncle at the family's textile mill and comes up with a number of measures to make the mill more productive and lucrative.  He falls in love, marries just the right woman, and has beautiful children -- the perfect life, one others are either envious or proud of.  Yet, it's not long until he is faced with several deaths, and at each funeral, he thinks he sees a man all dressed in black. William throws himself into his work rather than deal with his grief; when tragedy strikes and he loses of all of his family members but one, he makes a "deal" with the man in black for the recovery of his dying daughter.  William then moves to London and branches out into a new career with death as its centerpiece, and again applies his magical touch, throwing himself body and soul into his work,  making it a successful enterprise.  And all along he's waiting for "Mr. Black" to return and collect what he's owed.

If you look at the title of this book on Goodreads it is Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story (which is btw, NOT  the title on the hardcover copy I bought) and somehow word has gotten out that it is just that, a ghost story. If you read it very carefully, though (and without wrecking the story for others who might wish to read it), you have to make up your own mind  -- in some ways, it reminded me very much of Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which also requires that the reader really examine the "supernatural" events that occur.  What I see here is a study of a man who has excelled in forgetting, keeping his grief buried, and who has tried to carry on while unable or unwilling to mourn the tragedies of his life just to function.  Seen in that light, this very much character-based story really works for me, explaining a lot of the ambiguities that follow throughout the novel. I will say that while the book is highly atmospheric, William's character may seem to some readers to come off as flat.  He is anything but -- his drive, his inner thoughts and his actions all point to a man in a great amount of pain.  It's all in how you read it.

Lots of readers have commented on "lack of plot," but again, this is a character-driven novel so the interest lies in trying to fathom what's going on inside of William.  I really don't get why people are so negative in their comments about this novel -- I found it highly unsettling and mysterious, haunting, but at the same time the horror here is completely on the subtle side until right at the end when all is made known.  Frankly, I couldn't put it down.  So what I didn't exactly care about were the rooks-eye scenes; while I get why they were there, they were often a little distracting. Otherwise, it's one I can definitely recommend, and one I'm definitely going to revisit. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

US readers: today's book on the giveaway pile: Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield (ARC)

I've finished reading Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and bought a hardcover copy for a second read. That means I have an advanced reader copy available if anyone would like it. I'll pay postage.

please give my book a home!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

US readers: 2 more books needing homes

I'm toiling away on getting these book boxes unpacked so I'm finding books I was planning to give away. First we have Colum McCann's TransAtlantic

published this year and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; next there's Paris, by Edward Rutherford, also published this year which I mistakenly ordered from an online book club and probably won't find time to read in the near future. 

Take one or both, I don't care. All you have to do is to be the first to comment with which book(s) you want, then email me at with an address. 

Please! These books really need a new home! I pay postage.

US readers: anyone want an ARC of Dan Simmons' The Abominable? It's free and I pay postage!

I have an ARC of The Abominable by Dan Simmons available to anyone in the US who wants it.  If you do, all you have to do is be the first one to make a comment on this post, then send an email with an address.  I'll  even pay postage!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

this month's book group read: The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan

Touchstone, 2013
371 pp


If you are at all interested in women's history or in the history of America's nuclear program, The Girls of Atomic City should be one of those books that gets added on to and then moved up to the top of your tbr pile.  It is one of the most thought-provoking nonfiction books I've read in a long time.

Pretty much everyone knows the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter, who symbolized the women helping out the war effort during World War II.  When the men went overseas, many of the women left behind were called on to do jobs previously done by men, and their work amped up production lines to keep the war going.   The Girls of Atomic City explores some of the women who also kept things going in a project located  in a facility in what is now Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one that was geared toward putting an end to the war.

 The women were trained to do only very specific tasks without understanding the overall project that their labors helped to create.  They were not allowed to talk about their work, nor were they allowed to question anything, and they never knew who might report them if they did.  The project was so secret that wives couldn't talk to husbands about their work, dating couples couldn't discuss their jobs, workers couldn't talk to families or friends on the outside, and  violations of that rule often ended up with people simply disappearing, never to be heard from or seen ever again.    The women, along with the majority of men working at Oak Ridge, had no clue at all that everything they did helped to contribute to the production of the atomic bomb that was used first in Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.  It was only when the bombs were dropped that the news was released, and people finally realized what it was they'd been working on, with very mixed reactions.  In The Girls of Atomic City, the author examines the personal and professional lives of some of the women who called Oak Ridge home for the duration.  The book is definitely thought provoking and also provides a look inside the America of the WWII years.   

You can read about it here, on my nonfiction page, if you're at all interested.  Personally, I felt that it was sometimes flawed in the telling, but overall, it is an incredibly eye-opening and very fine work about something I'd never heard of before.  It most definitely sparked an excellent discussion with the group. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

November: fictional cults

November is going to be Nancy's mental health month -- meaning that I'm not doing jack until Thanksgiving.  It's been a rough couple of months here at mi casa, starting with a redo of our entire top floor, which meant packing, stashing, throwing crap away, -- it's amazing how much one accumulates over seven years of living in the same house. Add in a trip to Seattle, leaving all of the mess to wait until I got back, then a gigantic Halloween party that I'd planned that required my pre-party attention for three solid days in a row. Aarrgh! Stress has been the norm around here, but I'm counteracting it all with a month (until the holiday) of doing absolutely nada. Nothing. Rien. 

So this month, as I'm reading through Eleanor Catton's  weighty tome The Luminaries, I'll also be reading novels that feature some sort of cult action. I got the idea after finishing Dave Eggers' The Circle. Even though it's not about cults, one thing it reveals is how people can get caught up in things well beyond their control.  Here's a sample of what I've dug up already in my library: 

Messiah, by Gore Vidal
The Dain Curse, by Dashiel Hammett
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The Possibility of an Island, by Michele Houellebecq
Oyster, by Janette Turner Hospital

I'll also be reading Daniel Alarcon's new book At Night We Walk in Circles, Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield, and I'll also be posting a discussion of The Circle by Dave Eggers this week.  

I finally have time to just read, so I'm pretty happy! Yay!  

Monday, October 28, 2013

October Reading Roundup

While the month isn't quite over yet, the next few days will be some of the busiest ever for me, so I'll go ahead and get this end-of-the-month recap done now.  I'm in Seattle (my second home),  have been now for a while, visiting family and having a great time, but I go back to FL tomorrow, reading Jo Nesbo's The Police on the plane, and if I finish that, well, I have Dave Eggers' The Circle as backup.  Those books will go into November, but for now, I'll stick to what I accomplished in October.

October was my month for reading all things supernatural and spooky, and I did get in a few before having to stop and deal with a complete upstairs remodel.  Four newly-done bedrooms and a hallway later, most of my books are still in boxes waiting for me to come home to, but I managed to keep a few out to read. Here's how things look for this month:

This House is Haunted by John Boyne started things off in the realm of the supernatural, followed by
The Year of the Ladybird, by Graham Joyce,
The Shining and Doctor Sleep by Stephen King,
The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf, and
To Charles Fort With Love, by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which I haven't yet discussed (moving into November)  but may most likely be the most literary book of horror I've ever read.

The not at all supernatural is also represented in this month, with
Strange Shores, by Arnaldur Indridason (crime), and
The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret War (nonfiction), about which I also haven't had time to get a discussion written, also coming in November.

That makes for a total of eight, very slow month, but it's understandable with all of the upheaval and a trip planned in the middle of the upheaval .

Now, the usual book stuff:

1) Books I'm giving away this month -- for US readers only.    --  This is going to have to wait until I get home and see what's available since everything, including my giveaway books, are still in boxes or in towering stacks in rooms they don't belong in

 2) Added to the  wishlist this month: 

 crime fiction:
All of the books in the Havana Quartet, by Leonardo Padura 

 general fiction/literature:
The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson
The Investigation, by Phillipe Claudel
Back Street, by Fannie Hurst (Vintage Movie Classics edition, 2014)

the weird, the strange, supernatural etc:
Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, ed. Ellen Datlow


A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia, by Edmund Levin

 3) Books bought this month:
  • Doctor No, by Ian Fleming (spy fiction)
  • Uncanny Stories,  by May Sinclair (weird/supernatural)
  • The Whisperer and Other Voices, by Brian Lumley (weird/supernatural)
  • Hild, by Nicola Griffith (historical fiction)
  •  The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane (fiction/literature)
  • Murder in the Dark, by Dan Turrell (crime fiction)
  • Shantytown, by Cesar Aira (fiction/literature)
  • La Vida Doble, by Arturo Fontaine (fiction/literature
  • The Corpse Washer, by Sinan Antoon (fiction/literature)
  • The Investigator: Fifty Years of Uncovering the Truth, by Terry Lenzner (nonfiction)
  • The Master of the Macabre, by Russell Thorndike (weird/supernatural)

4The book group is reading  The Girls of Atomic City, by Denise Kiernan on November 5; they were kind enough to wait until I get back from Seattle to have the meeting. 

and I have an ARC from Simon and Schuster of Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield waiting for me when I get home, so I'm uber excited!

That's it for October. happy halloween !

The Abominable, by Dan Simmons -- an old-fashioned, rollicking good yarn

Little, Brown and Company, 2013
663 pp

ARC - thanks!

The Abominable ends my month of spooky Halloween reads, but this one fooled me.  I'm not quite sure where I got the idea that  The Abominable was going to be a horror novel, because as it turns out, it's much more of an old-fashioned adventure tale. The basic story is pretty good when all is said and done in that escape-fiction sort of way, complete with a group of climbers who find their way to Mt. Everest, a missing man last seen on the mountain, a beautiful young heroine, and a secret that someone is willing to kill to keep buried.  My only real issue with this book is that there is so much detail here that I felt like I had to put on my slogging boots to wade through it,  but more on this a little later.

The Abominable begins as Dan Simmons, in a nice metafictional twist,  finds himself in 1991 having to come up with a "new package" of novels for his publisher.  He really wants to do something on Antarctica, and as it happens, a friend of his wife's knows someone who went there with Byrd in the 1930s.  Simmons journeys to an assisted-living home to talk to the man, Jacob Perry, who is dying of cancer.  While he interviews him, Perry tells Simmons that there's a story he's always wanted to write -- not necessarily for publication -- just so someone will read it.  Leaving Perry with a Moleskin notebook, in 1992, Simmons gets word that 90 year-old Perry is dead, and is surprised to hear that Perry left nothing for him.  Flash forward to 2011, and Simmons receives a box of notebooks in the mail;  after having gone through them, he decides to publish Perry's manuscript, a "strange and oddly beautiful testament."

The story moves from 1924, where we meet the three main male characters on top of the Matterhorn, through 1925 where our erstwhile heroes find themselves climbing Mount Everest. It is while they are atop the Matterhorn in 1924 when the three, Jacob (Jake) Perry, Richard Deacon and Jean-Claude Clairoux, learn about Mallory's death on Everest.  As they are making their descent, Deacon asks them if they would like to accompany him on a "fully-funded expedition" to climb Everest in 1925, an expedition consisting of only the three of them.  They agree to go, then realize that the funding will be coming from Lady Elizabeth Marion Bromley, whose sons, Charles and Lord Percival (Percy) were once playmates of Deacon's when they were children.  It seems that Lord Percival had himself disappeared on Everest in 1924, although he was not a member of the Mallory expedition, and he had made no attempt to climb or camp with them.    A witness had reported that Bromley and an Austrian man, Karl Meyer,  were swept up in an avalanche, but Lady Bromley is just not certain that Percy is really dead.  Although she knows that it's highly unlikely he's still alive, she will  give them the funds and logistical help they need to find out why he was in Tibet to begin with, why he was on Everest, and why was he with Meyer when he died.  There's only one condition: she wants a family member, Cousin Reggie, to go along, and to keep track of all of the money.   If Percy's dead, she wants proof; if he's alive she wants him home.   Perry, Deacon and Clairoux eventually find themselves in Darjeeling, home of Cousin Reggie, where they begin what will be the climb of their lives.  But needless to say, there are a few twists along the way that none of them had bargained on.

While I was reading this book, I kept thinking what a cool movie this book would be based totally on plot and characters.  It's very much reminiscent of old-fashioned adventure stories á la Indiana Jones (not the same plotlines but in that same vein), the kind where you just have to let that suspension of belief slip into play.  The characters may come off a bit stereotypical and even larger than life, but you know, this book is just a lot of fun, and should really be read not in comparison to the author's other works, but as a stand alone kind of rollicking good yarn.  Truth be told, I had trouble putting it down when I had to, that's how much I enjoyed it. But sometimes my fun was interrupted by the constant descriptions of ice climbing, mountain climbing, and the equipment necessary for both, as well as the numerous and lengthy passages describing the ice-covered cwms in Wales, the Tibetan landscape and pretty much each camp-to-camp ascent on Mt. Everest itself.  I think it could have benefited from some more judicious editing, but if I stack the sheer reading fun against the bog and slog, the fun comes out on top, even though I kind of figured out part of the plot way ahead of time.  I do think the Amazon reviewers who gave this book one star because it wasn't at all like  Mr. Simmons' past works aren't being quite fair, and while everyone's entitled to his/her opinion, they're being extremely harsh in this case.

If you're ever in the mood for an old-fashioned adventure yarn, you'll definitely find it here.  I try really hard not to judge one work of an author's on the rest, and to take each one individually on its own merits, and in this case, I found myself really liking the core story in  this one despite its flaws.  It's not a great work of literature, just fun, a story for a rainy day or two.   It won't be for everyone, but then again, which book is?

a special thanks to Em.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

if a green huntsman offers to help you, take a pass: *The Black Spider, by Jeremias Gotthelf

NYRB Classics, 2013
original title: Die Schwarz Spinne, 1842
translated by Susan Bernofsky 
108 pp


I opened the pages of this little novella not knowing what to expect, and right away found myself embedded in a beautiful arcadian setting in the Emmental region of Switzerland.  Under the sun, shining in "limpid majesty," in a "dell filled with fertile, sheltered farmland," lies a splendid farmhouse near an orchard. Churchbells can be heard in the distance on this "blessed day of celebration," colts are frolicking in the fields, and an entire family has gathered to celebrate a christening.  A huge feast has been laid, the godmother spares no effort in her "intricate preparations" to make herself lovely, and the baby is taken to church for the ceremony.  The scene is one of pastoral perfection, abundance, and peace,

so naturally, I started to get really curious about the book's cover art and why a blurb on the back notes that "The Black Spider was a horror story of its day."  Then the "gotcha": as the post-christening festivities commence, a question about a "rough black window post" built into the newly-built home leads the grandfather to tell a story about events that had occurred  in the area hundreds of years ago, one passed on through the generations.  And oh, what a story it is.

A religious order of Teuton knights has returned from Poland and Prussia, having been sent there to "fight the heathen."  While there, they got caught up in the lifestyle, and on their return, continued to live, each "according to his own nature and pleasure." The worst of these was Hans van Stoffeln of Swabia, and he took a lot of pleasure in persecuting the peasants.  First, he took them away from their land for two years by ordering a huge castle on a hill.  When that was finished, and just as the peasants were rejoicing that they could get back to feeding their starving families and tending their livestock, von Stoffeln makes another demand -- they must now build a shaded walkway. He wants particular trees from a location that is hours away, and he wants everything done within a month or disastrous consequences will follow for the peasants and their families.  Thoroughly in despair, because this is an impossible task, the peasant men wonder how they're going to tell their loved ones.  At that moment a huntsman, dressed in all in green (hitherto referred to as the "green man" or the "green huntsman" ) appears, and offers them help -- and for payment, all he wants is an unbaptized child.  When the women are told what's going on, they believe they can help their men, but it becomes obvious that this is not working out.  One of the wives, Christine of Lindau,  takes up the green huntsman's offer, thinking that when a new baby is born, the people will find a way to deceive him, and they do manage to stave off the devil for a while. However, they hadn't reckoned on the black spider, a reminder that the huntsman "would not suffer himself to be duped without recompense."

So -- what to make of this little book?  Seriously, for such a small volume there's a stream of ideas put into play here, even aside from the obvious Christian message about not turning away from the Lord.   First and foremost,  I read it like this: once evil has made itself known, it can be controlled only if  a community agrees to act together  to keep it at bay. Then the author reveals exactly what sorts of temptations can lead people astray from the collective good. Briefly:

a)  women who, like Christine of Lindau, are "not the sort of woman ...  content to stay at home, quietly going about her duties with no other concern than household and children;" women who are "frightfully clever," "daring," and bold, who don't quite understand their place in the home and in society. There are also women who hold sway over the men in their lives, who become  true masters of their houses, leading sons and husbands to neglect their responsibilities,
b) the lack of  collective and individual responsibility, as in (a) above and other examples throughout the book, especially when actions by a one or a few lead to disregard for the lives of others,
c) people who are not happy enough with what they already  have -- as the people became jealous of the riches and high living of others, their desire for wealth and their "vainglorious grandeur" led them to be as hardhearted and ruthless toward their own servants as the knights once were toward the peasants,
d) and last but not least, when children do not  "follow their parents in their paths and thoughts,"  and disregard wisdom passed down through the ages. 

And what about the spider? Well, I'm not very well versed in Germanic mythologies or Swiss folklore regarding the symbolism of the spider, but I did look up "green huntsman" to see if there was something significant I could use relating to  this book and came across this photo of a green huntsman spider.

Coincidence? Maybe, but in Christian mythology, the spider is, of course,  associated with the Devil, and you've got the Green Huntsman of the story in that role as the source of  the spider, so it should be easy to figure out.  However, according to Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times, the spider also becomes a symbol of plague, and there are scenes in this book that support this idea as well.

Even if you're not so inclined toward the Christian messages (as in my case), you can still enjoy The Black Spider.  There are a number of scenes that are bound to produce that wonderful frisson of chills crawling up your spine, making it a perfect pre-Halloween read; it's also a peek into a specific society at a specific time and place making it a good story for historical fiction readers.