Current reading & quick takes

Life being what it is this year—the pandemic, the bleak uncertainty around work and just about everything else—I’ve been spending much more time reading. Including:

Arab Jazz, by Karim Miské

Book Review: Arab Jazz by Karim Miske (translated by Sam Gordon) | Press and Journal

The opening chapters of this novel are set in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, with a few treks into nearby quartiers. It was published around the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders and Bataclan attack, and brings with it a sense of the sorrows as well as the vibrancy of that part of the city.

The writing, translated from French, is fresh and close to musical. The characters, their interactions, and interior thoughts are all sharply observed and described. Most of the characters are of different religions and continents of origin and include a pair of detectives who are calm, intello types disinclined to jump to conclusions.

The narrator is on medical leave from his nightwatchman job, and he has the heightened awareness of his surroundings that often results from surviving a thoroughly upending experience.

During his leave he’s hardly left his small apartment, which is stacked with books—noir, mysteries, and police procedurals purchased by the pound from a local bookseller. One morning, out on his small balcony, he is snapped out of a meditation session by clear evidence that something has gone badly wrong in the apartment above his. He decides to determine what happened and who did it before anyone tries to pin it on him.

Between the writing and the setting, this book swept me along from its first sentences. It’s an examination not just of a murder, but of the environment and mix of cultures and religions in which it takes place. I found nothing dull or predictable here. I also liked being in Paris with these characters, following their ruminations and observations. A bonus is being reminded of artifacts of life in the French capital. This isn’t high life Paris, it’s working world Paris, which is much more interesting.

The Guardian review ; entretien, author interview (en francais) 3.5 minutes.
Available in French here and in English, translated by Sam Gordon, here.

The Dry, by Jane Harper

A new-to-me author who I hope has a long list of ideas for future novels.

This book also drew me in from the first page. It lets you settle into the landscape without any long blocks of unnecessary information and introduces characters so easily I felt as though I was there on the ground with the main character, Aaron Falk.

It’s set in Australia during the blast furnace heat of a drought and opens with Falk returning to his home town for the funeral of an old friend. You can tell from the glances he gets, and the way he feels them as they land, that there is a lot of history here to be told.

There are many ways to fold backstory into a narrative. In this book, present day events are set in normal text and alternate with flashbacks, often the length of chapters, in italics. Around the middle of the book I began to find this more of a frustrating interruption and stopped reading the flashbacks, although I skimmed a few, and stuck with the present day.

As that hasn’t come up in any of the reviews I’ve read, I think it’s just me. I’m not so fond of frequent jumps back and forth along the timeline.

Whatever your preference for the narrative blending of past and present, if you like an intriguing mystery that’s well told, read this book.

Available here. And the Kirkus review is here.

get out those armchair traveling shoes

& help your favorite bookstore.

After many weeks sheltering in place, some of us are getting just a little stir-crazy. So here’s the current rescue plan for our restless blues:

First, a few lists. Back in January, The New York Times published a list of books being published in 2020 that are based in and written by authors from countries around the world. There is also A Year of Reading the World, and a few years back Book Riot put together a list they call Around the World in 80 Books. It won’t be hard to find other lists to meander through.

Step one: Dream-travel through the book lists
Step two: Pick one or two books based in a country you’d love to get to know
Step three: Order them from an independent bookstore (Amazon does not need our help, local bookstores do!) (personal opinion)

In the US, and are two ways to find and order books from a store near you.

Also, a shout out to a favorite SF East Bay bookstore, Moe’s Books They are taking orders and shipping books and also have a Go Fund Me page.

Then all we have to do is curl up in a favorite spot, and let the pages of a good book lead us through a new country.

Photo by  Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Publishing as Möbius Strip

A writing friend of mine has signed up for a workshop with a well-known writer, and just found out everyone else in the group has publishing credits from upper tier publications. She will too, in time, because her work is that good and she sends it out dozens of times monthly. (embarrassing to suddenly realize I haven’t submitted work since last spring. Aie.)

In the meantime there’s that sense of trepidation caused by the difference in publishing track record.

But it’s always something, right? We aren’t this, we haven’t done that, we don’t write in the most sought after publishing niches or fields.

In the middle of replying to my friend about this, one of many brilliant Bay Area Book Festival moments came back to me. A couple years back I attended a talk with a panel of African authors. One of them, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, from Uganda, told us about push-back her manuscript had received on its way to publication because the names of her characters might be difficult for anglophone readers.

She’d grown up studying Shakespeare and other English language writers—work that did not reflect her own country or culture or the people she knew. Her point was, look, you can make that stretch too and meet my work and my characters where they live.

I’m paraphrasing, and any errors in transcription from her words via my memory are my own. Essentially her point was that she’d stretched to read and learn about an unfamiliar culture, and non-Ugandan readers are just as capable of doing the same. I felt like standing up to applaud.

It’s amazing how unfamiliar the obvious can look until someone points it out, which is just one of the many gifts of good writing and writers. For example, in this case, (my take) Hello in there, have you noticed your POV has calcified?”

Anyone who isn’t the expected bearer of insight etc. is always up against that dominant-culture calcification. But it’s not for that bearer of insight to keep quiet, it’s for the rest of us to stretch and pay attention.

can’t say we haven’t had plenty of notice…

From the preface to a book I just started reading, published in 1864:

“The object of the present volume is: to indicate the character and, approximately, the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit; to point out the dangers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic or the inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions ; and, incidentally, to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life…”

The book this prefaces is

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh

like I said, published in 1864

Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

A few years back, probably around 2014, I heard an interview with a woman who was (I think) a U.S. House Representative, and who fumed at the irresponsibility of Central American parents who allowed their children to take the perilous journey north to the U.S. border, leaving them “for us to deal with,” or words to that effect.

For me, this was the voice of a suburban U.S. parent who doesn’t understand why the neighbors keep letting their kids play out on the street after dinner instead of keeping them home. It reduces the pain and terror in Central America to a question of parenting styles.

In other words, it was the kind of remark you can only make when you have a few basic facts and none of their context—on the order of a classical music lover blasting Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan because their music doesn’t sound like Mozart.

Had it been published at the time, I would have sent the offended and uncomprehending (traits that hang out together a lot) House Representative a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s (@ValeriaLuiselli ) book, Tell Me How It Ends . Because in this book we are allowed to witness some of the stories Luiselli herself heard during interviews with those very children at the Federal Immigration Court in New York City. We are also given a chance to see the system that children have to find their way through.

It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The structure of Luiselli’s book is the list of questions translators are tasked to ask each child, whose answers must then be translated and written down. Translators then discuss the interviews with volunteer attorneys who evaluate each child’s situation against the parameters laid out by statutes regarding what is and isn’t grounds for asylum.

My description conveys the outline of the book but doesn’t approach the breadth of its content or the effectiveness of Luiselli’s writing. For balance, the following quote gives you a hint. After several pages describing the maps and stats of the ways and places that people determined to survive find death instead of help, Luiselli writes :

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories … Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

For me, this quote goes a long way toward describing the origin story of this short, intense book and the reasons why we all need to read it. You can buy it here .

Voyages, vacations, and road trips

To celebrate summer travel, some excerpts from Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist and novelist who covered wars from WWII to Vietnam.

As anyone who travels much knows, things on the road―or water―don’t always go as planned, and that is often where the adventure begins. The focus of these essays are some of Gellhorn’s voyages that didn’t go so well, and include China, Africa, the Caribbean, and Suriname.

The pictures are my own, taken in Northern California.


The airline, called China National Aviation Company (CNAC) consisted of two DC3s and three DC2s, elderly machines and no nonsense about comfort. Compared to passenger planes now, these were flying beetles.

We climbed, as if climbing a spiral staircase, in tight jolting circles over Hong Kong until we reached fourteen thousand feet. All lights went off except the dim light in the pilot’s cabin and we crossed the Japanese lines, brightly lit far below. In half an hour, the storm hit us. I had been watching the flickering exhaust flame on a wing, but the wing vanished into cloud that looked grainy and hard as granite. Hail sounded like a threshing machine. Everything froze including the air speed indicator. Roy explained that if the speed dropped below sixty-three miles per hour the plane stalled and went into a spin, but there was no cause for anxiety; he opened his window a crack and judged air speed that way; he’d done it often.”


The dinghy was not as long as I am. Carlton put the hatch cover in it, making a peculiar seating or lying arrangement, a convex curve for two thirds of the length then a drop to a concave curve. I spread the blankets on this surface, placed the pillow at one end, slid my legs under the seat and established myself with umbrella for sunshade. All I had to do was duck when the boom swung over.”


With a picnic, water and heavy sandwiches, I set off to explore. St Martin was a magic island. Secret white sand coves indented the shore. I chose one far from town, walled in by thick bush that the rain had polished and framed by swaying royal palms. Under a china-blue sky, I sat naked in the shallows to watch schools of fish, recognizing only silver baby barracudas. And waded out to swim through glass-clear Nile-green water, where you could see below to the sand and more passing fish, into silky deep sapphire sea.”


[Paramaribo Grand Hotel, Suriname]

“I was swooning with happiness by five o’clock when I settled on a ruptured cane chair in the lobby to listen to the going gossip. At five o’clock promptly the mosquitoes arrived. ‘Union mosquitoes,’ a soldier observed. ‘They work from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.’ They were the biggest mosquitoes I had met anywhere and fearless, they zoomed in to cover one’s arms and legs and died feeding while others replaced those you had beaten to death. When the blazing sun went down, the air refused to cool despite nightly rainy season cloudbursts. The rain was lukewarm, encouraged the mosquitoes, turned the streets into quagmires which dried to deep dust a half hour after sunrise. Between five and six in the morning, there was a very faint freshness to breathe.”

Find the book here

Read about Gellhorn, and the journalism prize awarded in her name, here

Wisteria & Winter’s Tale

The only connection here is that I’ve been fascinated by them both lately, and thought it was possible that others might appreciate pictures of the flowers and quotes from the book.

Mark Helprin’s writing is as precise as the wisteria blooms and as inspiring as their scent. Reading his work is a solid lesson in great writing.


“He had never been in a building. For all he knew, when he opened the door he would see a new city within, as vast and entertaining as the one he had just discovered.”

“Each tower had a minute of free view, after which it would spend the rest of eternity contemplating the shins of its competitors.”


“The new year was rolling at them as wide and full as a tide racing up the bay, sweeping over old water in an endless coil of ermine cuff.”

“It would take a day at the blackboard to figure out the theory of this alarm system. He had no hope of controverting it in the dark at six degrees above zero. Impressed and even delighted, Peter Lake went around the side of the house and climbed onto the broad ledge of a window.”



“Peter Lake had heard Beverly say that the greater the stillness, the farther you could travel, until, in absolute immobility, you achieved absolute speed. If you could hold your breath, batten yourself down, and stop every atom from its agitation within you, she had said, you could vault past infinity.”

“…of all the means to the tranquility he now sought, a quiet snowfall was the most elegant and the most generous.”


“…she was familiar with the vast billowing nebulae in which one filament of a wild and shaken mane carried in its trail a hundred million worlds.”

Visit Mark Helprin’s website here, and look for a copy of Winter’s Tale here.


Other Voices, Good Reads: Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

If I could afford to, I think I’d buy this book for everyone I know. Noah is a sharp observer—of himself, other people, and the cultures and country they inhabit—which makes reading his book about growing up in South Africa as much a learning experience as it is good, solid storytelling.

One of many highlights is his relationship with his mother, who truly shines here. She is exceptional and inspiring. He’s done such good work in portraying her that any attempt on my part to synthesize or condense will only detract. You’ll have to read his book to have a chance to get to know her—and, trust me, you don’t want to miss out on that opportunity.

He’s perceptive in his illustrations of the irrational, illogical bases behind apartheid, qualities that show up in the way it was carried out as well. But he also illuminates some of the insidious cunning in the way it was structured. He does a great job of illustrating the distinction between making an opportunity available and making it accessible, and also the effects of language, the ways it can both separate people and bring them closer.

This is one of the passages from the book that had the greatest impact on me. He is talking about his relationship with his father and the time they were unable to spend together under apartheid. To me it is also a description of what all systems of racism and “otherizing,” institutionalized or otherwise, do to all of us:

Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them—and that is what apartheid stole from us…”

You can access his website here, and you can buy copies of his book here.

Another good read, with an excerpt

Dreams of My Russian Summers, by Andreï Makine

This book is so beautifully written, so deep with indelible images, events, and people, that it’s hard to know where to start or how to shape a review of it. I think it simply has to be read, start to finish. Although I’m reading it slowly because it’s so good I don’t want to reach the end.

So, on the subject of not knowing what to say, I offer these two excerpts on language:

“From then onward we talked but said nothing. Coming between us we could see the screen that is formed by those smooth words, those echoes of the everyday we give voice to; the verbal liquid with which we feel obliged, without knowing why, to fill the silence. With stupefaction I discovered that talking was in fact the best way of saying nothing about the essential.”

“The unsayable! It was mysteriously linked, I know understood, to the essential. The essential was unsayable. Incommunicable. And everything in this world that tortured me with its silent beauty, everything that needed no words, seemed to be essential. The unsayable was essential.”