The CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, good writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, The Cat's Tableopens the shutters and windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje's writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje's writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat's Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

The Cat's Table (Vintage International)

The Bird Artist: A Novel | Howard Norman

Fabian Vas is a young man with talent and a passion for sketching and painting birds in turn-of-the-century coastal Newfoundland.Bird Artist

His powers of observation are so finely tuned that he rarely needs to describe events.  He simply lives them and, in so doing, brings every scene alive.  A complex achievement skillfully executed by Howard Norman.

It is written in a stripped-down style that inspires colorful notions and emotions.  The characters are vivid, flawed and fun to know.

National Book Award Finalist

The Bird Artist: A Novel

IT'S FINE BY ME | Per Petterson

True, Lonely, and Uplifting

Rare is the author or his/her work that I can order sight unseen and know. Know that the book will be a permanent presence on my shelf of quality literature, revisited and reread often. Per Petterson's novels are among the rarest for me.

I promised myself that I would understate these observations about Petterson's third book, the novel, IT'S FINE BY ME (1992), but I've failed already.It's Fine By Me

With the exceptions for love and great ambition, restraint is a desirable quality in most things. Writing, in particular. Petterson's mastery of restraint shows in his spare use of adjectives, and his refusal to embellish any description of setting or action. He simply writes what is, what happens, period. It's up to us to figure out the why of it. Just like life. And he does this without affectation or apparent effort, which reinforces his credibility with the reader and simultaneously sets the stage for profound, moving and often tender human insight.

Audun Sletten is Petterson's 13-year old protagonist in IT'S FINE BY ME, a working-class teen who identifies with Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, and is annoyed by adult hypocrisies, and his sister's choice of her James Dean wannabe boyfriend. He has outgrown the rules of childhood and is experiencing the contradictions of adulthood as he strives to understand his emerging identity, which is being defined as he responds to the messes that parents, sisters, friends, strangers and co-workers create for themselves. The culture of adulthood is a strange and chaotic bazaar of public selves and private rules that his elders seem to have accommodated in their own failed personal dreams of freedom and success. In this world seen through Audun's adolescent senses, adulthood is life lived under a succession of truces in which the line between what might be and what is shifts and morphs like light under water.

Previous Reviews of Per Petterson's works:

IN THE WAKE 

OUT STEALING HORSES

A trained librarian, Petterson worked as a bookstore clerk, translator and literary critic before he became a full-time writer. He cites Knut Hamsun and Raymond Carver among his influences.

Your Brain on Fiction

NeuroFiction

An article in the New York Times published on Saint Patrick’s Day caught my attention for its premise: fiction improves our minds. I believe this to be true, but haven’t looked too deeply into the science of it. Science author Annie Murphy Paul has. Her article confirms my personal experience of the effect of reading fiction on mental, social and life skills.

AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.

This got my neural processors firing away in anticipation of a good intellectual workout. Paul makes a compelling case for the power of the novel to engage, exercise and improve the brain.

The brain, the article reminds us, does not distinguish between imagining an experience as we read about it and actually experiencing it in real life. To the brain, one is as real as the other. This is a key principle of achieving excellence in any endeavor, practicing it in our minds so thoroughly that our mind cannot accept less than the perfect execution.  High performance athletes understand this. Just as jet fighter pilots, high steel workers, leading corporate innovators, and neurosurgeons do. The fact that a good novel engages our mind and thrusts us into the heart of risk, danger, adventure, romance, achievement functions the way it does because our minds understand sensory details, evocative metaphors, and stimulating situations with such rich and complex experiences of reality that we discover and learn much as if we actually travelled, trained and risked as the novel’s characters do.

According to two scientific studies cited in the article, our experience of a novel hones our real-life social skills. The more we read fiction, the better we are able to understand other people, empathize with their challenges, and credibly see the world from their perspective.

Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.

Previously I held this truth to be self-evident. Now, I have proof that my preference for the novel literary form is pragmatic and has a basis in science.

Related Links

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, NY Times, March 17, 2012

Annie Murphy Paul | Science Author  -  TED     Nov. 2011

 

 

 

WOLVES EAT DOGS | Martin Cruz Smith

In the shadow of the devastated Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, nature is reclaiming the wreckage of humankind's worst nuclear accident. Outlaws and corrupt militia co-exist in the toxic detritus that is left in the wake of the government-ordered evacuation years earlier. Scientists come to conduct pure research. Surviving residents with nowhere to go wait for the end that never comes. Weary, they attempt to live with the terrible knowledge of their doom. One telling detail of their reduced circumstances: they cannot have pet dogs because the wolves in the surrounding forests eat dogs. This is not a cliché. It is a living Darwinian metaphor. Arkady Renko, the iconic detective from GORKY PARK, is challenged by his most baffling and enigmatic case yet: the death of an oligarch, by suicide perhaps, but Renko is certain it is the result of a murderous plot.

Smith's prose is deceptively elegant. It seems straightforward like Renko's description of action, yet it is always painted in shades of light, color, and tone. This and Renko's cynical, quietly subversive, brilliantly analytical, melancholy character keeps the mind turning - amused and utterly engaged.

Amazon - Wolves Eat Dogs

Wikipedia - Wolves Eat Dogs

 

Birds In Fall | Brad Kessler

Life is Fragile as Flight

This novel is one of those surprise discoveries. My wife brought it home for me on a whim with some journals. I read the opening sentence and sensed immediately that my priorities for the weekend had shifted.Birds In Fall by Brad Kessler

It’s true: a few of us slept through the entire ordeal, but others sensed something wrong right away.

I was hooked. Wished I’d written it. The voice possessed a sense of moment, a texture of imminent tragedy that gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. The first chapter transported me to far away Nova Scotia and continues to resonate in unexpected ways after the final page of the novel 238 pages later.

BIRDS IN FALL was a critical and popular success. An excerpt was published in The Kenyon Review in the spring of 2006. It won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. And the Los Angeles Times named it one of the ten best books of 2006.

A Novel for Novelists

The story begins aboard a transatlantic flight from New York City bound for Amsterdam. The style is contemporary, spare in setting, and emphasizes action.  It is told in the first person voice of Russell, Ana’s husband. The action is carefully and effectively modulated as he takes up conversation with the woman seated next to him, a concert cellist who is stressed by the airplane’s bumpy ride through increasingly violent stormy night skies.

For example, one of the most visually compelling moments is Russell’s presence of mind in writing his NY address on his forearm with the cellist’s Japanese Maple lipstick. He shows it to her and encourages her to do the same. Ironically, she encourages Russell to include his name in his message to his rescuers, yet he cannot bring himself to do so. This foreshadows his fate as another anonymous casualty of tragedy, vanished, forever lost at sea. Indeed, eighty minutes into its flight, the aircraft ‘enters the sea.’

From there we shift to a small community setting on Trachis Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and the events following the crash. The narrator’s voice changes to third person omniscient and never returns to Ana’s husband in any meaningful way. Despite several telling details set up in the first chapter, few are referenced later in the narrative in which bits and pieces of airplane, passengers, and luggage debris are recovered.

From chapter two onward we follow the innkeepers Kevin and Douglas on Trachis Island and Ana Gathreaux, Russell’s ornithologist wife, who travels from New York City to the inn to visit the site of the catastrophe and learn something more about Russell’s fate. Other victims’ families travel to the island from all over the world for the same purpose. Over time, they each experience punishing, withering grief, hope, frustration, abandonment, and transformation into new lives without their loved ones.

The writing improves in this second voice and occasionally soars like the migrating birds that serve as such an apt metaphor for the flight of time, events, and souls. On more than one occasion, I was reminded of Michael Ondaatje’s poetic prose. That's profound praise for how deft many of Brad Kessler’s passages are.

Recommended

Birds In Fall is remarkable. It is rich with masterful writing and compelling insights into the lives, drives, and lessons that shape us as our migrations intersect across time, place and circumstance.

 

Related Links

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brad_Kessler

 

 

Anil's Ghost | Michael Ondaatje

Nothing Civil About This War

This novel was published after the phenomenon that was THE ENGLISH PATIENT. It is more grounded in human tragedy than PATIENT, and hews more closely to the female protagonist's (Anil's) story than PATIENT's Hana.

Ondaatje's achievement here is capturing horrible truths in asides. It is in the actions of supporting characters that he makes his case for the best and worst aspects of the human experience.

In THE ENGLISH PATIENT, Kip the sapper lives and works at the edges of the novel's principal plot. Yet it is in his seemingly incongruent actions that he is so effective a presence. For example, he hoists Hana on a line into the high shadows of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo so that she can glimpse the centuries-old frescoes. In doing so, he lifts her above the nightmare of Nazi occupation in WW-II Italy and transports her across time to the heights of mankind's artistic triumph.

In ANIL'S GHOST, we are dropped into the terror of Sri Lanka's civil war. There she is caught between three intractable forces: leftist and separatist insurrections and the government's ruthless repression. Here she collaborates with two brothers - one an archealogist and the other a doctor. In their world, abduction is to be expected, torture is a fact of life, and the aspirations of their professions - discovery, knowledge, compassion - are dark and threatening ideas. They are ultimately loyal to these values, these abstractions of light, shadow, and hope.

It is especially relevant reading now, when what appears to be nascient civil war threatens the Middle East from Tripoli to Tehran.

GHOST is deeply researched and written. It is a good addition to the literature of our time.

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

Related: Michael Ondaatje: Auteur, Author

The FAITHFUL SPY | Alex Berenson

Auditioning new thriller authors is a gamble. We develop a relationship with selected authors, their characters, plots, and settings. Investing time in a complex literary reading experience written by a new author entails a leap of faith. Yet risk can pay.  Discovering a talented author who possesses a wealth of experience and who has so much to share is satisfying. While I've enjoyed thrillers by Tom ClancyAnthony Hyde, Frederick ForsythJohn LeCarre, and Daniel Silva, I was ready for new material and a fresh narrator's voice. I decided to try Alex Berenson's writing. Berenson is a New York Times reporter who has covered stories ranging from the occupation of Iraq to the flooding of New Orleans to the financial crimes of Bernie Madoff. Reading his first novel, The FAITHFUL SPY (Jove paper 2008), looked like a good way to get acquainted.

The FAITHFUL SPY: Plot

John Wells is an American Central Intelligence Agency agent who, by all appearances, has gone over to the other side and is now a member of Al Qaeda. He has converted to Islam and is a devout Muslim. He has not been heard from in several years, yet the CIA takes note of occasional reports that a tall American matching Well's description has surfaced in the company of Al Qaeda fighters.The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

John has earned the respect and trust of his fighters after years of sacrifice, living, fighting, and sacrificing as they do.  As the novel opens, he maneuvers his squad into an attack on American special forces in Afghanistan that he knows will devastate his team. All of his fellow fighters are killed by the Americans, and John 'surfaces,' revealing his identity complete with the code phrase that he has not used in many years, to notify Washington that he is still loyal to the CIA. From there, the plot moves to a planned attack in America, and his need to remain undercover to learn details from his secretive Al Qaeda handlers in the hopes of averting another disastrous attack on America.

In Langley, CIA administrators and managers distrust Wells. They don't buy his story.  He is a rogue. There is little the bureaucrats fear more than individual initiative. All except for his handler, Exley, who believes in him, yet must tread carefully to avoid being kicked out of the the agency and everything she has worked so hard to achieve. Wells remains caught between America's intelligence apparatus, law enforcement officials, and lethal Al Qaeda believers. He must operate effectively in both cultures and does so at great personal cost.

Ultimately, Wells confronts the Al Qaeda villain who drives a car bomb loaded with radioactive elements that will render several square miles of midtown Manhattan uninhabitable for a century.  The authorities who are hunting for Wells will certainly shoot first, and ask questions later.  It comes down to Wells against the fury of radical Islam on a street with no place to hide.  It will either be Wells or his Al Qaeda nemesis who survives, but not both...

The FAITHFUL SPY: Recommended. Berenson's sure voice, direct writing style and pacing kept me turning pages. I look forward to reading the next.

The Faithful Spy (John Wells, No. 1)

The INVENTION OF TRUTH | Marta Morazzoni

Passionately felt, skillfully written

The Invention of Truth (1995), by Marta Morazzoni was inspired by John Ruskin's quote: we can imagine falsities, we can compose falsehoods, but only truth can be invented, and interweaves two stories set in Amiens, France.The Invention of Truth

In the 11th century,  young Anne Elizabeth journeys to Amiens to assist Queen Matilda (1031-1083) in the embroidery of a tapestry that will later become known to the world as the Bayeux Tapestry. Her life is defined by this quiet encounter with the most powerful woman on earth.

In 1879, Victorian master art critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), makes his final journey to Amiens where his experience inspires his book, The BIBLE OF AMIENS.

Both Anne Elizabeth and John Ruskin discover their individual 'truths' through their art. Anne Elizabeth experiences her proximity to the Queen more authentically through observations and appreciations of the Queen's skill with her needle and thread than as a subject of the all powerful royal. John Ruskin touches the French soul and reveals himself most powerfully through his focus on French art.

Seven hundred years separate these two lives, yet the artist in you will recognize the theme that connects them.

Related Links

Amazon

The Free Library

 

The GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO | Stieg Larsson

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist, co-founder and editor of Millennium Magazine, receives a guilty verdict for aggravated libel of the businessman and market speculator, Hans-Erik Wennerström. He is sentenced to prison for his attack on Wennerström's otherwise well-protected reputation. Mikael knows that he is innocent, yet he is resigned to the fact that the corrupt and admittedly more powerful Wennerström has bested him. Lisbeth Salander is a twenty four-year old misfit with significant socialization deficits. Yet she is a savant, a prodigy at least, in the ways of obtaining information even the most sophisticated private investigators are unable to access.

Henrik Vanger is the elderly former captain of the Vanger Corporation, obsessed with learning the fate of his niece, Harriet, who vanished in 1966.  He suspects she was murdered. Vanger hires Mikael to research and write a Vanger a family history as cover for his real assignment, which is to learn what happened to Harriet.

Blomkvist, seeing no better option for the next year of his currently difficult life, accepts Vanger’s offer. He steps down from his editorship at Millennium; leaves his best friend and occasional lover, Erika Berger; and moves to Hedestad.

Mikael hires Lisbeth Salander to be his researcher.  Soon, the two misfits are extraordinary partners.  Mikael learns that all is not as it appears with the petite, tattooed, anti-social Lisbeth.  For her part, Lisbeth learns that she is capable of trusting another person for the first time in her life. Over time, her feelings for Mikael deepen and she grows in new ways that are foreign, even startling to her. Together, they discover the facts of Harriet’s disappearance forty-plus years earlier and an ugly, depraved, sadistic vein in the Vanger family.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo merits the excitement that preceded its arrival in America from Europe where it is an unprecedented publishing phenomenon. Larsson’s writing has a steady grasp on the pace and dynamics of mystery storytelling. Unfortunately for us, he died after finishing the third in this series.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The RED FOX | Anthony Hyde

Some first novels arrive from nowhere and become milestones in their genres, touchstones to understanding the world through specific stories. Anthony Hyde's first novel, THE RED FOX (1986), is such a book. When journalist Robert Thorne's ex-fiancee, May Brightman, asks him to locate her missing father, Thorne is wary. Years ago, May broke their engagement and cut Thorne adrift. Since then, he's moved on. Despite himself, reluctantly, he agrees to search for Harry. Soon, he discovers that Harry wasn't your ordinary fiance's father. His background is as dark, conflicted and dangerous as any in contemporary fiction. Others are after Harry, too. Thorne is savvy. He knows that he is in over his head, and yet he follows the trail of clues anyway.

Evocative of time, place, character and motivation, THE RED FOX provides a strong sense of presence in a world dominated by Cold War espionage. Hyde's deft literary hand displays the discipline and attitude of the journalist. His voice is often energetic, sometimes self-deprecating, always erudite. A remarkable achievement for a first novel.

Another Time

Hyde published this novel just after John Le Carre's THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL swept the market and advanced Le Carre's already iconic standing as a master novelist. Robert Ludlum's BOURNE SUPREMACY also came to bookstores that year. The average life was overshadowed by superpower tensions and yet change was in the wind. Whether for the better or the worse remained to be seen. Terror came from just two polarized political systems and their overwhelming national firepower. An entirely different world environment from the more complicated, fragmented terror we know today.

The story of THE RED FOX grows from diverse and intense emotions - anger, hurt, betrayal - and is delivered with a constancy that derives from a deeply embedded moral compass. It is visual and tactile and was a feast for readers of the late 1980's who were navigating the changeable cultural seas between the pre- and post-Internet revolutions. Written in the pre-Internet time period, it is satisfying to re-experience the journalist's life pre-Google and pre-smartphone, to be reminded of the discipline and skills required to ferret out disparate bits of information, connect the dots and develop understanding at a comparatively reflective pace. And yet, events move on apace and we are pulled from page to page, setting to sinister setting.

The Red Fox

A MATCH TO THE HEART | Gretel Ehrlich

In 1991, Gretel Ehrlich was struck by lightning while walking her dogs on her Wyoming ranch.

Before electricity carved its blue path toward me, before the negative charge shot down from cloud to ground, before "streamers" jumped the positive charge back up from ground to cloud, before air expanded and contracted producing loud pressure pulses I could not hear because I was already dead, I had been walking.

A Match to the Heart, page 5

She regains consciousness and with her dogs manages to get to the house.   She is in shock, singed, disoriented, lame, plagued by furiously burning pains, her throat is paralyzed, and her nervous system is seared, broken and fragmented. Somehow she dials 911. So begins her journey from blinding light through years of shadows.

Hospitalized and severely debilitated, she begins a battle that will take more than two years for her to regain her health and a sense of confidence and autonomy. As compelling as being struck dead by lightning may be, it is Ehrlich's narrative of her return to life that is extraordinary.

As in her other work, Ehrlich explores existence from all angles and perspectives.  Even she, the victim, is not spared the Nature writer's intense probing, research and exploration in search of understanding.  She studies thunder, lightning, and storms and discovers comfort in their fierce science. She seeks out other victims of lightning strikes and finds many others who have experienced the indescribable pains that are invisible to medical specialists, impossible-to-explain personal transformations, and isolation due to society's ignorance.

As she did in THE SOLACE OF OPEN SPACES (1985), and ISLANDS, THE UNIVERSE, HOME (1991), Ehrlich generously shares her unblinking observations along her uneven path to understanding with us.

I heard her read from MATCH and speak at the Los Angeles Public Library in December 1994.  Her humility, commitment to nature, and passion for expressing the often inexpressible were moving.

A MATCH TO THE HEART, One Woman's Story of Being Struck by Lightning. Pantheon, New York, 1994.

 

Related Links

Gretel Ehrlich site

Gretel Ehrlich (Park Central)

OUT STEALING HORSES | Per Petterson

Alone, Not Lonely

Several Decembers ago, while walking up a side street in the Colorado Rockies, I experienced a sense of being transported across time to another life. It should have scared me. Yet I knew exactly where I was - the Silver Boom-era Victorian houses, the approaching winter storm’s metallic taste in the air – and knew to a certainty that I had not been there before in this life. I was in surroundings that felt like home, just not my then current home. This effect happened to me again when I read the first page of PER PETTERSON's novel OUT STEALING HORSES, which begins:

Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don’t know what they want that I have. I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake. It is starting to blow. I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

That paragraph evokes sense memories that clarify and transport. Per Petterson has said that he worked extensively on the English translation with Anne Born and that he prefers the English text to his original Norwegian.  Reading this, it is possible to understand why.

We imagine other lives in the flickering cinema or while reading a good book.  This is the effect when Per Petterson’s narrator in HORSES, Trond Sander, includes us in his thoughts as he adjusts to life in the rural cottage to which he has retreated after the death of his wife and a career as an Oslo professional. We are drawn into his shrinking world and the occasional tricks of his memory as he shares past events with candid, unassuming, transparent detail. Trond is without artifice.  We like him immediately.  Even when he is not so accepting of himself, perhaps the more so because of his mild surprise at his own decay.

It is this contract of decent, at times self-deprecating truth-telling he establishes with us that enables some significant coincidences to pass into our accepting state of mind.  His meeting the former boyhood friend, Lars, half a century after life altering tragedy seems right in Trond’s contracting universe.  His daughter Ellen’s sudden reappearance after his abrupt escape to anonymity brings still more validation of his life’s choices and in Trond’s chosen time.  We trust that we will learn what we need to know. And we do.

Literary Northern Light

OUT STEALING HORSES is a book for writers.  We read, hope to occasionally glimpse a little of how he does it, perhaps detect a pattern, some clue to technique, yet Petterson’s style is organic, so thoroughly in tune with his mind that it is unlikely any of us can parse it successfully for its underlying machinery.  He may not even be aware of precisely how he accomplishes such precise emotional resonance.  One gets the sense that Per Petterson trusts himself to navigate the cross currents of the average life’s rapids, like when as a boy he discovers one of his father's secrets, he knows he should be troubled yet intuits that he should keep it to himself until he can determine its meaning.  When young Trond drops from a high branch to a horse’s back, he trusts that Zorro’s ghost will guide him to a suitably valiant flight on the mare’s back through the ancient Norwegian forest.  When instead his crotch meets the horse’s fence line of bone at the withers, he suffers the ignominy of busted balls and blinding, legendary pain, we wince and shift in our seat, relive our own first such catastrophe and invest a little more of ourselves in Trond’s story.

There is an intimate quality to Petterson’s writing here that brings Barry Lopez’s writing to mind. It is hard to imagine a more unexpected connection. Lopez, who is best known for his excellent non-fiction accounts that compete for impact with the best fiction, is a master of erudition, intimate detail, ethics and how the individual relates to him/herself. Petterson's writing is simultaneously understated and precise, a daring combination for fiction.

OUT STEALING HORSES won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007. I have added Per Petterson to my list of authors to watch and look forward to reading his other work.

Publisher's Blurb

OUT STEALING HORSES is the story of a man who has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated part of eastern Norway to live the rest of his life with quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on a fateful childhood summer. Petterson’s subtle prose and profound vision make OUT STEALING HORSES an unforgettable novel.

Graywolf Press

FORTY FATHOM BANK | Les Galloway

The writing in this novella is lean and economical. It tells a tale that sets the hook and guides the reader through several surprises to the final reveal.  For me, this book belongs on the same shelf with "The Ledge" (1959) by Lawrence Sargent Hall, THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (1952) by Ernest Hemingway  and "To Build A Fire" (1908) by Jack London. As a teenager, Les Galloway (1912-1990) shipped out to New Zealand as a seaman and a few years later, dropped out of college to enlist in the Bolivian army. Most of his life he was a commercial fisherman out of San Francisco. His stories were published in Esquire and Prairie Schooner.

ABSOLUTION | Olaf Olaffson

This is the story of a frozen heart. Peter Peterson fell in love with a girl who tolerated him, perhaps even led him on. Peter followed her from Iceland to Denmark in 1941 where he learned that she opened to another young man. He still loves her, denies that she is lost to him and arranges a weekend away with her.  When in his burning desire for her he attempts to make love to her, she rejects him utterly. He takes revenge by informing on her lover to German authorities in occupied Copenhagen.  This crime imprisons him for the remainder of his damaged, closed life.

The writing is spare and lucid. The slow-burning fuse of the narrator's guilt propels the reader forward through the thickets of an average lonely life. There is a distance in the narrative, however, that holds the reader at arms length. As a result, this reader's take-away is qualified; similar to a footnote that sticks in the memory after details of the tale break apart and fade.

The LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL | John Le Carre

John Le Carré's tenth novel, The Little Drummer Girl (1983), set the bar for tackling the passions and persistent complexities of the "Palestinian problem."  It presented the big picture issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by means of specific personal crises and moments of life-and-death will.

The Plot

Fed up with cautious politicians and bureaucrats, Israeli intelligence officer, Martin Kurtz, gathers a small army of spies, malcontents, specialists, master operators-in-training, schemers, and fierce veterans of dark deeds behind the news headlines to craft an elaborate, complex mission to snare a Palestinian terror mastermind.

Kurtz's most trusted associate is Gadi Becker, a seasoned warrior veteran of every Israeli success of the last 20 years.

At the heart of their scheme is Charlie, a bright, young, unresolved English actress of uncertain distinction. They attract her interest while she is on holiday in Greece with fellow troupers, a largely dissolute lot.

A dark mystery man she comes to know as Joseph (Gadi Becker) sweeps her off her feet and shows her a more intriguing and mysterious life. Soon, Charlie is brought into Kurtz' fold and offered a chance to make a difference in the theater of the real.

Trained and prepared for the terrible loneliness of deep cover work beyond the protection of her elite team, Charlie becomes the bait that gradually attracts Khalil, the terrorist, to her in ever cautious, ever closing circles through a progression of dedicated soldiers of the Palestinian cause, each more adept and committed than the last. Finally, Charlie is tested by Khalil, who involves her in the assassination of a prominent Jewish intellectual.

Afterwards, when Khalil trusts her, and takes her for himself, he becomes distrustful and is about to kill Charlie when...

Casts a Spell

Rather than spoil the ending for you, I'll stop there.  If you haven't already, read this minor classic of the spy genre. We have seen the effects of the irreconcilable claims by Israelis and Palestinians to the same small area of land astride the eastern Mediterranean. LeCarré brings the passions, vexing contradictions, and cultural imperatives alive. The characters are fully realized.  The settings are sensory-rich. The plot has enough switchbacks and chicanes to keep the most demanding reader turning pages.  And it casts a spell by hewing closely to emotional truth.

The Little Drummer Girl was published in 1983.  Hodder & Stoughton (UK), Alfred A. Knopf (US).  ISBN 0-394-53015-2 (US hardback)   George Roy Hill directed the feature film adaptation in 1984, which starred Diane Keaton (Charlie),  Klaus Kinski (Kurtz), and Yorgo Voyakis (Gadi/Joseph).

The Little Drummer Girl: A Novel