Stephen L. Carter. The Emperor of Ocean Park. When I read Carter’s Palace Council, I thought it was too long and was impatient to finish. When I finished Disk 10 of The Emperor of Ocean Park, I wondered how Carter could spin out the plot to fill Disks 11 to 20. This time I didn’t get impatient. There are wheels inside of wheels inside of wheels. Talcott Garland’s father, Oliver Garland, had been a judge on the US Court of Appeals. During the hearings for his nomination to the Supreme Court, information came out that he had had an ongoing relationship with Jack Zeigler, a notorious underworld figure, who also happened to have been his college roommate. Needless to say, he didn’t get the appointment and had to resign in disgrace from the Court of Appeals. The Garlands are an elite black family that lives on the “Gold Coast” in Washington, DC, and summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Talcott is the only African American law professor at a prestigious Ivy League university in Connecticut which may or may not sound a lot like Yale. When the book opens, Oliver has just died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and at the funeral Zeigler approaches Talcott to say that as soon as he figures out his father’s “arrangements,” Talcott is to tell Zeigler and no one else. This is the beginning of the mystery or mysteries. What was it that Oliver did after his younger daughter, Abby, had been killed by a hit and run driver? Did he hire a private detective to try to find out what the police could not. Why was there no record of payment to the detective and, if there was no payment, what was the quid pro quo? Who is following Talcott and why? Is there more than one group having him followed? Will this all effect his wife’s nomination to be a federal judge. What are the “arrangements?” Is the key to the solution in a chess problem called “double excelsior,” which involves a white pawn and a black pawn? Yes, Carter is a little wordy and he makes Talcott too much of a goody-two-shoes, but this was a great read. A bonus is Carter’s description of life among our African American elite, including the disquietude of members of “the paler nation” when they discover that these black people are as smart as they are and can accomplish real and important things.
George V. Higgins. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I started and quit. It was a discussion of the ins and outs of how criminals operate. Boring. January 2013
Langston Hughes. Tambourines to Glory. The end notes say that this was first written as a play which ran on Broadway for 25 days in 1963 Many prominent blacks criticized the play, because it seemed to mock the African American churches. I don’t know how it would be to read this off the page, but the recorded version is a joy – we get to hear Hughes’s gospel songs which are the heart of the story. Essie and Laura are each living on welfare in one room apartments in Harlem in a building known locally as “the rabbit warren.” Laura is casting about for a way to earn some money and spice up their lives. When she discovers that Essie has an amazing singing voice, she persuades Essie that they should start a church. Laura learned the lingo of a preacher growing up with her grandfather, and she can sing too. The first time out they set up on a corner on Lenox Avenue, and after they pass the tambourine, they find they have raked in $11.59. By the time summer is over and it’s too cold to hold services outside, they have saved enough money to rent the ground floor of a brownstone. This is so successful that they move on to an abandoned theater. Essie finds religion, but Laura finds financial success and treats herself to a Cadillac and a mink coat. She also acquires a boyfriend named Buddy, who can fix things with landlords and building inspectors and who has all sorts of ideas about how to make money from the church. First there’s water from the Jordan at $1 a bottle and then a rumor that the three number designations of Laura’s readings from the Bible are likely winners in the weekly numbers lottery. Laura eventually kills Buddy from jealousy, after he puts moves of Essie’s daughter and others, but Essie soldiers on with plans for a day care center and more, which for me negates the criticism mentioned above. The services described are all about joy, and maybe that’s what religion should be about. Read and sung beautifully by Myra Lucretia Taylor.
Joseph Kanon. Istanbul Passage. Leon, who represents Reynolds Tobacco, was moved from Germany to Istanbul when WW II broke out. During the war he did some odd jobs for US intelligence and still has that connection after the war, even though most of the spies have gone home to be demobilized. During the war his wife Anna, a German Jew, worked with groups trying to save Jews from the holocaust. After witnessing some terrible disasters including the drowning of many children when a leaky refugee boat sank, she fell into a depression so deep that she might as well be in a coma. Bauer is asked to pick up a Romanian coming in on a fishing boat and hide him. On the pier he’s fired on and fires back, killing his attacker, who turns out to be Tommy, the Consular Officer who asked him to make the pickup. What follows is a cat and mouse game with Emniyet -- the Turkish secret service, the Istanbul police, Russian intelligence, and the Consulate, the last because there’s no way of knowing who was working with Tommy. It’s a great read, although I was put off by a long and explicit sex scene which added nothing to the narrative.
Salmon Rushdie. Luka and the Fire of Life. .It’s a long and involved fairy tale or a rewrite of 1001 Nights or something else. It seems that all the gods and all the mythical creatures that no one believes in any more have been sort of pensioned off in a magical world. The thing about this particular magical world is that it was created by Luka’s father, the story teller. When Luka’s father falls into a coma and looks like he may soon die, Luka sets off with his pets, Dog the Bear and Bear the Dog, to enter the magical kingdom and steal the fire of life which will save the father. He gets some help along the way, especially from Soraya, who moves about on King Solomon’s flying carpet and leads the OAF (Otter Airforce), also on flying carpets. Soraya is not an otter. She’s a redhead and looks about 17, even though she’s probably 1000s of years old. Soraya and Luka’s other new friends – a pair of memory birds, a coyote, four dragons, a squirrel-interpreter and a titan -- are able to help him through the trials involved in stealing the fire, but for some trials it’s up to him. It is his knowledge of his father’s stories plus being left handed that enables him to reach the temple with the fire and to persuade the gods to let him leave with a small pot of the fire. As in his other work, Rushdie packs in a mass of details. The only slip I noticed is that he has someone refer to the coyote as a “prairie dog.” January 2013
Simon Winchester. Krakatoa. We all know that Krakatoa in the Sunda Straits between Java and Sumatra erupted on August 26-27, l883 a little after 10: 00 AM and that its effects on the upper atmosphere were seen around the world and even noted in the sky of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I had no idea of the breadth and depth of Krakatoa’s implications for scientific discovery. Winchester starts with some history of Portuguese and then Dutch colonization and then goes back to refer to historical documents written on palm leaves as early as the 4th C CE. Much of the exploration of the historical record is to document earlier eruptions and their effects on the surrounding islands. By 1883, there were scientific instruments in place around the world and the Royal Society in London collected every reading possible to prepare a report on the effects of the eruption. The shock waves in the atmosphere were measured by noting a pattern of sudden drops in atmospheric pressure, and it was discovered that the waves circled the earth seven times before dissipating. There were able to find records of even such minor phenomena as a two inch tidal surge in the Thames. Out of this study came an important step toward understanding tectonic plates, significant advances in biology and botany, and the development of the science of meteorology. To this day there is a worldwide effort in five universities to study the causes and effects of the Krakatoa eruption.