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Recommendations: Quick Picks

February 9, 2011

With the start of a new semester at Mason, plus a short-term class I’m teaching at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a short class I’m taking at The Writer’s Center, the recent AWP Conference (first panel appearance!) and several Mystery Writers of America duties (and last night’s dinner speaker was great)…. well, I’m behind on the blog here. To fill the gap, how about a quick look at some books that have recently crossed my desk and caught my eye?

Ever since I first encountered his novels in college (and was lucky enough to hear him speak there too), Mario Vargas Llosa has been one of my favorite writers, not only because of his rich subject matter but also because of his stylistic daring, particularly in some of his earlier books. (Conversation in the Cathedral seems to tower in this respect, although The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta may remain my personal favorite.) Each new novel from him leaps to the top of my to-read list, and hearing that he won last year’s Nobel Prize was a great treat. The first new book of his to be published in translation in the wake of that win isn’t a novel but a collection of nonfiction writing: Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art and Politics — a title drawn from the name of the column Vargas Llosa regularly contributes to the Spanish newspaper El País. His essays have often proven as thoughtful and provocative as his novels (I’ve also enjoyed two previous collections, Making Waves and The Language of Passion), and this new book finds him browsing — as the subtitle promises — through the worlds of classic literature (The Heart of Darkness, Lolita, The Tin Drum, Deep Rivers, as well as Don Quixote, which he terms “A Twenty-First-Century Novel”), art (including both his beloved Botero and Paul Gauguin, subject of Vargas Llosa’s terrific novel The Way to Paradise), and politics, not just in his native Peru but throughout Latin America, in the U.S., and around the world. While the novels are surely the best starting point for learning about the most recent Nobel Laureate, this collection offers deeper insights into the passions and concerns of the man behind those books.

Writer and editor Michael Sims has followed up his wonderfully entertaining Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime with a sequel of sorts that shines a light (see the fun cover!) on another aspect of suspense fiction in the late 1800s and early 1900s: The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime. In researching the gaslight crime anthology, Sims discovered “how few of the great women detectives and criminals of the Victorian and Edwardian eras are remembered today” — a situation that certainly needed remedying. In the interim between that collection and this one, Sims also revisited one of the earliest and most successful female crime novelists in the U.S., presenting just last year a must-have new edition of Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that two of Green’s other series protagonists appear (much deservedly) among the eleven pieces in the new collection: the young and spunky Violet Strange, a socialite with a flair for detection, and the “spinster snoop” Amelia Butterworth, a precursor of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. While several of the authors here are female — Green, Mary Wilkens, and C.L. Pirkis — Sims stresses that the collection’s focus is on female characters, so male authors outnumber the ladies, even as all of them champion female protagonists. Selections range from W.S. Hayward, whose Revelations of a Lady Detective was first published anonymously sometime in the early 1860s, to George R. Sims, whose heroine Dorcas Dene suggests to Sims a female Sherlock Holmes (she debuted just three years after Holmes’ “death” at Reichenbach Falls), to Hugh C. Weir, whose Madelyn Mack, Detective was inspired by (if not entirely modeled after) real-life investigator Mary Holland, who joined her husband in running a detective agency and publishing a popular law enforcement periodical and became the first female fingerprinting expert in the United States. Sims has not only gathered a fine array of stories but also takes care to place them in the kind of historical context I’ve already hinted at above — and he’s equally adept at framing these tales in today’s terms as well, as quick to mention Veronica Mars, for example, as the Memoirs of Vidocq. In short, a fine edition of classic crime fiction with a feminine flair.

Finally, a picture book — of sorts. Last year, K.E. Semmel, an occasional contributor here, reviewed Graphic Europe: An Alternative Guide to 31 European Cities, edited by Ziggy Hanaor and featuring the smart artwork and often unique travel recommendations of graphic designers from each represented city, and this year brings a follow-up edition focused on the States: Graphic USA: An Alternative Guide to 25 U.S. Cities. In her editor’s note, Hanaor explains that “people who work in the graphic arts and who have an offbeat aesthetic to their work will often seek out the unexpected and inspirational elements in their environments that one wouldn’t find in most travel guides.” So here we get designers from various cities offering both their personal favorite hotels, bars, restaurants and more plus their own visual take on their respective places. I’d hoped that my own native North Carolina might get some attention here — surely Raleigh, Durham or Chapel Hill (or the Triangle as a whole) would’ve seemed ripe for this treatment — but no luck there. Still, plenty of other Southern cities got some attention, including Atlanta, Charleston, Memphis and New Orleans — and the Memphis section by Alex Warble (aka Alex Harrison) stands out for me as one of the anthology’s highpoints. Other cities represented include biggies like New York and Los Angeles as well as funky hotspots like Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon, and there’s even a trip up to Anchorage; in fact, that’s the first stop in this clever and charming collection. — Art Taylor

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