The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

I’ve almost gotten to the point that when I see “Bestseller” splashed across the cover of a book and several pages of quotes from reviews inside, I’ll just put that book down and move on. I am so often disappointed by such books. They don’t live up to one-tenth the expectations raised by the front matter. Such a hard sell makes me wonder if the publishers made the mistake of paying a big advance for what turned out to be a stinker and are now pushing the book to try to recoup some of their losses.

I was drawn to this book because I tend to enjoy literary mysteries, that is, mysteries about books and writers. Also because I’ve been reading Dante this year. There actually was a real Dante Club. In this version, the club consists of several famous authors (Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes & Greene) struggling to translate Dante's Commedia into English, under pressure from local conservatives to abandon their effort and shocked by a series of particularly gruesome murders.

Great, I thought. Right up my alley, especially since I'm currently working on translating some Italian poetry. However, I found the beginning very hard going, mostly because the point of view skipped around from one character to another—sometimes staying with each character for only one paragraph before moving on!—and the sheer number of characters jumbled into the first few chapters.

I came close to dumping it after 50 pages, but stuck with it, not just because of Dante (whose work had finally made an appearance), but also because of the time and place (post-Civil War Boston). I'm glad I did, because it got better, although not (in my opinion) reaching the breathless heights promised by the pages of praise from reviewers or the author's compliments to himself in the interview at the end. Still, I enjoyed it. Pearl did a very good job of integrating the mystery into the various threads of the story, and the historical detail was excellent.

Blue Screen, by Robert B. Parker

Parker is expert at creating the sense of place that I missed so much in the Leon book. Nostalgic as I was for the Boston area when I first picked up a Spenser book, I found myself transported to the places I knew. While I didn’t actually hang out with criminals and murderers, the people in the books rang true to me, close enough to the folks I knew. I owe Robert B. Parker a great debt for his having written the Spenser books, and had the opportunity to thank him at a signing at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore some years ago. He put on a cowboy voice and said, “Just doin’ my job, ma’am.”

Blue Screen is not a Spenser book. In fact, it is the one where two of his new series detectives, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone, meet. I’m not alone in admiring Parker for taking the risk of creating new characters. The Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone books don’t measure up to the early Spenser books, but they are okay. In fact, a friend of mine remarked that, although movies made from books are usually disappointing, the Jesse Stone made-for-television movies have actually increased her enjoyment of the books.

Parker always does a terrific job with sidekicks. Spenser’s dryly wise-cracking friend Hawk is one of the great characters of the genre. In this book, we get at least one satisfying scene with Sunny’s friend Spike; if you haven’t met up with him yet, you’re missing something. And her father-in-law. We don’t see so much of Jesse’s deputies, whose gradual development I’ve begun to relish.

Sunny is hired to protect Erin Flint, an action film star. Erin’s husband/producer has arranged for her to be in the starting lineup of the baseball club that he owns, a publicity stunt to advertise her upcoming film and also increase the value of the team. Sunny is to protect Erin—who compares herself to Jackie Robinson—from hotheads angry about a woman breaking major league baseball’s gender barrier.

The story twists and turns, revealing secrets that tear people’s lives apart. Unfortunately, though, the book tends to bog down occasionally in long conversations between people analysing their relationship. Listening to people talk about their relationship is immensely tedious, unless it is your own of course. Sometimes even then. Also tedious are conversations between a person and his or her shrink. I would rather see those insights expressed in action.

Not that the book is lacking in action. And the changes the various characters undergo are true to life, as emotions emerge from behind the bluster and reticence frays around the edges. The puzzle, too, is satisfyingly solved and order restored.

A Noble Radiance, by Donna Leon

I first started listening to this book on a long car ride, but had to switch to something else because it was putting me to sleep. Granted, I was tired to start with, but it seemed like a lot of talking with this person and that about matters not related to the crime. Later (and more rested) I found myself better able to stick with it, although still vaguely disappointed.

I think I expected more of a sense of place. I mean, Venice after all! Not that I would expect natives to rhapsodise about tourist spots, but I had hoped to understand a bit better what it is like to live there. I like the way Laura Lippman uses Baltimore almost as another character in her books. A mention or two here of the traghetto and a water-taxi didn’t quite do it for me. I was amused that I could still convert lire to dollars almost unconsciously—talk about your useless skills. In a museum in Chiusi a few years ago, I noticed they had a display of different denominations of lire notes and coins. It still seems odd that things from my lifetime are now part of history.

There were some hints of regional discrimination, organised crime and official corruption. But I wanted the feel of daily life in the city of dirt and dreams, not a civics lesson. Unfair, of course, to criticise a book for not being what I expected. I’ve mentioned before that I particularly like mysteries for their puzzle, and the puzzle here was certainly interesting.

When a long-abandoned field is plowed, some human bones are turned up along with a signet ring with the crest of the Lorenzoni family. The patriarch, Count Lorenzoni, runs a huge business with fingers in all kinds of pies. He had started with almost nothing but his fierce ambition to rebuild the family fortunes and restore the family’s honor, deeply tarnished during the war when the Count’s father betrayed the city’s Jews to the Germans.

Almost two years previous to the story, the Count’s only son, Roberto, had been kidnapped. The authorities had frozen the family’s assets, so the Count was unable to pay the ransom, and nothing more was heard of the boy. Could the body in the field be the missing Roberto? If so, who had kidnapped him and why?

Once I let go of my expectations—none of Nevada Barr’s suspenseful chases through national parks here or Ian Rankin’s devastating character development—I began to enjoy this book for what it is: a sober story with much to say about families and what can go on within them.

Playlist 2007

Songs are stories, too, even when there are no words. Every year I collect the songs I’ve been listening to over and over, and am usually surprised to find a common theme emerging. Switching from cassette tapes to an ipod has meant that my playlists have gotten longer and more dynamic. Here is this year’s list:

An Untold Story – Assaggio No. 1 In G Minor, Casanova soundtrack
Over The Rainbow, Eva Cassidy
Jamaica Say You Will, Tom Rush
Super Duper Love, Joss Stone
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Paul Simon
Adia, Sarah McLachlan
Everything is Free, Gillian Welch
Cowsong, Kate Rusby
The Spotted Cow, Tim Radford
Pony, Tom Waits
House Where Nobody Lives, Tom Waits
A Case Of You, Joni Mitchell
Blue, Joni Mitchell
Largo from “Winter”, The Four Seasons, Yo-Yo Ma et al
Falling In Love Again, Marlene Dietrich
Illusions, Marlene Dietrich
La Route Enchantee, Charles Trenet
Menilmontant, Charles Trenet
La Vie En Rose, Edith Piaf
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, Edith Piaf
In The Still Of The Night, Billy Ekstine
Night And Day, Ella Fitzgerald
I've Got You Under My Skin, Dinah Washington
Moon Dreams (Live), Miles Davis
Vincent (Starry, Starry Night), Josh Groban
Lately, Aengus Finnan
Shenandoah, Keith Jarrett
Gypsy Round, Bare Necessities
Ramsgate Assembly, Bare Necessities
Lord Balgonie's, Susan Conant
Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
Died For Love, John Roberts & Tony Barrand
I Wish, Kate Rusby
Cruel, Kate Rusby
Botany Bay, Kate Rusby
Jamestown, Alistair Brown
A Sailor's Life, Finest Kind
The Female Rambling Sailor, Ian Robb
Clog à Ti-Jules/Bedeau de l'Enfer, Elvie Miller & Naomi Morse
The Discharged Drummer, Nightingale
The Black Isle, Becky Tracy
Theidh mi dhachaigh (Return to Kintail), Alasdair Fraser
The Dark Island, Maggie Carchrie
Cuccuruccu Paloma, Caetano Veloso
Hable Con Ella, Alberto Iglesias
Cinema Paradiso: Looking for You, Yo-Yo Ma/Morricone
Cinema Paradiso (Se), Josh Groban
Cinema Paradiso: Nostalgia, Yo-Yo Ma/Morricone
Moon River, Frank Sinatra