2011: My Year in Reading

January 01, 2012 

Happy New Year to all! I know I haven’t blogged in a few months, and the truth is I’m not sure how much I’ll be blogging in 2012 since I’m about to start a MFA program in fiction writing. However, I did want to at least finish out the year with a post about my year in reading.

This is the first time I kept track of everything I’ve read during the year. Here’s how it breaks down:

83 books read (41 novels/novellas + 15 short story collections + 10 memoirs + 9 young adult + 8 non-fiction)

11 books half-read (i.e., I got distracted for various reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the book or it’s a short story collection and I haven’t read every story yet, but I am planning on finishing it in 2012)

8 books I had to abandon because, well, let’s just say they weren’t for me

Some personal favorites:

Best novel: Galore by Michael Crummey

Close runner-up for best novel: Day for Night by Frederick Reiken

Best short story collection: a tie between Alan Heathcock’s Volt and Caitlin Horrocks’s This Is Not Your City

Made me cry the most: a tie between Joan Didion’s memoir, Blue Nights and Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

Best book by someone I’ve also had as a writing teacher: Other People We Married by Emma Straub

Best unexpectedly good read: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Most likable narrator: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Most deliciously unlikable narrator: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Best “lost at sea” scene: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Most sorry I didn’t get around to reading in 2011: Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination

It was great meeting so many committed and opinionated bloggers in 2011. I wish you all health, happiness and mind-bendingly good reads in the coming year!

 

Book Review: The Oracle of Stamboul

September 14, 2011 

Tragedy strikes twice on the day in 1877 that Eleonora Cohen is born — her mother dies in childbirth and her hometown, the Romanian port of Constanta, is sacked by the Russian calvary. But there is also an air of magic surrounding Eleonora’s birth. Two Tartar midwives come to the Cohen house just in time to assist in the birth, called forth by a prophecy: “They had read the signs, they said: a sea of horses, a conference of birds, the north star in alignment with the moon.” And a flock of birds mysteriously appears, purple and white hoopoes, that will thereafter accompany young Eleonora wherever she goes.

Eleonora is raised by her loving father, Yakob, and an overpowering stepmother, Ruxandra. In keeping with the portentousness of her birth, she is a child prodigy. She learns to read and speak other languages with ease and has an amazing memory. Ruxandra, however, is less than thrilled with Eleonora’s talents, which she finds not in keeping with a young girl whose sole goal in life is to find a husband. When Yakob announces he will be traveling to Stamboul (now Istanboul) to sell some rugs, eight-year old Eleonora decides to stow away in one of his trunks. By the time she reveals herself, they have arrived in Stamboul and there is no sending her back.

At the time of Eleonora’s arrival in the imperial capital, the Ottoman Empire is crumbling. The Russians and German are both pressing in on its borders and spies from as far as the United States prowl its streets. One such spy is the Reverend James Muehler, an American professor and clandestine agent, who ends up becoming Eleonora’s tutor. One of the men Muehler is charged with investigating is Moncef Bey, Yakob’s business associate and the Cohens’ host in Stamboul. When she is asked by Muehler to decipher a coded message, Eleonora ends up getting caught between the two men and the political struggles they represent. Meanwhile, the Sultan hears of Eleonora’s gifts and invites her to his palace to advise on the current political situation.

Melding historical realism with fabulist elements, Michael David Lukas spins quite a yarn. He is at his best when evoking the rich sights and sounds of the Turkish capital. This is Eleonora’s first view of Stamboul and the Sultan’s palace:

Already the Bosporus was teeming, packed with fishing boats, caïques, and the occasional lumbering steamer. On the shore, under the shade of cypress trees, miniature people hawked and haggled, bustled, bargained, and prayed. Three gargantuan turtle-domed mosques glinted in the rising sun, their minarets piercing the sky like bayonets, and there, at the confluence of waters, was the most glorious building Eleonora had ever seen. Gardens upon gardens, arches, balustrades, and clerestories ringed by a gleaming white marble wall and watched over by a regiment of glassy towers, Topkapi Palace, the residency of His Excellency Sultan Abdulhamid II, sat perched on the rim of the Golden Horn, a testament to inconceivable wealth and power.

I was carried away by the intrigue of the historical setting and the gracefulness of the prose up to the very end when, unfortunately, I was left wanting more — more magic, more history, more more more. Lukas has a light touch when it comes to the historical context in which The Oracle of Stamboul is set. This may appeal to many readers, but I found myself wanting to know more about the Ottoman Empire and the reasons for its demise. At the same time, the fairy tale quality with which the book begins is never fully realized and the prophecy that accompanies Eleonora’s birth is never fully explained. What is left is a very good novel with a fascinating premise and a charming protagonist, but a book that falls short of the historically rich, epic feel of novels like Middlesex and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

For more on Michael David Lukas and his work, check out his website.

I was provided with a copy of this book for review by the publisher.

Book, Interrupted: We the Animals

September 09, 2011 

Sometimes you just have to put a book down and tell the whole world about this great sentence/ paragraph/ page.

We the Animals may be a slight book — my advanced reading copy is only 125 pages — but what it lacks in pages, it makes up for in other kinds of “heft.” Set in rural upstate New York, the novel tells the story of three brothers navigating the stormy waters of their parents’ unpredictable relationship. The boys’ Puerto Rican father is prone to unpredictable violent outbursts, and their white mother is too often wrapped up in the disillusionment of her marriage to notice what her sons are up to. This leaves the brothers to run wild in the neighborhood — pretending to run away, watching porn for the first time, and imitating the violence they see at home in their interactions with strangers.

The story is told in a series of brief vignettes through the use of the first person plural. The effect is powerful — nothing short of complete immersion in the world of prepubescent boys in which bursts of haphazard violence quickly morph into moments of tenderness. Feelings burn bright and then fade. Justin Torres’ prose is simple but masterfully lyrical and all-encompassing. Here is his gorgeously crafted first paragraph:

We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.

About three-quarters of the way through the book the tenor changes: the first person plural “we” is exchanged for “I” as the youngest son’s sexuality is revealed and the rest of the family turns against him. The switch in pronouns is abrupt and cruel, and the effect is devastating, but the novel’s end felt somewhat rushed to me.

Overall, however, this debut novel of love and trauma within one family is remarkably elegant and poignant. Highly recommended.

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

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Book Review: The Lantern

August 31, 2011 

An explicit homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, in The Lantern Deborah Lawrenson substitutes modern day Provence for the early twentieth century English countryside of the celebrated gothic classic. And instead of a formal English manor house like Manderley, Lawrenson creates Les Genevriers, a crumbling French hamlet with hidden corners and wandering spirits.

Like Rebecca‘s unnamed narrator, the narrator in The Lantern (nicknamed Eve) falls in love with a rich but mysterious older man. Caught up in the whirlwind of their romance, Eve is at first unconcerned with Dom’s refusal to talk about his past. She allows herself to be whisked away to Provence, where she and Dom buy an old farmhouse they plan to renovate. When not buying antiques for the house, Eve spends her time writing and Dom composes music. It sounds idyllic and Lawrenson’s talent for vivid, lush imagery certainly portrays it as such:

That summer, the house and its surroundings became ours. Or, rather, his house; our life there together, a time reduced in my memory to separate images and impressions: mirabelles — the tart orange plums like incandescent bulbs strung in forest-green leaves; a zinc-topped table under a vine canopy; the budding grapes; the basket on the table, a large bowl; tomatoes ribbed and plump as harem cushions; thick sheets and lace secondhand from the market, and expensive new bedcovers that look as old as the rest; lemon sun in the morning pouring through open windows; our scent in the linen sheets. Stars, the great sweep of the Milky Way making a dome overhead. I have never seen such bright stars, before or since.

Eve’s blissful reverie starts to crumble, however, when she meets Sabine, a local woman who knew Dom’s wife, Rachel. Sabine (the French equivalent of Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers but less creepy) speaks glowingly of Rachel, but not so favorably of Dom. She warns Eve that he has a violent streak and at one point had even threatened to kill his wife. Sabine also tells Eve about Rachel’s research into the long ago disappearance of a local woman, Marthe Lincel, who went blind while a child living at Les Genevriers and went on to become a celebrated perfumer in Paris. (Marthe’s story is revealed in more detail through the novel’s alternating narrative, told by her sister Benedicte.)

As bits of information concerning Dom’s shadowy past become known, Eve tries to question him but he rebuffs her repeatedly, a reaction which only serves to augment her suspicions. Meanwhile, Eve sees mysterious figures creeping around the dark recesses of the isolated farmhouse, and girls from the local surroundings start to disappear.

The first part of The Lantern suffers from some issues with pacing — heavy-handed foreshadowing is used in place of actual plot development. But the story really takes off when a body is discovered underneath the swimming pool at Les Genevriers. The police become involved, and Eve can no longer deny that Dom’s past must finally come to light.  All is revealed when the police investigation forces the couple into exile in Cassis. (Lawrenson’s spectacular descriptions of the rocky coastline surrounding Marseille had me planning my next vacation here!)

While Lawrenson’s gothic French ghost story is an interesting twist on Rebecca, I was left feeling that her goal of modernizing the story was not fully realized. The narrator’s singular devotion to her older husband in Rebecca can be explained, in large part, not only by her age but also by her class and generation (as can Jane Eyre’s similar fealty to Rochester). Eve, on the other hand, suffers from no such infirmities — she is a modern woman with a job and a sexual history. That she chooses to turn the other way for so long from Dom’s questionable history can only be the result of her deeper psychology; alas, that aspect of her character is never really explored.

For more about The Lantern and the real life French farmhouse that was her inspiration, check out Lawrenson’s website.

To read other bloggers’ reviews of The Lantern, stop by TLC Book Tours’ website.

Disclosure: Copies of The Lantern and Rebecca were provided to me by the publisher.

Art of the Novella Challenge III: Dostoevsky vs. Chopin

August 30, 2011 

The last installment of my Art of the Novella mini-Tournament of Books is all about husbands and wives — specifically, unhappy husbands and unhappy wives.

At only 200 pages, who knew that Dostoevsky could tell a story in so few words? In The Eternal Husband, Velchaninov is leading a tedious existence in St. Petersburg waiting for a lawsuit to be resolved when he notices a man has started to follow him. The man seems familiar but Velchaninov can’t quite place him until a late night confrontation in which he finds the man lurking outside his home. It turns out that the man, Pavel Pavlovitch, is the husband of one of Velchaninov’s former lovers and his wife has recently died. It is not known — and will not be revealed until the end of the novella — whether the man knows that Velchaninov had an affair with his wife. The men engage in round after round of verbal swordplay in which words mean one thing if Pavlovitch knows and another if he doesn’t. The stakes are raised considerably when Velchaninov discovers that Pavlovitch has a daughter whom he mistreats and who could conceivably be the product of the affair.

The Eternal Husband felt surprisingly modern, a precursor to today’s psychological thrillers in which what the antagonist knowns or doesn’t know is the vehicle through which the suspense is built.

Most people know the story of The Awakening: unfulfilled wife and mother Edna Pontellier falls in love with another man during the summer she spends on Grand Isle. Returning to New Orleans at the end of the summer, her yearning for the other man and, more importantly her independence, only grows, as does her realization that there is no escape from the yoke of domesticity thrust upon the women of her generation. She flirts with other men and moves into her own little house, but this proves too little too late. In the end, the ocean is her only true friend.

Fewer people are familiar with the fate of author Kate Chopin. The novella was controversial upon its publication and Chopin faced censorship from many corners. She had difficulty placing stories for publication and never wrote another novel. Publishing The Awakening effectively ended her trajectory as a novelist.

Final score: Surprisingly, The Eternal Husband really gave The Awakening a run for its money. But the story goes off the rails a bit when the young girl, the best evidence of the affair, dies halfway through the book. The Awakening, on the other hand, is flawless: perfectly drawn characters, a vivid setting, and an inevitable end that is no less compelling for its inevitability. Not only is it the winner of this round, it is the overall champion of my mini-Tournament of Books. If I had the ability to give Kate Chopin any prize I wanted, I’d give her back her career. Who knows what other stories she could have written!

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Hurricane Reading

August 29, 2011 

There is no shortage of post-apocalyptic novels these days, and I just happened to be finishing one and starting another as the imposing force of Hurricane Irene bore down on New York City. Although the City was spared the brunt of Irene’s ire, there was a point on Saturday evening when we were under the triple threat of a hurricane, a tornado and an earthquake, and the apocalypse seemed that much more possible. Trapped in my sixth floor apartment looking out on Brooklyn streets that had never been so empty and probably never would be again, I was lucky to have a few good books to keep me company.

Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade): Twenty-seven year old Della lives in an unspecified future America where bombs go off with increasing frequency and more and more citizens are escaping the country for far off places like Costa Rica or Bali. Della deals with the vaguely-apocalyptic state of the world by slowly unraveling herself — she abandons her dissertation in paleontology, moves in with her cause-oriented brother (aptly named Credence) and takes a job at a vegan diner. She also collects pictures of self-immolators, maps the sprawling network of suburban strip malls and calls in fake bomb threats under the guise of an imaginary militant/hippie group. But Della’s world truly breaks apart when real bombs start to explode at her fake targets.

I can’t say enough about this highly original debut novel. Veselka melds the language of science and religion with a satirical look at materialism and subcultures. It is funny and poetic and has an interesting plot trajectory that I found truly innovative. Buy it from your local indie bookstore!

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin’s Press): Perrotta, the master of suburban malaise, is the author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher. In his newest novel, out tomorrow, he tackles these familiar themes with a new twist. On October 14th, millions of people disappeared from the world without warning. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, humanitarians, alcoholics, children, even J. Lo and Vladimir Putin — there is no apparent rhyme or reason to their disappearance. To those left behind, the random cruelty of The Sudden Departure, as it comes to be known, is unfathomable and they desperately search for meaning where there is none. For the Garvey family, this coming to terms manifests in different ways. Heartbroken by the disappearance of her best friend’s daughter, mother Laurie joins the Guilty Remnant, a cult in which members wear all white, take a vow of silence, and chain smoke. Son Tom finds himself caught up in the Healing Hug movement, led by a guru called Holy Wayne who has a weakness for teenage girls. Meanwhile the two members of the Garvey family who stay at home — father Kevin, who becomes the town’s mayor, and daughter Jill, who shaves her head and self-medicates with drugs and sex — try to pick up the pieces of their disintegrating family.

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Stephen King called The Leftovers “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw — not ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’ but ‘The Monsters Are Us in Mapleton.’” I have only just started the book, but I am already enjoying the eerie familiarity of the story.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Borges

August 24, 2011 

“I’ve always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

The Great Poet, Jorge Luis Borges, would have been 112 years old today. In his honor, Google’s newest doodle portrays the artist surrounded by some of the symbols in his work, including a library and a maze.

I’ve always been a fan of Borges’s surreal, fantastical stories so when I was living in Buenos Aires earlier this year I started a reading challenge in his honor: Ficciones, the 2011 Argentina Reading Challenge. Unfortunately, I was not such a big fan of some of the other Argentinian literature I was reading and the challenge got neglected. But there have been a few new participants in the last week and that’s all the reason I need to revive the challenge.

I hope you’ll consider joining. You only need to read one book by an Argentina writer, either in Spanish or in translation, to participate. I’m scrapping my previous reading list. I’m going to start off with Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras, and see how it goes from there.

And check out this wide-ranging interview Borges gave to The Paris Review back in 1966.

Art of the Novella Challenge II: Turgenev vs. Svevo

August 19, 2011 

The second round in my Art of the Novella mini-Tournament of Books pits Russian against Italian, old against young, first love against last love.

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love is, as the title makes clear, the tale of a teenage boy’s first love. In the summer of 1833, young Vladimir goes to the country with his family for the summer. Living next door in a lodge of decaying grandeur is the Princess Zasyekin. Once the wife of a rich but frivolous man, the Princess had since fallen on hard times. But it is her daughter, Zinaida, that Vladimir falls for. He first sees her in the garden surrounded by a gang of male suitors competing for her affections:

A few paces from me on the grass between the green raspberry bushes stood a tall slender girl in a striped pink dress, with a white kerchief on her head; four young men were close round her, and she was slapping them by turns on the forehead with those small grey flowers, the name of which I don’t know, though they are well known to children; the flowers form little bags, and burst open with a pop when you strike them against  anything hard. The young men presented their foreheads so eagerly, and in the gestures of the girl (I saw her in profile), there was something so fascinating, imperious, caressing, mocking, and charming, that I almost cried out with admiration and delight, and would, I thought, have given everything in the world on the spot only to have had those exquisite fingers strike me on the forehead.

Valdimir is head over heels for Zinaida, so it takes him awhile to realize she is also in love, just not with him. And so, like all first loves, this too comes to an end. The foreshadowing of love’s demise is a bit heavy-handed, but the novella’s strength is the way in which it captures all that “sweet oppression” — the agonizing mix of obsession and self-doubt that invariably accompanies one’s first love.

Whereas young Vladimir cannot forget his first interaction with object of his affection, the “old man” in Italo Svevo’s novella does not even remember meeting the “pretty girl” who will eventually become his lover. The second time they meet, she is recklessly driving a tram. He is taken with her, and they begin a love affair which also involves the exchange of money and advice on the old man’s part. When the old man falls ill, he attributes his malady to the girl. He breaks it off with her and begin to write his last words, a sort of treatise on the relations between old and young.

This is a strangle little book. You learn very little about the “pretty girl,” which frustrated me until I realized the novella is not really about love. Svevo uses the affair as a vehicle to illustrate the man’s psychological machinations — his justifications for his love affair, his fears about dying, his desire to leave a legacy that will last after he is gone from the world. It is an interesting concept, but ultimately the cardboard cut-out female characters of the novella annoyed me.

And let’s face it, any book called The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl has a lot of work to do to overcome the inevitable stench of pedophilia that a reader will associate with it. While Humbert Humbert is one of my favorite characters of all time, the old man never became anything more to me than a dirty old guy paying a young woman to sleep with him. I guess it takes the length of a novel — or the talent of Nabokov — to portray such a character as more than just a sum of his basest tendencies.

The verdict? Turgenev takes it with his tale of the agony and ecstasy of first love.

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Art of the Novella Challenge: Balzac vs. Flaubert

August 11, 2011 

As those of you who follow this blog may have noticed, I haven’t posted a proper book review in a few months. Book reviews are hard work! And for various reasons — time and energy and other interests — they just haven’t been a priority for me as of late.

So I knew I wanted to do something different for the Art of the Novella Challenge. Of the novellas on my reading list for the challenge, the first I chose for obvious reasons — it was the shortest. Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart is, according to the book jacket, a “heart-breaking tale of a simple servant woman and her life-long search  for love.” Okay, but how to blog about it and make it fun?

I thought back to the most fun I’ve had with reading since I started this blog and, hands down, it has to be the Tournament of Books. Every March, the Morning News hosts a fierce competition of some the year’s biggest novels (and some dark horses as well). It’s fun because it doesn’t even pretend to be a balanced critical examination of the books. It’s all about the judge and his or her prejudices and predilections.

So here goes nothing. Round 1: Balzac vs. Flaubert.

Both are dead white French guys. Both wrote during the nineteenth century and are considered pioneers of realism. Neither was lucky in love: Balzac corresponded with a married woman for fifteen years, finally wed her after her husband died and then died himself five months later. Flaubert slept with a lot of prostitutes and had syphilis.

But their novellas could not be more different.

Words that come to mind about A Simple Heart are restraint and sacrifice. The story centers on Félicité, a servant girl with a bottomless heart who will do anything for those she loves. The novella isn’t exactly a nail biter, but there is a nice bit of action when Félicité saves her mistress and two children from a raging bull by throwing clods of dirt in his eyes. Despite her pure heart, everyone Félicité has ever loved meets an untimely end, even the parrot. (Yes, that’s right, I said a parrot.)  It is clear that Flaubert agonized over every word in this 62-page novella. The ending is a particularly tightly crafted interplay between the servant girl’s violent death throes and a procession of children ringing bells through the streets during a religious celebration.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Girl with the Golden Eyes is all about excess. Balzac takes us into the sex lives of the upper echelon of Parisian society — the lust and the intrigue, but also the incest and the violence. First, however, he spends 40 pages describing in minute detail every intricacy of Parisian society. There are some great turns of phrase — “cadaverous physiognomy” and “feeble decrepitude” — but I found myself impatiently turning pages looking for the characters and the plot.  Then, when I finally got to what I considered to be an actual story, I found myself turning back the pages because often I had no idea what was happening.

Which to choose? If this were an episode of The Bachelor, I’d be bemoaning what a hard decision this was and how both novellas have such admirable qualities. But really this wasn’t much of a contest. In spite of the parrot, A Simple Heart was meticulous and heart-wrenching. The Girl with the Golden Eyes, for all its promise of lust and extravagance, was ultimately just too messy for me.

Winner: Flaubert

An Interview with John Milliken Thompson (and Giveaway)

August 05, 2011 

The Reservoir starts like any good murder mystery — with a body.  ”On March 14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in the light snow, and then under a waxing moon.”

The body is quickly identified as that of Lillie Madison, and she was eight months pregnant. Soon enough, there is a suspect: Tommie Cluverius, a reckless young lawyer who was Lillie’s cousin and lover.

Based on a real-life case, Thompson has deftly captured the details of the post-Civil War South, as well as the inherent drama of a high profile trial. There are certainly enough questions to keep the pages turning — whether Tommie killed Liilie, whether she committed suicide, or whether there is an even darker source of Lillie’s death. But what really makes this historical mystery stand out from the rest are the interior journeys of Tommie and his brother Willie, who was also romantically linked with Lillie for a time.

This is a novel about the ambiguities of guilt, the dark corners of temptation, and the possibility of redemption. It is a perfect read if you’re looking for a mystery with depth, or a historical novel with a contemporary current running through it (i.e., the celebrity trial).

John Milliken Thompson is the author of several nonfiction works, but this is his first novel. If you’re interested in how he discovered the actual court case and why he decided to use it as the basis for a fictional story, check out his website.

Be sure to check out the end of this post for details about how to win a free copy of The Reservoir!

The Reservoir derives from an actual court case and many of the book’s characters are based on people actually involved in the trial. How did you decide when to fictionalize and when to stay true to the historical record? Was it difficult to strike that balance?

Yes, I guess it was a kind of balancing act. My general plan was to stick with the historical record as much as I could–it’s a lot easier than having to create whole new scenes and characters. Of course, that only got me so far. There was almost nothing in the record about the backgrounds of the characters, and that’s where I did most of my imaginative work. Once the characters began coming to life, little episodes and plot twists began suggesting themselves.

Were there any books, historical fiction or otherwise, that served as models for you when you were writing The Reservoir?

Theodore Dreiser’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST were both helpful, the former for helping me see how a similar court case could be turned into fiction and the latter for its big-city, early 1900s setting.

How do you think the time period and setting — post Civil War South — plays into the story? Do you think that the fact that the South was still reeling from a bloody and devastating war affected the conduct or outcome of the trial?

Yes, the case was one of circumstantial evidence and so a lot depended upon the oratorical wizardry of the lawyers, respected men who had served with distinction in the war. The prosecution relied a great deal on persuading the 12 gentlemen of the jury that it was their sworn duty to protect the honor of Virginia.

The book differs somewhat from a typical mystery in that the primary question is not who did it, but whether the accused, Tommie Cluverius, did it. I don’t think I am giving anything away by saying that you raise more questions than you answer in that regard. Indeed, it seems that at times Tommie himself does not even know what truly happened. Why did you decide to structure the story in that way? Was that always your intention or did there come a time when a definitive answer was just not serving the story?

I don’t know that I’d always thought of that way, but the more I worked with the story the more interested I became in the issue of ambiguity in a case of circumstantial evidence. Since it’s partly a mystery, we’re allowed only so far into Tommie’s mind, and one of the main questions for readers then becomes not just whether he did it but just exactly what “it” is.

I was reading your book at the same time the Casey Anthony trial was coming to a close, and it struck me that the phenomenon of the celebrity trial has not changed all that much over time. Back then, like now, the community was intensely wrapped up in the details of the trial and everyone seemed to have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Would you characterize the Cluverius trial as a celebrity trial? Do you see parallels between that trial and modern day celebrity trials?

Yes, absolutely. To tell you the truth, I’ve never had much interest in modern celebrity trials, because they can become such tawdry spectacles, exploiting tragedies that are often very personal and ugly. But, yes, this case was certainly a “celebrity” trial, as oxymoronic as that phrase is—people followed it in the newspapers for weeks and months, just as people follow trials today in the available media. Any trial, though, is by nature a public spectacle, and the larger audience becomes a de facto jury. We all have opinions on these cases. It was my hope, then, that the reader would become involved on two levels–as a paper-reading Richmond citizen, and as a family member who learns intimate details of a tragedy.

To be eligible to win a free copy of The Reservoir, published by Other Press, just leave a comment with your favorite mystery novel or courtroom drama. Whoever convinces me to read their choice wins. Entries limited to the U.S. and Canada. Contest closes at midnight EST on Friday, August 12.