Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

A poet’s quiet, beautifully composed, powerful story of self-healing by viewing the paintings of Vermeer will be a balm to troubled minds as well as satisfying to lovers of art and memoir.

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Poet Michael White’s unusual and riveting memoir, Travels in Vermeer, opens in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody battle. White lost his first wife to cancer, but counts this second marital tragedy as a “total loss,” of faith as well as of his partner. Reeling, he flies to Amsterdam (“all I’d wanted was an ocean behind me”), and heads to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandts. But what he sees instead is The Milkmaid, a tiny painting by Johannes Vermeer. The maid evokes a “tingling at the back of [his] scalp,” and this knee-buckling discovery inspires a plan, hatched on the museum grounds, to devote his breaks from teaching university-level creative writing to traveling the world viewing all the Vermeers he can. For the next 14 months, he chases the life-changing insights and soothing, healing effect provided by the Dutch master’s small-scale, intuitive paintings, in which he sees expressions of love.

White studies biographies and art criticism about Vermeer, while visiting museums in The Hague, Washington, D.C., New York City and London. The reader shares in this lucid examination of Vermeer’s remarkable lighting techniques, occasional trompe l’oeil and the solitary women who feature in his work (alongside a few group scenes and landscapes). White sheds light as well on his difficult childhood, including a scene when his mother dumps him unannounced at his father’s apartment, following their divorce: unlike White’s own daughter, he was an apparently unwanted son. While Vermeer occupies the bulk of this brief, eloquent book, a few scenes from White’s battle with alcoholism and his tentative success with Alcoholics Anonymous round out a self-portrait sketched with great feeling in few words. Only a poet could communicate so economically, in language deserving of contemplatively paced reading.

White’s descriptions competently guide even the most unfamiliar or untrained reader through an appreciation of the mechanics and mysticism of Vermeer’s art. Readers will regret the lack of reproductions of the paintings under consideration; but as he observes upon meeting Girl with a Pearl Earring, “reproductions are useless.”

Travels in Vermeer is a thoroughly user-friendly piece of art education, but it is even better as a thoughtful, spare memoir of pain and recovery, unusually formatted and exquisitely moving. For a companion piece, consider White’s previously published book of poetry inspired by the same journey, entitled Vermeer in Hell.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 daubs.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.

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Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 clicks.

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

A quirky, memorable debut novel about things we miss, large and small.

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Janina Matthewson’s first novel, Of Things Gone Astray, is startlingly beautiful, both ridiculous and poignant. A handful of people in London wake up one morning to find that they have lost things that matter very much to them. Delia can no longer find her way around the neighborhood she has always lived in; Mrs. Featherby’s house suddenly has no front wall; Marcus’s piano is missing its keys; Robert’s place of work is not where it belongs, though no one else seems to be missing it (a whole building!), and his colleagues’ numbers have vanished from his phone. These bizarre, surreal absences make no sense, but must be accepted as fact because they are blatant, physical. Meanwhile, a little boy named Jake finds himself attracted to lost things: he collects the contents of the Lost and Found room at school, labels and organizes objects that will likely never see their owners again.

On its face, this is a fantasy, an otherworld fortunately accessible only through prose. But Matthewson’s sensitive prose helps us to consider what matters, and the means by which we hang on to those things. Through no overt metaphor, this mystical, whimsical, dreamy world of the lost and the retrieved suggests a fresh and heartfelt new way of thinking, as Jake, in his concern for lost things, may lose track of something far more important and intangible.

Of Things Gone Astray is a stunning, heartbreaking, thought-provoking song of love and memory and family and life, with something to offer any reader, bereft or not.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 cakes.

Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

A reformed drug dealer gets pulled back into the game in this tense, bloody thriller with a strong sense of place and a soft heart.

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Suitcase City by Sterling Watson (Weep No More My Brother) opens with an extended flashback to protagonist Jimmy Teach’s time in small-town Florida. At the time, Teach has just finished a brief career in professional football and is back in the game of smuggling drugs, or in his words, operating as a “maritime consultant.” When a business deal with Guatemalans goes sour, Teach competently cleans up the mess, and moves on.

The bulk of Teach’s story then takes place nearly 20 years later, in late 1990s Tampa, Fla., where a rundown neighborhood called Suitcase City gives the novel its name. Teach is reformed, more or less: he’s vice-president of sales at a pharmaceutical company and has rebuilt a relationship with his teenaged daughter after his wife’s (her mother’s) death. But a little incident inside a bar one Friday afternoon–a tiny mistake, a single piece of rotten luck–and suddenly Teach finds himself worried about losing his house, his job, the relationship he’s built with his daughter, and maybe his own life.

Suitcase City is nearly halfway over before the reader finds out who Teach’s enemies are and what the present beef is about, but this lengthy plot development is never boring or slow–quite the opposite. Every moment is riveting, making this a difficult book to look up from at all; the reader is every bit as concerned as Teach over the maddening mystery of who or what in his past is pursuing him, and why. To get answers and solutions, Teach has to look into his past as well as consider his future. Along the way, he gets his hands dirty with blood, gore, prostitutes and drug dealers more sophisticated than anyone involved in his “maritime consulting” two decades ago.

Watson’s magic is in pacing and taut prose, in the details that make his Florida setting so compelling–boats and bilge, lobsters and golf–and in a father’s love for his daughter. Diverse characters enliven Teach’s world, including his charming daughter, a pushy reporter and a colorful pair of police detectives who represent a range of competence and demeanor. In the end, Teach is flawed but likable, and Suitcase City is an absorbing thriller, a vivid adventure in a bright, humid, perilous underworld.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 tee times.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erik Larson

Following yesterday’s review of Dead Wake, here’s Erik Larson: Ideas and Process.


Erik Larson is the author of four national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than 5.5 million copies. His books have been published in 17 countries. Larson began his writing career as a journalist, and now gets to travel the world researching his works of nonfiction. [You can read a longer and surprisingly hilarious bio written by the man himself here.]

larsonTo begin, my mother made me promise I’d ask: how do you choose the diverse subjects of your books? What makes for a compelling story that you feel driven to tell? Why the Lusitania?

Well, you tell your mother it’s none of her business. Actually, no, please tell her that, really, I have no idea. There’s more truth to that than I care to admit. The hunt for each book idea is a hard one for me, and typically takes about a year. To write the kind of history I write, I need to find real-life events that lend themselves to being told as stories–true stories–with beginnings, middles and ends. There has to be a clear, ascending narrative arc, and there has to be a rich enough trove of archival materials to make the story and characters come alive without massaging the facts. And, it has to be something I want to spend the next few years working on. I often think finding that next idea is like finding a spouse–you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find one that kisses back.

What drove me to write about the Lusitania was the potential it offered for nonfiction story-telling–for crafting a narrative full of real-life suspense. A nonfiction maritime thriller. The archival base was extraordinarily rich, full of elements that I felt no one else had adequately mined–all the things I love to work with: telegrams, diaries, love letters, secret documents, even the German submarine commander’s hour-by-hour war log. It doesn’t get any better than that. Whether I succeeded, of course, is for readers to decide.

Aside from the obvious choices to concentrate on Captain Turner and Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, how did you choose the individual stories to follow? Were they (Charles Lauriat, Dwight Harris, Theodate Pope, etc.) simply the ones who left behind the most documentation?

Exactly! The three you cite all left vivid, detailed accounts, especially Lauriat, who wrote a book on the subject, and in addition left a broad and deep documentary trail. I also liked the fact that Lauriat was a famous bookseller. How nice that a time once existed when a bookseller could become famous and travel in first class on Cunard ships and be recognized on sight. As for Pope, I found her backstory particularly compelling: her depression, her interest in the supernatural, the fact she was a pioneering female architect and pal of Henry James and that she was in that cadre of American women who were first to embrace their identity as feminists, back when the term itself was brand new.

You state in your “Note to Readers” that you are very careful to stick to the facts, with no embellishment. And yet your narrative is incredibly lively. Please explain the importance of that rule for you–the integrity of pure fact–and how you make the bare truth so gripping.

They key lies in detail. There are no shortcuts–you have to do the necessary digging to find the bits and pieces that will ignite the reader’s imagination. It’s the reader, I’m convinced, who does the animating of my narratives. I just present the details necessary to allow that to happen. For example, I often have people tell me that I must have made some things up, because I have actual dialogue in my books. But in fact, if there is dialogue, it’s pulled directly from some actual historical document, like a letter, or memoir, or newspaper interview. More often than not, however, what they point to isn’t even dialogue–it just seems to be dialogue, and reads that way in their imagination. Which is wonderful. The human mind loves to connect dots and finish sentences and make disparate bits of information seem like a coherent whole.

lusitaniaWhat do your processes of research and writing look like, and are they in fact two separate processes? What’s the most enjoyable part for you?

They are two separate processes that merge in the middle. Ideally I’d like to have all my research done before I start to write, but that never happens. Invariably I reach a point where the book just has to come out. It’s like how my wife describes pregnancy: get this baby out of my body, NOW. Passages come to mind, and I start writing. At first I’ll just write them in my journal–I keep a journal for each book–then I’ll start writing things in a computer file called “Passages.” Then I enter my page-a-day mode, where I get up early, and write a single page before breakfast, and then return to my research for the rest of the day. Pretty soon the writing supplants the research almost entirely–although the research really never ends, because you always end up having to check things. What did early NYC street lamps look like? What was the weather like on a particular day? What were people reading in the newspapers in New York on the day the Lusitania departed? That kind of thing.

How do you keep so many characters and events in such a complex world history straight?

The most powerful tool is chronology. Before I start to write, I build a chronology that contains every worthwhile fact that I’ve mined from archives, books and whatever, with each item coded in such a way that I can readily find the source document in my files. This chronology becomes a de facto outline, with various events clumping at various points, and with each character’s role clearly defined. Using this as a spine, I craft the first draft. Then, I lay the whole thing out on the floor of our bedroom and, using a scissors and tape, I literally cut everything up and move it around, hunting for the most natural structure, while hoping that no one will open a window at the wrong moment. Once my dear departed dog, Molly, walked across the manuscript for Thunderstruck. Luckily only one small passage was displaced–it wound up on the balcony outside my bedroom.

What are you or will you be working on next?

I’m exploring a possible idea. This is early for me, so, being a pessimist, I’m pretty sure the idea won’t pan out. But I’m writing a test proposal. I won’t say what the subject is, because I never talk about works in progress until they’re done. It’s very annoying for my friends and family, though my wife and daughters all know early on. The proposal is a draft of what I would eventually send my agent, and which he in turn would send to my publisher, and which ideally my publisher would love so much that she would spend gobs of money to acquire it. Doing a proposal is a good test of an idea’s strength. If you get through the process–writing an opening chapter, an overall description and a chapter outline, maybe 80 to 100 pages in all–you have a pretty good sense that it’s a viable idea and that halfway through you won’t hang yourself from boredom.


This interview originally ran on February 9, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 9, 2015.


dead wakeIn May of 1915, a torpedo fired from a German submarine struck the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship with nearly 200 Americans aboard. She sunk off the coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes (due to a sequence of events unforeseen even by its attacker), killing 1,200 passengers and crew, fully half of whose remains were never recovered. Common knowledge has it that this event drove the United States to enter a European war that would become World War I, but, in fact, while the Lusitania‘s fate played some role in that decision, it took two full years and the secret German Zimmerman telegram for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917.

Erik Larson examines this extended U.S. isolationism, the final days aboard the Lusitania, and related events and characters in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As in his earlier books (Isaac’s Storm; In the Garden of Beasts), Larson presents exhaustive research with precision and accuracy, in extraordinarily compelling prose. Dead Wake is a masterpiece of gripping narrative nonfiction, arguably the most riveting of Larson’s works.

Nearly 2,000 people boarded the Lusitania in New York City, bound for Liverpool, including 1,300 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans. An unusually large proportion were children and babies. The Lusitania was the biggest and fastest civilian ship on the seas in that 10th month of European war. These superlatives–plus the reassurances of the captain, William Thomas Turner, and the Liverpool-based Cunard Line–allowed the ship to confidently set sail despite a German warning published in all the New York papers on the morning of the Lusitania‘s departure, that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction.” Larson provides detail and humanity by profiling several passengers and crew members, including a Vanderbilt heir; a psychic; and a Boston bookseller who boarded with a small but invaluable collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original illustrations and Charles Dickens’s own copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with the author’s marginalia.

Just weeks earlier, another vessel had departed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. German Unterseeboot-20 was captained by Walther Schwieger, a well-regarded young Kapit√§nleutnant known for his aggressive and innovative tactics. Because submarines lost radio contact with their bases almost immediately upon departure and remained out of contact for much of their cruise, Schwieger was in full charge of his boat, empowered to cruise, dive and attack on his own, with the full support of his government. In following Schwieger’s submarine in the weeks leading up to the climax, Larson gives the story dimension; far from presenting the German captain as a monster, he is humanized, for example, by the devotion of the men who worked under him, and the presence on board of a litter of puppies rescued, interestingly, from another ship sunk by torpedo.

As he builds toward the inevitable intersection of U-20 with the Lusitania, Larson introduces more characters. Captain Turner of the Cunard Line had decades of experience at sea, and had just testified in a civil case against the owners of the Titanic on behalf of the families of deceased passengers. He was known to his men as a brave and capable but old-fashioned captain, with “one foot on the deck of a sailing ship.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had had a rough year, even without the European conflict: having lost his wife Ellen in late 1914, his mourning left him unmoored and struggling to concentrate, until he met widow Edith Bolling Galt. His love for her would prove overwhelming, and their courtship strained–she rejected his first marriage proposal. This love story is affecting, and if it serves as a distraction from the sinking ship at the center of this book, that is a fine style choice by Larson: it was a distraction for Wilson, too.

Meanwhile, a secret section of the British Admiralty was tasked with intercepting and decoding German wireless messages, a purpose known to only nine senior officials, who were hampered in using any information gained for fear of having its cryptanalysis ability revealed. They would therefore fail to warn Turner of U-20’s preying presence in the waters he sailed. Such parallel plots and individual profiles add color and depth to Larson’s account, as when the chief of British naval intelligence is described as “part Machiavelli, part schoolboy.”

The Lusitania‘s story is in itself moving, and carries great historical significance, but these events positively glitter with life in Larson’s engaging, quick-paced and captivating prose. Though it incorporates well-documented history, Dead Wake still contains elements of suspense for all but the most expert readers; as Larson acknowledges, he had his own misconceptions coming into this project, and learned surprising facts in his research, as readers surely will. The pages fly by as such details are revealed and the action ratchets up toward a climactic event that we all see coming, but that still makes us catch our breath. In spellbinding, immediate language, Larson contrasts the “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life” on the Lusitania with the “U-boat sweat,” foul odors and close air aboard U-20. His enthralling description of passengers joking about submarines and torpedoes, in the very moments before the torpedo strike, and “making polite apologies” just after, in the scramble for life jackets, keep the reader fully engaged. Appealingly, in his “Note to Readers” and “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Larson writes in a more personal voice about the joy of the research process, and about his frank difficulty in understanding the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in the face of warnings from Germany about travel in a war zone.

Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson’s fans will rejoice, and grow in number.


Rating: 8 life jackets.

How lucky am I to get to interview Erik Larson?? Come back tomorrow to read the result.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes

The Spanish Civil War, and its medical, military and artistic contributions to modernity.

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The Spanish Civil War was a precursor to World War II, and served as a practice field where medical and military leaders experimented with new technologies and refined strategies. Creative minds from around the world drew inspiration and horror from the conflict, yielding Picasso’s Guernica, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Miro’s El Segador and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) examines the Spanish Civil War not in exhaustive chronology or complex international intrigue–although both are present–but in its gifts, good and bad, to the world that followed.

As Germany and Italy begrudgingly contributed to the Spanish nationalist (fascist) side, and the Soviet Union just as reluctantly supplied the republicans, new military technologies met old. Advances in aircraft were matched by new strategies, including “carpet bombing,” a term used for the carnage at Guernica. In response, doctors and nurses from Spain and abroad innovated as well: while reliable blood typing and preservation for blood banking had been under development since World War I, safe transfusions in the field were born in the Spanish Civil War, as was the autochir (a mobile, sterile surgical unit).

Rhodes follows various individuals, famous (Hemingway, Picasso) and less so (volunteer doctors, nurses and soldiers from around the world), providing a vivid, wrenching view of war, art and love. While it scrutinizes world-changing new technologies and ways of life, Hell and Good Company is also a fine, accessible introductory history of the Spanish Civil War, and an evocative human story.


This review originally ran in the February 6, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 bombs.
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