This Week’s Hot Reads: November 11, 2013

This week, a commando raid on occupied Crete, an opium-tinged mystery, and the story of one Russain nobleman’s attempts to expand the empire into California.

11.11.13 8:20 PM ET

by Charles Palliser

‘Rustication’ by Charles Palliser. W.W. Norton. 336pp. $25.95.

Charles Palliser (author of 1989’s million-seller The Quincunx) uses the opening pages of his first novel in over ten years, titled Rustication, to establish an interesting framing device: an author’s note (signed “CP”) explains that the following story is merely Palliser’s transcription of a Victorian journal that he found moldering in a records office somewhere. It’s unclear what point the device serves—couldn’t the story simply stand on its own?—until one realizes just how much Palliser likes to play with voyeuristic perspective, and add layers of confusion onto what might have at first appeared clear. The supposed author of the “found” journal is 17-year-old Richard Shenstone, booted out of Cambridge (“rusticated”) in the winter of 1863 under mysterious circumstances. After moving in with his mother and sister at their new ignominious lodgings (they have suffered a loss of funds after his father’s recent death under circumstances that were, yes, mysterious), people in town begin to receive anonymous letters of a sexual and violent nature, and livestock turn up horribly mutilated. Palliser has a knack for using the Victorian idiom in his favor, to establish mood and a certain kind of humor rather than merely to stilt the dialogue; Richard at one point describes his sister as “togged up like a costermonger’s wife on a Saturday night.” As a narrator, Richard is fantastically unreliable (owing perhaps largely to his opium addiction) and readers will have as much grisly fun just sorting out the facts as they will solving the mysteries.

‘The Ariadne Objective’ by Wes Davis. Crown, 352pp, $26

Every week or so a new book is published that details another “forgotten episode” of WWII—the war was so massive that it will be certainly be many decades before the last episode is remembered, at which point we’ll probably have begun to forget some of them again. The particular episode detailed in The Ariadne Objective, by academic Wes Davis, is an example from the genus of small-scale wartime adventures: a raid (that indeed must be called a daring one, cliché be damned) by a handful of British commandos onto the Nazi-occupied island of Crete. The Brits are aided in their sabotage by local Greek partisans, and the operation culminates in the kidnapping of a German general out of his staff car in the middle of the road. Exciting stuff, to be sure, but what really sets the book apart from the host of look-alikes is Davis’s dedication to fleshing out the eccentricity of the main players. For instance, the book opens not during the war but a decade before, as we travel with one of the future saboteurs on his youthful sojourn through inter-war Europe. (His name is Patrick Leigh Fermor, a man described by one of his teachers as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys,” and who would go on to become one of Britian’s most lauded travel writers.) It is surely is a good thing that we longer associate war with adventure; if it were always as appealing as Davis has made it here, we would grow to love it too much.

‘Glorious Misadventures’ by Owen Matthews. Bloomsbury USA, 400pp, $28

It could be a scene straight out of a novel of speculative history: in 1806, a tsarist Russian aristocrat stands at the alter in a Spanish fort in San Francisco, waiting to be wed to the governor’s daughter. The marriage is a shrewd political calculation from the crafty nobleman, who has his heart set on expanding the Russian Empire into the wilderness of California. So begins Glorious Misadventures, the story of the unfulfilled Russian goal of extensive colonization of America, written by former Newsweek journalist Owen Matthews. Matthews, who has Russian roots, does an excellent job of sharing his fascination with the vainglorious nobleman in question, Nikolai Rezanov, who is a character truly capable of maintaining a book-length treatment. Matthews writes that “Any historian who sets out to search for a hero will almost inevitably uncover something of the scoundrel,” and he’s found a fascinating scoundrel in Rezanov, whose complex villainy and shrewdness is almost enough to overshadow the uniqueness of his mission.  This book teachers lessons on how to rise above your abilities in the court of the Emperor, if not on how to properly expand the empire, and will interest readers who ever wondered why there is a “Russian River” in Sonoma County.

‘A Permanent Member of the Family’ by Russell Banks. Ecco, 240pp, $25.99

Over the last thirty or so years, the word “Carveresque” has been too frequently deployed to describe the work of any short story writer who uses pared-back sentences in their portrayal of unhappy people. What the word should really connote is a dedication to a certain kind of suburban-bordering-on-rural disenfranchisement, paired with the constant threat of violence, and with healthy dashes of alcoholism and divorce thrown in; in other words, the dramatic tension that arises from something as simple as two couples sitting around a dinner table drinking wine, but also hovers over the scene of a brutal random mugging, cohering everything into a savagely simple internal logic. A Permanent Member of the Family, new story collection from two-time Pulitzer nominee Russell Banks, is Carveresque in the latter sense, if not the former. (In fact, if anything his characters sometimes speak too much, rather than too little.) In Big Dog, an artist’s early announcement to an intimate dinner party of creative types that he is soon receive a Macarthur “Genius” Grant sets off a drunken scene of professional jealousy. In Transplant, a widow whose husband’s heart beats in the chest of another man has an odd request. And in the titular story, a loyal old dog comes to symbolize much more than a man’s failed marriage and dissolving family. These characters are all broken in wonderfully literary ways (“When a terrible thing happens, and it’s your own damn fault, there’s no closure, he thought. Whatever happened, you live with it.”) but Banks is primarily concerned with telling a good story, and the pages fly by.