Saturday, June 13, 2015

Juli Zeh's DECOMPRESSION Makes Great Summer Reading

I'm grateful that Anchor Books sent me a review copy of Decompression, Juli Zeh's chilling suspense novel, which won Germany's Thomas Mann Prize and has been translated into English by John Cullen.

Normally I have to throw review copies onto a big pile until I find time to choose one at random, but this one rose to the surface (ironic, perhaps, given that it is all about submerging, both in water and in denial) and I could not resist reading the first few lines. After that I rarely put it down until I was finished.

Zeh's narrator is Sven, a German expatriate who has secluded himself on Lanzarote to teach scuba diving. The island has few people and little vegetation, dominated instead by volcanic rock. This spare landscape seems the perfect place for Sven, who is also rather scant, both in his living and in his narration, and the suspense begins when it is clear that Sven may--or may not--be telling the truth, to the reader or to himself.

The story is continually compelling, but it is not always the plot that drives it, since that was relatively predictable in places. What captures the reader is the power of Zeh's writing, and the profound philosophies that emerge from the thoughts (or sometimes the writings) of her characters.

The theme of escape is layered throughout the novel, starting with Sven's departure from Germany, a country he intends never to revisit. This thought is echoed in a book by one of Sven's guests, a writer named Theodor Hast:
"The tattered sky was hurrying eastward, as though it had something urgent to do there. Emigrate, he thought. But that would make sense only if the country we escape to weren't always and only ourselves."
Journeying means something different to Jola, Theodor's lover and also Sven's guest, whose regular diary entries provide a different perspective from that of her landlord. Her assessment of travel is elemental, profound:
"It's always this way: you travel thousands of miles to sleep less comfortably and understand yourself better."
Gems like these appear throughout the novel, a tribute to Zeh's artistry and to Cullen's precise translation.

Some of the best scenes happen underwater, perhaps the only place that Sven feels truly comfortable, and I certainly enjoyed submerging myself in this book.

Monday, June 08, 2015

The Joy of Books

Some of my favorite artwork by  my son when he was in third grade. He was so right--that was the best thing about school for me, too. The library and the Scholastic book orders.

Friday, May 08, 2015

ICE COLD: a German Crime Novel

Andrea Maria Schenkel's ICE COLD is a short book--a quick read--and yet the sort of book that one cannot forget, since instead of immersing a reader comfortably in an obviously fictitious universe, Schenkel creates the kind of discomfort that a reader can normally ignore merely by observing the barrier between reality and fiction. However, Schenkel presents the novel as a sort of case file, with differing viewpoints of serial rapes and killings--viewpoints so grim in their stark reality that there is no escaping from the implications about human nature and the abnormal psyche.

In addition, the grimness and poverty of 1930s Germany casts a bleak tone over the novel before the crimes even begin, and young Kathie, the character central to the action, has an unenviable life no matter what her surroundings.

Schenkel's novel is not a mystery as much as it is a crime novel, and these are dark, explicit crimes, set in a Germany which bears the burden of its own escalating immorality.

Monday, April 13, 2015

New Cover for a New Project

My next book starts a series for Berkley Prime Crime called the Undercover Dish Mysteries.

Here's the first cover!

The series will introduce Lilah Drake, a would-be caterer who has found her first customers in friends and neighbors who want to take the credit for her good cooking.

Like the detectives of old, Lilah's not looking for trouble, but trouble finds her, and in book one trouble takes the form of a poisoned pot of chili.

Meanwhile poor Lilah just wants to make good food.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Chicago Sky at Night

Tonight's sunset was a poem in itself--a tribute to spring and the changing light. Welcome, mid-March.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Rebecca Scherm on Beautiful Things, Lonely Places, and the Process of UNBECOMING

Rebecca Scherm's new suspense novel, UNBECOMING, was called "startlingly inventive" by the New York Times, and is available in stores and on Kindle now.

Thanks for answering some questions about your new book, Rebecca. 

First of all, the title is great.  It goes to the heart of the main character’s issue with an unraveling identity, but it also suggests pretense and the adopting of false, “unbecoming” personas.  Did you think of the title before you wrote the book?

No, the title came late! I tried quite a few titles, some okay and some terrible (awful puns with ‘gilt’). My husband thought of “Unbecoming” one night. It just popped out of his mouth, and that was it.

You live in Michigan, but the parts of the book set in New York made it seem that you knew it well. Have you ever lived there?  And have you, like your character, ever lived in Paris?

I lived in New York for seven years, but I’ve never lived in Paris. I was incredibly fortunate to get a research grant to visit for research, though, for five days in 2011. My plan was to stake out Grace’s places—the neighborhood where she works, where she lives, etc.—and to finally experience Clignancourt, which I’d been reading about for years, for myself. Nothing was what I expected, and I was able to channel that loneliness and disorientation into Grace’s experience.

There's the power of place and setting, and a lesson to writers to experience their settings firsthand. 

Grace, the main character, is quite young, but the narration makes her seem older. Was this a way of emphasizing her otherness?  Did her isolation bring a forced maturity?

The close-third person point of view allowed me access to her thoughts, but still gave me enough distance to occasionally see around her a little. The span of time covered in the novel also afforded me narrative distance. I think you’re right that her loneliness as a child and her observational, evaluative habits make her feel separate from the people around her, and we feel that in the tone of the narration.

Grace is adept at restoring antiques, and you provided fascinating, in-depth detail about this art. How did you go about researching the valuing and refurbishing of lovely things?

I read and I imagined! I read books about antiques restoration, jewelry making and repair, and antiques identification. Often, I made up methods—the dental tools swabbed in cotton, for instance, may not be accurate, but they are evocative. I spent many hours on websites like 1stdibs trying to understand the way antiques are bought and sold, and of course I spent valuable time in Clignancourt.

 Grace falls under the spell of not just her boyfriend Riley, but of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Graham, and their perfect house. In fact, the Graham House looms over her actions and her consciousness like a modern Manderley, and through her narration it has a similar brooding feeling. Are you a Daphne du Maurier fan?

Oh, yes, and Rebecca is both a conscious and unconscious influence. For instance, I realized Grace shouldn’t have a last name—the absence of which implies that she has no family- when I was rereading Rebecca. I’m so glad you mentioned her!

You did a good job evoking the du Maurier mood, especially with the ending, I thought.

Grace decides when she is very young that she is a “bad apple,” but it’s never clear whether it is nature or nurture that makes her see a badness in herself, something that she needs to conceal.  There is a continual tension between what Grace believes about herself and what the audience must try to determine about her. Was this the most difficult part of writing this book?

I see it as a continuous feedback loop—the coldness from her mother makes her see her regular childhood transgressions as “bad,” which makes her sure that she’s bad, which gives her this sense of shame and sense of permission to do worse things. Keeping that line of tension was very difficult, and I teased her back and forth many, many times over the years. I had some very good reader friends helping me get that right. But the hardest parts of the book to write were about Grace and Mrs. Graham. I never wanted to make the importance of that relationship explicit, but I found some of the scenes between them very painful to write-- the scene where Mrs. Graham confronts her about the money, especially. 

Your book is compelling and very difficult to put down.  Did you find that you wrote whole scenes at one time to maintain this sense of tension?

I do write in whole scenes, and often it takes me days to gear up for a “big” scene—I edit, I shuffle things around, I obsess over small word choices while I’m getting ready for something that will be emotionally difficult to write, but that I know I’ll have to write all at once.  I wrote the Berlin hotel scene from the passenger seat of our ancient Corolla on a road trip. I’d been thinking about that scene for days, and when I was ready, I had to do it, despite the fact that we were barreling down I-75 at the time.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

In fiction, I have deep love and admiration for Kate Atkinson, Susanna Moore, Charles Baxter, Elena Ferrante, Lydia Davis—I really could go on forever. Some of my favorite books from the last couple of years have been Jaime Quatro’s I Want to Show You More and We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo.

Where can readers find out more about your book?

My website,, has events, press, and other updates, and I also post on a Facebook author page. I tweet from @chezscherm.

Thanks for sharing, Rebecca, and for the great read.

Thank you!