The Disappearing Act

The title of Catherine Steadman’s The Disappearing Act appealed to me. Like Maria Semple’s “Bernadette,” sometimes disappearing seems promising. But Steadman is the author of the thriller “Something in the Water,” soon to be made into a Reese Witherspoon movie, so I expected a page-turning drama. The Disappearing Act focuses on a story closer to the author’s alter ego as an actress in London, and the “gaslighting” will have you wondering who the villain really is.

After Mia’s live-in boyfriend surreptitiously dumps her, she leaves from London to Hollywood for a series of auditions, following her successful portrayal of Jane Eyre and her nomination for the prestigious BAFTA award. In the waiting room of one of these auditions she meets Emily, another actor, and the plot thickens.

Returning from putting money into the meter for Emily’s car, Mia finds Emily has left, without her wallet and car keys, and she is determined to get them back to her. A series of plot twists ensue, with the punctuation of a new love interest, a handsome and wealthy producer who meets her when she is plugging the meter. After a series of unsettling incidents – someone breaks into her apartment, her car is mysteriously sabotaged, threatening notes appear – Mia is not sure who to trust. Steadman keeps the plot moving in different directions, until finally resolving the obvious.

The Disappearing Act is a fun and quick read – just the kind of story to distract and entertain.

What I’m Reading Now:

I almost forgot I ordered the two books from Libby, the library’s email guru, but they both appeared together and both due in less than 21 days. I better get reading:

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan and The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

Any suggestions on which to start first?

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Shakespeare comes to life in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, in a way I had not imagined when I studied his plays, read aloud his verse, or tried teaching uninterested students his inspired quotes. Although Hamnet is a fictionalized history of Shakespeare’s youth and married life, O’Farrell convincingly creates the missing historical pieces of his personal family grievances and, more importantly, his motivation to write

Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes, better known as Anne Hathaway, is a key character in the story. O’Farrell decries the historical context of Agnes as an illiterate older woman who seduces a younger Will, and creates a feisty woman with a substantial dowry who falls in love with a young Latin tutor, whose glove-maker father is in debt. Although she is pregnant when they marry, Agnes has the reputation of being able to cure ills and see the future, and her family is wealthy.

Independent and fearless, she has her own window in the house, to dispense herbal cures to the locals who seek her out; when it is time for her to give birth to her first born, she packs a small bag and goes off into the woods. Her patience is tested living with the in-laws after marrying, and enduring Will’s struggle as he tries to find his true calling, while working as an assistant to his father and as a Latin tutor. Eventually, she conspires with her brother to send her husband to London to escape his father’s authoritative rule, hoping he will find more than the glove business to sustain him. Of course, he does, eventually becoming the writer of plays with a successful group of touring actors.

Shakespeare is not there when his son, Hamnet, a twin to Judith, is born, and he is not there when he dies. Agnes suffers alone until he returns, in time to bury the young boy, and his grief seems insignificant compared to hers, as he leaves for London again. Only later, when his famous play, “Hamlet,” is staged, does his grief pour out to Agnes and to his audience.

Hamnet is not the key character in the novel but he is O’Farrell’s inspiration for the story. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at eleven years old of the plague, and he wrote Hamlet soon after. The play seems more tragic when read in the context of losing a child. Reviewer Kate Kellaway says “It reads like a fairytale rooted in heartbreaking reality – there is no magic with which to save a child.” O’Farrell gives other traces of subconscious family influence from Shakespeare’s life on his writing, and it’s fun to speculate how Shakespeare might have created his fictional characters from pieces of his own life, as many writers do.

I was reluctant to read Hamnet during our own modern plague, thinking the book was a story of the plague in Shakespeare’s time or a regurgitation of the famous play. It was not. I waited for the paperback version, prompted by my good friend to read it – glad I did. Now I am thinking about rereading the play. Hamlet will never be the same when I think of Agnes, and his twin, Judith, and of course, the humanity of the Bard.

The Plot

While some of us were wallowing in our discontent in 2020, Jean Hanff Korelitz was writing another bestseller. If you enjoyed the thrill of “The Undoing,” the HBO series based on her book “You Should Have Known,” The Plot will be no less satisfying. Perhaps you’ll figure out the true villain before the end, but getting there will still have you reeling.

Looking for his next book, after having two mediocre tomes published, Jacob Bonner hits the jackpot with a story told him by a student in his creative writing workshop. When he discovers Evan Parker has died of an overdose without finishing his book, Jacob seizes the opportunity to appropriate Evan’s narrative and write it himself. The book “Crib” is an instant success, with a movie directed by Spielberg in the offing.

While on his book tour, he has two life-changing occurrences: he meets Anna, his future wife, and he receives the first of a series of threats accusing him of plagiarism. Korelitz then begins to insert excerpts from the popular “Crib” as she continues with Jacob’s successful yet now harried life as a writer. The conceit is mesmerizing and clearly leads the reader into a series of complicated but satisfying plot twists.

As Jacob tries to confront the author of the threats to reveal his plot source, he finds himself in the middle of a family saga and another murder. Eventually, he seems to solve the mystery, but Korelitz has one last reveal at the end of her story, and it’s a good one.

Elizabeth Egan in her review for the New York Time says:

“It keeps you guessing and wondering, and also keeps you thinking: about ambition, fame and the nature of intellectual property (the analog kind). Are there a finite number of stories? Is there a statute of limitations on ownership of unused ideas? These weighty questions mingle with a love story, a mystery and a striver’s journey — three of the most satisfying flavors of fiction out there.

Jake Bonner’s insecurity, vulnerability and fear are familiar to those of us who have faced a blank screen, wondering how or whether we’ll be able to scramble letters into a story. Korelitz takes these creative hindrances and turns them into entertainment. Not only does she make it look easy, she keeps us guessing until the very end.”

A page-turner I could not put down, The Plot. Read and enjoy – just don’t give away the ending.

Thrillers for a Quick Fix

Nothing like a fast paced page-turner to get me motivated these days. Chris Bohjalian delivered again with The Hour of the Witch and Laura Dave with The Last Thing He Told Me.

Although “witch” is in the title and the setting is witch-ridden New England, the Hour of the Witch was more of a feminist approach in dealing with an abusive husband. Divorce was not easy back in colonial times, but living with a monster was not an option for Mary Deerfield, especially after her drunken husband drives a three-pronged fork into her hand. Of course, the elders decide she must either live with it or be labelled a witch. Sometimes, being a witch isn’t a bad alternative. A great story from one of my favorite storytellers. I finished it in a day.

In The Last Thing He Told Me, Hannah Hall finds herself in a twisted plot as she tries to escape FBI agents and U.S, Marshalls with her teenage stepdaughter after her husband disappears. Turns out he is not who she thought he was, and you will keep reading to find out not only why he is hiding but what he did in his past. True love prevails in the end, and I had to read this in one setting to find out how.

Next on my wild and frenzied ride through satisfying fast reads is Cynthia D’Aprix new book. Remember the author who caused a controversy when she sold her debut novel “The Nest” to a publisher for a seven figure deal? Turns out she’s not a one-hit-wonder. Her new book Good Company promises another good read. ” On the day of her daughter’s high school graduation, happily married Flora Mancini is looking for an old photograph when she discovers an envelope containing her husband’s wedding ring – the one he said he lost over a decade ago.”

What scintillating fast reads are you reading these days?

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Whereabouts

A sense of accomplishment is overwhelming me. I donated three large boxes of books ( my covid year of reading) to the Friends of the Library this morning, and it wasn’t easy. After driving past a guard gate and through a tunnel, and stopping to ask a few masked strangers, I finally found the donation pallet described in their email among a warehouse of boxes. I just hope someone finds mine.

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri‘s new book “Whereabouts.” She is among my favorite authors and she reached a higher rung on my authors to emulate list when she moved to Italy to study the language and translate books. It’s been over ten years since “The Namesake,” and I was anxious to get lost in one her stories again.

But “Whereabouts” has no plot like her other books. Following a middle-aged woman’s thoughts and observations “on the couch, on the balcony, in bed…” was mundane at first and unclear where it was leading. Lahiri wrote the book in Italian and translated her words to English. Being somewhat biased by my own Italian heritage, I love the flow of the Italian language, and l appreciated the phrasing and descriptions she offered in translation. Sometimes a sentence would offer a window into my own world – “feeling reassured but also dazed by the outside world.”

As the short chapters evolve into a retrospective of her life, the narrator seems to emerge from complaints and despair of the past, and begins to appreciate the present. In the end, she has received a fellowship and is traveling to an unknown country for a year of study. The last short chapter shows her with a mix of hope, anxiety, and anticipation, leaving this reader a little befuddled but nonetheless satisfied.

NPR says “Whereabouts” is the literary equivalent of slow cooking; it demands patience.”

I bought a signed first edition of this book and I plan to reread it now and then. It will not be going to the library warehouse.