Monthly Archives: November 2011

In the Presence of the Enemy and With No One As Witness, by Elizabeth George

I am always taken aback when I remember that Elizabeth George is American. She seems (to my American but Anglophilic mind) very tuned in to British speech patterns, class structures, and cultures. This is important in the Lynley series (for lack of a better name), because it’s incredibly multi-cultural, multi-class, and British.

Take, for example, In the Presence of the Enemy. The mystery itself (the kidnapping of a MP’s daughter) is incredibly grounded in British politics – not necessarily contemporary British politics in a way that would make it seem dated in just a couple of months (although the IRA does merit a mention) – but in the way British politics work. The main conflict (apart from, you know, the kidnapping) is the relationship between politicians and the press: how very biased (and proudly so) certain newspapers are, the way that issues that have nothing to do with policy can bring down a career or a Government. It’s particularly resonant now, as the fallout from the Murdoch/News of the World scandal continues. The newspapers in the book may not have tapped people’s phones or knowingly interfered with a police investigation (that still makes me so sick, in real life), but they don’t see their subjects as human, and personal considerations are not given as much weight as trying to promote scandal (the more sex-related, the better).

The devastating part of In the Presence of the Enemy is the resolution of the case. The kidnapper/murderer is caught, of course, but the whole thing was based around a misunderstanding and a lie. It’s so incredibly unnecessary, and pathetic in its delusion. It also brings me back to one of my main tenets in life: You are not doing something FOR someone when they have NEVER ASKED YOU TO DO IT. Don’t break up with your girlfriend “for” someone. Don’t change yourself “for” someone. And for the love of God, DO NOT KIDNAP AND MURDER SOMEONE “FOR” SOMEONE ELSE.


With No One As Witness is just as devastating, but while the case is horrific and sad (serial killings of primarily mixed-race boys), the truly heartbreaking part has nothing to do with the case: it’s the shooting of Lynley’s wife. Elizabeth George does an absolutely amazing job of portraying Lynley’s devastation, heartbreak, and paralysis in the face of catastrophe. He has to make an impossible choice, and you just know that he’ll never completely recover from it. And Havers and Nkata are partially there with him, not knowing what to do with themselves or for him, but also knowing that the case has to be solved, that the rest of the world isn’t put on hold. And the case is solved, Havers saves the day, but nothing will ever be right again.


I have two more Elizabeth George books on my shelves: A Great Deliverance, which is the first Lynley book, and Careless in Red, the follow-on from With No One As Witness. (It’s not the next one in that world; that’s What Came Before He Shot Her, which follows the 12-year-old shooter in the days leading up to it, and which I should probably read at some point since one of the secondary characters is named Kendra, but right now I don’t want him to be humanised, I just want to mourn for Helen. Yes, I know she is fictional. Shut up. Anyway, Careless in Red is the next one to feature Lynley.) I have read most of the others at various points in my life, but sometime (possibly soon) I’ll want to reread most of them to remember the personal backstories of everyone, beyond the recaps that are so smoothly incorporated for new readers.

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Filed under Crime/Mysteries

A Voice in the Box, by Bob Edwards

I grew up with Bob Edwards on Morning Edition. We were an NPR family, so much so that I didn’t even know that there were other radio stations until an embarrassingly old age. My sister and I, if we didn’t wake up to taped Broadway soundtracks, woke up to Morning Edition, and it was always playing downstairs as we had breakfast and got ready for the day. Bob Edwards was the voice of my morning until I became a teenager and “rebelled” by switching my clock radio to the oldies station, and then to the non-threatening pop station.

I was in Slovakia, or about to be, when Bob Edwards left Morning Edition. It was a shock (for him as well), and now when I happen to hear Morning Edition, it feels familiar but different, like going back to the house you grew up in when someone else is living there. But when I happen to catch Bob Edwards’s “new” show, it instantly transports me back to the kitchen in my childhood home.

A Voice in the Box is Bob Edwards’s memoir of his time in radio, going back to his childhood. I would hesitate to call it an autobiography, because it’s not particularly detailed about his personal life. Not that his life outside work isn’t mentioned – it’s just much more about his career. Anyone looking for scandal and salaciousness is going to be disappointed. But Bob Edwards fans, and public radio fans, are not generally the type of people who look for scandal and salaciousness.

It felt, more than anything, like a Bob Edwards interview….with Bob Edwards. Each chapter could have been a prompt with his responses. There are a lot of famous names (some more famous than others, depending on your field of expertise) but it was very conversational, very much “regular guy gets to meet lots of people at his job”. And I wasn’t even as interested in the “famous people” mentions as much as I was the more backstage stuff at NPR. I once interviewed for a job at NPR, and it’s fascinating to think of what might-have-been if I’d  gotten it. (It involves me being a lot more knowledgeable about US politics than I am at the moment. Also being able to recognize Nina Totenberg if I met her on the street.)

Like I said above, I grew up with NPR, so it was particularly interesting for me to read about its early days. To me, it’s always been sort of “the establishment” – but that’s not always been the case for the wider world. Morning Edition struggled to get started. Funding has always been tricky, especially under Republican-controlled Congresses. And then there was the firing, six months before the 25th anniversary of Morning Edition, with no explanation (still).

Obviously, it’s not a memoir that’s going to appeal to those who aren’t already fans of public radio. Most of the background and references are assumed knowledge, and if you don’t hear Bob Edwards’s voice in your head, you’re missing out on some level. But if you are – if for you, as for me, Bob Edwards is the voice of the morning and nothing else sounds quite right, or you can’t quite understand why anyone would have the Today show on when they could have Morning Edition – then you will appreciate this book and its look back into the voice that defined my mornings as a child.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Literary review pretentiousness to get out of the way: beautiful, spare prose. Interesting structure: a series of almost-vignettes with loose connections via the characters. A sense of continuity and yet incompleteness as we get only glimpses into each of the lives portrayed. I can see why it won the Pulitzer.

It’s the kind of book you read for the construction of it, for the writing. It’s not the kind of book you read for character, and certainly not for story. If you are in the habit of reading for character or story, there will be difficult moments when you’re trying to figure out who’s narrating. Sometimes it’s first person (and hence unnamed); sometimes it takes ages to establish the connection between chapters. And it’s not just the characters: time jumps inconsistently between chapters, and that can also be difficult to adapt to.

I can’t unequivocally say that I enjoyed it, in part because I don’t think I “got” it. (Not that full understanding is necessary for enjoyment: there are things that I enjoy without really understanding them, like the works of T.S. Eliot.) I would, however, like to study it. Structure is something I’m becoming more and more interested in, and this book is very structurally interesting. I want to map it.  I want a bubble map or spider map of the characters in each chapter and how they’re connected. I wonder how flexible the chapter order is, and how much Jennifer Egan and her editor played with that before publication.

There are also a couple of themes that I’d like to review on rereading, to see if they carry through or if they’re coincidental. The main one is the theme of pauses. The chapter that I found most interesting deals very explicitly with pauses. It’s in the form of PowerPoint slides, so white space is very important. It also describes pauses in various songs, sometimes very technically. Personally, I thought it was not only the most interesting chapter in the book, but also the one that I understood the most. The characters were all very clear, even the ones who were fairly peripheral to the chapter. One part of the structural map I’m eventually going to make, then, is going to determine the pauses of the chapters. I can think of at least one other chapter off the top of my head that ends with a pause, and I wonder if there are others.

And now, onto something more narratively straightforward, less mentally taxing.

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Filed under General Fiction