Sunday, August 21, 2005

Choosing a book for review ...

I gave myself a break from blogging for a few days in order to clear my brain. The past week was pretty hectic, what with several colleagues on vacation and the rest of us having to take up the slack to make sure stories moved more or less on time. I also spent a good bit of time finally restoring to the book room and my desk. Next come the emails, which have again climeed to more than 500.
One main point of this blog is to give readers some idea of how one goes about being a book review editor. So I thought I'd tell how I came to be reading the book I'm planning to review on Sept. 18.
(I won't have a review on Sept. 4, because it's due this week, and I'm going to be on assignment for a couple of days this week. Good reason to give myself a week off. Which becomes two weeks, actually, because Sept. 11 is the fall preview issue. As for Aug. 28, that review moved last week.)
I had been reading, and planning to review, Missing Person by Patrick Modiano. This actually won the Prix Goncourt after it was first published in 1978. It's only 168 pages long, but I found it slow going. Not because there was anything difficult about it. It just wasn't very engaging. It reminded me of something Mark Twain said about a Henry James novel: Once you put this book down, you just can't pick it up again.
The missing person of Modiano's title is the narrator, "Guy Roland." I put the name in quotes because he's an amnesiac and doesn't know his real name. Guy Roland is the name on the papers his former employer, a private detective named Hutte, has acquired for him.
He has worked for Hutte for 10 years, but Hutte has just retired. So Guy decides to find out who he really is. That a person would wait 10 years while working for a private eye to search out his missing identity struck me as more than a little implausible. I also found it odd that everybody Guy goes to inquire of isn't the least suspicious or reticent. They invite him into their apartments, give him documents and photos. I got to about 40 pages from the end and he still hadn't found out who he was, but it was looking like he might be from South America (no word on whether he speaks French with an accent).
Then I got an email from physician John Cohn. Dr. Cohn told me that on a recent flight he found himself talking to a local business man named Thomas Quinn who it turned out had just published a novel called The Lion of St. Mark. Dr. Cohn had just finished reading it and said (Dr. Cohn has graciously allowed me to quote his email) that "his story of a democratic republic (Venice) built on sea trade and protected both by oceans and the voluntary service of its citizen soldiers, threatened by a brutal Islamic leader determined to conquer the Christian world, contained striking parallels to our own time. Covering the period surrounding the fall of Constantinople and subsequent decades, the book is, at a minimum, not afraid to challenge political correctness and identify just who it thinks the enemy really is."
This intrigued me for a couple of reasons, one of which is that, since becoming book editor, I seem to have reviewed an unusual number of books set in Venice (though actually, only four). Another, of course, is that The Lion of St. Mark sounded potentially more interesting than Missing Person. So I looked on the shelves of the book room, found Thomas Quinn's book and gave it a look. It was definitely more interesting than Modiano's. Interestingly, this is Quinn's first novel and it is the first installment of a trilogy. Which means that Quinn has managed to land a three-book deal with Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. That itself is impressive.
I won't say any more about the book now, since I haven't finished it, and I need the material for my review. But that is how one book has come to be reviewed. Thank you, Dr. Cohn

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