Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Language of Secrets”

The Language of SecretsEsa Khattak is just too cool.

He’s thoughtful, careful and analytical. He sees the world in subtle, complex ways. Best of all, he knows who he is and what he’s up against. He’s a Muslim. He’s a detective. He works in multi-cultural Toronto. And he just happens to work in the special community policing division, handling sensitive cases. And he’s coming off a rough outing for how he managed the investigation of the murder of Christopher Drayton (in The Unquiet Dead). That case required diving into a tight community of survivors of the war in Bosnia and, more specifically, the massacre in Srebrenica.

Licking his wounds, and fully aware of his shaky reputation among his superiors, Khattak is handed a new case in The Language of Secrets. Again, Khattak wades into tricky, pricklish turf. The murder victim, Moshin Dar, was an estranged friend. Moshin “believed in the Islamic nation, a supernatural community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.”

But when he was murdered, Moshin Dar was on an undercover mission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And Khattak is asked by the federal intelligence agency to figure out what happened all while not disrupting or giving away the ongoing undercover work into a terrorist cell that operates out of a Mosque and is running commando training in the suburban woods. To make matters worse, few cops trust Khattak. He’s constantly being reminded of his missteps and, occasionally, being baited into “anger and indiscretion.” Oh, and one more thing. Khattak’s sister is involved with the erstwhile leader of the Muslim cell.

These are just a few elements that frame this layered novel. As in the first installment, Khattak works with his partner Rachel Getty, as purebred Canadian as they come. But agnostic Rachel must first go undercover to the mosque as a potential new recruit, as someone who is thinking about converting to Islam. The only religion Rachel cares about is ice hockey. While Khattak turns to prayer to ease the “ferment of his thoughts,” the only thing she’ll pray for is to have her cherished Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Khattak and Getty are a terrific pair. One of my favorite things about these two is how considerate they are of each other. The cliché approach requires tension between odd-couple protagonists. The cliché approach requires quick-fire repartee and rapid retorts, but Khan avoids the tired tropes and puts two real people on the page who are struggling with their own self-doubts and struggles. She admires Khattak’s “understated elegance” and hopes to emulate it. He wants to expand their relationship to genuine friends—just because. He shows her a few things about how to approach the case, but he would never ask her to moderate her partiality to the “young and dispossessed.” They like each other, get along. The point is to see this case from two different vantage points and Khan slips effortlessly back and forth, alternating chapters as we absorb Khattak’s more nuanced intake of the clues and as Getty bounces, more youthful and a touch wide-eyed, into the heart of the fray.

It’s Khattak’s ongoing struggle with his identity that gives The Language of Secrets its weight. It’s also his ethics and his interest in simple truths about how the story of his people (his faith) is being skewed and skewered in public. Khattak is fully aware of his secret fears. He has ample reason to sink into an abyss of cynicism and anger, but he remains a believer in peace even as his dusk prayer breaks his heart anew each night. Ultimately, of course, it’s Khattak’s keen knowledge of the culture that begins to break the case and soon Rachel Getty finds herself in deep jeopardy. In the tense finish, Khan takes full advantage of the rugged Canadian winter and Rachel’s familiarity with ice.

Language across cultures (meaning, emphasis, subtleties, nuance) and secrets (between people and within both Rachel and Essa) play critical roles in unraveling the conspiracy, which is based on a real-life case from 2006. Esa Khattak, in a beautifully written scene, isn’t afraid to whisper to an “unseen presence.” He’s also not afraid to listen—and observe—with care. The whole issue of subordination to existing authority versus a higher spirit, in Esa’s case, is fascinating. What makes these first two Khattak-Getty novels click is the space between two interesting, contrasting characters who model thoughtful, mutual respect.


Previously reviewed–The Unquiet Dead, including Q & A with Ausma Khan.

Unquiet Dead



Helen Macdonald – “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkDon’t we read, sometimes, to be surprised? H is for Hawk is one of those books. It’s almost indescribable.

How many topics does it weave together? Brit Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk. She explores grief over the death of her father, a news photographer. She reflects on writer T. H. White, who wrote his own manual (in 1951) about training the goshawk. She shows us the connection between White’s personal life and his approach to telling tales about King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone). She ruminates on  oppression, World War II, homosexuality, repression and oppression. She is also very aware that she is writing another animal book—and that they don’t always end well.

And, somehow, she pulls it all together.

The training of the hawk, which she names Mabel, becomes a prism for processing her thoughts. She’s an experienced falconer before her father dies, but the goshawk (much feistier and edgier than some birds of prey) represents a new challenge and so does her state of mind: “While the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

The goshawk is part alien. It’s a loner. T.H. was part alien. And a loner. At least, he knew he was different—and Macdonald’s dredging up the business about White’s fantasies about spanking boys, while not easy to read, shows Macdonald’s drive to confront as many of those “hurts of human life” as possible.

Macdonald pours herself into Mabel, lives through her—and kills alongside her. Her father taught her to look through a viewfinder as a way to distance herself from the subject and to compose photographic, organized thoughts about the images coming through the lens. Mabel becomes Macdonald’s viewfinder and she hopes to find herself in the training and hunting and, yes, killing. The two connect. While I found it a bit hard to believe that a bird’s moods could be deciphered as easily as say, a dog’s, Macdonald convinced me.

This is a mesmerizing memoir. It’s slow in parts. It skews dark. I’ve seen some other comments that Macdonald comes across as self-absorbed but that never occurred to me; she stirs the pot with so many other issues and ideas and observations that I was never bored.

A sampling of the writing as Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time:

“A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

(Porpentine…arachaic for porcupine.)

“Nature books” don’t get much more rich than H is for Hawk.

It’s about nature – including the human kind. In looking at herself so deeply at a time when she was going off the rails, and pulled herself back up, she looks at all of us, from our darkest moments to the brightest. H is for Hawk is like “daylight irrigating a box.”

Bonnie Jo Campbell – “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters”

Mothers Tell Your DaughtersIf you dug the gritty stories in American Salvage—meth, junkyards, Jim Beam, Vicodin, rusted El Caminos—you’ll want to read Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.

The new collection is more far-ranging and experimental. It feels breezier. But there’s no shortage of grit. It opens with a five-paragraph bit of flash fiction, “Sleepover” (one of four brisk pieces)  and comes in a variety of first-person and second-person voices in addition to the more traditional narratives. As the title of this collection might suggest, this one is a bit more feminine-focused than American Salvage (with its great title and great scruffy-Gothic cover). The only reason I don’t like the title or this cover is that I’m worried some “dudes” won’t dive in. (If you listen to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s talk at The Tattered Cover last November, captured on Authors on Tour, you’ll know what I mean about her message to dudes.)

Dude readers, you’re making a a big mistake if you don’t pick this up. Here’s one reason—Campbell’s tremendous empathy. Here’s another—her ability to see and listen. She told The Millions that she’s “just looking around at the world, seeing where the interesting problems lie.” But don’t let the “just” fool you; Campbell works hard–and makes the reading easy.

American Salvage was masculine, Mothers is feminine but Campbell’s eye is still “looking around the world” for the overlooked, the under-reported. These are lives on the edge with interesting or challenging choices ahead. Religion weaves its way in and out of these stories. So does personal health, medical care and poverty. “Now” is what matters; most of Campbell’s characters don’t have a reason to plan or dream; neither option is really on the table.

Campbell’s deals in specificity. The circus worker Buckeye from “The Greatest Show on Earth, 1982: What There Was” and Marika the phlebotomist from “Blood Work, 1999” don’t share much in common except the two could get together and talk about pushy men (Red in Buckeye’s case).

And Sherry from “Somewhere Warm” and Mrs. Betcher from “A Multitude of Sins” could share some thoughts on religion and forgiveness (and they’d might disagree) but I wonder in short story collections about whether sometimes we look too hard for threads and themes rather than letting the stories stand alone. Isn’t that the point?

Yes, farms. Yes, rural. Yes, animals. Yes, farm animals. Yes, lots of Michigan (and Arizona …and Romania). Number of rich cats here? None. Campbell’s characters live in a land of struggle, of scraping by. Like, you know, most people. Campbell’s females grapple with oppression. Few are in charge, at least on paper.

Campbell has a terrific eye and a fantastic ear for dialogue. She also knows a good plot surprise (say, the fireworks ending of “Blood Work, 1999”) and she knows that when to ease up on the bleak factor and leave you with a ray of sunshine, “The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree.”

These are powerful stories. Did I love them all? No. Did I respect them all? Big time. By the way, I highly recommend listening to the audio version by Christina Delaine; her variety of voices and delivery is stellar. (I only wish the producers had left a bigger gap between the stories; a few transitions were jolting.)

After you’re done with Delaine’s take, read the actual book and listen to your own voice. Then check out that Authors on Tour podcast. The presentation includes the ever-upbeat Campbell reading a few of these, including the compelling title story. Mothers, tell your daughters to read these stories. And, yeah, dudes too.


Previously reviewed: American Salvage

American Salvage




Alafair Burke – “The Ex”

The ExMy review of The Ex by Alafair Burke for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.




Nick Seeley – “Cambodia Noir”

Cambodia NoirMy review of Cambodia Noir by Nick Seeley for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.


2015: Top Books

Favorite reads from 2015

1. Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

2. The Free by William Vlautin

3. Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

4. Missoula by Jon Krakauer*

5. The Spiral Notebook by Stephen & Joyce Singular*

6. Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman*

7. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

8. Redeployment by Phil Klay

9. The Skull of Pancho Villa (and other stories) by Manuel Ramos

10. The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan*

11. The Seven Stages of Anger by Wendy J. Fox*

12. American Ghost by Hannah Nordhaus*

13. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

* review includes Q & A

Top Books 2015




















Colum McCann – “Thirteen Ways of Looking”

13 Ways of LookingI’ll take my Colum McCann on audio, thank you very much. I listened to the opening section of Transatlantic, “Cloudhsadow,” many times and read it in hardcopy, too. Opening line: “It was a modified bomber, a Vickers Vimy, all wood and linen and wire.”  Reading those words, I can hear McCann’s lilt. I want more.

I played that section once for a friend driving across barren Wyoming and we didn’t utter a word for the hour (or however long it took ). We weren’t in the car, we were flying with Alcock and Brown. I have a friend who says fiction writers just make sh*t up. Nope. Not McCann. McCann’s stories happened. These things are real, these people are alive, these people matter. He’s a storyteller first and one hell of a poetic prose master. Every word is laid in place with precision.

Thirteen Ways of Looking (of course, I listened to the audio CD at first) is right up there with Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic. It’s smaller. It doesn’t have that big sweep. It inhabits moments, exhilarates in tidbits. Thirteen Ways of Looking is the title story (a novella) and three short stories, “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?,” “Sh’kol,” and “Treaty.”

In the title story, McCann fractures a fairly straightforward detective yarn—the murder of a prominent judge on a New York City street—into pieces. We don’t know this will be a crime story; not at the outset. First, we meet the victim and realize a bit about what he’s been through, though there is much more to come. McCann slows the moment down. He freezes it, lets it thaw, freezes it again. We are introduced to the judge and his routines, his past and his accomplishments. We get to know the judge and then we learn he’s, in fact, dead and that this is a crime fiction of a sort. And while we learn more about him, he reflects on the many times he was “born” and thinks about the many times his life started or started over.

We follow detectives as they review, peruse, study, rewind through video from various camera angles—webcams, security cameras, etc.—that captured the murder and McCann comes right out and says the detective work is like the work of a poetry. “The detectives scrub through the footage from the previous days too, in case they can find something in the pattern of time that will propel them toward a critical epiphany, a mid-verse logic. A meter. An emjambment. Or a rhyme.”

The detectives watch the world at fast speed and slow speed, McCann zooms in and out. The effect is kaleidoscopic, powerful. The detectives are looking for the smallest detail, the bit that will crack the case. “They play it again in their minds, in light of everything they already know. It is their hope that each moment, when ground down and sifted through, examined and prodded, read and re-read, will yield a little more of the killer and the world he, or she, has created. They go forward metrically, and then break time again. They return, judge, reconfigure. They weigh it up and take stock, sift through, over and over. The breakthrough is there somewhere in the rhythmic disjunctions, in the small resuscitations of language, in the fractured framework.”

As Wallace Stevens did with his poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Blackbird,” McCann wants us to see what we don’t ordinarily see. We need to stop. We need to look. We need to listen. (And maybe realize we’re being watched? All the time?) McCann narration is ultra-omniscient, telling us the story from 30,000 feet up at first and then swooping down to the street view, inside restaurants and back halls where we don’t always go. The narration is the camera. It captures various angles and attacks on the story. It’s cold and indifferent, matter of fact. There is truth here somewhere, in the amalgamation of all the information. If only somebody will stop and take a look, take time to piece it together. There is truth, that is, but maybe no firm answers. I’ve never quite read a story that stayed in one place for so long, dwelled on one moment and yet managed to keep you wondering. And I’m not even touching on the themes or randomness, immigration, family and class.

In “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” McCann writes a short story while thinking about writing a short story. Well, we watch it come together. (This reminded me of Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story. Highly recommended if you want to “watch” a short story come together.)  The themes here echo the title story—loss, family, distance, time.

“Sh’kol” is my favorite among these, an increasingly tense and harrowing story of a translator, a single mother named Rebecca, who is raising her son in a remote Irish village. The son was adopted from Russia when he was six and is now 13. He’s deaf. The story opens on a Christmas morning. She has given her son his first wetsuit and the next day, he goes out for a swim alone.  “Sh’kol” has already won a Pushcart Prize and has been included in the just-released collection of short stories edited by T.C. Boyle. Pure terror on the page, but McCann never stoops to cheap sentiment or cliché.

“Treaty” rounds out this collection and it’s another gem, a nun contemplating revenge over her torture and rape 37 years ago when she suddenly realizes, thanks to a news report, that her tormentor is alive—and masquerading as somebody else.

McCann’s prose is seductive, smooth and supple. The stories inter-relate in a host of ways, including leaps of time and distance and underlying issues with family. In “What Time Is It Now…” he makes it clear he’s making this up as he goes along. In his author note in the book and in interviews about Thirteen Ways he has described out how this volume was inspired by an incident when he was attacked as he tried to help the victim of an assault in New Haven, Connecticut. At the time, he was writing a novella about a man who gets randomly punched in the chest.

Art and life, closely intertwined. For a guide to these connections, it doesn’t get much better.


Previously reviewed: Transatlantic

Previously reviewed: Let the Great World Spin