By Jhumpa Lahiri

Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf, 157 pages

★★ ½




Whereabouts is an unusual piece of writing. It has been highly praised by critics for its literary merits. That's not always a good thing; sometimes it means a book appeals to elites and self-identified intellectuals more than a general readership. In the case of this Jhumpa Lahiri work, there's truth in both interpretations.


Whereabouts is indeed elegantly written, but it stretches the definition of a novel. It often reads as if its intent might be more obvious to Lahiri to anyone outside of a lit crit graduate seminar. I call it more of a meditation or an extended prose poem than a conventional work of fiction.


The narrator – perhaps Lahiri’s avatar – meanders through an unnamed Italian city. The narrative centers on themes of movement and stasis, but in each case the female narrator is metaphorically adrift. When she “travels,” it is usually within the city – to a park, the rail station, a museum, a shop, a cafĂ©, or, appropriately, a stationary store. We infer that she is lonely and goes to public places to alleviate that feeling, though the encounters she has (if any) in such places are superficial and brief. She is more of an observer than a participant, almost as if she wants to be part of a display or the decor rather than thrust herself amidst any sort of collective encounter. She describes her trip to the stationer’s thusly,


Even when I don't need anything in particular, I stop in front of the window to admire the display, which always appears so festive, decked with backpacks, scissors, tacks, glue, Scotch tape, and piles of little notebooks, with and without lines on their pages. I'd like to fill them all up, even the unwelcoming accounts ledger. Even though I can't draw, I'd like one of those sketchbooks, hand bound, with thick cream-colored paper.


Though she doesn’t seem to desire as to be the kind of person who might, she draws comfort from the familiar and is unsettled to learn that the shop has changed ownership. She's even more shaken by a display of hard-shell suitcases:


I grew sad looking at all those brand-new suitcases, all of them are empty, waiting for a traveler, waiting for various things to fill them, waiting for someplace to go. There's nothing else for sale. Just suitcases. But then, right at the entrance, I noticed a bunch of umbrellas, big ones and small ones, of the cheapest quality, bait for tourists caught in a downpour, those pathetic umbrellas that almost always end up in the garbage can after the storm, shoved in with a certain fury, looking like tortured herons.


Later, and in a chapter titled “Nowhere,” she reflects upon movement:




I've never stayed still, I've always been moving, that's all I've ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape. I keep packing and unpacking the small suitcase at my feet. I hold my purse in my lap, it's got some money in a book to read. Is there any place we're not moving through? Disoriented, lost, at sea, adrift, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. [Emphasis hers.]


Yes, it's this kind of book. In my reading there is a subtext of existential dread in Whereabouts. This book is noteworthy because it's the first time Lahiri has written in Italian and has done her own translation. I'll be candid; I'm not quite sure of what I think about this work. The closest I come is to observe that I was greatly impressed by it, but did not find it very engaging. You might feel differently and, at just 157 pages, you can travel through it rapidly.


Rob Weir


Agatha Christie Revisited: Murder of Roger Ackroyd



By Agatha Christie

William Collins and Sons, 312 pages.





I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries these days so I decided to cram a throwback into my reading queue. Many consider The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to be the greatest of all Agatha Christie novels. For me, it’s not up to the level of Murder on the Orient Express or The A. B. C. Murders, but it’s a good one. It was, depending on how one counts, either the third or fourth novel to spotlight the Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot and the book that made him into the equivalent of a fictional rock star.


First, a word of caution: If you are a person who has trouble getting out of your 21st century mindset, Agatha Christie might not be your spot o’ tea, old chum. Her work was generally of the genteel drawing room variety. Her detectives seldom travel far from the manor house and village to solve crimes, nor are her tales crammed with wild chases or gunfire. Forensic science did exist, but we’re talking about discovering a hair on a topcoat, fingerprints, and matching boots to footprints, not DNA analysis. Poirot’s weapon is deductive reasoning or, as he puts it, using “zee leetle gray cells.” With a 5’4” roly-poly body and fastidious OCD habits, Poirot is the sort who is more likely to do damage to camembert than a bad guy’s jaw.


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd opens with the suicide of Mrs. Ferrars who, many locals believe once poisoned her husband. This is tough toffee for Roger Ackroyd, who was affianced to the now-deceased wealthy widow. This puts a jolly big damper on Ackroyd’s dinner party attended by his sister-in-law and her daughter, Flora; big-game hunter Hector Blunt, who fancies Flora; Roger’s personal secretary, Geoffrey Raymond; and Dr. James Sheppard, who narrates the novel. There is, of course, house staff, including parlourmaid Ursula Bourne, butler John Parker, and housekeeper Elizabeth Russell. There is also the matter of Ackroyd’s stepson via Roger’s late wife’s first marriage, Ralph Paton, whom Roger has fingered as a suitable husband for Flora, much to Blunt’s lament and Ralph’s indifference. Roger also tells Dr. Sheppard that the late Mrs. Ferrars was being blackmailed by someone claiming to have proof she killed her husband. A perfectly dreadful evening gets worse when, later in the night, Roger is murdered.


Enter Hercule Poirot, already famed on the Continent, but supposedly in retirement in England. (It’s hard to know why he chose England, as Christie’s Poirot novels are filled with xenophobic dislike and distrust of the diminutive detective because, after all, he’s a foreigner.) Poirot will, of course, be lured away from his easy chair to investigate Roger’s murder. A few more dodgy characters enter into the equation, including one Charles Kent, a drug addict; Sheppard’s unmarried sister, a local snoop and gossip; and relatives of the house staff.


If this sounds like a stuffed cast, it is. Possible motives for murder proliferate as well: money woes, jealousy, family secrets, the disappearance of Ralph, and the sort of generalized reprobate behaviors we have come to expect of upper-class British twits. Poirot begins his extensive interrogations and knows immediately that nearly everyone is withholding information. All of this is vintage Agatha Christie. Suffice it to say Poirot is certain that the murderer is near but given that here are enough red herrings to feed the entire population of Holland, where to start? What to make of a found dagger, a gold ring in a pond, finger prints, property titles in play, a goose quill, footprints, and a Dictaphone? And let’s not forget two clueless police inspectors. (Neither is Japp or Hastings, who factor into later Poirot tales.)


Will Poirot solve the murder? Of course! And in grand Christie style, with all of the suspects gathered in the same room, and that’s just about everyone. Poirot’s modus operandi is to make them all sweat by detailing the reasons why each of them might have been the killer before fingering the real culprit.   


All Agatha Christie novels are carefully plotted and she certainly had a flair for pulling the rug out from under dim-witted British aristocrats whose eccentricities are less amusing and more emblematic of the decline of the Empire. Much like her other detective, Miss Marple, Christie’s books are old-fashioned, though I like them because they rest on brainpower rather than James Bond-like cloak-and-dagger intrigue. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has but one dagger. That’s enough, but I could have done with fewer suspects.


Rob Weir


The Personal Librarian a Remarkable Tale



By Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Berkley/Random House, 324 pages.





At most, race in America is a cultural construct. If you need further proof that we see what we wish to believe, read The Personal Librarian. Although this is a work of collaborative fiction between a white novelist and an African American writer, it is based upon the true story of Belle da Costa Greene, the assumed name of Belle Marion Greener (1879 or 1883-1950).


Even her birthdate is speculative but her accomplishments were not; she is the woman who built one of the most remarkable collections of manuscripts and incunabula (books published before 1500) anywhere in the world: the J. P. Morgan Library in New York City. As such, she was indeed his “personal librarian” and, some speculate, briefly one of the married Morgan’s many mistresses. The kicker is that she was born a black woman in Washington DC. She was sired by Richard Greener (1844-1922), the first African American graduate of Harvard, later dean of the Howard University School of Law and a prominent civil rights lawyer. Add egoist to that list; after fathering six children with his wife Genevieve, he went Russia on a diplomatic mission, lived in Vladivostok, and entered into a common law marriage to a Japanese women who bore him two more children. Eventually he returned to the United States, but by then Genevieve was done with him and had made a fateful decision: She and her light-skinned children would live as “white” at a time of legal segregation in the South and was customary in the North. In most places, interracial marriage was banned and, even in New York City, cross-race sexual relations invited sanctions and possible violent reprisal from self-appointed guardians of racial “purity.” 



If you look at surviving pictures of Belle, she has African American physical features, so how to explain those away? The key lay in the assumed surname; Genevieve and her children invented a Portuguese ancestor to explain darker complexions and dropped the “r,” which might have connected them to Richard. Today, their identities would be easy to expose but not in 1905, when Morgan tapped Belle to develop his collection based upon her skill with incunabula at Princeton University. Morgan was in the habit of getting what he wanted and certain rare works from William Caxton were among them. It took Belle years to obtain them, by which time she had traveled to Europe on numerous occasions to build the Morgan Library, became a fixture in the art world, and learned how to become a society belle.


Heidi Ardizzone, subtitled her biography of da Costa “Journey from Prejudice to Privilege;” that pretty much nails it. Benedict and Murray invent dialogue and elide dates to make them work better as fiction, but the gist of what you read is true; from 1905-48, Belle was the Morgan Library, first for J.P. and then his son “Jack” (Junius Pierpont Jr.). She was even left $50,000 in Pierpont’s will when he died in 1923–an enormous sum for the day. Was she ever one of Pierpont’s conquests? That’s an unknown, but she was indeed courted and bedded by famed art historian and conniver Bernard Berenson. Did Belle blackmail Pierpont’s daughter Anne, who disliked Belle, by threatening to expose her as a lesbian if she gave away her relationship with Bernard or expressed her suspicion that Belle was African American? Possibly, though there’s little doubt that Belle became a powerful person. My only brief lies with imagined seduction scenes between Belle and Bernard in which she assumes a passive role out of keeping with the strong (even headstrong) character they created.


Benedict and Murray run with rumors and suspicions to create fictional tension, invented dialogue, and presented her as a woman torn between white and black identities. Most of these ring true, though we can’t be sure how historical they might be. Normally I’d say that fact is greater than fiction, but do we even know the facts within a life of subterfuge? Perhaps it scarcely matters if you are like I was and have never heard for da Costa. This is an utterly fascinating novel that you will rip through to discover if she was ever exposed. I’m not telling!


Rob Weir