Friday, January 24, 2014

BOOKS I'VE ENJOYED

Mating (Norman Rush)
            Extremely erudite, but clever throughout. Excellent means to double your vocabulary.

Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
            I greatly enjoy Richard Russo’s writing. He has a powerful gift for characters, especially male characters.

Bridge of Sighs (Richard Russo)
            This is another of my favorite Russo books. It contains one of his few interesting female characters in the form of Theresa Lynch.

The Bookman’s Tale (Charlie Lovett)
            As with Shadow of the Wind, this is a story about a book and I love little better than a good one of these.            

Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell)
            Voices voices voices. Ms. Rowell does her voices with great facility and I found this one hard to put down. Eleanor and Park are remarkably vivid characters. I thought the plot was maybe a little manipulative but I think I’m splitting hairs…

Remarkable Creatures (Tracy Chevalier)
            Recommended to me by one of my editors, this is a really enjoyable read. Take the setting and time period on a beach packed with fossils, add a pair of interesting lead characters and an interesting time in science, and you’ve got all you need.

Fingersmith (Sarah Waters)
            I found this a little slow in the middle, but mostly it’s a wonderful example of a recently-penned Victorian novel. Everything about the plot—except the gender of the lovers—is fully Victorian gingerbread, including the intricate deceptions, thieves with thick Cockney accents, mistaken identities, improbable coincidences. What’s not to love?

The Forgotten Garden (Kate Morton)
            A secret garden on a large estate and a book of mysterious dark fairy tales form the core of this story, which was a fun read all the way through.

Folly (Laurie R. King)
            I wasn’t sure about this one at first but I then came to really savor it. Rae Newborn is a super vivid protagonist and the setting on an island in the San Juan’s is almost equally vivid.

The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert)
            I know of several people who adored every word of this book. I myself found it slow throughout the first two-thirds but then, when it got moving in the last third, I found it worth the wait. It’s a wildly ambitious book and beautifully written. Ms. Gilbert strives to put a character at a pivotal crossroads within scientific discovery and do it from the world of plants, not animals. It would be really easy to screw this up in a multitude of ways—I can only wince at the thought of trying it—but she not only achieves her lofty ambition but achieves it engagingly enough to sweep us along with her. The depth of her research is remarkable. I had mixed feelings about Alma Whittaker as a character for much of the book, but in the end I did feel I knew and admired her, and I expect I will remember her.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (David Mitchell)
The scope of detail in this novel is staggering. Truly impressive and staggering. The depth of the detail sweeps you away to the world of late eighteenth century Japan for a dose of a feudal society still closed tight like an oyster but on the brink of being pried open by Dutch and English traders.  It’s a smart book in many ways, sophisticated and richly flavored. The characters and plot are good if not great, but certainly it’s the setting and the history that are absolutely worth reading this for. It’s like a fine old cabernet for lovers of historical fiction.

The Curiosity (Stephen P. Kiernan)
            This is a super fun read. It’s got an awesome premise in the reawakening of a man who froze nearly a hundred years earlier and is reintroduced to American life a century later. Written from four very different perspectives, the opportunity to see the players from all sides is entertaining and cool. My one complaint is that I had the sense of the novel having been rushed out the door before it was fully baked. Besides the errors in the text, there are numerous potentials that weren’t fully realized and some rather glaring holes in the plot. Mostly I quibble about the main woman character, who’s characterized as a “true scientific genius” but fails to ask even the most basic scientific questions—and mostly does whatever the plot needs her to do. I won’t say any more than that, but will unreservedly recommend this for a fun read that’s nearly impossible to put down

Northern Borders (Howard Frank Mosher)
If you haven't read anything by Howard Frank Mosher, don't wait too much longer. He's written a mix of novels and memoirs and they're all whimsical and wonderful in their own way. My favorites are the novels set in and around his own town up here in the northern woods of Vermont. In his books our own Northeast Kingdom becomes "Kingdom County" and names are changed in various ways, however the smoky do-it-my-own-way-or-be-damned flavor of the place and people is perfectly preserved. Maybe it takes a transplanted flatlander (someone not from Vermont) like Howard or like me to savor how different this place is from so much of the rest of our country, but year after year I continue to marvel at the way people do things up here. Reading about these people in Howard Mosher's books holds the pure delight of diving into the world of people who, viewed from a distance, inhabit a world of mystery and intrigue I will never fully understand. 

I chose Northern Borders to highlight here because I think it's my favorite of his books and it hasn't received the attention that some of his others have received. Several of them - including Where the Rivers Flow North and Disappearances - have been made into movies. Northern Borders, though, to me captures the essence of the place more deftly than any others. It's set largely on a dairy farm in the 50's, where a young boy goes to live with his grandparents and joins their life of ridiculously hard work blended with numerous small joys and deep pleasures. The story follows Austin Kittredge through his young adulthood as it simultaneously follows a tiny Vermont town that belatedly joins the mechanized world of modern America. (Though always at least a decade behind, as Vermonters have to be pried away from anything they're used to.)

And like any good story, it holds a central mystery that comes at you sideways and makes the whole story resonate with hidden meaning.  This is a fine sweet read that is worth savoring.

Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner) 

[see post 8.28.14 for the full-length review]

I had begun Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose about ten years ago and I think I wasn't ready to read something so subtle. I hadn't matured enough yet. A friend told me several months ago that she'd had a similar experience of reading it many years apart and finding it a completely different book. She encouraged me to give it another try. 

I think you do have to be a certain age or mind-frame to savor a book that moves at a modulated pace and spends ample time on descriptions of both the outer world of the setting and the inner world of the characters as they grow and change. In the end I was left with two overriding emotions. First was a powerful sadness for both Lyman and Susan, both of whom struggled to find the courage to endure their many disappointments. There was a great beauty in their endurance. The second was a warm glow of appreciation for the fine writing that brought their world to life and allowed me to spend time there. I felt like I'd visited much of the early west and could nearly shake the parched dirt from my shoes. (If I'd been able to reach my shoes at the time. . .)

In the end, then, I recommend this book to anyone who feels they are ready for it. It's a magnificent treat when you can savor it like you would anything slow and deep and finely-wrought.