Pearl's Picks for March
Beat the Reaper: A Novel - by Josh Bazell
Beat the Reaper, a first novel by Josh Bazell, is funny, gross, violent, and profane (in almost equal measure). And it has footnotes (which I loved). If you're not bothered by the violence and can overlook what some call--always with quotation marks--"language," you'll find a novel--in addition to all those other qualities--that is also touching and a little bit sad. But don't read it unless you have a strong stomach. And don't start it late in the afternoon (as I unfortunately did), because you won't be able to put it down until you finish it, which doesn't augur well for a productive work experience the next day. One way of describing the plot is to think of it as House meets Dexter in the world of The Godfather. At one point in the recent past, Peter Brown, born Pietro Brnwa, a young man with a checkered past, turned state's evidence against his former friends, and was sent to college and med school as part of the Witness Protection Program. Now he's a resident at a hospital in Manhattan. And he's having a really, really bad day. He discovers that one of his patients is a former, shall we say, colleague (now dying under an assumed name), who threatens to make Peter's whereabouts known to all and sundry. That all and sundry would include his former best friend, Skinflick, who Peter thought he'd disposed of back in the good old days when Peter was nicknamed "The Bearclaw" by that old gang of his. Alas, no--Skinflick actually survived being thrown from an upper floor of an apartment building; he's now known as Skingraft, and he's got revenge on his mind. Great fun, rather gruesome (Jaws, anyone?) and compulsively readable.
Classics for Pleasure - by Michael Dirda
The venerable descriptor "classic" is not a word that tends to excite interest when one is looking for a good book to read. A common response to the word is closer to: "A classic? Isn't that one of those dull, long-winded books we were assigned to read in 10th grade English, and for which we hoped there was a 'classic' comics version available to read instead?" For those readers subject to this unfortunate association, I now have the perfect book to suggest: Michael Dirda's Classics for Pleasure. In this collection of brief, refreshing, and lively essays, Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The Washington Post, invites readers to take a fresh look at writers and books ranging from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Beowulf to Émile Zola's Germinal to the poems and plays of Christopher Marlowe and many more. His essays are arranged thematically, under such topics as "Playful Imaginations," "Heroes of Their Time," "Love's Mysteries," "The Dark Side," and "The Way We Live Now." Dirda is no snob; he certainly doesn't adhere to a standard canon of must-read, "classic works" by dead white males. He's also not out to make readers feel inadequate, or badly educated. He just wants each and every one of us to discover the joys he's found in an eclectic, diverse list of authors and their writings. He includes (surprising to some purists, I suspect) writers as diverse in style, tone, and publication date as Eudora Welty, the divine Mrs. Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Philip K. Dick, not to mention Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, Agatha Christie, M. R. James, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle--and many more. His writing is so redolent of his affection for these books that it's almost impossible to resist his suggestions. This is a perfect book both for autodidacts, and those who want a jump-start into some of the most interesting writers of the past.
What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009 - by Stephen Dunn
Ever since I was an undergraduate--lo, those many years ago--I've been copying down poems and quotations that particularly strike me in a series of notebooks. One of the poets who figures prominently in those notebooks is Stephen Dunn. It's no wonder, then, that I was so pleased to read his new book, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009, which includes selections from six previous volumes, plus 20 new poems. Dunn, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2001 for his book Different Hours (the best poems from that collection are part of What Goes On), writes poems that are completely accessible, even to those usually intimidated by the opaqueness of much poetry. Most of Dunn's poems relate a miniature story from various places and times of his life, in language that is both ordinary and highly evocative. A poem called "Burying the Cat" begins: "Her name was Isadora and, like all cats,/she was a machine made of rubber/bands and muscle, exemplar of crouch/and pounce, genius of leisure"). Over the years his subjects have included, in addition to cats, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, aging, bar fights, a motorcycle trip in Spain, love, desire, melancholy, relationships, and the ends of relationships. Perhaps his own attitude toward his work can be summed up in a line from his poem "Story," which is found on page 75 of this collection: "Praise the odd, serendipitous world." At the very least, read these poems: "The Unsaid," "Please Understand," and "History."
Honestly Dearest, You're Dead: A Mystery - by Jack Fredrickson
It's sad but true that the enjoyment I take in an author's first novel is always tempered by the fear that I won't like the second one nearly as much. And, quite honestly, and most unfortunately, that seems to happen more often than not. So when I finished Jack Fredrickson's A Safe Place for Dying a few years back, I tried not to hope (and certainly not to expect) that his second mystery would be as satisfying as his first. I'm so pleased to say that in this case, I needn't have worried. Honestly Dearest, You're Dead is another clear winner for Fredrickson. Once again, Chicago-based P.I. Dek Elstrom finds himself in the middle of a humdinger of a mystery. Dek gets a call from a lawyer in a small western Michigan town who advises him that he's been named the executor in the will of one Louise Thomas. And, since Thomas is now dead, could he please drive up to West Haven and get started closing out her estate? Since there is a fee (albeit small) attached to the job, Dek's glad to do it, but there's one problem: he's never met Louise Thomas, and has no idea why he was named her executor. As Dek starts investigating the life and death of his new client, he discovers that little is as it seems. Who was Louise Thomas? How did she end up dying a lonely death in a small, nowhere town in Michigan? There are plenty of twists and turns before Dek finally dots every i and crosses every t in the Louise Thomas case. Fans of Fredrickson's first book will be happy to find that both Amanda, Dek's former wife, and especially Leo, his best-friend-since-childhood, reappear in this book. Of course, pessimistic reader that I am, now that I've finished this excellently entertaining mystery, I've already begun worrying about whether the third Dek Elstrom can ever live up to the first two. But I'm letting myself hope.
In Hovering Flight - by Joyce Hinnefeld
In Hovering Flight, Joyce Hinnefeld's elegiac first novel, is replete with plotlines, well-drawn characters, and a plentitude of themes. That makes it both a candidate for multiple readings--each time through you're likely to find something new to appreciate--and a difficult book to review. The title comes from Roger Tory Peterson's description of a bobolink's song ("Song, in hovering flight and quivering descent, ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low, reedy notes and rollicking upward") and two of the novel's main characters are an ornithologist and a painter of birds, but you definitely don't have to be a birder to enjoy it (although reading it just might encourage you to be more attentive to the avian life sharing your environment. While I was in the middle of writing these reviews, on two different days I saw a redheaded woodpecker and a bluejay through the window above my desk). Some readers will describe In Hovering Flight as a love story, or as a tale about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, or about the choices that cancer forces upon you. Others may see it as the story of longtime friendships between women, or the development of an eco-activist. In truth, Hinnefeld is writing about all of these things, and she weaves them together seamlessly, in prose that is both poetic and understated. The novel opens in 2002 with the death from cancer of Addie Kavanagh, a bird artist, an environmental activist, best friends since college to Cora and Lou, wife of Tom (an ornithologist), and mother of Scarlet (named for the scarlet tanager). It then weaves back and forth in time to explore Addie's college days in the 1960s; her almost simultaneous realization of her love for Tom, her biology teacher, and the birds she begins to study and paint under his tutelage. The two publish a book together, a favorite of the anti-war and growing environmental movement, called A Prosody of Birds. But as the years pass and Addie begins to turn away from the beauties of the avian world to the degradation of the environment, her whole being shifts from joyousness to a despair that affects her relationship with everyone she knows, especially her husband and daughter. (Indeed, Scarlet, now 34 and a poet, has spent the last year of Addie's life living with Cora.) Hinnefeld not only knows birds and their songs, she understands how relationships change, both subtly and overtly, how love matures, how daughters grow up, how mothers die, and how, in the end, the reality of change is all we have to hold on to.
Sing Them Home - by Stephanie Kallos
Stephanie Kallos' second novel, Sing Them Home, is simply wonderful. It's a welcome tonic to those of us who look back with great longing to Anne Tyler's early novels, like The Clock Winder, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and Searching for Caleb: that is, those of us hungry for books with quirky, flawed, yet realistic and beloved characters who leap off the page into our arms and refuse to leave. (Adam Langer's Crossing California, see below, is like this, too.) I didn't want Sing Them Home ever to end, never mind the fact that it's over 500 pages long. While reading this book evoked in me memories of those Tyler novels I loved so much, Kallos's plot is wonderfully her own, as is the well-defined setting: small-town Emlyn Springs, Nebraska, home to Welsh settlers who still carry on the religious traditions of their native land, including a weeklong mourning period after someone dies, during which the town shuts down, and which culminates in three days of round-the-clock singing to send the departed safely on to the next world. The three (now adult) Jones children--Larken (an overweight art history professor at the University of Nebraska who eats to salve her loneliness), Gaelan (a television weatherman in Lincoln who exploits his mother's disappearance and presumed death as a peculiarly effective come-on for the series of one-night stands he indulges in), and Bonnie (the youngest, still living desultorily in Emlyn Springs)--are intimately acquainted with that particular ritual. In 1978, their mother, Hope, was carried away by a tornado, never to be seen again, although Bonnie still spends much of her time, more than a quarter-century later, forlornly searching for signs of her mother's survival. And now, as the book opens, their father, Llewelyn, is struck dead on the golf course by a bolt of lightning. Moving easily between the warp and weft of past and present (and including entries from Hope's diaries), Kallos explores the effect of both these losses on the Jones family and on Viney, Hope's best friend (and Llewelyn Jones' long-time mistress).
Crossing California - by Adam Langer
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Adam Langer's Crossing California is one of my all time favorite novels. It's one of the few books that I actually own, and I reread it often, mostly because I adore the characters. Langer's first novel takes place in 1979-1981 in the primarily Jewish West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. The neighborhood is bisected by California, which divides the upper-middle class families on the western side of the street from the primarily middle-class ones on the east. Langer uses an affectionately satirical tone to describe the lives of a group of a group of teenagers and their families. On the whole, reading it is not dissimilar to having someone plop himself down next to you, at a party perhaps, and tell you stories about his teenage years. Detailed and appealing stories, of course. I will be forever grateful to Langer for inventing Michelle Wasserstrom, quite possibly the most captivating teenager I've met in the pages of a novel in a long time (at least since I discovered Mattie Jones, heroine of True Grit, by Charles Portis). Langer respects his characters and values their quirks, flaws, and failures; he wants us to do the same (and we do). Incidentally, for those of us who didn't have the good fortune of living in Chicago during those years, or were too young (or whatever) to remember that time period or place, Langer includes a helpful index, with entries including Kwame Nkrumah--"former president of Ghana;" Myron and Phil's--"a popular Jewish restaurant in Lincolnwood, Illinois, famous for its relish tray;" French Postcards--"1979 film directed by Willard Huyck;" and faygeleh--"Disparaging term for homosexual (Yiddish). Literal translation: little bird." Langer went on to write a sequel, The Washington Story, which carries on the lives of his characters.
A Darker Domain: A Novel- by Val McDermid
Sadly, Scottish crime writer Val McDermid is much better known in the U.K. than in the U.S., but I'm hoping that her new novel will find her a huge readership on this side of the Atlantic, because A Darker Domain is a real treat for mystery fans. In 2007, the main character, Detective Inspector Kate Pirie, finds herself working two cases that originated in the 1980s, and that now need to be reassessed. One deals with a missing man and the second with a missing baby. When Misha Prentice comes to the Fife police station to report her father missing, Pirie learns to her surprise that Mick Prentice actually disappeared in 1984--22 years earlier--at the height of the coal miners' strike, although at the time his case was never reported to the police. Back then, everyone believed that Mick had simply walked out on his fellow strikers and left town to look for work elsewhere. That made him a scab and a pariah, and nobody much cared where he went or what had happened to him. But now Misha's son needs a bone marrow transplant, her father is a potential donor, and Misha wants him found. As she tries to figure out what happened to Mick Prentice, Pirie is also working on a 1985 kidnapping case, in which an attempted ransom payoff had gone terribly wrong. As a result of the mistakes made, the mother of the victim had been killed and her baby son disappeared along with the kidnappers, never to be seen again. Now, unexpectedly, and more than two decades later, new information has come to light, and the case has been reopened. The complexities of these two cases keep DI Pirie well occupied, and will keep the reader turning the pages of this nicely written, well-plotted psychological thriller. This is a novel that reinforces my belief that you learn something from every book you read--it was fascinating to me to read about the terribly difficult lives of the miners (McDermid's knowledge of, and sympathy for, the lives of miners comes from stories that her miner grandfather told her as a child) and how, in their strike of 1984, the miners were betrayed by both their union leadership and the British government. And then, of course, I had to watch the film Billy Elliot again, since it's set during exactly the same time period.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
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Haruki Murakami takes his time with the opening chapters of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, easing the reader into the unremarkable peculiarities of protagonist Toru Okada's suburban Tokyo life. Okada is out of work. He spends his days grocery shopping, ironing shirts, receiving the occasional strange phone call, looking for his missing cat, contemplating his failing marriage. Almost imperceptibly, the uneventfulness of these first chapters cracks open into a story that is wild and unpredictable and made up of seemingly endless layers that pull you from modern-day Japan to the Mongolian plains of World War II; from domestic drama to detective story; from a recognizable reality to an other-world filled with menace and prophetic coincidence. What Murakami does so well in this book is take you to other worlds so complete, so warmly detailed, and so dense with emotional and tactile nuance that you and Okada both begin to lose track of what is real and what is imagined; what is actually happening and what is only being recounted. Murakami lingers lovingly (but not indulgently) on each new world and each new character, allowing each story thread to accumulate into a narrative that is at once astoundingly complex and heartbreakingly, recognizably human.
The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism - by Geoff Nicholson
I love to walk (and hate to drive, which probably makes me a perfect urban dweller). I find that walking clears my mind, lifts my spirits, allows me to see the world from a slower, more considered perspective, and, on top of all that, provides good exercise, too--talk about multi-tasking! In Geoff Nicholson, author of the delectably idiosyncratic The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism, I've discovered a fellow enthusiast. But even if you don't enjoy walking as much as Mr. Nicholson and I do, the author's enthusiasm for his subject, and his dryly humorous presentation of it (he describes a bad fall he takes as "a disagreement with gravity") will keep you reading. Thanks to Nicholson I've discovered all sorts of odd tidbits of information (which I'm looking forward to using when confronted with those awkward lulls in conversations), including the following: Farsi has nine synonyms for walking, while Norwegian has over fifty; the idea of Velcro came to its inventor during a walk; in 1809 a British gentleman named Robert Barclay Allardice walked one mile an hour for a thousand hours in a row and won one thousand guineas as a result; and there is a big difference between a maze and a labyrinth (and that Theseus, of maze fame, actually should be known for his skill in conquering the intricacies of a labyrinth). Nicholson also muses on songs about walking ("These Shoes are Made for Walking," "I Walk the Line," "Walkin' After Midnight"); great writers who were also great walkers (Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Bruce Chatwin, Sebastian Snow, Aldous Huxley); what it was like to be the first (and second) man to walk on the moon; walking in the desert; and the whole fascinatingly weird field of psychogeography, which I won't even attempt to explain here. When I walk, I listen to music, but I can see now how fitting it might have been had I listened to The Lost Art of Walking while I was traveling by shanks' mare.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel - by Lionel Shriver
I'm not going to pretend otherwise in order to urge you to read this book: Lionel Shriver's seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is a tough tough book to read. It's intense, it's sad, and it's emotionally draining. Because its plot sounded just too painful--the story of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his high school--I put off reading it for a long time. But the novel, which came out after the Columbine shootings, is really about the complexities of marriage and motherhood, nature vs. nurture, and the compromises we make in order to get through our lives, compromises made with both those we love and with ourselves. The true main character is not Kevin, the teenage murderer, but his mother, Eva. In a series of thoughtful and increasingly painful letters to Kevin's father, who is no longer living with her, she contemplates her life, trying to understand where it all went so wrong, and how giving birth to a child could culminate in such an awful, life-changing, soul-destroying event. Despite the emotionally wrenching subject matter, Shriver never retreats into melodrama. Her writing is crisp and clean, and Eva's character is satisfyingly complex. We can't help but pity her, and turn the pages with a sense of gratitude that this didn't happen to us. If you can get your book club to read it, you won't regret it--I promise you that the discussion will be awesome.
Cutting for Stone: A Novel - by Abraham Verghese
There are some novels in which everything seems larger than life--the plots are elaborate, there are many characters, each with their own story, the setting teems with activity. In recent years, two good examples of such BIG books are Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and (going back a few years) Leon Uris's Exodus. Charles Dickens and other 19th century writers are known for their BIG novels. Now, after two works of nonfiction (My Own Country: A Doctor's Story and The Tennis Partner), Abraham Verghese has written Cutting for Stone, an irresistibly readable epic novel that, I think, well qualifies for this group. In 1947, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a devout and devoted young nun, travels from her home in Kerala, India, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and finds work in a mission hospital there. On the stormy and difficult sea voyage over, she saves the life of a British doctor named Thomas Stone, who also winds up at Missing Hospital, as it's known to everyone in Addis. (Coincidences like this occur often in BIG novels: they make the plot hum.) After seven years of working closely together at Missing, and to the shock of all their coworkers and friends, their twin sons, Marion and Shiva, are born, and, as a result, everything changes: tragically, Sister Praise dies and Thomas Stone disappears. Marion, who narrates the novel, describes the twins' unconventional upbringing by a pair of Indian doctors who also work at Missing and their growing desire to become doctors themselves. After a misunderstanding leads to a tragedy, Marion leaves Africa to work as a resident in an inner-city hospital in New York. In short, Cutting for Stone is a BIG novel, ranging across generations and continents, taking the reader through political upheavals, romantic entanglements, the complexity of being human, and many different surgeries (whose descriptions are not for the queasy of stomach). When I finished reading this, I wanted to take the next flight to Addis Ababa because Verghese made it sound so fascinating. Like Afghanistan (Hosseini) and Israel (Uris), Verghese brought the setting of the first half of Cutting for Stone to life as a dynamic and three-dimensional character in its own right.