It's been a couple of weeks since I've blogged about books I've read. Sue and I took a trip out West last weekend, so I had many hours on airplanes and got lots of reading done then, plus I have a bit more time on my hands these days as my teaching responsibilities have dropped off a bit. So, here's a longer than usual list -- as always, a real mix of genres, from mystery/thrillers to tear-jerkers to serious literature. They're listed here in the order in which I read them.
The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, is an unusually ambitious debut for a first-time novelist. This is not a book for sissy readers; it requires a serious investment of time, attention, and thought. The 30-year-old American author has written a mind-bending novel about amnesia (both individual and cultural), a surreal foray into historical memory, with an overlay of evil and madness. Set in contemporary Berlin, the book's protagonist, Margaret Taub, is an American who guides walking tours of that city. Doesn't sound surreal? Well, consider this example: one day while Margaret is conducting a tour of Nazi sites, the buildings of the city turn to flesh before her eyes. In short order, Magda Goebbels takes the form of a bird of prey and is stalking Margaret. Hmmm...
Hattemer-Higgins speaks eight languages and has lived abroad most of the time since graduating from Barnard almost a decade ago. Her understanding of language is evident in this intrepid debut; this is a writer whose care and nourishment of individual sentences is obvious through the book. The images she evokes are astonishingly vivid. Despite the author's obvious talent, however, the novel as a whole left me wishing for a more straightforward story, a book less ponderous, a tale less fantastic, a narrative less overwrought. Watch: she'll win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award with this book and I'll again look like a doofus for missing the book's genius (even though I appreciate the author's). No matter. I like a novel to be more realistic and less complicated. ★★★☆☆
Here's another debut novel that provides a stark contrast to the work of Hattemer-Higgins and gives me, at least, what I want in a book. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River came out a decade ago. I repeat what I've said before: I don't know what kind of fog I was in around 2001, but I sure missed some good books. The surprise is that this one only recently came to my attention because of a comment by a colleague. Here's what Claire Dederer wrote in Amazon's review of the book:
To the list of great American child narrators that includes Huck Finn and Scout Finch, let us now add Reuben "Rube" Land, the asthmatic 11-year-old boy at the center of Leif Enger's remarkable first novel, Peace Like a River. Rube recalls the events of his childhood, in small-town Minnesota circa 1962, in a voice that perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains. "Here's what I saw," Rube warns his readers. "Here's how it went. Make of it what you will." And Rube sees plenty.
In the winter of his 11th year, two schoolyard bullies break into the Lands' house, and Rube's big brother Davy guns them down with a Winchester. Shortly after his arrest, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. Swede is Rube's younger sister, a precocious writer who crafts rhymed epics of romantic Western outlawry. Shortly after Davy's escape, Rube, Swede, and their father, a widowed school custodian, hit the road too, swerving this way and that across Minnesota and North Dakota, determined to find their lost outlaw Davy. In the end it's not Rube who haunts the reader's imagination, it's his father, torn between love for his outlaw son and the duty to do the right, honest thing. Enger finds something quietly heroic in the bred-in-the-bone Minnesota decency of America's heartland.
What an outstanding book! Enger is a great writer and knows how to tell a story. I'll soon be reading his second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome (2008). If, like me, you somehow missed Enger, do yourself the favor of getting Peace Like a River. You're in for a treat. ★★★★★
Elizabeth Berg is a prolific novelist. I've read most of her twenty-one books and have enjoyed most of them a lot. The latest, Once Upon a Time There Was You, just came out in early April and is less compelling than most of her other books. Well known for drawing outstanding characters, creating realistic dialogue, and telling a moving story, Berg has stumbled this time. Maybe it's because she tinkered with her formula and tried to inject a little creepy suspense into this one. But she doesn't know how to do it (it's neither creepy enough nor suspenseful enough), and the book falls well short of Berg's usual standard.
This is the story of a divorced couple who are thrust together again after something scary happens to the only thing either of them really cares about, their 18-year-old daughter. There are elements along the way that are typical of the best of Berg -- some funny scenes, some that pull effectively on the heart strings. But the book completely falls apart at the end. Even well before that, I found myself thinking that Berg should have stuck with the kind of narrative she does well. ★★☆☆☆
Berg's botched effort at suspense sent me scurrying to an author who is a master of it -- Tami Hoag, the international best-selling author of more than thirty books, published in some thirty languages around the world. I hadn't read any of Hoag's work yet, so decided to start with Night Sins, the 1996 book that first put her on the New York Times Bestseller list. Bantam Books has re-released Night Sins, packaging it in the same binding with its sequel, Guilty as Sin. The two together come in at 1152 pages. But, oh, what great pages they are!
In Night Sins, a peaceful Minnesota town faces its worst nightmare when a young boy disappears and the only clue is a note—taunting and casually cruel. For Megan O'Malley, a tough-minded investigator from the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (a scaled-down version of the FBI), it’s her first make-or-break case. For the local police chief, Mitch Holt, it’s the fear that big-city evil has come to stalk his small-town home where he knows everyone and finds it hard to be suspicious of any of them. Together they hunt a psychopath who plays a twisted game with the terrified residents and with law-enforcement officers in this little town.
In Guilty as Sin, a respected member of the community (a college professor, oh my!) stands accused of the chilling crimes committed in Night Sins. But when a second boy vanishes, a frightened public demands to know if the police have caught the wrong man. Is the nightmare continuing…or just beginning? Prosecutor Ellen North believes she has the right man — but that he has an accomplice in the shadows. Ellen suddenly finds herself swept into a contest of wits with some truly evil and clever people.
Hoag is a real master of the mystery/suspense genre. These two books crack along at lightning speed. I put my Kindle through its paces as I raced from one chapter to the next, eager to see where Hoag would take me next. Suspense novels don't come any better than these. ★★★★★ (for each of them!)
In light of what a sentimental sap I am, it's surprising that I'm not a regular reader of books by Nicholas Sparks. As far as I can recall, I haven't read any of his books (though I did see the movie version of The Notebook, and liked it). Faced with less than a minute to choose a book to download to my Kindle as flight attendants last week were cautioning all passengers to turn off electronic devices, I grabbed Sparks's The Last Song out of the ether and, of course, had finished it well before the plane landed in Boston.
Veronica “Ronnie” Miller’s life in Manhattan was turned upside down at the age of fourteen when her parents divorced and her father moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. Three years later, she remains alienated from her parents, particularly her father ... until her mother decides it would be in everyone’s best interest if she and her little brother spent the summer with Dad. Resentful and rebellious, Ronnie rejects her father’s attempts to reach out to her and acts out by getting involved with a group of local bad kids. But soon Ronnie meets Will, the last person she thought she’d ever be attracted to, and finds herself falling for him, opening herself up to both happiness and pain. Meanwhile, Dad is getting noticeably more frail throughout the book. Will Ronnie notice this before Dad dies? Will Dad die before the last page? Will Ronnie, a child prodigy at the piano, sought after by Juilliard, set aside her youthful rebellion to return to the keyboard? Will Dad die before he finishes making a new stained-glass window for the church that was set on fire by (we assume) the local bad kids? Holy smokes! So much to worry about here! It's standard fare for this genre, but disappointingly formulaic. It may help to know that Sparks wrote the screenplay for the movie version before he wrote the novel itself. Does that explain the pablum? ★★☆☆☆
In the last year, I became a fan of Henning Mankell's series of Swedish mystery novels featuring his iconic character, detective Kurt Wallander. As fans of the series know, Mankell decided to bring the series to an end, publishing the last of his Wallander books, The Troubled Man, in late March. I wish I could report that it's a worthy end to the series; alas, it's not.
In this book, Wallander is weighted down throughout by his sense of the encroachment of old age (but he's only 60!) and a weakening of his mental powers. The melancholy this sense stirs up pervades the whole book. The central narrative involves Wallander's efforts to discover what happened to a former Swedish submarine commander and his wife, both of whom suddenly disappear without a trace. As things unfold, the wife's body is soon discovered and Wallander deduces the whereabouts of the husband. The investigation takes Wallander deep into spy plots and Cold War espionage. None of it is particularly suspenseful or interesting. And the whole plot seems draggy and tired (like poor Wallander himself). Worst of all, after he wraps the whole thing up rather hastily, Mankell ends up disposing of our beloved hero/detective with one lousy paragraph. Talk about a rude send-off! ★☆☆☆☆