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"All That Follows" by Jim Crace

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Lennie Less is a saxophonist, a well-known jazz musician in the U.K. with lots of fans and lots of credits, who is apparently afraid of everything. Jim Crace presents this quirky, bumpy portrait as its hero lives through the very eventful week in which he turns 50. The narrative contains a highly individual, detailed, and sometimes trying progress to a nevertheless rewarding denouement.

The player in question is almost no player at all. He shies from everything. He has taken a sabbatical as our story opens, trying to deal with a bum shoulder that depresses him - makes him feel his age. His wife and stepdaughter have had a violent row and the stepaughter has moved out and severed contact. As a result, his dear wife has lost her sense of humor, her devotion to her husband has taken a back seat, and as Lennie waits and hopes for a renewed closeness, he watches the video news. His past impinges suddenly on his presentwhen Maxie Lermontov, a trouble-making radical Lennie once knew, perpetrates a hostage crisis. His past comes rushing back in, inconveniently, and he perversely cannot stay away from it, or tell his wife or the authorities the truth about it.

Mr. Crace constructs Lennie Less of not-very-stern stuff at the outset of his story. And the character's whining and prevarication wore me down a bit. I always returned, however, to take up the story, and now I'm very glad I did. The hero becomes more sensible and more admirable as the book progresses and his family, his admirers, even his legion of fans, grows as a result. Mr. Crace has clearly gained a fan in me. His hero's multi-faceted character reflects a mature, confident author, and an extreme talent at structuring a story. Pick up "All That Follows" and meet the author and his memorable creation.

"Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

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My first foray into things Rushdie, and I came away excessively diverted. This is an Arabian Nights-type tale, with magic, enchanted emperors, and an exotic locale.

We have an Italian nobleman, Il Machio (who, I figured out embarrassingly late, is Niccolo Machiavelli), who travels to the Mughal Empire (in present-day India and Pakistan) and claims he is the Emperor's uncle. There turns out to be some possible justification for this improbable claim, and Il Machio enjoys favor in the court for a time. The eponymous Enchantress has the power to put entire cities in her thrall, which she does the capital, for most of the book; she can also come back from the dead.

A good part of this book's energy flows from this tension: men have temporal power over women in this world, but women have emotional power over men. For all its fabulous subject matter, this book is firmly planted in the ground of real human nature. The Emperor is given considerable intuitive powers, and is an enlightened ruler for the age, but eventually Il Machio's stars dim, and all his good fortune must turn.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly - I didn't know what to expect from Rushdie. What I got was highly imaginative and picked me up and carried me away. Recommended.

"The Great Fire" by Shirley Hazzard

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In this exceptional story, Shirley Hazzard gives us the eternal story of Aldred and Helen, thrown together in the chaotic and threatening aftermath of the Second World War. He's a major in the British Army who re-upped at war's end to study the effects of war on old cultures. She is the daughter of horrid and ambitious parents and has a terminally ill brother to whom she is devoted. She's loyal, erudite, fifteen years Aldred's junior, and falls unalterably in love with him. War's fortunes and the designs of empires unfortunately separate them and put an entire world between them - he is sent back the the U.K., and Helen goes with her family to her father's new posting in New Zealand.

There are several Great Fires here. One is World War II itself, and one is specifically the bombing of Hiroshima. Another is Aldred and Helen's love. Ms. Hazzard's prose comes across as reserved and cautionary, but is deeply touched by what we witness. The intellect and the heart are both deep, and deeply affected. Our author inspires awe at our renewed understanding of the power of language.

Our hero Aldred is a very virtuous man. He hides his severe wounds,which are physical as well as emotional. He is aghast in the wake of war and weary in the role of occupier (his superiors assign him to a study of Hiroshima after The Bomb). His friends and colleagues see it, too: one potential rival for Helen's heart gives up the field when he comes to know Aldred better.

Besides a very memorable love story, this is also the story of civilization and hope surviving cataclysm. (Not to spoil anything, but the force of Helen's and Aldred's love will at length not be denied.) Helen's beloved brother dies, and the cataclysm becomes close and personal. Aldred helps people in the U.K. - our author never flinches in her willingness to protray sympathetic characters - minor heroes - of either sex or any age. (The secondary characters would make a very fertile area of study.)

I honor Ms. Hazzard. I recommend this piece in the highest terms possible. Would that she produced fiction more often - I will definitely be taking up her other novels. Wow.

“Pere Goriot” by Honoré de Balzac

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This classic piece was my introduction to Balzac. This canny Frenchman is a close and knowing observer of human nature. The hopes, desperation, greed, and cynicism so rampant every day in our world, are fully on display here.

The tale is told through the viewpoint of Rastignac, a 21-year-old law student and newcomer to Paris. Rastignac's ambitions are the common ones, to be rich, fashionable, and carefree, and to take a mistress. These ambitions shift over the course of the story. He becomes enamored of Pere Goriot, understanding what a virtuous man he is. Balzac shows us the destructiveness of 19th-century Paris society: Goriot's two worldly daughters waste his means over time and leave him impoverished. Goriot himself, however, is as much a supporter of worldly amibitions as anyone, but it bankrupts him and at length, at least indirectly, kills him.

Here is post-Napoleon Paris, described closely if not lovingly by Balzac. This author's fame as a canny observer of human nature and human folly is richly deserved. If you haven't yet taken up Balzac, this is an outstanding place to start. Go for it!

"A Woman in Jerusalem" by A.B. Yehoshua

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"A Woman in Jerusalem" begins with the discovery by a baking tycoon that a former employee has died and her corpse has languished in the morgue for a week. Worse, a second-rate journalist eager for a wider readership has picked up and sensationalized the story to make the baking company look bad.

The acting and somewhat reluctant HR director has a fairly cyincal view of the company owner's motivation when he is assigned a damage-control function. He investigates the case, and the first thing he learns is that everyone except himself thinks the woman who died was beautiful, engaging, and caring. Even though he interviewed her before her hire, the HR director cannot remember her. What follows is a trek from Israel to Russia - the corpse, the HR director, the journalist, and the dead woman's unruly son - to have the woman buried in her home town. What happens along the way is really the story here.

The trek means something different to each of our questors. The story deals principally with the HR director (all characters except the deceased are identified only by their titles), who knows something is missing from his life. On the way he is physically and morally purged, and returns to Jerusalem a new man. It's nothing very obvious, but we know of the change, nonetheless.

This is a story about individual and communal courage in the face of terrorism. It's also about the extraordinary steps that are sometimes necessary to maintain one's humanity under this constant threat. Mr. Yehoshua has spun an engaging, honest tale, and the sometimes stilted language is a purposeful thing, reflective of the mechanistic workings of modern corporations.

"Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Having wound up as one of Oprah's Club books (congratulations to Eugenides!), "Middlesex" has received a lot of focus and a lot of ink. Eugenides manages to give first-person flesh-and-blood life, in almost mundane language, to an individual with an extremely rare and extremely personal abnormality. This is its main accomplishment, and it's something Eugenides should be honored for (and Oprah wielding her personal weight to support it deserves honors too). The author uses particulars from his own life to flesh this story out, and that's the canniest of tricks. Excellent!

"John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead follows up the brilliant "The Intuitionist" with another strong effort. This story recounts the trip an independent journalist (hack? flack?) makes to the small hill town where they will celebrate the legend of John Henry, the mythic steel-driving man who died in competition with a machine. The novel takes us through different historical stages in which the legend takes root and grows. The author also effectively lampoons present-day journalism, bringing up the ridiculous effort of Sutter, the hack, to break the record for traveling on consecutive press junkets.
The inventive recounting of the railroad employee himself is vivid and immediate. We see superhuman effort and very human emotion. Also memorable is a segment set in Tin Pan Alley, portrayed as squalid and noisome, where the classic folk song was written. The present-day sections of the narrative contain a realistic, non-blinking expose of the cynical efforts communities make to attract visitors, and the way the media use and abuse those efforts.

Not as cerebral or as haunting as "The Intuitionist," this novel shines in its own vivid way, nevertheless. I recommend it, and I will be moving on to Whitehead's other work.

"Shakespeare: the World as Stage" by Bill Bryson

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A good basic compendium of what we know about the Bard. There isn't much, of course, but Bryson lays it all out in a straightforward and sometimes breezy way that always comes naturally to him. I found the sections on the economics of the theatre during Shakespeare's lifetime, and the regulations covering everything from sodomy to dress to how much it cost to go to a Catholic Mass, and the growth of medieval London, all to be very interesting. I wished for more in the section of words and phrases coined by the man. This is a good, short, one-stop shop for the basics on the Bard.

"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz

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Junot Diaz's first full-length fiction is a fully-realized piece, heartfelt, compassionate, and memorable. Our protaganist Oscar is a young Dominican living in New Jersey who is a "ghetto nerd": hopelessly overweight, endlessly focused on writing fantasy fiction. Unfortunately, Oscar is also completely smitten every time he sees even an average-looking woman.

This is a good novel because of the author's diction: it's hip, poetic in its rhythms, and startlingly effective. It puts us directly in the line of fire. Told from a friend's first-person point of view, "Oscar" wends its way from urban New Jersey to the third-world Dominican Republic. Oscar touches all he knows somehow - whether it's his friend's exaspertation or his sister's devotion. He's the final, living result of a curse on his family, and his realization of this is one of the driving forces behind the narrative.

This is promising stuff from Diaz. I look forward to future entries.

"Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson

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In "Housekeeping" Marilynne Robinson establishes herself as the very best of living American authors. This novel perches on the fraught balance between living and dead, drowning and flying, orthodox and outcast.

In a lonely town in the Far West, where "the history of the world happened elsewhere," there is a house owned by Sylvie and Ruth's family. Sylvie is Ruth's aunt and is very little more than a drifter. Lucille is Ruth's younger sister and she occupies the house. This remote town sits on the shore of Lake Fingerbone, a deep and dark expanse of water that has claimed, in circumstances dark or disastrous or both, the lives of some of Ruth's forebears, including her mother. Sylvie comes back to the house with Ruth, but has no intention of staying. In one of the book's very significant episodes she and Ruth try to traverse the lake by crawling along the railroad bridge that arches over the water, and although this attempt fails, we know where Sylvie's heart, and eventually Ruth's too, lie. They want to traverse Fingerbone (to abjure working their fingers to the bone, as it were), take to the road, and see what tomorrow brings. They ultimately do not want the anchor of the house. Lucille, the orthodox member of the family, cannot understand the impulse, and is completely willing to settle down and make a go of things. Every feeling we get from this character is that she will succeed at it.

This was my introduction to Ms. Robinson, and I was completely stunned, awestruck. Her striking gift with words is well-known (see "Gilead" and "Home" and assorted non-fiction), but it's her gift with the larger issues in her stories that sweeps me away here. She poses an age-old question: how do you measure success in life? Are our hopes for material success doomed endlessly? Is an orthodox career through life as heavy as a lake, as suffocating as a bottomless body of water?

This is one of the best books I have ever read, or will ever read. Ms. Robinson fills me with wonder at her conception and her execution. Read it for the thrill of having a classic in the author's lifetime.

"Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by Dai Sijie

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How like a novel by Balzac is this little study in love, rivalry, and ego. Two unfortunate young Chinese men are sent into the mountains for "re-education" during Mao's Cultural Revolution. There they discover the tailor's daughter, a lovely young seamstress, with whom both young men become enamored. She is beautiful but untutored, but our two intrepid young men take care of that. They steal a collection of books, a wonderful group of Western masterpieces. In due course they travel to the seamstress's village and read her the great novels, starting with Balzac.
The depredations of the Cultural Revolution are dealt with lightly here; we have the threat of denunciation, but no one turned in or incarcerated. The lonely mountainous landscape presents challenges for this series of meetings and assignations, and symbolizes with its treacherous cliffsides and perilous ridges, the risks our heroes take. The biggest risk of all, it turns out, is the heart of the young woman. If she learns one thing from Balzac, it was that a woman's beauty is a prize beyond value. The book ends with our two stalwarts tearfully burning their precious collection of books - there's no reason to keep them because the young woman has modernized her haircut and her wardrobe, and left to go and take her chances in the city.

The echo of Balzac in the unique setting of Mao's repressive China - this spare little book is definitely worth your time.

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl

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How does one plan a book like this? To set a murder mystery (we have no idea it's a murder mystery except for some prescient comments along the way, until well into the story) in a clever high schooler's senior year, and make her not only solve the mystery, but suffer abandonment as a result! This exceedingly clever piece contains multiple cultural references on every page, most of them actually valid. We have a startlingly erudite high school senior, who falls in with a clique of charismatic and clever classmates and who is able to complete her senior year without benefit of parents.
The language in this fresh, engaging piece is what propels it along. We keep turning pages because we begin to care what happens to Blue, and Hannah, the enigmatic teacher who proctors the creative group along the way. But for all the throw-away culture and kids-playing-at-adulthood, we have a deathly story underneath, in which Hannah loses her life and Blue's Dad disappears the minute Blue figures it (almost all the way) out.

Ms. Pessl amazes with her multitudinous references, her deadpan delivery, and the reality of the angst her characters feel. This is a debut you should definitely pick up, and a career we should definitely follow.

"Larry's Party" by Carol Shields

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In "Larry's Party," Carol Shields gives us the intimate portrait of Larry Weller, Canadian landscape architect who goes through life as through a maze. In fact, mazes are such a perfect metaphor for this poor sap's perception of life, that our cagey author makes him a lover and professional designer of them.

We have chapters with particular aspects of Larry: "Larry's Love," "Larry's Work," "Larry's Folks," even "Larry's Penis," a chapter on his sexual experiences. As the book progresses, each chapter gives a kind of recap of past events - and while giving a somewhat curious idea to the reader (could these have been published before, as shorter pieces?), the real intent is to adopt a kind of parochial stance toward each of Larry's various facets. This is certainly the approach Larry seems to take. He's not particularly sophisticated or well-read; his emotions often hit him with surprise and he meets them with distrust. Ms. Shields drops hapless Larry into a coma that lasts three weeks; during this time he is cared for by strangers, and his son (from whose mother Larry is divorced) comes and speaks to him fervently, and reads the daily paper to him every day, cover-to-cover. This is the perfect comparison to make with our dim-ish hero: he lurches from one thing to the next in life, not knowing how people care for him.

The eponymous party is the last event of the book. Those attending take up a trendy conversation about what it means to be a man at the end of the millenium. Our author makes it clear: it means going through life relatively cluelessly, acting honorably toward men and women, understanding that as relations with women go, that we're in an experimental age, where roles are all in a state of flux. For which we should all be thankful.

Ms. Shields is very compassionate toward her characters and her readers. Her ear is one of her stronger suits - she knows how people speak and how they express how they feel. This is a sweet piece of work, and its ambition is to capture the essence of a rare species, the white North American male. She succeeds in taking her readers on an interesting emotional journey - that's something she always succeeds at.

"The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought" by Marilynne Robinson

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This book is next to impossible to rate: you want to alert readers to the loveliness of the prose, and I for one wanted to admire the logic and cogency of the arguments, for I love and cherish this writer. And yet ... the essays (the ones I read) are, as promised, contrarian in nature. Ms. Robinson objects to the lionization of Darwin, pointing out that he was an unabashed racist and eugenicist, and that his legacy is used as cover for callous and radically greedy economists and social scientists. She certainly does not question the fact of evolution, but objects to any requirement that the faithful should have to prove their God exists. She also objects to such presumption and insulting behavior in her graceful and radiant novel, "Gliead."

The reader interested in a unique take on modern beliefs and mores would be hard-pressed to do better than take up this collection of essays. I was not always persuaded that her didactic constructs fit her arguments. I was sometimes bewildered by juxtapositions, and felt that they arose from an angry, not necessarily studied, stance.

"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" by David Mitchell

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In which world will we find ourselves on opening David Mitchell’s next book? In which universe? In “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” Mr. Mitchell transports us in classic style to late medieval Japan, to that nation’s one portal to the outside world. And he takes us, his joyous, eagerly-led readers, on a captivating journey yet again.

Our eponymous clerk, Jacob de Zoet, sails from The Netherlands in 1799 to Nagasaki, or more exactly to Dejima, the one precinct where Dutch traders are allowed in Edo-era Japan. He seeks his fortune, like every other Dutch seaman, and wants to return home and marry. However good his intentions, he finds corruption, oppression, xenophobia, and violence. He remains untouched by it – or rather, he keeps himself blameless no matter what the consequences. The blamelessness endures, but events originating in the clash of cultures, the greed of everyone around him, and British ambitions in the region, soon combine to make Dejima not a trading post with its promise of enriching de Zoet, but a prison that threatens to kill him.
Tribulations include forbidden love, ritual butchery of innocents, and subtle, deadly court intrigues. Throughout it all, “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” glitters with terrific, vivid, timeless effects. The two worlds – of Japan and Holland, of Eastern mysticism and Protestant orthodoxy, of trading aggressiveness and de jure xenophobia – our upstanding, put-upon clerk witnesses all. A fine invention is Jacob de Zoet – someone to be admired, remembered, and loved. And Mr. Mitchell earns our admiration here, too, for his full, nuanced, and yet epic story.

Mr. Mitchell masters so many ideas and details in this mighty work: intimate personal portraiture, the forbidden, torturing nature of cross-culture love, the brutal prejudices on all sides at the dawn of the 19th Century, and most of all, the strict, formalized manners and morality of late medieval Japan. All these receive the author’s deft, convincing hand, and all results in a sweeping adventure, memorable, engaging, glorious. David Mitchell reminds us once again of why we read, and especially why we impatiently await his efforts.

"Lost Nation" by Jeffrey Lent

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One begins to see a pattern in Jeffrey Lent. Prior to "Lost Nation," he brought out a masterpiece, "In the Fall." Each of these is an epic multi-generational drama ("Lost Nation" deals with subsequent generations only in a postlude), each concerns itself with violent men in warlike, bloody activity, and each portrays men who have eroded themselves, ruined themselves with ancient guilt.

"Lost Nation" refers not only to a territory in the far north of New Hampshire which is orphaned between the U.S. and Canada in the early 19th century, but more importantly to the life which our protaganist, named Blood, has lost, or rather, has avoided living. We find Blood, this fugitive from his own life, and the young and clever whore Sally, newly arriving in the Indian Streams area of New Hampshire. He is running from a version of himself with which he cannot live. It's tragic, in the strictest classical definition, what the delusional Blood believes of himself. His undying effort to leave his past behind is the energy behind the narrative. But in the thematic words of the untutored Sally, "It's the big lies that aren't worth it."

Lent informs his language deeply with the primitive country, the backwardness, the courage, and the brutality of the early backwoods trappers and settlers. The laconic speech of his characters, the unadorned descriptions of nature, livestock, and wild animals, the straightforward portayal of murder, betrayal, and butchery - this plain approach to the telling paradoxically elevates the narrative by just letting it do its monumental job. And it is a monumental job. I don't think Lent ever will want to write of small or subtle issues, or if he does, I'm sure his language will be adapted to the job. I think the world of this writer.

Something I found myself considering: what are the demands of blood? It requires vengeance where needed, loyalty of family always, an outlet when riled, and always a full reckoning. Blood the character insists on excoriating himself on the basis of his family history. When he discovers that his sons have found him, it's too late. He's too much at odds with the world - he has no route to reconciliation, even if he does imagine how it might be. It looks to me like Mr. Lent wanted to consider how blind and wasteful such an emotional approach to life can be. And since it's Jeffrey Lent, we get gorgeous language and unforgettable characters, acting on an epic stage.

Get ready for watershed events in lives that are a struggle. Men and women strive against nature, hostile natives, each other, but most notably themselves. Lent sees clearly into the nature of things, here as elsewhere. This is his great strength - that and the skill to set it down and take the lucky reader on very, very memorable journeys. Don't waste time; if you haven't taken this one up, don't delay!

"Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Stevenson is an all-time classic author, and this book is rightfully held in the front rank of the Stevenson canon. It is often cited as a classic of young adult literature, and it clearly works as such, superbly so. But I would like to cite Mr. Stevenson's sophisticated and subtle portayal of his characters. The motivations are shaded, knowing, understandable, and realistic. We have the evolving, by turns treacherous and ingratiating, journey of Long John Silver. We have the captain of the vessel, and while not as subtle a character, certainly has his depths. And of course, the classic first-person Jim Hawkins, whose courage and resourcefulness are really the entree in this delicious meal.
There are some works which seem to carry all in the genre after it. This is one of those. In the words of Jorge Luis Borges: "I like antique maps, hourglasses, 18th-century type styles, the origins of words, the smell of coffee, and the prose of Stevenson." Amen.

"Paint it Black" by Janet Fitch

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"Paint it Black" is Janet Fitch's powerful and compassionate novel of two women trying to get on with their lives in the wake of young Michael Faraday's suicide. Their shared lives and the ultimate divergence of their approaches to Michael's end make up the story.

Josie, the innocent from Bakersfield, is the lover Michael leaves behind, and our main protaganist. Her mix of internal dialog, recollection, and drug-addled guilt and grief make up much of the story. Ms. Fitch's handling of all this shows her great strength. She lets Josie's lament play itself fully out, believably, slowly, doggedly. In someone else's hands, this would not even have been published, but it's sustained and evolving, and true to life in Ms. Fitch's balanced and inevitable-seeming prose.
We also meet Meredith, Michael's aggrieved mother, a world-class classical pianist, who is outraged at Michael's leaving Harvard and falling in with Josie in L.A. After all, she's a runaway punk from Bakersfield. Meredith is at first quite hostile toward Josie, but she comes to depend on her and to cling to her as a last remnant of her departed son. She opens her home to Josie when she needs it most, and eventually invites Josie to come to Europe with her on her concert tour. Before she consents to first-class travel and five-star accommodation, though, Josie feels the need to travel to the motel on the edge of nowhere where Michael killed himself. She finds answers there, at the motel ironically called "Paradise," and another young woman who knew Michael only long enough to fall in love with him, and who is also deeply afflicted by Michael's death.

This difference between Meredith and Josie shows in high relief: Meredith wants to run to Europe, with its adoring crowds and flattering men, while Josie wants to follow Michael's path as far is it goes - she owes him that. And there she finds this other girl, with less Michael-history than Josie has, and opens up her home and the the opportunities of Los Angeles to her. Meredith runs, wanting to get away; Josie runs too, but toward the calamity, and eventually finds the answers to urgent questions.

This is compelling, life-affirming stuff. I admire Ms. Fitch's skill with a tricky subject. I'm very glad I picked this up, and I'm sure you will be, too.

"Five Skies" by Ron Carlson

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Ron Carlson assembles three men in "Five Skies," each at a different, trying stage of his inner and overt journey. They all have an angry, or guilty, place they are running from, and assemble on a high cliff in Idaho to build something right.
Arthur Key is a huge man, muscled, experienced, intelligent, and kindly. He is also skittish and haunted by something that happened at home in California. Darwin Gallegos is the onetime manager on the ranch where they work; his wife was recently killed when the light plane she was flying in with the ranch owner crashed. He is angry with his former boss, and with God. Ronnie Panelli, the junior partner on the project, learns things about himself in leaps and bounds, and begins to understand that he's growing out of being a petty thief.

The comeraderie of the three is a rare treat. I read this immediately after Janet Fitch's "Paint it Black," and it works pretty well as the male version companion-piece. Here, the talk is all in the halting, laconic code that men use when they're unwilling to share their deepest feelings. The easy-going ribbing they give each other, in lieu of honest, heartfelt talk, is itself clever and delightful. Laurel wreaths to Carlson for these touches. They're wonderful. I do need to add, however, that as full of the male ethos as this book is, the members of this crew have more support for each other than they do for themselves.
Carlson's milieu of naked land, the uncluttered vistas of southeastern Idaho, affords him a place that is itself metaphor. The men are at an ending and a new starting; their lives have nothing but space in which to build. Their project, constructing a massive ramp for an insane motorcycle stunt, carries symbolic weight, too, as they each consider a heroic leap from their past lives.

"Five Skies" is brief, clean, heartfelt, and effective. This is an elegant fiction, and it will transport you the way a good book should. I recommend it very highly.

"The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" by Peter Orner

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"The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo" is told in snippets, tiny chapters, some as short as a paragraph, that observe the lives, lusts, and shenanigans of teachers at a Catholic boys' school in the veld of Namibia.

Some of the snippets provide forward momentum, as we learn of the volunteer teacher from Cincinnati, a youngish Jewish man who, along with the other male teachers, lusts after the eponymous Mavala. Young Larry Kaplanski, our Buckeye protaganist, engages in a long series of assignations with the heroine, and works less than diligently at his teaching job.

These brief chapters make this book a quick read, but don't get in the way of our knowing the characters. They (the chapters) are often extremely funny, but there is some informed, charged talk about the newly independent Namibia, about how isolated everyone is, about the struggle between the parish priest and the principal. There are other weighty issues to grapple with, too, as when a young boy dies en route back to school after a holiday. While this is an enjoyable book and effective in its way, its characters don't do quite enough to win our sympathy, and the point of the exercise remains, frankly, murky.

"Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser

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Buddha teaches that the suffering we experience in life comes from desire. "Sister Carrie" expresses and reinforces this truth with such singleness of purpose that it becomes ponderous, a drag. This book holds its place in the American canon because it broke shocking new ground of realism in portraying the callous disregard with which some men treat impressionable young women. The book also casts its unblinking eye on our material culture and its concomitant status-seeking.
But principally and without question, Dreiser gives us the emptiness of our daily urges, the self-defeating nature of vanity, and pages and pages of glittering emptiness. The long, slow decay of Hurstwood, the man who forces Carrie to join him when he leaves Chicago on the lam, takes up the lion's share of the book's second half and grinds the reader under its ever-burgeoning weight. There is something unrealistic and difficult to accept about Hurstwood's undoing.

Dreiser is unblinking and pioneering, but also plodding and didactic. It reveals a great deal about the time it represents and the audience it addresses, but it seems clear to me that there are more pleasant and efficient ways of learning about these things.

"The Echo Maker" by Richard Powers

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In "The Echo Maker" Richard Powers gives us an encylopedic recap of neurological pathologies, and a fraught scientific debate about the current state of neurology.

This book portrays accident victim Mark Schluter and his grappling with Capgras Syndrome, the inability to recognize one's loved ones - and the resulting assumption that persons close to you are impostors. Gerald Weber, MD, the cognitive neurologist and popular author, takes time out from his busy book-promotion tour to visit, but why? Is it merely to exploit Mark for his new book? Or does this unique case present a scientific opportunity to further research the illness? Or maybe it's because he finds Mark's sister Karin's pleading for help too appealing to turn down. Whatever the reason, Dr. Weber's visit coincides with a precipitous drop in his popular reputation, and a frightening downward slide in which he begins to diagnose numerous neuropathologies in himself.

Powers's gift lies in his erudition. He succeeds in personalizing quite a bit of current neurology for the reader, but his narrative thread frays at the end. I didn't quite credit Dr. Weber's breakdown, and am still confused about the character who poses as a nurse's aide throughout. What in the world is her motivation? The sandhill crane migration, and the environmental politics surrounding it, serve as a background, and a highly poetic one at times, but is there more to it than - these birds are simply a good example of focused and useful consciousness? The story's greatest success lies in elucidating the shifting and fragile nature of human consciousness and memory. Otherwise, this book is overlong, particularly as regards Dr. Weber, whose deterioration I found quite forced.

"The Janissary Tree" by Jason Goodwin

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In "The Janissary Tree" Jason Goodwin gives us an engaging murder mystery set in 1836 Istanbul. In the imperial capital, the sultan faces pressure from shrinking territory and waning influence, and when a young houri in his harem is murdered, he sighs and says, "Summon Yashim." Thus are we introduced to the intrepid and resourceful investigator who must solve not only the mystery of the harem murder, but also the apparent murder of four of the sultan's young officers. Are they related?

We have major international intrigue, treason, stealthy murder, and our hero in and out of hot water. I love when an author puts a mystery in an ancient setting (see Steven Saylor and Ellis Peters for the two best), and I'd hoped to learn about and feel immersed in (late) medieval Istanbul. I got this, but it seemed like "Istanbul Lite." The mystery and intrigue work satisfactorily, but I would have liked a little more basic info and flavor. Mr. Goodwin paces his story pretty well, and hides the identity of whodunit well, too.

If you're in the market for a medium-duty mystery with an exotic setting, give this a try.

"The Blood of Flowers" by Anita Amirrezvani

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"The Blood of Flowers" presents us with the story of an unnamed female narrator trying to make her way into adulthood in the Iranian capital of Isfahan in the 1620s. Our protaganist has a gift for designing and making, or "knotting" carpets, and after losing her father at fourteen, she must move from her native village to the home of her uncle in the dazzling capital.

Our heroine suffers at the hands of her family, her friends, and the restrictive mores of the time. Yet she and her mother prevail, as a combination of events makes it possible for her to pursue her vocation to design and make carpets fit for the palace.

I felt as though our protaganist was a real and believable character, with the one objection that she was given a few too many 21st-century traits and ambitions. Characterizations are a strong suit for Ms. Amirrezvani, starting with her heroine. The plot was too contrived in places - never moreso than when her best friend - whom I could barely stomach, and who continued to enjoy our beloved carpet-weaver's devotion after so many cruel betrayals (inexplicable!) - this "friend" winds up marrying the man who had taken the narrator as a concubine. And the outcome held no surprises; it was as predictable as nightfall.

Presumably Ms. Amirrezvani aimed to show Isfahan at its zenith, and it was a good college try on her part. This fiction, though, was just barely polished enough to bring it off.

"Olive Kitteredge" by Elizabeth Strout

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"Olive Kitteridge" consists of a series of short pieces written about the personal and internal lives of folks in a town on the coast of Maine. These glimpses show us so clearly, in language unerring and deceptively simple, folk that aspire against all hope for love, fulfillment, even survival. Sometimes the piece illuminates an episode from Olive's life, sometimes Olive plays only a cameo in this or that person's current crisis.

And the crises abound in this collection. Lives and marriages and families tread the razor's edge, hoping for the day when that blade can become something a little more stable, a little less threatening. Mostly, though, we get a character's forced accommodation; he or she must give up the grand hope or design for the lesser but more realistic outcome. Disappointment, even desperation, inevitably follow, and Olive is no exception. People struggle with inner demons here, some more severe than others. Olive's own demons put her at odds with others, often for no overt reason. Olive has little patience for anything or anyone, especially after her affable husband Henry becomes ill. Her son, from whom she feels estranged, and with reason, invites her at length to New York to meet his second wife - he didn't tell her he'd married again - and after Olive loses her composure and her patience, he confronts her calmly with the fact of how difficult she is. To Olive, it's an outrage, and she feels cast adrift again.

Olive Kitteridge the character is one exceptionally fine fictive creation. We come to know her, loudmouthed and irascible, through a series of encounters, and we know how she will react in any situation. This very slowly and very subtly changes over the course of the stories, and in this under-the-surface mutability Strout performs her ineffable and exraordinary trick: Olive the obdurate, Olive the obstreperous, begins to discover, very, very late in life, what it might mean to acknowledge her own and someone else's need.

Ms Strout takes us along at a careful pace, but doesn't spare the emotions. These oblique peeks into these tortured internal lives and dialogues capture us and capture our sympathy. And Ms Strout has certainly captured an avid fan.