"Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell

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Daniel Woodrell’s prose in Winter’s Bone reflects his characters’ thought and speech: it’s pared down to the essentials – so laconic and economical that it almost becomes oblique. This is one of the main charms of this novel – the whittled-down telling of the raw emotion and ever-present tendency to violence of the characters; the stark natural world in winter fury and snow-bound calm; the harsh truth about backwoods mountain folk who are almost all related, and who as often as not, operate on the wrong side of the law.

The meanness and betrayal swirl around a sixteen year-old girl, Ree Dolly, whose father has run from the law again. Not only has he gone on the lam, but has signed over his home – Ree’s home, which she shares with her addled Mom and two younger brothers – as collateral for his bail. Ree must try to find and deliver him into court, but begins to suspect something much more … final has happened to him.

Because of her Dad, Ree’s family and kin are persona non grata around the Ozark woods and hollows where they live. While she herself is blameless, she is still stopped from seeking help in finding her missing miscreant Dad. The way Mr. Woodrell portrays the boundless courage she shows in the face of mortal danger, warrants your reading this book by itself. Ree is a stunning invention – pre-eminent in her neighborhood at sixteen, withstanding threats, teaching her brothers how to shoot as her quest becomes tougher, defying friend and enemy alike to achieve her goal – she’s a stunner, and I honor the author for conceiving her and executing her portrait so cleanly and convincingly.

I also honor Mr. Woodrell for adopting the language of his characters as his own for his narration. It places him and us squarely in the action. And there is action aplenty. This is not a story for the faint-hearted, what with the beating and (behind the scenes) murder and rampant meth production and the drinking and the getting high. This book deals with life-and-death issues in a way that honors the courageous and loyal, and does it in a way that fits its subject matter perfectly.

This novel really sneaked up on me. It’s grand. Check it out.

"Me and Mr. Booker" by Cory Taylor

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Author Cory Taylor takes us on a frank and funny journey in Me and Mr. Booker: this story of a teenaged girl’s - Martha’s - seduction by a man twice her age has dark, precocious humor, but it cautions us about the relationships grown-ups suffer through their entire lives. It’s brutally honest,but also unsupported by strong adult presence, or any kind of responsible guidance for the youngster at her moment of need.

Ms. Taylor aims to amuse, and maybe obliquely to instruct, but this is a sixteen year-old girls’ monologue. We observe adult failings through her very jaundiced eye, and rue the fact that she’s simply following in their footsteps. The sex she enjoys with university lecturer Mr. Booker proves quite the narcotic, but in the end she must give him up when she gets ready to leave her own studies and go to Paris. Her mother sets a very poor example of whom to marry, and her other women friends are a jaded, dissipated lot.  

In short, I found very little to admire or enjoy here. I like the spunky wit of our underage heroine, but its caustic sophistication stands as just another reminder of her corruption. It’s clearly a very painful coming of age for Martha, complete with the sadder-but-wiser end. I can’t recommend this, although Ms. Taylor’s powers are apparent. I’d look forward to her treatment of different subject matter with great interest.

"How Gone We Got" by Dina Guidubaldi

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Throughout How Gone We Got Dina Guidubaldi expounds on young alienated women struggling with life and those around them. Whether its remembering finding a corpse on the Its a Small World ride at Walt Disney World, or dodging the advances of a handsome Latin ambassador, or getting ready to jump to her death in a dystopian future, Ms. Guidubaldis heroines face steep odds, perhaps constantly at the point of insurmountability. In the seventeen servings in this short story collection, the author shows a very impressive range of setting and plot, and takes a look at sadness and desperation from a wide variety of angles. Im rather taken by it.

Ms. Guidubaldi demonstrates her powers very consistently from story to story, but I want to single out a few for special mention. The Love in Your Mouth captures the life a woman and her boyfriend find when they run away to Florida. Its unusually visual for this collection, and the passive, pessimistic view this woman has for her life and her relationship sets the tone for much that follows. The toxicity that runs through these stories takes the form of actual poison from jellyfish in this story. She repeats this watching-my-relationship-disintegrate theme in a couple of other stories, notably The Desert: A Field Guide. Its never ver clear whether the protagonist really values the relationship, or whether she recognizes the inevitability of the breakup and her own powerlessness to stop it.

Ms. Guidubaldi launches these pieces from a place where things are already broken down - the damage has already been done, and feels like it was done a long time ago. In some stories we witness events at their logical, whimpering end, but in others the concluding moment is very dramatically poised - about to happen. Her stories show a very consistent mastery of her form and she combines this with a raw honesty to make a very impressive, worthwhile whole. These stories come from an interesting new voice, one to keep an eye on, certainly.

"Lila" by Marilynne Robinson

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Author Marilynne Robinson concludes her Gilead trilogy with the story of Lila, the plain-spoken onetime drifter and whorehouse worker who marries Reverend John Ames, a chief character in the two prior novels Gilead and Home. Echoes include the characters and themes of the two previous entries, of course, but the author also maintains the same reverent, natural tone that respects and understands all life, whether lived in a state of grace or outside of it.

And grace has everything to do with Lila the novel and Lila the character. The book is among other things a beginner’s catechism. Lila doesn’t know that much of what’s in the Bible, but she has read some things that make perfect sense to her, about rage and voices from on high, but also some other things that need quite a bit of explaining.

She travels with an itinerant group, a loose assemblage that seeks temporary work. She grows up in this hand-to-mouth fashion, having been saved from neglectful parents by a woman named Doll. Lila has drifted outside of society, working as she could, eventually finding herself employed in a whorehouse. However, her potential for grace is always there: she has an inquiring mind, is never as mean as the girls and women around her, has never stolen, nor harmed another. She finds herself in Gilead on a rainy afternoon, letting her clothes drip dry inside a church. She eventually engages Reverend Ames in conversation, and then as a spiritual consultant on certain philosophical questions. She asks him why things work out the way they do, and it’s a question that occupies them both, along with the author and the reader, for the remainder of the book.

Lila plunges into the consciousness of its heroine in a way that bounces around considerably in time, but this journey shows the author’s remarkable skill in using Lila’s consciousness as a way of exploring deep and difficult issues. This is a main purpose here: we accompany Lila in her beginner’s quest to understand her universe. Along the way we have the kindly, beautiful John, her mentor and student and lover, and his highly examined and literate relationship with God. It’s as unique a romance as you will encounter in literature, this marriage of John and Lila. It’s beautiful in itself, carefully paced, and expressed with all the grace and respect Ms. Robinson can summon, which is – all of it, I think. That also is one part of the point: I believe the author definitely wants to leave her readers with the very distinct impression that you can approach life’s vagaries, and the eternal questions, in a spiritual way, and you will be made to feel welcome.

The book in effect introduces the Gilead trilogy, although it is published last. Its events anticipate those of the other two books, and Lila’s new child and her husband and her beliefs lead us up to the beginning of the first book in the trilogy, Gilead.  The tone and consciousness, the effortless - and chapterless - flow forward and backward in time, the masterly yoking of her language to her purpose – Marilynne Robinson is, after all, the finest living American writer – all of these feature in this excellent piece. It somehow achieves a pastoral flavor (the book is dedicated to Iowa) amid all the philosophical grappling and exegesis, Depression subsistence and petty whorehouse meanness. It’s a tribute to our intrepid author’s skill with her subject. I unreservedly and unabashedly recommend all three books. Read them in order for the full reward.

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan

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Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North protagonist Dorrigo Evans strives unwillingly, unwittingly, “… (t)o follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses capture the hero’s plight: the more he experiences, the less he seems to know, the less he seems to be capable of dealing with. Like Ulysses, Dorrigo finds late in life that he lives among “a savage race,/That hoard, and sleep,  and feed, and know not me.”

After becoming a doctor and enlisting in the Australian army in 1942, Dorrigo Evans, promised to another, meets – or is captured by – Amy, a young woman who is married to his uncle Keith. And in her arms he finds he understands nothing of love, of human conduct, nor of the attractions of any other woman. He experiences extremes of confusion. Life, the world, the human race – all are incomprehensible. He never feels more alive nor more confused as during his weeks with her by the Adelaide seaside. His resulting unmooring, through his heroic service with doomed Australian POWs in Siam and Burma, and his subsequent honors and fame, imprisons him in an impenetrable solitude.

Richard Flanagan, author of the astonishing Gould’s Book of Fish, has produced a work of overwhelming power; it will sear your consciousness with the staggering facts of heroism, murderous cruelty, a boundless love beyond comprehension. And yet through it all, our hero cannot feel certain of these basic facts. Dorrigo’s confusion rings true because the author displays a master’s command of language and consciousness. He sets Dorrigo and Amy alone in the universe at the seaside resort, in the thrall of a passion that overwhelms any description, that surpasses rational thought. He tells of the POWs on the death railway in a more straightforward way because that story has its own enormity, its own incomprehensibility.

I’m tempted to quibble about a couple of plot points that seem to rest on flimsy foundation, like Dorrigo’s and Amy’s postwar failure to seek each other out, or the not-quite-necessary family connection from the POW camp. But these are quibbles, and certainly not the right way to end this review. Take this stunning book up. It deserves its accolades, and Richard Flanagan deserves his prominent place in today’s pantheon of writers.