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Sunday, September 18, 2011

On rereading

While it's remained high summer in our valley, with temps still in the mid-90s last week, autumn looks a long way off. But I've found a way to turn the leaves their brilliant colors, anticipate a bit of frost on the pumpkin and commemorate the lengthening evenings. And that's by rereading what has become my "autumn" book, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. (To add to this year's pleasures of rereading, we'll be discussing the novel in early October at 4 Mystery Addicts, a marvelous mystery-reading online community.)

I don't remember what season it was when I first read this uber-detective novel. But over the years, turning to this story of Rachel Verinder's unlucky birthday present, hero Franklin Blake, the intrepid Sgt. Cuff, tragic Rosanna Spearman and supremely assured narrator Gabriel Betteredge has meant a return to slower times. To me, slower times is synonymous with those longer evenings. It means removing myself from the frenetic, frantic daily schedule of the workday and TV-online overload of information. And I love it. Slower times, longer evenings, time to think, to savor, to make my own meaning out of what I read.

Knowing what happens in the story doesn't diminish my pleasure in reading the novel. It's like watching a favorite movie again. I take as great a delight in Gabriel lecturing us about Robinson Crusoe as the font of wisdom as I do in Bogey and Claude Rains discussing Rick's reasons for coming to Casablanca ("I like to think you killed a man; it's the romantic in me.")

I've also found different aspects of the story stand out to me in the different rereadings. Rosanna, for example, didn't have as great an impact on me when I was young as she did after I'd loved and lost myself. And the first time it hit me what a nasty old prune Drusilla Clack is and how her interference reminds me of certain "I know better than you" types in modern society, well, it wasn't the first time I read the book.

So here's to the pleasures of rereading. Whether it's rediscovering a once well-loved but long-neglected favorite or reading a book you know as well as you know your parents' most-often related tales, just knowing the outcome is only one layer in the joy of reading.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review: 'Northwest Angle'

By William Kent Krueger
Crime fiction
August 2011
ISBN: 978-1439153956

Cork O'Connor and surviving members of his family have been through enough heartache. Aiming for healing the family, even if he cannot make it whole again, Cork takes everyone on a houseboat cruise on the Lake of the Woods. When an unforeseen storm overpowers them, Cork worries he may have completely destroyed them.

The storm is a derecho, a windstorm so abrupt it can be seen approaching as a line of destruction, accompanied by thunderstorms, seen just before it hits. The O'Connors are separated during the storm. Daughter Jenny washes up on one of the myriad small islands on the huge lake, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. The seriousness of her situation is seen immediately when she puts a wounded wolf out of its misery with a rock. She finds a cabin that will provide shelter and even has provisions. It also has a baby and a murdered young woman. Jenny and Cork are reunited only to go on the run with the baby as an expert marksman lands on the island and starts hunting for the infant.

At the same time, Cork's other children, sister-in-law and her husband are separated by the storm and must find their way back to each other. After what Krueger has done in the past, there's no guarantee that everyone will survive.

Just when it looks like the novel may turn into pure thriller as Jenny and Cork outwit their hunter, the novel takes another turn. More characters come into play. Many are not what they seem, while others may turn out to play an important role in the future of the O'Connor family. What comes to the fore about most of the characters is how they feel about faith, and how their faith controls them or inspires them. The difference between control and inspiration is used to stunning effect. Krueger does an adept job at demonstrating what separates genuine faith from the kind of mindset that perverts faith.

While some readers may turn away from exploring any topic not related to forensics or a storyline that incorporates suspense and thoughtful presentation of the different ways faith affects people, Northwest Angle provdes too rich a reading experience to miss. Krueger folds the various characters' belief structures into what they do and why, providing motive not only for the bad guys, but also for why Team Good Guys do what they do. Krueger does not present screeds or sermons, but instead shows rather than tells the measure of each character.

At the same time, Northwest Angle has the feel of a transitional novel. Perhaps now all the O'Connors can move forward, and Cork can spend more time on a case removed from their concerns.

©2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: 'The Night Circus"

By Erin Morgenstern                                      
Literary fiction
September 2011
ISBN: 978-0385534635

A story, a fable, an enchantment, however one can describe The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern's magical and profound novel, it is a richly rewarding reading experience.

Le Cirque des RĂªves arrives without announcement and leaves without warning. It is only open at night. It is mysterious yet welcoming, open to infinite explorations yet providing exactly what its visitors seek. The circus is the stage upon which two aged magicians set their pawns to play out the latest phase of a high-stakes game, and it is their world.

Celia is the daughter of the magician Prospero, although he doesn't know of her existence until she is left with him as a young child. Prospero's old foe, Mr. A.H__, scours orphanages until he finds a boy he can train. Both Celia and Marco grow up in Dickensian horror, sacrificing everything to the arts of illusion. The circus entices other people who contribute to its embellishments. Whether they know it or not, they are all part of the game.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In Progress: Elissa Schappell's 'Blueprints for Building Better Girls'

Another teaser. I'm tearing through Elissa Schappell's BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS, which will be published this coming week. It's a collection of short stories that are connected on occasion.

All of the stories have been strong, far stronger than I expected for a book that initially reminded me of Melissa Bank's GIRLS GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING. (I quite liked that book but realize it was a trifle, not a full-bodied stew.)

I've just finished "Aren't You Dead Yet", one of the longer stories. And I'm having trouble drawing a deep breath. This is one of the best stories I've read since The New Yorker originally published Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain".

On the surface level, this story is about a young woman who is taken in by a young man, a would-be serious artist. He's the type who believes the world owes him everything because he is an artist. As a no-longer-young woman, it's so easy to see he's full of it, a user, a poser, and she's excusing him, wanting to believe in his talent.

And then the story just gets deeper. No spoilers, but oh my goodness. I've got only Monday before the pdf file for review goes poof! but I still haven't caught my breath to continue reading. (And, yes, I decided about 100 pages ago that I must buy a hard copy to read again in the years to come.)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Murakami's 'Town of Cats'

"Town of Cats", an excerpt from Haruki Murakami's upcoming 1Q84 published in The New Yorker's Sept 5 issue, is a lovely example of the world envisioned by this writer of sweet, strange and oddly comforting tales. Tengo, a young man apparently adrift in the world, decides to take a train ride to see his father for the first time in two years.

The elderly man is suffering from dementia and is esconsed in a comfortable care facility by the sea. He raised Tengo on his own, forcing the child to accompany him all day each Sunday as he collected subscription fees for the state-operated radio and television from those most reluctant to pay. Tengo is deeply ashamed.

His father sees things differently. He came from an impoverished family in the country, homesteaded in Manchuria and was the only one in his group to make it back to Japan before the Soviet invasion. His fee-collecting job came from the only person he ever knew with any influence, and he excelled at it. The job is the only thing he excelled at in life.

On the train ride, Tengo reads a fairy tale about a man on a train who stops at an apparently abandoned town where cats come out at night, running the place the way humans would in the daytime. The tale has a Twilight Zone aspect to it, one that Tengo applies to his own life when he tries to talk to his taciturn father.

The conversation between this estranged father and son is vintage Murakami. There are no surprises as Tengo voices what he has long suspected about the meaning of the one memory he has of his mother. It is in the character voicing what he has long suspected that the heart of Murakami's philosophy comes out.

In distilled form, that philosophy is knowing life is in control, not you, but that doesn't mean you can't give up heart. And, oh yes, there will be cats.

While 1Q84 won't be published in English until October, the story is online at The New Yorker site.