Sunday, November 26, 2006

Munro's rich new book a pure reading experience

102. The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. Stories, 11-25, pp. 349

It’s difficult to describe The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Unlike most of Munro’s prior works this is not a collection of short stories. Nor it is a memoir, although there are elements of both in this strong and altogether pleasing new book. What is certain is that all of the elements that make Munro such a delightful writer, and reading her such a delightful pastime, are present – her sly understanding of social manners and mores, the strong sense of time and place and the close observation of human behavior, including her own.

In the book’s foreword, Munro indicates that there are two sources for the “stories” that appear here. The first is material she assembled about her family history, which . . . “almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, other rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creating of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.”

The second source was “a special set of stories” that Munro had withheld from her previous works of fiction. “I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written . . . I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.”

Ultimately, Munro says, “these are stories.”

And they are rich, evocative stories that totally immerse the reader in the experience of reading and in the fabric of these lives. It is difficult to proclaim this Munro’s finest work because she has written so much so well for so long. Let us say then that it is a fine book, elegantly written and observed, and a pure reading experience.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Three novels and one short story collection among recent reading.

  • 98. The Mission Song, John Le Carre. Thriller, 11-12, p. 337
  • 99. I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek. Short Stories, 11-16, p. 307
  • 100. Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann. Fiction, 11-18, p. 210
  • 101. Kidnapped, Jan Burke. Mystery, 11-20, p. 366

Le Carre’s most recent novel, The Mission Song, did not receive good reviews. This is a mystery to me. Le Carre is still capable of spinning a strong, compelling narrative – as he does here – and of giving the reader a brief, but instructive peek, into the unsavory world of covert action.

The Mission Song is told by Bruno Salvador, the child of a Catholic missionary and a Congolese headman’s daughter. A skilled interpreter of several obscure African languages, Salvador is recruited to participate in a top-secret meeting between English financiers and Congolese warlords. Salvador, naturally, learns that the coup planned by these two unlikely groups is not in the best interests of the Congolese people and sets out to stop it.

By necessity, Salvador is a na├»ve young man. The lessons he learns are also the reader’s lessons learned. It’s not giving anything away to say Salvador’s plans to stop the coup are unsuccessful. Thirty years ago, in an earlier book, Salvador and his African girlfriend would have been summarily executed, here Britain’s new anti-terrorism laws are brought to bear. The end results are less grisly, but no less insidious and disturbing.

I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek’s collection of short stories set in Chicago, are especially meaningful to me because I am currently in the midst of a four-month work assignment in Chicago and because the book was a gift from a couple who wanted to recognize that assignment.

Dybek brings Chicago alive in his stories. He is especially effective in conveying a sense of time and place. This is a delightful collection of stories.

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann is a haunting novel of a young man who is the sole survivor of a firefight. It is difficult to determine – and surely Heinemann’s point – what is most devastating: the injuries Paco suffers in the war or his treatment upon his return to America.

This book was the 1987 winner of the National Book Award for fiction.


Jan Burke’s Kidnapped is enjoyable – it is always a pleasure to invite Irene Kelly into your home – but it is far from her best work. The motivation behind the heinous crime in this novel seems flimsy at best and several of the characters are either cardboard constructs or just a little too clever to be entirely believable. If you can suspend your most critical faculties – say in the way you might enjoy a Bond film – then you will enjoy a few hours with this book.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Smithsonian articles features three books that altered election coverage

The November issue of the Smithsonian features a fascinating article on three “books that permanently altered the way we understand elections, the people who run them and those who report them.” The article is by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley.

The books are:

  • The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White
  • The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss
  • The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse

Yardley says that White’s book is the most important of the three and that, while no longer in print, “its pervasive influence remains undiminished.” White’s prose is muddy, he was guilty of worshipping JFK and he overlooked or minimized shortcomings in the political system, but, Yardley writes, the book “took readers inside politics as they’d never been before. It both demystified the process and romanticized it.”

McGinniss pulls back the curtain on Nixon’s media campaign. “White understood that television was changing everything . . . but he only dimly perceived what Joe McGinniss came along eight years later to make plain: that television now ran the show.”

Yardley finds that McGinniss’ book “doesn’t hold up very well . . . it’s surprisingly thin . . . and shallow as well. With its shock value long since dissipated, The Selling of the President turns out to be less thoughtful than I had recalled. McGinniss learned a lot of interesting things, but he really did not have much to say about them.”

Yardley reserves his greatest praise for Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus. It “stands the test of time for two reasons: Crouse’s tart, witty prose and his sharp insights into journalism, a business that takes itself far too seriously and is deeply hostile to criticism or change.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Current reading includes the 13th Tale and Obama's The Audacity of Hope

96. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. Fiction, 11-6, pp. 406
97. The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama. Non-Fiction, 11-9, pp. 362

Two surprise bestsellers comprise my recently completed books.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, is enjoyable, but trivial. It celebrates story (see the book’s back cover), appropriately so, since the novel contains multiple story lines; all neatly resolved by the novel’s completion.

The central story is the mystery of exactly who is Vida Winter. We quickly learn that Miss Winter is a prolific and popular novelist, who also sketches a different personal history for every interview she gives. Now, Miss Winter, who is dying, has decided to reveal her “real” story.

There’s also the story of the mysterious thirteenth tale from which the novel draws its title. Miss Winter’s first book, a collection of short stories, was originally named Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, yet there are only a dozen stories. Although the book is recalled, renamed and reissued, Miss Winter’s fans, and they are legion, are curious about the fate of the missing thirteenth tale.

There is also the story of Miss Winter’s accidental biographer and the novel’s narrator, Margaret Lea, who has a secret of her own.

The Thirteenth Tale is a pleasant diversion. It has garnered a position on the bestseller, thanks in part, I think, to an aggressive marketing campaign. It might have had even stronger sales had it’s publisher issued the book this past summer. It is the ideal beach read.

Senator Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope is no beach read. It is a serious, although not overly complex book, that is as much about Obama’s personality and character as it is about ideas.

In its review, The New York Times hailed Obama as the rare politician who can write. And he can. One can’t help but wonder if there was a ghost writer or, at the least, a very, very good editor behind this book. Nevertheless, the ideas and opinions expressed here do belong to Obama, who was thrust onto the national stage at the Democrat National Convention two years and who is now on everyone’s shortlist as a potential candidate for president in 2008.

Obama, the son of a black man and a white woman, seems to be equal parts pragmatist and idealist. He is also, and this is part of his appeal, a reasonable man, firm in his own convictions, who can also see – clearly – the other side to almost every argument.

Obama lays out his thoughts on such issues as health care reform and immigration, spins a few anecdotes of life on the campaign trail and in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol and allows us to meet his wife and daughters.

The Audacity of Hope is an intriguing book. I don’t recall anything quite like it by another American politician and that may explain the better part of its appeal – ultimately, the book, like the man, is unique.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

McDermott's After This is the best book of the year

95. After This, Alice McDermott. Fiction. 10-30, pp. 288

94. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. Humor. 10-27, pp. 320

93. Echo Park, Michael Connelly. Mystery. 10-25, pp. 416

I was hasty. I admit it. A week ago I proclaimed Claire Messud’s fine novel, The Emperor’s Children, the best book of 2006. It’s not. It the next best.

The best book is Alice McDermott’s After This. Trust me on this one.

McDermott, winner of the National Book Award, has never been better than in this tale of an Irish Catholic family from Long Island. The narrative arc of this compact, beautifully written book begins when Mary meets John at the Schrafft’s lunch counter in the mid 1940s and ends decades later as the Keanes approach retirement. In between that first meeting, the Keanes marry, have four children – two boys, two girls – and experience the sweet agony of life.

Under the hands of other novelists this book would have stretched to a thousand pages. But McDermott is especially skillful in what she chooses not to write. With a minimum of words – a bit of misdirection (a telephone call in the night), a glimpse of a passing car and a telephone call to school – and a maximum of skill, McDermott vividly brings to life a scene of great pain and tragedy. We’re expecting it, yet when it happens in this novel we’re caught by surprise. What might have been banal becomes powerful, charged with an emotional resonance few writers can match.

McDermott allows the reader to bring his own intelligence, imagination and experience to these pages, yet in leaving some things unsaid she never leaves the reader wondering exactly what has taken place. The story of these lives unfolds with clarity; it is only that McDermott understands that we understand. She recognizes that the reader is a partner in the process; that writing is completed through reading.

It’s a masterful book that cements McDermott’s well-earned reputation as one of our generations finest novelist.

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Bill Bryson’s a funny guy. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a funny book. It’s a good read and I recommend it, but it’s not Bryson’s best.

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Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch. Los Angeles. What more do you need to say? Echo Park is as good as it gets.