Monday, March 03, 2014

Kidd's The Invention of Wings soars

Book Read - February
14.       Kings of the Road, Cameron Stracher
15.       Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
16.       Andrew’s Brain, E.L. Doctorow
17.       This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
18.       The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
19.       March (Book One), John Lewis and Andrew Aydin,
            illustrated by Nate Powell
20.       The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley
21.       The Pagan Lord, Bernard Cornwell
22.       Catch and Release, Lawrence Block
23.       A Compendium of Collective Nouns, Woop Studios
24.       Orfeo, Richard Powers
25.       Tom’s Town, William M. Reddig
26.       The Kept, James Scott
27.       This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley Cash
28.       The Free, Willy Vlautin
29.       Granta #124 Travel

Books Bought – February
B.B. King's Lucille and the Loves Before Her by Eric Dahl
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
The Free by Willy Vlautin
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is an early entry for the best book of 2014. This fictional account of the Grimke sisters, daughters of the confederacy who became leading voices in the movement to abolish slavery, and of a slave, who valued freedom more than life, is a powerful and moving novel.

Kidd’s prose is crisp and clean with impressive flights of lyricism.

Reading Wings and John Lewis’s autobiographical March during African American History Month was unintentional on my part. But whether serendipity or the subconscious at work, the timing brought a depth to my reading in February.

March Book One (I eagerly await Book Two) demonstrates how the graphic novel – or in this instance a graphic autobiography – can tell a story simply, yet powerfully. Nate Powell’s illustrations are the perfect complement to Lewis’s voice.

The Kept, This Dark Road to Mercy and The Free all fall into the same nebulous category of books that elude easy categorization. The Free, the newest novel by Willy Vlautin, is the best of these three books.  You may have passed the books protagonists on the street today, as you checked out at the supermarket or visited a friend in the hospital.

Not literally, of course, but Vlautin draws an affecting portrait of everyday people – a kind-hearted nurse, a dying soldier, a man holding down multiple jobs yet still schuffling to survive.

Vlautin is largely unknown as a novelist. Those who have read his books, such as Lean On Pete, know that he writes simply, yet powerfully. Perhaps, he’s little read because we see ourselves too clearly in his characters.

After reading This Dark Road to Mercy I rushed out and bought Cash’s first book. Dark Road is the story of two sisters who have been kidnapped by their father. Dad has stolen some money and is being followed a murderous fellow intent on reclaiming the money and taking revenge for an eye injury suffered years before in a baseball game.

Events converge in St. Louis with the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase as a backdrop. It’s not great literature, but entertaining as hell. Cash is a writer to watch.

Revenge also figures in The Kept, which follows a mother and son, the only survivors of a family mysteriously slaughtered by three men. In uncovering the motive for the murders, the son learns a disturbing truth about his mother.

Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather continues my 2014 plans of re-reading one great book each month. I don’t think this is Cather’s best book -- that status is held by My Antonia – but it’s close. Cather’s respect for the archbishop, his work and faith, for the people of New Mexico and for the country’s landscape, infuses the book with a palpable grandeur.

New books by Alan Bradley and Bernard Cornwell are each part of a series that I recommend without reservation.  Both characters – a 12-year-old sleuth with a disturbing knowledge of poisons and a Saxon warlord who wields a mean sword – are vivid  characters. I am always, always, ready to read their next adventures.

E.L. Doctorow’s new book, Andrew’s Brain, was hugely disappointing for a work by a major American author. The same was true of Orfeo by Richard Powers.

Catch and Release, a collection of short works by Lawrence Block is uneven.

Ann Patchett’s collection of essays and articles, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, illustrates Patchett’s range as a writer. Frankly, I’m a fanboy. She’s funny and insightful in equal measure. Plus she owns a bookstore. No wonder I’m crushing on her.

Tom’s Town, a history of Kansas City and boss Tom Pendergast, is a product of its time. Despite showing its age, it remains a fascinating read and told me a lot about the town I now live in.

I enjoyed Kings of the Road, about Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar, but was left wanting more.

No such disappointment with A Compendium of Collective Nouns. If you’re a word person, this is a delightful book, best enjoyed a few pages at a time.