Saturday, April 29, 2006

Three Recent Reads

39. The Promise of Happiness, Justin Cartwright. 4-23, p. 306

40. Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead. 4-25, p. 212

41. Manhunt, James L. Swanson. 4-28, p. 391

Three recommendations, two enthusiastic and one qualified.

The Promise of Happiness by Justin Cartwright and Manhunt by James L. Swanson receive the enthusiastic recommendations.

Cartwright’s novel is a superb exploration of what it means to be a member of a family. The Judd’s are delightfully dysfunctional and, admittedly, a bit exceptional – I’ve never known anyone who had a daughter in federal prison or a son who made millions via the Internet.

But set that quibble aside. This is a superbly written, superbly told book. Each character is vividly realized. And Cartwright simply, but skillfully pulls back the curtains to unveil life within a family; life, at once, both difficult, but necessary and vital.

Here’s one passage, typical of Cartwright’s insight:

“This is family. In the family you are a certain kind of person. Your mother, my mother in particular, piles one half-truth about your character on another until she has built up a whole structure, a fabricated person. It begins in small ways: you are untidy or reliable or good with figures or you each too fast; you’re frightened of frogs, you hold your pen in the wrong way, and then these threads are woven into the family tapestry, a sort of Bayeux which forever commemorates this entirely imaginary scene. Now he is becoming – the myth declares – competent.” (p. 127)

My current measures of fine fiction are Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If The Promise of Happiness doesn’t rise to the level of these works, it only fails to do so by the narrowest of margins.

There are many books on Abraham Lincoln, but do I not recall ever reading one quite like Swanson’s Manhunt, which focuses on Lincoln’s assassination and the search for John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators.

It is a grim, but fascinating story; a strange and unsavory footnote in American history. The book is both well-researched and well-written and well worth reading.

The qualification is reserved for Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt. It’s a quirky book – something Whitehead specializes in. If I didn’t like it, I would have said it was odd.

Whitehead’s unnamed protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. He names things, from cars to multicultural adhesive bandages. Now, he’s hired to settle a tug-of-war between a town council who can’t agree on the new name for their town.

Whitehead’s writing, like green olives, is something you have to learn to like. I have. It’s not great prose—not by a long stretch—but it is delicious, wicked satire.

No comments:

Post a Comment