Wednesday, April 29, 2009

THE CLEARING by Tim Gautreaux

I've almost forgotten what it's like to read a book primarily about men. Actually, this book is largely about the setting—a lawless swamp in Louisiana in the 1920s. Gautreaux's descriptions of the muck and rain made me feel that I needed to wring out the pages from time to time. The main characters are Randolph and Byron Aldridge, brothers whose father is a lumber industry tycoon. Byron, the elder, forever damaged by the horrors of WWI, has disappeared, until he turns up as the constable for Nimbus, the site of a cypress sawmill. Randolph leaves his wife and home in Pittsburgh to manage the Nimbus mill, which his father has purchased in the hope that Randolph can bring Byron back into the fold. The conflict between the brothers is rapidly overshadowed by the violent one-upmanship that ensues as they unite against the Sicilians, purveyors of entertainment in Nimbus—liquor, women, and a crooked card dealer. Randolph is at first appalled at Byron's use of bullets to resolve the frequent fights that break out in the saloon but soon realizes that sometimes one man has to die to prevent the deaths of a dozen others. At times I thought I was reading a slimy reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, complete with brothers as the good guys. The title refers to more than just what is left after miles and miles of cypress trees have been cut down. There's also the clearing of tensionsbetween the brothers and certainly the clearing of the debts paid after the Sicilians' increasingly horrific vendettas against the brothers in retaliation for killing one of their own. There are almost as few men left standing as there are trees.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


This saga, spanning the decades between the end of WWI and 1954, is rich in characters, rich in plot, and Louise Erdrich's writing is richly eloquent. Fidelis has returned to his home in Germany after losing his best friend in battle and marries his buddy's pregnant girlfriend Eva. Fidelis emigrates to the U.S. and gets as far as Argus, North Dakota, before his sausages run out. (He's a butcher by trade and brings sausages to fund his cross-country trip.) After he sets up shop, Eva comes over, and they raise a family. Meanwhile, two other characters, Delphine and Cyprian, are touring with their circus act in which Cyprian balances atop chairs stacked on Delphine's belly. The two of them settle down in Argus, Delphine's hometown, with Delphine's father, Roy, the town drunk, and masquerade as a married couple, although Cyprian is gay. The lives of Fidelis, Eva, Delphine, and Cyprian become intertwined, and Delphine's balancing act becomes a metaphor for how she becomes responsible for the well-being of so many men—Roy, Cyprian, Fidelis and his four sons. The book has its share of tragedies, but I really like that the story is told in a not overly sentimental style. There are also a couple of mysteries, including that of the 3 bodies Delphine and Cyprian find in her father's cellar and the mystery surrounding the identity of Delphine's mother. There is also at least one laugh-out-loud revelation after a healer visits Marcus, one of Fidelis's sons, following a near-tragedy that is the most gripping section of the book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THEM by Nathan McCall

I have wanted to read Nathan McCall's Them every since it came out because of its Atlanta setting. The storyline was appealing—gentrification of an intown neighborhood, with a conflict boiling just below the surface, ready to explode at any moment. Barlowe Reed is an African-American renter on mostly-black Auburn Avenue. Sandy and Sean Gilmore are his new white next-door neighbors. Sandy inches into a tenuous friendship with Barlowe, but Sean becomes increasingly more fearful and belligerent as tensions build within the community, and reverse racial discrimination ensues. The repercussions are a bit like the movie Crash, where even the best-intentioned whites eventually succumb to fear of their black neighbors. The dialog is priceless, although some of the word spellings made it difficult to figure out what was being said. My favorite section, though, is the very beginning, where Barlowe expresses his aversion to the ubiquitous American flag a little too vehemently. I can totally identify with his frustration, as the flag somehow has come to symbolize support for U.S. policy in response to 9/11.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks offered a respite from the dreary, depressing books I've been reading this winter. It has an unusual structure, which I happened to like. The main storyline is of a modern-day thirty-something single Australian woman, Hanna Heath, who "stabilizes" valuable old books. In this case, she travels to war-torn Sarajevo to work on the beautifully illustrated Sarajevo Haggadah, which dates from the 1400's. Her story alternates with chapters that go progressively farther back in time, each telling some piece of history associated with something Hanna found in the book, such as a butterfly wing or a wine stain. However, I found Hanna's story more captivating than anyone else's, especially that of the priest with a drinking problem and the rabbi with a gambling problem. I kept dozing off during the ancient history, only to perk back up when Hanna reappeared on the page. I found the text a little hard to follow at times, since each history chapter introduced a whole new set of characters. Plus, Hanna flits all over the planet, from Sarajevo to Vienna to Boston to London to Australia, so that the people in her life are a little hard to track also. One exception is her mother, a neurosurgeon who is still reeling from the fact that Hanna did not choose to study medicine and with whom Hanna has a very antagonistic relationship. Several discoveries, including the identity of Hanna's father, near the end of the novel provide a neat wrap-up and satisfying conclusion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow has a preposterous plot, but that doesn't really matter. A crew of eight, including 4 Jesuit priests, rocket off to a life-supporting planet near Alpha Centauri, called Rakhat. The book is a mind-dump of the priest who returns and reluctantly tells the story of how the rest died on Rakhat. Confession may be good for the soul, but Emilio Sandoz has a lot of healing to do, both spiritually and physically. His hands are mutilated and useless, and the ghastly events on Rakhat have destroyed his faith. Inadvertently and innocently, the earthlings upset the relationship between two human-like species there, the Runa and the Jana'ata. The crew includes a couple of scientific types, Jimmy and George, plus 2 women—Anne, a doctor and George's wife, and Sofia, a former prostitute who creates AI programs that replace human workers. Both Emilio and Jimmy are in love with Sofia, but Emilio must choose between Sofia and his chaste contract with God. The title, explained near the end, refers to a line of scripture that says that, although God sees a sparrow fall from the nest, he doesn't stop it from happening. Emilio is the sparrow whom God allows to be tormented, but at least he survives. The real sparrows are the other members of the crew, whom God allowed to perish. It's interesting that the author is a former Catholic who converted to Judaism. This is an unforgettable book, for both believers and non-believers.