Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Britt Johnson and his wife Mary are newly freed slaves, moving from Kentucky to Texas as the Civil War winds down. Before long, Mary finds herself a captive again—this time at the hands of the Comanche and Kiowa, who ambush their settlement while Britt is away. When he comes home to find his oldest son dead and the rest of his family missing, Britt puts aside the marital uncertainties that had recently arisen in his household and sets out to find Mary and his other two children. He is aided in his quest by Tissoyo, a young Comanche who has been temporarily ostracized from his people for flirting with another man's wife. A parallel story is that of Samuel Hammond, a Quaker bachelor and agent of the Office of Indian Affairs. His mission is to get the Comanche and Kiowa settled and farming on a reservation. The Indians, however, thwart his every move by declining the farm machinery that Hammond delivers to them and continuing to capture and scalp the settlers. Hammond faces a moral dilemma as he begins to withhold rations from the Indians as a means of modifying their behavior. The Indians represent a side to humanity that he's never imagined, much less encountered. The irony of his situation is almost comic, as he refuses to arm himself but finally has to request guards for his office. The author does an excellent job of trying to remain neutral in this conflict. Especially trying for Hammond and possibly for the author herself is the question of whether at some point captives should be allowed to remain with their captors. White children, after adapting to the more exciting and independent Indian way of life, are not always thrilled to be rescued and returned to a life that now feels claustrophobic. There's a lot to consider in this story of a situation with no easy answers, but I'm not particularly fond of the writing style—too many incomplete sentences. Perhaps this stilted communication on the author's part is somewhat indicative of the major cultural gap and failure to communicate that existed between the Indians and the settlers at the time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

SATURDAY by Ian McEwan

How refreshing it is to read about a family that is affluent but not dysfunctional. Henry is a forty-something neurosurgeon, and his wife Rosalind is an attorney. Their two grown children, Theo and Daisy, are artistically-inclined and found their callings thanks to Rosalind's father, an egotistical, hard-drinking poet. Like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the entire novel takes place within the span of 24 hours. Henry witnesses a fiery plane on its way to Heathrow and then has a minor fender-bender, with major consequences, on his way to his usual Saturday squash match. Henry's ruminations on the events of the day, some mundane, including visits to his mother and to the fishmonger, and some not, provide a window into his soul. To some readers, the book may come off as a little too cerebral, but I didn't find it so. After all, the main character is a brain surgeon, and there's a fair amount of medical description, which I found fascinating. I don't think any author at work today writes more lyrically or with more vivid imagery than Ian McEwan. More important, though, are the intriguing ethical questions he addresses—also a staple of his novels. One of the big ones here is whether Henry is within his rights to use his medical expertise to dupe a sick man in order to save his own skin. One word to the wise: Do not read the book flap before reading the book, as it gives away a surprising incident that takes place late in the day/book.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Leo is a respected member of the State Security organization in Stalinist Russia. However, he begins to lose faith in the Soviet doctrine when he realizes that he has arrested an innocent veterinarian and caused several unwarranted executions in the process. When his doubt surfaces, he is asked to investigate his beautiful wife Raisa as a possible traitor. This loyalty test ultimately results in the banishment of Leo and Raisa to a manufacturing town and substandard living conditions. There Leo comes to realize that a series of senseless child murders across the country are linked but have been blamed on a variety of unfortunate suspects, because the idea of a serial killer in the proletariat paradise is unacceptable to the powers-that-be. What's really fascinating about this book is not only the fact that horrific crimes are virtually swept under the rug but that those people who don't play along are enemies of the State. I have to assume that this depiction is fairly accurate, and the question of how a government gets away with this is thought-provoking. Constituent compliance is a requirement and a reality. It's bizarre that perceived party loyalty dictates one's living conditions and workplace status in a supposedly Marxist society. The book presents farmers and other rural residents as being more likely to buck the system, since the restrictive government seems to be more of an obscure concept that has no positive bearing on their lives. These portrayals commanded my attention much more than the "thriller" aspects of the novel, which were fairly typical in that everything is wrapped up neatly at the end.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

THE GIANT'S HOUSE by Elizabeth McCracken

The Giant's House is subtitled A Romance, and it really is an unusual love story. Peggy Cort is a young librarian who really doesn't like people. Then she meets 12-year-old James Sweatt, who is off-the-charts tall. As James keeps growing, so does Peggy's attachment to him, and by the time he reaches adolescence, she realizes that she's in love with him. We discover early in the book that he will die young and that his size presents a plethora of health problems, makes him accident-prone, and probably renders him impotent. He is also unable to do the simplest things that most of us take for granted, such as traveling by airplane, buying department-store clothes, or walking in town unnoticed. I loved this book, not just for the tender story and doomed characters, but also for the lovely tidbits that the author scatters throughout. In one scene, Peggy and James's aunt/guardian Caroline are sorting laundry and discussing mismatched socks. The lamenting of socks having lost their mates and being introduced to another abandoned sock is obviously a metaphor for James and Peggy, both misfits in very different ways. Another is near the end when Peggy concludes that library books, unlike purchased books that are monogamous with their buyer, are promiscuous, being caressed by anyone who asks.