Eric Haggman: The Apology
Eric Haggman's first novel, a thriller, does one very important thing right: he keeps things moving along. Thrillers are not intended to be read slowly. If one doesn't feel compelled to fly through the pages, then there's a problem. The headlong rush that Haggman largely succeeds in providing, though, is slightly undermined by the implausibilities of the plot (the Vietnamese police investigating the apparent kidnapping at the novel's center include our advertising man protagonist in every aspect of the investigation, including, at one point, handing him an AK47 for his personal use) and the Sax Rohmer-like exaggerations of the evil that, at least for the purposes of the novel Haggman seems to believe, lies at the heart of Asian societies. The Japanese police for example, can't be merely corrupt, but must be one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. The novel ends with the protagonist and his love interest, having moved through Vietnam and Tokyo, in Capetown, and things are left wide-open for a sequel, so this won't be the last we hear of this crime-fighting ad-man.
Ross Macdonald: Black Money (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
I continue my traversal of the saga of Lew Archer, and am happy to report that this Black Money is a worthy exploration of the dark side of the California sun.
Alan Moore: Jerusalem
Alan Moore's Jerusalem is a maximalist novel in all the best ways. Rich in character, observation, and event, it is equally rich in a philosophy and metaphysics that are informed by cutting edge physics. It is, however, in once sense, minimalist: Almost every one of the 1200+ pages of the novel are set in Moore's hometown, Northhampton, where he still lives. One quickly sees, however, that the geographical limitations he has imposed upon himself (there are occasional side-trips to Blake's Lambeth) are the farthest thing from impoverishing. Rather, because Moore, like certain cutting-edge physicists, takes seriously the notion that the past isn't really past, that everyone who has ever lived, lives, the Northhampton he gives us is anything but constrained. Indeed, one feels he could have given us another thousand pages set there that would have been as riveting as those he has given us. One reason for this is that the prose, always rich, sometimes bordering on the baroque, and never amenable to skimming, is well-wrought enough that one finds oneself returning to reread sentences, paragraphs, pages simply for the pleasure of letting the words dance through one's mind again. One is glad, though, in the end, that Moore stopped exactly where he did because the novel is an exquisite formal object, one in which every one of the many, many threads is neatly, but never glibly or perfunctorily, tied off. It's probably heresy to say so, but it seems to me a pity that Moore, a great novelist (his little-read first novel, Voices of the Fire, is also excellent) wasted so many years on comics.
Teju Cole: Known and Strange Things: Essays
Teju Cole is, I think, the most interesting writer of his generation. One reason for this is that he manages to blend a very sophisticated aesthetic sensibility with an equally sophisticated political engagement. His masters are, on the one hand, W.G. Sebald, and, on the other, John Berger. Having placed Cole where I believe he belongs in the pantheon, I am a bit surprised that I didn't enjoy his collection Known and Strange Things more than I did. The essay is a favorite form, and the essays of Cole's I've read here and there have always been stimulating. In fact, several of those previously read essays are included in this collection, and they are just as good as I remembered them. I have to confess, though, that it's those essays, his greatest hits, as it were, that seem to me the best in the collection. It's not that the other essays are not worthy; indeed, several of them are, no doubt, essential for anyone who wants to think seriously about photography. That could be me: I remember my excitement upon first encountering Susan Sontag's On Photography, but Cole's essays seem to me more for the specialist than Sontag's tour de force. It is probably just that, though the reviews, appreciations, memories and other fugitive pieces here collected, though models of their kind, taken together lose some of their power, a slackening I never felt when turning the pages of Open City. I only hope that, unlike other multi-talented authors who've written superb novels and then turned away from the form—Pankaj Mishra, Ian Buruma—that Cole hasn't decided to abandon the genre in which, thus far (and it's still early days) he's had his most impressive success to date.
Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge
A set of short stories of extreme verisimilitude about the inhabitants of a US small town, each story centered on, or including, or at least mentioning the title character. It’s about doing the best we can, of putting up a front, of trying to relate successfully to others, of trying to survive our circumstances… and the insecurities, frailties, and anxieties that lie beneath all that. I feel I know more about and have more compassion for myself and others for having the curtain ripped back like this. For me the book was at its most effective when it examined ageing and loss. Now I can’t wait to read more by Strout. (*****)
Michael Crummey: Sweetland
I usually confine my fiction reading to Booker and Pulitzer blockbusters, but this recommendation by a friend is more a Sundance indie. The vividly described setting—remote islands off Newfoundland—stays with you, but it was sunk for me by a main character—stubborn, ornery, self-centered--I could care less about. (They say other people upset you if they display traits you don’t like in yourself… if so… busted!) (*)
Alexandra Harris: Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies
A beautifully written account, scholarly and approachable, of how English weather is reflected in 2,000 years of art and literature. We find that different times have had different views of the seasons; how cold, damp, and grey English weather has been and still is; and how until recently there was little escape from the rain and mud. My take away is a renewed enjoyment in looking at clouds. Thank you to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for the recommendation. (***)
John Williams: Butcher's Crossing
This western novel by John Williams of “Stoner” fame is about dreams and human frailty, and the squalor and rigor of frontier life when hunters followed the buffalo. In classic style, it opens with the arrival of a city boy in a dusty prairie town, and ends with a departure, not long afterward in terms of time, but a lifetime of experience later. The location, characters and story are described in movie-like detail. It’s a solid, muscular depiction of a mythical reality that’s part of America’s rural roots. (****)
Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See
The lives of a small cast of disparate characters, charted in short, impeccably written sections, gradually intersect and swirl together through the rise of Nazism in Germany, and during the occupation of France. It’s a vivid picture of the painful devastation of war, and of human endurance and courage, written for maximum empathy, and told with page-turning suspense. (****)
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This collection of letters between two good friends, a down-to-earth aristocrat (youngest of the Mitford sisters) and an urbane, cosmopolitan writer and war hero, spans most of their lifetimes. They write to entertain and support each other, and in the process we get glimpses of aristocratic pursuits, the Mitfords, and the restless life of an adventurer missing publisher’s deadlines. All in all, a correspondence sparkling with fun and gossip. (**)
Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
It’s sometimes sketchily written, sometimes overwrought, and characters feel subordinate to the books big ideas. But what ideas! That our lives can become fossilized. That good people can make horrible mistakes. That receiving is as difficult and blessed as giving. This novel of an unlikely man’s walk through England is compelling enough to overcome its shortcomings. (***)