March 28, 2017

News of the World: Instant literary classic

Every so often, I encounter a book that has all of the hallmarks of an enduring work of literature, with vivid characterizations, a plot with forward motion and elegant, depictive word choices. Such is the case with Paulette Jiles’ book, News of the World, a National Book Award Finalist.

As a poet and memoirist, as well as novelist, she writes beautiful prose. Her dialogue contains no quotation marks, so speech and narration seamlessly flow together.

We are introduced to Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a military veteran who lost his printing business and very way of life during the Civil War. He now makes his living traveling from town to town in the northern Texas region reading the news of the world to people hungry for entertainment and knowledge. Armed with newspapers from New York, London, San Francisco and other points large and small, Kidd makes a meager but steady living.

Enter Johanna Leonberger, a six-year-old German girl who is captured by a Kiowa raiding party after they brutally kill her parents and sister.

Kidd is tasked with returning the now ten-year-old girl to her German relatives near San Antonio. After four years with the Kiowas, she speaks no English and has become native in her dress, behavior and in her very thinking.

Though the story of an older man on a quest with a young girl or boy has been a frequent novel convention, Jiles finds an unforgettable character in Kidd, plus an intriguing geographic setting and time in this outstanding, small, but potent work of fiction. The book format is indeed smaller than most hardcover editions and artfully tells the tale of their journey in just 209 pages. News of the World should deservedly find its way into high school and college literature classes.

The Old Man by thriller penman Thomas Perry

Author Thomas Perry has knocked another thriller out of the park with The Old Man. Dan Chase, seems to be a retired man quietly living out his life in Vermont with two big black dogs. Little do the neighbors know that he is being hunted by military intelligence operatives from two countries. Having been accused by the Army of failing to transfer twenty million dollars to insurgents in Libya thirty-some years ago, forces are at play to discover his secret identity, retrieve the funds and eliminate him. This “old man” has kept his mental and physical abilities razor sharp as he eludes his pursuers and keeps those around him from harm.
Perry writes with muscular clarity and an urgency that pulls the reader from chapter to chapter.
Despite having worked as a park maintenance man, a commercial fisherman, a university administrator and teacher plus been a writer and producer for prime time network television shows, Perry has had time to write 23 novels. Winner of the coveted Edgar award for The Butcher’s Boy and voted one of NPR’s 100 Killer Thrillers-Best Thrillers Ever for Metzer’s Dog, he also created the Jane Whitefield crime series. Mr. Perry, please keep writing!

Dark Matter: Mind-bending book

Block out some time if you start Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a science fiction tour de force that is set in Chicago. Book maven, Jenny Riddle suggested this mind-bending novel and it immediately grabbed me from the first chapter to the last. The prose is straightforward with major sections of dialogue so this is a quick read.  Chicagoans will recognize some of the settings: Logan Square, the Lake Michigan shoreline and the industrial South Side.

Although this is inventive science fiction, it is also a meditation on the choices we make in life, the trade-offs, the career pursuits and the importance of family. Throw in a dollop of wonky science talk and you have a thriller that seems current yet eternal in some of its themes.

Previous books by author Crouch have been made into the 2015 tv series Wayward Pines and the current tv show, Good Behavior on TNT starring Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey fame.

The cover design with the multiple images of the words Dark Matter will annoy your eyes initially, but get half-way through the novel and the graphics will seem perfect for this inventive book.

Ray and Joan, book by Lisa Napoli

The book cover features the title Ray & Joan by Lisa Napoli, but the smaller print expresses the content of this non-fiction work impeccably, “The man who made the McDonald’s fortune and the woman who gave it all away.”
We read of the initial relationship of Ray Kroc and the McDonald brothers who had a successful fast food venture in California, to the humble beginnings of Kroc’s Des Plaines version of the concept, all the way to the explosion of “golden arches” fast food franchises all over the world.

I was surprised that music played a role in the bond between Ray and his third wife, the former Mrs. Rawland Smith. The McDonald’s boss had been a working musician in the Chicago area before finding his real passion – sales. He was in the Minnesota Twin Cities on company business and saw an elegant blonde playing the piano at a fine St rezeptfreie potenzmittel viagra. Paul restaurant. Their romance was bumpy, to say the least, with her husband and an intervening marriage for Ray getting in the way of their ultimate romantic partnership.

After the death of Ray, the book loses a little of the drama, but it is fascinating to watch Joan Kroc grow into becoming a sometimes secret and passionate philanthropist. Napoli features a long list of beneficiaries of the Kroc largesse including Notre Dame, NPR and the Salvation Army.
Would that all multimillionaires were as generous as this former cocktail pianist.

The Trespasser by author Tana French

The Trespasser by Tana French has been on several top ten 2016 literary lists, so I thought I should check out this novel. The genre is crime fiction with Dublin police detectives as the main characters, but this is not your easy-breezy detective paperback. The writing is dense with both vernacular cop talk and vivid descriptions.  I have to admit that I had to look up Irish slang words every few pages.

The main character is Antoinette Conway, a Murder squad detective who only has one work ally, her partner, Stephen Moran. We are introduced to her thoughts both calculating and paranoid as she digs into the murder of pretty blonde, Aislinn Murray.

If you can make the effort to finish this book, you will be rewarded with a tour-de-force ending. I actually turned the last page and thought, “now that was a satisfying read.” I hope you feel the same way.  Stephen King, no less, called the book “incandescent.”

A Man Called Ove Book

Every so often a book strikes a universal chord and becomes a world-wide hit. Such is the case with Fredrik Backman’s charming novel, A Man Called Ove. The prose is anything but dense with child-like chapter headings but the themes running throughout the book run the gamut from marriage, suicide and aging with characters whom are disabled, gay, obese, depressed, pregnant and senile. One alternates between chuckling and feeling a lump in one’s throat.

Come to think of it, everyone must know a cranky older man who has a secret heart of gold which is perhaps why this short Swedish novel has been so popular.

The Swedish movie version was released this fall starring Rolf Lasgard who has been seen in the TV show Sebastian Bergman. The movie reviews have been generally positive and the film is still available in movie theaters this December 2016. Reading the book first may be my recommendation. Skal!

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries

inspector_lynley_mysteries_uk-showThe Inspector Lynley Mysteries, a British crime tv series issued a total of twenty-three episodes, most of which I have seen and enjoyed, but I knew relatively little about the Elizabeth George novels which inspired the tv program. Eleven of her murder mysteries were turned into scripts, but she wrote 19 books featuring the aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley and his lower-class partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.

Other characters woven throughout the series are his girlfriend and later wife, Helen Clyde, and his old school friend, Simon St. James, both from upper crust backgrounds. Her first Lynley novel was A Great Deliverance published in 1988. I accidentally happened upon With No One as Witness, issued in 2005.  As good as the tv episodes were, I find her writing even more thrilling and satisfying. My literary bias showing?with-no-one-as-witness

elizabeth-george-c-michael-stadlerIn George’s bio, I find out that she is an American, born in Ohio and raised in California, but has set many of her novels in Great Britain, featuring police officers, criminals and ordinary folk both rich and poor. Her book output also contains 7 other fiction works and a non-fiction release entitled Write Away.

Donna Leon also springs to mind, the New Jersey author of 26 crime novels set in Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti as the hero. What is it about these American women who write compellingly about crime in other countries? If you are a fan of the murder mystery genre in the spirit of Agatha Christie, you can’t go wrong with books either by Elizabeth George or Donna Leon.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

The culinary theme of Kitchens of the Great Midwest by author J. Ryan Stradal drew me to it first, but the structure is what made me sit up and realize that this was not your standard novel.

Each section is a food item and takes place in a different area of the Midwest. We loosely follow celebrity chef, Eva Thorvald from birth to mid-career with visits to her childhood, teen years and her twenties.  We also view her life from the vantage point of the mother who abandoned her to pursue her own career in the wine industry.

Stradal’s writing is charming but like a sophisticated meal, the different “courses” in the book are by turns bittersweet, painful, comedic and heart-warming.

The culinarily-inclined will chuckle at the descriptions of recipes and the mention of curated food stuffs.

I was hooked when the book kicked off with a chapter called Lutefisk, the dreaded Scandinavian fish entree that is foisted on many Midwesterners. Particularly funny is a section called Bars where a woman who bakes “church lady” recipes tries to compete with chefs who turn their noses up at gluten, dairy or ingredients that are not organic.

I listened to this in audio form and the narrator even got the infamous Minnesota accent down to perfection. The locales, the food and the chef heroine all conspire to entertain. Let me state that I ate no lutefisk while reading this.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

When I first looked at Annie Proulx’s 700 page tome, Barkskins, I wondered if I could keep my interest up for that long. The short answer is a resounding “yes” although I must admit the weight of the book was a negative on a recent plane trip.

Some of you may have read her Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Shipping News, Accordion Crimes or her short story Brokeback Mountain upon which the Academy Award-winning movie is based.

Barkskins is an amazing historical fiction work from the 80-year-old Proulx with some comparison to Emile Zola or Edward Rutherford as she follows the progeny of two male French immigrants to North America in the 1600’s. We follow their descendants, both of Native American and of European heritage as they experience both life and death in the coming centuries.

Against the backdrop of history, including the formation of the United States, the decimation of Indian culture and the American Civil War, we are invited into the world of forestry, its destruction and its possible regeneration. We are also taken on side trips to Europe, China and New Zealand to view the international trade of natural resources.

While some critics have complained that we are seeing these characters from an emotional remove, I would say that Proulx has endeavored to show us the macro view of these people throughout history versus the micro world of interior thought.

It would be an understatement to say that European-Americans come off very poorly in their treatment of Native Americans in Proulx’s book, but she also makes the Indian love and knowledge of nature to be a hopeful note for the future.

What a satisfying literary journey with both edification and beautiful prose found in Annie Proulx’s novel, Barkskins.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

If you pick up the current best-seller, The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, get set for a well-written and comedic depiction of a four sibling family squabbling over an inheritance. Leo is the gifted yet bad boy brother who jeopardizes the “nest egg” on which his other siblings have counted on. Throw in Jack, his gay antique store owner brother, and sisters, Melody, a mother of twins who has lived beyond her means, and Beatrice, the author who has not quite lived up to her initial promise.

You will both hate and adore these dysfunctional characters as they explore the boundaries of familial loyalty, friendship and the definition of success. The movie rights should be snapped up postehaste.