This Side of Brightness (McCann)

I love Colum McCann’s work, and this novel just deepened my appreciation. He’s a magician with words and story. From beginning to end, I was in the world he created, a world very far from my own time, place and experience. And, I think it’s worth noting, that he centers a story around Nathan Walker, a black man. This book was published in 1998. I’d like to think he’d be as bold now. He’s not showing off here, I don’t think, just reminding us with his main character and his fellow sandhogs that once upon a time, there were a lot of different groups that were not considered white. Aside from a moment that seemed like one coincidence too many, the plot and characters are compelling and the ending is even hopeful.

I look forward to seeing him in person in April.

Colum McCann at John Carroll


Leaving Las Vegas (O’Brien)

I never really expected to read this. I saw the movie and feared it would be in the category of literary excess, but I was absolutely wrong. This is a great book, marked by gentle insightful portraits of troubled people whose lives intersect in Las Vegas. It’s atmospheric, without being overwhelming. It’s evocative, without relying on trying to shock its readers. And, because I know the ending, I found it very, very sad. I think the key to my change of heart was realizing that the story is more about Sera than Ben, and so much of her story is between and outside the lines.

Europa Blues (Dahl)

I read Dahl’s Misterioso a few years ago and was hypnotized by it. For me, Dahl is in Mankell’s neighborhood yet he seems mostly undiscovered here in the United States. So when I found this book during a visit to Israel, I was excited and thought it might provide some relief from the Israeli fiction, history, and politics I’d been reading.

Shortly after the plane took off, I found I was wrong. One of the victims, the one that didn’t fit the pattern, was a concentration camp survivor. Still, Dahl’s prose was enough to make me read on. Part of it is that there’s a great ensemble of policemen in the Intercrime Unit. Certainly, there is one detective at the center, but he spends less time in the spotlight here than he did in Misterioso.

As the plot unravels and comes to its necessary climax, Dahl takes us to a place that I hope is fictional. Like Mankell, he does not limit his genre to ‘just’ a mystery. It is a vehicle for social commentary and, in this case, he refuses to allow Sweden to forget or erase its past. Individuals and countries may try to re-invent themselves, but they can not and should not try to bury the past.

The Orchardist (Coplin)

This was the book I needed now. I’m always grateful for a book that takes place outside of a city I know, outside of a life I know, outside of a time I know. The Orchardist does all of this and somehow Coplin makes it recognizable for an outsider like myself. The main characters are all decent people who have collided with some awful and fully realistic circumstances. They try to negotiate their lives but perhaps it is that people, unlike fruit trees, require more and different kinds of attention. Also unlike the fruit trees, the people who inhabit Coplin’s world may stay in one place, but they cannot stay still. We are all haunted, this book seems to suggest, or at least living with choice,s both made and unmade, both in our control and out of our control. We are forever chasing these choices, somehow, not as obsessively as Ahab, but with a kind of quiet and urgent persistence.

I fell into this book, wanted to meet the people and see the places. I cherished every soft and quiet moment; I think we all need more of these now. And I ached for the pure humanness of the people I feel honored to have met.

And Coplin makes the most of small moments. The purchase of a hat. The lonely decency of Caroline Middey. The intricate design and texture of a gun. The taste of an apricot.

Apparently, it took Coplin 8 years to write this book. I don’t want to rush her, but I’d like another one soon.

Autumn (Smith)

I know this is being hailed as the first post-Brexit novel, and it does a great job of that. It is also a remarkable love story and continues Smith’s pattern of redefining time and language. I understand this is the first of a quartet – all based on the seasons – and I can’t wait for the rest. There is not much to say here. It is a complete and total masterpiece.

The Power and the Glory (Greene)

This was an incredibly atmospheric read. I got the sense that there was always a constant drizzle and that people moved slowly, sometimes because of the heat and sometimes because there was no hurry to get to the limited places they could go. On one level, this book represents one of the slowest chase scenes in literary history. Somehow, I was profoundly engaged by the book, with its thoughtful contemplation of power and glory in all of their political, economic, military and religious (okay, especially religious) forms. The writing is dense and profound, the characters are fully human, and there are many memorable scenes. This is one worth reading and re-reading.

The Orange Peel and Other Satires (Agnon)

I was curious about Agnon because I learned he was a Nobel Prize winner. I enjoyed these satires. I think I ‘got’ most of them. Still, I wondered whether an author who was not Jewish could have written such things. Though Agnon seems to be hugely popular in Israel (they sell boxed sets), I am not particularly interested in reading more.