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Teaser Tuesdays: Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

light shining in the forest

This is a remarkable novel I have here, from the author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I don’t want to say too much about it now… but there is a library.

Now Karen is at the lay-by, waiting for the blue (bookmobile) van to come. She is worried that someone else will get there first, and take out the book before she can, so she has formed a queue of one.

Isn’t that charming? And maybe a little sad…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

crossing to safetyIn the fine tradition of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Of Mice and Men, Crossing to Safety borrows its title from poetry – in this case, Robert Frost. I find this an interesting tradition; it does not always necessarily yield greater meaning, at least not for me (perhaps if I were better with poetry!), but I’m sure it does say something about the author and his tastes, and maybe about the book itself as well.

Crossing to Safety is a novel of four people, told in first person by one of them. At the beginning, our narrator Larry Morgan and his wife Sally have just traveled to Vermont to visit old friends; it becomes clear fairly quickly that Charity Lang is dying, attended by her husband Sid. These four have been best friends for decades, although they haven’t always been as close (especially geographically) as they’d like. Before spending much time in the Vermont of the present, Larry begins remembering their youth together.

Larry and Sally were newlyweds and new graduates during the Depression, when Larry got a one-year post teaching English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It’s not much – not much money, and not much security for the future; but they’re young, Sally is pregnant, and this is the Depression; they will take whatever they can get. Larry is determined to produce as much writing as possible. He wrings every moment out of every day: eating, sleeping, teaching, prepping for his classes, and writing. They meet another young couple, the Langs, and are impressed with Charity’s warmth and 1000-watt smile, Sid’s open heart and intellect, and not least, their money. Both Sid and Charity come from backgrounds entirely different from Larry’s and Sally’s; but despite being very wealthy, Charity’s ambition for Sid’s academic career makes the Langs no less dependent upon the university’s approval than the Morgans are. Strangely, despite vastly different financial circumstances (and during the Great Depression, when these things matter possibly more than ever), the foursome is able to form a singular bond. The Langs are generous without seeming to be; they honestly take pleasure in sharing, or need to share, and the Morgans receive gracefully and understand that they are giving a service, as well.

In fact, one of the main messages of this novel is that of this uniquely strong and loving friendship, which while it does contain some jealousies and insecurities, handles them with such grace that they don’t seem to matter; but another of its main messages, for me, was about class. It’s every bit as rare and surprising to me that such a wealthy couple and one that needs to work so hard for its money could be so close, and I think that’s at least as powerful a point as the first one.

Crossing to Safety is a quiet novel, in terms of having relatively little action. Arguably the greatest challenge faced by our foursome – certainly, by the Morgans – is Sally’s near-death from polio, which cripples her permanently; and yet this action takes place off-screen, as it were. Where many of the past memories are presented in flashback form, Sally’s experience is merely referred to. In other words, while there are certainly evocative, moving events in the lives of the Langs and Morgans, Crossing to Safety is overwhelmingly contemplative and rearward-facing: quiet, more than anything.

And yet, as Terry Tempest Williams quotes in her introductory piece to my edition, and as Stegner writes as Larry Morgan, this story is not dramatic in the sense of big reveals, cheating spouses, or large conflicts. And that’s okay – it’s beautiful, in fact, as a celebration of friendship (even while acknowledging flaws and hiccups) and life itself. The latter part of the book deals with end-of-life issues, and perhaps because I work in a hospital for a living, I found this section particularly thought-provoking. Here, as throughout, none of our foursome handles things perfectly, but we can still love them all.

Crossing to Safety is quiet and loving and lovely as a representation of marriage, friendship, ambition, contentment, and end of life. Stegner is a beautiful writer; I’m won over.


Rating: 9 picnics.

book beginnings on Friday: Wolf by Mo Hayder

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

wolf

Mo Hayder is back with her 7th thriller starring Jack Caffery. They tend to be chilling. I am excited. It begins:

Amy is five years old and in all of those five years she’s never seen Mummy acting like this before. Mummy’s in front of her on the grass, standing in a weird way, as if she’s been frozen by one of those ice guns what the man in The Incredibles have got in his hand most of the time.

Amy’s Mummy is frightened. Don’t worry, Amy’s okay; she’s one of the lucky ones (at least so far). Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900′s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

Teaser Tuesdays: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

a walk in the woods

My limited experience with Bill Bryson has been positive; he’s a funny man. And a story of hiking the Appalachian Trail sounds appealing. So here we are with Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I must say, though, he does go out unprepared! For example, on waking up his first morning out on the trail:

It seemed very strange, very novel, to be standing outdoors in long johns.

Please tell me he had CAMPED before setting out on this adventure?! He did an awful lot of reading & purchasing, both of which are fine things to do in preparation for a new adventure, but I would also have advised some hiking and camping beforehand as well… we shall see.

Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

never go backI believe I said earlier that this may be the sexiest Reacher novel yet. Possibly it’s just been a while since I read (or listened to) one, but I still think that may be true. He finds a beautiful woman in just about every book, and I appreciate that Lee Child always makes sure that the woman is intelligent, knows her own mind, and enjoys their relations as much as Reacher does; no bimbos or advantages taken. I’ll just say that this installment in Reacher’s saga is no exception, and leave it at that.

Never Go Back follows on the action of 61 Hours, in which Reacher talks on the phone with his successor, a Major Susan Turner, now the commanding officer with his old military police unit. He liked her voice; and now he’s gone looking for her. He travels by hitch-hike and bus to his former headquarters and approaches his old former office, but behind his old desk is not Major Turner but a man who tells Reacher that Turner took a bribe and is now under arrest. He then promptly recalls Reacher to his old command – back to being a major and serving in the army again! (This was a jaw-drop moment for me.) …and tells him about not one, but two cases being brought against him; thus the recall to service, so that the military can arrest him themselves.

This is how Reacher finds himself in a cell in the same unit as Turner; and if we know Reacher, we know he won’t stay there. He breaks them both out and they set out on the road to prove themselves both respectively innocent. There is a matter of a Los Angeles drug dealer with a 16-year-old head injury; a woman who claims to have known Reacher in Korea, around the same time; a bank account in the Caymans; and rogue military officers with access to every level of security. Reacher has to kick a bunch of butt, and Turner is equally awesome. I don’t know what to say about this book that is necessarily new. In fact, these books are absolutely formulaic – but if you like the formula, they remain pleasing. I like this formula. I don’t like romance novels, so I respectfully hand them over to the readers who like that formula; and we can all be happy. And I should point out that despite the formula (we know Reacher will get the girl; we know he’ll win the fight; we know Right will be restored), there is always suspense: we don’t know how the mystery resolves, necessarily. But we do know how it will end.

I did have some concerns. Reacher has always been interested in numbers and calculations, which is one of those intriguing character traits of his, but also contributes somewhat to his implausibly perfect persona. In this volume I think Child overshoots it considerably: there is a running game being played, both within Reacher’s head and out loud, involving 50/50 chances, coin tosses, equal probabilities one way or the other. But Child has the 50/50 concept badly mixed up with having two options. Just because there are two options – binary – does not mean the chances are equal both ways; I think very few of the 50/50 scenarios Reacher plays with in this book are actually equal probabilities.

But all in all, Never Go Back is more of the same, in the best possible way. I hope Child lives a long, long life and produces another 18 Reacher novels (at least); and I hope Dick Hill sticks around and keeps reading them, too. No other voice could ever be Reacher for me. And there is already another Reacher novel promised for this September!! I am content.

Final conclusion: if you like the Reacher model, you’ll be pleased with this installment.


Rating: 7 cars.
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