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Tag Archives: fiction

Finally–“The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck

Over the holiday break, I read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. How had I lived so long without reading it?

I enjoyed it immensely, this story of a Chinese farmer in pre-revolutionary China.

The novel opens with the wedding day of Wang Lung. His bride is a slave in a rich household. She is all that a man of his small means can afford. O-Lan turns out to be a faithful and hardworking wife. Her dreams parallel those of Wang Lung, to have sons, to farm successfully, to acquire land and wealth.

The story is told from Wang Lung’s view. Although his fortunes rise and fall, he ends up on top, owning vast amounts of land. He has three sons. He takes on a beautiful second wife, a former prostitute.

When his life goes wrong or awry, he realizes that to return to an even keel, he must return to the land.

The novel closes with Wang Lung telling his sons that the land must remain with them…and their conspiratorial glance indicates their other intentions.

Hillary Spurling, in her biography of Pearl Buck, “Pearl Buck in China,” points to Buck’s profound respect for Chinese people, especially the rural peasants, as the foundation of this book’s success. Buck’s familiarity with Chinese speech is clear in the rhythm of the words. At the time of the writing, Buck’s willingness to talk about sexuality was startling–I barely noticed it.

I was struck by Wang Lung’s seeming disregard for O-Lan. Buck does so well with presenting his point of view about her, and about women and girls generally. I wanted to hate him for his point of view, but Buck places him in the context of his time and place. She led me to take a less judgmental view. I see that I got a clearer view through her telling than I would have from my own 21st century viewfinder.

Why does this book remain popular? I have talked to so many people who love this book, who have re-read it many times. I see its appeal in the simplicity of the telling, mixed with the rhythm of the language.

“So many books, so little time.” How DO we decide when to go back and pick up a book that we “should” have read long ago? I confess–there are remarkable holes in my reading history. I’d hate to even start a list of what I should have read, but haven’t. In this case, I feel a rewarding sense of having filled a gap. I enjoyed the story and I have a better sense of everyday Chinese people before the Revolution. And I appreciate my new familiarity with a book that in so many ways made literary history.

It’s Good! It’s Fast! “American Boy” by Larry Watson

Due to unforeseen events, I ended up on my own for lunch on Tuesday, so I did what many downtown workers do. I found a book on the Bennett Martin Public Library new books display. I chose “American Boy” by Larry Watson because I’d so enjoyed his “Montana 1948” several years ago.

I started it over an Oso Burrito lunch, and was amazed when I’d reached page 40 with burrito remaining. I ditched many evening tasks to keep reading at home. I got up at 4:30 Wednesday morning and finished it off, all the way to the final paragraph on page 246. Thank you, Larry Watson, for writing a fairly short novel.

Matthew Garth narrates this story, which happens in Willow Falls, Minnesota, in 1963. Anyone who grew up in a small town will recognize Watson’s sense for the rhythms of small town life.

Matthew’s an only child, his father died when he was eight, and his mother waitresses in town. She takes a pretty hands-off approach to parenting. Matthew realizes that as long as he stays out of big trouble, she’s okay with it.

He has attached himself to his best friend’s family, and been taken in by the Dunbars. Dr. Dunbar has cachet–he’s a doctor, he’s from out of town, and he’s handsome. Matthew looks up to him, and pictures his own future in medicine because of him.

The equilibrium of the Dunbar home gets upset when Louisa Lindahl, a young woman who comes into Dr. Dunbar’s care when her boyfriend shoots her on Thanksgiving, moves into the Dunbar home. Matthew becomes obsessed with Louisa, and when he realizes that she doesn’t have her eyes on him, his own eyes are opened.

There are several aspects of “American Boy” that remind me of “Montana 1948.” They include a narrator looking back on his experience as a rough-edged young man, an experience that includes a degree of isolation, remarkable observational skills of how men behave, and how others, especially women, respond to them. In particular, there’s a sense of how men in power use or abuse their situation. There’s engagement with physical violence.

Watson tells the story in a chronological straightforward manner. I attribute some of the speed in my reading to his excellent writing–he gets out of the way. And yet he develops characters. He lets the story roll out at a pace that makes sense. He reveals depth in what could have been simply a tawdry story.

I’ll recommend this to readers who love fiction, who appreciate stories about America’s heartland, and to people who especially enjoy a coming-of-age story. This is a great book group choice–there’s plenty to discuss. I look forward to talking this over with others, and so am eager to get the word out about it.

Jo Nesbo’s “The Snowman”

I hit the Readers’ Jackpot over the Veterans Day weekend–started and finished a whole book, “The Snowman” by Jo Nesbo, a mystery set in Norway. I enjoyed it immensely.

I picked it up off of our “Books to Go” shelf because I’d heard its title come up in conversation about mysteries to read that might be similar to Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who…” series. Not that I’d ever judge a book by its cover, but this one is eye-catching, a snowman made of torn white paper on a black background.

Its star and detective is Harry Hole, a nonconformist detective in Oslo, an expert on serial killers (of which there have been almost none in Norway). Typical of any mystery, its plot confounds a brief synopsis. As the story progresses, Harry contends with the murders and all of the red herrings and clues therein, the love of his life who is moving on to another man, and a new detective in his department who he’s supposed to take under his wing. Throughout, he has a sense that he is being watched, followed, and maybe fooled.

Initially, each murder happens with the first snowfall of the year. The book opens with one such scene. Nesbo carefully introduces each character and places each within the mystery. He weaves in a sexual/medical mystery. Deftly, Nesbo explores social views of sexual behavior within a plot-driven novel. At various points, Hole believes that he knows who “The Snowman” is. Nesbo carefully crafts this plot to hit a few dead ends, and then pick up again. As I’ve noted previously, I tend not to read mysteries with the intention of solving the crime. In this case, the killer became clear to me.

I will recommend this to mystery readers who are accepting of some pretty forceful violence, sometimes combined with sex–the plot relies on sexual infidelity. The Norwegian setting adds a particular atmosphere, so readers who crave a “dark” setting may find themselves happy with “The Snowman.”

“Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel

Sunday evening I finished “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize.

My college roommate suggested I read it, well, actually, she sneered me into it, suggesting that a public librarian who hadn’t heard of “Wolf Hall” needed to get out more often.

I enjoyed this novel of the life of Thomas Cromwell, the man who arranged so much behind-the-scenes for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn.

The book opens with a harrowing scene of a teenage Thomas, eyes even with the pavement, being beaten nearly senseless by his own father. His flight from his father leads him to France and elsewhere as a soldier and wool merchant. Mantel essentially skips those years, and when Thomas returns, he knows several languages, has developed an uncanny ability to make money, and works closely with the eminent Cardinal Wolsey. After Wolsey’s fall, Cromwell attaches to the royal household. His persuasiveness combines with wiliness in the services that he provides to the royal court and to those who surround it. People learn to be afraid of Cromwell.

Cromwell develops a vibrant domestic life, even after the death of his wife and beloved daughters. His taking in of young people and caring for outcasts shows his softer side.

The book ends with the death of Thomas More, several years before Cromwell himself falls out of favor.

I wasn’t so sure that I would enjoy a book set in sixteenth century England.I found that it worked best if I could devote a few hours of reading to the early parts of the book while I acquainted myself with the characters. Mantel’s ability to tell a story, and especially to reveal the details of speech and manner, set my attachment. She drew the characters into lively people. What seemed unusual in the telling was the lack of a central conflict or threat. There was a natural trajectory in Cromwell’s rise from a nobody to a somebody (even without noble blood), but then he seemed to plateau. I wished for some suspense. And this may be the challenge of well-researched historical fiction that is true to its time–the chronology may not result in dramatic effect.

At 500 pages, this book requires some commitment. I see it as a good winter book…one that may require the investment of hours-at-a-time reading sessions. I’ll recommend it to Anglophiles, to those who appreciate clever language, and to fans of serious historical fiction.

A Notable Novel–“Matterhorn”

Last week I finished “Matterhorn: a Novel of the Vietnam War” by Karl Marlantes. It was my final fiction title from this year’s Notable Books List.

I wasn’t looking forward to “Matterhorn.” This was party due to its length at just under 600 pages, and partly due to the setting of Marines’ combat during the Vietnam War.

I’d checked it out and taken it home once before, and found myself without the time to dig in. This time I gave it my best shot, and eventually I found myself connecting with it.

Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam with no experience of commanding others, and with plenty of fear for what lies ahead. At first he seems mostly confusion and diffidence, unwilling to ask questions because he’s afraid to look stupid, and unsure of his likely courage under fire. Eventually, though, he becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, and begins to see where his own talents can make a difference for the men with whom he eventually bonds.

I was struck over and over by the physical discomfort of the war–jungle rot, hunger and thirst, damp feet, leeches, and that short list doesn’t even touch the injuries and death that follow combat engagements.

The parallel story to that of the Marines in action is the politics behind the action–officers far behind the lines making decisions, politics that enter in to placement of troops, and the ability of the field officers to make their case. Another aspect to the politics is the politics of race, with overt hostilities between some white and black Marines.

Eventually, Marlantes led me to care about Mellas and his troops, and to find his situation compelling. Mellas clearly improves as an officer, does better in accepting responsibility, works the system effectively and finds himself no longer isolated from those around him.

The title is a code name referring to a mountain that becomes a base of operation.

Merlantes served in the Marines in Vietnam, and he took years to write this novel. I’ll recommend his book to people interested in the social history of war, especially Vietnam. I know that not everyone is willing to devote the time and difficult attention that this novel requires, but I will recommend it to those who recognize good fiction–sound pacing, strong character development, and literary construction of another place and time.

“Matterhorn” teams well with another Notable fiction, “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, which while also set in Vietnam during the war, takes a much different approach. Reading those two within the last month leads me to add the modern classic “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien to my reading list. Each year’s Notables List brings some of these lucky combinations of titles related by setting or theme, adding value to my reading of the List.