This installment: mystical Jewish teachings tangle with a contemporary abduction; a murder in the Midwest circa 1931; short stories from Britain; short stories based in Hawaii; a bird-themed memoir; and a novel that incorporates historical unrest in Chiapas.
A Guide to the Perplexed by Dara Horn
Mystical Jewish teachings tangle with a Middle Eastern abduction in this multi-layered, suspenseful, philosophical novel. Josie has created a software program that gathers voluminous information about each client, a kind of comprehensive memory bank. In Egypt she’s kidnapped by a zealot who plans to use her expertise to bring down the government. Back home in America her jealous sister Judith eagerly steps into Josie’s life completely (they all think she’s dead), giving “aid and comfort” to husband and young daughter Talia. In a parallel, intersecting story, a professor in the late 1800’s discovers an incredible cache hidden in a synagogue where all the pieces of paper that bore the name of god have been stored. (They can’t be thrown away.) I’d occasionally find myself perplexed by excerpts from the Guide itself, an ancient text, but the novel was so engrossing that it didn’t interfere with the sweep and depth of the story.
Quiet Dell by Jane Anne Phillips
Based on actual happenings, this book tells of a Midwestern murder case in 1931. A desperate, naïve widow connects with a “gentleman” through a personal ad and that’s the end of her and her 3 children including charming, creative Annabel He’s a predator and she’s just one of a string of victims. He’s very convincing as he describes his fortunes in this eponymous, ill named West Virginia town. A young reporter ahead of her time pursues the case and he’s finally caught. In odd short chapters Annabel observes from the afterlife. The writing has a slightly mannered quality that reflects the era. An interesting wrinkle: the widow’s husband was closeted and committed suicide; a friend and suitor, also gay, offers to marry her but the gallant stranger is more compelling. An odd note: the actual names of some of the players, i.e. Grimm and Law, seem penny-dreadful appropriate. Old photos and clippings add verisimilitude. A creepy well told tale.
Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry
I was entranced by his City of Bohane and glad I remembered its enchantment because it took me a while to cozy up to these short stories. Barry has an antic, layered way of telling, full of local references that add texture but may be slippery if you don’t have the background. (I admit I understand some from reading so many books from Britain.) An old hotel—bad investment, lousy weather—and then comes the flood. A small-town doctor nicknamed Sot ends up in a gypsy encampment. A bunch of guys on a loopy pilgrimage to find the best ale end up in Wales. Grim and messy happenings but infused with incredible life force and humor, like low sun peeking under dark clouds. Highly recommended.
This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila
Short stories told about Hawai’i’s complex, conflicted culture. Natives often speak in pidgin. Characters struggle with identity, especially if they’re hapa (mixed race) or married to outsiders. Hotel maids, cock fighters, cowboys, and pig hunters all tell their stories. One family appears in a number of them, playing out the sorrows of the death of a child and a long affair over time. The book offers insight into a place I haven’t read much about, from insiders’ points of view.
I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman
A memoir by a writer whose work is often bird-themed. From growing up in Michigan in the ‘60’s to ending up in Inverness (a birder’s paradise), we learn about how birds play into his personal history. A trap he made that caught a swan, with tragic results. A series of articles on birds for various newspapers to pay off a crazy auction bid for a painting of birds. A spell in wild Northern Canada among the Eskimos, including a rock band dubbed Nanook the Gook and a malevolent shaman. Evocative and touching.
Let the Water Hold Me Down by Michael Spurgeon
Hank’s brother drowned in high school and he’s haunted by the death that he feels he caused. Adrift after college, he ends up in Chiapas at the invitation of rich, handsome, charismatic Cesar, who was his roommate and soccer-mate at school. He ends up working in a bar and gradually becomes aware of the sources of social unrest in the region. Cesar becomes the enemy, as Hank gets involved with his ex-girlfriend and the revolutionary movement. In a dramatic denouement, they have to flee under life-threatening circumstances. Interesting insights into history and for me a new slant on the impact of NAFTA on the local culture.
Back next Monday.