Sunday, August 22, 2010

Five Good Books I've Read or Listened to Lately

Hello again. I've read a lot this month, but it's mostly been manuscripts, or work-related books I didn't like well enough to recommend. I also have more than the usual number of books going at the moment, so am hoping to finish several at once, later this week.

In the meantime, though, these are five worth mentioning.

1. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. A group of captives in the Vice President's mansion in an unnamed South American country forms its own society with its captors; in the absence of external stimuli, people become who they are. It ends as it must end, but those who survive do so with a more complete understanding of their own nature. This book had come so highly recommended to me (by several friends) that it was almost bound to disappoint. It didn't, exactly, although it was a book I admired more than loved.

2. Stewart O'Nan, Last Night at the Lobster. Karen Olson recommended this book, which I listened to in audio format. It's very short, more a novella than a novel, but it's a gem, about a long, sad day in the lives of some ordinary people — a Red Lobster is closing in suburban Connecticut, and we get almost a minute-by-minute recap of the day. Nothing much happens, yet it feels as if we've learned a lot by the end of the story. Carefully observed, compassionate and kind.

3. Anthony Hyde, The Red Fox. I read this at the recommendation of Joe Finder, who cites it as his favorite Cold War thriller. I understand why; it's a terrifically-paced novel, deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1980. It's also wildly romantic, as the best spy novels should be. Semi-retired journalist and Russia expert Robert Thorne comes to the aid of his old friend and former lover May Brightman after the disappearance of her father, an importer of furs. Harry Brightman is later found dead, an apparent suicide, but it becomes clear that his death has something to do with May's own adoption as a baby. Thorne follows the trail, which becomes littered with dead bodies, to a secret even he can't quite believe.

4. Don Winslow, Savages. Chon and Ben, who run a profitable and strangely ethical marijuana business in southern California, get a hostile takeover notice from the Baja Cartel. When they refuse, cartel operatives kidnap O, the young woman both men love, and start a war. Don Winslow is one of the best crime writers working today, and experiments here with structure, syntax and point-of-view — it's almost thriller-as-free verse, and in the present tense, no less. In the hands of a lesser writer it might feel like a stunt, but Savages feels like a great carnival ride.

5. Tana French, Faithful Place. Frank Mackey and his first love, Rosie Daly, were going to leave their desperate Dublin neighborhood for a new life in London — but Rosie never showed, and Frank spent the rest of his life believing she'd stood him up, and gone off on her own. Twenty-two years later, Frank, an undercover police detective, gets a frantic call from his sister. Rosie's suitcase has turned up, hidden for decades in an abandoned building. It's only a matter of time before Frank finds out what happened to Rosie, and why, although it means the destruction of everything he thought he knew about his life. French gets everything right here: the delirium of young love, the complicated alliances of siblings, the way the things we believed at 19 shape who we are at 40. Gripping, heartbreaking, beautifully observed. Just brilliant.


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Ooh, Tana French...! Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

pattinase (abbott) said...

The first two are two of my all-time favorite books.

AnswerGirl said...

I started to cry about halfway through Faithful Place and pretty much kept crying to the end, for a whole host of reasons. Thank God my own family's nothing like the Mackeys, but anyone who grew up in a big family will recognize the dynamics, and anyone who was ever a teenager in love will recognize that rollercoaster of joy and pain. While I was impressed with In the Woods and loved The Likeness, this is (and deserves to be) her breakout novel.

Patti, I have several friends who rate Bel Canto among their all-time favorites, and I wonder whether I'd have felt the same way if I'd come to it with no expectations. It is so sharply observed that it felt almost clinical to me, and I felt that Patchett was deliberately keeping herself (and us) at a distance from her characters. As I say, I admired it a great deal, but didn't make the emotional connection I was hoping for.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I enjoyed Bel Canto, but I am with you, it didn't knock my socks off. Having said that I think Patchett in general is a really enjoyable author. I have read all of her novels and her one bit of memoir and look forward to more. Try her most recent "Run" or "The Patron Saint of Liars"

AnswerGirl said...

Definitely need to read more Ann Patchett. I read Truth and Beauty years ago, after my book club read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, but I don't think I've read any of her other fiction.