Monday, April 14, 2014

Books books books

It has been a while since I've written about books but that isn't because I haven't been reading anything worthy. I've just been lazy about putting my thoughts together. So without further ado, here are four books that I recently read and loved, for wildly different reasons.

 Hild by Nicola Griffith
This was a really gratifying read, though not an easy one. I had sticky notes marking maps of 7th C Britain, lineage charts, glossary and pronunciation guides. But I loved this story of Hild, the Angle king's seer. It may have helped that I felt a connection to the location--it's set in what is mostly present day Yorkshire--because my grandmother lived in a town called Ingleby greenhow (which translates to Angles by the Green Hill), so I could superimpose my memories of the landscape onto the text. What stood out for me in Griffith's writing was the incredible vividness of the natural world--plants, birds, animals, weather, rocks--it all was so detailed and rich in this book, particularly tastes, smells and sounds (which I think are much harder to capture via the written word than visual descriptions). Here's a sample:

"She walked in the evening through her domain, as aware of it as of her own body. The dragonflies and damselflies zooming over the water; the gush and rush and mineral bit of the millrace compared to the softer babble of the beck. The clatter of reeds by the pond scented with green secrets; the chatter of wrens and goldcrest flocks, squabbling with each other like rival gangs of children." p.482 

There are descriptions like this on pretty much every other page which made me slow down and read with all my senses. I'm looking forward to the next installment of Hild's life.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This is an amazing first novel about the wars in Chechnya. It feels particularly relevant with the present Russian crap going on in Crimea--another place that I find hard to picture. But after reading this book, I have a far better understanding of what happened in a part of the world not far from today's conflict. 

The ending was perhaps a little bit tidy as far as tying the different story lines together, but the novel was forceful in its humanism and the author so clearly loved his characters that I found the decision to be understandable. 

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
This novel is a really interesting distopia (for grownups!) It takes present economic conditions (increasing disparity between haves and have nots) and extends them to their extremes. Then the author plops down an unshakeable every-woman character to experience all three economic models that are depicted. It's told in a compelling "group" voice using "we" as the main pronoun and makes the journey of the main-character into something mythic. I've read some reviews where people were bugged by this voice, but I was charmed by it. I've found myself thinking of this book as I read stories in the news about civil unrest, the environment and clashing political systems and wonder what the future will look like.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Wow, what a voice! This novel blew me away (and that sentiment seems pretty universal since it won the National Book Award). The story and the language it is told in manages to be poetic and ribald and funny and poignant, all at the same time. Here's a little taste:

"The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn't no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn't speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed he was crazy. At least he knowed who he was." p.343

I had a hard time reading the last 75 or so pages because the sense of loss for the Old Man was so intense that I didn't want to experience it. But when I steeled myself and dove in, it was worth it--a beautiful, funny, sad goodbye to such a memorable character.  

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