In the past few months I’ve been reading like there’s no tomorrow. Here’s my attempt to catch up the blogging to the reading.
This was a book club read, and not a genre I generally visit: Nordic crime fiction. Probably Stieg Larsson fans would devour it, or at least I guess they would (I’ve only seen the Dragon Tattoo movie — parts of it with my hands over my eyes — and haven’t read the book). Plot-driven doesn’t begin to describe it; I will say that the pages practically turned themselves. The plot involves a kidnapped 3-year-old boy in a suitcase, a thug with rage issues, and a Red Cross nurse who can’t conquer her need to rescue children. For me, though, the characters were on the stereotypical side. If you enjoy that edge of the seat thing, this may well be just your cup of tea.
This one took a while to sink its hooks into me, but when it did, I finished the last third of the book in one sitting. The story also involves a kidnapping — this time by a divorced father frustrated by a custody battle. The father’s back story, though, added layers of interest for me. He immigrated to a working class part of Boston from East Germany with his father, and as a young boy, created a new, moneyed identity for himself, taking Kennedy for his surname. (There are some similarities between this character and Clark Rockefeller, which Gaige addresses in this NPR interview). He never goes back, marrying and having a daughter under this identity. It’s only when he tries to steal a vacation with his estranged daughter that his duplicity comes home to roost. The suspense builds as he tries to tell his secrets to his daughter before the law catches up with him. Gaige does an excellent job of making his reasons believable, while keeping the plot moving. This was a page-turner with the payoff of complex and believable characters.
Continuing with the theme of identity, James McBride wrote this memoir in the mid-90s, after repeatedly grilling his mother about her mysterious past. As it turned out, she grew up with an abusive Orthodox rabbi for a father, in a mostly black, wrong-side-of-the-tracks neighborhood in Suffolk, Virginia. McBride alternates his side of the story with hers, and it’s quite a tale. She raised 12 children on very little money, by sheer determination, and managed to get most of them not only through college, but on to graduate degrees.
Still more about identity and family dynamics: A. M. Homes has written a black comic wristbreaker about two brothers: George, a high-powered TV executive, and Harold, a nebbishy Nixon scholar. George is as volatile as Harold is passive; when George erupts violently, Harold assumes responsibility for his children, his house, and some of the collateral damage, almost by default. This is a big, enjoyable read. Salman Rushdie says “This novel starts at maximum force — and then it really gets going.” I didn’t see the similarity to John Irving till near the end, but I think she outdoes him, and I like John Irving.
While billed as a novel, Triburbia could almost as easily be called a collection of stories. Set in Tribeca, its characters are all fathers who live within a few blocks of each other. They meet for coffee regularly after dropping off their children at school. The connections between them are peppered through the book — as you read about one father, you realize aha! that’s the guy having an affair with the chef’s wife! — but are almost incidental, rather than the closer relationships you might expect in a novel. Either way, I enjoyed it as a window on a very specific NYC neighborhood where timing and the real estate market can make for some unusual neighbors.
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, musician Ry Cooder has written about a similarly connected group of fictional characters in 1940s-1950s LA. A collector of data for the LA City Directory, a tailor who sews suits for mariachi bands, a cross-dressing female musician — these are unique characters whose paths cross only occasionally. For my money, Cooder has successfully made the storytelling transition from song to print. If you’ve enjoyed his California Trilogy of CDs (Chavez Ravine, My Name is Buddy, and I, Flathead), these stories may seem like a fleshed out extension of that world.
author photos, from top:
Mark Dye/PR Photos