The past couple of weeks have been fortunate as far as book choices go. Most times you read a couple of reviews, flip through a few pages on Amazon and you’re still not sure it’s the right book for your mood. This time I got it right with a string of five books, some new, some not, one something I’d been meaning to read for a long time. It’s unusual to hit upon five in a row that all prove to be the right choice. Here are those that did it for me:
Continental Drift (1985) by Russell Banks
This is the book I had been meaning to read for the last several years. I’ve read a couple of other books by Banks, so to some extent knew what I was getting into. Continental Drift is about a luckless guy from New Hampshire who uproots his family from all and everyone they know and drags them to Florida trying to catch his dream. Like others before him, he falls prey to people looking to exploit, one of many looking for the chance to better themselves in a new setting. The story is built upon a marvelous cross section of characters that range from black and white, to old world and new, from the living as well as the dead. Continental Drift gives us a bleak perspective of opportunity in the America of the 1980s.
Long, Last, Happy (2010) by Barry Hannah
This selection of old and new stories was published shortly after the writer’s death. For a while there, Hannah was a blazing comet across the skies of American literature, a reputation ignited by his first novel, Geronimo Rex, published in 1972. He followed that with another novel before showing readers that his true power lay in short stories. Barry Hannah could do just about anything with words, leaving images on the page that you hadn’t thought were possible. The problem often arises that his beautiful sentences and use of language, along with his fascinating oddball characters never find the plot, or at least one that’s clear. For the reader with an interest in southern writing, Hannah shouldn’t be overlooked. He wrote a good many incomparable short stories that are taught in universities. Long, Last, Happy is a good sampling.
The Painter (2014) by Peter Heller
After reading Heller’s earlier book, The Dog Stars, his new book grabbed my attention at first glance. The author has written mostly non-fiction, but makes the shift to fiction without the least stumble. In the two books I’ve read, Heller tells a story of moral ambiguity, the main characters in each at battle with the laws, traditions and culture that have shaped them. The Painter is about a man successful in his painting but with less luck in his personal life, where violence seems to almost seek him out. Jim Stegner is trying to outrun his past but keeps bumping into reminders that threaten to undo him. The story is set in Colorado and New Mexico, a landscape that is as rugged as it is lyrical and Heller soars in his descriptions of fly fishing in creeks meandering along canyon walls under an overhang of lime-green cottonwoods. With short, abrupt sentences and paragraphs you would expect the story to flow with less grace. Not so with Peter Heller.
The Son (2014) by Jo Nesbo
Saw this book in the window of my tiny local library and checked it out mostly because I had never read anything by a modern Norwegian novelist, or anything set in the city of Oslo. From the first page this crime novel grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Jo Nesbo has a new fan and after the last page of The Son, I jumped up to order two more of his books. The son in this story is a young man serving time in prison for the crimes of others. He is accepting of his sentence until learning that his father’s suicide was not that at all. He escapes from prison (very cleverly) and begins working down a list of those who he believes killed his father. The question is, who will get him first, the cops or the criminals?
The Keillor Reader (2014) by Garrison Keillor
I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor for two things in particular. It is a long custom of mine to begin each day with a cup of coffee and the latest online edition of The Writer’s Almanac. That has led me to read Keillor’s several compilations of poetry which have done a lot to re-shape my appreciation of a form that high school taught me to hate. By hook or by crook find a copy of Keillor’s splendid introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times (2005) wherein he explains what poetry really is and who it is meant for. The Keillor Reader is something just out and is a collection of his writings over the last forty years. There is so much humanity and warm humor in this writer’s stories that natural reaction is a smile that lasts for 358 pages. Never read any of the Lake Wobegon stories? This one’s for you. I took great enjoyment from this little snippet out of “The News from Lake Wobegon.”
‘I wish to be cremated… I wish my ashes to be placed in the green bowling ball that Raoul also gave me, which somebody can hollow out (I’m told), and then seal it up, and I would like the ball to be dropped into Lake Wobegon.’