Wednesday, November 7, 2007

October Book Reviews - Enger, Wilson, and Burke Shine; Maeve Not Binchy's Best

October's books include a great novel by first-time author Leif Enger, a non-fiction manifesto by reknown biologist E.O. Wilson, both a set of short stories and a novel by one of Louisiana's most popular authors, James Lee Burke, and another tale of life in Dublin by Irish author Maeve Binchy.

In order of my enjoyment level, the titles are:

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Well Above Average - We picked this 2002 publication off our ninth-grader's summer reading list. It proved to be one of the best books I've read in 2007. First-time novelist Leif Enger tells a story from the land of Prairie Home Companion, Roofing, Minnesota in the early 1960s, but with miracles and a something like a murder to upset the normalcy. Fittingly the story moves from Minnesota to neighboring North Dakota, home of the Coen Brothers' movie Fargo, where life in the badlands makes no pretension of normalcy.

Like the children of fictional Lake Woebegone, Asthmatic 11-year old narrator Reuben Land and his precocious 9-year old sister Swede, a wordsmith who specializes in epic poetry with an Old West slant, are both well above average as they guide us through Enger's tale of the sometimes conflicting values of justice, loyalty and faith. Father Jeremiah Land and woolly woodsman Jape Waltzer add spiritual notes, on both sides of the age-old battle between good and evil. Grown-beyond-his-years brother Davey works both sides of the aisle on his own. FBI agent Martin Andreeson does his best to stay grounded in a manhunt (and man and children hunt). Several other minor characters pepper the story, with some such as travelling salesman Tin Lurvy finding their way unexpectedly into the plot. Such occurrences, unlikely as they seem, make the reader think about the nature of coincidence vs. miracle, a distinction that seems pretty obvious to an 11-year old boy who worships his father. The novel slows a little in the last third as the manhunt nears its end, but Enger concocts a surprising, touching and fitting ending to it all.

As a big fan of "the book inside the book", I loved Swede's ongoing epic poem about Western hero Sunny Sundown. I salute Enger for both mastering this form (perhaps a little too well for a supposed 9-year old, though who knows about prodigies--Mozart composed piano concertos at age 7) and working it into the story in such an entertaining and relevant manner. I also enjoyed the spiritual element brought to the story, primarily by the Land family patriarch.

Like the Georgia-based coming-of-age novel (also from the 9th grade summer reading list) Cold Sassy Tree, I recommend Peace Like a River to 100 years of readers-- age 11 to 111. I moved the bottom of the scale up a couple of years because of violent nature of the first few chapters, as the conflict and the killing are set up and carried out. As far as I can tell, this is Enger's only novel. I hope he's working on another.

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth by E.O. Wilson

A Miracle Worth Saving - I heard a sermon based this book at my church and bought a copy at the book table after the service. Like me, the eminent biologist Wilson is a secular humanist. Unlike me, Wilson has made study and thought about nature his life's work. In "The Creation" he appeals to fundamental Christians (as one of which he was raised) to consider the commonality of their beliefs--that the miracle of creation, whether created by God in seven days, or evolved after the Big Bang over a period of billions of years, is something worth saving. He goes on to demonstrate how humans, the supposed lords of the earth, depend of the rest of the nature for their continued existence.

Wilson's sincere attempt to bridge the gap between religion and science is much appreciated by a reader like me who tries to stay grounded in both worlds. My religious tradition, Unitarian-Universalism, calls the concept described by Wilson as the "interdependent web of life". It's heartening to read some real structure to add to that foundation. I also will follow with interest his effort to create an on-line Encyclopedia of Life ( A prototype edition is due out in mid-2008. Wilson also offers ideas on how biology should be taught to develop a generations of citizen environmentalists who can each do their part in this civilization-saving work. After I read this book, I contacted my daughter's high school biology teacher. To my delight, she responded that Wilson was her hero, and that she assigned another of his books to her advanced placement class.

Whether you come at the subject from the scientific or religious perspective, or from somewhere in between, you'll gain a broad perspective on the issue of global sustainability and mankind's role in the struggle. Highly recommended to all readers--middle school on up--even a 5th or 6th grader with a strong interest in nature could enjoy and learn from Wilson's short but powerful book.

Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke

From the Mountains to the Bayous - I've read a lot of novels by Burke, but this was my first short story collection (and maybe his too?) The title, cover and timing might lead you to think that Jesus Out to Sea would be a set of post-Katrina stories, all set on the Gulf Coast--site of so many of Burke's works. The title story and one other fit that mold, but the others are rooted in Burke's life as a resident of both Louisiana and Montana. He writes mountain stories, gulf stories, woods stories, bayou stories and a couple with an eye toward childhood that don't feature any geography at all, other than the lower class neighborhoods of small south Louisiana towns. After reading the Montana-based stories, I expect Burke to bring forth a northwoods novel before long.

After reading Burke's action-packed novels, I was a little disappointed at first by the lack of resolution in a couple of the early stories. Later stories ended more satisfyingly, but life can be unresolved as well. Maybe Burke was trying to make that point. Maybe I was expecting Dave Robicheaux to set things straight. Burke's skill with the language of common people carries over from his novels. He did a lot of living and listening before embarking on his very successful writing career.

Burke isn't quite the revelation he was when my wife and I discovered him 15 years ago, but he's always a thought-provoking and pleasurable read. Four stars for adult readers. Younger readers from Louisiana might be interested in reading what small town life was like 50 years ago, though the stories featuring younger protagonists have a decidedly creepy tinge.

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke

Burke Ascending - In the latest Dave Robicheaux story to reach paperback, James Lee Burke hits all the expected notes--Dave's past haunts him; Dave drinks; Dave and sidekick Clete Purcel battle lowlifes from all ranks of the social structure; Dave and Clete duel with law enforcement agents from all along the food chain; Dave loves his new wife Molly (number three after the tragic death of number one and the untimely death of number two) and his pet three-legged raccoon Tripod. With all this familiar ground, Burke has to work hard to keep his readers on their toes. This he accomplishes with a twisted plot that wraps around around not one, but three deaths--a hit-and-run from the cold case file, an apparent suicide of a young coed, and a no-doubt-about-it murder committed at close range with a shotgun, that Dave is convinced are related, even though he has precious little evidence to prove it. Somehow, a mob hit from Dave's early drinking days works its way into the mix. Burke skillfully keeps all these plates spinning, with his best trick being a finish that will surprise not only you, but Dave too.

Burke's hard-boiled, yet waxing-poetic prose falls short of great literature, but it's well worth the time needed to ride shotgun on Dave's wild beat. If his experience is anything like the real world of a deputy in a small town in south Louisiana, I live near one of the most dangerous places on earth. (One small complaint--the casino shown on the cover is misleading; the casino industry is a sidelight at the most. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a more fitting setting for cover art, might not have been too thrilled about seeing one of their buildings under the title.) Four bright stars for adult readers and teenage fans of the detective genre.

Quentins by Maeve Binchy

An Unappetizing Meal - I finally finished this one about a month after I started it. What a dropoff from number four on this month's list. We bought the hardback for a few bucks off a table of used books in a general store in downstate Indiana. The book was in fine condition. The story was not.

"Quentins" tells the tale of a young Irish woman's adventure in love and documentary filmmaking. Protagonist Ella Brady tries to rebound from a bad love affair by joining a small filmmaking crew who sets out to tell the story of Dublin's last 30 years through the customers and crew of a popular restaurant. The first reel is interesting from a soap operaish perspective. Reel Two is stultifyingly boring as the we slog through a series of vignettes meant to be the content of the documentary. The third reel is disappointingly predictable.

Peeking out from all this is a moderately interesting story of how Quentins came to be, from the perspectives of ownership, operation, and its grammatically-incorrect name. Like eating an unappetizing meal, I picked at this one for a long time, before the fast-approaching end of the month yelled at me to clean my plate, at which time I force fed myself the last 100 or so pages, just so I could show you this clean, shiny review and move onto dessert (which I'm eating, I mean reading, now--come back next month to see how I liked it).

That's it for October. Check back in early December for reviews of my November reads--"Louisiana Bigshot", a New Orleans-based mystery by Julie Smith, and "The Lay of the Land" by Richard Ford are first on the menu.


John said...
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