Monday, August 31, 2009

206 Bones, by Kathy Reichs

206 Bones is the 12th installment in Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan series. The series is the inspiratin for the TV show Bones; while both the books and the TV show feature a forensic anthropologist named Temperance Brennan who has a sexually fraught relationship with a cop/colleague, they share little else in common.

But back to 206 Bones. The title refers to the number of bones in the human body, and Tempe finds all of them when the body of a long-missing elderly woman is found in a shallow grave in Quebec, one of Tempe's stomping grounds. Days later, several of the phalanges are missing from Tempe's lab, the first sign that problems at the coroner's office go beyond the usual undercutting and (metaphoric) backstabbing. With trouble mounting and Tempe apparently clueless, I wanted to scream, "It's the obnoxious Marie-Andrea, idiot!" And, guess what? It was! Of course, over the course of the 250+ pages it took Tempe to figure it out, she and her colleague/sometime-lover Ryan solved five murders and Tempe managed to get buried in an old tomb on the site of a long-closed military cemetery.

206 Bones is a quick and fairly entertaining read for mystery lovers, though Reichs does get a bit preachy near the end about the need for professional certification for specialists in various forensic sciences. (A good point, I'm sure, but not that much fun to read about.)

Favorite Passage: "Tabarnouche!"

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Novel Conversations Book List

Our book group likes to look at lists of what other groups are reading, so here's a list of what Novel Conversations has read and will read in 2009:
  • January: Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies
  • February: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
  • March: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks
  • April: The Damascened Blade, by Barbara Cleverly
  • May: Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater
  • June: Twentieth Wife, by Indu Sundaresan
  • July: Bonk, by Mary Roach
  • August: The Guernsey Lierary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • September: Eventide, by Kent Haruf
  • October: Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan
  • November: Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell
  • December: Not picked yet

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Eventide, by Kent Haruf

As someone who grew up on farms in northern Illinois, I find many novels with rural settings annoying. Some authors romanticize small towns and farm life to the point of the treacly. Others sneer at rural dwellers and their way of life. Kent Haruf gets it right.

Eventide is set in Holt, a small town on the high plains of eastern Colorado, and picks up the story of several characters from Haruf's earlier book, Plainsong. I first read Plainsong and Eventide in rapid succession and didn't feel Eventide held up to its bestselling predecessor. This time, read in more isolation (although I did see the wonderful DCPA production of the play based on Plainsong last spring), Eventide felt stronger.

As Eventide opens, Victoria Roubideaux, the pregnant teenager of Plainsong, is now a young mother about to leave for college in Fort Collins with her daughter Katie. As the McPheron brothers, the elderly ranchers who took Victoria in when she was pregnant and homeless, cope with the loneliness they feel in Victoria and Katie's absence, Haruf introduces five other children, who aren't lucky enough to have Raymond and Harold McPheron in their lives. Joy Rae and Richie live with their parents, who love their children but are unable to protect them from a violent uncle. D.J. is an 11-year-old boy who is essentially a parent to his grandfather. The connection that D.J. makes with a neighbor girl named Dena is beautifully portrayed, but Dena and her sister Emma also face challenges at home: their mother is depressed, drinking, and dating inappropriate men.

While there are moments of hope and even joy in Eventide, the children's stories are profoundly sad. Haruf's spare style keeps the book from falling into melodrama, but the loneliness and pain are no less affecting for being told without flourishes.

Novel Conversations is reading this book for its September 2009 meeting; we chose it because it is the One Book/One Broomfield selection for this year--and I think it's a great book group selection. Unfortunately, I'm going to miss the meeting, but I'm hoping some of my colleagues will post their reflections on the discussion.

Favorite passage:
"It was still hot outside, though the sun had begun to lean to the west, and the first intimations of fall were in the air--that smell of dust and dry leaves, that annual lonesomeness that comes of summer closing down."

Of interest:
The September issue of 5280 Magazine has a nice series of short articles on communities on Colorado's High Plains, along with wonderful photographs:

Plainsong was on President Obama's reading list for his recent vacation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

American Cream, by Catherine Tudish

So, I crack this book open and the first scene...another death/burial. Two books in a row...too weird. This one, narrated in a whimsical tone by the dead person herself, sets an entirely different tone than the opening of that would lead you to believe that the book is going to have some fantasy/magical realism aspects. But you would be wrong: the rest of the book is a rather straightforward family drama.

Virginia, daughter of the dead woman in the first chapter, is in a snit because her father has remarried just a year after his wife's death (and he married the school lunch lady, which seems to intensify her anger). When her father rolls his tractor and is injured, Virginia decides she must spend the summer helping with the farm work--and she drags her 14-year-old son along with her (leaving her doctor-husband at home). She hooks up with her high school boyfriend (now married and the father of four), buys two rare American Cream horses in an attempt to keep her father from selling the family farm, and gets a wake-up call when her son runs away with the slutty neighbor girl. Oh please.

Most of the book is written in third-person from Virginia's perspective--but the author occasionally throws in a brief chapter in first-person from another character's perspective (Virginia's son, the stepmother, the disabled friend). I'm guessing the author is trying to give us other people's takes on Virginia...but really, we don't need them. We know more than we need to about her.

American Cream isn't a terrible book, but I don't recommend it.

Favorite passage:
"I'm too old to have a stepmother," she told him. "Only kids have stepmothers. And unlucky girls in fairy tales."

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

In the opening scene of Mudbound, a first novel by Hillary Jordan, Jamie and Henry McAllen are digging their father's a field at their farm...and while digging find the bones of another unfortunate buried there. The remainder of the book--set primarily in the post-World War II South and told in the voices of six characters--recounts the events that led to the rather gruesome opening scene. The six narrators--Jamie, Henry, and Henry's wife Laura (all white) and Hap, Florence, and Ronsel Jackson (all African-American)--are well-drawn, though characters not given a narrator's role are rather flat.

Central to the story is the racism that permeates the Mississippi community to which Jamie and Ronsel return after serving in World War II. While Jamie's war experiences seemed to feed his self-doubt (and alcoholism), Ronsel's showed him a new vision for living as an African-American man. The two quickly become friends ( Jamie, while progressive compared to other characters, does still harbor racist beliefs), but their friendship comes to a tragic end.

The two female narrators are also powerful voices. Laura was a "spinster" when she met and married Henry, and she delights in married life and motherhood. When her husband relocates the family from her home town of Memphis and brings his despicable father Pappy to live on the mudbound farm he has bought in Mississippi, she is angry and deeply unhappy (with good reason--the place sounds truly awful). She depends on Florence for housekeeping and medical help, but Florence clearly recognizes the limits of their "relationship."

Jordan uses some heavy-handed foreshadowing (one of my pet peeves). She doesn't need to have Hap tell us "That was the last time I ever heard my son's voice." We know something bad is going to happen to Ronsel from the moment he returns to Mississippi. While it is Pappy's grave being dug in the first scene, the reader knows that the real tragedy will occur elsewhere.

While I wouldn't call this a great book, it would be a good selection for book groups, providing plenty of both substantive and stylistic fodder for conversation.

Favorite passage:
"Henry had all the self-confidence that I lacked. He was certain of an astonishing number of things. Packards are the best-made American cars. Meat ought not to be eaten rare. Irving Berlin's "God Bless Ameirca" should be the national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is too difficult to sing. The Yankees will win the World Series. There will be another Great War in Europe, and the United States would do well to stay out of it. Blue is your color, Laura."

And still she married him...and wore blue.

Intro to Novel Conversations

I just saw Julie and Julia. The movie, like the book before it, made me want to blog. So, not having a clever idea for a marathon of cooking or quilting or whatever, what would I blog about? Social studies education (the area in which I work)? Ugh. Reading (my favorite pasttime)? A little more promising...

So I decided to steal the name of a book group I belong to (and nominally facilitate) and post some mini-reviews of books I'm reading. My son the budding literary scholar will undoubtedly dismiss my ramblings as ill-considered and without critical merit, but perhaps some other avid readers and book group members will find them worthwhile...or at least fun.