Thirteen Books (Thursday Thirteen)

Alison Kent does this thing on Thursdays, a variation on the meme. This week I decided to jump in. Here are thirteen books at the top of my to be read (or, to be re-read) pile, but in no particular order.

1. The Power of the Dog: A Novel (Thomas Savage)
2. A gentleman of color: the life of James Forten (Julie Winch)
3. American grit : a woman’s letters from the Ohio frontier (Anna Briggs Bentley)
4. Denmark Vesey (David Robertson)
5. The Thirteenth tale: A Novel (Diane Setterfield)
6. Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud)
7. Cancer Vixen: A True Story (Marisa Acocella Marchetto)
8. The Observations (Jane Harris)
9. King Leopold’s ghost : a story of greed, terror, and heroism in Colonial Africa (Adam Hochschild)
10. Brookland (Emily Barton)
11. Little, Big (John Crowley)
12. Summer at Willow Lake (Susan Wiggs)
13. The Crossroads Cafe (Deborah Smith)

Border Dogs — Karen Palmer

In her second novel, Palmer moves from New Orleans in the fifties to the borderlands between the US and Mexico, and into the present day. It’s quite a jump, but she lands cleanly.

The title here is thematic and concrete, both. James Reece is a man in that gray area between youth and solid middle age; he was born to a Mexican/Indian father and a blond California mother and brought up by adoptive white parents. He makes his living as a border guard sending illegal immigrants back to Mexico, again operating in the borderlands, always second guessing himself and where he belongs.

The novel holds loosely to the conventions of a mystery — or multiple myteries — about his own past, his parents, his father’s death — and the discovery of a the body of a little boy in his adoptive father’s flower fields. What struck me most forcibly about this novel is the strength of the main characterization. James Reece is a complex and conflicted man, but within about fifty pages I felt I had a real grasp of the way he thought and the things that moved him.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of research that must have gone into this novel, as the circumstances and setting are so foreign to me personally. Yet the details have the gritty feel of authenticity, due in part to prose that approaches the lyrical in passages. I should say that it does feel at times as if Palmer is on the verge of loosing control of a detailed and complex plot — the scene of the fire in the canyon comes to mind. Also, there are many crucial characters here, almost too many to develop fully. The two that I would have liked to see more clearly were Mercedes (James’ wife) and Richard Serrano, the Coyote who preys on the illegals he shepards over the border to the extent of robbing them of their shoes.

Niccolo Rising, Dorothy Dunnett: my favorite historical novel of all time

[asa book]0375704779[/asa] This is from Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising:

He departed. So, in due course did Messer Pigello, followed by Claes and his satchel. Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it.

I have re-read this novel and the rest of the series many times, but some things never change, no matter how many times I pick them up.

First, I have to read Niccolo very, very slowly. Dunnett has absolutely no patience with lazy readers. The plot is very complex and she doesn’t coddle: you read closely, or you will be lost. It’s amazing, really, (and heartening) that these stories are so popular and widely read in a day and age where people seem to lean toward the easier options available to them.

Second, I don’t mind being a little confused and having to read slowly or even to re-read, because there are riches here to be enjoyed. She writes like a Brueghel painting: there’s so much going on, you have to dedicate all your attention but when you do, you’ll be amazed and rewarded.

Which brings me to this short paragraph I’ve quoted from Niccolo Rising. This is, of course, historical fiction. the Niccolo series starts out in fifteenth century Bruges, which was the capital city of Flanders and today is widely considered to be the best preserved medieval city in Belgium. The main character, Claes, is introduced as an awkward, good natured, good looking eighteen year old with a penchant for getting himself and others into trouble, for romancing housemaids, and mostly for surviving the beatings everybody seems to heap on him. But that’s just the early impression. Claes (who undergoes a transformation and will be known, eventually, as Niccolo) is about as complex and interesting a character I have ever run into in print.

The reason this paragraph delights me is that Dunnett manages to do so many things in a few words. She sets us up for more of Claes’ macchinations, and she also points this out, an author intrusion of the gentlest sort: Lacking a good astrologer, no one saw any harm in it. She keeps the tone and the voice of the time, which is very difficult to do. Strictly speaking, this kind of authorial intrusion should be disruptive in a novel that otherwise limits point of view very strictly (which is one of the reasons the plot comes across as so complex — Niccolo has got a handle on everything, but she rarely lets us in his head, because that would give far too much away, and Dunnett intends to make the reader wait). But it works anyway. Why? I don’t know. I do know that she’s got a truly distinctive authorial voice, something that is rare and to my mind, precious.

I adore this novel. I would love to set up a wiki and take it apart, sentence by sentence, image by image, historical facts one by one.