In Brief: Recent Reads

Friends, Romans, countrypersons: if I had my druthers, I’d review every book I read in-depth, but alas, my druthers never seem to be had. Herewith, three recent—and very different—titles in brief.

The High Divide** by Lin Enger

photo (8)Perfect if you’re looking for a Western with big themes.

One day, Ulysses Pope walks away from his home, his wife Gretta, and their two sons, Eli and Danny—without any explanation. Eli and Danny decide to follow him, and Gretta them, and their odyssey (you knew that was coming, right?) becomes both a search for survival in a changing Western environment and a search for forgiveness. Mr. Enger writes women very well, has a knack for the perfect detail, and somehow kept me reading even though child endangerment (in this case, running away on trains) usually scares me off. And I loved the book’s ending. Highly recommended.


Rooms* by Lauren Oliver

photo 1Perfect if you’re still craving spooky after Halloween.

Ms. Oliver is known for her young adult fiction (which I haven’t read); Rooms is her first novel for adults. It’s a ghost story, in a way, but with a nice twist: the house is a ghost, or rather, ghosts. A family (dipsomaniac mother, nymphomaniac daughter, depressed son) returns to their country home after the death of the estranged patriarch. Mysteries—theirs and the ghosts’—ensue. Rooms is a great example of a novel with near-completely unlikable protagonists that is nonetheless compelling. The ghosts are a treat to read, and for a few days the normal sounds of house (creaks, buzzes, sighs) might seem very strange.

The Divorce Papers** by Susan Rieger

photo 2Perfect for the plane (which is where I read it).

The Divorce Papers is amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. Despite its chick-lit pink cover (detest, detest, detest), the book features some seriously interesting legal writing (Ms. Rieger is a lawyer, and this is her first novel). Sophie is a criminal lawyer in the fictional state of Narragansett who’s pulled into a high-profile divorce case against her better judgment. As the title suggests, The Divorce Papers is an epistolary novel, combining Sophie’s memos, legal briefs, court cases, emails, rage notes between soon-to-be-ex-spouses, and other documents. I liked the (invented) legal cases the best; Sophie’s emails to her boss (both personal and professional) made me cringe — no lawyer I know would ever in million years write in such a fashion to her (or his) boss, but that’s artistic license, I suppose. A subplot about sexism in law firms had great potential, but fell flat. I’d like to see what Ms. Rieger could do with a protagonist who doesn’t whine about being teased for going to Yale Law (seriously?) and a subject other than divorce, especially given the detail and wonderful voices of her case summaries.

*I received this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** I received these books from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

Recommended Reading: The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

photo (130)I love Westerns, I love books that keep me guessing, and I love a book that makes me see a landscape. Kim Zupan’s debut novel, The Ploughmen*, is all three, and was an excellent reading experience.

John Gload is a murderer, plain and simple. Murder is how he made his living, and in his late seventies, he’s finally been caught and is waiting for his trial. He’s smart, strong, and utterly unrepentant.

Valentine Millimaki is a sheriff’s deputy, the most junior man on the force and its most skilled tracker; together with his dog he searches for people lost in Montana’s wildernesses. Haunted by the death of his mother, on a bad streak of finding only bodies, and fighting to keep his marriage going, he comes to sit by Gload’s cell at night, to talk and to listen.

The two men have more in common than they know, and slowly, they share more with each other. Valentine’s job is to extract information out of Gload that will damn him at trial; Gload finds himself concerned by Valentine’s appearance, as the long night shifts and daytime insomnia take their toll.

For the rest of us, thought, thought Millimaki, the distance from reason to rage is short, a frontier as thin as parchment and as frail, restraining the monster. It was there in everyone, he thought. It was there in himself. (113)

The Ploughmen is tense; I was never sure what would be revealed next, or how the two men’s relationship would develop. It’s not a tale of redemption, but neither does it glory in cruelty for its own sake. The violence in the novel isn’t sanitized, but it almost seems to be played off-stage.

Often Westerns are described as “spare,” but The Ploughmen is the opposite. Mr. Zupan’s prose, almost old-fashioned, given the novel’s contemporary setting, luxuriates in the Montana landscapes he knows so well; seldom have I been able to picture a place so clearly.

Far below through the greening trees he could almost see the place along the creek where they’d swum one afternoon in their courting days. To get there they pushed through undergrowth and came out near the creek and from the tall grass and thin willow stems at their elbows rose a cloud of small orange butterflies and they went before them on the warm air like a blizzard of flower petals strewn before heroes. (120)

Despite its beauty, at times the landscape, with its blizzards and wildlife and craggy ravines is just as brutal as John Gload’s hands. Valentine is used to seeing death from exposure, and John Gload has caused death by violence, but old age and sorrow too haunt the jail they share together.

The Ploughmen is about searching, no matter how little hope there is, and no matter how strange or difficult the object of the search.

Highly recommended reading. Also recommended: Rory’s wonderful review.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses

photo 2 (18)Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel, Painted Horses*, is a Western that’s not limited to the West. It’s ambitious, engaging, and sure to be the start of a long literary career.

In 1956, graduate student Catherine LeMay is hired by the Smithsonian to spend a few months in Montana proving that a canyon set to be destroyed by a proposed dam isn’t the site of any artifacts of archaeological significance. Catherine made a name for herself in London, and wjile North American archaeology isn’t her field of expertise, she’s eager to prove up to the challenge, facing down doubts from her parents, her fiancé, and her colleagues.

In Montana, Catherine is daunted by the canyon “as deep as Satan’s own appetites” and finds her guide, a horse breaker named Jack Allen, more adversarial than helpful. Still, in the small town near the canyon she finds people sympathetic to her project: Mr. Caldwell, a gas station owner and former dam worker himself; Miriam, a young Native American woman with loyalties to both the past and the future; and John H, a mysterious horseman with a penchant for painting and a knack for coming across Catherine when she least expects it.

The novel revolves around Catherine and John H. Their histories are slowly revealed as their paths start to intersect, and it’s in John H’s sections that Mr. Brooks’s writing shines brightest. John H is in many ways a classic Western (and Hemingway) hero: strong, silent, skilled, and deeply wounded by what he’s witnessed. By giving John H an early life far from Montana, and war experiences in Europe, Mr. Brooks expertly shows the lure of the West as it was.

Painted Horses is a novel of competing interests, particularly the perils of preservation and progress. Catherine in some ways embodies this tension, focused as she is on preserving history, while at the same time, both as a woman in a male-dominated field and also as an Easterner acclimating to the West, embodying different kinds of progress. John H, too, appears as a relic of a way of life that’s dead or dying, while also carrying with him the scars of the modern world. Like the best literature, Painted Horses offers more questions than answers, and resists easy political interpretations by giving us Miriam, who whirls in traditional tribal dances but wonders whether her family, too, shouldn’t want power and light.

The novel is filled to the brim with beautiful scenery, and unexpected scenes; a woman lining her eyes with kohl, a grove of carved aspens, a particular hat trod underneath a horse’s hoof. Mr. Brooks pokes fun at some of the Western’s favorite tropes; for every laconic horse breaker or sheep herder in Painted Horses, there is a character who speaks in paragraphs, a loquaciousness that seems unusual and a bit funny. Also unexpected, but most welcome, are the novel’s many references to Basque culture and language.

Painted Horses is a pleasure to read, bringing together as it does painting, history, archaeology, horses, and landscape into sharp focus. It’s a gorgeous exploration of the American West on the knife’s edge of change.

Coming soon: An interview with Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.