Murder, Myths, Swamps, Goldfinches and Mr. Lincoln

So much to read, so little time.  I use to be more forgiving and slog through many books, only to get to the end and wonder why I bothered.  These days I find that I’m less inclined to continue reading a book that hasn’t captured my attention in the first fifty pages and, even when I do continue, I still get to the end of some and wish I hadn’t.

Of the last five books I’ve read there’s only one I gave up on.  Normally I’m a sucker for historically based novels but George Saunders ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ surprised me when I abandoned it after a chapter.  It seemed to be an endless set of excerpts from documents around the beginning of the U.S. civil war, from people who had attended the White House ball given by the Lincoln’s to boost morale.  Regretfully it coincided with the untimely death of their son.  I don’t know if the excerpts were fictional or from authentic sources, but they provided the only source of mild amusement I derived with the conflicting accounts of the weather on the evening of the ball.  I had no real sense of where the story was heading and nothing that compelling me to continue.  Perhaps it gathered steam as it progressed, but I’ll have to leave that to any others who might find the period or the Lincolns an attraction sufficient to wade beyond the beginning.

My wife raved about Delia Owens ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’.  Set in the rural U.S. coastal south, the main character is one of a number of children in a family terrorized by their father’s drunken rages.  One by one, the children escape to parts unknown as soon as they become old enough to fend for themselves.  There are only two girls left when their mother abandons them.  By the time the father disappears there’s only one teen left.  She’s faced with solitary existence in her patch of swampland and adept at avoiding the school authorities and anyone living in the town.  From this impoverished background the girl manages to eke out a living and fend for herself.  She encounters a boy who has the patience to draw her closer and teachers her to read.  The story begins with a body in the marsh and the sheriff’s suspicion of foul play.  The victim is known to have had a relationship with the ‘marsh trash’ girl and he starts to build his case against her.  The events leading up to the death are slowly revealed.  The author’s choice at the end left me a bit puzzled.  After a careful perusal of the facts as presented, I found the surprising conclusion rather implausible.  That aside, the novel’s protagonist is a compelling character and the book is highly readable.

If you have any fondness for the old Greek mythological characters, you’ll enjoy Madeline Miller’s ‘Circe’.  Those less familiar with the gods of the ancient world would probably be well advised to first read the brief descriptions offered at the end of the book.  Circe, of course, was the quasi goddess that Odysseus encountered on his ten-year travels back home after the sack of Troy.  She turned all Odysseus’s men into swine before falling to the charms of this Greek hero.  Miller skillfully creates a compelling character in Circe and this reader got great enjoyment in watching her play with the gods and myths as she weaves the threads of Circe’s life.

If you are a fan of the good old fashioned murder mystery and don’t know the Inspector Gamache murder mysteries by Louise Penny, I recommend adding her to your list.  Set in the eastern townships of Quebec, the intrepid inspector is a man of method and order in the Hercule Poirot mold.  I’ve read several of the Gamache books and, while ‘A Rule Against Murder’ is not my favorite, it still gives the reader a well-crafted story and intriguing clues.  How were large stone sculptures inched into their proper places before the advent of cranes?  My biggest quibble about this particular book in the series is the rather lame conclusion in identifying the murder.  No, I don’t think it’s a ‘spoiler alert’ to wonder how many people would consider murdering the ex-wife of the person that did them wrong thirty years prior sufficient motivation for murder?  Hmmmm.

Despite the fact that the more I read, the less I work on revising my novels, one should recharge the writing compulsion and dip into other works for inspiration.  And that leaves only Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘The Goldfinch’ left on my recent reading binge.  The opening of this story really worked for me.  I loved the idea of using a young teen as a survivor of a terrorist bombing in a museum.  His mother is killed in the blast, he watches a stranger die in his arms and walks away with a priceless painting from the museum.  He is forced to move from New York to Las Vegas and live with his alcoholic father, a man who abandoned his wife and the boy some years before the museum attack.  In Vegas he gravitates to a Polish/Russian boy who has been pulled around the world by an alcoholic father with no interest in supervising anything he does.  The two teens drop out as they slide into drug addiction.  When the boy’s father is killed in a car crash while trying to flee his debts to gangsters, the boy flees back to New York without his Russian companion.  There he learns the antiques trade, begins a career of bilking customers with phony antiques, considers marriage to someone he doesn’t love, knowing she is already having it on with someone else, and considers how to return the painting without being arrested, not knowing that his old Russian friend long ago removed it from him and subsequent had it stolen. 

By the time he accidently reconnects with his old pal, now a Russian mini-mafioso, gets to Amsterdam and attempts to retrieve the painting, any initial empathy one has for the character has long since dissipated.  The plan to get the painting back goes seriously astray and we’re left with our hero in his hotel room, delirious from flu and drugs, moaning about how he needs to mend his ways.  Page after page after page after page… (you get the idea) is devoted to these ramblings in a kind of stream of consciousness style and, just when blessed relief arrives in the form of a resolution to come clean and take the consequences of his terrible life choices, the Russian gods drop out of the sky (‘Deus ex machina’ in the old Greek stories).  Now our hero can right all his wrongs and live a productive new life, happily ever after and only whacked out on drugs some of the time.

I enjoyed lots of it, but I could have happily done without the hundred pages of moaning (all right – I hyperbolize).

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