I’ve had a run of extraordinary good luck with my reading selections lately.
I suppose I should start by explaining that my method for deciding what books to read is not at all predictable. I used to read heavily in a few specific genres: police procedural mysteries, English “cozy” mysteries, adventure/espionage thrillers, and Sci Fi/Fantasy. At some point in time I began to lose patience with most of the material written in those genres. All that is left of my desire to read genres is some mysteries (which I suppose could be lumped into some sort of English mystery category—think anything the BBC would turn into a series), hard Sci Fi (if it’s not based in scientific theory I don’t want to read it), and very well written fantasy (but only occasionally and it had better have a different slant to it than most).
Given that all my tried and true sources had begun to bore me, I started just looking for anything new. I suppose this is a good thing for a librarian (although it would be better if I read more books than I do), but what’s surprising is how varied the results can be. Basically I look for new things coming in that pique my interest in some way or other. Interesting characters, new takes on old themes, meaningful insights into the human condition. In other words, books that tend to get lumped into the very broad category of “literate fiction.”
The unfortunate side effect of this is that I wind up reading a lot of crap. Apparently there are still a lot of people out there trying to write the Great American Novel, and the results are pretty disappointing. If I had to guess at what makes the difference between a decent book that I have to slog through and a great book that I want to tell other people about, it is whether or not the author was trying to write the book or if the book came to be. Anyone out there who’s tried writing knows that the former is death, the latter is brilliance.
Which is why it’s so odd that I’ve had three in a row that have hit the ball out of the park. They really have nothing to do with each other, except that I’ve read them and liked them all. So, without further ado, I humbly present to you my latest selections.
Brothers by Da Chen.
I have been fascinated for a very long time by Asia generally and China specifically. I’ve done a lot of reading about Chinese history, especially Chinese history from the end of the empire to today. Oddly enough, I have learned more about the Chinese people and culture from reading novels by Chinese authors than I have from any work of non-fiction. This book fits into this trend perfectly. Brothers tells the story of two half-brothers, fathered by the favorite son of two of the most powerful families in Maoist China. Each brother has the intelligence and the drive to become great and do great things. However, over the course of the Vietnam war, the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, and the opening of communist China to the west, the brother who seemed to be the favorite son finds himself brought low, while the bastard son is elevated to the highest levels. Not only does this story illustrate so much of what is wrong with China and so much of what could be right, it also shows how people with the best motives can find themselves in a position of doing horrible things.
Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle
I’ve always liked T.C. Boyle’s style of writing, and his topics are always new and interesting. In Talk Talk he takes on the specter of identity theft, but approaches it with the insight, novelty, and humor that marks all his books. Dana Halter is a happy and successful teacher with a nice boyfriend and a good job. She also happens to be deaf, while her boyfriend is hearing. One day during a routine traffic stop she finds herself arrested and taken to jail for things she didn’t do. It eventually becomes clear that her identity has been stolen. When she finds that the police and the government are unwilling or unable to do anything about it, she resolves to go after the man responsible herself. Her boyfriend decides to put his job and his life on the line to go with her. Boyle then introduces us to the thief: a man with his own life, needs, and reasons for doing what he does. The ensuing cat and mouse game between the two turns into a cross-country chase that will wholly engage you in the lives of the characters, as well as what it means to be who we are, and how we all communicate with each other. Boyle’s descriptions of the events in this story are so compelling that you will find your heart racing and your nerves on edge with the difficulty of the situations the characters find themselves in.
The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens
My sister-in-law’s husband received this as a gift for Christmas, and when I read the fly-leaf I couldn’t figure out how it had slipped beneath my radar. This is exactly the sort of book I look for. Set during the great potato famine in Ireland, the story follows a boy named Fergus as he watches the simple world he knew of mountains, fields, and cattle in County Clare crumble and die in the face of the terrible blight. After his entire family dies and he is ejected from the land of the farmer whose tenants his family was, he gradually makes his way through a series of trials from the mountains of western Ireland to Dublin to Liverpool and eventually on to America. The story is expertly paced, with the adventures moving quickly enough to keep you turning the pages, but not so quickly that you can’t appreciate the trials he goes through and relish in his triumphs, however small they may be. A great telling of a horrible tale, and another great story about the ability of the human soul to overcome anything.
Entry filed under: Books.