Reading List 2011 (7/192)

More books! Everyone loves books!

  • Pfitz, Andrew Crumey
  • The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta
  • Headhunters, Jo Nesbo
  • UR / Mile 81, Stephen King
  • Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King
  • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  • The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen

First things first: I have a confession to make. When I was in high school, I was obsessed with Les Mis. I only saw the musical a couple of times, but I knew every single word of the lyrics – and I read the book it was based on over, and over, and over again. My sister recently reminded me of this period in my life, as she’s been singing it herself, so I decided to give it a re-read as an adult. What I’ve learned? My tolerance for random digressions onto various topics (the Battle of Waterloo, the history of convents, the Paris sewer system) is much less these days than it was when I was a teen.

In its defense, Les Miserables is one of those sprawling novels with lots of subplots. The redemption of Jean Valjean – former convict, redeemed by the loving gesture of a country bishop – provides the main through-line for the story, but you get a working-woman’s tragedy (Fantine), a love story (Cosette and Marius), a drama of the 1832 Paris riots (Enjolras and Gavroche), a criminal conspiracy (the Thenardiers), a police hunt (Javert) and more. The brilliance of the novel is in how it weaves these plots together, with each figure in the novel participating in two or more of these sub-stories. It means he can create dramatic cohesiveness out of the characters’ participation in assorted plots, rather than relying on coincidence or a deus ex machina. On the other hand, oh man he loves his digressions. If the book weren’t over a thousand pages, they might be very entertaining, but after a while the story was feeling like something that occasionally occurred between blocks of exposition. Verdict? Skip the digressions, or just see the musical. It’s really pretty good.

The Leftovers was unfailingly fantastic – especially if you read Fred Clark‘s scathing close readings of the Left Behind series. Perrotta imagines what would happen to our world if, indeed, a whole lot of people simply disappeared in a single instant. He has a remarkably loving, human, intimate way of imagining the trauma and tragedy of it. He focuses on the Garvey family of Mapleton, who didn’t lose any immediate family, and starts three years after the event. Both are brilliant choices. They give him a necessary distance. It means he can look at how such a thing rocks our assumptions about the way the world works, and how the lives we lead now cannot go on, not as they are, not in the face of something so enormous and inexplicable. But, of course, we are always faced with the enormous and inexplicable disappearances of those we love. It just doesn’t happen all at once. This book will make you rethink why you live the way you do. You will probably also cry. I did.

If The Leftovers is likely to pierce your heart, Pfitz is a more cerebral delight. The prince of an obscure European city-state decides he will set his people to creating an imaginary city, complete with designs for every building, biographies of every resident, its own artistic traditions, and more. The main character finds an inconsistency in the city maps (someone’s name has been written, then erased!). When he goes hunting for an explanation, he finds more trouble than he expected. It’s a sort of noir Borges – noir-ges? – with a mysterious love interest, a story-within-a-story, and plenty of questions about the reality and purpose of fiction. I didn’t love it, but only because it isn’t exactly meant to be loved; I always felt I was being held at arms length, asked to analyze rather than enjoy. It will make your brain work hard, but only in the most delightful way.

Headhunters uses head and heart to take you for one hell of a thrill ride. The main character is a corporate recruiter who uses his job to cleverly make some (illegal) money on the side. When he comes up against someone who is using being recruited for the same purpose, fireworks ensue. It’s not exactly a book for the ages, but the twists and turns are many and effective. I actually went back and re-read several chapters, once I had figured out a key plot twist, and was really impressed with both the construction and the style.

The Keeper of Lost Causes was trying to do something similar, I think, within its Scandinavian-police-mystery-thriller niche. It was fine, and I’ll probably read more in the series, but it wasn’t extraordinary. I preferred Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, the rather less action-oriented Henning Mankell, or the classics of Sjowall and Wahloo. Still, I’ll probably follow the series, if only because people can’t seem to write ’em as fast as I can read ’em!

Stephen King remains Stephen King. A novella, some short stories, but nothing that really grabbed me. UR was clever in that it was centered around a Kindle that shows newspapers from another dimension, so if you’re looking for a good short read, try that.

Happy reading, everyone!

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