Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks has written a fantastic new novel, Caleb's Crossing, that is one of the better novels of 2011. 

The novel is set in the late 1600s on Martha's Vineyard.  It is the story of Caleb Cheeshah-teaumuck, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.  In the story, Caleb is befriended by Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of an English proselytizing minister. Like Caleb, Bethia, an exceptionally bright, young woman, searches for knowledge and must find a way to access it.  They build a lifelong bond.

The title of the book is a bit misleading.  The story, which is Bethia's diary from different phases of her life, is really about Bethia struggling in a male-dominated world to overcome the blind obedience demanded of women.  Bethia first must take on her deceased mother's obligations, which include tending to the home and raising her infant sibling.  Then, she is indentured as a housekeeper (i.e., looks a whole lot like slavery) to support her brother.  Throughout her life, Bethia thirsts and searches for worldly knowledge.  While listening to Bethia's quest through her diary, we watch Caleb cross from his Native American culture to the Christian culture and the costs he must bear. 

The root of the story is true. There was a Caleb Cheeshah-teaumuck who graduated from Harvard.  However, very little is known about his story.  Brooks creates a gorgeous story and hangs it on this narrow historical framework.

I would add Caleb's Crossing to my list of top books for the year so far.  It is an excellent book for discussion.  The writing is gripping.  Brooks writes the story in the language of the 1600s.  Much like Twain's classics, once you adjust to the difference in language, the story flows. This book should have broad appeal. Brooks also paints a lively picture of Martha's Vineyard.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

If you liked Stieg Larsson (one of my favorites), Henning Mankell (the PBS Mystery TV Series is outstanding) or Roslund and Hellstrom (Box 21 and Three Seconds), you will love Jo Nesbø .  His first US book, The Snowman, is a classic Scandinavian thriller: well-plotted, dark and fast-paced with political tones.  In short, it is a terrific book.

The Snowman features Nesbø's series detective, Harry Hole.  The story opens when an unexpected snowman appears outside a family home, which coincides with the disappearance of the mother.  As Hole and his team search for clues, new victims are served up.  Hole recently completed a course of study and serial killers and is certain he is facing one.  Others on the force think he is willing a conclusion.  Hole is plagued by personal flaws (alcoholism, difficulties with relationships) that Nesbø explores and exploits.  To avoid any spoilers, I am going to avoid more of a plot summary.

The characters are well developed.  Even more important for a book of this genre, the plot, twists, tension and timing  are excellent.  Nesbø tosses in several unexpected, but plausible, twists and turns that keep you engaged.  The Snowman is intricately plotted.

Booksellers and publishers are trying to ride the popularity of the The Millennium Trilogy series by labeling any quality Scandinavian writer as the next Stieg Larsson.  I don't know if this is the next big thing and I don't know if and when we'll see the next Stieg Larsson book (excellent NYT Magazine article here), read the Snowman.  It is a great summer read.

A book/movie trailer:

Nesbø talks about the book:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Orientation by Daniel Orozco

Orientation is a collection of nine short stories by Daniel Orozco.  Although he has been widely published in several respected literary publications (McSweeney's, Harper's and Best American Short Stories), this is Orozco's first book.  He is not widely known.  Amazon selected this book as one of its best of May 2011.  His fame should change with this book.

The title story, Orientation (available here), is a first person plural story about the first day in the office.  It is funny and biting and brings to mind a novel about office life told in the first person plural by Jonathan Ferris, Then We Came to the End.  Another story, The Bridge, is about the life of bridge painters and their role in talking people off the edge of the bridge.  Temporary Stories tells the story of a woman's temporary employment in three jobs.  Hunger Tales is series of stories about eating and the emotions of several characters.  Officer's Weep was incredibly creative.  It is the love story of two police officers told through a police reports.  Highly creative, readable and fun.

Each story has a perfect narrative tension, which grips the reader's attention throughout.  Each word in the story is carefully selected.  Each character comes across with a unique voice.
My recommendation is simple: read this collection.  It is worth it.  Enjoy it.

The story, Officer's Weep, reminded my of the story told through an inbox.  See below (original link here).  Read from the bottom up.

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht Wins the Orange Prize

Téa Obreht, the 25 year old novelist whose first novel, The Tiger's Wife, was published this year, won the prestigious 2011 Orange Prize.  The Organe Prize was launched in 1996 to celebrate "excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world."  Obreht is the youngest winner ever.  Previously, she was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, and that was before she published her first novel. 

This is likely the first of several prizes I expect Obreht to win this year.  My review of her novel is here.  If you haven't read it, this is one of the best novels of 2011 so far.