Sunday, November 28, 2010

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

Here's a weird fact: the cover of this book is almost exactly the same as that of the first polygamist novel I read; a nice thick braid gracing the back of a woman's neck. Apparently this is an icon of fundamentalism.

The 19th Wife is very long. It consists of two interwoven stories; one set in the present, spanning only a week or so, the other encompassing a woman's entire life in the middle of the 19th century. Jordan is the child of a modern polygamist sect, who was abandoned on the highway as a teenager at the behest of the Prophet. Boys, of course, are competition for church elders (there are just not enough women to go around) and thus are thrown out on the slightest pretext. Jordan's mother, his father's 19th wife, is accused of killing her husband, and her son feels compelled to clear her name. Despite the fact that she agreed to his abandonment. (There is a lot of mother-worship in this book, which I am heartily in favor of.) The other story describes the early days of Mormonism as seen through the eyes of Ann Eliza, who was Brigham Young's 19th wife, but who eventually renounced polygamy. She is credited with helping to end the institution, as least as sanctioned by the Mormon church. See? Just the synopsis is long, and I'm leaving out a lot.

I really enjoyed this book, although I found the accounts of the Pioneers of Mormonism a little too long. I've always maintained that people in the 19th century had a lot of time on their hands. Literature from that period goes on and on and on, and so, apparently, do the memoirs and letters. That said, this is a really great, if biased, history of the Mormon Church. The present-day portion on its own would be a good solid YA book, although the protagonist loses a lot of his edginess during the course of the story, which to my mind diminishes his appeal.

David Ebershoff clearly did a lot of research while writing The 19th Wife. I get most of my knowledge of history from fiction, so it's always nice to know it's authentic. Overall worth reading, particularly if you have a lot of time on your hands.

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

If I were a fan of crime fiction, I would have loved this book. I am possibly missing a tiny strand of DNA, as the other members of my family devour mysteries and crime dramas with relish. Then again, all of them are also blessed with a terrific sense of direction. Perhaps the two are related?

So, from the perspective of someone who does not particularly like dead bodies littering her reading material: This beautifully written book takes place in a small town on the coast of Australia. The title character spends lots of time hiking broodily through the countryside with his dogs. He has some sort of complicated back story, which includes being responsible for the death of another cop. He's your typical loner detective; injured in both body and psyche, with an admirable sense of justice and a little too much dedication to his job. Originally I thought that I'd stepped into a series midway, and thus didn't understand his past and how it affected this particular story, but apparently this is the first Joe Cashin book. The reader unravels the mystery of the protagonist's life as he uncovers the truth behind a local murder. Layers upon layers.

This is a great book. I'd like to say that if it is in fact the beginning of a new series, I will read every one. But to be honest this is just not my genre. However I would heartily recommend it to anyone who does like crime fiction; the imagery of the landscape and the deft handling of the racism at the center of the story are both really well done. The outcome seemed very improbably to me, but then I feel that way at the end of just about every mystery novel.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

What can I say about a book that has been reviewed already by the likes of Thomas McGuane, and received many prizes, and sold a gazillion copies? I'll be brief; you've probably already read it, or heard about it, but in case you haven't, here is why you should put it at the top of your list.

It is a gorgeous book, written in a spare, eloquent style. Although it's not long, it manages to encompass several lives and many complicated events. I was curious about the translation; it felt almost like broken English, and I wondered if that was the intention. It turns out that the author worked with the translator to craft English sentences in such a way that they would imitate Norwegian. It is successful. The main character also sounds very much like a man in his 60's.

The basic story is that 67 year old Trond, having lost both wife and sister, sets out to live in a remote part of the country, alone. He runs into an acquaintance from his youth, which sets off both recollections and ruminations of the summer he turned 15. So here we have a coming-of-age story, an end-of-life story, and a that-was-the-year-everything-changed story all rolled into one. Set in a magnificent landscape. Read it, it's great.

Here is a wonderful interview with the author. I read it and thought, of course this man wrote this book, it was inevitable.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

I can't remember the last time I picked up a work of non-fiction (that was not a memoir) and liked it so much. This is one of those books which displays great scholarship and is still eminently readable.

I recently discovered the t.v. show Hoarders. It's fascinating, but very reality-show-tabloidish. I kind of feel like a junkie whenever I watch it, and suffer the guilt associated with being entertained by other people's dysfunction. In contrast, this book offers empathetic insight into why otherwise well-adapted people end up living under piles of junk. That, to me, is one of the most enlightening conclusions the authors reach; many hoarders really are pretty normal in other aspects of their lives. The team has done a lot of compelling research into the reasons for the disorder, and found that they are quite varied.

Here's the thing about extreme behavior: once you start to look at it closely, you realize that you yourself, or people you know, engage in milder versions of it. In terms of hoarding, this applies, obviously, to those of us who hold on to too much stuff. But I can also see, in myself and in my friends, hints of some of the underlying issues that cause people to hoard in the first place.

The revelation I find the most fascinating is the idea that hoarders avoid throwing things away because it causes them discomfort. It is easier to ignore the walls of junk piling up than to confront the feelings that accompany getting rid of something that might someday be useful. Avoidance of distress is certainly a tactic I can relate to. Interestingly, many of the people in this book found that when they experienced the distress of throwing something away, it really wasn't all that bad. Their fear of unpleasant emotions far outweighed the reality of those emotions. That is something I can really relate to.

One of the reasons that I spend so much of my free time reading is that I want to understand why we are the way we are. This book shoved me a whole lot further down that path, while simultaneously keeping me entertained.