I’ve been plowing through books lately, too fast to add them all to the ‘Books I am Reading’ column. Maybe it’s the springtime weather. Here’s what I’ve been reading.
I finished My Cold War by Tom Piazza last week, and found it wonderful. It’s the story of John Delano, a history professor at a small New England school. He teaches what others call “history mcnuggets”, gimmicky glimpses of the surface of history. That’s what his whole life has been, though, surface only. A part of him shut down and never woke up. At one point of the book, he sets off to see his estranged brother, with whom he hasn’t spoken in 8 years. Delano spends the drive to see him narrating it as he goes along, as if he were observing, rather than experiencing. Piazza has a wonderful eye for the nuances of people. He can penetrate to the heart of a person with a few simple words. This was a great book and I can’t wait to read what Piazza writes next.
Then I picked up a book that has been sitting on my shelf at work for some time, Hosack’s Folly: A Novel of Old New York by Gillen D’Arcy Wood. I always enjoy a good historical novel, so I was ready to immerse myself in some Old New York. Set in the 1820s in Manhattan, Wood follows a cast of characters that include: Dr. David Hosack, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton during the fatal duel with Aaron Burr, runs Columbia Medical School and Bellevue Hospital; Arthur Dash, young assistant to Hosack; his fiancée Vera Laidlaw and her father, an extremely wealthy man; Virginia Casey, a young woman wishing she could breakout of her staid life; and her father, Eamonn Casey, an Irish man whose risen from poverty to run the Herald newspaper. About to launch himself into politics, he has teamed up with an architect with a scheme to build an aqueduct. Fresh water will improve the lives of everyone, and then get him more votes. The plot unfolds as a ship laden with yellow fever makes it into the docks and politics rather than common sense influences the reaction. With this cast of characters and history, the book had much potential, but Wood wastes them with a more generic plot. Albert Dash, the young handsome doctor and botanist, and Virginia, the young woman secretly in love with Dash, have several scenes out of a bad tv movie.
“I have heard of absinthe as a drink, taken for pleasure,” she said, daring to interrupt him.
Albert frowned at her. “For pleasure? I think no. The wormwood is a bitter flower.”
Yes, you have brought me a bitter flower, she thought.
There’s too much cliché throughout the book. Plus it ends rather predictably, even though Wood makes the effort for a surprise ending.
After my disappointment with Hosack’s Folly, Mark Spragg’s An Unfinished Life seemed the perfect antidote. An uncomplicated tale, 70 year old Einar Gilkyson lives on a ranch with his aging best friend Mitch, an invalid mauled by a bear. He reluctantly takes in his daughter-in-law and the granddaughter he never knew he had when they show up unannounced one day. Jean and her daughter Griff fleeing Jean’s abusive boyfriend arrive in Wyoming when they have no place else to turn. Jean had fallen asleep at the wheel, rolling it, killing Einar’s son Griff, an event she has never forgiven herself for. Whereas I enjoyed the pace and simple prose, the book ultimately feels just a bit too thin, though its still a beautiful book. The character’s flaws to be overcome, and even Einar’s gruffness with the heart of gold underneath feel too neat in places. But Griff is the best part of this book. Spragg outdoes himself, writing affecting scenes as Griff tries to win over her grandfather. The plain, clear writing evoke the landscape of Wyoming, leaving the reader with the impression of land as its own character in this novel.
Try Elizabeth Gaffney’s “Metropolis” if you’re looking for an old New York historical novel. It’s newly released. We heard her read the other night and it was riveting. thb
Speaking of historical novels, I heartily suggest Riven Rock and The Inner Circle by T. Coraghessan Boyle. (If you’ve not already read them.)
Gaffney’s book is a well told tale of 19th cent Manhattan as is Fred Busch’s The Night Inspector. Thomas Mallon’s Henry & Clara is an amazing story and Joseph O Connor”s Star of the Sea is a fine piece of story telling.. And Gore Vidal’s Empire series is all you would expect from the Great Gadfly.There is also the non pareil The Known World by Edward Jones and Tom Franklin’s Hell at the Breech, and the hilarious God’s Country by Percival Everett.
The Spragg book is a gem in what James Wood calls ther American Shaker tradition (Haruff, Russo, Harrison)
And wait til you read the new Cormac McCarthy!
The American Shaker Tradition, I had not heard that before, but it makes sense. All that spare prose, simple stories—there’s something beautiful about it. I loved Plainsong. Thought it a wonderful book, but didn’t like the followup as much.
All of these books sound great. Sigh. I have the new Cormac McCarthy, but haven’t read it yet. HB, you are the second person to recommend Metropolis to me, so now I have to read that too.
And DH, I’ve long wanted to read Boyle, but didn’t know where to start. Is Inner Circle a good place to begin?
Inner Circle would be a good place to start. Moreso than Riven Rock, only(!) because in the latter the humor is more subdued than is usual for him.
And really, if you have the stomach for almost 700 pages of short stories – I could only do it in segments – his giant collection of short stories isn’t a bad place to start either.
I demur on the Boyle recommendation. Riven Rock is to me more of a story including the realization oft the character of McCormack’s wife who was based on this amazing woman who has interesting roots in the MIT community.
Does one really read a 700 page short story anthology as one reads a novel or a shorter collection? I think not.