Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer Reading II

Some years ago, Garret Keizer, a writer from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, published an acclaimed memoir called No Place But Here, chronicling his experiences as an English teacher at a local high school. Garret followed No Place But Here with several other books on subjects as diverse as working as a lay priest at an Episcopal church, exploring the concepts of “help” and “anger” in human relationships and society, and, in a highly-praised young adult novel, God of Beer, examining the troubling, and somewhat taboo, phenomenon of teenage drinking in America. With The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise (Public Affairs, 2010), Garret has published his best book to date. Hailed by both the daily New York Times and the Times Book Review as the best of several recent books on noise, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want takes us from Japan to Holland to New York City to the Canadian wilderness to Garret’s own Northeast Kingdom township, in a brilliant and wonderfully human search for how we raucous, clamoring noise-makers may yet be able to enjoy “the most beautiful sound in the world.” What’s that? I won’t give it away. Read Garret’s witty, tolerant, erudite and beautifully written masterwork on the loudest species on earth and find out.


Over the past several years, the fiction of Chris Bohjalian has taken a darker turn. While Chris’s vision of our world as a place where it is never necessary and never right to treat others unkindly has remained as unchanged and timeless as the Golden Rule from which it derives, his acclaimed, previous novel, Skeletons at the Feast, recounts the horrific odyssey of a refugee family across eastern Europe during World War II, and is, in fact, one of the darkest, and most powerful, novels of the struggle to maintain our human decency in the time of war, I’ve ever read. In Chris’s latest book, Secrets of Eden, the acclaimed author of Midwives and The Double Bind takes a long, unsparing look at domestic violence. Like teenage drinking, which Garret Keizer addresses so honestly and originally in God of Beer, “domestic” violence has long been a kind of forbidden subject in America, so distressful and unthinkable that it has been almost off-limits, even in our fiction. No more. In Secrets of Eden, master-storyteller Bohjalian shows us, in crystalline prose and with deep empathy, how domestic abuse does violence not just to victims like Alice Hayward, shot dead by her drunken husband, but to entire families and communities, and not just in places like Taliban-controlled provinces of Afghanistan, but idyllic-appearing villages in Vermont, as well. I don’t want to give away the plot of Chris Bohjalian’s twelfth and best novel, but there’s a character in Secrets of Eden whom I absolutely fell in love with from the start and who now ranks with Pip from Great Expectations and Huck Finn in my all-time favorite pantheon of fictionalized young people. That brings me back to Chris Bohjalian’s personal vision. If my reading of Secrets of Eden is accurate, I believe that Chris is suggesting, in this heartbreaking but ultimately affirmative novel, that even in the face of the worst – and most violent – choices that life presents us with, we still always have the capability to do what is right and necessary to retain our identity as kind and loving creations.


You know what’s really exciting to a veteran book reviewer? To discover a new writer with a fresh voice and vision. I’ve just finished Creston Lea’s first book of fiction, Wild Punch (I love that title), and for my money, it’s the best collection of coming-of-age short stories I’ve read since Hemingway’s In Our Time. Though some of his stories range far out over the American landscape, Creston Lea knows his corner of northern New England the way Annie Proulx knows Wyoming and Ivan Doig knows Montana. He knows all there is to know about haying, ice-cutting, moto-cross racing, country music, itinerant laborers, footloose young people who reminded me of the characters of Kerouac and Kesey. These are brave, honest, powerfully felt stories from a remarkably poised and intelligent young writer. And that is news worth celebrating because, please, keep this in mind. Kindles and iPads and bookstores going out of business like family dairy farms, and people not reading as much because we’re glued to the internet or working three jobs to keep a step ahead of the repo men, and newspapers and book review sections going under, and – well, you get the idea. None of all the bad news for books, and it surely is bad, matters if courageous young writers don’t go right ahead anyway and pour out their good hearts and good stories for us the way Creston Lea has in Wild Punch. It’s an absolutely terrific work of fiction by the best young writer I’ve read in years.

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