Category Archives: authors

Idaho

9780812994049_p0_v4_s192x300   Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child.  Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer.  Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here.  The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present.  At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.

The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.

Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck.  She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life.  There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it.  Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.

May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties.  Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss.  Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.

Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.

Are you keeping up?  Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent.  The murder may be the focus but it is not the point.  Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment.  The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.

“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”

As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline.  Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information.  In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.

Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life.  Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make.  The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.

 

 

 

The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman

9780062562623_p0_v2_s192x300   Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Carol Goodman’s Gothic mystery – The Widow’s House – might challenge your peace of mind.  The psychological suspense thriller is set in the Hudson Valley of New York with an unreliable narrator defying a host of chilling affronts.

When Claire and Jess Martin decide to move from their Brooklyn apartment to upstate New York near the farm where Claire grew up, they find the only affordable accommodations are as caretakers to an old crumbling mansion named Riven House belonging to their former college professor, also a writer.  Jess, having published his first book soon after graduating from college, has spent years looking for inspiration for his second, while Claire, an aspiring writer herself, abandoned her dreams to write to work as a copy editor to support them both.  When the money from Jess’s advance finally runs out, the Martins—now in their mid-thirties—are forced to move back upstate.

The house is clearly the Gothic replica of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre but soon takes on the characteristics of the Hitchcock setting in Gaslight or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House;  its history includes a series of tragedies and is thought haunted by the locals.  As Claire researches the house’s former occupants for her own novel, she is soon terrorized by their ghosts.

Goodman cleverly inserts doubt about Claire’s mental health, perhaps confirming the reader’s unwillingness to believe in the paranormal phenomenon appearing in the mist. Claire’s sanity is placed in question by revealing her nervous breakdown earlier, and her tendency to edit her own life, remaking it to something better and overlooking her traumas and losses of the past.  As people begin to die at Riven House,  Clare’s grip on reality becomes suspect, and the reader has to decide who to believe.

Like her other Gothic mystery romances, Goodman’s The Widow’s House combines  supernatural possibilities with the reality of human cruelty and misery.  In the end, you aren’t quite sure what the truth is, although Goodman provides a sane possibility. The captivating tale will haunt you and you will love every moment.

I am a fan of Goodman, having read all her novels from The Lake of Dead Languages to River Road.  As a bonus, Goodman offered a list of books that have inspired her in her notes at the end of the book.  You might look for one when you are in the mood for another chilling mystery.

Goodman’s List of Favorite Haunted House Stories:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
  • The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Reviews of Other Carol Goodman Books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Arthur and George

MV5BMjA2OTg4NjQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzE3Mjk5NDE@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Julian Barnes’ novel used a famous early twentieth century case of a man sent to prison for mutilating animals as inspiration; the resulting historical novel – Arthur and George – was recently aired as a three-part series on the American Public Broadcasting channel (PBS).  Barnes fictionalized some of the story and PBS gave its own spin, but the historical basis in both was true and still shockingly relevant.

Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle shared many of his talents.  When George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, wrote to Holmes asking for help, it was Doyle who took up his case and ultimately proved him innocent.

George’s father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the Anglican minister of a small town in Staffordshire and the target of cruel prejudice. When George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post, and other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji’s forged signature. George shared in the family’s troubles, but eventually became a successful solicitor.

Following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable decided – with no evidence – that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself and has now escalated to killing animals.  George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail; the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.  Released after three years, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in the papers. He posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking for his help to clear his name.

The novel and the televised series follow Doyle as he pursues the case, ultimately proving Georg’e innocence.  The real culprit was never prosecuted, but PBS satisfyingly kills him off, after revealing a surprise connection to George.

I reposted my review of Arthur and George.  Barnes’ version of the story has the notes and wording of the famous Man Booker winner, and the themes of intolerance and bigotry still ring true. In addition, the story is a great mystery thriller.  Have you read the book?

Review: Arthur and George

 

 

Why Time Flies

9781410496928_p0_v1_s192x300Alan Burdick’s treatise on Why time Flies offers no solutions to slowing down or speeding up time, depending on what is preferred, but it does relay a sense of exploration about how we live and a philosophical view on the individual experience of time, combined painlessly with scientific inquiry.

In an interview with Robert Siegel of NPR (National Public Radio), Burdick noted “our brains do a lot of work to kind of hide what you might call reality from us… a possible explanation for the discrepancy and argument over what is true (time).”  He cites experiments with Martian time, references St. Augustine and William James, offers some solutions for jet lag, and throws in a little wry humor and his experience with his preschoolers. His scientific inquiry, however, is grounded in his curiosity – his frame of reference.

Because Burdick explores time through his personal experiences (“walking back to the deli to my office one day after lunch, I glance at a clock that sits on a high pedestal outside the bank…I’m suddenly made aware of the clock’s quiet efforts to orient me…”), the scientific references are tempered and made more palatable.  If you have ever awakened in the middle of the night and refused to check the time on the bedside clock, you will empathize with his rebellion to “ignore this chatter in the middle of the night…and drift alone, for a little while…”

“For well over a century researchers have recognized that we shape time as we move through it; it seems to speed or slow depending on whether you’re happy, sad, angry, or anxious, filled with dread or anticipation, playing music or listening to it; a study in 1923 found that a speech seems to go by more quickly to the person who gives it than to a person who listens to it.  When researchers discuss time perception, typically the time in question is just a handful of seconds or minutes.”

When Burdick fell into describing experiments involving computers and diagrams, I admit I skimmed through, anxious to return to his storytelling.  Overall, the book leaves as many questions unanswered as addressed, but that is the nature of scientific investigation after all.  As he ends the book with sand castles overrun by the tide and a reference to Nietzsche, I wondered how much time I had spent reading the book – and decided it was worth the time.
 

 

 

 

Dipping into Proust

51W1RQKCT9L._AC_US218_After laughing at Lisa Brown’s graphic cartoon on How to Read Proust in the Original in the New York Times Book Review, and then receiving a box of Sur la Table’s French Petite Madeleine Mix in the mail, I decided to have a “madeleine moment” reading Lydia Davis’ acclaimed translation of Swann’s Way.  

Proust is not easy to read, and Davis, a MacArthur Fellow, suggests a slow methodical pace in her introduction, letting the long sentences and heady phrases offer connections to one’s own experiences.  I remember reading the famous passage in my fourth year of high school French class, explaining the narrator’s fond recollections of his childhood days as he dips the madeleine in his teacup, but reading the entire book seemed too daunting; reading the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past would be unthinkable.  Better to learn the translations of Proust’s more famous phrases.

From Swann’s Way, the first book in the series, Lydia Davis offers easily understandable phrases to note – and remember:

“To get through their days, nervous natures such as mine have various “speeds” as do automobiles. There are uphill and difficult day which take an eternity to climb, and downhill days which can be quickly descended.”

Reading Proust cannot be rushed or taken in one sitting.  It could take years, if ever, but I like Davis’ easy translation, and the methodical rhythm of the prose –  better digested while eating a madeleine soaked in coffee.