I first started reading Louise Erdrich when I was in college. Since then, I’ve read everything she’s written – there are not many authors about whom I can make that claim – and each new novel is a pleasure I savor and anticipate. In her many years of writing, she’s build an extensive and powerful family tree of interconnected characters, spanning more than a century of stories. Erdrich’s approach involves first person narratives by several characters, divided into books within a single novel. It nearly always happens that when I am the most invested in a character, the most knit into their storyline, she switches to a new book and I experience a terrible, anguishing loss and sense of vertigo until I get acclimated to the new voice. And then it happens all over again. She knows best, though, and I’m never disappointed in the complete picture, once I can see it. The Plague of Doves, in the simplest terms, is an unsolved mystery that has affected the lives of the characters for decades. In whole, of course, it’s much more than that and the causes and repercussions of the crime are layered and layered until they form the structure of an entire town. Erdrich’s language is rich and melodic; I have the same pleasurable trust in her skill that I feel when I read Michael Chabon’s work. For example: “…he opens the case and picks up his fiddle. As he tunes it, making such unfamiliar noise, the patients come out of their rooms or are attracted from down the corridor. The nurses venture from their station and stand, arms folded, chewing gum. Their mouths stop moving when he starts playing, and some of the patients sit down, right where they are, a couple of them on the floor, as if the music has cut through the big room like a scythe. After that first run of notes, the music gathers. Corwin plays a slow and pretty tune that makes people’s eyes unfocus…they look like they might weep, but that changes quickly as Corwin picks up tempo and plucks out a lively jig that has a sense of humor in the phrasing. At this point, Warren leaves his wall and begins to walk around and around the room, faster and faster. The music ticks along in a jerky way, a Red River jig. Then something monstrous happens. All sounds merge for a moment in the belly of the violin and fill the room with distress. My throat fills. I jump up. Alarm strikes through us. Warren stops walking and backs up flat against the wall. But Corwin draws some note out of the chaos in his hands, and then draws it further up and up, further, until it is unbearable and at that very point where it might become a shriek, the note changes key a fraction and breaks into the most lucid sweetness.” I think you should go find out what that’s all about.
Leslie gave me When the Messenger is Hot a couple of years ago after she met Elizabeth Crane. Sixteen short stories of brittleness and strength, hope in spite of damage, each one funny and “never self-indulgent or whiny” (dailycandy.com). All of Crane’s protagonists have a touch of the barking mad about them, and it’s easy to identify with them. Graceful touches of magical realism somehow make her stories even more real. My favorite story is Privacy and Coffee, a delicate and beautiful urban fairy tale of isolation and coping with loss. Hilarious and lovely.
Oh, Sunshine, how I love you. Robin McKinley’s fantasy is a hugely satisfying read on two levels. Sunshine is a baker in a cafe that I devoutly wish was a real place, preferably right down the block. The book starts by laying the scene with cinnamon rolls and early morning work. The characters are wonderful and rich, and the talk of flour and butter and recipes and people is so absorbing that you forget you’ve just started reading a fantasy novel. And then vampire things happen, and that part is just as good.
The language is slipshod, and I didn’t care one bit. I just read and read and read with great happiness until there wasn’t any more book to read. Now I’m hoping for a sequel (I’m not sure if there’s one planned or not – it could go either way). I don’t want to give away any more plot than that: cinnamon rolls as big as your head, and vampires that are true to lore but not like any vampires I’ve ever read about before. It’s wonderful. Read it.
Three weeks before winter break started, I bought a stack of books in anticipation of being able to lie in a sunny spot on the floor and read all I wanted. The Good Fairies of New York was at the top of the stack. Partly because it’s a petite wee thing, like its subjects, but also because it seemed like such a beguiling idea. Two fairies with torn kilts and brilliantly dyed hair escape from Scotland and come to New York, hoping to start the world’s first radical Celtic punk band. What could be more charming?
I had planned to be swept off my feet, but although I enjoyed the book, it never really stole my heart. The characters, with the exception a wiry and lunatic homeless woman, all seemed two-dimensional to me. The plot got mired in a loop of repeated, frustrating action in the middle and didn’t launch out of it for about 30 pages. The two main characters are hilarious, but I never quite overcame my urge to send them for a time out. Neil Gaiman wrote a generous and lovely introduction to the book, and while he claims to be mystified about Martin Millar’s status as a slightly lesser author in the ranks of British fantasy novelists, I can see why that is. It didn’t help that I was simultaneously reading a perfect short story of Gaiman’s at the same time (“October in the Chair”), and so was reminded of his more masterful ability.
Still, it’s not a pleasing read. The final scenes are so speedy and tie up all the gags so brilliantly, that I wasn’t sorry. And I don’t think you will be, either.