A few of the books I enjoyed in 2009

Brida Brida by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a sweet little story. In some ways, it reminds me of the kinds of stories one finds in the Bible and the Zohar. Such stories aren’t stories in terms of the classic ideas of plots, but serve to illustrate spiritual points. I see Brida in that way. The plot is a very thin scaffold on which to hang a series of philosophical and spiritual ideas. From the point of view of fiction, this is less than satisfactory. From the point of view of philosophy, the style is certainly one that’s tried and true. I read the book more as a spiritual essay than as a novel.

When Mermaids Sing When Mermaids Sing by Mark Zvonkovic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Larry Brown’s musings about life as he observes it are insightful, humorous and often jaded. Outwardly, the protagonist of Mark Zvonkovic’s gently written novel “When Mermaids Sing” is a pleasant, unassuming Medford, PA high school English teacher who tries to get along with everyone and avoid conflicts.

He often feels manipulated by the requirements of his teaching job and the endless expectations of his parents and his girl friend Millie. Brown’s parents, both college teachers, expect him to play a role in their world, while Millie–an actress who might be cheating on him–expects him to make dutiful appearances in her social and family life. At work, where he may not really be happy, he’s hoping to be granted tenure. And, his cousin Bradley has joined a cult and might have lost himself in the addictive peace it provides.

Brown can ponder the humor and the irony of such realities because he has a “cure.” He copes with the chaos of his job and his relationships by retreating into memories of the halcyon summer days of his youth at a Cape Cod vacation house with his siblings and cousins. Those were the best years of his life. The present cannot compete with them. He doesn’t want it to.

Henry David Thoreau once said of Cape Cod’s Outer Beach, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.” Likewise, Brown retreats to the house of his youth to put all of life’s troubling challenges behind him.

While making an obligatory appearance at his father’s annual party for freshmen college students, Brown meets a personable young woman named Jenny with a strong aversion to cults. Her brother Josh has joined the charismatic Path to God, the same group to which Bradley as sworn allegiance, if not his soul.

Jenny complains that Josh has repudiated their father as Satan and “become a different person.” A psychiatrist at the party remarks that the sudden personality change exhibited by cult members is due to brainwashing, not hypnosis. This, and the lack of fences and armed guards at an ashram, make it difficult for families to intervene.

Brown vacillates about the difference between the freedom to choose a path others don’t agree with and losing one’s freedom through brainwashing and choosing the same path. Jenny’s family is no longer splitting hairs. They’ve engaged the services of a well-known deprogrammer to help them extract Josh from the Cape Cod ashram even though everyone involved might end up being charged with kidnapping.

When Jenny points out that Bradley and Josh are together at the same place and enlists Brown’s help, he can no longer ignore the issue as a mere philosophical topic for debate.

Will Brown help Jenny, Bradley and Josh? He would rather not, because if he does, he will have to admit there’s more involved here than the rescue of two impressionable young people from the brainwashing of a cult. He will finally have to take a stand on something and answer a lingering question. Is escaping life by running away to a cult different than running away to the past?

The title of Zvonkovic’s carefully written novel is suggested by a line from John Donne’s playful “Go and Catch A Falling Star.” Catching falling stars and hearing mermaids singing are, in Donne’s thinking, rather unlikely events. Readers of “When Mermaids Sing” may wonder whether substantive change in Larry Brown is also unlikely. As literary fiction, the story relies heavily on theme, interior monologue and a strong sense of place rather than non-stop action on its introspective journey to a powerful conclusion.

Her Fearful Symmetry Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
–William Blake, “The Tyger”

When an acclaimed author (Audrey Niffenegger) takes a phrase from an inscrutable poem (“The Tyger”), readers (such as myself) are apt to expect a great story. Without a doubt Niffenegger’s prose is elegant, her place descriptions (London and Highgate Cemetery) are exceptional, and her intricate plot has great promise.

That promise is not fulfilled.

Niffenegger speaks of ghosts that dissipate in to the ether, so to speak, because they haven’t been dead long enough to figure out how to keep themselves together and harness their intent. I like this viewpoint within the story. Unfortunately, it also describes the story.

We are introduced to several sets of twins who, as it turns out, are so focused on being twins that they (in one case) do fearful and silly things and (in another case) are relatively boring. In each set, one twin wants freedom and the other wants the status quo. Interesting? Could have been, but it wasn’t.

At best, most of the characters were totally dysfunctional with the possible exception (oddly enough) of the man with OCD who lived in the flat upstairs, up above the American twins who come to London when their aunt (Espeth) dies and leaves them an apartment up above Robert who works as a volunteer at the adjoining Highgate Cemetery. He was Espeth’s lover both before and after she died.

Like ghosts without sufficient practice and power to organize themselves and enjoy the afterlife (with or without haunting the living), the plot becomes weaker and weaker as the novel goes on until on the final pages it evaporates altogether. Yes, there’s a grim resolution to it all, but it’s a weak one and we no longer care.

I suspect the author fell in love with the cemetery and wanted to write a story about it. Naturally, the dead came to mind. But they weren’t strong enough to frighten us or make us care about the symmetry.

South of Broad South of Broad by Pat Conroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pat Conroy’s “South of Broad” is a love song to Charleston with blood on the sheet music.

As he walks toward the Cooper River in 1990, six months after Hurricane Hugo tore into his beloved city, narrator Leo King ponders the city’s rebuilding and healing, and the coming spring: “Since the day I was born, I have been worried that heaven would never be half as beautiful as Charleston.”

Like his counterpart Tom Wingo in “The Prince of Tides” (1986), Leopold Bloom King is a psychologically wounded man. While Wingo’s issues focus on a brutal family secret, the death of an older brother, and a suicidal sister, King is haunted by the suicide of his older brother Steve. King worshipped that brother, the golden boy and their mother’s overt favorite. “Looking back,” King tells us, “I think the family suffered a collective nervous breakdown after we buried Steve.”

King drifted between that collective breakdown and 1969 when he found himself fulfilling the role of anchorman in a diverse group of high school seniors: Ike Jefferson, one of the first black students to play on the high school football team; Sheba and Trevor Poe, the dramatic and talented twins who live across the street with an alcoholic mother; the mountain-born orphans Starla and Niles Whitehead, who hope one day to be re-united with their mother; and from the aristocratic world South of Broad Street, Molly Huger and brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge.

That these students appeared in King’s life on June 16—Bloomsday, for those who revere James Joyce—was to some extent orchestrated by his mother with the helping hand of fate. After all, his mother who was both the high school principal and a Joycean scholar named him after Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s protagonist in “Ulysses.” And after all, as King saw it, there are no coincidences; “fate comes at you cat-footed, unavoidable, and bloodthirsty.”

Conroy portrays the meeting and evolving relationships between King and this disparate collection of variously angry, snobbish, haunted and broken souls with humor and realism. Some commentators have panned Conroy’s dialogue as unnatural. Yet, one might ask what “normal” could possibly sound like for people weaned on tragedy and/or destined for it.

“The Prince of Tides” unfolds primarily in flashbacks. Though he’s looking back on his life, Leo King narrates “South of Broad” in a nonlinear sequence. Parts one and four are set in the late 1960s. Parts two, three and five are set in the late 1980s. While frustrating, this structure is not fatal. Yet, details about the characters’ maturation into adults is sketchy and the action screeches to halt before the climatic Part Five when Conroy pulls his readers back to the high school world of race and class tensions and football.

What worked to perfection in “The Prince of Tides” is a little dissonant in “South of Broad.” Conroy’s trademark soaring language develops a cohesive sense of place that wonderfully contrasts with and serves as a stable foundation for the nasty events and broken people. Yet some of the poetry is ponderous. The familiar storyline of dysfunctional people coping with a tragedies is again compelling. Yet it stumbles somewhat on the novel’s structure and melodramatic tendencies.

When Leopold Bloom King is nine years old, he finds a dead god named Stephen Daedalus King in a bathtub of bloody water. While the method behind the madness is a little tired and the music a little too much in a minor key, between Steve’s suicide and the novel’s last moments on a Bloomsday many years in the future, there is a still strong and memorable story.

The Fortune Teller's Daughter: A Novel The Fortune Teller’s Daughter: A Novel by Lila Shaara

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Piney woods, palmettos, booze, fortune tellers, ex-wives and a former investigative reporter searching for a topic for his next book at a publish-or-perish north Florida university are the perfect mix for murder and a fine second novel by Lila Shaara.

Junior faculty member Harry Sterling assures his academic colleagues that the third book he’s working on is going well. Truth be told, he doesn’t have a topic or a clue. The clues begin to appear soon enough once he learns second hand that a fortune teller on a lonely road might have said famed physicist Charles Ziegart didn’t actually discover the “Ziegart Effect.”

Sterling arrives at psychic Josie Dupree’s house drunk enough to throw up on her front porch before he can ask what the Tarot Cards might know about Ziegart. This is a bad omen for a successful reporter and a poor introduction to Dupree’s withdrawn, other-worldly niece Maggie Roth. While some people suggest Maggie is potentially retarded and her close family and friends warn him to stay away from her, Sterling believes she has seen more in him than anyone else in his life and more in the cards about Ziegart than she’s prepared to disclose. And then, too, all the other principals in the Ziegart matter, including Ziegart, are dead.

Shaara, daughter of the late Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Shaara, spins a haunting romantic mystery with well-drawn characters and a wonderfully compelling and tangled plot. This book represents elegant work, work about which any teacher* and father would say “I am well pleased.” Readers caught up in this page turner are likely to agree.

Noah's Wife Noah’s Wife by T.K. Thorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Author T. K. Thorne brings us the mythic story of Na’amah in her beautifully written novel “Noah’s Wife.” Using research indicating that a flood about 5500 BCE nearly decimated the settlements along the southern shore of a fresh water lake known today as the Black Sea, Thorne has created a rich, multidimensional and richly imagined account of the Biblical flood from a feminine point of view.

Na’amah’s difficult birth left her with a pinched-head disfigurement that would have given the elders cause to cast her out had her grandmother Savta not convinced them the condition was temporary. Tubal-Cain will not forgive his sister for killing their mother in childbirth, though his actions stem in part from a secret Na’amah does not know. As a member of the hunting clan, Tubal-Cain despises Na’amah’s obsession with sheep and for being, in his estimation, somewhat dimwitted and without value. When Na’amah is twelve years old, she asks her grandmother why she keeps telling her she is special.

She is special, Savta says, in a way that can never be spoken of openly. Mother-Goddess has chosen her as a spokeswoman; yet this is a time when the goddess’ influence is waning in favor of a patriarchal Father-God belief system. The highly superstitious elders would throw Na’amah into a pit in the center of town used for meting out punishments if she openly professed a belief in the goddess.

Na’amah, who–in today’s terms–is an Asperger savant, does not believe in either Mother-Goddess or Father-God. While she doesn’t understand why her extreme sensitive to sound produces color visualizations or why she can perceive the low-frequency vibrations that precede earthquakes, she has no interest hearing about secret missions for a purported Mother-Goddess. She wants to be left alone to tend her sheep and experience the magic of life as the natural world presents it to her.

“Noah’s Wife” begins twenty-one years before the flood and focuses on Na’amah’s betrothal and marriage to Noah the boat builder, her mistreatment at the hands of her own people as well as the nearby River People, and her forced need to come to terms with her special talents. In mythic terms, she undergoes both an outer, physical quest and an inner spiritual journey.

Thorne has created a deep and fully formed cultural backdrop for Na’amah’s quest, complemented with a highly detailed physical world and well-defined characters. Like Tosca Lee’s account of First Woman in “Havah: The Story of Eve,” Thorne’s “Noah’s Wife” represents an epic alternative to a well-known patriarchal story. The result is a novel of great enchantment, suspense and power.

Fate Is A Mountain Fate Is A Mountain by Mark W. Parratt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Mark, Monty and Smitty Parratt had a big back yard between 1950 and 1964, the million-acre Crown of the Continent in northwestern Montana called Glacier National Park. The boys’ father, the late Lloyd Parratt and his wife Grace brought the family to the shores of the park’s St, Mary Lake every summer where Lloyd worked as a seasonal ranger naturalist for the National Park Service. Later, Mark Parratt served as a fireguard and the late Monty Parratt worked on a Blister Rust crew.

Since Mark and Monty were avid fishermen, the book includes many great fishing stories along with climbing and hiking adventures, the trials and tribulations of living in a remote cabin accessible only by rail, a stormy night in a fire lookout, canoeing on a rough St. Mary Lake, and encounters with wildlife.

For local residents, these stories will bring back old memories; for park visitors, the delightful exploits of three young men in their coming-of-age years will cast the trails, lakes and mountains along the back bone of the world into a deeper perspective. Comments appended to some of the stories note how the park has changed over the years.

The harrowing centerpiece to the book is “The Otokomi Grizzly Bear Attack” of July 18, 1960. Ten-year-old Smitty Parratt was badly mauled by a grizzly bear as he returned from a fishing trip to Lake Otokomi with two ranger naturalists and two tourists. The story of the attack, the injuries, the rescue and the aftermath demonstrates courage, resourcefulness and grit while serving as a cautionary reminder that wild places are wild.

The “Fate is a Mountain” (June 1962) and “Lone Climber Missing” (July 1963) stories describe mountain search and rescue operations at Mt. Henkel near Many Glacier Hotel and at Going-to-the-Sun Mountain in the St. Mary Valley. Search-team members routinely place themselves in harm’s way while looking for missing climbers, as Parratt describes in a late-night moment on the slopes of Mt. Henkel:

“Suddenly, a tremendous crash echoed from above. Instinctively, we all dove into crouching positions next to a nearby cliff face. A shower of lose scree was rapidly followed by a thunder of large bounders that careened over our heads and plummeted toward the valley below. Smaller pieces of snow and rock pelted our hard hats for several moments.” (This reviewer has climbed Mt. Henkel and appreciates the challenges of a rescue attempt.)

Compiling these stories was obviously a labor of love and of remembering bygone days where a family’s life intersects the world of a beloved tourist destination and wildlife preserve. If there’s an omission here, it’s the lack of a story about the Montana flood of June, 1964, quite possibly the state’s worst natural disaster, that caused extensive damage to roads and facilities throughout the park including those at St. Mary.

The book provides a rich, insider’s look at the world of Glacier National Park as it was over 40 forty years ago. As the park approaches its 2010 centennial, these stories as part of its history add to our understanding of the place and the people who worked and played there.

Have a wonderful new year and start making plans now to read a ton of new books in 2010!