One of Ours, by Willa Cather *****

OneofoursI always seem to love Willa Cather’s writing. Just imagining the country as it was a hundred years ago or more is time-travel of the imagination, and Cather can help a person get started, with her meticulous research and careful, thought-provoking shaping of the protagonist and other characters as well. I feel that the cover description provided on this site is a spoiler, since it takes the reader at least halfway through the book; if you haven’t read it yet and like strong historical fiction, save the goodies as a surprise.

I don’t have any publishers to thank here. I bought this novel on my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up. Once I’d read the first chapter, I wondered why I hadn’t read it before. It’s not as if I’ve ever been too busy for books.

Claude is a wonderful protagonist; he is flawed, and I find myself wanting to go up to him, as if he were before me, and tell him he needs to stand up for himself. And I want to yell, “Don’t DO it! Don’t marry her!” But he is at Cather’s mercy, and she shows us what love and beauty look like, but poor Claude also sees some real heartbreak. As a mother of grown sons, I identified somewhat with his mother, even though she is not a main character.

Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk****

The writer makes his English novel writing debut with this book, which I snatched off a sidewalk cart for two bucks. Wow! It is, as he explains in the back pages of the book, like a Russian doll: a story, within a story, within a story, within a story, 4 plots nested inside of one another.

Some writers just start writing and see what comes out, then edit just a little. (Stephen King, a personal favorite of mine, comes to mind). But this writer begins with a 75 page outline with snippets of dialogue, all planned out carefully, before he commences writing. Truly remarkable. On top of it all, it was originally written in English, although the writer is Danish, and the story set in Ireland. (The Danish publication came out first, but the English draft was submitted first; the writer did the Danish translation himself).

If you like memoirs; ghost/werewolf/vampire stories (or at least an implication);or if you have a soft spot for the outlying regions of Ireland, where a latte is available but legends and superstitions sometimes still hold sway, find a copy of this book in whatever language you like (just about) and snuggle before the fire. Eat first, and have something to drink with you; you’ll be awhile.

The Living, by Annie Dillard *****

When I got home from my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books, I looked over my treasures. Those that had been on my wish list got read first. Now I am down to the books I bought because a Powell’s employee liked them, or from impulse (rare). I also sometimes buy a book if it has won awards and is in a subject area of interest to me.

This book made me wince when I saw I had paid 75% of the original price. It did not look promising.Stained, or fly-specked around the edges; pages yellowing and about to fall out. What had I done?

On the surface, it is historical fiction about the development of Bellingham, WA. A snore (unless you live there MAYBE), right? But then, why was it a New York Times best seller, if it was a waste?
Flip to the author page…Guggenheim Foundation grant, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington Governor’s Award…okay, okay, I would read it!

The story was praised by others as “epic”, and it is true. The characterization and plot are first-rate. There are many families whose lives are followed, and yet, even with sleeping pills under my belt (metaphor; I don’t sleep wearing a belt), I kept track of them all and even more, felt as if I knew them. The writer was true to her characters, and there was nothing formulaic or tossed in as filler to meet a deadline. It was s story about PEOPLE who were shaped by their environment. Some of it filled me with joy, and other parts broke my heart. I was sorry to reach the last page, even though this was a long, leisurely read.

The page numbers are deceptive. It clocks in under 400 pages, but in trade paperback size, it packs a whole lot of words onto each page. (Think small type, slim margins).

This is not a book to be rushed through. Once you are hooked–and if you enjoy historical fiction, or even strong, well built, dynamic characters (and multiple characters are dynamic here!), this is good read by a cozy fire. Buy it for yourself this winter, or get it for a friend.

A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks *****

Nobody writes like Russell Banks. His short story collection has the harsh beauty of a Yankee winter. I was lucky enough to get my copy courtesy of Goodreads.com’s first reads program. Tales of loneliness, alienation, disorientation or sheer, stark horror are the writer’s stock in trade. His characters, ordinary working people so real that they stand before the reader, live lives of disappointment, near-misses, and sometimes terrible endings.

Think of “The Lottery”. There you have it, but in a contemporary setting.

Why read stories grim enough to bruise the psyche? What keeps us coming back once our eyes and hearts are seared by the cruel world he exposes? Maybe it’s because he recognizes the working men and women who make the world go around, or maybe we revel in real-life tragedy: that could have been us. As we close the cover and walk away, life seems a little sweeter. Just enough poignancy is injected into his tales to make us treasure our lives, without giving way to corny sentimentality. And there is never a stereotype anywhere. Banks has too much respect for the working class to let that happen.

Occasional moments of wry humor, such as the “invisible” product being marketed by the traveling preacher, break up the tension to some degree.

I have read other reviewers who feel burned out by Banks because of the painful quality of his stories. If like me, you love great writing but feel the need of a break from the sorrow there, this volume is perfect. Read a short story; then go get another book by someone else that’s a little less dark and foreboding. Come back and read another short story by Banks when you are prepared for it. With the short stories, it is easy to find a place to pause, then return.

Banks has been translated into twenty different languages, and he is widely recognized as one of the best writers in the world. Don’t let this opportunity to read him pass you by!