Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Galchen often writes for The New Yorker, and when I heard she had published a nonfiction book, I was eager to read it. And it did not disappoint. The book is basically about Galchen’s having a baby and how the baby changes and fits in to her NYC life. I found her observations astute and well put. She writes of her mother’s interactions with her daughter, how the people on the street who she sees everyday interact with her now, and even how elevator encounters are changed by the addition of an infant. It’s the best example of a kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to writing. She goes off on tangents and they are always interesting. She’s also a sparse writer – the book can be read in a couple of hours – and each piece is a gem.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This is a good novel and well worth the acclaim given to it. I was a little hesitant about the first third of it – I felt like Whitehead chose to go the easy sensational route in the beginning. But then he settled in and hit his stride. The novel is about Cora, a slave who tries to escape from her plantation, and her many triumphs and even more setbacks on her journey. The immediately interesting aspect is that she uses the underground railroad, which in this book is an actual underground railroad – complete with train cars and tracks and tunnels. It works, I’m not completely sure why, except that didn’t everyone want it to be an actual railroad when they first heard about it? And Whitehead does a good job playing up the metaphors and symbolism of the unknown labor and laborers who built it. Cora’s journey is a very harrowing one, and as a reader, I found it infuriating how she would often choose to stay put instead of immediately moving on to safety. There is also a slave catcher, Ridgeway, whose nemesis Cora becomes (as does her mother who also got away). There’s a lot of violence, and on occasion the characters veer a little toward caricatures, but it is a compelling read.
Trespass by Rose Tremain. This is not a happy novel, but I very much enjoyed reading it nonetheless. It takes place in the French countryside and tells the story of two brother and sister pairs whose lives intersect tragically. Audrun and Aramon Lunel grew up outside of Ruasse and are on the brink of selling their crumbling mansion that was, when they were little, a working silkworm farm. They have a sad family history (to put it mildly) and both are damaged by their past – one as the victim, and one the perpetrator. Then there is Veronica Verey, who also lives outside of Ruasse with her partner Kitty Meadows. Together they are working on a gardening book, and all is well until Veronica’s brother, Anthony, comes to visit. Anthony is an antiques dealer in England who was once wealthy and reknown, but both his fame and fortune are dwindling. Anthony thinks maybe he will buy the Mas Lunel from Aramon, and this is where everything begins to collide. It is beautifully written and interesting, even though there isn’t really anyone to root for. Tremain gets everything just right though and I now want to read anything else she has written. I recommend it, but expect to be sad.
An Unbeaten Man by Brendan Reilly. I wanted to like this thriller since it is written by a fellow Bowdoin alum, but it just didn’t work for me. I think it could possibly be made into a good movie, except for the fact that it is a little old school with very typical “cold war” villains. It definitely contained a lot of action and violence. The writing was way too clumsy for me (all sorts of moments where the hero or heroine are knuckling their eyes for clearer vision), and too much didn’t make sense. There’s the fact that almost everyone gets killed except for the hero, which is the kind of belief I’m willing to suspend, but there were needless torture scenes and also needless villains. It was often overdone and the plot was cartoony. Basically, a Bowdoin professor, Michael McKeon, gets kidnapped and is forced to destroy Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil fields; his wife and daughter are being held hostage so that he will do as asked. Unbeknownst to McKeon, another Bowdoin professor is really a secret agent, so sets a rescue in motion. Characters come and go and it is hard to care what happens to them. There’s also a revelation regarding his wife at the end which was downright silly.
The River At Night by Erica Ferencik. This is an excellent thriller and one of the best reads I’ve read in a while. Wini is nearing forty and is going on a white water rafting trip with three old friends. One, Pia, is a bit of an adventure addict, so talks Wini, Sandra, and Rachel into going on the maiden voyage of a rafting expedition set up by a son of a friend of hers way up in the north of Maine. Their guide, Rory, is very young and his idea of a good time is not shared by the majority of the four women. The trip is to last three days and as you might imagine, everything goes wrong. Everything! It is scary and intense and I couldn’t put it down. Ferencik writes beautifully – her descriptions of the river are great throughout the whole novel; she also does a really excellent job of creating believable characters and revealing just enough so that you understand them. Wini, especially, is well-crafted; she’s at a crossroads in her life and is a self-professed coward, yet is able to rise to the ensuing challenges in ways that are poignantly described. This book too would make an excellent movie; I would think the rights have already been sold. It is gripping and unexpected and scary and interesting. Read it!