Tracy Chevalier, Falling Angels and Girl with a Pearl Earring
I listened to Falling Angels on CD and the actress reading it was so skillful that I think I overlooked some of the thin characterization. In this novel set just after the death of Victoria, Chevalier explores the era's obsessive attention to the details of death and mourning, most powerfully through the eyes of several young girls and a grave digger's young son, who cavort about in a cemetery. There is a tendency towards cariacature, however, which somewhat spoils the effect. Chevalier's earlier look at class, art, households, and servant v. master in Vermeer's Holland (Girl with a Pearl Earring) far outstrips Falling Angels. Both, though, are worthwhile reads.
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Lots of hype, some of it justified, for this feminist midrash on the story of Dinah, Joseph's only sister. I couldn't make it past the first 20 pages for a while; the attempt to appropriate biblical cadences seemed contrived. But the characters eventually took over and showed how a fearless re-looking at biblical stories can result in sharp insights. I think it's an important book for young women of faith to consider--and men too.
Robert Hellenga, Blues Lessons
Hellenga has set two novels in ItalyThe 16 Pleasures and The Fall of A Sparrowto great effect. I could be wrong about Blues Lessons simply because I like Hellenga's style, settings and themes so much, but I think it's wonderful. Like The Fall of a Sparrow, this novel's roots are in the Midwest, but here there's no wanderlust for Italy. Instead, the novel takes up issues of race, the blues, and staying put, as well as what value a water tower provides in a small town, well beyond storing water. Here's Hellenga's site at Knox College:
Ian McEwan, Atonement
This is a rather devastating book, set during WWII, with a distinctive voice and some nifty metafictive turns. The characters are vividly human and mostly unlovable, but not resistant to a reader's real empathy. It's much more engaging, I think, than Amsterdam (1998), which won the Booker Prize. McEwan manages to write believably about all kinds of human frailty and evil, from the vast scale of war to the smaller, and even more devastating, scale of family betrayal.
Judson Mitcham, The Sweet Everlasting
Last fall Mitcham came to my college's writing and lit conference and wowed me with his command of narrative voice in an as-yet unpublished novel about baseball and the south. This novel shows a similar deftness and a spiritual sensibility that is brutal and moving. In The Sweet Everlasting, he manages a look at sin and redemption that relies for its power on pure voice, purely evoked. The ending provides a model of how to navigate the tender and the bleak territory of unforgivable wrongs.
Jay Parini, The Apprentice Lover
I loved Parini's biography of Robert Frost; his prose style and insight into the poetic process were strong. But I started this book three times and could not make it past the first 25 pages. Then, a few weeks later, I checked it out again and read it in three sittings. Set on the island of Capri, the novel traces the development of a wannabe young poet, running from his grief over his brother's death in Vietnam. Much of the book is predictable sixties angst. The narrator's mentor figure is a bona fide creation from helllewd, brilliant, manipulative. But some very tender moments and commentary on the aesthetic life versus the rest of life are compelling. And I want to go to Italy now. An interview with Parini about the book:
Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio
This historical novel of ideas jumps from ancient Rome to plague-era Italy to WWII. The exploration of Platonic ideas takes over the characterization too often, however. A good novel, but nowhere near Pears' earlier historical thriller, the brilliant An Instance of the Fingerpost.