Saturday, September 24, 2011

Settled in the Wild: Notes From the Edge by Susan Shetterly

When I vacationed in Maine I chanced upon this book in a favorite bookstore.

In 1971 Susan Shetterly and her husband moved to an unfinished cabin on sixty acres of land in Down East Maine. The rigors of that life took its toll and the marriage faltered.

Shetterly moved to another area in Maine, which over time altered. It's rural setting pecked away by developers. Her home, however, is on the edge— so she still enjoys the woods and the wild. It is this locale that she explores. Her love of the woods began in childhood.

At one point in the book she says of someone that he was " of the first people I knew who loved a sense of place."

It is the sense of place that Shetterly so aptly explores and writes about.

Non-Fiction Challenge ( nature)

Open City by Teju Cole

At some point in Open City a reference is made to Julius, the narrator, being a flaneur— a wanderer, an ambler. He is an American psychiatrist training in Manhattan. He's biracial— German and Nigerian and acutely aware of how people of color are perceived.

The book is often a prolonged interior monologue of Julius's peregrinations throughout the city. We read a series of snapshots rather than a linear narrative. He does meet up with a number of people and is the recipient of their stories, but then moves on to the next encounter or social or cultural commentary.

Julius appears to lack a sense of joy as he meanders through the landscape. Yet by the choices he makes and his narration a picture of Julius emerges out of these glimpses. Each experience is a layer and when peeled back reveals some of what is beneath.

Despite the lack of movement, save in his rambles, I found myself caught up in his daily walks, possible because I grew up in New York City and enjoyed the familiarity of some sights. I appreciated the tension between the concrete experiences and the subjective interpretations.

In the midst of these fragmentary episodes there is one alarming narrative by someone he once knew—Moji. As a reader it is apparent that we're dealing with an unreliable narrator so the veracity of the story isn't definitive. But if it is true, Julius resembles a person who has disconnected from himself and his actions. He then is only a repository of what he sees and hears—a compartmentalized individual with no moral compass.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Iron House by John Hart

John Hart has a way of capturing a story—even when some of the elements appear unlikely to happen, but then again it may be that my view of the world is affected by a wee bit of provincialism.

This is a story of two brothers—nine and ten, one much weaker and more sensitive or fragile than the other. The older brother takes care of the younger brother even after decades have passed and they haven't seen each other for years. The story begins rapidly—Michael, the older brother, is running through the woods. He carries a knife and he is covered with blood.

Then the story backs up to give us the details behind the scene. Michael and his younger brother Julian had been living in a home for unwanted children. The home called Iron House was located out of the way in the mountains of North Carolina. It is there that brutality plays out when children who aren't able to defend themselves are set upon by bullies. Julian is continually selected by a gang of bullies who torment him both physically and emotionally.

On one occasion one of the boys attacks him and Julian stabs him in the neck. Michael takes the blame for the death and runs away. That's the scene that begins the book.

Prior to the stabbing a wealthy woman had been visiting Iron House and wants to adopt both boys. When it's apparent that Michael might not return she adopts Julian.

The trajectory of their lives takes very different turns. Julian grows up in the home of a wealthy U.S. Senator while Michael wanders homeless in the streets until he's taken under the wing of Otto Kaitlin, a ruthless crime boss known for his iron fist and ruthless style. Michael is schooled and loved like a son by Otto and becomes a successful killer.

Years go by and Michael falls in love with Elena. When Elena tells him she is pregnant with his child he thinks about leaving the mob and establishing a life with her. Michael tells Kaitlin that he wants to quit the mob. At that point in time Otto is gravely ill. Usually people cannot leave —save in a casket, but Otto tells everyone that Michael has his permission to freely leave.

Otto's son who has always felt that his father looked upon Michael as his son and won't contest his father's wishes until his death—which is imminent.

When Michael tells Elena the truth she leaves unable to live with knowing that he is a killer. Michael pursues her because she gives his life a meaning that has been missing.

From that point on reading Iron House is akin to following a high speed car chase. Otto dies and the mob hunts for Michael as he hunts for Elena. They are a ruthless bunch; however, he also is an accomplished killer.
Meanwhile Julian's life is disintegrating. Members of the Iron House gang who bullied and tormented him are turning up dead in a lake near his home. Hart introduces multiple plot lines: the senator's wife and her past as well as the explosive past of the senator. There are accusations made—and the implication is that Julian lured the men to his home and then killed them and threw their bodies in the lake.

Then there is the crazed and bitter woman and her disheveled daughter with secrets to be revealed.

I liked Michael and felt somewhat guilty about liking a character who was such an accomplished killer and while killing didn't have any qualms about his occupation.

Michael Hart's writing engages the reader and I found myself simply letting the story unspool and enjoyed the narrative vigor.

( Mystery and Suspense challenge)