That Louise Erdrich likes to tell stories becomes obvious from the reading of her novel The Master Butchers Singing Club. She never races through a tale, but takes her time, dissecting every nuance in delicious detail. The book’s central character is Delphine, whom we meet as she is returning home to Argus, North Dakota in the early 1930s with her balancing act partner Cyprian to care for her father, the town drunk. Delphine is a survivalist – a hard working, tough love, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground woman. She befriends Eva, the wife of the local butcher, Fidelis Waldvogel, who had immigrated to Argus from Germany after the first world war. Fidelis starts a singing club, the members of which make up many of the contributing characters of the story.
What a howler. Reminiscent of Mickey Spillane, Carl Hiassen’s Skinny Dip starts with crooked sleeze-ball Charles Perrone throwing his wife off a cruise ship miles away from the coast of Florida. Unbeknownst to Chaz, his wife Joey, was a champion swimmer and athlete in college, and turning her fall into a dive, survives the fall, swims to near exhaustion, eventually latches on to a floating bale of marijuana, and is picked up out of the ocean by a retired cop Mick Stranahan. Joey doesn’t understand why Chaz tried to kill her and spends the bulk of this hilarious story with Stranahan figuring out why and taking revenge by driving her husband crazy. The book is filled with great character sketches – Tool, a pain-killer addicted hired thug who gets reformed by the terminally ill old lady whose meds he tried to steal, Red Hammernut, the agribusiness tycoon who is paying off Chaz to falsify water quality records so he can keep his polluting enterprise up and running, and Karl Rolvaag, the homicide detective who keeps two albino pythons and when they escape is disturbed when the yappy dogs of neighbors go missing.
One of my earliest memories is of my father tiptoe-ing into our room at night, arms raised, saying in a low trebbly voice, “I vant to drrrrink yourrr blood!” He would then descend upon us shrieking kids and tickle us into giggling hysterics. The character of Count Dracula has so infused our culture – think Halloween costumes, Bela Lugosi, and “Count Chocula” cereal – yet who among us has taken the time to actually read the book that propelled this vampire into our national consciousness? Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t the first vampire story every published but it is certainly the most popular.
The concept of time traveling has been explored in many classic tales, but usually the time traveler goes back in time hundreds of years ago where there’s no chance of running into someone she knows. What if you went back in time and actually interacted with your younger self, or forward with your older self? In Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the protagonist Henry De Tamble has a genetic disorder – “Chrono Displacement” – in which he unwittingly leaves the present moment and is transported backwards and forwards in time. As a middle aged man he travels back in time and meets is future wife when she is only 6 years old. He visits her frequently as she grows up, though when she finally meets him in the present time, he doesn’t know who she is, because in the present, he is just meeting her for the first time. Time traveling is not as romantic a notion as one might think. It is dangerous for Henry as he is always transported naked, and therefore arrives naked, and often in freezing weather and around unsavory characters. Henry must learn to pick-pocket and steal, just to survive.
Henry Devereaux, Jr. is a wise-cracking interim chair of the English department of an unremarkable Pennsylvania college. While fending off intradepartmental pettiness and politics in the face of looming layoffs, Henry has to sort out the breakup of his daughter and son-in-law, crushes on co-eds, jealous imaginings of his wife with other men, his threatening to kill a duck (while holding a goose) that gets broadcast on the local news, and a pecker that refuses to pee.
Pulitzer prize-winning author Richard Russo’s Straight Man is a situation comedy in the vein of TV’s Fraser; every time Henry tries to extricate himself from one bad situation, he ends up in a worse one. The writing is excellent – witty, well paced, and the main character well-drawn as just an everyday guy just trying to get by and make sense the world.
I think the Wall St. Journal review says it best, “Eloquent….a writer of uncommon sensitivity and restraint.” Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book of fiction, a collection of short stories – Interpreter of Maladies has won numerous awards including a Pulitzer prize. For anyone who loves short stories, this is a must read. Lahiri’s stories are subtle, haunting, and beautifully written. From the Indian American couple recovering from still birth of their first child, to the epileptic girl who overcomes her patron’s rejection to create a life for herself, these stories’ characters are sensitively drawn, leaving them etched into our subconscious. What does become of the woman who guards the stairway of an apartment complex, only to be kicked out after she loses all of her life’s savings?
My mother handed me this book a week ago and insisted that I read it. Once I started I realized I had already read it a year or two before. But I drank up the stories again, happily indulging in the beautiful writing.