WAMC Book Picks 29 May 2018

Heart Spring Mountain
Robin MacArthur

Heart Spring Mountain opens in the immediate aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene: swollen rivers and streams, shattered landscapes and ruined homes. Bonnie, drawn by the irresistible forces of nature on display, wanders the rain-drenched streets of a small Vermont town. She is last seen standing on a bridge looking out over the roiling river below.

Bonnie’s daughter Vale, long-estranged from her mother, lives in New Orleans where she works as a bartender. When Vale receives notice of her mother’s disappearance, she immediately heads back to Vermont to look for Bonnie.

Over the next few months, Vale searches for her mother in the town and in the surrounding hills and woodlands where she grew up and where her family has lived for generations. As she searches, she slowly comes to terms with who she is and what compelled her to leave in the first place.

MacArthur deftly weaves the lives of three generations of Vermont women into this marvelous story about the search for meaning, set against the background of an isolated farm in the mountains. It's a story of loss and of hope. It explores the frictions within families - the hurt caused and eventual healing. The book slips backwards and forwards in time, slowly revealing the secrets and tensions that bind the generations together.

Heart Spring Mountain is a treasure. It is absorbing, mesmerizing and deeply felt. I didn't want it to end, but was compelled to read on to the satisfying conclusion. The characters are real and well-developed, the settings evocative. I was reminded of Elizabeth Strout's writing at its best.

Robin MacArthur lives and works on the Vermont farm where she was born. Her previous book is a collection of stories, Half Wild: Stories, published in 2016. Heart Spring Mountain is her first novel.

Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is set in London just after the Second World War.

When their parents move to Singapore, 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister, Rachel, are left in the care of a character they call The Moth. But who is The Moth? How does he know their parents? And who are all the strange and suspicious visitors that descend on the house in the absence of their mother and father?

Returning from school one day, Rachel takes Nathaniel down to the cellar to show him her discovery: Their mother’s trunk, which they had watched her pack meticulously in preparation for the move to Singapore. So, where is their mother? And why has she left them behind?

Angered by his apparent abandonment, Nathaniel starts skipping school to hang out with one of the visitors, a mysterious underworld figure known as The Pimlico Darter. The Darter’s great claim to fame is that, despite running all kinds of betting scams at the greyhound tracks he visits, his name and mug shot do not appear in the police lists of known and wanted crooks that frequent the races.

“Hold your cards to your breast” is The Darter’s constant refrain, as if to reveal anything about yourself is to give the game away. The Darter eventually slips out of Nathaniel’s life, clutching one last secret close to his chest.

The warlight of the title refers to the muted lighting used to guide emergency services through the London blackout at the time of the Blitz. It is an apt metaphor for the book: Ondaatje’s prose flows seamlessly, conjuring up vivid scenes and images that slowly reveal the dim secrets of the past and their impact on the present. Ondaatje draws the reader into the lighted corners, carefully unwrapping a secret here, a secret there, sweeping the reader along in the irresistible current of the story.

This is a very satisfying read.

Michael Ondaatje won the Booker Prize for his 1992 novel, The English Patient.

Love and Ruin
Paula McLain

Paula McLain's latest novel explores Hemingway's relationship with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, an independent, ambitious writer who would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. In 1937, Gellhorn travels to Madrid to cover the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War and tell the stories of ordinary people caught in the horrifying conflict. She is determined to prove herself as a substantial journalist in a field dominated by men. Hemingway is also covering the war and he and Gellhorn begin a passionate, unexpected affair. While reporting on the impending Second World War, they establish a home base in Cuba and eventually marry. Both of their professional careers blossom but Gellhorn becomes increasingly concerned about being in the personal and professional shadow of Hemingway. She struggles to maintain autonomy while passionately devoted to a complicated writer and must eventually make choices that are sure to cause heartache.

McLain is a master of historical fiction and weaves a rich, inviting story against the backdrop of war and conflict in the mid-1900s. For all who enjoyed The Paris Wife and Circling The Sun, you will not be disappointed in this latest gift.

The Order of Time
Carlo Rovelli

I enjoyed Carlo Rovelli's earlier book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and was really pleased to receive a copy of his latest book, The Order of Time. It did not disappoint. How could it, when it poses such wonderful questions as "Why do we remember the past and not the future?" and "Do we exist in time or does time exist in us?"

This is a lyrical exploration of some of these big questions and more. It's a beautifully written book. Rovelli deftly pulls together thoughts and ideas from philosophy, literature and science to create this masterpiece. He clearly is passionate about his field, theoretical physics, and writes in such a brisk and precise manner that you are quickly swept along. From the opening paragraph to the very last page, this book is a delight. There are so many thought-provoking moments: Did you know, for example, that time passes more quickly the higher you climb? Hah! Or that time stands still at the border of a black hole? Fascinating stuff. Please don't be put off by the subject matter: Although there are a couple of short, technical chapters - this book is more poetry than science. Well worth the time spent reading, whatever time might be.


The Punishment She Deserves
Elizabeth George

This is Elizabeth George’s latest Detective Inspector Linley novel, although Linley himself doesn’t really make an appearance until about a third of the way in.

The book is set in Ludlow, a small, picturesque town in the west of England. Just as an aside, I grew up near there, and a lot of the places mentioned are familiar to me. Linda and I even stayed at Dinham Hall, the hotel in Ludlow where Detective Inspector Linley and Detective Sergeant Havers stay when they are seconded to the local police force to help with the investigation. Anyway, back to the book…

Budget cuts have been affecting the policing of the town and the police station is now largely abandoned. The local deacon, Paul Druitt, brought to the police station for questioning about a rape, is found dead in the interview room. Everything points to suicide, but...

Detective Sergeant Havers is sent down from London to assist the local police force with its investigations. Her job is to make sure nothing has been missed, that all the Ts have been crossed and the Is dotted.. There is political pressure being applied to clear up the case and to exonerate Druitt. But Havers has her own demons to face:  She is under a black cloud from an earlier misadventure and is threatened with a transfer to the north if she doesn't prove herself this time. Even though the case seems cut and dried, she feels she is missing something. The more she digs, the more she finds people with something to hide.

This is mystery writing at its best. There are no red herrings or deceptions. Just a careful scratching at the surface, slowly revealing the details of the town, the lives of its inhabitants, and the particulars of the crime. It's a long book, but deeply engrossing: a perfect companion for the weekend!

Grief Cottage
Gail Godwin

The locals on a small South Carolina island refer to an abandoned seaside cottage as "Grief Cottage" because a visiting boy and his parents disappeared fifty years ago during a hurricane. Marcus, an eleven-year-old boy, is sent to live on the island with his artistic, reclusive aunt after his mother dies. To fill the long, lonely hours of each summer day, Marcus visits Grief Cottage to commune with the boy who disappeared fifty years ago. With each visit, Marcus summons the courage to get a little closer to the boy -- and closer to exploring his own experience with loss and death. This is a ghost story and so much more; it is an exploration of grief, remorse, loneliness, and human connection. Marcus and his aunt build a messy, imperfect life together that helps each of them envision a brighter future. Godwin is a master storyteller and cleverly weaves together stories that span decades and involve Marcus's great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, childhood best friend, and the quirky island inhabitants. This is a truly satisfying read.