Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Quintet of Winter Book Selections

Although the weather has thawed out considerably since the Great Freeze of January 2010, it is still the Indoor Season. The sun disappears early so yard work is on hiatus. I find nothing better than settling near a fireplace, listening to soft music and escaping into a good book. Here is a quintet of recently published selections that I have read, or nearly finished, since winter began. Perhaps you will find something of interest here to curl up with as well.

• “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. If you read just read one novel this year, this is the one. It is the story of a young white woman in 1962 who returns to Jackson, Mississippi after receiving a journalism degree from Ole Miss and begins to secretly record the stories of three black housekeepers who work for other white women in town. Stockett captures with great skill the dialect and dialogue of these women, who endure indignities and racism with great courage and wit. As a native of Jackson, she knows whereof she speaks. “The Help” is in turn hilarious — as when Minny, one of the black housekeepers, complains the cat “bout gave me a cadillac arrest” this morning — and heartbreaking. The black women live in constant fear that a vindictive white woman will make them unemployable with a false accusation of theft . “The Help” is emotionally tough to read if you have a conscience concerning the South’s racial legacy, but it is a novel that most thoughtful readers will have a hard time putting down until the final page.

• “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” by Jane Mayer. Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and one of the nation’s best investigative journalists. She has written a devastating account here on how the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks made terrible decisions to pursue suspected terrorists using torture, to ignore long-held constitutional protections and to attempt to in essence create a presidency that was above the law and accountable to no other branch of government.

Worse, it didn’t work. Torture methods yielded faulty information, innocent people were held for years under barbaric conditions, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and we have paid a terrific price in terms of damage to our image in the world, and to lives lost unnecessarily. This is a devastating indictment of the so-called “War on Terror.”

• “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel. Escape into an earlier time of political intrigue, torture and mayhem, namely the16th century of Britain, when Henry VIII has tired of his Catholic wife, Katherine of Aragon, and wishes to have the marriage annulled and marry Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell, risen from impossibly harsh circumstances, has become a fixer, invaluable to both royalty and high-ranking clergy alike.

In this meticulously developed historical novel, Mantel brings alive the key characters of an England slowly rising from barbarism, though none too quickly. Cromwell’s main adversary, Thomas More, meets his death at the end (no surprise there if you know English history) in the first of a two-part tour-de-force.

• “The Sellout: How Three Decades of Wall Street Greed and Government Mismanagement Destroyed the Global Financial System,” by Charles Gasparino. Luckily, the book isn’t nearly as daunting as the title. Gasparino traces the implosion of the financial market back more than 30 years to when Wall Street began taking ever larger risks in hopes of garnering larger profits — and were aided and abetted by government regulators, especially in the housing market.

The result, as we all know now, were millions of homeowners sucked in to buying mortgages they couldn’t afford, for which they certainly bear some blame. But I place the onus on those greedy scumbags who kept bundling risky mortgages and selling them, hoping this house of cards wouldn’t collapse before they could get out with their multi-million dollar bonuses. So does Gasparino.

• “Collected Stories,” by Raymond Carver. Carver died of lung cancer in 1988. The Library of America recently issued an exhaustive collection of his short stories, including notes about the texts, unedited versions, chronologies, and manuscript versions. Carver wrote unsparing vignettes about life along the hard edges of suburbia, where folks drink too much and look for love in all the wrong places. Like a short glass of single-malt Scotch, the stories are best read a few sips at a time. I figure I’ll be diving into this book from time to time well into the next winter.

Read and enjoy the fireplace. Spring will arrive soon.
Originally published January 24, 2010

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