By Katherine Arthaud
Hello, readers. I hope you have been well. I hope you had a good Halloween, which would have been tricky, as the weather was about as wet as I have ever seen a Halloween get. There were lots of umbrellas, I noticed, and some very sodden goblins roaming the streets….
What have you all been reading? I have a few good books to recommend, if you are looking. One is a novel by Sarah Elaine Smith, Marilou Is Everywhere —a mysterious title, and an unusual and rather mysterious book. “I used to think my troubles got legs the summer Jude Vanderjohn disappeared,” it begins, “but now I see how they started much earlier. Before that summer, the things that happened to me were air and water and just as see-thru. They were real but I didn’t care for them much. I did not care for the real.”
This is an excellent book. The prose is unusual and surprising, poetic and ear-catching. For instance: “The grass was like a washed thing. If you could drink it, it would fix you and all your bruises would fall off, and all your freckles and bug bites.” There is the obvious mystery here of the missing teenager, Jude, last seen in a parking lot across from a general store, near the West Virginia border. And then there is the ongoing and more nebulous, undefined mystery of Cindy, the 14-year-old narrator herself, who kind of, well, slips into the absence left by the missing older girl, Jude. Cindy’s own mother is seldom around, and one of the appeals of Jude’s place is that there is a mother in residence there, but oh, what a mother that one is…. “She was easy to manipulate,” says Cindy. “I wish it had not been so. But either from grief or from drinking she couldn’t keep a thought in her head for longer than five minutes most of the time, longer than any time I was in the room with her. When I left, or she left, the scene was reset. There was nothing I could do to keep from having the same conversations with her eighty times a day….”
I loved this book. It is colorful, odd, sometimes violent and sometimes amusing. Cindy is a strangely compelling and lovable narrator craving and seeking love and belonging. “Who is Marilou?” you ask? You will have to read the book to find out. And I highly recommend that you do.
Meanwhile, Jodi Picoult has done it again. How many books can one woman write? Well, over two dozen, it would seem, in Picoult’s case. I haven’t read them all, but I have read most and find they rarely disappoint. The prose is not poetic or particularly surprising (as in the above-described novel). Picoult’s stories are straightforward and to the point, for the most part. But as you who have read her well know, the themes and issues she takes on are extremely complex, nuanced and raw. School shootings, Asberger’s, teen suicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence, race relations, organ donation…. Usually, Picoult’s novels revolve around an ethical dilemma of some sort—but if that makes it all sound boring, then I have misled you. These books are page-turners. I’ve never read one that wasn’t.
A Spark of Light, written in 2018, is no less gripping than its predecessors. One odd thing about it is that it goes backward in time, which (being someone who doesn’t get to do that in my own life, ever) took me a few pages to get used to. And we are not talking about going backwards in years, we are talking going backwards hour by hour, living a single day backwards (if that makes any sense). So… plot revelations spring not only from the future but also from the past.
The drama takes place over the course of one day at a women’s reproductive health services clinic in Mississippi, where a right-to-life gunman shows up with a mission. People are killed (which is heartbreaking) and hostages are taken (which is nail-biting), and Picoult cleverly devises some interesting plot twists and unexpected connections to keep things extra riveting. And while one is caught up in the story, anxiously turning pages to find out what the heck is going to happen—or (in this case) what already did happen—one finds oneself wading through some interesting ethical questions (classic Picoult), such as: When does life begin? How does one balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn? What is a parent? When do you play by the rules and when do you break them? It begins with a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” This would make a great book club read. Lots to talk about.
Another book worthy of a shout-out before I sign off is Nelson and his screenwriter son Alex DeMille’s The Deserter. I’m a big fan of DeMille, who is just as prolific as Jodi Picoult. This is his 21st novel. A combat-decorated U.S. Army veteran, this guy knows his stuff. The military is usually featured in DeMille’s novels, along with spies, assassins, foreign countries, bad guys, good guys, stiff drinks, guns and beautiful women (who, yes, are sexy but are most often strong, no-nonsense and smart, as well). I’m a quarter of the way into this one, and I’m hooked. Right now, it’s breakfast at a hotel in Venezuela with Brodie (our hero) and Taylor, his good-looking, competent, nerves-of-steel partner on the mission: posing as “the stupidest &%$#ing tourists that ever lived,” trying to track down and extradite an elite Delta Force army captain who, months ago, mysteriously disappeared from his post in Afghanistan, and who there is good reason to believe has taken up residence, or set up a business, or both, in the sleazy, dangerous slums of Caracas. I can’t put it down. DeMille’s plots are complicated and intricately concocted and always garnished with sprigs of witty, dry, cynical humor that, to me, puts DeMille at the top of the heap in his genre.
So, that’s enough from me for the time being. Hard to believe that November is upon us. Hang onto your hats, and probably best not to leave home these days without a jacket. Wishing you happy days and good reading!