Friday, December 18, 2009

A Guide to Gifts in the Holiday Homestretch

Despite the 50-degree weather in Rome, it’s not difficult to tell the holidays are on the horizon. My chestnuts roasting on an open fire days ended when I left Tuscany, but almost every corner has some for sale. Sparkly lights rim the more commercial streets and if you’re lucky you can catch an Italian singing “Jingle Bells.” It’s past time to start shopping for gifts. All I want for Christmas is a 2,000-piece puzzle (for when I get lonely) but for those who like a book and a mug of apple cider, I have suggestions.
The fictional coup pulled by Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall was recently chronicled in the pages (?) of this blog. Here the reality of another time woven into fiction. Henry VIII is angling for his second wife and is taut wire of lust, insecurity and power. Mantel chronicles Thomas Cromwell’s ascent to indispensability and reconfigures his character in the process. His intelligence and surprising kindness are emphasized. The tone is humorous and carries the reader quickly through this pile of pages. In Wolf Hall the changes taking place in Europe are depicted as what they were; calculated evasions and manipulations by powerful men and canny women.
The narrative unfolded in the pages of Phillip Meyer’s American Rust is full of nitty, gritty reality despite the surreal beauty of Buell, Pennsylvania. Without a note of bitterness the author chronicles the dissolution of a once booming steel town. In the stale limbo of Buell opportunities are scarce and lack of direction becomes dangers. The near impossibility of success leads to mad attempts and criminal failures. Meyer’s characters are fusions of humanity and the metal of the region. They are beautiful and their confusion and missteps tragic.
For those exhausted by the recycled cast of characters running through fiction, Jayne Anne Phillip’s Lark and Termite will prove an uncommon delight. Phillips unfurls her story in a range of different voices and in two distinct periods of time. Corporal Robert Leavitt is enmeshed in the violent turmoil of the Korean War. Time becomes fluid. His memories are of Lola, his lover who is a blurry but strong presence in the novel. Leavitt’s mental return to her throbs with an urgent but gentle sexuality. Ten years later Lark cares for her disabled brother Termite with a wisdom beyond her years. She credits him with a reality of his own despite his inability to speak and Phillips’s entrance into the minds of each character indisputably real and new.
Everything about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is captivating. In Wells Tower’s debut collection of short stories he focuses those recently set adrift. His characters, largely men, are regular. Their concerns are ordinary ones. But even ordinary navigations can be a struggle. Tower’s people are not always likeable but they are human and the reader is caught up in their plights to find something that will anchor them. The author has an excellent touch with language and will throw in the right sort of zesty verb or cutting adjective to the story interesting and the reader off-balance.
Finally, a little advice about the contents of the archives. Do not ever give or read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. The final pages caught my interest but the preceding hundreds didn’t make them worth my while. If you are in Paris, or going, or have been, or love Hemingway, read A Moveable Feast. It isn’t really finished, a delightful mishmash of his genius and his encounters with other geniuses of the 1920s on the Left Bank. Colm Tobin has an excellent and dark collection of short stories called Mothers and Sons and in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral one learns huge amounts about gloves.
I’ll be dreaming of your white Christmases, book in hand.

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