Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Books Read, 2008 - Ones I Liked - 1

First, the mysteries. Three writers stood out for me this year, one very good, the other two extraordinary.

Margaret Coel writes a series set among the Arapaho of Wyoming. Until the most recent book the series had featured a Catholic priest and Arapaho woman lawyer. Coel bases her mysteries on historical incidents in Arapaho history, which gives them an added interest. Her plots are strong, and her descriptions of the land are quite good. Like most mystery series, it is best to read her novels in order of publication because the central characters, the priest and the woman lawyer, evolve. You can find a chronology on her website.

The first of the extraordinary novelists is Fred Vargas, Fred being short for Frederique. Vargas is a French anthropologist and one of the best-selling novelists in the world. Unfortunately, only three of her novels have been translated from French into English, and I despair that my French will ever be good enough to read the books that have not been translated.

Her character is Paris police Chief Inspector Adamsberg, a man who functions almost entirely by intuition. Thus her novels are as far from police procedurals as is possible. Indeed, her novels are characterized by an almost aimless meandering quality, and one's interest is held not only by the most perplexing mysteries but also by the panoply of unusual characters. Vargas excels at novels with multiple and quirky plot lines that, somehow, all converge in the end.

A few quotes from Seeking Whom He May Devour:

"That's what makes human beings so hopeless, really. They cling to the worst things they've known."

"Camille rather liked Suzanne who took verbal crudity to an incandescent intensity that could only inspire admiration -- Camille's mother had taught her to consider vulgarity as a way of coping with life."

"Yes, of course he [Adamsberg] was in love with Camille, deep down inside, in the unknown country you carry along inside you like some private but alien submarine world. Yes. And so what? Nothing says that you have to put every one of your thoughts into action."

From Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand:

"You love someone, you've got to give something, haven't you now, but if all you want's a good time, you don't have to."

"At eighty-six, the old woman was capable of giving herself without stinting."

From This Night's Foul Work:

"Spring is capricious, Adamsberg thought, you can't expect her to arrive punctually on the morning of 21 March, when you think of the astronomical quantity of buds she has to deal with, not to mention all those larvae, roots and seeds, things you can't see but that must certainly take up a huge amount of her energy."

"She was a tall, rather angular woman who moved around cautiously, as if she was surprised to find herself alive. Her chatter was composed of the most trivial non sequiturs, some pointless, some completely odd, and she could evidently keep it up for hours. In a sense, it was a work of great artistry, a lacy network of words, woven so fine that it contained only holes."

"If something feels sudden, it's only the end of a long hidden process that one may not have been aware of."

"The world of fantasy fills the gaps in people's knowledge."

The other extraordinary writer I read last year was the Swedish mystery author, Henning Mankell, but I will write about him another time.

On a personal note, I am going to have minor surgery on Friday, but any surgery means major pain to accompany recovery. So the next period of silence on this blog will have a discernible reason.

© 2009 Julius Lester

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