Friday, January 30, 2009

Good Books and Great

I've read several good books lately, and they have made me very contented with January. Sometimes, though, I read books that remind me that there is a difference between good writing and great writing. The great writing has me asking "Why would I ever bother to try to write when I can never achieve the artistry that this person has?" I felt that way the first time I read Steinbeck, and Dostoevsky, and Wharton. I feel that way when I read certain suspense and mystery novels that seem to take the genre to new and daring heights.

This week I read two great books simultaneously.

The first is I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. (Knopf 2005). Zusak is an Australian novelist in the Young Adult genre, although Messenger read like an adult novel and its theme is for all ages. The delight of this book, aside from Zusak's distinctive and enjoyable first-person style, is the narrator, Ed Kennedy, a 19-year-old cab driver who sees himself as a well-meaning loser. The book begins with a bank robbery and some truly comical dialogue. Ed inadvertently intercepts the robber and achieves some fame in his town for a day or two.

The fame dies down, but someone remembers Ed, because a couple of days later he gets a playing card in his mailbox, and on it are three addresses. It is at this point, whether Ed knows it or not, that he becomes The Messenger . . .

You only have to read the first couple of pages of this book to realize its appeal, and only a couple of chapters to see the traces of genius. There is much suspense, which is why I think Messenger could be classified as a mystery, although I think it is shelved in fiction.

I have great admiration for this young Australian author, and I am now a fan.

The other great book is The Fate of Katherine Carr by Thomas H. Cook. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, coming soon).

After one chapter of this book I realized that I didn't care if the plot ever really developed, as long as I could keep reading sentences, paragraphs, pages by this writer. Cook's narrator, George Gates, has lost a child to a murderer who got away with it, and he lives with an existential mixture of guilt, detachment and hatred that makes every thought he has, every word he says, seem measured and philosophical. Perhaps this resonated with me especially because I am the mother of sons, and it is a son--an only son--that Gates lost years before. His pain, seven years later, is fresh and unresolved, and he struggles with a Hamlet-like despair that forces him to continually contemplate whether the next step, the next day, is even worth it.

But then an old acquaintance tells him the story of a woman who disappeared twenty years before. Her disappearance has never been solved. George is a travel writer and reporter, and he is mildly intrigued by Katherine Carr's disappearance. For various reasons he begins to investigate it; the more he does, the more her story seems linked to his own. . .

This is compelling and heartbreaking, and I will be going back to find the other titles of Thomas H. Cook (I've always meant to read Red Leaves, so I'll start there).

1 comment:

jwhit said...

Hey, Julia. I've only read one of Markus' books: The Book Thief. Loved it!! Prize winner. The story is about a girl in a foster family in Germany during WWII. I highly recommend it.