Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Butchers Hill

A Tess Monaghan Novel
Laura Lippman

I have become a Laura Lippman addict. I first heard Laura Lippman being interviewed on the Marc Steiner Show on what was then Baltimore's WJHU radio station, at John's Hopkins University. (It's called WYPR now and is no longer owned by the University) I found her to be engaging and was motivated to go read the new novel she was hawking and then every Laura Lippman book I could lay my hands on ever since.

Butchers Hill is an early Lippman novel that was published in paperback only, in 1998. It has recently been released in hard cover, reversing the usual procedure. One might expect an early attempt to be less well written, more tentative, not as good as an author's later work, especially if that early book was a paperback only potboiler. This is not the case. The character of Tess Monaghan is fully rounded already, and easily recognizable. The plot has twists and turns of great complexity, yet complete, after the fact, logic. Other characters are believable. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Baltimore is a city that I know mostly from the local TV news. I live in another world, across the Chesapeake Bay from there. But I love to see places and even people from that news appearing in print. If there is a writer who lives and sets novels in your area you may be able to enjoy the same experience. Of course, I also enjoy reading the late Tony Hillerman's New Mexico based novels for their setting, even though my exposure to New Mexico was only a two week vacation almost twenty years ago. Go figure.

You will never in a million years guess who done it, which makes this a real mystery and not just a "crime novel." In fact, it's not at all clear what the real crime that is being solved is until the denouement, but not in a bad plot kind of way.

Since starting to write fiction, with her Tess Monaghan mysteries, Laura Lippman has written novels that are not in the mystery genre. She has shown that she can develop complex characters and hold a reader's interest without having the plot device of a detective with a crime to solve. Yet, her Tess stories, even this early one, already stand up as complete novels on their own.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Fine Just The Way It Is

Wyoming Stories 3
Annie Proulx

This is the first work I've read by the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Shipping News. I suppose now I'll have to go ahead and read everything she's written. Not all at once, though.

Fine Just The Way It Is is a collection of short stories, mostly set in Wyoming, although there are two set in Hell, with the Devil as the central character. Maybe that's Proulx's real opinion of Wyoming? She visits 19th century homesteaders, an old cowboy in a nursing home, 21st century ranchers, back country hikers. Each has a story to tell and in each story the place is an important element.

Most of the characters seem to end up in a condition best described by the title of one of the stories Tits Up In A Ditch. They die in childbirth, catch pneumonia, get trapped by a falling rock high on a mountainside. Or old and tired in a nursing home, like Mr. Forkenbrock in the opening story, who would rather die of exposure, sitting with his back aginst a fence post, like an old man he remembers from his youth. Sitting comfortable on my sofa I can enjoy sympathizing with all these characters, knowing that they are fictional and I won't suffer brain damage from a roadside bomb in Iraq and be sent home to my unprepared parents on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

I have the same objection to this book as I do with any well written collection of short stories. About the time that I really start to get involved with a group of characters, that story is over and I have to start over with a whole new set.

The title of the book comes from something said repeatedly by one of the characters, "Wyoming is fine just the way it is." Every story, although each reveals something beautiful about the state, show how very difficult it is to live there. It should be depressing, but it isn't.