book reviews


Before I really get into this, I should clarify that I respond to fiction and non-fiction in very distinct ways. I’ve always hated literary criticism because fiction tends to be very emotional for me, and when I love something and really connect with it, I don’t want to talk about syntax and symbolism and shit. With non-fiction, I respond in a more analytical way that allows me to be both passionately in love and capable of critique. So since this is about a novel, it’s not so much critique as it is personal response.

On that note, a quick recap: the book is set in the 1930s, in Montana, and is a coming-of-age story told through the perspective of Jick, the 14-year-old son of a forest ranger (Mac), who is trying to sort out his family’s past. English Creek is a fantastic book, but it meant more to me than just great fiction.

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Let’s start with a little background: I read this book a while ago. I’m not exactly sure how long “a while” is, but I think maybe the summer of 2009. And I wanted to write something about it, because it’s an interesting book, but then it got set on a shelf and I never returned to it, except to occasionally move it aside when reaching for my Chicago. So I sat myself down tonight, determined to finally conquer this task.

As a journalist based out of Athens for many years, Robert Kaplan’s familiarity with the region and his subject matter is easily apparent in his writing. Balkan Ghosts is a great combination of travelogue and journalism, drawing on history, current events, and personal experience. It’s designed for a trade audience in a country where most people, I am willing to bet, cannot locate Bulgaria on a map. And so in many ways, it’s a tremendously successful book: it’s readable, it’s intelligent, and it came out at a time (1993) when the Balkans had suddenly drawn international attention.

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At first glance, The Missing is a book that is basically screaming my name. It’s a mystery, it’s historical, and it’s set in the South. So why didn’t I love it?

Well, for one, despite its recent Edgar nomination, The Missing is less a mystery novel and more a meditation on the nature of loss and the gaping holes that people leave in our lives when they suddenly disappear. It’s the story of Sam Simoneaux, a New Orleans musician (and WWI veteran) who gets tangled up in the family and fate of a missing child, Lily Weller. The novel follows his journey through the South of the 1920s as he tries to find Lily. Bookending the main action, and woven through it at times, are Sam’s attempts to deal with a tragic past–a murdered family, a son lost to illness, memories of war–and forge a future.

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