Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The first mention I recall of Charles Frazier dates back years ago, when author Donald Secreast appeared at the Writers Symposium at Caldwell Community College and mentioned that his friend had a novel coming about about the Civil War--"and it's going to be big." I bought a copy of that novel Cold Mountain the week it was released and read it on a trip to China, discovering while there the poems of Han Shan, about another Cold Mountain. Evidently Frazier too had discovered these ancient poems, using one as an epigraph to his first novel.

For me the novel passed an all-important test. I used it in APP Lit class (1. without getting tired of it and (2. finding that it appealed to girls and boys. The book provided so many ways into discussions of style, of foreshadowing, of symbolism. But it was a good story. The movie had it's high points, but as one friend pointed out, "I don't need to see the movie. I've already seen it in my head."

I also enjoyed Thirteen Moons, since I have family interest in the Cherokee and what happened before, during, and after the "Trail of Tears." When Frazier appeared to promote the book as part of the Novello Festival in Charlotte, he also had a Cherokee "wise woman" who had translated the Removal section of that novel into Cherokee--phonetically and in the Cherokee syllabary.

This third book Nightwoods moves forward into the twentieth century, but still takes place in the mountains of Western North Carolina, with a road trip to and from Florida. Again, Frazier introduces engaging characters readers love or love to hate. The protagonist of the story, Luce, lives alone at a lodge, once the vacation site of wealthy mountain vacationers, but long empty, until she ends up with custory of her murdered sisters twins. Lacking the maternal instincts, she finds herself nonetheless determined to break through the walls Frank and Dolores have thrown up.

Frazier brings in Stubblefield, who inherits land and the lodge, upon his grandfather's death. He arrives with memories of a younger Luce from their youth. As he forges his place in his former home, he finds himself entangled in the life at the Lodge.

The novel's antagonist Bud Johnson ends up in the area, seeking the kids after he is acquitted of killing their mother, his late wife. His interest is not in their well-being but in what they may have taken with them and what they might betray--should they choose to speak. He plays as coldhearted a villain as any of the Home Guard in Cold Mountain.

The setting of the novel, mostly across the lake and beyond the small town, moves with the story from late fall to winter, eventually burrowing deep into the mountains, with trees still marking ancient trails to deep darkness. A recurring theme, hinted in the epigraph, is the necessity of being paid, but also of paying: nothing comes without a cost. The motifs of blood --redemptive and punitive--and of fire--giving light and warmth, wreaking destruction--surface throughout the novel as well.

The only bump in the narrative for me came when Frazier juxtaposes two scenes out of time sequences, tricking readers into thinking Bud has found the children in hiding, then tossing him into a campsite of deer hunters, leaving me to try to unravel the significance of the earlier scene.
I suspect that I may want to read the novel again, this time to see how the pieces fit together.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Meanwhile, I'm still reading...

I realized this week that I have at least two or three books I finished that I still haven't mentioned here yet, mainly because about this time every year, real life catches up with me. The essays to be graded sit stacked beside me, filling me with guilt until motivation kicks in and I reach for the proverbial red pen. But I've been reading.

I finished Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother. I got such a kick out of his The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, yet I hadn't gotten to this book (although it sat there on my shelf with several other neglected volumes.) Without giving away too much, this book had a scene as shocking or unnerving as the one more graphic scene in The Professor and the Madman. If you read it, you know to what I refer.

The novel opens with the protagonist George Hall discovering what he fear is cancer (although all indications point to eczema). He goes through the course of the novel dealing with his wife's infidelity, his son's alternate lifestyle, and his daughter's forthcoming marriage to a man he considers wrong for her. It has the making of such a dark novel--but I laughed so much through it. Sometimes, I'll admit, I groaned simulataneously, but so much of the novel is funny--in the way that British novels amuse--wry, quirky.

The tension builds until the wedding--a fiasco on so many levels. And anyone who has been closely involved with weddings--or gala on that level--knows the potential for disaster.

Since my book selection process has absolutely no pattern to it at all, I can't possibly predict accurately where my reading will take me for the rest of the year. But stay tuned: I'm near the end of Charles Frazier's Nightwoods, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and Isabel Allende's Ines of my Soul--all at the same time Maybe I'll even get those papers graded.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Follett--Doing What He Does Best

I first encountered Ken Follett's fiction when I read The Key to Rebecca, which I picked up in part because of the reference to my favorite Daphne DuMaurier novel. While I was familiar with his suspense novels, I kept having friends tell me I needed to read his historical novel Pillars of the Earth. My brother-in-law credits the book with his decision to pursue a building career. The sprawling tale follows a master builder who dreams of building a great cathedral--which he does--and follows a variety of characters from all social levels during the time period leading up to and including the death of Thomas Becket. He waited more than twenty years before following up with World Without End, set in that same cathedral city during the time of the plague.

Now Follett has embarked on what is to become (I hear) a series set in the twentieth century. The first, Fall of Giants, begins in a Welsh mining town, first introducing Billy Williams (Billy Twice) on his thirteenth birthday, his first day in the mines, then Earl Fitzherbert, who owns the mine, and his family. As in his earlier historical fiction, Follett introduces strong women characters--Billy's sister Ethel, a maid in the earl's home, and the earl's sister, Lady Maude, a strong-minded suffragette.

Other threads of the story follow a young German diplomat, who attended college with Fitz, an American working for President Wilson, and a pair of Russian brothers. Follett manages to show the conflicts that led to World War I through a variety of perspectives, and he continues those different viewpoints through the course of the war and the complications as the major world power dealt with the Armistice.

I've always known more about World War II than the first "war to end all wars," but after reading this book, I was able to see the attitudes after the way, particularly in Germany, that would eventually give rise to Nazi power.

Although he deals only slightly with the death of the Czar's family, I learned so much about the revolution leading up to and following the end of that reign. He also suggests that many of the aristocratic families feared social revolution in Great Britain as well.

Since Follett creates characters that draw my interest and empathy, as well as a number of others who were despicable or at least flagrantly self-absorbed, I can't wait for him to finish the next book.