Roberta Recommends: late July, 2007

July 21, 2007 at 1:57 pm (books)

Recent Reads:

knots.jpg ian-rankin.jpg Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin (1987). This is the first novel in the Rebus series and all I can say is, Rankin hit the ground running.

I admit that as I began reading, I fetched several deep sighed and thought, Oh, no, more serial killers on the loose. Serial killers are my least favorite class of villain; they need no motive, since they kill at random, for the sheer joy of it. Thus they commit the unpardonable sin of being both disgusting and boring. Appearances, however, are extremely deceiving in this particular case. Have patience; the unfolding of events and the revelation of the truth behind these murders prove to be quite remarkable, and yet, when all is revealed, completely believable. DS Rebus is yet another cop with enough baggage to amply fill the hold of a large aircraft. Still, he is his own unique, appealing, even endearing self. And the city of Edinburgh, his city, is very much a part of what makes him who he is. I loved the way Rankin wove bits of the history of this fascinating place into his narrative. And that great Scottish literary giant Robert Louis Stevenson, and his haunting meditation on the duality of mankind’s nature, so very apt in the context of this gripping crime novel, brood over all.

profhouse.jpg cather_w_04.jpgThe Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925). What a beautiful and mysterious novel this is! It begins with the recounting of a man’s domestic and professional life that on the face of it is downright prosaic. Yet by the time you finish the book, his life has touched you in the most profound way. The deepest questions have been asked, without being asked outright. Professor Godfrey St. Peter lives and teaches in a small Midwestern town. He is married and has two married daughters whom he loves deeply but differently. (Shades of Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford!) He has had, in the course of his teaching career, one student whose presence in his classes and in his life has affected him profoundly. This is Tom Outland. Much to my surprise, almost the entire second half of this book is devoted to Tom’s boyhood and youth, and in particular, to his discovery of ancient pristine cliff dwellings in a remote part of New Mexico. Cather’s rendering of this discovery, and of what this place, forgotten by time, is like, mesmerizes. She apparently fell under the spell of the Land of Enchantment when she first went there in 1912. (If you have ever traveled there, even nowadays with the tourist industry in full swing, you’ll understand her obsession with the place.) In the course of this novel, a profound change comes over the professor. I don’t want to say more, except that The Professor’s House is one of the most compelling works of fiction I have read in a long time, and a great discussion book. In fact – I am dying to talk to someone about it!

Oh, and the writing…Here, Cather describes Lake Michigan and the professor’s love for it: “The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut. The land and all its dreariness could never close in on you. You had only to look at the lake, and you knew you would soon be free. It was the first thing one saw in the morning, across the rugged cow pasture studded with shaggy pines, and it ran through the days like the weather, not a thing thought about, but a part of consciousness itself. When the ice chunks came in of a winter morning, crumbly and white, throwing off gold and rose-coloured reflections,from a copper-coloured sun behind the grey clouds, he didn’t observe the detail or know what it was that made him happy; but now, forty years later, he could recall all its aspects perfectly.”

Recollected with pleasure:

by-the-lake.jpg johnmcgahernlowres.jpg By the Lake by John McGahern (2002). Once again – misgivings as I start out: Is there even a hint of a plot here somewhere? But that question soon becomes irrelevant. You are woven into the life of this tiny Irish village and there you stay until the very end. And what an end… a final scene that I shall never forget, and which derives its quiet yet enormous power from all that came before.

case-histories.jpg kate_atkinson.jpg Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004). Sweetly sad – sadly sweet? – with not a hint of the maudlin: this is the essence of Case Histories. She broke my heart in more than seventeen places, did Kate Atkinson, in this beautiful, luminous book, which is also one of the most elegantly structured works of fiction I have read in recent years. (Incredibly, she also made me laugh out loud!) This is a novel of crime, but more than that, it is a novel of love, loss, and redemption – or at least, the possibility of redemption.

human-stain.jpg roth.jpg The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000). This is probably my favorite novel by this towering figure of contemporary American letters. (Why does it always seem to me that Roth is glowering as well as towering?) Who else can write as he does about the vagaries of life and the the “poor bare forked animals”* who must muddle through somehow. I particularly love the scene at Tanglewood, during an open rehearsal. First, Nathan Zuckerman meditates on “The stupendous decimation that is death…” He is filled with amazement: “The ceaseless perishing. What an idea! What maniac conceived it?” And yet… “And yet, what a lovely day it is today, a gift of a day, a perfect day lacking nothing in a Massachusetts vacation spot that is itself as harmless and pretty as any on earth.” The rescue of Zuckerman’s day is completed with a spectacular performance by pianist Yefim Bronfman, described by Zuckerman as “… this sturdy little barrel of an unshaven Russian Jew.” Bronfman rips through Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult (and incredibly thrilling) Third Piano Concerto as though it were all in a day’s work, and then leaves the stage with a little offhand wave.

*from King Lear


  1. Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] his thoughtful foreword, Ian Rankin asks if it is possible to hope that crime fiction is finally getting the respect that has long been […]

  2. Advertisement for myself: specifically, for an upcoming book discussion I’m leading « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 15, 2008 at 6:40 pm (Book clubs, books) Back in June, I wrote about The Professor’s Wife by Willa Cather. This was my first foray back into classic literature after many years of devotion to new books. Of […]

  3. Cornucopia of crime fiction « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] said that, here are a few of my favorites that appear here: Raven Black by Ann Cleeves; Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, The Last Bus to Woodstock by Colin Dexter, In Matto’s Realm […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Northern Clemency – Philip Hensher The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa The Human Stain, Everyman – Philip Roth Hotel Du Lac – Anita Brookner By the Lake – John McGahern […]

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