I’ve been so, so bad about reviewing what I’m reading these last few months, which is such a shame because I’ve read some terrific books this summer. A couple of these books really deserve dedicated reviews, but my memory is short and so is my time, so I decided something is better than nothing.
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are Eli and Charlie Sisters. They are hired killers who work for a man called the Commodore. Narrated in first person by Eli Sisters, the story takes place during the California Gold Rush. The Commodore is sending the Sisters brothers from Oregon to San Francisco to kill a man named Herman Warm, and Eli chronicles their misadventures along the way and what happens upon their arrival. Eli is a thoughtful and compelling narrator, and the book is full of dark humor, adventure, and melancholy. In all honestly, it’s not only one of the best books I’ve read this year but in a long, long time. I’ve seen several apt comparisons of this book to True Grit, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. I have a soft-spot for Westerns, especially when the characters are as well drawn as Eli and Charlie Sisters and the tale avoids all cliches.
Even though I sometimes play a fun game in my head where I cast a book as though it were a movie, the number of books I actually WANT to see turned into a movie is almost zero. I say “almost zero” because The Sisters Brothers is one of those rare instances in which the book is perfect as a story on the page but oh my, in the right hands (I’m looking at you, Coen brothers. Everyone else: hands off!) it would make a spectacular movie. (Funnily enough, though, I didn’t find myself casting any parts.)
Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam. Lamb is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and disturbing book. David Lamb is a man whose world is slowly crumbling. He’s lost his father, his marriage, his job at a company he founded. Through a series of slow (and desperate) acts, he befriends and eventually abducts an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie, taking her West from her Chicago home to a farmhouse somewhere in the Rockies he claims was owned by his father. Lamb is a shallow and manipulative man in many ways, but he is no Humbert Humbert, and Tommie is no Lolita. If anything, Lamb (who tells Tommie his name is Gary) and Tommie have a chemistry born of a shared desire to be understood by and belong to someone. In many ways, Lamb’s abduction and—I guess the best word for it is education, for he wants to teach her about life but also to name plants and trees, to fish and to survive in the wilderness—of Tommie is a selfless act. He imagines her life is difficult overall, her mother neglectful, her friends cruel. He wants what is best for her, but he also wants something from her, something she is not equipped to offer. I should probably mention here that there is no overt seduction in a purely sexual sense (there are weirdly romantic overtones), but Lamb is no less disturbing for that fact. On top of that we have Nadzam’s knockout prose, which is both lyrical and sinister in all the right ways. (For example, she uses a third-person narrator who frequently refers to Lamb as “our guy,” making the reader complicit in the “hero’s story.”) The reader wants Lamb to get caught, but also on some level to get away with it so that he can, in the end, do the right thing and take Tommie home. Lamb, Nadzam’s debut, is suspenseful, itchy, and wonderfully written.
You Are One of Them, by Elliott Holt. The tale in this thoroughly enjoyable novel belongs to its first-person narrator, Sarah Zuckerman. A hapless young girl whose family is haunted and torn apart by the specter of an older sister who died, Sarah Zuckerman befriends her new neighbor Jenny Jones, and all-around all-American girl. For years, Sarah, whose mother is mostly agoraphobic and whose father has left for his native England, finds comfort and acceptance as part of her best friend’s family. On the cusp of adolescence and its attendant games of popularity that threaten to tear them apart, Sarah decides one day to write a letter to Yuri Andropov, the Soviet Premier of the USSR. Jenny also writes a letter—but hers receives an answer, and she and her family are invited to travel to the Soviet Union. Upon her return, Jenny becomes a national celebrity, appearing on talk shows and at speaking engagements for several years until she and her parents are killed en route to an engagement in Maine. Almost ten years later, Sarah receives a mysterious letter from a Russian woman who hints that Jenny might not have died in the plane crash after all. Since Jenny’s death, Sarah has helped her mother to run a foundation dedicated to her memory and has still never really come to terms with what happened, so she decides to travel to Russia to see if she can finally uncover the truth.
I expected more of a political thriller when I picked this up, but truly this is a coming-of-age story about friendship told in a charming and original way. While the book has a real mystery at its heart—what happened to Jenny?—it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.
The Virgins, by Pamela Erens. Not unlike Sarah Zuckerman, Bruce Bennett-Jones is haunted by something in his past, this time the romantic relationship between two classmates, Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, at a New England boarding school in the late 1970s. The book moves between a third-person omniscient narrator and Bennett-Jones reminiscing in first person about what he remembers or has learned about the couple over the years since graduation. In some respect, he is an active participant in the tragedy that finally befalls the young lovers near the end of the novel, and it’s clear that he still finds their relationship—and his involvement in it—both mystifying and captivating. The Virgins reminded me very much of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, and not to cheat, but I think what I said in that review holds true for this novel as well: “I think we all have people from our pasts, people whom we may no longer keep in touch with or who may be gone, people we may not have ever been close to, really, in the first place, but who still hold sway over our memories, who still seem larger than life to us. It’s strange to think how people can stay trapped in our memories like insects in amber, forever frozen as who they were…” The Sense of an Ending had a certain wit about it. Bennett-Jones is more clear-eyed than that story’s narrator about who he is and his role in things, and this lack of self-deception (even if he doesn’t really understand why he acted as he did) is what lends The Virgins a much more melancholy tone.
*Full disclosure: All review copies are my own. All images from Powells; I receive no compensation for any of the provided links.