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Monday, June 30, 2008

What I'm Reading: June 2008

As a Readers' Advisor I try to read at least one book from each major genre each year. To aid me in my quest for well-roundedness, we have a reading standards form for our department at the BPL which gives me handy spaces into which I can type the titles and mark my progress. Why tell you all of this? Because this month I read my Western as well as a cozy Mystery, and a Literary Fiction.

I found Ryder of the Hills by Robert J. Horton while reading reviews in Booklist. Turns out that Horton was quite prolific back in the early years of the twentieth century, earning 5 cents a word for his works (just like Max Brand). This specific story was originally serialized in a western magazine back in 1927, and was just re-released by Five Star this year. This novel begins as the story of Jess Sneed, a rancher, gunslinger, and just generally feared, but principled outlaw. While visiting town, Sneed is present when a miner dies in an accidental fall. Sneed takes the rancher's teenage son, Ted Ryder, into his home. Sneed and his ranch partner, Lucy Ware, raise Ryder as a rancher, not letting him know of Sneed's bad side. The plot ultimately shifts to become Ryder's story. It is a story about Ted's coming-of-age, as well as a story of the taming of the West. It is a Western in the mode of the popular HBO series, Deadwood.

Readers who like traditional westerns should definitely give Horton a try. Five Star will be re-issuing a few more of his books in the coming months. Those new to Westerns should also try Max Brand, Zane Grey and especially the all time best Western (IMO) Louis L'Amour's Hondo. Elmer Kelton is also another good bet for those who are looking for an author who is still writing.

After many years of having Pete Hamil on my to-read list, I finally listened to North River. Hamil tends to write literary fiction, with a historical nod, that capture the people and character of New York City. North River follows Dr. Delaney, the local doctor in Greenwhich Village during the Depression. He is an injured WWII vet, serving the poor and dealing with the disappearance of his wife. Delaney has been limping through life, not fully living, until his only child, Grace, abandons her almost 3 year old son Carlito on his doorstep. Delaney also saves the life of his WWII buddy, turned Italian mobster friend and gets himself mixed up in a mob war. Into this chaos enters Rose, an illegal, Sicilian immigrant, who is hired to care for Carlito and keep house. Her solidity and love of life, help to change the Delaney home forever.

This is a slice of life story about the growth of Delaney. As a Jersey girl myself, I loved the 1930s, NYC setting, and found the happy (but let me say, very open) ending refreshing in a work of literary fiction. Don't get me wrong, there are some dark issues like mafia, suicide, prostitution, poverty, and domestic abuse, which are all explored in this novel. However, overall, Delaney's story is positive and refreshing.

Those who liked North River and its local politics may want to try William Kennedy's novels of Albany politics. Ironweed is the best of the lot and takes place in a similar time frame. Richard Russo also writes about the evolution of mature men very well. Try Straight Man which follows a middle aged college professor who is humorously stumbling through absurd situations. Although is has more blatant humor than North River, at its heart, Straight Man is about its main character's growth. Finally, the "Five Points" history of NYC plays a big role in creating the mood and setting for this novel. Those who want to know more about the history of that era should either check out the book The Gangs of New York : an Informal History of the Underworld by Herbert Ashbury or view the Martin Scorsese film The Gangs of New York (2002).

I also read the funny and cozy British mystery, The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom. This is the first in Sansom's Mobile Library Mysteries. The reader is introduced to British Librarian, Israel Armstrong who is chubby, clumsy, Jewish (remember we are in Ireland) and a vegetarian. Israel accepts a job in Tumdrum, Northern Ireland to be the head Librarian. When he arrives, the library building is closed and he has been reassigned to drive a bookmobile. Next problem...there are no books. They are all missing and no one seems to want to help him locate them.

The Case of the Missing Books is more a novel in the Garrison Keillor style of Lake Wobegon Days than a mystery. Israel is a lovable character and a champion of the public library system. He is an outsider in a tight knit community, who by the novel's conclusion finds the books and, more importantly, earns the locals' respect.

Besides Keillor, Sansom's novel reminded me of some of Roddy Doyle's less serious works, such as The Commitments, The Snapper, and The Van. Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader (discussed on this blog) and The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton are also good bets for fans of Israel.

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