Kim Schmidt

As a child, Jack Griffin vacationed on Cape Cod with his parents, academics who sought respite on the Cape each summer after begrudgingly spending 11 months of the year in the Midwest.

Years later, Jack and his new wife, Joy, honeymooned on Cape Cod, dreamily making plans for their life (thereafter referred to as the Great Truro Accord) which included “A ‘professor’s house’ . . . a library with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and comfortable chairs for reading, a big OED on its own stand, a small stereo for quiet, contemplative music.”

In middle-age, Jack and Joy return to the Cape with most, if not all, of their dreams having been realized, to attend the first of two weddings that bookend That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo’s reflective new novel.

This time, however, there is more that brings Jack to the Cape than the wedding of his daughter’s best friend. He is here to find the right spot to scatter his father’s ashes, which have been traveling with him in the trunk of his car for nearly a year. This weekend begins what will become the most transformative year in their lives. By the time Jack and Joy reach a second wedding at the end of the book, the tectonic plates of their lives have shifted, leading them to ask the question: if we could do it all again, would we? Is what we imagined and achieved in our lives what we really want?

Russo’s novel is ultimately a quiet study of middle age—of the time in between the harried pace of raising small children and the slow, muddied walk of our waning years. Russo’s use of symbolism is far from subtle, but his richly drawn characters redeem the novel. He has painted a portrait of Jack’s parents so vivid, you can practically hear the crisp, patronizing texture to their voices when they speak of, well, anything.

Over the course of the novel, Jack comes to realize what a profound impact his parents have had on his life, despite his very best efforts to prevent just such a thing. Russo’s characterizations of the Griffins will have the same effect on the reader, living long after the last page has been turned.

Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.

As a child, Jack Griffin vacationed on Cape Cod with his parents, academics who sought respite on the Cape each summer after begrudgingly spending 11 months of the year in the Midwest. Years later, Jack and his new wife, Joy, honeymooned on Cape Cod, dreamily making plans for their life (thereafter referred to as the […]

It may sound amiss to say a novel about torture is beautiful, but in the case of Glen Duncan's seventh novel, A Day and a Night and a Day, the adjective is oddly fitting. Duncan takes his protagonist, Augustus Rose, to his physical and emotional limits, exposing what happens to a man when he is dramatically tested by pain—and by love. The novel is beautiful not necessarily for what is revealed in this process, but for its masterful execution and for the humanity with which it is told.

Moving deftly between three periods in Augustus' life, Duncan weaves together the story of a boy born in Harlem to a single white mother and an absent African-American father in 1948. He chronicles Augustus' affair with Selina, a lovely white woman with whom he tumbles into love during the late '60s; his day and a night and a day 40 years later, where the torture he endures by Harper, a fellow American, will define every moment to follow; and his attempt to find solitude on the remote European island of Calansay, which is interrupted by yet another act of violence.

Ultimately each of these stories informs the other, resulting in a rich understanding of Augustus' character and how he went from a young man passionately consumed with love, to an unfulfilled middle-aged restaurateur, to a late-in-life terrorist hanging by his wrists in a cell. Duncan is at his most brilliant in his intimate passages describing Augustus' torture. With careful attention to detail that remarkably avoids the stereotypical guts and gore, these haunting scenes make every nerve come alive and the blood, sweat and fear palpable.

Duncan, who was born in Northern England to an Anglo-Indian family, has called his novel an "examination of two kinds of lawlessness, the lawlessness that tramples the Geneva Convention, and the joyous lawlessness of love." In the end, A Day and a Night and a Day is his portrayal of a world in crisis and his attempt to tell the story of a world gone feral through the very intimate experiences of one man, in one cell, facing the hands of his torturer.

Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois. 

It may sound amiss to say a novel about torture is beautiful, but in the case of Glen Duncan's seventh novel, A Day and a Night and a Day, the adjective is oddly fitting. Duncan takes his protagonist, Augustus Rose, to his physical and emotional limits, exposing what happens to a man when he is […]

The television show “Seinfeld” was famous for being a “show about nothing.” Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel, on the other hand, is a book about everything. A Fortunate Age covers the gamut of life experience as her characters deal with everything from careers, children and marriage to mental illness and death.

This epic novel follows six friends, each a freshly minted Oberlin graduate, starting adult lives in New York City: Sadie, who is rising through the ranks at her publishing house; Emily, a struggling actor who can’t afford to quit her day job; Tal, also an actor, but one who is successfully breaking into the movies; Dave, who is poised to trade one kind of musical success for another; Beth, an academic floating from one university to another as an adjunct; and Lil, a poetry scholar whose wedding opens the book.

Put together, this mélange of stories is part of something larger. A Fortunate Age is about a generation finding its way at a certain time in a certain place—New York City in the years just before and after 9/11—and Rakoff has brilliantly captured the mood of the era and the energy of a city. Members of Generation X will enjoy picking out her many pop culture references.

When the Twin Towers are attacked, Rakoff forgoes a dramatic recounting of the events of that day. Instead, we see her characters sit slack-jawed in front of the TV like so many of us did. As time passes, they go back to their desks, walk their children to the park—but these normal, everyday actions are infused with the notion that everything has changed.

That Rakoff covers so much ground is at once the book’s blessing and its curse. At times the sheer number of characters and their hangers-on can become overwhelming and, despite the length of the novel, the ending of the book seems to come quite abruptly. But these flaws are forgiven in favor of recognizing Rakoff’s successful portrayal of a generation coming of age in a period when the explosion of the Internet fundamentally changed the way we live and war changed the way we see ourselves in the world.

Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.

 

The television show “Seinfeld” was famous for being a “show about nothing.” Joanna Smith Rakoff’s debut novel, on the other hand, is a book about everything. A Fortunate Age covers the gamut of life experience as her characters deal with everything from careers, children and marriage to mental illness and death.

Stieg Larsson’s writing excels at every turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in his Millennium Trilogy: his distinctive characters are richly drawn, his plot is masterfully crafted and his prose effortlessly carries the reader along for the ride.

As this outstanding Swedish novel opens, Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist and publisher of the liberal magazine Millennium, is licking his wounds after being convicted of libel. He wants nothing more than to see the truth come out about corrupt financier Hans-Erik Wennerström—and to see his own journalistic integrity restored. So when Blomkvist is promised crippling information about Wennerström by elderly businessman Henrik Vanger, former CEO of the Vanger Corporation, Blomkvist is intrigued. There are strings attached, of course: Vanger wants Blomkvist to investigate the disappearance of his beloved niece, Harriet, who vanished from remote Hedeby Island in 1966 without a trace. As he begins his investigation, Blomkvist struggles to adapt to the Nordic cold (on his second day he makes a break for the local store to buy lined gloves and long underwear), while also getting used to life on a small island, where the great majority of residents share the Vanger name.

Intertwined with Blomkvist’s narrative is that of Lisbeth Salander, a tattooed, waif-thin, 20-something hacker known for her extreme antisocial behavior and capacity for violence. Eventually, the enigmatic Salander is also drawn into the mystery of Harriet’s disappearance, joining Blomkvist on the island and putting her professional skills as a freelance private investigator to use. Here the tightly written plot takes off, leading this unusual pair on a fast-paced, all-consuming journey deep into Harriet’s story, and into the secrets of the Vanger family.

This remarkable debut lands on American shelves after establishing itself as a publishing phenomenon in Europe, selling millions of copies across the continent since its 2005 Swedish publication. Sadly, the excitement surrounding this fresh new voice in literature is bittersweet—Larsson died suddenly at age 50 before the novel was published. At least fans can look forward to two more intelligent thrillers from this talented author who was taken too soon.

Kim Schmidt writes from Champaign, Illinois.

 
 

 

Stieg Larsson’s writing excels at every turn in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in his Millennium Trilogy: his distinctive characters are richly drawn, his plot is masterfully crafted and his prose effortlessly carries the reader along for the ride. As this outstanding Swedish novel opens, Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist and […]

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