Saturday, July 03, 2010

2010 books, #41-45

The 19th wife, by David Ebershoff. London: Black Swan, 2009.

A book group book, and another very good reason for joining a book group. Actually, I got a recommendation for this one from someone at the library whose opinion I respect, but I had way too many books out at the time, and had forgotten both the author and the title until it turned up on the "possibles" list.

I wasn't entirely sure about this one at first - it dots about between historical documents, a contemporary narrative, a historical narrative and back again, and has a myriad unreliable narrators. After a hundred pages or so though, it settles down, or maybe you just get used to it... It's set in both the heady early days of the Mormon church, and the contemporary world of the Firsts (those members of the church who still live in polygamy in isolated pockets). There's a murder in the present-day story - the resolution of this is weak, but it's almost irrelevant by the time you get to it; and both of the stories involve a 19th wife (in the 19th century, a wife of Brigham Young and in the present day, a wife of a modern-day First). Harriet Beecher Stowe is invoked (and apparently, writes a foreword), and the 19th century narrative certainly brings back the polemical writing style of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I think what I liked most about this book was that despite the horror both contemporary and historical voices have for polygamy, there's little condemnation of faith in general and a great deal of compassion; as an example, while one character has been expelled because of his sexuality, he gets onto the Internet and finds a new church which will accept him (described by the very cynical modern narrator Jordan as "the Vegas LGBT-friendly ex-Mormon church two miles off the strip [try saying that real fast]").

The more uncomfortable aspects, as a Catholic, were twofold. The first is that polygamy in the Mormon church seems to me to be a parallel to the paedophilia which seemed (possibly still seems) to be institutional in pockets of the church, to the extent that serious investigation is really only beginning to happen. The second is the idea that a church can evolve away from believers and force them to accept things they find repugnant in the context of their faith; in the case of The 19th wife, this is the revelation of polygamy and the impact on existing marriages; in my own life, papal encyclicals have contradicted so many of the things I was brought up to believe.

It made for a really interesting discussion. Most of us had some form of religious belief or heritage, and I hope none of us managed to tread too badly on other people's sensibilities... Given that the book is about both sex and religion, I don't think we did too badly.

A fountain filled with blood, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. New York: St Martin's, 2003.

The second of the Reverend Clare Fergusson mysteries. I enjoyed this possibly even more than the previous one; another book you basically just inhale rather than reading. Clare and Russ are great characters, and we also get Russ's quite extraordinary mother. This one includes gay-bashing, environmental pollution, greed and an absolutely hair-raising helicopter sequence. There's some sympathetic treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, and UST between an Episcopalian priest and a married police chief.

The Janus stone, by Elly Griffiths. London: Quercus, 2010.

Another excellent book by Elly Griffiths; definitely one to read after her The crossing places though! Archaeology and detection in North Norfolk, with some genuinely scary bits thrown in. Unfortunately I'm reading these much faster than she's writing them, and have now caught up! I'm waiting for the next one now...

The devil's punchbowl, by Greg Iles [audiobook]. Read by Jeff Harding. Oxford: Isis, 2010.

One of Iles's Penn Cage novels; set in the world of riverboat gambling and dogfighting. There are some pretty gory moments in this one, and some really quite frightening episodes; it's pretty tightly plotted and contains a cast of characters you genuinely care about, with the city of Natchez almost appearing as an additional character.

Transfer of power, by Vince Flynn. London: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

This is almost a period piece - a terrorist drama written before 9/11 with Iranians as the villains. However, it's a gripping piece of work. The President and a hundred other hostages are trapped in the White House, while the Vice President and his staff are thinking more about their political image and future than the fate of the hostages. There's a lot of the military=good, politicians=bad stuff that there was in the last of Flynn's books I read, but not all the politicians are venal in this one, and some of the military are also taking the political angle. There's also a lot of technology in this one, but it doesn't overwhelm the plot. One criticism though - the ending is surprisingly weak because something we've understood to be catastrophic throughout turns out not to be so...

1 comment:

Mary deB said...

I still haven't got the Crossing Places from the library -- too many holds!

And now I know what UST is...