UP & DOWN THE RIVER: Snuggle up to this Christmas reading list

By Olive Mullet
Up & Down the River

Mysteries

Steig Larsson’s trilogy’s fans (“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” etc.) should like another Scandinavian mystery writer Henning Mankell’s “Man from Beijing.” It certainly grabs from the very beginning where a wolf is gnawing on a leg bone through to the end where all is resolved. A massacre of nineteen elderly people in a Swedish hamlet seems motiveless until Judge Birgitta Roslin, whose mother grew up in the hamlet, finds one of her ancestors’ diary about a Chinese man San, forcibly sent to the U.S. to work on the U.S. transcontinental railroad, vowing to kill his brutal foreman. This novel’s international reaches seem real in taking us not only to contemporary Beijing but even to Africa. At the heart of this thriller is a savage killer, willing to kill even a relative to get revenge.

Nonfiction (for old-fashioned tastes)

First, for a lover of the gentle read, this old paperback, Bill Richardson’s “Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast,” should appeal. A B&B on an island off Vancouver (probably Saltspring Island) has attracted book-loving guests by word of mouth. Life stories are told by the guests and by the brothers Virgil and Hector, stories that include their bad mouthing parrot and intrepid cat. Favorite books are recommended in this charming book, full of humor and wisdom, perfect to pick up and down at will.

Second, for a confirmation of old-fashioned values —  like a sense of connectedness vs. “electronic enslavement” —  look to “A Real Life Restoring What Matters: Family, Good Friends and A True Community” by Ferenc Mate, which seems fresh with appropriate research, quotable insights and humor. One of his humorous anecdotes involves an Ontario CA lady who, obeying her GPS, drove miles into a bog. But also serious observations abound: “social networks reduce friendship to a commodity,” memory is not helped by “deluge of staccato bits of information,” businesses should treat employees like family (publisher W. W. Norton as the model), “happiness is doing,” and kids should play outside and get back their imagination.

Recent Michigan fiction

National Book Award finalist Bobbie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River” has a wonderful young heroine, and riveting plot, plus details of the state’s wildlife, especially around the Kalamazoo River area. Margo Crane is sixteen years old when her uncle kills her father, and since her mother has left them years before, Margo uses her grandfather’s boat to find her. Margo is good with guns, and from playing by the river Stark in childhood she graduates to killing for her food and discovering her love of living on the Kalamazoo River. Her encounters with men are both brutal and gentle, and one of the best parts is her friendship with an old tough, sympathetic man. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s characters, the rural poor, are vivid in their hard-scrabble existence.

For those who know Grand Marais, Ellen Airgood’s unsentimental debut novel “South of Superior” would appeal in its renamed town of McAllaster. Airgood is particularly good at recreating small town life on Lake Superior’s shore and even the drive to McAllaster yields familiar sights like old trailers surrounded by rusting cars. Madeleine Stone is lured to McAllaster from Chicago by her grandfather’s lover in order to help take care of a lovable old woman. Madeleine also wants to know the truth about why her dead grandfather abandoned her as a child. She struggles, changes, and meets wonderful characters. There are no heroes or villains, only people who cannot undo what they’ve done.

Literary novella

For lovers of excellent literature, this year’s Booker Award winner Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of An Ending” fits the bill. I haven’t read a book this good in many a year. It combines thoughts about remorse, life and death and personal relationships with a story about a failed youthful relationship that comes back to haunt. Tony Webster’s dating a difficult woman Veronica Ford and then introducing her to his brilliant friend Adrian Finn have devastating consequences which Tony examines after he receives a totally unexpected legacy from Veronica’s mother. He ponders the unreliable junction of memory, time and history and condemns his own passive approach to life. Beautifully written and insightful, this powerful story’s mystery is not solved until the very end.

Fantasy

Helen Oyeyemi’s “Mr. Fox” (the British name for the fairytale Bluebeard) presents a playful tale of alternating voices —  of a novelist ‘s muse, of the novelist himself who kills women in his fiction, and of his wife – culminating in a moving end, which urges love over violence and death.

Up and Down the River is sponsored by Artworks, a project partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities through Michigan Humanities Council. The Artworks office is located at 106 N. Michigan Ave., in Big Rapids. President is Doug Haneline; Deborah Nichol, executive director; Pat Heeter, gallery team leader; and Cathy Johnson, editor.

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