New books take you to Nova Scotia, the Alps, rural China, and the heart of darkness — without having to pack a bag.
CAPE BRETON ROAD
BY D.R. MACDONALD, HARCOURT, $23
Anyone who remembers what it was like to be young and restless, jobless, carless, and loveless will ache for the protagonist of this beautiful and taut novel. At age 19, Innis Corbett has been deported from suburban Boston, where he grew up, to harshly beautiful Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where he was born, because he can’t keep his hands off other people’s cars.
He lands with his hard-nosed, hard-drinking bachelor uncle, Starr. Though the two seem to get along, Innis plots his escape, to be financed by the marijuana plants he tenderly cultivates in the attic. Then a beautiful woman moves into the house and destroys the equilibrium.
It’s a formula for either comedy or tragedy, and it’s uncertain for a time which way this story will go. Deep family roots and the physical beauty of the place work at Innis, toughening his muscles and his mind. But so does temptation, in a luxurious Cadillac garaged nearby, and in his uncle’s girlfriend, the attractive Claire.
MacDonald earned critical acclaim for his 1988 story collection, Eyestone. It’s easy to see why. His descriptions are stunning, and he ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels as expertly as any mystery writer. This one’s a heartbreaker.
BY FERGUS FLEMING, ATLANTIC MONTHLY, $26
Before the current fascination with mountains and mountaineering, there was another rush to the hills. In the mid-19th century, the Alps, once considered the domain of witches and dragons, became objects of artistic inspiration, then goals for mountaineers to conquer.
In Killing Dragons, Fergus Fleming does a skillful job on both the romantic obsession with the mountains and the urge to climb them. John Ruskin, the seminal art critic of the age, “inspired people to think of mountains in semi-religious, transcend-ent terms.” Writers, painters, and composers came to the Alps for inspiration.
Climbers arrived to conquer instead, and their tales are all here, including the most famous catastrophe in mountaineering — at least until the Everest tragedy documented in Into Thin Air. On July 14, 1865, Edward Whymper became the first climber to reach the summit of the Matterhorn, the grail of mountaineering. But on the climb down, one of the seven men in his party fell and dragged others down with him. They were roped, but when Whymper and two others attempted a belay, the rope broke and four men perished. For months, this accident was the talk — the scandal — of Europe.This story has been written many times, but never in such full context and with such intelligent polish as Fleming manages in this wonderful literary adventure. — G.N.
BY PETER HESSLER, HARPERCOLLINS, $26
The author arrives at Fuling — a dirty backwater port on China’s Yangtze River — as a 27-year-old Peace Corpsman sent to teach English literature and American culture in a provincial teachers’ college. This eloquent and moving account of two years in Fuling raises several questions: Just who is the teacher here, and who the student? And what is being taught?
Hessler quickly learns that behind the façade of official friendliness, the Party is manipulating him and his fellow corpsmen. A student production of Don Quixote is shut down for political incorrectness, and his class cannot view slides of his friend’s Wisconsin farm. Chinese faculty members are quietly warned against mixing with the waiguoren — the foreigners.
So Hessler makes friends instead with Fuling’s ordinary people, including his students — mostly the children of humble rice farmers — who approach their Beowulf and Faulkner with a zeal that would shame American students. He hangs out with the owners of a noodle shop, with taxi drivers and shoe shiners, an itinerant portrait photographer, an aged Catholic priest, and peasants. He learns from his mistakes in dealing with the Chinese. And he recounts it well.
He comes to detest the Party apparatus — its narrowness and particularly its lack of humor. But the ordinary Chinese he cherishes, admires, and even understands. So, someday, may we all. —
CRIMES OF WAR
BY PETER HOGG, THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS/ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, $22.95
Crimes of War ponders the imponderable — namely, the Holocaust — from the point of view of both an elderly Canadian citizen who was once a Nazi killer and a young, cynical lawyer whose job it is to investigate and bring such people to justice.
The old man has terrible memories. He belonged — not entirely by choice — to one of the SS units that followed the German army across Russia, committing wholesale slaughter. He is guilty, and his life is more barren than the frozen steppes where he committed his atrocities.
Dennis Connor’s life is less simple and less bleak, but oddly meaningless. For him, the pursuit of an aging, dying war criminal becomes something more — and less — than a search for justice. Hogg’s novel is more compelling and disturbing than dozens of conventional mysteries where the question is whodunit. Here, the large, unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable question is: Why? — G.N.