Books

09.09.13

This Week’s Hot Reads: September 9, 2013

A three-year journey across the Eurasian Steppe, a Cheeveresque story collection, and a new novel from a master of the quiet moment.

On The Trail Of Genghis Khan
By Tim Cope

The truly epic tale of a professional explorer’s three-year journey across the Eurasian Steppe.

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‘On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads’ by Tim Cope. 528 pp. Bloomsbury. $30. ()

There are plenty of fine books written by people who go off on adventures and return to set their story to paper, but Tim Cope’s adventure, recalled in On the Trail of Genghis Khan, puts almost all of them to shame. His was a 6,000-mile journey on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary that lasted over three years. The book, like the adventure, is massive at over 500 pages, filled to the brim with near-death experiences, the kindness of strangers, and greenhorn comedy. His horses are stolen only six days in, as he was warned they would be. But what’s most impressive is the immensity of Cope’s spirit and the insatiability of his wanderlust. We forget that we could do these types of things ourselves, technically, if only we didn’t have so many excuses. After all, Cope had no particular training or skills that suited him for his journey, besides his indomitable will. The anecdotes he relates are amazing, but it’s Cope himself that provides the most inspiration. It’s a shame that the word “epic” has been so degraded by over-use, because it must be employed here.

The Once and Future World
By J.B. MacKinnon

A lyrical examination of our changing relationship with nature, and what it might look like in the future.

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‘The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be’ by J.B. MacKinnon. 240 pp. HMH. $25. ()

It seems like a common enough supposition these days to say that man’s relationship with nature is an adversarial one, or, at best, a détente in which our rapacious inclinations are kept in check by conservationism or certain kinds of morality. But this hasn’t always been the case. Once, when religion and ecology were one and the same, it was assumed that Earth was an inexhaustible Garden of Eden, specifically designed for the use and enjoyment of humanity. In his new book The Once and Future World, J.B. MacKinnon, author of Dead Man in Paradise, gives a highly readable history of man’s relationship with nature, both how we think about it and interact with it, and argues for a “rewilding” of natural spaces to turn back the tide of ecological destruction. His goal here is to break down distinctions of nature as something apart from us, and his case is buttressed not only by a wealth of scientific investigation but also by some of the best writing about the outdoors that you’ll find anywhere. Describing the prairie on which he was raised, Mackinnon writes: “You’d smell sage and the vanilla scent of Ponderosa pine bark, and you’d hear meadowlarks, and the bunchgrass would rustle like the restless dead … The breeze would suck across the hilltop balds where it has carried away the soil and leave you blinking as it dried your windward eye.”

Burial Rites
By Hannah Kent

A historical fiction debut set around the odd story of Iceland’s last public execution.

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‘Burial Rites: A Novel’ by Hannah Kent. 336 pp. Little, Brown. $26 ()

It’s a mistake to think that a story being “true” increases the import of a novel, but as far as an interesting historical incident goes, Hannah Kent has picked an excellent one as the basis for her debut, Burial Rites. In the winter of 1830, Iceland performed its last public execution. A farmhand named Agnes Magnúsdóttir had been tried and convicted of the murder of two men, and was condemned to be beheaded. First, though, during the months that her case was under appeal, Agnes awaited execution in the home of a farmer and his family. As the family and other villagers, including a young priest charged with gaining Agnes’s repentance, react to their new ward, a different story emerges from the one told by the law. Switching between first person, third person, historical documents, and epistolary sections to bring the story to life, Kent displays a talent beyond her years, not only in her restrained and often beautiful prose (sometimes a sticking point in historical fiction) but also in matters of structure and pacing. Additionally impressive is that an Australian can write so convincingly in the idiom of a country so different from her own. Iceland’s idiom, by the way? Stark.

Stay Up With Me
By Tom Barbash

A story collection acutely examines family and relationships.

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‘Stay Up With Me’ by Tom Barbash. 224 pp. Ecco. $23. ()

“She had always imagined a life for her son that would exceed her own,” writes Tom Barbash (author of The Last Good Chance and On Top of the World) of a woman in the first story of his fantastic new collection, titled Stay Up With Me. She, like many of the characters in the book, is suffering the realization that the idea of family is something that we must create and maintain, and that it can change directions on us like the wind. In “The Break,” a woman in the middle of a trial separation with her husband finds herself alarmingly involved in the romantic decisions of her son, coming to blows with a female suitor she sees as unworthy. In a kind of inversion in a later story, “The Women,” a son whose mother has recently died reacts strongly to his father’s new love life. And in the devastating “Somebody’s Son,” a man looking to gain the confidence of an elderly couple so that he can buy up their Adirondack property for his employer receives a moving lesson in forgiveness and grace. These Cheever-esque stories all show that Barbash has a sensitive ear towards the subtle ways that relationships are formed and altered, but he’s also not afraid to open a story with a car accident and watch the sparks fly.

Someone
By Alice McDermott

The first novel in seven years from the National Book Award winner.

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‘Someone: A Novel’ by Alice McDermott. 240 pp. FSG. $25. ()

Sometimes, to call a novel “quiet” can be a back handed-compliment, as it’s a fine line between quiet and boring. Alice McDermott, a writer of no small success (National Book Award winner for Charming Billy and Pulitzer finalist for That Night, At Weddings and Wakes and After This), however, is really a master of the quiet moment, a small, seemingly ordinary image or gesture used to illustrate internal states or establish a mood. “Later, Tom spoke out of the darkness,” she writes in her first novel in seven years, Someone. “It was the middle of the night. He had gotten up for some reason—had the phone rung?—and now he was back in the room. Leaning over, his breath warm. He was whispering. Or crying. I came awake to realize he was crying.” Her skill is on fine display as she gathers together incidents from the life of a person named Marie to create a rhapsodic picture of what is called “the human experience,” reminiscent of James Salter’s All That Is or the films of Terrence Malick. This book does more than enchant; it sharpens your appreciation for the events of your own life.