Killing Floor, by Lee Child

A few weeks ago, I danced briefly with a man who took my breath away. It wasn't that he was good-looking; he was a big man, heavy-set, bald and goateed. Big like a football player, muscle-heavy, full of controlled power and light on his feet, like those football players on Dancing with the Stars. What left me breathless was the way he took care of me as his partner.

Many of the men I encounter when dancing tend to fling me about, adding improvised moves that don't quite fit the music, twisting my wrist in an attempt to get me to add extra twirls. Granted, I've become a more conservative dancer as I've gotten older. And I know they don't know their own strength and just want to include me in the fun they are having as they abandon themselves to the music. Still, I sometimes feel a bit mauled by the end of the evening.

However, this man seemed to sense what moves worked for me, reading my body's intentions through his fingertips before even I was aware of them. Completely in control of his own movements, he synchronised our figures perfectly to the phrasing of the music, making sure always that I was in the right place at the right time. He placed my hand just so and led me firmly but gently through the dance. I wanted to take him home with me and never let him go.

Now, I normally don't much like being led, Little Miss Independence that I am. And big men sometimes make me nervous. It's a power thing. But on that dance floor I didn't feel controlled. I felt respected, an equal despite our obvious disparities. It's a subtle distinction—between being taken care of and controlled—but makes all the difference.

I picked up this first book in the series by Lee Child featuring Jack Reacher, and it grabbed me right from the first simple sentence. Having recently left the Army, Reacher is exploring the U.S. he never knew as a military brat when he is arrested for murder in a small, Georgia town. At first only concerned with clearing his name, his own stake in the matter is abruptly raised, and he sets out to untangle the whole corrupt scheme.

With this smart, fast-paced thriller I again felt myself in the hands of an expert, someone who knows his own power, when to restrain it and when to use it. I was going to say “unleash” but that never happens. There's control here always, the author's control reflected in Reacher's actions and reactions, each carefully weighed and dispensed, even as the mounting suspense threatens to drive the story wild. Hard to believe this is a first novel. The plot is complex, and all of the characters, even the minor thugs, vividly drawn. And the conclusion more than satisfying.

I don't usually read thrillers, being overly susceptible: as with this one, I too often find myself turning the last page, and the day somehow gone without my noticing. But this is a series I'll pursue. While I found the body count unnerving, there's no doubt that if I found myself in a life-threatening situation, I would want Jack Reacher by my side. I wonder if he can dance.

The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar

Last week I mentioned books that were excellent until it came to the ending. Here's one of them. Set in contemporary Bombay, this novel explores the relationship between a middle-class woman and her servant. Bhima is the center of the story: through her eyes we see what it is like to be poor and a woman in Bombay: the sights and smells of the slum where she lives with her granddaughter, the slights of working in a home where she has to use her own separate dish and utensils and is not allowed to sit anywhere but on the floor, the callous ease with which men trick and betray her.

This is no polemic. Umrigar's measured yet evocative language lays out Bhima's life without violins or trumpets in the background, no phony attempts to arouse easy sympathy or anger. The story alone is sufficient for that. I don’t know much about India, but I do know what it is to be a woman living in poverty. Umrigar gets it right: the small treats (an onion to dress up dinner), the refusal to be a part of your surroundings, the frantic if futile attempts at a better life for the children.

My book club agreed in our admiration for Bhima's strength, our outrage at the prejudice she encounters, and our heartache at the despair she feels looking at her pregnant granddaughter. One woman said she doubted that she herself would be able to be so strong, though of course you don't know what you're capable of until tried. Bhima's relationship with her employer, Sera, was the most interesting part of the story to us. The two women work together at the household chores and, as women do, talk about their families. Sera's neighbors warn her that she is asking for trouble by pampering her servant, but Sera cares for Bhima and struggles to negotiate this friendship that can never be a true friendship because of their inequality.

Umrigar's nuanced account of this relationship is perfect. It reminded me of Baltimore fifty years ago when many if not most middle-class white families had a maid or even two. At the time, there weren't many other employment opportunities for women of color, of course. A few years ago, a woman in a nursing home complained to me about how awful it was that young women were choosing not to go into domestic service. Why would they? I thought. She extolled the relationship she'd had with her maids, how generous she'd been to them, the way she could talk with them about things she couldn't talk about with her peers. “They were my best friends,” she said. I wanted to tell her that it was not that simple, but realised there wasn’t much point in arguing with someone so close to the end of her life. She has passed away now, or I would give her this book to read.

Umrigar sustains the excellence until the last few pages of the book, where she gives in to what seems to me a pasted-on ending, a phony epiphany. Members of my book club suggested it was from the need for closure or maybe for a Hollywood-happy ending. Some were glad for both, but others agreed that the trite ending disappointed after the complexity of the story.

Oh, and I also hated the prologue, which was a chunk of the ending copied and stuck in front of the story. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate this technique, which seems to have become only too common lately, as I mentioned in my blog about Water for Elephants. A very few authors are able to use a prologue effectively—Reginald Hill's Goodbye, Midnight comes to mind—but more often it signals that the author is incapable of creating sufficient suspense with the story itself and needs to trick you into reading the remainder of the book. Unnecessary in this case. The story would have been sufficient, and infinitely better without the prologue and the ending.

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

Kim sent me this book, so I knew it would be good. And it won the Booker prize last year (more reliable IMHO than the Pulitzer when it comes to identifying books I will like, but less reliable than the Governor General's Award). However, I have to say that I read the first couple of pages with a sigh. Another Irish family drama, I thought, not at all sure I could work up enough interest to get through it. I don't need another lesson in Irish misery: enclosures, potato famine, diaspora, Catholicism, poverty, alcoholism, suffocating families—yeah, yeah, yeah; I get it. Even as I sighed, though, I kept reading.

The cover blurbs compare Enright to any number of contemporary authors (ten, to be exact), but I disagree. In all my reading, I have rarely encountered a character as naked as Veronica, the narrator of this story. I seemed to recognise right off the truth in her voice.

As Veronica, middle child of a large Irish family (12 children, plus 7 miscarriages), prepares to bury her favorite brother Liam, she finds herself excavating an incident from their childhood when she and Liam spent a year at their grandparents’ house. Trying to work out cause and effect, she makes up stories starring her grandmother: maybe she was a prostitute; maybe a servant. Jumping back and forth from the present to a past which will never be past, Veronica teases out memories and family secrets, creates mosaics of meaning and tears them apart.

What Enright accomplishes here is to bind me into this complex family history without my realising it, a family history that feels so true that it may well have been my own. The narrative is presented in so piecemeal a fashion that its power takes me by surprise. We visit and revisit family legends—Liam throwing a knife at their mother; the two children waiting outside St. Ita’s hospital—in terse chapters bristling with short sentences. The story races along as though afraid of bogging down, the emotion all the more powerful for the attempt to outrun it.

I have never read such a true story about growing up in a large family, emotionally true. Granted mine had half as many children, but I recognised all of it: the alliances; the secrets; the little betrayals that later change lives; the difficult prickly love for these people you’d never, left to yourself, actually choose as lifelong companions. Veronica castigates her mother for having so many children, blames her grandmother for producing such a vague and helpless daughter. Kept awake by her squirrelly thoughts, Veronica walks through the sleeping house, soothed by the empty—finally empty!—rooms. It could be my story. Maybe it is.

I feared that Enright would fumble the ending. So many excellent books have awful endings, as though the author simply ran out of steam or plastered on a manufactured epiphany just to get it over with. But Enright doesn’t disappoint. Finally a terrific ending, one that has been earned by all that has come before; one that fits. So, sure, another Irish family drama, but one that seems the truest thing I’ve read all year. One that’s made me look to my own life, and yes, my family, from a different perspective.

And in the end, this is why we can have hundreds, thousands of books even if there are only—what is it they say?—seven basic plots. Good writers can make the oldest story new again.

The Battle for Wine and Love, by Alice Feiring

First, a caveat: I know the author. I’ve danced with her, and she is a lovely dancer. But I had no idea that she could write so well. I bought a copy of the book mostly to be supportive, thinking that I would probably not understand half of it since I know so little about wine. However, it’s a terrific read. Easy to follow. Plenty of stories to provide context for the names.

The backbone of the book is the author’s quest to find out why wines are all starting to taste the same, why it is becoming difficult to find the delicate, subtle wines that she loves. Feiring sets out to visit vineyards and interview winemakers and scientists and anyone else who can shed light on the problem. What she discovers is an array of artificial additives and mechanisms that winemakers have started to use in order to impose a uniform taste on their wine. The science is clearly presented as are her reasons for disagreeing with their use.

Many of the chapters deal with a particular kind of wine—Syrah, Champagne, etc.—and her efforts to track down the vineyards producing the most authentic wine in order to understand what makes it so good. She lets the winemakers who refuse to adulterate their wine make their own case and clarifies anything too esoteric, explaining concepts like terroir and biodynamics in ways even I can grasp. Best of all, Feiring tells not just about the wines themselves, but the stories behind the wines: the families, the vineyards, the importers, the festivals. There is wine gossip here, and plenty of vivid characters.

I wasn’t sure about the love part. Too many people seem to think that women should only be allowed to write love stories. My feeling is that the author knows about wine; let her write about wine. However, she kept the love part to a minimum, often couched in humor, and integrated it amazingly well with the rest of the story.

The real joy of the book for me lies in the vivid descriptions: of the wine, yes, but even more so of the vineyards in winter, the texture of the soil; of the winemakers, skills handed down within families; of their gatherings in interviews, at tastings, and over long, drawn-out meals full of laughter. Feiring makes me want to drink more wine—better wine—and to search out some of the wines she praises. This is a book that will appeal to wine connoisseurs as well as to novices like myself.