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home : columnists and contributors : columnists and contributors June 27, 2017

1/29/2014 12:01:00 AM
On the Bookshelf: Wintery Tales

Reviews by Katie Capaldi

We are approaching the time in the winter when cabin fever has begun to worm its way into the psyches of even the most devout cold weather lovers. At the bookstore, we see increasing signs of this. The crazed eyeballs are always a dead giveaway, but so too are the odd requests for books whose covers sport palm trees and ultramarine waters. It baffles me most, because I really enjoy reading "cold" books when it's cold outside. I'm not trying to change anybody's mid-winter therapy here, but I will offer these recommendations for novels which make our Northern Michigan winters feel downright balmy.

The Abominable, by Dan Simmons (Little Brown, $29.00)

The one-word title nearly sums this one up for me, as "abominable" could refer to so much about this book. Is it the size of the tome, coming in at over 650 pages? Or could it be a reference to Mount Everest, the nearly unattainable entity at the center of this story? Furthermore, this single word could as easily refer to the world as it exists in 1924. The ravages of World War I are very much alive in the character's mental and physical injuries, prejudices and flashbacks. And, let us not forget that mythical being, thoughts of which most every reader will have at the forefront of his or her mind as we embark on this tale with Dan Simmons.

Brought together for their particular mountain climbing abilities, three men -- the young and academic American, Jake Perry; the inventive Chamonny guide, Jean-Claude; and their leader and a veteran of the Great War, the Deacon -- are tasked with an unusual mission. They have been given the opportunity to summit Mount Everest, all expenses paid, by the wealthy Lady Bromley. The catch: the Lady wants the trio to return having found the remains of her son, who disappeared on the mountain one year prior. The men agree, and so begins an expedition with far more dangers than even the tallest peak in the world could anticipate.

Teaming up with a band of sherpas, as well as the missing Lord Bromley's female cousin, the group of climbers sets off from the tropical plantations of Darjeeling. Here comes that slow burn that Dan Simmons writes so well. The reader is guided through a Krakauer-esque adventure story of man versus nature. At times, I admit, the minutiae became a bit much for me. Extreme climbing is fascinating, to say the least, and Simmon's research and clear awe of the sport are apparent, but the plot runs the risk of becoming bogged down in the details. Those with a passion for climbing will likely not feel the same.

The story for which I have immense respect is that which blends fact and fiction, without decisively claiming to be either. Simmons is one of the very few that does this so easily, while also managing to escalate the panic and foreboding doom to a heart-pounding pinnacle. Ultimately, we are met with a climax that is less intent on the confrontation between man and the mountain, and more wickedly revealing of the battle between individuals, and of the individual and his own dark propensities. The human mind becomes the most abominable place of all.

Burial Rites,by Hannah Kent (Little Brown, $26.00)

The young and brilliant Hannah Kent's debut novel is set in an Iceland not nearly as frigid as Everest, but cold and distant all the same. Her prose, and that gorgeously seductive Icelandic language sprinkled throughout, contains all the easy mastery of a writer far more on in years and experience. With a nod to the cadence and song of the Norse eddas, so unfolds the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a young woman who is orphaned, manipulated, loved, accused of murder and beheaded in Iceland in the first part of the 19th century.

With an eye towards saving funds that would otherwise be directed towards the penal system, the Danish crown mandates that sentenced criminals take up residence with families in outlying villages, pending execution. Agnes is one such convicted, is provided a reverend to help usher her soul into the hands of Christ, and is placed in the home of a family with two daughters close to her own age. It is in the company of these unexpectedly sympathetic listeners, and over the course of a year, that Agnes narrates her tale.

She begins her story with a haunting yet simple proclamation: "They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men. And now they must steal mine." Little does the reader expect to feel the same -- to feel one's breath stolen as the story unfolds.

It is easy to see how this singular person in history captured the author's imagination, haunted her, and begged her to write this book. I too have not forgotten Agnes, but understand that it is not my mind which remains forever tied to the story. There is a hollowness that exists somewhere in my insides, as though a chilly draft snuck in and carried a little piece of me away as I turned the final page. It is a pleasant ache and a brave and formidable writer that can wield that power. Dan Simmons might prey on the mind, but Hannah Kent targets the heart.

FCB 2017

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