Sunday, December 16, 2012

Miracles Scary and Sacred

And now back to my regularly scheduled program of books coverage. I've got quite a few fun novels to cover, so buckle your seat belts, because I'm a-bloggin', people.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is another of those mind-bending debuts that makes me happy about modern fiction. It has a sci-fi premise, but more coming-of-age than space-age. Julia is ten when the world begins to slow. Something's wrong with the gravitational pull of the Earth, making days and nights stretch out first by minutes, then by hours. Birds fall from the sky, crops fail, but the school bells still ring, whether it's light out or dark. At least at first. Meanwhile, Julia's parents are struggling with their marriage, her Mormon best friend has moved from their San Diego suburb to Utah to face the End of Days, and she has a crush on the boy whose piano lesson is after hers. Walker does a fascinating job juxtaposing Julia's growing awareness of the world around her, both the global and the smaller moments that shape her changing reality. As her neighborhood dissolves in the battle between the Real Timers and the Clock Timers, as her parents struggle with their connection, Julia realizes that no one can tell her what the future will hold. The uncertain world will go on, in surprising, sad, beautiful ways, but Julia can only live one moment at a time.

Walker isn't the only one seeing the world reeling from unexpected changes. One of my for-decades-now favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, has messed with the Monarchs in her latest, Flight Behavior. The butterflies have settled for the winter in the woods of Feathertown, TN, instead of their recently-destroyed habitat in far-warmer Mexico. It's a miracle, but a scary one, since it grows out of climate change and the depletion of natural resources. And it's scariest of all to the marvelously drawn Dellarobia Turbow, who first discovers the forest of quiet flame when hiking her in-laws' land in a desperate climb away from the stifling mundanity of her daily life. She was pregnant and married at 17, which was the end of her illusive dreams of college and a different life from that she'd seen growing up. Years of failing to fit in with her husband's family, years of staying home catering to the demands of small children, years of failing to speak up as her mother-in-law belittled her and her neighbors took advantage of her and her husband took her for granted all propelled her to that butterfly-covered copse. And the mass of bright orange wings (a sight I remember well from my college days - if you ever get a chance to visit Natural Bridges during a Santa Cruz winter, take it!) was enough to stop Dellarobia in her not-yet-adulterous tracks and return her, though changed, to her family. When the in-laws plan to sell the butterfly grove for timber money, Dellarobia finds herself getting charismatic Pastor Bobby involved in her preservation efforts. The butterflies, and Dellarobia, inadvertently go viral. Everyone has a say: the church, climate scientists, biologists, lumberjacks, activists. Everyone but Deallarobia's husband, who is just waiting for the furore to settle down so he can go back to his normal life. The poor man just can't see the silent orange fire now in Dellarobia's spirit, but oh, will she soar.

Another atmospheric, lovely, absorbing novel is Louise Penny's The Beautiful Mystery. I've mentioned Penny's Inspector Gamache before, and he's no less dear to me after eight novels. I'm also mighty taken with his top aide, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who accompanies him this time to the reclusive, almost hidden, monastery to investigate the murder of the choir director who brought Gregorian chants to modern ears. It is a closed community of only 24 - now 23 - living in apparent self-sufficient harmony. Now their vows of silence are rescinded to allow Gamache and Beauvoir to find out which of the men is a killer. The mystery itself is adroit and complex, and the effect of the monastery on Gamache and on Beauvoir is compelling. Both men are dealing with the long fallout of a previous case, and being isolated has brought much of it to the fore. I was grabbed tight by their struggles and enchanted, as well, by the chants and the monastic community. 

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