What We're Reading: March 23 - 29
It took Karl Marlantes 30 years to write Matterhorn, an exhaustive and unsparing war novel. Walter Mosley takes up a new detective case in Known to Evil. Also: Dog Boy, fiction inspired by the true story of a feral child, and a new novel about gossipy parents in Brooklyn Heights.
A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
As Matterhorn opens, we're introduced to 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, a Marine Corps reservist who has been sent to Vietnam to lead the First Platoon of Bravo Company in 1969. Mellas is a kid, suddenly charged with leading a group of Marines at war not only with the North Vietnamese army but also with each other and, at times, with themselves. As Mellas adjusts to life in the jungle and the politics of war, racial strife and the Marine command hierarchy, he becomes witness to acts of selfless heroism and episodes of unspeakable violence. He learns a great deal about himself and about brotherhood, but he never really learns what he and his platoon-mates are doing in Vietnam. Marlantes, himself a decorated Marine Vietnam veteran, took 30 years to finish this epic, exhaustive and unsparing novel.
I've laughed at Catch-22 and wept at The Thin Red Line, but I've never encountered a war novel as stark, honest and wrenching as Matterhorn. Marlantes writes with a spare clarity, but he's unafraid to plumb the emotions of the young men in Bravo Company; the icy bravado of Hemingway or Mailer has no place in these pages. The Marines of Matterhorn are both brave and frightened, both committed and resigned. Their common refrain, "There it is," denotes acceptance of some new and unfortunate but unchangeable fact. By turns, this book horrified me, crushed me and beat me up, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading. More than any living American novelist I've read, Marlantes made me feel what I already must have known: that war is worse than hell. There it is. — Michael Schaub, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 592 pages; Atlantic Monthly; list price, $24.95; publication date, March 23
Known to Evil
A Leonid McGill Mystery
By Walter Mosley
This second installment of Walter Mosley's new detective series opens at the dinner table. He gives you a quick look around the room — walnut cabinet, Blue Danube china, old quart pickle jar doing duty as a flower vase — then takes you inside the protagonist's head. That's how a great portion of the story unfolds: through private detective Leonid McGill's inner musings. If you thought Easy Rawlins was a complicated character, spend a little time with McGill as he tries to find a missing woman, avoid police determined to jail him, deal with his imploding marriage, protect his sons from themselves, fend off a move to evict him from his offices and heal from a broken heart administered by an ex-lover.
I loved Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series and was disappointed when he decided to move on from that well-developed character. But shades of Easy have made their way into the Leonid McGill character, which initially was both good and bad. As I read this tightly packed story in which Mosley displays his usual skill at using the city (in this case, New York) as a secondary character, I couldn't shake the feeling that this was just an updated Easy in a new location. That said, Known to Evil is good reading. As usual, Mosley keeps the twists and turns coming, artfully laying out a string of complications that lead you forward like a kitten chasing yarn. In the end, I think the resemblance to Easy served to make me feel more vested in Leonid McGill. I'm already waiting for the next installment of this mystery series. — Tanya Ballard Brown, NPR digital news editor
Hardcover, 336 pages; Riverhead; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 23
By Eva Hornung
People have long been fascinated by stories of children raised by animals. Some of these stories are works of pure fiction: Think Mowgli of The Jungle Book, or Tarzan of the Apes. But Dog Boy was inspired by a real story. Author Eva Hornung read a news item about a young boy who had been living with a pack of wild dogs in Moscow. In her novel, that boy becomes Romochka, a 4-year-old abandoned by his mother just as Russia's harsh winter is approaching. He finds shelter, warmth, nourishment and companionship with a pack that has built a den in the ruins of an old church. The story is told almost entirely from Romochka's perspective. And though his life with the dogs is brutal and, at times, violent, the most horrifying parts of this story prove to be his encounters with humans.
This is no fairy tale where a young child romps with wild animals who seem almost human in their affection for a vulnerable human. Hornung has imagined the life of a dog so thoroughly, you can almost smell the stench of the den. But she also makes it possible to understand how a young child would curl up next to a pile of puppies to drink their mother's milk and get warm lying next to her furry body. And she makes you believe that a child taken in by dogs might even survive in a harsh landscape on the edges of a major city, where the homeless pick through a mountain of garbage for food and clothing. This is also a place where gangs of wild homeless children prey on the vulnerable, and the police, who are supposed to protect the innocent, torment them instead. Stories of feral children have always raised perplexing questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal. Hornung has created such a vivid and believable world for her pack of dogs that she takes those questions to a new level. — Lynn Neary, NPR books and publishing correspondent
Hardcover, 304 pages; Viking; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 18
By Peter Hedges
Peter Hedges has long had one foot in cinema and the other in literature. He adapted his novel What's Eating Gilbert Grape into a successful film, and Hedges received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of About a Boy. The Heights is his first novel in a decade, and it takes place in a less provincial setting than the Iowa countryside of his earlier books. Brooklyn Heights, just across the river from Manhattan, is a place where, as one of the protagonists puts it, "You can't be bored because of the view." Hedges tracks the unfolding lives of gossipy parents known to the book's protagonists as "Mom with Moxie," "Mom Who Knows More About You than You Do" and even "Mom with a Beard." He bounces the narrative voice back and forth between Tim and Kate, husband and wife, as a glamorous newcomer moves into the Heights and pulls the Brooklynites into her orbit.
An article in The New Yorker described Brooklyn as a place 'where parents recently won the right to bring strollers into a local bar.' That was the neighborhood of Park Slope, but the description could just as easily have applied to Brooklyn Heights, which is as much a character in The Heights as any human being. Given Hedges' background in film, a movie of The Heights seems practically certain. So let's imagine: The main characters, Tim and Kate, will be played by an appealingly dweeby actor and his more attractive wife — maybe Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. It will be an inoffensive dramedy that resonates with ennui-ridden married yuppies who daydream about straying beyond the confines of their wedding vows. I might watch it on an airplane. — Ari Shapiro, NPR justice correspondent
Hardcover, 304 pages; Dutton; list price, $25.95; publication date, March 4
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