EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 4, 2013

On the bookshelf Short takes on hot new reads

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Here are condensed versions of a selection of this week’s book reviews:

“Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier,” by Tom Kizzia; Crown (336 pages, $25)

Papa Pilgrim, born as Bobby Hale in Fort Worth, has an unexpected and fascinating back story. Who in Alaska could have guessed he was implicated in a 1962 break-in of Judith Exner’s apartment as part of a scheme to blackmail President John F. Kennedy? Or that he went to school with Lee Harvey Oswald and John Denver? Or that he lived on land in New Mexico owned by Jack Nicholson?

All of this and the title of the book, however, doesn’t quite hint at the darkness of Pilgrim’s story, which we glimpse early on when he is alone with his first wife, as she somehow fatally shoots herself in the back of the head with a 20-gauge shotgun. And it gets only worse as he moves on to a new wife and family and seals them off from the outside world to rule as he sees fit.

“Pilgrim’s Wilderness” is measured, painstakingly reported and gripping, giving us a true look at an escapist nightmare in America’s mythic and fading frontier.

— Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times

“The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey,” by Lawrence Osborne; Crown (226 pages, $25)

“The Wet and the Dry” is a deceptively nuanced book: a paean to drinking, a travelogue unfolding largely through the Islamic states of the Middle East and a memoir of sorts, in which Osborne’s upbringing, in “a steadfast English suburb” during the 1970s, becomes a lens through which to read his life.

A travel writer and novelist — his books include “The Naked Tourist” and last year’s novel “The Forgiven”; his dreamlike short story “Volcano” was selected for “The Best American Short Stories 2012” — he’s lived in Europe, America and Morocco; currently, he makes his home in Istanbul. That nomadism allows him an ease with the relativity of cultures, an understanding that what we take for granted in one place may be irrelevant, or even dangerous, somewhere else.

Osborne likes his alcohol — he writes knowledgeably and passionately about gin, Scotch, vodka the history of bars — and he makes no excuses for his delight. He is, however, not an apologist; he knows that drinking, like so much in life, can be both blessing and curse.

— David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Tiimes

“The Sound of Things Falling,” by Juan Gabriel Vasquez; Riverhead (288 pages, $27.95)

Long before Mexico descended into its “drug war,” the phrase itself was invented in another country. In the 1980s the underground industry that processed coca into cocaine and shipped it northward to U.S. consumers transformed Colombian society. It created powerful drug barons who became public villains and icons, and it saw a country and its public institutions nearly consumed by a culture of violence.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s deeply affecting and closely observed new novel takes up the psychic aftermath of that era, as residents of Colombia’s capital, Bogota, struggle to make sense of the disorder and dysfunction that’s enveloped their daily lives.

In the end, “The Sound of Things Falling” embraces larger, more ethereal themes. Vasquez isn’t just writing about Colombia’s violent present; he’s also tapping into the ways in which uncertainty and the unexpected — and the country’s relationship to the U.S. — have helped shape the Colombian national character.

— Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

“Heart of Palm” by Laura Lee Smith; Grove Press (496 pages, $24)

“Most people never understood why Arla went and married a Bravo,” explains the resident guide-slash-gossip in the prologue to “Heart of Palm,” Laura Lee Smith’s fine, funny first novel. It’s a voice reminiscent of Richard Russo’s (think “Mohawk” and “Empire Falls”), a likable and knowing town historian who introduces us to debutante Arla Bolton, a creature so exquisite that “the world genuflected before her.”

Smith, who lives in St. Augustine, excels at bringing this north Florida hamlet to life. Her dialogue is pitch-perfect, her landscapes fragrant with jasmine and yellow pine, and she eloquently evokes the mixture of tenderness and callousness essential to small-town relationships.

In the end — which comes with a delightful twist — the guilty pleasure of “Heart of Palm” is its steadfast tangle of rage and grief and love, a heaping dose of Southern soul with a whole lot of chutzpah thrown in.

— Gina Webb, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The Highway” by C.J. Box; Minotaur (400 pages, $25.99)

“The Highway” is the summer’s most terrifying novel.

With three-dimensional characters and a gripping plot, “The Highway” is even more frightening because of its back story. C.J. Box bases his story on the real hunt for a murderer working as a long-haul trucker — the FBI’s Highway Serial Killer Task Force. While the FBI’s task force statistics are numbing, Box never stoops to the prurient while delivering an edgy, compelling novel.

Set in the remote corners of Montana, the isolated landscape lends a chilling atmosphere where the whine of an 18-wheeler and an unlit back road ratchet up the suspense.

Prepare to be scared.

— Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel