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C.E. Morgan

In these unsettling times, my reader friends tell me they’re reaching for fun or light or soothing reads. A comfort, for me, is a big read. Below, a few that have taken me far far away from CNN, my Facebook feed, the daily papers.

I loved C.E. Morgan’s All the Living and looked forward to a thick book from such a talented writer. Wowza! The Sport of Kings clocks in at 545 pages and covers — beautifully, lyrically — slavery, white supremacy, incest, racism, poverty, disease, ambition, horse breeding and racing. It’s a page turner; I never lost interest. A great American novel or an overwrought Gothic tale? I can’t decide.

I needed to get out of the American South, so I picked up Henry Green’s Caught, first published (and censored) in 1943, recently reissued by New York Review of Books. It’s set during the Blitz, and centers on the men in a fire brigade. Why all the fuss? Class conflicts, excessive drinking, boredom, affairs, an incestuous rape, mental illness, kidnapping. Periodically I turned back to James Wood’s introduction: why am I reading this? Because Green captured the everyday speech of the time and, instead of celebrating war, shows us the awful toll it takes on a man and his marriage.

Back to contemporary U.S. I brought Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth with me when I traveled to D.C. for the Women’s March. Every night I tried to read a few pages; nope! Tired, restless, sharing a room with three friends. On the plane ride home I finally got into the book, a sad funny read about two families joined by divorce. It’s narrated by Franny Keating, whose beautiful mother runs off with a lawyer. The six children joined by this marriage are the story of this novel. Nothing happens, everything happens. A satisfying read.

T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts is a doorstopper (507 pages) that kept me engaged, though I wasn’t sure why. It concerns the scientists who seal themselves off from the outside world and the people who monitor their survival; no one is likable. Again, why keep reading? Well, Boyle never lets me down. I knew there was some point to this story and once found, I was hooked. Motherhood is selfless, right? Not inside the dome.

I’m half way through Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs: A Novel (752 pages!) It’s about an assassin for Jesus, the abortion doctor he slays and the families they leave behind. Achingly sad, an important read. I’ll let you know.

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Some books enchant, others repel. The other day I closed a book after 30 pages and drove it directly back to the library branch it had been borrowed from. I pulled an illegal u-turn and parked in a tow zone, risking all to be rid of it. Clunky writing, horrific story; thank you, no!

Another, by a lauded literary writer, had an interesting set up but was so poorly told I pressed it on a writer friend as a great example of a how not to tell a story.

Why keep reading?

cov_all_the_livingWhen we open a book, we take a leap. And sometimes we’re rewarded: we’re hooked, we’re grabbed, we’re taken in.

From a stack of newly published books I pulled C.E. Morgan’s “All the Living,” Farrar Straus Giroux, $23. I was nabbed by its first sentence: “She had never lived in a house and now, seeing the thing, she was no longer sure she wanted to.”

She is Aloma, a young woman just out of school, orphaned at a young age, arriving at the tobacco farm her boyfriend, Orren, has come to own.

Sex is their common ground. She’s a trained musician, aching to leave the moment she arrives. He devotes his every hour to saving his family’s farm. When Aloma signs on to play piano for the local church, the pastor quietly, and heartbreakingly, pursues her. It sounds hopelessly old-fashioned, but the book’s most moving passage is when the pastor shames Aloma for leading him on.

It’s a present day story but the world we’re taken into — its language, and foods, and landscape — seems from the near past. Television, but it’s on only for its tornado warnings. Telephones, but no cell phones; no texting, no tweeting. Places to eat, but no fast food. “Don’t be ill” means “don’t be mad.”

There’s no bad guy, no boogie man lurking in the woods. The only menace is the drought, and a mean rooster, and Orren’s buried grief for the family he’s lost.

It’s a Plot 101 tale — will she stay or will she go? — but the quality of the prose kept me reading. A simple story in a remarkable landscape, tightly focused and exquisitely wrought. A model of Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action.

It had me in its grip all weekend.

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