Friday, April 22, 2011

New Books, The "Opposite" of Critics, & Susan Fletcher's Corrag

Dallas News Book Editor's Room
It takes time to read new books. 

On my table are Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Aminatta Forma's The Memory of Love, and Elle Newmark's The Sandalwood Tree.  I'd like to read them, but I am in the middle of SIX other books.  My husband doesn't know how I can possibly read all these books at once. 

The older I get, the less time I feel I have for new books. While I work, bicycle, shop, cook, and read forgotten classics, I rely on reviewers to read the new books.  I'm just praying the newspapers and magazines continue to publish reviews.  Although I often disagree with reviewers, I can read between the lines of bad reviews by GOOD reviewers to figure out if I might actually LIKE a book. 

I have an "opposite" view of certain reviewers.  The famous Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer-winning reviewer for The New York Times (does she set the bar for reviewers?), and Ron Charles, book editor of The Washington Post, are excellent writers but perhaps a bit jaded after years of reviewing.  Often I consider the books they reject page-turners.  Yes, honestly. 

On that note, I can't wait to read Francine Prose's new novel, My New American Life, dismissed by Kakutani as mediocre, and Mary Gordon's new novel, The Love of My Youth, considered pompous and boring by Charles.   Now it may very well be they're right, but on the other hand they have inspired me to read TWO new books.  And these are NEW books in a dying book industry. 

And that's why I read Susan Fletcher's Corrag.  Ron Charles didn't like it, but I love novels about witches. 

I very much like the atmosphere of this beautifully-written historical novel.  Fletcher's lyrical narrative is divided into two parts: short letters from Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite sent to Scotland to investigate the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe; and his long interviews with Corrag, a young woman accused of witchcraft, through a fascinating first-person chronicle of her short life.

Corrag's grandmother and mother were condemned as witches. Now Corrag is locked up in a hut.  Her mother, Cora, who had a "gallows neck," knew through second sight that  men were coming to hang her.  She ordered Corrag to ride northwest, on a neighbor's horse.  Cora ends up in the highlands of Scotland, and wins the respect of the MacDonald clan for her healing herbal knowledge.  

Corrag says:

"Witch is a dying word, I know.  I've known it as along as I've known my own name--witch will make you hunted, witch will shorten your days.  And they hunted me, and hated me, and my life will be done by the month's end, I am certain of that.  They will rope me to barrels, and make me flame."

Eventually, her story convinces Charles that she is innocent.  He changes from a prejudiced man into a respecter of her knowledge and smart conversation. 

It's very enjoyable, probably a women's book, because somehow women relate to witches.  Even though it's the 21st century, we still earn only 77 cents for every man's dollar, and there's still a feeling women may be punished for doing too well in school or in the workplace.  Corrag does everything too well, and people are envious and cruel:  Corrag talks too much (is a great storyteller), does good deeds (saves a boy's life but then is condemned as a witch by the mother), tolerates difference (provides henbane to a drug-addicted witch), and is an excellent doctor/herbalist (a witch).

Good characters, much good writing.

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