What to Read Next (No. 180): Twain Redux
This week I’m covering two books I’ve read in the last few months that have strong echos of Mark Twain. There are two things, in my very humble opinion, which comprise Twain’s greatest strengths: 1) his humor and disregard for the writing conventions of his era and 2) his astute observations on taking a long trip and doing some growing up along the way.
These novels, more than any others I’ve read in the last few years, are direct descendants of that influence. (One of them even explicitly says as much in the acknowledgments.) I enjoyed both and I think you will too.
As always, let me know what you’re reading! I love to hear.
Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen
Published: 2020 | Pages: 336
I hadn’t heard of Carl Hiaasen before he was mentioned by Dan Morain in my interview with him. Since then, I’ve of course seen his name everywhere mentioned as one of the great comic writers of our era. Hiaasen was a longtime newspaper journalist in Florida who just recently retired from that biz. He’s also a longtime novelist who’s focused his energies on darkly funny mysteries that poke fun at power and corruption and politics.
The premise is just delightful: someone is leaving giant pythons around a small Florida town, partially to piss off the richie rich and partially to make a statement about a certain orange-haired politician who’s set up camp in Southern Florida. Left to clean up the literal mess and solve the mystery of who’s behind this strange deed is animal control specialist Angie Armstrong.
Angie is sarcastic, strong, blunt, not afraid to get dirty, and so so likable. She has no fear about cutting open 18-foot snakes, nor about cutting to the chase with bloviating citizens, policemen, and politicians who get in her way.
We get some great scenes of ritzy and glitzy retiree parties, the First Lady’s indiscretions with a Secret Service agent, the President’s personal tanning assistant, and the nation’s misplaced obsession with illegal immigrants.
There are surely some readers who will be put off by Hiaasen’s utter lack of decorum in regards to POTUS and FLOTUS, and yet he’s truly following the long tradition set in place by Mark Twain. In this great nation of ours, nothing is sacred—in the best way. If we can’t make fun of our elected leaders we’re no better than any dictatorship.
I really enjoyed my first reading of Hiaasen, and though it wasn’t my absolute favorite, I do look forward to checking out his other novels in time. It was easy-reading, light-hearted, and laugh-out-loud funny at times.
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
Published: 2019 | Pages: 465
I maintain that Krueger is one of our nation’s great, underrated writers. The bulk of his work is in the Cork O’Connor mystery/detective series. Those books are total comfort reads for me; when I’m in a reading funk and need something I know I’ll enjoy, I grab the next in the series. I’m on #7 right now and #18 comes out this fall, so I’ll be entertained for quite a while at a clip of a few per year.
Anyways . . . the book Krueger is best known for is actually a standalone called Ordinary Grace. That story is a superb historical fiction set in the 1960s in small town Minnesota. A 13-year-old boy is not only coming of age, but also thrust into a devastating family tragedy/mystery that needs some solving. It’s not as grim as it sounds and I have yet to find someone who didn’t love this novel.
Like Ordinary Grace, This Tender Land is a standalone and also narrated by a teenage boy. Odie tells this tale of four orphans who’ve escaped their poor treatment at school, only to find themselves on a dangerous, whirlwind adventure down the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.
As some might recognize at this point, This Tender Land is a modern and updated Huck Finn. Krueger isn’t as funny as Twain, but adroitly covers subjects like racism and prostitution a bit more gracefully than Twain. Now, Twain was trying to flout convention, so it makes sense that his prose is harsh to modern ears. Krueger, it seems, was simply trying to write a touching story about four young people finding their place in the world after ending up in a place where nobody loved them. (Not that there’s anything simple about that type of project.)
Okay okay, I’ve been droning on a bit. The ultimate verdict: This Tender Land is really good. One of my favorite reads of the year, actually. There were times where Odie’s choices made me shake my fist at him, but he’s a kid. It makes sense. The four lost souls cross paths with Depression-era farmers, Hooverville residents, and itinerant faith healers (definitely one of my favorite characters). Krueger’s characters are so memorable and so well-crafted that you can’t help but love all of them—except the bad guys, of course.
It’s an epic story that covers a lot of ground; if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself eagerly following along as they get in and out of scrapes on their long adventure towards love and acceptance.
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