1.The Clearing, by Tim Gautreaux, is about a sawmill in Louisiana in the 1930s, perhaps, offhand, not the most alluring subject, but Gautreaux writes so gorgeously, with such energy and heart, even inanimate objects in his prose — a shovel, for example — take on distinctive personalities. The story is of two brothers, one shell-shocked from his European tour in the Great War, who is distanced from his family, is addicted to sentimental music, and serves as the sawmill’s resident lawman. The other brother is sent to reclaim this lost sibling — and make sure the mill turns a profit (his father has bought the place, for both purposes). It’s a violent, morally complex book with truly evil villains and people trying to be good — though our sympathetic heroes blithely rule as feudal overseers and wreak ecological disaster. Gautreaux writes with a profound, laugh-inside humor and a simultaneously generous and clear-eyed take on human foibles. The sawmill itself is a beautifully rendered hellhole, though once the trees are cleared, the job is done, everyone goes home, and the book ends, you kinda miss the place.
2. Some readers say Shirley Hazzard’s new book is not as good as her 1981 novel, The Transit of Venus, but there is an elegiac tone to The Great Fire that is about as haunting and compelling as anything I’ve ever read. As the book opens, the world is still shivering and twitching from World War II — Japan, China, England and New Zealand alike — and war may break out anew. The book’s 32-year-old protagonist, decorated veteran Aldred Leith, has been sent by the British government to record his observations of the various occupations. In Japan, Leith meets up with two siblings, a dying 20-year-old named Benedict and his 17-year-old sister, Helen, who, neglected by awful parents, have scrambled around the globe alone and found refuge in books and the odd caring person. They’re uncommonly erudite and angelically good. Leith and Helen no sooner fall in love than they are separated by a world, a world again on the verge of conflagration.