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Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl Book Reviews for 5/9/09

Dave Beck
05/09/2009

The poetic writing in Paul Harding's debut novel 'Tinkers' deserves to be read aloud. Our book critic Nancy Pearl says the short novel packs the emotional punch of books three times its length. KUOW's Dave Beck talked to Nancy about her latest reading adventures.

Sometimes good things really do arrive in small packages. That's certainly the case with Paul Harding's first novel Tinkers (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009). At only a very brief 192 pages, it still packs an emotional punch that books of three times its length often lack. It's a novel that you'll want to savor for its stunning yet economical use of language, for its descriptions of nature, of illness and health, and for its profound understanding of humanity's deepest needs and desires for family and home. I found reading it to be an incredibly moving experience, yet Harding is in such control of his material that it never devolves into mushiness or becomes maudlin. George Washington Crosby has spent his entire adult life tinkering with and repairing the most intricate of clocks. Now, lying close to death in his own home, surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren, George's thoughts drift between the present and the past. He thinks back to his chaotic childhood as the eldest child of a traveling salesman whose success in life was severely limited by his epilepsy. He muses on his mother, a woman worn down by her fate as the wife of a failure, and he reconsiders his own life as a man, a husband, and a father. If I could choose two chapters to read aloud – and this book begs to be read aloud – one would be the account of George's father's strange, once–a–year meeting with a hermit residing deep in the woods, and the other would be the description of how to build a nest. Together, it seems to me, they encapsulate Harding's worldview.

If you were to ask me how many words there are in Toni Jordan's satisfying debut novel Addition, I'd check the number of pages, count the number of lines on enough pages and the number of words on enough lines to get reasonably accurate averages, and then multiply the three numbers. The answer (say, 272 pages, by about 30 lines per page, by about 11 words per line equals about 90,000 words) would, in my view, be close enough for all practical purposes. If you were to ask Grace Lisa Vandenburg, who tells her own story in Addition (Morrow, 2009), that same question, whatever your practical purpose, she would not be happy (or comfortable) with "all practical purposes." Instead, she would count every word on every page, coming up with the exact number. Grace has long been obsessed with counting – even as a child, her favorite toy was not her Barbie doll, but a set of Cuisenaire rods. Her hero is inventor Nikola Tesla, whose life was also consumed by his love of humbers and counting. She's been forced to give up her teaching job because she cannot stop herself from counting, whether it be the number of steps from her bed to the bathroom (25), the number of books on each shelf in her bookcase (30), or the number of slices she cuts each onion (10) and carrot (10) into for her dinner. Grace believes in sticking to the rules she's set up for herself. She says: "Who knows what could happen if I start making arbitrary decisions and upset the synchronized pattern of the universe?" But sometimes a spanner in the works disrupts the orderliness of the universe – and into Grace's ever so ordered life comes Seamus Joseph O'Reilly (whose name has 19 letters, just like Grace's), who encourages her to overcome her "quirk" with the help of a therapist, and live a more normal life – with him. Jordan has given us a sympathetic and realistic picture of a young woman struggling to remain herself, even when that self is not deemed by society to be precisely normal. Grace's voice is what drew me into Addition and kept me reading – I cared about her dilemma and wanted for her what she wanted for herself – to be happy.

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