Wednesday, May 12, 2010

64. New England White by Stephen L. Carter

Colin read New England White awhile ago, and all I remembered about it was that it looked really long and the book jacket copy didn't sound that interesting. But I was complaining to him that I didn't have as many recommendations to choose from as I thought I might and on this particular day nothing on the list sounded intriguing. So he assured me that he really thought I would like New England White and I should give it a try. I trust his advice more now that we've been together for seven (seven!) years, so I checked the book out of the library and dove in.

When The Emperor of Ocean Park was published, Time Out declared: "Carter does for members of the contemporary black upper class what Henry James did for Washington Square society, taking us into their drawing rooms and laying their motives bare." Now, with the same powers of observation, and the same richness of plot and character, Stephen L. Carter returns to the New England university town of Elm Harbor, where a murder begins to crack the veneer that has hidden the racial complications of the town's past, the secrets of a prominent family, and the most hidden bastions of African-American political influence. At the center: Lemaster Carlyle, the university president, and his wife, Julia Carlyle, a deputy dean at the divinity school - African Americans living in "the heart of whiteness." Lemaster is an old friend of the president of the United States. Julia was the murdered man's lover years ago. The meeting point of these connections forms the core of a mystery that deepens even as Julia closes in on the politically earth-shattering motive behind the murder. Relentlessly suspenseful, galvanizing in its exploration of the profound difference between allegiance to ideas and to people, New England White is a resounding confirmation of Stephen Carter's gifts as a writer of fiction.

Summary lifted from the book jacket (this is what didn't sound interesting a few months ago). Colin typed it up for me because he can't stand my hunt-and-peck typing. 

My first reaction is that I can definitely trust Colin's opinion. He knows me well enough to have a good idea of what I'll enjoy. This did not used to be the case! When we had been together for six months, he swore up and down that he thought I would like Pirates of the Caribbean. Um, not so. That's 143 minutes of my life that I'll never get back. But, I digress.

I don't remember if I mentioned this before, but I create a Google Doc for each book that I read. I take notes as I read -- nothing major, just to help me remember what I want to write when I begin the blog post about that book. Then I write the post in my Google Doc and post it to the blog from there. It's a good system, and it's especially handy when I don't write my post until a few weeks after I finish the book (like this one, for instance). Okay, getting to my point: I took a lot of notes while reading New England White. I mean, I haven't taken so many notes on a book since I was in school. I knew that if I didn't, I would lose track of who was who and what was going on. Also, I had to look up a lot of words while reading -- the vocabulary was just out of my range. I even started to look up words that I was pretty sure I knew what meant just to be sure. It was kind of fun, if I'm being honest. And now I have the definitions of over 35 words in my Google Doc. (So I pretty much just geeked out, huh?)

At the center of New England White is an intricate mystery set in a richly imagined world populated with expertly drawn characters. Okay, I'm just trying to sound smart -- but it's all true! The mystery was laid out perfectly over the course of the book and I never lost interest in trying to crack it. Although you can tell that Carter is writing from experience, he's created this history for his characters that's not based in fact but sounds eerily plausible. (Is that cryptic? Whatever, maybe I'm just trying to sound smart again.*) I love how satisfying it was to read this book; Carter reveals information and motivations slowly, bit by bit, and every question has an answer in due time. The pacing was perfect. I love this book and I highly recommend it. Even if you're not too keen on mysteries, you'll probably enjoy being in this world for a few hours.

*It's okay, I know that I'm smart. I'm just self-deprecating. (And modest.)

And as a special treat, here is my list of definitions! In case you're interested, or if you want to reference it when you read New England White yourself.

sinecure: an office or position that requires little or no work and that usually provides an income
    abstemious: marked by restraint especially in the consumption of food or alcohol
brio: enthusiastic vigor
hegemonic: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group
conflagration: a large disastrous fire 
    logy: sluggish, groggy
consternation: amazement or or dismay that hinders or throws into confusion
pique: a transient feeling of wounded vanity
dudgeon: a fit or state of indignation, often used in the phrase in high dudgeon 
riposte: a retaliatory verbal sally 
    sally: a witty or imaginative saying
    recalcitrant: obstinately defiant of authority or restraint, difficult to manage or operate
desultory: marked by lack of definite plan, regularity or purpose
obsequity: state of being obsequious 
    obsequious: marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness  
contretemps: an inopportune or embarrassing occurrence or situation
shirty: angry, irritated
ubiquitous: existing or being everywhere at the same time, constantly encountered
laconic: using or involving the use of a minimum of words, concise to the point of seeming rude or mysterious
avuncular: suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality
visage: the face, countenance or appearance of a person
maundering: a rambling or pointless discourse
implacable: not capable of being appeased, significantly changed, or mitigated 
politesse: formal politeness 
sally: an action of rushing or bursting forth, a venture or excursion usually off the beaten path
supercilious: coolly and patronizingly haughty
erudition: extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books
anomalous: inconsistent with or deviating from what is usual, normal or expected
dulcet: sweet to the taste, pleasing to the ear, generally pleasing or agreeable
oenology: a science that deals with wine and wine making 
factotum: a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities, a general servant
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved or stopped
hortatory: using exhortation 
exhortation: an act or instance of exhorting
exhorting: to incite by argument or advice, urge strongly, to give warnings or advice, make urgent appeals
paucity: smallness of number
synesthesia: a concomitant sensation, esp. a subjective sensation or image of a sense other than the one being stimulated; the condition marked by experiencing such sensations
        concomitant: accompanying especially in a subordinate or incidental way
primogeniture: an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son
mysophobic: a pathological fear of contact with dirt, to avoid contamination and germs
sanguine: confident, optimistic

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