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Ron Hansen, "Exiles"

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Ron Hansen fans will rejoice over this review from Carolyn See of Hansen's new book, Exiles:

Here's this amazing book I'm going to tell you about; try to keep your mind off your grandmother's road trip. Forget that you might not be Catholic or that you've had it with the clergy or that you don't care about a 19th-century shipwreck or that you don't read poetry. Remember that although Ron Hansen wrote about the stigmata in "Mariette in Ecstasy," he also wrote about the assassination of Jesse James by the dirty little coward Robert Ford. Instead of thinking about the upcoming election or whether you prefer blue cheese to ranch, unhinge your mind and let it trip, as we used to say in the '60s.

Follow Hansen to a snowy seminary in Wales some 150 years ago, where a high-strung, highly educated former scholar from Oxford has converted to unfashionable Catholicism and believes in it. He believes in the whole shebang. He believes in "The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe." The world is divine to him -- shot through with grace. He once had a gift for poetry, but he has given it up; to be too much involved with things of this world would, he feels, be an insult to God.

Then he reads of the shipwreck that killed, among others, those five German nuns, who, because the German government had been going through a spasm of anti-Catholicism, had been dispatched to be missionaries in Missouri. It's sad that they died, of course. And yet -- if you believe in the reality of God -- shouldn't it be a happy occasion when some of God's chosen return to Him? Hopkins's superior suggests to the young priest-poet that he write a poem about it. He does, but it comes out garbled, strange, even a little creepy -- embarrassing in its intense, private declaration of love. Here was a man who was absolutely gaga about Jesus and didn't care who knew it.

That's only part of the review, which opens with a first-person account of See trying to convince friends of the book's merits. The responses will resonate with anyone who's ever met complacency in such ventures (who hasn't?).

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My husband is reading this right now and really enjoying it.

Paul Mariani has a Hopkins biography coming out this October. Husband loved Mariani's bio of Hart Crane, and can't wait to pair that with the Hansen novel.

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Sara: Did your husband like it when he was finished with it? I found it somewhat ... removed, for the first half. I thought I'd identify deeply with these religious characters, but something about the book, which I actually read in paper-and-ink (didn't listen to in audio form, which is my usual form of "reading" these days), kept me at a distance. I thought about not finishing it, but the book is short, even for a slow reader like me.

I pressed on, and am glad I did. The wreck of the ship and the demise of several characters is wrenching and vivid, in a good way. I guess it won't surprise folks that the book it most reminded me of was The Perfect Storm, a lesser literary work that shares this book's ability to conjure gutwrenching stories of human helplessness when set against the power of the sea.

Edited by Christian

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Sara: Did your husband like it when he was finished with it? I found it somewhat ... removed, for the first half. I thought I'd identify deeply with these religious characters, but something about the book, which I actually read in paper-and-ink (didn't listen to in audio form, which is my usual form of "reading" these days), kept me at a distance. I thought about not finishing it, but the book is short, even for a slow reader like me.

I pressed on, and am glad I did. The wreck of the ship and the demise of several characters is wrenching and vivid, in a good way. I guess it won't surprise folks that the book it most reminded me of was The Perfect Storm, a lesser literary work that shares this book's ability to conjure gutwrenching stories of human helplessness when set against the power of the sea.

Christian, I felt a little kept-at-a-distance myself. There was something about the writing style (half novel, half nonfiction history/biography) that didn't gel for me. I'm not sorry I read the book, but it just wasn't as good as I thought it was going to be.

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Exiles almost felt like two separate works to me: The nuns on the Deutschland parts were both interesting and funny (and sad as well, since the ship sinks)--kind of like if the sisters from Mariette in Ecstasy went on holiday; the Hopkins parts, though, dragged. I felt like Hansen was more concerned with showing how much research he did than in telling story.

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Image talks with Hansen about his novels, the writing process, and what he's reading.

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I've only read The Assassination of Jesse James and Desperadoes. Loved them both. Looks like I need to start buying more Ron Hansen books. I'll look for Exiles next.

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How did I not know that Hansen has a new book out, and that it's in contention to be nominated for the National Book Award?

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

Oh, dear. Amazon's posted plot description is as follows:

Based on a real case whose lurid details scandalized Americans in 1927 and sold millions of newspapers, acclaimed novelist Ron Hansen’s latest work is a tour de force of erotic tension and looming violence. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Ruth Snyder is a voluptuous, reckless, and altogether irresistible woman who wishes not only to escape her husband but that he die—and the sooner the better. No less miserable in his own tedious marriage is Judd Gray, a dapper corset-and-brassiere salesman who travels the Northeast peddling his wares. He meets Ruth in a Manhattan diner, and soon they are conducting a white-hot affair involving hotel rooms, secret letters, clandestine travels, and above all, Ruth’s increasing insistence that Judd kill her husband. Could he do it? Would he? What follows is a thrilling exposition of a murder plan, a police investigation, the lovers’ attempt to escape prosecution, and a final reckoning for both of them that lays bare the horror and sorrow of what they have done. Dazzlingly well-written and artfully constructed, this impossible-to-put-down story marks the return of an American master known for his elegant and vivid novels that cut cleanly to the essence of the human heart, always and at once mysterious and filled with desire.

I don't know that I'm up for this one, even if it's well-written.

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Exiles and Atticus are now going for about $5 each on Amazon.

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New story collection, "She Loves Me Not," is out, but not all the stories are new:

Hansen’s first collection, “Nebraska,” which appeared in 1989, was a work that in its wrought realism, its ways of culling grim beauty from the often harsh history of his native place, achieved a memorable intensity. “She Loves Me Not” republishes seven of those stories, but to suggest that he’s recycling would miss the larger point. Instead, he has used this early work as the basis for what becomes a very different, exploded, view of a place. In these pages, Nebraska — Omaha in particular — is both rendered and reappropriated, registered and riffed on through a range of tonalities.

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