These will not be typical book reviews, outlining plots and critiquing writers. Nothing so academic or professional. I merely want to share my life-long journey through the wonderful world of novels. Every month you’ll find new postings — heartfelt impressions of the latest books I’ve read.
Alphabetical (by author) List of Books with Reviews in the same order, by author’s last name, below:
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Purple Hibiscus
- Isabel Allende: The Japanese Lover
- Isabel Allende: In the Midst of Winter
- Sherman Alexie: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me -?
- Steve Almond: Candyfreak
- Alice Anderson: One Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away
- Marie Arana: Cellophane
- Kate Atkinson: When Will There Be Good News?
- Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
- Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins
- Dennis Banks: Ojibwa Warrior
- Russell Banks: Lost Memory of Skin
- Josh Bazell: Wild Thing
- Saul Bellow: Herzog
- Olivier Bourdeaut: Waiting for Bojangles
- Joseph Boyden: The Orenda
- T.C. Boyle: The Terranauts
- Melvyn Bragg: The Sword and the Miracle
- Val Brelinski: The Girl Who Slept with God
- Cathy Marie Buchanan: The Day The Falls Stood Still
- Robert Olen Butler: Perfume River
- Wayne Caldwell: Cataloochee
- Bebe Moore Campbell: 72 Hour Hold
- Ron Carlson: Return to Oakpine
- Caleb Carr: The Angel of Darkness
- Carol Cassela: Gemini
- Jerome Charyn: Elsinore
- Meg Waite Clayton: The Race for Paris
- Jennifer Clement: Gun Love
- Jonathan Coe: The Rain Before It Falls
- Paulo Coelho: Hippie
- Tom Cooper: The Marauders
- Bernard Cornwell: The Archer’s Tale
- Armando Lucas Correa: The German Girl
- James Cowan: A Mapmaker’s Dream
- Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen
- Jasmin Darznik: Song of a Captive Bird
- Nelson DeMille: The Cuban Affair
- Pete Dexter: Deadwood
- Philip K. Dick: Flow My Tears The Policeman Said
- Eric Jerome Dickey: Bad Men and Wicked Women
- Katharine Dion: The Dependents
- Roddy Doyle: The Guts
- Andre Dubus III: The Garden of Last Days
- Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach
- Dave Eggers: The Parade
- Louise Erdrich: Shadow Tag
- Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves
- Louise Erdrich: Future Home of the Living God
- Louise Erdrich: The Painted Drum
- Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot
- Siobhan Fallon: The Confusion of Languages
- F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night
- Martin Fletcher: Jacob’s Oath
- Jonathan Franzen: Purity
- Charles Frazier: Nightwoods
- Carlos Fuentes: Inez
- Alan Furst: Dark Star
- Alan Furst: Spies of the Balkans
- Christina Garcia: The Lady Matador’s Hotel
- Nina George: The Little Paris Bookshop
- K.B. Gilden: Hurry Sundown
- Justin Go: The Steady Running of the Hour
- Gail Godwin: Evensong
- David Grossman: To the End of the Land
- Sunetra Gupta: The Glassblower’s Breath
- David Guterson: Our Lady of the Forest
- Rosa Guy: The Sun, The Sea, A Touch of the Wind
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
- Jim Harrison: The Big Seven
- Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone
- Lindsay Hatton: Monterey Bay
- Paula Hawkins: Into the Water
- Mark Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War
- Mark Helprin: In Sunlight and in Shadow
- Nathan Hill: The Nix
- Nick Hornby: Juliet Naked
- Richard Hoyt: Cool Runnings
- Vanessa Hua: A River of Stars
- Joe Jackson: Black Elk
- Rula Jebreal: Miral
- N.K. Jemisin: The Broken Earth Trilogy –
- The Fifth Season
- The Obelisk Gate
- The Stone Sky
- F. Tennyson Jesse: Act of God
- Diane Johnson: Lying Low
- James Jones: From Here To Eternity
- Tayari Jones: An American Marriage
- Rupi Kaur: Milk and Honey
- Joseph Kanon: Alibi
- Liza Klaussmann: Villa America
- Nicole Krauss: Great House
- Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
- Doris Lessing: The Good Terrorist
- Paulo Lins: City of God
- Mario Vargas Llosa: The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
- Susan Elia MacNeal: The Paris Spy
- Michael Malone: The Four Corners of the Sky
- Christine Mangan: Tangerine
- Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
- Mesha Maren: Sugar Run
- Peter Mayle: A Good Year
- Pauline Melville: Eating Air
- Pauline Melville: The Ventriloquist’s Tale
- Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night
- Derek B. Miller: The Girl in Green
- Anchee Min: Katherine
- David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
- David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
- Brian Morton: Starting Out in the Evening
- Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart
- Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki
- Tim Murphy: Christodora
- R.K. Narayan: The Vendor of Sweets
- Christie Nelson: Beautiful Illusion
- Celeste Ng: Little Fires Everywhere
- Martha C. Nussbaum: Frontiers of Justice
- Maggie O’Farrell: This Must Be The Place
- Tommy Orange: There There
- Peter Orner: Am I Alone Here?
- Peter Orner: Love and Shame and Love Again
- Lawrence Osborne: Beautiful Animals
- Julie Otsuka: Buddha in the Attic
- Ann Patchett: Commonwealth
- Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind & A Better Man
- Jodi Picoult: Small Great Things
- Jodi Picoult: House Rules
- Chaim Potok: The Chosen
- Richard Powers: Plowing the Dark
- Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing
- Bill Pronzini: A Wasteland of Strangers
- Annie Proulx: Barkskins
- Sebastian Rotella: Rip Crew
- Mary Doria Russell: Dreamers of the Day
- Richard Russo: Everybody’s Fool
- Carl Sandburg: Remembrance Rock
- Rakesh Satyal: No One Can Pronounce My Name
- Julie Schumacher: The Body Is Water
- Budd Schulberg: Waterfront
- André Schwarz-Bart: The Last of the Just
- Namwali Serprell: The Old Drift
- B.A. Shapiro: The Muralist
- Dani Shapiro: Black & White
- Matthew Sharpe: Jamestown
- Ali Shaw: The Trees
- Jane Smiley: Barn Blind
- Linda Spalding: A Reckoning
- Francis Spufford: Golden Hill
- John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent
- Susie Steiner: Persons Unkown
- Irving Stone: Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd & Abraham Lincoln
- Ronald Takaki: A Different Mirror – A History of Multicultural America
- Heather Terrell: The Map Thief
- Marshall Terry: Tom Northway
- Paul Theroux: The Mosquito Coast
- Paul Theroux: A Dead Hand
- Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing
- James Alexander & Dark Rain Thom: Warrior Woman
- David Treuer: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
- Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
- Luis Alberto Urrea: The Hummingbird’s Daughter
- Luis Alberto Urrea: The House of Broken Angels
- Leon Uris: Redemption
- Gore Vidal: The Smithsonian Institution
- Dan Wakefield: Home Free
- Rebecca Walker: Adé
- Amy Wallace: Desire & Sorcerer’s Apprentice
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away
- Todd Walton: Night Train
- Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing
- John Welter: Begin to Exit Here
- Morris West: The Lovers
- Rebecca West: The Birds Fall Down
- Rebecca West: Cousin Rosamund
- Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad
- Joshua Whitehead: Jonny Appleseed
- Lauren Wilkinson: American Spy
- Persia Woolley: Child of the Northern Spring
Alphabetical by author, my impressions of each book:
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- I first fell in love with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when I heard her TED Talk. Eloquent, beautiful and insightful, Adichie possesses the confidence to be profound. Wisdom never looked so young and vibrant. After reading Purple Hibiscus and We Should All Be Feminists (the book based on her TED Talk), I chalked her up as a rising star in the worldwide feminist movement, and knew I would continue to seek out her books.
Americanah, published in 2013 before her TED fame, helps explain Adichie’s Nigerian / American roots and her ability to be brutally honest about race, gender and sex. As with many great novelists, the story Adichie tells is her own story, the rich details fictionalized enough to allow her characters to be both expansive and precise in their social relevance.
Ifemelu, the young Nigerian woman who emigrates to America, whose story Adichie tells, experiencing race for the first time. She has to redefine her sense of self to navigate the subtle and not-so-subtle racism she encounters at every turn. She finds success using her fresh insights blogging about race. One she entitled ‘To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby’ sets the tone:
Dear Non-American Black, When you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t “black” in our country? You’re in America now. . . . Admit it – you say “I’m not black” only because you know black is at the bottom of America’s race ladder.
Ifemelu does not embody the perfection that I had begun to attribute to the author herself. But, in the bone-deep honesty of the character’s flaws – her physical insecurities, her sexual missteps, even her long road to accepting and finally celebrating her natural African hair – she achieves a relatable perfection. Without that perfect honesty this long, entangled love story would not work, and worse it would not teach.
Americanah is that rare novel which tells a great story and, at the same time, makes you come away with a different view of the world.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a wonderful storyteller. So good that the child abuse she describes in Purple Hibiscus hurts. You ache for Kambili and her brother, Jaja, wanting to pull them from their upscale Nigerian home where their strict religious father reigns supreme. But, Purple Hibiscus is not a story about child abuse but about family, in particular an extended family rooted in Nigerian traditions, trying to embrace the best of those traditions while liberating themselves from its gender limitations. All the richly developed characters redefine themselves while a Nigerian military coup racks the country with uncertainty. This is Kambili’s story. Despite the pain, it is filled with generosity and love.
- A passionate fan of Isabel Allende since I first read one of her works more than two decades ago, I relished The Japanese Lover (2015) and believe it to be her best ever. It is now on my top ten list of all time favorite novels. Allende’s style is smooth and seductive, nothing forced, always taking the reader down alluring paths as she weaves in the heartrending, often transcendent stories, of her characters. Alma Belasco lived most of her life in a San Francisco Sea Cliffs mansion, with expansive views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and servants attending to the nine-bedroom home and gardeners working horticulture magic on the gardens surrounding it. Her wealthy Jewish family smuggled her out of Poland as the Nazis were seizing it. Though her rich American relatives welcomed her with open arms, she spent months sleeping in the closet of her elaborate bedroom, crying herself to sleep. Then she met a Japanese boy, the son of their gardener, who would become her lifelong friend and secret lover. Allende’s description of the WWII Japanese internment camps that her friend endures as a boy, re-imagines the shame Americans should feel while letting the civilized grace of the Japanese-Americans shine through, making it a bitter-sweet part of Alma’s tale. Her life’s story is one remembered from the quiet retirement home she retreats to, told to her adoring Moldovan immigrant attendant named Irina and to a mysterious friend from her past named Lenny who had come to the home to die. Allende tells Irina’s story as counterpoint to Alma’s and Lenny’s as parallel. Her epic love story is adorned throughout with the poems, simple, sweet, beautiful letters from Alma’s lifelong love, Ishimei. Few but Isabel Allende have ever achieved such richness in their prose, such breadth of history and human travails in their story telling.
- The title of Isabel Allende latest novel (2017) is taken from a quote by Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” In the Midst of Winter is true to Camus. In the middle of a huge Brooklyn blizzard two Chilean-Americans, both professors, both ‘getting on in years’ open up to the romance they’ve tried to keep at bay for years when they begin taking huge risks to help a young undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Whenever Allende writes of love, I fall more in love with her, through her big-hearted characters and through her alluring prose. In the Midst of Winter is no exception. Isabel herself, her life, her loves and her insight, is the center attraction of everything she writes.
- I knew that You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me would make me cry. Sherman Alexie still carries the scars of his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alcoholic parents, systemic poverty and cultural deprivation, he shocks us out of white bread reality by telling us that his mother was raped and was the product of rape, that his sister, who was the product of his mother’s rape, died young, passed out drunk while her trailer home burned, that he himself was sexually molested as a child. He then cushions the shock with a scatological tale of a giant ‘grief crap’ he took during his mother’s funeral. Alexie can always make me laugh, but he didn’t make me cry talking about racism, the rez and its rape culture. I have mourned Native American oppression my whole life. But the fact that he could not forgive his mother’s lack of affection for him, that he could not forgive her though she has done her best, that made me cry. “She protected me against cruelty / Three days a week,” he said.
- Candyfreak (2004) by Steve Almond is subtitled ‘A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.’ Almond’s comic, self-effacing touch through his opening candy mania confessions drew me into the book but his depth of knowledge – candy companies, their brands, the unique ways they’re made and the history of chocolate and confections – had me engrossed before chapter four. By the end I felt I was seeing the history of American business, from individual craftsmen and small family business to corporate take-over, through the eyes of a passionate, deeply intelligent – and, yes, very entertaining – candy lover.
- Alice Anderson – Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Cellophane reads like a cross between Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marie Arana takes us on a journey up the Amazon River into the heart of the Peruvian rainforest where an ambitious engineer, Don Victor Sorbrevilla, tames a piece of the riverbank and establishes a paper mill. His large family reigns over a tiny village struggling to balance their lives between their old tribal ways and mid-20th Century industrialization and politics. When a ‘plague of truth-telling’ invades the Sorbrevilla household, family secrets and deeply held personal feelings are all laid bare. While every life in the household and in the village is throw into upheaval, Don Victor can think of little but his new process for producing cellophane, the mysterious new paper that comes to symbolize the crush of civilization on their jungle-shrouded haven.a
- Kate Atkinson is one of England’s most successful writers. Her 2008 novel When Will There Be Good News? defines the nature of her success. Noted for her crime series, Case Histories, this story begins with a horrendous crime and includes plenty of criminals — Atkinson has even inserted Jackson Brodie (a character from her previous novels) who is a private investigator and former police inspector — but at its heart this is the story of two very strong women. An irrepressible teenager named Reggie surviving on her own in Edinburgh is befriended by Dr. Hunter, a young mother and physician who, as a child, was the sole survivor of an attach by a knife-wielding crazy man which left her mother and two siblings dead. When Dr. Hunter goes missing, Reggie is the only one who is suspicious and she continues to be well ahead of the authorities finding clues and identifying the perpetrators. Both women are tough, smart and unwilling to let truly bad men ruin their lives.
- Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson: What if you could keep reliving your life, correcting your mistakes each time until you’d perfected it? Even before she is born — to an English banker and his aristocratic wife — Ursula Todd dies. She’s able to correct the circumstances of her birth and continues to have this ability through multiple corrections and variations of her life. She redeeming not just her own life but saves family members and friends along the way after first witnessing their demise. Atkinson’s prolific imagining of the lives of each member of the Todd family puts a keen edge on the unfolding episodes of their lives, leaving us to wonder, as WWII approaches, who will survive and who will Ursula be able to revive.
- A God in Ruins (2015) by Kate Atkinson takes up where ‘Life After Life’ left off . . . sort of. As we follow the life of Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy, from young WWII bomber pilot to old age, we learn of each of his family member’s death — including Ursula’s, their parents and all their siblings. Not as magical as ‘Life After Life’ the sequel is no less engaging, though redolent with sadness. Teddy is a very good man, having committed himself to leading a good and noble life while surviving the horrors of war. Though he never fully embraces the joys of life, he never gives up on those he loves.
The title of this book comes from the yoga/guru fiancé of Teddy’s granddaughter. He talks of Brahma’s conclusion after humans have lost their own godliness — “I know where we will hide man’s divinity, we will hide it inside him — he will search the whole world but never look inside and find what is already within.”
- Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) died last October (10/29/17) at the age of eighty. Throughout his remarkable life he walked the fine line between life and death. For decades the FBI wanted him dead. The Governor of South Dakota wanted him dead and the Tribal Chairman of the Pine Ridge Reservation put a bounty on his head. The FBI came close to taking him out at Wounded Knee in 1973 and again a decade later when the FBI tried to ambush him first at Pine Ridge and then on I-84 in Oregon on his way back to South Dakota in Marlon Brando’s RV. He survived dozens of other confrontations in his lifelong fight for Native American rights and detailed each one in his memoir Ojibwa Warrior. The opening line of the Chapter entitled ‘Fields of Terror’ reads, “Sometimes I’m surprised at being alive.”
- Russell Banks‘ Lost Memory of Skin plunges into a world we would just as soon ignore, which is what we usually do. Banks brings the underworld of sex offenders up to the surface where we can feel what its like to be among the lowest cast of humans, outcasts with no where to live legally than under a Florida causeway. In an attempt to rescue one of them, a young man convicted of sex with a minor (he was an immature 20, she a sexually experienced 15-year-old), a genius with a mysterious past steps in among the outcasts offering genuine help but unclear motivations. A triumph that such a raw subject can be so beautifully written, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking about the nature of human society.
- At its heart Wild Thing by Josh Bazell is a rollicking bad boy adventure. A fun read it also surprises with pieces like this: an Ojibwe explains to the main characters their offense in asking about evil spirits known among Algonquin Tribes as ‘Wendingos’: “It’s not that white people talk about First Nations people being magical, although this is kind of moronic when you look at what’s happened to us. It’s that white people don’t bother to look at what’s happened to us. They’d rather look at the teepees. And the Wendingos. The First Nations has societies. I’m not talking about Robin Hood camps in the wilderness. I’m talking about civilizations. Before Columbus got here, one in four people on Earth lived in the so-called New World. Tenochtitlan was the biggest city on Earth. We had books, and governments, and courts of law, and the best armies in existence . . . . Then European smallpox hit, and ninety-five percent of the indigenous population died. Which the Europeans pushed to ninety-seven percent through slavery and extermination.”
- Reading Saul Bellow (1915-2005) is like hanging out with a bright funny old uncle. You feel privileged to be taken into his confidence, and amazed that you’re able to keep up with at least half of his penetrating philosophical references. Herzog (1964), the epitome of that experience, made me wonder if uncle Saul has timed out.
Am I, at 69, the last among those who will appreciate or even understand Saul Bellow? Will anyone again ever relate to Herzog.
Professor Moses E. Herzog, a Chicago descendent of Jewish-Russian immigrants, ponderously cycles through the emotional wreckage of his second failed marriage. In doing so he mentions every modern philosopher I know – from de Tocqueville, Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard to Martin Buber and Jean Wahl. Critics praised Bellow for what they called his ‘Dickensian amplitude’. Exactly.
While Herzog shaves, he spins out eight or ten pages of childhood reminiscence. Spotting a familiar face on the subway becomes a whole chapter. A night with his girlfriend elicits his complete sexual history. It is the very definition of amplitude. Herzog examines his life, every emotion, and each memory through the long lens of existentialists, theologists, romantic historians and his own psychiatrist.
I loved it. But, I cannot imagine my bright, 16-year-old grandson having to slog through Herzog because his lit teacher had a thing for Bellow.*
*His treasures will become wiki-quotes:
On pain: ‘The knife and the wound ache for each other.’
On personal growth: “I work at it and show steady improvement. I expect to be in great shape on my death bed.”
- When I first read it, Waiting for Bojangles left me emotionally confused. Olivier Bourdeaut endowed his story with innocence by telling it from the point-of-view of a young boy. So like him, I was delighted with the boy’s madcap parents, even envious. Who wouldn’t want a dad so madly in love with his wife that he invents a new name for her every morning and every evening dances with her to Nina Simone’s ‘Mr. Bojangles’ — He jumped so high. He jumped so high
Then he’d lightly touched down.
But, as the story progressed, as the boy begins to understand, I too grew sadder and sadder. He sees that his mother’s wacky unpredictable behavior is something more than her being a free spirit. When his father can no longer cater lovingly to his wife’s increasing erratic whims, when a ‘Mr. Bojanges’ dance will no longer satisfy her, his son begins to understand that the party is over.
So I put Waiting for Bojangles away, not knowing what to say about it.
But, last week I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Fitzgerald writing about his darkest days with Zelda as she slips deeper into insanity made me flash back to Waiting for Bojangles. They are the same story. One is told through the eyes of a boy suffering a loss of innocence, the other is told by the faithful husband as he surrenders to his wife’s insanity and succumbs to his alcoholism.
- The Orenda by Joseph Boyden —
As I read The Orenda, hating the Jesuits’ incursion into the beautifully described 17th Century Huron community (the Wendat), pointing an accusing finger at my white ancestors wasn’t enough. That finger swept toward me, again and again, like a compass arrow’s insistent aim at true north. My only excuse was that I was very young.
I was still in my teens when I became convinced of my calling. For four year I studied at a cloistered seminary working toward ordination as a missionary priest. We spoke passionately about the ‘redemption of heathen souls.’ The priests who taught us, men who had served in South America, Africa and China, were our heroes. We swallowed Catholic dogma and spit back out in songs and sermons. We believed.
So, when Gosling, the all-seeing medicine woman in The Orenda confronted the head Jesuit missionary, she was also confronting my younger self. She had quietly entered the room where Christophe Crow (because of their black cassocks, the Wendat referred to all the priests as Crows), referring to the bible he preached from as his ‘wampum’, was trying to hold the attention of a dozen members of her adopted tribe, she confronted him on the divisive nature of his words:
“Your wampum declares that everything in the world was put here for man’s benefit. Your wampum says that man is the master and all the animals are born to serve him.”“Is this not true?” He asked.
“I say that humans are the only ones in this world that need everything in it.” [She continued.] “But there is nothing in this world that needs us for its survival. We aren’t the masters of the earth. We’re the servants.”
In the four decades since I fled the seminary and abandoned the Catholic Church, I’ve never quit wondering how I could have been so naïve, so brainwashed as to believe that indigenous people around the world needed to be converted from their earth-centered beliefs. I now know that if the 17th Century Jesuits and all the missionaries that followed had respected the people they ministered to, had learned from them and had, themselves, been converted to belief in the sacredness of all life on earth, we would not have been so committed to its destruction.
Boyden tells an engaging tale. And before it is awash in the shadows of genocide descending on the Wendat, and on all the Native tribes, you’re able to sit in the smoky warmth of their longhouses, feel the communal joy of the entire tribe planting ‘the three sisters’ (corn, squash and beans) in the spring and the exhilaration of lean, muscled warriors shooting along the forest-shrouded rivers of pre-spoiled North America. Open enough and you can even feel ‘The Orenda’ – the spiritual energy inherent in all things.
- The Terranauts (2016) by T.C. Boyle. Eight young scientists, four female, four male, commit themselves to a two year sequester inside a self-sustaining biosphere. What could go wrong? Boyle tells his story through the journals of three of the scientists – two of them on the inside, Dawn and Ramsay, and one, Linda, who didn’t make the cut to be on the inside so acts as support crew on the outside, bitter and driven. Setting the story in the early 1990s Boyle avoids a lot of questions about the science of the biosphere systems (which doesn’t seem all that well thought out from our point-of-view twenty-five years later) and focuses instead on the raw emotions evoked by the pressure of being locked inside and by the malfunctions of personality and equipment. Top among their vulnerabilities is sexual behavior in a closed system, pairings and re-pairings resulting in conflict and jealousy. In the end it is a very intimate tale.
- The two unfortunate things about Melvyn Bragg‘s 1996 epic novel The Sword and the Miracle are the title and the dust jacket (American edition). Together they imply a light, faith-based romantic novel set somewhere in early Celtic history. A masterpiece of historic fiction is revealed once the misleading wrappings are pulled back.
Melvyn Bragg is a brilliant writer and a ‘Renaissance man’ of late 20th/early 21st century England — a radio & television broadcaster, a parliamentarian, the former Chancellor of University of Leeds – and the list of honorifics goes on and on – who is also a scholar of the Dark Ages.
The Sword and the Miracle tells the fact-based tale of the pre-history of England, its years of post-Roman occupation, the old Druid inspired religious beliefs struggling against Christianity’s assumption of power in Rome, 647 – the early 700s, regional kings fighting for dominance. It’s all molded into the struggle of a man and woman who endure a lifetime deprived of the fulfillment of their enduring love for each other.
- The Girl Who Slept with God, the debut novel of Val Brelinski, who now teaches at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program (Continuing Education), stems from the author’s own childhood background in rural Idaho. Two sisters raised by committed Evangelical Christian parents respond in vastly different ways to their parents’ strict rules. The oldest, seventeen, internalizes her beliefs to such a degree that she becomes a zealous missionary. Returning home pregnant, Grace contends that it was an ‘angel of God’ not a man who impregnated her. Her younger sister, Jory, celebrates her fourteenth birthday isolated with her pregnant sister in a rural house away from the prying eyes of their small town neighbors. She rebels but maintains a strong allegiance to her older sister and to her father. It’s compelling reading and ripe with fresh visions of adolescent discovery and of Idaho star-filled nights, the backdrop to their sweeping questions about life, morality and God. The story is told entirely from the POV of Jory.
- I love nothing more than a novel that completely transports me, not just into the lives of other people, but to another time and place. Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Day The Falls Stood Still does that and more. The setting is the magical, majestic and dangerous Niagara Falls. The exquisite lifestyle details of 1915 – the dresses, the furnishings, fireplaces, kerosene lamps and the simpler pre-tech way of life – are warm and vibrant in Buchanan’s prose. Before the full story has gelled she has us cheering for the story’s narrator, young Bess. The tragic beginning flowers into a love story whose genuineness defies clichés. When Bess’s gallant ‘riverman’ husband returns home from WWI a broken man, she tells of his / their mending:“Which part of our returned intimacy have I most missed? Is it early on, when pleasure and anticipation are inseparable, when I ache for more but have no wish to alter in the slightest the stroking, the murmured endearments, the hands and mouth on my skin? Or is it later, when our bodies are entwined, moving together, when anticipation fades and the pleasure of the moment reigns? Or afterward, when we share a pillow, when there is a feeling of fullness, of completeness, that I have become whole?”Niagara Falls provides a compelling backdrop to the story, adding its power and mystery, the very forces that shower the lives of those who live near it.
- Robert Olen Butler has been writing about Vietnam for over forty years. Perfume River, an intense tale of an American family’s war scars, is not about Vietnam as much as it is about war itself. Butler brings definition as well as some understanding to the family estrangements, the psychological/emotional damage, the insidious nature of secrets held too long of four generations marred by war. Butler’s story flows seamlessly from the timeline of one soldier to another bringing their stories together at a funeral — the WWII vet who died without reconciliation with either of his sons, the Vietnam vet and the draft dodger who fled to Canada forty-sever years earlier.
- A few pages into Catalooche you will find yourself deep in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, deeply rooted in the close-knit rural community, aware of the lineage and personal history of every family and, a part of you will not want to leave. Catalooche is a place apart from the rest of America — beautiful, remote, largely peaceful and nurturing (if you work hard enough). Author Wayne Caldwell knows Catalooche well and writes about it with genuine love. By the end of the story you will want to stand up against the encroachment mid-20th Century and let the people of the hills continue on with their well-earned lives.
- Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel 72 Hour Hold is a deep immersion into the everyday hell of chronic mental illness — a world of pain for their loved ones as much as for those suffering the psychosis. For a white reader, it’s also an insightful offering of what it’s like to be Black in America.
The story of Keri and her 18-year-old daughter Trina is not light reading. Frustration, anger and betrayal mount scene by scene. The repetitiveness of set-backs, let-downs and lies raise the tension to a scream-worthy level that is countered, not by drugs and therapy but by pure, unadulterated parental love. Keri, who has already lost a child to crib death, shouts back at the disease, over and over again, ‘No, you are not taking this baby away from me.’
In 72 Hour Hold Campbell binds the terrible together, likening the strife of managing mental illness with the desperation of slaves trying to escape to freedom. At one point in what has already been a year of dealing with her daughter’s mania – screaming, scratching, hitting and destroying – she’s relieved to finally have her stabilized for a couple days — “I went to bed warning myself not to feel better. That would be like Sally Hemings sending out wedding invitations.”
When Keri reaches the end of her hope, she decides to reach out to an outlaw group of mental health professionals who’ve abandoned the system, “All I knew was my child would never be able to say I didn’t try hard enough. A click went off in my mind, and I was racing across the plantation in the dark.”
Ultimately, 72 Hour Hold is an indictment against mental health care in America told by someone who has a deep language for suffering, and overcoming.
Sad Footnote: Bebe Moore Campbell, an acclaimed New York Times best selling author, honored with the NAACP Image Award for Literature died in 2006 at age 56 from brain cancer.
- Return to Oakpine, a thin unpretentious book by Ron Carlson, is exquisite, a literary gem. Its dust jacket image of three middle-aged men walking up a blacktop drive toward a classic country home, one of them wielding a big guitar case, belies the story’s deep intentions.
It is a story about dying, and living. Carlson’s spare, under-stated prose rolls the story out with clean snapshots of a small Wyoming town, of the people who spent their whole lives there and two who are returning – one to reclaim his life, one to live out his final days.
Midway through you know the characters so well as to feel that you grew up with them. You cherish their high school stories as much as they do. You shake your head along with them, wondering still about the tragic death of the football star that summer after graduation. You yearn for truth from the brother who fled, and who has finally returned.
Return to Oakpine made me ache. It tapped the soft center in my solar plexus, shortening my breath, forcing me to pull pack now and then to properly refill my lungs. You do not have to be from a small town to relate — to want to fit the pieces of your youth back together and re-examine them. Perhaps to find new hope.
- When the notorious Libby Hatch is on trail for killing her own children, circa 1898 in upstate New York, jury selection — argued out between a fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow and Saratoga County’s assistant district attorney — is entirely from a pool of men. It struck me, reading it — ‘oh yeah, twenty-two years before women would have the right to vote, or to sit on a jury. The Angel of Darkness, Caleb Carr’s sequel to The Alienest, is a rambling detective novel sweeping through turn-of-the-century New York, with an enlightened group of professionals and a very clever boy, loyal friends, all having saved each others lives in past adventures. The thrill for me was seeing that time and place through their eyes. Dinners at Delmonico’s, waterfront gangs, corrupt NYC politics, horses-and-carriages mixing it up with the first cars, people getting used to the telephone, Teddy Roosevelt (popping into the book’s final plot) aching for the Presidency and war against Spain and a cameo by women’s rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton — good mystery — fantastic immersion into American history.
- Author Carol Cassella is an MD so it is not surprising that her 2014 novel Gemini features an intensive care doctor battling for the life of a mysterious Jane Doe, who remains in a coma throughout the book. What shouldn’t surprise me, but did, is Cassella’s ability to convey youthful wonderment and the psychic angst of adulthood as smoothly and insightfully as her clinician reads a data stream of body chemistry. While the Jane Doe mystery unfolds through the eyes of Charlotte, her dedicated doctor, we learn, in alternating chapters about the life of a sweet young woman named Raney. Cassella writes of Raney’s first intimate experience with a boy, “She knew pride in her own body, too, which overtook her shyness — that magic time when smooth skin and clear eyes and supple joints rank with the grandest of natural wonders.”
We fall in love with Raney and ache with the eventual knowledge that she is Jane Doe, which means her life went horribly wrong somehow. Charlotte’s lover becomes the key to solving the mystery as he was, we learn, Raney’s first love. Gemini speaks to the tenuous nature of life itself, not just staying alive but finding love and happiness amid calamity, loss and failure. Appropriately, Cassella ends with a quote from Albert Einstein: “I must be willing to give up with I am in order to become what I will be.”
- Any other writer would have made a 500-page novel of this dense mystery. But, with Elsinore, Jerome Charyn – whom Michael Chabon called ‘one of the most important writers of our time’ – uses not a single spare word, offering up a tight, mind-reeling 249 pages. And I find that I cannot come up with a better description of it than what Joe Gores (author of Hammett) wrote on the back of the book jacket: “Elsinore is by turns sensual, grotesque, funny, sad, visceral, and vicious. This is a cockeyed history masquerading as mystery, brewed up with a dozen murders, quick as whiplash, deadly as a bullet to the nape of your neck . . . lock Einstein, Yeats and Woolrich in a padded room with a bottle of laudanum and tell them they have to write a novel, they might come up with something approximating Elsinore.
- Meg Waite Clayton published The Race for Paris in 2015, seventy-one years after the book’s final WWII scene just before the Allies invaded Germany. It may as well have been written from the 1944 battlefields it describes. It may as well have been written by the fictionalized war correspondent who relates the story so vividly. It’s a story of women fighting for their right to work as journalists on the front line, women who held back tears when, as a reader, your eyes are filled with them. Liv and Jane are so real that you want to step into the story and fight alongside them, shielding them not from the war whose story they came to tell, but only from the broken hearts that await them.
- Jonathan Coe‘s narrative in The Rain Before It Falls, flows freely from the tape recordings of a dying woman. Old, ready to die, she describes the scenes and backstories of a succession of twenty photos. She intends that her story, her recording, will reach the ears of a child named Imogen with whom she lost contact many years earlier. The backstories tell of a series of mothers who are emotionally abusive and finally Imogen’s mother who was also physically abusive. The key message, explaining the dying woman’s attachment to Imogen, transcends all else in the story:
“. . . the way your mother grew up feeling unwanted and worthless and incapable of emotion, and all of these things, all of these things that were so wrong, all these unsuitable relationships and bad choices . . . Yes, it was true, none of them should ever have happened, they were all terrible, terrible mistakes, and yet look what they led to. They led to you, Imogen! And when I see Ruth’s portrait of you, it is obvious that you had to exist. There is such a rightness about you. The notion of your not existing, never having been born, seems so palpably wrong to me, so monstrous and unnatural . . . It’s not that your existence corrects all of those mistakes, or undoes them. It doesn’t justify anything. What it means . . . is this: that life only starts to make sense when you realize that sometimes — often — all the time — two completely contradictory ideas can be true.
Everything that led up to you was wrong. Therefore, you should not have been born.
But everything about you is right: you had to be born.
You were inevitable.”
- Gun Love by Jennifer Clement is mesmerizing. As simple and straightforward as a row of buttons on a flannel shirt and as complex and textured as silk brocade. You need read no further than the opening to understand what I mean:
“My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime . . . . Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy . . . And she knew all the love songs that are a university of love.”
Pearl, the narrator, is a fourteen-year-old girl who grew up in the front seat of a ’94 Mercury. Her mother lived in the back seat and had not driven the car since she ran away from home with her infant daughter and parked it on the edge of a trailer park in South Florida.
Shaded in the innocence of the compact world she grew up in, Pearl doesn’t even think of complaining about the putrid garbage dump that encroaches on the border of their trailer park. And she doesn’t know that not everyone lives in a backwater community filled with guns. Her mother’s sweetness has shaped Pearl’s life and it’s all she’s ever needed to be happy.
Yet she is wise beyond her years. Her mother was a talented pianist, impregnated at sixteen by the piano teacher she loved. When, after more than a decade, she’s finally given access to a piano at the local church, her daughter hears her play for the first times and learns that “One music chord can make the world stop.”
She’d grown up listening to her mother hum Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, but listening to it fill the old country church she remarks, “As my mother played, the gloom and beauty of Russian fell like darkness over the state of Florida and turned the Sunshine State into the saddest place on Earth.”
Neither innocent Pearl nor her sweet, sweet mother was meant to be around guns. But the charlatan pastor who lives in the trailer park is a gunrunner who attracts dozens of gun-toting men into their tiny corner of the world. One of them was particularly bad and as Pearl says of her mother — “. . . sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweetness in any crowd . . . My mother opened her mouth in a great wide O and breathed him right into her body.
When inevitable tragedy struck, Pearl’s friend “watched as the walking-the-train-track sadness took me over.”
Gun Love goes beyond rueful commentary on America’s gun culture, it paints a beautiful portrait of innocence and hangs it on the insubstantial walls of a corrupt world.
- Paulo Coelho is one of the world’s most successful living authors. He has has sold over 225 million books! As it has done with me, his message resonates not in the mind, but in the soul. Hippie, like all his stories, tells of a journey. This time it’s Coelho himself taking the ‘Magic Bus’ from Amsterdam to Kathmandu. Vowing that it is factually true, speaks of himself in the third person, allowing him to present not his but his fellow traveler’s spiritual journey as well. For each, the core message is: “. . . never seek to persuade anyone, only follow your destiny without fear — or even filled with fear, but follow your destiny.”
- My alternative title suggestion for Tom Cooper‘s 2015 novel The Marauders might have turned off readers looking for the rollicking treasure-hunt adventure depicted on its cover. I’m pretty sure Cooper’s editors wouldn’t have gone for: ‘Killing the Bayou – Life-Ravaging Realities of the BP Oil Spill’.
The rollicking adventure is there, and well told. The Bayou-born-and-raised characters — from the vicious pot growers, to the lost treasure hunter, to the boy wanting to be a fisherman and to his dad who’s watching it all fail — all are as raw-edged and compelling as the pirates who first commandeered the dense Louisiana Gulf Coast waters as an ideal hiding place.
But, the over-riding theme, as thick as the 210 million gallons of black, gluey oil that spilled out of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, is the catastrophic damage done to every life form that has made those waters their home.
- Bernard Cornwell, with an impressive resumé of historical fiction (including a series on the Napoleonic Wars and a trilogy set in Athurian England), puts his readers directly into the place, the time and the characters of the time period he features. The Archer’s Tale places us in Brittany (NW France) in 1343 just as King Edward III begins what will become the Hundred Years War. Through the hero, Thomas of Hookton, a humble archer, we learn of sieges, of the horrors of plunder and of the deeply entrenched social hierarchy that enshrouds the motives of all of that part of European history. A suspenseful, well-written and deeply researched story.
- Hannah, The German Girl, is twelve years old in 1939 Nazi Germany when her Jewish family is forced to flee. Armando Lucas Correa does a masterful job of telling Hannah’s story from childhood to old age from Hannah’s point-of-view. Her months abroad the SS St. Louis with her parents and a young boy that she still remembers with love and longing at the age of eighty-seven is, she says repeatedly, the best, the happiest and the most hopeful part of her entire life. Many know the shameful true story of the SS St. Louis. Loaded with Jewish passengers, it was denied entry first into Cuba then into the U.S. and Canada. All but a few were forced to return to Europe, half of them ending up in Nazi concentration camps. Correa stayed true to history, using Hannah’s fictionalized life to evoke the empathy the true story demands. She and her mother, but not her father, were allowed to disembark in Havana where they both ended up living their entire lives. In her later years she is reunited with her grandniece named Ana (in honor of Hannah) who co-narrates the story, telling of her own tragic beginning, still in her mother’s womb when her father died in the World Trade Centers.
- James Cowan: A Mapmaker’s Dream — great, inspiring book — see full review in separate blog entitled: ‘A Mapmaker’s Dream’ – under ‘Quest for Enlightenment’ heading.
- “Cunningham follows Barrett, Tyler, Beth and Liz as they travel down decided different paths in their collective search for transcendence,” so reads one of the lines from the dust jacket of Michael Cunningham’s 2014 novel, The Snow Queen. The characters are navigating that time in life when you’re no longer young, but you’re not middle aged yet either. The transcendence they seek is, for all but one of them, a haphazard search for a larger understanding of life and in particular their lives — their close, fluid relationships, their self-destructive habits and the meaning of sex, with or without love and commitment. Cunningham’s prose is original, in part because he uses his empathy for insight rather than judgement.
- Song of a Captive Bird is based on the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, an Iranian poet in the mid 20th Century, a woman brave enough, and naive enough, to live free and write honestly, bucking the precepts of her culture and the restraints of her country. It is a beautiful story, author Jasmin Darznik a superb writer who is able to depict an eye-opening history of Iran and of Iranian women struggling for their freedom.
- Nelson DeMille, author of over twenty novels, knows how to write an adventure story. Mac, the central character of The Cuban Affair, strides through the story with wit and bravado. Ex Army captain with with two tours in Afghanistan, he’s lured into a clandestine plot by, of course, a beautiful woman, a Cuban-American who wants to smuggle her family’s hidden fortune out of Cuba. DeMille keeps the story fresh with surprises, spices it up with hot sex and imminent danger, but also applies historic intrigue — namely, Cuba’s role in torturing U.S. POWs in Vietnam. His take on fresh Cuba/US relations seems insightful. (I was both entertained and educated.)
- Deadwood, by Pete Dexter, is and is not what you’d expect. Chalked full of Old West characters known to frequent the South Dakota gold rush Black Hills town of Deadwood — most notably Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane — Dexter’s story focuses primarily on a man named Charley Utter, known as ‘Colorado Charley’, Hickok’s best friend. Hickok’s murderer, Jane, rude, calamitous and kind, horrible ‘whore men’, a well-meaning preacher, beleaguered young prostitutes, perpetually drunken miners . . . all you’d expect. As the book cover says, “Deadwood is what the West must have been: raw, rude, dirty, hilarious and splendid.” It’s the latter, the ‘splendid’ aspect of Dexter’s writing that takes you by surprise. Cowboy poetry, old fashioned wisdom and deep introspection (by Charley Utter), reach beyond the 1870s to life’s larger mysteries.
- No one is a better example of how inadequate the ‘Sci-Fi’ genre is to encompass many of the authors classified within it. Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (1974) tells of a celebrity in the near future (Dick’s ‘near future’ was late 20th Century, the epilogue takes us to 2017) who wakes up to find that no one knows him, not even his mistress. The police who run the authoritarian government have no records that he ever existed. His lack of identity in a world where all citizens are monitored and all the facts of their lives are compiled in a massive central databank brings him to the attention of the all-powerful police general. Smart and sensitive, the general is also an enigma. The action, suspense and very human, odd, flawed, nuanced characters move the story along at a rapid clip. So much so that I found myself having to slow down or even backtrack to fully grasp Dick’s gems of insight and philosophy. Example (p. 119), after exhausting themselves in bed his lover explains to the ex-celeb, “You can never accomplish what your survival instinct sets out to do, so ultimately your striving ends in failure and you succumb to death, and that ends it. But if you love you can fade out and watch with happiness, and with cool, mellow, alpha contentment, the highest form of contentment, the living on of one of those you love.” In the end, after taking some questionable drugs, known later to alter a person’s grasp of time and space, the celebrity’s identity and fame restored, we’re left wondering what’s real, his identity, or his non-identity. Oddly, it’s the police general’s tears that provide an answer. The entire, mind-bending story is a tribute to an often-quoted explanation. “I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards,” Dick wrote. “In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
- Eric Jerome Dickey made me feel like a black man, well educated and street smart, is candidly telling me a crazy, true story. Bad Men and Wicked Women is filled with violence, sex and honest diatribes about the black experience, in America and in Africa.
- Reading The Dependents, the debut novel of young Katharine Dion, was slow torture. The more I read the more distended the feeling of the exquisite pain/pleasure enigma, the yoyoing yin/yang of feelings that governs aging. No book in recent memory caused such inner turmoil.
When I finished it, I felt compelled to tell Katharine Dion how I felt. I wrote her this note:
Ms. Dion – you ripped my heart out and made me watch it labor page by page. You probed my worst fears, the love of my life gone, the whole of my life in question. Too make it worse, in your youthful soul-diving, you stole my book, the book an old man was meant to write and never got around to.
In the two mornings that I held your book in my hands, my heart twisting from your lashes, I would look up at my beautiful wife, my head shaking with a sense of ‘broken knowledge.’
Thank you, I think, for sharing the wisdom that seems far beyond your years.
- Roddy Doyle is a very amusing Irish author. If his description of modern Ireland is true, the Irish love to say ‘fuck’, often many times in a row — ‘fuck, fuckity, fuck, fuck fuck’ — and endearingly, ‘I fuckin’ luv ‘ya, for fuck’s sake.’ Although the central theme is quite serious — a middle class, middle aged man facing a cancer scare — it is largely, a funny fuckin’ book, and a bit endearing. I truly fuckin’ enjoyed it.
- Andre Dubus III does not write simple tales. He is the unique brand of literary writer who makes you believe in character and plot so deeply that you find your ‘world angst’ level creeping up a notch further with every page. The Garden of Last Days starts off with a Florida stripper hoping for a good night at work and escalates into terrorism and world intrigue.
- Jennifer Egan writes with such surety, such detail and depth about 1930s and 1940s America that it would be easy to believe that she lived in those times, or that part of her writer’s soul is a reincarnation of Carl Sandburg.* The NYC waterfront, Manhattan Beach in particular, comes to life, not with just a sense of what it looked like or its historic service to U.S. Naval ships, but how it felt to be a 20-year-old woman working within it.
Anna — one of the thousands of women liberated into men’s jobs during WWII — embraces her own transformation, as a diver repairing ships below their waterline, as an independent woman and a fearless lover. But, while we’re drawing into her story, rooting for her at every turn, Egan broadens Anna’s story with that of her eventually lover, Dexter, the gangster with a heart, and that of her father, the man who abandoned his family to save them and who becomes a hero among his fellow merchant marines cast adrift in the Atlantic after a Nazi attack.
Manhattan Beach is epic historical fiction at its best.
A standout line: “It’s a pity we’re forced to make the choices that govern the whole of our lives when we’re so goddamn young.”
*Some elements of WWII America that Egan captures so well reminded me of Sandburg’s treatment of the same time period in Remembrance Rock.
- The Parade, by Dave Eggers, is a powerful, well-told parable in the form of a short, concise novel (179 pages). Two men are hired to pave a road connecting two halves of a country that has just achieved peace after a long civil war. They are polar opposites, one gregarious, fascinated by the local people, one all business obsessed with staying on schedule. The one thing they have in common is their belief in how good this road will be for the struggling citizens of this unnamed country. While the story focuses on the challenges the two men face along their new highway, the sense that something is terribly wrong with the country and its enigmatic leaders lingers alongside it. Reaching the end of it, my mind strayed to the lyrics of ‘One Tin Soldier’ –
There won’t be any trumpets blowing
Come the judgment day,
On the bloody morning after
One tin soldier rides away.
- Louise Erdrich drilled down to the core of her sensual, sensational, tragedy-touched writer-self when she wrote her 2010 novel, Shadow Tag. Irene America keeps two diaries. She keeps the red one in her home office hidden in a place where she knows her husband, Gil, will find it and read such passages as ‘None of the children have one molecule in common with Gil.’ Learning that the foundation of Gils success as an artist is a series of paintings called ‘America’ featuring his beautiful wife in a variety of poses, many nudes include some that female critics claim were demeaning to the model, we keep expecting Irene to reveal the truth to us in her second diary. She writes in her blue diary regularly while ensconced in a small cubicle in a bank, next to the safe-deposit box where she keeps it. What adds a very tender touch to the narrative is that we also watch the parents’ intense relationship moving closer day-by-day to the breaking point through the eyes of their four children. We fall in love with all four of them, wanting the story to turn out well for them. I will let you discover their plight as you read the book. I’ll let you wait as well for what is revealed, or not, in the blue diary.
- Three hundred eleven pages but just one inch thick, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008) bursts its covers with its intricately woven storyline, its sweeping timeline, life to life from the founding of tiny Pluto, North Dakota to its present day demise, replete with rich depictions of remarkable, everyday people. Erdrich wastes not a single word explaining why and how these lives flow together, she let’s us absorb their meaning as though we are eavesdropping on one intimate conversation after another. The banker explains how the idea of having his own wife kidnapped occurred to him quite naturally while his lover’s brother held him a gunpoint. After a brutal winter spent trying to claim the land that would become Pluto, the young survivor returns to Minnesota, buys a suit and decides to become a lawyer, naturally. The young mother turned snake handler seduces her crazed Pentecostal husband, fucks him to exhaustion, plunges a needle full of snake venom into his heart then, as her planned reward, takes her children into town for a big breakfast. The sweet violin playing of mixed Chippewa, Cree and French men enrapture and sustain one generation to the next. Secret lovers, acid trips turned into insanity and redemption, old men whetting the imagination of children with half-told, half-real stories of murders and hangings, until on page three hundred and eleven it all settles into a perfectly aligned patchwork of the lives that made up a town named Pluto. An elderly doctor discovers the identity of the man who murdered her family when she was a baby and celebrates the day she saved his life, bemoaning only the loss of her little hometown: “The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.” Adding, “Oh my, too apocalyptic . . .”
- Louise Erdrich‘s venture into a dystopian future, Future Home of the Living God features a silvery blue sonogram image on its cover. Blurred as all sonograms are it’s clear that an embryo lies within. Human genetics are devolving. Healthy babies are scarce and, therefore, sacred. A pregnant your woman named Cedar becomes a fugitive rather than risk losing her baby to the government-run hospitals. Finding refuge with the Ojibwe family that had put her up for adoption Cedar searches for a possible future with her child while uncovering the mysteries of her past.
While Erdrich’s Ojibwe roots are part of the backdrop to this story, she blends her Native beliefs with liberal Catholicism, referencing Hans Küng and Rudolf Steiner, exploring the connection between spirituality and science & nature. “Everything is penetrated with connectiveness, penetrated with relatedness,” she writes. True to the bookjacket’s declaration, this is indeed ‘a moving meditation on female agency, love, self-determination, biology and natural rights.’
- Louise Erdrich‘s writing cannot be separated from her Ojibwe roots, any more than Alexandre Dumas’ stories can be liberated from their context in 19th Century France. And, so it is that The Painted Drum becomes Ojibwe as it unfolds. It opens with an intriguing story told by Faye Travers, a single middle aged woman living with her mother in New Hampshire, her satisfaction with her daily routines and work as an estate liquidation manager piqued by her unsettling love interest in a neighbor struggling with the recent loss of his teenage daughter. She is proud of her ancestry but not drawn to it until a fateful discovery. When she becomes enthralled with a old Ojibwe drum she finds at the rambling house of a recently deceased old miser, the entire story shifts from Faye to the drum.
We learn of the generations of an extended Ojibwe family who secured the wood and honored it for a generation before the next generation carved it and adorned it, always staying true to the old sacred ways. We learn of the drum’s power to save and its power to kill. Through it all we gain a deeper understanding of the Ojibwe way of life, past and present.
It is not until the final twenty pages when the story returns to Faye Travers that we understand how the painted drum reunited her with her people, how it helped her understand the mystery of existence — “And when it happens to you that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”
The Painted Drum is many stories unified by Ojibwe wisdom and by the eloquence of the one named Louise Erdrich.
- The Marriage Plot (2011) by Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides. The book jacket blurb asks, “Are the great love stories of the 19th Century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?” The Marriage Plot is both more – it is a vital exploration of the ravages of mental illness – and less – Madeleine, a college student in the early 1980s, is as spoiled and self-absorbed as she is in love. Eugenides’ writing and wit make it worth reading.
- Siobhan Fallon moved to Jordan in 2011 and currently lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Confusion of Languages is an engaging mystery well informed by the author’s Middle Eastern experience. At its heart it’s a book about friendship. Two young women in Jordan, their husbands both stationed at the U.S. Embassy, bond within the small world of U.S. citizens. Each tests the other’s loyalty, secrets withheld, their revelations providing the pace of the mystery.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night in the early 1930s, when he was in the darkest years of his life. It was to be his final novel. It’s painful to read. Barely disguised in the characters of Dick Diver and his mentally unstable wife, Nicole, Fitzgerald is writing about he and his wife, Zelda. She was in and out of mental health institutions while he made a rapid descent into alcoholism. Though it contains deep introspective probes into human relationships and the nature of post-WWI life in Europe, for me it was redolent of white, wealthy entitlement. It reeked of self-pity and over-indulgence.
But, it was impossible not to be taken with Fitzgerald’s prose. My favorite paragraph concerns Dick Diver’s young movie star lover: “Rosemary opened her door full of emotions no one else knew of. She was now what is sometimes called ‘a little wild thing’ — by twenty-four full hours she was not yet unified and she was absorbed in playing around with chaos; as if her destiny were a picture puzzle-counting benefits, counting hopes, telling off Dick, Nicole, her mother, the director she met yesterday, like stops on a string of beads.
- Martin Fletcher is a Middle East Correspondent for NBC News. He’s also written a number of books — both non-fictionsand fiction, including ‘The List’ (not the one made into the award winning film). He won the National Jewish Book Award. I present this bit of bio on him because I’m not sure what to thinK of his 2013 novel, Jacob’s Oath.
The story is set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, an aftermath that for the Jewish people who survived Nazi genocide is an almost unimaginable return to . . .? And that is the question Fletcher poses — to what? Nothing left of their homes, little of nothing left of their families while the very Germans, who either persecuted them or who stood by and watched, eagerly return to their pre-war lives, now with very few Jews left among them.
Jacob, who survived the Bergen-Belsen death camp, seeks revenge. Sarah, who survived by hiding for years in Berlin, seeks healing and love. Reading about the horrific experiences of Holocaust survivors is, and should be, deeply unsettling. At times I felt Fletcher insisted on too much graphic detail and at other times skipped too easily away from it as he pursued a story of love and redemption — but my critique is meaningless when considering what is most paramount: this story and the millions like it must keep being told.
- Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen is a rambling novel — the good kind — diving deep into the intersecting lives of people in cold war East Germany and 60s era New York entwining the key characters and their progeny on up into modern times. Rather than summarizing the plot, here are a few excerpts to tantalize:
> The young East German risk-taker who will achieve Julian Assage level notoriety as an internet leaker, confronts his Stasi-supporting mother, “I bet you’re rethinking your decision not to abort me, right around now. It turns out to be so much more painful to wait twenty years for me to do it myself.”
> The free-spirited young woman at the center of the mystery that binds the characters: “There’s no such thing as eternal life, because you’re never going to outrun time, but you can still escape time if you’re contented, because then time doesn’t matter.”
> Franzen asserts that the internet has become the new worldwide ‘Regime.’ “Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete.”
- Nightwoods is a work of art. That what Charles Frazier does. He did so with Cold Mountain and again with Thirteen Moons. If I had known nothing of his work I would have become a Frazier fan by the middle of Chapter One: “The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in the shades of olive until they became lost in the pale gray sky.” Without forced words or beckoning enticements Frazier lets readers fall in love with Luce. Living alone on the edge of the deep Appalachian woods, letting nature and time heal the woods of family abandonment and an unprosecuted rape, Luce suddenly inherits the young children of her murdered sister. As she relearns the art of love and care a romantic wander named Stubblefield, the new owner of her rural lodge, stumbles into her life with such affability that we hold out hope for their happiness even as the sister’s murderer begins to stalk them. Nightwoods is the rare combination of beautiful literature created around a taut, suspense-filled storyline.
- Carlos Fuentes – Inez – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Dark Star (1991) by Alan Furst. The New York Times got it right, Dark Star is a “rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story.” And it is much more. In 1938 a Russian journalist writing for the Communist Party’s new formed Pravda is turned into a spy. Fluent in German, French, English and, of course, Russian, he also has the perfect cover to move about Europe and channel Nazi secrets back to his Russian handlers. He is caught in the middle of the German invasion of Poland and caught up with two young German women opposed to Hitler. He writes articles helping Stalin maintain the fiction that he is Hitler’s ally. André Szara is in as deep as any WWII intelligence operative you’ve ever read about and he does not expect to make it out alive. He is also a Jew.
- Spies of the Balkans (2010) — Alan Furst has the unique ability to transports us through time. He adopts the idioms, the attitudes and the history of a bygone time and let’s you believe you are there. In this case, we’re in 1940 Greece. The Nazis, aligned with Mussolini’s Italy, has invaded France, Belgium, Norway, Luxembourg and the Netherlands and are making their way into the Balkan states, headed for Greece. Everyone is anxious and impatient for America to join the fight. Furst’s story follows the life of a senior police official in Solinka, Greece. Constantine Zannis is a good man called upon to ‘do what must be done’ including assisting Jews escaping Germany and acting on behalf of British spies. As German forces cross into Greece, he must balance commitment to his country with his duty to protect his family and with his passionate love for a beautiful young woman who is married to a Greek tycoon. Furst manages to make the tale very real and yet charged with nobility and romance. He is a consummate historical novelist.
- The Lady Matador’s Hotel (2010) by Cristina Garcia has an alluring book cover – one obviously take from the opening lines of the novel, “The lady matador stands naked before the armoire mirror and unrolls her long pink stockings.” In town (an unnamed Central American capital) for an all-female bullfight competition the lady matador’s story intertwines, chapter by chapter, with the stories of a diverse set of characters staying at the same hotel: a Korean expatriate managing a family garment factory who is intent on suicide, a conference of South American generals, an ex-rebel waitress plotting to kill one of the generals, a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a child and a manipulative, ball-busting adoption lawyer. Garcia writes like an intuitive, experienced mixologist. The final cocktail she pours is quite stimulating going down and leaves the reader admiring the panache of its creator.
- The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George:
For two decades Monsieur Perdu has thrown himself into books, not just selling them from his barge on the Seine, but endeavoring to understand them so well that he’s become a master of picking the right book for each customer. This means, of course, that Perdu has also become a very good listener, so good that some might say he reads people almost as well as he understands books.
It’s not unusual for Perdu to snatch a book from a customer’s hands and refuse to sell it to them, steering them instead to the types of books he knows they need. “Books are like people,” he says, “And people are like books. I’ll tell you how I go about it. I ask myself: Is he or she the main character in his or her life? What is her motive? Or is she a secondary character in her own tale?”
But, why is he so alone? That’s the question surrounding this extraordinarily perceptive Frenchman. Then, one day a newly divorced woman, a woman cruelly abandoned by her husband, moves into an apartment down the hall. When their mutual attraction blossoms into a night of love it spurs Purdue into a quest he’d delayed for two decades.
The next day he cuts his barge loose from its moorings and starts traveling the rivers of France seeking answers to the letter he’d opened the night before. He’s stubbornly left it unopened for two decades until his new lover urged him to face it. It is, of course, the final letter from the love of his life whom he thought had rejected him. Instead she had written that she was dying.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, is a wonderfully surprising story about love.
Hurry Sundown by K.B. Gilden:
1947 Georgia, Reeve Scott, just back from the war ready to take over the family farm, anticipating the indignities he will suffer, the indignities all black men will suffer, making their way to the county courthouse on tax day, rails at his mamma’s pleas, “Don’t hate, son.”
- “I been rebuked and I been scorned. I been abused and I been stomped. I been flogged and burned and hanged and shot. I had my eyes gouged out and my guts kicked in and my hands chapped off and my sex passed around for a souvenir. My women been raped from the Congo to the Mississippi, my children been slandered and slapped down and set upon and spit at. I been blow up, chased out, jailed in, chained down, enslaved and robbed. And still I’m supposed to love the white man.”
Hurry Sundown by K.B. Gilden is more than just a post-WWII deep dive into race relations in the south. It is at turns gritty, sorrowful and maddening, but it aims for a higher understanding as well, “In the primal element and anodyne of earth, the the confluence of tears, in the weeping for the beginning that is gone and the end is not yet, all less concerns were washed away.”
It’s no surprise that after its publication in 1964 Otto Preminger bought the rights and turned it into a blockbuster movie starring Jane Fonda, Michael Caine, Diahann Carroll, Faye Dunaway and Burgess Meredith. The complexity of characters and plot of the 537 page Volume One of ‘Hurry Sundown’ made me look immediately for Volume Two.
- Critics describe The Steady Running of the Hour (2014), Justin Go’s debut novel, as a historical tour de force. They’re right. But, what kept me engrossed, making me pace myself so that the 466-page novel lasted two days, was the love story. One of the most touching and one of the saddest love stories I’ve ever read, The Steady Running of the Hour, explores the very meaning of love and its relevance in the pantheon of mankind’s’ beliefs. As a 21st Century young man seeks out the conclusion to his ancestors’ love affair nearly a century earlier, he himself falls in love. Following the research of young Tristan, who is due to inherit millions if he can prove that he descends from the love child of an early 20th Century English couple, we’re plunged into the horror of WWI trench warfare and pulled to the heights of Mt. Everest where his great grandfather died. Go tells two parallel stories, one from the point-of-view of the great climber and WWI vet, Ashley Walsingham and his lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson, and one from the point-of-view of Tristan as he unravels their lives through forgotten love letters and clues scattered across France, Germany, Sweden and Iceland a century earlier. It is a sweeping, wonderfully paced novel richly appointed with life’s everyday details that render a century of human history into delicious bite-sized morsels.
- I knew nothing of Gail Godwin when I started reading Evensong. When I’d finished, without even referencing her bio, I knew her to be old enough to have experienced a great deal of life and sensitive enough to have absorbed a deep understanding of it. Evensong is a heartfelt and straightforward story of a newly ordained female Episcopalian pastor. Wrestling with her own religious history, an uncertain marriage and her won deeply held beliefs, Margaret Bonner is the spiritual leader we all wish we had. She is perceptive, non-judgemental, warm, generous and supportive to everyone charged to her care. And because she’s telling her own story we’re treated to glimpses of her deeper soul, her intimate joys, her misgivings, and her hopes — in other words, her inner life. I have no doubt that Godwin is as complex and compelling as the characters she creates.
- To the End of the Land, a novel by David Grossman. Beautifully written, it gave me the greatest insight I’ve ever had into the lives of Israeli families, especially the generations of people born into the Israeli lifestyle.
Just before the welcome relief of her son completing his required military service, a fifty-year-old Israeli mother learns that he volunteered to go back to the front line. She decides that she will not stay home and wait for bad news, she will not let the bearers of bad news fulfill their mission. She escapes to the trails around Galilee, literally kidnapping her old friend and lover, the father of her son, to go with her. In a series of intimate dialogue and flashbacks she reveals the details of her life, describing her son to the father than never knew him.
Grossman writes a very honest account, neither pro-military, nor anti-Arab, his characters speak of their yearning for peace, their sympathies for the people they have displaced and of course, their lifelong fear of attacks, or personal losses. The Galilee trail is marked with memorials for soldiers. They mourn and question their own patriotism at the same time. In the end we learn that the writer himself lost his son in a military campaign while he was writing the book.
As an American, it was hard for me to imagine the realities of life in Israel. My eyes are now at least partway open. To the End of the Land is a big 650-page novel that is well worth the time.
- Images of love and death, woven together as fantasy, memories and wishes, The Glassblower’s Breath by Sunetra Gupta offers up one day in the life of well-heeled, well-traveled woman living in London. Gupta’s prose is dense. The first sentence in the book is 101 words long. Though the web of images she weaves require supreme concentration the effort is made worthwhile by gems such as this:
“You have come a long way, my love, a long way from home, you found your way into a houseful of mirrors that each tell your tale, but none as well as you might have, if you had looked within, instead of among your myriad reflections, for the shape of your destiny. For mirrors have their own memories, my love, old shadows that fill new outlines.”
Married to a man she respects but does not love, the heroine of The Glassblower’s Breath — referred to throughout as ‘you’ — reminisces about past loves while trying to kindle the same spark with a stranger. Be warned of the ending, the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker and a husband feeling suddenly betrayed.
- No one writes like David Guterson. Nor should anyone try. His principal characters in Our Lady of the Forest (2004) reveal themselves in runaway rumination, page-long paragraphs that flow from personal histories to confessions of weakness and doubt about their actions and motives in the present. Ann is a sexually abused sixteen-year-old runaway hiding out in a Washington campground. While picking mushrooms in the forest surrounding a dying lumber town, she falls into a rapturous vision of the Virgin Mary. Her cynical camp neighbor Caroline manages her sudden popularity, siphoning off donation money while acutely slicing and dicing the motives of everyone involved. The town’s new young Catholic priest struggles as much with his unrequited sexual attraction to Ann as with his desire to believe in her apparition. And, Tom a former logger full of hate, feeling deep guilt over the logging accident that paralyzed his son, lives on the edge of it all, disgusted with his hope for a miracle for his son. As we run through the minds and hearts of each character we too start hoping for a miracle.
- Rosa Guy – The Sun, The Sea, A Touch of the Wind – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Mohsin Hamid‘s spare, fluid style is hypnotic. It’s not just the cadence of his lines and the pull of the story in Exit West, but the way it flows into bits of wisdom that you hope to cherish and nurture long after finishing the book — “and when she went out it seemed that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants.”
The genius of Exit West is as much what Hamid doesn’t say as what he does. We meet two young souls, Nadia and Saeed, just before the crisis in their country forces them to migrate. We never learn what country they are from, nor should we, because their journey is that of all migrants — a fragile existence in lands where they are never entirely welcome. The very tentativeness of their existence reveals for all us, as Hamid says, “the temporary nature of our being-ness.”
“. . . we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being.” Mohsin Hamid’s unique voice is like that of a stranger you’ve invited to your house, so very exotic and yet so hauntingly familiar.
- Jim Harrison’s The Big Seven – published in 2015, his last (he died a few months ago). The Big Seven is a follow-up book to Harrison’s 2011 novel, The Great Leader. Sunderson, the veteran U.P. cop is now retired and divorced. Fishing the streams and rivers around Marquette mellows him but the rest of the time he drinks too much, has frequent sexual encounters with inappropriately young women, gets embroiled in the lives of a large, habitually violent, drunken family inhabiting three houses and the vast wooded acreage that surround his newly acquired fishing cabin. As with all his novels, Harrison contemplates life through his characters. Sunderson’s reoccurring train of thought is on the Seven Deadly Sins. He explores his level of guilt with each, pride, greed, envy, lechery, gluttony, anger and laziness, finding that he would like to make a case for an eighth, violence. His harshest self-judgment is about the greatest failure in his life, screwing up his marriage to the woman he still dearly loves. I will dearly miss Harrison. He is so painfully, beautifully honest, his prose so smooth and natural – and all his writing seems to relate directly to my own life. His disgust with American’s deplorable history of violence, particularly to its natives, his flawed characters that I can’t help identifying with, his peerless insights into human behavior, and in his last work, his restlessness in retirement, his voice is closest to what I imagine mine to be, if I could develop it.
- Finished reading Imagine Me Gone by Adam Hanslett on a weekend walkabout. Sat outside a small museum. Though the bench was hard, the dappling shade, cool breeze and warm sunshine were a perfect offset to a somewhat grim story. A father suffering years of depression commits suicide leaving three teen children and their mother to grapple with it. Two grow up capable but distrusting of love. One – the ‘sensitive one’ — who foresaw his father’s death suffers endlessly with anxiety & depression, downing a cavalcade of prescribed mood stabilizers. (Oddly, the chapters narrated by him, are the most entertaining.) The family cannot save him and all seem enslaved to a predestined fate, standing over the graves of first the father and then the son. It struck me that I pushed on through the book with the same grim determination of the book’s characters and, like them, knowing it wouldn’t end well. The last scene, the mom remembering the evening she met her future husband in England says simply, “It’s a day I recall not in sadness but in wonder at all that followed.” Wonder?
In the midst of Monterey Bay, author Lindsay Hatton delivers these splendid lines, evoking the voice of John Steinbeck himself (reprimanding his friend Ed Ricketts) —
- “When you’ve collected every little creature from the Sea of Cortez to Alaska, when you’ve fucked everything in lipstick and a Catholic school uniform, when all your jars are finally categorized and cross-referenced and organized to some lunatics version of order, when that damn essay has been revised and rewritten for the one-millionth time, do you honestly think you’ll be any better off? Any wiser? Sure, you’ll know the ocean inside and out, but people will still be a mystery, and there’s nothing in this world more tragic than that.”
This story is not, however, about John Steinbeck. Hatton’s accomplishment is her ingenious use of Steinbeck and his associates as characters in a story about a young woman’s coming of age on Cannery Row. Margot Fiske, Lindsay Hatton’s imagined hero in Monterey Bay, a 2016 novel unfolding in the 1940’s, felt plenty of pain. She’s 15 and in love with Ed Ricketts, a brilliant, charismatic genius/amateur marine biologist made famous by John Steinbeck as Doc in Cannery Row. She is smart and a talented sketch artist, made savvy beyond her years by her world-trotting entrepreneurial father. She is not a crier.
Margot, who lives on to establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium, something for which both Ricketts and her father would have been very proud, loves but never possesses the love of her life. When she’s a young woman they are already both dead. Yet her story transcends the sadness.
- If you’ve read Girl on the Train, you know how proficient Paula Hawkins is at reaching into the dark possibilities of our soul. Into the Water snatches at suicide, stares headlong into murderous impulses, explores sibling jealousy and fucked-up parents, shatters commonplace trust in community and centers it all around a place called ‘The Drowning Pool’. The ugly legend of the place 17th Century women suspected of witchery were disposed of reasserts itself in the 21st Century. A generation’s worth of mysterious drownings in this small community in the English countryside resurface as the body of the woman who’s been writing about it is found face down one morning in the cold waters that have already claimed so many lives.
- A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin Alessandro, an old Italian WWI veteran, spends two days and nights walking with young, naïve Nicolo across the countryside east of Rome. Theirs is an accidental meeting, the old man, having tried to get the train to stop for the young man, is kicked off for his troubles. What unfolds seems predestined. Nicolo is an open book. Allessandro, a retired professor of aesthetics, ready to tell his life’s story.
When Italy joined with the Allied Powers in 1915, Allessandro joined the Navy, dreading the idea of the army’s trench warfare. Apt to his descriptions of war’s irony and chaos, he ends up in the trenches of Northern Italy. And by the middle of this 800-page tome you wonder if you, as a reader, will survive the horror, heartbreak and loss. Allessandro’s story is not an endless diatribe of the mud-filled, rat-infested troughs of dead bodies that are the trenches or the explosions of flesh and blood that happen daily and for months on end. But, it is war, on and on in all its horrible forms. He and his surviving friends are sent to Sicily to track down deserters – more death and deprivation – but are forced to join the deserters. They are caught and put in front of a firing squad. Allessandro gets a sudden reprieve but begs to die with his friends. Then, back in the Alps, he watches from his high altitude observation post as his childhood friend dies on the other side of the valley. He meets the love of his life in a hospital, looses her, spends years finding her, discovering as well the son he didn’t know he had whom he cherishes. He cannot talk his son out of joining the army at the beginning of WWII. War defeats him again and again.
At the end of Allessandro’s life story the young Nicolo says, “Signore, this my seem funny, but I want to do something for all the people in the time of which you spoke. I want to very much, but I can’t, can I.”
To which Allessandro replies, “But you can. It’s simple. You can do something just, and this is to remember them. Remember them. To think of them in their flesh, not as abstractions. To make no generalizations of war or peace that override their souls. To draw no lessons of history on their behalf. Theirs history is over. remember them, just remember them – in their millions – for they were not history, they were only men, women, and children. Recall them, if you can, with affection, and recall them, if you can with love. that is all you need to do in regard to them. and all they ask.” By immersing us in it, Helprin transcends the horrors of war with the admonition that we must never forget.
- Mark Helprin knows his way around an adjective, can smoothly wend his way through multi-claused sentences and is capable of turning a legendary film star into a simile. Describing the opulent offices of a Wall Street investor, he writes: “Almost blinded by the silver-blue harbor mist through which ferries were sweeping at remarkable speed, Harry supposed that the South American part was the result of the luxury, the color and the airy view, with the coup de grace supplied by Art Deco elevator fixtures that, quite mysteriously, looked like Carmen Miranda.”
In Sunlight and in Shadow attests to his writing prowess but makes you wonder if Helprin also has the power to override his editors. At 705 pages, this elaborate post-WWII love story is as over-written as any novel I’ve ever read. Even being the romantic soul that I am, I bristle at over-wrought lines such as — “He wanted to listen to her history, to know her microscopically and also from afar, to see her and also to see through the eyes that now held him in thrall.”
Worse, Helprin establishes a gripping plot — a WWII hero taking on the New York mafia to save his family business — but goes on so many tangents, twenty or thirty pages at a time, that you spend chapters longing for just one more plot-driven sentence. But, just in case, you have a weakness for romantically charged ultra-marathons, I won’t even hint at the ending —- except to say that I hated it.
- The Nix, Nathan Hill’s 2016 release, has it all, everything that defines a great American novel. Hill’s keen insights into the American way of life, his grasp of history, his complex unfolding of wonderfully flawed characters — mostly loveable, a few hateable and a couple as inescapably annoying as a hangnail –- the layered plots, the well-played mysteries all add up to a 625 page work of mastery that justifiably took Hill ten years to write.
Early in the novel, laying the groundwork for the mystifiying relationship between young Samuel and his mother Faye, Hill turns a simple mother-and-son trip to the mall into an acute dissection of American materialism:
“They navigated out of the subdivision, onto the wider arterial road that looked like any arterial road in any American suburb: a franchise hall of mirrors. This is what you get in the suburbs, his mother said, the satisfaction of small desires. The getting of things you didn’t even know you wanted . . . a McDonald’s slightly closer than the other McDonald’s. A McDonald’s next door to a Burger King, across the street from a Hardee’s, in the same lot as a Steak ‘n Shake and a Bonanza and a Ponderosa all-you-can-eat smorgasbord thing. . . .What you get, in other words, is choice. . . Or, rather the illusion of choice.”
Samuel’s life goals, including his pursuit of love, are stalled by his desperate desire to understand why his mother disappeared from his life when he was still a child. Her rejection of suburbia is part of the key. “Samuel only know that his mother had lost the struggle, and she sneered at all the symbols of her defeat – their big tan garage door, their patio deck, their bourgeois barbecue grill, their long secluded block brimming with happy, safe, bechildrened white people.”
He narrows his search to Faye’s experiences during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A naive college student at the time, she is unknowingly surrounded by the characters that turned the convention into a legendary urban riot – a crooked cop who leads his fellow Chicago cops in beating protestors, a charming and unscrupulous left wing agitator and a wild feminist who befriends her. Samuel finally makes the connection, helping him understand not just her past, but the way in which these characters continued to be pivotal in Faye’s life choices.While her son untangles her past, Faye grapples with the Norwegian ghost – known as ‘the nix’ that has haunted her since childhood, the haunting she inherited from her father. Only a supremely adept writer like Nathan Hill can tie a folktale legend into a poignant metaphor for the world’s disillusionment with reality:
“What’s true? What’s false? In case you haven’t noticed, the world has pretty much given up on the old Enlightenment idea of piecing together the truth based on observed data. Reality is too complicated and scary for that. Instead, it’s way easier to ignore all date that doesn’t fit your preconceptions and believe all date that does. I believe what I believe, and you believe what you believe, and we’ll all agree to disagree. It’s liberal tolerance meets dark ages denialism. It’s very hip right now.”
- As the inside cover puts it, Juliet, Naked is a powerfully engrossing, humblingly humorous novel about music, love, loneliness, and the struggle to live up to one’s promises. Nick Hornby evokes the beauty and simplicity of the little seaside town in England, regales us with rock n’ roll legends and the U.S. West Coast scene while making us laugh with his characters.
- Cool Runnings, a 1984 novel by Richard Hoyt, is the quirkiest spy novel I’ve ever read. Hoyt seems a cross between Ian Fleming and Hunter S. Thompson. The main character, Jim Quint, is himself a quirky spy novelist (his ‘James Bond’ is named Humper Staab) and freelance journalist recruited by the CIA and French Intelligence to help stop the delivery and explosion of a nuclear bomb to New York City. The title comes from my favorite part of the book, Quint in Jamaica recruiting ganja-growing Rastafarians to his cause; I love the Rasta spiced dialogue, ‘irie, cool runnings, mon’. Hoyt dances masterfully on the fine line between too much funk and wit and credible suspense.
- Vanessa Hua‘s debut novel, A River of Stars is not a story you’ve ever read before. NOTE: I reviewed it on my home page — find it under the ‘Novels’ section.
- Joe Jackson: Black Elk — exceptional biography of Oglala holy man and healer, Black Elk. SEE ‘Black Elk’ article – under ‘Native American Justice’ heading.
- Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist, born in Haifa. She is Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. Miral (2010), her first attempt at a novel, often reads like an in-depth news story. The facts, dates, political policies and history of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle are clearly presented as basis for the story of the woman named ‘Miral’ whose story is much like that of the author. Raised in the famous Dar El-Tifel orphanage in Jerusalem with her sister, Rania (Jebreal used her real sister’s name in the story), Miral comes of age in the midst of Palestinian uprisings, witnessing the brute force of the Israeli army used routinely with protesters, befriending an Israeli girl while falling in love with a PLO leader. The outrage you might expect from the author is balanced with the open compassion she shows for the struggle of the Hebrews. The dedication at the front of her book announces her point-of-view: “To Julian. And to all Israelis and Palestinians who still believe peace is possible.” (Julian Schnabel, an American-Jewish artist was her lover during the time she penned Miral.) It is an eye-opening book, both painful and uplifting.
- N.K. Jemisin – the first black female author to win the Hugo Award for The Fifth Season in 2016, won again for The Obelisk Gate in 2017. She’s expected to win again for the third volume of the ‘The Broken Earth’ trilogy, The Stone Sky.
Her writing, crisp, fluid, original builds momentum chapter by chapter and the world she builds rivals ‘Dune’ in depth, detail and intrigue. The metaphor of an angry earth — “Father Earth is angry and he hates humans” — is poignant and her development of the millenial-long plot that led to a moonless earth trying regularly to wipe-out humans is fathoms deep.
One of the concluding lessons: “Remember, too, that the Earth does not fully understand us. It looks upon human beings and sees short-lived, fragile creatures, puzzlingly detached in substance and awareness from the planet on which their lives depend, who do not understand the harm they tried to do – perhaps because they are so short-lived and fragile and detached.”
For any fan of Sci-Fi/Fantasy this is a MUST READ:
- Not an act of God, but Act of God, a 1937 novel by F. Tennyson Jesse, reconfirmed my faith. My faith in old books and unknown authors.
First, there was the story. It was a slow build, like a long single-camera shot that slowly draws nearer to the subject, reminiscent of classic black & white films of that same era. Jesse describes a small village and port along the French Riviera. Key characters like the village priest, its mayor and the English ex-pats living at the small resort hotel are all described relative to their relationship to a retired middle-aged colonel who lives on his yacht.
Just under one hundred pages into it, the story blossoms into a profound saga that matches religious faith against the power of one man’s goodwill. A beautiful and serene setting, more and more tourists have begun to arrive at Vieux Faxinet, not for its Mediterranean climate, but because seven years earlier two shepherd children were visited by a mysterious, beautifully robed lady, recently confirmed by the Catholic Church as the Virgin Mary. When the colonel, an avowed atheist, discovers the truth of the ‘miracle’ – a woman he knows who posed as Mary on an egoistic whim — he does everything in is power to stop the truth from being known.
The humble, truehearted village priest has become the colonel’s best friend. Though he’d been skeptical at first about the shepherd’s story, once the church embraced it as a miracle, the Curé had begun leading daily processions of ‘the faithful’ to the mountain shrine. The colonel knows that the truth won’t just disappoint his friend, but lead him to the brink, a loss of faith he might never recover from.
The colonel believes in the world’s beauty that “lies in transience and in change. It is because night is coming that the day is so bright; it is because the leaf must fall that is shrill green pierces the heart.” The discussions he has with the Curé are as profound as any I’ve ever read about good and evil, religion and the long trajectory of human history.
He asks, “In the history of the world, what is the life of the Church? In the tale of the universe what is that of the world itself? And even in the few thousand years of what is called civilization what is the worth of this particular one? What is the value of one generation, let alone the individual?”Once I’d finished this brilliant book, I found even more to make me treasure it:
As with many female writers of that era, F. Tennyson Jesse didn’t advertise her gender. Fryniwyd primarily used her first initial because books by women didn’t sell well (or so she was told by her publishers). She published a dozen novels and short story collections, wrote a criminology textbook and, as a journalist, covered WWI for Collier’s magazine. She was the great niece of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
- My first edition copy of Act of God (purchased for $2 at a used bookstore) has a bookplate on the inside of the front cover. This book had been part of the vast collection of the acclaimed Hollywood director, George Cukor. Replaced as director of Gone with the Wind, he went on to win the 1964 Academy Award for Best Director for My Fair Lady. He also directed the 1954 version of A Star is Born with Judy Garland, The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn and three dozen other box office hits. He was also one of the first openly gay directors in Hollywood.
- Published in 1978 Lying Low is one of Diane Johnson‘s earliest works. Best known for Le Divorce and the sequels to it, Johnson tells the story of a young woman hiding away in a suburb on the edge of Sacramento. She rents a room under an alias in a big Victorian house where her presence defines the fate of the other people that live there, a middle-aged brother and sister and a Brazilian immigrant struggling to understand American culture. The woman, whose real name is Marybeth, has been on the run for nearly a decade, after participating in an anti-war bombing of a napalm laboratory. When a young man from her home town recognizes her one day, her panic turns into a deep dive into the nature of fate. She was meant to be discovered by, and to fall in love with this man, to come clean with her roommates and when they all come to her defense, the only question left is whether she is meant to turn herself in. It’s a very 70s story, few of the characters fitting any norm, all of them struggling with an inner need for relevance.
- James Jones’ From Here to Eternity is not a love story. Neither is it a war story or a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is the story of American men and women looking for meaning in an America that is shedding its old moral codes. Prew, trying to understand his own discontent and anger, the root cause of his imprisonment in the Army stockade, wonders, “This system here in this country was the best system the world had ever produced, wasn’t it? . . . He felt if he did not find somebody to blame pretty soon he would hate everybody.”
Men like Prew called themselves ‘thirty-year men’, wedding themselves to the Army for lack of any other options. They had left their families, rode the rails looking for work in the depressed 1930’s, went down in defeat with the socialist workers reform in factories and divested themselves of any dreams of a stable life with a wife and family. While his guru cellmate talks of the futility of social movements that address the masses — “The masses are one thing, the amalgam of individuals is another” – his hardnosed commander proclaims over cocktails with his junior officers that a sense of honor and duty among the common soldier is dead, therefore they must be governed with fear.
Having divested themselves of religion as well, Prew and his Army buddies now worship at the altar of hard drinking and easy women. “I have never laid a woman I didn’t love” has become their mantra. They believe in an ever-changing god that negates the need for forgiveness. All the women in these men’s lives realize in the end that no matter their level of passion the Army will win out over love.
- If you’re white and think you know what its like to grow up black in America, An American Marriage (2018) will make you think again. Tayari Jones‘ straight-forward narrative is delivered by three young, well-educated Black Americans in a love triangle. It’s not until one of the men spends five years in a Louisiana prison for a crime he didn’t commit that he and his best friend have to come to grips with the fact that they’re in love with the same woman. Because each of the three tells their story from the heart — grappling with their past, with their families, with their sexuality with their careers and dreams — we understand that everything in their lives is shaped, for good and for bad, by being a Black American. The power of the story is its intimacy.
- Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur holds a special place in my heart because of who gave it to me. My niece, a young woman very near and dear to me, brought it to me just after she’d discovered it and said, “You have to read this!”
Milk and Honey is the poetic voice of a woman seeking, and finding, fulfillment and empowerment. Her brief, evocative verse shares the page with line drawings that are beautiful and frank. Page by page Kaur’s words and art move from sexual pain and confusion to sensual fulfillment and arrive finally at a place of power and love.
It’s a book that celebrates women, and makes me understand and love them all the more.
- Alibi by Joseph Kanon is a murder mystery, told from the point-of-view of the murderer. So the mystery is not about ‘who done it’. No, the story set in Venice just after WWII, is a much more complex wondering. Did the victim, an Italian doctor suspected of collusion with the Nazis, deserve to die? Will Adam, and his new love, Claudia, who were both involved in the doctor’s death, get caught? Even if their alibi holds, will their tempestuous relationship survive?
As the answers unfold, the whole of the story asks a much bigger question. Does war truly end, or do the combatants merely go underground? Venice, with its twisting labyrinth of canals, its ancient opulence and social pretense disguising its dark history, is the ideal setting to ask such a question. It mirrors the convolution of the war and post-war political landscape in Europe. Adam, a discharged American G.I. who was part of the Nazi investigations in Germany, wonders at one point about the extended path of a bullet. After its first victim, how many more does it take down before it truly stops? Is there an end, to a bullet’s trajectory or to war?
- Villa America by Liza Klaussmann is a novel so finely wrought, with such depth of research, that it astounds me to think she published it in 2015, just five years after her debut success (Tigers in Red Weather). Her story centers around Sara and Gerald Murphy, glamorous American socialites, whom I thought at first to be Klaussmann’s story-telling creation. They were quite real and, indeed, their idyllic life in a palatial home on the coast of the Antibes in the South of France drew talented 1920s ex-pats like a blue strobe draws moths.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wild wife, Zelda, Ernest Hemingway with both his first and second wives, John Dos Passos, Cole Porter, and dozens more flock to the Cap D’Antibes where Sara and Gerald party with them, nurse them, put up with them and inspired them in equal measure. The Gerald’s deep-seated love, for each other and their friends, is well-tested and well-met.
Owen, a gay WWI fighter pilot, the one character formed almost entirely of out Klaussmann’s fertile imagination, anchors the story’s tragic tenor — of lost love and and shattered innocence.
- Great House by Nicole Krauss would have been aptly titled ‘The Great Desk.’ Ranging across time and around the globe the stories of an American writer, a Chilean poet and a man in Jerusalem who’s spent his life reassembling the furniture and art of his father’s study plundered by the Nazis in 1944 Budapest, each narrative is connected by a massive 19-drawer desk that exerts a subtle power over the lives of everyone who possesses it. Great House is a haunting look at the impermanence of life – it feels, as one of the characters put it, “like the tongue exploring the tender spot of a missing tooth.”
- Jhumpa Lahiri is a very successful writer. Her 1999 collection of short stories (Interpreter of Maladies) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her first novel, The Namesake (2013), which began as a story in The New Yorker, became an instant NY Times bestseller and was made into a feature film. Growing up in America with immigrant parents who insisted on raising her in traditional Bengali customs, Lahiri presents her bi-cultural experience with sensitivity and insight. It is the central theme of The Namesake.
She presents the intimate details, first of the father’s, then the mother’s lives but focuses most of the story on their son, Gogol Ganguli whose life conflicts, from a boy to early manhood, centered around his disaffection for his name. In many ways it’s a very straightforward tale — self-discovery as a boy, rebellion as a teen, early romantic missteps, academic success and . . . (well, let’s not give it all away). Lahiri’s vivid descriptions, details of dress, mannerisms and deeply internalized emotional reactions open Gogol’s world up in a very linear, diary-like fashion.
At times the details — the day-by-day, year-by-year recital of Gogol’s life — flow easily, and at times seem to drag on. I went into speed reading mode through the second half of the book and found that to be the most enjoyable way to stay with the flow. I am grateful to the author for all that she shared.
- Doris Lessing was a renowned British Marxist and a Nobel Prize winner author. The Good Terrorist, published in 1985, was one of her later works. The story centers on a not-so-young woman turning a squat in London into a commune with her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. Despite her university degree Alice, mid-thirties, never tried to develop a career but spent years with her gay boyfriend (ideal partner since she hated to be touched, barely tolerant of her friends need to have sex) moving from one abandoned house to another, attending anti-government protests and working from a radical agenda that changed month to month. Alice is smart, hardworking and very good at reading people and taking on a character suited to each situation. She’s the one who always manages, money, food, planning, resources or calming down neighbors and police. Rejected in their attempt to align themselves with the IRA and with Russian Communists, it becomes clear that she and her friends will not be taken seriously until they act like the terrorists they pretend to be.
In the end, after setting off a bomb at a London hotel, killing five, wounding 30+, something Alice tried to subvert at the last minute, her friends all going their separate ways, as planned, she feels lost until a new half-baked plan comes to mind. The final paragraph: “Smiling gently, a mug of very strong sweet tea in her hand, looking this morning like a nine-year-old girl who has had, perhaps, a bad dream, the poor baby sat waiting for it to be time to go out and meet the professionals.”
Lessing was my age (mid-sixties) when she wrote The Good Terrorist having embraced the folly of her own youthful search for a radical socialist agenda. After winning the Nobel for Literature in 2007 she boasted of the British governments disclosure that she had been watched by British Secret Service for more than twenty years while, on the other hand, leftist newspapers described her as ‘one of Joe Stalin’s useful idiots. (Born in 1919, she died Nov. 17, 2013, two days before my father died.)
- City of God by Paulo Lins (1997-Brazil, 2002-U.S.) is a disturbing book. It offers up gritty, often disgusting tales from Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slum, Cidade de Deus (the City of God). While teen gangsters celebrate their heists, stalking the streets of their favela, smoking weed, drinking and rocking out to samba, malicious cops plot ambushes. Bullets spray the streets night and day while the survivors dream of the one big hit that will let them escape ‘the life.’ Some of the masses of dispossessed do escape, most by death, many by way of long prison sentences and a few by finding God or chasing dreams that lead to a way out, something the author himself, Paulo Lins, accomplished.
- Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has a long a storied history with his native Peru, the setting for his first highly acclaimed book The Green House which I read several years ago, and for The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. With Don Rigoberto, Vargas Llosa deftly weaves fantasy and reality into a sexually exotic story. The philosophical asides from Don Rigoberto’s assiduously notebook are interspersed between erotic scenes acted out by his wife, Doña Lucrecia, with Rigoberto and without him. Toward the end of the novel it becomes clear that most of the sex scenes are the fantasies detailed in his notebook and it doesn’t matter, which seems to be Vargas Llosa’s point. His fantasies are real expressions of his ardent love and sexual fervor for Lucrecia. His asides are equally enticing and at the heart of the story. “…when someone says in my hearing, ‘The Chinese,’ ‘the blacks,’ ‘the Peruvians,’ ‘the French,’ ‘women,’ or any similar expression proposing to define humans beings by membership in a collective of any kind rather than viewing that as a passing circumstance, I want to pull our a pistol – bang bang – and fire.” Whether by nationality, race, gender or sexual nature labels defy individuality. Rigoberto believes that “To be an individualist is to be an egoist.” He revels in the details of his sex life because his proclivities are the very thing that underscores his individuality. Vargos Llosa is saying that even the larger aspects of his personal history, a Peruvian writer, one of the all-time great Latin American writers, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and many others, a politically liberal man who became a citizen of Spain after losing the 1990 Peruvian presidential election do not constitute the essence of who he is. Every yearning, thought, act, wish and fantasy are part of the individual, each of us so unique that we should rage against, rebel against every label applied to us.
- Susan Elia MacNeal has obviously found her niché. The Paris Spy is her seventh in a series of historical novels called ‘The Maggie Hope Mysteries.’ Judging by The Paris Spy, the success of the series is well-earned. The story is original, well-written, relatively free of spy-story clichés and historically accurate. Maggie Hope is an operative with a new spy network created by Winston Churchill during WWII called SOE – Special Operations Executive. Her cover in Nazi-occupied Paris as a rich Irishwoman (Ireland was a neutral country during WWII) shopping for her trousseau in Paris has her rubbing elbows with people like Coco Chanel and Nina Ricci as well as officers of the Nazi high command. But this is not a light story centered around fashion. The plot twists make it a page-turner, the moral issues forced upon the SOE operatives are real and gut-wrenching. But, what I love best is that MacNeal’s characters evoke the strong women of the WWII era who acted with cunning, strength and bravery, fighting even harder than men for the opportunity to serve and for the credit they earned.
- Michael Malone‘s The Four Corners of the Sky may well be the happiest ‘great American novel’ I’ve ever read. Annie, the true blue Navy flying hero from a loving but complicated North Carolina family, refuses to give up on the con artist father that abandoned her at age seven. As the novel’s key mystery unfolds — the search for a 16th Century gold Madonna statue — Malone entertains us with the life stories of Annie’s family. We’re treated to the ‘peace nut’ views of the loving lesbian aunt and pun-dropping Vietnam vet / doctor who raised her, her wisecracking best friend / psychiatrist, a Shakespeare-quoting Cuban refugee and an assortment of men, young and old, who all adore Annie. It’s a complex, well-written novel, worth all 544 pages if only for the beauty of the ending.
- Her debut novel, Christine Mangan wrote Tangerine with all the nuanced pace and style of seasoned mystery writers. Even better, when I picked the book I didn’t know it would be a mystery. It starts out as a sweet tale of budding friendship, two women at a private Vermont college who feel that they were fated to be roommates, their relationship blossoming naturally and intimately . . . until.
- Fans of historical fiction are, I believe, history buffs who are thrilled to be transported back to a place and time where they can rub elbows with its natives, explore the surroundings and engage the powers that be.
Submerging myself for a week in Wolf Hall I smell the rot and waste of the Thames and long for the rosewater scent of a passing lady to distract me from the constant stench of London streets. When my appetite supersedes all else, I savor the open-fire roasts of quail and stag, the tang of Danish cheese (eschewing tasteless English varieties), the crisp Kent apples and the devilishly sweet cinnamon pastries. I shy away from Lark’s tongue and blood pudding. And, to keep my head, I stay away from the ale houses and water down my wine.
Oh . . . and while I’m at it . . . I befriend Thomas Cromwell and get to know Henry VIII through his eyes.
Not only does she know her history as though she’d been journeying back to Medieval England her whole life, Author Hilary Mantel writes in a language that is as accessible as a bite of a crisp Kent apple but, at the same time, lets you believe you’re listening to 16th Century English. So, it’s with minimal labor that I engage Cromwell in his shrewd, practical, free-thinking view of politics and religion and come to understand him. When he continues to speak lovingly of his wife Elizabeth and his daughters Anne and Grace years after he lost them all to a summer flair-up of the plague, I also understand his heart.
Cromwell’s legal machinations and personal manipulations that put Anne Boleyn on the throne as Henry VIII’s second wife only serve to define his pragmatism and underscore his people skills. Thomas More’s fanaticism, the Pope’s intractability, the birth of Elizabeth and all the other headlines of the early 16th Century serve as mere context.
I’ve come on this journey to get to know the great Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who remade England. Thanks to Mantel, I feel that I know him well . . . though I understand she has more to offer (Wolf Hall is the first of a trilogy and leaves off while Henry still has four wives to go). More time hanging out with Cromwell and Hilary Mantel sounds appealing.
- There wasn’t a single page of Sugar Run that didn’t make me ache. Later, reading an interview of Mesha Maren who described her experience “growing up in West Virginia . . . as a queer woman” I ached as well for the author. But, for Maren’s protagonist, Jodi McCarty, being gay in West Virginia is the least of problems.
A mere week after her sudden release from prison Jodi has surrounded herself with trouble. After seventeen years behind bars Jodi’s only priority is to rescue the mentally challenged brother of her former lover, the woman she killed. But, after what should have been a drunken one-night stand, she finds herself embroiled in the life of a pill-popping mother of three. Though she has yet to break any laws, she’s suddenly headed to the remote West Virginia farm where she grew up. The rescued brother is crammed into the back seat of a Chevette along with the three kids of her new lover who sits next to her sipping whiskey.
Each chapter that follows finds Jodi digging herself in deeper. Her brothers are drug dealers and need a place to hide their stash and since Jodi has no money . . . The small rundown farm she inherited has been sold out from under her to cover back taxes, but she has nowhere else for her new family to live, so they squat . . . Though the brother she rescued is good with the small kids, he has occasional fits of irrationality and violence . . . Her new probation officer is an asshole but lazy, so she only worries a little about random drug testing when she downs the pills she’s offered every time she turns around . . . Needing to feed the kids her lover gets a job as a bartender, but the bouncer is a meth dealer . . .
Every time there’s a sliver of hope for Jodi, she makes a bad move. But, the biggest problem in reading Sugar Run is that it is so damn well written, the West Virginian mountains so alive with ancient beauty and everyone Jodi cares for as deserving of love as she is. You find yourself screaming inside wanting Jodi to get a break and desperately hoping she won’t blow it if she does
The Entertainment Weekly interview I’d read labeled Maren’s debut a ‘gritty noir novel.’ Now that I understand that label I will be careful. The ache of reading such a book takes time to heal and I won’t be in need of more ‘gritty noir’ anytime soon, not that I regret the experience of this one.
- Going from Pauline Melville (below) to Peter Mayle is like enjoying a relaxed walk along the beach (or through the vineyards) the day after running a challenging-and-exhilarating marathon through the Redwoods. I’ve read a few Mayle books before, all are centered on pastoral life in the South of France. Like the rest A Good Year is as smooth and easy as a nice glass of Pinto Noir. Not a heavily plotted book, it has just enough suspense to be engaging. It’s a slice-of-life transporting the reader to small vineyards and quaint villages of the quiet French countryside. Much of the narrative is devoted to food and wine; every chapter reveals another mouthwatering description of French culinary traditions. And Mayle’s singular talent for being both light and fulfilling comes through especially well in his wine tasting dialogues which keep a subtle balance between a genuine love for wine and making fun of the ostentatious lip service, ritual and outrageous valuations paid to it by the connoisseurs.
- Pauline Melville‘s The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997) is centered on the Amerindian McKinnon family in Guyana. The tale’s narrator traces their history from the patriarch Alexander McKinnon’s marriage to two Wapisiana women in the early 20th Century to modern times when Chofy, a 21st Century McKinnon, leaves his wife and son in the Rupununi savannah for work in the city of Georgetown where he falls in love with an English woman. It is a beautifully written narrative that gives the reader a glimpse of the native struggle to hold onto their own magical view of the world in the face of progress, ancients ways vs. modern. McKinnon’s daughter and son are enthralled and entrapped in the legend of incest between the sun and moon, a solar eclipse. Chofy’s generation, educated, living between the old ways and modern demands, continue the struggle of their ancestors facing the added incursion of American oilmen into the Rupununi. In the epilogue the story’s narrator says, “I will say one thing, however. There are three strands of insanity in this world: love, religion and politics, each one so dangerous that it has to be kept in an institution; religion in a church or a temple like a mad dog; love confined to marriage, escaping at society’s peril; politics chained to parliaments because of the genocides and wars that take place when it gets loose.” In found an interview of Pauline Melville who said: “Being a writer is like being a window-cleaner in a house or a castle where the windows are obscured by dirt and grime. Writing is like cleaning the windows so that people can see a view of the world they have never seen before.” With The Ventriloquist’s Tale she achieved a clear, heart-rending view into her native Guyana, an even clearer view into mankind’s soul.
- Eating Air, a 2009 novel by Pauline Melville requires concentration and focus to read. Centered on a group of British anarchists, the story evolves slowly with full back-stories on new characters introduced regularly. Even halfway through her 400-page novel Melville takes the reader on a new character-development tangent with occasional asides by ‘The Narrator.’ Melville’s writing, however, is so rich, so original that she never fails to bring the new elements of the story to life, deftly weaving them, fifty pages later, back into the heart of the story. Like The Ventriloquist’s Tale she draws from her own past as a native of Guyana with present-day roots in England.
This tale presents the ghastly history of neighboring Surinam, originally a Dutch colony sharing a border with British Guyana. Decades after their terrorists acts of the Vietnam War era, the cast of revolutionaries wants to topple or at least scar a Dutch & British based world banking institution whose riches originated from their pillaging of Surinam’s natural resources while they slaughtered and/or impoverished the natives. Melville chronicles the lives of committed, or regularly re-committed, revolutionaries from their youth to middle age, presenting the whole of each life not just their political passions. Hector, the idealist who spent seven years in an Italian prison rather giving up his co-conspirators, is committed to his wife and his Down syndrome daughter. Mark, the spoiled son of a famous actress, reckless, never loyal, addicted to the thrill of terrorist acts. Victor, a playwright, anti-establishment in his writing but living off the coattails of wealthy family and friends. A gay cross-dressing pilot, his father one of the wealthy bankers. Hetty, an aloof, manipulative American woman with a beguiling head of blonde tresses who revels in causing pain and disruption wherever and whenever possible.
Rising above all these desperate characters are the two who give the entire story wings. Donny, so committed to freedom – “I don’t think about tomorrow. Never did. Never will.” — and so honest that he marries the love his life offering her no illusion about being constantly at her side; their marriage is like an infinitely long bungee cord that brings him back to her side as he bounds with reckless freedom around the globe. The beautiful ballerina, Ella, never questions Donny’s committed to her; knowing he will return to her, she dances, enjoys intimacy with the men and women around her, and leaps into his arms every time he turns up, years or decades between his appearances. Ella and Donny don’t trifle with beliefs, they just live. Donny says, “Having moral principles is against everything I believe in. I am against anybody who is for anything.” When asked what he does believe in, “Nothing. Children. The innocence of children. Humanity. Die for an idea? What a load of fucking shite.” In the end, Eating Air is a massive expression of Pauline Melville’s discontent with the world. The story’s narrator is asked if writing a novel, or art, can make any difference to the world. His (her) answer: “Probably not. But it might upset things a little. It’s one way of having a quarrel with the world. Art is what those of us do who are too frightened to be terrorists.”
- Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller has, as the NY Times attests on the book cover, “the brains of a literary novel and the body of thriller.” A old Jewish American, a U.S. Army sniper in the Korean War, who has just recently moved to Norway to live with his daughter and her husband, suddenly finds himself the sole protector of a six year old Albanian boy after he witnesses the boy’s mother being killed. The narrative encompasses the point-of-view of the tough old Jewish man, the Norwegian female police inspector as well as of members of the refugee gang members who stalk the boy. It’s a page-turner with great character insight.
- Derek B. Miller‘s The Girl in Green is a deep dive into the horrors the U.S. military helped unleash in Iraq, first with Desert Storm then with the 2003 invasion. We see the plight of innocents through the eyes of a British journalist and a veteran U.N. relief worker who beds him. We can look at the ruthless terrorist acts and devastating military responses only because of the hope the story offers — the hope that the young girl dressed in green will be saved. A smart mouthed American named Arwood Hobbes, half Don Quixote, half comic-book-reading teen soldier who never grew up drives the story forward dispensing odd doses of resolution to those that trust him.
- Katherine (1995) by Anchee Min. Katherine is the enchanting story of a young Chinese woman rediscovering life after living through the brutal, intentionally dehumanizing experiences Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Named for the American teacher who comes to China to teach English, Katherine is equal parts teacher, student and friend to Zebra who narrates her own bittersweet reawakening. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve read this year.
- David Mitchell writes with a gravitas and intelligence that few writers can achieve. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an in-depth history lesson driven by mystery, love, enchantment and insight. Set in Japan in at the turn of the century, the year 1800 is celebrated by the Dutch merchants on their isolated wharf in Nagasaki while the Japanese, in their shogun Edo Period, are fighting to maintain their cultural integrity and their national autonomy. Although it centers around a young clerk named Jacob de Zoet, the story expands into the lifestyles of Japanese lords and ministers, Japanese women both educated and low-born and takes us all the way up into the Goto Mountains to a diabolical monastery. Mitchell writes in the vernacular of the times, using the idioms of the Dutch as well as the Japanese, half-a-dozen translators become part of the story. His writing demands disciplined reading, in the end, and throughout, well worth it.
- The only thing not perfect about David Mitchell’s latest novel, Utopia Avenue is the dustjacket. And, given how much I love this book, how much I’ve been staring at it, pondering it since finishing it last week, the dustjacket is beginning to grow on me.
Mitchell plucks every heart string, flings open the floodgates of the mind and transplants us to another time – all in a what would be, in less capable hands, a simple story about four young English musicians trying to make it big in the late 1960’s. Given the time period you might suspect that the mind-expanding nature of this book involves hallucinogens. Check out T.C. Boyle’s Outside Looking In (2019) for that angle on the 60’s. Utopia Avenue reaches the higher planes of consciousness all through the magic of Mitchell’s writing.
Beyond their exceptional musical talents, Dean, Jasper, Griff and Elf are all gifted with loyalty. They are loyal to each other, loyal to their music and, in every way that counts, loyal to their fans. We know the challenges they face will not stop them from making it big. They just have too much going for them. It’s their journey and the unveiling of their souls along the way that Mitchell makes so thrilling.
The band members don’t heroically face the stuff of life – sticky relationships, financial woes, birth and deaths. They fuck-up, crumble-and-fall and have to pick themselves up again and again. But, as they learn to cope, strengthened by each other, they teach us simple and, in Jasper’s case, surreal truths.
After Griff’s brother dies in a traffic accident, his bandmates and manager worry deeply about him and worry that the depth of his sorrow might mean they’ll need to find another drummer. In the seamless flow of Mitchell’s narrative, it happens to be a middle-aged gay man named Francis Bacon who offers the simple consoling insight they all need. “Grief is the bill of love, fallen due,” he says.
In 1967, the band’s early success elevates then to pop music circles where they run into Jimi Hendrix, do drugs with Brian Jones and party with Jim Morrison and Mamma Cass (not at the same party). That same year the Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper marks the point in the Beatles’ ascent where they can play whatever they want. Sgt. Pepper/YouTube Critics and fans didn’t know what to think, wondering ‘what are they about anymore? – what’s their message?
A clip from the NY Times review of it, June 18, 1967:
Like an over-attended child “Sergeant Pepper” is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra. On at least one cut, the Beatles are not heard at all instrumentally. Sometimes this elaborate musical propwork succeeds in projecting mood. The “Sergeant Pepper” theme is brassy and vaudevillian. “She’s Leaving Home,” a melodramatic domestic saga, flows on a cloud of heavenly strings. And, in what is becoming a Beatle tradition, George Harrison unveils his latest excursion into curry and karma, to the saucy accompaniment of three tambouras, a dilruba, a tabla, a sitar, a table harp, three cellos and eight violins.
Noting the hubbub over St. Pepper, Elf — superb pianist, inspired songwriter and heavenly vocalist, the subtle feminine elixir that helps bind them all together — wonders out loud about ‘what’s our message?’
Griff argues that the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks are not trying to change the world. Dean’s still just glad he can write songs and play music that he likes while finally being able to pay his bills. Jasper has no uncertainty.
“’The best pop songs are art,’ says Jasper. ‘Making art is already a political act. The artist rejects the dominant version of the world. The artist proposes a new version. A subversion. It’s there in the etymology. Tyrants are right to fear art.’”
Jasper is very special. People rate his lead guitar riffs with Hendrix, yet he seems as naïve as a Vulcan. “Why, he wondered, do Normals get so worked up about who’s having sex with whom? Surely people who want to sleep with each other will do so, until one or both no longer want it. Then it ends. Like the end of the mating season in the animal kingdom.”
Jasper in Mitchell’s vehicle into the surreal. Jasper has a dark passenger inside his head named ‘Knock Knock’, a dangerous entity he inherited from his great great grandfather. Wonderful characters emerge out of this part of the story: 17th Century Shinto Monks, an atemperol psychologist, horologists who study time and ancient aborigines whose wisdom provides the basis for something called Psychosoterica. Psychosoterica Defined by the ‘Mitchell Universe’
And David Mitchell is the only writer I know – other than perhaps N.K. Jemisin – who can make this all work. As you begin to cheer ‘Utopia Avenue’, rooting for their success, dialed in on the individual challenges that Dean, Jasper, Griff and Elf face, the story unfurls as sweetly as freshly laundered sheet hung out to dry in a billowing breeze.
From the opening notes, you’ll need little incentive to listen to the full 574-page LP that is Utopia Avenue. I’ll give you one anyway. With no spoiler alert needed, I can tell you that my favorite scene in this whole wonderful book is in the final chapter, entitled ‘The Narrow Road to the Far West.’ And it’s not just because the scene opens at 710 Ashbury Street – “the home of Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan – better known to the world as rock phenomenon the Grateful Dead.”
- Brian Morton – Starting Out in the Evening – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Haruki Murakami – Sputnik Sweetheart – With his light touch, his exuberant storytelling, he trod lightly on my brain, at first. Modern day Tokyo, a young school teacher and two young women, all wondering out loud about their lives, their loneliness and their longing. Then he whipped out this gem:“On the flip side of everything we think we absolutely have pegged lurks an equal amount of the unknown.“
I read the line three times. I noted down the page number. I dove back into Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart. The rest of his story blooms from the bud of that statement on page 134. Slowly, softly, from a moonlit Greek island back to bustling Tokyo the unknown takes on momentum that catapults me to the end, leaving me tingling with the sweet caress of his story, like a phantom lover that has quietly slipped from my bed. My senses aroused I turn happily to thoughts of others I’ve so recently loved.
From Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart: “Understanding is but the sum our misunderstandings. Just between us, that’s my way of comprehending the world, in a nutshell.” And: “Summer vacation is nearly over, and I have to step once more into the endless stream of the everyday.”
- “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility.”
Haruki Murakami seems to speak beyond his protagonist in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (2014), which is why his writing sings to our souls. In all his internationally acclaimed novels, Murakami’s astute studies of human character opens our eyes to our possibilities not by transcending our pain, our flaws and our fears, but by elevating them.
I had not read one of his novels since the coronavirus pandemic began. Context is everything. Not only did he soothe my angst, Murakami re-engaged my sense of connection with humanity –- especially to our shared fragility.
Tsukuru feels colorless and empty. In his ‘His Years of Pilgrimage’ (the book’s subtitle), he reclaims old friendships and takes risks in forming new relationships. He comes to recognize “a cold hard object near the center of his body – like a hard core of earth that remains frozen all year long.” He commits himself to making ‘that cold core melt, bit by bit.’ But he also realizes that he doesn’t possess the body heat to accomplish that on his own.
Perhaps the pain, loss and fear we’ve all experienced during this pandemic is melting a bit of the cold core humanity’s soul. If we don’t turn our heads away, if we take Murakami’s advice and face our pain, it just might unite us, giving us a new advantage in facing the crises that lie ahead.
What he points out for Tsukuru is true for all of us — there is “no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
- Tim Murphy‘s epic story spans forty years, centered around an iconic building in Manhattan’s East Village called the Christodora, and focused on the life of a gay Puerto Rican man named Hector, his work and travails as a leading AIDS activist. We witness NYC’s evolution from the 1980’s to the 2020’s through the eyes of Hector’s adoptive parents, while we suffer through Hector’s living nightmares induced by drug addiction, the tragic loss of thousands and the insufferable indifference of mainstream America and the U.S. government to the AIDS crisis. Painful and evocative, it is a beautifully written story, reminiscent of Tom Wolfe.
- R.K. Narayan, the William Faulkner of Indian literature (written in English), wrote The Vendor of Sweets in 1967. It is one of a series of books Narayan wrote that was centered on a fictional, semi-urban town in southern India that he called ‘Malgudi.’ The story follows the life of Malgudi’s candymaker. Jagan, a widower struggling with his relationship with his only son, Mali. Jagan is a devout man who maintains a very strict diet of his own creation. He never indulges in sugar, despite his prosperous candy business. In his respectful dialogues with friends and colleagues he makes frequent reference to being a follower of Gandhi. He meditates daily on the Gita, a Hindu holy book. Despite his generous, thoughtful character he continues to be at a loss to understand his son, especially after Mali returns from America with a college education, a wife and a somewhat misguided scheme for a new modern business, a book-writing machine. Narayan’s light comedic tough and his sensitive narrative offer readers historic views and subtle insights into mid-20th Century Indian people progressing eagerly but gently into the modern age.
- Beautiful Illusion by Christie Nelson is a beautiful re-imagining of San Francisco is the late 1930’s. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge just completed, San Franciscans turn their energy and enthusiasm to making Treasure Island, newly risen from landfill and Bay dredging, into the exquisite 1939 ‘Golden Gate International Exposition’. When the Japanese contingent arrives, a young reporter delves into the mysterious plans surrounding their popular exhibit. While she seeks the anguishing truth of her own past, we travel with her to exotic ballrooms, to the city’s back alley realities and into exotic nightlife of San Francisco. With her love life entangled with both a Japanese saboteur and a brilliant dwarf, Lily, the beautiful, risk-taking reporter uncovers the Japanese plot intended to be a precursor to their Pearl Harbor attack.
- Celeste Ng is an adept story teller. In Little Fires Everywhere she elevates ordinary lives — teenagers trying to find themselves and their parents, all but one of them having locked their lives in auto pilot years earlier — into compelling fiction. Shaker Heights, a perfectly planned suburb of Cleveland, is the ideal backdrop for the dramatic tension between well-planned, materialistic lives and the messy, creative impulses that drive youthful rebellion. The newly arrived artist, the only adult in Shaker Heights who has never subscribed to convention, becomes a hero to the teens and the catalyst for change, forcing the adult community to re-examine their lives.
- Martha Nussbaum is a Social Philosophy & Law Professor at the University of Chicago. In Frontiers of Justice she takes on the liberal social contract theories of Harvard philosopher John Rawls. Much of this text is a treatise aimed at supporting or rejecting Rawls’ theories, which Nussbaum sees as the most liberal and practical of the social contract theorists. Her goal is to supplant the social contract with her theory of ‘human capabilities’, which she outlines as ten key elements that all humans must have access to in order to achieve minimum level of dignity in their lives.
Nussbaum’s discourse is heavy reading – filled with philosophical fine points and debate-worthy caveats and counterpoints. While I could not help but agree with her ‘capabilities theory’, what was more enlightening to me was the realization that all social contracts fail because of who is invited to the table when the contract is made. A social contract is a the voluntary agreement among individuals by which organized society is brought into being and invested with the right to secure mutual protection and welfare or to regulate the relations among its members. Social Contracts are established by a group for mutual advantage. ‘Mutual’ is the key.
Our forefathers, Jefferson, Monroe and Adams, all studied the social contract theories pioneered by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseau and applied those theories when they wrote the U.S. Constitution. Three white, wealthy and well-educated men, a very elite group, could not have arrived at a fair social contract without equal representation by women, by blacks, by Natives and by all races & genders working men and women.
- Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place is rich and complex like a fine Cabernet. At its heart its a story about family, identity and true love but it is not a simple story, nor a simple family. Claudette was a world renown film star who rebelled against her fame by hiding away in a remote farmhouse in Ireland. Her second true love, Daniel, has had a complicated life both in America and in England where he studied linguistics. He seeks out the children he left behind in California while starting a new family with Claudette in Ireland but all their lives are thrown into chaos when Daniel must confront his culpability for the death of his college sweetheart. O’Farrell is a superb author; she takes the reader on a journey of life’s subtle tastes and textures while letting us love her bold, brilliant and uniquely flawed characters.
- This is the first novel I’ve read that describes modern life in America for Urban Native Americans. There There by Tommy Orange is unprecedented in so many ways. Orange, a Cheyenne/Arapaho who grew up in Oakland, CA, has a beautiful writing voice. As Louise Erdrich said, “Tommy Orange is a new writer with an old hearth.” He is able to develop the history of a dozen Native urban characters, weave them together into a rich Oakland-based tableau and make you feel the strength and sadness of Native histories. It’s a compelling, character-driven story.
- Although Lawrence Osborne is an acclaimed writer (in fiction and non-fiction) I had not run across him until Beautiful Animals (2017). His beautifully descriptive straight forward narrative follows four characters — a young, disenchanted lawyer spending the summer at her wealthy father’s villa on the Greek island of Hydra, her new American friend, a mysterious Muslim refugee and the maid at the opulent villa. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, matching the idle wanderings of the two young women. We enjoy their daily swims, their hikes up into the remotes hills, their relish of Greek cuisine, wines and liquors until our of their need for greater purpose they hatch a plot. Designed at first to help the refugee they’ve befriended, it devolves into murder. This book cannot be called a murder mystery because we know all along who did it. But, we are engaged in the consequences, which bear out in ways that are neither satisfying nor cliché. A very different book, like one of Peter Mayle’s travelogue stories but a bit edgier and darker.
- Peter Orner: I reviewed his novel, Love and Shame and Love Again on my home page — you’ll find it under ‘Novels’. His memoir, Am I Alone Here? was also reviewed on my home page and can be found under the ‘Great Books/Great Causes’ listings.
- The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie Otsuka. The Japanese women who came to America as ‘mail order’ brides in the early 20th Century had no idea what to expect. None imagined that it would be as harsh as it was or could have realized the tragic upshot of their eventual success. Otsuka speaks for all these women, singling out none: “Some of us on boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair; and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some us were from Nara . . . Some of us were from Tokyo . . .” As unique as they all were, they all suffered, most survived, becoming exemplary Americans . . . until WWII when they and their families were taken away. As she did in her earlier novel, When The Emperor Was Divine (2002), Otsuka writes prose that reads like poetry.
- Commonwealth seems, at first, a simple, rather stoic title. As Ann Patchett‘s story of two families — the lives of the individuals and their co-mingled family crises and collisions — ‘commonwealth’ dawns with subtlety and clarity as the perfect one-word name. A virtuoso at weaving a dozen characters and themes into a single, compelling story and a writer finely attuned to the common threads that bind humanity, Patchett offers up the Cousins and the Keatings as a story about all our families.
Fifty years after we’ve been introduced to Teresa Cousins, mother of four, we understand her life thoroughly enough to feel every nuance of Patchett’s words: “She had loved Bert Cousins, and then grown used to him, then was disappointed in him, and then later, after he left her with four small children, she had hated him with the full force of her life. But, in the Charles de Gualle airport when she was twenty-two, her love for him and precluded all thoughts of ever not loving him.”
- Louise Penny writes like a Canadian, or at least like my idealized version of them. Smart, methodical, well-paced, comfortable with the cold, respectful of nature, her continuing saga of Armand Gamache, former head of Sûreté du Québec (the top law enforcement agency of the Province of Québec) grows beyond characters and place, seizing upon the opposites that co-exist in all societies.
Kingdom of the Blind (2018) is a small town’s countryside murder mystery flowing alongside the dark underbelly of dying opioid addicts and metropolitan criminals.
A Better Man (2019) picks up where the previous novel left off, with the same set of characters, and a new murder to solve.
- If you are white and believe that you are not racist, you must read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It is extremely bold for a white author to create, and speak for, a black character, especially one so articulate about all the little, seemingly innocuous ways in which white people betray their races bias. In the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the novel, Picoult speaks frankly about her twenty year quest to write a novel about racism in America and admits, “What right did I have to write about an experience I had not lived? Adding, “I grew up white and class-privileged.”
In Small Great Things Picoult proves she is up to the task. It’s the story of a middle aged black nurse, a very competent and caring nurse, who, by no fault of her own, becomes embroiled in criminal charges over the death of a newborn infant. The infant’s parents, her accusers, are devoted white supremacists. It is a superbly written story, told from the POV of the black nurse, of her white female attorney and the racist father. From this white male’s POV, Picoult story was insightful and enlightening.
- Jodi Picoult is clearly unafraid to take on a challenging topic. House Rules tackles the compelling story of a high functioning eighteen year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome accused of murder. Jacob Hunt is incapable of telling a lie and incapable of understanding sarcasm, sadness or anything but pure, straight facts, which makes him ideally suited to understand forensic science, his obsession. His mother is a saint, devoting herself to equal opportunity for her often brilliant, sometimes belligerent son. Jacob’s younger brother is a regular kid, sometimes jealous of the attention Jacob gets but supportive when he needs to be; he’s also a curious peeping tom whose not above an occasional break-in. When all these circumstances culminate in a murder charge, Picoult let us see just how prejudicial our society, including the justice system, is toward anyone who is not ‘neurotypical’ — i.e. anyone who falls short of our narrow definition of ‘normal.’ Her insight never stops amazing me.
- Rabbi, Jewish scholar and bestselling author, Chaim Potok (1929-2002) sought, in part, to explain the traditional aspects of Jewish thought, religion and culture to non-Jews. He succeeded in doing so throughout his illustrious life. And he has succeeded again, eighteen years after his death.
Since publication in 1967, Potok’s The Chosen sold more than 3.4 million copies. Living in a cloistered Catholic seminary at the time of its release, it took me five decades to discover it. If I could go back to chat with my former professor priests, I would hand them a copy and insist, ‘if you want us to embrace the true meaning of ecumenical, this is what we should be reading.’Through a heartwarming tale of a tried-and-true boyhood friendship, Potok taught me more about Judaism than I had ever learned before. His description of the Jewish lifestyle in 1940’s Brooklyn, the daily devotion to study of the Talmud, the rivalries between Hasidic Jews and the more traditional Jewish sects, the plight of Jews immigrating from Russia, Poland and Germany to the U.S. in the early 20th Century – everything that informed and impacted the lives and the unlikely friendship between Reuven and Daniel – hit home.
There were moments when I stood in their shoes thoroughly engaged in rabbinic studies, transported from the toe-scuffed shoes I wore studying for the priesthood. I wanted to sit beside Reuven’s brilliant, loving rabbi father as he explains the meaning derived in a life that is as short as the blink of an eye:
“. . . the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.”
But, Potok’s most profound impact had to do with the rise of Zionism just after WWII. We see the heart-shattering, gut-wrenching news of the holocaust through the eyes of Jewish survivors in America. While Daniel’s father, a devout Hasidic leader cries for months on end, bearing the suffering of his people, Reuven’s father gets angry and devotes every ounce of his energy to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Both fathers come to understand that the U.N.’s recognition of Israel’s statehood is the only thing that can give any meaning to the destruction of six million Jewish lives.
It was not the first time I shed tears over the horrific image of Nazi death camps, but it was the first time I did so feeling the heartbeat of a Jew.
- Plowing the Dark (2000) by Richard Powers. Beautifully written, emotionally and intellectually provocative, Plowing the Dark is not an easy read, nor should it be. Powers’ first transition — from the story of a tech group working on cutting-edge virtual reality systems to the plight of an American teacher captured and imprisoned in war-torn Libya – is so jarring as to make the reader wonder if it’s some sort of mistake. The stories and characters do not intersect. Instead they search the opposite poles of the human experience, offer jolts of insight, such as:
- Speaking of the artist recruited by her tech friend to help build their virtual reality: “The Adie that Spiegel had loved, the poised, potent undergrad who’d believed in the pencil’s ability to redraw the worked, was long dead the night he’d called to recruit her, a causality of adulthood.”
- “Maybe this is just perversity. But something about complete consensus would just . . . sadden me. Think of art, all the shockers and rule breakers . . . . All the good ones were either iconoclasts or revolutionaries. We need something to take up arms against. I’m not sure I want to live in a time when all battles have already been fought and won.”
- “Evolution’s most productive trick was to right things so that the idea of need grew vastly more insatiable than the needs it represented. Feeling had nowhere near ample room in which to play itself out.”
- “Progress is destruction with a compass”
- The imprisoned man reads from the Qur’an, the only book he’s allowed in solitary confinement: “Were the sea ink for the words of God, the sea would fail before the words did.” And: “Did you think to enter paradise without suffering the violence of those who have come before you?”
- Richard Powers is a powerful writer. I reviewed The Time of Our Singing on my home page — it can be found under the ‘Great Books/Great Causes’ heading.
- Bill Pronzini has written more than forty novels. Oddly, though he lives in Northern California, I didn’t discover him until on a recent trip Williamsburg, VA. (Another sweet surprised, he inscribed my copy of A Wasteland of Strangers to the famed mystery writer, Stephen Marlowe, who lived the end of his life in Williamsburg.)
Wasteland begins, as all good murder mysteries do, with an array of color characters, who are — and aren’t — who we think they are. Most notably, John Faith, the stranger visiting the small lakeside community of Pomo, CA, seems to fit what people see in his ‘ugly features’ and bad disposition. The police chief, the sexy window, the strong Native American teacher, her defiant student and the sweet but unfortunate café waitress also seem to fulfill first impressions. Shortly after the murder we find out that no one in this quiet community is what they seem. It’s engaging and original. Pronzini is the real deal — TY, Williamsburg.
- In Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx delivers a harrowing account of white man’s devastation of the American forests. Her rich descriptions of the “citrine, viridian emerald” woodlands that once carpeted the entire continent of North America shifts quickly to accounts, covering three centuries, of mass butchering and despoiling of this beautiful land. Beginning in the 17th Century with vivid depiction of the lives of two Frenchmen, Charles Duquet and René Sel, working an indentured laborers felling trees in the northeast (present day New Foundland), Proulx introduces the theme that runs the length of her 717 page novel – the Christian belief in man’s dominion over all life on earth, their passionate desire to tame the lands they commandeered under the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ We hear from the native descendants of René Sel, who married into the Mi’kmaw tribe, struggling to understand the whiteman’s hunger for felling trees while many of them succumb to the life of lumberjacks for the sake of their families’ survival. From the other side, the Duquet family becomes the Duke family timber empire, one generation after the other working westward wiping our millions of acres of America’s virgin forests, then expanding to New Zealand and the Amazon jungle. The final generations in the story, native descendants of Sel and some of the Duke family defy their ancestor’s attitude of infinite forests and commit their lives to reforestation, admitting that their efforts are too little, too late. Proulx, who also wrote Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, is an impassioned writer, marshaling every detail of her stories into vivid realities that expose new truths.
- Rip Crew did not resonate as anything more than a compelling title. I was not surprised to find out that its author Sebastian Rotella wrote for the LA Times for twenty years. He takes us into the crime-ridden world of immigrant smuggling like a journalist taking a year-long deep dive into multi-national crime syndicates, their ties with the corporate world and the nuanced struggle by border security to separate innocent migrants from the cruel system they’re forced to use to find sanctuary. The ‘rip crew’ — murderous gangsters who steal other coyote’s migrant groups — is just the beginning of this suspenseful, heart-rending story.
- Dreamers of the Day is an astonishing book, its author Mary Doria Russell subtle and brilliant. The opening lines referring to “my little story” presage the writer’s humility but the greater lure is the amendment, “You won’t really understand your times until you understand mine.”
History has no greater lure, or any greater purpose, than to offer an understanding of the times we live in, an explanation of how we got here. As Agnes Shanklin begins narrating her life she seems at first to have over-promised. Born in 1881 to a tyrannical mother and an over-worked father, Agnes is already in her early thirties before the historical events of the time impact her life.
She is a spinster schoolteacher when WWI begins (1914). By the time it ends in 1918 it’s not the war but the Great Influenza Pandemic that hits home, costing her the lives of her entire family (and 50 million others worldwide). It’s also what transforms her. The only one left, she inherits the money and property of her parents, brother, sister and brother-in-law. Nearly forty by the time she recovers from her grief and settles the estates, she makes one impetuous decision that launches her into midst of history makers.
Agnes decides to retrace the steps of beloved sister’s two-year stint as a missionary in the Middle East. She looks up her sister’s dear friend, T.E. Lawrence in Cairo, where, it just so happens Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and a notable assembly of European leaders are in the process of dividing the spoils of war, mapping out new Middle Eastern countries and deciding who should rule over them.
Though she is greatly distracted by her first love affair (with a German spy), Colonel Lawrence, a.k.a. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, invites Agnes to shadow the proceedings of the Cairo Peace Conference. And, this is where the subtly of Mary Doria Russell’s writing emerges.
While we cheer Agnes’ sexual blossoming, Churchill and company decide the fate of the Middle East – a Jewish state in Palestine, a unlikely unification of Muslim sects in the newly formed country of Iraq, French colonization of Syria and on and on. Agnes learns all this, as we do, in a tacit manner, the backdrop of her great Arabian adventure.
So, it isn’t the 39-year-old Agnes that slams the message home, nor is it the elderly librarian that she becomes. It’s only after she dies that she fulfills her promise – to help us understand our times by explaining hers.
“Drink from the Nile and it means you will return to it,” Agnes’ German lover teased her when she jumped into the river to save her dog. And after she died, she did return.
Agnes, in spiritual form, is once again in the company of great leaders – all of whom ‘ drank from the Nile’ during their lifetimes. Napoleon Bonaparte is there, along with U.S. Civil War General McClellan, St. Francis of Assisi and Ptolemy III. They watch the wars they presided over and witness the seeds they sowed for the next. Even Francis is perplexed about how to end the vicious circle. Agnes sees no evidence of her sister’s Christian God, but notes all the gods of war – Mars, Ares, Thor, Guan Yu, Sekhmut — hovering over history’s panorama of endless human conflict “with gleeful satisfaction”.
Agnes decides that it’s all the great men with grand dreamers that do all the damage. Francis points out all the good dreamers – Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela, Gandhi. She turns to Colonel Lawrence to clarify:
“All men dream,” he wrote, “but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
- Most people know Russo’s Nobody’s Fool because of the movie by the same name that starred Paul Newman as Sully, a spirited, hard-bitten man feeling the folly of his years. For me, it was the rare occasion when I loved the movie as much as the book. (I’ve been a lifelong Newman fan.) Reading Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo I rejoiced that Paul Newman is alive and well as the aged, cantankerous Sully character in Russo’s sequel. North Bath and the small town’s failed and lovable characters need Sully’s brash courage more than ever. I found myself amazed that twenty-three years after publishing Nobody’s Fool, Russo is able to make a seamless transition to its sequel.
- Carl Sandburg: Remembrance Rock –– see article on home page: ‘An American Dialogue’.
- I picked up Rakesh Satyal‘s No One Can Pronounce My Name looking for a style and a story as different as possible from the two mysteries I’d just read (Louise Penny and Paula Hawkins). Satyal’s straightforward narrative was a welcome balm soothing the kinks my brain had suffered at the hands of the well-contorted, brain-teasing craft endemic to successful mystery writers. The Indian Americans central to his story struggle for liberation and self-awareness even more than they struggle to fit into their new lifestyles in middle-America. The story and the characters unfold with such natural grace that it offers up the same joy as one might have watching flower pedals open to the morning sun. And, because they talk of simple, universal human challenges — love, family, confidence, success, friendship, sexual identity and death — their Hinduism and their transplanted Indian identities simply add color and texture to very real people leading a 21st Century life in America.
- Julie Schumacher‘s debut novel, The Body Is Water, is the story of a young adult woman who returns to her old family home on the New Jersey shore with hope and little else. Jane hopes to reconnect with her taciturn father. She hopes to re-assemble the missing pieces of her childhood and understand more about her elusive mother who died young but who seemed only vaguely there even before her death. Unlike her brilliant and efficient sister, Jane has never managed to become a fully engaged adult. The pregnancy she eventually reveals propels her toward the answers. She gropes for certainty in an uncertain world.
- Before he wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront, for which he won an Oscar, Budd Schulberg wrote Waterfront. It is — and isn’t — the same story. Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando in the movie) and Father Barry (Karl Malden) have the same grit, the same street-wise, soul-searching battles but are even more realistic in the book, without their Hollywood shine. The books ending was shunned by movie producers as too real and painful.
- André Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 novel The Last of the Just is among the most compelling books I’ve ever read about the plight of the Jewish people. The author, a Polish Jew, who fled to France with his family in the mid-1930s, traces the history of ‘The Just Men’ (36 righteous people, the ‘Lamed Vav’, who suffer for their people) back to the time of Jesus, focusing the story on the last, Ernie Levy. He and his family suffer the full wrath of the Nazis. In the later part of the book, Ernie commiserates with his young wife about why the Christians have hated the Jews so much and so long: “It’s very mysterious. They don’t know why themselves. I’ve been in their churches and I’ve read their gospel. Do you know who the Christ was? A simple Jew like your father, a kind of Hasid.” Golda, his wife chides, “No you’re kidding me.” No, no, believe me, and I’ll bet they’d have got along fine, the two of them, because he was really a good Jew, you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov – a merciful man, and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it! . . . Poor Jesus, if he came back to earth and saw that the pagans had made a sword out of him and used it against his sisters and brothers, he’d be sad, he’d grieve forever.”
- Calling Namwali Serpell ambitious would be like calling a tsunami a big wave. Her gigantic first novel, The Old Drift, spans three generations, tells the stories of children, parents and grandparents of three families, and, in the process, relates the entire history of a country.
I am ashamed to say how little I knew of the landlocked East African country of Zambia. I confused it with Zimbabwe. And, even though I had heard of Rhodesia, I did not know that Northern Rhodesia became the Republic of Zambia and that Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. All that happened within my lifetime.
Serpell reminded me of how little I know of Africa. How little most Americans know of Africa. But history was not her purpose, or at least not her central purpose. She wanted me to know far more than the names and dates that mark her people’s struggle for freedom from British colonialism. She wanted me to know her people. And, I suspect, she knew that I would fall in love with them.
Namwali Serpell was born in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Lusaka started off as a settlement on the banks of the Zambezi River called The Old Drift. It grew in stature when the colonial powers decided to dam the Zambezi to provide power for Zambia’s Copperbelt.
In Serpell’s hands, the damming of the Zambezi is one massive metaphor. Through 566 pages of engrossing detail, Serpell paints the life portraits of her people. They tumble through the storyline, each of them so unique, but in total describing Zambia riding the wave of capitalism while, at the same time, being damned by it.
- The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro plunges the reader into the depths of pre-WWII politics in America as experienced by a talented abstract artist, Alizée, obsessed with rescuing her family from Nazi-dominated Europe. It’s an incredibly well-researched historical novel that includes Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko on their way to pioneering the American Abstract Expressionist art movement, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and her nemesis, Beckingridge Long, the man responsible for blocking U.S. visas that would have saved the lives 190,000 European Jews. Another young artist, Alizée’s niece, Dainelle, provide the modern counterpoint to the story as she tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance in 1940. Shaprio’s novel is compelling throughout, the end startling as it is satisfying.
- When reading heartrending stories, I find myself hoping that it has all come from the depths of a fertile imagination, not from the life experience of the author. Black & White (2008), by Dani Shapiro, is just such a book. Fourteen years after Clara escaped New York and her childhood, she returns, reluctantly to visit her dying mother. Clara still cringes at the possibility of strangers recognizing her as ‘Ruth Dunne’s daughter.’ Her mother became an internationally celebrated photographer with a series of photos of Clara. Artistically posed in various settings, what started as quality one-on-one time with her mother when Clara was three became masterful manipulation of a teenager becoming overpowered by public recognition and by the vulnerability her mother captured so well in the photos of her nude daughter. With the support of her saintly patient husband and her own young daughter Clara reclaims and shares her childhood and works toward forgiveness as her mother’s life ebbs away, sill famous, still demanding, hoping for redemption. It’s a beautifully told story.
- Matthew Sharpe is blunt and unapologetic about his Jamestown post-apocalyptic analogy. Johnny Rolfe and Jack Smith are among the dirty, violent men from the devastated island of Manhattan who raid the Native land of southern Virginia. And, yes, Rolfe falls in love with Pocahantas, who narrates the story from the Native POV. She leaves no doubt about her post-modern character or her dystopian world:
“I could fuck someone – premenstrual, unmarried – if I didn’t mind being shunned, but, being the chief’s only and favorite girl, I’d mind being shunned more than I mind not fucking, at least for now. If I were shunned I’d have to leave this town that’s surrounded by hundreds of miles on all sides by forests, rapists, murderers, thieves, brokedown highways and quondam strip malls, mutant beasts . . .”
All the Natives and invaders who are part the narrative are philosophical and self-aware, all infected with wry humor. When the tribe convinces the invaders that they will not negotiate without each man being examined, the medicine man gives them Rorschach tests. The twists and turns toward the end are less entertaining than the first half of the book, but it is, nonetheless, a unique and engaging read.
- The Trees by Ali Shaw
The story begins with a description of a lonely evening in the unsatisfying life of a depressed middle-aged man living in a small English village.“His name was Adrien Thomas. He fell asleep with a whimper and a snore. And somewhere out in the darkness, something creaked.”
In the middle of the night Adrien wakes to the sounds of crashing everywhere, inside his own bedroom and out in the surrounding streets. He, as well as everyone else in his village, find trees thrust up through their houses, up through the middle of the streets, trees towering up through the middle of hotels and businesses. Overnight, huge trees are everywhere. We find out later that all of England, Ireland and, as far as anyone knows, the entire world has been taken over by overnight growth of giant forests.
At the heart of this tale is nature striking back against humanity’s pollution, violation and indifference. With the internet, electricity, plumbing and the entire infrastructure of roads, bridges and trains wiped out, the focus of everyone’s life shifts to rudimentary survival. Understanding nature becomes paramount.
Adrien is fortunate to form a tentative friendship with a gardener and her teenage son. Hannah and Seb agree to help Adrien find his wife in Ireland where she had been on a business trip before the trees came. A tough young Japanese woman named Hiroko who joins them along the way, turning them into a loyal foursome supporting each other’s search for new meaning in the new tree-dominated world.
The least fit and the most inexperienced in the out-of-doors, Adrien emerges as the one chosen by the trees, by the powers of nature. Little creatures that look like animated bundles of twigs and leaves appear in the middle of the night, showing themselves at first only to him. They lead him again and again to a massive tree-like creature that keeps appearing mysteriously along Adrien’s circuitous route to Ireland. When Adrien finally gives himself over to the tree-creature, we discover that nature’s intent with its sudden worldwide tree take-over is to find a new interface between itself and humanity.
A lifelong devotee of Native American culture, I’ve long known that in addition to our genocidal behavior and ongoing oppression of Native Americans, we lost the opportunity to learn from them. We needed their interface with nature. If our white ancestors had been open to their knowledge and hospitality, we would have developed a true relationship to the natural world. Instead of exploiting and despoiling all the life around us, we might have developed a kinship with it. We might have found the way to live in harmony with nature, as we were intended to do.
And now, in the face of the global climate crisis, trees are what could save us. Or, if we are able to learn the lesson of The Trees, maybe we have a chance to save ourselves before it’s too late. Beyond the lesson, it is a gripping tale of adventure and friendship.
- Barn Blind (1980) is Jane Smiley’s first published novel. Her talent for presenting farm families, offering up diverse rural characters with fascinating detail, is immediately apparent in her first book. The fact of it being her first also becomes apparent, not for any lack of depth or style. The story is centered on four children, ages 13 to 18, giving themselves up to another summer of equestrian training on their mother’s horse farm, and each in their own way reacting to the dominant role their mother, Kate, plays in their lives. Smiley’s obvious familiarity with horses comes through in beautifully rendered descriptions. We get to know the horses nearly as well as the family. But, as each of Kate’s children present their point-of-view, each forecasting the adult lives waiting for them, we sense something waiting to happen, something tragic. When that moment comes at the end of the book, it’s heartrending in its poignancy, but for the entire family it is a ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, a defining moment that, because it comes at the very end it leaves the reader no time to fold it back into the story.
- A Reckoning by Linda Spalding opens with an abolitionist Canadian arriving in rural 1855 Virginia. Pretending to be a birdwatcher, he meets secretly with a plantation’s enslaved Africans offering maps and clues for their escape north via the underground railroad. Slavery remains a theme throughout this story — and how could it not, just five years before the start of the Civil War — but at the heart of this story is the white family redefining itself on their trek west after losing everything they had in Virginia, due in part to loss of the slave labor their farm was dependent on.
The story is gritty and insightful, boldly descriptive of their hardships and equally sensitive to the dramatic shifts in the inner lives of the travelers.
- Francis Spufford may as well have risen from the grave of pre-revolution America. He describes 1746 New York City in Golden Hill with the language and keen eye of a well-educated immigrant – which is essentially what the curious Mr. Smith is. He becomes the talk of the small city and as his mysterious origins and purposes unfold only we, the reader, truly understand what a good man he his. Walk the sometimes muddy, sometimes cobbled streets of New York with Mr. Smith and discover it as he did, newly arrived from England with a $1,000 letter of credit in his pocket.
- It is intimidating to write something new and worthwhile about John Steinbeck. If he weren’t already one of my favorite authors, The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck’s last novel (1961) would have made him so. I balk not at praising his prose — “On Monday perfidious spring dodged back toward winter with cold rain and raw gusty wind that shredded the tender leaves of too trusting trees.” — but at manifesting my own desires — to have my own writing infected by his and to infect other readers with my passion for him.
The Winter of Our Discontent is the story of a well-educated, honored WWII veteran named Ethan Allen Hawley, who, as his name suggests is the descendant of an old, well-established New England family. A happy family man, Hawley faces daily reminders of his loss of stature. He manages a grocery store than once belonged to his family and lives in an old tree-shrouded house that is all that is left of his family’s legacy. Temptations come from all sides, his alcoholic best friend that who can easily be tricked out of valuable real estate, his wife’s best friend who hopes to lure him into her bed and the small bank next door that seems to be begging to be robbed. He resists, he gives in, he stumbles but just when he’s about to fall — to fail his own sense of a good, right-thinking and honorable man — he finds redemption.
Ethan Allen Hawley is the man all of my father’s generation hoped they would become.
- Though she has written previous bestsellers, I had never heard of Susie Steiner. With Persons Unknown, her third novel, I now know why the NY Times calls her ‘smart and funny.’ Before we’re drawn into this murder mystery, we’re drawn into the lives of its narrators, Manon, Davy, Birdie and Saskia. Though she recently adopted a son, Manon, a London detective is pregnant. Davy, her young acolyte at the detective bureau stumbles with the best of intentions, trying to be both a good friend and good detective. Bridie, obese, kind store owner, tries to save Saskia, a high-priced hooker who’d fallen in with gangsters. Steiner masters the ability to tell one story from multiple points-of-view, all the while building the suspense of an unsolved murder and the boy wrongly accused.
- When I read Love Is Eternal, Irving Stone’s detailed biography of Mary Todd and Lincoln I was still thinking about Sherman Alexie’s mother, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the previous book I had read. Mary Todd’s life was as opposite to Lillian Alexie’s as is possible. She was born to privilege and dreamt of someday living in the White House with a husband that would not only be a great president but that would love her with all his heart. She had no idea of the pain that would come with that dream fulfilled. In the first three years of the Civil War her three Confederate brothers and a brother-in-law were all killed in battle. She was accused of being a traitor to the North even while battling to restore the shabby neglected White House and supporting her besieged husband. Then her 11-year-old son, Willie, the son she cherished most, died of pneumonia. Knowing she would witness Abraham’s assassination just three years later somehow made Willie’s death all the more tragic. I wept for her, knowing that Lillian Alexie would not have and feeling that their tragic lives of diminished dreams and dying children were human fabric.
- Ronald Takaki, a much lauded History Professor at UC Berkeley, believed that most Americans “need to unlearn the American history we’ve been taught.” A Different Mirror – A History of Multicultural America accomplishes much of that goal. John Winthrop, one of the Puritan leaders who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously said, “The whole earth is the Lord’s and he hath given it to the sons of men to increase and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it.” Taking us through the history of Black enslavement, Native genocide, Irish and Mexican immigration, Chinese labor gangs, Japanese internment — and the ongoing prejudice and oppression against non-whites (that still exists today) — Takaki points to the roots of America’s racial inequalities and tensions in Winthrop’s deeper intent, that white Christians were meant to rule and subdue all that they saw. This is a powerful book and, at times, difficult to read. America’s true history is a shameful one, dotted with noble attempts to rectify the seeds of hatred planted long ago.
- The Map Thief by Heather Terrell explores an alternative, and quite believable, history of the ‘Age of Discovery.’ She glides smoothly from 1421 China to 1496 Portugal to present day, unfolding the mystery of how a map made by a Chinese cartographer, who sailed the globe with the great Admiral Zheng, made it’s way to Portugal decades later, providing a blueprint for ‘discoveries’ by Vasco da Gama. This well-researched, compelling story, makes you re-think everything we thought we knew about early global exploration.
- Tom Northway by Marshall Terry*, opens with: “When he awoke, a miraculous new dawn was just beginning to come up over the glazed white land and play and dance at his uncurtained window. He lay very still, for a long moment savoring the light, feeling all through him the wonder of it.” It is Tom Northway’s 90th birthday. Throughout the day (the book) we learn of his well-lived life, his losses, his and triumphs. Happily abandoning the dental practice he hated (which he opened in 1900) he had retired to an ancestral Ohio farm, surrounded by the mostly stoic, always helpful Amish. The book ends with: “He let his eyes close, and thinking about the coming of spring, the eternal miracle, he went to sleep.” We should all live to celebrate our 90th birthday in such sweet reverie. It’s a wonderful book.
*Terry, an SMU English Professor who wrote this book in 1968 died in 2016 at age 85 — much loved, he was known on campus as ‘Mr. SMU’.
- The backdrop of Paul Theroux‘s A Dead Hand is Calcutta, India. Theroux achieves a depth of description that brings the sites, the smells, the sounds and the people of India to life like no other novel I’ve read. A gripping murder mystery propels the story forward, its depth found in the enigmatic layers of the woman the hero is enthralled with and must unwrap.
An interesting ploy (twist?) Theroux uses — which I’ve never seen before: one of the lesser characters in the story is the famous writer Paul Theroux — that’s right, he places himself in the story, lashing out at his over-inflated writer’s ego every chance he gets. Kinda fun, kinda weird. A very unique, worthwhile book.
- The Mosquito Coast (1982) by Paul Theroux resonates today because so many of us wish we could run away from the corrupt, wasteful, wrong-minded America we’ve become. Like Allie Fox, the brash, single-minded inventor at the heart of this story, we’d love to set out for an unspoiled world and start all over again. “It’s the empty spaces that will save us,” he says. “No funny bunnies, no cops, no crooks, no muggers, no glue sniffers, no aerosol bombs.”
As Fox and his family set-off for Honduras, we’re cheering them on, confident in Allie’s boundless energy and his super-human ability to fix, build and invent anything he sets his mind to. Even when he’s working his kids like slaves to build a settlement in a jungle clearing, we, like his loyal loving wife, believe in him. We still want to believe that escape to a fresh unspoiled world is possible.
But, even as we witness his success — his tight, bug-free house, his perpetual motion water mill irrigating their crops and his non-electric ice-making warehouse – our hopes erode right along with that of his two sons. While the boys adapt to nature, their father fights it. They point out the bounty of food sources all around them and their father insists only the crops they grow are good enough for them. We learn along with them that Allie Fox has a fatal flaw, one that puts them all at risk.
Early in the story fourteen-year-old Charlie Fox who narrates it explains his father’s agnostic and antagonistic view of creation, “My father says whoever it was did a bad job and why should we worship him for making such a mess of things.”
Allie Fox hates nature. Traveling a winding jungle river, he thinks only of the dynamite he needs to straighten it and make it run true. Though he’s adept at making machine lubricants, feathered pillows and sewing needles from scavenger birds, sometimes he kills them just because they piss him off. He goes to extraordinary lengths to bring ice to a self-sufficient tribe deep in the jungle, convinced it’s the missing ingredient in elevating their lives.
Even after we’ve diagnosed Fox as a paranoid schizophrenic, we’re hoping his passionate commitment to a new, uncorrupted world will yield the peace and satisfaction he wants for his family. Or, maybe that’s just me wanting to believe in alternatives to the world I see around me.
- As expansive as China itself, encompassing seven decades of its painful reincarnations, its epic pain and loss, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a masterpiece. In 2016 when she published it, Madeleine Thien ascended to the ranks of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Barbara Kingsolver, Umberto Eco, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Victor Hugo.
I have as much hope of writing a symphony as describing the sweeping impact of Thien’s astounding literary novel. The best I can do is strum the themes that resonate so deeply within it. Key to its impact is that Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a story of my contemporaries — Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Swirl, Zhouli, Big Mother Knife, Old Cat, Ling and Jiang Kai – like me, are children of the mid-20th Century.
While I rose up into America’s middle class with my Golden Age parents, my Chinese counterparts, Wen and Swirl were cast into a lifetime on the run for being radical freethinkers. The Party forced Sparrow, a composer who exhaled music with every breath, to choose between his life’s work and his family. And Zhouli, the sweet young violinist who committed every ounce of her strength and focus to the purity of her violin, suffered the pain of the Red Guard ripping it from her grasp. While Big Mother endured family loss and betrayal, the shattering of her children’s dreams and her husband’s pride, my mother watched her children thrive, her opportunities expand and her husband achieve a gold-plated pension.
For me reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing was a slow awakening, not unlike my young adult years. I began reading it while spending a lot of time in bed fighting a nasty winter virus. At first my mind swam with the themes and characters. I grew dizzy with the shifts in time and place – from Canada in 2015 to Shanghai in 1963 to 1989 Tiananmen Square – and challenged by the character’s overlapping lives and timelines. My mind matched the slow wheeze of my congested lungs. But by the time I hit page 154 I’d began to breathe the story in like a cyclist cresting a mountain top –
Sitting with Sparrow on the roof of a train with hundreds of others riding out the Party’s broad brushstrokes of mass relocation, Jiang Kai flirts with a girl next to him;
“This comrade,” he told her, “is our nation’s most celebrated young composer! Believe me, you’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives.”
“Sparrow ignored him, tuned his erhu and swept them into ‘Fine Horses Galloping,’ which got the boys whooping and the girls singing. He remembered . . . back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away.”
From that point on the music – the music that described and transcended so much tragedy – wed itself to the story and seeped into every pore of my being. Thien supplies an apt metaphor for her story’s transformational power. Allow me to explain.
Sparrow’s best friend (and secret lover), the great pianist Jiang Kai abandons him and eventually escapes to Canada where he marries and has a daughter named Marie. When Marie is a teen, Sparrow’s daughter, Ai-ming, seeks refuge with her family, fleeing China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. Two decades later, years after Ai-Ming returns to China, Marie, an accomplished mathematician, goes looking for her. Her starting point is Tiananmen Square, which she thinks of as the ‘zero point.’
“Zero is a definite point from which measurements are taken along a line, in one direction positively, in the other negatively. Hence the zero point is the location on which all others are dependent, to which they are all related, and by which they are all determined.”
It’s not that I was entirely ignorant of Chinese history prior to reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I was aware of Mao Zedong’s rise to power after WWII, the Great Leap Forward in the last 1950s and early 60s, the Cultural Revolution from the late 60s until the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. But, during these sweeping changes in China, I was still coming of age, a stoned college student protesting the Vietnam War, falling in love for the first time and trying to figure out my own life, facing a dizzying array of choices.
Meeting Sparrow, Zhuli and Wen the Dreamer has made me rethink my life experience. It has given me a new ‘zero point.’
What was my worldview in 1989 while the Chinese were massacring their own in Tiananmen Square? Starting my second career as a business owner, a San Franciscan hoping for a wave of liberal reform to combat Reaganomics. Reading Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Tom Robbins, still addicted to running and partying with pretty women, I had no idea what the lives of my Chinese contemporaries were like.
In the Spring of ’89 a million Beijing students filled Tiananmen Square demanding reform, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom. The government tried to ignore them but after a month of occupation they sent in troops to break them up. Two million factory workers stopped them. Parents and grandparents of the striking students blocked every road, street and alley that led to the square. Nationwide, millions of sympathetic Chinese sent food, tents, and medical assistance to the hunger strikers.
Using the universal language of music, Madeleine Thien offers up the lives of Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer, Swirl, Zhouli, Big Mother Knife, Old Cat, Ling and Jiang Kai, of Ai-Ming and Marie, as testimony to a history we barely know.
In her acknowledgements she writes, “Not everyone who supported and strengthened this story can be named. To my beloved friends in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Beijing and Dunhuang, thank you for accompanying me through this book of records and an alternate memory of history. Remember what I say: Not everything will pass.”
Thank you, Madeleine Thien, for offering me with a new ‘zero point’.
“This comrade,” he told her, “is our nation’s most celebrated young composer! Believe me, you’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives.”
“Sparrow ignored him, tuned his erhu and swept them into ‘Fine Horses Galloping,’ which got the boys whooping and the girls singing. He remembered . . . back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away.”
“This comrade,” he told her, “is our nation’s most celebrated young composer! Believe me, you’ll remember this day for the rest of your lives.”
“Sparrow ignored him, tuned his erhu and swept them into ‘Fine Horses Galloping,’ which got the boys whooping and the girls singing. He remembered . . . back when he first imagined that all the world was a song, a performance or a dream, that music was survival and could fill an empty stomach and chase the war away.”
- Written by James Alexander Thom and his Shawnee wife, Dark Rain Thom, Warrior Woman tells the life story of Nonhelema, the famed female Shawnee Chief.
Well known in the early history of the United States as a peacemaker, Nonhelema spoke fluent English, French, German, a half a dozen tribal languages and the trails and peoples from Virginia and Pennsylvania to the Mississippi. The Thoms provide an indepth chronicle of the Shawnee’s duplicitous dealings with both Americans and British during the Revolutionary War through the eyes of Nonhelema. Her tribe, before white men’s interference, promoted a wonderful balance between men and women.
Women were honored, even envied for being the givers of life. Men felt the honor of being hunters and warriors to sustain and protect their families. Tribal decisions, like going to war, were a function of two councils. The men held a war council, the women a peace council. If the men voted for war but the women voted for peace, there would be no war. They made decisions like making war, or any major tribal move only when both councils agreed.
Even more than with the progression of white men’s betrayal, Nonhelema struggles with the Christian teachings highlighted by the demand for unquestioned respect and obedience by Brother David, the missionary who baptized her. At the end of her life, having tried to be a Christian and a peacemaker, she rebelled against Brother David, saying “You say we women must obey our husbands. The Master-of-Life did not make men and women to order each other about or to obey each other! He gave the man hunting to do as his way to help his wife and children, and told him to fight for his people if they were in danger. All the rest he gave to women — Man and woman, he made them both worth the same.” This novel is immensely rich, vivid and engaging.
- The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer – see full article, ‘Breathing New Truth & New life into American History: ‘The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee’ — on my home page under ‘Native American Justice.’
- Anne Tyler published Vinegar Girl with Hogarth Shakespeare Press in 2016. I didn’t notice that until mid-way through the story when I thought, ‘this is a bit reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew.’ It made no difference in my enjoyment of the sweet, straight-forward tale of a bright young woman who seems incapable of discretion. After several confrontations with the principal of the pre-school where she works, she reminds herself several times a day – ‘Tact, Restraint, Diplomacy.’ After her sweet but domineering father talks her into a ‘green card’ marriage with his Russian lab assistant, Kate is not tamed as much as she evolves. She ends up defending her husband and men in general, pointing out how difficult it is to live keeping all your emotions in check. Tyler excels at simple, delightful story-telling. Every chapter left a smile on my face.
- Until I read The Hummingbird’s Daughter I had not heard of its author, Luis Alberto Urrea. I will never again overlook one of his books.
Urrea spent twenty years researching stories about the late 19th Century Mayo-Mexican healer known as Teresita, or St. Teresa. But, I give credit to his writing mastery for the astounding details of life in Sinaloa and Sonora, Mexico, and the compelling story. All his characters, especially young Teresita and her crusty old mentor Huila, are defined by their relationship to the land they live on and all the living things that abound there – the vaqueros and their horses, the bee keeper and the smoking marijuana that calms them, the plum tree at the front porch that Teresita’s father, Don Tomás, favors above all the fruit trees on the ranch, and the hundreds of herbs that Huila gathers to teach Teresita their uses.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter is, at turns, funny, tragic, suspenseful, politically and historically engaging and uniquely insightful when it comes to the mixed spiritual beliefs of Catholic Mayo, Maya and Tarahumara Natives, of Catholic Mexicans and of the young healer who died, visited God and came back to life five days later. Yet, this is not a spiritual tale. But one in which people’s connection to the land, to the plants and to their beliefs forms an amalgam of their lives. Don Tomás, who’s willing to give up his life to save Teresita, denies believing in God as much as he proclaims his daughter’s godliness.
Urrea’s storytelling never languishes. One quirky, hard-boiled character after another jumps into the plot, each one impacting the plight of Teresita, whom its impossible not to love – for the reader as well as the multitude of characters in this story. She is irrepressibly honest, tough, loving and the bravest young woman you’ll ever come to know.
- ‘The House of Broken Angels’ – Pulitzer Prize Finalist Luis Alberto Urrea Wins Praise from my Writing Heroes
After being enchanted once again by a Luis Alberto Urrea novel, I discovered that the author and I share a hero. I found this out in the afterward — ‘Author’s Note and Acknowledgements’ he called it — something I rarely read no matter who the author is. But, Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels was a book that ended too soon for me, though it ended well.
I need post no spoiler alert in telling you that the entire story line of The House of Broken Angels forecasts its ending. Big Angel, at the center of the narrative, is the much-loved patriarch of a large Mexican-American family. Big Angel is dying. His final wish is to have one last blowout birthday party. He is certain that when the party is over, he will die, announcing his certainty to whichever son, daughter or brother is at hand throughout the day.
“Big Angel could not reconcile himself to this dirty deal they had all been dealt. Death. What a ridiculous party joke. Every old person gets the punch line that the kids are too blind to see. All the striving, lusting, dreaming suffering, working, hoping, yearning, mourning suddenly revealed itself to be an accelerating countdown to nightfall.”
So certain that it’s near, Big Angel alternately wields his death like a battering ram or a lure. During the daylong party he gets what he wants. A confession from his younger half-brother brother, Little Angel. Sexual reminiscing from his wife, Perla. Bold flirtation from his wife’s sister, La Gloriosa. Promises from his sons.
It takes the entire novel to understand the history and complexity of Big Angel’s family relationships. The swirl of people, the back-stories, the new stories, who’s done what to whom, who’s related and how creates an intoxicating confusion. Urrea’s writing is so accomplished and so original that he invites you right into the mix of the family party as a guest. You turn this way and that. Is La Gloriosa seducing Little Angel or just flirting? Do you know about Minnie’s son, his bloody death on the sidewalk out front? And how does the tall white guy named Dave fit into all this?
Who can hear all the conversations with a DJ blasting music in the backyard, a Mariachi band marching into the house through the front door and kids screaming in delight everywhere you looked. “The house seemed to be bulging elastically like an old cartoon – music and dust flying out through the gaping junctures of the bounding, jiving walls.”
Even the mix of English, Spanish, Spanglish and Hip-Hop add to the delightful confusion. Having not been a guest at the de la Cruz family home before you can only imagine the lives that battered the furniture and trim, that left small stains on the drapes and carpet. You note the brown patches amid the green of the backyard stomped into a dance floor and the shades of brown, black, white, male and female, young and old among the other guests.
You come away from the party certain of a few things and certain that the rest will takes days to process. You learn lessons about family, about Mexican-American families in particular. You learn life lessons. And, fortunately Big Angel holds nothing back when he shares his thoughts about death, “This is the prize: to realize at the end, that every minute was worth fighting for with every ounce of blood and fire.”
Oh yeah. The hero I share with Luis Alberto Urrea. You thought I forgot. Shortly before his death, Jim Harrison was having dinner with Urrea. He says of his friend and hero (in the afterward):
“As we ate, and Jim enjoyed a lineup of liquors that covered the color spectrum from clear to amber to deep red, he suddenly said, ‘Tell me about your brother’s death.’ So I did. At length. Jim just stared at the ceiling and listened. When I was finished, he turned to me and said, ‘Sometimes, God hands you a novel. You’d better write it.’”
- Only a master novelist like Leon Uris could manage to so deftly weave among a dozen characters over generations and achieve an 827-page story that is seamless. Redemption (1995) is family history (the Larkins of Ireland whom Uris introduced in his earlier novel Trinity) set on the vast stage of world history – settlement in New Zealand, the WWI Gallipoli battle and the Irish Republican fight for independence. But, except for ‘private diary’ notes from Winston Churchill scattered through the book, it never reads like history. It’s a story of passionate love, of family solidarity torn by the rivalry of fathers and sons. Uris manages to combine religious soul-searching, terrorist plots, trench warfare and irrepressible romantic love with the lyrical flow of a long Irish ballad.
- Gore Vidal (1925-2012) is the only writer who could have pulled off The Smithsonian Institution. The only one so immersed in American history as to be able to playfully flit about through it. Vidal doesn’t just know the facts, he knows the players well enough to challenge them, and knows their likely reaction down to their grimace, shifty eyes or chuckle. He deploys every one of these skills in his 1998 release that is part Sci-Fi time travel and part historical revisionism. The Smithsonian Institutionis fun even if you’re not a history buff. The young hero, known as ‘T.’, loses his virginity in the first scene. He continues to enjoy the charms of his seductress even after she’s revealed to be a Smithsonian reanimation of Grover Cleveland’s 22-year-old wife, Frankie.Frankie helps T. navigate the environs of the Smithsonian, which he enters on Good Friday in 1939, and which has been somehow freed from the constraints of time by its founder, James Smithson who is ‘alive’ and hiding out in the basement. T., a genius who understands relativity even better than Einstein, is ultimately found to be the next step in human evolution. On the way toward that revelation, he goes back in time to stop WWI and most of WWII.Thankfully, Vidal wasn’t happy with time travel / changing history mind games. Though his perspectives on ideas like parallel universes are profound, the most entertaining scenes were those involving the reanimated presidents. Like Thomas Jefferson telling off James Polk for his ambitious Mexican War, and them lamenting his own Louisiana Purchase, “I think now, as I survey from this peculiar perch, the republic which I so hurriedly doubled – nay, tripled in size – that in the process we ceased to be a potential Athens, a school for all the earth in how best to pursue happiness.”
- Home Free is a trip. Destinationless travel, anti-establishment characters — the whacked-out kind and those mellowed into their own versions of Walden Pond – endless parties, copious booze of every stripe, great sex and bad, weed galore and, of course, acid trips. It’s late 1960s America.
Published in 1977, Dan Wakefield offers aging hippies a trip back in time. Some scenes will feel like vague memories, some like spot-on replications of what went down before we all settled down, but the unifying factor – the genius of Wakefield’s telling — are the song lyrics.
In the joyous times Wakefield evokes the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. Love gone awry is underscored by Steven Stills’ Helplessly Hoping and Linda Ronstadt, Are My Thoughts with You. True to the storyline thought-out – Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Every chapter, enriched with a rock classic, is so well linked to the storyline that the music cannot be edited from the narrative.
When the curtain’s about to come down on Wakefield’s star character, when he’s lost in the crazy drug-fueled cross-currents of LA, inevitably, it’s Don McLean who speaks to his battered heart:
I’m all tied up on the inside,
No one knows quite what I’ve got;
And I know that on the outside
What I used to be, I’m not anymore.
- Rebecca Walker’s debut novel, Adé (2013) is a compelling love story, so concise and evocative that you will want to read all 112 pages in one sitting. Farida and her best friend, both 21st Century college students, are inspired to explore the mysteries of Africa. On a small island off the coast of Kenya, Farida falls deeply in love with a young Swahili man named Adé. She is prepared to abandon all the trappings of her American life for a simple Muslim lifestyle with the love of her life when the reality of tropical illness and civil war intercede. This short novel is at once a classic love story and a beguiling sketch of a simple, sweet lifestyle that feels almost otherworldly.
- The Erotic Life of Amy Wallace:
Looking down a long row of book spines at a used bookstore, Amy Wallace’s name clicked, and I couldn’t fully recall why it did. It was a nice book, first edition, autographed, for two bucks. It also had an intriguing title.
Amy Wallace published Desire in 1990, the year her father, Irving Wallace died. It is one of the most erotic novel I’ve ever read.
Once she starts reading the diary pages describing her ancestor’s torrid affairs, Lily, a pearl doctor, succumbs to her own sexual addiction. The best parts of the story are its sexual imagery connected to the pealing of natural pearls – beautiful, elaborate and precise. But, the ending left me wondering why I had remembered Amy Wallace in the first place.
It wasn’t because of her father, though Irving Wallace was one of the most successful writers of the 20th Century. Dozens of novels and bestselling non-fiction books – including The Book of Lists co-authored with his daughter — and numerous screenplays and TV scripts, he was known for brilliant research and an edgy style. The only one I’d read was a provocative novel entitled The Seven Minutes which is about a book being on trial for its pornographic content – the thoughts of woman during seven minutes of sexual intercourse.
Finally, after looking up her bio, I remembered why I’d connected so strongly with the name Amy Wallace and why I’d buried the memory. Introduced to him by her father, Amy Wallace became Carlos Castaneda’s lover. She wrote about their 20-year relationship in her 2003 memoir Sorcerer’s Apprentice – My Life with Carlos Castaneda. It was a difficult book for me to read.
During college and for many years afterward, I was deeply affected by Castaneda’s writing, carrying around copies of Journey to Ixtlan, Tales of Power and The Eagle’s Gift like they were the holy texts of a my new religion. Even decades later, I was repelled by idea that Castaneda was a charlatan. Wallace described him as a charismatic authoritarian who controlled the women of his cult through emotional mind games, bizarre rituals, mystic teachings, and sexual excess. Though nearly ensnared by his cult and relieved to have escaped it, she glories in their complicit sexual encounters, enthralled by the very idea that the great, mysterious Carlos Castaneda, thirty years her senior, wanted her.
When I finally put it all together, I understood that the storyline of Desire, written during the latter years of her affair with Castaneda, was both confession and examination. Amy Wallace (1955 – 2013) was wondering if she’d inherited her father’s erotic fascination, admitting that it held a dangerous sway over her own life choices.
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away — great novel — go to my article ‘Transcendent Novels’ (on this blogsite) for the full review.
- Night Train by Todd Walton – Sometimes you walk through your days just putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes you read a book the same way, page after page, measuring your progress by the diminishing thickness of the right hand side. But every now and then, when the book in your hand starts vibrating to the inner rhythms of your soul, your whole being can be restored, youthful and expectant.
I don’t know why or how this happens. My best guess has to do with the right book at the right time. This time it was Night Train, a 1986 novel by Todd Walton. As with many of the books I pick-up for a buck or two at used book stores, I hadn’t heard of the author. Noting that Mercury House, a small outfit here in San Francisco, is the publisher, helped lower my expectations to zero. The best way to start any book.
The first few chapters are fast. A beautiful woman in a black mini-skirt carrying an infant is running along Sunset Boulevard at 2:00 AM. She’s spotted by a very stoned guy driving a stolen caddy. He stops, picks her up and off they go on a wild chase up through California and eventually all the way to Oregon. Every time they stop to rest, hoping to hide, Lily’s pursuers catch up. She shoots one of them. Charlie kills another. They are not killers, merely desperate to find safety for themselves and the baby, and soon they’re desperately in love as well.
Walton punches out clean, clear descriptions of the action so fluidly that you barely notice at first how trippy this ride is going to be. The first clue is Jerry, the pot-growing hermit who is depressed about what he has learned about death, “nothing more than one energy field collapsing into another. The color changes. That’s all.” All he’s been waiting for, hidden away for years in the California coastal mountains, is for someone he can say goodbye to.
After a slew of encounters with marvelously eccentric characters, old friends of Lily or of Charlie, all putting themselves at risk trying to help them get away, the story evolves into a mythical quest for self-understanding and freedom and the global liberation of artistic expression. They arrive at a collective in Oregon that seems to have been waiting for them.
Lily and Charlie both have music inside of them that the world needs to hear. Charlie sold his soul along with the best song he’s ever written a decade earlier. Lily’s musical talent, a voice with astounding capacity and the ability to play any instrument in front of her, seemed lost to her. She’d been a hooker, a drug addict and a slave to one of the most powerful women in the world – the one bankrolling an army to pursue her.
Together, with the powerful resources of the Oregon collective backing them, Lily and Charlie are redeemed. They’re able to share their music with the world, yet freed from the shackles of fame. They’ve put their own lives on the line to accomplish their liberation, and they’ve watched others die in the process. Facing death is one of the lessons that frees them.
A one hundred and seven year old man named Junior, one of the leaders of the collective, teaches them about death by willingly sharing his own.
“One hundred and seven trips around that star,” he says, shaking a finger at the ceiling. “I was a psychoanalyst for seventy years. I think I helped three or four people.”
After describing the tingling sensation of his spirit disengaging from his flesh, a friend asks him how he got over his fear of death?
“Aw, shit, Jack,” says Junior, rubbing his nose, “I just did. It just went away completely. It was such a relief. It was like becoming weightless. Made the last thirty years a gas!”
“Death is life,” he continues, “We don’t like stories that don’t resolve themselves clearly, why should we want a life that just poops along? Death is a good way to go. Which is not to say I believe death is an end. It’s an ending, and I hope you know the difference. I’ve had a good run.”
Maybe it’s my hippie roots. Maybe it’s my odd detours into spiritual understanding. Or maybe it was the weed I smoked the night before I started the book. Whatever it was, I’m grateful for the forces of the universe that lined up when they did. Every chapter of Night Train dazzled me.
Better known for his first novel, Inside Moves which became an Academy Award nominated movie, Todd Walton wrote a few more books – reviews often describing him as a ‘Ken Kesey kind of writer.’ Then he moved up into the Redwoods of Northern California with a celebrated cellist. She plays in the Symphony of the Redwoods. He writes a weekly column for the Anderson Valley Advertiser.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing reminds me of how novels began, poetry turning into prose. Jesmyn Ward accomplishes the writing mastery that straddles both. When she writes, from JoJo’s point-of-view:
“It’s raining now, the water coming down in sheets, beating against the car. Kayla sleeps, a deflated Capri Sun in one hand, a stub of a Cheeto in another, her face muddy orange. Her brown-blond afro matter to her head. Misty is humming to the song on the radio, her hair piled in a nest. Some of it escapes, a loose twig, to hang against her neck. Her hair turning dark with sweat.”
Or, Pop telling JoJo the story of Richie at Parchman:
“They put him on the long line. From sunup to sundown we was out there in them fields, hoeing and picking and planting and pulling. A man get to a point like that, he can’t think. Just feel. Feel like he want to stop moving. Feel his stomach burn and know he want to eat. Feel his head packed full of cotton and know he want to sleep. Feel his throat close and fire run up his arms and legs, his heart beat out his chest, and know he want to run.”
Her words flow like lyrics in a ballad — you can almost hear the blues chords in the background. That’s how storytelling was born, on the lips of a balladeer. In its fullness it touches our souls, transports us to the reality it describes.
I like what Anne Patchett said about said about this novel: “The connection between the injustices of the past and the desperation of the present are clearly drawn in Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book that charts the lines between the living and the dead, the loving and the broken.”
Poets like Jesmyn Ward evoke the raw realities of the past that bleed into the present — the realities that we must face in order to make a better world.
- ‘A Novel of the Wayward Press’ is a somewhat misleading subtitle to Begin to Exit Here. John Welter tells the tale of Kurt Clausen, a wayward writer (not a ‘Wayward Press’), an often-fired newspaper columnist who hates journalism. His dialogue with his newfound love, Janice, regularly shines through this quirky tale:
“Do you have to be anywhere in the morning?” she said.
I think she meant she was going to ask me to stay, and I was jolted with pleasure and tension, “No,” I said.
“I have a small bed,” she said, looking into my eyes.
“Mine’s not very big either,” I said.
“You’re a strange man.”
“I have a fan in the bedroom, in case it gets too hot.”
“So do I. You’re a lot like I am.”
She smiled and put her hand on my cheek. “Is it time for you to go home?”
“I don’t want it to be.”
- Few authors have the depth of historical knowledge to let it flow through the background of a story, complex and intertwined with the characters but unobtrusive. Morris West started writing such novels in 1945, so it should be no surprise that after writing dozens of novels steeped in European history and Vatican politics, his 1993 novel The Lovers has the feel of historical intrigue as a swift current through which all the characters try to swim.
Never mind that Bryan de Courcy Cavanagh, the ex-WWII Naval officer who joins the crew of wealthy American’s yacht, has the quick mind and fluid moves of James Bond, and that the beautiful Principessa he falls for possesses the beauty and glamour of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s). The Lovers is elevated by everything that is not cliché about it.
WWII has shattered the customs, lifestyles and treasuries of the old elite European families, many of whom, like the Vatican itself, played both sides of the conflict, excusing Nazis and Fascists, assisting their rise to power. They are desperate enough to woo a ruthless playboy businessman named Lou Malloy, offering him a beautiful young bride who is the descendant of a Borgian Pope.
The exotic Mediterranean islands they visit, the CIA-backed double-crossing of Nazi hunters, the sexual intrigues and the close-calls highlight the overriding suspense of what happened to the star-crossed lovers, whom we learn at the beginning of the book have not seen each other for over thirty years.
- Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down is a great book. Throughout it, I felt like I was reading a classic Russian novel, with deep intellectual moral dialogues and monologues throughout the story – something I think West intended. While the turn of the century, pre-Russian Revolution characters developed in the first half, she laid out the subtleties of the spy plot that drove the later half of the book into a compelling page-turner. After I finished the book this morning I finally read West’s forward in which she named some of the real characters that made up this novel – it was a ‘roman a clef’ as the French say (‘novel with a key’, real life overlaid with a façade of fiction).
The story is told from the point-of-view of Laura, an 18 year old woman, half-Russian, half-English (aristocratic on both sides), innocent, naïve, yet extremely well educated, fluent in five languages including two types of Russian that, as West asserts in her forward could really have existed at the turn of the century. A reader like me is even more naïve to the circumstances of the plot – the pre-socialist Russian revolutionaries, leading up to and even creating the opportunity for Lenin to take the reigns of the movement, the double agent working for the Tsar and the terrorists, and the off-handed reference to the French (most of the story takes place in France) obsession at the time with The Dreyfuss Affair. All of it so compelling, so rich with the details of fin de siècle style of art and décor, horse hooves on cobblestone, beautiful gowns, plush ladies hats and tailored suits. The final pages are priceless as Laura’s mother contemplates the coming century, believing it will be free of war, the poor masses lifted from their suffering, modern medicine letting everyone live long, healthy lives and industry making life easy, efficient and pleasant throughout the world.
- In 1986 when Cousin Rosamund was published, Rebecca West (or Dame Rebecca West as she was known formerly in England) had been dead for three years. She had written it in 1956 as part of a set of autobiographical novels known as the Aubrey Family Trilogy. The Fountain Overflows, the first in the series, was well received when it came out in 1956. Though she had completed the second book, This Real Night, she never submitted it to her publisher. It was published the year after her death.
But, it wasn’t until her secretary, novelist Diana Stainforth, found the unfinished manuscript for Cousin Rosamund along with West’s notes for its ending that the final part of the trilogy came to life. Speculation on why Rebecca West held back the rest of her autobiographical trilogy enriches the story itself.
Not that the story isn’t already rich with very English early 20th Century characters — one critic wrote that they would “stand up well against Dicken’s more eccentric creations.” The narrator, Rose Aubrey, and her twin sister, Mary, have both become accomplished concert pianists. And both assiduously turn down all male suitors in favor of staying close to the people — this collection of family and friends who rival Dicken’s characters — who saved them from a strange and tragic childhood.
Though the ending never resolves the mystery of why their cousin, Rosamond, the saintly woman they treasured most among their saviors, left them behind, running off on a whirlwind marriage to an obscenely rich and ostentatious man, the final climax is far more revealing.
Rose suddenly falls in love. She describes the sensual details of her wedding night and two-month honeymoon. Her sexual awakening, after some thirty-five years of distrusting and, at times, being disgusted by the notion of physical intimacy, is the highlight of the story.
In an extensive afterward, Victoria Glendinning of the Royal Society of Literature points out that Rebecca West (right) had never before written about sexual intimacy — that is, it was not included in any of her writing published prior to her death. Though she tried to guard her personal life from public attention, she had had a rather notorious ten-year love affair with H.G. Wells that produced a son, Anthony West. Writing the Aubrey Family Trilogy just a few years after Wells’ death, it seems possible that she held back Cousin Rosamund to avoid any further public scrutiny of her personal life.
Final note: Regardless of her intentions with Cousin Rosamund, Rebecca West’s writing is often eye-stopping. She writes lines to be re-read, savored and quoted — such as her description of an area just outside of London along the Thames, “where the woods and the meadows are so green that they give the eye the same pleasure that the throat derives from a draught of cold water.” And later, “A bumble-bee came about us, making the very sound that time would make if it did not pass silently.”
- Bravery is a part of all great books. Authors must open up a vein deep into their own pain and uncertainty.
Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Hemingway and writer Joshua Whitehead would seem at first glance to have nothing in common — Ernest a macho, macho white American, Joshua a gay Canadian Oji-Cree.
But Hemingway could not ignore the blood on every page of Jonny Appleseed. Debut novelist Joshua Whitehead writes pains so fluently that you start to forget it’s there. The everyday pain of being an ‘NDN’, as Whitehead describes his people, and the compounded suffering of being gay in a society still akin to Hemingway’s macho world, defines Jonny but does not occlude his keen wide-open eyes.
He sees his online porn performances as a weird way to make a living and knows at the same time that his kokum (grandmother) and mom understand that he is ‘two spirits’. He understands every challenge of his life –- poverty, alcoholism and diabetes on the rez, and the cold, unaccepting concrete of the city – through his NDN eyes.
E.M. Halliday writing for UChicago magazines says Hemingway “is concerned with a man’s relationship to the universe in which he finds himself — a stranger, and afraid, in a world he never made.” https://mag.uchicago.edu/arts-humanities/good-life
Joshua Whitehead articulates that same world view, bluntly and beautifully. If irony is a god, s/he clearly remade Hemingway into a 21st Century gay Oji-Cree.
- The Underground Railroad won Colson Whitehead the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a very disturbing book. Though Whitehead makes liberal use of his fiction — the Underground Railroad in his story being not just the secretive connections and routes that slaves used to escape the south but an actual underground railway — his graphic description of slave owners’ torture and cruelty recreates its reality, dripping with its shame and its inhumanity. His narrative, following the life of Cora, who successfully escaped from a particularly brutal Georgia plantation, we see clearly that in 19th Century America there was no true safe haven for people of color. Even the exceptional enclaves of free Blacks were surrounded by lethal uncertainty. Even Blacks born free were forced into guarded, second class citizenship. Even Blacks who escaped slavery were never freed from the nightmares, nor could they fully mend their shattered humanity. Though some white, compassionate heroes emerge along the Underground Railroad, much of the narrative found me chanting, ‘how can human beings be so utterly cruel to one another.’
- Bravery is a part of all great books. Authors must open up a vein deep into their own pain and uncertainty.Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Hemingway and writer Joshua Whitehead would seem at first glance to have nothing in common — Ernest a macho, macho white American, Joshua a gay Canadian Oji-Cree.
But Hemingway could not ignore the blood on every page of Jonny Appleseed. Debut novelist Joshua Whitehead writes pains so fluently that you start to forget it’s there. The everyday pain of being an ‘NDN’, as Whitehead describes his people, and the compounded suffering of being gay in a society still akin to Hemingway’s macho world, defines Jonny but does not occlude his keen wide-open eyes.
He sees his online porn performances as a weird way to make a living and knows at the same time that his kokum (grandmother) and mom understand that he is ‘two spirits’. He understands every challenge of his life –- poverty, alcoholism and diabetes on the rez, and the cold, unaccepting concrete of the city – through his NDN eyes.
E.M. Halliday writing for UChicago magazines says Hemingway “is concerned with a man’s relationship to the universe in which he finds himself — a stranger, and afraid, in a world he never made.” https://mag.uchicago.edu/arts-humanities/good-life.
Joshua Whitehead articulates that same world view, bluntly and beautifully. If irony is a god, s/he clearly remade Hemingway into a 21st Century gay Oji-Cree.
- American Spy is a confession, a mother’s letter to her 5-year-old twin sons that they might read in the distant future, or much more immediately – depending on the success or failure of mom’s next mission. As she seeks a way to secure their future, Marie Mitchell recounts the past – including her brief, passionate love affair with their father, her own childhood, growing up as a black girl in Brooklyn, her sister’s youthful spy training and early death and the sequence of events that led up to her killing the assassin who invaded her bedroom a few nights earlier.
Lauren Wilkinson’s 2018 debut teases out the suspense, the innovative spy craft and the plot twists with an earnest reckoning of what it’s like to be a Black American sworn to protect the country and uphold the constitution – to be an agent of an oft times oppressive government. Her father’s a NYPD cop. Her uncle’s a FBI agent. She’s an FBI agent recruited for undercover work in Africa. Can she justify her work enforcing laws mired in racial injustice? Can she be complicit in her government’s covert attempts to manipulate leadership in foreign countries?
Wilkinson is a bright, original author with much to say.
- Reading the first of her Guinevere trilogy, Child of the Northern Spring, I fell in love with Persia Woolley. Not just for her writing — fluid, fanciful, factual, a scholar of the Dark Ages — I fell in love with the kind of woman who could write, first person, about the formation of the legendary kingdom of King Arthur from the point-of-view of a strong, smart and compassionate Guinevere.
Woolley’s Guinevere grows up aware of her privilege. The daughter of a client king in the northern territories, she is blessed with loving parents, devoted to their people. But she also grows up in the ‘Old Ways’ with a visceral connection to earth and to the goddess of nature. A superb horsewoman, unabashed by out-riding her male peers, young Guinevere is just as willing to master the domestic skills that bore her as she is to master diplomacy in the face of the misogynistic nobles who seek her hand.
Even as she warms to her intended mate, she reaches for maturity that will match Arthur’s strength. She imagines the symbolic strength of large round oak table to host his knights and counselors and shares it with him.
When she wrote it, in 1987, ten years after the Equal Rights Amendment stalled in America, Persia Woolley shot a jolt of female empowerment from the 8th to the 20th Century.
I’ve love strong women, including and especially Persia Woolley (1935-2017) and her Guinevere.