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 books. 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
- Kathleen Alcott: America Was Hard to Find
- Sherman Alexie: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
- Isabel Allende: The Japanese Lover
- Isabel Allende: In the Midst of Winter
- Isabel Allende: A Long Petal of the Sea
- Isabel Allende: The Soul of A Woman & Paula
- Isabel Allende: Violeta
- Steve Almond: Candyfreak
- Charlie Jane Anders: All the Birds in the Sky
- Alice Anderson: One Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away
- Marie Arana: Cellophane
- Reza Aslan: Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
- Kate Atkinson: When Will There Be Good News?
- Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
- Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins
- Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin
- Margaret Atwood: The Testaments
- Karan Bajaj: The Yoga of Max’s Discontent
- Dennis Banks: Ojibwa Warrior
- Russell Banks: Lost Memory of Skin
- Josh Bazell: Wild Thing
- Saul Bellow: Herzog
- Chanelle Benz: The Gone Dead
- Jenna Blum: The Stormchasers
- 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
- Pearl S. Buck: The Living Reed
- William F. Buckley, Jr.: Marco Polo, If You Can
- Robert Olen Butler: Perfume River
- Max Byrd: Shooting the Sun
- Wayne Caldwell: Cataloochee
- Bebe Moore Campbell: 72 Hour Hold
- Ron Carlson: Return to Oakpine
- Caleb Carr: The Angel of Darkness
- Carol Cassela: Gemini
- David Allan Cates: Freeman Walker
- Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road
- Jerome Charyn: Elsinore
- Mark Childress: Gone for Good
- Meg Waite Clayton: The Race for Paris
- Jennifer Clement: Gun Love
- Harlan Coben: The Boy from the Woods
- 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
- Mitch Cullin: The Post-War Dream
- Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen
- Jasmin Darznik: Song of a Captive Bird
- Nelson DeMille: The Cuban Affair
- Pete Dexter: Deadwood
- Anita Diamant: Good Harbor
- Philip K. Dick: Flow My Tears The Policeman Said
- Eric Jerome Dickey: Bad Men and Wicked Women
- Katharine Dion: The Dependents
- Tim Dorsey: Coconut Cowboy & many more
- Roddy Doyle: The Guts
- Andre Dubus III: The Garden of Last Days
- Robert Dugoni: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell
- Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach
- Dave Eggers: The Parade
- Dave Eggers: A Hologram for the King
- Louise Erdrich: Shadow Tag
- Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves
- Louise Erdrich: Future Home of the Living God
- Louise Erdrich: The Painted Drum
- Louise Erdrich: The Sentence
- Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot
- Siobhan Fallon: The Confusion of Languages
- Jasper Fforde: Thursday Next – First Among Sequels
- F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night
- Martin Fletcher: Jacob’s Oath
- Karen Joy Fowler: The Jane Austen Book Club
- Jonathan Franzen: Purity
- Jonathan Franzen: Crossroads
- Jasmin B. Frelih: In/Half
- Charles Frazier: Nightwoods
- Tana French: The Searcher
- Carlos Fuentes: Inez
- Alan Furst: Dark Star
- Alan Furst: Spies of the Balkans
- Christina Garcia: The Lady Matador’s Hotel
- Dimitri V. Gat: The Shepherd is My Lord
- Nina George: The Little Paris Bookshop
- Amitav Ghosh: The Glass Palace
- K.B. Gilden: Hurry Sundown
- Julian Gloag: A Sentence of Life
- Justin Go: The Steady Running of the Hour
- Gail Godwin: Evensong
- David Graeber & David Wengrow: The Dawn of Everything
- Andrew Sean Greer: The Confessions of Max Tivoli
- Günter Grass: Crabwalk
- Kate Grenville: A Room Made of Leaves
- 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
- Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
- Matt Haig: The Midnight Library
- Lisa Halliday: Asymmetry
- Mohsin Hamid: Exit West
- Colin Harrison: You Belong To Me
- Jim Harrison: The Big Seven
- Brian Hart: Then Came the Evening
- Kent Haruf: Plainsong
- Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone
- Lindsay Hatton: Monterey Bay
- Paul Hawkin: Regeneration – Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation
- Paula Hawkins: Into the Water
- Mark Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War
- Mark Helprin: In Sunlight and in Shadow
- Nathan Hill: The Nix
- Russell Hill: Lucy Boomer
- Alice Hoffman: The River King
- Nick Hornby: Juliet Naked
- Paul Howarth: Only Killers And Theives
- 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
- N.K. Jemisin: The City We Became
- 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
- Elia Kazan: The Arrangement
- Joseph Kanon: Alibi
- Michelle Ruiz Keil: All of Us with Wings
- Robin Wall Kimmerer: Braiding Sweetgrass
- Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead
- Liza Klaussmann: Villa America
- Fletcher Knebel: The Bottom Line
- Nicole Krauss: Great House
- Camilla Läckberg: The Golden Cage
- Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
- Harper Lee: Go Set a Watchman
- Jonathan Lee: The Great Mistake
- Doris Lessing: The Good Terrorist
- Paulo Lins: City of God
- Mario Vargas Llosa: The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
- Sylvia Lopez-Medina: Cantora
- Jim Lynch: The Highest Tide
- Susan Elia MacNeal: The Paris Spy
- Colum McCann: Apeirogon
- Michael Malone: The Four Corners of the Sky
- Christine Mangan: Tangerine
- Michael E. Mann: The New Climate War
- Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall
- Mesha Maren: Sugar Run
- Peter Mayle: A Good Year
- Peter Mayle: Anything Considered
- Pauline Melville: Eating Air
- Pauline Melville: The Ventriloquist’s Tale
- Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night
- Derek B. Miller: The Girl in Green
- Derek B. Miller: How to Find Your Way in the Dark
- Anchee Min: Katherine
- David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
- David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
- Rick Moody: The Long Accomplishment
- Christopher Moore: Island of the Sequined Love Nun
- Erwin Mortier: While The Gods Were Sleeping
- Brian Morton: Starting Out in the Evening
- Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart
- Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki
- Tim Murphy: Christodora
- Tim Murphy: Correspondents
- 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
- Véronique Olmi: Bakhita
- 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
- Ann Patchett: The Dutch House
- Matthew Pearl: The Poe Shadow
- Louise Penny: Kingdom of the Blind
- Louise Penny: A Better Man
- Louise Penny: The Madness of the Crowds
- Arthur Phillips: The King at the Edge of the World
- Julia Phillips: Disappearing Earth
- Jodi Picoult: Small Great Things
- Jodi Picoult: House Rules
- Jodi Picoult: Wish You Were Here
- Jodi Picoult: The Book of Two Ways
- Chaim Potok: The Chosen
- Chaim Potok: The Promise
- Chaim Potok: In the Beginning
- Richard Powers: Plowing the Dark
- Richard Powers: The Time of Our Singing
- Richard Powers: The Overstory
- Bill Pronzini: A Wasteland of Strangers
- Annie Proulx: Barkskins
- Shannon Pufahl: On Swift Horses
- Michael Punke: Ridgeline
- David Rain: The Heat of the Sun
- Rishi Reddi: Passage West
- Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: Shadow Child
- Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312
- Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.: Spidertown
- Sebastian Rotella: Rip Crew
- Josh Russell: Yellow Jack
- Mary Doria Russell: Dreamers of the Day
- Richard Russo: Everybody’s Fool
- Richard Russo: Bridge of Sighs
- Richard Russo: Chances Are . . .
- Lynda Rutledge: West With Giraffes
- Carl Sandburg: Remembrance Rock
- Rakesh Satyal: No One Can Pronounce My Name
- Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.: The Possessors and the Possessed
- 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
- Scott Spencer: Willing
- 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
- Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again
- Ronald Takaki: A Different Mirror – A History of Multicultural America
- Emily Gray Tedrowe: The Talented Miss Farwell
- 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
- Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow
- David Treuer: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
- Peter Troy: May the Road Rise Up to Meet You
- John Twelve Hawks: Spark
- Anne Tyler: Vinegar Girl
- Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
- Anne Tyler: French Braid
- Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
- Leon Uris: Redemption
- Luis Alberto Urrea: The Hummingbird’s Daughter
- Luis Alberto Urrea: The House of Broken Angels
- Gabriel Urza: All That Followed
- Glendy Vanderah: Where the Forest Meets the Stars
- Gore Vidal: The Smithsonian Institution
- Dan Wakefield: Home Free
- Mary Alexander Walker: To Catch a Zombi
- Rebecca Walker: Adé
- Amy Wallace: Desire & Sorcerer’s Apprentice
- Robert James Waller: Border Music
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away
- Jess Walter: The Cold Millions
- Todd Walton: Night Train
- Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited
- Andy Weir: Project Hail Mary
- John Welter: Begin to Exit Here
- Michael Lee West: Crazy Ladies
- 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
- Lisa Wingate: Before We Were Yours
- Peter Wohlleben: The Hidden Life of Trees
- Barbara Wood: Domina
- Persia Woolley: Child of the Northern Spring
- Hanya Yanagihara: To Paradise
Irene Zabytko: The Sky Unwashed
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.
- “So much of what we know for certain is irrelevant by the time we know it.” The last line of Kathleen Alcott’s 2019 novel, America Was Hard to Find.
The Vietnam War raged on throughout my childhood and ended the year after I graduated from college. I was eleven when JFK was assassinated and seventeen when Neil Armstrong took his historically enshrined first step on the moon. I had just moved to San Francisco when the AIDS epidemic hit in the mid-1980s.
I lived through the entire history of the America Alcott describes. I remember it as a backdrop to puberty, to my ‘first time,’ to my education and to my early career. I don’t remember any of it the way she does. And I understand it less from her telling of it. But, that’s a good thing.
The questions are more important than the answers.
What was it really like for NASA astronauts? What were the bomb-throwing anti-war radicals thinking? How could gay men be happy or even cope with their friends dying all around them?
You come up with your own answers, or ask your own questions.
I’ll let you discover the beautiful Faye Fern on your own. Read for yourself how she went from a hot affair with a married Air Force pilot to anti-war renegade. You figure out the parallel between the U.S. Moon obsession and the slaughter of innocents in Southeast Asia. Let me know what you think of an American hero utterly lacking in tenderness. I invite you to wonder at the skills of a boy who knows no permanent home, no boring classroom. And when you’re done, you make your own decisions about their morality.
Perhaps I’ll understand before I die, Kathleen Alcott’s closing line inspiring my epitaph, ‘It was all irrelevant by the time I knew it.”
- 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.
- 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.
- A Long Petal of the Sea (2019) is the latest installment of my life with Isabel Allende.
Every year, for four decades, I anticipate the arrival of her next book like an old lover waiting for a packet of letters from across the sea.Since Allende now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area as do I. So those letters, in actuality, don’t need to travel far. But I envision trove after trove, year after year, of letters travelling the six thousand Pacific miles from Santiago, Chile to San Francisco. Isabel telling me more about her homeland, teaching me more about life, all the while revealing her romantic soul.Our epistolary affair began in 1982 when Isabel published The House of the Spirits. She covered four generations of Chilean history, much of the social and political upheaval mirroring that of her own family. Her family was related to and supported Salvador Allende, Chile’s first socialist president. Later they fought to save their own people from his successor, Pinochet, whose genocidal purge lasted for seventeen years.
Isabel returns to this time period with A Long Petal of the Sea just as she did with Daughter of Fortune (1999) in which she first explored what became a lifelong connection with San Francisco. But with each novel, whether connected to her Chilean roots or exploring a more ancient past –- such as with Inés of My Soul (2006) which begins in 1500 in Europe — Allende’s brilliant grasp of history transports us to the bedsides, dining rooms and battlefields of every character. She invites us to love, to labor and to win-and-lose right alongside them. And each invitation leads to Chile.In A Long Petal of the Sea we start off fighting Franco’s fascists in 1938 Spain with the Dalmau family. Barely surviving as refugees in France, Allende’s own ancestors rescue us. Chile’s real life poet-diplomat, Pablo Neruda, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Neruda an Allende family friend, manages to bring a shipload of Spanish freedom fighters to Valparaiso, Chile in 1939.No writer stitches people and decades together with such seamless quality. We happily age with the Dalmau family, suffering the years of Pinochet, surfacing again with our ability to love still intact. But, each installment of Allende’s historical novels merely abates my longing for her romances.She writes them so well because she lives them.“In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer,” she writes In the Midst of Winter (2017). Isabel herself, her life, her loves and her insight, is the center attraction of everything she writes.
- The Japanese Lover (2015) is the apogee of her romantic novels. My bias is perhaps that the story is set over five decades in San Francisco where I feel even nearer to her. Allende’s style is smooth and seductive, nothing forced, always taking the reader down alluring paths as she weaves in this heartrending, transcendent story of star-crossed love.
At age 78 Isabel Allende is reportedly in love again. Please, Isabel, write me another letter. Delight us once again with a glimpse of your love and a slice of your insight into life.
- Reading her 2021 memoir, I realized how long I’ve been in love with Isabel Allende.
“I see you’re in bed with Isabel again,” my wife teased. Since freeing up my mornings, I spend most of them reading. With the southern light streaming through the window behind me and the comfort of feet up, back supported, the book perfect positioned on a fat pillow in my lap, my bed is my favorite place to read.
I’ve taken Isabel to bed many times in the last few years. Knowing that she begins a new book every year on January 8th feels like a promise of her fidelity. She touched me in 2015 with The Japanese Love, and moved me in 2017 with In the Midst of Winter. And in 2019 with A Long Petal of the Sea she told me why Chile still lives so deep in her heart. I revel in my mornings with Isabel.
While still in business, when my mornings were not my own, my relationship with her was more furtive. I embraced Isabel on the train, took her to the gym with me, ate lunch with her alongside me and nestled her in my lap while I sat under my favorite Sequoias while twilight gathered around us. With The Infinite Plan (1991), Daughter of Fortune (1999) and Portrait in Sepia (2000) Isabel let me in, one revealing story at a time, one sweet tryst after another. She shared her Chilean roots and the loyalties born of a messy, impassioned family.
When I finished The Soul of a Woman (2021), discovering that she’s not only in love again, but married for the third time, I was not jealous. I too am married for the third time. I too settled in San Francisco years ago. And, while I can’t say, as she does in the opening line, “I was feminist in kindergarten,” I can say that, with two assertive sisters to make sure of it, I saw the light before I finished grade school.
With The Soul of a Woman Isabel reminds me why I started fighting for women’s rights when I was in my twenties, why I was a male feminist long before I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists in 2015. Isabel recounts the struggle against male-dominated political power led by women like Bella Abzug, the worldwide outreach of women like Olga Murray to save girls from misogynistic horrors, and the liberating non-binary insights of the younger generation. But she also reprimands me.
No one can truly love another person without knowing their deepest pain. In this memoir Isabel mentions Paula several times, the biographical story she wrote to her dying daughter in the early 1990s. I pulled down my copy from the high ‘A’ shelves of my library only to find that I had indeed failed her. I don’t recall the details, but when I saw the book marked at page 23, I knew I had once started the book but had not finished it. That’s a sin I rarely commit, even with authors far less endearing to me than Isabel Allende.
I spent the last two mornings in bed with Isabel, crying. And I marvel once again at her tender bravery, and at her immense success. With Paula, she came face-to-face with her past, her family legacy, all her passions, her maternal instincts, her embarrassments, her insistence and her strength. She fought with death until all that was left was love, love strong enough to let her daughter go. I am so sorry, Isabel, for not understanding this before.
- At 80, Isabel Allende remains a tour de force of literary fiction. For a less accomplished writers,Violeta (2022) might be their magnum opus. For Allende it is simply her twenty-first magnificent novel.
An autobiography and confession to her grandson Camilo, Violeta Del Valle does not hold back. She reveals her family’s checkered history starting with her father’s pretentious wealth in 1920 when Violeta was born and their fall from grace during the Great Depression. She is candid about her love affairs, her failings as a mother and wife and her inscrutable knack for making money.
As with her 2019 release, A Long Petal of the Sea, and many of Allende’s previous novels, Violeta’s life is inextricably entwined with the history of Chile and the worldwide struggle for human rights. And like all of Allende’s female protagonists, Violeta is a contradiction. Strong, yet given to passion. Smart but with critical blind spots. Loving and generous, she’s also full of heartache.
In every way she can, Violeta supports her former governess Miss Taylor and her partner, Teresa Rivas, as they campaign tirelessly for women’s rights. Yet, she cannot seem to kick the macho outlaw pilot Julian Bravo out of her life. He charms her, abuses her, relies on her and fathers her two children.
Violeta is so very human. We watch her become increasingly aware of the military dictatorship’s oppression in the 1970’s. She knows about Operation Condor, the U.S.-backed campaign aimed at overthrowing the socialist leaders of South American countries. She even knows that Julian Bravo profits from it, working for the C.I.A. At first, she tries to just ride it out, to live her life and look out for her extended family. She becomes proactive only when her son Juan Martin becomes a target of the government.
Because Violeta is so relatable, her narrative offers us a rich and very personal view of President Pinochet’s decade of terror. She is among the first to arrive at a remote cave where the body of her adopted brother and thirty other victims are found. She responds by setting a charitable foundation that aids the poor, political refugees and women in need of reproductive healthcare. She finds it’s the only way to face the news that as many as 30,000 Chileans, enemies of the state, are presumed dead.
Violeta resurrects herself time and again, always finding a way to recover happiness in each new stage of her long and complex life. She’s writing this long missive to Camilo at age 100.
“This is the end,” she says. “After a century, time is now slipping through my fingers. Where did those hundred years go?”
- 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.
- Charlie Jane Anders doesn’t just tell ‘A Tale of Science and Magic. Life and Love. And the Beginning of our Future’ in All the Birds in the Sky.
That’s what caught my eye on the book jacket, along with the flock of birds. I love birds. What I found inside was a wholly under-advertised story about the climate crisis.
At first, I wondered if Anders wrote for the Young Adult audience. We’re introduced to Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead who are both suffering the extremes of middle school cruelty. Though they are opposites – one a nature love and one a science geek — they end up hanging out together. She’s branded a creepy witch. He is routinely pummeled by bullies just for being the smartest kid in school.
We know that Patricia and Laurence are special. She can talk to birds. He built a 3-second time machine when he was twelve. When we are suddenly pulled into the near-future world of their young adulthood, we know that they’re the only ones that can save the planet from climate catastrophe.
Anders creates a magnificent metaphor for what has led us to the brink of climate catastrophe. She describes the very conflict that I witness weekly as a climate activist. Laurence represents all the billion-dollar tech interests – from the all-tech-is-good players like Apple, Facebook and Google to the space dreams of Musk and Bezos who deflect environmental issues with their tech dreams. Patricia represents me and my fellow treehuggers.
Laurence teams up with a Musk-like character to create the ‘10% Project’. Their goal is to open a wormhole that will allow them to take 10% of humanity to another habitable planet. Patricia and her worldwide network of witches simply want to heal humanity so they will re-embrace nature and avert its destruction.
The scientists believe that humans are the penultimate accomplishment of earth. They believe that humans, above all else, need to be saved, regardless of the fate of mother earth. The treehuggers believe that elephants, butterflies, whales, bees and sunflowers are no less important than humans, that we are all one.
Despite the dire realities it describes, All the Birds in the Sky is fun. Not the least of its hipness is its
cool San Francisco settings (as a San Franciscan, I love it when a writer gets it right). And it is sensual. The love story between Patricia and Laurence is so powerful that it becomes an answer, a beautiful answer.
- 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
- It’s not that Reza Aslan blew my mind by presenting startling new historical facts about Jesus. The problem is that he re-opened so many old wounds.
In his 2013 NY Times bestseller, Zealot – The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Aslan, an Iranian-American biblical scholar, presents the historical Jesus in the context of the tumultuous times in first century Palestine. Some of the specifics are new to me. Most are part of the familiar tracks that Christianity has left across two millennia of human history.
Those tracks come right up to my doorstep. I was born into a devoutly Catholic family, third in a family of ten. When I was thirteen, I entered a cloistered seminary for boys who wanted to become missionary priests. It was my choice and I was quite fervent about it. That’s how much I believed in the deified Jesus I’d been taught to love.
As Aslan verifies in ‘Zealot’, the Jesus presented by the official gospels and further glorified by Paul in the rest of the New Testament was, and is, a complete make-over of the Jewish teacher known as Jesus of Nazareth. Of the four gospels, only one was written by the men they were named after. And all of them, even Luke’s version, were written more than half-a-century after Jesus’ crucifixion. Since Jesus and all twelve of his apostles were illiterate, all of the teachings ascribed to him in the New Testament are based on oral tradition.
The man most likely to be an accurate repository of Jesus’ teachings was his brother, James. But, since James knew that what his brother taught was intended solely for his Hebrew audience, he spent the rest of his life promoting Jesus as the Jewish messiah, not as the Son of God.
But, Paul and his disciples, including Luke, wanted to deify Jesus so they backfilled his life story to reflect a god on earth who’d come to save all of humanity from our sins.
During eight years of religious study the Catholicism’s obfuscation and lies became abundantly clear. When I sought out a purer form of Christianity, I found more simplified versions of Jesus’ teachings, minus all the Catholic pomp and circumstance, but those teachings, too, were based on the writings of strangers to Jesus of Nazareth, writings formalized by the Roman Emperors.
When I was thirteen, all I wanted to do was share the joy I found in Jesus’ message of love and humility. Encountering a history of horrible Popes, hateful priests, misogyny, inquisitions, persecution, native genocide, and, later, self-proclaimed Christians brandishing burning crosses, or declaring their loyalty for hateful despots, I came to understand that anything worthwhile and true in Jesus’ teachings was already in my heart.
- 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.”
- “In life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it.” – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin.
This is not Atwood’s opening line. It’s an explanation that she doesn’t arrive at until page 417, at a point where she has already unfolded layer after layer of ‘everything that led up to it.’ The first line, page one of The Blind Assassin reads, “Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge.”
If you met Iris in the small Canadian city she grew up in, you would say she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Her father owns the town’s three major factories and she seems destined for a life of wealth and leisure. But Iris isn’t he only one telling this story. In fact, the entirety of this tale contains three stories that so are intimately aligned that they are like Russian nesting dolls.
Young Iris describes her early life, while old Iris reflects back on it with the insights, confessions and missing pieces that seem to reveal themselves in one’s final years. Interspersed between their revelations are excerpts from a book posthumously credited to Laura, the sister who drove off the bridge – a scandalous tale told by a young woman carrying on a clandestine lover affair with a leftist provocateur on the run from the law. After taking her to bed, in one seedy room after another, the leftist entertains his lover with a sci-fi story which he makes up as he goes along. He calls his story, ‘The Blind Assassin.’
While waiting to learn why Laura drove off the bridge, we are immersed in the lifestyles and history of the 1930s and 40s, we get headlines from society pages along with the larger history leading up to and through WWII. We also learn of Iris’s baby, and of Laura’s. We keep connecting the dots.
What follows the line from page 417 that I firsts quoted might as well be Atwood’s own summary of this immense story. In total, it is:
“In life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge.”
- Margaret Atwood wrote The Testaments (2019), thirty-four years after The Handmaid’s Tale(1985) and she did it without missing a beat.
I don’t know about you, but if I tried to return to a theme that was swimming around in my head back in 1985, my head would explode before I was able to slip smoothly back into that train of thought. If Atwood struggled with that, she most certainly overcame it, within the first few pages we are back into theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead — with the Eyes, the Aunts, the Handmaids and the Commanders.
The Testaments broadens quickly, taking up the lives of three very different women, two inside Gilead — a powerful Aunt and the daughter of a Commander — and one on the outside, a young woman uncertain of her past but thoroughly committed to anti-Gilead protests.
Eventually, we get a clearer picture of what happened to Offred at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale. Along with that clarity we also see much more of the intricacies of lies, blackmail and the relative instability of the Gilead power structure. With unequalled ability, Atwood enriches her original story, giving her wit, her myth-busting, and her metaphor-rich and other-worldly imagination even more elbow room.
- In his 2016 novel, The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, Karan Bajaj turns Max Pzoras’s spiritual quest into a real world adventure story.
We cheer for Max’s success in overcoming the odds that favored him falling between the cracks of a harsh Brooklyn childhood instead of rising steadily in the Manhattan business world. When Max follows his heart and takes off for India to seek out something deeper and more meaningful than our consumer-centered world, our hearts go with him.
We know that even the simplest yearning for peace must begin from within. As Max’s Israeli friend says, “The whole world’s problems are caused by man’s inability to sit quietly by himself in a room.”
When Max learns of an elusive yogi from Brazil hidden away in a Himalayan cave, he climbs the icy mountains, fails to find the man and nearly killing himself in the process. Refocusing, his path toward enlightenment leads to him to three years of yoga, hard work, minimal shelter and a near-starvation diet in a sweltering ashram in southern India.
A marathoner before he set-off on his quest, Max loses sixty pounds, becomes able to hold one breath for five minutes moving it within him to energize his core. His mind gaining clarity, he meditates for as much as six hours at a time, sleeping only two or three hours a night. But when the draught hits, leaving he and his companions with even less food and water, Max is ready to quit.
‘You’ll be fine,” his Italian friend Shakti tells him, “All these ups and downs are just small waves in the yoga of your discontent.”
We learn involution along with Max. ‘The way out of the cycle was to sublimate the I principle, relinquish all individual desire, to restrain the naturally outgoing mind fueled by the senses and turn it inward.’
Even after Max surpasses the yoga abilities of his teacher, even after two years alone in a cave, just like the yogi he originally sought to emulate, we know something is missing. We share Max’s insights into universal consciousness and see the emptiness where the missing element prevents his complete connection with ‘the one.’
When you read Bajaj’s beautifully flowing narrative, you too will soak up the insight needed to understand what Max is missing.
- 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 The Gone Dead exhumes the secrets of a rural Mississippi Delta community, it also rips the bandages off the unhealed wounds of American racism.
Billie comes back to her birthplace, where the land contains the blood and sweat of her ancestors. She hopes to unravel the mystery of her father’s death thirty years earlier, in 1972. As she forces the facts to the surface, the results are not surprising. A Black man, a poet, a freedom rider, her father ruffled the wrong feathers and he died because it. What is surprising is that the deep south of the early 21st Century still favors whitewashed stories over truth and justice.
Chanelle Benz is a powerful writer. Through her eyes, we feel the stings and tiny razor cuts of distrust and hate that American Blacks still must protect themselves from. We see white families passing along their racism, from generation to generation, diluted by history’s progress perhaps but still true to its slaveowner roots.
The Gone Dead is at once a gripping mystery and a long lens into history. Benz mixes the allegory of her white mother’s study of the Dark Ages — famines, plague, death, humans turning feral – with the vivid poetry of her Black father:
those born again die free
a lie for grateful slaves
grateful: who are better off
lie: who is better off
dig down in the unmarked earth
lay there and be free
- Even the terms used by storm chasers – the bear’s cage, a bust, a wedge and the hook echo – lend themselves to describing the cycles of deep lows and stratospheric highs that a severe bipolar condition can produce. In The Stormchasers author Jenna Blum goes beyond storm metaphors into the heart and mind of her bipolar brother.
Twins, Karena and Charles instinctively looked out for each other. She senses the onset of his manic episodes and does everything she can to keep him safe – including jumping into his car at the last minute as he suddenly takes off to chase a stormfront. But all she can do is leave him in his tortured solitude when he plunges back down.
When he suddenly disappears, all she can do, for twenty years, is track his posts on storm chaser websites. When she does find him, falling in love along the way, “She is paralyzed by the responsibility of what to do or say next. If it’s the right thing, Karena might plant the one seed in her brother’s mind that will take hold, sprout, grow prevent him from action . . . But if she says the wrong thing.”
Blum’s insight into bipolar personalities comes through as an undertone in this compelling story. I fell in love with Karena and got over any and all desire to chase F5 tornadoes in one wonderfully engaging book.
- 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.
- Best known for The Good Earth, which won her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932, Pearl S. Buck wrote more than seventy books. So, it’s no surprise that few, if any, remember the book she published in 1963 titled, The Living Reed. Too bad.
An historical novel, no book has ever opened my eyes to Korean culture and history like The Living Reed. Buck takes us into the lives of four generations of the Kim family from the late 19thCentury until the end of WWII. The Kim’s are part of the intellectual, ruling class of Korean called the ‘yangban.’ Generation after generation, as each gains greater humility and self-awareness, one thing that never changes whether it’s grandfather, father, sons or grandsons, they are all committed to a free, united, independent and thriving Korea.As Koreans, but especially as yangban, the Kim’s had much to be proud of. With a written history that goes back twenty-three centuries, Koreans invented moveable type two hundred years before Gutenberg presented his version to Europeans. While the West lived through the Dark Ages, Korea thrived in architecture, horticulture, math, science and the arts. They are gifted musicians and created a twenty-four character alphabet (hangul) that was a substantial boon to their level of literacy.
Pearl Buck renders all this history into intimate detail, from their seasonal making of kimchee to their exquisitely crafted clothing and their heated ondul floors. And though Korean society up through mid-twentieth century was patriarchal, as most were at the time, the Kim women are presented as tough and smart as they are beautiful, eager to enter schools when become available to them, but deeply rooted in traditional knowledge as well. No part in this engrossing story is told without abiding respect. It was often praised as ‘a gift of love from Pearl Buck to Korea.’
She wrote The Living Reed just ten years before she died (1973, age 80). It stands not only as a vivid presentation of her deep appreciation and love of the Korean people, but as a testament to her lifelong commitment to cross-cultural understanding, women’s rights, civil rights (she received an honorary doctorate from Howard University) and peace. She believed in humanity.
- Forty years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading William F. Buckley, Jr. I’m glad that my fondness for history finally overrode my distaste.
When I happened upon a copy of Marco Polo, If You Can, I had no idea that it was the fourth of eleven Cold War spy novels in Buckley’s Blackford Oakes series. One’s enough for me – due mostly to Buckley’s ideological sniping throughout the book, what is otherwise a credible and fast-paced plot.
Buckley is nothing if not bold. He inserts his famous CIA agent, Blackford Oakes into the role of Gary Powers, the pilot of the infamous U-2 spy plane the Soviets brought down in 1960. Instead of being shot down, Buckley’s version has Oakes purposely flying into the intercept range of Russian MiGs. Forced to land, Oakes activates a small bomb that takes out the spy camera in his tail section. All part of the plan.
Working closely with President Eisenhower, CIA Director Allen Dulles, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Oake’s boss, Rufus Bratton, plots out a counter-intelligence scheme to take out a Society spy network operating in the U.S. while simultaneously creating a rift between the USSR and Communist China. Letting the Soviets have the U-2 plane, which is loaded with fake secrets, is the final key to this elaborate plot.
Handily mixing facts and fiction, turning real world leaders into characters that serve his plot, Buckley takes every opportunity he can to promote his conservative ideology. He describes former Vice President Henry Wallace as a communist sympathizer and Truman’s former Secretary of State Dan Acheson as a flaming liberal.
At his most arrogant, Buckley promotes his own real-life diatribe against American liberalism within this work of fiction. With little to occupy his free time at a remote base where he’s training for his U-2 mission, Blackford Oakes picks up a copy of Up from Liberalism, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Buckley knows how to layer the plot, build character backstories, finesse the spycraft and entertain us with smoldering sex scenes (what would a spy novel be without smoldering sex scenes). Aside from tripping over his own ego, he recreates a fascinating time in American history, rife with the movers-and-shakers of that time.
My favorite discovery was Henry Wallace. I’d heard of him, of course, but hadn’t ever given him much thought. Because Buckley paints him as such a liberal, I had to look him up.
When FDR ran for his fourth term as president, he dropped his then Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket. They had disagreed about what the post-war world should look like, Roosevelt rejecting Wallace’s vision of the ‘Century of the Common Man’. By choosing Harry Truman as his new VP, FDR dramatically changed the course of history. As one of his biographers pointed out, if Wallace had become president in 1945 (instead of Truman), “there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War.
A friend and supporter of Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr. is the last person I would have wanted to hang out with in 1983 when he wrote Marco Polo, If You Can. Knowing now that he favored legalization of marijuana and that he liked Noam Chomsky – or at least he like to debate him, maybe I should have paid more attention to him back then – keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
- 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.
- Shooting the Sun is a lot of fun. It’s also a subtle commentary on the origins of climate change.
While singing the praises of early Industrial Revolution ingenuity, including the first computer, Max Byrd treats us to a covered wagon expedition into the largely unexplored Southwest, desolate deserts, campfire grub, fierce Apache, star-filled nights and all.
The story would be less fun if he didn’t include brilliant women upending the stodgy patriarchal practices of the time.
Central to the plot — and to the upending of condescending men — is Miss Selena Cott. She was still a girl when her father taught her global navigation. But if not for secretly listening in to her brother’s science tutors and being taken under the wing of Miss Cunningham, first female Oxford-trained scientist, she would not have invented a way to accelerate daguerreotype exposure time. Without it, she wouldn’t have been sent to America to photograph a total eclipse of the sun.
‘Shooting the sun’ is a navigator’s term used to describe a sextant siting the sun at a specific time of day in order to determine longitude. In this story, it describes the trajectory of the plot. Charles Babbage – the real-life inventor of the first thinking machine – has used his Difference Machine to determine the exact date, time and location of the next solar eclipse.
The expedition he financed must get Miss Cott to the only place where the total eclipse can be seen. It happens to be in a land claimed by the Republic of Texas, Mexico, the Kiowas and the Apache. Like I said – fun stuff.
But I erred in saying that Max Byrd was merely ‘singing the praises of early Industrial Revolution ingenuity.’ Alert climate activist that I am, I read Byrd’s vivid images of the 1840’s, when the Industrial Revolution was well underway, and thought, ‘ahh shit, here it is, this is where we start fucking up our planet.’
Looking for Byrd’s reference to my concerns, I was thrilled by his rye reference to ‘the great theme of the 19th Century – science triumphing over nature.’
When the macho Brit leading the Southwest expedition is preparing to abandon Selena, having found the alternative source of riches he’d had in his sights all along, he delivers a final nail-in-the-coffin declaration, “The great concern of the nineteenth century, I’m afraid, Miss Cott, is actually the triumph of money over . . . everything.”
- 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.”
Freeman Walker by David Allan Cates starts out as a mulatto boy’s quest to understand freedom and ends as a cryptic Don Quixote-like tale.
Born a slave, Jimmy Gates is granted his freedom by his owner/father at the age of seven. Just before boarding him on a ship to England for an education, his father stuffs two documents in his pockets – a copy of the Declaration of Independence and his manumission papers.
His father’s parting words emphasize the point that though we are free, we all suffer and none of us is in control of what happens to us. At school, when he can finally read, Jimmy begins to understand that like the Declaration says, we have the right to life and liberty but we can only pursue happiness.
Forced to leave school at the age of eleven when his father dies in a shipwreck on his way to England, Jimmy spends the next six years working twelve-hour days in a tanning factory. Stealing enough to take a ship back to America, he arrives in Philadelphia at the beginning of the Civil War.
All this time, Jimmy has written letters to his mother who, as far as he knows, remains a slave back in Virginia. Despite never receiving a reply, he goes in search of her.
“Homing in on the farm where I was born, I thought again of what had made me, what had brought me here: a father’s hope, a mother’s love. We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
But his mother has long since been sold away by his father’s angry widow. Wandering despondently in the general direction she might be, Jimmy stumbles into one bloody battle after another. At one point, he inadvertently saves the life of a former Irish revolutionary named Cornelius O’Keefe who commands an Irish-American brigade for the Union Army.
O’Keefe is an orator and an idealist that Jimmy remembers from his school days because one of his speeches echoed his father’s own statement on freedom: “I am not ungrateful to the man who struck the fetters from my limbs while I was yet a child.”
They’re encounter is brief and the last good thing that happens two Jimmy for the next two years of the war. Captured by Confederates, he’s forced into slavery. His job is to bury dead rebels.
The price of his salvation, when Union forces finally liberate him, is far worse than any of the abuse he suffered during his enslavement. So horrific that when Jimmy walks away, he changes his name to Freeman Walker – walking away from his previous identity.
A few years later, after he stumbles west toward gold country, Jimmy has good fortune and bad. At his lowest point, freezing under the steps of a saloon in a rugged mining town, he sees a man ride into town whom he immediately recognizes as the former Colonel, Cornelius O’Keefe.
What follows is an odyssey as poignant as Don Quixote, with Jimmy in the role of Sancho Panza, awed but uncertain about the man he follows. He’s not clear whether O’Keefe is in fact the newly appointed Governor of the Western Territory or not. But he rises to the Colonel’s mission to stop the pay-for-scalps slaughter of the natives.
O’Keefe says: “Hope and imagination are the beginnings of the triumph of bold justice over mean respectability. They are the first steps away from the terror of safety onto the risky but joyful freedom trail.”
He adds: “Perhaps it’s natural for the strong to prey on the weak. But it’s also natural for human beings to image otherwise. And to act in accordance with what we have imagined.”
Convinced that his Invisible Militia – the ghosts of all the soldiers who had died under his leadership – can defeat a well-armed posse of Indian-hating vigilantes, O’Keefe explains to Freeman, “Ours is not a story of regular folks. For if the world had only regular folks with regular natures, where would the world be? Where would be its valor, its heroism, its faith?”
In the final scene, Freeman is standing alone in a wide-open prairie. He has just learned that his mother is dead. He has nothing and he’s free to choose whichever direction he wants.
“This way, I thought, and it was while I was limping matter-of-factly down the broad and grassy hill – just about when I figured myself through with magic and madness – that a cloud shadow passed over me briefly – and I felt touched by a wild, unexpected joy.”
- His working title was ‘Jews with Swords’, but people laughed so Michael Chabon published it as Gentlemen of the Road.
A straightforward adventure story set in a medieval Middle Eastern empire, the elder of the two travelers is a tall scarecrow-like physician from the West. His companion is a burly African ex-soldier. They both claim Jewish ancestry, though neither lets religion stand in the way of con games, horse thievery and, if need be, a quick dispatching of an enemy or two.
Though they live by their wits, both citing vague excuses for not returning to their homelands, Zelikman and Amram have noble hearts. In a series of derring-do worthy of Dumas’ musketeers, they help a mysterious youth reclaim his/her family’s overthrown kingdom.
Written in a classic style –- By the door in the inn yard, where the ostler leaned, whispered odds were laid and taken, and the mahout heard the clink of coins . . . ‘ — this novella is one you might read to your child (of the right age) at bedtime, but find yourself reading long after the child is asleep. Each chapter includes a lively sketch (by Gary Gianni) – enhancing it’s stories-of-old style.
- 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.
- Gone for Good (1998) by Mark Childress is a wild ride. It’s the 1970’s. And the story’s hero is a rock star. So, yeah – a wild ride. But it doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to.
‘The New Super-Poet of Pop’ known by his millions of adoring fans as Superman Willis fantasizes about escaping his life of fame as well as his fame-addicted wife. Unwittingly, he actually does escape.
Ben (Superman) got his pilot’s license so he could fly from one concert venue to another all on his own. Wrong turn, a storm, an unintended stop in Mexico, some really strong pot . . . lo and behold he’s out of fuel, over the ocean, and is forced to make a crash-landing on an island beach.
Ben soon realizes two things. This is no ordinary island and he has no idea how to get off it.
After Amelia Earhart, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Hoffa and assorted cast of other talented people who had fantasized about escaping their lives of fame show up in the story, we realize that this is going to be ‘a long, strange trip’.
It is a trippy novel. Jerry Garcia would have dug it. I know I did, but then I lived the 1970’s.
- 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.
- Naturally, The Boy from the Woods is named Wilde. In the novel’s preface, author Harlan Coben features a newspaper article about the ‘Real-Life Mowgli’ found in a New Jersey forest in 1986, the boy Wilde is based on. In this fictional account, Wilde is a grown man, a veteran of Army Special Forces who chose to move back into the New Jersey woods when he returned to home.
Educated, financially secure but still unable to get a good night’s sleep unless he’s out under the stars, Wilde is a good man with a unique set of skills. But, when his godson asks him to help find a missing teenage girl, he has no idea the secrets he’s about to uncover.
He finds that the missing teen is a purposeful misdirection, part of the strategy employed by the high-level security team of a U.S. Senator who’s about to launch his bid for the presidency. Because he’s so adept at stealth, Wilde spies out the secrets of the Senator’s former friend, a TV producer whose mansion is surrounded by the dense wooded land that Wilde knows like the back of his hand. The missing girl’s would-be boyfriend is the son of the producer.
The desperate Senator knows that back when he starred in a TV reality show, the producer taped everything, including his behind-the-scenes confession.
Before I trespass into spoiler territory, let me just say that the unique backstory and character of Wilde is what makes this story rise above what’s typical in the crowded crime-solving genre.
- 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.
- Though they’re of my parents’ generation and retired to a planned community in the desert, something I cannot fathom, in The Post-War Dream Hollis and Debra love each other the way I love, and have loved for the past forty-four years. Author Mitch Cullin describes a two-together at-the-end-of-life experience that I hope I’ve earned. That we’ve earned . . .
“. . . pacified by the sudden understanding that all things born are fated to move toward their end.”
It is a superbly written book.
- “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.
- “Nothing about how you feel is silly . . . this whole thing sucks.” In a health crisis, we all need a friend who speaks frankly. Good Harbor by Anita Diamant is about that kind of friendship.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Kathleen, a 59-year-old librarian, feels like she should be happy that she needs radiation therapy and not a mastectomy. Fortunately, she’s just met 42-year-old Joyce, a writer going through a mid-life crisis at her new summer home in Good Harbor.
The joy of Diamant’s writing is that even though I’m a 70-year-old man, I can stand within this new friendship, understand it with deep appreciation. The unfiltered dialogue that flows between Kathleen and Joyce, the urgency with which they are at each other’s side with each turn of uncertainty and moral crisis defines the truest kind of friendship.
Before you get the impression that Good Harbor is sappy, I should probably mention the illicit love affair, the deep dive into marital strife and the question of faith – in both the religious sense and basic faith in life even when it sucks.
- 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 govern 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.
- Reading Tim Dorsey is one of my guilty pleasures. And like a shot of Don Julio tequila when cobwebs and questions have clogged the brain-pan, Dorsey never fails to deliver.
It doesn’t matter which title you pick-up – Florida Roadkill, Tigerfish Twist, Cadillac Beach, Sharkskin or any of twenty others. In each you’ll find the brilliant and homicidal Serge A. Storms waxing philosophic with his perpetually stoned sidekick, Coleman, while they travel the roads of Florida.
Serge and Coleman are always on a noble mission. In Coconut Cowboy (which I just read) they’re in search of an alternate ending to the classic biker flick Easy Rider. One in which, “Two freethinkers exploring the limitless road of our great nation,” are not, “wasted by a pair of mental dead ends.”
And this is where the guilty part comes in. When Serge identifies a wrong-doer, someone who is a menace to society or just plain evil, he finds ever-more creative ways to end their time on earth. Slip Serge into the Easy Rider plot and he would definitely have concocted a fitting end to the ‘mental dead ends’ who shot Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper).
As a reader, you find yourself cheering for the vigilante justice that Serge and Coleman mete out at every turn of the road. Though you’d be loath to admit it in public, you’re pumping your fist at each creatively gruesome death certain that the fuckers deserved it. Let’s just call it an excellent vent for inner rage at the world’s injustices.
My recent favorite, for example, happens one dark night when Serge can’t sleep. Exploring fetishist websites just for the hell of it, he finds one deeply disturbing. He’s not one to judge anyone’s peculiarities, but this one strikes at the heart of his moral code – cruelty to animals or truly innocent people. This pay-for-performance site involves stomping. Whatever gets you off, cockroaches, mice, rats, snakes or rabbits, they will stomp it to death.
We scrunch our faces into a collective ‘eeewww’ and happily await Serge’s solution. Dorsey tells it better, so let’s just say that once Serge and Coleman find the owner of the offensive website, his fate involves a donkey, lots of carrots and a near-sighted hippopotamus. Poetic justice.
Between the tragedies of life and the lyrical images that great literature can paint of them, sometimes there’s just nothing like picking up a book and just laughing your ass off. Such is the writing of Tim Dorsey.
- 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.
- A love story and a life story, ‘The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell’ by Robert Dugoni is quite sappy – in a very good way.
Sam Hill was born with red eyes. His friends called him ‘Sam Hell.’ His taunters called him ‘Devil Boy’ or worse. His mother told him he would have an extraordinary life and he believed her.
What make Sam special wasn’t that he saw the world differently. It was that the world saw him differently. After his mom won the first big battle of his life – to get him admitted by the local Catholic school – Sam learned to stand up for himself. That’s what won him lifelong friends including Ernie, the only Black kid in the school, and Mickie, a tough girl who was afraid of nothing.
With his friends at his side, Sam stayed true to his mother’s dream for him. He did not become bitter about being bullied and he grew more compassionate every day, eventually becoming an ophthalmologist who treated patients around the world who were unable to afford eyecare.
The story moves back and forth from Sam’s childhood to his perspective as a 40-year-old doctor. We know that the seeds he planted when he got his worst bully expelled from school will come back to haunt him. We have no idea how tragic it will be. We know Mickie is in love with him and only in the end do we discover why she refused to move beyond their close friendship. We know Ernie has a promising athletic career in front of him. We have no idea how successful.
We know, as well, that Sam’s mother will find a way to bring him back to faith in the almighty. Even if you’re able to guess the final path it will put him on, your eyes will well with tears in the final passages. Like I said, this book does not shy away from sappy emotions. It revels in them.
On a personal note, Sam Hell’s life story touched on several elements of my own. I too had a very Catholic mother who managed to get me and my siblings into a Catholic grade school where the first sight of nuns in their full regalia scared the hell out of us. And, coincidentally, this story takes place in the town of Burlingame, CA, just down the road from where I’ve lived for the past forty years. Sam’s story also includes his experience during the massive San Francisco earthquake in 1989, which I lived through. Perhaps I should also confess that I don’t shy away from sappy feelings, especially when they’re honest and deeply felt.
- 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.
- Dave Eggers delights in sad-sack characters. And, as he demonstrates in A Hologram for the King, he’s great at making them interesting.
Nothing happens in this 2012 novel. Literally nothing. Alan Clay and his team are all set-up to present their holographic technology to the King of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been provided a luxuriously carpeted, wi-fi enabled tent in the middle of the desert, fifty miles from Jeddah just for that purpose. Though Alan makes a mad scramble to get there on time the first day, the king doesn’t make it. For days on end, for weeks, the king doesn’t make it.
Alan accepts the paltry excuses he’s been given daily by the king’s staff because he’s desperate. He’s a fifty-four-year-old businessman who helped ride Schwinn into bankruptcy in the early 1980’s and after another couple decades as a deal-making consultant, he’s deeply in debt, has a predatory ex-wife and a daughter named Kit whom he loves.
He spends his idle time in the desert trying to compose a letter to Kit that will explain her mother. He’s not sure why he wants Kit to forgive her mom. But It just might have something to do with the forgiveness he hopes for when her tells her that he doesn’t have the money for her next semester of college.
Alan Clay is so desperately sad that he fails twice at having guilt-free sex with two women who come on to him out of their own boredom.
One of the lines in his pile of crumpled letters is, “Kit, Live long enough and you’ll disappoint everyone.”
As much as I admire Dave Eggers’ fluent story-telling, I wonder if, at some point, he was so taken by Henry David Thoreau’s famous line that he set out to prove it.
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
- 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.
- Louise Erdrich is Chippewa and one of America’s greatest living novelists. Coming on the heels of her 2021 Pulitzer Prize (for The Night Watchman), The Sentence reasserts the caliber of her immense writing skills.
Erdrich’s writing is inseparable from her Native roots, yet to say she’s a great Native American writer is to ignore her 30-year impact on American Literature.
The Sentence, about both kinds of sentences, is layered beyond my ability to summarize. The double-meaning of the title is just the beginning.
Sentenced to a long prison stretch for the capricious crime of moving a dead body across state lines, Tookie is in an isolation cell when she’s delighted by a greenbottle fly which lands on her hand. Looking for it the next morning she finds it smeared across her palm: I’d slapped it to death in my sleep. I was fucked. Of course I’d lost all sense of irony because I lived in a cruel cliché. But in the despair of routine any aberration is a radiant signal.
After her release, when Tookie’s story travels into 2020, the pandemic abruptly interrupts everyone’s routine. Though it’s hard to see it as a ‘radiant signal’, everyone, including Tookie, experiences an awakening.
Coupled to the world’s renewed sense of human fragility caused by the pandemic, Tookie lives in Minneapolis. During the months following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, the city explodes. A former tribal cop, Tookie’s husband Pollux wonders, “How was it that protests against police violence showed how violent police were?”
Through it all, including her husband’s bout with Covid, Tookie battles a much more personal demon as well.
Flora, a regular at the small bookstore where Tookie works, a woman known to the mostly Native staff as a wannabe, suddenly dies. Flora’s daughter brings Tookie the book her mom was reading when she died, an unpublished manuscript written by a 19th Century Métis woman. Because her ghost begins to haunt the store, seemingly focused on her, Tookie has no choice but to figure out the meaning of the sentence Flora was reading when she died.
We all suffered an awakening of one kind of another during the pandemic. In that respect, Tookie’s suffering – sleeping in her car in the hospital parking lot just to be near her ailing husband – is not unique. But she also suffers the insecurities of an being abandoned child. Her mother was drugged out during most of childhood. Of her father she says, “His crimes were supernumerary, every hour he was absent from my life was an offense.”
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Tookie is also suffering, along with every Black man, woman and child in America, the outrage of systemic racism. She references the history of Native oppression in Minnesota, going all the way back to the Dakota War of 1862. Like Black oppression, it never ended.
She explains, “We may be a striver city of blue progressives in a sea of red, but we are also a city of historically sequestered neighborhoods and the old hatreds that die hard or leave a residue that is invisible to the well and wealthy, but chokingly present to the ill and the exploited.”
Tookie’s haunting becomes her purgatory, where she battles the fears of a newly destabilized world and all the pain of her own life. Fortunately, she is a very strong woman surrounded by strong and insightful people – the kind of people you might imagine a writer like Louise Erdrich would surround herself with.
The bookstore Tookie works at is the one owned in real life by Louise Erdrich, Birchbark Books. Though a relatively minor character, Louise does a cameo in her own book. She asks about the ghost. When Tookie explains that the sentence the woman was reading may have killed her, Louise jokes, “Ah, to be able to write a sentence like that.”
- 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.
- If you’re unfamiliar with the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, you’re obviously stuck in the world of clearly defined genres.
Fforde writes in ‘a no-mans-land somewhere between the warring factions of Literary and Absurd’ says Goodreads. Others try to be more specific, classifying his work as ‘comic fantasy, alternate history mystery novels.’
Thursday Next lives in Swindon, but not the one you’d recognize if you currently reside in South West England. Though her husband seems unaware of it, nearly every day Thursday exits their cozy little town by reading herself into BookWorld. Once there, her Jurisfiction license empowers her to hunt down characters escaping from their storylines, to stop Racy Novels from invading the Feminist genre and to deal with subtler issues such as word drift and Class C writing offenses such as beginning a sentence with ‘and.’
In a sideline plot, Thursday’s son, named Friday, of course, is being actively recruited by the ChronoGuard who believe he has special time travel skills that will help them stop time from rolling up on itself.
This already seems complicated – right? The beauty of Fforde’s writing is that the interwoven plots, the absurd conditions and the characters – those in BookWorld and in Swindon – all begin to make sense. You don’t really notice when this happens because you’re laughing out loud while you immerse yourself in the first few chapters.
There are a total of seven Thursday Next books in two series. The one I randomly chose is: Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, which begins the second series.
I was unaware of the series or of Jasper Fforde when I plunged in. The first paragraph threw a hook into my sense of irony and imagination. Let’s see if it does the same for you:
The dangerously high level of stupidity surplus was once again the lead story in The Owl that morning. The reason for the crisis was clear: Prime Minister Redmond van de Poste and his ruling Commonsense Party had been discharging their duties with a reckless degree of responsibility that bordered on inspired sagacity. Instead of drifting from one crisis to the next and appeasing the nation with a steady stream of knee-jerk legislation and headline-grabbing but arguably pointless initiatives, they had been resolutely building a raft of considered long-term plans that concentrated on unity, fairness and tolerance. It was a state of affairs deplored by Mr. Alfredo Traficcone, leader of the opposition Prevailing Wind Party, who wanted to lead the nation back into the safer grounds of uninformed stupidity.
- 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.
- I enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club immensely, despite having never read a Jane Austen novel.
Author Karen Joy Fowler used the characters of Austen’s six romantic novels as reflective tools. It doesn’t take long to understand that Jocelyn’s rule-making and her aversion to marriage mirror Elizabeth Bennet, the lead character in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Her best friend, Sylvia, ruminates in the ambivalence of her own happiness. Does she want her husband back or doesn’t she? It’s clear that her uncertainty doesn’t really trouble her. When she receives a letter from her husband asking to come back, “She carried the letter about, rereading and rereading, watching her feeling rearrange about it, sentence by sentence, like a kaleidoscope.” This, apparently, can be said of a host of the women in Austen’s novels.
Sylvia’s daughter, Allegra, embraces the idea that some of Austen’s characters are lesbians like her, a woman who doesn’t object to men, just to their bodies.
And flightless Prudie, a teacher and lover of all things French who has never been to France. Has she not benefitted from a marrying a reliable man, like so many of Austen’s 18th Century women with uncertain futures? Her friend Bernadette is the opposite, yet so Austen-like. Married three times, ready for a fourth, certain of happiness every time, Bernadette embraces Austen’s wisdom that “The mere habit of learning to love is the thing.”
Grigg, the only man in the Jane Austen Book Club, is also the only one not in pursuit of Austen’s romantic wisdom. He is, in fact, in pursuit of romance itself. When he introduces Jocelyn to Ursula Le Guin, he becomes the story’s hero (or, at least, my mine).
Perhaps I am a bit like Grigg, eavesdropping on The Jane Austen Book Club with ulterior motives. Unlike me Grigg did read the novels, but only to understand the woman he was so drawn to. My ulterior motive was to better understand Jane Austen’s enduring popularity, especially among women.
If, and when, I do read Jane Austen, I promise you I will not emulate Mark Twain who said of Austen, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”*
*A brilliant afterword to Fowler’s novel: she provides a chronological listing of what famous authors have said about Austen, from Sir Walter Scott in 1815 to J.K. Rowling in 2003. The twenty pages of quotes also speak to the enduring impact of Jane Austen.
- 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.”
- Jonathan Franzen didn’t set out to write about my life, or my brother’s life or my mother’s life, but he might as well have.
Whether you came of age during the Vietnam War or were from the generation that raised a crop of baby boomers, Crossroads intersects with your life. Franzen’s brilliance is in orchestrating this cultural intersection into such a compelling chorus of voices.
What’s it like to be pushing fifty, underpaid, with four kids to support and a wife you no longer desire? Russ will tell you that his Christian values are still intact. He’s a good associate pastor and no matter what the kids in the Crossroads youth group say, he is not a square. Nor is he at fault for where his kids seem headed. His wife took over that job long ago.
Perry wouldn’t call his dad a square. He’d call him generationally compromised. He does not expect him, or any adult for that matter, to grasp the world he sees with his 160 IQ. They see a fifteen-year-old who’s bored with school. He sees a world that looks much calmer through a haze of marijuana.
Clem knows that his father won’t disapprove, but how can he explain the eye-opening revelation he’s received in bed with the woman who introduced him to sex? He cannot honor his father’s pacifist convictions. Afterall didn’t God have a hand in his draft lottery number. If he’d been born on a different day, he wouldn’t be #19. If he doesn’t forgo his deferment, some poor black kid from the South Side will be sent in his place.
Becky never tried to be the most popular girl in high school and neither of her parents pushed her in that direction. But why does her dad seem to show her off at every public opportunity? Maybe it’s time to stop being such a good girl.
Marion can’t remember why she got fat, but maybe how. She sees that she’s “become invisible in a warm cloud of momminess.”
If her youngest, Judson, didn’t love baking sugar cookies, she wouldn’t have eaten all the broken ones. But both she and her therapist know it’s more about the lies than the sugar cookies. When she married Russ, it felt like a new beginning. Why mention the rape, the abortion or her stint in a psychiatric ward? That all happened in another lifetime.
In the end, Crossroads is a compelling, wonderfully crafted narrative recalling Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
- IN/HALF by Slovenian author Jasmin B. Frelih is reminiscent of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, top heavy with information, purposefully disorienting in its presentation.
Wallace didn’t set his in the future as Frelih has, but both stories feature a cast of screwed-up characters and unconventional writing styles.
Frelih tells three entirely different stories, all set in the near future after ‘The Great Cacophony’ has cut the world in/half. The proliferation of too many voices, initiated at the birth of the world wide web, has led to global chaos. No one knows who’s speaking, who’s in charge or who is on which side.
Frelih alternates between three chapter titles: Pancake Palace, Abraham and Poetrylitics.
In the Pancake Palace chapters, Evan, who happens to love chocolate pancakes, has been brought to a future-Tokyo to direct a play. But his addiction to a mind-accelerating drug known as ‘mAk’ sends him down the rabbit hole. He ditches his robot manager to seek out a part of the city that has been fouled with something that causes hallucinations.
Abraham chapters center around former Solvenian defense minister Kras Wolf’s 50th birthday party. The entire Wolf clan has gathered. Some of them fear Kras, others either hate him or hero-worship him. All of them condemn him when, in the middle of the daylong party, he takes an axe to the tree holding the old family treehouse. He found pornography in it.
Finally, the mysterious Zoja, the star of Poetrylitics. The censored poet has come out of hiding. A Brooklyn audience of her die-hard fans awaits her arrival. When she finally gets there, they are ecstatic. And they didn’t even know that she planned to perform her poetry in the nude.
A sample of Zoja’s poetry: society crumbles
because it runs out of
and it gapes
and it yawns
and falls silent.
Frelih revels in mythic themes. At Zoja’s poetry reading is man who claims to be the Fisher King. He implies that he has indeed been alive from the time of King Arthur and, just as the legend claims, is the final guardian of the Holy Grail. He walks through the crowd with a chalice collecting the sweat that runs of Zoja’s young jubilant crowd of fans.
Some of the themes still elude me. A segment in one of the Poetrylitics chapters opens: “Cats had been living under a strict military dictatorship for millennia.” I know it has something to do with a hard-to-place character named Ludovico who wants to “cast into the torture chambers of the most horrific of beasts.” He has a freezer full of dead cats.
A Publishers Weekly reviews said that In/Half is a story of “trauma, family, and ambition.” It “sustains its ghostly, ethereal tone and will be appreciated by readers looking for a mind-bending puzzle.”
Jasmin B. Frelih bewilders me no less that David Foster Wallace did. Infinite Jest lives on.
- It’s December 23, 1971, and heavy weather is forecast for Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless–unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it.
Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh graders, has resolved to be a better person.
Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate. Nightwoods is a work of art. That’s 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.
- In The Searcher, Tana French takes her time unfurling the mystery of what happened to the missing teen named Brandon Reddy.
The time she takes is well-used, for the views of Ireland’s bucolic charm, and for getting to know the ex-Chicago-cop looking for the boy. Cal Hooper’s character is part of the mystery. How far will he go? What will he do when he finds out?
As we come to understand more about Cal’s personal history, including his reasons for emigrating to rural Ireland, we discover along with him that the gentle folk of the countryside are not so gentle, and the countryside holds centuries of secrets.
What recommends this book is the author’s ability to see the world through the eyes of a middle-aged man. From his myopic view of how his marriage ended to his singularly macho joy of being able to adjust his balls without anyone around to see, Tana French is obviously a keen observer of the heterosexual male.
- 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 Shepherd is My Lord (1971) by Dimitri V. Gat – this article is on my main blog at: https://daverhodywriting.wordpress.com/2022/08/05/me-abbey-rhodes/
- 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.
- In The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh integrates over one hundred years of Southeast Asian history into the everyday hopes and dreams of two extended families, one Indian, one Burmese.
Through the eyes of Dolly, an attendant to the royal family, we witness King Thebaw, Burma’s last monarch, being dethroned by the British in 1885. We watch Rajkumar, a young Indian roustabout, rise with the economic tides of British/Indian domination of Burma and WWI’s demand for Burmese resources. Raj’s romantic pursuit of Dolly becomes as inevitable as the impact of WWII on their children’s lives.
Ghosh endears us to a dozen other characters, each, in their own way struggling to free themselves from the grip of colonialism — Indian soldiers turning against their British commanders, children rejecting their families’ imperial clutches and grandchildren looking back from the 21st Century wondering how it all unfolded with such tragic consequence.
Among the hundreds of insights woven into Ghosh’s fine historical tapestry, the most profound comes from an awakened Indian-born British Army officer, Arjun. When he comes to understands that everything in his world has been colored by the British Empire’s domination, he thinks:
“. . . where, in resisting the powers that form us, we allow them to gain control of all meaning; this is their moment of victory: it is in this way that they inflict their final and most terrible defeat.”
In witnessing the late 1990’s struggle of Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi through the eyes of Raj’s granddaughter, we see the full import of Arjun’s profound.
- 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.”
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.
“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.”
- Great novelists are not always famous, just as amazing books are not always among those that are widely acclaimed.
Have you, for example, ever heard of Julian Gloag? When I recently picked up a copy of his 1966 novel, A Sentence of Life, his name struck me as usual, a name that seemed hard to pronounce. But, like many of you, I didn’t experience even the faintest glimmer of recognition of his name while I stumbled through possible pronunciations.
I’m writing this, of course, because A Sentence of Life is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read.
For the first few chapters, Gloag’s writing is simple and straightforward – “He held the daffodils awkwardly. Willy never appreciated the problems of carrying flowers on a crowded Monday-morning bus . . .” We are just getting to know Jordan Maddox, a simple man, a dull marriage, a dull job, an absent-minded man. We develop a mild interest, partly out of sympathy for a man lacking the fire of life, and partly because of his negligible response to the news that his secretary is dead.
As the dimensions of the story expand, so does Gloag’s writing. When the London policy hustle Jordon, moving quickly from friendly questions to pointed accusations, the writing picks up speed and impact.
“Jordan got up. He clutched the jug tightly, but even so spilled water as he filled the glass. He drank one glass, two, three. It was warm and heavily chlorinated, and went from his lips to his throat without moistening his leather-dry mouth.”
When the story shifts to a courtroom drama, Gloag is as good as any writer I’ve ever known at quick banter, shifting tactics, Jordan’s defense lawyers laying clever traps for the crown’s witnesses.
Chapters alternative between courtrooms scenes and Jordan’s contemplative jail time and we shift along with him, from bone-brittle nerves to calm resignation to his Kafkaesque world.
Finally, Gloag processes Jordan’s past with profound insight. He reviews Jordan’s orphaned childhood, his disappointing love life, his choice of a wife who is as unemotional as the uncle who raised him. We see Jordan unwind and accept the disappointments of his life. Jordan remembers a conversation with June, his secretary, before her death.
“Yet when you think what man was, say, then thousand years ago, things don’t seem quite such a matter of life and death. And I tend to think that history, and a vast acreage of our private life too – much more so than most people will credit – is very closely predetermined.
It was probably the title – A Sentence of Life – that first caught my attention. The novel delivers all the nuanced meaning of that simple phrase. If you wonder, as I do, why I had never heard of Julian Gloag, here’s a plausible theory.
From 1963 to 1996, Gloag wrote eleven novels. He gained brief notoriety in England for his first novel, Our Mother’s House, before he moved to the United States. Soon afterward he emigrated to France, where he still resides at the age of 91. His most recent novels were written in French, with whom he has found an adoring audience. He appears to be a great writer who was in search of a home.
- 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.
- David Graeber & David Wengrow – The Dawn of Everything – A New History of Humanity: see main blog site: https://wordpress.com/view/daverhodywriting.wordpress.com
- The Confessions of Max Tivoli is the saddest book I’ve ever read. Yet, Andrew Sean Greer deserves every award he’s received for writing it.
Max is aging backward and Greer misses no small detail of anguish that comes with him knowing there will only be one all-too-brief span, in the middle of his life, when he will be normal, when his age will coincide with the world sees him.
Worse, Max falls madly in love when he is still quite young. A seventeen-year-old who looks fifty, he longs to touch fourteen-year-old Alice. While his actions are complex, hard even for us to understand though we’re in on his secret, Max is not confessing to us.
Max is making this confession late in life to his son, Sammy, whose mother is Alice.
Søren Kierkegaard said, ‘Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forwards.’
Max was not spared that challenge. But he had to do it while his body aged backwards.
If you enjoy tragic poetry, The Confessions of Max Tivoli* will hit the sweet spot.
*And, no, The Curious Life of Benjamin Button (made famous by the movie starring Brad Pitt) is not based on this novel. That script was adapted from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- An astonishingly beautiful novel, A Room Made of Leaves belongs on the top shelves of feminist literature as well as historical fiction. Author Kate Grenville re-examines the early colonial history of Australia through the eyes of an extraordinary woman.
Though educated, smart and strong, Elizabeth Macarthur has few prospects, a reality common to most 18th Century women, whether in Ireland or elsewhere. She barely remembers her father who died when she was young and she was unwelcome in the new household her mother found by remarrying. After a few years living with her grandfather where she learns a bit about sheep farming, she is shunted off to live with her best friend in a vicarage.
Very aware of the ticking clock that eligible young women faced before being thrown into the spinster pile, Elizabeth and her friend are very unaware of what physical intimacy with the opposite sex involves. She knows what she witnessed among farm animals and that’s it. After a brash decision to let herself be ‘taken’ by a gruff young ensign, Elizabeth finds herself pregnant and is quickly married off to him.
It doesn’t take her long to feel enslaved to her husband’s animal desires. His lack of tenderness, or any consideration for her willingness much less her satisfaction, she belabors her fate, “As a wife with nowhere to go beyond wifedom, I was no more than a tenant in my body. If the landlord came to the door, I was obliged to let him in.”
When the Macarthurs arrive in Sydney with a newborn son, the small penal colony is struggling to survive. Neither the guards or their prison laborers know how to farm the land and, as with colonists the world over, they ignore native wisdom, shoving the Aboriginal people aside or killing them rather than learning from them. Fear of famine is ever-present.
Elizabeth discovers in herself the ability to outwit and outwait her stubborn husband. While not exactly making peace with her lot in life, she never shrinks from opportunities to better it. While Mr. Macarthur, as she always calls him, blusters about with bold plans, bullying and manipulating, Elizabeth watches and learns. She builds a future for her family.
Without being a spoiler, I assure you that midway through the book, you will champion every move Elizabeth makes. You will find out about her mysterious ‘room made of leaves’ in the heart of the story and you will love her for her soul-bearing honesty, not just about herself but about the world she participates in.
And you will love her for her soul-bearing honesty, not just about herself but about the world she participated in. She speaks of what was done to the Gadigal, the Wangal and the Burramattagal tribes around her, “Not just the cruelties inflicted. Not just the deaths. Behind all this is another, fundamental violence: the replacement of the true history by a false one.”
- Belying its tragic content, the title of the Günter Grass 2002 historical novel, Crabwalk, becomes abundantly clear in the first fifty pages.
Grass’s narrator, Paul Pokriefke, is a man who has a hard time facing the truth head-on. Instead, he lurches toward it sideways, retreats and returns, like a skittish crab. Perhaps it’s not a unique approach to history for a German citizen born at the end of WWII, especially for a man born on the same day that the Wilhelm Gustloff cruise ship sank, killing over 9,000 people.
The Los Angeles Times missed the point of the book, saying, “Grass has delivered a blockbuster novel and exposed a World War II tragedy buried for half a century.”
True, the Wilhelm Gustloff’s tragic end on January 30th, 1945 resulted in more deaths than any single ship sinking in history, yet it has always been overshadowed by the oft-told story of the Titanic. But Grass isn’t just trying to unearth this piece of history. He ties the fate of generations to the story behind the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Paul Pokriefke’s pregnant mother was one of the refugees onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff when it was torpedoed by a Russian submarine. She gave birth on one of the rescue ships at the very moment the Gustloff went down. The date was also the twelve year anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany.
Growing up, Paul heard various versions of his mother’s rescue. Sometimes she included details about the Gustloff. That it was named after the leader of the Swiss branch of the Nazi party who’d been assassinated in 1936 by a Jewish man named David Frankfurter. That it was launched as a pleasure cruise ship as part of the Nazi program called ‘Strength through Joy’.
A journalist, Paul begins to dig deeper into Gustloff history using the internet in the 1990’s. There he discovers a site focused entirely on the ship, its namesake and his assassin. Before long he suspects that the author of the website is his own teenage son turned neo-Nazi.
The ending is a surprise. And I’ll try to leave it that way. Though Günter Grass himself offers a significant clue in the middle of the book. Deeply troubled by his own obsession with the history surrounding the Wilhelm Gustloff, a history inextricably connected to his own, Paul says:
‘History, or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising.’
The last sentence of the book mirrors that presentiment: ‘It doesn’t end. Never will it end.’
- 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’
I doubt that you have ever read a book like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Christopher will not eat yellow food or brown food. He detests those colors. But he loves the color red. When he sees four red cars go by the bus on the way to school, he knows he’s going to have a super, super good day.
If lots of yellow cars go by, Christopher might have to make a mental list of prime numbers; he’s up to 7,057 so far. Or one of his teachers might calm him by calling out countries and asking Christopher to name their capitals; he knows all of them.
We meet Christopher on a bad day. He discovers that during the night someone stuck a pitchfork through Wellington’s belly. Wellington is the dog that lived across the street with a lady that used to visit Christopher and his dad a lot, especially just after Christopher’s mom died. When the policeman came, he did not understand that Christopher did not like to be touched. “And this is when I hit him.”
Christopher has decided to write a murder mystery novel. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is his story, told in his voice. Generally, he dislikes “proper novels, because they are lies about things which didn’t happen and they make me feel shaky and scared.”
“And this is why everything I’ve written here is true.”
In the course of his investigation into Wellington’s murder, Christopher discovers a great deal of new truths about the world he lives in, starting with the fact that his mother is not dead.
The beauty of Christopher world is that he notices everything. He recalls a trip to the countryside with his mom and dad years earlier. He looked out across a field and saw “19 cows . . . 15 are black and white . . . 4 are brown and white; there’s an old plastic bag from Asda in the hedge and a squashed Coca-Cola can with a snail on, and a long piece of orange string” and much, much more.
The horror of Christopher’s world is that he notices everything. Though he lives in a village one hundred miles outside London, when he learns that’s where his mother lives, he’s intent on getting there by train. The train station overwhelms him. He spends two hours standing in one spot as he reads every sign, every advert, every train schedule. He studies the layout of the station, including every detail of the architecture.
Mark Haddon’s ability to speak to us through Christopher is a superb accomplishment. We see the world in a whole new way and wonder at our own inadequacies. What if we only told the truth? What if we noticed and remembered everything?
‘Every regret you’ve ever had is recorded here.’ Nora knows about regret. It’s why she wanted to die.
But she did not expect an opportunity to re-examine them.
Holding The Book of Regrets out to her, Mrs. Elm explains that between life and death there is a library. Nora has fond childhood memories of Mrs. Elm, the school librarian who held her after she delivered the news of her father’s death. Could this be the same Mrs. Elm?
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is layered with mystery. Unwrapping them leads us to more than just understanding why Nora wanted to kill herself. While we learn that Nora passed up the opportunity to be a world class swimmer, gave up her dream of becoming a glaciologist, didn’t give her musical talent a chance to flourish, turned down an invitation to explore Australia with her best friend and walked out on her fiancé just days before the wedding, we begin to wonder about every choice we’ve ever made in life.
Mrs. Elm explains that every opportunity that Nora passed up led to alternate lives. The library is filled with every one of those alternatives – thousands and thousands of books documenting every possibility. Nora is stunned realizing that she doesn’t just get to read about them, she gets to go back and try them out. She gets to step into any alternate life she chooses. If she doesn’t find fulfillment, she’ll end up back in the library, able to choose another.
She finds out what it would have been like to marry Dan, to help him realize his lifelong dream of owning a village pub. She explores her life as an Olympic gold medalist, as a world-famous rock star, and as a glaciologist measuring the loss of ice at the North Pole. She even explores smaller regrets – more like, what if I’d volunteered at the animal shelter or what if I’d said yes to the medical student who asked me out for coffee.
Not wanting to spoil your own exploration of Nora’s parallel lives, I do want to applaud Matt Haig for his smooth rendering of all these possibilities, helping us understand that every decision changes not just our lives, but the lives of everyone around us. The Midnight Library is a masterful work. Beyond thought-provoking, it reaches for an entirely new understanding of life.
I’ll leave you with my favorite metaphor. Mrs. Elm points out that a chess game can unfold in millions of different ways. One of its most potent possibilities and least appreciated is the pawn. Slowly making its way, one square at a time across the board, it doesn’t seem like much. But when the patient pawn finally reaches the other side of the board, it is granted all the powers of a Queen. In that one last step, the pawn is faced with a whole new world of possibilities.
- Asymmetry, her debut novel, won Lisa Halliday the Whiting Award in 2017. I’m still scratching my head, over the novel and the prize.
The first third of the book is a sweet and engaging story of the relationship between a young associate editor named Alice and a famous old writer named Ezra Blazer. Alice is smart and a bit lonely. Ezra is wise and caring.
The forty-plus difference in their ages makes the early love scenes a bit cringe-worthy. But, it’s clear that Ezra nurtures Alice. She blossoms to the point of epiphanies.
At a concerto featuring a young Japanese pianist, Alice is both dazzled and demoralized. “The music made her more desperate than ever to do, invent, create – to channel all her own energies into the making of something beautiful and unique herself – but it also made her want to love.” *
She thinks of Ezra, of Beethoven and all the talented people that have left their mark on the world. “As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.” *
Though occasionally self-conscious about their age difference, Alice doesn’t shy away, even when a physically failing Ezra begins to need her care.
But the narrative ends there. When it moved on to an interesting story about a man going through UK customs at Heathrow (a man who is both Iraqi and American because he was born in American airspace), I was desperate to find a connection. I didn’t find one.
The final third of the book is a transcript of a radio interview with a fumbling and decrepit Ezra Blaze. He makes an oblique reference to an emerging young female writer that he’d known once, biting his tongue before mentioning her name. The interview ends with him propositioning the show’s young female host.
*OK, maybe just that one scene merits an award. But I was left feeling like a man in love with a novel that never materialized.
- 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.
- 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?
- Many of the novels I read open my mind to parts of the world, time periods and cultures as yet unknown to me. They allow me greater empathy with the opposite sex and teach me to broaden my views. They expose injustice or simply tell a story wrapped in deep human pathos. Colin Harrison’s You Belong to Me does none of these things.
Page after page, Harrison hits you over the head with hard realities. One chapter opens with a 3-page dissertation on New York city’s rat problem before it merges back into what the rats are doing to the bodies of two hired assassins after the tables have been turned on them by the story’s one potential good guy. Even he, the ex-Army Ranger, fails to evoke much sympathy in his fight to reclaim his old, now married, girlfriend.
The hardest characters are the wealthy businessmen and lawyers. The main antagonist, an Iranian-American returning on a luxury liner from a mega-millions business deal, offers up his cynical view of the world. Deep pocket oil companies grabbing up mineral rights as the climate crisis they caused melts the Artic cap. Meanwhile, the United States, . . .
“was steadily fracturing into two populations: those few who had enough money and those many who didn’t. Vast sections of the country were economically dead, its inhabitants hypnotized by the Internet, zombie by pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs and Christian-identity babble, the family structure destroyed by successive decades of divorce, job loss, and domestic violence.”
No, You Belong to Me is not a book offering enlightenment or a more expansive view of the world. Yet it is an attention grabber, a deeply woven murder mystery that rises at times to literature. It is a hard-ass third generation New Yorker saying, “yeah, that’s the way it is – you don’t like it, you can just piss off.”
- 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.
- Then Came the Evening, a debut novel by Brian Hart, is well-crafted, original and the toughest novel I’ve read in a long time.
Maybe it’s me. Unfamiliar as I am with rural life in Idaho, where vehicles – trucks or cars – are called rigs and winter means hunkering down in old houses and A-frame cabins with four cords of wood out back.
Hart’s characters live hard bitten lives through the 70’s. The lead character, Bandy, returns from Vietnam, gets drunk a lot, cheats on his wife and shoots a cop. We get a hard dose of the brutal futility of prison life before the story jumps twenty years forward where circumstances bring Bandy and wife back together in his dead parent’s battered, stripped-down and barely livable Idaho farmhouse that’s been patched together by a 20-year-old son he never knew he had.
Brian Hart hits hard. He uses the beauty of Idaho mountains – “Spears of shadow from the trees began incrementally then the canyon walls climbed higher and the shadow became complete.” – in severe contrast to hard lives lived in purposeful ignorance.
The locals talk of millionaires from California invading Idaho, but never recognize the fact that it was Nez Perce land just a hundred years earlier. They look at acres of stumps on clear-cut mountainsides, shake their heads at the beauty they once saw there and talk of the jobs it gave them and the food it put in their bellies. To them life is a bitter pill that you hope to wash down with six-packs and a good friend who’ll hunt moose with you.
It’s good writing. As real as it gets.
- Plainsong took me home. The author, Kent Haruf, posing for the book jacket photo with nothing but white sky and flat treeless farmland behind him, even reminds me of my dad.
Like the small town I grew up in, it takes no more than five minutes to drive from one end of Holt to the city limits on the other side that give way to pastures and farms. While Holt sits out in the eastern high plains of Colorado, mine sat on the banks of the Fox River in southern Wisconsin.
On a long hot summer day in either town, you might find two boys sitting along the railroad tracks, waiting for the next freight train, waiting to see the results of the coins they’d glued to the track.
You might also find that as much as you hate it that everyone in town knows what you did on a Saturday night, and where your pick-up truck was parked ‘till dawn, you’re contended by knowing that when trouble arises, someone will show up to help you.
“Mostly good people, mostly mindin’ their own business,” my father said when we moved into town after the farm failed, “But, you gotta expect a few good-for-nothin’s among ‘em, a few soured cusses who can’t be bothered to give you the time o’ day.”
A sentence like that used up most of dad’s words for the day. So, he only grunted when my sister and I said later that we were headed downtown to fish under the bridge. Like the kids in Holt, we were good at finding our own fun.
If you didn’t grow up in a small town, it would be hard to understand.
How does a teenage girl, kicked out of her house she got pregnant, get taken in by two old bachelor farmers? How does her high school teacher know to take her there? And, how is it that that same teacher has the patience to wait years for the teacher across the hall to turn around, after a wrong turn into a troubled marriage, and notice her?
Small town life is about as dependable as life can be. That might sound boring to some. In Plainsong you discover the beauty of it.
- 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) — “‘Do you have any idea how terrible it is?’ he says. ‘To have created something people care about? To get rich on account of it? We used to make fun of people like me but, my God, how times have changed. These days, I’m little more than a bank account.’ “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.
“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.”
- Regeneration – Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation by Paul Hawkin — see main blog/article titled ‘Regeneration vs Reality.’
- 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.”
A small thin book with an unassuming dust jacket that I’d put aside for months, Lucy Boomer blew my socks off! Russell Hill, an author I’d never heard of, wrote a perfect novel in just over two-hundred pages.
We’re introduced to Jack Rabbit, a PhD historian languishing in the sad life of a man barely making ends meet as a community college teacher. In his desperation to finally gain notice in his profession, Jack seizes on the rumor of a 92-year-old woman named Lucy Boomer who might have served in White House as the secretary of President Taft.
After finding her in a retirement home outside of LA, he discovers an “ancient woman, semicomatose in a wheelchair.” The attendants tell him that she’s not had a visitor in years.
After introducing himself, helping her sit-up and wiping the drool on her chin, he’s finally able to get her attention enough to ask his question, “What did you do in the White House?”
“She raises her head and looks resolutely” at him and says in a barely audible whisper, “I fucked five presidents.”
In follow-up visits, Lucy mentions Teddy, Taft, Hoover, Harding and Wilson. Jack wonders what she did during Calvin Coolidge’s six years in office, between Harding and Hoover, but it never comes up. We get the sense that Lucy is laying down crumbs on a trail. Jack soon finds out what where they’re leading. She wrote journals all through her White House years.
She’ll hand them over on one condition. Jack must break her out of the retirement home and take her to Iowa, to the farm where she was born, the place she wants to die.
The road trip and the chance encounter with an enigmatic woman named Ahna, who agrees to care for Lucy in exchange for a ride are central to the narrative of what happens to Jack. He re-imagines himself under the influence of Lucy and Ahna.
The story is too precious to ruin it for you.
Lucy Boomer knew how to live. Her final gift was to share what she had learned.
- The River King by Alice Hoffman: Though her name sounded familiar, I had yet to be treated to the writing of Alice Hoffman when I picked her 2000 novel, The River King, out of a discount bin in front of my favorite bookstore. I’ve always believed that in my random choosing and unquenchable lust for reading, great books would find their way to me. Hoffman proved me right once more.
The scene she creates in the first fifty pages – a sleepy little town on the Charles River in Massachusetts that hosts a small private school – invites you to step in and walk around. You might stop by the pharmacy on Main street and say hi to Pete, the owner who knows the medical secrets of everyone in town but who never gossips or judges. If you feel daring you might walk along the verdant river banks down to the school dorm where a pair of peckish swans guard the backdoor. The adults you run into along the path will all be familiar, the students, all new, will resemble the previous years’ selection of spoiled teens.
The pace of Hoffman’s narrative is gentle and seductive. By the middle of the book, you cannot imagine ever wanting to walk away from this little town. The intrigues of the townsfolk, the students and the faculty are inseparable from the ever-present smell of roses, the musty odor of the river, the prickly bushes on the narrow trails running down to it. So, you will be shocked to learn that The River King is a story of murderous school hazing, illicit affairs and quiet ghosts who suddenly step into the edge of your vision.
Hoffman writes with omniscience, not just from the omniscient point-of-view but with penetrating understanding of her characters and of the nature of life and death. When she writes of a woman’s final days on earth, she notes, “She was happy, but happiness can often be figured in minutes.”
But she is not pretentious about it. When she writes about love, she lets it be in questions, for isn’t love a mystery reluctant to offer answers?
“What was desire anyway, when examined in the clear light of day? Was it the way a woman searched for her clothes in the morning, or the manner in which a man might watch her sit before the mirror and comb her hair? Was it a pale November dawn, when ice formed on windowpanes and crows called from bare black trees? Or was it the way a person might yield to the night, setting forth on a path so unexpected that daylight would never again be completely clear?”
Her certainty about death, however, begins to sound like the voice of God, as though Morgan Freeman had begun narrating the story.
“She did not panic the way she had feared she might when her time came. Although she was grateful for her life, she had been waiting to be forgiven for such a long time she’d thought she might never experience what she wanted most of all, and now here it was, all in a rush, as if grace and mercy were flowing through her. Things of this world fell into proper place and appeared to be very far away . . . Helen felt a sweetness rising within her and a vision so bright she might have been gazing upon a thousand stars.”
I will tell you no more of the plot, the characters or the ghosts. Only Alice Hoffman can convey her utterly unique style of magic realism. For that matter, she may not even agree with the classification critics bestow on her. In an interview in The Writer, she said, “I don’t purposely pursue magic – it’s just part of the prose that I write.”
For me, an old man who has read thousands of books, when I discover a writer like Alice Hoffman, a book like The River King, I feel like an aged prospector panning the cold stream day after day enjoying its unceasing flow until one bright morning when I snatch a shiny gold nugget from its cold clutches.
- Only Killers and Thieves is an indictment. It incriminates our white ancestors and, in doing so, accuses us of the white privilege we inherited.
Paul Howarth opens his graphic, gory 2018 historical novel in Queensland, Australia in 1885. It may as well be the American West in 1885 or anywhere, anytime, that native blood was spilled in the name of progress. Anywhere white settlers decided that aboriginal people stand in the way of their progress, that they are dangerous savages that must either submit to domestication or die.
A white man by the name of Noones is chief of the Native Police, a scruffy group of native men who’ve given up on their own people. They’re willing to help hunt them in order to survive. Noones rules over then like the alpha-male running a wolfpack. A fourteen-year-old boy named Tommy ends up being the only one able to stand up to Noones’ ruthless power.
When his parents are slaughtered, Tommy and his older brother Billy are drawn into the hunt for their killers. Even they believe that the murderer is an Aboriginal man, a disgruntled cowhand who worked on their family’s struggling ranch. The murder story gets enlarged so that an entire tribe is declared guilty. Slaughter ensues.
This book is difficult to read. If you are not sickened by it, you either not paying attention or you’ve already gone over to the dark side.
I will not give away the ending. But to Paul Howarth’s credit, it’s an ending that offers some redemption to our white ancestors’ deeds. In the end, you cannot help but love Tommy.
Tommy sacrifices everything for the truth. The deep irony of this story is that the man named Noones, who is as deeply philosophical as he is ruthless, helps give him clarity.
Confronting Tommy’s naiveté, Noones explains his world view:
“Every law, every custom, every rule by which we live is made up by someone, conjured from thin air, then written down and by some sort of magic enacted into law. It is so malleable, Tommy. It is so unfair. The biggest myth in the world is that the law applies equally to all men – well, no, actually the biggest myth in the world is that God exists, but then even that amounts to the same thing: a made-up story written down and taken as His holy law. It is all the same parlor trick. There is no such thing as right and wrong. The only question is the individual’s willingness to act. The rest is veneer, formality, perception . . . words.”
- 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.
- Like anyone who’s grown up in small towns or on farms, it took me a long while to fully appreciate a city. It took me even longer to understand the living essence of a city.
My first was Chicago and I can’t say that I ever understood it; I knew enough to find the right discos, bars and clubs in the late 70s but I was just a visitor, driving in weekends from a small college town just over the border in Indiana. Next came Honolulu, but even though I lived in the heart of it, the beaches, the parks and waterfalls, the Pali and the tropical weather kept it from ever seeming like a city.
If not for San Francisco, I would not, could not, relate to The City We Became, the astonishing new fantasy novel by N.K. Jemisin. While she brought New York City alive, borough by borough, I needed San Francisco to translate it for me.
I moved to San Francisco and fell in love with it when I was thirty years old. The running trails became my favorite arteries, Golden Gate Park, Land’s End, the Presidio, the Embarcadero, Crissy Field and Marina Green. The bus routes and trains became my veins. I fell in lust more than once on the N-Judah and directed many a grateful tourist to the zoo riding the L-Taraval. I’ve ridden the cable car routes from end-to-end and back again for decades, memorizing the way this city makes me feel.
When you know the bones of a city, find the flow of it and feel its heartbeat, when you feed your life into it, the city responds. You become the city.
Jemisin gives this ‘living city’ concept a stratospheric shot of adrenalin in prose and possibilities that only she can write. I love her for letting me engage my own fantasies of a living, breathing city that endows me with superhuman powers when it needs me to save it.
- Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse (1888 – 1958) 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.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, true-hearted 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.
- 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?
- Published in 1967, The Arrangement by Elia Kazan lets it all hang out — racism, sexism, greed, political corruption and utter disregard for the environment.
I read this book because it was gift. Cleaning out her deceased husband’s book collection, my dear friend gave me Kazan along with three F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. I had read Fitzgerald, but I’d never heard of Kazan. More famous for being a Hollywood producer than a novelist, two years after the book came out, he turned The Arrangement into blockbuster film starring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Deborah Kerr and Richard Boone.
Learning this after finishing the book, I now picture the protagonist, Eddie Anderson, aka Evan Arness, as Kirk Douglas. He’s a big time ad executive, who realizes that he’s having a nervous breakdown when he breaks-up with all his mistresses but one. Kirk Douglas as the seducer, the arrogant white male who has to crash his Triumph sports car into a semi and nearly crash his Cessna into his own office building before he’s ready to admit that he hates his life.
Through the entire 544 page novel, Eddie narrates his own existential crisis. In the end, after turning his life upside down, he questions whether or not he has really learned anything. The saving grace of the book is its snapshots of 1960s culture.
Not the counterculture 196Os that’s been so well narrated by Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe and Alen Ginsberg, The Arrangement depicts the 1960s of Mad Men – three martini lunches, buxom secretaries expected to ‘entertain’ clients, all-white sports clubs rampant with anti-Semitic remarks and casual use of the ‘n-word’, every male with at least one mistress, and nary a successful Black man or woman in sight. Polluted rivers, eye-stinging smog and filthy urban streets are mentioned but no one seems to really care that much.
It’s an honest book. And, it made me glad that I was a kid in the 1960s, singed but not entirely engulfed in its toxic culture.
Michelle Ruiz Keil brings gritty reality to her fantasy novel. It’s softened only by its surreal San Francisco setting. All of Us with Wings will catch you by surprise. It defies categories.
Even the characters names are gutsy and original. Xochi, a seventeen-year runaway, has just arrived in San Francisco. She hits if off with a twelve-year-old girl named Pallas while wandering in the Haight District. The job she’s offered as Pallas’s governess comes with room and board in a well-appointed communal mansion owned by Io, Pallas’s mom. Her dad, Leviticus, has a complicated open relationship with Io. Xochi makes it even more complicated.
The housemates, Kiki, Bubbles, Kylen and Pad, who are all connected in one way or another to Lev’s rock band, take to Xochi like wildcats adopting a lost kitten. Xochi is beautiful, smart and world-wise beyond her years. While her friendship with Pallas blossoms, her well-meaning housemates pull her into drug-hazed parties and rock-pulsing bar scenes that only add to the confusion she escaped from.
Xochi was a bit sad but thriving at a family-run Humboldt County pot farm where her mother abandoned her when she was twelve. Loretta, the mother of her mom’s ex-lover was in many ways the best thing that had happened to her in her roustabout life. She came to think of her as grandma. The ex-lover himself was another story. After Loretta died, he wouldn’t leave Xochi alone.
In a half-fun, half serious ceremony involves potions and witch-like incantations that’s meant to be a bonding experience with Pallas, Xochi summons spirits from the nether world. Unbeknown to them, Loretta sends help in the form of two green waif-like creatures called waterbabies.
It might seem like the book’s fantasy theme will overwhelm the real-life plot of Xochi’s abandonment, her search for family, her strong, conflicted sexual impulses and the little sister pull that Pallas has on her. It doesn’t. In every gritty scene, including a late-night warehouse rave where a drugged-out Xochi is about to be raped, the mystical elements remain on the edges.
Michelle Ruiz Keil strikes a keen balance between fantasy and reality that would have impressed Ursula Le Guin. Even more laudable, she achieved it in her debut novel.
The final surprise is that All of Us with Wings is classified as a Young Adult (YA) novel. I had no sense of that while I was reading it and I doubt that you will either.
- Puhpowee – “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.”
In Braiding Sweetgrass author Robin Wall Kimmerer is that prodigious force. She is puhpowee. I am happy to be the humble mushroom she forces up into the light of day.
The bounty of wisdom that Kimmerer imparts makes Braiding Sweetgrass impossible to classify. As a renown PhD botanist, she knows her science. As a professor, she knows how to make it relatable. Steeped in the traditions and teachings of her Potawatomi tribe, she breathes, eats and sleeps with the insight into humanity’s place in the natural world.
And, with decades of experience as an eco-activist, she’s quite clear on how we’ve decimated the natural balance of our planet, and continue to do so.
Kimmerer elevates her breadth of knowledge with a poetic writing style – “You can smell it before you see it, a sweetgrass meadow on a summer day. The scent flickers on the breeze, you sniff like a dog on a scent, and then it’s gone, replaced by the boggy tang of wet ground. And then, it’s back, the sweet vanilla fragrance, beckoning.”
It matters not whether Braiding Sweetgrass is considered a botany text, a tale inspired by Native wisdom, a volume of inspired prose or a memoir by a loving and deeply dedicated mother. Once you’ve read it, you will want to return to it. It is a bible that offers real hope, a blueprint for human redemption. It shows us the way toward ‘An Age of Restoration.’
First, she says, we must radically change our view of ourselves and our duty to each other. Noting the closing words of the Pledge of Allegiance, ‘with liberty and justice for all’, Kimmerer asserts, “If what we want for our people is patriotism, then let us inspire true love of country by invoking the land herself . . . If we want to grow good citizens, then let us teach reciprocity . . . If what we aspire to is justice for all, the let it be justice for all of creation.”
Kimmerer points out that ecology is a subversive science. It questions humanity’s place in nature. It upends the Christian belief in our right to dominion over the earth. Ecology recognizes the interconnectedness of all life on earth. each of us dependent on the other. Something we seem to have forgotten.
Long before whites set foot on the land we now call America, all the people of the Haudenosauree (Iroguois) Confederacy tribes opened their gatherings with the Thanksgiving Address – or as the Onondaga call it — ‘The Words that Come Before All Else:’
Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.
Ecology, botany, biology and all the life sciences teach us the lessons known for eons among native tribes. They knew that plants have much to teach us about reciprocity. They knew that even the lowly fungi and algae have important roles.
When white settlers saw natives planting their traditional ‘Three Sisters’ crop (corn, beans and squash), they scoffed at them, believing that they didn’t know how to farm. But botanists now understand that when grown together, corns, beans and squash help each other thrive, much better than mono-crops of any one of them.
Harvesting wild rice from the northern lakes in the fall, natives fill their canoes, taking what they need, letting much of the grain fall into the water, and leaving a lot of the rice standing. White folks thought they we just too lazy to do a thorough harvest.
But, as the tribal elders pointed out, how will the rice grow next year if we don’t feed some of this year’s crop to the lake? Why would the ducks and geese come visit us, if we didn’t leave behind some of the stalks of rice for them to eat?
At her first college interview, when her advisor asked her why she had chosen botany, Kimmerer said she “wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together.”
The botany professor admonished her, “That is not at all the sort of thing with which botanists concern themselves.”
Once she was deep into her field of study, she found the scientific answer to her aster/goldenrod fascination. It turns out that bees’ eyes see the contrasting colors of goldenrod and aster much the way we do. Since they are attracted to it, they favor both flowers with their pollination. Like The Three Sisters, goldenrod and aster thrive better together. In this case, they also arrest the eyes of humans with the beauty of their contrast.
Seeing the natural world through the eyes of Robin Wall Kimmerer is a delight to mind, body and soul. She never loses her sense of wonder. That’s not to say that she is untroubled. Nor is she afraid to make us face our dark side.
In the latter chapters of Braiding Sweetgrass she speaks of the Windigo, the ancient mythological figure conjured up by elders to warn the young against greed. Windigo is described as a monster in human form, huge and haggard, with a voracious appetite. In the dead of winter, it wanders the frigid forests looking for any life that it can devour.
Windigo is human greed at its self-destructive worst.
Kimmerer talks about flying over the Ecuadorian Amazon oil fields with “raw gashes of red soil marking the paths of pipelines”. She describes industrial sludge in northern lakes, clear-cut forests of the Oregon Coast, Western Virginia mountains with their tops ripped off by coal miners. She calls these, “The footprints of Windigo.”
She adds to this list, “A square mile of industrial soybeans. A diamond mine in Rwanda. A closet stuffed with clothes.”
Supporting the evidence of our greed, she notes what Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, advisor to the World Bank and the U.S. National Economic Council, said: “There are no limits to the carrying capacity of the earth,” he said, “The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit is a profound error.”
Amazingly, with such a profound awareness of our greed-driven self-destruction, Robin Wall Kemmerer still believes we can redeem ourselves. She believes that if we could just rekindle our love of nature enough to apply our science capabilities and our native wisdom, “we could fashion a restoration plan.”
The key, she says, is to redefine our relationship with the land. We need to see: “Land as sustainer. Land as identity. Land as grocery store and pharmacy. Land as connection to our ancestors. Land as moral obligation. Land as sacred. Land as self.”
Inspired by David Copperfield, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead supplants nightmarish 19th childhoods with 21st Century realities that would curl Dickens’ toes.
Demon was born to a single teen mom who lacked the foresight to see the name her little redheaded boy would inevitably be stuck with when she named him Damon. That was the least of her bad decisions.
Demon survives his brutal stepfather but his drug-addled mother does not. Swept into foster care at eleven, his first stop is a small tobacco farm run by an old man who expects hard labor in exchange for meager meals and a threadbare existence.
At thirteen he’s living in a laundry room that was used for breeding puppies. His new deadbeat foster father needs the monthly five hundred bucks from the county to cover his own family’s living expenses so the first thing he asks the boy is, ‘how you gonna pay for your room and board?’ Demon ends up working after school and weekends at a junk yard that’s a cover for a meth lab.
He eventually runs away. Trouble finds him quickly, leaving him broke and sleeping behind dumpsters. His luck finally turns when he manages to find the destination he had in mind when he set out, the town where his father is buried. The more important discovery in that town is the grandmother who had turned her back on Demon’s mom just after he was born. Unaware that he’d been orphaned, she vows to make things right.
In the introduction to this compelling novel, Kingsolver warns us about the dire reality of Demon’s world. “He grew out of a real place where I live, the mountains of southern Appalachia . . . he bears some of the same scars a lot of us carry around . . . But his damage runs deeper. This beautiful place has a history of poverty, and lately has been devasted by the opioid epidemic.”
When, thanks to his grandmother, Demon is finally in a home where people care about him, blossoming into a high school football star, we know his good fortune cannot last. We just don’t know how bad the crash is going to be. Everything changes when the team doctor prescribes oxycontin after a vengeful tackler busts up Demon’s knee.
The years that follow are not pretty. Demon should be celebrating homecoming, escorting his girlfriend to prom, enjoying his athletic prowess and the artistic talent he’s nurtured since childhood. Instead, he’s barely surviving. His opioid addiction forces him into the lifestyle of a teen dropout, limping from one bad job to the next to support his and his girlfriend’s drug habit.
We learn that opioid producers like Purdue relied on extensive population profiling data to single out out poor rural communities like Lee County Virginia. Knowing them to be vulnerable they sent their best drug salesman, offering gifts and in incentives to healthcare providers while telling them, ‘this is a miracle drug that is perfectly safe, non-addictive and the best pain reliever ever made.’
Lee County, where Demon Copperhead grew up, is definitely vulnerable. It’s coal mining country where most of the jobs were taken over by machines, leaving behind poverty and disability.
We also learn that back when the coal mines needed workers, they controlled the school boards so they could make sure that education was never good enough to give the young generations much of an opportunity to leave. On top of that, they suffer collectively from a poor self-image. They’re proud and angry at the same time, about being labeled hillbillies and rednecks by the rest of the world. Both attitudes give them a dim view of their prospects.
It’s difficult to suffer through Demon’s downward spiral into addiction and all the tragedies that surround it. Kingsolver does not hold back. You begin to feel like one of the locals – like the high school art teacher who takes Demon under her wing. From Chicago, travelling the south after college, she and her husband fell in love with the bluegrass music and the natural beauty of Lee County but stayed for the people. They suffer with them but keep believing.
Like the art teacher, we get to enjoy the rays of sunshine at the end of this astoundingly rich novel. Barbara Kingsolver does Dickens proud.
- 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.
- Published in 1974 by Fletcher Knebel, The Bottom Line is a dramatic preview of the business vs environment crisis we face today.
Substitute 2022 for 1974, the UN Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for the UN Environmental Crisis Conference and The Bottom Line becomes a modern day story of massive environmental damage caused by corporate greed.
Nine years ago, Jim McGowan sold majority interest in his tennis equipment manufacturing business to a multi-national corporation called Arc-Horn. His required attendance at Arc-Horn’s annual conference has just one cause for concern. Or, so he thinks.
Arc-Horn’s founder and chair, Hugo Praeger, is clear that if quarterly profits for any of his subsidiary companies drops below 5% growth, the president of that company is on his shit list. Though it caused a dip in his quarterly growth, Jim believes in the investment he made into an employee-center work environment at his Pennsylvania tennis racket manufacturing plant.
As the pageantry and presentations at the Acapulco hotel conference center roll out, Jim’s bottom line becomes the least of his concerns. His popularity on Arc-Horn’s board of directors makes him pivotal in approving two Arc-Horn high-stakes projects.
Jim’s last meeting in New York before leaving for the conference was with his old friend, Senator Phil Ireland. Ireland was on his way to Geneva for a UN Conference on the Environment, but insisted on a private face-to-face meeting. He warned Jim of the impact the UN Conference could have on Arc-Horn.
When Knebel wrote this book in 1974, the word ‘greenwashing’ had not yet been coined. Yet, Arc-Horn’s project names are two powerful examples, ranking right up there with oil companies calling methane ‘natural gas.’ They are called Green Tree and Neptune West.
Green Tree will raze 200,000 square miles of the Amazon jungle to turn it into cattle-grazing land. Neptune West will mine the ocean floor of the Baja Peninsula to extract precious mineral deposits. Jim McGowan soon learns that someone within Arc-Horn is destroying the environmental impact studies and worse, trying to manipulate public opinion. They’re selling the message that unchecked global capitalism will lead to world peace.
Midway through, the book becomes a spy novel, involving blackmail, kidnapping and ransoms. On the flip side, we hear discussions of “daily exhaustion of earth’s resources,” depletion of the planet’s oxygen, rampant pollution and over-population. The diehard capitalists pass this all off as the ranting of “fear mongering futurists.”
The Bottom Line does not read like the righteous indignation of an environmentalist. Because it’s a 1974 novel we’re treated to couples rapping about their relationship issues and their sexual fantasies, women liberating themselves from the proscribed roles of wife and mother and, of course, lots of sexual infidelity and drinking. Fletcher Knebel addresses the environmental issues as though they are as much a mainstay of 1970’s as the booze and sexual liberation. It makes me wonder how we failed to address the damage we were doing to our planet. How did we let it escalate into an existential crisis?
- 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.”
- The Golden Cage by Swedish author Camilla Läckberg:
Book whore or book hoarder, not all the books I read are love affairs.
I cannot say that I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. Just as there are many people who seem uninteresting, by their choice or mine, there are many books I let slip from my hands as soon as I spy their intent, whether it’s evident on the book cover or the inside flap of the book jacket.
Even after political diatribes, military history, science texts, religious fanaticism and a few other genres are eliminated, I might still be called an easily-pleased reader or even a ‘book whore.’ (My wife prefers ‘book hoarder.’) Perhaps you noticed my fond reminiscing of The Dawn of Everything, a massive mix of history, archaeology and anthropology that I slipped in between commentary on Chaim Potok and a lovely book called Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that, at once, intimates and defies categories of memoir, Native history, botany and meditation on the natural world.
Oh, and did I mention West with Giraffes, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms or The Possessors and the Possessed? Those are just a few I publicly enjoyed in the last few weeks. On the side, I read a sappy romance novel called Covet and a simplistic historical novel titled The Paris Library. Thankfully, my family knows I love books and so they showered me with them during the Holidays, knowing it would be a good start for the New Year.
When she walks in on me reading, my wife often asks, “Who are you in love with this week?”
I do fall in love easily. She knows that. She also knows that if she were a book, she’d be the one that I’d never stop reading.
But, while I do have a genuine love affair with some of the books I read, sometimes the urge to push through them stems from a macabre curiosity rather than love. The Golden Cage by Swedish author Camilla Läckberg is just such an example.
A well-written and well-composed psychological thriller, The Golden Cage is a story of cold-hearted revenge. First, we must suffer through the scenes that inspired the reprisal. Even worse than the degradation she suffers at the hands of her husband, Faye accepts it. She knows that her insight was the key to her husband’s success, but rather than standing up for herself when he shuts her out, she belittles herself with simpering sexy come-ons to win him back.
Her revenge is no less painful to watch. It includes scenes in which she endures brutal sex with her ex-husband in order to distract him from her plot. Läckberg inserts flashes of the future when police are investigating him for their daughter’s murder. I hesitate to offer up any other details, not wanting to be a spoiler, but trust me there’s plenty of ugliness to go around.
In addition to admiring Faye’s clever mind, and her unbending intent, the only other rewards for suffering through The Golden Cage are all in the vein of shared negatives. It’s a relief to know that Americans are not the only ones living lives of quiet desperation, that Swedish men are no less misogynistic than those in the U.S., that money does not buy happiness, that women are no less cold in their vengeance than men.
Camilla Läckberg is a sobering experience. I’m not sure I can go back for more, but who knows. Sometimes curiosity imitates love.
- 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.
- The Question of Harper Lee’s Second Book: “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were . . . It is hard to see what we are.”
It’s impossible to know when Harper Lee wrote this line but it strikes me as a reasonable explanation for her publication of Go Set a Watchman fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Marketed as a sequel to the novel that won her a Pulitzer, Watchman reveals a side to Atticus Finch that challenges his status as a fictional civil rights hero.
Some critics claim that it is not a sequel but, in fact, the original draft for Mockingbird.Watchman is set in the same small Alabama town of Maycomb twenty years after the acclaimed trial in which Atticus Finch defended a black man accused of rape. Finch’s daughter, Jean Louise, known as six-year-old Scout in Mockingbird, is now twenty-six. She’s returning home to visit her aging father after living in New York for a number of years.
It’s hard to see how her ‘first draft’ set in the 1950’s could have been regressed twenty years to the 1930’s setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. But, in reading Go Set a Watchman the larger question that emerges is: why did Harper Lee decide to publish it?
The most lyrical part of Watchman finds Jean Louise fondly reminiscing about the Maycomb she knew as a child. In the most startling part, she is hopping mad at the town and everyone in it. She’s not just angry but deeply disappointed with her father.
She discovers that Atticus Finch is not the great defender of equality, but a country lawyer who believes strongly in equal treatment under the law. He favors the 10th Amendment (state’s rights) over the Supreme Court and the NAACP.
After Mockingbird was published in 1960 Harper Lee swore she would never write another book. And she didn’t until 2015, just after she turned eighty-nine. Since Watchman refers to one’s conscience, was Go Set a Watchman Lee’s attempt to set the record straight? Harper Lee took that answer to her grave. She died less than a year after it was published.
- Andrew Haswell Green, the ‘Father of Greater New York’ was assassinated on the front steps of his Park Avenue home in 1903 by mistake – The Great Mistake.
Author Jonathan Lee delivers us a portrait of a man who, though publicly well-known, was a closed book to nearly everyone around him. Yet, without Green there would be no Central Park, no Metropolitan Museum of Art, no Museum of Natural History, no New York Public Library.
A farmer’s son, Andrew Green aspired to greatness under the tutelage of his best friend, U.S. presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. Had the times allowed for it, they would have been more than friends. The investigation that followed Green’s murder revealed more about the victim than about his assailant, his closely held secrets fodder for the New York papers.
While no one disputed his magnificent contributions he made to the City of New York, including the unification of the five boroughs. But, it turns out, no one really knew him, except perhaps Tilden, who died long before the day an assassin mistook Green for his mistress’s lover.
- 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.
- If you want to broaden your sense of the socio-sexual impact of male hierarchy across generations, read Cantora by Sylvia López-Medina.
Published in 1992, Cantora recounts the lives and loves of four generations of Mexican women who defy family traditions in search of their true selves. It reads like a collection of long-lost letters being fit together in an intricate puzzle. Once the last piece is in place, the youngest in this long line of self-made women might understand who she is.
López-Medina’s lyrical prose describes the details of the lives lived by these women – the courtyard flowers, the aroma of freshly baked tortillas, the finely render lace shawls, the blood and pain of childbirth – with meticulous attention. She does not explain. We, like the women in this story, must draw our own conclusions as the secrets are revealed. It is ragged and raw, all the better to pierce our modern-day minds.
- Miles O’Malley predicted The Highest Tide and righted my environmental soul: “Rachel Carson said most of us go through life ‘unseeing’ . . . I think it’s easier to see when you’re a kid. We’re not in a hurry to get anywhere and we don’t have those long to-do lists you guys have.” Fourteen-year-old Miles O’Malley said that.
Narrating Jim Lynch’s 2005 novel The Highest Tide, Miles peppers his running commentary on the mysterious creatures he finds in Skookumchuck Bay with Rachel Carson quotes. Even though he’s read every book the Olympia library has on marine biology, he keeps coming back to the four Rachel Carson books he read when he was still in grade school.
Miles saved me.
My head was still hurting from reading The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann when Miles came along. His sense of wonder was infectious. It helped me step back into the natural world and recapture my love of life, my childlike gratitude for this incredible planet – which is what had led me to reading Mann’s book in the first place.
Miles has spent his entire life walking through the tide pools on the southern tip of the Puget Sound. But it is a surprise even to him to discover two unusual sea creatures in the space of two days. After finding a giant squid only ever seen before by divers in the depth of the ocean, he comes across a dead fifteen-foot deep-water fish scarred with suction cup marks.
A reporter who’d interviewed him about his first discovery corners Miles again, “You said the other day when you found that squid, maybe the earth is trying to tell us something . . . what do you think it’s saying?”
Miles replies, “It’s probably saying, ‘pay attention’.”
“Rachel Carson” he adds, “said the more people learn about the ocean the less likely they are to harm it.”
After Miles has brought attention to the unusual sea creatures washing up on the shores and in the tide pools of Puget Sound – which includes an invasive crab species mining tunnels in the bay cliffs and threatening homes – his friend, Professor Kramer, from nearby Evergreen State College calls for a BioBlitz of Skookumchuck Bay. A one day count of all the species in the bay comes out to: “314 invertebrates, 32 fish, 7 mammals and 186 plants for a total of 539 species of tidal and subtidal life.” Miles already knows more than half of them.
Miles’ fascination and love for living creatures extends to the people in his life as well. He cares for an elderly woman who lives in the cabin behind his house. He nudges his parents away from the divorce their contemplating. And Miles is in love with his eighteen-year-old neighbor.
Wild, reckless and bipolar, Angie only comes up for air when Miles tugs her out into the bay at low tide to show her something marvelous that she’s never seen before.
And, of course, Miles quotes the only poet he knows when he needs to calm Angie’s demons, to put the world in perspective.
“Rachel Carson,” he tells her, “could imagine billions of years without blinking. At the end of The Sea Around Us, she summed up the entire history and role of the ocean in two sentences: ‘In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the every-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.’”
If I were asked to recommend a book sure to inspire environmental activism, I would choose The Highest Tide over The New Climate War every time.
- 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.
- Choose to read Apeirogon only if you’re looking for a soul-rending challenge. Colum McCann wrenches gritty detail and prolonged sorrow out of the deaths of innocents.
Though it suggests nothing about the subject of the neverending Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the title does suggest that McCann will make you look at the consequences of it from every angle. An apeirogon is a polygon with ‘a countably infinite number of sides.’
At its heart, this is the story of two men, one Israeli (Rami), the other Palestinian (Bassam) who come together after each one loses a young daughter to violence. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, nearly fifteen, was the victim of Hamas suicide bombers at an urban market. Bassam’s six-old daughter, Abir, was killed by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. They form an organization called ‘Combatants for Peace’ and engage in a series of tandem speeches in their home countries and then around the world. They each repeat the details of their daughters’ deaths over and over again.
Rather than a smooth narrative, McCann delivers the story staccato style – one-liners mixed with one-paragraph or one-page snippets from history.
#168 is the story of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan. Because of the cloud cover over Kokura, their intended target, the Americans bombed Nagasaki instead.
#169: “The plutonium core of the Nagasaki bomb was the size of a throwable rock.”
#170: “And we think the myths are startling.”
Apeirogon does not have chapters. It’s a series of brief numbered entries starting with #1, continuing in sequence up to #499. It then jumps mysteriously to #1001 with a brief biography of Rami which is followed by #500, the longest ongoing narrative in the book — Bassam tells the story of his life, his childhood in the caves of Hebron, his seven-year imprisonment and torture, his release and his marriage, family and livelihood that followed.
The second half of the book counts down from #499, again in carefully aligned scraps of facts and story pieces. Phrases are often repeated.
#23: “I am sorry to tell you this, Senator, but you murdered my daughter.”
Though this is from the latter part of the book, the same phrase appeared in the earlier part of the book before we knew of Rami & Bassam’s peace mission to Washington D.C. that included a meeting with Senator John Kerry.
Bassam explained then, and again many times to many people, ‘Abir was killed by an American-made rubber bullet, fired from an American-made gun through the hatch of an American-made jeep, by an American-trained Israeli soldier.’
Some of the metaphors mixed in with the story fragments are clear, others are more elusive. We learn about the water clocks used by Ancient Greeks. In addition to nighttime use, after their sundials had gone dark, the water clocks were used during trials. Testimonies were timed, the sound of the water rising in pitch as the water ram out. Bassam thinks of this – of the duality of time’s urgency and fluidity – remembering the ambulance ride to the hospital with Abir as Israeli soldiers delayed them over and over again.
The many descriptions of birds, including their migratory path through Israeli airspace, are informative and curious. Now I know that a frigate bird can stay aloft for up to two months, never touching down on land or sea. And I know that for his final meal, former French President François Mitterrand dined on roasted ortolans, the tiny birds that are drowned in brandy, roasted whole and eaten while one’s head is draped with a towel to cover the shame.
Apeirogon is peppered with snatches of wisdom — how we use the past to justify the present — our desire to speak truth to power when the reality is that power already knows the truth. And the oft-repeated phrase, “When you divide death by life you find a circle.”
Perhaps McCann’s number sequence, 1 to 500 and back, is his way of coming full circle. It also occurs to me that you don’t see the moment of a bomb’s detonation, only the fragments of everything and everyone it explodes flying outward.
As Bassam and Rami retell the story of their tragic losses, first in fragments and then in collected narratives, they are reversing time, moving from the aftermath back, frame by frame, to the point before the bomb exploded or the bullet struck. Perhaps it’s the only way to convey the endless inner-wailing of Rami and Bassam, a way to look at the dark hole left in the life of anyone who has suffered such senseless loss.
- 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.
- Michael E. Mann‘s 2021 book, The New Climate War — see main blog (3/4/21) ‘Michael E. Mann Makes My Head Hurt.’
- 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.
- Peter Mayle has never let me down. Running across a copy of his 1996 Anything Considered was like discovering the phone number for an old friend. Mayle and I go way back.
A regular at my local used book store, I picked up Chasing Cézanne and brought it home twenty years ago. I can’t tell you why. For me, choosing a book is all about instinct. I’m seldom wrong but that could just be my reading addiction talking. Certainly part of my instinctive choices are borne out of circumstance.
I don’t recall the exact circumstances twenty years ago when I went home looking forward to reading my first Peter Mayle novel. No doubt my business was giving me headaches. It always did, even during its most successful years. But what I’d been reading recently had something to do with it as well.I’m guessing that I finished reading an empowering Richard Powers novel or something intense from an older writer like Henry Miller or John Dos Passos. Somehow I sensed that Mayle would lighten things up.
Chasing Cézanne introduced me to Mayle’s infatuation with the South of France, particularly Aix-en-Provence. Bridging off his early success as a travel writer, this early Mayle story also takes us the Bahamas, New York and Paris.
Anything Considered stays put in France, with a couple side trips to Monaco. It opens and ends in the luscious landscape of Provence in the quiet village of Saint-Martin, surrounded by two-hundred-year-old vineyards, the scent of lavender and thyme in the air.
The English-born hero Bennet, determined to stay in Provence, is in need of funds. Accepting an offer to help a millionaire who believes he has the formula for cultivating black truffles, a notorious delicacy that only grows in the wild.
Mayle explains, “It was impossible to live in France for any length of time without becoming aware of the importance – indeed, reverence—with which these pungent fungi were regarded; they were the black, misshapen jewels in the crown of la France gastronomique.”
While we learn all about the annual million-dollar truffles market, we join Bennet for four-course lunches and seven-course dinners replete with exceptional wines. We enjoy the immaculate streets of Monaco, and the gritty side of Nice. As the truffles-farming formula is stolen, ransomed and stolen again, we find Bennet and his new femme fatale hiding out in monastery run irreligious wine-soaked monks.
As with all Peter Mayle novels, Anything Considered teases, educates and entertains. It’s part James Bond and part travelogue. Mayle’s heroes are erudite without being smug, adventurous and risqué without being brutish and very well-acquainted with sensuality.
All his novels reflect Mayle’s own life. After making money in advertising, he bought and restored an old estate in Provence. Even before he found success first as a travel writer and then as a novelist, he wrote advice books on topics like sex education & relationships and even a comprehensive guide to birth control*.
Mayle, who died in Aix-en-Provence in 2018, seemed to have lived one of the most fulfilled lives I can imagine. His biography speaks to it. His books revel in it.
> Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations
> “Will I Like It?”: Your First Sexual Experience, What to Expect, What to Avoid, and How Both of You Can Get the Most Out of It.
- 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.
- Imagine yourself as an American Jew in 1939. Or, let Derek B. Miller astound, amuse and haunt your imagination with How to Find Your Way in the Dark.
Jews have been persecuted and arrested in Germany ever since Hitler took power. All Jews have been expelled from Italy. They, and those fleeing Germany, have nowhere to go. President Roosevelt refuses to take in Jewish refugees, citing them as a national security risk. Great Britain and France are already at war with Nazi Germany while the popular opinion in the U.S. is that we have no reason to oppose Hitler.
Now imagine a boy named Sheldon Horowitz from a rural New England town who turned twelve in 1939. His parents have both died recently. He’s trying to figure out his life while living with his uncle who has changed his last name, trying to blend in. Fortunately for Sheldon, his older cousins, Abe and Mirabelle, do not agree with their father and find, instead, every opportunity to undermine bigoted Christian authority figures and subvert the local mob bosses in the process.
What will amaze you about this tale is that it is does not lapse into melancholia, not by half. Sheldon and his cousins are smart, pragmatic and resilient. And Sheldon’s best friend, another Jewish boy, named Lenny, is an aspiring stand-up comic — think Lenny Bruce as a teen.
Talking his way onto stages at clubs in the Catskills, Lenny questions what he’s doing, making hundreds of Jews laugh it up while millions are being murdered across the Atlantic. “They wouldn’t hire us or publish us or educate us at their universities or let us into the inner circles. Was comedy the only space for us to spread our wings?”
The beauty of Miller’s 2021 novel is that you cannot predict where it is headed. I’ll let you savor the jaw-dropping surprises. But I cannot help but share an eye-opening theme in the conclusion.
When he was ten, Sheldon’s mother died in a horrific fire in a movie theater. Ten years later when a cute redhead finally woos him back to a movie house, the first film he sees is Gentleman’s Agreement. It stars Gregory Peck as a journalist named Phil Green who poses as a Jew to research an exposé about the widespread prejudice against Jews.
When Phil’s wife comforts their son, who is being bullied at school because of his father’s feigned Jewish identity, she telling him ‘no, you’re no more Jewish than I am,’ Phil is noticeably upset. His wife thinks he’s accusing her of being an anti-Semite.
He says that he’s not accusing her of being anti-Semitic, but adds, “It’s just that I’ve come to see that the nice people who aren’t, who despise it and detest it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, nevertheless help it along and wonder why it grows.”
Phil’s philosophy of ‘silent complicity’ reminds me of a profound declaration by Angela Davis, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
Derek B. Miller is one-of-a-kind. He has mastered the ability to be so entertaining that you hardly notice the profound lessons that he has slipped into the story.
- 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.”
- Rick Moody wrote The Long Accomplishment as a three-year stream of consciousness about love and life.
I enjoyed it, despite my difference of opinion with him on two important issues.
Moody recounts his transition from divorce through the early years of his second marriage. His memoir is confessional. He builds a scaffolding of his family history, his personal growth and his writing achievements that lets him bare his soul about his faults and inadequacies.
Moody married visual artist Laurel Nakadate. The emotional focus of this episode of his life is their struggle to achieve a full term pregnancy. He speaks of it as an arduous journey. He lets the raw emotions of frustration, disappointment and pain bleed across the pages.
I had read none of Moody’s many books and picked this one up, in part, to study his memoir style (in the process of one myself). His naked honesty bodes well for the genre, revealing, as it does, the true nature of the author.
Overall, I like Rick Moody. He’s got a good heart and a generous spirit. But, he’s not the kind of guy I’d sit down with over a beer and shoot the shit. The fact that Moody is a recovering alcoholic is the least of my reasons.
First, he seems to believe that when a marriage ends that it has a failed. Some do, yes. But I strongly believe that many relationships – whether a marriage, a fling or a friendship – have a built-in timeline. Moody is good at sharing blame and slow to see what he and his first wife gained from their marriage. The subtitle of the book should have been my first clue: ‘A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony.’
My second disagreement with Moody is more egregious. On his first date with Laurel, while he and his first wife were separated, they saw Avatar. He said he ‘execrated’ the movie. I had to look it up — feel or express great loathing for. Really, Rick Moody, you hated it!? I love that movie. It’s one of the best artistic expressions of nature vs machine I’ve ever seen and you hated it so much you mentioned it twice in a memoir that was supposed to be about marriage.
Rick Moody and I have to split up. What I learned from our brief relationship is that my memoir is likely to piss off a few people, for reasons both serious and silly.
- Christopher Moore writes comic fantasy. When I happened upon a copy of his 1997 novel, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, I knew it was the tonic I needed after reading a series of gut-wrenching, gory, disenchanting and all-together-too-real historical novels.
Only Moore could turn an inoffensive loser into a hero. Tucker – ‘call me Tuck’ – knows how to fly a Lear jet but is otherwise wasting his prime years on meaningless sex and meaningful quantities of alcohol. After a woman desperate to join the Mile High Club preys on his weak aptitude for common sense and his high capacity for drunken debauchery, Tuck loses everything, most especially his pilot license.
His best friend – named, of course, Jake Skye – talks Tuck into a gig that’s supposed to involve flying medical supplies to Micronesia. Instead, it puts him smack dab in the middle of an island cargo cult that worships a long-dead WWII pilot and a very alive blonde who’s taken over the role of Sky Priestess, based on the image painted on the pilot’s plane. She and her surgeon boyfriend are duping the island natives into unknowingly giving up their kidneys in a Japanese run organs-for-sale scheme.
But this is a Christopher Moore novel – author of You Suck, Bite Me, Practical Demon Keeping, The Stupidest Angel, etc. So, it involves, as it must, cannibals, spies, native shark hunters, a Filipino transvestite, a talking fruit bat, an improbably plot and lots of gratuitous (consensual) sex. Along the way we’re treated to fleeting lessons on corporate greed, the superficiality of American culture, climate change, religious stupidity and gender fluidity.
So much fun. So little anguish. I may be ready for more reality.
- Old and dying, Helena Demont still has something left to say. She is the narrator of Erwin Mortier’s While The Gods Were Sleeping.Helena has outlived her husband, her parents, her brother and her only daughter. She’s not eager to die but is, as she says, “old enough, so that you can await death with the same casualness with which you wait for the bus at the corner of the street, without excitement or hope.”
But Helena has one final goal. She writes daily trying to evoke the images of death and destruction that she witnessed during WWI. Her experience of the war was nearly as intimate as that of the soldiers in the trenches. She’s obsessed with finding the right words to describe it, “jealous of the painters” with their pallets of colors. She longs “to squeeze my foot in the door of the definitive.”
Living in the French countryside near the front line, she heard the shelling day and night. After a stray shell kills little Amelie, a girl from the nearby village out playing in the fields, Helena’s mother insists that her teenage daughter help prepare the body for burial. She is mesmerized by the pink of the girl’s skin draining into the pallid grey of death.
A photographer, Helena’s husband-to-be escorts her to old trenches behind the lines and into evacuation zones. When Helena’s brother is gravely wounded, she comes upon him in the tent where his surgery was just been accomplished. His nurse points to the other three brought in with him, the ones who did not make it. Their bodies are stacked nearby, feet dangling by tendons, arms missing, faces half gone.
Via Helena, Mortier wants us not just to see the horrors wrought of war. He wants to make it as visceral as sex. He places the realities of war in bed with the erotic bliss that Helena and her husband-to-be experienced in the wrecked mansions of Yres.
Fair warning: Helena is not one to summon optimism out of her life experiences, to transcend the tragedy of war. Reflecting on the peaceful years just after WWI, she says, “We didn’t yet know that meanwhile the soldiers for the next conflict were sleeping in their cradles and that tomorrow’s cut-throats were hanging on their nannies’ skirts.”
Nor is she a woman who finds satisfaction in her later years. “I felt humiliated by the ruthless pragmatism of life, which in our youth lionizes us, but one fine day drops us like a toy that has lost its shine.”
- 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.
- Some historical novels teach, some enlighten and entertain, and some provide a fist-pumping affirmation of what you knew all along.
Tim Murphy’s Correspondents, an epic novel centered around America’s invasion of Iraq, does all this. But, in affirming the views I held, even before the invasion in 2003, it also felt like vindication.
Please, excuse my ego-stroking tone. But I’ve waited a long time to say, “I was right, goddamit!”
I protested the Vietnam War. I championed Gay Rights. I supported the ERA – and am still flabbergasted that it never got ratified. I fought for reproductive health care and a woman’s right to choose. I worked with Native American tribal causes and, as the grandson of a South Dakota homesteader, wrote about my sense of inherited guilt. I decried systemic racism in America. And, I’ve become a climate activist.
And, yes, I marched in a massive anti-war protest in San Francisco in March 2003, while Bush and company prepared their lies and readied the American war machine for a massive invasion of Iraq.
As the title implies, Correspondents tells the story from inside Iraq, after the invasion, after Bush declared ‘Mission Accomplished’, when much of the country descended into hell of earth. Age old conflicts between Shia and Sunni, grudge matches from families who had suffered under Ba’ath Party rule, and, of course, the rise of al-Qaeda. As horrid as Saddam Hussein was, he had kept a tight lid on a powder keg of Iraqi grievances for two decades.
American journalist Rita Khoury, young, Harvard-educated and determined, tries to report in balanced pragmatic terms. And, for a year, she succeeds, even when the streets of Baghdad have become so dangerous that she and her colleagues seldom venture out of their fortified encampment in the middle of the city. Until, one night, drunk and lonely, she sends her boyfriend a tell-all e-mail – American military’s seeming indifference to the chaos and killing between Iraqi factions.
When her disloyal boyfriend shares her e-mail on the internet, she becomes famous for her ‘telling it like it is’ truth about Iraq. Becoming a news media sensation, she continually points out the 100,000 Iraqi casualties and how wrong and ill-prepared we were in taking over a country that we never even tried to understand.
There’s so much more to this story – Rita’s Lebanese-American family, her Iraqi translator’s family and the impossibility of fitting back into American life as though she hadn’t seen what she saw, trying to understand how her fellow citizens could be so insulated from the death and destruction their own country was causing.
We have legalized gay marriage and are working on gender and LGBTQIA equality. We are, at least, aware that we haven’t ended racism, insured equal rights for minorities, or properly honoured Native cultures and their environmental wisdom. We’re beginning to address the climate crisis we’ve created. And, we do know – and our history books have recorded the truth – that both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War were huge mistakes, correcting nothing and causing millions of lives.
Sometimes, I need a writer like Tim Murphy to expound on truths that I knew when they were still very unpopular.
- 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.
- The first 125 pages of Bakhita by Véronique Olmi are brutal. You wonder at times if you can go on.
Abducted by slave traders when she is six, Bakhita does not wonder if she can go on, she simply does. She starves and staggers as she’s driven across the Sudanese desert. She is beaten and abused in all the ways you don’t want to imagine. Each master she’s sold to is more brutal than the next. Remarkably, through ten years of pain and degradation, Bakhita manages not just to survive but to retain her soul.
Even as the memory of her family fades, she clings to the hope they instilled in her, that she would grow up to be gentle and kind. She holds the hands of other little slave girls even as they are both being whipped. She gives her food to weaker children even when she has none left for herself.
At age sixteen, when she is finally saved from slavery by a diplomat who brings her to his home in Italy, she sits on a garden bench watching stars fill the darkening sky, and marveling at it, thinks of her mother’s love:
“Bakhita realizes that you can lose everything, your language, your village, your freedom. But not what you have given yourself. You do not lose your mother. Ever. It is a love as powerful as the beauty of the world, it is the beauty of the world.”
Based on the real life story of St. Josephine Margaret Bakhita (1869-1947), the patron saint of Sudan, Bakhita is well-researched and wonderfully written by Véronique Olmi (translated from French by Adriana Hunter). But this story is not about the Arab slave trade of the late 19thCentury. Nor is it about the peace and freedom that women like Bakhita found in becoming Catholic nuns to survive early 20th Century patriarchy.
Bakhita’s story sweeps across history, through Europe’s brutal domination of African nations, through Italy’s shattering and rebuilding during two world wars. It documents racism like no other book I’ve read, Bakhita still being called ‘Madre Moretta’ – the black mother. After fifty years as a faithful nun in Italy, most people are either frightened of her or want to show off her blackness. But, it’s not about racism either.
It is about finding beauty in a brutal world.
Bakhita sees the truth. “She feels that everything hovers between uncertainty and belief, between beauty and the profanity of beauty.”
- 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.”
- When I read Bel Canto in 2002, I knew that I, and the rest of the world, had discovered a brilliant writer. With The Dutch House (2019) Ann Patchett achieves perfection a second time.
Stepping into the lives of Maeve and Danny is easy, simple and interesting. Danny is too young to remember anything but the magnificent mansion where he lives with his father, his smart doting older sister and their three caring servants. He’s too young to remember their mother. Maeve is old enough to remember the time before they were rich and before their mother left them.
Patchett writes so seamlessly, so naturally and so fluently that you don’t even think about her style or the construct of the plot. You simply step into the lives of her characters. When new characters emerge, you get to know them slowly, in bits and pieces like you do in real life. At some point you smile at Danny’s grown-up children, satisfied that they grew up well, just as you thought they would.
“Things changed after that, change being the one constant.” Danny, who narrates the story, grows wise as he grows older. It’s impossible not to feel proud of him, happy that the pitfalls of his life didn’t destroy his goodness.
“It might seem like change was impossible, given my nature and my age, but I understood exactly what there was to lose . . . the point wasn’t whether or not I liked it. The point was it had to be done.”
The Dutch House, with its grand architecture and old world finesse, its upstairs ballroom and lavish bedrooms overlooking well-tended gardens, is always the reliable center of the story. Over three generations its inhabitants either either love it or hate it. They run away for it, or they are eternally drawn to it. Either way it makes a grand stage for the lives of people trying to love each other.
Hundreds of novels have stirred me deeply and profoundly. A few have blown my mind. And some have just plain amazed me. But I cannot recall the last time I finished a novel feeling like I had just read the consummate American novel and that it was written just for me.
- Matthew Pearl is no ordinary mystery writer. Like Edgar Allan Poe, whose mysterious death is the subject of The Poe Shadow, Pearl creates and untangles mysteries so knotted together that it requires very careful reading. Both Poe and Pearl are worth the exertion. Fully immersed in their tales, you find your mind has been elevated along the way.
You might even say you’ve some skill in ‘ratiocination.’ Quentin Clark, the hero of The Poe Shadow, learned the term while reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue, one of Poe’s renown mysteries. Clark read everything Poe published prior to Poe’s untimely death on October 7, 1849 in Baltimore. When he becomes obsessed with the mysteries surrounding Poe’s death, Clark becomes convinced that the path to solving them is presented by Poe himself.
The acclaimed investigator in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a man named C. Auguste Dupin, a man supremely gifted with ratiocination. Poe describes it as a high level of focused reasoning combining keen observation and creative intuition. Which is why Quentin Clark sets out on a mission to discover who Poe’s Dupin was based on in real life.
In France Clark discovers two candidates. He invites one back to Baltimore to help him solve the mystery, while the other whom Clark has judged to be a charlatan makes his way to Baltimore on his own. So, while both investigators glean the facts and circumstances of Poe’s last days on earth, we become wrapped in a second mystery – who is the real Dupin? – and a third – why are a pair of French nationalists out to kill one of them?
Drawn into the layered mysteries of the story, we find that we are not only reading with the mental keenness of a ‘Dupin’, we’ve become fluent in the language, customs and mannerisms of 1851 Baltimore. For Matthew Pearl writes The Poe Shadow in the first person of Quentin Clark as though he’s reporting to us directly from the mid-19th Century.
Describing the Dupin-like sleuth named Duponte whom he stationed in his Baltimore mansion, he says, “He did not subscribe to rules of manners and meaningless pleasantries. He smoked cigars inside the house, regardless of who was in the room. He was inclined to ignore you if he had nothing to say.”
And when it came to Duponte’s habit of sending Clark notes within the house, rather than speaking to him directly, he said, “I did not know what to think when a servant first handed me the note, whether it was done of the height of sloth or an excess of concentration.”
In the end, after we’ve been led down blind alleys and have fallen for more than one well-executed feint, most of the mysteries are solved. The most surprising are not those related to Poe’s death but to the political machinations of 19th Century France. Only a writer like Matthew Pearl could pull this off.
- 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.
Louise Penny is no ordinary mystery writer. Her 2021 novel The Madness of Crowds reaffirms her depth and her fearless approach to world-shaking issues.
The story begins post-pandemic, when a renowned statistician comes out with her ‘resources versus needs’ assessment commissioned by the Canadian government. Though repellent to most, Professor Abigail Robinson’s conclusions are gaining a following. Her logic rests on the idea that the needs of the many out-weight the needs of the few.
Since resources are limited, in the face of crises like the covid pandemic, she reasons that the only logical thing to do is save them for the strong. She suggestions compassionate deaths for the old, the sick and dependent.
An attempt on her life at a nearby university, where Robinson is presenting her findings, pulls Inspector Gamache and his entire Three Pines community into the national debate. If you’ve read Louise Penny, you know that this includes the Gamache family, artists, recluse academics – one in particular known as the asshole saint – and a famous foulmouthed poet named Ruth.
Two themes emerge. One is centered on an 1841 study on crowd psychology titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The second theme is less self-evident. The hundredth monkey theory describes a tipping point in crowd behavior, the point at which a minor trend becomes a sweeping movement.
While answers to the attempted assassination emerge, everyone – including Professor Robinson and her entourage — come together in Three Pines for a New Year’s Eve party. It’s a beautiful snow-shrouded setting, a stone fireplace warming the lodge, kids performing skits, an abundance of food, drink and good cheer. The murder happens just before midnight.
Without telling you who did it or even who the victim is, I can tell you that the murder pulls in dark themes from the past concerning a Canadian psychiatrist who was hired by the CIA to experiment with mind control techniques on his own patients. Reportedly the CIA still uses his discoveries today – torture, sleep deprivation, electric shocks and hallucinogenic drugs – to interrogate suspected terrorists.
There are no shortages of suspects in the murder. They include Inspector Gamache’s own son-in-law and a visiting Nigerian woman named Haniya who was just nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Surviving years of brutal rape and torture as a girl, she survived by killing her captures, saving the other victims. She then created a network of women-owned businesses to help them thrive.
Gamache ponders the notion of love as motivation for murder. He considers the sins of the past rising up to poison the present. One of Ruth’s poems comes to mind:
And then shall forgiven and forgiving meet again,
or will it be, as aways was, too late?
- A unique, action-packed historical novel, I love The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips most for its early 17th Century Middle East perspective of crazy Westerners.
Back in the day, when I realized that all my early history lessons were so very, very Euro-centric, I used to jump at the chance to answer questions like, “What was the worst time in human history?”
“Could you be more specific?”
I’d quickly add, “For Europeans, for example, the Dark Ages was particularly nasty time, but if you lived in the Middle East, it was just the opposite. You’d be living in the Islamic Golden Age.
Enter Arthur Phillips’ novel. Mahmoud Ezzedine is a Muslim physician sent by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire as part of a diplomatic envoy to England. It’s 1601 and Elizabeth I is dying, but she’s still sharp enough to hack out a treaty with the Muselmann that strengthens England’s position against Spain.
Unfortunately, once the yearlong negotiations are complete, Ezzedine, who’d made the mistake of demonstrating his superior medical skills, is left behind as a gift to the Queen. Through the rest of the saga, we see 17th Century England through the eyes of a humble, well-educated man who gradually accepts the filth, bad food, ignorance and petty religious rivalries of his ungenerous hosts.
If I mention that the good doctor is soon to have the life of Elizabeth’s successor in his hands – and is himself in the hands of a royal spy network — I’m pretty sure it won’t spoil the story for you.
- The title – Disappearing Earth – and the book cover give me a false impression of Julia Phillips’ 2019 novel. But I am far from disappointed.The story opens with the abduction of two girls from downtown Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Kamchatka’s largest city. What follows is not a page-turning mystery with crafty sleuths combing through clues that lead to a climactic resolution. Instead, we slip into the lives of the people of Kamchatka, dozens of them – friends who know the only witness to the disappearance, the wife of the lead investigator, indigenous Koryak students related to a young native girl who disappeared two years earlier, mothers and grandmothers who debate the benefits of the safer times with the Soviet Union was in charge along with the probable outcome of the case.
Disappearing Earth is an intimate portrayal of the people of Kamchatka, the rugged reindeer-herding natives, the scientists studying its volcanoes, former Communist Party members enjoying their distance from Putin’s new Russia, people working in the state-sponsored tourism office, teachers, journalists and finally a down-and-out photographer who puts all the pieces together. We learn of Kamchatka’s rugged beauty, its isolation, its broad expanses of thick forests and wide-open tundra that allow no roads in or out of this under-populated Siberian peninsula the size of California.
Phillips tells this story with deep empathy and imagination. Her personal portraits are so engaging we almost forget all the characters’ tangential connection to the two missing girls. Yet the conclusion is even more compelling than a who-done-it mystery for its deep immersion into the lives of the people of Kamchatka.
- 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.
- Jodi Picoult: “Life asked death, ‘Why do people love me but hate you?’”
“Death responded, ‘Because you are a beautiful lie and I am a painful truth.’”
In her mind-blowing novel, The Book of Two Ways, Picoult confronts death from every possible vantage point. Dawn, the central character of her 2020 novel, is a graduate Egyptology program drop-out who has settled into a career as a death doula.
“Just as birth doulas know that there’s discomfort and pain that can be managed during labor, death doulas do the same at the other end of the life spectrum.”
Dawn didn’t want to leave Egypt. She loves ancient Egyptians’ fascination with death and their elaborate preparation for the afterlife, history that she helps uncover by carefully digging through their burial sites. And she was (or is) still in love with Wyatt, a fellow Egyptologist, whom she left behind when she got the call fifteen years earlier that her mother was dying.
But, as the name implies, this is much more than a familiar tale of lost love. As the story opens, Dawn is living a fulfilling life in Boston. Though it’s emotionally demanding, her work with terminally ill people is rewarding. And, until now, she’s been enjoying a fairly happy marriage to a professor of quantum physics. Both are devoted to their teenage daughter.
Then, the story suddenly splits in two.
In one, after her marriage is disrupted by suspicion that her husband is having an affair, Dawn suddenly leaves her family behind and heads back to Egypt. In the other, she stomps out of the house, heads for the airport but turns around and comes back to try and work things out with her husband.
The chapters alternate between the two storylines. When it’s about her reunion with her lost love in Egypt, it’s titled ‘Land/Egypt.’ When it’s about her troubled family life, it’s titled ‘Water/Boston.’
‘The Book of Two Ways’ is not just the title of Picoult’s novel. Translated from hieroglyphics, it’s the title of a book often found in coffins alongside the mummified remains of Egyptians buried five thousand (or more) years ago. It describes two alternate routes – one by land and one by water – that can lead them to eternal life with Ra, the sun god.
Most writers would be satisfied with one abundant metaphor about life and death. But, Picoult not only taps into Egyptology but stirs in mind-warping theories from quantum physics. What if your life choices didn’t take you down just one of the roads at the fork, but both? What if every choice split off into an infinity of alternative lives?
Jodi Picoult is as brilliant as she is prolific. Hopefully, every parallel universe has a Jodi Picoult.
- Brief remarks on Jodi Picoult’s Wish You Were Here will have to suffice. If I elaborate, you will wish me ill mid-story.
Picoult is a self-described fast writer. Her twenty-seven novels attest to that. But, she says, she broke a land speed record writing Wish You Were Here. A few months into the covid pandemic, “at home paralyzed with fear” and already on deadline for a novel, she felt compelled to write about the devastating loss of life and the extreme isolation felt universally.
What I love about Jodi Picoult is that she writes stories that are both accessible and elevated.
Learning about twenty-something Diana, we relate easily to her life plan, the mix of good and bad in her childhood and to her happy live-in love affair with a young doctor. When the pandemic hits, we just want what’s best for her. But she’s in the thick of it. In NYC, living with a doctor. When she takes off for Galápagos, a pre-paid, non-refundable trip they’d planned together, we already know – sitting here fresh from the past two years of covid history – that she’s in for trouble.
After telling a gritty story of pandemic fear, death and uncertainty, Jodi Picoult writes an afterward so sublime that you wonder how a 21st Century philosopher can also be a bestselling novelist.
When I try to make sense of the past year, it feels to me like the world pressed pause. When we stopped moving, we noticed that the ways we have chosen to validate ourselves are lists of items or experiences we need to have, goals that are monetary or mercenary. Now, I’m wondering why those were ever even goals. We don’t need those things to feel whole. We need to wake up in the morning. We need our bodies to function. We need to enjoy a meal. We need a roof over our head. We need to surround ourselves with people we love. We need to take the wins in a much smaller way.
And we need to remember this, even when we’re no longer in a pandemic.
-Jodi Picoult, March 2021
- 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.
- “The crust is self-delusion. The soul is self-awareness.” – Chaim Potok.
In The Promise, rabbi, Jewish scholar and bestselling author, Chaim Potok evokes the pain, pleasure and yearning that is the human condition.
It doesn’t matter that Potok (1929-2002) sought, in part, to explain the traditional aspects of Jewish thought, religion and culture to non-Jews. First and foremost, he understood what it was to be human, to wrestle with the traditions and conditions you’re born into, improve on it and, somehow, pay it forward.
The Promise is Potok’s sequel to his 1967 debut novel, The Chosen, which sold 3.4 million copies worldwide. His story of Reuven and Daniel, two Jewish boys who grew up in Brooklyn, both their lives centered around study of the Talmud, continues. They’re no longer teenagers. They’re now young men living in the post-WWII era of McCarthiesm.
Daniel has broken from his father’s Hasidic synagogue to become a psychologist. Reuven follows in the footsteps of his father, mastering linguistics and logic and applying it to the Talmud; they’re both considered to be rebel rabbis.
Using Reuven’s voice, Potok comments on the bitter divisiveness between the Jewish sects in his own community, “They were my own people, but we were as far apart from one another as we could possibly be and still call ourselves by the name “Jew”.
The Orthodox Jewish scholars arriving from Nazi death camps, men who survived the genocide of their own people, drive the dialogue. They insist, ‘How can you challenge the beliefs that millions of us died for?’
The Promise is a beautiful book, a human tale so finely told that it transcends religion, nationality and politics.
- Though their titles have an odd synergy, Chaim Potok’s 1975 classic In the Beginning would seem to have little to do with The Dawn of Everything, the 2021 history tome by David Graeber & David Wengrow.
And perhaps the synergy is merely a product of the reader’s mind – my mind, in this case, after reading these two books back-to-back.
With Graeber & Wengrow fresh in my mind, arguing that the trajectory of human society is not inevitable, I find myself looking at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old Jewish boy growing up in the Bronx in 1929.
Little David is a sickly boy, but when he is well enough to venture from his home, he’s met with regular episodes of bullying and anti-semitic remarks. He’s frightened, as any six-year-old would be, asking each time, “Papa, why must they hate?”
He’s a smart boy, so it doesn’t take David long to understand the added tensions pulling at his immigrant parents whose families were victimized by pogroms and institutionalized anti-semitism back in Poland. His mother writes dozens of letters every week to her parents, her siblings and her cousins back in Poland while his father continues to lead an aid program that helps Polish Jews emigrate to America.
While the news of Hitler’s rise to power begins to dominate the headlines, his parents struggling with worry, David is immersed in the ancient texts of the Talmud. He learns about moral imperatives and about the importance of reasoning and debate. Fluent in ancient Hebrew, he’s enthralled by the very idea of continuing the dialogues initiated by Rabbinic scholars thousands of years ago.
Every day, on his way to his yeshiva, David walks by a Catholic school. Since some of the neighborhood boys who taunt him attend the school, he’s still a bit fearful. His fears are mitigated by the large statue that stands between the church and the school. He gazes into the kind, beautiful face, looks at the welcoming, outstretched arms and wonders, as he always has, how the people who worship such an attractive idol can be so mean and hateful.
In the midst of WWII, David’s parents are completely cut-off from news inside Poland. They have no way of knowing what’s happening to the hundreds of family members still there.
We know what they’re about to find out when the war is over. We know and can do nothing about it. We are, of course, just readers. That fact makes it no less painful when young David and his family come face-to-face with the horrific reality of the Holocaust. None of their family survive, not even the children.
At this point in the story, I have to ask — would Chaim Potok agree with Graeber & Wengrow – that there is no inevitability to diabolically oppressive societies?
Many historians imply that, with the degree of Jewish oppression throughout Europe, most of it rooted in biases dating back to the Dark Ages, a ‘holocaust event’ was bound to happen.
David and his family certainly did not see it coming. They held out hope. They knew America wasn’t perfect, but it was better. Many of their relatives back in Poland had an opportunity to join them in America, but they too held out hope that ‘things will get better.’
Is it possible that if humanity 19th and early 20th Century had not shied away from social self-awareness – had not turned their backs on lessons learned during the Age of Enlightenment – that the Holocaust might never have happened?
Graeber & Wengrow describe a legacy of humanity’s self-determination. They also suggest that we got stuck. Was it because we were stuck that we let Fascism rise to near world-domination?
Is it because we are stuck that we are failing to address our next great crisis? At this point, we’re not even pretending that it’s a global crisis. One hope, perhaps, is that climate change just might gets us unstuck?
I do wonder what would Potok think?
- 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.
- Richard Powers – The Overstory – see home page blog, ‘The Overstory – Beautiful Brutal Truth’ – posted 5/16/21.
- 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.
- On the surface On Swift Horses is about gamblers, boys back from war and the girls they marry, fleet horses, card sharks, smart women, dumb men and the added-attraction in 1957 Las Vegas – atomic mushroom clouds in the desert sky. But author Shannon Pufahl has far more to say.
Gay men and women in 1957, even in the golden dream of California, have much to fear. Law enforcement busts and backstreet brutality don’t stop them from hurting each other all on their own. Julius will do anything, including rip off his only brother, to find the Las Vegas card shark he fell in love with. His sister-in-law, Muriel, plays the same game, in reverse.
Muriel gives away her good luck with the ponies to pursue a longshot. She doesn’t dislike her husband, but she realizes she married him to pursue a bond with Julius. With the help of the woman next door, she hopes to leave both brothers with what they need so she can find what she needs.
Though Ridgeline is written as a novel, Michael Punke strives for accuracy and heartfelt truth in telling the tale of the climactic 1866 battle that led the Lakota and Cheyenne to victory in Red Cloud’s War against the U.S.
In addition to the military details and capturing the sense of what it was like to live in the confines of a fort surrounded by hostile savages, Punke captures the beauty of the culture and lifestyle the Lakota are fighting so hard to save.
The U.S. Army battalion directed by General Sherman to build a fort in the Power River Valley is led by Colonel Carrington. He’s committed to the goal of securing the route into Montana gold country but clueless to the offense of building a fort in the middle of Lakota hunting grounds. For most of his officers, being the first to push this far west into Indian territory is simply a way of extending their valorous military careers after the Civil War.
When Red Cloud hears that the army officers brought their wives with them, he knows they’ve come to stay. As Crazy Horse and his scouts watch, the Army wipes out a small forest, cutting down thousands of trees to build the fort walls and the many buildings within it. Alarmed by their desolation of the land, he knows that he must keep studying them to learn their habits and find their weaknesses.
Red Cloud advises Crazy Horse to use the tactic of a beaver. Beavers, he points out, don’t try to take down a big tree all at once, but with hundreds of small bites. During his regular raids on the Army’s woodcutters, Crazy Horse learns the white man’s biggest weakness. They think the Lakota are ignorant savages, incapable of complex planning.
He and his men not only learn the soldiers’ daily habits as well as the identity and quirks of the officers, they are quickly able to interpret the flag signals the soldiers send daily from their lookout tower.
While it’s easy to root for the Lakota, we also learn to sympathize just a bit with some of the whites. The recent immigrant and bugler, Adolph Metzger, saw his enlistment into this expedition as a way to support his wife and kids back in New York and to learn English better. It doesn’t take him long to realize the kind of life he’ll have if he keeps letting the Army tell him what to do.
Interspersed in the story are the private journals of Frances Grummond. When she married him, she had no idea that her Lieutenant husband would turn into the arrogant, hot-headed, hard-drinking man he became on the frontier. She’s deeply worried for the baby she’s carrying and already planning her escape route back to her Tennessee family.
Army Scout Jim Bridger knows the west as good as any white man alive, which is why the Army pays him even more than their officers. But his mind is deeply troubled by the idea that he’s helping the Army implement what they’re calling ‘manifest destiny’ – whatever the hell that is. Bridger has a Shoshone wife.
The mysterious Oglala warrior Crazy Horse comes to life in this book. Punke uses his creative license and detailed research to insert Crazy Horse’s thoughts into the story. We know that he never sought glory among his people and that his life was guided by his vision quests.
He was known to slip away quietly from his village, gone for days or even weeks at a time, seeking wisdom while fasting and meditating in isolation. In Ridgeline we witness his keen observations, his sense of people, place and purpose. We feel the weight of his immense responsibility. Under the guidance of Red Cloud, Crazy Horse plots an elaborate trap to decimate the enemies who have invaded his home.
Not to spoil your enjoyment of this gripping book, I want to add only one thing – this most marvelous example of the Lakota. Crazy Horse seeks the counsel of his friend Moon.
This description of Moon’s background says everything about the Lakota culture:
“A number of things became more clear when Moon returned from his quest to explain the vision he’d received from the Creator. He was winkte – two souled. In his vision, he learned that though he was physically a man, it was his destiny to live his life as a woman both in actions and in dress. His family felt great happiness to have their hopes confirmed. Before, Moon’s actions often had seemed confusing. But if the creator had given him the wisdom of both men and women, no wonder that he would see the world in a different way. And to hold such wisdom in one body was known by all the Lakota to be a special gift, though also a burden that the winkte carried on behalf of the tribe. The people of the tribe sought out Moon’s counsel in all variety of matters, from insights into love and family relationships to prophecy about the hunt and war.”
The vision Moon shares with Crazy Horse does indeed come true.
- The Heat of the Sun is a wild ride. David Rain’s debut novel is the story of Woodley Sharpless, an orphan who becomes a decades-long sidekick to Trouble. He meets Ben ‘Trouble’ Pinkerton in boarding school in the years following WWI. Over the next three decade he can’t quite get rid him, his life looping back again and again to Trouble.
Trouble parties his ways through the roaring twenties, Sharpless at his side. When Trouble’s parents, Senator Pinkerton and his power-hungry upper class wife, are unable to steer their son to respectability, they turn to Sharpless. WWII pulls them in different directions but toward its end, Trouble snatches Sharpless from his desk job and inserts him into the secrets of the desert at Los Alamos.
Finally, Sharpless discovers what Trouble has spent his life running away from, the secret that Senator Pinkerton is desperate to keep. The result of his father’s affair with a Japanese geisha, Trouble could not deny his roots, his divided loyalty. He rushed to help the victims of Nagasaki.
“Trouble spoke of those desperate days after the bombing, when thousands of dying refugees crowded the roads around the harbor, many of them blind or mutilated hideously, all of them struggling uselessly to flee.”
Yet, Sharpless’s last report on Trouble, “When I last saw him he was over forty, but even then he remained in essence a callow boy.
- No novel has ever made me feel such deep, layered sadness. Shadow Child, by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, is a sensitive lens through the tragic times of three generations of Japanese Americans. The title alludes to the story’s shifting definition of shadow child. Each one sadder.
Hanako didn’t always feel like her twin sister’s shadow. Before they were school-age, they thought of each other as the mirrored halves of a whole. They called each other Koko. But Keiko quit calling her sister Koko. Keiko stole all the attention, of their mother, of their stepfather and of their small Hawaiian town.
Their mother, Lillie, never told the twins about her life before Hawaii — about her childhood in California or her newlywed years in a Japanese internment camp in Utah, or her deportation to Hiroshima. But when they were kids, she tells Kei and Hana ghost stories about people who are nothing but shadows.
Six years after Hanako escapes to the anonymity of New York, running away from what she thinks of as Keiko’s brutal betrayal, her sister finds her. The final definition of shadow child lies in the answer to who assaulted Kei and put her in a coma the very night of her arrival.
- Passage West by Rishi Reddi is an indictment of the American myth, of our glorification of Statue-of-Liberty ideals.
Like so many well-documented stories of American immigration, it shatters the collection of lies that our history teachers wanted us to swallow.
Reddi’s well-researched novel of Punjabi farmers settling in California’s Imperial Valley begins in 1913. Just ten years prior, in 1903, a plaque was added to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty that read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Reddi doesn’t mention this fact. The beauty of her story is it is simply a straightforward description of what happened to Ram Singh, his friend Karak, and his cousins Jivan, his wife Kishen and their son, Amarjeet. Smart, hardworking farmers, they get land that was once desert yielding bountiful crops of cantaloupe, peas, lettuce and cotton.
While, at first, they make enough money to send some back to their families in India, eventually they are punished for their success by prejudice, harassment and passage of the California Alien Land Act.
Their Japanese-American neighbors are hit first. Had they been able to transfer their farm to their son who was born in the U.S. and therefore a U.S. citizen, they would have been able to keep their farm. But the son had died at the end of WWI, a U.S. soldier fighting in Europe. The Singhs manage to hang onto half their farm but are then swindled out of their crops by their local produce shipping corporation.
As Redi writes in the introduction, her story ‘explores an unending question: Who is welcome in America?’
American’s checkered past is the backdrop to Redi’s question. We boast of freedom and inalienable rights, but we seldom deliver on the first try, or the second try, or even the third. The color line that the Singhs discuss, always trying to stay on their side of it, still defines our society.
I think of the Singhs’ Japanese neighbors, who not only lose their farm, but whose children and grandchildren will be locked up in internment camps twenty years later. I think of the need for the #BlackLivesMatter movement today, even after America elected its first Black president. I think of our failure to elect a female president. We can’t seem to get it right.
Like Mount Rushmore, built on sacred land stolen from the Lakota, the Statue of Liberty is as iconic as the American flag, and just as cruelly ironic.
The Statue of Liberty was first dedicated in 1886, France’s tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the U.S. Civil War. To help raise funds for building the base for it on Ellis Island, a poet named Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called The New Colossus. When it was finally added to the base of the statue, the U.S. Congress had just passed the 1903 Immigration Act which added several inadmissible classes of immigrants including: beggars, prostitutes and people with epilepsy.
Add to that irony is the fact that the U.S. was still seventeen years away from giving women the right to vote when Emma Lazarus was memorialized with a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which reads in its entirety:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”Thank you, Rishi Reddi, for reminding us that we’ve always had and, it seems, always will have much work to do in living up to our promises.
- No novel has ever made me feel such deep, layered sadness. Shadow Child, by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, is a sensitive lens through the tragic times of three generations of Japanese Americans. The title alludes to the story’s shifting definition of shadow child. Each one sadder.
Hanako didn’t always feel like her twin sister’s shadow. Before they were school-age, they thought of each other as the mirrored halves of a whole. They called each other Koko. But Keiko quit calling her sister Koko. Keiko stole all the attention, of their mother, of their stepfather and of their small Hawaiian town.
Their mother, Lillie, never told the twins about her life before Hawaii — about her childhood in California or her newlywed years in a Japanese internment camp in Utah, or her deportation to Hiroshima. But when they were kids, she tells Kei and Hana ghost stories about people who are nothing but shadows.
Six years after Hanako escapes to the anonymity of New York, running away from what she thinks of as Keiko’s brutal betrayal, her sister finds her. The final definition of shadow child lies in the answer to who assaulted Kei and put her in a coma the very night of her arrival.
- Set two-hundred-ninety years in the future, 2312 describes the present in withering detail.Kim Stanley Robinson’s couples a credible imagining of humanity’s fantastic expansion into the rest of our solar system with an incisive view of the troubles earth is mired in now, and 290 years from now.Chief among the ironies awaiting us are the amazing abilities we develop, allowing us to terraform Mars, Saturn and even Mercury. But little of that technology can be applied to Earth. Even that irony is rooted in irony.
Because we failed to cut our greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change, technologies for shading the earth are employed. A billion people die in the ‘Little Ice Age’ that ensues. Yet our planet-shading techniques become so well-developed that we’re able to cool down Mercury and Venus enough to make them habitable – habitable with tech support.
On Mercury, humans cannot live outside their bubbled city without a space suit and will die quickly if they step out into full sunlight. Because it cannot withstand direct sunlight either, the bubbled metropolis, lush with gardens, farms and animals, glides along on rails that allow it to continually circumnavigate the planet, always ahead of sunrise.
Despite an array of amazing extraterrestrial lifestyles across the solar system, Earth maintains center stage. Longevity treatments allow most people to live two hundred years or more, if they return to Earth now and then. At one-hundred-thirty-six, Swan Er Hong, the chief protagonist of the story, who retains the body and the irascibility of a very young human, must return. Longevity aside, she does not look forward to visiting Earth — known universally as ‘The Planet of Sadness.’
With nearly three centuries added to human history, the people of 2312 have devised a new periodizing system. Building on the periods we know – the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, Early Modern and Postmodern – they’ve added new labels and definitions:
2005 – 2060: The Dithering – the wasted years when we had the chance to mitigate climate change but failed to act.
2060 – 2130: The Crisis – the disappearance of Artic ice, a five-meter sea level rise, desertification and drought result in worldwide food shortages, mass migration, riots and catastrophic death on all continents.
2130 – 2160: The Turnaround – with strong AI, fusion power, self-replicating factories, they finally confront the climate crisis. Despite mistakes like the Little Ice Age (2142-54), they begin to stabilize their transformed planet. But they also have fast space propulsion, so human diaspora begins across the solar system.
Each new period expands human capabilities. Self-guided machines hollow out asteroids, transforming them into terrariums that can grow food and support life. When the machines have finished the interior, they turn themselves into mass propulsion drivers. Achieving 2% of lightspeed – approximately 13 million miles per hour – the transformed asteroids, some as large as thirty miles long, become the luxury liners of inter-planetary travel.
Meanwhile, Earth continues to struggle:
Only with the utmost caution could they tinker with anything on Earth, because everything there was so tightly balanced and interwoven . . .The heating and subsequent expansion of the ocean’s water – also its acidification – nothing could be done about these. There was no terraforming technique that would help . . .They still hung suspended between catastrophe and paradise.
There is hope. With so much more power at their command, Earth has begun to overcome Jevons Paradox – “the better human technology gets, the more harm we do with it.”
But in this ambitious 561-page novel, Earth’s ongoing problems are merely the back drop to the plot. Even though their home planet still hogties itself with exaggerated imbalance of power and wealth, humans in the rest of the solar system have achieved a ‘post-scarcity’ world.
After most of Earth’s rich upper classes fled to a terraformed Mars in The Ritard period (2220-2270), they cut themselves off from the rest of humanity. Everyone seems happy to leave them alone. As of 2312, there have been no wars in space.
That’s where the story begins.
Someone or something has found a way to deceive Mercury’s sophisticated warning system. Though it’s capable of detecting anything entering the planet’s atmosphere that is the size of a softball or larger, no alarms sounded when the attack came.
Tons of pebbles coalesced just above the planet’s surface and smashed into a section of the global rail system. The circumnavigating city can’t stay in front of sunrise. Though human inhabitants have time to evacuate, the city itself melts.
Imagine that. Quantum AI has become so sophisticated that it can be used to launch a million tiny objects at different times and from different places in space so accurately that they all come together only after they’ve entered the atmosphere of the targeted planet.
Our quixotic hero, Swan Er Hong, survives the attack and joins the team of investigators.
I can’t begin to describe Swan. Even after 561 pages. Did I mention that it’s also an inter-planetary love story about two middle-aged humans (136 and 185) who happen to be hermaphrodites (couple of interesting love scenes.)
At best, I’ve given you a sliver of the future this book describes and a bare glimpse of the expansive plot.
For me, the fascination is about what happens to us after The Dithering.
- Though the subject is all too real, Spidertown by Abraham Rodriguez, Jr. reads like good science fiction. The human yearning is so palpable, so familiar, despite the setting being as unfamiliar as the surface of Mars and just as deadly.
- Set two-hundred-ninety years in the future, 2312 describes the present in withering detail.Kim Stanley Robinson’s couples a credible imagining of humanity’s fantastic expansion into the rest of our solar system with an incisive view of the troubles earth is mired in now, and 290 years from now.Chief among the ironies awaiting us are the amazing abilities we develop, allowing us to terraform Mars, Saturn and even Mercury. But little of that technology can be applied to Earth. Even that irony is rooted in irony.
Miguel is sixteen-and-a-half trying to find his way to seventeen while reclaiming the childhood he left behind at fourteen. Set-up in a South Bronx drug running business by friends he can no longer trust, he has fallen in love with the beautiful-but-well-grounded Cristelena. She inspires him, helping believe there’s something better.
The entire story takes place in a month-long drama of shootings, beatings, binge-drinking, crack-smoking, drug-deals-gone-wrong, passionate embraces and fucking for fucking’s sake. Twelve-year-old’s prowl the streets showing off their guns, ready take out anyone marked by the drug bosses.
Actually, the surface of Mars seems more familiar at this point than the crack-riddled, crime-infected inner cities of the early 1980’s. Besides its alien nature, what helps make this novel so worthwhile is the dialogue.
Miguel finally confronts Firebug, his friend from middle school days who at seventeen is on his way up in the arson-for-hire business. He’s just learned that Firebug set him up for the beating he just took.
“It’s an instinct,” Firebug went on. “I live that way, thass all. I cun’t stop if I tried. Do you understand? I can’t even help it. I try bein’ friends wif’ people, but’chu can’t have friends. Not in this life, bro’.”
Spidertown captures a world where kids don’t get to grow up, where guns are status and death is a part of everyday life. But, debut novelist Abraham Rodriguez, Jr. managed to infuse hope into this story of desperation. The one friend who remains loyal tells Miguel, “You won something here, boy. You won the right to be sixteen years old again.”
- 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.”
- Josh Russell’s 1999 novel, Yellow Jack, is not a fun read. It’s like wading through someone else’s fever dreams.
But it is so well-crafted that it’s hard to pull away from it until it makes sense.
After stealing his friend’s name and his boss’s craft, Claude Marchand escapes Paris, emigrates to America and sets up shop making daguerrotypes in New Orleans. Since his boss’s name was Louis Daguerre, he calls his images ‘soliotypes’.
As yellow fever reaches its peak in New Orleans in 1845, Marchand’s business flourishes. To his disgust, much of his success is due to the popularity of preserving the fever victims in postmortem soliotypes.
Everywhere you turn in this story people are dying – from yellow fever, in childbirth and in duels. Or they are going mad. For some it’s grief, for others unrequited love, but Claude Marchand is unique. Mercury vapor is the key to his developing process. With every breath he takes he’s poisoning himself. The more soliotypes he sells, the madder the gets.
What rescues this morose book for me is yellow fever denial.
Yep, just like our current pandemic denial, lots of 1845 New Orleans people do not want yellow fever – or yellow jack as they’ve nicknamed it – to disrupt their businesses. The Picayunenewspaper prints stories saying yellow jack is a hoax (alongside ads for postmortem photos). The mayor has all the trees cut down because someone pointed out that all the southern cities plagued by yellow fever have lots of trees.
When Claude’s friend, a young doctor, identifies the problem as stagnant water, mosquitoes, bad sanitation and the public’s lack of good hygiene, he’s publicly ridiculed. Think Dr. Fauci.
Do not read this book unless you have a desire to witness madness in a broad historical perspective.
- 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.
- You don’t read so much as inhabit Richard Russo novels. I took up residence last week in his giant 2007 novel, Bridge of Sighs, and wish I could have lived there a while longer.
The real Bridge of Sighs is a famous landmark in Venice, so named because it’s a bridge that used to connect the place where the guilty were sentenced (The Palace of the Doge) to the prison in which they served it out. This story has nothing to do with the bridge in Venice, but everything to do with the metaphor implicit in its name.
Lou C. Lynch never held a grudge against his parents for his inevitable nickname. No, Lucy loved his mom and worshipped his dad. By the time he took over his parents’ convenience store in Thomaston, NY, everyone in town knew him as Lucy or ‘Mr. Mayor’, an unofficial title he’d earned by being an even better version of his dad, the ever-dependable Big Lou.
A preview of Lucy’s life might make you think you’re in for a gentle and heroic tale of small town America, a Frank Capra movie script. But, in Richard Russo’s inspired hands, Thomaston is a teaming microcosm of life’s largest issues. We understand entire lives, from childhood to old age, dozens of them, some not even introduced until halfway through the book. And every one of them resonates within our own lives and within our own communities, large or small.
While love and loyalty are key themes, Bridge of Sighs raises questions of racism, family conflict, industrial waste, war, education and sex. Are we self-determined or a product of destiny designed by our genes, our family and the town we came from? Are all simply serving the life sentence that fate handed down?
When the last page is read and you’re forced to leave the people of Thomaston, NY you may feel reluctant to walk back into your own life. But you’ll long remember the people you met and the lessons you learned there.
- In Richard Russo’s ‘Chances Are . . .’ three sixty-six year old men gather for a final reunion at Martha’s Vineyard. Their four decades of friendship give them much to reminisce about, but none of them can get past what happened there on Memorial Day weekend in 1971.
Mickey, Lincoln and Teddy graduated from the same small Connecticut college where they thought of themselves as the three musketeers. Though they all treated her like the fourth musketeer, Jacy was more than that. They were all in love her.
Jacy joined them at Lincoln’s family house at Martha’s Vineyard for their 1971 Memorial weekend bash. She hasn’t been seen since.
As they steer their conversations around Jacy, all of them dance around the same secret. Each one of them has his own reason to believe that, way back then, Jacy had chosen them. Each one of them believed that she was going to break her engagement to her preppy asshole fiancé, run off with him and live happily ever after.
This is too good a mystery for me to ruin what Russo has so painstakingly crafted, but I cannot help but share the feelings it evoked in me.
I am roughly the same age as these friends. I, like them, vividly recall gathering with my buddies to listen to the national broadcast of the Vietnam War draft lottery. We anxiously awaited our fates, which was determined by the order of the birthdates as they were called out.
In Russo’s story, when Mickey’s birthdate is the 9th one announced, his friends sing a chorus of ‘O Canada’.
When mine was the 19th birthdate called out, my friends sang, ‘And, it’s one, two, three, whatta’ we fightin’ for, don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, my next stop is Vietnam.’
While Russo’s plot walks into the depths of Mickey, Lincoln, Teddy and Jacy’s unique backgrounds and twists together their fated futures, my mind wandered into the months of my near-miss in staying out of the Vietnam War and my brother’s life-changing near-misses fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
When Jacy’s favorite song emerges – a song she’s said to have sung nearly as well as Gracie Slick – I have to stop reading to dam the tears:
“When the truth is found . . . . to beeeee lies, you know the joy within you dies.”
In his previous novels, Russo gets you to befriend his characters, makes you feel at home in the stories’ settings, and coerces you through the coarse passage of time. In ‘Chances Are . . .’ he does all of that while unravelling a dense four-decade mystery.
It’s a beautiful book and a new page in Russo’s storied history.
- “It is a foolish man who thinks stories do not matter – when in the end, they may be all that matter and all the forever we’ll ever know.” – Lynda Rutledge
West With Giraffes seems, at first, like an engaging adventure story told by a very old man. Then it becomes something far more special, a forever story.
They were known as the ‘hurricane giraffes’. Lynda Rutledge lifted her story from the real life headlines that newspapers across the country carried when two young giraffes arrived in New York after surviving the Great Hurricane of 1938. Seventeen-year-old Woodrow Wilson Nickel, who barely survived the storm on a NYC wharf, first spots them being gently lifted off a transport ship that had limped in from Africa.
Woody’s last living relative, an old cuss he refers to only as Cuz, didn’t survive the hurricane. And we soon learn that he had only arrived in New York a few months earlier after burying his parents and baby sister on their Dust Bowl desolated farm in the Texas Panhandle.
Woody is enchanted by the young giraffes, feeling a kinship with them he hadn’t felt since his ma died. After finding ways to make himself useful to ‘the Old Man’ sent by the San Diego Zoo to haul them cross country, Woody ends up heading west as the driver of the specially rigged transport truck alongside the Old Man with the crippled hand.
Even before they leave NYC, Woody encounters a beautiful young redhead who seems as enamored as he is with the giraffes. Red claims to be a Life magazine photo journalist covering the story. Once she starts following the transport truck, they not only help each other and the Old Man out of one scrape after another, they begin to uncover each other’s secrets.
Enrapt as we become in the challenges and near-misses Woody and his friends face at every turn of the road, we don’t realize that we’re about to fall in love. We – along with Woody, Red, the Old Man and a dozen other colorful characters along the road – lose our hearts to ‘Boy and Wild Girl’, the only name Woody ever has, or ever needs, for the two tall, elegant creatures who renew his ravished sense of home.
As Rutledge says so beautifully through Red, “Home’s not the place you’re from, Woody. Home’s the place you want to be.”
At the age of one hundred and five, Woody writes his long ago story with fierce determination, willing his heart to keep ticking until he’s finished it. We know that Red was, as he says, the love of his life, at least for the first part of his long life. But, the night he had to say goodbye to Boy and Wild Girl was even more transformative than his first love.
Woody climbs down into the pen where the giraffes ride. On the nights when he’s stood guard over them, they’ve come to know his smell, nuzzling him, licking him and even laying their heads on his lap when he climbs up to the top of their enclosure. He’s standing there between them, rubbing their hides when they begin to hum together. “I could feel my chest vibrating with them, their rumbling African croon echoing deep into the night and deep into my marrow.”
Woodrow Wilson Nickel concludes, “If home, like Red said, was not where you came from but where you wanted to be, then the rig, the Old Man, and the giraffes were more home – and more family – than any home I’d ever had.”
Lynda Rutledge dedicates this story to the ongoing efforts around the world to save animals from the rampant extinction that is befalling this planet. West with Giraffes is just one among the millions of tales that underscore the profound relationship between man and animal, stories that show how we are at our best when we care for other living things.
We must do everything possible to save them, she says, in part, “for ourselves, since we now know there will be a human toll for losing even creatures as small as bees and butterflies.”
~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.
- The Possessors and the Possessed – Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.
Intrigue and insight are generally the prime motivators of my reading but, on rare occasions, sex is the prime satisfier. The Possessors and the Possessed is that kind of book. But, not for the reasons you might think.
As the elaborate dustjacket art suggests, Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr.’s 1980 saga is soap opera version of early American history. Centered on the generational wealth of the Van Alen family of New York City, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Martin Van Buren and Washington Irving play supporting roles. George Washington puts in a cameo appearance in the opening episode and Abe Lincoln steals a couple scenes in the final season. So does Edgar Allen Poe.
I’ve always enjoyed a good history pageant. As the story plays out, I engage my favorite pastime – time travel. I imagine myself in that place and time, cherishing every detail of the everyday habits, expressions, opinions, smells and visuals – landscape and city spaces of the time period – considering every aspect of how I, a 21st Century man, might engage them.
In the case of The Possessors and the Possessed, I, like most of the men around her, fall in love with Sally. Her father, a strict and righteous preacher, baptized her ‘Sarah.’ She chose Sally when she defied him.
As Sally’s NYC life enfolds — sixteen when New York welcomes Washington as the first U.S. President, in her eighties when Lincoln is elected – every flaw in American democracy is exposed. Slavery and the complete lack of women’s rights are tantamount. Wealth is elemental. Even a white man needs property to vote.
Sally is smart, beautiful and more determined to succeed than any character in the saga. Hampered by gender bias, by the narrow mindedness of the 19th Century, she manages to thrive, intellectually, materially and politically. Emotional and physical satisfaction elude her until she encounters a man who is just as liberated as she is, a well-travelled, open-minded sea captain.
It’s not the sweet scenes of physical intimacy that satisfy most, but the confirming fact of a woman managing to find happiness – fleeting as it is – in a time that was so horribly stacked against women, people of color and anyone who was not a possessor.
As we watch Aaron Burr kill Hamilton in a senseless duel, see Vanderbilt and Astor squeezing every penny they can out of the poor, witness privileged whites turning a blind eye to slavery, Sally’s brief, passionate love affair with her sea captain is like a candle in the window of a dark and despotic history.
- 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.
- Willing is a disturbing book. I’m not sure that was its intent. Scott Spencer’s novel sets off as a tale of sexual decadence, travels along the edge of moral turpitude and finishes in ambiguity.
I’ve got to talk about it, so let this be a spoiler alert.
Avery is a competent freelance writer with limited ambition. At thirty-seven, desperately in need of funds for a new life – like moving out of the shabby NYC apartment he shares with his ex-girlfriend – he grabs onto the opportunity for an all-expense-paid international sex tour with both hands.
His uncle gifted him the $135,000 tour for reasons that go back into Avery’s four-father childhood. His mother is still furious about the article he wrote for Esquire about the men who played father to him over her many marriages.
Avery plans to observe the dozen other men on the tour, not to partake in sexual services that are lined up for them in city after city across northern Europe. He has pre-sold a tell-all book about his adventures. But from the time their private plane touches down in Reykjavík until their final stop in Latvia, Avery succumbs to his lust.
He engages in an internal moral discussion that goes something like this, ‘plenty of people give over their bodies as gainful employment — maids who clean up your filth, manicurists who save your nails from depredation while massaging your hands and bellboys who schlep your luggage up four flights of stairs when the elevator is broken.’
Sex is another service available to those who have the money to pay for it.
While he knows some to be tender if desperate for a woman’s touch, he knows that some of his fellow sex-tour companions are predators. He encounters one of them steering his escort down the hotel hallway with his hand gripping the back of her neck, humiliating her before he takes her to his room to do worse.
Like I said. Disturbing.
Avery’s story tries to turn toward moral clarification. But whatever message the author might have intended is confused by an ending that seeks a strange absolution. Avery is rescued by his mother.
- 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.
- In Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout revived Olive Kitteridge, an outspoken woman from Crosby, Maine, for whom Strout won a Pulitzer Prize [‘Olive’].
Olive and the other aging characters who populate this rambling novel all speak candidly about arriving at old age. It’s the best literary fiction I’ve ever read on the topic. Reading it while I’m rapidly approaching my own 70th birthday, made somewhat cathartic, though I also laughed my ass off. It’s a one-of-a-kind book.
- 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.
- Based on the true story of the woman who pulled off the largest municipal fraud in US history, The Talented Miss Farwell, is a riveting account of the double life she led for over twenty years.
Becky Farwell has a knack for numbers. If her dad, her only surviving parent, hadn’t needed her at home, she would have left her small town for an Ivy League college and never looked back. Instead, committed to her father, she stays in her hometown of Pierson, Illinois and rises from talented accountant to the town’s chief financial officer.
It starts with one small oil painting. She spots it at a yard sale and has a tingling gut feeling about its value. After a clever bait-and-switch at the cashier’s counter, she pays fifteen dollars for a painting worth eight hundred. She hooked.
From her meager beginnings, she studies the art world obsessively. She becomes an expert on who’s trending and who’s not, on who’s undiscovered talent needs a boost, and on what the big art collectors are looking for and how much they’re willing to pay. All Becky needs to become a world renown art dealer is money.
Talented and trusted, Becky’s creative accounting takes on a life of its own. She’s soon ‘borrowing’ money from so many Pierson accounts that she has to be the one to pick-up the town’s mail everyday so she can pre-sort the bank statements. She puts money back into some accounts after making a big art sale, and when she gets behind, she’s the one leading town fundraisers to make up for budget shortfalls.
While becoming the hometown star – the one who’s always there to look out for the town’s needs, Becky simultaneously develops impressive international credentials as an art connoisseur. Travelling to New York, to Paris and London, she also remakes herself, wearing the latest fashions and throwing twenty thousand dollar parties for wealthy art patrons.
With a two-hour drive to the condo she leased in downtown Chicago where she can showcase her art, Becky sleeps little, worries constantly and keeps digging herself in deeper and deeper. She becomes obsessed with the idea that if she can put the right collection together, if she can amass all the pieces every created by an important artist, she’ll make the final killing that will let her fully replenish the coffers of the town of Pierson.
Meanwhile, the town of Pierson, Illinois is falling apart. It’s two bridges are barely safe, the riverfront walkway is falling apart, the police department is underfunded and garbage collection is spotty due to unpaid bills. Becky works side-by-side with the mayor in a desperate attempt to save the town from bankruptcy.
P.S. The real Becky is named Rita Crundwell. She embezzled $54 million from the town of Dixon, Illinois between the mid-1980’s and 2012.
- 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.
- Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman. He is also part of the Russian aristocracy, a dangerous things to be during the Russian Revolution. But instead of their standard bullet through the head, the Bolsheviks put Count Rostov under house arrest at his residence, the Metropol Hotel, just off Red Square across from the Kremlin. Rather than A Gentleman in Moscow, as Amor Towles’ title suggests, he is more specifically a gentleman who cannot leave his hotel, seemingly for the rest of his life.
Gentleman has lost its 19th Century meaning. Today it conjures up a rich, stuffy, well-dressed man who would hold a door open for a lady, but do it with his nose in the air if she were not properly attired. Count Rostov is the kind of gentleman who would gladly help with a door and keenly observe the woman passing through it to see if he might be of further assistance to her.
Rostov believes in intelligence and acuity. When he repeatedly notices a young girl in a yellow dress, reading in the lobby, racing down the hallway and finally staring at him across the hotel café, he concludes that she, like him, must live there, and that she just might need a friend.
Count Rostov shares his world with his new 9-year-old friend. And, in turn, she shares the secrets of the hotel – from the basement where castaway furniture is stored to the roof where the hotel handyman keeps bees and up into the tiny balcony that overlooks the grand ballroom, the ballroom where the members of the Politburo often meet.
Don’t worry. This is but a peek at the plot. A Gentleman in Moscow is as intricately woven as Chinese brocade and as cleverly layered as Russian nesting dolls. Throughout this thick novel the Count’s keen observations, deep insights and daily kindnesses serve him well. Nothing he sees or hears and no friend he makes is without consequence to this book’s magnificent ending.
- 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.’
- In May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, Peter Troy manages to subvert the tragic flow of mid-19thCentury history.
It’s all there, starting with the Irish Potato Famine and ending with Lincoln’s assassination, subsuming the searing pain of slavery, the Civil War’s massive death toll, and the pathos of individual loss, a grandmother, a sister, a father and a husband. But Troy deftly stitches together one tragic tale after another with threads of enduring love and human kindness.
Ethan barely survives his trip from Ireland to America, not sure he wants to at times, still grieving the sister the he left behind, a victim of The Hunger.
Micah survives cruel masters with his keen carpentry skills and the attitude of a mule too stubborn to die.
As the best seamstress in Richmond, Virginia, Mary thrives, as much as any slave can, by burying the pain of rape and the loss of her family when she was barely a teen. She cuts off her emotions, living as an island.
And Marcella can’t get far enough away from the condescension and sexism of her aristocratic family, but does so by burying herself in the abolitionist cause and hardening her heart toward men.
We are pulled deeply into each individual tale. By not cluttering dialogue with quotes, Troy is able to move smoothly from spoken words to the inner thoughts of his characters. One of the examples of this also serves as the metaphor for his masterful ability to pull together these separate but simultaneous stories.
Reminiscing about her aunt Gertie, who taught her to sew, Mary remembers watching Gertie stitching, seeing only the backside of whatever she was working on, Gertie unwilling to show the piece until it’s nearly done. “It didn’t look like any of it could ever fit together, not into somethin’ with any kind of meanin’ . . . was I ever gonna see what it was she was makin’ when I was all caught up starin’ at just the knots an’ tangles an’ such.”
Gertie’s answer reflects the wisdom of Troy’s writing, “. . . she says to me . . . Don’t none of it, the stitchin’, the knots an’ tangles an’ such . . . don’t none of it make any sense ‘till you seein’ it with all that mess fit together the way it’s s’posed to be seen – ‘till you seein’ it frontsways”
I started this novel reluctantly, afraid to submerge myself again into bloodiest years of American history. I finished it in tears. Not because it was as painful as I thought it might be, but because it was more beautiful than I could have imaged.
- Like all great dystopian writers, John Twelve Hawks describes a world that mirrors ours but is one vital step ahead. Spark shows us a future in which governments respond to a global terrorist strike by ripping away the final layer of privacy from human life, not unlike the liberties Americans were willing to sacrifice after 9/11. The world devolves into a state of complete surveillance.While some resist the technological intrusions or find ways to redefine themselves and their moral codes, one man operates with impunity in this new world. He is not punished, bothered or dehumanized by constant government scrutiny because he is already dead.
A horrific motorcycle accident left Jacob with Cotard’s syndrome, a condition in which the person experiences no emotional response – no anger or fear, embarrassment, longing, drive or disappointment — for they believe that they exist within a shell, a body that means nothing to them because they are already dead.
But because Jacob wishes to keep the spark alive within his shell, he needs a job. So he becomes a perfect emotionless assassin. To avoid spoiling the intense plot, let me just say that John Twelve Hawks truly owns this character – he narrates with crisp, clear observations, without sentiment.
Commenting on his latest assignment, Jacob thought, “For me, Emily Buchanan was just a scrap of paper blown down Worth Street – an object in motion rising and falling in the wind.”
I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that the gem at the center of this story is Jacob’s evolution. A shell returning to the fullness of life, he begins to feel again. In that process he delivers remarkable insights.
My favorite: “Quantum theory tells us that objects exist in a suspended state until observed, and then all possibilities collapse into one outcome. This also means that what happened in the past may not be determined until a future action occurs.”
- 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.
- “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.”
No one peers more astutely into a mind than Anne Tyler, or makes better use of semicolons. The first two sentences of her 2020 novel Redhead by the Side of the Road had me hooked.
Tyler didn’t promise gripping suspense. She hinted at an interesting ride-along in the thoughts of an odd man. Or perhaps not so odd.
For business purposes, he calls himself the Tech Hermit, think Geek Squad without the squad. That’s the way he likes it. As his apartment building’s rent-free super, his cost-of-living his minimal. Most important to him, he’s able to live an orderly, predictable life.
You begin to see the beauty of his kitchen-cleaning Tuesdays and his bathroom-cleaning Fridays, his 7:00 AM five-mile runs and his ability to say, “I’m sorry your iMac crashed, but I can’t make it over until Monday morning.”
Micah likes his chaotic family, in small doses. And he especially likes how orderly Cass’s life is – the woman in his life who, he believes, is too old to be called a girlfriend. Can a middle-aged school teacher be someone’s girlfriend? He is clueless when she suddenly dumps him.
When the college-age son of his college sweetheart showed up out of the blue, Micah was gracious. He assured him that he was not the boy’s father, too shy to say that the reason he’s certain is because he never had sex with his first love. But why did Cass storm out, refusing to stay overnight like she typically does at the end of a school week, just because he let the kid have the spare bedroom?
Personal perspective, from a man who was married-and-divorced twice before the age of twenty-five, I admired Micah’s self-discipline. Maybe it’s just my affinity for other distance runners. But he caught me totally off guard with this:
“The thing about old girlfriends, Micah reflected, is that each one subtracts something from you. You say goodbye to your first great romance and move onto the next, but you find you have less to give to the next.”
I am forever grateful for my early love affairs. Without the acute self-discovery I experienced in all those relationships, I would not have recognized the love of my life when I encountered her forty-five years ago.
The beauty of Anne Tyler’s writing is that we get to peer into the very soul of Micah Mortimer. We completely understand the epiphany he has at the end.
- Packing four generations into 244 pages, Anne Tyler makes me feel like I’ve known the Garrett family my whole life.
French Braid opens with a family vacation at a lakeside cabin in 1959. It winds intimately through the lives of Mercy and Robin and their three children, and their children’s children. Mercy is a painter turned housewife-&-mother. Robin owns a plumbing supply store. When we reach the present (2022) their children are grandparents helping their kids and grandkids navigate the pandemic lockdown.
In the final scene, David — Mercy and Robin’s son — reconciles himself to having distanced himself from the family through most of his adulthood. It goes all the way back to an incident at the lake in 1959 when he was six.
We also learn the origin of Anne Tyler’s curious title:
“What is the name of that braid that starts high up on little girls’ heads?” David asked Greta one night when they were getting ready for bed.
“High up on their heads?”
“Emily used to have them. They would start with two skeins of hair high up near her temples, very skinny and tight, and then join in with two thicker braids lower down.”
“Oh, French braid,” Greta said.
“That’s it. And then when she undid them, her hair would still be in ripples, little leftover squiggles, for hours and hours afterward.”
“Yes . . .”
“Well,” David said, “that’s how families work, too. You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever.”
Guilty enough about stealing that passage, I’m reluctant to tell you more about this wonderful 244-page journey through the lives of ordinary people, generation after generation. Anne Tyler’s rendering is seamless, evoking every feeling you’ve ever had about family.
- “. . . the house on Bouton Road where the filmy-skirted ghosts frolicked and danced on the porch with nobody left to watch.”
The final sentence of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread says it all. Denny Whitshank watches the countryside change from the window of his northbound train. He has said a final goodbye to Baltimore and the house on Bouton Road where he grew up. Everyone has said goodbye to it. His brother, his two sisters, all their kids and finally his dad, Red Whitshank. All they left behind were the Halloween decorations.
It’s a graceful ending (and one that won’t spoil the book for you). Its grace comes from the sense of endings being inextricably connected to beginnings.
We’ve walked inside the house on Bouton Road and learned its entire history. We’ve marveled at the man who built it, Red’s father. We’ve even taken a shine to his wife, a woman loved and lost Red when she was thirteen but found him and claimed him when she was eighteen.
Most importantly, we get to know Abby who fell for the house even before she fell for Red. Known in the neighborhood for its deep porch that wraps around the entire front, the house contains three generations of secrets. Abby, wife, mother and always the social worker, is the only one who knew them all.
As the book jacket says, A Spool of Blue Thread is “brimming with all the insight, humour, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work.”
What impresses me most about Anne Tyler is her attention to the fluid details of everyday life. When Denny and his brother, Stem, finally have that conversation about who Stem’s mother really was, we also know where the kids are – on the floor playing with Legos – and who’s cooking what for dinner – Nora, Stem’s wife, is downstairs frying chicken and okra.
We learn a final significant detail while Denny is riding to the Baltimore train station with Nora. Denny tells her about the spool of blue thread he found while mending the shirt his mother had made for his dad when they got married.
- 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.
- All That Followed – think about it. Apply it to any notable event in your life and let that moment expand to a before and after. You’ll quickly find yourself going down the rabbit hole of provocations and consequences.
All three narrators telling Gabriel Urza’s story delineate their lives in the same way – before and after the kidnapping and killing of José Antonio Torres. Mariana was married to José Antonio, unhappily. The student Iker, along with his young friends, planned the kidnapping gone wrong. And the old American teacher, Joni, was a friend to both.
For all three, the beginnings are rooted in the Spanish Civil War and the Basque Separatist Movement that followed. For forty years Joni has understood that if don’t speak Basque, you are always an outsider no matter how much you appreciate the beauty and culture of the Basque Country. Mariana learns that you can’t marry your way out of it. And Iker sees in hindsight, from his prison cell, that a single desperate can’t save the Basque cause, but it can define your entire life.
They all discover that there is indeed a long road leading up to the pivotal points in your life. And once it has happened you will see that it defined the direction of All That Followed.
- Sometimes, a book is as beautiful as its name. Where the Forest Meets the Stars is one of them.
In her debut novel, Glendy Vanderah tells a tale of mystery, romance and human triumph as though we’re all sitting around a campfire, hanging on every word. The night sky spills starlight through the gaps in the canopy of trees, the crackling of the fire merges with the subtle sounds of the dark forest. None of us are ready to crawl into our sleeping bags.
We get to know Jo, a graduate ornithology student who missed a couple years of field work tending to her dying mother. She’s been alone most of the summer, studying the nesting success of indigo buntings in the rural countryside of southern Illinois. After the double mastectomy she had when she tested positive for the cancer-causing gene that killed her mother, she’s been happy being a loner.
All that changes on the night an eight-year-old girls named Ursa shows up at Jo’s little summer cottage. She says she’s a star child from Ursa Major. She’s borrowing the bruised and battered body of a girl who had just died, so ‘no, she can’t tell Jo where that girl’s family is.’
Ursa claims that she came to earth to witness miracles. One of the miracles she hopes to find is love and human kindness. When Jo starts to fall for the handsome ‘egg man’ who lives on the neighboring farm, Ursa claims that she made that happen. As the story continues to unfold, we learn that it’s not just Ursa’s exceptionally sharp mind but her undaunting belief in her ability to make good things happen that puts her in the center of life-changing experiences for everyone around her.
She and Jo help Gabe (the ‘egg man’) heal old wounds – both his and his family’s. And, when her own family past catches up with all of them – bullets flying, cops investigating, ugly crimes revealed – Ursa’s resilience is so uplifting that when we turn the last page, we’re left with stardust on our fingers.
- 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.
- Writer Mary Alexander Walker loves history, “not in the abstract, but for the dramas created by the humans who lived through those times.”
Though it sounds nothing like it, To Catch a Zombi is a great example of historical fiction. It makes 1784 and the Louisiana bayou come alive. Free-people-of-color live alongside slaved-worked plantations — all surviving on the fertility of a land that is as ripe with danger as it is with food.
Not yet sixteen, Vance learns the skills of snake-catching, his accomplishments telegraphed in songs from shack to shack so that his maman knows how well he’s done even before he gets home. If only she didn’t waste the money he makes on the voudou man.
He’s pretty sure that the zombi conjured up by the witch doctor isn’t real, but not until he travels to New Orleans does he learn the truth. Returning home with a rifle – a real hunter now – he finds a way to thwart the voudou man and his zombie and to find justice for the slave girl he fell in love before he left.
The names – Odile the singin’ woman, old Tante Zozo, his brother Ti Sharl, the slave girl Shanta, her baby Buki, and the lazy girl he calls Grungy – and the language mix of French and swamp-talk English – makes this bitter sweet adventure story as rich and real as Louisiana gumbo.
- 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.
- When Robert James Waller published Border Music in 1995, his most famous novel, The Bridges of Madison County, was still on the NY Times bestseller list where it had remained for three years. Raunchy, beer-guzzling Texas Jack Carmine might never have made it into the pages of a published book if Border Music had had to stand on its own. And that would have been a shame.
Jack Carmine is no less worth knowing than Robert Kincaid, the romantic free-spirited photographer in Bridges. And he’s a helluva lot more fun. It’s OK to appreciate Kincaid from afar while he roams the covered bridges and romances the lovely farm-wife Francesca, but Jack’s the kind of guy you want to spend an afternoon with, drinking beer in some dusty backroads bar. Jack makes you laugh your ass off before you cry for him. Kincaid only makes you cry.
Border Music’s opening line tells you everything you need to know: “When this nameless piece a’ shit tore off Linda Lobo’s G-string instead of sticking money in it like he was supposed to, Texas Jack Carmine went crazy-over-the-edge and hit him with a pool cue.”
Four hours later, deep in the woods of Northern Minnesota, Jack finally turns down the country tunes they’ve been listening to, slots his beer bottle between his legs, and asks Linda if it was OK to rescue her. Three days later, they’re head to his family ranch in West Texas. Jack is unfailingly generous with the cash he’s stashed away from ‘riding the big orange combines’ all summer and fall. And Linda starts to believe she’s found a man she can trust.
Here’s why Border Music didn’t stir the romantic souls of the late 20th Century like The Bridges of Madison County did, with 60 million copies sold worldwide.
Texas Jack Carmine is too filled with pain. He’s no less stoic in battling his post-war demons than he was in surviving three tours in Vietnam. We soon learn that Jack is no Robert Kincaid. He will never simply go right, rather than left, back toward Francesca. He will keep taking wrong turns. 1995 wanted to forget wounded soldiers like Jack Carmine, men like my brother.
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away — great novel — go to my article ‘Transcendent Novels’ (on this blogsite) for the full review.
- Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
With The Cold Millions, Jess Walter raises the bar on that truth. He exposes the ragged, bleeding mess that was the foundation of modern-day Spokane. He quotes Camus in his epilogue as he notes the real-life characters in his novel, most notably the fearless nineteen-year-old labor organizer and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Gurley Flynn’s courage resonates through the story, but 1909 Spokane comes to life through eyes of two young brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan. Like thousands of men riding the rails throughout the west, looking for work where they can find it, when they hit Spokane they encounter corruption everywhere they look.
Even if they’re willing to pay a dollar bribe for a three-dollar-a-day job, they know they’ll do little more than survive. They find they’re up against powerful land barons, men who’ve stacked the odds so that, “every dollar of the payroll comes back through bed, brothels and booze.”
Sleeping one morning in a field at the edge of town, they wake up to a battalion of club-wielding cops storming through the drowsy vagrants. Skulls are broken, limbs are shattered. Someone killed one of their own the night before, giving every cop in the city license to roust, beat and bully itinerant laborers into coughing up the culprit.
They’d all been nibbling at the edges of the I.W.W. labor movement, now they rush into the heart of it. Arrested for speaking on a street corner, they’re jailed with hundreds of others, sweated, beaten, twenty-eight men stuffed into cells meant for four. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn does everything in her power to come to their rescue.
The twists and turns of this novel match the intrigue of any first-rate mystery novel – circuitous murder plots, grand trials, dirty cops, good-hearted prostitutes, duplicitous Pinkerton agents — all of it enriched by the visuals of a fast-growing Spokane retaining some its robust beauty while relentlessly spoiling it. The Cascades to its west and the Rocky Mountains east and north, the city sits on cliffs overlooking the Spokane river gorge. They dump all their garbage and refuse into it.
A hard-scrabble native of the Spokane and Palouse tribe, Jules is jailed with Gig and Rye. Thinking about the loss of his tribal life and white man’s wreckage of his homeland, he says, “They killed the world and called it progress.”
After the guards beat Jules to death, his daughter turns down her husband’s offer to provide him with a Christian burial. He went to their revivals for the free food, as for the religion, he always said, “Cruelty and hope should never be served together.”
Since I want you to read The Cold Millions, I won’t tell you more. You’ll thank me. Walter’s writing is as rich as it gets. The brothers both get engrossed in the newly release translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, discovering truth in one of its themes, “The closer a man gets to history, the less he seems to have his own free will.”
PS – I must add that Jess Walter’s epilogue to this engrossing piece of historical fiction is the best I’ve ever read, tying elements of his own life into his engrossing tale about Spokane, his hometown.
- 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.
- An Unintended Visit with ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh Have you found, as I have, that 2020 has magnified your need for escapism?
In addition to cocktails at four and the occasional hit of cannabis, books are my favorite escape. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you have a similar problem. You’re an addicted reader, a lover of books with more time to read and less access to the over-stuffed aisles of good bookstores. You crave actual bookstores with a section of rare books in glass cases and shelves jam-packed with great $5 hardcover novels that were lauded by NY Times critics back in the 20th Century.
Let’s skip the conversation about easy access to Amazon books and stick to old school escapism.
While twilight calls for something to lighten up the grim news of the day, mornings are the perfect time to indulge in books. Earl Grey tea at my bedside, the shaded sunshine over my shoulder, and a book propped up on my pillowed lap. That is my key to a new day.
Now that I am old enough to kick back, working only in the afternoons, and now that the pandemic has curtailed other options for escape, my morning addiction has ramped up my book needs. And, this is where Brideshead Revisited comes in.
My book addiction is well known among my family and friends. And they are very nice people, so when the lockdown went from week-to-week to month-after-month, they started dropping off bags of old books at my front door. Notes were attached, all seemingly designed to rid them of any guilt associated with enabling my addiction: ‘Cleaning out my closet’ • ‘my aunt left me these’ • ‘found these at a free library’ • ‘on my way to Goodwill but thought of you first.’
Once I’d run through the books that immediately grabbed my attention – Slaughterhouse-Five(Vonnegut), The Bonesetter’s Daughter (Amy Tan), The Living Reed (Pearl Buck), Waiting for Bojangles (Bourdeaut), A God in Ruins (Atwood), Herzog (Below), Ojibwa Warrior (Banks), and a couple dozen more – I woke up one morning finding just one lonely book on my nightstand, one that seemed too old and stale to be satisfying. You guessed it – the highly acclaimed novel published by Evelyn Waugh in 1945, Brideshead Revisited.
It was slow-going at first. Lots of lush English countryside – “The woods were of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green by the breaking buds.” But, no attention-grabbing plot, romantic subtext or childhood mysteries.
But, by page thirty, I’d met Sebastian. Lord Sebastian Flyte, tooling around in his two-seater Morris-Cowley, a bottle of wine at the ready, his teddy bear Aloysius at his side. By page fifty, into the flow of Waugh’s polished early 20th Century English, I’ve visited the palatial Bridgehead estate, gotten a glimpse of the lithe, mysterious Julia, and understand that Charles, the story’s narrator, is in love with Sebastian in the way that only well-heeled, Oxford educated Englishmen can be.
Once hooked, I spend the next three mornings time-travelling one hundred years into the past. Though it was published right after WWII and the opening and closing chapters of the book occur in 1944, the heart of the story takes place in the 1920’s. The major attraction of Brideshead Revisited is its wonderful displacement of time and place, the feeling that Dorothy had when she said, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’
Unless they wanted to be nurses or nuns, the women of Brideshead are expected to find a suitable husband. Love is seldom a consideration. When Charles finally beds Julia, he describes the moment with the dispassionate line, “I took formal possession of her as my lover.”
Servants abound but are treated more like furniture than fellow humans – “Rex moved his trunk and valet to London.” The aristocracy live with such a sense of entitlement they are scarcely aware of their wanton waste. Brideshead itself, an enormous mansion surrounded by grounds large to accommodate county fairs, stables, massive fountains, lakes and greenhouses, operates like a fiefdom founded centuries earlier.
But even as Waugh paints these opulent scenes of a time long ago, he infuses the story with human struggle relatable across the span of time, in part, because of our eternal fascination with it. Julia sums up her life’s frustration, saying, “Sometimes I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”
Charles laments that in the end all we truly own are memories. He explains the entire theme of Brideshead Revisited in the opening of Book II entitled ‘A Twitch Upon the Thread.’ “My theme”, he writes, “is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.”
As for my memories, 2020 will always include the pandemic-induced need for escape that led to a pleasant and unexpected visit with Brideshead Revisited.
- Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is the most compelling disaster story I’ve ever read because it doesn’t describe the disaster. The end of life on earth is always off-screen, the looming possibility a backdrop to the desperate stellar journey that is humanity’s only hope.
The world learns that an alien life form is eating the sun’s energy at a rapid rate. Named Astrophage, it’s Greek for ‘star eater.’ Ryland Grace, a middle school science teacher, comes up with the name when after he is suddenly pulled from his classroom by FBI agents to examine it. Because Grace wrote his PhD thesis on the possibility of alien life forms that don’t require water, he’s called upon to be the first scientist to study the Astrophage samples that’s been scooped from the sun’s surface. He has no choice.
Scenes of Grace waking up in deep space with no memory flips back-and-forth to earth where, as he slowly recovers his memory, we, along with Grace learn the purpose of his mission. Astronomers confirmed that Astrophage is consuming the energy from every star they can see, except one, Tau Ceti. Ryland Grace is headed toward it.
The genius of Project Hail Mary is that the reluctant astronaut who narrates the story is a middle school science teacher. He loves science. He loves figuring things out and he explains everything with the enthusiasm of the coolest teacher you’ve ever had. We get to be the young eager minds sitting in his classroom.
When he encounters an intelligent alien in the Tau Ceti system, he exclaims like the kid that, in many ways, he still is, “Oh my gosh! This is it! First Contact! I’m the guy! I’m the guy who meets aliens for the first time!”
To avoid any more plot revelations, it’s enough to say that Grace is pressed to use every bit of knowledge, ingenuity and courage he can muster. Every chapter unfolds into a cliffhanger as he strives for the solution that will save humanity. Along the way, Andy Weir treats us to the mind-blowing ironies of what’s happening on earth.
As the planet begins to cool from the sun’s loss of energy, one of earth’s leading climate scientists is called upon to accelerate climate change. Global warming has bought humanity a few years, but now they need more of it. As he watches nuclear weapons blast apart Antarctic ice to release its methane, the old nature-loving hippie scientist falls to knees and sobs.
Ms. Stratt may be the ultimate irony. Heading up the global collective tasked with saving earth, she has every world leader on speed-dial and the ability to commandeer everything from scientists, like Ryland Grace, to aircraft carriers. When her budget exceeds a hundred trillions dollars, everyone stops counting. With legal immunity from every nation on earth, she is the single most powerful individual in human history. There’s not a man alive who can put her in her place.
This is a very smart book.
- ‘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.”
I loved Crazy Ladies. Partly because I love novels that capture an intimate view of history. Partly because I found my own life in its cross-hairs.
Written by Michael Lee West and published in 1990, Crazy Ladies recounts the life of Miss Gussie, a smalltown Tennessee woman who has two daughters. It covers her family history from 1932 to 1971.
When Dorothy, her first daughter, was still an infant, Gussie killed a man who invaded her home and was about to rape her. Because her husband worked for the rapist’s father, Gussie convinced him to bury the body in their garden. [Don’t worry – no spoiler here – all this happens in the first chapter.]
This is not a murder mystery. It’s about strong-willed women overcoming the changing realities women faced over this forty-year timespan.
Miss Gussie’s daughters demonstrate the shifting options. Dorothy marries stability, a man who owns the local five & dime. Clancy Jane, her little sister, veers in the other direction. The late 60’s finds her in Haight-Ashbury, her own daughter left behind with Miss Gussie in Tennessee.
Violet, the granddaughter, rejects her mom’s hippie lifestyle as well as her aunt’s and grandmother’s choices to pursue breadwinning men. She has liberated herself from the grip of romantic myth.
The heart of the story is set in the 1960’s. Snatches of early rock lyrics conjuring up the sound track. It’s very effective, for example, with Clancy Jane. After being wrapped up in counter-culture anthems – Country Joe McDonald singing ‘Hell No, We Won’t Go’ and Scott McKenzie crooning ‘Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair — she travels back to Tennessee to Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.
The snatches of rock lyrics ripped the tunes and music of my early life straight up out of my memory. It resurrected every word, every note and every emotion.
My life was intertwined with everything that happened in Crazy Ladies. Violet’s cousin who lost a leg there, my brother also left part of himself back in Vietnam. I moved to San Francisco shortly after Clancy Jane left in the late 60’s. Dorothy and Clancy’s estrangement is not unlike the oil-and-water relationship of my own two sisters. My mother, like Miss Gussie, also left a big secret behind (though we have yet to discover any bodies buried in the backyard).
Michael Lee West also unearthed something I’ve tried hard to forget. She resurrected the memory I have attached to Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth. She didn’t use this stanza, but it’s what leapt to my mind:
There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
Perhaps that’s why I loved Crazy Ladies. Love is never without pain.
- 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 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.
- In the midst of Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, my wife asked we why I read books that make me cry so much.
It was hard for her to miss the tears rolling down my cheeks or me mopping up my damp glasses. I didn’t have a ready answer for her. Either about the tears or about some of my book choices.
Wingate complicated this in so many ways. She not only rendered me to tears, twice, she did it in two different voices, producing two different kinds of tears.
It begins in 1939 with twelve-year old Rill Foss, who lives with her rambunctious family on a shanty boat, describing the night of her abduction. When her mother goes into breach birth with twins, their father whisks her off, upriver to a hospital. Rill is left in charge of her two younger sisters and baby brother. After their first anxious night alone, she wakes up cops who are there to take them all to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Thirty-year-old Avery Stafford is the second voice, the voice of the present. The daughter of a South Carolina Senator, she’s taken leave from her law practice in Maryland to help take care of her ailing father. Stumbling on a secret her grandmother had been able to hide her entire life, she makes her way back to the tragic twenty year period, starting in the early 1930’s and not ending until 1950, in which a well-connected woman named Georgia Tann stole thousands of children from indigent families and sold them to the highest bidder.
While Rill continues to describe the horrors of the gated orphanage they’re thrown into, one of many that Tann operates, Avery, in the present, opens our eyes to mass conspiracy that involved cops, judges, state legislators and lot of very rich people.
To tell you more, would ruin what is an engrossing story.
I will tell you that the second time my wife caught me crying the tears were both sorrowful and happy.
I can also tell you that Georgia Tann was a real person. What she did for twenty years under the guise of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was finally revealed just before Tann died in 1951. It was not widely reported until 1991 when 60 Minutes did an in-depth story about it.
- The Hidden Life of Trees by German forester Peter Wohlleben is the focus on the blog ‘Trees – Hidden Lives – Our Salvation’: https://wordpress.com/view/daverhodywriting.wordpress.com
- Though not its principal topic, Domina by Barbara Wood has a lot to say about a woman’s right to choose – in the 19th Century.
Dr. Samantha Hargrave’s path to the medical profession is more arduous than any man can imagine, then or now. Surviving a childhood in a London slum, her knack for healing catches the attention of people who finally provide the education Samantha needs. By the time she meets Elizabeth Blackwell, the first licensed female physician in England, she knows that she’ll let nothing stand in the way of her becoming a doctor.
After the kindly Dr. Blackwell has taught Samantha all she can, she sends her to the United States certain that the brilliant, dauntless young woman will find her way into a reputable medical school.
Samantha Hargrave arrives in New York City in 1878. She combs the city, is thrown out of one doctor’s office after another when she says she’s wants to be their apprentice. They insult her, accusing her of trying to entrap them in moral degradation by wanting to study and treat human bodies alongside a man.
Feeling hopeless about getting into medical school, knowing that a year’s apprenticeship is a minimum requirement, Samantha’s luck changes when she happens upon an accident in the street. The nearby doctor who arrives ten minutes later is impressed with the quick treatment she’s already given to the cyclist pinned beneath a carriage wheel.
Samantha excels in her apprenticeship, gets accepted as the first female student at a prestigious medical school and gets her degree, despite repeated attempts by the faculty to make her fail. At one point, a surgical director chastises her, “Woman’s month instability naturally precludes her participation in anything so life-and-death critical as the operating room.”
But, surviving institutionalized misogyny throughout her endeavor to become a doctor belies her larger challenge.
Not only is late 19th Century medicine only beginning to embrace germ theory – most doctors don’t even wash their hand before surgery – it knows almost nothing about reproductive healthcare. Doctors aren’t even clear on why the menstrual cycle happens. They’re not sure what the ovaries are for.
As Dr. Samantha Hargrave progresses through her medical career – first in New York, then in San Francisco – she’s faced with a wall of men who believe women’s sole purpose in life is to bear children. No man or woman is free of the centuries of disinformation about human sexuality, conception, and childbirth that have been impressed upon them.
Women have been so ill-treated by the male-dominated medical profession that they would rather suffer in silence than suffer the treatment they receive at the hands of doctors addressing their ‘female problems.’ Many of them die from infections or disorders that could easily be treated, even in the late 19th Century. Some have had their vaginal tissues torn so badly by forceps — wielded by doctors who in a rush to get the baby out so they can go home to dinner — that it’s not uncommon for women to suffer debilitating infections and urinary tract problems for months, even years after giving birth.
To top it all off, untested elixirs promising to treat any all ‘female complaints’, including cancer, are doing huge business. Women would rather take a chance on ‘Farmer’s Female Companion’ than visit a male doctor. The over-the-counter compounds are commonly 40% alcohol, with a good amount of opiates and abortifacients that will ‘restart your monthly cycle.’ Dr. Hargrave sees countless women who are alcoholics or drug addicts and don’t even know it.
Abortion, along with all ‘anti-conception’ methods are illegal in the late 19th Century. But Samantha knows all about “the secret meetings, the scrapings and flushings, the recipes whispered from mother to daughter, a life snuffed before it has begun . . . and the menfolk never knowing, never knowing.”
“Oh the awesome power we women have,” she says, “No wonder the men fear us so.”
In 1890, Dr. Samantha Hargrave finally succeeds, establishing an all-women’s hospital in San Francisco. While, she’s able to treat women and educate them, she’s forbidden by law to prescribe or even discuss family planning methods.
Despite the progress made by the early female physicians like Dr. Hargrave, they obviously had a long way to go. They did not even have the right to vote until 1920. Contraception would not become entirely legal until 1965.
Now we see a woman’s right to choose an abortion – made legal by Roe v Wade in 1973 – and access to contraception threatened once again. One hundred thirty years later, Samantha Hargrave’s battle continues.
PS – There’s a wonderful love story in the heart of this novel – it not only enriches Samantha’s character, it makes you cheer for her all the more. Barbara Wood, who published Domina in 1983, is known as a historical romance novelist but was a surgical technician before becoming a writer.
- 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.
- Though filled with heartaches of the past, the present and the future, To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara affirms a triumphant human spirit.
The three books that comprise this novel are set one century apart. In 1893, David struggles with the limitations of The Free States. Ironically, he’s gay, living in NY, one of nine Northeastern states founded by Utopians that support equality for men and women and same-sex marriage.
In 1993, a young gay Hawaiian man is involved with an older wealthy New Yorker who cares for his friends who are dying of AIDS. The story backtracks to his father’s heritage as part of the Royal family of Hawai’i. He leads a seemingly aimless life with his gay partner on a remote plot of land near the north shore of Oahu.
The first two books cast a forlorn yet intriguing quality over the lives of their characters. But even with their grim reality, I was unprepared for the harsh dystopia of the third book. Jumping from the life of a young woman named Charlie in 2093 back to 2073 and earlier when her grandfather laid the groundwork for her survival, I spent an entire afternoon feeling depressed about the path humanity might be on.
After waves of pandemics, each deadlier than the last, everyone in America lives under the watchful eye of an authoritarian government. Everything from food to water to clothes is rationed. In NYC people are assigned to living quarters in specified zones which they can leave only with special permits. Millions of sick people have been left to die in isolation camps all over the world. Climate change has resulted in days when people cannot survive outdoors without a cooling suit.
Wading through the last three hundred pages of this seven-hundred-page novel, I felt I might drown in its portrayal of human suffering and grief. But something kept me going. Toward the end I began to identify what it was.
Hanya Yanagihara is an amazing writer. She’s able to unite the three books of this novel with key themes. She repurposes dozens of names. Characters named David, Charles, Edward, Eva, Adams and the family name Bingham populate every story. Key places recur. NYC’s Washington Square is featured in every story, first as the mansion of one of the rich founders of The Free States, then as a sanctuary for dying AIDS victims and finally as a building reapportioned into tiny living quarters in the heart of Zone 8. Hawai’i is prominent; I hate to tell you its plight in 2093 (so I won’t).
Yanagihara’s characters are deeply insightful in their introspection, wondering at the source of their discontent, hoping for glimmers of happiness and love. No one would describe this novel as a series of love stories. Yet, in the end, I realized that the persistent theme of love – love in the face of uncertainty, love contorted by ennui, love as a source of survival and purpose, love in all its complex forms – is what made the book worthy of its title and worthy of my time and anguish. To Paradise.
- The Sky Unwashed is the beautiful summation of an old woman’s life, a woman we would never have known if not for the tragedy of Chernobyl. Novelist Irene Zabytko created Marusia Petrenko out of the thousands of victims who suffered from the nuclear reactor meltdown in the Ukraine in 1986.
While the actual number of fatalities at Chernobyl is still a mystery, we know that thousands were made gravelly ill by exposure to heavy doses of radiation and all of them were forced to flee their villages. Instead of dwelling on its tragic consequences or trying to unravel the Soviet cover-up, Zabytko uses Chernobyl to tap into the simple beauty of Marusia’s unspectacular life.
Born and raised in the small village of Starylis, Marusia worked the communal farm after the Ukraine became part of the U.S.S.R. as a young woman. Later she is the family’s Babushka (‘baba’ they called her) taking care of her grandchildren while her son and daughter-in-law put in long hours at the nearby nuclear plant. She’s famous for her korovai, a special wedding bread. She loves tending her garden, gossiping with her friend Slavka, the village healer, while they sip samohan, their homemade pure grain vodka. She has never forgiven her husband for leaving her for another woman, but thanks God every day for her son.
Marusia has never been to a large city so after she’s evacuated with her family to Kiev, she wants nothing more than to return home, to her simple, hard-but-gratifying life. She wants nothing more than to live out her life surround by the odd characters of her village that she knows so well and to be buried in her family cemetery plot.
Irene Zabytko manages to convey the essence of a well-lived life even while the specter of radiation death and the indifference of Soviet officials threatens to obliterate everything that has made Marusia’s life worth living.