A Novel about a Nasty Novelist

A Ladder to the Sky     John Boyne     (2018)

Boyne.jpg

 “Nasty, nasty, and nasty” are the words that come to mind to describe the character Maurice Swift in this latest novel by Irish author John Boyne. Maurice wants to be a writer, and not just any writer but a world-renowned one. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, though he himself says that ambition is “like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.” (309) He also admits that he has absolutely no talent for plot, though if he’s given a plot he can hang words on it fairly well. 

We first meet the slick, handsome Maurice in 1988, when he’s a young ex-pat Yorkshireman working as a waiter in Berlin. He charms Erich Ackermann, a novelist on a book tour. Then we jump ahead a few years to another European locale: the stunning home of (the real-life author) Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast. In this segment, Maurice is even more confident—no, brazen—as he arrives to visit Vidal in the company of Dash Hardy, another of his conquests. Although Maurice doesn’t fool the savvy Vidal, his literary star is rising. The next episode takes place in Norwich, England, in 2000-2001, with Maurice now married to Edith, who has recently published a successful novel. Then, after a stint in New York running a literary magazine, Maurice ends up in present-day London, meeting with young Theo Field, who interviews him for a proposed biography. With each successive segment of the novel, told from various narrative perspectives, we get a fuller picture of the true evil that lies in the heart of Maurice Swift.   

The blurbs and reviews of this book have focused on Maurice’s theft of intellectual property in the form of plots and plot components. I don’t really see these appropriations of his as criminal. In fact, before the modern era, originality in plot was not a literary skill that was highly prized. Chaucer and Shakespeare rarely came up with original plots. And some stories have been mined for centuries: the Arthurian legends have been reworked by countless greats, from Malory to Tennyson to Lerner and Loewe. Some contemporary genres are all about reused plot elements—autofiction, for instance, is constructed out of pieces of the novelist’s own life history. I could offer countless other examples. So, no, I don’t see plot thievery as Maurice’s sin. Instead, his sin is ambition. His overweening desire to be a famous novelist leads him to steal more than just plots and to commit many other increasingly heinous crimes.  

As Maurice’s wife, Edith, says to him: “’You’re not a writer at all, Maurice. You’re desperate to be but you don’t have the talent. You never did have. That’s why you’ve always attached yourself to people more successful than yourself, pretended to be their friend and then dropped them when they were no longer of any use to you.’” (215) Maurice’s pretense of friendship is only the half of it.  

With Maurice Swift, Boyne has created a character who plays the game of contemporary fiction shrewdly, vying for the attention of agents and publishers and making the rounds of all the book festivals. Maurice cultivates those who can advance his career, using his natural good looks and sensuality to seduce both men and women. In this multi-layered novel, Boyne is not only offering a portrait of an unscrupulous writer but also skewering the entire current-day system by which writers must climb the ladder of literary success, which does not reach the sky but which is propped against a shaky edifice.  

[I’ve also reviewed another, quite different, novel by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.]

The Gilded Age: 2 Novels

Life in the United States today has many elements of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the concentration of wealth in a tiny class of industrialists left many Americans in hopeless poverty. The era was not golden for most people but rather characterized by fake gilding. In this post, I review two recent novels set in the Gilded Age.  

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts     Therese Anne Fowler     (2018) 

Fowler.jpg

New York City in the Gilded Age is the setting for this novel that seeks to reconstruct the inner life of the historical Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva is living in genteel poverty with her three sisters and their dying father when she captures the attention of William K Vanderbilt of New York City and marries him in 1875. The Vanderbilt family has made unimaginable millions in railroads but is shut out of the New York social scene by old-money families such as the Astors. Alva is determined to crash the gates. She commissions and helps design spectacular (and gaudily ornate) homes, hosts extravagant balls, travels the world, and eventually finds social acceptance. Yet, according to this fictionalization, she’s never happy in her marriage to William.  

Keep in mind that $1 million in the 1880s would be about $25 million today, so the Vanderbilts were the one-percenters of their era. It’s hard to sympathize with their discontents as they guzzle the champagne, but Alva has a few redeeming qualities. She takes on charitable causes and later in life becomes an advocate for women’s suffrage. The focus of this novel, however, is on Alva’s family and social interactions, from her young adulthood through her middle age. I couldn’t help rooting for her to dump the contemptible William, which she finally does with a scandal-generating divorce in 1895.  

The Lake on Fire     Rosellen Brown     (2018) 

R Brown.jpg

Like A Well-Behaved Woman, reviewed above, The Lake on Fire is a kind of Cinderella tale, featuring a young, impoverished woman who marries a wealthy man. But in this historical novel the woman is purely fictional, not based on a real person, and the Cinderella story has a number of twists. 

Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky is a Jewish immigrant from Russia to rural Wisconsin who flees the matchmaking ploys of her family in 1891, running away to Chicago. Her younger brother Asher, a prodigy in both learning and petty theft, tags along with her. He roams the dangerous streets of the city while Chaya works in a sweat shop, rolling tobacco into cigars. Chaya’s  chance encounter with a wealthy socialist, Gregory Stillman, leads to romance. But Chaya is hesitant to follow the happily-ever-after path of the typical romance heroine. She tells her landlady, who encourages the match, “’He doesn’t love me for myself, he loves me for everything I don’t have. He hasn’t known anyone who’s as different from him as I am.’” (134) Chaya poses rhetorical questions for herself: “Is every life a fabric of compromises, then? Warp what you love, weft what you must tolerate, an imperfect weave, however strong and lovely it might look?”  (219) 

The city of Chicago becomes one of the central characters in this novel, and it’s lovingly described, even by those who live in its most sordid quarters: “She [Chaya] knew every inflection of Chicago dawn, different in each season—cool purple turning gold; tranced a dull fog-gray so many days, locked under cloud, or pearly with snow about to let down as if the sky were a trapdoor that silently, invisibly opened.”  (229) 

I visit Chicago fairly often, so I have a good sense of the street grid and of the strong presence of Lake Michigan, whose winds gust their way through the city. The layout of downtown Chicago in the early 1890s is similar to the layout today. From Rosellen Brown’s depiction, I could visualize the magnificent but temporarily constructed Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1893, the site of some of the action in this novel. And the introduction into the narrative of the historical Jane Addams of Hull House fame did not seem forced at all.  

If you’re looking for a Gilded Age novel that depicts both ends of the money spectrum, read The Lake on Fire. If you’re fascinated with the history of the rich and powerful of New York City, try A Well-Behaved Woman.

The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   

Winman.jpg

When you picture Oxford, England, you probably think of the imposing towers of the university, the courtyards with berobed scholars fluttering by, the rowers on the river, maybe a scene in a library. You don’t usually think of the working-class people who provide the support infrastructure for this academically oriented city. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman brings these workers into focus.  

The book opens in 1996, when readers meet the middle-aged Ellis, who works as a “tin man” in an Oxford auto factory, repairing small dents in the cars being built. He’s an unhappy widower who looks back on events of his life as he tries to see a path forward. He remembers the early death of his mother, his close friendship during his teen and young adult years with a fellow named Michael, and his happy marriage to a spirited woman named Annie, who also became friends with Michael. Ellis is sad not only about the losses in his life but also about the path he didn’t follow—training as an artist—because he was forced by his father to leave school and take a blue-collar job.  

The second half of this slim volume is the diary of Ellis’s friend Michael, from the years 1989 and 1990. In this segment we learn why Michael is no longer in Oxford in the 1996 segment: he went to London and ended up caring for a lover dying of AIDS. So, you’ve probably guessed that this is a pretty sad story. But it’s nuanced, not banal, plumbing the waters of friendship and love and companionship while revealing the personalities of Ellis, Michael, and, to some extent, Annie. It’s set against the decline of manufacturing in Britain that has created another level of despair. Here’s a scene with Ellis bicycling home from work:  “Along Cowley Road, orange streetlight scattered across the tar, and ghosts of shops long gone lurked in the mists of recollection.” (16-17) 

In his diary entries, Michael captures a social order, just a few short decades ago, that did not accept his sexual orientation:  “How cruel it was that our plans were out there somewhere. Another version of our future, out there somewhere, in perpetual orbit.” (139) And he reflects on his grief:  “I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” (177) 

If your soul can’t bear the reading of another AIDS story, I understand. I didn’t know this was an AIDS story when I started, and I stayed to the end, where I got some shreds of hope for Ellis’s future.

Bonus Post: How America Eats

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat    Jonathan Kauffman     (2018) 

Kauffman.jpg

Back in the early 1960s, my parents frequented Zerbo’s Health Foods, a store that’s still in operation in Livonia, Michigan. They brought home jars of wheat germ, bags of soy flour, and bottles of supplements, including vitamin E capsules, bone meal tablets, and liquid halibut liver oil. They espoused many of the unsubstantiated claims found in Prevention magazine as it existed in the 1950s, such as that fluoridated water was poison. Adelle Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, 1954) was also an influence, with her emphasis on whole grains and raw milk. My mother didn’t give up disgusting mid-20th-century prepared foods such as frozen fish sticks and canned peas, but she had “health foods” in the refrigerator even if they kept getting shoved to the back. In that era, health food stores catered to a very small minority of Americans.

In the 1970s came a torrent of books that had a much larger following among the members of the Baby Boom generation. Even though some of the recipes produced inedible, mushy dishes that my kids called “vegiterribles,” many dishes became favorites in my 1980s kitchen, as I kept gobbling up these food guidebooks: 

  • Ten Talents by Frank and Rosalie Hurd (1968)

  • The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown (1970)

  • Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971)

  • The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas (1972)

  • Recipes for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Ellen Buchman Ewald (1973)

  • The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi  (1975)

  • The More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre (1976)

  • The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen (1977) 

In Hippie Foods, Jonathan Kauffman, an award-winning food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, provides the back story for all these books, linking them to their antecedents and tracing the political movements that spawned them. I was delighted to learn the contexts of the foods that have found their way into (and sometimes right back out of) my kitchen over the decades:  organic produce, vegan concoctions from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, soy and tofu in all their manifestations, and whole grain breads.

Kauffman interviewed dozens of the key players in this food revolution. A few of these earnest aging hippies were able to parlay their involvement in natural and organic foods into corporate successes, including Stonyfield Farm (yogurt), Eden Foods (soy milk), and Lundberg Family Farms (rice). Hippie Food also follows the macrobiotic strand, somewhat associated with  Zen Buddhism, that flourished on both coasts in the 1960s, and recounts the rise of food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and vegetarian restaurants all across the United States.  

Kauffman found several  reasons that hippie foods have now been thoroughly integrated into mainstream American cuisine. Concern about the dangers of chemically treated crops and over-processed foods had a basis in fact, and the public took note. Home cooks found easy recipes for everyday meals in cookbooks developed by other home cooks, not by professional chefs. Most importantly, Kauffman says, “the 1970s counterculture succeeded in selling America on its concept of healthy food.” (282) I agree with this assessment, but I would add that I’ll gladly take the 1970s countercultural food over the dreck peddled by most of the corporate food giants today.  

Hippie Food is an intelligent and well-researched work of social history, capturing those decades in the 20th century when the political was often expressed through the practical, in the kitchen, in the garden, and on the farm. I decided to overlook Kauffman’s occasional snarkiness and awkward comparisons (“like a matchstick Eiffel Tower held together with strawberry jam” [238]) . And I forgave him for omitting my favorite old cookbook, Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey (1976). After all, Kauffman devotes several pages to the history of food cooperatives in my own Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has long been a hotspot for the natural foods movement. To this day, I shop at Ann Arbor’s People’s Food Co-op, especially for local produce and freshly milled whole wheat bread flour. And, for the record, I support the fluoridation of drinking water.  

For another analysis of food and culture in the United States, see my review of Discriminating Taste by S Margot Finn.

Two Medieval Mysteries

The Western Wind     Samantha Harvey      (2018) 

The first-person narrator of this mystery novel is a parish priest, John Reve, in an isolated English village in the year 1491. Novelist Samantha Harvey recreates the late medieval scene accurately, going against some conventional assumptions about priests, religious beliefs, and intelligence in the Middle Ages. John Reve is a smart and well-read fellow who gently corrects his parishioners’ superstitions. Readers are immediately pulled into the story of how Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in town, may have died and what Reve is going to do about the death.  

The story starts out on Shrove Tuesday, the celebratory day before the forty days of the Christian penitential season of Lent. If the tale seems cryptic at first, that’s because the rest of the novel works backwards, day by day, with Reve’s account of each day filling in more of the details of what really happened to Newman on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Clever markers in the surroundings are reminders of the timeline—food noted as being left over on Tuesday is being prepared on the previous days, for example. And we step back to view the European zeitgeist at a time right on the cusp of the Reformation. In a memory of a conversation with Newman, Reve recounts how Newman pronounced a Protestant view of the primacy of the individual soul, without the need for priestly intervention with God: “I can put my case to God and he can forgive me or not, and he can punish me or not. I’m not sure he needs you to arbitrate.” (175) 

The prose throughout is simple yet elegant: 

  • “The vacant happiness of eating filled me; the meat was tastier than any lifetime of bread. One mouthful of it scythed a whole field of summer wheat to stalk and husk.” (89) 

  • “It was a warm afternoon. The church was mellow and dusty, it had its summer smell of ponds and peaches.” (175) 

As you can tell from my many blog posts about novels set in the Middle Ages, I’m a big fan, but I think that anyone who loves historical novels—especially mysteries—would find The Western Wind highly satisfying.

The Last Hours     Minette Walters     (2018)

Walters M.jpg

My family expressed cynicism upon seeing the cover of this novel: “Really? A book about the Black Death? Isn’t the daily news depressing enough?” Although I was also skeptical, this book presented an appealing plague scenario: In the absence of her husband, the wise lady of a Dorsetshire manor orders all her serfs into the manor enclosure, shuts the doors, and has the bridge over the moat burned. Of course, there are echoes of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of aristocrats sought to avoid the Black Death by holing up in a villa outside Florence, telling 100 stories to pass the time. The Last Hour is one story, not 100, but there’s that same reader’s itch to find out if the isolation gambit works. And Walters throws in a murder mystery to boot.

Like The Western Wind, reviewed above, The Last Hours offers characters who are literate and savvy—some might say they’re anachronistic in their questioning of divine retribution as a cause for the Black Death. They guess that rats might be involved instead. The portrayals of daily living and survival techniques in 1348 are well crafted if long-winded, especially in the middle third of the novel. Readers are not spared any of the squalor or cruelty of the era. I was quite let down to find on page 537 that the story is “to be continued.” So I’ll have to look for the sequel to The Last Hours to find out the fates of those Dorsetshire serfs.

For my full essay on the sub-genre of medieval mysteries, click here.                                  

Epistolary Relationships

Meet Me at the Museum     Anne Youngson     (2018)

Youngson 2.jpg

Way back when—well, in 1970—I loved Helene Hanff’s nonfiction 84, Charing Cross Road, a selection of the letters between the American Hanff and the staff at an antiquarian bookstore in London over two decades. The correspondence touched on many literary debates and recreated an era in Britain that included post-war food shortages and the coronation of Elizabeth II. The epistolary format was perfect.

Anne Youngson’s fictional Meet Me at the Museum also works well in an epistolary format, and indeed needs some such mechanism to connect its two principal characters. Tina Hopgood is the British wife of a farmer in East Anglia; she married young and has three adult children. Anders Larsen, a museum curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, is a widower with two adult children. Tina starts the correspondence with an inquiry about the Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse from the Iron Age that was unearthed in 1950 and that is actually preserved in the Silkeborg Museum. Since the archaeologist who discovered the Tollund Man is long deceased, the fictional curator Anders responds to Tina.

The exchange of letters and emails that ensues starts with a mutual fascination with Iron Age life and with the Tollund Man in particular. But within a few months, Tina and Anders are sharing pieces of their personal stories, reflecting on the parts of their lives that are behind them as they head toward old age. Both correspondents are unhappy—Tina because of her loveless marriage and demanding daily tasks, Anders because of the recent death of his beloved but difficult wife.  

Although there’s a cultural and educational gulf between the two, Tina is clearly intelligent and wise. She reads contemporary poetry and puts thought into each letter that she sends. Anders writes to Tina in English, in which he is a fluent but not a native speaker, so he also must consider his words carefully, sometimes asking Tina if he’s phrased a sentence correctly. Tina and Anders are frank with each other in fearing that their lives are spiraling toward sad and lonely endings. Tina writes: 

“We have been talking to each other about where life went, and if the way we each spent it was the way we meant to have spent it or would have chosen to spend it if we had known when we made our choices what the other choices were, but we have not wasted our lives. I insist on that.” (165)  

Toward the end of the novel, Anders writes: 

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us. Paths chosen that define us. Enough time left to change.” (249)  

The pace of much of this novel is languid. Its themes of longing and family ties and seeking a moral and useful life are reminiscent of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith (reviewed previously on this blog). Then some surprising events in the lives of both Tina and Anders bring their relationship onto a different plane.  

Meet Me at the Museum is an appealing tale, enlivened by the backstory of the Tollund Man. Hey, write a letter. You never know what might happen.  

Bonus Post: Washenaw Reads, 2019

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-changing Friendship     Michelle Kuo     (2017) 

Kuo 2.jpg

Washtenaw County, Michigan, selected Reading with Patrick as the “Washtenaw Reads” book for 2019, providing extra copies on library shelves so that the community can engage in discussions of the provocative issues that the book raises.  

The author of Reading with Patrick, Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is a Michigan native who graduated from Harvard in 2003 and then volunteered for two years with Teach for America in Helena, Arkansas, an extremely poor rural town on the Mississippi Delta.  

Kuo could have completed this tough teaching assignment and then moved on. She could have kept her distance from the difficult personal lives of her middle-school students. Instead she became a friend and mentor to one particular student, Patrick Browning, and wrote this book about Patrick’s awakening to the joys of reading. Kuo initially read with Patrick during her Teach for America stint, but she returned to Helena after she completed law school, when she learned that Patrick had been arrested, charged with murder. For months, as Patrick awaited trial, Kuo visited him in jail, bringing him books and encouraging him to write.  

Reading with Patrick can be disturbing, especially in its descriptions of Patrick’s imprisonment and trial. I also found the bigotry that Kuo encountered as an Asian American disheartening. But Kuo doesn’t complain about her struggles or pass judgment on the societal systems that neglected and betrayed Patrick and the other young people in Helena. In Reading with Patrick she simply tells the story and allows the obvious conclusions to come to the surface. In an interview with the New York Times, however, Kuo summarized her book:   

“It’s an intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.”  

If you live in Washtenaw County, you can participate in Washtenaw Reads events in early 2019. If you live anywhere in the United States, you can pick up Reading with Patrick at your local library and learn about a remarkable friendship.

Bonus Post: 2 Novels about Slavery

Washington Black     Esi Edugyan     (2018)

Edugyan.jpg

Edugyan’s fictional slave narrative, set in the 1830s, artfully establishes itself in the brutal realities of the sugar cane fields of Barbados before drawing readers into grand continent-hopping sequences that take on the quality of myth.  

George Washington Black is about 11 years old in the opening sequence in 1830, narrating his first-person account in language that is evocative of the era and yet unpretentious. We quickly grasp that “Wash,” as he is known, is an exceptional fellow. Right away, readers will want to learn how he develops from an uneducated and maltreated cane-cutter to become not only literate but also eloquent. Wash’s facility with realistic drawing propels him into the protective orbit of Christopher (“Titch”) Wilde, the scientist brother of the plantation slave master. Titch and Wash escape Barbados in a hot-air balloon, ending up first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in the Arctic reaches of Canada. Wash becomes more and more proficient in marine biology, especially in technical illustrations, as he travels to London, Amsterdam, and north Africa, seeking acceptance and hoping for love. He’s marked not just by his skin color but by a facial disfigurement from an accident, an undesirable identifier as he flees slave catchers.  

Novelist Edugyan probes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, certainly, but more notably she analyzes the motivations of the abolitionists who aid Wash. Do they truly view the enslaved Africans as equals, or do they want to save white slaveholders from eternal punishment for their viciousness? Edugyan also does an excellent job of portraying the enthusiasms of 19th-century scientists, in an era when the field of inquiry was vast and the methodology was still under development. Her ending to Washington Black is somewhat ambiguous, but then I like tidy wrap-ups, and life is seldom so orderly.  

The Eulogist     Terry Gamble     (2019)

Terry Gamble’s novel is set in the very same era as Esi Edugyan’s, but The Eulogist takes place in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, right on the border between the free states and the slave states of pre-Civil-War America.  

Gamble.jpg

The fictional first-person narrator, Olivia Givens, is an 86-year-old woman writing in 1890, looking back at her astounding early life. Olivia’s family of well-educated Protestants emigrate from Ireland in 1819, settling in Cincinnati. Olivia’s mother promptly dies in childbirth, and her father soon deserts his teenage children, Olivia, Erasmus, and James. James builds a successful business through hard work and a shrewd marriage, while Erasmus, latching onto religious evangelism, becomes an itinerant preacher despite his continuing habits of debauchery. Olivia, a woman who defies convention, marries a local doctor and is drawn into the many dramas of her husband’s slave-owning family in Kentucky. Slowly, slowly, the Givenses come to espouse the abolitionist cause, mainly because of their individual interactions with slaves.  

Olivia’s story is frank and at times drolly comical. Her language has a 19th-century tone and vocabulary (“Erasmus looked as peaked as an Ohio winter” [38]). The narrator and her readers know the horrors that will unfold with the Civil War, but her characters in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s do not. This knowledge gives the novel a taut and expectant quality. Gamble’s plot is intricate, with the final connections not offered until the last chapter, and then only briefly. As I read this book, I kept wondering, Who is the eulogist of the title? This question also is answered in the last chapter, and I won’t spoil it for you.  

Both Washington Black, reviewed above, and The Eulogist are excellent novels that explore the issue of slavery in depth, without resorting to stereotypes or platitudes.

Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

Boyd 2.jpg

Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

Gabel.jpg

Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

Century Hopping with Kingsolver

Unsheltered     Barbara Kingsolver     (2018)

Kingsolver Unsheltered.jpg

A meme that has turned up on Facebook proclaims, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”* Barbara Kingsolver presents this view in various guises in her century-hopping novel. At one point a character even says, about his fellow citizens, “‘They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.’” (261) How does Kingsolver unfold this story about people who fear homelessness and yet expect wealth? 

In 2015-2016, Willa Knox and her husband, Iano Tavoularis, have just moved into a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, that they inherited at the same time as their fortunes collapsed. Willa was laid off from her job as a journalist, and Iano lost his tenured post—as well as their house, which was on college grounds—when his college closed. Willa and Iano are taking care of Iano’s difficult and very sick father. Their adult daughter has moved in with them after a mysterious venture in Cuba, and their adult son has saddled them with a newborn grandson. All this occurs in the first chapter, as readers access the story from Willa’s viewpoint.  

Quick as a wink, and with clever word links between chapters, Kingsolver sweeps us back to 1874, to a Vineland, New Jersey, house that is also inherited and also tumbledown. Thatcher Greenwood lives with his social-climbing bride, Rose, plus Rose’s mother and young sister. Thatcher has a job teaching science at a high school where his views on Darwin’s recent publications about evolution are not at all welcome, but he finds support from a neighbor, self-taught biologist Mary Treat.  

As explained in the Author’s Note, some of the characters in Unsheltered are actual historical figures. Mary Treat was one of the pre-eminent scientists of the nineteenth century. And real estate developer Charles Landis founded Vineland in the 1860s as a kind of benevolent utopian community. The settlers lured to Vineland by Landis with promises of prosperity were kept in poverty, though still expecting to become wealthy. Landis turned out to be a charlatan and autocrat. Similarly, Kingsolver portrays the populace of the United States of 2015-16 as being hoodwinked by a presidential candidate called “the Bullhorn,” who is clearly Donald Trump, though never named as such in the novel.  

From our twenty-first century standpoint, we know that Darwin’s theories will eventually gain wide (though not universal) acceptance. In the 1870s, however, Thatcher Greenwood does not have this assurance as he argues for evolution, risking the loss of his job. In chapters that alternate between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, Kingsolver points out the parallels between Thatcher’s era and Willa’s, sometimes very bluntly, as when Mary Treat says,  “‘When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’” (206) In 2016, Willa’s daughter tells her, “’All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’” (410) 

Alas, Kingsolver pushes too hard on the polemics in Unsheltered, which comes off as preachy. The sections in which poor Thatcher argues science against creationists are positively painful to read. If this is the first Kingsolver book that you read, please do not judge her by this one novel! She’s a gifted writer. Among my favorite novels of hers are The Bean Trees (1988), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and Prodigal Summer (2000), plus the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable Miracle (2007), with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.

* This quote has been attributed to John Steinbeck but is probably a paraphrase of Steinbeck by Ronald Wright.

Bonus Post: 2 Blockbuster Memoirs

Educated     Tara Westover     (2018)

Heartland     Sarah Smarsh     (2018)

These two memoirs have many similarities: a woman grows up in an impoverished rural area of the United States, with limited or fragmented education, then eventually escapes that environment to make a successful life. This summary doesn’t reveal the stark differences between Tara Westover’s Educated and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland. Westover was raised in Idaho by radical Mormon survivalist parents who didn’t allow her to attend school or receive medical treatment. Smarsh grew up in Kansas, on farms and in small towns, with a nominally Catholic extended family that moved frequently, pulling her in and out of schools. I found both memoirs riveting.

Westover.jpg

In Educated, Westover explains that she was born in September 1986, though no one is sure which day because she was born at home and did not have her birth recorded. She received virtually no education before the age of seventeen, not even nominal homeschooling, though she did learn how to read from the few religious books in the house. She clearly cherished the natural beauty that surrounded her in childhood: “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of domination. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.” (27)

Her father—an anti-government, conspiracy-theory fundamentalist—was particularly abusive in his insistence that his children start working in his scrap yard at a young age, performing highly dangerous tasks without any safety precautions. Many physical injuries resulted, though Westover doesn’t assign blame for these injuries. One brother of Westover’s also tormented her physically, while her parents turned a blind eye.

Westover’s restraint in holding her family accountable is truly amazing. She goes so far as to provide footnotes, giving particulars of possible alternate descriptions of brutal scenes that she describes from her memories. Perhaps because the first sections of the memoir are so disturbing, the later sections (in which Westover goes to Brigham Young University and eventually to Cambridge University for a PhD) seem much less vivid, almost flat. Another lack I felt in Educated was explanation of the specific role of the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church in her family. She’s very respectful of her parents’ beliefs, but readers don’t get too many examples of how their extreme views contrast with more mainstream Mormon beliefs. For example, most Mormons are assigned to a bishop, a lay person they can go to for counseling and other assistance. Where was this structure in the lives of the Westover family? Westover does write, “As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same . . . I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known.” (159)

Smarsh.jpg

While Westover does not preach about the political and religious views that shaped her childhood, Smarsh observes no such restrictions. The subtitle for Heartland summarizes its message: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. A few quotations illustrate the lessons that Smarsh takes from her peripatetic upbringing: 

  • “For the women in my family and their daughters, the constant moving was about staying safe from violent men and finding new ways to pay the bills. Leaving sad places behind, they seized on the promise of new ones. But they knew well enough that tomorrow’s promise would end up yesterday’s sadness.” (183)

  • “In 1979, Reagan had built his first presidential campaign around shaming poor, unwed teenage girls the same year that my poor, unwed teenage mother became pregnant with me. Maybe that’s why she would be damned if she’d go on welfare even when she qualified those years after her and my dad’s divorce. Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” (132)

  • “In a country where personal value is supposed to create wealth, it is easy for a poor person to feel himself a bad one. Many of the people who raised me believed themselves to be bad. I know because they often treated me like I was bad. I greatest fortune of my life is that I knew they were wrong.” (282)

Like Westover, Smarsh was able to break away from rural poverty and go to college, which launched her on a career. In Heartland, she takes the unusual approach of addressing her entire memoir to an imaginary daughter named August. (Smarsh has no children.) The nonexistent August comes into the story at odd junctures, addressed as “you.” I found this technique jarring and ineffective. In addition, Smarsh’s frequent chronological leaps between decades, sometimes decades before her birth, and her references to a large cast of family members confused me. 

Why have both these books soared to the top of the charts, with Educated appearing on many lists of “best books of 2018”? I’m guessing that, despite some narrative flaws in both of the memoirs, readers are fascinated by the descriptions of poverty. (Face it, people currently living in poverty are not likely to be reading these memoirs.) The scenes of violence and child neglect in both books may have caused readers to keep turning the pages to see what horrors came next. There’s also the lure of the “up by your own bootstraps” myth that persists in American culture, overlooking the role of helpful teachers, for example, or of sheer chance in upward social mobility. I do not in any way want to discredit the extraordinary educational and professional achievements of Westover and Smarsh. Through incredible determination and hard work, they freed themselves from the tough situations in which they were raised. Both also avoided early motherhood, which traps many women in a lifetime of hardship.

My concern is that the reading public may draw the conclusion that, since Westover and Smarsh could rise from poverty, anyone can. That was an implicit conclusion of JD Vance in his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which I’ve also reviewed. Vance, who grew up poor in Appalachia and got himself through Yale Law School, blamed the explosive tempers and laziness of his fellow hillbillies for their economic status. Smarsh’s memoir offers more nuanced explanations, plus expositions about income inequality in the United States. Poverty is not as significant a theme in Educated, since Westover’s Idaho family eventually found financial success in selling homemade alternative medicines. Instead Westover offers a warning about the dangers of political and social paranoia, including millennialism.

Should you read these memoirs? Yes. They are important pieces for anyone seeking to understand the social and cultural milieu of the United States in these early decades of the twenty-first century.  

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

Horowitz Word.jpg

Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

Short Stories & Essays: 2 Reviews

Calypso     David Sedaris     (2018)

Sedaris Calypso.jpg

Any book of essays and stories by David Sedaris is guaranteed to elicit out-loud guffaws from me as I burn through the pages. Calypso is no exception, even though several of the pieces in this collection center on the 2013 suicide of Sedaris’s sister Tiffany. Sedaris depicts himself, his four surviving siblings, and his elderly father as truly grieved by the loss of Tiffany. But they carry on, recalling their decades of interactions with Tiffany in raw spurts that are sometimes amusing and sometimes downright sad. “Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story . . . Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.” (91-92)

Over the years, Sedaris has lived in several cities in the United States and in France. He currently resides with his long-term boyfriend, the visual artist Hugh Hamrick, in a renovated sixteenth-century house in the south of England. Incidents set in this home and in the surrounding countryside display Sedaris’s acute sense of cultural nuance. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, be warned that he’s an inveterate trash collector—as in self-appointed roadside litter gleaner—who describes vividly the sordid garbage that he picks up. He’s also a prolific writer, whose other books are reviewed in my overview of his work.

Cockfosters     Helen Simpson     (2015)  

Simpson 2.jpg

Reviewers of this book of short stories set in contemporary England have pointed to the theme of aging and the observations of characters, middle-aged and beyond, who have a trove of wisdom as well as a sense of losing a grasp on life. This is certainly one theme, but another theme, trenchantly pursued, is women’s role in society and in the home. Each story is named for a place that figures either directly or tangentially in the action. In the title story, two old friends travel by train to Cockfosters station, the end of the line, to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses that one of them has left behind. Each stop along the way brings up discussion of evolving British culture. In the story “Arizona,” a woman receiving an acupuncture treatment has a wide-ranging conversation with her acupuncturist, including a comparison of menopause to the state of Arizona. Most of the stories are brief and pointed; Simpson is especially adept with hyperbolic satire, as in “Erewhon” and “Moscow.” 

Only one story, “Berlin,” left me flat. In it, a husband and wife are reluctant audience members for a multi-day performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Apparently, the two are sorting out whether they want to stay together, but there is little discussion of their troubles. Instead, readers  get interminable descriptions of the opera action. If I was supposed to match this action to the couple’s experiences, I missed the boat. I may have been hampered here by my utter contempt for Wagnerian opera.  

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Stander Summer 2.jpg

The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

Stander Color 2.jpg

In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

The Surreal Meets the Quotidian in Japan

Killing Commendatore     Haruki Murakami     (2017)

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen      (2018) 

No, this is not a murder mystery. It’s more . . . well, it defies categorization, but maybe it’s an exploration of how our inner lives of thought can transform our external lives of action in puzzling but sometimes pleasing ways.  

Murakami.jpg

The unnamed narrator of this massive novel is a thirty-something artist, a fairly successful painter of workmanlike portraits, mainly for corporate executives who want their likenesses on the walls of their headquarters. When the narrator’s wife of six years unexpectedly asks for a divorce, he dejectedly takes off on an impromptu tour of northern Japan for several weeks and then settles, alone, into a rental house in the mountains near Odawara, in central Japan. This house is owned by the artist Tomohiko Amada, now in a nursing home with dementia, who garnered fame creating traditional Japanese scenes on his canvases. The odd characters who accrete to the tale include an enigmatic tech entrepreneur (Menshiki), an adolescent girl, the girl’s aunt, and, most startlingly, a two-foot tall “Idea” named Commendatore, who comes to life from out of a painting by Amada. This painting, which the narrator discovers in his rental home, depicts a scene from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Got all that?  

The characters move through actual places in Japan, and the story progresses primarily through dialogue, which is rendered in idiomatic American English. Western readers can get to feeling comfortable with this dialogue, and even more comfortable because of the many overt and lightly veiled references to European literature, art, and classical music, especially the opera canon. It’s all rooted firmly in realism until—bam—Commendatore appears to the narrator, trying to guide him through his dual crises of marriage and of artistic authenticity. Some examples of Commendatore’s pronouncements:  

  • “There are plenty of things in history that are best left in the shadows. Accurate knowledge does not improve people’s lives. The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know. Reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy.” (301)

  • “Cause and effect are hard to separate here. Because I took the form of the Commendatore, a sequence of events was set in motion. But at the same time, my form is the necessary consequence of that very sequence.” (539) 

The character Menshiki may also have been sent to the narrator as a mentor, since he has some revelatory lines: 

  • “The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark” (203) 

  • “Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.” (206) 

Perhaps Killing Commendatore was not the wisest choice for my initial foray into the world of the prolific novelist Murakami, but I was mesmerized for most of its 681 pages, as the narrative drifted one way and then another. I did struggle with some of Murakami’s elements of the supernatural, especially the narrator’s passage across subterranean Stygian rivers and through murky, stifling tunnels, which may or may not be metaphorical. But Murakami always returns to the quotidian, often with graceful language like this: “I went to the fridge and drank some cold mineral water straight from the bottle and managed to chase away the dregs of sleep that remained like scraps of clouds in the corners of my body.” (177) 

If you’re willing to let your mind embrace the inexplicable for a while, Killing Commendatore may provide insights into human relationships as well as into creative processes. As Menshiki proclaims, “’There are some things that can’t be explained in this life . . . and some others that probably shouldn’t be explained. Especially when putting them into words ignores what is most crucial.’” (593)

Favorite Reads of 2018

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

I reviewed 72 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in in the calendar year 2018, and I hosted two additional reviews by a guest blogger. The 15 selections listed here were standouts for me in a year of exceptionally fine reading. You’ll notice that these books are all fiction and are mostly historical fiction. This year, no biographies or social histories made my list of favorites.  

Bear in mind that I never review horror, science fiction, fantasy, or novels with scenes of excessive violence. I haul eight or ten books home from the library every week and reject most of them by page 50. So here are the best of the best, in alphabetical order by title. Click on the title to go to my full review.  

Freya  Anthony Quinn (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION The friendship of two British women, traced from the end of World War II through the 1960s, with insights into feminism, marriage, and culture. 

Heart of Palm  Laura Lee Smith  (2013)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A family tale populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—plus deftly developed story lines.  

Holding Graham Norton (2017)  MYSTERY A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery, but this one goes beyond the genre. 

The Italian Party  Christina Lynch  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION As effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly, but the sunny picture darkens as we learn the many secrets of an American couple living in Siena, Italy, in 1956.  

The Italian Teacher  Tom Rachman  (2018)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION An inquiry into how to live a meaningful life, centering on the fraught relationship between a famous visual artist and one of his sons. 

Little Fires Everywhere  Celeste Ng  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A story about adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, tackles incendiary issues of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. 

Manhattan.jpg

Manhattan Beach  Jennifer Egan  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION A noir novel with entangled plot lines, mobsters, and plenty of period detail from 1930s and 1940s New York City, especially the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  

Midwinter Break  Bernard MacLaverty  (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A masterful study, by an eminent Irish author, of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage, set in Scotland and the Netherlands. 

The Ninth Hour  Alice McDermott  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Wonderfully resonant prose about the pros and cons of being Catholic in early 20th-century Brooklyn, exploring the intersections of morality, religion, and culture.  

Peculiar Ground  Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A densely layered novel set on a fictional Oxfordshire estate in 1663, 1961, 1973, and 1989, featuring walls—border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, and many others. 

Radio Free Vermont  Bill McKibben (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A local radio show host stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States in this uproarious fable about Trump’s America. 

The Strays  Emily Bitto  (2014/2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Set in Australia in the 1930s and then the 1980s, a piercingly moving first-person narrative about loneliness, friendship, the art world, and the choices we make.  

Virgil Wander Leif Enger (2018) CONTEMPORARY FICTION In a dying mining town in far northern Minnesota the title character, aided by an ensemble cast, is recovering from a terrible accident. The prose of this novel is quietly dazzling.

West.jpg

West  Carys Davies  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION Preposterous plot, peculiar characters, spare language, in a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815, a time when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible.

The World of Tomorrow  Brendan Mathews  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Rollicking action at the fabulous New York World’s Fair, in June of 1939, when the Great Depression has eased and World War II is still unimaginable.

Happy reading in 2019! Keep checking the Cedar Park Book Blog for recommendations!

 

 

Intertwined Lives in Minnesota

Virgil Wander     Leif Enger     (2018)

Enger.jpg

The title character, Virgil Wander, narrates this enchanting tale, starting with his improbable survival from a catastrophic car crash: In a freak autumn snowstorm, Virgil sailed his Pontiac off a cliff and into 90 feet of Lake Superior blueness. It was an accident, the result of slick roads and white-out visibility. Or was it? Virgil is a conundrum, suffering from a traumatic brain injury that robs him of some memories and some elements of language, especially adjectives. He's dizzy and unfocused. Having met Death and walked away, he’s more appreciative of small wonders and less tolerant of bullshit. His name alone would have told us this. He does indeed wander in his post-accident days and weeks, but he is Virgil, the Roman poet of the Aeniad, who guided Dante. This modern-day Virgil now guides us to depths of understanding of the human condition.

Virgil Wander is a movie projectionist and part-time city clerk in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, about as far north in the continental United States as you can go—even north of Duluth. The winters start in early October and are harsh, but the Lake Superior shoreline is spectacular. The inhabitants who remain in Greenstone now that its mining boom is long past are there because they crave the ruggedness, the quiet, and the slow pace, or maybe because they have nowhere else to go. (National reviewers of this novel who reside on ocean coasts clearly don't waltz to this leisurely beat, since they use the word "quirky" excessively and irritatingly.)

Into Virgil's post-accident world comes an elderly fellow from Norway, Rune, who is searching for Alec Sandstrom, who he just learned was his son. Problem is, Alec, a promising minor league baseball pitcher, flew off over Lake Superior in a small plane a decade before and never returned. Rune, whose name carries connotations of magic and inscrutability, is also a master kite builder who captivates the Greenstone natives with his whimsically festooned flyers that sail on the breezes and gales of this marvelous inland seaside. Many other characters join the ensemble, each swiftly and convincingly limned:

  • Alec's presumed widow, the luminous Nadine

  • Alec's teenage son, the loner Bjorn

  • Virgil's garrulous journalist friend, Tom Beeman

  • Virgil's enthusiastic co-worker Ann Fandeen and her sadsack husband, Jerry

  • mysterious Adam Leer, returned from Hollywood to Greenstone

  • ambitious snowplow driver Lily Pea and her young brother, Galen.

Novelist Enger skillfully intertwines their lives, in the way that lives naturally do intertwine, and crafts a plot that centers on the potential for revival of the ill-fated town and the gradual recovery of Virgil Wander from his near-death experience.

Good Lord, the folks in this novel have every manner of trouble accost them. Virgil himself was orphaned at 17 when his lay missionary parents died in a train derailment in Mexico. Other characters endure financial ruin, alcoholism, the bite of a rabid raccoon, or death by crushing (don't ask). A mist of magic realism suffuses the scene, as townspeople find happiness flying kites with Rune or watching classic movies with Virgil at the ramshackle but comforting Empress Theater.

Clearly, I loved both the plot and the characters of Virgil Wander, but the richness of Leif Enger's language stopped me in my tracks to read many paragraphs a second time, for the sheer joy of the words. Opening to a random page (9), I find this description of Rune: "He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco—brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided." Of course I'm pulled to the smell of the tobacco ("brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel"). But the verb "thumbnailed" tells you right away what kind of a guy Rune is, that he struck a match—a "kitchen match"—with his fingers. The puffs that Rune took were "sharp," and the smoke from the pipe didn't just rise, it "ghosted and hung there undecided," with a mind of its own to make up or not. Every page holds such images, seemingly tossed off. Aphorisms of startling clarity also jump out: “Memory's oldest trick is convincing us of its accuracy.” “I would say projectionists aren't more sentimental than blacksmiths except that we probably are.” (both on page 84)

You might put Leif Enger in the company of Richard Russo (reviewed here), for his bang-on portrayal of a decaying small American industrial town. You might compare Enger to Kent Haruf (reviewed here) for his laconic Midwestern characters. But for God's sake don't compare him to fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, who doesn't reside in Enger's sphere of genius at all. Read Virgil Wander, definitely.

Millennials vs Boomers

Boomer1     Daniel Torday     (2018)

Torday.jpg

The hard-driving music, the hand-rolled joints, the idiosyncratic clothing, the privileged youth in prosperous times, the disillusionment with war that their elders got them into: it’s the Baby Boomers, right? Well, those descriptors could also be applied to the Millennial generation, except that Millennials might call those smokes “spliffs.”  

Daniel Torday’s deeply satirical novel pits the Boomers against the Millennials in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. It’s not clear whether the Boomers or the Millennials come out worse in his view, which is a very dark view.  

Millennial Mark Brumfeld has an editorial job in New York City and a PhD in English under his belt. He and  his girlfriend, Cassie Black, both play in bluegrass bands, groovin’ to retro tunes by the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley. When Mark’s career and relationship both fall apart, he has to move to his parents’ basement in Baltimore. He vents his rage against the economic machine in videos that he posts on the Dark Web, ranting about how the Baby Boomers have had all the luck and now refuse to retire to allow Millennials to secure jobs. Mark styles himself as “Boomer1,” even though he was born in 1980 (go figure). His ominous online mantras include “Retire or we’ll retire you” and “boom boom.”  

Some sections of this novel are presented from Mark’s viewpoint and other sections follow Cassie as she figures out her sexual orientation and her career trajectory. The main Boomer character is Julia, Mark’s mother, who was a musician on the fringes of stardom back in the late 1960s. She gets her chapters, too, sometimes flashing back forty years, but these chapters do not pack the power of the rest of the novel. The plot gets hot when Mark’s anti-Boomer videos spark a nationwide revolution among Millennials, leading to vandalism and violence against prominent Boomers and against the institutions that support them. 

I think that many of the Boomers do deserve blame for abandoning the causes of civil rights and pacifism that characterized their heyday in the 1960s. After the protest marches, the Boomers graduated, put on the suits, joined the establishment, and inherited money from the Greatest Generation. The Boomers could afford to buy houses because they had little or no student loan debt. And they spoiled their kids, the Millennials, nodding in agreement as those kids followed their dreams, however impractical. I understand the Millennial anger, expressed here by Boomer1 in portraying his parents’ generation: “They were not the purveyors nor the architects nor the executors of the noble task nor the players in the great game. They were the recipients of the spoils, and they basked in it. They received the signifier but not the sign, they were the first generation to have fall in their lap all the lucre without exerting one iota of the toil.” (112)  

However, novelist Torday liberally inserts indicators of ambivalence and incongruity into his characterizations and into his narrative. Both Mark and Cassie, for example, have alternate names. Cassie was born Claire Stankowitcz. Mark, in addition to his Boomer1 handle, calls himself “Isaac Abramson,” the biblical figure led to ritual sacrifice by his father. For all his education, Mark makes foolish financial choices that exacerbate his situation. (He thought he could get a tenure-track academic job in English? Really? That’s been a long shot since the 1970s.) Meanwhile, Cassie exploits the burgeoning world of banal digital news while she reveals Mark’s naiveté and the oversimplification of his anti-Boomer crusade. Symbols are also tossed around. Mark’s Boomer mother, Julia, had her hearing damaged in those amped-up rock concerts of yore and refuses to wear a hearing aid for her increasing deafness, so she truly can’t hear what Mark is saying about the Boomers.  

Boomer1 is an enigmatic novel, with no clear heroes or villains. Torday will challenge your assumptions and stereotypes with his well-paced and thoughtful novel.

Quiet Conflict

Upstate     James Wood     (2018)

Wood J.jpg

The British-born writer James Wood, transplanted to the United States, has produced a novel about a British businessman visiting his adult daughter in upstate New York. Commentary on the differences between the two countries is inevitable. Here are a couple of the observations of the character Alan Querry:  

  • “He did sincerely love—and rate as one of the great American contributions—the phrase ‘Take it easy.’ . . .That benign blessing wouldn’t catch on in Britain, where the pavements were sopped with cold rainwater and everyone seemed to have attended queuing school, to learn how to do it with the requisite degree of resigned submission.” (27)

  • “America was peculiar, more foreign than he had expected, it sharpened his senses. What a contradictory place: for every limitation, there was an expansion, for every frustration, an easement. The train was absurd, trundling along at barely sixty miles an hour. And Penn Station was a bloody embarrassment to a great capital city. To a great city, rather.” (51)

These are the contexts of the novel, which revolves quietly around family conflict. Alan’s 2007 trip to Saratoga Springs, New York, arises from his concern over the mental health of his daughter Vanessa, who teaches philosophy at Skidmore College. Traveling with Alan is his other daughter, Helen, a harried and hurried music executive with Sony in London. The fourth main character is Josh, Vanessa’s boyfriend, who has alerted Vanessa’s father and sister to a potentially serious bout of depression that Vanessa seems to be suffering. Although the stated issue is Vanessa’s health, Helen isn’t in great shape either, with a rocky marriage, twin sons whom she has little time for, and an urge to leave Sony and start her own company.

This is a novel to be savored for its simplicity and its glimpses into the minds of people sincerely endeavoring to help each other, though with approaches determined by the personality of each. Alan, for example, is a real estate developer who is “not in the top tier, probably not even in the second or third tier” (119) of developers in his region because he’s not cutthroat enough. Vanessa views her father and sister as “proud, impulsive people who considered themselves largely modest and rational.  . . .Vanessa hated confrontation—partly because she couldn’t believe that anyone who had strongly argued with her could ever like her again.” (153) The underlying motives of the boyfriend Josh are elusive until the very end of the novel.

The landscapes of upstate New York are richly portrayed in this work that sometimes verges into prose poetry. But don’t expect bedazzlement or sensationalism when you’re going to be served thoughtfulness.