Jury Duty Intrigue

The Body in Question     Jill Ciment     (2019)

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If you read this novel, you may never want to be selected as a jury member on a serious criminal case. In fact, you may get several ideas for how to disqualify yourself, so that you don’t have to deal with confusing and contradictory evidence, seemingly capricious legal rulings, morbidly curious spectators in the gallery, members of the press trying to get a story, and fellow jurors who are disinterested or foolish or rude. You may squirm at the thought of being a jury member on a sensational case and being sequestered for the duration of the trial with your fellow citizens. Oh, and you may vow that, even if one day you do end up on a jury, you will not, under any circumstances, enter into a sexual liaison with a fellow juror.

Jill Ciment draws out all these thoughts in the 174 pages of this novel/novella, as she chronicles the experience of jurors C2 and F17, who are asked to decide a case of murder: a teenager is accused of killing her infant brother by setting him on fire. The details of the death are gruesome, laid out dispassionately in courtroom scenes by the witnesses who come forward to testify. The murder case is by no means straightforward, as the actions of the teen’s identical twin sister and of that twin’s boyfriend are revealed.

The behind-the-scenes affair between C2 and F17 (whose names we don’t learn until late in the book) is also complicated. Juror C2 is a highly successful photographer, age 52, who is married to a renowned journalist 33 years her senior. F17 is a professor of anatomy in his early forties, unattached at the time of the trial. C2 and F17 are immediately attracted to each other during the jury selection process, and they go on to have an affair that they must hide from the other jury members and from the officers of the court. This isn’t easy, since the jury members are under constant surveillance—in the courtroom, in the greasy spoons where they’re fed, and at the seedy motel where they’re kept isolated from the press and from the public at large.

As C2’s backstory is revealed, we learn that her marriage is strained by the increasing frailty and neediness of her elderly husband. She’s been tending to him, but this very caregiving points out to her the indignities of old age, which she herself will have to face eventually. Perhaps this is why she decides to have a fling with F17—to assert her own attractiveness and vigor. Perhaps the challenge of keeping the affair secret during a lengthy jury sequestration makes the sex more titillating. 

With spare language and a driving plot, Jill Ciment gives readers a ring-side seat in the courtroom and in the motel room. Read this riveting book in one sitting, and remember your civic responsibility if you’re called for jury duty.  

Mental Illness in the Family

Ask Again, Yes     Mary Beth Keane     (2019)

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Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet in the police academy in New York City in the early 1970s. After they each marry, they end up buying adjoining houses in a leafy suburb, commuting to the city to pursue their cop careers. This could become a pretty idyllic tale, especially when Kate, one of Francis’s three daughters, forms a deep childhood friendship with Peter, Brian’s only child. But mental illness is no respecter of happy endings.

We know from the start that Brian’s wife, Anne, is unconventional and taciturn, and Brian “always seemed to want to defuse things by agreeing with her.” (73) After Anne loses a baby, her mental state becomes dangerously explosive. (A word of warning that Anne’s turn to violence results in a distressing scene, though it’s very brief.) Anne’s actions have long-term consequences for both families: the teenage Kate and Peter are torn apart, and adult careers are shattered.

The novelist gives her story a long arc of many decades and handles it with sensitivity. Anne is not cast as a villain but rather as a suffering soul whose mental illness needs treatment, not contempt. Her actions are hurtful to others, physically and emotionally, but these actions don’t arise out of malice.

Despite the difficult subject matter, the tone of the novel is steady and even, probing family interactions with subtlety, holding the attachment of Kate and Peter as a spark of hope.

What about that title? The phrase “Ask again, yes” is plucked from an exchange, late in the book, between Kate and Peter, and it hints, from the time that you first see the cover, that they may eventually be reunited. Other than that, I didn’t find the title particularly illuminating. Still, my need to learn how life turned out for the members of the Gleeson and Stanhope families kept me moving from chapter to chapter in this immersive, well-wrought novel.

Brexit's Effects on Britons

Middle England     Jonathan Coe     (2018)

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The Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom fascinates me. I’ve been following all the convoluted negotiations by reading the Guardian news online, and I’ve learned more about arcane parliamentary practices than I ever thought possible. So when I noticed that a recent novel by Jonathan Coe was billed as a satire on Brexit, I immediately reserved it at my local public library.

Fear not, however, if you have little interest in Britain’s attempts to leave the European Union. Since Coe is an accomplished writer, Middle England is a perfectly fine family drama, set against the background of contemporary British cultural and political events. (The extended Trotter family and their friends have been the subject of two previous novels by Coe, but it isn’t necessary that you read those novels to follow the family dynamics.) The 50-something siblings Benjamin and Lois Trotter are depressive types even in the best of times, and Coe’s exploration of their relationships is compassionate.

Starting in 2010, Coe traces eight years in the lives of Britons of all political stripes, from bigoted, anti-immigration Brexiteers to self-righteous left-wing crusaders. He skewers them all, even as he demonstrates how the Brexit issue has divided people and damaged relationships. Friendships are shattered, and one married couple in the novel actually separate because of their political differences. Yet other characters refuse to allow Brexit to enter their bedrooms. Some scenes in Middle England are played straight, and others are piercingly satirical. The chapters that feature a left-wing newspaper writer interviewing an obfuscating communications staffer from the office of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron had me laughing out loud.

In current British political writing, “Middle England” is somewhat analogous to “Middle America,” referring to middle-class and lower-middle class citizens who do not live in urban centers—in this case, London. Some find that “Middle England” also refers to a geographic region in the Midlands region of England. For me, the title of Coe’s work has additional resonances:

  • JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth (mentioned several times in the novel)

  • Political moderation (as distinct from rabid right-wing or left wing stances)

  • Middle English from the Middle Ages (evoking the glorious literary heritage of Britain, hence nostalgic nationalism, hence isolationism, hence Brexit)

Jonathan Coe writes in a British tradition of razor sharp observers of the contemporary human condition. If you like his approach, you might also like the work of Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble or Joanna Trollope. Or use the new Search Box at the top of this page to find all the British novels I’ve reviewed.

Pies and Brews in the Upper Midwest

The Lager Queen of Minnesota     J Ryan Stradal     (2019) Midweek Bonus Post!

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Stereotypes are by definition oversimplified and formulaic, and stereotyping of any large population is particularly problematic, since variability among individuals is much more likely than conformity. Still, we all know what’s meant, for example, by “Southern hospitality,” even if not every person who lives in the southern United States is hospitable.

In The Lager Queen of Minnesota, J Ryan Stradal gives us a good portrait of “Minnesota nice,” the stereotype of that state’s residents that includes characteristics such as avoidance of conflict, social reticence, and a surface politeness that can mask passive aggressiveness. Of course, not all Minnesotans fit this profile, but the fictional Edith Magnusson certainly does. In 2003, when the fruit pies that she bakes at a rural nursing home garner statewide attention and paying dinner guests, the 64-year-old Edith shrugs off fame and is afraid to ask for a wage increase. Over the ensuing years, she doesn’t parlay her culinary genius into a job that can pay the bills, even when she has to take over raising her teenage granddaughter, Diana.

Edith’s struggles seem grossly unfair, considering that her estranged sister, Helen, inherited all the proceeds of their family farm years before and used the money to launch a successful brewery. That’s the setup of this novel, which gently pokes fun both at Minnesotans and at the currently trendy craft brewery phenomenon. The supposedly evil Helen’s non-craft  brewery is named  “Blotz,” with echoes of the slang term for drunk, “blotto.” The craft brewery where the young Diana works part-time is named “Heartlander,” with echoes of beloved farmland and amber waves of grain.

In much the same vein as Stradal’s previous novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Lager Queen of Minnesota features strong women who survive and thrive in business despite the appalling family situations that they have to contend with. In Kitchens, the arena for success is hyper-gourmet pop-up restaurants. In Lager Queen, it’s breweries. In a delightful twist, several of the successful female entrepreneurs portrayed in Lager Queen are well past the age when they’d qualify for Social Security. Pies might have been a more conventional route for Edith to achieve financial salvation, but Lager Queen doesn’t take the predictable plot turns. In the end, Stradal finds a way to combine Edith’s pie-baking and beer-brewing talents.

Yeah, it’s a quirky book, but the quirks are droll and entertaining. If you’re a Midwesterner or a friend of a Midwesterner, check it out. And if you’d like to read reviews of other books set in Minnesota, try the new Search Box at the top of this page!

A Classic Russo Novel

Chances Are . . .     Richard Russo     (2019)

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Novelist Richard Russo was born in 1949, so he has first-hand knowledge of the worlds of his characters who were also born in 1949 and who are turning 66 in the year 2015. That’s when Chances Are . . . opens, as three friends—Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey—get together on Martha’s Vineyard over Labor Day weekend. Haunting them is the unsolved disappearance of Jacy, a young woman they all went to college with. Jacy has not been seen since Memorial Day weekend of 1971, right after the four graduated from the fictional Minerva College in Connecticut.

The 1957 pop hit from Johnny Mathis, “Chances Are,” threads its way through this novel. The song itself is mentioned several times, but the operation of sheer chance also affects each of the characters.

For example, males who were born in 1949 were subject to the first national draft lottery, which occurred on December 1, 1969. This spectacle, which was broadcast live on television, determined which men would be inducted into the military, and its primary purpose was to provide soldiers for the escalating Vietnam War while also responding to complaints that wealthier, more educated young men received preferential treatment in required military service. The lottery was a wrenching event for those whose birthdays were being drawn, supposedly randomly. Men who had a low number among the 366 birthdays would be drafted and very likely sent to a brutal jungle war zone in southeast Asia. Those who had a high number were spared. Those with a number somewhere in between didn’t know what direction their lives would take.

Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey learn their draft fates in front of a grainy black and white television set on that day in 1969. But other chance encounters and near-misses also shape this story, which moves effortlessly between the late 1960s-early 1970s and May of 2015. Russo is masterful in portraying the interior states of contemporary American men—unsparing in revealing their weaknesses but also unapologetic in showing their strengths. All three men in Chances Are . . . were in love with Jacy, and inevitably their return to the site of her disappearance stirs up memories both painful and sublime.

The final resolution and revelation of the Jacy mystery is a little more pat than I usually expect from Russo, but the character studies in this novel demonstrate complete command. He situates Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey on a gorgeous island, hangs over them some ugly unknowns, and then shows how these ordinary though distinctive guys react.

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors; you can read my reviews of some of his other works here.

"Workers of the World, Unite!"

Deep River     Karl Marlantes     (2019)

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Although many Americans now work more than 40 hours a week, either because they need to make ends meet or because their job demands it, the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour work day are well accepted as standard in the United States. This was not always the case.

Until the early twentieth century, when labor unions started challenging the draconian demands of employers, workers in factories, mines, logging camps, stores, offices, private homes, and other workplaces were required to put in far more than eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. The fight for a reasonable work week, for fair pay, and for safe working conditions was a bloody one, waged by courageous people who risked their jobs and often their lives by joining a labor union, by attending union rallies, and by striking. These workers were accused of being communists –or at the very least unpatriotic and lazy, unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Deep River is a fictional treatment of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest, from 1904 to 1932, with an opening section set in Finland from 1893 to 1904. Labor organizer Aino Koski is an admitted communist, agitating for revolution by rallying loggers, many of them new immigrants, to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), familiarly known as the Wobblies. Stick with me here! Deep River is not a dry account of speeches, picketing, and protest marches.

Despite the theme of worker empowerment, you can read this novel solely for the drama of an immigrant family, followed over several decades, as they struggle with learning a new language and carving out an existence in one of the last wildernesses in the continental United States. The Koski siblings—Ilmari, Matti, and Aino—draw on “sisu,” an untranslatable Finnish word for the characteristics of their ethnic heritage. It includes perseverance, fortitude, and stoicism. These Finnish Americans, especially the highly independent women, sure need sisu as they forge their way into the modern era.

You can also read Deep River for the lyrical descriptions of the magnificent old growth forests of Washington and Oregon, harvested by loggers who worked in an exceedingly dangerous environment, felling and then moving trees that were often 15 feet in diameter. “They watched the tree go down, hearing the wood creak, then crack, then sigh, the tree gaining momentum, falling faster and faster, the air rushing through the branches . . . cracking and squealing with the force of hundreds of tons of wood that for several hundred years had fought against gravity and was now hurling toward the ground from where it came.” (286)

There are a few brief scenes of violence, when union members are attacked by police, hired thugs, and deputized citizens who have been convinced that all unions are anti-American. The IWW is in fact one of the most radical of the unions of this period, bringing the spirit of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the American workforce. As one fellow organizer tells Aino, “’The government is going to crush the Wobblies. The people hate them.’” (453) Even Aino’s supportive sister-in-law repeatedly speaks warnings: “’Aino, revolutions require visionary leaders. In America, the visionary leaders go into business.’” (463) “If you tell me you love the IWW, I’m telling you that you’re fooling yourself. You can’t love an ideal. You can only love people.” (533)

At 717 pages, this novel requires commitment. I committed to it over Labor Day weekend, when the history of the labor movement was especially poignant, and I wasn’t disappointed. For another novel about the history of logging in North America, try Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. For reviews of other immigrant stories and family sagas, click on the category in the Archive in the right-hand column.

Spiritual Renewal in Palm Springs

The Family Tabor     Cherise Wolas     (2018)

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Harry Tabor, the current patriarch of the Tabor family, hears a voice. It might be his conscience speaking to him, commenting on long-repressed memories. It might be God calling him to account for his life. It might be an ancestor speaking from the grave, or maybe it’s dementia.

Harry is 70 years old and about to be crowned Man of the Decade by the good people of Palm Springs, where he has long resided with his adored and adoring wife, Roma, doing the philanthropic work of resettling Jewish refugees from around the world. As the novel begins, Harry is at the top of his game, feeling healthy, proud, and deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon him. Then that voice comes, on the very day of the Man of the Decade presentation event, which will be attended by 800 people decked out in their best. Harry was brought up as a Jew, but throughout his adult life he’s embraced the cultural aspects of Judaism more than the spiritual. Sure, he and Roma attend synagogue for the High Holy Days, but Harry doesn’t really buy into the concept of a deity and doesn’t, for example, truly repent his sins.

All that is about to change, and Harry’s seemingly perfect family life is about to explode also. Harry and Roma’s three adult children are traveling to Palm Springs to celebrate with their father, and the novelist takes us into each of their lives, revealing disturbing problems. Meanwhile, Roma, who is a child psychologist, is struggling with a particularly difficult case. Can Roma help her own children face their demons? Can a return to heartfelt religious observance heal these wounded people? Or can they at least embrace honesty in their relationships?

Novelist Cherise Wolas is only moderately successful in crafting the story of the Tabors. Some of the characters’ interactions feel forced, and the wrap-up of the book is abrupt and awkward. But Wolas deserves to be commended for tackling an exploration of the role of the spiritual in twenty-first-century life. Full-scale adherence to the rules and rituals of a particular faith is an option, and although Judaism is the faith that Wolas presents in most detail, one character seems to be testing a return to the Roman Catholicism of her youth. Being part of a community whose members share values and support each other in worship and in daily life works for some people. For others, spiritual renewal might mean a commitment to complete honesty in personal and professional interactions. Honesty can serve as a foundation for building a moral code upon which to base a fulfilling life, with or without a component involving organized religion. Harry Tabor has been a generous man and has done great good works for decades, but the voice that speaks to him makes clear that Henry’s philanthropy isn’t enough. He needs to face some serious failures and betrayals that he’d rather forget.  

The Family Tabor addresses tough moral and ethical questions in an era when the value of adherence to moral and ethical standards is being severely tested. If these issues concern you, take a look at what Cherise Wolas has to say.

Italian Americans in the 20th Century

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna Juliet Grames (2019)

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Fair warning:  Most of the men in this novel are brutes. Even the ones who are polite at the dinner table, who bring lovely gifts, and who work hard to support their families still tyrannize women outrageously. The worst of these men is a pervert who engages in criminal sexual activities, but there are gradations of nastiness—sexual, economic, and emotional.

So the women are the stars—especially Stella Fortuna, whose name, as the novelist tells us, actually means “‘star luck’ or maybe even ‘lucky star’.” (4) Stella is beautiful and smart, exceling at computation and at needlework although she’s functionally illiterate. But Stella’s most defining characteristics reside in her personality. She’s argumentative and honest and independent—whoa, is she independent. For a young woman with such a streak of self-sufficiency, it’s not an easy life in Ievoli, a small Calabrian mountain village in the early twentieth century. The rural women of Ievoli are workhorses and baby breeders, performing heavy labor until they go into heavy labor. Most of them submit unquestioningly to their domineering husbands. In these early sections of the novel there are touches of magic realism that some reviewers have found jarring. I thought the magic realism fit perfectly with the Italian Catholicism of the era, its rosaries and religious processions coexisting with charms to ward off the Evil Eye.

Just before World War II, the Fortuna family emigrates to Hartford, Connecticut, against the will of Stella’s mother. Does life get easier? Well, by boarding that ship they do miss the worst of the reign of Mussolini and the wartime marauding of Nazi soldiers. But in America Stella has a battle on her hands to stay single, as she has vowed to do, having figured out about the brutishness of those males. Though life in Ievoli afforded few material comforts, at least the inhabitants were surrounded by stunning natural beauty, which is woefully lacking in the slums of Hartford. Stella daydreams: “She pictured Ievoli, the glowing yellow-green of the citrus leaves in the April sun, the silver-blue of the September olive groves, the sun-baked July rows of bulging tomato stakes marching like soldiers along the terraced mountain.” (328)

The entire novel is framed from the viewpoint of the present day, when Stella is 100 years old. The narrator, a descendant of the Fortuna clan, gets the stories of all of Stella’s close brushes with death from Stella’s sister, Concettina, (“Cettina” in Italy and “Tina” in America). In an Author’s Note, Juliet Grames mentions that memories of her own elderly relatives inspired components of Stella’s life, and I found myself wondering which parts of the novel correspond with Grames’ own family history.

The boisterous, dramatic, hard-partying Italian Americans in The Seven or Eight Deaths are not stereotypes but rather fully realized characters, some saints but many sinners. Every immigrant family (and the vast majority of Americans come from one) has similar characters. Grames has captured the immigrant experience magnificently, using the anticipatory device of the “deaths” to get me to read late into the night to find out how Stella survived yet again. Brava!

For another story about Italian Americans, find a DVD of the classic 1987 movie Moonstruck. And for more of my reviews of books about immigrants, click on “Immigrant Stories” in the column to the right.

A Marriage Bureau Mystery

The Right Sort of Man      Allison Montclair     (2019)

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In the wake of World War II, women who had taken on substantial roles in the war effort were often expected to walk away from stimulating, remunerative work to become housewives. Recently, a number of nonfiction titles, novels, and films have been exploring the ramifications of this cultural shift. For example, in the PBS series The Bletchley Circle a cast of brilliant (fictional) female codebreakers become freelance detectives, solving murders after the war. On this blog I’ve reviewed several novels treating the issue of women adjusting to wartime and to the post-war economy and society; see links at the end of this post.

In the novel The Right Sort of Man, Iris Sparks can’t reveal her wartime work because of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but she clearly was a spy for the Allies. The story starts in 1946, and Iris reveals her chops through her contacts in high places, her sharp intellect, and her ability to wield a knife against an aggressor. She has met Gwen Bainbridge, a wealthy widow who was so devastated by the loss of her husband in the war that she was confined for several months to a mental institution and lost custody of her young son. Iris and Gwen decide to become partners in establishing a marriage bureau—Iris to have gainful employment as a single woman, and Gwen to reclaim her place in the world. The services they offer are in demand as Britons return to civilian life and seek the comforts of home and family.

Alas, after only a few months of operation, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau loses one of its female clients to murder, and a man whom the bureau has matched her with is charged with the crime. Iris and Gwen have vetted their clients thoroughly and are convinced that the wrong person has been arrested. To see justice done and save the reputation of their firm, they set out to find the real perpetrator. In the course of their investigation, they run into black market gangs finding ways around Britain’s strict war-related rationing laws, which were not fully phased out until 1954.

The action moves forward and the personalities develop primarily through dialogue, and that dialogue is quick-witted, reflecting Iris and Gwen’s intelligence and perceptiveness.  These two women have Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction as well as skills in subterfuge and in the discernment of the truthfulness of those they are interviewing. Some complex sub-plotting centers on Iris’s sex life, which is, to use Gwen’s descriptor, “adventurous.”

Who is the novelist? Allison Montclair is a pseudonym for an experienced fiction writer who’s venturing into the mystery genre with The Right Sort of Man. It’s a highly successful venture, capturing the immediate post-war period in London and unveiling the lives of two women who survived and thrived.

For other excellent fictional treatments of women’s roles in Britain in World War II and afterwards, see my reviews of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs mysteries (2003-present) and of Anthony Quinn’s Freya (2017). On the American side of the Atlantic, check out Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (2017), and for women in post-war Germany see Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle (2017).

A Mystery in Luxuriant Marshland

Where the Crawdads Sing     Delia Owens     (2018)

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Mix together some of Barbara Kingsolver’s nature writing, a bit of Pat Conroy’s insights into the American South, and a good chunk of any police procedural mystery, and you’ll get an approximation of Where the Crawdads Sing. Oh, and add some coming-of-age self-realization, too.

Kya Clark is the Marsh Girl, whom we meet in August of 1952, when her mother walks away from her family’s isolated shack, deserting her children to escape an abusive alcoholic husband. Kya is six years old at the time, and already amazingly independent  in the lush woodlands and waterways of the North Carolina coast. She’s a born naturalist (instructed a little by an older brother who departs early in the story) and possesses artistic abilities inherited from her mother, who was a painter.

Within a few years, Kya’s violent and unreliable father disappears also, and she’s left on her own in the wilderness, with no funds and no schooling. Her survival might seem to stretch credibility, but in Delia Owens’s portrayal, Kya’s life among the gulls and fireflies and mussels is almost idyllic. Indeed, the many passages describing the landscape and its denizens are worthy of Aldo Leopold: “Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh.” (192)

Owens introduces several characters to assist Kya in her solitude. An African American man who runs a gas station in the marshland exchanges Kya’s ocean catches for gas for her boat. His wife provides Kya with cast-off clothing. A budding young biologist from town who fishes in the marsh teaches her to read and brings her books. Trouble arrives, however, with another young man, Chase Andrews, who is determined to seduce her.

You’ll figure out early on that Kya will be a suspect in the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews. The courtroom scenes in which Kya is tried mark a shift in the tone of the book, from the dreamy, romantic marshscape to the harsh reality of criminal prosecution and defense. This wasn’t a narrative discontinuity for me but rather indicative of Kya’s distress in being separated from her beloved wilderness for her trial in town.

Kya’s estangement from most other human beings keeps her in a state of credulous immaturity even when she’s in her twenties, so the coming-of-age component of the novel has unusual twists. “[Kya] knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.” (363)

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on many bestseller lists and is being adapted into a movie by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a tale well-suited for the big screen, but I suspect that even if the adaptation is good, the book will still be better.

Among My Faves: Mystery Series

Once I find a mystery series I like, I read every installment that’s published. The characters in the series become my friends, whom I want to check in on, whose life adventures I want to follow.

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I’ve profiled a number of these series already on this blog. In the medieval mystery sub-category, my favorite is Ellis Peters’s classic Brother Cadfael Series, centered on a monastery in 12th-century Shrewsbury, England. In 21 books published between 1977 and 1994, Peters developed the brilliant and compassionate character Cadfael, with excellent historic authenticity.

Among authors of contemporary mystery series, Alexander McCall Smith stands in a category of prolificacy all his own. I’ve reviewed his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, set in Botswana (1998-present) and his Isabel Dalhousie Series, set in Edinburgh (2004-present).  Both series feature female detectives who investigate primarily non-violent crimes. These novels are definitely not thrillers!

Other mystery series that I’ve reviewed in the past are listed at the end of this post. Here are some new reviews:

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The Marco Didius Falco Mystery Series and the sequel Flavia Albia Mystery Series by Lindsey Davis (1989-present). 

Falco is a private investigator of thoroughly modern sensibilities who lives in the first-century Roman Empire. By the time he retires after 20 books, his adopted daughter, Flavia Albia, is ready to move into detective work. Many of the novels in these two series take place up and down the seven hills of Rome, but the remarkable mobility of Roman citizens allows the author to set a number of the tales in far-flung provinces of the empire.

Early on, the plebian Falco acquires a patrician girlfriend, Helena Justina, the daughter of a Roman senator. Falco also has an old Army buddy, Lucius Petronius Longus, and a large extended family who figure prominently. The books are best read in sequence, so that you can keep track of the interpersonal relationships that evolve over several decades. Start with Silver Pigs (also published as The Silver Pigs).

The stories are complex, fast-paced, satirical, and outrageously funny. I love how the characters curse, as in this bit from The Third Nero (2017): “Perella exploded with exasperation. ‘Venus and her golden girdle! I can’t leave them alone for a moment without the idle barmpots getting in a twist.’” And I love how Davis portrays the Roman bureaucracy that Falco has to wade through as he takes on assignments from various emperors. People wonder how the Roman Empire can be managed so successfully. As any scribe would tell you, this is how. Emperors may come and go, bringing more or less chaos, but the bureaucrats keep the wheels turning.”

If you know a little Latin and a little Roman history, you’ll catch a few more of the jokes, but you definitely don’t need a degree in classics to appreciate this series. If you’re familiar with I, Claudius (the 1934 novel by Robert Graves adapted into a 1976 BBC television series), you’ll recognize Davis’s flagrantly anachronistic technique of transposing modern British social constructs to the ancient world.

I grab every one of these books the minute they hit the library shelves.

The Rev. Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Series by Julia Spencer-Fleming (2002-2013, possibly ongoing)

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For several years now, fans of Julia Spencer-Fleming have been waiting breathlessly for the next installment in this contemporary mystery series, set in upstate New York.

The character Clare Fergusson served as a combat helicopter pilot in the Army but finds her true vocation as an Episcopal priest. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town in which Clare arrives to minister to a faltering congregation. Clare is in bad shape emotionally from her military service; Russ, who is also a veteran, has his own demons. The electricity between these two is crackling from their very first meeting. And did I mention that Russ is married?

I confess that the crimes that occur in the Clare/Russ Series are not the main attraction for me. There are violent scenes that I have to glide past, particularly when they involve fresh human blood on snow banks. I’ve read this series primarily for the interactions of Clare and Russ and for the Episcopal humor. I laughed out loud when Russ came to discuss a case privately with Clare late one spring evening and was shocked to find the church filled with worshipers attending an Easter Vigil service. The non-believer Russ has to learn a lot about Christian customs and has to accept that Clare is going to intervene in his murder cases when she feels a moral obligation to do so. Clare, who is a Southerner, has to get used to both the snowbound winters and hidebound mindsets of rural New York State.

Spencer-Fleming uses dialogue extensively in building her characters, and the dialogue in the Clare/Russ Series is snappy and authentic. The setting is depicted generously and with elegant detail, helping readers feel the biting cold winds of a blizzard, the treacherous slippage of tires on ice-slicked roads. Indeed, the first novel in the series is In the Bleak Midwinter, taking its title from a Christmas carol. Subsequent books are also titled with lines from various hymns, all beloved by Episcopalians.

Be sure to read the eight novels in the series in order, and maybe send Spencer-Fleming a Facebook message, encouraging her to get going on the ninth installment.

& & & & &

My reviews of medieval mystery series:

My reviews of other historical mysteries set in Britain:

My reviews of contemporary mystery series:

My reviews of standalone mystery novels are too numerous to list, but you can click on “Mysteries” in the right-hand column to scroll through them all.

Wheeler-Dealers in Old Amsterdam

The Coffee Trader     David Liss     (2003)

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Dutch burghers of the 17th century had original paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer hanging on the walls of their solid, comfortable houses. For me, this is reason enough to gravitate toward fiction set in Holland in this period, and indeed novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), based on the Vermeer masterpiece of the same name, have transported readers into that milieu very effectively.

In The Coffee Trader, novelist David Liss demonstrates that Dutch baroque-era burghers were not only patrons of the arts and archetypes of bourgeois life but also innovators in the establishment of modern commodity markets, with a version of Wall Street trading that was remarkably sophisticated—and treacherous. At the Exchange in Amsterdam, “Some traders came to fill orders or to sell what their ships brought into port, but increasingly men bought calls and puts and futures, trading in goods they never sought to own and would never see. It was the new way of doing things, turning the Exchange into a great gaming pit where outcome was determined not by chance but by the needs of the markets around the world.” (90)

The fictional intrepid trader of the book’s title is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has settled in 1659 Amsterdam after fleeing from the Iberian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, the internationalism of the Dutch business community made Holland one of the few places in the world where Jews could practice their faith without persecution. The downside of this religious freedom was that Jews in Amsterdam created self-imposed restrictions on their community, in order to assure the gentile Dutch that Jews would not be an economic drain or a cultural threat. A Jewish council called the Ma’amad could impose career-ending sanctions on local Jews, and this is one of the key tensions of the novel.

Miguel is surrounded by vividly depicted secondary characters, including the mysterious Dutch widow Geertruid Damhuis; the impoverished Dutch trader Joachim Waagener; the ostracized Jewish moneylender Alonzo Alferonda; Miguel’s pedantic brother, Daniel; and Daniel’s longsuffering wife, Hannah. Percolating through the narrative, however, is the inanimate character of coffee, which was just beginning to be appreciated in Europe for its pick-me-up qualities: “Hannah . . . loved the way it made her feel animated and alive. It was not as though she discovered a new self, rather, coffee reordered the self she already had. Things at the top sank to the bottom, and the parts of herself she had chained down rose buoyantly. She had forgotten to be demure and modest, and she loved casting off those constraints.” (201)

As Miguel coordinates a risky scheme involving coffee futures, the novelist presents business transactions of dizzying complexity. Some of the financial shenanigans zipped right past me, but I’m not complaining, since I could then focus on satisfying sub-plots involving a nefarious servant, an enigmatic sidekick, and an unhappy marriage.

Immerse yourself in the world of The Night Watch and the Zuiderzee with The Coffee Trader, and if you crave more 17th-century Holland, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Two Breezy Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure, here are two novels set adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A Hundred Summers     Beatriz Williams     (2013)

Beatriz Williams spins an old-school romance with the more explicit sex scenes of contemporary literature and comes up with a frothy confection of a chick-lit novel.

The story is set in Depression-era America, with chapters alternating between 1931 and 1938. In 1931, the sensible and lovely Lily Dane (student at Smith) meets the smart and handsome Nick Greenwald (student at Dartmouth) at a college football game. Although Nick gets his leg broken in that game, the two fall in love. Alas, the impediment to their lifelong happiness seems to be that Nick’s father is Jewish.

In the summer of 1938, the characters reunite at the fictional Seaview, Rhode Island, an oceanside retreat for the privileged few who are relatively unaffected by the 1929 economic crash. Lily’s best friend, the fashionable and reckless Budgie Byrne, is now married to Nick, while Lily is single, serving as a kind of nanny to her six-year-old sister, Kiki. Graham Pendleton, once a lover of Budgie’s, pursues Lily, who still pines for Nick.

Conundrums swirl. Why in the world would Nick have married Budgie, when they’re obviously unsuited to each other? Is Kiki really Lily’s sister or is she Lily and Nick’s love child? What’s going on with the Greenwald family business? What does Lily’s wacky and yet wise Aunt Julie know? How can these people drink so much alcohol and still stand on two feet? It all comes together with hurricane force in the final chapters, and an epilogue takes the story out to 1944.

Williams’ dialogue is sprightly and her plot moves right along, so even if you find that the characters verge on the stereotypical, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as you lounge on the sand under a summer sun. 

A Dangerous Collaboration     Deanna Raybourn     (2019)

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If your beach-read tastes lean more toward classic mysteries, this fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell Series might serve. I dipped into A Dangerous Collaboration without having read the previous novels, and I figured out the background pretty quickly.

Veronica is a lepidopterist and sleuth who is shockingly independent and sexually liberated for the year 1888 in Britain. Stoker Templeton-Vane plays opposite her as her love interest and partner in detection. He’s a trained physician, which comes in handy, and a hunk who would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper romance. Veronica and Stoker stoke up their unconsummated attraction to each other with slick banter as they try to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a bride on an island off the Cornish coast.

Much of the plot is typical of English house-party murder mysteries, with Gothic elements impishly pointed out by the author’s choice of a character name invoking Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 Dracula. You’ll encounter a castle with secret tunnels and hidey holes galore, a garden of poisonous plants, a spooky séance, and an array of suspects that includes family members, household staff, and local villagers. The denouement is suitably sensational and watery, though the reader is pretty sure that Veronica and Stoker will survive and solve the mystery.

And there are even fictional rare butterflies!

Happy surfing!

 

Coming of Age in the New Ireland

Normal People     Sally Rooney     (2018)

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As we grow older, each of us carries memories from the years that we’ve lived through. Some of us also carry wisdom gained from reflection on our past actions. And a few of us can dissect the decisions and motivations of decades gone by.

Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who is in her late twenties, has an uncanny understanding of contemporary men and women in their late teens who are navigating relationships, developing their own worldviews in perilous times, wrestling with their demons, and exploring the directions that their talents might take them. She explores the emotions of emerging adulthood with exquisite sensitivity and nuance in Normal People, her second novel, following on the highly successful Conversations with Friends from 2017.

In 2011, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in a small town in County Sligo, in the rural west of Ireland. Connell’s mother, a loving but impoverished single parent, works as a housecleaner for the wealthy Sheridans. Connell and Marianne, the two brightest students at the local secondary school, are drawn to each other. He’s a popular athlete, with several good friends. She’s a loner with a miserable home life. This being the New Ireland (not the Old Ireland of hidebound Catholicism), plenty of sex scenes ensue, handled with great care by the author, though still sometimes cringe-worthy. Connell and Marianne keep their liaison secret, each for different reasons.

When the pair head off to attend Trinity College, their roles are somewhat reversed. Connell struggles to adjust as a “culchie” (a country bumpkin) in the cosmopolitan Dublin, whereas Marianne, freed from her nasty mother and brother, slides right into a smart social set. Over a period of four years, they break up, get back together, break up again . . . and readers are pulled one way and another.

The plot is not especially original, but Rooney exploits it deftly to probe the thoughts of Connell and Marianne as they grow toward adulthood. Despite their different family situations, they hold much in common, including exceptional intelligence, proficiency in the academic enterprise, interest in global politics, and basic loneliness. 

Connell muses: “Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way.” (175)

Marianne illuminates the title of the novel in a scene late in the book: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed from somewhere else. In what way? he says. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.” (187)  (The lack of punctuation is Rooney’s—a feature that I accepted despite its irritation factor.)

As if laying bare all aspects of adolescent angst isn’t enough, Rooney also manages some good digs at literary pretentiousness. Here’s Connell considering an author event  he’s just attended in Dublin: “He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured.  . . .It was culture as a class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” (228)

Sally Rooney nails it with this insightful and intense book. 

 

Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

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The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Bonus Post: Aging Gracefully

Women Rowing North:  Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age    Mary Pipher     (2019)

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Mary Pipher is the perceptive psychologist who burst through cultural expectations in 1994 to bring us Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which examined the effects of societal pressures on young women in America. For this book, Pipher drew on case studies and on her own experiences as a therapist and as the mother of a teenage girl.

Twenty-five years later, Pipher, now aged 71, explores what it is to be an aging woman—specifically, a woman in her sixties or seventies. Women Rowing North is a warm-hearted and encouraging guidebook. Using the overarching image of a boat trip on a river, she divides her narrative into four sections:

  • Challenges of the Journey—addressing the loss of confidence that can come with illness, loneliness, or changes in physical appearance.

  • Travel Skills—with specific advice on “building a good day” and “creating community.”

  • The People on the Boat—expanding the view to the friends, relatives, life partners, and grandchildren of older women.

  • The Northern Lights—focusing on how older women can find their authentic selves as they approach the end of their lives.

Throughout, Pipher illustrates her points with vignettes about actual women whom she interviewed: businesswomen and homemakers, the long-married and the single, the straight and the gay, women of color and white women, middle-class women and women living on the edge of poverty. I found these miniature stories illuminating and reassuring, and I gravitated to them when Pipher occasionally strung together a few too many aphorisms in the rest of the text.

I was also drawn to passages in which Pipher discusses the “sense for deep time and inter-connectedness“ (232) that we often cannot fully experience until we are far advanced in age. Here’s a sample of her reflections: “When we look back, we can see generations of mothers and fathers who managed to take care of their children. We can see our ancestors working in peat fields, drumming around fires, fishing in faraway seas, or traveling by sled through fierce northern winters. We can see the Indian encampments of the Great Plains, the immigration or slave ships, and the grandparents walking west from the big East Coast cities. . . We are adrift on a little boat rocked in the river of time, part of a long line of women who have lived in caves, swum in rivers, and foraged for food.” (205)

I don’t read many self-help books, and I’ve never reviewed one on this blog before, but for Mary Pipher I’ve made an exception. She rows toward the north with peacefulness and power.  

Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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Stewart O’Nan offers no rootin’ tootin’ action in this novel, no daring heroes, no grisly violence. Henry, Himself is a quiet, introspective portrait of a year in the life of Henry Maxwell, a retired engineer in his 70s who lives in Pittsburgh. If you’re already yawning, stop that for a moment and read this review.  

Somehow, novelist O’Nan is able to turn everyday events into drama that drives his narrative in a highly effective way. I haven’t yet figured out how he does this. It could be the naturalistic dialogue. Henry’s conversations with his wife of nearly fifty years, Emily, can be hilarious. The two have well-worn phrases that they toss back and forth, parrying each other’s comments. 

Maybe the novel works because the hundreds of minor quotidian events are enlivened by actions beyond the edges of the main story, such as the troubled marriage of Margaret, Henry and Emily’s alcoholic daughter.  

It’s also possible that I see my own life in O’Nan’s prose because I’m in the same age range as Henry and Emily. But O’Nan is a decade younger, so I don’t know how he’s able to depict the attitudes and approaches of the elderly so astutely. He’s simply a fine novelist.  

So, what exactly does the character Henry do? He may be retired, but he certainly keeps busy every day, well beyond walking the dog. At his basement workbench he re-glues a kitchen drawer because he can’t afford new cabinets. He makes innumerable trips to his local Home Depot store to buy supplies for his fix-it projects, and in his home office he keeps meticulous records of household expenses. Despite his multiple health challenges (which he manages with an array of prescription medications), he golfs with his old pals, trading barbs in camaraderie. Henry’s beloved wife Emily is always in the picture also, and he takes pains to please her with dinner dates for Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. The two of them escape Pittsburgh in the summer for Chautauqua, New York, where they meet up with their children and grandchildren at their lakefront house.  

In the midst of these ordinary activities, Henry mentally retraces significant events of his past—a passionate but doomed youthful love affair, his searing combat experience in World War II, his fulfilling career in aeronautics. His companionable marriage to Emily anchors him even as he is baffled by the animosity between Emily and the wife of their son. The unhappy life of daughter Margaret comes to Henry’s mind frequently, as he assesses whether he has failed her as a father. He muses, ”Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him, a helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.” (72)

You can get more of the Maxwell family in two other O’Nan novels that I also highly recommend:  Wish You Were Here (published 2002) and Emily, Alone (published 2011). Both are set after Henry, Himself, which makes Henry, Himself a prequel. I can also vouch for two stand-alone O’Nan novels that probe interpersonal relations in a warmhearted way: Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds. Be aware, however, that O’Nan has also written terrifying thrillers that I have stayed far away from!

For other novels about Rust Belt places like Pittsburgh, check out Anne Tyler (Baltimore), Richard Russo (upstate New York), and Leif Enger (northern Minnesota). For other introspective novels, try Kent Haruf or James Wood or Bernard MacLaverty. You can click the links for my reviews.