A Young Adult Romance

The Boy Next Door     Katie Van Ark     (2016)

Swoon Reads is an online community for readers and writers of Young Adult fiction (swoonreads.com). Writers submit manuscripts for rating and commentary by readers and writers; the very best submissions are published as paperback books by a division of Macmillan. Katie Van Ark’s novel was one of the winners in the romance category, and since she’s a distant relative of mine, I’m stepping out of my usual review zone to tell you about The Boy Next Door.

Lead characters Maddy and Gabe are high school students who’ve known each other since childhood. They’re also competitive figure skating partners, and they’re at the top of the sport, heading toward international events. Maddy has always been in love with Gabe. On the other hand, Gabe has decided to keep things platonic with Maddy, and he dates other young women. When their skating coach picks the theme music from Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet for their new routine, Maddy and Gabe have to display attraction toward each other on the ice, and the main plot takes off. As in real life, the path of romance in The Boy Next Door is not straightforward but winding. The chapters alternate first-person narratives from Maddy and Gabe, and several subplots are woven in neatly.

What’s most striking about The Boy Next Door is the figure skating, which unifies the narrative without overpowering the romance theme, even though Maddy and Gabe put in a staggering number of hours at the ice arena. Van Ark knows the sport as an insider, and she describes elaborate skating routines in elegant prose. I know nothing about figure skating, but I was flying along as Maddy executed those triple Axels, cheering for Maddy and Gabe both as skaters and as romantic partners.

Even if you don't usually read romances, pick this one up. As a bonus for Midwesterners, it’s set in Kansas and written by a Michigander!

Reflections, Part 1

Reflections on Six Months of Blogging

At the six-month mark in the history of this book review blog, I’ve posted reviews of 68 books, and that’s counting as one book each book series that I’ve reviewed, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear, the Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, and the 44 Scotland Street novels by Alexander McCall Smith.

photo: Lavender Labyrinth in Shelby, Michigan

photo: Lavender Labyrinth in Shelby, Michigan

As I’ve mentioned in my description of this blog, I don’t post star ratings of books but rather seek a more nuanced approach. If I give a book a full review, I recommend that book to blog readers who have tastes similar to mine, though occasionally with caveats.  In the posts called “Books in Brief” I offer short reviews of books that I found less satisfying for some reason, and I state the reason clearly. It might be that the topic was too melancholy or that the writing was too long winded for my tastes. Some of you in my blog audience may still like these books, so I don’t want to discount them totally.

I reject a great many more books than I review. You’ll never see the titles of the hundreds of books each year that I abandon after a couple of chapters. There are so many excellent writers producing fine prose; why spend time on a mediocre book?

I scan the New York Times and my local library’s postings of “Hot New Fiction” for notices of books that I’d like to take a look at, but I try not to read full reviews of a book until I’ve formed my own opinion. Short summaries of a book help me to determine if it fits my general criteria. I eliminate thrillers, horror novels, science fiction, fantasy, and books with excessive violence. I review recent fiction, with an emphasis on historical novels and mysteries, plus a few social histories and biographies. Literary fiction is my mainstay, though I’ve also ventured into chick lit and young adult romance a couple of times.

One aspect of my reviews that has surprised me is the number of novels about New York that appear on my blog. (I have an entire category for “New York Novels” that you can click on HERE to read these reviews.) I think that this is partly because a lot of New Yorkers write about their city and its 8.5 million inhabitants and partly because the US publishing industry is centered there. In any case, I love those descriptions of snowflakes falling in Central Park or ships passing the Statue of Liberty or high heels clicking on a sidewalk shadowed by the Empire State Building.

If you’re new to the Cedar Park Blog, be sure to check out the Archive of Book Reviews, located in the right-hand column below Latest Posts. The archive’s categories will help you navigate to the books you like best, whether it’s “Road Trip Novels” or “Social Histories” or “Family Sagas” or “Irish Novels.”

What’s coming up on the Cedar Park Blog? I’ll be continuing to review individual books and book series. In addition, I’m planning some posts called “Faves,” in which I’ll talk about my favorite authors, providing an overview of their works and telling you why I love their writing. Watch for these posts among the Tuesday and Friday regulars. And be sure to follow the Cedar Park Blog on Facebook or set your feed reader to ping you when a new post appears. Thanks for reading the Cedar Park Blog!

A Hoot of a Mystery

Celine     Peter Heller     (2017)

Peter Heller’s latest is both a mystery novel and a study of his title character. Celine Watkins is still working as a private investigator at age 68, in spite of her emphysema. She specializes in finding missing persons, especially in reuniting adoptees with their birth families. Celine is feisty, mouthy, clever, brave, discerning, blue-blooded, compassionate, stylish. She’s a hoot.

The story line involves a client, Gabriela, who wants to know what happened to her father, a renowned photographer, some twenty years past. He disappeared near Yellowstone National Park, either killed and consumed by a grizzly—or not. Celine and her longsuffering husband and sidekick, Pete, head west from their home base in Brooklyn, stopping in Denver to borrow Celine’s son’s camper and some firearms. And then we’re into the wilderness. Celine and Pete uncover more and more chilling secrets of the case, on their laptop, through phone calls, and in quirky small-town diners along the way. Celine relishes the danger. She seems to have overcome any fear of death, since she can see her health slipping away, and what the hell, she would have died long ago if she hadn’t sworn off the booze. It helps that she’s a crack shot.

The nature writing in Celine is top-notch, which makes sense, since Heller has published four major nonfiction books on adventure travel at the ends of the earth. A sample: “The sun sets behind mountains but the cloudless sky that is more than cloudless, it is lens clear—clear as the clearest water—holds the light entirely, holds it in a bowl of pale blue as if reluctant to let it go. The light refines the edges of the ridges to something honed, and the muted colors of the pines on the slopes, the sage-roughened fields, the houses in the valley—the colors pulse with the pleasure of release, as it they know that within the house they too will rest.” (94) Yup, that’s the golden hour in the American West.

Celine offers up a zany detective, zippy if farfetched dialogue, a serviceable mystery plot, eccentric supporting characters, and gorgeous descriptive passages. Add some flashbacks that fill in Celine’s earlier life, and those pages flip by quickly.

Soul Searching in Spain

Hot Milk     Deborah Levy     (2016)

Sofia Papastergiadis is at loose ends. She hasn’t finished her PhD dissertation in anthropology. She has a dead-end job as a barista. At age 25, she still lives with her mother, Rose, an insufferable hypochondriac whom Sofia waits on constantly. Sofia has long been estranged from her Greek father, who lives in Athens with his new wife and baby.

As the novel Hot Milk opens, Sofia is in southern Spain with Rose, who has taken out a large mortgage on her home in England to buy the services of a renowned doctor, Gómez, who she hopes will diagnose her ailments properly. While Rose undergoes medical testing by the questionable Gómez, Sofia roams rather aimlessly around the scorching beachfront town. She shatters her precious laptop, swims in waters infested with jellyfish, engages in varied sexual encounters—and then makes a quick trip to Athens to confront her father.

Sofia’s inner life and self-searching are at the heart of this tale, which is appropriately cast in first-person narrative. She constantly queries herself: “Am I self-destructive, or pathetically passive, or reckless, or just experimental, or am I a rigorous cultural anthropologist, or am I in love?” (175) It’s significant that Sofia has been trained as an anthropologist, since she often seems to be mentally documenting her own life for an individual ethnography. Novelist Deborah Levy has other characters analyze Sofia, too, as when Gómez tells her, “’You are using your mother like a shield to protect yourself from making a life.’” (111)

Although I found this novel meandering at times, the study of family dynamics is absorbing. And the evocations of the barren landscapes of southern Spain in late summer are excellent: “Cranes from the desalination plant sliced into the sky. Tall undulating dunes of greenish-grey cement powder lay in a depot to the right of the beach, where unfinished hotels and apartments had been hacked into the mountains like a murder.” (23) The wordplay is also amusing. For example, Sofia (whose name in Greek means “wisdom”) is repeatedly stung by jellyfish, called “medusas” in Spanish. When she arrives in Athens, she reflects, “Here I am in the birthplace of Medusa, who left the scars of her venom and rage on my body.” (138)

Bubbling under the surface of the story is commentary on the recent economic problems within the European Union. In Hot Milk as in real life, highly educated people are working in menial jobs, and austerity measures are crippling the Greek economy. Sofia’s father, a wealthy retired businessman, espouses his own form of austerity in refusing to help Sofia financially. One theme in the book is Sofia’s realization of the grim selfishness that is rampant in her world. Echoing her stepmother’s right-wing comments, Sofia asks herself, “Why would my father do anything that was not to his advantage?” (142)

I still don’t get the title Hot Milk. I’m guessing that it’s meant to conjure up images of a comforting drink that a mother might offer a daughter who is sick or distressed. Sofia won’t get any hot milk from her cruel mother, but readers may learn about something about themselves in this story.

Novels about Paintings, Part 1

A Piece of the World     Christina Baker Kline     (2017)

Baker Kline.jpg

Novels that prominently feature a painting (fictional or real) are not a new idea. In 1891, Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a horror story about a portrait that ages while the subject of the portrait remains youthful—but gets nastier. More recently, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring takes a different tack. In her 1999 novel, Chevalier imagines a life story from the actual portrait of an anonymous young woman. In this case, the art work, by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, is real, hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The fictional story by Chevalier evokes the period of the painting’s creation beautifully. (See the Vermeer portrait here.)

Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World has an approach similar to that of Chevalier. Baker Kline conjures up a fictional memoir by the subject of Christina’s World, a 1948 painting by the American artist Andrew Wyeth that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this case, some facts about the actual subject, Christina Olson, are known. Olson really was descended from one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials of the late seventeenth century. She was born in 1893 and lived on a farm near Cushing, Maine, suffering all her life from a disability that affected her ability to move her limbs. In 1939, she became friends with Andrew Wyeth, who summered in Maine and frequently painted her, her brother, and scenes from their farm. As Olson grew older, she became more disabled and moved from place to place by crawling. In his painting Christina’s World, Wyeth places Olson on the ground, with her back to the viewer, clawing the soil as she twists to look at her farmhouse, which is up a hill from her. (See the Wyeth painting here.)

Beyond the historical facts, Baker Kline weaves a fictional life, narrated by a fictional Christina Olson but quite believable. (The only parts of the narrative that I found somewhat strained were the dialogues between Wyeth and Olson.) Baker Kline invents a full life for Olson, from her birth until the unveiling of Wyeth’s expressive painting of her. The onus of disability for those in rural areas and without access to current medical treatments is clear. (For another novel about disability, see my review here.)

Christina Olson and her family live a life of austerity, particularly during the Great Depression, without electricity or running water in their house. Their daily existence is like that of a pioneer family in the nineteenth century. Baker Kline describes their chores in detail:  the stoking of the wood burning stove, the lighting of the kerosene lamps, the hand harvesting of the blueberries. These activities, and the grim farmhouse, attracted the eye of Wyeth, who painted a vanishing way of life with its surrounding stark landscapes. It strikes me that A Piece of the World has many characteristics of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, albeit set in Maine and written for adults.

As I was reading A Piece of the World, I turned frequently to the reproduction of the painting Christina’s World bound into the back of the book. This tender novel about a woman’s simple life complements Wyeth’s haunting work of art.

Rodeo for Russian Americans

Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo     Boris Fishman     (2016)

Despite the title, this novel is not primarily about rodeo, but it does have something to do with babies—specifically babies who are adopted. It’s also about the experience of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés in the United States and about a road trip through the American West. Novelist Boris Fishman assembles all these pieces skillfully.

Maya Shulman, a Ukrainian exchange student, and Alex Rubin, the only son of Russian immigrants, meet in New York in 1992. They marry and settle in New Jersey but are unable to have children. Over the objections of Alex and his parents, Maya pushes for adoption. The baby they adopt is the biological son of teenagers in Montana; the baby’s father is a rodeo cowboy. The one request of the biological mother to the adoptive parents is “Don’t let my baby do rodeo.”

By the year 2012, Maya and Alex begin to interpret some of the actions of their eight-year-old adoptive son, Max, as a reversion to his genetic origins. Maya especially becomes alarmed when Max runs away from home and when he “consorts with wild animals.” She worries that he’s becoming “feral” and insists on a car trip to Montana to seek out Max’s biological parents, hoping that they can shed light on Max’s “wildness.”

Readers may not see Max’s habits as particularly unusual for an inquisitive child. Max likes to sleep in a tent in the back yard, chew on various wild grasses, and put his face in river water to look at the pebbles and fish. One scene, in which Max cavorts with some deer in his back yard, could be taken as a bit of magic realism or could simply reflect the ubiquity and tameness of urban deer in New Jersey.

Around the main plot of the trip to Montana Fishman weaves subplots, particularly related to the influence of Alex’s parents on the marriage of Maya and Alex. Fishman pokes fun at his own Russian heritage in his portrayal of Alex’s immigrant parents. The elder Rubins have built a successful business and assimilated into American culture in many ways, but they eat traditional Russian foods, quote Russian proverbs, and oppose the adoption of Max for patriarchal cultural reasons. Maya struggles with her identity as an American wife and mother, always seeking to add new words to her English vocabulary, for example, yet chafing under some of the Old World attitudes of her husband and in-laws. In the end, she rebels against her family in a startling way.

Fishman’s writing is dense with words that are often crammed into tight sentences. This style can be rich, as when he is describing the dawn in South Dakota: “. . .the subfusc prologue of the morning was pushing up the black sky with impatience.” (249) And here is a vista in Montana: “First, there were hills, patchy and tentative, then, all of a sudden, mountains upon mountains. Maya eyed them with gratitude; she willed them to keep rising. Even Max stirred at their sight, leaning into his window. Emerald firs rose off the flanks in neat rows like heads in a choir, the cottonwoods among them so gold they looked like bullion bars.” (260)

My eye did catch occasionally on oddities of English word choice—“custom” instead of “habit, “unexisting” instead of “nonexistent,” “self-made” instead of “homemade,” and so forth. I expected these choices in the dialogue of characters whose native language was not English, but they cropped up in non-dialogue. This is a minor quibble about a book that forthrightly tackles such fraught issues as infertility, parenting an adopted child, and adapting to a new culture.

Two Books by Strout

Anything Is Possible     Elizabeth Strout     (2017)

My Name is Lucy Barton     Elizabeth Strout     (2016)

Before you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 short story collection, Anything Is Possible, you might want to check out her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The two books are interconnected and can be read as a cohesive whole.

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy is a writer in New York City in the 1980s, with a husband and two young daughters. When Lucy is hospitalized for many weeks with a mysterious illness that arises after an appendectomy, her estranged mother travels from rural Illinois to her bedside. The two women reach an uneasy peace with each other, especially as they tell stories about the folks back home, in the (fictional) Amgash, Illinois, a depressed rural area that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago.

In Anything is Possible, set in a recent time period, we meet many of the characters mentioned in My Name is Lucy Barton, both in Amgash and in other locales:

  • Pete Barton, Lucy’s reclusive and oddly childlike brother, who still lives in the old Barton house.
  • Tommy Guptill, the friendly janitor from Lucy’s elementary school, who is now in his eighties and who keeps an eye on Pete.
  • Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who gets himself into a bind over a prostitute.
  • Patty Nicely, a contemporary of Lucy’s and now a high school guidance counselor, who tries to help Lucy’s difficult niece, Lila Lane.
  • Mary Mumford, the neighbor woman who left her husband of 51 years to run off to Italy with a younger man.
  • Vicky Lane, Lucy’s sister, who reminds Lucy about some of the horrors the siblings endured in their childhood.
  • Abel Blaine, Lucy’s cousin, who has built a successful business in Chicago.

Lucy herself enters the linked stories of Anything Is Possible in many ways. She’s become an acclaimed writer and has published a book that the people of Amgash can buy at the local bookstore. Chicago is one of the stops on Lucy’s tour to promote her book, so she stops in Amgash to see her siblings, Pete and Vicky, in one of the stories. Take note that the fictional Lucy’s fictional “memoir” seems to be very much like Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

Strout toys with the vagaries of memory in both these books. In Anything Is Possible, we get much more detail about the childhood suffering of the Barton kids—details that were glossed over and somewhat sanitized in My Name is Lucy Barton. The other residents of Amgash are also revealed to have their share of specific miseries, including sexual abuse, mental illness, and crushing poverty. The power of money emerges as another theme. Lucy Barton, who had to scrounge in dumpsters for food as a child, lives the up-by-her-bootstraps version of the American dream when she gets into college and becomes a successful writer. Others in her small town remain impoverished. Sometimes people are poor simply because of bad luck, and money certainly does not buy happiness or stability for the characters in Anything Is Possible.

The prose in these two books is spare, with every word well chosen. The emotions are raw but presented with subtle empathy. Strout’s previous books include the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), which is, like Anything Is Possible, set up as linked short stories, and the novel The Burgess Boys (2013). Basically, read anything by Elizabeth Strout that you can get. You won’t be disappointed.

An Unlikely Marriage

This Must Be the Place     Maggie O’Farrell     (2016)

Maggie O’Farrell trusts her readers to catch on to what’s she’s doing with her oblique plot lines. She trusts that readers won’t jump ship when she suddenly shifts the setting to another hemisphere. She especially trusts that readers will take note of her chapter titles, which include the name of the person whose point of view is adopted for that chapter, as well as the city and year in which that chapter takes place. It’s dizzying at first, but once you get used to it, there’s a bit of a reader buzz at the beginning of each chapter. Oh, now you’re in Donegal, Ireland, in 2010, with Daniel narrating in first person. Then, hello, Brooklyn 1944! It’s a third-person narrative about Teresa, who turns out to be Daniel’s mother. And welcome to Goa, India, in 1996, with a third-person narrative about Claudette, Daniel’s second wife. Decades and continents whizz past as you put the pieces of the plot together.

This Must Be the Place ends up being a character study of two people who both have immense talents and big hearts but also serious flaws. Their lives are messy, peopled by previous lovers and by children with problems of their own. Daniel Sullivan is an American linguistics professor who has lost custody of his children in a contentious divorce from his first wife. On a trip to Ireland to retrieve his grandfather’s ashes, Daniel comes across a young boy on the roadside in Donegal. This is how he meets Claudette Wells, the boy’s mother, who is a recluse in the mountains, having fled a life of international stardom and infernal paparazzi. Daniel and Claudette fall in love.

Readers get the life histories of both Daniel and Claudette through those chapters that flash back and forth in time. Some of the chapters border on gimmicky, especially the one that’s a catalog of Claudette’s personal objects that are put up for auction, complete with inset photos. Some of the plot assumptions are wobbly. I doubt that Claudette could really have kept her presence in Ireland a secret for years—in rural Africa or South America, perhaps, but not in Ireland. And I can’t see how Daniel could get work permits for whatever country he was in. None of that matters, however, as O’Farrell reveals more and more about Daniel and Claudette, drawing readers into their struggles.

Along the way, O’Farrell’s descriptive passages work well. Here is Daniel narrating: “Winter is the best season to see Paris, I’ve always thought, when the pavements are sheer with frost, when the sun in low in the sky, when the Seine is swollen and brown, twisting fibrously beneath the bridges.” (266)

And here is Daniel being described when he is in a depressive state: “He is watching the red digital numbers of his alarm clock mutate into their successors: 5 gains an extra descender on its lower-left corner to become 6; to become 7, the 6 must lose almost all of itself, all its left-hand side, all its lower and middle strokes; the only consolation, he tells the 6-soon-to-be-7, is that you’ll get them all back for the full house that is 8. He watches the numbers tot themselves up, then spill over into another hour . . .” (295)

This Must Be the Place offers particularly excellent insights into the interdependence of partners in a marriage, and the portrayals of Daniel's and Claudette’s children are moving and believable. Overall, it’s a satisfying read. I plan to watch for future offerings from O’Farrell.

Two Views of a Marriage

Fates and Furies     Lauren Groff     (2015)

The characters Lotto and Mathilde, the protagonists in Fates and Furies, are not endearing to me. They are very tall and way too beautiful—a glamorous couple right from the day that they meet in 1991, when both are about to graduate from Vassar. I kept reading Fates and Furies out of weird fascination, or perhaps voyeurism, wanting to know what happens to these exceptionally gifted but egotistical and exploitative people.

The first 206 pages of the 390-page novel constitute the “fates” section, telling the story of Lotto’s early life and then his married life with Mathilde. Lotto’s given name is Lancelot, his father is Gawain, and his mother is Antoinette. Right there novelist Lauren Groff has set us her readers for high drama in the manner of Arthurian legend or French history. Lotto is born to wealth, but he’s disinherited upon his marriage to Mathilde, whom his mother disapproves of. He assumes the struggling actor role in New York, dependent upon Mathilde for sustenance, until, in a drunken stupor, he dashes off the first draft of a play. Behold! Lotto becomes an internationally acclaimed playwright. Mathilde continues to serve Lotto’s needs, handling the business side of his amazing career.

With the shift to the “furies” section of the novel, readers get the seamier side of the couple’s story. We learn that Mathilde was born in France and named Aurélie. At age four, she was involved in an accident that killed her baby brother, so she was sent away to live with relatives, ending up in Pennsylvania with an uncle who is some sort of gangster. Many additional secrets about Mathilde are revealed in this half of the novel, putting her marriage to Lotto in a totally different light. I would note that the entire novel is written in third person, not first person, so it isn’t as if Groff is presenting the personal viewpoint of Lotto (“fates”) and then the personal viewpoint of Mathilde (“furies”).

I found the revelations in the second half of the novel oddly disconcerting, feeling that I’d been cheated of information when I was reading the first half of the novel. I did keep reading, however, to the end, drawn in by Groff’s intensity of language, astonishing metaphors, and brisk narrative pace. A couple of examples:

“The women around her were phantom people. Skin taut on their faces. Taking three nibbles of the chef’s fine food and declaring themselves full. Jangling with platinum and diamonds. Abscesses of self.” (341)

“It occurred to her then that life was conical in shape, the past broadening beyond the sharp point of the lived moment. The more life you had, the more the base expanded, so that the wounds and treasons that were nearly imperceptible when they happened stretched like tiny dots on a balloons lowly blown up. A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges.” (354)

Fates and Furies was the book that President Obama named as his favorite novel of 2015. I speculate that the novel provided him some insights into how an intelligent, supportive spouse can help the career of a similarly intelligent person, as the two marital partners navigate the difficult shoals of power and fame. But I do hope that Obama’s marriage is working better than the one that this novel depicts!

Four Novels in One

4 3 2 1      Paul Auster     (2017)

Do not read other reviews of this novel before you read the novel itself! All the reviews--except for mine!--give away too much of the plot and spoil the revelations, good and bad.

Paul Auster has created a mesmerizing series of narratives by mixing up four novels in one book. The protagonist in all four, Archie Ferguson, bears the Scottish surname that his grandfather received at Ellis Island, but he’s Jewish American, born in Newark in 1947. His life story through early adulthood plays out in four distinctly different ways, depending on choices made by Archie himself and by his family members and friends. The author doles out these four stories in segments, taking us through the phases of Archie’s young life, and he helpfully labels each segment. (There are four versions of chapter 1, four versions of chapter 2, and so forth.)

Some elements of Archie’s personality and tastes carry into multiple stories. Archie is always a good athlete, either in baseball or basketball. He’s sexually active at an early age. One of his bed partners is Amy Schneiderman, who in different versions of the story is his stepsister, cousin, or family friend. Sometimes the Archies have the same experience, as when a professor at Columbia gives two different Archies a copy of the university’s literary magazine. In all four of the narratives, Archie seems to have a preponderance of tragic, early deaths surrounding him, including death by car accident, lightning strike, brain aneurysm, and fire.

As you read 4 3 2 1, you could make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the plot elements, but I recommend that instead you let the stories flow over you. Auster’s extremely long compound complex sentences encourage this latter approach, since the words stream seamlessly down the pages, pulling you along.

4 3 2 1 is about how everyday decisions of everyday people can have long-term ramifications, both for themselves and for those surrounding them. Within the novel, Auster has the characters themselves analyze the phenomenon of choices that change lives:

“ . . . from the beginning of his conscious life, [Archie had] the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being traveled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.”

Reading all 866 pages of 4 3 2 1 takes serious commitment. You are more likely to keep turning those pages if you enjoy novels about the 1960s in America. When I saw that Archie Ferguson was born in 1947, I immediately calculated that he would come of age in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when young American males were subject to the draft, and those drafted males were almost always sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Novelist Auster confronts this cruel fact in four different ways, and watching him do it is intriguing. Paul Auster was himself born in 1947, so he knows whereof he writes, though I would caution against reading 4 3 2 1 as a memoir or autobiography, despite the metafictional echoes of the novel’s closing pages.

One of the four Archie Fergusons, studying at Columbia University on a draft deferment, muses: "The postwar children born in 1947 had little in common with the wartime children born just two and three years earlier, a generational rift had opened up in that short span of time, and whereas most of the upperclassmen still bought into the lessons they had learned in the 1950s, Ferguson and his friends understood that they were living in an irrational world, a country that murdered its presidents and legislated against its citizens and sent its young men off to die in senseless wars, which meant that they were more fully attuned to the realities of the present than their elders were.”

Another theme that I pick up from 4 3 2 1 is the way wealth—or the lack of it—affects life choices dramatically. Here is one example, right after one of the Archies has come into some cash:

“Thousands of dollars were sitting in his account at the First National City Bank on the corner of West 110th Street and Broadway, and just knowing they were there, even if he had no particular desire to spend them, relieved him of the obligation to think about money seven hundred and forty-six times a day, which in the end was just as bad if not worse than not having enough money, for these thoughts could be excruciating and even murderous, and not having to think them anymore was a blessing. That was the one true advantage of having money over not having money, he decided—not that you could buy more things with it but that you no longer had to walk around with the infernal thought bubble hanging over your head.”

And then there’s New York City of the 1960s, conjured up by Auster with all its grit and glamor, and I can seldom resist New York novels. As one character comments, “New York is it.”

Aspirational Eating

Discriminating Taste:                                                                                                                    How Class Anxiety Created the American Food Revolution       S. Margot Finn   (2017)

In this thought-provoking social analysis, Margot Finn shatters multiple assumptions about food in American culture. Her main premise is that, over the past forty years, middle-class Americans have embraced eating habits that allow them to feel superior to other Americans. She argues that these eating habits are related to the increasing income inequality in the United States: although members of the middle class have been stifled in upward mobility, they’ve retained a sense of social superiority, expressed through their food choices and through vocal rationalizations of those choices. The media are complicit in promoting the food revolution, even when scientific evidence fails to show that the products are better.

What Finn calls “aspirational eating” is, in her words, “a process in which people use their literal tastes—the kinds of food they eat and the way they use and talk about food—to perform and embody a desirable class identity and distinguish themselves from the masses.” (11) Finn describes four categories in the food revolution—gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic—and examines each in detail.

What? Are we actually classist if we love our Pinot Noir, low-fat salad dressing, organic broccoli, and sushi? Well, maybe. Finn does absolve aspirational eaters to some extent: “Most of the time, people don’t choose high-status foods because of their association with the elite. Instead, they believe those foods are actually better—better tasting, healthier, better for the environment, more authentic, and so forth.” (44) In other words, we’ve been indoctrinated in our beliefs, convinced that paying more for upscale foods is worth it. We can’t do very much as individuals to change societal structures, but by golly we can eat some of the same foods that the 1% eat.

In Discriminating Taste, Finn ranges widely both to establish the historical framework for her argument and to illustrate the current food revolution. In an absorbing chapter on eating in the Gilded Age, she documents the food fads of middle-class Americans living in the period from 1880 to 1930: “In the new social order that emerged in the 1880s, members of the professional middle class grasped at anything that would enable them to distance themselves from the lower classes, establish their capacity for conspicuous consumption, and assert a moral superiority over the robber barons who usurped them.” (78) The food trends of the Gilded Age, an era marked by extreme income inequality, faded with the arrival of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, only to rise again around 1980.

In discussing America’s obsession with dieting, Finn presents clear evidence from medical research that diets of all varieties virtually never work to help overweight people keep weight off. Her close examination of the television show The Biggest Loser left me appalled at the extreme humiliations that the contestants were subjected to in the cause of becoming thinner. I’ve never watched this program, but Finn’s descriptions gave me a grim picture of the media exploitation of this component of aspirational eating.

Many other aspects of Discriminating Taste are simply delightful to read. Don’t miss her account of the making of the famous commercial for Grey Poupon mustard and her deconstruction of Ratatouille, the 2007 animated movie about a restaurant rat who is a secret chef. When academic prose creeps into the text, it doesn’t last long. I started to get bogged down in a summary of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume’s essay on taste, but sections like this one are more than offset by, for instance, lively discussion of the authenticity claims of Lay’s Classic potato chips as compared with Huy Fong Foods’ Sriracha.

The overall thesis of Discriminating Taste has serious political implications for the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and particularly the gap between the middle class and the poor. Finn doesn’t mince words: “The food revolution has helped stigmatize the foods and bodies associated with the poor and has convinced middle- and upper-class people that their dietary choices prove that they are smarter and more self-controlled and thus deserve whatever social rewards they get from eating the way they do.” (215) Finn addresses this attitude in a chapter called “Sacrifice, Pleasure, and Virtue.” The foodies who insist on gourmet, diet, natural, and ethnic foods sacrifice the conveniences and lower prices of more conventional food products. They like the feeling of martyrdom that this gives them, and they seek to impose their choices on others.

Discriminating Taste has prodded me to examine my own food choices. I’m not much tempted by gourmet or ethnic foods. (Wait. Yesterday I whipped up zucchini-parsley fritters. Were they gourmet? Probably not.) In the diet category, I’ve made peace with some of my decisions. For example, I’ve become so accustomed to skim-milk dairy products that full-fat dairy tastes cloyingly creamy to me, so I’ll stick with my “slimming” products. In the category of natural foods, however, I need to assess my purchases of local and organic products more carefully. I think it’s worth trips to the farmers’ market in summer and fall for ripe-picked corn, tomatoes, and melons, and I wait all year for that week in June when I can buy intensely flavorful Michigan strawberries. But I’ll admit that the extra drive to the farmers’ market uses gas and that organic produce isn’t always worth the cost.

More importantly, I need to adjust my view of friends and family members who love McDonald’s french fries and Kraft boxed macaroni and cheese, two foods cited by Finn as anathema to food elitists. None of us should judge what other people find delicious.

Margot Finn has taken on a powerful cohort in her indictment of current food trends. Even if you don’t accept all her assertions, Discriminating Taste will get you thinking.

[Side note: A shout out to Derek Thornton, who designed the clever cover for Discriminating Taste.]

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

“Pachinko” is a popular Japanese slot-machine game. You may wonder, until well past the halfway point of this novel’s 485 pages, what pachinko has to do with a saga about four generations of a Korean family in the twentieth century. Have patience.

First you have to be well steeped in the story of Sunja, a poor teenager who is seduced by Hansu, an older Korean gangster, in her village in what is now South Korea. By chance, Isak, a Korean Christian minister, passes through the village. He rescues Sunja from the ignominy of an unwed pregnancy by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where he will work as a missionary. The year is 1933.

Historical events of the turbulent twentieth century constantly buffet Sunja, Isak, and their extended family and friends in Japan, where the bulk of the story plays out. Japan’s expansionist wars of the 1930s and 1940s fuel nativist sentiments in the Japanese  populace. Korean immigrants, who are “zainichi” (foreign residents), are relegated to the most menial jobs and are paid less than Japanese for the same work. Korean children born in Japan do not become citizens—they’re essentially countryless. As one character pronounces: “’This country [Japan] isn’t going to change. Koreans like me can’t leave. Where we gonna go? But the Koreans back home aren’t changing, either. In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastards, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make or how nice I am.’“ (383)

Once Korea is partitioned into North and South in 1948, the situation gets even murkier: “After the [Korean] peninsula was divided, the Koreans in Japan ended up choosing sides, often more than once, affecting their residency status. It was still hard for a Korean to become a Japanese citizen, and there were many who considered such a thing shameful—for a Korean to try to become a citizen of its former oppressor.” (441)

A few ethnic Koreans living in Japan figure out that they can become entrepreneurs in the pachinko business, and a well-run pachinko parlor can turn a nice profit. Proceeds from pachinko parlors, plus help from that gangster Hansu, pave the bumpy road out of poverty for some characters in the novel. Other characters hide their Korean ethnicity, dressing like the Japanese, learning to speak Japanese without an accent, taking a Japanese spouse. This subterfuge is possible because the physical characteristics of Japanese people and Korean people are often very similar.

The straightforward, direct sentence style in Pachinko suits the themes of the novel, and the Korean and Japanese words in the text give the flavor of the setting without weighing down the narrative. I caught the simple ones, like “kimchi” (the Korean dish of fermented cabbage and radish) and “hanko” (a hand stamp of one’s name, used throughout East Asia). The meanings of other words were obvious from their context, but I had to look up a few as I read.

It would have been easy for novelist Lee to paint the Japanese as always the bad guys and the Koreans as always the good guys, but she does not adopt this dichotomy. Although she lays out the Japanese discrimination against Koreans clearly, her long list of characters includes both Koreans and Japanese who are deceitful and honest, talented and mediocre, wise and foolish, lazy and hardworking, compassionate and heartless, selfish and generous, prejudiced and open-minded. She pulls into her story subplots that touch on issues such as the status of minority Christians in Japan and the evolving attitude toward the place of women in the family and in the workplace over the course of the twentieth century. 

Above all, though, this is a universal story about the immigrant experience—about taking a job that’s far beneath your skill level because you don’t know the language, about being segregated into a slum area, about being subject to complicated rules that you don’t understand, about living constantly with fear. Immigrants enter a game of chance, stacked against them, much like pachinko players.

In her Acknowledgements, Lee tells us that it took her nearly thirty years to write this impressive novel. It was well worth the time.

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 1

In the Portfolio section of this website, you’ll find my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries,” with a special sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. You may want to take a look at that page before jumping forward in time to the fifteenth century for the medieval mystery series reviewed below.

The Dame Frevisse Series     Margaret Frazer     (1992-2008)

Dame Frevisse is a nun at St. Frideswide’s, a small fictional Oxfordshire convent. She’s  a practical and clever sleuth, dealing with murders as well as with all the personality clashes and power struggles that are inevitable in a religious community. We meet Frevisse when she’s already a mature nun, dedicated to her vocation, but still struggling inwardly with sins that we would consider quite petty, such as jealous thoughts or impatience. It’s tough to be as feisty and outspoken as Frevisse when your conversation is limited by the Rule of St. Benedict to truly necessary speech. Fortunately, there are murder mysteries to be solved, so Frevisse gets permission from her Abbess to interrogate witnesses, for example. She also manages to travel quite a bit, on approved business for her convent or for her own family members.

The first six Dame Frevisse mysteries were written collaboratively by Gail Frazer and Mary Monica Pulver Kuhfeld, using the pen name Margaret Frazer. The rest of the series was written by Gail Frazer alone, still as Margaret Frazer. The series ended when Gail Frazer died in 2013. It’s worth mentioning that a character named Joliffe the Player is part of the action in four of the Dame Frevisse novels. Joliffe was then spun off in his own series of six mystery novels (by Gail Frazer) featuring a theater troupe.

The earlier novels in the Dame Frevisse series are like cozy mysteries set in an English village, with the convent standing in for the village. The pace of these novels is fast, but the quality of the construction of the central mystery varies. For a psychologically devastating one, try The Servant’s Tale; I didn’t guess the murderer at all.

Some of the later titles in the Dame Frevisse series, written by Gail Frazer alone, are more like historical novels, though always with a murder mystery for Frevisse to untangle. The series is set between the years 1431 and 1452, in the middle of the reign of the unstable King Henry VI and at the tail end of the Hundred Years’ War with France. So there are plenty of historical events that can be explored.

Dame Frevisse is cast as a fictional relative of the fourteenth-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. To emphasize this link, the titles in the series mimic those within Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though the Frevisse stories bear no resemblance to similarly titled stories by Chaucer. I think that reading the series in order works best, but that’s not essential. Here are all the titles:  The Novice’s Tale (1992), The Servant’s Tale (1993), The Outlaw’s Tale (1994), The Bishop’s Tale (1994), The Boy’s Tale (1995), The Murderer’s Tale (1996), The Prioress’ Tale (1997), The Maiden’s Tale (1998), The Reeve’s Tale (1999), The Squire’s Tale (2000), The Clerk’s Tale (2002), The Bastard’s Tale (2003), The Hunter’s Tale (2004), The Widow’s Tale (2005), The Sempster’s Tale (2006), The Traitor’s Tale (2007), The Apostate’s Tale (2008).

North Woods Morality

The Hearts of Men     Nickolas Butler     (2017)

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”  This line from the 1930s pulp fiction radio drama The Shadow captures the theme of Nickolas Butler’s probing new novel.

The hero of The Hearts of Men is Nelson Doughty, his surname perhaps chosen by the author because it’s an archaic English word meaning “fearless” or “persistent.” We first meet Nelson in 1962 at a fictional Boy Scout campground, Camp Chippewa, in northern Wisconsin, where he is a nerdy, bespectacled thirteen year old who is constantly bullied by the other campers. He does, however, find a savior—the elderly scoutmaster who runs the camp—and also strikes up a somewhat tentative friendship with a popular, athletic older boy named Jonathan.

I cringed in horror at the cruelties Nelson endured as a teenager, but his adult life holds even further unhappinesses, in Vietnam as well as back at Camp Chippewa. I won’t spoil the plot, which unfolds over the ensuing 57 years, until the year 2019. By that year, the evil lurking in the hearts of men has intensified: “There seems an atmosphere everywhere these days in America, a malevolent vibration in the air, every citizen so quick to righteous rage, some tribal defensiveness, seeing the fault in each other's arguments, rather than some larger common field of compromise, if not agreement.” (278)

Novelist Butler unfurls the secrets of both men and women as Nelson, Jonathan, and their families seek the standards by which they’ll live out their lives. “A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Will this Boy Scout Law serve the purpose? Or is there an Army code that one can follow? Organized religion doesn’t seem to have the answer, at least in Butler’s Wisconsin. Some of his characters have an innate sense of fairness and generosity, but many of them are seriously flawed. The men, in particular, struggle with how to define themselves as males in American society. Are you a real man if you hold your liquor, beat your kids, frequent strip clubs, and cheat on your wife?

Throughout the book, Butler tosses off similes that stop you in your tracks: “The beer is ever so cold and bright, like swallowing winter sunlight carrying a memory of summer wildflowers, resting hay.” (149) His descriptions of summer in northern Wisconsin, viewed from a car window, are perfect: “Fields and fields of waist-high Cargill corn and knee-high Pioneer soybeans, muddy barnyards of shit-splattered Guernseys and Holsteins, sun-bleached and woebegone trailer parks, falling-down barns begging for a splash of gasoline and a match, cemeteries ringed in browning arborvitae and chain-link fences, derelict stone silos, small to middling northern rivers, forests of maple and oak and red pine sliding by at fifty-five miles per hour.” (154) Similarly, I know exactly the kind of place that Butler’s characters are in when he places a scene in a supper club, a dining establishment peculiar to rural areas of the upper Midwest.

The choice of Camp Chippewa, mosquitoes and all, as a primary setting for this epic is inspired. When you’re camping in northern Wisconsin, you’re far away from the cares and distractions of city life, forced to confront elemental truths. At one point, the young Nelson comes out of the woods into a clearing, and this is what he sees:  “A star sliced loose from its berth and went scuttling out into the void, turning and turning without ever a hope of gaining traction again. I am cut loose, he thinks. And, To hell with them all.” (95)

Soviet House Arrest

A Gentleman in Moscow     Amor Towles     (2016)

For Americans who grew up during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union was a scary place. Only a little information leaked out about everyday life there: long lines to purchase basic necessities, people crammed ten to a room in tiny apartments, the KGB ready to pounce on any political or social dissent. So Amor Towles’s fictional foray into Moscow’s elegant Metropol Hotel in the years from 1922 to 1954 is captivating on many levels. Towles posits that high-level Communist Party officials still wined and dined themselves and foreign dignitaries, right through the Depression of the 1930s, and that ordinary Soviet citizens found small bits of happiness despite privations and surveillance. Some displayed great courage in adversity. Towles’s portrait of the fictional Count Alexander Rostov gives us a glimpse into what might have happened to one of the ousted aristocrats in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In 1922, the erudite and cultured young Count Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Metropol Hotel, just off Red Square in Moscow. This is not exile to Siberia, but if Rostov walks out the door of the hotel, he will be shot. The Count, relegated to a tiny attic room, approaches his predicament with the utmost composure. Since his own family members are all dead, he gradually fashions himself a family from the employees and guests of the Metropol. While chaos and war unfold outside the Metropol, all is grace and style inside. Count Rostov is, to me, a Russian version of Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1930s British mystery novels of Dorothy L. Sayers. Yes, he can be snobbish at times, but he’s generous, principled, and unwaveringly loyal to his friends.

As the years of Rostov’s life tick by, Towles tosses off details about the Metropol in one witty scene after another. Pay close attention to the most minuscule of these details, which Towles is constructing carefully as he builds toward the denouement of his novel. You can easily get pulled into enjoyment of individual episodes, as friends arrive to visit Rostov, a famous actress becomes his lover, and a young girl takes him behind the scenes to secret places in the enormous hotel. Rostov comes to know every cranny of the hotel intimately, and this knowledge will serve him well as the plot whirls to a conclusion in the final hundred pages of this 462-page book.

“Sophisticated” does not begin to do justice to Towles’s writing style. Here he is describing a clock: “Suddenly, that long-strided watchman of the minutes caught up with his bowlegged brother at the top of the dial. As the two embraced, the spring’s within the clock’s casing loosened, the wheels spun, and the miniature hammer fell, setting off the first of those dulcet tones that signaled the arrival of noon.” (32)

Here he is in the hotel kitchen, describing a bouillabaisse, the ingredients assembled with tremendous difficulty in a Soviet Union with closed borders: “One first tastes the broth—that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow, collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron—that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful, one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille—where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.” (221-222)

I guessed some but not all of the elements of caper that caps the plot of A Gentleman in Moscow. The surprises were highly enjoyable.

A Chinese Tea Tale

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane     Lisa See     (2017)

“’No coincidence, no story.’” With this quote from her mother, the first-person narrator of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Li-Yan, begins. Remember that line as you read Lisa See’s moving tale of the collision of a traditional culture with the modern world.

In the mountainous Yunnan province in the far southwest of China live the Akha people, one of China’s tiny ethnic minorities. The Akha speak a distinctive language and practice a kind of animistic religion, involving many taboos and ritual sacrifices, guided by patriarchal village shamans. When this novel opens, in 1988, the province was even more isolated than it is today, and because of its inaccessibility the Akha people were not touched very much by such Chinese political movements as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. They were also exempt from China’s One Child policy because of their minority status.

Li-Yan is the daughter of a tea-growing Akha family, but she yearns for an education and an escape from her isolated village. When she has a baby out of wedlock, she refuses to allow the baby to be killed, as is the Akha tradition. Instead she makes a grueling journey on foot to an orphanage in the closest town to relinquish her daughter, who is wrapped up with a tea cake (a block of compressed tea leaves). Without revealing spoilers, I can tell you that Li-Yan’s adventures over the next twenty years bring her considerable success, mostly because her mountain’s rare tea leaves, called Pu’er, become international best sellers. But Li-Yan constantly misses the daughter she gave up and wishes she could find her.

Interspersed with the story that Li-Yan narrates are varied documents, such as letters and transcripts, relating to this daughter of Li-Yan, who is adopted as an infant by a Caucasian American couple from California and named Haley. Haley has a privileged upbringing, but she never feels fully part of American culture and longs to find her Chinese birth mother. Coincidence comes in here, as Li-Yan and Haley almost meet more than once.

Some reviewers of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane found the lengthy disquisitions on the cultivation of tea trees and the processing of tea leaves onerous to read. I liked these sections, which build the background for the role of tea trading in the novel. Besides, I’m a great fan of tea. And tea is, as you might guess, part of the final coincidence that ties this novel up.

Some reviewers also criticized the author’s extensive descriptions of Akha culture. I liked these sections, too, especially the accounts of religious rituals and of the distinctive clothing of the Akha, which is rich with indigo-dyed fabrics, embroidery, and elaborate women’s headdresses. Late in the book, a character describes the Akha: “’In the West, you think the individual is supreme, but the Akha see themselves as one link in the long chain of life, adjacent to all the other links and cultures.’” (352) The contrast of the tribal Akha ways with the lifestyles in large Chinese cities and in California, where some of the action takes place, appealed to me, as did watching Li-Yan’s adaptation to totally different cultural norms. Here is Li-Yan in a large Chinese city: “I take a deep breath to fortify myself, mortar into place another brick to hide my secrets, and settle my face into what I hope is a pleasant expression.” (222)

Lisa See is a talented writer with nine published novels about Chinese and Chinese American characters. If you like The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, try her 2009 novel, Shanghai Girls, next.

Lively Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories   Penelope Lively     (2016)

“The Purple Swamp Hen” is the title story in Penelope Lively’s recent collection. It’s a tale set in ancient Pompeii just before the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in lava, and it’s told from the viewpoint of, wait for it, a purple swamp hen. An excavated Pompeiian fresco depicts this decorative bird that was kept in walled Roman gardens. Lively’s use of the swamp hen as her narrator is clever when you consider that this creature is in an ideal position to observe human shenanigans taking place in the garden, as Lively enumerates: “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm.”

The ancient Mediterranean setting of “The Purple Swamp Hen,” is, however, an outlier in this masterful collection of stories from the octogenarian British author. The remaining stories are mostly set in Britain, in various decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Relationships are the overarching theme, and Lively presents couples in multiple circumstances, including falling in love, making a commitment, deciding on children, surviving divorce, taking revenge, and, of course, dying. For instance, she talks us through the emotions of an argument between a young husband and wife and takes us to Spain with a pair of penurious artists. Once in a while she tosses in the possibility of a ghost, to mix things up and bring the past into the present. Each new story opens up a miniature world for the reader.  

The short story form is highly confining for the writer. Characterizations have to be conveyed in a few sentences, and the plot has to be tight and of the proper scope for the length of the piece. With Lively’s stories, I always feel as if I know the characters, despite the brevity of the pieces (one is only 6 pages long). In their narrative rigor, Lively’s short stories remind me of the stories of Alice Munro, though Munro’s tend to be darker and sadder, to my reading.

Memory and the way the past and the future interact are persistent themes in Penelope Lively’s body of writing, which is large. She’s produced three memoirs that I find somewhat rambling, but her fiction is first-rate. Parallel to her career as an author of adult fiction is her work as an author of award-winning children’s books, starting back in the 1970s. In 1987 she won the Booker Prize for her adult novel Moon Tiger, in which a woman on her deathbed recalls scenes from her life. I recommend that one, but I’ve particularly enjoyed several of her more recent offerings, including The Photograph (2003), Consequences (2007), Family Album (2009), and How It All Began (2011). In this last title, Lively explores how one event affects seven different characters.

If you haven’t discovered Penelope Lively, don’t delay.

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

Brooklyn Satire

Class     Lucinda Rosenfeld     (2017)

Karen Kipple is a contemporary Brooklynite in her mid-forties, with a listless husband, a third-grader named Ruby, and a job at a nonprofit that feeds hungry children. This setup could be boring, but novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld tracks the story toward the absurd with biting satire and probing questions about progressive politics.

Karen obsesses about everything, measuring her actions, and those of others, against a standard that’s impossible to achieve. For example, she worries about the junk food that Ruby’s classmates eat, but then she overanalyzes: “Along with weight, teeth, and marriage, food had somehow become a dividing line between the social classes, with the Earth Day-esque ideals of the 1960s having acquired snob appeal, and the well-off and well-educated increasingly buying ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ and casting aspersions on those who didn’t.” (19-20)

So, while Karen gets upset about kids eating junk food, she then internally castigates herself for her classism. And, despite the title of this novel, race looms large in Karen’s obsessions also. The African American kids in Ruby’s school have names that irritate Karen, until she realizes that the purposely antiquated names of the white kids (Prudence, Violet, Silas, Leo, and even Ruby) can be seen as pretentious in a different way.

This tug-of-war within Karen plays out over and over. Karen lives much of her life through Ruby, and she worries constantly about every single interaction that the poor child has with other children. “It alarmed and excited her to think that her daughter was only two degrees of separation away from the kind of people who got evicted.” (87) Karen is both alarmed and excited throughout this novel.

The plot in Class mainly revolves around Karen’s decision to pull Ruby out of the local minority-white public school she’s attending and fraudulently enroll her in a nearby all-white public school. Karen doesn’t even tell her husband about her maneuver. And this act of betrayal of her liberal values is one of a series of outrageous exploits, involving preposterous lies, marital infidelity, and embezzlement. As Karen plunges off a metaphorical cliff, readers may want to grab her by her hair and shake her!

The ancillary characters in Class are stereotypes broadly and often humorously drawn: the non-communicative husband who watches television sports, the obnoxious PTA president, the selfish billionaire. In conversations with them, Karen ranges from timid to frank to confrontational. I found this variability unconvincing, but perhaps Karen vacillates verbally as a reflection of her unease with her social convictions.

I’ve reviewed a number of novels set in New York that wavered on the edge of satire; see one of my posts here. There’s no question that Class is a satire, striking at the shibboleths of the left. It will make you squirm as you think about exactly why you hold the beliefs that you do, no matter where on the political spectrum you sit.