The American Frontier

West     Carys Davies     (2018)

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The plot is preposterous, the characters are peculiar, and the language is spare. Yet Carys Davies’ West will surely make my list of “The Best of 2018.” Davies spins a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815. This was an era when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible to some people living in the East.

One of these people is Cy Bellman, a mule breeder in central Pennsylvania, who reads in a newspaper about the discovery in Kentucky of the bones of gigantic animals. Cy convinces himself that living exemplars of these animals still roam in the farthest reaches of the continent, driven west by settlement. Cy, who is a widower, leaves his young daughter, Bess, in the care of his unmarried sister and sets off to the west. He hopes to find some amazing creatures if he ventures a ways off the paths that Lewis and Clark traversed in their 1804-06 expedition through the Louisiana Purchase.

The narrative of West alternates between the experiences of Cy in the wilderness (perils: hunger, animal attack, Indian attack, winter) and the experiences of Bess in Pennsylvania (perils: predatory men, clueless aunt, lack of education). Davies builds tension artfully. She pauses in her rapid narrative sweep for descriptions at moments that capture the extremity of the threats to both Cy and Bess. Here is Cy at the end of his first winter on the road: 

“One night he heard the ice booming and cracking in the river, and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.” (21)

Despite the harsh conditions, Cy continues to be obsessed with getting a sighting of monstrous animals. But there’s also a general wanderlust at work. He muses:

“Should he have stayed in England, in the narrow lanes and what now seemed like the miniature hills of his youth, everything small and dark and cramped and a feeling inside himself that he would burst if he did not escape? Even then, a little of that prickling feeling, the vertigo; a longing for what he’d never seen and didn’t know.” (111)

A central theme of European and American literature has always been the journey, the pilgrimage, the hero’s voyage. Cy’s trip is set against the dangers for stay-at-home Bess. And uniting these two stories is a third key character, who signs on as a guide for Cy: “An ill-favored, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance.” (27)

I was hesitant to dip into this little novel because I was suspicious of a Brit writing about early America. Such foolish prejudice I displayed! Carys Davies has produced an amazing portrait of frontier life circa 1815, but that’s only the backdrop to her exploration of ambition, fear, lust, weariness, greed, and familial affection. Read this book soon, in one sitting.

For another British novel about early America, see my review of Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill. For another novel about a frontier journey, try Paulette Jiles’s News of the World.

Seeking Immortality

Birdcage Walk     Helen Dunmore     (2017)

Another historical novel, another tiny slice of insight into ordinary lives lived in extraordinary times!

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With Birdcage Walk, it’s the year 1792 in Bristol, England. Revolution is encroaching on the British—first the American Revolution, across the Atlantic, and then the French Revolution, right across the Channel. If you’re a British real estate developer in the high-end market, you watch these international events closely, since your investors will be wary if the nation’s resources are being diverted to war. John Diner Tredevant is such a developer, overseeing the building of a terrace of large, elegant homes with spectacular views, on a cliff overlooking the River Avon. He’s borrowed heavily to finance this venture, and as the novel opens, the project is moving along slowly, with most of the homes only shells.

We meet Tredevant through the first-person narration of his wife, whom he calls Lizzie. Lizzie grew up as Elizabeth Fawkes in a family of radicals who advocate change in the political order to alleviate poverty and inequality. Her mother, Julia Fawkes, is especially prolific in writing pamphlets and other ephemeral materials for this cause. Lizzie is very close to her mother, but she’s not as obsessed with social change. In fact, she ignores the advice of her mother and stepfather, Augustus Gleeson, in marrying Tredevant, the consummate capitalist.   

Novelist Helen Dunmore depicts Tredevant with subtle skill. He’s been married once before, and the death of his first wife is mysterious. He’s anxious and impulsive, seeming to be always on the edge of violence. This threat of brutality from Tredevant hangs at the edge of every page of the novel, intensifying as reports from the French Revolution become more and more bloody. The effect of major world events on individuals in small cities far from the action is certainly one of the themes of Birdcage Walk. Another theme is the evanescence of much of the writing of movements on the margins of society, particularly the writing of women. Not only has the writing disappeared, but the thoughts of these activists can no longer be captured except by novelists who make conjectures about the words that they might have spoken.

These themes are made more poignant by the fact that Helen Dunmore, who died in 2017, was terminally ill when she wrote Birdcage Walk, her sixteenth novel, though she did not know her diagnosis until the book was nearly finished. (Significantly, the title of the novel refers to a pathway through a cemetery in Bristol.) The notion that individuals might achieve some form of immortality through their creative work pervades Dunmore’s writing. John Diner Tredevant wants to leave behind well-designed houses that will last for centuries. Julia Fawkes and Augustus Gleeson want to reform society or at least to leave writings that will spur later generations to reform. Lizzie seems to want to leave a legacy in the children she raises. What does Helen Dunmore want to leave? Will any of these attempts at immortality be successful?

Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 55” is probably the best statement of the conundrum:  

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.

’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

    So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,

    You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

Buildings won’t last, statues won’t last, even great poetry won’t last. But love—that will always be expressed in the eyes of lovers.

Newport, RI, through the Centuries

The Maze at Windermere     Gregory Blake Smith     (2018)

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Get ready for a historical fiction jamboree in this century-hopping novel set in Newport, Rhode Island, with five different sets of characters playing out their scenes in alternation.

Year 2011:  Sandy Alison is a tennis pro, once ranked #47 in the world but now nursing a weak knee and giving lessons to the Newport summer elite. He’s a good-looking guy who does his share of bed hopping as he tries to figure out his next career moves. He circulates on the edges of the wealthy Newport crowd, with Alice du Pont, the owner of the Windermere estate; with her sister-in-law; and with her best friend, an African American jewelry maker.

Year 1896: Franklin Drexel hangs on at this same Windermere estate in the Gilded Age. An urbane closeted gay man of modest means, Franklin plans to marry a wealthy woman as a cover and then escape periodically to the demi-monde in New York to satisfy his sexual needs. With the help of a couple of Newport matrons, Franklin fixes his sights on widow Ellen Newcombe, and the chase begins.

Year 1863:  In the depths of the Civil War, a 20-year–old Henry James (yup, that one) has managed to avoid military service and is practicing his writing craft.  Although Henry’s family resides year-round in Newport, he haunts the hotels where the summer people gather, people-watching and jotting notes constantly. He strikes up a friendship with Alice Taylor, thinking he may base a character in a novel on her. She gets a different impression.

Year 1778:  Stepping back farther in American history, we land in the Revolutionary War, with a British officer, Major Ballard, stationed in Newport. He’s obsessed with Judith Da Silva, the 16-year-old daughter of a Jewish merchant, and determined to seduce and then discard her. Subplots ensue.

Year 1692:  Prudence Selwyn is a Quaker teenager who loses her mother and father in quick succession and is left, with no ongoing income, to manage a household, a toddler sister, and a resident house slave. She ponders what her path should be as she treads through prickly situations.

The novelist weaves in a great many small links between these stories, especially with respect to landmarks in Newport. For example, the name of one of the characters in the 1692 story resurfaces as a place name in a later century, and Newport’s Quaker Meeting House and Jewish cemetery are significant in several of the stories. These links are clever and entertaining, but I was more taken with the thematic unity of Smith’s depiction of gender roles. Two of the five stories are told by men in first-person narration, and two others are in close third person narration focused on a male character. (Only the 1692 story is told by a female, in diary format.) In all five stories males target females with selfish objectives, whether sexual or literary or financial. Yet the females are feisty, sometimes protected by family members, sometimes making independent decisions about their reactions to male wishes.

Smith casts each component of his novel in the language of its era, and I think he captures the period idioms, especially the voice of Henry James, pretty well, even though he gets “who” and “whom” mixed up sometimes. Give this novel a few chapters and you may be hooked for the duration.

Nonfiction & Fiction by Russo

Elsewhere: A Memoir     Richard Russo     (2012)

That Old Cape Magic     Richard Russo     (2009)

The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writers, Writing and Life     Richard Russo     (2018)

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Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and most of his other novels are set in decaying industrial towns peopled by rough-and-tumble strugglers. It’s no secret that in his fiction Russo drew on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, which by the 1960s was severely polluted, from the byproducts of the manufacture of leather gloves, and poverty stricken, since the glove industry had moved to India and China.

When I ran across this memoir by Russo, I thought he might reveal how his novels are linked to his own biography. Elsewhere does provide some clues for avid Russo readers, but it’s primarily the story of Russo’s relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own after her divorce from his father when Richard was a small child. Jean Russo was smart, hardworking, attractive, sexy, fashionable, controlling, manipulative, selfish, explosive, confused, and unhappy most of the time. Richard loved her fiercely and tried for decades to relieve her sadnesses. Only after her death, in her mid-eighties, did he realize that she likely had a serious mental health condition that was never diagnosed or treated.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, as memoir can be, but Elsewhere is a touching portrait of a tormented woman. I kept looking back at the photos of Russo and his mother on the cover of the book, feeling as if I knew these two people personally.

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For a glimpse into how Russo’s mother may have influenced his fiction, try That Old Cape Magic, a 2009 novel that’s one of his gentlest narratives—a kind of meditation on relationships (successful, failed, failing, blissful, doomed, redeemable). Griffin, the middle-aged protagonist, attends two weddings, a year apart. The first wedding takes place on Cape Cod, and it stirs up in his memory the childhood vacations that he spent there with his parents, who were escaping their academic jobs in the hated Midwest. Griffin is trying to come to terms with his parents’ unhappy marriage, especially since he’s carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, and since his own marriage is not so solid. Griffin’s mother, long divorced from his late father, phones him constantly in this story, and her voice sounds similar, in tone and level of sarcasm, to the voice that author Russo gives to his own mother in his memoir. 

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For more details on Russo’s writing process, pick up his 2018 book, The Destiny Thief, a collection of nine essays, some of which have been previously published. I’d recommend skipping the essay on The Pickwick Papers unless you’re a serious fan of Charles Dickens. But the essay “Getting Good” has valuable advice for aspiring writers, particularly on the controversial issue of digital versus print publication. The piece titled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” is a brilliant analysis of the function of narrative voice in fiction, with examples from Russo’s work and from the writing of others, based on his years of teaching in writing programs across the country and around the world.

In another vein, “Imagining Jenny” is an emotional account of how a writer friend of Russo’s underwent gender reassignment surgery. All in all, this collection is pure Russo—sardonic, funny, and smart.

Books in Brief, Part 5

Every Note Played     Lisa Genova     (2018)

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Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, writes novels that illuminate neurological diseases. Her 2007 offering, Still Alice, told the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In her 2018 Every Note Played, Genova gives us the fictional Richard Evans, a world-renowned classical pianist who develops ALS (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which destroys the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Genova takes the reader through the progression of Richard’s ALS over a period of a little more than a year, detailing the difficult medical decisions that he must make along the way. Even more significantly, Richard has to come to terms with the forced ending of his musical career and with his troubled relationships with his ex-wife, Karina; his college-age daughter; and his father, who never valued Richard’s musical talent. As Richard becomes increasingly helpless, Karina ends up, reluctantly, caring for him in her home. Genova depicts the stresses both on the patient and on his family and friends in painful detail, but the novel doesn’t become solely a case study in ALS. It stands on its own merits as a work of fiction about self-awareness, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

In the Midst of Winter     Isabel Allende     (2017)     Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson

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Three people with vastly different life stories come together during a blizzard in New York City in 2016. The car of Richard Bowmaster, a sixty-something American prof, slides into a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a twenty-something undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. The resulting minor auto damage brings to light a murder and brings into the drama the character of Lucia Maraz, a sixty-something academic from Chile who is teaching in New York for the year. Each of these three has a tumultuous past, which is recounted in flashbacks as the murder mystery unfolds in present time. The narrative here is somewhat disjointed, and the mystery is transparent, but Allende’s mastery of language and dialogue, even in translation, is apparent. For an Allende novel that I consider superior to In the Midst of Winter, try reading The Japanese Lover.

The Only Story     Julian Barnes     (2018)

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This is an elegant, nostalgic, gloomy novel, in three sections. The first section, recounted in first person by the protagonist, Paul, is the story of the early days of a love affair between the 19-year-old Paul and the 48-year-old Susan. They meet at a tennis club in a town south of London in the early 1960s. In the second section, mostly in second person narration, Paul and Susan are living together in London, and their affair is not going well (read: boy, is this depressing). The third section, in third person, is a lengthy retrospective exploration of the nature of love, with a few narrative strands about Paul’s middle and older years. Barnes touches on the debate between inevitability and free will and probes the correlation between strength of feeling and degree of happiness. Throughout, the prose is refined and masterful, as you would expect from the author of the Booker-Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and many other novels. But if you pick up The Only Story, don’t expect a tidy wrap-up. Oh, and just what is “the only story”? Love. Love is the only story, and it’s infinitely complex.

The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

Irish author Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, is a masterful study of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage.

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Gerry and Stella are in their seventies. They grew up in Northern Ireland during the hidebound 1950s and then experienced the Troubles, that period of Catholic/Protestant terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the island that began in the late 1960s. As adults, they moved to Scotland to escape violence and pursue their careers, Gerry in architecture and Stella in teaching. They’re retired now, financially comfortable, and their grown son lives in Canada with his family, so their lives have emptied out, in a sense. To fill the void, Stella, who has always been a devout Catholic, is trying to develop her spiritual life further. Non-believer Gerry, on the other hand, has upped his alcohol consumption to a dangerous level.

It’s January, and Stella has organized a short vacation to Amsterdam for the two of them. If trading one cold, dreary winter site (Scotland) for another that’s equally cold and dreary (the Netherlands) seems odd, well, it is. Readers eventually learn Stella’s hidden agenda for the trip, just as readers come to understand Gerry’s obsession with alcohol, which he tries to hide.

MacLaverty manages his prose in such a way that he makes the minutiae of daily life truly fascinating. I do not know how he does this. At the level of the sentence, the actions of his characters are trivial, but the overall effect of his paragraphs and chapters is riveting, even when he’s describing such mind-numbing details as negotiating suitcases and shampoo bottles and security checks in an airport. Part of his technique must be rooted in his dialogue, which is so perfectly tuned that I feel certain I’ve heard some of the lines verbatim in real life.

Stella and Gerry are at heart quite compatible and affectionate toward each other, although she does carp a bit about his drinking, and he engages in some gentle mockery of her religiosity. Gerry automatically steers Stella by the elbow at busy street corners, knowing her fear of traffic. Stella indulges Gerry’s long tarrying at certain art works in the Rijksmuseum. They both have physical ailments that are common for their ages, but they don’t let these dominate their lives; instead they have “the Ailment Hour,” a limited time period each day when they tell each other about their aches and pains.

All is not connubial bliss, however. Shadows from a horrible past event hang over the couple, and the full power of this event is not revealed until late in the narrative. The stereotypical issues of many Irish tales, religion and drink, are key to the conflicts between Stella and Gerry, but in MacLaverty’s capable hands they are never trite. Stella’s religious beliefs, for example, are treated respectfully. But MacLaverty does go full Irish in invoking James Joyce in the final chapters of Midwinter Break, as Stella and Gerry deal with a snowstorm. MacLaverty’s characters live in Scotland, and he sends them vacationing in the Netherlands, but the pull of the old Ireland of “The Dead” from The Dubliners is still strong. Midwinter Break is a book that you’ll mull over for many days after you close the covers.

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)

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Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

Linked Stories: 3 Reviews

In this post you’ll find reviews of three books that are highly disparate in tone and subject matter. Each, however, has narrative components linked by a theme.

Spinning Heart     Donal Ryan     (2014)     (published in Ireland in 2012)

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“There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone.” (9) These lines, in the first chapter of Spinning Heart, describe not just a physical ornamentation but also the gyrating emotions of the twenty-one people whose hearts are bared in twenty-one linked first-person stories in this slim volume.

The setting is rural Ireland, right after the collapse of the housing bubble and banking crisis of 2007-2010 in that nation. The effects of this economic catastrophe, and of the global recession, are stark and highly personal. Real estate developer Pokey Burke has skipped town, leaving unpaid workers and half-finished houses in his wake. The characters who reflect on their situations sometimes feel to me as if they are descendants of the characters in a play by JM Synge or Brendan Behan, but author Donal Ryan approaches each with a fresh vision and a distinct portrayal. Ryan’s prose is varied, vernacular, sometimes vulgar. The heartfelt stories, with echoes of ethnography, allow the reader to piece together the complex interactions of the residents of the town, to see the pervading despair and also the small bits of hope.

American readers may find the Irish dialect slightly confusing at times, but context almost always conveys the meaning (“wan” for “woman,” “rakes” for “lots,” and so on). Spinning Heart, winner of multiple prizes, is truly worth the read.

Uncommon Type:  Some Stories     Tom Hanks     (2017)

I admire Tom Hanks as an actor, so when I saw his book of short stories at my library, I decided to scope out his writing abilities. The subjects of the stories in Uncommon Type range widely and include space travel, time travel, and slices of life from various decades of the twentieth century. Most of them have a strong element of whimsy, with dialogue zingers. The linking element in this collection is the typewriter: a typewriter appears in every story, sometimes just incidentally (as when an elderly woman types a receipt in “Alan Bean Plus Four”) and sometimes as the star of the show (as when a young woman finds hope through a typewriter in “These Are the Meditations of My Heart”). In addition, four characters, an unlikely band of friends, recur in several stories throughout the book.

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In “Christmas Eve 1953,”  a disabled World War II veteran who has built a good life for himself in middle America has a phone conversation with an old Army buddy on Christmas Eve, as he does every year. With this story, Hanks successfully evokes the era after World War II, when American life seemed to hold great promise, but only at the cost of suppressing the horrors of the conflict recently ended.

Two of the other stories also struck me. “The Past Is Important to Us” is about a billionaire in the near-future who buys time-travel trips to New York on June 8, 1939, and visits the World’s Fair. “Go See Costas” follows a Bulgarian refugee who stows away on a ship some time in the mid-twentieth century and arrives in New York penniless, friendless, and speaking no English. On the other hand, the three pretend newspaper columns interspersed in the book, “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset,” fell flat for me.

After drafting this review of Uncommon Type, I googled a few other reviews. They all panned the book as full of clichés and sentimental to the point of mawkishness. Phooey. Perhaps these reviewers are simply not catching Hanks’ sendups and satire, his creation of over-the-top characters who point to human foibles. Or maybe these reviewers value dark, grim fiction over wistful, nostalgic fiction. The stories in Uncommon Type are uneven, sure, but the book as a whole is fairly successful. And, okay, an old Smith-Corona typewriter (circa 1935) resides in my basement.

The Balcony     Jane Delury     (2018)

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The common element in the ten short stories in The Balcony is a place: a manor house and its nearby servants’ cottage in a non-quaint village outside of Paris. A third-floor balcony in the manor house does figure in a couple of dramatic episodes, somewhat justifying the book’s title, but the author ranges widely over the entire estate, with its gardens, forest, and pond, to examine the lives of those who lived or visited there. The stories also bounce back and forth in years: 1992, 1890, 1980, 1999, 1975, 2000, 1910, 2006, 2009, and finally an unspecified year near the present day. Phrases in French pop up frequently, most but not all defined by their context.

Some characters appear in only one episode, and others weave in and out of the tales. For example, readers get a multi-generational picture of the Havre family, viewing them in snapshots of key events in their lives, coming to understand their allegiances, foibles, desires, and betrayals. I especially enjoyed following the life of Alexis Havre in several of the stories. However, the last three stories are the weakest, and the final one, “Between,” left me confused. Unlike the third person of most of the rest of the book, “Between” is written in an odd second-person of address. (“During the first course, your wife and my husband speak French, as you and I slide into English.” 221) I wanted a wrap-up to the stories—if not resolution, at least an indication of where a few of the characters landed—and instead I got a rather stilted affair that the speaker, a woman, seems to regret. Still, for most of the book Jane Delury’s prose is confident and compassionate in her debut offering.

Fiction about Food: 2 Reviews

Sourdough     Robin Sloan     (2017)

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I love baking bread, and I love how it tastes right out of the oven. Yes, I know you’re supposed to wait until it cools, so that the gluten can set, but I can never wait. Novelist Robin Sloan gets this. The main character in his novel Sourdough, Lois Clary, tells us about her first homemade loaf:  “I made another cut, peeled away a rough slice, and blew across its surface, tossing it from one hand to the other. It was too hot to eat, but I began to eat it anyway.” (42)

Lois, not long out of college in Michigan, is a computer programmer of exceptional talents. Her special area of expertise is software for robots, so she’s recruited by General Dexterity, a robotics startup in San Francisco. All the horror stories about the punishing workloads of Silicon Valley tech workers play out here. Lois writes code for long hours, coming back to her minuscule apartment too exhausted even to cook supper. She starts ordering meals from a nearby delivery service and finds the food delectable.

Alas, the two owners of the under-the-radar kitchen have immigration issues and have to leave the United States quickly, but they take the time to stop at Lois’s apartment and present her with the starter for their sourdough bread. Can she please keep it alive for them? Can she feed it daily and bake with it? Lois has never baked bread, but she feels indebted to the brothers who’ve been sustaining her with their cooking. She immerses herself in the world of sourdough—the flours, the ovens, the coaxing along of the microorganisms that cause the rising and that flavor the crumb. Soon she’s baking on a large scale, in addition to working far more than full time at General Dexterity.

Sourdough skewers both the tech industry (hello, Jeff Bezos) and the gourmet/local food movements (hi there, Alice Waters) as Lois tries to combine her programming chops with her newfound bread obsession. Roboticized food preparation is one result, but in the end, Lois has to choose between two ways of life—or maybe three. Sloan has a light touch in this easy-to-read, funny novel.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest     J Ryan Stradal     (2015)

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In a more serious vein, but still drolly witty, is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Protagonist Eva Thorvald has a rough start in life. When she’s just a child, her mother deserts the family and then her father dies. But from an early age Eva understands the importance of taste subtlety, and the culinary arts beckon. She zeros in on the ultra-local and ultra-fresh food markets and becomes an internationally famed chef, while retaining her Midwestern roots. The novel approaches Eva’s story from the viewpoints of many of those whose lives she touches, bringing up how our preconceptions about people color our actions.

And for a nonfiction offering on the subject of food, see my review of S. Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste.

 

Being Catholic in Brooklyn

The Ninth Hour     Alice McDermott     (2017)

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Being Catholic in early-20th-century Brooklyn wasn’t easy. If your loved one committed suicide because of untreated depression, he or she could not have a funeral or be buried in consecrated ground. If your spouse became severely incapacitated, mentally or physically, you could not get a divorce and remarry, even if you were committed to caring for that first spouse. If you were involved in a sexual relationship outside of marriage, your eternal soul was in extreme peril.

Alice McDermott doesn’t dance around these situations in The Ninth Hour. She presents them forthrightly, and she also presents some of the potential advantages of being Catholic in early-20th-century Brooklyn. If you were widowed by the suicide of your husband, the local nuns might take you in, give you a job in their laundry room, and help you raise your daughter. If you were trying to care for a disabled spouse, the “nursing sisters” might come to your tenement every day to perform the most menial and repulsive of tasks. If you were committing mortal sin in a consensual adult relationship, the nuns might look the other way and just suggest that you do penance.

The Ninth Hour looks frankly at all these cases, balancing the pros and cons. Many modern novels stereotype nuns as either cruel harridans or genial saints. The nuns in The Ninth Hour instead come to life beautifully and individually, as women who have entered religious life for widely differing reasons, as pragmatists who approach their vocations with varying levels of compliance. And the parish priest, who makes a brief appearance, is indeed proud and officious, but when one of the nuns calls on him, he agrees to intercede in a case of sexual abuse. The lay people that McDermott portrays also avoid easy categorization. The young widow, Annie, does not wallow in her grief. The neighborhood milkman is attentive to his disabled wife but does not sacrifice all to her care.

Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998, is a major American writer. I find McDermott’s language wonderfully resonant—her descriptions of weather are particularly fine—and her evocations of historical period are offered with a delicate touch. I never felt that the historicity of The Ninth Hour was being shoved at me. For example, the title of the book refers to the nuns’ afternoon prayers, but actual scenes involving liturgical observances are minimal.

McDermott is especially revered by many progressive Catholics for her clear-sighted depictions of people of faith in all their varieties. Her approach to religion is very different from, and superior to, that of other contemporary writers. By chance, I read The Ninth Hour in the same week that I read Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is another book about moral decisions by people of faith. In Quatro’s novel, a married woman spends endless hours in guilt-ridden examination of conscience about a brief affair. I do not recommend Quatro’s self indulgent and occasionally sickening book.

If you are interested in the intersections of morality, religion, and culture, read McDermott’s The Ninth Hour instead. And if you like novels about New York, click on that category in the Archive of Book Reviews, in the right-hand column.

Historical Fiction: 3 Reviews

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and the 1945 Atomic Bomb: what a trio of topics for historical fiction! Each of these three novels has some flaws, which I note below, but each kept my attention to the end.

The Revolution of Marina M.     Janet Fitch     (2017)

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Marina Marakova starts her first-person bildungsroman with a brief prologue set in California in 1932, so we know that she survives the Russian Revolution. The rest of this mammoth novel is set in Russia, 1916-1919, with the aristocratic Marina prescient from early on: “How precious all this was, how soon it might be gone. It only made it more poignant and beautiful in my eyes.” (183) Marina experiences a sexual awakening against the gruesome backdrop of (a) World War I grinding on its bloody way, (b) the czarist regime toppling, and (c) the victorious revolutionaries battling each other. She’s a poet who seeks out other poets and gets involved in communist activism seemingly accidentally.

Getting through this 800-page novel takes great patience, but I was borne along by Janet Fitch’s amazing range of vocabulary and imagery. For example, in a train station packed with people trying to escape Petrograd, Fitch writes, “The metallic scent of panic, soot, and trains stained the air.” (419) She tosses off hundreds of such evocative comparisons, especially in describing the smells of places. Marina’s analyses of her own actions and of the dramatically shifting society around her are trenchant: “Why did everyone want a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman? As if that were the most awful thing that could befall her.” (181) I did waver considerably in my reading commitment as the plot went truly wacky in the latter half of the novel. Marina’s wild forays into communal living, smuggling, sadomasochism, astronomy, mysticism, and animal trapping caused my head to spin. I was also disappointed, when I finally reached page 800, to find that no wrap-up was provided. The Revolution of Marina M. is only “Book I” of Marina’s story!

As Bright as Heaven     Susan Meissner     (2018)

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In the Philadelphia of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright and their three daughters take up residence with Thomas’s uncle, who is an undertaker. Pauline, reeling from the recent loss of an infant son, has what can only be described as a morbid obsession with death and joins her husband and his uncle in mortuary work. As if the war weren’t providing enough mortality, a virulent influenza strikes in 1918. (Historically, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit by the influenza pandemic, with more than 12,000 deaths, primarily among young adults.) The struggles and successes of the Bright family play out against the ravages of the disease.

I read Part 1 of As Bright as Heaven, about the first two-thirds of the book, to find out who would succumb to influenza and who would survive. Part 2 skips ahead to 1925, and I kept reading in hopes of getting some insight into the long-term effects of the losses on the human psyche. Sadly, the plot resolutions in these chapters strain credibility, veering well into melodrama territory via coincidences. As Bright as Heaven shares some themes with another novel that I’ve reviewed, The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman, which is the better historical novel.

The Atomic City Girls     Janet Beard     (2018)

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In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a makeshift city sprang up during World War II, built with federal funds and shrouded in secrecy. This was where uranium was enriched to supply the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The title of Janet Beard’s book is somewhat confusing; men and women alike labored in this “atomic city.” Readers view Oak Ridge through the fictional lives of four of the workers there: two rural women who take jobs as machine operators, a male physicist from New York who troubleshoots the industrial-scale electromagnetic process, and a male sharecropper who becomes a construction worker on the site. The intertwined stories of these characters draw in several difficult social issues, including racial discrimination in America and the morality of unleashing nuclear energy to destroy civilian targets.

There’s no lyrical prose here, just basic exposition, but I found Beard’s descriptions of the inner workings of Oak Ridge intriguing, especially because her text is enlivened by dozens of remarkable period photographs of ordinary Americans living and working in Oak Ridge, the great majority of them totally unaware of the US Army’s goals in building the complex. In a quiet corner of the middle South, the horrors of the battle fronts and of the Holocaust could seem remote, but the people at Oak Ridge are deeply affected by world events.

Meet an Iranian Poet

Song of a Captive Bird     Jazmin Darznik     (2018)

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If you’ve never heard of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967), get ready to be introduced to the startling voice of a woman who writes viscerally about the emotions of repression, alienation, and love. In Song of a Captive Bird, Iranian-American writer Jazmin Darznik has fictionalized the life of Forugh Farrokhzad, who is known primarily as “Forugh.” Inserted throughout Darznik’s prose text are excerpts from English translations of Forugh’s poetry, which provide a taste of her style and illuminate the events of the novel.

Song of a Captive Bird gave me insights into a culture that I knew very little about. The Persian literature of Iran goes back at least two and a half millennia, with a strong tradition of love poetry, and Forugh steeped herself in this literature as she wrote her own poems. Here, in first-person narrative, novelist Darznik imagines Forugh’s struggles with writing candidly, as a woman, about sexuality in mid-twentieth-century Iran:

“Mine was a country where they said a woman’s nature is riddled with sin, where they claimed that women’s voices had the power to drive men to lust and distract them from matters of both heaven and earth. Yet, when I leafed through magazines and opened volumes of poetry, I found that men has always described their love and their lovers with utter frankness and freedom. For thousands of years men had compared their beloveds to whatever they pleased, voiced all manner of amorous petitions and pleas, and described all the states to which love delivered them. And people read this poetry with complete equanimity. No one screamed out in protest. No one cried, ‘Oh God, the foundations of morality have been shaken!’" (170)

Reviewers of Forugh’s poetry sometimes compare her to Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), who was her contemporary, though there is no evidence that the two knew of each other’s work. I see similarities, in that both expressed women’s emotions in a raw style that was often criticized during their lives as unwomanly or otherwise inappropriate.

Readers should be cautious not to accept as fact all the incidents in this novelized version of Forugh’s life. As Darznik explains in her “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, she extrapolated, because biographical information about Forugh is sparse. In the novel, Forugh characterizes herself as a difficult girl-child in a highly patriarchal society: “My willfulness was my mother’s torment. An Iranian daughter is taught to be quiet and meek, but from earliest childhood I was stubborn, noisy, and brash. A good Iranian daughter should be pious, modest, and tidy; I was impulsive, argumentative, and messy. I thought of myself as no less than my brothers, with wit and daring to match theirs.” (367) Darznik’s portrayal of Forugh continues her brashness and daring into adulthood, as she publishes what is viewed as scandalously explicit verse under her own name and as she takes on lovers. Forugh specifically defies and undermines the strong cultural emphasis on female virginity.

Darznik’s casting of the novel in first-person narrative lends an immediacy and also creates tension for the reader: Does the story extend through Forugh’s entire life? If so, how will Forugh explain her own death?  I found the last 75 pages (out of 401 pages) of Song of a Captive Bird to be weaker than the rest of the book, with many years of Forugh’s life skipped over and with the cause of Forugh’s death left ambiguous. But these critiques do not significantly diminish the power of the story.

From a twenty-first-century standpoint, we know what was going to happen in Iran after Forugh’s death. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Pahlavi dynasty of monarchs was overthrown, and an Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Many Iranians who could afford to leave the country emigrated, including Jazmin Darznik’s own family. In the two suitcases that her family was able to take with them when they fled, Darznik’s mother brought a slim volume of Forugh’s poetry. This act speaks to the influence of Forugh.

Near the end of Song of a Captive Bird, Darznik puts into Forugh’s mouth a prophetic statement, lamenting Iran’s adherence to patriarchal traditions and its reliance on its vast oil reserves:  “I feared an age that had lost its heart, and I was terrified at the thought of so many crippled hands. Our traditions were our pacifiers, and we sang ourselves to sleep with the lullaby of a once-great civilization and culture. Ours was the land of poetry, flowers, and nightingales—and poets searching for rhymes in history’s junkyards. The lottery was our faith and greed our fortune.” (373-4)

After the Civil War

Varina     Charles Frazier     (2018)

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By page 3 of Varina, you know that you are in very competent hands. You can trust that Charles Frazier will imprint the landscape of the Civil War era on your brain for a long time. You will see into the souls of the characters and perhaps learn some truths about the issue of race in the United States. And his telling of the tale may break your heart.

Backing up a bit, let me explain that Frazier’s novel is a fictionalized version of the life of the second wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. The teenaged Varina (“V”) Howell marries the widower Jefferson Davis, who is the age of her parents, and goes on to social prominence in Washington, DC, in the 1840s and 1850s as the spouse of Congressman and then Senator and then Secretary of War Davis. The secession of the southern states in 1861 upends her life.

The bulk of the novel is the story of Varina’s incredibly difficult trek from Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, toward Florida in the spring of 1865, as the Confederates surrender to the Union to end the war. Varina, her children, and a small entourage (not including her husband), hope to reach Florida and then cross over to Cuba to escape retribution from Union soldiers or prosecution by the federal government. Varina’s trip is recounted in flashbacks from the standpoint of 1906, when a middle-aged man of mixed race, James Blake, tracks down the elderly Varina, living in upstate New York, and asks her how he happened to be part of her household for a few years during his early childhood.

Is this plot vaguely reminiscent of the plot of Cold Mountain, Frazier’s 1997 international bestseller and winner of the National Book Award? Oh, sure. Both books present in grisly detail the wasteful destruction of life and land during the Civil War; both involve treacherous journeys against the backdrop of the ravaged American South; and both feature strong, educated female characters. The story is one that encompasses multitudes and can be told from countless points of view. Although many events in the novel Varina hew closely to the biographical facts of the actual life of Varina Davis, Frazier has invented the character of James Blake and has speculated about Varina’s analyses of master-slave relationships and about her intellectual struggles with the institution of slavery. Here are a couple of samples of Varina’s (fictional) thoughts:

“Even very young she saw slavery as an ancient practice arising because rich people would rather not do hard work, and also from the tendency of people to clench hard to advantageous passages in the Bible and dismiss the rest.” (102)

“. . . they—she and Jeff and the culture at large—had made bad choices one by one, spaced out over time so that they felt individual. But actually they accumulated. Choices of convenience and conviction, choices coincident with the people they lived among, following the general culture and the overriding matter of economics, money and its distribution, fair or not. Never acknowledging that the general culture is often stupid or evil and would vote out God in favor of the devil if he fed them back their hate and fear in a way that made them feel righteous.” (328)

Although I learned a great deal about Varina Davis and her family in this novel, I see the heart of the book as the American South.

“V thought about how the landscape would never be the same after this war even if the blasted battleground healed with new green growth and burned farms were either rebuilt or allowed to rot into the dirt. The old troop movements, battles and skirmishes, places of victory and defeat and loss and despair. Slave quarters, whipping posts, and slave market platforms. Routes of attack and retreat. Monumental cemeteries of white crosses stretching in rows to the horizon, and also lonesome mountain burials . . .” (212)

I agree with Varina, and presumably with Charles Frazier, that the wounds of the Civil War are still festering in the United States today.

For another novel about the aftermath of war, this time World War II, see my review of The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017).

The English Country Estate

Peculiar Ground     Lucy Hughes-Hallett     (2018)   

Walls: perimeter walls, border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls between persons, walls between peoples, the wall around the Garden of Eden, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down. Walls both solid and figurative are found everywhere in Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s fascinating foray out of biographical writing into fiction. 

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The “peculiar ground” of this novel’s title is a fictional Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, a country house and huge expanse of land surrounded by a high rock wall. Readers drop in on the construction of this wall in 1663, with a first-person narrative by John Norris, the landscaper who is rearranging the terrain all around the estate, creating a British version of Eden in conjunction with the building of the wall. We get fully settled in at Wychwood, meeting the owners, the many people who tend to the owners and their property, and the mysterious and possibly magic-making groups who glide through the surrounding forests.

Then Hughes-Hallett whisks us away to 1961, the year when a barbed-wire fence is suddenly erected one summer’s night in Berlin, and armed guards are posted to keep East Berliners from heading to the West. The British reactions to this actual Cold War gambit are the backdrop to an extensive update on the Wychwood estate and its twentieth-century inhabitants. The wall around the pastoral paradise of Wychwood still stands, in glaring contrast to that threatening one in Berlin. Or is it so different?  Various assemblages of outsiders visit, invade, or otherwise challenge the enclosure of Wychwood as the narrative moves to 1973 and then to 1989. We meet direct descendants of characters from the 1663 segment of the story as well as new blood. But tragedy can visit in the twentieth century just as in the seventeenth.

Perhaps I was especially taken with Peculiar Ground because of its embrace of the seventeenth-century tradition of poems in praise of country homes. Ben Jonson initiated this subgenre in 1616 with “To Penshurst,” written to curry the favor of a wealthy patron of the arts. I found many echoes of this tradition in Peculiar Ground, with Hughes-Hallett’s sumptuous and specific descriptions of the verdant British landscape. Horticultural references slide right on over into other descriptions. A lord of the manor tells his lady, “I will cover you with Brussels lace, as the roadside is covered with a froth of flowers this Maytide.” (423) In the twentieth-century section, a dress is made of “bias-cut Liberty lawn covered with convolvulus, silvery-green pleats like the chitons of Athenian caryatids.” (102) When a young female character visits her aunts, she loves “to feel the slithery fineness of face powder in a gilded round cardboard box . . . to sense the odd peacefulness of their house, where no one had to be decisive or busy, or do anything other than exchange fragmentary quotations from the works of unfashionable poets, and wonder aloud when it would be time, finally to throw out the dusty arrangements of dried flowers.” (123) Such sentences made me stop and revel.

Peculiar Ground has so many layers—walls, gardens, magic—that it demands the close attention of the reader. I put bookmarks at the pages with the map of the estate and with the dramatis personae so that I could turn back frequently. But the reward is a richly detailed portrait of a particular and peculiar place on Earth. There are also morals to be found, especially for the current international political situation, in which refugees and other migrants face walls both literal and metaphorical. Check out John Norris’s comment during the plague of 1665, when the gates to Wychwood are locked: “Here, those suspected of being diseased are kept without the wall. In London they are kept walled in.” (386) As the plague threat retreats, the lord of Wychwood speaks condescendingly to his underlings, inadvertently summing up, “It is not upon heaps of stone that our safety depends, but upon the loyalty of our friends.” (429). 

If you like Peculiar Ground, you might want to read Edward Rutherfurd’s The Forest (2000), another British saga about magical woodlands. And on this side of the Atlantic, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016), set in the forests of Canada and the northern United States. For different fictional approaches to Berlin and the Berlin Wall, see my reviews of Here in Berlin by Cristina García (2017) and Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (2015/2017).

Vermont Secession?

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance     Bill McKibben     (2017)

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This novel . . . wait! Bill McKibben doesn’t write novels, does he? Isn’t he the one who produced that groundbreaking book about climate change, The End of Nature, way back in 1989? Isn’t this the guy who founded the climate activism group 350.org? Yup, same guy! And now he’s broadening his scope to generalized civic resistance and expanding his genres to include prose fiction. And can Bill McKibben write a respectable novel? Absolutely.

The story:  Vern Barclay is a 72-year-old Vermonter who for decades has hosted a radio show on which he interviews local folks, plays a few tracks of music, and covers events like store openings. He stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States, as the US is currently being led by President Trump, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. To Vern’s surprise, the secession movement snowballs, and he goes into hiding on an isolated farm, since he’s being hunted by both state and federal law enforcement officers for his involvement in an act of civic resistance that got him into a pile of shit.

Vern’s sidekicks in his adventure are a teenaged computer geek, a survival camp instructor, and an Olympic athlete. Vern records podcasts for Radio Free Vermont—“underground, underpowered, and underfoot”—as his team plots comical, nonviolent subversive capers. By including in the novel some of Vern’s ad-libbed broadcasts, McKibben can expound for a couple of pages on topics such as the corporatization of America, the value of Vermont’s town-hall decision-making process, and the problems with agricultural subsidies. McKibben does get in a few environmental points, as Vern laments the warming of Vermont’s winters and rejoices over the return of moose to the wild. But this is not primarily a book about the environment. Instead, the time-honored phrase “All politics is local” is extended to its logical conclusion as Vern rehearses the long history of community activism in Vermont, which was originally established in 1777 as an independent republic and only joined the United States in 1791. Throughout the book, the many small, owner-operated breweries in Vermont are promoted by name, as are other products for which the state is famous (hello, Ben and Jerry’s).

I read this book in one sitting, and I laughed out loud at several points. McKibben’s sarcasm ranges from gentle mockery of uptalk (speech that ends every sentence with an interrogative tone) to outright scorn for the private military companies that are employed by the feds—the bumbling operations of “Whitestream” in Radio Free Vermont evoke the infamous Blackwater activities in Iraq. The narrative spirals into incredible territory toward the end, but that’s part of the appeal of this novel. It’s a fable. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the book, McKibben acknowledges that secession is not really a viable option. That isn’t what Radio Free Vermont is about. Instead, I think McKibben wants to show us how an appeal to reasonableness, combined with deft use of the internet and the media, can encourage the American populace to rise up against policies that undermine ethics, morality, and the rule of law. He may be speaking only to the converted, but his voice is loud.

Guest Review: Cloaks and Daggers

Hunting Eichmann:  How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi     Neal Bascomb     (2009)

Today, as a bonus Tuesday post, another guest review by ethicist and philosopher Paul R. Schwankl!

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Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962) managed the Third Reich’s plans to exterminate Jews. For fifteen years after World War II, he was the most notorious alleged war criminal still at large. In 1960, a team from the Israeli security services smuggled him from Argentina to Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity. These are the bare facts of the case.

As someone who was trained in moral philosophy, I’m interested in analyses of the evil in this man. But I also love cloak-and-dagger stories, so I’m grateful to Neal Bascomb for his magisterial book Hunting Eichmann, based on an immense number of interviews and memoirs, detailing the lucky breaks and good choices that allowed Eichmann to hide—and allowed the Israelis to capture him.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies didn’t at first realize how important Eichmann was to the Holocaust. He didn’t run individual death camps; he was the distant overseer who made sure that Jews got to them. Significantly, he hated being photographed. After the war, he got swept up along with millions of other German soldiers and put into a crowded and understaffed prison camp, where he passed as a low-level officer. He easily escaped and worked as a rural laborer in northern Germany. But by 1950 his adversaries had figured out his role in Hitler’s Final Solution, so he made his way to the seaport of Genoa, staying with pro-fascists along his route, including Catholic priests and monks who felt that as long as Eichmann was against communism it didn’t matter how many Jews he had killed. Eichmann sailed to South America and had no trouble entering fascist-friendly Argentina, getting a job, and, in 1952, bringing his wife and three sons over to join him. It seemed that Adolph Eichmann, now named Ricardo Klement, had won.

But a remarkable happenstance, combined with one of Eichmann’s few mistakes, started to unravel his cover. Eichmann allowed his sons to use the surname of their birth; they claimed that their father was dead and that Ricardo Klement was their uncle. In 1956, the eldest son, Klaus, starting dating a German Argentinian, Sylvia Hermann. When Klaus visited her German-speaking home, he assumed that it was safe to brag to Sylvia’s blind father, Lothar Hermann, that his dad had been big in the Wehrmacht. Klaus did not know that Lothar was half Jewish and had gone blind from beatings by the Gestapo. Eventually, Lothar and Sylvia got in touch with Israelis who were still pursuing war criminals. Lothar and Sylvia also, with much difficulty, found out where the Eichmann family lived. In a highlight of the book, Sylvia risked her life by calling on the family and coming face to face with Adolf Eichmann (Ricardo Klement) himself.

From there Israeli operatives largely took over the hunt, first undertaking a positive identification, which was hampered by a lack of photographs. The capture of Eichmann and his transportation to Israel took three years of work. It was an amazing accomplishment by the Israelis, though the details were long kept secret. Argentina complained that the Israeli captors had violated Argentine sovereignty, which Israel admitted they had done. Israel asserted that it was standing for a righteous world in which criminals like Eichmann must not go free. The Jewish state ultimately patched things up with the post-Peronist Argentine government.

In reading Bascomb’s account, I was impressed with the expertise of the career spies and agents who captured Eichmann, but the amateurs and part-timers also did some truly amazing things. For example, one Israeli started wooing a former mistress of Eichmann in Vienna. After several excruciating dates, the Israeli persuaded her to open her photo album, which contained one of the rare pictures of Eichmann. He got the Vienna police to seize the album on the pretext that the woman was hiding stolen ration tickets in it.

 Many war criminals have come and gone since Eichmann’s day, and it is still possible to bring them to trial; an ex-Nazi in his nineties was sentenced just recently. I would like to think that the Israelis’ success with Eichmann helped, by laying an effective foundation separate from the Allies’ work at Nuremberg. Eichmann was hanged and cremated and his ashes scattered at sea; he remains the only person to whom Israeli courts have applied the death penalty. In the United States today, we can all use a reminder that law can indeed rule.

A Mother Disappears

Swimming Lessons     Claire Fuller     (2017)

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On the southern coast of England, across from the Isle of Wight, the sea is a relentless presence. If you’ve had swimming lessons, you might venture out into the frigid waters, to contest with the treacherous currents. Two of the characters in this novel feel an inexorable pull to the sea, and they’re both strong swimmers.

One is Ingrid Coleman, wife to Gil and mother to Nan and Flora. She disappeared twelve years before the main action of the novel, presumably drowned despite her expertise at swimming. In the month before she disappeared in 1992, she wrote long letters to Gil, recalling how they met in London in 1976, married, and moved into a ramshackle house on the beach. Ingrid’s letters form about half of the text of Swimming Lessons, though where the letters are to be found is mysterious. Ingrid slipped each one into a book that linked thematically to that segment of her story, but Gil owns so very many books that the letters would be hard to locate.

Flora is the second strong swimmer of the novel. She’s never recovered from Ingrid’s disappearance when she was a child, and she displays her anger and grief in her adult relationships. Flora’s point of view is represented in the non-epistolary portions of Swimming Lessons, taking place in the present day. She clings to the belief that her mother is still alive, and she swims on the same beach where Ingrid vanished. “The water was the colour of mint tea, and sometimes if she listened hard enough, her mother’s voice sounded amidst the swish of the weed and the tumble of the sand, telling her to straighten her legs, to keep her lead hand in motion, to swim against the current so that it was always easy to return, even when tired.” (162)

The present-day crisis that brings Flora, her sorta-boyfriend Richard, and her sister back to the family home is Gil’s hospitalization from a bad fall that he takes while chasing after a woman he thinks is Ingrid. Whether the woman actually is Ingrid or whether Gil is hallucinating is another of the mysteries in this novel, which is not officially billed as a mystery.

Despite the richness of the writing, I wanted author Claire Fuller to develop the characters of Nan and Gil more fully. From the evidence presented, Gil is a reprehensible fellow—a middling writer and a manipulative womanizer who lies obnoxiously to cover his tracks. The clutter of his life is reflected in the stacks of books that fill his house to overflowing: “Hardbacks about space and time, paperbacks about love affairs, tumbling together with poetry pamphlets and novella, knocked the top off another stack and then another, like a line of dominos.” (312)

Although I didn’t get enough of a sense of Nan and Gil, the forward movement of the narrative is kept brisk by unanswered plot questions, with twists and turns right up to the end. Meanwhile, Fuller tosses out sumptuous descriptions like this one: “She . . . took the uphill footpath through the small beech wood, the trees stained by streaks of copper where the rain dripped in slippery runnels. She slapped their trunks with the palm of her hand as she passed, as if she were whacking the meaty rumps of giant horses.” (261)

The moral of the story, if that might be allowed, may be that when people are not honest with each other they can be swept away from those they love. Claire Fuller is an author to keep an eye on.