Glaswegian Misery

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine     Gail Honeyman     (2017)

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Residents of Glasgow, Scotland, often get a bad rap from the rest of Great Britain. Their accents, their cultural scene, and even their weather are disparaged. Along comes Glaswegian Gail Honeyman with this exceptional novel set in Glasgow. Given the title and the cover art, it looks to be chick lit, but (whoa, baby) hang on for a wide ride of seething misery behind that cover.

Eleanor Oliphant is a 30-year-old accounting clerk with a degree in classics and a solitary lifestyle. “Awkward” doesn’t begin to describe her. She’s an outcast among her office mates and spends each weekend downing two bottles of vodka to fog the memories of horrific events in her past. (We don’t get the full circumstances until very late in the novel.) Eleanor speaks in first-person narrative, combining stilted language from her bookish background with comments that demonstrate how isolated she is. She doesn’t understand the basics of social interaction, having been raised by a barbaric “Mummy” and then, from the age of ten, shunted from one foster home to another.

As the action of this novel commences, Eleanor is trying to update herself in order to become appealing to a local pop singer whom she’s developed a crush on from afar. She gets a new hairstyle, a cell phone, and makeup to cover the scars on her face. (Did I mention that there were horrific events in her past?) The scenes in which Eleanor has to interact with salespeople and personal care staff are simultaneously hilarious and cringe-inducing. Here is Eleanor getting a bikini wax: “She painted a stripe of warm wax onto my pubis with a wooden spatula, and pressed a strip of fabric onto it. Taking hold of the end, she ripped it off in one rapid flourish of clean, bright pain. ‘Morituri te salutant,’ I whispered, tears pricking by eyes. This is what I say in such situations, and it always cheers me up to no end. I started to sit up, but she gently pushed me back down. ‘Oh, there’s a good bit more to go, I’m afraid,’ she said, sounding quite cheerful. Pain is easy; pain is something with which I am familiar.” (15)

As her self-improvement kick proceeds, Eleanor is, quite accidentally, drawn into potential friendships with several genuinely kindhearted people who look past her social faux pas and her physical disfigurement. Having friends is something that Eleanor can’t get her head around at first, and she resists. She also, embarrassingly, continues to pursue that worthless pop singer. More about the plot of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine would introduce too many spoilers. Instead I’ll tell you that I read this book around the clock, unable to put it down. I wanted to know more about poor Eleanor and about how she got to be such an outsider. I wanted to know if her newfound friends could help extricate her from her self-imposed exile in her grim flat.

At the end of the book one of these friends smiles at Eleanor, and she describes how she feels: “The moment hung in time like a drop of honey from a spoon, heavy, golden.” Hope springs.

A Family in Distress

In Caddis Wood     Mary François Rockcastle     (2011)

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With prose that is reminiscent of the writing of Barbara Kingsolver, Mary Rockcastle takes her readers into the forests and meadows of the upper Midwest for a plaintive story of a long marriage.

Carl Fens is an architect who’s put in long hours away from his family as he’s built a stellar career. Hallie Bok has raised their twin daughters while trying to keep her hand in with writing poetry and teaching. The couple have suffered more than their share of sorrows, the details of which are revealed over the course of the novel:  the early and sudden death of Carl’s father, the departure of Hallie’s mother when Hallie is young, a near-fatal accident involving one of their daughters, the death of a son-in-law. In flashbacks from old diaries, we learn that the previous owners of the family’s bucolic retreat lost a son in the Korean War. Readers need to keep track of all these side issues as the main plot unfolds.

In this main plot, Carl, at age 61, starts exhibiting unusual and troubling neurological symptoms. As part of Hallie’s search for a diagnosis, she inadvertently brings to light a near-affair that she had ten years previously, when she and Carl were briefly estranged. Carl and Hallie have to come to terms with this revelation at the same time that they’re dealing with Carl’s deteriorating health and his major new architectural commission involving redevelopment of a toxic waste site.

The backdrop for most of the novel is the Caddis Wood of the title, a magical place in northern Wisconsin, the site of the family’s second home. Here are just two examples of Rockcastle’s lyrical descriptions:  

“[Hallie] rests her eyes on the late-summer glow of the meadow. The midday grasses are on fire: crimson bluestem, golden switchgrass, straw-colored sideoats grama. Blazing among the bronzed, stiff clusters of goldenrod and yarrow are hearty sunflowers and dogtooth daisies, coneflowers still in color. She sighs happily and drinks from her water bottle, loving the persistence of summer, the way it hangs on in the fading, somnolent heat.” (45)

“At the top of the hill overlooking Echo Pond, she gazes gratefully at the incandescent surface. Another week and the feathery larches will start to yellow, but not yet. Trees cast their shadows on the stippled surface. Water striders and whirligig beetles zigzag merrily.” (214)

A few scenes take place on Captiva Island in Florida, and this oceanside setting is also depicted lovingly: “Dozens of pelicans, more than Hallie has ever seen, are diving headfirst into the sea. When they surface, their beaks shimmer with silver, wiggling meat that is swallowed whole or spilled into the sea. Gluttonous gulls fight over the leftovers. A group of scarlet ibises land next to a crane, red legs aglow in the sunlight, and poke their long saffron beaks doggedly into the sand. The water shivers and pops as if charged with electric current.” (126)

After many heartbreaking life events, the family members in this novel still manage to treasure their time together and pursue their goals. The daughters of Hallie and Carl are named Cordelia (as in Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear) and Beatrice (Dante’s guide through heaven in his Divine Comedy). Perhaps these names are meant to point out that, despite tragic experiences, we can all find our way to happiness.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.

A Confused Hillbilly

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis     JD Vance     (2016)

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JD Vance’s social analysis of “hillbilly culture,” using the lens of his own life story, has been widely credited with explaining why white working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. Vance’s book also topped several bestseller lists in 2016, and it’s been praised by political commentators on both the right and the left. I wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I checked Hillbilly Elegy out from my local library.

Hillbilly Elegy is meant to be both a memoir and a cultural commentary. The memoir component  is an “up by the bootstraps” tale of a boy overcoming incredible odds to escape from the dying Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, in the early years of the current century. Vance is raised primarily by his maternal grandparents—“Mamaw” and “Papaw” in hillbilly parlance—since his mother is a substance abuser who cycles through five husbands and innumerable short-term boyfriends. The foul-mouthed but loving Mamaw is a strong influence on the young JD; she emphasizes the importance of education and shields him from many of his mother’s violent episodes. Vance graduates from high school, joins the Marines, serves in the Iraq war, gets through college at Ohio State in record time, goes on to Yale Law School, meets a brilliant and kindly woman who becomes his wife, and ends up working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Despite the jerky narrative style and the many clichés in the memoir portions of this book, I was drawn to some parts of the story. Vance’s experience in the Marines, for example, is a turning point in his life: “It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family.” (175) He cites specific incidents that taught him how to control his temper and interact peaceably with others.

Periodically Vance inserts into his memoir paragraphs of polemic against hillbillies, in the form of disconnected soapbox orations about working-class white people in Appalachia, the South, and the Rust Belt, whose culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (7) Throughout the book, Vance presents the tendency to explosive interpersonal reactions as one reason for the low economic status of people of his background. He asks plaintively, “How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” (231)

Vance freely admits that he doesn’t have the answers to these questions, yet he presents contradictory arguments. He rails against lazy hillbillies who are “living off of government largesse” (139), not mentioning the fact that able-bodied adults haven’t been eligible for cash welfare for more than two decades. Vance doesn’t count himself as a recipient of “government largesse” even though he’s benefited from public schools, a public university, the GI Bill, and Pell grants. He assumes that hillbillies are the only people who’ve suffered from the loss of jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle, when the millennial children of white professionals have endured similar downward mobility.

There is no discussion of the tremendous rise in income inequality in our country, and Vance ignores the plight of non-white working-class Americans. Significantly, he fails to address racism as a factor in the bitterness of the white working-class. (For a first-hand account of this racism, I can refer you to an African American friend of mine who was raised  in the same Middletown, Ohio, as JD Vance.) There’s a constant underlying assumption in Hillbilly Elegy that white working-class hillbillies are the only Americans who grow up in poverty-stricken or violent families. And that these hillbillies are the only ones who might be nonplussed by the elitism of the Ivy League and Wall Street. It ain’t so, JD.

Vance treasures his hillbilly background and yet despises it. He hasn’t quite figured out where he stands, though he aligns himself politically with conservative Republicans. Hillbilly Elegy is an imperfect book, with far too many contradictions and generalizations and cherry-picked citations. But you may want to read it because it’s become a highly influential book in our present-day political climate of angry polarization.

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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Adoption has been the subject of several books I’ve reviewed recently, including Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Celine, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. The yearning of some adopted children to find their birth mothers—or of birth mothers to find their biological children—can be a powerful theme for a novel. Lisa Ko takes a slightly different approach to adoption, and in the process she illuminates the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The immigrants in this story work long hours in difficult jobs to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. They have to make heart-rending decisions in their struggle to survive. As the dust jacket tells us, “The Leavers won the 2016 PEN Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.”

In The Leavers, Deming Guo was born in the United States, but his mother, Polly/Peilan, is an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province in China. She owes large sums to the loan shark who brought her to New York. One day when Deming is in fifth grade in the Bronx, Polly fails to return from her job at a nail salon and disappears from his life. Deming is fostered and then adopted by a well-meaning but misguided white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Deming/Daniel is the only Asian kid in the quiet community where he spends his teen years, and he constantly longs for his old city neighborhood and for any information about what happened to his birth mother. As novelist Lisa Ko encapsulates the problem, “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” (270)

As Daniel moves into his twenties, he becomes involved in the music scene in New York City, as a composer and performer.  He routinely experiences synesthesia: “Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t included violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.” (71) And music keeps him going when he sees no other future for himself:  “A song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.” (258)

Polly and Daniel both have their flaws—Polly is often self-centered, Daniel develops a gambling addiction. I think that these characteristics help to keep the novel from falling into clichés. The Leavers alternates between Daniel’s side of the story and Polly’s, between New York and China, gradually revealing what happened on that day when Polly vanished. Did she take the bus to Florida, where she’d talked about relocating? Did the loan shark send her back to China? Did she leave her son (as well as her kindly boyfriend) for a new lover? Did she get hit by a truck? I won’t spoil the ending. I will say that, although the reason for Polly’s disappearance makes sense, the reason for her long-term absence from Daniel’s life doesn’t ring true for me.

However, as usual, I loved the parts of The Leavers that were set in New York City, which is beloved by Daniel:  “Daniel saw the Manhattan skyline, recognized the sketched spire of the Empire State Building, the sparkle of bridges, and from this vantage point the city appeared vulnerable and twinkling, the last strands of sunshine swept across the arches as if lulling them to sleep, painting shadows against the tops of buildings. No matter how many times he saw the city’s outline he pitched inside.” (110)

There are many kinds of “leaving” in this novel. Polly leaves China, and then she leaves her son. Daniel leaves the Bronx, but then he leaves upstate New York to return to the city. In a way, all of us are “leavers,” since we make choices in life that involve leaving other options behind.

Prolix But Successful

The Nix     Nathan Hill     (2016)

Nathan Hill has written an excellent book. Remember this as you read my petty complaints, which I’m going to get out of the way first:

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1—There are at least four separate novels crammed into The Nix, centered on (a) Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a college professor and failed writer who was abandoned by his mother, Faye, in 1988; (b) Faye Andresen-Anderson, a sweet Iowa girl who got involved with anti-war activists in 1968 Chicago; (c) Pwnage, a video-game addict who plays online with Samuel in 2011; and (d) Laura Pottsdam, a “college sophomore and habitual, perpetual cheater” in 2011. Plus there are several sub-plots. All that said, Hill pulls these disparate pieces together well.

2—About 100 pages could have been cut out of the 620 pages of The Nix. For example, in sections about video games, Hill goes out too far on the verbosity limb. The wordiness does tend to amplify Pwnage’s obsessions, but my head was swimming for many pages.

3—The Nix fudges the dates of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Yes, yes, I know about authorial privilege in creating a fictional universe, but it really messes up readers’ engagement with the story when the novelist plays loose with significant historic events in a novel that’s firmly entrenched in a particular period. (I’m fine with fudging obscure events.)

4—The title of The Nix refers to a Norwegian house spirit that appears at pivotal points in life. I like this conceit a lot, but I found Hill’s invocation of the nix sometimes strained.

So why do I still think that The Nix is an excellent novel? Hill’s vocabulary range is astounding, and his sentence structure is mesmerizing, recalling for me the work of much more seasoned writers, such as Michael Chabon. Hill can make the most mundane description remarkable, as in this riff on traffic in Chicago: “The closer he gets to the city, the more the highway feels malicious and warlike—wild zigzagging drivers cutting people off, tailgating, honking horns, flashing their lights, all their private traumas now publicly enlarged. Samuel travels with the crush of traffic in a slow sluggish mass of hate. He feels that low-level constant anxiety about not being able to get over into the turn lane when his exit is near. There’s that thing where drivers next to him speed up when they see his turn signal, to eliminate the space he intended to occupy. There is no place less communal in America—no place less cooperative and brotherly, no place with fewer feelings of shared sacrifice—than a rush-hour freeway in Chicago.”

Hill can even pontificate in a way that isn’t offensive. He examines the motivations of his character Faye at length. Here is a brief excerpt: “She knew that way down deep she was a phony, just your average normal girl. If it seemed like she had abilities that no one else did, it was only because she worked harder, she thought, and all it would take for the rest of the world to see the real Faye, the true Faye, was one failure. So she never failed. And the distance between the real Faye and the fake Faye, in her mind, kept widening, like a ship leaving the dock and slowly losing sight of home. This was not without cost. The flip side of being a person who never fails at anything is that you never do anything you could fail at. You never do anything risky. There’s a certain essential lack of courage among people who seem to be good at everything.”

Hill captures the mood and texture of historical periods exceptionally well, even though he’s too young to have had direct experience of those periods. His home economics classroom in 1968 Iowa, for instance, is priceless and spot-on. Even minor characters in The Nix come alive. Readers can, for example, deduce quite a bit about Faye’s college friend Alice from this description of Alice as an older woman: “She’d decided that about eighty percent of what you believe about yourself when you’re twenty turns out to be wrong. The problem is you don’t know what your small true part is until much later. . . She grew up and bought a house and found a lover and got some dogs and stewarded her land and tried to fill her home with love and life and she realized her earlier error: That these things did not make you small. In fact, these things seemed to enlarge her. That by choosing a few very private concerns and pouring herself into them, she had never felt so expanded. That, paradoxically, narrowing her concerns had made her more capable of love and generosity and empathy and, yes, even peace and justice.”

This sprawling, ambitious novel about small choices that have enormous consequences is definitely worth your time, and Nathan Hill is a novelist to watch.

Books in Brief, Part 4

Here are short reviews of three books that I buzzed through recently.

The Lost History of Stars     Dave Boling     (2017)

The background: The Second Anglo-Boer War (often known as the Boer War, 1899-1902) was fought to determine control of rich gold and diamond mines in southern areas of the African continent. The British Empire sent troops against the Boers, who were mostly descended from Dutch settlers in the region. The outnumbered Boers waged a guerrilla war that outraged the British, who expected to win easily. The British responded by burning Boer farms and herding the women and children from those farms into concentration camps. Twenty-seven thousand of them died. The Lost History of Stars tells of one fictional family’s horrific experiences during this period. I skipped over large chunks of this novel because the story, though well told, became too painful for me. Author Boling has illuminated a “lost history” of terrible suffering, in which the stars of the southern hemisphere and the love of family are among the few bright spots for the characters.

Difficult Women     Roxane Gay     (2017)

My husband prefers philosophy to fiction, but he picked up Difficult Women from the bedside table because he’d heard about Roxane Gay’s 2014 book of essays, Bad Feminist. Here’s his take on Difficult Women: “I used to think that the legislative bodies in the US would work to defeat rape culture and racism. Now we’re relying on fiction writers to draw our attention to the violence and bigotry in our society. These stories are grim—very dark. Almost all the male characters are creepy, and both the male and the female characters are obsessed with sex.” Of the 21 stories in this collection, I read a half dozen, recommended by my husband as the least brutal. For example, “Bone Density” is about a married couple who both have affairs. “The Sacrifice of Darkness” is a moving fable—or maybe a parable—about a miner who can no longer stand underground darkness and flies into the sun, with devastating consequences. Gay’s writing is sharp and slashing. 

Saints for All Occasions     J. Courtney Sullivan     (2017)

The plot of this novel is pretty predictable: Two young Irish women emigrate to Boston in the late 1950s, one of them gets pregnant, and fuss ensues. Stock characters from the Irish-American playbook populate the text:  the alcoholic bar owner, the stoic matriarch, the cruel nuns, the saintly nuns, the pitiful little brother, the dance hall cad, the faithful friend. What bothered me most, as someone who has lived in Ireland, was that the Irish-born characters talked like Americans. I’m not saying that the author should have thrown in “faith and begorrah” to establish Irish cred, but some representation of Irish idiom might have brightened up this serviceable but somewhat plodding family saga. For a much better fictional take on the Irish immigrant experience in the America of the 1950s, I heartily recommend Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009).

Two Mysteries in One

 Magpie Murders     Anthony Horowitz     (2017)

Anthony Horowitz was the screenwriter for one of my favorite British television series, Foyle’s War, so I was pleased to see his name as the author of a book—and a double mystery at that.

This is the way it works:  Magpie Murders is a mystery novel that bestselling fictional author Alan Conway submits to his fictional publisher in contemporary England. It’s supposed to be the ninth book in the series of cozy mysteries set in a quiet English village in the 1950s, with German-Greek Atticus Pünd as the brilliant detective. If you think that this sounds a lot like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, you’re right. Horowitz inserts an amazingly accurate simulation of a mystery from the golden age of British detective fiction into this novel. (For my blog post on golden-age British mysteries, click HERE.)

Surrounding the text of the Atticus Pünd mystery is another mystery. Susan Ryeland is Alan Conway’s editor. She speaks in first-person narrative, describing her love of the detective genre:  “Whodunits are all about truth: nothing more, nothing less. In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunit provides that pleasure.” (183-184)

Susan Ryeland sits down to read Alan Conway’s manuscript starring Atticus Pünd, only to find that it’s missing the last chapter or chapters, the essential resolution of the knotty plot that has all the requisite red herrings and suspicious characters. Reading along with Susan, I shared her chagrin at this situation, wanting to know how Pünd resolves the case. Ryeland’s search for the missing ending of the Pünd mystery leads her to another mystery, in the present day, involving Conway himself. Taking on the role of amateur sleuth, she uncovers the modern-day prototypes for the characters in the Pünd mystery. She also discovers innumerable wordplays and hidden references in the Pünd mystery. Never fear:  Horowitz does eventually provide satisfying conclusions for both the Pünd mystery and the Conway mystery.

I found the 1950s Pünd mystery a better story than the present-day Conway mystery, but keep in mind that I’m a stalwart fan of golden-age English cozies. The two mysteries are intertwined pleasingly, and the Conway mystery has a surprisingly violent end, but both are ultimately rewarding to the reader, going beyond just clever. Within the Conway mystery, Horowitz also provides reflections on the nature of publishing and the relations between editors and authors.

I’ll leave you with another quote from Horowitz, speaking through Susan Ryeland: “Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?” (70)

Procreational Shenanigans

The Heirs     Susan Rieger     (2017)

Five sons are the beneficiaries of the estate of Rupert Falkes, who dies in the first chapter of The Heirs. Or maybe there are seven sons, since it comes to light after Rupert’s death that he may have had a mistress and family on the side. But then again, maybe he didn’t.

This witty novel has a large cast of characters who populate its complex plot, which lurches back and forth in time. Novelist Susan Rieger fleshes out the personalities of the five sons quite well, but it’s the mother, Eleanor, widow of Rupert Falkes, whom readers come to know best.  “Rupert married Eleanor because she was the girl of the year in 1960, because all the other men he knew wanted her, because she knew the difference between sarcasm and irony, because she was a knockout, because she’d read George Orwell, because she was sexually electrifying, because he could talk to her.” (13) Later in the novel we learn that “she was a MILF before there was a word for it.” (205) Okay, then, you should get the drift: sexual adventuring is a theme in The Heirs.

The family doesn’t need the money that Rupert leaves. They’re all filthy rich in their own right. It’s the inheritance of uncertainty about Rupert’s past that dominates their discussions and Rieger’s analyses of their discussions. Rupert was a self-made man, an orphan who was left as an infant on a church doorstep in England in 1934 and rose to be a prominent New York lawyer. His family thought they knew him. Eleanor was from well-established American bloodlines and brought wealth to the marriage. She’s more inscrutable, but she’s fully adept at social graces, like knowing not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.

Rupert’s sideline in sons isn’t the only procreational plot in The Heirs. For instance, Rupert’s gay son, Sam, longs desperately for a child of his own. And the wife of an early boyfriend of Eleanor’s wonders if her husband might be the father of at least some of Eleanor’s kids. The liaisons get mighty tangled.

Like her characters, Rieger is acerbic and sophisticated, willing to insert barbs no matter how sharp and providing a glimpse into the lives of the elitist ultra-wealthy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the furious pace and the elements of retroactive continuity, The Heirs is deliciously entertaining. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a sucker for novels set in New York. Check out other reviews in the New York Novels category from the Archive of Book Reviews in the right column.

American Evangelicals

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America     Frances FitzGerald     (2017)

The cover of this social history gives readers an idea of the content. An American flag is hanging upside down, the universal signal for national distress, and twenty of the stars are replaced with Christian crosses. Translation: Christian evangelicals in the United States have long sought to remake what they see as a distressed nation in accordance with their religious beliefs. And they have indeed shaped American culture and political life.

This heavily annotated 740-page book is not for the faint hearted. Frances FitzGerald, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, creates distinct portraits of dozens of Christian evangelical leaders and provides details of numerous associations and dissociations of the movement over the centuries. If you’re drawn to discussions of religious doctrinal differences and of the personalities that championed them, you’ll want to read the entire volume. Or you could read the introduction and then sample a few of the seventeen chapters that grab you, whether it’s “Liberals and Conservatives in the Post-Civil War North” or “Evangelicals in the 1960s” or “The Christian Right and George W. Bush.” 

In any case, turn first to the handy Glossary on pages 637-639, where you’ll learn that “evangelicalism” is a belief system that relies on the authority of the Bible, centers on redemption by Jesus Christ, emphasizes individual conversion, and seeks to spread this faith to others. It is not the same as “fundamentalism,” a more militant segment of evangelicalism that, according to FitzGerald, is “bent on combating Protestant liberalism and secularism.” Several other variants within evangelicalism are described in the Glossary and throughout the book, including dispensationalism, pentacostalism, and pre/postmillennialism. Note that FitzGerald consciously limits her study to white evangelicals in the United States; African American churches have very different history and trajectory.  

FitzGerald takes the story all the way back to 1734, tracing the rise of evangelicalism in the United States to the revival meetings of the First Great Awakening, a populist uprising against established Protestant churches. Later, during the Civil War era, northern evangelicals were abolitionists and southern evangelicals were pro-slavery; the split in the evangelical movement caused by this issue has never healed. New sects also arose among those who thought that the church should pursue social justice (the “social gospel”) and those who expected the imminent return of Jesus to judge a hopelessly fallen world. In the early twentieth century, fundamentalists and modernists came into conflict over scientific discoveries and textual criticism of the Bible.

After World War II, Billy Graham reignited evangelicalism with his powerful preaching at revival meetings all around the country, attended by millions of people and broadcast on television. Clashes between evangelicals and more liberal Christians led to culture wars in the late twentieth century. This period also saw the rise of evangelicals as a political force, particularly in the South, which—thanks to leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson—became a stronghold of the Republican Party. FitzGerald ends her study with an Epilogue analyzing evangelical support for Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency.

The Evangelicals disentangles the many strands of a movement that now includes about 25% of the population of the United States. I was occasionally distracted by typos, but these do not diminish the authority of the text. FitzGerald ranges wide and also nails the details, writing with clarity and avoiding bias. She pulls data from the histories of religion, culture, and politics with ease, showing how evangelicals developed their stances on issues such as slavery, segregation, labor unions, the Vietnam War, communism, abortion, immigration, and gay rights. If you are bemused by the phenomenon of evangelicalism in America, or if you just want some background on a powerful segment of our society, this is the book to read.

A Dystopian America

The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047     Lionel Shriver     (2016)

Hang onto your hat. The year is 2029, and Russia and China now rule the world. The economy of the United States has crashed spectacularly, because of the national debt run up by the Latinos who control the federal government. All savings and investments are worthless, inflation is uncontrolled, jobs have disappeared, and ordinary citizens have become scavengers and thieves to stay alive. Guns, though forbidden, are essential. Despite the dire situation, elderly Americans continue to be cosseted, through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, because they are reliable voters. (Somehow, voting isn’t disrupted.)

Caught in this maelstrom are four generations of the Mandible family, New Yorkers who used to be upper middle class. Over the course of the eighteen years that this novel covers, most members of the Mandible clan survive and eventually escape to a locale (I won’t reveal where) that has created an isolationist libertarian paradise, basing its economy on the gold standard, with a flat tax and no social services. In other words, Lionel Shriver’s book is not just an echo of Ayn Rand but a loud, clanging reverberation.

A “mandible” is a jawbone, and in this novel the Mandibles exercise their jawbones frequently to expound on political and financial issues. I grew weary of the ultra-right-wing screeds against the Federal Reserve and against non-white people. There were even snide references to Chelsea Clinton and someone named (ha-ha-ha) Krugman. Almost all the characters whom Shriver presents as reasonable and civilized humans espouse views that are economically untenable and, to me, morally reprehensible.

Yet I kept reading through to page 402 in order to follow the threads of daily life in Shriver’s dystopian scenario. As housing becomes scarce in the years after 2029, more and more of the Mandibles crowd into one home, inevitably creating scenes of interpersonal conflict. What do you do when there is no more toilet paper and very limited water supply? How do you stretch a cup of rice to feed a crowd? These conundrums of human existence in a sadly debased America are sometimes solved in clever ways. And some of the future language that Shriver injects into the dialogue is amusing, if flippant. For example, since the very aged Baby Boomers are pariahs, the word that replaces “crap” is “boomerpoop.”

A couple of the characters in The Mandibles are intrepid in the face of disaster. The hero of the Mandible family turns out to be Willing, who is thirteen years old in 2029 and comes of age as he teaches himself advanced survival skills. He’s the one who leads the way to the promised land of libertarianism. Another Mandible, Avery, who is middle-aged at the start of the novel, blossoms: “Things seemed to matter again. It seemed to matter how she spent her time and what she told her children. Why, it was tempting to wonder whether, while the likes of the Stackhouses were musing idly over whether to cover the footstool in taupe or mauve, folks on the margins were living real lives, and making real decisions, and conducting real relationships, full of friction and shouting and moment—whether all this time the poor people had been having all the fun.” (188)

But mostly The Mandibles is a book about ugliness. Kindly people die. Hard-nosed scammers prosper. The only African American character has advanced dementia and is kept tied up.  As Carter Mandible, an unemployed economist, pronounces, “It’s the decent people who always get fucked.” (125)

The Mandibles did prod me to consider the place of the Unites States in history. Shriver puts these same considerations into the mind of my favorite character, Florence, early in the book: “She didn’t think about being American often, though that may have been typically American in itself. She didn’t regard being American as especially formative of her character, and that may have been typically American, too. . .  For years now it had ceased to be controversial to suppose that the era of the ‘American Empire’ was fading, and the notion that her country may already have had its day in the sun she didn’t find upsetting. Plenty of other countries had flourished and subsided, and were reputed to be pleasant places to live. She didn’t see why being a citizen of a nation in decline should diminish her own life or make her feel personally discouraged.” (74)

A Southeast Asian Story

Miss Burma     Charmaine Craig     (2017)

Craig.jpg

The dust jacket for Miss Burma tells us that novelist Charmaine Craig is a “descendant of significant figures in Burma’s modern history.” And Craig’s dedication for the book is to the memory of her mother, Louisa, and of her grandparents Ben and Khin. These three are major characters in Miss Burma, so right from the start, I was wondering how much of the story is factual—how much Louisa, as a participant in historic events, told Charmaine directly. Obviously, the novelist had to invent many lines of dialogue in order to create 355 pages.

Charmaine Craig’s grandmother Khin was from the minority ethnic group in Burma called the Karen (kah-REN). Her grandfather Ben (or Benny) was born into a Jewish family in Burma but raised partly in India when he was orphaned. When Benny marries Khin, he decides to identify with the Karen people. The novel follows Khin and Benny’s family through a tumultuous period in Burma’s history, as the country becomes a battleground between the British and the Japanese in World War II and then as civil war among ethnic factions causes further devastation in the following decades. Benny becomes a leading member of the Karen resistance to the majority Burmese. A key event in the narrative is the beauty contest in 1956 in which Khin and Benny’s mixed-race daughter Louisa is crowned Miss Burma. We get Benny’s thoughts at this event: “From the looks of it, these people were prepared to adore whichever girl, of whichever origins, became their queen. Perhaps beauty alone had the power to transfigure people so. And yet, Benny reminded himself with a shudder, there was something insidious about beautifying the country’s image by means of a girl, whatever her background, for somewhere in the darkness beyond the delta, innocent people continued to be shot and killed.” (226)

Louisa herself is sometimes ambivalent about the struggle of the Karen people. We learn that she had “this feeling that it was wrong for anyone to claim exclusive rights to a corner of the earth—wrong for no other reason than that everyone was passing. . . . She was suddenly sure that Burma’s most beautiful feature was its multiplicity of peoples.” (318)

A little Burmese history is helpful if you decide to read this novel. Burma won its independence from Great Britain in 1948. After years of civil war, the current military regime took power and changed the name of the country to Myanmar, though it’s still known as Burma in some political circles. Probably the best known figure in Myanmar is Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now State Counsellor. Her father, Aung San, is portrayed as a character in Miss Burma. Like many other nations, Burma has long been struggling with how to bring diverse ethnic and tribal peoples together. How do you decide on proper representation? Do you set up a separate territory for every minority group? What if territory is disputed? How do you address differences of language and religion? How do you end state-sanctioned genocide and community-based thuggery?

As Charmaine Craig lays out the case for better treatment of the minority groups in Burma, she can get somewhat preachy, and the segments in which she graphically describes brutal guerilla warfare are grim. I preferred the chapters in which she explores the personal relationships of the characters and their ethnic identities, against a backdrop of national chaos, in the lush landscape of Burma. Miss Burma is for readers who like delving into history that’s less well known in the US, especially those who are intrigued by southeast Asia.

Books in Brief, Part 3

If you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that I devote full reviews to only a small number of the books that pass through my hands each week. Here are three novels that I abandoned after a few chapters or just skimmed through. They may have qualities that engage you more!

In the Name of the Family     Sarah Dunant     (2016)

You’d think that the inclusion of the famously conniving historical characters Niccolò Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia would spark up this novel, but I found the 40 pages that I read to be lackluster. I’ve liked other Sarah Dunant novels set in the Italian Renaissance (eg, The Birth of Venus), so perhaps with In the Name of the Family Dunant is trying too hard to redeem the reputation of Lucrezia. Or perhaps I’m weary of the slimy Borgia brood and their confederates from too many books and television series.

 

 

My Italian Bulldozer     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

McCall Smith Bulldozer.jpg

I’m a big fan of several of McCall Smith’s series of novels, especially the 44 Scotland Street Series, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Sadly, McCall Smith’s stand-alone novels tend to be weaker narratively. My Italian Bulldozer is a lightweight romance/comedy, in which the main character is forced to accept a rental bulldozer instead of a rental car on a business trip to Montalcino, Italy. McCall Smith can usually pull off ridiculous plot twists, but this one didn’t work for me.

 

 

Six Four     Hideo Yokoyama     (2012/2016)  translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

The international bestseller from Japan is finally available in an excellent (British) English translation. The central character of this police procedural murder mystery is Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who now heads media relations for the police. The title refers to the year of the emperor’s reign when a notorious child-murder occurred. In addition to solving this cold case, dealing with the press, and fighting police corruption, Mikami is dealing with the disappearance of his teen daughter. The insights into Japanese culture are fascinating, and the extended dialogue is well done. But I just skimmed this one, simply because I don’t care for police procedurals. If you do, Six Four is a winner.

Pregnancy & Pear Trees

Leaving Lucy Pear     Anna Solomon     (2016)

It seems to me that about half the novels that I read have at the heart of the plot a single woman with an unintended pregnancy. Granted, I read a lot of historical novels, and historically the pregnancy of an unwed woman was a cause of anxiety, grief, distress, secrecy, scheming, and crime.

In the novel Leaving Lucy Pear, Beatrice Haven is the young single woman with an unintended pregnancy. She leaves her newborn daughter in a pear orchard in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, on a night when she expects that pear thieves will be present to find the bundle. All this is revealed in the prologue, set in 1917. The main action of the story occurs a decade later. Unbeknownst to Beatrice, the baby has been named Lucy Pear and has been raised by Emma Murphy, the mother of a large, impoverished Irish American family. Beatrice, who is from a wealthy Jewish family in Boston, continues to be tormented by her act of abandoning her child and spends much of her time at the home of the uncle who owns the pear orchard. The lives of Beatrice and Emma intertwine in complex ways as the plot works toward resolution of some, but not all, of the issues raised about motherhood, womanhood, sexuality, and family ties. 

The setting of the North Shore in Massachusetts is significant. This rocky peninsula between Boston and New Hampshire is rich with literary associations, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to TS Eliot. The time period is also significant, with the political backdrop of the Prohibition era and the controversial 1927 executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, professed anarchists who were accused of robbery and murder. Weaving in and out of the narrative of Leaving Lucy Pear are threads about the temperance movement, liquor smuggling, anarchism, communism, industrialization, labor unions, and social class. 

Anna Solomon’s writing is delicate and introspective. There are many sentences like this: “When she looked at him, her cheeks wrinkled and red from where her sleeves had pressed into them, her eyes pinned him to his chair.” (235) As a reader, I wanted to find out the next component of the plot, but I also wanted to linger on scenes in which character traits are revealed by family members discussing domestic matters. 

Beatrice abandons her baby so that she can move on with her life, go to Radcliffe, and perhaps become a concert pianist. But her plan falters, and that may have been the best outcome for her. Late in the novel, a minor character pronounces, “’Most people want to be extraordinary. Make a mark in the world. But for what? In my experience it’s the extraordinary people what aren’t happy, always expecting something better than they get. Whenever anything at all happens to me, I tell myself it’s happened to everyone else, too. It’s actually very comforting.’” (313-314)

 

Novels about Paintings, Part 2

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos     Dominic Smith     (2016)

As I read this novel, I assumed that the title painting, the last painting of Sara de Vos, was At the Edge of a Wood. The creation of this fictional work of art is placed in 1636, as de Vos is grieving the death of her only child, a daughter, from the plague. The painting shows a dark-haired girl in the foreground, barefoot in the snow, watching a group of skaters on the frozen river beyond. It’s dusk in winter in the Netherlands, so the quality of light is otherworldly.

According to novelist Dominic Smith’s complex story, At the Edge of a Wood has been owned by the de Groot family for more than three hundred years, and it’s considered by some to have caused bad luck for the owners. Marty de Groot, the owner we meet in Manhattan in 1957, certainly hasn’t suffered financially, but Marty’s law career is stalled, and he and his wife are unable to have children.

Also in 1957 but in Brooklyn, the novelist introduces us to Ellie Shipley, an Australian graduate student in art history at Columbia University. She’s trying to finish her PhD dissertation about female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and she does art restoration work to support herself. Along comes a commission, not to restore but to copy a painting by (wait for it) a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age: At the Edge of a Wood. Ellie wades in, not so much for the money as for the technical and artistic challenge of reproducing a stunning painting. This is, of course, forgery.

Forty-odd years later, in 2000, Ellie is an esteemed art historian and curator in Sydney, Australia. As she’s gathering paintings on loan from around the world for an exhibit, it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and the copy she painted will be arriving in Sydney. The forgery will be revealed, and since Ellie is the only person who could have painted the copy, she sees her comfortable life crumbling before her.  

The book moves back and forth effortlessly among three settings:  The Netherlands 1636-1649 (dark, burgher-ruled); New York, 1957-1958 (shiny, jazz-filled); and Sydney, 2000 (sunny, cosmopolitan). The characters of Sara de Vos, Marty de Groot, and Ellie Shipley—all drawn convincingly—move through these settings and through their interconnected lives.  

Novelist Smith does an excellent job of rendering visual art in words, and not only in the passages where he describes paintings. References to the light in a scene come in frequently. For example, here is Ellie on the subway in New York City: “She always has the sensation of being swallowed by the roaring dark of the first tunnel, her ears popping and the sudden appearance of her reflection on the blackened windowpane like some hangdog daguerreotype from another century.“ (208) And here is Marty, in his office at night after committing a terrible deed: “He’s never been up here at night and there’s a sensation of being fortified behind glass, of something solid between him and the mercantile canyons of the city. The office buildings are phosphorescent through the darkness, effulgent with a smoky light that reminds him of dry ice.” (249).

By the end of the novel, you’ll know what the last painting of Sara de Vos actually was. I’ll leave you with this summation of the plot: “You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.” (262)

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 2

The Roger the Chapman Series     Kate Sedley     (1991 to 2013)

Before reading this post, you may want to check out my essay “Reading Medieval Mysteries” in the Portfolio section of this website. It has a sidebar on the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, set in the twelfth century. But moving on to the end of the medieval period . . . 

Roger the Chapman is an itinerant purveyor of small household goods and haberdashery in late fifteenth-century England. He tells his tales in first-person narrative, looking back, as an old man, on the adventures of his youthful travelling days. This narrative voice gives an immediacy to the novels, and I find Roger’s voice quite believable. 

The first couple of entries in this series have some weaknesses, with tangents about, for example, how to full cloth, but the series quickly picks up speed, with less didacticism and more challenging convolutions of plot. Roger is an engaging, burly fellow with a large backpack who tramps all around the country—and even to France—to unravel mysteries. His wanderlust allows him to get involved in murders near and far and even to work as an agent for the nobility. Still, he always returns home to Bristol, in southwest England.

Roger has a complicated family history, and the secondary characters such as his wife and his mother-in-law are well developed over the course of the series. If you start with a title later in this series, you’ll still catch on, since author Kate Sedley does a good job of filling in her readers about Roger’s family connections.

Sedley doesn’t affect fake medievalisms but still conveys a sense of the period. I especially enjoyed The Christmas Wassail, in which the murders are set against the festive late medieval celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Kate Sedley is the pen name for Brenda Margaret Lilian Honeyman Clarke, who has written numerous other novels under different names. Here are the twenty-two books in her Roger the Chapman Series:  Death and the Chapman (1991), The Plymouth Cloak (1992), The Hanged Man aka The Weaver’s Tale (1993), The Holy Innocents (1994), The Eve of Saint Hyacinth (1995), The Wicked Winter (1995), The Brothers of Glastonbury (1997), The Weaver’s Inheritance (1998), The Saint John’s Fern (1999), The Goldsmith’s Daughter (2001), The Lammas Feast (2002), Nine Men Dancing (2003), The Midsummer Rose (2004), The Burgundian’s Tale (2005), Prodigal Son (2006), The Three Kings of Cologne (2007), The Green Man (2008), The Dance of Death (2009), The Wheel of Fate (2010), The Midsummer Crown (2011), The Tintern Treasure (2012), The Christmas Wassail (2013).

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. Gabe, however, 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.