Four Novels in One

4 3 2 1      Paul Auster     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspirational Eating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Koreans in Japan

Pachinko     Min Jin Lee     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15th-Century Mysteries: Part 1

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

The Dame Frevisse Series     Margaret Frazer     (1992-2008)

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

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

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

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

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

North Woods Morality

The Hearts of Men     Nickolas Butler     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soviet House Arrest

A Gentleman in Moscow     Amor Towles     (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Chinese Tea Tale

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane     Lisa See     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lively Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn Satire

Class     Lucinda Rosenfeld     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.

Books in Brief, Part Two

I haul eight or ten books home from my local library every week. About half of those don’t get my attention past the first few pages. A couple of others may get a cursory scan through selected chapters. The remaining two or three books I read, relish, and review fully. Some of the books that don’t make the cut for a full review end up in a Books in Brief post. Read on!

Idaho     Emily Ruskovich     (2017)

The terror in this novel lurks deep within, and it is revealed ever so slowly. The novelist is highly skilled in describing the rugged landscapes of northern Idaho and in exploring the perspectives of multiple characters at multiple time points. In short, this is an excellent novel. But the crime that sets the plot in motion is so horrific that I simply had to stop reading about a third of the way through. If you don’t have problems with nightmares from scary books, you may like this one.

Here I Am     Jonathan Safran Foer     (2016)


This novel is exasperatingly self-referential, long (571 pages), and long-winded. I can see the brilliance of much of the writing, but the author swaggers with his own importance too much. For example, Foer constructs many descriptive lists. When Michael Chabon employs this device, he illuminates his subject. When Foer does it, he suffocates his subject. There’s a lot of discussion of the politics of Israel, and I hoped that would redeem the story, but it didn’t. I gave up less than a quarter of the way through.


The Sleep Revolution     Arianna Huffington     (2016)

I’ve read a lot of books and blog posts on the subject of insomnia, and as I paged quickly through The Sleep Revolution I recognized all the standard assertions:  lives too fast-paced, blue screens too ubiquitous, dinner too late, snoring too loud, pills too dangerous. If you need to be convinced that you should seek more healing sleep, you might want to read this entire book. Otherwise, turn to chapter 9, “What To Do, What Not To Do.” Among the many sleep tips summarized in this chapter I found one I may try: extended bedtime meditation rituals. Huffington helpfully lists guided meditations for sleep in her Appendix B. Her Appendix D, on mattresses, doesn’t mention the best resource I’ve found:

Love at Harvard

The Idiot     Elif Batuman     (2017)

Throughout the 423 pages of this novel, the first-person narrator, Selin, readily admits the many things that she does not know. “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college” is her first sentence, and in the following pages we find that she doesn’t know what a psychedelic poster might be, that she doesn’t know about the wars between the Ottoman Turks and the Hungarians (despite being Turkish American), that she doesn’t know what neural networking is. At age eighteen, Selin has never played squash and never had sex. When the topic of Italian films comes up, she says, “I didn’t know anything about Fellini; my mental image was of a human-sized cat.” (45)

Selin constantly juxtaposes funny lines and hilarious scenes with expression of her serious confusion about becoming a writer, which she accepts as her fate, and about falling in love, which she hasn’t expected. She’s a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 1995, just like the novelist Elif Batuman, and she skewers all of Harvard’s pretentiousness in a most delightful way, while still putting on display the intelligence of her fellow students. Despite her protestations of ignorance on many fronts, Selin is a deep thinker, probing existential questions that only a very bright adolescent would consider.

At the same time, Selin is a naïve and introverted teenager, searching for hidden meaning in her class assignments, her email exchanges with her crush, and her discussions with friends in the cafeteria. It’s not that she feels inadequate for the challenges of a Harvard education—she’s well-read and quick with analysis. But she can spot the gaps in her knowledge.

Author Batuman went on after graduating from Harvard to earn a PhD in Russian literature, so it’s not accidental that she calls her novel The Idiot. Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel of the same title stars Prince Myshkin, who is such a good and decent fellow that he’s deemed stupid by the self-aggrandizing, worldly people around him.

Dostoevsky’s novel ends in tragedy. It’s hard to say how Batuman’s novel ends, and that’s not because I’m avoiding spoilers. I’m a reader who clings to plot structure in novels, so the lack of a strong plot in Batuman’s novel bothered me as I read. But I kept reading because the dialogue is so enjoyable and the depiction of a young woman on the edge of adulthood is so perceptive.

Here is Selin, discovering that men have the advantage in life: “I was overcome by the sudden sense of Ivan’s freedom. I realized for the first time that if you were a guy, if you were some tall guy who looked like Ivan, you could pretty much stop to look at anything you wanted, whenever you felt like it. And because I was walking with him now, for just this moment, I had a special dispensation, I could look at whatever he was looking at, too.” (177)

Batuman’s The Idiot takes us through an entire year in the life of Selin, from her September arrival at Harvard through the following August, when she returns to the United States from Hungary, where she taught English for the summer. At the end, I was left wondering what the second academic year of college would hold for Selin, but I was happy to have shared her account of that first illuminating year.

Amazing Maisie Mysteries

The Maisie Dobbs Mystery Series     Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear has recently published the thirteenth entry in her outstanding mystery series starring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working in London (and abroad) in the 1920s and 1930s. If you’re a fan of historical mysteries, you should definitely get your hands on this series. It’s essential that you read the books in order from the beginning, so I’ve included the list at the end of this post.

Maisie gets her start in the detective field in a roundabout manner. At the age of thirteen she goes to work as a maid in a wealthy London household. Her employer, Lady Rowan Compton, finds Maisie reading philosophy texts in the home’s library and decides to support the girl’s education. A family friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, who is himself an investigator, becomes Maisie’s mentor. In 1914, as she is starting her Cambridge university career, World War I commences. Maisie drops out to train as a nurse and then spends the war in France, in hospital tents right behind the front lines.

The war scars Maisie, both physically and emotionally. Her fictional experiences remind me very much of the factual story of Vera Brittain, whose bestselling 1933 memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, is a tragic account of the casualties of that war and of the profound impact that the deaths and injuries had on families, particularly women, in England.

On the fictional side, back in London after the war, Maisie experiences  romance and despair and hardship. Following more training with Dr. Blanche, she’s ready to open her own practice as a “psychologist and investigator” in 1929. By chance, she meets Billy Beale, a veteran who had been a patient of hers in France, and ends up hiring him as her assistant.

Other recurring characters in the novels are Frankie Dobbs, Maisie’s father, a former costermonger; James Compton, son of Maisie’s first employer; Priscilla Partridge, an affluent and fashionable friend from Maisie’s Cambridge days; Simon Lynch, a brilliant physician in the war; and Detective Inspector Richard Stratton of the London police.

What I love about the Maisie Dobbs series:

  • the character of Maisie, who is a strong, intelligent, independent woman bucking a society that often doesn’t acknowledge her gifts.
  • the way that Dr. Blanche teaches Maisie to breathe slowly, observe closely, and get an intuitive sense of people and situations in her investigations.
  • the weaving into the stories of Maisie’s romantic attachments, mostly tied in some way to World War I and its aftermath.
  • the secondary plots involving Maisie’s relatives and patrons.
  • the meticulously depicted setting of Depression-era London, including everything from the bread lines to the women’s clothing.
  • the wrap-up of every case, in which Maisie goes back, after the crime is solved, to the places and people involved and seeks closure.
  • the irony of Winspear’s placing of a female detective in the period of the great classics of detective fiction. (See my post on this subject here.)

What annoys me about this series:

  • the assumption that the British nobility in the early twentieth century would actually support the education of a teenage maid in their household. I call this plot device “The Downton Abbey Propaganda,” since the same false assumption of noblesse oblige permeated that story.
  • Winspear’s breaking of the fair-play rule of detective fiction, which dictates that the author cannot ever let the detective in the story know more about the mystery than the reader knows.

I want to emphasize that, despite these two objections of mine, I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of the Maisie Dobbs novels. In This Grave Hour (2017), set at the beginning of World War II, is unfortunately the weakest of the lot, with a poorly designed mystery and repeated authorial spurning of the fair-play rule. But do read the rest of Winspear’s books, starting with the award-winning Maisie Dobbs (2003), and continuing with Birds of a Feather (2004), Pardonable Lies (2005), Messenger of Truth (2006), An Incomplete Revenge (2008), Among the Mad (2009), The Mapping of Love and Death (2010), A Lesson in Secrets (2011), Elegy for Eddie (2012), Leaving Everything Most Loved (2013), A Dangerous Place (2015), and Journey to Munich (2016).   

Living with an Anomaly

Miss Jane     Brad Watson     (2016)

In this delicate yet intense novel, Brad Watson tells the life story of Miss Jane Chisholm, who comes to terms with a serious genital birth defect. Miss Jane was born in rural Mississippi in 1915, so her case is indeed difficult, since there was no medical remedy for her condition at the time. Still, Miss Jane approaches each phase of her life with determination and optimism, despite the disappointments in love and career that are imposed by society’s reaction to her disability.

Watson’s starting point for research on this novel (as he explains on his website) was the life of his own great-aunt, who was born with a genital anomaly that was only vaguely alluded to in his family. Watson finally figured out what his great-aunt’s condition must have been, and in the novel he doesn’t shy away from explaining the physical issues, revealing pieces as the story progresses. These medical facts are usually in dialogues, with the local doctor (who attended Miss Jane’s birth and follows her case), speaking to Jane. Watson pulls the narrative out of the realm of the bizarre into normality, breaking down barriers that separate people because of their physical characteristics.

The reader comes to respect Miss Jane for her courage and to love her for her sweetness. Both as a child and as a woman, she’s beautiful in appearance. Men are attracted to her, and she must make decisions about how to handle their attentions, as she also finds ways to work around her incontinence.

The lush natural surroundings of Miss Jane and her family are described with striking language. For example, here is what Miss Jane’s mother sees as she sits on her porch, worrying about her daughter: “Late fall blackbirds swept in waves to the oaks at the yard’s edge, and their deafening, squawking, creaking calls, the cacophonous tuning of a mad avian symphony, drew the grief-borne anger from her heart, into the air, and swept it way in long, almost soothing moments of something like peace.”

I can’t help comparing Miss Jane, to Middlesex, the 2002 novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, which is a very different story about living life with a genital anomaly. In Miss Jane, the continuing advice of a kindly and knowledgeable doctor softens the suffering that Jane inevitably goes through. In Middlesex, the protagonist lacks this support.

The American South has often been a literary location for sadness, beauty, and extraordinary events under the graceful drooping Spanish moss. You’ll find those qualities in Miss Jane. And be sure to watch for the peacocks, which the author tells us (in the Acknowledgments) were added on the suggestion of his young granddaughter.



A Martin Luther Biography

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet     Lyndal Roper     (2017)

Caution: Heavy lifting required! This academic biography is crammed full of data and has 88 pages of footnotes.

Historians have traditionally set the date for the launch of the Protestant Reformation in Europe as October 31, 1517, when the monk-professor Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his “95 Theses” on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Lyndal Roper’s biography of Martin Luther appears in time for the 500th anniversary of this event, in 2017. It’s unclear if Luther actually nailed a piece of paper to that church door, but he certainly sent his document, challenging certain practices of the Catholic Church, to his local bishop and to the powerful archbishop of Mainz. Luther’s “95 Theses” were statements intended to provoke debate in the university town of Wittenberg. Instead, they became early shots in theological and physical wars that went on for centuries.

The “95 Theses” mainly critiqued the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, by which people could purchase time out of Purgatory (punishment after death) for their souls or the souls of loved ones. But the seeds of other complaints about the Catholic Church were present in the arguments of the “95 Theses.” Over subsequent years, especially during the 1520s and 1530s, Luther further developed his positions against the Church’s monopoly in granting forgiveness of sins. He also attacked monasticism, pilgrimages, papal authority, the Catholic sacraments, scholastic philosophy, the celibacy of priests, and the cult of the saints, especially the role of the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with Christ in heaven. Luther departed from the medieval tradition of meditative, mystical faith to pursue a bold approach toward God. He shocked his contemporaries, both Catholic and reformist, with his frank views on sexuality, arguing that the pleasures of the flesh should be enjoyed (within certain limits) because all human actions are inherently sinful anyway.

In the early years of his theological campaign, Luther fully expected to be burned at the stake. He actually welcomed this grisly prospect, but as his support grew and martyrdom became less of a possibility, he became more haughty. He insisted that he alone could point out the true path to reforming the Catholic Church. I find this attitude contradictory, since Luther preached “the priesthood of all believers,” arguing that Christians could and should read the Bible for themselves. In another contradiction, he affixed his own interpretations to the beginning of each book in his monumental German translation of the Bible, although he repeatedly claimed that the Bible was simple to interpret.

Luther was a tech-savvy guy, taking full advantage of the new technology of printing to spread his voluminous writings across Germany and beyond. Consciously or not, he also exploited the nascent capitalism in the many German principalities of the sixteenth century by attacking the Catholic Church for its financial dealings and accrual of wealth. At least partially for this reason, he gained the protection of three successive Electors (princes) of his native Saxony, a large area in the east of Germany. Luther sided with the German princes against the farmers who rose up in protest over economic conditions in the Peasants’ War of 1524-25. He directed his followers to submit to the civil authorities who were placed over them by God. As Roper puts it, he created the “theological underpinnings of the accommodation many Lutherans would reach centuries later with the Nazi regime.” (311)

That brings us to Luther’s anti-Semitism, which was venomous. Luther believed that Christians were the “chosen people” of God and that Jews should no longer make that claim for themselves. With vile slanders and calls for destruction of Jewish properties, he went far beyond the standard anti-Semitic attacks of medieval theologians and poets.

Without passing judgement, Roper shows her readers repeatedly that Luther was an arrogant and unpleasant man who used the most foul scatological and sexual expletives and analogies in attacking his theological enemies. We’re not talking about an occasional outburst but rather Luther’s standard mode of operation, documented in thousands of his letters, sermons, pamphlets, and treatises. He did have some stalwart friends, like the mild-mannered Philipp Melanchthon, but he made lots of enemies. That’s how Luther rolled. Because Luther would never budge in his theological views, he refused to compromise or collaborate with most other Reformation theologians. This stance caused splits within the reformist camp and led to the multiplicity of Protestant denominations that still persist.

Still, Roper argues in her conclusion that Luther’s very intransigence and courage were necessary characteristics for someone taking on the enormously powerful Catholic Church. Luther was also extremely hard working and talented as a linguist. Intellectually, Luther was always able to “cut to the heart of an issue.” (411).

In tackling her subject, Roper wisely sets limits: “This book is not a general history of the Reformation, or even of the Reformation in Wittenberg; still less can it provide an overall interpretation of what became Lutheranism.” (xxviii) Instead, she says, “I want to understand Luther himself. . . . I want to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.” (xxvii) Although I accept that Roper is concentrating on the mind of Luther, I was disappointed that Luther’s hymnody merits only one paragraph (403) and that his wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora, and his six children receive only passing mentions. A chronological chart would also have been helpful. In addition, I found Roper’s concluding sections on the influence of Luther particularly weak. These are small complaints about an excellent book.

Roper’s biography of Luther is overwhelming in its detail but fascinating for an ex-Lutheran like me. I kept plowing through it, seeing slices of my own twentieth-century religious training, even in some of the sixteenth-century anti-Catholic cartoons that Roper reproduces. In my Lutheran confirmation class, the seamier side of Luther’s polemical writing was, obviously, never presented. But every year on October 31 we celebrated Reformation Day, singing Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Luther went to war with the Catholic Church, and he saw God as the fortress that protected him in the battle.





Happiness in Denmark

The Little Book of Hygge:  Danish Secrets to Happy Living     Meik Wiking     (2017)

Unless you’ve been trekking in the Himalayas for several months, you’ve probably heard about “hygge,” the Danish approach to living that at least partially explains why Danes emerge in almost every international survey as the happiest people on the planet.

According to author Meik Wiking, hygge is pronounced something like “hoo-ga,” though Danish speakers I’ve consulted say it’s more like “HUE-guh.” As for a translation, well, Wiking admits that’s also difficult:  “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy,’ ‘coziness of the soul,’ and ‘the absence of annoyance,’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,’ ‘cozy togetherness,’ and my personal favorite, ‘cocoa by candlelight.’” Wiking credits the development of hygge mainly to the Danish climate. Copenhagen is at about 56 degrees N latitude, which is like being in Hudson Bay in Canada, where there’s minimal sunlight for half of the year. And with Denmark’s location on the North Sea, the inhabitants have to deal with harsh winds and frequent cold rain.

To survive in this climate, Danes have developed ways to make themselves comfortable, especially in winter. Wiking includes chapters on hygge as it relates to light, to food and drink, to clothing, and to friendship. To promote hygge in your home, Wiking recommends that you have candles, a nook to snuggle up in, a fireplace, objects made of wood, sheepskins, vintage objects, books to read, Danish ceramics, and blankets. The candle part is especially important. Surveys have shown that Danes light a lot of candles and are very fond of the dim, flickering glow that candles create.

Physical environment aside, togetherness with friends and family is essential to hygge. You can snuggle up by the fireplace alone for your hygge fix, but sharing your sheepskin is even better. Wiking explains that Danes think workaholics are crazy. They eschew overtime, preferring to leave the office or factory promptly, in order to light candles with their besties.

According to Wiking, you can achieve hygge in the summer, with picnics, barbecues, and biking. But the all-around best time of the year for hygge is the Christmas season, over which the Danes apparently go nuts. They have a special word for Christmastide hygge, “julehygge,” which has distinctive traditions. Wiking includes a recipe for aebleskiver, a treat that’s like a cross between a pancake and a doughnut, and detailed directions for crafting the woven paper hearts with which Danes decorate their Christmas trees.

Since Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, his Little Book ventures beyond an exploration of hygge to a broader analysis of why the people of Denmark are so darn happy. Danes enjoy universal free health care, free education through college, and generous unemployment benefits. Although they pay high taxes, they don’t seem to mind this, since the services they receive greatly reduce the stresses of life. They don’t have to worry about paying off crippling student loans or about going bankrupt because of medical bills. Other Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland—have similar services and also high levels of happiness, but Wiking argues that the practice of hygge boosts the happiness in Denmark to the top. 

The Little Book of Hygge is profusely illustrated with muted graphics in a rustic Scandinavian style that I liked. (Sadly, the illustrator is not credited.) This is a lightweight, fun book that you can buzz through in an hour or so. You may find some ideas for bringing more happiness into your life. Or at least you can learn how to make woven paper hearts.

After World War II

The Women in the Castle     Jessica Shattuck     (2017)

I had sworn off reading more novels set in World War II, because there are enough global injustices in the current news. But I decided that I’d try The Women in the Castle, because it’s set primarily right after World War II. I knew by page 10 that I was in the hands of an capable writer and that I’d stick with this novel. I read it in one day, gritting my teeth through the flashbacks to horrific scenes from the war.

In the spring of 1945, as the Nazi war machine collapses, millions of people are on the move across the European continent: prisoners of war being released, Russian soldiers running amok, civilian refugees returning to ruined villages or settling in crowded camps for displaced persons. They walk unfathomable distances in all weather, beset by injuries, diseases, assaults, and starvation.

Among the roaming throngs are surviving members of the German Resistance movement. These are the men and women within Germany who did not accept Hitler’s vision for their country and who tried, numerous times but unsuccessfully, to assassinate the Führer. Jessica Shattuck tells the stories of three fictional “widows of the Resistance” as they scrape together the fragments of their lives.

Inside Germany, Marianne von Lingenfels and her three children take shelter in a crumbling ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband, who was part of an assassination plot that led to gruesome execution for him and his fellow plotters. Marianne has made a vow to look after the families of her husband’s compatriots. She’s able to locate the widows Benita and Ania and their children and bring them to the castle, where they all lead a hardscrabble life.

This is the basis of the surface narrative in The Women in the Castle, and that narrative is full of secrets and mysteries, betrayals and senseless deaths, but also great love and kindness. The characters of the three women are distinct and deeply drawn as the plot moves back and forth in time.

The underlying story is more complex. Shattuck considers what it was like in the late 1930s to be pulled into the fascist maelstrom in Germany through something seemingly benign like the Landjahr Lager, a Nazi agricultural training and service program. She looks at how women survived World War II, particularly women in cities, where there was no access to food once all the shops had been bombed. She asks what political resistance really entailed on an individual level, in battle or in a concentration camp. She posits what it may have been like after the war for German resisters to live next door to returning Nazi soldiers—or worse, members of the SS. She explores the reactions of ordinary Germans to the incessant Nazi propaganda that covered up war atrocities. Here is a description of Ania, one of the widows in the novel:  “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t. She half knew—but there is no word for that. She knew it the way you know something is happening far way in a distant land, something you have no control over: earthquake refugees living in squalid conditions or victims in a foreign war.” (259)

I lived in Munich in 1973, one generation after the end of World War II. By then Munich had been rebuilt from rubble and was an immaculate, prosperous city with all the cultural amenities. But reminders of the war were all around in the form of the maimed bodies of many middle-aged and elderly men. No one ever talked about what had happened to the city or its inhabitants during the war. This silence of avoidance is exactly what Shattuck portrays in The Women in the Castle. With her powerful novel, I think that Shattuck is warning us that we must confront the hard truths of the past, lest we, too, be drawn into the xenophobia and bellicosity of a dictator.

Drabble Tackles Mortality

The Dark Flood Rises     Margaret Drabble     (2016)

By taking her title and epigraph from DH Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” Margaret Drabble alerts readers that there’s going to be a lot about mortality in this book.

Drabble’s novels over the past fifty-plus years have often related to the period of life that she is in at the time of the writing. Since she’s now in her late 70s, The Dark Flood Rises features mostly characters who are advanced in age. It’s an ensemble cast, with Fran Stubbs as the one whose interior musings we learn most about.

Fran, who works as a consultant on housing for the elderly, is seventy-something but doesn’t want to retire. She still drives all around Britain inspecting housing facilities and attending conferences. Drabble takes us inside Fran’s head, where we hear her extended thoughts on architecture and traffic, on Vikings and soft-boiled eggs. Given her profession, Fran can’t help but have her attention directed to the subjects of old age and death quite frequently. In addition to Fran, we also meet an extended circle of her colleagues, family, friends, and friends of friends, who have an assortment of ailments and personal losses. Most live in Britain, but some are expats living off the coast of Spain in the Canary Islands, a popular tourist and retirement destination for Britons.

The plot of The Dark Flood Rises is somewhat diffuse but nevertheless engrossing, as Fran helps out her bedridden ex-husband, her son (whose girlfriend has died suddenly), and friends in various states of ill health. Drabble describes Fran as living “in the world of obituaries now, in the malicious crepuscular light of memorial services.” (178) Meanwhile, elderly Britons in the Canary Islands are surrounded by picture-postcard delights, but the clock ticks for them also. All these characters are drawn in detail as they turn to drugs or alcohol or denial or opera or religious ritual or adaptive technologies to ease their situations. This summary makes the novel sound grim and macabre, but it actually has many comic incidents:  Fran getting her car stuck in a muddy field, her ex-husband trying to seduce his young caregiver, her friend Josephine teaching an adult education class.

Along the way we get magnificent tours of the English landscape and extended historical observations about the Canaries. The language is very rich, as you might expect from Drabble. Her cumulative adjectives are especially impressive—for instance, “the flowing sunlit electric-green weed-fronded depths of the slowly flowing water” or “the faded painted peeling pale blue of the woodwork.”

Bubbling below the surface narrative of The Dark Flood Rises, alarming destructive forces on a planetary level reflect the grappling of individuals with transience. Flood waters inundate Britain, perhaps due to global climate change. Hordes of refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa point to failures of political systems. Volcanic and seismic activity in the Canary Islands seem to indicate that Earth itself is groaning tectonically. Is the apocalypse near? Are people too obsessed with their own petty concerns—or even with major humanitarian issues—to notice? Is it better to over-prepare for death or to under-prepare? Is a lingering death or a sudden death preferable? In The Dark Flood Rises, life churns on, but disaster lurks in the rivers and under the mountains.

Readers over the age of about 50 will likely appreciate The Dark Flood Rises most. However, for readers at all stages of life, it’s an excellent examination of the vagaries of aging, set against the large-scale environmental and ethical challenges that humanity faces.