Two from the Bascombe Tetralogy

The Lay of the Land     Richard Ford     (2006)

Let Me Be Frank With You     Richard Ford     (2014)

These books are the third and fourth in Richard Ford’s tetralogy that follows the adult life of the character Frank Bascombe. Some background:

  • In the first novel of the series, The Sportswriter (1986), Frank is deep in grief over the death of his young son and his subsequent divorce from his wife. Although he had wanted to write fiction, he’s turned to writing about sports to support himself.
  • In Ford’s second offering, Independence Day (1995), Frank has changed careers and is selling real estate in New Jersey. This novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is set at the titular American holiday.
  • Holiday celebrations, which often cause simmering family tensions to boil over, figure prominently in all four books about Frank. An Easter dinner is a key scene in The Sportswriter, and the two books that I’m reviewing here are set at Thanksgiving (The Lay of the Land) and during the Christmas season (Let Me Be Frank With You).
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In The Lay of the Land, the political backdrop is the contested presidential election of 2000, which was still not decided by Thanksgiving of that year, so tension and accusation and fear are in the air. As always, Ford’s focus is on Frank Bascombe’s inner life, narrated in first person. Speaking to his adult daughter, Clarissa, Frank says, “I’ll commit suicide before I keep a fucking diary. Diaries are for weaklings and old queer professors. Which I’m not.” (240) And yet this entire novel is like a very detailed, highly reflective diary. Frank is now fifty-five and married to his second wife, Sally Caldwell. He’s recently been treated for prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic. You might find Frank’s trips to the toilet tiresome, but his need to empty his bladder frequently is a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over him.

He calls this phase of his life “the Permanent Period—no fear of future, life not ruinable, the past generalized to a pleasant pinkish blur.” (249) There’s a fatalism to Frank’s categorization of late middle age in this way. He’s still selling real estate, though he does have occasional regrets about giving up his dream of writing fiction. He rationalizes: “Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up importance from life-run-rampant just by choosing, changing and telling. Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well.” (84)

The Lay of the Land is expansive, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. It’s the work of an accomplished prose stylist who gives us a view into an ordinary life on ordinary and non-so-ordinary days. The exquisite specificity with which Frank describes his surroundings contrasts with his inability to connect with some people. These people are sometimes fairly conventional—like Sally—and sometimes quite unusual—like the Tibetan Buddhist with the Americanized name, Mike Mahoney, “a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo” (14) who works for Frank’s real estate office on the Jersey Shore.                                 

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The theme of Frank’s relationships is developed further in the most recent volume of the tetralogy, Let Me Be Frank With You, four linked short stories in which Frank Bascombe meets with four different people from his past. The year 2012 is coming to an end, and New Jersey is reeling from the October onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. All around him is destruction, but Frank has survived that cancer diagnosis so far, and in retirement he’s withdrawn more into himself. “For months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness.” (187) He provides a summation of how he sees his own character: “. . . a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” (140-41) Well, Frank may think he’s always “nice,” but readers can catch him in some unkind deeds.

I found Let Me Be Frank With You less masterful than The Lay of the Land, and I noted a few discontinuities, such as Sally’s birthday moving from summer to near Christmas. Still, Ford’s trademark particularization pulls you in, letting you gape at the damage wrought by the hurricane (and by the previous collapse of the real estate market in 2008), letting you linger on the inevitable wrinkles in the aging faces of the characters.

The Frank Bascombe tetralogy is by turns hilarious and devastatingly serious, honest and deceptive, reflecting the life of one American man—and a slice of American history.

New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)


Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

A Refugee Fable

Exit West     Mohsin Hamid     (2017)


Author Mohsin Hamid is known for his experimental prose: Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). His latest novel, Exit West, can appear to be a more conventional novel—that is, until you hit the magical doors. These doors whisk Hamid’s characters to another country, with some similarities to the door through which CS Lewis takes his characters to Narnia. But Hamid’s characters definitely do not end up in Narnia. They’re refugees, fleeing their native country, where “militants” cause increasing upheaval and danger.

Nadia and Saeed are middle-class, college-educated professionals, working for an insurance company and an advertising agency, respectively, and living in an unnamed large city in an unnamed country that seems to be in the Middle East. The story opens as these two are just getting to know each other romantically. In the background, terrorism gradually encroaches on their lives and the lives of their families. Buildings are bombed and militants haul away people considered to be dissidents. Nadia and Saeed try to maintain a semblance of routine at first. They continue to go to work, attend their evening class, meet for coffee. Eventually, as electricity and water are cut off and their places of employment are shuttered, they hunker down with hoarded supplies. They truly do not want to leave their country, the place of their birth, but if they want to stay alive, it becomes clear that they must flee.

Nadia and Saeed seek basic survival in three successive refugee encampments, in Greece, England, and then the United States. Even though these nations are named, Hamid transforms them into dystopias. The narrator of Exit West tells us that “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end.” (245)

The frequent dislocation of their lives as refugees takes a toll on Nadia and Saeed’s relationship. “Every time a couple moves they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” (212)

Saeed, in particular, misses his home: “He was drawn to people from their country, both in the labor camp and online. It seemed to Nadia that the farther they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.”  (213)

Mohsin Hamid was writing Exit West as the global refugee crisis was escalating, but he could not have foreseen world events of the year 2017, such as the travel bans instituted in the United States or the uptick in terrorist attacks in his native Pakistan. His prescient novel personalizes the plight of refugees—ordinary people who through no fault of their own are caught up in war and terrorism, who flee with great reluctance, leaving behind virtually all their possessions, clinging to the few family members who have not perished.

Near the end of Exit West, we hear from an “old woman” who has lived her entire life in Palo Alto, California:  “. . . it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (237)

There’s a very good reason why Exit West was on so many lists of the best books of the year 2017.

Guest Review: Trump's America

The review below was written by Paul R. Schwankl, who comments, "I am delighted to step in for a guest appearance on the Cedar Park Book Blog!"

One Nation after Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not Yet Deported      E. J. Dionne Jr, Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann     (2017)


New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s Republican brother Kevin included this gloat in his annual guest column for 2017: “[Concerning] Trump’s daily activity: I do not follow every move he makes. I counsel my Democratic friends to do the same, but they cannot help themselves.”

If you did not support Trump in the 2016 election, perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re taking in much more news and commentary than you did when Barack Obama was president. You may ask whether you’re doing so because you’re a morbidly curious person, like drivers gawking at a highway accident, or because you’re a patriot, keeping up that eternal vigilance that is the price of liberty. For both patriots and gawkers, I recommend One Nation after Trump, which deals in its two parts with (1) what is wrong about Trumpism and (2) what we can do about it.

Even if you know about all the outrages that come up in the first part of this book (I found no great surprises), it helps to hear them summarized and succinctly discussed by this trio of gracious writers who are famously and fervently fair to those who disagree with them. They have chapters for how Trump treats truth, his beyond-bad manners, his dictatorial tendencies, and his betrayal of the white working-class voters who some say are his true base.

Then the authors move on to “The Way Forward,” believing that, as their title says, there can be one nation after Trump. I don’t think that such a single nation is at all a sure thing, but some combination of what Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann advocate has something of a chance. They first call for a revived partnership between government and the private economy, pointing out that this approach led to our greatest prosperity in the past. Such a move could get past the Koch brothers’ rewriting of history, but it’s an uphill struggle.

Next they propose:

  • A new patriotism without today’s xenophobia and racism, under the slogan “Make America empathetic again.” Are there enough Americans who would rather be empathetic than “great”? I can only hope.
  • A revivified civil society, reversing some of the trends noted in Robert Putnam’s 2001 Bowling Alone. Civil society is a vast checkerboard of institutions that call for some allegiance that’s neither to family nor to government. The remedies involve everything from the Sierra Club to community colleges to national community service programs for youth. It occurs to me that it will be hard to boost civil society without attention to American workers’ lack of free time and free money. Again, better jobs are needed.
  • A new democracy. The enemies here include infringements on the right to vote, gerrymandering (being addressed very promisingly here in Michigan), the current Electoral College system, and counterproductive rules in Congress. I’m always amazed at how much lawyers can get done here—and how little can get down without lawyers!

The final chapter of One Nation after Trump urges readers to “show up, dive in, [and] stay in it.” Some great popular forces are moving as people get active (or more active), and there could be big party realignments. But after seeing Trumpism arise, I have no confidence in my ability to predict realignments. I hope that it will turn out mostly well, but I’m sure it will be quite a ride.




Irishmen at the 1939 World's Fair

The World of Tomorrow     Brendan Mathews     (2017)


The cover of this novel depicts the key setting: New York in 1939, site of the World’s Fair, with its theme and slogan “The World of Tomorrow.” When you open the book, the endpapers offer a map of the fairgrounds, with the iconic trylon and perisphere structures, which are also on the back cover.

Brendan Mathews compresses almost all the action of his novel into one week in New York City in early June of 1939, a time when the Great Depression had eased, when the future in America seemed bright, when World War II was still unimaginable to most Americans, despite the actions of Hitler in Europe. Three Irish brothers are at the center of a large cast of characters. Francis Dempsey has fled Ireland after a prison break and a run-in with the Irish Republican Army that left him, unexpectedly, with a bundle of cash. With Francis is his brother Michael, a disenchanted seminarian who has been severely injured by an IRA bomb. Francis and Michael assume fake identities when they arrive in New York, but they do seek out the third brother, Martin, who is married to Rosemary and has two daughters. We learn about Rosemary’s complicated family history in New York, and we also pick up the stories of other characters who will cross paths with the Dempseys. Irish expatriate Tom Cronin is a retired hit man who is called back to the city to retrieve the cash that Francis lifted from the IRA. Lilly Bloch is a Jewish street photographer from Czechoslovakia who’s on a limited visa in New York but is hesitant to return to her home and her fiancé given the Nazi presence in Prague.

The plot can be as rollicking as a slapstick Laurel and Hardy movie of the period, and when Mathews is in this mode, the pages turn themselves, especially in the climatic final scenes at the World’s Fair. However, I did find Mathews’s supernatural elements sometimes hard to swallow. The shell-shocked Michael has long conversations with the ghost of the poet William Butler Yeats. This is a way for readers to know what Michael, who cannot speak, is thinking, but it can get tedious.

Quibbling aside, The World of Tomorrow is serious and well written historical fiction, weaving in the funding of IRA terrorism by Irish Americans, the role of women in the mid-twentieth century, the political corruption of New York, and the competitive jazz scene of the city. Here is Martin, dragging home at dawn from a jazz gig: “. . . the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after-hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses—this was the New York he had come seeking.” (45-46)

Hanging over all the narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is to come:  “The World of Tomorrow” will be postponed until after a long, devastating war that stretched around the globe. In the closing pages of the novel, Mathews spells this out: “. . . the story of the months and years ahead would be broadcast in boldface headlines and urgent radio bulletins. It would be told in V-Mail and telegrams from the War Department and in prayers offered in church. More than they could know, it would be written in silences, absences, and empty spaces. But the story of those years would also be told in love letters saved and bundled in ribbon, and in songs dreamed up during nights in the barracks, and in the warmth of the spotlight before the first note was sung, and in sunlit hours when it was possible to believe that everyone you had lost was only late, and would be home soon enough.” (546)

FAQs at the One-Year Mark

The Cedar Park Book Blogger Answers Your Questions


What are your goals in posting on the Cedar Park Book Blog?  I select and then discuss books that I hope my blog-followers will enjoy reading. I also want to draw attention to the activities of Cedar Park Press, which hosts the Cedar Park Book Blog. Plus, I find it helpful to my own future reading choices if I analyze a book once I reach the final page!

What genres do you review?  I review literary fiction, plus some social history and biography. Within literary fiction, I gravitate toward historical fiction and mysteries, but I review quite a few novels set in the present day, including some fiction in the subgenre known (unfortunately, I think) as chick lit. I avoid science fiction, fantasy, horror, thrillers, and graphic novels, so I don’t even crack open a great many of the books being published.

Why do you avoid reading and reviewing certain genres?  I find it amazing that today’s reading public eats up fiction that contains so many gruesome or violent scenes. When this fiction is well written, it can be so realistically scary that it gives me nightmares! Is this public taste for the grisly, the macabre, and the shocking a way for people to feel better about the difficult world we live in? In other words, does reading about a fictional world that is much worse than the actual world make the readers feel better somehow? I prefer books that treat the human predicament more subtly. I also admit that I’m a sucker for happy endings.

What about dystopian fiction?  Dystopian fiction can be part of the landscape of horror, as Jill Lepore wrote in an insightful piece for The New Yorker in 2017. I did venture to review the dystopian novel The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, though I found it creepy at times. I don’t plan to pick up more books like that one.

Why do you review so many British and American books?  British and American publications are the ones most available to me, but in the blog mix you’ll find a fair number of novels by authors from other countries. In the Archive in the right-hand column, you can click on “Irish Novels,” “Australian Novels,” and “International Novels.” The “International Novels” section includes fiction written in English (like Stay with Me from Nigeria) and fiction translated into English (like Ties from Italy and A Man Called Ove from Sweden).

Do you review only books that were written recently?  I do focus primarily on books that have come out in the past few years. Sometimes, however, I’ll review a classic (like Pat Conroy’s 1986 The Prince of Tides) or a series of books that has continued to the present (like Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about Isabel Dalhousie). I’ve also reached back into the 1990s for reviews of some series of mystery novels that I’ve enjoyed (like Margaret Frazer’s series starring Dame Frevisse).

How do you decide if you’ll review a series of books?  If I find a book in a series that I particularly like, I may binge-read the entire series and then review it as a whole. More often, though, I’ve been following a series for a decade or more, and my review on the Cedar Park Book Blog is triggered by the publication of a new entry in the series. For example, I reviewed the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear when the latest title, In This Grave Hour, came out in 2017. I found this book the weakest of the series, but I recommended the series as a whole very highly.

Why do I see so many reviews of medieval mysteries on the blog?  This sub-genre is a special interest of mine, partially because of my academic background in medieval studies, so I’ve re-read some of my favorite titles from a decade or so ago and offered recommendations. I’ve also reviewed a good mystery series set in Tudor England, by CJ Sansom.

Within the genres that you review, how do you choose specific books?  I scan the New York Times and my local library’s lists of new books for titles. I read book blurbs, those brief summaries of plot put out by Publishers’ Weekly or, to help me find suitable reads. I put off reading full reviews of a book until I’ve reviewed the book myself, so that I’m not swayed by the opinions of others. I’m surprised at how many reviews by others are positive. Often (often!) I’ve found a title execrable only to discover that many reviewers at places like the New York Times and the Guardian praised it to the heavens. Ben Yagoda echoed my thoughts in a good article for called “The Reviewer’s Fallacy: When Critics Aren’t Critical Enough.” You can rest assured that I’m not receiving kickbacks from publishers or pressure from superiors to praise a book that’s poorly written!

Do you post a review for every book that you read?  I post a review for every book that I finish reading. Every week I haul home from the library six to ten books from my chosen genres. One by one, I stack them into the pile to go back to the library, most rejected after a few pages or a couple of chapters.

What would make you abandon reading a book?  Oh, disgust will do it. For example, I recently started to read Tom Perrotta’s 2017 bestseller, Mrs. Fletcher. Right away, there were sex scenes. I usually like the sex scenes in novels, and I review a lot of fiction with erotic components. But the exploitative sex in Mrs. Fletcher repulsed me so much that I gave up on this book. Scenes of extreme violence work the same way. And I’ll sometimes abandon a novel because the narrative line is murky, as in Jon McGregor's Reservoir 13. Even if a book has great lyricism,  I still want to be carried along by a solid plot, with well-developed characters. I fully understand that there are schools within modern fiction where traditional plotting is disdained. Sorry, friends, but humans have loved plots for thousands of years. I have stories in my life, and I like to relate to the stories in the lives of others.

Why don’t you use a “star” system for rating titles?  I find it deceptive to collapse assessments of plot, characters, descriptions, imagery, historical accuracy, and other aspects of a book into one rating. I addition, I think that star ratings tend to be inflated, that reviewers hedge by granting mediocre books three stars out of five. Instead of this system, I aim for nuanced and candid reviews, to help you decide if you’d want to read the book yourself. If I give a title a full review on the Cedar Park Book Blog, you can be assured that I found the book worth reading. If the book rises into my “favorites” category, I’ll tell you that in my post. If the book is worth reading but I have some caveats, I’ll tell you that, too. For example, check out the caveats in my review of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

What are you doing to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Cedar Park Book Blog?  I’m reading more books! And I leave you with a wise sentence from Claudia Roth Pierpont, applicable to both writers and readers: “Words ordered on a page may supply some order for one’s life, may assuage and even redeem tragedy.” (The New Yorker, March 6, 2017)

Cedar Park Press is pleased to announce the publication of Adventures of a Girl Architect by Hazel Harzinger. Click here to purchase this title in digital or paperback format.

Ties that Bind

Ties     Domenico Starnone     (in Italian, 2014)

Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri     (in English, 2016)


The marriage of Vanda and Aldo is the centerpiece of Ties, and novelist Domenico Starnone offers us multiple perspectives on that relationship without coming to any definitive conclusions about it. First, we have the texts of letters that Vanda wrote to Aldo in the 1970s, when he left her and their two young children to live with a much younger woman. Vanda rants and raves about Aldo’s departure, and her voice is totally believable. The next section of the novel is narrated by Aldo in the present day, some forty years later, with glances back to earlier phases of his life. In the final section, we hear from Vanda and Aldo’s adult daughter, Anna, who recounts conversations with her brother, Sandro, in the present day. As readers, we have to assess the reliability of these differing viewpoints, with their differing views of the marriage of Vanda and Aldo.

Aldo, speaking as an elderly man, tells us, “At my age, it’s easy to turn a suspicion into a valid hypothesis, a valid hypothesis into an absolute certainty, an absolute certainty into an obsession.” (114) This could be a warning for the reader of Ties: watch what you accept from the narrators, from Vanda and Aldo and Anna. All is not as it seems, and pure truth is elusive.

In her translator’s introduction to Ties, Jhumpa Lahiri, herself an accomplished author of fiction, writes about the complexity of Starnone’s themes: “The entire structure of this novel, in fact, seems to me a series of Chinese boxes, one element of the plot discretely and impeccably nestled within the next. There is no hole in the construction, no fissure.” (12)

There are physical boxes in Ties, including the “box” that is the apartment in Rome where Vanda and Aldo live. On a shelf in that apartment is a shiny blue decorative cube that Aldo bought in Prague. It has a hidden compartment that holds secrets. Other boxes turn up, such as the box that contains a medical device for Vanda. Starnone also seems to point to metaphorical boxes that people construct around themselves, such as marriage, family, job.

The cover of Ties has a picture, which you can see in the inset to this review, of tangled shoelaces on the shoes that a man is wearing. The drawing, selected by the author, points to another major metaphor of the novel: the ties between people. For instance, speaking to Sandro, Anna comments, “The only ties that counted for our parents were the ones they’ve tortured each other with their whole lives.” (135)

Our translator tells us that the Italian title for this novel, Lacci, is literally “shoelaces” but also has the connotation of “a means of bridling, of capturing something.” (17) Most literally, the title connects to the unconventional way that Aldo ties his shoelaces. Aldo taught his son, Sandro, to tie shoelaces in this way when Sandro was very young. Anna has always noticed this, and she comments, “It’s true, only the two of you tie your shoes like that.” (98)  Perhaps, like shoelaces, some of the ties between people are universal and others are unique.

I caught a few typos, but Lahiri’s translation is sparkling—idiomatic and accessible, unlike translations of some other Italian novels that I’ve tried. I don’t want to wade into the controversy about how autobiographical Ties might be. Domenico Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who is allegedly the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the author of the four-volume Neapolitan Novels that are wildly popular all over the world. Like Starnone, Ferrante treats issues of marital infidelity and of the ties that bind families and friends together. But Starnone’s Ties stands on its own and is a delight to read.

An Embezzler in Brooklyn

The Misfortune of Marion Palm     Emily Culliton     (2017)

When I tell you that this novel is set in contemporary New York, you may be thinking, “Not another story about bored rich people and their sad affairs!” Well, this one is different.


Marion Palm, the central character in Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is not a New Yorker you’d find in a Jay McInerney novel. She’s a college dropout who’s overweight, not very attractive, and keen on embezzlement. Yes, she lives in a pricey Brooklyn brownstone, but that’s only because she married Nathan, a clueless poet. His trust fund turns out to be smaller than Marion assumed, so Marion embezzles to bring the place up to standard and maintain their lifestyle. She has access to money because she’s a development officer, raising funds at the private school that her two daughters attend. Marion is very good at embezzling, but this school is run so haphazardly that stealing from the till is a piece of cake.

As the book opens, however, an IRS audit of the school is looming. So Marion takes off with a backpack full of cash, leaving Nathan and the young daughters. Marion is not as adept at running away as she is at embezzling, which leads to her involvement with Russian gangsters. Nathan, meanwhile, can barely order pizza delivery and get the girls out the door to the school bus.

Marion’s motivation for fleeing is not only the audit. She has a useless husband and no friends. As we learn in flashbacks, she’s had some raw deals in life. She’s disenchanted with her fake upper-middle-class life and the disdain with which she’s treated by the other parents at the school. She can see how wealthy New Yorkers squander their superfluous dollars, and she views her thefts as helping to correct financial inequality, Robin-Hood style. These issues outweigh Marion’s devotion to her children.  

Novelist Culliton’s prose is economical, her dialogue is rapid-fire, and her chapters are brief. Don’t assume that this means that her underlying themes aren’t serious. The plot moves along so speedily that I recommend reading The Misfortune of Marion Palm in one sitting, to get the full effect.

If you like The Misfortune of Marion Palm, you might want to pick up another mold-breaking Brooklyn novel, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s satiric Class, reviewed here. Novelist Maria Semple’s offerings also have a similar feel. Check out my review of Semple’s Today Will Be Different, set in Seattle, here. Like Culliton’s novel, these two also puncture the pretentiousness of the monied set. 

Sonata II: A Czech Musical Quest

 The Prague Sonata     Bradford Morrow     (2017)


“Sonata” is the theme for this Bradford Morrow novel as well as for the novel I reviewed in a recent post, Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Yet these two books are totally different in style and plot. 

The Prague Sonata centers on a fictional manuscript of a musical work from the late eighteenth century. Meta Taverner, a musicologist in New York City in the year 2000, is given one of the three movements of this unknown piano sonata by an elderly Czech woman who then promptly dies. Meta sets out on a mission, starting in the Czech Republic, to locate the remaining two movements of the sonata and to determine its composer.

The Prague Sonata is an amalgam of quest and mystery novel. There’s also a good chunk of historical fiction, as we travel back to Prague in the days before and during World War II to meet the woman who separated the three movements of the sonata in the face of the arrival of Nazi troops. Morrow explores the connections between the twentieth-century Czech owner of the manuscript and the twenty-first-century sonata seeker: “Had Meta herself been bequeathed a handwritten sonata from a fond, eccentric father, would she have had the guts and the wisdom to split it into three orphaned movements in hopes of protecting it from the enemy?” (70)

Classical musicians and lovers of classical music (among whom I count myself) will find much to enjoy in The Prague Sonata, which includes details of musical notation and rhapsodic descriptions of performances of the mysterious sonata. Trooping through the streets of Prague with Meta, I became genuinely interested in how the movements of the sonata might be reunited and how the composer might be ascertained. Occasionally, however, Morrow’s musical metaphors become strained:  “Despite her doubts about love at first sight . . . they’d been improvising a duet on either side of the river. A duet that wanted to evolve into a fugue. One whose harmonic and rhythmic structures moved toward the same resolution.” (231)

Morrow also wants to tell us a lot about Czech history, not only from the World War II era but also from the time of the Velvet Revolution against the Soviets in 1989. If these and other background paragraphs had been edited down, the pace of the novel would have picked up. A romance component does add spark to the narrative. Meta’s lawyer boyfriend, who remains behind in New York, is unsympathetic to her quest in the Czech Republic, leaving her open to forming a new relationship. I won’t reveal spoilers!

Late in The Prague Sonata a character brings up Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, arguably the best fictional depiction of Czech immigrants (called “Bohemians”) in the United States: “’This was written years ago, but the heartland of Nebraska and the Bohemians who settled there haven’t changed all that much. Time kind of stands still on the prairie.’” (385-6) I read My Ántonia recently and found this American classic to be surprisingly nuanced. Between My Ántonia and The Prague Sonata you can get a sense of the richness of Czech culture.

Sonata I: The Swiss Character

The Gustav Sonata     Rose Tremain     (2016)


The setting is Switzerland after World War II and, in flashbacks, before World War II. Author Rose Tremain delves into the traditional stereotypes of Swiss character as well as the fraught issue of Swiss neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.

With exceptionally spare prose, Tremain propels along the story of Gustav Perle; his widowed mother, Emilie; and his best friend, Anton Zweibel. The novel opens in 1947, when Gustav is five years old, and we learn immediately that Emilie is a harsh taskmaster to Gustav: “He never cried. He could often feel a cry trying to come up from his heart, but he always forced it down. Because this was how Emilie had told him to behave in the world. He had to master himself. “ (4)

Gustav’s life changes the day in 1948 when his kindergarten teacher assigns him as mentor to a new student, Anton, a piano prodigy from an exuberant and friendly Jewish family. Emilie is wary of the boys’ budding friendship: “’The Jews are the people your father died trying to save.’” (17) Well, as we’ll learn later in the novel, that isn’t exactly what happened during the war.

The story of the death of Gustav’s father is complicated, but his involvement with Jewish refugees in the early days of the war was perhaps partly inspired by the true story of a Swiss police officer who broke the law by aiding Jews. The closing of the Swiss borders to Jews in 1938 sent many to concentration camps and gas chambers. I don’t think that it’s accidental that The Gustav Sonata has been published when Europe is once again facing a refugee crisis with profound humanitarian and political implications.

Beyond this back story about Gustav’s father, the novel moves forward in time to the 1990s, when Gustav and Anton are both middle-aged. Gustav is the owner of a small hotel in his home town of Matzlingen. Anton, who could not survive the performance pressures of being a concert pianist, is a music teacher in the same place. One final crisis leads to the resolution of the plot, much as a final cadence ends a musical composition.

In my husband’s family there’s a phrase that’s used to describe the mindset of his Swiss ancestors: “Alles ist in bester Ordnung.”  The literal translation is “Everything is in the best order,” but the underlying message is that the Swiss have a passion for orderliness, for precision, for suppressing conflict and emotion, sometimes to the detriment of human kindness. Gustav, in particular, seems to conform to this Swiss stereotype, but Tremain’s novel shows us how he eventually breaks free.

For another novel that has “sonata” in the title, though with a very different tone and setting, check out my review next Friday!

Family Drama in the Florida Heat

Heart of Palm     Laura Lee Smith     (2013)

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I wanted to read Laura Lee Smith’s 2017 novel, The Ice House, but my local library hasn’t bought it yet. So I checked out Smith’s 2013 novel, Heart of Palm, to see what her writing is like. I was confused at first by the cover of Heart of Palm, which looks like the front of a cheesy romance novel, but I decided to dip in anyway. Then, right off the bat, I encountered a horrific accident in the Prologue. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t care for scenes of horror, and the grisliness of this episode almost kept me from continuing. But I’m very glad that I stuck with Heart of Palm.  

This is a novel of the American South, populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—but stopping short of stereotypes. In 1964, the wealthy and sophisticated Arla Bolton up and marries penniless bad boy Dean Bravo in the fictional Utina, a backwater town near St. Augustine, in northeastern Florida. There’s our set-up for marital difficulties, sibling rivalries, and various brawls. As we move from the 1960s to the present day for the main action, the adult children of Arla and Dean are faced with the extraordinary appreciation of their real estate, which happens to be situated on the Intracoastal Waterway. Being a Midwesterner, I was unfamiliar with this important shipping route along the Atlantic Coast, made up of both natural rivers and artificial canals. The Bravo clan is accustomed to living amidst the swampy tangle of vegetation that lies along the Atlantic and the Intracoastal, and they struggle with whether to sell to the real estate developers who want their parcels of land.

In addition to this main plot about real estate, each of the Bravos has a subplot, and several of the other quirky characters in Utina also get subplots. Novelist Smith develops all the storylines with a deftness that invites immersion in the text. She supports her narrative with descriptions that plop you right under the drooping fronds of palmettos, wiping your brow and sipping a cold brew. With Smith’s pervasive portrayal of the Florida heat, I could feel the suffocating air that makes your clothes stick and your head spin. No wonder the Southerners in Heart of Palm are a bit crazed. They need better air conditioning equipment!

Smith treats her characters—even the scoundrels—with empathy as they make the best of their situations, and she works their tales to a satisfying conclusion. So, will I still be looking to check out Smith’s The Ice House when it arrives at my library? You bet.

An Irish Cozy Mystery

Holding     Graham Norton     (2017)

A village in the west of Ireland, a human skeleton unearthed at a building site, gossip about old love triangles, and a bumbling local police sergeant:  all the ingredients for a classic cozy mystery novel. Holding is indeed that, but it goes beyond the genre.


In Holding, Graham Norton has produced some noteworthy character studies of mature people who are at turning points in their lives. He has readers sympathizing with the middle-aged police sergeant, PJ Collins, who is overweight, underutilized, and desperately lonely. Norton also pulls us into the plight of middle-aged Brid Riordan, who loves her kids but often gets drunk to forget how unhappy her marriage is. Another character is Evelyn Ross, who’s stuck in the past, lamenting a failed romance from twenty-odd years ago. There’s also PJ’s elderly housekeeper, Lizzie Meany, whose background is revealed in a heartbreaking and surprisingly violent segment of the novel.

The mystery plot is not that tricky for readers who read a lot of cozies—I guessed the identity of the bones early on and had a good idea who buried them by the midpoint of the book. Still, the climax of the book, with the solution of the mystery, was suitably tense for me. It’s the unraveling of the story, with the appropriate red herrings, that gives the author scope for more interactions of his characters. PJ, for example, compromises his professionalism in his dealings with two of the murder suspects, and Brid makes some major changes in her family situation.

Holding has such a classic-1930s-mystery vibe to it that modern elements like DNA testing and mobile phones seemed slightly odd at first, but Norton skillfully integrates twenty-first-century technology into a rural Ireland that in some ways has not changed for a century—the pubs on the main street, the church fete, the outlying farms and hedgerows. He does allow, of course, for occasional lapses in phone reception that will advance his plot!  

Although I had never heard of him before, Irish-born Graham Norton is a well-known television personality and cultural commentator in Britain. This status might have gained him some book sales in the European market, but it clearly didn’t influence my decision to pick up Holding at my local library and stick with it to the end. (I have a “50-page test.”  I assess each title that I start reading at the 50-page mark to decide if I want to invest more time it in. I abandon many, many books even before page 50. Holding easily passed this test.)

The epilogue of Holding contains suggestions that more adventures of Sergeant PJ Collins may be forthcoming. I hope Norton takes time from his television career to produce another PJ mystery. I’ll be on the lookout!

Favorite Reads of 2017

I’ve reviewed 101 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in the calendar year 2017, counting reviews of book series as one book. Thirteen individual titles, listed below, stand out as favorites of mine. Not all were published in 2017, but all were reviewed on my blog in 2017.

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Pre-eliminated from this list are titles from categories that I don’t read—science fiction, fantasy, thriller, and horror. I also abandon fiction that turns out to have what I consider to be too many scenes of extreme violence. So this list of my favorites is heavy on historical fiction, family sagas, and introspective novels. I was surprised that none of the many mystery novels that I reviewed stood out for me as top choices for the year. I think of myself as loving mysteries, especially historical mysteries, but in selecting favorites I gravitated toward non-mysteries that presented ethical challenges and complex family dynamics. I occasionally review biographies and social histories, and one social/economic history, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, made my list of favorites.

The brief blurbs here do not begin to do justice to these books. Click on the title to go to my full review! Here are my favorite reads of 2017, in alphabetical order by title:

  • Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. Interconnected short stories about families in a rural Illinois town; sort of a sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton.
  • Barkskins by Annie Proulx. A sweeping three-century saga of two French Canadian families and their relationship to the forests of North America.
  • The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. Looking at mortality and the environment through the lens of a contemporary British family.
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. An awkward and abused woman in Glasgow faces her demons and seeks to change her life.
  • The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Interlocking stories about the experiences of Chinese immigrants in America over the past century.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Adventures of a Russian aristocrat under house arrest in a Moscow hotel from 1922 to 1954.
  • The Golden Age by Joan London. Two young polio victims grow up in a convalescent home in Australia in the 1950s.
  • The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith. Visiting a painting and its impact on families in the Netherlands (1636-1649), in New York (1957-1958), and in Sydney (2000).
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon. The fictional biography of a Jewish engineer, recounted by his grandson, touching on key events of the twentieth century.
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf.  Two neighbors in their 70s find companionship and tackle difficulties together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The struggles of Korean immigrant families in Japan during the twentieth century.
  • The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon.  A huge and detailed nonfiction book, with emphasis on food, housing, sanitation, and consumer goods that have shaped the economy.
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Hardscrabble life in Germany in the aftermath of World War II, with reflections on the rise of Hitler.     

Eight of the titles that I reviewed in 2017 appeared in the New York Times list of “100 Notable Books of 2017.” This list has some overlap with the above list of my own favorites:

I’m looking forward to many more great books in 2018!


A Marriage in Nigeria

Stay with Me     Ayobami Adebayo     (2017)

In some traditional cultures, a wife who doesn’t produce male offspring for her husband can be supplanted by an additional wife who might be more fertile. Polygamy and paternalism are accepted.


In the contemporary Nigerian novel Stay With Me, Akin and Yejide are a modern couple. Theirs is a love match, not an arranged marriage. When they meet at university in the 1980s, they discover their immediate attraction to each other as well as their compatibility—sharing, for example, a keen interest in the Nigerian and international political scene. After several years of marriage, however, they remain childless. Akin is devoted to Yejide and doesn’t want a second wife, but he’s prodded relentlessly by his family until he takes on wife #2, Funmi, and installs her in an apartment separate from the home he shares with Yejide. They can afford this apartment because Akin is a successful accountant, and Yejide is the owner of a thriving hairdressing salon. Funmi is an especially stinging insult to Yejide because her own mother died giving birth to her, leaving her to be brought up by multiple cruel stepmothers. 

That’s the plot setup, which gets complicated by infidelities, deceptions, outright lies, and  sickle cell disease. The narrative alternates between the 1980s and 2008 and between first-person accounts by Yejide and Akin. Another seesawing is between folk practices (some of them downright dangerous) and modern medical procedures (some of them emotionally unsettling). Traditional Nigerian tales exist side-by-side with discussion of recent Nigerian political affairs. The women in Stay with Me assert influence within the family circle, and some women, like Yejide, attend university or own businesses. Yet that pressure on wives to produce male heirs is intense. As Yejide reflects: “The reasons why we do the things we do will not always be the ones that others will remember. Sometimes I think we have children because we want to leave behind someone who can explain who we were to the world when we are gone.” (119)

Through context I navigated the many honorifics that Nigerians employ to express respect for their neighbors, business associates, and relatives, particularly their elders. The dialogue here is resonant and revealing of character. A few of novelist Adebayo’s plot twists are awkward, but she gives us a view into her rich culture, peopled by men and women who strive to make the best of the lot they are dealt.

I leave you with some questions: Is the title STAY with Me or Stay with ME?  Is Akin asking Yejide to stick with him despite all their infertility problems? Or is Yejide asking Akin to be her exclusive marital partner? Or is it both?

Stay with Me was selected by the New York Times as one of the "100 Notable Books of 2017."


Asperger's in Manhattan

Standard Deviation     Katherine Heiny     (2017)


You probably know someone like Standard Deviation’s Audra, a stream-of-consciousness, nonstop chatterer who talks to strangers on the bus and in the elevator, freely associating from one topic to all adjacent topics. You might find her endearing, or you might find her highly irritating and intrusive. Graham, her husband, finds her endearing most of the time, even when she proposes pretty outrageous activities, such as striking up a friendship with Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, whom he hasn’t seen in twelve years. In case you’re wondering, yup, Graham left Elspeth for the much younger Audra.

Katherine Heiny’s episodic novel takes us up and down the streets of Manhattan for the adventures of Graham and Audra; their ten-year-old son, Matthew; and Elspeth. Audra leads the way with hilarious monologues. For example, at an origami convention to which Graham and Audra have taken Matthew, Audra exclaims impatiently while waiting in a queue,  “‘What I don’t understand about origami . . . is why can’t anyone like it a little bit? Why aren’t there nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of origami, the way there are nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of bondage?’”(110) Wherever Audra treads, innocent bystanders reel in shock.

But hidden in plain sight in this book is a serious examination of the difficulties of raising a child with autism spectrum disorder. The doctor diagnosing Matthew tells the parents, “’Matthew’s score on the questionnaires for oversensitivity to stimulation ranked more than a full standard deviation above the range for children his age.’” (232) This passage is where we finally find out what the title of the novel means. Heiny presents the case of young Matthew with clear-eyed, unsparing detail, and she presents his parents as devoted unreservedly to helping him become an independent adult. The plot of Standard Deviation trails off in about the final third of the book, but that may be to give the impression of how the lives of Graham and Audra and Matthew will continue in the same vein.

The third-person narrative of the novel is told mainly from Graham’s point of view, and Heiny offers us plenty of Graham’s musings on his family situation:

  • “Who was this doctor to say that because of standard deviation, Matthew stood firmly on the stark cracked-earth desert of Asperger’s, that he would never feel the long cool green shade of normal?” (232)
  • “Graham had been developing a theory lately that the parents of kids with Asperger’s also had Asperger’s only less pronounced. A milder Asperger’s. The seeds of Asperger’s . . . Of all the dozens of special-needs kids’ parents he knew, one parent of every couple always seemed a bit odd, a bit eccentric, a bit Aspergery.” (212)

Indeed, one wonders how Matthew’s mother, Audra, would be diagnosed.

After writing a draft of this review, I read some other major reviews. I was surprised that the reviewers focused on the relationship triangle of Graham, Audra (his current wife), and Elspeth (his ex-wife). That was certainly a sub-plot in the novel, but I found the relationship between Matthew and his parents (Graham and Audra) much more significant. Neither the highly amusing dialogue nor the Manhattan scenery detracts from this book’s thoughtful treatment of the issue of autism.

Fiction with a Christmas Setting

Whether Christmas for you is a religious observance, a civic holiday, or just another day of the week, you can’t avoid the hype in modern American culture. Fiction titles set at Christmastime abound.


In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming, is the 2002 novel that inaugurated an excellent series of contemporary murder mysteries set in upstate New York. Since this book takes place in December, you can get a good dose of drifting snow and icy winds to put you in a wintry mood. Russ Van Alstyne is the police chief in the small town of Miller’s Kill. (A “kill” is a small river in Dutch, but there’s that double meaning.) Clare Fergusson is an Episcopal priest who just started her first job at a local church. On a bitterly cold night, Clare finds an abandoned baby in a box on the church doorstep. She accompanies the baby to the hospital in an ambulance, where she meets Russ, who’s investigating the case. The plot, as twisty as the mountain roads of the Adirondacks, includes multiple murders, red herrings, and scenes of sheer terror. I don’t usually like to read thrillers (because of the sheer terror), but this novel has so much more. Spencer-Fleming makes her characters’ struggles of conscience totally believable and in no way sentimental. Clare has a deep faith that is impressive even to the agnostic Russ. And the sizzling attraction between married Russ and single Clare, evident from chapter 1, grows as the plot develops, pulled along by snappy and intelligent dialogue. Get yourself a copy of In the Bleak Midwinter and plan for some non-stop reading.


For an easy read by the fireplace after a day of feasting, try one of Anne Perry’s gentle Christmas mysteries. Perry is the bestselling author of full-length historical mysteries set in the Victorian era and in World War I. Every year since 2003, she’s also published a novella-length mystery set during the Christmas season, usually in the nineteenth-century England that she knows so well. These short Christmas mysteries are not complex in their plots like Perry’s full-length novels, but they do display Perry’s signature approach of recording her characters’ brooding introspection. The sleuth of the novella may be a professional or an amateur, but the Christmas festivities are always poignant. A Christmas Garland (2012), set in India during the British colonial rule there, was to me the least successful of these books, but I recommend the series overall. I especially liked A Christmas Secret (2006), about newlyweds moving into a vicarage in rural England and facing a murder. In A New York Christmas (2014) Perry ventures across the Atlantic in 1904. Yes, I do have a weakness for fiction set in New York City!

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For the ultimate in British classic-era Christmas mystery, pick up the 1934 Nine Tailors  by Dorothy L. Sayers. This novel requires that the reader acquire some background knowledge of two subjects: the Fens and the change ringing of church bells. The Fens are low-lying marshy areas in the eastern part of England that were made into arable lands centuries ago by an extensive system of drainage channels. Change ringing is the practice of pulling ropes to sound tuned bells in a tower in a particular and complex order, not for the production of a discernible melody but for the precision of the sequence. Okay, okay, it’s esoteric. But Nine Tailors is worth this price of admission to an adventure of Lord Peter Wimsey that begins on one New Year’s Eve and concludes at Christmastime a year later.  


The twist in Francesca Hornak’s Seven Days of Us (2017) is that a British family is forced to stay quarantined in their rural home for a week at Christmas because one daughter, a physician, has just returned from Africa, where she was treating victims of a deadly virus. Their mandatory togetherness evokes the traditional English-country-house mystery novel, though this is not a mystery. Novelist Hornak brings out some well-worn plot elements, such as the concealment of a medical diagnosis and the arrival of an adult son whose existence was previously unknown. The story is updated to the twenty-first century with emails, text messages, Twitter hashtags, and a bit of gay sex, but the characters are recognizable British types: the grumpy and self-centered paterfamilias, the frivolous young woman, the dense rugby player, the noble doctor. This is pretty good quality chick lit, suitable for light reading over the winter holidays.

Repression in Ireland

The Heart’s Invisible Furies     John Boyne     (2016)


In first-person fictional narrative, Irishman Cyril Avery, adopted son of Charles and Maude Avery, tells us his life story, in bursts every seven years from 1945 to 2015. Cyril starts with a detailed description of his own birth to the unmarried Catherine Goggin, and we know that he must have learned these details from Catherine herself. So we keep waiting for the page on which Cyril finds his birth mother. Be patient, reader, because that page does eventually arrive.

First we get a full account of growing up gay in an Ireland that was dominated by the Catholic Church. The tale is brutal but realistic—novelist John Boyne himself likely suffered some of the violence and indignities described. And Boyne does not confine himself to homophobia in Ireland. His character Cyril lives as an expatriate in Amsterdam and New York for many years. Amsterdam in 1980, though a tolerant city overall, is home to vicious pimps who exploit “rent boys.” New York City in 1987 is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, which many Americans saw as a punishment by God for homosexuality.

The cast of The Heart’s Invisible Furies includes straight women who are ostracized by Irish society because of their pregnancies, adoptive parents who are unloving, straight men who assault gays, and gays who strike back. Somehow, Cyril survives, and his tenacity is amazing. He tries hard to comprehend the antagonism toward him:

”’Why do they hate us so much anyway?’ I asked after a lengthy pause. ‘If they’re not queer themselves, then what does it matter to them if someone else is?’

‘I remember a friend of mine telling me that we hate what we fear in ourselves,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Perhaps that has something to do with it.’” (224-225)

I do have some criticisms of The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The text can veer into didacticism as Boyne gives voice to “the heart’s invisible furies,” a line from a WH Auden poem. I found the ending weak in comparison with the rest of the novel—I’m guessing that Boyne used unconventional narrative techniques in order to take his readers right to the very end of Cyril’s life. In addition, I was able to spot a few minor anachronisms because I lived in Dublin myself back in the early 1970s. None of these issues leads me to discourage potential readers.

The status of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is today much different than it was in previous centuries. Investigations in recent decades have revealed sexual abuses by priests and severe maltreatment of women and their children in church-run homes for unwed mothers. At least partially because of these scandals, far fewer Irish citizens now attend Mass, and the power of the church over sexuality has lessened. Although the Irish constitution still forbids abortion, homosexual activity was decriminalized in 1993. Same-sex marriage was adopted in 2015 by popular referendum. In 2017, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay Irish prime minister.

To get the most from John Boyne's dark and powerful novel, you might want to do a quick review of the history of Ireland and familiarize yourself with Irish terms like "Taoiseach" (prime minister) and "Dáil Éireann" (parliament). It’s well worth the effort.

Three Books about the Little House Series

Caroline:  Little House, Revisited     Sarah Miller     (2017)

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Sarah Miller, an established American author of historical fiction and nonfiction, received authorization from the Little House Heritage Trust to produce this novel about the pioneer life of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura was the author of the famed series of Little House books, which fictionalized events from her family’s years as pioneers in the Upper Midwest and on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century.

In this spin-off novel, Caroline, we see most of the same events that Wilder portrayed, but through the eyes of Laura’s mother.

In recounting the early adventures of the Ingalls family, novelist Miller treads a path somewhere between the historical record and the fictionalized version that appeared in the Little House books, specifically the title Little House on the Prairie (published in 1935), which tells of the family’s trip by covered wagon from Wisconsin to Kansas to stake a new land claim in 1869-1870.

I first read Wilder’s Little House series as an adult and was captivated by the details of daily life that she lovingly described. Miller’s novel Caroline paints a less bucolic picture, meticulously chronicling the grueling toil that pioneer families endured. In this version, Caroline Ingalls worked hard, even when she was heavily pregnant, and survived with an irrepressible good humor and positive attitude. Her husband, Charles, was certainly no slacker, either, but his search for the perfect land claim in the expansionist days of the United States must have worn thin on his wife and children.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books will not want to miss Miller’s take on incidents that they know well. (Be sure to read her Author’s Note at the end of Caroline, about the prejudices against Native Americans that contributed to Wilder’s account of the Osage Indians.) Miller writes skillfully and with a clear affection for her topic, presenting the beauty of an unspoiled American landscape but not stinting in her depictions of the diseases and dangers that pioneer women faced.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired the Little House Books    Marta McDowell     (2017)

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Devoted readers of children’s novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder often seize on any book that provides background about her Little House series. This nonfiction book focuses on the flora and fauna mentioned in Wilder's novels. Marta McDowell structures the text chronologically around what she calls Wilder’s “Life on the Land,” going book-by-book through the sites where Wilder lived, in places that are now in the states of Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. (The landscape of upstate New York, where Laura’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, grew up, also gets a chapter.) The style is chatty, with many quotations from the Little House books. The illustrations that McDowell has selected are sometimes excellent complements to the text, especially when they’re maps or period photos. At other times the illustrations are rather pointless; I didn’t need a half-page color photo of wintergreen berries, as just one example.

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If you’re a diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder buff, you might want to page through McDowell's book, but I can recommend a much better read: editor Pamela Smith Hill’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography (2014), a meticulous and comprehensive analysis of how the Little House books differed from the actual life of the author, as presented in Laura’s previously unpublished memoir and as unearthed by historical research. This is an exceptionally fine book.


The Vineyard     María Dueñas     (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García


In this sweeping page-turner, María Dueñas recounts a year in the life of Mauro Larrea, as he travels from Mexico City to Havana and on to Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. The year is 1861, and Larrea, a wealthy silver miner, has lost his fortune because his investments became entangled in the American Civil War.

Larrea’s determination to launch another business, with borrowed funds, sends him forth from his home in Mexico City and away from his beloved daughter, Mariana, who is soon to give birth to his first grandchild. Larrea lands first in Cuba, where he faces some culture shock despite the links of language and heritage. He risks everything in a wild gamble, ending up as the owner of an abandoned vineyard in his native Spain. He doesn’t want to run a winery and sails to Jerez intent on selling the vineyard, but he gets entrenched in various sub-plots involving the vineyard’s former owners, including the glamorous and brilliant Soledad Montalvo, now the wife of a London wine merchant. Oh, and he’s worried about his errant son, Nico, who’s living the high life in Paris.

That’s the plot in a nutshell, but this summary doesn’t do justice to the scenes that Dueñas can conjure up, from grimy silver mines to glittering concert halls, from the swirling dust of Mexico to the oppressive humidity of Havana and the wine-infused air of Andalusia. Although the story moves along at a rapid pace, Dueñas is able to help readers visualize each setting with well-chosen descriptors, and she conveys the emotions of Larrea, whose thoughts readers have access to. I became quite fond of the character Larrea, a handsome widower with scars from his years of manual labor, a man who knows how to drive a hard bargain but is soft toward his family and close friends. He’s a man with a conscience, often thinking what his trusted advisors would tell him when he’s in a tough situation. And he certainly does get himself into tough situations as this novel careens along. At times he feels “caught up in this spider’s web that seemed humanly impossible to extricate himself from.” (474)

Yes, The Vineyard is swashbuckling historical romance, but it’s well wrought, in a good translation. And if you like this book, don’t miss the excellent Netflix production of Dueñas’s 2009 novel, The Time in Between, about a seamstress in 1930s Spain who rises in the field of haute couture and then becomes a spy.