Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

The Surreal Meets the Quotidian in Japan

Killing Commendatore     Haruki Murakami     (2017)

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen      (2018) 

No, this is not a murder mystery. It’s more . . . well, it defies categorization, but maybe it’s an exploration of how our inner lives of thought can transform our external lives of action in puzzling but sometimes pleasing ways.  

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The unnamed narrator of this massive novel is a thirty-something artist, a fairly successful painter of workmanlike portraits, mainly for corporate executives who want their likenesses on the walls of their headquarters. When the narrator’s wife of six years unexpectedly asks for a divorce, he dejectedly takes off on an impromptu tour of northern Japan for several weeks and then settles, alone, into a rental house in the mountains near Odawara, in central Japan. This house is owned by the artist Tomohiko Amada, now in a nursing home with dementia, who garnered fame creating traditional Japanese scenes on his canvases. The odd characters who accrete to the tale include an enigmatic tech entrepreneur (Menshiki), an adolescent girl, the girl’s aunt, and, most startlingly, a two-foot tall “Idea” named Commendatore, who comes to life from out of a painting by Amada. This painting, which the narrator discovers in his rental home, depicts a scene from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni. Got all that?  

The characters move through actual places in Japan, and the story progresses primarily through dialogue, which is rendered in idiomatic American English. Western readers can get to feeling comfortable with this dialogue, and even more comfortable because of the many overt and lightly veiled references to European literature, art, and classical music, especially the opera canon. It’s all rooted firmly in realism until—bam—Commendatore appears to the narrator, trying to guide him through his dual crises of marriage and of artistic authenticity. Some examples of Commendatore’s pronouncements:  

  • “There are plenty of things in history that are best left in the shadows. Accurate knowledge does not improve people’s lives. The objective does not necessarily surpass the subjective, you know. Reality does not necessarily extinguish fantasy.” (301)

  • “Cause and effect are hard to separate here. Because I took the form of the Commendatore, a sequence of events was set in motion. But at the same time, my form is the necessary consequence of that very sequence.” (539) 

The character Menshiki may also have been sent to the narrator as a mentor, since he has some revelatory lines: 

  • “The best ideas are thoughts that appear, unbidden, from out of the dark” (203) 

  • “Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.” (206) 

Perhaps Killing Commendatore was not the wisest choice for my initial foray into the world of the prolific novelist Murakami, but I was mesmerized for most of its 681 pages, as the narrative drifted one way and then another. I did struggle with some of Murakami’s elements of the supernatural, especially the narrator’s passage across subterranean Stygian rivers and through murky, stifling tunnels, which may or may not be metaphorical. But Murakami always returns to the quotidian, often with graceful language like this: “I went to the fridge and drank some cold mineral water straight from the bottle and managed to chase away the dregs of sleep that remained like scraps of clouds in the corners of my body.” (177) 

If you’re willing to let your mind embrace the inexplicable for a while, Killing Commendatore may provide insights into human relationships as well as into creative processes. As Menshiki proclaims, “’There are some things that can’t be explained in this life . . . and some others that probably shouldn’t be explained. Especially when putting them into words ignores what is most crucial.’” (593)

Favorite Reads of 2018

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

photo: Stanislav Kondratiev

I reviewed 72 books on the Cedar Park Book Blog in in the calendar year 2018, and I hosted two additional reviews by a guest blogger. The 15 selections listed here were standouts for me in a year of exceptionally fine reading. You’ll notice that these books are all fiction and are mostly historical fiction. This year, no biographies or social histories made my list of favorites.  

Bear in mind that I never review horror, science fiction, fantasy, or novels with scenes of excessive violence. I haul eight or ten books home from the library every week and reject most of them by page 50. So here are the best of the best, in alphabetical order by title. Click on the title to go to my full review.  

Freya  Anthony Quinn (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION The friendship of two British women, traced from the end of World War II through the 1960s, with insights into feminism, marriage, and culture. 

Heart of Palm  Laura Lee Smith  (2013)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A family tale populated with gun-totin’, hard-lovin’, rip-roarin’ Southerners—plus deftly developed story lines.  

Holding Graham Norton (2017)  MYSTERY 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, but this one goes beyond the genre. 

The Italian Party  Christina Lynch  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION As effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly, but the sunny picture darkens as we learn the many secrets of an American couple living in Siena, Italy, in 1956.  

The Italian Teacher  Tom Rachman  (2018)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION An inquiry into how to live a meaningful life, centering on the fraught relationship between a famous visual artist and one of his sons. 

Little Fires Everywhere  Celeste Ng  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A story about adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio, tackles incendiary issues of upper-middle-class Americans: bigotry, greed, and a general disdain for those who diverge in any way from the norms set by their communities. 

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Manhattan Beach  Jennifer Egan  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION A noir novel with entangled plot lines, mobsters, and plenty of period detail from 1930s and 1940s New York City, especially the Brooklyn Naval Yard.  

Midwinter Break  Bernard MacLaverty  (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A masterful study, by an eminent Irish author, of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage, set in Scotland and the Netherlands. 

The Ninth Hour  Alice McDermott  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Wonderfully resonant prose about the pros and cons of being Catholic in early 20th-century Brooklyn, exploring the intersections of morality, religion, and culture.  

Peculiar Ground  Lucy Hughes-Hallett (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION A densely layered novel set on a fictional Oxfordshire estate in 1663, 1961, 1973, and 1989, featuring walls—border walls, the Berlin Wall, walls of inclusion, walls of exclusion, and many others. 

Radio Free Vermont  Bill McKibben (2017)  CONTEMPORARY FICTION A local radio show host stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States in this uproarious fable about Trump’s America. 

The Strays  Emily Bitto  (2014/2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Set in Australia in the 1930s and then the 1980s, a piercingly moving first-person narrative about loneliness, friendship, the art world, and the choices we make.  

Virgil Wander Leif Enger (2018) CONTEMPORARY FICTION In a dying mining town in far northern Minnesota the title character, aided by an ensemble cast, is recovering from a terrible accident. The prose of this novel is quietly dazzling.

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West  Carys Davies  (2018)  HISTORICAL FICTION Preposterous plot, peculiar characters, spare language, in a tale that’s akin to ancient myth, set on the North American continent in about 1815, a time when the lure of the western frontier was irresistible.

The World of Tomorrow  Brendan Mathews  (2017)  HISTORICAL FICTION Rollicking action at the fabulous New York World’s Fair, in June of 1939, when the Great Depression has eased and World War II is still unimaginable.

Happy reading in 2019! Keep checking the Cedar Park Book Blog for recommendations!

 

 

Intertwined Lives in Minnesota

Virgil Wander     Leif Enger     (2018)

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The title character, Virgil Wander, narrates this enchanting tale, starting with his improbable survival from a catastrophic car crash: In a freak autumn snowstorm, Virgil sailed his Pontiac off a cliff and into 90 feet of Lake Superior blueness. It was an accident, the result of slick roads and white-out visibility. Or was it? Virgil is a conundrum, suffering from a traumatic brain injury that robs him of some memories and some elements of language, especially adjectives. He's dizzy and unfocused. Having met Death and walked away, he’s more appreciative of small wonders and less tolerant of bullshit. His name alone would have told us this. He does indeed wander in his post-accident days and weeks, but he is Virgil, the Roman poet of the Aeniad, who guided Dante. This modern-day Virgil now guides us to depths of understanding of the human condition.

Virgil Wander is a movie projectionist and part-time city clerk in fictional Greenstone, Minnesota, about as far north in the continental United States as you can go—even north of Duluth. The winters start in early October and are harsh, but the Lake Superior shoreline is spectacular. The inhabitants who remain in Greenstone now that its mining boom is long past are there because they crave the ruggedness, the quiet, and the slow pace, or maybe because they have nowhere else to go. (National reviewers of this novel who reside on ocean coasts clearly don't waltz to this leisurely beat, since they use the word "quirky" excessively and irritatingly.)

Into Virgil's post-accident world comes an elderly fellow from Norway, Rune, who is searching for Alec Sandstrom, who he just learned was his son. Problem is, Alec, a promising minor league baseball pitcher, flew off over Lake Superior in a small plane a decade before and never returned. Rune, whose name carries connotations of magic and inscrutability, is also a master kite builder who captivates the Greenstone natives with his whimsically festooned flyers that sail on the breezes and gales of this marvelous inland seaside. Many other characters join the ensemble, each swiftly and convincingly limned:

  • Alec's presumed widow, the luminous Nadine

  • Alec's teenage son, the loner Bjorn

  • Virgil's garrulous journalist friend, Tom Beeman

  • Virgil's enthusiastic co-worker Ann Fandeen and her sadsack husband, Jerry

  • mysterious Adam Leer, returned from Hollywood to Greenstone

  • ambitious snowplow driver Lily Pea and her young brother, Galen.

Novelist Enger skillfully intertwines their lives, in the way that lives naturally do intertwine, and crafts a plot that centers on the potential for revival of the ill-fated town and the gradual recovery of Virgil Wander from his near-death experience.

Good Lord, the folks in this novel have every manner of trouble accost them. Virgil himself was orphaned at 17 when his lay missionary parents died in a train derailment in Mexico. Other characters endure financial ruin, alcoholism, the bite of a rabid raccoon, or death by crushing (don't ask). A mist of magic realism suffuses the scene, as townspeople find happiness flying kites with Rune or watching classic movies with Virgil at the ramshackle but comforting Empress Theater.

Clearly, I loved both the plot and the characters of Virgil Wander, but the richness of Leif Enger's language stopped me in my tracks to read many paragraphs a second time, for the sheer joy of the words. Opening to a random page (9), I find this description of Rune: "He pulled a kitchen match from his pocket, thumbnailed it, and relit his pipe, which let me tell you held the most fragrant tobacco—brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel. A few sharp puffs brought it crackling and he held it up to watch smoke drift off the bowl. The smoke ghosted straight up and hung there undecided." Of course I'm pulled to the smell of the tobacco ("brisk autumn cedar and coffee and orange peel"). But the verb "thumbnailed" tells you right away what kind of a guy Rune is, that he struck a match—a "kitchen match"—with his fingers. The puffs that Rune took were "sharp," and the smoke from the pipe didn't just rise, it "ghosted and hung there undecided," with a mind of its own to make up or not. Every page holds such images, seemingly tossed off. Aphorisms of startling clarity also jump out: “Memory's oldest trick is convincing us of its accuracy.” “I would say projectionists aren't more sentimental than blacksmiths except that we probably are.” (both on page 84)

You might put Leif Enger in the company of Richard Russo (reviewed here), for his bang-on portrayal of a decaying small American industrial town. You might compare Enger to Kent Haruf (reviewed here) for his laconic Midwestern characters. But for God's sake don't compare him to fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, who doesn't reside in Enger's sphere of genius at all. Read Virgil Wander, definitely.

Millennials vs Boomers

Boomer1     Daniel Torday     (2018)

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The hard-driving music, the hand-rolled joints, the idiosyncratic clothing, the privileged youth in prosperous times, the disillusionment with war that their elders got them into: it’s the Baby Boomers, right? Well, those descriptors could also be applied to the Millennial generation, except that Millennials might call those smokes “spliffs.”  

Daniel Torday’s deeply satirical novel pits the Boomers against the Millennials in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008. It’s not clear whether the Boomers or the Millennials come out worse in his view, which is a very dark view.  

Millennial Mark Brumfeld has an editorial job in New York City and a PhD in English under his belt. He and  his girlfriend, Cassie Black, both play in bluegrass bands, groovin’ to retro tunes by the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley. When Mark’s career and relationship both fall apart, he has to move to his parents’ basement in Baltimore. He vents his rage against the economic machine in videos that he posts on the Dark Web, ranting about how the Baby Boomers have had all the luck and now refuse to retire to allow Millennials to secure jobs. Mark styles himself as “Boomer1,” even though he was born in 1980 (go figure). His ominous online mantras include “Retire or we’ll retire you” and “boom boom.”  

Some sections of this novel are presented from Mark’s viewpoint and other sections follow Cassie as she figures out her sexual orientation and her career trajectory. The main Boomer character is Julia, Mark’s mother, who was a musician on the fringes of stardom back in the late 1960s. She gets her chapters, too, sometimes flashing back forty years, but these chapters do not pack the power of the rest of the novel. The plot gets hot when Mark’s anti-Boomer videos spark a nationwide revolution among Millennials, leading to vandalism and violence against prominent Boomers and against the institutions that support them. 

I think that many of the Boomers do deserve blame for abandoning the causes of civil rights and pacifism that characterized their heyday in the 1960s. After the protest marches, the Boomers graduated, put on the suits, joined the establishment, and inherited money from the Greatest Generation. The Boomers could afford to buy houses because they had little or no student loan debt. And they spoiled their kids, the Millennials, nodding in agreement as those kids followed their dreams, however impractical. I understand the Millennial anger, expressed here by Boomer1 in portraying his parents’ generation: “They were not the purveyors nor the architects nor the executors of the noble task nor the players in the great game. They were the recipients of the spoils, and they basked in it. They received the signifier but not the sign, they were the first generation to have fall in their lap all the lucre without exerting one iota of the toil.” (112)  

However, novelist Torday liberally inserts indicators of ambivalence and incongruity into his characterizations and into his narrative. Both Mark and Cassie, for example, have alternate names. Cassie was born Claire Stankowitcz. Mark, in addition to his Boomer1 handle, calls himself “Isaac Abramson,” the biblical figure led to ritual sacrifice by his father. For all his education, Mark makes foolish financial choices that exacerbate his situation. (He thought he could get a tenure-track academic job in English? Really? That’s been a long shot since the 1970s.) Meanwhile, Cassie exploits the burgeoning world of banal digital news while she reveals Mark’s naiveté and the oversimplification of his anti-Boomer crusade. Symbols are also tossed around. Mark’s Boomer mother, Julia, had her hearing damaged in those amped-up rock concerts of yore and refuses to wear a hearing aid for her increasing deafness, so she truly can’t hear what Mark is saying about the Boomers.  

Boomer1 is an enigmatic novel, with no clear heroes or villains. Torday will challenge your assumptions and stereotypes with his well-paced and thoughtful novel.

Quiet Conflict

Upstate     James Wood     (2018)

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The British-born writer James Wood, transplanted to the United States, has produced a novel about a British businessman visiting his adult daughter in upstate New York. Commentary on the differences between the two countries is inevitable. Here are a couple of the observations of the character Alan Querry:  

  • “He did sincerely love—and rate as one of the great American contributions—the phrase ‘Take it easy.’ . . .That benign blessing wouldn’t catch on in Britain, where the pavements were sopped with cold rainwater and everyone seemed to have attended queuing school, to learn how to do it with the requisite degree of resigned submission.” (27)

  • “America was peculiar, more foreign than he had expected, it sharpened his senses. What a contradictory place: for every limitation, there was an expansion, for every frustration, an easement. The train was absurd, trundling along at barely sixty miles an hour. And Penn Station was a bloody embarrassment to a great capital city. To a great city, rather.” (51)

These are the contexts of the novel, which revolves quietly around family conflict. Alan’s 2007 trip to Saratoga Springs, New York, arises from his concern over the mental health of his daughter Vanessa, who teaches philosophy at Skidmore College. Traveling with Alan is his other daughter, Helen, a harried and hurried music executive with Sony in London. The fourth main character is Josh, Vanessa’s boyfriend, who has alerted Vanessa’s father and sister to a potentially serious bout of depression that Vanessa seems to be suffering. Although the stated issue is Vanessa’s health, Helen isn’t in great shape either, with a rocky marriage, twin sons whom she has little time for, and an urge to leave Sony and start her own company.

This is a novel to be savored for its simplicity and its glimpses into the minds of people sincerely endeavoring to help each other, though with approaches determined by the personality of each. Alan, for example, is a real estate developer who is “not in the top tier, probably not even in the second or third tier” (119) of developers in his region because he’s not cutthroat enough. Vanessa views her father and sister as “proud, impulsive people who considered themselves largely modest and rational.  . . .Vanessa hated confrontation—partly because she couldn’t believe that anyone who had strongly argued with her could ever like her again.” (153) The underlying motives of the boyfriend Josh are elusive until the very end of the novel.

The landscapes of upstate New York are richly portrayed in this work that sometimes verges into prose poetry. But don’t expect bedazzlement or sensationalism when you’re going to be served thoughtfulness.

 

Reckoning with the Past

My Ex-Life     Stephen McCauley     (2018)

This novel is hilarious. One-liners, often capping a narrative paragraph or a conversation, pop up on nearly every page: “Julie knew only one man who’d betrayed his marriage for a woman older than his wife, and it was overstating it to say she knew Prince Charles.” (3)

Short descriptors of characters pack a punch with clever comparisons:

  • “She had the melancholy, elongated beauty of a Modigliani, while he had the compact boyishness of a high school wrestler.” (49)

  • “She had the hard face of someone who could stand to eat a cupcake once or twice a year.” (266)

  • “He had a dark suntan, an attractive affectation, but one that these days looked somehow vintage, like a dial telephone or an electric carving knife.” (266)

Beyond the hilarity, Stephen McCauley spins a touching story of missed opportunity, unfair betrayal, loss of dignity, and cynical exploitation—all with hopes for second chances, or maybe even third chances.

Fifty-something David Hedges is a freelance college admissions consultant for sulky rich kids in San Francisco. As the book opens, his lover has deserted him, and in his distress he’s been putting on weight. The charming carriage house that he’s rented for years at a low rate is being sold out from under him. As if all this isn’t enough, he gets a call from his ex-wife, Julie Fiske, who lives in a seaside tourist town north of Boston. David hasn’t been in touch with Julie for decades, and he figured that she was doing well with her second husband and teenage daughter. Not so much. Julie’s husband has left her for a younger woman and is demanding that she buy him out of their house. Julie’s income as a teacher won’t stretch to this purchase, but she’s desperate to stay in the house where her daughter has grown up. Oh, and the daughter, Mandy, is struggling with body image issues and with loneliness that is leading to highly questionable friendships.

David takes a trip east, ostensibly to help Mandy with her college applications but actually to get away from San Francisco and to get some perspective on his own path forward. The resolution of this plot setup has a number of twists and revelations of secrets, as does real life. Novelist McCauley keeps churning out the funny lines, but he ends My Ex-Life on a nostalgic note that gave me a good sense of resolution. 

Evangelical Secrets

The Book of Essie     Meghan MacLean Weir     (2018)

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Given the prevalence of news stories about sexual abuse of children, women, and young men by priests in the Catholic Church, we may fall into the assumption that such abuse does not occur very much in Protestant evangelical religious groups. This novel is here to remind us that, wherever there is a great imbalance of power in a relationship, the potential for abuse of all kinds exists, and cover-ups that prolong the agony of the victims are certainly not limited to church hierarchies operating behind the closed doors of Catholic bishops’ offices.

The story of Esther (“Essie”) Hicks seems transparent. She’s one of the stars of the long-running fictional reality TV show Six for Hicks, which has chronicled the career of a preacher father (Jethro), a scheming mother (Celia), and their six children since before Essie’s birth. Essie is the youngest member of the family, and now, at age 17, she finds herself pregnant. Since it’s clear that her daily activities are tightly circumscribed and often filmed, readers suspect early on that the pregnancy is unlikely to have been the result of a consensual relationship.

 We hear from three characters in turn, in first-person narrative:

  • Essie Hicks;

  • Roarke Richards, a male student at Essie’s high school who is not really part of the Hicks religious group; and

  • Liberty (“Libby”) Bell, who herself grew up in a different ultra-conservative millennarian cult and is now a journalist reporting on Essie.

Essie seems to have an elaborate plan to escape her family and provide financial security for herself and her unborn child, drawing on the significant resources generated for her parents by the TV show and by her father’s ministry. “Don’t get mad, get even,” she says at one point (131), as she remains improbably calm. However, the specifics of Essie’s plan are not revealed, even though readers hear directly from her throughout the novel. A lot is left to guesswork, and that keeps those pages turning. I was especially fascinated by the background details offered by the novelist, such as the phrasing used by the evangelicals in their conversations. Perhaps this was because I was brought up in a similar fundamentalist environment—though minus the reality TV show. I know the territory. Roarke sums up Essie’s family and her entire religious community in one explosive sentence: “You are, all of you, manipulative, self-centered, egomaniacal phonies. You use people up and you toss them aside.” (140)

The Book of Essie certainly has its flaws. I wanted much more character development of Essie’s father, Rev Jethro Hicks, the preacher who has kept evangelicals spellbound both in his mega-church and on television for decades. I wanted more explanation of the personality of the inscrutable Celia Hicks, Essie’s mother and the true force behind the media throne that Jethro occupies. I wanted more background on Essie’s five older siblings. I wanted less unrealistic analysis of difficult life situations by teenagers (Essie, Roarke), however precocious they may be. I wanted less of the distracting subplot about the tragic life story of Libby Bell.

Still, the narrative momentum of The Book of Essie is strong, with the author withholding the revelation of the paternity of Essie’s baby until late in the novel. The exploitation of Essie, not just by the man who impregnated her but by the many people who conspired to hide this crime, is painful to read about. Sadly, Essie’s story plays out in real life all too often. 

 

King Lear in the 21st Century

Dunbar     Edward St Aubyn     (2017)

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The Hogarth Shakespeare Project in London has been commissioning highly regarded novelists to produce new versions of many Shakespeare tales. Edward St Aubyn has tackled Shakespeare’s King Lear with his novel Dunbar.

In St Aubyn’s version, the monarch Lear is now a modern-day oligarch, the billionaire media mogul Henry Dunbar. Like Lear, Dunbar has three adult daughters, and he hands over his kingdom/empire to the elder two, Abby and Megan, cutting out the youngest, Florence, even though he loves her dearly. Abby and Megan are a wicked pair. Even if you don’t find their sadistic sexual practices alarming (yup, these pages are steamy), you’re not likely to sympathize with them as you learn how they’ve had their father drugged and then sequestered in a nursing home in a remote area of England. “These [two elder] Dunbar girls were arrogant, imperious, and tough, but toughness was not strength, imperiousness was not authority, and their arrogance was an unearned pride born of an unearned income.” (73)

Meanwhile, daughter Florence lives with her family in the United States and doesn’t really care if she inherits the family business. She has what she considers a more than adequate bankroll. “She was only capable of being independent because she had been adored in the first place, but a man as possessive as her father could not experience her autonomy as a compliment, or protect himself from mistaking her sisters’ acquisitiveness for love.” (43) Although she doesn’t relish a battle, Florence enters the arena with her two sisters out of concern that her father is being mistreated. What ensues seems scripted for an action movie, complete with suspenseful chase scenes.

You can, of course, buzz by all this conflict in your reading and busy yourself mentally by pairing up the characters in Dunbar with their Shakespearean counterparts. (As I read, I had always in the back of my brain the famed plot of the drama.) Dunbar’s lawyer Wilson is pretty clearly King Lear’s Kent, for example, and Dunbar’s physician, Dr. Bob, is Edmund. I liked the transformation of King Lear’s Fool into the retired comedian Peter, a sidekick to Dunbar in nursing-home imprisonment. Peter is funny in a grim way, but Shakespeare’s Fool has a lot better lines.

Face it: rewriting Shakespeare is a daunting task. Anne Tyler tried it with Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold in 2016, and disappointed me, though Tyler is usually formidable as a novelist. With King Lear, a modern writer has to summon the extraordinary pathos of familial disloyalty as well as the ultimate futility of earthly life. St Aubyn doesn’t quite do that for me, though his Dunbar would be a serviceable standalone novel about the excesses of today’s moneyed classes—perhaps even a commentary on Donald Trump. While Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter inspires constant awe, St Aubyn’s prose soars only occasionally, as in this passage: “Nothing in his [Dunbar’s] ascent to power had prepared him for the experience of the last weeks and in particular of the last few days, which seemed to have overrun his mind with a kind of knowledge that he was unable to make sense of. Like a deluge rushing onto a flat, rocky plain, with no slope to direct it or soil to absorb it, it had obliterated all familiar landmarks without bringing any new life in return. How could she [Florence] reach him in the middle of that sterile flood?” (177)

I recommend reading Dunbar as simply a contemporary novel. If, however, you want a truly great retelling of King Lear, read Jane Smiley’s 1991 masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Forced Emigration

Without a Country     Ayşe Kulin     (2016)

Translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan     (2018)

In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, German universities, funded by the government there, were highly esteemed. American students trekked off to Germany to pursue graduate degrees in both the humanities and the sciences. German research publications influenced scholars around the world. However, when Nazi oppression of Jews stepped up in the 1930s, many of the faculty in German universities and medical schools—Jews and those critical of the Nazi regime—were forced to emigrate. Although I knew these historical facts, until I read Without a Country, I had no idea that dozens of German scholars took positions in Turkey, which was building up its educational system in the years just prior to World War II.

In Without a Country, Ayşe Kulin tells the story of one German Jewish scholar and his family who leave everything behind in Frankfurt so that he can take a position in Istanbul in 1933. According to an author’s note, an actual German pathologist inspired the fictional character of Gerhard Schliemann, who lands a job in Turkey and negotiates with the Turkish government to find job placements in Istanbul and Ankara for many other German academics and physicians. Schliemann’s descendants grow up in Turkey and navigate the paths of nationality and religion in varied ways. The Schliemann family and their friends evolve not only as German/Turkish/American but also as Jewish/Muslim/Christian, some practicing, most not.

That’s the basic premise of this intriguing family saga that provides, in three sections, scenes from the 1930s/1940s, the 1960s, and then the present day. Most of the action is set against the magnificent scenery of Turkey, especially the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, city of ancient churches, mosques, and palaces. Political movements and political unrest play out in the background; I fact-checked a few of the historical references and found them to be accurate. In a sense, novelist Kulin is telling the story of modern Turkey through her fiction.

In the first section of the book readers get brief scenes depicting significant incidents in the lives of the Schliemann family. The details of their escape from Nazi Germany to a welcoming Turkey are absorbing, and the individual characters come to life. Even in the second section, Gerhard and his wife, Elsa, remain in the story as their children and grandchildren take center stage. I was disappointed, however, in the final section of the book, which shifts from third-person narration to first-person, with the narrator being Esra, the great-granddaughter of Gerhard and Elsa. The multi-generational family chronicle is diluted as readers hear little or nothing of the fates of beloved characters from previous decades. The novel would have been much stronger if the contemporary section had been expanded considerably.

Still, I recommend Without a Country for its depiction of people in a multicultural society in an area of the world that has seen much discord. As Gerhard was “without a country” when he left Germany in the 1930s, so his great-granddaughter Esra will be “without a country” if she leaves Turkey in the present day. Kulin has a keen awareness of the sacrifices, compromises, and heroism of families caught in the tumult of history.

A Novel with Heart

The Ice House     Laura Lee Smith     (2017)

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When I reviewed Laura Lee Smith’s previous novel, Heart of Palm, I resolved to read The Ice House as soon as my local library ordered it. Here is a novelist who can weave a complex plot and manage to tuck in all the seemingly loose threads by the end. She can conjure up characters who are like people you know, maybe because their conversations are so convincing. She can take you inside a manufacturing plant (in The Ice House, it's a company that produces those bags of crystal clear ice) and make you feel as if you’re getting a personal tour, from the production floor to the administrative offices to the parking lot. Best of all, her novels have heart. Her characters wrestle with tough decisions in their lives, and they do the very best that they can. They’re imperfect but basically likeable.

The Ice House is set mainly in Jacksonville, in the same sector of Florida as Heart of Palm, and once again, the oppressive heat of the region is highlighted. In The Ice House, the outdoor weather contrasts with the mandatory frigidness of the ice-making plant, where workers wear heavy parkas year round. One of the owners of the plant, Johnny MacKinnon, bears the nickname “Ice,” and a chunk of the novel’s action takes place in the chilly northern reaches of Scotland, where Johnny grew up and where his ex-wife, son, and granddaughter live.

“Johnny’s father used to have a saying: And as soon as you’re oot one load o’ shite, there’s another.” (30)  This is how the arc of the narrative works, with one catastrophe after another occurring for the main characters. Johnny is facing surgery for what may be brain cancer. He’s estranged from his adult son, who’s a heroin addict. And his ice company is being charged with negligence for a leak of ammonia gas; the potential fines would wipe out the business. Minor characters also encounter serious problems. My favorite struggler is Chemal, the Puerto Rican teenager who lives next door to Johnny. Chemal becomes a Sancho Panza of sorts to Johnny’s Don Quixote as they take off on a hasty, ill-advised trip to Scotland.

The Ice House is about trying to reconcile the issues in life when death comes stalking. It’s about showing compassion and accepting the differences in the people around you. And I found the ending highly satisfying. 

Trees in Peril

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)

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The Overstory is a novel that’s massive in scope, sophisticated in descriptive power, and disturbing in message.

I hadn’t read  any reviews before I cracked open the cover, where I met nine characters in the first 152 pages, including a farmer in Iowa, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, a Minnesota couple who are community theater buffs, a soldier serving in the Vietnam War, and a budding scientist in Appalachia. I thought that The Overstory might be a set of interwoven short stories about unrelated people from all corners of the United States. The stories are damn fine, and I figured that novelist Powers might extend each story and perhaps have some of these characters meet each other in the remaining 350 pages of the book. I soon caught on, however, that trees seemed to be a common element in the stories, and the bonds between the people in The Overstory mirror the bonds between species in the forests.

Some of Powers’s characters do meet, as they become involved in radical environmental activism on behalf of trees in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the forests of North America take center stage in the narrative. I learned that humans share about a quarter of their genetic makeup with trees, and Powers is highly effective in portraying the sentient qualities and the community attachments of those leafy overstories: “There are no individuals in a forest. Each trunk depends on others.” (279) One human character, a psychologist studying the personality traits of environmentalists, finds that most of them agree with the statement “A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.” (331)

I’m a great fan of forests—especially of hiking through them—so I devoured segments like this one, where a botanist explores an old growth forest in the western Cascades during a damp September: “The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can’t name covers every wooden pillar in a thick baize reaching higher than her head.” (134) The description kept my attention for two full pages.

Powers could have framed his book as a nonfiction exposé of the sins of the logging industry, but showing the motivations of fictional “tree huggers” from all walks of life is much more effective in getting across the message that human destruction of forests will eventually, and pretty soon, make our planet unlivable. Put simply:  “Deforestation: A bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together.” (281) And lest you be deceived, the replanting touted by those who exploit forests for financial gain can never replicate the millennia-old diversity and interconnectedness that clear-cutting obliterates.

If you’ve enjoyed Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, or any of Wendell Berry’s poetry, you should read The Overstory. And for another novel about the devastation of North American forests, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

Books in Brief, Part 6

In this post I offer reviews of three novels that are nothing like each other.

The Gunners     Rebecca Kauffman     (2018)

At age 30, Mikey’s vision is rapidly deteriorating from early-onset macular degeneration. He works as a maintenance person at a factory in small-town America, where it can be hard to make new friends. And he has a strained relationship with his father, who lives nearby. Back in childhood, Mikey had a circle of friends who called themselves “The Gunners.” They were misfit kids, most with difficult family situations, who met secretly in an abandoned house to help each other navigate growing up. The Gunners separated from each other when one member, Sally, suddenly deserted the group in high school, and four of the six Gunners left town to seek their careers elsewhere. The loner Mikey reconnects with the Gunners when Sally dies unexpectedly. As the five remaining friends gather together for Sally’s funeral, readers can assess each person and view all their interactions. Alice, for instance, may seem too loud-mouthed and pushy, but she’s also incredibly loyal. Many secrets from the past are revealed as friendships are re-established.

Kauffman’s novel is touching in a simple and straightforward way. Her sentences tend to be short, declarative, and matter-of-fact, but underneath the language she creates a deep pool of emotion. The Gunners delves into the many facets of friendship—including the potential impediments to its endurance—and leaves readers with some assurance that the world can be a more decent place if you have true friends.

The House of Broken Angels     Luis Alberto Urrea     (2018)

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Summon up your high-school Spanish or open an online dictionary as you drop in on the de la Cruz family in San Diego. The patriarch, Big Angel, is in the terminal stage of cancer when his near-centenarian mother dies. Big Angel schedules her funeral the day before his own birthday party, so that distant family members (including Big Angel’s younger half-brother, Little Angel) can come for both events. Big Angel is the only one who knows for certain that he won’t live to a birthday after this one. The novel unfolds over the two-day weekend of the funeral and then the birthday party, with a number of flashbacks to previous decades and to cross-border adventures through the memories of the characters. Forget any stereotypes of Mexican Americans that you may have: Big Angel, for example, is a retired IT professional, and Little Angel is a university professor.

The dialogue in The House of Broken Angels is lively and realistic, though I did get somewhat lost in the scenes with younger family members speaking in street jargon that mixes English and Spanish freely. Bestselling author Urrea describes this big, heterogeneous family lovingly but without blinders. Readers will encounter flirtation, adultery, loving spouses, crime, successful careers, kindness, cruelty, anger, happiness, and the daily give-and-take of life. The de la Cruz family is Mexican American, but they could be a family of any ethnicity in the United States of the early twenty-first century. Be sure to read the Author’s Note at the end of the novel to learn how Urrea drew on some of his own family experiences in crafting The House of Broken Angels.

The Quiet Side of Passion     Alexander McCall Smith     (2018)

This twelfth volume in the series of Isabel Dalhousie novels is another mellow trip to Edinburgh, a city with exquisite natural beauty, a strong link to its history, and an assembly of odd characters. In The Quiet Side of Passion author McCall Smith revisits the familiar theme of Isabel’s habitual meddlesomeness. Isabel can’t help but get involved in a case of doubtful paternity in a family she meets at her older son’s nursery school. She also engages in unwise arguments with her niece Cat’s new boyfriend. I was cringing as Isabel launched into spirited debates, with a man she’d just met, on the merits of hunting, tattoos, and other controversial subjects. Isabel is dedicated to truth-telling and is constitutionally unable to withhold her opinions. “That was the trouble with being a philosopher, she sometimes told herself; you argued points that did not always need to be argued.” (96) Isabel is not only a philosopher and not only the editor of The Journal of Applied Ethics, but also the wife of the handsome musician Jamie, the mother of a toddler and a baby, and the owner of a large house that needs upkeep. A significant portion of The Quiet Side of Passion is about Isabel’s attempts to employ people to help her with her daily tasks. Alas, for all her intellectual achievements, Isabel has few skills in hiring or in personnel supervision, and the results are amusing. Fans of the McCall Smith novels will want to follow Isabel’s latest adventure. Readers who aren’t familiar with the series will get enough background from this novel to appreciate the interactions of the key characters.

 

Adventures in 1956 Italy

The Italian Party     Christina Lynch     (2018)

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Welcome to Siena, Italy, in the year 1956, when the Italians have regrouped after the destruction and privations of World War II. Rolling into this magnificent Tuscan city are the newlywed Americans Michael and Scottie Messina, in a brand new Ford Fairlane. (Good Lord, how much it must have cost to ship that behemoth for them!) Michael has a job selling Ford tractors to Italian farmers, whom he must convert from their traditional agrarian practices. Scottie will be the model housewife, supporting him.

Italy is a major character here, as Scottie meets the locals and comes to adore the small shops, the camaraderie, and even the gossip. “Everything about it fascinated her—the way food was revered, treasured rather than seen as an inconvenience to be packaged in a way that made it as easy as possible to prepare and consume. Nothing in Italy was ‘instant’ or ‘new and improved.’” (86) An excellent aural learner, Scottie quickly learns to speak Italian. “Here in Italy she felt like a different person altogether—more expressive, more curious, more open.” (58)

Michael, on the other hand, sees Italy as backward, greatly in need of an infusion of American-style mechanization and democracy. And he has a view of his new wife that was common in the 1950s: "She had no mission other than to keep house for him. He envied her naïveté, her unsullied innocence, her lack of secrets. She was the American ideal he was sent there to promote. She was like Dale Evans, he thought: a beautiful, pure, faithful, true cowgirl. She was the only one not there with an ulterior motive.” (55)

Well, not so much. Little by little, the sunny picture darkens as we learn that many secrets lie beneath the surface of this marriage and of this sojourn in Italy. I won’t spoil the revelations for you, but you can know that treacherous international espionage is involved. Still, the sun shines a lot in Siena, and novelist Christina Lynch keeps us bubbling along with glorious meals of pasta and prosciutto and panini and Prosecco. As one character tells Michael, “‘The world is your oyster, my boy. You should suck it down in one gulp and be happy. A beautiful wife, a good job, and an Italian assignment . . . Life here is a party. Join the fun.’” (265)

Yes, this is an Italian party. The title of the novel is certainly referring to the glamorous lifestyle that Scottie and Michael can afford to live in Italy. But it also refers to the political parties that the plot revolves around, and even to the representation of Italy globally. Lynch sets up the view of American exceptionalism that dominated the Cold War era, and then she pokes at its underpinnings, especially through Scottie’s love of Italy. Yet even Scottie relies on a multitude of American beauty products to put together her stunning appearance. In a scene describing Scottie’s daily beauty routine, Lynch itemizes Helene Curtis Spray Net, Lady Gillette razors, Peggy Sage Spice Pink nail polish, Revlon Creamy Ivory liquid foundation, Michel flesh-colored powder, Max Factor eye shadow, Maybelline mascara, Coty Dahlia Pink creamy lipstick, Joy by Jean Patou eau de toilette, Taylor-Woods fifty-four-gauge stockings, and Warner’s garters. (182-3)

The Italian Party is as effervescent and rosy as the Campari-and-soda drinks that the characters order constantly in streetside cafés. The tone is similar to that of A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, another frothy confection with seriousness underlying its brisk plot. I highly recommend both novels.

Two Novels by Quindlen

Anna Quindlen is a bestselling American writer who moved into fiction in the mid-1990s after winning a 1992 Pulitzer for her essays in the New York Times. I recently read two of her novels, Alternate Side (2018) and Miller’s Valley (2016) and found them so dissimilar that I wouldn’t have guessed that they were written by the same person. Here’s a look at each.

 Alternate Side     Anna Quindlen     (2018)

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The surface story in Alternate Side centers on a family living in present-day Manhattan: Nora and Charlie Nolan plus their twin children who are off at college. Nora and Charlie have a reasonably satisfactory marriage, but as they progress through middle age, their attention is increasingly focused on externals in their affluent lives: Charlie’s disappointments at work, the offer of a new job for Nora, Charlie’s obsession with parking spots near their townhouse, Nora’s unremitting revulsion at the neighborhood rats. (By “rats” I do mean the small rodents, not human criminals.) The parking issue comes to the fore with a violent incident on the Nolans’ block, which powers the narrative for most of the novel and draws in the neighbors and the local handyman and his family. Family history is filled in along the way as Nora remembers incidents from the past: “Certain small moments were like billboards forever alongside the highway of your memory.” (184)

The underlying story in Alternate Side is the class divide in New York City. Nora truly enjoys living there, but . . . “even loving New York as she did, Nora sometimes felt it was like loving an old friend, someone who had over the years become different from her former self. Of course, Nora and Charlie had become different, too. It was a though, as the city had prospered and become less dirty, less funky, less hard and harsh, the Nolans and their friends had followed suit, all their rough edges and quirks sanded down into some New York standard of accomplishment. The price they had paid for prosperity was amnesia. They’d forgotten who they once had been.” (79-80)

Though some of Quindlen’s characters are faded stereotypes, others come to life, and the plot carried me along to the end. The title of the book, on first take a reference to parking regulations, actually points up both the family issues and the sociological issues. Quindlen seems to be writing both a paean to a glorious New York and a satire of its more prosperous denizens. “The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart.” (55-56)

For more novels set in, and dominated by, New York, click on the “New York Novels” line in my Archive in the right-hand column. Or, for something totally different, read the following review of another Quindlen novel.

Miller’s Valley     Anna Quindlen     (2016)

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In rural Pennsylvania, Mimi Miller gives a first-person narration of her life, from her childhood in the 1960s through her early adulthood and, in an Epilogue, into her seventh decade. The story is set against the backdrop of a federal program to buy up all the property in Miller’s Valley so that the area can be flooded and turned into a reservoir for a nearby dam. Mimi, herself a well-drawn character, is surrounded by other characters whom Quindlen develops beyond the level of the standard type. Mimi’s mother is a no-nonsense nurse at the local hospital. Her father is a farmer and general repairman for the entire valley. A wacko aunt lives in an adjacent house and refuses ever to leave it. Mimi’s two older brothers are polar opposites of each other, much like the Prodigal Son and his hardworking brother. Her two successive boyfriends are also a study in contrasts. Quindlen excels here in showing the complicated family dynamics at play in even the most mundane of interactions.

I especially liked the Epilogue, in which readers get to see how the whole crew ends up in the present day. But then, I’m a sucker for such Epilogues when I get attached to the fictional folks in the main body of a novel.

 

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

The American Frontier

West     Carys Davies     (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Immortality

Birdcage Walk     Helen Dunmore     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

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

The living record of your memory.

’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

    So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,

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

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

Newport, RI, through the Centuries

The Maze at Windermere     Gregory Blake Smith     (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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