Asperger's in Manhattan

Standard Deviation     Katherine Heiny     (2017)

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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)

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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.

Swashbuckling

The Vineyard     María Dueñas     (2017)

Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García

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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. 

An 18th-Century Romp in NYC

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York     Francis Spufford     (2017)

When the English prose novel debuted as a genre in the eighteenth century, it was usually characterized by realism, episodic structure, and the adventures of a hero. With Golden Hill, Francis Spufford replicates many aspects of the early novel while producing more sprightly and less rambling text. Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City and stars Richard Smith, a Briton on a mysterious mission in the pre-Revolution American colonies.

Smith lands in Manhattan on the rainy evening of November 1, carrying a sort of money order for the enormous sum of a thousand pounds. When he attempts to collect his cash at a firm affiliated with the London firm on which the order is drawn, he understandably comes under suspicion. This may be ancient New York, but it’s still New York, and bankers seek verification. Besides, cash is in short supply in the colonies, where barter and paper money of fluctuating value serve instead.

During a waiting period of sixty days to receive—or not receive—the funds, Smith becomes intimately acquainted with the city of seven thousand souls that already has a “Broad Way” and a “Breuckelen.” He breakfasts at a coffee house and dines with the power brokers of the city. He celebrates “Pope Day” (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5) with the British inhabitants and “Sinterklaasavond” (St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5) with the Dutch. Novelist Spufford vividly describes the local customs of colonial New York as his character Smith gets into all sorts of scrapes, acts in an amateur theater production, and falls in love with an independent-minded woman.

Sections of Golden Hill do have the ring of eighteenth-century prose, but in other sections Spufford  takes off with paragraphs that sound more contemporary. Here he is describing falling snow:

“. . .the powdery fall was already furring the cobbles with a thin grey nap like velvet, and rimming them white along all the crooked lines between. Everything seemed slowed to the speed of the descending snow. A holy expectation reigned in the thickening air, and passers-by walked as if they did not want to disturb it. Only a small party . . . made any noise. They were singing something, and carrying a small lantern on a pole which lit the flakes to swarming gold in a small globe around itself, and touched the edges of their faces—the line of a hat, the scroll of an ear, the filaments of a beard—with shadowy gilding, like statues in an ancient shrine.” (182)

Spufford’s similes can be striking:

“The awkwardness between them that danger and hilarity had dissolved was drifting back into place, like a sediment in a briskly-shaken bottle that, when shaking ceases, begins to float down again.” (89)

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye. So it was when the news of Smith’s disgraceful liaison was suddenly released into the town.” (225)

Spufford conceals the purpose of Smith’s trip to New York until the close of the novel. I usually downrate a mystery if the author does not abide by the fair-play rule, which dictates that facts known to the protagonist cannot be  hidden from the reader. I gave Spufford a pass on this one, however, since Golden Hill is much more than a mystery. It’s an eighteenth-century romp with a serious message about justice at the end—and a coda from that independent-minded woman whom Smith met in New York.

Among My Faves: David Sedaris

Among My Faves:  David Sedaris

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In 2017, David Sedaris published Theft by Finding:  Diaries 1977-2002. This book of excerpts from Sedaris’s extensive diaries is for serious Sedaris buffs, and I count myself as one. If you’ve never read any work by David Sedaris, do *not* start with Theft by Finding, because it will seem rambling and possibly ridiculous. First go read several of Sedaris’s collections of essays or stories. I especially recommend the following:  

  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) has two sections of essays—one about Sedaris’s youth in Raleigh, North Carolina, and one about his move to France as an adult, with his partner, Hugh Hamrick. The essays about Sedaris’s attempts to learn to speak French are so hilarious that I laughed until tears obscured the words on the page.
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) has widely-ranging essays, with a focus on family relationships. Sedaris’s realization that he’s gay is presented frankly and yet with comic self-deprecation.
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008) includes one of my favorite Sedaris humor pieces: the story of his trip to Japan to try to quit smoking. His idea was to get far away from his usual haunts to break his habit, but he found that smoking is very common in Japan.
  • Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk:  A Modest Bestiary (2010) is a collection of animal fables, a departure from the usual Sedaris essay form.
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) continues with Sedaris’s droll observations on humanity. Of particular note is the essay about Europeans’ reaction to the election of President Obama in 2008.

If we have all these other books about David Sedaris’s upbringing and family members and encounters with odd strangers, why do we need to read his diaries? Well, Theft by Finding provides insights into the creative process that produced so many excellently sardonic essays and stories. For example, there are entries that give the background to Sedaris’s most famous piece, “SantaLand Diaries,” about his experiences working as an elf at Macy’s in New York during the Christmas season. “SantaLand Diaries” appears in his 1994 book, Barrel Fever, and also in his 1997 book, Holidays on Ice, but Theft by Finding records the day in December 1992 when Sedaris first read this essay on National Public Radio and caused a sensation among listeners.   

Theft by Finding also includes entries for important events in history, so that you can read Sedaris’s first notice of the AIDS epidemic, as well as his reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001, while he was living in France. In Theft by Finding you can watch the development of Sedaris’s style, from jotted observations to more expanded commentary on those observations. Sedaris notices absolutely everything and is a master at capturing offbeat, ridiculous, and sometimes illegal activities occurring around him. In his twenties, his existence on the fringes of life, in crime-ridden neighborhoods, put him in the company of panhandlers, drunks, and drug addicts. In mid-life, his expanding celebrity status exposed him to the rich and famous, who can be equally absurd. From reading the diaries, you can see how Sedaris blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, taking scenes from real life, amplifying them, and surrounding them with extraordinary contextualizations.

For years, David Sedaris scrimped by on odd jobs—refinishing furniture, cleaning apartments. He kicked his meth habit, cut out alcohol and tobacco, and by sheer hard work became one of the most celebrated humor essayists in the English language. He’s among my favorites.

More Medieval Mysteries

In my essay on the twelfth-century Brother Cadfael mysteries and in my subsequent posts (Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 1, and Fifteenth-Century Mysteries, Part 2), I’ve introduced you to my minor obsession with crime novels set in the Middle Ages. Authors who write in this highly specialized sub-genre tend to churn out multiple books for their sleuths. Here are two more series that I liked.

The Domesday Series     Edward Marston (pen name for Keith Miles)     (1993 to 2000)          

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After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s Norman barons moved in to subdue the Anglo-Saxon population and redistribute land and assets. In 1086 William ordered the compilation of a massive survey of properties, known as the Domesday Book—in modern English called “Doomsday Book,” perhaps because it sealed the fates of those listed. Conflict is built in to this scenario! Enter Gervase Bret, the brilliant lawyer, and Ralph Delchard, the intrepid soldier, who travel around England investigating disputes related to the Domesday Book and, of course, solving crimes. Descriptive passages in this series are especially fine, and the stories are multifaceted. For example, the plot of The Wolves of Savernake plays well on fear, fantasy, rumor, suspicion, and superstition.

It’s fun to see how Marston works an animal into each title and plot of the eleven volumes:  The Wolves of Savernake (1993), The Ravens of Blackwater (1994), The Dragons of Archenfield (1995), The Lions of the North (1996), The Serpents of Harbledown (1996), The Stallions of Woodstock (1997), The Hawks of Delamere (1998), The Wildcats of Exeter (1998), The Foxes of Warwick (1999), The Owls of Gloucester (2000), and The Elephants of Norwich (2000)

In addition to the Domesday Series, Marston has written a mystery series about a theater troupe in Elizabethan England, featuring the stage manager Nicholas Bracewell. This series has more seaminess and sex. Under his given name (Keith Miles) and the pen names Conrad Allen, Martin Inigo, and Martin Garland, Marston has written dozens of other books set in various historical periods.

The Owen Archer Series     Candace Robb     (1993 to 2008)     

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In the early 1360s, an archer who has lost an eye in England’s never-ending war in France retires to the city of York, in northern England. Owen Archer apprentices himself to a female apothecary, Lucie Wilton, whom he marries. The mystery part comes in because Owen also works as a spy for John Thoresby, who is the Archbishop of York and the Chancellor of England under King Edward III. As Owen rides away to crack cases, Lucie tends the shop in York and gets involved in sub-plots. Although the dialogue occasionally doesn’t ring true for me, the plots in these books are complex and satisfying. The personalities of Owen, Lucie, and numerous supporting characters are believable and well-rounded.

There are ten Owen Archer mysteries: The Apothecary Rose (1993), The Lady Chapel (1994), The Nun's Tale (1995), The King's Bishop (1996), The Riddle of St. Leonard's (1997), A Gift of Sanctuary (1998), A Spy for the Redeemer (2002), The Cross-Legged Knight (2002), The Guilt of Innocents (2007), and A Vigil of Spies (2008). Two other separate mystery series by Candace Robb feature characters Margaret Kerr and Kate Clifford. Under the pen name Emma Campion, Robb also writes non-mystery historical novels set in the fourteenth century.

Applied Ethics in Scotland

A Distant View of Everything     Alexander McCall Smith     (2017)

The Isabel Dalhousie Series

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The detective is a fortyish woman in Scotland who edits an academic journal about applied ethics. Seriously? Only Alexander McCall Smith could pull this one off, and he has, for eleven books in this bestselling series of mellow mysteries.

It all started in 2004 with McCall Smith’s The Sunday Philosophy Club, where we meet Isabel Dalhousie. Isabel is an independently wealthy divorcée, so she can afford to pursue her scholarly interest in ethics without pay, and she has the time to investigate activities she comes across that she considers ethically questionable. “There was no reason why she should become involved in the affairs of others, but she seemed to be irresistibly drawn into them. And every time that she did it, it was because she imagined that there was a moral claim on her.” (69)

You might just call Isabel a busybody, but she has many other defining qualities. She speaks Italian, attends classical concerts, collects fine art, and works crossword puzzles. She treasures her city of Edinburgh, though she’s half American: “Her own heritage, she thought, was enviable: Scottish commonsense philosophy on one side and American pragmatism on the other. That was a perfect combination.” (163-4)

Isabel can be stuffy. She muses on sundry subjects randomly, and she can go off into quotes from the poet WH Auden (whom she calls “WHA”) at any moment. She refers casually to the writings of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Since I live with a philosopher whose specialty is Kantian ethics, I have assistance with these references, but you can always Google them. The philosophy background adds considerably, I think, to the multifaceted personality that McCall Smith is building for Isabel. (Reader friends of mine either enjoy this approach or despise it.)

Where this series gets spicy is at the third installment, The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), in which Isabel enters into a love affair with Jamie, a handsome, kind bassoonist who’s fourteen years her junior—and also the former lover of Isabel’s niece. As with other aspects of the McCall Smith novels, you’re likely to find the Isabel/Jamie affair either charming or ridiculous. The vagaries of this relationship intertwine with the mystery plots through the rest of the novels.

The mysteries don’t usually involve death. In fact, in A Distant View of Everything, the most recent of the series, Isabel investigates whether a matchmaker’s pairing of a couple is suitable. This plot line is thin, but the ongoing saga of Isabel, Jamie, and their expanding family fills in. Yes, I’ll reveal that the cougar Isabel gets pregnant in her forties, and Jamie is a doting dad.

McCall Smith uses a fair number of Scots words and phrases to add Edinburgh flavor to these novels, but he’s usually careful to provide clues to his dialect choices in the context. In case you’re wondering, though, Scots slang for a toilet is “cludgie,” and in British slang the cheap theater seats, in the highest balcony, are called “the gods.”

And one more thing: the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn’t actually meet. It’s more a pleasant idea. If you want to catch up with the Isabel Dalhousie books, here’s the list to date: The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004), Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005), The Right Attitude to Rain (2006), The Careful Use of Compliments (2007), The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008), The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009), The Charming Quirks of Others (2010), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012), The Novel Habits of Happiness (2015), A Distant View of Everything (2017). In addition, three shorter Isabel Dalhousie stories are available as e-books.

Glaswegian Misery

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine     Gail Honeyman     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

A Family in Distress

In Caddis Wood     Mary François Rockcastle     (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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

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

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

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

A Confused Hillbilly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prolix But Successful

The Nix     Nathan Hill     (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books in Brief, Part 4

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

The Lost History of Stars     Dave Boling     (2017)

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

Difficult Women     Roxane Gay     (2017)

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

Saints for All Occasions     J. Courtney Sullivan     (2017)

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

Two Mysteries in One

 Magpie Murders     Anthony Horowitz     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Procreational Shenanigans

The Heirs     Susan Rieger     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

American Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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