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.

Nonfiction & Fiction by Russo

Elsewhere: A Memoir     Richard Russo     (2012)

That Old Cape Magic     Richard Russo     (2009)

The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writers, Writing and Life     Richard Russo     (2018)

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Richard Russo’s 2001 novel Empire Falls (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and most of his other novels are set in decaying industrial towns peopled by rough-and-tumble strugglers. It’s no secret that in his fiction Russo drew on his experiences growing up in Gloversville, in upstate New York, which by the 1960s was severely polluted, from the byproducts of the manufacture of leather gloves, and poverty stricken, since the glove industry had moved to India and China.

When I ran across this memoir by Russo, I thought he might reveal how his novels are linked to his own biography. Elsewhere does provide some clues for avid Russo readers, but it’s primarily the story of Russo’s relationship with his mother, who raised him on her own after her divorce from his father when Richard was a small child. Jean Russo was smart, hardworking, attractive, sexy, fashionable, controlling, manipulative, selfish, explosive, confused, and unhappy most of the time. Richard loved her fiercely and tried for decades to relieve her sadnesses. Only after her death, in her mid-eighties, did he realize that she likely had a serious mental health condition that was never diagnosed or treated.

The narrative is somewhat uneven, as memoir can be, but Elsewhere is a touching portrait of a tormented woman. I kept looking back at the photos of Russo and his mother on the cover of the book, feeling as if I knew these two people personally.

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For a glimpse into how Russo’s mother may have influenced his fiction, try That Old Cape Magic, a 2009 novel that’s one of his gentlest narratives—a kind of meditation on relationships (successful, failed, failing, blissful, doomed, redeemable). Griffin, the middle-aged protagonist, attends two weddings, a year apart. The first wedding takes place on Cape Cod, and it stirs up in his memory the childhood vacations that he spent there with his parents, who were escaping their academic jobs in the hated Midwest. Griffin is trying to come to terms with his parents’ unhappy marriage, especially since he’s carrying his father’s ashes in the trunk of his car, and since his own marriage is not so solid. Griffin’s mother, long divorced from his late father, phones him constantly in this story, and her voice sounds similar, in tone and level of sarcasm, to the voice that author Russo gives to his own mother in his memoir. 

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For more details on Russo’s writing process, pick up his 2018 book, The Destiny Thief, a collection of nine essays, some of which have been previously published. I’d recommend skipping the essay on The Pickwick Papers unless you’re a serious fan of Charles Dickens. But the essay “Getting Good” has valuable advice for aspiring writers, particularly on the controversial issue of digital versus print publication. The piece titled “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience” is a brilliant analysis of the function of narrative voice in fiction, with examples from Russo’s work and from the writing of others, based on his years of teaching in writing programs across the country and around the world.

In another vein, “Imagining Jenny” is an emotional account of how a writer friend of Russo’s underwent gender reassignment surgery. All in all, this collection is pure Russo—sardonic, funny, and smart.

Books in Brief, Part 5

Every Note Played     Lisa Genova     (2018)

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Lisa Genova, who holds a PhD in neuroscience, writes novels that illuminate neurological diseases. Her 2007 offering, Still Alice, told the story of a 50-year-old Harvard professor who suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In her 2018 Every Note Played, Genova gives us the fictional Richard Evans, a world-renowned classical pianist who develops ALS (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which destroys the neurons that control voluntary muscles. Genova takes the reader through the progression of Richard’s ALS over a period of a little more than a year, detailing the difficult medical decisions that he must make along the way. Even more significantly, Richard has to come to terms with the forced ending of his musical career and with his troubled relationships with his ex-wife, Karina; his college-age daughter; and his father, who never valued Richard’s musical talent. As Richard becomes increasingly helpless, Karina ends up, reluctantly, caring for him in her home. Genova depicts the stresses both on the patient and on his family and friends in painful detail, but the novel doesn’t become solely a case study in ALS. It stands on its own merits as a work of fiction about self-awareness, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

In the Midst of Winter     Isabel Allende     (2017)     Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson

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Three people with vastly different life stories come together during a blizzard in New York City in 2016. The car of Richard Bowmaster, a sixty-something American prof, slides into a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, a twenty-something undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. The resulting minor auto damage brings to light a murder and brings into the drama the character of Lucia Maraz, a sixty-something academic from Chile who is teaching in New York for the year. Each of these three has a tumultuous past, which is recounted in flashbacks as the murder mystery unfolds in present time. The narrative here is somewhat disjointed, and the mystery is transparent, but Allende’s mastery of language and dialogue, even in translation, is apparent. For an Allende novel that I consider superior to In the Midst of Winter, try reading The Japanese Lover.

The Only Story     Julian Barnes     (2018)

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This is an elegant, nostalgic, gloomy novel, in three sections. The first section, recounted in first person by the protagonist, Paul, is the story of the early days of a love affair between the 19-year-old Paul and the 48-year-old Susan. They meet at a tennis club in a town south of London in the early 1960s. In the second section, mostly in second person narration, Paul and Susan are living together in London, and their affair is not going well (read: boy, is this depressing). The third section, in third person, is a lengthy retrospective exploration of the nature of love, with a few narrative strands about Paul’s middle and older years. Barnes touches on the debate between inevitability and free will and probes the correlation between strength of feeling and degree of happiness. Throughout, the prose is refined and masterful, as you would expect from the author of the Booker-Prize winning The Sense of an Ending (2011) and many other novels. But if you pick up The Only Story, don’t expect a tidy wrap-up. Oh, and just what is “the only story”? Love. Love is the only story, and it’s infinitely complex.

The Meaningful Life

The Italian Teacher   Tom Rachman     (2018)

You may have run into someone like the fictional painter Bear Bavinksy: talented, brash, egotistical, smart, selfish, mercurial, ribald, cruel, a bear of a man. Unless you’re prepared to spar on his level, it’s best to steer clear of characters like Bear. But if he’s your father, you have to deal.

In this thoughtful novel, Charles “Pinch” Bavinsky is the son who lives in Bear Bavinsky’s shadow. Pinch is one of the many children whom Bear fathers by numerous wives and mistresses over a long career in the twentieth century. (The total—and startling—number of children is not revealed until Bear’s funeral.) In Pinch’s childhood, Bear abandons the boy and his mother, a ceramicist named Natalie, in Italy. Pinch puts together a life for himself, going to college in Canada with the financial assistance of his maternal grandmother. He suspects that he may have artistic talent, like both his parents, but Bear quashes his hopes. Pinch ends up teaching Italian in London, always seeing his life as much lesser than that of his father, whom he worships. I don’t think that “worship” is too strong a verb here.

Within the narrative of The Italian Teacher, centered on this fraught father-son relationship, Rachman is pursuing the theme of how to have a meaningful life. For decades, Pinch views his life and his work as insignificant because he’s not an internationally renowned artist. “To succeed as an artist demands such a rare confluence of personality, of talent, of luck—all bundled into a single life span. What a person Dad was! Pinch decided that perhaps he himself had ability too, but this was insufficient. He lacked the personality. The art world was always beyond him.” (273-4)

Pinch mourns his mother’s lack of fame also: “She was disregarded, and will remain forever so, among the billions whose inner lives clamor, then expire, never to earn the slightest notice.” (151) Can persons with great talent, in any field of endeavor, be fulfilled even if they don’t receive the acclaim of the establishment in that field? What if they don’t have the stomach for the political machinations necessary for career building? Can they construct rewarding lives solely through quiet, solitary pursuit of their artistic or intellectual goals, with internal gratification? Rachman considers these questions from many angles, and he allows his character Pinch to struggle to find answers, as Pinch also struggles to free himself from the domination of his father’s personality and reputation.

Toward the end of the book, Pinch takes up painting after years of artistic inactivity. "Pinch raises  his brush, leans forward on the balls of his feet, floorboards creaking. From the corner of his eye: all these painterly tools, a kaleidoscope of colors, his companions. Is that tragedy? That the peaks of my life are entirely inside? Other people—those I so craved—mattered far less than it seemed. Or is this what I pretend?" (309-310)

Read this novel with care, savoring the development of Rachman’s characters and his attention to identifying those “peaks” in life.

A Very Long Marriage

 Midwinter Break     Bernard MacLaverty     (2017)

Irish author Bernard MacLaverty’s latest novel, Midwinter Break, is a masterful study of the pleasures and trials of a very long marriage.

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Gerry and Stella are in their seventies. They grew up in Northern Ireland during the hidebound 1950s and then experienced the Troubles, that period of Catholic/Protestant terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the island that began in the late 1960s. As adults, they moved to Scotland to escape violence and pursue their careers, Gerry in architecture and Stella in teaching. They’re retired now, financially comfortable, and their grown son lives in Canada with his family, so their lives have emptied out, in a sense. To fill the void, Stella, who has always been a devout Catholic, is trying to develop her spiritual life further. Non-believer Gerry, on the other hand, has upped his alcohol consumption to a dangerous level.

It’s January, and Stella has organized a short vacation to Amsterdam for the two of them. If trading one cold, dreary winter site (Scotland) for another that’s equally cold and dreary (the Netherlands) seems odd, well, it is. Readers eventually learn Stella’s hidden agenda for the trip, just as readers come to understand Gerry’s obsession with alcohol, which he tries to hide.

MacLaverty manages his prose in such a way that he makes the minutiae of daily life truly fascinating. I do not know how he does this. At the level of the sentence, the actions of his characters are trivial, but the overall effect of his paragraphs and chapters is riveting, even when he’s describing such mind-numbing details as negotiating suitcases and shampoo bottles and security checks in an airport. Part of his technique must be rooted in his dialogue, which is so perfectly tuned that I feel certain I’ve heard some of the lines verbatim in real life.

Stella and Gerry are at heart quite compatible and affectionate toward each other, although she does carp a bit about his drinking, and he engages in some gentle mockery of her religiosity. Gerry automatically steers Stella by the elbow at busy street corners, knowing her fear of traffic. Stella indulges Gerry’s long tarrying at certain art works in the Rijksmuseum. They both have physical ailments that are common for their ages, but they don’t let these dominate their lives; instead they have “the Ailment Hour,” a limited time period each day when they tell each other about their aches and pains.

All is not connubial bliss, however. Shadows from a horrible past event hang over the couple, and the full power of this event is not revealed until late in the narrative. The stereotypical issues of many Irish tales, religion and drink, are key to the conflicts between Stella and Gerry, but in MacLaverty’s capable hands they are never trite. Stella’s religious beliefs, for example, are treated respectfully. But MacLaverty does go full Irish in invoking James Joyce in the final chapters of Midwinter Break, as Stella and Gerry deal with a snowstorm. MacLaverty’s characters live in Scotland, and he sends them vacationing in the Netherlands, but the pull of the old Ireland of “The Dead” from The Dubliners is still strong. Midwinter Break is a book that you’ll mull over for many days after you close the covers.

The Upper-Middle-Class Façade

Little Fires Everywhere     Celeste Ng     (2017)

Ah, adolescents in late-1990s Shaker Heights, Ohio.

The first chapter of Little Fires Everywhere lures the reader in with a blazing house, then backtracks about a year to paint portraits of the four teenaged Richardson children who resided in that house (Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy)--plus the new 15-year-old in town, Pearl Warren. The Richardson family lives the American Dream, with trendy clothes and cars, luxurious vacations, and bright career prospects for the kids. Most of the Richardsons are also selfish and self-centered. Pearl, in contrast, is a smart but naïve vagabond who roams the country in an old VW Rabbit with her single mother, Mia, who’s an accomplished photographic artist. Pearl and Mia rent an apartment in a Shaker Heights duplex owned by Mrs Richardson and furnish it sparsely with castoffs, in distinct contrast to the elegant six-bedroom Richardson mansion. Tellingly, Ng refers to most adults as “Mrs” and “Mr,” but Mia Warren is always “Mia.”

The social commentary on economic inequality and lifestyle choices inherent in this setup would be enough to fuel a novel—and a spectacular house fire. But novelist Celeste Ng plunges far, far deeper into the problems in Shaker Heights, where she herself has lived. This suburb of Cleveland was established early in the 20th century as a planned community, with rigid rules about all aspects of outward appearance and organization. Near the end of the book, Izzy Richardson thinks about “life in their beautiful, perfectly ordered, abundantly furnished house, where the grass was always cut and the leaves were always raked and there was never, ever any garbage in sight; in their beautiful, perfectly ordered neighborhood where every lawn had a tree and the streets curved so that no one went too fast and every house harmonized with the next; in their perfectly ordered city, where everyone got along and everyone followed the rules and everything had to be beautiful and perfect on the outside, no matter what a mess lay within.” (323)

The “mess” behind the gorgeous façade of Shaker Heights includes unplanned pregnancy, controversial interracial adoption, prejudice against immigrants, unethical journalism, and parents who pay little attention to their wayward kids. Ng’s narrative is complex, with multiple strands tightly interwoven, and all her characters, no matter how peripheral, are drawn with exquisite care. The reading becomes unstoppable as the novel barrels along toward the fire that will inevitably consume the Richardson home.

The “little fires” of the title are the blazes on the gasoline-soaked beds that the arsonist lights. But these fires are also the incendiary issues shoved under the beds 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. Ng doesn’t preach; she shows.

A Mystery in Cornwall

The Lake House     Kate Morton     (2015)

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Really, nothing’s new in the fiction game. A few basic plots (the journey, the quest, the betrayal, the discovery) pretty much cover it, plus characters, settings, and episodes from one century or another. A writer of fiction assembles these pieces, using language as the glue and the paint. The artistry lies in wise choices of plot and characters and settings and episodes and language. Chaucer knew this in the 14th century when he reworked old stories and stock types into the magic of The Canterbury Tales, giving life to his pilgrim characters with a most sophisticated form of English. I’m not talking about plagiarism here but rather careful selection and artful re-crafting.

In The Lake House, Kate Morton selects

  • a little of the actual Lindbergh kidnapping case of 1932
  • a smidgen of the character of author Agatha Christie
  • pointers from 1930s Golden Age British mysteries
  • a bit of the fictional 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the 1950s Chronicles of Narnia
  • a distillation of several contemporary fictional female British detectives.

Morton sets all these pieces in the fabulous landscapes of Cornwall and populates her family-saga-cum-mystery with deftly drawn individuals. The passages that describe the natural world in Cornwall and that build the personalities of the protagonists are particularly strong. The novel toggles back and forth between 1933 and 2003, with occasional forays into World War II and the years just before World War I. The time switching can become dizzying, but it allows for plenty of family backstory and for the integration of two distinct plots.

The book is long—at 492 pages, perhaps overly long—and complex. In 1933, during an elaborate lawn party on Midsummer Eve at an estate called Loeanneth in Cornwall, the infant son of wealthy Anthony and Eleanor Edevane, Theo, disappears from his nursery in the night. The boy is never found, either alive or dead, and the grieving family moves to London, abandoning the estate. Skipping ahead to London in 2003, police detective Sadie Sparrow is put on an enforced leave for leaking information about an unrelated case of a mother apparently deserting her young daughter. Sadie decamps to her grandfather’s retirement cottage in (wait for it) Cornwall, where she becomes intrigued by the 70-year-old cold case of Theo Edevane. A key witness from that night in 1933 is Alice Edevane, older sister of Theo, who, at age 86, is the doyenne of the police procedural novel in 2003 London.

Morton throws in innumerable flashbacks, including Sadie’s teenage rebellions, Anthony’s experiences in World War I, Eleanor’s upbringing, the genesis of Alice’s writing career, and even the background of Peter, personal assistant to the aged Alice. Although there are no explicit sex scenes, several romances are included, as well as many, many secrets. The tendency of the Edevanes to keep secrets allows for multiple red herrings in the mystery plotting. I’ve read an awful lot of mysteries, so I guessed about 75% of the secrets. Still, the last fifty pages of The Lake House surprised me, in a good way. I especially relished the final chapter, which takes the surviving characters ahead to the year 2004, giving a brief picture of how they all have adapted to the revelations of the year 2003.

Kate Morton is an Australian writing phenomenon and internationally bestselling novelist, now living in London. I’ve just discovered her work, and I plan to check out more of it.

Linked Stories: 3 Reviews

In this post you’ll find reviews of three books that are highly disparate in tone and subject matter. Each, however, has narrative components linked by a theme.

Spinning Heart     Donal Ryan     (2014)     (published in Ireland in 2012)

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“There’s a red metal heart in the centre of the low front gate, skewered on a rotating hinge. It’s flaking now; the red is nearly gone.” (9) These lines, in the first chapter of Spinning Heart, describe not just a physical ornamentation but also the gyrating emotions of the twenty-one people whose hearts are bared in twenty-one linked first-person stories in this slim volume.

The setting is rural Ireland, right after the collapse of the housing bubble and banking crisis of 2007-2010 in that nation. The effects of this economic catastrophe, and of the global recession, are stark and highly personal. Real estate developer Pokey Burke has skipped town, leaving unpaid workers and half-finished houses in his wake. The characters who reflect on their situations sometimes feel to me as if they are descendants of the characters in a play by JM Synge or Brendan Behan, but author Donal Ryan approaches each with a fresh vision and a distinct portrayal. Ryan’s prose is varied, vernacular, sometimes vulgar. The heartfelt stories, with echoes of ethnography, allow the reader to piece together the complex interactions of the residents of the town, to see the pervading despair and also the small bits of hope.

American readers may find the Irish dialect slightly confusing at times, but context almost always conveys the meaning (“wan” for “woman,” “rakes” for “lots,” and so on). Spinning Heart, winner of multiple prizes, is truly worth the read.

Uncommon Type:  Some Stories     Tom Hanks     (2017)

I admire Tom Hanks as an actor, so when I saw his book of short stories at my library, I decided to scope out his writing abilities. The subjects of the stories in Uncommon Type range widely and include space travel, time travel, and slices of life from various decades of the twentieth century. Most of them have a strong element of whimsy, with dialogue zingers. The linking element in this collection is the typewriter: a typewriter appears in every story, sometimes just incidentally (as when an elderly woman types a receipt in “Alan Bean Plus Four”) and sometimes as the star of the show (as when a young woman finds hope through a typewriter in “These Are the Meditations of My Heart”). In addition, four characters, an unlikely band of friends, recur in several stories throughout the book.

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In “Christmas Eve 1953,”  a disabled World War II veteran who has built a good life for himself in middle America has a phone conversation with an old Army buddy on Christmas Eve, as he does every year. With this story, Hanks successfully evokes the era after World War II, when American life seemed to hold great promise, but only at the cost of suppressing the horrors of the conflict recently ended.

Two of the other stories also struck me. “The Past Is Important to Us” is about a billionaire in the near-future who buys time-travel trips to New York on June 8, 1939, and visits the World’s Fair. “Go See Costas” follows a Bulgarian refugee who stows away on a ship some time in the mid-twentieth century and arrives in New York penniless, friendless, and speaking no English. On the other hand, the three pretend newspaper columns interspersed in the book, “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset,” fell flat for me.

After drafting this review of Uncommon Type, I googled a few other reviews. They all panned the book as full of clichés and sentimental to the point of mawkishness. Phooey. Perhaps these reviewers are simply not catching Hanks’ sendups and satire, his creation of over-the-top characters who point to human foibles. Or maybe these reviewers value dark, grim fiction over wistful, nostalgic fiction. The stories in Uncommon Type are uneven, sure, but the book as a whole is fairly successful. And, okay, an old Smith-Corona typewriter (circa 1935) resides in my basement.

The Balcony     Jane Delury     (2018)

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The common element in the ten short stories in The Balcony is a place: a manor house and its nearby servants’ cottage in a non-quaint village outside of Paris. A third-floor balcony in the manor house does figure in a couple of dramatic episodes, somewhat justifying the book’s title, but the author ranges widely over the entire estate, with its gardens, forest, and pond, to examine the lives of those who lived or visited there. The stories also bounce back and forth in years: 1992, 1890, 1980, 1999, 1975, 2000, 1910, 2006, 2009, and finally an unspecified year near the present day. Phrases in French pop up frequently, most but not all defined by their context.

Some characters appear in only one episode, and others weave in and out of the tales. For example, readers get a multi-generational picture of the Havre family, viewing them in snapshots of key events in their lives, coming to understand their allegiances, foibles, desires, and betrayals. I especially enjoyed following the life of Alexis Havre in several of the stories. However, the last three stories are the weakest, and the final one, “Between,” left me confused. Unlike the third person of most of the rest of the book, “Between” is written in an odd second-person of address. (“During the first course, your wife and my husband speak French, as you and I slide into English.” 221) I wanted a wrap-up to the stories—if not resolution, at least an indication of where a few of the characters landed—and instead I got a rather stilted affair that the speaker, a woman, seems to regret. Still, for most of the book Jane Delury’s prose is confident and compassionate in her debut offering.

Fiction about Food: 2 Reviews

Sourdough     Robin Sloan     (2017)

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I love baking bread, and I love how it tastes right out of the oven. Yes, I know you’re supposed to wait until it cools, so that the gluten can set, but I can never wait. Novelist Robin Sloan gets this. The main character in his novel Sourdough, Lois Clary, tells us about her first homemade loaf:  “I made another cut, peeled away a rough slice, and blew across its surface, tossing it from one hand to the other. It was too hot to eat, but I began to eat it anyway.” (42)

Lois, not long out of college in Michigan, is a computer programmer of exceptional talents. Her special area of expertise is software for robots, so she’s recruited by General Dexterity, a robotics startup in San Francisco. All the horror stories about the punishing workloads of Silicon Valley tech workers play out here. Lois writes code for long hours, coming back to her minuscule apartment too exhausted even to cook supper. She starts ordering meals from a nearby delivery service and finds the food delectable.

Alas, the two owners of the under-the-radar kitchen have immigration issues and have to leave the United States quickly, but they take the time to stop at Lois’s apartment and present her with the starter for their sourdough bread. Can she please keep it alive for them? Can she feed it daily and bake with it? Lois has never baked bread, but she feels indebted to the brothers who’ve been sustaining her with their cooking. She immerses herself in the world of sourdough—the flours, the ovens, the coaxing along of the microorganisms that cause the rising and that flavor the crumb. Soon she’s baking on a large scale, in addition to working far more than full time at General Dexterity.

Sourdough skewers both the tech industry (hello, Jeff Bezos) and the gourmet/local food movements (hi there, Alice Waters) as Lois tries to combine her programming chops with her newfound bread obsession. Roboticized food preparation is one result, but in the end, Lois has to choose between two ways of life—or maybe three. Sloan has a light touch in this easy-to-read, funny novel.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest     J Ryan Stradal     (2015)

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In a more serious vein, but still drolly witty, is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Protagonist Eva Thorvald has a rough start in life. When she’s just a child, her mother deserts the family and then her father dies. But from an early age Eva understands the importance of taste subtlety, and the culinary arts beckon. She zeros in on the ultra-local and ultra-fresh food markets and becomes an internationally famed chef, while retaining her Midwestern roots. The novel approaches Eva’s story from the viewpoints of many of those whose lives she touches, bringing up how our preconceptions about people color our actions.

And for a nonfiction offering on the subject of food, see my review of S. Margot Finn’s Discriminating Taste.