Pies and Brews in the Upper Midwest

The Lager Queen of Minnesota     J Ryan Stradal     (2019) Midweek Bonus Post!

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Stereotypes are by definition oversimplified and formulaic, and stereotyping of any large population is particularly problematic, since variability among individuals is much more likely than conformity. Still, we all know what’s meant, for example, by “Southern hospitality,” even if not every person who lives in the southern United States is hospitable.

In The Lager Queen of Minnesota, J Ryan Stradal gives us a good portrait of “Minnesota nice,” the stereotype of that state’s residents that includes characteristics such as avoidance of conflict, social reticence, and a surface politeness that can mask passive aggressiveness. Of course, not all Minnesotans fit this profile, but the fictional Edith Magnusson certainly does. In 2003, when the fruit pies that she bakes at a rural nursing home garner statewide attention and paying dinner guests, the 64-year-old Edith shrugs off fame and is afraid to ask for a wage increase. Over the ensuing years, she doesn’t parlay her culinary genius into a job that can pay the bills, even when she has to take over raising her teenage granddaughter, Diana.

Edith’s struggles seem grossly unfair, considering that her estranged sister, Helen, inherited all the proceeds of their family farm years before and used the money to launch a successful brewery. That’s the setup of this novel, which gently pokes fun both at Minnesotans and at the currently trendy craft brewery phenomenon. The supposedly evil Helen’s non-craft  brewery is named  “Blotz,” with echoes of the slang term for drunk, “blotto.” The craft brewery where the young Diana works part-time is named “Heartlander,” with echoes of beloved farmland and amber waves of grain.

In much the same vein as Stradal’s previous novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Lager Queen of Minnesota features strong women who survive and thrive in business despite the appalling family situations that they have to contend with. In Kitchens, the arena for success is hyper-gourmet pop-up restaurants. In Lager Queen, it’s breweries. In a delightful twist, several of the successful female entrepreneurs portrayed in Lager Queen are well past the age when they’d qualify for Social Security. Pies might have been a more conventional route for Edith to achieve financial salvation, but Lager Queen doesn’t take the predictable plot turns. In the end, Stradal finds a way to combine Edith’s pie-baking and beer-brewing talents.

Yeah, it’s a quirky book, but the quirks are droll and entertaining. If you’re a Midwesterner or a friend of a Midwesterner, check it out. And if you’d like to read reviews of other books set in Minnesota, try the new Search Box at the top of this page!

Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

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The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

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Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

A Cautionary Novel about Cults

Little Faith     Nickolas Butler     (2019)

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In the title to this blog post, I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. I use it to mean a group professing a religious belief that they claim provides exclusive access to salvation. But this alone would not distinguish a cult from many mainstream religious groups. Cults often have arcane rules about conduct of life—rules that can be secretive. In addition, a cult demands absolute obedience to a leader, usually a charismatic man, and urges total allegiance to the group, alienating members from family and indeed from the greater society. The risk of exploitation of members by the cult’s leader is high.

I’ve noticed that the media don’t much use the term “cult” lately, rather giving these groups the benefit of the doubt as “new sects” or “alternative religious movements.” I was raised in the 1960s in a religious splinter group that fell short of being a cult but that could also have been given one of these more benign labels. I see a distinct tipping point between “new sect” and “cult”: When a member’s fervent adherence to the group leads the member to perform destructive (including self-destructive) acts that are widely recognized by civil society as unacceptable or even criminal, to me that group is clearly a cult.

Now, to get the novel at hand, Little Faith. In present-day rural Wisconsin, a retired couple, Lyle and Peg Hovde, are delighted when their long-estranged adult daughter, Shiloh, comes to live with them again. Shiloh brings with her Isaac, her five-year-old son. The Hovdes don’t ask about Isaac’s father; they’re just reveling in their newfound grandparenthood. And Isaac is a bright, sweet child.

The knot of this novel, however, arises when we find that Shiloh has become a member of a cult. True, Shiloh calls the group that she joins her “church,” but it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Lyle and Peg try to be respectful of Shiloh’s beliefs, not the least because they’re desperate to have good relationships with their only child and only grandchild. But the deceptive and damaging aspects of Shiloh’s beliefs become more and more apparent as the story wends through the seasons of a year. Lyle’s own struggles with religious belief weave in and out of the narrative.

Nickolas Butler’s prose is straightforward but occasionally lyrical, his characters are beautifully developed, and his plot is achingly tragic. I challenge any reader of Little Faith not to weep at the ending of the novel, which I will not spoil with a full revelation of the plot. An Author’s Note tells us that part of the story is based on an actual 2008 incident in Wisconsin, where Butler lives. Thus, Little Faith becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremist, authoritarian groups that entrap needy souls in the name of religion.

Click here for my review of another of Nickolas Butler’s novels, The Hearts of Men.

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)

Intertwined Lives in Minnesota

Virgil Wander     Leif Enger     (2018)

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

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

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

  • Alec's presumed widow, the luminous Nadine

  • Alec's teenage son, the loner Bjorn

  • Virgil's garrulous journalist friend, Tom Beeman

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

  • mysterious Adam Leer, returned from Hollywood to Greenstone

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Young Adult Romance

The Boy Next Door     Katie Van Ark     (2016)

Swoon Reads is an online community for readers and writers of Young Adult fiction (swoonreads.com). Writers submit manuscripts for rating and commentary by readers and writers; the very best submissions are published as paperback books by a division of Macmillan. Katie Van Ark’s novel was one of the winners in the romance category, and since she’s a distant relative of mine, I’m stepping out of my usual review zone to tell you about The Boy Next Door.

Lead characters Maddy and Gabe are high school students who’ve known each other since childhood. They’re also competitive figure skating partners, and they’re at the top of the sport, heading toward international events. Maddy has always been in love with Gabe. Gabe, however, has decided to keep things platonic with Maddy, and he dates other young women. When their skating coach picks the theme music from Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet for their new routine, Maddy and Gabe have to display attraction toward each other on the ice, and the main plot takes off. As in real life, the path of romance in The Boy Next Door is not straightforward but winding. The chapters alternate first-person narratives from Maddy and Gabe, and several subplots are woven in neatly.

What’s most striking about The Boy Next Door is the figure skating, which unifies the narrative without overpowering the romance theme, even though Maddy and Gabe put in a staggering number of hours at the ice arena. Van Ark knows the sport as an insider, and she describes elaborate skating routines in elegant prose. I know nothing about figure skating, but I was flying along as Maddy executed those triple Axels, cheering for Maddy and Gabe both as skaters and as romantic partners.

Even if you don't usually read romances, pick this one up. As a bonus for Midwesterners, it’s set in Kansas and written by a Michigander!

Two Books by Strout

Anything Is Possible     Elizabeth Strout     (2017)

My Name is Lucy Barton     Elizabeth Strout     (2016)

Before you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 short story collection, Anything Is Possible, you might want to check out her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The two books are interconnected and can be read as a cohesive whole.

In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy is a writer in New York City in the 1980s, with a husband and two young daughters. When Lucy is hospitalized for many weeks with a mysterious illness that arises after an appendectomy, her estranged mother travels from rural Illinois to her bedside. The two women reach an uneasy peace with each other, especially as they tell stories about the folks back home, in the (fictional) Amgash, Illinois, a depressed rural area that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago.

In Anything is Possible, set in a recent time period, we meet many of the characters mentioned in My Name is Lucy Barton, both in Amgash and in other locales:

  • Pete Barton, Lucy’s reclusive and oddly childlike brother, who still lives in the old Barton house.
  • Tommy Guptill, the friendly janitor from Lucy’s elementary school, who is now in his eighties and who keeps an eye on Pete.
  • Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who gets himself into a bind over a prostitute.
  • Patty Nicely, a contemporary of Lucy’s and now a high school guidance counselor, who tries to help Lucy’s difficult niece, Lila Lane.
  • Mary Mumford, the neighbor woman who left her husband of 51 years to run off to Italy with a younger man.
  • Vicky Lane, Lucy’s sister, who reminds Lucy about some of the horrors the siblings endured in their childhood.
  • Abel Blaine, Lucy’s cousin, who has built a successful business in Chicago.

Lucy herself enters the linked stories of Anything Is Possible in many ways. She’s become an acclaimed writer and has published a book that the people of Amgash can buy at the local bookstore. Chicago is one of the stops on Lucy’s tour to promote her book, so she stops in Amgash to see her siblings, Pete and Vicky, in one of the stories. Take note that the fictional Lucy’s fictional “memoir” seems to be very much like Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

Strout toys with the vagaries of memory in both these books. In Anything Is Possible, we get much more detail about the childhood suffering of the Barton kids—details that were glossed over and somewhat sanitized in My Name is Lucy Barton. The other residents of Amgash are also revealed to have their share of specific miseries, including sexual abuse, mental illness, and crushing poverty. The power of money emerges as another theme. Lucy Barton, who had to scrounge in dumpsters for food as a child, lives the up-by-her-bootstraps version of the American dream when she gets into college and becomes a successful writer. Others in her small town remain impoverished. Sometimes people are poor simply because of bad luck, and money certainly does not buy happiness or stability for the characters in Anything Is Possible.

The prose in these two books is spare, with every word well chosen. The emotions are raw but presented with subtle empathy. Strout’s previous books include the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), which is, like Anything Is Possible, set up as linked short stories, and the novel The Burgess Boys (2013). Basically, read anything by Elizabeth Strout that you can get. You won’t be disappointed.

North Woods Morality

The Hearts of Men     Nickolas Butler     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cure for Loneliness

Our Souls at Night     Kent Haruf     (2015)

Right in the first chapter of Our Souls at Night we know the premise: One evening in May, elderly widow Addie Moore asks elderly widower Louis Waters if he would come to her house occasionally and spend the night, not for sex but for conversation and companionship. Addie and Louis are neighbors in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, and both are intensely lonely. She has a son, and he has a daughter, but these adult children live hours away.

Addie and Louis embark on their conversational adventure, scandalizing the townsfolk but finding joy in each other’s company. Through their dialogue, which forms the core of this book, we learn about their family histories, their disappointments, their secret pleasures. When Addie’s son and daughter-in-law have marital and business troubles, their young son comes to stay with Addie for the summer. Addie and Louis are able to cheer up this forlorn grandchild with unpretentious entertainments, but, alas, the magic of their summer together doesn’t last.

All you punctuation geeks out there should be aware that author Kent Haruf uses no quotation marks in his writing. This practice causes reader confusion once in a while, but I think I understand Haruf’s motives. The text as it appears on the page is exceedingly spare and unadorned, just as the narrative is simple and stripped down. We get the essence of the story, the bare essentials, which nevertheless say plenty about issues like friendship, trust, love, and family duty. Every single word of Our Souls at Night seems carefully chosen to enhance the whole book.

Haruf depicts small-town America deftly in this novel. (At 179 pages, I’d say that it’s more of a novella.) He doesn’t stereotype the characters or sentimentalize their relationships. Rather, he creates complex, fallible people trying to make sense of their lot in life. Addie and Louis carve out their own version of happiness in spite of setbacks; readers can tuck their story away as a tutorial in how to cope with old age and the inevitability of mortality.

This understated jewel of a book is one you should not miss.

Sadly, Kent Haruf died in 2014, shortly after completing Our Souls at Night. His previous novels (all set in Holt, Colorado) include a loose trilogy (Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction), Where You Once Belonged, and The Tie that Binds, plus the photobook West of Last Chance (with photographer Peter Brown).

 

Family Sagas: Three Reviews

Review #1

Commonwealth     Ann Patchett (2016)

I can accord all the usual accolades to Patchett, who deftly spins a saga covering fifty years of a family that she admits is somewhat like her own—it doesn’t matter exactly how much. Commonwealth is a set of interconnected novelettes about the affairs, divorces, and remarriages of the older generation and the resultant dysfunctions visited upon them and their children in California and Virginia. The characters are wonderfully crafted, the scene-setting is vivid, and the pacing is energetic. But there’s a serious flaw in this book that I simply cannot get past (spoiler coming). One character, who has a clearly known allergy, dies from anaphylaxis. Patchett repeatedly presents Benedryl tablets as the antidote that the character should have ingested, possibly because these tablets have other roles in her story. In fact, the death could have been prevented only if epinephrine (in an EpiPen) had been administered quickly. This is not a footnote in the novel but rather a defining event. Is Commonwealth still worth reading? Yup. But I’ve warned you.

Review #2

The Turner House     Angela Flournoy (2015)

For a comprehensive examination of the decline of the great city of Detroit, read the classic nonfiction text, The Origins of the Urban Crisis:  Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit by Thomas J. Sugrue. For an intimate portrayal of the effects of that crisis, read The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. I’m pretty familiar with Detroit. Flournoy has captured the city in its gritty bleakness of the early 2000s as well as, through flashbacks, in its manufacturing glory of the mid-twentieth century. Her angle in is the varying fortunes of the African American Turner family, with thirteen children who were born in the better days and are aging in the dying urban landscape. Although the cast of characters is huge, Flournoy keeps the plot manageable by developing primarily the stories of the oldest and youngest of this clan. The house that the Turners grew up in is depicted lovingly, as an organism in decline. The Turners are African Americans, but The Turner House is about working class Detroiters of any race or ethnicity who are trying to maintain family bonds through tough times.

Review #3

The House at the Edge of Night     Catherine Banner (2016)

Like Shakespeare’s island in The Tempest, Catherine Banner’s island of Castellamare is a tiny Mediterranean refuge for shipwrecked souls, a place of implausible coincidences and occasional magic. Banner follows a family on Castellamare throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, starting each section with a local legend that sets the tone for her archetypal, folkloric characters. The titular House at the Edge of Night is a bar and gathering place for the island community. Readers watch as the succeeding generations of Amadeo Esposito’s family take on the management of the bar, through periods of prosperity and depression, war in the surrounding world, and conflict in the village. Although the novel has a dreamlike, wistful quality, Banner treats serious issues such as clan loyalty, sibling discord, political clashes, and the rival demands of career and family. 

Gentle Swedish Novels

Although the international taste for Nordic Noir is strong, not all the books coming out of Sweden are dark thrillers. The novels reviewed below may not suit you if your taste runs to authors Stieg Larsson (with sleuths Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander) and Henning Mankell (with detective Kurt Wallander). I harbor a fascination with Scandinavian culture, so I embrace a wide range of titles from the land of Volvos, fjords, aurora borealis, and IKEA. Here are two gentle offerings from the Swedes.  

Review #1

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend     Katarina Bivald     (2016)

Translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies

A stranger comes to town:  it’s an ancient and oft-used storyline, maybe because it has built-in plot development potential. The stranger learns the ways of the town. The town learns the ways of the stranger. The author can add to this mix some conflict, some romance, or some comical misunderstanding. Debut novelist Katarina Bivald takes advantage of all the plot possibilities in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend.

Bivald.gif

Sara Lindqvist arrives in Broken Wheel, Iowa, one August day in 2011 to visit her pen pal, Amy Harris. Sara and Amy have in common that they’re voracious readers.  Over a couple of years, Sara has gotten Amy to read Swedish bestsellers like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Amy has introduced Sara to American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.  Sara, who’s in her late 20s, has never traveled outside her native Sweden, but when she gets laid off from her job as a bookstore clerk, she decides to use her savings to take an extended trip to Iowa. Sara’s fluent in English, but she’s not prepared for small-town America still in the grips of a major recession. Not to mention that she arrives on the very day of the elderly Amy’s funeral.

The residents of Broken Wheel include all the stock characters. A gay couple owns the saloon, and an unemployed schoolteacher is the local busybody. A semi-reformed alcoholic with a sad family history serves as Sara’s chauffeur. The loud-mouthed, overweight proprietor of the diner keeps Sara fed. Amy’s handsome nephew Tom becomes Sara’s love interest.

Sara has a talent for finding just the right book, from Amy’s extensive collection, for each resident of Broken Wheel. As the Iowans embrace their European waif, the story plays out with the involvement of befuddled US immigration officials. The premise of Bivald’s novel has become more far-fetched since the 2016 American election, when anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States elected Trump, who is especially popular in Iowa. Bivald not only romanticizes rural America but also hits on many clichés.

Still, I don’t want to disparage this book. Bivald’s character Sara has wide-ranging literary tastes. She adores Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels, but she also knows her Jane Austen backward and forward. She’d just as soon pick up a book by Goethe or Annie Proulx as one by Fannie Flagg. I’m more of a book snob than Sara—I draw the line at The Bridges of Madison County. But Sara’s encounter with the Americans of Broken Wheel cheered my heart for a while.

Review #2

A Man Called Ove     Fredrik Backman (2014)

Translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

Good luck with finding a definitive pronunciation for “Ove.” I pronounce it something like “oo-vuh,” but I don’t speak Swedish.

No matter how the name sounds in your head, Ove is a Swedish curmudgeon in late middle age, and he’s not an endearing one. We meet him making his rounds as self-appointed, and unwelcome, policing agent for his neighborhood. He’s also figuring out how to commit suicide, which is perhaps a nod to that Nordic Noir tradition. The other characters in this novel are pretty much stereotypes: the saintly wife, the vivacious neighbor, the unfeeling government official, the malicious cat.

Backmann.jpg

Over the course of the novel, we gradually get Ove’s life story, and we come to be more sympathetic to him. The ending is not exactly happily-ever-after, but there’s satisfying plot resolution for a number of the characters.

A Man Called Ove and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend are not "literary fiction," true. However, they present optimism in the face of difficult circumstances, which many readers may welcome in this troubled world. There’s also in each novel a refreshing societal acceptance of cultural outsiders. I think that both books have some affinity with the work of that prolific Scot Alexander McCall Smith. I read McCall Smith’s books in one sitting, and I always arise feeling a bit better about life.