Two Breezy Beach Reads

For your summer reading pleasure, here are two novels set adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A Hundred Summers     Beatriz Williams     (2013)

Beatriz Williams spins an old-school romance with the more explicit sex scenes of contemporary literature and comes up with a frothy confection of a chick-lit novel.

The story is set in Depression-era America, with chapters alternating between 1931 and 1938. In 1931, the sensible and lovely Lily Dane (student at Smith) meets the smart and handsome Nick Greenwald (student at Dartmouth) at a college football game. Although Nick gets his leg broken in that game, the two fall in love. Alas, the impediment to their lifelong happiness seems to be that Nick’s father is Jewish.

In the summer of 1938, the characters reunite at the fictional Seaview, Rhode Island, an oceanside retreat for the privileged few who are relatively unaffected by the 1929 economic crash. Lily’s best friend, the fashionable and reckless Budgie Byrne, is now married to Nick, while Lily is single, serving as a kind of nanny to her six-year-old sister, Kiki. Graham Pendleton, once a lover of Budgie’s, pursues Lily, who still pines for Nick.

Conundrums swirl. Why in the world would Nick have married Budgie, when they’re obviously unsuited to each other? Is Kiki really Lily’s sister or is she Lily and Nick’s love child? What’s going on with the Greenwald family business? What does Lily’s wacky and yet wise Aunt Julie know? How can these people drink so much alcohol and still stand on two feet? It all comes together with hurricane force in the final chapters, and an epilogue takes the story out to 1944.

Williams’ dialogue is sprightly and her plot moves right along, so even if you find that the characters verge on the stereotypical, I think you’ll enjoy this novel as you lounge on the sand under a summer sun. 

A Dangerous Collaboration     Deanna Raybourn     (2019)

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If your beach-read tastes lean more toward classic mysteries, this fourth installment in the Veronica Speedwell Series might serve. I dipped into A Dangerous Collaboration without having read the previous novels, and I figured out the background pretty quickly.

Veronica is a lepidopterist and sleuth who is shockingly independent and sexually liberated for the year 1888 in Britain. Stoker Templeton-Vane plays opposite her as her love interest and partner in detection. He’s a trained physician, which comes in handy, and a hunk who would not be out of place in a bodice-ripper romance. Veronica and Stoker stoke up their unconsummated attraction to each other with slick banter as they try to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a bride on an island off the Cornish coast.

Much of the plot is typical of English house-party murder mysteries, with Gothic elements impishly pointed out by the author’s choice of a character name invoking Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 Dracula. You’ll encounter a castle with secret tunnels and hidey holes galore, a garden of poisonous plants, a spooky séance, and an array of suspects that includes family members, household staff, and local villagers. The denouement is suitably sensational and watery, though the reader is pretty sure that Veronica and Stoker will survive and solve the mystery.

And there are even fictional rare butterflies!

Happy surfing!

 

Two Novels Set in Detroit

I’m currently writing a novel set in 1960s Detroit, so I’ve been reading widely about this time and place. Two of my fiction finds are reviewed here. Watch for a future post on social histories of Detroit.

We Hope for Better Things     Erin Bartels     (2019)

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Interracial relationships are the theme of Erin Bartels’ multi-century historical novel. In the present-day chapters, white Detroit journalist Elizabeth Balsam, following up on a lead about unpublished photos of the 1967 Detroit riots, ends up at her great-aunt Nora’s farmhouse in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive north of the city. Elizabeth slowly uncovers information about Nora’s romance with an African American man in the turbulent Detroit of the 1960s; readers get this backstory in separate chapters.  

Yet another layer of Elizabeth’s family history is revealed in chapters set in Lapeer in 1861, when the farmhouse was a stop for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. I had to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight, but I appreciated all the local color and period detail in Bartels’ writing, as she places her characters at watershed moments of history, such as the June 1963 speech by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, in Detroit. And that title? It’s from the motto for the city of Detroit: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Beautiful Music      Michael Zadoorian     (2018)

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If you’re familiar with the arcana of hard rock in the early 1970s (and I mean way beyond just MC5 and Iggy Pop), you’ll probably love this novel. That’s not my music, so I skimmed over the many references to bands and radio disc jockeys and album covers. I read the book instead for the touching story of a high school freshman at Redford High School, on Detroit’s far northwest side, in a period of increasing racial tension and violence in the city.

Danny Yzemski is a sweet, shy kid who’s bullied in school and beleaguered at home. His coming-of-age is aided by his discovery of the transformative power of music. He demonstrates that if you find the tracks that speak to you, the music can make all the difference in your survival. One chapter is aptly titled “Music Soothes the Savage Brain.” The detailed descriptions of Danny’s neighborhood along the Grand River corridor—the routes he took, the stores he frequented—re-create the era precisely. Even the breakfast cereals that Danny eats are authentic to the period. For vintage Detroit flavor, tune in to Beautiful Music.

Click here for a radio interview with author Michael Zadoorian.

1947 in the US and the UK: 2 Novels

By chance, I picked up from my library two historical novels set in the same year, 1947. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation of World War II, ordinary people on both sides of the Atlantic are trying to get on with their lives. 

The Stars Are Fire     Anita Shreve     (2017)

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In 1947 coastal Maine, an extreme drought contributed to October wildfires that devastated nine small towns and left 2500 people homeless. Into this historical setting, Anita Shreve places a fictional young wife and mother, Grace Holland. Grace’s husband, Gene, joins a group of volunteers trying to fight the fires. Meanwhile, Grace is left to save herself, her infant, and her toddler by crouching with them for hours in shallow water at the ocean’s edge. As much of an ordeal as this is, Grace’s life after the fire poses even more challenges, since she finds herself without a house or any means of support. Kindly friends in a neighboring town take in Grace and her children, while she finds reserves of courage that she didn’t know she had.

There’s some melodrama in this novel, especially in several farfetched plot coincidences. And I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of full development of the character of Gene Holland. The Holland marriage, as it’s depicted in the months before the fires, is not a happy one, and Gene seems to suffer from depression. Shreve mentions that he served in World War II, so maybe he suffers from PTSD (“battle fatigue” in WWII parlance), but this aspect of his personality isn’t explored, so Gene serves primarily as a foil to Grace.  

On balance, however, the positives in this novel outweighed the negatives for me. A strong female lead character makes bold life choices in the face of terrible circumstances, and she’s surrounded by other distinctive female characters. The post-WWII American household is evoked well, right down to the wringer washers.  

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding     Jennifer Robson     (2019)

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In 1947 London, the severe rationing of the war years is still in effect, and many Londoners are mourning the loss of loved ones, both on the battlefields and in the Blitz. Then the wonderful, cheering announcement comes: Princess Elizabeth (whom we know now as Queen Elizabeth II) is engaged to marry Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (now Prince Philip). The fashion house of Norman Hartnell is commissioned to make the princess’s wedding gown, which is to be embellished with elaborate appliques and thousands of tiny jewels. These are the historical facts around which novelist Jennifer Robson imagines the lives of two of the working-class women employed as embroiderers by Hartnell—Englishwoman Ann Hughes and a French immigrant who survived Nazi persecution, Miriam Dassin.  

The tale of Ann and Miriam is enlivened by interspersed chapters from the 2016 life of the granddaughter of Ann Hughes, Heather Mackenzie, who lives in Toronto, Canada. Heather inherits from her grandmother a box of exquisite embroideries and an old photo of Ann and Miriam. Researching images that she finds online, Heather discovers that the fabrics look very much like the 1947 wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, and she travels to London to get some answers. Why did Ann never speak about her stitching on this famous gown? Why did she emigrate to Canada? Who were Ann’s co-workers? What was it like to live in grim post-war London and yet spend your working days sewing fabulous materials for the British royal family? Heather unravels these mysteries from her present-day information, while readers gradually learn the facts from 1947.  

You do not have to know anything about embroidery (I certainly don’t) to appreciate the artistry being described by Robson. I kept turning back to the cover of the book, with its photo from the 1947 wedding of Elizabeth and Philip, to visualize that gown. And with Robson’s help I could easily picture Ann sitting by the wireless, eating gristly meat scraps, her slippers having been warmed in the oven because there was no coal for a fire on a bitter winter night. There’s romance in The Gown, and there’s exploitation, revenge, friendship, despair, and triumph.    

PS—For another novel set right after World War II, try The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, reviewed here.  

The Gilded Age: 2 Novels

Life in the United States today has many elements of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the concentration of wealth in a tiny class of industrialists left many Americans in hopeless poverty. The era was not golden for most people but rather characterized by fake gilding. In this post, I review two recent novels set in the Gilded Age.  

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts     Therese Anne Fowler     (2018) 

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New York City in the Gilded Age is the setting for this novel that seeks to reconstruct the inner life of the historical Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva is living in genteel poverty with her three sisters and their dying father when she captures the attention of William K Vanderbilt of New York City and marries him in 1875. The Vanderbilt family has made unimaginable millions in railroads but is shut out of the New York social scene by old-money families such as the Astors. Alva is determined to crash the gates. She commissions and helps design spectacular (and gaudily ornate) homes, hosts extravagant balls, travels the world, and eventually finds social acceptance. Yet, according to this fictionalization, she’s never happy in her marriage to William.  

Keep in mind that $1 million in the 1880s would be about $25 million today, so the Vanderbilts were the one-percenters of their era. It’s hard to sympathize with their discontents as they guzzle the champagne, but Alva has a few redeeming qualities. She takes on charitable causes and later in life becomes an advocate for women’s suffrage. The focus of this novel, however, is on Alva’s family and social interactions, from her young adulthood through her middle age. I couldn’t help rooting for her to dump the contemptible William, which she finally does with a scandal-generating divorce in 1895.  

The Lake on Fire     Rosellen Brown     (2018) 

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Like A Well-Behaved Woman, reviewed above, The Lake on Fire is a kind of Cinderella tale, featuring a young, impoverished woman who marries a wealthy man. But in this historical novel the woman is purely fictional, not based on a real person, and the Cinderella story has a number of twists. 

Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky is a Jewish immigrant from Russia to rural Wisconsin who flees the matchmaking ploys of her family in 1891, running away to Chicago. Her younger brother Asher, a prodigy in both learning and petty theft, tags along with her. He roams the dangerous streets of the city while Chaya works in a sweat shop, rolling tobacco into cigars. Chaya’s  chance encounter with a wealthy socialist, Gregory Stillman, leads to romance. But Chaya is hesitant to follow the happily-ever-after path of the typical romance heroine. She tells her landlady, who encourages the match, “’He doesn’t love me for myself, he loves me for everything I don’t have. He hasn’t known anyone who’s as different from him as I am.’” (134) Chaya poses rhetorical questions for herself: “Is every life a fabric of compromises, then? Warp what you love, weft what you must tolerate, an imperfect weave, however strong and lovely it might look?”  (219) 

The city of Chicago becomes one of the central characters in this novel, and it’s lovingly described, even by those who live in its most sordid quarters: “She [Chaya] knew every inflection of Chicago dawn, different in each season—cool purple turning gold; tranced a dull fog-gray so many days, locked under cloud, or pearly with snow about to let down as if the sky were a trapdoor that silently, invisibly opened.”  (229) 

I visit Chicago fairly often, so I have a good sense of the street grid and of the strong presence of Lake Michigan, whose winds gust their way through the city. The layout of downtown Chicago in the early 1890s is similar to the layout today. From Rosellen Brown’s depiction, I could visualize the magnificent but temporarily constructed Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1893, the site of some of the action in this novel. And the introduction into the narrative of the historical Jane Addams of Hull House fame did not seem forced at all.  

If you’re looking for a Gilded Age novel that depicts both ends of the money spectrum, read The Lake on Fire. If you’re fascinated with the history of the rich and powerful of New York City, try A Well-Behaved Woman.

Short Stories & Essays: 2 Reviews

Calypso     David Sedaris     (2018)

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Any book of essays and stories by David Sedaris is guaranteed to elicit out-loud guffaws from me as I burn through the pages. Calypso is no exception, even though several of the pieces in this collection center on the 2013 suicide of Sedaris’s sister Tiffany. Sedaris depicts himself, his four surviving siblings, and his elderly father as truly grieved by the loss of Tiffany. But they carry on, recalling their decades of interactions with Tiffany in raw spurts that are sometimes amusing and sometimes downright sad. “Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story . . . Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.” (91-92)

Over the years, Sedaris has lived in several cities in the United States and in France. He currently resides with his long-term boyfriend, the visual artist Hugh Hamrick, in a renovated sixteenth-century house in the south of England. Incidents set in this home and in the surrounding countryside display Sedaris’s acute sense of cultural nuance. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, be warned that he’s an inveterate trash collector—as in self-appointed roadside litter gleaner—who describes vividly the sordid garbage that he picks up. He’s also a prolific writer, whose other books are reviewed in my overview of his work.

Cockfosters     Helen Simpson     (2015)  

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Reviewers of this book of short stories set in contemporary England have pointed to the theme of aging and the observations of characters, middle-aged and beyond, who have a trove of wisdom as well as a sense of losing a grasp on life. This is certainly one theme, but another theme, trenchantly pursued, is women’s role in society and in the home. Each story is named for a place that figures either directly or tangentially in the action. In the title story, two old friends travel by train to Cockfosters station, the end of the line, to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses that one of them has left behind. Each stop along the way brings up discussion of evolving British culture. In the story “Arizona,” a woman receiving an acupuncture treatment has a wide-ranging conversation with her acupuncturist, including a comparison of menopause to the state of Arizona. Most of the stories are brief and pointed; Simpson is especially adept with hyperbolic satire, as in “Erewhon” and “Moscow.” 

Only one story, “Berlin,” left me flat. In it, a husband and wife are reluctant audience members for a multi-day performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Apparently, the two are sorting out whether they want to stay together, but there is little discussion of their troubles. Instead, readers  get interminable descriptions of the opera action. If I was supposed to match this action to the couple’s experiences, I missed the boat. I may have been hampered here by my utter contempt for Wagnerian opera.  

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.

 

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.

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.

Historical Fiction: 3 Reviews

The 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, and the 1945 Atomic Bomb: what a trio of topics for historical fiction! Each of these three novels has some flaws, which I note below, but each kept my attention to the end.

The Revolution of Marina M.     Janet Fitch     (2017)

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Marina Marakova starts her first-person bildungsroman with a brief prologue set in California in 1932, so we know that she survives the Russian Revolution. The rest of this mammoth novel is set in Russia, 1916-1919, with the aristocratic Marina prescient from early on: “How precious all this was, how soon it might be gone. It only made it more poignant and beautiful in my eyes.” (183) Marina experiences a sexual awakening against the gruesome backdrop of (a) World War I grinding on its bloody way, (b) the czarist regime toppling, and (c) the victorious revolutionaries battling each other. She’s a poet who seeks out other poets and gets involved in communist activism seemingly accidentally.

Getting through this 800-page novel takes great patience, but I was borne along by Janet Fitch’s amazing range of vocabulary and imagery. For example, in a train station packed with people trying to escape Petrograd, Fitch writes, “The metallic scent of panic, soot, and trains stained the air.” (419) She tosses off hundreds of such evocative comparisons, especially in describing the smells of places. Marina’s analyses of her own actions and of the dramatically shifting society around her are trenchant: “Why did everyone want a boy to hurry up and become a man, but nobody wanted a girl to become a woman? As if that were the most awful thing that could befall her.” (181) I did waver considerably in my reading commitment as the plot went truly wacky in the latter half of the novel. Marina’s wild forays into communal living, smuggling, sadomasochism, astronomy, mysticism, and animal trapping caused my head to spin. I was also disappointed, when I finally reached page 800, to find that no wrap-up was provided. The Revolution of Marina M. is only “Book I” of Marina’s story!

As Bright as Heaven     Susan Meissner     (2018)

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In the Philadelphia of World War I, Pauline and Thomas Bright and their three daughters take up residence with Thomas’s uncle, who is an undertaker. Pauline, reeling from the recent loss of an infant son, has what can only be described as a morbid obsession with death and joins her husband and his uncle in mortuary work. As if the war weren’t providing enough mortality, a virulent influenza strikes in 1918. (Historically, Philadelphia was particularly hard hit by the influenza pandemic, with more than 12,000 deaths, primarily among young adults.) The struggles and successes of the Bright family play out against the ravages of the disease.

I read Part 1 of As Bright as Heaven, about the first two-thirds of the book, to find out who would succumb to influenza and who would survive. Part 2 skips ahead to 1925, and I kept reading in hopes of getting some insight into the long-term effects of the losses on the human psyche. Sadly, the plot resolutions in these chapters strain credibility, veering well into melodrama territory via coincidences. As Bright as Heaven shares some themes with another novel that I’ve reviewed, The Light between Oceans, by ML Stedman, which is the better historical novel.

The Atomic City Girls     Janet Beard     (2018)

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In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a makeshift city sprang up during World War II, built with federal funds and shrouded in secrecy. This was where uranium was enriched to supply the Manhattan Project, which produced the nuclear weapons deployed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The title of Janet Beard’s book is somewhat confusing; men and women alike labored in this “atomic city.” Readers view Oak Ridge through the fictional lives of four of the workers there: two rural women who take jobs as machine operators, a male physicist from New York who troubleshoots the industrial-scale electromagnetic process, and a male sharecropper who becomes a construction worker on the site. The intertwined stories of these characters draw in several difficult social issues, including racial discrimination in America and the morality of unleashing nuclear energy to destroy civilian targets.

There’s no lyrical prose here, just basic exposition, but I found Beard’s descriptions of the inner workings of Oak Ridge intriguing, especially because her text is enlivened by dozens of remarkable period photographs of ordinary Americans living and working in Oak Ridge, the great majority of them totally unaware of the US Army’s goals in building the complex. In a quiet corner of the middle South, the horrors of the battle fronts and of the Holocaust could seem remote, but the people at Oak Ridge are deeply affected by world events.

Books in Brief, Part 4

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

The Lost History of Stars     Dave Boling     (2017)

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

Difficult Women     Roxane Gay     (2017)

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

Saints for All Occasions     J. Courtney Sullivan     (2017)

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

Books in Brief, Part 3

If you’ve been reading the blog regularly, you know that I devote full reviews to only a small number of the books that pass through my hands each week. Here are three novels that I abandoned after a few chapters or just skimmed through. They may have qualities that engage you more!

In the Name of the Family     Sarah Dunant     (2016)

You’d think that the inclusion of the famously conniving historical characters Niccolò Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia would spark up this novel, but I found the 40 pages that I read to be lackluster. I’ve liked other Sarah Dunant novels set in the Italian Renaissance (eg, The Birth of Venus), so perhaps with In the Name of the Family Dunant is trying too hard to redeem the reputation of Lucrezia. Or perhaps I’m weary of the slimy Borgia brood and their confederates from too many books and television series.

 

 

My Italian Bulldozer     Alexander McCall Smith     (2016)

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I’m a big fan of several of McCall Smith’s series of novels, especially the 44 Scotland Street Series, which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Sadly, McCall Smith’s stand-alone novels tend to be weaker narratively. My Italian Bulldozer is a lightweight romance/comedy, in which the main character is forced to accept a rental bulldozer instead of a rental car on a business trip to Montalcino, Italy. McCall Smith can usually pull off ridiculous plot twists, but this one didn’t work for me.

 

 

Six Four     Hideo Yokoyama     (2012/2016)  translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

The international bestseller from Japan is finally available in an excellent (British) English translation. The central character of this police procedural murder mystery is Yoshinobu Mikami, a former detective who now heads media relations for the police. The title refers to the year of the emperor’s reign when a notorious child-murder occurred. In addition to solving this cold case, dealing with the press, and fighting police corruption, Mikami is dealing with the disappearance of his teen daughter. The insights into Japanese culture are fascinating, and the extended dialogue is well done. But I just skimmed this one, simply because I don’t care for police procedurals. If you do, Six Four is a winner.

Books in Brief, Part 2

I haul eight or ten books home from my local library every week. About half of those don’t get my attention past the first few pages. A couple of others may get a cursory scan through selected chapters. The remaining two or three books I read, relish, and review fully. Some of the books that don’t make the cut for a full review end up in a Books in Brief post. Read on!

Idaho     Emily Ruskovich     (2017)

The terror in this novel lurks deep within, and it is revealed ever so slowly. The novelist is highly skilled in describing the rugged landscapes of northern Idaho and in exploring the perspectives of multiple characters at multiple time points. In short, this is an excellent novel. But the crime that sets the plot in motion is so horrific that I simply had to stop reading about a third of the way through. If you don’t have problems with nightmares from scary books, you may like this one.

Here I Am     Jonathan Safran Foer     (2016)

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This novel is exasperatingly self-referential, long (571 pages), and long-winded. I can see the brilliance of much of the writing, but the author swaggers with his own importance too much. For example, Foer constructs many descriptive lists. When Michael Chabon employs this device, he illuminates his subject. When Foer does it, he suffocates his subject. There’s a lot of discussion of the politics of Israel, and I hoped that would redeem the story, but it didn’t. I gave up less than a quarter of the way through.

 

The Sleep Revolution     Arianna Huffington     (2016)

I’ve read a lot of books and blog posts on the subject of insomnia, and as I paged quickly through The Sleep Revolution I recognized all the standard assertions:  lives too fast-paced, blue screens too ubiquitous, dinner too late, snoring too loud, pills too dangerous. If you need to be convinced that you should seek more healing sleep, you might want to read this entire book. Otherwise, turn to chapter 9, “What To Do, What Not To Do.” Among the many sleep tips summarized in this chapter I found one I may try: extended bedtime meditation rituals. Huffington helpfully lists guided meditations for sleep in her Appendix B. Her Appendix D, on mattresses, doesn’t mention the best resource I’ve found: sleeplikethedead.com

Books in Brief, Part 1

I start reading about twice as many books as I finish, and that’s after I’ve narrowed the list of books that I even start. (I eliminate thrillers and science fiction, for example.) I like a plot that I can hang on to, and I don’t like extreme violence. A few years ago I swore I’d never read another novel set in World War II because they were all so grim. Then along came All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr in 2014, and I decided that extraordinary novels set in World War II would be okay.

My Books in Brief posts are about books that I gave up on or just skimmed through. These are not necessarily badly written books! Many are bestsellers that got stellar reviews from reviewers whom I respect. But I did not read these titles in their entirety, and in my posts, I’ll tell you why. You may decide that you want to dash out to your nearest library or book shop to get a copy!

The Mortifications     Derek Palacio     (2016)

This complex tale about a Cuban-American immigrant family, set in the 1980s, has well-drawn characters and some lovely language, especially when the author is describing Cuba, to which some members of the family return. Palacio commingles realistic and mythic elements in an odd way in this novel, but that was not why I stopped reading. At about the halfway point in the 308 pages, the deep sadness of the story was making me too miserable. I skipped to the end to see how the plot tied up. The ending was sad, too. I should have guessed this from the title.

Pond     Claire-Louise Bennett     (2016)

Bennett positions her book somewhere between prose poetry and stream-of-consciousness. After the first few pages, I jumped around in the chapters (are they chapters?) trying to find threads of a cohesive plot, but I failed. The dust jacket says that Pond is “suffused with the almost synesthetic intensity of the physical world as we remember it from childhood.” I like descriptions of everyday experience, but I could not stick it out inside the brain of the young woman narrator for 195 pages. I prefer poetry that’s more distilled.

Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold     Anne Tyler     (2016)

I’ve enjoyed several of Tyler’s past books, most recently A Spool of Blue Thread (2015), but Vinegar Girl was a disappointment. The book is one of a series of novels, by different modern novelists, based on the plots of Shakespeare plays. I was fine with a modern adaptation or rewriting of Shakespeare, who himself reworked the stories of other authors. What caused me to send this book back to the library after two chapters was the lifeless dialogue. Tyler usually spins out highly believable language, but the characters in Vinegar Girl were not coming alive for me through their words.

The Vacationers     Emma Straub     (2014)

Emma Straub gets a lot of press for her breezy novels and is held up as comparable to Anne Tyler. I don’t see it. In 2012, I tried a couple of chapters of Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures but found the reconstruction of 1920s Hollywood unconvincing. Giving Straub another chance, I quickly skimmed The Vacationers. It reads like the script of a sit-com, with a few witty zingers but not much depth to the plot or the characters, who are New Yorkers on vacation in Mallorca. Despite some glowing reviews of Straub’s next offering, Modern Lovers (2016), I don’t plan another foray.

A Great Reckoning     Louise Penny     (2016)

This is the twelfth book in the Canadian mystery series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I’ve read a couple of the previous titles in the series. I loved the setting (present-day Québec, Canada), the well-developed characters (especially Gamache and his family), and the plots (intricate). I gave up on this series solely because Louise Penny’s style of writing in sentence fragments drove me crazy. If you can handle that herky-jerky movement in every paragraph, these are terrific mysteries.

The Book That Matters Most     Ann Hood     (2016)

I didn’t make it past page 40 of this 358-page book, about a middle-aged woman joining a book club to get over her divorce. I’m not opposed to books about book clubs or books about people who read a lot of books. I read a lot of books myself, and I did read and review the Swedish novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. However, in those first 40 pages of The Book That Matters Most, the dialogue is strained and the interior monologues are trite. I can’t imagine that it gets better.