"Workers of the World, Unite!"

Deep River     Karl Marlantes     (2019)

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Although many Americans now work more than 40 hours a week, either because they need to make ends meet or because their job demands it, the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour work day are well accepted as standard in the United States. This was not always the case.

Until the early twentieth century, when labor unions started challenging the draconian demands of employers, workers in factories, mines, logging camps, stores, offices, private homes, and other workplaces were required to put in far more than eight hours a day, six or seven days a week. The fight for a reasonable work week, for fair pay, and for safe working conditions was a bloody one, waged by courageous people who risked their jobs and often their lives by joining a labor union, by attending union rallies, and by striking. These workers were accused of being communists –or at the very least unpatriotic and lazy, unwilling to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Deep River is a fictional treatment of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest, from 1904 to 1932, with an opening section set in Finland from 1893 to 1904. Labor organizer Aino Koski is an admitted communist, agitating for revolution by rallying loggers, many of them new immigrants, to join the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), familiarly known as the Wobblies. Stick with me here! Deep River is not a dry account of speeches, picketing, and protest marches.

Despite the theme of worker empowerment, you can read this novel solely for the drama of an immigrant family, followed over several decades, as they struggle with learning a new language and carving out an existence in one of the last wildernesses in the continental United States. The Koski siblings—Ilmari, Matti, and Aino—draw on “sisu,” an untranslatable Finnish word for the characteristics of their ethnic heritage. It includes perseverance, fortitude, and stoicism. These Finnish Americans, especially the highly independent women, sure need sisu as they forge their way into the modern era.

You can also read Deep River for the lyrical descriptions of the magnificent old growth forests of Washington and Oregon, harvested by loggers who worked in an exceedingly dangerous environment, felling and then moving trees that were often 15 feet in diameter. “They watched the tree go down, hearing the wood creak, then crack, then sigh, the tree gaining momentum, falling faster and faster, the air rushing through the branches . . . cracking and squealing with the force of hundreds of tons of wood that for several hundred years had fought against gravity and was now hurling toward the ground from where it came.” (286)

There are a few brief scenes of violence, when union members are attacked by police, hired thugs, and deputized citizens who have been convinced that all unions are anti-American. The IWW is in fact one of the most radical of the unions of this period, bringing the spirit of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to the American workforce. As one fellow organizer tells Aino, “’The government is going to crush the Wobblies. The people hate them.’” (453) Even Aino’s supportive sister-in-law repeatedly speaks warnings: “’Aino, revolutions require visionary leaders. In America, the visionary leaders go into business.’” (463) “If you tell me you love the IWW, I’m telling you that you’re fooling yourself. You can’t love an ideal. You can only love people.” (533)

At 717 pages, this novel requires commitment. I committed to it over Labor Day weekend, when the history of the labor movement was especially poignant, and I wasn’t disappointed. For another novel about the history of logging in North America, try Annie Proulx’s Barkskins. For reviews of other immigrant stories and family sagas, click on the category in the Archive in the right-hand column.

Spiritual Renewal in Palm Springs

The Family Tabor     Cherise Wolas     (2018)

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Harry Tabor, the current patriarch of the Tabor family, hears a voice. It might be his conscience speaking to him, commenting on long-repressed memories. It might be God calling him to account for his life. It might be an ancestor speaking from the grave, or maybe it’s dementia.

Harry is 70 years old and about to be crowned Man of the Decade by the good people of Palm Springs, where he has long resided with his adored and adoring wife, Roma, doing the philanthropic work of resettling Jewish refugees from around the world. As the novel begins, Harry is at the top of his game, feeling healthy, proud, and deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon him. Then that voice comes, on the very day of the Man of the Decade presentation event, which will be attended by 800 people decked out in their best. Harry was brought up as a Jew, but throughout his adult life he’s embraced the cultural aspects of Judaism more than the spiritual. Sure, he and Roma attend synagogue for the High Holy Days, but Harry doesn’t really buy into the concept of a deity and doesn’t, for example, truly repent his sins.

All that is about to change, and Harry’s seemingly perfect family life is about to explode also. Harry and Roma’s three adult children are traveling to Palm Springs to celebrate with their father, and the novelist takes us into each of their lives, revealing disturbing problems. Meanwhile, Roma, who is a child psychologist, is struggling with a particularly difficult case. Can Roma help her own children face their demons? Can a return to heartfelt religious observance heal these wounded people? Or can they at least embrace honesty in their relationships?

Novelist Cherise Wolas is only moderately successful in crafting the story of the Tabors. Some of the characters’ interactions feel forced, and the wrap-up of the book is abrupt and awkward. But Wolas deserves to be commended for tackling an exploration of the role of the spiritual in twenty-first-century life. Full-scale adherence to the rules and rituals of a particular faith is an option, and although Judaism is the faith that Wolas presents in most detail, one character seems to be testing a return to the Roman Catholicism of her youth. Being part of a community whose members share values and support each other in worship and in daily life works for some people. For others, spiritual renewal might mean a commitment to complete honesty in personal and professional interactions. Honesty can serve as a foundation for building a moral code upon which to base a fulfilling life, with or without a component involving organized religion. Harry Tabor has been a generous man and has done great good works for decades, but the voice that speaks to him makes clear that Henry’s philanthropy isn’t enough. He needs to face some serious failures and betrayals that he’d rather forget.  

The Family Tabor addresses tough moral and ethical questions in an era when the value of adherence to moral and ethical standards is being severely tested. If these issues concern you, take a look at what Cherise Wolas has to say.

A Mystery in Luxuriant Marshland

Where the Crawdads Sing     Delia Owens     (2018)

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Mix together some of Barbara Kingsolver’s nature writing, a bit of Pat Conroy’s insights into the American South, and a good chunk of any police procedural mystery, and you’ll get an approximation of Where the Crawdads Sing. Oh, and add some coming-of-age self-realization, too.

Kya Clark is the Marsh Girl, whom we meet in August of 1952, when her mother walks away from her family’s isolated shack, deserting her children to escape an abusive alcoholic husband. Kya is six years old at the time, and already amazingly independent  in the lush woodlands and waterways of the North Carolina coast. She’s a born naturalist (instructed a little by an older brother who departs early in the story) and possesses artistic abilities inherited from her mother, who was a painter.

Within a few years, Kya’s violent and unreliable father disappears also, and she’s left on her own in the wilderness, with no funds and no schooling. Her survival might seem to stretch credibility, but in Delia Owens’s portrayal, Kya’s life among the gulls and fireflies and mussels is almost idyllic. Indeed, the many passages describing the landscape and its denizens are worthy of Aldo Leopold: “Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh.” (192)

Owens introduces several characters to assist Kya in her solitude. An African American man who runs a gas station in the marshland exchanges Kya’s ocean catches for gas for her boat. His wife provides Kya with cast-off clothing. A budding young biologist from town who fishes in the marsh teaches her to read and brings her books. Trouble arrives, however, with another young man, Chase Andrews, who is determined to seduce her.

You’ll figure out early on that Kya will be a suspect in the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews. The courtroom scenes in which Kya is tried mark a shift in the tone of the book, from the dreamy, romantic marshscape to the harsh reality of criminal prosecution and defense. This wasn’t a narrative discontinuity for me but rather indicative of Kya’s distress in being separated from her beloved wilderness for her trial in town.

Kya’s estangement from most other human beings keeps her in a state of credulous immaturity even when she’s in her twenties, so the coming-of-age component of the novel has unusual twists. “[Kya] knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.” (363)

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on many bestseller lists and is being adapted into a movie by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a tale well-suited for the big screen, but I suspect that even if the adaptation is good, the book will still be better.

Wheeler-Dealers in Old Amsterdam

The Coffee Trader     David Liss     (2003)

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Dutch burghers of the 17th century had original paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer hanging on the walls of their solid, comfortable houses. For me, this is reason enough to gravitate toward fiction set in Holland in this period, and indeed novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), based on the Vermeer masterpiece of the same name, have transported readers into that milieu very effectively.

In The Coffee Trader, novelist David Liss demonstrates that Dutch baroque-era burghers were not only patrons of the arts and archetypes of bourgeois life but also innovators in the establishment of modern commodity markets, with a version of Wall Street trading that was remarkably sophisticated—and treacherous. At the Exchange in Amsterdam, “Some traders came to fill orders or to sell what their ships brought into port, but increasingly men bought calls and puts and futures, trading in goods they never sought to own and would never see. It was the new way of doing things, turning the Exchange into a great gaming pit where outcome was determined not by chance but by the needs of the markets around the world.” (90)

The fictional intrepid trader of the book’s title is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has settled in 1659 Amsterdam after fleeing from the Iberian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, the internationalism of the Dutch business community made Holland one of the few places in the world where Jews could practice their faith without persecution. The downside of this religious freedom was that Jews in Amsterdam created self-imposed restrictions on their community, in order to assure the gentile Dutch that Jews would not be an economic drain or a cultural threat. A Jewish council called the Ma’amad could impose career-ending sanctions on local Jews, and this is one of the key tensions of the novel.

Miguel is surrounded by vividly depicted secondary characters, including the mysterious Dutch widow Geertruid Damhuis; the impoverished Dutch trader Joachim Waagener; the ostracized Jewish moneylender Alonzo Alferonda; Miguel’s pedantic brother, Daniel; and Daniel’s longsuffering wife, Hannah. Percolating through the narrative, however, is the inanimate character of coffee, which was just beginning to be appreciated in Europe for its pick-me-up qualities: “Hannah . . . loved the way it made her feel animated and alive. It was not as though she discovered a new self, rather, coffee reordered the self she already had. Things at the top sank to the bottom, and the parts of herself she had chained down rose buoyantly. She had forgotten to be demure and modest, and she loved casting off those constraints.” (201)

As Miguel coordinates a risky scheme involving coffee futures, the novelist presents business transactions of dizzying complexity. Some of the financial shenanigans zipped right past me, but I’m not complaining, since I could then focus on satisfying sub-plots involving a nefarious servant, an enigmatic sidekick, and an unhappy marriage.

Immerse yourself in the world of The Night Watch and the Zuiderzee with The Coffee Trader, and if you crave more 17th-century Holland, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

Coming of Age in the New Ireland

Normal People     Sally Rooney     (2018)

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As we grow older, each of us carries memories from the years that we’ve lived through. Some of us also carry wisdom gained from reflection on our past actions. And a few of us can dissect the decisions and motivations of decades gone by.

Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who is in her late twenties, has an uncanny understanding of contemporary men and women in their late teens who are navigating relationships, developing their own worldviews in perilous times, wrestling with their demons, and exploring the directions that their talents might take them. She explores the emotions of emerging adulthood with exquisite sensitivity and nuance in Normal People, her second novel, following on the highly successful Conversations with Friends from 2017.

In 2011, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in a small town in County Sligo, in the rural west of Ireland. Connell’s mother, a loving but impoverished single parent, works as a housecleaner for the wealthy Sheridans. Connell and Marianne, the two brightest students at the local secondary school, are drawn to each other. He’s a popular athlete, with several good friends. She’s a loner with a miserable home life. This being the New Ireland (not the Old Ireland of hidebound Catholicism), plenty of sex scenes ensue, handled with great care by the author, though still sometimes cringe-worthy. Connell and Marianne keep their liaison secret, each for different reasons.

When the pair head off to attend Trinity College, their roles are somewhat reversed. Connell struggles to adjust as a “culchie” (a country bumpkin) in the cosmopolitan Dublin, whereas Marianne, freed from her nasty mother and brother, slides right into a smart social set. Over a period of four years, they break up, get back together, break up again . . . and readers are pulled one way and another.

The plot is not especially original, but Rooney exploits it deftly to probe the thoughts of Connell and Marianne as they grow toward adulthood. Despite their different family situations, they hold much in common, including exceptional intelligence, proficiency in the academic enterprise, interest in global politics, and basic loneliness. 

Connell muses: “Marianne had a wildness that got into him for a while and made him feel that he was like her, that they had the same unnameable spiritual injury, and that neither of them could ever fit into the world. But he was never damaged like she was. She just made him feel that way.” (175)

Marianne illuminates the title of the novel in a scene late in the book: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, says Marianne. I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people. Her voice sounds oddly cool and distant, like a recording of her voice played after she herself has gone away or departed from somewhere else. In what way? he says. I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.” (187)  (The lack of punctuation is Rooney’s—a feature that I accepted despite its irritation factor.)

As if laying bare all aspects of adolescent angst isn’t enough, Rooney also manages some good digs at literary pretentiousness. Here’s Connell considering an author event  he’s just attended in Dublin: “He knows that a lot of the literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured.  . . .It was culture as a class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.” (228)

Sally Rooney nails it with this insightful and intense book. 

 

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.

 

California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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Stewart O’Nan offers no rootin’ tootin’ action in this novel, no daring heroes, no grisly violence. Henry, Himself is a quiet, introspective portrait of a year in the life of Henry Maxwell, a retired engineer in his 70s who lives in Pittsburgh. If you’re already yawning, stop that for a moment and read this review.  

Somehow, novelist O’Nan is able to turn everyday events into drama that drives his narrative in a highly effective way. I haven’t yet figured out how he does this. It could be the naturalistic dialogue. Henry’s conversations with his wife of nearly fifty years, Emily, can be hilarious. The two have well-worn phrases that they toss back and forth, parrying each other’s comments. 

Maybe the novel works because the hundreds of minor quotidian events are enlivened by actions beyond the edges of the main story, such as the troubled marriage of Margaret, Henry and Emily’s alcoholic daughter.  

It’s also possible that I see my own life in O’Nan’s prose because I’m in the same age range as Henry and Emily. But O’Nan is a decade younger, so I don’t know how he’s able to depict the attitudes and approaches of the elderly so astutely. He’s simply a fine novelist.  

So, what exactly does the character Henry do? He may be retired, but he certainly keeps busy every day, well beyond walking the dog. At his basement workbench he re-glues a kitchen drawer because he can’t afford new cabinets. He makes innumerable trips to his local Home Depot store to buy supplies for his fix-it projects, and in his home office he keeps meticulous records of household expenses. Despite his multiple health challenges (which he manages with an array of prescription medications), he golfs with his old pals, trading barbs in camaraderie. Henry’s beloved wife Emily is always in the picture also, and he takes pains to please her with dinner dates for Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. The two of them escape Pittsburgh in the summer for Chautauqua, New York, where they meet up with their children and grandchildren at their lakefront house.  

In the midst of these ordinary activities, Henry mentally retraces significant events of his past—a passionate but doomed youthful love affair, his searing combat experience in World War II, his fulfilling career in aeronautics. His companionable marriage to Emily anchors him even as he is baffled by the animosity between Emily and the wife of their son. The unhappy life of daughter Margaret comes to Henry’s mind frequently, as he assesses whether he has failed her as a father. He muses, ”Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him, a helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.” (72)

You can get more of the Maxwell family in two other O’Nan novels that I also highly recommend:  Wish You Were Here (published 2002) and Emily, Alone (published 2011). Both are set after Henry, Himself, which makes Henry, Himself a prequel. I can also vouch for two stand-alone O’Nan novels that probe interpersonal relations in a warmhearted way: Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds. Be aware, however, that O’Nan has also written terrifying thrillers that I have stayed far away from!

For other novels about Rust Belt places like Pittsburgh, check out Anne Tyler (Baltimore), Richard Russo (upstate New York), and Leif Enger (northern Minnesota). For other introspective novels, try Kent Haruf or James Wood or Bernard MacLaverty. You can click the links for my reviews.

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.

Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

Surviving Exploitation

Before We Were Yours      Lisa Wingate     (2017)

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When children are exploited and abused by adults, the response of most people is to recoil in horror and call for criminal prosecution. This has occurred with Jewish children in the Holocaust, indigenous children in Canadian schools, children abused by Roman Catholic priests, and Central American children in the detention centers at the southern border of the United States.  

One documented case of severe and widespread child abuse that has not received much attention took place from the 1920s until 1950 at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, under the direction of a woman named Georgia Tann. Although Tann covered her tracks through falsification of thousands of records, some survivors have been able to piece together the history of how they were abducted from their impoverished parents and sold by Tann to wealthy families. Children with blonde hair and blue eyes fetched especially high prices. Tann never came to trial because she died in 1950 just as the her nefarious scheme was being exposed.   

Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a novel, but it’s based on the actual remembrances of survivors who lived in Tann’s squalid holding facility while they were waiting to be sold. In this re-creation, we meet the fictional Foss children through the eyes of the eldest, Rill Foss, who is twelve. In 1939, she and her four younger siblings are living happily with their loving parents on a houseboat that plies the Mississippi River. When the mother faces complications in childbirth, the father rushes her to a hospital on shore, and Rill is left to supervise her siblings. She’s powerless when strangers arrive at the houseboat and spirit all the children away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. In first-person narration, Rill describes the maltreatment of the children with a level of detail that I found painful to read.  

Novelist Wingate wisely softens this narration by flashing forward in alternate chapters to the life of a young woman named Avery Stafford, an affluent attorney in present-day South Carolina. Avery stumbles upon some pieces of her family’s history that confuse her, and she sets out to unravel the mysteries of her lineage. Readers know that the story from 1939 and the story from the present day are likely to coalesce at some point, and Wingate handles the tension that leads to the solution of the mysteries adeptly, throwing in a couple of sub-plots to further pique reader interest. The tenacity of familial love is a central theme in this fictionalization of a dark chapter in the history of adoption services.  

Postscript: Many thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for suggesting this author for me to read! 

Bonus Post: Michelle Obama's Memoir

Becoming     Michelle Obama     (2018)

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Michelle Obama’s memoir was the bestselling book of 2018, even though it wasn’t published until November of that year. Many of the surprises of the book have been widely discussed in news articles—for instance, that Michelle had a miscarriage before her older daughter, Malia, was born and that she and Barack used IVF to conceive both Malia and their second daughter, Sasha.

Becoming is as engaging as a page-turner novel; I read it cover-to- cover in one day. Instead of rehearsing the biographical details of the book, which you can find in reviews all over the place, I’ll tell you what aspects struck me most:

  • The authentic voice of Michelle Obama.

The Michelle in this memoir is the same Michelle that you know from talk shows and interviews and that slam-dunk speech that she gave at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The cadence of the phrases is the same, the warmth is the same, the frankness is the same.

  • The story of the evening that Barack proposed marriage.

Readers are aware, of course, that Michelle and Barack did get married, but the suspense in this scene is delightful.

  • The insights into ordinary middle-class African American family life.

Yes, Michelle grew up on Chicago’s tough South Side, but she doesn’t whine about what she lacked. She describes gatherings of her large extended family with obvious affection. She praises her parents for the sacrifices they made so that she and her older brother could have good educations.

  • The insights into life in the White House.

It’s luxurious, but the necessary security measures make it a virtual prison for the First Family. Michelle was determined that her young daughters have some semblance of a normal childhood, and this was a tall order for the eight years of Barack’s presidency.

  • The sad truth of how hurtful right-wing media attacks are.

Over and over, Michelle describes how devastated she was when her patriotism was questioned about quotes taken out of context or when she was viciously attacked for wearing a particular piece of clothing. 

  • The revelation of Michelle’s sense of insecurity.

The seemingly indomitable former First Lady recounts, repeatedly, when she felt inadequate, when she feared that she was not good enough. Her 2016 appearance on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” seemed effortless and relaxed, but she tells us that it was “a little terrifying” (402) and that she practiced for weeks. She agreed to appear only to promote a song that would raise money for a global project for the education of girls.

You’ll notice that I refer to the author here as “Michelle,” and I mean no disrespect in using her given name. Don’t most Americans feel as if they know her personally? Didn’t she connect with the citizenry in a way that other First Ladies simply haven’t? Becoming cements that connection.

Postscript: Thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for lending me her copy of Becoming so that I didn’t have to sit for a year on the library’s wait list!

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.

Epistolary Relationships

Meet Me at the Museum     Anne Youngson     (2018)

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Way back when—well, in 1970—I loved Helene Hanff’s nonfiction 84, Charing Cross Road, a selection of the letters between the American Hanff and the staff at an antiquarian bookstore in London over two decades. The correspondence touched on many literary debates and recreated an era in Britain that included post-war food shortages and the coronation of Elizabeth II. The epistolary format was perfect.

Anne Youngson’s fictional Meet Me at the Museum also works well in an epistolary format, and indeed needs some such mechanism to connect its two principal characters. Tina Hopgood is the British wife of a farmer in East Anglia; she married young and has three adult children. Anders Larsen, a museum curator at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, is a widower with two adult children. Tina starts the correspondence with an inquiry about the Tollund Man, a naturally mummified corpse from the Iron Age that was unearthed in 1950 and that is actually preserved in the Silkeborg Museum. Since the archaeologist who discovered the Tollund Man is long deceased, the fictional curator Anders responds to Tina.

The exchange of letters and emails that ensues starts with a mutual fascination with Iron Age life and with the Tollund Man in particular. But within a few months, Tina and Anders are sharing pieces of their personal stories, reflecting on the parts of their lives that are behind them as they head toward old age. Both correspondents are unhappy—Tina because of her loveless marriage and demanding daily tasks, Anders because of the recent death of his beloved but difficult wife.  

Although there’s a cultural and educational gulf between the two, Tina is clearly intelligent and wise. She reads contemporary poetry and puts thought into each letter that she sends. Anders writes to Tina in English, in which he is a fluent but not a native speaker, so he also must consider his words carefully, sometimes asking Tina if he’s phrased a sentence correctly. Tina and Anders are frank with each other in fearing that their lives are spiraling toward sad and lonely endings. Tina writes: 

“We have been talking to each other about where life went, and if the way we each spent it was the way we meant to have spent it or would have chosen to spend it if we had known when we made our choices what the other choices were, but we have not wasted our lives. I insist on that.” (165)  

Toward the end of the novel, Anders writes: 

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us. Paths chosen that define us. Enough time left to change.” (249)  

The pace of much of this novel is languid. Its themes of longing and family ties and seeking a moral and useful life are reminiscent of the writings of Alexander McCall Smith (reviewed previously on this blog). Then some surprising events in the lives of both Tina and Anders bring their relationship onto a different plane.  

Meet Me at the Museum is an appealing tale, enlivened by the backstory of the Tollund Man. Hey, write a letter. You never know what might happen.  

Bonus Post: 2 Novels about Slavery

Washington Black     Esi Edugyan     (2018)

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Edugyan’s fictional slave narrative, set in the 1830s, artfully establishes itself in the brutal realities of the sugar cane fields of Barbados before drawing readers into grand continent-hopping sequences that take on the quality of myth.  

George Washington Black is about 11 years old in the opening sequence in 1830, narrating his first-person account in language that is evocative of the era and yet unpretentious. We quickly grasp that “Wash,” as he is known, is an exceptional fellow. Right away, readers will want to learn how he develops from an uneducated and maltreated cane-cutter to become not only literate but also eloquent. Wash’s facility with realistic drawing propels him into the protective orbit of Christopher (“Titch”) Wilde, the scientist brother of the plantation slave master. Titch and Wash escape Barbados in a hot-air balloon, ending up first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in the Arctic reaches of Canada. Wash becomes more and more proficient in marine biology, especially in technical illustrations, as he travels to London, Amsterdam, and north Africa, seeking acceptance and hoping for love. He’s marked not just by his skin color but by a facial disfigurement from an accident, an undesirable identifier as he flees slave catchers.  

Novelist Edugyan probes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, certainly, but more notably she analyzes the motivations of the abolitionists who aid Wash. Do they truly view the enslaved Africans as equals, or do they want to save white slaveholders from eternal punishment for their viciousness? Edugyan also does an excellent job of portraying the enthusiasms of 19th-century scientists, in an era when the field of inquiry was vast and the methodology was still under development. Her ending to Washington Black is somewhat ambiguous, but then I like tidy wrap-ups, and life is seldom so orderly.  

The Eulogist     Terry Gamble     (2019)

Terry Gamble’s novel is set in the very same era as Esi Edugyan’s, but The Eulogist takes place in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, right on the border between the free states and the slave states of pre-Civil-War America.  

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The fictional first-person narrator, Olivia Givens, is an 86-year-old woman writing in 1890, looking back at her astounding early life. Olivia’s family of well-educated Protestants emigrate from Ireland in 1819, settling in Cincinnati. Olivia’s mother promptly dies in childbirth, and her father soon deserts his teenage children, Olivia, Erasmus, and James. James builds a successful business through hard work and a shrewd marriage, while Erasmus, latching onto religious evangelism, becomes an itinerant preacher despite his continuing habits of debauchery. Olivia, a woman who defies convention, marries a local doctor and is drawn into the many dramas of her husband’s slave-owning family in Kentucky. Slowly, slowly, the Givenses come to espouse the abolitionist cause, mainly because of their individual interactions with slaves.  

Olivia’s story is frank and at times drolly comical. Her language has a 19th-century tone and vocabulary (“Erasmus looked as peaked as an Ohio winter” [38]). The narrator and her readers know the horrors that will unfold with the Civil War, but her characters in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s do not. This knowledge gives the novel a taut and expectant quality. Gamble’s plot is intricate, with the final connections not offered until the last chapter, and then only briefly. As I read this book, I kept wondering, Who is the eulogist of the title? This question also is answered in the last chapter, and I won’t spoil it for you.  

Both Washington Black, reviewed above, and The Eulogist are excellent novels that explore the issue of slavery in depth, without resorting to stereotypes or platitudes.

Bonus Post: 2 Blockbuster Memoirs

Educated     Tara Westover     (2018)

Heartland     Sarah Smarsh     (2018)

These two memoirs have many similarities: a woman grows up in an impoverished rural area of the United States, with limited or fragmented education, then eventually escapes that environment to make a successful life. This summary doesn’t reveal the stark differences between Tara Westover’s Educated and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland. Westover was raised in Idaho by radical Mormon survivalist parents who didn’t allow her to attend school or receive medical treatment. Smarsh grew up in Kansas, on farms and in small towns, with a nominally Catholic extended family that moved frequently, pulling her in and out of schools. I found both memoirs riveting.

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In Educated, Westover explains that she was born in September 1986, though no one is sure which day because she was born at home and did not have her birth recorded. She received virtually no education before the age of seventeen, not even nominal homeschooling, though she did learn how to read from the few religious books in the house. She clearly cherished the natural beauty that surrounded her in childhood: “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of domination. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.” (27)

Her father—an anti-government, conspiracy-theory fundamentalist—was particularly abusive in his insistence that his children start working in his scrap yard at a young age, performing highly dangerous tasks without any safety precautions. Many physical injuries resulted, though Westover doesn’t assign blame for these injuries. One brother of Westover’s also tormented her physically, while her parents turned a blind eye.

Westover’s restraint in holding her family accountable is truly amazing. She goes so far as to provide footnotes, giving particulars of possible alternate descriptions of brutal scenes that she describes from her memories. Perhaps because the first sections of the memoir are so disturbing, the later sections (in which Westover goes to Brigham Young University and eventually to Cambridge University for a PhD) seem much less vivid, almost flat. Another lack I felt in Educated was explanation of the specific role of the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church in her family. She’s very respectful of her parents’ beliefs, but readers don’t get too many examples of how their extreme views contrast with more mainstream Mormon beliefs. For example, most Mormons are assigned to a bishop, a lay person they can go to for counseling and other assistance. Where was this structure in the lives of the Westover family? Westover does write, “As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same . . . I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known.” (159)

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While Westover does not preach about the political and religious views that shaped her childhood, Smarsh observes no such restrictions. The subtitle for Heartland summarizes its message: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. A few quotations illustrate the lessons that Smarsh takes from her peripatetic upbringing: 

  • “For the women in my family and their daughters, the constant moving was about staying safe from violent men and finding new ways to pay the bills. Leaving sad places behind, they seized on the promise of new ones. But they knew well enough that tomorrow’s promise would end up yesterday’s sadness.” (183)

  • “In 1979, Reagan had built his first presidential campaign around shaming poor, unwed teenage girls the same year that my poor, unwed teenage mother became pregnant with me. Maybe that’s why she would be damned if she’d go on welfare even when she qualified those years after her and my dad’s divorce. Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” (132)

  • “In a country where personal value is supposed to create wealth, it is easy for a poor person to feel himself a bad one. Many of the people who raised me believed themselves to be bad. I know because they often treated me like I was bad. I greatest fortune of my life is that I knew they were wrong.” (282)

Like Westover, Smarsh was able to break away from rural poverty and go to college, which launched her on a career. In Heartland, she takes the unusual approach of addressing her entire memoir to an imaginary daughter named August. (Smarsh has no children.) The nonexistent August comes into the story at odd junctures, addressed as “you.” I found this technique jarring and ineffective. In addition, Smarsh’s frequent chronological leaps between decades, sometimes decades before her birth, and her references to a large cast of family members confused me. 

Why have both these books soared to the top of the charts, with Educated appearing on many lists of “best books of 2018”? I’m guessing that, despite some narrative flaws in both of the memoirs, readers are fascinated by the descriptions of poverty. (Face it, people currently living in poverty are not likely to be reading these memoirs.) The scenes of violence and child neglect in both books may have caused readers to keep turning the pages to see what horrors came next. There’s also the lure of the “up by your own bootstraps” myth that persists in American culture, overlooking the role of helpful teachers, for example, or of sheer chance in upward social mobility. I do not in any way want to discredit the extraordinary educational and professional achievements of Westover and Smarsh. Through incredible determination and hard work, they freed themselves from the tough situations in which they were raised. Both also avoided early motherhood, which traps many women in a lifetime of hardship.

My concern is that the reading public may draw the conclusion that, since Westover and Smarsh could rise from poverty, anyone can. That was an implicit conclusion of JD Vance in his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which I’ve also reviewed. Vance, who grew up poor in Appalachia and got himself through Yale Law School, blamed the explosive tempers and laziness of his fellow hillbillies for their economic status. Smarsh’s memoir offers more nuanced explanations, plus expositions about income inequality in the United States. Poverty is not as significant a theme in Educated, since Westover’s Idaho family eventually found financial success in selling homemade alternative medicines. Instead Westover offers a warning about the dangers of political and social paranoia, including millennialism.

Should you read these memoirs? Yes. They are important pieces for anyone seeking to understand the social and cultural milieu of the United States in these early decades of the twenty-first century.  

The Surreal Meets the Quotidian in Japan

Killing Commendatore     Haruki Murakami     (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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