The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   


When you picture Oxford, England, you probably think of the imposing towers of the university, the courtyards with berobed scholars fluttering by, the rowers on the river, maybe a scene in a library. You don’t usually think of the working-class people who provide the support infrastructure for this academically oriented city. In Tin Man, Sarah Winman brings these workers into focus.  

The book opens in 1996, when readers meet the middle-aged Ellis, who works as a “tin man” in an Oxford auto factory, repairing small dents in the cars being built. He’s an unhappy widower who looks back on events of his life as he tries to see a path forward. He remembers the early death of his mother, his close friendship during his teen and young adult years with a fellow named Michael, and his happy marriage to a spirited woman named Annie, who also became friends with Michael. Ellis is sad not only about the losses in his life but also about the path he didn’t follow—training as an artist—because he was forced by his father to leave school and take a blue-collar job.  

The second half of this slim volume is the diary of Ellis’s friend Michael, from the years 1989 and 1990. In this segment we learn why Michael is no longer in Oxford in the 1996 segment: he went to London and ended up caring for a lover dying of AIDS. So, you’ve probably guessed that this is a pretty sad story. But it’s nuanced, not banal, plumbing the waters of friendship and love and companionship while revealing the personalities of Ellis, Michael, and, to some extent, Annie. It’s set against the decline of manufacturing in Britain that has created another level of despair. Here’s a scene with Ellis bicycling home from work:  “Along Cowley Road, orange streetlight scattered across the tar, and ghosts of shops long gone lurked in the mists of recollection.” (16-17) 

In his diary entries, Michael captures a social order, just a few short decades ago, that did not accept his sexual orientation:  “How cruel it was that our plans were out there somewhere. Another version of our future, out there somewhere, in perpetual orbit.” (139) And he reflects on his grief:  “I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.” (177) 

If your soul can’t bear the reading of another AIDS story, I understand. I didn’t know this was an AIDS story when I started, and I stayed to the end, where I got some shreds of hope for Ellis’s future.

Bonus Post: Washenaw Reads, 2019

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-changing Friendship     Michelle Kuo     (2017) 

Kuo 2.jpg

Washtenaw County, Michigan, selected Reading with Patrick as the “Washtenaw Reads” book for 2019, providing extra copies on library shelves so that the community can engage in discussions of the provocative issues that the book raises.  

The author of Reading with Patrick, Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, is a Michigan native who graduated from Harvard in 2003 and then volunteered for two years with Teach for America in Helena, Arkansas, an extremely poor rural town on the Mississippi Delta.  

Kuo could have completed this tough teaching assignment and then moved on. She could have kept her distance from the difficult personal lives of her middle-school students. Instead she became a friend and mentor to one particular student, Patrick Browning, and wrote this book about Patrick’s awakening to the joys of reading. Kuo initially read with Patrick during her Teach for America stint, but she returned to Helena after she completed law school, when she learned that Patrick had been arrested, charged with murder. For months, as Patrick awaited trial, Kuo visited him in jail, bringing him books and encouraging him to write.  

Reading with Patrick can be disturbing, especially in its descriptions of Patrick’s imprisonment and trial. I also found the bigotry that Kuo encountered as an Asian American disheartening. But Kuo doesn’t complain about her struggles or pass judgment on the societal systems that neglected and betrayed Patrick and the other young people in Helena. In Reading with Patrick she simply tells the story and allows the obvious conclusions to come to the surface. In an interview with the New York Times, however, Kuo summarized her book:   

“It’s an intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.”  

If you live in Washtenaw County, you can participate in Washtenaw Reads events in early 2019. If you live anywhere in the United States, you can pick up Reading with Patrick at your local library and learn about a remarkable friendship.

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)


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.


Two from the Bascombe Tetralogy

The Lay of the Land     Richard Ford     (2006)

Let Me Be Frank With You     Richard Ford     (2014)

These books are the third and fourth in Richard Ford’s tetralogy that follows the adult life of the character Frank Bascombe. Some background:

  • In the first novel of the series, The Sportswriter (1986), Frank is deep in grief over the death of his young son and his subsequent divorce from his wife. Although he had wanted to write fiction, he’s turned to writing about sports to support himself.
  • In Ford’s second offering, Independence Day (1995), Frank has changed careers and is selling real estate in New Jersey. This novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is set at the titular American holiday.
  • Holiday celebrations, which often cause simmering family tensions to boil over, figure prominently in all four books about Frank. An Easter dinner is a key scene in The Sportswriter, and the two books that I’m reviewing here are set at Thanksgiving (The Lay of the Land) and during the Christmas season (Let Me Be Frank With You).
Ford Lay of Land.jpg

In The Lay of the Land, the political backdrop is the contested presidential election of 2000, which was still not decided by Thanksgiving of that year, so tension and accusation and fear are in the air. As always, Ford’s focus is on Frank Bascombe’s inner life, narrated in first person. Speaking to his adult daughter, Clarissa, Frank says, “I’ll commit suicide before I keep a fucking diary. Diaries are for weaklings and old queer professors. Which I’m not.” (240) And yet this entire novel is like a very detailed, highly reflective diary. Frank is now fifty-five and married to his second wife, Sally Caldwell. He’s recently been treated for prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic. You might find Frank’s trips to the toilet tiresome, but his need to empty his bladder frequently is a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over him.

He calls this phase of his life “the Permanent Period—no fear of future, life not ruinable, the past generalized to a pleasant pinkish blur.” (249) There’s a fatalism to Frank’s categorization of late middle age in this way. He’s still selling real estate, though he does have occasional regrets about giving up his dream of writing fiction. He rationalizes: “Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up importance from life-run-rampant just by choosing, changing and telling. Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well.” (84)

The Lay of the Land is expansive, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. It’s the work of an accomplished prose stylist who gives us a view into an ordinary life on ordinary and non-so-ordinary days. The exquisite specificity with which Frank describes his surroundings contrasts with his inability to connect with some people. These people are sometimes fairly conventional—like Sally—and sometimes quite unusual—like the Tibetan Buddhist with the Americanized name, Mike Mahoney, “a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo” (14) who works for Frank’s real estate office on the Jersey Shore.                                 

Ford Frank with You.jpg

The theme of Frank’s relationships is developed further in the most recent volume of the tetralogy, Let Me Be Frank With You, four linked short stories in which Frank Bascombe meets with four different people from his past. The year 2012 is coming to an end, and New Jersey is reeling from the October onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. All around him is destruction, but Frank has survived that cancer diagnosis so far, and in retirement he’s withdrawn more into himself. “For months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness.” (187) He provides a summation of how he sees his own character: “. . . a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” (140-41) Well, Frank may think he’s always “nice,” but readers can catch him in some unkind deeds.

I found Let Me Be Frank With You less masterful than The Lay of the Land, and I noted a few discontinuities, such as Sally’s birthday moving from summer to near Christmas. Still, Ford’s trademark particularization pulls you in, letting you gape at the damage wrought by the hurricane (and by the previous collapse of the real estate market in 2008), letting you linger on the inevitable wrinkles in the aging faces of the characters.

The Frank Bascombe tetralogy is by turns hilarious and devastatingly serious, honest and deceptive, reflecting the life of one American man—and a slice of American history.

Glaswegian Misery

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine     Gail Honeyman     (2017)


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

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

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

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

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

Happiness in Denmark

The Little Book of Hygge:  Danish Secrets to Happy Living     Meik Wiking     (2017)

Unless you’ve been trekking in the Himalayas for several months, you’ve probably heard about “hygge,” the Danish approach to living that at least partially explains why Danes emerge in almost every international survey as the happiest people on the planet.

According to author Meik Wiking, hygge is pronounced something like “hoo-ga,” though Danish speakers I’ve consulted say it’s more like “HUE-guh.” As for a translation, well, Wiking admits that’s also difficult:  “Hygge has been called everything from ‘the art of creating intimacy,’ ‘coziness of the soul,’ and ‘the absence of annoyance,’ to ‘taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,’ ‘cozy togetherness,’ and my personal favorite, ‘cocoa by candlelight.’” Wiking credits the development of hygge mainly to the Danish climate. Copenhagen is at about 56 degrees N latitude, which is like being in Hudson Bay in Canada, where there’s minimal sunlight for half of the year. And with Denmark’s location on the North Sea, the inhabitants have to deal with harsh winds and frequent cold rain.

To survive in this climate, Danes have developed ways to make themselves comfortable, especially in winter. Wiking includes chapters on hygge as it relates to light, to food and drink, to clothing, and to friendship. To promote hygge in your home, Wiking recommends that you have candles, a nook to snuggle up in, a fireplace, objects made of wood, sheepskins, vintage objects, books to read, Danish ceramics, and blankets. The candle part is especially important. Surveys have shown that Danes light a lot of candles and are very fond of the dim, flickering glow that candles create.

Physical environment aside, togetherness with friends and family is essential to hygge. You can snuggle up by the fireplace alone for your hygge fix, but sharing your sheepskin is even better. Wiking explains that Danes think workaholics are crazy. They eschew overtime, preferring to leave the office or factory promptly, in order to light candles with their besties.

According to Wiking, you can achieve hygge in the summer, with picnics, barbecues, and biking. But the all-around best time of the year for hygge is the Christmas season, over which the Danes apparently go nuts. They have a special word for Christmastide hygge, “julehygge,” which has distinctive traditions. Wiking includes a recipe for aebleskiver, a treat that’s like a cross between a pancake and a doughnut, and detailed directions for crafting the woven paper hearts with which Danes decorate their Christmas trees.

Since Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, his Little Book ventures beyond an exploration of hygge to a broader analysis of why the people of Denmark are so darn happy. Danes enjoy universal free health care, free education through college, and generous unemployment benefits. Although they pay high taxes, they don’t seem to mind this, since the services they receive greatly reduce the stresses of life. They don’t have to worry about paying off crippling student loans or about going bankrupt because of medical bills. Other Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland—have similar services and also high levels of happiness, but Wiking argues that the practice of hygge boosts the happiness in Denmark to the top. 

The Little Book of Hygge is profusely illustrated with muted graphics in a rustic Scandinavian style that I liked. (Sadly, the illustrator is not credited.) This is a lightweight, fun book that you can buzz through in an hour or so. You may find some ideas for bringing more happiness into your life. Or at least you can learn how to make woven paper hearts.

Zadie Smith's Latest

Swing Time     Zadie Smith     (2016)

Two young girls meet at dance class in 1980s London, both poor, both with one white parent and one black parent. Tracey is a preternaturally talented dancer, but the other girl, the unnamed narrator of the novel, is not. The girls watch videos of old movies to study dance technique, and Swing Time, the 1936 musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is one of their favorites.

We follow the diverging lives of Tracey and the narrator as the novel skips back and forth in time over twenty-plus years, with issues of race and class always at the fore, always presented frankly.  I got pulled into caring for these two characters with the brilliant scenes of childhood and adolescence, as the friends are finding their life paths in the cultural excitement of late-20th-century Britain. Tracey, flashy and outspoken, becomes a professional dancer, albeit in the chorus line. The narrator, reserved and sensible, goes to university and then lands a job as a personal assistant to a famous globetrotting singer-dancer named Aimee. The supporting cast is strongly delineated, with the mothers of the two friends playing major roles. The mother-daughter relationships are depicted with a clarity that can make you squirm.

We know from the start of the novel that the narrator will suffer some major career and personal setback, so part of the tension in the narrative is watching how she will arrive at that outcome. The details play out in West Africa, where the pop star Aimee decides to splash a portion of her wealth on humanitarian projects that, predictably, go awry.

At this point, when the story moves to Africa, my eyes started to glaze over as I tried to read. After the superb London chapters, I found the descriptions and dialogue in the African part of the plot boring: a white pop star sweeps into an impoverished black village for brief visits while her mixed-race assistant handles the details of the distribution of largesse. If the novel hadn’t ventured back to Britain once in a while, I would have abandoned it.

What was wrong with me? I was reading a novel by Zadie Smith, the acclaimed author of White Teeth. How could I find the African segments boring? Did I need to drink more caffeine before reading?

After I trudged to the last page of Swing Time, I decided to look up a few reviews to see if I was missing something. I don’t usually read book reviews by others before writing my own, but I was perplexed. Almost all the reviewers gave Swing Time raves (including Annalisa Quinn for NPR and Taiye Selasi for The Guardian). Michiko Kakutani (for the New York Times) praised the London sections of the novel but called the African sections “perfunctorily rendered” and “formulaic and predictable.” Aha! Kakutani, the Supreme Goddess of Book Reviews, had exactly the same take that I had about those scenes in Africa!

If you decide to read Swing Time, skim over the chapters set in Africa. The true heart of this novel is in its exploration of friendship. Friends can comfort or exasperate you. They can protect or betray you, and they can swing back and forth between these extremes. But you need friends to be a whole person. The characters in Swing Time show us these truths.

A Cure for Loneliness

Our Souls at Night     Kent Haruf     (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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