Re-post: Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)

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I’m re-posting this review, since The Overstory just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Overstory is a novel that’s massive in scope, sophisticated in descriptive power, and disturbing in message.

I hadn’t read  any reviews before I cracked open the cover, where I met nine characters in the first 152 pages, including a farmer in Iowa, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, a Minnesota couple who are community theater buffs, a soldier serving in the Vietnam War, and a budding scientist in Appalachia. I thought that The Overstory might be a set of interwoven short stories about unrelated people from all corners of the United States. The stories are damn fine, and I figured that novelist Powers might extend each story and perhaps have some of these characters meet each other in the remaining 350 pages of the book. I soon caught on, however, that trees seemed to be a common element in the stories, and the bonds between the people in The Overstory mirror the bonds between species in the forests.

Some of Powers’s characters do meet, as they become involved in radical environmental activism on behalf of trees in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the forests of North America take center stage in the narrative. I learned that humans share about a quarter of their genetic makeup with trees, and Powers is highly effective in portraying the sentient qualities and the community attachments of those leafy overstories: “There are no individuals in a forest. Each trunk depends on others.” (279) One human character, a psychologist studying the personality traits of environmentalists, finds that most of them agree with the statement “A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.” (331)

I’m a great fan of forests—especially of hiking through them—so I devoured segments like this one, where a botanist explores an old growth forest in the western Cascades during a damp September: “The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can’t name covers every wooden pillar in a thick baize reaching higher than her head.” (134) The description kept my attention for two full pages.

Powers could have framed his book as a nonfiction exposé of the sins of the logging industry, but showing the motivations of fictional “tree huggers” from all walks of life is much more effective in getting across the message that human destruction of forests will eventually, and pretty soon, make our planet unlivable. Put simply:  “Deforestation: A bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together.” (281) And lest you be deceived, the replanting touted by those who exploit forests for financial gain can never replicate the millennia-old diversity and interconnectedness that clear-cutting obliterates.

If you’ve enjoyed Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, or any of Wendell Berry’s poetry, you should read The Overstory. And for another novel about the devastation of North American forests, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

For People Who Love Books

The Library Book     Susan Orlean     (2018) 

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Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for the New Yorker for decades, so she knows how to write a punchy piece about a disaster like the catastrophic 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. But this time, instead of boiling her investigations down to 5000 words, she has expanded them into a book-length exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library and of libraries in general. With each chapter of The Library Book she traipses off in a different direction—the biographies of early librarians in LA, her own love of books, and even the burning of books as a tool of oppression in Nazi Germany.  

Threading through it all is Orlean’s search for answers to why the LA Public Library burned in 1986, with the incineration of 400,000 books and serious damage to 700,000 more. Orlean keeps coming back to arson suspect Harry Peak, and she interviews Peak’s family, friends, and associates as she tries to figure out what really happened. Orlean’s weaving of the story is mesmerizing. You come away knowing a lot more about the creation of books and libraries, without even realizing that you’ve been taught.  

Her insights into the value of public libraries, backed by many examples, are priceless. Here are a few:  

  • “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.” (67)

  • “In times of trouble libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations.” (76)

  • “Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.” (103) 

My home-town source for reading material, the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL), is a gem of a system. Since I can’t afford to buy books, all the reviews on this Cedar Park Book Blog are based on my borrowings from AADL, which has an aggressive acquisitions program as well as exceptional staff at all levels. The visionary Library Director, Josie Parker, has shepherded the AADL into the digital age while retaining all the qualities of a traditional library. I applaud the Ann Arbor District Library as I recommend Susan Orlean’s book, which is an encomium for all libraries.  

For you writers out there, I offer one more quotation: 

“You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” (309-310)

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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

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

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

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

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

A Field Hospital in WWI

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The Winter Soldier     Daniel Mason     (2018) 

Gruesomeness alert: This novel is set in Europe during World War I, so you’re going to encounter dead horses, gangrenous limbs, and rats in the mud. But it’s well worth wading past the paragraphs of war trauma to read Daniel Mason’s novel about a young medical student working in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. And there’s only one actual battle scene, easy to skim over.  

Lucius Krzelewski (pronounced K-she-lev-ski) has had virtually no patient contact when he drops out of medical school in 1915 and leaves his wealthy Viennese family for a posting to a remote village in the eastern Carpathian Mountains. He’s eager to get experience with hands-on medicine, and the converted church with minimal equipment that is the first stop for war casualties shoves him right into surgery. Since all the other medical staff have fled or died of typhus, his mentor is Sister Margarete, a nun-nurse who guides him as gently as possible in treating the horrific wounds of early-20th-century warfare in primitive conditions. Lucius does his share of amputations, but he’s most interested in trying to help the soldiers who are mentally wounded, rendered paralyzed or mute or raging by the terrors of war. We’d call them victims of PTSD now, but in 1915, the WWI descriptor “shell shock” hadn’t even been fixed. These soldiers were assumed to be malingerers or cowards.  

When a local farmer brings Sergeant József Horváth to the church/hospital door in a wheelbarrow, Lucius is intrigued. Lucius’s medical curiosity—and a sincere desire to help Horváth—sets in motion a series of events destined to change the course of his life. Lucius and Sister Margarete are the main actors in this drama, but the supporting cast is large, and each individual is exquisitely portrayed, down to the people encountered by chance in railway cars.  

These characters manage to travel all around war-ravaged eastern Europe, by rail, by cart, or on foot, and Mason’s settings vividly evoke each stop. One example: “In the fields, high grass crowded out the maize and sunflowers. My God, thought Lucius as he stared into the green expanse, he had almost forgotten the land’s fecundity. Great heaps of flax and St. John’s wort rose on the roadside berms, and the road itself, a paisley of mud and tire tracks, was overgrown with brome. Ahead, the mountains rose before him in their grandeur, massive, like the rumpled repose of a stage curtain with its rich, brocaded pleats.” (287) 

Novelist Mason is a physician, specializing in psychiatry, so he writes with authority on the medical side: “It was a curse to be a doctor, to know anything! In this at least his patients were lucky, oblivious to the horrors that could happen. Now the possibilities seemed endless.” (153) Mason’s rich historical details also seem to be accurate. The result is a novel that hews to a grand tradition of war fiction, in which the shattering effects of war on human relationships are exposed in heartbreaking detail. In this, the novel has resonances with Anthony Doerr’s modern masterpiece set in World War II, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Readers who prefer more cryptic, avant garde novels may find The Winter Soldier too old fashioned. I’ll take old fashioned this time.

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.  

A Novel about a Nasty Novelist

A Ladder to the Sky     John Boyne     (2018)

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 “Nasty, nasty, and nasty” are the words that come to mind to describe the character Maurice Swift in this latest novel by Irish author John Boyne. Maurice wants to be a writer, and not just any writer but a world-renowned one. He will stop at nothing to achieve his goal, though he himself says that ambition is “like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.” (309) He also admits that he has absolutely no talent for plot, though if he’s given a plot he can hang words on it fairly well. 

We first meet the slick, handsome Maurice in 1988, when he’s a young ex-pat Yorkshireman working as a waiter in Berlin. He charms Erich Ackermann, a novelist on a book tour. Then we jump ahead a few years to another European locale: the stunning home of (the real-life author) Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast. In this segment, Maurice is even more confident—no, brazen—as he arrives to visit Vidal in the company of Dash Hardy, another of his conquests. Although Maurice doesn’t fool the savvy Vidal, his literary star is rising. The next episode takes place in Norwich, England, in 2000-2001, with Maurice now married to Edith, who has recently published a successful novel. Then, after a stint in New York running a literary magazine, Maurice ends up in present-day London, meeting with young Theo Field, who interviews him for a proposed biography. With each successive segment of the novel, told from various narrative perspectives, we get a fuller picture of the true evil that lies in the heart of Maurice Swift.   

The blurbs and reviews of this book have focused on Maurice’s theft of intellectual property in the form of plots and plot components. I don’t really see these appropriations of his as criminal. In fact, before the modern era, originality in plot was not a literary skill that was highly prized. Chaucer and Shakespeare rarely came up with original plots. And some stories have been mined for centuries: the Arthurian legends have been reworked by countless greats, from Malory to Tennyson to Lerner and Loewe. Some contemporary genres are all about reused plot elements—autofiction, for instance, is constructed out of pieces of the novelist’s own life history. I could offer countless other examples. So, no, I don’t see plot thievery as Maurice’s sin. Instead, his sin is ambition. His overweening desire to be a famous novelist leads him to steal more than just plots and to commit many other increasingly heinous crimes.  

As Maurice’s wife, Edith, says to him: “’You’re not a writer at all, Maurice. You’re desperate to be but you don’t have the talent. You never did have. That’s why you’ve always attached yourself to people more successful than yourself, pretended to be their friend and then dropped them when they were no longer of any use to you.’” (215) Maurice’s pretense of friendship is only the half of it.  

With Maurice Swift, Boyne has created a character who plays the game of contemporary fiction shrewdly, vying for the attention of agents and publishers and making the rounds of all the book festivals. Maurice cultivates those who can advance his career, using his natural good looks and sensuality to seduce both men and women. In this multi-layered novel, Boyne is not only offering a portrait of an unscrupulous writer but also skewering the entire current-day system by which writers must climb the ladder of literary success, which does not reach the sky but which is propped against a shaky edifice.  

[I’ve also reviewed another, quite different, novel by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.]

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.

The Oxford Working Class

Tin Man     Sarah Winman     (2017)   

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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: How America Eats

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-Landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat    Jonathan Kauffman     (2018) 

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Back in the early 1960s, my parents frequented Zerbo’s Health Foods, a store that’s still in operation in Livonia, Michigan. They brought home jars of wheat germ, bags of soy flour, and bottles of supplements, including vitamin E capsules, bone meal tablets, and liquid halibut liver oil. They espoused many of the unsubstantiated claims found in Prevention magazine as it existed in the 1950s, such as that fluoridated water was poison. Adelle Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit, 1954) was also an influence, with her emphasis on whole grains and raw milk. My mother didn’t give up disgusting mid-20th-century prepared foods such as frozen fish sticks and canned peas, but she had “health foods” in the refrigerator even if they kept getting shoved to the back. In that era, health food stores catered to a very small minority of Americans.

In the 1970s came a torrent of books that had a much larger following among the members of the Baby Boom generation. Even though some of the recipes produced inedible, mushy dishes that my kids called “vegiterribles,” many dishes became favorites in my 1980s kitchen, as I kept gobbling up these food guidebooks: 

  • Ten Talents by Frank and Rosalie Hurd (1968)

  • The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown (1970)

  • Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé (1971)

  • The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas (1972)

  • Recipes for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé and Ellen Buchman Ewald (1973)

  • The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi  (1975)

  • The More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre (1976)

  • The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen (1977) 

In Hippie Foods, Jonathan Kauffman, an award-winning food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, provides the back story for all these books, linking them to their antecedents and tracing the political movements that spawned them. I was delighted to learn the contexts of the foods that have found their way into (and sometimes right back out of) my kitchen over the decades:  organic produce, vegan concoctions from the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, soy and tofu in all their manifestations, and whole grain breads.

Kauffman interviewed dozens of the key players in this food revolution. A few of these earnest aging hippies were able to parlay their involvement in natural and organic foods into corporate successes, including Stonyfield Farm (yogurt), Eden Foods (soy milk), and Lundberg Family Farms (rice). Hippie Food also follows the macrobiotic strand, somewhat associated with  Zen Buddhism, that flourished on both coasts in the 1960s, and recounts the rise of food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and vegetarian restaurants all across the United States.  

Kauffman found several  reasons that hippie foods have now been thoroughly integrated into mainstream American cuisine. Concern about the dangers of chemically treated crops and over-processed foods had a basis in fact, and the public took note. Home cooks found easy recipes for everyday meals in cookbooks developed by other home cooks, not by professional chefs. Most importantly, Kauffman says, “the 1970s counterculture succeeded in selling America on its concept of healthy food.” (282) I agree with this assessment, but I would add that I’ll gladly take the 1970s countercultural food over the dreck peddled by most of the corporate food giants today.  

Hippie Food is an intelligent and well-researched work of social history, capturing those decades in the 20th century when the political was often expressed through the practical, in the kitchen, in the garden, and on the farm. I decided to overlook Kauffman’s occasional snarkiness and awkward comparisons (“like a matchstick Eiffel Tower held together with strawberry jam” [238]) . And I forgave him for omitting my favorite old cookbook, Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey (1976). After all, Kauffman devotes several pages to the history of food cooperatives in my own Ann Arbor, Michigan, which has long been a hotspot for the natural foods movement. To this day, I shop at Ann Arbor’s People’s Food Co-op, especially for local produce and freshly milled whole wheat bread flour. And, for the record, I support the fluoridation of drinking water.  

For another analysis of food and culture in the United States, see my review of Discriminating Taste by S Margot Finn.

Two Medieval Mysteries

The Western Wind     Samantha Harvey      (2018) 

The first-person narrator of this mystery novel is a parish priest, John Reve, in an isolated English village in the year 1491. Novelist Samantha Harvey recreates the late medieval scene accurately, going against some conventional assumptions about priests, religious beliefs, and intelligence in the Middle Ages. John Reve is a smart and well-read fellow who gently corrects his parishioners’ superstitions. Readers are immediately pulled into the story of how Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in town, may have died and what Reve is going to do about the death.  

The story starts out on Shrove Tuesday, the celebratory day before the forty days of the Christian penitential season of Lent. If the tale seems cryptic at first, that’s because the rest of the novel works backwards, day by day, with Reve’s account of each day filling in more of the details of what really happened to Newman on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. Clever markers in the surroundings are reminders of the timeline—food noted as being left over on Tuesday is being prepared on the previous days, for example. And we step back to view the European zeitgeist at a time right on the cusp of the Reformation. In a memory of a conversation with Newman, Reve recounts how Newman pronounced a Protestant view of the primacy of the individual soul, without the need for priestly intervention with God: “I can put my case to God and he can forgive me or not, and he can punish me or not. I’m not sure he needs you to arbitrate.” (175) 

The prose throughout is simple yet elegant: 

  • “The vacant happiness of eating filled me; the meat was tastier than any lifetime of bread. One mouthful of it scythed a whole field of summer wheat to stalk and husk.” (89) 

  • “It was a warm afternoon. The church was mellow and dusty, it had its summer smell of ponds and peaches.” (175) 

As you can tell from my many blog posts about novels set in the Middle Ages, I’m a big fan, but I think that anyone who loves historical novels—especially mysteries—would find The Western Wind highly satisfying.

The Last Hours     Minette Walters     (2018)

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My family expressed cynicism upon seeing the cover of this novel: “Really? A book about the Black Death? Isn’t the daily news depressing enough?” Although I was also skeptical, this book presented an appealing plague scenario: In the absence of her husband, the wise lady of a Dorsetshire manor orders all her serfs into the manor enclosure, shuts the doors, and has the bridge over the moat burned. Of course, there are echoes of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of aristocrats sought to avoid the Black Death by holing up in a villa outside Florence, telling 100 stories to pass the time. The Last Hour is one story, not 100, but there’s that same reader’s itch to find out if the isolation gambit works. And Walters throws in a murder mystery to boot.

Like The Western Wind, reviewed above, The Last Hours offers characters who are literate and savvy—some might say they’re anachronistic in their questioning of divine retribution as a cause for the Black Death. They guess that rats might be involved instead. The portrayals of daily living and survival techniques in 1348 are well crafted if long-winded, especially in the middle third of the novel. Readers are not spared any of the squalor or cruelty of the era. I was quite let down to find on page 537 that the story is “to be continued.” So I’ll have to look for the sequel to The Last Hours to find out the fates of those Dorsetshire serfs.

For my full essay on the sub-genre of medieval mysteries, click here.                                  

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: Washenaw Reads, 2019

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

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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.

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.

Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

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Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

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Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

Century Hopping with Kingsolver

Unsheltered     Barbara Kingsolver     (2018)

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A meme that has turned up on Facebook proclaims, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”* Barbara Kingsolver presents this view in various guises in her century-hopping novel. At one point a character even says, about his fellow citizens, “‘They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.’” (261) How does Kingsolver unfold this story about people who fear homelessness and yet expect wealth? 

In 2015-2016, Willa Knox and her husband, Iano Tavoularis, have just moved into a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, that they inherited at the same time as their fortunes collapsed. Willa was laid off from her job as a journalist, and Iano lost his tenured post—as well as their house, which was on college grounds—when his college closed. Willa and Iano are taking care of Iano’s difficult and very sick father. Their adult daughter has moved in with them after a mysterious venture in Cuba, and their adult son has saddled them with a newborn grandson. All this occurs in the first chapter, as readers access the story from Willa’s viewpoint.  

Quick as a wink, and with clever word links between chapters, Kingsolver sweeps us back to 1874, to a Vineland, New Jersey, house that is also inherited and also tumbledown. Thatcher Greenwood lives with his social-climbing bride, Rose, plus Rose’s mother and young sister. Thatcher has a job teaching science at a high school where his views on Darwin’s recent publications about evolution are not at all welcome, but he finds support from a neighbor, self-taught biologist Mary Treat.  

As explained in the Author’s Note, some of the characters in Unsheltered are actual historical figures. Mary Treat was one of the pre-eminent scientists of the nineteenth century. And real estate developer Charles Landis founded Vineland in the 1860s as a kind of benevolent utopian community. The settlers lured to Vineland by Landis with promises of prosperity were kept in poverty, though still expecting to become wealthy. Landis turned out to be a charlatan and autocrat. Similarly, Kingsolver portrays the populace of the United States of 2015-16 as being hoodwinked by a presidential candidate called “the Bullhorn,” who is clearly Donald Trump, though never named as such in the novel.  

From our twenty-first century standpoint, we know that Darwin’s theories will eventually gain wide (though not universal) acceptance. In the 1870s, however, Thatcher Greenwood does not have this assurance as he argues for evolution, risking the loss of his job. In chapters that alternate between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, Kingsolver points out the parallels between Thatcher’s era and Willa’s, sometimes very bluntly, as when Mary Treat says,  “‘When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’” (206) In 2016, Willa’s daughter tells her, “’All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’” (410) 

Alas, Kingsolver pushes too hard on the polemics in Unsheltered, which comes off as preachy. The sections in which poor Thatcher argues science against creationists are positively painful to read. If this is the first Kingsolver book that you read, please do not judge her by this one novel! She’s a gifted writer. Among my favorite novels of hers are The Bean Trees (1988), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and Prodigal Summer (2000), plus the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable Miracle (2007), with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.

* This quote has been attributed to John Steinbeck but is probably a paraphrase of Steinbeck by Ronald Wright.

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.  

A Metafictional Mystery

The Word Is Murder     Anthony Horowitz     (2018)

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Not many writers would undertake a metafictional mystery novel, and far fewer writers would be able to write a successful one. Anthony Horowitz has nailed the whole metafictional mystery bit with The Word Is Murder. So how does he do it? And what is metafiction anyway?

I think of metafiction as a kind of second narrative going on in a piece of fiction, so that the reader has one foot in the fiction and one in the real world. Metafiction draws attention in some way to the artificial construct of a literary work. In The Word Is Murder, the fictional first-person narrator is a fellow named Anthony Horowitz, who is remarkably similar to the real-life author Anthony Horowitz. The real-life Anthony has written a trove of mysteries for the BBC (including the exceptionally fine series Foyle's War), as well as the  popular Alex Rider series of young-adult books and several standalone mystery novels (see my review of Magpie Murders). The fictional Anthony has these very same writing credentials. Exactly how much the fictional Anthony resembles the actual Anthony in personality is something readers really can't know, but I get the feeling that there is considerable personality overlap between the two Anthonys.

When you launch into The Word Is Murder, you aren't quite convinced that you're reading fiction, even though you plucked the book from a fiction shelf at your library. Fictional Anthony is telling you about a murder case in present-day London, against a backdrop of his current writing projects, which you know to be writing projects of the actual Anthony. When fictional Anthony introduces you to a rumpled and idiosyncratic freelance detective named Daniel Hawthorne, you're not sure if Hawthorne is actual, fictional, or a doppelgänger of some kind. In fact, all the characters might be real or might not be. But the murder case is gripping.

Diana Cowper is a wealthy London widow, mother of the Hollywood actor Damian Cowper. One spring morning she visits a funeral home to pre-arrange her own funeral. This act is not too unusual; many people choose to spare their families the choices and expense of such arrangements. What is unusual is that Diana is murdered in her home later that same day. The London police detective assigned to the case doesn't think that the two events are connected, but another police official hires Hawthorne to poke around nonetheless. Hawthorne is Sherlockian in his deductive powers and experienced in murder cases from his days in the police force. (He was fired, but that's another story.) Hawthorne persuades the fictional Anthony to accompany him on his investigation, so that fictional Anthony can write a nonfiction "true crime" book about the case.

Aside from all the metafictional shenanigans, the mystery itself presents many avenues for inquiry by the detectives. Ten years before her own death, Diana was the driver in a tragic auto accident that killed one child and severely disabled another. Might their family want revenge? Diana’s son, Damian, is a fast-living and egotistical fellow who stands to inherit her estate. Diana has been involved in what may be questionable business investments. Her housekeeper, who discovers her body, seems less than truthful. The red herrings keep multiplying, in a way that keeps you gobbling up those pages. A warning to sensitive readers (like me): There’s one violent scene toward the end of the book, but you can sense it coming and skim over it.

Horowitz has written a tour de force in both the metafictional and mystery arenas. I read The Word Is Murder on a long train journey, and it was a good thing that my destination was the last stop, because I would have missed it otherwise!

PS—For some non-mystery metafiction, see my review of The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.

Short Stories & Essays: 2 Reviews

Calypso     David Sedaris     (2018)

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

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

Cockfosters     Helen Simpson     (2015)  

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

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