By Elizabeth Strout Random House, 2016 A sense of melancholy infuses this extraordinary book from one of America’s most original writers. It is told from the point of view of Lucy Barton as she looks back ( for most of the book) to a period in the nineteen eighties when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for a persistent infection after surgery. Her children were small and cared for by her husband, who rarely visits the hospital. Her mother, from whom she has been distant, visits, and their conversation reveals Lucy’s longing for love. This conversation, in which Lucy appears to bait her mother to reveal more of herself, to wrap Lucy in the maternal love she willingly gives her own daughters, occurs over only five days. Within it, and around it, as Lucy obsesses years later on her marriage, her parents’ marriage, her love for her own children, Elizabeth Strout muses on poverty. Physical poverty – the lack of enough money – leads to being cold and hungry. Physical poverty and its corollary, emotional poverty, lead to isolation, to being jeered at within the community, to a sense of being unworthy. Ripples of this sense of unworthiness fan out in the story, as Lucy considers the AIDS epidemic, raging at the time of her hospitalization, as the legacy of Nazi atrocities echo in the story, and even in the sense of vulnerability that Lucy feels as her short stories are published. For the artist exposes his or her innermost self for the world to see and judge even as the work itself is a construct – a not-real thing, a work of the imagination that a world valuing material things may laugh at and consider unworthy of the effort. Like Strout’s first best-seller, Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton defies the structural norms of fiction. Olive Kitteridge was a series of stories about a woman of emotional economy. Barton’s story doesn’t so much as progress as reveal itself in flashbacks and musings by the protagonist. As it reveals so much about the human being’s primal need for parental love, social acceptance, and respect for creativity, one gradually feels an unconditional love for Lucy. This is marvelous achievement in a novel.
I’ve been reading a lot in my genre of Women’s Fiction lately, and the mother in me is now going on a rant. Especially as it’s January, when everyone goes on a diet. I am going to scold my writers. Their characters eat junk. Junk, junk, and more junk. No wonder this country has an obesity problem. In Mary Ellen Taylor’s Alexandria series, the baking McCrae sisters are delightful. Their eating habits leave much to be desired. I know, they run a bakery. But I lost count of the donuts, sweet rolls and cake the characters consumed. And never gained a pound. I recently finished Rainbow Rowell’s Landline. Her protagonist, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter, Georgie, can’t boil an egg. Her sister asks her, sarcastically, if she waits for her husband to put breakfast out for her. But both this sister and Georgie consume pizza, waffles, Pringles, tacos, tuna mac and cheese (hold the peas!) No wonder Georgie has to wear her mother’s velour jogging pants and an oversize T-shirt to go to work! The probably semi-autobiographical novel, Reality Jane, by Shannon Nering, notes the odd eating choices of the worker bees that bring Americans Reality TV. Also set in Los Angeles, this novel chronicles the adventures of Canadian journalist Jane Kaufman, after she lands a job as a producer of reality television. At times hilarious, at other times poignant, Jane has a distinctive voice. She alters her diet over time from French fries and burgers and coffee with “an inch of cream and three sugars” to less fattening fare, but still, the bad diet was there in the first place. This is Women’s Fiction. Writers want readers to identify with their protagonists. We want readers to get inside their heads, to feel as if they are in their actual bodies, even though the characters are just a bunch of words. As readers we love characters that stumble and fall and ultimately triumph. Seems to me the ultimate universal connection point would be in what we all need – good food. It should not be so hard to create something readers would like to eat.
By Karen Viggers Allen & Unwin, 2012 Don’t be misled by the title and cover of this rewarding book, which is set in a place most of us will never visit – the closest land mass to Antarctica and the land of the South Pole itself. Seems to me that publishers should be aware of other books with the same title before a book’s launch. Another book named The Lightkeeper’s Wife, written by Sarah Anne Johnson, was published in 2014. Karen Viggers, an Australian veterinarian, wildlife scientist and writer, should be annoyed about this, because her book with this title was first published in 2001 and reissued by Allen & Unwin in 2012. Also confusing is the cover of Vigger’s book, which features a dreamy-eyed young woman looking wistfully into the distance. In fact, the lightkeeper’s wife of this novel is a seventy-seven year old woman facing imminent death and looking back on her life. Furthermore, Mary Mason is not the narrator of the story. Her portion of the book is told in close third person, while the first person part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Mary’s son, Tom. Tom is a most unusual male character – a shy, melancholic, sweet-natured, diesel mechanic. He’s devoted to his mother, was dutiful to his deceased father, is a bit in awe of his much older brother and sister (though he is forty-two) and has been divorced for some years. That much I can tell you without divulging any more of this story. The book’s strengths lie not only in its intricate tracing of Tom’s character, but its breathtaking descriptions of Antarctica, and in the dramatic coastline of Cape Bruny on the southern tip of Tasmania. A lighthouse was built there in 1838 and was operational until 1996. The fictional lighthouse keeper and his family of the book seem to have lived there in late nineteen fifties to the seventies. Viggers writes brilliantly of the birds and other wildlife of Bruny, constantly buffeted by winds from the Southern Ocean, carrying with them the fierce cold of the Antarctic, which lies directly south of Bruny Island. It’s still a long way from the world’s southern most landmass, as Viggers makes clear, describing a boat trip of seven days from Hobart to the beginning of the ice pack, and then two to three weeks of cutting through the bergs to get to the scientific stations near the South Pole. Antarctica is so different from the rest of the world, so cold that people have never settled there, that the experience must almost be like going to the moon. Put athletic young men and women together in isolated conditions doing intellectually challenging work they have chosen to do, in a searing cold that makes snuggling in a single sleeping bag the most logical thing to do, and the inevitable happens. Viggers explores the confusing emotional dynamics of the Antarctic experience and the difficulty of re-entry to the “real” world. She’s coupled this unusual human experience with the veterinarian’s understanding of animal emotions and an Australian’s love for her country’s extraordinary landscape. Recommended.
By Marylee MacDonald Summertime Publications, Inc. Travel exposes us to ourselves. We visit other places to escape the everyday, or to put a problem in perspective. Stripped of the props of habit, our foibles and fears come to the fore as we interact with foreigners and navigate strange roads. Marylee MacDonald holds up a mirror of self-discovery for the varied and idiosyncratic characters in this magnificent collection of short stories. From Angela, a postal inspector, who left “an absolutely dead and vacant life” to vacation in Istanbul, where her married Turkish lover tries to part her from her money, possibly for charity, probably not, to Lana Buskirk, a single mom on holiday in Key West with Todd, her college student son, to Walter, who is disfigured by a birthmark, MacDonald introduces us to complex characters whose desire to escape comes up short when their innate behavior patterns lead them to tangle with strangers and travel companions. In this collection of stories, travel is a metaphor for life, as the characters bump up against each other in mutual incomprehension. It is so hard for us to live with one another, so terrible to be alone. Creating a unique and compelling story world in a limited number of pages is the challenge of the short story. In this book, each tale is remarkably original and brilliantly written. Marylee MacDonald links them with the theme of connection and aloneness, the yin and yang of the self, facing outwards to an often hostile world, nourished inwardly by the bonds of love and blood we share.
By Shannon Nering Bancroft Press 2011 If you’ve ever wondered how realistic “reality tv” is, I have a book for you in Shannon Nering’s Reality Jane. I was unable to put down. It is a story about greed and ambition, the unreality behind “reality tv” and it seems so authentic I didn’t have to wait to read about the author at the end of the book to discover that she has actually been a producer for well-known television shows. In fact, she is still in the biz in her native Vancouver. Jane Kaufman, the protagonist of Reality Jane, is a Canadian broadcast journalist who gets her big break as a production assistant in Los Angeles. Throughout this satire on Hollywood, Canada is in the background as a true reality, a place of reason and sanity in Jane’s mind as she navigates the snake pit of television. A telling moment is the Grammys, to which Jane and her friend and colleague Toni have been invited by their boss. Jane goes to the bathroom, and returns to her seat, only to find it has been filled. Such is life for someone climbing the ladder in a world of rapidly shifting loyalties, back-stabbing and sycophancy, brutal eighteen hour workdays, almost daily airplane flights, and a diet of junk food, interrupted on occasional weekends by alcohol – fueled parties. According to Toni, Jane is to be envied. Beautiful and talented, Jane has to fend off boyfriends (she has three in the course of the book), and is able to see through the clutter so that she runs with opportunities when they are mere shadows. Eventually she becomes a producer on a famous self-help reality show. When the true nature of that show – and celebrity- become obvious to her, she must make a decision about how to live her life. Told in a rapid-fire way, with one dramatic scene leading to the next, snappy dialogue, and some terrific writing, this story struck me as original and compelling, even as the reader wants Jane to slow down and realize what is happening to her. If you want to know how behind-the-scenes television works – and what it does to those who spend their days making entertainment for the rest of us, this book is a fast and enjoyable read.
Landline By Rainbow Rowell St. Martin’s Press 2014 When I read an interview with the author Rainbow Rowell in which she said her mother was very strict and she wasn’t allowed to watch much television or see many movies, I was surprised. Because Georgie, the protagonist in Rowell’s perceptive and amusing novel Landline, is a television comedy writer and her children seem to do little but watch television. You think the world of scriptwriting is glamorous. Think again. Think of wearing the same ratty jeans to work day after day, eating tuna casserole and sleeping in your old bedroom at your mother’s house because it’s too far to go home ( you’re so busy!) and working day in and day out with a writing partner who, a flirtatious male to your plain married self, teases you about not making the coffee. Forget Christmas parties, caroling, or even spending the holiday with your husband and children. I use the second person because the character Rowell has created in her heroine, Georgie, is so engaging we’re right there with her in her black Metallica tee shirt. Rowell shows us a Los Angeles where success is always just around the corner. If Georgie can just work harder, eschew the Christmas break or any kind of social life and allow her husband to question their marriage, she’ll get the deal. The novel begins at this crisis point, when Georgie, bemused by promises that her new show with writing partner Seth is about to be picked up by a big producer, decides not to accompany her family to Nebraska for Christmas, so she can keep on working. Georgie has been married for fifteen years to Neal. But despite loving Neal ( so she insists) her soul-mate is her business partner Seth. Georgie and Seth met in college and now, seventeen years later, his behavior, and to some extent hers, remains sophomoric and self-deluded. Neal is withholding. Georgie’s incessant “I love you’s” to Neal ring hollow when she allows Seth to badmouth him constantly. It is a toxic mix, yet this story does not go where you might expect it to. Kudos to Rowell for that. Georgie is the breadwinner in the family. Her work is writing gags and scenes for situation comedies. We fiction writers understand how we can get caught up in thinking a bunch of words we’ve made on the page actually matter. Somehow, making those words intended for television trivializes them and makes Georgie’s choices seem less than wise. Rowell good-naturedly mocks the writer’s profession and the story spins on what might have been. Rowell is a master of dialogue. Yet serious themes underlie the banter; the absurdity of a culture in which work trumps all, the difficulties of a marriage in which one partner is needy and the other passive-aggressive, the failure of feminism to truly deliver gender equality. And as in so many current novels, the technology of the phone is key to the story. The reader notes in the back of the book ask, “Are you old enough to remember talking on a landline?” That about sums up the YA target audience for whom Rowell usually writes. She reaches here for a group that still struggling to grow up. That’s reflected in the characters, who all display a strange lack of worldliness despite being old enough to be married and to contemplate divorce. Still, the immediacy of Rowell’s writing sparkles and her characters, flawed as they are, are all endearing. You’ll enjoy this one.
The Signature of All Things By Elizabeth Gilbert Viking, 2013 Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, a most unusual memoir about the loss of a marriage, travel, and spiritual acceptance. Signature of All Things is a novel. Turning from non-fiction to fiction is not easy for most writers, yet Gilbert links profound ideas in each of these very different books. The Signature of All Things follows Alma Whittaker, a woman born in 1800. That date is significant, because the revolutionary ideas of the nineteenth century made the world we know today. The discovery of evolution transformed our notion of the universe. Never one to shy away from big themes, Gilbert tackles this one in a page-turning story. Alma’s father was an employee of Joseph Banks, the famous botanist of The Enlightenment. That is backstory to the novel, which starts in Philadelphia with Alma’s birth. Her father had immigrated there, and made a fortune in plant pharmaceuticals. Alma is a precocious child who learns the latest botanical theories at the dinner table of her father. Botany was the only science allowed for respectable girls in the nineteenth century, because plants, unlike animals, do not frolic in unseemly ways, do not engage in uninhibited sex. Or so it was thought. But plants, as we now know, do reproduce in all sorts of ways, and the riotous abundance of their existence is due to evolution. Alma discovers much by studying mosses. And this is Gilbert’s brilliant conceit. By restricting her heroine to her culture’s corset (waiting, as quietly as possible, for a man to “liberate” her into wifedom) Gilbert has forced her protagonist to focus her mind on something that apparently does nothing. By observing closely, Alma discovers something no one else has ever seen. A woman looking at moss does not involve much action. But Gilbert is too skilled a story-teller to let our attention flag. The book abounds with original, extraordinary, characters. In the second half of her life and the novel Alma travels the world, becoming for a while the rolling stone of the proverb. Gilbert has layered meaning upon meaning in choosing moss, that emblem of stasis, as her heroine’s intellectual passion. Revelations can come by simple observation – by concentrating on minute detail. That’s science. Then there is the spiritual dimension that stillness enhances. Meditation – the idea that by focusing on an inner stillness one develops a sense of being connected to the entire universe– is one that links this novel to Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. If you liked that book, you’ll love this one.
Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie Alfred A. Knopf 2013 The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther Penguin Group USA 2006 The Outsider by Patricia Gercik CreateSpace. Amazon.com 2014 With refugees in the news these days, I have been reading novels about the experience of being a foreigner. It’s never easy to straddle two world views, different ways of being and thinking. Is it possible for someone to ever truly assimilate in a new land? I am not really sure, and I, as an immigrant to this country, have been here far longer than I have lived anywhere else. How much harder it will be for the millions of displaced refugees who are coming to Europe already traumatized by war. Lately I have been reading three very different books about three very different immigrant experiences. The first is Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. Published in 2013 and named one of the ten best books of the year, the story features two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, Nigerian teenagers who fall in love but separate when Ifemelu goes to the United States to study, and Obinze tries to start a new life in England. Fifteen years later, they reunite in Nigeria, where they find their experience of early adulthood in different countries have profoundly changed them. Or have they? I was not convinced that they had. Each character maintains his or her essential personality throughout the novel, with Ifemelu seeming to hold herself superior to others. She sees racial discrimination even in people who are kind to her. Obinze seems to be the moral heart of the book, troubled by the choices he has had to make in a corrupt society. The next book is The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther. It was published in the USA by Penguin Group in 2006, having first been issued in the UK that same year. Crowther is the daughter of an Iranian mother and a British father, which lends authenticity to the story. The novel is structured so that we hear alternate voices of Sara, a thirty something woman whose father is English and whose mother is Maryam, a woman born in a remote village in Iran. The book starts with a violent episode initiated by Maryam, an episode which causes a split with her daughter and spurs Maryam’s return to Iran. Maryam explains that when she was young, to show weakness meant she would be punished. Her punishment for defying her father’s demand that she marry instead of studying nursing is hinted at early on in the book, and revealed shockingly at the end. For whatever reason ( probably to do with Persian food, which I love) I have always been fascinated by Iran, its people and its history. Because Iran is much in the news these days, I read this book to get some insights into the country. The picture painted by the novel shows that Iranian values, even in the nineteen seventies, just before the fall of the Shah, were jarringly different from Western mores. Persian culture as portrayed in this book is much less recognizable than that of Nigeria as written by Adiche. Finally, I am reading The Outsider, but Patricia Gercik. Set in Japan in 1946, 1952 and 1958, this story shows Japan undergoing profound change after its World War II defeat. The narrator is Sarah, a child, six years old when the book begins. She is the daughter of Russian Jews who fled Stalin to China and eventually to Japan during World War II. During the Occupation by the allied powers after the war Japanese society was being utterly transformed. Black marketers and geisha girls, macho Japanese men who still dream of a mighty conquering Japan are contrasted with the sufferings of the ordinary people. White-skinned, blue eyed Sara wants desperately to belong, and finds herself attracted to a ragtag group of Japanese urchins rather than to the Western children who attend the US Army’s school. She is eternally the outsider, loved yet not understood by her parents, who seem to symbolize the eternally exiled, loved yet punished for disobedience by the housekeeper, O’ba, alternately loved and scorned by her Japanese playmates. Throughout the novel, Sarah insists that she is stubborn, and she is certainly bright. Yet, always wanting to belong, she swings from one loyalty to the next. At one point in the novel, Sensei, a key figure in the story, says, “Japanese are emotional, not logical….Disputes are settled outside the courts through relationships. That is the Japanese way.” This sounds so appealing, and yet it sums up the difficulties of foreigners in that culture. By choosing the tell the story in the voice of a child, Gercik avoids the cliche that children adjust to new circumstances easily. Never sentimental or sugar-coating the hardship of life between cultures, this is a remarkable and unusual book. Highly recommended.
by Susan Wiggs Harlequin MIRA Hardcover (June 2014) The Rosy Glow of Romance Blame it on Yelp, blame it on the unspoken rule for giving books five star reviews, blame it on the political correctness mania that is sweeping campuses, but it seems that novels these days demand less of readers than they used to. The reader is urged to enjoy rather than to think. In an article in The New York Times Book Review of August 30 2015, author Zoe Heller noted that her graduate students (graduate students!) complained about the required reading if they didn’t like the characters, or if they had any trouble following the story. They were, she said, indignant. It was if the author were a host who had forgotten to make his guests comfortable. I’m assuming these students were reading literary fiction rather than romance. Great literature has always challenged assumptions. That is the purpose of art. It is not the purpose of romance novels, however. The romance writer’s author’s goal is to take the reader away from gritty reality into the realm of dreams. So it is with The Beekeepers Ball, by Susan Wiggs. This best-selling mass market romance author returns to the idyllic Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California where her heroine, Isabel, is hard at work planning her half-sister’s wedding and the opening of her cooking school. Isabel keeps bees, hence the title, and a beekeeping mishap starts the story, her introduction to bee-allergic biographer Cormac O’Neill. The book is written in chapters that alternate between Denmark under the German occupation and present-day California. This has the affect of reminding readers of their own good fortune just to be living in this time and place and contributes to the feel-good nature of the book. The developing relationship between Isabel and Mac is sweet. In addition, a romance emerges between two characters in their late seventies, and this is refreshing. Mouth-watering recipes featuring honey dot the pages. As a writer who is still trying to learn the art of writing fiction after years of journalism, I found Wigg’s book structure unusual to say the least. Somehow Wiggs makes the novel work while disobeying the rule to up the conflict and tone down the flashbacks. Moreover, while the flashbacks are active, there is a lot of passivity in the present-day settings. It’s as if Bella Vista is drowning in honey. Since I know the countryside around Sonoma well, I found the descriptions of it and its small, wealthy little towns both accurate and gauzy. It was like looking at them through a veil – and I don’t mean a beekeeper’s veil. First of all, Bella Vista seems to have been under Isabel’s grandfather’s ownership without any visible means of support. Ostensibly an apple farm, the place is being transformed by the work crew into “a destination cooking school.” The only animals on the farm are cats, dogs and bees, which keep the place proudly “critter-free.” Secondly, the renovation is taking place without a whole lot of stress on the part of its owner. Actually, we are told about the stress, but it is not evident. When O’Neill mentions to Isabel that she should put in a swimming pool, she is embarrassed that she hadn’t thought of it herself. Later in the book, we see excavations being dug for a pool. Isabel says, “What’s another hundred grand?” What indeed? There is no conflict whatsoever between the members of this very odd family, even though the half-sisters have only recently met each other and share a father and an actual birthdate. Think about that, reader – the potential for conflict is huge. It’s just avoided in this book. No one has any financial stress except a minor character, a homeless pregnant teenager whom Isabel takes care of, thus eliminating that conflict. The cooking school renovations are apparently paid for by the sale of family artifacts sold by Tess, the newly discovered half sister, who is a fine arts appraiser and auctioneer. But how this family had any artifacts to sell is not made clear. The grandparents arrived penniless in the US from war-torn Europe. The only real conflicts are in flashback, to the World War II experiences of Isabel’s grandparents. Naturally, the grandparents behaved bravely under extreme danger in that war and despite their hardships, managed to live happily ever after in America. But who am I to quibble? Despite its quirks, I read this book compulsively from beginning to end. Ms. Wiggs captured my attention even as I could not help noting the flaws in motivation and causation noted above. Then again, this is the second in the Bella Vista series and having missed the first, perhaps the characters and their backgrounds are more fully fleshed out in the previous book. Romance is romance and it outsells any other genre. This author is like the welcoming host who makes guests so comfortable they can flop on the couch. This is a good read for the last warm days of summer.
By Colm Toibin Scribner, 2014 When this book came out a year or so ago, a reviewer described it as a book about a quiet Irish widow, a book in which nothing much happens. So I didn’t pick it up immediately. But now I have. And in the hands of the extraordinary writer Colm Toibin, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn or circumscribed it may seem, is made clear. As for the claim that “nothing happens” in this novel, that is nonsense. For any young widow left with four children to support on very little money, life could be desperate. How Nora copes, calmly, quietly, is the core of this moving story. Nora Webster, we learn, is a mother of two girls in their late teens and two younger boys. Happily married to Maurice, a popular school teacher, she is shell-shocked at his agonizing death. It seems that both priest and doctor would not allow enough pain-killers for the dying man because it might damage his heart. This subtle dig at religious rigidity is all that Toibin allows himself in this novel. In fact, Nora’s greatest support comes from two religious women, a Sister Thomas, who seems like a busy-body, but offers non-judgmental love at every turn, and a former nun who becomes Nora’s singing teacher. Writers of fiction are often advised to create characters that readers will like. Toibin does nothing so obvious. He offers us Nora, who is prickly and defensive, who forbids herself the expression of much emotion, whose own mother preferred her sisters and sons-in-law to Nora, and who, on the surface, does not offer much comfort to her grieving children. The girls were away at school, but the younger boys were placed with Nora’s aunt while Nora tended to her dying husband. During this time the older boy, Donal, developed a stutter. Her aunt asks Nora why she never once checked on her kids the whole time their father was in hospital. Nora has no convincing answer except to say her time was fully occupied. Donal becomes the focus of Nora’s anxiety, though this is never stated out loud. She tries quiet activities to make the children feel life can continue normally, like taking them for an outing to Dublin, like renting a caravan for a summer vacation to make up for her having to sell the family beach cottage, like allowing her sister-in-law to build a dark-room so Donal can develop his photographs. Nora’s gradual opening up, like a flower, to allow others to help her is the story arc of this book. Her husband’s sister finds a boarding school for Donal, a Christian Brothers school with a photography club and Nora lets her sister-in-law pay for the tuition. Like most kids, the boy is lonely at first and Nora senses, when she visits him, that he wants to come home. Like Nora, he is guarded about his feelings and she won’t let him articulate them. Instead, she promises, simply, to visit him every weekend. Later, her second daughter, Aine, becomes involved in student politics, and is caught up in a demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday. She cannot be found. The family looks for her and in the end, Nora says she’s going home. (The girl is fine.)In these two instances, in which Nora demonstrates the opposite of helicopter parenting, we see that she is in fact a superb parent. She allows her children a chance to build their own resilience. The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans three years. These were momentous years in Ireland, the beginning of The Troubles, in which Northern Ireland became the focus of religious and political factionalism and the IRA became active. They were also momentous years for women. Feminism is never mentioned in this book. In fact, Nora, who is forced to return to work as a widow at the same firm she worked for before she married, regrets the loss of her freedom. While in the end she masters her bookkeeping job, we sense that she never enjoys it, hates the web of office politics, and wishes she could have her old life back. Nora says, “Never once, in the 21 years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration.” While one reviewer of this book found this to be self-deceptive, I found this comment by Nora to be very believable. There was, and still is, a sub-set of women who love the fulfillment of being able to create a full-time loving and secure home for their families. And this is why Colm Toibin is such a marvelous writer. He never allows himself to be seduced by current trends. Once again he has pulled off a masterpiece.