Leonard Self, a widower of one year, sets out to grant his wife’s final wish by scattering her ashes on Artist’s Point—although against her wishes he has the clear intention of leaping after her. Their life has been a fractured fairy tale—childless, hardworking, they have been visited by more than one catastrophe, and through it all, Inetta has been as sure of her faith as Len was sure he had none. But they’ve loved one another through it all and now Len, who can’t find a reason to go on, is embarked on what he considers to be his final journey. As we follow him up Monument road, we also drop back in time in nearby Grand Junction, where teenage Helen, who desperately wanted the part of St. Joan in her high-school play, decided to gather information about extreme faith by attending an evangelical church. There she encountered Neulan, a nerd with plenty of faith and the voice of an angel. Not long thereafter Helen, fearless and surefooted, nonetheless plummeted from Artist’s Point. Her friends and family were inconsolable—particularly her sister Margaret. Now, back in the present, Margaret is a realtor who’s making Leonard Self an offer on his land. And so paths cross and re-cross, lives shift and change, as drifters and alcoholic handymen, reporters, ranchers, and children follow each other up and down Monument Road, in and out of one another’s lives. The pace of Monument Road alternates between a slow trot and a full-out gallop, the dialogue is as laconic as it is spot-on rural-Rockies, and as we encounter lies, betrayal, even murder, somehow humor and love seem to leaven the pain, shedding light on mysterious shadows as Len drives closer and closer to the edge of.… I won’t say more—except that Monument Road owes something to Kent Haruf and the fictional territory of Holt, Colorado, but equally as much to Brady Udall and John Irving. As your bookseller my advice is that you don’t miss this wry, touching but ever-realistic book about life, death, love, luck and its opposite, and whatever else makes our days worthwhile.
Annabelle alive isn’t exactly earthbound, levitating as she does, both literally and in her imagination. But Annabelle dead isn’t anchored any more firmly to earth. Rather, she flits and floats restlessly over the killing field where she lost her family; hovers above the path taken by Emily, the gravely determined reporter covering their murder; is a vaporous presence in the courtroom where the killer is being tried. Annabelle is an enchanting child but the reporter, a steadfast and determined adult, looks reality in the face. As do the two men who help her cover the case—not to mention Mason, an orphan straight from the pages of Dickens. Perhaps it is these likeable characters, the tangle of their relationships that make this tale of mass murder riveting rather than merely macabre, intriguing rather than mundane. Or maybe it’s the narrative intensity, or the lively inventive style…or the plot that so compels us as it snakes its way through serial murders one minute, hidden passions the next. Whatever it is that keeps the reader engaged with head and heart, Quiet Dell is a joy-shot wonder of a book for all its dark matter—easy to read, hard to put down, harder to forget.
Having for years nursed an inordinate fondness for Pride and Prejudice and as a result reacted with prejudice to the many spin-offs, I picked up Longbourn with misgivings—but I loved every page. This below-stairs tale of life in the Bennett home is a tale of incessant laundry that left the maids’ hands chilblained and red, of sloshing chamber pots and blackened fireplace, of sweeping and mopping from dawn until long after dark. There’s romance below-stairs, there’s social commentary aplenty, and witticisms that might have come from the pen of Austen herself. But the thing that distinguishes this novel from its predecessors is the depth of character to be found in its pages: in young Sarah, who is neither as wise as Elizabeth nor as foolish as Lydia—although at first as easily led; in Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, who buries unhappy secrets under a lifetime of hard work; in James, the footman, whose past is a secret unknown even to himself. That these past secrets are, in the end, shared by upstairs and down alike should come as no surprise since whatever their relationships, people who live under a single roof almost inevitably share more than a common abode.
Whether it be an ostrich or an octopus, a manatee in the ocean, a butterfly collection in a museum, or a flight to freedom, the pages of these lively stories are populated by denizens of the natural world, and by those who relate to that world, those who cannot. Reasons for leaving are clarified, intellectualized rationales are simplified, a mysterious death at a summer camp is mythologized, as intriguing, quirky characters, all at crossroads of one kind or another, are surprised by events or sometimes by unwanted knowledge. An impressive debut by a writer with an interesting sensibility, an arresting voice, and a clear and compassionate understanding of the vagaries of humanity.
Bonert is possessed of the gift of gab, both in terms of dialogue and of sheer narrative verve. At the heart of his big bruising debut novel is Isaac Helger, who has a wild mop of red hair, a wiry build, a heart full of anger and confused notions of right and wrong. Isaac knows little outside the Jewish community of Johannesburg. His mother, a tough-minded woman who loves Isaac fiercely, is determined to rescue her family from her native Lithuania no matter the cost. His father, a watchmaker and a gentle, principled man, loves his son no less fiercely and as Isaac grows he struggles with their very different ways of viewing the world. In fact struggle is at the very heart of this novel: the struggle against prejudice and oppression from outside and from inside; the struggle to distinguish love from self-love, hatred from self-hatred; the struggle to first obtain and then understand truth. But most of all The Lion Seeker is about a young man learning to know—and to live with—himself and those who love him.
Ruth, an elderly widow asleep by herself in an isolated house, hears tigers prowling in the front room. A bad dream? Dementia? The house reeks of danger but when she calls her son the next day it’s clear that he doesn’t believe her. Then a strange woman appears, claiming she’s been sent as a caregiver by the government. Frida settles in despite Ruth’s initial protest and before long there’s yet another visitor: Ruth‘s first love, a fellow-missionary of her father’s in Fiji years before. Tigers, lover, caregiver--all are “night guests,” all with un-guessable intentions, in this mesmerizing and brilliantly written tale that is mysterious yes, even terrifying, but illuminating in terms of faith and betrayal, innocence, sanity, dependence, and aging. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t forget it.
Angus MacGrath leaves his wife and son behind in Nova Scotia, intending to join the war effort behind the lines working as a cartographer in London. His motives are twofold: against the direct wishes of his father, who disapproves of the war, he feels a duty to serve, and he hopes to find some trace of his brother-in-law and dear friend, who is missing in action. War rarely allows for individual plans; in short order this artist and man-of-the-sea finds himself swamped in mud and blood in the trenches of the front line. Angus learns fast and bonds even faster with the men at his side as, at home in Nova Scotia, his son tries to make sense of the war. And so the tides of that war carry us back and forth between family and the battlefront in a novel that is at once spellbinding and enlightening, granting us blinding insights into war, into despair, into love, and into the ties and tensions between fathers and sons.
The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman In a novel that’s part mystery, part love story, and wholly compelling, Tracy Guzeman weaves together past and present, the worlds of art and ornithology, and the lives of two sisters—Alice and Natalie Kessler. At ages 11 and 14 respectively, the sisters met an artist of 26 who was as brilliant as he was self-involved, as careless of others’ lives as he was careful of his own talent. They were vacationing with their parents; he was living in a nearby cottage and painting. Alice was, at the time absorbed in the minutia of nature and particularly of birds. Natalie was equally absorbed—in her own beauty. What happened then among the three of them lives on into the present in the shadowy recesses of memory, half understood and never discussed or revisited. In that present, Natalie, who has lived with Alice for years in a small Tennessee town, has recently died. Alice lives a lonely, pain-filled existence, her body riddled with arthritis, her memories hazy, her will used up almost entirely by fending off pain. Meanwhile the artist, Thomas Bayber, now famous and reclusive, calls in two professionals from the art world, one an art historian who has catalogued Bayber’s work over the years, the other a young art scholar whose once ascendant career has stalled. They are told to find the Kessler sisters and suddenly lives stagnant for years begin to quicken. An intricate, interesting plot that owes something to mystery but moves outside the restrictions of the genre, fascinating and layered characters, a moving love story and gorgeous writing all make The Gravity of Birds compelling. As if all this weren’t enough, the book is not only steeped in art, art history, and ornithology, but also in the psychology revolving around such subjects as grief, jealousy, and learning to live with chronic pain. What’s most remarkable is that it’s Tracy Guzeman’s first novel. One sincerely hopes that it will not be her last.
Brewster by Mark Slouka Jon has grown up in a cold town in a cold house where his parents are so bound by coils of past pain that the present doesn’t seem to exist for them. When he was four, his brother died in an accident and since that time his parents have been unable or unwilling to love him in a meaningful way. His father goes off to work every day at the shoe store he owns, but out of routine rather than interest. And his mother can barely stand to touch Jon, much less to love him. So now Jon, who has for years felt himself to be invisible, runs, finding identity in his victories, and release in the simple physical act. Ray, as present in every second as Jon is detached, is vividly, violently alive. He’s ferocious when attacked in the high school parking lot, seemingly unafraid no matter what the threat. He’s charming but erratic, and ever unpredictable—the quintessential rebel. It isn’t until Jon and Ray form an unlikely friendship that Jon gradually begins to realize that at home Ray is victim rather than aggressor, abused by his father—and that Ray can’t leave without abandoning his brother to the same abuse. Once the two boys find one another, they begin to allow themselves to dream. Their friendship opens new realms to both of them. Then Karen enters the picture, first as Jon’s friend. And while the reader initially sees the classical love triangle looming, the ways that Karen and Ray begin to spark off one another, the clear chemistry of their personalities feels preordained. The three become friends, their bonds growing tighter as they begin to imagine escape while the reality of Vietnam hovers over their futures. Perhaps teenagers always long to escape, but flight often seems a less unattainable outcome for those who most need deliverance. Slouka writes with great compassion and even greater understanding—of youth, of family loss, and of the pain that cripples us. His tale has a velocity built on the passion of youth, and wisdom built on tough reality. Which makes it a perfect read for men, for the women who long to understand them, and for those teenagers trying to understand themselves.
The Affairs of Otherby Amy Grace Loyd Celia Cassil is a widow who clings desperately to her husband’s memory—and to his love. She’s holed up in the house he left to her, re-reading the books they read together, watching old films they jointly loved, cleaning to avoid thinking, searching through the empty apartments of her tenants looking for she knows not what. She takes pills to blot out memory, to cling to memory. Her only encounters are accidental meetings with her renters on stairways or in elevators. For five years this is her life. Then George, her upstairs neighbor who’s leaving for France, subleases his apartment to a woman he’s clearly concerned about—with good reason. Hope is involved in an abusive—and highly sexual—relationship the sounds of which keep Celia up at night, pacing, fearful. To make matters worse, Mr. Coughlin, an aging sea captain who’s escaped from a retirement home and whom she watches over, disappears. And her other tenants, the couple below her, have split up. Suddenly her safe harbor is no longer safe, her world no longer stable. The present insistently intrudes on her solitude and she can no longer ignore that present. The Affairs of Others is not an easy book to read. Emotionally harrowing, scorching sexually, it would be off-putting if it weren’t surprising just when one expects it be predictable, hard to put down – except during the harrowing parts when it's hard to keep going. It won’t be embraced by everyone, refusing as it does to accede to typical explanations of dysfunction—whether sexual or other. And many will balk at the abuse it describes. But it is exceedingly well-written, dead-honest emotionally, and it makes clear to the reader that from the outside one can never know why others do what they do. What more can we ask of good fiction?
Long Lankinby John Banville The gloriously gifted Irish writer John Banville, known for his sometimes wicked humor, his brilliant prose, his often dark sensibility, has won, over the course of a long literary career, every fiction accolade Great Britain has to offer. His novels range from terrifying to sublime and so do these early stories, first published in 1970 in Ireland. Each tale is short, yet in every one the landscape is as vivid as the characters who inhabit it—a humid summer garden aswarm with bees and heat and green and at the heart of it an old man dancing; a wood at the edge of night, dead leaves, tangled limbs, gathering darkness, a terrified boy; a deserted Greek beach as blank as a man’s face as his lover mourns his vanished passion. Men tremble on the brink of madness, withdraw from and abandon women, drown the things they wish they didn’t know in drink. Boys watch helplessly, turn away as people behave in ways they can’t make sense of. Women tempt men, taunt them, are anguished, angry victims. It’s as if, in these slips of story, Banville has managed to capture humanity in a way a full novel never could. All are so gorgeously rendered and acutely perceived that the fame that came later to Banville could have been no surprise to anyone reading this early work.
Dance with the Bear, the Joe Rosenblatt Story, by Norman Rosenblatt Joe Rosenblatt was an extraordinary man who did earth-moving work, literally, by manufacturing mining equipment, globally as well as locally. But he was also part of an extraordinary family, part of an amazing religious community, and an integral part of our fascinating and complex city. The joy in reading the book comes from the fact that it’s all here: man, work, family, community, city.
His tale begins with the story of his parents—Jewish emigrants from Russia who built a business originally based on rags and scrap metal. How that initial company, Utah Junk, was transformed into a steel company and a foundry, and the capital furnished from his mother’s savings that started what would eventually be EIMCO are all fascinating, as is what followed: Joe’s increasingly sure hand at the tiller as the company grew, the patents it acquired, the machinery it produced based on the patents, the filters that came later, the global reach as Joe moved out across the country and around the world.
But we also see his connection to community and hear familiar names: Shapiro and Frank and Auerbach, which for those of us who grew up here bring back nostalgic memories of stores and faces; as do the names of the people he did business with, served on committees, with from Mariner Eccles to Max Wintrobe, Maurice Abravenel to David O. McKay, Judge Bruce Jenkins to Governor Cal Rampton.
We meet his family—siblingls, children, granchildren; hear of his staggering involvement in the community once he quote, “retired:” from the Federal Reserve Board to the Airport Authority to the so-called Little Hoover Commission to reform state government, from the formation of what we now call the Inclusion Center to help bridge the gap among our religious groups, to the funding of the prestigious Rosenblatt Prize at the University won by such luminaries as Mario Capecci and Karen Lawrence. Reading Dance with the Bear is a walk through our city’s streets, our city’s history. It’s also the story of one astonishing man’s altogether memorable life
The Son, Philipp Meyer A gutsy, gusty novel that sprawls across generations, cultures, and eras, The Son is steeped in blood and oil, violence, love, and the history of the Texas frontier. The family it chronicles begins with Eli, captured and half-raised by a Comanche tribe, who returns to Texas, first as a Texas Ranger, then as a cattleman. As did so many men in that time and place, whatever their culture, Eli McCullough and his ilk lived life, in his great granddaughter’s words, “like guns aimed at the world.”
Eli’s son, Peter, who tries to live differently, less violently and more tolerantly, is caught in the crosshairs of war and snared in cultural boundaries, his attempt to pursue love across those boundaries doomed. And so onto the present generation in the form Jeanne Ann, the great-granddaughter who has shaped herself in the image of Eli, but who, as a woman, knows all too well what she must sacrifice to do so as the frontier moves from land to oil to international financial markets.
There are passionate love stories wrapped into this saga of the McCullough family, there is war aplenty—between races, Indian, Mexican, and White; between families within and across generations; between North and South. But the thing that distinguishes The Son from the typical Western generational sage is the truth beneath the superficial stereotypes, the strains of decency that mingle with the bloodlust of violence, the strains of cruelty that too often drown an urge to empathy. This is a novel in the large sense of the word: epic, mesmerizing, truth-telling. It’s also as authentic a narrative of the history of the West—and of America—as anything I’ve read in years.
My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, Patricio Pron, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem A self-exiled son, a writer who hasn’t returned home from Europe in years, has numbed his body, his mind, and his memory with drugs. Homeless, he’s taken to sleeping on the couches of friends in Berlin—until, getting word that his father’s been hospitalized, he rouses from his stupor—at least enough to fly home to Argentina, where he enters the house of his childhood, the lives of his siblings and mother, and the corridors of the hospital where his father lies, motionless and mute.
As he gazes at the still form in the hospital bed and as he sleeps in the room where he passed his own childhood and adolescence, he at last truly begins to awaken: to his family and especially to his father. Who is this man? he wonders. Who was he? Long-buried memories begin to surface and with them a long-dormant curiosity. He enters his father’s study—burrowing through papers and articles on a hunt for past truth about both his parents. Instead, he uncovers a mystery involving a simple man murdered in the village where his father grew up. His journalist father had obviously been obsessed with this tale, perhaps because of the heinous nature of the crime—or perhaps because the victim’s sister, an old friend (or perhaps lover) of his father’s, had become one of Argentina’s “disappeared.”
This is an extraordinary book, and Pron is an extraordinarily gifted writer, using forgetfulness and dream fugue, drugs and illness to at first hide from and then summon up the past—and to give it meaning. Part memoir, part mystery, and in part a novel that decries the artifice of genre fiction, My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain seems at first to be about the generation that fought unsuccessfully against repression in Argentina, risking all to do so yet ending up leaderless, rudderless, as frightened and ineffectual as children. But the true heart of Pron’s novel lies in the generation born to these victims of history—those children who unwittingly lived out the consequences of something they could never really engage in and never completely understood. Beyond all else it’s a book about memory, our fear of it and our profound need for it.
Chapter Books for Children and Young Adults Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Hardcover, Hyperion, $16.99 (13 and up) Wonder by R. J. Palacio, Hardcover, Knopf, $15.99 (10 and up) Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin, Hardcover, Henry Holt, $15.99 (8 and up)