Betsy Burton is the co-owner and co-founder of The King's English Bookshop. In addition to her life as a bookseller, she is an activist for all things local, and also President of the American Booksellers Association. Her book, The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, continues to be a bestseller at our shop. In her spare time, Betsy is working on a book about her son, a young man with some disabilities and some extraordinary abilities as well. She still loves the book business as much as she did when she started almost forty years ago.
Anyone who harbored a trace of doubt about Ward’s literary chops after reading the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones can lay that doubt to rest. Ward’s third novel is a marvel and a wonder, possessed of a narrative line that keeps your heart in your throat for all 285 pages. We watch inhumanity play itself out in the person of Leonie, mother to Jojo—and, despite our revulsion, we somehow find things in her to love—or if not love at least understand. We fall headlong for Jojo himself, small, sturdy of heart, caregiver of his sister Kayla, and are instantly ensnared as they, along with a friend, drive toward the barbarous Mississippi prison Parchmont to pick up Leonie’s white husband, drive homeward with him and with Richie, the disembodied spirit of a boy Jojo’s age whose past is tangled with the past of the prison, the past of Jojo’s family. Sing Unburied, Sing is an important book the way The Sound and the Fury was—lyrical, truth-telling, often agonizing and as often alive with an awareness of the courage and grace in small children and in damaged adults alike. It’s not a book you’ll ever forget. Not ever.
McDermott’s quietly claustrophobic tale of Catholicism in early 20th century Brooklyn artfully threads together the strong relationships among a group of women whose lives are intertwined, whether due to circumstances or affinities, and whose beliefs determine (whether out of obedience or its opposite) their fates. Chief among them is Sally whom we watch grow into womanhood, trying valiantly if confusedly to separate the beliefs learned from the nuns in the convent where she and her other work in the laundry—the sin and resultant guilt visited on them by the suicide of her father, the “sin” committed by her mother, her own sins—from the world lived outside the strictures of religion. Few writers in the world are as adept at creating the blank slate that is the teenage mind, the so often futile or wrong-headed attempts to write on that slate. But the real grace of The Ninth Hour is to be found in the relationships of the women—the sacrifices they make—not out of duty but of love—the price they pay for their actions, and the consequences on into the next generation. And the next. Until in the end what seemed a closed Catholic system becomes the world.
Anything is possible, in the world of Elizabeth Strout. Forgiveness, a transcendent moment, betrayal, selfishness. Outright cruelty. Or all of the above. The fact is, no one’s life is simple. The complications may be invisible, internal: the push-pull of infidelity, the love and the burden of parenthood, the greater burden of shame. In these interlocking stories we get to know more about the (for some familiar) families, neighbors, teachers, lovers and would-be lovers who populate Strout’s fictional universe, listen in on their unspoken communication, not to mention the network of neighborhood communication that allows no secrets. A dairy farmer who has lost his barn, Lucy Barton’s badly damaged brother, Lucy herself, the Nicely girls, a bored thespian, a troubled, lonely Vietnam vet... the internal tangle of their lives, described in a plainspoken but cadenced rural prose reminiscent of Kent Haruf, makes each story a revelation. Taken together, their cleverly interwoven narratives combine into something completely unforgettable, steely in their reality, gleaming with wit, graced with compassion. Strout is the master of understatement. Who else could make the phrase “Oh my gosh” sound like both a curse and a gasp of wonder?
Smith dances across dreamscape, memory, and reality in a novel by turns funny, touching, and fascinating—in terms of character and of history. The rare friendship of an old man and a young girl whose father has vanished (and whose mother disappears more than occasionally) becomes a vessel for salvation as her life is newly graced with love and with meaning. Old he may be but as she grows toward adulthood, her life infinitely enriched by the years spent with her highly cultured friend, his journey takes him back to the ghosts of his past, forward toward the darkening reality of the present world and of the world beyond. Trumpworld in America has nothing on the unpleasant present in England but Smith’s light touch, transcendent imagination and never-cloying compassion transport us beyond the threat of evil and of old age, reminding us (thank God) of history’s arc and of our own humanity. Each of Smith’s novels is a wonder; Autumn is beyond wonderful.
A story told in the refracted light of memory, Michael Chabon’s brilliant and breathlessly involving Moonglow, is a memoir inside of a novel inside of a memoir. Lent verisimilitude by the occasional footnote and by the narrative voice, not of a fictional character but of the author as himself, it’s set up is like a sort of reverse Princess Bride (although the tale it tells is as far from fantasy as one can get): A grandfather, a man customarily taciturn, is in a garrulous state due to painkillers and to the fact that he’s on his deathbed, memories bubbling to the surface of his conscious mind, ready to spill over before death wipes them away for good.
He begins to tell his grandson, a writer, the tale of his own past and in the process that of his wife and daughter; the resultant saga of past lives, interrupted occasionally by the author’s exchanges in the kitchen with his own mother who played no small part in the unfolding drama, is as spellbinding as anything Chabon, always a magical storyteller, has ever written. His grandfather, a rebellious kid characterized by a creative mind, serious ADD, a grasp of science and a fascination with space, makes his way through South Philly and then the landscape of WWII, driven by those characteristics and obsessions, and by a stubborn sense of what’s right. His marriage to a beautiful woman horribly damaged, presumably by that war, is complicated in ways that impact their daughter hugely. The interwoven strands of these lives, interrupted by war but carrying on far into the future, make for fascinating reading, creating in the process a tapestry of war and peace, history and invention, love and family that illuminates the emotional aftermath of war, the realities of the world leading from rocketry into space travel, and more than anything, the intricacies of our entwined familial pasts and the ways they affect our present reality. At once quintessentially American and timelessly universal, Moonglow is a masterpiece. Truly.
A serio-comic novel of manners set among the aging set, Drabble’s new novel alights in one fading mind and then another as several interconnected characters wend their way into old age. Earnest, peripatetic Fran wanders the byways of Britain attending conferences, musing about her isolated daughter, returning home to the self-imposed duty of caring for her bedbound ex-husband. Fran’s friend Jo meanwhile prefers a safe, stay-put existence, although her mind wanders freely along intellectual byways, especially during evenings in which she and an old friend imbibe strange cocktails. Then there’s Ivor, an aging éminence grise living in the Canary Islands… As Dabble meanders through their lives and memories in an apparently haphazard way the novel itself begins to echo the slip-slide progress into the dark night of aging. Amusing insightful, and for those of a certain age, a little scary.
Like Nutshell, the startling reenactment of “Hamlet” I talked about last week, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, is a Shakespearean retelling, this time” of “The Tempest.” It’s also a novel of revenge unlike any you’ve ever encountered. It involves a famous theatre director, Felix, who, on the brink of launching a production of ”The Tempest” that will secure him eternal fame, is cast out of the world he loves by a conniving assistant. If not already alerted to the fact that, although part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series Hag-Seed is a highly unusual retelling of “The Tempest,” the reader would recognize the odd quality of the rough magic in the air right in the Prologue, which features dialogue in rollicking rap delivered by a burley boatswain; Ariel clad in a blue plastic bathing cap and iridescent googles; the crack of gunshots. Clearly no ordinary play!
But back to the story. Our hero Felix, cast out, downcast, bent on revenge, now lives in an abandoned shack, his only company the ghost of his long-dead daughter Miranda. After finally coming to life Felix applies for a job as theatre director at the local correctional facility. The inmates, dubious to a man and dangerous to say the least, become increasingly enchanted by Shakespeare—re-written to suit their world—and by the heady seductions of theatre, while the reader grows equally enchanted by them. Then Felix learns his nemesis is to visit the prison—preparatory to doing away with the theatre program that the inmates so love.
What follows is pure Shakespeare. Or rather, pure Margaret Atwood: people at cross purposes, plays within plays, star-crossed fates if not lovers, a tangle of betrayal and fealty, love and greed and jealously, all of which proceed at a heart-in-throat pace, the mood at once darkly cynical and deliciously satiric, every page conveying the irresistible sorcery of the stage and the heady air of comedy. Pure magic.
Robert Moor, in the forward of On Trails, takes us along when, as a young man, he tackles the behemoth of hikes, the Appalachian Trail, becoming what is called a thru hiker by persevering, step after step, through storms and heat and exhaustion and elation from Georgia to Maine. That hike changed his life. Already fascinated with trails, their history and also their importance to humanity, he began to study them, taking us from the earliest evidence of patterned travel in prehistoric times, known by the sinuous fossil traces of the earliest life forms, through paths left by insects which, when studied, show the complex connectivity evidenced by their collective intelligence. Moor then looks at the movement of the sheep he herded for a summer and at animals in the wild, watching them create trails, then watching indigenous people follow these trails, create trails of their own, leaving behind not just artifacts of their existence but of their culture since place was imbued with story in their world. It wasn’t until footprints changed to wheel prints that the purpose of trails changed and pathways became roads, routes from A to B. Fascinating in terms of history and prehistory, archeology, anthropology, and biology, complex enough to be intriguing, clear enough for the armchair fellow-travelers, On Trails makes vivid the ways extinct arthropods, insects, animals and humans alike sculpt our planet trace by trace, step by step. Back on the Appalachian Trail, Moor follows its expanded global pathway, examining in the process the connections that are integral to all trails, the astonishing networks they create, the network of trails we follow whether on foot, through language, into cyberspace. His hard science is detailed, his social science intriguing, his narration not overly ecstatic—a pitfall of some such writing—and his philosophical conclusions about humankind’s place in the natural world deeply thoughtful, carving a trail for the reader out of the chaos of the unknown.
For anyone who grew up here—or who wants to understand what it means to be a child of the fifties, Western, female and Mormon—The Latter Days by Judith Freeman is, well, revelatory. Not in the sense that it gives away secrets about Mormonism. There’s nothing revealed here that anyone who’s spent time in Utah or with Mormons doesn’t already know. Rather, it puts the reader in the heart of a family, a culture and a time and makes the experience of growing up in that crucible here in the West seem familiar, knowable. Not outside or “other.” I don’t usually inject myself into reviews, but, perhaps because Freeman and I are of an age and because we shared certain qualities—both tom boys, both horse lovers, both more likely to question authority than to acquiesce—I had this odd sense of déjà vu reading Latter Days. This despite the fact that she grew up Mormon, I non-. The similarities continued into adulthood, both of us leaving home, learning, then returning, each with a child born with monumental health problems. The fact that I knew so much from my own experience about her experiences, told me she’s a truth teller. Which gave me complete faith in her account of the parts I didn’t know—her experiences inside the Mormon Church, her struggle to believe, her struggle against belief. Freeman’s experience with boys, with siblings, with elders, with her mother and most of all with her charismatic abusive father, are universal. Her coming of age, chaffing under the constraints of a religion that is at once comforting, inclusive, and exclusive, shaming, is pretty universal too. The part that isn’t, the characteristics that are particularly Mormon, seen through the eyes of a tough but vulnerable child and young woman whose vision has been softened and sharpened by the hindsight of age is indeed revelatory. A true accounting. And a wise one.
Far different from what one might expect in this Centennial National Park year, Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land takes us on an unpredictable and utterly revelatory journey through America’s national parks and monuments mingling their history, their present reality, the rock and bird and tree of them as we travel through place, the memory of place—whether in the minds of locals, of the parks’ guardians, or from Terry’s personal recollections. Slowly as we read, the very bones of place become visible until somehow, whether through the spectrum of poetry or personal story, natural history, history, or science, these parks and monuments become the very skeleton of our country. Characteristically, the book is magnificent and incredibly brave. As we hear prairie dogs chirp, watch a redheaded woodpecker, see in our mind’s eye Theodore Roosevelt’s grief; hike through the Teton’s with Terry’s straight-backed father, the terrain of Maine’s Acadia Park with her husband Brooke; ride horseback with them through the terrain of the Civil War, slowly, place by place our country begins to emerge, stone linked to story, history to present reality. The South’s Civil War outlook is linked to that of the sagebrush rebellion here in the West; Big Bend and the thought of walls meant to keep people out to the inevitable desecration of nature; the author’s own fratricidal rage to the indifference of the Arctic wild; her (everyone’s) righteous rage in Gulf Island, in Canyonlands, to the devastation wrecked by the oil industry; injustice to First Peoples, injustice to all, to Alcatrez. The conflagration of Glacier National Park, sets the pages on fire. Along with our hearts. But then to the Cesar Chavez monument, emblem of hope. Change is possible. The Hour of Land is at hand. With unholy clarity Terry has shown us our land, its physical body, the bones of its history, the urgent reality of our roles in its future. A book to be devoured, this is also an urgent call to action.
At the heart of LaRose, Loiuse Erdrich’s breathtaking new novel, are the children: There is Dusty, who is accidentally killed by La Rosa’s father; LaRose himself who is loaned half-time to Dusty’s mom and dad in an act of atonement; the sisters in both families. The two families are in fact related: Dusty’s and LaRose’s mothers are themselves half-sisters. As to LaRose’s sisters, Josette and Snow are smart, good at volleyball, close to each other and their families, while Dusty’s sister Maggie is in trouble. Every day. And no wonder. After her brother’s death her mother is suicidal, her father seething with repressed anger. Bad things are happening in school, her life an open wound. Her family an open wound. LaRose, passed back and forth between families, takes on the pain of all of them, but also the love, the loyalty. Toward Maggie, among others. And then there is the first, LaRose, an eleven-year- old child sold by her mother, abused by one white man, rescued by another, sent to a boarding school in the white world. And her youngest, LaRose, born to both worlds whose namesake daughter became the mother of the fourth Larose, Mrs. Peace, who passed on the history of the first Larose to Snow and Josette…Louise Erdrich has created over her lifetime the single most comprehensive saga of family ever created in American fiction. The characters hover between two worlds: white and Ojibwe. And in this case between two families. And five generations, LaRoses floating into and out of each other’s lives, in and out of the narrative, knitting together ken, community, teen crimes and lives in nursing homes, lacing humor and mythology and love into a wondrous whole, weaving another masterpiece into the tapestry of her brilliantly imagined world.
Journalist, art critic, searcher, researcher, psychologist, inveterate traveler Andrew Solomon, in Far & Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-five Years, shows himself yet again to be possessed of an ability to be at once far-reaching and intensely personal in his perceptions and observations. The book’s first section is a brilliant essay on the initial stirring of his lifelong need for travel—the yen for safe harbor once he’d learned history’s hard lessons concerning the Holocaust—and in equal measure the historical, cultural and geographic differences that make change as unpredictable as it is inevitable, as personal as political. Solomon’s initial realization that Jews in danger in the darkening reality of WWII had no place to go when their homeland became their death trap, at a very early age made him determined to have an escape hatch—another identity and another country. Which, first as a student, then as a young professional England became, what he calls his jubilant exile. And so we track Solomon’s footsteps across the globe and over time, visiting and revisiting Russia and China, parts of Africa, Asian islands, and disparate parts of the Americas, witnessing change as political upheaval, as economic revolution, as artistic rebellion masked as irony. Whether through the mediums of art, genocide, depression, climate or ritual, he gets to the roots of change across cultures. As empathetic as he is knowledgeable, his proclivity for the overview ever tempered by the personal, he gives us a startling and insightful view of change in the making over the years, always reminding us of our common humanity in the process. As Far and Away makes clear, Solomon far and way the most original thinker of our time.
Chris Cleave has charmed and enchanted us before, but in Everyone Brave is Forgiven, a huge and hugely passionate novel set during WWII he takes us to new levels, sweeping us from the London blitz to the Ritz to the tenuous British front in Malta, and sweeping us off our feet in the process. In a tale the tenor of which is alternately besotting and horrifying full of rapture and anguish, love and torn loyalties, Cleave pulls us into the world created by war and into the lives of some memorable characters. On the day WWII is declared in England, Mary North signs up, imagining glory but winding up in an abandoned school, teaching the few children left in London following the evacuation. She promptly falls in love with teaching, with one student in particular, small, black Zachery—and with her superintendent Tom Shaw whom she has alternately charmed and harassed into hiring her. Tom hadn’t wanted to enlist, but his roommate Alistair felt he had to—and did. And so, along with Mary’s childhood friend Hildy, the cast is on the stage. As we follow Mary and Zachery, Tom, Alistair, and Hildy through the vicissitudes of war and of love, watching passions grow and fade, loyalties war with those passions, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, we learn things about the human heart—and about the war that wracked their world. The writing is superb, the action nonstop, but it is the people, their tangled relationships, the way they try and fail and try and succeed and try again and fail again that involves us so totally—that and the landscape of war, the brilliant way it is writ large across the world yet particularized in the lives of those who lived through its horrors. In lesser hands this could be melodrama but in the hands of Chris Cleaves it is powerful, compelling and unforgettable.
Every year there are books to fall in love with, thank God, and less commonly, books that actually change the way we think. But rarely does a novel mark one for life. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance did mark my life. Characters created in his brilliant mind live in my mind still, twenty years later, and certain scenes, in the house these characters shared (at first unwillingly) and on the streets of the city they inhabited, are as vivid now as they were when I first read them. Ironically, it’s even more resonant, more timely now than it was then. It’s 1975 and a state of emergency has just been declared in in an unknown Indian city. The four inhabitants of a home into which a housing shortage has forced people have nothing in common but their antipathy for one another: a widow trying to avoid her brother’s control, a tailor and his nephew trying to escape their rural caste, a student from the Himalayas. As Mistry pulls us into the past and present lives of these characters, back to the partition of Pakistan in 1947, into rural India, forward into bedlam, his range in terms of hope and humor, agony and despair create an urgent and almost unbearable sense of commonality with them and with their community. In the end, astonishingly, we actually perceive humanity in new ways. Oddly, Mistry was to come to TKE for his next novel, but the year was 2002, and, strip-searched at every airport, he finally cancelled his tour. Given the events that have occurred since, I can only wish everyone would read or re-read A Fine Balance because even now, when I find myself in heated opposition to someone’s opinion, watch our world fracturing into isms and accusations on TV while my own pulse elevates in shared hatred, I return to that house, those people in my mind’s eye, and recover some of my humanity. Just the memory of that book which forever changed me could restore, however temporarily, a sense of balance to our world.
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, shows us the Vietnam War, about which we’ve read countless (often wonderful) books and seen countless dark movies, from an entirely different angle—or perhaps angles is more appropriate for the double-vision perspective of a double agent, a man with two faces, one Vietnamese, albeit like the country, split in two, the other one American. Our nameless narrator, who was raised in the U.S. and whose father was murdered by communists, feels loyalty to a South Vietnamese “general” for whom he works as aide-de-camp, and also to his North Vietnamese and American handlers who were high school friends in the U.S. At first our double agent juggles his loyalties with a haphazard aplomb that makes for comedy akin to that of Catch-22. But as Saigon falls and chaos reigns, the juggling becomes trickier, the consequences more deadly. Betrayal is heaped upon betrayal, and what at first seemed almost a game becomes a terrifying descent into the reality of war. We know the fate of our vagrant hero from the outset since the book is framed by his confession in a North Vietnamese prison camp. But somehow the tale’s confessional tone is more meditative than despairing as our narrator gives voice to the dreams and illusions that have brought him to this final reality. The wonder of The Sympathizer is implicit in the title: this portrayal of a man who sees and understands from more than one perspective is eye-opening—at first cynically amusing, and in the end an indictment not just of war but of the world and the mad, bad way it endlessly turns. Yet somehow the sympathy that lingers persistently in the narrator’s heart lingers in the reader’s as well in a fiction debut with the brio and world-weary wisdom of the finest thrillers—which, I’ve always maintained are also among our finest novels.
Argentina, mid-1970s. An orphaned brother and sister are stranded in a huge house, alone but together and so close they feel each other’s feelings, know each other’s thoughts. Until she marries. Her husband is an intrusion Raul can’t abide. He leaves, unaware that his sister is with child. He flees to New York, pursuing art and ignoring his past, his sister, the turmoil in his native land. He lives the fabled bohemian life that the late ‘70s were famous for, settling in a squat with other artists, painting and drinking, painting and partying, painting and making love, but always painting.
James is an art critic. He’s married to Marge who works while James writes. Sporadically. He’s good at what he does but is both informed and afflicted by a condition known as Synesthesia. He sees colors underlying, suffusing, the paintings he examines, the painters who paint them. Sees colors in and around his wife, his friends
And so to 1980 New York, the art scene vibrant, the characters vivid, the tangle of their relationships such a mix of elation and pain that the reader is torn between racing from page to page breathless, or stopping to re-read this iridescent, garish paragraph, the expression on that character’s face—his tone, her gesture. This is a miraculous book, one I fell madly and deeply in love with. But the real miracle is that at least every year or two another such marvel of a book is born—in this case made more wondrous by the fact that this is a debut novel. May such wonders never cease—at least in the world of books.
Jim Harrison, that rough and ready yet supremely literary writer who wove the physical world through his poetry, his novels, his wondrous novellas and stories, died last week. He’ll be sorely missed. Considered together, the three novellas of his final book, The Ancient Minstrel, seem oddly linked, a coda of sorts, although at first glance they bare scant similarity to one another. The title tale is a self-mocking account of an aging writer, separated from his wife but only by the distance of the yard since he inhabits the writer’s studio, his wife the house they once shared. As always sex is on his mind, along with old nightmares, poetry, booze, dogs, dinners, rivers, hard work, pigs—the lifelong preoccupations and passions that have enriched and bedeviled his years. If there’s a hero in this tale, it’s the author’s wife, as the last line of the epilogue bears out with marked self-irony.
Irony enforced by the second novella, the funny, lovely “Eggs,” featuring one of the most clear-eyed, likable creations in Harrison’s fiction, a woman who grew up with alcoholics and knows what she now wants—chickens, a baby, the farm-life denied her mother—and what she doesn’t want. Men. Not that she spurns them; she just wants her own life. Then the disturbing “The Case of the Howling Buddhas” carries the addictions from both previous tales to the loathsome extreme of pedophilia. Somehow the second and third tales seem to bookend the first, perhaps because they detail the best and worst of the character in “The Ancient Minstrel” and of the author—the Rabelaisian appetite for life that is at the heart of his talent, the harm it can do. Whether meant as a coda or not, this is signature Harrison, gutsy, funny, dead-honest, as full of contrary currents and of beauty, as the rivers he so loved to write about.
The Tsar of Love and Techno, the title story of Anthony Marra’s stunning collection, begins dead-center in the book’s 300+ pages. Which is appropriate since it connects the book’s disparate pieces into one dazzling whole. Suddenly you realize what you’re reading is more novel than collection, a sweeping tale of Russian history’s cruel ironies and the incandescence of memory.
In the first tale, which takes place in 1937, Roman, a failed portraitist, has become not only a loyal Stalinist but a professional assassin—not by killing those proven to be disloyal (a fate in the end suffered by most, his brother, among others) but by expunging their images from all paintings and photographs. Roman’s guilt at his brother’s death is such that after receiving a painting of a doomed dancer he must airbrush out of existence, and begins replacing the faces of those he’s supposed to remove with that of his dead brother. Betrayal begets betrayal in Stalinist Russia, and our censor is arrested, tried, convicted in a Kafkaesque—or more accurately Stalinesque—trial, leaving behind, among many others, a painting he’s altered by one of Russia’s most famous artists.
The next tale, “The Granddaughters,” is a kind of Greek chorus of village gossip in which the image that doomed our painter is brought to life in the form of a dancer and her progeny, and we are introduced, albeit unwittingly, to each of the characters whose intersecting lives people this amazing book from 1937 forward to the era of technology—whether in Kirovsk, high above the Arctic Circle, St. Petersburg, or Chechnya. At its heart are star-crossed lovers whose fates are woven from tale to tale and into our hearts; the love of brothers; and of mothers and fathers. If there is betrayal it is that of the state in a story with the breadth and scope of the finest literature, the simplicity of truth and feeling that runs as deep as the human heart. Breathtaking and brilliant.
Bill Clegg’s fiction debut is a novel of family extinguished, literally. Deep in the night a house burns to the ground and only June, who couldn’t sleep, escapes the conflagration. In the house are her daughter and fiancé, her lover, her ex-husband. All lost. For June, all that’s left is grief that’s unendurable. For Lydia, the mother of June’s lover, only emptiness. June gets in her car and drives. Lydia withdraws into an empty house. But without intentionally reaching out, both women make connections that draw them further out into the world and deeper into the past—while the reason for the fire ticks away in the reader’s mind. Bill Clegg has a raw talent for shining light on the workings of people’s hearts and heads, and his skillful weaving of their stories into a skein of family makes a sense that is at once harsh and kind of all their collective,connected pasts.