Overcoming

As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.

This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.

As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.

The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).

I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.

Euphoria

After my previous reading experiences with Lily King,
I was intrigued by the concept of her book Euphoria. Although itself fiction, it is said to be based on a small portion of the life and experiences of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead.

In the book, Nell Stone, her enigmatic and combative husband, Schuyler Fenwick (called “Fen”), and their colleague Andrew Bankson are all studying tribes along a river in the jungles of New Guinea. Each has his or her own way of going about their research: Nell provokes the villagers with constant questions reinforced by various activities, taking copious notes that she transcribes and reflects upon daily; Fen immerses himself in some aspect of the tribe’s activities and in essence becomes part of them as best he can, apparently without much reflection and sometimes with massive misperceptions; and Bankson (at least up until he met Nell and Fen) subscribes to a much more traditional and passive observational method that leaves him feeling unsatisfied and sometimes duped.

Although the description of the book implies that the three of them are transformed by working together, there is only a brief period during which this is true; the rest of the time, Nell is constantly refining her research methods and publishing her results to great acclaim, while Fen looks on them with contempt (but also with jealousy for her success) and goes his own way, and Bankson moons after Nell and wishes he could simultaneously be with her and be more like her. The description also remarks on “a firestorm of fierce love and jealousy,” but again, the depiction was (at least for me) a pallid version of what is implied. For me, the center of the book was Nell, and I wanted to know a lot more about her personally and also about the thoughts behind the work she was doing than I was given by King.

Honestly, I can’t quite define how I feel after finishing this book. The language and imagery were so immediate and so incredibly beautiful…and yet the characters seemed oddly elusive. The way it’s written, from one person’s viewpoint (Bankson) interspersed with another person’s diary (Nell), was a little off-putting to me, perhaps because the narrator’s part of the tale was inhibited by his innate Englishness, while the diary was written in truncated entries that didn’t quite fulfill my curiosity. And of course there is a third person in this book (Fen) who is a main character and yet remains largely a mystery, both to the reader and to his fellow anthropologists.

Some of the thinking about the similarities and differences between so-called civilized people and the native tribes they are studying—and how that study inevitably impacts and changes those being observed—was fascinating, and the “grid” they created to divide peoples and individuals into types felt like as big a breakthrough as when the characters depicted it, inspiring me to want to read the works of Margaret Mead directly. But I wanted a lot more than I got from the core relationships in this book, and was ultimately left feeling dissatisfied, depressed, and a bit disturbed by the whole thing. So, a mixed bag for me, despite my admiration for the writing.

Note: Gorgeous, perfectly appropriate cover. It depicts the colors of the rainbow gum tree growing up through the center of the protagonists’ house.

Tender

When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.

I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.

Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.

The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.

The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.

The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.

Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.

The English teacher

After being completely bowled over by Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, I decided to check the library for others of her books I could immediately access with my Kindle, and discovered The English Teacher.

The story is about Vida Avery and her 15-year-old son, Peter. Vida (pronounced Vee-dah) showed up 16 years ago at the Fayer Academy, an elite private school housed in the mansion formerly owned by her grandfather. She was pregnant, and there was no sign of a father’s presence for the baby; she took an entry-level job and began slowly working her way up through the grades and positions until she came out where she wanted to be, which was as the best and most revered English teacher in the school, instructor to honors students and seniors. She and her son live in an old gardener’s cottage on the grounds of the school, so they are both cocooned by this small academia, socializing only with other faculty members and students, eating most meals in the cafeteria, and hardly ever leaving the grounds.

Then widower Tom Belou encounters and is smitten by Vida (or by a version of her that he sees at an emotional moment), and soon comes the thing for which Peter has prayed his entire life: Tom asks Vida to marry him, and for her and Peter to become a part of his family (he has three children). Peter has dreamed of having a father (Vida never lets a word about his pass her lips) and siblings and a real family home where meals are made in the kitchen, people sit down together to eat them, and experiences are shared. It’s too bad for Peter that married life doesn’t change his mother one iota, and his hopes are largely unfulfilled. And soon he begins to observe that Vida, far from being happy in her new life, is exhibiting strange signs of disconnection, not just from her changed circumstances but from all parts of her life, including in the classroom where she formerly ruled.

This was a weird one, coming off King’s other book, which I adored. Although this, too, was a character study of a person in transition, the thing that initially put me off about it was the very thing I loved about the other—the protagonist. As much as I loved Casey, that much and more did I dislike Vida. I had the sense all through the book that there was something deeply damaged about her, that it would come out, and that I would then discover some empathy for her; but for a large percentage of the book she was simply repellent. I pitied her, but I didn’t like her at all until about the 85-percent mark! (Remember, I’m reading on Kindle, so we go by percentages, not pages.)

It was a good story, revealing and proficiently told, and the parts that were attuned to Peter kept me going, but it was a hard one to sit through in some ways. I’m glad the book wasn’t longer, and that it started to resolve just as I thought I couldn’t hang in there any more.

Lily King is an expert writer who always searches for and finds the perfect word, and whether I liked or loathed Vida, this ended up being a worthwhile experience. I have placed a hold on her book Euphoria at the library. It’s apparently popular—I’m #410 on the wait list!

Writers & Lovers

Writers & Lovers, by Lily King, is the subject of discussion Saturday at the book club I joined but somehow never manage to attend. By the time you read this, which I’m purposely publishing on Saturday afternoon so as not to interfere with that discussion, it will hopefully be a book club I have now attended, at least once, because I couldn’t resist the lure of sharing thoughts about this special book with other readers.

I don’t know how to begin about what a different experience it is to read this book. On the surface, it’s a balanced, mostly sequential story of a 31-year-old woman that includes her private writing life, her daily grind at the upscale restaurant where she waitresses to afford time for her writing, her grief over her mother’s death, and her relationships with co-workers, friends, and two new men; but it’s so much more that it almost renders any one of these topics insignificant.

The description of the book—she’s a writer, she’s dating two men—could be the precursor to yet another story about love life choices, but because of the author’s incredible perception of this woman’s life at a particular age in a particular place with a specific mindset, it’s not clichéd, it’s not even “regular”—the character somehow transcends her experience while living it fully.

My first impulse is to say that it’s an interior novel, that it’s about the character’s inner self, and that would be true…but it also deals squarely and realistically with all the mundanities of her life in a way that makes them simultaneously matter-of-fact and wildly interesting. There’s something about her particular responses that makes her story a compelling read throughout, even when you feel like you should find it boring.

This is making me incoherent. Here’s the thing: In reading this book, I identified so closely with the protagonist that her anxiety on the page began to leak into my life. When she experienced a sleepless night, when she could hardly sit still or even stay in the same room for five minutes, when she walked it off or sat and cried or hid in the bathroom at work, I was right there with her. There was grief, sadness, uncertainty, an almost overwhelming lack of self-confidence in Casey, and yet I never despised or looked down on her, judged her, perceived her in the way that she sometimes did herself; there was something transformative and positive about her, no matter what her fumbling actions portrayed. She charmed me with her honesty, authenticity, and humor.

This is an introspective, literary novel, and yet nothing about it is dry, removed, superior. It is completely immersive and it engaged me in a fascinated hopefulness on behalf of its heroine. And she felt more like a heroine than a simple protagonist, because even though she was sad and sometimes indecisive, bereft, depressed, and occasionally clueless, she kept going. She kept going, she thought, she learned, she acted, and ultimately she came out the other side, and it was all her.

This book is witty, profound, and nuanced, with language that is both beautiful and intentional. It might not be for everyone, but for me it was practically perfect.

Oh, and I love the cover.

The new French

The Searcher is a departure for Tana French; and yet it possesses all the attributes that make me want to read her books—a leisurely pace with plenty of detail, a compelling protagonist, a mystery to be solved, ethical questions to ponder…just not in the context or, should I say, formula of
her others. She already left the self-created fold of the Dublin Murder Squad with her last, The Witch Elm, and was chastised for that by many readers; in this book, too, she has ignored many of her reliable “go-to”s, and yet it still reads like
one of hers.

I personally enjoyed this book more than I did The Witch Elm, simply because I found that book needlessly convoluted and complex, and with essentially unlikable characters. This one is, by contrast, rather simple in plot and, though furnished with some moral quandaries, still much more straightforward than almost anything else she has written.

Her other books are all told from a first-person perspective; this is the first in which we get to observe her protagonist from the distance of third person. It is still an intimate portrait, in that Cal’s thoughts and processes are revealed for us through both his shared thoughts and his actions, but it’s a little more observational, less self-involved. Cal is also the first protagonist who isn’t Irish, with the result that we get to see life in Ireland from an outsider’s perspective, without the peculiar insights of a native but with great attention to aspects not previously examined. (Her American voice is relatively flawless, and contrasts nicely with those of the Emerald Isle.) In her other books, the protagonist is strongly tied to whatever mystery there is to be solved; in this case, the mystery revolves almost completely around others, with Cal as a rather helpless observer in some instances.

Cal Hooper is 48 years old, retired after a 25-year career as a police officer in Chicago. His daughter is grown, graduated, and in both a career and a relationship; his wife has divorced him, and although he can see individual reasons why she might do so, he can’t quite put together the big picture, and is floundering a bit without her. The divorce, in combination with some troubling realizations about his identity as a policeman in a time when that role is being reviled for racism and corruption, threw Cal’s sense of self out of whack sufficiently that he decided to leave the force and make a big change. He has bought a run-down property in rural Ireland, a house that hasn’t been occupied for perhaps decades, and has moved there with the intention of putting his energies into fixing it up and creating for himself a quiet life away from the stress of the big city. His daily routine will consist of removing wallpaper, pondering how to make friends with the rooks inhabiting the oak tree in his front yard, making a trip to the local general store for a gossip with its proprietor, or getting a drink in the bar with the fellas.

“One of the things that had caught his attention, when he first started looking into Ireland, was the lack of dangers: no handguns, no snakes, no bears or coyotes, no black widows, not even a mosquito. Cal feels like he’s spent most of his life dealing with feral creatures, one way or another, and he liked the thought of passing his retirement without having to take any of them into account. It seemed to him that Irish people were likely to be at ease with the world in ways they didn’t even notice.”

Cal is making notable progress on this plan when the back of his neck starts to itch in the way it did back in his police days; he feels observed. After a period of wondering if someone has it in for the outsider in their midst, he manages to identify his stalker as a young teenager, Trey Reddy, and after some wariness on the kid’s part, finds out that Trey has sought Cal out because his older brother is missing and neither his mother nor the police seem to care that something may have happened to Brendan. Trey wants Cal to look for Brendan, but Cal realizes he is handicapped by the lack of everything to which he would have had access as a police officer in Chicago: files, databases, records, and material assistance from other officers on the job. But the kid tugs at his feelings for all those who slip through the cracks of the system, and there is also a residual excitement at the thought of being back in the investigation game, so Cal decides to help him.

This simple agreement shifts everything in Cal’s fragile idyll. His sleepy retreat, the small village of Ardnakelty where nothing ever happens and everyone has, so far, been “hail fellow well met,” becomes a slightly sinister place where Cal can’t tell if people are looking out for him with their warnings or subtly herding him towards his own destruction. Resistance to his efforts to help Trey discover Brendan’s fate makes him wary but doesn’t deter him, and from this point in Cal’s story things begin to head towards a showdown.

The thing about this book is, it’s not really a crime thriller. It’s more of a literary novel by a writer who chooses to use a mystery as a vehicle to study a character, a community, a locale. It’s atmospheric, well written, and well plotted, but if you go into it expecting French’s usual, you will be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, however, you will be gratified by a story that is subtle, lovely, and special.

Significant relationships

I picked up The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne,
with the misconception that it would be a fantasy retelling of an obscure fairy tale. But although the author makes creative episodic use of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name by revealing it gradually in chapter headings, the tale told here is all too real.

Helena Pelletier is revealed as a former “wild child,” one of those who has been raised in the wilderness outside of society, under no one’s influence but that of her parents. Even that statement is misleading; her mother played no real role (except that of passive housekeeper and provider of meals). Her Anishinaabe nickname, given to her by her part Native American father, was Little Shadow, and Helena became, as she grew, a miniature version of him, learning all he was inclined to teach her—including a basic disdain for her weak and ineffective mother. Under his tutelage she learned to track, trap, hunt, gather, and survive in the combination of forest and marshland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where their cabin was situated.

The truth that she finally discovers at age 12 rocks her world and skews all her perceptions: Her father kidnapped her mother off the street when she was 14 years old, brought her to his cabin in the marsh, and held her prisoner. At age 16 she became pregnant and gave birth to Helena, who spent the next 12 years in ignorance and freedom, being raised by the victim and her captor.

The story is compellingly told in alternating chapters of present day and past tense. After eluding arrest for two years, Helena’s father spent 13 years in prison for his crimes. But now he has managed to escape, killing two guards and supposedly heading off into the heart of a wildlife refuge. But Helena, now in her late 20s and with a husband and two daughters of her own, knows him well enough to believe that this is misdirection to get the manhunt going in that area while her father will make his way to the land he knows best, part of which is now the site of Helena’s family home. She also believes that since no one knows him and his skills the way she does, she is the only one who can track him down.

Each revelation in the present day leads to a chapter about her life in the past, and as the book moves to its conclusion, the picture of what that was like grows deeper, broader, and more fascinating. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller full of suspense: Although we know from the outset that Helena’s father is “the bad guy,” the tension of seeing how her life plays out as she grows up and becomes self-aware enough to recognize him for who he is—a dangerous narcissist, a psychopath—gives agency to some truly compelling character development. The conflict experienced by Helena, who goes from idolizing her father to questioning his authority to the major revelation of his actions, followed by an uncomfortable and protracted adjustment to her new life in society, shows all the nuances of parent-child relationships and how they help and harm as children achieve adulthood. I’m so happy to finally have read a book this year that I can unequivocally endorse! Five stars from me.

One of the attractive parts of this story is the wealth of detail about the marshes and wetlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in which it is set; but I should also note that there is a fair bit of detail about the trapping and killing of animals for food that may disturb some readers. I am a vegetarian for compassionate reasons and managed to get through it, but some of it was more graphic than I would have liked.

American Marriage

I just finished reading An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. I can’t remember how I came across it—I ordered it from Book Outlet, but whether I browsed it and decided on it or it was recommended by one of the readers on Facebook’s “What Should I Read Next?” group, I don’t remember. The plot, which speaks to contemporary situations, intrigued me, and there is much to like about this book.

The basic story is this: Roy and Celestial meet, then meet again, and eventually fall in love or decide they have found the right partner, or whatever people do who decide to marry. Roy is in business but has greater aspirations, and Celestial is a fabric artist, specializing in making eerily lifelike baby dolls. They are married for about 18 months and are celebrating the anniversary of their first date when a crime is committed nearby and the victim identifies Roy as her rapist. Although Celestial knows it’s impossible (he was with her at the time, and neither was asleep), she is the only witness and is apparently less convincing to his jury than is the victim; Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

For the first three years of Roy’s incarceration, Celestial stays true to Roy, although her sense of him, herself, and their marriage suffers as time goes on with little reinforcement as to its reality. She continues to pursue a dream first articulated by Roy to open a shop to sell her “poupées” (dolls), and allows her work to consume her as she feels increasingly alienated from her marriage.

André has been Celestial’s neighbor and best friend since they were small children. Although she has always regarded him as a friend, he has loved her since he met her. He was also friends with Roy, and is actually the one who introduced them and watched while they made a match of it; he has been Celestial’s constant companion since, never crossing the line, until Celestial’s doubt in the viability of hers and Roy’s relationship after several years apart gives him hope for something different. They eventually drift together almost as if it’s inevitable, and have begun to form a solid relationship when Roy’s lawyer’s efforts to appeal his case surprisingly pay off and Roy is released at the end of a five-year stint.

Roy knows that he and Celestial have been estranged; but he expects she has been faithful and hopes to rekindle or restart life with her now that his time in jail is over. Celestial, meanwhile, looks at the time they have been separated versus the time they were actually together, and sees it as something of an uncrossable gulf.

The book has several things to recommend it: The format is intriguing, with the narration of the first few chapters before Ray’s arrest alternating between Roy and Celestial. After the arrest, the alternating narration continues but becomes epistolary, contained in letters from the prison to Atlanta and back again. Shortly before Roy’s release, André steps in with first-person narrative, and the rest of the book is mostly from his and Roy’s alternating points of view. I found all of it absorbing.

The language in which the story is written is engaging, with an extended vocabulary and unusual, evocative phrasing by the protagonists in both their conversations and their descriptions that constantly catches the ear.

The premise itself is what drew me to the book: The knowledge of how easily and how often mistakenly a man of color is arrested in this country is an issue in the forefront of many people’s minds right now, so the opportunity to read a book about that actual event was appealing.

There are, however, also some things that are lacking about this book. The first, for me, is the pivotal incident—the misunderstanding that led to accusations that led to conviction and incarceration. I understand that the author’s purpose was more about focusing on the outcomes of the wrongful conviction and that the conviction was in some ways a foregone conclusion, given our society’s blind spots; but I would have liked a little more attention paid to the mechanics of how Roy ended up in prison than the five scant pages it is given. It was, ultimately, a he-said-she-said situation, and although it was unlikely to conclude differently, I would have appreciated seeing that drama enacted on the page instead of being nearly incidental to the story.

The second is the treatment of the characters. Interestingly, the secondary characters (Roy’s daddy, Big Roy and his biological father, Walter; his mother, Olive, and Celestial’s father, Franklin) were beautifully drawn and seemed like real people from the neighborhood. But there was a disconnection for me from Celestial, which I found particularly strange considering that the author is a woman. There was a lot of noise made by Roy in the attempt to keep Celestial; but she was such a reticent, inarticulate figure that I never got a sense of exactly what it was that made her tick. Even though I understood, by the end, what was happening and had a sense of why, the words are never actually said by Celestial, and I was, along with Roy, so frustrated by that. It came to the point, during the pivotal decisions about their marriage, where he was speaking for both of them, almost holding a conversation with himself by claiming to know what she was thinking and how she felt, and although he may have been intuitive enough to guess those things, I actually found it rather offensive that the author wouldn’t just put the words that needed saying into Celestial’s mouth. She ended up such a passive, helpless, weepy creature when she started out as the strong and independent one, and it left me unsatisfied, particularly because we get to find out the conclusion to everything through one of those “six months later” epilogues that I hold in such disregard.

Still, despite all this I see the value of this book in explaining the crippling disconnection of a whole segment of society from their roots, their relationships, and their continuing lives by the mechanism of wrongful imprisonment, and the struggle it must be to reconnect with any of those once the separation is over. The total disruption of lives is unforgivable. There is much here that is profound and moving, and Roy is not a character I will soon forget.

Faerie tale magic

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novic, is so exquisite, both in the writing and in the telling, that after having spent three days reading at breakfast, lunch, and bedtime, I stayed up from 2:00 until 4:00 a.m. this morning to finish it; and when I got up at 9:00 and made my breakfast, rather than starting a new book I opened Spinning Silver
to page one and began reading again, to remind myself of all the reasons why.

SpinsilverI purposely used the alternate spelling of “fairy” in the title because, although this book is billed as a fairy tale retelling, it is light years away from most of those. It borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any relatively prosaic fairy godmother from the Grimms’ tales.

This is, above all, a character-driven story, and so you have to be patient as a reader for the first little while until you are sufficiently acquainted with the three protagonists. As a readers’ advisor, I am always one to tell a reader that if they aren’t enjoying a book in the early chapters, by all means drop it and find another. I’m not saying that this book isn’t good from page one—it is. And things begin happening from fairly early in the story; but it takes about 120 pages (which is a pretty big commitment out of 480) to complete your introduction to the pivotal characters and provide some action that really moves their joint story forward in a significant way.

As a person who loves character development, that didn’t matter to me in the least, because I was so fascinated with the way the first protagonist, Miryem, morphs from a cold, hungry, desperate girl into a tough, confident one who, once she decides that she is the one who will have to take care of her family, shows no hesitation.

Miryem and her parents, the Mandelstams, are Jews living on the outskirts of their little village near the forest. Miryem’s mother’s father is a moneylender in the larger town of Vysnia, and a hugely successful one; but Miryem’s father, who decided to take up the same profession based on the dowry from his wife, is too gentle to make a living the same way. When he attempts to collect on the money he has lent, his customers jeer at him, shout racial epithets, and chase him from their doorsteps, or else make excuses that they know will touch his soft heart and cause him to give way. All around the Mandelstams, the other people in the village are benefiting from the money they have borrowed, with their investments in more livestock, better farm tools, warm clothing, and fields of crops, while the Mandelstams starve. Finally, with her mother ill and her father helpless and discouraged, Miryem decides that she will have to be the moneylender of the family and, taking up her basket, she treks from door to door insisting on her just desserts. Soon there is a new thatched roof, warm clothing, and meat in the pot, but her parents weep that she has become cold inside from this “unladylike” profession.

Meanwhile, six miles away, Wanda lives with her Da and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon. Her mother is dead, buried in the yard under a white-blossoming tree with her six miscarried baby boys, and her father is a drunkard and a wastrel who has borrowed six gold kopeks from the moneylender, more than he will ever be able to repay. When Miryem comes calling asking for payment on the debt, he reviles her and tries to drive her away. She knows that if she lets him win she will confront the same problem at every turn, so she tells him that his daughter, Wanda, may pay off his debt a half cent a day by working for her and her parents. Although Miryem believes this will be a hardship, Wanda is secretly delighted, since it gets her out of the house and away from her father’s constant abuse; so Wanda becomes a fixture in the Mandelstam household, and soon becomes the debt collector in Miryem’s stead, while Miryem pursues other business.

Finally, after an ill-advised boast by Miryem about being able to turn silver into gold attracts the attention of the king of the Staryk, who comes to her with a bargain she is unable to refuse, we meet the third leg of the stool of this story: Irina, daughter of a duke and a quarter-breed Staryk “witch” and, up to this point in life, a plain and silent girl with no expectations. But the advent of Staryk silver alters her worth in the eyes of her ambitious father, and she suddenly finds herself betrothed to the dashing Tsar Mirnatius, who is both less and a lot more than he seems, with dire effect. Although the men in the book play pivotal roles, it is this triad of women whose thoughts and actions control the progression of their layered, interwoven lives, and who end up saving the kingdom of Lithvas from powerful enemies.

The themes in this book—agency, self determination, pride, empathy, duality, the embracing of family wherever you find it—are pervasive, and poignant but also raw. Watching each protagonist rise to her challenges with ingenuity and quiet determination was a joy. And the best praise I can give is that the quality of the character development, the language, the scene-setting, everything you would want from a story like this were maintained from beginning to end. The final sentence was as satisfying as all the rest, and was the perfect ending to a gripping and entertaining tale. It’s been a long time since I read a book that I loved with as much fervor as this one. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read it after I heard about it. I was and am thoroughly beguiled.

ADDENDUM: I must address one issue with this book that was brought up to me by a friend on Goodreads. Although the author otherwise goes out of her way to be inclusive and expansive in her representation of characters of different religious and economic status, she is not similarly sensitive when it comes to the one gay character in the book. There is a courtier who makes it obvious that he is smitten with his cousin the Tsar, and Novik has the protagonist Irina scheme to marry him off to a woman for her own political gain, and is mocking and dismissive of his true preferences, actually threatening him to get him to comply with her plan. Novik needs to recognize that gay people merit the same sensitivity of treatment as her other represented groups. She should know that bad gay representation is worse than no gay representation. Yes, it’s two pages out of 480, but it continues a precedent and a prejudice that should not be present in this jewel of a book. I’m sorry to see it here.

 

Little Fire

I just finished reading Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng. I have had the e-book on reserve at the library for two months, because I saw that there was going to be a television show based on it on Hulu, and I always like to read the book first. But there were so many people trying to do likewise that although I reserved it in March, I didn’t get the book until May 1st, and in the meantime I couldn’t resist watching the show.

I’m going to say something that I’m not sure I have ever said in my history of reading: I liked the show better. Much better. I expected to enjoy it, given that it stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, both of whom I admire and respect as actors and also as producers. But the changes they made to the script that differed from the book made the story come alive in a way that it just didn’t on the page.

LittleFiresmatches

Elena Richardson is a “legacy” citizen of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her ancestors were among the people who dictated the layout, rules, and boundaries of what kind of town it would be, and despite an initial passion in her teens to make a name for herself as a journalist, Elena settled instead into the comfortable and expected lifestyle of an upper-class wife and mother by marrying a lawyer, having four children in five years, and working part-time as a reporter for the small daily newspaper.

Mia Warren is an itinerant artist, a single mother with a teenage daughter, who has spent the past 15 years moving from town to town as whim, art, or necessity bade her. She has come to Shaker Heights partly for the sake of her daughter, who yearns for a more settled lifestyle; Mia has heard good things about the educational system and thinks that perhaps they could stay for a while, maybe until Pearl graduates from high school. Mia and Pearl rent a duplex from Elena Richardson, and from this point the lives of the members of the two families become increasingly tangled, first by the children and later by the adults.

A story within the story, a custody battle over an abandoned Chinese baby, becomes at least partially the issue that tears the families (and to a certain extent the community) apart, but it’s only a catalyst for what’s really happening, which is all focused on the issue of motherhood: what it is and isn’t, what it should be, the despair in the face of the lack of it, and the kinds of love that exist between mothers and children.

The thing is, it’s a good book. The characterizations are interesting and thorough, the issues are targeted, there is a lot of nuance, and Ng has a beautiful command of language that ups this into literary territory. It is not a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with a suburban setting—it’s a deliberate piece of fiction focused on middle-class ethics that requires the reader’s attention to detail. But I titled this review “Little Fire” on purpose, because in comparison to the TV show, the passion is lacking.

Some might say that I’m showing my preference for soap opera over real content, but I don’t believe that is the case. The TV show, by specifying that Mia and Pearl are black, opens up a whole different atmosphere and theme not present in the extremely low-key and nonspecific text, and makes racism a huge topic of the story. When questioned about this change, Celeste Ng said that when she was writing she didn’t feel capable of adequately portraying black experience, since it wasn’t hers; but the effect of what she did instead, which was to leave you constantly wondering exactly what the differences were that came between these families, watered things down for me.

The relationships themselves are much more intense, because more personal, in the show than in the book, particularly that of Mia with her photographer mentor, of Elena and Pearl, of Mia and Izzy, and in the subplot involving Bebe, the natural mother of the abandoned infant, May Ling / Mirabelle. The argument could be made that the characters of Elena and Mia are more polarized and therefore more stereotypical in the show; but this decision also allows for three or four of the best moments on TV, as white privilege is skewered in a way I have seldom seen, and a few sharp lines decimate attitudes that have taken centuries to build. There is a lot of “calling out” in the show, but in the context of the story it doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it feels like some sharp, intelligent people seeing through some lazy, careless, unaware ones. And no, it’s not all about race by a long shot—there are so many other forms of privilege that are exposed here.

Celeste Ng is a producer on the series, but she is one of many, and the show is obviously the child of Witherspoon and Washington. I wonder, given that she has no writing credit on any of the episodes, whether she went along with the changes reluctantly or was enthusiastic about the expansion of her work into some new realms. The book is thoughtful, well written, descriptive, expressive, and worthy of your attention; but the show is something more.
Whoever’s vision held sway, the Hulu production is a masterful accomplishment as the melding of written and visual arts by some talented, insightful women.