Alternate Sides—another Quindlen hit

Alternate Side

By Anna Quindlen

Published 2018

Read Feb 2021

Alternate Side is Quindlen’s most recent novel and true to form she gets inside a character and welcomes you to live with her.  This book is set in New York City, on a small dead-end street of three story houses now worth a fortune and occupied generally for over a decade by their current occupants.  Most were bought by couples with hefty means —at least one medical specialist (no GP’s here) or someone in high-end finance etc.  The occupants have come to know each other over the years while walking their dogs, raising their children, attending the annual street barbeque (now catered), and attending the holiday party hosted by one of the families.

Nora Nolan moved to New York about two decades ago and remains totally in love with the city.  She walks to her job as head of development (fund raising) at a Museum of Jewelry and regularly runs through the city as well.  Her husband Charlie was in law but now is in high finance although he is never quite in the inner circle at his firm.  Their twin children are now in college so they have the large house to themselves.  Charlie would like to move somewhere warm – likely also to have a fresh start at a job—but Nora has no intention of leaving her beloved city.

The book is populated with their neighbors on the street, the people who work for them, and  some of Nora’s other friends and family.  Their housekeeper/nanny, Charity, has been with them since the children were very small.  Ricky is the local handyman everyone on the block uses to fixes whatever needs it. This reader kept confusing several of Nora’s friends, likely because this reader never became invested in them and they weren’t particularly distinguishable to this reader.  The male neighbors were more memorable.  George is the self-appointed leader of sorts of the block who posts memos regarding pest control, the neighborhood BBQ, and who has taken charge of managing the vacant lot on the block that serves as a parking lot for the special few.  Jack is a perpetually angry about anything that hinders his access in or out of said parking lot.

An event occurs that accelerates some major shifts in the neighborhood, shifts that perhaps were already occurring as the various neighbors mature in middle age and beyond.

While this reader related extensively to the protagonist in Miller’s Creek,connection with this protagonist was more difficult for this reader.  This is quite likely because this reader is not in love with New York City and is always delighted to be leaving it, even though the reasons for visits are always quite satisfying.  The income level required to maintain the type of lifestyle the characters lead is also in a different stratosphere than that of this reader so the problems they encounter are less familiar.  The daughter chastises the mother humorously for use of the term “first world problem” as it’s now out of fashion, according to her, but its use was quite appropriate.

Although this reader didn’t relate strongly to the particular environment of the protagonist, Quindlen again does a great job of enabling the reader to grasp her feelings, especially in the later part of the book as her life begins to change dramatically.  The reflections on her life that the protagonist shares are quite revealing and genuine and did grab the reader in the way Quindlen’s books always have.

This reader will certainly read the next novel Quindlen publishes and hopes it is soon.

My Lost Family—Truth Can be Stranger than Fiction

My Lost Family

By Danny Ben-Moshe

Published 2019

Feb 2021

This audiobook is another Audible Original.  It is also available as a series of podcasts.  It is a series of interviews with Danny Ben-Moshe’s family members with narration by Ben-Moshe in between to frame the interviews and help the reader understand the story he was piecing together from these interviews.

When Danny’s mother was around 15, she met a man who became her first husband.  They had two children together and lived with her mother for financial reasons.  The couple divorced and the mother and children remained living with her mother.  The father came regularly to take the children out for afternoon visits.  One day when Danny’s mother was 19, he and the children never returned and were gone without a trace.  The police were never involved.  She assumed he must have taken the children to Tehran which was his city of birth.  She indicates repeatedly she was very young at the time with no resources to travel to find them.

Danny is her son by a second marriage.  He grew up knowing that he had two half-siblings from a previous marriage and that the children were likely in Iran according to his mother.   Forty+ years from the time his mother lost her children, Danny decides to see if he can track them down.  The audiobook/podcast series is the result of that work.  Apparently he made a film in 2017 about the project and this version was made afterwards.

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and this story may be one of those cases.  Danny does find his siblings and his father as well as other women his father knew and loved.  The pain suffered by the mother and her children caused by this abrupt rupture in their relationship and the gap of time before they find each other again is quite deep and is not readily healed.

Although not the usual reading material for this reader, this reader found the story fascinating and the work well done.  Danny works hard to not cast judgement on any of the parties involved but rather lets them speak for themselves and leaves the reader to decide how to process the information.

Audible is clearly getting into the content business and thus far the content this reader has consumed has been interesting and well worthy of the time spent with it.

The Good Wife-A Novel

The Good Wife

By Stewart O’Nan

Published 2005

Read Jan 2021

Patty Dickerson is one of three sisters.  She isn’t the pretty one or the smart one. She was just an average girl who was anxious to leave home and get away from her mother and her mother’s household.  She married Tommy and lives with him in an apartment that is a big step up from the one they first occupied when they married.  They both work at some jobs and Tommy plays in an adult hockey league.

When the book opens, we meet Patty as she kisses her husband goodbye.  He is going to celebrate his goal in the hockey game that evening with his teammates.  She is heading home as she’s pregnant and tired from working all day before sitting on a hard bench that night to watch the game and cheer for Tommy.   She never expects that will be the last time she sees Tommy outside a jail or prison for a long time.

We learn along with Patty that apparently Tommy and his friend Gary have been breaking into houses and stealing things.  While Patty was getting ready for bed after the hockey game Tommy and Gary were breaking into an older woman’s house.  She somehow dies, they try to cover it up with a fire, and, of course  are discovered quickly when a neighbor calls 911 about the flames he sees and the figures that leave the house.  They land in jail that night.

Who did what?  Burglary?  Accidental manslaughter?  Second degree murder?  Arson?  Whose hands caused the death?  Tommy is defended by a public defender.  Gary can afford a lawyer.

We witness Patty trying to make sense of all this, attending the hearings, trying to find money for a “real” lawyer, trying to understand what the public defender is telling her, visiting Tommy in jail, and  realizing this situation isn’t resolving quickly or well.

The author has us continue to witness Patty’s trials as she tries to figure out what to do, how to be, who she is.  We watch her lose her apartment, move in with her sister for a while and then move in with her mother in the house she had so anxiously wanted to leave not that many years ago.

The book did not follow the course this reader though it might although it started down that path.  The book is a simple but complex story of a woman married to a man who ends up in prison and whose son knows his father only through the visits he makes with his mother.

The book is set in the Southern Tier of New York State.  The author captures well the small town atmosphere.  He describes plainly and clearly the drive to the prison in Auburn and then the long bus ride she takes later when he is transferred to a prison outside Dannemora, a prison made famous a few years ago by the escape of two prisoners aided by a guard.

The reader does not get the sense that the author is trying to instruct about nor opine about the criminal justice system.  His focus is simply Patty.   What she experiences as she lives her life as it has been transformed by that one night when Tommy didn’t make it home.  He does that job well.

The Sisters—An Engaging Audiobook Novella

The Sisters

By Dervla McTienar

Published 2020

Read Feb 2021

This audio novella was published as an Audible Original and is only available currently as an audiobook from Audible.  It apparently serves as a prequel, by about 10 years, to her three book (so far) Cormac Reilly crime series and was written between the publication of the second and third books in the series.

The author first introduces us to Aifric, a newly minted barrister working in a law firm of indeterminate size and who needs cases to increase her meager income.  A case comes her way temporarily as the assigned barrister has apparently fallen off the wagon and is indisposed.  It’s a murder case that will appear before a judge that afternoon.  After a stressful and unsatisfying day working on the case, Aifric returns to the tiny apartment she shares with her sister Carrie, a young member of the Dublin police force who is celebrating a case with some members of her team, much to the chagrin of Aifric. Aifric purposely leaves the case file on the table that evening and Carrie opens it, reads it, and decides to poke around a bit.  At this point the story nicely takes off.

The author balances useful and engaging detail with the crispness required for a story of this length (about three hours of listening time).    The crime solving aspect provides appropriate suspense and simultaneously shows the driving desire of Carrie to become a detective.  Her “poking around” is likely to get her into trouble but as she delves deeper despite warning from her superior, her sense of justice drives her to get the real story revealed.

Thus we have a taste of the author’s crime story writing ability.  We learn about her interest in the challenges women face as lawyers and police and we are treated to a glimpse of these challenges done without a heavy hand.

This reader is likely to explore her full length books as result of listening to this audio novella—certainly Amazon’s plan which succeeded this time with this reader.

Station Eleven–A Pandemic Story But Much More

Station Eleven

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2014

Read 2021

A book discussion group to which this reader belongs selected this book for the 2020-2021 reading season in March 2020 despite the book being advertised as one that deals with a world after a virus takes out most of civilization and while the US was starting to shut down due a virus that causes Covid-19.  The book discussion scheduled a year after the voting occurred will be an interesting one.  This reader anticipates several group members will require the same push into the book this reader did, but hopefully the group will engage with the book and listen to many themes it covers.

The structure of this book is quite well done:  The central, unifying character, a 51-year old actor named Arthur, dies nearly immediately as the book begins, during a scene in which he is playing King Lear.  The book moves back and forth in time across the various major characters, who are connected to Arthur in some way, giving their “before the virus” story and their “after the virus story”, and for some the “during the virus story.  We learn more about Arthur through these sections as well.  Fortunately the “during story” is only shared for the characters that don’t encounter terrible violence, which is not true for all the characters.  The major characters are various ages when the virus hits:  Kirsten (appearing in King Lear with Arthur) is eight; Miranda (Arthur’s first wife) and Jeevan (the audience member who tries to save Arthur’s life on stage) are in their mid/late 20’s; Clark (Arthur’s friend since college) is also 51.  So we see different kinds of impacts on the characters by the virus due to their age at the event.   Arthur dies before the virus hits.  A late section recalls his last day of life which reveals some of his evolution during a “normal lifetime”.  Each major character is associated with a separate sub-plot and a number of supporting characters associated with it.   There are also major connecting events that tie the characters and their stories together either before or after the virus hits.   The King Lear play ties together Arthur, Jeevan, Kirstin, and Miranda.  The dinner at Arthur and Miranda’s ties together Arthur, Miranda, Clark, and Elizabeth (Arthur’s second wife and a component of Clark’s post-virus story).  An interview by the editor of a Petoskey newspaper post-virus connects Kirsten, Clark, and Arthur.  And finally there are “things” to tie together the stories.  Miranda’s graphic novel “Station Eleven” connects Miranda with Kirsten, Arthur, Arthur’s son, and Clark.  The glass globe Clark gives Arthur and Miranda at the dinner party later shows up in Kirstin’s story.  Finally, Miranda’s dog connects her with Arthur’s son who plays a significant role this reader won’t describe here.

There are several major themes of the book.  “Survival is not enough” is a tag line for the Travelling Symphony to which Kristen belongs.  Literature, performing arts, and fine art are each important for several of the characters and drives home the importance of these in the vitality of any culture.  Purpose is essential for humanity.  Several of the characters find their purpose as some kind of artist but Jeevan and Clark show that purpose is essential for all of us.  Lack of purpose in a life leads to “ghost-walking” through life.  Clark eventually recognizes he has been ghost-walking and Jeevan knows it early on.

The author is from British Columbia, Canada.  She weaves some of her experience being on a small island there into her story—Arthur and Miranda are both from a small island off the coast of British Columbia which is the connection that brings them together initially—in Toronto.  Mandel sets the site of the King Lear play in Toronto so that is the place that Kirsten and Jeevan start their post-virus lives.  Clark is in transit to Toronto when his plane is forced to land in a town southwest of Lake Michigan.  The Travelling Symphony’s “territory” is along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron down to the fishing towns on the St Claire River.  As this reader grew up in Michigan, these locales were meaningful and connected this reader to the story in ways others readers might not be.

Of course this is also an “end of the world as we know it” book (and that song becomes an earworm for some of the characters at one point). The author draws out many themes through the various subplots including before/after a catastrophic event; remaining human and humane when survival is not a given; trying to flee the enemy/issue/plague and not always succeeding; the role of religion in society; true and false prophets, memory and remembering; and most importantly, the role of cooperation in making a viable, livable community in the face of chaos.   Her focus isn’t on how terrible things are but rather on how these characters are making life bearable for themselves and others, despite the dangers and uncertainties.  There is a clear glimmer of hope give near the end—Clark show Kirsten light coming from an area some distance from them.  It appears to be a grid of streets lit by electricity.

Although Mandel certainly wasn’t expecting a real pandemic to be the backdrop for many of her future readers, but it is now. It will likely invoke the experience of this reader who had to dip her toe into the book a little tentatively.   Jeevan tries to convince his girlfriend to take seriously this new Georgian flu and flee the city.  She doesn’t and reminds him that SARS came and left without much noise and this one likely will be similar.  But it’s not.  This Georgian flu is quite deadly.  Of course we can discuss whether Mandel’s flu could really spread quickly if it kills so efficiently and quickly but she’s not trying to educate about flu spread so we should just accept the premise.  We’re now living through a different kind of flu—Covid-19 that fortunately isn’t nearly as deadly but is certainly causing much terror throughout the world.  Are there things we should learn from this book as we face into the rest of the Covid-19 pandemic that likely will turn into endemic Covid-19 that lasts for the rest of our lifetimes?  Perhaps some lessons include keep some perspective on things, pay attention to those studying the disease, remember to retain your humanity, if your previous purpose has been disrupted, what can you do now to continue living with a purpose,  how do we create new communities that help us maintain our humanity and purpose, and how to do ensure the arts remain present to nurture our souls.

Someone–a McDermott Classic


By Alice McDermott

Published 2013

Read Jan 2021

The beauty of McDermott’s books comes from her ability to provide us with a scene from a life.  It’s sparse but complete.  It’s tender but slightly sharp.  It tells the perception of the narrating character but manages to somehow convey the reality of the situation.

Such is the beauty of Someone, a series of scenes of the life of narrator Marie.  We encounter her first when she is a girl of seven.  She waits on the stoop of their Brooklyn house for her father who will be arriving home from his desk, not laborer, job.  Her brother Gabe is studying inside.  His friends are playing stickball in the street.  Her mother is preparing dinner.  We are treated to the arrival of her father, her jubilation from his presence, and their little rituals of greeting, pre- and post-dinner habits.  We learn a bit about the neighborhood and the neighbors, hear the names of characters who will turn up throughout Marie’s life, get a hint of her poor eyesight, and a hint as well of the serious nature of her big brother Gabe.

The various chapters begin somewhat chronologically but as the book progresses, they move back and forth a bit.  The story of her cataract surgery comes before the story of her wedding day.  A story of being in a nursing home precedes the story of the birth of her first child.  Each has been written in past tense and it’s a marvelous approach that the memories become unordered just as our own memories are even when we might try to start at the beginning.

Marie’s story is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn and we learn it’s evolving.  Marie’s mother wouldn’t consider leaving it so Gabe lives with her in that same apartment until she passes although Marie and her husband have moved to a house in the Bronx.  Gabe’s brother had been ordained a Catholic priest.  Why did he leave the priesthood and return to live with his mother?  We get a possible explanation late in the book but we also feel slightly guilty that it’s really none of our business.  Marie tells us some things but not others.  Maybe she knows answers and maybe she doesn’t.  She tells us what is important to her which is what matters.

The specifics of Marie’s life are shaped somewhat by the time and place in which she lives, but the phases of life she passes through are universal as are many of the feelings she does and doesn’t tell us. It’s certainly no surprise to this reader that Someone was a finalist for the National Book Award.  This reader looks forward to savoring more of her simultaneously understated and powerful books.

Miller’s Valley–Quindlen Hits the Mark Again

Miller’s Valley

By Anna Quindlen

Published 2016

Read Jan 2021

If you are looking for a book with somewhat flawed but engaging characters, realistic drama with no sermons, great but not syrupy language, a story that speaks to both your head and your heart, find a book by Anna Quindlen.  She does it again with Miller’s Valley.

This story is set in the 1970’s in a rural valley near a dam.  The feds want to extend the man-made lake into the valley but the farmers who live there don’t want to sell.  The farmers, like most small farmers then and now, can’t make a living just farming.  The narrator’s father is a fix-it man who can fix most anything.  The narrator’s mother married into the Miller family which has owned this farm for several generations.  She is actually the primary bread-winner via her nursing job at the local hospital.  Her sister lives in a small house at the back of the property and hasn’t come out doors for as long as narrator Mimi can remember, event when the valley floods during big rainstorms.

Our narrator is the youngest child of three.  Mimi’s oldest brother Ed is fifteen or so years older and is in college studying engineering by the time Mimi’s narration begins.  Her popular and good-looking brother Tommy manages to graduate from high school somehow and enlists in the Marines. He returns from Vietnam physically intact but certainly changed in ways that keep him emotionally separated from the family.   This is especially difficult for Mimi’s mother as Tommy is clearly her favorite child.  Mimi quietly observes her family and seeks to stay under the radar but her academic capabilities are recognized by her teachers who provide her direction to “go beyond”, direction that Mimi’s mother and brother Tommy also echo.

Quinlen does a remarkable job telling the story of this family and giving a sense of the change that is impending for these family farmers and their town and for other small communities as young people leave for college and don’t always return.    This reader grew up in the same time period as Mimi and is impressed by the author’s talent in capturing the flavor of the time and at the same time making the story quite timeless.  This reader looks forward to reading more of this author’s work.

A Gentleman in Moscow–A Modern Russian Novel

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

Published 2016

Read  April  2020;  Jan 2021

This reader listened to this book in the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic shutdown  and read the written text of this book in Jan 2021, during the phase of the pandemic in which the vaccine is becoming available to tackle said pandemic.  This reader savored the book each time and in both formats.

Towles presents us with Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, and Master of the Hunt, as he is appearing before a committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1922.  He stands accused of becoming an anti-Revolutionary and threat to the current government. This would usually result in being sent to a firing squad.  However Rostov admits authorship of the poem “Where Is It Now”, written in 1913, has been attributed to him. This poem is considered by the committee as a call to action and puts him in the category of heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus he is spared the firing squad and sentenced to house-arrest in the hotel in which he resides, the Hotel Metropol, a grand hotel in the center of Moscow.  Thus begins our adventure with the Count as he begins his sentence living in the hotel, not in the spacious and pleasant suite he has called home for the last four years, but in a tiny attic room.

The reader follows the Count over thirty-two years of his sentence of house arrest.  He enters his sentence at age thirty-three having had no occupation as it is “not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” He eventually confronts the fact that this sentence, a sort of forced retirement from his non-occupation of a gentleman who has many interactions with the world external to the Metropol,  is becoming quite tedious and meaningless.  We follow him as he finds purpose to his life in the form of an occupation as head waiter of the elegant hotel restaurant and as a friend to workers and several special guests of the Metropol.  We also follow changes in the politics and culture of the new State as the Metropol’s ballroom holds many organizing assemblies, conferences, and other meetings of the evolving government.   We watch as the Count’s occupation and talents lead him to connections to some officials in the Soviet and American governments that prove useful to them, and perhaps him.  A major event happens to the Count near the middle of the book and a new purpose is thrust upon him, caring for the child of a former resident of the hotel when he had first started his house arrest and when she was a spunky nine-year-old.

The book is not short—it takes Towles 452 pages to cover thirty-two years of a man’s life who has much time to consider what is happening to him and his homeland and how he is reacting and will react to it.  Towles uses several footnotes to expand on specific items, giving the reader the feeling of being “let in” on something of importance.  Most of the time the book is focused on the Count’s activities and thoughts, but occasionally Towles focuses briefly on the activities and thoughts of other characters, generally to forward specific parts of the plot involving them in an efficient and effective manner.

The Count’s self-reflections and realizations of how his sentence has impacted him and how the new State is impacting his homeland in general and his close friends in particular are quite well done.  In the end, however, the book is much more about the evolution of relationships between the Count and the various characters—hotel employees and hotel guests—and the importance of friendship and purpose in a life well lived.   Towles approach to the book’s structure, the language he uses, and the warm and sometimes humorous scenes he chooses to include and the darker and violent scenes that he doesn’t include, but we know happen, make this book a very pleasant and well done read.