Oh William—Write On Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton

Published 2016

Oh William

Published 2021

Read Nov 2021

This reader previously read My Name is Lucy Barton and commented on it here.  This reader chose to re-read the book to crawl inside Lucy Barton again and to recall what she had previously told us about William.  This reader was again struck by what she doesn’t tell us because it’s not that important to know all the details.  But we do know Lucy had broken out of poverty—lack of heat and running water in the home, often lack of food, and even more importantly, lack of a feeling of safety from the outbursts of her father and lack of expressed love by anyone.  She escaped this by going to college, meeting and marrying William, moving to New York City, raising two daughters, and becoming a writer—so that others might benefit from books as she did. 

Oh William picks up Lucy’s story as William is about to turn 70; Lucy is eight years younger.  Once again, Lucy is our narrator.  In My Name is Lucy Barton this reader sometimes had a sense that Lucy was having a conversation with the reader.  That feeling is even more pervasive in Oh William.  For instance, Lucy tells you she is pausing for a bit to tell you something and she tells you at other times she has nothing further to say about a topic for now.  We know Lucy is an author.  We’re not certain what’s she written, but she does tell us she’s written about “that part” of her life before so won’t repeat herself and we can assume that My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible were published by our fictional Lucy Barton.   It doesn’t really matter that the reader hasn’t read My Name is Lucy Barton nor Anything is Possible which tells stories about people in Lucy Barton’s home town. The reader has enough information from Lucy in this book to fully experience what Lucy is telling us about her relationship with William and about a trip he requests she take with him.

We never learn why Lucy and William’s marriage of about twenty years fails but Lucy does tell us she was disconnecting from it for some time before the actual breakup.  She does tell us William had some affairs and that she did as well—although this reader isn’t certain that Lucy’s affair happened before Lucy and William separated.   Lucy tells us that she and William have had a generally positive relationship since they broke up which she believes is helpful to her two daughters.

 Both William and Lucy remarry. When the book starts, Lucy’s husband has just recently died after a short illness.  Lucy’s husband had broken away from a deeply religious orthodox Jewish culture so he and Lucy shared the experience of escaping into a culture about which they were both quite naïve.  They apparently had a very satisfying marriage and of course she is mourning his loss as this book opens.  William married a woman who several times had taken Lucy’s girls to see her in the hospital (the setting of My Name is Lucy Barton).  Apparently, William and Joanne had carried on an affair for some six years before Lucy left William and they married thereafter.  Their marriage doesn’t last since Joanne was now past her prime childbearing years, having wasted them waiting for William, and is quite bitter about that and William apparently realized what he most liked about Joanne was that she wasn’t Lucy.  William marries a third time, to a woman twenty some years his junior.  While he intends to have no more children, his wife intends otherwise and they have a daughter who he adores and who his older daughters treat nicely.

Eventually Lucy tells us of the trip that William requests she take with him and that discussion fills most of the rest of the book.  William knew his father was his mother’s second husband, that her first husband was a potato farmer in Maine, and that she met her second husband while he was a German POW working on her husband’s farm.  A gift from one of his daughters to learn more about his background through Ancestry.com reveals unexpected information which he seeks to understand.  This initiates the trip that Lucy and William take.  This reader won’t reveal more.  You’ll need to savor Strout’s writing to learn the rest of the story.

Strout has a gift to engage this reader to devour her books as soon as they are available.  The characters she creates, the stories she tells, and the details she leaves the reader to fill in for themselves (or not!) are exceptional.  Write on Elizabeth Strout!

Commonwealth—A Modern Family Saga


By Ann Patchett

Published 2016

Read Nov 2021

This reader has definitely become an Ann Patchett fan.  This book, like The Dutch House, focuses on family, in this case two families that are joined through divorce and remarriage. 

Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the LA district attorney office, shows up uninvited to the christening party for Franny Keating.  He is mainly trying to avoid going home while his pregnant wife, Teresa, deals with their other three kids.  The gallon of gin he brings as a christening party gift helps lubricate the party. When running an errand for Fix (Frances Keating, Franny’s father) Bert encounters Franny’s mother and they share a kiss. 

The author chooses to tell her story in pieces and from the perspective of a number of the characters.  Thus, after the party scene, the next scene is sometime later.  In between the scenes we see, both the Keatings and the Cousins have divorced, Bert Cousin and Beverly Keating have married and moved to Virginia (apparently in part so that Bert Cousins can be geographically isolated from Fix Keating and perhaps personally safer), and the various family parts have gone through a number of cycles of kids spending time with their non-custodial parents during their summer vacation from school.  Beverly’s two girls stay with Fix for two weeks in the summer.  This provides Bert and Beverly a vacation from any kids for two weeks before Beverly’s girls return and the four Cousins children arrive for several weeks. Despite Bert’s stated desire to Teresa, his first wife, that he wants a big family with lots of kids, Bert’s actions continue to suggest otherwise.  Just as he was “consumed with work” when married to Teresa, he suddenly has lots of work requiring his attention when his children visit, leaving Beverly to attempt to manage the six children.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of several of the children and primarily from Fanny Keating’s.  We spend quite a bit of time with her when she is in her twenties and she meets and moves in with a famous writer who is in a writing slump.  She tells him, and us, many stories about the various adventures the six kids had when they were generally unsupervised.  After they break up, the author publishes a new comeback novel, “Commonwealth”, which is a very thinly disguised version of the stories she told him.  Franny was unaware he wrote this book and is quite unsettled by it as are most of her siblings, especially Albie, the youngest Cousin who was born after Beverly and Bert shared that first kiss and likely not too soon before his parents’ divorce. 

Thus, one of the sets of questions Patchett highlights, although she doesn’t answer, is whether it’s ethical to publish a novel or stories that are very closely based on real life stories, especially when “the characters” are unaware of this.  Pat Conroy’s books are closely based on aspects of his own real life and he is quite up front about it.  Many authors have somewhat autobiographical elements in their work.  Often this can make the work feel very believable.  Ann Patchett acknowledges that her life shared some of the aspects of the siblings in this book.  The famous writer in this book does not acknowledge the source of his stories. 

But the most compelling aspect of Patchett’s work is her telling of the stories within this complex family—two sets of children that are thrown together as “step-siblings” by their respective parent’s marriage– and four adults who are parents and step-parents.  There are many sets of interesting relationships—step-siblings with each other, “real” siblings with each other and with their parents, children with their step-parents, and with their “step-siblings” custodial parent.  The novel covers about fifty years so over the course of the book these relationships evolve over time as the kids grow up and the adults age.  All of the scenes are brilliantly and believably told.  A case in point—while now we would equip a child with a bee sting allergy with an epi-pen, these devices weren’t available until 1987 and scene of the six sibling’s adventures on vacation while their parent/step-parent sleep (“We’re sleeping late.  Do not knock.  Eat at the diner.”) is in the 1970’s when anti-histamines a common bee sting kit.  Their adventures that day are hair-raising to the adult in this reader but clearly a rollicky good time for the kids at the time. 

This reader looks forward to reading more from this skillful and engaging author who challenges the reader in subtle and interesting ways. 

Mildred Pierce-Relevant Classic

Mildred Pierce

By James M. Cain

Published 1941

Read Nov 2021

The book opens with Bert Pierce doing a number of home maintenance chores around his suburban home in a development it turns out he helped create.  When he finishes, he tells his wife, Mildred, he will be going out for a while.  When she presses him for a time to expect him, so that she can appropriately plan dinner—-and how much to spend buying the food she will cook—their discussion degrades into an argument.  He won’t deny that he will be seeing another woman while out and Mildred asks that he permanently leave which he agrees to do.

Thus begins Mildred’s life as a single mother trying to support two young daughters in early 1930’s while the country is in a deep depression.  Part of her anger with Bert had to do with her cooking and baking being the sole source of income for the family for a while.  Bert’s partnership to develop a housing community in Glendale, CA had fallen on hard times as a result of the depression.  Bert and Mildred occupy one of the houses in the development and had enjoyed a lifestyle that included the possibility of Mildred getting a mink coat just before the bottom fell out for them.  The book follows Mildred’s path to finding her way as a beautiful young divorcee with no skills beyond cooking, baking, and cleaning. 

Mildred seeks employment but is loathe to take any position that requires she wear a uniform as that would telegraph her fall down the socioeconomic ladder.  She eventually does take a job as a waitress and hides her uniform from her daughter, Veda.  She becomes involved with one of Bert’s partners, Wally Burgan, who works out a scheme for Mildred to open her own diner in the development.  Before she quits her day-job to open her own restaurant, she meets a wealthy man, Monty, and becomes involved with him.  Mildred’s cooking, her famous pies, and her industriousness pay off and she seems well on her way to success and happiness.      

Of course, the path to success and happiness is often filled with ruts and Mildred’s story is no different.  An Illness takes her younger daughter from her.  Her older daughter, Veda, while enjoying the fruits of Mildred’s success, remains aloof and overtly looks down on anyone who has to work for a living, including her mother, and is willing to take advantage of people for her own benefit.   The conflict between mother and daughter is simultaneously an internal conflict for Mildred— Mildred wants the best for her daughter, wants to give her daughter anything and everything she wants and needs, but also wants her daughter to respect her and her accomplishments, and for her daughter to be a good person.  

The book was made into a movie in 1945.  The Motion Picture Production code in force at the time disallowed some of the elements of Cain’s story, in particular the sexual relationships that Cain includes.  But the relationships he describes are like real ones at that time and don’t include any graphic details.  Cain paints a real, unvarnished picture of the time.  The adult characters face real and complex issues and Cain doesn’t shy away from these either.  The themes Cain considers are quite universal and timeless.  These attributes make this book remains highly worth reading some eighty years after its publication.

Bangkok Wakes to Rain–Much to Say

Bangkok Wakes to Rain

By Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Published 2019

Read Nov 2021

This novel follows an approach somewhat similar to The Overstory: many characters are introduced in separate chapters that seem like separate individual stories.  Unlike The Overstory, all the characters introduced are not brought together at some point.  The closest thing to connection between many of them is a house built in the distant past that is eventually converted to a condominium tower with the last home owner in the penthouse.  In this book, the characters that are introduced are not necessarily even ever seen again, such as an engineering student who gets involved in the student demonstrations in 1973.  He is killed during the demonstration but his girlfriend, Nee, who is a fairly minor character in this chapter, is introduced.  She is one of two sisters whose family members appear in several chapters.  Nok, Nee’s sister has gone to Japan to attend university but stays there and opens a Thai restaurant.  The sisters become estranged when Nok unknowingly serves food to a coronel involved in the student slaughter in 1973 and who later fled when his regime is overthrown.  Nee and Nok’s children and grandchildren are characters in some of the later chapters. 

The timeframe covered in the book is quite large, starting in the late 1800’s with an English doctor who arrives to provide healthcare to a Christian mission, and going to some unspecified time in the future.  The author veers into speculative fiction for these later times.  Bangkok is in 2021 actually already certainly sinking and the country is already suffering from ocean rise due to climate change.  The author takes this aspect further with chapters in which Bangkok is mainly underwater; he amplifies the current disparity of impact of ocean rise related to socioeconomic class. 

He goes another speculative path in chapters with a character, Mia, a friend of a daughter of Nee, who was involved in designing and implementing a technology that allows people to leave their bodies behind and have their minds exist in some sort of virtual reality.  Mia went through this process herself.  She meets her friend, Pig, occasionally in a virtual reality space when Pig undergoes some kind of temporary process that allows her to interact with transformed people.  Pig’s children are encouraging her to undergo the transformation that Mia did before Pig’s body dies, but Pig is resisting. 

So, the book takes on a huge amount of social issue territory and does so somewhat successfully. Climate change, the large gap in resources available to persons on different parts of the socioeconomic ladder, racism, government instability and its impacts among others.  

However, the very loose connection of the various stories and the sometime overly meticulous detail of the geography resulted in a loss of any rhythm of the human stories for which this reader hungered.  This reader stopped about midway in the book and started reading from the beginning again as she had lost track of the various characters.  It didn’t get much easier in the second half but this reader didn’t decide to re-read that half as well and settled for a general impression of the book vs a more detailed and more deep analytical consideration of it.  There is much going on in this book and a reader willing to put in the time and effort will find much to consider.  Certainly, it is a “discussable” book and one that this reader’s book group explored deeply.  As usual, this discussion provided this reader  a much greater appreciation of the book than she had at the start of the discussion. 

This reader is generally glad it was a part of her book group’s schedule so that she persevered through the book.  The author isn’t fully successful but as a debut novel, there is much hope for even better novels to come from this author. 

Waking Lions–Hit and Run and Immigration

Waking Lions

By Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Published 2014

Read May 2019

This is another book whose essay got left behind in a flurry of reading.  However, it is certainly a book to consider reading for its engaging story, its interesting, flawed, and human characters, and for the glimpse it provides of illegal immigrants trying to find a place for themselves away from the hostilities they fled.

The protagonist is a neurosurgeon who, because of a fight with his superior, finds himself working in a desert town rather than Tel Aviv.  One night on his commute home after a long shift, he strikes a man, an Eritrean immigrant, in the road.  He gets of the car long enough to realize the man is likely dead and leaves him where he found him.  The next day, the man’s widow comes to his door with his wallet which he dropped at the scene of the crime.  They enter a black-mail relationship whereby the doctor treats other immigrants, most of whom are in Israel illegally.  The doctor spends his nights and weekends treating these patients while his wife, a member of the local police department, is investigating the hit-and-run accident. 

The book has a thriller feel at times but mainly considers the evolving relationship of the doctor and the widow, the doctor’s relationship with himself and his crime, and the growing gap between him and his wife.   It is a very worthy read.   

Small Fry—Steve Jobs as Father

Small Fry

By Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Published 2018

Read May 2019

This is a memoir by the daughter of Steve Jobs which this reader read for a book club discussion.  Absent that reason, this reader likely would not have read it nor finished it if she started it.  The goals of the author weren’t entirely clear.  Certainly, this reader learned about the details of the relationship between Steve Job and her mother—involved in their early twenties until the mother conceives; Jobs doesn’t acknowledge paternity; mother raises daughter alone; mother gets some help from Jobs when she has no money.  We also learn about Jobs relationship with his daughter—does sort of admit paternity but doesn’t accept a role as a father or much of a provider; allows her to live in his house occasionally but provides little for her even then; excludes her when he has a new family with a new woman in his life.  In many ways it’s a book about Steve Jobs more than anything else.  The author sometimes almost takes the role of defender and other times details his poor treatment of her.  This reader doesn’t feel like she learned all that much about the author herself aside from the fact that her father was Steve Jobs.  So, if you are looking for a tell-all about how Steve Jobs treated his daughter and her mother, this book provides some of that.  If you are looking for insights on the outcome of such a childhood, this reader isn’t sure you will find it here.  This reader certainly wishes the author all the best in the future; she certainly had a sad start. 

Lincoln in the Bardo–Grief Among the Ghosts

Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

Published 2017

Read Sept 2018

 George Saunders was intrigued by a story he heard about Abraham Lincoln visiting the crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown that temporarily held his son, Willie, who died at age 11 in 1862.  Lincoln apparently visited Willie’s crypt and may have held his body.   Willie’s body was eventually moved to Illinois after Lincoln was assassinated and he lies with his father in Lincoln’s tomb.

 Saunders created a story involving a number of ghosts who may or may not know they are dead, or at least don’t necessarily acknowledge it. It seems adults can live in an “interim” state as a ghost for a long time but children need to leave this “interim” state fairly quickly or meet some unspecified consequence.   The various characters watch the funeral, interact with Willie’s ghost, watch Lincoln visit him, and eventually counsel Willie to leave his ghost state for the “beyond”.  They even inhabit Lincoln temporarily to encourage him to let Willie go. 

This reader recommends listening to the audio version of this very unusual literature piece. Saunders recruited actors, friends, and even family to record this book which includes 166 characters.  In between comments from the various characters (complete with a line that specifies the character’s name) there are snippets from various newspapers and books that report various events happening in real life during the period of Willie’s illness, death, and internment.  These too are attributed to their source, although it’s not clear which are real and which might be manufactured.  Regardless, they are useful to the reader to provide context to what preceded and followed Willie’s death, although the various sources don’t necessarily agree on many of the details. 

Certainly, the reader needs to suspend disbelief and just surrender to the concepts and format Saunders has devised.  Once the reader understands them, which wasn’t instantaneous for this reader and was helped by looking at a written version of the book, it’s quite an interesting approach to this story of Willie’s death and Lincoln’s grief.    The grief Lincoln felt when Willie died is not an invention but well documented, and Saunders certainly captures that well.  The concept that Willie must finish his trip to the beyond and that both he and Lincoln must suffer great sorrow to enable this is quite convincing, even if the characters that are involved are ghosts. 

While this reader anticipates that the written word works fine for the book, this reader is convinced that the audio version will provide an even deeper experience and one not to be exceeded for some time. 

Let the Norther Lights Erase Your Name–A Search for the Past

Let the Northern Light Erase Your Name

By Vida Vendela

Published 2007

Read April 2018 and July 2021

This reader didn’t write an essay about this book when first read not because it wasn’t worthy of it but because she just plain got behind.  In fact, this reader re-read the book a few months ago and might re-read it again.  Clearly much attraction to this book…

The protagonist loses her father abruptly when he dies in his sixties of a heart attack.  When working through his estate our protagonist finds her birth certificate which indicates he is not her biological father after all.  She had suffered another abrupt loss of a parent when her mother walked out on the family years prior, when our protagonist was 14, with no warning.  It turns out her fiancée, Pankaj, (the boy next door) learned from his mother about the paternity secret some fifteen years earlier but never told our protagonist.  Feeling fully abandoned and tricked by everyone she knows, our protagonist takes off for Lapland, a region in northern Finland, to find the father listed on her birth certificate.  The story follows our protagonist on her long and not simple journey to the church where her supposed biological father is a minister.  There she learns that he isn’t her real father either.  She doggedly pursues her quest to learn more about her mother, her real father, why her mother left her family, and how she should view herself now. 

So, the attraction to read was and is the interesting journey the protagonist takes to find out about her past, the descriptions of the geography and the particulars of the journey, and the people she meets.  The tardiness in writing about this very interesting book?   The protagonist’s journey is difficult physically and mentally and what she learns is difficult to digest for her and for the reader.  How to move on?  It’s not obvious to her or this reader. 

This reader may read yet again to seek a path forward.  Definitely worth the read. 

Great Expectations–Expect a Great Read

Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens

Published Dec 1860-Aug 1861 serially

Published Aug 1861 in 3 volumes

Read Aug 2016

This reader very belatedly provides just a brief word about this magnificent work.  Apparently (1), in Aug 1860 Dickens formulated the basic plot for a “little piece” about an orphan boy who befriends a convict who later makes a fortune and anonymously supports the orphan through his education; the convict bequeaths the fortune to the boy but it is lost to the Crown.  Then in Sept 1860 Dickens needed to do something to save his weekly publication “All the Year Round” so began writing and publishing the story as he wrote it over the course of about a year. It was wildly successful.  It was later published in three volumes. 

This reader listened to the book while doing a summer of house painting.  What a wonderful way to ease the monotony of this must-do task!  The book introduces us to Pip, a seven-year-old orphan who lives with his much older sister and her husband, Joe.  In the first chapter, Pip encounters a convict, Magwitch, in a cemetery and is convinced to provide him some bread and a tool.  Pip’s life includes many twists and turns.  He is chosen to visit the spinster Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter.  Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham who has decided to pay for his tuition and living expenses to attend school and leave being a blacksmithing apprentice to Joe.  It is many chapters until we learn this isn’t the case.  And many more chapters of adventure, mystery, unrequited love, clashes of values, that tell what happens there after. 

This reader won’t give away any more of the plot and will conclude by saying this is a delightful book about a generally good character who lives through many ups and downs and remains hopeful.    

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Expectations accessed 2021-11-04

The Blessing Way and A Thief of Time and Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way

Published 1970

Read Sept 2021

A Thief of Time

Published 1988

Read Oct 2021

By Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way introduced Joe Leaphorn to readers. Hillerman eventually wrote 18 novels involving Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (both members of the Navajo Tribal Police).  In this first Joe Leaphorm novel, Leaphorn is actually not the primary character in this mystery, but he does play an important role.  The novel does have characteristics that are found in all of the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels:  they immerse the reader in the geography and history of the Four Corners (Arizona/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico) region; they provide the reader insights into   Navajo culture; and they provide both an interesting mystery and a human story about one or more of the characters.

In A Thief of Time, artifacts from the ancient Anasazi people are being extracted from ruins and sold in potentially illegal ways.  People potentially involved show up dead or missing.  Joe Leaphorn recruits Jim Chee to help him understand what’s going on.

 A very powerful aspect of this book is that Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both grieving the loss of a romantic relationship.  Joe Leaphorn’s wife of thirty years has died unexpectantly following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.  His mourning has led him to a deep depression and to put in his retirement papers.  He becomes interested in finding an academic focused on Anasazi pottery who has gone missing shortly before his retirement date and he becomes engaged in understanding the situation.  Jim Chee and his girlfriend are splitting up, not for lack of love, but because neither can commit to living in the other’s culture and geography:  the Navajo reservation/culture or Washington DC/white culture.    Both men are hurting but both men rally to do their jobs.

This reader will continue to read through Hillerman’s 18 Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels.  The mysteries are interesting.  But the human stories and the language that describe them and the geography, history,  and culture within which they occur are the biggest draws.