The Glass Hotel—not so engaging

The Glass Hotel

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the third Mandel novel read by this reader.  This book was written and published following her highly successful Station Eleven.  This reader had high expectations.  Once again Mandel uses an asynchronous story telling approach and there are a number of characters.  The book starts and ends with a death of one of them. 

Station Eleven had a unifying character and event for the various characters, Arthur, and the Georgian Flu pandemic that provided a central thrust—what’s lost/ what’s gained by the pandemic, how did it impact various characters, how is it see by various characters, etc.  The Lola Quartet also had a unifying character—Anna. Her on-the-run story and pursuit of her by one of the characters forms the thriller aspect of the story. 

When considering the unifying theme or character in The Glass Hotel, it is less obvious.  Vincent (a girl) and Paul are half-siblings whose individual stories of personal loss, seeking a place in the world, and art are told in pieces across the novel.  A third character, Jonathan, owns The Glass Hotel at which Vincent and Paul both work for a short time.  Vincent, the hotel bartender, serves Jonathan drinks one night and shortly thereafter readily accepts a role as his apparent (but not actual) second wife (first died of cancer) and lives in the world of the wealthy.  We eventually learn Jonathan’s wealth was gained by a Ponzi scheme which crashes.  Vincent leaves him and starts a new life on a transport ship as a cook and ends up in the ocean– providing the scene that starts and ends the book. 

Amongst all of this we learn about some of the victims of the Ponzi scheme including Leon, who was Miranda’s boss in Station Eleven.  Miranda is mentioned as well as is the Georgian Flu which apparently comes and goes without devastation in the background of this novel.  Leon and Miranda have different stories than they did in Station Eleven.  Some reviewers discuss this in terms of Mandel’s exploration of transience of life and multiple potential paths.  This reader found the presence of these characters somewhat off-putting and wondered if the author was trying too hard to be literary.   

This reader anticipates that her views of the book may not reflect other readers’ reactions.  Perhaps this reader’s lack of engagement by the characters was because none of them were particularly likable or even that interesting to this reader.  This reader does expect to read more by Mandel in the future.

The Lola Quartet–another great read from Mandel

The Lola Quartet

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is the second Mandel novel for this reader.  Mandel shows off her talent for slowly revealing the stories of multiple characters who are connected in some fashion.  In this case, the four characters she gives us were members of the Lola Quartet in high school:  Gavin, Jack, Sasha, and Daniel.  While they all take different paths after high school, Sasha’s half-sister Anna, who was the (probably simultaneous) girlfriend of Gavin and Daniel while they were in high school, provides a connection that complicates all their lives and provides the suspense/thriller aspect of the story.

Gavin left Florida which was literally too hot for his body to handle.  He majored in journalism and lives and works in New York City.  When his fiancée leaves him and his newspaper begins slicing off personnel, he invents a quote for a story to make it more interesting.  That first lie leads him to more made-up quotes and he is eventually discovered and fired.  He returns to Florida to bunk with his sister and work with her in a real estate bankruptcy business, hopefully all temporarily.  She shows him a photo of a young girl she took at a foreclosure property which triggers the possibility that Gavin is the father of a child ex-girlfriend Anna really had.  (There had been rumors she was pregnant when she left town shortly after Gavin’s graduation.)  Gavin’s hunt for the child and Anna provides the suspense/thriller plot and her connection with the quartet provides the means for the author to explore these characters through a series of current day/flashback scenes parsing between the various characters. 

Jack also went to college, but studied music to follow his passion.  His roommate, Liam Deval, has true talent as well as passion for music.  Liam agrees to drive Anna, who shows up at their dorm room one night, to a place she’s trying to reach that isn’t too far from their college town.  Liam’s semester, and college career, get derailed when he gets involved with Anna.  We learn Jack realizes his passion isn’t enough to fuel a musical career and he manages to get addicted to pain killers and ends up back in his home town, unemployed, living in wreck of a house in a bad section of town. 

Daniel had left town with Anna right after graduation, assuming her baby was his.  They make it to his aunt’s place where he expects they will be able to stay for a while only to find out that won’t be the case.  They end up in a garage of an acquaintance who is now a meth dealer. When the baby is born and it’s clearly not Daniel’s (per skin color), Daniel leaves Anna.  Anna stays in the garage for a while with the baby and managers to steal from the meth dealer a satchel containing about $120,000 and she starts a life on the run with her infant daughter.  We learn that Daniel is now a police officer in his home town and has two sets of children, from two failed marriages, whom he is supporting financially and with whom he is trying to remain a relevant parent

Sasha is the product of a very dysfunctional family.  Anna is her half-sister.   She started playing poker for money in high school and when the story picks up, she is working as a waitress in a 24-hour diner and fighting her addiction.

Liam Deval and Anna are critical characters but get little character development.  The quartet members are Mandel’s focus.  Each had a great high-school experience in the Lola Quartet and for Jack and Sasha this may have been “the best years of their lives”. Mandel may or may not have had planned to make a point here but did so with this reader.   Jack goes to college to study music—to follow his passion.  Students going to college to follow a sports passion often get a scholarship to do so.  Few make it into the profession leagues and they may or may not have had good preparation for post-college but at least they may leave with limited debt whether or not they graduated.  Students going to college to follow a passion in music pay to get a music degree.  Again, few make it professionally and they may be strangled with heavy student debt, again whether or not they graduated.  Jack drops out early when he realizes he’s not going to be successful and doesn’t progress from there.  Gavin moved away from music immediately upon leaving high school and was seeking fame and fortune through journalism vs music.  He dreams of winning a Pulitzer but his short cuts eliminate that possibility and likely future journalism jobs.  So there also is a potential point that at least these characters are driven to achieve fame and fortune and fail. 

Mandel demonstrates her ability to draw engaging, rounded characters.  They have serious flaws but good points as well.  They make serious mistakes and suffer the consequences.  Mandel pulls no punches here, but also keeps most of the violence and other nasty scenes “off-camera” —an approach this reader has already indicated much appreciation in her Station Eleven novel.   The well-executed character studies and the particular suspense/thriller story—especially with its messy ending—make for a really great read.

Anxious People–with some twists

Anxious People

By Fredrik Bachman

Published 2020

Read June 2021

This is delightful book.  Part mystery.  Part drama.  Part comedy.  The author has a dry sense of humor and a wonderful understanding of human nature. 

A person desperate to get enough cash to rent an apartment so that they don’t lose partial custody of their kids following a divorce decides to rob a bank—with the intention of returning the money at some point.  Unfortunately, the bank is a “modern” one that doesn’t use cash so that plan fails.  During the subsequent police chase the robber stumbles into an apartment in the midst of a real estate open house and the attendees become hostages.  Except that was not the robber’s intention. 

Over the course of the novel, we meet and learn about the robber, each of the hostages, and the two police that are trying to work the hostage crisis while the person from Stockholm assigned to lead the situation is stuck in traffic. The characters are quite a collection with a nice range of turmoil happening in each of their lives and we learn that their situation is not as it seems.  The novel shifts back and forth between interviews by the police of the various hostages after their release and the forward moving story in the apartment. 

The structure is great.  The characters are wonderfully messy.  The story has some twists and turns and, in the end, some commentary on how we perceive ourselves and each other. 

Bravo Fredrik Bachman!  Keep writing!

The Buried Giant—NOT a simple story

The Buried Giant

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2015

Read July 2016

This reader led a discussion of this book for her book discussion group in fall 2016.  It’s taken too long to prepare this essay about a really remarkable book.  Perhaps now is a good time to pick this book off the shelf and give it a go.

When released, the book got variable reviews, primarily because there are “fantasy” elements in it.  In fact, the book was considered for awards by a couple of fantasy book groups.  The book can be read quickly and lightly and put away at the end—or not because Ishiguro’s books are never just light and easy.

There is a “mist” over the land in ~450 AD after King Arthur has conquered the Saxons and the Britons and Saxons are living “peacefully” in the same countryside (although villages are still fairly segregated).  The “mist” seems to be the reason for everyone’s inability to form short term memories and for their near loss of longer-term memories.  Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in one of the villages who recall they have a son who lives in the next village.  They decide to go and see him.  The story then follows their adventures – which occur over only a few days if one stops to consider the timing. 

In the next village—where their son isn’t residing after all so the couple will continue forward—a young boy is discovered to have a strange bite which frightens the villages.  Axl and Beatrice agree to take him with them and leave him in their son’s village–which must be the next one.  Wistan, a young Saxon soldier recently arrived, gets involved as well and wants to take charge of the boy when it’s learned the bite is probably from a dragon.   Wistan has knowledge of this dragon and wishes to slay him, for reasons that slowly become apparent.  This offends Sir Gawain, whose mission has been for many years, to find and slay the dragon.  The reader comes to understand Sir Gawain’s mission more completely as the story evolves.

As the few but very event-filled days pass, Axl’s memory slowly returns.  These memories remind him of the role he played during the war between the Saxons and the Britons while a leader in King Arthur’s government. He also is slowly but perhaps not completely remembering a hurt inflicted by his wife on him.  He and his wife finally remember that their son has died and they decide they wish to reside on the island where he is buried.  There is a requirement, however, that for a couple to be together on this island, their love must be proven to be strong and proven.  They expect to meet this requirement and must trust the boatman, who will ferry them to the island, to help them prove it.  The novel ends before we know whether Beatrice’s notion to trust the boatman was correct or not.  This reader, although not all those in the book discussion group, enjoys such ambiguous endings. 

Once again Ishiguro provides the readers a seemingly simple story that actually holds many questions for the reader that are universally relevant including the following:  What are the reasons for war and for “fighting to the death” —are they valid?  Will mankind ever be able to move past them? Can mankind move past tribal loyalty?  How are the wars between nations/tribes different—or not—from wars between two people in a relationship that has encountered troubles.  What is the difference between “justice” and “vengeance” if any?  Is it acceptable to choose to not fulfill a commitment made if it proves injurious to others?  Does that then make you disloyal and/or a bad citizen?  Are all values learned or are some innate?  A simple story with some fantasy elements but a deep story indeed. 

Troubled Blood–another Galbraith hit

Troubled Blood

By Robert Galbraith

Published 2020

Read May 2021

This reader chooses to listen to books by this author on long road trips.   Like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, each book in this series gets longer than the last one.  The stories are a little more complicated each time and the descriptions of the actions, places, and feelings get increasingly more detailed. In addition, the number and details of side stories increases.   That all suits this reader just fine.

The investigation business of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott (now a salaried partner) has grown and they employ a few additional contractors to stake out various people they’ve been engaged to investigate for various reasons.  They are approached by a woman to find out what really happened to her mother, Margot Bamborough, a general practitioner who disappeared 40 years ago.  Was she a victim of a now jailed serial killer or did something else happen to her?    The woman’s partner is concerned about the financial and emotional stress of the investigation so Coromoran and Robin have 12 months to solve the mystery.

During this evolving investigation, the side stories that provide various amounts of distraction to them include: Cormoran’s siblings’ desire to have a reunion of all of Cormoran’s father’s children from various liaisons and Cormoran’s refusal to participate;  the illness and subsequent death of Cormoran’s aunt, who raised him when his mother left and who he considers his “true” mother; Cormoran’s ex’s mental breakdown and hospitalization; Robin’s move into a shared housing arrangement following the breakup of her marriage; and the lengthy negotiation of Robin’s divorce from her estranged husband.   And —since Robin is now divorcing, will the relationship between Robin and Cormoran develop beyond their professional one.

This reader enjoys the somewhat leisurely but engaging telling of all these stories with all the details Rowling/Galbraith cares to include and looks forward to future installments. 

Klara and the Sun-another from the master Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published 2021

Read June 2021

Once again, this reader was struck by the power of Ishiguro’s seemingly simple but actually extremely deep work.  Once again, this reader couldn’t start another book for several days after finishing this one so there was some time for it to settle in her brain.

The story is set in an undefined time somewhat in the future and in an undefined place in the US.  We hear the story through Klara’s first-person narrative and the dialog she recounts.  Klara is an AF—an Artificial Friend.  She is a B2—a second generation model in the “B” line.  When we meet her, she is for sale in a shop that sells AFs.  All the AFs in the shop are solar power so her initial conversation with the reader is about how the sun comes into the shop and how the AFs view it.  A question she is pondering—Can one AF consume all of the power in a single patch of sunlight on the floor? 

Klara and another AF, Rosie, are delighted to get their turn in the shop window.  Klara enjoys watching all the happenings outside the shop—the runners, the taxis that drop off people, the people that go in and out of the building across the street. Klara is very concerned when a construction machine blocks their view for several days and billows pollution.  Likely this is a machine that is breaking up the macadam and prepping the street for repaving.  The manager assures her that the machine will eventually leave but doesn’t explain further.

A girl whose age Klara estimates to be 14 talks to Klara through the window one day.  The girl’s manner of walking indicates some sort of medical issue but it hasn’t lessened her sunny disposition.  The girl visits several times and they form a bond.  The girl clearly wants to convince her mother to buy Klara.  When another customer considers Klara and Klara isn’t her usual self to avoid being purchased, the manager cautions Klara that children sometimes make promises they can’t keep and she should welcome becoming the AF for any child that expresses interest in her.

Eventually the mother and the girl, Josie, do come to the store looking for Klara who is now relegated to the back part of the store.  Josie fortunately does locate Klara and presses her mother to buy her.  The mother is concerned that Klara is a B2 and a new improved B3 line is available.  Manager remains fairly neutral but does highlight Klara’s unique ability to observe and learn.  The mother tests this by asking Klara to walk as Josie walks which she does with amazing accuracy which leaves the mother seemingly stunned but convinced this is the right AF for her daughter.

In the next sections Klara tells us about Josie’s home and we get an interesting picture of life in these times.  Josie and her mother, a “high ranking professional”, live in a rural setting with few other houses around.  Their house is large and modern and a housekeeper maintains it, cooks, and babysits Josie while her mother is at work.  Josie, like most teenagers, no longer attends in-class school but uses “an oblong” for her studies and has various tutors with whom she interacts using “the oblong”.  Parents are concerned about the social development of their children since they no longer have daily interactions with others, and they arrange social interaction events, reminiscent of “play dates” that are common for young children in our current times.  The parents try to eavesdrop on their children in the “open plan” at Josie’s house and all turn to stare when Rick, Josie’s good friend and next-door neighbor, arrives to join the event.  Rick is different from all the children at the event as his mother has decided not to have Rick “lifted” which will certainly limit his prospects including what colleges might accept him.  As usual, Ishiguro doesn’t explain what “lifting” is but we do come to learn that there are risks involved with the procedure and that perhaps this is a root cause for the death of Josie’s older sister and for Josie’s medical issues.

This reader won’t dwell on further details of the plot and leave that for future readers to discover. However, this reader will comment on some of the aspects of the culture of Josie’s world. 

As in our current society, there is much emphasis placed on getting into the “right” college.  In our current society, SAT classes, special tutors, torrents of extra-curricular activities to build the student’s resume, and coaches to help prepare college applications are commonplace.  We now understand that certain celebrities paid $500,000 + to secure college slots for their children, some of which had no interest themselves in attending college.  In Josie’s world, something has led parents to put their children through dangerous medical procedures to “lift” their children’s brains, take them out of in-person schools, pay for remote tutors, arrange for structured social interaction events, and buy AF’s to ease their children’s feelings of isolation.  Klara’s mission is laser focused to care for and support Josie in any way possible, which eventually leads her into an interesting relationship with the Sun that this reader won’t reveal here.  Rick’s mother seeks to use a “secret weapon” to help Rick get into a particular school—her past romantic relationship with a person (perhaps Rick’s father?)  now on the admissions committee of that school. 

Other aspects of today’s society remain including:   Marriage remains common but so too does divorce and the challenges it places on all parties.   Parents want what is best for their children and will do nearly anything to make that possible, but at the same time dread their children leaving.  (Josie and her mother’s visits to the city near the AF store were to have a portrait done of Josie.) Teen agers haven’t developed mature social skills and so can be mean to each other and even bully others to prop up their own self-esteem.   Childhood friendships can endure others’ taunts, parents’ concerns, and provide support that is unique.  Klara’s recounting of events that demonstrate these is interesting since she is trying to learn these cultural elements which her previous training and Manager’s input hasn’t covered.  

The conversations between Josie’s parents and Rick’s mother while they are all in the city together provide the author a means of showing other aspects of their society.  As in our current situation, jobs can be eliminated due to productivity increases and automation.  Josie’s father and his engineering colleagues were apparently displaced, possibly by AF’s.  He now lives in some sort of community of individuals who have experienced this situation.  Rick’s mother expresses some disparagement of the community but little is explained except that Josie’s father anticipates some violence in the future for unspecified reasons. 

The author gives us various glimpses of technology—recall we only learn about things through Klara’s narration, an approach this reader very much appreciated.  Cars are still used as a standard mode of transportation although taxis (or possibly “Ubers”?) are very common as well.  Rick is working on an operating system for his “birds” (drones). The author provides some insights on AF technology and its implications.   Klara describes how her visual system sometimes breaks the data it is capturing into some number of cells, each of which has a particular focus. It seems this isn’t always the case, but most likely when new or unusual situations arise.   While AFs are commonly used by families to help their children, AF’s aren’t universally embraced.  Being replaced by AFs in the workplace is a concern and, in one scene, someone going to a theater production is annoyed that a paid seat for the sold-out show might be going to an AF vs a real person.

This reader listened to an audiobook production.  The voices used by the reader gave appropriate “life” to the various characters—parents, Rick, Josie, and Klara.  This reader took longer walks/jogs than usual, and got closets and rooms tidied than might not have otherwise for reasons to have the audiobook playing.  This reader saved the final 41 min chapter to be read while driving to visit someone.  Then this reader re-listened to this very remarkable chapter again on the way home and was stunned by it both times.   In 10 short hours of listening, the author takes you into a simply told story that says much about where we may find ourselves in the not-too-distant future, and also about our current state:  what is important to us and how do we show it; what do we teach our children about what is important in life and what do they learn. 

Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.  Their stated prize motivation: “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

 Kazuo Ishiguro – Facts. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2021. Mon. 17 May 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2017/ishiguro/facts/

 Hopefully Ishiguro will continue writing and making us think deeply.

Lost Children Archives–multiple stories

Lost Children Archives

By Valerie Lusisella

Published 2019

Read April 2021

This reader is still trying to decide what to think about this book.

The mother/wife/woman narrates most of the book but not all of it.  She describes their beginning—she and the father/husband/man both signed onto a project to record sounds in New York City.  She was a journalist and glad to get work that would last awhile and have medical benefits. They were assigned as a team to record as many of the 800 some languages spoken in the city.  They worked well together, fell in love, and decided to move in together.  She brought her daughter, then a little less than two years old. He brought his son, five years older.  We learn the boy lost his mother during childbirth.  We learn nothing of the girl’s father.  The adults marry and begin filing joint tax returns.  They use choose to use pronouns for the various family members that show they are one family.

The narrator picks up the story as the project is nearing its end and the adults are thinking about their next projects, although they aren’t discussing their next steps with each other.  His new sound project, for which he has secured a grant, will involve the last Apache leaders and he eventually tells her he will need silence and solitude and relocation to the southwest.  She had become involved with a Mexican woman living in the city whose daughters had tried to sneak into the country but had been abandoned by their “coyote”, found by border patrol agents, and prepared to be deported back to Mexico.  This leads her to get funding for a sound documentary about the immigrant children’s crisis at the border while still hoping she can help her friend find her children.  It becomes clear they aren’t on paths that have a clear intersection.  She tells us that she decides to find an intersection by refocusing her project on a site near the southern border.  This leads to a family road trip to the southwest.

The woman narrator gives us an interesting picture of that road trip.  They choose not to go quickly to their destination but rather avoid the interstates and fairly slowly meander their way to the southwest.  The father/husband/man declares the final destination will be in the Chiricahua Mountains as that’s where the Chiricahua Apaches had lived before they had to surrender to the “white-eyes”.  During the slow trip west, we hear stories the father/husband/man tells the children about the Apaches.  We learn more about the lost girls that the mother/wife/woman is seeking and we hear her read from a book called “Elegies for Lost Children” (a book that the author creates for this novel) that describe the journey of seven children being led by a “coyote” from Mexico into the United States.  We hear about the games the children (now 10 and 5) play in the back seat of the car including role-playing the lost children in their mother’s book.

The picture of the road trip leads us to understand that the family unit, which has only been together four short years, is coming undone and perhaps has already completely disintegrated as far as the father/husband/man is concerned.  We don’t hear anything from him.  The mother/wife/woman’s acceptance of the disintegration of the family unit grows over the course of the trip.  They become father/man and mother/woman but the bond between the two “parents” dissolves with limited effort from either party, it seems, to hold it together. 

The picture presented made this reader question the parenting capabilities of the adults.  For instance, the parent’s choices for audiobooks astounded this reader.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?? This reader found that book quite astonishing but the extremely dark post-apocalyptic world includes people who raise babies to eat them.  They would play this for the children?  The parents do decide this book might be a little dark for the children but when the woman’s audio-player starts up each time, the first line of that book always plays.  They decide on The Lord of the Flies as the best book they have for the family and proceed to listen to it.  This reader shouldn’t have been surprised considering how dark the “Elegies for Lost Children” is.  Fortunately, the children are clearly very connected to each other and can carry on quite well with each other despite little attention from their parents. 

Eventually the boy takes over narration of the book.  He has certainly been listening to his parents and understands that they are likely separating and that this is their last family trip.  He wants to help his mother (he has certainly fully accepted her in this role) and eventually decides to help her find the lost children his mother is desperately trying to find—the two little girls who are being sent back to Mexico.   He takes his sister on a trek across the desert to find them and leaves behind a map for their parents to let them know where they are headed—to Echo Canyon which their father has been discussing.  Thus we leave the haunting narration by the mother of the parents distancing themselves from each other and seemingly their children too as they become increasingly focused on their respective projects.  We enter an even sadder narration by the son telling about the two young children trekking across a desert with little to eat or drink but with a mission to find the lost girls.   The boy has concluded that saving the children may be more important to his mother than they are themselves. Can this book become more tragic?  This reader will leave to your own reading to learn how things turn out.

This book has received many accolades.  This reader agrees that “The Elegies for Lost Children” paints a very dark, and likely accurate, picture of the trek many immigrant children are taking to come to the United States.   The author conveys the pain parents feel as they send their children on such a trek to rejoin family already in the United States.  The author makes the reader question the rationality and humanity of the policies that create this situation. 

However, the story of the family’s disintegration is troubling.  The parents allow their four year relationship to die with seemingly little attempt to save it and with little thought of how this might impact their children.  Of course the boy will stay with the man and the girl will go with the woman.    Their children not only get lost trying to help their parents find the lost children in their mother’s book, they are about to be very lost when they lose their sibling, and are left only with their biological parent who seems to have limited interest in them.     It remains unclear to this reader why this is the story the author chooses to tell while reeling out “The Elegies for Lost Children”. 

Snow—John Banville writes a mystery

Snow

By John Banville

Published 2020

Read March 2021

As noted in a previous entry, this reader found a Benjamin Black novel in a Little Library on a road in the Finger Lakes and learned two things:  Benjamin Black is the pen name of Dublin’s famous writer John Banville; Benjamin Black’s mystery novels are well “crafted” (as the author describes) and quite the worthy read.  This reader has enjoyed another Benjamin Black novel since then and commented on it.

Recently this reader found John Banville’s Snow in a Little Library in Naples Park, Florida.  While this book was found 1500 miles away from the other Little Library, the discovery was just as welcomed as the first.  Apparently Banville (a highly celebrated Irish writer) has decided it’s acceptable to sign his “entertainments” with his real name.   

This book too is has a mystery in it.  While the book suggests it may have a classic Agatha Christie plot—the victim is found dead in the library and the killer must have been inside the house when the family retired—the book also provides a unique look into the 1957 world of Wexford County via depiction of a  fraying Anglo-Irish Protestant family and its interactions with the Catholic priest who is murdered in their slowly decaying house.  St John Strafford, the investigator from Dublin, is an unusual Garda member as he is from the same class as the family and also a Protestant.  We hear his thoughts as he moves through the investigation and through his days and nights while staying in this small town south of Dublin.  We watch him slowly unfold a number of family secrets and we see him interact with the Catholic Church as it defines what is expected from the investigation of the death of one of their priests.  

This reader won’t divulge more about the plot which is certainly darker than hoped for by this reader but as dark as should be expected by some of the details of the murder.    Rather this reader will leave you with a passage that quite took this reader by pleasant surprise and made her sit upright.  Strafford has been forced to stop his car to wait for a flow of sheep to pass across the road.  “Strafford idly studied the milling animals, admiring their long aristocratic heads and neat little hoofs, like carved nuggets of coal, on which they trotted so daintily.  He was struck too by their protuberant and intelligent-seeming shiny black eyes, expressive of social resignation tinged with the incurable shame of their plight, avatars of an ancient race, being herded ignominiously along a country road by a snot-nosed brat with a stick.”

This reader is glad Banville has decided to expand his literary efforts to this new form of “entertainment”.  Benjamin Black’s novels are much more than simple mysteries providing terrific language about not only the characters but their physical and social environment.  Banville has upped the ante even more with this entry and this reader looks forward to more. 

Tony Hillerman—Great Mysteries and Interesting Characters

Coyote Waits

By Tony Hillerman

Published 1990

Read March 2021

Skeleton Man

By Tony Hillerman

Published 2004

Read April 2021

This reader has encountered Tony Hillerman and his characters Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo Tribal Police officers, in the past.  Then, as now, this reader read two this series (of eighteen) nearly back to back.  Joe is the older and wiser officer and Jim Chee the younger officer trying to find his way in his world that straddles the Navajo and white world.  He straddles as well his draw to be a traditional healer and his pursuit of being a good investigative officer.   

The stories are set in and around the Navajo Nation and include either a mystery to be solved by Leaphorn and Chee (in cooperation or in parallel) or some kind of suspense story (as in Skeleton Man.  Over the course of the series, the stories of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are revealed.  As with the Massie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, the reader is treated to an interesting mystery/suspense story set in a different culture and/or time and the story provides some insights into that culture/time.  In both series, the story of the main character(s) is slowly metered out but in a way that doesn’t dominate the mystery/suspense plot .  Both the character(s)’ story and the mystery engage and propel the reader into both stories.   It’s not critical to read either series in chronological order of the story(ies) of the main character(s) as there is sufficient background provided to enable you to participate in their story(ies) as told in a particular  book.  Interestingly, all three characters, Massie Dobbs, Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee, have entries in Wikipedia that are fairly detailed regarding their life stories. 

Unfortunately the world lost Tony Hillerman so the eighteen books are all the world will get describing the lives of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and the mysteries they solve.  Lucky for this reader, there are a good number of Hillerman’s book left to read.  

The Great Santini–A difficult story the author lived

The Great Santini

By Pat Conroy

Published 1976

Read March 2021

Pat Conroy wrote a fictionalized account of his childhood and published it 14 years after the 1962 setting for the story. The main character, Ben, based on Pat, is the oldest child of Lt Col Wilbur “Bull” Meecham (who calls himself “The Great Santini”).  Bull Meecham is a Marine fighter pilot who fought battles in his plane in WWII and the Korean Conflict and now finds himself in a command position for which he was far from the first choice.  He has been assigned to lead a group of Marine fighter pilots.  He intends to make the best of the best and prove he should be promoted despite the reports in his record that suggest he is not leadership material.

Bull Meecham, a Chicago native, met his wife while stationed in the south.  She was 18 when they married.  He was considered quite a catch.  She converted to Catholicism for him, sends their children to Catholic school when there is one in town, and sets up a small alter in each house they occupy—-they move frequently from base to base. 

Bull Meecham was an amazingly abusive father and husband, expecting complete obedience and respect from all members and beating any of them who don’t live up to his expectations.  He pays little attention to his daughters who he expects to be “great tail” for their future husbands—-Marines of course–and he expects his sons to become Marine fighter pilots too.  The scene in which he and Ben are playing a game of backyard basketball was extremely telling.  Bull is going to be beaten by his high school son and he can’t stand it.  He can’t lose to anyone ever.  After being struck in the head with the ball repeatedly by his father, Ben goes inside while his father remains outside practicing basketball so he won’t ever lose again.

This was actually a difficult book for this reader to endure.   Being aware that it was based on the author’s life made it even more difficult.  No family member can possibly be left undamaged by the environment Bull creates in the household.  The only semblance of peace they get is when Bull is on assignment overseas and the family returns to the mother’s childhood home and stays with the grandparents.  These readers hoped that Ben would at some point get beyond the constant bickering he does with his sister and actually hear her pleas for help.  The two of them are each other’s dates for a school prom.  She tries to seriously talk with him and tells him that she isn’t sure she wants to live but he doesn’t hear it.  The stories of the abusive treatment by Bull of his family and squad continue for 536 pages.  This reader wondered how it could ever end.  Fortunately it does.  

One hopes that military life has changed during the nearly 50 years since the setting of this story.  One hopes that women have real avenues to break out of abusive relationships.  One hopes that children are never raised in this kind of environment so they aren’t permanently damaged by it. Obviously changes are incomplete on all accounts. 

By writing what he lived, Conroy left a canon of writing that never feels inauthentic—-he lived most of it himself.    Hopefully this writing helped him heal and hopefully this writing will help others recognize that there is much healing needed by too many people.