Unquiet: A Novel

Unquiet:  A Novel

By Linn Ullmann

Translated from Norwegian:  Thilo Reinhard

Published 2018

Read Oct 2020

This reader listened to an audio version of the book which allowed her to be unaware that Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman.  This reader has since learned that the book, while called a novel, does, at least in part, reflect actual events.  Frankly if the book had been called a memoir and/or the true parental situation of the author was part of the marketing of the audiobook, this reader likely would have not chosen to read it.  But absent that distraction, this reader did choose to read the book and greatly enjoyed it.  Although this reader is generally aware of the celebrated works of the authors’ parents, this reader is just young enough and just uncool enough to have none of their films.  So this reader won’t discuss the real parents any further.

The narrator tells us fairly early in the book that she and her father, a famous Swedish filmmaker, had planned to write a book about him.  They had spent two years discussing the project and planned that they would take a jeep tour when they were done (her father loved driving his jeep).  Unfortunately by the time the tape recorder was purchased and the recordings began, the father’s health had failed substantially and only a few recordings were made.  So the narrator instead provides us with her thoughts about her life—focusing only on her childhood, the time during which the recordings were made, and after his death.

The narrator was the “love child” of a famous Swedish filmmaker and a Norwegian actress. She never names them, which suited this reader, and refers to them by “the father” or “papa” etc.  She was the youngest of his nine children born of 5 mothers.  The filmmaker was married to four of these women but he and her mother never married.  So there was never “the three of them” that she remembered but rather only she and her mother and she and her father. 

She tells of the summers spent with her father and his last wife on his property on an island off the coast of Sweden.  The property had a number of buildings including the narrow house he progressively expanded over the years and a barn that was converted to a movie theater.  She tells of times with her mother including when they were in the United States in a rented yellow house outside of New York City chosen because it had trees and children should be raised with trees.

She tells of the sessions she records on a small recorder but never listened to until after her father’s death so she didn’t realize how poor the sound quality was  despite being told this was the best device for the job.  The dialog between father and daughter is quite sad as it shows the rapid decline of his mental and physical capabilities which contrasts with his robustness when she was a child. 

Absent the knowledge of the true identity of the characters of the book, this book told a story of a girl born of a father 48 years her senior and a younger (by 20 years) mother.  This reader developed a sense that the narrator generally felt distant from both of her parents.  She desperately wanted more connection with her father, a desire that lasted throughout her life.  It seems she had more connection with her father than any of his other children but this connection was still very much on his terms and didn’t seem to take into consideration any needs of hers, perhaps due to expectations of fathers in the timeframe of the story (1960’s), his age, and his focus on his own interests and career .  The mother/daughter relationship seems somewhat universal in many ways:  daughter is annoyed by mother; mother has distinct ideas about what children need  (in this case trees and milk); mother is inconsistent in dealing with her daughter; and likely neither ever understands nor connects fully with the other.  The author moves seemingly randomly through time with her various memories which suited this reader well.  It felt like our own memories which pick varying times when we choose to start remembering. 

The writing was quite engaging.  Descriptions of the wind-swept island, her father driving his jeep fast to make the ferry to buy his papers on the mainland, the drying house where she hid when a young girl—all are quite vivid. 

Forget that the characters are real people and enjoy the beauty of the writing, the way the author reels out memories of a childhood, and the approach she takes to show the realities adult children face when parents’ lives are coming to a close. 

Clock Dance: A Family Story

Clock Dance

By Anne Tyler

Published 2018

Read Oct 2020

This reader found this book in one of several Little Free Libraries this author frequents and to which this book will return for a new reader.  You can find a Little Free Library near you here

This reader has enjoyed each of the Anne Tyler novels that she has read.  They deliver stories of believable and (not overly) flawed people doing regular life things in an imperfect world.  Tyler welcomes the reader into the world of her characters and provides them a taste of the imperfect and real lives they lead.  Problems usually remain unresolved although the characters are not untouched.

In Clock Dance, the reader spends some time with central character Willa in 1967, when she is in fifth grade and her mother has left the family again for some unknown period of time; in 1977 when she is a junior in college and her boyfriend  Derek is about to graduate and wants her to quit school and marry him and move to California;  in 1997 when her husband Derek makes an aggressive move in traffic to soothe his road rage and manages to die in the accident that results; and finally in 2017 when she gets a call from Baltimore asking her to come to take care of a girl the caller thinks is Willa’s granddaughter while the girl’s mother is in the hospital.

We spend most of our time with Willa in 2017 as she and current husband Peter answer the request to come to care for Cheryl, the daughter of Denise, Willa’s son’s ex-girlfriend.  Cheryl isn’t her granddaughter but the caller didn’t know that and Willa responds anyway.  The readers are treated to living with Willa and Peter and Cheryl and her dog, Airplane, during the summer that Denise is recovering from a broken leg due to a stray bullet from an unknown gun.    We meet characters in Denise and Cheryl’s neighborhood and we learn about Cheryl’s approach to living with a single mother.   We learn about Willa and Peter’s marriage in 2017 although we don’t know when they married or anything about their life together prior to the here and now of this story.

This reader appreciates Tyler’s choices regarding what to tell us, what to show us, and what to leave unrevealed.  Her endings are never abrupt nor do they tie the ends together—what happens next for the charactersis appropriately unclear.  This reader looks forward to finding more Anne Tyler books in Little Free Libraries and in public libraries and to savoring more of Tyler’s stories of people and the families and friends who share their lives. 

Bruno: Chief of Police–Crime, Culture, and Food

Bruno:  Chief of Police

By Martin Walker

Published 2008

Read Sept 2020

Martin Walker is quite an interesting fellow.  He’s currently Senior Director of the Global Business Policy, a private think-tank for CEO’s of major companies, and Editor Emeritus of the United Press International, and Senior Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for scholars…. among other things.  He’s been a journalist, a broadcaster, and historical scholar and he has written widely in various formats.  

 Fortunately for this reader and fellow Bruno, Chief of Police  fans, he finds time to write about Bruno, a policeman who lives in a small village in South France.  Bruno, a former solider, has found his piece of heaven in St Denis.  He’s built his own house out of an abandoned shepherd’s cottage, he hunts, he  owns a dog, he organizes parades and firework displays for the village, he gardens, and  he cooks beautiful and simple meals. 

He also solves crimes.   Martin Walker has given us a series of Bruno books in which the policeman deals with a major crime while tending to the needs of the village and cooking wonderful meals. This NY Times article about Walker will likely engage your interest in Martin Walker and his Bruno series: 

In this first installment, Bruno must deal with the murder of a local elderly North African man who had served in the French army during WWII.  There is a swastika carved into his chest.  He’s paired up with a young policewoman from Paris to delicately investigate this politically charged situation.   Walker confronts the reader with some messy details of French history during WWII providing the reader with both some French history, an interesting mystery, and some French culture of the region.

This reader stumbled on this series in a Little Free Library and reported on The Devil’s Cave which is the sixth novel in the series that currently contains sixteen entries.  This reader did not find it important to read the two books “out of order” although it might be nice to progress through them in the order written.   This reader looks forward to more adventures with Bruno cooking, engaging with the residents of St Denis, and solving crimes. 

Go Went Gone: How Do We Deal with Other

Go Went Gone

By Jenny Erpenbech

Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky

Published 2015

Read Sept 2020

The protagonist, Richard, is a recently retired classics professor.  He is somewhat disoriented in these early days of retirement when the highlights of his day may include a trip to the urologist.  On a walk in a nearby square he sees a “tent city” occupied by what he discerns to be African refugees.  He becomes interested in how his German government is dealing with them and he decides to do a “study”.  By the time he has formulated a long list of questions for the refugees he hopes to interview, the refugees have been placed in several living situations including a wing of a nearby nursing home.  He visits there and begins a relationship with several of the refugees.  Their names are complicated for him so he identifies them (only to himself) with names suggested by his classics background—Apollo, Tristan, Olympian, Thunderbolt-hurler.  Over the course of the story he learns about German law regarding refugees, including the agreement with the European Union countries that only the country of original entry into the EU can grant asylum. Most of these refugees from various African countries entered after their (usually overloaded) boat landed in Italy.  Italy has no work for them so they have come to Germany in search of work.  Since they have no official status in Germany, they aren’t allowed to work.  As these refugees are black, they encounter racial prejudice as well as the barriers of their refugee status.

The title Go Went Gone is an interesting one as it applies to several aspects:  Richard’s academic career is gone (he is retired);  his wife is gone (he is now a widower); his lover is gone (she’s left him), the country where he was born and raised (East Germany) is gone (being now part of unified Germany); the refugees’ ability to work for a living is gone (no legal status = no right to work); the refugees’ ability to stay in Germany is going (once their cases are heard they will be deported to Italy); the refugees are endeavoring to learn German and are learning how to conjugate verbs in this new language (although most speak several other languages). 

The author’s depiction of Richard’s disorientation as a new retiree is very realistic based on this reader’s own experience—feeling a loss of identity and associated worth, feeling of isolation from former colleagues, feeling that days are endless in the absence of work. The disorientation is amplified by the loss of his wife and his lover.   A positive aspect of retirement is noted—absent external expectations from the department, university, or other career responsibilities, reading and writing can feel freer and new veins of thinking are available even in texts previously well explored.    Similarly his consideration of the impact of the reunification on the geography and societal aspects of his neighborhood and life as a result of Germany’s reunification are considered more closely now. 

The story provides the reader much opportunity to consider regarding refugees and immigration—who should be allowed to work/what barriers are appropriate for non-citizens to their ability to make a living/contribute to society;  what is the appropriate definition of “citizen” and who has the right to make that definition; are immigration laws truly seeking to protect job access for citizens or are they seeking to prevent “others” from crossing borders; how did political borders get drawn—why and by whom; who has the right to define “other”. 

There are no simple answers and the author doesn’t suggest there are.   The book’s ending is appropriately not the ending of the story for Richard or the refugees he’s met.  The courses of all their lives remain uncertain– as is the actual case for all of us.  What is clear is that the flow of refugees/immigrants has always existed and will continue to exist as people flee war/political issues and/or seek a better life than they have where they are.   Borders are man-made.  Arguments over borders are man-made.  The constant flow of people away from strife will continue to challenge people to decide how they will accept “others” into “their” space. 

Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn Brighter

By Shobha Rao

Published 2018

Read Aug 2020

This premier novel from Rao, born in India but migrated to the US at age 7, depicts the story of two girls’ struggle to retain their “brighter” selves despite relentless abuse they suffer. Poornima’s mother has died of cancer and her father’s alcoholism keeps the family struggling to eat.  He uses a marriage broker to seek a husband for Poornima but his meager estate makes this difficult.  Savitha’s family is even poorer, living on and picking through the local trash heap.  Savitha ends up working for Poornima’s father’s weaving business and the two girls kindle a friendship that helps them continue to “burn brighter” despite the obstacles they encounter.   The novel alternates between the stories of the two girls. The two girls end up in “thrown away” situations for different reasons which won’t be revealed here and are separated. 

This reader listened to the novel.  The reader was generally breathless, except in dialog sections. This reading style became somewhat annoying to this reader.  The non-dialog prose may have prompted this approach as it was sometimes nearly over the edge as it describes the relentless abuse the girls suffer and the girls’ struggle to keep their “light burning” while on their quests.  Poornima’s  quest was to find Savitha.   Savitha’s quest was to escape her appalling slave-life situation.  Her quest also seems pretty hopeless. 

Despite the near implausibility of their quests and an editing issue with respect to timing, the book was engaging. This reader knew that the “finder” at the nearby train station they both encounter at different times was leading them to a human trafficking situation which turned out to be true.  But this reader certainly hoped their quests would be fulfilled despite the odds.  The book paints a very bleak picture of life for Indian girls growing up in this kind of village in this region—having no worth except to have babies (boy babies) and serve the husband’s family.  When this path can’t be achieved, the options are bleak at best.    Unfortunately, this situation is not limited to poor Indian villages but remains true for many women in many cultures throughout the world and even within certain cultural situations in the United States.  This was a sobering book to read during the summer of the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote in the United States.  Clearly the struggle for basic rights for women remains incomplete. 

Where the Crawdads Sing—Good Summer Reading

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Published 2018

Read June 2020

This book has been wildly popular.  This reader listened to it while on a summer vacation and understands the appeal.  It is a coming-of-age story. The person coming of age is a young girl abandoned by family and surviving on her own in the swamplands of North Carolina. It has lush language about the landscape. The young girl blossoms into a well-respected author despite many obstacles.  It has a murder mystery, the story of the investigation running parallel to the coming-of-age story.  The reader is engaged to root for the young girl during her struggles to both interact with and avoid society.   It is sweet but not sappy.  It’s a little unbelievable with regards to the ability of a girl of nine to actually survive on her own but as the youngest of a hard-scrabble family she had to learn some things before everyone left and the family from whom she buys gas has their eye on her.

So enjoy reading this book along with lots of other readers even if it’s not one that you  will discuss for many hours with a serious book discussion group.  We need some of these too, especially during these days of a seemingly unending pandemic and this one might provide some needed positive nourishment.

The Cellist of Sarajevo–Relentless Struggles

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway

Published 2008

Read June 2020

The cellist of Sarajevo really existed.  He was playing his cello when twenty-two people lost their lives in a bombing outside his window while waiting in line for bread during the siege of Sarajevo.  He really played that song each of twenty-two days in a row in their memory.  This book uses three voices to describe fictional people living in Sarajevo during those twenty-two days.

Arrow learned marksmanship in school and shot in competitions with her teammates.  She had been pressed into service to kill snipers lurking in the hills who were killing residents while they went about their daily business.  During the time of this story she has been assigned to kill the sniper sent to silence the cellist.  We hear what she is thinking and feeling during this time.  Her voice is the clearest and most distinct of the three.  We are left, as was she, with the question—is she really different from the snipers in the hills?

We listen to Keenan’s thoughts as he ventures into the streets to collect water for his family and neighbor from one of the few water sources left in the city. He doesn’t want to expose anyone else in his family to potential death by sniper during these treks but also doesn’t know what would happen to them if he is shot. 

Finally we listen to the thoughts of Dragon, a baker who has lived in the city all his life and is mourning the loss of the majesty of the buildings and the vitality of its people.  His family is no longer in the city—he has sent them away for safe keeping.  He too ventures into the streets to collect food and water.

The voices of Keen and Dragon are less distinct from each other compared with the voice of Arrow.  They recount their terror when worrying about whether it is safe to leave the safety of buildings and barricades to cross the street when needed.  They recount the various buildings that have been lost during this endless struggle. 

There is no discussion regarding the parties engaged in battle nor the reasons for the siege.  The book is solely focused on these three people as representatives of those whose lives are in a sort of suspended animation as their city and its people are being slowly destroyed.

The book is mercifully short (235 pages) as each page describes the endless dreadful state of being for the three characters.  This reader read a Kindle version so the extent of progress in the book wasn’t as obvious as when reading a hardcopy.  At one point, this reader wondered if the book would ever end as the relentlessness of destruction and sense of doom was almost overwhelming.  Fortunately this reader did eventually break out of this feeling, did experience the ability of the characters to persevere, and did appreciate the author’s ability to show both endurance of the spirit and the enormity of what Sarajevo citizens endured. 

Christine Falls—John Baneville’s first book as Benjamin Black

Christine Falls

By Benjamin Black

Published 2006

Read July 2020

This is the first book John Banville wrote as Benjamin Black and the second book of this Quirke series he is producing with this pen name.  Quirke is a melancholy, often drunk, pathologist who manages to get involved in trying to understand cases others think should be considered closed.  His inability to let them go reminds one of the character “Columbo” in the 1970’s TV series—always another question to consider.  But in this case, Quirke is a hospital pathologist, not a police officer, and in this book, no police are involved in the case at all except when they are called to deal with people that end up dead after Quirke connects with them to talk about this case he can’t quite leave alone.

In the opening chapter we meet Malachy Griffen, an ob/gyn doctor who practices at the same hospital as Quirke.  A sense of tension between the two is suggested in this opening scene which could be due to Griffen’s unexpected presence in Quirke’s office writing in a file.  Certainly this unusual situation is what peaks Quirke’s interest in the case.  We eventually learn that the tension is probably also associated with the unusual relationship between Quirke and Malachy.  Malachy’s father rescued Quirke from an orphanage when he was a boy and raised him as a son, actually showing parental preference for Quirke as a son over sickly Malachy.  Over the course of the book we learn more interesting and unusual details of their relationship which follow them to the present. 

An aspect that separates this series from other crime/mystery books is the language.  It’s not clipped but rather tends to be atmospheric and requiring involvement from the reader.  It doesn’t rely on short chapters that end on a cliff that compel you forward.  But you are drawn into the book to understand how the parallel story being told connects with the story Quirke is trying to dissect—which in this case requires involvement with living and, likely, lying people.

The time element of the story is not directly revealed, but it’s clearly not set in the present.  No cell phones are used and orphanages still exist, among other differences with current society.  These understated differences help pull the reader into this somewhat foggy world, shrouded in the gloomy weather, present but not explained melancholy of the characters, and likelihood of long-term deceptions that may never be fully revealed to the reader or the characters.  I look forward to reading more of this series. 

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy—A Family Farm Saga from Jane Smiley

The Last Hundred Year Trilogy

Some Luck

Published 2014; Read June 2016

Early Alert

Published 2015; Read July 2016

Golden Age

Published 2015; Read Aug 2016

By Jane Smiley

When the first book of the trilogy was published, the following two were written and in the process of publication as well.  The series literally covers 100 years starting in 1920 and ending in 2020.  Each chapter of each book is entitled the year the actions in the chapter occur.

If you like family sagas especially those that start with rural or farming life this is a great set of books for you.  This reader plowed through them in pretty quick order (limited in part by availability of library copies!) and wasn’t disappointed.  This reader found the first book, Some Luck, to be the strongest.  Since it is focus on the first generation of the Walter and Rosanna Langdon family, it can spend more time with this set of characters and the primary setting in Iowa.  As the series progresses and the Langdon children and their cousins take a variety of paths off the farm, marry, have their own children and grandchildren,  there is progressively much more to manage and single year chapters and reasonable book lengths mean less focus on any single character. 

Jane Smiley has written a number of books both for adults and young people, short stories, books about writing, a book about Dickens, and has taught writing for a number of years so she knows the writing business well.  She can get into the mind of a two year old child, a young farm wife about to manage giving birth on her own, or a horse (Horse Heaven) with equal engaging believability.  Hopefully she will continue delivering.

Everybody’s Fool and Chances Are….Two More Richard Russo Hits

Everybody’s Fool

Published 2016

Read June 2016

Chances Are…

Published 2019

Read June 2020

By Richard Russo

A look at the published/read information shows that this reader reads Russo’s new novels fairly shortly after their publication.  This has been true since this reader read Empire Falls in 2001 and promptly read his two preceding books.  This reader also read his memoir Elsewhere:  A Memoir which nicely confirms that Russo writes what he knows:  life growing up in central upstate New York after industry had left or was leaving and the trials and tribulations of being a teacher at a small college.

Everybody’s Fool is a sequel to Nobody’s FoolNobody’s Fool  was made into a movie starting Paul Newman (who also showed up in a mini-series version of Empire Falls along with his wife Joanne Woodward).   Donald “Sully” Sullivan (Paul Newman’s character) returns in Everybody’s Fool along with other characters from the first book, all older and not necessarily any wiser.   There is a little bit of mystery and a lot of looking at this collection of flawed but sometimes loveable characters as they make their way through a Memorial Day weekend in their small townChances Are… is somewhat of a change of pace for Russo.  It’s neither set in a somewhat decaying town in central upstate New York nor at a small college nor does it involve teachers.  But it does involve men who are Russo’s approximate age so Russo once again writes what he knows.  Here three 66-year old men, who worked together in a kitchen at a small liberal arts college they attended, have gathered for a weekend at the same summer place where they were last together when celebrating college graduation.  There is a mystery again which is more predominant than usual for Russo novels (did his agent or editor indicate this was needed for sales?) this time about a female classmate who was also at that post-graduation gathering and who went missing thereafter.  All the guys had dreamed about Jacey as their girlfriend but she was always just a friend and it was clear that’s all there would be as she was engaged  to be married to someone none of them liked—someone in Jacey’s social stratum which was above theirs.  The chapters alternate between Teddy and Lincoln, two of the guys, and give both their pre-and post-college stories and their present experiences during this weird weekend.  The third character, Mickey, finally has a voice near the end of the book.  Mickey had drawn a small draft lottery number and went to Canada to avoid the draft, despite being conflicted about the decision.  Teddy and Lincoln had drawn higher numbers and avoided the Vietnam experience.  During the course of the weekend, the guys actually spend fairly limited time together and talk to each other even less (remember they are 66 year old men of an era and background that condoned not sharing with other