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The Most Fun We Ever Had—Great Family Saga

The Most Fun We Ever Had

By Claire Lombardo

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

Lombardo’s long (~550pages) debut novel is a winner in this reader’s opinion.  It’s a family saga covering about four decades in the lives of Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson and their children.  Marilyn and David meet in 1975 in Chicago when both are undergraduates (making them contemporaries of this reader).  When David learns that he’s been accepted to medical school in Iowa, he proposes marriage to Marilyn and she accepts.  She intends to finish her undergraduate degree in Iowa but loss of credits in the transfer process, loneliness as David is consumed in his studies and she knows no one, and ultimately a pregnancy ahead of their schedule mean Marilyn drops out of college.  Her career as homemaker/mother is solidified when their second daughter arrives less than a year after the first.

The “Irish twins” Wendy and Violet are clearly sisters—both best friends and fierce competitors– and as different as can be imagined. Wendy is caustic, turbulent, seemingly strong but tending towards self-destructive.   Wendy refuses to go to college, moves out of the house, meets the love of her life whom she marries and loses him to cancer at a young age after their son dies as a baby.  Violet is a type-A personality who gets her law degree, marries another lawyer, has two children, has a seemingly perfect life, but suffers from depression.  Violet’s lack of appreciation for the apparent wonderfulness of her life infuriates Wendy whose life has been so disrupted by the deaths of her baby and husband. Younger sister Liza has a long-term partner who is in a very deep state of depression.  Liza becomes pregnant and her partner leaves her when he learns she’s had an affair.  Nine years after Liza’s birth Marilyn and David decide to take another spin at parenthood and generate Grace whose nickname evolves from “gosling” to “goose” as she grows up although she feels no one in the family will ever realize she’s become an adult.  The daughters are convinced their parents have a perfect marriage and that they can never attain such perfection in their own lives.  Actually, while David and Marilyn have an enviable relationship, it is, of course, far from perfect. 

Wendy and Violet share a special secret.  When Violet found herself pregnant, Wendy took her in and helped her hide from the family during her pregnancy.  Fifteen years later, Violet’s son comes into the family’s life providing an interesting view into the family and the relationships between the various members of it. 

The structure of the book is interesting if complex.  The author shifts back and forth in time and between various characters as she gives their perspective on various events/scenes in their lives.  The story of David and Marilyn’s relationship is the only thing told chronologically; the author heads these chapters with the dates that the chapter covers.  The complexity of the structure and the varying points of view emphasizes the complexity of the life of any family.  No two children have the same childhood, even when they are separated in age by less than a year, and especially when they are separated in age by over a decade.  The parents’ persona each vary by year and even by month with respect to their level of exhaustion from caring for their children, their home, their work, and their own relationship with each other.  The author captures this evolution with accuracy despite her own relative youth.  Being the “gosling” in her own family likely gave her some help in depicting this. 

The author beautifully captures some great parenting moments.  One in particular is the scene when Violet questions her mother about her decision to leave college, a possibility Violet can’t fathom; Marilyn’s responses are not satisfactory to Violet.  This scene so nicely highlights that many of the choices we face in life aren’t the ones we anticipated having but they are the ones we have and we have to make decisions nonetheless. 

This debut novel is long, but so nicely done that this reader didn’t mind the length at all.  This author was reminded of Anne Patchett in her ability to draw the reader into the lives of her characters so that the reader enjoyed every word spent with them.  This reader was well satisfied with the author’s approach to the book’s closure.  This reader hopes that Lombardo’s next offering is as rich and beautifully textured.

Remembering Laughter–Stegner’s Amazing Debut

Remembering Laughter

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1937

Read Feb 2022

This author continues to explore Stegner’s canon which is quite remarkable although not fully appreciated.  Remembering Laughter apparently was written as a submission to a contest held in 1936, which he won (1). The novella (about 160 pages) launched Stegner’s exceptional writing career. 

Elspeth moves in with her older sister, Margaret, and her husband, Alec, on their farm in Iowa.  Elspeth revels in her new surroundings and life.  Margaret seeks to find friends and potential marital matches for her sister.  Unfortunately for all of them, Elspeth and Alec make one fateful trip to the barn loft resulting in Alec’s only child, a son.  The discovery of the affair destroys all of their previous relationships but the three remain living together, along with their “nephew”. 

No page of this novella is wasted.  While telling this sad tale, Stegner also conveys marvelous descriptions of the scenery of the farm, exquisite perceptions of the rural social scene into which Margaret is trying to bring Elspeth, and conveys the frigidity of the relationships following the betrayal.   Even in his debut, Stegner demonstrates amazing gracefulness and ability to address human truths. 

Beekeeper of Aleppo and Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

By Laila Lami

Published 2005

Read Nov 2021

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

By Christy Lefteri

Published 2019

Read Feb 2022

This reader is coupling together these two books in a single essay to allow her to compare and contrast them.

Both books deal with refugees fleeing dire situations who need to cross a body of water in a dangerous way—a rubber boat—and usually engage with smugglers to accomplish the goal of getting to their desired destination and stay there.

In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, the north African refugees are primarily seeking a place where they can work, make a living, and send money home to family so they can join them.  One of the refugees has gotten herself in trouble politically and is seeking refuge to avoid her enemies.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, the primary characters are fleeing Syria because the war has demolished their neighborhood.  Also, Nuri has been warned that he will have to take up arms with the unit that holds their neighborhood or he will be killed.  Other characters Nuri encounters are leaving various countries for various reasons. 

With respect to structure, both books tell their stories in an asynchronous manner.  Time and place of the setting change from section to section.  Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits starts with the sea crossing, turns back to pre-crossing life, and then moves to post-crossing times.  “Current” in The Beekeeper of Aleppo is while Nuri and his wife Afra’s stay at a “B and B” in London housing a number of refugees and while they  work with a social worker to prepare for their asylum hearing.  Sections jump back to various times in Nuri’s life with most emphasis on deciding to flee Syria and various stages of their journey to get to London.

The biggest differences between the books are choice of the primary character and point of view.  In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, there are four Moroccan characters, two men and two women.  By choosing these four characters, the author explores the differing drivers for leaving Morocco.  Of course, all are seeking a better life.  The two men are seeking a place to find work that can support them and their families, preferably that utilize their university training.  Their outcomes are very different but both come to an understanding of what’s important to them.  One woman is fleeing an abusive husband.  The other woman is fleeing due to an issue she created for herself in speaking against the current government.  The author tells us what the particular character is saying, thinking, and feeling, and sometimes includes dialogue and characters that point out other issues.  For example, the female student hopes that her friend’s father can use influence to get her a position, something he does for others and which he knows is an abuse of his power.  The chapters are focused on individual characters with their primary connection being that they all cross the sea together.

In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Nuri generally narrates the story although the author uses some recalled dialog and emails between Nuri and his cousin as well.  While following Nuri and Afra on their perilous journey, there is much time spent with Nuri providing us his thoughts and feelings.  This allows us to more deeply understand the trauma that cause both Nuri and his wife to suffer both physical (Afra’s blindness) and mental (Nuri’s less obvious PTSD) distress.  Since Nuri is telling us the story vs an all-knowing narrator, the reader must rely on Nuri’s words to slowly reveal what they are really going through beyond the physical challenges of trying to escape from the devastation of Syria and we slowly understand that Nuri is suffering a breakdown while at awaiting his asylum hearing in the UK.     Both are interesting books that provide the reader a glimpse into the plight of refugees.  Given a choice of the two, this reader would promote The Beekeeper of Aleppo for its skill in using the narration of a single character to probe very deeply into the psyche of one refugee whose story is far too common

Journal of the Plague Year—Can We Learn?

Journal of the Plague Year

By Daniel DeFoe

Published 1722

Read Jan 2022

One of the book discussion groups to which this reader belongs chose this book for their consideration.  This reader first attempted to read a recent edition with illustrations but found it difficult to stay engaged with the relatively dry text.  Fortunately, an audiobook was located with a great reader which made the book much more interesting.  Certainly, one of the attributes of the book that doesn’t please this reader is that it is written in one long passage devoid of chapters or breaks. 

DeFoe suggests this book is the actual journal of someone who lived through the 1664 plague, perhaps an uncle.  DeFoe was only five at the time so had no direct knowledge of it.  He likely did a fair amount of research to put this material together which could appropriately be described as fictionalized journalism.

Of course, being in the midst of this Covid-19 pandemic made this book quite popular and it is quite interesting to see the parallels between this pandemic and that one and to consider what is different and why.

Similarities: 

  • A regular public record of data was available:  then:  Bill of Mortality gave deaths and number due to the plague was published by parish; now New York Times, CDC, departments of health give various statistics regularly
  • Distrust that the public records were really reliable
  • Hope that the disease would stay away from a person’s parish/country—but of course not the case
  • The disease spread across the city/country
  • Attempts to prevent the spread via some sort of lockdown—then:  people locked in their residences in London; now:  declaration of lockdown by various governing bodies
  • Attempts to keep immigrants/foreigners out and blame them for the disease
  • Lack of understanding of the method of spread at least during the early days of the pandemic
  • Lack of effective treatment but desperate attempts to apply various unsubstantiated methods of cure despite their dangers
  • More rapid spread in areas of high density
  • More impact on the lower income population—in London due to cramped living quarters and higher concentration of fleas and lice; in the US lower income filling jobs that must be done in person so having increased exposure in the workplace
  • Lack of full understanding of the disease leads individuals to form their own opinions about the disease

Differences:

  • Scientific and epidemiological tools are currently available to study the disease at various levels—population, organ, molecule—which allowed rapid vaccine and treatment development compared as well as (eventually) an understanding of means of transmission

Th author spends much effort and pages on speculation of the means of transmission based on his observations and analysis of the data.  He also is quite adamant that locking people into their homes once someone in the household was infected both increased the spread within the household and did little to reduce spread into the community as it was easy to circumvent those assigned to keep watch of the household.

It is disappointing, frankly, that our reaction to Covid-19 has not been informed by the various bouts of the plague nor the various bouts of other deadly infectious agents—SARS, Eboli, Influenza.  The population in this country and others seem destined to fail to learn from any of this history and to have similar outcomes over and over.  Perhaps those reading this book and accounts of the 1918 influenza and other infectious disease pandemics might help break this cycle.  This reader isn’t convinced that will happen.  Those in the battle of treating the disease or dealing with various economic fallout of the pandemic have limited time to share their learning and will likely be fully consumed to getting their respective responsibilities back to somewhat normal as the pandemic winds down—-unfortunately. 

All the Little Live Things—An Under-Appreciated Master Work from Wallace Stegner

All the Little Live Things

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1967

Read Jan 2022   

While some descriptions of this book say something like “Joe and Ruth Allston return….”, the reverse is actually true.  This book was written in 1967 and the first book in which Stegner introduces us to Joe and Ruth Allston.   In this book, Joe is very recently retired as a literary agent.  The Spectator Bird was written in 1976 and Joe is seven or eight years into retirement.  The comment about them returning really reflects the situation that was true for this reader—hungry for more from Stegner after recently reading The Spectator Bird which won the National Book Award and Crossing to Safety (published 1987) which is also well known, and have already read The Angle of Repose (published 1971) which won the Pulitzer Prize, this reader turned to this book which received less fanfare but which, in this reader’s opinion, is even better than The Spectator Bird

Joe and Ruth Allston have recently moved to a currently rural area about 30 minutes from a university town in California.  They have purchased land from a developer who bought part of a farm that is still owned by one of their neighbors.  Joe and Ruth have built a house and are now working on landscaping.

The book opens with our narrator, Joe, lamenting about the death of Marion.  He is clearly impacted by this death—she was too young, too full of life, and someone he clearly loved.  After this prologue the book goes back to about the time Joe and Ruth meet Marion.  But first we are introduced to Jim Peck, a bearded philosophy student.  He seeks permission to camp on part of their property.  They grant it and he builds a tent platform on the other side of the creek from their home and a bridge to reach it that requires great balance and dexterity to cross.   Marion and her husband and young daughter buy and move into a house down the hill from and on the same side of the creek as the Allstons.

The Allstons become fast friends with Marion and her family quite quickly.  Marion chastises Joe for killing insects and animals he declares pests.  She loves all living things.  Her love of life is dazzling and engaging.  In contrast, Joe Allston becomes increasingly annoyed with Jim Peck as he expands his camp to include a tree house and as he invites many other young people to hang out with him day and night.  Jim Peck has tapped the Allston electric and water lines and even puts up a mailbox. Ruth is less annoyed and suggests Joe is just railing against the societal changes that young people are driving—free thinking and free love among them. 

This reader won’t share more of the story but will comment on aspects that make this book an even better one than The Spectator Bird in this reader’s humble opinion. 

First some similarities.  Both books have wonderful descriptions of the surroundings and of the events that occur.  In this book Stegner’s love of nature is very evident.  Joe’s descriptions of the antics of the birds that occupy hours of his time, of the battle he rages with the gopher who wants to undermine his garden, and of the tragic event that occurs on the bridge that all use to cross the creek to reach their property are all quite remarkable.  Both books comment on the encroachment of developments into land previously farmed.  Both books deal very well with the emotional transformations that accompany retirement.  Both books reveal the loss of the Allston’s only son by drowning in a surfing accident—or was it an intentional act—and the guilt Joe feels about this.   

Both books demonstrate Stegner’s value of marriage.  Joe loves Marion but only in a friendship way.  He comments she is almost like a daughter he wishes he would have had.  There is never anything untoward about their relationship but it is clearly special and he shares with Marion feelings about his life that he may never have shared with Ruth.  In The Spectator Bird, Ruth was becoming concerned about Joe’s feelings for Astrid and he admits to the reader that had he not been married he would have considered a relationship with Astrid.  But he was married so that consideration was fully off the table. 

So– what is different.  The Spectator Bird reveals a hidden part of Astrid’s life that has some intersection with Joe’s mother that is rather spectacular and something that a modern Netflix series could use for a very engaging series. Perhaps this is an aspect that made this book so much more popular than others he wrote.  All The Little Living Things has nothing similarly spectacular although there is an out-of-wedlock pregnancy that results from “free love” practiced in Jim Peck’s camp and which Joe disfavors.  In the end, much of this book is about a man wrestling with the fact that some of his long-held values are being challenged by a changing society—something widely experienced in the 1960’s.  Simultaneously Joe is experiencing a second loved one following a path he really doesn’t want them to take and he can’t make them change course.  The latter is a universal situation.  Sons and daughters sometimes take different paths than their parents hoped for and sometimes there are devastating consequences for all.  Friends make choices we don’t want them to make.   Stegner beautifully tells us one man’s trials and reminds us that we can’t always have things the way we want them to be. 

Crossing to Safety—Stegner’s Comments on Marraige and Ambition

Crossing to Safety

By Wallace Stegner

Published 1987

Read Nov 2021

Larry Morgan narrates the story of the friendship between he and his wife, Sally, and Sid and Charity Lang.  He begins with their arrival to Sid and Charity’s Vermont camp as they’ve been summoned there by Charity who is dying of cancer.  Larry sweeps back to the beginning of their friendship which begins when Larry and Sally come to Madison, WI in the early 1930’s for a one-year contract Larry has to teach in the English department of the University of Wisconsin.  He and Sally have moved from California and have very few resources so they count their pennies very closely.   Sid is also an instructor in the English department.  Sid and Sally have been in Madison for six years hailing from the east, Ivy league schooling and money.  Larry and Sally are invited to a dinner party at Sid and Charity’s home and their lives are transformed by the evening when Sid and Charity embrace them as bosom friends. 

Larry wants to be a successful writer and pours all his energies, when not dealing with his teaching responsibilities, into writing and submitting his work for publication.   Sally is supportive but also grateful for her friendship with Charity so that she has someone with whom to spend time while Larry focuses on his work.  Sally and Charity have bonded quickly as expectant mothers.  Larry’s focus pays off and some of his work is published that year but budget constraints due to the Depression means Larry can’t be offered another contract by the university.  Charity is adamant that Sid earns tenure as Charity’s father has done and has little patience with Sid’s desire to write and publish poetry.  The English department also can’t give Sid tenure this year which means he has also lost his job.  Sid and Charity and their kids return to the Lang family camp in Vermont for the summer and take Sally with them while Larry teaches a summer class before he joins them. 

Larry’s narration tells of the friendship that survives through four decades although Larry and Sid’s paths diverge and both couples face a number of difficult times.  Larry does become a successful writer but Sally contracts and survives polio and is left with serious physical disability.   Sid eventually gains a tenured position but feels he has failed his domineering wife who has followed in her mother’s footsteps of bossing her husband around and orchestrating everything that happens in the household.

While this is a novel about a lasting friendship, it may primarily actually be a book about marriage.  Here we see two marriages that survive despite their challenges and the pressure they put upon the respective marriages.  A. O. Scott wrote in a New York Times article  “Stegner’s settings range from academia and the literary world to mining camps and boomtowns, but his most consistent subject is marriage, represented in a mode more epic than romantic. Monogamy, with its crags and chasms, is the most salient and imposing feature in his imaginative landscape, the human undertaking around which all the others are organized.”   The Lang’s marriage is clearly not always a happy one but neither Sid nor Charity could conceive of not remaining married.  Larry reveals that he is dependent on Sally as much as she is on him.   He can’t imagine life without her.  In this, his last novel, Stegner shows us lives lived within the bonds of marriage, something he clearly reveres. 

The Lincoln Highway–Ten Days and Sprawling

The Lincoln Highway

By Amor Towles

Published 2021

Read Dec 2021

This reader’s book club tends to read recently published literary fiction so chose this one for our Jan 2022 discussion.  This reader put holds on all formats of the book in two library systems, both of which had purchased multiple copies due to the expected demand for the book following the author’s success with A Gentleman in Moscow.  This reader was delighted to get both a large print copy (~650 pages) and an audiobook copy fairly quickly.  This reader settled on the audiobook and sent the large print copy on to another eager reader.

This reader did learn about the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road for automobiles in the United States, dedicated in 1913, but the book is really about four young characters in 1954 who are seeking various futures for themselves. 

Emmett, 18, newly released from a work-camp after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter, and his precocious brother Billy, 8, plan to drive from their family home in Nebraska, now in foreclosure after their father’s death, to San Francisco.  Emmett is planning to flip houses there and make enough money to both sustain the business and provide a stable home for his brother.  He is wiling to entertain Billy’s plan to find their mother who left them eight years prior but sent postcards to them on her journey to San Francisco.  The last one, sent on a July 4th, indicated she planned to spend every July 4th holiday in San Francisco.  Thus, their goal is to get to San Francisco and meet her on July 4th.  (Where, how, etc TBD….)    Billy wants to take the Lincoln Highway to get there and Emmett is fine with that as well.

Their plan is disrupted when they go to the barn sheltering Emmett’s car only to discover that two of Emmett’s workcamp mates had stowed away in the warden’s car that had driven Emmett home.  Wallace “Woolly” Wolcott Martin had revealed to his friend Duchess that Woolly’s grandfather had put away $150,000 in cash for him in a safe in the family’s camp in the Adirondacks in New York State.  Woolly is willing to get the money and share with Duchess and Duchess is more than happy to accommodate.

Duchess wants Emmett to go to Woolly’s family camp before going to San Francisco.  Emmett remains focused on getting to San Francisco but is willing to drop Duchess and Woolly off at a train station so they can start their journey east.  Duchess manages to separate Emmett from his car long enough to “borrow” it leaving Billy behind.  Thus starts the adventure of Emmett and Billy trying to catch up with Duchess and Woolly to retrieve their car so they can drive to San Francisco.

Over the course of about 650 pages and ten days, we follow this pair of travelers from Nebraska to the Adirondacks via New York City where Duchess stops to visit some old acquaintances and a suburb of New York City where they all end up at Woolly’s sister’s home.   Over the course of those pages and days, we learn something of the backstory of all the characters; we meet a number of other characters and learn much of their stories; we hear stories from Billy’s beloved compendium of stories about 24 heros by  Abacus Abernathe; we watch Wholly wonder at the sites of New York City he never saw before despite growing up in New York City; we watch Billy learn about the world outside of his limited experiences in Nebraska; we wonder whether the two sets of travelers can actually ever connect; we wonder what will happen if they do.

Certainly, Towls is a clever writer.  He has apparently provided some links between this book and his others that fans may notice and enjoy.  He is able to confidently write about the wealthy characters and their surroundings.  However, despite the length of the book and the time spent on their backstories, the characters sometimes feel fairly flat to this reader, verging on being caricatures: Duchess–the troublemaker from a broken and dysfunctional family raised by a scoundrel father and the whores he visits; Woolly—the hapless friend who is addicted to some kind of “medicine” that keeps him calm and manageable; Emmett—the straight arrow brother focused on getting a fresh start in California; Billy—the precocious brother.  The author provides enough backstory for Duchess to encourage you to consider feeling empathy for him.  The author provides insufficient detail of Woolly’s story to make clear from what he suffers and why he takes the actions he does at the end of the story. This reader wondered if Woolly’s situation was somewhat like that of Rosemary Kennedy, although that is only this reader’s speculation.  Emmett is driven and focused and a good person (the manslaughter he committed was clearly very involuntary and accidental) so the author doesn’t spend too much time with him aside from moving the plot along.  Billy is extremely precocious for an eight-year-old but this reader found his naivete and his reactions to events generally believable.  

This particular reader was sometimes annoyed by the level of detail provided in what seemed like irrelevant tangents.  For example, as Duchess is listening to (someone else’s) records of Frank Sinatra, we listen to him think about how Frank is standing during the song, what he’s wearing, how he’s holding his cigarette, and more.  If a reader can take a lot of time reading the book (or have a completely free day or two to fully devote to it), they will likely savor this detail more than did this reader.  This reader wondered a number of times why the editor didn’t require some trimming….  The writing gets tighter near the end of the book as we hear from several viewpoints the last few scenes of the story.    This reader anticipates that this tighter writing allows reviewers to forget some of the pages that needed editing and for them to provide highly favorable reviews of the book, which this reader agrees are generally merited. More editing would have made this book closer to a “10”, but the book is one that this reader can recommend.   

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

Commonwealth

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.