Review: Commonwealth


Commonwealth, Ann Patchett. New York: HarperCollins, 2016.

Summary: Traces the lives of six children and the parents from two families over five decades from the beginnings of an affair at a christening that broke up two marriages and threw the children together.

“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

In one sense, the whole story of Commonwealth turns on that first line. Albert Cousins joins Fix Keating’s wife Beverly in the kitchen as they make drinks, and imbibe in a few, setting up the beginnings of an affair that led each to divorce their spouses, Teresa and Fix, throwing together the two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, and the four Cousins children together, Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie, who spend much of their growing up years together in Virginia (the Commonwealth).

The book moves between their childhood together, how this “blended family” negotiates the passage into adulthood, and maturity. Two of the six children dominate the narrative–Franny and Albie.

Franny, the baby at the christening seems to wander through much of her life, dropping out of law school, unlike her successful patent attorney sister, working as a cocktail waitress, and living for a number of years with novelist Leon Posen, who appropriates the family story in a best selling novel, Commonwealth, rejuvenating his career.

Albie, the youngest Cousins was the annoying younger brother, often dealt with by “tic-tacs” from his older brother (benedryl) that put him to sleep and out of their hair, which he was on the fatal day when Cal dies on an outing with the others. Only when he reads Posen’s book, given him as a bicycle messenger to publishers in New York, does he understand the unwitting part he played in his brother’s death, and figures out how the family’s story was appropriated. He’s staying with Jeannette and her husband in a cramped New York apartment. Meanwhile, Holly is off in Switzerland, meditating.

Fifty years later, Fix is dying of esophageal cancer and the other parents are aging. We see how the surviving children of these two families come to terms with their shared family history, the parents they lived with, and those they visited on custodial visits. The tender moments with Fix are those with Franny. Albie, who nearly burned down a school when he was living a difficult adolescence with Teresa becomes the one who checks in on her in her later years. Weirdly, despite Albie’s anger with Franny for giving away the family story, there is a bond between them as the youngest children that brings them together in the closing parts of the book.

Guns, kept but unused, figure both in the death of Cal, and with Fix who wants Franny to end his suffering. Gin also recurs at the end of the story between Albert and the baby at the christening–now mature Franny, married to Kumar in Chicago. Circles close, but Franny makes different choices, keeping “something for herself.”

I’m still deciding what I think of this book. As always, I love the writing of Patchett and the complexity of her characters and their relationships. There is no great crisis or drama–simply the wandering ways of different children trying to find their ways in life, the quarrels and reconciliations that occur in families. The number of children, the movements between childhood, early and later adulthood felt disjointed at times. Perhaps as much as anything, this reflects the disruption and disjointedness that affairs and divorce bring into the lives of all who are touched by them, and the ways children have to come to terms with step-parents, step siblings, non-custodial birth parents. It all seems very modern, a story many readers have lived themselves. Will they see themselves in Patchett’s characters? Will they like what they see or gain insight as they follow these characters through their lives? Will they want to? I’ll leave that to you.


The Month in Reviews: December 2015

I finished the year reading a variety of well-written books from Beowulf to the fiction of Ann Patchett to my son’s new techno-thriller. I worked my way through John Frame’s magisterial treatment of western philosophy and theology, as well as two very different but thoughtfully written books on sex.  I read a collection of essays on the greatness and the goodness of God, and a description of the wonder of the human body from an evolutionary perspective that left God out of the picture. I read two books with very contrasting perspectives on the state of the American academy and mind. It seemed a month, at least in some cases, where my books argued with each other and I was the richer for it. So here are the books I reviewed in December with links to the full reviews:

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988. Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

State of the American MindThe State of the American Mind, Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow eds. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015. The contributors in this volume chart the factors contributing to and consequences of what they see as a declining intellectual life in the United States.

God is Great, God is GoodGod is Great, God is Good, William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. This collection of essays provides thoughtfully reasoned responses to the leading challenges to Christianity posed by the New Atheism.

FrameA History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame. Phillipsburg, NJ: Puritan and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015. A survey and critique of the major philosophers and theologians of the West beginning with the Greek philosophers and early church fathers up to the present day, written from a reformed perspective.

LiberalWhat’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?, Michael Bérubé. New York: Norton, 2006. This is a spirited defense of liberalism and the liberal idea by a literature professor against accusations of “liberal bias”. The argument includes extensive description of the author’s own classroom practice.

SurrealitySurrealityBen Trube. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. The murder of Franklin Haines in virtual reality is paralleled with the real theft of $80 million from him. A prostitute is missing, a deadly gang that operates in both cyberspace and the real world threaten murder and mayhem, and Detective Dan Keenan, his real world and virtual world partners and a penguin named Tux work together to find the real criminal behind this web of crime. [Ben Trube is my son.]

Redeeming SexRedeeming Sex, Debra Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Hirsch explores how the church ought engage society around issues of sexuality, discussing the connection of spirituality and sexuality, the nature of gender, orientation and our sexuality, and how the church holds in tension the image of God in people and the ethics of various sexual expressions.

church for the fatherlessChurch for the Fatherless, Mark E. Strong. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. Mark Strong chronicles both the crisis of fatherlessness in our society and the vital role the church can play in equipping fathers and caring for the fatherless.

beowulfBeowulfunknown, Seamus Heaney (translator). New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Seamus Heaney’s translation of this Old English poem, the heroic narrative of Beowulf’s confrontations with three deadly foes.

divine sexDivine Sex, Jonathan Grant. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. Jonathan Grant argues that a powerful “social imaginary” shapes sexual expression even within the Christian community and only communities that live and articulate a “thick” alternative vision can hope to have a formative influence on the lives of Christian disciples.

incredible unlikeliness of beingThe Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Alice Roberts. New York: Heron Books, 2014. An evolutionary account of human embryological development from even before conception through birth  and of human anatomy and its evolutionary antecedents.

Best book of the month: Beowulf gets the nod just barely over Bel Canto. I was captured by the power of Seamus Heaney’s translation as well as the profound richness of the story itself.

Best quote of the month: Again, I am going to go with Beowulf. Hrothgar’s warning to Beowulf is one all of us do well to heed:

“O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.
Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,
eternal rewards. do not give way to pride.
For a brief while your strength is in bloom
but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow
illness or the sword to lay you low,
or a sudden fire or surge of water
or jabbing blade or javelin from the air
or repellent age. Your piercing eye
will dim and darken; and death will arrive,
dear warrior, to sweep you away.

On the TBR pile: Among the books I’m reading or anticipate reviewing in the coming month are Wallace Stegner’s fictional biography of Joe Hill, an early labor organizer, John Walton’s book on Genesis 2 and 3, R.C. Sproul’s book on Matthew 24, an account of the eruption of Mt. St Helens and a memoir of theologian Tom Oden and Jon Meacham’s biography of George H.W. Bush.

Thanks again for following the blog in 2015 and, if you get a chance, let me know about something good that you have read!


Review: Bel Canto

Bel CantoBel Canto, Ann Patchett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Summary: An international group gathered in a South American country for a dinner party to celebrate a Japanese industrialist’s birthday are taken hostage in a failed attempt by a revolutionary group to seize the country’s president. When months pass without a resolution a strange, an oddly wonderful community develops among hostages, and captors, one strangely forgetful of the inevitabilities of a hostage situation.

Roxane Coss is a world-renowned opera soprano from America who agrees to fly into a South American country to sing at the birthday of Japanese industrialist Mr. Hosokawa, who has loved her voice from the moment he first heard it. He is joined by his ever-diligent translator Gen Watanabe and celebrated by an illustrious cast of dignitaries at the home of the country’s Vice-President. President Masuda is also expected to be present in this ill-disguised attempt to persuade Hosokawa to locate a factory in the country. But President Masuda, stays home at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera.

On that last minute petty decision turns the whole plot. What was meant to be a kidnapping of a president by a revolutionary militia becomes a protracted hostage siege. Joachim Messner, a Red Cross negotiator visiting the country steps in, with the help of Gen the translator. Ultimately 19 revolutionaries hold 39 men and one woman, Roxane Cass.

At first the threat of death hangs over the hostages, who saw the Vice President brutally pistol whipped and Roxane’s accompanist die in what they too late learned was a diabetic coma. As time drags on and only demands for food and necessities are met, the phenomenon know as the “Stockholm syndrome” develops as bonds form between hostages and captors, even various kinds of love between Roxane Coss and Hosokawa, between the efficient and retiring Gen, and the girl soldier Carmen, between boy soldier Ishmael and the Vice President, and Cesar, another boy, with a tremendous voice who Roxane dreams of turning into a great singer.

All of this is narrated by Patchett in her voice of measured wonder. She describes the unfolding of a world where captives and captors nearly and sometimes do forget the reality of a hostage siege which must end in surrender or bloodshed. It is a world that at least some do not want to end. Perhaps only the negotiator and Father Arguedas, the poor parish priest who volunteered to stay, knowing a priest would be needed, see clearly the alternatives.

Even here, she finds a way to end a book in a surprising implausibility that one didn’t see coming, and to this reader just didn’t seem quite right. It is true that she is not predictable, but the very best do unpredictable in a way that is satisfying, where one might say, “I didn’t see that coming, but it fits, it works.”

Of all of Patchett’s novels, I think this the best. The characters she draws, the measured progress of the plot, moving at the speed of developing relationships and situations, and the strange wonder of the world she creates all draw one in and forward.  I will likely read another Patchett book because of the quality of the writing and the stories she develops, and I’ll keep hoping for that fitting ending.


The Month in Reviews: September 2014

The onset of a new academic year seemed to bring a more serious tone to the collection of books I read this month. I looked at the question of what it means to be a saint, a collection of essays around the topic of language and literary criticism, a memoir by a leader of the Tienanmen demonstrations, a factbook about HIV/AIDS, and a challenging book on the nature of Christian love, among others. Not a light reading month! So here’s the recap:


1. Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity, Gordon T. Smith. Smith explores how sainthood is rooted in union with Christ and works out in holiness in every dimension of life.

2. Language and Silence, George Steiner. This collection of essays written in the 1950’s and ’60’s reflect Steiner’s attempt to articulate a philosophy of language in a post-Holocaust world.

3. A Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling. This is Chai Ling’s riveting account of the Tienanmen demonstrations and its aftermath, including her escape, and life in the West. She includes her concerns and advocacy against forced abortions that result from the “one child” policy.


4. Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James D. Bratt. This biography gives us a narrative not only of Kuyper’s life but also an intellectual biography of the thought and writing of this formidable thinker, politician, and church leader.

5. Responding to HIV/AIDS: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, Dale Hanson Bourke. This book is a very helpful introduction to the facts about HIV/AIDS and also the global landscape of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Crisp and concise.

6. State of Wonder. Ann Patchett. This novel is a Conrad-esque type journey up the Amazon where Marina Singh confronts both her past and surprising present realities.


7. The Battle for Leyte Gulf, C. Vann Woodward. Woodward gives us a nearly moment-by-moment account of the last major naval battle of World War II, the near success of the Japanese strategy to divide American naval forces, the inexplicable retreat of Kurita’s force and the heroic defense of the San Bernadino Straits by an inferior force of destroyers and escort carriers.

8. Steelworker Alley: How Class Works in YoungstownRobert Bruno. Bruno explores how “working class identity” is distinctive from a middle class ethos even though incomes may be similar. He does this through interviews with those working in Youngstown’s steel industry from the 1940’s to the 1970’s.

9. Works of Love, Soren Kierkegaard. A searching reflection on the biblical passages that help define love in Christian terms.

10. Why Church History Matters, Robert F. Rea. Christians committed to the authority of the Bible are often suspicious of “tradition”. Rea explores how this actually can help us to be more faithful to scripture and to extend our “communion of the saints” beyond our own circle to those of other traditions, cultures, and times.

The links will take you to my reviews if you missed these the first time around. If you don’t want to miss them, I would encourage you to follow the blog, either via WordPress or by email (options for both are available on my homepage).

Next month will have a review mix of both theological and lighter books. I’ve begun reading Edmund Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt series and will also have reviews of a book on earthquake storms and some Jeff Shaara Civil War historical novels. Thanks to all of you who comment on reviews and other posts!


Review: State of Wonder

State of Wonder
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A letter arrives at Marina Singh’s pharmaceutical lab informing her company of the death of her co-worker, Anders Eckman. At the firm’s request he had gone to the Amazon to check on the research progress on a drug the company was funding, research being done by Annick Swenson. There are few details other than he died of a fever and was buried onsite. Marina’s boss (and lover), Mr Fox as he is known, and Anders wife (who still believes he is alive) both ask her to go to Brazil to find the truth. Marina can hardly say no, yet this trip brings to life her buried past. Before she studied pharmacology, she was an obstetrics resident under Dr. Swenson until she left the residency after performing an emergency C-section that resulted in a disfigured child.

"Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone” by David Shankbone – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

As she journeys to Brazil, it is not a state of wonder we expect but a bad ending. She loses her luggage. She is stalled by a young couple, the Bovenders, who tend Dr. Swenson’s Manau apartment while she is in the jungle. Finally, she goes upriver with Dr. Swenson against her wishes into the heart of the Amazon rain forest if not the “heart of darkness”. Her arrival feels Conrad-esque, occurring at night, complete with natives who steal her belongings, and warnings of well camouflaged venomous snakes. She ends up staying with a deaf boy who had previously stayed with Eckman, Easter. Easter, at death’s door, was left with Dr. Swenson by a neighboring cannibalistic tribe.

Yet she survives and embarks on a journey of discovery that will involve a “descent into hell” (language used by Marina) at the end and yet also is filled with wonder. It turns out Dr. Swenson is only one of a number of researchers studying a small plot of trees visited by a unique species of moth and surrounded by psychedelic mushrooms. What’s more, the native women gnaw the bark every five days and continue to be fertile and bear children into their sixties and beyond. Dr. Swenson, experimenting on herself, is also pregnant at 73. But the compound they’ve isolated has other properties of global importance, which is why Dr. Swenson has stalled this research. Marina also confronts her past when she is called on by Dr. Swenson, debilitated by her pregnancy, to perform a C-section on a native woman facing a breech birth.

In the edge-of-your-seat climax, she learns the truth about Eckman, whose fate is wrapped up with that of the deaf boy, Easter. Like all of Patchett’s books that I have read, there were twists at the end, but I think ones that were better anticipated and coherent than in some of her works. And like all Patchett’s books, her writing is beautifully evocative and descriptive and her characters finely drawn in ways that explore the depths and complexities of the human condition. Of those I’ve read, I thought this one of her best.

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Review: The Magician’s Assistant

The Magician's Assistant
The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sabine is the magician’s assistant to Parsifal who she fell in love with from the moment he called her out of the crowd to be part of one of his illusions. Only one problem–Parsifal is gay. Nevertheless they perform and live together, even when Phan becomes Parsifal’s lover. Between Phan’s software business and Parsifal’s fine rug stores, they become comfortably rich. Then Phan dies of AIDS. Parsifal also has the disease and marries Sabine so that she will more easily inherit their estate.

All this is backstory, or so you think. The book opens with Parsifal lying dead on the MRI table, the victim of a brain aneurysm. Sabine is faced with the difficult task of returning to her life making architectural models and managing a house now too big for just her. She thinks that is all until she learns that Parsifal has a family back in Nebraska for whom he has established a trust, and then that they want to visit to know their son and brother Guy’s life since he left Nebraska. This is totally different from the lifestory he has told her.


Ann Patchet

As the story unfolds, Dot and Bertie visit, and in turn Sabine goes back to Nebraska to understand this part of Parsifal’s life she never knew, including meeting the older sister, Kitty. Through her interactions with this family, she discovers more about the man she loved and why he had hidden this part of his life, and more. In the end, without giving too much away, she finds both healing from her grief, and the love she lost in Parsifal, though not with a man.

And here is where I struggle with Patchett’s plotting choice. I am at once drawn by her sparkling prose and story-telling skill. One feels a quiet sense of wonder as she unfolds the lives of her characters. Nor do I object to her portrayal of gay or lesbian love, although I feel she idealizes these relationships against a backdrop of dismal heterosexual relationships. It is that in the end, Sabine once again defines her life in terms of a relationship born out of grief and crisis, albeit “blessed” in a dream by Parsifal and Phan. I was rooting for Sabine to break free from being “the assistant”. In the end, I’m not sure she does.

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