Review: Commonwealth

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.

 

Review: Adam Bede

Adam Bede

Adam BedeGeorge Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 (first published 1859).

Summary: A tale centering around the love of Adam Bede, a woodworker, for Hetty Sorrel, a dairy maid who is eventually tried for murder of her infant child, conceived in an affair with the local squire, Arthur Donnithorne.

One reviewer of this book wondered why this book was not titled Hetty Sorrel. It’s a fair question. So much of the story seems to center around Hetty, the niece of tenants Mr. and Mrs. Poyser, who works with them as a dairy maid. She knows she is beautiful and one to turn the heads of all the young men around, including the hard working, respectable Adam Bede, a woodworker. Instead she falls for the son of the local landowner, Arthur Donnithorne, who woos her into a love affair, which he breaks off when forcibly shown the error of his ways by Adam. Unknown to either, Hetty is pregnant. Finally, Hetty recognizes Adam’s qualities and agrees to marry him, until realizing she is pregnant and can no longer conceal her condition. She flees to London, seeking Arthur’s help. But he is far off in Ireland. During a harrowing return journey, she gives birth, then abandons her child to die, and is arrested for murder.

It turns out that Eliot indeed wrote the story around a real-life incident in which a similarly afflicted woman, Mary Voce, murdered her child, was tried and sentenced to death. This edition includes journal entries from Eliot describing the genesis of the book in this incident. Why then should the book not have been titled Hetty Sorrel?

The answer, it seems to me, lies in the portrayals of a number of the other characters, local figures of no great distinction, as ordinary people with both foibles, and great qualities of character leading to actions that sustain the fabric of a rural community, and when tragic errors rend the fabric of local life, act with quiet wisdom and grace.

Chief of these is Adam Bede, elder brother of Seth and son of Lisbeth, the widow of a drunkard. His hard work as a woodworker gains the respect of all around, and while his father was living, finishing much of his neglected work, including a coffin on the night when he drowned in a local creek after a drunken binge. Eventually, his childhood friend, Donnithorne, taps him to manage his forest while the owner of the carpentry workshop is hoping Adam will succeed him, and even marry his daughter. It is Adam who searches for Hetty when she does not turn up when expected and keeps vigil during her trial.

But there are others. There is Dinah, the Methodist preacher, the object of Seth’s love, not to be returned but who has a way of gently coming alongside all from the elderly to children who are in distress, eventually including Hetty. There are the Poysers, salt of the earth farmers, she of strong opinion but warm heart, he of sturdy affection and integrity. Rev. Adolphus Irwine, the local rector, is no religious firebrand, but exhibits quiet pastoral wisdom that seems “the word fitly spoken” in every situation. Crusty Bartle Massey, the schoolmaster, cares deeply for the pupils of his night school, Adam chief among them. Even Arthur Donnithorne, now the landowner when his grandfather dies, is transformed by the tragedy, perhaps in ways surprising to the other principals.

This passage, full of insight, representative of many, reflects Eliot’s focus on the development of character among all these “ordinary people”:

“For Adam, though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from nature, had not outlived his sorrow–had not felt it slip from him as a temporary burthen, and leave him the same man again. Do any of us? God forbid. It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it–if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown towards which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness” (p. 487).

Yes, Eliot could spin some long sentences! Yet as I followed her into this story, I was reminded of the instances in real human life in the communities of which I have been a part of ordinary people, decent people who meet tragedy and grow through it, acting with resolve and compassion toward each other and sustaining the bonds of society. She challenges our attraction to superficial beauty and charisma, and calls us to a quiet greatness of character that endures.

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. New York: Random House, 2004.

Summary: Six stories told in a chiastic structure in different genres of writing, in different voices, from the past to a post-apocalyptic future, with characters whose lives and stories are connected.

This is one of those books I will probably re-read at some point. Not only are the six stories connected, one to the next, but the themes of power abused, of societal dissolution, flight, and the quest for significance leave one pondering.

Some have described this collection of stories as a series of nested or Matryoshka dolls because each story both exists on its own and is found within the next. That is the case, but the book has a chiastic ABCDEFEDCBA structure as follows:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing
    • Letters from Zettelghem
      • Half-Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery
        • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
          • An Orison of Sonmi – 451
            • Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After
          • An Orison of Sonmi -451
        • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish
      • Half-Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery
    • Letters from Zettelghem
  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing

The stories are connected by a birthmark all six main characters share, suggesting perhaps each is a reincarnation of the previous one. The stories connect as well. Adam Ewing’s journal chronicles his time among the Moriori tribe on a Pacific island, and a desperate journey home while he is being treated for a brain parasite by his physician companion. The first half breaks off mid-sentence, which is being read by Robert Frobisher, the subject of the Letters from Zettelghem to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher, a young composer disowned by his family and desperate for funds attaches himself to a famous, but syphilitic composer as his amanuensis. While here, he composes the Cloud Atlas sextet–six instruments, distinctive individually, woven together evocatively, as are the six stories that make up the novel. Sixsmith, a nuclear physicist, appears some years later n the next story as the lone dissenting scientist in a safety assessment of a nuclear reactor. When this is quashed, he manages to get the report to Luisa Del Rey, an energetic young reporter, who is pursued by corporate hit men committed to seeing that her story doesn’t get out. The account of her ordeal lands in the possession of publisher Timothy Cavendish, who escapes heirs of one of his authors only to be confined in a nursing home. The film, or “disney” of his ordeal is seen by a “fabricant,” a clone, Sonmi – 451, who is part of an experiment to produce the first “ascended,” fully human fabricant. As such, she is a threat to the totalitarian utopia of which she is a part, and her account is presented as an “orison,” an interview before she is taken to the “Litehouse.” Zachry, is part of a group of survivors, one of two tribes, fighting for a primitive existence in a post-apocalyptic world on the big island of Hawaii. A “Prescient,” a visitor who arrives on a great ship, plays the orison of Sonmi – 451, who becomes a kind of god to him, guiding him as he and the Prescient ascend to the abandoned observatories on Mauna Kea, and achieve a harrowing escape from Zachry’s tribal enemies, the Kona. As he escapes over straits to a neighboring island, he reflects:

“I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow. Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.”

The stories also share an element of flight–Ewing to the mainland for a cure, Frobisher, to Belgium and his composer, and then away to assert his own artistic greatness, Luisa Del Rey from the corporate hit-men, Cavendish, from the angered heirs, from debt, and from his nursing home captivity, Sonmi, from the society that perceives her as a threat, and Zachry, from the Kona. Each in some way is asserting their own existential worth against those who would deny it for their own ends.

Mitchell uses multiple genres–a travel journal, a collection of letters, a suspenseful thiller, first person narrative, an interview, and another narrative (“Sloosha”) in a primitive form of English. It is a fascinating writing accomplishment to put all this together into a work that coheres.

Because of the unfolding connections of the stories, and the “souls” of this novel, I found myself liking this work far more than I anticipated I would. As one discovers how Mitchell is birthing each story out of the other, one is intrigued to see where all of this will go. Moreover, his stories explore the human condition, what it means to be human, a perennial question that spans ages, and civilizations.

 

Review: Ohio

Ohio

Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped.

There are two Ohios. There is the Ohio of big and middle-sized cities, most within the rustbelt, apart from Columbus and Cincinnati, struggling to re-make themselves. Then there is the rest of Ohio. After you subtract the first Ohio, there are about 75 counties, each with a county seat of five to thirty thousand or so people. This story could have taken place in any of them. The largest city in the county, a decent size high school, farmland and a few local industries that employ much of the town. Many were devastated in the Great Recession of 2008. Those who could have left. Or they enlisted, some returning physically and emotionally wounded, some returning in pine coffins. The towns struggle with the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the state. There is the wistful memory of what was, combined with a hopelessness.

That is the backdrop of Stephen Markley’s debut novel, and captures the lived reality of many in my home state, when you get beyond the Chamber of Commerce promotional materials. The disturbing thought as I read this account is that it is a narrative that extends far beyond Ohio, across our national landscape.

The story begins in 2007 with a memorial parade for Rick Brinklan, the son of New Canaan’s chief of police. A bereaved family. A former girlfriend who cannot speak. A former friend who fails to show up. Fast forward six years to a hot summer night in 2013. Four graduates from the local high school, unbeknownst to each other, return to the town the same night.

Bill Ashcraft, an increasingly radical political activist, carries a mysterious package to Kaylen Lynn, for a substantial payoff, Rick’s former girlfriend, who had slept with Bill as well. Stacey Moore, a lesbian and ecologically oriented student of literature returns to New Canaan in her search for Lisa Han, her first love, who broke off with her, and then mysteriously disappeared from her life, apart from a few communications, which oddly, tracked back to New Canaan. She meets Lisa’s mom and an old high school music teacher, but fails to find a clue to Lisa. Dan Eaton, having lost an eye after his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan, returns to see his old flame, Hailey Kowalczyk, now married. Tina Ross drives across the state, leaving the first man who really loved her to avenge herself for a high school sexual assault by Todd Beaufort and his football buddies.

Markley tells the stories of each separately, moving back and forth between high school episodes, subsequent life events, and the present of the summer of 2013. There are points they, and the others they knew who are still in New Canaan intersect. We begin to see that high school wasn’t simply “the best time of our lives” but for each, a darker time that marked their lives, even ten years later. Violence done in high school, known and unknown, comes full circle in violence. Idealism and patriotism dissolves into disillusion and anger and grief.

There is a movement between veneer and reality–the church upbringing and FCA Bible studies, and sexual exploration and violence; the Friday night lights of a powerhouse football teams and cheerleaders, and the horrible things done at unsupervised drinking parties, the betrayals of friends.

The book portrays a bleak view of the world evident in the last words of the book, as Bill and Stacey part after meeting once more, several months after the summer night of 2013:

” ‘Keep searching, Moore.’ He pulled away so he could look her in the eye. ‘Fight like hell. It’s the only thing I’ve ever truly believed. Always, always, always fight like hell.’

And they were gone, these infinitesimal creatures, walking the surface of time, trying and failing to articulate the dreams of ages, born and wandering across the lonesome heavens.”

Heaven for them is empty, dreams fail and die, and yet each of the four in some ways fights on. Danny cares for a wounded buddy, both on the battlefield and at home until he dies. Tina ends up in a prison ward, trying to find hope and forgiveness in the Bible studies she leads. Bill and Stacey keep searching. They make us ask why we keep hope alive in a seemingly hopeless world, why we dream and try to articulate those dreams.

And then there is the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, resolved in the book, but not in this review. You just have to read this haunting, troubling, and powerful work. It both is and is not about Ohio. It is a reflection on the disjunction between the American dream and American reality, that a rising generation is struggling to make sense of, and with which the postcard towns of our American landscape are trying to come to terms.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Gift of Asher Lev

the gift of asher lev

The Gift of Asher Lev, Chaim Potok. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990.

Summary: Asher Lev, exiled from a Brooklyn Hasidic community over a scandalous artwork portraying crucifixion, returns after twenty years with his family for the funeral of his uncle, only to find that he is being called upon to make a far greater sacrifice than the pain of exile.

I first became acquainted with the work of Chaim Potok in the 1980’s. His novels were set in the Ladover Hasidic Jwish community of New York. One of these was My Name is Asher Lev and describes the awakening of a Jewish boy in this community to his artistic gifts, and the conflicts with his beliefs this raised, culminating in the scandal of painting a crucifixion scene set in Brooklyn as a portrayal of pain and suffering in the world. For this he was exiled to France, where he pursues an increasingly successful art career while remaining an observant Ladover, heeding the teaching of its venerable Rebbe.

Twenty years have passed. He is married to Devorah, who after several miscarriages bore Rochelah and Avrumel. They now live in Saint Paul, near Nice where he has his studio, and a few close friends. On the heels of a show in Paris, scathingly panned by critics as “repeating oneself,” he receives news of the sudden death of his Uncle Yitzchok died–the uncle who had encouraged his artistic career from buying his first drawing at age six onward. He and his family return to Brooklyn for the funeral, and a reunion with parents and a community he hadn’t seen in years.

At the funeral, attended by thousands, because Yitzchok had been involved extensively in efforts to fund the Ladover movement, the Rebbe makes a cryptic remark, a kind of riddle, than runs through the book. “I say this as a message from the departed and from your Rebbe. I say to you: Three will save us. The third is our future. Do you hear me, my people? Three will save us. The third is our future.” On the minds of many is who will succeed the Rebbe if Messiah does not come first. He has no children. Asher’s father Aryeh is the leading candidate. But the third?

A week’s stay extends to five months at the plea of parents who want to know their grandchildren, and a Rebbe, who takes an unusual interest in Asher, and his son. Meanwhile, Asher’s life becomes more complicated when he learns not only that his uncle had assembled a valuable and unusual art collection, a scandal to his sons, and that he had designated Asher as trustee of the collection, with any proceeds from it to be returned to the Ladover community. His cousins, especially Younkel fight this and there is a painful estrangement.

While Asher contends with these matters and seeks inspiration for his art, his wife and children discover Brooklyn as a place where they thrive. Devorah finds in her mother-in-law the mother she lost in the Holocaust. Rochelah, a perceptive but asthmatic young girl flourishes at summer camp, as does Avrumel at day camp. While Asher longs for a return to his work in Saint Paul, his family becomes more and more rooted in Brooklyn, and close to Asher’s parents. Aryeh and Avrumel spend time together around the Rebbe’s office.

While back in France to look after affairs, including help to the widow of an assistant who died in a bombing, Asher begins to understand the riddle and that his son is the third and that he is being asked (even in a vision of the Rebbe and Uncle Yitzchok) to offer his son Avrumel to succeed his father when the day came as Rebbe, and to be raised in the Brooklyn Yeshiva. Brooklyn represents community to his family. To him, it is a place, once exiled from, that is impossible to return to if he is to answer his artistic call. To many in that community he is suspect, even a devil. He is wracked with this dilemma, losing sleep but sketching furiously.

Chaim Potok is one of a handful of writers I’ve found who writes with what I would call a “quiet” voice. Alan Paton is another. There is a kind of stillness as if the writer is listening for how the story will unfold to relate it to us, a stillness with depth, where momentous things may occur in the quiet unfolding of the narrative.

In this voice he explores the tensions of love and honor and estrangement in families, and in a religious community. What does it mean to be faithful to one’s gift as an artist when it causes so much pain in one’s community? What does it mean to observe a community’s teaching and care for it when it is uncomfortable with you. In a world of moral clarity, of black and white, how does one deal with life’s messiness and ambiguities, from the horror of the Holocaust to the unsolvable conflict between the future foreseen for his son, his love for his wife and daughter, and one’s own artistic calling.

This work, published in 1990, was one I missed as I moved on to other writers. I’m thankful to have discovered it, and to be reminded of the richness of Potok’s portrayal of this religious community and the challenges faced by the deeply orthodox of any faith in a secular society.

Review: On the Road

On the Road

On the RoadJack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2016 (originally published 1957).

Summary: Kerouac’s classic account of Sal and Dean’s travels across America, laced with jazz, elicit drugs, sexual encounters, and jazz clubs, and the searching for “IT” that defined the “Beat Generation.”

September 5, 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. Penguin Classics has reissued it as part of its Penguin Orange Collection of twelve influential American classics. This was one of those books I grew up with. I was a child during the Beat Generation and came of age in the Hippie Generation that followed it. But I never read the book. Recently, perhaps drawn by Penguin’s cool re-packaging of this book, I finally picked it up and read it. I came to the end of the book thinking that I really hadn’t missed anything by not having read it sooner. Perhaps I might have had a different take back in my teens, or twenties–but then we’ll never know, will we?

The plot is basically a narrative of several road trips back and forth across America, and into Mexico. The two main characters are Sal Paradise (the narrator) and Dean Moriarty, thinly disguised representations of Kerouac, and his friend Neal Cassady, who took similar, real-life journeys. Other characters are inspired by “Beat Generation” friends such as Allen Ginsberg (“Carlo Marx”). The story consists of journeys across the country, often at high speeds if Dean is driving, punctuated by stops in various cities, most notably Denver, for some reason, filled with heavy drinking, illicit drugs, sex with whomever is willing, children by several women, and brushes with the law. Visits to jazz clubs in New Orleans and elsewhere seems to be the ultimate expression of their quest for “IT” which is never defined but perhaps approached during a jazz set. One of the noteworthy passages is this description of listening to George Shearing:

“The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’ Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. ‘That’s right!’ Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair, he said.”

This gives you a sense of the writing style one finds throughout the book. It feels breathless and frenetic. Kerouac supposedly was trying to use an improvisational style of writing that was not unlike jazz improvisation. The work was typed on a scroll consisting of tracing paper sheets cut to size and taped together into a 120 foot scroll. The book was typed out single space without paragraph breaks, and later edited to its present form. That, perhaps, helps explain the feel of the book.

The work is clearly an important artifact of cultural history, chronicling the Beat Generation rebellion against standard values and material aspirations, it’s embrace of transgressive sexuality, and the quest for the transcendent through music and mind-altering drugs. It also captures something of the American love affair with the road–a fast car, an open road, a cross-country journey. Coming on the heels of World War II, it describes one response to the horrors of that war, and perhaps all our wars that have followed. In some way, the book seems to me to articulate the alternate American Dream to the one of affluence in suburbia, a playing out of the Dionysian versus Appolonian dichotomy.

I’m struck by the fact that the principle characters are men, who seem like boys living an extended adolescence–living off others, refusing responsibility for their sexuality, for the damage they leave, and depending upon women to fill the gaps they leave while indulging in their relentless pursuit of IT on the road (which mostly seems to be drunkenness and sex). It took us until the 1990’s and Thelma and Louise to see two women pursuing the same kind of journey, with a glorious, or very bad end, depending on how you look at it.

Besides the fact that there is so little of the actual grandeur of the country they crisscrossed, what most troubles me is “the road not taken” by Sal and Dean. So often, their path is portrayed as the courageous protest against conventional, materialistic values. But I watched my parents, and others of their generation, Kerouac’s generation, choose a life shaped by their religious commitments, one shaped by faith in God that faced life’s tragedies and mysteries and one shaped by love of the “until death do us part” kind that translated into the hard and rewarding work of really learning to live with another fractious human being and to raise children to responsible adulthood. They enjoyed the good things of life as gift and not quest, and as meant to be shared with others rather than to be indulged in to excess. Their presence helped neighborhoods, workplaces, and civic organizations flourish.

Perhaps for some, going “on the road” ends up being a kind of pilgrimage that leads to insight and forms character. Far too often, though, it seems to me that those who emulated Sal and Dean simply ended up as alcoholics, or potheads no longer able to put two thoughts together. Often they have left a trail of wrecked lives behind them, and exist on the charity of others. Other than the portrayals of a golden age of jazz, and understanding a “cultural moment,” I found little to inspire me, or provoke thought, and certainly not a life I could commend.

 

Review: Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires Everywhere

Little Fires EverywhereCeleste Ng. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: When Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of a successful Shaker Heights, Ohio family, it sets in motion a series of events, “little fires” that culminate in a fire that burns down the Richardson home, and transforms the lives of both families.

Elena Richardson, matriarch of a seemingly perfect and successful family in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sleeps in one Saturday to awaken to a house on fire–little fires started in the center of each of the beds in the house. Elena, the keeper of rules in a community of rules watches the house burn down as her “perfect” children and husband gather–all except Izzy, who always pushed against the rules and is no where to be found. It is Izzy who set the fires, and has fled. How did all this happen?

The little fires begin when Mia Warren and her high school daughter Pearl rent a duplex apartment Elena owns. The two of them have lived a gypsy life, living only long enough in any one community for Mia to compose a series of photographs, the sales of which, along with odd jobs provide enough for them to live on, before they pack what fits into their VW Rabbit and move on. But this time they hope to stay.

Little fires. Elena’s son Moody is curious and meets Pearl and instantly falls in love and draws Pearl into the affluent life of the family with older brother Trip, and sisters Lexie and Izzy.

Little fires. Elena visits the duplex and sees Mia’s art–photographs altered or with other objects superimposed that she sends to a New York dealer. Hearing Mia works at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet, she invites Mia to clean and cook in exchange for the rent in what seems a noble gesture of supporting the arts.

Little fires. Izzy is suspended for standing up to a bullying music teacher, and opens up to Mia, who asks, “what are you going to do?” opening up possibilities Izzy has never thought of before. Izzy begins assisting Mia in her work.

Little fires. Lexie and Izzy see a photograph of a younger Mia holding an infant (Pearl) in the Cleveland Museum of Art by a famous New York photographer, Pauline Hawthorne. They talk Mrs. Richardson, who is a reporter for a local newspaper, to investigate the back story. In the process, she uncovers secrets Mia has kept even from her own daughter.

Little fires. Mia figures out that the Asian-American baby who is a ward of the state that the McCullough’s, close and childless friends of the Richardsons, want to adopt, is the baby her co-worker at the Chinese restaurant, Bebe, left at a fire station when she had been abandoned and in post-partum despair. Mia lets this information slip, leading to a custody case that is all over the press, and that divides the community, and fires Elena’s resentment of Mia, who seems to represent everything Elena is not, and perhaps turned away from for her successful, rule-abiding existence.

Little fires. Pearl and Trip become involved, as much at Pearl’s initiative as Trip’s, destroying Moody’s friendship with Pearl. Pearl helps Lexie get an abortion, even letting Lexie substitute Pearl’s name on the patient record, and then brings Lexie home to be cared for by Mia afterwards.

Little fires that in the end lead to the setting of little fires that burn down the house. At one point Mia talks with Izzy about how, like prairie fires, “you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over.” The fire that destroys brings new life to the prairie. The question is, will it do the same for all the people caught up in these little fires? What will Mia do about the secrets of her past that have been uncovered? And what will Elena do, seeing the destruction of her perfect life by her wayward daughter?

I was drawn to this book because the author grew up in and writes about Shaker Heights. We lived for nine years in its poorer, blue collar neighbor down the road, Maple Heights. I knew many of the places about which she wrote, ate at some of the restaurants, shopped at Shaker Square and occasionally at Heinen’s, and admired the ambiance we couldn’t touch. We knew about some of the rules. Her portrait of this earliest of model suburbs rang true.

As I read, I was drawn into this book with its interesting portrayal of people trying to do good, to keep the rules, to find and make homes and do good work, to make their way in life, and the catalytic moments when it all goes awry. I once had a friend who observed that the American dream is killing us. This book suggests how our suburban dreams may kill us, how the ideal life of successful spouses, kids in good schools groomed for Ivy League admissions, and how a life of following the rules, a life both socially conscious and socially tone deaf may destroy something of what makes us and others unique.

 

Review: The Book of Esther

the book of esther

The Book of EstherEmily Barton. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Summary: An alternative historical fiction in which a Jewish daughter of the Kagan of Khazaria breaks with her father and convention to lead her people in battle against the invading German army in 1942.

This is not the biblical story of Esther. But, like the biblical story, a young woman of influence breaks with convention to save her people from a threat that could destroy the Jewish people of her land. It is 1942. The Germanii are sweeping across Eastern Europe and Khazaria. Esther’s homeland stands in the way of oil fields, and Russia beyond. The people have known of this threat as Jewish refugee camps have sprung around Atil, filled with those fleeing the pogroms. Esther secretly has been visiting the camps to bring food, and has heard the reports and knows that if the Germanii succeed, it will spell the end of the Kaganate of Khazaria and her people.

Khazaria? Where is that? You won’t find that country on any modern map, and this is the “alternate history” aspect of this novel. Khazaria did at one time exist where it is located in the novel, between 600 and 950 AD. The people were a semi-nomadic Turkic people with a significant Jewish population. Located astride the Silk Road northeast of Turkey, southeast of Ukraine and between the Black and Caspian seas and separating Europe and western Asia, it was a strategic location, and hence its people warrior-like in its defense. Today Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and part of Russia make up the territory once encompassing Khazaria.

No one has a fiercer warrior heart in this story than Esther, though she is not yet sixteen, the daughter of the Kagan, and betrothed to a rabbi’s son. Fearing the German threat and knowing the inadequacy of her country’s forces, she becomes convinced that Adonai is calling her to act to save her people. With her slave brother Itakh, she steals her father’s mechanical horse, Seleme, and sets off to a distant village of kabbalists. Why? As a girl, she believes the only way she can lead her people is as a male, and hopes the kabbalists have the power to change her into one. Along the way, she both stares down the war lords controlling the oil to secure fuel for mechanical horse, and kills a werewolf. She is what we might call one “badass” woman, while yet trying to be a devout Jew!

The kabbalists welcome her, recognizing something of the destiny upon her. They do not have it in their power, or perhaps will, to change her gender, believing it to be set by God. Yet one of them, Amit tells a different tale. He once was a girl, but through a prayer while cleansing in the mikvah, was transformed. Esther tries this, but remains unchanged. It seems her desire is more to be able to lead her people into battle than to be a man and that is what she is granted. But the kabbalists, who are served by golemim, creatures of the clay of the earth supposedly without souls who have a human form, do help her by giving Esther all their golemim and by making more.

She returns to Atil, after recruiting troops and supplies from the oil lords, and more people from the villages, along with more mechanical and golem horses and aerocycles. (Many reviewers note this work has a steampunk flavor to it). How will her father treat her when she returns? Will she be allowed, as a Jewish Joan of Arc, to lead this rag tag force? And will it make a difference? All I will say is that Barton leaves room for a sequel.

The book explores Esther’s awakening sexuality and gender identity. There is her quest to be changed into a man, though this seems less shaped by her sense of gender identity than by cultural necessity.  Yet there is Amit, with whom she develops an attraction, only to subsequently humiliate him for being a kind of trans male. Why is she drawn to him, is it to the man, or to the woman he once was, or some combination?

More significant to the plot is the question of gender roles. How can Esther join in the fight for her people when war was what men did, and women suffered? What if this violates what seems to be a sacred ordering of the world and one is devout, as is Esther? What if it truly seems that Adonai is calling her to this, even though it seems to violate her religious teaching?

Most of all is the more fundamental question of the promises of Adonai and the struggle for existence, and yet survival of the Jews that has been their history. This story brings us face to face with that perilous history.

If you don’t mind alternate history, and a mix of fable and mechanical wizardry, you might like this work. All in all, the questions this books explored made for a work at once thought-provoking and riveting as Esther confronts challenge after challenge in her mission to save her people. If there is a sequel, I’ll be very tempted to read it!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Sense of an Ending

The sense of an ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes. New York: Vintage International, 2011.

Summary: A bequest that includes a letter and a diary forces a man in his sixties to examine the way he has remembered and conceived of his life.

One of the dangers of reaching one’s sixties is that you begin the process of remembering your life. What is often not considered is that the way we remember it, and tell it may be of our “best self” but not necessarily of our true self. We may not even be aware of it, but there are episodes that are edited out, things done and said that we shove in a mental drawer, or hide in a closet. This novel, a Man Booker prize winner by the author of the more recent fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (reviewed here) is a finely written psychological exploration of our constructed memories that shield us from knowing our true selves.

Tony Weber is a retired, divorced late middle aged man living in London. The first part of his book is a remembering of his life. He begins with his adolescence in a boys school, and the heady mix of ideas and awakening sexuality that is part of this period. We meet his friends, Alex and Colin, and the fourth who joins this group, the philosophical Adrian. The boys part but stay in touch during college years. Tony reads history at Bristol while Adrian goes to Cambridge. Much of the story here involves Tony’s relationship with Veronica, his encounter with her “posh” family, and the mother who tries to warn him off her while making him eggs for breakfast. Tony and Veronica have a sexually frustrating relationship and only have intercourse after she breaks off with him. This leads to an even more messy conversation where she tries to get him to be real to her, real to himself. Eventually Veronica gets into a relationship with Adrian, who writes him asking leave for them to see each other. Adrian sends a reply that he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about, and then gets on with his life, going to America and traveling around with a girl for a few months and then parting. When he arrives home he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony and his friends puzzle over this, move on and separate. Tony marries, has a daughter with whom he has a decent relationship, divorces Margaret, his wife, lives a reasonably successful life, and enjoys a quiet retirement of trips and volunteer work. Until…

He receives word one day that Veronica’s mother had died and left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary. The money he receives easily enough. The letter and diary are in the possession of Veronica, who will not yield them up, at first. The second half of the book describes a number of encounters, often ending with the refrain from Veronica, “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did and you never will.” First she sends a cryptic page from the diary. Then she gives him the letter, which turns out to be a brutally cruel letter, the letter he had written in response to Adrian’s letter, a letter he had white-washed in his mind.

He begins to see that the memory he has constructed of his life doesn’t fit the reality. Yet he is troubled by what he doesn’t get, and this takes him deeper, into his choice of “peaceableness,” of an unwillingness to feel pain or to take a risk to really live and be responsible for his life. I will not give away the secret why Veronica’s mother gave him the bequest or came to have the letter and diary. What it brings him to is a sobering alternative narrative of his life that he summarizes with these words:

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

This is a book that holds up a mirror to show us the false selves that we construct with our “best self” memories and the danger of a life lived embracing that false self. It seems to me that facing up to the false selves, the constructed memories, as painful as these are, may be better than living cluelessly. If nothing else, it makes us keenly aware of our need for redemption.

Review: The Comedians

the-comedians

The ComediansGraham Greene. New York: Penguin, 2005 (my edition 1976).

Summary: Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones meet on a ship bound for Haiti during the reign of terror of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. They are the “comedians” who must confront not only the tragedy of Haiti, but themselves.

One of the darkest periods of Haiti’s troubled history was the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 until 1971. It was a reign of terror enforced by a secret police, the Tontons Macoute who killed between 30 and 60,000 while many others fled the country.

This is the Haiti to which the three main characters in the book are traveling aboard the Medea. Brown is a hotelier, who inherited the Hotel Trianon from his mother, and is returning, having been unable to sell the property, and drawn by a love affair with the wife of an ambassador. Smith is a former presidential candidate, of the Vegetarian Party, which got 10,000 votes in its election race. He hopes to establish a center for vegetarianism on the island.  Jones is a confidence man, who consistently stays just one step of the law, on his tails even aboard ship. He styles himself a major, boasts of battle experience in Burma, Japan, and the Congo, and hopes to secure the rights to establish a golf club for Duvalier and his cronies.

Each faces the shattering of their “comedic” dreams in the face of the brutal realities of Papa Doc and the sinister Tonton Macoute epitomized by Captain Concasseur. From the moment Smith arrives, he must deal with the fleeing minister, Philipot, who commits suicide by his pool, and the later absurdity of his casket being carted away in the back of one of the Tontons vehicles, half sticking out the trunk. This was the same Philipot that Smith and his wife hoped to meet to pursue their vegetarian dream, only to discover that any dream of this sort must be accompanied by bribes and graft. Subsequently, Smith, in his rectitude stands up to the powers and takes his money across the border to the Dominican Republic, shedding his naive ideas about Haiti, but not his principles.

Jones is perhaps the most interesting, going from being held in prison as the law catches up with him at last, to becoming a crony, only to be found out as even shadier than the crooks in the regime. He hides out in the embassy where Brown’s lover, Martha lives and Smith, in his jealousy, traps Jones in his own lies and lures him to lead a band in a quixotic revolt against Duvalier. In doing so, Smith comes face to face with both his longing for and inability to believe in enduring love.

Like other Graham Green works, Brown in particular struggles between faith and doubt, between the Catholicism in which he was raised, and a world seemingly desolate of goodness, of purpose, and of love. It was interesting to me that Dr. Magiot, a Marxist, is the one true believer (other than Smith with his vegetarian-utopian dreams), whose life, and sacrifice is motivated by the long view of the fulfillment of a Communist vision of the future. Greene helps us understand the appeal of Communism for principled people faced with corrupt regimes and a subservient church. More than this, Greene uses the backdrop of the absurd comedic horror of Duvalier’s Haiti to strip the central characters of their comedic illusions and face them with who they were and what ultimately mattered to them.