Sunday, June 4, 2017

Anything Is Possible in May

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout's new book is a gem, but happily it wasn't the only good book I read in May.

A Rule Against Murder, by Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny
Golden Prey, by John Sandford
Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch
Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Flesh and Blood, by Patricia Cornwell
Last Chance Olive Ranch, by Susan Wittig Albert

Since I read the first one, I have been less than enthralled with the Inspector Gamache series; however, I keep reading them, hoping they'll grow on me (I have friends who enjoy them, so . . .). After reading two this month, I think I can say with finality that I'm through. A Rule Against Murder is at least set somewhere other than in Three Pines (though one of the couples from the village is important to the story), but the change of scenery didn't save the book for me.

In Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport has yet another new job, as a U.S. Marshall with no set assignment (in other words, he can pick cool cases--what a set-up for an author!). The case here isn't really a mystery because we know who the bad guys are--the book is more of an extended chase scene broken up with gun battles. It's also an obvious set-up for the next book. Not my favorite.

If you enjoyed the Good Behavior series on TNT, you will find the book of the same name interesting. It's a collection of three novellas about Letty Dobesh, recently paroled from prison (and played extremely elegantly in the TV series by Michelle Dockery, formerly Lady Mary on Downton Abbey). The collection also includes commentary by Blake Crouch on how the TV show developed from the stories, why certain aspects of the characters in the stories were changed/retained in the series, and so on. The commentary is almost more interesting than the stories--I wished for more of it!

I took a break of several years from Patricia Cornwell but have recently picked up several of her Scarpetta books and found them less annoying than previously. Still, when Benton says to Kay near the end of Flesh and Blood, "You're the most perfect person I know," I groaned because Cornwell's admiration of her own character is what drove me away from the series in the first place. Cornwell can create an intricate and intriguing plot, but her characters are wearying (and, sadly, when I read a short book featuring a new character, I disliked it intensely). Once again, done with Kay for awhile!

Sadly, I may also have to be done with China Bayles, who seems to be getting dumber and dumber with each succeeding book.  Last Chance Olive Ranch is really two stories, one involving China at an olive ranch where she and Ruby are to offer a class, the other involving China's husband Mike McQuaid, who is trying to recapture an escaped convict who is engaged in a murderous revenge-motivated rampage. I found the China story ridiculous and was irritated by McQuaid's consternation when he learned his son Brian was living with a black woman. Did he vote for Trump or does he live in 2017? Geez.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

The Book Thief has an unusual narrator--Death. While many reviewers have pointed to this device as particularly effective, but the setting--Germany before and during World War II--and circumstances of the plot made the theme of mortality all too clear and the narrative device somewhat pretentious (IMHO). The other prominent theme is the significance of language, reading, and writing. The central character of the book is Liesel Meminger, whose younger brother dies as their mother is taking them to live with foster parents in the small town Molching, near Munich. At first Liesel doesn't like her foster parents, Hans and Rosa, but Hans gradually wins her over, in part by helping her to read a book she stole, The Gravedigger's Handbook. Rosa's story is also shaped by her friend Rudy and Max, a Jewish man her foster parents' hide. The Book Thief is a tribute to the power of story and love--and I'm glad I finally read it.

In Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout returns to the form she used to such great effect in her award-winning Olive Kitteridge: a collection of stories about characters with some connection to one person, in this case Lucy Barton, the protagonist of Strout's last novel. Barton is less present in most of the stories than Olive Kitteridge was, though it's clear that she is somewhat symbolic as the one who managed to escape from their depressed home town of Amgash, Illinois.  When she actually appears in the book, however, it's clear that she may have escaped physically and economically, but not psychologically. Each of the nine stories in the book focuses on a different person, from the school janitor who may have been harmed by the Barton family and yet cares deeply about them, to Lucy's brother and sister (both damaged people), a school counselor who loses her cool when Lucy's niece mocks her, a cousin who has also gotten out of Amgash with scars. My description makes the book sound depressing, and some of the stories are indeed sad--but Strout also gives us humor and redemption. I plan to read this book again because I know I will get more out of it as I did on repeat reading of Olive Kitteridge.

I also recommend highly Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel quite different from anything else I've read lately. The core of the story is this: Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies, as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence. Yes, it's weird, and the aspect of people caught between life and the afterlife didn't really excite me, but the way Saunders puts the book together is remarkable. First there the voices of an array of dead folks who provide commentary, sketching as they do a portrait of the city of Washington in 1862, in a manner that reminded me (and, I now see, the NYT reviewer) of The Spoon River Anthology. Even more interesting to me were  chapters describing historical events that Saunders put together from historical accounts (I assume they are real sources and that he didn't make them up--but could be wrong about that); these accounts show how differently people can see the same event. Finally, there's something about the way in which Lincoln is described/portrayed that I found deeply moving (of course I am a daughter of the Land of Lincoln). A unique and worthwhile reading experience.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has gotten a lot of positive attention. It's the story of a man with a questionable past and the bullet wounds to prove it and the daughter he is raising alone. The book goes back and forth between accounts of how Hawley got each wound and current accounts narrated by his daughter, Loo, who is trying to figure out how to live in one place and become part of the community (for most of her life, she and Hawley have been nomads, moving whenever Hawley felt trouble from his past getting too near (and there was lots of trouble from the past). There's something of a mystery about how Loo's mother died but as more of Hawley's past was uncovered, I found myself less and less interested in his story of bad decisions and associated bad consequences. Definitely don't quite understand why people have found this book so laudable--definitely not my cup of tea.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of those gently satiric accounts of the British upper crust that make you laugh and simultaneously love and hate the British. The titular character insists on being called by his title (preferably with a description of his units and service), dislikes Americans, cares more about reuniting a matched pair of guns than he does about his brother's death, and has rather rigid ideas about what is proper and what is not--and yet he's still kind of lovable. However, one can imagine what happens when he falls for the Indian widow who runs the local corner store--the path of true love certainly does not run smoothly. An amusing read.

Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Before turning to writing novels, Geraldine Brooks was a journalist, and Nine Parts of Desire was the result of her years of covering the Middle East. The book focuses on the lives of Islamic women (the title is a reference to the Koran's description of sexual desire as having ten parts, one part given to men, nine to women) in different countries and different situations. To a Western woman who has never visited the Middle East, the book seemed pretty even-handed, informative, and thought-provoking. I am always interested in the varying ways in which wearing the veil can be perceived: Brooks discusses it as repression by the male culture and/or rebellion against Western colonialism. I always found it interesting that the male Muslim's view of women's sexuality seems comparable to that of some Christian evangelicals (cf. Mike Pence's comments on not eating dinner alone with a woman not his wife). However, the book is more than 20 years old, so I found myself questioning how accurate the information is today--I'm guessing women's portion has improved in some ways and gotten worse (possibly much worse) in others. Guess I need another book.

Hillbilly Elegy is another book that has been much lauded. Vance grew up in a dysfunctional but loving (in an odd way) family in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, where, it is claimed, the white lower class has lost the American Dream. Yet Vance's own story, which includes a law degree from the nation's top law school, epitomizes the American Dream.  While many reviewers have said the book helps readers understand Trump enthusiasts, they remain a mystery to me. If these white folks have lost the American Dream, it seems to be due to their own bad decisions and the inevitable globalization of the economy rather than a Democratic government's actions (they take advantage of welfare programs) or the rise of minorities. If they truly see Trump as somehow a solution to the problems, then I continue to find little to empathize with (sorry not to be more caring).

Secondhand Time is a collection of oral histories gathered and compiled by the Nobel prize-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Alexievich has spoken with people from all walks of life; they comment--often with anger or wistfulness--about their hopes during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras and their nostalgia for the Soviet period. There are so many references about kitchen conversations one comes to realize that the kitchen is where change was born in the Soviet Union. The book is reminiscent of Studs Terkel's work, with little text written by Alexievich, although of course one must consider that she edited and arranged the material. One confusing thing is that the material is not dated, so you're not sure when the person was talking with Alexievich. Definitely interesting, although perhaps a bit long for those of us who aren't deeply knowledgeable about Russia.

I haven't watched a television sitcom regularly for 20 years, since someone described sitcoms as having devolved to the "art of the insult" and a bell went off in my head. I saw maybe half an episode of 30 Rock, none of Parks and Recreation, one episode of The Office, and none of The Mindy Project. I have watched a lot of SNL, so I use that as my reason for reading Tina Fey's and Amy Poehler's recent books. Not sure why I decided to read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? -- guess I was just hoping for some laughs. Sadly, I think I am too old for Mindy Kaling, as the most the book drew from me was a wry smile.

Picks of the Litter: Anything Is Possible and Lincoln in the Bardo

Favorite Passages

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

The sense of apology did not go away, it was a tiring thing to carry.

--Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

(So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.

--George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Their mother knew where all their buttons were. And why not? She'd installed them.
--Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder