Archive for the ‘fiction’ Tag

Life’s Joys and Sorrows   Leave a comment

Zorrie is the title character in Laird Hunt’s novel about a woman whose life is defined by loss, love and the tenacity to keep moving forward.

Following the death of her parents, Zorrie lives with a joyless aunt until the age of 21 when she leaves her hometown in rural Indiana to find her place in the world. She’s undaunted traveling alone and sleeping under the stars. She gets to Illinois where she eventually finds employment at a radium factory painting the numbers on clock faces. The townspeople call the young women who work there “ghost girls” thanks to the radioactive material that makes them glow – something that is haunting. Although she makes enduring friendships with other young women, Zorri makes her way back to Indiana.

This is a terse novel with little embellishment, much like Zorri’s life. Despite this, the descriptions of the community, farms and hardscrabble existence of Zorri and her neighbors are vivid. She’s a no-nonsense, kind and hardworking person.

Soon after returning to Indiana, she marries Harold, the son of the older couple with a spare room to let. Hunt’s adroit narrative leaves the reader as surprised as Zorri by the depth of her relationship with Harold.

The depression, World War II and other events of the mid-20th century impact Zorri’s life in profound ways. Still, her resiliency and Hunt’s ability to highlight beauty among mundane daily routines make for an engaging novel. Zorri may not articulate appreciation for what she has, but it’s evident nonetheless.

Zorri

Almost-four bookmarks

Bloomsbury Books, 2021

161 pages

Dictionary Women — and Men   Leave a comment

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams is an engaging novel about how the complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary came to be. In addition to its development, perhaps more importantly, it addresses women’s roles in the achievement.

Along with the words that make it into the initial version is the vocabulary that the mostly male lexicographers overlooked – either by design or ignorance. Here’s where narrator Esme comes in. As a young child she spent most of her time under the table where her widowed father and his colleagues collected words for inclusion in the dictionary.

When not in the “Scriptorium,” Esme is in the nearby home of James Murray where housemaid Lizzie cares for the young girl. Despite class differences, theirs is a relationship that endures as Esme grows up and begins her own collection of words. She starts with some discarded by the men and later adds the vernacular of working class women she discovers with Lizzie’s help.

Williams’s novel is inspired by true events, but isn’t just historical. The story is brought to life by the vivid personalities of the main characters, but also lesser, nonetheless equally important, ones. While the dictionary is being compiled (a decades-long endeavor), the arduous battle of the women’s suffrage movement is underway (another lengthy process). The backdrop of societal mores, the Great War and personal relationships imbues the work with emotion.

Words and their meanings are significant but their power is reflected in how they’re used and by whom.

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Four Bookmarks

Ballentine Books, 2021

388 pages (includes epilogue, author’s notes, timeline and book group discussion questions)

Race has several meanings   Leave a comment

Horse by Geraldine Brooks is much more than about the equestrian world. Along with some history of horse racing, other topics include slavery, art history, modern science and even romance. However, racism is the primary underlying theme throughout.

The narrative incorporates several threads across different, non-chronological time periods: 1850-75; 1954; and 2019. Blending perspectives and experiences of several characters across time to create a complete picture is one of Brooks’ trademarks.

Although Theo, a Black art history graduate student in Washington, D.C., in 2019, is the first character introduced, readers spend the most time with a 13-year-old slave identified by his masters’ name as Warfield’s Jarret in 1850. As the story progresses and Jarret matures, his owners’ names change as do his situations. Jarret has inherited his father’s horse training skills making a name for himself as an exceptional trainer working with Lexington, a thoroughbred whose lineage now extends through generations.

Other major characters include Jess, an Australian scientist working at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History; Thomas J. Scott, a 19th century artist, whose paintings of Lexington are a significant part of the plot; several of Lexington’s owners; and a 20th century gallery owner.

A discarded painting of a horse leads Theo to learn more about the work, and Jess to discover more about its subject.

As the novel moves back and forth through time, the issue of race remains a constant. Brooks’ deft approach provides an engaging look into the past and an important reflection on our times.

Horse

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Viking, 2022

401 pages (including “Lexington’s Historical Connections”)

A Holy Matrimony   Leave a comment

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings is the kind of creative and well-researched novel that’s hard to put down. The premise is based on the idea of what if Jesus had married?

It’s addressed with the fictional portrayal of the life of Ana, Jesus’s wife.  As the daughter in a wealthy family in Galilee, Ana is expected to bide her time until she is suitably married. However, this is not what she sees as her life’s objective. Instead, she surreptitiously studies and writes about women whose lives are ignored or silenced. This is her personal rebellion in a patriarchal society.

Ana first briefly meets Jesus in a Galilean markets. She’s drawn to him but can’t explain why.  Through some not-so-chance subsequent meetings, they become further acquainted.

The author draws from the Bible and fills in the blanks with Ana’s life, from her near-arranged marriage with a much older man, to her ultimate union with Jesus, and later her escape from Galilee to Alexandria with her intrepid aunt.

Interestingly, Jesus is a minor character, as are his mother and his brothers. The focus is on Ana. Once married, although she has Jesus’s support and appreciation of her talents as a writer, she is too busy on the family compound near Nazareth to pursue such aspirations.

Tension builds as Ana and Jesus independently evade authorities for different transgressions. Jesus’s fate is known, Ana’s isn’t. However, her intelligence, passion and understanding of Jesus’s purpose, in Kidd’s hands, make her the ideal partner.

The Book of Longings

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2020

418 pages

Insensitive and haunting parenting rehab   Leave a comment

When considering what I know about mothering, I must thank my mother first and foremost. I may not be the stellar student, but she is the exceptional teacher. With this in mind, I found Jessamine Chan’s ironically-titled The School for Good Mothers heart-wrenching. Chan’s writing evokes a range of emotions related to the subject of child rearing, neglect and relationships. The reader is left with much to consider.

Many women have neither strong role models, nor good maternal instincts. Both are true for Frida, mother of a toddler, whose limits are tested thanks to a lack of sleep, her job and the recent separation from her husband and his relationship with a younger woman.

One day, Frida leaves her young daughter, Harriet, home alone to run an errand. Frida is gone for two hours.

Of course, this is irresponsible and unforgivable. However, what evolves is also unacceptable. Frida is subjected to 24-hour surveillance and limited supervised visits with Harriet.

The only way for Frida to be reunited with Harriet is to undergo a year-long program designed to teach her, and other mothers, to be a better parent. Here’s where things go off the rails. Some of the women’s infractions are horrendous, others accidental. The mothers are incarcerated and given robotic dolls on which to hone their skills. The staff is unsympathetic and the parenting courses are often unreasonable (ie., speaking “motherese”).

Chan’s characters are vividly portrayed. Their losses are palpable. Child abandonment warrants repercussion, but not through draconian means.

The School for Good Mothers

Four Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2022

324 pages

A Celebration and Lament   Leave a comment

Punctuation in Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, is important to note. There’s no comma after Oh and the exclamation mark is, indeed, a point of emphasis. Those who’ve read Strout’s previous works will be familiar with William’s ex-wife, Lucy Barton. If introduced here to Lucy for the first time, there’s enough about her past and how it factors into her relationship with William.

To say they’re cordial to one another is an understatement; though long divorced, they are friends, even confidantes, but certainly not lovers. They have two grown daughters, share holidays and are, simply, part of each other’s lives.

Each remarried years ago, although Lucy’s second husband is deceased and William’s third wife has recently left him.

Strout’s writing is terse, efficient and occasionally melancholy. Told from Lucy’s perspective, the narrative focuses on William and, significantly, his late mother. When William discovers a family secret he’s compelled to learn more. A road trip ensues and he asks Lucy to join him. She agrees.

Lucy notes early in the novel that William has always exuded confidence something that manifested itself in his position as a scientist and NYU professor. As a writer, Lucy is observant, attune to those around her.  Through her eyes, the reader witnesses William’s certainty begin to diminish, while her own grows stronger.

The title can be read as both a lament (even sans comma) and celebration; both are fitting. Oh William! is a testament to the power of friendship, especially as one ages. Hurray Lucy!

Oh William!

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

241 pages

Rock n’Roll Never Dies   Leave a comment

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Drugs, sex and rock n’ roll are major players in this novel recounting the history of a popular ‘70s band Daisy Jones & the Six.  Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work is formatted like a documentary film with perspectives provided by the various personalities involved in the band and its past. Although the story may sound similar to that of actual groups, it is fiction.

Initially, the style is off-putting. There’s no single narrator. Instead, members of the band, old boyfriends, rock critics, musicians in other groups, close friends, spouses (and more) have a say. Their memories create the images of the characters and situations. Ultimately, it works.

As told through the eyes of others, readers learn about Daisy’s early family life, her entrée as a groupie in the LA music scene and her reckless lifestyle. She’s a force with a beautiful voice and a talent for writing songs. Across the country, Billy Dunne and his younger brother Graham form a rock band, mostly playing gigs in bars. Billy is also a song writer, and unquestionably the band’s leader. The Six, representing the number in the group, slowly makes a name for itself and lands a record deal.

The narrative addresses the demons in Billy and Daisy’s lives, along with their personal and professional successes. Along the way, vulnerabilities, compassion and disdain are among the feelings the author exposes.

Music is the backdrop, from recording studios to packed auditoriums when the band tours. Yet, it’s the personalities of the characters that create the loudest impact.

Daisy Jones & the Six

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2019

355 pages

Time and Truth   Leave a comment

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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is an entertaining novel with two separate plots spanning a century. The primary setting for both storylines is a London printing house for the Swansby Encyclopdaedic Dictionary.

In its heyday, Swansby employed dozens to research words and their definitions. Peter Winceworth’s job addresses the letter S. One-hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern, is tasked with determining which words are real. Her publisher, part of the same Swansby family,  has plans to digitize the dictionary.

Alternating between past and present, Peter and Mallory have distinct senses of humor, feelings of self-doubt and an apparent love of language. In an effort to exert a latent sense of power and personality, Peter invents words. These are what later keep Mallory busy.

Through her investigation, Mallory gains an understanding of the person behind the fictitious words. Although he is unknown to her, elements of his personality are revealed.

Williams begins each chapter with a letter from A to Z, each referring (in alphabetical order) to one of Peter’s concocted vocabulary. It’s a clever way of further connecting his work with Mallory’s.

Yet, not everything is rosy in either era. Peter is tormented for a lisp (he only pretends to have). This makes his efforts associated with S-words to be humiliating on the surface, but amusing since he could easily drop the speech impediment. Mallory’s torment comes in the form of repeated threatening phone calls.

The relationship across time is tied to fake words and people with real emotions.

The Liar’s Dictionary

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2020

270 pages

Women at War   Leave a comment

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Although beautifully written, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was initially frustrating. I was anxious to meet the title character. He isn’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel at which point it becomes difficult to put down.

A shadow king, it’s explained, is essentially a double, someone who can pass as the real thing. In this case, it’s a peasant who looks like the exiled emperor in war-torn Ethiopia. Yet, the narrative highlights the role of two women: Aster and her servant, Hirut, in the battle against the Italians.

Before the invasion, before the emperor vacates his country, Hirut arrives at the home of Aster and her husband, Kidane an officer in the emperor’s army. Newly orphaned, Hirut must learn to accept her role as a maid to Aster who is jealous of the younger woman.  

In 1935, Mussolini’s army is ruthless in its assault leaving many dead and homeless in its wake. Kidane assembles a small band of soldiers, with the women serving as cooks and nurses, forced to hide in the hills to avoid capture or worse.

Among the Italians are a ruthless, sadistic officer and his assistant, Ettore, a photographer tasked with documenting the war to put Italy in the best possible light. He has a conscience; his superior does not.

Hirut and Aster want to do more than be supporting players. Their efforts reflect the power and strength of women in even the most dire circumstances, along, unfortunately, with the easy dismissal of their accomplishments.

The Shadow King

Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

428 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages