Graham Swift, “Here We Are”

I forgot how much I love Graham Swift. His new novel Here We Are reminded me of his genius at creating a richly imagined world in a short novel (he also wrote Mothering Sunday), this one just 144 pages.

The main characters are a trio of performers in a variety show in Brighton in 1959: Jack, the smooth-talking compere (or emcee) of the show; Ronnie (aka The Great Pablo), the show’s magician; and Evie, the leggy magician’s assistant.

They’re captured at a moment in time, post-War, just before television dulled the public appetite for such live entertainment. Ronnie is the novel’s true center. As a child he was evacuated from a bleak homelife in London to a dream-come-true, loving family in a (to him) posh house in Oxford. There he learned the magician’s art from his new “father,” a skill that sets the course of his life.

The story, told from Evie’s point of view, is of a love triangle, but really about abandonment and attachment, guilt and love, and, over all, the power, mystery and illusive quality of life.

I’m not sure how Graham accomplishes a book of such resonant power in so few pages. Maybe we should just chalk it up to magic.

Natasha Trethewey, “Memorial Drive”

I’m fully aware that some people turn away from emotionally harrowing true stories, ones that involve heartbreak and pain and grief. Sometimes that’s me. But other times, I’m drawn to these stories.

Shrinks think sad stories offer readers an outsider’s perspective which can help combat one’s own unresolved trauma. Or that painful stories offer catharsis, an emotional release that allows us to purge our buried feelings and increase our awareness. And there’s speculation that the emotional connection triggered by tragedies allows us to more fully appreciate the close relationships in our lives.

I thought about all of this during and especially after reading Natasha Trethewey’s equally riveting and excruciating Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir about the murder of her mother by her former stepfather.

I’m no expert on psychology. I do know I couldn’t put Tretheway’s book down even though at times I felt like closing my eyes to ward off what I knew was coming next. And afterwards the book resonated with me and opened me up to compassion that went far beyond the details of the story itself. I don’t mean to get dramatic here (well, ok, maybe I do) but it seemed to say something about the inherent tragedy of the human condition. Or maybe I’m just completely whacked out on COVID-mania, fire, and whatever my anxious mind tells me lies in store. All I know is it hurt so good.

We know from page one that Trethewey’s mother is killed by her ex-husband. The buildup of detail toward the murder itself is agonizing. But it’s also beautiful as Tretheway, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former US Poet Laureate, brings her exquisite poet’s eye to the metaphor-laden prose with which she tells the story.

Trethewey was born,the child of miscegenration, an interracial marriage still illegal in Mississippi, on April 26, 1966, the 100th anniversary of Mississippi’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day, “a holiday glorifying the old South, the Lost Cause, and white supremacy.” There’s no way to separate her family’s story from the racism that shaped the place of her birth.

Her mother dies when she is a college student of 19 and her mother is just 40. She’s led by police officers from her college dorm to the site of the murder and followed by TV cameras. It’s no wonder that for 30 years she tries to distance herself from the trauma of the murder and the events leading up to it.

In unraveling this traumatic event that shaped her personally and artistically, Trethewey addresses her younger self, both acknowledging what she knew about her stepfather’s violent behavior and the threat he posed and granting herself retroactive compassion and absolution.

There’s also a detail here, about the outrageous and inexcusable negligence on the part of a police officer that directly led to Gwen Turnbough’s death. The fact that Trethewey doesn’t obsess over this particular, rather mentions it almost in passing, gives the event even more power.

I was drawn to Memorial Drive in part out of curiosity about Trethewey’s resiliency. How was it possible to not only survive the brutal murder of one’s mother, but go on to be an artist of the highest order, drawing beauty from pain?

I think of the ways many of us (me included!) use difficult childhood memories as an excuse for bad behavior and my only response is embarrassment. Imagine suffering the worst tragedy imaginable, the early and brutal death of one’s mother, and going on to create works of beauty and lasting impact. That’s beyond admirable. Here’s to Natasha Trethewey for writing a book that’s both intensely personal and speaks eloquently to our troubled time.


Debra Jo Immergut & Emma Donoghue

It’s been such a jangly time. My inability to focus is only heightened by the pandemic, so when I read some good fiction I feel compelled to share. Here are a couple of recent books I liked.

YouAgainDebra Jo Immergut’s You Again tells of Abagail, a middle-aged woman who runs into a younger version of herself in New York city. Not someone like her younger self, but her actual younger self. Abigail now is in a long marriage, the mother of two, with a soul-killing corporate job. Her double is an artist, as she once was, and is involved with the same dangerous man.

Immergut is skilled at describing the artist’s thought process, especially when she explores color: I like to imagine the top of my head open, and the colors pouring in from some higher plane, some great source. Not God, not the sky. Instead, it’s the bright storm of energy that clangs and sloshes over and around every existing thing….”

The book is also a mystery with a neurological and psychological underpinning as experts try to unravel the explanation for Abigail’s experience.

Throw in some radical antifa activity, the evolution of a long marriage, Manhattan’s changing landscape, and the process of extinguishing and then re-lighting one’s creative spark and you’ve got a the material for a very satisfying read.

The concept itself is fascinating. What kind of warnings would you give your younger self? And, scarier still, what might your younger self tell you if they could see you today?

Pull-libroI listened to the audiobook version (on of Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of The Stars, a novel set in Ireland during the influenza epidemic of 1918 in the maternity fever ward of a severely understaffed hospital.

The main character Julia, a 29-year-old nurse/midwife, rushes from crisis to crisis, attempting to treat her patients’ fever and bring their babies safely into the world, aided by a young volunteer who’s the product of one of Ireland’s notoriously neglectful and abusive orphanages. If you read Room, you know Donoghue does wonders with the intensity of confined spaces.

This book is all about women, their bodies (in excruciating detail), their lack of any semblance of power in Ireland, at home or in society—“She doesn’t love him unless she gives him 12 is a well-known saying about what Irish women are said to owe their husbands—and their magnificent strength.

Just at the point in the book where I was beginning to tire of Julia’s self-sacrificing heroics, the book took an unexpected turn and became bigger than its story, encompassing a searing critique of the Catholic church, the overall injustices of Irish society, and the redemptive power of love,

The book’s afternote gives some historical background on the events it describes making it even more resonant. I was especially interested to learn about one of its real-life characters, Dr. Kathleen Lynn, who had a role in Sinn Fein’s 1916 uprising and was wanted by the Dublin police. I want to know more about her.

As you won’t be surprised to find, Little Brown rushed this book out in only four months considering the plot’s parallels with the current pandemic, face masks, incompetent government and all. It would be easy to be cynical about that but thank god it was worth it. Donoghue really has something to say.

Jennifer Ryan: The Spies of Shilling Lane

Delightful is the only word for the audiobook version of Jennifer Ryan’s The Spies of Shilling Lane. If you’re looking for an antidote to these sad, scary days, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Set in London during the Blitz, the novel tells the story of Mrs. Braithewaite, a bossy, imperious woman who’s ousted from her role as leader of her village’s women’s auxiliary group. She heads to London to reveal a long-held secret to her daughter, only to get caught up in some dangerous business involving the MI5 (English Military Intelligence), Nazi-loving traitors, and dangerous thugs.

9781984886798_400She also meets the timid Mr. Norris who, against his will, is swept up in her escapades. The gradual affection between these complete opposites, who don’t learn each other’s first names until the final chapters of the book, is one of its many joys.

In addition to a suspenseful, twisting and turning plot, Ryan’s book has some wisdom about maternal love, friendship, and discovering what’s truly important. Sometimes it borders on schmaltzy but it’s the kind of schmaltz I adore.

The audiobook is read by the perfectly named Jane Entwistle whose plummy tones are spot on. Give yourself a treat and listen to this delicious book. It’s great fun and god knows we can use some more of that.

Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay

I love being knocked out by a writer I’ve never heard of. Such is the case with LA writer Stephanie Cha, whose Your House Will Pay is set in LA during the summer of 2019, when a police shooting involving a black teenager inflames racial unrest and protests erupt throughout the city.

9780062868855The book is based on a true story that takes place almost 30 years before it begins, when a Korean grocery store owner shot a Black teenager in the back of the head after accusing her of stealing. The crime was caught on video, and although the shooter was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, she never went to jail.

Cha tells the story of two families—one Black, the other Korean-American—whose lives collide as both are drawn into the cauldron of racial tension and violence. She describes each family with cultural sensitivity and skillfully builds suspense as she leads to the point where their stories intersect.

The author of a crime trilogy also set in LA, Cha clearly knows her territory. She says she began writing Your House Will Pay in 2014 right after Michael Brown’s murder, but it could have been written last week. It’s that prescient. It’s also filled with insight about the ripple effects of violence and social injustice.

Here’s a taste of Cha:

Los Angeles—this was supposed to be at the end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land, last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew, chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here in the ones who’d stayed. The city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder was it that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow, because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.

This is an important book, one that takes us behind the headlines and portrays real people, all of whom live as “others” in this country, dealing with racial injustice and profound loss. Cha’s timing is uncanny.


Julia Alvarez & Brit Bennet

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get absorbed in a novel these days. The news is too loud and devastating. It takes a great storytellerand a compelling tale to get my interest and keep it.  The two novels below held my interest and gave me a necessary break from the tragic news cycle.

I absolutely adored Julia Alavarez’s new book Afterlife. In her first book for adults in 15 years, Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies) tells the story of the recently widowed Antonia Vega, a Dominican-American like Alvarez herself. 

Retired from her career as a college professor and novelist, Vega is ready to settle happily into retirement with her husband when he’s killed by a sudden aneurysm. She is forced to enter into the “disorienting transition of old age” on her own. Here she is on the grief of widowhood: “The landscape of grief is not very inviting. Visitors don’t want to linger.” 

She also becomes involved, somewhat against her will, with an undocumented Mexican man who’s doing farm work for her Vermont neighbor, Mario, when he enlists her to help bring his fiancé to Vermont. As an immigrant herself Antonia has always been something of a “reluctant activist” and her personal involvement with Mario tests her and challenges some of her assumptions.

If you have sisters, you’ll love this novel as Alvarez spends lots of time on Vega’s relationship with her three sisters, all strong individuals with distinct points of view who don’t hesitate to mix it up and call each other out, often with hilarious irreverence, at every opportunity.  The deep love at the root of their relationship is evident as is their ability to push each other’s buttons like crazy.

This is not a simple novel.  Alvarez wrestles with complex moral decisions and the obligations and responsibilities of privilege. Just because Antonia is Latina, Alvarez tells us. “she’s not necessarily Mother Teresa.”

I was also taken with Brit Bennet’s new novel The Vanishing Half.  The twin sisters at the heart of the novel are extremely light-skinned blacks who live in a Louisiana town defined by its light-skinned population. 

The girls run away to New Orleans to escape the conventions of their small, stifling town, and their lives take very different paths.  One suffers marriage to an abusive man and returns home with her very dark-skinned child in tow.  The other disappears from her family entirely to pass as a white woman.

This is a compulsively readable book.  You can’t wait to find out what happens. Bennett, who also wrote The Mothers, has superb control of her material and keeps things humming along,

But there’s also real depth here.  Through her main characters and their off-spring, Bennett explores issues of race, gender, and identity.  How are we shaped by our past?  To what extent can we put it behind us?  And how far can we bend the definition of family? 

Despite the respite I found in both books, we can’t really keep the world at bay. Alvarez’s treatment of the lives of undocumented people in this country and Bennett’s exploration of skin color bring in the world outside. More and more we can’t, nor should we want to, shut it out.

Patrick Radden Keefe & Emma Straub

During the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was so much cultural (drugs, music, etc.) and political (Vietnam) noise in my life, in addition to all the interpersonal relationships that make up one’s coming of age, I was only dimly aware of what was going on in the rest of the world. So while I certainly knew of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I was more than a bit hazy on the specifics. And, in fact, the struggle between the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland who sought reunification with the Republic of Ireland and the mix of Protestant paramilitaries, police, and British army forces is confusing, often defying simple categorization.

Keefe-SayNothingPatrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing takes us deep inside the bitter and deadly conflict, largely through the personalities of those involved in the struggle, chief among them IRA terrorists Dolours Price and Gerry Adams. They’re both larger-than-life characters and, as we learn late in the book, involved in the scene with which the book opens, the terrifying abduction of 38-year-old Jean McConville, the mother of ten, from her Belfast home.

We follow Price, a tragic, glamorous figure and notorious hunger striker who married British actor Stephen Rea, and Adams, who became an MP, president of Sinn Fein and, famously denied any involvement with the IRA, and numerous other IRA members through the early years of the movement, in and out of prison, and to their often tragic ends. Excepting Adams re: the tragic end … in case you don’t know already know, it involves rubber ducks.

I came out of this book with a lot more information about the Troubles and mostly about what a lying bastard Gerry Adams is. Also, when I think the whole Brexit mess, I’m much better informed about the deep divisions still within Ireland.

Keefe’s book is a masterful blend of research, suspense and mystery, yet another book that jolted me out of my cosseted world of fiction in the past year.

Straub-AllAdultsOn the other hand, when fiction is really good, it contains insight into the human condition and there’s no need to argue the value f that. Emma Straub’s new novel All Adults Here is a welcome reminder of the value of well-crafted, perceptive storytelling.

The novel centers on a widowed woman and her three adult children. While she’s done her best to parent them, she’s made her share of mistakes. Throughout the course of the book both she and her children come to terms with her imperfect love and move through their feelings of rejection and disappointment to become a healthier, more loving family.

This is stuff that could be sappy or trite in the hands of a less skillful writer. Straub creates interesting, complicated characters and makes us care about them. She also compassionately describes the world of teenage outsiders and we root for them to succeed.

There’s a heartening optimism in this book that tells us no matter how badly we screw up, there’s a chance at redemption. I really like that.

Kevin Wilson: Nothing to See Here

When I heard that the new novel, Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) was about 10-year-old twins who spontaneously combust when agitated, I immediately thought “Nope, not for me.” Then I read the New York Times review by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer I admire for her humor and originality, and thought I’d give it a whirl … still without high expectations.

NothingToSeeHereI’m so glad I did, if only for the book’s protagonist, Lorraine, a down-on-her-luck Southern 20-something who’s been majorly screwed by life. It starts with her mother, a chain smoking, gambling, sleeping around with white trash (can I still say that?) horror, who sells her daughter out on more than one occasion. Then there’s her former prep school roommate, Madison, an ambitious, calculating daughter of privilege raised to marry a senator, which indeed she does. She throws Lillian under the bus (with Lillian’s mother’s complicity) in the early chapters, a situation that so enraged me I carried my indignation throughout the book.

The bulk of the novel involves Lillian coming to the mansion where Madison and the Senator live to take care of the combustible twins, the spawn of the Senator and his former wife, to hide them from public view and keep them from burning down the house while he’s going through confirmation hearings for Secretary of State. Sounds wild, no?

Indeed, it’s a helluva plot but, against all odds, Wilson makes it work. And Lillian is a helluva character. She’s depressed and not giving a shit about living in her mother’s attic and working a dead-end job when the novel begins. By its close she’s evolved into a totally different, more responsible and resourceful person with a strong moral compass.

This book has a deceptive complexity … because the plot is so, well, turbulent, it seems, on the surface, that’s the whole deal. But it’s about way more than the story line, touching on friendship, deception, hypocrisy, abandonment, and describing some very flawed people. It’s also about opening yourself up to love both others and yourself. Wilson not only pulls it off, he makes us think hard about what makes a family. And he makes us laugh. Pretty remarkable stuff.

Bernadine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other

I had never heard of Bernadine Evaristo until I learned she shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood.  Boy am I glad I took notice.

41081373._SY475_Evaristo’s new novel Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-voiced work, featuring twelve loosely and tightly connected Black British women—from Amma, a lesbian playwright whose story opens the book and who serves as the nucleus to the other voices, to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England. There’s also a jaded public school teacher, an investment banker, a house cleaner, and a non-binary social influencer.

All of the characters have authentic voices, all of their stories have wider societal and cultural resonance. It’s a searing portrait of contemporary Britain as well as the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.

Most of you know me as liking fairly traditional, linear narrative. But the structure of this book, moving quickly from one character to another in a style that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, totally worked for me. I was able to move seamlessly between the stories and follow the natural cadence of the novel.

At times I got a bit lost as to the connections between the women, but I generally picked up the thread again. And in a way it didn’t matter. What did matter is all these women ARE connected by virtue of being something of “the other” in British society—certainly in race but also in sexuality, education, and class.

I’m finding myself drawn to these stories lately, to immigrants and people who are marginalized by race, poverty, physical differences, lack of education, etc. I guess it’s the times. Stories of privileged people feel slight and frivolous.

So do read Bernadine Evaristo’s new book. It’ll take you somewhere else, to a place I feel it’s really important for all of us to go.

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

It seems there isn’t much we can count on these days. I write this as PG&E has turned off the power in my neighborhood but not just down the street. Don’t even get me started.

DutchHouse-165x249One thing we can rely on is that Ann Patchett is a consistently great writer. Her latest novel, The Dutch House, is a rich multi-layered family story complete with a wicked stepmother who turns out not to be a stereotype. Imagine that.

The novel centers on a lavish mansion in suburban Philadelphia, the Dutch House of the title. It’s purchased by Cyril Connolly at the end of WWII, enabling him to build a real estate empire and bring his family from poverty to extreme wealth.

For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Cyril’s wife Elna is uncomfortable enough with everything the house signifies that she abandons her husband and two children.

The Dutch House centers on the children, Danny and Maeve, and their life in the decades after their mother’s departure and father’s remarriage. Patchett makes the house a symbol of home and everything that implies for Danny and Maeve. And just like the stepmother, she treats that theme in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.

She also creates a marvelous maternal, independent character in Maeve, and chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view so we get the benefit of seeing her from a distance. The strength of the sibling bond is beautifully rendered here.

In a conversation with Mary Laura Philpott, who writes a column for Parnassus Books—Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, and, yes, she started a vital independent bookstore as if being a celebrated novelist wasn’t enough—Patchett says the inspiration for The Dutch House came from Zadie Smith, who told her the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because the mother in the book was the mother she didn’t want to be. Andrea, the horrific stepmother in The Dutch House, says Patchett, is the stepmother she doesn’t want to be.

So there you have it. A great story, a wonderful read, perceptively-drawn characters acting in a manner that tells us something about the human condition. Ann Patchett makes it look easy.