Category Archives: Fiction

GOLDEN AGE by Jane Smiley

I did it! I made it to the end of Golden Age, last book of the Jane Smiley century trilogy (the first two were Some Luck and Early Warning). The books are about the extended family and progeny of the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa. Each chapter covers a year in the century spanning 1920-2020. Some Luck covered the Depression, World War II and the 50s, with most action centered in Iowa until the young generation started moving away. Early Warning took us through the 80s, touching on Vietnam and the 60s, as the family proliferated through marriages and children were born. Golden Age goes from 1987 to 2020, where the Langdons’ story ends (for now, anyway).

First, I will talk about Golden Age, and then the trilogy overall. Golden Age was my least favorite of the three books. Smiley got a little too political for me. The Iraq war, 9/11, the mortgage crisis, global warming – these plot tentpoles are each seen through the lens of Smiley’s progressive politics, a little too conveniently: a family member dies on one of the planes headed toward the Pentagon, another suffers PTSD post-Afghanistan, family fortunes are lost in 2006 during the mortgage crisis. It all felt a little heavy-handed to me. But like the others in the series, Golden Age is also full of smaller, quieter moments – the moments that make up a life, or a whole bunch of lives. This makes Smiley’s chronicles so poignant. One character in her 70s is asked whether she thinks she has lived through a “golden age”, and she decides that it was a patchwork of sensual memories – stars, a pan of shortbread, her husband – that made her life a golden age, not the global events – wonderful or terrible – that had taken place during her lifetime.

Golden Age, like the period it covers, is darker, more ominous and much less hopeful than the two books that came before it. The last four chapters – 2016-2020 – are downright scary, with glimpses of a dystopia brought about by the accelerating impact of climate change and vigilante violence that cannot be addressed due to budget shortfalls. Scary stuff. I think I would have preferred Smiley end the series when she actually finished the books. The futuristic stuff was a bit too bleak for me.

Reading the trilogy, however, was a very positive experience. As I said in my Some Luck review, I am in awe of Smiley’s imagination, and how she layered this rich, enormous fictional family over her factual knowledge of farming, the environment, politics, the CIA, horse-riding, PTSD… the list goes on and on. It was an admirable experiment, and one Smiley executed beautifully. There were some characters who I enjoyed more than others – Claire, Andy, Jesse – and some who befuddled me – Michael and Richie, Arthur – and others who were just unpleasant. (Janet!). But I feel deeply embedded in their collective lives, and I can’t really believe it’s all over.

I know reading these three books is an investment and it seems kind of overwhelming, but I really recommend the series. It’s a rewarding experience and quite enjoyable at the same time. A crash course in American history!

Like the two books before it, I listened to Golden Age on audio. I had issues with the narrator, Lorelei King, during the first installment, but I got so used to her by the end that those complaints went away. I now can’t imagine having experienced these three books another way. King must have gotten to know these characters so deeply – I’d love to talk to her about what she thought of them. 14 discs is a long time (and that’s just the last book!) but I enjoyed them quite a bit. The brevity of the chapters and even the various threads in each chapter made the audio move along nicely, so even when there were some sections that dragged, they were over quickly.

Great work, Jane Smiley. I hope these books are read widely and for many years to come.

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Stephen Kiernan

In Stephen Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, three stories unspool simultaneously. In the first, Deborah Birch, a hospice nurse, is trying to care for and understand her husband Michael, who has recently returned from his third deployment in Iraq and is suffering from PTSD. In the second, Deb cares for an elderly patient, Barclay Reed, who is dying from liver cancer. He proves to be a difficult patient, but Deb learns how to get through to him and ultimately learns from him. The third story is contained in a book written by Professor Reed, a military history scholar, about a Japanese pilot who attacked the coast of Oregon during World War II.

These subplots are connected, of course: Professor Reed helps Deb to understand her husband’s demons, while she helps him ease into his final decline into death. Michael begins to connect with his wife again after he finally shares some of his pain and fears with her. And the story of the Japanese pilot, which I admittedly skimmed, brings the themes of forgiveness and acceptance into relief.

I found the depiction of hospice care and the ways the dying (and their families) can be brought comfort at the end of life to be the most compelling part of the book. Kiernan clearly has some experience with hospice nursing, or he did a lot of research. The sections on PTSD were also interesting, though I found Deb’s patience with her husband a little unrealistic. I probably should have read the Japanese history sections more carefully, but I just couldn’t get into them. I like books about soldiers and veterans, but I don’t enjoy detailed depictions of warfare.

The writing was a little clunky at times. There were distracting cliches that really stood out to me – after Deb’s first visit to Professor Reed, “he’d won [her] heart already – which detracted from the book. Michael’s sudden taking to a dog that Deb brought home, after stating that he was afraid of dogs ever since Iraq – was sudden. And I’m always suspect of characters who call other people “hey, lover”. Who does that? Repeatedly?

So The Hummingbird was a mixed bag for me but I am ultimately glad I read it. The good parts were pretty memorable and gave me a lot of perspective on hospice.

The Depressing-o-Meter is off the charts on this one. (It’s about hospice and PTSD!) I give it a 9 out of 10.

UNDER THE INFLUENCE by Joyce Maynard

My first book of 2016 was Under The Influence by Joyce Maynard, and it was a good start to my reading year. I’ve read another book by Maynard before – Labor Day (reviewed here) – and am a big fan.

Under the Influence is about a woman named Helen in her late 30s. She had a rough childhood with emotionally distant parents, and ends up marrying a man who she thought she loved and who provides her with the sense of family she never had growing up. They have a son, Oliver, who is four years old when Helen’s husband announces that he is leaving her for another woman. To deal with her sadness and loneliness, Helen turns to drinking at night after Oliver was in bed and develops a dependence on alcohol. One night, when Oliver wakes up in pain from appendicitis, she drives him to the hospital and is pulled over for drunk driving. Ultimately, she loses custody of Oliver because of the DUI, and her life just craters.

I had a hard time reading the first third of the book because it was so sad. Helen’s loss of her son, with whom she had been incredibly close, was devastating. I am not a particularly emotional reader, but boy did this part of the book affect me.

When Helen is at her most lonely and vulnerable, she meets a charismatic couple named Ava and Swift, and this friendship is really the crux of the novel. Ava and Swift are wealthy, social and generous, and they take Helen under their wing and provide her with the sense of belonging that she so desperately needs. While she doesn’t have her son back, her life slowly starts improving.

As I read Under The Influence, I started to develop a sense of unease that intensified throughout the novel. What was Swift and Ava’s motivation as far as Helen was concerned? What would they eventually expect from her in exchange for their generosity? And what was their relationship really like? The novel evolved from its very sad start into a suspenseful thriller that had me turning the pages very quickly, eager (but also sort of dreading) its resolution.

Maynard is an excellent storyteller. She’s also quite skilled at creating deeply flawed but utterly compelling and sympathetic characters like Helen, who have made some bad, but credible, decisions. I read an uncorrected proof of Under The Influence and noticed some repetitive writing and a few factual inconsistencies that will likely be fixed in the final version, but overall I thought the book was very well-written.

I hope the rest of my 2016 reads are as good as this one was!

Note: Under The Influence comes out at the end of February. I’ll post a reminder!

WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech

I just realized that I never reviewed our last mother-daughter book club of 2015: Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, so here’s a quick review. Walk Two Moons is a rather sad book about Sal, a girl who moves with her father from a farm in Kentucky to Ohio after her mother leaves the family and moves to Idaho. Sal’s mother has died in a bus accident in Idaho, but she is either in denial about her mother’s death or has not been told by her father explicitly about it. (This aspect of the book is a little unclear and sparked a lot of discussion.) Sal ends up driving with her grandparents from Ohio to Idaho, tracing her mother’s final steps, so that she can learn about and get closure around her mother’s death.

During the road trip with Sal’s grandparents, she tells them a lot of stories about her life in Ohio, featuring her father’s close friend Margaret Cadaver, Sal’s new friend Phoebe, and some of the strange goings-on that happened to both of them. She also talks about Ben, a boy that she has developed a crush on, and another strange boy who keeps lurking in her neighborhood. In the end, Sal achieves the closure she needs, but she also experiences more losses and learns that she is not alone in feeling abandoned by her mother.

I counted five people in Walk Two Moons who were living without their mothers, some temporarily and some permanently. The book is about loss and adjusting your expectations and hopes to conform to the reality of your life. It’s also about empathy and understanding what other people are going through. The title of the book comes from an old Native American saying about walking two moons in someone else’s shoes to see their lives as they are living them. The book inspired a good discussion among the moms and the daughters, especially since some parts of the book was left a little vague and we were sharing our different interpretations. I found it a little slow at first, but it eventually picked up steam and was rather engrossing.

Overall, a sad but good middle grade read that our sixth graders enjoyed.

AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by Julia Pierpont

Among The Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont has a promising start. A young woman who had been having an affair with a middle-aged artist named Jack decides, after he ends things with her, to print out all of the texts and emails he sent her over their several months’ long relationship and send them in a box, with a letter, to his wife Deb. The box is intercepted by the couple’s 11 year-old daughter, and later by her older brother, which only complicates the devastating impact it has on Jack and Deb’s marriage and their family.

Among The Ten Thousand Things traces the aftermath of the delivery of the incendiary box, exploring how Deb and the kids react to Jack’s infidelity. The main question, of course, is whether the marriage will survive. Deb is understandably furious, although we learn that she was aware of the affair months before, even if she didn’t have concrete evidence to flip through at night. So the marriage was already on shaky ground before the box arrived.

Pierpont takes an interesting approach in the structure of her novel. She divides it into four parts – the first taking place immediately after the box arrives, the second jumping way ahead into the future, the third resuming where the first left off, and the fourth looking ahead only about five years. This controversial structure didn’t work for me in the end, and here’s why: it made parts 3 and 4 basically unnecessary and therefore somewhat tedious.

I love Pierpont’s incredibly detailed and precise storytelling. She knows how to narrate a scene with such realism that you can just see it unfolding before you. I am always impressed by authors who conjure up random little details that give stories authenticity and a sense of uniqueness, a sense that this scene is neither predictable nor expected. Pierpont is very good at that. She failed, however, to make me care much about how the story resolved, and with the ending revealed halfway through, the second half was even more of a struggle to get through. I already knew what was going to happen, even if she was going to it to me eloquently.

Despite the originality of Pierpont’s writing, this is also a pretty standard story – husband has an affair, wife has to decide whether to forgive or move on, kids are affected, no one is perfect. I’ve read this before.

I do have to give props to the audio version of Among The Ten Thousand Things. Hillary Huber is an excellent narrator – precise, restrained when necessary, angry when the words called for it. I thought she did an excellent job performing the novel, and she was a big part of why I stuck with it.

This was a buzzy book of 2015. In the end, it was just OK for me.

 

THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE by Heidi Pitlor

The Daylight Marriage by Heidi Pitlor is a thriller about a suburban Boston mother who disappears from her daily routine the day after a bad fight with her husband. Hannah and Lovell have two children, ages nine and fifteen, and have been married for seventeen years. Lovell is academic and distracted, and while he feels he married out of his league, he’s no longer good at noticing or appreciating his wife. Hannah is a stay at home mom with a part-time job in a flower shop who feels distant from her husband and bored/unfulfilled with the routines of motherhood.

After the fight, in which Lovell questions how she spends her time and why she can’t get anything done, Hannah simply vanishes. She doesn’t pick her children up at school, and never returns home. What happened to her?

The Daylight Marriage was just OK for me. Pitlor is observant and creates very believable scenes and dialogue. There are little details sprinkled throughout the narration which made the action come alive for me. Her description of Hannah’s life and routine – picking up the kids, going to the orthodontist, making one of the few meals they would eat for dinner, homework, her husband’s vacancy – gave some clues as to why Hannah might want to disappear. She wrote, “When in [Hannah’s] life had she lost her desire for the next moment and then the next? It seemed to have happened slowly, not in one sudden blow, but over thousands of ordinary moments, in the tiniest of choices meant to lead her toward a well-defined future, the sort that had been chosen and lived by so many other people.”

Lovell was frustrating at first in his obtuseness, but he is redeemed somewhat by the end of the book. Faced with Hannah’s disappearance, he is forced to participate as a parent in a way he hasn’t before, and that process is gradual but convincing.

So why did this book fall short? I think it was the ultimate resolution of what happened to Hannah. Despite her apparent depression and desperation, her actions were unrealistic and unlikely. Pitlor throws in a few red herrings, but ultimately the answer to what happened wasn’t terribly shocking.

In the end: good writing, some keen observations, but an unfulfilling story.

 

IN THE LANGUAGE OF MIRACLES by Rajia Hassib

Anyone up for a depressing family drama?

The latest in my canon of depressing family reads was In The Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib. It’s about an Egyptian couple, Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy, who move to the U.S. and eventually settle in suburban New Jersey. They have three kids, Hosaam, Khaled and Fatima, and live quiet lives of assimilated immigrants until Hosaam, age 19, shoots and kills his ex-girlfriend/next door neighbor, and then himself. When In The Language Of Miracles opens, it is one year after the shooting/suicide, and the neighbors are planning a memorial service for their daughter, Natalie. The wife comes over to Samir and Nagla’s house to tell them about the memorial service, and after she leaves, the couple immediately disagrees about whether it would be appropriate for them to attend.

In The Language Of Miracles plays out over the next week, with a lot of time spent inside the heads of this grieving, troubled family. Samir is proud and stubborn, refusing to consider whether his own intransigence might have alienated his oldest son. Nagla is grieving for her lost son and also at a loss as to how to deal with Samir – should she defer to his wishes like an obedient, traditional Muslim wife, or stand up to him and try to dissuade him from attending the service? Khaled, we learn, has very mixed feelings about the brother who turned his life upside down. He is not getting the support he needs from his parents, and steals off to New York City when he can to meet with an older female friend there who shares his love of butterflies but knows nothing of this tragedy that has befallen his family. And finally, there is Ehsam, Nagla’s mother, who has moved to the States from Egypt to help care for the family in the wake of Hosaam’s death. She is a traditional Muslim grandmother who cites the Koran and offers old-fashioned Egyptian remedies when her family is sick. She, too, is grieving as she tries to support her daughter and grandson navigating the firestorm after the shootings.

Here’s my issue with In The Language of Miracles: it is devoid of any joy or redemption whatsoever. It is a meticulous analysis of the internal thoughts of the members of the family, most of whom have a reason to be disappointed in the others. Not much happens over the course of the week other than the struggles and hardship of what they are going through. And those disappointments are extremely well-documented. There were interesting glimpses into Ehsan’s relationships with her daughter and son and the ensuing clashes of traditional and modern, and I enjoyed the immigration aspect of the story. I would have liked to have learned more about Hosaam’s relationship with his girlfriend. We see flashbacks of him withdrawing from his family, but ultimately are left with little understanding of why he resorted to such a desperate act.

There is little evolution or progression in the book. Even the climactic scene – the memorial service – is a rather ambiguous affair. I had to reread the chapter a few times and I am still not entirely sure what happened.

Hassib’s writing is precise and eloquent. But I was ultimately left cold by In The Language of Miracles. It is a debut novel; perhaps over time Hassib will become more comfortable with showing rather than telling.