When fiction bleeds into real life

  • Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Minotaur Books); August 2017
  • In 40 words or less: The latest Three Pines mystery deals with a classic vision of conscience and the strangling effects of opioids on familial life and civil society. Chief Superintendent Gamache will go to any length to break the Quebec-based drug cartel.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: Quebec
  • Time: Now
  • Fans love Louise Penny’s novels for the strength of the characters she creates. Once again, the human frailties of the principals deepen the storyline.

When I finished Glass Houses yesterday morning I was struck by the timeliness of the storyline – a very small, carefully chosen group within the Sûreté plot to bring down the cartel controlling the distribution of opioids in Quebec and across the US border. And then I listened to CBS 60 Minutes exposé prepared with  The Washington Post on the pharmaceutical industry working with the Congress to diminish the DEA’s authority and resources to combat the proliferation of opioid abuse.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines is isolated and idyllic. Every reader I know would love to spend time in the bistro and the bookstore. But as in every mystery, it’s not all it seems. The day after Halloween a hooded specter appears on the green, a cobrador, a moral debt collector, silently terrorizing all in view. When an occasional visitor is found dead in the cobrador‘s costume, the questions grow.

This story covers the period of approximately a year, bouncing between the murder in the fall and the trial in the heat of the summer. Stifling heat in the courtroom reinforces the discomfort for Gamache and the prosecutor during the trial. Early on, it is clear that neither is fond of the other and that this case is outside the norm.

The drug abuse and the opioid crisis clearly weigh heavy on Louise Penny. Key characters have struggled with abuse and their pasts are woven in as reality. Gamache has a reputation for ferreting out corruption within the ranks, often at a high personal price. The potential for corruption, particularly when dealing with the vast monies associated with drug trafficking are part of the story.

If you are unfamiliar with Louise Penny, I urge you to give it a try. Be aware that there is an arc through all the titles and reading later books will provide spoilers about the lives of the ongoing characters. Having said that, each may also be read and enjoyed as a standalone novel.

It may seem odd that I often choose this genre as a getaway read. Despite the violence, justice generally prevails albeit at a high price. When you look at it that way, it is a much pleasanter experience than keeping up with the news.

 

 

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‘Daring to Drive’: One Woman Changes a Kingdom

  • Daring to Drive by Manal Al-Sharif (Simon & Schuster); June 2017; in collaboration with Lyric Winik
  • In 40 words or less: From childhood, Manal Al-Sharif was unwilling to settle for the roles assigned by teachers and religious authorities. Necessity pushed her to defy convention and drive. Her story provides insight into the harshness of life for less-privileged Saudis.
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Locale: Saudi Arabia
  • Time: 1980’s – 2012
  • As a part of telling her personal story, Manal schools the reader on the history and customs of Saudi life, particularly since 9/11. The critical role Aramco (the state-operated oil company established by John D. Rockefeller) plays in offering women wider opportunities, somewhat outside of the constraints of the broader society, is a catalyst for Manal’s activism.

If you doubt for a moment that one person can bring about major change, Daring to Drive and this week’s dramatic announcement that women will be permitted to drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia prove it. Manal Al-Sharif was not born into an activist family. Her upbringing was in a harsh home, governed by strict Islamic rules and the unbending strictures of an education system determined to minimize girls’ opportunities and ambitions.

Manal always went her own way. She simultaneously questioned the authority of her teachers while exploring very fundamentalist religious teachings, putting her at odds with many including her siblings. 9/11 was a turning point for her, causing her to reassess her belief in the strictest religious teachings and the true nature of the factions calling for the demise of the West.

It is information technology that finally brought Manal to national and world attention. While she wanted to be an engineer, this was not a profession open in any way to women. The limited higher education options included a single path to information technology. Her tenacity and good fortune brought her to Aramco,  giving her a taste of some of the freedoms and opportunities open to women elsewhere in the world. As she learned of the Arab Spring through her laptop, another rarity, she realized that Twitter could provide the platform to bring together Saudi women across the country willing to drive!

This is far more than one woman’s quest. To tell Manal Al-Sharif’s story demanded looks into working-class family life, the juxtaposition of civil law and religious authority, the differential information available to the privileged and ordinary citizens. Decades of Saudi history and custom are woven into the telling. Not surprisingly, Daring to Drive has been received with acclaim in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, with its large expat Saudi community and many wealthy Saudi visitors. The book has not been available within Saudi Arabia.

Manal was interviewed exhaustively in the development of this book. To bring her story to the page required the failed collaborative efforts of four skilled writers. It took hours of additional Skype conversations and extensive research for Lyric Winik, the final collaborator, to successfully convey the extraordinary personal journey Manal has taken from frightened small child to international activist.

It pays to have friends. My good fortune is to know Jenna and Gadi Ben-Yehuda. Knowing my love of books and authors, they introduced me to Lyric Winik as the book was being released in June. Lyric and I made plans to have her meet with a book group I facilitate on September 26. At 4:00 that afternoon the news bulletins and emails started pouring in – the Saudi Arabian government announced that beginning in June 2018 women would be allowed to drive in public in the kingdom.

Book club meeting, Tuesday, September 26, 2017, discussing ‘Daring to Drive’.

Meeting with a writer is a wonderful experience for a book group. It provides insights beyond the written page – how the narrative was constructed, what research was required, and the challenges of bringing the story to the public. We had many questions for Lyric, and we asked them all. And then we rejoiced for Manal and all the women of Saudi Arabia who have endured so much for so long in silence.

 

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The Hidden Light of Northern Fires

  • Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang (St. Martin’s Press; August 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Town Line, New York had a rare outpost of secessionists as the Civil War approached.  Mary Willis puts her family home and business in jeopardy as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Wang imagined this story from materials found in his hometown.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: US (Buffalo area, NYC)
  • Time: Civil War
  • Historical fiction can send a reader straight to the internet to learn more. Elements of this novel did just that for me. It is a September Indie Next pick.

Mary Willis wants more than small town life after her college graduation in 1859.    A visit to her alma mater draws her into aiding the Underground Railroad, crucial since her family lives near the Canadian border. The Willis family is very prominent in Town Line, New York, with farmlands, a lumber mill, and a well-established business shipping and selling materials throughout the region. Mr. Willis is a town commissioner as well, further ensuring his influence.

Town Line is a split community. While many are in favor of Lincoln and the north in the impending war, a group of German immigrants, led by their minister, are sympathetic to the southern cause and believe that escaped slaves should be caught and returned as property. Several among them scour the area as armed bounty hunters, known as Copperheads, creating dangerous confrontations among neighbors.

At the start of 1861, Joe Bell has reached New York after fleeing Virginia. Taught to read by his master and very skilled, Joe is better equipped to navigate the dangers than many others. So close to freedom, Joe tangles with two Copperheads and is badly wounded, finally seeking cover on Willis property. His good fortune in this choice is tainted by the vengeance sought for the casualties of the encounter. From then forward, Joe’s and Mary’s lives are inextricably entwined.

Leander Willis is the family’s heir apparent. More interested in hanging around with his childhood buddies, his father dispatches him to nearby Buffalo to begin to learn the ropes of the family business. Leander is easily distracted by the wheeling and dealing and the lure of nightlife. Soon he is drawn to New York City and his life spirals out of control, damaging the family business in the process.

After returning home, Leander seeks redemption by banding together most of his friends as recruits for the Union Army. As a son of a prominent family, Leander is commissioned as an officer, common practice in the day. Soon they realize that the war is not the lark they imagined.

The beauty of Daren Wang’s debut novel is the teasing out of new facets of history within an engaging story. I’m a big fan of authors who drop bread crumbs to encourage readers to research the veracity of surprising details within the story. Wang did this very well. Most stories of the Civil War focus on Gettysburg and south. Bringing to the fore the northern experience and Canadian involvement is a welcome change. The characters he created are complicated, many admirable, others less so. Throughout the book, people are forced to deal with the consequences of their choices.  The mix of characters, history and plot twists make for a worthy addition to Civil War historical fiction.

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All My Puny Sorrows

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, US publication), 2015
  • In 43 words or less: Sisters Elfrieda and Yolandi are closer than close. Now adults, Elf is a renowned pianist and Yoli a struggling mother and writer. Their Mennonite family and Elf’s mental illness overtake their lives. Funny and heartbreaking, this well-written novel isn’t for everyone.
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Canada
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Toews gives a glimpse into a less-than-traditional Mennonite family and the forces that shape it. Warning: Themes related to mental illness, living with a loved one with mental illness.

Miriam Toews is an acclaimed writer in Canada and less known south of the border. For more than two decades she has been amassing honors for her writing which includes six novels, the latest being All My Puny Sorrows. It either won or was shortlisted for most of the major Canadian fiction prizes upon its publication.

All My Puny Sorrows draws upon Toews’ family life as a child of an unconventional Mennonite family in Manitoba. Being unfamiliar with this community, her descriptions of communal norms and the choices her family made that set them apart were particularly interesting. The relationship of Elfrieda and Yolandi brought to mind the Helen Reddy song “You and Me Against the World.” Elf is a brilliant concert pianist who feels music, poetry and all aspects of life deeply and darkly. Yolandi, the younger sister, is her foil and protector, dropping everything to cushion Elf from harm.

Yoli hasn’t attended to her own needs as carefully. Her romantic relationships have failed, though her two children seem surprisingly well adjusted. A writer, she earns a meager living writing children’s novels she dislikes and is regularly a step away from financial ruin. Fortunate to have a friend who steps in when she can, Yoli’s first priority remains Elf and keeping her safe.

I regularly encourage people to visit independent bookstores when traveling and to buy local authors as a way to bring the trip back home.  A kind friend gave me All My Puny Sorrows after a visit to Toronto. While the book is beautifully written, the realism Miriam Toews brings to Yoli and Elf is so personal and painful I read it in small bites. Despite the darkness, there is a lot of humor and the story is filled with familial love across three generations. Even though there is little difference between American and Canadian English, there is something distinctly Canadian beyond the locations that are periodically mentioned.

Miriam Toews is a survivor of familial suicide and has written a nonfiction book about her father and his suicide. Her experiences clearly have informed her fiction. For this reason, prospective readers may want to avoid this book if it hits too close to home or is otherwise too disturbing.

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Hum If You Don’t Know the Words

  • Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam), July 11, 2017
  • In 40 words or less: Beginning with the Soweto uprising, a young white girl and a Xhosa woman are thrown together as a family. Their complementary narratives enrich insights into life under apartheid. Great book!
  • Genre: Literary Fiction
  • Locale: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Time: 1970s
  • Forty years after the uprising that began the end of Apartheid, this novel opens a door to the challenges of life for the Blacks and others in South Africa fighting for change. A wonderful novel of people in very difficult times.

Robin is a young Anglophone girl growing up in South Africa. Bullied by her Afrikaans schoolmates, she is very concerned about living up to her parents’ expectations. Her father is a manager in a mining operation, overseeing Black workers. When her parents receive a last minute invitation to a business function Robin’s life is changed forever. En route to the event, Robin’s parents are ambushed and murdered. So starts Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. Robin and her housekeeper are dragged to a notorious police station where the housekeeper is brutalized. Robin is turned over to her only relative, her Aunt Enid who lives in Johannesburg. After gathering up a small suitcase, Robin’s past life is left behind.

Beauty Mbali is a well-educated teacher living with her sons in the Transkei. Looking to improve her daughter’s life, she sends her to Johannesburg to live with relatives and attend a superior school. After receiving a message that her daughter may be in trouble, she travels for more than a day to Soweto to see her. Beauty arrives in the midst of the first day of the student marches, discovering that her daughter is in the leadership and is now missing. Beauty will do whatever it takes to find her daughter.

Robin isn’t the only one adjusting to her family’s trauma. Enid is a stewardess and modern single woman with no one to account to but herself. Though she tries, upending her life to provide the care Robin requires herself is neither practical nor within her skill set. She reaches out to her network of friends, many of whom are anti-Apartheid supporters, for help. Through these channels, Beauty becomes Robin’s caregiver, confidant, and lifeline. This allows Beauty to remain in Johannesburg, though illegally, so she can continue to search for her daughter.

Bianca Marais has created two rich communities to tell her story. Bit by bit, Robin’s world expands. Her one friend is a Jewish boy, homeschooled because of the anti-Semitic bullying he receives at school. His apartment becomes a safe space and his family’s customs a source of curiosity. Enid has several gay male friends who are at times endangered by the authorities. At times it is difficult for Robin to distinguish friend from foe.

During the continuing search for her daughter, Beauty reveals elements of her family and its past. Protecting all her children leaves her torn – caring for a white child while her sons are back home and her daughter missing. Her search takes her through Soweto, balancing secrecy with her goal. Vivid descriptions of afterhours gathering places and the leaders and hoodlums that are all part of the growing uprising enrich both the story and the reader’s understanding of the times.

Both Beauty and Robin are leading their lives as survivors rather than as victims.  Not always optimistic, each demonstrates inner strength consistent with her position in life. Neither is perfect and these flaws are key to the story.

As a blogger and book group leader, I have the chance to read some books before they are published or reviewed. It can be a crapshoot – some good, some meh and some not worth finishing. And then there are the special books.  I love Hum If You Don’t Know the Words. There are twists, even in the beginning. As I read I could see the story unfold, almost as if a movie was taking place in my mind. This is Bianca Marais’s debut novel. It has been selected as an Indie Next selection for this month and has gotten well-deserved advance accolades. It is a great pick for book groups and to share with friends.

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