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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Anita Shreve’s fiery novel of coastal Maine

  • The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (Knopf), April 2017
  • In 40 words or less: A young mother’s life is upended when a catastrophic wildfire destroys her home and community. Naive and untested, she finds strength and resilience as she builds a new life for her family. Inspired by an October 1947 fire.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Maine
  • Time: 1947-50
  • Anita Shreve lulls the reader with the rich details of small town domestic life. Deftly altering the pace as events overtake the commonplace, Shreve recalibrates the storytelling for the transformations to come. A perfect summer read for anyone with an affinity for Maine and the self-reliance of its residents.

In The Stars Are Fire Anita Shreve paints a picture of village life in coastal Maine shortly after the end of World War II. Young families are being created by those who’ve returned from the war, there is some spare money for the first time since the Depression and there are good jobs, at least for the men.

Grace Holland is the mother of two toddlers. She and her husband Gene are not really in synch. Gene has an excellent job with good prospects. Grace tries to make the best of her life despite being unfulfilled in many ways. Her neighbor and best friend, Rosie, has a joyful and spontaneous life that amazes Grace. Where Grace’s life is structured, orderly and unstimulating, Rosie’s is disorganized and vibrant. Rosie and her family bring joy to Grace’s days.

As always, the rhythms of Maine life are dictated by the weather. Storms can be widow-makers for those dependent on fishing for their livelihoods, including Grace’s father. Unending rain or snow can make travel impossible and bring new meaning to cabin fever. But it is drought that can turn clear blue skies perilous.

The endless spring rains give way to a sparkling clear summer. By fall, fire danger warnings are constant. When a large fire approaches both Grace’s and Rosie’s husbands are off to help keep it at bay. As the fire overtakes them, Grace’s quick thinking saves both women and their children. When they are found by rescuers their homes are gone and Grace is seriously injured. Rosie is reunited with her husband but Gene is missing. With all this uncertainty, Grace must make a life for herself and her family.

Grace comes into her own in this new role. With no alternative, she, her mother and children move into her late mother-in-law’s home. This decision changes everything.

Anita Shreve creates in Grace a woman who will not let tragedy define her. Rather than retreating, she chooses to embrace the uncertainties she faces and determine her own future.  Shreve beautifully crafts her settings and describes the details that add depth to the story. These are some of the reasons Anita Shreve is a perennial favorite.

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Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Navigating the holiday season in this company town

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The next month is an ongoing series of office-neighborhood-networking parties celebrating the holidays and year’s end. Even for party animals who consider small talk a sport, parties this season in the Washington area have an underlying current of uncertainty. We are accustomed to the quadrennial cycle of presidential elections and the anticipated turnover of jobs, real estate and alliances.  Just like everything else this year, different doesn’t quite capture the climate.

Washington is a town where the second question asked after you meet a stranger is “What do you do?” Sometimes it is out of genuine interest, too often it is to gauge whether the person is valuable to get to know. When many people in government and not-for-profit organizations are concerned their jobs may be adversely affected and the fabric of our society has been shredded, and the politico-social environment has people shouting at rather than talking to each other, this quick sizing up of one’s value may be hard to handle.

So what does this have to do with reading and books?

Here’s my suggestion to change up the small talk with someone new – ask her (him) “What are you reading?” While there are some people who choose not to read, in this town reading is taken seriously across demographics and philosophies. Now this is not a foolproof conversation starter. I’ve been told that s/he reads a screen all day long and just can’t read at home (oh, that must be very stressful. Hope the situation changes) or the only thing s/he has time to read is Hop on Pop/Curious George/Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site (there is no greater gift than the love of reading, enjoy this time.) Thankfully, this is a question that usually perks up even the most reticent attendee.

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Over the last decade, there have been occasions where my political views have been very different from everyone else’s in the room. Rather than arguing politics, we talk books, generally histories or biographies. For those with whom I often disagree on policy, we look forward to these conversations. The focus on how history and the success/failings of leaders can inform our views tamps down the acrimony of the daily news.

And then there is the sheer joy of sharing a book or author you love with someone new. I never tire of the excitement people bring when they tell me about a new find. In these chats people seem to be all ears, listening with an open mind to what is compelling about a book, author or genre. The conversation may veer into what someone’s day job or passion is, rounding out the understanding of who you are speaking with. Expect to be surprised – the button-downed guy may be a sci-fi geek, the hipster may be on a Dickens jag, and the social worker may be into psychological thrillers. Who knows, you may come away from the event having had a break from the every day, made a new acquaintance, and have some new books to read when the news is just too much to bear.

My Day at the LOC National Book Festival

It’s my own special holiday, anticipated far more than my birthday. For the last 16 years, each September, authors of all stripes have come to Washington to speak of their craft before thousands and thousands of book lovers and visitors who just wandered by. I miss the days when it was on the mall, rain or shine or beastly heat.  There is something about the big tents with people crowding at the edges after all the seats are gone, that bring to mind a mash-up of a country fair, a Chautauqua festival, and a revival meeting, all focused on the power of the written word.thumb_img_4586_1024

I was among the early entrants to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, (as was Stephen King!) thumb_img_4580_1024quickly picking up the complimentary tote bag, poster and schedule of events. Thirteen speaker venues on four levels plus extensive exhibition space, devoted to literacy and educational resources rather than tchotchke sales, have attendees making tough choices from 10 am to 10 pm. Add in the thousand plus volunteers and you get an idea of the sheer size of the event.

Many of the programs I attended were on my “A” list, some were just good fortune. And timing or space constraints prevented me from others I would have definitely enjoyed. So here’s my day, chronologically:

  1. Marilynne Robinson, 2016 winner of the LOC Prize for American Fiction was introduced by Carla Hayden, the newly sworn in Librarian of Congress. Ms. Robinson was interviewed by Marie Arana and they spoke about the characters that have developed and changed through her trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila. Robinson is deeply religious. Rural life, theology and the institutions of religion play an important role in her novels.  unknown-12Long a professor of English and creative writing, she has recently retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She talked about her characters speaking to her, directing their way through her novels. Robinson has a gentle sense of humor and looks like many of the teachers I had in elementary school. Her manner is very consistent with the settings of her writings, approachable, open and interested in everything around her, storing impressions of the world around her to be adapted in her writing.
  2. Yaa Gyasi debut novel, Homegoing, has been receiving raves everywhere. unknown-9Shame on me to not have picked up a copy at Book Expo! The author is only 26 but worked on her novel for seven years. Listening to her speak about the story of two half-sisters born in the 18th century, unknown to each other, in West Africa. It’s a story that travels from the villages and palaces of West Africa to the slave ships to Baltimore and Harlem. Gyasi’s voice is lyrical. This is moving way up on my to-be-read pile.
  3. Winston Groom, of Forrest Gump fame, and Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, were interviewed by NPR’s Audie Cornish. Groom, whose new book is El Paso, and Whitehead were brought together since each incorporates actual historical figures in their books despite the books veering far unknown-10unknown-14from historical reality. Whitehead’s title, the August pick for Oprah’s Book Club, reimagines the Underground Railroad as an actual transit system, changing at state borders. Through the eyes of a single slave, the story unfolds across time, geography and circumstance from the bringing of slaves to the US through the present day. And a slave catcher is giving chase. Groom’s El Paso is about a lesser known period of history, 1916 in Texas on the Mexican border. An industry magnate’s family members are kidnapped and he has to recover them. Icons of early 20th-century industry and politics are woven into the story. After what he did in Forrest Gump, I’m sure the reader is in for some ride.
  4. I couldn’t miss the chance to hear Carlos Ruiz Zafón speak about his novels. The Shadow of the Wind was one of those revelatory reading experiences for me. I’m not one to read the fantastical, but he caught me up from the very beginning. Zafón spoke about his writing, both for adults and young adults, as well as hisimages-3 experiences as a screenwriter. He is grateful to have left screenwriting behind. There were questions about the translation process and the level of input he has as an author – completely involved with his English translator, a matter of faith with the Korean. His works have been published in more than 40 countries. In his case, he is a wordsmith, whether in Spanish or English.
  5. unknown-11Adam Gopnik‘s presentation was a cross between stand-up and storytelling. There were riffs on food, family differences, New York, with a touch of politics thrown in. For example, Gopnik told how a crisis occurred when he seared tuna and served it rare. His wife and son asked that he go back and cook the fish. This so offended his sensibilities that he left the house in a huff, not before his wife told him to come back when he was ready and to cook the fish.
  6. The final event in my #NatBookFest day was Co-Chair David Rubenstein’s interview of Bob Woodward, award-winning journalist and author. In the hour-long discussion, Woodward told how his time in the Army and as aunknown-13 reporter for the Montgomery Sentinel led to a second (and successful) tryout with the Washington Post. As low man on the staff, he was sent to a burglary arraignment on a beautiful June morning, and so the Watergate break-in saga began. Rubenstein asked his impressions of this year’s candidates and many other leaders Woodward has interviewed over the years. I’ll have a lot of catching up to do if I want to read all of Woodward’s eighteen books.

For those who wish they could have been there, the Library of Congress usually posts videos of a number of the events on the website (www.loc.gov/bookfest) shortly after the Book Festival has concluded. I will be looking there, too, to see some of the speakers I couldn’t squeeze into my schedule. Let’s hope our next president continues this wonderful literary event, initiated by Laura Bush and supported by corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, foreign embassies and individual donors.