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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Texas, 1870 in ‘News of the World’

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles (Harper Collins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A 70-year-old former soldier and itinerant news reader is asked to return a young girl kidnapped by the Kiowa Indians to her remaining family. Jiles beautifully paints a picture of the land, their growing relationship and the challenges they face.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Texas
  • Time: 1870
  • This book, based on actual historic figures, captures the hardship and beauty of life in Texas at the cusp of statehood. It was deserving of National Book Award consideration.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is tell a straightforward story simply and with beautiful language. News of the World is such a success.

Texas in 1870 was a very rough and unforgiving land. Paulette Jiles’s poetic skills are everywhere in the sparse yet descriptive language she uses to bring the story alive. In a surprising small novel, Jiles tells the story of a young girl taken to live with the Kiowa Indians after they murdered her parents and sister. Rescued by the army, she is entrusted to a seventy-year-old former military officer who commits to bringing her back to her surviving relatives.

While this is historical fiction, both of the primary characters are grounded in fact. Knowing this gives the reader a platform to better understand the dynamics of life during this period.

Both are outsiders. He is an itinerant news reader, paid to read selected stories from newspapers around the world to audiences in saloons around the country. He has a keen awareness of schisms in the country and picks and chooses what he shares to avoid creating additional unrest. She no longer speaks English and is completely acculturated to the Kiowa way of life. He becomes her teacher and protects her from men who wish to victimize her further. She, too, feels a responsibility towards him and uses the skills she gained to save them both.

This is a turbulent time in Texas. There is great lawlessness with predatory alliances, some as an outgrowth of the Civil War, others familial or opportunistic. Few women live in the towns and many of them are in brothels. The Captain and Johanna are forced to travel under cover of darkness for their own protection. The land itself is a major character in the book. Jiles language is so precise you can see the terrain and feel the dust as they travel.

Despite the seriousness of their circumstances, this is not a doom and gloom novel. As they come to know and understand one another, there is a genuine affection that develops. There are cultural differences that must be bridged and there is humor.

It is rare to find a book that tells its story so well in such a compact package. For that reason, I hesitate to divulge any additional elements of the plot. As Captain Kidd’s and Johanna’s journey together draws to an end it is difficult to read because these are characters I would like to spend much more time with. This is a book I can recommend without reservation.

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)

Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

Elizabeth Strout returns to form

  • unknownMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout(Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Lucy, long estranged from her family, is visited by her mother during a lengthy hospital stay. Bit by bit they rebuild a relationship, revisiting Lucy’s childhood in Illinois and the silence and isolation that sent Lucy in search of herself.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: Primarily 1980s
  • Read this for an aching look at the mother-daughter relationship.

After Elizabeth Strout burst on the scene in 2008 with Olive Kitteridge, the bar was set very high for any future writings. When The Burgess Boys appeared in 2013 early critics were pleased, many readers not as much. Like The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel, not short stories. But in Lucy Barton and her mother, we have imperfect and complex characters that have been carrying steamer trunk-sized baggage with them for decades.

Set in a New York hospital the 1980s, the rhythm of hospital and family life are very different from today. While Lucy has built a family and career of her own,  her children rarely visit the hospital, her husband is caught up in his parenting responsibilities and averse to hospitals.

Convalescence is slow. Days run one into another marked by visits from doctors, diagnostic testing, and nurses on their own schedules. After several weeks, her mother just appears to Lucy’s surprise. One in the bed, the other in the side chair, they revisit Lucy’s childhood and the small town where her family still lives, still outsiders in many ways.

Little happens in this book. While they speak of the others in their small town, their peculiarities and slights, the acts that crippled Lucy are never spoken aloud. Smart and a talented writer, Lucy’s family never understood her gifts. She was the poster child for low self-esteem.

After leaving the hospital, the understanding gained from her mother’s visit finally allows Lucy to see herself and those around her in a new light. And she continues to transform for the remainder of the book.

If you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton may be worth a look.