Fiction

A Gentleman in Moscow

During the first half of the twentieth century, thousands of Russians suffered fates much worse than life-long imprisonment. Joseph Stalin sent many artists, writers, and politicos to the Gulag—or killed them outright.

This is the fictional story of Count Rostov, an educated aristocrat devoted to the literary arts, who found after the first Russian Revolution that being a count was not only illegal, but dangerous. The Count traveled to Paris, and unlike many of his contemporaries visiting abroad, decided to return home. But in the 1920s, under Stalin's Article 58 banning counterrevolution, Rostov stood before a tribunal, and was sentenced to permanent imprisonment at the luxury Metropol Hotel—for writing a poem that he never wrote.

Exit West

Several books use the concept of a magical door to provide characters entry into other worlds, or to better places in this one. Exit West, a timely novel about refugees by Man Booker Prize winner Mohsin Hamid, employs this device—but because of the power of his plotting and beauty of his prose, it's highly believable.

The novel begins when a young man, Saeed, meets Nadia in an adult evening class in an unnamed country at some point in the near future. Civil war wracks the country; terrorists and militants roam the streets.

Review: Universal Harvester

This is the second novel from Bloomington-born author John Darnielle, known also for the past twenty-five years as the songwriter in his band the Mountain Goats. While Universal Harvester’s trailer video [YouTube] suggests a horror story, the only slight chills come from the unexpected shifts between third and first person narration. And the eeriness is almost comforting, providing a profound depth and hopefulness to lives that may outwardly appear unremarkable.

Homegoing

A Ghana proverb says, “By going and coming, a bird weaves its nest.” The title of this novel tells the story of many people from Ghana who were forcibly removed from their African home, yet centuries later, two descendants return to find their family.

If you liked Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s novel will make the perfect follow-up.  Hard to believe that she started writing this in her early twenties and finished it by age twenty-six. It covers much more ground than Whitehead’s historical novel: Africa and the U.S., and much more time, from the mid-seventeen hundreds to now.  

At one point in the novel, a black history teacher describes history as storytelling. Gyasi presents many eloquent and heart-rending stories here. What ties them together is that all the characters belong to one extended family, who were once royalty in Ghana. They became both slave-sellers and slaves. Many came to America.

Gyasi follows two tracks of this family: one remained in Ghana, the other was forced into slavery in the U.S.  It follows their descendants after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the great migration north.

Gyasi visited Africa as a student to do research on a book about mothers and daughters. But when she toured Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, something in the rooms, the cellar where slaves were chained and abused in dungeons called out to her. She immediately decided to focus on the African slave trade and its diaspora later in the U.S.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Solvitur Ambulande, solved by walking, could be the motto of this novel. And if you, like me, process the world while strolling through town or the woods, you’ll love this book.

Two alternating stories thread through it. In one, it’s the 1980s, and New York City still has a crime problem, so people fear walking at night.  Most, that is, except for Lillian Boxfish, an octogenarian advertising maven (retired) and a poet. It’s New Year’s 1985, and a ten-mile, round trip walk from upper Manhattan to the Bowery and the Village is no big deal for her.

The second story first-time novelist Kathleen Rooney weaves tells Lillian’s history in the Big Apple. After moving to New York from D.C. in the roaring twenties, Lillian immediately felt at home. She began living in Manhattan in a sheltered rooming house with strict curfews and rules against male visitors.  Lillian and her childhood girlfriend got around these rules by organizing Shakespearean theater pieces to which they invited eligible bachelors.  Later, they’d head out on the town with them, and coming back hours after curvew, they’d tip the front desk person, and steal back to their rooms.

Another Brooklyn

The helplessness and friendships of childhood are topics that many writers have tackled. Fewer have written about African-American girlhood, as Woodson does here. The book centers on August, the intelligent young girl who leaves the lush south for the vibrant and dangerous streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn.

“For a long time my mother wasn’t dead yet.” This sentence opens the novel, which doesn’t proceed chronologically, but follows an inner lyric pulse. Throughout, the whereabouts of August’s missing mother haunt the story.

August’s family lived in Tennessee on a farm called SweetGrove land.  It was inherited from her grandparents. After their uncle, Clyde, a Vietnam soldier dies, her mother begins to unravel. Soon, her father rushes north with August and her little brother to Brooklyn, his home town.

It’s summer--so for safety, August’s father locks her and her little brother, who is only five, inside their third-story apartment. They spend long summer days watching children play on the street: double-Dutch, stick ball games and splashing under open fire hydrants.  A colorful parade of adults wearing dashikis and other colorful outfits weave past.

Britt-Marie Was Here

Confession: I’m not much of an audio book junkie. In fact, I seldom listen to one unless it is the only copy of a book available, but Joan Walker’s funny and poignant rendition of this Scandinavian novel entranced me.

I couldn’t wait to get back to the poor, out of the way Swedish town of Borg--football crazy and poor--where most of the inhabitants were racing to sell their homes and leave after the 2008 financial crises.

How did a middle-aged wife who had not worked outside the home or travelled anywhere end up in Borg?

Well, first her husband of four decades began an affair with a much younger woman. So Britt-Marie decided to leave him. When she went to the employment agency, there were no jobs, so she returned the next day and cooked for the young lady who worked there a lovely salmon dinner. Britt was nothing if not persistent.

Commonwealth

Fifty per cent of all North American children experience the divorce of their parents. Talented author Ann Patchett explores her own family’s divorce in this novel, altered, of course, as all fiction is.

A chance meeting at a 1960s christening causes two families to divide and then merge in new ways.  The novel jumps around in the lives of the Cousinses and Keatings. Fix Keating is a Los Angeles cop, and Bert Cousins, an attorney who moves to Virginia. When Cousins falls hard for Keating’s wife, Beverly, at the christening, two families are forever tied though they end up living across the continent from each other.

The novel proceeds from the perfectly realized christening—where many of the guests are cops and the families of cops, and many of the partiers get drunk including some of the children, to one lakeside vacation where the blended children of the two families seek their own adventures while their parent and step-parent laze away in bed until mid-afternoon.

The Past

This novel is a dense, rich celebration of an English family, first in the present time, then in the past--the late 60s and early 70s.

In the first half, four siblings: Harriet, Alice, Roland, and Jane meet at the old family homestead near the sea for a family reunion.  The house is being sold, and it will be their last time together at their childhood home.

Accompanying them, are children (Jane’s), a new South American wife (Roland’s--his third), a young friend, and son of a former lover (Alice’s), and all alone, (Harriet).

In the siblings’ idiosyncratic fashion, Harriet arrives first; she leaves the house locked and goes wandering in the forest.  Alice arrives with Kasim, and then realizes, what she has done, brought an eighteen-year old to a place with nothing going on. Roland calls and says there will be delay, and that he and Pilar will arrive on Sunday.

Alice runs through the house, throwing open windows, picking and placing beautiful bouquets in each of the adults’ room, while Jane, the mom, practically begins cooking the evening meal as her two children, Ivy and Arthur explore.

Privately, Jane and Harriet discuss whether Kazim is more than a friend to wild, actress Alice. Kazim reads on the porch terribly bored. But on Sunday when Roland, Pilar and Molly, Roland’s sixteen year old daughter, arrive. Kazim immediately perks up at Molly’s appearance.

Our Souls at Night

This moving book describes a love affair late in life. It’s set in the fictional county of Holt, Colorado. One day Addie Moore visits her neighbor Louis.  Louis almost falls off his chair when she asks him if he will come to her house and sleep with her that night.  To share conversation, Addie adds, “not sex.”

Shortly after their night visits have begun (pajamas and toothbrush, paper bag will travel), Louis asks Addie, “Why me?” She answers with a question, do you think I’d just invite anyone. Because you’re a good man, that’s why I chose you.

Haruf, writes laconically, the kind of conversation you might expect from a man raised in a small agricultural town two hours east of Colorado Springs. Yet he succeeds masterfully at tackling the deep subjects: love, death, marriage, the friction between adult children and their parents.

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