At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen – Book

Imagine this novel, At
the Water’s Edge
by Sara Gruen, is a smoothie you are mixing up in your
literary blender. The first of our ingredients are two American men medically
unfit for service in World War II, wealthy and privileged but too young to be
in control of their families fortunes. We also have one beautiful young woman,
Maddie, with wealthy parents but no income who marries one of the clueless
pair, Hank and Ellis. We have Ellis’s dad in the recipe, a dad who was shamed
by supposedly faking pictures of the Loch Ness Monster, leading Ellis to decide
to go (while war is raging) across the Atlantic to clear his father’s name. We
have Angus Grant, a Colonel training Commandos and acting as proprietor of the
inn where the three Americans have booked rooms. We have Anna and Meg who help
out at the inn and a number of other villagers. World War II is an ingredient
in our smoothie. Although this Scottish village is distant from the action in
the waning days of the war in Europe, residents are still required to use
blackout shades at sundown, carry gas masks at all times and to shelter when
bombing occurs.
This is definitely an odd set of circumstances around which
to create a novel. The author combines quite a number of genres, including a
war story; a small Scottish village relationships tale; a story line of bad men
and good women, good men and good women, abuse and romance. We have a thread
about the wages of lying, another about finding a monster; magical events and
ancient superstitions which could only be believable in a small Scottish
village. Then we have a commentary about social classes, upper class versus
lower class protocol (both classes have rules), crossing class lines, how war
levels social classes (at least temporarily). And more. That is a lot going on
in one book and yet the author has control over all the characters and all the
story elements throughout and is able to produce a novel that is both as perceptive
as a fine literary publication and as satisfying as a bodice-ripper, with
everyone, pretty much, ending up with the fate they deserve.
By Nancy Brisson

Queen of the Trailer Park by Alice Quinn – Book

Queen of
the Trailer Park: Rosie Maldonne’s World
by Alice Quinn has been
translated from the French by Alexandra Maldwyn-Davies. Rosie Maldonne lives in
France although either most of the French-ness has been translated out of this
book, or France and America are not as different as we all believe.  Fortunately this means that the book will not present any
cultural difficulties for American readers. Rosie likes to be called CriCri and
she is a single mom who loves her babies. She has a number of pet terms for her
children, among them “kiddos and tots and babas”. (I wonder how the synonyms
she uses sound in French?)
Rosie’s biggest problem is that she is poor. She works
sporadically because she has to work when her “chickadees” are at school or day
care. Luckily she found a place that will let her waitress for a few hours at a
time and even sing sometimes if someone can take care of the “crib lizards”
(she cracks her children up with that one). Rose lost her mom when she was
sixteen and has been on her own now for nine years. She is resourceful and
colorful and apparently pretty, despite her style choices which tend towards “red
leather miniskirt and orange satin corset with fluorescent pink wedges.”
When we meet Rosie she is out of food and out of money and
she is trying to find a friend she can hit up until her welfare check arrives.
As she visits with her friend Veronique in front of McDonald’s, her eldest
child, Stephanie (5) starts making a racket near the McDonald’s trash cans. She
has apparently unearthed a Happy Meal toy, a princess. When CriCri (Rosie) goes
over to investigate her fortunes change almost immediately. She finds an
envelope full of Euros, lots and lots of Euros. She wanders by more trash cans
with her “rug rats” and in every trash can is another envelope.
Of course, she realizes that this money represents some kind
of pay off or dirty money, but she is so needy and, she reasons, finders
keepers. Besides every day recently her mom has sent her a song that has
somehow been prophetic and today was no exception. The song for the day was about money. She does, however, know
better than to become a big spender. After this dubious stroke of luck Rosie’s life starts moving very fast.
Next her friend, Veronique loses her baby boy, Pierre,
and then Veronique also goes missing. Rumors of murder trouble Rosie even
though she wants more proof. Then she meets the two policemen investigating the
case and feels an attraction to the younger cop-in-training. She meets Gaston,
an elderly, wealthy and famous (and exceedingly nice) poet. She meets the
mayor. The mafia gets involved and Rosie’s trailer gets trashed.
This is almost a murder mystery and Rosie is sort of a sexy, wacky,
maternal, French Stephanie Plum, making Alice Quinn an oo-la-la Janet
Evanovich. Queen of the Trailer Park
is an enjoyable little amuse bouche
or perhaps a palate cleanser between heavier tomes. You gotta love a woman who
loves children as much as Rosie (CriCri) does. Rosie is a force of nature. I don’t think we are done with Rose Maldonne.
By Nancy Brisson

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – More to Say…

A Little
Life

by Hanya Yanagihara is a gripping book. After you finish it, it still does not
let you go. It gives you a kind of heartburn. This haunting story kept me awake
for several hours last night during those hours between midnight and dawn when
our minds often seem to want to work through the unfinished business of the
day. I just wasn’t done with digesting it.
I was tempted at least twice while reading the horrific
litany of abuse to which Jude, the child, was subjected, to put this book down
and not finish it. I still wish, at least a wimpy corner of me does, that I
could ‘unknow’ the sordid events of Jude’s little life. Is this novel based on
true events? I do not know. In her acknowledgements the author thanks a quartet
of men who perhaps could have served as models for this story, although the
author does not say that.
I read somewhere that people are calling this “the Gay Book”
but I don’t think this book has anything to do with being gay. There are gay
characters in the book but this story is not about gay relationships. This
book, I have decided, is about sex trafficking and sexual abuse and about the psychological
impacts of these crimes on the victims.
This novel fortunately, is also about love, and what love can
accomplish, and what it perhaps cannot. Again, I conclude that this novel may
not be for everyone, but A Little Life
is more than just a little bit great.
By Nancy Brisson

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Book

Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude are the men I have been living
with for the past week. These four very different men met at a college that
sounds a lot like it could be Harvard where they were roommates in Hood Hall
(not the name of an actual dorm at Harvard). They became a circle of friends
that even their peers envied, a four-way friendship of four men who became very
successful in their adult careers, a friendship that hit a few bumps from time
to time but, essentially, lasted a lifetime.
Jude, though, is the focus of this almost unbelievable tale of
the very worst things that can happen to a young boy with no parents whether he
is in the social welfare system or not. What kinds of psychic damage can mold
the personality of a boy who is very handsome and is subjected to a level of
predation than I, out of naïveté, or an inability to suspend my disbelief,
found almost impossible to accept? Did the author Hanya Yanagihara lay it on
too thick, or does she know someone like Jude? Does this really happen to
children in America?
How does Jude ever go on with his life once he is finally
rescued? What kind of life is he able to cobble together? How does he end up
with such great friends? What is Jude unable to enjoy in his adult life because
of his past? Should his friends have pushed him harder to share the personal
details of his past? If Jude is able to open up and talk about his past will he
be healed?
Don’t avoid reading A
Little Life
because this story shows humans at their worst, because then
you will also miss humans at their best. It’s a bit long, but Yanagihara is a
skillful writer. Going where Jude has been is really hard and sad, but his four
friends and some other wonderful folks who actually adopt him when he is a
young man, would never think of hurting him? Are they able to “fix” him? I don’t
want to give away the details of this book because if you decide to read it you
will note that information is doled out very slowly and we don’t get the whole
story for quite a while. However, these were four unforgettable young men to
spend time with and Jude may end up being as classic a character as the Jude
the Beatles sing about in Hey Jude.

Euphoria by Lily King – Book

For several decades intrepid individuals with college degrees
set out to study “primitives”, groups or tribes of people who lived in remote
areas in mostly tropical climates. This field was called anthropology, but
living, observing and documenting the details of these people’s lives was a new
approach to a study that had previously been based on studies of artifacts. It
was a very controversial approach, as are all procedures that try to improve on
an established order.
Did the very fact that a scientist was present in the
culture, living there, conducting interviews, and interacting affect the
culture so much that any finding would be completely compromised? After Nell
Stone published her controversial study describing the sexual behavior of
children in Kirakira, and other important aspects of that culture, her book
became an enormous success. (Think Coming
of Age in Samoa
by Margaret Mead.)
Nell Stone, an American, marries another anthropologist Schuyler
Fenwick, an Aussie, and they are fleeing a rather aggressive native New Guinea group,
giving up all their research because the tribe’s aggression makes Nell afraid. This group had been
cannibals, surely enough to make anyone nervous, but the government did not allow cannibalism now. However, this
tribal group had broken into two warring groups and so on Christmas Eve,
1938, Nell and Fen leave and make a stop for the night at a small hotel on
their way to Australia. There they meet Andrew Bankson, who narrates the rest
of this story.
Both Nell and Bankson stick to the protocol they have learned
to use to keep their data as unsullied as possible. They are not with these
people to live with them, but rather to observe them and record as many aspects
of their culture as possible.
Bankson said: “how we believed we could be objective in any
way at all, we who each came with our own personal definitions of kindness,
strength, masculinity, femininity God, civilization, right and wrong.”
Nell said: “We’re always in everything we do in this world,
limited by subjectivity. But our perspective can have an enormous wingspan, if
we give it freedom to unfurl.
Fen does not actually follow the protocol of the objective
observer. He learns languages easily and he dives right in and practically
lives with the men. He takes his notes after the fact. Nell carries her
notebook with her at all times and writes down everything. Fen focuses on
religion and religious items, ceremonies and warfare genealogy. Nell focuses on
economics, food, government, social structure and child-rearing. Bankson, with
no partner, must do it all.
This book is dense with the details of a social science and
the passion of native peoples, and a devastating romantic triangle. Fen has a
temper. He is jealous, possessive and very competitive. He wants to earn a name
and fame that will outshine that of his wife. By the end you may wonder who the
savages are or if human interactions have become any less primitive under our
coating of civilization.
Euphoria is the
title of Lily King’s novel and the word also describes the feeling
anthropologists get when they think they understand what makes the group they
are observing tick. But there is more than one kind of euphoria happening in
this little gem of a novel inspired by Margaret Mead and by the ethnographies
which became everyone’s passion for a while, until there were no unknown
peoples left to explore. 
These anthropologists, while going through all the biological
imperatives all young people experience did so in strange and dangerous corners
of the world with a thin veneer of scientific method to keep them in line. They
probably ended up exposing quite a lot about modern life to these primitive
people. Often, when able to establish rapport these anthropologists discovered
that these primitives were human in every sense of the word. They were simply
isolated. This is not something we knew when the whole business started. Euphoria by Lily King made me euphoric.
Truthfully, I didn’t even notice the writing; there was just the story. This
kind of novel based on history makes it hard to guess what Lily King will
tackle next, but I bet it will turn out to be another very good read.

By Nancy Brisson

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – Book

Edward Todd, known as Ted or Teddy, was a pilot in World War
II. At the end of Kate Atkinson’s previous novel, Life after Life, which centered on Teddy’s sister, Ursula, Ted’s
plane crashed after he flew more missions that he ever should have and his
family is informed that he has been killed. Teddy comes back to life, however,
in this follow-up novel A God in Ruins.
He was apparently in a POW camp.
Ted and his family grew up in the English countryside,
although they were not farmers. Fox Corners offered an idyllic patchwork of
wild and tamed nature. Although he couldn’t join the Boy Scouts (obviously a
sore point) and had to spend his preteen days in the company of both girls and
boys in Kibbo Kift, perhaps an English version of 4H, he loved his life at Fox
Corners. He had a poetic and pastoral nature. Birds attracted him in
particular, but he liked all of it; the fields the skies, the stars, the dogs
that the families had, and the wide freedom of it. His mom, Sylvie and his dad,
Hugh, were not quite aristocracy, but they lived comfortable lives with a cook
and a housekeeper.
Teddy goes to private schools eventually. He wants to do
things like drive trains and fly planes. As Hitler is marching across Western and
Eastern Europe, Ted does get to fulfill his dream to be a pilot, but only as
the pilot of bombers in wartime. He trains in Canada and he shepherds his
flight teams through many successful missions and a few that are not so
successful. In this second novel, A God
in Ruins
, Ted comes back from the POW camps and lives out his life.
I would have thought that the author would have given him a
heroic life after the drama and terror of flying a plane full of bombs over
hostile armies that tried to shoot planes out of the sky. However, perhaps the author
wants us to understand the futility of the sacrifices made by these young men.
After the war, she tells us (and she did a lot of research), analysts concluded
that all this bombing did little damage to the German army, although hundreds
of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children, died and German cities
were burned to the ground.
Do pilots bear the same guilt that the German people bear?
How about the guilt of those in command who knew that the effects of all that
bombing were not as great as you would think? How much of what those commanders
ordered was a form of vengeance? What purpose does war serve? I think Hitler
may be the only time we can give war a pass, although our guilt for killing
innocents should remain, as it should remain for all who take part in warfare.
But Ted did not live a life any different from most other
returning veterans (in fact his daughter was a real piece of work). He married
his childhood sweetheart more out of inevitability than love. How did that turn
out? Well, that’s the part I will not give away. But I will mention that there
is a wicked twist at the end of this novel which is there for mainly
philosophical reasons.
Kate Atkinson is an excellent writer who offers enough of the
beauty that makes our lives bearable, and plenty of the seemingly purposeful
banality, intentional and unintentional cruelty, and love that come along with
our position as the most sentient species on earth at the moment. Kate’s “hero”
Ted may have dropped a lot of bombs on unsuspecting humans, but we recognize
that his is a lovely person and well worth getting to know. Atkinson also
offers a depiction of the air wars over Germany spelled out in enough horrific
detail as to make us think long and hard about ever waging war again. Is there
a parallel here that she would like to make with using drones? (There is a
whole Adam and Eve metaphor. How far we have come from the garden?) Kate
Atkinson is, I believe, an important writer of our time, which, ironically,
only time will confirm.
By Nancy Brisson

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – Book

 
 
Last year we celebrated the 60th Anniversary of
the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This might explain the small flurry of titles
which cover the German occupation of France and which tell of the relief felt
by Frenchmen everywhere when the Allies invaded at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Some of
these books also mark the day that lives in infamy in French history, the day
when the Jews of Paris were rounded up and forced to stay in the Velodrome d’Hiver
(an indoor winter cycling track) until they could be transported to
concentration camps in Germany.

These stories relate history but they are also personal. They
nurture self-examination. If our country was occupied by an enemy we feared, an
enemy that had already conquered and subdued proud nations which also treasure
their autonomy, how would we behave?

In these novels about occupied France authors show us the
choices. Citizens who don’t have to go out in public except to shop could
perhaps lay low, but this option did not work for many Frenchmen or women. You
could “collaborate” with your occupiers as many business people were
practically forced to do. Some citizens, however, were more opportunistic and
saw “collaboration” as a way to prosper. And with great care and in total
secrecy you could join a resistance movement and find ways to work around your
occupiers, or pass on insider information about them to their enemies, or to harass
and harry them. Some resisters were able to save a small number of Jewish
French citizens or their children but this was very difficult as people had to
be hidden, fed, and clothed, almost impossible to do with aggressive German
troops everywhere.

The
Nightingale
by Kristin Hannah is the story of Isabelle
Rossignol, a fictional French woman, rebellious since she was a girl, who joins
the Resistance in France. She always wanted to do something heroic and she
finds a way to fulfill that dream. She ‘collects’ downed Allied pilots and
hikes with them over the Alps into Spain. Her last name means nightingale and
it became her “tag” of heroism. She becomes famous as the Nightingale and she
puts her life in jeopardy over and over again. Although she is not a real
person, people really did do things just as heroic as Isabelle’s rescues.

She also had a sister, Vianne, who had no heroic
inclinations. She had the life she loved as a mom and wife and a school
teacher, at least she did until Germany marched into France. Her husband left
to go fight with a woefully unprepared French army and was captured and forced to
spend the war in a German work camp and his wife was left to live in a village
that now belonged to her German captors. Vianne eventually found her own way to
be heroic.

Although this story does not have the fine literary qualities of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony
Doerr, Hannah’s story is also well worth reading. Kristin Hannah covers the
same historical events and both stories are set mostly in France. Although The
Nightingale does not represent any one real figure she does remind us that many
French men and women found ways to resist their captors and did so pretty much
right under their noses. Kristin Hannah also gives us a wrenchingly clear view
of the deprivations suffered by the people of France when Germany started to
lose the war and food and clothing and supplies became almost impossible for
the French people to find. Conquered people all over Europe suffered terrible
deprivations and there would have been mass starvations had they not been
rescued just in time. The way the lives of ordinary French people in the
countryside were affected is described well in this novel.

This was an excellent story and I did shed a few tears. We
will never really know if we could resist a fearful foe living right amongst us
until we encounter such a moment and I am sure we all pray that will never
happen.
 
By Nancy Brisson

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – Book

 
 
Anthony Doerr is the author of the novel All The Light We Cannot See. Anthony Doerr is not just a
storyteller, although he tells a great story; he is a writer, a literary writer
whose prose has whole other levels that take off from the story. He is a
philosopher. He creates an artful world. There is rich symbolism all over the
place. There is despair at the calumny of man and rapture at the triumphs of
the human spirit. This is a beautifully written book.

Doerr gives us two young people, one French, one German; one
male, one female; one treasured but blind, one with great intelligence but
destined for the coal mines at fourteen. Both children have quite enough to
deal with but into the midst of their lives Hitler arrives and the lives they
might have lived are set on a new trajectory. Marie-Laure, blind, female, a
virtual prisoner in occupied France has more freedom to act then Werner, our
German boy, the occupier, who must dance, against his nature, to Hitler’s tune.

Science plays a fascinating and consuming role in this novel,
both the quest of mankind to understand the physics of the universe and the natural
history of the universe as contrasted with Hitler’s obsessive and horrific
attempts to quantify the universe. Hitler keeps records on everything, he
greedily steals and hides the art and wealth of Europe and yet he doesn’t
really understands the possibility that art gives humans the capacity to
transcend the primitive in our natures. Hitler does not transcend, although he
believes himself to be the most transcendent of all humans.

“It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build
splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of
colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world –
what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and the
wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably
snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences
while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?”

Why indeed?

And yet this is not a depressing novel because of the two
children at its center. Here’s Marie-Laure, a true student of nature,
indomitable in spite of her blindness.

“What mazes are there in this world, the branches of trees,
the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals…Mazes in the nodules on murex
shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of
eagles. None more complicated than the human brain.”

Every time I say that I can’t imagine another book based in the
World War II someone proves once again what a rich mine is in it for human
thought and human error. Anthony Doerr has caught all of that in this bestselling
novel.
 
By Nancy Brisson

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – Book

In Paula Hawkins’ novel The
Girl on the Train
, Rachel rides the train back and forth between London and
the suburb where she lives. She reveals herself to us with each trip. We see
her creating stories in her mind about a couple she sees each day near one of
the stops on the way to London and again as she travels home. We become as keen
to see what this couple is up to as Rachel is.
We see that Rachel is drinking. Although at first it seems
casual we soon understand that it is somewhat serious. Eventually we realize
that Rachel is an alcoholic.
Three women tell this story which begins with a tiny grave
by some railroad tracks, a woman in some kind of extremely frightening
situation, and a small pile of dirty clothing by the side of the rails that
Rachel rides each day. Talk about foreshadowing. As we switch back and forth
between glimpses of their lives at first we only see what Rachel sees. Rachel
has very good reasons to stalk this particular set of town houses that back up
to the train tracks. She once lived happily in one of those houses with her
husband Tom.
Just as a train picks up pace each time it leaves a station,
this story is fleshed out each time we travel with Rachel past those Blenheim
Road town houses. Rachel begins as a stalker but eventually she doesn’t keep
her distance from these two couples, Anne and her ex, Tom and the “perfect”
couple, Jess and Jason (actually Megan and Scott). When Megan goes missing on
the exact Saturday that Rachel arrives back from a Blenheim Road “stalking”
expedition with bleeding injuries and no memory of what she did that night,
Rachel’s need to fill in those missing hours reveals truths about all three
women and also about the men these women love. As a consequence of Rachel’s
bumbling attempts to get answers, we, the readers, get to go along for a mind
boggling, goose-flesh-raising, and tangled ride.
The
Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins is engrossing and leads you on
a very modern trip on a rather old-style train. When I am not thinking that
Rachel may have done something unpardonable, I am thinking how much this book
is like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window
with legs. (Yes, the Jimmy Stewart movie.)

Your trust in humanity may suffer a bit as this one
unravels. This novel gets full marks because, while perhaps not deeply literary,
it is well written and obviously has great mass market appeal. It is difficult
to put it down.

By Nancy Brisson

Gray Mountain by John Grisham – Book

Gray
Mountain
is not John Grisham’s best literary effort but he always
delivers the dirt on the “bad actors” amongst us. I watched The Firm this weekend (again) and that
early book still stands out for both its writing (great suspense) and the theme
that has set a fire under John Grisham throughout his career – little people
with big moral fiber pitted against power people, money people, corporate
people who have lost whatever moral compass they once (or never) consulted.
Gray
Mountain
pits a few very small characters against a big coal
industry that is basically so protected by very powerful people that it can
abuse its employees and the people who live in coal country with impunity.
These companies get homeowners to sign contracts which allow the coal company
to buy their land and they promise huge profits which are seldom delivered.
They clear cut mountain tops including valuable hardwoods, strip the mountains
layer by layer from the top down until the last vein of coal is gone and then
they leave the denuded mountains like sulfurous blemishes on a once beautiful
terrain.
They push their leavings into the valleys often killing people who reside
there or destroying their homes and they do it without compunction. They can
hire the best lawyers so they rarely have to take any financial responsibility
for those they harm. They leave a poisonous concoction of coal slurry in
dammed-up ponds that seeps slowly into ground water and creates cancer zones and
then the coal companies claim that no clear connection can be proven between the
cancer and the bad chemicals in the water. This is what John Grisham is great
at, exposing greed and its attendant crimes against humanity and the planet.

There is a story line and we do meet some pretty good
characters. We meet Samantha, a NYC lawyer, a newbie in a giant law firm who
loses her job in the Great Recession due to downsizing. The law firm, in hope
of recovery, tells Samantha and the other lawyers if lays off that the firm
will pay for their health insurance for one year if they volunteer to work at a
nonprofit. Samantha, while not excited about leaving the city she loves,
eventually chooses an internship at a Legal Aid office in West Virginia, coal
country, the Appalachian Mountains. 
Here she meets Matty, her warm,
experienced, and highly competent new boss who becomes a friend. She also meets
two brothers, one a lawyer, one not, both deeply involved in exposing the sins
of the coal companies and for very personal reasons. Samantha doesn’t seem like
a strong character, but she surprises us as she avoids falling prey to the
charms of these two handsome, but not totally ethical brothers. We certainly
care about what the coal companies are up to and we end up caring about what
Samantha will do also. Whether or not it is great literature, it makes a great
read for a winter weekend.
By Nancy Brisson