The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a chilling story of slavery, focused on Cora and her escape from the Randall plantation in Georgia. The story begins with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, kidnapped from a village in Ouidah, and sold over and over again until she found herself in Georgia at the Randall plantation. At the Randall plantation Ajarry co-opted a small plot of land where she planted vegetables. Ajarry died in the cotton fields. Cora’s mother, Mabel, the only survivor of Ajarry’s five children, continued the plot, as did Cora later.

Mabel disappears in an escape from the Randall plantation when Cora is 11 years old and never returns to the plantation. She is hunted by slave patroller, Ridgeway, who never finds her and his failure haunts him. The slaves living on the plantation have their own politics and system and Cora is shunned and abused after her mother escapes. Cora never forgives her mother for failing to take her along.

Cora lived on the northern plot of the Randall plantation, which was run by James Randall. The south part of the plantation was run by Terrence Randall. Terrence periodically visited the northern part of the plantation where he was known to be much crueler than James. When James dies and Terrance takes over the entire plantation, Terrance meets Cora and “claims” her as his own. It is then that Cora considers an escape along with her friend Caesar, who is educated and has contacts in the Underground Railroad.

Cora and Caesar make a successful escape, taking advantage of the literal and magical Underground Railroad, hidden in barns, houses and businesses, assisted by sympathetic whites, who in some instances pay for their assistance with their lives. Ridgeway is hired to find them and accepts his assignment with relish. Along the way, Cora kills a white boy thereby increasing the importance of her recapture.

Caesar and Cora end up initially in South Carolina, each living in a dormitory, working in jobs provided for them and Cora receives reading lessons. She had a bed and food and life had never seemed so good. But things were not as they seemed. The stores where she could shop charged 2-3 times more than the stores where whites shopped and the medical care available recommended sterilization and engaged in experimentation on the former slaves. Ultimately, Cora is required to escape Ridgeway, who follows her to South Carolina, then North Carolina and  Tennessee.

Each time Cora moves, it is through the Underground Railroad. And each time, the people who help her are made to pay a price for their assistance. When Cora finds herself on a farm in Indiana with other slaves, the politics of the farm and her history create divisions and unanticipated problems. Throughout the novel she never stops running.

The story is distressing and Colson’s writing brings each act of violence and cruelty to life, where people were thought of and treated as property. Cora’s story, her relationships and her observations remind us of the horror of slavery and that phase of American history and hopefully teach us that every person, whether similar or different, is to be treated as we would wish to be treated. A copy of this must read novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

NutshellIan McEwan’s “Nutshell” is a most peculiar murder mystery (although not so mysterious) told by a most unusual narrator, the unborn child of one of the perpetrators. “So here I am, upside down in a woman…I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot.”

Although unborn, our narrator has certain very specific likes and dislikes and is not at all subtle about getting what he (she?–gender undetermined but I will refer to as he for the simple ease of it) wants, with kicks and motion. Observing the activity by listening, the narrator describes Trudy (the mother), John (the father) and Claude (the not so bright lover and the narrator’s uncle). Trudy and John are separated at the behest of Trudy, Trudy is living in John’s ramshackle but extremely valuable house and Claude and Trudy are plotting the murder of John so that they can cash in on the value of the house.

Trudy is a nervous and unhappy soon-to-be mother who does not seem to be all that engaged in her own pending motherhood. The narrator describes in unique detail the combination of their lives. “My mother is more than my landlord”. Her intimate relations are his intimate relations. Where she goes, he goes. What she eats, he eats. What she drinks, he drinks.  And my do they drink! “If she wasn’t drinking for two, if I wasn’t sharing the load, she’d be on the floor.” Our narrator becomes an expert on the quality and varietals of the wine they share.

This unborn narrator is an expert on virtually everything and has opinions on all things worldly, which is masterly considering that he has not even been born. He expounds on politics, war , race, religion, climate change, history, gender and politics. His pompous superiority and callow intellectualism make him almost as unlikeable as every other character in this very short novel.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the narrator is keenly focused on two things–the pending murder plot and himself. He is quick to take offense at every slight, particularly when he feels forgotten and not at the center of all things. Ultimately his narcissistic egocentrism (am I being too hard on an unborn child?) cause him to foil his mother and her lover’s best laid plans, changing all of their lives. You will have to read the novel to understand what this means.

Although the book is so strange, without a likable character, it is in it’s own weird way simply brilliant and wonderful. It is Ian McEwan after all. Nutshell would be a great book club book–short and full of things to talk about. Why don’t you read it and tell me what you think? You can check it out at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

The Guineveres – by Sarah Domet

The Guineveres“The Guineveres” is a first novel by Sarah Domet, about a group of girls who for a variety of reasons have been abandoned by their families and are living in a convent. Four of the girls unbelievably are named Guinevere and that commonality is enough to bring them together as best friends. The girls must live in the Convent until a family member comes to get them or until they become 18 years of age. Vere is telling the story two decades after the events she is describing and well after they have attained their independence.

There are six sets of girls living in the convent–the Sads (parents died), the Specials (still had contact with their parents), the Poor Girls (extremely poor parents), the Delinquents (big trouble), the Almost 18 (speaks for itself) and the Guineveres. Each group is a world unto itself.

When we first meet the four Guineveres (Ginny, Win, Vere and Gwen) they are trying to escape the convent by hiding in a float at a parade capping off the celebration of the Assumption of Mary. Needless to say the girls get caught and do not escape! As punishment for their attempt to escape, the girls are placed on a three month JUG in the convent’s Convalescence Ward, which houses the elderly and dying. While they are tending the old dying people, five soldiers, each in a coma, are brought in. There is a war going on and the Convent’s Convalescence Ward is needed as part of the “War Effort”. One of the soldiers regains consciousness and is sent home, along with an almost 18 year old girl who has also been assisting in the Ward. When the Guineveres see that they could leave as an aid to a convalescing soldier, they each adopt one of the soldiers as their own, referring to them as “Our Boys.”

Religion and life with the nuns is an inextricable part of daily life throughout the novel.  The girls become the first girls they know to become altar servers and enjoy a close and rewarding relationship with the Priest.  The novel includes six interludes consisting of tales of various saints.

Throughout the book the girls dream about life outside the convent.  As time goes by, each of the girls has unique experiences and attains a life separate from the others.  At various turns each leaves the convent and moves on.

Domet does not tell us the time frame for the story, the location of the convent or which war is being waged. The novel is captivating and Domet is a talent to watch. The book was released October 4 and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

The Nix – by Nathan Hill

The Nix“Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in our own story that we don’t see how we’re supporting characters in someone else’s.” Nathan Hill’s “The Nix” is a grand tale about Samuel Andresen-Anderson’s search for his own story, told through his family history and his cast of supporting characters, amidst flashbacks to the 1968 Democratic convention and riots in Chicago.

Samuel is a literature professor at a small university in suburban Chicago. His students are detached from learning in general and his class in particular. Samuel is having issues with a student, Laura Potsdam, who has plagiarized her paper on Hamlet. When we first meet him he is sitting in his office at the university playing Elfquest on his computer, a game of elves, orcs and dragons, where he is known as Dodger. The best and most prolific player is known as Pwnage. Pwnage and Laura are supporting characters with a deep impact on Samuel’s evolving story.

While Samuel is engrossed in Elfquest and teaching in the late summer of 2011, Sheldon Packer, the former governor of Wyoming and bombastic candidate for president, has been attacked by a pebble throwing 62 year old former radical, the Packer Attacker, who turns out to be Samuel’s long estranged mother. Samuel soon receives a call from his mother’s lawyer asking him to help in his mother’s case. Samuel is bitter about his mother who left when he was age 11.

When Samuel was a college student he had written a short story, based on his friends Bishop and Bethany, that drew his teacher’s attention. Ultimately, the story was published in a notable magazine and he was given a large advance to write a novel. The novel never materialized and Samuel’s publisher, Guy Periwinkle, wants his money back. He proposes that Samuel earn the money back by writing an expose memoir on his estranged and seemingly radical mother. Thus starts Samuel’s search for his mother’s (and by extension, his) story.

The story alternates between Samuel’s 11th year in 1988, the 1968 Democratic National Convention and riots and the Packer Attacker year of 2011, with a brief interlude to 2004 in New York at the Republican National Convention. We learn about Samuel’s childhood and his brief but close friendships with twins Bishop and Bethany. These relationships follow him through the entire book. We learn that his mother grew up in Iowa with a strict Norwegian father. She went off to college in Chicago in 1968, was taught by the poet Allen Ginsburg and got involved in the protests and mayhem of the times, resulting in her rapid return to Iowa and marriage to Samuel’s father. Ultimately her need for more caused her to leave the family.

The book has many plot twists and angles, too many for this short review, and in any event, disclosure would take away some of the fun. All of the seemingly disparate characters come together in surprising and enjoyable ways. Hill uses all kind of literary devices, including flash backs, letters, a short story within the story and, in one instance, one sentence that runs 11 pages (with punctuation in case you wondered).

It’s a great story, brilliantly conceived and composed, but it could have used some editing (too much Elfquest for me) and the messages it imparts are shallow and unfulfilling. For instance, Samuel’s mother tells him that “the things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst” and “Don’t trust things that are too good to be true.” Toward the end of the book when everything falls together, he offers lessons like “you cannot endure this world alone” and “if you see people as enemies or obstacles or traps, you will be at constant war with them and yourself. Whereas if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted…” Or, ” a crisis is not really a crisis at all–just a new beginning.” Really? The novel would have been much better if Hill had left the reader to draw her own conclusions.

So if you like to read for a grand well written and creative story, you will definitely enjoy this book. If you read for epiphany inducing insights, you will not find them here! All in all, I am glad I read it and I wish I could have written it, but I am still in search of the perfect contemporary novel.  You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Zero K: A Novel – by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s “Zero K” is a novel about…well, I am not really sure what it is about. Maybe it’s about death, maybe it is about the one dimensional life of a grieving outsider or maybe it is a prediction of our dystopian future brought about by war and climate change and our ultimate desire for immortality. Or may it’s about the challenges of the parent child relationship or maybe it’s about mental illness. Zero K is a book of ideas and it is a challenging read.

The story begins with Jeffrey Lockhart’s mysterious trip to an unknown part of the world and a “facility” known as Convergence.  Jeffrey’s billionaire father, Russ and his second and beloved archaeologist wife, Artis, are at Convergence, preparing for Artis’s death and literal preparation for her next life. Convergence is a secretive facility in which wealthy individuals are assisted with their deaths and prepared to be brought back in better times. In some instances, as with Artis, the individuals are near death (Artis suffers from multiple sclerosis), but in some instances the individuals simply choose Convergence as a next step from this life to the next.

At Jeffrey’s first visit to Convergence he is permitted to view only certain parts of the facility. As he walks along the hallways he encounters mannequins and videos of disasters, wars, self-immolation. A speaker at the facility explained that “‘To some extent we are here in this location to design a response to whatever eventual calamity may strike the planet…At some point in the future, death will become unacceptable even as the life of the planet become more fragile.” Although no one is introduced by name at Convergence, Jeffrey feels the need to name each person he meets and place them in a different life.

While at Convergence, Jeffrey ruminates on his relationship with his father, his now deceased mother, and his father’s relationship with his mother. The one thing that is clear in the story is that Jeffrey has not stopped grieving the loss of his mother or the divorce of his father and mother. He also puzzles over the feelings and concerns parents have for their children. “A son or daughter who travels at a wayward angle must seem a penalty the parent must bear–but for what crime?”

After Artis is “contained,” Jeffrey and Russ return to New York to their lives. Russ cannot recover from his loss of Artis. Jeffrey seeks a job and spends time with his girlfriend, Emma and her adopted son, Stak. Every interaction, every thought and every emotion is one dimensional and empty.  Jeffrey’s continual efforts to create substance by naming people and giving them stories only makes the life he leads feel emptier.

Don DeLillo is a truly great writer. His language is beautiful, almost poetic, and the writing in Zero K is no exception.  Mr. DeLillo recently spoke at the Cuyahoga County Public Library Foundation’s William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage, where he explained that the novel took him four years to write, although it is only 275 pages long. Mr. DeLillo writes on a standard typewriter because of the physicality of the instrument and he explained the importance of language, sound and sight in his books. He was utterly charming and fascinating in his interview and his responses to questions and answers from the audience.

If you have never read any of Don DeLillo’s work, Zero K might not be the place to start.  The story and the characters are tragic and unpleasant, although the book is thoughtful and thought provoking. If you are a DeLillo fan, of course, you must read Zero K. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

A Gambler’s Anatomy – by Jonathan Lethem

What is a face? Is it a mass behind which we create an identity? Or is it our actual identity? What happens when the face is radically changed?A Gamblers Anatomy

In “A Gambler’s Anatomy”, Alexander Bruno is a professional backgammon player, telepathic, debonair and mysterious, expertly relieving the wealthy and egotistical- frequently one and the same-of their money. “Relieving such men of their pretensions: Those were Bruno’s services.”  We first meet him in Berlin, where he has fled from Singapore in an effort to escape financial and personal disaster, including an escape from his “sponsor”, Edgar Falk. “Falk conducted an invisible orchestra of graft; his mantra was ‘price of doing business.’…Falk stayed behind to settle affairs and collect debts.  Falk always collected debts.”

Bruno is suffering a blot in his visual range which he considers part of his persona until he collapses, finds himself in a Berlin hospital and discovers he has a tumor. The tumor is caught between the casing of his brain and his face and is generally inoperable. He is told that the only physician who would be willing to attempt to remove his tumor is in San Francisco, Bruno’s hometown. Penniless at this point, his now wealthy high school friend, Keith Stolarsky, arranges to fly him home and provide temporarily for his medical and living needs.

Dr. Behringer is an eccentric neurosurgeon who specializes in the removal of tumors that other physicians will not consider. Behringer is bearded, unorthodox and listens to Jimi Hendrix during his surgeries, engaging in sex talk with his staff while winding down his intricate surgeries.  His plan for Bruno is to remove his handsome face, extricate the tumor and put his face back. The surgery is ultimately a success.

While Bruno travels back to San Francisco and during his recovery from the surgery, he flashes back to his childhood in California and to his days in Singapore. His mother was effectively homeless and Bruno practically raised himself. He recalled a month spent in the burn unit of a hospital when he was 11 and his jobs in restaurants beginning in seventh grade. Ultimately Bruno finds himself in London and then Singapore–a professional gambler. His gambling life in Singapore was a rousing success until it wasn’t!

His relationship with Keith Stolarsky and his time back in San Francisco is challenging. Stolarsky is a narcissistic, ego maniacal real estate magnate, hated by all who come in contact with him. Stolarsky owns almost all of Telegraph Avenue, including Zodiac Media, Zombie Burger and the Jack London apartments, where Bruno is temporarily housed. Bruno is completely dependent on him for food, clothing, medical bills and everything else.  In fact, Bruno’s entire wardrobe, consisting of tee shirts with the word Abide (The Big Lebowski) and sweat pants are courtesy of the Zodiac. Stolarsky’s motives for helping Bruno are less than clear. Their relationship is very like a complex game of chess, with Bruno always one move behind. Ultimately Bruno’s life on Telegraph Avenue comes to an end and he finds himself back in Singapore with Falk, doing what he does best and reflecting on life, concluding the “We’re all Unknown Tragics on this bus”.

The story is typical Lethem- cynical and irreverent, focused on the off beat, counter cultural community and its disaffected alienated sociopaths, and filled with various literary and media references, strange and sometimes incoherent sentences, yet enjoyable all the same. Lethem still hasn’t captured the magic of “Motherless Brooklyn”, but “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is one of his better novels since that 1999 gem. The novel will be released in October and you can reserve it now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

The Comet Seekers – by Helen Sedgwick

The Comet SeekersThe Comet Seekers is a first novel about trying to live in the present while struggling to understand the past. The book starts and ends in the year 2017 in Antartica where Roisin, age 58, is studying Antarctica and comets. She chose to go to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey to get  far away from her life in Ireland and difficult memories. Francois, age 31, is a cook, for the Antartica expedition. A relationship develops between the two of them and the book moves back and forth among years from as far back as the year 1066 through 2017. The back and forth focuses on the history of Roisin’s and Francois’ families and interconnections between the two. The constant theme is comets.

When we meet Francois’ mother, Severine in 1976 she is 14 years old, living in Bayeaux, France and watching the Comet West. She spends a great deal of time with her grandmother, who talks to the ghosts of her ancestors. Of course everyone except Severine thinks she is crazy. We learn that the ghosts appear with the comets and only speak to family members who have lost someone and committed to staying put in Bayeaux. When Severine’s grandmother dies, Severine commits to the ghosts and the past rather than living a life in the present and looking to the future. Through the ghosts, Severine learns a great deal of her past and we see the lives of Severine’s ancestors and Roisin’s ancestors intersect. “So many ways to be saved against what might hurt you, but no way to be saved from what has already happened.”

We meet a young Roisin in 1976 when she is 9 years old and charting the path of the Comet West in her village in Ireland. She and her cousin Liam are lying on the cold ground mapping the stars. Roisin moves from studying comets to studying planets and galaxies and works in a variety of countries including France, Scotland and Canada. In 2007 she is accepted to work in a program at New York University, which was her ultimate goal.

When Roisin experiences a difficult loss, she gives up her life in New York and goes on the Antartica expedition. Contemplating her loss, she muses that “there is perhaps a part of her that knows we are too small to matter.”

The novel ends with ghosts intermingling with comets and with us questioning whether Severine was truly communicating with ghosts or whether something else was at play.

I liked the way the book started but about midway it fizzled. The story is dark and the angst of the main characters, their perspectives on life and obsessions with the past and regret is very hard to take. Although the novel is less than 300 pages, it is repetitive and too long and parts of the story are inconsistent and flawed. The idea of the novel, the intermingling of science and the supernatural, and the creativity with which it is executed are excellent and tell me that Ms. Sedwick’s second novel will be vastly better and that we should keep an eye out for her. The novel will be released in October and you can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

A Gentleman in Moscow – by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowAmor Towles’ “A Gentlemen in Moscow” describes a big life in a seemingly small world and paints a vibrant picture of Soviet history from 1922 through 1954. In this beautifully written and captivating story, Amor Towles tells a tale of the triumph of goodness over cruelty and hopefulness over despair. This second novel is as enjoyable and engaging as his first, “Rules of Civility.”

In 1922, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat For Internal Affairs sentences Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov to spend the rest of his life inside the Hotel Metropol for writing the poem “Where Is It Now?”, which brashly asked the question, “where is our purpose now?” In imposing the sentence, the prosecutor pronounced that the Count “has succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class – and now poses a threat to the very ideals he once espoused. On that basis, our inclination would be to have you taken from this chamber and put against the wall.” Instead, the Count is sentenced to a lifetime in the Hotel Metropol, where he has previously resided in luxurious accommodations. Of course, when he is returned to the Hotel, he is removed from his luxurious accommodations and moved to a single attic room.

In trying to adjust to his new circumstances, the Count tells himself that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them” and that “imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.” And so the Count adjusts to the 30 or more years that he ultimately spends in the Hotel. Of course there are some challenges along the way.

The Hotel Metropol is a grand hotel. It has a cocktail bar, the Shalyapin, one of the finest restaurants in Moscow, the Boyarsky (its chef is described as 5 foot five and 200 pounds), a more casual restaurant, the Piazza, a barbershop, a flower shop, a full time seamstress and a variety of meeting rooms and ballrooms. There is a lot of life in all of these places.

The Count befriends a nine-year-old girl, Nina Kulikova, who is temporarily living in the hotel with her father and who introduces the Count to all of the secrets the Hotel has to offer. In return, the Count shares with Nina his wisdom and a lifetime friendship begins. This friendship enriches the Count’s life in ways that I will leave for you to discover when you read this delightful novel.

In the meantime, the Count’s college friend Mischka shows up at the Hotel while he is visiting Moscow to help plan the inaugural Congress of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The arrival of Mischka causes the Count to look back at his life in simpler days and gives us some history and context for the changes in the country described throughout the course of the novel. Mischka shows up periodically throughout the story, always reflecting the changing political environment.

While living at the Metropol, the Count meets people from all over the world, begins a love affair with a famous actress, spends many years tutoring a former red Army Colonel about the west, works as the head waiter at the Boyarsky and makes friends and enemies with the various people who lead their lives either in or through the Metropol.

Throughout the book we learn a lot about the changes in Russian politics, sometimes through historical detail and sometimes through plot. My favorite example involves wine and the Boyarsky. The Count, a wine and food connoisseur, dines at the Boyarsky most evenings and is very selective about his wine. One evening in 1924, at the Boyarsky, the Count orders a bottle of Barolo and is told his choices are a red or a white. Asking for the restaurant manager, the Count is taken to the Hotel’s wine cellar, housing more than 100,000 bottles. “And every one of them without a label.” The explanation? “A complaint was filed with Comrade Teodorov, the Commissioner of Food, claiming that the existence of our wine list runs counter to the ideals of the Revolution. That it is a monument to the privilege of the nobility, the effeteness of the intelligentsia, and the predatory pricing of speculators.”  In 1930,    “[T]hanks to a member of the Central Committee, who had tried unsuccessfully to order a bottle of Bordeaux for the new French ambassador, wines with labels could once again be found in the Metropol’s cellar.”

A lot of life and a lot of history takes place in this story, all told with humor, compassion and thoughtfulness. I leave it to you to discover. I finished the book wishing I knew more about Russian history and culture. The book comes out in September but I recommend you reserve it now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

The Noise of Time – by Julian Barnes

The Noise of TimeDmitri Dmitriyevich (Shostakovich) was a Soviet composer and pianist and a prominent figure of 20th century music. Julian Barne’s “Noise of Time” is a chilling fictionalized history of Shostakovich’s life, focusing on the impact of Soviet politics on Shostakovich’s life and music from the time of his birth (1906) to the time of his death (1975).

When we first meet Shostakovich he is 31 year old and spending the evening by the elevator outside his fifth floor apartment, accompanied by a bag packed with three packs of Kazbeki cigarettes, waiting to be arrested for the dissonance of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “They always came for you at night.” His crime at that time was creating an opera that appealed to the “perverted taste of the bourgeois”, because it was not purely melodic. For this, he could be arrested and murdered.

Shostakovich describes Russia’s approach to the arts at this time. “…since all composers were employed by the state, that it was the state’s duty, if they offended, to intervene and draw them back into greater harmony with their audience.”

The book is split into three parts. The first part takes place in the 1930s and that is where we meet Shostakovich waiting for the elevator. In 1937 he finally has his first meeting with “Power”, where he is interviewed about his relationship with other “radical” musicians and his knowledge about the plot to kill Stalin. After the interview he knew that “He was a dead man…He burnt anything that might be incriminating–except that once you had been labelled an enemy of the people and an associate of a known assassin, everything around you became incriminating. He might as well burn the whole apartment.” Somehow he survived the interrogation and instead, his interrogator disappeared.

The second part of the book begins with Shostakovich flying to America to present at the New York Peace Conference in 1949. Shostakovich’s speech was heavily tempered by the politics of his home country and the fear that instilled. Nicolas Nabikov, who was present in the audience, publicly asked him whether he supported the Soviet Union’s denunciation of Stravinsky’s music. Shostakovich, a great fan of Stravinsky, was forced to express support for Soviet positions that he actually found abhorrent. The whole trip to America had been humiliating and frustrating for him.

In the third and final portion of the book, Shostakovich is wealthy, successful and has a chauffeured car. And he is as miserable as ever. After spending his entire life refusing to join the Party, he is finally forced to do so.

The book goes into Shostakovich’s neurotic personality, his unhealthy relationship with his mother, and his constant fears and cravings. It is a difficult although worthwhile read and likely will only appeal to readers with an interest in Soviet politics and its impact on the arts. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Commonwealth – by Ann Patchett

CommonwealthAnn Patchett hits the trifecta with “Commonwealth”–great writing, great story telling and great insight–all told in a matter of fact style with a touch of humor.

“Commonwealth” is about family–which means it’s about love and hate, betrayal and forgiveness, expectations and disappointment, life and death. The story begins when deputy District Attorney Albert (Bert) Cousins crashes Franny Keating’s christening party, meets and immediately falls in love with Franny’s extraordinarily beautiful mother Beverly and two separate families suddenly become intwined. Bert leaves his pregnant wife Teresa and their three children and Beverly leaves her police officer husband Fix. Beverly and Bert marry and along with Beverly’s two daughters, Caroline and Franny, they move from Los Angeles to Virginia. Teresa is left with four children to raise on her own in Los Angeles, although Bert does suggest that she move with them to Virginia. “That was all it took for Teresa Cousins to spend the rest of her life in Los Angeles.”

The Cousins children (Cal, Holly, Jennette and Albie) come to Virginia every year and the six children together wreak the kind of havoc that only six children very close in age with very little parental oversight can create. “The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.” When a tragedy strikes, the summers together come to an end, although a few years later, after setting fire to the art room at his school, Albie is sent to live in Virginia.

The story is told in alternating chronology. We learn about the family pasts and their presents, and their changing relationships, mostly, although not exclusively, through Franny’s life story. Fix encourages his daughters to go to law school and Caroline becomes a successful lawyer while Franny drops out of law school and, struggling to find her place, works as a cocktail waitress at the Palmer House in Chicago. “For someone who had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on. Those were her only two criteria at this point: not to be a lawyer and to keep her clothes on.” While working as a cocktail waitress, she meets legendary author Leon Posen and they begin a life together (despite the fact that he is more than 30 years older than Franny and married to someone else).

Franny shares her life story with Posen, who turns it into a National Book Award winning novel and ultimately a movie. Of course the story is modified and interpreted from Posen’s perspective, causing the family to react with horror, shock and offense, mixed with what appears to be indifference . “A film of life would definitely be better than this, even if there had been a camera behind them every minute recording the entire disaster of childhood, all the worst memories preserved, it would still have been better than having to watch these strangers making some half-assed attempt to replicate their lives.” The story makes you stop and wonder what your life might look like from a detached observer’s perspective.

Beverly ultimately divorces Bert and remarries, adding another family to the mix. People age, get married, have children, suffer regret, become ill and die.  The characters look back on their lives with a mixture of regret, detachment and resignation. “All the stories go with you, Franny thought, closing her eyes. All the things I didn’t listen to, won’t remember, never got right, wasn’t around for.”  And Teresa, many years after her divorce from Bert muses that “The things you really need are never there when you need them.” The book addresses the thought provoking questions of how the randomness of events influence a life and how to ensure that the experiences of the past become part of the future without losing your own story in the process.

I laughed through the first half of the book and cried through the second. Ann Patchett tells a great story but reminds you that life is as it is and not as you would wish it would be. The book is due to be published in September and I will be buying my own copy. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on