Sorry for your Trouble“Sorry for Your Trouble” is a collection of nine short stories by one of my favorite authors, Richard Ford. In each story there is some connection to Ireland and there is always a lawyer. Most of the stories involve a man in late middle age who has a connection to New Orleans or some other town in Louisiana. And each story has an existential end of life feel to it.

In the first story, “Nothing to Declare”, Sandy McGuiness is 54 years old, a lawyer and sitting in a bar with some of his law partners. There is a woman present who he finally recognizes as a woman he spent a week with in Iceland when he was in college. McGuiness is married now, but goes on a walk with the woman where they speak in fragments. She means nothing to him and he ponders what that means. “As his father had said, we have little to pride ourselves in. Which argued for nothing in particular, yet would allow a seamless carrying forward into the evening now, and the countless evenings that remained.”

In “Displaced”, 16 year old Henry Harding’s father has died and his school mates treat him as though he is invisible. He and his mother live alone and across the street from their house is a boarding house filled with characters, including the MacDermott family, from Ireland. Mr. MacDermott drives a cab. Their son, Niall, is a year older than Henry and their daughter younger. Niall and Henry strike up a tense friendship and at Henry’s mother’s urging, Niall takes Henry to a drive in movie. The experience is peculiar, to say the least. Niall ultimately returns to Ireland. Henry realizes that life is much more complex than what appears on the surface.

In “The Crossing”, a newly divorced attorney, originally from Louisiana, is on the ferry near Dublin. He sees a group of American women on the ferry and begins reminiscing about his failed marriage. He believes the marriage started to fail when he and his wife  witnessed a child hit by a bus. “A moment can come from nowhere and life is reframed. Stupid. But we all know that it can.” One of the women approaches him and he tells her of his divorce and sheds a tear.

One of the more disturbing stories (and to be honest, they are all a tad depressing) is “The Run of Yourself”. In this story, Peter Boyce, an attorney from New Orleans, is renting a small house in Maine for a month. He and his wife, Mae (originally from Ireland), rented a different house in Maine each year, where Mae had committed suicide. Peter spends a great deal of time thinking about Mae and having unnatural encounters. At the end of the book, he allows a young woman he does not know to spend an evening in the house (it is not salacious if you were wondering). “He wished he had something to tell her. Call upon his years and years of legal experience. But he had nothing. Life, he thought, would now be this—possibly even for a long while—a catalog. This, and then this, and then this, and then this…”

The last and longest story, “Second Language” involves Jonathan Bell, from Chicago and Charlotte Porter. Charlotte Porter, a realtor, had been married to Francis Dolan for many years, until he decided he wanted to restore a wooden boat and sail it to Ireland. He never returned. Jonathan’s wife of many years died of cancer and Jonathan, an extremely wealthy gas and oil man, pulled up stakes and moved to Manhattan. Jonathan met Charlotte when she was showing him a property and three months later they were married. But after two years, and maintaining separate residences at Charlotte’s suggestion, Charlotte simply decides they should no longer be married. She realizes that Jonathan wants a deep intimate connection and that she is simply satisfied to just be. For Charlotte, life was like a surface. “Life was that and only that. A surface. That was what you could rely on it to be.” But Jonathan was different. “Jonathan was a man who apparently believed in greater and greater closeness, of shared complications, of difficult to overcome frictions leading to even deeper depths of intimacy and knowledge of each other.” They split up and then a couple of years later, Charlotte asks Jonathan to go with her to visit her mother in Hospice. While they are there Charlotte’s mother dies and basically the story ends.

Richard Ford is a wonderful writer and each story is beautifully told. As a reader, he makes you feel each character’s personalities, both their flaws and their positive attributes. This is Richard Ford’s strength. But beware, these stories are not cheerful and the general theme is that life is what it is and then it is over. You can reserve this collection at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

RodhamALERT: this review is one giant spoiler. It is impossible to give you a sense of this book without giving away the key aspects of the plot. So let me start with a few points before you decide to read on. First, if you do not like Hillary Clinton, do not read this book. However, if you do not like Bill Clinton, you might want to read this book! Are you torn? A few more things before you decide to read on. Curtis Sittenfeld is not a great writer. She is good enough but not really all that good. The book is too long and bogs down on things like Hillary’s sex life and campaigning. The story, however, is incredibly clever.

If you are going to read this book and do not want to know the twists, STOP HERE.

“Rodham” is an alternate history about what might have happened if Hillary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton. Hillary meets Bill while they are both law students at Yale. Hillary is well known for a commencement speech she gave at Wellesley and her activism at Yale. Hillary is very close to Gwen and Richard Greenberger. Richard is a constitutional lawyer at Yale and Gwen runs the National Children’s Initiative, where Hillary was doing some research. “He was white and Jewish and from Georgia, and she was black and Baptist and from New York…” Hillary meets Bill and immediately feels drawn to him. When he ultimately pursues her, they become a couple. Gwen Greenberger does not approve, and her disapproval tugs at Hillary.

Bill has very defined political ambitions and is planning to spend the summer in New Haven working on the McGovern campaign. Hillary has accepted a summer associate position with a law firm in San Francisco. Ultimately, Bill decides to forego working on the McGovern campaign to join Hillary in San Francisco, although he does not have a job. Toward the end of their time in San Francisco, Hillary catches Bill cheating on her. Bill is portrayed as a sex addict and Hillary puzzles over what this means for their future together. “…discerning his flaw meant that if I could live with it, I could keep him.” Hillary spends a lot of the book ruminating over her romantic life and the manner in which she affects others.

Ultimately, Hillary gives up on her dreams and moves to Arkansas with Bill. Gwen is very disappointed in Hillary’s decision and makes her opinion known. Their relationship is tense. Bill immediately runs for Congress and Hillary begins teaching at the law school. During the campaign, she begins to question his ethics, such as when he accepts a paper bag full of cash that he intends to use in illegal ways. During a shopping trip a woman approaches Hillary and tells her that Bill had forced himself on her. Hillary confronts Bill and he denies it, but ultimately Hillary determines she cannot live with his unfaithfulness and moves back to her hometown of Chicago.

Hillary begins teaching law at Northwestern and becomes friendly with another professor, James. They become very close, but he is married and they never have a physical relationship. During the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, it becomes clear that the Democratic Senator from Illinois is going to vote in favor of Thomas. As a result, Hillary is approached about running against him in the Democratic primary. She agrees but when Carol Mosely Braun enters the race Hillary decides not to run. However, it becomes clear that Carol Mosely Braun will not win, so Hillary enters the race and ultimately becomes a Senator from Illinois. She is 44 years old. Gwen expresses her disdain over Hillary’s decision to run against an African American and their relationship is permanently frayed.

In the meantime, Bill has married Sarah Grace Hebert and has two children. He contacts Hillary after 16 years of silence to let her know that he has decided to run for President. Stories of his infidelities become public and he and Sarah are interviewed on 60 Minutes. Sarah bursts into tears during the interview and Bill withdraws from the race.

Hillary makes her first run for President in in 2003. She makes her second run in 2008 and loses in the primary to Barack Obama. In the meantime, Bill has become a fantastically wealthy tech giant.

Hillary decides to run for President again in 2015. She is the strongest candidate in the democratic primary. Then late in the game, Bill Clinton announces that he too, is running. You can see where this is headed, right? After a lot of machinations, and a part of the book that is way too long and dull, Hillary gets the endorsement of none other than Donald Trump, runs against Jeb Bush and HILLARY WINS!

As I said at the beginning, the story is really clever, some of the thoughts and reckonings attributable to Hillary are interesting and the outcome is obviously very different from our real lives. Sittenfeld gets bogged down in unnecessary details that take away from the cleverness of the story. The book could have been about 100 pages shorter and would have been much more impactful. But all in all, if you like Hillary Clinton, it is a very fun read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

A Long Petal of the Sea“A Long Petal Of The Sea” is a moving, brilliantly conceived historical novel that follows the lives of Victor Dalmau and his wife, Roser, through the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean coup and beyond. The novel describes human cruelty, strength and perseverance through a compelling and emotional form of storytelling that is quintessential Isabel Allende.

Victor Dalmau joins the Republican Army in Spain in 1936, fighting Franco and his nationalist forces. Victor had been a medical student before he joined and while in the army worked recovering the wounded. In December 1937, he is assigned to an ambulance team responsible for giving first aid. Victor’s team includes a driver by the name of Aitor Ibarra. At one point during the war Victor revives a dying soldier in a most heroic and unusual way. While in the army, Victor falls madly in love with Elisabeth Eidenbenz, a Swiss volunteer for the Association to Aid Children in War. She is not interested, but both Aitor and Elisabeth become very important in Victor’s future.

Victor’s father, Professor Marcel Lluis Dalmau, is a music teacher and his mother, Carme, a chain smoking teacher. As Lluis Dalmau lay dying, he tells Victor that they have lost the war and tells him to go to France until things calm down.

In a totally different segment of the story, enter Roser Bruguera. Roser is seven years old and shepherding goats when she meets Don Santiago, a wealthy professor. Santiago quickly understands that Roser is a special child who will never be able to realize her potential due to the extreme poverty of her existence. He takes her in and soon discovers that she has innate musical talent. She spends the rest of her childhood living in Guzman’s mansion and at the age of 15, Guzman “installed her in a guest house for young Catholic ladies in Barcelona so that she could continue her music studies.” When he decides that he does not like the person she is becoming he stops supporting her. Her music teacher, Marcel Lluis Dalmau takes her in and makes her part of the family. While living with the Dalmau family, Roser meets and falls in love with Victor’s brother, Guillem, and becomes pregnant. Guillem dies in the war and never knows about his child.

After Lluis’ death and it becomes clear that the republican democracy had lost to Franco’s supporters, Victor arranges for his mother, Carme and very pregnant Roser to be transported to France. His pal Aitor has a motorcycle with a side car and agrees to transport them. They move slowly toward France along with thousands of other refugees. Carme is certain that she is a burden and disappears and they cannot find her. Aitor and Roser find their way to France without Carme. France is not exactly welcoming and Roser and Aitor are placed in camps.

Elisabeth Eidenbenz gets Roser out of the camp and into a safe home where she has her baby, ultimately named Marcel. Meanwhile, Victor is helping to transport the sick and injured into France. Victor finds Roser and they decide to take a refugee ship, the Winnepeg, to Chile. But in order to go together, they are required to marry. The captain of the boat is anti-immigrant and the bureaucrats that meet the boat are also anti-immigrant. “but…when [they] came face to face with the individual refugees-men, women, and children-[their] views changed.” Pablo Neruda, who is 34 years old and “was considered the best poet of his generation, which was some feat as in Chile poets flourished like weeds,”  arranged for the Winnepeg to transport the Spanish refugees to Chile.

Meanwhile, the very wealthy Isidio del Solar, his wife, Laura and their daughter, Ofelia, are on a pleasure cruise from Chile to Europe, where Isidio is doing business. Despite her lavish life (“She had given birth to six children without ever having changed a diaper or prepared a bottle…”) Laura does not care for her husband. Back in Chile, their son, Filipe, is in charge of taking care of the house, although their housekeeper, Juana Nancuchero, is really in charge. Felipe and his father do not see eye to eye on Chilean politics, as Felipe is on the left and his father is far on the right.

Roser and Victor arrive in Chile and are invited to live with Felipe. They meet the entire del Solar family and Victor falls madly in love with Ofelia. Their mutual infatuation creates a very interesting story line, but you need to read the book to learn about it!

Victor goes to medical school and develops a relationship, through a mutual love of chess, with Salvador Allende, who at the time they meet is the socialist party leader and health minister. Victor also goes into business with an older man, Jordi Moline, and they open a bar named the Winnepeg. Roser asks Jordi to try to find Carme and Aitor. Aitor is located in Venezuela, and as regards Carme, well, read the book!

Allende becomes the president and Victor and Allende continue to play chess. On September 11, 1973, a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, takes place. Victor is arrested and placed in a concentration camp, where he spends 11 months, before Roser is able to get him out. The family flees to Venezuela, where they live for nine years before returning to Chile to live out their lives.

There is so much going on in this novel and this review is just a piece of the story. The story has many twists and turns, some predictable and others not so much. Allende tells the story with her usual wry wit and keen observations. The novel provides a great historical perspective with parallels to today and the characters and their lives are moving and relatable. Five stars! You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Redhead by the Side of the RoadAnne Tyler writes about the extraordinary in the ordinary. “Redhead by the Side of the Road” is a beautiful example of her prototypical story telling.

Micah Mortimer is in his early forties and his life is just sort of slipping along. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone; he keeps to himself; his routine is etched in stone.” Micah’s routine includes an early morning run, shower, breakfast, cleaning and work. His apartment is immaculate and he is very disciplined in his cleaning regimen.

Micah operates “Tech Hermit”, traveling to people’s homes and businesses to help with computer issues. He is the author of a tech guide called “First, Plug It In.” He also functions as the super of his apartment building, where Micah’s apartment is in the basement. “Does he ever stop to consider his life? The meaning of it, the point? Does it trouble him to think that he will probably spend his next thirty or forty years this way?”

Micah has a girlfriend, Cass, who teaches fourth grade. They have a nice routine together until Cass starts to fear the possibility of being evicted from her apartment. Micah suggests she could live in her car and things go downhill from there.

Micah has had other girlfriends in the past but something has always gone wrong. Micah is reminded of his college girlfriend Lorna Bartell when her son, Brink Bartell Adams, suddenly shows up at his apartment. Brink is convinced that Micah is his father, which as it turns out is not possible. Brink, a college freshman, is having some issues and has disappeared from school and his family, causing his parents no end of concern. Suddenly Lorna, and her husband Roger, enter Micah’s life. Lorna’s recollection of their college relationship adds some clarity to Micah’s relationship perspective.

Micah runs every morning, and despite his progressively deteriorating vision, does not wear glasses. He notices that inanimate objects always appear as humans to him. “On the homeward stretch this morning, he made his usual mistake of imagining for a second that a certain fire hydrant, faded to the pinkish color of an aged flowerpot, was a child or a very short grown-up…What was that little redhead doing by the side of the road.” We are all myopic in the way we see things in our lives!

Micah comes from a large family and has four sisters, all of whom are waitresses. His family is loud and boisterous and intrusive. There are a couple of enjoyable scenes of family interactions.

Interspersed throughout the novel are visits to computer clients and their various issues, as well as visits to the apartments of residents needing repairs. Through all these visits the reader gets more insights into Micah.

At the end, when the Brink issues have resolved, his family is quiet and he and Cass have broken up, Micah is back where he began at the beginning of the novel. “You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off. He has nothing to look forward to, nothing to daydream about.” And yet, happily, this is not quite the end of Micah’s story. Because as ordinary as his life might seem, it is in fact extraordinary.

I am a huge Anne Tyler fan. Some novels are better than others, but I loved this one. As always, her characters seem simple but they are not; their lives seem ordinary but they are not; and their relationships seem shallow, but they are not. This is a good one! You can reserve it at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Writers & Lovers is a life affirming novel about all that can go wrong and all that can go right in one person’s life.

Casey (nee Camila) Peabody is a down on her luck writer, living in a potting shed and working as a waitress at a restaurant near Harvard University called Iris. “I have to eat at the restaurant. I can’t afford more than cereal and noodles.” She is deeply in debt and suffering from a great deal of self-doubt about the novel she  has been writing for about six years. Her landlord, Adam, who is also a close friend of her brother Caleb, is dismissive of her efforts to be a novelist, saying “You know I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.” Comments like that do not help!

Casey  enters into one bad romantic relationship after another. She meets Luke at an eight week writer’s residency, where they have an intense romantic relationship. Afterward she finds out that Luke is married. Later, at a writers event, she meets Silas and is very attracted to him. He asks her out, only to call back and tell her he is leaving town. And while waiting tables at Iris, she meets the famous author, Oscar Kolton, who is recently widowed with two children. They begin dating and well… (read the novel to see how that turns out).

Casey has fraught family relationships. Her brother Caleb, to whom she is very close, has romantic problems. Casey’s father is a “difficult” character and Casey’s mother  left him when Casey was in the ninth grade to be with a man she met at Church. Casey’s mother has died recently while traveling with friends in Chile. Casey is devastated and throughout the book is dealing with her grief. Her mother’s friends brought back a ring that her mother wore and Casey wears it each day.

A lot of the story takes place at Iris, that is until Casey gets fired. The employees at Iris have complicated relationships with each other and the patrons. One day Casey’s father and his wife show up at Iris. Casey’s father lives in Florida most of the year and spends the summers on the Cape. She has not seen him in three years. The “reunion” does not go well, particularly when Casey discovers that  her father has an ulterior motive for the visit.

Other parts of the story deal with physical health, writing, writers and gender issues. Casey’s closest friend is Muriel Becker, a very successful writer. Muriel helps Casey with her book and helps her find an agent. She also takes her to certain writers events. She and Muriel share stories of their personal lives and book recommendations. Casey observes that “It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.” Of course, all readers know this!

Casey is regularly noticing the different expectations and reactions of men and women in various circumstances. One evening she is at a dinner party at Muriel’s house with other writers, one of whom is a woman named Eva Park, who has just won a PEN/Hemingway award for a short story collection. Casey watches her. “All the stuffing seems to have gone out of her…She looks embarrassed, sitting on that stool, to be who she is now. She seems pained by all the compliments Muriel’s colleagues are giving her. Success rests more easily on men.”

And when Casey first meets Oscar, she is aware of  how he was sizing her up. “I…think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.”

Ultimately, Casey gets her life together and the book is sort of uplifting. Lily King is a wonderful, thoughtful writer and this book is no exception. Her language is concise, her characters are alive and relatable and the story is quite a bit of fun. 5 stars! You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Glass HotelThe Glass Hotel wraps a family saga, financial crime and coming of age story all into one novel. Then it throws in a little magical realism for extra effect!

The novel begins at the end, with Vincent falling to her death from a ship. Ironically, Vincent’s mother had died years before while canoeing. Thus begins (or ends) the family saga! As a child, Vincent lived with her father in remote Caiette British Columbia. The only way to get to the town is on a boat. Although Caiette is remote, during Vincent’s childhood, a large hotel was being constructed on the island.

When she was 13, Vincent’s mother disappeared during a canoe trip and Vincent is at loose ends. She writes the words “Sweep me up” in acid paste on one of the school windows and her father, whose job requires extensive travel, decides to send her to live with her Aunt. Vincent has a half-brother, Paul, who lives with his mother in Toronto, but at the time of the graffiti incident is living with Vincent and her father. Paul has substance abuse problems and has gone through rehab a few times.

Fast forward a few years. Vincent leaves her Aunt’s house at the age of 17 and drops out of school. Paul is at the University of Toronto when there is an incident involving drugs and he flees the city and goes to find Vincent. He has not seen her for years. Vincent is living in a ramshackle apartment in a terrible neighborhood with her friend Melissa. Melissa was part of the graffiti incident four years earlier. Vincent is strikingly beautiful and although Paul is reaching out to her for help he is also resentful of her existence. Vincent is not quite sure what to make of Paul.

Paul and Vincent part ways and next come together six years later working at the Hotel Caiette. The Hotel is a spectacular structure, with lots of glass, and is intended as a getaway for the extremely wealthy. The hotel is described as “an improbable palace lit up against the darkness of the forest…The building would have been beautiful anywhere, but placed here, it was incongruous, and its incongruity played a part in the enchantment.” Vincent is the bartender, Melissa ferries people to and from the hotel and Paul is the night houseman. The family saga portion of the novel seems to be told as part of Paul’s therapy sessions many years later.

The Hotel is owned by Jonathan Alkaitis, a wealthy financier, who owns a financial advisory/ management business and a brokerage business. He periodically stays at the hotel and of course this is where he meets the beautiful Vincent. During one of his visits, someone has written “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?” in acid paste on the glass eastern wall of the Hotel. Obviously this is very disturbing. Ultimately, Paul is fired for the act. But why would he do this?

Alkaitis is widowed three years and is 34 years older than Vincent. They marry (or do they?) and she leaves the hotel for a life of luxury in NYC. But all is not as it seems. Begin the financial crime! Alkaitis is running a Ponzi scheme. During this part of the novel we meet a number of the people who have invested with him and whose lives are effectively ruined. We also meet the people who worked for him and whose lives are effectively ruined. Interestingly, this part of the story is told by an unidentified Alkaitis employee. Alkaitis goes to jail for the rest of his life and the line between reality and fantasy start to blur. He sees the ghosts of people who have died, including as a result of his financial crime, and he begins to devolve into what appears to be madness.

Vincent is something of a videographer and has been since childhood. She learns that her half-brother has a performance at a theater in New York (I forgot to mention that he is something of a composer), where she discovers that he has taken some of her video and is using it in his shows. She is incensed. After Alkaitis is sentenced Vincent tries to find a life and becomes a cook on the Neptune Cumberland. It is on this ship where she finds the love of her life and joy. This is the coming of age portion of the novel.

The novel moves back and forth through time and comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. It is a lot of fun to read and a great distraction during these turbulent times. You can reserve The Glass Hotel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Actress“You will wake some morning and pat yourself down. You will realise that you think too much and live too little and that most people, men and women both, are mostly fine. You will love more easily and relinquish blame. At least I hope you will.”

“Actress” is the story, at least in part, of Katherine O’Dell, as told by her daughter Norah FitzMaurice. Norah is almost 59 years old at the time she is telling the story. Katherine O’Dell was a star of stage and screen. She was born in April 23, 1928, the daughter of “strolling players”, Menton FitzMaurice and Margaret Odell. Her given name was Katherine Ann FitzMaurice, which she changed to O’Dell, adding an apostrophe to her mother’s surname. She was the most famous actress in Ireland and as it turned out, “Katherine O’Dell, the most Irish actress in the world, was technically British….My mother was a great fake…you could call her anything you like, but you could not call her English. That would be a great insult. It would also, unfortunately, be true.”

Katherine spent much of her childhood traveling with her parents as part of Anew McMaster’s (“Mac”) acting troupe. Mac’s daughter, Pleasance, also an actress, became Katherine’s best and closest friend. Pleasance was a child actress in the troupe and played Trilby O’Ferrall in Trilby. Katherine was 10 years old when she made her debut in the Royalton Theatre in London, playing a crocus in a chorus of spring flowers. A few years later, Pleasance came down with Scarlet fever and at the age of 13, Katherine had to take her role as Trilby O’Ferrall. Her natural talent was apparent.

In 1946, Katherine and Pleasance set off to London together. Each got a job, Katherine as a receptionist for a theatre impresario. She found herself in the role of Talitha in The Awoken on stage. She was so good that it took her to New York and Broadway. Pleasance was jealous and their friendship waned. Katherine became a stage star in New York and soon was off to Hollywood to make movies.

Throughout her career, Katherine periodically came into contact with Boyd O’Neill, 11 years her senior. Boyd had joined the McMaster tour when Katherine was 14 and she valued his opinion of her talent.

While Katherine was in New York, Philip Greenfield was her co-star and at the age of 21 the studio arranged for them to marry. Katherine Despite the fact that Philip was homosexual, they remained married for a number of years. Philip is not Norah’s father.

Norah is obsessed with her mother and Norah’s husband suggests she write the book. She travels to England and other places for background, she muses over her mother’s relationships and she wonders about the identity of her own father, about whom her mother refused to speak. We learn that Katherine devolved to madness, and became institutionalized after inexplicably shooting Boyd. Katherine died at the age of 58.

Although the book is about Katherine, it is also about Norah, her relationships, her children and her marriage. The story is interwoven with sexual innuendo and violence, which shapes the spirits and stories of both Katherine and Norah. Norah’s recollections result in a constant shifting of emotion which pushes and pulls the reader with every shift.

The novel is beautifully written although at times it is difficult to follow the chronology, feeling choppy. I suspect this is an intentional technique intended to move the reader back and forth along with  Norah’s shifting emotions– and I must say, it worked. The novel ends with a hint of hopefulness. “But I had…a great sense of the world’s generosity. Even though it was just my hopefulness in another guise.” Or is it just another turn of Norah’s emotions?

You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Simon the Ftddler“Simon the Fiddler” is a corny love story–boy meets girl, boy pines over girl and against all odds, boy gets girl. And yet, there is something visceral and enjoyable about the story and the way it is unfolds.  The story itself describes characters who grow, love and find meaning in the midst of difficult conditions, and is written in a smooth straight forward style that is just right for this peculiar time in history.

Simon Boudlin is a fiddler, who, in October of 1864, is desperately trying to avoid being conscripted into the Confederate army. He travels from place to place playing his fiddle and escaping the conscription men. “But they finally got him in March of 1865.” He ends up in Giddings regiment in a regimental band.

Simon is assigned to a shelter that includes Damon, a dark spirited flautist.  The war is coming to an end, so other than having very little to eat and a lack of clean clothes, there is little war to see.Simon has a very valuable fiddle that he takes great care to protect.

“On the morning of May 12, 1865, when a storm arrived in banks of hard blue clouds, Federal troops decided to row across from Brazil’s Island and attack them. Nobody knew why. It didn’t matter why.” This attack changes Simon’s life.

Simon and Damon survive, the regimen surrenders and Simon’s fiddle has been stolen. They march to the Union army’s fort and Simon sees a soldier with his fiddle. He screams at him and hits him in the head with a rock, recovering his fiddle. Simon has a temper. After a short stay in a punishment cell, he is escorted to a room where there is a group of former soldiers who have been told to become an orchestra to play for the officers and their wives. “The musicians were both Yankee and Confederate. They were all filthy, they had recently been trying to kill one another.” The group includes Damon, Simon, Patrick (Yankee drummer boy), Doroteo (guitarist) and others.

As soon as he walks into the event, Simon sees Doris Dillon, an 18 year old from Ireland who is working as a governess for a Union officer. Simon is immediately smitten. He learns that Doris works for Colonel Webb, a cruel, hard drinking Union leader, and that Doris is signed to a three year commitment of service to the Webb family. Simon contrives to introduce himself and needless to say, Colonel Webb, who apparently has less than honorable intentions toward his employee, is less than pleased. The band performs and then everyone goes their own way. Simon, Patrick, Damon, and Doroteo come together and travel to Galveston. Doris and the Webbs travel to the Webb home in San Antonio.

The four men play at various bars and parties and accumulate some money, but Galveston is struck with yellow fever and they decide to leave and head toward Houston. “They were all too young to die and always would be.” Simon is thinking about nothing other than buying some land, finding his way to San Antonio and getting his girl.

Doris and Simon strike up written correspondence, but they have to be very careful because Colonel Webb does not allow her to have a relationship and reads all of her correspondence. Initially, the letters come from Patrick, who is of Irish descent, and the letters include various missives about things happening in the old country. Soon the relationship deepens.

Finally, Simon purchases property and then finds his way to San Antonio where he ultimately liberates Doris. As you can imagine, a lot happens in between. The men have lots of adventures in their travels and a whole host of characters enter and exit their lives. The lives and backgrounds of the main characters are disclosed throughout the novel. And of course, we learn a lot about Doris, who is a happy curious person but finds herself in a precarious situation with the Webbs.

In some ways, the story is just like any other love story. But the writing is superb and the story telling paints vivid pictures of the characters, the times and the various places where the story takes place. If you are looking for a light read that won’t make you feel as though you are wasting your time, you might want to try “Simon the Fiddler.” You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Weather“Weather” is a very short, observational stream of consciousness. The story and the narrator’s musings reflect  those weird thoughts and dysfunctional relationships we all have (I think).

Lizzie is a middle aged, married, mother of one who is keenly aware of aging and the peculiarities of the world around her. Lizzie works in the library of a university, a job procured for her by her friend and former university professor Sylvia. Sylvia is a rather well known lecturer although the actual focus of her expertise eluded me.

Like most novels, the story focuses on real life issues like aging, relationships, career, family and motherhood. But unlike most novels, the story unfolds in a clipped, free flowing, sort of disconnected way, more like life itself.

Lizzie ended her education in graduate school in an effort to help her drug addicted brother, Henry. More on that later. She is self-conscious about working in a library without an appropriate degree and knows that the librarians resent her. The day before her birthday, one of the librarians acknowledges her saying: “Now you are officially middle aged” Lizzie concludes that “…She has never liked me because I don’t have a proper degree. Feral librarians, they call us, as in just wandered in from the woods.”

Reflecting on her age, Lizzie observes: “My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it. “ And “Young person worry: what if nothing I do matters? Old person worry: what if everything I do does.” And “I am old enough now that I sometimes think I am making a fool of myself by doing something that would not have attracted notice when I was younger.”

Lizzie has a husband Ben who, honestly, seems too good to be true, particularly in the context of everyone else in the novel. They have a son Eli, who is in the first grade. Lizzie is constantly musing over Eli and the mistakes she is making in his upbringing. “Why didn’t I have more kids so I could have more chances?” Eli is a character and like every first grader loves and hates his mother in equal doses. When Eli asked her if she was sure she was his mother because “Sometimes you don’t seem like a good enough person,” she let it go. “And now years later, I probably only think of it, I don’t know, once or twice a day.”

Lizzie has a completely dysfunctional relationship with her brother Henry. Henry has drug issues, as well as deep psychological issues. It was Henry’s problems that caused Lizzie to drop out of graduate school. Throughout the short novel, Henry cleans up, gets a job, gets married, has a child, relapses, gets divorced and ends up on Lizzie’s couch. Lots in between.

There are characters that float in and out of the novel. Nicolais the mother of one of Eli’s classmates and Lizzie makes special efforts to avoid her. And then of course “later it occurred to me. There’s no way I could have kept from running into her all these years by chance alone.” There is also the drug dealer and the busy body in her apartment building, the meditation therapist, her mother and her journalist friend Will. Actually, there is a lot going on in this very short novel.

Weather is an idiosyncratic, amusing, and yet poignant novel that covers a lot of ground. Sometimes the story is so funny you can’t help but laugh out loud and sometimes it’s so tragic you just want to weep. At the same time, Lizzie’s experiences are relatable and reflective. Give it a try—it is really short and you won’t be sorry. You can reserve “Weather” at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Mirror and The LightThe Mirror & The Light is the story of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry from May 20, 1536 through July 28, 1540. The novel, which begins with a beheading and ends with a beheading, is the final novel in Mantel’s trilogy chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s rise and fall. Since it is a historical novel, with some liberties and fictional characters thrown in, I am going to assume you do not need to be warned about spoiler alerts!

The novel starts with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife. Anne is beheaded for what can best be described as adulterous behavior. There is a rather chilling scene where Anne, at the scaffold, is still hopeful of Henry’s forgiveness. “He remembers her faltering progress to the scaffold; her glance, as the Frenchman says, was directed over her shoulder…Still she did not let hope weaken her….He had seen her start to tremble…she did not see the sword, not even its shadow, and the blade went through her neck with a sigh, easier than scissors through silk.”

But of course, Anne’s execution is just one more in a long line of beheadings and other killings, and life goes on for Thomas Cromwell. “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.” Thomas Cromwell is 50 years old at this point in time.

At the time of Anne’s execution, Henry has already selected a new bride. He has also executed all of the men who were believed to be “involved” with Anne. “The king did not choose to display the heads of Anne’s lovers on London Bridge; in case he decides to ride through with his new wife, he wants to keep the capital tidy.” Henry  marries Jane Seymour shortly after Anne’s execution.

Henry has a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, a daughter Mary, from his first wife Katherine, and a daughter Elizabeth, from Anne. He is obsessed with having a son within the confines of marriage to carry on his legacy. A great deal of the book deals with his concerns, and his councilor’s machinations, regarding his successor.

Religion is a serious issue and anyone whose faith is connected to Rome, or alternately who is a Lutheran, is considered a heretic, a traitor and subject to execution– and not a kind and easy execution like Anne’s. There is a lot of burning and dismembering in the novel. A lot of people are sent to the “Tower”. The level of cruelty and disregard for human life portrayed in the novel is stunning.

Henry’s daughter Mary is on the verge of execution for her refusal to recognize England’s state religion and her father as head of the Church. Cromwell has a soft spot for Mary, who is 20 years old when the novel begins. He forces her to recognize her father as head of the Church, and disavow Rome. She is then able to return to England. Cromwell is constantly helping Mary and giving her gifts, rejecting marriage possibilities on her behalf. These behaviors are viewed as his desire to marry her and accede to the throne, causing him no end of trouble toward the end of the book.

Henry is not exactly virile and his lack of sexual prowess is a constant theme in the novel, as is his vanity. However, Jane does manage to become pregnant and give him a son, Edward. Jane dies shortly after Edward’s birth. Henry becomes obsessed with finding his next wife. In many cases, marriages are arranged to ingratiate countries and to add wealth. Women generally have little say in the arrangement. “…women are to be named and renamed, it is their nature, and they have no country of their own; they go where their husbands take them, where their fathers and brothers send them.”

Henry confides almost everything in Cromwell and Cromwell makes a lot of decisions and engages in a lot of business on Henry’s behalf. This creates a great deal of envy from Henry’s other advisors, particularly since Cromwell does not come from a grand family line, and is just a “common man.” Further complicating Cromwell’s life is the fact that Henry is perpetually suspicious of anyone he is close to. “He saw Henry’s need and he filled it, but you never let a prince know he needs you; he does not like to think he has incurred a debt to a subject.”

There are lots of characters in the novel, some reliable, some not. Everyone spies on and schemes against everyone else. The gossip is never ending, as are the superstitions, particularly about the dead (and there are a lot of dead). In the end, Henry turns on Cromwell and that is all she wrote.

The novel is spectacular. Hilary Mantel’s writing is simply magnificent and the story, most of which (but not all) follows history and is gripping. That said, the novel is 750 pages and it is a big commitment, which in my opinion, is well worth it. You can reserve this novel by clicking here.