The Flight Portfolio – by Julie Orringer

There are times in our past that are so horrific, and yet so monumental,  that the story must be told again and again. The trick, of course is to find a way to tell the story in a new and engaging way, that captures the interest and holds the attention of an audience. The Flight Portfolio is one of those stories.

In The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer tells us the story of Varian Fry, a Harvard educated, sexually confused, New York Protestant. In 1940 Varian Fry is in Marseilles France working to help significant writers, artists and intellectuals (most of whom are Jewish) blacklisted by the Nazis, get out of France. Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City. The mission is simply a matter of life and death.

The job involves relationships, money and bribery. Fry assembles an eccentric group of refugees, displaced do gooders and others to help with the mission. They develop relationships with the not always helpful or friendly American Consulate, French police, Nazis, gangsters and profiteers—anyone who can help or be bribed to help in getting people to safety. During a good portion of the story, much of the staff and many of the refugees are living together in a villa known as Air Bel, where food is scarce and raids are frequent.

The story begins with Fry visiting the home of Marc and Bella Chagall in a village in France. Fry is trying to persuade the Chagalls that their lives are in danger and that they need to leave. At this time, the Chagalls, like other successful Jews, believe that they are somehow immune from the Nazi cruelties. Later in the story they come to realize that no one is exempt from the reach of the Nazis.

While in Marseilles, Fry seemingly coincidentally reunites with a close college friend, Elliot Schiffman Grant, whom he calls Skiff. Grant is a professor at Columbia University and has a friend, a German Jew, who is also a professor at Columbia, Gregor Katznelson. Katnelson’s son, Tobias, is a physics genius and the Nazis are looking for him. Grant has promised to find him and get him to safety. Fry agrees to help and later in the book has to choose between Tobias and a famous Jewish artist when there is the opportunity to save only one of them. That choice haunts him throughout the story.

Fry, who is married, and whose wife Eileen is in New York wishing him home, has a complicated relationship with Grant. A great deal of the book deals with this relationship.

In the meantime, while everyone is living together in Air Bel, the artists decide to create artistic representations of what they have experienced in France and Germany and take those pieces of work to the United States with them. In that way, the refugees hope to convince the American government, which has been resistant to engagement in the War and which is subtly described as implicitly anti-Semitic, of the atrocities being committed and the need to engage. This is the flight portfolio. But like everything else, things do not quite work out as intended.

This 500 plus page novel is gripping and although I was somewhat relieved when it ended I also wanted it to keep going. Of course Fry is ejected from France and returns to New York  (this is not a spoiler—all you need to do is look him up on Wikipedia), where  his relationships with Eileen and Grant are complex. Each of the characters struggles with what they are doing, whether the struggle involves the inability to save enough people, the right people or their own lives. A constant theme is whether it is morally appropriate to determine who should live and who should die based on perceived value. This moral question extends well beyond the precise story being told.

The book is well written, fast paced and thought provoking. And it tells a story that should never be forgotten from a different perspective. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Great Believers – by Rebecca Makkai

The Great BelieversThe Great Believers is a story of the AIDS epidemic, its victims and its survivors. The story is told in alternating years, beginning with 1985 in Chicago and moving to 2015 in Paris.

The story starts with Nico’s funeral and funeral reception. Nico had died 3 weeks before the story begins. This part of the story focuses on Yale (and Charlie) and Nico’s sister, Fiona. Yale works in development at Northwestern University at the Briggs Gallery. Charlie is a gay rights activist and runs “Outloud Chicago”. Charlie and Yale have been in a long term monogamous relationship.

Nico’s parents threw him out of the house at the age of 15 when they found out he was gay. Fiona was 11 at the time and began bringing him food and money. Nico’s partner, Terrence, is just waiting for the disease to hit him.

The funeral reception takes place at photographer Richard Campo’s home. Richard is about 15 years older than the rest of the group. When someone at the party brings out slides of Nico, Yale is so upset he goes upstairs to get away from the pictures. When he comes back down everyone is gone. It is this event that causes a permanent and insoluble rift between Yale and Charlie.

Nico had been a graphic designer, had a comic strip and was designing theater sets. Artistic talent ran in the family. Nico and Fiona’s Aunt, Nora, had been an art student in Paris in 1912. Nora sends Yale a letter indicating that she has various drawings and paintings from famous artists from her time in Paris that she would like to donate to the Briggs  Gallery. Unfortunately, her son is not keen on the idea and contacts a friend who is on the university board of trustees and is a significant donor. Yale gets a visit from the head of development, Cecile Pearce, who explains the problem. Over the course of the story Cecile and Yale become good friends.

Fast forward to 2015. Fiona, 51 years old, is on a flight to Paris, where she has hired a private investigator to help find her estranged daughter, Claire. On the plane she meets a 35 year old journalist, Jake, to whom she mentions that she is friendly with 80 year old Richard Campo. At this point, Richard is a famous and revered photographer. Jake continues to pop up in this part of the story. We learn that Claire had been involved with Cecily’s son, Kurt Pearce, that they had joined a cult and that they have a child together. The estrangement between Fiona and Claire, in a sense, is another result of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

While in Paris, Fiona stays with Richard and his much younger partner, Serge. Jake shows up and asks Richard how his age has affected his work. In response, Richard comments that “Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice.” While in Paris, much of the past comes back to Fiona, in a variety of ways which I will leave to you to discover.

The trip to Paris is also marred by tragedy. While Fiona is in Paris, a bomb explodes at a heavy metal concert at a soccer stadium in Saint-Denis. Fiona, of course, fears for the safety of her daughter. But Serge, visibly upsets, fears on a larger scale, emphasizing the fragility of progress and the dangers of extremist reaction. ‘’What I care is, now they elect right wing across Europe. And then, yes: You, me, we’re screwed. Everyone acts from fear, the next year, two years. What happens, you think, to, people like us?”

The story is involved and mostly sad. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment. The impact of prejudice, intolerance and fear, as well as the inequities of our health care system are palpable. There is some positive sense of progress and the impact of activism and protest, despite the costs. The story is well written and the characters are well developed and this review does not begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of the story. Nora summed it up the best when she explained to Yale: “…when you boil a story down, you end up with something macabre. All stories end the same way, don’t they?” You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Stationery Shop – by Marjan Kamali

The Stationery Shop“The Stationery Shop” is a sweet, overly sentimental story of a woman’s life journey from heartbreak in Iran to ultimate consolation in America.

Roya Khanom, a 17 year old high school senior in Tehran, meets Bahman Aslan at the Stationery Store in Tehran. They start meeting there on Tuesdays and with the assistance of the store proprietor, Mr. Fakhri, begin to know each other and fall in love. Bahman is a political activist supporting the Iranian prime minister Massadegh.

Bahman‘s father is a successful engineer and his mother, Badri, married up from her modest beginnings. But Badri has many secrets and does not approve of the romance between Bahman and Roya. Badri has chosen another girl for Bahman, from a much more successful family.

When Bahman requests approval from Roya’s parents to marry Roya, his parents do not join him, which is the tradition. At the engagement party for the couple, Badri shows up wearing all black.

After a coup attempt in August of 1953, Bahman and his family disappear and Roya assumes the disappearance is tied to the resistance. Mr. Fakhri transfers correspondence between the two and ultimately, Bahman asks Roya to meet him at Sepah Square and then can go together to the government offices and be married. She goes to Sepah Square in the middle of what turns out to be deadly protests and he does not show. Shortly thereafter she receives a letter from Bahman breaking off the relationship.

Bahman’s mother calls her to let her know that Bahman is marrying the girl chosen for him. Roya is bereft and her parents send her and her sister to America for college. Both girls meet American men and marry. Roya never stops thinking about Bahman and in 2013, a curious turn of events brings them back together. Their reunion answers all of the open questions.

The book is interesting in terms of Iranian history and culture. The story itself is a little too sentimental for my tastes and the ending a little too convenient. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Feral Detective – by Jonathan Lethem

I actually do not know how to describe this rather odd book. At first blush, it is a peculiar story about a search for the missing daughter of a friend, which takes the protagonist into an unknown world. However, I do not think that is what this book is about. I think this book is about politics and judgement and about how we have lost our way. But I am not sure.

The book starts with Phoebe driving through Upland, California looking for a detective’s office. Phoebe is from Manhattan and the description of how she feels searching for this office after driving past it twice is wonderful. “It was the feeling, specifically, that it was a place for driving past,  so my foot couldn’t find the brake.” There are little gems like this throughout the book.

The detective is Charles Heist, who keeps an opossum in his desk drawer and a runaway in his armoire. Needless to say he is unconventional and of course Phoebe falls for him.

Phoebe is looking for Arabella, the daughter of her friend Roslyn. Roslyn and Phoebe met at work at NPR, where Phoebe was working in the OpEd department and Roslyn, 20 years her senior, was her supervisor. Phoebe quit her job over her perception that NPR had normalized Donald Trump during the election.

Arabella had been a college student and disappeared. Phoebe and Roslyn believe she may have gone to follow in the footsteps of her music idol, Leonard Cohen, as a sort of memorial.

Phoebe’s search with Charles Heist takes her into worlds she never knew existed. First is the Wash, where she meets Sage and the giant, Laird, trying to avoid a flood. Her search takes her to Zendo and the Monks, where she starts to get closer to finding Arabella. Then they climb up a mountain where there is a mysterious compound which is protected by a fence (not a wall), which is surrounded by two “tribes” known as the rabbits (women) and the Bears (men). It is here where the story really gets weird and violent.

The book ends with Phoebe questioning her assumptions about life as she’s known it, as well as her values and the values of the country. “Ordinary people might be the most terrifying thing on earth. Or ordinary Americans, I should say.” She uses as a backdrop to this observation the weirdness she has encountered during her search and ordinary current events. The read was kind of fun, but it is not subtle and by the end I am not sure Lethem accomplished whatever it is he was trying to accomplish. I loved Motherless Brooklyn and was hoping for another great novel, but I was disappointed . You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

My Sister The Serial Killer – by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister the Serial KillerMy Sister the Serial Killer may be the most literal title of any novel I have posted here. The novel is one sister’s story about her sister who kills her lovers, in what seems like rapid succession.

Korede, the older less attractive sister, is a nurse at St. Peter’s in Lagos. Ayoola, her beautiful younger sister, designs clothes. Ayoola is so beautiful that men, apparently all men, are drawn to her. Big mistake!

The story starts with killing #3–Fermi. Ayoola calls Korede from Fermi’s apartment and Korede arrives to find the dead man on the bathroom floor. He is big and strong and handsome. They clean every inch of the bathroom, load him into the car and drop his body over the bridge into the water. Apparently this is the second body they have dropped here (#1 they simply set on fire). Fermi’s family becomes concerned and the police arrive to ask questions, but of course, they are mesmerized by Ayoola’s beauty.

One of the doctors at the hospital, Tade Otumu, is kind and handsome and an excellent doctor. Korede is romantically attracted to him but when he meets Ayoola, he is just like any other man. “He isn’t deep. All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” Despite Korede’s best efforts, Tade and Ayoola begin a romance, which is briefly interrupted by Ayoola’s affair with an older, wealthy married man who mysteriously dies of food poisoning while they are off together in Dubai. The Tade experiment ends badly, but perhaps not the way you might think.

Korede’s guilt over the situation is overwhelming and she takes to talking to a hospital patient, Muhtar, about all the killings and her sister. Muhtar is in a coma so she thinks it’s safe, but is it really?

We also learn that their father had been extremely abusive and died under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the book is about abuse, the shallowness of men (sorry to my male readers), the mindset of a sociopath and family loyalty. This is a fun and quick read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Nickel Boys – by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysLet me start by saying this is an excellent book. This is a very sad book but it is an excellent book.

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis, an African American teenager with immense potential whose life and future take an unexpected turn. In 1962 Elwood’s grandmother gives him a copy of Martin Luther King at Zion Hall. The Civil Rights messages he hears in the album stick with him throughout his life and he tries too hard to live consistently with Dr. King’s messages.

Elwood is a serious student and an industrious young man, living with his grandmother in Tallahassee Florida after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother works at the Richmond Hotel and Elwood spends his days there after school in the hotel kitchen. “Whenever the dining room door swung open, he bet on whether there were Negro patrons out there.” Elwood stopped going to the Richmond when he was 12 years old and never got to see a black patron in the dining room. As a 13 year old, he takes a job at Marconi’s tobacco shop. Mr. Marconi understands that neighborhood kids will pilfer candy and comic books from time to time and that this is just part of the cost of doing business. But Elwood does not understand this and after calling out some neighborhood kids for theft he is beaten. And yet the lesson that he should learn there does not stick.

Elwood attends Lincoln High School, where the students use the second hand textbooks used by the neighboring white high school in prior years. Sadly, the white students leave unpleasant messages in the textbooks for the Lincoln students to see. Elwood is befriended by his junior year teacher, Mr. Hill who gets him involved in the Civil Rights movement. He also arranges for Elwood to take college classes at Melvin Griggs Technical College. The classes are free and Elwood and his grandmother are excited that he will get this jump on college.

Elwood hitches a ride to the college and this is when things immediately go downhill. I will not tell you exactly what happens but Elwood gets sentenced to reform school and is sent to Nickel Academy. Maynard Spencer, an exceptionally cruel man, is the Superintendent at the “Academy”.

The school is divided into campuses for black students and white students. The school portion is itself perfunctory and many of the students cannot read or write. The facility is known for its White House, a shed with an industrial fan where students are taken to be beaten with a leather whip by Spencer and his helpers. When Elwood attempts to help another student he believes is being abused, he is taken in the middle of the night to the White House where he is beaten  to the brink of death. Afterwards he ends up in the Nickel hospital for weeks.

Throughout the story we learn of various cruelties at Nickel, including being taken “out back”, where the student is chained to a tree, beaten to death and buried in an unmarked grave. Elwood and his friend Turner are assigned to “Community Service”, where they work with a facility employee to sell school supplies of all sorts to the free community and pocket the profit.  As you might imagine, this does not sit well with Elwood and trouble ensues.

Ultimately Turner and Elwood escape and Elwood becomes a successful entrepreneur whose past never stops haunting him. The school  is closed and Texas A&M students begin to discover all its horrors. There is a website for former students and a reunion upcoming. Elwood, who is living in New York City at the time of the reunion  decides to go to Tallahassee for the event.

The book has some twists and turns that I do not want to disclose and the ending is simply brilliant. The story is based on the true story of a reform school called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. You can read about Dozier here and here. The book comes out in July and you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Varina – by Charles Frazier

Varina“Varina” is the fictionalized story of Varina Davis, wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The novel starts in 1906, when James Blake tracks down Varina at The Retreat, in Saratoga Springs. James, a 46 year old biracial school teacher, had been raised by Varina and lived with her family until he was around 6 years old. He is trying to recall the early part of his life. The novel revolves around Varina filling in the gaps for James and telling her story over the course of six Sundays.

The novel focuses on Varina’s life with Jeff and her family’s efforts to escape after the loss of the Civil War. Throughout the book, Varina also recalls the early part of her life. Varina’s mother had money and Varina’s father managed to lose it all on questionable business ventures. As a result of the family’s financial distress, at the age of 17, she is sent to live with the family of Joseph Davis. The family is peculiar in that Joseph is quite old and his daughters and his wife appear to be roughly the same age.

Joseph explains to Varina his theory of slavery and the combination of capital and labor. Varina argues with him and is outspoken and Joseph does not take that well. The Davis compound, interestingly, is effectively run by a slave, Benjamin Montgomery.

When Jefferson Davis shows up she is attracted to him, despite the fact that he is significantly older. They begin to court, but he is perpetually grieving over the death of his first wife, Knoxie Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor. Jeff and Varina marry and Jeff becomes a Congressman. They move to Washington where Varina becomes lifelong friends with Mary Chestnut. Jeff ultimately becomes a senator and as we all know, President of the Confederacy.

Much of the book is then dedicated to the year 1865 when Varina, her children (including James, who at the time was called Jimmie Limber because of his ability to stretch his finger backward to his knuckles) and some others are attempting to make their way to Cuba. During the trip and before they are captured they meet some colorful people and have some interesting experiences. Of course they are all captured and Jimmie is separated from the family. Many of Varina’s children die and her marriage to Jefferson is maintained on a tether. Varina moves to London and lives separately from Jeff for a long time, but they ultimately end up living free lives together.

The story is told at The Retreat and at horse races at Saratoga Springs. The Retreat is a sort of wellness center and Varina befriends a resident who is fearful of her family and becomes a part of the story. James is trying to fill in the gaps in his life, both emotionally and chronologically. He and Varina become close.

The novel is interesting, insightful and extremely well written. I suspect that the story is kinder to the Davis family than deserved. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Machines Like Me – by Ian McEwan

Machines Like MeThose of you who follow my blog know that I rarely start a review with my opinion about a book. Well rarely, but not never. Machines Like Me is one of the best books I have read in a long time. The writing is amazing, the story is captivating and intriguing and the interplay between the story, history (or I should really say alternate history) and the rise of technology is compelling

The story starts in 1982 in London. Charlie Friend, a slightly impoverished 33 year old searching for his place in the world, inherits money from his mother and spends 86,000 pounds on a 170 pound male robot, Adam. Charlie, we learn, makes a living (barely) day trading, so this purchase is beyond extravagant and arguably irresponsible.

Adam looks and acts like a real man. The longer he exists the more knowledge he gathers and the more human he seems. He has an unwavering sense of moral, intellectual and ethical behavior and a unique thirst for knowledge. He becomes an expert day trader.

In 1982 there is a lot going on in England. In the story’s version of British history (which varies greatly from the actual events) the Falkland War has been a disaster for England, unemployment rises to 25%, the garbage collectors are perpetually on strike, and Margaret Thatcher loses an election to Tony Benn of the Labour Party, who is almost immediately assassinated. In addition, artificial intelligence is well beyond where it is even today. This alternate history is interspersed throughout the book.

Adam is one of 25 robots, named either Adam or Eve, created and sold throughout the world. After Charlie purchases Adam, he fantasizes about the possibility that he and his neighbor and love interest, Miranda, can jointly formulate Adam’s personality. Throughout the book Charlie and Miranda become closer and romantically linked. Adam becomes an important part of their lives. But Adam, who seems to know all, also falls in love with Miranda and warns Charlie not to trust her. As the novel progresses, we learn that Miranda has a tragic secret, one that Adam, in his world of black and white morality, views differently than Adam and Miranda, whose minds are arguably more nuanced. Unfortunately, Adam’s black and white sense of right and wrong sends Charlie and Miranda to a dangerous place.

Portions of the novel describe the growth of artificial intelligence and the progress of technology, in some instances in connection with weaponry and the displacement of human labor. One of the main scientists credited with this growth is Alan Turing. Turing, in reality a mathematician and computer scientist who died in 1954, is credited with being actively involved in the creation of the Adams and Eves. Charlie and Miranda spot Turing at a restaurant one evening. Charlie approaches and tells him he has an Adam but it is clear that Turing does not want to speak with him in a public place. Charlie leaves his card and Turing ultimately contacts him and asks to meet. It is at this meeting that Charlie learns that all is not well with the Adams and Eves. Charlie has a second meeting with Turing toward the end of the book which is perhaps one of the novel’s most memorable moments (and yet there are so many striking moments).

Miranda’s father, Maxfield, is an aging, cranky, slightly famous writer. Miranda decides it would be a good idea for Maxfield to meet both Charlie and Adam, so the three drive to visit him in Salisbury. Adam and Maxfield engage in a lively discussion about literature and Shakespeare and Maxfield appears to be quite taken with him. Miranda offers Adam a tour of the house and leaves Charlie with her father so that they can become better acquainted. After exchanging mundane pleasantries, Maxfield mistakenly assumes that Charlie is the robot.

There are lots of other things that take place in the novel but I will let you discover them for yourself. The novel raises all sorts of moral questions and leaves the reader wondering how slim the line is between right and wrong, and man and machine and whether man has a right to dominion over everything else. As I said at the start, the novel is just brilliant—great story, amusing alternate history and thought provoking conjecture about the role and future of artificial intelligence. You should reserve this novel right now at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here. Don’t wait!! I really want to know what you think.

Unsheltered – by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered is a none too subtle examination of the times we live in, and the blinders that prevent us, and likely have always prevented us, from being our true selves and securing a meaningful future. The story takes place today and in the 1870s in Vineland, New Jersey. Today’s story and the story of yesterday revolve around a ramshackle house.

Willa Knox and her husband Iano Tavoularis, along with unconventional daughter Tig, far right nationalist and dying father in-law, Nick and ancient dog Dixie, have just moved to Vineland from Virginia. Iano had been a professor in Virginia when the university suddenly closed and the family was left border line destitute. Iano found a job at a small college in Philadelphia and thus the move. Willa had inherited the house from an aunt and so the family moved in, only to find that the house was about to fall down. Much of the family’s story revolves around what to do about the house.

Thatcher Greenwood has recently married the younger and beautiful Rose. Rose’s mother, Aurelia, had been forced to leave her beloved home and social stature in Vineland when her husband died, leaving her penniless. She had been forced to rent out the home and move Rose and her other daughter Polly into a cousin’s house in Boston. Thatcher, a teacher, found a teaching position in Vineland, and the entire family moved back into Aurelia’s Vineland home. Thatcher arrives to find that the home is crumbling around them and that the family’s expectations of his economic success are unrealistic. Thatcher’s story takes place between the years 1874-75.

Willa’s sun, Zeke, has a newborn child whose mother has committed suicide. Zeke had been living in Boston but returns to Vineland with the baby to enlist the aid of his family. Zeke does not stay in Vineland long and the task of raising the child goes to Tig and Willa, as does the task of taking care of Nick. Zeke is something of an investment banker and Tig is something of a free spirit, very focused on the environment and waste. The two do not get along and the differences in their life philosophies, as well as Nick’s far right sentimentalities, are used as a vehicle to express the author’s concerns with environmental decay, climate change, health care, the rejection of science and today’s politics.

Thatcher is a science teacher who believes strongly in evolution and survival of the fittest. His next door neighbor is Mary Treat, a historic botanist and entomologist who regularly corresponded with Charles Darwin. Thatcher and Mary become friends and Thatcher goes to Mary with his challenges teaching science in a school where the emphasis is on religion. While the two are becoming friends, Aurelia and Rose are befriending the very wealthy Dunwiddie family, trying to desperately enhance their social and economic standing. Thatcher befriends the editor of an alternate newspaper. The friend is shot and things go downhill fast for Thatcher.

Back to Willa. Nick is dying and when she takes him to a medical clinic they refuse to see him due to lack of health insurance. Health insurance and the saving grace of Medicaid are a significant part of the story. In a desperate effort to shore up their crumbling house, Willa starts to research the history of the house hoping to receive an historic landmark designation and grant money. Through that research she learns about Thatcher Greenwood, Mary Treat and some of the history of Vineland.

The book is about moving beyond materiality and ambition and opening your heart and mind. In a sense, the book is a warning about what happens when you fail to move beyond yourself. Ultimately, both Willa and Thatcher understand that there are bigger things than ambition and possession.

“She aimed to be immune to the ambitions and disappointments that had maimed her parents’ existence and now were stirring up a national tidal wave of self-interest…Here was the earthquake, the fire, flood and melting permafrost, with everyone still grabbing for bricks to put in their pockets rather than walking out of the wreck looking for light.”

Each chapter alternates between Willa’s story and Thatcher’s story. The end of each chapter is effectively the beginning of the next. The novel starts out very slow. I have to admit that I almost gave up, but I trudged through and by the end was glad I did. The book is a tad preachy, but the concerns expressed and the characters themselves are real and thoughtful. If you like Barbara Kingsolver novels then you might want to give this one a try. You can reserve this at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Milkman – by Anna Burns

“Milkman” is a novel that is difficult to describe. It is not clear exactly where it takes place (somewhere in Northern Ireland) and none of the characters have names (at least not what we think of as proper names). Some of the paragraphs go on for pages and the writing style can be described best as the narrator’s not always chronological stream of consciousness. All that said, I loved this book.

The narrator, nameless, is 18 years old and is being stalked by milkman (later Milkman), a well-known renouncer of the state. Her family consisted of a mother, a father, 3 or possibly 4 brothers, 3 older sisters and three younger sisters. Consisted is the proper term because at the time of the story one brother has been killed, one brother has disappeared into the Middle East, one brother married the wrong woman (therefore ostracized) and fourth brother is not really a brother and he is on the run. Each one is designated as First Brother, Second Brother etc. So far as the sisters go, First Sister’s ex love was killed in a bombing and she married a horrible man, Second Sister was banished by the renouncers and Third Sister, as best I can tell, is perpetually drunk. The three younger sisters, ages 7, 8 and 9 are brilliant and precocious.

The times are precarious with defenders of the state and renouncers perpetually at war. Government operatives are hiding in the bushes taking pictures of perceived state enemies. Every family has lost numerous family members and narrator’s best friend has lost every single member of her family. The community includes a serial poisoner. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and judgmental to a fault. People are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being asked questions and being deemed an informer “Us and ‘them’ was second nature…By unspoken agreement—which outsiders couldn’t grasp unless it should come to their own private expediencies—it was unanimously understood that when everybody here used the tribal identifiers of ‘us’ or ‘them’, of ‘their religion’ or ‘our religion’, not all of us and not all of them, was, it goes without saying, to be taken as read.”

In the time frame of the novel nothing about life is exactly normal. The times are so fraught that even the most ordinary events are suspect. “So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘totally joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything; also not thinking, least not at top level, which was why everybody kept their private thoughts safe and sound in those recesses.”

In addition to the family tragedies resulting from the battle between the renouncers and the defenders, the novel addresses the role of women in the middle of all this (significant and determinative). The community has different groups of women, groups looking into their rights as women and more traditional women who stand up and take action when it is needed. All of the women serve as protectors in one way or another.

The narrator is haunted by milkman. First he shows up in his white van while she is walking reading a book (yes she walks and reads, which the gossipy community finds frightful, ultimately labeling her “beyond the pale”). Then he shows up while she is out running. She is taking a French class and he shows up while she is walking home, carrying a dead cat’s head which she found at a bombing site (a particularly peculiar part of the book which only adds to her reputation as “beyond the pale”).

Narrator has a maybe-boyfriend who works on cars and has come into pieces parts of a Bentley, sadly from over there. The Bentley creates political mayhem in his life. Maybe-boyfriend’s parents deserted maybe- boyfriend and his brothers when they were relatively young, to become famous ballroom dancers. Narrator wonders about maybe-boyfriend because he likes to cook and enjoys sunsets, the normal things she is unable to understand. “it wasn’t just sunsets I didn’t understand. I didn’t understands stars or moons or breezes or dews or flowers or the weather…This was when I began to wonder, again, if maybe-boyfriend should be going to sunsets, if he should be owning coffee pots…”

Milkman is 41 years old, a high ranking renouncer and his stalking causes narrator to suffer what can only be described as multiple anxiety attacks. Despite her refusal of his advances, the community is certain that she is involved with him and of course her mother and family are highly critical and reject her denials. On the other hand, there are the renouncer groupies, who  respect her because of her presumed romantic engagement with milkman. Milkman knows of maybe-boyfriend and frequently discusses the unfortunate consequences of car bombing in the context of maybe-boyfriend’s work with cars.

The book has lots of twists and turns, and is filled with dry wit. It focuses on the importance of community and its disruption by religion and politics and ultimately the importance of enduring love. Although it is an extremely difficult read, the story, the characters, the humor and the perspective make this book well worth the effort. The book won the Man Booker prize and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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