Do Not Say We Have Nothing – by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an epic history of China, beginning in 1872 and ending in 2016. The story is told by Jiang Li-ling (Marie Jiang) as she discovers her family history through the violence and tragedy of the cultural revolution.

After her father commits suicide in 1989, Marie Jiang lives alone with her mother in Vancouver. One day in December of 1990, her mother receives a mysterious letter, and shortly thereafter, Ai-ming, the daughter of her father’s childhood friend comes to live with Marie Jiang and her mother. Ai-ming was caught up in the student protests in Tiananmen Square and her family thought it best that she leave China. Ai-ming begins to tell Marie Jiang the story of their families and life in China. AI-Ming stays for a few months, leaving for San Francisco and then New York, and ultimately going back to China where she seems to simply disappear.

Ai-ming shares many stories about their family histories and Marie Jiang attempts to unravel the remaining history of her father’s family. Ai-ming’s father, known as Sparrow, was a brilliant composer and taught at the Shanghai Conservatory. Sparrow’s aunt and uncle, well to do landowners, were beaten and sent to reeducation camps as part of the communist movement. Their daughter, Zhuli, was sent to live with Sparrow and his family. Zhuli was a brilliant violinist. Sparrow’s student, Jiang Kai, was also a composer and a pianist. Kai was Marie Jiang’s father. Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai spent a great deal of time together at the Conservatory and become close.

Music was central to both families, although certain tones and melodies were disfavored and considered bourgeois. The students at the Conservatory were critical of each other for focusing on the wrong types of music. “…the girl next to her, an ecru major, mocked Zhuli for favoring music in the ‘negative’ and ‘pessimistic’ key of E-flat minor, and continuing to play sonatas by revisionist Soviet composers…”

The family story reflects how the communist influence impacted every aspect of life, including permissible language, love and music. “[T]he word ‘dear’ was stupid with sentimentality and had been struck from permissible usage.” The politics of the time prevented Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai from pursuing their musical and personal lives in one way or another. The Conservatory was closed and ultimately, Sparrow went to work in a radio factory and Kai moved to Canada. A lot happened in between and their relationship continued across the continents.

A common thread throughout the story is “The Book of Records.” The Book of Records was a number of chapters of an unidentified book which had been reprinted by hand and distributed surreptitiously to those who rejected the inflexibility of communist rule. At times the chapters were used to relay messages. Marie Jiang’s mother had a chapter in her house and Marie Jiang learned about the importance of the book as she unraveled her story.

The story is moving and informative, but tragic and sad. Each life is diminished by the politics of the time and there is much needless suffering and death. The book is well written and was recently short listed for the Bailey’s prize. It is definitely worth a read. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11242682__Sdo%20not%20say%20we%20have%20nothing__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingHomegoing is a three century long saga of slavery, violence, discrimination, struggle and eventually some progress, beginning and ending in Ghana, with interludes in America.

The story starts in 1760 in a Fante village touched by a destructive fire. Fire, its strength and its violence, is an ongoing theme in the book. Effia, a child born unto the fire and of a loving father and spiteful mother, becomes a raving beauty. She is ultimately married off to a white British man, James Collins, governor of the Cape Coast Castle.

The top floors of the Castle house the British officers and frequently their Fante wives, but the lower level hold something much more ominous–slaves. The villagers of Ghana terrorize other villages and capture or kidnap people and sell them to the British. Throughout the centuries of the book, kidnapping, violence, slavery and colonization torment the villages.

Effia and James have a child, Quey, and their progeny continue the various cycles through the novel. In the meantime, while Effia and James are living large in the castle, Essi, the 15 year old daughter of the best warrior in Asenteland, has been kidnapped and is malingering in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle. She is raped, sold to a plantation master in America and has a daughter, Ness, born into slavery. Ness is the start of the novel’s story of slavery and abuse in America.

Throughout the novel there are tales of changing forms of violence and discrimination: In Ghana, violence among villages, kidnapping, forced marriages, superstition and British colonization. In America, slavery, kidnapping, extreme poverty, improper arrests and servitude, discrimination and drug addiction. Ultimately, when the Ghana side of the story and the America side of the story find each other, there is hopefulness.

The novel is well conceived and put together and provides an explanation of the history of racism and inequity in America, ending with a hint of hope. The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11211479__Shomegoing__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Lincoln in the Bardo – by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo“’bardo’ (noun) (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life, and manner of, or age at, death.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is simply an extraordinary work of fiction, unlike anything else I have read. The novel starts out with brief passages from two key gentlemen in the “in between” state, reminiscing about how they got there, then switches to passages from various historic publications ostensibly telling the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Will, of typhoid.

The book moves back and forth between historic passages and the bardo activities, including life and death recollections. In this way we learn about the death of Will, the grief of his parents and the struggle President Lincoln felt over the Civil War and resultant loss of life. The historic passages also offer us a glimpse of the differing perspectives on Lincoln as a man, a father and a President.

The passages from the in between state are fascinating. There are so many characters, including former soldiers, former slaves, criminals, young people, old people, religious people, wealthy people, poor people, good people and bad people. They are brought together by the entry of Will, although they are not in agreement about his ultimate disposition. Slaves are brought together with slave owners, wealthy are brought face to face with the poor and the young with the old. They engage in spiritual or perhaps magical activities, flying through the air, becoming one with the living and encountering fantastical obstacles and miracles. There is a sort of dissonance between the grieving perspective of the living and the supernatural aspects of the deceased.

The characters in bardo are all exaggerations of their behaviors in life. In one example a hunter is required to continuously make peace with the animals he killed. “We were as we were!…How could we have been otherwise?…By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do…And then are cruelly punished for it.” Through their stories and their struggles with their in between condition (which few if any of them understand) the reader cannot help but ask what kind of life am I living? How do I choose to make my way and how will I be judged when I am gone?

At the end, some of the characters reflect on the meaning of life and mankind’s ultimate commonality at life’s end. They muse over the importance of that commonality, including empathy and understanding. “At the core of each lay suffering, our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end….We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings–Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

The first thing I wanted to do when I finished this book was read it again. This one is a must read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11237739__Slincoln%20in%20the%20bardo__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Between Them – by Richard Ford

Between ThemRichard Ford is one of America’s great writers. He has a way of answering the question “what is the meaning of life?” in the most direct way possible–by writing about living. “Between Them” is two separate memoirs, one of his mother and one of his father, written 30 years apart. In the memoirs, Ford describes the seeming unextraordinary lives of his parents, which at first blush seems to be a self-indulgent exercise but upon further reflection depicts the fairly extraordinary routine of living.

Both of Ford’s parents were born in Arkansas to fairly humble beginnings. His father, Parker Ford, was working in a grocery when he met his soon to be wife, Ford’s mother, Edna. In 1938, Parker became a salesman for the Faultless Company out of Kansas City, selling laundry starch. The job kept him on the road during the week and home only on the week-ends. Parker held the job until his death.

Most of Ford’s commentary about his father is conjecture and supposition. The memoir was written almost 50 years after Parker’s death and it is clear by Ford’s descriptions of his father that a great deal of time had gone by and that Parker was not well known to his son. However, that seems to be part of the point. Ford surmises that his relationship with his father was likely different from other children’s relationships to their fathers and observes that “I grew up understanding that the view from outside any family, mine included, and the experience of being inside would always be different.”

Parker Ford had his first heart attack at the age of 43. He lived 12 more years, dying at the age of 55. “I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as fillings in to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.”

Ford’s mother, Edna, was born to a 14 year old who left Edna’s father and ultimately married a significantly younger man (who might have been close in age to Edna). Edna’s mother sent her to a Catholic boarding school (Edna and her family were not Catholic) out of concern for her being too proximate to the younger husband. For inexplicable reasons, Edna’s mother later took her out of school and advised her to tell people they were sisters. Needless to say, Edna did not have the most conventional upbringing and Parker’s mother was never exactly accepting of her. Edna ultimately died of cancer while in her 70s.

The best part of the book is the Afterword, where Ford explains his view of life, his parents and why he wrote the memoirs. “I have always admired Auden’s poem ‘La Musee des Beaux Arts’ for its acute wisdom that life’s most important moments are often barely noticed by others, if noticed at all…This understanding has been a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years…The fact that lives and deaths go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task. Our parents’ lives, even those enfolded in obscurity, offer us our first, strong assurance that human events have consequences.”

The book is very short and a quick read, with pictures of his parents and his younger self interspersed throughout. The memoirs are consistent with Ford’s uncanny ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and expose the richness of everyday life. If you enjoy Richard Ford and are curious about where his amazing perspective originated, you should read this book. Between Them will be released in May of this year and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11251450__Sbetween%20them__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Spy – by Paulo Coelho

The SpyMata Hari was executed by firing squad in Paris on October 15, 1917, accused of being a spy, a double agent for Germany and France during World War I. “The Spy” is a fictionalized account of her story. The story is told from two perspectives: first from Mata Hari’s perspective, in the form of a letter written to her lawyer, and second, from her lawyer’s perspective.

Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle, in Leeuwarden, Holland. Her parents were well to do, until her father went bankrupt. She was sent off to a boarding school where she was raped by the school principal (as were numerous other of her classmates) and rapidly grew bored, dreaming about marrying up and traveling.

She tells her story from a distinctly feminist and sometimes narcissistic perspective. When the rapist principal was ultimately found out to have molested many of his students over the years, Mata Hari observes that “The principal had already retired, and no one dared confront him. Quite the opposite! Some even envied him for having been the beau of the great diva of the time.”

She met her husband, Rudolph MacLeod, by responding to a newspaper advertisement from a military officer looking for a wife. The ad was posted as a joke by MacLeod’s friends, yet upon meeting her he was smitten and they were married. They were stationed in Indonesia, where they had two children, a daughter and a son. The household had many servants and their son was poisoned by his nanny. MacLeod was abusive and paranoid about the fidelity of his younger and beautiful wife and ultimately she leaves him.

After leaving MacLeod, Zelle changed her name to Mata Hari and became famous as an exotic dancer. She describes her path through life as “opportunistic”, acquiring wealth and position by manipulating men of power and strength.  In her letter to her lawyer, she says that she was never a spy, that she became unwittingly enmeshed in the tug of war between France and Germany only through her opportunistic approach to survival and that the accusations against her were in retribution for being a strong woman and following her dream. “We all know I won’t be killed because of this stupid allegation of espionage, but because I decided to be who I always dreamed. And the price of a dream is always high.”

From the perspective of her lawyer, who was in love with her, she also was not guilty. He concluded that her execution was simply a convenience, to distract from the times and to punish her for being an unconventional woman. “You were not merely a person unjustly accused of espionage, but someone who dared to challenge certain customs. And for that you could not be forgiven.”

The novel is a quick, enjoyable read (a rainy afternoon will do it) and made me want to learn more about Mata Hari. The novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11232061__Sthe%20spy__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Schooldays of Jesus – by J.M. Coetzee

The Schooldays of Jesus“What is it that we lack when we lack nothing, when we are sufficient unto ourselves? What is it that we miss when we are not in love?”  “The Schooldays of Jesus”, J. M. Coetzee’s allegorical tale, raises many metaphysical questions.

David is six years old and is newly arrived in fictional Estrella with his parents Inés and Simón. They are fugitives, having violated the law by pulling David out of school due to behavioral issues and fleeing the town of Novilla. Coetzee does not tell us the geographic location of Estrella or Novilla. All we really know about either place is that Spanish is the most commonly spoken language. Simón describes Estrella as: “A city criss-crossed by the paths of immigrants: if they did not all live in hope, if they did not each have their quantum of hopefulness to add to the great sum, where would Estrella be?”

In “The Childhood of Jesus”, the precursor to The Schooldays of Jesus, Simón meets parent-less and nameless David on a boat, names him, arranges for Inés to be David’s mother and they form a family. Throughout The Schooldays of Jesus, Inés and Simón question their own relationship, while David questions whether they are actually a family. David periodically announces that Simón and Inés are not his parents and the novel delves into the nature of family through its various characters and their relationships.

Upon arriving in Estrella, Inés and Simón go to work in an orchard where David spends time with the children of the other workers. The orchard is owned by three unmarried sisters who take a liking to David and offer to pay his tuition to go to the Academy of Dance. Inés and Simón visit the Academy of Dance where they are told that “It is an academy devoted to the training of the soul through music and dance.”  Although wishing for a more traditional education for David, the skeptical Inés and Simón enroll him.

The school is run by the young and beautiful Ana Magdalena Arroyo and her rarely present, musical genius husband, Juan Sebastian Arroyo. The school also takes boarders and a limited number of students live with the Arroyos. The Academy of Dance is situated next to an art museum, where a disheveled and unpleasant gentleman named Dmitri serves as the Principal Attendant. Dmitri also helps out at the Academy and is passionately in love with the beautiful Ana Magdalena.

After enrolling in the Academy David decides he wants to become a boarder and moves in with the Arroyos. He becomes an excellent dancer, but refuses to dance for Simón because “you don’t believe in it.” The ability to transcend the here and now through arts (dance) and the need for a higher level of spirituality, and perhaps morality (described as the soul) to attain that transcendence is a constant thread throughout the book. “It is the soul that brings grace to the dance, the soul that follows the rhythm, each step instinct with the next step and the next.”

Dmitri commits a violent act and lands in jail. Through his trial the novel also raises the issue of what is justice. “…it is the mission of the court to rehabilitate offenders, but how far should the court exert itself to rehabilitate an offender who does not want to be rehabilitated…”

The novel has a nightmarish surreal quality, attained through quirky dialogue, sketchy landscapes and intentionally superficial character development.  Simón, a not quite here and now character, is referred to as he, or him throughout the novel, emphasizing the emptiness and uncertainty he feels, making him inaccessible to the reader. The novel raises many philosophical questions without making any effort to answer them. If you are a Coetzee fan, as I am, this is a must read. If you are not a Coetzee fan, this is probably not the place to start. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11237737__Schildhood%20of%20jesus__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X3?lang=eng&suite=gold

I Married A Communist – by Philip Roth

I Married A CommunistI decided to take a little trip back in time, to a novel published in 1998 by one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth. Maybe I needed a sense of stability in these seeming uncertain times, or maybe I wanted to ensure that I chose a book that would be worth reading. In any event, I knew that virtually anything by Philip Roth (and there is very little by Philip Roth I have not read) would make me think, make me appreciate that as much as things change they stay the same. And boy oh boy did I get my money’s worth (figuratively of course since I took it out from the library) from “I Married A Communist”.

Part of Roth’s American Trilogy, which includes The Human Stain and the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral, I Married A Communist does not disappoint. Part political commentary, part  story of love and vengeance and part mystery, I Married A Communist explores a difficult period of time in American history, focuses on some extreme personalities and emphasizes the importance of introspection.

The story begins in 1998, when the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, runs into his beloved high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, the brother of Nathan’s childhood idol, Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rimm.  Nathan had been Murray’s student 47 years earlier and when Nathan runs into him, Murray is 90 years old and enrolled as a student at a small New England college in a course entitled “Shakespeare at the Millennium”. Nathan and Murray spend the next 6 days recounting the story of Ira Ringold.

Nathan first met Ira in front of Murray’s house in October of 1948. For the next year and a half or so, Ira and Nathan spent a great deal of time together and enjoyed each other’s company, but there were things about Ira that Nathan did not know. After Nathan went off to college in 1950 they had very little contact. Ira was a radio star, performing under the name Iron Rimm. He was a large 6 foot 6 man, and a self-proclaimed Communist with a penchant for violence. While in the military and serving in Iran, Ira met Johnny O’Day, a staunch American Communist who influenced Ira’s political philosophy. While describing Ira’s story to Nathan, Murray muses that “It’s so fickle, isn’t it, who you wind up with, how you wind up?” Unlike Ira, O’Day lived every aspect of his life consistent with his political ideology. Ira and O’Day kept up a correspondence over the years.

When Nathan met Ira, Ira was married to the famous and glamorous actress, Eve Frame. Eve had been married three times before and had a difficult daughter, Sylphid, who, although an adult, lived at home with Eve and Ira and created various problems for an already tumultuous and volatile marriage.  Despite his political convictions, Ira lived in luxury and tolerated Eve’s numerous parties and high society friends, including Bryden Grant, the descendant of Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Katrina Van Tassel. Grant was a gossip columnist with aspirations of becoming a Congressman (which he ultimately accomplished).

Before meeting Eve, Ira, a high school dropout, had worked in a record factory and in a zinc mine in Zinctown. Ira maintained a shack in Zinctown where he retreated when the life of luxury was too much for him.

After discovering one of Ira’s infidelities, and in a rage, Eve turned over Ira’s letters to O’Day to Grant and Van Tassell. They convinced her to write a memoir, entitled I Married A Communist, which resulted in Ira being blacklisted and losing his radio job. Solely by virtue of his familial relationship to Ira, Murray also lost his teaching job. And in 1998, Nathan discovers that as a result of his relationship with Ira, he was denied a Fulbright 25 years earlier. “Of course it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about…”

The relationship between Ira and Eve, the impact of the memoir and the complexity of devastating impact of no holds barred political ideology and ambition are brilliantly conceived in this WOW novel. There are also some great passages dealing with the relationship between literature and politics (“Politics is the great generalizer…and literature the great particularizer”) and the influence of overwhelming personal relationships and communications (“Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to…Everyone perceiving experience as something not to have but to have so as to talk about it. Why is that?”).

The novel addresses so many interesting aspects of political and daily life as to make the reader realize that today’s tumult is yesterday’s story. This is a challenging and dense read and worth every minute! Reserve it now at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11012105__Si%20married%20a%20communist__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X4?lang=eng&suite=gold

Judas – by Amos Oz

Judas by Amos Oz“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.” This novel’s first two sentences set the tone for the balance of the story, and the error, desire, love and religious question described are all intermingled in its 300 plus pages.

Shmuel Ash is a confused and naive 25 year old student in Jerusalem, when his father’s financial collapse causes him to leave University and set out on his own. He responds to a notice on a bulletin board in the university seeking a companion. “Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man.” When Shmuel first arrives at the house, he is struck by its solemn state. The house “seemed to Shmuel Ash basement-like, lower than street level, sunk almost to its windows in the heavy earth of the slope.”

Samuel accepts the assignment and agrees not to tell anyone what he does at the house or to provide any information about the inhabitants of the house. He is not permitted to bring any visitors to the house which is not a problem for him as he has no friends. Thus begins Shmuel’s intellectual and somewhat surreal immersion into Israeli history and the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Shmuel’s ward, Gershom Wald, “was an ugly man, broad, crooked, and hunchbacked.” Wald enjoys philosophical argument and spends many hours on the phone with unknown associates on the other end, deep in discussion. When Wald is not on the phone, Shmuel and Wald engage in intense and sometimes contentious philosophical debates. In this way Shmuel and Wald get to know and appreciate each other and Shmuel learns details about Israel’s history.

Wald’s daughter in law, Atalia, also lives in the dreary house. Shmuel feels an immediate attraction to Atalia, although she is many years older. Both Wald and Atalia have experienced great sorrow that permeates the house, the conversation and the general mood of the novel. Through that sorrow Shmuel ponders many complex religious questions, as well as the direction of his own life. Shmuel stays with Wald and Atalia for about three months.

The book does a good job raising and addressing the many sides of difficult religious and political questions, but offers no answers, perhaps because there are none. This is not a book for everyone but it is a thoughtful assessment of a variety of religious and political issues. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11224811__Sjudas__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Anything Is Possible – by Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is PossibleIn early 2016, Random House released Elizabeth Strout’s lovely novel, “Lucy Barton”. You can read my review of Lucy Barton in this blog. In May of this year, her new novel, “Anything Is Possible” will be released. Anything Is Possible is a set of nine interlocking stories, with the common link being Lucy Barton and her home town of Amgash, Illinois. Although the stories are written in a relatively light style and each is in its own way thought provoking, unfortunately, unlike Lucy Barton, this novel is dark, fatalistic, cynical and dreary.

The novel starts out with a story called “The Sign”. In The Sign we meet an elderly Tommy Guptill, who on the surface appears to be a perfectly happy and satisfied man. Early in his marriage, due to a fire at the farm he inherited from his father, Tommy moves his family to cramped quarters in an undesirable part of town and spends his working life as a janitor at Lucy Barton’s school. As a result of the fire and the move, his family transitions from a life of relative affluence to a life of modesty and simplicity. When we meet Tommy late in his life he muses on the spirituality that overtook him when his life so rapidly changed. He seems to be generally content with his present and past. Yet there is something dark and uncertain lurking beneath that rosy surface.

Tommy has taken it upon himself to periodically look in on Lucy Barton’s brother, Pete, who lives alone in the old Barton family house. In one of his drives to the Barton place, Tommy thinks about his own brother and his stories about World War II and thinks “it seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old–the more he understood that he could not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.” By the end of the story, Tommy is questioning everything he ever believed.

The Sign sets the tone for all of the remaining stories, the themes being: life is hard and requires perseverance, everyone has secrets and no matter how hard you try, you can never know another person, family and marriage are difficult and regret is consuming.

In “The Hit Thumb Theory”, Charlie Macauley, a war veteran, is awaiting his mistress in a hotel room and, like almost all the characters in this book, his mind is racing about the issues that make up life.  “You could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.” Ugh, ugh, ugh!

In “Sister”, the last of the nine stories I will subject you to, Lucy Barton comes back home to visit with her sister and brother, whom she has not seen for 17 years. Needless to say the visit is not entirely smooth and the story addresses the complexity of the family relationship. This story is perhaps the only one that has some positive messages about the reliability and forgiveness of family. But even with its relative hopefulness, it exudes a powerful sense of sadness.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I like serious, thought provoking meaning of life novels. And in general I enjoy Elizabeth Strout. But this set of interlocking stories (is it a novel or short stories–I’m not sure) seems determined to plunge you, the reader, into a deep dark place, offering nothing to pull you back out again other than the insatiable need to go on living. I don’t know about you, but I need more than that! If you want to read Anything is Possible when it comes out in May, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11247154__Sanything%20is%20possible__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Top 5 of 2016

2016 is gone in a blur, the blink of an eye, a flurry, fast as lightning– you get the idea. 2016 was full of change, we elected a new president and a new Congress and we had a smooth leadership transition here at Ulmer. And as ever, books, books and more books. Here are my top 5 of 2016:

  1. Moonglow–Michael Chabon. If there was one book in 2016 that stood out, this was it. The novel immerses the reader into a compelling and fascinating story and Chabon writes like no other. “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” How does he do that? I have absolutely no idea.
  1. A Gentleman in Moscow–Amor Towles. This novel is a captivating glimpse into Russian history from 1922-1954. Almost the entire story takes place in one hotel and yet you experience so much more. Great story, interesting historical perspective, well developed characters and beautifully written.
  1. Commonwealth–Ann Patchett. Commonwealth is a tale of families, bruised and broken yet always coming together. Patchett hits the trifecta with this one–great writing, great storytelling and great insight–all with a sense of humor and hopefulness.
  1. Swing Time –Zadie Smith. This is a sensibility broadening novel about race, class and culture, taking place in London, New York and Africa. Although slow developing this book is worth your patience.
  1. Underground Railroad–Colson Whitehead. A chilling story about slavery and cruelty, this novel won The National Book Award in 2016, as well as the 2017 American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and is a must read.

2016 was a great year for reading and 2017 is off to a good start. Thanks for following my blog!

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