Monogamy“Monogamy” is an exploration of marriage, family and friendship. Sometimes the people in those relationships are happy and sometimes, apparently most of the time, they are misunderstood and unknowable.

Annie has been divorced for about seven years when she meets Graham at the opening of his bookstore. Graham too is divorced, from Frieda, with whom he has a son, Lucas. Annie is petite and attractive while Graham is a big man with an apparent hunger for life and all it offers. As the two of them begin a life together, “she felt overwhelmed sometimes—by Graham’s size, by his energy, his appetite for people, for music, for food.” Annie is concerned she will lose herself in her life with him.

Annie is a photographer and had some success with shows of her work. Her second successful show had been a series of photographs taken of her mother over the years that recorded shifts in her face and carriage as she descended into Alzheimer’s disease. The public display of the photographs created a rift with her siblings. As a result, and in order to take care of her daughter, Sarah, she pulls back from her career. Sarah is described as a large, awkward and miserable child.

Graham’s marriage with Frieda had ended due to his many infidelities. However, they remain close friends and Annie and Frieda also become close friends. Lucas spends a lot of time with Annie and Graham and Sarah spends time with Frieda. They are in many ways (but certainly not all ways) a combined family. A portion of the book describes Sarah and Lucas as adults (both likeable and successful).

Graham and Annie’s next door neighbor, Karen is a single elderly woman with dementia. She moves in and out of the story. There are a variety of other people who move in and out of the story, but with a couple of exceptions, none of them are notable or memorable.

At the age of 65, and unexpectedly, Graham dies in his sleep.  At a celebration of Graham’s life, Annie discovers that Graham has been unfaithful to her and that Frieda knew about his infidelity. This portion of the book is dedicated to her anger.

We are given glimpses into the lives of Sarah and Lucas and a glimpse into Frieda’s life. The book focuses on marriage, infidelity, grief, anger and relationships, and the difference between how we view the lives of others and their actual lives.

The book is well written but I found it dull, unpleasant and trite. The author is well regarded but if you have a stack of books at home awaiting your attention I would not add this to that! That said, if you find that doing the opposite of what is suggested is your raison d’etre, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Jack“Jack” is a love story…sort of. The time is uncertain, post-World War II, and Jack is living in St. Louis, recently released from prison. He meets Della, and they fall in love.

Jack has just been released from prison and is wearing a dark suit. He is walking around St. Louis on a rainy, windy day and steals the umbrella from a man asleep on a park bench. He sees a woman drop her papers and books and he helps her retrieve them. The woman, Della, assumes he is a reverend and she invites him to tea. They have a lively conversation, both of them passionate about literature, poetry and theology. Della shows him a book of poetry signed by Paul Dunbar that had belonged to her grandmother. Jack steals it.

Jack cannot stop thinking about Della. He invites her to dinner and then abandons her at the restaurant. They unintentionally reconnect at night in a cemetery, where they are both locked in. Sounds like a simple, if not quirky, love story. But there are complications.

The first complication is that Della is black, Jack is white and their relationship is illegal. The second complication is that Della is a teacher in a black high school where improper behavior will cause her to lose her job. Another complication is that Jack is something of a grifter and a thief, with very few prospects. And finally, Della’s family is less than thrilled about the relationship.

Della’s father is a highly regarded Bishop in the Methodist Church in Memphis. Jack’s father is a highly regarded Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa. Most of the book addresses the racial issues of the times, the impact of religion and family on both of them and Jack’s introspection about his nature, his family and this relationship.

We learn that as a child, Jack was constantly in trouble, and had a child out of wedlock, for whom he took no responsibility. Jack enrolled in college and allowed his brother Teddy to take his classes. Jack left his hometown to give his family some distance and moved to St. Louis. His brother Teddy periodically travels to St. Louis and leaves money for Jack at his rooming house.

Throughout the book Jack makes efforts to improve himself. He gets a steady job (albeit teaching dance) and tries to stay sober. He begins to attend a black Baptist church and develops a relationship with the Pastor Samuel Hutchins. Their conversations are fascinating and soul searching. He tells the pastor that “’Forgiveness scares me. It seems like a kind of antidote to regret, and there are things I haven’t regretted sufficiently.’”

He has boundless intellectual curiosity and spends a great deal of time at the library, where the librarian always has a sandwich for him. Of course he steals library books, always with the intent to return them.

Jack is constantly pondering his impulses to steal and his desire, and yet inability, to do no harm. He knows that his love for Della is the antithesis of do no harm but he is unable to walk away from her. And she does not want him to. “If he were an honorable man, he’d have left her alone.”

Della’s family learns of the relationship and throughout the book various members of Della’s family arrive in St. Louis to try to talk sense into Della and to specifically ask Jack to stay away from her. Nothing works. The novel ends with her abandoning her family for him and a very uncertain future.

“Jack” is deeply introspective, thoughtful and thought provoking. It addresses serious philosophical issues of character, race, religion, family, literature and human nature. The depth of discussion is impossible to capture in a review but the novel is a very worthwhile read, particularly if you enjoy being piqued about the grander nature of things. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Night Watchman“The Night Watchman” is a snapshot of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during a very eventful time in 1953-1954. As best explained by the author, “On August 1, 1953, the United States Congress announced House Concurrent Resolution 108, a bill to abrogate nation-to-nation treaties, which had been made with American Indian Nations ‘for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow'”. This effort attempted to terminate five tribes, including the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

The author’s grandfather was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa during this time and worked as a night watchman. The novel is in part a fictionalized story of his experiences, but also the story of the native American experience as described through the lives of a variety of other characters.

The story: Thomas Wazhashk is the Chippewa tribal chairman and works as a night watchman at the Turtle Mountain Jewel Bearing Plant, which manufactures jewel bearings. Thomas, a father of five, is working hard to respond to the US Congress effort to terminate the Chippewa tribe and has little time to sleep.

Patrice Paranteau lives in abject poverty with her mother, Zhaanat and her brother, Pokey. Patrice, who is known as Pixie and is desperately trying to shake that nickname, works at the jewel bearing plant, along with her friends Valentine and Doris. Patrice’s father is a violent, abusive drunk who moves in and out of their lives. Patrice’s sister, Vera, has left the reservation and moved to Minneapolis with her boyfriend. “Vera had applied to the Placement and Relocation Office and gone to Minneapolis…They got some money to set up a place to live, and training for a job. Many people came back within a year. Some, you never heard from again.” The family has not heard from Vera for five months and they are desperately seeking to make contact with her. Zhaanat’s family performs a ceremony where they scan Minneapolis and are able to determine that Vera is in trouble and has a child.

Lloyd Barnes is a white mathematics teacher and coaches boxing. Wood Mountain is the Chippewa’s best boxer. There are a couple of bouts throughout the book. Barnes is infatuated with Patrice. Wood Mountain is infatuated with Patrice. She seems to have no interest in either.

Patrice decides to take time off of work and go to Minneapolis to find her sister. She takes the train and finds herself traveling with Wood Mountain, who is on his way to Fargo for a fight. He asks Patrice about her plans and it becomes clear she has absolutely no plan for what to do when she arrives in Minneapolis. He gives her some tips. When she arrives in Minneapolis she is immediately swept up by some shady characters and learns more than she would like to know about the use of native American women in the sex and drug trades. Wood Mountain’s fight is cancelled and he decides to go to Minneapolis to ensure Patrice’s safety. They leave Minneapolis together, unable to locate Vera, but they return to Turtle Mountain with Vera’s baby.

In the meantime, Thomas is writing letters, reading the Congressional resolution and mobilizing support to fight the effort to terminate the tribe. Thomas is exhausted and frequently, while at his job as a night watchman, he is visited by the ghost of his old friend Roderick. Thomas is unsure what these visits are supposed to mean.

A hearing on the Resolution is upcoming and Thomas and other members of the Advisory Committee are scheduled to testify in Washington DC. They raise the money for the trip, in part, through a boxing match between Wood Mountain and a well-known Caucasian fighter. It turns out to be the last fight for both of them.

Patrice, Thomas and others travel to Washington DC to testify. On their first day in Washington DC, they go to visit the halls of Congress, where Patrice witnesses a shooting. “She realized that here in Washington she’d seen people shot, a thing she’d never seen before, even on the reservation, a place considered savage by the rest of the country.” Ultimately the Resolution is not passed and the trip is successful. The effort and exhaustion is almost the end for Thomas.

There are a lot of other characters and a number of other story lines in the novel. For instance, two Mormon missionaries spend time with the tribe and give Thomas a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he attempts to read. Patrice’s friend Betty, who also works at the plant, has her tonsils removed and brings them to work in a jar for all to see. The story is told with humor and passion, is extremely well written and compelling. Although many of the families live in extreme poverty, many without electricity or plumbing, the novel makes it clear that community and family come first, and everything else is second, a lesson we could all appreciate. You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Splendid and the Vile“The Splendid And The Vile” focuses “on Churchill’s first year as prime minister, May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941, which coincided with the German air campaign as it evolved from sporadic, seemingly aimless air raids to a full-on assault against the city of London.” The book “is a more intimate account that delves into how Churchill and his circle went about surviving on a daily basis; the dark moments and the light, the romantic entanglements and debacles…” This limited history is simply splendid (and not at all vile).

Winston Churchill was 65 years old when he became prime minster, having previously served as a top naval officer. The book, of course, addresses the history of World War II during his first year, the blitz and England’s war strategy. But the book also paints a picture of familial relationships, governmental relationships and personality quirks of all involved. And those personality quirks include Goebbels, Goring and other Nazis, who are not painted as the pictures of mental health!

Churchill’s son, Randolph, was a chronic gambler, drinker and womanizer, in constant debt and at risk of embarrassing his famous father. “Randolph…was awash in debt, persistently demonstrating a gift not just for spending money, but also for losing it gambling, at which his ineptitude was legendary; he also drank too much and had a propensity, once drunk, for making scenes and thereby posing what his mother, Clementine…saw as a continual risk that one day he would cause irrevocable embarrassment to the family.” Randolph married Pamela Digby when he was 28 and she was 19 years old. One year later she was pregnant with their son, ultimately named Winston Churchill, Jr. Pamela and Randolph’s marriage fell apart and Pamela became famous for  many romantic entanglements with many different famous men.

Churchill’s daughter, Mary, was 17 years old at the start of Churchill’s reign. She kept a diary and a lot of the book comes from Mary’s diary. Her diary tells about her father’s stresses and family issues. Perhaps more interestingly, her diary tells of the vibrant social scene in London while the bombs are falling. During one particularly horrible bombing in London, Mary and her friends were at a debutante ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel. “Mary could just make out the muffled sounds of anti-aircraft bursts and exploding bombs…the ball continued without pause. At length, the dance at the Grosvenor House Hotel subsided and the all clear sounded…Mary, with her mother’s permission, set out with friends…to continue the fun. They headed toward the Café de Paris…As the cars carrying Mary’s party neared the club, they found their approach blocked by bomb debris, ambulances and fire engines…Among Mary’s group, the pressing question became, If they couldn’t reach the Café de Paris, where then should they try instead?”

In addition to details about family, the book describes some of Churchill’s inner circle. First, John (“Jock”) Colville. Colville was assigned to Churchill as a private secretary. At first, Colville was not so sure about Churchill, but as the year moved forward he learned to respect and admire him. Colville was with Churchill all the time, be it family or country, and kept a detailed diary about everything that happened. In addition to describing war strategy and interpersonal relationships among the family and government officials, the diary also touches upon Colville’s loves and disappointments.

One of the most important figures in Churchill’s wartime government was Churchill’s “longtime friend and occasional antagonist Max Aitken—Lord Beaverbrook—a man who drew controversy the way steeples draw lightning.” Churchill made Beaverbrook his minister of aircraft production, responsible for increasing aircraft production. Beaverbrook enjoyed being provocative and loved gossip. His appointment was controversial but he succeeded in increasing production significantly. Throughout the course of his service he resigned 14 times!

Another important figure was Churchill’s personal scientific advisor, Frederick Lindemann, known as the Prof. “It was the Prof’s job to assess the world with scientific objectivity.” Lindemann too was a complex and controversial figure.

And then there is Winston Churchill himself. At the start of the book, Churchill and Clementine had been married 32 years. They had 4 children and a fifth who died at the age of 2 years and 9 months. Churchill was eccentric, taking two baths a day, working from his bed, dancing and gleeful at times and moody and reflective at other times. “But one of Churchill’s great strengths was perspective, which gave him the ability to place discrete events into boxes, so that bad humor could in a heartbeat turn to mirth.”

Churchill was a great orator and could uplift morale during the darkest days. When a radio speech went off poorly, it was because “Churchill had insisted on reading the speech with a cigar clenched in his mouth.”

The thing that becomes very clear throughout the book is that Churchill was fearless. During bombings he would run to the roof of the building where he could watch or he would walk through the streets in the aftermath.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the manner in which Churchill tries to convince Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help and enter the war. The chess game between the two, and FDR’s difficulties with Congress, are fascinating. FDR sent Harry Hopkins to England to assess the situation. Hopkins fell in love with England and the Churchill family loved Hopkins. Next came William Averill Harrison who, although initially skeptical of Churchill, learned to respect him and likewise favored assisting. The correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt is brilliant and of course Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was the final nail!

The best description of Churchill comes from a government employee who witnessed Churchill speak to a group of dispirited people whose homes had been destroyed by bombs. “…the mood of the crowd abruptly changed…Morale rose immediately …it typified ‘the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill—his ability to transform ‘the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory.”

At the very end the author offers a brief history of what happened to most of the key players in the book. The book is simply wonderful. Even though you know the outcome (I certainly hope you do!), it reads like fiction. If you follow my blog you know that I do not read a lot of nonfiction. But this one is a must read. You can reserve The Splendid And The Vile at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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.