Elmet – by Fiona Mozley

“Elmet” is an extraordinarily dark and deeply disturbing tragedy touching upon the cruelty of people to each other, with sporadic glimpses of and nods to the strength of family.

The novel is set in rural England, although precisely where (Elmet?) is never made clear. The story begins with a brother traveling in search of his sister. He is disheveled, hungry and weary. This is Daniel. As Daniel searches for his sister Cathy, he is slowly telling his family’s story.

Daniel, Cathy and “Daddy” live in a forest, where Daddy is singlehandedly building their house. “Daddy was king. A foot taller than the tallest of [other] men. Daddy was gargantuan. Each of his arms was as thick as two of theirs. His fists were near the size of their heads. Each of them could have sat curled up inside his rib cage like a fetus in a mother’s womb.”

Cathy and Daniel had lived with their grandmother in a house and had attended school until their grandmother died and their mother disappeared. Daddy became the sole parent at that time.

Daddy did not make a living in a traditional way. He was a fighter and no one could beat him. At times he was also an enforcer. There was nothing conventional about the three of them together. Cathy and Daniel did not go to school after their grandmother died and Daddy arranged for them to spend their mornings with Vivien, who taught them as best she could. Vivien was older, attractive and sophisticated. The relationship between Vivien and Daddy was unclear.

Daddy built the house on the land of an evil landowner, Mr. Price. “Mr. Price was the sort of man who accelerated his car when pedestrians crossed the road.” Mr. Price was one of a number of landowners who was taking advantage of the poor rural workers. Daddy and a former union leader came together to help the workers, but for very different reasons. Daddy’s interest was to bring down Mr. Price.

Mr. Price came to visit Daddy to express his unhappiness with the house and land situation. Mr. Price came to visit a second time with his two spoiled prep school sons in tow. The physical and sexual threat was palpable. The third time Mr. Price came to visit it was to suggest that if Daddy would fight and win another big fight, Mr. Price would deed the land to Daniel. Daddy did his part and Mr. Price deeded the land.

Shortly after the fight, one of Mr. Price’s sons was found dead. Things really spiral out of control then.

The book is dark and cruel. There is some intermittent kindness, but always temporary and fraught with selfishness. The book is well written but with some torturous descriptions. Despite its violence, the story is gripping and makes for a good first novel. The novel was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I look forward to her next. You can reserve this novel at The Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

White Houses – by Amy Bloom

White Houses is a fictional account of the romantic relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickock. The story is told by Hick, as she looks back at their relationship during her later years.

Hick met Eleanor when she was assigned to cover the Roosevelts while FDR was governor of New York and running for President. Upon first meeting Eleanor, Hick observed that “She was dull and pleasant for the first five minutes. I…looked at her in cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, who in the name of Christ has dressed you?” Hick and Eleanor met frequently and when FDR’s Secretary’s mother died, Eleanor invited Hick to join her on the trip to Potsdam for the funeral.

As the novel describes the growth of their relationship, we learn that Hick came from a poor rural family in South Dakota, where she was abused and put to work at the age of 13. She ran away and joined a circus for a short period of time. Eleanor also tells her story, about commencing her education in England and being forced back to America.

After FDR won the Presidential election, Hick and others moved into the White House. She gave up her job as a journalist and went to work for Harold Hopkins to help run Federal Emergency Relief. While FDR engaged in numerous romantic dalliances, the relationship between Hick and Eleanor continued to grow. However, for a variety of reasons, Hick ultimately moved out of the White House and the relationship waned. Neither stopped thinking about the other.

Throughout there are numerous others in the story—romances, friends and family. After FDR died, Hick and Eleanor reconnected for a couple of days in Eleanor’s New York apartment. Eleanor went on to advocate for the poor and downtrodden and Hick became a successful journalist. They reconnected a couple of times before Eleanor’s death. Hick could not bring herself to go to Eleanor’s funeral and continued to think about her regularly. The story is in part a love story and in other part a tragedy. It seems that neither quite got what they wanted from the relationship.

The story is intriguing and was created from a great deal of research. In the Author’s Note at the end, Amy Bloom observes that “Lorena Hickock was tough, fair, funny and frank. She was one hell of a reporter and aside from the outline of her dirt-poor childhood in South Dakota, not much of her story existed, except through the eyes of other reporters and lots of other Roosevelts. She had, literally, been cut out of the history (the White House staff routinely cropped her out of every photo of every family picnic, holiday and party—even when she lived in the White House).” This effort to simply delete Hick from Eleanor’s history, standing alone, makes the story  fascinating and compelling. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking here.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette – by Maria Semple

“Where’d You go Bernadette,” is a light, funny story of a social misfit, Bernadette, her daughter, Bee and her husband, Elgie. As you might be able to tell from the not so subtle title, Bernadette mysteriously goes missing. You can get the flavor of the book on the first page when Bee is musing: “The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, ‘What’s most important is for you to understand it’s not your fault.’ You’ll notice that wasn’t even the question.”

The story is told through letters, emails and Bee’s observations about everything.

Bernadette is an eccentric but brilliant architect transplanted from Los Angeles to Seattle and not at all happy about it (even though the move was her choice)! Bernadette had designed and built The Twenty Mile House in Los Angeles and won a McArthur Grant. Things went awry for her shortly thereafter. Husband Elgie is a Microsoft genius and best known for a Ted Talk exhibiting artificial intelligence and for wandering around work with no shoes.

Bernadette travels to Seattle on her own to buy a home. She cannot get over the fact that all the homes in Seattle are Craftsman, which she disdains. “It’s like a hypnotist put everyone from Seattle in a collective trance. You are getting sleepy, when you wake up you will want to live only in a Craftsman house…”.

As a reaction to her distaste for the local architecture, Bernadette buys a 7000 square foot former Catholic school for wayward girls known as Straight Gate, renamed Gatehouse. The structure is in a terrible state of disrepair and despite her architectural talents, Bernadette does little to improve conditions.

The family moves to Los Angeles and enroll Bee in the Glaser School, a well-regarded private school seeking an even higher social status. Bernadette cannot countenance the other parents, whom she calls gnats, and refuses to engage with them. Her neighbor, Audrey Griffin, is planning a brunch fundraiser for the school at her house and is horrified by the wild blackberry bushes that have invaded her yard from Bernadette’s yard. Worse yet, when Audrey tries to confront Bernadette while Bernadette is in her car to pick up Bee from school, Bernadette runs over Audrey’s foot ( or so Audrey says). Ultimately, Bernadette agrees to have the blackberry bushes removed, resulting in a mudslide which destroys Audrey’s house. Really, I could go on and on here with all of the hilarious events in this book.

Bernadette has such high social anxiety that she hires a virtual assistant from India, named Manjula, and pays her $30 a week, to handle her personal affairs. Bernadette and Elgie agree to take Bee on a cruise to Antarctica for making straight As at school. Bernadette’s anxiety is at its highest when anticipating this trip and she has Manjula make all the plans, order the clothes and arrange for seasickness medicine, giving Manjula all of the family’s personal and financial information. In the meantime, one of the gnats becomes Elgie’s assistant at Microsoft and you might just guess where that leads.

Immediately before the family is to leave for Antarctica, Bernadette disappears. Bee and Elgie go on the trip without her. The novel has psychiatrists, FBI agents, spies, criminals and police detectives. There are drugs, sex and alcohol ( no rock and roll that I recall), religious zealots and teen age troublemakers , interventions and wilderness rehab. And there is always Bee’s wacky friend Kennedy in the background.

The book is a blast. Lots of fun and an enjoyable (if not totally believable) story to boot. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

4321 by Paul Auster

“4321” is a tome– an innovative, annoying conglomeration of 4 unique possibilities for one man’s life. The author best describes the novel himself through the main character Archie Ferguson, who observes that “the story was released from the domain of jokes to become a parable about human destiny and the endlessly forking paths a person must confront as he walks through life.” That is the novel 4321 —and isn’t it annoying that after 860 pages the author feels that he has to tell you what the book is about in case you are not smart enough to ordain it for yourself.

Indeed, 4321 is four differing stories about Archie Ferguson, each with a different outcome generally dependent on the paths his parents take (and of course some of his own decisions). In one tale, his father becomes tremendously wealthy and his parents divorce and each remarries. In one tale his father dies in a fire and his mother remarries. In another, his father has financial setbacks and his parents live a harmonious life together and yet in another, well, let’s just leave the ending of that one for you to discover on your own.

Archie Ferguson, born in 1947, is the only child of Jewish parents, Rose and Stanley Ferguson. Those facts do not change throughout the story. Rose’s parents, Benjamin and Emma, were immigrants, both of whom had come to America before the age of 3. Benjamin was a fast talking womanizer and Emma an inexperienced and shy wallflower of a woman. These characterizations are consistent throughout the novel. Rose has a sister, Mildred, whose relationship to Archie is significant throughout the novel, but whose life circumstances vary from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. Before she met and married Stanley, Rose worked as a photographer at Schneidermans. The Schneiderman family plays a significant role in all four stories.

Stanley has two good for nothing brothers, Arnold and Louis. The brothers’ circumstances change based on Stanley’s changing circumstances and ultimately the brothers are forgotten.

In the different stories Archie attends different colleges, breaks different bones, has different loves and lives in different cities. But there is a great deal of commonality in the stories as well. New York is a significant backdrop to each story. In addition, the 1960s, the Vietnam war and the protests throughout the country, but especially the protests in Newark and at Columbia University play a major role in the stories. Those parts of the book, the telling of the history of those times, are the most vivid and enjoyable parts of the novel. There are many successful and failed romances and in each story Archie focuses on some type of writing—whether it is novels, translations, journalism or all three. Archie’s parents and the Schneidermans are a constant presence throughout the stories, but in differing ways and Archie’s financial challenges are also a consistent theme.

The book is 866 pages and requires a real commitment. Ultimately I have decided that the commitment was not at all worthwhile. 4321 is a story within a story within a story within a story, but at the end we learn…well not really. The author seems to have some contempt for his readers as evidenced by his need to tell us that the story is a parable and the all too neat and completely unsatisfying ending. The novel is extremely well written and the concept is clever but by the end, it is just one time consuming disappointment. If you still want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Future Home of the Living G-d – by Louise Erdrich

In Louise Erdrich’s new novel, humanity is facing its end as the result of what appears to be devolution, possibly resulting from climate change.

Cedar Hawks Songmaker is the adopted daughter of Sera and Glen Songmaker. Her biological mother is Ojibwa. “When I tell you that my white name is Cedar Hawk Songmaker and that I am the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals, and that when I went looking for my Ojibwa parents and found that I was born Mary Potts I hid the knowledge, maybe you’ll understand. Or not.” This is the first line of Cedar’s letter to her unborn child and one of the best lines of the book.

We meet Cedar after she has received a letter from her biological mother, Mary Potts, known as Sweetie, and decides to go pay her a visit on the reservation. Thus begins a relationship with Sweetie, her husband Eddy and Cedar’s half-sister…Mary. In the meantime, Cedar is pregnant and shares the information with Sweetie and Eddy, although she has not yet told Sera and Glen.

The rest of the novel focuses on the potential decline of humanity and the rounding up of pregnant women and women of child bearing age. There is a lot that goes on in between, but really, that is the gist of this, at best, so so novel, by this great author.

The story is a fairly routine dystopian story, beautifully written with a completely unsatisfying ending. When I think about all the great books there are out there to read, and although I generally enjoy and appreciate Louise Erdrich novels, I grudgingly say take a pass. If you would like to read this novel you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Library at the Edge of the World – by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

“She told herself that a letter was nothing but words on paper. But a librarian should know better than anyone how written words, moving through time and space, could change a person’s life.”

After the end of a lengthy marriage and many years living a sophisticated life in London, Hanna Casey finds herself moving in with her widowed mother in the small Irish town of Lissberg (fictional), with 16 year old daughter Jazz (Jasmine) in tow. Hanna left her long term husband Malcolm (and his money) after she found him in bed with another woman.

Lissberg is the town that time forgot, but Hanna is fortunate to find a job in the small Lissberg library, which is in close proximity to an old convent where two elderly nuns reside. She is assisted on a part time basis by Conor McCarthy, whose goal is to become a librarian. The Lissberg library is under the control of the County Library in Carrick and Tim Slattery, the County librarian.

Hanna finds the job dull, but two days a week she drives the mobile library to more remote locations, providing books and conversation to people who otherwise would not have access to a library. Although extremely reserved, Hanna enjoys this particular part of her job.

At the age of 12, Hanna had inherited a cottage from her reclusive Aunt Maggie. When Hanna returns to Ireland the cottage is ramshackle and unlivable. Hanna’s life with her mother is tense and Hanna decides to take a loan and renovate the deteriorating cottage. She finds herself working with the inscrutable Fury O’Shea, who insists on the renovations he deems appropriate and refuses to provide either estimates or plans. “Everyone agreed that you wouldn’t want to cross Fury…Apparently he didn’t do estimates, let alone quotes, nor did he stick to a schedule. And you’d never know where to find him…”

In the meantime, the county council has a development plan in mind that would create a new complex in Carrick, threatening the Lissberg library as well as  the economic wellbeing of Lissberg’s already struggling residents. Despite her reserve, Hanna finds herself and her library at the center of a resistance movement, seemingly initiated by one of the elderly nuns in the convent. And somehow, along the way, Hanna finds romance. I will not give away the ending, which has a few twists and turns.

The novel is enjoyable and sweet. Along with issues of development and the importance of community, the book looks at family relationships, politics, power, deceit and loyalty. The book also has humor, best reflected in Oliver “the dog man”, who spends weeks going through every book in the library looking for a book with a particular dog on the cover. The novel gets off to a slow start but is a worthwhile read. You can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Evicted—Poverty and Profit In the American City – by Matthew Desmond

Sometimes, particularly if you want to effect positive change, you just have to step outside your comfort zone—work or play, conversation or listening, reading or writing. Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Evicted” is definitely outside my comfort zone. For one thing, it’s nonfiction and I do not read a lot of nonfiction. But more importantly it is about the reality of difficult lives in a world we generally either do not or choose not to see.

In Evicted, Desmond explains the expanding societal consequences of housing insecurity. He teaches without preaching by describing the lives of various individuals and their families and the difficulties they encounter in paying for and maintaining housing.

Desmond tells the story of the evicted and their landlords. He focuses on a number of individuals experiencing housing insecurity, as well as a trailer park owned by Tobin Charney and on various units of substandard housing owned by Shereena Tarver. While telling the stories of the tenants and the landlords, Desmond also provides some statistical information. For instance, “Today the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on.”

Tobin’s trailer park was extremely poorly maintained and as a result, in May of 2008, all five members of Milwaukee’s Licenses Committee had refused to renew Tobin’s license to operate the trailer park. For instance, one of the alderman “pointed to the 70 code violations that Neighborhood Services had documented in the past two years. He brought up the 260 police calls made from the trailer park in the past year alone. He said the park was a haven for drugs, prostitution and violence. He observed that an unconnected plumbing system had recently caused raw sewage to bubble up and spread under ten mobile homes. The License Committee now considered the trailer park an ‘environmental hazard’”

Those of us who live in secure and pleasant environments might think that having government focus on the blight of the trailer park would be a relief to the residents, but in fact, the reaction Desmond describes is just the opposite. Instead, they feared being evicted and being forced into homelessness or to move into areas they considered even less desirable. And the landlord? Well, he took the governmental inspection as an opportunity to evict “troublemakers”. “When city or state officials pressured landlords…landlords often passed the pressure on to their tenants. There was also the matter of reestablishing control. The most effective way to assert, or reassert, ownership of land was to force people from it.”

Shereena, the other landlord in the book, owned numerous substandard housing units. Desmond focuses on a few of the tenants who lived in Shereena’s properties. Arleen, a single mother who was living on $7,536 a year, ran into trouble paying her rent when she helped pay for the funeral of a close friend. In addition, the government reduced her monthly welfare payments because she missed an appointment with her welfare caseworker. Shereena ends up evicting her and her two sons when she is unable to come up with $650 in back rent. The book follows Arleen and her housing challenges, pointing out the very real consequences of housing instability in Arleen’s story. Arleen’s sons had to continuously change schools, the neighborhoods she moved in and out of became less stable and more transitional, and any effort Arleen could have put into looking for work or improving her health was used up finding and maintaining housing.

One of the truly horrifying experiences in the book involves a tenant by the name of Lamar. Lamar had two sons living with him and his apartment was where the neighborhood kids gathered after school. Lamar had no legs. Lamar fell behind in his rent and his experience with Shareena showed her initial empathy and ultimate antipathy toward her tenants. “When Lamar first fell behind, Shereena didn’t reach automatically for the eviction notice… She hemmed and hawed. ‘I’m gonna have a hard time doing this.’” Lamar tried to work off the debt he owed by painting one of Shereena’s units. “Lamar scooted along the floor, lifted his brush. As the morning wore on, he began sweating and breathing heavily. He grunted and prayed for strength.” Shereena evicted him.

When one of Shereena’s units burned down and a baby died, what was Shereena’s reaction? “‘The only positive thing I can say is happening out of all of this is that I may get a huge chunk of money.” Shereena did get a “chunk of money” from the insurance proceeds, which she used to buy more units. In the end, for the landlords, it is always and only about the money.

Throughout the book we learn that tenants get evicted for complaining about conditions, for calling the police for help, and for having children. Once a tenant is evicted it gets even harder to find housing. Most renters are unable to obtain government housing or assistance as those programs are very limited. They find shelter in substandard housing, without appliances and often without adequate plumbing or heat.

Matthew Desmond came to Cleveland as part of One Community Reads. All residents of Cuyahoga County were invited to read the book, participate in a variety of book discussions and listen to Mr. Desmond at the State Theater. Desmond presented potential solutions, but of course those solutions require some sacrifice, causing those of us who are fortunate enough to live in comfortable circumstances to wonder how far we might be willing to go to help. It was altogether a moving and inspirational experience.

If you are up to the challenge of reading this book you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Dinner At The Center of The Earth – by Nathan Englander

“Dinner At The Center of The Earth” is an Israeli spy novel about the ever changing world of politics, loyalty and love. The story shifts back and forth through time and takes place in Israel, Paris, Berlin and indirectly in America from 2002-2014.

The novel begins with an introduction to Prisoner Z and his guard. Prisoner Z, an American Israeli spy, is in a prison in the middle of the Negev desert. His guard is a spoiled mama’s boy, whose mother is the close assistant to “the General” and former Israeli Prime Minister (fashioned after Ariel Sharon). Prisoner Z has been secretly imprisoned by the General and no one knows he even exists except the guard, his mother, and the General. The novel tells the tragic story of Prisoner Z and how he ended up a prisoner, as well as the story of the General, the history of his renowned military actions and his change of heart as he neared death.

Prisoner Z starts out as a dedicated Israeli spy, but certain chance (or maybe not so chance) meetings and relationships cause him to rethink his loyalties. After engaging in traitorous activities, he is transferred to Paris and becomes romantically involved with a waitress there, who of course is in fact an Israeli spy. Ultimately his penchant to easily fall in love caught him out into his hopeless imprisonment. Throughout his imprisonment, Prisoner Z writes letters to the General (the letters remain unanswered). In the meantime, the General has a stroke which leaves him in what appears to be a permanently in between space, where he reflects on his life, both personal and nationalistic.

The waitress/spy disappears for a while, but reappears later in the novel after having fallen hopelessly in love with a Palestinian. This relationship, seemingly doomed yet fascinatingly strong and hopeful, is a metaphor for the rest of the book. At the end, the general dies, Prisoner Z is forgotten and the waitress and her lover find a way to stay together at the Center of the Earth. The book is both hopeful and hopeless, but the ending left me feeling empty and unsatisfied. I think that might have been the point. This is a brilliant novel but it will not appeal to everyone. You can reserve it from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Chemistry – by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry tells the story of the complexity of love, life, family, friendship, immigration and science, all in 211 very short pages. The narrator, whose name is never revealed, is a PhD candidate in chemistry, living in Boston with Eric, also a PhD candidate in chemistry. When we meet them they have been living together for two years, with a dog, and he wants to marry. She is not so sure.

The narrator is Chinese American and her parents are both from China. Her father moved the family to America when she was five years old so that he could obtain a PhD and become an engineer. Her mother, a very beautiful woman, had been a pharmacist in China and has a hard time adjusting to life in America. The parents, who fight constantly, are very aggressive about the narrator completing her PhD.

Narrator is not making progress and appears to have a complete breakdown, when she breaks five beakers in the chemistry lab.  She ultimately never returns. Eric, the boyfriend, has completed his degree and takes a teaching job in Oberlin. The narrator stays put in Boston with the dog. She sees a therapist and through the interactions with the therapist we learn the complexity of her upbringing and her thought process. She begins tutoring students in math and science with some success.

Narrator has a best friend who is a doctor living in Manhattan. She sees and speaks to the best friend on a regular basis. The best friend has a baby, separates from her husband and narrator and the best friend posit frequently about the complexities of life and love. Ultimately, both narrator and best friend seem to come to terms with life. “I have brief windows of clarity when I see that happiness is not just achievement but made up of many other things.”

The book is short, choppy and introspective. The introspection saves the book, which is not exactly a story but more of a missive, yet the book succeeds in subtly building to a sense of emotional growth. It was not the best of 2017, but possibly worth a read if you have an extra couple of hours on your hands. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library in electronic form by clicking here.

The Power – by Naomi Alderman

“The Power” might be described as dystopian by some and might be (and in fact has been) described as a fantasy or a dream by others. I think most readers would agree that it is a wild ride.

In The Power, women suddenly discover that they have electrical current running through their bodies that they can use for endless purposes. Most of the women who discover that they have the power are actually girls. These girls are able to pass the power on to their mothers. As time goes by, the power is used, of course, to take over the world from men.

The story focuses on 4 individuals, with asides focused on others. Roxy learns that she has the power when she is 14 years old and inadvertently uses it to some effect during a home invasion. Roxy, the daughter of a known gangster, learns to maximize the power with age and becomes a formidable soldier in the effort to take control from men. She has three half-brothers, all of whom continue their father’s business, one of whom is especially envious of Roxy’s power.

Allie is an abused foster child who has been playing with her power and at the age of 16 uses it to punish her abusive foster father. As a result, Allie has to escape and takes refuge in a convent, where more “orphaned” girls with the power also take refuge. Allie, who hears voices that guide her, uses the power to cure infirmities, renames herself Eve and ultimately becomes known as Mother Eve. Allie meets Roxy at the convent and they create a powerful friendship.

Tunde, a man from Lagos, discovers women with the power when he is 21, during a mildly disastrous romantic endeavor. He decides to film women with the power as he sees it and ultimately travels the world reporting on the impact of the power. His reporting takes him to Riyadh where women who have never been able to drive are rioting and destroying cars with their power. “He knows then that this thing is going to take the world and everything will be different…”

Margot, is a local mayor whose daughter, Jocelyn has intermittent power. Despite Jocelyn’s issues with the power, she is able to transfer it to Margot who goes on to become a governor, a senator and possibly more.

The story is told as a historical record during a time when women have ruled the world for centuries and men and their rights are restricted. The book has lots of violence, sex, drugs and rock and roll and ultimately of course, power corrupts regardless of gender. There are good and bad! The author of the history is a man and he is corresponding with an author and friend named Naomi for advice and constructive criticism. In her last letter, she suggests to him that “I know this might be very distasteful to you, but have you considered publishing this book under a woman’s name”? I loved this book and you will too! It is a lot of fun.

You can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.