The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House is a marvelously moving novel about a house, its inhabitants, their lives and the impact of the house on everything. “The Dutch House, as it came to be known in Elkins Park and Jenkintown and Glenside and all the way to Philadelphia, referred not to the house’s architecture but to its inhabitants. The Dutch House was the place where those Dutch people with the unpronounceable name lived. Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on….The house complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

The Dutch House is a grand mansion that had been owned by the wealthy VanHoebeek family until their fortunes turned. The last VanHoebeek died in 1945 and the house went back to the bank, although Fluffy, the daughter of the previous caretakers stayed behind. There were portraits of Mr. and Mrs. VanHoebeek over the mantel in the drawing room and  portraits of lesser VanHoebeeks throughout the house.

In 1946, Cyril Conroy bought the house as a surprise for his wife Elna. At the time, Cyril and Elna were living in a little house on a military base and were seemingly poor. Fluffy came with the house. So did the portraits.

In addition to Fluffy, sisters Jocelyn and Sandy also helped run the household. Elna had no interest in a mansion. Her interests were directed toward helping the poor. The house, its portraits and all of the domestic help made Elna feel anxious and uncomfortable

Cyril and Elna had two children, Maeve and Danny. Danny, 7 years younger than Maeve, narrates the story. When Danny was 3 years old and Maeve 10, Elna disappeared from their lives and from the Dutch House. Elna’s absence caused Maeve to become extremely ill and she is diagnosed with diabetes which follows her through her life. Danny and Maeve are effectively raised by Fluffy (until she hits Danny with a wooden spoon and is fired) and the two sisters, Jocelyn and Sandy. Maeve and Danny are extremely close, while their father, Cyril, is extremely distant. Cyril is a real estate magnate. Periodically he takes Danny with him to collect rents and scrutinize buildings, which makes Danny feel closer to his father.

One day Cyril brings home a significantly younger (18 years) woman, Andrea, who is completely obsessed with the Dutch House. That obsession is not lost on Maeve and Danny, who view her as an insignificant, intermittent presence. “After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus. As soon as we were sure we’d seen the last of her and months would go by without a mention of her name, there’d she be at the dining room table again.” Ultimately, Cyril marries her and she moves in with her two daughters, Norma and Bright.

Maeve goes off to Barnard and while she is away Andrea gives Maeve’s room to her daughter Norma and moves Maeve into the attic. Maeve loves Norma and Bright so she takes the change in stride, but limits her trips home.

After Maeve graduates from college she gets her own tiny apartment and goes to work for Otterson’s frozen foods in accounting, where she remains throughout her career.   When Danny is 15 and a sophomore in high school, his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Andrea throws Danny out of the Dutch House and Danny and Maeve learn that their father has left everything to Andrea. The only exception is an education trust established for Danny, Norma and Bright, excluding Maeve. “He thought if she went to graduate school she’d only get married halfway through and quit what she’d started.”

Maeve decides that Danny, as the oldest of the three (and in need of someplace to live other than on her couch), should immediately start to use the trust fund and he finishes his high school education at Choate. He then goes on to college and medical school at Columbia (he has no desire to be a doctor but they view this as a good way to use up the trust assets). While traveling on the train from New York to Philadelphia, Danny meets Celeste, who he ultimately marries. Celeste and Maeve do not like each other. Danny observes that “everything Celeste didn’t like about me was Maeve’s fault, because being mad at your husband’s sister was infinitely easier than being mad at your husband.” Danny and Celeste have two children, May and Kevin.

Lots of things happen in this book. Maeve and Danny periodically sit in their car across from the Dutch House just to look at it. Elna suddenly shows up, Fluffy comes back into the picture and somehow Andrea, Norma and the Dutch House reenter their lives.

”There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” A lot of “The Dutch House” finds its protagonists in this position.

In The Dutch House, Ann Patchett creates places, people and circumstances that tug at the reader’s reality. Her story seems simple and straight forward, yet subtly relays a sense of complexity, bringing you close to understanding the world around you. As Danny observes at one point in the book, “Maeve and I were forever under the impression that we were moments away from cracking the code on our life…”. But of course, events always get in the way.

The Dutch House is about perspective. It is a story about how things look and feel to us as we are living them and taking them for granted, while at the same time recognizing how different those same things appear from a different vantage. And of course the story is told with Ann Patchett’s signature humor.

My only disappointment is that I do not get the pleasure of reading this book for the first time. It is simply great. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Most Fun We Ever HadThe Most Fun We Ever had is a family saga, moving back and forth from 1975 to 2017. The story chronicles the ever growing Sorenson family.

Marilyn Connolly and David Sorenson meet in 1975 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where Marilyn is an undergraduate and David is a medical student. Marilyn is very outspoken and experienced and David is a little more reserved and a lot less experienced. They fall in love and David gets a residency in Iowa. They leave Chicago, move to Iowa and Marilyn almost immediately becomes pregnant. She never finishes college.

The first daughter, Wendy, is a handful and the second daughter, Violet, is born a year later. Ultimately, Marilyn’s father dies and they inherit his house in Chicago and move back. Marilyn has a third child, Liza, and a number of years later they decide to have a fourth, Grace. Grace’s birth almost kills Marilyn.  Grace is significantly younger than the other girls.

Wendy is crazy, even as an adult. She has self-image issues (she is beautiful of course), food issues, drug issues and mean girl issues. She marries a significantly older man with whom she is madly in love and who happens to be a billionaire. He also has the nerve to die after about 14 years of marriage, and Wendy, who has already suffered tragedy, is devastated. But she continues to show strength throughout the story.

Violet is a serious student and is also beautiful. She goes to law school and meets Matt and they marry. After practicing law for a time, Violet has her first child, Wyatt, and she decides to stay at home. She has a second child, Eli. Although Violet’s life seems stable, we learn that she had a child in 2001, Jonah, who she put up for adoption. This child shows up in the story 15 years after his birth and becomes a part of this crazy family.

Liza becomes a tenured professor at UIC and lives in a romantic relationship with Ryan. Ryan is clinically depressed and unable to function at the most basic levels much of the time. Liza becomes pregnant with Ryan’s child and then cheats on him. When Ryan finds out, he leaves her and she is on her own during the pregnancy with family support.  she has mixed feelings about the loss of Ryan.

Grace is living a destitute life in Oregon. She had wanted to go to law school but scored so poorly on the law school admissions test that she was rejected by each school she applied to. She has told her family, however, that she actually is going to law school in Oregon.

Of course at the end everything works out.

The story had promise, but the description of David and Marilyn’s relationship was too idyllic and at times felt a little saccharine. I was bothered by the fact that no one seemed to have friends outside the family and that this lack of external relationships did not seem to bother anybody. Finally, the book could have used some editing—it is too long and too repetitive but more importantly, the length worked against instilling empathy for the characters or their lives. I do think that this is an author to watch and as she matures she will do great things. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Testaments“There’s been a coup, here in the United States, just as in times past in so many other countries. Any forced change of leadership is always followed by a move to crush the opposition. The opposition is led by the educated, so the educated are the first to be eliminated.”

The Testaments is Margaret Atwood’s follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale. The story takes place in the country known as Gilead; the United States no longer exists, although California and Texas are their own countries (hmmm, a little too realistic?). The time frame is unclear, although the story is unfolding after Gilead has become a historical anomaly and is being studied by academics. In the Handmaid’s Tale, the story of life in Gilead was told from the perspective of a Handmaid. In The Testaments, the story is told from the perspectives of a very powerful “Aunt” and two young women, one growing up in Gilead and one growing up in the more democratic country of Canada. Writings documenting each woman’s experience have been discovered by a historical association and are being studied and discussed in the year 2197.

The “Aunts” are very powerful, making “policy” and working with the “Eyes” to keep control over the female population. One of the first things that occurred after the coup was that all of the professional women were rounded up, some were killed and others were assigned roles. Women were no longer permitted to learn to read (except the Aunts) and were not permitted to work. Women were either Handmaids, Aunts or wives, and they could become wives at the tender age of 13. Of course in general, particularly the daughters of powerful men, the women were not free to choose their own husbands

Aunt Lydia, the most powerful Aunt, had been a Judge when the coup took place. After a number of meetings with the evil Commander Judd, and a stint in solitary confinement, she agrees to the role of Aunt. “You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” She is very shrewd and finds a way to surpass more senior women and accede to a role of power. Lydia and her group of aunts are housed in Adria Hall and Aunt Lydia’s story is told from there. She arranges marriages, she punishes adversaries and she rules in support of the philosophy of Gilead with an iron hand. But of course, things are not always as they seem.

Agnes is a child growing up in Gilead when we are first introduced to her. She has a loving mother, Tabitha and a distant father, Commander Kyle. Tabitha tells Agnes that she went for a walk in the forest, came across an enchanted castle and rescued Agnes. Agnes’s childhood is  privileged. The family has three “Marthas” (domestic help, but deemed so insignificant as to not be worthy of individualization). Agnes goes to school where they learn things like embroidery and are told about the tragedy of Baby Nicole, who was whisked away by terrorists to Canada and is considered a national tragedy. Agnes loves Tabitha but unfortunately, Tabitha dies of a mysterious illness when Agnes is 8 or 9. Commander Kyle quickly thereafter marries the evil Widow Paula. Once Paula arrives, her sole goal is to get Agnes out of the house. They determine to marry off the then 13 year old Agnes to the elderly Commander Judd, whose numerous prior wives have all died under suspicious circumstances. Aunt Lydia saves her and brings her into Adria Hall as an Aunt in training. Agnes’s story is Transcript of Witness Testimony 369A.

The third story involves Daisy. Daisy is living what the readers would consider a normal life in Canada with her parents Neil and Melanie. Neil and Melanie run a used clothing store called the Clothing Hound. They do not allow Daisy out of their sight. Neil is obsessed with old cameras and Melanie donates some of the clothing in the store to her friend Ada for charity. Periodically Pearl Girls” stop by the store to drop off brochures. The Pearl Girls are effectively missionaries for Gilead, attempting to convince Canadian women that Gilead can offer them a better life. Daisy’s life is a good one until both the Clothing Hound and her parents are blown up in a car explosion.

After the explosion, Daisy gets involved with a resistance movement and finds herself at Adria Hall where she meets Agnes. Things move quickly from there and not in a good way for Gilead. You need to read the story for the detail.

The book is a fun quirky read, although if you are looking for subtlety, you will not find it here. The story very clearly describes the connection between a religious state and the subjugation of women and the concept that power breeds corruption. Despite its lack of subtlety the book is well written and offers some thoughts and warnings for some of our current day behaviors. If you would like to read this novel you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Akin is the story of an 80 year old widower’s travels through the past and into the future.

Noah Selvaggio has decided to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday by taking a trip to his place of birth, Nice France. Noah’s wife, Joan, who had died nine years earlier, continues to talk to Noah. Noah and Joan were both scientists, although Joan had been significantly more renowned than Noah. Joan was Jewish and had kept her name after they married. They had not had children and their marriage was progressive for the time.  Joan and Noah’s mother did not have a warm relationship.

As Noah is making his preparations for his trip, he receives a call from Rosa at the “Administration for Children’s Services”. Rosa advises him that the 11 year old son (Michael)  of his now deceased nephew,  is in need of a temporary caregiver. Noah’s nephew and Michael’s father had died of a drug overdose, Michael’s mother is in jail for dealing drugs and his grandmother has just died. Noah is the closest next of kin with the capacity to take care of Michael. Needless to say, Noah is less than thrilled. Arrangements are made and Noah agrees to take temporary responsibility for Michael, including him in his trip to France.

Prior to taking the trip, Noah discovers photographs taken by his mother, Margot, in France during World War II. One of the photos is of a small boy who is not Noah.  Noah begins to wonder whether his mother has a secret life.   In the meantime, we learn that Noah’s grandfather had been a famous photographer in France and that Noah’s mother felt  obligated to care for him during World War II. As a result, Noah and his father came to America without Margot, who arrived about 2-1/2 years later, after her father died. Noah is intrigued by his mother’s mysterious existence before her arrival to America.

Noah and Michael go off to France and Michael is as ill-behaved as you would expect of an uprooted 11 year old. Noah attempts to treat him like an adult but Michael is trying. During the trip, Noah learns more about the years his mother stayed in France and is attempting to determine whether she was a Nazi collaborator or part of the opposition.

Michael causes Noah to think about the differences between living a life of privilege and a life of challenge. Michael and Noah discuss drugs, gangs, money, the past and the future. The story ends much as you think it would. Noah rescues Michael; Michael rescues Noah. I liked the book but not its predictability.  You can reserve Akin at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

“I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful…To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.”

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a haunting letter from a son to his illiterate mother written in a dark, poetic stream of consciousness focused on death and cruelty. The writer, Little Dog, is 28 years old at the time he is writing this letter. He is attempting to communicate with his mother about his thoughts on his life up to the time of writing.

Little Dog was born somewhere outside Saigon. Two years after his birth, and after the war (1990), Little Dog, his mother (Rose), his father, his grandmother (Lan) and his aunt fled to the United States. His father disappeared after being imprisoned for beating Rose and Little Dog grew up with Rose and Lan.  Rose worked in a factory and then as a manicurist. She frequently struck Little Dog during his childhood. Lan was bipolar and mischievous and generally treated Little Dog with love and kindness

When Little Dog is a high school freshman he takesa job in the tobacco fields, where he meets Trevor. He and Trevor become romantically attached and spend a great deal of time getting high and drunk. His relationship with Trevor and their conversations are a central part of the story. Little Dog’s observations about his relationship with Trevor are reflective of his deeply introspective nature. After rejecting a kindness from Trevor, Little Dog observes that “sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you’ve been ruined.”

Little Dog’s story moves back and forth among his mother’s life in Vietnam, his grandmother’s life in Vietnam, their lives in America, stories of drug overdoses and his relationship with Trevor. At the time of the writing, he is living in New York, but recounting his childhood in Hartford and his trip to Vietnam to bury Lan.

Vuong’s writing is beautiful and evocative. He focuses on the details, the movements and colors of nature and emotion, the sensibilities of animals, the depths of sorrow. His use of words and descriptive energy elicits strong emotion. I could feel the depths of his despair, his angst over the details of life and its inevitable end; I could feel the colors of the moment. Sometimes when I read a novel filled with angst I find myself becoming resentful of the author’s blatant effort to manipulate. But this novel makes you see the detail, feel the emotions and travel through the writer’s world so that it feels less like manipulation and more like a step into another’s life. That said, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief when I was done!

This book may not be for everyone because of its overwhelming sense of despair, but if you are drawn to extraordinary writing that moves you outside yourself (and into a dark place), you will want to read this novel. It can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

“Go as far as you can—way out yonder where the Crawdads sing…in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”

Catherine Danielle Clark—“Kya”—the Marsh Girl—was 6 years old, when her mother walked out of the shack in the marsh, leaving her five children and abusive husband to fend for themselves. Slowly, each of the siblings walked away, leaving 6 year old Kya alone with her father. The shack had no plumbing and was crumbling around them. Papa survived on a military disability and rarely spoke to Kya.

For almost 4 years Kya and her father survive together. Periodically, Kya goes into town to buy supplies, where she is treated poorly by most in town and described as trash. Truant officers show up at the shack and send her off to school. Kya attends for one day, but the other students are cruel and she never returns.

Four years after her mother left, sometime in 1956, Kya’s father receives a letter from her which sends him into a rage. He too disappears, leaving 10 year old Kya to fend for herself. Kya befriends a black man and his wife, Jumpin’ and Mabel. Jumpin owns a gas outlet for boats and a sundries store and he and Mabel provide Kya with clothes and sundries in exchange for mussels and smoked fish. The relationship, which is unique in the 1950s south, stays strong throughout the story.

Kya meets a town boy, Tate and a friendship and ultimate romance begins. Tate teaches Kya to read and provides her with art supplies and various other gifts. But Tate leaves for college and does not stay in touch. In the meantime, the handsome Chase Andrews, known as a womanizer, establishes a romantic relationship with Kya, leads her to believe they will marry and then marries someone else. He wants to continue a relationship with Kya, however, and becomes abusive.

In 1969, two boys find a man dead in the swamp who turns out to be Chase Andrews. There are no footprints or fingerprints and it is not clear whether he has fallen from a tower or been pushed. By this time, Kya has become a successful writer about various aspects of vegetation and animals in the marsh, and despite having been out of town when the death occurs, she is arrested and tried for first degree murder.

The story goes back and forth between Kya growing up and the murder investigation and ends with the trial and the future. There is something a bit too familiar, perhaps formulaic and predictable about the story and at times portions of the descriptive prose feel forced. That said, it is an enjoyable read and highlights the problems with our tendencies to jump to discriminatory judgments about people when in fact people’s behaviors and emotions are not at all predictable. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

“Celestial Bodies” takes place in Oman and  is a story of family life, love and change. The story revolves around three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, and their families past and future.

Mayya is a seamstress, quiet and secretly in love with Ali bin Khallaf, when Abdallah, the son of Merchant Sulayman asks for her hand. The family accepts on her behalf and she is married. Mayya and Abdallah  have three children together, London, Muhammed and Salim. Throughout the book we learn that Salim is a handful and that Muhammed is autistic. London becomes a doctor and has romantic issues that are painful for everyone. Abdallah loves Mayya but when he asks her if she loves him she just laughs.

Abdallah’s father, Merchant Sulayman, is a wealthy and difficult man.  Merchant Sulayman became wealthy in what many believed was the date trade, but in fact was mostly the result of  trading slaves. His wife, Abdallah’s mother, died under mysterious circumstances and Abdallah was raised by Merchant Sulayman’s slave and mistress, Zarifa.   As Abdallah tells us about his life, he reflects on the cruelty of Sulayman to him and to others. Certain of those cruelties continue to haunt Abdallah.  Years after Merchant Sulayman’s death, Abdallah is still trying to please him.

The book alternates its focus on different characters. The Abdallah chapters are written in a different typeset and are the only paragraphs written in first person. The other chapters are told by an unknown narrator.

Asma also marries a man who requests her hand and has 14 children by the age of 45. Hers is a life of happiness and learning. Her husband’s brother requests Khawla’s hand, but she refuses, waiting for the love of her life, Nasir, who is living in Canada. He returns and marries her but is unreliable. After many years, things are not quite working out the way she would like.

Mayya, Asma and Khawla’s parents, Azzan and Salima, have a fraught marriage. We learn that the marriage was forced on Salima and that Azzan has taken up with a Bedouin woman in the desert.

The book is complex, in theme, character and meaning. Portions of the book delve into the history of Oman, class related issues, traditions and their evolution and superstition. The stories themselves about each person’s life are interesting, thoughtful and believably developed. The novel is translated from Arabic, won the 2019 Booker Prize and is definitely worth a read. You can reserve Celestial Bodies at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Inland is the alternating stories of Lurie Mattie and Nora Lark and the ultimate intersection of those stories. Nora’s story takes place in 1893 in Amargo, Arizona Territory and Lurie’s story takes place throughout his life in a variety of places in the 1800s.

Lurie has been on the run since he was six years old, initially with his father until his father’s death, at which point he is sold to a Mr. Saurelle as labor. Lurie ends up living with two other boys, Hobbs and Donovan while working for Mr. Saurelle. Hobbs has a tendency towards theft and the three together become thieves and murderers. After a particularly gruesome murder, Lurie, who speaks to and sees the dead, is on the run. Ultimately, he finds himself traveling with a military group that has a number of camels, making them a peculiarity everywhere they go.

While traveling he befriends Ali Mostafa (Jolly), who helps Lurie throughout his story. Lurie’s camel, Burke, becomes a significant part of his life and we learn Lurie’s life story through his conversations with Burke. Lurie is being hunted by Marshall John Berger and is unable to stay in any one place for long. He abandons his traveling group and takes Burke with him. Later, he reunites with Jolly and they engage in business together, with their camels. Continue Reading Inland – by Tea Obreht

“The Ditch” is a complex story about life, family, different cultures, love, revenge, aging, illness and the intersection of it all.

The story revolves around “Robert”, the mayor of Amsterdam and his wife “Sylvia”. Robert is the narrator and the names are aliases, because the real names “would only confuse things. People make all kinds of assumptions when it comes to names.” Robert is from Holland and Sylvia is from a different unnamed country and her physical appearance makes it clear that she is not from Holland. They have a daughter “Diana”.

During a reception, Robert observes Sylvia talking and laughing with Alderman Martens Van Hoogstraten. Robert becomes obsessed, based solely on that one event, that Sylvia and the Alderman are having a romantic relationship. If Sylvia is acting normal, that is suspicious. “…it was precisely the absence of any visible sign or signal that should confirm my worst suspicions. The completely normal way my wife was acting…could be a deliberate tactic.” “They were acting like nothing was going on which meant something was going on.” Of course, when Sylvia is acting peculiar, that is suspicious. Continue Reading The Ditch – by Herman Koch

Eleanor Oliphant“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue veil of tears is that there is always, however remote it may seem, the possibility of change.”

Now I realize that this quote may not make you want to read this book (and maybe you shouldn’t), dreary as it seems. But the novel, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, is about a person’s ability to make even the most dreadful life better—through change.

Eleanor Oliphant is a peculiar, 31 year old office worker, with a university degree in classics and what we learn was a miserable upbringing. She describes herself as a woman with “Long, straight, light brown hair that runs all the way down to my waist, pale skin, my face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” Her face, specifically, has “ridged, white contours of scar tissue that slither across my right cheek, starting at my temple and running all the way down to my chin.”

Eleanor has no friends and the people at work, a graphics design company, make fun of her behind her back. Her weekends are spent at home alone, with vodka, pizza and books. She has a weekly telephone call with her “Mummy”, who appears to be institutionalized and is extraordinarily cruel to Eleanor. Continue Reading Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – by Gail Honeyman