Saturday, November 6, 2021

Murder is the Lesser of the Evils in Penny's The Madness of Crowds

I just love Louise Penny. There it is. So, I cannot be objective about her fabulous books in the Armand Gamache series even though I understand that some of her readers found number seventeen, “The Madness of Crowds,” just too dark. Gamache’s latest outing is set once again in the village of Three Pines, an idyllic spot where my A picture containing text

Description automatically generatedcollege roommate and I have decided we would love to retire to if the winters weren’t quite so long. There is a pub and a bookstore. Does one need anything else?

Penny was in Covid lockdown with her brother and theorizing about what the world would look like after the virus begins to dissipate, when we can hug, kiss, and gather again. For Armand and his wife, the librarian Reine-Marie, it was looking fabulous. Both of their children, their spouses, and kids were back in town for the holidays. In episode sixteen Armand and his long-estranged son Daniel found a path back to each other while Armand’s daughter Annie, married to his second in command Jean Guy Beauvoir, had given birth to a daughter whose Down syndrome did little to tarnish their unmitigated joy.

When Armand is asked to provide security for a lecture at the local university he wonders why, he is after all the head of the homicide department for the Surete du Quebec but decides it will be a quick in and out and won’t upset the family’s holiday plans too much. Until, that is, he reads about the speaker, Dr. Abigail Robinson, and the controversial plan she intends to present to the Canadian government based upon her statistical analysis of the numbers of elderly deaths put down to Covid. If you remember the Texas politician who proclaimed that older folks should willingly die so that the economy would not have to be shut down, then you know where Ms. Penny is going here.

Naturally, the crowded hall is standing room only, pro and con verbally assaulting each other, until the gunshots shatter the podium and Armand finds himself shielding a woman whose beliefs are anathema to him. In the ensuing chaos the shooter escapes and soon the full force of the Surete descends on Three Pines just as the villagers are preparing to host a Sudanese refugee and potential Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Haniya Daoud. And before the new year a second attempt at murder in the idyllic village will succeed.

Louise Penny loves the denizens of Three Pines, but she never portrays them as saints. She knows their dark places and understands how close to the edge of good and evil most human beings teeter. She has taken Jean Guy to the depths of drug and alcohol use and brought him back to life with love. She has allowed Gamache’s honor and bravery and goodness to be questioned and derided and brought him back with love.

In this book Penny almost overwhelms readers with the horrors of war, government sponsored torture, eugenics, and the survival of the fittest. Through Jean Guy and Gamache she lays bare the depths of paternal love and she wonders how much good a person must do in their life to amend a past wrong. But most timely is her deep dive into the issue of free speech and the potential censoring and censuring of those who philosophies might be too repugnant to propagate. Though many of her readers feel that this novel is too political I’ve always thought that Penny steers remarkably clear of moral absolutes. She simply asks the questions. We are the ones left to find the answers.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Crossroads is a Career High for Jonathan Franzen

The writer Jonathan Franzen is one of the most controversial white male American authors of the past twenty years. Accused of literary snobbery (the Oprah scandal), remarkably tone-deaf misogyny, and known as a difficult interview, nevertheless Franzen continues to create amazing novels peopled with unforgettable characters. His latest, the first in a trilogy thank goodness, is simply wonderful.

Crossroads” is the name of the youth group at First Reformed church from which pastor Russ Hildebrandt has been relieved of his duties. Ostensibly his sin is that Crossroads: A Novelhe’s too “preachy,” alienating the high school kids who prefer the younger, hipper assistant, Rick Ambrose. But, in fact, we learn that Russ indiscreetly, in a moment of extreme oversharing, necessary for Crossroads members, has confessed to an impressionable teenage girl, that he no longer sexually desires his wife, Marion.

Marion is proof positive that Franzen is working to dispel his sexist tendencies. She is such a complex, fascinating work in progress. A victim of sexual abuse whose affair with a married man and her subsequent breakdown at its demise landed her in an institution, Marion is a woman who survived by recognizing what she needed to do to live a simpler, safer life and went after it with intention.

In 1971 she and Russ are living outside Chicago in the First Reformed community and raising their four extremely different children, kids battered by the politics of the times, the drawdown of the war in Vietnam, the proliferation of easy access to drugs, the sexual revolution, and the subtle feeling that all is not right between their parents. How these pressures affect each of the children, Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson, is at the crux of the story.

And then there’s Russ, a mass of contradiction, a man torn between his passion for social justice, his work with the Navajo nation is renowned, and his lust for the natural urges of a middle-aged man enthralled with a newly widowed parish member. His struggles to be a good person, to find solace in prayer to a god who is not listening, to be a good father, come up short when weighed against his vanity and childishness.

Franzen’s superpower is the way he writes interiority. As each of his characters acts out in shocking ways – though not terribly surprising to any reader raised in the white bread ‘70’s suburbs – Franzen allows us deep into their thinking processes, where each grapples with the hypocrisies inherent in the subconscious self, the desire to be other than what appears on the surface. Motivations that might seem inexplicable become clearer when seen in relation to past experiences of cruelty, resentment, humiliation, or deprivation. Reading Franzen is like taking a full semester course of study in Psychology 101.

The humor is wry and biting, just the way I like it. The characters are infuriating and embraceable, so absolutely human. Franzen has taken the myth of the ideal American family and turned it on its head, and I can’t wait to see where he takes them next.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Damnation Spring is a Brilliant Debut by Ash Davidson

Ash Davidson says she spent ten years writing her very first novel “Damnation Spring.” The love and care she put into it shines on every page. This is one of the finest books I have read this year and I am a bit surprised that it seems to be A picture containing text, sign

Description automatically generatedflying under the radar. With so many authors addressing the climate change crises in their fiction, creating not so distant calamitous worlds, (think big Pulitzer Prize-winning names like Anthony Doerr’s “Cloud Cuckoo Land” and Richard Powers’ bewildering “Bewilderment”), few have returned to the roots of the problem or addressed the real and understandable schism that our country finds itself in now between the believers and the deniers.

Informed by her upbringing in Arcata, California, amid the redwood forests which fueled a logging industry that fed, clothed, and housed generations of blue-collar workers, Ms. Davidson breathes real life into the characters she creates and the land they live and work on. She ably elucidates the deeply complicated efforts of those futurists who, with the best of intentions, wish to save people by destroying them.

Rich Gunderson is a fourth-generation logger, skilled and sought after as a climber, a good man, a wonderful husband and father to Colleen and their little boy Chubb. But he has a blind side regarding his profession. He recognizes the fear in Colleen’s eyes every morning when she hands him his lunch sack and sends him off. He’s seen the wounds his co-workers have sustained. His own father died in the woods, and he wants more for Chubb. He also wants to own the land he works rather than enrich someone else.

Colleen’s dreams are simpler. All she wants is a large brood of kids underfoot every day. A born nurturer, Colleen has been plagued with miscarriages, has just buried her still born daughter, and serves as a de-facto midwife in the isolated mountains where it is difficult for women to get to a city doctor. She has born witness to so much sorrow, so many babies deformed or slow to develop. The native women say it’s just their lot in life. Until…

Daniel is a biologist, a brilliant student from the reviled Yurok tribe, once enchanted with Colleen, he left town the second he could, earned his degree, and would never have returned except that his mother is ill with cancer, and he’s been awarded a grant to study the water in the clear mountain rivers that run through the forests. Daniel remembers a time when the waters were pink and thick with salmon during their seasonal spawning before the logging companies began spraying defoliant to make way for trucking roads and access to the biggest trees.

The set up for conflict may seem obvious but the nuanced portrayal of the many actors in this tragedy is perfection. Each character has depth and substance even when behaving abominably. Colleen’s brother-in-law, Eugene, who betrays Rich fueled by greed and jealousy, and Lark, Rich’s seemingly down and out godfather, a widower who scratches out a living in junk after having been injured by falling limbs, have doppelgangers in every small town in America.

Damnation Spring” is a quintessential portrayal of white working-class angst, the despair of native American tribes who daily lose their habitat to industry, and the frustration of the educated class who may be good at pointing out problems but lack the empathy to follow up with solutions. This wonderful read should be on every book group’s radar this season!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Joy Begets Joy in Ross Gay's Book of Delights

I have always believed that joy begets joy. I have also been accused of seeing the world through rose colored glasses. That’s fine by me. Now that I’ve read poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay’s “The Book of Delights,” I sense that I’m in the presence of another soulmate. What a perfectly prescient choice for the One Text

Description automatically generatedMaryland, One Book program and our local library’s video and discussion series.

Mr. Gay exudes a pure joy and a benevolent spirit. To hear him recite his poetry or read his essays is reminiscent of watching Amanda Gorman’s startlingly lovely turn at President Biden’s inauguration. They share a physicality, their bodies sway, and their visages express wonderment as they connect with their audiences.

I happened upon this collection at a low time for me, in the beginning of the covid lockdown, a full year and a half ago. Gay’s words lifted me up. I felt such a kinship with his observations, particularly those that involved nature, growing things, and food. When he speaks of entering a bakery in his hometown, Bayonne, New Jersey, and being overwhelmed with delight at the yeasty smell of the wares, I too, felt overwhelmed with emotion.

I would say that there are no words but, of course, a poet finds those words. They can be so simple but so evocative. My heart swelled when he wrote of holding very still with a red flower in his outstretched hand until the nearby hummingbird dove in and out sucking the nectar. And butterflies? Lightning bugs? Oh my! His description of shepherding a fledgling tomato plant through a crowded airport, garnering fans along the way, is hilarious and wondrous.

Algonquin Press says that this book was written during a tumultuous time. You might think it was covid but no, it was published in 2019. The tumult Ross Gay is feeling is actually the fear, anxiety, and trepidation that weighs down Black men in America. Gay was in Umbria attending a writing workshop when he arrived at the idea of penning a short essay of gratitude for each day of his life over the course of a year. What a brilliant way to fight despair.

An interviewer asked if he had always been this optimistic and he laughed joyously. He spoke a universal truth. No, he never considered himself an optimist at all. But he discovered that practicing delight generates more delight. In the face of inexplicable sorrow and loss, the joy he found in the overlooked beauty of each day boosted his endorphins. Reading this book will boost yours too. I guarantee it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Fanonne Jeffers' Love Songs - Best of 2021

I’ve found my number one book of the year! What a relief to realize that every fabulous review of Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ debut novel “The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois” was completely deserved. This glorious epic tale, which weighs in at just under eight hundred pages, is one of those books you dream about, one where you can sit for hours lost in another world, a world of horror, heartbreak, loss, and injustice tempered with an abundance of love.

This remarkable feat encompasses four centuries of history brought to fruition by Map

Description automatically generated with low confidenceAiley Pearl Garfield, a Black doctoral student whose dissertation, based upon the lives of her own ancestors, commences with Georgia’s native Creek people who lived on the land long before the arrival of the white Europeans whose ships’ holds carried enslaved men, women, and children from Africa’s Gold Coast.

How these three cultures, the Native, African, and European mingled as they built an agricultural behemoth, and produced, through intermarriage or more often rape, family lines of every hue, is the story of America in its best and worst iteration. Jeffers provides four pages of genealogy trees for readers to reference but you’ll be so wrapped up in the story that I doubt you’ll even need them. Apt quotations from the works of W. E. B. Du Bois preface each section of the novel adding to the solemnity and depth of the historical picture that Jeffers paints.

Ailey’s relationship with her own family is complex. She and her two older sisters, Lydia, and medical student Coco, share a devastating secret of abuse that each keeps from the other and which affects each woman in vastly different ways. A through line and salvation for Ailey is the deep abiding love she holds for her uncle Root, a retired professor, whose home in the tiny town of Chicasetta, Georgia, becomes Ailey’s respite from the pressures of being a strong, vocal Black woman in a world before “me too” or Black Lives Matter.

There’s a strong feminist bent to this book as Jeffers celebrates the strength and smarts of the women who have shepherded their families through the scourge of slavery, the false sense of freedom before Jim Crow took over, and the way the movements led by Dr. King and Malcolm X kept women in subservient roles that they resisted. The theme of colorism is also front and center as Ailey’s family is a mashup of its forbears, deep midnight black, chocolate, and white enough to pass.

But I think it’s the love of the land, the way Jeffers creates a sense of the earth as a place of blessing and peace, that most moved me. Though so many Black Americans moved north during the great migration seeking opportunity, the pull of the south represents a direct connection to the first peoples. Perhaps this is why Jeffers refers to herself during interviews as Afro-Indigenous.

This National Book Award nominee is truly a masterwork that’s difficult to adequately describe. You simply must just dive in and savor the language, the story, and the history of our nation in all its shame and glory.