ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper

Etta’s greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water.

Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbor Russell remembers too, but differently – and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.

The characters have such a touching vulnerability, they have known each other for such a long time, have a shared past that is memorable. A book about a journey, a quest if you will, about memories, longing and unfulfilled desires.

Is it unrealistic that an eighty two year old woman who is losing her memory will set out on a walk to the ocean that is 3232 kilometers away ( just over 2008 miles?  Sure it is, but then I think of some of the candidates running for president of the US, and frankly, I don’t know how they have the stamina, so I am open to believe anything.   Joining her is a coyote named James.  Whether he really exists or not is up for debate, sharing as he does the name of the baby her sister adopted out when she became a nun, and possibly the name of the baby she lost to a miscarriage, who may or not have been named James in her mind.

It was really a poignant story, and one that you either get, and love, or is just totally ho hum for you.   Maybe one´s age when one reads it has a lot to do with what you think about it.

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LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

A slow-moving character portrait filled with complex family dynamics and small-town politics, this book felt like something I read in the fifties or sixties.  Here’s the official plot:

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons, a well-to-do, seemingly ideal family. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby who was found abandoned at a fire station, it turns out that the single mother, new to the country, had recovered her health and a bit of finances and was not frantically looking for her daughter.  She learns that of the couple who now have her child, and a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

We meet the Richardsons first as they stand across the street, watching their beautiful, spacious home burn to the ground.  All are there, all except the rebellious youngest, Izzy.  Are ya getting a sniff of what happened?

I liked it, but the undercurrent, ok, uppercurrent, of a screed against suburbia did seem a bit dated. Hell, we all know by know that that suburbs are soul-sucking constructs that will eat the meat out of you.  I really must read her other touted work, Everything I Never Told You, and see how that goes.

THE BONE GARDEN by Tess Gerreten

You know me, anything with ‘bones’ in the title and I’m there!   Well, this one was something of an historical whodunnit when a woman in present day suburb of Boston finds some old bones while digging up the yard in her new house to make a garden.

Present day: Julia Hamill has made a horrifying discovery on the grounds of her new home in rural Massachusetts: a skull buried in the rocky soil–human, female, and, according to the trained eye of Boston medical examiner Maura Isles, scarred with the unmistakable marks of murder. But whoever this nameless woman was, and whatever befell her, is knowledge lost to another time. . . . 

Boston, 1830: In order to pay for his education, Norris Marshall, a talented but penniless student at Boston Medical College, has joined the ranks of local “resurrectionists”–those who plunder graveyards and harvest the dead for sale on the black market. Yet even this ghoulish commerce pales beside the shocking murder of a nurse found mutilated on the university hospital grounds. And when a distinguished doctor meets the same grisly fate, Norris finds that trafficking in the illicit cadaver trade has made him a prime suspect. 

To prove his innocence, Norris must track down the only witness to have glimpsed the killer: Rose Connolly, a beautiful seamstress from the Boston slums who fears she may be the next victim. Joined by a sardonic, keenly intelligent young man named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Norris and Rose comb the city–from its grim cemeteries and autopsy suites to its glittering mansions and centers of Brahmin power–on the trail of a maniacal fiend who lurks where least expected . . . and who waits for his next lethal opportunity.

The actual mystery as to who was the bones, and how she got there was OK, with a nice twist at the end, well, a couple of twists,  really, one of which was worthy of rom-com coziness, but for me, the real interest was the descriptions of the historic time of the Transcendentalists, so that was … when? … oh, yeah, the early nineteen hundreds.   This was a time when doctors did not know to wash their hands between patients, and so passed on puerperal fever from woman to woman, and believed it to be an epidemic, not knowing they themselves caused it.  Germ theory had not yet been introduced in the United States, although it was gaining ground in Europe.

This historic era was also the time of body snatching and grave robbing, as medical schools and surgeons paid for corpses to those willing to bring them fresh ones, for studying the body and teaching anatomy to medical students.  Eventually, they were able to buy bodies legitimately from some states who had laws allowing the use of the bodies of indigent, criminals and unknown persons to be used for medical researched, and the market for the clandestine bodies snatched all but disappeared.

Very interesting stuff, made palatable by a light covering of a love story and a mystery.

THE STONE ANGEL by Margaret Lawrence

Here’s the not-so-very- helpful blurb for Canadian writer Margaret Lawrence’s most popular book:  ” Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.

As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a black prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride and by the stern virtues she has inherited from her pioneer ancestors.”

I really enjoyed this book, but due to my attention span and the memory recall of a gnat, I have already forgotten what it is about, and that blurb did not help one little tiny bit, so let’s see if I can do better for you.

This novel moves back and forth in time, tracing the life of Hagar Shipley, born Hagar Currie in the Canadian prairie town of Manawaka. Hagar is a crotchety 90-year old currently living with her son, Marvin, and daughter-in-law, Doris. As she faces the end of her life, she reflects with some regret upon her relationships with her father, brothers, husband and sons. Although she could be judgmental, stubborn and prideful, her hardscrabble life on the prairie was a gut-wrenching tale at times.

For the reader, the story evokes part pearl-clutching, part horror, part laughter.  Some of the humor comes from her private thoughts of her daughter-in-law, that hard-burdened woman who has spent many years now caring for the grouchy, ungrateful mother-in-law, and some of the humor arises from situations themselves.

Hagar is deeply afraid of being put in a nursing home, and at one point, runs away from home to stay in a vacant lodge by a lakeside she only vaguely remembers.  She manages to survive overnight before her hard-pressed son finds her and brings her home, and we all can’t but be admiring of an independent woman who chooses a daring adventure over prudence.

Her backstory is riveting, and goes far in explaining her attitude and outlook.

What a wonderful book.  Although it is principally character driven, there is plenty of plot action in the back story to satisfy those readers who prefer action over musings.

THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

OK, you know what a keep is, right?  It is basically a medieval safe room in a castle, but is a whole tower, a type of fortified tower built within castles during the Middle Ages by European nobility.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can discuss this rather strange book.  Here is the official plot:  “Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation.

It is told in First Person — by several different narrators, a conceit that I found terribly annoying, switching without warning back and forth until we Gentle Readers. . . right before we hit the state of the literary version of road rage . . .  finally get the idea that it is different people telling the story.  It is sort of linear, but only sort of,  and frankly, although the general story is enjoyable in its way, I liked it a lot less than the folks who long-listed it for the 2008 Orange Prize for Fiction.  Oh well, chocolate, vanilla, and butter pecan, because different strokes, etc.

CARPENTARIA By Alexis Wright

Here’s the skinny:

Hailed as a “literary sensation” by The New York Times Book Review, Carpentaria is the luminous award-winning novel by Australian Aboriginal writer and activist Alexis Wright. She is from the Waanji people from the highlands of the southern Gulf of Carpentaria.

Alexis Wright employs mysticism, stark reality, and pointed imagination to re-create the land and the Aboriginal people of Carpentaria.

In the sparsely populated northern Queensland town of Desperance, loyalties run deep and battle lines have been drawn between the powerful Phantom family, leaders of the Westend Pricklebush people, and Joseph Midnight’s renegade Eastend mob, and their disputes with the white officials of neighboring towns. Steeped in myth and magical realism, Wright’s hypnotic storytelling exposes the heartbreaking realities of Aboriginal life.

By turns operatic and everyday, surreal and sensational, the novel teems with extraordinary, larger-than-life characters. From the outcast savior Elias Smith, religious zealot Mossie Fishman, and murderous mayor Bruiser to activist Will Phantom and Normal Phantom, ruler of the family, these unforgettable characters transcend their circumstances and challenge assumptions about the downtrodden “other.” Trapped between politics and principle, past and present, the indigenous tribes fight to protect their natural resources, sacred sites, and above all, their people.

A reviewer named Sean Barrs the Book Dragon (credit where credit is due, folk),  writes this:  “Carpentaria is an aboriginal epic; it’s a soaring story full of imagination that gives voice to Australia’s Indigenous population, though it is also horribly uncomfortable to read and even harder to enjoy.

Alexis Wright works directly with oral tradition, with folktale and myth, to interpose her narrative with as much authenticity as possible; she brings tribal legends into the modern space, asserting how important such things are to the remaining members of the civilisations that were almost destroyed. It’s an angry narrative, one oozing with frustration. The Aboriginals have lost their home and are forced to live in the most undesirable of locations in a nation that is rightfully theirs. Their birth-right has been usurped: their land stolen.

And the land is of such vital importance in understanding this novel; the Aboriginals are connected to it on a spiritual level. They understand it and care for it in ways the colonisers are completely dumb to. They speak to it, and it speaks back to them. They use it thwart the efforts of the white man and eventually attempt to destroy him with it. Magic is combined with faith and belief making it very hard to determine what is actually real within the story and what is a mere matter of an alternative understanding of reality.”

Yeah.  Wish I’d said that.  Except for the ‘hard to enjoy part’.  If by ‘enjoy’ the reviewer means have happy feels when reading it.  However, for me, ‘enjoy’ means “to have and use with satisfaction; have the benefit of“, because for non-Australians, it is an entry into the history and reality of the Aboriginal experience.  I suspect for us pragmatic Westerners, magic is not as visible;  we prefer to privilege practicality and prudence over anything smelling even faintly of the fantastical.  More poor us.

Wonderful book.  Just wonderful.

 

 

 

A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrick Backman

Fredrick Backman is an award-winning writer of a number of delightful books.  This one is translated by Henning Koch.  Here’s the plot:

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

One reviewer writes “… delightful, predictable, heartwarming, cliched, funny, beautifully written, and worth every minute.”   Couldn’t have said it better myself.  So I won’t.