Ordinary Grace: review

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger
Atria/Simon & Schuster

A born and raised Midwesterner, I am drawn to novels set in my part of the world. Ohio. Michigan. Wisconsin. Minnesota. There is something ordinary gracemagical about stepping into a world you know, of finding a story that captures the ethos of a place you love. When I turned to the blurb on William Kent Krueger’s novel Ordinary Grace, and read “Minnesota” and “1961” I knew it was a must-read.

The narrator of the story is thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, a pretty typical “PK” as we used to call them. Preacher’s Kid. He balked at authority, pushed limits, and tried to circumvent just about any punishment his parents meted out. His father, Pastor Nathan Drum, is a WWII vet who traded studying law for the ministry when he returned to the States. Frank’s mother Ruth was less than thrilled with the prospect of being a pastor’s wife and she shares Frank’s rebellious spirit. She smokes … on the porch, in clear view of everyone. She drinks martinis. And she’s not so sure about this God-thing her husband is all about. Ariel, Frank’s older sister, is an accomplished pianist and composer with great promise who is about to set off to Julliard.  Frank’s nine-year-old brother Jake is a quiet boy, in part because he lives with a stutter that makes speaking difficult.

The story begins with the death of one of Frank’s classmates, Bobby Cole. Daydreaming as he sat on the trestle over the Minnesota river, he was killed when he didn’t hear an oncoming train. Police officer Doyle suspects his death was not an accident–that maybe one of the homeless who lived by the river had something to do with Bobby’s death. Or maybe it was the Indian Warren Redstone, a Native man with a rap sheet. (His charge? Protesting for Indian rights.) His recent reappearance in town (by Doyle’s account anyways) could only mean trouble.

But Bobby’s death was just the beginning of an awful summer of loss. One that would both pull Frank away from his father’s faith and pull him closer. After Bobby’s death, the brothers discover one of those homeless men, dead by the river; Ariel’s mentor and close family friend Emil Brandt tries to commit suicide. And then comes the death that nearly destroys the Drum family.

Although I think it’s evident that Krueger loves us Midwesterners, he doesn’t shy away from uncovering our ugliness. Racial prejudice. Gender stereotypes. Abuse. Alcoholism. But he does so tenderly and without condemnation.

Krueger is able to do this, I think, with the cooperation of  Nathan Drum. We are privy to a couple of Nathan’s sermons in Ordinary Grace and we learn that his God is a God of love. A God who promises light over darkness, who gives us humans the grace to “endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice.”  When Nathan learns that a young person in his life is gay, he reassures the young man he is a child of God–loved, not sick; made in God’s image, not a freak. It’s not what you’d expect of a rural pastor in Minnesota at the beginning of the sixties. But sometimes those of us in the Midwest even stereotype ourselves, and I’d venture a guess that Nathan’s view of the world was more common than we assume.

That’s what I love about reading novels written by authors in the Midwest. Our faith, our optimism, our love of family–and hot dish casseroles!–is not mocked or derided. Instead, our spirit is celebrated.

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

On Brassard’s Farm: review

On Brassard’s Farm
Daniel Hecht
Blackstone Publishing

Ann Turner wants to get away from it all–her job (middle school teacher), her ex-husband (cheating scumbag), her city life in Boston (harriedOn Brassard's Farm and superficial). With a small inheritance, she looks for a  piece of land. Just a little place in the middle of nowhere. Vermont, maybe. Breathe the fresh country air. Meet some down-to-earth folks. Buy fresh corn and blackberries from a roadside stand.

Well … don’t we all?!

But most of us aren’t dealing with Ann’s mess of a life. Her dismissal for ‘inappropriate touching’ of a student. Friends who abandoned her. The brother who went missing several years ago.

Daniel Hecht’s On Brassard’s Farm is the story of how Ann made sense of it all. By buying an (almost) inaccessible piece of land on a farm in Vermont. Tent living in the woods for six months of the year. Working on a dairy farm to pay off unexpected debt. And questioning, always questioning, how she came to that place in her life. The property on Brassard’s farm was the means to confront “[her] own bramble patch, [her] own deep woods.”

And the hard work paid off.

She faced fear. Physical exhaustion. Utter loneliness. Even her rage. Gradually, she begins to feel “as if I possessed some degree of luminosity again. I felt a strand of resilience inside, strong yet supple, in body and psyche, as if I’d been at least party woven back together.”

Of course she finds love, again, too. It’s probably Ann’s revelations about love and loneliness that touched me the most. Like always, I’m so taken by a novel where a male author speaks with such accuracy about women’s inner lives–and Hecht did this well. Like chick lit on a deeper level.

(I also learned a lot about farming, dairy cows, trimming trees, and growing hops. Sometimes, quite frankly, a little too much, but still.)

On Brassard’s Farm is a good read.

[Not] Lost in translation: Hotel Silence (review)

Hotel Silence
Audur Ava Olafsdottir
trans. Brian FitzGibbon
Grove Atlantic

hotel silenceJonas Ebeneser built his life around the narrative of family: husband, wife, and child sustained by a Great Love.  But then his wife reveals a secret that causes him to question everything. They divorce. Add to this the fact that nearly every day Jonas visits his querulous mother in a nursing home where he must confront the loneliness and despair that so often accompanies old age and life simply becomes too much. Jonas decides to take preemptive action–and end his life.

Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place now than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing. 

Pretty dire, no?

But even in his misery, Jonas can’t bring himself to kill himself in his home town where, most likely, his daughter Waterlily would find him. (And Jonas adores Waterlily.) So he leaves for an unnamed country in the Middle East ravaged by war, but recently quiet under a cease fire. Jonas buys a one-way ticket and writes a letter to Waterlily.

And it’s here that the magic of Hotel Silence begins.

One of three guests at the Hotel Silence, he is met with rusty water, out-dated furnishings, and broken fixtures. The proprietors, a brother and sister gradually–very gradually–come to be his friends. He is warned of the mines. Learns of mass graves and the soccer killing field. Witnesses the bullet-pocked buildings. Jonas takes his meals at Restaurant Limbo, where he is the only diner. And despite his personal despair, he begins to serve as the hotel’s handyman: rewiring, refinishing, and re-plumbing the rooms.

While Jonas rebuilds the Hotel Silence, he also begins to rebuild his own life. As he reflects on his life, we come to realize that his Great Love Story probably wasn’t. That as a young man he had felt unmoored. That his mother had always been difficult.

I nearly abandoned the novel not too far in. It’s a depressing subject, to be sure, but I was leery that it was rip-off of A Man Called Ove. And there was the language–the book was translated from Icelandic, and something about how the book read was slightly out-of-kilter. Nothing I can identify specifically–no odd diction or awkward syntax–but something just a little off-putting.

Hotel Silence won’t be for everyone, but Olafsdottir has a powerful message for us all: “Everything can happen. It can also be different than what one expected.” And one can still have a life well lived.

Paris By the Book: review

Paris By the Book
Liam Callanan
Dutton

Paris By the Book is a love story, plain and simple.
About a girl and her guy.
A reader and the author.
A bookseller and her shop.
A mother and her children.
An artist and Paris.

Leah was trying to finish her masters thesis on Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 movie The Red Balloon when she met her husband in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “Met” is just a half truth–he actually chased her down after she shoplifted a copy of the picture book The Red Balloon from a Milwaukee bookstore. One thing led to another, then they were in a bar, discussing which author did Paris more justice: Lamorisse or Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeline stories. It didn’t hurt Robert Eady’s appeal that he was an author in his own right. After publishing a few YA novels, he was trying to make his way in the world as a writer. So how do the poor student and the starving artist spend their courtship when they can’t afford to travel to Paris, France? They travel to Paris, Wisconsin–as well as Stockholm, Cuba, Montreal, and Berlin. All small towns in Wisconsin.

Paris by the bookThe rest, as they say, is history. Leah never finishes that masters thesis. She’s too busy working as a speech writer for a university president, supporting the couple while Robert tries to get his Next Big Novel finished. They have two daughters, Ellie and Daphne, and life is a whirlwind of birthday parties and university functions and neighborhood gatherings. Robert sometimes needs to retreat from the day-to-day grind to focus on his writing. He always leaves a note (“I’ll be back soon!”) and stays away for a few days at most. Leah lovingly calls them his “writeaways”–just a quirk of life when one lives with an artist.

That is until life begins to disintegrate. Because there has been no Next Big Novel. Money is tight. The couple argues. And Robert withdraws. So he leaves, presumably on one of his writeaways–but there is no note or phone call. Robert is gone a week, then two. Leah alerts the police and tries to stay calm, but there is no activity on his bank account or credit cards. No contact with friends or colleagues. He vanished. But after four months of limbo, Leah shakes a cryptic note out of a long-forgotten box of granola. It’s a confirmation number, her good friend Eleanor guesses–and within a week, Leah and the girls are on their way to Paris, France. On a flight Robert had booked before his disappearance. Because if he hasn’t shown up in the U.S., he’s sure to turn up in Paris, right?

As if that’s all not a crazy enough plot line, Leah buys an English language bookstore called The Late Edition. The three make some small headway into life without Robert–the girls attend school, Leah finds satisfaction in running the store. But there’s a strange sense that Robert is close at hand. Leah finds a copy of one of his books in the store with a scribbled “I’m sorry” in Robert’s handwriting. And the girls catch a glimpse of him on crowded streets.

The story’s ending fits where author Liam Callanan wanted to take Robert and Leah. And us, the readers. Oh, you might be frustrated. Vexed. And you might not know much more than you did at the beginning of the novel … but it’s a very writerly unwinding.

Paris By the Book also offers a brutally honest picture of a threadbare marriage that will either rip wide open or be darned back together. In fact, I could see my own life reflected in so many ways. I’ll let Leah speak for both of us here:

“I do want many things … to have raised brave independent daughters; to have read and loved every book on the shelves in my store. But more than anything, I had for the longest time, wanted Robert to be healthy, to be happy. To be here. He wanted to be elsewhere.”

“… I think [Robert] was afraid … of how much we loved him. Of how much that love required his presence.”

 “I do know what I saw in his eyes … I saw love, longing. What’s certain is that bodies, celestial or human, have a pull. It’s impossible to imagine he doesn’t still feel our tug. It’s impossible to imagine his fully gone.”

And finally:

“I don’t so much read anymore, but rather teeter, wonder, take flight … Like anyone who has ever started or finished a book, or a love affair, or confused the two, in sweet anticipation of the fall.”