Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Zorrie by Laird Hunt

Zorrie is a stunning portrayal of one woman’s life lived in small towns in central Indiana in the middle of the twentieth century. After the death of the aunt who took her in when her parents died, loner Zorrie left home to find work since she no longer had a place to live or any means of support. She made close friends who cared about her when she began working in a radium watch factory in Ottawa, Illinois where the women licked their brushes and dipped them in the radium continuously. Homesick, Zorrie returned to Indiana after only two months and later married Harold, a kind and loving farmer.

Spanning her lifetime from the depression era when she was 21 through her old age and highlighting the people in her life, this novel captures the essence of American life in 161 quiet, grace-filled pages. The writing and evocation of place and people are similar to that of books by Marilynne Robinson and Reynolds Price and of William Maxwell’s classic So Long, See You Tomorrow which is set just 170 miles due west of Clinton County, Indiana where Zorrie spends most of her life. A finalist for the National Book Award, this magnificent novel is simple and spare. That Hunt writes so beautifully without getting in the way of the story makes the book immensely readable. 

“The Newton’s farm formed an L around their own. The Summerses’ farm made another border, and there were Duff’s and Dunn’s scattered across the ditch beyond. Zorrie was always in the field with Harold, and because everyone helped everyone else, she soon became a familiar sight on the surrounding farms. She loved the smell of the clay-rich dirt and the warm ache that sprouted up in her neck and shoulders as the hours wore on. She loved, after a long day, walking back through the tangled beans or sweet-smelling clover. She loved being teased by Gerald Dunn or Lloyd Duff or Virgil Summers when they would meet along the fence rows, and she loved even more the twinkle in their eyes when she would put her hands on her hips and tease them back. Living at her aunt’s, or during the years around Frankfort and Rossville, she had not felt the tilt and whirl of the seasons the way she did on her own farm with its busy springs, summers, and falls that went by in green and brown blurs and its long, quiet winters when the weeks seemed marked only by the scratching of the chickens or the scruffing of the pigs. 

Last month, I moderated a panel titled “Making the Midwest Universal” at the Harbor Springs Festival of the Bookand we discussed the idea that novels set in “flyover” country are often seen as only regional in appeal. Zorrie tosses that notion out the window with its “every woman” portrait of a life lived in love, hardship, kindness, and grace.

I grew up about thirty miles from the book’s setting and Holy Toledo! does it ring true. I hadn’t realized that the book was set primarily in Clinton County when I began reading, but soon I felt as if I were in the company of my grandparents, the tenants working on their farms, and the adults who populated my childhood. Life is real wherever you live it and reading Zorrie will place you in the towns and farms of rural Indiana where the people are so authentic you’re sure you know them regardless of where you were born.

I might have found Zorrie on my own because of the accolades it’s receiving, but I happened to be in Between the Covers bookstore in Harbor Springs, Michigan on a day when one of the best readers on the planet, Susan Capaldi, was working. I bought Zorrie entirely because she was confident that I’d like it. Cultivate relationships with booksellers who will know your taste and you, too, will find gems like Zorrie. 

Summing It Up: Zorrie is a profoundly moving wonder of a novel that makes the mid twentieth century feel like a living breathing soul. It’s gentle, yet filled with surprises. It illuminates all of us regardless of where we live. The  tightly braided story will fill your soul. 

Rating: 5 stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: February 9, 2021

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout


Oh William! is Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s third novel in the Amagash series featuring author Lucy Barton. Lucy is grieving the loss of her second husband David and she notes that grief “is like sliding down a really long glass building while nobody sees you.” In her loneliness and grief for David, she also feels more of a connection with her first husband William who lives not far from her in New York City. Lucy met William when she was in college and he’s the father of her two daughters. After Lucy learned of Willaim’s affairs, she left him, but they’ve remained friends so when his third wife leaves him, anguished William calls Lucy. 

This quiet gem of a novel explores the way we’re all mysteries no matter how well we think we know one another. Lucy grew up poor, isolated, and essentially ignored by her parents. William grew up with money and his mother doted on him. William’s mother wore a signature scent and Lucy adopted one too. She could never buy enough body lotion with her scent. Her psychiatrist told her, “It’s because you think you stink,”

“She was right.

My sister and my brother and I were told on the playground almost every day at school by the other children, while they ran off with their noses pinched. ‘your family stinks.’”

It wasn’t until recently with the success of her writing career and her happy marriage to David that Lucy began to value herself and to see that she was more than an unloved child. So when William told her that he’d learned that his mother had had another child before he was born and that he wanted Lucy to go with him to Maine to learn about his mother and his relatives, Lucy obliged. She and her daughters were concerned about William’s recent behavior and when she saw him wearing pants that were too short, she exclaimed “Oh, William.” As she traveled with William, there were many more occasions for Oh William! declarations as Lucy accompanied him to abate both his and her own troubles.

Strout’s low-key observations of the dying small towns, the minuscule hovel where Lucy’s mother-in-law grew up, the cluttered living room of William’s half-sister, and the random people they passed on the road create an amalgam that offers an “Our Town” meets Travels with Charley view of humanity. Her astute observations remind us that we can know everything there is to know about people yet they’re still “mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries.”

Elizabeth Strout is the queen of understatement. She captures readers with her restraint as she boils everything down to the essentials. Oh William! is a masterpiece of a novel that made this reader grateful to be human.

Summing it Up: Read Oh William! and fall into Elizabeth Strout’s subtle, yet masterful narrative of two seemingly average people dealing with grief, loneliness, and the vagaries of life.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Gourmet, Book Club

Publication Date: October 19, 2021

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"Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement." - Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Fight Night by Miriam Toews

Fight Night, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is extraordinarily funny and is poignant and pensive as well. It’s a novel centered around suicide, a subject Toews addressed remarkably well in her magnificent All My Puny Sorrows that borrowed from her own experience with her sister’s suicide. It may be difficult to envision that a book with suicide as a prominent theme could also be whimsical and humorous, but Fight Night is just that. 

Three generations of women: nine-year-old Swiv, her pregnant mother, and the novel’s star her 86-year-old grandmother Elvira have lost close family members to suicide and Swiv’s mother fears a genetic tendency will be their undoing. With precocious Swiv narrating the book as a letter to her absent father, Toews captures the unpredictable thoughts of a child regarding what could otherwise be a depressing subject. 

Swiv has recently been suspended from school for fighting—something Elvira admires in Swiv. “You're a small thing,” Grandma writes, “and you must learn to fight.”  Swiv is supposedly under her grandmother’s care, yet it’s Swiv who administers the nitroglycerin spray when her grandmother needs it and Swiv who goes to the pharmacy to refill prescriptions. Her grandmother is “teaching” her with one math lesson centering on the death of a man in their former church who abused his wife. Grandma poses the problem:

If it takes five years to kill a guy with prayer, and it takes six people a day to pray, then how many prayers of pissed off women praying every day for five years does it take to pray a guy to death?” 

The family, like Toews herself, and the women in her last novel Women Talking have been damaged by the misogyny of their Mennonite sect and the powerful man controlling it. Toews never tells the reader that Willit Braun is evil, instead, she reveals his deeds through Swiv’s observations and Elvira’s satirical comments about them. 

It takes a while to acclimate yourself to Fight Night’s style, but once you fall into the rhythm of Swiv and her grandmother’s conversations and antics, the novel won’t let you go. When the book ends, you’ll feel a part of the family. 

The Los Angeles Times calls Fight Night “the Ted Lasso of novels” and it is in that it’s packed with one-liners and is as the Times notes a reminder “of what’s worth fighting for.” It’s also similar because the comedy sits atop grief and trauma. 

Summing it Up: Read Fight Night for a rollicking, imaginative tale with two impossible-to-forget characters whose wry dialogue belies the difficulties they face. Read it and every novel by Miriam Toews for a master class in subtle plotting, underlying themes that beg for discussion, and always, always a great story. 

I just listened to an excerpt of the audio book and the narrator reads in a clear, no-nonsense voice. I feared they might make her sound cute. This would be a fabulous audio book.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Road Food, Sushi, Book Club

Publication Date: October 5, 2021

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Thursday, September 16, 2021

In the Aftermath by Jane Ward


David Herron and his wife Jules own a bakery. Jules is a baker extraordinaire. She bakes artisanal bread, complicated cakes, and delicious cookies. David, an accountant, attends to the financial details—or so Jules thinks. One morning in that worst of years to have monetary problems—2008, David doesn’t show up for work. He’s called his best friend Charlie to meet him at a coffee shop by the beach to talk, but Charlie is running late so David takes off his shoes and walks into the water leaving the heartache of overextended loans and a twice-mortgaged home, problems he still hasn’t revealed to Jules, behind. He’d tried to convince his wealthy father to bail him out and things might have changed had his father agreed to go with him to the bank that morning, but he hadn’t so David kept walking into the sea. 

Two years later, David and Jules’s daughter Rennie blames herself for her father’s death. If only I’d been nicer that morning, she thinks. His best friend Charlie who arrived twenty minutes late to meet David on the shore blames himself too. If only I’d been there, he berates himself. Daniel, the young banker who called in David’s loans, also thinks he’s to blame so he quits his job and leaves the town and his family and wanders. If only I’d tried to give him more time, he ponders. Even Denise, the police detective who worked the case, thinks she mishandled it and wants to make amends. If only she’d paid more attention, she worries. 

All of them are dealing with the “if onlys” by taking different paths. At the center of them all, stands Jules, now an employee baking cupcakes at their former bakery that David’s father turned into a cupcake emporium after paying off the bakery loans. She hates the job since David’s father has also installed a bully as the other baker, a man watching her every move. That author Jane Ward has worked as a baker is evident in the realism of the scenes showing Jules working at a frenzied pace in the bakery and later in the cupcake store. She has no money and her stress at trying to cope with her losses leaves her only capable of half-listening to her daughter Rennie’s problems. She and all the characters in the novel are searching for ways to move past their guilt and grief and toward finding a way to forgive themselves. 

The joy of this page-turner you’ll want to read in a day is that author Jane Ward builds multi-dimensional characters that readers will care about. She makes you see yourself in each character as you consider how we all make mistakes and we all leave an aftermath of loss when we do so. The multiple points of view keep the story building in stair steps leading to a view of the tremendous impact that one man’s suicide has on so many.

Even the activities of the most minor characters are rendered with exquisite care as in Daniel’s interaction with his coworker’s son Josh at a marsh.

The grownups followed Josh’s outstretched arm as it pointed to the sky. In the stunted trees, the egrets were rousing themselves, shaking off their lethargy. Feathers ruffled and fluffed as, one by one, the birds unfolded themselves and stretched, all enormous wing spans and ungainly movement, and they pushed off their branches or stumps and took flight, rearranging their awkward bodies into streamlined torpedoes as massive wings beat against the air and propelled them into the sky. Soon the trees were empty, the birds gone without a trace.”

That section made me feel as if I were standing in that marsh as the egrets rose. It also reminded me of how quickly things can change. Just as the birds were gone without a trace, so had David vanished into the sea. It was now up to those left in the aftermath to shake off their lethargy and push off from their branches or stumps and take flight no matter how awkward it might feel for them to do so.

Summing it Up: In the Aftermath embeds the reader in the lives of the family, friends, and others connected to the sudden death of David Herron. The story will capture you on the first page and pull you along so speedily, you won’t want to set it down for even a minute. However, you will set it aside just long enough to look up so you too can ponder the “if onlys” and think about the difference you might make and who you might forgive—even if it’s yourself. You’ll read In the Aftermath quickly, but you’ll spend a long time afterward thinking about the lives of the characters so intimately touched by such a deep and unexpected loss. 

Kirkus Reviews awarded it a coveted star and Foreword called it “a masterful novel.”

Rating: 5 stars

Categories: Fiction. Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication Date: September 21, 2021

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“Jane Ward’s In the Aftermath is a big-hearted, relationship-rich page-turner that will leave you thinking deeply about resilience, intimacy, family, loyalty, and truth.”  — Kristin Bair, author of Agatha Arch Is Afraid of Everything

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Three Girls from Bronzeville: A Uniquely American Memoir of Race, Fate, and Sisterhood by Dawn Turner

The title of Dawn Turner’s exquisite Three Girls from Bronzeville sets the stage for the reader. We immediately know that we’ll meet three girls and most of us from Chicago can picture those girls in Bronzeville, a section of the city south of downtown where the Black migration established a distinct community. For those who don’t know about Bronzeville, Turner shares that it was the home of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, cardiac surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, Louie Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells. 

Turner embeds the reader into 1970s Bronzeville when she and the other two girls were young—showing the reader a place that redlining and disinvestment kept economically challenged despite its desirable location. She also shows us the region in earlier times when her mother, aunt, and grandmother were also three girls from Bronzeville. This is both a chronicle of the community and a compelling character study of three unique girls growing up in it. What sets this book apart from other memoirs set in disenfranchised places is Turner’s ability to place the reader in her life and that of the other two girls. Turner’s detailed observations coupled with her open-hearted sharing of her own story make the book both intimate and genuine. 

The opening lines establish the connection with the author: 

“I often think about my sister and my best friend. Not every minute. Not even every day. I mostly think about them when I am experiencing something I would have wanted to share. Some moment that would allow us to tug on a line, thin as a filament, that begins “Remember when . . .” and draws a seemingly ever-present past nearer.” 

When the book begins, we see Dawn Turner’s younger sister Kim following nine-year-old Dawn and her new best friend Debra. Both their families have recently moved into a privately owned apartment complex that’s just a chain-link fence away from the Ida B. Wells Homes, a deteriorating public housing project. The girls are inseparable and we get to know them as they go to school and play together every day afterward. That we know these little girls so well, makes watching the different paths they follow real to us. When Dawn is admitted to Hyde Park High School where she also takes classes at the University of Chicago, we can see that she may be leaving the other girls behind. 

Most descriptions of the book will tell you that Kim died at age 24 and Debra was addicted to drugs and incarcerated while Dawn became a successful journalist, novelist, and Nieman Fellow. Those are facts. Three Girls from Bronzeville invites the reader into the truth beyond the facts.

It’s more important for readers to know that this book is what it tells us it is: “a story of second chances. Who gets them, who doesn’t, who makes the most of them.” Read Three Girls from Bronzeville to feel what getting or not getting second chances can mean to both the community at large and to those who do or don’t get them.

Summing it Up: This memoir of growing up on the south side of Chicago shows the power of believing in second chances and forgiveness. It reads like a compelling novel especially when the author reconnects with her imprisoned friend Debra and examines her own life. It combines the author’s meticulous reporting skills with her desire to find the truth. Rarely does a memoir capture the characters in the writer’s life as well as Turner does in Three Girls from Bronzeville. Read this poignant, powerful, inspiring memoir and select it for your book club to ponder.

Appearances: Dawn Turner will open the Printers Row Lit Fest in a conversation about Three Girls from Bronzeville at 10 a.m. Sept. 11 in Chicago’s South Loop.

Dawn Turner will also participate in the Harbor Springs Festival of the Book on September 25. She will appear in two panel discussions: “Subverting Stereotypes'' at 10:30 a.m. and “Reclaiming a Life” at 3:30 p.m. FYI: I’ll be moderating a session titled “Making the Midwest Universal'' at 9:00 a.m. Festival registration is waitlisted at this time.

A Note: If you love this memoir as I did, you might want to read a spectacular novel that’s also set in Bronzeville and other areas of Chicago’s south side. Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a testament to friendship, secrets, and family.

Rating: 5 stars 

Category: Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: September 7, 2021

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