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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