Posts Tagged ‘Novel’
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 288 pp.
I can’t resist used books. I dropped my son off at the YMCA for fall break camp, and they had a few tables full. I gladly made a donation to the Y in exchange for this one, because I just needed to escape into a novel for a day or two. Carry the One was a good read, not a great one, but it was enjoyable.
The novel follows the lives of a group of young people–interrelated by blood, marriage and romantic entanglements–after they are involved in a car accident that kills a young child. The rest of their lives, together or apart, they carry the burden of the one girl, a stranger, who did not live. The accident is with them all the time, together or apart. For some, the dead girl becomes a muse, as they dedicate their artistic work to her memory. For others, she is a ghost who haunts them with guilt and destroys them. For others, she is always a cipher. The novel spans more than 25 years of their moving from young adulthood to middle age, and the characters change and develop in interesting ways.
While the story is interesting and well-written, I did not find the characters as compelling as I had hoped. They fell too easily for me into archetypes–the artist, the addict, the activist, the actress. I had hoped for a deeper perspective on existential responsibility. While the characters all feel responsible in some way even if they weren’t behind the wheel, the author didn’t offer much that was new or insightful about the burden of that responsibility.
One special side note: I appreciated that this book was not pigeonholed as “lesbian fiction,” yet featured lesbian relationships and sexuality as prominently (maybe more so) than heterosexual ones. Hooray for moving beyond heteronormativity!
So, I recommend this to you as a good beach book, a good escape, a well-written story. It was all of those things. If you are hoping for more, keep looking.
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.
Oh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.
The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)
I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.
Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.
Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:
We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)
I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”
A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:
He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)
Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.
Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)
When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:
“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)
That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent, Little, Brown and Company, 2008, 332 pp.
The Heretic’s Daughter is a novel about the Salem Witch Trials, inspired by the author’s genealogical discovery of a distant relation with one of the women tried and hanged as a witch at Salem. I was nervous about the book’s content on both of those counts: I didn’t anything to do with a book that made it seem that the Salem Witch Trials had anything really to do with witches, nor was I interested in a personal genealogical fantasy. The jacket convinced me to give it a try, and I was not disappointed.
The Heretic’s Daughter is told from the perspective of Sarah Carrier, the daughter of Martha Carrier, who was hanged as a witch at Salem and is kin to the author. It is as much a story about growing up in the tough conditions in the colonies, where religious and social climate is as harsh and dangerous as the Massachusetts winter. Sarah and her siblings must navigate this dangerous life of small pox, lawlessness, attacks by Native Americans, and crop failures that can trigger starvation. Sarah’s parents initially appear to match the cruel disdain of the landscape, but as the novel unpacks their story to her and to us, we come to treasure their fortitude and love for each other and for their children.
The novel was a beautifully written story from beginning to end. It is faithful to the history of the Salem trauma, focusing on the political and personal causes at work against those who were accused and convicted, even drawing on some of the feminist history written in the last several decades. The book does not try to make a case for its own historicity, but the author uses her imagination in conjunction with her research to give us a story that is beautiful, compelling and fascinating to read. History buffs especially will appreciate some of the creative back-story she creates. An enjoyable read for anyone who likes historical fiction.
The Light Between Oceans, M. L. Stedman, Scribner, 2012, 345 pp.
What a beautiful novel! Oh, just a treat from beginning to end. Graceful prose, captivating characters, page-turning story–a delight in every way.
The Light Between Oceans tells the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. Tom is a veteran of the First World War who becomes a lighthouse keeper because the order and isolation kept his soul secure from the reminders of war. He is assigned to the Janus Rock, a small, otherwise uninhabited island miles from the shore on the southwestern edge of Australia. The boat comes bearing supplies only four times a year, and the lighthouse keeper may only take leave from the island every three years. He meets Isabel on his first shore leave, and they correspond before being married. Isabel loves the isolated Janus, but despairs after a series of miscarriages. When a boat washes up on shore bearing a dead man and a live infant, it seems like a miracle. Tom and Isabel begin to treat the child as their own. Once Isabel loves the child, there is no turning back–even though the lie threatens to destroy everything. It’s a powerful story about grief, marriage, secrets and a mother’s love.
Just a few passages to cherish:
About life in the Partaguese, the small shore town closest to Janus:
The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of the indiscretion of their father in his youth, or of the illegitimate sibling who lives fifty miles away and bears another man’s name. History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on–protected by the silence that anesthetizes shame. (155)
From Ralph, who owns the supply boat that visits Janus every season:
Right and wrong can be like bloody snakes: so tangled up that you can’t tell which is which until you’ve shot ‘em both, and then it’s too late. (180)
From Frank, the child’s deceased father, on forgiveness:
It is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things. … I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too: very Teutonic! No… we always have a choice. All of us. (323)
The Light Between Oceans is a wonderful story, and recommended reading for all.
The Case of the Missing Servant: Meet Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator, by Tarquin Hall, Simon & Schuster, 2009, 310 pp.
I don’t usually go for mystery novels, but someone talked me into this one based on the unique setting in modern India. In the end, I did enjoy the setting a great deal, but the “whodunit” plot did not draw me in. I think I generally like novels that emphasize character development over plot, which is why I don’t go in for mysteries too much.
The Case of the Missing Servant is the first in a series about Vish Puri, the top private investigator in India. We meet his wife and mother, and his staff, who all go by various nicknames like Handbrake (the chauffeur), Facecream (an undercover agent), Tubelight (a basic stakeout expert) and more. The primary case is about a household servant who goes missing, leading to the arrest of the master of the house for murder. There is also a secondary case involving a pre-marital investigation by a grandfather concerned about his daughter’s fiance. Puri goes to elaborate lengths to conduct secretive investigations, involving undercover staff, disguises, secret interviews and more. The setting in India adds a uniqueness and intrigue to the story, as he navigates the particulars of Indian culture and caste.
I have the second novel on my nightstand from the library as well, but I haven’t yet decided if I will read it. I enjoyed the setting, but the plot and the characters just didn’t do it for me. If you are a fan of whodunits, I recommend it–it’s just not my thing.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok, Riverhead Books, New York, 2010, 293 pp.
I was browsing the library shelves looking for something compelling and interesting but not too challenging for the Memorial Day weekend. I got a recommendation from a church member who is also a librarian for this one, and responded, “That looks like exactly the kind of book I like to read.” That proved precisely true.
Girl in Translation is the story of Kimberly Chang and her mother, who immigrate from Hong Kong to New York City when Kimberly is eleven. Instead of the life they were promised as a nanny for Kimberly’s cousins, they are employed in her aunt’s sweatshop and housed in an apartment with broken out windows, no heat, and pests everywhere. The novel chronicles their path into American life, their journey of overcoming terrible circumstances, Kimberly’s growing up, and their relationship as “mother and cub.”
Kimberly is exceptionally bright. In spite of the language barrier, her math and science abilities shine, and she is able to seize opportunities for schooling and advancement, even while returning to the sweatshop every night to help her mother with the piecework that provides their survival income. Her mother, trapped in the shop working all the time, does not learn to navigate language or culture with Kimberly’s speed, so the story tells of her growing distance from her mother as she tries to fit in–even while she continues to love her mother fiercely. The story contains difficult choices, growing awareness, characters who evolve and lots of hope.
Girl in Translation was a delightful story to read, and perfect for the holiday weekend. I read it in less than a day, cheered every accomplishment and loved every minute.
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon, Doubleday, 2006, 354 pp.
I adored Mark Haddon’s previous novel, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Its unique narrative voice and compelling story captivated me. I eagerly scooped this next novel off the library shelves as soon as it appeared. While the particulars of the story and the narrator did not haunt me the same way Haddon’s previous story did, it was an excellent story and intricately written.
The story is about a family coming undone. George, the patriarch, is slowly losing his mind, but no one seems to realize it. Jean, his wife, is having an affair and busy planning her daughter’s wedding. Everyone thinks the daughter, Katie, is marrying the wrong man in Ray, who is steady and faithful and adores her young son Jacob, but does not match Katie’s class or education. George and Jean’s son, Jamie, is a gay man struggling to make a commitment to love and a long term relationship, even as his family struggles to accept his sexuality.
The plot of the novel moves through all of these intertwining relationships–each member of the family with every other member of the family, all while George’s sanity and everyone’s primary marital relationships are unraveling. The storytelling is excellent; the characters are interesting, likable and relatable. Much like Haddon’s first novel, the act of reading it simply brought me joy and delight. While it may not stick out in my memory like the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, A Spot of Bother was clever, engaging and well worth reading.
A Light in the Window, Jan Karon, Viking Penguin Books, 1995, 413 pp.
These High, Green Hills, Jan Karon, Lion Publishing, 1996, 333 pp.
Where do I even start to talk about these books? I have heard them recommended several times over the years, as delightful stories about an Episcopal rector in a small town in North Carolina. I had never really taken up with them. I feel a general disdain for the category of “Christian fiction,” because I like my faith to engage the real world, not a softer, gentler version of it. However, this spring in my ministry has been painful and sorrowful enough–a soft, gentle story seemed like a healing idea. These had come highly recommended by people I trusted. They would be nice and sweet, and that would be fine by me.
The first book, At Home in Mitford, was delightful. It introduced Father Tim Kavanagh, the rector of Lord’s Chapel in Mitford, NC, who had lived into his sixties as a bachelor priest, high on work and low on adventure. Then we are slowly introduced to his parish–his acerbic secretary Emma; the oldest and most generous and wealthiest member Miss Sadie Baxter; her lifelong friend Louella; Miss Rose and Uncle Billy, the town’s eccentric characters; Dooley Barlow, a young man taken in by the rector; the mayor Esther Cunningham; the local doctor and veterinarian, who are among his friends; the owners of local businesses and many more. The book tells of three major developments in the priest’s staid life: the arrival of a dog who is disciplined only by scripture, the diagnosis of diabetes, and the arrival of a new and charmingly attractive neighbor. The rest of the story simply recounts episodes in the life of the small town and its characters. There is little character development, and the characters (even Father Tim) are not particularly deep or complicated in their emotional lives. Even the most major of problems are resolved within a few pages. It’s like episodes of Highway to Heaven or Seventh Heaven, without anything plot lines that are actually heart-wrenching. It’s not like any of the novels I usually read, and I found myself drawn in to the life of the small town with delight. There were some annoying factors about the life of the priest (like his terrible boundaries and refusal to take a vacation) and the portrayal of theology that was in no way Episcopalian (having him save a lost soul by kneeling and praying the “Believer’s Prayer” is evangelical, not Episcopal). However, the Christian themes were not heavy-handed or moralizing, so I just enjoyed the story.
The book was so light and easy it was like cotton candy, and quickly devoured. I was eager for more, so I dove right into A Light in the Window. Unfortunately, it did not match the first book, and I really did not enjoy it much at all. The plot of the second volume centers on his relationship with his neighbor Cynthia, and their long-distance courtship while she is in New York writing one of her children’s books. There is nothing at all appealing to me about a simple romance between two shallow characters, and I found myself skimming whole chapters of flowery love letters. The other characters I had come to love faded into the background, and the neurotic Father Tim and Cynthia took a long, boring time to admit they loved each other. I am a quite direct and decisive person myself, and I found little entertaining in their dithering and diversions. It didn’t help that Father Tim’s boundaries got even worse, as he had people walking all over him, including an unwanted cousin living in his guest room throughout. I almost quit, but I hoped moving through their romance and into their marriage would return to the parish-related plot lines I had enjoyed in the first book. I plowed through and turned to the third.
A Light in the Window also became more heavy-handed in its portrayal of Christianity and morality. Other than a kiss or an embrace, there is no talk of sexuality between Father Tim and Cynthia, except for a conversation about waiting until marriage that could have been lifted from an abstinence-only sex ed curriculum. While I’m not one for romances and wasn’t looking for something steamy, it just seemed devoid of passion. They also begin praying together and quoting scripture at one another in ways that were just too, too perfect and pleasant. They didn’t ever seem to struggle with their faith or relationship with God, they just lived by this simple moral code of prayer, worship and tending to personal needs of the parish. While the first book felt nice and sweet in a way that was refreshing and charming, the second book felt sanitized for your protection and attempting to persuade readers of the benefits of chastity. Gag.
Still hoping to return to the joy of the first book, I plunged headlong into the third, These High, Green Hills. Cynthia and Father Tim jumped from announcing their marriage to having been married for several months, so that whole sex thing disappeared entirely. There was no mention of their intimacy, only of the challenges of merging households, Cynthia’s stepping into the role of pastor’s wife (gag again) and collapsing into the same bed exhausted every night. It was as vanilla as Leave it to Beaver, which made me roll my eyes at every careful avoidance of sexuality in their marriage. It felt unreal and unbelievable, even irritating to me. I was eager to return to the parish stories, which were more enjoyable fantasies of uncomplicated lives. The novel did just that, and I was grateful to catch up with Sadie Baxter, Dooley Barlowe and the rest.
However, midway through there was a startling, downright offensive comment of a sexual nature. I am not easily offended, and I would not have been offended by the reference in most other settings. However, this line was the ONLY one that referenced their sexual life together, and that made its inappropriateness all the more glaring. Father Tim and Cynthia are laying stones for a path between their houses, and Karon writes, “Given how youthful she was looking and what he was thinking, he could be jailed for violation of the Mann Act.” (135) The Mann Act was originally passed out of racist fears of white women trafficked across state lines for sexual purposes, and it was designed to protect white women from forced prostitution. However, it has mostly been enforced (and casual references imply) to prohibit sex with minors, who are considered too young to consent. So, in the book, after hundreds of pages of abstinence and asexual marriage, the lone reference to their sexual lives compares the priest’s desire for his wife (both old enough for AARP) to the desire to take a young girl across state lines for the purpose of having non-consensual sex with her. How twisted is that? Somehow, we get paragraphs upon paragraphs about their decision to wait until marriage (without any pining or sense that this is a challenge), then we get a marriage marked only by cuddling—until suddenly the priest fantasizes about his wife like an underage girl, too young to consent? Disgusting. This is everything that is wrong with “Christian culture” and its teachings on sexuality—don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, but idolize the image of the virgin girl. There is no room for mature sexuality between consenting adults. I was so appalled that I put the book down and thought long and hard about giving it up altogether.
After consulting friends on Facebook, I decided to keep going, mostly because I wanted to find out what happened to Miss Sadie Baxter. I did, along with most of the rest of the town, and the story was both enjoyable and satisfying. However, I’ll be taking a break from this series. I don’t know if I will ever return again. While I enjoy the sweet, small-town interactions of the parish and I want to read about Mitford, I can’t take any more of dithering Father Tim and Cynthia, of their asexual non-passion, of Christian moralizing, and certainly no more lines like the one reference to sexuality above. Here’s my verdict: some I loved, some I hated, some was “meh.”
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Picador, 2004, 247 pp.
After a difficult season of ministry, I needed something good and redeeming and holy to read, so I pulled Marilynne Robinson’s magnificent Gilead off the shelves to read for the second time, thanks to a Facebook post from a friend who was rereading it herself. It is one of those books that gets better every time you open it.
Gilead tells the story of Rev. John Ames, in the form of rambling notes written in his elder years for his young son. There is a loneliness, a deep sorrow that hangs over the whole book, which spoke to the pain of my own heart. I relate to Ames as a fellow pastor, and love reading and rereading this book for the subtle, poignant portrayal of the parson that Robinson creates. She is able to capture much of the beauty and heartache of ministry, and the peculiar life inside and outside the community that we clergy lead. Her passages on writing as prayer, baptism, sermon-writing, spending time in the empty sanctuary–they are too beautiful to comprehend.
But Gilead is not just a story for preachers, about preachers. It is the story of multiple generations of struggle and redemption, of conflicting paths of faith and disbelief, of seeking home and family, of struggles and betrayals between fathers and sons. Ames’ grandfather and father were both preachers too. His grandfather’s support for John Brown in Kansas forever broke his relationship with his son. The story stretches on into the future, to Ames’ son and his neighbor and fellow pastor Boughton, and his relationship with his son and grandson.
This is a book that’s nearly impossible to review, because it’s like poetry from beginning to end–simply elegant, profound and rich with meaning. Read it. Especially if you are a preacher/pastor/minister yourself, but even if you are not. Just read it, slowly and deliberately. Then put it aside for a few years and read it again. I know I will.