Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger

We first meet Virgil Wander soon after he dies. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.)

Virgil is an inhabitant of Greenstone, a small, steadily declining town in Minnesota. He works as the town clerk, lives in and operates the local cinema house, and for years now has run his life on autopilot—until his car flies off the road and into Lake Superior, leaving him impaired, reflective, and reluctantly needing in-home assistance.

Enter Rune, a new-to-town Scandinavian who has recently discovered that he is the biological father of a minor-league baseball player named Alec Sandstrom. Alec—a talented but erratic pitcher–had had a brief moment of glory with the Greenstone team, then disappeared mysteriously, leaving behind his stunningly attractive wife Nadine, their brooding young child, and a lingering mystery. Rune has come to Greenstone to fly kites, talk to the residents, and try to understand the son he never knew.

Virgil and Rune are on intersecting journeys of discovery, with the gritty widow Nadine at the hub. Their journeys are made a little more challenging by the return of the town’s prodigal son, who is Satan. Or not. (It isn’t entirely clear.) We’re also distracted by 10-year-old Galen Pea and his quest for revenge on a killer fish, and by sad Jerry Fandeen and his dissolving marriage. But really, this is just a loose premise for Enger’s amble through Midwestern quirkiness, gilded with a coating of magical realism. Each sentence contains a wry smile; each character is imbued with gentle melancholy. The story itself moves slowly and ends with a fizzle. Still, Enger’s characters tug at the heart, and his prose—which first captured me nearly 20 years ago with his enchanting Peace Like a River—is as sweet and warm as a cup of hot chocolate in a Minnesota snowstorm.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

I understand Beartown: Always the afterthought, populated by misfits and hard-working scrappers, looking down the road with envy at Hed, the town next door that always gets the money, the jobs, the attention. Anyone who grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, just down the road from Kalamazoo, as I did, understands the dynamic. Throw in a rivalry between the towns’ two ice-hockey clubs, populate the story with the kinds of characters that both small towns and ice hockey attract, and you have a surprising, insightful, emotional book that is about so much more than sports.

When we first are introduced to Beartown, the community is on a nervous high, waiting for the town’s junior ice-hockey team to compete in a huge national semifinal game. For once, the team—and by extension, the town—has a real chance to come out a winner, thanks to Kevin, the star player, and the Beartown team that has grown up around him. But things don’t go quite as planned: as the game approaches, the community is split apart by a violent act. The decisions that must be made as a result test the loyalty and ethics of Beartown’s residents.

I loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (see Kristie’s review here) so much that I was afraid that I would be disappointed by this book. Silly me. Backman’s deep understanding of emotions, motivations, and relationships made A Man Called Ove shine in its portrayal of an individual; with Beartown, the author masterfully depicts an entire community, making us feel that we know each member, that we’ve sat with them in the Bearskin pub and listened to their innermost thoughts. We root for them to do the right thing, and care about them even when they don’t. We understand the mistakes they make, even if we sometimes find it hard to forgive them.

Backman’s extraordinarily pleasurable writing is worth spending time with, no matter what the subject, and if I were the sort of person who highlights great sentences in a book, Beartown’s pages would have been glowing like a radioactive lemon. The author’s insightful offhand comments and wry humor mark every passage. But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this book with a boys’ sport at its core was its feminist streak–subtle at first, but by the end of the story, there’s no missing it.

If you know the world of ice hockey well, Backman’s portrayal of the coaches, players, parents, and fans will have you nodding your head and grinning in recognition. But even if you don’t know a faceoff from an offsides, Beartown’s story resonates with its examination of family, community, sacrifice, and what it means to be a good person.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

where-the-crawdads-sing-cover

Where the Crawdads Sing was the book that you saw everywhere this summer—the season’s “It” book. I’ll be honest, with an “It” book, I usually wait until I’m pretty sure that we don’t have another TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, or Girl on a Train on our hands—or at least until the paperback is released. But I was heading out to the beach and in need of something to hold my attention between naps, so I took a leap and bought the hardcover. I’m not sorry; this was a solid, emotional read with some unexpected twists.

It’s the story of a remarkable girl, Kya, called “the Marsh Girl” by the denizens of the small nearby town on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned as a very young child, first by her beloved mother, then by her older siblings, and finally by her abusive father, she manages to avoid the authorities long enough for them to lose interest in capturing her, then essentially raises herself in the wild. Though a few of the townspeople provide her with subtle assistance, most consider her a freak. As she grows older, a careful friendship with an older boy tempers her loneliness and gives her the tools to educate herself; then a less careful friendship with another young man leads to heartbreak and tragedy.

The book does require some suspension of belief. The idea of a six-year-old girl surviving on her own in the marshes without starving or injuring herself is a bit of a stretch. (On the other hand, I read books where time travel and vampires are de rigueur, so who am I to judge?) I also found it hard to accept Kya’s character development through her relationships–by her late teens she had been abandoned by everyone she ever loved, which made her initial reaction to a major betrayal difficult to process. And the ending, while surprising and emotional, does rely on the reader to avoid thinking too hard about how secrets are revealed.

Still, a good story populated by appealing personalities trumps all for me, and the author does a beautiful job of incorporating the marsh and its wildlife as characters worthy of a lonely young girl’s love. Kya may be lonely, but with the marshland around her, she is never alone.

The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

The only story

I loved Julian Barnes’s meditative, Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed very briefly here. In it, a middle-aged Brit contemplated the relationships of his youth in spare but lovely prose. When The Only Story began, it felt like it might recapture the thoughtfulness of that earlier tale. Sadly, it was not to be.

In The Only Story, we are introduced to an annoying, self-important protagonist, Paul Casey, whose summer membership at the local country club at age 19 leads to a decade-long entanglement with his tennis partner, 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, a married mother of two. Susan is a spirited woman in a drab and occasionally violent marital relationship. She quickly identifies Paul as a head case, but one with whom she is happy to trade banter. She is not the world-weary Mrs. Robinson type, a cougar on the prowl; instead, she comes across more like a spunky kitten: a woman who is a bit naïve, who regrets her lack of experience but is finally ready to do something about it. She seems to see in Paul—what? A way to overwrite the choices she made at Paul’s age? It’s hard to tell; we never truly get to know Susan, whose mid-life decisions, seen through the filter of Paul’s self-absorption, seem odd at best. It’s Susan’s life that’s the tragedy here, yet the pompous Paul seizes for himself the role of tragic hero.

The first half of this brief book tells the tale of the lovers’ happy-ish first years, in which Paul becomes a strange part of Susan’s household, bringing his college buddies home to her and doing crosswords with her husband. His parents are properly alarmed, which only makes Paul more pleased with his unconventional arrangement. Eventually, though, Paul and Susan decide to run off together, and here is where the story begins to fall apart.

The second half of the book drags, with Susan’s sad spiral glimpsed between Paul’s self-centered and stale musings on love. Paul, unsurprisingly, is ultimately unable to deal with his broken lover or accept his role in her decline, yet once he tosses her back to her family, he also remains too entangled to move on with his own life. For him, this is truly “the only story.”

The author plays with voice here, moving between first-, second-, and third-person observations with varying degrees of success, and as in previous books, he makes memory a central theme. As the book winds down, we wonder: Can we rely on Paul’s recollections or not? In the end, though, this bleak book brings few insights, and even the clean, crisp writing is not enough to wash away the sorrow of two lives wasted in the name of love.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

Even if Anne Tyler’s name hadn’t been prominently displayed on the cover, it would nonetheless have been obvious very quickly that the wispy Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book, with quirky characters, odd family dinners, a fondness for Baltimore, and a protagonist, 62-year-old Willa, who greets an out-of-the-blue opportunity to shake things up with impulsive decisiveness.

Willa is a mild-mannered harmonizer with a lifelong attraction to people who make use of her peacekeeping skills without ever appreciating them, or her. The backstory in the first third of the book attempts to explain how Willa has come to be living rather uncomfortably in Arizona with her pushy retired second husband, wishing she felt needed, even if she doesn’t quite realize it yet. To start, we see Willa as an 11-year-old dealing with a manic mother, a milquetoast father, and a much younger sister. She makes a clear if unconscious choice at that impressionable age to avoid drama at all costs. We are then shown Willa ten years later, bringing the young man who will become her first husband home from college to meet her parents. We see why she makes the choices that she does, but we also see the behaviors that lead to the next scene, twenty years later, when she loses her first husband in a tragic accident.

Fast forward to the present. Willa is going through the motions, newly settled in Arizona, longing for connections but unable to create them for herself. Then comes a shocking phone call: Her older son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, she’s in the hospital, she has a 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who needs to be looked after, and a neighbor is reaching out to Willa, who is mysteriously listed as an emergency contact on Denise’s phone list. Willa doesn’t know the neighbor, the ex-girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend’s daughter, but she suddenly sees a chance to be useful, and she barely hesitates in booking a flight.

Once Willa arrives in Baltimore and meets her delightful charges, together with the engaging, eccentric neighbors, there are few surprises. But despite its familiarity, her journey is entertaining. Willa is her usual self: cheery and polite and genteel and, yes, maybe a little superficial. Perhaps in this setting, though, her gift for harmony can be appreciated, and she can learn how to achieve balance between everyone else’s needs and her own.

The reader is left to supply much of the detail regarding Willa’s relationships with her sister and two sons, which are at best strained. One can sense their likely frustration with her terminal inability to take a stand against the forceful personalities she attracts. “Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience,” Tyler writes, and we are left to wonder if perhaps what Willa saw as dexterity, those closest to her saw as weakness. The reader can feel the pain and bewilderment that the absence of these key figures in her life causes Willa, perhaps driving what would otherwise be some odd choices in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler leaves her beloved Baltimore to work its magic on Willa, in an ending that’s neat, predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. As the book ends, it’s hard to say goodbye to its inhabitants, particularly level-headed young Cheryl, who loves to bake and is a sweet pastry of a character, with much to teach her surrogate grandmother. We leave Willa in a good place, though, learning that family can have many names and faces, and embracing her serendipitous second chance.

The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander

HarmlessGreatThing

 

Brooke Bolander’s THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING is not a book you can read in fits and starts. Instead, set aside a bit of time to read it from cover to cover. Immerse yourself completely in the story of Regan, a young woman dying from radiation poisoning, and Topsy, the elephant Regan is assigned to train to do the job that is killing her. Interspersed with their tale are glimpses of the future in the form of Kat, a scientist who has developed a warning system for a nuclear waste dump and is now tasked with selling the idea to the ones who will carry it out: elephants. But that’s not all … there’s also a fable about the strength and wisdom of the elephant, there are poems and songs, and there are news stories. All of this in less than 100 pages!

Bolander’s novella is both brutal and gorgeous. Every sentence has purpose, and even the horrific episodes are beautifully written. The females–both human and elephant–are strong and compelling characters. This is a book that will have more meaning with subsequent readings. In fact, I recommend finishing the book, pausing to reflect, and then starting over again. Repeat as necessary.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

great-midwest-e1532900131803.jpg

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal revolves around Eva Louise Thorvald, the only child from the brief marriage of a chef and a sommelier. The reader meets Eva as an infant, follows up with her as a preteen, catches a glimpse of her during her teen years, and then finishes their relationship with her as Eva settles into her 20s. Stradal tells Eva’s story in a manner reminiscent of a short story collection, and with each chapter she is viewed largely through the eyes of people whose lives she touches as she navigates the world. As one would expect from a character with a “once-in-a-generation palate,” Eva’s interactions with others are largely food-focused, and the author happily includes a few recipes for those inclined to try out the food that sounds so delicious on the page.

KITCHENS is a beautifully written bit of fiction that manages to make the reader pause and think about the meaning of family, the importance of community and friends, and the role food plays in our lives. It somehow does all of that without being overbearing and stuffy. For a time I wanted the entire book to be completely from Eva’s perspective, but I think something would have been lost if the author had gone that route. Twenty-something-Eva is a mysterious and elusive character, and the author’s method added to that. As I finished KITCHENS, I was left wanting more of Eva and her food–much like the characters in the book.