Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

From the very moment of his birth in the narrow, rented trailer home where his teen mom went into an early labor, Damon already felt the stacking of the cards against him. His father already six feet under only six months prior, Damon learned early to try to hide his mom’s alcohol even as he hid from her poor choices in men. He also knew when to escape to the Peggots’, their kindly neighbors and grandparents of his ally, Maggot. But he lost his battle to protect his mom when “Stoner” moved in. While his mom believed this newest partner might provide stability, Damon saw that what he actually provided was constant tension and outright physical warfare. This was the beginning of a journey for Damon that led him through the nightmare of the foster care system, which would test him to the limits of both his weaknesses and his strengths.

Barbara Kingsolver has always been one of my favorite authors and, again, she has proved this justified. As she recreates the narrative of David Copperfield through the voice of a young, poor, Appalachian boy at the brink of the opioid crisis, she does so with authenticity, respect, a love of this part of the land and its people, and, yes, even humor. It is a hard story. Damon, or “Demon” as he is nicknamed, is abandoned into the foster care system and left to his own creative devices and survival instincts at an excruciatingly young age. We follow him through his minimal ups and prolonged downs and we see that he has, in spite of his circumstances, a kind heart and an artistic soul. We come to love him and see his failings as the failings of the system that has tried to eat him alive, rather than his own personal ones. We see how these failings have been built on generations of systemic exploitation and vulnerability.

Kingsolver, through this narrative, brings to light a few important messages. One is how the large mining magnates exploited so much of Appalachia without regard to the land or the people who lived there. They created dependence on the corporations for everything. The people were owned by these corporations, but not protected by them, as their health, education, and welfare were not at all the company’s concern. And once the land was stripped of its use, it was abandoned, as were the people who lived there, leaving only poverty in its wake.

So it is not shocking that Purdue Pharma sought to prey also on this vulnerable population, sending out its sales reps like missionaries to these communities who were middle and lower-middle class without great access to adequate health care. Few on the receiving end were insured, so much of their health care was in the form of emergency room or in-hospital care only. The providers there were sold the BS that Purdue Pharma was dishing out on pain management: that they had invented the miracle panacea for pain relief through Oxycontin and that it was, miraculously, non-addictive. Well, we know how that fable goes…

What I believe I loved most about this story, and what Kingsolver does so tenderly, is highlight the beauty of both this region and the folks who live there. She describes the landscapes: the steep waterfalls, the green mountains, the valleys and rocky streams -and the fauna and flora that thrive there. How even if poverty exists there, folks are able to farm a patch of land to grow vegetables, hunt for food, or knit themselves a few sweaters for the cold weather – and that they do so for each other in their close-knit communities – because there are still close-knit communities where everyone knows everyone else, and have known their parents and grandparents as well.

This is a uniquely gorgeous novel – one that should not be passed up. This is, without a doubt, a MUST READ!

(And I think it’s also time for me to revisit the original David Copperfield as well!)

Where We Came From by Oscar Cesares

Orly is feeling a bit resentful. His older brother gets to go to camp and his best friend gets to travel to Europe, while Orly finds himself being driven to his godmother’s home in her small town of Brownsville, TX for 3 long weeks. Not that he has anything against his godmother, Nina, but it isn’t exactly his first choice for a summer vacation plan. And for her part, Nina feels badly for the boy, having to spend his time with her, especially given her current situation. She would love to take him to places he’d enjoy, but on top of caring for her mother, which already is a burden, she has the added weight of the current secret hiding in the little house in her backyard, which she cannot share with him, nor with anyone else, for that matter. It’s just too dangerous. But how long can she really keep this secret from a curious, intelligent, and adolescent-brained boy?

This novel tackles the very complex and tragic issue of immigration over our shared border with Mexico, where on one side there are drug cartels openly wreaking havoc on their streets and on the other are either coyotes who prey on desperate refugees or border patrol agents hunting them down just to send them back all over again. Nina suddenly finds herself trapped in the middle, embroiled inadvertently in this dangerous, messy business. While trying to be compassionate and humane, she also must consider the safety and security of her own family as well – and it is complicated. Added to the mix a young boy whose life is on the line – it becomes that much more complex.

This is such an incredibly important book to bring to the attention of the world – and to bring down to a human level. These refugees are human beings, not numbers or statistics. No one leaves their home, their family, their communities, or those who share their native customs and celebrations unless they are utterly desperate and feel that their lives are truly threatened. We are morally obligated to show these individuals compassion and understanding – especially since most of us here in the US are descendants of those who were in similar circumstances at one time or another.

On the other hand, where I felt this book fell short was in bringing sufficient warmth, humor, and fire to these characters. We care but we are not dependent on what happens to them. While we understand that Orly is lonely, it does not become our loneliness. While we understand that he is grieving for his mother, it does not become our grief. The characters all remain one step outside, even as we want to know them more intimately. We are granted glimpses of Nina and her more glamorous past, but we still are not let inside, not really. And this keeping us at arm’s length keeps the story just that side of attachment to it.

This is a story I wanted to love, to be awakened by, to be energized by.  It is important, timely, and relevant. But I did not, was not –  not as I could have been.

 

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Lyudmila Pavlichenko only wanted to protect her son when she went to retrieve him from the shooting gallery, where his usually absent father had brought him. He was only 5 years old, and the foolish boor was trying to impress him with the use of a gun, no less. Well, if that is what made a “good” father, then she would be both a good mother and a good father to her son. In addition to attending her graduate studies, working to earn money, and caring for her son, she also got herself certified as a sharpshooter. Little did she know how useful that would become, how it would equip her for the battles that were to ensue on her home turf during the second World War, and how it would change the course of her life forever.

Though this novel is fictionalized, it is based very closely on the memoir and historical accounts of the life of this true heroine, Lyudmila Pavlichenko (or “Mila”, to her closer friends). While women in Europe and America were only utilized in medical or administrative capacities until very recently in the military, they were occasionally utilized as front line fighters by the Russian military much earlier on. And although these women still faced harassment and were not generally treated as equals, there were a few, such as Mila, who were actually acknowledged for their contributions, which were extraordinary. In her case, she earned her moniker of “Lady Death” as a sniper, with an official head count of 309 Germans killed during the war (and probably more, in reality).

Quinn has become another of my favorite authors, uplifting strong women in history and bringing them into our consciousness. We can now appreciate, for example, how Lyudmila Pavlichenko not only contributed so bravely toward the fight against fascism with her rifle, but she also did so with her honesty and charm. Brought to America in a student delegation to help convince the US to open a second front in Europe to support the war against the Germans, she formed a personal friendship with both Eleanor and President Roosevelt. And though she shied away from the spotlight, she did not shirk her duties when it came to speaking up for gaining support for her fellow military fighters who were out in the field trying to protect what she felt were forces against evil.

I will say, while Quinn’s other novels truly grabbed me from the first page, this one took a bit of time for me to become fully absorbed. There was perhaps a bit more detail about the ammunition, war strategies, and the layout of the stakeouts than I might’ve needed personally (my eyes may have glazed over just a bit). But the suspense definitely built quickly enough, and there were a twists and surprises that caught me off guard, for sure. By the middle I was hooked and by the last few chapters, I was 100% riveted and could not put the book down until I finished it – including the author’s notes!

Quinn’s deeply researched novels consistently highlight how hard it has been for women to be acknowledged for even the most stunning achievements. She does this while keeping us engaged, entertained, and always wanting more.

I say it again – this is the very best way to learn history! And why I loved this book.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

It is March of 2020 and Lucy has plans to leave for her promotional book tour. She is a bit taken aback when her ex-husband, William, a parasitologist, calls, insisting on her canceling her trip, packing a bag of clothing and work essentials, and joining him to stay in the house of a friend of his in Maine. He is concerned about this new deadly virus and feels they must leave the congestion of NYC in order to stay safe. She feels he is over-reacting – really, how long can this new virus really be a problem? – but he is also more knowledgeable than she is about this sort of thing, so she goes along with it, for the time being. Little does she know what is to come and how this decision would affect the course of the rest of her life.

Wow, I often don’t like to know what I’m going to be reading about in a book, but I wish I’d been warned about this one! This is definitely a “too soon” situation – since we are still living it. There are 42,000 reported cases per day today according to the New York Times (so presumably so many more, with home testing, states and individual localities not reporting their stats, etc.), thousands hospitalized with it, and hundreds dying of it per day in the US alone. And this is before we all go back indoors because of the approaching colder weather.

And then there’s the story itself, which has a contemplative, diary sort of feel. While Lucy adjusts to life in Maine, she also reflects back to her childhood of poverty and neglect, her strained relationships with her family, and her difficulties managing her success as an author. While it feels like there is not really a story here, the story does evolve gradually and organically and it does, perhaps a bit too slowly, pull you in.

What I appreciate here is that while there is acknowledgement of the political divide in the US at this time, it is done so with extraordinary delicacy. There is a clear understanding that Lucy and William appreciate science, wear masks, isolate, and observe the January 6th attack on the Capitol as a threat to democracy. However, Lucy does express a sensitivity to the anger expressed on January 6th. She relates to how poverty and its indignities can foster deep resentment, which incites violence such as that which erupted on that day. On the other hand, she concludes that this anger cannot justify the support of such radical extremism, Nazism, open racism, and overt hatred that was seen on that day either.

So while this was an interesting read, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it for now. Maybe in a few years, when we’ve all recovered from our PTSD, it might serve as a warning, as a reminder of some sort. But it’s definitely too soon to be reading about what we’re all still being hit with on a daily basis.

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Sarah has only just met Eddie, but she feels an instant connection – and she knows he feels it too. She is fully aware that it is bordering on ridiculous that they could have fallen in love after only having spent a week together but he is professing the same feelings toward her. well, So why, has he not responded to her when she has asked for his flight information when she’s supposed to get him at the airport on his return from his vacation? And why has he not responded to her Facebook messages to him on his supposed return? Where is he??? What did she miss? How could she have gotten this so wrong? As we learn more about her complicated past, we learn that there may be more to both of them than we realize at first glance. Could this explain his disappearance?

So there were 2 obstacles to overcome with this novel, but it was ultimately a fun read. The first was that it started out a bit slow and I really believed I knew where it was going (I was wrong!). The second was that because of my own cynicism I had to suspend disbelief in the “love at first sight” stuff of storybook drama (fell in love after a week? Really?). Once I got past both of these, however, I found myself drawn in and actually caught off-guard by the unexpected plot turns. It became quite entertaining and hard to put down.

I don’t think there is too much to say about this novel – there is no philosophical note, no deep ethical conclusion I can draw out. It’s just a fun read that I can say I’m glad I enjoyed. You probably will too!

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less has found an escape route. With the approach of his ex-lover’s wedding, which he cannot bear to attend, he has manufactured a series of commitments — lectures to be given, classes to be taught, awards ceremonies to attend – and all abroad, so that he cannot possibly be present to witness the upcoming nuptials. As he embarks upon his journey and his approaching 50th birthday, he reflects upon his life and what he has to look forward to. Throughout his journey, it seems that as his suitcase appears to become emptier,  his heart becomes fuller.

On the surface, the story of Arthur Less can feel somewhat self-indulgent. He is smoldering over his life, having lived many years in the shadow of a genius. He feels he’s achieved merely mediocrity at best, as an author, as a lover, perhaps even as a human in general. He laments his past works, such as they are, as well as his current attempts at writing and at love. He has imposter syndrome to the nth degree. Sadly, he neglects to see the love that he inspires around him. He has difficulty taking in the admiration of his students, his audiences, and his friends. Only we, the readers, see it.

Can’t we all relate to this? Just as Arthur travels around the world getting swept up in misadventure and blaming himself, many of us travel through life focusing on what we’ve done wrong and where we have erred rather than on what we should be grateful for. I know I often fall into the trap of being my own worst critic and blind to my own blessings. I often feel “less.”

I am not sure I understand how this was a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it certainly does have meaning beyond the surface and is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

I would be so interested to hear what others think about this one! Please comment!

The Winners by Fredrik Backman

In this long-awaited third in the Beartown trilogy, we return to the scene of the 2-year truce between Beartown and its rival town, Hed. While the death of a teenager had forced everyone to acknowledge that things had gone too far, and everyone had united in mourning over that loss, it appears that unity could not possibly hold forever. The rivalry was as deeply ingrained in folks’ DNA as was hockey itself. The truce was just too fragile. Just a bit of a personal dispute among young teens over a sister with a history, a cover-up of some controversial bookkeeping of the city council, and some other very complicated alliances, and you have the coming apart of that very vulnerable truce. And who will show strength and who will show weakness is what we hold our collective breaths over throughout the whole story. And you can never be sure.

Yet again, Backman has brought us back to Beartown, reunited us with our dear friends and introduced us to a few new ones. Each one is so carefully drawn, so lovingly portrayed, that they feel as if they are actual humans that we can travel to Sweden and find in a small town just outside a forest. Their stories are similarly complex, layered over each other in an interconnecting web, just as you’d find in a small town. The suspense continues to build, and just when you think you see where the plot line is heading, there is yet another twist that throws you off its trail. Backman’s true gift.

One tip: I’d suggest spacing out the novels, because Backman does such a good job of reminding us of who the characters are and how they are related to each other, likely to create standalone novels. However, reading them too close together may feel a bit repetitive, because of these explanations.

Otherwise, this is a beautifully written trilogy – even if you don’t love hockey and even if you don’t come from a small town that does.

 

Me Without You by Kelly Rimmer

The first thing Callum saw was the bare feet- and quite dirty, bare feet at that. But quickly he learned that these feet happened to be attached to a beautiful, tiny, auburn-haired woman with an almost intimidatingly sharp wit and he was intrigued at once. While they both resisted commitment, he felt himself falling more quickly than he’d ever done in his life. She, on the other hand, was mysteriously holding back. He knew she liked him, it was obvious. What else was going on? He’d have to just go along with it and take whatever she could give him.

I am a huge fan of this author – and yet, this novel of hers was a disappointment for me. While it is a romantic and heartbreaking story, it was overtly linear, unidimensional, and pathetically predictable. The only one who could not see what was coming was Callum himself, because the reader could see any of the attempts at plot twists coming from a mile away.  It was an Australian “Love Story” (remember? the movie?) – and who needed another one of those?

The only redeeming aspect of the story, I believe, is that it does increase awareness of a frightening illness, Huntington’s Disease, which is a uniformly fatal genetic disorder that leads to neurologic degeneration of affected individuals over months to years. It often begins with abnormal movements of the extremities, abnormal sensory issues, gradually to severe cognitive and emotional deficits, and then ultimately failure of neurologic function altogether.  It is rare – approximately 1/10,000 in the US and tends to run in families of European descent but can be found in others as well. Apparently there are about 15,000 Americans living with this disease at this time. 

Again, I will still read other Kelly Rimmer books – she is a talented author. This is just not one of her stellar achievements. 

 

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

Inti is on a mission here in this sheep farmland of Australia, and these farmers are not going to stop her. Can they not understand that after they had hunted the wolves to extinction, their ecosystem faltered and the forest became unstable because of it? Here she is, with her team of scientists, trying to save the forest with her proven method of rewilding the landscape with the reintroduction of wolves and they are fighting her at every step. Out of fear? Out of ignorance? Who knows? But as Inti battles these townfolk, she is also battling her own demons – hers, and those of her twin sister, Aggie. And maybe, anger and fighting can blind a person, dangerously, to what is right in front of them.

This is a stunning novel with a lofty mission. We are carried into Inti’s story, her mission to save the forest, a suspicious death, and her past that is entangled so deeply with her sister Aggie’s. Complex plot, complex characters, engaging from page one. But we are also afforded a window into the unique and mysterious wonders of the wolf – its habits, its predatory prowess, and its deep loyalty to its pack. We learn how essential the wolf as predator is to the whole ecosystem of the forest, keeping its prey in check in order to maintain the balance that evolved over centuries and that man did his best to try to destroy.

One can read article upon article about our endangered environment, but when we connect with it in a story such as this one, I believe it has a much stronger impact emotionally. By creating characters whom we relate to and who become heroes to us, we become more personally committed. Even the wolves are characters here, and we become attached to them, come to know them and their personality traits as Inti surmises from her tracking of them. And even though we know this is fiction, albeit with much fact woven through, because we are so invested in these characters and their outcome, we are also invested – enlightened, even – in the urgency of saving our planet – so much more than an article could ever accomplish.

It is a lofty mission that is absolutely accomplished, and beautifully so. Very highly recommend this – and if you’re environmentally inclined, consider it a MUST READ.

Faith by Jennifer Haigh

Sheila has always harbored a soft spot for her brother Art, a tender-hearted guy always destined, it seemed, for the priesthood. His gentle manner, his lack of pursuit of earthly possessions beyond books, and his deep faith made him perfectly suited, even as she herself was filled with doubt. Sadly, though, when he was caught up in the maelstrom of accusations of child molestations by priests in Boston in the early 2000’s, even Sheila was forced to examine her own faith in her brother. Did she think he was capable of doing what he was accused of? What was the truth?

This novel was told with such authenticity that throughout the reading of it, I honestly believed that it was a true story written in novel format. Sheila’s character, her mom, her dad, Art – were all so real, so 3-dimentional, I felt this could have been a very plausible story of any of the priests accused of abuse at the time that so many were. 

The story has many layers that beg to be unpacked. One is the issue of celibacy in the priesthood, as is highlighted here, so radically conflicts with man’s natural, physical urge. Does this contribute to the abuse of women and/or children by priests? Who knows? It certainly would be interesting to see if things were to change if the celibacy rules were lifted. Wouldn’t it be worth that very experiment, given the lives it would impact? Who really benefits from a priest’s celibacy anyway? Certainly not the priests themselves, I would imagine, although I am the last person to actually know that for sure.

And what about the cover-up of all the priestly misdeeds by the church? Surely it occurs in other religions as well — it is not only the Catholic church —  but it has notoriously been present there for centuries. Because of the hierarchical structure of the church and the stringent code of silence among those involved, not to mention the power the church has had over so many over so long, it is not surprising that those who witness any wrongdoing are terrified to come forward in any sort of public way.  And even in that rare instance when one is found to be guilty of sin, there has merely been a notorious shifting around of the wrongdoer rather than actual punishment, so that the wrongdoer is not ever really held accountable or condemned. 

That said, as this story illuminates, not every priest who is accused is, in fact, guilty. Or at least not guilty of what they are accused of doing. Because of all of the revelations in the Boston diocese in the early 2000’s, we are likely to make assumptions about priests that are likely unfair, even cruel. In our country, thank heaven, we are still innocent until proven guilty. This is what this story is trying to highlight – and does so in a beautiful, profound way. Art has his own struggles, but they may be different from what we surmise.  We can never be inside another’s heart, but we must try to see what is their truth.

I think this is an important read in our time. Important to understand how we can be surprised by getting to know another’s actual circumstance, how we can be surprised by our own assumptions and prejudices.