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. 

 

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau

William Howland was one of many William Howlands, the name being passed down over generations of owners of his large plantation in his southern town. And knowing he had a family name to uphold, he navigated his position with care, guiding those in his life using his money and influence quietly and sparingly. But politics in the south were never easy, especially when they were mixed with racial tensions, and William Howland and his family were not immune to this conundrum, no matter what his influence might bear. Just one small slip, just one small move and your whole life can be blown up before you.

This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that blew me away – not in how amazing it was but in the fact that it won a Pulitzer. Yes, it ultimately was moving and yes, it ultimately was powerful. But my goodness it took getting through about 80% of the story to get to anything that was at all moving or powerful. One should not have to work that hard to get to the “good part!” I can understand that an author has to set the story up and build the foundation. But it should not take 80-85% of the story for anything of any significance to happen.

Moreover, the characters felt distant, not anyone we were able to get to know. William Howland seemed to float through life in a fog – so much so that we were kept from knowing him as well. As for his love and partner, Margaret, another main character, we know great detail about her origins but once she enters his life, she suddenly becomes a figure, a shadow – we lose her, sadly. She loses herself, her identity. This is a wasted opportunity, in my opinion, because she is probably the most interesting character in this story. On the other hand, the author opts rather to focus on William’s granddaughter, Abigail, who is shallow, dull and only seems to wake up at the very end of the story.

I will note that ultimately we do get there. It does build into a climax that is powerful and interesting. It just takes WAY too long to get there.

I apparently differ greatly from the Pulitzer judges of 1965. I’d be curious to hear what others think.

 

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The dust has barely settled and wounds have certainly not yet healed from the second world war when Charlotte finds herself dragged by her mother across the Atlantic on the way to take care of her “Little Problem” in a clinic in Switzerland. While her mother is determined to erase this “stain” on Charlotte’s reputation, Charlotte has a very different mission in mind. While here in Europe, she sees an opportunity to uncover the whereabouts of her beloved cousin Rose, who has been missing and presumed dead since returning to France just before the German occupation. With the name and address of Eve Gardiner which she has scribbled on a small piece of paper, she unlocks an adventure that leads her to discovering much more than just what happened to Rose. She discovers a network of brave women who risked their lives for their countries and she uncovers her own inner strength as well.

The Alice Network is another suspenseful novel by the author of the Rose Code (see my prior entry), which will similarly have you on the edge of your seat as you turn each page. There is a great deal of historical fact woven into the fiction here, as Quinn celebrates the unsung female heroes of the first and second world wars.  We learn of the undercover spies that wore skirts and makeup instead of slacks and blazers. They were often ignored because they were “just women,” which sometimes enabled them to sneak through borders undetected, but sometimes led to them being ignored even when they carried valuable information that might have saved hundreds of lives. 

The writing here is crisp, acerbic and intricately plotted. We float back and forth between Charlotte’s pursuit in 1947 and Eve’s back story (WW I). The characters are, each of them, hardened and broken, wounded in one way or another by war. When we meet Eve, for example, she is in a drunken rage, threatening Charlotte with a Luger in her face and trying to send her away.  She is emotionally and physically crippled by her experience in her war.  We see so starkly how women were affected by our wars – whether working under cover, nursing, or being on the front lines in other ways – and their wounds are obviously just as deep. 

I highly recommend this novel – it is historical fiction at its best. 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

When a Latin tutor gazes out a window, barely listening to his charges recite their verb conjugations, his eye catches sight of a bewitching woman with a falcon on her arm. Suddenly taken with her, he extricates himself from his classroom duties and goes to find her,  feels he needs to know who she is.  He soon comes to learn that this woman, Agnes, has a sense not only of birds, but of so much of nature,  human nature, and natural remedies – more than most. It is only when tragedy upends their lives when they both learn that one can only control so much of what happens in nature and that man will always have limitations.  

Underneath this love story is also a fictional version of how the play, Hamlet, came to be written by William Shakespeare. The tutor, of course, is Shakespeare, and Hamnet is his son, a twin, who died at a young age of the Black Plague. The plot is vividly imagined and lovingly told, but it is no wonder that a tragedy was borne from it. It is a heart-wrenching story.  And not to worry – even knowing this, there are still a few twists that keep the reader guessing until the very end. 

For me, there was quite a bit of hype surrounding this book, which was maybe/maybe not deserved, so I don’t want to build it up for anyone else. But it is a worthwhile read, particularly if you like historical fiction.

I’d be very curious to hear what others felt about this one!

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

All Elizabeth has ever wanted is to be given the freedom and the respect to pursue her theories and experiments in chemistry. Unfortunately, given that it is the 1950’s and America is just not ready for a woman to be anything but a wife or a mother, she is thwarted at every turn. That is, until she meets her match in Calvin Evans, a fellow scientist who recognizes, appreciates and encourages her endeavors. When Calvin has an unexpected accident and their lives are turned upside down, Elizabeth finds a way to meet her new challenges in the most unexpected way imaginable.

This is a sort of Eleanor Oliphant meets Julia Child story, if you can imagine that! It is a bit of an outrageous plot that actually, somehow works. While much of it relies on just going with it, if you do you are rewarded with a delightful and imaginative ride that is at once pensive, philosophical and, occasionally, true laugh-out-loud moments.

Elizabeth feels like a hard character to get to know. She’s been used poorly, taken advantage of, and not respected in spite of her vast intellectual capacity. Because of the time she lives in, she has a hard time trusting and has a very closed circle of those she can open up to. We feel her vulnerability and root for her throughout the story, feeling protective of her, in spite of her awkwardness and abruptness. Most importantly, we love what she inspires in others – the confidence to be smart and one’s authentic self, which was not an easy task in 1950’s America for women. It’s really an ideal scenario that would have been a wonderful reality for so many had it been true.

There are a number of interesting commentaries on religion here as well. When she admits that she does not believe in God, there are severe repercussions to her reputation.

Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Owen is fairly certain that had he known that Alma was the new hot shot literary scholar when he first met her, he would never have flirted with her in the first place. He would never have had the courage. But now that they’ve established a rapport, well, he’s now somewhat smitten. The question is, what does she, with her Ivy League degree, her fellowship, and her liberal, wealthy family, see in him? As he struggles to regain his footing after years of poor decisions and strained family relationships, Owen has to determine if Alma is helping him get himself together – or hindering him.

This is a contemplative and brooding novel that I felt came close to being excellent but just missed the mark, at least for me.  I felt that Owen’s rage that simmered throughout was a palpable and writhing presence. Sometimes it was expressed so eloquently, his resentment toward his Southern, Trump-supporting, Evangelical Christian parents and their blind following of the Republican, racist, party line. Similarly, the all-too-common, awkward, polarized, political conversation that folks are having around this country was expressed beautifully between Owen and one of his coworkers.  But there were missed opportunities too. While he did have an argument with his uncle over his uncle’s MAGA sticker in his window, it was brief and superficial. We never really learn more about his uncle’s online life where he spends all of his time gaming, and we never learn what happens to him at the end of the story, when he is likely to be left alone. The uncle seems to just vanish.

I will say that I loved the character of Owen’s grandfather. While he did maintain his own beliefs, which were based in his religion and his culture, he did not allow this to taint his relationship with Owen. He was open to letting his grandson live with him, he was tolerant of Owen’s relationship with someone who was quite different from them, and he overlooked Owen’s faults, even when they trespassed over the rules of his own home. He was exceedingly forgiving and loving in his own way. He demonstrated that while one may not agree with someone’s politics, one may still be able to have a beautiful relationship with that individual. And in this moment, that is a huge concept to acknowledge. 

I believe there is a lot here, about the art and strain of writing, about class structure, about political tension, and about the ramifications of the 2016 election on the South. But I wish it had been developed just a bit further, with a bit more action, and a bit more completion. Still, a worthwhile read.

 

 

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Pearl loves her mother, Winnie – of course she does – but she cannot help feeling so often misunderstood by her as well. It is likely this reason that underlies her reluctance to share with her mother that she’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, even though she’s terrified of what it might mean for her future. Likewise, Winnie has secrets of her own – in fact, most of her early life in China before she immigrated to the US has been kept from Pearl. An intervention by Pearl’s “aunt” Helen may change all of this.

Here is yet another epic saga of hardship and tragedy, teaching us so much about Chinese culture and history, but making us work so hard for it. There is rich, colorful detail about the years of the second world war, the angry relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese, the terror of living with the threat of destruction by the Japanese and the shifting internal forces in China. Moreover, being a woman in China has never been easy, and we are bestowed with stark reminders of this in many vivid, brutal scenes in this novel.

What is hard to endure, however, is the overbearing, martyred tone of the narration of Winnie’s story. Yes, she suffers and yes we feel her pain, but it is so utterly relentless that it becomes hard to sustain belief that so much evil can befall one person. There are few if any breaks from the constant tension, little respite from her search for hope or love- only at the very end is there any spark of light, but by that time, we’re just exhausted. While I saw the beauty and nobility of her character, I was also very close to giving up on her many times, I have to admit.

There is certainly much to be learned from this novel, but it comes at a cost. If you’re willing to put in the work, it may be worth it – but I feel like it is work. Is that what reading is? Up for discussion…!

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

In February of 2020, Seymour is on a mission to fight climate change with his razor focus, his headphones, and a backpack of explosives. Upstairs in the library where Seymour is attempting his strike, Zeno is guiding a pack of 5 excited children as they rehearse a play – their version of an ancient Greek story. In the 1400’s, there are 2 young people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople, Anna and Omeir, each dealing with their own version of trauma and poverty. And way in the future, there is a young girl named Konstance who is traveling on a mission to an exoplanet where she’ll be able to survive and restart a new generation of human life. Each of these threads are linked by the tale of the Cloud Cuckoo Land, an ancient, absurd tale carried from antiquity and retold through the ages, to entertain, to sustain, and to give hope.

This is an outrageously imaginative novel that may take a bit of time to get into, but then grips and holds you until the very last page. I am just astounded at how one person can weave together such seemingly disparate tales into one large picture that ultimately ties so tightly together. Writing like this is a gift. Moreover, each tale, in and of itself, is tender and gripping – each character, vulnerable and complex. We love Anna for her deep struggle to care for her ill sister, Maria. And we love Omeir for his tenderness toward his animals. We even understand Seymour’s frustration and anger as he acts out of desperation in a way he sees as his only choice. The author endows every character with so much humanity that we are glued to them, their actions, their struggles.

And the larger message here, that books and learning can bring joy – is the most beautiful. In this moment, when extremists are threatening to burn books, to limit the choices of literature that others read or access, we are reminded about what folks throughout history have lived through just to save our stories. So many have fought to save books, even those that might seem trivial or silly, because books bring light and hope and knowledge to those who take advantage and open their hearts to them.

Banning books is never the answer.

This book may not be for everyone – but if you open your imagination – it just might be for you!

 

Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

Grace is on the brink and she doesn’t know where to turn. She knows she can’t be trusted with the care of her own children – she just can’t pull her mind out from under the dense blackness that has taken root there, and she knows that it’ll happen again if she has another child. It’s happened each time before. She just has nowhere to turn.

Decades later, Beth is grappling with her own frustration. She is clearly just stressed – her father is dying, she’s sleep deprived from a new baby, and she’s just not feeling up to going back to work yet. So why is everyone on her case, asking her what’s wrong? She’ll be fine. Won’t she?

The narrative between these two women brings us back and forth through the generations of this vulnerable, tender family and winds us through a beautiful story of love, heartbreak, and resilience.

The difference between these two women is also just one generation, and the epic difference between their generations is the passing of Roe v. Wade. One generation has the luxury of choice – the other lives without any control because they do not have that access.

I find myself writing this post on the morning that the Supreme Court of the US, staggeringly, has announced the repeal of Roe. I am still numb from this, even having tried to brace myself for what I knew was coming, although I still held out hope that some of the judges would come out on the just side of history. But no, the 6 conservative judges’ allegiance to their biased, misogynistic, utterly anti-life, hypocritical base was clearly too strong a tie.

Women will now return to the back alleys, the sepsis-inducing, life-threatening, desperate means of trying to gain control of their lives, which men put them at risk of, once again. Women will have to endure pregnancies they do not want, bear children they’re not ready to care for, and those children will likely live in conditions that are sub-par, to say the least, because those same Conservatives never vote for safeguards for these children once they are born. Hypocrisy at its very gravest.

Health care should be left to health care providers and their patients. Everyone else should stay out of it. Abortion and contraception is health care. Period.

This is a MUST READ at this time – I really wish the SCOTUS judges had read this novel before writing this decision.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

Alice has recently arrived in Kentucky from England, with high hopes and romantic ideas on how she’ll begin her new life with her very handsome husband, Bennett. Sadly, she’s been quite disappointed so far. Expecting to embark on newlywed adventures, she instead finds herself living with not only Bennett, but with his very demanding and intrusive father, who has been dictating exactly everything that goes on in the home. When Alice hears about a chance to work delivering books to the folks who live in the more remote areas nearby, she sees it as her only means of escape. Only as she becomes more committed to this reputedly “radical” venture does she begin to see a way out of the hold her new family has on her.

Unknowingly, I stumbled upon yet another book about the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 1940’s – and this story was just as gripping as the last (the last one being The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek). The plot builds and surprises and we root for Alice in a way I wasn’t expecting. The characters are strong but multidimensional. Even Alice, who appears meek at first, grows into herself and emerges as a hero in many ways. Other characters may start strong and break, just as in real life.

What is beautiful is the bonds that build amongst the women of the packhorse library – those who work together to create the team who deliver the books to the people of the area. They are as different as they could be: different ages, different abilities, different backgrounds. Yet, they work together as a team and respect each other’s talents. Their bond is what gets them through.

This is a beautiful story that depicts an interesting moment in American history – the packhorse librarians of Kentucky. It is also just a beautiful story.