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.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Emma always felt that she never measured up to her older sister, Maria, especially in the eyes of their parents. While Maria loved to read and sought out hours in the family bookstore, Emma wanted only to travel and dreamed of being as far away from their home as possible. As the two grow up and wend their way through high school, Emma finds love in an unexpected situation and it sparks her journey through adventure and heartbreak and renewal.

I have found Jenkins Reid’s other writing to be so full of delightful surprises, twists and creative prose –which was why I was so profoundly disappointed by this one. It was utterly devoid of all of these attributes. The plot was plainly predictable, the characters bland, and the dialogue repetitive and banal. Why did I finish it? Because I kept believing that something unexpected would certainly happen – that something would redeem the plot. But no, no such luck.

Oh, well.

On to the next book!

 

 

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.

 

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.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

In this second in the Beartown trilogy, we happily find ourselves back in Beartown, where we learn that the sacred hockey A team has lost its funding. That is, until a shadow company suddenly appears through the machinations of an ambitious politician, propping up Peter Andersson, the team’s general manager. There is one minor condition, however: the team’s most ardent (and most intimidating) supporters, the “Pack,” will lose their spot in the stands.  Because of Beartown’s small town interconnections, this stipulation has big implications, further dividing the population in mean ways.  As their games approach, their rivalry with the opposing team of Hed grows fierce, and what should be “just a game” goes far beyond.

Backman once again has kept this reader utterly glued to this novel, as it has everything one could want – complex characters with palpable hearts; a plot that is elaborate but clear; and writing that is insightful but not preachy.

The warm love Backman feels for his characters is contagious.   Backman has a way of showing the vulnerability of some who are troubled, where it may originate from, and how those who are labelled as “bad” may actually be so good, particularly when it really matters. The members of the “Pack,” for example, who, on the outside, appear as “hooligans” are fiercely loyal to each other and to so many folks in Beartown. When someone is in need or disaster strikes, they are the first ones there to help, to do whatever menial task is necessary. That is loyalty and that is what good people do. While they are described as having unconventional ways of expressing themselves, yes, and they may sometimes end up on the wrong side of the law, they are nevertheless the ones folks rely upon. 

This is a beautiful story, once again. And I look forward to when #3 comes out, next month – I am guessing we won’t be disappointed! 

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Bert Cousins has managed once again to escape his home full of young children (and another on the way, somehow), this time to attend a christening party to which he was not even invited. Oh, he knows Fix Keating, a bit, but he never knew Fix’s wife was so beautiful – stunning, really. After aiding Fix in locating the just-christened baby who seemed to have gone missing, Bert finds himself alone with the lovely Beverly. It takes just one kiss between them to set their lives, and the lives of their children, on a whole new trajectory.

Ann Patchett has imagined very realistic characters within the pages of this novel, each of whom is coping with the fallout from this decision between Bert and Beverly. The characters are richly portrayed, as are their familial relationships. The children’s connections are strong, strained, tender, and challenging. In spite of the physical distance from each other that grows as they do, their connection is instinctual, reflex. And like in most families, their attachments are complicated by their tangential stories, layered with both love and resentment.

There are times in our lives we say or do something, make a certain choice one way or another, that we think inconsequential, but may actually have ramifications far beyond anything we can imagine. This story exemplifies this over and over again in a very powerful way.

 

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…!