Elizabeth Strout is adept at creating flawed, ordinary characters mired in a changing, unforgiving world, and instilling in them traits that all can recognize. In her latest novel, The Burgess Boys, the highly regarded writer returns to a small town in Maine with an observant, tragic-comic story of a family as burdened by its past as it is overwhelmed by its messy present. Clearly, navigating life and the human condition is never easy.
For Jim and Bob Burgess it is also complicated by family ties. Both New York attorneys, the middle-aged brothers fled long ago from down-on-its-luck Shirley Falls, where now Somali immigrants are changing the face of their hometown. Their divorced sister, Susan, has remained. When her lonely teenage son, Zach, is accused of a hate crime involving a Somali mosque, the brothers reluctantly return to Shirley Falls to obviate the legal crisis. It's hard to tell who is under more stress: the Mainers and immigrants who fret over what Zach's crime means for the community they now share, or the Burgess siblings who continue to define themselves by past demons. Jim, a celebrated defense lawyer with a big house and pretty wife, is revered by his siblings despite acting like a jerk to his younger brother. Nice guy Bob, who works for Legal Aid, drinks way too much. Scarring everyone is a long buried family tragedy that continues to ooze close to the surface.
Strout, whose last novel was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, has again drawn with polished prose emotionally untidy characters whose seemingly unremarkable lives yield the hallmark of human character. With a reflective tone and pitch-perfect dialogue, Strout's fluid storytelling yields a simple, yet difficult message: connections matter.
Set in New Orleans circa 1920s-50s, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski is an original family drama that mixes matters of the heart with elements of magical realism. Dancy, a waitress at the local diner, and William, a young lawyer, fall in love. Tragedy is destined to strike, but not before an extraordinary new life is created.
Meet Bonaventure Arrow and you will discover that he is as exceptional as his name. Although his vocal cords are healthy, he is born without a cry. Denied conventional speech, Bonaventure discovers that he possesses a supernatural sense of hearing. From the sound of dust falling from a moth’s wing to his mother’s cigarette smoke floating to the ceiling, he can hear what no one else can. However, this unworldly gift comes with great responsibility. When he hears a small sadness held inside a small box in a chapel wall and the painful secret hidden in his mother’s closet, he knows he can bring comfort and hopefully closure to his family, who are still plagued by the secrets of the past.
Inspired by the work of Flannery O’Conner and Ann Patchett, Leganski has created an earnest Southern hometown and populated it with mysterious characters. There’s the disfigured man only known as “The Wanderer,” Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole woman who has her own mystic ability, and Brother Harley John Eacomb, a sham preacher who has a feverous following. Faith, love, and providence are all tested in this tale of charm, love and forgiveness.
Alice Munro is often described as “one of the best living writers of short stories in the English language”. While that may be said to avoid too many comparisons as to who is truly the best, the qualifiers are really not necessary. This is proven with her latest collection, Dear Life. In interviews, Munro states that a few of this set of stories are her most autobiographical.
One of the most striking aspects of Munro’s stories is the misdirection she frequently provides. Just as the reader is settling in on what is believed to be the main character or main idea of a story, a tangent takes one off into a myriad of different directions. Often taking place in the area Munro knows best, rural Ontario near Lake Huron, these are mostly slice-of-life stories about regular people. In “Haven”, for example, a young girl goes to live with her aunt and uncle, two very different people from her missionary parents. Her eyes are opened to another way of life, and her childhood ends. Another story, “Pride”, describes two small-town misfits who eventually forge an uneasy friendship. The male protagonist explains his female acquaintance as having a “strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin. She went away on trips of course, and maybe she thought it would begin there. No such luck.”
The author tucks those sorts of breathtaking lines throughout the fourteen stories. Travel, especially by train, takes on a large role, likely a metaphor for our lifelong journeys. The final, titular story, certainly one of the most autobiographical, has many interwoven themes. But above all, the wordplay of Munro’s own dear life, while she has witnessed so many holding on for dear life, leaves readers in awe of her writing powers.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
Artist Grant Wood’s work evokes the essence of the Midwestern United States, especially as depicted in his iconic painting American Gothic. Wood’s equivalent in the literary world must surely be Kent Haruf, who conjures up the same quiet and steadfast spirit in his novels of small town living. In his newest book, Benediction, Haruf once again uses the fictional setting of rural Holt, Colorado.
Old “Dad” Lewis is dying. A fixture in Holt, he has owned the downtown hardware store since he was a young man, and has been married to Mary for just as long. Mary and Dad notify their middle-aged daughter Lorraine of her father’s terminal illness, and Lorraine returns to her childhood home to help and support her mother as they care for Dad in his final weeks. As Dad deteriorates, Lorraine and Mary must figure out a new footing for their own relationship as well as determine how Dad’s death will figure on their future. The descriptions of the matter-of-fact yet tender care Mary provides for Dad as he becomes increasingly incapacitated are a beautiful testament to the deep love between the couple.
Haruf has two themes running through Benediction. Not surprisingly, one involves Dad’s reflections on his past, with an emphasis on choices made by Dad in pivotal circumstances. Dad ruminates on wayward son Frank who broke contact with his parents years ago; the widow of a former hardware store employee discovered by Dad to be embezzling funds; and Dad’s own hardscrabble parents who never met their grandchildren. At the same time, Haruf highlights different kinds of love found in daily life, including platonic love between friends, erotic love stemming from passion, and unconditional love between man and God. As a disgraced preacher in the story explains, it is the ordinary life of good people which is most precious and Haruf illustrates this tenet perfectly with his spare prose.
Across the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.
Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever.
Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere. Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.
British writer Jojo Moyes’s latest novel, Me Before You, is a beautifully crafted story about a 26 year-old woman who leads a monotonous life in a small town in England. After losing the job she’s had for six years, Louisa Clark, better known as Lou, begins the difficult task of looking for employment. Not knowing what she wants to do with the rest of her life and frustrated with her job prospects, Lou eventually applies for a position as a caregiver. Despite her lack of experience, she is offered the job because of her upbeat and quirky personality.
Enter Will Traynor, a former high-powered executive, who became a quadriplegic following a severe accident. Will has been forced to give up his adventurous lifestyle, and to rely completely on others, which has sent him into a deep depression. His mother hires Lou in hopes that she can make him reverse the decision that his life is no longer worth living. Their relationship begins shakily; however, as they grow to know each other better, Lou finds ways to reach out to Will and to help him find some things to enjoy in his world as it is. Meanwhile, Will teaches Lou to live her life more fully, and to try new things.
Moyes draws readers in with the novel’s sense of intimacy, as most of the book is told from Lou’s unique perspective as Will’s caregiver. However, scenes with the extended cast of characters, Lou’s family for example, offer levity. Me Before You raises many philosophical issues, while also being a funny, heartbreaking, and unconventional love story.
Two new collections of thrilling and even horrific tales are waiting to send shivers down the spine. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is a twisted series of interlocking short stories which tighten as you delve deeper into its pages. A beauty sorting dirty lab coats, a curator of a torture museum whose collection consists solely of used items, a reporter covering a dolphin-themed resort--the unlikely connections between these and other seemingly isolated characters are dexterously exposed in escalating tension.
Each desperate life has an unrelenting passion, from the man skilled in the art of designing specialty bags who receives an unusual request from a lounge singer, to the woman patiently waiting for a pair of perfect strawberry cupcakes in an unattended bakery. Although each tale is an enthralling standalone, it also subtly reveals the indirect truths of its companion stories. Throughout the book, aggrieved lives gradually become both the architect and the victim of emotions like jealousy, grief, and infatuation. Eerie scenes such as a garden of carrots shaped like hands, a street covered with ripe tomatoes, and an abandoned post office filled with kiwis create a world that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Stephen Snyder’s exquisite new translation of Ogawa’s 1998 Japanese work, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, is fragile yet cuts like a knife.
Another mesmerizing collection comes from British novelist Sarah Hall with The Beautiful Indifference: Stories, which explores the grace and the agony of the modern woman. In “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young English girl befriends the schoolyard bully, Mary Slessors, and becomes enthralled with her mysterious family of horse trainers. In the “Agency”, a woman is referred by an acquaintance to an unusual business that provides a tempting yet undefinable service. These stories are engrossing and sensual, investigating the rich complexities of the female psyche in a way that only Hall can.
How do you think you would respond in the face of something truly strange? With horror? With amusement? With speed, by running as fast as possible in the other direction? Or would you adapt, until what once was so strange is now just a new way of being? In his collection of wonderfully imaginative short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, Manuel Gonzales and his very human characters take the latter course, exploring the incredible malleability of the human psyche.
In tales ranging from just a few pages to nearly thirty, bizarre, often frightening, and occasionally gruesome events and people make appearances. A musical genius is physically crippled by his gift to the point that he must develop a way to speak through his ears to communicate. A zombie adept at hiding from discovery convinces himself to give into his homicidal urges because of a secret workplace crush. And in the title story, a scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife and must then deal with the increasingly violent consequences to his marriage and his life. Often mysteries are unearthed, but never completely explained. Gonzales focuses on the internal dialogues of his characters, who respond to the weirdness around them with painfully human emotions and according to familiar--often petty and selfish--motivations.
At times tender, disturbing, amusing, and eerie, The Miniature Wife is perfect for cold, wild, stormy nights filled with hints of thunder and an air of possibility. Fans of gothic literature, the paranormal, and the short story format will devour this compilation of oddities and enigmas.
The bonds of family are strong, built out of intense love, and sometimes equally intense resentment and hatred. The Dinner by Herman Koch is less a meal than a psychological dissection of a family. The entire novel takes place during the course of an evening meal between two well-to-do brothers and their wives. Each member of the dinner party is trying to control the others and the unnamed “situation” with their children. Various scenarios play out in the minds of the diners, each more shocking and brutal than the last, as they attempt to sway the group toward the best solution. Best for whom remains to be seen.
Dutch author Koch takes a look inside a seemingly harmless gathering and answers the question “What are you really thinking?” Relationships—Parent and child, husband and wife, brother and brother—all are put under the microscope with satirical wit and brutal honesty. Already an international best-seller, The Dinner has received advance praise from like-minded psychological thriller writers such as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and S. J. Watson (Before I Go to Sleep). Come to The Dinner and ask yourself, which way does your moral compass point?