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Posts Tagged ‘Ann Patchett’

The further ahead I read, the more I “fall” behind. Even though I started reading fall books back in the summer, I’m still catching up with some of my favorite authors who had new books in September and October. A neighbor who loves Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto wanted to know about her latest novel, The Dutch House (HarperCollins, digital galley). With its emphasis on blended family dynamics, the book is more like Patchett’s Commonwealth than Bel Canto, but she still injects suspense in her domestic drama, and she is still writing about how we struggle to find a home in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conroy are the Hansel and Gretel siblings, spiritually orphaned when their mother abandons them to the care of their reserved father. Then, after his sudden death, they are exiled from the suburban mansion of their childhood by a grasping stepmother looking out for her own young daughters. Although the fairy tale motifs are obvious, Patchett doesn’t overplay them as she explores complicated family relationships, how the past impinges on the present, how hard it is to forgive and yet how necessary. Adult Danny narrates, but Maeve — fierce, loving, brilliant, thwarted — is the book’s heart.

John le Carre is such a pro. His nimble new novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking, purchased hardcover), offers timely entertainment. Nat, the veteran British spy who narrates, is a passionate badminton player. “Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” Le Carre could well be describing his stylish plotting that has Nat taking over a derelict intelligence substation in London and running its motley assortment of agents. One bright spot is his young second in command, Florence, who has a plan to bug the apartment of a Ukranian oligarch with ties to Putin. There’s also Nat’s weekly badminton game with Ed, an odd duck researcher with a media firm, who vehemently dislikes Brexit, Trump and the British government and who vents his displeasure to Nat over post-match drinks. But when the Ukranian operation goes south, Nat finds that he can’t separate work from play, and the game is on — the great game of espionage, that is, complete with lies, spies, moles and betrayals large and small. No one writes it better than le Carre, even if Nat, Ed and Florence aren’t  as memorable as Smiley and the Cold War crowd of Tinker, Tailor days. Then again, it’s hardly the same world. Have to agree with Ed that we’re living in a hot mess.

I remember feeling bereft when I first finished reading Carol Anshaw’s 2012 novel Carry the One about several siblings and friends affected by a fatal car accident. It followed the characters over the years, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, from Alice the artist to Walter Payton the dog. There’s a cool canine named Sailor in Anshaw’s new novel, Right After the Weather (Atria, digital galley), the same great writing and more complicated characters to care about. In 2016 Chicago, theater set designer Cate is turning 40 and turning over the pieces of her life, trying to get them to fit. Her career is gaining steam, she has an extroverted new girlfriend, and her longtime best friend Neale and her son Joe live nearby. But Cate still gets money from her parents, her angsty ex-husband is living in her spare room and she can’t forget her last girlfriend. Also, Trump has just been elected president. When a couple of addicts invade Neale’s home, Cate comes to her friend’s rescue, but the ensuing violence marks her and those around her in surprising ways. Neale, for one, announces that her estranged husband is returning home. “Pain slams Cate hard in the chest, as though she’s been whacked by an oar. Nothing big happens, she’s beginning to see, without knocking around the adjacent pieces.”

Like her 2016 first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, acclaimed YA author Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel Red at the Bone (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley) reads like a lovely prose poem. It also features a similar time-shifting narrative, but Woodson weaves together five voices in her poignant story of how an unexpected pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes. It opens in 2001 with a party for 16-year-old Melody, whose parents, Iris and Aubrey, had her when they were just 15 and 16. In a turnabout, it is ambitious Iris who left Aubrey and Melody with her parents, Sade and Po’Boy, so she could go to college at Oberlin. Woodson dips in and out of their lives at various junctures in a series of compressed vignettes full of youthful yearning and bittersweet wisdom. There is a lot of pain, but also love and hope, as Red at the Bone cuts close to the bone.

Kate DiCamillo isn’t just one of my favorite authors of books for young readers, but a favorite writer, period.  Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, purchased e-book), the third book in the winning sequence that began with Raymie Nightingale and continued with Louisiana’s Way Home, centers on Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, best friends in 1970s Central Florida. It’s now 1979, and Beverly is grieving the loss of her dog Buddy when she decides to leave town for good. Without a word to Raymie or her neglectful mom Rhonda, she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, where she lies about her age to get a job at a seafood joint and makes the acquaintance of elderly bingo player Iola Jenkins. In exchange for driving Iola around, Beverly gets tuna fish sandwiches and a place to stay. Despite her tough-girl exterior, Beverly has a tender heart, and Dicamillo perfectly captures her bravura and vulnerability. A small group of oddball but caring friends, including store clerk Elmer and waitress Freddie, help Beverly discover her self-worth as she tries to find her place in the world. Supposedly for ages 10-14, Beverly, Right Here should also appeal to so-called grown-ups, especially those who remember what it’s like to be 14. If you don’t, DiCamillo and Beverly are here to remind you.

In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.’’ Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, can communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train.  Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew (Simon and Schuster, review copy), a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy.  I reviewed it last month for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and you can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/yyg5qz3g

 

 

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commonGenerally, I enjoy reading and/or  watching year-in-review stories and programs. This year –with Santa harnessing flying pigs to his sleigh — not so much. The last 12 months were studded with improbabilities, loss and disappointment. November was especially dismal, and I kept quoting Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us; late and soon.” These are anxious times.

Thank goodness for books. As I’ve disconnected from cable news and social media, reading has provided escape and comfort. Mysteries, fantasies, literary fiction, memoirs, new releases, old favorites. One after another, chain reading, a books binge. I just finished Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (HarperCollins, digital galley) for the second time, finding this story of a blended family over five decades even more moving and wise. It’s the book I’m giving myself in hardcover and is one of my three favorites of 2016, joining Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.

fannieOther books I’ve bought as keepers this past year include Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick), about a girl who enters the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest in a bid to get her absentee father’s attention; Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical Another Brooklyn; Genevieve Cogman’s fabulous fantasy The Invisible Library and its sequels The Masked City and The Burning Page (ROC, digital galley); and Lee Smith’s lovely memoir Dimestore (Algonquin, digital galley). I gave the latter to Cousin Meg for her birthday, and for Christmas, she and Cousin Gail are getting Fannie Flagg’s new chatty charmer The Whole Town’s Talking (Random House), about the founding of the small Missouri town of Elmwood Springs, the setting for previous Flagg stories. This time, the town cemetery has a starring role. I’m sending a copy to Cousin Paulette, too.

insunlightI’ve given away multiple copies of Anne Tyler’s retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Vinegar Girl, and managed to pick up my own copy a long the way. I tend to buy books for friends that I want myself, so I put Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or In Shadow (Pegasus) at the top of my Dear Santa list. An anthology of stories inspired by the works of Edward Hopper, it showcases writers such as Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King with full-color reproductions of the Hopper works they chose as muses. As both a fan of Hopper — I have a framed “Sunday Morning” above a bookcase — and crime fiction, this book was pure catnip for me. Another treasure is the late Pat Conroy’s  A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (Doubleday, digital galley). Oh, I miss Pat, who died in March, one of many losses I hold against 2016.

cruelI’ve read some good fiction recently — Colson Whitehead’s harrowing The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, digital galley), Brit Bennett’s first novel The Mothers (Riverhead, digital galley), Alice Hoffman’s poignant Faithful (Simon and Schuster). Still, the striking title, cover and contents of Caroline Leavitt’s novel about two sisters following their hearts in the late 1960s/early 1970s really hit home for me this fall: Cruel Beautiful World (Algonquin, digital galley). When high school student Lucy Gold runs off with her English teacher, she has no idea how her impulsive decision will play out for her, her sensible older sister Charlotte, and for elderly Iris, who raised the girls. Leavitt’s writing is tender, tough and incisive as she spins a tale of love and loss, loyalty and second chances. It’s not always a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. So let’s end this year on that note.

 

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