Tag Archives: Fiction

beginnings and endings

I only just now figured out what it is about collections of short stories that turn me off. … I don’t like beginnings and endings in fiction. This is true for novels as well. It generally takes 3 to 4 times as long as it should to get through the first 8 to 10 pages of a novel, given my usual middle-of-the-book reading speed; it’s like there’s this big activation energy I have to overcome, all these additional resources I have to put into figuring out the characters, setting, tone, what’s going on, what’s the style, how do I read this, etc. Then you ease into it and it’s smooth sailing for at least 150 pages. Unfortunately, I tend to get antsy toward the ends of things. I think it’s because I like finishing books; it gives me a sense of accomplishment and means I can start something new. So I rush a little toward the end and miss things; too, I overanalyze them, because writers fret over endings and I’m more likely to question the decisions there and feel like something falls flat or feels false. So there’s a certain amount of dread as I approach the last 10-15 pages of the book.

Elisa Gabbert

This is a long quote, because yes! All of this. Although, I don’t know that I’d say I don’t like beginnings per se, but I do find them more difficult to get into / slower reading than middles. Partly I think it’s that when I start a new book I still have one foot in the-book-I-was-previously-reading’s ending. So there’s a transitional phase there.

Endings… well. It’s true I often find endings disappointing. They’re so rarely as good as the rest of the story. Endings are hard. Or maybe I am just super nitpicky.

I have come to the conclusion that the way to read short stories is one at a time, which may seem obvious, but when you’re mainly a novel-reader who’s used to getting in that middle-of-the-book zone where you just buzz from one chapter the next devouring the book, stopping and setting the book aside for a while after you finish each story is kind of an “ohhh” moment. So what with all the beginnings and endings and pausings, it makes sense that story collections are much slower reads for me than novels.

Now that I’ve let go of the expectation of being able to read a story collection like a novel, I’m less reluctant to pick one up. There’s still some hesitation, though, because of all those beginnings and endings. (But then you read a gem of a story and it makes it all worth it.)

almost incidental

There is something about the increased demand that fiction writers speak as themselves that feels like a violation of what I used to hold so sacred, the tenet that it is not about me but about the characters I create. …

Obviously, social media itself isn’t the trouble. The crux, as I see it, is that lately the substance of what we create is often considered almost incidental to the way that we writers, personally, market our product. We now must sell our books like we sell ourselves.

Peter Orner

27: The Melting Season

The Melting SeasonThe Melting Season by Jami Attenberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the Fall 2012 VPL Book Sale.

Read in October/November 2013.

View all my reviews

Another book sale find. I picked this one up because I recognized Jami Attenberg’s name from the lit blogosphere. Her third novel, The Middlesteins, was released last year. The Melting Season (2010) was her second.

The premise: Catherine “Moonie” Madison leaves her husband, Thomas, takes a bunch of money from their joint account, and drives to Vegas. The question, of course, is why.

Catherine and Thomas were high school sweethearts and married right after graduation. Moonie was the nickname he gave her when they first started dating. She was his moon and he was her stars. 😛 Now everyone calls Catherine “Moonie” but apparently no one calls Thomas “Starrie.” Too bad!

Catherine lives in Nebraska and has never left her hometown aside from her honeymoon which was cut short (they didn’t even make it 24 hours) due to Thomas’s ego. The honeymoon trip was a gift; if it had been up to her, they would have honeymooned at home. Exciting.

(I actually knew people like this in the town where I went to high school. Well, most of them had been to the slightly bigger town about a half-hour away but nowhere other than that. It blew my mind when I found this out. Sometimes I wonder if they’re still there, still having gone nowhere.)

VPL Fall Book SaleAfter Catherine and Thomas get married, they first live in an apartment over the diner run by her friend Timber. Then Thomas’s dad dies, leaving him everything. So, newly rich, they move out to the family farm. Thomas hires people to work the farm, and sets about building a new house. But he’s not happy because he has an… issue. Think late-night infomercials.

Catherine’s a bit obsessed with an actress called Rio DiCarlo who’s had a lot of plastic surgery. Rio is the spokesperson for a surgical center, and after seeing the ad on TV, Thomas decides elective surgery will solve his problem. Catherine doesn’t want him to do it, but he goes ahead. Afterward, their marriage implodes—their problems due as much to Catherine’s internal issues as Thomas’s external one—and Catherine moves back into the apartment over the diner. She sinks into a depression, but then receives some news that spurs her to take the money and run.

She doesn’t have a plan, but ends up in Vegas. As you do. The only room available when she goes to check in is a spendy suite but, well, she has a suitcase full of cash, so she takes it. In the casino, she meets Valka, and they hit it off. Valka’s in her thirties, recovering from cancer and her boyfriend dumping her. Like Thomas and Rio DiCarlo, Valka’s had plastic surgery.

Catherine (who’s about 24, according to my calculations) views Valka as practically elderly. This is consistent with her character, but lol. I kept waiting for Valka (or someone else invited up to the suite—there was a party) to run off with the Suitcase of Cash, but no. The money is a MacGuffin.

The bulk of the book consists of long flashbacks as Catherine tells Valka her story: all about Thomas, her parents, her little sister Jenny (who’s pregnant), and Timber from the diner.

Catherine’s dialogue is weird. She doesn’t use contractions. The other characters do, sometimes, so it seems like this is a deliberate choice for her character, but does anyone really talk like that? Maybe it was supposed to illustrate her depression/unfeelingness? She speaks like a robot because she feels like a robot (i.e. not at all)?

The story promises a big reveal, and there is one, but it feels a bit anti-climactic. Not that the thing revealed isn’t a thing, but there was maybe too much build-up, so you’re expecting something more—or something else. I can’t help thinking the way the story is structured fights against its impact.

In The Melting Season, the characters are all obsessed with physical appearances, with changing or maintaining their external characteristics. Their real problems are, of course, things you can’t see.

26: Friend of My Youth

Friend of My YouthFriend of My Youth by Alice Munro

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in October 2013.

View all my reviews

I picked this as my next read after Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. I had several Munros on my to-read shelf so it seemed like the right time to take one off the pile.

Most of the stories are about women of Munro’s generation, women who, like her, married young and (often) later divorced. I wonder if somewhere in her oeuvre there’s a story about a woman who gets stuck using her first husband’s name for the rest of her life because that’s the name she first published under? We could have known her as Alice Laidlaw.

In Munro’s bio, it’s stated that she left university after two years because her scholarship only covered two years. But I’ve often wondered about that, the official reason, and reading the stories in this collection makes me wonder more. Canadian tuition is nothing like American tuition, even now. Back in the day anyone working full-time in the summer/part-time during the school year would have made enough to cover expenses for the year, assuming they lived frugally. In Munro’s writing, there’s always the official story, the one we tell—to others, to ourselves—and then there’s what lies beneath. Like many of her characters, Munro married immediately after leaving university. Unlike some of her characters, she didn’t return to school later. Which she could have—UVic opened in 1963, when her older daughters were school-age and her youngest daughter hadn’t yet been born. But I’m guessing by that point she didn’t think she needed any more school. She was already a writer.

Speaking of UVic, it’s always a surprise when one of her stories is set in Victoria or Vancouver. In this collection, there are two. “Five Points” (in part) and “Differently.” People always talk about her being from Southern Ontario and her stories being set there, but she actually lived for twenty years in BC (from the early 1950s to early 1970s; her 20s and 30s) and all her children were born here. Presumably, the older ones at least consider BC home, not Ontario.

Anyway, onto the collection.

In “Friend of My Youth” a woman recalls the stories her mother told her about the two years she spent as a teacher before being married when she lived with a family of “Cameronians.” The narrator is a writer so she imagines the ending, the part of the story she doesn’t know.

I had my own ideas about Flora’s story. I didn’t think that I could have written a novel but that I would write one. I would take a different tack. I saw through my mother’s story and put in what she left out. My Flora would be as black as hers was white. Rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and in her own forgiveness, spying on the shambles of her sister’s life. A Presbyterian witch, reading out of her poisonous book. (20-21)

In “Five Points” Brenda is a having an affair with Neil. Brenda is only a few years older but feels like the age gap is more because she married and never left town and Neil is from Victoria and has moved around. There’s a story-within-a-story of a convenience store (Five Points) from Neil’s childhood and the daughter of the family who owned it. Brenda and Neil’s relationship has lost its initial sheen, is starting to sour.

What Brenda has seen of Victoria, in pictures, is flowers and horses. Flowers spilling out of baskets hanging from old-fashioned lampposts, filling grottoes and decorating parks; horses carrying wagonloads of people to look at the sights.

“That’s all just tourist shit,” Neil says. “About half the place is nothing but tourist shit. That’s not what I’m talking about.” (27)

(That made me lol. Encapsulates the whole people-who-have-actually-lived-in-Victoria vs. people-who-haven’t dichotomy.)

In “Meneseteung,” a first-person narrator tells the story of the “poetess” Almeda Joynt Roth. I’ve read this one before, in the English course I took a few years ago. Meda is a spinster, but for a time the town thinks she may marry widower Jarvis Poulter. Then one summer morning she thinks she’s found a dead woman at her back gate and runs to Jarvis for help.

She puts a wrapper over her nightdress and goes downstairs. The front rooms are still shadowy, the blinds down in the kitchen. Something goes plop, plup, in a leisurely, censorious way, reminding her of the conversation of the crow. It’s just the grape juice, straining overnight. She pulls the bolt and goes out the back door. Spiders have draped their webs over the doorway in the night, and the hollyhocks are drooping, heavy with dew. By the fence, she parts the sticky hollyhocks and looks down and she can see.

A woman’s body heaped up there, turned on her side with her face squashed down into the earth. (65)

In “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass” middle-aged biology teacher Hazel goes to Scotland after her husband, Jack, dies to see the places where he spent time during the war. They had planned to go together, of course. Hazel expects the people he always talked about will have left or died, but it turns out they’re all still there. No one remembers her husband, though. Or at least they say they don’t.

She doesn’t mind letting people know that when she was in her thirties she had what used to be called a nervous breakdown. For nearly two months she was unable to leave the house. She stayed in bed much of the time. She crayoned the pictures in children’s coloring books. That was all she could do to control her fear and unfocussed grief. Then she took hold. She sent for college catalogues. What got her going again? She doesn’t know. She has to say she doesn’t know. Maybe she just got bored, she has to say. Maybe she just got bored, having her breakdown.

She knew that when she had got out of bed (this is what she doesn’t say), she was leaving some part of herself behind. She suspected this was a part that had to do with Jack. (83)

In “Oranges and Apples” Murray marries Barbara, a clerk in his father’s store. After his father dies, he runs the family business into the ground. Now Murray and Barbara run a small camping resort. The story shifts between past and present, filling in their backstory. Barbara is a bit of an enigma.

And it turns out that she doesn’t want to be a teacher, or a scholar, or a librarian, or an editor, or to make television documentaries, or review books, or write articles. The list of things that Barbara doesn’t want to do is as long as your arm. Apparently she wants to do what she does—read, and go for walks, eat and drink with pleasure, tolerate some company. And unless people can value this about her—her withdrawals, her severe indolence (she has an air of indolence even when she’s cooking an excellent dinner for thirty people)—they don’t remain among the company she tolerates. (111)

Books from The Book ShopIn “Pictures of the Ice” retired minister and recent widower Austin tells everyone he’s moving to Hawaii to marry a widow, but it turns out he’s really going to middle-of-nowhere Ontario to work himself to death.

She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him. Each of them knew what the other was up to, and didn’t let on, and that was a link beyond the usual. Every time she thinks of it, she feels approved of—a most unexpected thing. (155)

In “Goodness and Mercy” Averill and her mother Bugs (aka June) are on a passenger-carrying freighter, crossing the Atlantic. Bugs is dying but they have kept this a secret from the other passengers. Averill is coming to terms with her mother’s impending death.

The captain did not seem to her a needy man. He did not need to disturb you, or flatter, or provoke, or waylay you. None of that look at me, listen to me, admire me, give me. None of that. He had other things on his mind. The ship, the sea, the weather, the cargo, his crew, his commitments. The passengers must be an old story to him. Cargo of another sort, requiring another sort of attention. Idle or ailing, lustful or grieving, curious, impatient, mischievous, remote—he would have seen them all before. He would know things about them right away, but never more than he needed to know. (167)

In “Oh, What Avails” Joan and Morris grow up with their widowed mother in small-town Ontario. Joan leaves town; Morris doesn’t. Joan marries, lives with her family in Ottawa. Later she divorces, moves to Toronto, manages a bookstore.

She doesn’t understand yet that she doesn’t want to take anything back to Ottawa because she herself won’t be staying in the house there for much longer. The time of accumulation, of acquiring and arranging, of padding up the corners of her life, has come to an end. (It will return years later, and she will wish she had saved at least the wineglasses.) In Ottawa, in September, her husband will ask her if she still wants to buy wicker furniture for the sunroom, and if she would like to go the wicker store, where they’re having a sale on summer stock. A thrill of distaste will go through her then—at the very thought of looking for chairs and tables, paying for them, arranging them in the room—and she will finally know what is the matter. (202)

In “Differently” Georgia visits her dead ex-friend Maya’s widower in Victoria and remembers how everything—their friendship, her marriage—fell apart.

The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl—a woman—like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for someone to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. (229)

In “Wigtime” Anita runs into her childhood bff Margot while she is caring for her dying mother. Margot married the school bus driver (presumably after he divorced his wife) and had five kids.  Anita became a nurse (Margot’s pre-hooking up with the bus driver ambition), moved to the Yukon, married a doctor, divorced, got a PhD in anthropology.

People who approved of the course Anita had taken in life usually told her so. Often an older woman would say, “Good for you!” or, “I wish I’d had the nerve to do that, when I was still young enough for it to make any difference.” Approval came sometimes from unlikely quarters. It was not to be found everywhere, of course. Anita’s mother did not feel it, and that was why, for many years, Anita had not come home. Even in her present sunken, hallucinatory state, her mother had recognized her, and gathered her strength to mutter, “Down the drain.” (255-256)

I think that’s a good place to end 😉

25: Certainty

CertaintyCertainty by Madeleine Thien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars (4.5)

From the Fall 2010 VPL Book Sale.

Read in September/October 2013

View all my reviews

This was my favorite book so far this year. I contemplated giving it a 5. Let’s call it 4.5 stars.

Ansel’s significant other Gail died suddenly six months earlier. She was a freelance radio producer. He’s a doctor, works at a TB clinic. He’s still close with her parents, Matthew and Clara. They all live in Strathcona, Vancouver’s oldest residential neighborhood.

Matthew is originally from Sandakan (in North Borneo prior to WWII; now part of Malaysia), which was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, when he was a child. After the war, he and his mother leave Sandakan, and later he goes to Australia to study at the University of Melbourne. There he meets Clara, who grew up in Hong Kong. Together they move to Vancouver, because at the time Canada was accepting Asian immigrants and Australia was not.

Clara has an English degree but ends up starting her own business as a seamstress when she can’t find work as a teacher. Matthew has a history degree but ends up working in a restaurant, becoming a cook.

More 55-cent BooksThe summer before Gail died, Ansel had an affair when Gail was away. He eventually broke it off and told Gail about it. She is not sure why he confessed, how he wants her to react to this information. Now, he finds it hard to believe the affair actually happened.

When Matthew was 18, just before he moved to Melbourne, he returned to Sandakan for a visit, reunited briefly with his childhood friend Ani. While Matthew moves first to Australia and later to Canada, Ani moves to first to Indonesia and later to Holland. Once, Gail sees a letter from Holland in her parents’ home. She doesn’t understand its significance but when she’s in Holland doing research for a story she’s producing, she contacts Ani’s husband Sipke and meets up with him.

Certainty is a non-linear story of family and love and migration. The story moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing information. Relationships are always uneven; one person always loves more. There’s a lot of restraint in the writing. Everything is not spelled out; you need to read between the lines.

Thien’s dialogue—the way that the characters talk about things, real things, not the weather—reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s.

24: Leaving Atlanta

Leaving AtlantaLeaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Purchased from Amazon.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

Leaving Atlanta is Tayari Jones’s debut novel. Previously, I read The Untelling (her second novel) and Silver Sparrow (her third). Now I’m officially out of Tayari Jones books and shall have to wait for her to finish writing her next one.

Leaving Atlanta is, obviously, set in Atlanta. It’s the late seventies/early eighties. Early in the book, it’s mentioned that the (1976) Olympics was two years past, so I initially thought the story began in the fall of 1978, but later I decided it was actually 1979. This fits with the events that the story is based on, the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81.

The story focuses on one fifth grade class and how the murders affect them. There are three parts, each with one of the classmates as the point-of-view character. Jones chooses to focus on three of the least popular children in the class (loved this). “Tayari Jones” is a minor character in the story—she’s one of the other classmates and gets mentioned now and then by the three protagonists. (This makes me want to read some Somerset Maugham ;))

Tasha is the main character in Part 1. Her part is told in third person. Tasha is unpopular but not the least popular. She’s caught in between her more popular frenemies and the really unpopular kids. Tasha’s parents separate at the beginning of the story but her dad comes back because of the murders. Both Tasha’s parents work and, at the beginning of the school year, Tasha was just starting to be allowed some freedom / responsibility (getting her own key to let herself and her little sister in after school). However, as the murders escalate, her parents decide they need to go a neighbor’s house after school instead of being home alone. All the other kids in her neighborhood do the same.

In the second part, Rodney is the protagonist. His part is told in second person. Rodney also lives with his parents and little sister, but his mom doesn’t work, which leads the other characters to think the family is well-off. In reality, his mom’s a bit nutty. She does her kids’ homework (including glitter art projects!) for them. Rodney unwittingly bolsters the image of the family being well-off by shoplifting candy; the other kids don’t know he steals it and think he must have lots of spending money. Rodney is very smart, but an underachiever. When his dad is angry with him, he beats him. Rodney’s even more unpopular than Tasha.
New Books

Octavia, who everyone in her outside-of-school life calls Sweet Pea, is the main character in Part 3. Her part is told in first person. Octavia lives with her mom, who works nights. Her dad lives with his wife and baby daughter in South Carolina. Octavia is the least popular in the class. Her classmates’ view of her and her family’s and neighbors’ view of her is completely different. Octavia seeks out Mrs. Grier, the second grade teacher, when she needs comfort. Mrs. Grier is the teacher with school supplies and snacks in her desk, the one that all the kids gravitate to even when they’re not in her class.

The child’s point-of-view throughout the book—what they know/understand and what they don’t—is so good. For example, as a reader, it’s clear Octavia’s dad is a university professor, but she doesn’t grasp this (she thinks he’s a teacher) or its significance. She wonders why people call him ‘Dr. Ray’. Because of the child’s pov, the story lacks the sentimentality (and judgment) that might be present if it was told from an adult’s point-of-view (e.g. by one of the parents or teachers or one of the children as an adult looking back). In a kid’s world, things just are. This leaves the reader to do the work of interpreting the events. Refreshing.

The choice to write the first part in third-person, the second in second-person, and the third in first-person might seem a bit gimmicky but it didn’t feel that way reading it. What it felt like was each part drew you in closer to the characters.

I think I’ve said this with all her books, but I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s quite as good at depicting the Gen-X child/teen/YA era—at least as I remember it—as Jones. All the little details are so perfect.

23: The Singer’s Gun

The Singer's GunThe Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at The Book Warehouse.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

I discovered Emily St. John Mandel via The Millions, where she’s a staff writer. Like me, she grew up in BC with an American parent. Unlike me, she was eligible for American citizenship via that parent and now lives in Brooklyn. The Singer’s Gun is her second novel. Her background—she originally thought she was immigrating illegally to the US—informs the story.

The main character of The Singer’s Gun is Anton Waker. Anton’s parents sell stolen goods (such as architectural bits pilfered from buildings being renovated or torn down) for a living. Anton’s cousin Aria, who is six months older, moves in with them after her mother gets deported and her father goes after her. After high school Aria and Anton start selling fake social security cards and passports. Aria is the leader; Anton is the follower.

BooksEventually, Anton decides he wants out. After seeing an Anton Waker who just graduated from Harvard quoted in a newspaper, he requests a copy of “his” diploma, and with it begins living his dream life as an office drone. That’s not sarcasm—it actually was his dream to work in an office—he just didn’t want to bother taking the normal steps it would take to get there.

He becomes engaged to Sophie, a cellist who has no idea about his past. She does, however, seem to have cold feet about their wedding. For his part, Anton seems to care more about his one-eyed rescue cat than he does Sophie. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that ;)) If the wedding ever takes place, Anton and Sophie are scheduled to go to Ischia, Italy on their honeymoon. Meanwhile, Aria hasn’t gotten over the fact that Anton abandoned their business and Anton’s employer has obtained a big contract that requires it to do background checks on all its employees. Uh-oh.

Anton’s the center of the book, but there’s a secondary protagonist, Anton’s secretary, Elena James. Elena grew up in Inuvik (a place so far north it makes Oslo look sunny and toasty by comparison), and came to New York after high school on a full scholarship to Columbia University. Unfortunately, she dropped out after one semester, putting her in an awkward position immigration-wise. She doesn’t want to return to Canada, especially not to Inuvik. At one point, she tries to explain why to another character:

“There’s nothing up there.”

“You’re talking about a lack of employment?”

“No, I’m talking about a lack of everything. A loss of potential. It’s hard to explain. There’s just… it’s a narrowing of possibilities,” she said. “Even the smartest people end up doing nothing much with their lives, because there’s nothing to do. It’s not just Inuvik, it’s everywhere in the world that’s small and remote. Fewer things are possible in places like that.” (230)

That may be the best explanation I’ve come across of the feeling I had growing up in very small towns, why I couldn’t wait to escape, why I always raise my eyebrows at stories where the protagonist realizes the life they’ve built in The City is empty! and the only place where their life will be complete! is the Quirky Hometown they never should have left. 🙄 I was in a simmering panic for years, first worrying that I wouldn’t get out, and then when I did, worrying that it wouldn’t last, that eventually I’d end up forced back to some small, narrow place. Which maybe seems crazy, but I guess it’s a bit like leaving a cult. You have to reprogram yourself to believe that it’s ok to do things like (gasp) live in a city.

Of course, there’s a bit of irony to Elena’s remark in that some of the key characters do end up in a smallish, remote-ish place. Not nearly as small and remote as Inuvik, though.

With its themes of identity, (im)migration, and dislocation, this was one of my favorites so far this year. I’ll definitely be reading Mandel’s other novels.

22: The Bean Trees

The Bean TreesThe Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Purchased at Beacon Books in Sidney last August.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

Previously at The Remainder Table, I read Prodigal Summer. (I’ve also read The Poisonwood Bible, but that was before I started writing book posts.)

Apparently this is quite a well-known book, but I didn’t know anything about it prior to reading it. After checking out the reviews at Goodreads (as I enjoy doing after finishing a book), I’m going to guess it’s assigned reading in high school English classes. The one-star reviews offer such gems as: “I didn’t much enjoy this book, mostly because of its inability to relate to me through the predominantly female cast of characters.” Oh noes! Not, gasp, female characters! By that logic I should stop reading every book(/watching every movie) with a predominantly male cast of characters. Oh, wait. That’s most of them.

Marietta, called Missy, works for a few years after high school. She saves up and leaves her hometown in Kentucky in a VW bug (that has no side windows and that she has to push start) and heads west. She decides a fresh start needs a new name and picks Taylor when the car runs out of gas in Taylorville.

I still felt kind of awful about leaving her, and changing my name just seemed like the final act of betrayal, but Mama didn’t see it that way. She said I was smarter than anything to think of Taylor, that it fit me like a pair of washed jeans. She told me she’d always had second thoughts about Marietta. (85)

(The funny/ironic thing here is that her original name was also a place name—Marietta for Marietta, Georgia.)

Along the way, Taylor stops for something to eat and a woman foists a small child on her. She takes the child, who she discovers has been abused, and continues west. She names the child Turtle on account of her grip. A lot of the reviews I read had issues with these two elements. Why wouldn’t she turn the child into the police? Why would she name her Turtle? Oh, I don’t know. Because it’s fiction? In fiction, characters make strange choices. If they didn’t, stories wouldn’t be very interesting. Sure, if you were in Taylor’s place, you’d probably call the police. But would you really want to read a story where the main character only makes good, safe choices? zzz.

Meanwhile, Lou Ann from Kentucky is living in Tucson. Despite (or perhaps because of) her being pregnant with their first child, her husband, Angel, leaves her. On Halloween. Trick or treat!

Taylor and Turtle stop in Tucson when the VW gets two flat tires Taylor can’t afford to replace. Lou Ann places an ad for a roommate and Taylor answers it. They bond over both being from Kentucky.

Taylor gets a job at the tire shop she went to her first day in Tucson. The owner, Mattie, offers sanctuary to refugees. Taylor becomes close to two of them, husband-and-wife Estevan and Esperanza. Estevan has this exchange with Taylor:

“This is how Americans think.” He was looking at me in a thoughtful way. “You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it.”

I wanted to tell him this wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. “I guess you’re right,” I said. “I guess it makes us feel safe.” (123)

This sentiment feels so current. And yet, The Bean Trees was published in 1988, when the North American obsession with safety wasn’t nearly as frenzied as it is now. It’s crazypants how people think they can minimize risk to the point that nothing bad will ever happen and that if something does happen to you, it must be because you did something wrong. This just isn’t true.

I loved the horticulture bits, of course. That’s one of my favorite things about Kingsolver’s writing. (Thinking I need to start a biology-in-fiction tag.)

In the end, this was a story about family, how families are not always the conventional kind, but are sometimes created in unexpected and unusual ways.

21: Road Dogs

Road DogsRoad Dogs by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

From the VPL Spring 2010 book sale.

Read in August 2013.

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When Elmore Leonard died on August 20, I thought hmm, don’t I have an Elmore Leonard book on my to-read shelf? Indeed I did. And yes, it had been there for a while. Thus, it was chosen as my next read.

As the story opens, Jack Foley and Cundo Rey meet in prison in Florida. Foley’s a bank robber. He escaped from prison (under duress, or so he says) but has been returned. Cundo’s a rich criminal kingpin. (For whatever reason, that’s how they’re referred to: Foley and Cundo, not Jack and Cundo or Foley and Rey.) Foley’s been sentenced to thirty years but Cundo gets his lawyer on it, gets Foley’s sentence reduced to thirty months.

Foley is… wait. Foley is George Clooney in that movie with Jennifer Lopez. Out of Sight. J.Lo. was Karen Sisco. Ok. So now every time I read “Foley” I’m going to see Clooney. Hrm. Weird. (Is it just a coincidence that, like Foley, Clooney’s more often than not ‘Clooney’ rather than ‘George’?)

Moving along. Cundo has two houses in Venice (California, not Italy). His “wife”—Dawn Navarro, a psychic who’s been waiting (cough) for him to get out of prison for the past eight years—is living in one of these. VPL Spring Book Sale

Foley is released first, and Cundo puts him up in the house Dawn’s not living in. Dawn and Foley hook up (naturally). They hatch a scheme involving “psychic powers” to relieve a grieving widow of her fortune. They also hope to relieve Cundo of his fortune.

But once Cundo gets out, Foley doesn’t play the con the way Dawn wants and things go awry (understatement). In the end, Foley gives up robbing banks for good. Or so he says.

It’s all about the dialogue.

20: The Redeemer

The RedeemerThe Redeemer by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loaned to me.

Read in August 2013.

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The Redeemer is set in Norway and part of the enjoyment in reading it was learning about a country I’m not familiar with (but supposedly—possibly apocryphally—have ancestors from). It’s the sixth book in a series about police detective Harry Hole. (I have not read any of the others.) Harry is your typical damaged hero character. A recovering alcoholic, of course. He falls off the wagon at one point, but he has unwavering principles. Unlike some colleagues.

The story takes place in December and despite reading this in August I had a bit of a SAD attack just thinking about The Darkness. Oslo is at the 59th parallel, people. (59°57′ to be precise. Bergen is at 60°23′. For comparison, Whitehorse, Yukon is at 60°43’N.) eep. /digression

The story opens with a flashback to an incident at a Salvation Army summer camp in 1991. Two of the characters in this chapter are brothers Jon and Robert. As the story shifts into the present day, older brother Jon has a stable career with the Salvation Army and is engaged to fellow SA officer Thea, while younger brother Robert’s life is still unsettled.

[Note: the following is not a spoiler. It is given away on the back cover.] An assassin kills Robert while he is staffing a Salvation Army kettle at a concert (really!) but before the assassin can leave the country and disappear as he normally does after a job, he realizes he’s made a mistake. He was contracted to kill Jon, not Robert. He returns to Oslo to find Jon. Duh, duh, duh…

Ok, so I’m going to try to write about the ending without being spoilery. I thought the resolution was totally plausible in that it involved a person who had been in the story throughout. It wasn’t a deus ex machina or anything like that. But. Something felt off for me about it. Specifically, I felt like there was too much withholding of information in certain scenes (the point-of-view shifts between a few key characters) in order to misdirect. For sure, there were some clues, but maybe too much dependence on unreliable narration. Although, maybe if I reread it, I’d see it differently.

Nesbo is a fan of chapters that end leaving you thinking a character is dead. Then as the next chapter opens, you realize the character is actually not dead. In the end, the death count was fairly low (four).

My favorite character was probably Martine, the daughter of the Salvation Army commander, but I’m guessing she won’t be a recurring character in the series.

I liked that the characters were trapped up by modern technology. The assassin gets stuck because he can’t use his credit card or make a phone call or get on a plane. People are tracked by their phones. A computer is used to access voice mail. You know. Stuff that actually happens in the 21st century. I appreciate when writers adapt to new technology rather than, for example, making up some excuse for a character still having an answering machine (!) so it can blab a message at an inappropriate time.