Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s. Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare. The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time. The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.
Several things stand out. From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church. And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church. The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn. Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.
Fortunately all clerics are not villains. In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad. This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it. He thinks the Church needs to change. Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest. One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action. It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs. And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.
One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character. Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity? Why do some people act with courage and against self interest? These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.
And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should. This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews. There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision. In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie. Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.
Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011. Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery. Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness. They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue. Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis. Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other. Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.
Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence. The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations. I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.
I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative. The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters. Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy. The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.
I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.
I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions. This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives. The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem. Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming. Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school. The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace. Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read. Small Admissions would make a great movie!
Katrina Trask and her husband Spencer Trask were visionary philanthropists at the turn of the century. Lynn Esmay has written a lovely novel based on Katrina Trask’s diaries and presented as her memoir. After suffering terrible family tragedies, the Trasks focused on leading meaningful lives and contributing to the welfare of others. The couple supported all manner of philanthropy, particularly in the vicinity of Saratoga, New York. The couple lived in both New York City and Saratoga, and seemed to know most of the notables of their day. Katrina Trask was a published poet and playwright, but her biggest legacy was a colony for artists that she and her husband established at Yaddo, outside Saratoga. To this day artists and writers enjoy residencies at Yaddo. This novel tells a heart-warming tale of privileged people who lived elegant lives and yet worked hard and mindfully to create a lasting legacy of artistic nurturing and taking care of the needy.
Hell Fire is Karin Fossum’s latest excellent murder mystery. As usual Fossum’s story is heavy with troubled family relationships and people who are struggling. The detectives are not partcularly quirky; they play a background role in this family tragedy. The all consuming struggle of two single mothers trying to cope with bad circumstances and parenting challenges moves this story forward. There isn’t a lot of emotion to the matter-of-fact narration, but the story is well told and compelling, and I found myself thinking about it quite a bit afterward.
The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished. I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.
Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow. This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist. Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered. She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious. She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through. This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives! I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way. Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine. There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.
Fredrik Backman, the author of the remarkable A Man Called Ove, has written another remarkable novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Told from the point of view of Elsa, a grieving seven-year-old girl, this novel brings together an odd collection of characters who are struggling with their lives. When Elsa loses the one person who “gets” her, she is forced to look elsewhere. The story is in the nature of a quest, with frequent references to Harry Potter, Spider-Man and other fantasy figures. Elsa is a remarkable, heroic child, who faces bullying and grief with a compelling mixture of stoicism and sarcasm. This is a wonderful book! It celebrates quirkiness, bravery, compassion and holding oneself accountable. I loved it!
Charles Bock has written a fine autobiographical family novel about cancer. Specifically Alice and Oliver tells the story of what happens to a family after the young mother’s abrupt diagnosis of cancer. There is an overwhelming sadness to this book, but a lot of other things are going on as well. This young family has taken good health and good fortune for granted. They leave an optimistic life. Suddenly everything changes, and nothing will ever be quite the same. Alice is always ill, and Oliver is confronted with enormous, unanticipated responsibility. Life wasn’t supposed to be this way. In addition to taking care of his wife and child, he struggles to keep his business afloat and figure out how to pay for his wife’s astronomical medical expenses. This isn’t a story where everyone rises to the occasion and the sick and healthy spouses continue as before, except with increased adoration and nurturing. This couple is shell shocked and utterly unprepared. In many ways they take independent paths and aren’t always kind for each other, even as they doggedly pursue a cure.
The appeal of Alice and Oliver is twofold. First, the author repeatedly looks at the situation from both the wife and the husband’s point of view. Secondly, these are flawed and immature young adults who are both terrified and resentful at suddenly have to grow up and get serious. They don’t always get it right. Sometimes muddling through is the best you can do.
Charles Bock’s first wife died after suffering from cancer for two-and-a-half years. She left a young child who wouldn’t remember her and a bewildered, grieving husband. In Alice and Oliver, Bock addresses his family’s story through a novel. His efforts to show what his wife was feeling through this ordeal are bolstered by some diary-like pieces she wrote while she was ill. Questioning Oliver’s behavior, as well as the way Bock elects to present it is one of the puzzles presented by this intriguing yet very sad book.
This is far from a feel-good novel, but I do recommend it for its thoughtful presentation of human behavior under stress.
I loved everything about A Man Called Ove, a wonderful novel by the Swedish writer Fredrik Backman. Ove is an elderly man struggling with grief. Ove is his own greatest enemy. He doesn’t understand other people and has contempt for all. Enter kind neighbors who refuse to take offense or leave him alone and a series of circumstances that Ove can’t avoid or stop, and there is a fine story. It also happens to be very funny.
Saying any more risks ruining this book, so I’ll just close by saying that this book’s knowing take on the loneliness, frustrations and challenges of old age is very moving
Ashley Hay has written a beautiful novel about a young, grieving widow in post-WWII Australia. The Railwayman’s Wife is short and to the point. Most of the characters are suffering from loss, and the intersections of these fragile, young people are what makes this book so good.
Ani Lachlan is the young widow. She has suddenly lost her husband and is numb, but she also has a young daughter and a sudden need to earn a living. Somewhat randomly, Ani is thrust back into the world as the local librarian. Although it feels strange to have a job and a schedule in the face of her grief, this is a good move for her.
The Railwayman’s Wife is particularly appealing and satisfying because it is set in the world of books. Ani’s library literally provides a welcome haven, as well as a point of entry back into the community. Throughout this lovely story, there are references to choosing books, poetry and reading aloud. In the face of terrible grief, books and reading provide sustenance. They also link Ani to her late husband, whose books and love of reading aloud help describe him.
I loved The Railwayman’s Wife for many of the reasons I loved Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies, which I previously reviewed. Both books have distinctive and somewhat unusual settings (Joyce’s Staten Island and Hay’s small coastal Australian town), which provide a strong background for their stories. They also revolve around recent, accidental deaths of young men and the families that survive them. The numbing shock of loss and uncertainty about how to behave are common to both books, as is the characters’ growing understanding of how they will proceed with their own lives and feel pleasure again.
I strongly recommend The Railwayman’s Wife, as well as Small Mercies. These are serious, appealing books that provide intelligent comfort and understanding in the face of traumatic loss.