Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

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!

A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.

Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living is a Moving Post-War Novel  of the American South

Jonathan Rabb has written a warm and thoughtful novel about a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Savannah, Georgia, after the war.  Yitzhak Goldah, the protagonist of Among the Living, is 31 years old when he joins a distant cousin’s family in Savannah.  His cousin and his wife warmly welcome Goldah, even as they expect him to join in their way of life automatically and enthusiastically.  These folks like their world and are eager to share it with Goldah.  But Goldah, a journalist before the war, is not particularly observant and doesn’t care to conform to his cousins’ expectations.  Just as he is getting used to his own freedom, Goldah is both bewildered and bemused by the competing Jewish congregations in Savannah and declines to choose sides.  He didn’t survive the Holocaust so that he could be prevented from seeing the people he chooses to see.  Conflicts ensue.  There are romantic issues, social issues and sinister business problems.  Additional conflict is provided by the irony of dealing with Savannah’s stifling Jim Crow environment.

Yitzgak is a sensitively drawn character who doesn’t fit any pattern of a helpless, grateful refugee.  He is damaged, but he wants to get his life back.  The book’s other characters also prove interesting because of their world views and the unusual and often unexpected problems they face.  Flawed as they are, these characters compel sympathy.  They may not see things the same way and they may try to bend others to their points of view, but that isn’t the whole story.  The ability to see things differently and the willingness to bend the rules to help others makes this a powerful, complex story.  After the horrific violence and cruelty of the Holocaust, these characters’ goodwill and gentle efforts to control events provide a welcome contrast.  That said, there is the overarching reality of Jim Crow, which reminds us that all is far from well in Savannah.

I recommend this book.  Jonathan Rabb has provided provocative, sympathetic characters facing unusual challenges in a fascinating setting.

Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings Captures a Certain Kind of Friendship

The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting.  They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties.  The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them.  Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes.   As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has  recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything.  Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers.  She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.

All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs.   She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member.   Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book.  Jules spends  a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments.  We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest.  Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.

Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds.  The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows.  At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying.  I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives.  Sometimes they do, but often they don’t.  Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt. 

In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined.  Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make.   I liked this book.  It made me think a lot about past and current friendships. 

Garnethill — The First, Very Troubling Mystery in Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy

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.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry — Another Wonderful Book by the Author of A Man Called Ove

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!

Miss Buncle’s Book — An English Village with a Mystery Author in Its Midst

In the 1930’s, the English novelist D.E. Stevenson wrote a warm, funny book about village life.  The millieau of Miss Buncle’s Book is familiar to readers of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels and the genre of village mysteries.  There is no murder here, but the village is faced with the mystery of who wrote a novel that describes the village and some of its more prominent citizens all too clearly.  Stevenson empathizes with the undisclosed author and her genteel poverty.  The books’s humor largely lies with the reactions of some of the more self-absorbed and pretentious members of the community to their inclusion in the book. Their outrage is hilarious.  There is an undeniably warm and cozy quality to this book, but it also has an interesting and sometimes surprising plot line and a brilliant take on how people perceive themselves and others.  I recommend this book as a satisfying and clever read.

Doing Dangerously Well – A Scary/Funny Novel about Water, Corruption and International Interference in Nigeria

 

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This is a great book!  For no particular reason except my obsessive alphabetical-by-author selection process, I recently picked up and devoured Carole Enahoro’s 2010 over-the-top novel Doing Dangerously Well.   This chillingly funny book concerns the exploits and machinations of a sleazy bunch of characters determined to sew up and profit from monopolizing Nigeria’s water supply.  There are the corrupt, paranoid politicians on the ground in Nigeria and then there are the corporate sharks of a huge, blatantly corrupt American conglomerate.  On both sides of the ocean, the parties are so busy fighting among themselves that they fail to account for outside opposition to their overall plan.  Mary and Barbara Glass, two sisters on opposite pages about everything except for the glee they each share in tromping  the other, provide a crazy theme of family failure to complete this oddball satire about the deadly business of access to water.  You really need to read this book.  It is just amazing!

Carole Enahoro, the author, has a Nigerian father and an English mother, and has grown up in Nigeria, Britain and Canada.  In addition to her parental and geographic diversity, Enahoro, has pursued a wide range of interests, including teaching geography at the the University of London and working in television.  At the time this book was published, she was working on a PhD in spatial practice, power and satire in Nigeria’s capital.  Her diverse talents are brilliantly employed in this novel and I really hope she writes another one.  Soon.  In the meantime, someone really needs to make a movie out of this.  The part of over-the-top Barbara is completely made for Toni Collette, and Julia Roberts would have a blast as the evil corporate sister.