“Monogamy,” by Sue Miller, is one of those absorbing stories that pull you deeply into the lives of a couple and don’t let you go until you (reluctantly) reach the end. Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. Their seemingly endless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances. By all appearances, they are a golden couple. Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites – curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull who is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children: Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York; Sarah, Annie and Graham’s daughter, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love. Until the unexpected happens, a ruinous secret is revealed, and Annie has reason to question all that she was comfortable believing. Sue Miller is a compelling and compassionate writer who excels at burrowing into the intricacies of an extended family’s complex and often challenging relationships.
My family lived in Naples when I was in college, which may be why I am especially enamored with Elena Ferrante’s novels set in that colorful, chaotic, endearing city, beginning with her four-volume novel known as the Neapolitan quartet. Her latest, “The Lying Life of Adults,” focuses on the adolescent life of her 12-year-old narrator, Giovanna, and the gulf between the Naples of the heights, which assumes a mask of refinement, and the Naples of the depths, with its excess and vulgarity. The book’s first paragraph sets the tone – “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via San Giacomo die Capri, in Rione Alto. Everything – the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words – remained fixed. But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.” Is Giovanna seeing things as they really are? In search of her true reflection and a life she can claim as her own, adrift between extended family members with their complex relationships, Giovanna vacillates between the two parts of her city, falling into one and then climbing back to the other. Neither seems to offer answers. I agree with the reviewer who said that Ferrante is unbeatable at pulling readers into the mind of a teenage girl so that we see how everything that looks irrational from the outside – the moods, the silences, the jealousy, fears, tears, and resentments – are utterly logical and reasonable when you understand them. She (if in fact she is a she – Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) is a brilliant writer.
“Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague,” by Maggie O’Farrell, a wonderfully creative speculation about Shakespeare’s life, is set in England in 1580 as The Black Death creeps across the land, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old, and the young alike. A young Latin tutor – penniless and bullied by a violent father – falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman named Agnes who is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother of three and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son, Hamnet (or Hamlet) succumbs. This is a revelatory portrait of a marriage, of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and an inspired reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time. In her Author’s Note, O’Farrell says she has tried to stick to the scant historical facts known about the real Hamnet and his family, but a few details – names, in particular – have been altered or elided over. For example, most people will know Hamnet’s mother as “Anne,” but she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as “Agnes.” Also, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died: his burial is listed but not the cause of his death. The Black Death is not mentioned once by Shakespeare in any of his plays or poetry, and O’Farrell has always wondered why. To our benefit, this imaginative novel is the result of her idle speculation, one I couldn’t put down.
“Transcendent Kingdom,” a novel about a Ghanian family in the contemporary South, was written by Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. (She won numerous prizes for her debut novel, “Homegoing.”) It’s a profound story about race in America and an intimate portrait of a young woman reckoning, spiritually and intellectually, with a legacy of unmanageable loss. Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine, studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in Gifty’s bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her. But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s losses, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. This beautifully-written novel is a deeply moving portrait of immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief – but it’s also about faith, science, religion, and love, and is ultimately uplifting.
Susan Abulhawa takes us to Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine in her powerful and defiant novel, “Against the Loveless World.” Sharp-tongued Nahr tells her life story from an Israeli solitary-confinement cell, recounting how she went from working in beauty salons to being locked up as a political prisoner. In Kuwait as an abandoned wife not quite twenty years old, she is tricked into working as an escort for powerful men at late-night parties – until the US invasion of Iraq makes her Palestinian family refugees again. Displaced and bewildered in Jordan, Nahr travels to Palestine seeking a divorce from the man who disappeared on her, wholly unprepared to confront the consequences of the secret that defined her past. But there, in her homeland, she is transformed by the power of her roots, literature, and love. She emerges a foul-mouthed critic, passionate dancer, and radical political thinker who risks everything to return her family to their native land. Her fate fulfills her own prophecy that “the freest individuals were the ones who ended up in state prisons.” At one point, she and the man she lovesread an essay by James Baldwin written as a letter to his nephew, Big James, in which he says, “Here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.” Baldwin also wrote, “To be committed is to be in danger,” words Nahr never forgot. I will not forget the emotional impact of this book.
Since I have read so much about WWII, I thought I didn’t need to read Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” – but, then again, everything Larson writes is completely engaging, so I dove in and, of course, was immediately engrossed in this fresh portrait of Churchill and England during the early days of the war when the outcome was deeply in doubt. In Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally – and willing to fight to the end. Larson shows in detail how Churchill taught the British people (and Hitler, who couldn’t believe they wouldn’t give up) “the art of being fearless.” It’s a story of political brinkmanship, but also an intimate domestic drama set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports – some released only recently – Larson pulls us into London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and those closest to him: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their irresponsible son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in his hardest moments. Larson does a wonderful job of combining the terrible tension of the war with colorful descriptions of Churchill’s eccentricities – for example, after dinner one night at Chequers, fueled with champagne and brandy, Churchill fired up the gramophone and began to play military marches and songs, marching to the music while carrying a big-game rifle, executing rifle drills and bayonet maneuvers, “looking in his rompers like a fierce pale blue Easter egg gone to war.” As Larson brings us to the darkest days of 1941 I actually found myself feeling tense about the possibility of Hitler’s success. That’s marvelous writing.
There is simply no way to compare one’s own life with that of a thin, elegant woman who in 1945 lived in a small cottage in the leafy English Cotswolds with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton, as she was known, was friendly but reserved, spoke with a slight foreign accent, and seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life, revealing little about herself to her neighbors in the village. They had no idea she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, the most important female spy in history, an agent code-named “Sonya,” who set the stage for the Cold War. Or that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe. Behind the façade of her picturesque life, “Mrs. Burton” (born Ursula Kuczynski in 1907 to a Jewish family in Berlin) was a dedicated communist, a Red Army colonel, and a veteran spymaster, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb. Over the course of her astonishing espionage career she was hunted by the Chinese government, the Japanese secret police, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI – and evaded them all. Her story reflects the great ideological battles of the twentieth century – between communism, fascism, and Western democracy – and in “Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy,” Ben Macintyre tells it superbly. He had unparalleled access to Sonya’s diaries and correspondence and has produced a page-turning history of this revolutionary secret agent, complete with maps and photos of all the major players. You will be stunned by how “Sonya” juggled lovers, husbands, and children, was “ambitious, romantic, risk-addicted, occasionally selfish, huge-hearted, and tough as only someone who had lived through the worst of twentieth-century could be,” yet was never betrayed and survived to July 7, 2000, when she died at the age of 93. A bonus is the Afterword: The Lives of Others, which tells us what eventually happened to the other participants in this true saga that is every bit as engrossing as any fictional spy thriller.
Mysteries: We have happily worked our way through the Swedish mystery series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo featuring Martin Beck, chief of the Swedish National Homicide Squad, and his group of disparate, contentious police officers that Michael Connolly called “One of the most authentic, gripping, profound collections of police procedurals ever accomplished.” Dennis Lehane describes them as “Rendered with crisp, elegant prose and tension so thick the reader could crack a tooth.” KCLS has all 10, most as books but two as an Audiobook or eBook, and they are quick reads as well as complex stories with characters you come to feel you know well and care about. Enjoy. “Winter Counts,” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a lawyer, professor, and enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is a gripping thriller that gives the reader a true sense of life on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, both the good and the bad. Virgil Wounded Horse is the reservation’s local enforcer, hired to deliver his own punishment when justice is denied by the American legal system or tribal council. When heroin makes its way onto the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. This is a terrific debut novel with a stunning, surprising climax. Tana French is in a class by herself when it comes to psychological mysteries, and “The Searcher” is no exception. Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a remote Irish village would be the perfect escape after 25 years in the Chicago police force and a bruising divorce, a place with a good pub in a pretty spot where nothing much happens. Then a local kid comes looking for help in finding a missing brother when no one else, including the police, seems to care, and Cal can’t make himself walk away as he learns that even in an idyllic small town there are plenty of hidden secrets. French is a master at setting a mood and developing characters you care about.
A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking. – Jerry Seinfeld, comedian