Isabel Allende’s “A Long Petal of the Sea” is a gorgeous novel that transports us all to another time and place, seamlessly marrying the fictional and the historical. In the late 1930s, civil war gripped Spain before General Franco and his Fascists succeeded in overthrowing the government. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee over the mountains to the French border, among them Roser, a pregnant widow, and Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must enter into a marriage neither of them desires. Together with 2000 other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” (This event is true.) Although they are unlikely partners, they embrace their exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war, finding joy even as they face trial after trial. Their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going as they witness the battle between freedom and repression play out across the world. Ultimately, however, they discover their true home was always closer than they thought. This is an epic story of love, war, family, violence and loss, and the search for home, and I loved it.
Who knew our own charming Port Townsend was once a hotbed of opium smuggling activity? It’s all there in Katrina Carrasco’s delightful historical crime novel, “The Best Bad Things.” It is 1887, and the fiery Alma Rosales – detective, smuggler, spy – is on the hunt for stolen opium. Trained in espionage by Pinkerton’s detective agency, but dismissed for bad behavior and a penchant for going undercover as a man, Alma now works for Delphine Beaumond, the seductive mastermind of a West Coast smuggling ring. When product goes missing at their Washington Territory outpost, Alma is tasked with tracking the thief and recovering the drugs. In disguise as the scrappy dockworker Jack Camp, she muscles her way into the local organization, wins the trust of the magnetic local boss and his boys, discovers the turncoat, and keeps them all from uncovering her secrets. All this while sending coded dispatches to the circling Pinkerton’s agents to keep them from closing in. As she gets in deeper, It gets harder and harder for Alma to keep her stories straight and to know whom to trust – one wrong move and she could be unmasked as a woman, as a traitor, or as a spy. As Carrasco writes in her Author’s Note, her major characters are fictional, but Port Townsend’s history as a smuggling hot spot is fact. In the 1880s, it was a powerhouse in sea trade, vying with San Francisco as the busiest American seaport on the West Coast. The Port Townsend customhouse was famed for corruption, and with help from the customs officials, smugglers were making fortunes by dodging the import tax on opium, which could be as high as six dollars per pound. Per the San Francisco Chronicle in 1893, “The opium ring of the Northwest is a fearful, shadowy, impalpable something: shadowy in form, but most substantial in fact.” I thoroughly enjoyed this gritty, colorful, and surprisingly sexy story.
I am always delighted to have a new book by Anne Tyler in hand, and relished the pathos and gentle humor of “Redhead by the Side of the Road.” Micah Mortimer, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building and self-employed tech expert (his card reads Tech Hermit, an apt description), is a creature of habit, cautious to a fault behind the wheel and seemingly content to lead a steady, circumscribed life. But one day his woman friend, Cass, (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and then a teenager shows up at his door claiming to be his son. These surprises, which throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever. I relished so many of Tyler’s descriptions of her characters and their relationships, such as “He and Cass had been together for three years or so, and they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified: compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked.” Gatherings with his boisterous family are a kick – “Like most families, the Mortimers believed that their family was more fascinating than anybody else’s. In a way, even Micah believed it, although he pretended not to.” You come to feel an intimate understanding of the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just beyond reach, and are saddened when he and Cass part – “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.” When he finally tells Cass,”I’m a roomful of broken hearts,” you want to hug him, and hope she will, too. Anne Tyler knows us.
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma sets her stunning debut novel, “House of Stone,” in the period of Zimbabwe’s emergence from devastating colonialism to the wars of independence to the euphoria of self-rule and the disillusionment of the present. In the chronic turmoil of modern Zimbabwe, Abednego and Agnes Mlambo’s teenage son, Bukhosi, has gone missing, and they fear the worst. Their enigmatic lodger, Zamani, seems to be their last, best hope for finding him. Since Bukhosi’s disappearance, Zamani has been incredibly helpful: hanging missing posters, handing out fliers, joining in family prayer vigils – almost as if he were part of the family. But almost is not enough for Zamani. He ingratiates himself with Agnes and feeds alcoholic Abednego’s addiction, desperate to extract their life stories and steep himself in borrowed family history, lacking his own – he yearns for “a father, my father, my mother, to be somebody’s son. Strong family roots in which to build my legacy.” This story is a sweeping epic that tells a personal story against the background of the fall of Rhodesia and the turbulent beginnings of Zimbabwe. “The state of things in our country, especially after 2000, when our government started controlling every facet of our lives, including what part of our history to remember and what part to forget, is proof that that it’s not what’s true that matters, but what you can make true.” Zamani is a conniving and manipulative narrator, and the end of his story is a knockout. ”House of Stone” is a breathtaking accomplishment for this young writer.
I’m sorry I can’t remember who recommended I read “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” by Beth Macy, because it is a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing eye-opener for us all, whether or not we are personally affected by the opioid crisis (and most of us are, in one way or another). This is said to be the only book to fully chart the opioid crisis in America, taking us into the epicenter of our twenty-plus-year struggle with opioid addiction from distressed small communities in central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs, from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns. Beginning with a single dealer in a small Virginia town who turns high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy tries to answer a grieving mother’s question – why did her only son die? The answer is a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, America embraced a medical culture where overtreatment with painkillers became the norm. The unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and to pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death. Families and first responders struggle to deal with this crisis, as, ironically, in a time of political fragmentation opioid drug abuse is the only thing that unites us across geographic and class lines. The folly of the decades-long War on Drugs, in which drug users were arrested four times more often than those who sell the drugs, has led police chiefs and sheriffs across the nation to lament, ”We can’t arrest ourselves out of this epidemic.” Rehab, relapse, and jail – that’s the way addiction works. As to rehab, Macy writes that fewer than one-quarter of heroin addicts who receive abstinence-only counseling and support remain clean two or more years. The recovery rate is roughly 40-60 percent higher among those who get counseling, support group, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone – although many rehabs remain staunchly anti-MAT. Only one in ten addicted Americans gets any treatment at all – which is why there’s such a push for outpatient medication-assisted treatment, and, increasingly, programs that divert the addicted from jail to treatment. I was struck by the realization that before we can begin to grasp the scope and depth of opioid addiction, we need to more fully understand rather than judge those get who get caught up in such a self-destructive life cycle. This book can be a meaningful first step.
Mysteries: We have a daughter who lives in the charming, artsy mountain town of Idyllwild CA, so it was fun in “Lost Looks,” by Howard Michael Gould, to meet quirky former LAPD detective Charlie Waldo, now living off the grid in solitude deep in the woods nearby. Waldo is pathologically committed to owning no more than one hundred possessions. (Is a pair of socks one thing, or two? It matters.) He has left behind his superstar career and his girlfriend, Lorena, to pay self-imposed penance for an awful misstep on a pivotal murder case. Now Lorena draws him into the case of Alastair Pinch, an absurdly rich, belligerent, and typically drunk onetime Royal Shakespeare Company thespian who currently slums it on a tacky network show. Pinch is about to be arrested for murdering his wife, and his greedy network convinces a reluctant Waldo to take the case on. The story is a fun ride of humor and suspense.
Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thanks to Catherine Gilmore for posting this quote on her blog, The Gilmore Guide to Books.