It’s been a difficult year for me so far, but you know what I can do when I’m sick, when I’m hanging around the hospital waiting for things to happen, and when I’m recovering from surgery and have to rest a lot? I can read! And it happens that I received a lovely stack of new-to-me books for Christmas! Here are my reviews of the ones I’ve finished:
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
For the first half of this book, I was enjoying the story well enough, but I was a little disappointed that this book wasn’t grabbing me like Morton’s The Distant Hours (reviewed here). Then it started to do things that really impressed me structurally as well as making the plot more exciting! The most amazing thing I can explain without giving you any spoilers is that a conversation between two main characters which starts around page 30 appears again around page 440 but from the other character’s point of view; the third-person narration giving you the viewpoint character’s unspoken thoughts and perceptions of the action, combined with the fact that background noise prevents each of them from hearing some of what the other says, combined with what you’ve learned about the plot in the intervening 410 pages, gives the conversation an entirely different meaning! Wow.
Anyway, about the story: Laurel was hanging out in her treehouse, being an angsty teenager, when she saw a strange man approach her mother and heard the few words he said before her mother fatally stabbed him with the birthday-cake knife. The official story is that her mother was defending herself against a dangerous vagrant, but Laurel isn’t so sure…but (for rather weakly explained reasons) she doesn’t attempt to figure it out until fifty years later. The story of Laurel’s investigation is interwoven with flashbacks to World War II London, when her mother had all the interpersonal drama that she then left behind to become Laurel’s wonderful, nurturing mother at Greenacres Farm. Twists and turns galore bring us to a roller-coaster ending in which it all finally, astoundingly, makes sense. There are some dragging moments in the first half, but it was well worth reading carefully in order to appreciate the rest!
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury
Allan Karlsson is alone in his room at the old folks’ home and doesn’t feel like going to the party that’s about to begin celebrating his 100th birthday, so he climbs out the ground-level window and shuffles off in his slippers. He goes to the bus station and chooses his destination based on the bus schedule and the amount of cash he happens to have. A rude young man asks Allan to watch his suitcase and then takes too long in the restroom, so Allan takes the suitcase and boards his bus. The suitcase turns out to be full of cash, which fuels Allan’s adventures with the new friends he meets in the present, while flashbacks tell you all about his adventures over the previous hundred years.
As a social scientist who’s spent the last 17 years working with data about men’s lifecourse development and criminal activity, I was somewhat fascinated by Allan’s impulsivity and the effects it has on everything that happens to him and, as it turns out, the entire course of world history. I was not surprised that he got tangled up in so many crimes, including multiple homicides in the present and past–impulsivity is a risk factor for criminal behaviors including murder. But that didn’t make me like him or admire him. I’m surprised at how many reviews called this story “a charming celebration of life” and “very warm and filled with feel-good humor” and so forth. Allan is manipulative, destructive, and a borderline psychopath.
I had mixed feelings about his adventures in the past. They got sillier and sillier as he met practically every historical figure of the 20th century and turned out to be responsible for all the major explosions. The flashbacks also interfered with my following the story of the present, which was such a madcap adventure that it didn’t always make a lot of sense. One thing I did like was that Allan’s accidental connection to Indonesia turned into a lifelong friendship that seemed genuinely meaningful as well as playing an important role in the plot both past and present.
I started reading this book on my partner Daniel’s grandfather Herschel’s 100th birthday! I won’t want to read it again, and Herschel still reads novels, so it’s logical that I should give it to him. But Daniel says maybe we shouldn’t give him any ideas….
Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent
I was excited to read this memoir of growing up Yeshivish (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) in the neighborhood where I live in Pittsburgh. The Yeshivish live by extremely strict rules of modesty, kosher eating, and frequent worship, in parallel to all the other types of people in our vibrant urban neighborhood–what is that like? The author broke out of the strict mold in which she was raised, and I was interested to read about that experience, too.
Unfortunately, the first part of this book is too short! There is only one chapter about Leah’s childhood, and while it gives a vivid glimpse into a brief moment in her home and family, plus a trip to the video store to rent one of the few movies her parents would allow, there is nothing about her experience of Squirrel Hill. I was able to figure out where she lived, within a block of my son’s public school–what did she think of the schoolchildren she must have seen passing, kids her age dressed so differently and leading such different lives right next to her?? I’d love to read more about that!
The story of Leah’s exile from her family and journey to find her own way in the world is very interesting, though, and well-written, with just a few odd gaps and a few overly-detailed sections. She was intelligent and prone to inquiry, so her parents wanted to surround her with strong Yeshivish influences by sending her to attend an Orthodox high school in England while living with relatives in an area with a much larger Yeshivish population than Pittsburgh–which would also increase her odds of finding a Yeshivish husband for ideally early marriage. Leah’s best friend in England had a brother who, although he firmly rebuffed her one attempt to flirt with him, was interested in talking with her about religious subjects including the role of women. Unable to have enough in-person conversations to keep up with this intellectual discussion, they began exchanging notes–and when Leah’s parents found out about this, they were furious! She shouldn’t talk with a boy–what a slut! Now her siblings might not be able to get married, with that tainting the family reputation!
It gets worse from there. Ultimately, Leah’s parents set her up with a basement apartment in Brooklyn and a minimum-wage secretarial job in Manhattan and then left her on her own financially and emotionally at age 17. What she did next was a tangled combination of earnest seeking to understand the humanity of all people and wild over-reaction to her family’s attitudes about sex: “So I’m a slut? I’ll show you what a slut I am!!” In the end, seeking secular education and meeting other “recovering” Orthodox Jews helped her find her way to a more normal life.
Trigger warnings: Explicit sex. Sexual violence. Self-mutilation. Bondage. Adultery. Profanity.
The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
This is the next-to-last book written by my favorite mystery author, who died last year. All of the main characters are people in their seventies, remembering the past–thanks to the discovery of two skeletal hands in a biscuit tin, in the area where they played when they were kids–while getting on with their lives in the present, which begin to change as the mystery reunites them with old friends. Alan, in particular, can’t set aside the question of whether he married the wrong girl. Meanwhile, they’re all trying to figure out whose hands those are and who killed those two people. You, the reader, think you know because you started the story from the murderer’s point of view–but you’re missing one crucial clue.
Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a really superb murder mystery: It’s only mildly mysterious and not very unusual. Don’t read this book if you have trouble following a large cast of characters: The group of old friends is large, and most of them have grown children who appear in the story, and Michael’s father and cousin are also important characters, as are Alan & Rosemary’s two granddaughters, and then there are a couple of detectives….
Read this book if you’re interested in people and their interwoven lives, especially older people who are still having lives and feelings, and if you don’t mind the concept of severed limbs coming up every few pages.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish by Henning Koch
I loved this unusual story! Elsa is seven years old, her grandmother is seventy-seven, and they are best friends. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend; the kids at school don’t understand her, and she has a low opinion of them. Granny, however, made a lot of friends and saved a lot of lives in her career as the kind of doctor who goes wherever in the world the trouble is and does her best to make things better–and in the process, she also hurt a lot of feelings. In her golden years, Granny has been telling Elsa fantastic tales of The Land of Almost-Awake, breaking into the zoo for fun, shooting paintball guns at door-to-door evangelists, railing against anti-smoking laws, and generally setting an interesting example. Then Granny dies of cancer, leaving Elsa a series of letters to find and deliver. Each letter is Granny’s apology to someone. In the process, Elsa learns that the other tenants of her apartment house are not who they seem to be and that the stories of The Land of Almost-Awake were preparing her for ordeals in the real world, some of which are life-threatening. Ultimately, it all turns into a huge, complicated, original, profound lesson about love and the nature of superheroes and the things that are staring you right in the face if only you know how to see.
This book made me really miss my grandmother, not because she was such a hell-raiser as Elsa’s (although she was something of a non-conformist) or because our relationship was much like theirs, but because we didn’t get enough time together and because Grandma would have loved this book and I’m sad that I can’t share it with her!
I’m starting to feel better now and should be a lot better by the end of this month. Of course, that won’t stop me from reading! Check out the Quick Lit linkup to see what other writers have been reading lately! Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for a great list of children’s books about libraries and dozens of tips on other topics!