The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi-cultural)

A Minneapolis bookstore is haunted by its most annoying (and recently deceased) patron. It’s not just any bookstore — it’s Birchbark Books — the very real bookstore owned by none other but the author herself who makes cameo appearances in the story. Tookie — a large, Native American woman who took up reading with a passion while serving a long prison sentence — is our narrator. Tookie is wonderful — she keeps her “to read” pile next to her bed in two stacks: the Lazy Stack and the Hard Stack — my kind of woman. The haunting story takes place while Minneapolis suffers first from Covid and then from being ground zero for the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

It’s a tender, multi-faceted story with characters that are so real, so nuanced, and so vibrant it made me cry to know that I would never actually be able to meet them. Absolutely beautiful writing as always — see the quote sampler at the end. Louise Erdrich has gone from “never read because too depressing” to “favorite author” in the last year or two. I loved LaRose, I really loved The Night Watchman, and now I have fallen in love with her latest — The Sentence. By the way, I loved her use of the word “sentence” with multiple meanings, both literary and punitive.

The story follows personal lives through these bigger events — their fears, perspectives (not all predictable), frustrations, and actions — the impact on relationships. The long buried hurts that emerge at inconvenient times. The scenes in the bookstore with vignettes on various customers — their needs, conversation, and frequent crankiness — are priceless. Lots of great book references and lists interspersed — I was happy to find new authors (and I read a lot — this doesn’t happen to me very often). As always, plenty of historical and current information on Native Americans including (as an example) the statistic that Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned). The bookstore employs a great number of “indigerati” — a term I believe Erdrich coined because I can’t find it anywhere else — I love it!

One warning — reading the first chapter I thought this was going to be a very different kind of book, and I wasn’t thrilled. Once you get to chapter two everything works better (for me).

Quotes:

“Native Americans are the most over-sentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale.”

“Pen is one of a mass of young Native people who have book-crushes and rich book life, a true Indigerati.”

“Actually, Penstemon is desperately romantic, deeply tied to her traditions, and I worry for her paper heart.”

“Sometimes she worked on the collage after plane trips, claiming that in hurtling through the stratosphere she’d lost brain cells. he couldn’t shake the conviction that pieces of her mind were scattered about in the sky.” When she came down to earth, she had the urge to glue things together.”

“Once free, I found that I could not read just any book. It had gotten so I could see through books — the little ruses, the hooks, the setup in the beginning, the looming weight of a tragic ending. I needed the writing to have a certain mineral density. It had to feel naturally meant, but not cynically contrived. I grew to dislike manipulations.”

“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”

“I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.”

“The thing is, most of us Indiginous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We’ve endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives.”

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 9th, 2021.

The Churchill Sisters by Dr. Rachel Trethewey (History / Biography)

Writing: 3/5 Coverage: 4/5 Accessibility: 5/5

This is the story of Winston Churchill’s three daughters: Diana, Sarah, and Mary. The author pulls together a pretty decent narrative from personal diaries, articles, and massive amounts of correspondence between family members and friends. Unlike fictionalized history (which I hate), she never pretends to know what a character is thinking or feeling, although she does occasionally opine about things that “must have been difficult” or provides context about what kind of behavior was “normal” for that time and place.

I found this easy and interesting to read. I did have to ask myself what made it interesting. While Sarah was a reasonably well known actress, neither of the other sisters accomplished anything particularly spectacular. It was kind of like watching Downton Abbey — these sisters were able to lead very interesting lives because their father was who he was and we get to live vicariously. And they were interesting lives! They each were able to travel with him (often his wife was unavailable), met many heads of state including FDR and “Uncle” Joe Stalin, and be present for some important pieces of history such as the Yalta conference.

There was plenty of discussion of psychology and the changing role for women in society. Plenty of heartbreak and insight into how the other half lived and plenty of factual tidbits that were surprising, yet not important enough to bring out in more official histories (eg the squalor including bedbugs at the Yalta conference — yuck!)

Worth reading.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 23rd, 2021.

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz (Fiction / Humor / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

Funny, acerbic, and irreverent (Lisa Lutz’ signature trio). The action follows two best friends — Luna Grey and Owen Mann. No, they never slept together; yes they are the most important people in each other’s lives.

The story spans time, bouncing between 2003 and 2019 with important (and weird, always weird) flashbacks to the familial primordial ooze from which each has sprung. Four murders — connected but not in the way you think — and an intricate web of secrets, trust, suspicion, and guilt pervade the narrative.

The plot is consistently surprising and the characters engaging — plenty to love and plenty not to love. The pages are full of bizarre details that help us deep dive on who Luna and Owen really are and how they became that way. As an aside, I love the way Lutz describes her minor supporting characters — deftly reducing them to one to two sentence descriptions that capture the essence of what they present to outsiders — it’s a talent.

I always have fun reading Lisa Lutz — I was a big fan of the Spellman Files, but I’m glad she is moving to stand alone stories as I think Izzy Spellman is at the point where she can’t acgtually develop any more without losing what makes her interesting in the first place — the Spellmans are spent!

A few fun quotes:

“Thinking about being good didn’t make you good. Sacrificing individual happiness didn’t make the world a better place.”

“Sam didn’t believe in using words to state the obvious, or fill up silence, or attempt to ease discomfort.”

“I don’t like it when you ask me to explain men to you, like I have special insight into lascivious behavior.”

“He wasn’t Teflon; closer to particleboard. He soaked everything, letting it warp him, become part of him.”

Once, Owen had tried to talk to the guy. He asked Mason what he did when he wasn’t smoking pot. Dude, that’s like a really personal question, was Mason’s response.”

“He was obsessed with variety, which Luna had only recently correlated with his inability to stay faithful.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 25th, 2022.

Under the Golden Sun by Jenny Ashcroft (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

It is 1941 . Rose Hamilton answers an ad to accompany Walter — a young, newly orphaned boy — to his distant family on an Australian cattle station. But Walter is not an ordinary boy, and the cattle station is not what they were led to expect. About a third of this book was a very appealing romance. The rest was fiction that depicted life during wartime — in England, during the months long journey on a not-exactly-elegant ship, and in the remote areas of Australia, a few hours from Brisbane. I learned more than I knew about Australian history — particularly about the White Australia Laws and the Chief Protector of Aborigines (FYI he was not very protective). Plenty of surprises in the plot as past events come to light, and current events continue to unfold.

This was a happy book for me — in truth it was somewhat formulaic but it was executed so beautifully and with such appealing characters and well-researched history that I didn’t mind a bit. I liked the fact that the drama was not overstated, that moral commentary was pervasive but not overwhelming, and that the main characters had far more to them than their tropes (e.g. vulnerable hero) would require.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 15th, 2022.

Joan is OK by Weike Wang (Literary / Multi-cultural Fiction

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Joan is a Chinese-American ICU doctor in New York City on the eve of what would become a devastating pandemic. She loves to work and is confused by inane HR department pronouncements insisting that she work less. She is the daughter of immigrant parents who packed up and returned to a better lifestyle in China once she had been fully launched. She is also the younger sister of a brother who has a very different idea of what it means to be a success. As Joan’s mother is visiting when the pandemic hits and is trapped in the US, we are treated to a stereotype-busting combination of Chinese vs American perspectives on life as the pandemic unfurls across the globe.

This is the second memoir-style story by Weike Wang. It is told in a dry, literal, unemotional, yet highly introspective style that I really enjoy. I love being treated to the inside story of what is going on in someone’s head — especially someone as different from me as Joan.

Let me be clear that this is not a story about the pandemic — the first inklings don’t even appear until half way through the book. Instead, it’s the story of Joan’s life as she struggles to figure out her place in the world. While never explicitly stated, Joan will appear to many as being on the spectrum — she is literal, she doesn’t have typical relationships, and she has intense focus — whether she is or not doesn’t matter to me. She is an interesting individual with her own ways of perceiving and handling the world around her and the author does an amazing job of detailing these perceptions and thought processes throughout the story.

Some excellent quotes:

“I listened. I smiled. I felt my teeth get cold from not being able to recede back into my mouth.”

“Relieved of any expectation to respond, I could simply listen and fun-sway along in my head. My on-service brain was the trenches, but my off-service one was a meadow.”

“Everything about him was average: five nine, 167 pounds, a face like most faces, like mine, situated somewhere between striking and hideous.”

“The surgical ICU had its surgeons and anesthesiologists, doctors who wrote the shortest and most indecipherable notes. The notes reminded me of haikus, and because I wasn’t a literary person, I called my time in this unit difficult poetry.”

“I had forgotten about crowds in China, that being in a crowd here was like being lost at sea, and for airports, train stations — for any transportation hub, any city really — for all the tourist sites… the phrase ren hai exists or “people sea”.

“The lobe of rage burst in my head like a polyp. I could feel a liquid temper seeping out of my pores.”

“Neither could imagine having wasted another person’s time or consuming every square inch of air in a room. Because Room People were full of themselves. They believed their own perspectives reigned supreme.”

“I hope you’re making some money at least, she pressed on. Because in China, a doctor makes the same salary as a public school teacher. There’s no difference in status or prestige between the two roles and the work-life balance is, of course, much better for the teacher.”

“… though his reproductive window was much longer. Did it make sense to call it a window, if after puberty it was flung open for the rest of his life?”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 18th, 2022.

A Song Everlasting by Ha Jin (Multi cultural / Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

A beautifully understated and surprisingly engaging book about a Chinese tenor struggling to make it on his own in the US after finding himself on the wrong side of the Chinese party. I appreciated the picture of modern China and an individual Chinese artist through Tian’s experiences with the Chinese government, friends, and family as he is bribed, blacklisted, and receives appeals to his love of and duty towards his country. Where some of the government techniques were things I had heard of, many were not, and I was surprised at the insidious nature of government manipulations outside of China through local operatives, foreign newspapers, etc. Tender and reflective, this is the story of Tian’s life, not a political treatise or call to arms. Tian in some ways is a bit of an innocent — decidedly apolitical and consistently working to maintain artistic integrity and personal principles. I learned a lot and was surprised that the book kept pulling at me as it isn’t my typical fare. Definitely worth reading.

A few quotes:

“This new understanding threw him into a peculiar kind of excitement, because it indicated that the citizens and the country were equal partners in an agreement. Tian gathered that this equality must be the basis of democracy. Now he could see why the Constitution meant so much to the United States. It was the foundation of the nation. With such a realization he became willing to defend the Constitution, even to bear arms if he was called upon, simply because he believed in noble ideas and was willing to sacrifice …”

“He realized many immigrants were in varying degrees of the same situation: They were attempting to break loose from the grip of the past and to start over in a faraway place, but few of them could foresee the price for that new beginning, or the pain and the hardship that came after.”

“In the context of the Tiananmen massacre, China seemed to him more like an old hag, so senile and so ailing that she had to eat the flesh and blood of her children to sustain herself. In the back of his mind lingered a question to which he didn’t yet know the answer: If a country has betrayed a citizen, isn’t the citizen entitled to betray the country?”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Pantheon and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 27th, 2021.

The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths (Historical Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 3.5/5
In this latest book in the (now named) Brighton Mysteries, the newly formed partnership of Emma Holmes (prior WDC and now wife of police chief) and Sam Collins (prior journalist) tackles the murder of 90-year old Bert Billingham, theater impresario and wild womanizer. They were brought into the case by his wife, the unsuitable grandma Verity Malone and star variety performer who had plenty of reasons to kill him herself. Taking place in the 60s, there are many opportunities for inserting the feminist angle — it’s only been 60 years but it’s a bit shocking to remember how things were in those days for women: Emma Holmes was forced to leave the police force when she married; women police officers (WDCs) were not allowed to drive police cars; and God forbid any male made the coffee when needed. Plenty of twists and turns, some fun characters, and a fast, fun read. I still like the Ruth Gallagher series better, but these are definitely worth reading.

Thank you to Mariner Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 7th, 2021.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Drama/depression index: too high!

Greek classics, a love of books and literature, and the twin pillars of human suffering and hope pervade this broad, sweeping story which spans interstellar travel, the siege of Constantinople, and eco-terrorism in an Idaho library. The published book description is actually very good, so I encourage you to read it directly rather than my trying to do an inadequate recap.

This is a beautifully written, deeply researched, cleverly interconnected story and by the end I was enjoying it a great deal. The characters are intricately done with their memories, desires, and deep need to survive, understand, and have agency in their lives. However, there is an awful lot of pathos for my taste. Before each character can succeed, there is an incredible amount of (too well) described suffering. This is not surprising — the siege of Constantinople is not a great place to be an orphaned girl with an antipathy for embroidery or a hare-lipped boy considered a demon by the greater population. But I clocked 65% through my kindle version before things stopped being utterly depressing. I did love the way literature and the classics were woven throughout, and I found the interstellar generation ship running away from a dying Earth thread quite interesting. The slowly emerging resolution of these independent threads was remarkably well done giving me an overall positive view of the book.

This is a strong and brilliantly executed book. If you loved his Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light You Cannot See, you will likely love this as well.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 28th, 2021.

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarity (Australian Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/5

Impossible to put down, this is a twisted, gripping, family drama / mystery that explores the violence and cruelty as well as the compassion, kindness, and personal development of ordinary people.

Stan and Joy Delaney are tennis obsessed — champs in their youth, they ran a successful school for training and coaching tennis players, including their four tall, talented, (and now adult) tennis offspring. All appears well until one day Joy Delaney disappears, and the police turn their (frankly not so laser focused) gaze on Stan.

Let me hasten to say that this is NOT one of those tense books about false accusations and a man desperate to prove his innocence. What I just described is the structure of the story but not at all the point. The story alternates between the present day and clearly labeled time periods in the past. In Moriarity’s signature style, the plot keeps twisting, the people get more interesting, and sleep becomes impossible as you have to race to the finish. I’ve read many (most?) of Moriarity’s books. Some I like better than others — this is now one of my favorites.

Thank you to Henry Holt & Company and Net Galley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 14th, 2021.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Literary Fiction / Multi cultural)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 5

I’m grasping for words to express how much I loved this book but all the good words — profound, brilliant, amazing, etc. — have been rendered meaningless through overuse. So just think about what they used to mean and apply here.

The novel is based on the experiences of Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, in his determined fight against the proposed termination of his Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa named in House Concurrent Resolution 108 passed in August of 1953. Gourneau is fictionalized as Thomas Wazhashk.

While that is the overarching plot line, the story is told as a set of short chapters from various character viewpoints. While the termination fight touches everyone, much of the content covers the progression of individual lives in the community. Pixie Paranteau supports her family with earnings from a job at the new jewel bearing plant; her sister, Vera, has disappeared in the Cities and has been caught in the underbelly of the beast; Wood Mountain is becoming a top boxer, training with Barnes, a local white coach with eyes glued on Pixie; Millie Cloud is in Minneapolis and has authored a study of her father’s reservation which will be useful in the fight against termination; and Thomas spends his nights as the Night Watchman at the plant — struggling to stay awake by writing letters using the Palmer Method ingrained in him at the Indian boarding school. Other characters are ghostly visitors, Mormon missionaries, and various officials from the BIA, congress, and tribal councils.

Erdrich’s characters are wonderful — each one an individual that defies stereotype; each one full of complexities that never descend into entertaining “quirks.” In contrast, we do see the usual stereotypes through the perspective of others — in Barne’s memory of the “luscious” Indian girls depicted in ads and earnest lectures given by the missionaries, for example.

What I love most about this book is Erdrich’s articulation of the feelings, perspectives, and philosophies of the various characters. Thomas, in his desperation to leverage every possible angle available to him reads the Book of Mormon to better understand the bill’s author — Arthur V. Watkins — a staunch Mormon. He has discussions with Barnes about why Indians can’t / don’t want to become “regular” Americans and why Barnes could never “become” an Indian. He is immensely philosophical, and we are treated to his thinking, his process, and his growing understanding of life and his part of this world. Every chapter is full of enlightening description and presence.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time and by far my favorite Erdrich book. The Pulitzer committee definitely got it right this time.

Some quotes:
“This termination bill. Arthur V. Watkins believed it was for the best. To uplift them. Even open the gates of heaven. How could Indians hold themselves apart, when the vanquishers sometimes held their arms out, to crush them to their hearts, with something like love?”

“Thomas was convinced that he’d destroyed their chances. He couldn’t point out exactly how he’d done it, but he knew. And the other thing. The senator had also asked every single Indian person who testified about their degree of Indian blood. The funny thing was, nobody knew exactly.”

“Especially Senator Watkins. The word supercilious. That was the word for every detail. Watkins’ coin-purse mouth. His self-righteous ease. The way he held himself, giving off that vibration. Filling the air with sanctimony. Another word that flung itself into her mind.”

“She was inhabited by a vengeful, roiling, even murderous spirit. The same spirit had hatched the bird that pecked Bucky’s face. When she got home, she’d clean up the sweat lodge and ask her mother to help her get rid of these thoughts.”

“All were cast together onto allotments, to break apart the earth, to learn the value of a dollar, and then how to make one dollar into many dollars and cultivate the dollar into a way of life.”

“His father was so very old now that he slept most of the day. He was ninety-four. When Thomas thought of his father, peace stole across his chest and covered him like sunlight.”

“To most of their neighbors, Indians were people who suffered and hid away in shabby dwellings or roamed the streets in flagrant drunkenness and shame. Except the good ones. There was always “a good Indian” that someone knew.”

“For days. he’d tried to make sense of the papers, to absorb their meaning. To define their unbelievable intent. Unbelievable because the unthinkable was couched in such innocuous dry language. Unbelievable because the intent was, finally, to unmake, to unrecognize. To erase as Indians him, Biboon, Rose, his children, his people, all of us invisible and as if we never were here, from the beginning, here.”

“Emancipation. This word would not stop banging around in his head. Emancipated. But they were not enslaved. Freed from being Indians was the idea. Emancipated from their land. Freed from the treaties that Thomas’s father and grandfather had signed and that were promised to last forever. So as usual, by getting rid of us, the Indian problem would be solved.”

“He wasn’t one for giving names to things. Or finding their basis. His feelings were like weather. He just suffered or enjoyed them.”

“He felt it coming. Wanted to duck. Winced. A sensation like when he was chastised at school gripped him. Like when he went into a bank or bought something expensive in an off-reservation town. Their looks pressing down on him. Their words flattening him. Their eyes squeezing him. Isey, for shame. As his mother used to say. But it was so much worse in English, the word shame.” It made him curdle inside. And the curdling became something hard in his stomach. Or a thought that stabbed so hard he might cast it out in a flare of anger. Or it might stay in there hardening even further until it flew up to his brain and killed him.”