Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.

Chronicles of a Radical Hag by Lorna Landvik (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 4.5

When 81 year old columnist Haze Evans (the titular “Radical Hag”) slips into a coma, the local paper in Granite Creek, Minnesota decides to reprint selected columns from the last 50 years until she can start again. Always uncensored, these columns range in size and topic and bring history (both local and global) back to life in a personal way. The entire community relives events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Oklahoma bombing, the Exxon Valdez spill as well as the meeting of her lifelong best friend, her short but loving marriage, the birth of local quadruplets, etc.

The characters in the novel are wonderful and run the gamut from newspaper publisher to RV salesman to nurse with assorted retirees and high school students thrown in. Each handling his/her own concerns while working towards his/her own definition of a good and decent life.

I loved the way the characters spent time *thinking* about what they were reading in the columns and engaged with those with differing opinions. One high school teacher instituted “Radical Hag Wednesdays” where students discussed column-instigated topics. In other conversations, the impact of #metoo style accusations on young boys, or love, divorce, and adultery were discussed — all with depth and a desire for understanding rather than condemnation. An artfully done blending of “homespun wisdom” with open minds.

I’ve been a fan of Lorna Landvik since her 1995 Patty Jane’s House of Curl. Her writing is simultaneously humorous and heartfelt, thought provoking and tolerant, touching on real people dealing with life in a real way.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 3

A gripping, character driven, novel — classic Moriarty. A fairly simple plot — nine “perfect strangers” sign up for a ten-day retreat at a high-end health resort promising a “transformational” experience. Each is there for wildly different reasons and none really expects to be “a different person” at the end but … it’s possible they will be.

Moriarty draws interesting, intricate, and believable characters. Each character — across a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and motivations — is completely developed in the story. Each chapter is told from a specific character’s point of view, giving rise to some fascinating contrasts between what a character is saying, is thinking, and is assuming about the others. I was most interested in these assumptions and the way those perceptions of each other shifted over time with more exposure and information. It’s rare that we get so much insightful detail about how our assumptions play into our behavior towards people and vice versa.

The story includes many social issues such as microdosing, lotteries, teen suicide, shaming, and trophy wives. My favorite line and sly message about the “shaming” current authors are susceptible to (as expressed by character Frances Welty, aging romance author: “She dared to look up and the stars were a million darting eyes on the lookout for rule-breaking in her story: sexism, ageism, racism, tokenism, ableism, plagiarism, cultural appropriation, fat-shaming, body-shaming, slut-shaming, vegetarian-shaming, real-estate-shaming. The voice of the Almighty Internet boomed from the sky: Shame on you!”

Great read!