French Braid by Anne Tyler (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 3/5

A classic Anne Tyler novel following the lives of a Baltimore family through generations from 1959 to the present (including the Covid lockdown). Blending family dynamics with individual personalities in the context of the times, it is a study in the ways that families simultaneously work and don’t work.

Naturally well-written (Pulitzer prize winning author!) with a set of characters drawn in depth and with a high degree of verisimilitude. The characters were not always likable — in fact, I was struck by how few of these people I would actually enjoy spending time with. Not that there was anything terrible about them, but their very realness reminded me of the difference between live people with their selfishness, tiny cruelties, and obliviousness to the interests of others, and my favorite book characters who seem to always have their best foot forward even when making mistakes. This may be more of a commentary on why I don’t have more friends than anything else!

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on March 22nd, 2022.

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (Mystery / Literary fiction)

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

Chief Inspector Gamache is asked to provide security for a statistics lecturer at an abruptly scheduled speaking engagement between Christmas and New Years. But this isn’t just any lecturer. Abigail Robinson is drawing large crowds with her message of a simple solution to all the misery and pending economic collapse threatening the post-Covid world. It is a simple message (clothed in psuedo-compassionate language): just kill all of the weak and defective people soaking up the majority of the world’s resources.

The topic is masterfully handled. There is an attempt on Robinson’s life at the lecture, and later there is an actual murder to solve, but the backdrop of the plot is the way an unpopular message can be skillfully turned into a popular delusion. The “delusion” (I believe) is that the proposal would be a mercy and a kindness to everyone, including those who are to be euthanized. The philosophical discussion takes place throughout the book as different characters struggle with the concepts of burden, empathy, and fear in their own personal lives. Robinson is friendly, soft spoken and earnest. She knows how to paint the terrifying picture and then soothe it with easy solutions, tempering the calls for murder with the promise of compassion and pity and “all will be well.”

As always, Penny’s crime fiction is impossible to put down. Her writing is on a par with good literary fiction, her plots twisted and surprising, and of course it’s difficult to not be in love with all the characters we’ve come to know throughout the previous 16 books (an interesting new character is introduced — an “Asshole Saint” in the form of a curt woman from the Sudan who is up for the Nobel Peace Prize).

There have been a few recent Penny books that I haven’t loved, but this isn’t one of them. I’m already waiting for number 18 …

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.