Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Literary Fiction)

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

The sweeping story of a daring aviatrix (Marian Graves) who is determined to be the first to fly around the globe longitudinally and the self-destructive actress (Hadley Baxter) who will play her in a movie 60 years later. Their somewhat parallel stories (orphaned young, raised by benignly neglectful uncles) and innate curiosity help Hadley delve into the character more than the screen-writer had.

This book was interesting on so many levels. Stunning descriptions of gorgeous locales — Montana, Alaska, and Antarctica between 1920 and 1950 — spread throughout. In-depth discussions of aviation and art, as well as philosophical dives into isolation, the lure of solitude, the impact of war, and the evolution of personal identity are also ubiquitous. Shipstead really gets inside a subject, presenting it not as a separate entity but through the character’s perception of it. We see Antarctica not as a dry description of mountains and snow, but through Marian’s perspective, and it feels as though her soul is exposed through the beautiful language of what she sees and feels. Similarly, while aviation has no appeal for me, Shipstead describes Marian’s intellectual and emotional engagement with it, and I can feel the (unnatural for me) attraction. It’s a rare author who can transmute a dry topic into fascination through the mind of an obsessed character. Even the Hollywood bits feel real through character insight, rather than splashy opulence and name dropping.

Plenty of historical context is introduced via short tidbits from the news (flights from other aviatrices, difficulties for women in trying to achieve in male-dominated worlds, etc.). As always, I like the fact that the author just wrote the story, with realistic reactions and approaches of her characters and didn’t spend time pontificating on the obvious. Yes, life was much harder for women who wanted to pursue the unorthodox, but this story is about what they did anyhow, not what they were prevented from doing. Her writing style is also not overly dramatic — no heart wrenching prose — though the tale abounds with angsty opportunities.

I’d forgotten that I’d read one of Shipstead’s earlier works — Astonish Me —about ballet dancing and defection. She reminds me of Jennifer Egan a bit (I’m a big Egan fan) in the way she can bring clarity to complex topics in a variety of subjects.

A quick warning — I found the first two chapters a little dry — it gets much, much, better. Highly recommended.

Some good quotes:

“…how best to squeeze Marian’s completely unknowable existence into a neat pellet of entertainment…”

“…and out over the loose northern jigsaw of spring ice that the planet wears like a skullcap, …”

“There should be an Antiques Roadshow for memories, and I would sit behind a desk and explain that while your memory might be lovely and have tremendous sentimental value, it was worth nothing to anyone but you.”

“The landscape is secretive and harsh and impossibly immense, and she borrows some of its inscrutability for herself, its disinterest in human goings-on. Unfriendliness is another form of camouflage.”

“Mountain everywhere: monstrous, ice-choked cousins of the forested peaks that had encircled her as she looped and spun over Missoula.”

“Was this what her father had done after he left Missoula? Slung his skills over his shoulder and set out?”

“Does that mean I wish to die? I don’t think I do. But the pure and absolute solitude in which we leave the world exerts a pull.”

“She thinks he means that no matter what earnest promises of peace are made, what fragments are hauled up and glued back together, the dead will not return. A return to the world as it was is impossible; the only choice is to make a new world. But making a new world seems dreary and exhausting.”

Thank you to Knopf and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 4th, 2021.

The Flood Girls by Richard Fifield (Literary Fiction)

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

A raucous novel about redemption, forgiveness, and tolerance (or lack thereof). Rachel Flood returns to Quinn, Montana (population 956) to make amends (AA — step 9) to the entire town — all of whom (especially her mother) hate her (and with good reason). She befriends the flamboyant 12-year old boy next door, is forced to join the local softball team (The Flood Girls) who are … not the best, and is coerced into tending her mother’s bar — The Dirty Shame.

The novel is full of outlandish characters — the large, scary, and violent Red Mabel who is also a most loyal friend, Black Mabel the local drug dealer, a bar full of lesbian silver miners, an array of religious characters with varying degrees of religiosity and forbearance, the local AA group (composed of older men from Rachel’s past), and the wildly diverse softball team. It’s also full of casual violence, stupidity, and intolerance as well as perseverance, kindness, and endurance. The style reminds me of John Irving’s books, with a little of Tom Wolfe’s “equal opportunity sneering” style mixed in. It is a detailed, engrossing, full picture of a (fictional) town, though definitely painted by an outsider looking in (and possibly reinforcing negative stereotypes of rural areas).

Despite the fact that the characters are probably not people I would befriend in real life, I loved them on the page. Now that the book is over, I miss them.

Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff (Literary Fiction)

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

A story about a young girl growing up in a trailer in the Bitterroot Valley, just South of Missoula, Montana. Raised by her father when her mother abandons them, she alternates between absorbing his values and lifestyle and wishing she could have almost any other life. We follow her from age six through her early thirties as she tries to find her place in the world.

The book is beautifully written, evoking the wild beauty of the valley, surrounding mountains, and wildlife as well as depicting small town Montana life amid a sea of changes. We see the world through Ruthie’s eyes as she struggles to reconcile the violence and injustice that she abhors with her own inner darkness and the natural and man-made disasters that beset the Valley.

The overall tone of the book is (to me) depressing. Her perceptions of most (not all) of the men around her is as pathetic, angry, and beaten down by life. The story is a slow parade of natural and man-made disasters and the impact on the relatively impoverished people around her: fires, a giant earthquake, the mills closing and ensuing lack of work, the incursion of the “California carpetbaggers,” ski areas closed due to warming weather, thousands of geese killed from polluted ponds, etc. She is a constant witness to conflict and violence — against animals and against other people. She observes that much of the anger percolates through the hierarchy of locals: white settlers who have been there for generations, the Salish Indians (the “original” locals), and the constant influx of people who came fleeing someplace else — hippies, polygamist mormons, retirees. Everybody wants the others to disappear and nobody wants anyone new to show up.

The last chapter took a wild turn into left field. I don’t know where it came from, and I can’t decide if it was symbolic or something that was actually happening. I’m going with largely symbolic, but I don’t want to include any spoilers so you’ll have to read it and let me know your thoughts…

Overall I enjoyed reading this book — gorgeous writing, character depth, and a level of detail that made it all so palpable. I would have preferred a more balanced view of life in the area — I understand that this really was one person’s experience, but it painted the area as somewhat hopeless, full of victims who were unable to stem the tide of unwanted change (or adapt to it). It reminded me of Louise Erdrich books which I’ve stopped reading — incredibly beautifully done, but on the depressing side.

Thank you to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 1st, 2020.