Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen (Literary fiction / audio book)

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

Russ Hildebrandt is the (unhappy, and frankly to me fairly unlikeable) associate pastor at a suburban Chicago church. Set in the early 70s, the story follows a year or two in the lives of Russ, his wife, and his three oldest children through their multiple perspectives — each in searing, fully introspective, sometimes cringeworthy but always honest detail. Each seeks to balance desires, morality, and a need to belong in the world into which they are born. Russ finds his marriage joyless and finds passion in thoughts of a young, divorced parishioner, his wife Marion has a terrible and secret history which fills her with shame, Clem struggles with the moral luxury of his Vietnam deferment, Becky finds God in the counter culture, and young Perry — an insufferable genius — tries to find ways to calm his brain.

It is a masterful undertaking with broad strokes painted through millions of tiny perceptions, struggles, self-doubts, and experiences. The culture of the time comes to life in this way as well — the interactions and expectations between men and women and the birth of Women’s Lib, the awakening of the counter culture which itself had many guises, Vietnam, and the approach to helping the “poor.” Very strong themes on faith, religion, and relationships with God, though I wouldn’t call this an overly religious book.

The writing was amazing. As I listened to this on audio, I was not able to capture any of the outstanding lines which frustrated me as there were many. On the other hand, listening to the book forced me to “read” it slowly so that I was able to savor the language in a way my normal reading speed does not allow. On the first hand, some of the sections inspired recoil. Sometimes it feels like its best to not know what really goes on inside a person’s head — especially a person prone to self-analysis and neuroses as these people all are. If I had been reading, rather than listening to, this book, I might have skimmed a little of this, though in truth I would have missed the experience of truly inhabiting a mind completely unlike my own — I’m sure that is good for me!

Apparently, this is the first of a multi-generational trilogy, which I did not know until after I finished it. This book provides closure on the story — no cliffhangers.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book was published on October 5th, 2021.

The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

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 July 28th, 2020.