Desiderata: Summer’s End Edition

Desiderata (things desired): An monthly occasional review of books recently read.

My sweetheart and I have a running disagreement regarding autumn’s arrival: he’s holding to the Autumn Equinox, which falls on September 22 this year;  I claim September 1, meteorological first day of fall. I know it when I feel it, in the certain cast of light, the dewy mornings, the urge to nest. We stacked cords of wood this weekend, long-burning madrone and alder, some snap-crackling cedar and fir.

Usually, I mourn the end of summer—they are enviably beautiful, warm, and bright in this land of no humidity or high temps—but this year I am craving the peace that comes with long nights of rain and cool, shadowy days.

My summer reading—since my last book review post on July 8—has been outstanding but darn intense.  Luck of the draw: my library holds list came in heavy on historical non-fiction, social justice and investigative reporting and dark, dense novels. I’m ready for lighter fare! But what’s below is the best of the bunch of these past couple of months. Let me know if you cross paths with any of these books, and what you think.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Inspired by the real-life friendship between a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, and an Israeli, Rami Elhanan, Apeirogon is a shimmering study of love and war. Each man lost a beloved daughter in the conflict that has torn apart this region since 1948. Smadar Elhanan was thirteen in 1997 when a suicide bomber carried out his mission as the teenager was out shopping with friends; ten years later, Abir Aramin was shot in the back of the head by a teenaged member of the Israeli army. Abir was ten years old. The fathers meet in a bereavement group that seeks peace through unity of opposing sides. Bassam, who had spent seven years in an Israeli prison, goes on to achieve a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies; Rami sets aside his apathy and comfortable life to become a leading Jewish voice advocating for the end of Israeli Occupation of the West Bank.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Written in reverent, hushed tones that echo like voices in an empty cathedral, The Bear is a tale of the last two humans on earth.

An unexplained catastrophe has ended the dominion of human, and the earth has reverted to the quiet brutality of weather and seasons and creatures. A father and daughter grow older in their stronghold beneath The Bear, the eponymous mountain of the title, the man teaching the girl survival skills and an appreciation of the poetry of Wendell Berry from the few books that remain in their cabin. The father and daughter leave their home one summer just as the girl enters adolescence, making for the sea where they can harvest salt. Disaster strikes and the girl must carry on alone.

What begins as a dystopian fairy tale carries on as magical realism, in a world where bears talk and mountain lions wrestle with moral dilemmas. The novella takes on a dream-like quality as the girl drifts from desperation and depression into quiet resolution. She derives comfort and wisdom from her carnivore companions, making her way home to bury her father beside her mother, growing old in the shadow of The Bear.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

“We move through this world so lightly,” remarks a character in The Glass Hotel after she and her husband lose their life savings in a Ponzi scheme and are forced to take to the road, working seasonal jobs and living in an RV.

This novel is about that lightness, that unbearable lightness of being, how we are barely, if ever, rooted in place. We revolve around the suns of chance, choice and circumstance and a shift of any, at any given moment, alters our worlds like that proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings. To write much more about the goings-on of this rich and rewarding narrative would be to spoil its plot, but be prepared to take a deep dive into the shady world of late 2000’s financial shenanigans, inspired by the most infamous Ponzi schemer of them all: Bernie Madoff; you will become acquainted with maximum security prison, the shipping industry, life as a line cook on a freighter, and what it’s like to have so much money at your disposal, you are bored. The Glass Hotel is a breathtaking adventure, thoughtful and immersive with gorgeously rendered prose and landscapes.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

My head and heart are so full. I wouldn’t know where to begin writing a review. This is an extraordinary, necessary, vital book that is not just the history of racist ideas in America, it is the history of America. I read a library copy, but have since ordered my own. The references alone are gold, but Kendi’s comprehensive, thoughtful, lucid narration of American history is breathtaking. Be prepared to be enraged and enraptured. Please read this.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell

This outstanding biography of the most amazing Virginia Hall is more riveting than any well-crafted fictional thriller. Because history is written by men for their own glorification, Virginia’s story was largely buried in the annals of military legend and lore. Her extraordinary life and what she accomplished in France during World War II is pieced together in meticulous detail by Sonia Purnell, who balances cold fact with brilliant storytelling, bringing Virginia to three-dimensional, vibrant life.

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference, and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by Jessica McDiarmid

The Highway of Tears is a 735 kilometer stretch of lonely road between the coastal town of Prince Rupert and Prince George, in British Columbia’s sparsely populated northeast, where countless numbers of women and girls have been found murdered or have simply vanished. The overwhelming majority of these victims is Indigenous.

Investigative journalist Jessica McDiarmid lays out the evidence to implicate Canadian settler history and contemporary Canadian political, legal and cultural structures in the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women. Interspersing the stories of several of these young women and their families with the many, failed attempts over the years to investigate the disappearances and deaths — some half-hearted to the point of not even mattering, to serious, concerted multi-jurisdictional efforts — McDiarmid humanizes the statistics and makes the crisis immediate and infuriating.

Subduction by Kristen Millares Young

Subduction by Kristen Millares Young

Claudia’s husband has just left her for her younger, lusher, more exuberant sister. This profound betrayal sitting heavily on her thin shoulders, Claudia bolts from suburban Seattle to the edge of the contiguous United States: Neah Bay, on the Pacific Ocean side of the Olympic Peninsula, and the Makah tribal lands where she has been conducting anthropological research.

Peter, a native son, left the Makah reservation over twenty years earlier and travelled the world as an underwater welder. One recent day, while welding a bridge support, Peter — hungover, deeply depressed — shits the inside of his wetsuit when he is frightened by a giant wolf eel rising from the murky depths of the Puget Sound. He thinks the sea monster is the ghost of his father, who bled to death on the kitchen floor, his murder never solved. Peter abandons his job and returns to Neah Bay, where his now-elderly mother wanders the highway, in search of the memories she is losing to dementia.

These two troubled, searching souls collide like tectonic plates, all friction and desire, anger and appetite, upsetting the fragile balance of this community struggling to hold onto its stories and traditions that have been exploited, appropriated, and misunderstood.

Book Review: Trapeze by Simon Mawer

TrapezeTrapeze by Simon Mawer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer’s Trapeze – at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance – you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn’t after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.

With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren’t clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war’s deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother’s homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.

And as it turns out, the SOE’s motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique – with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread – is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian’s nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy’s highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.

The brevity of Marian’s training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat — it’s a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It’s hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer’s theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character – its weakness or its power – until we are faced with desperate times?

I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt “character-driven” to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.

Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn’t character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters’ world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.

What leads me to finally reject the notion of “character-driven” as reductive is Simon Mawer’s restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction’s inextricably-linked elements – setting, plot, character, theme – and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.

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