Lately I’ve been preoccupied with the question of what constitutes a good and useful life.
Or, as Barbie would ask, what was I made for?
It was a relief to have a deadline from StyleBlueprint for my Top 10 Reads for Fall. These terrific novels dance with the big questions of love and meaning…
Happiness Falls, by Angie Kim, begins at the moment a family’s life changes forever. Eugene, a non-verbal 14-year-old, comes running home out of breath and highly agitated. His older sister Mia doesn’t immediately realize that their father, his caregiver, isn’t close behind. In the hours and days that follow, the family, the police, and the entire community search for the missing father. What happened in the park where he and Eugene spent the afternoon? Things turn darker when a police officer begins to suspect Eugene’s involvement in something more than an accident. (The officer might not be wrong.) Happiness Falls explores the dynamics of a family with a disabled child, and more broadly, how people in even the most loving families misunderstand each other. Mia, as first person narrator, serves the story up sharp, even funny at times, and self-aware. Her philosophical exploration of the nature of happiness – never ponderous – is icing on the cake.
Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett, tells a feel-good story about a family weathering the pandemic together during the early days of Covid. Picking apples and passing the time on their family farm, three young adult daughters convince their mother to tell them the story of her life before she was their mom. They really just want to hear the juicy parts about her love affair with a now-famous actor, when their mom was an aspiring actress. Tom Lake chronicles the mother’s journey from innocence to experience, and also, in some measure, her daughters’. Big dreams sometimes lead to small towns. You won’t want to miss this if you enjoy the empathy, imagination, warmth, and generosity Ann Patchett brings to all her work. Tom Lake feels like eating a caramel apple at the State Fair, in the best kind of way.
Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane takes us to Boston in 1974 during the busing crisis, right into the heart of an Irish American community trying to defend itself from change. The residents of “Southie” – hardworking and hard-drinking – are committed above all to their insular, tight-knit neighborhood. They like to do things the way they’ve always been done, and lines of authority go strictly through the mob. Violence solves problems. But when her teenage daughter goes missing, Mary Pat Fennessy isn’t willing to defer to the mob’s incomplete answers. Her daughter’s disappearance may be connected to the unsolved mystery of a young black man found dead on the railroad tracks. Small Mercies follows Mary Pat’s increasingly desperate efforts to find her daughter and learn the truth of what happened that night. It’s not the highest on the cozy-meter, but it’s a brilliant and suspenseful tale by one of our finest writers at the top of his game.
The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff also travels into challenging territory with its heroine, the young servant who escapes the starving settlement near Jamestown in the early days of our country’s settlement. The servant girl had arrived on the shores of America with her mistress, the mistress’ preacher-husband, and their young daughter, but before long, hunger and disease set in. The girl, in unbearable circumstances, flees with little more than the clothes on her back and an ambitious plan to find the French, to the north. She’s got to outrun her pursuer and navigate the woods, with their fearsome creatures and peoples, but at least winter is waning. The Vaster Wilds often reads like poetry, with a rhythm and cadence carrying you as swiftly as the servant girl runs. Vox calls it “stark, vicious, and transcendent,” and that seems about right.
Most of the action in Peter Heller’s The Last Ranger also takes place in the woods – in this case, in Yellowstone National Park. Ren is a dreamboat park ranger, a straight arrow, doing his best to help manage the crazy hordes of visitors who descend on the park each day during the season. He’s not alone, of course – he’s part of the small community of other park employees and private business owners catering to the rest of America who come to visit. Not everyone who lives near the park appreciates the strict rules on hunting, especially the hunting of wolves. A scientist studying wolves in the park is caught in a trap probably set for her, and Ren’s hunt for the hunter might turn deadly. The Last Ranger explores a community – and society – in conflict; it revels in the natural world; it asks how it is possible to love the world around you, and the imperfect people in it.
The End of Drum-Time, by Hannah Pylväinen, looks at the joy and pain love can ignite – and inflame. Set in a tiny village in remotest Scandinavia in the mid-19th century, it follows the story of Lutheran minister Lars Levi and his large family, as he attempts to convert the indigenous Sami reindeer herders. In the business of winning souls, what might be lost? A leader among the Sami awakens to Christianity, at great cost. The minister’s daughter is drawn to the leader’s son. Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena) says that “Hanna Pylväinen’s novel of cultural collision in the far north is an extraordinary feat of research and imagination by an author who reminds you with every page what fiction can accomplish.” The End of Drum-Time was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award, with the winner to be announced on November 15th.
ON THE BOOKSHELF:
West With Giraffes, by Lynda Rutledge
From the publisher: It’s 1938. The Great Depression lingers. Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder. They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic. What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to deliver Southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo. Behind the wheel is the young Dust Bowl rowdy Woodrow. Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world’s first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and assorted reprobates as spotty as the giraffes.
Part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story, West with Giraffes explores what it means to be changed by the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, the passing of time, and a story told before it’s too late.
Amazing Grace Adams, by Fran Littlewood
From the publisher: Grace Adams gave birth, blinked, and now suddenly she is forty-five, perimenopausal and stalled—the unhappiest age you can be, according to the Guardian. And today she’s really losing it. Stuck in traffic, she finally has had enough. To the astonishment of everyone, Grace gets out of her car and simply walks away.
Grace sets off across London, armed with a £200 cake, to win back her estranged teenage daughter on her sixteenth birthday. Because today is the day she’ll remind her daughter that no matter how far we fall, we can always get back up again. Because Grace Adams used to be amazing. Her husband thought so. Her daughter thought so. Even Grace thought so. But everyone seems to have forgotten. Grace is about to remind them . . . and, most important, remind herself.
The Square of Sevens, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
From the publisher: Cornwall, 1730: A young girl known only as Red travels with her father making a living predicting fortunes using the ancient Cornish method of the Square of Sevens. Shortly before he dies, her father entrusts Red’s care to a gentleman scholar, along with a document containing the secret of the Square of Sevens technique.
Raised as a lady amidst the Georgian splendor of Bath, Red’s fortune-telling delights in high society. But she cannot ignore the questions that gnaw at her soul: who was her mother? How did she die? And who are the mysterious enemies her father was always terrified would find him?
The pursuit of these mysteries takes her from Cornwall and Bath to London and Devon, from the rough ribaldry of the Bartholomew Fair to the grand houses of two of the most powerful families in England. And while Red’s quest brings her the possibility of great reward, it also leads to grave danger.
The Fraud, by Zadie Smith
From the publisher: It is 1873. Mrs. Eliza Touchet is the Scottish housekeeper—and cousin by marriage—of a once-famous novelist, now in decline, William Ainsworth, with whom she has lived for thirty years.
Mrs. Touchet is a woman of many interests: literature, justice, abolitionism, class, her cousin, his wives, this life and the next. But she is also skeptical. She suspects her cousin of having no talent; his successful friend, Mr. Charles Dickens, of being a bully and a moralist; and England of being a land of facades, in which nothing is quite what it seems.
Andrew Bogle, meanwhile, grew up enslaved on the Hope Plantation, Jamaica. He knows every lump of sugar comes at a human cost. That the rich deceive the poor. And that people are more easily manipulated than they realize. When Bogle finds himself in London, star witness in a celebrated case of imposture, he knows his future depends on telling the right story.
The “Tichborne Trial”—wherein a lower-class butcher from Australia claimed he was in fact the rightful heir of a sizable estate and title—captivates Mrs. Touchet and all of England. Is Sir Roger Tichborne really who he says he is? Or is he a fraud? Mrs. Touchet is a woman of the world. Mr. Bogle is no fool. But in a world of hypocrisy and self-deception, deciding what is real proves a complicated task. . . .
Based on real historical events, The Fraud is a dazzling novel about truth and fiction, Jamaica and Britain, fraudulence and authenticity and the mystery of “other people.”