Searching for Safehavens (Ellenbogen)

Okay, I might be slightly biased here. Not only does the author share my last name, he also shares my address; he’s my son. Though he’s just 12, he took on the National Novel Writing Month challenge and produced a remarkable globe-trotting novel. He also managed two separate and very different narrators and charted a course for their eventual connection, I admire the way he was not afraid of giving his main characters flaws, and I loved the humor in the midst of the dystopian novel. I happen to know that there’s a sequel coming. Sometimes, authors who have sequels planned don’t really end their books; they just stop. (See The Maze Runner.) But he fosters a genuine ending here, one that both closes up the plot and opens out into the prospect, indeed the necessity of a sequel.

And I love the cover design too.


Her Body and Other Parties (Machado)

The key word in the title, the main motif in this book is “body” or rather “her body.” All that can be done to it – sex, abuse, violence – and others that are too surreal to describe. Come to think of it, maybe because it isn’t present or maybe because it’s overwhelmed by the violence and surreal imagery (which are sometimes intertwined), I don’t know that there’s love here, or even physical affection.

Machado is not coy. I was forced into some uncomfortable moments, both in terms of her words and my imagination (invoked by, but probably not entirely by, her words).

The only story that didn’t work for me was “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU.” Maybe I haven’t watched the show enough. I don’t think I made it through more than 100 of the plot descriptions before I abandoned ship. It felt like an inside joke that I just wasn’t getting.

Machado’s voice is original and powerful. I can’t wait to read what she does next. Once in a while, I wondered what would happen if one of these stories was made into a movie. And I got afraid.

Solar Bones (McCormack)

Be prepared. There is not a single period in this whole 217-page, chapter-less book. Now there’s a reason for this, one that becomes clearer as you read (and I admit, I read the back of the book and had an idea about why this was happening ahead of time). Still, it’s a challenging experience. It, quite literally, makes it a book that’s hard to put down. I mean, where do you stop? In addition, the paragraph breaks are not always in familiar places and, at times, there are (I think) time and voice shifts.

If you’re still with me, then please know that it’s a very good book. It is a man’s nuanced reflection about where he is in his life and how he ended up there, as a son, a husband, a father and a professional. There is not so much regret as recognition. I found it sad, honest and true. We construct a way to make sense of the world, a way to move through it, and the world rarely cooperates. There are consequences for our (lack of) action, both on this personal level and a more political one. We are, in the world McCormack has created, the sum of our parts and our interactions and a successful life, whatever that means and however an individual vision becomes compromised, requires a strong foundation, something that proves very difficult to build and sustain.

Our Souls at Night (Haruf)

To say that this is a simple story, simply told, is as far from an insult as I can imagine. I read a lot of books full of writerly pyrotechnics, and I reached for this one, I think, because I needed a simple story, simply told.

By simply told, I mean that Haruf just tells the damn story. That’s not to say that there is an absence of craft. As I was reading it, I thought about a time when I half-heartedly admitted to a friend that I’d had a really good time helping our children break in their new baseball gloves. I’d started apologetically – “I know it’s a cliche, but. . .” He stopped me and reminded me that cliches only became cliches because they contain such powerful truths.

This is a story of damaged people trying to reclaim some sense of themselves before they die. And it works, for longer than they expected and shorter than they want, but unlike their neighbor Ruth, Louis and Addie, the two protagonists are not in this world alone. Things become tangled and things between them do not as much end as they simply just drift.

There is hope, still, that they can find a way to begin yet again, to prove that there are even third acts in American lives, even when you’ve messed up the first two.

This was, I just confirmed, Haruf’s last book, and one can only hope for him (and everyone) that this is really the way the story ends. It might be a cliche, perhaps, to end with a hint of hope, but that might just be okay.

How the Light Gets In (Penny)

Despite my recent reservations, Penny and now Daniel Woodrell will be my go to authors when I just need a break. A colleague once said that I spend too much time reading serious things, and that’s probably true. Penny locked herself into a setting, which is less of a problem here than in other books. She also locked herself into a character. Known for his reserve and his mind, her Inspector always needs to become an action hero for at least one moment near the end of each book, Again, this was less of a problem here because of Penny’s artful set-up. For both personal and professional reasons, he is acting out of character. One of the ways he signals that is by carrying his gun.

I admire Penny’s unflinching attitude when it comes to complicating her main characters. We find one regular in desperate straits. Another pops up and is useful, but still less than trustworthy. Even our hero starts to show his cracks.

Like most mystery writers I admire, Penny has some political undertones that propel the storyline. Government corruption is not so new, but her willingness to name it, to fold in the official treatment of the Indigenous population, opioid addiction – this is a serious story for serious times.

Still, the light finds its way in. There is hope. Penny explores evil and comes away with the wisdom of knowing that we all have cracks, and those cracks can lead to flaws, but they can also be the way the light comes in.

Winter’s Bone (Woodrell)

I saw and liked the movie when it came out and then read a few novels of his after Still-My-President recommended them on one of his year-end lists. (Remember when we had a President who read books?) I am not sure why I stopped. This was so, SO good. Woodrell has his own language. I enjoyed it so much that at one point I stopped reading to try my hand at writing in his style. It was fun.

The novel, published in 2006, has proven to be remarkably prescient. What does happen to families and communities that are not often in the spotlight when drugs become both the economy and the entertainment?

The comparisons with Cormac McCarthy are legit.

Milkman (Burns)

Though I don’t agree with the recent decision to cast a wider net for eligibility, I also welcome the long list, the short list, and the eventual winner. This winner definitely would not have crossed my path without the recognition it received. I was also intrigued to learn (prior to reading it) about Burns’ decision not to use names. I enjoyed the fact that she didn’t have a real philosophical reason for this. According to the interviews I read, she said she tried the book with names and it just didn’t work.

In any event, this is a stylistically ambitious novel, wise in the ways of group think and gender questions. It can’t be accused of having an excess of plot, and that eventually grew tiresome. 

So on a sentence level and on a paragraph level (and some of hers were of Saramago-ish proportions), I enjoyed it. As social and political commentary, there are inspired sections. As a novel, though, I didn’t find it a smashing success.