• Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan **** (of 4)

    The perfect follow up to We Didn’t Know Ourselves, Claire Keegan’s novella describes in exquisite detail the conflict between religion and morality within the mind of a father of five girls in 1980s Ireland. Bill Furlong is just making do, which is no small feat in Ireland’s stagnant economy. He delivers fuelwood and coal to client’s, many less well off than he and his family. Among his customers are a village home for mothers and babies (the guarded prison-like fortresses where young girls were closeted after becoming pregnant before marriage) run by brutally strict, powerfully connected, nuns.

    Rumors swirl about what might be happening inside the homes, but villagers long ago agreed that it was best not to pry. When Bill makes a coal delivery in the days before Christmas he inadvertently learns more about the despairing conditions of the incarcerated girls than he cared to know. Already burdened with a mid-life crisis, concerned both for the welfare of his five daughters and the monotony of shoveling coal for a living, Bill Furlong must now cope with the added conundrum of trying to do right by himself and the world.

    What makes Small Things Like These and We Didn’t Know Ourselves such exceptional books is the incomparable ability of both authors (Keegan and O’Toole) to spin a yarn. They each draw us into a dark, cold evening by an Irish fireplace listening to a master Irish storyteller.

  • Mercury Pictures Presents *** (of 4) by Anthony Marra

    Anthony Marra starts off well enough. His lead characters Art Feldman, a 1940s B-lot movie producer and his plucky assistant, an Italian immigrant named Maria Lagana, together make crummy movies on a tight budget. The movies are worth paying attention to because Art and Maria both have relatives trapped by Nazis and Fascists in Europe so they see it as their duty to call truth to power. They battle wartime censorship and American fascists (America First members) looking to shut down a Jewish filmmaker by making schlocky films about the hypocrisy of American propaganda.

    At its strongest, Marra captures the patois of an indomitable, snarky Jewish director with six toupees, each toupee bearing its own name, and the Italian banter of Maria’s three aunts who communicate only in insults. Listening to the dialogue is as joyful as watching an old black and white movie.

    Then Marra introduces Art Feldman’s twin brother, Maria’s father entrapped in Italy, the village of San Lorenzo in Italy and all its villagers, a Chinese American actor, German refugees seeking work in the film industry, an Italian policeman and his ambitious sidekick, a Senatorial hearing on acceptable film making, a German American architect working as a miniaturist in a film studio who is later called up by the U.S. Army to build a painstakingly accurate, life size depiction of Berlin in the middle of the Utah desert to be used as target practice, and rebuilt each time it is burned, a Black prisoner wrongfully convicted and sentenced to fifty years in jail, an on again, off again relationship between Maria and her mother, an archaeological dig, and rapacious stockholders anxious to promote profit over art upon Hollywood.

    Mercury Pictures Presents is one of those books reviewers refer to as a sprawling novel, and most reviewers loved Mercury Pictures Presents. Alas, sprawl overtakes Anthony Marra as he tries too hard to cover too much. His story of a B-level movie studio comes off as a B-level book.

  • The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian *** (of 4)

    A somewhat predictable, but well-told story about a motherless, white daughter with an abusive father living in a 1920s Mississippi swamp. Once Dad disappears from the picture she is joined by an also motherless Black girl with a history she does not want to reveal. The two teenagers take on the swamp, their neighbors, a newborn, and deadly Jim Crow racism. They find their footing and gain their independence, or, at least the white girl does. To be Black and live in the south under Jim Crow apartheid laws is a balancing act between hopelessness and subversive defiance.

  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich **** (of 4)

    A fictionalized account of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman in a factory on the Chippewa nation in North Dakota. He battled the U.S. Senate as the American government made one more effort to remove Indians from their native lands: In the 1950s, a Mormon senator, with considerable support from his colleagues, decided it was time to “emancipate” America’s Indians. In practice, emancipation meant absolving the U.S. government of support for any Indian activities – like healthcare, housing assistance, food security. Equally valuable to the U.S. government and its supporters, emancipation included tossing “independent” Indians from their reservations. Imagine the land rush afforded non-Indians if Indians were no longer recognized, but “emancipated.”

    Erdrich’s fictionalized Indian characters are full of life, defiant in the face of daily trauma and mean-spirited hardships. What makes The Night Watchman such a fine read is that the Chippewa, in addition to having devilishly great senses of humor, tangle with love, jealousy, envy, icky-bosses, shifting friendships, relatives gone off the rails, and making dinner. In short, The Night Watchman makes us recognize the fundamental humanity of Native Americans and all people whose cultures are different from our own. Erdrich deals truth to power calling out elected officials bent on setting up walls, real and invisibly enforced by laws and economic restrictions around people whose history has been torturous, and whose difference can be distinguished by their skin color.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg *** (of 4)

    It would be a cozy murder mystery from which a lot could be learned about the culture of modern day China, if not for the fact that the female victim was not only sexually assaulted, but also eviscerated and sewn back together. The fact that harvested organs are for sale in China is part of the cultural education of Klingborg’s readers and worth knowing about as are the depths and origins of corruption in Chinese government. Under today’s communist regime, it seems almost anything is tolerated in exchange for so-called stability.

    Inspector Lu Fei stands apart from his peers in wanting to pursue justice and truth over convenience and a successful case file. In between drinks at the local bar in a small (by Chinese standards) backwater city, Lu Fei does what good detectives should do while keeping an open mind and collecting evidence. We observe him rub up against climbers, superior officers, and sycophants who show us rather accurately how Chinese police forces supported by a government sponsored justice system manage crime in China with a heavy hand and only a passing acknowledgement of due process.

    China does not feel like a place where rule of law can be counted upon to spare the falsely accused. Or a Uighur.

  • Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Falade *** (of 4)

    As the Civil War dragged on and Union troops made advances across the south, formerly enslaved people fled bondage to take up refuge behind northern armies. Some of the escaped men were organized into fighting regiments: Black soldiers fighting for the Union cause.

    Richard Etheridge, a Sargent in the African Brigade of Colored Troops, is the primary subject of this fictional account of a real-life American hero. The Colored Troops traverse the lowlands of North Carolina dispossessing former plantation owners of their property, burning their homes when necessary, and gathering up enslaved people still being held in bondage. The embedded racism among white officers and southerners of all stripes is laid bare and real as the author, David Wright, incorporates an exceptional amount of homework. All that research, however, makes the book, and its attempt at period vernacular, hard to follow at times. A list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book would have helped we readers keep all the players straight.

  • The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke *** (of 4)

    Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun detective, poet, and philosopher with no patience for corruption or injustice. When a young Black woman floats to the surface, face down, of a bayou Robicheaux uses for fishing he reasonably concludes foul play led to her death. Just as quickly the coroner determines she drowned following a drug overdose, suggesting that a young very poor Black woman hooked on drugs and trying to climb in society as a sex worker is not worth additional effort on anyone’s part.

    Robicheaux cannot let it go. While he moves up the food chain of pimps, hustlers, and local dons, he gets wrapped up in what turns out to be an international arms smuggling operation that is much more credible than it sounds summarized here in just a couple of sentences. The book is the first in what would become an exceptionally long writing career for James Lee Burke, dated to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is evident from the start why Burke would enjoy such a successful career. Robicheaux’s descriptions of bayous and waterways of southern Louisiana, race and class relations in New Orleans, and doubts and desires of men and women trying their best, all rise from the page in steamy, evocative images that are indelible.

  • Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)

    Escapist fiction about an outbreak of Burmese pythons from their confines in the Everglades to the poshest of all Florida communities, Palm Beach. The book opens when the POTUS PUSSIES (matronly donors to an unnamed, but very recently impeached President, nicknamed Mastodon, whose winter White House mansion is nearby), are hosting one of their innumerable garden-party charity balls: Is this week the IBS Foundation?

    Unfortunately, the bejeweled, but not very large President of the POTUSSIES, Kiki Pew Fitzgerald, having imbibed more than a recommended number of cocktails is swallowed by a Burmese Python near the backyard pool. More pythons appear where they shouldn’t, the President blames Kiki’s death on illegal immigrants, tweets inappropriate commentary, his bored wife, code-named Mockingbird, bangs her secret service agent while the President shacks up with a not very talented pole-dancer, and a feisty wildlife wrangler must sort it all out between jobs collecting errant raccoons and overpopulating mice.

  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr *** (of 4)

    There are a lot of layers to this book. On the surface is the retelling of a fragment of an ancient Greek story about a simple shepherd who longs to visit a heavenly city in the sky. Doerr interweaves versions of the story as it appears to readers who stumble upon it in Ancient Greece, in Constantinople at the time of its fall into the hands of attacking Saracens, in Iowa during the 80 or so years before today, and on a spaceship that appears to be operated by a stand-in for Google, about 75 years in the future.

    The half dozen or so stories are told in simultaneous, intermingled fragments, a lot like the remnants of the original Cloud Cuckoo Land’s stained and moldering parchments that have survived to present. Thematically, Doerr is laying down a manifesto in defense of an earth imperiled by pollution and a warning to a population too enthralled with technology to slow down enough to appreciate the timeliness of a simple story well told. Interestingly, the protagonists in each era are misfits in some way, on Odysseian journeys of their own. This is a book for a book club as there is that much to discuss. Or it’s possible that Doerr is trying to do a little too much in one book.