• 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw *** (of 4)

    A series of loosely connected short stories about the inner thoughts and external actions of younger Black women whose wants and desires are not so chaste and confined as their gray-haired elders whose lives it seems have always been defined by an all-purpose white Jesus of their community church. Younger Black women have sexual desires, sometimes for men and sometimes for women. They have insecurities and therapists. Their relationships with mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunties, are simultaneously fraught with jangling rage, but also the bedrock upon which they stand and have stood generation after generation. Black Women’s Lives Matter, only prayer to Jesus is no longer sufficient as these women fight their way forward.

  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the photographer Edward Curtis took it upon himself to photo-document and record ethnographic information on every Indian tribe left in America. Pause for a minute and consider the audacity of the undertaking. At a time when the majority of white Americans still considered that only dead Indians were worth celebrating, Curtis not only took up a morally opposing perspective, but was determined to meet and speak with any indigenous tribe with enough function left to be whole and visitable.

    In what would ultimately amount to a 20-year project to produce the 20 volumes of The American Indian, Curtis took 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes.

    Photographs made during the early days of photography, while staged, remain some of the most iconic and artistic of any people in any era.

    His subjects transmit history, pathos, despair, and pride directly into the camera.

    Writing a book about the visual arts is no small feat and yet, Egan, a multiple-award winning author, succeeds in telling the life story of Curtis, the obsessed photographer, and the nadir of Indian life in America. Curtis was so obsessed with the need to document The American Indian he forfeited his marriage, his home, and his income. America, however, and its Indians owe debts of gratitude to Curtis for his fortitude and to Egan for so elegantly drawing him to our attention.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich *** (of 4)

    Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union.  Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin.  She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism.  Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition.  The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive.  Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support.  Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night.  The final picture is masterful, with one caveat.  Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction.  That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.

  • March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)

    This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population.  Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting.  For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans.  Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen.  The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964:  John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.  And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses.  Everyone should read this book.  And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.

  • In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)

    An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree.  Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels.  The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers.  Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared.  That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered.  Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity?  Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not.  Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings.  Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    The year is 1870.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas.  The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters.  Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives.  Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic.  Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat.  The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity.  Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days.  Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal.  Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting.  Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be.  They are complicated.  You like some and dislike others.  It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.