Jack, by Marilynne Robinson


Robinson’s fourth Gilead novel is all about Jack, the impossible yet much-loved son of John Ames’s great friend the Rev. Robert Boughton. In the three previous books, Jack has been glimpsed as the prodigal child, polite and charming but a failure in the world’s eyes.

Despite Boughton’s patience and preaching, Jack cannot seem to fit in. He’s not rebellious per se, but cannot resist pilfering small items, especially those with sentimental meaning to their owners. He lies, drinks, skips church, and plays pranks on family and neighbors in the small Iowa town. As Jack himself says in this novel, when he sees something fragile he cannot resist the relief of breaking it, calling himself “A destructive man in a world where everything can be ruined or broken.”

Jack has no illusions about himself. “He had always been drawn to vulnerability, to doing damage where it was possible, because it was possible . . . He was nothing, a mere unshielded nerve, a pang mollified by a drink or two, or shine on his shoes.”

This novel precedes the other three in time, so we meet Jack as a bum in St Louis. Released from jail where he landed for a crime he didn’t commit, he picks up money for drink and cigarettes, and sometimes rent, from stealing or menial jobs that never last. He is haunted by debt collectors ready to use force to get what they want. The only reason Jack doesn’t commit suicide is that he doesn’t want to hurt his father, vowing “to stay alive as long as decency required,” i.e., until Boughton himself dies.

When a sudden shower sends a young black woman’s papers flying, Jack’s ingrained courtesy makes him give her an umbrella that he’s stolen from a nearby park bench and chase down her papers. From his manner and his black suit, Della thinks he is a minister and they begin the conversation that makes up most of the book.

The potential for Jack to do harm to this person he loves and who so unexpectedly loves him is magnified by the 1950s-era law against miscegenation. She could lose her teaching job and both of them could be imprisoned. He acknowledges “the impossibility of going on together when the whole world has made and kept this infernal compact, making transgression and crime of something innocent, if anything could be called innocent, a marriage of true minds. Yes. Exacting from them a precious thing it had no right to and no use for.”

I have known a few Jacks in my life. They are not evil, just different, somehow estranged from ordinary life. They understand society’s rules but remain unmoved by them. So I was grateful for this deep dive into such a person’s mind.

It goes without saying that the book is beautifully written, though with few instances of the transcendence of everyday life that made the other books stand out for me. Only my affection for those volumes and personal interest in understanding Jack kept me going through the long first third of the book.

Jack and Della meet by accident in a graveyard. It is night and they are both locked in, Jack because he meant to sleep rough and Della because she forgot the time. It is a white graveyard where she is not allowed to be, so she is afraid to ask the watchman to let her out. Thus a great chunk of the book is their dialogue about religion, poetry, and philosophy. That part was a slog to read.

The rest of the book is great, though somewhat repetitive, as it would have to be given Jack’s floundering. While Jack is always down on himself, he manages to avoid self-pity, and Robinson finds moments of grace even for this sinner. Certainly grace in the religious sense plays a large role here, as does the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Adding to the sense that their fates are unavoidable is our knowledge from the other books of how things are going to turn out for the two of them.

I never got a good sense of Della, though of course we mostly see her through Jack’s besotted eyes. Only around her family do we get to see her in action. There’s an interesting story in Della I’d love to read, about an educated black woman raised by a family that believes in separation of the races, navigating the blatantly racist world of the 1950s.

Boughton intrigued me as well, always ready to forgive his beloved son, twisting his theology to find reasons to excuse him. Jack, himself, is not surprised when each attempt to improve himself is foiled, often for reasons outside his control.

I’m not sure I came to a new understanding of the Jacks in my life, but I’m grateful for the chance to see the world through his eyes.

Have you read this or other books in the Gilead quartet?

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford


Sometimes a Middle Grade (MG) book is the right remedy for the last gloomy dregs of winter. In this first of a five-book series, twelve-year-old Milo’s glee at the start of winter vacation is dashed by the surprise arrival of a guest wanting to stay at Greenglass House, a gloriously rambling inn with many stained-glass windows, which is also the home of Milo and his adoptive parents.

Part of Milo’s dismay is that the inn, which seems to cater to an inordinate number of smugglers, is usually left to the family over the Christmas holidays. Another part is how unexpected this night-time arrival is, in the middle of a massive snowstorm which threatens to close the steep road to the house and—they thought—had frozen over the river Skidwrack, the usual approach to the house.

We quickly understand that Milo has a low tolerance for disorder and change, carefully piling his books in a certain way and always ensuring that each piece of furniture, each knick-knack is in its regular place. He’s self-conscious about how obvious it is that he is adopted, since he is Chinese, and tries to hide or at least be invisible when guests are around. His relief at being on vacation points to school being even more uncomfortable for him.

Their visitor is immediately followed by four more, each as mysterious as the last. Their cook and her oldest daughter are hastily summoned from the village, Nagaspeak, with supplies, barely making it through the storm.

None of the visitors appears to be on the up-and-up, their stated reasons for being there not ringing true. Then there’s the strange antique map Milo found, apparently dropped by one of them. His new friend Meddy, the cook’s younger daughter, introduces him to a role-playing game in which he takes on the character of Negret, through whom he discovers his own unsuspected talents. When items start being stolen, the two of them investigate.

The story takes place more or less in modern times, yet there are lovely quaint details. At one point, the Magothy is mentioned so I assume the fictional Nagspeake is set very near where I grew up on the edge of Sandy Point Park on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Also, the author grew up in Annapolis, which is not far away. I especially loved the house, with its peculiar architecture, unlikely nooks and crannies, prolific attic, and mysterious history.

I read that the book started as a writing prompt—to write something about stained glass—which as a writer and writing teacher I love! Writing to prompts can take you down unusual paths, opening up new ideas and inspiring unusual stories.

While I was too immersed in the story to do much analysis while reading, I found myself afterwards looking at how the author revealed information. Like Milo, we are learning things all the time, but each new understanding raises even more questions. Thus, the suspense kept growing—with appropriate scenes of hot chocolate and companionship as a rest in between.

Some of the twists might seem a little heavy-handed to adults whose investigative skills have been honed by decades of mysteries, but are probably just right for middle-grade readers.

I loved how the characters develop through the story—Milo, of course, but also Meddy, Milo’s parents, and the guests themselves. Also adding to the richness of the story is what Tolkien called “shimmer”: the presence of a story behind the story, a detailed past hinted at, like the shadows of our past selves or our ancestors that lurk behind us.

The book in great fun and I look forward to exploring the rest of the series.

Have you read a Kate Milford book? Which one is your favorite?

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason


Many people recommended this 2018 novel to me, and it is indeed precisely the sort of novel I enjoy. In truth, I like different kinds of novels depending on my mood and what else is going on in my life, but often what I lean toward is a serious, accomplished novel without a lot of look-at-me meta-tricks, one that uses a small frame to explore big ideas.

Lucius is a 22-year-old medical student in Vienna in 1914. The only child of a wealthy family, he is a disappointment to the parents who want to see him become a famous diplomat or war hero. Yet his passion is for medicine, so much so that he has no time for anything else, his only friend a fellow student. The war promises to release him from the, to him, useless lectures at his school and enable him to treat actual patients. Also, like so many others at the time, he has a romaticised vision of war.

Instead of a bustling hospital where he can get clinical training, Lucius is posted to a remote field hospital in the Carpathian Mountains. where he is the only doctor. The commandeered church is freezing; supplies and equipment are minimal, and there’s an outbreak of typhus among the patients. He has a few untrained helpers and one nursing sister, who quickly notices Lucius’s lack of practical knowlege and unobtrusively teaches him.

Among his patients are several with “nervous shock” including the silent Horvath, whom they call the winter soldier. Lucius begins to suspect that this newly defined ailment goes beyond the physical illnesses of his training, that they are at least partially psychological. His sympathy for his patients is sorely tried by the primitive treatments he has to offer and by the army’s demand that he patch them up enough to send them back into combat.

Despite the support of the level-headed sister, Lucius’s missteps, the hardships he has to endure, and the cruelties he witnesses lead to his own PTSD. Some of the scenes are grisly and devastating to read, but there are also scenes of grace and beauty. Balancing the two is perhaps Mason’s most impressive achievement.

Also impressive is his ability to bring these different mileaus to life, the gilded mansions of Vienna where we start, the terrible winter journey to his first posting, the war-ravaged village on the eastern front. While this is a story about WWI, it is not about trenches and battles. It is a small, human story powered by big ideas, not just the romance/reality of war itself and the emergence of what we now call PTSD as a recognised illness, but also the unlikely connections that save us, the small mistakes that have large consequences, hubris, guilt, atonement. It is a brilliant evocation of this moment when everything about the world changed.

Have you read a WWI novel not only captured your attention but also gave you new insight?

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jessmyn Ward


Ward’s widely praised second novel takes the reader into the lives of a black family in Mississippi. It starts with Jojo’s grandfather inviting the boy to help kill a goat as part of celebrating Jojo’s thirteenth birthday. The horror of seeing the slaughter—vividly described—makes the boy throw up.

Jojo and his baby sister Kayla are being raised by their grandparents—though their grandmother is bedridden with cancer at this time—because their father Michael is in prison for drugs and their mother Leonie is not interested in caring for them. Between work, hanging out with her white friend (a co-worker named Misty) and her own drug use, Leonie has many reasons to be absent physically and emotionally. Moreover, as we learn later, she is still passionately in love with Michael to the exclusion of all else.

Leonie, who alternates narrating chapters with Jojo, gets a call that Michael is being released and decides to pick him up from Parchman, taking the children and Misty, whose black boyfriend is also imprisoned there. The road trip is a series of escalating disasters, with Jojo trying desperately to care for Kayla while Leonie and Misty ignore her or complain about her.

Jojo thinks about his grandfather’s often-told story of his own time at Parchman where he tried to care for a twelve-year-old boy, Richie, who had been sent there for stealing food for his nine siblings. When they arrive at Parchman, Jojo can actually see and talk with Richie’s unquiet ghost; Jojo’s blood family all have certain powers or ties to the spirit world. Richie returns in the car with them because he is desperate to confront Jojo’s grandfather. Several short chapters are narrated by Richie.

I found this fierce and troubling novel almost too vividly written. Even second-hand, the travails of this family are hard to bear. There is value in enduring them, of course, in bearing witness, no matter how much we think we already know about the effects of systemic racism on families.

Some of my friends have complained that the author packed in all the expected tropes: racial slurs, carceral injustice, drugs, children being raised by grandparents, even driving while black. Yet to me, the concatenation of problems is only too realistic. Any young person, even one from a stable family like the one Leonie grew up in, can make a wrong decision and—without the kind of wealth or family connections that enable more privileged young people to escape the consequences of their actions—start down this only too familiar trajectory. All of which is exacerbated by racism of course.

Some of the parallels seemed a little too obvious, such as the goat’s insides being pulled out and Jojo emptying his—there’s a lot of vomiting in this book—and Leonie and Misty’s reversed interracial relationships. Also, part of the ending was—for me, at least—a bit of a letdown.

Another quibble is that sometimes the characters’ voices don’t ring true. However, the multiple points of view are handled very well, which is difficult to do.

I loved the strong tie between Jojo and Kayla. Even more powerful to me was the relationship between Richie and Jojo’s grandfather. These are beautifully drawn. There’s a lot of love here, as well as pain.

Have you read a story that made you think about hidden sources of resilience?

Paris, by Edward Rutherfurd


In my virtual travels this winter I’ve most recently been in Venice; before that I was in Paris for several weeks. Rutherfurd’s book had been on my shelf for a long time, so that was a great opportunity to read it.

Like his other books that I’ve enjoyed, London and Sarum, this big book follows a handful of families from the earliest days of the city (here 1261) to the modern day (1968). The families vary: thieves, nobles, merchants, craftsmen. As they act and interact, we get to know the history of Paris itself, highlighting important events but more importantly taking us into their daily lives. We walk the streets with them, navigate the surge of Protestantism, mount the barricades, help build the Eiffel tower, hide a downed RAF pilot.

There’s a Jewish family that includes a physician, an antique dealer and an art dealer, through whose eyes we see the shifting political and social winds that dictate their lives, seeing the effects on individuals as tolerance veers into pogroms.

There are Brits and Canadians, tying France to the Western world and introducing the effects of immigration. There are country houses and political refuges that bring in regions outside the city.

I loved getting to know the city, relying heavily on the maps in the front of the book (as well as the family trees). Never having been there, I was always a little unclear about the geography, but now I have a good sense of it. It was also fascinating to see how the character of individual neighborhoods changed over the centuries. The Marais, for example, housed the Templars starting in 1240 which led to many churches also being built there. Royal palaces and aristocratic mansions proliferated. After the French Revolution, though, with the nobility gone, the mansions deteriorated and the area became home to Jewish and working class families. The Marais began to be rehabilitated in the 1960s and now hosts numerous art galleries.

In Rutherfurd’s novel, each of these transformations is tied to individuals and families. We escape in the middle of the night with Jacob and his family and later sell our paintings with Marc Blanchard. One of the most fascinating parts for me was Thomas Gascon’s work building the Eiffel Tower where I for the first time grasped what an engineering marvel it was, the vision of its architect Gustave Eiffel, and the courage of the men who built it.

You may start this book as I did intending to learn about the history and geography of this remarkable city. But I defy you to resist getting swept up in the stories of these individuals, their dreams and passions, their choices and chances. If stories really are the way we best remember things, as current research tells us, then what better way to learn about Paris than through these stories?

What book about or set in Paris have you read?