Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

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This 2016 bestseller has received lots of good reviews. It begins with an unexpected and uninvited guest arriving at the christening party for Franny, second daughter of Fix and Beverly Keating. Bert Cousins brings a bottle of gin as a present, something unexpected and unusual at a christening. As the party goes on, everyone gets drunk; most people behave badly; a priest gives up his vocation; and Bert, who has a pregnant wife and three children at home, falls in love with Beverly.

I was ready to stop halfway through this first chapter. I’m not a fan of stories of people behaving badly. I don’t find them funny, which is why I rarely watch any sitcoms. Yet many people have loved this book, according to Goodreads and various book reviews, and my book club had chosen it, so I plowed on.

In ten or so stand-alone vignettes like the first chapter, the story zigzags through the lives of the Keating and Cousins families. Two drawbacks of the book are the sheer number of main characters and the huge jumps in time and space from one chapter to the next. It was sometimes hard for me to figure out the chronology and also to keep track of which child belonged to which pair of parents.

The children’s lives are upended by the reckless decisions their parents make. The parents continue to neglect them, not just their emotional life but even their physical safety. At one point, the parents finally show up at the children’s motel room at 2 pm, saying that they “slept in”. What kind of parent does that?

Unsurprisingly, the children are little monsters. Left to their own devices and hating their parents, they entertain themselves by embarking on dangerous expeditions, drugging the youngest child with Benadryl, and carrying around Dad’s loaded gun.

I liked the vignettes where the children were older much better. Well, mostly. At least one, like some of the childhood vignettes, reminded me of a bad sitcom with things getting worse and worse, beyond the outer limit of credibility, with no humor to lighten it.

This is supposed to be a novel that explores blended families, which have become common as the divorce rate has soared. Yet the Keatings/Cousins families seem so cartoonishly awful that it is hard for me to see any useful insight into the concept. It’s not the blending of families that is the problem here; it is the selfishness of some of the four parents. It’s not as if we need another illustration of narcissism these days.

It’s also supposed to be a novel that explores the ownership of stories. Who gets to tell the story of your childhood? As a memoirist, this question is important to me. Patchett has said that she drew on her own memories to write it. And, to add some meta- to her fiction, she has included a much-older famous writer who becomes young Franny’s lover, listens to her stories, and then writes a novel based on them. The impact of the lover’s novel on the families is explored toward the end of the book, and was the part most interesting to me.

What kept me reading, besides my book club, was the structure. I was curious as to how these unconnected vignettes would hold up as a novel. For a long time it felt like a novel in stories, that is, a series of short stories only marginally related. But by the end, I did feel that the book cohered into a single novel.

Besides featuring the same eight characters throughout, Patchett accomplished that by her consistency of tone. One Goodreads reviewer complained about the tone, saying that it was distant and formal. I agree that it kept the reader at arm’s length. But I liked that. Usually I prefer to be immersed in a novel and live the story with the main character, but in this case, given these characters, I was happy to observe them from afar.

As always, these remarks are my own. Many, many people adored this book, and it got overwhelmingly positive reviews. To my surprise, most of these reviews talked of the humor the book, even citing some of the set-pieces that most horrified me as the most comical.

I think the difference is that I know parents like these and children like these, so I found the story heart-breaking rather than hilarious. I’m reminded of the time in my teens when a group of friends insisted I watch the sitcom All in the Family with them. I left at the first commercial break, near tears. To them, Archie Bunker and his family seemed so exaggerated as to be funny. To me, they were too close to my own family for me to be amused.

Have you read one of Patchett’s novels? What did you think of it?

The Melody, by Jim Crace

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Alfred Busi, a famous and beloved musician and singer, is awakened in the night by animals tipping over the garbage bins. His town has honored him by including a statue of him in their Avenue of Fame, and he is to speak at its unveiling the next day. In addition, he is to give a benefit concert in two days.

At “sixty-something”, Busi is comfortable with fame and with the declining quality of his voice. But since the recent death of his wife, he has had trouble sleeping and has let their villa deteriorate.

When he returns from chasing away the animals and righting the bins, he’s viciously attacked—his hands and face deeply bitten and scratched—by what he swears is a small boy, not a feral dog or cat. Other attacks follow, both physical and emotional, in this wrenching account of an aging man, who has been functioning well, suddenly falling off a cliff, as Atul Gawande describes it in Being Mortal.

We don’t discover until near the end the narrator’s identity. He seems to be speaking for the town throughout the long first part of the book. Once identified in the brief second part, he begins voicing individual opinions.

We are in a European town, apparently during the 1930s, a period whose unrest is mirrored in the town’s changes. Developers are buying up property, such as Busi’s aging villa, and clearing out areas that tradition has ceded to the poor and to wild animals. Busi’s account of the wild child who attacked him revives fears of an uncivilised people who according to legend live in the untamed forests. Such feral children are a staple of myth and folklore, sometimes raised by wolves or dogs or bears, but real cases have also been documented.

Our narrator, despite his claims of rationality, still senses “that something other than ourselves persists. Something wilder and more animated but still resembling us.” He goes on to speculate that these others are the ones who will survive “when we come tumbling down, our cities and our towns, as tumble down they must, when our apartments and our boulevards are tenanted by rats and weeds”.

As always with Crace, the language is subtly poetic, so that it is only on rereading that I notice the beauty of the sentences and the way information is conveyed. There is also much quiet humor, not only in the reference to nonexistent books in the acknowledgments, but also in the astute sketches of various characters that reveal their vanities and illusions.

There are other aspects of earlier Crace novels that I recognise. In Harvest, we see the fear of change, the scapegoating of those unlike us, and the issue of displaced people. In Being Dead, we see the unsentimental and dispassionate attention paid to the decomposing bodies that here describes Busi’s injuries and emotional deterioration. We also see a couple’s long and affectionate marriage, similar to Busi’s where the lobby of his house, “was meant only for coats and umbrellas and shoes, but it had witnessed their embraces and reunions a thousand times, and so, for Busi, it had tender memories.”

Books about aging and the changes that come with a longer life are of particular interest to me these days, such as Walter Mosley’s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. I was saddened by much of this book, as we along with Busi discover his new limitations, learn that he is not the man he thought he still was, and have to give up treasured belongings. Yet, I found hope in his openness to what is new. All of the characters here seem like people I know, and their story compelling.

What book about aging has given you comfort or new insight?

I Heard God Laughing, by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

God Laughing

I hadn’t read very much of Hafiz’s work when my poetry discussion group selected him for October. We meet once a month to read and discuss the work of a single poet. Taking turns reading the poems, we find that the discussion and the time that we take with each one helps us to appreciate them more deeply. Choosing a new poet each month introduces us to a range of authors, often ones we’ve never read before.

With Hafiz’s work, we found ourselves intrigued and moved by his humor and compassion. We talked less about craft than usual and more about our reactions. I often look at how authors invite the reader into their work, especially with poetry. Hafiz in particular throws open the doors with open arms and an open heart. Hafiz’s generous spirit is apparent in each poem.

Here is an example from I Heard God Laughing:

Awake Awhile

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,

Right now.

One step upon the Sky’s soft skirt
Would be enough.

Hafiz,

Awake awhile.

Just one True moment of Love
Will last for days.

Rest all your elaborate plans and tactics
For Knowing Him,

For they are all just frozen spring buds
Far,
So far from Summer’s Divine Gold.

Awake, my dear.

Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

Say,

“Love,

Give me back my wings.
Lift me,

Lift me nearer.”

Say to the sun and moon,
Say to our dear Friend,

“I will take You up now, Beloved,

On that wonderful Dance You promised!”

I found this collection of translations by Daniel Ladinsky especially welcoming. It lives up to its subtitle Poems of Hope and Joy.

Even the humorous lines contain a significant truth, such as this description of depression from “Cast All Your Votes for Dancing” as being dragged “Like a broken man / Behind a farting camel”. And every now and then a line would startle me with a new idea, such as this one from “All the Hemispheres”: “Change rooms in your mind for a day.”

In addition to these and other poems translated by Daniel Ladinsky, we read some that had been translated by others. One seemed to preserve the form of the original, but used archaic and high-flown language so that they were almost impossible to read. Another lacked the music and joy that we had begun to expect, but appeared to be a more literal translation. A third seemed nothing like any of the other work, but rather an anecdotal venture exploring a contradictory theme.

We did discuss translation, and how it translated poem is really the work of two people, a new work entirely. When I took a translation class once, I believed going into it that translators should try and stick as closely as possible to the original our of respect for the author. However, I quickly found that my desire to convey the sense of the original and to make a good poem overwhelmed my concern about fidelity to the original. Given the differences in sounds used by various languages, it’s extraordinarily difficult to retain both form and content while making a good poem.

So, while the translator we most appreciated was Daniel Ladinsky, I had noticed a comment on Goodreads criticizing the liberties he seems to take in his translations of Hafiz. However, these were the most interesting and moving poems that we read. I wished I could have heard them in the original Farsi, to hear the music of the words.

Though it’s hard to be sure, I think that most of the poems in this collection were originally ghazals. The ghazal form uses five or more couplets, each of which stands alone yet is related to the others in some way, perhaps an over-arching theme.

The two lines of the first couplet and the second line of each remaining couplet end with a refrain, a single word that is repeated. In all but the first couplet, Before the refrain there is usually a word that rhymes with it. I’m told that when ghazals are recited aloud the audience, hearing the rhyme, knows that the next word is going to be the refrain and joins in on it: a lovely thought.

The poems in this collection truly are about hope and joy. They are meant to comfort us and to invite us into the dance.

Have you read Hafiz’s poetry? Which poem is your favorite?

Tales from the House of Vasquez, by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

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The poems in this remarkable chapbook draw us into a woman’s inner life. They lure us into the realm of magical realism were spines dissolve and babies fall from trees, where bears can speak and impart magic, where your mother can reach out from the grave and comfort you.

Summoning mythology and remembered stories from childhood Gilliland tells us of her mama, her tía who left when the author was a baby, and her grandmother’s mother who married at 13 and had a dozen babies. She tells us of a river woman who is “greener than you’d think. Her skin, moss, her hair, waterweed, her eyes, stone.” We learn about the four eyes that women have been given.

It’s been a difficult week to be a woman. A post on writerunboxed.com helped me think about events of this week from the point of view of a writer. Heather Webb posted advice for “Writing the Authentic Modern Woman (especially if you’re a man)”.

She writes about the way we are conscious of our bodies, and not just the body issues that we all are aware of on some level and comparing ourselves to others. I don’t know a single woman who is not dissatisfied in some way with some aspect of her body. This area also includes the way we are simply aware of our bodies, of “hormonal surges and changes in both mood and physique due to these hormones.”

What it does not include is musing about how large and sexy our breasts are. I’ve set novels aside, thrown them across the room even, when male writers have had women do this or notice a man’s genital endowment before his general attractiveness, clothing, hair, etc.

Webb also writes about our spatial awareness: the wariness we carry no matter what environment we are in. “Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING. “

It’s different for men. So for a man trying to write about a female character, these are important insights into how to make their characters realistic. I’d love to see a similar post from a man to help us female authors make our men more realistic. Having raised two amazing sons, I think I’m on pretty solid ground, but always welcome more information.

Absorbing these poems would certainly help a male writer better understand the joys and fears and griefs that women carry, the things that their four eyes see. Women will feel at home in these poems, yet be startled and astounded by their unusual images and leaps of imagination.

While vivid details speak of a Latinx culture, the tales are universal. The power and strength of the women in the midst of their fear and grief is a comfort and a hope for us all. These are poems to read again and again.

What poetry have you read recently that has astounded you?

Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman

Ex Libris

An ardent reader who still remembers the glorious moment when I first decoded the black marks in a Golden Book and found a story waiting for me, I love books. And I love books about books.

This is the first of several essay collections from Fadiman, former editor of The American Scholar and a founding editor of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization. She will be speaking at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October. The essays here are about books—loving books, living with them, building castles with them.

In the first selection, Fadiman describes the hilarious and tender process of marrying her and her husband’s libraries after five years of marriage. First they had to negotiate how the books would be placed on the shelf. Like Fadiman, I organize my books by nationality and subject matter, while her husband lumped all under the heading Literature. And George could have been talking to me when he gasped and said, “‘You mean we’re going to be chronological within each author?’”

But it was having to give up duplicate copies that brought home to Fadiman that they “had both been hoarding redundant copies of our favorite books ‘just in case’ we ever split up.” She realized that taking this giant step meant that they were “stuck together for good.”

One essay explores inscriptions in books given as gifts while another hilariously exploits the charm and eccentricity of footnotes. To me, the most moving selection is about her father’s library, evoking memories of my own childhood. My love affair with books started early and quickly grew from valuing them as transportation devices to appreciating them as physical objects.

Like Fadiman, I look at bookshelves in homes I visit. She says, “My brother and I were able to fantasize far more extravagantly about our parents’ tastes and desires, their aspirations and their vices, by scanning their bookcases than by snooping in their closets. Their selves were on their shelves.”

In the realm of Creative Nonfiction, personal essays have one foot in the province of memoir and the other in narrative nonfiction. By including personal details, they share some of the power of memoir and the way it welcomes the reader in. At the same time, they can convey bits of knowledge like tasty morsels hidden in a cake.

Fadiman is particularly adept at bringing in abstruse and amusing bits of information. Before now, I didn’t know that “Galileo compared Orlando Furioso to a melon field, Coventry Patmore compared Shakespeare to roast beef, and Edward Fitzgerald compared Thucydides to Parmesan cheese.” Nor did I know that William Gladstone invented the system of rolling bookshelves used in Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and other places, including some archives I’ve explored.

Most of all, though, the personal essay is a story and, as such, takes the reader on a journey. The journey may end in an epiphany or a comforting hug or a sad acceptance, but always in a satisfying way. Each of these small journeys rewards the reader with insights, images, and a chuckle or two.

What book about books have you read?

Just Like February, by Deborah Batterman

Just Like February

As the story opens, five-year-old Rachel Cohen is worried that her hippie parents are not going to actually go through with their long-delayed wedding. Her mother keeps calling it off. For Rachel, its more than the much-fussed-over dress she’ll wear as the flower girl; it has to do with making her family seem less precarious.

Her conservative grandparents appear vividly in their humor, patience and bottomless love. Details such as Grandma’s raspberry rugelach and Grandpa’s jokes and stories bring them to life, as do their distinct voices.

But it is her Uncle Jake whom Rachel loves immoderately. A restless traveler, source of treasured gifts and postcards, Jake is a free spirit who seems to offer Rachel a different kind of stability. He really does, even though this may seem at odds with his move to San Francisco, which has given Grandma to an obsession with earthquake predictions. It is only as Rachel grows older—the story begins in 1969 and ends in 1986—that she begins to recognise his demons and the real dangers that threaten him.

One of the most enjoyable things for me in a well-written book is turning back to the first page and first chapter after I’ve finished. Batterman’s beginning holds the seeds of the story to come. I was delighted to find images and motifs that circled back at the end. These are techniques that make for a satisfying ending—so rare in novels these days.

Writers often discuss how much to bring the outside world into your novel. They can add resonance to a story or, if irrelevant, distract the reader. Setting this story in the turbulent mid-twentieth century: the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Batterman could hardly ignore the effect of outside events on this family, yet she goes further by incorporating them into the storyline.

She does a good job of integrating the counter-culture of the time, with its dizzying sense that an old order is actually coming to an end. She also captures the early days of the AIDS epidemic, with their panicked and irrational fears, using them to drive the story.

For me, the story vividly brought back those decades. And the sense of being there again cemented by the many little details and references that were familiar to me. The text is interspersed with Rachel’s diary entries and postcards written by Jake and Rachel, adding another dimension of authenticity and voice.

I want to mention the cover, too. If readers aren’t familiar with an author, then the cover design is the first thing they see and the first way to interest them in the book. This cover is brilliant. Delicate and lovely, yet troubled, it sets you up for a story that is all of these things.

The next thing readers notice is the title. Titles are a particular weakness of mine, so I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I finally understood how appropriate this title is. The mystery of it draws you in. It lingers in the back of your mind and, even when it’s later explained, it still takes on new layers of meaning.

Delicate and lovely, troubling and satisfying: this is a story to savor.

Where were you when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? Now that a new film about that event is coming out, what do you think its significance is?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Two-Sided Set-up, by Eileen Haavik McIntire

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Melanie Fletcher thinks she’s finally broken her string of bad choices in men when she meets Hunter at a charity event in New York City. Rich and handsome, he treats her like a queen. After a whirlwind romance, they marry but it only takes a few months for the cracks in his façade to begin to show as he moves to separate her from her friends and job.

Running for her life, Melanie ends up at her father’s marina in Tidewater Virginia. She believes her childhood with her drunken, abusive father is the reason she keeps going from bad to worse when it comes to men, but has three reasons for going there. First, she’s escaped on her small boat, so a marina is a good place to park and clean the hull. Second, she hopes the obstinate man she once ran from might be strong enough in a pinch to provide some protection against Hunter. Third, maybe by finally confronting the demon of her childhood she will be able to break forever whatever makes her keep choosing the wrong man.

I won’t enumerate the ways in which things get worse and then even worse for Melanie. The suspense builds as she tries to create a new life for herself in Virginia, evade Hunter, and come to terms with her now-sober father. I’ll let you enjoy the ride for yourself.

As a writer, I find myself looking at ways McIntire maintains the suspense. (Full disclosure: she is a friend of mine.) Like an expert angler, she gives us some play now and then so we think we’re safe, and then reels us in ever more tightly.

There is not only the threat of Hunter finding and probably killing Melanie looming over the story. There’s the uncertainty of how much her now-sober father may have changed. And how much can she trust the seemingly gentle owner of the bike shop in town who offers her a job? And much more.

But even in small ways—what Donald Maass calls microtension—McIntire snugs in the hook a little closer on almost every page. Here’s an excerpt from a page chosen at random. Amos, Melanie’s father, has just said that he should have listened to her. She’s in her boat with Peedee, the dog she’s adopted for extra protection.

I sat in the cockpit and marveled at Amos’ last words . . . Did that mean he would stop pushing me to go back to Hunter? Had the blinders dropped from Amos’ eyes? I’d have to wait and see, but in the meantime I could cuddle Peedee.

I went to bed early and slept restlessly, waking in fear at every noise, worrying over how I could earn any money if I had to hide from Hunter on the road.

What I notice here is that as one strand of tension loosens a little, McIntire wastes no time in tightening another—even when the protagonist is sleeping!

Awash as we are in the fiercely honest anecdotes shared as part of the #MeToo movement, nothing in this story of Hunter’s behaviour will seem implausible. Writers are often advised to make their antagonists complex, not all bad, but sometimes it makes sense to break the rules.

In this case we are thrashing through the waves with Melanie in her attempts to escape him and take charge of her life. She is not going to see nuances in his behaviour or hints of good, at least not after she finally stops making excuses for him and tries to escape.

The other antagonist, Amos, though, is complex enough for both of them. I’ve seen how someone can change when they stop drinking. How much will he waver in his entrenched opinions? Can he and Melanie escape the patterns of the past?

If you’re looking for a protagonist you can cheer for and a captivating read, look no further.

What’s the most suspenseful novel you’ve read?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton

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It being the end of summer, I went in search of a real vacation read. Not that I was going away, but I did have a week off from grandchild babysitting duties. I wasn’t looking for a beach read; most of my vacations end up in a cabin in the woods or a footpath in the Cotswolds. Instead I wanted to immerse myself in a big, fat, multi-generational novel, preferably set in the UK.

I found it in The Forgotten Garden. As the story opens, it is 1913 and a small girl is hiding on a ship on the Thames, as instructed by “the lady”. The ship casts off from its London dock to cries of “Bon voyage”, and the girl leaves her hiding place to follow a group of children. Later, a fall on the ship has damages her memory, so she no longer remembers her name or any other details of her former life.

She fetches up in Brisbane, Australia, where she is adopted by the harbormaster and his wife. As an adult Nell tries to discover how she came to be left alone on the boat and why a book of fairy tales was packed in her small suitcase. After Nell’s death her granddaughter Cassandra takes up the search, following Nell’s footsteps to Blackhurst Manor on the coast of Cornwall, ancestral home of the Mountrachet family.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Morton’s The Lake House, impressed by how well she moved back and forth in time without losing me—and I’m a notoriously easily confused reader.

Here Morton doubles down by using, not just multiple time periods but also multiple narrative points of view (POVs). Multiple POVs have proliferated lately, having the cachet of seeming modern. Many writers have tried their hand at using them. Most fail.

At least in my opinion—remember I’m easily confused. Sometimes it seems to me a lazy way of writing. It is a challenge to bring out all of a story’s incidents and information if you are confined to only one character’s perceptions. I think some authors try to get around that by moving from one character’s head to another, instead of finding more creative solutions.

That’s not what’s happening here. I should have been lost a hundred times over as we move between Nell, Cassandra, Rose Mountrachet, and Eliza, the author of the fairy tales. We jump around in time between 1900 when Eliza was a child, 1907, 1913, 1930, 1975-1976, and 2005 when Cassandra flies from Australia to England. We have letters and scrapbooks and journals. We even have some of the fairy tales.

And it all works. It’s not just that Morton labels each chapter with place and date. It’s not just that we have different characters associated with the different time frames to help ground us. Nor is it just that she pays attention to transitions, so for example at the end of one chapter Cassandra in 2005 is examining a legal document, while the next chapter starts in 1975 with Nell checking her passport and tickets.

It’s that Morton has carefully constructed her story so that whatever the date and POV, the line of the story continues. Thus, just as Nell in 1975 begins to learn about Eliza’s early life and that she is the author of the fairy tales, we go to 1900 where Eliza is watching the busy life of London’s streets through a chink in the bricks and making up stories about the people she sees. If I was unsurprised by the ending, I was at least not disappointed.

It’s always interesting to me as a writer to go back, after my gloriously immersive first read, and see how the author has handled releasing information. It’s a tricky balance. You want the reader on the edge of their chairs, but not so frustrated that they throw the book across the room. So you have to reveal information fairly regularly while also holding some back. One good mantra is: every time you answer a question in the reader’s mind, create a new one.

All of the characters, even minor ones, are well-drawn and memorable. The settings—ship, slums, estate, cottages, gardens—are gorgeously done. The letters and other ephemera add to the verisimilitude of the story and give us other voices. To my surprise, the fairy tales also work well, adding emotional depth to the story as the seeds planted by their images flower. In fact, the language throughout is particularly lovely: poetic without being distractingly so. There are some really gorgeous turns of phrase here, some haunting images.

All in all, Morton’s book is a perfect vacation read.

What did you read on your summer vacation?

Guardian’s Betrayal, by Johanna Van Zanten

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“Reader, I married him.” How many stories end like Jane Eyre’s with the happy lovers overcoming all odds to be together? There are also many stories of parentless children—orphans, foster children—that end happily with them finally being adopted. But what happens next? The story may end there, but life doesn’t.

Subtitled What Happens Seven Years After Adoption?, Van Zanten’s new novel explores new territory. Suffering from malnutrition and neglect, sisters Shayla and Abby were adopted by their social worker Bernice Harrison when their mother died. With her background, Bernice was well-equipped to help the girls and her own family, husband Tom and two young sons, adjust to their new family. However, as the story opens, seven years later, cracks are beginning to emerge.

Shayla, now 17, is already suffering from a lack of self-confidence when she gets a message on Facebook from the half-sister she’d forgotten existed. Excited to learn more about her birth family, the two talk often and Anna offers to put Shayla in touch with her birth father.

The story is narrated in the alternating voices of Shayla, Bernice and Tom. Each is struggling to stay above water. Shayla is navigating the terrors of adolescence: mean girls, first love, self-doubt. Sensing that his family is drifting away, Tom becomes involved in an affair with a much younger co-worker. Bernice finds herself suddenly a single parent of four children while trying to juggle Shayla’s problems and the other three children’s dismay at Tom’s defection.

Adding Shayla and Abby’s birth father to the mix strains Bernice even further, as she tries to decide whether or how to allow the girls to meet him. Abby, now 13, is not interested, but Shayla desperately wants him to be part of her life. Tom is dismayed at the thought of this man taking his place.

It’s a good story, and an important one. Van Zanten writes with authority and compassion for all of them. I appreciate her even-handed approach. There are a few times when the dialogue tips slightly into social-worker-ese, but for the most part is authentic.

Small errors, such as typos or a missing word, detract from the story. Occasionally the pronoun references are unclear, such as an extended scene where Shayla is referred to almost exclusively as “she” with nothing to show that it is Shayla and not either Bernice or Abby who are also present. These minor problems could have been caught by an editor or other outside reader, a good reason for writers to be part of a critique group or have beta readers.

With this unusual and emotional story, Van Zantan reminds me of how helpful it can be for writers to find a new area to explore. Of course, a good writer can make even the most common plot feel new again, but how exciting to find something so original! Anyone with an interest in family dynamics or adoption will enjoy this story.

Have you read a novel with an unusual subject lately?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Change Chronicles, by Paula Friedman

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Friedman has written a thought-provoking novel set in and near San Francisco during the tumultuous years 1965-9. Subtitled A Novel of the Sixties Antiwar Movement, it is narrated by young Nora Seikh. At 22, she is still uncertain about who she is and what she will do with her life.

Her head is filled with the voices of others—an abusive former lover, another would-be lover, a pair of strict and conservative parents—all telling her who she is and what she should do. As she struggles to navigate the negative voices and figure out these things for herself, she becomes involved with the nascent Antiwar Movement.

Nora takes a job reporting antiwar news for the Berkeley Barb which sends her to local actions. She also gets involved with a couple of activists and through them with the Port Chicago demonstrations and nonviolent vigil, trying to stop the shipment of weapons—including napalm—to Vietnam.

This is also when the Second Wave Women’s Movement was taking shape. Having a female narrator enables us to experience the intersection of the two movements, the way the men in the Antiwar Movement downplayed the women’s contributions and discounted women’s issues as unimportant.

Although I was on the East Coast during those years, I certainly could identify with Nora’s journey and attest to its accuracy. For instance, when Nora distributed leaflets to returning sailors, she found—as I always did—that they wanted the same thing: End the war. Bring them home. Everyone I met who was involved in the Antiwar Movement was intensely on the side of the men sent to fight and die in an unjust war. We were against the politicians, not the men.

Another thing that people who came of age later might not understand is that we had no role models. Especially for women: we were in uncharted territory. We wanted more than the homemaker destinies of our parents. The pill had opened up possibilities of love outside of marriage. But in those pre-internet days, before Women’s History courses, we had no easy access to examples of how to navigate this new world. As my friend Jill said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I was making it up as I went along. We all were.”

We learned to talk with women living in poverty or near-poverty, women of color, women who had always worked. We read novels and poems by women. We read biographies of women artists and writers.

In this novel, Nora has turned to philosophy but, dissatisfied by the men she’s been studying, she tries to puzzle out her own.

Having left the uncertainties of the early twenties behind long ago, I was less interested in the first part of the book which was heavy with Nora’s descriptions of her feelings and attempts to work out a philosophy that would give structure to the world and her own identity. My interest perked up in the second half when the balance shifts more to the actions against the war.

The characters are well-drawn and there’s plenty of action, especially in the second part when things get worse and worse for Nora, keeping the tension high. Nora’s emerging understanding of herself and her world continues to be tested right up to the end.

Have you read a story that accurately captured a time you lived through?