Jar City: A Reykjavik Thriller, by Arnaldur Indriðason

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I have long had a soft spot for Iceland, partly from Halldór Laxness’s novels, so I was excited to find this mystery set in Reykjavik. The first of Indriðason’s books to be translated into English, Jar City starts with Detective Inspector Erlendur at the scene of a murder. In the sitting room of the basement flat he finds the body of a 70-year-old man who has been hit in the head with a heavy glass ashtray. Although Icelandic murders are not complicated, Erlendur knows this case will be different. In fact, everyone at the crime scene realises that this murder is something quite special, because they have seen the cryptic note left on the body, only three stunning words.

You want to know what they are, don’t you? So did I. When a mystery opens with this sentence “The words were written in pencil on a piece of paper placed on top of the body” you don’t expect to have to get through half the book before you find out what those words are.

This trick is what Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill calls an information question. He explains that the first page of any novel should raise a story question—a plot question about what will happen next—but not a simple question about information that the characters in the scene obviously have but the author has chosen not to reveal. Information questions break the contract between writer and reader, a contract especially binding in a murder mystery where the reader is challenged to identify clues and put them together to reach the answer before the detective does.

The note is only the first of several information questions in the book. Another egregious one is the identity of Erlendur’s mentor Marion Briem, whom we are told in a foreword has a gender-neutral name and whose gender is never identified by a pronoun. I’m all in favor of appreciating the spectrum of gender, but here it’s done so coyly that it just feels phoney. Information questions are a cheap way to try to create suspense instead of actually working to create suspense through the story. And they are irritating.

Aside from the information questions and some inconsistent word choices that are probably the fault of the translator (i.e., slang from different countries and different parts of the U.S. inexplicably mixed together), the book is quite good. Indriðason’s prose is appropriately spare, giving the reader a feel for life in Iceland’s capital city.

Erlendur is the usual sloppily dressed, lonely detective. He has two grown children: Eva Lind, a drug addict who provides a subplot for the book, and a son of whom we’re only told that he’s in “rehab”. Presumably that’s for recovery from alcohol or drugs rather than a knee replacement, but once again we are not given that information.

The story behind the murder is laid out well, with deceptive blind alleys and red herrings. Best of all, there is a larger story, a story about an aspect of society specific to Iceland but relevant to all of us.

You want to know what that larger story is, don’t you? Irritating, isn’t it? But in this case, I’m sparing you from a spoiler. If you can get past your irritation, the book is actually a good read.

Have you read any books set in Iceland?

A Traitor to Memory, by Elizabeth George

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I’ve been rereading this series of mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard. It’s been over ten years since I’ve read any of them, so there are new additions to the series, and even back then I don’t think I’d read all of them. I do remember being astounded when I read her first book, A Great Deliverance. What a story! So many layers. And an unusually textured theme. I couldn’t think about anything else until I finished it.

The series only gets better from there. In this, the 11th book, Lynley is asked by his superior, Superintendent Webberly, to help investigate the hit and run death of Eugenie Davies. Webberly takes a personal interest because his first murder investigation as a DI was the death of Eugenie’s baby.

Interspersed with the investigation are journal entries by Eugenie’s estranged son. Gideon is a child prodigy, now a twenty-eight-year-old virtuoso who suddenly and mysteriously at the start of a long-anticipated concert at Wigmore Hall, lost the ability to play the violin. Along with it, he seems to have lost great chunks of his memory, so the psychiatrist he’s started seeing encourages him to write down what he does remember.

Among the many things George excels at is choosing titles. I am still thinking about this one. Gideon argues about the effect of his loss with his new American friend. Privately tutored as a child, until he met Libby he had no friends beyond his father and his music teacher. She keeps trying to persuade him that he is still a person even if he’s not able to play the violin. Gideon, though, whose life has been devoted to the instrument, thinks otherwise. In his journal, he asks, “How do I exist when the sum and substance of who I am and who I have been for the last twenty-five years is contained in and defined by my music?”

Interestingly, this idea calls up themes from the last book, though George doesn’t actually point that out. In that book, Lynley’s former Detective Sergeant, now demoted to Detective Constable, Barbara Havers, asks herself who she would be without her identity as a detective. This is another thing George excels at: she introduces backstory from earlier books in the series only rarely and only when it is necessary to the current story. Havers’s identity questions are left unspoken here, but add an extra dimension for a reader who recalls them.

Aside from basing identity on our vocation, there remains the consideration of memory. Does Gideon’s memory loss contribute to his feeling that he has ceased to exist? Who are we if we don’t have our memories? And since we rework our memories over the years, who are we if what we remember turns out not to be true? This last question actually get carried forward into the next book in the series.

This question of what constitutes our identity is a tangled one, fascinating in its permutations as it is carried out in various lives. It is especially interesting in the context of murder mysteries, where there are many secrets and where detectives must ferret out the hidden sides of the various characters, which in turns reveal previously unexpected aspects of their own. Everyone is changed. The end of each story leaves everyone—murderer, detectives, suspects, families and friends—in a new place.

Have you read any of Elizabeth George’s novels? Which is your favorite?

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

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I’ve written about this book before. Rereading it nine years later for my book club, I was struck by the same things I mentioned then: the factors that led to the destruction of a huge ecosystem that had developed over thousands of years. It took only a couple of years for it be ruined, for the dirt to be lifted up into great clouds that blew as far east as New York and Washington and killed people and animals who tried to stay on in what became known as the dust bowl.

My book club discussed who was at fault. Although there were some “suitcase farmers” who tore up the sod for a quick harvest and then disappeared, leaving the ground without even a cover crop, most of the farmers just wanted what anyone might want: a place to work and raise your family.

We talked about how hard it is to weigh future damage against current needs. One person mentioned talking with a friend in Nebraska who works for a farm—a huge agribusiness, as most farms are today—who said farmers today make the same choice: if prices go down, they plant more to make up for it, even knowing that increasing the supply will drive prices down even further.

We talked about the complicity of the government, encouraging people to believe that “dry farming” could work and offering incentives to get people to move to areas previously designated as desert. We also talked about greedy capitalists, like the syndicate that owned XIT ranch who didn’t care if families starved and died as long as the syndicate could pay their shareholders.

So much here resonates with what is happening in the U.S. today. As regulations and rules have been decimated by successive “pro-business” administrations, banks and businesses have gone wild, not caring who gets hurt. Their reckless actions led to the depression of 2008 and to the enormous loss of jobs—real jobs, that is, with benefits and regular hours.

As one of the book club members pointed out, another parallel is the way hard economic times bring out blatant racism, blaming black people for taking jobs that should go to white men. Egan describes the harsh rules against people of color, including the case of two black men jailed for months simply for spending a night in a town where that was not allowed and forced by the judge to dance at their hearing. He quotes speeches by politicians such as “Alfalfa Bill” Murray railing against blacks, Indians and Jews. Sound familiar?

Another parallel was the difference between Hoover’s response to the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

Hoover believed the cure for the Depression was to prime the pump at the producer end, helping factories and business owners get up and running again. Goods would roll off the lines, prosperity would follow. Roosevelt said it made no sense to gin up the machines of production if people could not afford to buy what came out the factory door.

Trickle-down, anyone? What none of us could understand is why these lessons from the past don’t keep us from making the same mistakes over and over. Is it ignorance of what happened not that long ago? Or something darker, that as long as someone has a chance at getting a bit of money or power, he will take it, regardless of who else suffers? Yet many people pulled together in these communities to help each other out.

One thing that is different today is that during the dust bowl years, people who received government assistance—“4,000 of the 5,500 families in six counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle were getting some form of relief” from the government—recognised where help was coming from. They praised Roosevelt and his New Deal programs, “nearly a hundred thousand people in a city with less than half that population” turned out for Roosevelt’s visit to Amarillo. Instead of railing against big government, they understood that the government was keeping them alive.

As a writer, I was struck on this second reading by Egan’s extensive research and by his deft weaving of information with the personal stories of a handful of people. The combination enables us to see the big picture of what was happening in the Great Plains, from Nebraska to Texas, as well as the impact on individual people.

Have you read a nonfiction book where personal stories have helped bring the narratives to life?

Voice of the Mourning Dove, by Alexis Rotella

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Haiku is more than counting syllables. The one thing most people know about haiku is that it is 17 syllables in three lines of five-seven-five, but many haiku poets writing in English urge us to throw out that rule. There are linguistic reasons related to the differences between English and Japanese, among which is that in Japanese haiku what is counted are sounds rather than syllables.

The most important reason, though, is that focusing on syllable count ignores the true essence of haiku which is to include the reader in a single moment of experience. It may be a profound moment or poignant or ruefully amusing, but it is an emotional one.

I’ve always thought of these as “moments of being”, a phrase Virginia Woolf coined in her essay “A Sketch of the Past” to refer to the sudden, direct experience of the reality behind our everyday life. I’ve also thought of them as awakenings, as in Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive.” They come in a flash and are gone as quickly.

This collection of haiku by award-winning poet, Alexis Rotella, reveals how a tiny poem can capture that fleeting moment.

Even in
my bones
the fog.

In a post on Writer Unboxed, Barbara O’Neal wrote “Ordinary life is where all the miracles are.” She described using the phone app 1 Second Everyday to record a one-second video everyday. This practice reminds her to focus on the present, and that “One moment of detail, one second of true observation, can give us a wealth of information.”

Recently I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Rotella, author of fifty books, former President of the Haiku Society of America, editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, and founder/editor of the senryu journals Brussels Sprout and Prune Juice. She used works by many poets to illustrate aspects of haiku, such as the use of kigo, a word indicating a season.

Country club—
sprinklers going
in the rain.

She said that the pruning necessary to create effective haiku can help us become better prose writers. We may find our skills as “ruthless editors” extending into other aspects of our lives, such as simplifying our living spaces. The pruning is not for its own sake, but to reveal the seed of emotion in that moment, what Rotella calls its energy.

Many of us are trying to be more present in our lives, to practice mindfulness. The haiku in this collection remind us of the beauty that lurks in a second of experience. Rotella says, “The art of haiku is really meditation.”

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

Islands, the Universe, Home, by Gretel Ehrlich

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My friend Laura recommended Ehrlich’s work to me, and I enjoyed Ehrlich’s novel, Heart Mountain. However, this collection of essays is truly stunning. In the things of her world Ehrlich finds tangible evidence for the thoughts and ideas jostling in her head, anchoring them to coherence.

Her world is primarily her ranch in Wyoming, its five-acre lake, the nearby mountains. In the short essay that opens the book, “Looking for a Lost Dog”, she starts by grounding us in concrete action: “I started off this morning looking for a lost dog.” She uses a couple of sentences to bring the dog to life, with the surprising image of a saddleshoe to describe his markings and the quick sense of ranch life from learning that his right front leg is crooked because it froze to the ground on the thirty-below-zero night he was born. Clearly the stakes are high in this environment.

Then she tells us, “I walk and I listen.” This is a good description of her modus operandi throughout the book and, indeed, for the essays that I have most loved, like Barbara Hurd’s Stirring the Mud and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These writers combine close attention to the natural world with fragments of information and memory, not randomly thrown together, but carefully crafted to challenge us to open our minds. What we take away from this mosaic may be different for each of us.

Ehrlich in this essay never strays far from her concrete experience. She remembers another time when the dog was lost, and she found him by putting her ear to the ground to listen for him whining. This leads to thinking about what the construction of our ears, their limited range, says about humans, and the memory of a musician friend talking about the music of the world, “’the great suspiration of life everywhere.’”

But then she goes back to her search and describes the falls she heads towards, the raven overhead. From then on, she leaves the narrative only for a paragraph, a sentence, but each digression adds another dimension to the experience. We have all looked for what is lost, and sometimes tried to lose what has been found. Living through this essay awakened echoes in me, that resonated with the images she conjures up, deepening into chords, creating a new and strange music.

Many of the other essays in this book also take events on the ranch as their starting place. It is a life closely tied to the weather, as her explorations of the permutations within each season make clear.

It’s spring again, and I wasn’t finished with winter. That’s what I said at the end of summer too. I stood on the ten-foot-high haystack and yelled, “No!” as the first snow fell . . . It’s spring, but I was still cataloguing the different kinds of snow: snow that falls dry but is rained on; snow that melts down into hard crusts; wind-driven snow that looks blue; powder snow on hard pack on powder . . .

Other essays take us further afield: a search for the source of the Yellowstone River, a trip to Japan to follow in Bashō’s footsteps, a visit to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands to learn about the Chumash, a culture and language pulled back from the brink of vanishing by the work of a few dedicated people. I’d never heard of the Chumash before.

For eight thousand years or more, the Chumash lived in isolation and peace. One of at least sixty tribal groups in California, they once numbered fifteen thousand. They had no neighboring enemies and no warrior cult.

Their beliefs, their history, their experiences after being discovered are seamlessly integrated into Ehrlich’s journey to San Miguel, known to the Chumash as Tuqan.

In all of these journeys, Ehrlich’s gives her close attention to her immediate experience while layering in information, quotations, and feelings. Whatever conclusions she may have reached, whatever overall pattern she has found, Ehrlich does not force a lesson on us. We are left to draw our own conclusions from sharing her journeys. As she says in the brilliant first essay about searching for her lost dog, “I walk with a purpose but no destination.” Whatever destinations we find in these essays come from the resonances between the pieces of her mosaic and the echoes they call up in our own hearts.

What have you learned from the natural world?

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

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Best title ever. And since you cannot copyright a title, it’s been used before, by Leon Uris in his 1999 novel about a presidential election. I haven’t read it, but according to some reviews, the story gets lost in the single-minded hammering of the author’s political views.

The title comes from “Nature”, a poem by Emerson:

A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.

Why am I going on about the title when there is a book to discuss? And it is a book by one of my favorite authors. Because I thought it a shame to see Atkinson’s brilliant wordsmithing wasted on such a miserable story.

This book is a companion piece to Life after Life, her novel exploring the many lives of Ursula Todd, which asks: what if when we die, we get to go back and try again? And so we return over and over to a snowy night when a baby is born, with a longer or shorter time to go before death comes to reset the game. Aside from one bratty brother, the characters around Ursula are not unpleasant: a large family in a comfortable country home waited on by a few servants. Their rather ordinary joys and sorrows change slightly with each go-round, some permutations lasting long enough to thrust the family into WWII and bleak post-war England.

It’s a neat trick, certainly, and well-handled, but not a story that touched me or moved me particularly. I was slightly interested in the way Ursula’s previous lives began to push through the veil, manifesting themselves as odd impulses or déjà vu. Atkinson can make a scene incredibly vivid, but any emotion conjured up is quickly dashed away. Death begins to mean no more than the buzzer at the end of a video game before it starts up again. With the stakes lowered to almost nothing, the events of Ursula’s life, each life, lose all significance. The drama fizzles out, leaving the story curiously flat.

Let me say it again: Atkinson is an incredible writer. I could pull passage after passage to show you what I mean. But the book as a whole just seemed like a bloodless experiment.

I hesitantly began this companion book, which follows Ursula’s little brother Teddy from adulthood into old age, dipping repeatedly back into his experiences flying a bomber in WWII. Again, individual scenes are brilliant. However, the story never took off for me. The characters seemed nothing more than chess pieces being moved about to demonstrate the clever structure.

Without do-overs, the stakes should have seemed higher for these characters. Teddy, after all, faces death day after day during the war. Yet, although a confident and successful pilot, he is an oddly empty person, letting things happen to him, accepting what comes without a murmur. Not a bad philosophy in wartime when pilots didn’t survive long, but not making for an interesting protagonist to follow through several hundred pages.

The other main character is his daughter Viola, a horribly selfish and nasty person without a single redeeming characteristic. Atkinson gives her every negative stereotype of a hippie boomer: rebellious, wearing sandals year-round, making inedible vegetarian meals, neglecting the two children she’s named Sun and Moon, just to list a few. Even if all I knew of hippies and boomers were the labels used to mock them, I could not accept such a flat, uncomplicated beast as a real person.

I recently read Elizabeth George’s Playing for the Ashes, which features a similarly crude, rebellious and angry young woman. She has devoted herself to making her parents and herself miserable, perhaps even causing her father’s fatal heart attack. But by the time we meet her, she has come to love one person, though she cannot yet admit it to herself, and the animals he cares for. That’s all it takes to make her seem real.

Viola simply loathes everyone and everything. Near the end, we are given a possible reason for her awful behavior; perhaps if it had appeared near the beginning I might have been able to see her as more than an ugly cartoon. Atkinson’s vivid writing makes Viola’s beastliness into something truly atrocious, as when for example we are plunged into Sun’s misery when he is sent to live with his father’s cruel parents because Viola can’t be bothered with having him around. The author is able to work her magic by giving us Sun, previously only seen as a brat, in all his complexity of competing needs and desires, even while leaving the grandparents as simple monsters.

Great writing, but in service to what? I know the book has gotten some rave reviews. I thought the best parts were of Teddy’s wartime experiences. The other sections gave me that sensation of chess pieces being cleverly—if somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A God in Ruins, like its companion novel, seems more like an intellectual exercise than a novel. Still, it’s a wonderful title.

Have you ever chosen a book primarily because of its title?

Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

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I like to read stories about ordinary lives, so I looked forward to this novel by Tessa Hadley. In ten discrete chapters, we experience the life of an ordinary Englishwoman named Stella from childhood to middle age. Written in the first person, we see Stella’s life as she sees it: her experience of the events of the last half of the 20th century.

Hadley beautifully captures what life was like during that turbulent time: we get Stella’s teenaged rebellion of embracing punk culture with her androgynous boyfriend Valentine, and later her avoiding the arguments about politics in her commune, and so on to the end of the century. Hadley also shines at using quick, precise details to capture a person, place or thing. When she finds buttons at an old bombsite, they are “a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.” Of Stella’s grandmother, she says:

She bought her clothes from the children’s department (cheaper), and went to the hairdresser’s every week to have her hair set in skimpy grey-brown rolls pinned to her scalp: not out of vanity, but as if it was her duty to submit to this punishing routine.

As writers, we’re told that the first page of your novel should not only grab the reader but also introduce the main character, the time and place, the main character’s goal, and a hint at who or what might stand in the way of achieving it. Looking at this novel’s first page, we can confidently check off a few items. Our narrator is a child living alone with her mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, though only later do we find out they are in Bristol. She and her mother get along well, sharing the same tastes.

The first paragraph is about Stella’s missing father, “unpoetically” named Bert. Her mother says that he is dead but in the same sentence we are told that “I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.” As it turns out, this undercutting of Stella’s present-day experience by the interjection of knowledge acquired in the future will continue throughout the book. As a result, there is little suspense. We know, for example, who will die before the scene plays out.

Another aspect of this paragraph gave me a qualm. It seems to indicate that the book is going to be about how Stella’s life is shaped by a man. Sadly, that turns out to be true. Each chapter is focused on a man who changes Stella’s life. The only references to the women’s movement of the seventies come from an intense lesbian at Stella’s commune.

What about Stella’s goal? A structural difficulty with starting the book with her as a child is that children rarely can articulate a goal that will carry through their lives into middle-age, but even within each chapter she doesn’t seem to have a goal. We have the clue of the title. There is this sentence on the first page about her father having absconded rather than died: “I should have guessed this—should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.” From these slight tokens, I guessed that Stella’s goal through the book would be to grow into her cleverness. Accurate enough, as it turns out, though references to it are few and overwhelmed by the drama of deaths and dirty dishes and diaper pails. The rare times she mentions something related to her emerging intelligence (“cleverness” is pejorative and somewhat demeaning to me, but means something different in England) I began to be interested, but it didn’t last long.

The book would have been a lot stronger if this goal—or any purpose on Stella’s part—had been sharpened and used to tie the incidents together. Without it, the book is not so much a story as a hodgepodge of happenings.

For what might stand in her way, we have this sentence about things that were powerful at that time: “shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.” As it turns out, what stands in her way are her abrupt changes of direction, the consequences of her decisions or more often non-decisions. I can see where these could be a result of that fear. She even says at one point that “I couldn’t bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.” Even at the end she says, “I still feel sometimes as if I’m running away, escaping from something coming up behind me.”

I’m confident that Stella’s fears, sudden changes of direction, and concealed cleverness, not to mention her way of letting men define her life, accurately reflect the lives of many women. However, I found myself observing her from a distance; I did not care what happened to her. Perhaps that’s because I found little to admire in her. And oddly, she always fell on her feet. As a single mother myself, I found it unrealistic that she always found someone willing to take care of her and her children.

Other roadblocks also magically melted away: for example, she suffered no teenaged angst because she had the perfect boyfriend; the woman who learned her husband was having an affair with Stella immediately volunteered to give him up so they could be happy; plus the wife’s children showed no resentment towards Stella for breaking up their family. Since Stella didn’t have to struggle to overcome her obstacles, the story lacked drama and I couldn’t muster any concern for her.

The lack of suspense bored me. Things certainly happened to her (She says, “I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life.”), but without any buildup to them, there was no tension. She would also change direction with no warning, such as when from one sentence to the next she loses interest in the university degree she’d spent pages acquiring and heads off in another path. Without foreshadowing or dramatic tension, these events coming from out of the blue don’t create the kind of narrative I expect from a novel. The book feels like a random collection of incidents. Life can be like that, but it doesn’t make for an interesting book.

One friend who liked the book a lot said that it was the story of a person who floated through life, letting things happen to her, and didn’t live up to her potential. She added that it was an important book because many people don’t live up to her potential. That may be true, but doesn’t make it a compelling story. Another friend pointed out that nothing that happened to Stella changed her; she didn’t grow or become wiser, so she still sounded child-like as she aged.

I don’t mean to be overly negative. There are many things to like about this book: the novel-in-stories aspect, the evocative images and wordplay, the recognition when you stumble across things from your own past. One friend said that recognising so many incidents made her feel as though she were reading the story of her own life. Adding something to be achieved and suspense over how that might happen would make this an excellent novel. Even an ordinary life can be a good story.

What does the first page of the novel you are reading tell you about the rest of the book?

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande

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When my father was taken ill that last time, he did everything he could to keep from going to the hospital. He tried to hide what was happening, even though as a doctor he knew exactly what it was and what it meant. When discovered, he argued with my mother, trying to keep her from calling for an ambulance, and he fought the EMTs when they arrived. He yelled as he was being carried into the ER of the hospital where he had been chief of staff that he wanted to be left alone to die.

He knew what was going to happen. He was kept alive for three agonising months, undergoing one treatment program after another over his continued protests. His advance medical directive was no protection as his doctors persuaded my mother to override it.

So I thought I knew what I would encounter in this book by Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I knew that a huge percentage of medical costs come in the last few months of a person’s life, the problem being that we aren’t always sure that it actually is the end and not just another stage where recovery may be possible. I had also seen a friend’s family want to deny her treatment because they were concerned about the cost of assisted living and later a nursing home.

And, indeed, Gawande speaks directly to the issues around my father’s last illness.

. . . in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t, someone who understands that the damage is greatest if all you do is battle to the bitter end.

The book is a surprise, though. Gawande examines these issues through stories of his patients and his own family, encouraging us to look at that phase of life that we mostly try to pretend will never happen, that inevitable decline into death. Most interesting to me, he takes us through the history of solutions for how to make the end of life meaningful, comfortable and affordable, from the first retirement communities to exciting new ideas.

New to me was the story of Keren Brown Wilson, one of the originators of the idea of assisted living.

Wilson believed she could create a place where people like Lou Sanders could live with freedom and autonomy no matter how physically limited they became.

The key word in her mind was home. Home is the one place where your own priorities hold sway. At home, you decide how you spend your time, how you share your space, and how you manage your possessions. Away from home, you don’t. This loss of freedom was what people like Lou Sanders and Wilson’s mother, Jessie, dreaded.

Some later adopters of her concepts have not stayed true to her vision, instead returning to the idea that safety is the only thing that matters. Gawande astutely points out that it is usually the children of the elderly making decisions about care, and they are more concerned with the safety of their loved ones than with their possibly risky independence.

I was overjoyed to learn about Bill Thomas’s work as medical director at a nursing home in upstate New York. Throwing out the safe option of keeping the elderly drugged and confined to wheelchairs, he filled their room with parakeets and plants. He added a day care center, so the residents could interact with children, to their mutual benefit. To the surprise of everyone but Thomas, these changes brought immediate improvements in patient outcomes.

The stories of patients and providers, along with Gawande’s stories of his own family’s confrontations with these issues makes this an enormously readable book. The stories bring the science to life.

All we ask is to be allowed to remain the writers of our own story. That story is ever changing. Over the course of our lives, we may encounter unimaginable difficulties. Our concerns and desires may shift. But whatever happens, we want to retain the freedom to shape our lives in ways consistent with our character and loyalties.

I would have liked to see Gawande address the issues related to the people working in these institutions. Yes, the structure of the institution and the principles behind that structure are the first step, but you must have people on the ground to carry them through on a day-to-day basis. As our population ages, care homes of every type will have an even harder time than they do now finding and adequately paying workers. We need to be thinking of how to expand our workforce of compassionate and well-educated people willing to take on an often unpleasant job.

Still, I am thrilled with this book. I hope it opens a much-needed conversation. My father would have loved this book and talked about it with everyone he met.

Heart Mountain, by Gretel Ehrlich

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February 19 is the anniversary of the day FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which took over 11,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans from their homes and businesses and sent them to concentration camps for the duration of WWII. One of those was the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming. Ehrlich’s novel is based on these true events. She imagines—based on her research—what life must have been like for those in the camp and those in the surrounding communities.

McKay is a young man whose ranch borders the camp. A serious injury from a “horse accident” prevented him from following his two older brothers into the military. Like Testament of Youth, this is a story of those who didn’t go to war. McKay is left to run the ranch with only the help of an older alcoholic cowboy named Pinkey and the long-time family cook, Bobby Korematsu. On the day his brothers leave, McKay sets up a cot on a screened porch and proceeds to sleep there through the blistering summers and harsh Wyoming winters.

Ehrlich brings her personal knowledge of ranching near Heart Mountain to make it all come alive, not just the way the grass looks in August or the river in flood, but the details of cow camps and moving the cattle when it snows, even the way the men and women talk to each other, a careful reticence masking deep emotion.

McKay rode out through the west pasture, roping, doctoring, and ear-tagging calves. He and his brothers had always loved these early spring days “when a man could get a rope down and let his horse run awhile.” When he finished, he rode to the river. Overhead the clouds looked more like waves, the kind of waves that come toward shore but never break, whose cresting swells suddenly flatten and return to deeper water. He thought he had reached the bottom of his loneliness, but now another depth revealed itself—one that he could not push beyond and as he approached the river, orange and scarlet clouds traveled over him without breaking.

I’m grateful to my friend Laura for recommending Ehrlich’s work.

The story also follows Kai Nakamura, a young graduate student from San Francisco who is swept up and deposited at the camp along with his parents, from whom he’d been estranged. The dislocation only tightens his parents’ grip on the old-fashioned ideas they brought with them from Japan, making Kai seek out others. In the camp he meets Mariko, a beautiful and outspoken artist newly returned from Paris, and her grandfather, Mr. Abe, a Noh mask carver who tries to teach Kai some of his zen habits.

The two groups are brought together when Bobby goes to the camp looking for relatives and later when McKay accidentally shoots Mr. Abe. It is this uneasy meeting ground, the space between the camp’s prisoners and the surrounding community that the novel explores, mostly by following McKay and Kai, but also through other inhabitants of both sides of the fence. While there is some intolerance, the characters we follow are thinking more deeply about what it means to be human and about what connects and separates us.

They stood in the V where two creeks met. A kingfisher, perched on a branch, dove into the water and came out again, as if untouched, unscathed. She looked at McKay. In his eyes, slabs of gray were cut into the blue. It’s the kind of imperfection Japanese love, a sign of beauty, she thought, smiling, and grabbed him around the waist.

“Your bones are so light. I always forget that,” he said, touching her wrist. “Like a bird’s.”

They heard flapping and laughed. Upstream and around a bend, a blue heron lifted into sight and flew behind a screen of willows.

Ehrlich uses every small moment, every brief image, every cloud and bird, to deepen her story and bring us more thoroughly into the hearts and minds of these brave, flawed people, thrown together by history and a disgraceful action by a government newly at war. FDR was persuaded by the mob’s fearful cries, but Ehrlich shows us, one person at a time, what happens when we see each other as individuals.

Have you read any other books about the relocation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans to camps during WWII?