Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

I read a lot of mysteries. It’s not that I am bloodthirsty, but rather that I love the puzzle of the plot and the psychological depth of the characters. Plus a lot of the best novel writing today is being done in mysteries. I especially like finding a good series. When the same handful of characters return in book after book, the author has the opportunity to dig ever more deeply into them, revealing so much more of them over time, allowing them to change in unexpected ways.

Not every author takes advantage of that opportunity, of course. I’m pleased to say that Louise Penny does.

I enjoyed Penny’s first book, Still Life, featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Quebec. However, the real star of that book is the small village of Three Pines, a peaceful place near the Vermont border, not shown on any map, full of artists and eccentrics.

Although wary of the Murder She Wrote pitfall, where way too many murders must happen in small town to keep the detective busy, I thought the book promising enough to read on. I blogged about her second and third books, chronicling my increasing disappointment with the flat characters. Great suspense, wonderful plots, but the characters were too simplistic—all good or all bad—and unchanging.

Then a friend encouraged me to try some of the more recent books. I’m thrilled to report that my friend was right. The later books have the psychological shading that I crave. The core characters are each given a chance to step into the spotlight and reveal their dark corners, their secrets and dreams.

This book in particular, Bury Your Dead, is a masterpiece. Penny takes on the incredible challenge of weaving together three stories and succeeds in playing them off against each other and bringing each to a satisfactory conclusion.

Gamache is visiting Quebec City during the Winter Carnival, recovering physically and emotionally from a recent investigation. Each day he visits the quiet, almost deserted Literary and Historical Society, a bastion of Quebec City’s English-speaking residents, where he examines the dusty tomes pursuing a theory he has about the 1759 Battle of Quebec. However, when a body is found in the basement, a murder that could reignite the fury of Francophone Quebec, he is pulled into the investigation.

At the same time, he is receiving daily letters from one of his friends back in Three Pines, begging him to reopen the case solved in the previous book, The Brutal Telling. And finally, there is the recent investigation, the one that went so wrong. I confess it was this third story that kept me up all night finishing the book. The events took place in the gap between the two books, and I was desperate to find out what had happened.

Even better than this masterful intertwining of three plots are the subtleties of characterisation. Gamache and his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, reveal unexpected sides of themselves. This is most effectively done through their interactions with others. We see Gamache not only with his team and the suspects, but also with his own mentor, Émile Comeau. We see Jean-Guy take on the inhabitants of Three Pines without Gamache to run interference.

Altogether, a most satisfying read and one I highly recommend. While it is generally best to read a series in order, I give you permission to jump around a bit. But don’t skip over this book.

Is there a mystery series that you particularly like?

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield

I’ve been trying to make a dent in the stack of writing craft books that threaten to overwhelm my bookshelves despite all my resolutions not to acquire any more of them. However, this week I’ve gone back to reread this lovely book by Jane Hirschfield. The nine essays contain so much depth and beauty that I’m sure I’ll be back to savor them many more times.

Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.

In the first essay, “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration”, she looks at concentration as the starting point of a good poem, calling it “a particular state of awareness”. She goes deeper and deeper into that concept, looking at how we invite concentration, the paths we follow, what we find. “In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere.” She speaks of the role of difficulty, the way resistance and tension shape the work, and goes on to examine six essential forms of concentration: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Using poems by Yeats, Olds, Cavafy, and others, Hirshfield seduces our understanding.

Since trying my hand at translation, I was fascinated by “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”. Lauding the curiosity and open heart that makes us “desire to learn what lives within the incomprehensible speech of others”, Hirshfield looks at the central issue: “where does a poem’s true being reside?” I initially wanted to keep my translations as close to the literal meaning of the original as possible rather than writing my own poem inspired by it. However, I found my poetic sensibility taking over and leading me irresistibly to a middle ground. Her care in this essay to show the spectrum and journey of translation reminds me of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz.

My favorite essay is “The Myriad Leaves of Words”. I’m grateful to Hirshfield for sharing her insights into Japanese poetry, especially the way she draws out the cultural differences and their effects. I keep coming back to some of the Japanese concepts she describes, like shin which “includes both the realms of the mind and that of the feeling heart”, and some of the techniques, such as the kakekotoba, or pivot word, one that carries two meanings. Lately I’ve been working a lot with haiku and tanka. I appreciate learning the Japanese words for some of the concepts, such as kigo for the season-indicating word and mujō for transience.

Most of all, though, Hirshfield has helped my understand the source of my obsession with these forms and why they–and poetry in general–occupy a central space in my life.

What book have you read that has made you enthusiastic about reading poetry?

An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

I was doubtful when one of the owners of my local indie bookstore urged this book on me. However, she’d never steered me wrong before, so I succumbed. It’s a fictional retelling of the Dreyfus affair, a shameful chapter in France’s history and one which I thought I knew a lot about. Ha! After reading this absorbing book I realise that I only knew the barest outline of the story.

In December 1894 Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling French military secrets to Germany. The Army had learned that they had a traitor in their ranks and quickly settled on Dreyfus, an officer in the French army of Jewish descent, as the guilty party. Dreyfus was sent to Devil’s Island off the coast of Africa, where he was the only prisoner and held under appalling conditions for five years.

While the Dreyfus affair is generally considered a blatant example of anti-Semitism, there’s more to the story. This fascinating novel details the missteps and resulting coverups and persecutions. It introduces us to our narrator, Georges Picquart, a career Army man who is unexpectedly named the head of counter-espionage one year after Dreyfus’s conviction. Initially convinced of the man’s guilt, Picquart gradually becomes persuaded by the weight of evidence that the real traitor is someone else. Shocked by the obviously fabricated evidence, he realises that if he doesn’t back down his career and even his life may be in danger.

The author introduces us to a large cast of characters, but each is so vividly drawn that that I didn’t have to refer to the Dramatis Personae in the front of the book. And the suspense generated is so powerful that—despite knowing the historical outcome—I couldn’t bear to stop reading.

Picquart’s dilemma, weighing his personal sense of honour against the heavy chains of conformity, couldn’t be more apt. How many people today would have the integrity to stand up to their superiors? It’s so easy to be a yes-man. How many dirty tricks have we seen come to light in the halls of power, and how many more are there that we never see?

The people in this story are all too human. They are not monsters, though many do monstrous things. Robert Harris has done the hard work of delving deeply into each one and excavating his or her motives. I can’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom for aspiring writers, probably from David Corbett: Even the villain thinks that he is the hero of his story. Learning why these people behave as they do makes this story spectacular and human and deeply moving.

Like my bookstore owner, I will be urging this book on everyone I know.

What novel have you read that helped you understand a historical event?

Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith

Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.

She collects postcards of cities around the world. Having grown up in an isolated cabin in Alaska, she is fascinated by cities. The one which has most captured her fancy is of Amsterdam. Unlike the others, it actually carries a message, was actually delivered. She turns over the thought of the sender and recipient, rolling it about in her mind, considering possibilities under the golden gingko trees.

She also has a tin of photos that she has collected over the years from second-hand shops, inventing stories for the people in them until “the people in the photographs came to mean as much to her as her own relatives.”

Smith’s lovely prose encouraged me to slow down and savor each page. She lightly turns over the cards for Isabel, carrying the same gentle mood through the day as Isabel visits a thrift store to buy a dress for a party that night and navigates the office where, in the mornings, she joins Spoke, a slightly older co-worker in the kitchen, where they drink their hot beverages—Earl Grey for her, black coffee in a mason jar for him—in silence. “It is as close as she has been to waking up with him.”

The small happenings of the day send her thoughts back to the past, including Alaska, her parents’ divorce, and her longtime friend Leo whom she calls Loon.

Each short chapter reads like an essay, a richly colored bit of glass to fit into the picture. Like a poem, this story condenses the enormity of Isabel’s day—encompassing not just the present, but the influences of the past and the dreams of the future—and presents them as a series of images and actions and symbols that collectively take us deep into her world.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. I picked it up on a recommendation from http://offtheshelf.com. I’d probably never have chosen it in a bookstore because the unattractive cover does not convey the most important qualities of the story inside.

What novel have you liked in spite of the cover?

Translations from the Night, by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

English translations by John Reed and Clive Wake

I love to talk with people about books, so I’ve joined several book clubs over the years. One has a peculiar modus operandi: we don’t read the same book; instead we each talk about a book we’ve read that month. We have a monthly theme, but don’t always stick to it. For this month, we spun a globe to see where our finger landed. Then we read a book either set there or by a local author.

I got Madagascar.

I make a point of reading authors from other countries, but Madagascar? I couldn’t think of an author or book related to that country. In fact, I knew almost nothing about Madagascar except that it is an island off the east coast of Africa that was once part of France’s colonial empire.

Some research led me to the surprising information that the country includes several other islands and that it is over 2.5 times as large as Great Britain, but with 2.5 times less population, most of whom live on less than $2 a day. Madagascar didn’t become a colony until 1897 and gained independence in 1960, so its colonial period was brief. However, that was long enough to poison the life of its most famous writer and Africa’s first modern poet, Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo.

Born in 1901 (though Wikipedia also lists 1903 as a possibility), Rabearivelo was deeply influenced by European fin de siécle writers. Unfortunately, the influence extended beyond his poetry to his lifestyle, leading him to adopt alcohol, opium, gambling and promiscuity as elements of a poet’s life. He played a leading role in the literary life of the capital and became friends with French poet Pierre Camo and Robert Boudry, later Governor-General of the colony. Rabearivelo published several collections of his poetry, writing first in Malagasy and then in French.

Here is an early poem:


Make no sound, do not speak:
off to explore a forest, eyes, heart,
mind, dreams . . .

Secret forest; yet you can touch this forest
with your hands.

Forest astir with stillness,
forest where the bird is gone, the bird to catch,
catch in a trap and make him sing
or make him cry.

Make him sing or make him cry
and tell the place where he was hatched.

Forest. Bird.
Secret forest, bird hidden
in your hands.

He was particularly drawn to the liminal times of dawn and dusk, as shown in this excerpt from my favorite poem in the collection.

Tall Timber

. . .
But suddenly it came to me when last I slept
that the old canoe of fables
was still moored with creepers of night.
Every day it carried my childhood
from the shores of the evening to the shores of the morning,
from the headland of the moon to the headland of the sun.
. . .

I love the images in that poem such as searching for “the nest where the winds are hatched” and memories “like pebbles thrown on the sand / and picked up by an old sailor”.

Near the end of his life he experimented with hain-teny, a form of Malagasy folk poetry that uses proverbs to build a dialogue. Curiously, these enigmatic poems were used to conduct arguments, though it is unclear how reciting poetry could settle a dispute. Here is a short one he wrote:

There in the north stand two stones and they are somewhat alike: one is black and the other is white. If I pick up the white one, the black one shames me. If I pick up the black one, the white one shames me. If I pick them both up, one is love, the other consolation.

Despite his literary success and active correspondence with European writers, Rabearivelo felt isolated in his “colonial prison” and killed himself in 1937. He left a rather melodramatic suicide note comparing himself to poets Léon Deubel, Charles Guérin, and Arthur Rimbaud. In one of his later poems he speaks of a young poet of the future who will “come to know your books” and who “will raise his head / and think that in the sky / among the stars and winds / your tomb is built.”

I loved many of the poems in this collection. It seems sad to me that with all his literary success, he was overwhelmed with frustration and despair. I cannot believe that Europe could have offered him much more than what he already had.

What do you know of the country of Madagascar? Have you ever been there?

The Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus

I am seriously unfunny. I mean, I enjoy a good joke or comedy routine as much as the next person, but fail when it comes to producing one. It’s embarrassing. I only know one joke, well, actually two but the second one is so silly it doesn’t really count: What’s yellow and not a banana? Oh, wait, it is a banana. Silly.

The only person I’ve met who was more humor-impaired than I is my friend, John. He and I were both technical trainers and decided to spice up our dry material with some jokes. I tried to memorise a few with lukewarm results. But John wrote out jokes on index cards and kept a handful in his shirt pocket. When things seemed slow in the classroom, he’d say, “Must be time for a joke.” He’d pull out his cards and leaf through them. Brilliant! The joke itself wasn’t half as funny as the whole performance of selecting it.

I don’t have any ambitions to write for a sitcom or do standup, but I would like to add more humor to my fiction and poetry. I wanted to improve my comic-relief characters. Plus, I’ve been so impressed by Shirley J. Brewer’s use of humor in her poetry that I want to experiment in that vein. But how?

What a joy and relief, then, to stumble on John Vorhaus’s book! It is just what I needed.

He takes a two-pronged approach. The first prong is to create a safe zone. He uses several techniques to ratchet down the fear of failure. One that is most helpful for me is that he breaks each exercise down into progressively more specific questions. Instead of wracking your brain trying to think of something funny to say, you are given a discreet task or question to answer, with plenty of examples. And Vorhaus himself is seriously funny; it’s hard to feel intimidated when you’re snorting with laughter.

The second prong consists of the tools implied by the title. I love tools. I was surprised to discover that what makes a joke work is essentially what makes a story work. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because of course a joke is a story. Vorhaus isolates the factors that make it funny. Using movies and television shows as case studies, he demonstrates each tool in action.

There must be a hundred tools here. The one I liked best was how to create a comic character. Amid discussion and illustrations, he boils the technique down to five elements. Boom! One minute and I had the bare bones of a comic character. Thirty seconds and I had another. Even better, I could see the gaping holes I’d left in the comic characters in my work-in-progress.

There are sections on parody and satire, situation comedy and sketches, but always tools and more tools. This book delivers on its promise: the subtitle is How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not. Finally there is hope for me! I can see that this is a book I will refer to again and again.

Have you ever wanted to write comedy? What are your favorite comic movies or shows? Who is your favorite comedian?

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore

I was so happy to receive this book as a present. I enjoyed Wonder Woman comics as a girl, but it wasn’t until I was a frantic single mother, working two and sometimes three jobs, trying to keep up the house and be a good parent to two sensitive and feisty boys and shuttle them to Little League and Scouts and choir, that she began to haunt my imagination.

It started with a cartoon. I don’t still have it, so I don’t know who drew it and may be getting the details wrong, but it showed an overweight, middle-aged woman, fag hanging from a corner of her mouth, stirring (I think) one of a number of pots on the stove while sorting some rambunctious children. And she was dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, tiara and all. It captured my frustration but also my resolve. I was going to make this insane life work.

This was around the time that I was trying to find someone to take over my responsibilities at home while I went on a business trip for three weeks. Drawing up the necessary schedule, I realised with a shock that no one would want to live my life, not even for a few weeks.

Wonder Woman to the rescue, indeed.

So I was excited to learn the backstory of the comic, so to speak. I was not prepared for the strip’s ties to feminism in the decades before I was born. Nor was I prepared for the weirdness of its author.

William Moulton Marston, Harvard graduate and psychologist, grew up as a pampered prince in a family full of women and encountered feminism and suffragette movement as a young man. His wife, Sadie Holloway, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, was also apparently committed to women’s rights. However, she did—under protest—allow Marston to change her name to Betty because he didn’t like the name Sadie.

And that is the thin part of the wedge that gradually pries the family away from a traditional American family life, this seemingly irrational acquiescence to Marston’s whims. Marston, who believed a matriarchy was the ideal structure for society, actually lived like a storybook pasha. Even more surprising was that he didn’t hesitate to feature his kinks in the comic strips he wrote.

The delight of the book for me is the way Lepore juxtaposes panels from the strips with photographs and anecdotes, binding the real lives she is describing to the stories that made their way into comic books and newspapers. There is much here as well about American culture: the rise of comics, the emergence of psychological testing, the beginnings of censorship. It is all delivered in pleasing prose and backed by extensive endnotes.

As with so many of the achievements of the early twentieth-century attributed solely to men, one can’t help wondering how much of a role the women in his life actually played in the creation of this popular comic. These women included not just his wife, but also Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, whom Marston met in 1918 while in the Army, and Olive Byrne, niece of Margaret Sanger and one of his students. Lepore finds evidence of collaboration in both his psychological works and the comics, though the extent of the women’s input in the latter is unclear.

Lepore also describes Wonder Woman as a link between the first and second waves of the feminist movement in the U.S., between the suffragettes of the early twentieth-century and the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, who concentrated on the connection between cultural and political inequalities. “Link” seems overstated to me, but the comic certainly kept alive the idea that a woman could take an active role in what was then still a man’s world. The factual stories about Wonder Women of History inserted into the comic books in the 1940s prefigured women’s history.

After reading this book, I find myself even more committed to my invisible friend. I know a superhero will not swoop in and save me. But even my distaste for her creator cannot make me give up Wonder Woman, my first role model. She helped me believe in my capacity for physical strength in the face of everything in my world telling me I was weak. She helped give me the confidence to work in what was then a male-dominated industry. Wonder Woman never modeled a domestic life, but for that I had that cartoon of a sloppy, disorganised Wonder Woman powering through in spite of everything.

What role model did you encounter in your youth who still influences you today?

On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

I cannot imagine a more appropriate time to read Lee’s latest novel. Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, it represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.

A hundred years before the story begins an entire village was brought from New China to populate the desolate city, abandoned by all except a few “pockets of residents on the outskirts of what is now the heart of B-Mor, these descendants of nineteenth-century African slaves and twentieth-century laborers from Central America and even bands of twenty-first-century urban-nostalgics. . .”

B-Mor is now one of a string of settlements privately owned and run for profit. The B-Mor population grows vegetables and fish under strict controls, as their lives are lived under strict controls, where spitting in public is a major crime. The food they produce goes to the people who live in Charter villages. As in today’s Charter schools, residents are protected from the sordid reality of the common herd, insulated by their extreme wealth. Outside of the settlements and the Charter villages lie the Counties, a wild and dangerous place with no law or government protection.

I had to ask myself how different this was from today’s society, where first-world people like me often live off products produced under dire conditions in third-world countries, when much of government seems to abdicate its responsibility to, er, govern instead of just lining their own pockets.

The complacency of the people in B-Mor amused me, because Baltimore today is known for neighborhoods where people have lived their whole lives.

Stability is all here in B-Mor; it’s what we ultimately produce, day by night by day, both what we grow for consumption and how we are organized in neighborhood teams, the bonds of blood or sexual love relied upon equally to support out constitution. In this difficult era the most valuable commodity is the unfailing turn of the hours and how they retrieve for us the known harbor of yesterday . . .

Much of the novel is written in this first person plural point of view (we, us). For much of the book, chapters alternate between this collective voice and a more traditional telling of Fan’s adventures. Later the two become more intertwined. The collective voice holds the reader at a distance, giving us no assurance that the story told us about Fan is anything more than rumor and urban myth.

Both Fan and Reg are described as innocent. But what they really are is independent, especially Fan. She is able to walk away from the stable collective of family and work and neighborhood, able even to set off into the wild Counties, without a backward look. As one person in my book club noted, Fan’s individualism is set against her hometown’s collective uniformity, just as the U.S. culture is set against China’s. Some of us fear that just such a culture war is brewing.

How likely is the future described in Lee’s book? Very, I would say, if we continue down our current path. Cities like Baltimore and Detroit will become even more hollowed out as those who can afford it leave to get away from the crime caused by illegal drugs, in turn caused by the poverty and lack of opportunity for a huge chunk of the population: today’s ever-growing inequality carried to a logical conclusion. This country has been declining since 2000, with jobs lost overseas, financial crises caused by overweening greed on the part of bankers, and revenue-sapping wars fought solely to benefit the wealthy few.

The recent peaceful protests in Baltimore grew out of the inequities and injustices. Yes, there was a little violence initially caused by drunken white baseball fans and blown out of proportion by the media, followed the next day by a scandalous overreaction by the city that dumped hordes of scared teens, unsure of how they would get home, into the waiting arms of equally scared police.

The violent minority has been overwhelmed by the majority of citizens who immediately turned out to clean up and help affected residents and store owners. Citizens marched and congregated in flashpoint areas to maintain calm. Even my local district police captain told us, “A valuable lesson was learned for me – the deterrent from the community appeared to be greater than the deterrent of law enforcement.” Now if he can just make the rest of the police force and the city government understand that, we might see some progress.

Fan’s self-assertion causes a wave of resistance and rebellion among the people she left behind. Does it last or does everyone sink back into complacency? What will happen in Baltimore and other struggling communities? Will complacency win out or will the demand for change continue?

The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer

A few years ago, I reviewed Townie, a memoir by Andre Dubus III, in which I speculated that the larger theme justifying the memoir’s publication might be issue of disappearing fathers and abandoned boys. As I mentioned there and discuss in any memoir class I teach, there are plenty of reasons to write a memoir, but only a few that justify publishing one. Unless you are a celebrity, who outside of your circle of friends and family would actually care about your experiences? One reason they might care is if the quality of the writing is excellent, such as in Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle. A second is if your memoir addresses some larger theme of interest to society.

Moehringer’s memoir is certainly well written. As a journalist, Moehringer knows how to keep his prose compact while creating the most impact. He has an interesting story to tell and doesn’t need any fancy flourishes to dress it up. Here’s a description of the house where he and his mother—deserted by his father and unable to afford their own place—take refuge:

The worst thing about life at Grandpa’s house was the noise, a round-the-clock din of cursing and crying and fighting, and Uncle Charlie bellowing that he was trying to sleep and Aunt Ruth screaming at her six kids in the nerve-shredding key of a seagull. Just beneath this cacophony was a steady percussion, faint at first, louder as you became aware of it, like the heartbeat deep inside the House of Usher. In the House of Grandpa the heartbeat was supplied by the screen door opening and closing all day long as people came and went . . .

Obviously, there’s a lot of humor here, too, to temper the sadness. Much of it is directed at himself, his mistakes, his awkwardness, but also the humorous approach to life that he learns from the men at Dickens, the local bar, where his Uncle Charlie is a bartender. When he first sees them en masse, they are playing softball as the sun sets. At first he sees the lumbering, overweight men as cartoon characters: “they looked like Blutos and Popeyes and steroidal Elmer Fudds,” but then he realises that they are all laughing, “they couldn’t stop laughing”. When he asks his mother why they are so happy, she tells him: “‘Beer.’”

Yet as we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs.

There is sadness, of course, especially related to his larger theme of the plight of a fatherless boy in U.S. society. There are the lonely dreams of a boy listening to his DJ father, a man he doesn’t recall ever seeing so he calls him The Voice. There is the desire to help his struggling mother, forced time after time to return to the house of her father, a house that is falling down filled with furniture held together with duct tape, because he refuses to allow anything to be fixed. Having given up working as soon as he accumulated enough money to provide a subsistence income, Grandpa is a curmudgeon and a bully and possibly insane. There is the self-loathing when Moehringer is unable to provide for his mother after all. However, there is no taint of self-pity here, just as there is no sentimentality in his description of the men at the bar.

And there is the comfort and safety of the bar and the men in it, a haven that we who know better fear will become a trap for the boy who hangs out there, jotting down the funny stories and witticisms on bar napkins. There is the bookstore where Moehringer gets a job at 13 when he discovers the two managers hiding in the back room reading, avoiding customers.

As a single mother, I am well aware of the pitfalls facing fatherless boys, as well as of the resiliency of the boys themselves and their ability to find surrogate fathers. It never occurred to me to look for male role models for my sons in a bar, but I would have been honored to have this collection of men help my boys learn how to be men. Moehringer’s great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.

What book have you read recently with an unexpected hero?

Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout

Like many others, I was blown away by Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I thought it a remarkable set of linked short stories that came together as a portrait of a peculiar and—to me—fascinating woman. So I went looking for her earlier novels, including this, her first novel.

Isabelle and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, inhabit an uncomfortable edge of the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. On the eastern side of the river lies Oyster Point, the part of town where the professional classes live with its simple Congregational church. The western side, known as the Basin, is dominated by the mill and the Catholic church. Although Isabelle works in the mill’s office, she chose to live in Oyster Point, with dreams of moving up in the world, but in essence stranding herself and her daughter between two worlds.

As the story opens, Isabelle’s desire for quiet and order and respectability, as well as her close relationship with her daughter, have been ruthlessly thwarted. Amy, who is working in the mill’s office for the summer, is in disgrace and it has something to do with a Mr. Robertson coming to town.

The opening is actually quite interesting. None of the characters appears on the first page. Instead, it is a description of all the strangeness of that summer: the terrible heat that dried up the river, leaving the stench of the mill’s effluence; the crops that didn’t grow right; the UFOs that had been sighted up north. It’s a different sort of in media res opening: we immediately know that the time is out of joint, with no one to set it right.

While Amy’s actions seem to have been the cause of the disruptions in her and Isabelle’s lives, the story takes us deeper into the pretenses and fantasies of all the characters as we move backward and forward in time. Amy and her new friend Stacy have banded together as outsiders at school, sneaking into the woods during breaks to smoke cigarettes. Amy envies Stacy her boyfriend, but doesn’t recognise her friend’s morning sickness for what it is. Her solid world is rocked as Amy tries to come to terms with her emerging sexuality and to find a place for herself other than the one her mother has prepared for her.

I am tired of glut of novels about middle-aged and older men falling in love with teenaged girls. Oh their joy and heartbreak. Oh their cruel, middle-aged and boring wives. How refreshing to have here, for once, the story from the girl’s point of view. And it is brilliantly done. So many details took me back to my own teen years, my confused and inchoate yearnings.

I love the portrait of Isabelle, hamstrung by her own yearnings, trying to break out of her narrow world. The portraits of the other women in the office, Fat Bev and Dottie and the others, are equally superb. I knew women like these when I worked in a factory. I love the way they rely on each other and the competitions and kindnesses they offer each other. As Avery Clark’s secretary, Isabelle sits among them but is in a superior position, isolated and stranded at work as at home. Strout occasionally soars up to the 10,000-foot level and gives us an omniscient view of the townsfolk as a whole, as in the first page. This unusual tactic isolates Isabelle and Amy even more, denying them even the empathy of the reader.

Although I’ve not lived in a small town, I recognise the way lives are intertwined, the way you cannot hide from your mistakes. I recognise the feuds and the friendships, the shifting alliances. I feel as though I’ve lived another life.

What book about small town life have you read?