Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

At 118 pages, Small Things Like These  by Claire Keegan, is a quick but powerful read. The book jacket and the beginning of the book lull the reader into the expectation that this will be a comforting Christmas story. The fact that it’s set in the eighties – with all the attendant nostalgic, pre-internet, village shops and village life – reinforces that feeling. However, those expectations are upended when Bill Furlong, during his coal deliveries, encounters girls who live at the local convent. These encounters are so unsettling that they cause him to doubt his previously unquestioned faith in the Church.

The second part of the book deals with Bill’s crisis of conscience. He struggles with his faith and with identifying the right course of action. He feels disconnected from his family and struggles with how his responsibilities to his wife and his family affect doing what he feels is right.

This is a brief but immersive look into a period of Irish life that had resonance for decades afterwards. Seen through Bill’s innocent eyes, one can begin to understand how hard it was for entrenched ideas to shift.

 

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain

 With Our Blessing by Jo Spain is one of those books that provide a bonus – an insight into a piece of history that may have been completely unknown to a reader. Such was the case with this book –  for me. (I’d never before heard of the Magdalene laundries).  For more than a hundred years, these laundries were operated for profit by the church with the help of the Irish government.  Locals and families were often unaware that the girls, predominantly unmarried mothers, were in fact free labor, more or less imprisoned in sometimes very harsh conditions.

That’s the premise for this mystery. A team of Dublin police (or garda, as they’re known in Ireland) is sent to a Limerick convent and former laundry after a local murder is linked to the site. Detective Laura Brennan’s aunt was sent to the convent in the seventies, which personalizes for Brennan the abuse these girls endured. Brennan discovers that her aunt was victimized by the town’s most prominent family and then by the laundry operators. The secrecy that allowed this abuse to go on until the 1990’s stymies the current murder investigations, as well.

This is the first in the Inspector Tom Reynolds series, which features members of the Dublin Murder Squad. Reynolds is the unassuming cool head of the team; Brennan, and other detectives provide a mix of temperaments, skills and backstories that add yet another layer to the already multilayered novel.

 

1979 by Val McDermid

Val McDermid makes a departure from her other long-running series in this novel – which is set in …1979!

Very likely the beginning of a new series – this book is set in Glasgow, and stars young reporter, Allie Burns. Like McDermid herself was in the late seventies, Burns is starting out her career as a reporter on a metro daily newspaper. Fighting against notions that female reporters should cover fluffy, lifestyle stories, Burns does her best to break into investigative journalism. Working with Danny Sullivan, the two collaborate on stories involving corruption, murder and the secretive security services.

What makes this a cut above other crime series is the specificity of the setting. In this era, this gritty Scottish city is rife with sexism and  homophobia – both of which have a direct impact on Burns and Sullivan.

And like Ireland, Scotland had a nationalist movement that, in the seventies and eighties, was evolving into a more activist and popular movement.

McDermid writes with authenticity about this time and place – you can tell she hasn’t just done research and layered on details. She has written characters who speak and act based on assumed knowledge, beliefs and their behavior is predicated on the lack of digital technology. How fun is that?! People making calls on landlines and typing on typewriters – in a non-ironic way!

 

 

 

 

Wayward by Dana Spiotta

Wayward  is one of the trickiest books I’ve run into in a long time. While I was reading it, I kept marking passages because they were so true and insightful. The thoughts and feelings of Sam, the main character, had such resonance and were so beautifully written. Proudly middle aged, she is not sad about losing her youth and beauty. She’s actually looking forward to what’s to come and  becomes involved with a Facebook group called Hardcore Hags, Harridans and Harpies. I empathized with Sam’s rage at how she’s dismissed as irrelevant now that she’s middle aged.

Yet, it’s not always easy to like or even understand her. Her actions and interactions with her husband and daughter seem opaque and impulsive. She doesn’t ever explain to her family, in a satisfying way, why she leaves them. The allure of solitude is certainly understandable, as is buying and restoring a beautiful old house. But there’s never any payoff; her dreams and plans never come to fruition. In the beginning of the book, the signs are all there for a story about a woman of a certain age whose marriage comes apart and she restarts her life by moving into an house that is beautiful but needs a lot of work. But, neither her life nor the house are ever transformed. In fact, her life becomes messier and less resolved and her house remains ramshackle.

It soon becomes apparent that the outcome of the book was not going to be predictable; there isn’t a smooth, satisfying narrative in which wrongs are righted and growth and change follow hardship. But, as in real life, expected trajectories turned out to be unfulfilled. New friendships and relationships start out in a promising way but are aborted.

Go into this book with no preconceived ideas of the usual formula of: woman leaves husband, buys a cool, abandoned house, becomes self-aware, makes new friends, and transforms her life. If you don’t have such expectations, it’s a great read about a fascinating, complicated person.

 

 

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

I want to talk about The Plot, because it has so many interesting threads and tangents. However, it’s a somewhat difficult review to write. Any description of the characters (or plot) could, potentially, be a spoiler. The book was lauded for its creative storyline involving one writer appropriating the work of another. Periodically, a chapter from the stolen or borrowed book (depending on your point of view) is inserted into the narrative about Jake. This device is actually surprisingly effective in ratcheting up the tension.

So I’ll concentrate on the aspect I found most interesting.  Since childhood, Jake Bonner’s only ambition has been to be a writer. He’s a graduate of an MFA program that sounds suspiciously like the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of the great pleasures of the book is the insider’s view of such programs, the literary lifestyle and the publishing world. The book is sprinkled with the nuts and bolts of book tours, and the role of agents and editors.

The end of the book is, to a librarian, fascinating, as well. Jake becomes a more interesting character, as he becomes less passive. He becomes quite a skilled researcher, investigator and interviewer. His life may have been less stressful had he developed these talents and become a librarian.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s novel doesn’t fit into a neat box. It starts out as a rom com; it’s a fairly predictable pairing  of two attractive, charming people, surrounded by their eccentric friends.

Jane and Duncan meet, have a relationship of sorts, and break up, which isn’t fatal to HEA (Happily Ever After). However, the book begins to take a darker, messier turn. This is when it really starts to get unpredictable and  much more interesting.  Jane, a grade school teacher in a small Michigan town, gets some of what she wanted but not necessarily in the way she wanted.

A highlight is Heiny’s skill in capturing kids and adults with  delightfully brief character sketches or with  telling anecdotes.  I looked forward to the work life passages, and the insight into the second- grade mind. Boyne City is populated with  quirky residents and Heiny has fun with the dynamics of rural life.

It turns out that, perhaps, the most pivotal relationship of Jane’s life is with Jimmy Jellico. He’s a sweet and naive man who nominally works for Duncan in his workshop.  Jimmy has always had difficulty understanding how to navigate in the world, and hasn’t mastered even the most basic of adulting skills. Jane becomes more and more involved in Jimmy’s daily life, and despairs that he’ll ever find a love of his own. Jane’s friends, family and co-workers are very imperfect, as is Jane, but they evolve and create a fascinating community.

The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen

Rhys Bowen’s newest is another skillfully told, impeccably researched tale of World War II.  A tale in which wartime secrets come to light 60 years later.

Bowen’s forte is creating a sense of place and time. The city of Venice really is the main character- the book comes to vivid life when Juliet and Caroline arrive in Venice. The reader, through the wanderings of these two women – separated by generations –  comes to know its labyrinthian  canals and bridges.  Water (tides and rain and waterways) dictate when, how and where one goes in any given moment. More than once, boat and bridge accidents illustrate the danger of living on a watery lagoon.

Juliet travels to Italy as a teenager, then as a teacher and finally as an art student in 1938. When Juliet dies in 2001, her great-niece travels to Venice just after 9-11.  Caroline’s aunt gives her a sketchbook and  keys and points her in the direction of her beloved city.

Juliet’s maturity and self-discovery is defined by her growing knowledge of Italian and  the Venetian dialect as well as her ability to traverse the lagoons and canals.  Her encounters with other students, teachers, and  patrons of the arts are a highlight and offer a glimpse into the art world of the time.  Their camaraderie  is shadowed by the news coming out of Poland and Germany. The sorrow and tragedy of the war is made made personal when we see how it affects one city – its people and those who’ve made their way to Venice and its priceless treasures.

Love, Death & Rare Books

Robert Hellenga’s latest is told from the point of view of Gabe Johnson, the last in a line of booksellers. His grandfather and father operated a Chicago institution, Chas. Johnson & Sons, a bookstore and rare book dealer. If you’re interested in learning arcane details about the physical book – such as binding, end papers, foxing, plates, tooling and watermarks – Love, Death & Rare Books is for you. As is usual with Hellenga’s books, there are a lot of references to the classics. Erudite throwaways about French literature,  Native American rarities, sailing, shipping, the Great Lakes and philosophy abound.

The first part of the book is set in Chicago – from mid-century to the early 2000’s, when independent bookstores were battling chains and then online sellers. It ends on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Gabe starts over in a new venture, adapting to a new way of selling books, a new part of the country, an idiosyncratic house and its previous owner. Throughout, there is rich evocation of the natural world, geographical landmarks, businesses and neighborhoods.

Hellenga is from Galesburg, and it’s fun to pick up on references you’d recognize if you lived in central Illinois, or the Quad Cities. A coffee shop in the town where Gabe eventually settles is named after “Innkeeper’s” (a marvelous cafe and store in Galesburg), and a municipal worker in Gabe’s new town embezzles city funds so she can buy expensive, purebred horses, not unlike a similar occurrence in Dixon.

There are always many layers and levels of enjoyment to be found in Hellenga’s novels, and this one certainly follows in that tradition.

QC Life in the New Normal Writing Project

QC Life in the New Normal Writing Project ConversationWhy is the Davenport Library involved in trying to document life in this particular time? Either by writing or recording interviews?

For one thing, it’s therapeutic to write creatively and to analyze your own feelings and worries. For another, it’s important to document history while it’s happening.

In an article by Anna Momigliano in the New York Times, she describes the impetus of writers in Italy to write and publish right now:

Much like Sigmund Freud wrote down his dreams when he woke, before they faded, [author] Giordano sought to document, in real time, his experience of the pandemic. “Once the emergency is over, any temporary awareness will also disappear,” he writes. “I don’t want to lose what the epidemic is revealing about ourselves.” Doctors, novelists and other writers are exploring, as quickly as they can, the pandemic’s impact.

The first phase is a writing project, QC Life in the New Normal. Some writing prompts are:

What have I learned about myself and others in the last few weeks. How have I changed? What am I grateful for? What keeps me going? What does “coping” mean? How has my work life changed? What is the impact on my home life? How has the arc of change on my daily life affected my decision making? What is my decision-making process? Who have I come to admire, and why? (locally, nationally, world-wide)

The second part we’ve launched is QC Life in the Covid-19 Era Oral History Project

As part of the “In Your Own Words” oral history project, you can record an interview using free video conferencing software (video, or just audio).

Sample questions could include:

Describe how you keep active? (exercise or fitness routines)  How do you plan your day? How have you changed the way you relax? (reading, streaming, tv, technology, games, or hobbies) How have your school, work life, or medical appointments changed? Describe the first wave, and subsequent waves of change. How have your plans (vacation or travel) been impacted for the present and near future?

We are putting out the call to anyone who would like to record an interview. Are you, or do you know? Grocery store workers, nursing home staff or residents, social workers, parents of small children, students of any age, farmers, teachers, first responders, small business owners, military personnel, restaurant workers, and anyone and everyone – we all have an important story to tell.

If you’d like to make an appointment or for more information, contact us at specialcollections@davenportlibrary.com or through our website at www.davenportlibrary.com.

 

 

 

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg’s Night of Miracles  is the sequel to The Story of Arthur Trulov.  What a happy surprise to discover that some of the characters from Trulov continue in Berg’s newest novel.  Lucille and Maddy are back, as well as a lot of new folks from Mason, MO.

Berg does a great job of altering the prism through which we see the small Missouri town; it serves as the nexus for the various characters in this book.  For example, Iris’ story starts in Boston but, after her divorce, she makes a detour to Mason and her story comes to fruition there.

The town diner, Polly’s Henhouse, serves as a new setting with new characters. Polly and Monica work there, and interact with regular customers like Tiny and Iris. Iris, then, connects us back to Lucille. Iris eventually gets a job working for Lucille, facilitating her cooking classes. This web reflects how life in a small town works.

Berg changes point of view for each character, too, so we are privileged to peek into their interior life, and yet we also view how they are seen in the community. It’s a good reminder that we exist in other people’s minds in an entirely different way than how we exist in our own. We give ourselves much more latitude, and are much more forgiving of our own faults and idiosyncrasies. It’s interesting to see Lucille through Lucille’s eyes, rather than through Arthur’s, who thought, at least initially, that Lucille was pretty annoying. We see instead Lucille’s frailty and admire the lifetime’s worth of knowledge and skill that she puts into her baking.

Once again, Berg creates a world in which we gradually get to know and love the very human people who inhabit it. I wouldn’t mind spending time in Mason, myself but I’m pretty sure that it exists only on paper.