Day 950: Arrowood

Cover for ArrowoodArden Arrowood has returned after many years to her dying home town of Keokuk, Iowa. She has inherited her grandparents’ house, a stately old home on the banks of the Mississippi. Although she has yearned for home, it is the place of her family’s greatest tragedy, the disappearance of her baby twin sisters when she was eight years old.

Arden has been a troubled young woman, and she is hoping to make a fresh start in her home town. But incidents keep pointing her back to the tragedy. She has been contacted by the site owner of Midwest Mysteries, for example, who thinks the man believed to have kidnapped the girls is innocent.

link to NetgalleyArden has also been hoping to reunite with Ben Ferris, her best friend as a child and her first boyfriend. She is surprised to find he has joined his father’s dentistry practice. But then again, she herself has failed to complete her graduate degree in history and has a secret reason for having quit school.

This novel is atmospheric and gripping. Although it is not difficult to figure out that one character is a bad guy, the solution to the mystery has a couple of twists. I was reminded when reading this book of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Although I think Sharp Objects is the better novel, I enjoyed reading this one.

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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Day 873: Fidelity

Cover for FidelityBest Book of the Week!
Fidelity begins in 1913 with the return of Ruth Holland to her home town in Iowa after an absence of ten years. As a naive young woman from a privileged background, Ruth fell in love with a married man. When he was diagnosed with tuberculosis a few years later, Ruth left town to join him in Arizona.

Ruth’s good friend, Dr. Deane Franklin, would like to see Ruth’s old friends welcome her back as she returns to her father’s deathbed. He knows that Ruth’s life has been difficult, both emotionally and economically, and would like people to show some sympathy. He wants to introduce Ruth to his new wife Amy. But Amy thinks this suggestion is shocking and can’t imagine why Deane would want her to know this scandalous woman.

Eventually, the novel returns in time to show how the affair started and progressed. It is not until Ruth returns that she learns how difficult things also were for her family after she left.

The plot of Fidelity, which was written in 1915, closely mirrors a situation in Glaspell’s own life, in which she ran off with a married man and later married him. She wrote the novel to answer the question “Was it worth it?”

During Ruth’s visit back home, she meets a woman who teaches her to recognize another type of fidelity—to herself. Although we don’t know where this fidelity will take her, we know that she will keep to it.

Of course, the novel is also meant as a condemnation of the small minds in Ruth’s home town. Even though they have known her from a child, most of her former friends misinterpret her actions in terms of her new reputation. Only her youngest brother Ted and a few friends see her for the person she has always been.

I found this novel completely fascinating from beginning to end, even though I’m not sure I would answer the question the same way Ruth did. The novel is particularly insightful about its characters, making readers understand and sympathize with even some of its unlikable ones.

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Day 700: Some Luck

Cover for Some LuckSome Luck begins in 1920, five months after the birth of Frankie, Walter and Rosanna Langdon’s first child. They have only been settled on their own farm a short while.

This novel is the first of a trilogy about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family. It covers a turbulent 33 years, during which occur the Great Depression, the long drought, and the Second World War.

Most of the novel concentrates on the Langdon children. Frankie is active and always into trouble. He teases his younger brother Joey unmercifully. Joey is gentle and good with animals, dutiful and obedient. Lilian is angelic looking and well behaved, good at taking care of the younger children but a bit prissy. Henry is self-contained and spends as much time reading as possible.

It is hard to describe this novel. It moves constantly from character to character in viewpoint and has no main character, but is more like an ensemble piece. The action that takes place is mostly that of everyday living, although there are births, deaths, and weddings. Rosanna goes through a religious phase after one child’s death and drags the family to a fundamentalist church for several years and then stops.

Smiley’s characters are very human, with faults and foibles. So far, this trilogy is developing slowly, but the family’s lives make interesting reading.

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Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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Day 671: Lila

Cover for LilaBest Book of the Week!
In Lila, wonderful writer Marilynne Robinson returns to the small Iowa town of Gilead, the setting of her previous novels Gilead and Home. In these novels Lila Ames is not much of a presence. She is referred to as the surprising choice of a wife for the elderly, gentle, and educated pastor John Ames—much younger, rough, and uneducated.

Lila has lived almost her entire life on the tramp, ever since Doll stole her away, a neglected, starving, feverish little mite who lived mostly under the table or was locked out of the house. Doll and Lila joined up with a group of travelers lead by Doane, wandering from job to job, and life was just fine until the long, dark days of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Years later, Lila has stopped outside Gilead and is living in a shack, walking to nearby farms and houses and asking for work.

Lila knows nothing about religion, but on occasion she has been curious about it and was warned away by Doane, who claims all preachers are charlatans. So, one day she ventures into the church. There she sees and is drawn to John Ames, and he to her. Eventually, they marry.

The action of this novel is mostly interior. Lila is tormented by some of the memories of her previous life and feels unworthy of Ames. She is afraid that he may ask her to leave at any minute. All the same, she occasionally wants to return to the freedom of her old life.

Ames, on the other hand, is happy to have Lila’s company, for he has lived alone ever since the death of his wife in childbirth, years ago. He is afraid she will decide to leave him one day.

As with Gilead and Home, this is a quiet novel, characterized by religious discussions as Lila tries to read and understand the Bible. She has no prior relationship to religion, but she has vowed that John Ames’s son will be brought up praying, as his father does. The discussions in Gilead between the two pastors were way over my head, but these are more fundamental.

I am not particularly interested in religion, but what I like about Robinson’s books is that they are about good people trying to be good. That is a refreshing theme these days. And the writing is superb, the subject matter approached with delicacy. I can’t recommend any book by Marilynne Robinson strongly enough.

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Day 445: Annals of the Former World: Crossing the Craton

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the final short book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee examines the craton, the flat land that lies in the central Midwest of the continental United States. If you have read my reviews of the other books, you might remember that McPhee wrote each one about a separate geologic area near I-80, along which he traveled with different geologists telling the story of the formation of the country. Each of those four books was published separately, but Crossing the Craton was added when the complete volume was published, perhaps for completeness. (I think it was published separately at a later time.)

Because there are few outcroppings in the Midwest, little can be seen of the rock underlying this area, a thin veneer over the basement rock that comprises 90% of geologic time.  McPhee explains that until very recently this basement, or Precambrian, rock was neglected in geology texts. Because Precambrian rock by definition has no carbon in it from living things, carbon dating was not available. Nothing was known about the rock.  For a long time it was thought to have been there since the creation of the earth, but that idea has been found to be incorrect.

Just in the last 40 years or so, new kinds of dating methods and other technological advances have allowed geologists more insight into what is going on beneath the surface in these older rocks. Gravity maps have revealed a huge tectonic rift, for example, that runs from eastern Nebraska through Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and under Lake Superior, where it joins one rift shooting north into Canada and another running right through Michigan. This three-pronged rift is similar to the one that runs down the Red Sea to meet the rift in the Gulf of Aden and the East African Rift, only that one is much younger.

In this book McPhee explains how the Canadian Shield and the central portion of North America were mostly likely created. He also looks at recent technologies such as zircon dating and aeromagnetic mapping, and speculates on the discoveries about the basement rock that could emerge in the future.

Although this is the shortest book in the volume, more the length of an essay, its emphasis on technology makes the subject matter of lesser interest to me than that of the previous books.

Day 281: Gilead

Cover for GileadBest Book of the Week!
Gilead is the novel that precedes Marilynne Robinson’s Home, although it is set in the same time frame and covers some of the same territory. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

John Ames is an elderly Congregationalist minister in 1956 who believes he is dying. He has a much younger wife and young son, a surprising blessing in his old age. The novel is in the form of a diary addressed to his son in the expectation that he will not live long enough to personally pass on his family history and advice.

Ames lives in Gilead, a small Iowa town on the prairie near the border with Kansas. The town was founded by abolitionists during the Free State wars in Kansas as a refuge for slaves and fighters the likes of John Brown. Ames’ grandfather, also a minister of the warrior-for-God ilk, had visions of God and once preached a sermon in a bloody shirt with a gun in his belt. With that upbringing, his son was naturally a pacifist, who left the church for awhile after that sermon to worship with the Quakers. One of Ames’ most powerful memories is of the journey he made with his father to Kansas, in terrible conditions, to retrieve the body of his grandfather, who had returned there.

Although Gilead is certainly about the history of the town–the wars, the Depression, the Dust Bowl years–it is more about the relationship between fathers and sons, both from the secular and religious points of view. Not only does it explore the relationships within Ames’ own family, but it also looks at that between Ames and the son of his best friend the Presbyterian minister–Ames’ surrogate son–John Ames Boughton.

The story of John Ames Boughton is the one more thoroughly explored in the sequel Home, although interestingly enough, Gilead tells Boughton’s story more explicitly, while Home, narrated by Boughton’s sister Glory, only hints at some of the facts.

The novel, a celebration of life and faith, is beautifully written and full of ideas to ponder. That being said, as I do not particularly have a religious background or bent, I did not fully understand some of the narrator’s ideas and preoccupations. I found Home, although told from the point of view of the same goodness and piety, a more accessible novel than Gilead.

Day 192: Home

Cover for HomeBest Book of the Week!

The beautifully written, subtle novel Home by Marilynne Robinson makes me thoughtful. It is 1957. After a failed ten-year engagement, thirty-eight-year-old Glory Boughton has moved home to Gilead, Iowa, to care for her elderly father, a retired Presbyterian minister.

Her father has been waiting 20 years for the return of his best-loved son, Jack. Finally, they hear that Jack is coming home. Always unreliable and setting himself apart from the family, he arrives late, and Glory feels ambivalent about his return. Soon, though, she sees that he is tired and having difficulty being there, and she tries to help him.

The novel carefully explores the relationships between the three of them–Glory loving but distrustful of the pain Jack has caused and protective of her father, Jack trying to make a new life in painful and distressed conditions, and their father forgiving and unforgiving at the same time. In the background are the events of the civil rights movement, toward which Jack and his father have radically different views.

Jack is delicate and fragile. He tells Glory he lived as a vagrant, drunk, and cheat until he met a woman named Della, and now Della has gone back to her parents. He tries to find work in town and writes countless letters to Della.

This novel is apparently related to a previous one, Gilead. I do not know whether it could be considered a sequel, although I know it shares some characters.

To modern readers the manners and dress of this devout Iowa family seem very old-fashioned, and some readers may find the novel slow, but I found it engrossing. It is, of course, a retelling of the tale of the prodigal son.

This is a simple story on the surface, but it depicts complex characters and relationships. It is a novel about family relationships and love, written with a delicate touch. I find it difficult to express how fine I felt it to be.