My Top 5 Novels of All Time

Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.

Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?

If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.

To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdI remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.

Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)

Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.

2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.

This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.

I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.

3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.

I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.

But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.

4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.

This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.

The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.

Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:

  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.

But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:

5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett

When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.

One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.

In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.

How about you?

What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “The Late Show”

Connelly, Michael. The Late Show
Hachette Audio, © 2017
ISBN 978–1–619–69430–9
(print book © 2017)

Recommended

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite authors. His two series characters are LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense lawyer Mickey Haller, known as the Lincoln lawyer because he works primarily from the back seat of a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln.

In The Late Show Connelly introduces a new character, LAPD detective Renée Ballard. Ballard holds a degree in journalism from the University of Hawaii and worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. But after a few years reporting on crime, Ballard decided that she didn’t want to just write about crime, she wanted to be the one solving the crimes. She therefore joined the LAPD. (Michael Connelly himself has a journalism degree and worked as a crime reporter at the LA Times before becoming a full-time novelist.)

Detective Ballard was advancing well in her police career when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her superior officer, Lt. Olivas. Ballard’s partner at the time, Ken Chastain, saw the writing on the wall and declined to support her claim. With no one to corroborate her story, her complaint was thrown out.

As punishment, Ballard was demoted to the night shift, known as the late show. This was not simply a demotion, but, for Ballard, a career buster because late-shift detectives don’t get to follow through with the investigation of their cases. Rather, they take the late-night calls but then turn the cases over for follow-up to the day-shift detectives.

The book opens with Ballard answering a call about a transgender woman who was brutally beaten. Ballard is at the hospital waiting to hear whether the victim will survive for questioning when EMTs arrive with a shooting victim. The young woman, a waitress at the Dancers Club, was shot when a customer at the club opened fire on three men seated at a booth with him. After killing the three men, the shooter shot a bouncer and the waitress on his way out. The bouncer was dead at the scene, and the waitress, near death, was transported to the hospital, where she died.

Sensing an opportunity, Ballard begins asking questions about the waitress. After questioning the EMTs, she goes to Dancers, where she questions the employees and takes the dead woman’s belongings as evidence. Meanwhile, the assault victim at the hospital survives her surgery but remains in a coma. Before her shift ends, Ballard also picks up a stolen credit card case that leads to a burglary suspect.

Knowing that detectives on the day shift won’t take much interest in the burglary and assault cases, Ballard manipulates and cajoles her way into investigating them on her own time. She also uses her initial work on the waitress’s death to hang around the Dancers Club investigation the next day. But that high-profile case is under the jurisdiction of Lt. Olivas, who won’t let Ballard anywhere near the investigation. But before leaving the scene Ballard notices her former partner, Chastain, retrieving a piece of evidence from the floor of the club.

Ballard continues to use her off-duty hours to investigate the assault and burglary cases. But the Dancers Club case takes a nasty turn when Chastain is killed execution style. Despite Chastain’s failure to support Ballard’s harassment claim, she feels a sense of duty toward her former partner and begins to investigate this case surreptitiously on her own time as well. Her work eventually solves the case, a fact that Lt. Olivas grudgingly must acknowledge.

I had wondered what Michael Connelly would do now that his mainstay character, Detective Harry Bosch, is nearing retirement. In The Late Show Connelly has introduced a younger character who, like Bosch—like all of us, really—deals with her own personal demons while remaining dedicated to her own notion of justice and the job she loves. I look forward to more Ballard novels in the future. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the fourth season of Amazon’s show Bosch, starring Titus Welliver, due next year.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Dark Matter”

Crouch, Blake. Dark Matter
Crown, © 2016
ISBN 978–1–101–90422–0

Highly recommended

It’s the beautiful thing about youth.

There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential. (p. 10)

I don’t give out many five-star ratings, but this book certainly earned one. The first few pages aren’t exactly a suck-you-right-in opening, but as soon as the meat of the story began, I couldn’t put this book down.

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but this novel does exactly what good science fiction should do: It uses science (in this case, a problem from quantum physics) to explore the deepest questions of human existence. And don’t be scared off by the phrase quantum physics. The novel gives an excellent visual explanation of the situation at its heart on page 113.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at a small liberal arts college. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Daniela, and their almost–15-year-old son, Charlie. There was a time when both Jason and Daniela, a budding artist, imagined a different life for themselves: he a research scientist, she an accomplished artist. But when Daniela got pregnant, they opted for marriage and a life conducive to family. Jason got a steady job teaching undergraduates, and Daniela settled in as a stay-at-home mother with a little artwork on the side. Gradually youth gave way to encroaching middle age.

Then one night, after buying ice cream, Jason is accosted on the street by a masked man. The last thing Jason hears before the man knocks him out is “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?” (p. 28). Jason awakes in strange surroundings, with people he doesn’t recognize but who seem to know him.

And so Jason begins the search of his life, the search for his life. As he gradually figures out what happened to place him where he is, he also does a lot of soul-searching about where he wants to end up. The tension builds as he tries time after time to find his way back home.

It’s often said that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. In the case of Dark Matter, the distinctions between past, present, and future dissolve as Jason pursues the answer to those timeless questions of human existence: Who am I? And who do I want to be?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Memoirs About Fathers

In celebration of Father’s Day, here are five memoirs about fathers.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr describes a dysfunctional childhood—by turns hilarious and appalling—in an east Texas oil town. The book’s title comes from her father’s group of male friends who would assemble in the evenings to drink and see who could tell the tallest tale. Yet, despite her father’s drinking and her mother’s chaotic life fraught with secrets that eventually fractured the family, Karr avoids bitterness and anger by finding the humanity, or at least the humor, in most situations. She is primarily a poet, and her skill with language shines throughout her story. When my library book group read this many years ago, one woman said, “I wish we didn’t have to know about such a horrible childhood.” But I hold the opposite view: It’s important for us to read about such situations so that, as a society, we can understand and learn how to mitigate them.

When this book was first published in 1995, it helped usher in and nurture the reading public’s fascination with memoirs. The book description on Goodreads states that later editions of the book contain a new introduction about the book’s impact on Karr’s family. I’ll have to check the library, because that’s a topic that I, and a lot of other memoir writers and readers, would love to hear more about.

Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

As she was growing up, Levinson wondered why her father, a World War II veteran, often suffered from bouts of depression accompanied by outbursts of anger. Sometimes he could be a loving, caring father, but he became a different person during those times. To understand her father’s behavior she researched his war experiences and eventually learned of the atrocities he had witnessed in Europe during the war.

I read Levinson’s book with interest because, when it came out, I had begun exploring my own father’s life. He had joined the Navy in 1941 at the age of 17. I was born a few years after he returned from the war. He committed suicide at age 36. I don’t have many memories of him and nobody talked to me (I was not quite 12) when he died, but from what I can determine, I think he must have come home with a bad case of what we now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I think Leila Levinson and I both saw first-hand what often happens to soldiers who have lived through the horrors of war.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon

Gordon’s father died when she was seven years old. Her vague memories led her to think of him as the Shadow Man. In those memories he was a loving father, a charming intellectual, a writer and publisher, a Harvard dropout who led a bohemian existence during the Jazz Age. But well into her adulthood she longed to know more about him and began researching his life.

What she discovered shocked her to the core. In addition to being the loving father she vaguely remembered, she found out that he had also lied about all aspects of his life, even his place and date of birth. He was born to a Jewish family at the end of the nineteenth century but later converted to Catholicism and became outspokenly anti-Semitic. He openly supported right-wing politics and became a literary critic who also wrote pornography. The term Shadow Man takes an ironic twist as Gordon examines how his lies about his—and her—heritage had shaped and defined her own sense of self.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is another memoir of children who grew up in a wildly dysfunctional family. The father captured his children’s imaginations with the wonders of science when he was sober, but when he drank he became desperate and destructive. The mother suffered from mental illness and refused to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. The children learned how to look after themselves and each other and eventually landed in New York City. Their parents later followed them there, where they chose to live as homeless people despite their children’s more settled lives.

Despite their childhood, this is a remarkable tale of family and resilience that is often compared to The Liars’ Club because both books share a similar tone. It is heartening to see the successful lives the adult Walls children have created for themselves after living through such a childhood.

An American Requiem by James Carroll

During the 1950s and 1960s Carroll’s father rose through the ranks of the FBI and the Air Force to become coordinator of military intelligence. Carroll entered seminary and was ordained as a Catholic priest, while his brother joined the FBI. James became increasingly disillusioned with American involvement in Vietnam and became an outright protester against the war that his father so actively advanced. James eventually left the priesthood, but his political differences with his father caused a rift that was never repaired before the elder Carroll’s death.

I was drawn to this memoir because I knew James Carroll slightly when he was a Catholic chaplain during my senior year at Boston University. This account contains more history and politics than I usually like in a memoir, but in this case that information is all necessary to understand Carroll’s personal journey. I was surprised to see a number of comments on Goodreads saying that the book comes off as self-serving and self-aggrandizing. I didn’t know Jim Carroll very well, but I knew him well enough to know that the deep soul-searching in this memoir is genuine. This book well illustrates the function of memoir as a method of self-discovery and personal growth.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Novels About Fathers

Father’s Day is upon us.

The greatest novel about fathers that I’ve ever read is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here are five more.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In 1959 evangelical Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to deliver God’s message. They take with them as many possessions as possible—everything from garden seeds to boxes of cake mix—only to find that they are completely unprepared for their new life. Rev. Price insists on trying to pound the round peg of his American way of life into the square hole of the African environment, refusing, for example, to plant seeds as the local inhabitants try to teach him to prevent the plants from being washed away by the area’s torrential rains.

The book is narrated alternately by Price’s wife and daughters as they describe their life in Africa over the next 30 years. Kingsolver convincingly creates a distinct, distinguishing voice for each character. The use of multiple narrators has become common in contemporary novels. This is the book I always use as my touchstone for evaluating how successfully other authors create multiple voices in their fiction.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

This memorable novel tells the story of Margaret, a young woman coming of age during the 1970s in the southern state of Virginia in the U.S. Margaret is the daughter of an Episcopal priest who suffers from periodic bouts of severe depression—the melancholy of the book’s title. When Margaret was a young child, her mother left home for a vacation that gradually extended to a year before the mother was killed in an auto accident.

Despite the father’s religious vocation—and it is a strong and recurrent theme throughout the novel—this is the story of the strong relationship between a father and his daughter. Although religion figures prominently in the family’s story, the novel is never preachy or strident. One of Godwin’s strengths as a novelist is her ability to create a whole universe for her characters to inhabit, and religion here is one of the components of the fictional world. Read Father Melancholy’s Daughter if you love a beautiful story beautifully written.

& Sons by David Gilbert

A.N. Dyer is a reclusive author nearing the end of his life when he agrees to deliver the eulogy for Charles Topping, his best friend since early childhood. But during the funeral Dyer breaks down as he realizes the mistakes he has made in his own life. To try to reconnect with his family, he calls together his three sons: two middle-aged men and the 17-year-old love child whose birth broke up his marriage. When the youngest son returns for a break from his exclusive boarding school, the two older sons join him at Dyer’s swank Manhattan home. Charles Topping’s adult son Philip, who grew up circling but never truly absorbed into the famous author’s family, narrates the story of this family reunion.

As is often the case with novels about novelists, this book considers metafictional questions about the nature of fiction, the publishing world, the writing life, and who has the right to tell a particular story. At times author Gilbert seems to enjoy such considerations a bit too much—“Look what a clever writer I am!” the text often screams. As a student of literature, I enjoyed the metafictional aspects, but I also appreciated the book as what it is at its center, a story about love, friendship, and the relationships between fathers and sons.

The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook

Lawyer Henry Griswald, now in his 70s, narrates this novel about a life-changing event that occurred when he was 15 and a student at the boys’ prep school where his father served as headmaster. As a favor to a friend, his father had hired Elizabeth Channing as the school’s art teacher. From the moment she stepped off the bus in Chatham and moved into an isolated cottage near the lake, the beautiful Miss Channing drew the attention of everyone in the village. The novel gradually builds an atmosphere of foreboding that culminates in tragedy.

This book is a mystery in its probing of what really happened on that fateful day. However, it does not move at the breakneck speed of many current mystery or thriller novels. Instead, Henry Griswald takes his time thinking about the event. In a psychologically credible process he circles repeatedly around the tragedy, coming ever closer to the kernel of truth and the resulting self-knowledge at its center. In coming to understand his own involvement, Henry develops some insight into his father, with whom he always had a cold, distant relationship.

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

Meet Bull Meecham: U.S. Marine, fighter pilot, Southerner, and absolute master of his home and family. In this autobiographical novel Conroy creates a fully developed character whom, like the fictional family members, readers will both love and hate. Nobody ever does anything well enough to please Bull. The story unfolds over the senior year of high school basketball player Ben, the oldest Meecham child. Like all members of the family, Ben constantly tries both to please his father and to avoid verbal and physical abuse.

In addition to his skill at characterization, Conroy is a great descriptive writer. The American South comes to life in this novel, which portrays a flawed human being in all his messiness while eliciting the range of conflicting emotions we often feel for the people closest to us.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Suggestions Needed!

My husband and I are getting ready to leave on a one-month vacation. I’ve already decided what clothes and accessories to pack, but I’m stressing out about what reading to bring along. I’m talking about those big, frothy stories that you can dive into on a long plane trip or while sunning on a ship’s deck.

I don’t want anything too refined that will require taking copious notes so I won’t have to struggle with notebook, pens, sticky notes, and my book while confined to a coach airplane seat. Some people call the kind of books I’m talking about here airplane books or beach reads. In remarks about one of these books on Goodreads, one reader wrote, “I would put this book in the category of a soap opera.” Yep, that’s about it.

To give you some idea of the kind of recommendations I’m looking for, here are five frothy pleasure reads I’ve indulged in.


The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

This book is my prototypical definition of this reading category. McCullough’s three-generational family saga has it all: illicit love, sex (both illicit and licit), marriage, motherhood, religion, secrets, family ties, money, fame, sweeping landscape vistas, and merino sheep.

The Thorn Birds tells the stories of three generations of the Cleary family, who at the beginning of the book leave a life as poor farmhands in New Zealand to travel to Australia, where they are destined to inherit Drogheda, the huge family estate. Most of the book centers on Meggie, one of the Cleary children; Ralph, the Catholic priest who falls in love with her; and Dane and Justine, Meggie’s children. Tragedies ensue, but what drives the story is McCullough’s deft and deep characterization that keeps readers involved in the lives of these people.


The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.”

The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.

The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.


The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

According to Ken Follett himself, this is his favorite of his novels and readers often tell him it’s their favorite as well. This big novel, set in England at the beginning of the twelfth century, uses the building of a magnificent cathedral as the focal point for a look at history: at the corruption of the nobility, at the lack of political stability, at the corrupt church, and at the peasants, who are at the mercy of all three. The story focuses on a few representatives of each category, and Follett’s depth of character development kept me reading for more than 900 pages to find out the fate of each.

There is a sort-of sequel, World Without End, that tells the story of the building of a new bridge in the same fictional town. There are references to the characters of Pillars, but this second novel can be read on its own. It’s basically the same story set 200 years later, with a bridge substituted for the original cathedral.


The Immigrants by Howard Fast

This is the story of how Dan Lavette, son of an Italian fisherman, builds a shipping company into a financial empire. Featuring the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the novel explores the status of immigrants on the West Coast and the growth of industry in California over the first decades of the twentieth century. And of course there are love stories involved: a loveless marriage and some passionate love affairs. In the end, though, the story probes the relationship between wealth and happiness.

This is the first novel in the Lavette Family series, with five more that continue the family saga:

  • Second Generation
  • The Establishment
  • The Legacy
  • The Immigrant’s Daughter
  • An Independent Woman

I discovered this series not long after the first novel was published in 1977 in a neighborhood book-swap. I’d read them all again.


The Books of Rachel by Joel Gross

This novel encapsulates 500 years of Jewish history, from the Spanish Inquisition to the founding of Israel. The story focuses on the Cuheno family. From the fifteenth century on, the first daughter of each generation has been given the name Rachel and the family heritage of courage and faith, represented by the family diamond.

The story opens in the present time, just before the marriage of Rachel Kane as her father presents her with the diamond and its story. The book then flashes back to fifteenth century Spain with the story of the first Rachel, then presents the stories of four more generational Rachels. Some of these stories are painful to read, since they deal with antisemitism through time and the horrors it has produced. Overall, though, this narrative is uplifting with its continued emphasis of faith, perseverance, and hope.

There is a prequel, The Lives of Rachel, that goes back further into history, beginning in Judea in 168 B.C.E.


Now that you know what I mean by frothy pleasure reads, what books would you suggest that I take with me on vacation?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

I love reading mysteries because a well written mystery delves deeply into the depths of the human heart and psyche. I’m in partial agreement with Beth O’Brien, who says:

For me, the mystery books to read are personal. I want to know what happens to those directly affected. The family, the friends, the victims themselves. The general fiction section is where you’ll find the kind of mysteries I like.

GENRE KRYPTONITE: QUIET, PERSONAL MYSTERIES

She had me right up until that last sentence. While it’s true that some very good mysteries appear on the general fiction shelves, more often the best mysteries are found right where you’d expect them to be, on the mystery shelves. The main reason for this is that, once a writer has written a mystery and been categorized as a mystery writer, most book stores and libraries will continue to put all that author’s subsequent books in the same spot.

Like O’Brien, I don’t care for cozy mysteries (the kind in which, if the mystery were a play, the crime would occur off stage). And I’m not a big fan of the drawing room mystery, in which the sleuth, whether professional or amateur, gathers all the possible suspects in the drawing room and explains why each, one by one, isn’t the killer; the last person left is therefore the guilty party, and the sleuth proceeds to explain how the killer did the deed and how the clever detective figured the whole complicated mess out.

And I don’t like horror. I recently read two novels that were described as psychological thrillers that made me realize exactly what my definition of horror is: literature that uses a supernatural or inhuman phenomenon to deliver the promised twist at the end. (I’m not going to name those two novels so as not to spoil their endings for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.) It’s human motivation and interaction that I’m interested in, not goblins, demons, or other malevolent but external forces.

Finally, O’Brien says that she doesn’t like procedurals or courtroom dramas, and I disagree with her there as well. Procedurals, which pit a detective (who may or may not be a police investigator) against a bad guy or gal, frequently provide a look into the minds of both sides of that human equation. Courtroom dramas do the same, and often at the same time examine how the legal system works and how it affects human behavior.

Ultimately, though, O’Brien and I agree on the most basic appeal of a mystery. For her, it’s “about the people, the character development,” and I second that. The best mysteries are not pure plot, with one extreme event following another, careening off in seemingly endless directions. My purpose in reading a mystery isn’t to see what wild, unforeseen surprise the writer can throw at me. I read mysteries to learn about why people do what they do, how they interact with others, and what drives them. The best mysteries display as much character development as plot.

Here, then, are five mysteries that both interested and enlightened me. And you might want to click on the link to O’Brien’s article, where she offers five more.

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

In the winter of 1963 in England, serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady began killing children. Val McDermid uses this historical event as the starting point for her novel, in which a 13-year-old girl, Alison Carter, disappears in a small, rural English community distrustful of outsiders. The investigation falls to George Bennett, a young, newly promoted inspector. Although Alison’s body was never found, someone was convicted and executed for her murder. Despite this seemingly successful conclusion, the case continued to haunt Bennett for the rest of his career.

Decades later, Bennett tells the story of this case to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just as Heathcote’s book on the case is about to be published, Bennett calls to tell her to stop. When he tells her he has new information but refuses to explain, Heathcote undertakes her own investigation of the case.

I’ve chosen this one of McDermid’s novels because it has stuck with me for years, but almost any of her books is worth reading, particularly her stand-alone novels. This book demonstrates how effective a procedural mystery can be.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old real estate agent, is about to close up an open house at the end of the day when a van pulls up. It’s been a slow day, and she hopes this last visitor might just be the buyer she needs. Instead, the van holds a psychopath who kidnaps Annie and holds her captive in a remote cabin for a year before she manages to escape. (This all becomes clear right at the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here.)

Annie narrates most of the book as recordings of her therapy sessions after her escape. The last part describes her efforts to re-integrate back into society after her terrible experience. As harrowing as this sounds, Still Missing is a story of survival and resilience that I still think about now, several years after reading it.

”M” Is for Malice by Sue Grafton

This novel, from the middle of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, is one of the best. When a family patriarch dies and leaves his estate to be divided equally among his four sons, three of them hire Kinsey to locate their long-lost brother, the black sheep of the family, who has been gone for 20 years.

Kinsey is a good investigator, so find him she does. However, after witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between the other three brothers, she advises the prodigal son to consider carefully whether he wants to return to the fold with three men who would obviously rather split the inheritance three ways than four.

”M” Is for Malice aptly demonstrates how deftly Sue Grafton creates credible, complex characters and how the mind of an investigator can be just as compelling as the mind of a villain.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were childhood friends in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. But one day a strange car pulled up while they were out on the street and tried to pick them up. Sean and Jimmy didn’t get in, but Dave did. Dave later returned, but something had happened to him that drove him away from his friends and changed his life forever.

Years later, Dave Boyle is accused of killing Jimmy Marcus’s daughter, and Sean Devine is the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. This character-driven crime novel examines childhood, friendship, community, and the power of secrets. All the characters are sharply and complexly drawn in a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

There’s a good movie, but read the book first.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, in her early 20s, is a well-liked art teacher at an alternative school in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a prominent but cold and demanding judge and a socialite mother. Mia’s family can’t understand why she chooses to live in the city instead of in their large home in a much safer suburban neighborhood.

When Mia’s not-too-steady boyfriend fails to meet her at a bar in the city one night, Mia leaves the bar with a stranger who calls himself Colin. A notorious criminal has hired Colin to kidnap Mia for him, but Colin soon decides to hide Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota instead of turning her over to his employer. Mia’s disappearance isn’t discovered until Monday morning, when she doesn’t show up for work. Most of the narration shifts between several point-of-view characters—Mia’s mother, Eve; Gabe Hoffman, who’s in charge of the police investigation; and Colin—as the search continues with very few leads.

Such use of multiple points of view characterizes many works of contemporary fiction and reflects the fact that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events. Novels that present several points of view show readers how different characters perceive the significance of events and how they interact with other characters. This approach to storytelling allows writers and readers to explore fully the deliciously messy and complex workings of human nature.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Books I Read in January

January was my month for reading memoirs, according to my reading plan for 2017. I only read two, but both, which had been on my TBR shelf for quite a while, were very good.


Macdonald, Helen. H Is for Hawk
Grove Press, 2014
ISBN: 978–0–8021–2341–1

Highly Recommended

H Is for HawkWhen Helen Macdonald’s father died unexpectedly, she was nearly overcome with grief. She cancelled an upcoming teaching assignment and struggled to find a way to reconnect with the world. An experienced falconer, she decided to fill her days by training a goshawk, the wildest, fiercest, most difficult to train bird of prey.

Macdonald had trained other hawks, but never a goshawk. She knew well the literature of falconry and followed The Goshawk, by T.H. White (well known author of The Once and Future King, a tome of Arthurian legend), as she progressed through her own training program. White’s book is a narrative about his experiences trying—and failing—to train a goshawk during the mid 1930s (although the book was not published until 1951). The comparison between her progress and White’s lack of progress in the difficult task of training a goshawk provides the underlying structure of Macdonald’s book.

Macdonald obtained a female goshawk, whom she soon named Mabel. As Macdonald became acquainted with Mabel, she realized “without knowing why, I’d chosen to be the hawk” (p. 58). Her identification with Mabel became stronger as the training progressed:

I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”(p. 85)

The hawk became a symbol “of things that must be mastered and tamed” (p. 113).

As she trained Mabel, Macdonald read about White’s fits and starts with his goshawk. In her book she examines White’s approach to training for clues about the mind of this brilliant yet troubled man, whose unhappy childhood underlay life-long insecurity and difficulty fitting into the world. Implicit in Macdonald’s process of understanding White through his book is the realization that readers will understand Macdonald, just as she comes to understand herself, through hers.

H Is for Hawk contains that necessary ingredient of a good memoir, an epiphany—something missing from many memoirs, such as the much over-hyped Wild. Macdonald’s epiphany begins with this realization: “Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all” (p. 195). She knew that she had wanted to slip onto the wild world of the forest with the hawk:

part of me had hoped, too, that somewhere in that other world was my father. His death had been so sudden. There had been no time to prepare for it, no sense in it happening at all. He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home (p. 220)

In the end she realized that she couldn’t overcome her grief by abandoning the human world to become a wild, feral hawk. Rather, she had to bring the lessons of the wild world back into the human sphere:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are (p. 171)

The key to a memoir-worthy experience is not simply to endure, but to learn, to change, to grow.

Part of that growth is the ability to see new meaning in other aspects of the world. The broadly educated Macdonald fills her book with
details of the natural world: fields, flowers, bushes, trees, animals, rocks. Nature takes on new meaning because of the experience rendered in this moving and enriching memoir.


Cahalan, Susannah. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness
Free Press, 2012
ISBN 978–1–4516–2137–2

Highly Recommended

Brain on FireOne day in 2009 Susannah Cahalan woke up in a hospital room, strapped to her bed, unable to speak, move, or remember how she got there. As she stared at an orange band around her wrist, the words FLIGHT RISK came into focus.

Cahalan’s journey to that hospital room had begun weeks earlier. Out of nowhere she began having paranoid thoughts; for example, with no evidence she suddenly believed that her boyfriend was cheating on her, and the voice in her head nearly overpowered her: Read his e-mails. The paranoia was rapidly followed by other symptoms: slurred speech, over-reaction to colors and sounds, nausea, insomnia, wild mood swings, uncontrollable crying, lack of focus, inability to write, facial tics, drooling, involuntary muscle movements, and seizures.

Physical examinations and extensive medical tests revealed no discernible cause for her symptoms. Various doctors prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medications and used phrases ranging from all in her head to psychotic break as Calahan’s family and friends watched her condition continue to worsen. Finally, a new neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined the medical team and did one more medical test that saved her life. Dr. Najjar tested Cahalan for a newly discovered, rare autoimmune disease that causes the body to react against the brain. The disease causes inflammation that Dr. Nijjar explained this way: “Her brain is on fire.”

This book differs from most memoirs in that Cahalan has almost no memories of what happened to her during the period she writes about. Her father, who spent most days in her hospital room, kept a personal diary of the ordeal (hers and his own). In addition, her father and mother left a notebook in her room in which both documented what had gone on during their visits; the purpose of this notebook was to keep both parents informed about their daughter’s condition. Cahalan used these two documents, her medical records, and interviews with family, friends, work colleagues, and medical personnel as the basis for the book. Her journalism background enabled her to do the extensive research necessary to supplement those sources.

Despite the absence of her own memories, Cahalan maintains the focus on personal experience that’s necessary in memoir. When she can’t focus on her own experiences, she frames the story with the experiences of the people close to her: her parents, her boyfriend, her friends, and her colleagues at the New York Post.

Cahalan excels at describing complex, arcane medical material for a general reader. Here, for example, is her description of how memory works:

My short-term memory had been obliterated, a problem usually rooted in the hippocampus, which is like a way station for new memories. The hippocampus briefly “stores” the patterns of neurons that make up a memory before passing them along to the parts of the brain responsible for preserving them long term. Memories are maintained by the areas of the brain responsible for the initial perception: a visual memory is saved by the visual cortex in the occipital lobe, an auditory memory by the auditory cortex of the temporal love, and so forth. (p. 101)

After Cahalan was successfully treated for her brain inflammation, there remained questions about how much of her former self, particularly her mental faculties, would return. This book, with its extensive research and clear writing, demonstrates that her brain is now back to functioning quite well.

Brain on Fire has been made into a movie that will come out on February 22, 2017. You can find information about the film, including a link to the official trailer, here.


© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

With the Trump era now a week old and storm clouds gathering, many decent, salt-of-the-earth Americans not previously given to shows of popular unrest, never mind civil disobedience or outright vio…

Source: 11 Memoirs by 20th-Century American Radicals | Literary Hub

25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times

From Bertolt Brecht to Vu Tran, a sampling of major contributions to American literature by those who were forced to leave their own countries.

Source: 25 Great Books by Refugees in America – The New York Times