Review: “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow
Random House, 1980
ISBN 0–679–76720–7

I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends. (p. 6)

Sometimes our greatest regret isn’t something we did, but something we didn’t do.

In this short—only 135 pages—gem of a novel, Maxwell’s first-person narrator ponders “the moment that has troubled me all these years” (p. 55). In considering “What strange and unlikely things are washed up on the shore of time” (p. 16), he meditates on the nature of time and memory:

What we or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

The moment that haunts him is failing to acknowledge Cletus Smith, son of the murderer, when the two of them crossed paths a year and a half after the murder and its ensuing scandal. By then both the narrator’s family and Cletus and his mother had moved from the country into Chicago, where the boys’ attended the same high school. When the two boys passed each other in a school hallway, each recognized yet failed to acknowledge the other.

For the narrator, “the elderly man I am now” (p. 51) can seek atonement only in imagination:

Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite in the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I? … I think now—I think if I had turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it might have been the right thing to do. But that’s what I think now. It has taken me all these years even to imagine doing that, and I had a math class on the second floor, clear at the other end of the building, and there was just barely time to get there before the bell rang. (p. 51)

We can forgive his rationalization, since “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” (p. 134). Yet the hindsight of old age produces at least a bit of guilt over the question of whether Cletus Smith was ever able to “lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing” (p. 135).

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Book Review: “Big Little Lies”

Moriarty, Liane. Big Little Lies
Berkley, 2014
ISBN 978–0–399–58720–7

I hadn’t read any of Liane Moriarty’s books, although I kept seeing them recommended. I picked up this one when I heard that HBO was making it into a series.

Set in a suburban seaside town in Australia, the novel delves into the lives and interactions of the community’s residents. The focal point of the story is the school and its annual fundraiser, trivia night, held near the end of the school year. The opening pages make clear that the present time of the story is the trivia night and that the police are investigating a murder that has occurred at the event. Moriarty sprinkles throughout the novel quotations from police interviews with the attendees as periodic reminders of the situation. These quotations also build suspense by dropping hints of personal animosities while withholding both the victim’s and the suspect’s names.

At the center of the story are three mothers:

  1. Madeline: flamboyant and outspoken, she’s turning 40. She is married to Ed, and they have a daughter, Chloe, entering kindergarten. Other important members of this cluster are Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan, and his new wife, Bonnie, whose daughter, Skye, is entering kindergarten.
  2. Celeste: former attorney and drop-dead gorgeous wife of the dashing and mega-rich Perry. They are the town’s Beautiful Couple. Their identical twin boys, Josh and Max, are entering kindergarten.
  3. Jane: newly arrived single mother with a mysterious past. Her son, Ziggy, is entering kindergarten.

As the book opens on kindergarten orientation day, Jane meets Madeline, who then introduces her best friend, Celeste. When they go back to school to pick up their children, a little girl says one of the boys tried to choke her. With the marks clearly visible on her neck, she is pressed to name the culprit, and she points at Ziggy. Ziggy protests that he didn’t do it, and the tone for the school year is set, with various parents choosing sides and pointing fingers despite Ziggy’s continued and fervent denials.

This book is about the women and their growing friendship. Jane believes in Ziggy’s innocence, while Madeline and Celeste trust her judgment and continue to support her. But most of the other kindergarten parents are quick to believe the worst, and Jane’s hope for an idyllic new life quickly fades.

But the novel is also about the men, particularly about their role as fathers. Ed left a high-power journalism job to help with parenting duties so that Madeline could work part time. Nathan, who abandoned Madeline and their daughter 13 years ago, has now, in his second marriage, become a model husband and father. Perry spends most of his time traveling for business and bringing back expensive gifts for his family and even for Celeste’s friends. And Ziggy’s dad is a big unknown whom the boy keeps begging his mother to identify.

And finally, the book is about community, and about people’s eagerness to condemn and ostracize outsiders. This is where the title pertains, as seemingly little lies can have big effects:

  • the lie told about Ziggy at school
  • the lie festering beneath the perfect-couple image of Celeste and Perry’s marriage
  • the lie Jane tells everyone, including herself, about the significance of Ziggy’s paternity

At the end the reader learns who was murdered, by whom, and why. But even though the resolution fits the facts, those revelations pale in comparison to the melodrama that leads up to them. Nonetheless, the characters are well developed and the portrayal of community life, especially when centered around parents and their children, is detailed and credible.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why I Don’t Need to Like Fictional Characters

At a book group gathering a few months back a man opened the discussion with the comment, “I didn’t like this book because I just couldn’t like any of the characters.” I don’t even remember what that month’s book was because my mind took off with that comment. That was certainly not the first time I’d heard it in a book group. And if you frequent any book sites on the internet, you’ll find some variation of it all over the place.

I’ve never understood this comment. Before I heard it for the first time, the consideration of whether I liked or disliked a literary character had never even crossed my mind. To like a book, I don’t need to like its characters. But I do need to understand them.

Since the issue of the likability of fictional characters comes up periodically in book-discussion circles, among both readers and writers, let’s take a look of what some people have had to say about it. Then I’ll give you my take on this topic.

Back in 2010 Laura Miller, in a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, wrote in Salon:

All of this raises a question I’ve been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen’s (and many other authors’) characters, which is that they are “unlikable.” I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, said in a 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly:

As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”

She says that reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in high school taught her that fiction can express negative emotions, can say “unsayable things.” But at that time all the books she loved that did this were by and about men: “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.”

And when the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in The Woman Upstairs], would you?” Messud answered, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Then she added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

In response, author Jennifer Weiner amped up the discussion in I Like Likable Characters for Slate when she chose to focus on the dichotomy between “chick lit”—relatable women characters written by women writers for women readers—and “literary novels” (Weiner’s term). She suggests Messud is something of a snob in her insistence that she writes books on the serious side of the popular/literary dichotomy. Weiner takes this distinction seriously:

I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously.

And she has a solution for the whole issue:

Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?

Kelly Braffet, author of Save Yourself and other novels, brings a refreshing sense of insight to the issue in Quit talking about likable characters!. She says she learned in high school that she doesn’t like everyone she meets and that she doesn’t expect everyone to like her. She also admits that even people she likes can become annoying, but “even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.”

Braffet defines unlikable characters this way:

Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it.

Novelist Edan Lepucki, author of California, writes in I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction, “As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting.” Also:

what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above.

Koa Beck took to the pages of The Atlantic in Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable (December 2015) to celebrate that year’s crop of “novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff.”

In these books—a list that includes Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train—says Beck:

These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.

Discussion

Perhaps the tendency to designate characters as either likable or unlikable has come from our human tendency to dichotomize, to see things and people in terms of either/or. We want them to be either good or bad, likable or unlikable, not a messy mixture of both good and bad traits. We categorize people this way because it’s easy. Once we decide which side of an “either/or” mind-set individuals fall on, we no longer have to make the effort to get to know them better.

But the beauty of reading fiction is that it can help us overcome this tendency to categorize people by introducing us to complex characters who, like us, are partly likable and partly unlikable. In fiction we get to meet way more people than we meet in real life. In fiction, we become acquainted with all kinds of people, many of whom we probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life. We get to know these characters and then walk away from them after we reach the bottom of the final page. One of the reasons why I read fiction is to learn about human nature. By getting to know other people, both real and fictional, I learn more about myself.

In fiction, we can safely associate with people we don’t necessarily like. Reading fiction allows us to experience people and situations we’d never encounter in our everyday lives. This is why I don’t need to like fictional characters.

But I do need to understand them. I judge a novel by the strength of its characterization, by how well the author has developed complex, believable characters from whose choices, decisions, and actions I can learn. When I read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, I didn’t think about how unlikable the main character, Nora, is. I thought about how her life has made her desperate for human relationship, for friendship. Yes, I cringed at some of the things she did and the thoughts she expressed, but I understood her thoughts and actions. The Woman Upstairs is a good novel not because I like Nora, but because I understand how, in the context of her life, she does what she does.

And characters like Nora, who share the deliciously messy stew of both good and bad tendencies and emotions that comprise the human psyche, are not only the best teachers of human nature. They are also the most interesting characters to read about. The unreliable narrators, the ordinary people forced to confront extraordinary circumstances—these are the characters who keep me turning the pages.

Maybe this is why I like mysteries so much, because they probe the darker recesses of the human psyche. A good mystery makes us understand—certainly not like or even condone, but understand—why people do what they do. Often mysteries take us inside the heads of both a criminal and an investigator. Even if we’re able to figure out whodunit before the end, watching the investigation is as satisfying as watching the crime.

I’ve learned that, when I start a new novel, I should be careful not to pass judgment on the characters too early. I need to give the author time to turn each character in the light of experience so that I can see the reflections off all the character’s facets. If the author is very good at the writing craft, I may be meeting some new fictional characters who have something to teach me. In that case, the question of whether I like or dislike the characters evaporates.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why”

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why
Penguin Random House, 2007
978–1–59514–188–0

Originally published in 2007, this book recently received renewed interest when streaming service Netflix made it into a series. In fact, that’s why I bought and read it.

The story comprises 13 cassette recordings left by teenager Hannah Baker for the people who contributed to her suicide. The novel is narrated by Clay Jensen, Hannah’s would-be boyfriend, as he progresses through the 13 tales.

I’m going to let you read the book or watch the series for the details of how teenage bullying and bad behavior led to Hannah’s suicide. In place of a book review, here is my reaction to it.

I finished the book with alarmingly mixed feelings about it. My edition, a tie-in with the Netflix series, contains an ending section titled “Between the Lines: Thirteen Questions for Jay Asher,” and I had to read that section to convince myself that Asher meant for this book to have a positive message.

Yes, the novel ends with Clay feeling hope when he insists on talking to Skye so that Skye will not feel driven toward suicide, as Hannah was. But before that he felt nearly overwhelming guilt:

You were not very clear with me … I didn’t know what you were going through, Hannah … I would have helped her if she’d only let me. I would have helped her because I want her to be alive (p. 280)

When Clay had tried to talk with Hannah, she pushed him away. These kids are 15 years old, at an age when they’re learning how to interact socially. And now, with so much concern over drugs, date rape, and slut shaming, we’re emphasizing that no means no. Is it fair, then, to expect an obviously caring character like Clay to force Hannah to do something, even just talk, against her will? Despite the book’s hopeful ending, which shows that Clay has learned from Hannah’s tape, I’m bothered that Clay has been made to shoulder so much self-blame for Hannah’s death:

How many times after the party did I stand right here, when Hannah was still alive, thinking my chances with her were over? Thinking I said or did something wrong. Too afraid to talk to her again. Too afraid to try. (p. 285)

I wish Asher had found some other way to demonstrate that we should all recognize and insist on trying to help people in crisis, even when they try to push us away.

I’m not objecting to reading about an emotionally sensitive issue like suicide. Rather, I’m concerned with part of the message that this book presents as a solution.

And I’ve decided not to watch the Netflix series.

© 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

Review: “Chance”

Nunn, Kem. Chance
Scribner, 2014
ISBN 978–1–5011–6467–5

San Francisco hosts this novel, but not the charming city by the bay. This is the San Francisco of fog, mist, and nighttime crime, where thoughts and desires scuttle off down the darkest paths and then emerge from the depths to bite us.

This is where we meet Dr. Eldon Chance. As a forensic neuropsychiatrist, he doesn’t have patients whom he treats regularly. Instead, he works as a consultant, meeting each patient only once for evaluation. That’s how he met Jaclyn Blackstone, referred for evaluation of periods of poor concentration and intermittent memory loss.

And that’s where contact between Dr. Chance and Ms. Blackstone should have ended, unless you’re an antihero like Chance who loves to obsess about the lives of his once-met clients. When the doctor and Ms. Blackstone meet each other in a bookstore, an ill-advised and dangerous liaison develops between them. Chance just can’t resist the advances of Jaclyn Blackstone. Or is it another personality, Jackie Black, who attracts him?

Chance’s relationship with Ms. Blackstone attracts the attention of the husband she’s trying to separate from, Oakland homicide detective Raymond Blackstone. His stature as a police officer allows him to wage an effective war of threats and intimidation. As Chance’s relationship with Jaclyn develops, so does the antagonization from the dangerous detective.

The novel becomes progressively more sinister as the reader learns more about the backgrounds of both Eldon Chance and Jaclyn Blackstone. In the meantime, Chance comes under the spell of a young man who calls himself D. D. is a self-proclaimed warrior of the blade to whom Chance appeals for help when he realizes the threat Det. Blackstone poses. All of these people come together on a dark, foggy night in a way that leaves more questions than answers in a noir world where nothing is ever quite certain and mistakes have a way of repeating themselves.

I read this novel after watching the series on streaming service Hulu. The television version, starring Hugh Laurie as Eldon Chance and Gretchen Mol as Jaclyn Blackstone, accurately captured the novel’s atmosphere of threat and dread, and the actors well portrayed characters caught in a life in which chance and the darkness of the human heart determine inevitable outcomes.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Memorable Novels

What are the novels that you remember most fondly, even long after you’ve read them? Here are five that have stuck with me over the years.

1. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos

Margaret Hughes, age 75, has just learned that she has a brain tumor. Margaret lives alone in a huge mansion in the most upscale section of Seattle, where her only companions are the rooms and rooms full of valuable figurines left to her by her father. When Margaret’s mother, dead some 60 years, begins visiting her, Margaret decides to take in a boarder. Wanda, in her 30s, answers Margaret’s ad. She recently sold all her belongings and left New York City for Seattle in pursuit of the lover who abandoned her. Warily, Margaret and Wanda begin to befriend each other. The mansion’s list of residents increases over the course of the novel as new people arrive to fulfill various needs—both their own and each others’.

I loved this novel for its treatment of life’s big themes: the meaning of family, friendship, responsibility, and love. Broken for You received several honors: The Today Show book club selection, 2004; Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, 2005; and Washington State Book Award, 2005.

2. Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Empire Falls, Maine, is a town that has seen better days. With its logging industry and textile mills now defunct, its working-class inhabitants try to earn a living however they can. Miles Roby is a typical Empire Falls resident, still living in the town’s tangled web of historical, economic, and family relationships. He manages the Empire Grill, the last economic holdout of Mrs. Whiting, the widow who is the only remaining member of the family that once held all the wealth, industry, and property of the town.

This is a social novel in its look at the declining economic and class conditions of rural America. But it’s also a deeply personal novel in its look at how people interact with one another. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Max and his teenage daughter, Tick. This is another novel from which life’s big themes shine forth: love, friendship, honesty, and family.

3. Plainsong by Kent Haruf

In the fictional small town of Holt, on the high plains of Colorado, a high school teacher works at raising his two sons after their mother’s retreat from her life and responsibilities. In another part of town a mother locks her pregnant teenage daughter out of the house. In the country just outside of town, two elderly bachelor brothers work their family farm, the only life they’ve ever known. Life on the plains is unremitting, but the people in this small town manage to come together in a mutually supportive way that serves everyone’s needs.

I am drawn to novels that demonstrate how people, even though unrelated by blood, create surrogate families that fulfill their needs and desires for companionship, help, and love. Karuf creates a group of memorable characters who, despite the greatly different situations, do just that. This is a truly memorable novel, along with its sequels, Eventide and Benediction, that continue the story.

4. Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Lydia Rowe is a 42-year-old classical pianist married to Victor, a painter. The couple has four children. Lydia has remained friends with a group of college roommates who all studied philosophy together and engaged in endless debates about the fine points of particular theorists. They still hold frequent gatherings, and at one meeting George tells Lydia about field theory, a construct borrowed by psychology from physics, that posits a psychological field as the locus of a person’s experiences and needs. As George explains to Lydia, “the tendency is always to try for some sort of equilibrium in the field. To complete an unfinished transaction” (p. 4). A disturbance occurs in the field when a “particular need is not satisfied. You can’t move on. You get stuck” (p. 8).

Over the course of the novel, all the members of Lydia’s circle learn that abstract philosophical theory cannot begin to do justice to the dense reality of everyday life as intricate, complex experiences accrue. This rich novel has stayed with me for the nearly 10 years since I read it. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This novel follows the lives of four college roommates from a Massachusetts college (the name is not mentioned, but Harvard is implied) for decades after they all move to New York City to start their careers. There’s an actor, a painter, an architect, and a lawyer. At the center of the group is the lawyer, Jude, a man so broken both physically and emotionally that all the others instinctively surround and protect him.

This is a big book—an 814-page trade paperback—that takes the time necessary to look at all the world can throw at four people over their lifetimes. Yet in the end it’s another novel about how people manage to put together the surrogate family they need to care for themselves and each other. Like all of these novels, it will stay in my memory for a long time.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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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

5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction

Tips for Writers and Readers

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”

A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.

Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:

A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …

David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.

Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.

Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.

In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.

Mind Prey by John Sandford

The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.

Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.

A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.

Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

The idea of time travel has fascinated artists, scientists, and historians for centuries. Authors have used the possibility of traveling through time to explore some of the big questions of human existence.

Here are five examples.

Time and Again by Jack Finney

When a secret government organization recruits advertising artist Si Morley for its time travel experiment, Morley jumps at the chance. His friend has the remnant of a partially burned letter dated January 1882, and Morley intends to see what he can find out about the letter writer and intended recipient. One temptation of time travel is that travelers will like some other time period better than their own. When Morley falls in love with a woman from the world of 1882, he must decide exactly who he is and where he belongs.

This 1970 novel is one of the most popular time-travel books, and its reputation is well deserved. Finney creates a compelling picture of life in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and even makes time travel seem like a logical possibility. If you’re new to time travel literature, this novel is a good place to start.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This novel uses time travel to present an unlikely love story. Clare and Henry are soul mates, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic condition that throws him into temporal free fall whenever he experiences a high-stress situation. Although Henry cannot control when he vanishes and to what time period he travels, he always lands at some point in his own life time—either his past, present, or future. And he almost always lands somewhere and somewhen near Clare.

Much of the novel focuses on how both Clare and Henry learn to live with his unusual condition. But its emotional center is their love story, which transcends all the complications of their lives.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

One of the most intriguing aspects of time travel literature is consideration of this question: What if someone could travel back in time and prevent some tragic disaster? This is the situation Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher from Maine, encounters. Jake’s friend Al has discovered a portal back to 1958 in the rear of his diner. Al has been traveling back and forth, gathering information necessary to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When Al’s failing health prevents him from finishing his mission, he recruits Jake to take up the cause. Using Al’s research, Jake settles into a life in 1958 Texas while planning to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald’s attack in Dallas. But like Si Morley in Time and Again, Jake discovers that life in another time period has potential complications. And even if Jake can stop the assassination, should he? What are the consequences of changing the past so drastically?

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

In 1976 in California, Dana, an African American woman, is suddenly pulled through time and plunked down in pre-Civil War Maryland. She saves a drowning white boy, only to find herself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Just as her life is about to end, she is pulled through time once again and deposited back into her present life. Dana experiences several more of these time-wrenching experiences, always landing in the life of the same young man.

Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to write science fiction, and this is her best known and most often studied novel. Butler won both Hugo and Nebula awards and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. This novel uses time travel as a trope for exploring questions of cultural history and social justice.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Focusing on the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut examines the meaning of history and of human existence in what has become one of the most famous anti-war literary works of all time. This novel considers war not only as a broad, abstract concept of history but also as a human experience that affects all the people it touches.

No description can possibly do this novel justice. You must read it. It’s short, but you’ll continue to think about it for the rest of your life.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown