The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton – Book

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In The Excellent Lombards Jane Hamilton is doing a Jane Smiley-style farm family story for us. Jane Smiley hasn’t always write about the same farm but she usually writes about a similar era, the era when family farms are no longer profitable, or the children don’t want to continue being farmers, or the suburbs crowd out the farms as developers convince farmer after farmer to sell off parcels of land for housing developments or malls or a Walmart Superstore, a Seven-Eleven. There are always a few farmers who are not ready to sell, who cannot imagine any other way of life or who have a child (in this case, a daughter, Francie) who is in love with the family land and the family business. Jane Hamilton gives us such a tale in her new novel.

There are two brothers, the Lombard brothers, who live on the family land with its 3 houses, 3 barns, four hundred acres of forest, sheep pastures and the prize, the apple orchard. This orchard and the surrounding land has been in the family for four generations. In this generation Sherwood and Dolly Lombard occupy the main house with their two children, Adam and Amanda. Mary Hill, an adopted cousin lives upstairs in the big old farmhouse. Sherwood is not a true farmer, he invents things. Adam and Amanda are being groomed for college. They do not like the outdoors and are unlikely to want to run an orchard.

On the other side of the road Francie lives with her Mom and Dad, Jim and Nellie Lombard and Francie’s brother William. Francie is the narrator. We hear her voice through several years as she changes from child to teenager but the book is not childish. In this generation Francie is the Lombard who loves the farm, cannot imagine any other life and is thrown for a loop whenever she glimpses what the probable fate of the orchard and the estate and the lifestyle will be. Does it still matter in modern times that Francie is a girl? You will have to see for yourself what you think about this.

What I always loved about Jane Smiley was the way she immersed us in a farm family, and we experienced the tortuous inheritance decisions, the romance of a life lived close to nature on owned land, the anxieties of the economics of farm families, so dependent on uncontrollable variables like weather and world events and markets. Jane Hamilton brings to life these same elements that have eventually led to fewer and fewer family farms in America. We have all watched farms disappear from the near hinterlands around our cities. We all see the poor Canada geese trying to conduct their natural lives on tiny manicured wetlands near car dealerships. We have watched them cross eight lane highways with their ducklings – well at least I have. Every day I ride on a road that ran through farmland and now runs through senior housing.

Francis never says this but we can see that she worries. As much as she loves the farm she sees that she would have to learn the things that May Hill knows and she does not want to become May Hill. May Hill is a genius when it comes to fixing farm equipment but she is also a rather scary recluse. Francie says this about May Hill, “She did not like anyone – she did not want to see you on the path.”

Jane Hamilton and The Excellent Lombards made me long to inherit an orchard, at least before the realities began to outweigh the romanticism, but she, like Jane Smiley, made me wish that family farms had never become too culturally irrelevant to survive, or too labor-intensive for modern sensibilities and too lacking in economic stability to be attractive. I fall for this sort of farm tale every time. It is always the same, like a familiar litany, but different enough to captivate me, like an old photograph that gives me such enjoyable nostalgia that I don’t mind seeing it again and again. It would be sad if this way of life did not leave a trace, but as long as people read the books about farming written by these two women, it will live on.

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman – Novel

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We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman is a novel of this moment, this cultural age, as yet unnamed, in the America we are all currently immersed in. It is interesting to have our main character and narrator be a guy, Andrew, Andy, with a sort of funny way about him (not in a ha-ha way, but in an ironic, self-deprecating, nerdy but shell-shocked way). As we meet him Andy is reliving the end of his marriage to Karen. He wishes that the setting had been somewhere more appropriate than an Applebee’s. He wishes for a different soundtrack although he sees the “jagged little piece of pop music irony” in  “Wake me up before you go-go” which was playing at the exact moment that Karen breaks the news, not even affected, apparently, by the older couple enjoying drinks and touching hands at a nearby table.

It has actually been a year since these events and Andy is now a bartender in NYC, but he is still feeling as bad psychically as his body feels when he gets hit by one of those speedy New York bicyclers. He has to go home with all his bruises and breaks because his family calls to tell him his Grandpa does not have long to live. He has to go home to Omaha, Nebraska, where Karen is now living in their old house with the ripped EMT guy she left Andy for. Andrew is definitely not over this. Will going home help?

When Andy stops in a local bookstore he runs into a tattooed 30-something pretty girl named Daisy. Daisy is a sort of cool girl, a seeming psychic savant and a rebel which is probably the part of her personality that connects with Andy at this point in his life. But who is Daisy and why is she so interested in his Grandpa?

You may ask if this is sort of the guy equivalent of chick lit as many have suggested, and it could be, but it is still a nice little novel about the way guys can sometimes experience a breakup as a sort of killer ego-destroying treason and how it can, perhaps, with time, lead to a higher level of maturity. I am sorry that the author chose the picture he did on his author page – it makes a handsome man with humor look cruel. Other than that, good job.

 

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris – Book Review

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Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris was a difficult book to read. It was not complexity that made it difficult; it was content and awareness. From almost the first page we are aware that all is not right with Jack and Grace Angel, although they are often described as perfect. He’s perfectly handsome, has great taste, good manners, and he is such a successful lawyer that he has never lost a case.

Grace is obviously pretty, although we don’t hear an awful lot about this. She is a good cook and hostess. Her home with Jack is well decorated and she is devoted to her much younger sister, Millie, who has Downs Syndrome and who currently resides at a great school in North London.

How do we know that there is something not quite right in all this stylish perfection? There are small details that give us the beginnings of our goose bumps. At the dinner party which opens the book Jack and Grace entertain two couples – Esther and Rufus who Jack just met, and Diane and Adam who they have known for a while. The question is raised of how Grace manages to stay so very thin despite a seemingly ravenous appetite. When Esther presents Grace with a box of very expensive chocolates Grace seems to be worried that if she doesn’t open them before her guests leave she won’t get any. Grace is very fearful that there might be noticeable flaws in her meal. Jack makes sure that no one is ever alone with Grace. Grace doesn’t seem keen on showing the pictures from their honeymoon in Thailand – and more, much more. In fact Millie dislikes Jack until Grace gets Millie to transfer her dislike to Jorj Koony (George Cooney).

Since I sense right from the beginning that all is not as it appears it fills me with a sort of unspecified dread. It also makes me question whether the author should tip her hand so early. Sometimes I like obvious symbols but even the last name Angel doesn’t really work here. Somehow John Irving always carried this off. The stuffed dog Sorrow that kept popping up in Hotel New Hampshire is one of the best examples ever of an obvious symbol that works. But Paris is not John Irving. There is just not enough subtlety here. But even so I could not stop reading (even though I wanted to) and I hoped all the while that somehow all would be well.

We know situations like this really happen. In my small city there is a famous, fairly recent case of Mr. Jankowski, living in an upper middle class suburb, who built a secret underground room behind his basement. He was a serial kidnapper who kept a woman locked in a prison-like cell where he had complete control over her. When he was done with one victim he kidnapped another. He got away with this several times. There were also the three woman held prisoner for a decade or more who escaped from their captor perhaps because he sort of let them. There are other stories like this, fortunately somewhat rare, but even one such imprisonment is too many.

Most of Behind Closed Doors is spent showing how Jack managed to turn an independent woman into the fearful woman that Grace became, incapable of finding a way out, and how he was able to have such a seemingly normal social life. Could anyone actually have so much control over someone that they did not have to keep their prisoner physically locked up? A good part of the book is also spent telling us what happens to Millie, as Millie is the emotional blackmail Jack uses, and Millie is the one Jack really wants.

This novel is chilling and sadly all too believable, but I think the writer’s skills were not quite up to the task of dealing with the subject matter. It’s as if the entire book is written to tick off a check list the author has created of the ways Jack was able to fool Grace and everyone else. However, there is a part of us that likes to know how such a captivity could take place in such a crowded world and the topic is an important one. The book is not long and reads fast, but you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to tackle this one.

From Silk to Silicon by Jeffrey E Garten – Book Review and Comments on Globalization

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I tend to think that we are living in the most global age ever and my take on global government often harkens back to the science fiction books I have always enjoyed so much, so my construct tends to actually be governance of the galaxy. In The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov the Galactic Empire exists but it is on its way out. Preparations have already been made to train brilliant humans who will bring the Empire back from the Dark Ages into which it has been plunged. In Dune we have the Spacer’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the noble houses in a feudal society with everyone owing allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. In Star Wars we know that there is a rebel alliance at war with the empire and prequels fill in the backstory showing us a government full of corruption, swollen, unwieldy, and divided.

So I often try to imagine what our government might be like if we did have a global government. I can imagine a system where we keep our individual nations but belong to some overarching body that coordinates everything and keeps a more and more complex world ticking along smoothly and peacefully (which you would think might be the United Nations, except that this idea makes some people paranoid). I realize that this is as much science fiction right now as any of my old beloved sci-fi books, but there is a corner of my mind that believes that we could possibly pull this off (a very optimistic corner of my mind).

But, Jeffrey E. Garten the author of From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization through Ten Extraordinary Lives does not see globalization as something to be achieved in the future if we ever get our act together. He feels that people on this planet have been making the world smaller and more connected for centuries and he doesn’t even go back as far as the Roman Empire. He goes back to Genghis Khan (1162-1227) ravaging his way across most of Asia and even perhaps into a swath of Europe conquering and killing out of motives very like vengeance but also mixing cultures along the way, sending beautiful objects and bright people to live in the peaceful parts of his empire and setting up the trade routes that became the very well-traveled Silk Road.

He goes on to talk about nine more people who have connected parts of the globe and made it easier for goods, services, and people to wander further and/or faster or even to stay in one place and still connect with distant corners of the planet. He includes Prince Henry the “Navigator” (although he believes that name is a misnomer), too young a son to inherit a kingdom but driven to find his niche in Portugal and perhaps his legacy. He begins as a conqueror, continues as a sponsor of explorations, and sadly winds up bringing slaves to Europe from Africa.

We have Cyrus Field who tried time and time again until he devised a system that worked to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable from Newfoundland to England allowing messages to travel in minutes rather than weeks and months. Garten tells us about a Jewish banker who went home to the Jewish ghetto each night but was trusted to bring funds and investment money to and from rich and even royal men all over Europe and England. He tells us how Mayer Amschel Rothschild continued to live in his old neighborhood even as he founded banks in all of the important European cities and sent his sons out to run them. Would we have a modern banking system without him? Maybe, but it might not have gotten off to such a prosperous start.

Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister who people love to hate, is given credit for breaking up socialism in England and sponsoring free trade, things which ended what might have been a long-standing recession in Great Britain, at least for a time. And he tells us about Andrew Grove, eventual CEO of Microsoft, with his grasp of detail and his apparently inborn work ethic who revolutionized the microchip production industry when no one else seemed to be able to manufacture microchips that had the necessary qualities of consistency and usability.

There are a few others I did not name in this book review (great book, you should read it) but one of his main points was about what these folks had in common. They did not set out to contribute to the overall globalization of the world. They were not even always people who you would want to be in the path of, they could be cruel, they were all extremely determined, and their goals were often quite narrow, but offered out-sized consequences, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not.

So it seems all our talk about globalization in the 21st century needs to be placed in the context of all the connections made on our planet which began long before any of us existed. In other words, there is a historical context in which modern globalization is a continuation of a human tendency, rather than an innovation that is just coming into existence. Who will be the extraordinary individual who takes the baton and runs the next lap? Is this person already here, or far in the future? Only hindsight will tell. It could be you.

At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier – Book Review

 

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My journey with Tracy Chevalier, author of At The Edge of the Orchard, began years ago in book that featured a tapestry of a unicorn (The Lady and the Unicorn). Her current book is worlds away from her first book but if you like trees and following history across the American frontier then here is another sort of tapestry, more realistic and much grimmer, but still somewhat gripping. My favorite Chevalier novel is still Girl with a Pearl Earring and this novel did not displace it.

I acknowledge that all the cruel things people do to each other is upsetting enough when the people are real flesh and blood figures. It seems redundant sometimes to create fiction that captures our inhumanity (or perhaps our too, too human nature) when we can read about it in the news. But still, to create a world with fictional characters and even fictional events that rings true is a true talent and many agree that fiction can immerse us in experiences that are foreign to our own and which help build our capacity for empathy. And while literature that tells us of unpleasant human experiences can seem unrewarding, it can help rid us of the gullibility that partners with being too innocent of life’s trials. Bad things, after all, do happen.

When the Goodenough family decides to leave New England and move west a bad marriage turns into a nightmare. The family puts down their new roots (literally and figuratively) in an inhospitable plot of land in the Black Swamp in Ohio in 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough are a terrible match. He is hard-working and stable, even perhaps a bit dull if you are Sadie who enjoys being admired, likes to party, and is very social. James is obsessed with growing an apple that was brought to America by his family from England, the Golden Pippin. He has carried plants with him from New England to the Black Swamp. But the swamp presents a constant struggle with many indigenous trees to be cleared through massive human labor, too much moisture for growing apples that are good for eating, and a fever that kills.

The Goodenoughs can only keep their land if they have fifty fruit trees growing successfully in five years. They grow the Golden Pippins for eating and they grow other apple trees (spitters) for cider and apple jack. Sadie knows that they don’t have to grow the pippins and she hates how much her husband is obsessed by them. Their children, Caleb, Nathan, Sal, Martha, Robert, and Charles are expected to work as hard as they are able to help make ends meet. The swamp and the grueling labor has already killed two children, Jimmy and Patty. John Coleman (Johnny Appleseed) is almost their only visitor and he brings new apple trees for sale every time he paddles his canoe to the homestead. He also brought Sadie the apple jack, an alcoholic cider to which she, perhaps to tune out this life she is so unsuited for, becomes addicted. James and Sadie have reached a point where they are barely civil and James is so frustrated that he often hits Sadie, who sometimes hits back.

When Sadie and James finally reach the breaking point young Robert is so appalled and feels so guilty that he leaves home at nine and we follow him for the rest of the book as he keeps moving west across America, doing odd jobs and making a living any way he can until he reaches California. Here it seems that Robert finds that he too, like his father is a tree man. He wants to see the redwoods and the sequoias. His interest and the fact that he can’t move any further west leads to his last and most important job. He works for an Englishman, William Lobb who sends seeds and seedlings back to an employer in England to sell to rich estate owners who want to try to grow the giant trees. When his sister Martha catches up with him we finally learn what happened in the aftermath of his parent’s meltdown. This book review of At the Edge of the Orchard  finds that this is an odd sort of novel; I think I liked the one with the unicorn better, but I did read the whole thing and it is, of course, well-written. It did make me want to eat a Golden Pippin apple and perhaps hug a sequoia.

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – Book Review

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Families “do be crazy” (a term I have inappropriately appropriated) (although The Big Bang writers did it first). There are all kinds of books about families, but what they all seem to have in common is idiosyncratic family members and a certain amount of dysfunction (or a lot of it).

The Plumb family is at the center of the book The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. They are a modern family, Leonard, Sr. and Francie, and their four children – Leo, Beatrice, Jack, and Melody. The family grew up in New York City with a father running a business that involved feminine hygiene products and a mother who was not exactly a hand’s-on mom, although she seemed to understand her children’s differences well enough.

Leonard, Senior set up a nest egg trust fund for his children to be divided equally when the youngest, Melody, turned forty. Why did he make his children wait so long to inherit? Senior will explain if you read the book. The nest was meant to be small, but the administrator was an astute investor and the fund grew larger than expected.

Just before Melody’s 40th birthday something happens that changes everything. Of course I can’t tell, but think about the situation. Four adult Plumbs have been planning to inherit and living their lives accordingly. How would it affect your life if you knew you would come into money at a certain age? Would you spend ahead, or would you wait. Would it make you less or more ambitious about your own life goals? Each of the Plumb siblings is affected differently by the unexpected series of events. How will they adjust if their inheritance is less than expected?

This could be a very dark story but the author’s treatment keeps it light. There is angst but not deep anguish. It is a book to enjoy as summer reading – to shake your head at – but it is no great literary masterpiece. Still, this book review finds that it is well-written, a quick read, and entertaining enough to be a best seller.