Tag Archives: New York Times Bestseller

Fourth of July Creek: The Unexpected Delight of Rural Montana

Rural Montana Storm Clouds

With a name like Smith Henderson, you’re probably thinking, this author is mixed up. He has a last name for a first name. How could he possibly write a compelling, gripping and fascinating novel about rural Montana in 1980? Probably he made up the name Smith Henderson to sound more rugged. Whatever. It works. Fourth of July Creek is a brilliant novel.

The novel opens with Pete Snow, a social worker, arriving at the home of one of his clients. Pete’s initial characterization as a man who cares deeply about the welfare of children remains consistent throughout the novel. What changes is the initial impression of him as a wholesome, got-his-shit-together-even-if-no-one-else does man. As the novel unfolds we explore the complexities of Pete’s past, his fraught relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, the degree to which we are all in need of some kind of support, even (and perhaps especially) those in care-giving roles.

You’re thinking *yawn* we don’t care about another fascinating character study, E. Well, fine. Fourth of July Creek just happens to also have a fascinating plot delivered through detailed, show-don’t-tell description in a realist fashion that somehow leaves room for experiment and play (thinking specifically here of the chapters with Rachel and… discuss). So what do we have? A libertarian/fundamentalist family living in the mountains. Threats on the president. Crime. The chance to save them all. The slow and steady build to a climax of sweeping proportions. A deep care for the characters involved.

Arg. It’s just so unexpectedly good. I really thought setting out that I wasn’t interested. But heck but if this isn’t why we read fiction I don’t know what is: I don’t have to have (or think I have) any relationship to the plot/character/setting/ideas of the novel in order to be utterly absorbed and enriched. So for what it’s worth, Smith Henderson, you have a silly name, but an incredible first novel.


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The Woman Upstairs: Anger, Jealousy and Turning Forty

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs opens with the forty three year old Nora Eldridge describing her rage. Anger at a lifetime of aiming to please others and of diminishing her desires, but more importantly anger that the promises made to her by life – becoming an artist, having a child, attaching to a significant partner – are not realized. As much as she is angry that these promises aren’t realized, she’s angry that she wants them in the first place. Anger that she is relegated to the position of ‘woman upstairs’ (a frequent refrain in the novel) who subsumes her desires and is thought by the outside world to have no desires in the first place.

From this opening of anger the novel wheels back five years to Nora’s first person description of her encounter with the Shahid family – Reza, Sirena and Skandar. Encounter seems too light a word for the intense relationships that unfold between Nora and each member of the family, and Nora and the family as a unit. Pulled together by art Sirena and Nora push one another artistically and in Sirena Nora sees the example of the life she wants and feels entitled to lead. Nora’s love for the family is as much a love for its individual members as it is for the promise of this life that she should be leading, but is continually and perpetually left out.

Jealousy is portrayed with such deft complexity in this novel as it is never named – or only ever fleetingly – as such. For Nora it’s not that she overtly desires and covets (though she does) the particular pieces of the Shahid life, it’s that she has actively rejected the opportunity to have such a life herself – actively chosen not to take it for hope of something more, or better, of deeper, or because she thinks she should.

It is in some ways a slow novel, and at times I found myself losing patience with Nora. I anticipated the climactic revelation of the rage (the explanation for which the opening chapter promises), but it wasn’t until the final chapter that I realized with what urgency I wanted the reasons for her anger to be made clear. It was a gripping final scene and is well worth the slower development of character.

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Everything I Never Told You: Secrets, Lies and Misunderstandings


One of the questions at the heart of Celeste Ng’s excellent Everything I Never Told You is what might be the difference among secrets, lies and silences, and where responsibility falls for speaking (truth or lies) and for listening.

At first blush the novel is about unravelling mystery and secrets. The opening sentence “Lydia is dead,” invites the immediate line of questioning of who, what, when, where and how. Talk about using conflict to drive plot. In exploring the mystery of her death we learn of Lydia’s family – Marilyn, James, Nath and Hannah – and how they collectively and individually both keep secrets and assign meaning to one another’s behaviours (and silences).

To me the most engrossing parts of the novel are those when characters inaccurately – and frustratingly – ascribe meaning to someone else. Layers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation are confounded by a resolute and seemingly intractable refusal to ask one another about the validity of these (deeply held) (and false) beliefs. Of course the more certain we are of the motivations and beliefs of those we love the less likely we are to realize we might be best off checking whether these are, after all, true. Hardly the case that those we love are lying to us, or keeping secrets, rather the responsibility for the falsehood is ours as we fail to check our assumptions and instead walk around certain of the falsehood we have created.

It’s been well established that I love good character-driven stories, and the characters here are richly drawn. There are moments when their motivations seem a bit rigidly defined by what the character is ‘like,’ but these motivations do evolve as the characters learn about themselves, grow and change.

The first line (and chapters) primed me for a murder mystery, but this is not a who-dunnit novel. The initial frenetic pace of setting the scene for Lydia’s death tempers after the opening chapters and settles into something more of a family and character drama. I say that not as a complaint, but more of a caution that while you may find yourself staying up late to read this one it won’t be because you’re driven to figure out the crime, so much as to figure out when – and if – the family members will recognize their false assumptions, the limits of their beliefs about themselves and those they love, the necessity to openly share.

I’ll be putting this one on my ‘books to buy or borrow’ list (post to come soon…) as you think about possible holiday shopping. I’d say it’s a great book to buy for any reader on your list, and perhaps for yourself. And certainly one to prompt you to ask yourself what do I actually know about my family and myself, what stories do I tell myself, and when is a secret simply the question we never thought or borthered to ask.

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Cottage Week: 4/5


I spent the last week at a cottage in Northern Ontario doing four things: sleeping, eating, swimming and reading. I suppose I should say five, as I also drank my share of wine. I relaxed. I luxuriated. I was eaten by horse flies. I felt – and was – totally privileged. I made my way through five summer reads, and four were pretty well fantastic. One was… not.

In order:

Raymond Chandler’s, The Big Sleep

It’s five books ago now, and so my memory of the novel is already fading (see why this blog had to come into being?), but I do remember enjoying The Big Sleep because I liked the detective – Marlowe – principally because of his self-reflexive uncertainty about his decisions and actions. I can’t say I was particularly fond of the representation of women in the novel, but (if my reading in the mystery category so far is to be any indication) perhaps women in mystery novels are destined to be somewhat flighty and ridiculous (or in the case of Miss Marple, utterly without sexual discrimination so as to be mistaken for a man). The mystery Marolwe must solve is particularly engrossing because it doesn’t begin as the mystery we think he’s meant to solve, and so the crime unfolds gradually, along with the clues, in an intricate and engrossing weave. Yeah, I wrote that sentence.

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

One of the opening sequences in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate involves Calpurnia (our twelve-something protagonist) writing a letter to the editor of the Texas paper to complain that the weather report in the paper (this being 1899, weather reports arrive by newspaper) gives the temperature in the sun, and not, as she might like, in the shade. She tells the editor that the temperature in the shade would be more accurate to most of the citizen’s experience of the outdoors, and that the lower number might boost town moral. The newspaper, alert to a good suggestion, changes their reporting to give both the temperature in the sun and in the shade.

I describe this sequence in detail because I think it aptly captures the tremendous strength of Kelly’s novel in using plot events to unfold and develop character, setting and theme. Calpurnia’s character steadily “evolves” (as we might hope from the title) but not in any melodramatic Bella sense of her pensive stares or deliberate conversations about her own changes, but rather through subtle interactions and actions. The time and place of the novel is, too, richly described and felt, though not through any cumbersome description, but through the interaction between place and character.

Not to mention the book does a masterful job of concluding without “settling” everything, while still allowing the reader a sense of content and closure.

Oh! And Calpurnia is just a fantastic character.

Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared

It feels like something of a disservice to Echlin’s novel to lump it in here among five other books, because the novel is exceptional in every way. It’s epigraph reads “tell others,” and the whole novel urges readers to take seriously (for N.) their collective responsibility to read/hear the stories of others and to act whenever and wherever injustice is done. Far from heavy handed in this moral, the novel beautifully (really, really, I try not to overuse this word so that in the rare instances – like right now – that it applies it might have weight…) exposes the changes wrought by love and the sacrifices one might be willing to make. It struggles to make clear to the reader how much bigger a person can be than their physical bodies, how far their reach, how tremendous their power. I found it affecting, troubling and for those reasons, rewarding. I urge you to read this one, and not because I feel impelled to “tell others,” but because this is one of the books that shakes you. Shakes!

Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkaud

I had a slow start with The Bartimaeus Trilogy (of which The Amulet is book one), no doubt because I read it directly on the heels of The Disappeared and felt (rightly or wrongly) that it was too silly, to weightless to be read. Happily I kept reading and allowed The Amulet to be what it is: an engaging, whimsical, (but not frivolous!) exploration of magicians in a modern/fantasy world. I say, “not frivolous,” because the book makes some tentative gestures toward considering how the obligations we owe to one another shape relationships – how every relationship might better be considered in terms of debts owed, paid, and pending. But that said, it’s really something of a romp of magic, spells and incantations. I won’t compare it to other magical stories that cannot be named, but some might.

Mohsin Hamid Moth Smoke

Too bad the holiday had to end with Moth Smoke, a book that ought to be good, but falls flat. A playful use of multiple narrative voices is intended – I think – to let the mystery that structures the plot play out with attention to how narrative biases shape interpretations, but the uniformity in the “different” narrative voices made these attempts to offer unique perspectives on the same event read as a failure in a creative writing class assignment. Which is not to say the whole book was terrible – just it’s organizing principle… The apparent protagonist does experience changes – made less compelling by their attribution to drug use and not to a fundamental shift in character, and the attention to the inequities produced and underpinning class stratification was refreshing.

So there. 4/5 on the summer reads = a pretty great cottage week.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction