Not too late for end-of-summer reading, pt. 2 fiction

Neighborhood barbecues, beach gatherings, blockbuster movies, Fenway Park. Well, that didn’t happen. But the few remaining lazy, hazy, crazy days could still pluck summer from COVID and politics with the pleasures of well crafted novels.  There’s still time to pick up one of the following before the leaves turn color.


News of the World by Paulette Jiles was a National Book Award finalist for good reason. Published in 2016, it is a seemingly simple story – an itinerant news reader takes a $50 commission to return a ten-year-old orphan to her surviving family members. The time is Reconstruction Era 1870; the place, lawless Texas territory. The girl’s parents had been killed by Kiowa raiders, who captured her and raised her for four years.  The news reader is a 70-year-old educated widower, a former printer, who now earns a living gathering articles from big town and foreign newspapers and presenting news to small-town audiences who pay a dime to attend.  The 400-mile wagon trip from Wichita Falls to San Antonio is arduous and dangerous. The child speaks no English; the man speaks no Kiowa. Along the way, the dangers they face together build bonds of trust and tenderness. The choices they face and decisions they make in the interest of survival raise intriguing moral questions, spur deep empathy and touch the heart.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann is a curious hybrid, a novel based on real-life events and two real people, Bassam  Aramin and Rami Elhanan, a Palestinian and a Jew who share the terrible fate of having had their young daughters murdered as innocent bystanders in the protracted Middle East conflict.  Rami’s 14-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber as she emerged from an ice cream store.  Bassam’s daughter, Abir, 10 years old, was killed by a shot in the back of the head by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier barely out of his teens.  Bassam and Rami, destined to become mortal enemies, are instead drawn together by their shared grief and become friends. They form a group called Combatants for Peace and end up traveling the world, speaking at conferences, symposia and lectures about their losses and the futility of the war.

The book title is a term in geometry that describes an object of an “observably infinite number of sides.” McCann examines the Israel/Palestine conflict from an infinite number of sides, often digressing into stories that seem only tangentially related. To say this book is not linear is an understatement. It explores vast numbers of themes and travels back and forth in time. McCann inserts short chapters on birds, on Francois Mitterand’s last meal, French high wire artist Philippe Petit or on Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the automatic weapon provided to some Palestinians during the Yom Kippur War.  The heart of the “novel” is the interviews of Bassam and Rami, their devastating accounts of their raw anguish of their losses, their impassioned pleas to their diverse audiences to listen to the many “other” sides in the enduring conflict. Readers gain a more profound understanding of what it means to live in an occupied territory.

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a rediscovery by me of Anne Tyler, whom I hadn’t read in a long time and delighted to revisit. With elegant simplicity, Tyler paints the quotidian details of the life of 43-year-old Micah Mortimer, unmarried computer geek (is that redundant?)  who moonlights as custodian of a building in which he occupies the basement apartment. He is comfortable in the order of his existence, a precise schedule of when to do his daily run, when to clean, when to shop, where to put the necessary objects of his life.  Only just so turns out to be not so much when it comes to personal relationships. He is oblivious to the nuances of human interactions and misses opportunities at satisfactions that transcend his ordinary schedule. Tyler gently brings quirky Micah out of himself, speaking volumes about second chances and the importance of opening oneself to others who might expand us beyond the narrow confines of routine and the illusion of control.

A Spool of Blue Thread  also by Anne Tyler is about a Baltimore family, headed by Abby and Redville Whitshank, in their 70’s, in a home that Red built in the 1930’s in an ordinary middle class neighborhood.  Red runs the construction business started by his father, the late “Junior” Whitshank.  Red and Abby have been married for 40+ years and have four adult children, one of whom had been taken in when his father, an employee of Red, died, leaving Douglas an orphan. Both Abby and Red are aging, and their sons move in, Denny (the black sheep) and Douglas (“Stem,” the orphan) with his wife and children. Naturally, the arrangement brings up old issues, and through them Tyler gently unfolds the family history. It is classic Tyler storytelling, with all the physical details of the house and people in it meticulously painted. Togetherness arouses long-simmering tensions. Resentments and jealousies bubble up, undercutting illusions of family cohesion. Abby and Red’s deterioration runs its course. The book seems to come to an end, at which point Tyler starts back a generation ago, when Red’s father, patriarch “Junior” Whitshank was in his 20’s and Linnie, his eventual wife, was 13. The house is the linchpin for the telling of this inter-generational saga. The book was enjoyable, but I didn’t find its structure as pleasing as the more recent Redhead by the Side of the Road.

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