Sunday, May 12

Never-ending enigma

 











A Princess Diana impersonator with a sister who could be a twin, a precocious child raised in foster care, a cryptocurrency firm with organized crime connections all in Las Vegas – what could go wrong? 

Chris Bohjalian's The Princess of Las Vegas is a fast-paced mystery about a successful Princess Diana impersonator in a second-rate casino who is estranged from her sister after trauma with a stepfather followed by their mother’s death. Regardless of the hard feelings, the younger sister moves to Las Vegas with her precocious and newly adopted teenager, lured by a high-paying position with her boyfriend's crypto company. Meanwhile, the two brothers who own and operate the Buckingham Palace Casino are found dead in the space of a few days, suicides from all appearances, except that that the reader is witness to the first murder with the novel's early pages. 

Diana is popular among those who recall where they were on August 31, 1997, and the fictional Chrissy Dowling is a Las Vegas legend who relies on Adderall and Valium to get through two shows per night and days spent in a poolside cabana. She is intensely proud of her work, constantly researching the royal family and tweaking the show. She hopes that her tribute show touches “a chord of orphic remembrance,” reminding “us who we once were and, sometimes, where we once were emotionally and literally.” 

Still, the suicides followed by the death of Chrissy's love interest has her and other casino staff worried about losing their jobs. 

A lot of luck comes into play in the story – but in Las Vegas, that makes perfect sense. Often, we don't recognize the luck waiting before us.  “None of us, even when we are breathing our last, understand fully the role that chance will have played in our lives, the ways that what we supposed was good luck prevented us from experiencing better luck, or the way that a small misfortune saved us from a far worse one.” 

Princess Diana, a quiet, gentle and beautiful woman adored by the world but resented by her family, was an enigma and the contradictions of her life will continue to remain an inspiration for novelists for years to come. Consider Royal Escape, in which a princess yearns to flee the royal trap where security provides no protection at all. 

Bohjalian delivers a story with modern twists that dig deep into the mysteries of human nature and family angst.

Tuesday, April 16

'Til death... and beyond












Baumgartner by Paul Auster is about the final years an elderly philosophy professor and the poignant love story with his poet wife. S.T. Baumgartner reveres Anna, a woman for whom even the most ordinary words were “imbued with some mesmerizing, transcendent quality.” That quality emerged “not just in her voice but in her power to transform the most ordinary movements of the body into acts of sublime self-expression and grace, the eloquence of her fingers as she turned the pages of a book, for example….” 

Anna died a decade earlier, at age 58 after being struck by a rogue wave at Cape Cod. Baumgartner struggles with life alone, trying to form new relationships even while thoughts of Anna linger.

At one point he dreams of receiving a phone call: “Such is the power of the imagination, he tells himself. Or, quite simply, the power of dreams. In the same way that a person can be transformed by the imaginary events recounted in a work of fiction.”  He concedes that “he has never not been in contact with Anna since the day she drowned, and if he has now conjured up an alternative world in which she knows that he is thinking about her, can feel him thinking about her, can think about him thinking about her, who is to say there isn’t some truth to it?”

Baumgartner wonders if he has found religion, “Or what passes for religion in a man who has none and believes in nothing but the obligation to ask good questions about what it means to be alive, even if he knows he will never be able to answer them.” 

The couple did not have children and Baumgartner has no regrets, understanding that family members do not automatically connect. He reflects on his own family history and his father’s unhappiness about running a family dress shop, starting at age 22 when illness would have otherwise forced the grandfather to sell. The father bid farewell to his dreams of studying history or law and becoming an activist. He left night school and a library job to support his mother and four siblings whom he did not respect – “there was no right choice or wrong choice, only two right choices that both would have come out wrong in the end.” The decision to stay with the store was “an honorable one, even a noble one, but if you began to feel that your self-sacrifice has been wasted on a family of morons and mooching chiselers, your choice will inevitably turn into a source of resentment, and, as the years go on, inflict serious damage on your soil.” 

Anna's spirit lives on through her writing. Soon after Anna’s death, her husband compiles her finest poems and arranges publication of a collection. And he continues to read her other unpublished poems, essays and short stories. 

Years after that publication, a colleague of Anna and Baumgartner reaches out to introduce a doctoral student who wishes to research Anna’s work for her dissertation. Baumgartner anxiously rearranges his plans and remodels a place for the student to stay. He recalls Anna's last dash into the waves and worries about the young woman's long drive during the winter months.

But he remains quiet, supporting a spirited and determined student, still connecting with Anna during the last few years of his life. 

Friday, April 12

Reading

 

Reading is a solitary activity that offers a sure guide to navigating society and our many relationships. 

In The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, Queen Elizabeth, while chasing after her corgis, discovers a mobile library in a courtyard where she meets the librarian and the sole patron, a member of her kitchen staff. She welcomes a book suggestion from the young servant, Norman, and takes a liking to him while anticipating pushback from senior staff about her decision to read a book. “Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people…. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.” Indeed, the senior advisors assure that they can brief her on any subject, but the Queen bristles: “briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point… Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.” 

Elizabeth promotes Norman to assist her in procuring books and regrets not reading more in her early years: “for the first time in her life she felt there was a good deal she had missed.” She describes herself as an opsimath, “one who learns only late in life.” Reading absorbs her, instigating new thinking and ideas. She loses enthusiasm for routines and duties – “what the Queen had not expected was the degree to which it drained her of enthusiasm for anything else.” 

Of course, palace staff terminate Norman, suggesting the queen has lost interest and arrange to fund his  college education. The staff then deceive the queen by explaining that Norman resigned to pursue his studies. While happy for him, Elizabeth sadly reflects how “sudden absences and abrupt departures had always been a feature of her life…. ‘We mustn’t worry Her Majesty’ was a guiding principle for all her servants.”

As the queen reads more, she shows a more human side. She finds herself caring more about other people. While reading Henry James, she retorts “Oh, do get on” to the book, and her maid apologizes and the Queen is compelled to explain. “Previously she wouldn’t have cared what the maid thought or that she might have hurt her feelings, only now she did and … she wondered why.” More highly placed staff – many who are poorly read themselves – fret that the Queen is not herself, with some even assuming dementia. 

Relishing the revelations found in books, the Queen tries to share her enthusiasm and recommendations. The prime minister’s special advisor complains to her chief of staff: “your employer has been giving my employer a hard time …. Lending him books to read.” Rather than be direct, the Queen’s advisor arranges for her books to be misplaced during an overseas trip. 

Staff machinations backfire as the Queen’s interest turns to keeping a notebook and taking more control of her life, no longer content to simply read: “A reader was next door to being a spectator, whereas when she was writing she was doing, and doing was her duty.”

At one point she jots a note to herself, “You don’t put our life into your books. You find it there.” 

The novella is sweet and light, celebrating literacy with an ending reminiscent of Royal Escape, published just nine months before The Uncommon Reader in January 2008. The protagonists, the Princess of Wales in the first novel and Queen Elizabeth in the second, reach the same conclusion about the trap that ensnares the British royal family. 

Sunday, March 17

Game of chance

 











Pachinko by Min Jin Lee covers a Korean woman’s life from 1932 through 1989, how she endures poverty and class discrimination after the death of her father at age 13, Japanese occupation, World War II, the Korean War and life as a marginalized citizen in Japan. The first line of this beautiful  book notes, “history has failed us, but no matter.” A century of occupation, war, ethnic hatred uprooted and divided Korean families. Though gambling was illegal in Japan, Pachinko is hybrid pinball-slot game that offers recreation, dreams of fast earnings, and refuge from loveless homes. Like a game, Sunja’s survival hinges luck, timing and the ability to quickly adapt.

Sunja’s mother gets by renting cramped spaces in her small home to local workers and travelers, and the daughter helps with cooking and cleaning. While at the market, Sunja catches the eye of Hansu, a Korean mob boss with connections in Japan. “Hansu did not believe in nationalism, religion, or even love, but he trusted in education. Above all, he believed that a man must learn constantly.” 

After Sunja becomes pregnant. Hansu won't leave his wife but offers support. Instead, Sunja accepts a proposal from one of her mother’s roomers, Isak, an intelligent and sickly pastor traveling to Japan to stay with his brother and work as a missionary. Skepticism runs high about such missionary work, and one character notes, “the whole religion thing was a racket for overeducated men who didn’t want to do real work.” 

Both Korean and Japanese societies have rigid expectations for marriage. Sunja’s mother is criticized for marrying a man with a cleft lip. The roomers criticize Sunja for marrying a man with tuberculosis. Isak’s supervisor questions his motivation for marrying a woman pregnant with another man’s child. The older pastor warns that coincidences cannot be mistaken for the will of God. “It’s dangerous to think that everything is a sign from God. Perhaps God is always talking to us, but we don’t know how to listen.” 

Koreans in Japan cannot become citizens or enjoy full rights. Minorities of any category are expected to be perfect role models: “One bad Korean ruins it for thousands of others. And one bad Christian hurts tens of thousands of Christians everywhere.”

Chance is a theme throughout the book, and the most successful characters take risks to progress. With the cusp of World War II, Sunja and her sister-in-law risk the wrath of their husbands by selling candy in the market by the train station to pay off the debts associated with Isak's travel from Korea. 

Sunja’s has two sons who are opposites – Noah, son of the mob boss, is a brilliant student who assimilates into Japanese culture while Mozasu, son of the intellectual preacher – struggles in school and eventually takes a job at one of Hansu’s pachinko parlors. “Every morning, Mozasu and his men tinkered with the machines to fix the outcomes – there could only be a few winners and a lot of losers. And yet we played on, because we had hope that we might be the lucky ones. How could you get angry at the ones who wanted to be in the game?”

Japanese society largely disdains pachinko and the Koreans who often run the parlors. Despite the discrimination, Japanese and Korean characters fall in love, including Mozasu and Etsuko. Etsuko’s daughter struggles with addiction and disappoints her family, and Etsuko realized that she had “not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.” 

Discrimination divides the family. Noa, the oldest son, is devastated to learn that he's the son of a gangster. The young man abruptly ends his studies, stops speaking with his family, moves to another town, and passes as a Japanese man to secure work: “Noa realized that this was what he wanted mot of all: to be seen as human.”

With Hansu’s help, Sanju finds Noa years later and has one last meeting before his death. Decades later, she can still feel holding the child’s hand. “The people you loved, they were always there with you, she had learned…. At those moments, it was good to be alone to hold on to him.” 

Life and games of chance are about the dreams and hopes associated with winning and losing. As an elderly grandmother, Sunja reflects on her life and determines it was good. Time and time again, it's reconfirmed for Sunja that what others think about her do not matter.  “Beyond the dailiness, there had been moments of shimmering beauty and some glory, too, even in this ajumma’s life. Even if no one knew, it was true.”

When it comes to assessing a life, only one judgment matters. 


Wednesday, March 6

A cure for many woes

 











Longstanding friendships are the cure to many woes. Friends share confidences, memories and strategies. They listen, scheme and solve problems together. They comfort and shape each other.  

The short story "Inconspicuous" is about two elderly neighbors who renew a close friendship after years of estrangement. Both have come to realize that good friendships are a treasure as "Society writes older women off as invisible and disposable." One friend, a retired librarian comes to the rescue after the other woman falls prey to a guardian scheme and a scam artist who "befriended the vulnerable, isolating them and destroying hope, committing murder in slow motion."

A good friendship reminds one to feel free and whole again, and perhaps even young. The original version included multiple excerpts from poems by Robert Frost. Those were cut for the final version of the story, but some of the imagery remains. 

We make ourselves a place apart
  Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

"Revelation" by Robert Frost 

Read "Inconspicuous" in the Saturday Evening Post.  Painting of "Two Friends" by Ferdo Vesel, courtesy of Slovenia National Gallery of Art. 

Sunday, March 3

Private space

 

In The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor, Olivia Fitzgerald is a published author, but her second novel failed and her agent struggles to sell the third. After her boyfriend dumps her, Olivia is desperate for money and agrees to explore a ghostwriting job with recently widowed billionaire Henry Asherwood who lives in Malibu not far from Los Angeles where Noah, her good friend from college lives. 

Olivia and her agent sign a nondisclosure agreement about the task, and from the start, Olivia is insecure, testy and often deceitful. In a form of self-sabotage, she withholds information from Noah, frequently poking him with questions when she already knows the answer. 

Strange parallels emerge. Olivia’s own failed novel, Becky, was based on Rebecca, the novel by Daphne du Maurier. The billionaire suggests that du Maurier may have stolen the plot of her famous novel from his grandmother. His late wife also had a fascination with du Maurier. Likewise, both the wife and grandmother had cousins who were close friends. Clara, cousin to Asherwood's wife, works as a housekeeper when Olivia arrives and shows keen interest in the billionaire's affairs. Everyone in the Asherwood home lies, and Olivia grows stronger as she becomes more truthful with Noah. 

More than one woman associated with Asherwood dwells on the Rebecca story, and there is more than one fiction writer. The result is a novella inside The Fiction Writer. In that novella a cousin confides that she understands and envies “what it must feel like to have creativity in your soul, words in your blood, a private space all your own.” 

An intriguing idea can be told in more than one way. 

Monday, February 19

Cheating

 











The Peacock and the Sparrow by I.S. Berry is set in Bahrain in 2011-12, with the Shiite-majority population energized by the Arab Spring, restless under a Sunni-minority monarchy. “The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population,”  reports the US State Department. Bahrain's population is small, 1.4 million, or as many in San Antonio, Texas. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, is a non-NATO ally, but stability with the king and regional security take priority over human rights.  

Protagonist Shane Collins works for the Central Intelligence Agency, and like most spies, regularly lies, a habit that seeps into his personal relationships. He manipulates informants, colleagues and lovers for his own purposes, at one point smugly noting: “A spy was a spy, and at fifty-two I could still lure a fish into my net.” 

Collins poses as a diplomat, a role that should raise eyebrows among any of his contacts. His third month into Bahrain, he is unhappy: “The point where any extant novelty or exoticism has worn off. Where you sink deeper into foreign soil but it repulses and rejects you, shuns your alien roots. Where you become trapped in the amber of the transplanted elite.”  A slacker, lacking self-esteem, he fails to rise through the ranks over the years and works for a polished and younger boss with Ivy League credentials. Collins centers his life around alcohol and when he plays music for a lover, it “like I was hearing it myself for the first time, its euphony fresh, a first sip of whiskey before it descends from pleasure into routine into necessity.” 

The writing is strong, the noir tone compelling, and it’s hard to believe the book is the author's first. Still, the book has problems. 

First, Collins engages in excessive stereotyping, about gender and nationality. For example, he describes his love interest, Almaisa who is an artist: “She had none of the triviality or false femineity of American women; neither did she have the humorless affectation of European women.” He goes on: “A feminist some might call her (though one, I learned, who recoiled from the label.)” Such labeling often leads to cliches: “She was the living product of East and West, a combination that often seemed as fraught with conflict as the two hemispheres.” 

Collins prides himself on breaking down Almaisa's Muslim sensibilities, convincing her to ride in a car with him, try some wine, discard the veil and spend nights in a secluded place. She wears colorful hijabs and he gets her to admit: “mother had never worn a hijab, that it was nothing more than custom, the Quran silent on the subject, that she mostly wore the garment to blend in rather out of religious conviction. Despite Almaisa’s disdain for Western mores, her aversion to becoming like my female compatriots (whom she accused of hedonism and exhibitionism – and was she in truth so far off?), she eventually gave way.” 

He assumes that he is in full charge of the relationship: “Not so different, after all, from the delicate give-and-take dance with an informant, an unending alternation between obeisance and control.” 

The book fictionalizes details and damages of the Bahrain uprising. The plot also takes a long, strange turn as Collins travels to Southeast Asia, raising questions for this reader about why any supervisor would send or trust him. Collins meets reader expectations by transporting a packet for an informant, scheming against supervisors and arranging documents that later assure his own survival.  

Collins as spy becomes target. Belatedly reaching this conclusion, the character escapes the destruction unleashed by his actions and that of US policy, but not without betrayal on multiple fronts. In his world, everyone cheats.

Friday, February 9

Invisible

 

Two women, an actress and a film director, make a pact to keep a secret about a brutal sexual assault from years earlier in Hollywood. Val recognized one man, a studio CEO, but not the other. The arrest of the CEO more than 25 years later in Invisible Woman, a page turner by Katia Lief, triggers pain for the victims and panic for the unnamed rapist.

The secret goes undiscussed by the two women and erodes the friendship. “Val wanted to forget what had happened, so they avoided talking about it. It was like trying to dance around an open pit – nearly impossible. Eventually the calls stopped.” 

Joni, an occasional screenwriter who abandoned her directing career, is trapped in an unpleasant marriage masked by an oversized and gawdy home. She drinks to vanquish unhappy memories. Val, more content, teaches school. “They’d started off in the same place, young and hungry, but only Joni had gone on to a degree of real success and … what? Not fame – it was her husband who was famous now. Riches maybe.” Val’s memories are more vivid than Joni's, wonders how Joni could possibly be happy. 

News of the arrest prompts Joni to reflect on her past and recognize her life is a mess, “the gluey sensation of having lost track of Val and time and herself, of having become invisible.” Family photos once signaled a full life, but then Joni noticed that “somewhere along the line, the grin and bear it smile worn by the women of her mother’s generation had found its way onto her face.” She considers reaching out to Val and offering support, but is uncertain: “Of not knowing how far she should go to find her old friend – or if she should leave her alone in what she hoped (but doubted was a comfortable obscurity.”   

Joni finds Val on Facebook and the two women arrange a meeting at a restaurant near Joni’s Brooklyn home. But Val is viciously attacked beforehand, sent to the hospital in a coma. Waiting, Joni drinks herself into an angry, vulnerable stupor and is later retrieved by her controlling husband who pays the housekeeper and dog walker to keep tabs on his unstable wife. 

Continuing to drink, Joni rashly breaks free from a miserable marriage. The price is another secret, another mean memory, the loss of career, family and perhaps her self-delusion. Joni only becomes more invisible.

Wednesday, January 24

Hunt for sinners

 

Titus Crown, elected first black sheriff of the fictional Virginia county of Charon in All the Sinners Bleed by S.A. Cosby, has years of experience investigating terrible crimes. Even in the rural community, Crown tends to expect the worst from others, constantly on the hunt for motivation.

Many residents of such rural places argue that racist wrongdoings are part of the past, “washed away by the river of time that flows every forward” and “those things should be forgotten and left to the ages.” Crown knows better. “The South doesn’t change. You can try to hide the past, but it comes back in ways worse than the way it was before.” 

Racism and religion thrive side by side in the South, and Crown generally declines to argue with men of God, noting “I left that abusive relationship a long time ago.” The death of a beloved parent often prompt children to question their faith, and after his own mother died from a debilitating disease, Crown realized “adults didn’t really know more than kids. That everyone was making it up as they went along and religion was just another crutch, like liquor or weed.” 

Despite strong opinions and volatile emotions, Crown presents a stoic front. He cares for his elderly father, even as Crown cannot forget, “that the night his mother died his father had left two little boys alone to fend for themselves with just a vague notion of salvation for their mother.” To himself, Crown admits “there was still a thirteen-year-old inside of him that hated his father just a little bit.” But there is love, too. A simple action of a hand to a shoulder, “gentle words, was why he loved his father more than that little boy hated him.”                                                                                    

Crown’s conflicted past as an FBI agent and his history as an investigator, including the recent discovery of seven children tortured and murdered, reinforce his religious skepticism. For Crown, religion had thousands of years and chances to stem evil, instead falling prey to human interpretation and manipulation. As he explains to one man of God, “the devil is just the name we give to the terrible things we do to each other.” 

Overqualified for the sheriff position, Crown is meticulous, certainly not as eager as town officials to close cases quickly and protect tourism. Every clue must be collected and analyzed. “Might be nothing, might be everything. Titus thought that summed up the startlingly random nature of most police investigations.” 

The writing is strong and personal opinions are delicately inserted, never interfering with the plot. The protagonist is a keen and moral observer of human behavior and emotion: “That was often how crimes were solved.” That does not exclude analyzing and dwelling on his own motivations and connections.  

Thursday, January 18

Collateral damage











Despite or maybe because of his self-centered ways, an Irish poet attracts female fans in The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. After the wife falls ill, Phil McDaragh leaves home and two daughters who are left wondering what they did wrong. Pain, distance and a tolerance for abuse reverberate through three generations. The poet leaves the country, conceding his writing is nostalgic. He writes only about Ireland because “You can’t leave a place like that,” Phil said. “It’s always with you.” He travels to Italy, where it’s claimed he abused another poet, and to the United States, where he marries a student. 

Phil disappoints any who admire and support him. His daughter, Carmel, and his only granddaughter, Nell – conceived by a mother with no husband as a means to defeat loneliness – narrate most of the story, with Phil’s poetry scattered in between. Midway in the novel, Phil describes a childhood that includes animal cruelty, an abusive brother, rejection of a neighbor girl whom he once adored and a mentor’s disappointment with his decision to become a poet rather than join the priesthood. “I thought, at twelve years old, that I would never forget the look on the old priest’s face, that I would set my course by it. Now, I now the indelible thing was the glance I exchanged with the badger pup, as he waited for the fatal blow to fall. Nothing in my life, before or since, has matched that connection. It was a peak of understanding from which my whole existence, with its loves and false joys and tedious losses, has slowly fallen away.” Only Phil’s feelings matter, nothing else. Beautiful words cannot compensate for brutal ways.

Despite irregular correspondence with his family, the daughter and his only granddaughter ponder the man's legacy and words, often troubled by sweet words and descriptions of nature masking the lies and suffering of a restrictive community. “Phil's hands shaped the air in front of his rotting chest as he talked of the little Irish wren, and there as just a whisper of alcohol there, softening his tongue and wetting those mischievous, fond eyes. It was so easy to hate this man - the facts spoke for themselves - but it was still hard to dislike him. And it was devastatingly easy to love him. To flock around and keen when he died, because all the words died with him.”

The internet exposes bad behaviors that are far less tolerated decades later. Carmel searches online for an interview with her father broadcast in the early 1980s and discovers the hypocrisies of another era. The interviewer fawns, suggesting that Phil has a great understanding of women and Phil agrees. Laughing, Carmel decides that her father is "slightly creepy” and perhaps she was better off with him removed for so long from her life. Such observations contribute to breaking the family's cycle of adoration and self-abuse. 

Letting go of the past, Carmel welcomes her free-spirited daughter while acknowledging that “She had not been a good mother…. All the love in the world would not make her a good mother. It was always such a wrangle. She could not hold her daughter, and she could not let her go.”  The two women move on from past quarrels and contradictions, misunderstandings and painful memories to regard each other’s emotions and work a bit harder at getting along. 

Sunday, January 7

Meaning

 

Many will give up on Dayswork by Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel for its odd quality, a hodgepodge of observations and facts mostly about Herman Melville, arranged in brief, chatty sentences and paragraphs. Dayswork reads like a combination of documentary and poetry, or perhaps a couple playing six degrees of separation with Melville as base.

 A husband-wife team wrote the book; he’s a novelist and she’s a poet. The title page lists his name first, though strangely, most of the text is poetic with a first-person point of view, a woman chatting back and forth with her husband about her research on Melville during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the course of her research, she discovers other writers who revere Melville’s work, whether Nathaniel Philbrick who called Moby-Dick “the one book that deserves to be called our American bible” or a David Gilbert who suggested it was “bible written in scrimshaw.” According to Bachelder and Habel, Gilbert relies on the book “When in doubt, or simply in need of something,” and "opens the book at random and reads aloud, his voice ‘hauling forth the words like a net full of squirmy fish.’”

The book analyzes Melville’s themes – time, whales, friendships and more – in haphazard ways while embracing Melville’s sentiment that “Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational.”

The book examines the dreamy quality of a writer’s dreams and disappointments, explaining that Melville was fascinated by the sea – endless, masterless – even while spending much of his life on land, often quarreling with his family. The authors quote from the Odyssey: “For I say there is no other thing that is worse than the sea is / for breaking a man, even though he may be a very strong one.” The researcher-protagonist ponders how Melville endured a series of hardships – the death of his oldest son at age 18 and another dead at age 35 as well as a daughter who could not bear her father’s name.

One devastating sentence, albeit from another writer, captures uneven and tragic portioning of luck in life. “‘It’s brutal,’ writes poet Robert Haas, ‘the way some lives / Seem to work and some don’t.’” And the reader understands, though wondering whether Melville would agree that literary greatness is enough. 

The characters yearn for meaning in the midst of forced isolation and the style suggests that the authors set out to play a game with words and plot even as the pandemic had a way of making everything people did seem both more notable and mundane.  At one point, a character notes. “Even a quiet person says a lot in a day, almost all of which is forgotten. Not forgotten, I suppose, but unremembered.”  

We can use more care with our words, whether meant for everyday conversation or destined for posterity.