Northern Lights, by Raymond Strom***

I was invited to read and review this title by Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s the story of Shane, an orphaned teen whose uncle kicks him goodbye [with my apologies to Shrek] directly following high school graduation. Shane sets off for the small town in Minnesota whence came his only letter from his mother, who abandoned the family a long time ago. Since he finds himself suddenly homeless, he figures he doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe she’s still there.

His new home, however, is little more than a wide space in the road, and its residents haven’t received the memo about gender crossed individuals. His long hair and androgynous appearance are the trigger for some nasty behaviors on the part of the locals, and when you’re homeless, this is exponentially scarier because you don’t have a safe place into which you can rush and close the door.

On the one hand, the theme here is a timely one, combining the present-day increased problem of homelessness with other issues of the day. We see teen kids instantly unhomed by the government once they reach majority age; bullying and hate crimes against those with nontraditional sexual identification and orientation; and then, as the novel proceeds, substance abuse as a means of escape and a signal of dark, dark despair.

The despair. The despair the despairthedespairthedespair.  The challenge in reading this is that we begin in a bleak place, we stay in a bleak place for the most part, and then we end in a bleak place. The whole thing is punctuated not only with alienation, of which there is understandably plenty, but also that flat line ennui that accompanies depression, and who in her right mind would read this thing cover to cover?  Hopefully it’s someone with rock solid mental health whose moods are not terribly variable. As for me, I read the first half, and then I perused the remainder in a skipping-and-scooting way I reserve for very few galleys. It was that or commence building myself a noose, and self preservation won the day.

If the key issues in this novel are a particular passion of yours, you may feel vindicated when you read it.  I recommend reading it free or cheaply if you will read it all, and keep a second, more uplifting novel ready to do duty as a mood elevator when you sense your own frame of mind descending hell’s elevator.

Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance*****

PilgrimsOh my stars. Keillor is at his finest here. I’ve never read anything funnier. Every now and then I permit myself to read a title that isn’t a new release but that I’ve been considering reading for a long time. This is one of those.

By now you probably have an idea whether or not you are a Keillor buff. His appeal is largely (but not limited to) the boomer generation. His trademark capacity to satirize people from rural Minnesota, and in particular Lutherans and Norwegians and most of all himself, is legend. He somehow manages to tug the heartstrings occasionally and evoke bittersweet feelings that are experienced by those of us who grew up in the USA during a particular time period, even if we are not from his part of the nation or his culture.

Keillor seemed to me to be sort of a hit-or-miss writer for awhile, but lately, he’s been hitting, at least for me. Liberty, Pontoon, and this one, which parodies Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, carries on without slowing or hitching or ceasing to be interesting and at many times (especially the end) a total crack-up.

If you have never read Chaucer and don’t intend to, that won’t wreck it. The basic contours: Chaucer wrote about people going far away, in a limited group, and Keillor uses the same style of poetry Chaucer used to mark the beginning and end of this book. If there are other parallels, then I am not deep enough to find them, but if I found this to be a good bedside read with only that much recollection, then it will likely suffice for you too.

Here are the story’s components. (I actually flagged fifteen hilarious passages, and then realized that if I quoted them here, it would ruin it to you, so I’ll just give you the basics and set you free.) Margie is 53 and very unhappy. Life has sort of ground to a dull halt; the nest is empty, and husband Carl has moved to a different bedroom. She doesn’t know why. She hopes that if they take a romantic trip to Italy, it will rekindle the flame.

Writer Gary Keillor comes to town. No one includes him in anything. They all assume he is being standoffish by not coming, and he is hurt that no one invites him; very Scandinavian. Before he knows it, he has livened up the speech he is giving (and which is obviously boring his audience senseless) by offering to fund the trip to Italy. Holy smokes! What has he done?

On top of all of it, the town hero, Gussie, their fallen Norwegian soldier who fought in World War II, should have his grave decorated. His daughter Margo, born in Italy outside the sanctity of wedlock, has never gotten around to coming to the USA to meet him, and his remaining brother, very elderly and in a nursing home in another part of the USA, has long wanted someone to convey a photo of Gussie to his grave site. A simple request, and nobody would do it. Now, Margie calls to tell him she’ll be happy to help, and joy of joys, he sends her a big pile of money, and on his deathbed, he refers to her as his “daughter, Margie.” She is entirely untroubled about taking his money as the little band from Lake Wobegon sets out on its vacation and its mission to decorate Gussie’s grave.

This should give you enough information to decide if you want to see the rest. I will only tell you this: the story has some surprises in store at the end; it is not as predictable as it appears to be at the 75% mark.

I found my copy during an annual pilgrimage of my own, to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. It has been available to the public for some time.

Hilarious, and highly recommended!