The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich*****

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that their children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

I cannot believe it has taken me this long to read the legendary novelist, Louise Erdrich. I had my reasons—wrong ones, as it turns out—and I am grateful to Net Galley and HarperCollins for the review copy, and thus helping me pull my head out of…the place where it was. This excellent novel is for sale now.

Let me explain, first off. Many years ago, I enrolled in an alternative graduate program that emphasized respect for all cultures and races, and which required, as a graduation requirement, attendance at a full day seminar listening to a locally famous Native storyteller.  The story was delivered in a monotone, with a good deal of repetition and no effort at summarization. So, after dutifully suffering through 6 hours of it on one of the hottest days of summer, I pledged to myself that I’d never go through that again.

Twice, good friends have urged me to read Erdrich’s novels, but I was also told she was an American Indian storyteller whose heritage formed a central theme in her writing. My eyes glazed over, and I vowed to give it a miss. When The Night Watchman drew early raves, I realized that my assumptions about Erdrich might be in error, and I hustled back to Net Galley to see if I might still score a galley. It’s a lesson well learned.

The year is 1953, and the place is the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota. Patrice Paranteau has finished school, but she doesn’t want to get married. She has seen her friends do so and turn into old women overnight, shivering as they hang the wash to freeze dry in winter, and collecting snow to melt so that her children can take a bath. No thanks. Instead,

“She was the first person in the family to have a job. Not a trapping, hunting, or berry-gathering job, but a white people job. In the next town. Her mother said nothing but implied that she was grateful. Pokey had this year’s school shoes. Vera had a plaid dress, a Toni home permanent, white anklets, for her trip to Minneapolis. And Patrice was putting a bit of every paycheck away in order to follow Vera, who had maybe disappeared.”

The point of view shifts between Patrice; a local boy turned boxer, Wood Mountain; Haystack Barnes, the white math teacher and boxing coach; and Thomas, Patrice’s uncle, who is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant. Thomas is modeled after Erdrich’s grandfather, and the author’s notes at the end mention that his struggle to save the Chippewa land made writing this book an emotional experience.  

As the story opens, Patrice is preparing to track down her sister, who is rumored to have had a baby in Minneapolis, and Thomas is organizing a group of Chippewa to attend the hearings in Washington, D.C. The Feds have sent a letter to the tribe suggesting that since they were clearly successful, they would surely no longer require government aid or protection. Their land would be absorbed by the U.S. government and then sold to private buyers; its current residents would be relocated to cities where they could get work. And it’s a measure of exactly how clueless the average American was about the Chippewas’ plight that Barnes, who lived and worked among them, said, “I don’t understand why it’s so bad. It sounds like you get to be regular Americans.”

There are other points of view as well; the most memorable are the Mormon missionaries that have drawn the short straw and been sent to minister to the “Lamanites.” This religion holds that the inferiority of American Indians is revealed holy truth; only by converting can they be salvaged, and when that happens, the new converts will slowly become whiter. Our two missionaries dislike each other profoundly, which is unfortunate since they may only separate from one another to use the toilet. When the main story becomes intense and at times, very sad, in will pop the missionaries and before I know it, I am laughing out loud.  In addition, I admire the way the strong female characters are developed.

There are three primary threads to follow: what Patrice decides to do with her future; whether Vera will be found; and whether the Chippewa of Turtle Mountain will lose their land. All are handled with the mastery one might expect from an iconic author.

Don’t be the idiot that I was. Get this book and read it now.

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!