"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney

Grab your coat and come take a walk through the streets of lower Manhattan with a witty, outspoken, fun-loving and still curious octogenarian in “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” (2017). It's New Year's Eve 1984 when 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish leaves her Murray Hill apartment to take a looping walk downtown to a Chelsea party given by a young artist she has befriended.

Lillian is not just any old-timer. For many years, she was the highest paid woman in advertising in the world through her job as an ad copywriter at Macy's. The slogans and catchy poems that she published brought her into the limelight, and her super-active social life was fodder for the gossip columns. But now that she's in her ninth decade, there are only two activities that bring her joy—reviewing the choices she made in her life and walking the streets of Manhattan observing others’ lives.

These are also the things that will bring joy to the readers of Kathleen Rooney's wonderful novel. Rooney's fictional character is based on Margaret Fishback, the real Macy's advertising superstar of the 1930s. Through a friend, Rooney was privy to Fishback’s papers, journals, and out-of-print books when they were released to the public, and she realized what an electric personality she was discovering. She set out to create a fictional character, using the real advertising standout as inspiration, and using a walk on the last evening of 1985 as a way get to show us there were gutsy women in the early 20th century who were willing to break the mold.

Lillian insists on walking the long distance alone, though others attempt to convince her otherwise, through the threatening neighborhoods late into the night. Along the way, Lillian chats up strangers she comes across. She comforts a nervous, young security guard on patrol by the river. She outsmarts a trio of petty thieves who threateningly demand $5. She gives a sizable tip to a teenage clerk in a bodega who’s filling in all night for his immigrant parents.

Were the story simply about Lillian meandering through Manhattan, it would be a fun and satisfying read. But Rooney fleshes out a full character. One who proclaimed she would never be just a housewife and mother but finds a man who makes her heart sing and then loses him. One whose high-living takes an enormous toll on her mental health. One who finds deep friendships that last a lifetime or just a few minutes.

I loved this book and can guarantee that Lillian Boxfish will be with me for a long time.

"The Light of Paris" by Eleanor Brown

Though I might be yearning for a trip to Paris this summer, I have opted to take only a literary one, allowing Eleanor Brown’s newest novel, “The Light of Paris” (2016) to take me there. As a bonus, it is Paris of the Jazz Age, when the cafés of the Left Bank were buzzing with the creative energy of artists, writers, and free-thinkers, and love was in the air.

Yet Brown’s story is narrated by Madeleine, an unfulfilled Chicago housewife, during 1999, the year her world is turning upside down. She tells us at the start, “I didn’t set out to lose myself. No one does, really.” Madeleine has been functioning for years as a model wife and social bee around town but is becoming deeply aware of how wrong this existence is for her. She understands she is living the life ordained by her mother, and now, by her judgmental husband Philip, an ambitious attorney, and she can no longer abide his demanding ways and pressure to have children “because that’s what people do.”

One evening, when Phillip threatens divorce, tossing out scathing insults, Madeleine throws her things in a suitcase and drives south to her home town, ostensibly to help her mother organize a move out of the big house she grew up in. Going through boxes in the attic, she finds her grandmother Maggie’s diaries, written during her stay in Paris in the 1920s. She reads that Maggie’s “coming out” at her debutante ball is a disaster, not the beginning of the life—a man, marriage, and children—that everyone expects for her. Since Maggie isn’t swept up by a suitor, her family encourages her to chaperone a younger cousin on a trip to Paris, but there, the young woman runs off with a lively group of friends she made on the boat, leaving Maggie alone.

In alternating chapters, we watch Madeleine and Maggie have their different journeys as women. Madeleine in current times reconnects with the artistic energy she had as a girl, long buried in the life she’s been expected to lead. Ignoring the still-critical eye of her mother, she finds new friendships, joy, and purpose in the middle of life. Her grandmother Maggie experiences the gift of independence, satisfying work, and love early in life before returning home to the demands placed on her by marriage and a family.

The light of Paris that streams through this lovely story turns out to show itself as the joy that comes with finding out what you really want in your life.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has done it again. She has written still another novel that deserves all the attention a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for “Olive Kitteridge”) automatically gets. “Anything is Possible” (2017) is her stunning new book, categorized as a novel, but one that reads like a collection of short stories, peopled by folks in and around Amgash, Illinois. You have a head start if you’ve read Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” since Lucy and her family have a presence here as well. The Bartons were a poor, struggling family in Amgash before Lucy headed off to college and then to New York City where she is a writer. She is only featured in one story, but referred to periodically when someone reports about seeing her on TV or travels to attend a bookstore reading.

Strout’s gift as a writer comes not only from her seamlessly flowing narrative but also from her keen observation of people—how they speak, what they hold back, what they notice. Dottie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast, observes that one of her guests, Shelly, who bragged about the McMansion they had built, but was embarrassed about others’ criticism, “suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

The stories are filled with shocking secrets and revelations. With kindness and indifference. With change and refusal to change. One of Lucy’s friends’ mother has a long affair with their Spanish teacher. The husband of a shop owner returned from Vietnam and is never able to live with himself. A farmer loses everything when a raging fire destroys his property and becomes a school janitor who treats the neediest children with such tenderness. For the first time in years, Lucy visits her brother Pete who lives in squalor in their childhood home, and he scrubs away years of filth to make it nice for the sister he’s so proud of.

In a delightfully poignant chapter, “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her almost eighty-year-old mother who lives with her new sixty-something Italian husband, in an apartment on the Mediterranean. She cannot hide her disdain for her mother’s decision to leave her old life and her family (and proudly wear a yellow string bikini). Justifying her decision, Mary says, “Look what Paolo’s done for me, honey. He downloaded all of Elvis’s songs onto my phone.” But in the quiet midnight moments as she reconnects with the sadness she’s brought to her daughter, she asks herself, “Who leaves a marriage after fifty-one years?” But the answer comes to her, and she knows her daughter could never understand “what it had been like to be so famished. Almost fifty years of being parched.”

As a conscientious book reviewer, I jotted down every character’s name and relationship to the others, reviewing it with each following chapter to keep the connections straight. Yet appreciating this wonderful book doesn’t require that. It asks us only to consider what might be hiding below the surface in their lives, and our lives, where anything is possible.

"Love Warrior" by Glennon Doyle Melton

Like other books that win the lottery (that is, become an Oprah Winfrey Book Club pick) “Love Warrior” (2016) will be read by millions. What they will learn and discuss is one woman’s strikingly honest tale of going through a troubled youth and early adulthood before growing into self awareness.  Melton labels it “the path of a love warrior” where a woman learns to trust the wisdom of the still, small voice inside and not betray herself. No wonder Oprah jumped on board.

Melton’s recounting of her high school and college years is the strongest part of the book. While still in elementary school Melton is painfully aware of the difference between her full body and the wispy bodies of other girls. With raw honesty she describes the lure of bingeing and purging that awareness brings on and the role bulimia played in her life from age ten on.

She makes it through high school, she tells us, by finding “a representative of me who’s just tough and trendy enough to survive.” In college, still playing by the rules that she’s committed to, Melton uses every substance available so she can to stay in the center of the action. But alcohol, which becomes her daily stand-by, inevitably controls her life.

Her marriage to Craig—the tall, handsome “soccer god” every girl at college wanted—begins after an accidental pregnancy (her second) when she decides she wants to raise the child with or without him.  She turns to AA for support to quit drinking. It helps. But then it doesn’t.

She admits how unprepared she is for marriage, having grown up with the idea that the wedding day was the finish line for a woman, so from that day on a woman is whole. The boy that she and Craig have is the center of their lives, but as he grows they grow apart. Two other children, both girls, follow.

She portrays her marriage, not as filled with ups and downs, but rather as filled with apathy and distance. They are good parents but not good friends or lovers. The loneliness she feels is replaced by anger when she learns about Craig’s secret life. A separation and eventually, couples therapy with Craig bring them together again.

Yet for Melton, that is not the happy ending. Through readings and classes, she develops a new plan for her life and a new way of talking about it. The goal she now aims for is to be a strong Love Warrior. One for whom “all the darkness and pain and shame in the world cannot defeat her.” This is clearly a major breakthrough for Melton, but her writing becomes full of catch phrases and may leave some readers puzzling over its power. We are rooting for her most strongly during the first third of the book.

 

"M Train" by Patti Smith

Punk rock star and multi-talented artist Patti Smith’s National Book Award winner “Just Kids” covered the early days of her New York City life, highlighting her deep friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe before his death from AIDS. “M Train” (2015), her newest memoir, is a compilation of later writings from a variety of locales. In it, we see a different Smith. She is mellowing with age, and the essence of the brilliant, inquisitive and kind-hearted soul she is, permeates her tales.

She has lived an amazingly peripatetic life. As a young wife, she promised her husband she would give him a child if he took her to a crumbling penal colony in French Guiana, on the North Atlantic coast of South America, to gather a handful of stones, which she placed, years later, on the Spanish grave site of writer Jean Genet who’d been incarcerated in that prison. In another chapter she’s in 2005 Bremen where she’s been invited to the convention of the Continental Drift Club comprised of geologists and mathematicians. Later she’s in Tangier with a group of poets and musicians honoring the Beat Generation writers who were drawn to that city. At all times, her old Polaroid camera and extra film packs are with her, and her artful photos are sprinkled throughout the book.

Far-flung adventure is not all there is. The title hints at the fact that Lower Manhattan serves as Smith’s beloved home base, and those sections have an appealing everyday-ness in their settings. A messy apartment she shares with her cats whom she feeds with “hand-picked personality-appropriate saucers.” Her favorite corner table in the neighborhood Café ‘Ino with endless cups of black coffee, “pretending to write, or writing in earnest, with more or less the same questionable results.” A dilapidated bungalow by the boardwalk in Rockaway Beach she falls in love with and buys just before Hurricane Sandy devastates the area. The watering holes in The Village that bring back her years worshiping the Beat Poets, “couriers of wisdom,” she says, “that once ushered my generation into a cultural revolution.”

Her life was not without tragedy. She was devastated by the sudden death of her 45-year-old husband, the Detroit musician Fred (Sonic) Smith, and a month later her brother Todd succumbed to cancer. To come out of the darkness, she did the only thing she knew to do—write it out, fueled by plenty of joe. And may I suggest, if you’d like to channel Patti Smith as you read “M Train,” find a cozy corner table in a coffee shop and drink up.

"A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman

No one assigns the book I'm committed to review each month; I’m happily on my own, hoping to choose a book I can enthusiastically promote to other readers. (There’s no red- pencil-wielding English teacher in me, eager to point out failures of tone, structure, or plotting.) I took a risk this month with “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.

There was nothing about it that drew me in—a Swedish blogger’s novel about a solitary, irascible compatriot who is hell-bent on suicide—yet I was intrigued by the enormous number of readerswho adored it (thank you, Amazon). Thousands of them. So in the interest of bringing variety into my column, I went for it. Backman writes, “Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise,” and that's what happened to me with Ove.

Ove is a retired, fifty-nine-year-old widower who lives in a row house in a small development and drives a Saab. (If you don’t think the make of the car is important, you don’t know Ove.) He’s the kind of man who wakes up automatically every morning at quarter to six and starts his day. He likes screwdrivers and oil filters. He faithfully bleeds radiators. He’s a man who regularly grumbles, “Nowadays nobody can…”

Life offers nothing to Ove, and he plans to do something about it. His boss had announced one day that he no longer needed to come to work, so his days are empty. He has no children and his beloved wife Sonja has recently died. “If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.” Yet Ove is not very competent at ending his life. It’s not his fault, though, as much as it is the interruptions to his attempts by the locals.

Backman drums up a mix of characters (human and feline) that are delightful. A new next-door neighbor Parvaneh, whom Ove calls the Pregnant Foreign One, is a lively Iranian mother. She views Ove as an indispensable chauffer, handyman, verbal sparring partner, and as the need becomes clear, driving instructor. Her two little girls are singularly strong-minded about their neighbor. A young man who’s just told his homophobic father he’s gay moves in with Ove. A cat whom Ove rescues is ever-present, with a hilarious range of emotive reactions to his owner’s actions.

It seems that beneath Ove’s gruff exterior, which Backman plays with gleefully, Ove is a man who is decent, kind, and helpful. Readers can figure out early on that these people will bring life back to Ove, but that in no way spoils the surprisingly touching way Backman lets that unfold. Yes, it was tough reading the end of this heartwarming story with the tears in my eyes; I didn’t expect to, but I fell in love.

"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

Intimate. Quiet. Deep. These are the words that spring to mind to describe Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Her narrator Lucy, a writer with a husband and two young daughters at home, speaks to us from a hospital bed in New York City where she has spent many weeks one spring after an appendectomy brought on a raging infection. Aside from the drop-ins by nurses and technicians, Lucy has been alone for fear of contagion but also because of her husband’s dread of hospitals. Yet one day she awakens to find her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, at her bedside.

My focus on the setting of a hospital and the circumstances of the story is important, because as Elizabeth Strout tells interviewers, it was a critical choice for her. “A crucible” she calls it, a place to withstand the heat of the emotional fires that lie below the present-day lives of the two. Strout plants another symbol in the story, the building Lucy stares at for hours from her window. For Lucy it was “the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us that allowed us to speak in ways we never had before.”

Lucy is happy to have her mother nearby and is comforted as she talks about families they knew and the unfortunate things that happened to them—a neighbor who fell in love with one of her children’s teachers causing her husband and children to never again speak to her; Aunt Harriet whose husband went out to get cigarettes and never came back. Lucy tells her mother about her older friend Jeremy from her apartment building in New York who made her less lonely. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life and it was always there…”

Lucy revels in the care and kindness of her doctor who visits regularly while her mother is there, and he watches the two interact. When examining her as she prepares to leave the hospital, he tells her, “The scar is healing nicely,” and we readers understand. And years afterwards, the time she spent in the hospital with her mother becomes the subject of her writing.

There is no barrage of family secrets spilling out. Strout is too gifted to let that happen. Instead she gently plants things that suggest a depth to the darkness in Lucy’s impoverished childhood that she never fully reveals—a grown brother, “not slow” according to Lucy’s mother, who sleeps with pigs about to be slaughtered; a brown snake with young Lucy who’s been locked in the back of a truck.

It is the strong and delicate writing of this affecting short work that makes it stay with me long after putting it down.

"What Comes Next and How To Like It" by Abigail Thomas

Abigail Thomas’ books have called to me ever since I saw one in a bookstore and was struck by her style—short, powerful entries of a page or two, occasionally even just a sentence or two. Her highly acclaimed earlier memoir, “A Three Dog Life” (2007) covered her struggle with the tragic loss of her husband from an accident. Her newest memoir, with its intriguing title “What Comes Next and How to Like It” (2015), is an honest, no-nonsense and often witty look at her life in the years that followed, the bleak, joyful, significant, and incidental moments.

This is an enormously readable book. Who wouldn’t like a peek in the window of such a bright, accomplished woman? From Thomas’ direct and unsentimental narrative, we learn that she is messy, she binge-watches TV series (mostly horror), she naps indiscriminately, she claims not to think much about death but seems to have it on her mind constantly (she’s around seventy), and she’d much rather live with a bunch of dogs than with a man. (What if he wanted to talk about mortgage rates or cesspools, she muses. “You can’t shut people up with the offer of a dog biscuit.”)

Life happens and much of it is hard—an aging body with its problems, a daughter’s cancer, the pull of addictions to alcohol and tobacco, and the terminal illness of her best friend. That friend is Chuck and he plays a central role in her story. They met in ’79 at a New York publishing house where “It was my job to train him,” she writes, “but all I wanted to do was make him laugh.” She details a catastrophic episode that blew the friendship up years before, but it survived and became even stronger.

Throughout the book we watch Thomas find joy and peace as she paints. She doesn’t think of herself as a painter but more a writer who happens to paint with toxic oil-based house paint on large surfaces of glass. She instinctively tilts and jars the wet surfaces to see if she can make something beautiful. As the story develops, I came to understand that is also what she does with her life. Her prescription for liking what comes next, is working with what comes to you in life, not wasting energy by fighting it and allowing for the surprises and pleasures you get from what you have made of it.

Her message was not wasted on me. I’m eager to hear more from Abigail Thomas.

"The Other Language" by Francesa Marciano

“A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger,” Stephen King once wrote. I must admit I wasn’t always a believer in the titillating impact of a short story, but I’m coming around, especially after reading this wonderful collection by Francesca Marciano. “The Other Language” (2014) covers a lot of territory—from an island in Greece to the streets of Paris, around the world to India before coming back to Scotland. Marciano is a native Italian but is truly a citizen of the world, having lived for periods in European capitals, here in New York and New Mexico and in Kenya. She’s naturally nomadic, she tells interviewers. “I like to live out of my comfort zone.”

Marciano gives us richly drawn settings in which to watch her complex characters experience the challenges life has thrown at them. Besides her three earlier novels, she has also done screenwriting and that experience shows in her captivating scenes and easy dialogue. The settings are varied but the stories all involve relationships between men and women, with the focus on a woman. She is not interested in your garden-variety couples but rather she likes to explore interactions between fathers and daughters in the title story or couples who meet coincidently over a lifetime in “Quantum Theory” or a famous rock star and the girl he left behind in “Roman Romance”.

In “Big Island, Small Island” an Italian woman, Stella, visits an old friend she hasn’t seen for fifteen years who’s living on a tiny island off sub-Saharan Africa. With a new religious identity and a child bride, his life is far different than what she had expected from her fun-loving pal.

In “The Presence of Men,” Lara’s renovation of an ancient house in a small village in southern Italy angers the neighbors, but her brother’s appearance with his client, a well-known actor, changes the dynamics of her relationship with the townspeople.

A serious car accident opens “Quantum Theory” and readers cannot be sure how the driver and passenger know one another. Sonia’s car has tumbled down a ravine and rolled over. She and her handsome passenger, a love interest we suspect, escape and walk barefoot through the bush to a hospital hand in hand.

“The Other Language” offers up something refreshing for those who generally stick to novels.  These stories are longer than one might expect, richer and more captivating, making it a surprisingly satisfying reading experience.

"Did You Ever Have a Family" by Bill Clegg

As I headed toward the stacks at the library, “Did You Ever Have a Family” leapt off the New Books shelf right into my hand. Well, not exactly, but as soon as I saw it, I just had to take it home. I had heard the hypnotic title of Bill Clegg’s novel when they announced the longlist for the 2015 Man Booker prize and knew that the book centered on a woman who must deal with the loss of her entire family in a freak accident. I was drawn to it—a potential international award winner exploring one of life’s most unimaginable challenges.

It’s Clegg’s first novel—he’s a big-time New York agent who has written two memoirs—and even with its dispiriting premise, it is a richly written and life-affirming story. The book concerns June Reid, an attractive 50ish woman in Connecticut whose life turned upside down on the eve of her daughter’s wedding to be held at June’s sprawling home, when a horrific explosion kills her daughter Lolly, the girl’s fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke, while she is outside. Numbed with grief, June gets in her car and heads west, ending up in a small town along the Washington coast that resonates with her.

Clegg creates an unusual energy in his story, using a number of people touched by this tragedy, to recount stories that paint pictures for us about June, her family members and, ultimately, the accident. There is Silas, a pot-smoking teen who lives in the town and may know something about how this happened. Rebecca and Kelly, the lesbian couple who own the motel on the Washington coast to which June has escaped. Lydia, the mother of Luke and June’s closest friend, who must endure overheard conversations in town, even those accusing her son of causing it. George, the father that Luke had never known. Cissy, the bi-racial woman who cleans June’s motel room, leaving her a cup of soup each day that is often the grieving woman’s only food.

This chorus of voices is compelling (once you keep track of the names), and I couldn’t put it down. It was hard to imagine how a short novel that covers only a few months after such a tragedy can end is a satisfying way, but I found the ending simply stunning. Clegg shows us that he knew exactly how all the pieces would come together. The story, after all, was not as much about losing a family but more about finding a family as we move along the roads we travel.

"Us" by David Nicholls

I knew I was falling in love from the very first page of David Nicholls’ fourth novel, “Us”. This gifted screenwriter/novelist promises and delivers on a novel full of hilarity, warmth and poignancy. Yet beneath the humor lies a sharp portrayal of the challenges of marriage and parenthood. His prowess in mingling the two was not missed by the Man Booker Prize judges who put “Us” on their 2014 long list.

The stakes are high for our narrator Douglas as the story opens. His wife Connie announces that their twenty-year marriage “has run its course”, and she thinks she wants to leave him. The idea is unthinkable to Douglas, a research scientist and a bit of a fuddy-duddy. He can’t imagine life without his Connie, a free spirit who had been leading a bohemian artist’s life in London before they married and moved to the suburbs. He tells us, “I have loved my wife to a degree that I found impossible to express, and so rarely did”. Douglas begs Connie to go through with their summer plans for a Grand Tour of Europe with their only child, Albie, before the boy leaves for university in fall. Lucky for us, she agrees.

The challenges are great for Douglas to plan a trip so special that Connie changes her mind. His experience on the Continent was almost non-existent. He grew up with a father disdainful of “anything suggesting ‘abroad’—olive oil, the metric system, eating outdoors, yoghurt…” Whereas for years Connie has been rhapsodizing about youthful experiences, “sleeping on the beach in Crete”, attending a “wild party at an abandoned factory in Prague” and hooking up with a Citroen mechanic in Lyon “whose hair smelled like engine oil”.

The finicky scientist has made the arrangements with the hope of a vacation full of the art and street life that Connie loves and enrichment for their son. This creates one comical situation after another. Douglas views their stay in Amsterdam as a chance to show off his trip-planning talent. The boutique hotel he signed them up for resembles a “top-of-the-range bordello” He and Connie are assigned to the honeymoon suite, “Venus in Furs”, with an enormous four-poster bed and black sheets, while Albie is next door in “Delta of Venus”.

Douglas says “married life is not a plateau…there are ravines and great jagged peaks and hidden crevasses that send the both of you scrabbling into darkness”. Throughout the story of the family’s summer Nicholls seamlessly weaves the backstory in bits and pieces as Douglas remembers them—their meeting, their courtship and the twenty years of marriage.

David Nicolls has offered up a trip you will definitely want to take.