Eugenides offers 10 short stories. Each tale is unique, riveting, well-researched and loaded with details. Each one stars a compelling protagonist on a mission. The variety of settings and characters in these 10 stories amazed me: A senior community resident who wants to “break out” and go back to her former home; a traveler with chronic diarrhea living in a hut on a tropical island; a woman trying to get pregnant with a turkey baster; a clavichord player and his wife who are overwhelmed by debt; a sexologist living in a jungle; Sean, on his way to open up his country cottage in Ireland; and Matthew, a married man accused of rape by a Prakrti, a 16-year-old Indian girl who doesn’t like the potential husband her parents have chosen for her. Wonderful. I’d give this four stars out of four.
Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan
Henry and Emily are in their 70s, still married. They have two grown children, Margaret (a recovering alcoholic) and Kenny, and four grandchildren. Nothing happens in this book. Nothing. The plot is flat – as were several other books by Stewart O’Nan I’ve read. Nevertheless, I liked them all. I loved this one. O’Nan writes about ordinary, everyday experiences. Henry seems to be focused on his impending death, even though he is in fine health. He attends a funeral for his doctor; gets the family cottage ready for the summer; walks his dog Rufus; pays bills; “fixes things” at his workbench; does the dishes after dinner; worries about his children’s happiness; and deals with major and minor family crises. He loves Emily and can’t imagine life without her, but he’s a pushover, easily talked into doing whatever she wants him to do. I loved this easygoing chronicle of an older man’s family life. Another four stars.
The Pioneers by David McCullough
This was not as interesting as The Wright Brothers, which I loved. McCullough focuses solely on pioneers who settled the Northwest Territory along the Ohio River. He doesn’t talk about the California Gold Rush or the Oregon Trail or any pioneers in the south or the far west. It’s informative, but rather dry. I learned a lot about some unknown and unsung pioneers, namely the Cutler family, the Putnam family and the Hildreth family of physicians. It’s nicely written, but . . . well . . . boring, at times. After all, he had to stick to the facts. Maybe the pioneers themselves were boring. Three stars.
The Long Way Home by Louise Penny
(With apologies to my friends who adore Penny’s books)
OMG I hated this book. I hated Still Life, the first book of hers that I tried but I decided to give her another chance – mostly because of rave reviews from other people I know. Alas, she leaves me outraged and unbelieving. So much speculation, so much dithering, drama and guesswork by characters who are trying to solve a mystery simply by wild-guessing people’s motives from the flimsiest of clues. Chief Inspector Gamache (the protagonist in most of Penny’s novels) is now retired, but can be enticed to inspect one more time. Clara (another reoccurring character) is worried about her husband Peter, who left their home for some reason and said he’d be back exactly one year later. (Such drama!) He didn’t arrive (ah ha!) and Clara is worried about him (duh.) So Gamache and Clara and two other friends, Myrna and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, travel all over creation looking for Peter. They fly in rickety planes, take wild boat trips in stormy weather, and drive all over the Canadian Northeast. (The descriptions of Canadian scenery are a nice diversion for outraged readers.) They end up in a remote village where some crazy former student artist is trying to kill his professor and the professor is trying to kill the art student. What drivel. One of the most egregious plot twists pops up about 20 pages from the end, when this pseudo-sleuthing foursome is trying to figure out how asbestos could kill a person and they JUST HAPPEN to meet a science teacher on a boat who tells them what they need to know to solve the case. Not even one star.