“George & Lizzie” by Nancy Pearl and “Mrs. Saint and the Defectives” by Julie Lawson Timmer

George & Lizzie by Nancy PearlWhen I heard that the woman known as “America’s Librarian” had written a novel, I’ll admit I may have had a few preconceived notions. Nancy Pearl is famous for providing recommendations on NPR and as the model for the first-ever Librarian Action Figure. I assumed the 72-year-old Pearl’s fiction debut would be something genteel along the lines of a Seattle-based Anne Tyler. I would not have guessed it begins with a teenage girl resolving to have sex with every starter on her high school’s entire football team, and then following through. As a longtime listener to Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, it takes a lot to shock me, but… yeah, that’s not quite what I was expecting.

Lizzie Bultmann is the only child of two professors of psychology who view her as little more than a living case study. (When she discusses the sleep-with-the-team plan with her best friend, Lizzie states that rather than grounding her for life if they found out, her parents would “want to watch. Maybe they’d bring along a grad student or two to take notes.”) “She wanted them to be curious about her, to want to know what went on below her polished surface… Maybe if they did find out… it would wake them up enough to finally see her.”

As it turns out, Lizzie’s “Great Game” doesn’t much affect her relationship with her parents, but it does have a hugely negative effect on her psyche. In college, she falls madly in love with a fellow student named Jack, who finds out about her high school exploits through an article her parents wrote for Psychology Today. When he leaves town and she never hears from him again, Lizzie is obsessed with finding him, even after she marries a perfectly wonderful dentist named George. Every time she’s in a new town, she can’t help checking the phone books to see if Jack’s listed. (This habit makes a certain degree of sense in the early chapters of the book, set in the late 80s and early 90s, but for goodness’ sake, the Internet made it almost ridiculously easy to find people by the end of the century; Google was around in the late 90s, and Facebook by the mid-2000s.)

I can sympathize with the pessimistic, book-obsessed Lizzie—temperamentally, I’m quite a bit like her, while my own husband is more of a George—but by the end, which seemed awfully abrupt, I was somehow left wanting more. However, the book, with its many short chapters, is a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the way that Pearl namedrops a lot of authors, poets and book titles throughout.


Mrs. Saint and the DefectivesFor some reason, I kept wanting to read the title of this book as Mrs. Saint and the Deplorables, but no, this is not a novel about a group of Trump supporters. Mrs. Saint is the next-door neighbor of Markie, a beleaguered mom trying to make a new start in a new town after splitting from her unfaithful husband (who, it turns out, had also driven the family deep into debt). Markie pulls her teenage son out of his fancy private school and moves into a modest rental home, hoping to keep her head down and recover from her emotional wounds. She definitely does not want to get to know her nosy neighbor, an elderly French-Canadian woman who serves as something of a den mother to a group of misfits whom she’s hired to do various odd jobs around her house.

While Markie constantly tries to tell Mrs. Saint that she wants to be left alone, the neighbor always seems to be popping up, offering a basket of muffins (burnt, since they were baked by her inept cook), or asking Markie if she can babysit the young daughter of another one of her “defectives.” Eventually, Markie grows curious about Mrs. Saint, who seems to be all up in everyone else’s business but is a rather mysterious figure herself. She’s apparently rich, and yet she lives in a smallish house, surrounded by people who seem to both help her out and also depend on her. If asked a personal question, she just pretends she didn’t hear it.

Naturally, by the end of the book, all will be revealed, lessons are learned, etc. This is a charming, life-affirming novel in the mold of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which also featured a curmudgeon whose life is changed by his neighbors (though in this case, the younger woman is the cranky loner).

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“Munch” by Steffen Kverneland

Munch by Steffen KvernelandSFMOMA is currently displaying a major exhibit on the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). The exhibition does not include his most famous painting, The Scream, which is one of those rare works (along with American Gothic, the Mona Lisa, and a handful of others) that has become a pop culture icon. I would imagine that the guards at SFMOMA are tired of people asking them where The Scream is. It doesn’t travel; you have to go to Oslo to see it.

As a Swede, I was of course familiar with other works from Munch’s oeuvre; Stockholm’s Thielska Galleriet has a large collection, including the painting Despair, which is on loan to SFMOMA for its exhibit and is a close cousin to The Scream. What kind of life experience would lead an artist to paint works like The Scream, Despair and numerous depictions of sick and dying people? I thought it might be interesting to read a biography of Munch, and then I saw that Norwegian cartoonist Steffen Kverneland had written a graphic novel about him. Coming in at almost 300 pages, this is a pretty hefty volume and really gives you a lot of information about his life, work and background.

Panel from MunchThe book takes a non-linear approach, beginning with his 1892 sojourn to Berlin, where he created quite an uproar. His works “were perceived as a direct insult to art, an anarchistic provocation… Munch was viewed as a living example of what would happen to a German painter if he allowed himself to be influenced by the hedonistic French impressionism.” Munch relished the controversy, and quickly became a much talked-about figure. He met Swedish playwright and artist August Strindberg, who becomes a major character in Munch’s life, as well as in this book. I really love the way Kverneland draws Strindberg, all harsh angles and dark shadows. The two Scandinavians developed a friendship, “even though Strindberg was also difficult, obstinate and distrustful… Munch told a friend that Strindberg ‘had the habit of suddenly tripping me, so that I lay flat on my back in the street.'”

We don’t get into Munch’s early life until the midpoint of the book, where we learn his mother died when Edvard was only 5. His father, a physician, became “a disheartened religious zealot” after his wife’s death. “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” wrote Munch. “A mother who died early—gave me the seed of consumption—a distraught father—piously religious, verging on madness—gave me the seeds of insanity.” To make matters worse, Munch’s sister Sophie, older than Edvard by only a year, died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. Her death became a recurring motif in Munch’s art, including the Sick Child paintings displayed at SFMOMA. By this point, it should be pretty clear why much of his work is so disturbing.

The creation of The Scream is the novel’s climax; Kverneland depicts himself along with his pal Lars as they go in search of the exact location that served as the vantage point for the painting. Then there’s a fun little interlude about the theft of the painting from the Munch Museum in 2004, with the burglars drawn as the Beagle Boys from the Donald Duck comic books.

Panel from MunchPeriodic detours like that ensure that Munch is far from a typical biography, but by the end, I felt I had learned a ton about the artist and I thoroughly enjoyed Kverneland’s stunning artwork. This is an excellent companion piece to the SFMOMA show, and like that exhibition, proves that Edvard Munch deserves to be celebrated for his whole body of work and not just his most famous painting.

“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

the seven husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid“Who was the love of Evelyn’s life???” That’s the big question… Seven husbands. Which one did she love the best?

Monique Grant is a young journalist who manages to snag the story of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred interview with Evelyn Hugo, bombshell actress of the 50s and 60s who captivated millions with her beauty, talent (she’s an Oscar winner) and dramatic personal life. Now 79, Hugo has outlived all seven of her husbands and wants to tell the truth about what really happened behind the scenes.

Besides “who was her great love,” there’s one huge underlying mystery that is teased from the very beginning of this novel: why Monique? Out of all the journalists in the world, why insist on working with a relative newbie who has worked at Vivant (a Vanity Fair-type glossy magazine) for less than a year? By the end of this spectacularly juicy book, everything has been revealed.

When you think of gorgeous, multi-married Hollywood stars, of course Elizabeth Taylor is the first name that springs to mind, and Hugo may bear some resemblance to Liz, but only superficially. Reid has done a great job of constructing an alternate history of Hollywood, taking us from the old studio system to the French new wave, up through the sorts of family dramas that won Oscars in the 1980s.

The novel is divided into sections named after each of Hugo’s husbands; her first-person recollections are interspersed with chapters about Monique, who is herself in the process of splitting up from her spouse. Of course, compared to the goings-on in Hollywood, Monique’s own story is fairly tame, but the “what is her connection to Evelyn” question really helps power the narrative. (Lest you think it’s anything as prosaic as Evelyn being her long-lost mom, Reid sneaks in some dialogue between Monique and her mother early on that makes it clear that is not the case.)

Considering that we’re still in an era where women directors are vanishingly rare and actresses routinely make far less money than their male counterparts, I loved reading about a powerful, flawed-but-fascinating woman who controlled her own destiny every step of the way, even if that meant using each of those seven husbands to get something she wanted. “Do yourself a favor and learn how to grab life by the balls, dear,” Evelyn instructs Monique. “Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.”

“Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightOver the past few years, I have had the misfortune of dealing with a couple of people who I’m pretty certain have narcissistic personality disorder, the subject of Wendy Walker’s new thriller Emma in the Night. These are truly toxic individuals who can ruin the lives of those close to them. For those of us further out in their orbits, the best thing to do is just disengage.

In the novel, Cassandra Tanner is the victim of her mother’s noxious parenting style, which frequently pitted her against her older sister Emma. After her parents’ divorce, 11-year-old Cass made the mistake of asking to live with her father, which sealed her fate: “Don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin!” her mom raged. And so Cass “became the outsider… all [she] could do was watch from a distance.”

A few years later, both Emma and Cass disappeared. Until one day, Cass returned alone, recounting how she and Emma had been living on an isolated Maine island with a couple who essentially kept them prisoner. Then Cass drops the bombshell that Emma had been pregnant when they left home, and that she had given birth on the island. The childless couple began to raise the infant as their own, despite Emma’s protestations. Finally, after months of planning and scheming, Cass was able to escape, but unfortunately, she has no idea where the island was located or how to find it. The couple were using fake names. How can she figure out how to get back and save her sister and the child?

First-person chapters narrated by Cass alternate with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Abigail Winter, an FBI agent working on Cass’ case. As it turns out, Abby also grew up with a narcissistic mother, so she identifies deeply with the girl. There are strong hints, however, that Cass is that old thriller standby: the unreliable narrator. Abby needs to figure out which of her tales are true, and which are pure fiction, in order to solve the case and find Emma.

This book should appeal to the many thriller readers out there who love twists, but I found it somewhat hampered by pedestrian prose; Abby’s mind “was spinning… round and round like a dog chasing his tail,” or Cass “just raised the stakes in a game [her mother] didn’t even know she was playing.” Or, “Evil can dress up as love so convincingly that it blinds you to the truth.” That’s not bad writing, just not terribly fresh or insightful. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because a lot of readers (me included) will turn back to the beginning and reread portions of the book once all has been revealed, to see if Walker played fair. I believe she did; the clues are all there, if you look closely enough.

“Mrs. Fletcher” by Tom Perrotta

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom PerrottaThe cover of Mrs. Fletcher depicts a woman alone in bed holding a smartphone, her face illuminated by the screen’s glare. If a copy of this book somehow managed to make its way back to the mid-2000s, the pre-iPhone era, it would seem almost inscrutable; it takes place in a world where people’s lives are ruled by their smartphones, the devices serving as a source of entertainment as well as vehicles for miscommunication and misunderstandings. The only way Mrs. Fletcher could be more up-to-the-minute would be if Tom Perrotta had somehow worked in a reference to Donald Trump’s Tweets. (The novel, presumably written pre-November 2016, takes place in a blessedly Trump-free universe.)

Ambitiously, Perrotta is trying to capture The Way We Live Now, from college students up to retirees. Stuck in the middle is Eve Fletcher, a divorced empty nester whose son Brandon is struggling to adapt to college life. Eve works as the executive director of a senior center, “a place where low-income seniors could come to eat a federally subsidized meal and then get their blood pressure checked by a nurse and their problem toenails trimmed by a kindhearted podiatrist.” She enjoys her job and is proud of the work she does, but at the same time, she feels bored and lonely and in desperate need of a change.

The book features rapidly shifting points of view, switching from third-person sections focusing on Eve and her colleagues and friends to first-person chapters narrated by Brandon. He is kind of a stereotypical teenage lunkhead, far more interested in partying and hooking up than he is in actually learning things or planning for his future. His roommate Zack’s arc is actually more compelling than his own, even though Zack is only a tertiary character in the novel.

As for Eve Fletcher herself, she finds herself in a strange situation—addicted to Internet porn—after an anonymous text pops up on her phone: “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!” Despite being indifferent to porn in the past, she now finds herself checking out MILF porn on Milfateria.com on a regular basis: “She disapproved of the site—she would have been horrified if she’d ever found anything like it on her son’s computer—and sincerely wished it didn’t exist. But she couldn’t stop looking at it.” (In the real world, Milfateria.com only exists as a parked domain at GoDaddy; it appears to have been registered by Steven Brykman, who has interviewed Perrotta in the past, so I’m guessing he’s a friend or acquaintance of the writer. I kind of wish they had done something fun with the domain, even if they’d only posted an image of Stifler’s Mom.)

Eve also goes back to college to take a gender-studies class, which leads her to make some new friends, though things ultimately go a little sideways, as Perrotta fans might expect. Like most of his novels, Mrs. Fletcher is an easy, breezy read, if perhaps a bit overstuffed with characters (the fact that two of the primary females in the book are named Amanda and Amber caused me a few moments of confusion). Now that the HBO series based on his 2011 novel The Leftovers has come to an end, I’m glad Perrotta has returned to chronicling the highs and lows of middle-class, middle-aged American life.

“Never Let You Go” by Chevy Stevens and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne

Never Let You Go by Chevy StevensIf you’re an avid reader, it’s important to have someone whose opinions you really trust who can always be counted on to give you great recommendations. Even though I live far away from her store, Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, MI, I know I can always rely on owner Robin Agnew’s suggestions. We have remarkably similar tastes! Several of the books and authors I’ve reviewed on this site are ones I discovered via Robin.

Recently, she sent me a copy of Chevy Stevens’ Never Let You Go. I was a little skeptical at first, because from the description, it seemed like a standard “abusive ex-husband gets out of jail and seeks revenge” type of thriller. However, this is a 400-page book that earns its length through a lot of twists and turns. I felt pretty certain I knew where it was going—but I was dead wrong.

The book is told from the points of view of Lindsey Nash, the ex-wife of the alcoholic and abusive Andrew, and their daughter Sophie, now 17 years old. Sophie was just 6 when Lindsey managed to grab her and escape Andrew’s clutches. Infuriated, Andrew got behind the wheel when he was too impaired to drive, and wound up getting into an accident that killed another driver. After serving his sentence, Andrew desperately wants to reconnect with Sophie, and she’s intensely curious about the father she barely remembers. He claims he’s changed, but has he really? Some frightening incidents have Lindsey convinced that Andrew is simply using Sophie to get to her.

I picked up Never Let You Go at around 10 PM figuring I’d read a few chapters before turning in early (at this point, I was about halfway through the book). The next thing I knew, it was 12:30 AM and I was finishing the last page. Even if I didn’t find the characters’ actions plausible 100% of the time, there’s no denying that this is a very compelling read, perfect for that long summer airplane ride or weekend getaway.

The Marsh King's DaughterAnother one of Robin’s picks was Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter. Aunt Agatha’s had hosted an event with the Michigan-based author, and Robin named her book one of the best of the year, so when I saw that Karen was going to be stopping in San Francisco, I trekked out to Bookshop West Portal for her signing. I found her to be such a warm and likable person that I hoped the book would live up to Robin’s praise—and whew, it did!

Dionne and her husband bought 10 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid-1970s, and stayed for 30 years. So it’s no wonder that she nails the sense of place in this UP-set novel. The Marsh King of the title is Jacob, who kidnapped a young teenager and held her captive in a remote cabin in the wilderness. Their only child, Helena, grew up in these strange circumstances, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a stack of National Geographic magazines in their cabin. Helena both feared and idolized her father; he taught her how to hunt and track, but he was also capable of astonishing acts of cruelty.

We learn early on that the adult Helena now lives a relatively “normal” life, married with two daughters. She’s still in the UP, but her mother is dead and her father is in jail. Her old life is so far behind her that even her husband doesn’t know about her past. Then one day, the Marsh King escapes from prison, killing two guards and vanishing into the wilderness. Only one person has the skills to find him—the daughter who knows him better than anyone, because he taught her everything he knew. Helena sends her girls away and goes after her dad.

Chapters sent in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to Helena’s past. Dionne writes with authority about life in this rough, rural country; for instance, have you ever wondered what it’s like to shoot a bear? “A wounded bear doesn’t bleed out the way a deer does… Bear bleed between their layer of fat and fur, and if the caliber is too small, the bear’s fat can plug the hole while their fur soaks up the blood like a sponge, so the bear won’t even leave a blood trail. An injured bear will run till it’s too weak to keep going, which can be as far as fifteen or twenty miles.” (If your survival depends on killing animals, you’re not going to be too sentimental about them, though Helena does eventually adopt a stray dog that finds its way to the cabin.)

Unlike Never Let You Go, I took my time with The Marsh King’s Daughter, reading it over the course of a week. It’s a tough, sometimes scary book, but one that truly transports the reader to its harsh yet beautiful world.

“Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneA few years ago, an aspiring mystery author friend of mine was told by an agent that her book was fine, she just needed to move the murder way up so that it happened much earlier in the book. That advice is almost always echoed in articles aimed at wannabe crime authors, like this one by Elizabeth Spann Craig: “Usually the murder needs to occur fairly soon in a book. I know my editors like it that way… If we have a lot of chapters before the body’s discovery, they probably just function as set-up or backstory… which is never popular with editors.”

Now, rules are made to be broken, but I have to wonder if a writer less prominent than Dennis Lehane had turned in Since We Fell that his editor would have gone at it with a machete. A murder is teased in the first sentence of the book, but then the next 200 pages or so are all character development: the story of a young journalist named Rachel who was raised by a single mom who refused to tell her anything about her father. After her mother is killed in an accident, Rachel tries to discover her dad’s identity. She kinda-sorta solves the mystery. Then she travels to Haiti on assignment for the TV station she works for, where she has an on-air meltdown which basically destroys her career, as well as her marriage to an idealistic striver.

Then, about a third of the way through the book, she reconnects by chance with Brian, a private eye who had tried to help find her dad. She happens to run into him in a bar after six months of self-imposed isolation, as she’s heading home from her divorce hearing. They hit it off, and he helps her recover from her agoraphobia and panic attacks. Then, at just about the halfway point, the plot suddenly goes bananas and turns into a high-octane thriller. Apparently, Lehane sold the book to Hollywood a couple years before publication; my guess is that when it becomes a film, the first 50% will be dispensed with in 15 minutes. Heck, maybe even before the opening credits roll.

I don’t want to get into any details of what happens in part two because I usually consider anything that far into the book spoiler territory, but there was just something so disjointed about the way the two halves are fused together. Why include so much about the mysterious missing dad when that storyline had almost zero relevance to the plot that followed? Couldn’t Rachel and Brian have met some other way? (We find out fairly early on that his career as a private eye was short-lived, so his onetime occupation isn’t relevant, either.) Even for a thriller, the second half of Since We Fell requires too much suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, maybe this will turn into that rare book that works better as a film than on the printed page.