This installment: post Civil War in Tennessee (f); a personal, profound take on the state of medicine today (MP3); Lackberg’s latest (f); two couples on a vacation from hell (f); and Strout’s latest (f).
The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks
Post Civil War in small-town Tennessee, things aren’t much improved for the black folks despite their emancipated state. Mariah, a midwife, has birthed many of the town’s babies. Her only son, Theopolis, is murdered during a rally and corrupt politicians and their goons try to pull a cover- up. Tole, a hired assassin, switches allegiances, and ultimately helps Mariah arrive at the truth. It’s a bumpy, circuitous route. Tole is a mysterious fellow, Mariah is a tough cookie, and yet they form an alliance. After the death, Mariah returns to the plantation to help her floundering ex-mistress, another uneasy relationship. Vivid and atmospheric.
One Doctor by Brendan Reilly, M.D.
Subtitled Close Calls, Cold Cases, and the Mysteries of Medicine. A friend turned me on to this in MP3 form and it captivated me for hours on my commute. Reilly is an old school doctor who laments the morphing of medicine into a commodity controlled by specialists and insurance regulations that divide up the patient’s needs and ignore the most basic element of healing: who this person is and what he/she wants. This is especially crucial in end of life decisions. Familiar material but here very well framed with stories, including the challenge of dealing with his aging, failing parents. Vivid, thought-provoking, and the verdict: unless there’s a radical shift in approach, we’re pretty much screwed.
The Lost Boy by Camilla Lackberg
Natalie, spattered in blood, flees the city with her little son to hole up on a tiny island which has a creepy reputation but is her only refuge. The police in Fjallbacka, a familiar crew to Lackberg’s readers, have to piece together very mysterious happenings. We also become privy to dark doings on Ghost Island in past history where the dead still seem to have quite a presence. Why do I love these Scandinavian mysteries so much? The intermix of the characters with their foibles and challenges, and the grim psychopathology of the bad guys, a kind of delicious hot-cold reading experience.
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
I’m of two minds about this, at first finding the characters so self-involved I wondered why I was hanging out with them (as it were). But then the juxtaposition of this obscure, down at the heels Sicilian location and the complex cross-currents of the two couples’ problems ensnared me. Finn and Lizzie are old friends. She’s now married to a writer, Michael and he to a style-conscious, overprotective mother, Taylor. Their daughter, Snow, is an odd one. They’re travelling together but it’s a rocky fit. Lots of drinking, lots of complaining, invariable naughty business and a tragedy (of course). Never did warm up to any of them, but found the messy adventures ghoulishly fascinating.
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
We’re back in Lucy Barton territory, though she’s been based in New York for years. These linked stories explore her family, the farming community that shaped her, and the people she writes about. At first they seem so plain, even a little boring, but as each chapter reveals, a lot is going on underneath those seemingly qhotidian lives. Like that incredible last story in which a surprising truth telling session between a seemingly successful man and a bitter actor reveals how anything is indeed possible. I think of Strout as a stealth writer who spins rich and passionate stories out of the straw of “ordinary” existence.
Back next week.