Sherman Alexie’s mother, Lillian, died in 2015 at the age of 78. His relationship with her was always complicated, as was his grief over her death. This memoir, composed through 78 essays and 78 poems, teases out those complexities.
Alexie and his three siblings were raised by two alcoholic parents; they would throw crazy parties at their home where the very presence of some of their guests was potentially dangerous, and his mother in particular could get violent when drunk. Alexie recounts some alcohol-fueled scenes from their childhood that literally endangered their safety. After one particularly terrifying episode, his mother vowed that she would never drink again, and she kept that promise, a decision Alexie credits with being the reason he is still alive.
Be that as it may, Lillian was still far from perfect. She was a liar and an abusive woman; she and her son went through various levels of estrangement through the years. She was a terrible mother at times, and as an adult, he refers to himself as a terrible son. But he loved her nonetheless, and these emotional dichotomies are what make the book.
Set mostly in the late nineteenth century, Eowyn Ivey’s latest novel is set in motion when Colonel Allen Forrester receives a commission to go deep into the Alaskan wilderness to find a way north through the Wolverine River. It is a dangerous task that has never been done before, but if he and his tiny crew of men can figure out how to do it, the United States will have access to Alaska’s gold and natural resources.
The group decides to try walking down the river when it’s frozen over, so timing is key. Before they even reach the river, they’ll have to deal with the harsh elements of nature as well as indigenous populations that may or may not be receptive to them. The entire journey could take a year, and Allen is not happy about the prospect of leaving Sophie, his young and newly pregnant wife, for so long. And Sophie, who had originally planned to come along with Allen and see him off at his Alaskan starting point, is disappointed over seeing her one chance for adventure dashed by the pregnancy; instead, she’ll have to embrace domestic life in the Army barracks while she awaits Allen’s return, so she takes up the unladylike hobby of nature photography to distract herself from her other worries.
Set in 1829 and based on a true story, Burial Rites follows the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman who was executed in Iceland. Having been convicted of murdering her former master, Natan, Agnes is sent to an isolated farm to await her execution. The family who owns the farm is horrified by this turn of events. Jón Jónsson, the farmer, is resigned to the family’s role, but his wife, Margret, is furious at being forced to risk their daughters’ safety by housing such a woman. As Agnes awaits her execution, she has selected a young priest named Tóti to be her spiritual adviser; no one knows why she has selected such an inexperienced person for the task, especially since she has no previous ties to him.
Margret puts Agnes to work around the farm, keeping a strict and watchful eye on her every move. Agnes willingly and ably follows orders, stopping only when Tóti comes by for their sessions together. Haltingly, Agnes’s life story begins to take shape, and the truth behind her involvement in Natan’s death begins to emerge.
Fidelma McBride, a beautiful forty-year-old woman, lives in a small Irish village. Having experienced two miscarriages, she now feels trapped in a stale marriage to her faithful, much older husband. Enter Vlad, a mysterious older gentleman with a commanding presence. His recent move into their sleepy village has brought up a flurry of gossip. Vlad is Eastern European, handsome, educated, and well-traveled. He’s a healer of some sort, specializing in Eastern medicine, and it isn’t long before he starts winning people over…especially the women.
Partly because she desperately wants a baby, and partly out of curiosity, Fidelma approaches the good doctor about helping her get pregnant. Before long, the two are having an affair. But just as quickly as it begins, it is over. Vlad is recognized by someone who escaped his cruelty long ago, and finally the truth comes to light: he isn’t Vlad at all, but a man on the run who is wanted for war crimes in Sarajevo. He is arrested and taken to the Hague, and Fidelma pays a heavy price as well. Broken and shunned, she has no choice but to leave everything in Ireland and flee to the anonymity of London, where she finds herself surrounded by immigrants and refugees, themselves often fleeing horrific pasts.
Towards the middle of my trip, when I got to the section that involved long train/bus rides, I decided to dip into this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I had preordered it back in the week’s before its release, slightly before the book’s buzz had reached epic proportions. Then the buzz continued, and I had a feeling it would win the Pulitzer even though I still hadn’t read it. And then the backlash started: Real™ critics found the book clichéd, and many disdainfully referred to it as a children’s book. Tartt’s treatment of people of color was all wrong. Readers came out of the woodwork to speak up with relief to discover they weren’t the only ones who hated the book. I tentatively skimmed over all of this — the positive buzz, the negative buzz, even descriptions of the book itself — so that I could eventually read the book with fresh eyes, but so much of it was hard to ignore.
The Goldfinch is about thirteen-year-old Theo Decker and a split decision he makes that will shape his future. On one fateful morning, he and his mother pop into The Met to look at a new exhibit, but a bomb goes off and his mother dies in the terrorist attack. By some miracle Theo survives, and in the gory confusion that ensues, he rescues a painting from the ashes — Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch,” which his mother adored — and stumbles back home (in shock and concussed) to wait for her. She never arrives, and when child services discovers that Theo is on his own without any other family to take him in, he’s temporarily placed with the Barbours, a wealthy couple on Park Avenue whose son Theo once went to school with. Because of something that happened in the moments following the explosion, he also comes to know a kindly and distinguished antique furniture restorer. Neither of them know it at the time, but the man will come to play a huge role in Theo’s future.