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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Henry, Himself by Stewart O’Nan


What a delight it was to read Henry, Himself the third of Stewart O’Nan’s novels to feature the Maxwell family.

This time the story is told by Henry, now in his 75th year of life. Henry is long retired, a faithful and loving husband to his wife, Emily - well trained by now. Henry still adores his wife, and he is in every way a gentleman. Henry and Emily are the parents of Margaret and Kenny, now middle aged parents themselves. Henry was born and raised in Pittsburgh and lives there still, but the place most important to Henry and all of the family is their summer home at Chautauqua.

As the novel opens we learn about Henry’s early years, his ancestors and his own immediate family. Then, over the period of about a year we witness family gatherings and celebrations, with all of the concerns and worries, and joys and sadness that come with being a family, all shared by those Henry loves.

We also see the intimate workings of a long and satisfying marriage between partners who treat each other with respect and manage their differences with civility. We see the day to day little things that created a bond long ago, and have endured through all of these years. This is the unspoken intimacy of simply sharing a life.

When spring comes, there is work in the garden, tasks divided between Henry and Emily as they have been for decades. They do what they have always done, though the aches and pains that come with age are showing. After a long day of working in the garden, Henry and Emily, “both took some Aleve and went to bed early.” “Emily liked the fresh air, so they slept with the windows open. At four when he got up to pee, the room was freezing.” A battle Henry has long ago given up fighting. He goes into the bathroom and stands on the heated floor.

Spring also finds Henry and Emily making plans to open the cottage at Chautauqua. It is by now a ritual, a habit, doing things in the same way year after year. Opening the cottage comes after all of the preparation at home, the loading of the car, being sure not to feed the dog so that he will not be sick on the long drive. The stops along the way at familiar places, observing the changes, if any, on the route followed the same way every year.

Then their arrival. “Closed since Labor Day, the place smelled of must and mold, the air dank, as in a cave or basement, unpleasant yet familiar”.  “Upstairs Emily was opening windows. He went through the rear bedrooms doing the same”. They bring the heavy cooler in together, “Once he could have lifted it himself”. Henry looks after getting the pump going while Emily takes charge of the kitchen.

This is where Henry, and Emily, most belong. He wonders if his children feel the same, he wants them to, as he worries about the future. Then the long weekend, with children and grandchildren arriving. All the memories, and worries and sometimes conflict, spoken or unspoken. Days of activity, and then they are gone. Leaving only their parents worry behind. Often, Henry’s sister, Arlene will stay on, relaxing with Henry and Emily, sharing stories about their youth “without the children they could talk freely”. No secrets among such old friends, no matter that the children are now middle aged, fully adult.

There is so much in this novel about family and how we all behave with parents, and siblings and children. I was sorry to finish reading Henry, Himself and I immediately re-read the first two books in the trilogy, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, enjoying them just as much as I did the first time around.



A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza


On a recent holiday, with friends, I took along A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I’m afraid I spent more time reading than I did visiting until I had finished this truly exceptional novel. It is a novel that is so much more than the story it tells that I feel unable to describe it adequately.

The story begins with a wedding, eldest daughter Hadia, surrounded by her family and friends, looks only for her brother, Amar. He chose to leave his family some time earlier without any contact, but Hadia has asked him to come to her wedding, and he has come.

We then move back in time to the meeting of the parents, the arranged marriage, Rafiq and Layla. Then their move to the United States, to California and the beginning of their lives as young parents to Hadia, Amar and Huda. They live in a suburb of predominately immigrant, Muslim, families. They socialize with their neighbours, attend their mosque regularly and live their lives. They are observant of their religion, and except perhaps for Layla, assimilated into the culture of America. They are peaceful, good people.

Layla rules the home, whole heartedly loves and mothers her children and cares for her husband. Rafiq takes his role as breadwinner, father and husband very seriously, and demands not only to be listened to, but obeyed. Though he loves his children, and is proud of their accomplishments, he does not understand or tolerate the behavior of American teenagers – especially the behavior of his only son.

We see the gulf between father and son widen, with a father who cannot understand the sensitivity of his son, sees it only as weakness, and a son who seethes and withers. Though he loves his daughters Rafiq simply sees them as lovely girls, temporarily in his care, before becoming wives and mothers.

Hadia understands that in order to win her father’s favour she must achieve and please him. She is a smart girl, and studies Medicine – achieving the American Dream, becoming a well respected Doctor though she finds she has no passion for it. She is a confident and capable young woman, liberal in attitude and attire but still deeply committed to her religion.

A Place For Us reveals all of the joy and tragedy of a family. The joy of young children and parents when things are good and the world is full of optimism for the future. The complications of the teenage years, and the conflict of children and parents during this time when the young need independence and the parents need to protect. There is the tragedy of a young death and fear of the future. There are the secrets kept and revealed.

This novel gave me more of an understanding of the importance and influence of religious belief, and the challenges that face Muslim Americans, than anything else I have read, fiction or non-fiction. We are taken into the home, and into the private conversations, the conflicts and compassion shared by this family. The spoken and unspoken fear and distress after the tragedy of 9/11. The changes some choose to make and the challenges faced by all within a family and a community.

As we follow this family through one generation and into the next, we see the children grow, attempting to find their own place in the world. Hadia and Huda do so by pleasing, but for Amar this is just not possible. Amar’s conflict with his father results in estrangement, not only from his father but also from his mother and sisters – a great grief to them all and with such regret.

Much later we share the great pleasure Layla and Rafiq find in becoming grandparents. We also witness, along with this family the growing xenophobia in America. 

Will this wedding bring them together, or simply make it clear, once again, to Amar that he will never find peace within this family.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

As Kate Atkinson’s most recent novel, Transcription, opens we meet Juliet Armstrong in 1981, in London, where she has just been involved in a traffic accident. Lying on the pavement she thinks of her son, and Italy where she has lived for many years.


What follows is the story of Juliet’s past, especially the 1940’s when she was assigned a job, by the British government, typing the conversations of fascist sympathizers. A house has been set up where the government has installed a man who meets with people who are suspected to be spying for the Nazis.  He claims to be working on behalf of Germany, passing along their observations and activities to the Nazis when really all they tell him stays right there – with Juliet listening from another room, and transcribing their conversations.

When the war begins Juliet is a young and rather solitary girl. She is innocent in the ways of the world, taking her job at face value, without quite understanding that much of what she sees, and those with whom she works, is simply camouflage. As time goes on Juliet’s superiors see that she is indeed a smart young woman and they use her to infiltrate the social world of those they are interviewing. Though Juliet has come to know these people by listening to their conversations, they of course they have never actually seen Juliet at her work. She enters a tangled web of intrigue and deceit.

By 1950 Juliet is working for the BBC, and the Second World War is history. But, one day on her way to work Juliet sees a man she worked with during the war. He refuses to recognize her, but she is sure. She thinks of the past and what they did, together, during the war, knowing that none of them will ever be free of the past.

Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life and God Of Ruins, as well as a mystery series, is known to be a bit of a quirky writer. Transcription is a bit more of a straightforward novel than her others, but still often darkly funny. As always, Kate Atkinson presents a novel that is entertaining and insightful, perfectly plotted and well written, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader wondering what really happened in the past, and if it will all be revealed in the end.


The Prisoner in the Castle by Susan Elia MacNeal & The Mechanical Devil by Kate Ellis

This week we have a couple of recent installments in long running and popular mystery series – one historical and one contemporary.


The Prisoner in the Castle is the eighth in the Maggie Hope Mystery series by Susan Elia MacNeal. And, once again, we learn about a fascinating aspect of the British war effort, and the experiences of some of those who worked in Special Operations for the British intelligence service.

There are many murder mystery novels set around the time of the Second World War, and it is always surprising that book after book more is revealed about the war and the experiences of those who lived at that time.

In this episode our heroine, Maggie Hope, has recently returned from France, traumatized after a very difficult assignment. Her superiors feel that Maggie is now too much of a risk to be sent on another mission – and rather than allow her to retire quietly, they have transferred her to a remote island where other at risk former spies are imprisoned. None of them are at all happy about being there and, in fact, it takes them a while to realize that this is not just a forced rest, but an imprisonment. Maggie is not the only one who still wishes to serve her country, and to find a way off the island.

There is soon a murder – then another, and then another. A severe storm hampers Maggie’s efforts to leave the island, and at the same time it is becoming increasingly difficult to know who to trust, while doing her best to keep herself alive. In the meantime, back in London, Maggie’s friends are concerned enough about her unexplained disappearance that they are working on finding out where she is – and why.

Doing a little research after reading this novel, I discovered that Arisaig House was commandeered by the British Government during the Second World War and was used as a training centre for SOE agents. In fact, many country houses were taken over by the government and used for the war effort. So, it is not improbable that there was a place much like the fictitious Killoch Castle on the Isle of Scarra. I believe that the very real Kinloch Castle on the Isle of Rum was used as the model for the prison where Susan Elia MacNeal has put Maggie Hope and several other risky – and eccentric – British spies. With a few locals thrown in to mix it up, and provide even more confusion, the result is a very suspenseful, intriguing and informative novel.

Also of note is The Mechanical Devil by Kate Ellis now out in paperback, the 23rd in the Wesley Peterson Murder Mystery series. We find Wesley slightly less worried about the health of his wife, Pam, who has now returned to work after a serious illness.

Work right now, for Wesley, involves two murders in close proximity to each other and, as it turns out, in much the same location as an earlier case. There is also the disappearance of a teenage girl, who may, or may not, have a connection to one of the murder victims. Then, there is the concern of a woman whose home was broken into 18 months earlier, who continues to call Wesley for reassurance that she is now truly safe.

Wesley’s friend, archaeologist Neil Watson is, as usual, also in the neighbourhood - literally digging around in the past. Of course, after much confusion, the case is solved, and we’ve spent an entertaining day or two with a favourite, entirely fictional, detective, in lovely, if dangerous, Dartmoor.



Learning to See by Elise Hooper

Learning to See – A Novel of Dorothea Lange, the Woman Who Revealed the Real America by Elise Hooper is a new novel about a female photographer whose images are some of the most iconic of the American Great Depression.

Migrant Mother

I knew the photographs, especially the portrait now known as Migrant Mother, but I new nothing about the woman who took the photographs that portray the desperate lives of those living in the Dust Bowl. What most shocked Dorothea Lange was that these people were Americans – not refugees from some other less affluent or war torn country. These people were Americans, leaving the east on their way west hoping to find employment in California – and finding life just as hard there as the place they’d left behind.

Learning to See.jpg

Dorothea Lange trained as a photographer in New York City before heading west herself in 1918, to San Francisco, looking for adventure and a clean break from her life in the east – and from her troubled past. In San Francisco she found acceptance as one of a group of artists and photographers; and with fierce determination to support herself as a successful photographer she set up a portrait studio. She also found love, with Maynard Dixon, already an established painter. But marriage between artists is sometimes a challenge – and always there is the struggle of the art or the marriage taking precedence. Maynard Dixon was used to living on his own terms, thinking nothing of going off on painting trips, for weeks or months at a time. They sometimes travelled together, but often Dorothea stayed at home, with the children. And, of course, infidelity does not help sustain a marriage.  

By the time of the Great Depression this marriage was in trouble. By now, a mature woman, it was time for Dorothea Lange to make some new choices. Though her business was successful, she had taken time away from the studio to raise her children and travel with her husband, and even her wealthy customers were tightening their belts.

The establishment of Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration – the FSA – gave Dorothea Lange the opportunity to do something meaningful and still be able to support her family. From 1935 to 1939 she travelled, taking photographs, and becoming more and more aware of the desperation of so many fellow Americans.  She was also becoming more and more aware of politics and the plight of the American people.

Dorothea Lange’s next major body of work focused on the internment of Japanese Americans after the bombing at Pearl Harbor. Most of the photographs she took in these years were impounded by the military – but now provide documentary evidence of this time and the people whose lives were so profoundly affected by their removal from their homes and imprisonment in isolated camps.

After the war Dorothea Lange continued to work, teaching and writing, and taking photographs. She remarried and raised her children and step-children. Recognized during her lifetime as an important photographer, Dorothea Lange’s work is still shown and admired today. And, thanks to Elise Hooper readers of historical fiction will learn more about this accomplished woman by reading Learning to See.



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