Books 2013 – Short Reviews of Three Reads

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is a wonderful writer. She’s best at constructing characters, and then pulling them apart, showing them (and us) that they aren’t who they thought they were afterall.

This is a story of the Burgess Family, a successful older brother, Jim, and his younger twin siblings, Bob and Susan. When they were young, their father was run over by the family car, while the siblings were inside it, and Bob was blamed for the accident. He has lived all these years with the guilt, as the family screw-up, always in the darkest part of his brother’s 0401f_book_jd_20pshadow. They both have left the little Maine town of their upbringing for law careers in New York, while Susan has remained behind, working at the local mall.

When Susan’s teenage son becomes involved in a hate crime, the brothers return to help him through the legal process. Here, the novel kind of veers in another direction, showing us a view of Somali immigrants in small-town America, and Strout does a wonderful job of portraying the cultural barriers between the immigrants and the community.

As the story unfolds, we find out there is more to everyone than Strout originally let on, so much more that none of them in the end, turn out to be the people they thought they were at the beginning of the book. Their roles change, and they change, as they learn family secrets, and make new mistakes in the present. One of the things I liked most about this book is that there is ACTUAL character development, and Strout does a good job of fleshing the changes out so that they make logical sense.

It’s a realistic fiction kind of book. No happily ever afters, though some of the characters end up in better places in the end, not all of them do.

Norwegian by Night by Derek B Miller

There’s a lot of back and forth between fantasy and reality in this story of an American grandfather transplanted in Norway who saves a young boy from a horrible fate and then takes him on the run. The eighty-two-year-old grandfather may or may not have dementia, and I found it a little disorienting how the story wentnorwegian-by-night back and forth between his fantasies (of both his service in the Korean Conflict and his dead son’s experience in Vietnam) and his days running with the boy. He thinks the Koreans are after him, though he knows the boy is also in trouble, after they witness a murder and then run away.

The description of the book mentioned that one of the characters was “the funniest war criminal” I would ever read. I guess if you find war crimes funny, he might be, but I didn’t think he was amusing at all.

Over all, just kind of chore to read. I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters.

Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck 

I found this book a little disappointing. Zelda Fitzgerald is more of a supporting character in this novel that focuses on the life of her nurse at a mental hospital outside of Baltimore. Anna becomes involved in the Fitzgeralds’ lives. Though she vows at the beginning of the book to keep her distance from her patient, Zelda slowly draws her closer, making her feel call_me_zeldafinalneeded and thus important. As Zelda’s condition deteriorates, Anna reawakens, having suffered her own losses after World War I.

The writing wasn’t very deep, or thought-provoking, and the relationships between the characters, other than the one between the Fitgeralds themselves, are relatively one dimensional. As Zelda becomes more ill, she pushes Anna away, and the loss of this “friendship” gnaws at Anna as the years pass. Eventually she hears from Zelda again and agrees to go on a search for the flapper’s “lost diaries”. Though she has a family of her own at that point, Anna goes on a road trip alone, looking for them, in 1948.

She does eventually see Zelda one more time before the end of Mrs. Fitzgerald’s life, but I found that the end was kind of abrupt, sort of tacked on to the main part of the story, which was about this nurse and her patient. This book rides on the coattails of other “Women of Artists” novels like Loving Frank and  The Paris Wife, but it just wasn’t as compelling as those, perhaps because it wasn’t really about Zelda and her own inner life.

Basically, if I had to describe it in one word, that word would be “chicky.” Whether that word has a good or bad connotation is up to you.