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Strange Days

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)

“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”

“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”

If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later.   The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…

Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense.   In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels.   There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.

All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy.   I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta.   As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.

The latter is a key point.   In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident.   We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son.   Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara.   (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk.   How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)

This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before  him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB.   Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that.   The truth is, the typical reader will  not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.

“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”

John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home.   This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.

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Another Summer Reading List

Back on June 13th, we posted a list of 10 books comprising part of our summer reading list.   Now, here’s a listing of 11 additional books that you might put in your Summer beach bag or your Winter vacation suitcase!

Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz

The new “great American novel” (Abraham Verghese) from the author of Reservation Road and The Commoner.   (Random House, July)

The Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

The amazing true and suspenseful story behind the assassination of President James A. Garfield, and the attempts of a genius inventor (Alexander Graham Bell) to save his life.   (Doubleday, September)

Pinch Me: A Novel by Adena Halpern

A young woman whose family has always warned her to stay away from perfectly handsome men receives a proposal of marriage from a man who is sadly “perfect.”   (Touchstone Books, July)

The Vault: A Novel by Boyd Morrison

The author who proved that self-published writers could sell books like his novel The Ark is back with a thriller.   In The Vault, a group of terrorists are determined to use the secrets of King Midas for their destructive purposes.   (Touchstone Books, July)

Requiem for a Gypsy by Michael Genelin

This is the latest Jana Matinova Investigation from Michael Genelin, who has been called “the Tom Clancy of International Intrigue.”   The Pittsburg Post-Gazette noted that this former prosecutor, “seems incapable of writing a dull page.”   (Soho Crime, July)

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hagen Cohen

This novel is about a couple that strives to return to  normalcy after their baby dies just a day and  a half after his birth.   Can the Ryries and their two children rebuild their formerly happy and peaceful existence?   (Riverhead Hardcover, September)

No Rest for the Dead: A Novel by 26 writers

A murder mystery is written in 26 chapters by 26 different, prominent authors.   It’s an almost irresistable concept and, even better, it is set in San Francisco.   (Touchstone, July)

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

A novel set aboard the funeral train that carried Robert F. Kennedy to Arlington Cemetery.   (Putnam Books, October)

Mercy Come Morning by Lisa T. Berger

A female history professor travels to Taos, New Mexico to be with her mother who is dying of heart failure.   (Waterbrook Press, August)

The Art of Saying Goodbye by Ellyn Bache

Four women come to re-evaluate their lives in light of the knowledge that the most popular woman in the neighborhood is dying of cancer.   “…a glimpse into the lives of (an) intertwined group of women and their everlasting, complicated friendships.”   New York Journal of Books   (William Morrow, June)

Love Lies Bleeding by Jess Mcconkey

A golden girl has a perfect life until a random act of violence seems to change everything.   Is she going insane or has the world suddenly become hostile?   (William Morrow, July)

Joseph Arellano

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Lonely Days

The Upright Piano Player: A Novel by David Abbott (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $22.95, 264 pages)

“In the old days he would inspire them, lift their spirits, and send them back to their desks with renewed energy and enthusiasm.   Now he simply wanted to say goodbye and slip away.”

Henry Cage is a man who has earned the right to enjoy a quiet life.   At least it appears this way before his life turns into a series of explosions.   Cage, the founder of a highly successful international advertising firm based in London, is suddenly forced into retirement in November of 1999 – outfoxed by a legion of new, young and restless (rudely ambitious) partners who cannot wait for him to ride off into the sunset.

Henry Cage is barely out the door of the advertising firm when he learns that his ex-wife, Nessa, is gravely ill.   Nessa lives in Florida.   She does not have much time left and would like to see Henry.   Henry very much loved Nessa until she had a well-publicized affair with an actor, something that brought shame and ridicule to Henry once it was mentioned in London’s daily papers.   Although decades have passed, Henry’s not sure that he’s forgiven Nessa and he certainly has no desire to revisit past events.

And then there’s an angry young man out there on the streets of the city, a failure in life – a man with a broken arm (broken like his future) – who seeks to take his anger out on a symbol of success.   By chance, this man happens to pick Henry as the person whose life he will make miserable…  So miserable does he make Henry that it appears a confrontation between the two is inevitable; it’s likely to be a confrontation so dramatic that only one of them will survive.

The reader also learns, through a non-chronological device, that Henry will have even more to deal with – the loss of the one thing that he sees as irreplaceable.   This is a morality tale about good versus evil, hope versus surrender, and love versus despair.   You’ll want to root for Henry to survive as he’s a representation of us all as we battle the unexpected (and often undeserved) events in our lives.

If you’ve read and loved the novels of Catherine O’Flynn (What Was Lost, The News Where You Are), you will no doubt also love this work.   Like O’Flynn, Abbott writes in a quiet, reserved English voice.   Although you may rush through it, the impression is given that the writer had all of the time in the world to construct the tale – there is never a sense of modern-day impatience.

Abbot’s ability to capture and make meaningful the small details in life calls to mind John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road, The Commoner), whose novels are always engaging.   Further, there’s a tragedy in Piano Player that mirrors something that happened in Reservation Road.

David Abbott, whose real life just happened to be a lot like the life of Henry Cage, has fashioned a wonderful debut novel.   I certainly look forward to reading his next story.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Upright Piano Player will be released on June 7, 2011.

“David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player is a wise and moving debut, an accomplished novel of quiet depths and resonant shadows.”   John Burnham Schwartz

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Putnam, August 5, 2010)

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Suiko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern-California raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begins to experience serious health issues.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a “Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

On one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in their nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characteristics of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort within the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Free Fallin’

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No Expectations

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Reservation Road: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Vintage Contemporaries, $15.00, 304 pages)

“Our love is like our music, it’s here and then it’s gone.”   Jagger/Richards

Reservation Road was the second novel from John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner.   It is a tale of psychological suspense made all the more interesting as it is told through the thoughts of three characters (Ethan, a college professor; Grace, his wife; and Dwight, the man whose actions cause the death of Ethan and Grace’s son).   Ethan is a literature professor at a small college in New England, whose life is on course until…  

Returning late from an outing, the family makes an unscheduled stop at a gas station on Reservation Road.   As Grace and daughter Emma go in to use the rest room at the almost-abandoned gas station, Ethan and son Josh wait near the side of the road.   In a matter of mere seconds, a car driven recklessly by Dwight hits and kills 10-year-old Josh.   Life will never be the same for Ethan and Grace Learner…

Life, in fact, becomes “too much to bear” for the Learners.   Grace becomes paralyzed by her grief and Ethan moves on driven strictly by thoughts of revenge against the hit-and-run driver who killed his son.   Dwight, by contrast, is a man who has already ruined his life, his marriage and his legal career due to his recklessness and violence.   He becomes “like many whose lives are fueled largely by regret.”   He’s a dead man walking who eventually does “not seem to care any longer what happened to him.”

Schwartz does a masterful job of building and maintaining suspense through this novel’s 292 pages even though the denouement is obvious…   When the criminal justice system fails to find the man who so tragically killed Josh, we know deep down – as does Dwight – that Ethan will find him.   And what then?

But this is more than just a crime mystery.   It is a quasi-morality play about how people deal with losses – death and separation – in their lives.   We see how some rebound to live again and others never recover.   What is the line from Neil Young?   “On the day that she left he died but it did not show.”   This is a story about Ethan and Grace, who lose part of their life (their reason to exist) late; and of Ethan, who has lost his strength and his will to survive early on.

At the end of Reservation Road, Ethan finds Dwight and gets to serve as his judge, jury and – perhaps – his executioner.   What happens?   You’ll have to read Schwartz’s Reservation Road to find out.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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Coming Up Next…

Reservation Road smallA review of Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner.

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