The Distinguished Guest
Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)
“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”
Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir. She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir. Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind. Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.
This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work. The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons. Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships. This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books. She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto. Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.
I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity. But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire. Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.
*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Dinaw Mengestu (Adult Fiction)
Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled his home and the revolution in Ethiopia for the United States. He shares an apartment with his uncle, attends college, and pursues the American dream. Years later, Sepha owns and operates a grocery store in a poor and crime-ridden part of Washington, D.C. As dilapidated buildings are bought and renovated and later occupied by affluent professionals, the neighborhood begins to experience a rebirth while Sepha experiences his own sense of awakening when he befriends his white neighbor Judith and her biracial daughter. But as racial tensions rise within the neighborhood, Sepha soon finds that family and stability are once again threatened by forces beyond his control.
Mengestu is a talented writer whose words dance across the page and read like a finely-crafted poem. When describing Judith’s house, he writes, “Its elaborately tiled roof, flaking like dried skin, was echoed in the shutters that still clung out of stubbornness to the delicately molded windows arched like a pair of cartoon eyes on both sides of the house.” Unfortunately, the beauty of Mengestu’s prose isn’t enough to overcome an unsympathetic protagonist, as well as a tedious storyline that offers a wonderful description of the streets, sights, and sounds of the District of Columbia, but little else. Had this novel been a memoir, I would understand and almost excuse the depressing and despondent nature of this book. But since this is a work of fiction, it’s not clear why Mengestu made Sepha so unlikeable and unrelatable. For example, Sepha has been in America for 17 years, but has managed to make only two friends (both fellow African immigrants). Also, this same individual—who can wax Dante, Dickinson, and Dostoevsky with the best of them—is at an utter loss as to why his business is doing so poorly when he keeps inconsistent store hours (he opens the store when the mood strikes him) and stocks expired food on dusty shelves that sit atop dirty floors.
The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears began like Sepha’s expectations when he came to America: full of hope and promise. But as Sepha once said to his friend Kenneth, “Once you walk out on your life, it’s difficult to come back to it.” That was almost the feeling I had with this book. The constant self-pitying and overabundance of defeatism that can be found on just about every page made it difficult to come back to this book and to Sepha…and he deserves much better than that.
*Book cover image attributed to www.textbookstar.com
A Medal for Leroy
Michael Morpurgo (Juvenile Historical Fiction)
Michael has no father, brothers, or sisters. Just his mother, Maman, and two aunts: Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop. It is 1940s London and right after the war. Michael’s friends call him “Poodle” because of his frizzy hair and French ancestry. But Michael doesn’t mind much. In fact, he likes being different, being special. Regarding his father, Michael knows only what his mother has told him: his father’s name was Roy, he was a Spitfire pilot, and he was killed in the war. But when Michael’s aunt passes away, she leaves behind a clue that will not only shed light on his past, but also finally reveal who he is.
A Medal for Leroy was inspired by the true story of Walter Tull, the first black person to serve as an officer in the British Army. Like his fictional counterpart in this story (Michael’s grandfather, Leroy), Tull grew up in an orphanage, played soccer, served heroically in battle, and has no known grave. Both Tull and Leroy deserved a medal for bravery, but were denied because of the color of their skin. Morpurgo is a master storyteller (author of the spectacular novel War Horse) and provides his characters with a surprising amount of depth given that his book is only 130 pages. He delicately tackles the ugliness of racial intolerance and inequality while showing young readers the value of having dignity in the face of disgrace and showing love without reservations or conditions.
In a world that still seems divided by so many factors, it is worth looking at the words that Michael’s aunt, who served as a nurse during the First World War, wrote to Michael: “It was while I was with those poor wounded soldiers that I first understood, Michael, that when all’s said and done, it’s what we all want and need most: to love and to be loved.” Words lovingly passed along to a beloved nephew that would serve us all to remember today and always.
* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Susan Crandall (Adult Fiction)
“Whistling past the graveyard. That’s what Daddy called it when you did something to keep your mind off your most worstest fear…”
Starla Claudelle is nine and growing up in 1963 Mississippi. At the age of three, she is abandoned by her mother, who is busy chasing dreams of country music stardom in Nashville. Her father works months on end on an oil rig in the Gulf, which leaves the responsibility of her care and upbringing to her strict and overbearing paternal grandmother, Mamie. On the fourth of July, Starla decides to run away from home—convinced that if she locates her mother, she will have a real family once again. Along the way, she gets a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white infant. Together, they embark on an extraordinary road trip that will change both of their lives forever.
Not since Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith) have I delighted in a literary heroine so thoroughly. Starla is sassy, plucky, loyal, reckless, and fearless. Because of her youth and naiveté, she often makes decisions based on her heart rather than her head, ultimately leading her into some precarious situations. However, Starla’s spunk and spirit are endearing and allow the reader to readily forgive her of these seemingly foolish transgressions. The story has a nice and steady pace, the main characters have heart, and Starla’s narration is full of honesty, humor, and charm. A truly enjoyable read that will undoubtedly find a spot on our Best Of list at the end of the year.