Fall Book Reviews: Part 2 of 3


“The sun setting behind the rows of birch long-shadowed the path. The unyielding flatstones caught the light, it gilded the deep lettering, burst along the trumpets of the angels. The ground was alive with light. Not the yellow ochre of spring but heavy autumn carmine. The blood season. Already they were shooting in the wood.”—from “Written on the Body” by Jeanette Winterson (see review below).

I woke the other morning to the sound of gunshots coming from the woods surrounding our lake house in northern Michigan. We came up to put away the porch furniture and take a drive up through the Tunnel of Trees in Harbor Springs to see the colors as they pressed their jewel tones into the vast blues of sky over Lake Michigan. This season nudges an elbow at memories of other autumns when as children we’d pass cars on the freeway with bloodied deer carcasses strapped to the hoods or piled in the cabs of pickups. I’d stare at the eyes frozen in death. In our neighborhood, we burned our leaves. The pungent smell lingering in our homes, our clothes, until the first snowfall. Socks were put on. Blankets taken out of closets. Halloween right around the corner. The season as jarring to the senses as the four books reviewed below. I didn’t pick the books for theme although it turned out all of them had similar stories: narrators who flee relationships, premonitions, religious dogma, illness, death, and ghosts only to return to the places and people they fear most.

ABOUT GRACE by Anthony Doerr

From the author of, “All the Lights We Cannot See,” (one of my all-time favorite books), Doerr’s debut novel, “About Grace,” is the story of David Winkler, a man obsessed with water and snowflakes, who has premonitions that come true. In one he dreams of a flood where he accidentally drowns his infant daughter, Grace. Winkler leaves his wife and child thinking this will save Grace’s life and flees to the Grenadine Islands by freighter. Stuck there for twenty-five years Winkler pays off his debts as a maintenance worker at a hotel restaurant before returning to the U.S. to look for his family. Nature looms as the strongest character in “About Grace” as Winkler navigates within its confines: flood waters, the dangerous cold of northern Alaska, the rugged mountain terrain of the western states. This novel is long, 400 pages, and full of Doerr’s mellifluous metaphors on man versus nature and what it means to be a family, but in the end, this reader wasn’t sure who or what to root for.

Favorite line(s): Every second a million petitions wing past the ear of God. Let it be door number two. Get Janet through this. Make Mom fall in love again, make the pain go away, make this key fit. If I fish this voce, plant this field, step into this darkness, give me the strength to see it through. Help my marriage, my sister, me. What will this fund be worth in thirteen days? In thirteen years? Will I be around in thirteen years? And the most unanswerables: Don’t let me die. And: What will happen afterward? Chandeliers and choirs? Flocks of souls like starlings harrying across the sky? Eternity’ life again as bacteria, or as sunflowers, or as a leatherback turtle; suffocating blackness; cessation of all cellular function? We crack open cookies and climb fortune-tellers’ stairs and peer into the rivers in our palms. We scour the surface of Mars for signs of liquid water. Who hasn’t wanted to flip to her last page? Who hasn’t asked: Let me know, just this once, how it will turn out.

THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura Vanden Berg

As the narrator of “The Third Hotel” so aptly describes the eerie dislocation of reality, “swimming like eels under the skin,” this novel requires the reader to follow along between consciousness and unconsciousness as a woman grieving the loss of her husband after a hit and run accident a month earlier finds the husband roaming the streets of Havana, Cuba. Is it a ghost story? A horror story? Or are we all, the living and dead, separated by private but parallel planes of movement? Do not expect to dip in and out of this story. It’s a straight read through to understand, or maybe not, the narrator Clare’s tightly wound mind and the question the novel poses: aren’t we all running away or toward something?

Favorite line(s): Not what you said or even what you did but where you looked and where you refused to—perhaps that was how a person determined if they were brave or honest or even just reasonably good. The eye was silent and therefore frightfully truthful. The eye did not have to share what it saw with anyone, after all; it did not have to tell a soul.


A book club selection to read for October, “The Hearts Invisible Furies” lives up to its ambitious title. The novel could have lost 200 pages of redundant fury for a stronger story. As it’s written, the author takes us on a journey from the 1940s to 2015 as Cyril Avery explores his sexuality in homophobic and restrictive Ireland, to progressive Amsterdam, and through the AIDS epidemic of New York City in the 1980s. Abusive priests, emotionally bereft parents, violence, death, illness, and shame are furies this reader wanted the narrator to scream about, but instead Cyril quietly moves through his life within the framework of victimhood, which is most likely the truest part of the book but one I felt dragged the narrative down in many scenes. This reader closed the book thanking “progressives” for their continued work for human rights. It took Ireland a long time to get there thanks in large part to the stranglehold of the Catholic Church.

Favorite line(s): I remember a friend of mine once telling me that we hate what we fear in ourselves.

It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature. I had never considered myself to be a dishonest person, hating the idea that I was capable of such mendacity and deceit, but the more I examined the architecture of my life, the more I realized how fraudulent were its foundations. The belief that I would spend the rest of my time on earth lying to people weighed heavily on me, and a t such times I gave serious consideration to taking my own life. Knives frightened me, nooses horrified me and guns alarmed me, but I knew that I was not a strong swimmer. Were I to head out to Howth, for example, and throw myself into the sea, the current would quickly pull me under, and there would be nothing I could do to save myself. It was an option that was always at the back of my mind.

WRITTEN ON THE BODY by Jeanette Winterson

As told by an unnamed and ungendered narrator, “Written on the Body” explores what it means to love someone. In love with a married woman who has only months to live, the narrator makes a choice to hopefully save her by leaving the relationship. A parsed down story—less than 200 pages—but every page is two-thirds comprised of prose poetry. Like this: “Fragile creatures of a small blue planet, surrounded by light years of silent space. Do the dead find peace beyond the rattle of the world? What peace is there for us whose best love cannot return them even for a day?” Or this one: “The wheezing train shuddered to a halt and belched. It was dirty, four carriages long, no sign of guard or conductor. No sign of a driver except for a folded copy of the Sun at the engine window. Inside, the hot smell of brakes and the rich smell of oil colluded with the unswept floor into familiar railway nausea. I felt at home at once and settled to watch the scenery through an evocative film of dust.” Winterson is a philosophical writer. Reading her one is immersed in a meditated story of passion and loss. It’s a journey worth taking.

Favorite line(s): When I say ‘I will be true to you’ I am drawing a quiet space beyond the reach of other desires. No-one can legislate love; it cannot be given orders or cajoled into service. Love belongs to itself, deaf to pleading and unmoved by violence. Love is not something you can negotiate. Love is the one thing stronger than desire and the only proper reason to resist temptation.