"Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf

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The spare, beautiful, clipped back style Kent Haruf perfected returns to us even more distilled in Our Souls at Night. His characters use a directness and economy of expression that mirrors the narrative, and the whole affects us with the sense of emotional logic freely followed, where pretense is abandoned as counterproductive, a waste of precious time. Our Souls at Night, a fitting valediction from a well-loved author, is marvelous for a number of reasons.

In a straightforward plot (another facet of the book in harmony with the whole) a retired widow, Addie, in a small high plains town contacts a neighbor gentleman (called Louis), and makes what many in the town consider a brazen overture. She asks him directly if he would keep her company in the evenings, and sleep in her bed with her. He assents and thus begins a very sweet and rewarding chapter in their lives. They proceed together quite openly in their new relationship, town busybodies be damned.

But pressures build within their families to halt the happiness. Addie’s son uses her grandson, whom Addie cherishes, in a crass and self-absorbed (not to mention short-sighted and prudish) ploy to try to bring an end to the relationship.  It is not the only source of overreaction.

In this book, Mr. Haruf manages to focus on virtuous people giving of themselves. This is a tricky path for any writer, but Mr. Haruf’s gift plays strongly - his treatment of these two wise and plain-spoken people works superbly, effortlessly. He composes the lovely melody of conversation and action between his two paragons; objections and ultimatums come from others who will probably never know such happiness.
His theme outwardly deals with the age of protagonists who have nothing to lose to pubic opinion, but this lesson applies to any and all. His evocations of place and human failing are perfect and powerful, as always.

As a sober valediction from a distinguished author, Our Souls at Night reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn. Not only are both great achievements of superior writers, but they stand as final reaffirmations of glorious bodies of work. Spend a couple of hours or days or hours with Kent Haruf’s final accomplishment and be enriched.

"Every Day is for the Thief" by Teju Cole

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I enjoyed Every Day is for the Thief for its honesty and straightforward language. As its tale unfolds, the author accomplishes an intriguing thing: he blurs the lines between fiction and memoir, using fiction as the label for what seems thoroughly memoir-esque.   It is an engaging read, in a way displaying its purpose very clearly, depending on refreshing and fast-paced changes of scene as the vignettes flow by. He hints at truths he may or may not have teased out from his observations; one can feel his frustrations, and begins to want some conclusions along with him.

A young man with roots in Nigeria travels from New York to Lagos for an extended stay. He arrives in a Lagos that hasn’t changed in basic character: government officials of every rank expect bribes as a matter of course; the people have a defeatist attitude in the face of corruption and endemic private sector thievery and violence. These problems cripple any attempts to build an economy or infrastructure. Even with its many millions and the potential such a large population must hold, too many people demonstrate a superstitious refusal to look too deeply into problems, placing their faith in lazy aphorisms, or supporting local clerics who are in it for the money.

Mr. Cole roves smoothly from one scene to another, building his evidence case by case. He leavens his ruthless honesty with a rueful nod to the perversity of people’s approach to problems. This “life goes on” attitude drives him a little crazy and he wishes rather than hopes for something to dislodge this inertia. He finishes this tale in poetic fashion, describing a street scene in Lagos which I will not spoil, except to say that it is a brilliant cap to the narrative.

Episodic in nature, bound into cohesion by his theme of the exasperating population of Lagos, this seeming memoir engages the reader for what it is: a description of a large, vibrant city, weighed down by its tradition of vice and corruption. I found it grew on me as I went through the slim volume, and it finishes in a way that makes the trip worthwhile.

"The Book of Esther" by Emily Barton

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Emily Barton constructs an alternate history for her adventure story The Book of Esther. A nation of Jewish warriors on the West Asian steppes faces an invasion from a formidable foe in 1942, the “Germanii.” The Kaganate of Khazaria, a principality located mainly between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea fights the aggressor with a combination of mechanical horses, pedal-propelled gliders, a thuggish group of oil drillers and dealers, and golems fabricated by an isolated group of Kabbalists.

These features of her fiction allow Ms. Barton to maintain a universe separate enough to take up her main themes of Jewish religious observance, Talmudic scholarship, the place of women in Jewish society, and in particular, the zeal and aspiration of Esther bat Josephus, a 16 year-old Joan of Ark-type figure who leads motley troops into battle against overwhelming odds.

This feels fresh and intriguing at the outset as we learn of this fictional empire with its ancient traditions, its armed forces (which for the era are a little outdated) and its encompassing Jewish culture. Young Esther has always been interested in politics and current events, and the imminent threat of invasion drives her to action. Such action will infuriate her father, a high advisor to the monarch, endanger numerous people who might not otherwise enter into combat, and fly in the face of all accepted norms of behavior for high-born teenage girls. None of this stops her or even slows her down.

Esther takes her adoptive brother, steals
a mechanical horse, and goes in search of the country’s kabbalists, a group of mystic clerics who can animate clay to make golems, the automatons who cannot be killed in combat. The story proceeds with good pace and leads up to the climactic battle in which the country’s ancient capital tries to repel the Wehrmacht. The author captures the desperation in the young girl’s quest, and bestows on her a lion’s fortitude and a believable share of success.

Ms. Barton tells all this quite vividly, and you get caught up in the inexorable forces of history. What this book does, it does very well, sustaining a fictional nation in an alternative 20th Century, steeping us in a unique and devout Jewish culture, and painting a portrait of a courageous and determined girl whose voyage of self-discovery takes her places none have been before.