"Call Me When You Land" by Michael Schiavone

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Katie Olmstead deals with family issues throughout “Call Me When You Land,” and they threaten to grind her up. Our portrait of this almost-forty Massachusetts single mom is so close, I checked after finishing the book to see whether I was remembering it wrong – but no, it’s written in the third person, but the point of view is so Katie-centric that it has the feel of a first-person narrative.

The first event we encounter in this narrative is the far-off death of Katie’s son’s father, an event that shakes Katie and her son CJ. Something about this event also rattles the already-threadbare bond between mother and son, and drives Katie deeper into the bottle. In fact, Katie imbibes alcohol from the first page onward in this book, a habit that author Michael Schiavone very effectively shows to be quite alarming. CJ acts out on the hockey rink where Katie can witness it, and probably in other places where she can’t. Drink reduces Katie’s inhibitions and she drags a former boyfriend back to bed for incautious and self-absorbed gratification. Throughout, Katie drinks and drinks, and then drinks some more, and then drinks because her hangover is so bad.

Katie’s cluelessness and denial in the face of all the male characters cannot ultimately eclipse the gleaming, monstrous Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle which CJ’s father bequeaths to him. This ticket to ride, that CJ’s biological father leaves for his son, wonderfully encapsulates the idea that CJ can get away to a place where he can finally become the focus of his mother’s attention. And Katie’s reaction to CJ’s flight is one of the true keys of this well-told novel – a non-act that forms the heart of the action and sets Katie’s spiral on a more hopeful course.

Katie’s character wore me down for much of this story, I’ll be honest. I’m definitely glad I stuck with her, though, and with this debut novel of Mr. Schiavone’s. What he sets out to do, he does with style and depth. He’s definitely at one with telling the human story, and I do hope it’s a territory he explores again very soon, and very often.

"Bones Beneath Our Feet" by Michael Schein

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As a teacher of history and expert in the past of the Seattle area, Michael Schein is eminently qualified to write about the “pacification” and settling of Washington Territory. “Bones Beneath Our Feet” proves this.

As in any ambitious historical novel, “Bones Beneath Our Feet” is set just as epochal changes occur, in this case, in the Puget Sound area of Washington state. We get sketchy biographical data on the principal players (who are also historical figures), like the rapacious and indomitable first governor of the territory, Isaac Stevens, and his main antagonist, Leschi of the Nisqually. Detail abounds in this straight-line narrative, as the author uses the omniscient viewpoint to unfold the series of skirmishes, murders, arson, aggressive criminality, and treachery that marked the conflict. Certain features of this history are quite predictable: aboriginal natives who chronically underestimate the threat, and who behave in such a way as to inadvertently maximize it; prejudiced white settlers, who unfailingly believe God is on their side, and are quite comfortable with the idea of annihilating the natives; unbounded greed and ambition of early settlers and politicians.

The book, while not overly long, nevertheless seems ponderous. It bends and groans under the weight of the detail, unfortunately, and Mr. Schein could comfortably have glossed over perhaps a third of what he presents, in favor of a little more depth in the characters. I grant that this was not his design; I have no doubt that readers can rely very confidently on this book to present the facts of the matter, but I don’t think it succeeds as a real historical fiction.

It does, however, succeed in capturing the natural grandeur of the unspoiled Puget Sound – the climate is represented vividly – and the author wrings out the inexorable sinking despair that overcomes the defeated Leschi, quite effectively.

Mr. Schein attempts a historical novel, but what emerges are loosely-connected historical tableaux set to dialog. Many battles and skirmishes are effectively and graphically done, but the whole does not hang together very well. I sense clearly the author’s intense commitment to the history, but not his craft for drawing out a true fiction from it.

"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese

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When you look at Abraham Verghese’s work load and background, you wonder how he could find the time to write a novel. And when the novel turns out to be “Cutting for Stone,” a gripping, larger-than-life family epic, all you can do is sit back in wonder. I do that a lot when I read, particularly when I encounter accomplishments as impressive as this.

What makes “Cutting for Stone” impressive? Dr. Verghese establishes an unspoken, doomed love between a highly skilled surgeon, Dr. Thomas Stone, and a young Carmelite nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. Having begun treks in very different circumstances, from very different places, they fall together at a Catholic hospital in Addis Ababa. The love they find is obviously forbidden to both, but Dr. Stone succumbs from time to time to breakdowns, physical and psychological episodes in which he suffers horribly, and from which he emerges with no memory. One of these episodes, during which he is nursed as always by Sister, results in Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s pregnancy. The episode of the birth of the twins Marion and Shiva harrows and frightens us as it completely changes the lives of all involved.

As events flow in the wake of this epochal event, through the thirty-or-so years, Dr. Verghese unfolds for his rapt readers the dramas of betrayal, prejudice, treason, civil war, and death, all from the adoptive family of the twins, caring for the various sick and suffering at the Ethiopian hospital. A prominent teaching physician himself, Dr. Verghese achieves his noblest effect by using detailed medical knowledge as part of the plot, to set up the unforgettable act of sacrifice that forms the climax.

How to describe this work: balanced, epic, sophisticated, heartbreaking, engaging, wise in its observations of human nature. I highly recommend this; it will thoroughly transport you.

PSA: "Housekeeping" Essay Revised

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This time I endeavored to have an actual conslusion. I apologize to all who worked their way through it only to find that it lacked one.

This, among other activities, have slowed the pace of regular book reviews.