Baltimore Writer

Book Reviews

The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
The following book review appeared in the Baltimore e-zine what weekly.

Imagine a future in which the earth's rotation has slowed to such an extent that there are 24 hours of scorching daylight followed by 24 hours of freezing darkness; in which dead birds fall from the sky and dying whales wash up on the beaches; in which a shift in the earth's magnetic field disrupts our circadian rhythms and creates new mental and physical illnesses. This dystopian future forms the backdrop to a remarkable new novel entitled "The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker. It will remind some of  Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which is also set in a bleak future of destruction and misery. It reminded me of P. D. James' "The Children of Men" (1992) and Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" ((2005), both of which were made into excellent films. "The Age of Miracles" also seems destined for a cinematic version because it's ripe with visual details told through the sensitive eyes of a young girl.

And that's the main focus of this engaging novel: a single year in the coming of age story of a twelve year old named Julia in her final year of middle school. As an only child Julia is shy and sensitive. While other girls are busy with parties, clothes, and boys, she is learning to accept the loneliness and sadness, the cruelty and disappointment of adolescence. The story is told from the future vantage point of a young adult remembering a time when she appreciated the simple beauty of nature: "The smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our feet, our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies." Julia experiences all of these small wonders in her first year of adolescence, which she calls the age of miracles.

She observes early on that before the slowing of the earth's rotation most people were worried about the wrong things: depletion of the ozone layer, asteroids colliding with our planet, extreme weather patterns, and pollution of the oceans. When it comes, the slowing is scarcely noticed but the lengthening of days soon increases at an alarming rate with the same results as other natural disasters: power outages, crop failure, panic, hording of food, apocalyptic religious predictions, and suicide cults. Even at the end (or as close as we get to the end), the scientific community is still puzzled, unable to explain or correct the phenomenon that could eventually leave the earth as barren as Mars or Venus. There are images and references throughout the story to other planets and stars. When Julia's father presents her with a telescope on her twelfth birthday, he says that some of the stars they can see no longer exist; they are looking at the past, at the origins of our universe, as seen from the vantage point of a distant future.

Against this cosmic backdrop Julia struggles with the small frustrations of everyday life: being snubbed by a girl who used to be her best friend; her unrequited attraction to a boy at school; her grandfather's gradual dementia; and her father's secret affair with a neighbor. She wonders about the rules of cause and effect, about the difference between coincidence and fate. At the end she concludes movingly that "Love frays and humans fail, time passes and eras end. The source of our suffering remains forever mysterious." Her insight applies to her own life as well as  the life of the planet we  all inhabit. By narrating a small coming of age story in the context of a global disaster, Karen Thompson Walker has created a startling debut novel.

The Most Dangerous Thing
by Laura Lippman

This story is set in the once idyllic Baltimore neighborhood of Dickeyville, where a group of old friends struggles to confront a dark past. One of Lippman's favorite themes in her stand-alone novels is how each of us remembers things differently. “The Most Dangerous Thing” can best be described as a psychological thriller in which the past catches up with the present on many levels. It begins with a riveting scene in which one of the characters dies in an automobile crash that is clearly alcohol related and quite possibly suicidal. The other characters spend the rest of the story piecing together the life of this unfortunate victim and trying to solve a shared mystery from their childhood. As the one-time friends relive childhood fantasies and adolescent jealousies, the story strips away layer after layer of remembered events and relationships with shocking results.

True to her crime novel roots, Lippmann tells the story through many points of view, primarily the five main characters who in their adolescence made up a pointed star of “we five.” The parents of these same children are also described in brief chapters told from their own perspectives. The narrative moves seamlessly from present to past and from one point of view to another as the full story of what happened one stormy night many years ago is recalled by the participants. As the story unfolds, it shows what lengths parents will go to, despite their own selfish needs, to protect and earn the love of their children.
Since the novel is set in Baltimore, Lipmann brings in Tess Monaghan when a private investigator is needed as part of the plot. Unfortunately Tess comes across here as a cardboard cutout in comparison with the psychological depth of the other characters. Equally jarring is Lippmann’s continued use of the name Beacon Light for the only surviving Baltimore newspaper, perhaps the result of an agreement made when she left the Sun.

As the characters peel away layers of the past, racism and pedophilia emerge as possible motives for suicide and murder. But these are not the most dangerous things lurking in the woods where the five children used to play; parental deception and teenage jealousy are. Equally disturbing is the gradual revelation that many lives have been ruined by such behavior and emotions. It could easily happen again, since the children are now grown into adults who have their own children and lead lives complicated by infidelity or divorce. Some of the chapters, including the final one, are narrated in the plural “we” and the reader is left to solve the mystery of exactly who is speaking in this voice. Given the dominant point of view of one female character, it is not an impossible mystery to solve but adds another layer of interest to the already gripping story.

Noah's Compass  by Anne Tyler

Like the best of Anne Tyler's novels, "Noah's Compass," illuminates human foibles by focusing on the common place experiences of everyday people in a moving but humorous way. The protagonist, Liam Pennywell, is forced into an early retirement from teaching at age sixty-one. He contemplates "the final summing-up stage" of his life, when he will sit in a rocking chair and reflect on what it all means. As he does so Liam judges himself a failure, as a teacher, husband, and father. He studied philosophy in college but ended up teaching history in a second-rate boys' school. He has two failed marriages, three daughters whom he rarely sees, a sister he seldom speaks to, and a mere handful of friends. "I've never been a good father," he admits to his ex-wife, who observes that he's always considered himself a loser. To save money in retirement, Liam moves to a smaller apartment. On his first night there, he is attacked by an intruder and knocked unconscious. He learns about this only after waking up in the hospital with no recollection of the incident. He tries unsuccessfully to recover the missing piece of his memory by befriending a woman who works as a personal assistant for an elderly millionaire. In the process they fall in love and their unlikely match occupies much of Liam's story. This, too, leads to another failure of sorts, but not after some heart-wrenching and humorous incidents.

Liam is one of those people whom life seems to have passed by. He spends hours, days, and weeks living in the past, trying to recall other things he has forgotten or suppressed. The plot, like the main character, meanders forward in an apparently random fashion but is propelled at times by startling surprises and discoveries that baffle Liam. "The distressing thing about losing a memory,” he decides, “was that it felt like losing control…it felt like a hole in his mind, full of empty blue rushing air." As befits her simple, down-to-earth characters, Tyler's prose is unpretentious but occasionally dazzles with beautiful imagery. It also bristles with gentle satire. When the doctor asks if he can name the current U.S. president, Liam says “He’s not my president.” When his fundamentalist daughter asks him to babysit his five year old grandson, Liam asks why she named him Jonah. "What's next? Judas? Herod? Cain? I mean, Jonah's was not a very happy story." She fails to find this funny, so he concludes that joining the Book of Life Tabernacle did nothing for her sense of humor. During the afternoon Liam spends with Jonah, they talk about the biblical story of Noah. "He wasn't going anywhere," Liam says,"...because the whole world was underwater. He was just trying to stay he didn't need a compass to figure out directions." The reader understands that Liam is describing his own life up to that point. He has rarely spent time with his grandson, and now "the fact that they were related by blood seemed too much to comprehend. Did other grandparents feel this way?" Estrangement, disorientation, and a sense of loss are recurring themes throughout the book, as is the connection---or disconnection---between past and present. When he visits his elderly father, Liam realizes that "the two of them had nothing to say to each other. Why did he have to learn this all over again on every visit?”

As he attempts to recover the missing piece of his life Liam becomes more aware of this disconnect with the past. By the time he recovers from the injuries inflicted by the intruder he is no longer concerned about that particular lost memory. He concludes instead that he's had some kind of amnesia all his life. "Where's the rest? Where's everything else I've forgotten: my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters?" There are other painful things he recalls as well: his dying mother's last moments, the suicide of his first wife, the way he neglected his oldest daughter, and the loneliness that followed divorce. He concludes that "The trouble with discarding bad memories was that evidently the good ones went with them." Liam learns to navigate what's left of his life is by cherishing the good moments and memories. In the end he reconnects with his three daughters and his ex-wife. "It's as if I've never been entirely present in my own life," he says as all they sit down together for lunch. Nothing expresses Liam's earlier indifference to life more than his eating habits. The refrigerator in his new apartment is bare and most of his meals consist of canned soup or cold cereal. This changes in the scene of reconciliation where he enjoys an alfresco meal of chicken salad and deviled eggs with his grandson and daughters in his ex-wife's garden. The arc of his journey concludes when he volunteers as a classroom assistant at a local kindergarten. There, in scenes suggestive of a second childhood, he explores such wonderfully simple things as colors, shapes, and textures with his three-year old charges. This story resonates with the reader because it is about someone who is confused or befuddled by life, someone who needs direction in managing not just the present but his memories of the past. With "Noah's Compass" Anne Tyler once again proves herself a master at exploring seemingly insignificant lives while allowing her characters to find some direction we can all share.







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