A Darkly Entertaining Tale of Faith Gone Too Far

Coming of Age at the End of Days, by Alice La Plante

Reviewed by Michelle Richmond

If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.

Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of her new neighbors, the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna’s grief over her parents’ death is muted by her belief in their spiritual shortcomings. As a concerned teacher tries to guide her back to reality, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.

The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. (For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?)

In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s far more relaxing to return to the subject in fictional form as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.

Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. When he utters a few words to her at a bus stop, she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for his outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a more nuanced character.

What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, a man-made version of the Tribulation may very well come to pass.

In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide. Highly recommended for fans of psychologically complex fiction, as well as for reformed Evangelicals.

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ISBN 9780802121653

Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2015

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections, including Hum.

A review copy of this book was provided by Netgalley.

Quick Takes – Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal by Sigrid Undset

Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayal, by Sigrid Undset

translated by Tiina Nunnally

reviewed by Michelle Richmond

The 1907 novel by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in 1928, still holds up to scrutiny today. It is now, as it was then, a very modern novel. The subject–the interior life of a young married woman who desperately longs for a more passionate life–made waves in Norway upon its publication and has been translated for the first time into English. A beautifully written, deeply affecting journey into the mind of a woman struggling against convention.

University of Minnesota Press, March 2014, ISBN 978-0816692521

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Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

by Peter Orner

reviewed by Mia Lipman

Short stories–the rite of passage for every MFA student, the inevitable debut collection–turn from bonbons to weapons in the expert hands of Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and their ilk. These authors are not failed novelists whose ideas are too narrow for a magnum opus; they’re the grand wizards of a completely different art form, and Ms. Munro has a freshly minted Nobel Prize to prove it. Now joining their ranks is Peter Orner, whose second book of stories reveals a level of precision and craft that makes me hope, despite his two very fine novels, that he keeps writing short forever.

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge lightly knots together 51 pieces ranging in scope from a single moment to a series of them, each as fully realized as a bullet. Reciting plot points won’t reveal much: Herb and Rosalie Swanson tell the same story over and over again at parties; Allie goes swimming with a bevy of boys; Walt Kaplan listens to his daughter thump up and down the stairs. Orner’s gift lies in stripping all of these people bare through their minutia. Suspension of disbelief is not an issue here: These are people, never inventions, and you’re gently peering through the window as they do their broken, beautiful human thing.

The experience is raw and familiar and so well orchestrated, it doesn’t really matter where you dip in. But if you do read Last Car cover to cover all at once–and you probably will, because putting this book down would be like hanging up the phone mid-conversation–then you’ll get the added pleasure of recognizing a few old friends when they stop by for a second or third visit.

You wouldn’t think someone could haunt you with a life that spans just a few lines, but Peter Orner can. He can tell you an entire ghost story, and you won’t stop believing it until the next welcome specter chases it away.

Little, Brown and Company, August 2013

ISBN-10: 0316224642

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Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, founding executive editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of LitFix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

5 Great Books for Grads

Estartupofyoumily Post’s Manners in a Digital World: Living Well Online, by Daniel Post Senning
Because every grad could brush up on his or her manners before heading out into the job market or onto the college scene. The Post Institute’s answer to all things digital, from the etiquette of sharing to the proper way to text, not to mention when it is, and isn’t, okay to pull out your cell phone. Do you know a grad who texts through dinner and posts everything on facebook? Do him a tremendous favor; buy him this book.
Open Road, April 2013, ISBN 978-1453254950

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
A smart guide to thinking of yourself in entrepreneurial terms, by Linked-in co-founder Hoffman. A good eye-opener to the possibilities of forging connections, adapting to the demands of changing economic landscapes, and thinking big in an extremely competitive world.
Crown, Feb. 2012, ISBN 978-0307888907

Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, by Anne Truitt
If they are fortunate and hard-working, students graduate from college with the tools they need to tackle the job market. But do they know how to be true to their own vision as artists and individuals? The antidote to all the business, networking, and social media talk that bombards us at every turn, Daybook is a thought-provoking memoir about living the artistic life. Written over a period of seven years, as the artist sculpts, creates, and watches her own daughter become a mother, Daybook is a call to the quiet life from which some of our best efforts spring.
Scribner, Oct. 2013, ISBN 978-1476740980

Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe, by Mario Livio
A brief history of inspired stumbling that shows that some of the biggest advances come from thinking, trying, screwing up, and thinking again. Through the lives of five remarkable scientists, Livio reminds us that the best discoveries do not always come from a plan, and that when we go off track, we can accomplish the extraordinary.
Simon & Schuster, May 2013, ISBN 978-1439192368

A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
A long haul of a book, about ambition, writing, love, parenting, failure, and many other things. Because sometimes we all need to slow down and think. Read an in-depth review of A Man in Love.
Archipelago, May 2013, ISBN 978-1935744825

Review by Michelle Richmond, author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and two other books of fiction

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

Reviewed by Mia Lipman 

In her dark and deft fourth novel, the much lauded Claire Messud pulls no punches with the voice of Nora Eldridge, a beloved schoolteacher wound up explosively tight. “How angry am I? You don’t want to know,” she notes by way of introduction, and it’s fair to say things go downhill from there—but Messud’s vivid writing woos us into keeping this bitter pill of a lady company. (The author came by her PEN/Faulkner Award and Booker Prize nominations honestly.)

Having played the “straitlaced” good girl for all of her fortysomething years, Nora anchors her ferocity just beneath the surface, and it takes a family of three to unleash it: the Shahids, whose luminous young son, Reza, “a canonical boy,” captures Nora’s imagination when he enters her third-grade classroom. Reza’s foreignness and poor English charm his teacher, but the other students peg him as a target, and a playground scuffle connects Nora with his mother, Sirena. The two women share an interest in art—Sirena’s professional and thriving, Nora’s amateur and unfulfilled—and soon they also share a studio that becomes Nora’s refuge from everything she resents: failed relationships, dead mother and hypochondriac father, no art degree, no children. Sirena’s academic husband, Skandar, welcomes his wife’s new friend and his son’s “institutrice” with polite intimacy, and the Shahids quickly absorb Nora into their worldly, accomplished family.

But on Messud’s watch, it’s never as easy as all that. Familiarity can breed obsession, and Nora finds herself teetering on the hairline crack between trust and distrust as she digs deeper into her new relationships. Messud is comfortable in claustrophobic spaces, and it’s hard not to follow her into them, flinching, even when we ought to know better.

This sharp, empathetic portrait of a broken woman demands a second glance, then a third, then an entire afternoon. The payoff will leave you reeling.

Knopf, April 2013

ISBN-10: 0307596907

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Mia LipmanMia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys

Reviewed by Mia Lipman

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her linked story collection, Olive Kitteridge, reviewers praised her gift for elevating the ordinary. Among the rarefied breed of unrushed authors who produce an enviable book every 5 to 10 years (see: Jamaica Kincaid, Junot Díaz, Ann Packer), Strout also has a particular talent for spinning empathy out of misery. Her characters are mean, stupid, bumbling, frustrating, and hard to get enough of.

Strout’s new book, The Burgess Boys, reimagines an unhappy neighbor family from her childhood as even worse off than they probably were: dead father, incompetent mother, blowhard older brother Jim, hopeless younger brother Bob, and wayward sister Susan. The three kids have managed to avoid each other for years, resenting from afar—but when Susan’s teenage son, Zach, acts out by throwing a pig’s head into a mosque, Bob and Jim are forced into an awkward attempt at solidarity to help him survive the public outcry. The Burgess boys never wanted to go back to Shirley Falls, Maine, so they can’t muster much enthusiasm when it becomes obvious they have no choice.

Woven into this family mess are glimpses at the life of a local Muslim man, Abdikarim Ahmed, who emigrated from Somalia and belongs to the mosque that Zach defiled. Strout isn’t quite as successful at reading his mind, but Abdikarim and his family offer a quiet, pointed reflection on what it means to be in community.

Weirdly and brilliantly, Zach turns out to be the moral compass at the center of the Burgess brouhaha. By all accounts a sweet kid, he doesn’t really understand why he did what he did, and the adults around him sure as hell don’t. But in the course of trying to figure it out, each of these broken people manages to do a little better than usual. Also a lot worse—there are no miracle cures in Strout’s world. But the moments of connection, through hatred as well as love, are riveting.

Only a writer this deeply tapped into how humans work could make you want to sit still and watch as the Burgesses flail, suffer, and endure.

Random House, March 2013

ISBN-10: 1400067685

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Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman is the former reviews editor of San Francisco magazine, a founding editor of Canteen magazine, and the host of Lit Fix, a quarterly reading and music series in Seattle.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

unchangeable spots of leopards

by Kristopher Jansma

Reviewed by Susanna Daniel 

At the start of Kristopher Jansma’s slippery and energetic debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, the unnamed narrator tells about his childhood spent in Terminal B of an American airport, making up stories — he will be a writer, of course — about passengers and the shop people who oversee him while he waits for his flight attendant mother, whose questionable parenting choices are almost all we ever learn about her.

Like most literary orphans, the boy is plucky and precocious, and one dramatic afternoon he learns that the grownups who have been distractedly looking out for him regard him less with affection and amusement than annoyance and pity. It’s an experience the narrator will continue to have throughout the the book: first he sees himself through one funhouse mirror, then through a different and equally distorted one. And the reader never knows which perspective to believe.

The twists and turns of the novel’s plot, which spans three decades, veer confidently into familiar literary territory, jockeying nimbly between bildungsroman and rags-to-riches and love triangle and caper. The setting jumps just as agilely — New York, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Iceland — as does the narrative style: one chapter is an unbroken monologue told to a couple of tourists in a hotel.

Before he is thirty-five, the narrator has remade himself half a dozen times. He is a liar of many stripes: identity thief, plagiarist, heartbreaker, and author. Like many authors, however, he’s far more enchanted with the notion of having written a book than the act of actually writing one, and therein lies the rub. On one of its many levels, this is a book about how to avoid writing a book.

The novel is rapid in pace, the language and details tightly controlled. Each time the story swerves into well-trod literary territory, the swerve is embraced fully. (Waiting on a train platform, the narrator not only invokes Hemingway, but also shares a local liquor with another American tourist who, to take it all the way, quotes from “Hills Like White Elephants.”) The few characters who break into the narrator’s self-involved bubble are quirky and colorful without ever becoming entirely of-the-flesh; this is more a story of hijinks than of hearts. Even this reader, who admittedly prefers a more reliable narrator, found myself rooting for the storyteller. He’s a liar and a thief, sure, but he’s also an underdog with more nerve than he’s earned.

At the center of the ever-shifting story is the question of truth — slanted, as the narrator professes to prefer it, or altogether disassembled. Each chapter spins a more outlandish yarn that the last, leaving the reader with the sense that the truth is sliding around even as the book sits closed on the shelf.

It’s tremendous fun, this book. One might wish for a little more of a typical debut’s raw, hard-beating heart, but what the book lacks in heart it makes up for in exuberance.

Viking Adult, March 2013  ISBN 9780670026005

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Susanna Daniel is the author of STILTSVILLE, winner of the PEN/Bingham Prize for debut fiction, and SEA CREATURES, forthcoming in July 2013 from HarperCollins. Visit her website at http://www.susannadaniel.com.

Cover of Snow by Jenny Milchman

Cover of SnowJenny Milchman’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, will likely please fans of cold-weather crime writers like Arnaldur Indridason (Arctic Chill) and Camilla Lackberg (The Ice Princess).

When Nora Hamilton discovers her cop husband Brendan dead of an apparent suicide in the home they share in the small town of Wedeskyull, NY, the police force she has long trusted quickly rallies around her. But as the unlikelihood of his suicide nags at her, Nora begins to question the omnipotence of third-generaton police chief Vern Weathers, known to everyone simply as Chief, and his band of loyal officers–including the trigger-happy Club Mitchell and the aptly if obviously named Tim Lurquer.

Bombarded by questions about Brendan’s past, Nora must face how little she really knew about him. Much of the plot hinges on the death of Brendan’s little brother in a tragic accident when Brendan was just a child. The description of the aftermath of the child’s death, perceived through photographs at a distance of more than two decades by Nora, who never knew him, is brilliantly and chillingly executed.

Readers may be puzzled by Nora’s lack of curiosity, which, though key to the plot, sometimes feels strained. It seems implausible that she would never have heard about the worst and most talked-about tragedy the town ever suffered, particularly when her own husband was at the center of it. It’s a minor complaint, however, in what ultimately is a very compelling mystery.

Milchman excels in unexpected moments, such as when she describes Nora’s sister’s stiflingly hot New York City apartment:

Teggie’s bedroom was as sweltering as the cramped rest of her apartment. I went back to the bed, crawled across it, and tugged at a window. It opened with a sticky separation of paint, and the volume of the city instantly increased.

The author clearly knows the frozen landscape that serves as backdrop to her story. The characters are frequently seen sliding down banks of ice, scraping it off their windows, or hiking over hills of snow. Milchman masterfully describes the ice-bound setting in the way that only someone who truly lives it can. Like the best Nordic crime thrillers, the novel succeeds in making you feel very, very cold.

Milchman also displays a keen eye for character. Characters who might be mere plot devices in a lesser thriller are thoughtfully rendered here. There is Chief, who rules over the town like a not-always-benevolent father, firm in the belief that he is called upon to protect his flock, and that too many rules and regulations only get in the way. His junior officers’ devotion to him feels entirely real, and the ways in which he is tangled up with members of the community, including Brendan’s Aunt Jean, becomes clearer and more menacing as the novel progresses.

Another fascinating character is Dugger, an autistic man who has been recording the town in images and sound for nearly three decades. Dugger’s photos and audio recordings lend an intriguing and essential layer to the plot.

But the real triumph of Milchman’s first novel is the pacing. The plot unfolds at an excellent clip, stalling in just the right moments, lingering on characters long enough for us to get to know them, ultimately rushing headlong to a series of startling revelations. I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, unwilling to put the novel down until I had reached the fascinating and unexpected conclusion.

Ballantine Books, Jan. 2013 ISBN 978-0345534217

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year of fog coverMichelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the novels No One You Know and Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. Visit her at http://michellerichmond.com.

If you like Cover of Snow, you might also like Arctic Chill (Arnaldur Indridason), The Ice Princess (Camilla Lackberg), and Sun Storm (Asa Larsson).

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose has cemented her reputation as one of our leading writers of suspense, fusing thriller elements with history and a fascination with how the past can affect and alter the present. While reincarnation themes dominate her most recent books, including the brilliant THE HYPNOTIST, you don’t have to be a believer to sink into her carefully constructed ambiance, often populated by damaged yet hopeful characters seeking redemption in a chaotic and dangerous world.

In THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES, Rose introduces a new character, Jac L’Etoile -a young woman haunted by her past and the ethereal scents that filled her childhood as heir to the French perfume company, House of L’Etoile. Jac’s youth is marred by the pain of her mother’s untimely death and a difficult relationship with her family, but after fourteen years of living abroad in the United States, her attempts to flee the past catch up with her when she and her talented brother Robbie inherit the family business. The inheritance is rife with trouble; plagued by financial trouble in a relentless corporation-driven era that is destroying the art of natural perfume making in favor of mass production, the once legendary House of L’Etoile is on the brink of ruin. But when Jac’s brother stumbles upon a potentially life-changing secret in the family archives and soon thereafter disappears under frightening circumstances, Jac finds herself thrust into a desperate gambit to find her brother, unravel the mystery of the legendary fragrance of Cleopatra – a possible tool to restore past-life memories – and find a way to confront, and make peace, with her shattered past.

Ms Rose excels, as always, at depicting her troubled heroine’s journey as Jac navigates the glamorous boulevards of the City of Lights and the lethal underworld of reincarnation tools and those who will stop at nothing to obtain them. Rose also populates her fast-moving, breathtaking narrative with a host of memorable secondary characters, including assassins and a shadowy figure that her fans will recognize from past books. But it is her meticulous attention to the evanescent, fascinating world of perfume that sets this novel apart. At moments, the very pages of THE BOOK OF LOST FRAGRANCES emanate the ambergris and musk of ancient Egypt, so that you find yourself sniffing your fingers for traces of the elusive, lost perfume. In Jac, Rose has also developed her best heroine yet: a woman whose outward fragility conceals an inner courage that propels her into the terrifying catacombs of Paris on a quest that will re-define her belief in, and powers to, retrieve the past, even as these exact heart-breaking sacrifice.

Readers of historical fiction, suspense and mystery should flock to this captivating and unusual novel.

Atria Books, Paperback release-Feb. 2013,  ISBN 9781451621488

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Visit MJ Rose’s website.

C.W. Gortner is the bestselling author of four historical novels, including his most recent, THE QUEEN’S VOW. Visit him at www.cwgortner.com

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker’s enchanting debut novel, The Age of Miracles, follows the life of a young girl in the suburbs beginning with the day the earth’s rotation mysteriously begins to slow, throwing the world as we know it into a kind of controlled chaos.

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.
We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.

As the slowing becomes more severe, and days stretch to sixty hours, humans must decide whether to follow their circadian rhythms or obey a government mandate to live on “clock time,” going on as if nothing has happened. Reminiscent of the 2011Lars von Trier film Melancholia, The Age of Miracles is a kind of pre-Apocalypse story, as opposed to the post-Apocalypse novel (an excellent example of which is Julianna Baggot’s terrific novel, Pure).

Unlike most end-of-the-world stories, there is no violence here. Instead, Thompson focuses on an 11-year-old girl’s perception of unfolding events: her coming-of-age angst, her love for a boy with a dying mother, the disintegration of her own family life. The global chaos is only hinted at, as the narrator’s life goes on much as it had before. She goes to school, faces bullies, and anxiously watches her neighbor, who has chosen to follow the ever-changing rhythms of the sun instead of the increasingly meaningless clock time. The Age of Miracles is a very sweet, engaging story, one which stayed on my mind as I went about my day. What is missing in terms of concrete information about the slowing (the changes in the magnetic field, as well as “the sickness” and shifts in weather and the , are dealt with in a vague, dreamy way) is made up for in the narrator’s voice–innocent, full of wonder. We don’t know how the world will end; what we do know is that the narrator survives to adulthood (she tells the story from this vantage point), in a world irreversibly altered from the one that she knew as a child.

The most interesting idea of The Age of Miracles is this: we prepare for all sorts of contingencies. We worry about global warming, warfare, chemicals in our water. And yet what destroys us may turn out to be something we never imagined.

We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology. We had robot arms and robot hands, robots for roving the surface of Mars…And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known. We never determined the cause of the slowing…

SFJB: Highly recommended
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Visit Karen Thompson Walker’s website

Random House Trade Paperbacks, Jan. 2013 

ISBN-13: 978-0812982947