The Lager Queen of Minnesota

If you are not hungry for pie and thirsty for beer as you read J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota, you are a better person than I am.  After reading about Edith’s award winning pies, I had to take a break to buy and eat some pie.  The craving for ale, lager. or stout was easy to overcome since the only beer I really like is Guinness and only if I am drinking it in Ireland – something about the water, I think, makes it taste so good there I could have it for breakfast.  Luckily, I don’t get to Ireland often.

Expecting a cozy tale of lovable elderly ladies around the quilting circle, I was pleasantly surprised by Stradal’s complicated family saga and learned more about the making of beer than I can ever use – unless I too get the opportunity to make a chocolate beer in my old age.

Two sisters, Edith, the pie maker, and Helen, the chemist and brewmeister, part ways when their father dies and leaves the farm to Helen.  Without sharing the profits, Helen sells the farm and uses the money to start a brewery.  Throughout the story, Helen is the selfish, smart, money-hungry sister pitted against sweet, calm, pie-making Edith.   Forsaking her ideal of the perfect beer, Helen and her husband make Blotz, a cheap beer appealing to the masses and make a fortune.  Helen, however, does not share her good fortune with her sister.

Left penniless after her husband’s death, Edith works baking pies in a nursing home and as a janitor at a fast food restaurant, raising her teenage granddaughter, Diane, after the fatal crash of Edith’s daughter.  Edith is the good sister, unrewarded with money for all her hard work, but, of course, loved by all.

Despite the stereotypes, the main characters are convincing, but as the tale evolves into desparate times for Edith, a newfound career in brewing for Diane with Edith and her senior friends working at the brewery, and the  evolution of craft beer destroying Helen’s empire, the ending is almost predictable.

I read The Lager Queen of Minnesota in a day, enjoying the possibility of ladies over sixty having a new career in an unlikely business.  Looking for more information on craft beer, I found Williams Sonoma sells a Craft Beer Kit – seems anyone can try making beer.

The Dutch House

My old friend’s younger face stared at me from the cover of Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, as I wandered through the airport bookstore.  I had just left her husband’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and the moment of her last goodbye as she bent over the coffin, surrounded by the military color guard, was still with me.  Looking back on his life seemed like a fast forward through time, full of moments of joy and sadness – some only he and my friend shared alone.  Ann Patchett captured this colorama of life as she focused on one family’s life journey in her book, based in a place I grew up – the suburbs of Philadelphia.

I read through The Dutch House from Washington D.C. to Honolulu, never turning on the movie screen in front of me, and time flew by as I did.  I noted Bishop McDevitt High School, where my brother and I cheered the basketball team, Abington Memorial Hospital where my father and brother died, the references to Elkins Park, the neighborhood a cut above it all,  and Jenkintown, with its old library, all within the radius of my childhood home.  I followed Danny and Maeve from childhood to funerals, and gladly immersed myself in a world of characters Patchett created.

If you’ve read Patchett’s books, you know she is all about the characters and the place.  In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Patchett gives her reason for setting the house in the story in Elkins Park:

“I was looking for a tony suburb that was near New York, because New York would definitely play into the story. And I have a very close friend, Erica Buchsbaum Schultz, who is originally from Wyncote {the actual site of Bishop McDevitt High School}.. And when I was in college [at Sarah Lawrence], I would always go to her family’s house for weekends, because I lived too far away [in Nashville]…I like to write in a place that I know, but maybe not too well. I would never set a book in Nashville. If I know a place too well, I get overburdened with details.”

But she got her descriptions right.  I know – I grew up there – and it added to the pleasure of reading the book for me.  There was my friend on the cover and in a place where we both grew up.

The story is unlike anything I knew when I was there, however, and maybe a little fantastic. A mother, overcome with guilt over her husband’s new wealth, cannot accommodate living in a glorious mansion with servants and expensive art, and leaves her three year old son and eleven year old daughter, to go to India to help with the poor.  Danny, the son, is the narrator, as we follow his journey from his life in a glass house to his reunion as an adult with his mother. Martha Southgate for the New York Times calls the story a fairy tale, and it does have the wicked stepmother with her two selfish daughters, and a few fairy godmothers.  Danny is not Cinderella, but he and his sister Maeve, do lose the comforts of wealth when their father dies.  Despite all the obstacles they have to overcome and the suffering they endure, Danny and Maeve thrive, and the wicked stepmother gets her due.

Unlike a fairy tale, Patchett weaves a story about characters you can care about, and offers so much for a discussion – great book for a book club, just like her Commonwealth.

Thank you, Ann Patchett, for delivering a book for publication, and as my friend’s husband would say, your timing for me, “was exactly right.”

The Excellent Lombards

If I hadn’t read Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, I may have missed Jane Hamilton’s The Excellent Lombards. Patchett recommended the book as “the book Hamilton was born to write.” Like Patchett’s Commonwealth, The Excellent Lombards focuses on a family, and has some biographical references from its author. Coincidentally, both books also have a character named Frances.

Since Hamilton tells this coming of age story through the voice of twelve year old Mary Frances Lombard living with her family on a small Wisconsin apple and sheep farm at the end of the twentieth century, the rhythm of the narrative is hard to follow at first. Ownership of the farm lands has been passed down through generations and is now shared by Jim Lombard, Frankie’s father, his cousin Sherwood, and an elderly aunt May Hill. Everyone from old May Hill to the children, Frankie and her brother, William, work the farm, except Nellie, Frankie’s mother who is the town librarian.

Frankie is determined to stay on the farm forever, imagining a long life there with her brother, but the small farm struggle against land development and innovative crops, as well as inner family rivalries, threaten her dream. Change is hard, especially when you don’t want to grow up.

Hamilton, of course, has a message for the reader through tense moments at town hall meetings or around the dinner table, but the novel’s humor, cleverly flowing through Frankie, kept my attention – from her pushing the library carts through the halls in a synchronized dance routine to being locked in the old lady’s bedroom while she was sharpening her spying skills.  Frankie will go to extremes to keep everyone happy, purposely losing the geography bee to her younger lispy cousin to make her feel better.

Hamilton touches on historic moments such as the terrorist attack on the New York City Towers, but only as placements in time. The real terror is the developing history noone can stop. The story ends with Frankie facing her own possibilities, opportunities, and obstacles – some seem inevitable. With grace and wit, Hamilton delivers her perspective on the difficulty of letting go.

The Heirs

9781101904718_p0_v2_s192x300    Despite the familiar theme of a surprising revelation after the patriarch of the family dies – that he had another secret family – Susan Rieger’s The Heirs offers a unique spin.  The Heirs tells the saga of a family jockeying to maintain their individual dignity and struggling to sustain their family loyalty.

Six months after Rupert dies, his widow, Eleanor, opens a letter with a dated picture of him with another woman and two children, claiming rights of inheritance.  Eleanor, is surprisingly willing to disperse some of the family wealth to them.  Rieger goes further, planting doubt over the whether Rupert actually fathered the five sons in his long marriage with Eleanor.

The surprise of Rupert’s secret life is more shocking to his grown sons, all Princeton graduates, and now all successful as a doctor, lawyer, writer, MacArthur genius and musician.  Since the body has been cremated and Eleanor has had their apartment scoured of any trace of her former husband, DNA testing seems impossible, feeding the dilemma of discovering the truth.

Although the story may seem, at first, to be yet another formulaic tale, Rieger breaks from reader’s expectations; the sharp civilized tone with a sprinkling of Classic allusions reveals characters as more human than expected. With a cast of characters including five legitimate sons, their wives and lovers, and parents Eleanor and Rupert with their line of  disenchanted or rejected lovers, added to the possibility of two more illegitimate sons, the plot lines can get a little crowded.  But just as she manages her own life, her husband’s, and the whirl of five boys to men, Eleanor, Vassar educated, smooth and serene on the outside, smoldering inside, directs the action.   As Eleanor’s past is revealed through a series of flashbacks, her reticence becomes clear.

Rupert, despite being abandoned as a baby, has led a charmed life. After being adopted by the priest who administered the orphanage, he received scholarships to prestigious schools, eventually graduating from Cambridge, and later accidentally sitting next to Yale’s Dean of Law on the train to visit the campus and subsequently receiving a full scholarship to attend.  He marries into a rich American family and carves a successful career at a prominent law firm.  But now that he is dead, his insecurities and passions come to the fore.  Rieger cleverly connects his past to his present, explaining his idiosyncrasies.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, slowly revealing childhood fears and successes, proclivities leading to careers or life styles, and lovers who feed or threaten to destroy the family’s equilibrium.  Although complicated and intertwined, their stories are easy to follow as Rieger constantly rewrites what the reader knows about each.  Love seems to be the underlying emotion; however, the truth is often missing.

Jason Sheehan summed up the book in his review for National Public Radio (NPR):

Love and sex and money and betrayal make for excellent storytelling. And The Heirs has all of that in excess. As an exploration of the hidden lives of Rupert and Eleanor Falkes, it is a posh soap opera written by Fitzgerald and the Brontes. As a window on a family shaken by death, it is The Royal Tenenbaums, polished up and moved across town…But its beauty, economy and expensive wit is all its own.

The story ends with yet another letter and surprise for Eleanor.  She quips, “I want a designated mail opener, someone like the king’s food taster…”

Review of Another Susan Rieger bookThe Divorce Papers

Leaving Lucy Pear

9781101981764_p0_v1_s192x300  Anna Solomon’s sad tale of a baby left in an orchard in Leaving Lucy Pear has a cast of characters whose lives relate to her desertion in a little village in Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1917.  I had expected only a version of the same theme I had read in other books – The Forgotten Garden, Light on Snow, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and many more, but Solomon’s book holds its own with an underlying struggle of classes driving the classic redemption of the lost child.

Lucy is a minor character as the story begins with her under a pear tree, left by her wealthy teenage mother unwilling to give her up to a strict Jewish orphanage,  and found by a poor Irish family stealing the pears. Solomon evokes admiration for the tough Irish Emma, whose drunk fisherman husband is only home long enough to make her pregnant every year and pity for Bea, the lonely teenager who became pregnant after one assignation with a handsome naval officer.  Solomon does not alternate chapters on the mothers, as expected, but slowly reveals each of the mother’s lives through a series of related characters as well as their past and present, as she skips though the years.

Ten years after leaving her baby in a pear orchard, Bea, has grown into a women’s rights and Prohibition advocate, married to a handsome Boston banker.  She lives in Cape Ann with her aging Uncle Ira in an imposing house near the pear orchard.  Josiah, married into wealth on the island and hoping to gain Bea’s endorsement for mayor, arranges to have Emma, now a mother of nine children with her husband at sea, to care for Ira.  Emma recognizes Bea as the mother of Lucy but Bea does not learn of Lucy’s new home until much later in the story.

Solomon adds political and class story lines as she addresses the parallel lives of the mothers.  The famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti punctuates the plot in an underlying voice accusing both the wealthy land owners – the outsiders on the Cape – and the poor working class locals. Ira’s brother, who is a successful shoe manufacturer changed his Jewish name to one better suited to the Protestant New England upper class, while his wife,  Bea’s mother, is a pitiful pretender at the country club, overdressing and fracturing her vocabulary as she tries to fit in.   She later becomes the catalyst for a strange twist of fate I did not see coming.

As the characters grow into their lives, Soloman slyly dismisses the reader’s assumptions about their motivations, revealing surprising yet reasonable secrets protecting their characters’ flaws.  Emma’s risks in having an affair with Josiah, Bea’s selfless crusades to protect her fragile ego, Albert’s steadfastness despite his yearning, Lucy’s disguising herself in a boy’s clothing – all eventually merge into revelations.

As I read, I found myself googling Sacco and Vanzetti, their trial, its effects, their execution, and much later vindication by Gov. Michael Dukakis.  I looked for Cape Ann, not as popular as Cape Cod, at the other end of the half moon of land off the coast of Massachusetts.  I wondered about the pears and found orchards still producing, with aged cinnamon pear vinegar and Stone Ruination Ale.

Lucy is almost a minor character in the plot, but has grown into a feisty and capable girl.  The ending brings her full circle to face both mothers.  Hints of her final decision, as she tries to manage the pull of both mothers, may be predictable and hopeful, but no less sad for an independent ten year old.  I’m hoping for a sequel to follow Lucy as she grows into womanhood.

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