Monthly Archives: January 2016

Book Review: “The Arsonist,” by Sue Miller

Sue Miller has a special ability to portray the psychological dimensions of domestic relationships, while maintaining an acute sensitivity to her characters’ inner cores. These qualities are on display in her latest novel, The Arsonist.

The Arsonist explores issues of class divide and resentment, personal identity, and the quest for fulfillment. Set in the late 1990s, the story centers on three point-of-view characters: Francesca “Frankie” Rowley, her mother, Sylvia, and Bud Jacobs, a former Wasington bureau reporter who leaves the big time to run a small community newspaper.

Burned out after 15 years of relief work in Africa, Frankie has returned to her parents’ summer home in Pomeroy, New Hampshire, to relax and sort out her future. Fighting jet lag she takes a walk in the middle of the night and witnesses a car driving at a fast rate of speed and she smells smoke. An arsonist has burned down the home of one of the summer residents, the first of a dozen such fires that rip the small town apart.

All of the homes destroyed by the fires are owned by summer residents, fueling speculation the arsonist is a year-round resident. Miller effectively shows the deep divide between the working class residents, who are fully invested in the town, and the tony summer people who invade the community three months a year.

The fires are not the only problem on Sylvia’s mind. She and her husband, Alfie, have retired and moved from the Connecticut suburbs to her family summer home in Pomeroy, but she is far from content. Alfie, a retired college professor, has always been the apple of the children’s eyes, while Sylvia has done all the work of raising the family. Her resentment of him has simmered for years. Now, Alfie suffers from dementia and, as Sylvia struggles to help him, she faces the realization that she does not love him.

Frankie faces a different dilemma. She questions if the work she did in Africa has really made a difference. She also comes to grips with the realization that a series of affairs with aid workers (the most recent a married man) have left her feeling empty. Into her life comes Bud, the local newspaper publisher who yearns desperately for acceptance in this small town community. They meet at a Fourth of July tea and an affair slowly develops. Miller resists the trope of a quick, torrid affair and instead lets this relationship develop with the awkwardness and uncertainty that two middle-aged people would feel in such a situation.

The story threads come to a head as Sylvia is forced to deal with finding long-term care for Alfie, Frankie must make a decision about her future–and whether it will include Bud–and law enforcement has pinned the arson fires on a barely employed and uneducated handyman. Bud has serious doubts as to whether they have arrested the right man. Sylvia springs into action to help Alfie, with Frankie’s help, and Frankie must decide whether to pursue her career as she weighs what she has sacrificed by not allowing herself to commit to a long term relationship .

As always, Miller delivers the goods with a rich and satisfying story about class, community and identity.

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David Bowie: An Appreciation

I’ve struggled to write a New Year’s Resolution post for the past two weeks. I guess the resolution about not procrastinating in 2016 is not going to happen. Lately, my thoughts have turned to David Bowie after his passing on Jan. 10.

My introduction to Bowie’s music came as a result of one of those foolish teen-age arguments. In my suburban Connecticut neighborhood, the two main topics of conversation among my circle of friends were sports and music. We could argue for hours about which team was better–the Red Sox or the Yankees–or which player was a clutch hitter and which one was not. It was all pretty juvenile, but we enjoyed the give-and-take.

There were similar discussions regarding music. We didn’t argue much about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones as we liked both bands, though we were more of a Beatles neighborhood. But, in the early 70s, I engaged in a running battle with a friend of mine about two artists: Elton John and David Bowie. I took up the cause for Elton. As a frustrated piano player myself, I found Elton’s music resonated with me. My friend scoffed at me. “David Bowie is way better,” he would say. Tired of listening to him, I dared him to prove it. He let me borrow two Bowie albums: “The Rise and Fall of  Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and “Hunky Dory.”  I was blown away. I became a huge Bowie fan. I realized the argument about the relative merits of Elton John and David Bowie was pointless. Each artist was brilliant in his own way.

During his most prolific period from 1969 through 1985, Bowie recorded 14 albums, an output unheard of today. What was more fantastic than his productivity was his creative curiosity. He was one of the rare artists who moved seamlessly from genre to genre. He could do glam rock, blue-eyed soul, rock and roll, kraut werk, and even turn out a scintillating pop song like “Modern Love.”  His lyrics had an inscrutable, thought-provoking quality. I could cite many examples, but the one that always stuck with me was the line at the end of the song “Young Americans.” After listing  a cynical litany of complaints and questions, he wails his true desire: “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?”

The great lesson of Bowie’s musical legacy for me as a writer is to push boundaries. Try new things. Test the limits of creativity. Be true to your art. Strive for greatness. Rest in peace, David Bowie. Thank you for the rich and diverse music you have left behind.

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Books Read in 2015

2015 wasn’t exactly a banner year for me in terms of book reading. Work-related issues and a health challenge reduced my reading productivity, but I still managed to read 19 books in 2015. This is shy of my usual goal of 25 books, but I enjoyed works by a broad cross section of authors in a variety of genres. Here are the books I read:

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green.

Becoming Josephine, by Heather Webb.

Rodin’s Lover, by Heather Webb.

Let Me Be Frank with You, by Richard Ford

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

The House of Hawthorne, by Erika Robuck

Swamplandia! By Karen Russell

The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

Caught, by Harlan Coben

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (pen name for JK Rowling)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

Mean Streak, by Sandra Brown

The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, by Bill Pennington

My favorite book of the year? All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. This was a beautifully rendered tale of the struggles of a blind French girl and a sensitive young German solider during the last days of World War II. Doerr used all the elements of a great story: strong premise, satisfying story arc, detailed characterization, compelling narrative, rich and vivid description, high stakes, and an important theme. Happy reading in 2016.

What was the favorite book you read in 2015? 


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