I’m always looking for novels about older adults. I want to know how they live, how they deal with second-half challenges, what spurs them on and keeps them fired up. Here’s a partial list of what I’ve read. For the full list (over 50 titles) go to my Facebook Author Page, click Photos>Albums>Midlife Fiction. Here’s the link.
Margo is in her 40s, had a sad childhood, is bumping along in her halfway life, and then this non-wedding sets into motion a series of events. It starts with the jilted bridegroom joining her in for a trip to Palm Springs in a vintage MG chasing the runaway bride. Since the MG is really precious and tiny (and no seatbelts) she and Tully decide to take old Route 66 rather than the freeway.
The roadtrip wasn’t as interesting as what happens when they finally get back to New York, although the fight scene in Chicago was really well done, and there’s a ton of dark humor in this book.
Margo’s ultimate realization, and the revelation of her backstory with Finn, the unattainable forever-love, is worth the ride. Many interesting characters, interesting backdrop (architectural preservation as metaphor), and very satisfying ending. A very good read.
What a lovely story. It centers around Trudy, 47, whose three kids are grown and whose husband is having an affair, so she kicks him to the curb. And then she falls apart, because she still loves him passionately. Her arc is about finding the woman she was before she gave up her dreams to care for her family, and how does her maybe-to-be-ex-husband adapt, or does he? Meanwhile, a beautiful and sexy man moves in next store, a man with his own broken heart to tend.
Although beautifully drawn, this book came close to trying to do too much. Although I loved Trudy, her story is nearly overshadowed by other characters. There’s Roberta, an elderly neighbor who might be losing the will to live upon the death of her beloved husband. There’s her granddaughter, Jade, a 30 yo social worker who boxes and wants to empower girls. And her coach, Reuben, with whom a romance flares.
There’s Shannelle, the girl across the street, who is a perfect wife and mother and wants to be a writer, because she’s really talented, but whose husband isn’t supportive. And the famous writer who’s encouraging her.
But the payoff is huge, because there are insights in this book that will make you feel joyful. And as with all of O’Neal’s novels, there’s such a constant theme of women looking out for each other, being good friends. Friendship and sisterhood, love and lust, art, goddesses, a Spanish poet, cooking, plants, cats…something for everyone in this novel. Totally recommend it.
Anne Tyler is such a masterful writer that I stuck with this book even though it didn’t catch fire for me until about the halfway point. And frankly, I began to get annoyed. All those cranky, mean women! Then things started to change, and I couldn’t put it down. The payoff is very gratifying.
I love reading about older people evolving, and Liam, the 60-year-old newly-fired ex-teacher starts out sleepwalking (another theme I love: from sleepwalking through life, to awakening, and especially when this happens to older people). A literal conk on the head starts Liam questioning his memory. At this time he is a complacent object of derision at the hands of the female members of his family (oddly the few males in the story range from accepting to kind re Liam). His evolution is rewarding.
Tyler, who wrote The Accidental Tourist and The Beginner’s Goodbye, specializes in quirky, one might say “loser” characters. Her depictions of their worlds are gritty, impoverished. Yet a character doesn’t have to win the lottery or marry a prince to become whole. This is an aspect of restraint that I respect. A fine story.
A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass; Guest Review by Marj Charlier
I have been told that becoming a famous writer—which I suppose means having a book on the New York Times best-seller list—is not an unmitigated blessing. The mitigations, I suppose, are the weighty expectations concerning the next book, and of course, not being able to walk down the street without people bugging you for autographs. (Ha, that latter intended as a joke, if it isn’t obvious. In today’s America, writers aren’t rock or movie stars.)
What I have never considered was the possibility that author fame would also cause my heirs to have to grapple with my “archives.” Perhaps that is because an author’s archives these days consist mainly of a zillion computer word files representing the repeated saves and the hundreds of drafts of every novel (short story, poetry collection, etc.), and little else. In my case, maybe also the hundreds of books I’ve collected about writing and editing; about astrophysics and witchcraft (for Thwack!); about the Germanic barbarian invasions, the spread of Christianity and the Merovingian kingdom (for The Rebel Nun); and about beer brewing, slavery, and candle-making in the Middle Ages (for my upcoming project about young lovers in a town on the west bank of the Rhine in 407 A.D.).
But there will be no treasured, type-written manuscripts with editor’s marks and penciled corrections. There will be no heretofore-undiscovered sketches of illustrations that didn’t make it into my books (I don’t write illustrated books). There will be no collection of letters between me and my writing friends, responses to negative or positive reviews, or rejection letters from agents and publishers. All of our work and correspondence is on the computer (which for us should really be called “word processors” or “platform portals,” given the heaviest computing most of us do is the same simple math we can do on a $10 calculator.)
I ruminate on this because Mort Lear, the dead children’s author and (despite his deceased condition) central character of this wonderful novel, has set up the conundrum or inciting incident that puts the story in motion by leaving his memoirs and archives to his long-term assistant rather than to the museum that had expected to receive them. Now his assistant, Tommy (woman), and the museum curator, Merry, whose job depends on getting those archives, must overcome the tensions and conflicts that come with Mort’s last-minute change of mind. Ever polite and gracious, characteristics I gather are de rigueur in high literary societies on the East Coast (never been there), the two women muse about their own identity issues and legacies, both of which are at stake as well. Enter Nick, an unexpectedly nice and inobtrusive actor cast to play Mort in an upcoming feature film about his life, which will explore the sexual abuse that the world has come to believe occurred in his childhood. (Whether it was what the world thinks it was or not comprises another interesting plot layer.)
I generally don’t like to read novels about writers. While authors are nowadays must avoid the appearance (or performance) of cultural appropriation, I don’t think that means we must all write about ourselves. But this book isn’t really about Mort as a writer. It’s about the problems he caused, both for those who receive or want his archives, and by his veiled allusions to his childhood.
Glass does a masterful job of creating three sympathetic characters who are in most ways in opposition to each other. By the end, even the ambitious museum curator (kind of a PR person, too) comes across at the end as a reasonable and caring, if troubled, human.
I highly recommend this book.
This is the story of an almost-50 yo woman whose husband is not the greatest match for her, and she’s been in love with someone else for her whole adult life, although she hasn’t seen the guy for almost 30 years. When she finally does, enlightenment dawns all around.
This is a fine depiction of the complexities of a long-term marriage, the reasons we become who we are and develop a certain way, the negotiations with our mates, our parents, our kids. The tales we tell ourselves. Yet the author doesn’t explain much to us, just letting the story unfold. What talent. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
This is a thoughtful romance with an unusual premise: when a woman’s husband is for all intents and purposes not in the marriage anymore, and the woman meets her soul mate, what will happen? I was drawn along by the loveliness of the setting (a remote valley in northwest Wales), the pluck of the woman character (Fiona), and the details (the fine meals “thrown together” in the kitchen of this B&B made me want to learn to cook!) Noteworthy: the romantic lead, Alec, is a beta male. He’s thoughtful, sensitive, can get teary-eyed, etc. This is a welcome break from all those “alpha-holes” I’ve been reading lately who must turn sideways to get their massive shoulders through a door. Also noteworthy is that the romantic couple is older, in their late 40s, early 50s, resp. So they are more certain of who they are and the value of time, although there’s no pontificating from Age Mountain, happily. Finally, but not the least important, is that the impediment to their romance is a husband who is nuanced. His illness is dealt with sensitively, although some may say adultery is adultery and put the book aside.
I have only two knocks on the book. Some of the descriptions really were too long. Two or three aspects to give us a sense of place is fine; beyond that, I skimmed. Second, the ending is wrapped up far too quickly. A mountain of information is skipped over with the turn of a page, and the resolution was less meaningful than it could have been. It was a bit like an epilogue without an ending. Still, a thoughtful and lovely book.
This book had me riveted. Elizabeth Berg is amazing in her ability to make you laugh and cry. Her humor hits the right marks, and her sentimentality isn’t overdone or underdone. In fact, sometimes the way she does an emotional scene is so understated it’s like hearing an earthquake a split second before it smashes into your house (I’m a Californian. I know.) An example is the hide-and-seek scene, when Myra, the main character, remembers play ending as parents call their kids in for the night, and Myra was the last child to go home. Her parents, uncaring, didn’t call her in.
In fact, this is one of the darkest books I’ve read in a long time, but it’s well-balanced by humor. OMG, I had tears running down my face from the scene where everyone in a tiny neighborhood diner is sharing on the topic of “what is the funniest thing you believed as a child that turned out not to be true?” It sparked one of my own I hadn’t thought of for probably half a century.
Although the plot is about a woman caring for a terminally ill man who she loves, the story is about an emotionally neglected child growing up and learning to accept her feelings, and to embrace life in spite of that burden. The ending was beautifully literary although I had to read it twice to see the thematic resolution. At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what changed in Myra’s thinking that allowed her to come to terms with her pain. When I did see it, I felt uplifted. We always have a choice. The novel was profoundly moving, and I recommend it.
Enjoy this very much. Love that Connelly is allowing Bosch to age, and there’s so much in this book that references life in the second half. Bosch is retired now and volunteering for the San Fernando Police Department, working cold cases. His mission in life is to bring bad guys to justice, and that every victim matters.
In this story, Harry’s lifetime reputation is on the line and a death-row inmate stands to benefit in this tale of corruption. Harry is working on one case when he is asked to go undercover as a drug-addicted senior citizen (the subplot), and both stories are thrilling and rich. As a silver-hair myself, I also enjoyed the references to the passage of time, of life. There’s police corruption, uncertainty as to who is ally or foe, and edge-of-seat danger. Highly recommended.
Taken In by Janet Beech
This is an unusual book. When I saw the cover I thought it might be a murder mystery, but it’s really about a sixty-year-old woman having to change, and the question of whether she will or not. In what I think is an example of the best form of fiction, the main character, Dulcie, doesn’t know she needs to change. The story just demonstrates it, a literary victory of show over tell.
Dulcie (aptly named) is a sweet person whose primary food group is cake. She’s such an example of certain needy women: poor, isolated, lonely, abusive upbringing, ripe for being taken advantage of. She’s overweight and as dowdy as her maintenance-challenged 90-year-old house. Dulcie never married. She has no friends except for acquaintances from church, and her only family is Alexis, a very hostile daughter who is also struggling. Dulcie has a secret that she fears will tear Alexis from her. She is so lonely, and hungry for someone to care about her, and she’s vulnerable. Enter the homeless preacher. They meet at her church, and become friends. She quickly becomes enamored. Is he playing her or is he legit? This question alone drives the book, especially with that title, which could be taken two ways.
I found this story fascinating. I cared about Dulcie. She’s good-hearted, optimistic, and a hard worker, but her simplemindedness infuriated me. Yet she seemed so authentic, I felt like a fly on the wall in her life. For the length of this book, I was able to visit another world. It was interesting, watching her go about her life and make decisions that endangered her…or did they?
The ending will be controversial, I think, for readers. I didn’t prefer it, and yet, it was absolutely correct for this book. It demonstrated the change in Dulcie that needed to happen. The more I think about Taken In, the more I like it. Also, it’s well-paced and meticulously edited. Published several years ago, it appears not to have received much attention, and that’s unfortunate. Taken In is a literary gem and a fine story.
What a great collection of stories. Various individuals all face life challenges…some unique to the second half of life and some ageless. In “Yiddish,” a couple finds each other late in life, and they have to decide whether to act on their passion even knowing it will hurt their families (although the family members are adults).
I laughed at “Itch.” The story, about a long-married husband and wife having to readjust to their new life at Sunset Village, is poignant and funny. The wife, like so many of the women, settles in right away, very happy, while Itch (Isaac) the husband, has no friends and no interests, until…
I think my favorite of all is “The Braggart,” in which a woman who lives a painfully modest life realizes she is better off than her proud and preening friends.
This collection was originally published in 1977, and in some ways, that shows. In the book, a 69-year-old man is considered old. The inhabitants of Sunset Village are far less active and fit than they would be today. But in a way, that’s enjoyable too, because in just a generation, one can see change.
The best thing about this book is that Warren Adler is a great storyteller. Really a delightful book.
Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson
What a cool book! Funny, sweet, and romantic about a couple of sixty-year -olds who hate each other’s guts. I loved it. 122 pages.
I read it, in part, because (a) I’m always looking for novels about older people, and (b) I’m trying to improve my understanding of the romance genre. This story made me laugh out loud, a real bonus. Now I’m curious to see more of what Penny Watson has to offer. I hope she’ll write more funny stories about older people. And boo to the titles that make aging look like nothing but a horrific slog, filled with negativity and unpleasantness.
I’m hoping that, as the Baby Boomers age, their “pig-in-the-python” demographic will affect what we want to read, and the market for realistic books about older people will grow.
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Strout is a magnificent writer, and she had me in her thrall—for a while. I even posted a public comment on FB and Twitter at the 44% mark, that I was in the hands of a master, because she is. However, shortly after that, I realized the structure of this book is similar to Olive Kitteridge, in that it’s a collection of short stories, all related to each other. (I include it here because most of the characters are well over age fifty.)
This doesn’t at all detract from the quality of the writing, but it’s disappointing to settle into one character’s life, get to know and care about them, only to have his/her story end at the end of the chapter. In some cases, their story is later resolved by the musings of another character, who might say (internally or otherwise), “So-and-so got together with so-and-so, and they’re living together now.” But the book is described as a novel, and that’s not accurate.
I’ll end on a high note, though, because nobody writes better than Elizabeth Strout. Here’s what I love most about her writing: she is able to have a character undergo some situation, some human interaction perhaps, and it’s so relatable that you feel as if you and the character are almost one person. Strout is able to strum that one chord in your heart/memory in which you feel both hurt and vindicated by the writing. You feel less alone in the memory, and maybe understand it a bit more. Quite a feat for a storyteller! But some say we read to understand the human condition; I surely do.
Examples from the book, cryptic to avoid spoilers: when the three Barton children reunite, and the way their emotions range from one extreme to another; when Tommy and Charlie both demonstrate the loneliness of not being truly one with, or having secrets from, the person you love; and when Dottie feels used by the neediness of one of her guests. Oh, relatable! So even though I was disappointed in the structure, the writing is a ten.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
I would have loved this story even if the person charged with bringing the 10-year-old back to her family had been a younger man. Joanna was kidnapped by Indians when they raided her farm and killed her family. She was four at the time, and in the intervening 6 years she’s become more Kiowa than white.
Captain Kidd is 71. He’s ethical, classy, tough and practical. He’s had such a long and storied life, so this adds great depth to the tale. You know I look for stories with older main characters, and this one is a real standout. The journey is hard on him, but he’s doing what he said he would do. He thinks about how much his bones hurt and how, after fleeing danger, he needs more time now to recover, but he perseveres. As he and the girl grow closer, to each other and to their destination, he becomes more and more concerned about her future welfare. How he resolves that is delicious. After I finished the book, I replayed it over in my mind, enjoying it again.
The author, Paulette Jiles, is so skillful that I was entranced from the first page. She uses dialogue in the same way as Kent Haruf, without quotation marks, which makes it more subtle, as if you just happened to hear it in passing. Her descriptions are sublime. What a talent. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
Five Novels with Middle-Aged Main Characters by Marj Charlier
I want to share my friend’s midlife collection with you but I haven’t reviewed them all yet, so here are the covers, and you can find them on Amazon by just clicking on any of them.
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
“At the end of a long and useful life…” begins the synopsis of The Shell Seekers, and although the main character, Penelope Keeling, is only in her sixties, she is portrayed as an elder. (The book was published 20 years ago, so maybe that’s how we used to think.) However, this family saga was really enjoyable. Fine character development, good dramatic tension, rich scenes and settings. I appreciated the depiction of an older woman living life on her own terms, even though she had to buck most of her family to do so. The ending is very satisfying.
The only aspect of this work that I feel could have been improved on was its length. The paperback is almost 600 pages, and to be honest, I skimmed some of the flashback portion where Pilcher goes on and on about Richard and Penelope’s wartime love affair. However, for some, that would be a rich element. A good read.
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick
When I first began reading, I thought, oh, no, another author with a low opinion of old people. It seems there’s a trope developing in stories about older people: a great change occurs (usually the death of a spouse, or divorce) and the curmudgeon must evolve. I don’t care for the assumption that the old person is cranky, narrow, bland, stuck in a routine, and all the other ageist stereotypes, but it does make for a good starting point from which to change.
And Arthur Pepper does change, because he is curious about who his wife was before she met him. The discoveries shake his world, but ultimately for the good. A well-written, interesting story that I’ll be happy to add to my collection of Older Adult Fiction.
As All My Fathers Were by Jim Misko
Following in the footsteps of James Michener, Jim Misko has penned an award-winning tale of the Barrett brothers, two men in their sixties, who must travel up and down the South Platte River through Nebraska, a journey of hundreds of miles. Their recently-deceased mother stipulated in her will that the brothers travel halfway on horseback and halfway via canoe, with the midpoint being the confluence of the North and South Platte. They must complete the journey in 61 days, and must observe, learn, and complete a report on the impacts of their increasingly-industrialized farming methods on the river. If they fail to meet her stipulations, their family farm will be donated to charity. Of course, the brothers have no choice; neither does their sister, who is required to return to the farm and operate it in the brothers’ absence. Thus all three are forced into new and life-changing roles.
But wait, there’s more. A certain avaricious landowner conspires with a power-lusting attorney to thwart the Barrett brothers. All manner of difficulties are thrown in front of the three siblings, orchestrated by a man whose hold on the region is matched by his great wealth.
I enjoyed this story of midlife growth and change. I also liked the inclusion of the contemporary issue of environmentalism, and how two well-meaning, intelligent brothers could be pretty much ignorant as to the damage they’re doing to the planet. There are other subplots and story threads within the main story, and Jim Misko paints a compassionate picture of American culture with all its greatness and failings. This was a first-class read from a wonderful writer. Highly recommended.
Jimmy Bluefeather by Kim Heacox
What a wonderful novel! It had everything. Here are some of the elements that made me love it: beautiful writing. Beautiful setting — contemporary Alaska. It’s the story of the last living canoe carver in the village of Jinkaat, in Southeast Alaska. It’s a rich depiction of a vanishing culture (the Tlingit natives, with their art and hunting and eating and healing). Other themes: Family, who offer both frustration and sanctuary. A boy’s coming of age. A middle-aged woman dealing with grief and finding her true direction in life. The conflict between commerce, politics, power, and ancient lands. Losers and outlaws redeemed; the mighty brought low. There’s humor, wit, and compelling characters.
Of course, my favorite thing is to read about very old characters who bring strength, wisdom, and a bittersweet flavor to the story. When we meet him, old Keb is on his way to a hospital to see his grandson, a star athlete whose career has just ended before it began due to a logging accident. Here’s Keb, in men’s room at the Juneau airport enroute to Seattle. Keb is very ill and weak, but he has to see his grandson.
“He grabbed a paper towel and dabbed the sweat off his brow and thought about all the old farts in the rest home who sit around killing time until time kills them. Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. What to do? Keb straightened up and sealed his mind. He’d go south to the city by the sea, the city named for the great chief who said all men were children of the Earth, the city of coffee and computers. He’d visit his grandson and tell him Raven doesn’t care about fame or fortune. Raven doesn’t care about diplomas or degrees. Raven looks for scars, the signs of suffering that give a man his depth. Add this wound to the others no strangers see. Add it and move on because it’s the only thing to do. There are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want, and getting it. That’s what he would tell his gifted, tormented grandson. After that, Old Keb Wisting would return to Alaska and walk into the woods and lie down and die.”
This book is one of the best I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
A divorced couple, both in their forties, are dealing with the loss of their 11-year-old son. Before he died, he became friends with a 104-year-old woman, Ona Vitkus. Afterwards, the parents and Ona are drawn together because of the boy. All three of them are engaging, but it was especially a pleasure to read about a very old woman who’s still mentally strong, who thinks and feels deeply, and who dispenses hard-earned grace to the younger people who unwittingly look to her for comfort. The story portrays the parents moving beyond grief, but this beautifully written book is far broader than that. Ona in particular has such a rich history, yet she was strangely passive in her own life until something happens to shake her out of it, at an age when she was far from young. All three of the characters demonstrate my belief that, as long as we’re alive and thinking, we can grow. It’s a hopeful book, but I cried at the end, because it was so beautifully written I almost hated to lose these characters. Well done.
You can tell from the cover and whimsical title this book is colorful. Morayo, the main character, is 75. I was excited about that alone, because I’m always looking for books that show us how to live in older age. So few books about this age group. Morayo has a fascinating background, and it was enjoyable just reading about her experiences as a diplomat’s wife. She’s strong, sensual, playful, dignified, and fully alive! I felt inspired after reading it. What a woman, what a life. The theme of this book, IMO, was “make your own way. Make up your own mind as to how you wish to live, and don’t settle for less.” This story lifted me up. It’s a short book (94 pages). I read it on Kindle but ordered a few copies to give as gifts.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Backman, and Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
This review addresses three novels at once because they’re all Older Adult fiction, and since I read them consecutively, it made sense to do it this way. I enjoyed the first two, which recall “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” and “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.” I didn’t finish the third.
I’m a fan of OA fiction, because after age 50, people often reexamine their lives and become something else. Ove and Britt-Marie, both by Fredrik Backman, delivered on the premise.
I had Ove on my To Read list for a long time, but the beginning was a turn-off. Such a stereotype of older age: the cranky old man, which Ove carried to the extreme. It wasn’t until I fell in love with Britt-Marie, and Backman’s writing, that I went back and read Ove. (Both stories are based in Sweden.)
Britt-Marie was also hard to get into. Britt-Marie is eccentric and limited, again an unrealistic portrayal of a contemporary 60-year-old. Yet Backman fed me tidbits that kept me reading, and then I was hooked. I loved the story of older-age rebirth and redemption. Here’s a sample:
“A year turned into several years, and several years turned into all the years. One morning you wake up with more life behind you than in front of you, not being able to understand how it’s happened.”
“She stands alone outside the pizzeria. If something within her has been knocked down and shattered, she tries to tell herself, it is all her own fault, because these feelings she has inside should never have been set free in the first place. It is far too late to start a new life…”
After reading and enjoying Britt-Marie, I had to read Ove. It starts out similarly, with a crazy old man who’s so annoying, but trusting Backman, I stuck with it. Ove is even better than Britt-Marie, although again, it’s a weirdly ancient portrayal of a man who’s barely sixty. The ending is even more fulsome and rewarding than with Britt-Marie.
Both novels show us how contemporary times are a challenge for those who grew up with another way of life, and learning to live with change can enhance a person’s experience of the second half. Both Ove and Britt-Marie would have been happier in their little ruts, had death and divorce (respectively) not jarred them into the modern world. The joy is in seeing how they learn to navigate and contribute to their communities. Also, Backman is a skilled writer. He reveals details at exactly the right time, not frontloading backstory or dumping information on us too soon. He creates a hunger and then satisfies it.
As to Etta and friends, I couldn’t finish it. It’s the story of an 80-something demented woman setting out on a 2000-mile walk across Canada. Her husband, who allegedly is not demented, lets her go, knowing she sees it as an adventure. Her neighbor, who has always loved her, goes looking for her, and has his own fun on the way. Meanwhile, Etta keeps company with a talking coyote (James). Personally, I’m not enamored with magical realism, depictions of the elderly as demented, or multiple take-your-pick endings to scenes. I couldn’t tell if Etta was really doing a thing or not, and then it ended up not mattering to me and I put the book down. My apologies to the author for not appreciating her form of art; many did, as reflected in the number of good reviews.
Late Fall by Noelle Adams
This is a love story, and surprise! It’s Older Adult Romance. Don’t be put off by the bleak first couple of chapters. It’s groundwork for an uplifting story. In Late Fall, the main characters are well developed and believable, except Ellie acts more like an 81-year old than her given age of 71. But maybe you can’t sell a book about a diminished 81-year-old. Anyway, the pace is good, and I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I read it in one day. The writing is good, too. Here’s an excerpt:
He smiles at me, warm and soft, but then he turns to look out onto the valley. I see him breathing in the air, and I hope he’s appreciating it like I do. I want him to. I want to share it with him. “It’s kind of a rich smell,” he says at last, proving he’s actually taken my instructions seriously. “Earthy and … I don’t know … full. Like the earth is throwing out everything all at once, because it knows it’s nearing the end.” The words touch me, and not just because they prove he’s listening to me, caring about what I care about. “Yes. That’s it exactly. Spring is lovely, but it’s too new to hold nearly so much.”
What a nice metaphor for the later years. It’s a view of life you don’t see very often, and it leaves you feeling hopeful about old age.
The Secrets of Flight: A Novel by Maggie Leffler
What a lovely story! The two main characters are a lonely 87-year-old woman who flew in WWII and has a terrible secret, and a 15-year-old girl who needs a friend. Also populating the book are another dozen interesting and relatable characters. I was delighted at the skill with which Maggie Leffler unfolded the story, using alternating voices and compelling flashbacks. She would leave questions hanging in the air, circling back through story to reveal the answers, which were shocking at times, and very satisfying. The writing is just beautiful, as when Miri, barely 20, describes her first (and last) solo flight to qualify for her wings:
“In late August and September of 1944, I make two solo cross-country flights…the second at night, a round-trip from Texas to New York in the AT-6. There is something about hovering over the earth at 208 miles per hour in the dark that makes every thought disappear except the single question: what does the plane want? I feel myself becoming one with the craft, anticipating every rattle in the engine, every dip and spike of the instrument panel, every light in the distance, every cloud in the sky. The constant alertness and repetitive adjustments to stay aloft become almost meditative, so that the sound of the engine is no longer deafening, and the vibrations of the plane nothing more than a hum.”
There are many human dramas unfolding at the same time in “Secrets,” from divorce to first love to grief to the issues of family in all its permutations. The flashbacks to Miri’s flight training feel authentic, and are interesting and believable. Also, the fact that the author is a practicing physician lends authenticity to the hospital scenes (with a kind shout-out to nurses everywhere). Although the ultimate revelation is a bit of a stretch, Leffler lulls us into willful suspension of disbelief. We want the story to go this way, and thus the end is extremely satisfying. I absolutely recommend this book.
Fantastic story. Sheldon Horowitz is an 82-year-old who was a heroic sniper in the Korean War, but his family thinks he was a clerk, and he doesn’t argue when they disparage his military service. This book has everything: love of family, the experience of aging and loss along with the insultingly low expectations we have of older people, and a first-rate adventure story.
Sheldon is angry. War and the mistreatment of Jews are two of his main issues. When he moves to Oslo (and part of my enjoyment was the author’s witty portrayal of Norwegians), he clashes with a pocket of Serbian war criminals to save a four-year-old boy. (The author is a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.) The only ding on the book is that some of the reminiscing and introspection goes on too long (the Viet Nam conflict imagined by Sheldon). This is the redemptive story of a heroic grandpa. I would compare it to City of Thieves by David Benioff for dark humor, high stakes, and compelling characters. Highly recommended.
To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay
A lovely book, based in rural Tennessee in the mid-1970s. The main character, Sam Peek, is 81, frail, smart, and independent. He is surrounded by his grown kids and grandkids-a loving family. The story begins with the hours immediately after Cora, Sam’s wife, dies. It’s based on something that happened with the author’s parents, and you could call it magical realism or maybe it was reality at its most magical.
What is it like to be a newly widowed 81-year-old man in frail health? You might think a book on this subject would be depressing. However, Sam’s an inspiration in dealing rationally with what is, and the gentle humor of the author is present in his portrayal of the concerned children, mostly his daughters. You see how they (okay, WE) tend to hover and underestimate our elders. And Sam plays them. He’s always been a bit of a prankster, so when his daughters think he’s losing his marbles, he plays along like he is. Their anguished sister-to-sister phone calls later in the day reminded me of my own family, and made me smile.
A main character in the book is White Dog, so named by Sam. White Dog comes to visit him after Cora’s death. I won’t say more because it’ll spoil the story.
The writing is beautiful. Here’s an example, where Sam has done a bit of work in his beloved orchard (he’s a cash-poor but reputation-rich tree farmer) and now he’s heading home:
“He lifted the walker and put it into the bed of the truck and, holding to the door handle, pulled himself up into the cab. No one trusted his truck, or him in it. He did not have a drivers’ license, but he did not care. The truck was a grand possession–old, paint bleached to the metal and the metal stained with rust. Its motor banged, parts hammering against parts. Its gears were loose…The truck jerked like an animal shuddering under its skin. But it was his truck. His. He could no longer walk over his land, and the truck carried him, two sluggish old things getting about. Let them snicker and shake their heads in pity. It was his truck, by God, and he loved it. And his grandchildren loved it. His grandchildren were always pestering him to take them for rides.”
A gentle, beautiful, funny, and engrossing tale of one man’s last years. Thanks to Terry Kay for writing it.
The Ladies of Managua by Eleni Gage
I can’t believe how much work this author did to bring us this story. The Ladies of Managua is written in three voices, three generations of women – grandmother, mother, and daughter – all who are trying to find their way in the present, all weighed down by the past. But what a past!
The central figure for me is Ninexin, the middle-generation woman (named after an Aztec warrior) who was a guerrilla fighter in the Sandinista army of Nicaragua. Now she’s a powerful governmental figure, but also she’s just a mother whose relationship with her daughter is possibly damaged beyond repair. This is because, during the war, Ninexin leaves her daughter to be raised by the grandmother. All three must figure out who they are now, who they are in relation to each other, and where love fits in relation to their hard-won sense of self.
But beyond this, which I’ve described badly and made to sound pedestrian, are the settings. From author Gage, who as she said in the afterword married not just a man but his family and his country, we learn about the history and customs of Nicaragua. This by itself was almost worth the read, but also entrancing was the depiction of the life of a privileged young woman (the grandmother) who, in 1951, attends a Catholic girls’ school in New Orleans. The descriptions are so rich, I’m amazed at the tenacity and imagination of the author.
The only negative about the story was that the introspection of each of the three characters, the internal monologues, went on too long. In my opinion, the book could have been slightly shorter and the pace enhanced in this way. However, it’s such an enveloping read, one immerses oneself in it and enjoys the experience, regardless. Having read it on Kindle, I may buy it in paperback just for the pleasure of having it to read at my leisure for years to come.
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
There was a point in my book club recently where one of my friends sighed and said, “Please. No more Nazis.” (We’d been reading a lot of that lately.) Jodi Picoult is a great storyteller, and I couldn’t put this one down. But I have to admit I skimmed the parts about the barbaric Nazis as they tortured and annihilated the Jews of this city. I recently read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, and that description of the atrocities plus concentration camp life will hold me for a while. Still, compelling characters. The only ding is that there were almost too many story lines going at once; as we switched from one character’s point of view to another, to a flashback, to present day, to a fictional story written by one of the characters, and then back again, I had to pay very close attention to reorient myself at each switch. Still, a well-crafted novel.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Okay, this isn’t fiction, but still, you have to read it if you’ve ever obsessed about your purpose in life. I found the material so compelling that I listened on audio, then bought the paperback and transcribed all my notes into that. I also put a note on my perpetual calendar to revisit the highlights once a year. It’s just that good.
I was late to the party – most of you probably already read it – but I am at an age where looking for the meaning of my life is maybe more important than ever. Viktor Frankl, as you know, was a psychiatrist who was imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. There, while he suffered, he also learned, and when he was released, he wrote this book. Could we possibly have a more seasoned teacher?
I picked up dozens of life lessons, but for brevity’s sake, will mention only a few. For much more, I highly, highly recommend this book. I don’t think you can be fully educated about your life’s course until you read it thoughtfully. And don’t be afraid, as I was, of the heartbreaking circumstances of the camps. Frankl uses them as a basis for making his points, but doesn’t sensationalize them. Even a wuss like me can handle it.
Here are some of the best concepts I gleaned from Man’s Search for Meaning:
- Don’t ask what is the meaning of life. Ask what meaning you are giving to your existence, for this is your responsibility.
- Meaning can be found in suffering. In America, we act like we’re ashamed of it. Why not hold your head up and suffer proudly? Add it to your list of accomplishments. Don’t seek it, but if you’re stuck with it, do it well. Add it to your life’s accounting.
- Man can endure anything if he sees a purpose. In one example, a widower couldn’t rise above his grief. Frankl helped him see that by being the survivor, the man spared his late wife the pain. Thus he was heroic. The man rallied, glad to have spared his wife the anguish.
- Some see the pages of one’s calendar torn off, and grieve over time passing. Frankl says to think of each page of the calendar as a well-lived, fine accounting of oneself. The stack of pages amounts to a kind of wealth, like a full granary. How did I do? How did I live? What is the accounting of my life? This perspective gives our days meaning.
There is so much more. I can only recommend this book to you with all my heart. Thank you, Dr. Frankl. You certainly made a great accounting of your life, and your suffering.
A MIDLIFE SELECTION This is the story of two women in their sixties. Helen, the narrator, is thriving, with work, family, and a nice homelife. Nicola, her friend, is a charismatic narcissist who is dying. In her manic efforts to thwart death with every crackpot “cure” available, Nicola becomes a black hole who sucks out the energy of everyone who loves her. This book is a chronicle of that journey.
The good: The book is well-paced and interesting. Garner is a talented writer, and she describes beautifully the reality of caregiving. Here are some examples:
“We led (Nicola) into the spare room and she sat shivering on the edge of the bed. I banged down the window and switched on the oil heater. No, thank you—she didn’t want to drink, or eat, or wash, or go to the toilet. She was silent. Her head hung forward, as if a tiny fascinating scene were being enacted on her lap.”
Bessie, age five, who is denied attention due to Nicola’s needs,“…hesitated, glaring at me over her shoulder, long enough for me to see her pearly skin, the vital luster of her pouting lower lip.”
Description of a quack clinic: “The room within was painted a strange yellow, the color of controlled panic.”
At the realization she’d have no choice but to offer up the next few weeks to continuing Nicola’s care: “My heart was full of holes. Everything strong and purposeful was draining out of me. When my coffee came I could hardly lift the cup. I drove home. My desk was buried under sliding heaps of unread and unanswered mail. I had lost control of my life.”
I also enjoyed the vernacular of urban Australia. The story is set largely in Melbourne, and their everyday language is different from what I’m used to. That added another layer of interest.
The not-so-great: this is a chronicle of a debilitating and wondrous period in the author’s life. It’s really interesting to the reader, like driving past a wreck, but I like to see character growth. In that sense, the ending was a bit unsatisfying. Helen and all the other caregivers continue sacrificing themselves for Nicola right up until the last page. No changes.
However, the story contained two powerful reminders. One, to appreciate my life, in spite of the fact that I can no longer leap tall buildings. Spare Room imparts gratitude for the joy of relative health and independence. Two, to do everything in my power NOT to let caregiving mow me down, the next time I’m in that situation. So thanks to Helen Garner for sharing her story with us. I recommend this book.
A MIDLIFE SELECTION Most of us read to be enlightened or moved. This book did both. On one level, it’s a midlife story about girlfriends, and how women need each other. On another, and this is the main theme I think, it’s about treasuring what you have and treating yourself well in your own life. There’s a scene in here about Ann preparing a fussy, precisely made breakfast for Ruth, who is sick. Ruth aggravates Ann by sending her back to the kitchen to improve the meal. Ann thinks, What a bitch! But complies. And then when the perfect meal is brought back to the bedroom, Ruth admits she’s too sick to eat, and insists Ann eat it. Ann does, and you see that she needs to do this for herself every now and then: a perfect breakfast, with white linen and a rose alongside. We all should.
Here are a couple of excerpts that I found meaningful:
About women in general: “The truth is, we usually only show our unhappiness to another woman. I suppose this is one of our problems. And yet it is also one of our strengths.”
One night, Ann and Ruth are looking up at the stars, discussing insignificance. Ann says, “I want more. I want someone to know I was here.” Ruth says, “But you have to start with yourself. You have to let yourself know you’re here.”
As Ruth declines and moves thoughtfully toward death, she shows us how to live fully and appreciate every moment, not because she’s dying and all of a sudden realized it, but because she always has. In this she gives us a model, and Elizabeth Berg, the author, gives us a gift.
A MIDLIFE SELECTION Enjoyed it very much. Still Alice is a fascinating depiction of the onset and subsequent stages of dementia. At first, the book unfolds cinematically; it’s not deep but very visual. At no time are the other characters very compelling, but the topic is so rich it doesn’t seem to matter. The book is well-paced and has good dramatic tension. I like that author Lisa Genova doesn’t belabor things to draw out the suspense (like Alice admitting pretty quickly to her husband or boss that she has early onset Alzheimer’s).
As Alice’s symptoms progress, I felt more and more emotional. I’ve had a few close calls with my health over the years, and I recall that awful transition from warrior to dependent. It’s crazy how this story allows the reader to imagine it happening to them.
There are some bits of wisdom in the book about life in general. For example, I think we all wonder if we’re spending our time, our one precious life, on the right things. Not wasting it. Alice is a brilliant scientist and researcher, an articulate speaker, and gifted with above-average intelligence. However, after her diagnosis, she thinks about what is important in her life:
“…what did she want?…she wanted to live to hold (her daughter) Anna’s baby and know it was her grandchild. She wanted to see (her daughter) Lydia act in something she was proud of. She wanted to see (her son) Tom fall in love. She wanted one more sabbatical year with (her husband) John. She wanted to read every book she could before she could no longer read. She laughed a little, surprised at what she’d just revealed to herself. Nowhere on that list was there anything about linguistics, teaching, or Harvard. She ate her last bite of cone. She wanted more sunny, seventy-degree days and ice-cream cones.”
Doesn’t that just kill you?
Genova does a little bit of speechifying about how we care for our dementia patients (e.g. the way we shunt them aside as soon as they’re diagnosed), and an example is the speech Alice gives to a dementia association, which made me cry. And the end of the book is sad. I won’t tell you what to do if you ever receive such a heartbreaking diagnosis, but I now know exactly what course of action I would take.
Lisa Genova has done us a service by writing this book. My very best wishes to the families and patients who are dealing with this disease.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
A wonderful, thought-provoking retrospective on a man’s life, from his perspective at sixty-something. His questions will prompt your own. Here is my review.
I loved this book. Could not put it down. It’s a memoir, the story of an unlikely friendship between the 50-year-old superintendent of a massive construction project and the 80-something woman who refuses to sell her tiny house sitting in the way of the project. It’s just a gorgeous book about caring for our elders, and there are many lessons and a lot of inspiration contained within. Click here for my full review.
Keeping Time by Stacey McGlynn
This is a fun, fast read about a 77-year-old woman who refuses to let her life circumstances diminish her, and in finding her own courage, she helps others grow. I especially liked that, in addition to her story, there was a strong secondary character in her mid-forties. Here’s my review.
A Year on Ladybug Farm by Donna Ball
This book is about three middle-aged women who buy an old mansion together, which is a rich setting for a story through which women can live vicariously. It’s a slow start but it picks up speed, and has a happy ending. I enjoyed it. My review is here.
Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
I’ve been reading Quindlen’s writing since she was doing op-eds for Newsweek Magazine, and I’ve always enjoyed her non-fiction, but she’s good with fiction, too. This was a wonderful book. A woman who is turning sixty must decide how she will live her life now and for years to come. It will require that she re-evaluate her values and standards. Part of her journey involves moving from New York to the rural countryside, and living in a rustic cabin, alone. There’s plenty in here that will resonate.
Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers by Addesso, Hodara, Potter and Toppel
What a moving collection of memoirs. It’s non-fiction, but written by women in the second half.
I can’t say enough about this book. I read it in one day, unable to stop. It’s thoughtful without being self-pitying, yet managed to wreck me again and again with its poignancy. Each of the four authors delivers a nuanced, multidimensional reflection on who their mothers were, what shaped them, and whether the direction their mothers took in rearing them was as bad as it seemed, or better now in retrospect. The rest of my review is here.