Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng

When asked about the meaning of his famous poem The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost claimed readers were making too much of his simple teasing of his friend Edward Thomas over his deciding where to go on their many walks. But readers have disagreed and made Frost’s lines an anthem for the role of choice in life. Poems, after all, are to be interpreted, and that interpretation has a range of possibilities. In Celeste Ng’s “Our Missing Hearts,” Margaret Miu’s poem about a pomegranate becomes the battlecry for a revolution.

An uncomon and reluctant heroine, Margaret becomes a rebel and a catalyst for finding children taken from their parents because of the new law to preserve American Culture and Traditions. How rewarding to find it is librarians who facilitate her underground network.

Ng has a clear message, cleverly incorporating anti- Asian hate crimes as the scapegoat for the future country’s economic and social decline (the Crisis) with incidents that could have been ripped from current headlines. And the recent proclivity for banning books becomes a focal point of Ng’s alert about where it could lead. She is clearly warning; pay attention, or “the dusk will become dark” without anyone noticing.

Ng’s story is also one of grief and nostalgia – for better days, for loved ones gone. My favorite line:

“Who ever thinks, recalling the face of the one they loved who is gone: yes, I looked at you enough, I loved you enough, we had enough time, any of this was enough?”

And a call to action:

“Listen. Somewhere, out there, saying to others at last: Listen, this isn’t right.”

In her Author’s Note Ng notes her inspiration in both books and incidents, historical as well as recent. She ends citing:

“Timothy Snyder’s “ On Tyranny” was a powerful reminder about how quickly authoritarianism can rise (as well as what can be done about it), and Václav Havel’s classic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless” changed my thinking about the impact a single individual could have in dismantling a long-established system. I hope he’s right.”

You could read the book two ways, just like a Robert Frost poem. Take it literally as a “dystopian story about a 12 year year boy and his quest to find his mother.” Or consider Stephen King’s review in the New York Times claiming it is a “dystopia uncomfortably close to reality.” Either way, “Our Missing Hearts” has Ng’s riveting storytelling talent, and a tale well told that you will remember.

The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

https://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/browning/section3/

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2021/06/16/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/

The Hand That First Held Mine –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2010/04/28/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-maggie-ofarrell/

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

Being a commuter on a local train into the city was not one of the highlights of my career, but after reading Claire Pooley’s Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, I wonder if I may have missed something as I read my book or just dozed all those years, usually in a cramped seat, if I was lucky enough to get one.

Pooley’s character Iona reminds me of Calvin Trillin’s Tepper, available and willing to listen and offer advice when needed. Tepper was sitting in his car, saving his parking spot as he followed the elusive parking rules of New York City streets; Iona rode the commuter train into London. Tepper was usually reading the newspaper, while Iona judiciously observed her fellow passengers, offering her commentary when needed, or solicited.

While Tepper was relatively bland, Iona’s personality screamed out to be noticed, from her loud voice to her colorful clothing, to her companion dog sitting beside her. A cast of characters revolve around Iona’s commute, and like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, Iona figuratively hangs out her shingle to them all, changing their lives, and, at the end, changing her own.

From schoolgirl Martha, who overcomes an unfortunate decision promising to ruin her life, to Piers, the business man who has it all, to Sanjay, the nurse quietly comforting his patients, to Emmie, the naive beauty who seems to have found true love, the cast of characters each has a problem only Iona can solve. Pooley cleverly connects her characters’ lives, and adds a few who have practical skills for life improvement – Jake, the owner of a gym, and David, the lawyer.

Pooley’s witty observances carry the reader through familiar trials, and always finds a happy ending. I need happy endings these days, don’t you?

Related Review: Tepper Isn’t going Outhttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/tag/tepper-isnt-going-out/

Another book by Claire Pooley: The Authenticity Projecthttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/2020/10/03/the-authenticity-project/

Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

A Single Rose

In a rare interview, French author Muriel Barbery explained her love of Kyoto – a love beautifully revealed in her latest book – A Single Rose. Barbery noted:

“…we have long been lovers of Japanese culture and since we moved to Kyoto, a town that we are head over heels in love with, our feelings for this country have been confirmed. Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana … It has had us under its spell for over ten years. And we are still at the dawn of our discoveries … But what we also love about Japan, without negating its somber and terrible face, is its repertoire of behaviors: the subtle politesse, the sense of security that results from social solidarity, a very special form of candor, as well. We don’t know how long these things can resist the infernal spirals of the contemporary world, but for now they make life here incredibly sweet and civil.”

A Single Rose tells the story of forty- year old Rose, who travels from France to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged Japanese father’s will. The story reads like a meditation with descriptions of gardens and temples, interspersed with notes on culture and folklore. The plot is simple snd predictable, but Barbery’s strength is transporting each reader to his or her own reflective inner world.

A short but worthwhile read, the book offers some quiet solace in these times of turmoil and uncertainty.