The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”

Rebecca Makkai’s great believers are those who faced the trauma of the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the mid-1980s, part of a lost generation of men who were the first to be affected by the deadly disease that decimated the gay community. With gentle honesty, she shows us these men — their lives, and their dreams of love, a family, a home of their own. They faced the cruelty and stigmatism of a mysterious disease that brought loss after loss of loved ones, with no hope of a cure.

The main character, Yale, has a rewarding career as an art curator, but his life is thrown into chaos after a brief encounter with a young man and a major betrayal by his partner. Then he meets Nora, an elderly woman who was part of the art world in Paris in the 1920s, who offers a valuable trove of original art that could make Yale a major player in the 1980s art world.  

If he can pull it off.

If he survives to pull it off.

A second story line follows Nora’s great niece Fiona into middle age and is a conduit for the stories of another lost generation, the survivors of World War I. Fiona is also the sister of the first man to die of AIDS in the novel and is the figurative little sister of his entire group of friends. In Paris, she reconnects with other survivors of that Chicago group while she searchers for evidence of Nora’s history as a muse, model, and artist. She uncovers the stories of the men who died in the war, or who survived mentally and physically damaged. She’s also there searching for her daughter, who had joined a cult, but escaped and then disappeared.

That’s a lot of stories for a reader to digest.

Makkai says her initial goal was to write a book about Nora looking back at her own history, but the 1980s section took on a life of its own. Ultimately the AIDS story line became the book’s primary focus, but Makkai didn’t want to give up on Nora. The result, though, is a novel that goes in so many directions with so many characters the reader sometimes loses the narrative.

Still, Makkai did remarkable research and her writing is so strong we feel the 1980’s characters’ trauma, appreciating the horror they faced in a way we might not have done in real time. Makkai gives AIDS a staggering humanity.

She says the book is in many ways a war novel. As one character in 1980s Chicago notes, “This is a war, it is. It’s like you’ve been in the trenches for seven years. And no one’s gonna understand that. No one’s gonna give you a Purple Heart.”

— Pat Prijatel

Take This Bread, by Sara Miles

Books about the mystery of the Eucharist are rarely page turners. Exception: Take this Bread—Sara Miles’s spiritual memoir of food and faith.

Her story covers a big colorful canvas of time and place and is populated with a large cast of fascinating mixed-bag characters (rich, old, destitute, schizophrenic, young, trans, gay, stuffy, edgy, old) who are colorful, imperfect, and sympathetic. Miles makes us feel their hunger to be fed and their hunger to feed—to see the divine on the face of the grubby and smelly, the rich and corporate.

There’s really no way to explain the magic she finds in “eating Jesus.” It can only be shown. And Miles shows it over and over in compelling and convincing ways as she struggles with faith in a messed-up world.

“Wait,” Paul said. “You’ve got to taste this.” He wiped his hands on a dishrag and went over to the refrigerator. “Open your mouth.”

“Oh, my God,” I said swallowing. It was grainy and cold and melting and milky and rich and sweet. “Oh, my God, what is that?”

Paul tried to keep a straight face. “Just a light little something,” he said. “Tres leches: you separate the eggs, make a cake, soak it in heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk . . .”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s like, I don’t know, being breast-fed by the Wisdom of God.”

Paul raised his hand and bowed his head. “All glory.”

What better way to show us everyday glory than by pressing together the images of dirty hands; a mouthful of grainy, cold, rich stuff; a face breaking with laughter; and the sort of shocking notion of being breast-fed by the Wisdom God. Then throw in a playful allusion to the Trinity in that tres leches cake and Voila! We get it. Easy as cake.

By narrating her unique faith journey so engagingly, she prompts us to think about our own journey. How have hunger and the urge to feed others affected our choices?  She helps readers understand that our failures and doubts are vital to our faith. That paradoxes are ever present. That hypocrisy lurks in the shadows. Yet the magic of the Eucharist is always happening, all around us.

Near the end of the memoir, when Miles’s old friend Millie is dying of cancer, Millie’s son visits. He does not believe in God, but admits:

“. . . sometimes when I’m up in the mountains above tree line, it’s like whoa, you know: There’s a big, big love.”

“I know,” I said.

Christianity wasn’t an argument I could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that I was finally willing to swallow.

I was loved by a big love. In the midst of suffering, of hunger, even of death. Alleluia. What was, finally, so hard about accepting that?

As we swallow the bread, we swallow the mystery. Why is that so hard to understand?

— Sharelle Moranville

Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Good writers build a strong story arc that sustains their novel. Better writers manage double arcs. It takes a Louise Penny to create three separate story lines, braiding them together seamlessly around a complex theme.

Bury Your Dead is a mystery masterpiece in which Penny shows confidence in her craft and in her reader. We’ll be deep in one storyline when she abruptly, with little or no transition, drops us into another a second story, then a third. We follow because we’re living the stories with her. We need no transition. We’re there.

The book includes one current and one past murder, plus a recent police raid that went horribly wrong, and from which both Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-on-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir are recovering. In all three storylines, the title comes into play as characters bury their dead in multiple ways, sometimes unsuccessfully.

The current case is the murder of a man who has been in search of the body of the explorer Samuel de Champlain. He thinks he has found Champlain in the basement of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. As Gamache is recovering at the home of his mentor in Quebec City, the Lit and His, as the society is nicknamed, has become one of Gamache’s favorite spots, and he is among the first on the scene when the murder is discovered. This plotline takes us into the history of Quebec and the centuries-long conflicts between the English and the French. Where is Champlain’s body? Nobody knows for sure, but Penny offers some suggestions. Under the Lit and His? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Here, the dead clearly include Champlain, but also the casualties of the Seven Years War of the mid 1700s between the French and English. Focusing on the ongoing conflict between the Quebecois and Quebeckers, Penny shows that those dead remain much among us in political tensions that still divide the people of Quebec.

The second story line is in Gamache’s head, as he relives the disastrous case that left him and Jean-Guy seriously wounded and killed several of Gamache’s agents, including Paul Morin, a young man with a talent on the violin and a gift of storytelling. Gamache maintains a 24-hour phone conversation with Morin while the entire Sûreté du Québec tries to find where the agent is being held. He has been kidnapped and attached to a bomb that will detonate in 24 hours—sooner, if the line goes quiet. Whoever planned this wants Gamache to stay at his desk. He doesn’t, of course. This is a seminal case in the series and influences several of the subsequent books. Yet the story is told only in flashbacks. On first reading, you think you missed a book somewhere, but no, this is the first mention of the case, told as Gamache mentally recreates it. Penny trusts us to get it, and we do. The burial of the agents who died under Gamache’s command was so traumatic that his grief-stricken face ended up on magazine covers.

The third story arc is perhaps the most tragic, ending the novel with a twist of family loss and revenge. It’s a continuation of the previous novel, A Brutal Telling, in which Olivier Brule, co-owner of the bistro in the mythical and magical Three Pines, was convicted of murder. Gamache begins rethinking the case and asks Jean-Guy, who is also on medical leave, to re-investigate. The resolution is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and leaves behind a devastated family. In this case, the dead aren’t who we think they are, nor are they buried where we think.

This is a heady book that gets better with multiple readings. It has Penny’s trademark charm and wit. One English character knows French well as a written language, but when she tries to speak it, she encourages people to become umlauts and calls the night a strawberry. Gamache wanders the streets of Old Quebec City in the quiet of the night, his steps crunching in the snow, with Henri, his beloved German Shepherd who is so full of love it doesn’t matter that he’s far from the world’s smartest dog. The Three Pines characters all make an appearance, and the ragged and rugged old poet, Ruth, builds a unique bond with Jean-Guy. It’s cold in Quebec, but these characters stay warm with one another, settled into comfy chairs in front of the bistro fire, watching through mullioned windows as the snow falls onto the three pines in the town center.

— Pat Prijatel