The Bear Went Over the Mountain – William Kotzwinkle, 1996.

Christopher Moore (whom I’ve never read–I just stumbled across his website) has a list of “funny books” he recommends, and I liked enough of the ones I knew to try ones I didn’t, like this one. A real bear and a failed novelist exchange lives accidentally. The bear finds the writer’s manuscript, gives himself the name “Hal Jam,” and heads to New York, where he’s an overnight success. We meet agent Chum Boykins, publisher Elliot Gadson, publicist Zou Zou Sharr, etc…all broad caricatures, literary phonies who see in Hal not a wild animal but a rough-hewn genius like Hemingway, their ticket to success. Meanwhile the writer is meeting weird country types like Vinal Pinette in the Maine Woods. There are flashes of laugh-out loud humor, especially the bear’s attempts at conversation (he learns a few words, which combined with emperor’s-new-clothes syndrome gets him as far), but basically it’s the meat of a mildly funny short story dragged out into a contrived novel.

The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting – Elizabeth Cohen, 2003

[Paperback title is Family on Beartown Road, which confuses the heck out of people who think one is a sequel to the other…]

Cohen lives in Binghamton, our closest city, and writes a column for the paper. The column’s never struck me as anything special, so I wasn’t expecting much from this book. I read it both for local interest, and because the topic of Alzheimer’s fascinates me (I spent several years as a home health aide working with Alzheimer’s victims). House on Beartown Road surprised me–it’s got some flaws, but on balance it’s a terrific memoir.

Cohen moved to Binghamton & bought a big country farmhouse with her husband. They had a daughter and shortly thereafter her father, whose Alzheimer’s was rapidly worsening, moved in with them. Nine weeks later, the husband left. As the book opens, winter is coming on and Cohen is responsible for a one-year old, an elderly man who needs almost as much care, dogs, cats, and a drafty farmhouse. Pretty scary. The present-tense, straightforward narration gave me the claustrophic impression of being trapped, stuck, overwhelmed right along with Cohen. Many of the short chapters have clearly been reworked from newspaper columns, and there’s some repetion of the background, but that actually adds to the immediacy, the way the brain runs over and over an awful situation. Sometimes the journalistic style reveals sloppiness (reliance on cliches, egregious mistakes like “enormity” for “enormousness”), but there’s also plenty of compelling writing, and the brisk pacing works.

The situation is as hard as you would imagine (harder if you’ve never experienced a winter in this area!), but there’s humor and happiness too. Cohen herself isn’t that appealing as a character, primarily because through most of the book she’s in thrall to a deep depression. But her daughter and her dad are both captivating. Little Ava adopts everything.

I have to fight her over the stub ends of celery and carrots. She wants to take them back to her room, where she lines them up in rows on the wood floor and talks to them in baby gibberish. Then she tucks them in bed and bids them goodnight. They have names. They get sleepy and hungry. I find her trying to feed a piece of an old cookie to a chewed ear of corn she’s pilfered from the dinner table.

Sanford’s “word salad” (constructions people with Alzheimer’s come up with to work around words they’ve forgotten) are often poetic or funny. His love for Ava, even though he doesn’t really understand who she is and calls her “this little guy,” is heartwarming. Cohen understands the way the world seems to him and her intelligent sympathy (even when the practical and emotional problems drive her to the edge) help us feel how her dad is still a whole person. And despite all the difficulties, it’s wonderful how well the combination of a tiny child and someone with dementia works. Ava and Sanford understand and accept each other.

The brain of my father and the brain of my daughter have crossed. On their ways to opposite sides of life, they have made an X. They look upon each other with fond familiarity. And they see each other heading to the place they have just come from. On his way out of this life, Daddy has passed her the keys.

Instead of thinking about him losing the abilities to speak, to walk, and to negotiate the world, I like to think he has given them to her.

R is for Ricochet – Sue Grafton, 2004

It’s hard to keep quality and momentum through eighteen books, let alone 26. Grafton is holding her own, by moving away from the standard whodunit into psychological explorations of character. So although the later books in the alphabet aren’t as twisty as the early ones, if you ever liked Kinsey Milhone, you’ll want to know what she’s up to. Despite the slow start, R has a gripping finale.

Kinsey’s got a guy, a good one for a change! Her 87-year-old cutie landlord, William (my favorite recurring character), is trying to date–and being clobbered by his older brothers. Those are the subplots–the focus is Reba Lafferty, an impulsive ex-con who’s a daughter of privilege. Her dad has hired Kinsey to shepherd her from prison back to a regular life. Reba is entertaining but not completely in focus–I don’t really get why Kinsey likes her so much. Naturally, Reba has not entirely left her criminal past behind her, and soon she’s dragged Kinsey into the middle of a money-laundering scheme being investigated by the FBI.

The weird thing about this series is that since time is passing much more slowly in Kinsey’s world than in ours, she’s falling further and further into the past. R supposedly takes place in 1987 (which means William is most likely dead by now–aww…), which is easy to forget because mysteries generally take place in an unspecified present. Yet whenever I’m reminded of the year, I can’t help but watch out for anachronisms, and second-guess “would a shopping mall really have been anchored by a bookstore that early?”

Nights of Rain and Stars, Maeve Binchy, 2004.

Binchy is one of the few novelists whose newest books I always make a point to read. She’s classic comfort food–not great literature, but decently-written, heartwarming stories that don’t leave a sticky or soggy aftertaste. One of the best things about her books is that the central characters always change for the better in a believable way. They may be in sad situations, but over the course of the novel they somehow find the courage to grow and overcome their personal flaws a little bit. Love, kindness, and hope are always central. I can make these generalizations because Binchy’s books are not wildly different from each other. It’s not necessarily a problem, but it’s why they are comfort food–you pretty much know what you’re going to get.

Nights is middle-grade Binchy. She’s left the precincts of her native Ireland again, which can be nice for a change (although it’s unintentionally hilarious when she puts Irish idioms in the mouths of supposed Americans, eg having one of them say to another, “Will we do X?” where an American would really say, “Let’s do X.”) There’s a motley assortment of characters whose fates intertwine: four tourists stuck in the small Greek village of Aghia Anna, after a terrible boat accident paralyzes traffic in and out. We have a young woman in love with a jerk, a young man who’s escaping from his smothering family, a woman running away from her lover, and a recently-divorced dad who’s agonizing over relations with his son. They join Andreas, the elderly proprietor of the tavern where they meet, who is alienated from his son, and Vonni, an Irish ex-pat who sees the fix for everyone’s problems but her own.

And that’s the lever that moves all the action: each of the characters can see how silly or blind the others are being, and gently help them react to their own situations differently. The power of friendship is another nice Binchy emphasis. Inevitably, as these random people become friends, they care about each other and we care about them. The satisfactory happy endings come as each person finds the strength to deal with his or her problems, and the reader is left with a feeling of optimism about ordinary human beings. Now that’s my kind of fiction!