The Lager Queen of Minnesota: A Novel

By J. Ryan Stradal – Pamela Dorman Books (2019)

Thirsty for a feel-good, intergenerational, family saga? This is a story of love, hardship and pure Minnesotan can-do. Estranged for 50 years, sisters Edith and Helen are both aging into poverty—one, financial, and one, emotional. Edith has spent her life struggling to make ends meet, never quite able to explore her own dreams. Helen has scrapped and schemed to make her lifelong dream of brewing beer a success, but the end of that road has turned out differently than she expected. Then there’s Diana, Edith’s granddaughter, who lurches her way through a childhood clouded by grief and delinquency into a career she never expected. When Diana is unable to nurture her fledgling brewery, Edith and her friends (all over 60) step in. None has ever brewed beer; some of them don’t even like it. None of them blink an eye. And here’s the best part: no one tells these women that they are too old to do it. Along the way, the women all learn a bit more about themselves and what they want to do with their lives (including making beers they would actually want to drink). Edith, Helen and Diana’s stories intertwine with interesting facts about beer and with what it’s like to grow up and grow old. This is a refreshing story that all can enjoy, even if your preferred brew is tea.

 

Love and Other Consolation Prizes: A Novel

By Jamie Ford — Ballantine Books, 2017

Ernest Young, a mixed-race, bastard child in the early 1900s, travels alone on a freighter from China to the United States, sent by his mother, who is desperate for him to escape certain poverty and famine. This well-researched work of historical fiction tells the story of Ernest’s journey: placed in an orphanage, auctioned off at the world’s fair; and of his life in a brothel and all the years after, until he’s an older man, when he is confronted by his daughter, who discovers pieces of the truth Ernest has never divulged. As he relives his memories, he wonders if looking at the past could help his wife, who has dementia. And would that be a good thing?

This novel is a story of a husband’s devotion to his beloved wife and the memories they’ve kept between them. It may make you question how you defend the decisions you have made in difficult times, or how you might choose to share the less-flattering pieces of your life with your children. In the end, do you think an uncomfortable truth should be a burden taken to the grave?

The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa — Picador, 2009

Translated from Japanese, so elegant and spare that it’s quite remarkable, this novella should not be missed. Neither main character is ever named. The housekeeper narrates the story of the professor, who retains his brilliant mind after a car accident but is left stuck in 1975 and can hold onto nothing new beyond the last 80 minutes. The housekeeper, a high school dropout with a 10-year-old son, must reintroduce herself at least once a day. Despite the difference in their academic backgrounds, they use mathematics to put systems in place for the professor to live with some autonomy. He bonds with her son, whom he calls Root for his flat head that resembles the square-root symbol. The two connect over a mutual love of baseball, which is, after all, a game of numbers. This story extolls the value and simplicity of living in the present and shows how we can unite with one another over common ground if we just slow down long enough to recognize it.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer: A Novella

By Fredrik Backman — Atria, 2016

Just when you think you’ve read all of the books you’ll ever need on dementia and the long goodbye, along comes this glorious novella from Fredrik Backman, easily the best thing to come to the United States from Sweden since IKEA. Not initially intending to share, Backman wrote this to explore his feelings on familial love and loss. Readers familiar with his work (A Man Called Ove, Britt-Marie Was Here) will recognize his positive portrayals of older adults. Here, on a bench with his beloved grandson Noah, Grandfather realizes his memory is slipping and worries he’ll forget the loves of his life. Understanding what’s at stake, Noah tries to help his grandfather hold on to the happy times. Through a shared love of mathematics, the pair can face infinity and the concept of forever without fear. This gem is sprinkled with illustrations, but it’s the poetry of Backman’s words that create a visually memorable experience, to be read, reread and shared.

 

The One-in-a-Million Boy

By Monica Wood – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

Quinn is a professional musician, perennially on the road, who feels remorse for missing so much of his sweet and unusual son’s too-short life. Now that it’s too late, as penance, he takes on a Boy Scout commitment his son had made and meets 104-year-old Ona Vitkus, a contrary, reclusive woman who has seen more than her share of well-intentioned Scouts. While filling Ona’s birdfeeders, Quinn learns that his son had endeared himself to Ona and had started a recording of her life for a school project. He also discovers his son was a savant, of sorts, when it came to the Guinness Book of World Records, and Quinn takes up the 8-year-old’s quest to get Ona into the record book. Sentimental without ever being sappy, this is a heartwarming, heartbreaking story of friendship and of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone.

The Guts

By Roddy Doyle – Viking Adult, 2014

Booker Prize-winning author Roddy Doyle reprises hero Jimmy Rabbitte in The Guts, a sequel to The Commitments (Vintage, 1989). Matured now, Rabbitte is a 50-something father with a wife who loves him and a mostly good relationship with his extended family, in particular his dad. Rabbitte just found out he has cancer. A once-popular musician himself, he now makes a living connecting people to the old music artists and albums they love. His work takes him across Ireland where he reconnects with a former bandmate and a long-ago love. Spurred by his health crisis, he also seeks to reunite with his estranged brother. This is an Irish tale of middle-age awakenings, driven in no small part by his diagnosis. You don’t need to read the original to enjoy this sequel. Doyle’s colorful language may turn off some readers but this novel is worth reading for anyone who enjoys a strong character and a good plot.

The Roots of the Olive Tree: A Novel

By Courtney Miller Santo – William Morrow, 2012

Imagine five generations of first-born women living under one roof. At 112, Anna Keller is the second-oldest person alive: her daughter, Betts, is 90 and great-great-granddaughter, Erin, is in her 20s. Is their longevity due to genetics or to a diet rich in olive oil from the family farm? A curious geneticist aims to use the information he uncovers to help others live extended, healthy lives. His research turns up some long-held family secrets in the process. The women have their unresolved issues and petty grievances, as one might imagine, but the characters are credible and keeping them straight is as easy as ABC—Anna, Betts, Callie, Deb and Erin. To see a centenarian portrayed as a vital, competent, independent woman is a treat, and you may be tempted to add olive oil to your diet and beauty regimen like the age-defying Keller women.

So Much for That

Only the bravest writer would consider America’s broken health care system fodder for fiction. Lionel Shriver brings us Shep Knacker, a generous, middle-aged everyman who has sacrificed and invested, planning an early retirement in Africa. Plane tickets in hand, he is confronted with news of his wife’s terminal illness. Shep’s relationships with family and friends are tested in the ordeal of his wife’s battle with cancer. His health insurance is inadequate, his job is demoralizing and the caregiving is exhausting. The characters are real; the dialogue, intelligent, cynical and witty; the issue, so relevant but uncomfortable. Chronicled at the start of each chapter is Shep’s rapidly dwindling Merrill Lynch account, begging you to consider: just how much is one life worth? This fictional account that feels all too real shows how the burden of health care is borne by the survivors.

Please Look After Mom

Do you really know your mother? After reading this story, you may want to think again. Widely acclaimed in her native Korea, Kyung-Sook Shin debuts in the United States with a moving story of a woman who disappears in a train station. As family members search for Park So-nyo, it becomes clear that they know very little about her. The true humanity of the missing woman comes to light, told from four perspectives: her two adult children, her husband and Park So-nyo herself. How will they find someone who has been all but invisible to them while wearing the cloak of wife and mother? As the characters peel away Park So-nyo’s intricate, private layers, we readers may find ourselves looking at the women in our own lives through the lens of their discoveries and realizing that wives and mothers everywhere have hidden worlds we would never think to imagine.

The Bird Sisters

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of two sisters, now in their 70s, who still live in the house where they grew up. Called the Bird Sisters because they rehabilitate wounded and dying birds, they are eccentrics in a small Wisconsin town of gently quirky inhabitants. Their story is told in chapters that alternate between the present and 1947, when the girls were teenagers trying to fix their parents’ broken marriage. They reflect on a cousin in fragile health whose summer visit changed them all. These charming, naïve sisters thought they knew what their futures held: a secure and predictable married life for sweet Millie and adventure for ornery Twiss. Neither got what she wanted. The Bird Sisters is a tale of secrets, sisterly love and devotion, and of two women you’ll remember long after you close the book.

The Widower’s Tale

Fans of National Book Award winner Julia Glass know how richly drawn and complex her characters can be. The Widower’s Tale weaves together the lives of the family and acquaintances of widower Percival Darling, a 70-something retired librarian. Percy is erudite and cynical. At his core, he is a family man with compassion for his motherless adult daughters and his beloved grandson, all with dramas of their own. Thirty years after his wife’s drowning, Percy falls for a single mother and her adopted son. Subplots of eco-terrorism, cancer, class, immigration and gay marriage are pulled together to a satisfying conclusion. In creating a septuagenarian who emails and swims in the nude, Glass avoids the obvious stereotypes and has created a very memorable and attractive patriarch.

Breaking Out of Bedlam

Meet cantankerous Cora, taken from her home by well-meaning adult children who worry about her over-medicating and disregard for personal hygiene. At age 82 and 300 pounds, widowed Cora is placed, against her wishes, into assisted living. In a journal gifted to her by a grandchild, Cora reveals the story of her life from her shotgun wedding at 17, through the loss of her husband, and to her arrival at the Palisades nursing home. The staff and residents are scrutinized with Cora’s brand of candor and profanity—you’ll shake your head at Cora’s contempt as she sets the record straight and begins life anew. Kudos for Leslie Larson for a refreshing take on a stage of life so often portrayed disparagingly. How nice to see Cora learning, growing and reinventing herself!

Instructions for a Heatwave

Maggie O’Farrell is a master of creating recognizable, flawed characters, and here she delivers once again. Gretta and Robert are long married with grown children; they have an easy routine to their days. Like their fellow Londoners, the couple are struggling to deal with the summer’s unrelenting heat and drought. But is the oppressive weather what caused Robert to go for a walk one morning and simply vanish without a word? His disappearance brings the children—Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife—back under the same roof for the first time in years to help Gretta find their father. The heat makes things seem too heavy to carry but each family member lightens their load with every weighty secret that is revealed.

Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale

Septuagenarian Faith Bass Darling—once spunky and vibrant, now merely eccentric—has dementia, and her memories are unreliable at best. On the eve of Y2K, acting on a message from God, reclusive Faith puts all of her worldly possessions out on the front lawn to sell for a fraction of their considerable worth. Estranged daughter Claudia returns to find what’s left of her family estate in shambles, a legacy extinguished. Her mother is now virtually unreachable, proving even old money and good health can’t buy a happy ending. The story features well-developed and endearing characters, revealing a history of a privileged family life tinged with sadness and misunderstanding. Author Rutledge ultimately asks us to consider: what is left of who we are if our memories fail and our possessions no longer hold any value? What if we gave them all away?

Lone Wolf

By Jodi Picoult – Atria, 2012

In her 19th novel, New York Times best-selling author Jodi Picoult once again looks at a family in the throes of a moral dilemma. Luke Warren lived in the wild for two years, studying wolves; the experience changed him, and that ultimately tore the Warrens apart. Now, a car accident leaves him dependent on life support. Should his family pull the plug? The question pits Luke’s teenage daughter, Cara, who feels she knows Luke’s wishes, against her older brother, Edward, who has been estranged from the family for six years. Always expect the unexpected with Picoult, who—in her trademark style of giving voice to all who are involved and showing every side of an issue—challenges us to think about end-of-life decisions and to consider who will speak for us when our time comes.

The Middlesteins: A Novel

By Jami Attenberg – Grand Central Publishing, 2012

When food is a substitute for love, what happens to the family? Richard Middlestein has just left Edie, his wife of 40 years, unwilling to abide any longer her lifelong addiction to food. Overweight since her Holocaust-surviving mother placated her with warm bread, Edie has every health condition associated with obesity. Despite dire admonitions from doctors, she shows no signs of compliance. The grown Middlestein children are distraught over their father’s abandonment. Contemptuous, often-inebriated daughter Robin sees for the first time how devastating her mother’s relationship with food has become. Henpecked son Lenny wants to keep the peace, while his rail-thin wife refuses Richard access to his spoiled grandchildren. Each deals with the fallout in ways that manage to be simultaneously funny and pitiful. The tale of the Middlesteins is fiction, but the message hits a hard note of truth in our weight-conscious culture.