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About

I write books, I read books, I publish books, I review books. It's all about books.

I write books.

My books, written for and about women, range from sports fiction to romance to literary fiction. See my novels here or go to www.sunacumenpress.com to purchase books.

I publish books.

I edit, format, and design covers for books. I publish and republish books for authors. I teach workshops. Click here to see more about my services, or see www.sunacumenpress.com. 

I read books.

Click here to see some reviews of books I've read recently. I read non-fiction, fiction and short stories, but not poetry. (I'm not smart enough.) Share your reviews with me, too!

    Writing fiction is my third career. I have written eleven novels, ten published so far, each one about and for women. Today, I continue to write, but I also publish books for other people under my indie imprint, Sunacumen Press (a member of the Independent Book Publishers Association).

    I have a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, and an MBA from Regis University in Denver. I worked at small and mid-sized dailies before joining the Wall Street Journal as a staff reporter. After twenty years in journalism, I began my second career in corporate finance. I created Expedia’s first investor-relations program and its first cause-related marketing campaign.

    I wrote my first novel, Putt for Show (out of print), in 2013 while still working full-time. After retiring, I wrote the sequel, Drive for Dough, and then Hacienda: A South American Romance; Professional Lies; and Thwack! My next project was two “smart girl” romances based in the Palm Springs boutique hotel industry: One Way to Succeed and No Way to Win. Then I wrote three novels (Gracie's Revolution, Jackie's Campaign, and Marcia's Revenge), The Johnson Station seriesabout a fictional town in Iowa and three of the "mature" women who re-invent their dying town and themselves after their careers and life plans have stalled. (All books available on Amazon; look for them at www.sunacumenpress.com.)

    I have finished writing The Rebel Nun, based on a true story of a rebellion by nuns in a female monastery in sixth century Gaul. I am looking for an agent to take it to a publisher. (Call me!) I'm doing research for another novel about late antiquity/early Middle Ages along the Rhine River, and writing The Life Coach of Lone Wolf Estates, a murder mystery about a life-coach who finds herself stranded in a tony, out-of-touch suburb of mini-mansions and accused of wrongful death.

    I'm on the board of the local Pen Women chapter and the Diamond Valley Writers Guild, and the publications board at Inlandia Institute. I teach between 15 and 20 publishing workshops and memoir and fiction workshops at public libraries in Riverside, Hemet, Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, CA; Iowa; and at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony near Temecula, CA.

    I was born in Iowa, have lived in eight states and four of the country’s largest cities, and now live in Palm Springs, CA, with my husband, Ben. 

Recent Books

Click on any cover to see more. You can read more descriptions and buy all my books at www.sunacumenpress.com/our-books.html.  

My current project is titled The Rebel Nun, a historical novel based on the true story of a nun rebellion in the sixth century in Poitiers. I hope to see this project finished and published in 2019.  To inquire about representing this novel, contact me.

Marcia's Revenge

Third in the Johnson Station Novel series, Marcia returns to town, expecting to stay only until she gets a new job in Seattle. But the revitalization effort needs her help. Will she find a way to stay and get revenge against the banker who fired her?

Jackie's Campaign

Second in the Johnson Station Novel series, Jackie joins the campaign of an old flame running for mayor. Can they overthrow the "old guard" and give their small Iowa town a chance at survival?

Gracie's Revolution

First in the Johnson Station Novel series, Gracie fights for her job as the conservative and ambitious politician demands that she censor books to his liking. Her battle sparks the revolution to save the small Iowa town.

Professional Lies

Injured and unable to continue to play professional golf, Sidney Stapleton starts a charity for young girls. But unable to raise funds, she becomes a high-end escort, which brings in money, but a whole host of complications.

Thwack!

Astrophysicist Cetacea Whitholm is at the end of her career, when her philandering husband is murdered in her basement. Even she thinks she's the prime suspect, although her night atthe Wicca gathering clouds her memory.

Hacienda: A South American Romance

Three Iowa women buy a dilapidated hacienda in Bolivia, thrusting them in conflict with a strange local myth, a serial killer and government corruption.

Drive for Dough

Sequel to Putt for Show, Lena Bettencourt as CEO of a golf clothing company battles corporate raiders, nasty venture capitalists and a hacker intent on destroying her company.

Putt for Show

Lena Bettencourt loses her job and decides to try her hand at amateur golf, heading for the USGA Senior Women's title. This book is currently out of print. (Do not buy used copies; they are pirated.)

No Way to Win

A Boutique Hotels of Palm Springs romance. Sandra never wanted to get involved with someone at work, but when her boss faces his own personal crisis, she's the one he turns to. By Marjorie Pinkerton Miller.

One Way to Succeed

A Boutique Hotels of Palm Springs romance. A chance encounter with an injured dog put Rick and Amy on a collision path involving both career and love. Written under the pen name Marjorie Pinkerton Miller.

Publishing services and workshops

Once I learned how to publish my own books, I got serious about developing professional-level skills in formatting and designing books. Adding those skills to my copyediting experience has enabled me to provide publishing services through a hybrid publisher, Sunacumen Press.  I also teach workshops around Southern California and Iowa on writing and publishing.

Publishing

Check out the various publishing services for fiction, non-fiction and memoir writers at www.sunacumenpress.com.


Workshops


I give many workshops each year on memoir and fiction writing and self-publishing. Check out my schedule at the Workshops tab at www.sunacumenpress.com/workshops.html.


New!


Now you can purchase the workbook that is written and designed to help jump-start the memoir you've always wanted to write.  Based on the memoir workshop, Better Than Fiction, the workbook is now available on Lulu.com.


To buy your copy, copy and paste this link into your browser:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/marj-charlier/better-than-fiction/paperback/product-24131516.html




Book Reviews

I do not use the standard one-to-five-star rating system, which has been corrupted to the point of being meaningless. If I like a book, I recommend it. Next to the title, I indicate whether I devoured it, read it, skimmed it, or quit reading it. If you would like to review books for this site, please do the same. You can send your reviews to me using the contact page of this website. The reviews found here are of these books: (The list is alpabetical, but the reviews appear with the most recent review I wrote first.)

·         American Audacity (Giraldi) 

·         Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (deGrasse Tyson) 

·         Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norris)

·         Brass (Aliu) 

·         Bunny (Awad)

·         The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez (Bobrow-Strain)

·         Educated (Westover) 

·         Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Honeyman)

·         The Fifth Risk (Lewis)

·         A Gentleman in Moscow  (Towles) 

·         Gone So Long (Dubus) 

·         Grief Cottage (Godwin) 

·         A House in the Trees (Glass) 

·         Lake Success (Shteyngart) 

·         The Last Suppers (Mikulencak) 

·         Little Mercies (Gudenkauf)

·         Maid (Land) 

·         The Mars Room (Kushner)

·         Mrs. (Macy) 

·         The President is Missing (Clinton & Patterson)

·         Sarah's Key (de Rosnay)

·         Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Dean) 

·         Small Fry (Brennan-Jobs)

·         Unfinished Desires (Godwin) 

·         Upstate (Wood)

·         Water for Elephants (Gruen)

·         The Weight of Ink (Kadish) 

·         White Elephant (Langsdorf)

·         The Wife (Wolitzer) 

·         The Woman in the Window (Finn) 

·         Women Rowing North (Pipher) 

·         You Think It, I'll Say It (Sittenfeld)

👍Bunny by Mona Awad – READ 

There have been times in my life when I considered applying for an MFA program; I grew up in Iowa, so that would have been my choice. The expense, the tough application process, and the need to earn a living were all partly responsible for my decision not to do it.  But the real reason I didn’t go through with it was the horror stories I heard from graduates of the programs. These aren’t your average critique groups; having your prose “workshopped” in an MFA program is apparently brutal.

 

The horror of the MFA workshop is the subject of Bunny, Mona Awad’s second novel, which depicts the brutality of the workshop itself and the class divides that poison the experience for the less-than-1%ers who get accepted at the most elite programs in the country. Awad got her MFA at Brown, and although her fictional program is set at the fictional Warren University, it’s clear that she’s herein exorcising pain from her own experience. The novel’s horror is at first unsettling and confusing (many consumer reviewers on Amazon were so horrified or confused they couldn’t finish the book) until you realize that it’s all a metaphor for the workshop itself. Very little really happens here in real life; some of the main characters aren’t even real. The horror on the page is a metaphor for the experience of having your work torn apart, for the literary extremes required by “break-out” fiction, and for “killing your darlings” as creative writing professors demand. Relax. No bunnies are slaughtered or men are actually murdered (their heads blowing up) during this year of Samantha’s MFA stint, although some prose and egos definitely are.

 

The novel opens as Samantha returns to the second year of the program, expecting the worst. A poorly defined and uncomfortable relationship with her faculty advisor causes part of her anxiety. But the real challenge to her equilibrium comes from the four rich girls who comprise the other four-fifths of their workshop, and whose appearance and behavior wreak of wealth and privilege. Sam managed to get into the program only by dint of scholarships and grants, and her insecurities about her socio-economic standing make her the perfect target for the horror that comes at the hands of her workshop-mates. The four rich girls call each other “Bunny” (“I love you, Bunny. I love you, too, Bunny.”) and Samantha is stalked by animal-bunnies that talk to her and pop up from behind bushes around campus. Sam despises the rich-girl “bunnies,” but once she’s invited to join their “smut party,” she’s hooked on the excitement of being accepted into their cult. She sets aside her crude Goth friend, Ava, in favor of the “bunnies,” and things get weirder and uglier and bloodier as she’s initiated into their rites. In the end, she comes back to earth, the novel comes back to earth, and the reader realizes who’s real and who’s not in this strange, dark world.

 

Professional reviewers and other novelists have waxed ecstatically about Bunny, but sales numbers, the heavily discounted price on Amazon, and wildly mixed consumer reviews indicate it but isn’t for everyone. Caveat emptor: I believe only those who have gone to or aspired to go to an MFA program (i.e., reviewers) will appreciate it. 

Bunny

Mona Awad

Viking

2019


👍The Death and Life of Aida Hermandez by Aaron Bobrow-Strain – DEVOURED 

    Aida Hernandez is a pseudonym for a woman who was born in Mexico whose mother brought her and her siblings across the border from Agua Prieta into Douglas, Ariz., when Aida was too young to have any say in the matter. In her youth, workers, shoppers, friends and family ricocheted back and forth between the two towns and countries. The towns’ mutual dependence and interactions were such that people called them collectively DouglaPrieta, but by the time Aida was a teenager, a new policy of immigrant “deterrence” complicated and criminalized movement across the border. What had been considered a normal ebb and flow became risky—even dangerous, and the economy on both sides of the border tanked.

Aida, her mother, and her sisters face joblessness, economic insecurity, and abuse by men on both sides of the border. Trapped into accepting a dangerous job in Agua Prieta by single motherhood and poverty, Aida is stabbed repeatedly in a late-night attack by a stranger, leading to her brief “death” and her last trip across the border into the U.S. for emergency medical attention.

Over the twenty-five first years of her life, the period covered in this narrative, Aida makes mistakes—many mistakes, some minor, some major—all piling up to form a mountain of physical, emotional, and legal challenges that threaten her quest for legal residency and portend a life-long battle with chronic PTSD.  The book is in part a narrative about Aida, her family, and her friends—people stuck on one side or the other of the border by virtue of their place of birth. It’s in part a narrative about the exponential growth in this nation’s border-control industry and the counter-intuitive decisions that have exasperated rather than resolved the issue of immigration over our southern border.


In a back-of-the-book essay, “About This Book,” the author, a professor of politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, which he credits with providing support for the research and completion of his book, makes the point of his book explicit: border policy isn’t “broken,” as is so-often stated. Instead, it is working well for many: politicians, private corrections firms that run detention centers like prisons, smugglers, law-enforcement job-seekers, and government contractors—even Western Union—all of whom profit from a system that stigmatizes, punishes, and destroys people based on their birthplace, their geographic and career ambitions, their big and little (but human) errors.


This is a big book—a book that pulls more weight than its relatively modest 340 pages of narrative (not counting back-of-the book material) might suggest. First, Aida’s story is complicated—the kind of story that would lead many authors or journalists to abandon the project and look for a simpler, more completely sympathetic protagonist. Many of Aida’s troubles are self-inflicted, but others are the result of circumstances out of her control. Once they begin to add up, it’s hard to tell one kind from the other.

The book is chock-full of detail and history about our complicated, expensive, ever-expanding, and often counterintuitive and irrational border-control agencies, laws, and systems. It records the decline of Douglas, a once-vibrant, multi-cultural border town where Mexican men and women made decent wages and felt safe raising their families. The town’s major industry today is border “security” and most of its residents are transient law-enforcement employees with no connection to the community. Finally, it’s a story about battered women and families—a subject which the author didn’t know he would have to address in such detail until Aida’s story made it clear how integral abuse is to much of what happens to women at the border.


The subject matter is so big, in fact, that at times I found myself checking how much of the book I’d read, compared with how much I had left to read, as if I were back in school and the book was a class assignment, wondering how much more I could stuff into my head without losing the string of the narrative.


That is not criticism. The author’s ambition is admirable, and his book illustrates how much the media over-simplifies and dumbs-down both the stories of migrants’ journeys and our border policy in covering the “crisis at the border.” Even multi-page articles in the New York Times—for example, a recent one that followed a migrant family from the border through several states—can’t do these stories justice. Don’t get me wrong: I also understand how the limits of media resources and the average readers’ patience make the kind of examination this book undertakes impossible.


So, bravo for Bobrow-Strain for taking up the slack, and for his publishers for accepting this hefty manuscript for publication. I heartily recommend his book for anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of what has really happened at our border, and how we have ended up with a bloated anti-immigration industry that, by 2012, was costing us more than “the FBI, the DEA, Secret Service, ATF, and the U.S. Marshals Service combined, with enough left over to run all of the country’s national parks for a year.” One can only imagine how much more it is costing today in both budget and ruined lives. 

The Death and Life of Aida Hermandez

Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

2019


😒White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf – READ 

Based on glowing reviews from other reviewers, I expected to love this book about contemporary suburbia, consumerism, and marital dysfunction. The book jacket maintains that it’s “uproarious.” The truth? I never chuckled once. 


This cast of dissatisfied, whining characters distract themselves from their first world problems—disappointing marriages, sickly children and shrugging teenagers—by feuding with their neighbors in a cloyingly perfect and picturesque Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. Perhaps the battles that serve as the novel’s plot engines—over saving trees and the destruction of tiny Sears houses to make way for big mansions (the “white elephants” of the title)—are common in commuter communities these days, but they seem dated to me. Is everyone in such enclaves this selfish, this jealous, this unfaithful; and do they all mix so poorly? And how do they all have the kind of time they devote to fighting with each other? When do they work? The answer in this novel to the latter question is: None of the six main characters works very much. There are a couple of women who consider themselves artists, a homebuilder who’s run out of financing and isn’t building anything, a pot-addled lawyer who skips work, a tree-hugging university magazine editor who hates his job, and an entrepreneur who succeeds without doing much of anything to start her squirt-gun company while suffering with a complicated pregnancy that has little to do with the rest of the story.

 

The two teenagers and two young children who fill out the nuclear families are narcissistic and irrepressible as any children, but here, annoyingly so. The more sympathetic of the teenagers, we’re told at the beginning, is troubled by global warming, immigration, and other worthy preoccupations, but she spends the entire novel trying to be as “cool” as the rich neighbor girl and primping to secure the attention of the “cute” teenage boy (also annoying) who constantly tosses his hair. In the end, a serendipitous house fire miraculously brings the town back together, rids it of the big-house scourge, and redeems the snotty bad girl who should never have escaped redemption.

 

The novel could possibly have been rescued by a more controlled point of view, or even a single relatable narrator. The author’s head-hopping from paragraph to paragraph, person to person leaves the impression that no one in this suburb ever thinks about anything other than an immediate carnal need (hungry? horny? jealous? uncaffienated? humiliated? angry?) for than a nanosecond. Further, the woman whose third-person voice introduces the narrative is one of the least interesting and shallowest of a cast of such weak characters. Far better to start with a clear sketch of a strong lead protagonist, giving readers a chance to ground their compassion in a person that may lead them to some reward in a transformation, or at least a tiny understanding of a human condition.

 

A mid-life, suburban, materialistic variant of snarky chick lit, this novel doesn’t deliver on its promise of hilarity or anti-materialism. Well before halfway through it, I realized, “I really don’t like this at all.” I wondered why I was finishing it and concluded: “Because I need to write a review to keep others from wasting their money on this galling waste of paper.” 

White Elephant

Julie Langsdorf

Echo (HarperCollins)

2019


😒The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – READ/SKIMMED 

If I weren’t already waking up every morning with the feeling that we (the entire global community) have just spent another night hanging by our fingernails to a cliff, dangling precipitously above a dark, dystopian world – if not an apocalypse—perhaps I could have appreciated this book more.

 

By which, I mean, this thing is depressing.

 

Now, many books can be depressing and still deliver a message or say something important about justice, injustice, humanity, inhumanity, love, hate, etc. from a point of view that we haven’t experienced in our own lives. Books should open us up to real, darker worlds and other people’s sorrows, challenges and failures. They can build empathy and encourage remediation.

 

The Mars Room certainly brings the reader into a world that most people who can read and can afford to buy a book probably have not been in, at least for long. Snarky, slum-dwelling Romy is on her way to a women’s prison in California for two life sentences-plus. She killed a stalker, who probably deserved some severe punishment—probably just short of a death sentence—because she couldn’t get rid of him otherwise and in some vague sense, feared for the safety of her son. With inadequate counsel in an overworked and corrupt justice system, her inevitable path to prison only reflects all of the other inevitabilities in her life: disappointing relationships with men and women, drug addiction that provides transient relief, a life of petty crime that her single mother trained her for, and a precocious child she can’t adequately support. Quite interesting from my standpoint as a writer who tries to create at least semi-sympathetic—or at least relatable—characters, Kushner doesn’t even try to make us like Romy. It’s as if Romy doesn’t care what people think of her, and neither does Kushner. Understandable, perhaps, but empty.

 

You get that in the first half of the book. You also get a smattering of other characters, most similarly desperate and none more likeable, all in a similar trap of their own bad behavior conflated with uneven portions with that same corrupt justice system. They have suffered abuse and like to abuse. Most have (or had) drug problems. Their experiences with sex (most of them not consensual and a significant portion of them largely one-handed and drawn out) are uniformly unpleasant. In the end, a reader is left with a number of incomplete story lines, tales of truncated relationships, a bereft feeling of nothing having happened that really matters to anyone but the deplorable characters involved, and a sense that Kushner never really had a resolution to any of this in mind when she started the book. It was as if she didn’t care enough about her main characters to create a narrative arc for them.

 

The book received hundreds of accolades in the media and powerful book-review publications, uneven reviews on public review sites, a few impressive awards, and general critical praise from the literary community. Nearly everyone praises her writing for good reason; she is a master wordsmith and world-builder in the vein of Denis Johnson. But writing a book that has value, particularly in this edge-of-a-precipice time, also demands telling a story that provides us with some meaning, some context and some understanding of how we might all get out of this. This book doesn’t even prove that she can tell a story. 

The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner

Scribner

2019


👍Between You and Me by Mary Norris – DEVOURED 

 Mary Norris is a word nerd in the best sense. She cares about words, she knows words, she loves words. And grammar. And etymology. She also loves pencils, erasers, and pencil sharpeners. If this sounds like a person you’d like to know, read on. If not, I fully understand. We word nerds aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea.

 

Between You and Me is part memoir, part confessional, and part grammar lesson, sweetened up by Norris’ pencil-sharp wit and self-deprecation. A long-time copyeditor at The New Yorker, she makes a bit of fun of her employer’s refusal to change its rules with the times, introduces us to the characters she works with and has worked with, explores the idiosyncrasies of some very famous writers who have contributed to the magazine, and throws in a bitsy grammar lesson every now and then. But with the sugar that helps the medicine go down, I promise even those lessons are entertaining.

 

Norris’ digestible—even enjoyable—grammar lessons are neither pedantic nor preachy. I have tried over the years to explain the difference between “that” and “which” to probably hundreds of students. From now on, I’ll just suggest they read her chapter on the subject, “That Witch!” It explains the rules much better than I ever could have. Likewise, her chapters on commas, (“Comma, Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon”) hypens, dashes, and apostrophes. For fun, I’ll suggest they read her hilarious (and I don’t use that word lightly) chapter on how The New Yorker’s policy on profanity has changed over time, in which she proves that, while she may be a nerd, she’s certainly no prude.

 

With a wide curiosity and the intellectual power to make her discoveries relevant and interesting, Norris has only recently started writing for the general public. Between You and Me is her first published book. Her second, published in 2019, is about everything Greek (Greek to Me: Adventures of a Comma Queen), and I intend to read it soon. It’s too bad she didn’t start writing sooner (my guess she’s in her mid-60s), as she’s a gift that I would like to keep giving for a very long time. 

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris

W.W. Norton

2015


👍& 😒Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – READ 

I rarely have trouble coming down on one side or the other about books, but this one makes me equivocate.y  


I loved the first quarter of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The set-up is intriguing and the main character quirky, funny, and sympathetic. Eleanor is a master of dry, British wit as she quips about such things as popular TV shows, the food people eat (macaroni and cheese from a box?), the way others drink their tea, and the lyrics of musicals. “Once again, for some reason, it is I who am considered strange,” she often says. 

 

But very quickly, the story took a turn toward the mundane: a lonely, interesting, socially challenged woman’s problems are fixed when she becomes “normal.”

 

In the beginning, Eleanor Oliphant behaves like she has Asperger’s, exhibiting an inability to understand people around her, what they say, or the things that interest them, and as such, she is the butt of office jokes and not invited to parties. Apparently good at her accounting job (and focused!), she is appreciated by her bosses, but due to her poor social skills, she’s not rewarded for it. Traumatized by a childhood tragedy that is unveiled little by little throughout the novel, Eleanor thinks her life is “completely fine,” although we can tell that it is not: she’s totally alone, binge drinks, and spends her weekends watching the BBC and waiting for Monday to come around again. Worse, she’s still trying to please “mummy.”

 

A sudden and naïve crush on a local rock star and the arrival of Raymond, a new IT employee at the firm, set the novel in motion and begin to transform her “completely fine” life. When Raymond and Eleanor stop to help an elderly man who falls on the street, Eleanor is thrust into a swirl of social activities that gradually teach her how to interact with people and get her out of her unhealthy work/TV/vodka routine.

 

At first, I was happy for Eleanor, thinking that this new understanding and comfort with the rest of society might cheer her up and enrich her life. But quickly, her metamorphosis starts to take on the character of imitating other “normal” women around her than becoming a happier, but still interesting Eleanor. She starts to dress more fashionably—new shoes, pants, coat, purse, dresses. She starts to wear make-up. She gets a new, flattering hairdo. She stops binge drinking. She learns to say appropriate things in public settings and to withhold her once prescient if unappreciated opinions. She makes friend after friend. She gets promoted at work.

 

Eleanor has a few set-backs, and, in the climactic last chapters, has a near-fatal bout of overdrinking. But Raymond and a therapist eventually bring her back on the path to normal. (The therapists’ visits are both tedious and predictable, lacking in charm or wit, and are perhaps the weakest scenes in the novel.) In the end, we get the story’s big reveal; whether you’ve read The Woman in the Window or not, you will have already guessed what it is.

 

As disappointing as Eleanor’s transformation was to me, Honeyman’s prose is wonderful. I was pulled along by her talent more than the narrative arc. In the end, I wished she’d given us the old Eleanor back—perhaps a little happier, perhaps with a friend, but with her quirky personality and wit intact. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Gail Honeyman

Penguin Books (Penguin/RandomHouse)

2017


👍Circe by Madeline Miller – DEVOURED 

    Madeline Miller burst onto the literary scene only a couple of years ago with her first novel, Song of Achilles, which instantly became a best-seller. I ignored it at the time; I’m not a fan of fantasy novels, and a rewrite of Greek mythology—with magic, underworld, and epic battles amongst the gods—is about as close to fantasy as you can get without vampires. But now that I have read Circe at the advice of my agent, I plan to dive into Achilles nex 

What has drawn me in is the page-turning quality of Miller’s writing. Yes, she knows the classics (her BA and MA are in classics), but she also knows hatred, love, fear, loneliness, passion, hunger, and the strength it takes to marshal the forces to manage them all, whether goddess or mortal. The truths that come to Circe as she learns what it means to be mortal—and eventually chooses it—put every self-help book on every library and bookstore shelf to shame. These lessons don’t come as quotable aphorisms that might caption a poster of a soaring eagle or erupting volcano, but as slow revelations about how humans connect with each other, for good and for evil, for now and for eternity, because of their mortality.

 

Many of the ancient stories retold in this novel are familiar to us, if only vaguely, but the author infuses them with living humans/gods that we can understand and relate to in a way that I never could with Homer’s hero/villain Odysseus, for one. By stepping away from the epic battles and monsters that dominate the ancient mythology, and entering the mind and body and garden of Circe, Miller has made the stories relevant to those of us whose battles aren’t fought with magic and swords, but with daily compromises and small emotional losses and victories. Further, the natural rhythm of the author’s voice (what? complete sentences?) make this novel more accessible than many that purport to describe the real world we live in. A reader can settle into this story from the first page as the quotidian detail of Circe tending her gardens, mixing her potions, and walking around her island with her lion and wolves are rendered without literary artifice.

 

I highly recommend Circe, regardless of your interest in mythology. If you’re interested in what makes humans tick, this book is for you.

Circe

Madeline Miller

Hachette

2018


👍Little Faith by Nickolas Butler – DEVOURED 

There is a sentence about one-fifth of the way into this gentle but tragic novel that made me fall in love with the protagonist. “He had learned, over decades of marriage, that when he was not actively listening to Peg, it was in fact more dangerous to pretend that he was.”

 

Reading that wise lesson, written with all the humility and good sense we hope our husbands possess after “decades of marriage,” reminded me how powerful it is when a great writer creates a character so human, flawed and loving that it gives us a new perspective on very old realities—in this case a decades-long marriage and the heartbreaking work of being a grandparent.

 

Butler’s story is about Lyle, a grandfather who tries to protect his precious, precocious grandson, Isaac, from a holy-roller preacher whom his mother has fallen in love with, at the same time that he is struggling with his own loss of faith. A classic clash between a high-dollar evangelical religious cult run by a charismatic and narcissistic pastor, and the quiet, pragmatic religion of rural America forms the central tension of the novel. Lyle’s life-long friends—a pastor, a similarly retired co-worker, and a couple who owns an apple orchard that soaks up some of Lyle’s post-retirement excess time—provide sounding boards for Lyle’s concerns about Isaac’s health, the bizarre behavior of his hyper-religious daughter, and the scary power of the handsome, well-spoken preacher who has won over a congregation by the power of his personality. Lyle’s interactions with his friends are quotidian, yet infused with empathy, reason, and sincerity; devoid of cynicism, rancor and pretension. Yet despite its calm delivery, both Lyle’s pain and his benevolence will haunt you long after you’ve finished its tear-inducing last pages.

 

The impetus for his novel, Butler tells us in an author’s note at the end, was the death of an 11-year-old girl in Wisconsin (the author’s home state) from complications of undiagnosed juvenile diabetes that went untreated as her family prayed for her recovery instead of seeking modern medical care. Like hers, Isaac’s story will break your heart at the same time that the love that radiates from this beautiful novel will help it mend.

 

Little Faith

Nickolas Butler

Ecco (HarperCollins)

2019


👍Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens– DEVOURED 

Even if you hibernate far from civilization—deep in a Carolina marsh, say—you must have heard of this book. By early May, it had been on the NYT Best Seller list for 32 weeks—many of those weeks it was at No. 1. Typically, I have no problem ignoring many books that top the fiction sales lists, especially if they’re another in a series of murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, fantasy/vampire novels or other such genre. But when a book of literary fiction becomes so well-read (or well-bought, anyway), I start to believe there must be something to it. Word of mouth is the best way to boost a book’s popularity, and I began to think there had to be something special about Where the Crawdads Sing, or so many people wouldn’t be recommending it to their friends.

 

Yet, I waited many weeks to read it because so many synopses I had read didn’t captivate me, which just proves that some books thrive in spite of their marketing, rather than because of it. The short descriptions stressed the “strangeness” of the “Marsh Girl,” as Kya is known to the townsfolk in nearby, tiny, backwater Barkley Cove, and the conservative community’s view of this remarkable woman, even though the book is written from the perspective of Kya’s beautiful world, looking inward and out, not the town, looking in. Also, many critics glossed over the beauty of this story or its writing, some even comparing this book with Barbara Kingsolver’s novels, which frankly is an insult to Delia Owens. Both her action and scene-setting passages have much more momentum than Kingsolver’s often laborious, tedious and pretentious writing.

 

Kya grows up alone in the marsh of the Carolina coast, abandoned by her dysfunctional family, and teaches herself how to survive. Tate, a sensitive, less-isolated young man, is drawn to her and befriends her in spite of the town’s disapproval. They share a love of nature and the way it accommodates the joys of solitude, learning and reflection. He teaches her to read, and from there, she blossoms, but after Tate leaves her for an academic career, she is charged with and tried for the murder of the town bully.

 

This is Ms. Owens’ debut as a novelist, which is surprising, given how beautifully she has mastered the elements of character, plot, tension, setting and arc of the form. How does anyone write such a beautiful masterpiece right out of the box? Her previous books—"three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa,” as the book jacket relates—obviously indicate how she mastered nature writing, however.

 

In spite of the joy with which I consumed this book, I had three little reservations. First, the amount of head-hopping—switches in viewpoint from one person to another—within scenes indicated perhaps too little attention form her editor. Second, I am not a fan of courtroom drama, and the one here just seems to prolong the denouement without adding anything to our knowledge of what happened. Third, the very last few sentences of the book seemed unnecessary. We really don’t need—or maybe even want—to know who really killed the town bully to enjoy this novel.

 

All that said, the two days I spent in a lodge in the Black Hills, waiting for the rain to stop, reading this novel were among the most pleasant I can remember for a long time. This book was engrossing in the way nothing has been for me since A Gentleman in Moscow, the last novel I can say I found impossible to put down until I had blown through its last pages.

 

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Delia Owens

Putnam

(Penguin/Random House)

2019


👍Commander in Cheat by Rick Reilly – DEVOURED 

Of the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of books inspired by the presidency of Donald Trump, my guess is very few will ever change anyone’s mind about him. People who love him buy and read books that praise him; people who hate him buy and read books that excoriate him.

 

But I say “very few” instead of “none” because Commander in Cheat may be one book that could change a Trump supporter’s mind about Trump—if they can get past the title and the unflattering (but frequently published) photo of him on the front. Because golf is largely a rich (yes, some poor people play golf, including me) man’s (yes, 6 million women play golf, including me) sport, country clubs around the world are largely Republican bastions (except for mine, again). But Republican or not, if a person plays golf, and if she loves it, she can’t help but hate what Donald Trump has done to the sport.

 

I would never have guessed this book would be written by Rick Reilly, a veteran golf reporter whose own novels about golf are so sexist they compelled me to write my own two golf novels with strong female (not the bar-cart girl) protagonists. But he won me over with this book, which reads more like a cri-de-coeur of a man trying to save golf for the world than one obsessed with politics. “We were just getting past the stereotype of golf being a game for fat, blowhard, rich white guys playing on fenced-off courses while people of color push lawnmowers behind them—and along comes Trump,” he writes in his sum-it-all up final chapter titled “The Stain.”

 

Commander in Cheat covers a lot of territory, from the way Trump cheats on the course to the way he cheats in business; from the way he bullies caddies and playing partners to the way he bullies countries and governments; from the way he lies about his golf courses to the way he lies about his affairs with porn stars; from the way he ignores the rules and etiquettes most golfers hold sacred to the way he ignored Puerto Rico’s hurricane devastation. I’m certain that the book won’t change the minds of his staunchest political supporters—who include his “inside caddy”—his social media manager—and his “outside caddy”—the guy who carries his golf clubs to and from his cart (Donald never walks). But it might reach across the aisle to some of those who hate cheating in golf enough to start to question the man who’s made cheating great again.  

Commander in Cheat

Rick Reilly

Hachette

2019


👍A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – DEVOURED 

    Everyone who read this book before me (which was just about everyone I knew; I was waiting for it to come out in paperback) told me they didn’t want it to end. They enjoyed their time with Count Rostov too much to let him go. I rarely feel that way about a book, because even if I love, love, love a book, I have another twenty on my reading table waiting for me, and I’m anxious to work the pile down. Nevertheless, the consensus isn’t lost on me; this is one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve enjoyed in a long time (and I read a lot!).     
    I have tried to figure out what happens in this story that makes it so satisfying, as it’s not a typical American novel in which we get a sense of satisfaction from watching the transformation of the main character. The count is a decent, educated, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, well-manner and intelligent man at the beginning, as he is at the end. Rather, I believe Towles is telling us something (whether this is his intent or not) about class. And not, as you might think I was going to say, that high-class people stay high-class despite their circumstances, but that with kindness, good manners, intelligence and generosity, regardless of our circumstances, we could all be interesting people and genuinely fine dinner companions. 

    Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a story about a Russian count who is “jailed” in the Metropol Hotel after the Bolshevik Revolution for the sin of having been aristocracy, more than for any other reason. He makes the best of his situation, all of which is made much easier by a stash of gold coins he has hidden in the legs of his desk. One wonders how well he would have done without such a stash, but then, we’ve already addressed that question. 

    Needless to say, he ends up raising two young girls, and in a bit of brilliant staging, we see him, as a grown man of a certain age, on his knees with a young scamp, peering over the balcony, spying on the Communists gathered to determine the country’s future. As they scurry up and down stairs, involved in one mischief or another, it’s hard not to imagine the count would have made the best dad one could ever imagine: playful, encouraging, sympathetic, and intelligent. At dinner, the count cements love affairs and friendships, and turns enemies into life-long friends. 

    There’s plenty of subtle political messaging within these many (462 paperback) pages, but it goes down like a fine cognac after a fine meal, just as the count may indulge in at the hotel’s finest restaurant. 

    Highly recommended. 

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles

Windmill Books (Penguin/PenguinRandom House)

2016


👍Brass by Xhenet Aliu – DEVOURED 

    I want to take a bit of a detour in starting this review. Recently, I was at a writers conference where a famous, best-selling author spoke. Her presentation drew a huge crowd, and thunderous applause followed her speech, which I found to be predictable and bland, but clearly pleased her fans. Well, I thought, this woman has won both a Goodreads award and a People’s Choice award for her fiction, I ought to break down now and buy one of her novels. See what all the fuss is about.

    Her best seller hadn’t appealed to me as a book buyer in the first place because the story seemed unoriginal and derivative of so much else that came out about that time, but I chose to buy that one because it was, well, her biggest seller.

    Long story short: I made it through 20 pages before I threw it down. I was bored, to start with, and more significantly, I was afraid that her “voice”—an enigmatic element of the writer’s craft—would stick to me. If I started writing like that, I’d quit. In fact, there wasn’t a “voice” at all. Her prose comprised short, choppy sentences of similar construction, strung together in a most inelegant, monotone. I had the feeling she was attempting to mimic Hemingway but failing. Utterly. It almost seemed like she’d hired a computer to write her sentences.

    But who am I to say? A Goodreads and People’s Choice award winner obviously knows something about how to find and hook an audience. Certainly more than I do.

    The next book I picked up, Brass by Xhenet Aliu, was a perfect antidote. Now here was VOICE. All caps. VOICE. The narrator—actually two: full of personality. I knew it was written by a person and not a computer. A person with wit, charm, imagination. Also a person with humility, angst, hope and frustration all wrapped in such flowing prose I kept smiling at the page. Further, this is a writer with guts. Not many are brave enough to try to write in second person; even fewer can actually pull it off.
    So, my dear reader, you are wondering what the novel is about. That seems almost insignificant, in light of the stellar prose, but here you go: The story is about Elsie, a single mother and first generation American, in a dead-end, rust-belt town she had always planned to escape; and her daughter, Luljeta, whose life is considerably easier, but for whom disappointment started with the disappearance of her father before she was born, and culminates at the beginning of the novel with her rejection by NYU—for an education she probably couldn’t have paid for anyway.

    Luljeta decides what she needs to fill her empty future’s ugly reality is to find her father, and she sets out to do so. Whether she finds him or not (no spoiler, here) is almost immaterial because the real point of the narrative is for mother and daughter to understand and build a new empathy for each other, which they do.

    Xhenet’s background so closely matches that of her protagonists in this debut novel, I worry about what she will be able to write next. An author can go back to the well many times (ala Willa Cather), but can this author expand her grasp enough to build on this wonderful debut? I have no idea, but I will be in line (or online) to grab her next book to find out.

Brass

Xhenet Aliu

Random House (Penguin/PenguinRandom House)

2018


👍Mama's Last Hug by Frans de Waal – DEVOURED 

    I call myself an animal enthusiast or aficionado, not an animal lover, for the simple reason that my “love” can be easily disproven. I eat meat. I don’t like some animals (snakes in particular). My contributions to animal welfare organizations are nothing to brag about. Therefore, I won’t award myself with the high regard of “love”—even though I can’t pass a dog without getting a big “hug” and like many people I know, I’d rather read a book in which people are mistreated than one in which animals are hurt.

     I read Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist when it was published in 2013. I found its central argument compelling: that morality and moral behavior don’t rise from religion, but are inherent in humans and in many of our vertebrate relatives. And in reading it, I discovered a primatologist who can make his science accessible to non-scientists and wears his heart on his sleeve while doing so. His is not dry, unaffected prose!

     Mama’s Last Hug is even more evocative and convincing as it argues for better treatment of all animals (even if we continue to eat them) on the basis of our shared emotions, sentience, and mental states. He describes in detail and in storytelling fashion (both) how research has shown that animals—in particular our closest relatives, the great apes—share our experiences of humor, empathy, sympathy, disgust, shame, and guilt; our reasons for and tendencies for murder and war; and our sense of fairness and illusion of free will. In chapters that explore each of these shared emotions, he is careful to not step over the line and propose we know what animals are “feeling,” while making a convincing argument that we can tell they have emotions because they react to them in the very physiological and behavioral ways humans do. He’s clearly frustrated and impatient with those psychologists and ethologists who continue to opine that animals only react to stimuli from instinct and don’t experience true emotion. Anyone who has ever had a pet—whether parrot, rat, dog, cat, chimpanzee, or duck—knows better, but often without proffering any evidence, many animal researchers refuse to acknowledge the obvious and provable.

     In a world where we are assaulted daily by declarations of American exceptionalism—proven or not—de Waal’s exploration of the fallacy of “human exceptionalism” is fascinating and enlightening and perhaps allegorical. While some readers may reject the notion of a book of science that lends some insight into our poisoned politics, I found his willingness to extend some of his analysis of emotion into the political realm a relief. The more we understand where hate, jealousy and tribalism come from, the better we can fix things. 

Mama's Last Hug

Frans de Waal

W.W. Norton 

2019


👍Educated by Tara Westover – DEVOURED 

    There are many great books that make writers like me swoon with envy, wishing we had written them. This is not one of them.

    Don’t get me wrong. I was impressed and awed by this stunning memoir of a childhood and early adulthood terrorized by a borderline father and unsympathetic mother. But I’m glad that I didn’t write it. I’m glad that I couldn’t write it. Whatever power games my father played, whatever measure of manipulation and fable he used to try to control my mind, it never added up to anything close to the terror Tara Westover’s family visited on her. That she survived and overcame it is surprising; that she was able to write about it is nothing short of miraculous. (And not the kind of miracle her father had promised.)

    Born into and raised in a Mormon family so orthodox and unhinged that she wasn’t allowed to attend school—wasn’t even home-schooled—Tara found both the personal strength and cast of advocates that allowed her to rise in academia to a fellowship at Harvard and a PhD at Cambridge. But that passage was fraught with danger—physical and psychological—all so vividly told that I found it hard to sleep the night before I finished reading. I felt that I was living her trauma. I knew she’d survive—she was alive to write this book—but the terror was extreme and hard to experience, even from the great distance between her Idaho childhood home and my comfy chair in Southern California.

    I highly recommend this book. However difficult your struggle with family has been, after reading this, my bet is you’ll never feel sorry for yourself about it again.

Educated

Tara Westover

Random House (Penguin/PenguinRandom House)

2018


👍Maid by Stephanie Land – READ 

    Every once in a while, I read a review of a book and want to read it RIGHT NOW. So much so that I pony up the cash to buy the hardcover before the publisher issues a cheaper softcover version.

    Such was the case with Maid. The New York Times book review appealed to my anxiety about the destiny of work in America—both from the standpoint of rising inequity, and computerization and robotization. Without decent wages for manual labor and fewer jobs in the semi-skilled and intellectual fields, how will we support ourselves and find meaningful occupations and vocations in the future? How are we doing it now?     
Stephanie Land grew up in a middle-class family with college-educated parents in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. But shortly after graduating from high school, she fell into a cycle of abusive relationships, and once her family safety-net evaporated and she became a single mother, her dreams of going to college in Missoula, Mont., appeared dashed forever. The book is largely a story about her attempts to support herself and her child as a part-time maid for less than minimum wage, leaning heavily on government subsidies for housing, child support and food.

    Maids, it turns out, name the houses they clean regularly—the Sad House, the Porn House, the Plant House, the Chef House, etc.—and in the process of returning to scrub and straighten, they learn much more about their clients than they ever reveal about themselves. Stephanie admits to trying on cashmere sweaters, thumbing through the homeowners’ books, snooping through drawers, none of which surprised me (I cleaned houses in my teens; I know what goes on), and she grows fond of some of her clients, despite the gross proximity she suffers with their toilets and hair-strewn bathtubs.

    These parts of the memoir are compelling, as are the descriptions of the peril caused by the unexpected expenses (a car accident, the child’s chronic illnesses) when even expected expenses aren’t manageable. Her despair and angst are palpable. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one thinking “I couldn’t do it.” Stephanie’s breakdowns, rendered quickly but effectively, bring her to tearful outcries along those same lines.

    The weakness of the book is an artifact of her own failures and her culpability. She entered relationships with abusive and unstable men in serial fashion—and if I read between the lines correctly, it was due to her fascination with their edginess, their refusal to be grown-ups. Well, you get what you ask for in that category, and I found it hard to feel as much empathy as I wanted to for her precarious situations. (What does it mean: “I was on birth control, but it failed.” Really? What kind of birth control was it? The rhythm method?) I understand a person’s ethical and moral choice not to have an abortion, but her expectation that somehow the child’s abusive father and other boyfriends would come around and “fall in love” with her child (and what? Grow up all the sudden?) could lead one to question not only her judgment, but even her intellect.

    My final complaint is about the writing. Yes, she did eventually go on to get a college degree, and has written personal essays for national publications before finishing this memoir. And she praises her editor in her acknowledgments. Still, there are some cringe-worth sentences (that a great editor would never have let squeak through), significant and unnecessary repetitions that make me think Land’s best work is still yet to come.

    Of course, she already has a best-selling memoir on the New York Times list, and she not only attracted a superstar agent (although he’s known among my author friends as Mr. Personality—sarcastically, of course), a Foreword from Barbara Ehrenreich, and a top publisher, Hachette. There’s a lot more right than wrong about this memoir. I just wish I could come to feel a little more empathy for her.



Maid

Stephanie Land

Hachette  

2019


👍The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish – READ 

    The reason I didn’t devour this book was because it was simply too big of a meal to sit down and gulp down. The story of Ester Valesquez, a London emigrant from an Amsterdam Jewish settlement, is one that will remind readers of such heroines as are found in Pope Joan, The Birth of Venus, and Confessions of a Pagan Nun—women who are ambitious and talented, but confined by the sexism and misogyny of the ruling patriarchy of their times, whether it be the Church or the State.         

    In sixteenth century London, Jews were still considered a threat to civil society if not bearers of the plague, and Ester carries that stigma as well as the burden of being a woman without options beyond marriage or servitude as the maid of a household (or both). She yearns to write and communicate with the great philosophers of the day—in particular, Spinoza. By adopting the identity of a young man who was unlikely to ever put words on paper himself, she uses her position as scribe for a blind rabbi to find the paper and ink needed to communicate with Spinoza and others, carrying on a radical conversation that certainly would have raised suspicions (if not prosecution) of both Jewish and Christian moralists of the day. 

    Against the harrowing backdrop of the plague, which nearly emptied London of all its souls—atheist or Jewish or Christian—Ester figures out how to save herself and her beloved housekeeper, and continue her intellectual pursuits so that modern-day Aaron and Helen, academicians who study Jewish history, can rediscover her and tell her story. 

    At 559 pages, the weight of The Weight of Ink is great indeed, and my only suggetion is that it could easily have been put on a diet. The stories of Aaron and Helen pale so greatly in comparison with Ester’s tale that they could be cut (saving perhaps 150 pages) and not much would be lost. Including the stories of Aaron and Helen’s discovery and the process by which they unraveled the mystery of “Aleph” does add some modern suspense, but I found they often just interrupted the flow of Ester’s story and rather than increasing the tension, they diluted it.

    Nevertheless, this is one fine read, and I do recommend it. 


The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kadish

Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

2017


😒 The Wife by Meg Wolitzer – READ 

    Any woman over fifty who has been in a long marriage (you define long; for me, it’s anything over twenty years) will recognize the shudder-inducing repulsion that Joan Castleman expresses for her husband in the opening paragraphs of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife. No matter how much you love the man (or woman) you have committed to, there are things that he or she does that threaten to drive you off the cliff. (How much noise he makes when he chews an English muffin? How he waits to wash his hands until dinner is on the table and getting cold?)

    For Joan, it’s so many things that I couldn’t imagine how she has managed to stay with Joe Castleman all these years (nearly five decades). For some women, there’s no choice: having given up their careers (and let their skills obsolesce) to raise a family, perhaps, they have no other financial options. For some, the kids are still at home, and they’re committed to seeing them through their adolescence before returning to work. But Joan has no such excuses. Which is perhaps the most troubling problem with the plot of this short novel. But more on that in a moment.

    Joan is on her way to Helsinki, Finland, with Joe, who is going to accept a literary prize just a little short of a Nobel, when she decides their marriage is over. As soon as they get through the ceremonies and celebrations, she’s going to tell him she’s leaving him. The novel then flashes back (in a lengthy tell-don’t-show fashion that would never be accepted by an agent or a publishing house from a writer with less fame than Wolitzer) to their early years together – how she met him when he was her professor, how he left his first wife, where they lived in New York, the parties they attended, Joe’s first books, the birth of their children. And then, interspersed with the action (or not) in Helsinki, we hear of their middle years together: his growing fame, the children’s estrangement, and Joe’s frequent affairs. At the end, she dumps a lot of narrative summaries that, if they had been explored as scenes earlier in the novel, would have given us a much richer picture of Joan and Joe.

    You may already know how it ends (it was made into a 2018 movie starring Glenn Close, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role), but I’ll not spoil it here for those who don’t. Suffice it to say, many readers will have already guessed at the big secret Joan and Joe share, and most probably hope to God that she decides to reveal it after she leaves the man. She deserves to let the world know.

    Wolitzer’s prose is polished as ever, and I found myself rushing through this thin volume over a weekend, hoping for some kind of redemptive detail about Joe that would explain why Joan is still with him or some payback for Joan’s long suffering. But despite the fabulous sentences and occasional (although not as abundant as some critics have claimed) wit, I found the plot unsatisfying and characters poorly explored. The deus ex machina and the decision Joan makes at the end are cop-outs—a dodge that saved Wolitzer from exploring a much more obvious, complicated, and riskier ending that would repaid Joan for staying with this overgrown man-child and satisfied the readers’ need for a complete story.

    I recommend the book for people who are as tired of their spouses as Joan is (misery loves company), but not for readers who enjoy a compelling narrative arc.


 

The Wife

Meg Wolitzer

Scribner

(Simon & Schuster)

2004

😒 Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – SKIMMED 

    I disagree with the consensus about a lot of books. I understand (from the publisher’s advertising) that The Absolute True Story of a Part-Time Indian was “universally loved,” that both Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See were multiple-award winners and “universally” acclaimed, and that I may be the only person in the world who did not finish reading all three of them. 

    And here we have another example: Water for Elephants. I tried to read this book even though neither circuses nor equestrian themes appealed to me (in the least), because I was meeting with Ms. Gruen’s agent at a writers’ conference. Better be prepared in case she asks me about it, I thought. After all, everyone else loved it. (Just see the book for pages of glowing endorsements.) 

    I did my best, but the subject left me cold, and the protagonists as well. The only characters I could identify with were the dog Queenie and the elephant Rosie. What does that tell you? 

    Someday I will try one of Gruen’s other novels, as I believe she does great research and her writing is flawlessly polished. Perhaps the problem with this one for me was the premise. (Not improving the situation as far as I'm concerned: I saw her talk recently at a writers' conference and found her presentation scattered and virtually incomprehensible. At least she writes better than she presents.)    

    I don’t recommend this book, but everyone else does. 

 

Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen

Algonquin Books

(Workman Publishing)

2006

😒 Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart - READ/SKIMMED

      How this book ever got published is a mystery to me. Yes, I did read it all the way through, although I'll have to admit almost skimming the last quarter of it. The problem is this: the two POV characters are despicable most of the way through the book, so much so that you feel a bit voyeuristic, if not sick, for reading about them. Neither of them has a moral compass that points to anything but instant gratification, and the frequency with which they jump in bed with anyone (if they're attractive enough) they meet is truly astounding. (Now I'm from Iowa, so maybe I'm behind the times, but I've lived on the West Coast for most of my life now, and I don't see anyone behaving this way.) The worst thing about this book is the way the two characters (Barry and Seema, in case you're wondering) both suddenly turn into wonderful parents and human beings in the end, even though neither of them ever goes through any sort of self-examination or introspection that might lead to such a result. They just suddenly change. And neither of them get what they deserve for the havoc and pain they've inflicted on othSers.
    Here's the basic story: Barry is a greedy, incredibly wealthy, hedge fund manager who is caught in an insider trading scam (for which he eventually receives only a slap on the wrist--a $4.5 million fine that he pays out of the change in his sofa cushions). He has just found out that his son is autistic, and unable to contain his self-pity at home in his multi-multi-million-dollar apartment in Manhattan, he hits the road via Greyhound Bus. He meets all sorts of folks (yes, they're all "folks") on his trip to El Paso, where he hopes to (and does) meet up with his old college girlfriend, and everything he sees and all his interactions prove to him two things: that America is full of genuine, if sometimes bigoted and ugly, people; and that he's really a great guy at heart. Meanwhile, Seema takes up with a mid-list writer (whose also a fake) who lives in their building, sleeping once or twice a day with him, even though she's pregnant with her second child (Barry's). She ignores her child, finding his autism too frustrating for her limited capacity for empathy or love. Barry finds his old girlfriend, Seema finds adequate childcare in her father, and all turns out fine and dandy, although frankly, it shouldn't.
    Adding to this incredibly unsatisfying story is Barry's obsession with watches, which I suppose must be some kind of nod to his own position on the spectrum, but comes across as annoying.
    On the other hand, Mr. Shteyngart can write complete sentences and paragraphs, and it was his skill with the words that kept me reading the book. Otherwise, I'd have QUIT long before I did.

Lake Success

Gary Shteyngart

Random House

(Penguin Random House)

2018

👍 Upstate by James Wood - DEVOURED

    Funny how I like books others pan, and dislike heartily books that get rave reviews and win big awards. This is one of those books I love to dive into and read in a weekend. (Truth: I am a very slow reader; it takes me two days to read 200 pages.) It’s what I call a “small book”—not an epic, not a life commitment (or a month commitment, which sometimes feels like a life commitment)—but a dive into a life or a place or an event that has meaning and feeling and leaves me with some new thoughts to occupy my dishwashing/dusting/floor-mopping/driving/and cooking time.
    A UK real estate developer, Alan, hears from one of his daughters that Vanessa, his other daughter, is struggling with debilitating depression. Worried, Alan leaves his mostly irritating yoga-obsessed girlfriend Candace, and his aging mother, and travels to upstate New York to check in on her and her live-in boyfriend, Josh. He finds Josh engaging and his daughter frustratingly opaque, meets their neighbors (including some religious fanatics), co-workers and friends, and thinks about the “big topic” of the book: why it is so hard for some people to live.
    I found Alan wonderfully introspective and clear-headed, quite nice, and, well, a pleasure to be with. The story is tight and evocative. I enjoyed it immensely (and it was an impulse buy: I saw it on a display table in Beaverdale Books in Des Moines las summer, and picked it up because I liked the premise as described on the dust jacket).  
    Now, a New York Times Book Review critic felt otherwise. I quote: “… it is very necessary — if the book is to lift itself from the quotidian to the metaphorical — that we feel that dread; and feel it so strongly we connect anew with our own experience of the humdrum anxiety embedded in daily life. If we do not, all is summary and surface. And the latter, I am much afraid, is what prevails in Upstate.”    
    That was not my experience, and I wonder if the reviewer’s gripe isn’t really with the author’s choice to make the POV character the father rather than the depressed daughter. To which I would ask the reviewer: Are you reviewing the book that was written or the book you wish had been written.”    
    I recommend this book.

Upstate

James Wood

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

(Macmillan)

2018

👍 A House in the Trees by Julia Glass - DEVOURED

    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.)

    If only.

    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 my novel 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 among them), 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 unobtrusive 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 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.

A House Among the Trees

Julia Glass

Pantheon Books (Penguin Random House)

2017

👍 Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin - READ

   This may be the first novel by Gail Godwin I haven’t DEVOURED. Possibly I’m more comfortable with her female protagonists, and when it comes to getting inside the head of a teenaged boy, she’s just not as convincing as she is inside the head of an introspective, middle-aged woman. Nevertheless, this is a book I recommend.

    Marcus, the teenage boy, has just lost his mother and is sent to the Carolina coast to stay with a great aunt, who is this novel’s best character, in my opinion. She’s a painter, who’s made quiet a business for herself painting an abandoned cottage on the beach; she’s salty and drinks and has opinions, which, well, sounds a bit like me. Maybe that’s why I liked her the best.

    Wandering, lonely and depressed on the beach and on his bicycle, he bonds with his aunt’s friend, Lash, who becomes like the father he’d never known. The boy meets a real estate agent trying to sell an abandoned and dilapidated cottage on the point, and the ghost of a boy who went missing during a hurricane decades before. Marcus, enthralled with the ghost-boy, trespasses on the abandoned cottage.

    Aunt Charlotte falls, and her painting arm injured, she turns to a different project, a secret one: depicting the childhood abuse she suffered from a relative. Marcus focuses on the ghost boy and awaits the hatch of the endangered turtles, whose emergence on the beach and struggle to the ocean somehow mirror the boy’s own struggle to adulthood.

    Not wanting to spoil the book’s big ending, I’ll leave it there.


Grief Cottage

Gail Godwin

Bloomsbury Publishing

2017

😒 The Woman in the Window - READ

   I may be one of 10 people in America who didn’t like this book. This is not a rare occurrence, although usually when I find myself the lone dissenter about a book, I know I’m the one whose judgment should be in question. I’m impatient. I equally treasure story and craft. By that, I mean I don’t like books that are written for those looking for literary excellence but lack a compelling or new story; or books that are all story and no craft.

    Like this one.

    Of course, this sounds like I subscribe to the tired dichotomy of “literary” versus “genre” fiction, which really, I don’t. I find lots of literary fiction with great stories and genre fiction with great writing.

    (As an aside, I was at a writers’ conference recently where an ill-tempered, big-time agent spent too much time on the dias as a moderator and panelist, finding nothing positive to say about anyone’s writing, pitch, or premise. I bring him up because at one point, he criticized one person’s pitch and followed it by saying, “Of course, those of us up here [on the dias] work mainly with literary fiction, not this genre stuff.” He sniffed a bit, but the entire audience tittered because, in fact, most of his representations are for genre fiction, even if he doesn’t know it. So, who knows what to call things these days? [To be fair, he largely represents non-fiction. And also to be fair, it was in Hawaii, so maybe he was just grouchy because he wanted to be on the beach and not the dias.])

    Back to The Woman: I believe this is Finn’s first novel, so it’s hard to guess at his motives, but I had the feeling he was writing a bunch of short, pithy, incomplete sentences and two-word paragraphs so he could have a “big” book – that is more than 400 pages. Otherwise, I don’t get it. Here’s an example of a story without craft, a story written in such a choppy, flippant way that should never have garnered an agent, let alone a publishing contract. But, hey, what do I know? It ended up on a few “best books of 2018” lists and is being made into a movie.

    Besides the bad writing, the book supposedly holds a secret until the end about the husband and daughter of the woman (not the one in the window but the one who sees the one in the window). But really folks: didn’t you have this figured out by the time you were a few pages into the book?

    I believe the reason the book was so well received is because of its quick pace and the mystery at the heart of the book: Who was that woman in the window? So, Americans love mysteries; that’s no surprise. I’m just surprised they like them even when they’re so poorly written.

    I do not recommend this book. 

The Woman in the Window

A.J. Finn

William Morrow (HarperCollins)

2018

👍 Unfinished Desires - READ

   This is the second novel by Gail Godwin I haven’t DEVOURED.  It is not a new book (published nine years ago as I write this). I read it because I like Gail Godwin and because I found it at a library book sale for 50 cents. That’s a bargain I couldn’t pass up.

    The story is set in a Catholic girls’ school, and like all of Godwin’s books, it’s perfectly plotted and the characters are beautifully and fully drawn. Godwin writes about girls and friendships and loyalty and betrayal better than any other writer I know, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The story told is set in 1951, although ostensibly it is being remembered by a retired, dying old nun who is writing her memoirs.

    The story, like that of The Finishing School, is about a group of girls, in cahoots with a ill-intentioned ringleader, betray the confidences and legacy of two nuns who teach and run the school. And, as in that earlier book, the sly accusation made is lesbianism.

    While I enjoyed Godwin’s style and deft management of the language, the book didn’t grab me as much as many of her earlier works. (I especially loved Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong.) The girls in this story are variably rich and spoiled, sexy and slutty, poor and orphaned, pretty and vain, plain and shy—in other words, they are stereotypes that serve the story’s needs, and perhaps that’s why I didn’t find them particularly compelling.

    Nevertheless, I would recommend this book to those who like Godwin, and especially to those who didn’t read The Finishing School, for whom I believe this will seem much more fresh. 

Unfinished Desires

Gail Godwin

Random House (Penguin Random House)

2009

👍 Little Mercies - READ

   I picked up Little Mercies on a trip to Iowa. I was visiting Des Moines’s last independent bookstore, Beaverdale Books, in a northwest neighborhood of the city, and asked the owner, Alice Meyer, for a recommendation of an Iowa writer writing stories based in Iowa. She pointed me to the shelves that lined about a sixth of the wall space of the store where she carried such books (thanks, Alice!) and left me to find something on my own.
    I looked for a writer who had written more than one book (that energy, I believe, comes from someone committed to being the best writer she can be), and one who wrote stories I felt would be emotionally compelling. I settled, eventually, on Gudenkauf’s collection (I believe there were three or four books there), and chose this one based on the premise described on the back of the book. 
    Gudenkauf, I came to believe by reading this book, is a talented writer who has compassion for her characters, and an ability to draw the reader into a story and keep her there. This is the story of a child advocate pulled into the drama of a young girl, separated from her father, who travels to an Iowa town where she thinks her grandmother lives. The advocate is thrown into a drama of her own at the same time (sub-plot or main plot?) when she accidentally leaves her infant in a hot car and is charged with child abuse.
    The story is interesting and compelling, told from two points of view: the young girl and the child advocate. But it relies on too many coincidences and too much of what we call Deus ex Machina (Act of God) to tie up the story and create a satisfying ending. The trick, then, is all about the story line and not the characters. That said, the young girl has pluck and the child advocate has stamina, but neither of those could have brought about this ending without the confluence of unlikely flukes.
    Still, I recommend this book for someone who wants a beach read or a weekend get-away from your own troubles. And I will probably pick up another of Gudenkauf’s books if I find one in another bookstore someday. I want to support fellow writers who base their stories in small town Iowa. (She apparently has quite a following, gathering from the number of reviews she has attracted on Amazon.)

Little Mercies

Heather Gudenkauf

Harlequin MIRA (HarperCollins)

2014

👍 Sarah's Key - READ

   Part of this book, which I read only this past year as a result of not finding much else I wanted to read at a bookstore in Kansas City, is stunningly sad and important. Friends had told me they loved it and cried over it. I don't like to cry over books, but I read the ones likely to do that anyway, as it is a way to learn how to write emotionally compelling fiction.

    Sarah's Key is the tale of a round-up of French Jews in World War II, a travesty conducted with the complicity of the Vichy Regime and local police, and a young girl who thought she was protecting her little brother by locking him in a closet until she could return.
    Separated from their parents (who had been sent immediately to the Nazi death camps), the children were sent first to housing (reminiscent of today’s migrant children housing, the shame of America’s border policy) and then on to their own death camps. Young Sarah escapes, is adopted by a sympathetic French couple, and can’t return to save her brother, who by then is undoubtedly discovered or dead. The sad tale is poignant and biting, even, and well worth a novel on its own.
    The part of this book that stretches the tale to its required length (or perhaps the length assumed to be necessary by either the author, her agent or the publisher) is of a modern day journalist seeking the answer to the question: what happened to Sarah and her brother? The final third of the book—about 100 pages—follows the journalist, Julia, as she seeks to finish Sarah’s story and find her descendants. It is not neither a necessary nor particularly compelling finish. I would rather the writer left Julia out of the story and just told us about Sarah without the artifice of a story about the story. I would have liked to have more exploration of Sarah’s feelings and life after she was adopted and how she lived with the knowledge of what had happened to her, her parents, and her little brother. Perhaps this was outside of de Rosnay’s wheelhouse. But I don’t think so. Sarah’s story is told well, and I’m sure she could have done more with it.
    I still recommend this book, because I believe this is a story that should be told and read, and I found most of the first two-thirds of the book both sad and enlightening. 

Sarah's Key

Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin's Griffin (Macmillan)

2006

👍The President is Missing - DEVOURED

   Why did I read this book? I usually avoid celebrity books and I don’t read James Patterson. Was it just the heavy discount on the book, that pile of books at Costco, a bargain too good to pass up?
    Yes. Mainly that was it. But that wasn’t all of it. The idea of a former president, however wonderful or however flawed, writing a thriller with a mystery writer was too ground-breaking to pass up. Well, ground-breaking is a bit of an overstatement. But it certainly felt new.
    So, I read it. And quickly. It’s not a tough read. And the premise is not only believable, it’s truly frightening: an international terrorist group threatens to hack into the internet and (basically) end the world as we know it. All of our bank accounts would disappear overnight. There’d be no record of your investments in your 401K. Your phone, and, of course, your computer would be worthless. The electrical grid would go down, at least for some significant period of time, and your local water utility would be helpless to stop an invasion of bacteria, and probably couldn’t keep the pumps running that send water to your house. Transportation systems, including everything from international flights to the traffic signals two blocks from your home, would be disabled. Food production and delivery would cease. Yes, life as we know it would come to an end, and we’d all be Neanderthals overnight. Neanderthals, that is, without the skills necessary to survive as Neanderthals.
    The president, being warned of this, sets out to figure out who is behind this threat, and he can’t do it with his staff looking over his shoulder, because one of them appears to be in on the hack. So he disappears, and we have the story. I won’t tell you any more, because that’s all the set up you need, but I will tell you that I guessed wrong when I thought I had identified the bad guy inside the White House. That makes the book more fun. Even.
    But what isn’t fun is the speech at the end of the book. The president takes the podium and speaks to Congress, and you can’t help but think back to those long, too long monologues that Clinton was prone to deliver.
    Still, it’s a fun read, but if you didn’t buy a cheap one at Costco, you might as well wait until the paperback comes out. There’s really no urgency to knowing how scary things would be if this all really happened. Because if it did, there’s nothing you could do about it anyway.
    (Except vote, of course. The one thing we can do is make sure there isn’t an idiot in the White House when this happens.)
    I recommend the book. 

The President is Missing

Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Little, Brown 

Knopf

(Hachette)

2018

👍You Think It, I'll Say It - DEVOURED

   Providing a thoroughly up-to-date picture of sex and relationships, this collection of short stories is so enjoyable, you’ll gobble them up as fast as you can. And then forget them. At least I did.
    In the title story, Julie and Graham play a game you’ve probably played with friends all your life: one of you picks out someone in a crowd (restaurant, party, subway car, whatever) and the other gives a snarky rendition of the person’s problems, hang-ups, thoughts, etc. It’s so much fun and harmless, right?
    Julie, however, thinks this indicates some kind of special connection with Graham and starts to fall in love with him. When she finds out that he’s getting a divorce, her hopes rise, and she’s sure it’s time to tell him how she feels. Of course, this is 2018 (maybe by the time you read this, later), and it’s not that simple.
    The stories in this collection aren’t about finding love, living happily ever after, or any other such bright tale, but I found them cheerful anyway. Perhaps that’s because the protagonists of each story aren’t allowed to feel sorry for themselves, but realize it’s time to pick up and get along with getting along.
    There’s lots of casual sex here. In the first story, “Gender Studies,” a writing professor hooks up with a shuttle driver who delivered her to an academic conference, and they end up having different ideas of why. In “Vox Climantis in Desierto,” a young woman has a quickie with her friend Rae’s boyfriend, and soon after realizes Rae isn’t the “cool” woman she had thought.
    What is interesting about such digestible short stories, however, is that you forget them fairly quickly. As I was picking out what books I had read this year to review, I chose this one because I remembered enjoying it. However, I had to re-read the collection to remember anything of what I had read just two months before. I remembered a lot of sex (hetero-, homo-, casual, marital, extramarital) and difficult relationships, and I remembered that in spite of the situations, the sad states of affairs didn’t depress me. But I couldn’t remember the stories themselves. Perhaps this is a function of my habit of finishing one book and immediately starting another, giving my brain no time to marinate the stories and store them away. Or maybe it’s just luck, because I didn’t mind going back and reading the stories over. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
    I recommend this collection of stories.

You Think It,    I'll Say It

Curtis Sittenfeld

Random House (Penguin Random House)

2018

👍Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion - DEVOURED

   I lived in Chicago in the early 1980s, when I was working at the Wall Street Journal bureau there as a reporter. I loved the city—the art-movie theatre, the hundreds of ethnic restaurants that lined the streets between the office and my apartment, and the anonymity of boarding the el train every morning with a hundred people you’d never seen before. (So different from the small, Iowa town where I grew up.)
    I felt sophisticated (I wasn’t), smart (barely), and successful (until the editor tore apart my latest article and made me start over). Occasionally, something reinforced all of those outrageous impressions I had of myself, despite the evidence to the contrary.
    One of those times was this: I was seated, reading a Joan Didion novel on the el on the way home one winter afternoon, ignoring the shuffle and cacophony of the rush-hour around me. I don’t remember which novel it was; it doesn’t matter. A tall, handsome man stood above me, at first politely allowing me to concentrate on my book, and then, when some disturbance drew my attention away from the page, he asked me what I was reading.
    We commenced a brief, flirtatious conversation, he told me he was an attorney, he asked for my business card, I proffered it, and I went back to my book.
    This wonderful man called me later that evening. “I couldn’t resist getting to know someone who reads Didion on the train,” he said.
    A better compliment I have never received. I don’t know why I turned down his invitation, and to this day, it is one of those woulda-coulda-been turning points in life that everyone probably thinks of from time to time. I don’t remember what I was wearing, what he looked like, what year it was or month it was, but I do remember this: it was Joan Didion.
    Which brings me to Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. (I’ll bet you were wondering when I get there.)
    I have read much of Joan Didion’s novels and non-fiction, and, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of Lillian Hellman. (I found first editions of her three memoir in a used bookstore in Chicago in the early 1980s, and they gave me a fascinating look into a literary and political world I’d known nothing about.) I had read some of Nora Ephron’s essays (I remember, as I’m sure many women do, her early one about breasts and her later one about necks) and saw the movies she worked on. I read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of A Catholic Girlhood in college, but nothing else. I had read Pauline Kael’s movie reviews from time to time but knew nothing about her as a person.
    I’m not sure I would have had the sense to buy Sharp for myself, but my sister-in-law gave it to me for my birthday (perhaps a later paragraph herein will suggest why she thought it would appeal to me) and I thank her for it. (Thanks, Pam!) I loved this book for introducing me to many women I’d only known peripherally, and for giving me a deeper understanding of the women behind the writings I was familiar with. But what I learned most from it was something I’d heard before but hadn’t internalized: that nice women aren’t the ones who make it in this world.
    Indeed, the women featured here are called “sharp,” “mean,” or “dark” by their contemporaries. They fight, they make mistakes, they’re outspoken and opinionated, and their friendships and marriages last no longer than a pack of Virginia Slims 100s. And even in the hands of someone as sympathetic as Michelle Dean, the author of this collection of essays, no one comes off squeaky clean or “nice.”
    Dean does two interesting things with these essays: one, she pairs the women up, occasionally, to show us their ebbing and flowing relationships and the prickly nature of successful and extremely articulate women. Two, late in the book, she starts to view the women through the lens of “feminism,” and whether the women supported it or thwarted it, a subject that she barely alluded to at the beginning of the book. Perhaps that’s because the earlier writers she features come before that “second wave” of feminism beginning in the late 60s and persisting through the 70s. But I wonder if it isn’t something she started to realize deserved critical analysis, but not until she was more than half-way through these biographical sketches. If I’d been her editor, I may have suggested she return to the earlier essays and create a little more balance in that approach.
    Despite that, I’d recommend this book to anyone, but especially to my fellow female writers. It is fun to imagine yourself reflected in the personality of these trailblazers.

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

Michelle Dean

Grove Press (Grove Atlantic)

2018

👍The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis - DEVOURED

    I, like many American readers, love Michael Lewis. As one astute reviewer once put it, he could write the New York City phone directory, and make it interesting.
    I particularly enjoyed The Big Short, Boomerang, and Moneyball. His books tend to be handfuls, even though they’re delightfully entertaining and as polished as any non-fiction writing out there. This book, The Fifth Risk, is short and, perhaps therefore, more easily digested, but I guess I wanted more.
    Lewis examines the risks posed by an incoming president and administration that is not only ill-quipped to run the machinery of American government and infrastructure, but hostile to it as well. In his three sections—one each devoted to the Department of Energy, the Weather Bureau, and the United States Department of Agriculture—he shows the huge (certainly anything but dismissible) consequences of the Trump administration’s misunderstanding and mismanagement of key, crucial government functions. It paints a frightening picture, and as usual, his focus on people brings the stories home by showing us very good people struggling to have a chance to do a very good job at things they’ve been committed to their entire lives.
    If you’ve thought weather forecasting, food stamp funding and distribution, food safety regulations, and oversight over our vast quantities of nuclear waste were things we could do without or could be done by private, profit-motivated companies (so that we could fund a tax cut for the nation’s top 1 percent), you may feel otherwise after reading this book—although I’m sure those who fear taxes more than hurricanes, an increase in hunger or homelessness, or unsecured nuclear disasters will never read this book. That’s too bad. They could use its lessons and its reality check.
    My only complaint is that I would have liked to see a broader book, or perhaps a chapter or two that put an umbrella over the entire catastrophe that is the Trump administration, pulling together the lessons we need to learn about disrespecting and belittling the necessary and beneficial functions that our functioning bureaucracy supported and that justified their expense. While he does often nod to the challenge of reconstructing these activities in the future, under saner management and times, I felt he short-changed the urgency of turning this mess around as quickly as possible.
    I highly recommend this book, especially for those least likely to read it.

The Fifth Risk

Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton

2018

👍Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - READ

    I love reading about science—especially astrophysics. I once wrote a book about an astrophysics professor reaching the end of her academic career and trying to decide if she should abandon her worn-out focus on the origins of the moon and start to focus on deep space. I know. I’m really a nerd at heart. (Thwack! is the name of the book. It’s on Amazon.)
    But here’s the problem: When I read science, which I do every Tuesday as soon as the NYT lands on our driveway (Science Times), I enjoy the theories, the conclusions, the research the “I’ll be you didn’t know this”-es. But I forget whatever I learned pretty quickly. So thank goodness for books like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I can reread the short, digestible chapters any time and it doesn’t require a big commitment. Hence the title, I guess.
    (I don’t know how you feel about Neil deGrasse Tyson, given the recent accusations of his sexual predation. I bought and read this book before that became news. I will not speculate nor comment further; I’ll wait to see how the matter settles before deciding whether to remove this review from my page.)
    This enjoyable book includes chapters on: a second-by-second review of the Big Bang, the universality of physical laws, the nature of light, all the stuff in that seemingly empty space between galaxies (including a brief discussion of “galaxy cannibalism”—a truly frightening picture), dark matter (of course), dark energy, a quick review of the periodic table (where chemistry and physics collide), and more. The writing is witty and his metaphors are clever. He makes physics enjoyable. 

    I didn't "devour" this book, because it's not meant to be read that way. It is a book that you sit down with while waiting for the pressure cooker to finish with the pot roast, or while you're waiting for your husband to get ready to go out for cocktails.
    An aside: We all know about the “Big 5”*–the largest of the Western world’s publishers who command the largest share of all the “bestseller” lists put together by the news media. If you don’t get a publishing contract with one of them, you’re toast as a writer. Pretty much. But I’ve noticed that W. W. Norton, an independent publisher based in New York, does very well in spite of that notion. It launched many book-writing careers, including that of Michael Lewis, author of The Fifth Risk, reviewed here. It published Gone So Long, also reviewed here. And this book by deGrasse Tyson. It’s just too bad there aren’t more like it.
    *HarperCollins; Simon Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Neil deGrasse Tyson

W.W. Norton

2017

👍Mrs. by Liane Moriarty - DEVOURED

    This book reminded me a lot of Liane Moriarty’s first big seller, Big Little Lies. Mrs., however, is based not in suburbia’s den of soccer moms, but in the middle of New York City, and the story is built around people who know each other because their kids all go to a pricey private school run by an anachronistic schoolmarm.
    The real key to the charm of this book, I believe are the characters, whom I found far more exquisitely developed than Moriarty’s. They’re also a lot more interesting. Philippa is married to an investment banker who inherited his fortune, but had—what shall we call it?—an “interesting” past. Her childhood acquaintance, Gwen, who serves as the gravitational center of the novel, is the rare working mom of the neighborhood. She watches at some emotional distance as her prosecutor/husband closes in on a scandal involving the other parents. And Minnie Curtis, also married to a rich hedge fund manager, surprises everyone with her true story of a poor childhood in Spanish Harlem.
    They’re surrounded by a gaggle of gossipy, status-focused men and women who will make you happy you don’t live among them. While the three main characters all depend on their husbands (two totally, one in large part) for their livelihood, they are fascinating, almost polar opposites (if there were three poles), and as snarky as any you’ll find in Big Little Lies.
    The book jacket claims this is a page-turner, and while I find that publisher’s assertion usually proves to be false, in this case, it isn’t. I let some dinners burn while reading this.
    I recommend this book. It’s much better than Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty, and at least as good as Big Little Lies.


Mrs.

Caitlin Macy

Little, Brown & Co (Hachette)

2018

👍American Audacity by William Giraldi- READ

   I loved this book, but I do not recommend it for everyone. First, it’s a collection of essays, which I understand isn’t many people’s literary choice. Second, it’s all about writers and books, critics and criticism. Not really of interest to most, I’m guessing.
But for me, it was a joy to read. I particularly loved the first section about American authors. (The second was about critics, and the third more wide-ranging essays he labels simply “stories.”) And my favorite essay was “The Art of Hate Mail,” which starts with quotes from D.H. Lawrence’s feedback to his writer friends, including some particularly brutal sentiments. For example:

    To Katherine Mansfield: “I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption. … The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you.”

    To Bertrand Russell: “You simply don’t speak the truth, you simply are not sincere. The article you send me is a plausible lie, and I hate it.”

    There are more, and they’re just as sharp and cutting. And, Giraldi says, these were Lawrence’s friends (italics Giraldi's).

    Or, how about Edmund Gosse’s letter to a poet, Robert Nichols: “You say that the sentiments of the poem you have sent me ‘will probably pain’ me. I am indifferent to these sentiments… But what does ‘pain’ me exceedingly is that you should write so badly.”

    This essay sticks with me long after I read this wonderful book of essays, partly because of the reaction I’ve had from writer friends of mine, who were irretrievably lost as friends when I gave them my honest thoughts about their novels. And, as you can imagine, trained in tact from my time leading workshops and my short tenures in critique groups, my criticism was nothing like Lawrence’s.

    But this belabors one essay to the detriment of the others. The book is a plea for good, slow, deep, and affecting prose, the kind of literature that comprises our classical collections. It has some really wonderful biographical sketches of such writers as Mary McCarthy and Edgar Alan Poe. It has a lot to say about being a good critic as well as being a good writer of American fiction (and, to a lesser extent, non-fiction). I didn’t always agree with him: I don’t care how much time you take to explain to me why I should love Marilyn Robinson’s work, I never will.

    A few years ago, I got hooked on Nick Hornsby’s literary column, “The Polysyllabic Spree,” and spent many weeks reading his collection, Ten Years in the Tub, (which I highly recommend as well, perhaps even more so than Giraldi’s collection, in large part because it’s more accessible. Although both Hornsby and Giraldi would both likely call “accessible” an insult.) Like Hornsby, Giraldi uses his literary topics as promontories from which to jump off and launch into wider social commentary. His range is narrower, perhaps, but it is more academic and challenging.

    I recommend this book to serious readers and students of American literature. Also to those who love a good critic.

American Audacity

William Giraldi

Liverlight Publishing

(W.W. Norton)

2018

😒 Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III- READ/SKIMMED

   I often wonder what makes a book “literary” versus, er, well, not literary? But I’m starting to see a pattern in what the NYT Book Review considers great books and great writers: they’re books and authors whose mission is more breaking the rules of grammar and composition than telling good stories. Cases in point: The short, staccato sentences and one word paragraphs of The Woman in the Window is at one end of the spectrum of what critics today deem innovative, literary writing. The run-on, stream-of-consciousness, hold-your-breath-this-sentence-may-someday-end style of Gone So Long is at the other end. I suppose in either case, the critics are impressed with something about how the rules are broken. Is it rhythm? Is it veracity? Is it experiment? I have no idea.
    In the case of The Woman, I came away feeling that the author hoodwinked readers into thinking the story was somehow interesting and new because it was told in a kind of rat-a-tat, automatic-rifle way. Perhaps he thought it would speed up the action if he dropped most of the parts of speech generally considered necessary for complete sentences. Apparently people liked it. (You can read what I thought elsewhere here.)
    Gone So Long, on the other hand, tries to convince us that its characters are truly introspective by giving us the long, stream of their inner thoughts in sentences and paragraphs that test a reader’s patience. Maybe they are introspective. But maybe not. The events they think about happened decades before, and they’re just now getting around to figuring them out.
    A little plot: Daniel is dying of cancer, and everyone in the world who knows him (especially those who knew him when) are fine with that. But he wants to see his daughter, who was removed from his life when he murdered her mother, before he dies. He writes her a letter that expresses his regret but also sloughs off some the responsibility by creating a kind of alter ego “Danny” who is violent and crazy, and not the real Daniel. His daughter, Susan, wants nothing to do with him. And neither does her maternal grandmother. But he travels to see Suzie anyway. Not much happens, but apparently this isn’t about anything happening, it’s about reckoning. Or so I gather.
    Dubus III is the son of Andre Dubus II, who was also a famous writer, and I have no doubt that his talent is real and not just a function of having the right connections and the right name. His novel has been named to many 2018 “best” lists, so perhaps it’s really spectacular. I struggled to finish it, and ended up skimming the second half.
    I do not recommend this book, unless you’re trying to figure out what critics today think is exemplary writing.

Gone So Long

Andre Dubus III 

W.W. Norton

2018

👍 The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak - READ

    Ginny, the protagonist of The Last Suppers, is a cook in a penitentiary in Louisiana in the late 1950s. A woman who sees the humanity in everyone—even criminals destined for the state’s electric chair—Ginny fought for the right to cook “last suppers” for death row inmates over the state prison board’s objections. Ginny’s own father was killed and his accused murderer electrocuted when Ginny was only eight years old, and her mother dragged her to view the execution. The prisoner’s pleas of innocence on the chair haunts Ginny, and she seeks comfort from her trauma in the arms (and bed) of the warden, who was her father’s best friend. He gives her permission to cook last suppers for the men headed for execution, a concession that puts his own job in jeopardy.

    Called “a haunting study of race relations, compassion and mystery” by the Literary Journal (which gave the book a starred review), I expected Ginny—or some major character in the novel—to experience an epiphany or a transformation in racial prejudice or sympathies through this novel, but the book is not about that. Ginny is not color-blind, but her empathy for the prisoners is from the beginning. And none of the other characters change their stripes either, regardless of how they feel about race.

     Instead, this is a period piece that evokes a sense of the pervasive racism of its place and time, and the central story is the mystery about who really killed her father. Although it’s nicely plotted, the answer to the mystery will be obvious to most readers about a third of the way through the book.  

     While I generally don’t care for mysteries with answers that are obvious from the start, that wasn’t the novel’s main flaw in my opinion. The main trouble with it is the stereotypical nature of the four (five, if you count the dead father) characters at the center of the novel: the young woman who suffers from early trauma and can’t let anyone “in”; the tough warden with the heart of gold who can’t express his feelings; the mean mother who never comforted her child; and the bigger-than-life African-American assistant cook with a smart mouth and a motherly instinct. If this hadn’t been a book-club choice I felt compelled to finish, I would have stopped early into the book. I still would have known who killed Ginny’s father, and I could have moved on to a real mystery much sooner.

     All that said, Mikulencak is an engaging writer who keeps her narrative moving in a pleasantly linear and fast-paced fashion. She (rightly or wrongly) keeps most of the grit and violence of a Southern, mid-century prison at a distance, which makes the novel feel a little too easy to digest for its subject matter, but for a quick beach or plane read, this will satisfy and may even bring a tear to the eye. 

 

The Last Suppers

Mandy Mikulencak 

John Scognamiglio Books

(Kensington Publishing)

2018

👍 Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs - READ

    If one could tally all the books ever written by women about their adolescense—both memoirs and novels—I imagine that two obsessions would dominate the count: will I ever look like a real woman, and will I ever earn my daddy’s love?

    I too, suffered self-image issues as a child and an adolescent, but I have to admit that daddy love has not been my struggle. I had a father who was present and responsible, but he was difficult. When I was young, I knew he loved me and liked me. Early in my teens, my personal philosophies veered from both his politics and his attitude toward women, and I lost both his favor and my interest in it. At the end, we didn’t speak, and I didn’t care. For that reason, I have difficulty identifying with protagonists—real or fictive—for whom daddy is the primary obsession.

    That, alone, should have been enough reason for me to dislike Small Fry, a memoir by Steve Jobs’ daughter, the main motif of which is “why doesn’t daddy love me?” But I found it engaging despite her obsession with trying to win over her both difficult and often absent father. She’s a master of setting, whether her mother’s early abodes, her father’s grand homes, or her dorm rooms. And she brings the peripheral people in her family’s circle alive.

    Also, it taught me a valuable lesson. I have often thought that my major mistake in life has been choosing the wrong parents. With all those successful and wealthy moms and dads out there to choose from, you’d think I could have done better. But Brennan-Jobs makes it clear that, while having a founder of Apple as a father granted her significant advantages in life, it wasn’t all fun. I’m not the first to suggest this family put the “dis” in disfunction.

    In mostly linear, chronological telling, she describes her father’s early denial of paternity and then his critical and mercurial parenting during her teens in emotional and descriptive detail so visceral that can make a reader squirm. We all know that Jobs was a difficult CEO, a tough boss, an enigmatic personality. But knowing that and living through it are two different things. Brennan-Jobs brings him up close, and he doesn’t look any better for it.

    In his last days, Jobs tried to get Lisa’s forgiveness, and the author largely allows it. I admire her for that. But I do think she gives short shrift to the extent to which her advantage—however painfully gained—from having him as her father played to her eventual success. Growing up in the intellectually charged environment of her household and her community was a tremendous gift that is easily overlooked by one who has had no other experience. For one thing, not being Steve Jobs daughter would have made it far more difficult to be a best-selling author in her life. Trust me. I know. 

 

Small Fry

Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Grove Atlantic

2018

😒 Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher - READ

    Mary Pipher became a fabulously successful, best-selling author in 1994 with the publication of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, an examination of the “Ophelia complex”–defined by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as a dissolution of self (as through drowning in Shakespeare’s Ophelia). Pipher used the concept to explore how adolescent girls lose their individuality and identity as they pass through puberty and enter a male-dominated world.

    The book, which I did not read, stayed on the New York Times Best Seller list for three years, an indication of its widespread appeal and critical acceptance.

     Women Rowing North, on the other hand, stayed on the list for seven weeks (a feat most writers would be ecstatic enough about!), but dropped off by the end of March—probably a quick exit by Pipher’s standards. I think I am not alone if I suggest this as the reason: it’s not a very interesting book.

     I’ll admit that I’m not much of a reader of self-help, and if I’d known that’s what this book really is, I would have skipped it. I bought the book after reading a New York Times review that made me think there might be some real science and psychological or neurological research in it. The NYT review quoted one of few statistics in Pipher’s book: “Recent census data from the United Kingdom finds that the happiest people are women aged 65-79.” An avid reader of non-fiction science books, from astrophysics to genetics to neurology, I was looking forward to learning the science behind that phenomenon. Why are older women (at least in the UK) the happiest people on earth?

     I read the book and learned no such thing. Disappointed, I decided to try to get what I could out of the book anyway. What could I glean, even if it wasn’t advice I was looking for?

     After a first section that enumerates the challenges that face women over the age of 50—a list that every one of us could compile on our own—Pipher titles her second-section chapters with gift-store-book advice: Understanding Ourselves, Making Intentional Choices, Building a Good Day, Creating Community, Crafting Resplendent Narratives, and Anchoring in Gratitude (the latter rather passé advice about writing down things you are grateful every day). Nothing new here, folks. Nothing to see. Keep moving along.

     All of these challenges and trite aphorisms are illustrated through anecdotes about real women (with fake names) in the cheery, upbeat language of self-help literature, the very rhythm of which can give one seasickness.

     The final two sections comprise a discussion of the people in our lives who can make us happy (Grandchildren! Surprise!) and three final bits of wisdom: becoming and accepting our “authentic” self, taking the long view, and seeking bliss and awe. For an idea of how deeply these are explored, consider this: “Not everyone experiences bliss as they age, but it is never too late to look for it.”

     Boy, why don’t I feel better already? Maybe it’s because I spent $27 to buy this book.

 

 

 

 

Women Rowing North

Mary Pipher

Bloomsbury Books

2019

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