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 alphabetical, but the reviews appear with the most recent review I wrote first. Unfortunately, Web.com doesn't provide an option to bookmark sections of your website. I apologize for the long scroll. )
- The Alice Network (Quinn)
- American Audacity (Giraldi)
- American Dirt (Cummins)
- Anxious People (Backman)
- Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (deGrasse Tyson)
- Before We Were Yours (Wingate)
- Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norris)
- Block Seventeen (Guthrie)
- Blowout (Maddow)
- The Book of V. (Solomon)
- Born a Crime (Noah)
- The Boy in the Field (Livesey)
- Brass (Aliu)
- The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew (Heinze)
- Brides of Rome (MacLeod)
- A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (Rutherford)
- Bunny (Awad)
- Conversations with Friends (Rooney)
- The Cold Millions (Walter)
- Dear Edward (Napolitano)
- The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez (Bobrow-Strain)
- Deep State (Stewart)
- The Dog Went Over the Mountain (Zheutlin)
- Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Tokarczuk)
- Educated (Westover)
- The Education of an Idealist (Power)
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Honeyman
- An Elegant Woman (McPhee)
- The End of October (Wright)
- The Exiles (Kline)
- Fair Warning (Connelly)
- The Fifth Risk (Lewis)
- First You Write a Sentence (Moran)
- Funeral for a Friend (Freeman)
- Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies (Wilson)
- A Gentleman in Moscow (Towles)
- The Golden Cage ( Läckberg)
- Gone So Long (Dubus)
- Grief Cottage (Godwin)
- Home for Erring and Outcast Girls (Kibler)
- A House in the Trees (Glass)
- Inland (Obreht)
- Just Like You (Hornby)
- Lake Success (Shteyngart)
- The Last Suppers (Mikulencak)
- The Last Trial (Turow)
- Little Fires Everywhere (Ng)
- Little Mercies (Gudenkauf)
- The Lives of Edie Pritchard (Watson)
- The Magdalen Girls (Alexander)
- Maid (Land)
- Marrying George Clooney (Ferris)
- The Mars Room (Kushner)
- Midway Bravery (Gaub)
- Monogamy (Miller)
- Mrs. (Macy)
- Mrs. Everything (Weiner)
- Normal People (Rooney)
- Olive, Again (Strout)
- On the Plain of Snakes (Theroux)
- Once More We Saw Stars (Greene)
- The Other Americans (Lalami)
- Our Dogs, Ourselves (Horowitz)
- Payback (Gordon)
- The President is Missing (Clinton & Patterson)
- Rescue Road (Zheutlin)
- Revolutionaries (Furst)
- Sad Janet (Britsch)
- Sarah's Key (de Rosnay)
- The Secrets We Kept (Prescott)
- The Seventh Sun (Forbes)
- Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Dean)
- The Silent Patient (Michaelides)
- Small Fry (Brennan-Jobs)
- Spindle City (Burrello)
- Stay (Hyde)
- The Testaments (Atwood)
- These Women (Pochoda)
- This America (Lepore)
- This Is Not How It Ends (Weinstein)
- Unfinished Desires (Godwin)
- Upstate (Wood)
- Water for Elephants (Gruen)
- The Weekend (Wood)
- The Weight of Ink (Kadish)
- What You Are Going Through (Nunez)
- Where We Come From (Caseres)
- White Elephant (Langsdorf)
- The Wife (Wolitzer)
- The Woman in the Window (Finn)
- Women Rowing North (Pipher)
- Writers & Lovers (King)
- You Lucky Dog (London)
- You Think It, I'll Say It (Sittenfeld)
👍The Cold Millions by Jess Walter - DEVOURED
In a recent “By the Book” column in the New York Times Book Review, Jess Walter was asked “Can a great book be badly written?” His answer, in part: “I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of ‘the gorgeous sentence’ and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.”*
Ironically, Walter is downplaying one of his own strengths—beautiful prose. As I read The Cold Millions, I frequently put it down with a loud sigh. My husband asked, “What? Don’t you like it?” “No,” I replied, “I love it. But I’ll never be able to write like this.”
Such is the upside and downside of being a novelist who loves to read. I kept trying to figure out what made this book so good that I could hardly keep reading it at times. But that’s not possible with great prose—just when you want to stay on the surface as a student of the writing, the great story AND the great prose pull you in, and you forget what you’re there to do.
Walter’s story about the labor movement of the early twentieth century features some real people in both historical and fictional settings, and two main fictional characters caught up in the struggle for economic justice amidst great inequality, suffering, and judicial indifference. Sixteen-year-old Rye leaves home after the death of his parents to find and reunite with his free-spirited and rabble-rousing older brother, Gig. Rye wants to reject his brother’s radicalism, but he is quickly swayed. He listens to his brother and other labor agitators over beers and whiskeys and observes: “It’s quite a thing when the world is upside down to hear someone say it don’t have to be—that a man could be paid enough to feed and house himself.”
Arrested for protesting at a free-speech rally in Spokane, Washington, (where most of the novel is set), Gig ends up with a long, torturous sentence in a squalid jail, but Rye is sprung because of his age. He joins up with the (real) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn labor organizer, a pregnant woman who despite her talents and power is as underestimated and slandered as the hobos and anarchists of the movement. Settling back down, he finds a job and lives well, if menaced by guilt for being more fortunate than his brother. The third-person and first-person narratives of the brothers and a few other characters are rendered so compellingly that a reader can’t help but believe even the fictional ones fairly represent real, once-living people. (In his acknowledgments, Walter quotes Albert Camus: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”) In a few such stories, Walter brings us right up to the men’s last violent moments and final thoughts, and their exits are rendered with a long dash, mid-sentence. Only in such convincing fiction can a writer get by with that trick.
Walter’s sympathies are clear from the start. As Rye listens to righteous speeches about equal rights, he muses: “Hell it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not. A few lived like kings, and the rest hugged the dirt until it cracked open and took them home.” The reality, poverty, injustices, and cruelties of lived experiences behind that sentiment that make it hard to convincingly argue any other side of the polemic.
Add to that the period and geographical detail that sets you down in the time and place within just a few pages, and I say this: Any “best fiction of 2020” list that doesn’t include this book is mistaken. It is unquestionably the best book (out of about 75) that I read all year.
*In this interview, Walter also demonstrates his wonderful, understated sense of humor, which makes it worth reading on many levels. To wit: “Once, during the eight years between novels, my mail carrier caught me at the mailbox looking for a check. He asked what was taking so long with my new book. ‘A novel takes time,’ I explained. ‘You have to research it, craft it, find the thematic strands, tear it apart, rework it.’ He shrugged. ‘James Patterson published three books this year and I liked them all.’ Point, mailman.” For more: www.nytimes.com/2020/12/17/books/review/jess-walter-by-the-book-interview.html.
👍The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey - READ
Matthew, Zoe and Duncan are walking home to their small town outside of Oxford, England, when they spy an injured boy in the field. While the attempted-murder mystery that follows provides much of the suspense of this three-youngsters-coming-of-age novel, the true heart of it lies in the impact that saving the boy in the field has on them. Even as the event pulls the siblings closer, the three each embark on their own lonely pursuit for meaning. Matthew is driven to sometimes risky lengths to try to solve the mystery, while Zoe takes on a different kind of risk, seeking a love that is perhaps beyond her years. Duncan, meanwhile, turns his sensitive soul toward his art, and as an adopted Turkish boy, the incident in the field inevitably leads to his desire to find his birth mother. All this movement takes place within the crucible of their parent’s crumbling marriage.
Livesey’s prose is both simple and evocative. It is with great tenderness that she renders the infidelity and pain of the parents and the emotional dilemmas of their children, creating a story that is both sad and comforting at the same time. There isn’t an unsympathetic character in the book—not even the person who turns out to be responsible for hurting the boy in the field. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I highly recommend it as a companion for long, cold winter nights.
👍Payback by Mary Gordon - READ/SKIMMED
Agnes is an art teacher at a New England private girls’ school, and as artists might be inclined, she has a soft spot for the odd girl in the class. Heidi is difficult, prickly, not particularly handsome, but talented. In a brief lapse of judgment, Agnes buys a flashy pair of boots, and then deciding that they are wrong for her, gives them to Heidi. Heidi goes to New York one day by train to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in said boots and is picked up by a lecherous older man. What happens is not a surprise, but Heidi returns devastated, and seeks Agnes’s comfort. In another brief lapse of judgment, Agnes blurts out a response that doesn’t seem all that surprising, but it provides the turning point that launches the rest of the novel. Many, many pages are devoted to Agnes’s life after that, much of it is not terribly interesting and seems only tangentially relevant. Heidi waits years for the chance to wrest revenge – payback, that is – and when it comes, it doesn’t work well.
👍The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline - READ
Christina Baker Kline’s best-known work, The Orphan Train, is based on Depression-era true stories of abandoned children who were thrown at the mercy of a self-serving, callous organization that masquerades as benevolent and compassionate. The children are shipped across the country by train to be adopted by farmers and businessmen eager to take advantage of free labor in exchange for humble, sometimes cruelly miserly sustenance.
It’s a similar theme here in The Exiles, only this time, it’s both children and adult women who are at the mercy of a misogynist and racist civilization that wrests control of their lives on often trumped up charges and out of imperial entitlement. Also, a repeated theme is that of an indigenous child taken from her community and thrust into an alien, white world. Those similarities, as well as this book’s basis in gruesome historical fact, are likely to please old fans even as they make new ones for the author.
One of the two main threads of the story involves the female prisoners sent to Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Island at the time) aboard the slave ship Madea. These women, many of whom are accused and convicted of minor offences or trumped up crimes, are sent to the prisons on the island. Evangeline has committed no crime, but her lover’s prominent family wants her to disappear, and they make it happen. First, she is sent to the squalid, overcrowded Newgate Prison, where she suffers all matter of indignities. Things aren’t much better once she is on the ship headed for the other side of the earth, particularly when she garners the wrath of one very nasty pirate-cum-sailor. On the ship, she meets Hazel, a young woman sentenced to a life of hard labor for allegedly stealing a spoon. Hazel is the daughter of midwife, and despite her youth, she has picked up a lot of medical and medicinal knowledge that proves pivotal to her future. The second thread of the novel involves the tragic story of the indigenous tribes of Tasmania who were shipped off to a penal colony on an nearby island to make way for the white settlers and their labor-supplying prisons.
It can be difficult to hold onto readers when one of the main characters is lost in the middle of the narrative to a tragedy. But Kline carries it off creating more than one compelling character who can pull the narrative forward. In part this novel succeeds because of its basis in much historical research. Kline takes advantage of the treasure trove of academic and popular materials that have documented the Newgate Prison, the fleets of ships that delivered prisoners to Van Dieman’s Island, and the penal colonies there, as well as the fate of the natives of the islands. As someone who has written novels with much less historical evidence, I am jealous of the plethora of information she had at her disposal. But having the resources isn’t as important as having a great imagination and the kind of talent Kline has in composing a compelling fictional narrative.
👍Where We Come From by Oscar Cesares - DEVOURED
Where We Come From offers a fascinating and highly affecting portrayal of life in Brownsville, Texas, along the US-Mexican border, where there are no black and white answers to the issues of immigration and the Latin American diaspora, and residents and migrants alike live with the consequences of irrational and at times cruel government policy and police action on both sides of the border.
This suspenseful but quiet novel is about Nina, an older woman, herself an immigrant from Mexico many years before, who gets entangled with violent criminals who control the migrants brought across the border illegally by their coyote confederates. A police raid that apprehends the criminals frees her of their meddling, but it leads to a different kind of entanglement—with a young boy caught in limbo between the coyotes and an uncle in Chicago he has no way to reach. Harboring the lad is not just an act of kindness; it also gives childless and single Nina a reason to live and someone to care for.
But when her nephew sends his son to stay for a summer, she hides the migrant, afraid that if her grandnephew sees him, he will reveal her secret either intentionally or accidentally, putting both her and the refugee in danger. As if there is some natural irresistible force that pulls them together, the kids find each other anyway. And we are rewarded with a beautiful, intimate story of two young boys who instantly understand and protect each other despite the ugly, heartless, and violent world that surrounds them.
As I read this story, I thought of The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez (reviewed last year). It’s the same story of migrants and residents torn between the old world of cross-border mobility and conviviality and the new violent world of today’s border. One story a non-fiction and one fiction, both full of truth.
👍The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdewby Denise Heinz- READ
This captivating historical novel, portraying two of the first women to immigrate to Jamestown in 1609, weaves together the author’s vivid imagination with impressive research into the history of the settlement, delivering an unstinting yet not unempathetic tale. An unrelenting string of devastating events, poor leadership, and paucity of survival skills brought hunger, disease, murder, and war with the native Powhatan confederacy—which together nearly destroyed the colony and killed most of its residents.
Expecting to reach in Jamestown at the same time as her betrothed, Temperance Flowerdew and her capable indentured servant, Lily, arrive with optimism about the future of the new world and their new independence from family and expectations. Their hopes are dashed and their troubles intensify when Sea Venture, the main supply ship of the seven-ship fleet, is waylaid for nearly a year by a hurricane that forced it to land in Bermuda. The crucial ship not only held most of the food and other supplies that was supposed to sustain the settlement, but also Temperance’s fiancé, leaving her and the other settlers desperately clinging to life for a miserable year.
As reported in the history books, the colonists resorted to eating shoe leather and to cannibalism in their desperate struggle to survive. Heinze lays out the story in two time periods and modes: the arrival at Jamestown in 1609 in third person narrative, and in first-person diary entries a couple of decades later. I learned much more about Jamestown from reading this novel than in all the American history courses I’ve ever taken. Perhaps that’s because Heinz’s prose and storytelling were so compelling.
👍Just Like You by Nick Hornby - READ
In the midst of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, Nick Hornby puts two humans together who are clearly right for each other, in spite of all outward appearances. Thereby he creates a tale in which the outward appearances, not the private, intimate interactions, pose the threat to the success of the relationship. Disagreements and debates about Brexit affect the two lovers’ lives outside of the relationship, but not the relationship itself, which creates a bit of a conundrum. Why is he talking about Brexit at all?
Actually, given the astute and clever things he has to say about the UK’s debate and decision to leave the European Union, Brexit turns out to be as interesting, if not more so, than the love story that serves as an excuse to write about it. His observations would be just as insightful in explicating the political divide in this country.
“The referendum was giving groups of people who didn’t like each other, or at least failed to comprehend each other, an opportunity to fight,” one protagonist notes. After an argument in the school faculty lounge, another narrator observes that there had been arguments among the faculty before about school administration and policy. “But this was about whether Polly or Sam was a bad person. Neither of them was, of course, but it would be a while before they would be able to see it like that.” Remind you of anything?
The story centers around a young Black man, who works at the counter of the local butcher—and also part-time as a babysitter, and part-time as a DJ—and a middle-aged, soon-to-be divorced white woman who fall in love. In order to spend time and ultimately be together, they have to navigate family and community issues that a biracial and upside-down May-September relationship raises. It’s all managed through quiet and civil negotiation that brings everyone together (except for the ex, not surprisingly). Racial divides and prejudices appear, in the end, far more easily overcome than the political-economic divides over Brexit.
The book is easy to read, as all Hornby’s novels are. In this one, he never brings any of his characters to their darkest hour. Nothing gets nasty or difficult, which makes for a fairly flat narrative arc. Everything works out. Everyone is accepted, and in the end everyone gets along. It’s all very nice, and perhaps anodyne to our times. But it won’t get your heart pumping.
👍Anxious People by Fredrik Backman - DEVOURED
I had a tremendous amount of help from my book club in evaluating this novel. So, let me share the thoughts on which we had consensus: 1) The title is all wrong. It doesn’t seem like these characters are anxious at all. 2) The plot twists are many and clever. 3) This is obviously a novel that was meticulously planned from the start, otherwise it could never have been pulled off. 4) Toward the end of the novel some of the dialogue is overly long and tedious. 5) The novel will make you feel good about our ability to connect with people we don’t think are at all like us. 6) Although ostensibly about suicide, the novel really explores the fine line (perhaps a bridge railing?) that separates hopelessness from hope. 7) And although it is about suicide, it is at times very funny.
A robber tries to hold up a bank to raise money to pay a deposit on an apartment so the would-be perpetrator can see the bank robber’s children again. In failing to raise the measly 6500 kroner (roughly $750), the robber runs out of the bank and accidently ends up at an apartment open house and accidentally ends up with a gaggle of hostages. The hostages are less anxious (hence our complaint) than they are surprised and sympathetic with the bank robber’s dilemma. They order pizza. They help each other get along and resolve interpersonal issues. They smoke cigarettes and drink wine on the balcony and in a closet together. And they stare out the window and off the balcony at the bridge where both a suicide and an averted suicide took place.
Much of the giggles are delivered via the interviews the frustrated police officers – father and son – have with the hostages. The hostages all seem like idiots, and that’s part of Backman’s trick. Are they really idiots or is their agenda just different from the officers’? The author has said the book is about how all of us act like idiots at time, and the entire plot is set in motion by the bank robber’s idiotic thought that holding up a bank could be a solution to any problem. Without telling too much, I can reveal that everything works out nicely in the end—some of it surprisingly, and some due to coincidences that could only happen in a well-plotted, purposively uplifting novel.
👍Brides of Rome by Debra May MacLeod - READ
Through the lens of a Vestal Priestess of the early Roman Empire, The Brides of Rome presents a unique, revelatory, unflinching, fictional story of political and religious life at the time of Julius Caesar’s execution and the early reign of Augustus (45-24 BCE). Vestal virgins pledged 30 years of their youth to protecting the Vestal flame, the Goddess Vesta’s eternal flame that protected Rome from all enemies from within and abroad. In return, the virgins lived in luxury, were treated with dignity, and were freed of obligations to marriage and childbirth. If their virtue was ever questioned, however, and they could not prove their chastity, they would be buried alive in the “Evil Field.”
Pomponia, one of the Vestals, is in love with Quintus, a high priest she has known since childhood, and she struggles to remain chaste in spite of their powerful—though unexplained—attraction to each other. As Augustus trades one wife for another and beds a different virgin bought at the slave market every night, Cleopatra and Marc Antony conspire to break Rome’s grip on Egypt, and powerful and jealous women plot to knock the Vestal priestesses off their pedestal, the novel is pulled forward by Pomponia’s plans and dreams for a future with Quintus after her 30-year duty. Once she is named Vestalis Maxima, the pressure on her to remain virtuous and above reproach is heightened, even as Quintus, away in Egypt on a mission for Augustus, writes her increasingly provocative love letters.
While the forbidden love between the high priest and priestess provide an engine for the novel, the timeline is demarcated by the political, military, and matrimonial conflicts of the day. The prodigious historical research evident in this novel give the author’s stark and brutal scenes veracity. From the descriptions of beliefs, rituals, festivals, funeral rites and mummification, modes of transportation, the buildings of the Roman fora, and styles of dress, Macleod brings to life the stories of Caesar Augustus (Octavian), his sister Octavia, his lover Cleopatra, and Cleopatra’s lover, Marc Antony, in cinematic detail.
Macleod doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of Roman life, and she appropriately resists recasting the men of the times with any attribute we would consider modern. They are unrestrained rapists, abusers, and murderers—even the priests. They are libertine, gluttonous, and full of lust and salaciousness. Monogamy is entirely decoupled from matrimony, at least as far as men are concerned. A 21st-century woman might wonder how a woman of any era could fall in love with any of them, even a high priestess—particularly a high-priestess— accustomed to watching gladiators, decapitations in chariot races, and raw sporting events pitting humans against lions. Perhaps Macleod is making the case that “love” in Roman times was not a matter of emotion and shared values but was simply an animalistic sexual attraction. In a different version of “couldn’t put it down,” I found myself racing to finish the book, if only to end my time in that vividly cruel, uncivil “civilization,” and get back to our less bloody, if just as politically unsettling, time.
The voice of the narrator, which takes on many points of view through the novel, is in all cases young and not introspective—again, perhaps a condition of the period—but the sex and violence of this novel puts it out of range of younger readers of historical fiction and young adult romance fans. Human and animal sacrifices, executions, suicides, rapes, beheadings, and floggings bloody the pages with emotion- and compassion-numbing frequency. Once a hairy, Greek brute shoves the face of a pregnant woman in his smelly groin, you know this isn’t a tale for your pubescent daughter.
The novel’s attention to period detail and the mores and attitudes of the times make this a fascinating story of Roman life, told from a wholly new perspective.
I thank the publisher for providing an early copy of this book for review.
👍Stay by Catherine Ryan Hyde - READ
This is a novel about a young man whose life is turned around by an old lady and her two dogs who live in the woods. As such, it is fine. I might have been able to say good, if only she had left off the last 10% of the book. I would say great if she had left out about half the internal monolog in the first 90%. Of course, then we’d have a novella instead of a novel. But the novella might be better.
The story is a sentimental one about a kid named Lucas whose parents never stop arguing, a brother drafted into Viet Nam, and a best friend who is sullen and contemplating suicide. Lucas has a lot on his plate, and it seems as if his life will come to no good if he doesn’t find a way to get out from under the load.
To escape the loud argument at home, Lucas is out walking in the woods one day, when he discover a cabin guarded by two large dogs. Sure that the dogs will eat him alive, given the chance, he takes off running, and to his surprise, the dogs run with him, not after him, and all three creatures discover the peaceful joy of long-distance running. Soon after, he meets Zoe Dinsmore, the dog-owner who lives in the cabin, and Lucas learns of her difficult past. Before the end of the novel, Lucas, his brother, and his best friend all end up supporting each other, helping each other to deal with their individual demons.
The story moves along well, and Hyde is an accomplished storyteller. The dogs are charmers, and her characters are all well-wrought, at least in their initial presentation. But I had a problem with Lucas’s near-constant internal monologue that Hyde seems to believe is necessary if we readers are going to “get it.” It’s more than we need, and more action, narrative, and dialogue would have made this book a less ponderous read. The final 10% is presented as “Part 2: 50 Years Later.” I wish I hadn’t read it. It’s preachy, full of long soliloquies (disguised poorly as dialogues), and reiterates all the messages of the first 90%. It felt like being hit over the head with a Nerf hammer, and it took all the charm out of the story and even the characters. Yes, it ties up the loose ends. You find out what happened to all the main characters, but it ruined the book for me.
In its sentimentality, the book falls in line with what we expect from Hyde. A prolific writer with more than 30 novels to her name, she is probably best known for Pay it Forward, a 2000 novel that was used as the loose basis for a feature film about (per her publisher’s description) “a boy from a troubled family, who develops a plan as part of a school project that starts people doing good things for each other.” That film received what the industry calls “mixed reviews.” Again, the negative reviews of the film criticized its dripping sentimentality, but the book received generally better reviews, including from Publishers Weekly and Amazon, and proving that schmaltz sells, was a best-seller, translated into 23 languages.
👍Funeral for a Friend by Brian Freeman - DEVOURED
The more I want to escape the political dystopia of our day, the more I find myself picking up murder mysteries and thrillers. It seems odd that I’d seek to assuage a need for calm by diving into bloody mayhem, but there you are.
I’m pleased, then, to be introduced (finally) to Brian Freeman, a writer of more than 20 psychological thrillers, including this one, the latest in his Jonathan Stride series of novels. I would compare him easily with Michael Connelly, who appropriately has praised his work.
Jonathan Stride is a detective in the Duluth police department and, while it appears he has cleaned up his act—both marital and policing—over the past few years, he’s not always been a saint. Seven years ago, he withheld information about his personal connection to the disappearance of a pain-in-the-ass reporter whom no one but his editor seems to miss. And now the reporter’s body is discovered with a bullet hole in his forehead, and Stride’s lie has come home to haunt him.
In a twisting tale that allows seven of the novel’s main characters to weave in and out of each other’s current and past lives, Stride and wife, Serena—also a police officer—must solve the murder even though they are not allowed to officially investigate the case. Stride’s secrets surrounding the murder are parceled out in well-timed, as-needed bits, and the case is finally solved in just the way a reader wants: with the murder making sense, the identity of murderer signaled all along, but the revelation of his/her guilt still a surprise. Woven into the intrigue, adding tension, is a very believable story of Stride’s adopted daughter, who gets her own subplot, which, of course, eventually is woven into the main plot line.
A true master of storytelling, this novelist has now become one of my go-to authors when I’m looking for an engaging, world-stopping distraction in book form.
👍You Lucky Dog by Julia London - READ
There is no end to my desire to escape these days—my habit of watching 2.5 hours of evening news shows every night notwithstanding. And my two new escapes are mystery/thriller novels and romances. The romance thing started with watching a few movies on the Hallmark Channel (yes, really), but once that very repetitive formula started to bore me, I turned to romance novels. And when it comes to those, one of the novels’ must-haves for me is a dog. If it has a dog as a main character, I’ll probably read it.
But what about two dogs? Julia London’s You Lucky Dog should really be titled You Lucky Dogs, because two basset hounds who look enough alike to put the plot in motion are the stars of this lively novel. In fact, I might even argue that the romance between the two dogs—one a sullen, sedentary fellow and one a happy, energetic gal—is a little more convincing than the romance between the two owners. But that’s quibbling.
Carly is up to her ears in problems—problem clients, problem parents, and now a problem pup, Baxter, that her sister (with her own overwhelming problem children) has convinced her to foster. But one day when she comes home, she finds that Baxter has changed personality completely. Not only is the dog on the couch—an absolute no-no in Carly’s house—but this dog is the opposite of sullen. Of course, Hazel, the basset hound that the dog walker switched for Baxter, is owned by an attractive and smart neurologist who comes home to find a depressed basset in place of his happy hound.
Given that setup, the trajectory isn’t hard to imagine, and it doesn’t disappoint, even though London takes us through a few hoops and some sometimes overwrought distractions to get us to its logical conclusion. Her easy prose and fun dialogue carry readers along, and even if it only distracts you from today’s news for an evening or two, I’d recommend it as election-season therapy.
👍Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch - DEVOURED
The only problem with this book is that summer (in most parts of the country, not where I live) is over. This is a perfect summer read, funny and profane. But, what the heck. Read it in the fall. Read it before Christmas.
Janet is sad and therefore perpetually prodded by friends, family, and an ex-boyfriend to take drugs for it. Janet actually likes being sad, and in fact she likes her sadness better than she likes most people. She also harbors a particular fondness for dogs, especially when compared with her feeling for humans. What’s not to like here?
Janet is trying to decide what to do with her life (aren’t we all?), and while she’s figuring it out, she’s working at a run-down dump of a dog shelter. The hounds are as sad as she is. Her boss, Debs, is a bi-sexual woman not terribly tolerant of men, and not terribly happy either. Janet shares her opinion of men, having just broken up with a long-time live-in boyfriend who left because she was sad and wouldn't take drugs to fix it. It was all about him, you see. Melissa, the other employee at the dog shelter, is a young, heterosexual, cheerful woman who loves Christmas, and for all of those traits, is obviously the weird one.
The year-end holidays are approaching in that most American way—in October. Before Halloween. Janet’s stress level is rising as she anticipates another season of cheerful people, cheerful songs, all around cheerfulness that will put her sadness in sharp relief, as usual. She’s not crazy about Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanza), and like many people, finds it always falls far short of expectations. Lo and behold, dear angels, a pharmaceutical miracle appears—a drug formulated specially to help people enjoy the holidays. Finally it seems Janet gives in. She gets a prescription.
The drug is sold with a mandate to attend six group therapy sessions moderated by one of the pharmaceutical company’s employees and surveilled by another. These sessions bring a bunch of like-minded (anti-social Christmas haters) together, and the meetings are hilarious in a quiet, sad sort of way.
I think this novel is a triumph. Although I had problems with the rather cheerful ending—perhaps “upbeat” is more correct—I couldn’t put it down. I am, in many ways, like Janet. Don’t tell me I’d look prettier if I’d smile, or I’m likely to signal my disapproval in that most anti-social, digital of ways. But even if you’re more like Melissa than Janet, the lively prose and spot-on social commentary it conveys will keep you smiling. And if you’re one of us who is more agnostic about Christmas than the people around you, you might find this story—like the Christmas pill?—gets you to look forward to the holidays for the first time in a long time.
👍Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate - READ
I may be the last woman in America to read this book, and it’s not really my fault. My excuse is that I was going to buy it when it first came out, but was going through a busy stretch at my publishing company, and when I got back to the bookstore, it was already in paperback. I figured that rush to paper meant it wasn’t so great.
Wrong. It’s a great read, and I’m very happy I finally got around to it.
The story is revealed slowly in two time periods—1939 when the country was heading into war and millions were still mired in the misery of the Great Depression, and the present day when young professionals have the time, money and talents to dig up old family history that their ancestors may have preferred stay buried.
In the earlier period, five siblings aboard a Mississippi River shanty boat have their poor but free gypsy childhoods shattered when they are kidnapped from their parents and taken to a squalid orphanage run for profit where they are starved, tortured—even murdered—with impunity. The novel is based on the true story of the horrors committed against families and children by Georgia Tann and the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, which she operated. It’s a bit of Southern history and ugly Americana many socially prominent figures who donated to and supported the Society would have preferred never to have been uncovered.
The modern story is of Avery, a young lawyer, successful but not thrilled with the way she’s using her education and credentials, who stumbles across the story of her grandmother—one of the lost children of the shantyboat family. She and Trent, an appropriately aged real estate agent, end up working together to uncover their mutual family history, his grandfather having been another of the children abused by the society. Trent's wife has died recently, and Avery is engaged to a man she’s not really interested in marrying, giving the author an opportunity to set up a satisfying romance subplot with attractive and likeable people. Together, they do battle with other members of their family who would prefer not to uncover such difficult pasts.
A thoroughly engrossing (even though difficult to stomach, at times) read, the book deserves the praise that was showered on it, and the many weeks it has remained on best seller lists in America. Wingate’s descriptions are rich without laboring the narrative and her dialogue—both internal and between characters—believable. I highly recommend the book.
👍The Weekend by Charlotte Wood - READ
Three women and a dog gather over the Christmas weekend at a beach house on the coast of Australia to empty out a fourth friend’s house—that friend having died recently, leaving cleaning up the detritus of her life to them. The three women are an aging trio, mismatched in personality, retired from radically different careers, who don’t really like each other much. (Put simply, Jude plays the ego; Wendy, the superego; and Adele, the id. But of course, it’s not quite that simple.)
Jude, haughty and all-business, was a restaurateur who clearly thinks she’s the superior woman. Setting tension in the novel early on, she (a martyr) assigns herself the toughest task of cleaning the kitchen, even before the others arrive. She’s such an efficient adult that she never married, preferring instead a decades-long relationship with a wealthy married man who has delivered just what she needs and asks no more from her than she wants to give.
Wendy is an intellectual, a writer of famous philosophical texts, and has just been kicked out of the house of her most-recent lover, Liz. She’s just newly homeless, penniless, and ashamed to ask the others for money to tide her over until she can set her affairs right again. She still thinks lofty thoughts and composes new intellectual treatises in her head, which she plans to inscribe as soon as she gets home—wherever that turns out to be.
Adele is an aging, overweight actress, still dreaming of returning to stardom, a stardom that never quite reached the heights she had hoped for or expected. Vain and a bit lazy, Adele is like a child, the one who doesn’t yet get it—“it” being that their lives are basically over. From now forward, there’s only one inevitable, sad trajectory, and fighting for a happier ending is not only foolish, but embarrassing. She’s Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.
Wendy brings along her ancient dog, clearly her best friend in the world, a giant, old creature on his last legs who adds to the tension with his constant, confused pacing and the chance that he might do something to trigger Jude’s temper.
None of three women approaches the task of cleaning up after the late Sylvie with cheer, and that raises the question left unanswered in this slim novel by the award-winning Aussie writer, Charlotte Wood: Why don’t they tell their friend’s partner, a woman who has conveniently gone elsewhere for Christmas, to pick up the mess herself? She’s the one that is going to benefit from the sale of the old, creaking cabin on stilts, but for a reason not explained, she’s off the hook and on vacation.
Even more perplexing is why these women were ever friends. Indeed, less than half of the way through the story, one of the women asks herself: “Why did they still come together, these three?” At first, they all tell themselves that it was Sylvie that held them together, and without her, their tenuous relationship could implode. But what kind of glue Sylvie provided is left to our imagination. In fact, Sylvie seems to have sown as much discord as cohesion to the one-time quartet.
The women do, however, circle the wagons whenever one of them is attacked from the outside. And by the end of the weekend, each woman has faced one or more humiliating setbacks, giving each of them a reason to come to the others’ defense, if not for love, then out of habit. Perhaps friendship has less to do with what we have in common or even how much we like each other, and more to do with some unspoken, deeply felt and inescapable loyalty, developed unconsciously, defying explanation, and only on display in the raw light of adversity. And nothing delivers more adversity than aging.
👍Monogamy by Sue Miller - READ
I have read many Sue Miller novels—I see five of them on my bookshelves--and I have to confess something awful: I remember the titles, but I don’t remember much of anything about them. Even as I read the publisher’s synopses of them today, I don’t recognize most of the stories. However, I can’t help but recall the disturbing and seemingly irrelevant scene at the end of The Senator’s Wife involving an old man and a young, lactating protagonist.
So, if they’re so forgettable, why do I keep reading them? Perhaps it’s because, by and large, Miller’s books go down so easily. The subject matter is domestic life and relationships, and there’s nothing to fear going into her books (the lactating protagonist an exception). And after a month of much more challenging reads, I was in search of a little “beach” read.
Monogamy—now the sixth Miller novel on my shelves—is a decent novel, easy and quick to read, not “experimental” or “innovative” or any of those other things that get critics excited these days. Graham and Annie have been married for about thirty years, and their marriage—by today’s standards—seems successful and sanguine. Graham’s a bookstore owner, every writer’s favorite gentle protagonist. Annie is an almost-professional photographer, artsy, not too successful, always wondering if she could have made more of herself and her profession if it weren’t for the outsized personality of her husband. There’s something odd and distant in Graham’s recent behavior, but the night before he dies, he seems to have come out of it, and Annie is hopeful that they’ll rebuild their frayed bond. (Mention of his death is not a spoiler—it’s on the book jacket.)
We get to the middle of the novel, before Annie finally asks herself the big question: what independence and success did she forego by being “absorbed” by Graham’s physical and social expansiveness. Why didn’t she try harder to make a career of her photography, or hone a personality and presence apart from his? Discovering the secret that had infected the last few months of their marriage, Annie begins to reexamine what monogamy has cost her (and not him), and what of their marriage was real and what was façade.
What’s unsatisfying about it, though, is that she doesn’t seem to come up with anything to do about it once she’s realized it. She doesn’t pick up her camera again and start to work, even though in the end she does start taking pictures of family and friends. She’s raised the question of “what could have been” but she never strives for an answer.
What is lasting in its effect, is the book’s exploration of female friendships and forgiveness, and perhaps that, not monogamy, is really what the book is about. Hence, the novel ends with an understanding that what will make Annie happy and “successful” from then on is not what she knows or learns about herself, but the people who surround her and support her.
👍What You Are Going Through by Sigrid Nunez - READ
I loved The Friend, Sigrid Nunez’s 2018 National Book Award winner. Of course, there was a dog, a big dog, an old dog. All the kinds of dogs I love. But there was also a suicide, and having recently lost a close family member to suicide, I found the book thoughtful and cathartic. And, without a question, there was Nunez’s perfect prose and a narrative that pulled you along by the heart as much as by the mind.
But I remember some members of my book club who found the book hard to get into, and others who objected to the very subject of suicide. To both those groups of members: you probably aren’t going to like What Are you Going Through, then. First, it starts—the first half, actually—with seemingly randomly selected stories that appear to have no logical connection, all told second hand for no apparent purpose. It would be easy for a reader to wonder: what are we doing here?
Half-way through this short novel, a story starts to develop when the woman contemplating killing herself asks the narrator for help. With nothing keeping her tied down—her means of supporting herself somehow hinging on some kind of writing—she picks up and travels to an upstairs vacation rental near the ocean with her friend, and their time there provides a bare skeleton of a narrative. Every encounter, every venue, every memory, however, gives our narrator the excuse to digress into past stories and past relationships, although again, there seems to be nothing that holds the collection together.
It’s possibly obvious: I’m not a fan of this book. Its theme seems to be that everyone has a story that they are desperate to tell, and our poor narrator ends up having to be the medium by which these stories get told. Even the cat in the B&B she rents for a time has a story that our narrator records in perfectly fine human words and sentences.
There is one truly devastating and heart-stopping passage in the book – from page eight to page sixteen—when our narrator’s ex-husband gives a speech about how we are nearing the end of the world as we know it, and it won’t make you feel fine. It’s excruciating and hard to refute and will put you in a funk—if current events don’t already have you there. When our narrator relays that formidable story so early in the book, she sets us up for disappointment. Nothing else that comes along has its potency. Nothing else seems important. After all, we’re doomed.
👍Midway Bravery by Dennis Gaub - READ
Full disclosure: I worked with the author about a million years ago at the Billings Gazette, back when dinosaurs still roamed the low swamps of tropical Montana. Dennis was a sports reporter and editor, and I was the business editor.
The air strike by the U.S. Army Air Force that is the reason for and the central action of this book takes up fewer than 20 of its nearly 230 pages of prose, giving a reader the indication that this is less a book about military strategy, and more of a story about a Montana boy who became famous—at least Montana famous.
When I worked in the state, old-timers would tell me that Montana is a big state inside a very small town. Everyone on one side of the state knew everyone on the other side of the state and everyone in between. So, it is no surprise that a man who flew one of the notoriously unmanageable B-26s into a battle that was seen as pivotal to the war effort would become a hero statewide—even if his torpedoes never scored a hit on a Japanese vessel. Lt. James P. Muri and his crew took part in the Battle of Midway, an air strike on the Japanese Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor that apparently set the Japanese Navy back on its heels, preventing another attack on Midway, an important air base in the Pacific in WWII. He flew a risky maneuver over a Japanese carrier, and returned safely to Midway, although his plane was so damaged and full of bullet holes, it was pushed into the ocean for a loss.
But much of this book is about a small-town, Eastern Montana boy who grew up in the Depression, yearned to learn to fly, and came home from the war a hero, eventually invited to receive the Distinguished Service Award for his bravery. The second half of the book is filled with an examination of the historiography of the battle; and the story of what Muri and the rest of the crew did after they came home from the war, photos, and a long bibliography that indicates extensive research into Lt. Muri on Dennis’s part.
Dennis, an award-winning journalist, is a fine writer, and Midway Bravery is an easy read, in spite of the book’s unattractive, Microsoft-Word-like interior layout. I applaud my former colleague for taking on this project, and I’m certain Montana historians and military history buffs will not only find his research impressive but will also enjoy the story.
👍Spindle City by Jotham Burrello - READ
Spindle City, Jotham Burrello’s debut historical novel, covers an eight-year period from 1911 to 1919 that witnessed the beginning of the end of the dominance of the textile town Fall River, MA, a town that was once the country’s epicenter of cotton-cloth manufacturing and printing. Burrello’s tale weaves together the rise and fall of the industrial Northeast, the suffering exacted by the first world war, the struggles of the nation’s new immigrants, the strife and gains of the early 20th century labor movement, and the grievous economic inequalities of the age of the robber-barons.
Joseph Bartlett, an immigrant’s son, inherits the fictional Cleveland Mill when its proprietor dies in a mysterious fire, throwing him into a position he doesn’t want—as a mediator encumbered with both the demands of the wealthy aristocrats who own the town’s mills and a visceral empathy for the unskilled and unionized labor forces whose bodies are sacrificed to make that wealth possible.
(Spoilers in this paragraph.)
It is possible that no protagonist in historical fiction has ever carried a greater burden of guilt. Bartlett struggles to reconcile his good fortune with his culpability in the fire that killed the mill owner. Even as his wife is dying from cancer, he pursues an affair with the widow of a talented engineer, also killed in the fire. After one of his sons nearly kills a young Portuguese immigrant, Bartlett sends him to a military academy and into the trenches of Europe, where he suffers severe mental, emotional and physical injury. Another son, disheartened by his father’s myriad sins, leaves town and refuses to join the family business. A labor organizer and suffragist leads Bartlett on a tour of the town’s ghettos, where he witnesses the abject poverty and dehumanizing existence of the low-level workers that power the town’s industry.
I found the novel deeply affecting. Burrello’s own family history is tied to Fall River, and perhaps that is why he exudes such deep sympathy for so many of the characters of this novel—excepting the most rapacious mill owners, their narcissistic wives, and the conniving labor leaders for whom personal power and position are more important than the workers they represent. The opening chapter can be a bit of a hurdle to get over, as the author introduces nearly two dozen characters in several short vignettes that require a bit of perseverance and patience on the part of the reader. The payoff is in the complex weaving of the stories of all these people, representatives of the diverse actors responsible for the success and the eventual decline of Fall River.
👍The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson - READ
I was first introduced to Larry Watson’s work when I lived in Montana and worked at the Billings Gazette as a business reporter. On my move to the state in the early 1980s, my Montana-native friends there insisted I read Watson’s debut novel, Montana 1948. I don’t remember much about it other than I thought it deserved its designation as a classic.
About three years ago, in a novel-writing workshop I attended at the University of Iowa, I was reintroduced to the author when we were assigned to read Let Him Go. It was beautifully constructed, the characters were unique and strong, and I thought highly of the author’s skill once again. So, I was excited to see his new book, The Lives of Edie Pritchard, released this summer.
Those who have read Let Him Go will recognize familiar themes in Edie Pritchard: mean brothers who stick together and whose purpose in life seems to be to terrorize honest and peaceful citizens; children caught in the crosshairs of failed marriages; guns, guns, guns; and physical violence. There are no cowboys, and the Indians live in city condos just like the Caucasians, but it’s a Western, through and through. Watson rarely makes a misstep with his prose—if he ever does. His dialogue is so realistic that his characters pop off the page. His settings are vivid and his action scenes perfectly timed. So, don’t get me wrong if I now pan this book: it’s not because it’s not beautifully written.
My complaint with Edie Pritchard is that it feels like it is set back in the 1948 of his first novel, even though it ostensibly represents three years in Edie’s life: 1967, 1987 and 2007. I’m about as old as Edie would be today. I live in the West. I know women from the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and western Oregon and Washington—rural and urban. And none of us is like Edie.
The publisher’s description of the book, given to the Library of Congress for cataloguing purposes, is this: “A woman whose looks have always defined her, who spends her lifetime trying to prove that she is allowed to exist in her own sphere, tries to be herself even as multiple men try to categorize and own her.” Well, I didn’t find much of that in this novel. First, I never see who Edie thinks she is and how that differs from the way men “categorize her.” Every decision she makes, every move she makes is a reaction to the men around her—either running away from them or running to them. Even when she takes up the cause of her granddaughter, Lauren, her actions are solely in response to the men who are trying to dominate Lauren. There is no sense of an independent, self-directed persona in Edie (or Lauren, for that matter). Watson gives us no sense of who or what she wants to be. This book is about the men who surround her. Perhaps there still are women in Montana (and elsewhere) who allow themselves to be bounced around and manipulated by the men in their lives as if they’re caught in the bumpers of a pinball machine. But I don’t know any. At least none my age or younger.
I am not suggesting that this book is misogynistic. If anything, it’s the male characters who are almost uniformly despicable. But it certainly doesn’t speak much for the character of today’s Western women.
👍The Golden Cage by Camilla Läckberg - DEVOURED
Scandinavian noir is a hugely popular literary genre, yet much of it doesn’t appeal to me, as most titles involve blood and gore. Not my thing. In Camilla Lackberg's thrillers, however, the horror is domestic and insidious. It may not involve gruesome torture and murder, but it is just as chilling.
Faye (née Matilda) is the heroine of The Golden Cage, and her husband Jack is the hero of his own mythology. He and his venture firm, Compare, are on the top of the Stockholm corporate world, and Jack believes he and his college buddy, Henrick, are the sole progenitors of their success. But the truth is a more complicated story that Jack buries, excusing his fabrication as easier for the media to understand and glorify. In fact, Faye, a brilliant college student when she meets Jack, came up with the business plan and the name for his company, and figured out how to make the business succeed before he insisted she drop out and stay home to raise their child, Julienne. Faye continues to do whatever she can to encourage Jack’s success, including buying him a desk that once belonged to Ingmar Bergman, and nurturing Julienne’s love for her father.
The first two-fifths of this novel are can’t-put-down gripping. Jack obsessions are his business, child porn, and rough sex, and none of these seems to repel Faye. To satisfy his need to feel superior, she plays dumb when he quizzes her about current business affairs. He demands that she socialize with his business associates’ wives—caricatures of Tom Wolfe’s “x-rays.” The women munch on single leaves of lettuce at lunch and spend the rest of the day in the gym and shops in order to remain thin, dumb, and attractive for their high-achieving spouses. The men, of course, are having sex with their secretaries, chief financial officers, and “anything that moves.” For a long time, despite obvious clues otherwise, Faye believes her marriage is different and that Jack is faithful to her.
The question raised in the beginning of the novel isn’t whether their marriage will end in a disaster for Faye or how—it’s how much abuse she will take before it happens. And what she’ll do then. As Matilda, she grew up in a small fishing village with an abusive father and a weakling of a brother, and if she had turned into a misandrist, she would have had good reason. It’s even more excruciating, then, to see how low she degrades herself and how long she holds onto the fantasy that her submission to Jack will pay off in the long run with a revival of marital bliss and her return to a fulfilling professional life. Of course, that would require Jack to change his stripes, so … The machinations of her revenge—revenge is both the plot of the second half of the book and what she names the company she creates to get it—are ultimately satisfying, if much less sweat-inducing. As if she weren’t already angry enough, a surprise revelation in the end gives her an amped up drive to punish him. What Jack gets, Jack deserves.
If there is a criticism to be waged at this book, it’s that Jack’s perfect and loving persona in college changes so radically—apparently without cause—by the time the story takes off. Perhaps the message is how even undeserved success boosts the ego and narcissism of those born with a silver spoon in their mouth if they are not schooled in any morals or ethics—a theme of our times.
I highly recommend this book.
👍Block Seventeen by Kimiko Guthrie - DEVOURED
I like unreliable narrators—the ones who don’t tell you the truth or are blinded to it themselves. They allow a reader an active participation in the story—figuring it out for themselves. I generally don’t care for unbalanced—dare I say crazy?—narrators. And if the narrator is both, I’m usually outta there.
But in Block Seventeen, Kimiko Guthrie’s new novel, I got hooked by Akiko “Jane” Thompson’s desperate attempt to figure out what’s real and what’s not. She sees things and hears things that she suspects aren’t really there. A baby’s muffled cries permeate the walls of her home. Is there a baby next door or not? A mysterious person creates towers of household objects in her bedroom, trashes her apartment, and opens boxes in the attic. Her fiancé installs cameras to find the culprit, but the only person in the pictures is Jane. Her mother appears and disappears—is she okay? Is she alive? Why does she only communicate through social media? What is Jane’s imagination and sleepwalking trying to tell her?
What makes this work is that Jane knows she’s disoriented and struggling with reality. She knows her senses are unreliable and that she’s teetering on the edge of psychosis. In spite of the heavy subject matter, there is nothing ponderous about Guthrie’s prose. In brilliant, engaging scenes that keep us along on what would otherwise be a stressful journey, Jane struggles to find meaning in what’s going on in her head and in her surroundings. A bit of Buddhism is brought to bear on her search, giving the story a mystical and, at the same time, grounding effect. Together with Jane, we discover that a return to sanity for Jane and understanding for us will require recognition and an embrace of the multi-generational trauma inflicted by the Japanese-American internment of World War II, which we have all labored to deny.
I highly recommend this book. (A special bonus is the book jacket. The beautiful color illustration is striking enough in itself, but it’s further enhanced with varnished images visible only with oblique light. An amazing work of art.) seem new and strange instead of wearily common.
👍The End of October by Lawrence Wright - DEVOURED
If you are looking for a light-hearted read that will take your mind off our current political turmoil and pandemic, this is not the book for you. If you are looking for a book that gives you hope that the coronavirus epidemic will end with a return to some close proximation to “normal,” this isn’t the book for you.
But suppose these weeks in quarantine have started to make you feel like time has stood still, and you’d do anything to see this self-isolation hurry up and end. And, suppose you want your socks knocked off by a page-turning, gut-wrenching thriller with lessons in bureaucratic bungling and administrative dithering; Russia’s evil and unchecked intentions; the dangerous effects of homophobia, xenophobia, climate change and economic inequality; and the near-impossible tasks of controlling a pandemic and avoiding economic meltdown. In that case, Lawrence Wright has a novel that will eat up the next few hours of your life faster than you thought possible. I couldn’t put it down, something I say about as often as, “I’m not hungry.” Hint: nearly never.
Wright’s fictional virus has mysterious origins but is suspected of having jumped from migrating flocks of birds, and first pops up in a refugee camp of young, gay Muslim men in Indonesia. His Dr. Fauci-equivalent, Henry, unwittingly contributes to the rapid spread of the virus throughout the world in a pandemic that makes COVID-19 seem dawdling in its progress. The inability of the leaders of the free world—in particular, the U.S.—to deal effectively with either the health or political ramifications of their lack of preparedness will sound eerily familiar, and raise the obvious question: if Wright could foresee this as he wrote the novel well before COVID-19 became a thing, why couldn’t our government? We can only wish that the vocabulary of this novel—self-isolation, quarantining, shelter-in-place, herd immunity, second wave—would seem new and strange instead of wearily common.
Wright’s disturbing, impeccably written novel wends its way to an ending that isn’t going to cheer you up. His tale of how crowded cities, degradation of the environment (sixth extinction?), increasing inequality, cozy attitude toward Russia, and lack of medical preparedness points to inevitable consequences in the face of both his fictional virus and our real one is frightening. One could only wish the book had been published six months earlier, and that the man supposedly leading our nation could read something longer than 280 characters.
👍The Book of V. by Anna Solomon - READ
Anna Solomon’s The Book of V. is the tale of three women—one from the fifth century BCE, one in the early 1970s, and one in today’s world—connected by friendship, blood and experience. The weaving together of these stories will remind readers of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, a book also told through the lives of three people (one of them Virginia Woolf as she was writing Mrs. Dalloway). Both books explore the theme of devoting one’s life to the happiness of others despite what it costs in personal fulfillment. Solomon gives credit to the unknown author of the Book of Esther and to Cunningham for inspiration for her structure and her theme.
The Esther in Solomon’s novel is the same woman from the seventeenth book of the Old Testament. She is generally considered to be a fictional character, her story possibly invented to provide a reason for Purim, a traditional two-day Jewish celebration of survival. Esther, according to the story, was chosen to be the second wife of a King of Persia after his first wife, Vashti, refused to parade for his drunken friends. Vashti’s story in the Bible ends with her exile or execution (it’s not clear which), but she has become a celebrated feminist heroine—a woman who had the temerity and the self-respect to refuse to expose herself at the order of her husband. In the Bible and in Solomon’s telling, Esther uses her favor with the king to save the Jews and destroy their worst enemies in the kingdom.
Solomon resurrects Vashti’s story, in part by giving her a more heroic ending and in part by creating the narrator, Vee, a woman who similarly is bid to appear before an all-male party hosted by her sexually abusive and politically ambitious husband. When Vee refuses his request to undress before them, she leaves her marriage, and after a humiliating affair conducted while staying at the home of her best friend, she moves on to build a life of her own. The third narrator of the novel, Lily, personifies a contemporary woman who has postponed her own career as a writer to marry and raise children. Lily even considers learning how to sew, but resisting that further submersion in domesticity, finds fulfillment in writing a play for a local celebration of Purim. Her connection to the other narrators, other than her interest in the story of Purim, is revealed only late in the novel and involves a fourth major character who does not narrate her own story.
Solomon’s first-person, present-tense prose reminds me of that of Geraldine Brooks (The Secret Chord, March, Caleb’s Crossing, Year of Wonders). Its well-paced action scenes are spiced with evocative dialogue and just enough internal monologue to keep us close to the characters. The worlds she creates for the Jews of the fifth century BCE and the life of a political wife and feminist of the 1970s are richly textured and feel authentic. (I can only vouch for half of one of those from personal experience).
This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I am sharing it with friends and neighbors, who have also enjoyed it. I highly recommend it.
👍These Women by Ivy Pochoda - DEVOURED
These Women is a five-woman portrait of life on the hard streets of South Los Angeles—dangerous, mysterious and humming with an underclass beat punctuated by violence directed specifically at women. In this misogynistic world, even the men who think they are protecting their wives and daughters perpetrate horrible crimes driven by their testosterone-charged megalomania and spiked with cruelty. It’s a world infused with an ethos that satisfies men’s desires while shackling woman with degrading and meager subsistence.
The five women in this gritty, page-turning novel include: Dorian, a restaurant owner who feeds the neighborhood street women, weathering their frequent verbal abuse, while waiting for an answer to her daughter’s murder; Julianna, a drug-dependent exotic dancer who craves a way to share her cellphone photography with the world; Essie, a vice cop sidelined from the homicide division by a superior who uses Essie’s misfortune to advance her own career; Marella, Dorian’s neighbor and a visual and performance artist whose work helps identify a killer to her own peril; and Anneke, a difficult and judgmental middle-class woman who tries to sanitize the neighborhood while harboring the secret of its greatest danger.
Pochoda builds the story obliquely, viewing the world from each woman’s perspective in separate “parts”—one woman per part. Their stories overlap and entwine, and the final part pulls them together in both satisfying and frightening ways. The opening prologue and occasional interludes by its narrator are written in elliptical, pointillistic first-person prose, introducing the jarring personality of the novel and priming the reader for the simultaneously sympathetic and challenging personalities of these women. They aren’t all likable, but they are fully rendered, as is the neighborhood itself—its liquor stores, gentrified blocks, and abandoned lots strewn with drug paraphernalia and clues. This novel may not make you want to visit South Los Angeles, but it may make you feel like you already have.
I highly recommend this novel.
The Seventh Sun by Lani Forbes - READ
Lani Forbes’s young-adult novel, The Seventh Sun is a fascinating mash-up of genres—fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, romance—that also mixes and conflates cultures and time periods in Mexican and Mesoamerican history. In creating the fantasy “Chicome Empire,” Forbes takes the liberty of blending Aztec and Mayan traditions and mythology, depicting a world that is only kept inhabitable through blood-letting, human sacrifice, and a strict, hierarchical stratification of society that demands fealty to ritual and nobility.
A young prince, heir to the leadership of the Chicome Empire, Ahkin must choose a wife from among the six nations scattered around the capital of Tollan before he can assume the role of emperor. His father’s sudden death and his mother’s obedience to tradition that required her suicide leave Ahkin spinning with self-doubt and grief. An apparent, impending apocalypse involving the sun’s slow disappearance adds to the stakes. Young Princess Mayana of the nation Atl is sent by her father to represent the best his tribe has to offer as a candidate for empress. Blessed with the magical ability to form water into shapes, floods or downpours, she is a reluctant observer of her family’s traditions, especially those that require the sacrifice of animals. She tries to hide her aversion from the prince, knowing that eventually it will raise objections to her suitability as empress.
The other five princesses, all contestants for the role of empress, have their own powers, and as they gather in the capital to try to win the love and attention of Ahkin, some put those magical talents to work sabotaging the other contestants, while others form friendships and use their powers to protect each other. The good girls and bad girls are quickly identified by everyone except the oblivious prince himself. It’s a high-stakes contest, because the five women who are not chosen as the prince’s bride will all be sacrificed in the service of ensuring a strong marriage for Ahkin and the kingdom. The book ends with the two protagonists suspended in some purgatory-like afterworld, pledging to avenge their own deaths, indicating this is the first book of a young-adult series. More to come.
Forbes does a marvelous job of building a world full of mystery, myth, ritual, blood and danger. She creates a capital city that sparkles and shines with gold, glorious pools, steam baths, fauna and flora.
As an adult, I found the interactions among the competing want-to-be brides tedious, but these scenes are probably salient for teenagers living through the high-school trauma of cliques and shifting alliances. The last quarter of the book leaves most of the well-developed characters behind, their fates left in the lurch; perhaps their stories will continue in subsequent volumes. And, finally, I found some of the prose anachronistic. A couple of examples: Questioned by the other princesses about the rumor that the prince spent the night in her room, she insists “nothing happened.” And an emcee’s introduction of the princesses to the prince starts with “I would now like to present…” Both seem a bit too twentieth century to be convincing or worthy of the novel’s superb world-building.
(Disclosure: Blackstone Publishing is the publisher of this reviewer’s forthcoming book, The Rebel Nun.)
👍Fair Warning by Michael Connelly - READ
There’s a murderer on the loose or there wouldn’t be a Michael Connelly novel. This one is a serial killer whose very existence has gone undetected because what his victims have in common is a trait invisible to the naked eye—a genetic predisposition.
As readers of Connelly’s 31 crime and detective novels know, he from the perspective of two popular, recurring characters: Jack McAvoy, a reporter no doubt inspired by Connelly’s own days as a crime reporter in Florida and California; and Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch. Fair Warning marks a return to the McAvoy protagonist, which signals to a Connelly reader that the police are not likely to be the heroes of this tale.
McAvoy works at an unprofitable online news outlet by the same name as the novel that depends on charitable donations for its subsistence. The “newspaper” covers crime, and Jack writes about white-color crimes on the consumer-fraud beat. He is tossed into the case of a serial murderer, Shrike, only because the police consider him a “person of interest” – he spent a night with the latest of Shrike’s victims a year before her death. The police trail and harass Jack, as expected, but in this case, it’s somewhat mystifying as the victim likely slept with dozens of men in her last year. At times, the cops’ maniacal pursuit of Jack is triggered by revenge; at times, it’s an attempt to wrest information from him; and other times, they seem simply to want to keep him out of the way. Their cat-and-mouse dodging provides the usual comic relief. Also keeping the narrative light is his tenuous renewed romantic relationship with a former FBI agent.
As with reviews of all such crime novels, further plot explication ruins the story, so that’s enough. The novel is fun, a quick read, and satisfying in its conclusion. I am not a regular reader of crime fiction, but when I do pick up a crime novel, I want it to be as fast-paced and reassuring as this: it’s nice to know that even when Bosch isn’t on the case, someone is going to figure out who the bad guy/gal is and bring him/her to justice.
😒The Last Trial by Scott Turow - READ
I became a Scott Turow fan back in 1987 with the publication of Presumed Innocent. I turned 34 that year, and I still harbored some lingering doubts about my profession (journalism) and some vague idea that I could still go to law school and become the lawyer my 16-year-old self had expected to be. It never happened. Perhaps that’s why when I hadn’t returned to Turow since reading Pleading Guilty in 1993. But now, I realize how bored I have become in courtroom dramas. Once upon a time, I probably considered the rapid back-and-forth of attorneys and witnesses, the pages-long, studied oratory of opening and closing statements, and the legal maneuvering at the bench fascinating. Today, no. Certainly that is my fault, not Turow’s.
After all, in part, the book is exactly what it purports to be—the eleventh of the Kindle County series of courtroom dramas. No false advertising here. This is Alejandro “Sandy” Stern’s last trial. With his weak and damaged heart, he shouldn’t even be here. He should have left this trial to his lawyer daughter and his clever researcher and niece. But he can’t let his old buddy Pafko, a brilliant medical and pharmaceutical executive, down when he asks Sandy to defend him against insider trading and murder charges associated with a drug his firm developed. There is a plot twist here—the whodunnit part—but to call this novel a “thriller” is misleading marketing. There are no thrills here.
If I had read only the first 150 pages and the last 150 pages, and skipped the middle 150 pages, I probably would give this a better review. But the middle third of the book, mostly set in the courtroom, didn’t add much to the story, and I maintain the book would have been better without it—maybe it would have seemed more “thrilling.” But, the attorneys’ objections, the judge’s orders to “approach the bench,” and the questions and the answers at the witness stand put me to sleep. Literally. I couldn’t stay awake. Finally, I skipped over the courtroom scenes and shot ahead to where there was again some action and discovery instead of verbal legal sparring. The melodramatic romances and betrayals of old white men and their wives in the last third of the novel wove an interesting funereal cloth for the end of attorney Sandy Stern’s life and career.
I recommend this book only to those who want to be trial attorneys when they grow up, and those who already are. Otherwise, I’m not sure it’s much fun.
👍An Elegant Woman - READ
I generally wouldn’t recommend a book unless I loved the whole thing. What do you say, though, when you really loved two-thirds of a book, and then couldn’t finish it?
This is what I will say: Too bad the editor didn’t cut the book from page 300 forward. The first two generations of this four-generation story are interesting. The last two, not.
In the beginning, there are two major characters in this novel: Glenna, the great-grandmother of the story, and Tommy, her daughter who ends up returning to the East. These two women are tough survivors, willing to make it up as they go, whether it’s their history they’re telling, their present, or their future. Glenna is fed up with her life and husband in Ohio and takes off, two young girls in tow, for Montana. She arrives in Billings, lives for a while in Miles City, Butte and Helena, and ends up with a daughter in California—all familiar territories for me, and evocatively portrayed by McPhee. She captures Glenna’s idiosyncrasies and unsettled nature, even though the woman flashes in and out of the girls’ lives, leaving little behind for them to subsist on. The daughter, Tommy, is left to care for her little sister, Katherine, and to do so, she begs, steals, cooks, cleans, traps coyotes, and puts out (literal) fires. Katherine gets a high school diploma; Tommy gets streetwise and tough.
What Tommy decides to do with her post-mother-surrogate life is the start of the end of this fascinating tale, and while it is compelling, I wanted more. More detail, more of her emotional state and more of her mental compensations for what she did. (No spoiler—I’m not going to tell you what it was.) Instead, we get a great deal of Katherine’s uninteresting musings and whining, and eventually pass briefly through the third generation—including “mother” to the narrator—and then some random ramblings and travels by the fourth generation, including the narrator, none of whom is truly memorable. The narrator, we expected, would have great observations, if not discoveries. She pops in and out of the early part of the book, sprinkling in hints that one thing or another will become important in the long run, but in the end, none of it seems important or revealing. The last quarter of the novel rehashes the themes of what we remember and what we forget; what we tell and what parts of our stories we leave out. It’s as if the author thought we “didn’t get it.”
I still think for those who like great writing about the Mountain West and Great Plains of the early 1900s, three-quarters of this book is a fine read. As always, it’s up to every reader to decide how much more captures their attention.
👍Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney - READ
I ran out of new books to read this month, and loathing the thought of the UPS guy leaving his coronavirus along with books I order from Bookshop, I decided to dig into my I’ll-get-to-it-someday pile of books I have bought but haven’t been eager enough to bust into. This was one of them. Conversations with Friends was published a couple of years before the author’s more celebrated Normal People, which garnered far more praise, and I think, deservedly so.
Not that Conversations didn’t catch anyone’s attention. Named “Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year” for 2017, Rooney has been lionized (so early!) as a millennial writer for millennials. She gets it, in other words. “It” meaning what it’s like to be one of that economically precarious, sexually non-binary, mobile and culturally agnostic generation (or two?). Her protagonists meander in and out of jobs and beds and conversations, smoking pot and drinking wine (even beer sometimes), and weaving nets of friendships and animosities that are as flimsy, complex, and doomed as spider webs. Their dialogues are peppered with swearwords and sexual frankness that would probably mortify their grandparents and great-grandparents—even those who lived through the free-love and profanity punctuated sixties—if they should somehow, by some accident, pick up such a novel.
Conversations is about two women—sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, sometimes lovers, sometimes a duo who perform poetry readings. They’re fiercely competitive and, while quick to bed others in their orbit, jealous and possessive of each other. They meet a writer and her actor husband, much older (as in their thirties!) and successful, and a ménage-a-quatre of sorts forms the backbone plot of the novel, but the theme is insecurity: that is, lack of faith in one’s talents, one’s performance in bed, one’s looks, one’s future. The two friends, still in college through much of the novel, accept all manner of financial and emotional support from others while avoiding building any such scaffolding for life themselves. Rather, the protagonists wear their myriad perilous insecurities—emotional, sexual, financial, occupational—as badges of authenticity. How can you be truly creative unless you’re standing on a cliff on one foot, refusing to pull the other away from the brink?
In the novel, conversations between friends and enemies are debates, confrontational and competitive, and as Rooney was a college debater of some renown, she’s brought that experience to her dialogue. It reminded me a bit of my own impatient, testy, intense college self, when I took every encounter as an opportunity to argue and try to come out on top of every exchange. I once blew a job interview by not knowing the difference between a discussion and an argument. But now, I find such debates tedious and unproductive. Perhaps that’s why I struggled to finish the novel—a bit of “been there done that” and a bit of “oh, don’t remind me!” However, readers who are in that stage of life—somewhere on the path to maturity, dangling in the suspended animation of college years—will likely identify with the characters and their conundrums and ambiguities. And there are already plenty of books and writers out here for us oldsters. So I’m happy the millennials have Sally Rooney.
👍Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - READ
This contemporary story of upper-middle-class suburbia is an engrossing, affecting tale of our time: a time when the haves and have-nots are separated by an widening opportunity gap this nation seems to have neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to narrow or bridge. In that way, Little Fires Everywhere anticipated by a couple of years the movie “Parasite,” which similarly—though also differently—explores in a Korean context the irreconcilable conflicts that infect relationships based on mutual dependencies even as they demand the inviolable nature of social hierarchies.
The upper-middle-class Richardson family, even though so perfect in so many ways, has its issues—the main one being the reluctance of the youngest daughter, Izzy, to participate in the rest of the family’s immersion in privilege and obliviousness. The other three children—lonely Moody, bitchy Lexie and the jock, Trip—each has a distinct personality, but complacency may be at their core. It’s what you’d expect, given their parents. The mother, Elena, is not-very-ambitious local newspaper reporter; and the father, Bill, is an attorney without a cause. They live in Shaker Heights, a planned development in Cleveland—planned not only to look and feel ethnically and economically homogeneous, but also to make sure it stays so.
Elena rents out the house nearby that she inherited from her parents, and the story is set in motion when Mia and her daughter Pearl take the upstairs apartment and slowly insinuate themselves—although not entirely by choice—into the Richardson’s lives. Moody, a quiet, well-behaved young teenager, is compelled by curiosity to befriend Pearl, who finding rare social acceptance, soon joins three of the Richardson children on the family-room couch, watching Jerry Springer. Daily. Izzy notably absent. Meanwhile, Lexie becomes fascinated by Mia’s art–she’s a photographer of some minor renown—and begins to spend time in the rental home, helping her develop film and create compositions. Even Izzy embraces the photographer, prompting Lexie to remark to Mia: “She’s almost pleasant around you.”
To further the families’ entanglement, Elena, impressed by how clean Mia is keeping the apartment, convinces her to come to the Richardsons’ house in the morning to clean and in the afternoon to cook dinner. Beyond that, another relationship develops between the families that complicates matters, but to reveal it here would be a spoiler.
The families’ ties start to fray when Mia and Elena adopt opposite sides in a child custody case, each taking a position that can be expected from their widely differing economic status and concept of fairness. As the story continues, Elena decides that finding the truth behind Mia’s single motherhood and Pearl’s paternity could be a weapon in that custody battle, and without concern for the relationship between the two families that she’s both encouraged and expanded, she doggedly asserts some bloated notion of her righteousness that eventually pulls all the tangled relationships apart.
Ng subtly plays with class differences, referring to Elena and Bill as Mrs. Richardson and Mrs. Richardson, but to an Asian lawyer as Ed, and to Mia always as Mia. The children, even prissy Lexie, start to push against their parents’ apparent cluelessness about their prejudices, but the parents remain oblivious and self-assured in their rectitude. In the end, only one Richardson splits from the comfort of the tribe, and the reader knows that for all that happened, little learning has taken place.
The author deftly handles the myriad characters she needs in the novel, creating just enough personality in each, but not too much, and maintaining control over them. Her omniscient narration, wandering from head to head, is at first disorienting, but she handles it well, and before long, I settled into respecting her ability to share so many points of view. The only complaint I had as I finished the book was the lack of character development of Izzy—she who set the “little fires everywhere.” (Not a spoiler; we know that from the first two pages.) As important and literally conflagration-causing as she is supposed to be, I wish Ng had better explored her alienation and its causes.
Bottom line: Recommended. Without hitting you over the head with polemics, the author has written an entertaining and well-constructed story with an important contemporary message.
👍The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power - READ
These days, it is comforting to know there are—or at least were—people in government who operate (or operated) on values and principles, base their decisions on facts and intelligent analysis, and treat political opponents and allies alike with respect. People whose bedrock values and principles that aren’t movable or malleable or circumstantial. People whose values include having empathy, compassion, and sympathy for people all over the globe they’ll never personally meet, who aren’t their pretty, spoiled children, and who will never be asked to vote for them.
All memoirs are to some extent self-serving. No one writes their story hoping it makes them look bad. So, it’s wise to be cautious about how principled an author claims to be. It’s wise to remember what people do is more telling than what they say.
In her story of her life of political activism, Samantha Power provides plenty of evidence that she put her principles and ideals to work, whether it covering the front line in war-torn Bosnia or speaking for the United States as permanent representative to the United Nations under Barrack Obama. And by starting her story with the details of her early childhood in Ireland, sitting with her father at his favorite pub, the breakup of the family over her father’s alcoholism, and her assimilation into American life in Pittsburgh, we get a solid understanding where those ideals came from.
But most of this book follows her career from war correspondent to Pulitzer-Prize winning author (for A Problem from Hell--about genocide) to advisor at the National Security Council and finally to UN representative, illustrating for anyone tenacious enough to tackle its 542 pages how differently past administrations have operated from the one we have today. While she and Obama disagreed, sometimes bitterly, over policy and actions regarding genocidal governments and UN resolutions, they remained respectful of each other and stayed friends. (Another old lesson in conducting good government.) Power gives him credit for spending hours reviewing this book and making valuable suggestions before it was published. One can’t imagine either Power or Obama calling even the most difficult or oppositional politicians they face (governors?) names (snake?) or questioning their values or motives.
But how do you deal with international outlaws like Russia? Although she never forgives him for his country’s evil and its leader’s avarice, Power develops a respectful, even friendly, working relationship with the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churckin. But even respectful officials finally reach a breaking point, and for Power that was when he “dismissed, diverted, and lied” about his country’s duplicity in the war in Syria.
“Is there literally nothing that can shame you?” she asks Vitaly in the Security Council’s meeting to consider sanctions in the war Assad was promulgating against his own people. “Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
As Vitaly starts his response to her by calling reports of Russian involvement “fake news,” Power is finished. She walks out, but by the time she reached her office, her comments on the UN floor have gone viral. “Once I gave the speech, I knew that I would not hear from Vitaly again,” she writes. “And I was relieved not to see him, given what Russia had done.”
While idealism and staying true to one’s values is the theme of this book, the title betrays the reality of working in government, especially in international relations. The idealist who needed education–and the idealism that needed mediation—through her trial by fire was Power’s belief in the ability of governments to act, always, according to their highest principles. What she learned was how much compromise and shading is required.
I think we have not seen the last of Power in national politics—whether a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020 or in 2024. And when she comes back, I hope she hasn’t learned to compromise too much. We need government officials like her to help us regain the principles and values this country once held as core.
👍Writers & Lovers by Lily King - READ
Writers love to write about being writers (see Philip Roth). Generally, I’m reluctant to review such books, as I’m afraid the audience for them is narrow. Writers also love to READ about writers, but does anyone else?
These days when the literary community is ready to jump on anyone who writes something that isn’t either a memoir or what is sometimes called “autofiction”—fiction largely and provably informed by personal experience—maybe it’s more excusable for writers to indulge in self-exposure, whether fiction or nonfiction. It’s easier to avoid the screams of “appropriation!” from competing authors who feel slighted if their books haven’t received the same attention—writers who assert some proprietary rights to certain kinds of stories. (You know who you are.) Given this proclivity, we might expect an explosion of literary-literary fiction, like Writers & Lovers.
I’m not sure that’s good for the publishing industry, but if all of these writer’s writers produce a book as fun and affecting as Writers & Lovers, maybe it’s worth the risk. I’m not only a writer, too, but like the author, I spent more years of my life than I wanted to waiting on tables. And while she certainly hasn’t represented the writing life I live, she has certainly nailed my experience of waiting on tables. The protagonist’s times inside the restaurant were eerily reminiscent of my own, even though I worked at an interstate chain restaurant and hers was a high-end, fine dining establishment. The romances among the staff, familiarity (and repulsion) of certain clients, fear and cost of mistakes, double shifts, and inflexible hierarchies and ubiquitous misogyny gave me flashbacks, if not nightmares, for days. Also convincing is how the grief over her mother’s death erupts at inconvenient times—when she’s otherwise vulnerable or thrown out of kilter. I had similar fits of uncontrollable sobs and tears for months after my mother’s and my brother’s deaths—30 years apart.
Less fortunate is this book’s underlying reality as a love story, and as a romance, it is sadly predictable in that part of the plot line. I understand that romances, to satisfy their audiences, MUST be predicable (the lovers must meet early, something must keep them apart, in the end the must get together). Anything else will disappoint. But as a non-fan of romances (yes, I’m guilty of writing a couple romances in times of lethargy, and I still believe a bit of a love story can boost most novels), I was disappointed by the amount of plot devoted to that element in King’s story.
All that hemming and hawing aside, the story of Writers & Lovers succeeds as a story of a woman’s effort to get beyond the grief of her mother’s death and find a way to be productive and creative under its weight. Written in first person and present tense, the prose has a momentum of a page-turner, even though the issues at stake aren’t as weighty as the life and death of murder mysteries, espionage novels and Stephen King thrillers.
It’s not clear that there are any answers in this novel for how to deal with the trauma of the death of a loved one, although along with waiters and writers, there may be some cathartic benefit to readers who have lost someone they love in the familiarity of the pain. The answer is as it has always been: time. Time and the distraction of the difficulty of financial survival in the 21st century, which takes our minds off the weighty grief as we focus on the irritating one.
Bottom line: I would recommend this to friends looking for a well-written, entertaining and true-to-life adult novel.
👍American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins - Devoured
So much has been argued over when it comes to this book: whether Oprah should have chosen it for her book club; whether Cummins was the right person to write it; and whether Flatiron was showing insensitivity to the Mexican writers by purchasing the manuscript from a mostly Caucasian woman living in the U.S.
The point of this review is not to continue that argument about cultural appropriation, but you should know that my next novel to be released is about a sixth-century nun who leads a rebellion in a monastery in Gaul. I am not a nun, not even Catholic, never lived in a monastery, have never led a rebellion, and don’t believe I ever lived in the sixth century. So maybe that hints at where I might come down on the controversy: If a novelist must share a personal history with the protagonist of a novel, then we will only have memoirs and what is called “autofiction,” and very writer’s imagination will be confined to their personal experience. I think that is a very bad prescription for literature.
I loved this book. Among its virtues are the amazing world-building descriptions of place, the perfect pace of the narrative, the credible tension, the paralyzing dangers, the believable characters, the author’s empathy, and the book’s timeliness. It held me nearly speechless (imagine!) for the two days (I’m a slow reader) it took me to plow through it. It gave me nightmares, which were possibly as much connected to reading this in the scary time of coronavirus as any direct relevance it had to my life. When I finished it, my heart rate was probably double its usual 55 bpm, and my blood pressure was through the roof. I couldn’t get to sleep for hours. I’ve never been so happy to get to the end of a journey as I was once the protagonist, Lydia, reached the end of hers. On the other hand, I had become so fond of Lydia, I didn’t want to leave her by closing the book.
Lydia is a bookstore owner in Acapulco, wife to Sebastian, a journalist whose beat is the drug cartels, and mother of eight-year-old Luca. A charming, intelligent, complex man comes into her shop one day and surprises her with the books he chooses to buy—some of them her favorites. They develop a deep friendship that becomes the crux of the tragedy that propels Lydia and Luca’s journey from her hometown to el norte, the dangerous and exhausting trip that comprises most of the tale.
The story begins at Lydia’s quinceanera when 16 members of Lydia’s family—including her mother and her husband—are murdered by a cartel angered by Sebastian’s reporting. Escaping from the scene alive is just the first of a hundred challenges facing mother and son as they attempt to stay ahead of the cartel’s book-loving jefe who is in love with Lydia and who, one assumes, wants to kill her for the betrayal of being married to Sebastian.
Travelling on bus, on foot, and on the top of La Bestia—the trains that migrants take north to reach the U.S., and south when they’re deported from it—Lydia and Luca must evade narcotraffickers, corrupt policemen, narcotraffickers posing as policemen, rapists, and thieves, usually unable to tell who is who. They are robbed, bruised, sun-burned, blistered, sprained, along the way, and of course, perpetually frightened to the bone. They befriend many other migrants, most of them travelling through Mexico from brutality in Central American countries, ending up permanently attached to two beautiful teenage girls, whose smarts, stamina and bravery, as well as Lydia’s kindness, save them despite the abuse they receive in part because of the good looks they wish they could disown.
Driven by very real threats and heart-stopping moments throughout, the book keeps up the riveting drama right up to the last pages. I know it has its critics who have questioned everything from Cummins’ right to have written it to its errors and imperfect reflection of real migrant trauma, but I believe anyone who reads this book will leave the experience with a new-found empathy for the north-bound migrants in this hemisphere and a better appreciation for depth of the problems Mexico faces in its struggle against drug violence and corruption.
Some may think I’m not qualified to critique or review this book because of my ethnicity and personal history, in the same way they think Cummins was not qualified to write it. But I do not think that an intimate familiarity with the “facts” of a novel is required to review its merits as a work of fiction. If that were required, there would be no literary criticism—only personal essays.
I unequivocally recommend this book.
👍Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano - READ
Dear Edward is a novel inspired by a true event: an airplane disaster with a lone survivor—a young boy who lost the rest of his immediate family in the crash. The real story involved a flight from South Africa to London that crashed in Libya in 2010. In that crash, a nine-year-old named Reuben was the sole survivor, and he was adopted and raised by an aunt and uncle who were faced with the challenge of protecting the boy’s privacy.
Napolitano’s novel starts with those parameters, but sets this fiction in the U.S., calls the youngster Edward (Eddie before the crash, only Edward after) and updates it for today’s social media realities. While a family’s struggle to protect young Reuben from intrusions in his life, just imagine how much more difficult that would be in the age of Instagram and Facebook. It is that updated circumstance that create the tension and the forward movement in Dear Edward.
Aunt Lacey and Uncle John make some difficult decisions about what Edward should see and not of the world’s response to his miracle of survival. The most consequential for the book’s plot is their choice to keep the written correspondence from the public, including the relatives of the doomed fellow passengers, hidden from the boy. It’s hard to argue with their moves to keep him off Facebook and other social media, and it’s reasonable to believe that the task puts pressure on Lacey and John’s marriage.
Despite their efforts, taking a youngster out of his time and away from social media, proves to be impossible, and Edward eventually discovers what an internet sensation he has become. He also finds John’s stash of the physical letters that strangers had sent to him. How the youngster works through all he discovers, proves to be precociously judicious, and chooses to respond is the gratifying center of the novel and none of it is in the least bit hard to believe. Also heartwarming is his attachment to his young friend, Shay; their friendship is adorable and life-affirming, but—cynic that I usually am—I don’t mean that as a criticism.
Edward’s story makes up half of the chapters of this novel. The other half imagines what happened to and between the other passengers on the plane—the things that never would be known, of course, in real life. Napolitano uses those stories to give context to Edward’s decisions about how to respond to their surviving relatives and loved ones. A novel is made up of an author’s imagination, of course, but it’s an additional leap for the author to create stories and interactions of people who never could have been able to tell them. As I read these chapters, particularly the more prurient of them (sex in an airplane lavatory? Really?), I wondered if the novel wouldn’t have been tighter and more focused with less.
Nevertheless, I recommend this engrossing and moving novel.
👍The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander - READ
The Magdalen Girls is one of those novels I’ve been meaning to read for some time, but until COVID-19 made me cut off my book buying for a few weeks, it sat on the back of the end table by my reading chair, just patiently waiting for me to plow through more recent purchases.
It turns out that it was a perfect book for these times, and I enjoyed it very much. The girls who were sent to the Catholic laundries from 1750s to the end of the 20th century for reasons ranging from unwed pregnancies to prostitution to thievery to the crime of just being too pretty were sequestered like most of us are these days. The differences are: most of us don’t our fingers raw in a laundry run by cruel nuns; most of us are still able to eat decent meals; and most of us know this detention will come to an end soon and we’ll go back to whatever “normal” life will look like.
But comparing their incarceration to our relatively cushy sequestering makes light of the plight of these young women. As this novel powerfully shows, thousands of lives were crushed by isolation, misery and despair when they were put to work for the Catholic institutions in England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and the U.S.
V.S. Alexander’s story is told through the eyes of three girls who become friends, confidants and co-conspirators in a Catholic laundry in Dublin in the 1960s. Nora’s impoverished life with alcoholic parents was anything but comfortable, but little did she know how much worse it could be until her father hauls her off to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption. Teagan’s father, also an alcoholic, blames her for seducing a new priest, and her father delivers her to the laundry to avoid a scandal, abruptly ending her comfortable, middle class life and plans for college. Lea, a ghost-like and odd girl, not quite like the others, befriends them both, and together they plot an escape. What the girls discover is how limited their options are, escape or not, once they’ve become laundry girls.
The story Alexander has created, though, isn’t one of transformation. None of the girls saves herself. Even the one who eventually escapes the laundry isn’t the agent of her own salvation. A much stronger story would have been one in which the young woman discovered some strength in herself, something that allowed her to transcend the evil, and something that taught us all something about how to save ourselves. Maybe that’s too much to ask of a young woman put through such a brutal experience, but without an example of agency, the girls remain purely victims, and there’s not much we can learn from victimization.
👍The Testaments by Margaret Atwood - READ
Is there room for one more review of Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale? As one of the last reviewers in the world to read and pontificate about this book, I have stayed away from other reviews religiously, although I believe I read the NYT Book Review treatment way back in September 2019. I’ve forgotten it, thankfully, so I can riff on my own thoughts, as if they add to the volume of reviews already written.
The Republic of Gilead continues its oppressive ways, but there are cracks in its façade. We already knew (if we read The Handmaid’s Tale) that the regime was corrupt and rotten to the core, as one would expect of any unchecked, theocratic, misogynistic patriarchy. But things have progressed over the past quarter century so that not only are there spies and traitors within but also a well-established network of revolutionaries in place to pull the republic apart or implode it from within.
The journals and testimony of the three protagonists of The Testaments—Aunt Lydia, the leader of the Aunts and the antagonist in Handmaid’s; and Agnes and Nicole, both daughters of Offred, the protagonist of the first book—combine to tell the story of the scheme concocted by Aunt Lydia and her underground and Canadian forces to bring down the regime. Nicole, who had been spirited to Canada by Offred in the first book, and Agnes are reunited in Gilead and act as the reluctant and tentative co-conspirators in Lydia’s plot.
I think there is nothing fancy about Atwood’s writing, and I mean that in a good way. She gets on with the story, gives you necessary setting and characterizations, but isn’t tempted to call attention to herself in the way many “literary” writers do. Her books about story, not about playing with the language, and yet there is rarely a misstep, a sentence that confuses or seems out of place. I’ve read nearly every novel she’s written since Handmaid’s (and there have been 10—11 counting Testaments) and I believe she’s a master. I’m never flummoxed by her prose.
Still: the publishers and publicists behind the release of The Testaments assured us that this sequel stands alone and doesn’t require intimate knowledge of the first book. I didn’t find this plot hard or convoluted, but a member of my book club who didn’t read Handmaid’s said she found the book impossible to follow. I guess if you aren’t familiar with the first book, there is simply too much to catch up on to make sense of the various characters and factions.
I highly recommend this as a great read—one of those bucket-list reads you might catch up on while forced to hibernate and self-isolate. But as long as you have time, perhaps you should read The Handmaid’s Tale first.
😒The Silent Patient by Alex Michealides - READ
Sometimes I get weary of being the only reviewer giving thumb-downs to books that have not only received critical acclaim, but also have sold millions of copies. But here I go again.
The Silent Patient had been on the New York Times bestseller list for 22 weeks as of February 23. Therefore, it has probably sold about a quarter of a million copies or more, if you trust experts’ estimates that it takes at least 10,000 sales a week for a debut novelist (like Mr. Michealides) to make the list. I’m not sure The Silent Patient has sold by the millions yet, but there is no doubt that most authors and publishers would describe a book as a success if it makes the list. So, here I am, tearing into a bonafide success like a jealous, spurned lover.
The Silent Patient has been called a “psychological thriller,” although in an interview, Mr. Michealides declined to endorse that categorization. A therapist—the talking kind—gets an assignment he wants badly, for reasons that aren’t very clear, to try to reach a woman who hasn’t spoken since she killed her husband—or at least was accused and found guilty of it. Theo gets the job and makes progress no one else has had in communicating with her. It’s fairly difficult to tell much more of the set-up or the plot without giving too much away, except perhaps to say the novel relies two big genre-fiction tropes in setting up the story: The “my daddy didn’t love me” and the “my wife is having an affair” tropes are at the center of Theo’s internal conflicts and the book’s plot.
This is perhaps the reason I found the book tiresome. Let’s face it: has anyone’s father ever approved 100% of his offspring? Whining about it all the way through the novel, Theo is simply tedious. He has enough personal flaws and bad habits to make perfectly reasonable for his wife to have an affair. I don’t know why he was surprised. In fact, there are no sympathetic major characters in this book, which doesn’t necessarily doom a story to failure (obviously: see the bestseller list), but a couple of redeeming qualities in one or two of the main characters would be nice.
There is one undeniably charming aspect to this book, and I’m certain that is why it is still selling well. Friends have probably told you: You may not like it, but you have to keep reading! The end! Yes, it has a major twist at the end, and Michealides pulls it off by an innovative treatment of the timing of the various chapters. I won’t elaborate, or it will ruin the surprise, which in my opinion, is the only good reason to read this book.
👍On the Plain of Snakes by Paul Theroux - READ
Paul Theroux takes you places like no other travel writer. It’s never a written equivalent of a tourist’s slide show or highlight reel; it’s an investigation of place and people that reads like a kind of geopolitical anthropology. This account of a 2019 voyage through Mexico, expresses something new for him: a sense of vulnerability related to his age of 79. And, it goes without saying, perhaps, his prose is wonderful—quite often poetic—making On the Plain of Snakes a pleasure to read.
Most of the dangerous backroads and impoverished villages where Theroux spent most of his time are places that tourists don’t see. He seeks out people who have either been in the U.S. as migrant workers or say they want to go to the U.S. for jobs, including many who either failed to make it across the border or succeeded after many failures. His exploration of the migrant life and the reality behind our border crisis is far more interesting and essential for our understanding than any American artist’s (or wannabe artist’s) travelogue of San Miguel de Allende. (Theroux visits that city, as have I, and our impressions were the same: pretty and clean, but yet as bifurcated economically and culturally as it could possibly be.) He starts by traversing the border, west to east, and then plunging down the entire country into the Zapatista-held state of Chiapas.
My criticism of the book comes from that same focus: we meet a few writers in Mexico City who are taking his class there, and a few other middle-class folks, but he spends 90% of his time with poor, rural people whom he calls “real” Mexicans. There have to be many Mexicans who also have something to say about their country and its relations with the U.S. who are real estate agents, hotel owners in tourist towns, urban shop owners, used car salesmen, office secretaries, middle managers. They’re “real” too. But we hear little from them in this book. Rather than a broad portrait of Mexico, we get a narrow squint that represents only the most desperate of its citizens. It would be as if a scholar from Denmark came to the U.S., taught a seminar in transportation management in New York, and then spent the rest of his time in our most impoverished rural areas, and went home to write a book about “The Home of the Brave.” Most of us would probably feel like our country had been slighted.
👍A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford- READ
Another of my “reach back into the pile” books of the month, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes. is a purchase I made as soon as it came out in the US in paper in 2017. But at nearly 400 pages of tiny type and appearing vaguely academic, it intimidated me, and I didn’t pick it up until I needed it. As I am writing a novel that involves mass migrations, pandemics, and the problem of consanguinity, I realized it was just the book I needed to gain just enough knowledge on the subjects to keep myself out of trouble.
Rutherford starts with a discussion of how we read our genetic codes, how DNA research is conducted and the new technologies that made it possible for scientists to finish the Human Genome Project on schedule and under budget. There’s a little more than you might want to know about how genes are inherited and how tiny differences in them (single nucleotide polymorphism) end up mattering in evolution. But that first chapter is one of only two in this otherwise compelling read that I found a bit hard to slog through. (Mind you, I did slog through them anyway.)
But once he started to discuss the Out of Africa theory of mass migration, I was hooked. His is a story of “horny and mobile” mankind, walking, slowly, little by little across the Levant and into Europe, Asia, the Asian subcontinent and eventually to the Americas and Australia in waves. Even though those movements were little like today’s world-spanning mass migrations, the newcomers who arrived after populations had already settled had just as disruptive an effect, even though they were stretched over longer periods. Neanderthals, settled in Europe before the arrival of homo-erectus, -habilis and -sapiens, were eventually wiped out, but inbreeding with the new humans left their legacy—about 3% of our modern DNA.
Through descriptions of the variety of the world’s episodic and continuous diasporas, he helps us understand the differences in the duration and severity of disruption from mass movements. They range from the slow and incremental first migrations out of Africa, to the stop-and-start Beringian migration into the Americas, to the empire-ending flood of people out of Germania and the steppes of central Asia in late antiquity, to the political arguments over those escaping tyranny, violence and climate disasters of today.
Along the way, Rutherford develops fascinating side stories, such as how unbridled intermarriage (endogamy) killed off the Hapsburgs and how we’re all related to Charlemagne and the Vikings, with which you can entertain your cocktail hour friends—once we can meet for afternoon adult beverages once again. He also tackles the serious, timely topics of the genetics of race (there is no such thing, he argues) and our genetic response to the Black Plague and more recent pandemics.
The second slog, in my opinion, was his long and not-so-persuasive argument (at least it did not persuade me) that while a gene can determine a physical characteristic in an individual such as blue eyes, there is no genetic cause of behavior, such as the difficulty managing anger or tendencies to violence. He’s happy to discuss how a handful of genes that occur, often not side-by-side, on your chromosomes interact to give you red hair or a tall physique, but he argues against the idea that a handful of genes scattered up and down on your double helix can determine how you behave in the society. His reluctance to go from physical determination to behavioral determination shows up in his distaste for its uses in criminal defense in court. I didn’t find his argument dispositive, and in reading this section—longer than it needed to be—I found myself thinking he protests just a bit too much.
That section however, is not representative of the entire book, and I am no expert on any of this. So I hope my skepticism doesn’t discourage you from picking up this book. For one thing—and I didn’t expect this—much of it is funny and clever in a subtle, bookish sort of way. An example: “Often it’s asserted that IQ only measures how good you are at IQ tests, which is glibly true, in the same way that running the hundred meters only really tests how good you are at running as fast as you can over a hundred meters.” Much of his humor appears in his asterisked footnotes. Don’t miss them.
👍The Alice Network by Kate Quinn - READ
My friends who have read this book tell me they can’t believe it hasn’t been made into a movie. One of my book club friends has postulated that it hasn’t hit the screen as a consequence of MeToo#--an unwillingness by studios to portray any woman as willing to turn herself into a sex slave for any reason—even in order to help defeat the Germans in WWI. I’m not sure that’s why, but I too think it would be a great movie.
This is great read, a long book–nearly 500 pages—that doesn’t sag a bit in the middle. Moving back and forth in time, from WWI to post-WWII France, the novel brings two women together in search of the truth of what happened to their best friends. Eve served as an English spy in what was known as the Alice Network in WWI, and Charlie (short for Charlotte), an American who runs away from her mother in Paris to avoid having the abortion that her mother mandated. Charlie wants to find a childhood friend who disappeared in France during WWII. Eve is recruited to help Charlie, and the mission expands to include finding out what really happened to the women who ran the Alice Network. Although belligerent and reluctant at first to help Charlie, Eve’s eventually convinced to join Charlie’s search by her desire for revenge against a man who cooperated with the Germans.
Of course, the two missions merge, and come together in a happy-ever-after sort of ending that may make your eyes roll. While it may be too good to be true for some readers, it is well executed. There are a couple of love interests, which have caused some readers to complain of a “chick-lit” quality to the story, but I don’t think they distract that much from a wonderful exploration of the true story of the women spies who helped defeat German imperialism in our two world wars.
👍Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk - READ
I am not a fan of what a friend of mine calls “crazy person” fiction. I like my protagonists to be sane, or at least as sane as I am, which is debatable, of course. I disliked The Woman in the Window intensely for many reasons, including the mental instability of at least two of the characters, and I had difficulty buying into the character of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not to mention that both of those books failed in surprising me with their “twist” at the end). Perhaps it is that I have enough stress and tension in my life these days that I’m not looking to hang around with people more disturbed than I am.
This is perhaps why it took me so long to get into this book, recently translated and introduced into the U.S. from Poland, which has received so much critical acclaim.
The story is about a socially awkward woman who lives in a remote rural development – a vacation home enclave that’s pretty much abandoned during the Polish region’s brutal, snowy winters. There are murders (passive voice intended), and our protagonist, Janina, develops a theory—largely for consumption by the inept local police—that it might be animals doing the murdering as revenge against hunters. When not engaged in an obsessive study of astrology that reminded me of A Beautiful Mind in its bizarre attempts to connect the entire universe in one huge web, Janina makes some new friends, who accept her despite her strangeness because each of them have their own obsessions and issues with society. While the ending wasn’t surprising, it was satisfying, especially for me as an animal lover.
When I first started it, I told my husband I doubted I’d finish it. But I stuck with the story, and in the end, I was glad I did. I stayed with it because of the evocative writing, scene setting, and snarky humor. At times I actually laughed out loud, which I rarely do when reading (even when reading books that promise to leave me ROTFL—see Born a Crime). Now that I have read it, I recommend it. It’s a great read, whether you can identify with the protagonist or not.
👍Normal People by Sally Rooney - READ
I’ll have to admit something that doesn’t sound very “literary” – or should I say, “scholarly.” This is it: I love it when a “normal” novel is widely picked as a “top 10” or “one of the best novels of the year.”
What I mean by “normal” is, basically, not “experimental.” What I mean by “experimental” is a book that doesn’t tell a narrative in the way I’m used to reading it—a story that has scenes and dialogue and action and characters and inner monologue—all the elements I came to expect in a novel by the time I was eight years old.
So, there. I’m old school. I’m not a literary genius or expert or a great writer of literature myself (although I do have an agent and a traditional publisher). I’m a reader. I love to read. I love to be told a good story. I love narrative fiction.
Normal People fits my definition of “normal” in spades. Its story is engaging, readable, well-paced, gripping and affective. (Yes, I mean “affective” not “effective.”) (And I promise to stop with the quotation marks around words now.) The two main characters are flawed but worth loving, troubled but not crazy, intelligent but not stuffy.
Two teenagers meet in high school: one a popular athlete who feels uneasy about both his popularity and his friends; one a true misfit, an intelligent young woman who doesn’t try to be popular or attractive (although, naturally, she is beautiful—the other kids just can’t see it) and is bullied from the beginning by her classmates. Neither of them feels “normal”—whoops, there I go again!—and the novel explores the way people who feel out of place find each other and come to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them. The two teens get together in the carnal sense while still high-schoolers, and although you can’t call what they find love, it is certainly an undeniable attraction. Slowly, over the years, the two friends struggle to accept that what they feel for each other is good for fear that embracing it will destroy it.
The story reminded me of One Day by David Nicholls, but for one really important difference – the ending. Nicholls’s book and the movie (he wrote the script as well) were also about a mismatched couple (again he ruggedly handsome and popular; she intellectual and emotionally fragile) who grow into each other. But that book and movie were widely criticized for what some critics called the post-Soprano’s “don’t give an audience what they want” craze. After a 20-year, one-day-at-a-time romance, the main female protagonist in One Day dies in a sudden, violent accident. This doesn’t happen in Normal People, and I don’t think knowing that will ruin the book for you. Its joy isn’t really in how it ends, but how it gets there.
Because this book is easy to read and easy to like (the latter not so true of other prize winners like The Goldfinch, for example), I didn’t expect it to be so highly regarded by the literary community. Yes, it’s sweet and likable, its characters are recognizable and relatable, its story line is straightforward and linear. So, what’s so special?
Well, maybe that’s what’s so special about it.
👍Marrying George Clooney by Amy Ferris - READ
If you are one of the nearly 10,000 people who follow Amy Ferris on Facebook, you already know something about what to expect from this book. Since I didn’t run into her (on Facebook), until a year ago, I didn’t know about Marrying George Clooney, hence, I read it more than a decade after it was published. But the good news: it holds up well.
In 59 short passages and a longer epilogue Amy records her after-midnight wanderings and musings as she wakes with night sweats while going through menopause. She’s frank and funny about her failings and those of her equally flawed and equally compassionate husband, who comes across as the most patient and easygoing partner a menopausal woman could ask for. She deals with her addiction to Ambien, her husband’s gardening obsession, and her mother’s advanced dementia. She looks up old boyfriends on Google and battles writers block and her desire to smoke again. There are real laugh-out-loud passages here, and I won’t ruin them by quoting them out of context.
As followers of Amy already know, she is profane. If the “f-word” bothers you, don’t buy this book. But one of the endearing lessons from reading the profanity-laced exchanges between Amy and her husband and between Amy and her friends is how loudly and passionately people can argue with and curse each other, yet remain in love and loving in the long run.
Eleven years have passed since the book came out, but the subjects are still wonderfully contemporary. Of course, there’s nothing about the coronavirus or Donald Trump’s presidency in Marrying George Clooney, but she reveals herself in such a way that you get pretty good idea how she would be responding to those two disasters. Or you can catch up by following her on Facebook.
👍This Is Not How It Ends by Rochelle B. Weinstein - READ
I seldom buy books without noting the publisher first with the—probably foolhardy—idea that it will keep me from wasting my money on books that haven’t been sufficiently vetted by a publisher of some repute. So I don’t know how I ended up buying This Is Not How It Ends. I have known Lake Union Publishing—a publishing arm of Amazon—as a romance publisher since its inception not too many years ago. I don’t read romance. So, oddly, here I was with a new book in the mail, trying to decide whether to take up precious reading time (you should see my stack!) with it.
I did read it, and I enjoyed it as the pleasant, easy read it is, and as the pleasant easy, read every romance novel should be if it’s going to satisfy and not disappoint its readers. And I say that despite the fact that two—yes two!—people die in the course of the novel from pancreatic cancer. I also say that even though, following the romance mode, the plot is as predictable as sunrise.
Charlotte (Charley through most of the novel) meets Ben when his son collapses from an allergic reaction. She saves the youngster with her ever-present epi-pen and recommends the very attractive Ben and young Jimmy come to the homeopathic clinic where she works to cure his allergies. Meanwhile, since she moved to the Florida Keys with her fiancé, Philip, all her betrothed can talk about is the imminent return of his great friend, a famous chef who has been in New York helping open a new restaurant. Charley and Peter wait at their usual table at the chef’s restaurant for his arrival, and, lo and behold, … well, if you’re a romance reader, I don’t need to tell you who that famous chef turns out to be.
The story follows the usual love triangle plot—will she choose Ben or Philip? Why is Philip choosing to spend all of his time flying around the country for work instead of spending time with her? Does Ben love her or is he just taking advantage of the fact that she’s around to babysit for Jimmy? Promised by the book’s marketers that this is another of the author’s “emotionally driven” works of fiction, we also have the subplot: will she ever get over the death of her mother who died from pancreatic cancer?
Perhaps I’m a bit cynical when it comes to this kind of fiction; I don’t think I’ll pick up another Weinstein book. But if you are a regular romance reader and this sounds like your cup of tea (or in this case, glass of wine), I think you will not be disappointed with This Is Not How It Ends.
😒Home for Erring and Outcast Girls by Julie Kibler - QUIT
I very rarely don’t finish a book—especially one that cost me $27—but this is the one, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
First a bit of a synopsis: This is a two-time-period historical novel about 1) a progressive home for unwed mothers and mother-to-be in Texas, based on a real place that existed at the beginning of the twentieth century, a time when unwed mothers were almost universally stripped of their babies and shamed into non-existence, and 2) a contemporary librarian who discovers the story of the home in the archives of the university library where she has taken a new job.
I love historical fiction, particularly when it’s based on real people or a real event. This had great potential to be one I’d really love.
Then, I read this sentence very early on in the book: “My eyes fill with the sadness that overflows my heart.” I’m not kidding. And this was supposedly from the contemporary woman’s writing! And then, there was this one: “History has a way of catching up with you.” Really? And this: “I thought I’d exhausted my well of tears alone in Angela’s car, but it turns out I have more. They overflow the crater carved in my chest two decades ago, its depth fathomless, no matter how I empty it.”
You’d think I would have had enough by then, right? But I kept trying, until I reached this gem: “Docie’s eyes filled. She clung to Mattie when Lizzie wasn’t there, but Lizzie didn’t doubt Docie loved her best, just as Lizzie had loved her ma best, too, despite all she’d let happen. Her ma had done what she must to survive, and that was how it was for women.”
Okay. Now I was done. I couldn’t go on. Perhaps you find nothing wrong with those sentences, those first- and third-person expressions of emotions. But I would prefer hardcover books that I pay $27 for to be well-written and emotionally convincing. This one certainly was neither. (I see it is now only $11.99 on some sites; I should have waited, and I would have wasted $12 instead of $27!)
Further, like so many novels written by women and published with great fanfare by the large publishing houses these days, this book’s promising premise turns out to be mainly a vehicle to carry a lesbian love story to a wider (wider, I suspect, than the lesbian community) audience. Like The Secrets We Kept and, most recently, The Sacraments, two other novels with tantalizingly interesting and worthy subjects, I got the feeling I’d been duped. I’m not a romance reader, and I don’t like it when a book is sold as a treatment of a serious subject, but turns into a romance—whether lesbian, gay, trans or straight. I understand that publishers have decided to be more inclusive and are striving for greater diversity in both authorship and subject matter, but if every book has to be about a “diverse” relationship, diversity is lost. And in the process, some great stories that should be told are lost as well.
👍Deep State by James Stewart - DEVOURED
I will admit a bias upfront about this book. Actually, about its author. I worked with James Stewart at the Wall Street Journal (before his current stint at the New York Times) in the early to mid-1990s. I was at the time a worker-bee reporter, working ever so dimly below the bright stars of the likes of James Stewart, Bryan Burroughs, John Helyar, Geraldine Brooks, and others.
What separated me from them was many things, but most of all, their dedication to and talent for reporting—that underappreciated, laborious, tedious at times, task of gathering facts. Interviewing people who don’t want to talk, cultivating sources, discovering what people don’t want anyone to know. It’s hard, hard work. It’s often done in the face of nasty and abusive opposition. Sometimes, it wins awards, but its true reward is in the act of uncovering truths itself.
No place is that talent for digging more evident than in Deep State, Stewart’s deep dive into the Trump administration’s cozy relationship with Russia, the FBI’s efforts to track it, Trump’s efforts to block investigations into it, all of which has brought us to the current battle in Congress over impeachment. I have followed the story obsessively over the past two years. Even so, as one who still believes in the rule of law, democracy, and the separation of powers, at times the front page of the newspaper is hard to look at, let alone read.
Still, this Russia debacle has so many tentacles, so many barely uncovered, half-told story lines that it’s hard to follow without a playbook. And now we have one. Many times in the past couple of weeks, I’ve run to Stewart’s book’s index to refresh my memory about characters or events in the saga of the past three years.
It is astounding that Stewart gets so many people on record and makes such a readable, linear tale out of the labyrinth of the administration’s conspiracy to undermine our democracy and link arms with Putin, one of the most despotic, cruel and abusive rulers of the modern era. And he does it without animus. He details in clear, unemotional and unsentimental prose the dates, times, places and characters of the story from James Comey’s firing to William Barr’s appointment and the start of Rudy Guiliani’s meddling in affairs of state.
The only weakness in the tale isn’t Stewart’s fault: it is the very thing that has yet to come to light. What is it that has made Trump so beholden to Russia, its dictator, and its oligarchs? Why is he so willing to sell out our democracy and embrace our one-time (really, still) worst adversary on the global stage? That isn’t here.
As we await the president’s tax returns (nothing stays hidden forever, especially dirty secrets) and his financial records at Lazar’s and Deutsche Bank, and more testimony in the impeachment process, we may figure this out.
When we do, the person I want to explain it all to me is James Stewart.
👍Blowout by Rachel Maddow - DEVOURED
It is tempting to take a big, impressive piece of work like Rachel Maddow’s Blowout and boil its message down by quoting some very potent, strident phrases the author makes in conclusion of sections and in the wrap-up chapter of the book. It’s tempting because it’s impossible to summarize the facts in the book without virtually rewriting it from front to back. There’s so much there. But stating the book’s conclusions won’t win over any hearts; such statements made without the supporting evidence to back it up renders them shallow and overtly political. To understand them, you need to read the supporting evidence.
First, let me assure you that this is a very readable book, for all its complexity. Rachel is a master at explanatory journalism, as any fan of The Rachel Maddow Show already knows. At times, I chuckled at a line or an exclamation that sounded “just like her.” But commenting on her writing style seems superficial when the subject matter is of such vital and consequential nature. On the other hand, I’ve heard her reference to the “elephant in the room” before on her show, and here it is neither superficial nor inconsequential. The “elephant” is Trump’s allegiance to Putin and Russia, and Russia’s involvement in so much that has gone bad—very, very bad—in world politics, from Syria to Ukraine, to U.S. elections, to poisonings in London, to the downing of a British commercial airline loaded with civilians.
Rachel, the professor, sprinkles through the book an economics lesson that underlies so much of the misery in the world—misery that persists despite technology, science, and a scattering of democracies. It’s the “resource paradox.” The more natural resources a nation or state has to draw wealth from, the poorer its citizens will be, whether you are talking about school children in Oklahoma or the underfed, diseased population of Equatorial Guinea. That’s because the lure of all the money to be made brings out the worst corruption and grift of the connected few who stand to reap all of its rewards, and apparently, the more money the corrupt get, the more they want.
This is the kind of book that makes a reader wonder: where was I when all this was happening? I’m an avid reader of the New York Times, and I follow political, science and economic news religiously. I knew about the controversy over fracking and the swarms of earthquakes that have rattled the state of Oklahoma since fracking became standard industry practice. I knew Rex Tillerson ran Exxon-Mobil before he was tapped to be Trump’s Secretary of State. But oh, there was so much I missed!
Slipping my notice were details of Tillerson’s cozy relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Russian oil giant, Rosneft, and Exxon sneaking in an arctic oil drilling project despite sanctions imposed for Russia’s attack on Crimea and the oil-rich oblasts of eastern Ukraine. The geo-political machinations of the Russian oligarchy’s power moves in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, to control the production and distribution of oil and gas—Russia’s only economic engine, and a poorly run one at that—never made headlines that caught my attention. And while I thought I was sufficiently knowledgeable about the causes of earthquake swarms—even a 5.7-scale earthquake near Prague, Oklahoma—I had no idea of the behind the scenes lobbying and censoring that kept the state’s environmental and geological agencies from reporting what was going on, keeping the industry on the state’s payroll rather than keeping the state’s elementary and secondary schools above Third World standards. Maybe I’m not as good at following the news as I thought; but I’m guessing I’m not alone.
Now learning the sleazy and murderous ways of Putin’s regime and Western oil-company (read: Tillerson) complicity in helping him build his dictatorship and a personal fortune (it may be the largest in the world) made my blood boil, even before finally getting to the book’s section on Trump’s own stakes in the sanctions game. (Yes, it involves a hotel in Moscow that he was trying to develop all while talking down the U.S. rationale for sanctions against Russia that would have prevented it.) Now I wonder what other reasons Trump is and has been beholden to Putin. I hope we will find out before it is too late.
It took me a lot of hours to finish this book. It’s readable, but dense. It’s important but aggravating. So, I don’t expect many Americans to reward it with the weeks-long stay on the NYT best seller list that today’s popular memoirs have won. I wish they would, but I have little hope. So, I will succumb to the temptation to quote one of her concluding sentences, knowing that it will evince eye rolls from oil and gas executives and the industry’s, the president’s and Putin’s defenders in Congress—perhaps from readers of this review. But having read the supporting evidence Rachel has gathered up to the point that she comes to this conclusion, I thoroughly defend her thought:
“Counting on the industry’s sense of human responsibility—counting on it to act responsibly simply on its own recognizance—has proven a losing proposition. Oil and gas are valuable everywhere in the world, but with only a few exceptions the industry that produces them has shaped nations and states in ways that serve itself while screwing up pretty much everybody else.”
👍Rescue Road by Peter Zhuetlin - DEVOURED
This is the third dog book I’ve reviewed in two months. It’s a lot if you’re not obsessed with dogs like I am.
But, having enjoyed Peter Zheutlin’s The Dog Went Over the Mountain—a latter-day Travels with Charley—I couldn’t resist reading Rescue Road, written four years earlier. At times excruciatingly difficult and at times emotionally reaffirming, this story of dedicated dog rescuers is significant not just for celebrating the heroes who save thousands of abandoned and abused animals that our “civilization” would otherwise throw away but also for its portrayal of the thousands of hopeless, innocent dogs that are thrown away and the Sisyphean efforts of the rescuers who work tirelessly and selfishly to make a dent in the problem.
Zheutlin’s main story line is the twice-a-month, thousand-mile journey that self-employed Ohioan Greg Mahle makes in his 18-wheeler to pick up dogs in southern parts of our country where dogs are seen as disposable and nuisances—and yet where the idea of spaying and neutering is paradoxically seen as “cruel”—and bringing them to their adopted homes in the north. It’s a brutal trip every-other month for Greg, as operator of Rescue Road, that doesn’t guarantee him each trip will be profitable. In fact, most trips barely break even, and some are money losers.
The rescue of a few dozen dogs a month is the emotionally satisfying part of this story. Even with the cloud of uncertain weather, mechanical break-downs, dog mishaps and dog-behavior problems threatening each trip, Greg’s story is more heartwarming than ominous by his commitment to making a difference in dogs’ lives—and often a difference between life and death. The cheerful tone of his Facebook posts, which never allude to the physical difficulties of his trips, and the delightful and highly anticipated introductions of dogs and their new owners at the end of the journey keep most of this story a joy to read.
However, the story wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t witness the heartbreaking stories of the dogs left behind, the thousands of dogs euthanized every year, and the appalling conditions of so-called “shelters” where teams of rescuers and adoption organizations find and pull dogs for a chance at a decent life. After several pages of these stories, I found myself wanting to get back on the road with Greg, his troubles notwithstanding.
Zheutlin tugs at our heartstrings often, and at times I wondered if his story wouldn’t be more effective with a lighter touch. Even though the work that Greg does is wonderful and more than commendable, I finished this book in despair for the overall treatment of dogs in America. But I would probably have written it the same way. It’s right for writers like Zheutlin to honestly express the amount of sorrow and pain we’re inflicting on our “best friends” in the name of personal liberty (ours) and human exceptionalism.
😒Inland by Tea Obreht- READ
In 1979, a young man from South Africa came to the University of Wisconsin to join the graduate program in journalism as a teaching assistant; I was paying my way to my MA as a TA as well. I remember Guy for two reasons: he was the only man I ever knew who wore Jordache jeans, and he once bragged that, despite being a native Afrikaans speaker, he had a bigger English vocabulary than the rest of us. I doubted his boast at first, but over the year we were in the program together, I came to believe he was right.
Reading Inland provided an object lesson in the same vein. Despite being a Serbian by birth, a native of the former Yugoslavia, Téa Obreht has a very big English vocabulary and frequently uses words in contexts that at first appear to be wrong, but invariably turn out to be right—perhaps third or fourth dictionary meanings of the words, but correct nonetheless. That combined with her also invariably correct but unconventional syntax makes this book an interesting, but not smooth read.
Inland combines historical fiction, the Western, and magical realism to tell two stories—one based on true events and one a composite story of the settling of the arid West—from two protagonists, both haunted by voices of the dead. Nora’s tale is told in a one-day third-person account of a woman who homesteads with her husband outside an old mining town somewhere between Phoenix and Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1893. The decades-long first-person account is from Lurie, a (perhaps) Turkish immigrant and former outlaw who joins the U.S. Army’s deployment of camels in the desert West sometime in the late 1850s, told as his one-sided conversation with a camel he names Burke. The camel story is the one based on real historical events.
Nora’s newspaperman husband has disappeared while travelling to find the water delivery man during a particularly brutal drought, and eventually her two teenage sons also disappear, leaving her with a strange and supposedly clairvoyant niece and a young son who is blind in one eye. Lurie bonds with and eventually steals his camel from the Army and spends the rest of his life wandering the West with no claim to residency.
The book has been praised for testing—even poking fun at—the conventional mythology of the settling of the U.S. West. The platonic love affair between Lurie and his camel is a sweet, if tongue-in-cheek reference to the love between a cowboy and his horse. Nora’s realization that the qualities that enable her to survive in the brutal Arizona desert aren’t ones that draw admiration from anyone around her, not her neighbors, not the law, not the doctor—not even her husband. It’s the myth of the revered, strong homesteading woman tossed in an arroyo.
Even though her unique and “poetic” style has been described as “chewy” and “impenetrable,” most critics have waxed enthusiastically over the story—so much so that it even popped up on Obama’s reading list this summer. Despite its pokes at convention and sometimes lyrical—if “chewy”—writing, at its conclusion, I believe Obreht leaves too many loose ends wafting in the hot, Arizona wind. Enough to make this difficult read an unsatisfactory one.
😒The Secrets We Kept by Lara Perscott - Read
This book—this story—held so much promise. Female spies in the Cold War? Doctor Zhivago? OSS, CIA, M16, the KGB? How could it miss? The tension must be incredible. The near-death experiences, the intrigue, the stakes, the sex, the double agents …
We could only wish. Unfortunately, other than some rare, brief, and largely under-explored escapades, Prescott’s tale is not satisfying. The story drags, the characters whine and moan, and the lesbian love story is boring. No one rises to the occasion. There’s no bravery or genius at work. I kept waiting for something exciting to happen, but when it comes to espionage, not much does.
A bit of plot: The story revolves around the publication of the novel Doctor Zhivago and the CIA’s efforts to disseminate the book in the USSR as a strategy to undermine support for the Communist regime. If that plot had in some way intersected with the romantic story of the novel – between two women from the typing pool – perhaps the romance would have seemed important. Maybe even interesting. Instead, it is only a weak subplot that distracts and waters down the main plot and takes up far too much space. Far more interesting is the love affair between Boris Pasternak and his mistress Olga, which the author treats as another subplot. Olga is the most sympathetic and pathetic character here, serving time in the gulag to pay for Boris’s treason, and yet even her acts of bravery are blandly portrayed, evoking neither anticipation nor tension. Plenty of evil is suggested in the story—especially in distant, unseen Russian censors—but other than one rape scene and Olga’s imprisonments, the evil has no sharp edges.
All of this was even more disappointing because the prologue, told by an unnamed narrator who uses the collective first-person to describe life in the CIA typing pool, set my expectations high. “Was clerical work what we had in mind when opening the fat manila envelopes containing our college acceptance letters? Or where we thought we’d be headed as we sat in those white wooden chairs on the fifty-yard line, capped and gowned, receiving the rolled parchments that promised we were qualified to do so much more.” … “…but many of us believed it would be a first rung toward achieving what the men got right out of college: positions as officers; our own offices with lamps that gave off a flattering light, plush rugs, wooden desks; our own typists taking down our dictation. We thought of it as a beginning, not an end, despite what we’d been told all our lives.”
Wow, I thought. Let’s go there! Let’s see what happens when women push these barriers aside and live up to their potential in an exciting tale of espionage. Alas, this typing-pool narrator has no insight into either the two love affairs or the intrigue around the dissemination of the book. The narrator is superfluous in this novel; perhaps it could be a start of a more interesting, if less ambitious story.
I do commend the author’s deft use of various points of view, from the collective “we” to several third-person voices to three first-person “I” narrators. This wide-angle approach provided a breadth that, if only plumbed more deeply, could have increased the intrigue that the setting and time portend.
��First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran- READ
I read many books on writing that explore how to structure a novel, the development of character, and techniques to raise tension and drama—all in the interest of keeping a reader turning the page well past her bedtime.
These books are usually worthwhile, reminding me of things I’ve forgotten and keep me on my writing toes. But only a few of them tell me much I haven’t heard before. It’s rare when I come across a book that makes me rethink every single sentence I have ever written.
That’s the point of Joe Moran’s book, First You Write a Sentence.
Both a manual of style and history of writing conventions, Moran’s tidy volume comprises short—six to ten paragraphs each—essays that explore the world contained within sentences, from what a sentence is to what it does to how it works.
Moran worries little about “rules” peddled by the pedants, overzealous editors, and high-school English teachers—never end a sentence with a preposition, never use a “to be” verb, never use the passive voice, avoid words that end in “ing,” never start a sentence with the words “and” or “but.” What’s important, he writes, is to care about what we write. “The purest form of love is just caring … if only for a moment. … Give your sentences that courtesy, and they will repay you.” Readers won’t get lost in them.
His advice is dense and useful. Put the strongest phrases, images and words at the end of the sentence where they will carry the most weight. Use the passive voice if what happens to someone or who it happens to is more important than who did it, but avoid the “euphemistic stonewalling” of bureaucratic and managerial writing. Strive to use compound rather than complex sentences, and when you do write complex sentences, opt for free modifiers over relative clauses. (And if you don’t know what those are, read his book!) He makes a strong argument for words derived from Old English over those of Latin derivation; they generally have fewer “uh” (aka schwa) sounding syllables and stronger vowels. For that well-argued reason, he prefers the Tyndale Bible over the King James version.
I learned much from this short book—especially that didn’t know much about what makes good writing good. I was tempted to take notes. I found that I couldn’t read it at the end of the day because I was anxious to use his advice immediately, and I can’t write at night. What I appreciated most was Moran’s subtle sense of humor. Among dozens of examples I could share, he ends a short dissertation on the overuse of the word “of” with this: “They are the worst of both worlds.” Of course.
👍The Dog Went Over the Mountain by Peter Zheutlin - DEVOURED
When John Steinbeck decided to take a 10,000-mile trip around the United States with his wife’s dog Charley in 1960, he said he was doing it to reacquaint himself with the country. He believed that it was “criminal” to continue to write about an America that he didn’t really know anymore—he’d been living in New York and traveling mostly in Europe.
When Peter Zheutlin decided to take a six-week trip with his dog, Albie, retracing Steinbeck’s journey—albeit backwards to accommodate the weather—he writes that he “wanted to take in the country one more time in a single big sweep, to regain a measure of its grandeur and breadth and to do so in the company of Albie, a genial and loving canine companion.”
Like Steinbeck, however, the frightening proximity of the end of his life drew him as well. He embarked from Boston “to once and for all, wrestle to the ground, or at least to a draw, a dread of mortality that has gnawed at me for as long as I can remember.” Albie, a rescue lab mix, was the perfect companion for such a trip because of his ability to be “very present in the moment,” Zheutlin writes. “I aspire to be more like Albie in that way and hoped that after spending several weeks on the road alone with him some of his sangfroid would rub off.”
What he finds as he travels, when possible, secondary roads away from the interstate highways, is both heartening and disheartening, and one of the joys of this book is his willingness to honestly record his reaction to both. (More on that in a moment.) Zheutlin’s trip—via BMW convertible with Massachusetts plates—starts in his home in New England, winds through the South to New Orleans, takes in parts of historic Route 66 in the Southwest, reaches into California and Oregon, and finishes in a mad, homesick dash across the northern tier of states.
The book is charming, in no small part because of Albie’s constant presence, and in some measure, it’s also enlightening. It’s full of interesting characters—some Zheutlin had already met and was revisiting, some whom he meets for the first time enroute. He is tolerant, giving even those he knows he’ll disagree with the chance to speak their mind and demonstrate their humanity. He lets them talk directly to us, often contributing his reaction to their words only after he’s moved on. The judgments we end up with are his, yes, but he gives everyone a say, and this is, after all, his book.
Steinbeck was foremost a novelist, and Zheutlin is a non-fiction writer (this is his seventh book) who is, therefore, understandably less inclined to take liberties with Albie’s cognitive abilities than Steinbeck did with Charley. While Steinbeck had frequent “conversations” with Charley as a way of communicating his thoughts to the reader, Zheutlin shares his thoughts with us directly. He frequently talks with Albie—as in “how are you doing back there?”—but he’s not a fool about Albie’s vocabulary, and is realistic about what Albie sees when they stop to take in the scenery. He recognizes that he and Albie are on entirely different trips: Zheutlin with knowledge of what they’re doing out on the road and when (and if) they’re going home; the affable and angelic Albie oblivious to the reason for it, and, Zheutlin admits, perhaps not enjoying it all that much. Albie is polite to strangers, tolerant of their constant movement and long drives, and respectful of whatever hotel room or friend’s accommodations Zheutlin places him in. He’s rewarded with plenty of treats (McDonald’s hamburgers and ice cream cones) and the chance to accompany Zheutlin into any establishment that will accept his presence. For all of those reasons, Zheutlin is compassionate and kind to his canine companion in a way that made me tear up at times. (Okay, I admit it: I’m a sucker for a rescue dog.)
There is another reason I appreciated this book: It can be dangerous for writers to be honest about what they see in America these days. People take offense, and although that has always been the case, now the offended are likely to blast the perpetrator on social media or dox a writer, researching and publishing private information over the Internet with an intent to harm. (Or writing a one- or two-star review on Amazon.) That’s what makes this book, to me refreshing. Zheutlin pulls no punches. He writes honestly about the ugliness of many of America’s fast-food and strip-mall lined thoroughfares. He reacts quickly and critically to Confederate flags and other signs of anachronistic attitudes, particularly in the South. He questions the quality of life in small, run-down, out-of-luck towns he passes (quickly) through, admitting occasionally that maybe he’d see something different if he stayed longer and sought out more of their residents. He may be at his most Pollyanna at those moments of fantasy, and I’m glad they don’t last long. I spent 12 years traveling rural America as a reporter, and I know plenty of dead places drained not only of humans, but many times also of humanity.
On the other hand, I share his estimation that most of those we disagree with politically and philosophically are still decent people you can share a breakfast or a beer with and come out richer and more broad-minded for it. Zheutlin appreciates kindness, open-mindedness, art, music, landscapes and conversation. He shares the best with us, as well as the worst, and if readers get nothing more from his investigation across America, it is a pleasant journey with two pleasant companions.
👍Our Dogs, Ourselves by Alexandra Horowitz - DEVOURED
I’m obsessed with dogs. Can’t pass one on the street without talking to it, and if allowed, giving it a scratch behind the ears. I dream about my past dogs (I count 10 who have lived with me in either childhood or adulthood), and I dream about my next one (husband not yet convinced).
So of course, I looked forward to reading Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Our Dogs, Ourselves. My choice wasn’t so much about wanting to learn something new about dogs, but more about wanting to immerse myself in dog-dom again. So, I wasn’t disappointed to find not much new here—it is still a great read. The dog topics she explores--ranging from what we name our dogs to what we buy them, from how we coddle them to how we mistreat them—provide a broad look at our relationship with dogs and what our choices in dogs says about who we are. A short interlude on the things she’s overheard people say to their dogs will not only ring bells with previous- and current-dog owners; it’s also hilarious: “Go get the ball! Get the ball! Get the … Okay. I’ll get it.” I didn’t know she heard me!
As Senior Research Fellow and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College/Columbia University, Horowitz explores our understanding of the emotional life of dogs, reaching an academically balanced conclusion that we know dogs have emotions and feelings; we just can’t be sure of what they are. Those Facebook photos of dogs with signs around their necks describing their misdeeds are probably not ashamed, as their owners are alleging. Probably they just know they’re in trouble.
Frequently humorous, sometimes deadly (even painfully) serious, Horowitz holds her readers’ respect by interspersing her personal, dog-loving observations with her scientific research. She doesn’t pull punches in detailing the crimes we’ve committed against our “best friends”—either through research that ignores a dog’s experience of pain, and need for movement and socialization, or through the breeding of pure-bred dogs to standards that are unhealthy and even cruel.
She minces no words in describing the dysfunctional in-bred noses, skin and eyes of the AKC-approved English bulldog, the fifth-most-popular breed registered in America. American Airlines won’t allow the dog to fly as luggage due to the likelihood it will suffocate, she writes. She quotes another researcher: “People don’t think, ‘I want to get a dog with eye problems who can hardly breathe.’ They probably think, ‘This type of dog is cute!’” Think of Danny, a tongue-curling, bug-eyed Pekingese in the show ring at Crufts, England, in 2003, whose breathing was so restricted by its purposely bred brachycelphalic (short-nose) face he had to be put on ice while in the ring. Nonetheless, he won best of show that year. She draws an interesting philosophical connection between the elitist and dangerous attitudes of early do- breeding enthusiasts, and the “racial purity” interests of mid-19th century phrenologists and ethnic bigots.
Meanwhile, the healthy “hybrid-vigor” of a cross-bred mutt has been devalued and denigrated since the mid-1800s when dog breeding gained status. A Dog Owners’ Annual declared in 1890 that such mongrels worth is “just a trifle less than the price of the rope you would purchase to hang him.” As the owner of 10 certifiably mixed mutts, I and every other dog lover in the world—even those who have opted for pure breeds—recognize the emotional viciousness and misplaced values of such a statement. As her discussion of where our dogs sleep (on our beds) and the things we buy for our dogs indicates, most of us know better. Much, much better.
👍Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – READ
Known as the “most successful comedian in South Africa,” Trevor Noah released this book in hardcover in 2016, but the paperback has only been available this year.
Noah’s story is (kind of) a Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches tale of an impoverished boy who rises above his circumstances to become a TV celebrity in America. (He is the host of The Daily Show, once the domain of John Stewart.) But if you think a rags-to-riches trajectory need be a straight line from the bottom left corner to the top right, his memoir will disabuse you of that idea very quickly.
Noah’s book publicity reports Born a Crime is “always hilarious.” Even when taken with the grain of salt most publicity statements deserve, that’s still an overstatement. In many places, this book is sober, dark, eerie, sad, and thoughtful. It definitely did not have me “rolling on the floor in laughter,” as Trevor’s website promises.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some comedic moments and some funny tales. Noah doesn’t take himself seriously, and even if you’re not laughing at him, he seems at times to be laughing at himself, especially when he talks about his own awkwardness and naivete as a youngster. His attempts at dating and romance, in particular, are sweetly funny. His love and respect for his mother is apparent, and while his stories about her aren’t always funny, either, they will certainly make you feel good.
Much of the book, however, covers the very sobering reality of growing up somewhere between black and white in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, and it isn’t at all funny. Stories of his impoverished (eating caterpillars for subsistence) childhood, life in the ghettos of black homelands, life “in the hood,” a business venture built on music piracy, time in jail, and the day his mother was shot by his abusive stepfather are surprising and sometimes bizarre. Some of them make you uncomfortable. But despite their pathos, Noah never pities himself or makes excuses.
He does make excuses for others, with good reason. In a particularly enlightening chapter, he describes how much he learned by hanging out with Andrew, a good friend who was white. (With a black mother and white, European father, Noah was either described as “colored,” “white,” or “black” by his countrymen, depending on how their skin color compared with his.) Without his white friend’s help, Noah writes, “I never would have mastered the world of music piracy or lived a life of endless McDonald’s.” Andrew’s friendship gave him insight into how privileged people lived, worked, and studied, and when Andrew left for college, he gave Noah his CD writer.
“What he did, on a small scale, showed me how important it is to empower the dispossessed and the disenfranchised in the wake of oppression.” Noah continues: “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’” Later, in describing the vast unemployment and lack of opportunity for young men in post-apartheid South Africa, he brings his point home to the hood this way: “So for many young men in South Africa, freedom looks like this: Every morning they wake up, maybe their parents go to work or maybe not. Then they go outside and chill on the corner the whole day, talking shit. They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.”
And, yes, there are plenty of words in this book that the FCC does not allow on network TV. But it’s a book for grownups, not children.
I highly recommend this book as a great primer for people (like me) who know little about life in South Africa during and after apartheid—especially life for non-whites. But don’t expect to roll on the floor laughing.
👍Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout – READ
I may be the only fiction reader in America who did not read Olive Kitteridge. So, perhaps I am the only reviewer who will ever write about this book without coming to it with a pre-conceived notion of what it should be.
Publishing industry experts have told me that the average star-rating falls dramatically once a book receives a big award, and Olive Kitteridge is a perfect example. Although it won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature, only 50% of its reviews on Amazon give it five stars. Some suggest that reflects jealousy from other writers, but I believe that’s probably a function of the way big awards set unrealistic expectations.
In any case, I expected Olive, Again to be wonderful and in many (perhaps most) ways it is. I also expected it to be a fairly traditional novel, given the number of people I knew who professed to love the first Olive, and in some ways it was. In some ways it wasn’t. While the book moves chronologically through time (the appropriate flashbacks and backstory notwithstanding), it doesn’t rely so much on a plot as on character arcs. Also, not traditionally, the story is only sometimes about the protagonist. What is special about it is the prose. Impeccable. It often made me smile.
This “novel” is more a collection of short stories about people in the town of Crosby, Maine, where everyone, it seems, knows Olive. As a former schoolteacher, she knows nearly everyone in town as a former student or the parent of one. She has also lived in Crosby her entire adult life. Therefore, all the stories—including those that aren’t even tangentially about her—mention her at least once, which helps hold the “novel” together. These mentions also give us a different perspective on Olive’s personality. While we readers might enjoy Olive’s honesty, wit, and inability to deceive—even when it might make her more acceptable—others aren’t always fans of her out-spoken, blustery and crusty ways.
What Strout does well here is make the most of small moments and small interactions while credibly relaying the inner thoughts of the characters involved as they happen. She doesn’t overreach for conclusions or epiphanies, but comfortably and confidently lets the quotidian stand for the quotidian. We see a young teenager, just discovering her budding sexuality, oblige a silent, lusting old man by uncovering and touching herself in full view. The girl enjoys it, even while she senses it is wrong. She weighs the benefits (he gives her a few to 100 dollars each time) with the risks (who’s he going to tell?) and the downside (a bit of guilt and fear of getting caught). What we don’t get from Strout is some kind of moral conclusion, other than what some might read into the fact that the girl ends up hiding and then losing the money she earned.
This view of life as a collection of small moments becomes the final statement in Olive’s life, as she contemplates her own death at and after a neighbor’s funeral: “But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish—all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself (many—most—would be dead by now), the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee—All of it gone, or about to go.”
If there is a lesson intended here, and I’m not sure there is, it might be this: don’t expect too much of life. It is a series of moments that become random memories and may not add up to a whole lot. Take comfort in knowing that it’s not supposed to. Olive wraps it up thus: “I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.”
I recommend this book, and I can assure you, you do not have to read the first Olive first to enjoy it.
(My digital advance copy of Olive, Again was provided by the publisher through NetGalley.)
👍The Other Americans by Laila Lalami – READ
A hit-and-run driver hits Driss, a Moroccan immigrant, as he is walking to his car after closing his restaurant on a highway in the high desert above Palm Springs, CA. Is it murder or was it an accident?
That question drives the plot of Lalami’s excellent novel, which explores the loneliness of our modern America and the racial and ethnic prejudices that keep Americans apart.
Written from the point of view of nine characters, the story mainly revolves around Nora and Jeremy. Nora is a first-generation American, whose musical and intellectual pursuits are underappreciated by her family, revealed by their constant complaint that she has her “head in the clouds.” At the news of her father’s death, she returns home to the desert from San Francisco, where she is struggling to establish a career in composing. Jeremy, who spent five years in Iraq, knew Nora in high school, but as a chubby and ill-socialized youngster, he kept his admiration under wraps. Nora and Jeremy become lovers soon after she returns to the desert, but her main preoccupation is to find out who killed her father and whether it was a murder.
The family was the target of anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim hatred years before Driss was killed, when the family restaurant was torched in a never-solved hate crime. The unmoored attitude of Driss’s wife, Maryam, who wishes to return to Morocco in spite of the death threats that drove them to America, is echoed in Efraín, a Mexican immigrant without papers, who witnesses the hit-and-run, but doesn’t report it for fear of deportation.
We get first-person points of view from those five characters, plus those of Coleman, the African-American detective investigating the death; the aging Anderson, whose bowling alley sits next to Driss’s restaurant and who has had disagreements with him over parking and signage; Anderson’s son, A.J., a bully whose life has been as tough as well; and, only briefly, Salma, Nora’s sister with her own secret problems. The effect of all of these voices (which all sound eerily alike, given their divergent origins, ethnicities and ages) is a full picture of all the lives at stake in the story.
In allowing so many people to speak, Lalami gives us insight into each character’s interior struggle as they desperately seek to connect with their community and with other people. With quick, but effective, evocation of their individual backstories, she makes even the worst of the characters sympathetic. Making a bully and a racial bigot sympathetic is a trick I’m not sure I, as a novelist, have ever been able to pull off, even though I may have wanted to.
The ending is satisfying, if a bit too good to be true, and a few loose ends are left hanging (what happens to Efraín after he comes forward? what happens to Salma?) but I recommend this book wholeheartedly, and look forward to reading what Lalami writes next.
😒Once More We Saw Stars – READ
Many readers are going to love this book. I don’t doubt it. It is well-written and emotionally honest. For those who have lost a child it may well be cathartic. I’m certain it was for the author.
You can probably sense that I wasn’t as crazy about it as the rest of the world. Of the 157 consumer reviews on Amazon, 89% are five-star. Only five are one-star, and two of those because he makes a negative comment about Trump. (Get over it, folks. A lot of people don’t like him.)
First, my positive reaction: The ability to write so honestly and evocatively about the emotional turmoil of a tragic event like this is truly a gift. Perhaps the author’s experience writing about the arts has taught him how to reach deep inside himself for visceral and multi-sensory responses. Or perhaps he’s just naturally talented that way. His prose is perfect. Just perfect. No other adjectives or adverbs necessary.
Now, the negative: After the first section, which tells the story of the accident that killed Greene’s two-year-old daughter and his (and his wife’s) decision to turn off the life-support systems and donate organs, the book falls down a rabbit hole. To be more precise: Greene and his wife fall down a rabbit hole. Their years-long efforts to find some kind of spiritual escape from the reality of death, and find something that would make sense of this senseless tragedy delivers them into the hands of faith-healers, shamans, and those who say they communicate with the dead. And even if he briefly doubts these miracles at first, Greene retains no skepticism about any of this.
I understand that it is difficult to make sense of a tragic death like this. I lost a very close loved one recently (a suicide, already two years ago), and I am still barely able to talk about it without breaking down emotionally. My mind runs back to that horrible phone call every time I lie down to sleep. I struggle through the guilt, the magical thinking, the self-loathing that follows a needless, sometimes random death.
Perhaps I am too much of a scientist at heart for this book. Too much of his story describes his attempts to connect with her in some afterlife incarnation, or find a spiritual purpose in the tragedy. I kept hoping Greene would come to his senses and reject what I would call hooey. I wanted him to get his feet back on the ground and survive his daughter’s death with grace. In the end, he and his wife do make concrete progress in moving on without leaving her behind—which perhaps is the only real answer any of us has to the death of someone we love.
I recommend this book only with this caveat: It will be appreciated most by those who have experienced such a tragedy and who might be willing to indulge in Greene’s kind of metaphysical experimentation. Also, for writers who are struggling to put their real emotions down on the page—there’s something to be learned here. Otherwise, probably not.
😒Mrs. Everything – READ
I was tempted, as I sat down to write this review, to look at other reviews that have been written about this book to see why so many reviewers liked it. Although its current heavily discounted price and its very short tenure on the NYT list may indicate otherwise, it was well-received as a break-through for author, Weiner, best known as an early practitioner of chick-lit.
I resisted the temptation to peek at what others had written because I want to be honest with you and not be swayed by others’ opinions. I didn’t like it. I’m sorry I wasted my time and money with it.
I had read a couple of earlier Weiner novels, both of which seemed shallow and naïve, so I was reluctant to read this one. But then I read Hungry Heart, the author’s memoir about trying to control her weight to meet societal expectations, and I found it engrossing and insightful. So, I thought: Give this new novel a try. I bought it at the not-discounted price of $28 at one of my favorite independent bookstores, which means I invested big in this open-mindedness.
(There are spoilers in this review. Skip to the last paragraph if you wish to avoid them.) The novel tells the story of two sisters who are as different as sisters often are: one an independent, rebellious tomboy; the other a pretty, prim and obedient sweetie. The tomboy has many lesbian affairs, some quite serious, until she gets married, which she chooses in order to quit having to fight her way through life. The sweetie goes to college, becomes a renegade who gets to travel and experiment with rebellion in the way her tomboy sister wanted to, but eventually settles into a commune and into marriage as well. There’s a lot more “this happens, then this happens” to these stories, as the 464-page length of this novel may indicate.
The problem with this novel started for me right at the beginning. Her scene setting is obvious, laborious, and clumsy. Not only is Weiner’s prose here not nearly as polished and pleasurable as it was in her memoir (this happens, then this happens, then this happens…), but the first chapters of the novel are as full of clichés as anything I have read from a major publishing house in years.
The tomboy, Jo, of course, chooses “dungarees” over dresses, prefers to swing from tree branches rather than play with dolls, and determines she is a lesbian by the time she’s in junior high and starts to experiment with her sexuality. I know many lesbians, and not a one of them fits this stereotype. I'm sure some do, but it bothered me that Weiner chose this set of characteristics instead of allowing Jo's sexuality to be expressed with fewer clichés. Her eventual marriage makes her dependent on her undependable husband, and she chafes against her life until he leaves her for her best friend, and she returns to the love of her life. The prim and proper sister, Bethie, takes her rebellion into drugs and counterculture, and suffers abuses at the hands of men, presumably because she’s so pretty and feminine. She ends up successful and childless, not dependent on men, but happy to be married to one.
I was amazed at the level of misogamy expressed here by Weiner through her characters. There is one good husband and one good father represented in 464 pages, but the rest of the men: either “off with their heads” or meh. It’s a good thing that the children born to one of the protagonists are all girls, or Weiner would be trashing those offspring as well. I was disappointed by the cliché of the lesbian character – she’s tall, athletic, and cuts her hair short, as if there is one set of genes endemic to all gay women that brings out these characteristics. In fact, the entire book is full of tropes, from infidel and demanding husbands to athletic lesbians to unhappy housewives to spoiled children to consciousness-raising groupies. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, and by the time I finished this over-long collection of tropes, my eyes were sore from it.
I might be the only reviewer in America who didn’t like Mrs. Everything, but, honestly, I do not recommend this book.
👍This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore – READ
Jill Lepore’s credentials are longer than this brief book. A professor of American history at Harvard and a staff reporter for The New Yorker, she has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has authored 10 laudable books. Reading This America, which is essentially a long essay, slapped me in the face for how little I know and understand about the philosophical and historical roots to our nation’s concept of democracy and country.
Lepore’s concern is the illiberal nationalism that arose in America following the Civil War, and its threats to our sense of nation since then. She examines through history the difference between a liberal nationalism—which embraces all the country’s citizens, religions and ethnicities and is based on a common understanding of ideals—and Trump’s version of nationalism, which is based on intolerance and a myth of common origins. The battle over immigration, which has raged for more than a century and a half, has its roots in differing views of what makes a nation, and in widely divergent views of nationalism and globalism.
Despite the long history of intolerance and prejudice in America, Lepore is optimistic that a case can be made for America as a nation, if we return to our principles of equality and justice, and begin looking forward, not backward, again. Although it comprises only 138 pages of manuscript, it is dense and academic, not a quick read by any stretch, and once I finished reading it, I realized I have to go back to the beginning and start over. I may do that several times, because as difficult as it is to absorb all the history and wisdom herein, I know that it is really, really important. The fate of our nation depends on our understanding of what has happened to our American, democratic ideals, and how they have been corrupted by the selfish and the bigoted.
😒Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies by E.O. Wilson – READ
I am a fan of evolutionary studies and human genetic history, particularly books that increase our understanding of what has made humans human, and how natural selection and adaptation has delivered us to our current, precarious state as a species on the brink of bringing about our own extinction.
This thin book aspires to explain altruism as an adaptation that led to the expansion and ascension of our species. For scientists who study the genetic and environmental constraints that conspired to create the surviving animals—including humans—on earth, this is undoubtedly a clear-headed and well-argued exploration of the benefits of the evolution of altruism in animal societies. However, I found myself mired in what I found to be a boring discussion of bugs and beetles and rats and shrimp up right up until the final chapter. Then, I was disappointed in the short, shallow and extrapolatory exploration of human altruism in the balance.
I look back to the thrill I had when I first read Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing, which in 1986 turned my head around and ignited my interest in the environmental and biological constraints on human evolution and survival, and wish I could find something close to as insightful and exciting 33 years later. Genesis is not it.
👍Revolutionaries by Joshua Furst – READ
When I finished reading this captivating, well-researched, and at times unsettling novel, I wondered what Abbie Hoffman’s real-life son, america (with a small first “a), thought about it. Then I wondered what his fellow “revolutionaries” thought of it, and then I decided, what difference does it make? This book is not sold as a biography or a history of the radical movements of the 1960s, it is a novel, and like all art, its worth and truthfulness is in the eyes of the beholder.
Revolutionaries is a fictionalized version of the elder Hoffman’s life told through the eyes of his son, Freedom Synder, a fictionalized america. Like Hoffman, Lenny Snyder is a founder of the Yippies, a Chicago Eight defendant, a leader of the anti-war movement, and the orchestrator of demonstrations both violent and theatrical.
I am too young (barely) to remember much of the Yippies and the radical movements of the 1960s. I was only 15 when Woodstock impressed on most Americans an indelible image of hippies, flower children, radicals, and rock and roll. I was also sequestered in the middle of the country, in a tiny farm town. In high school, as the editor of our school newspaper (printed and overseen by the town’s conservative weekly newspaper editor), I wrote an editorial arguing for the right to wear blue jeans to school. It was one of the most radical things any kid or young adult had ever done in that town. You get the idea.
So, living inside Joshua Furst’s fictional account of one family’s life at the center of the chaos, the excitement, the optimism and the cynicism of the radicals of the movement was eye-opening and slightly unnerving. The novel starts with a couple of short chapters told from the middle-aged “Fred”—short for Freedom—and quickly turns back the clock. We hear from a two-year-old in short, episodic bursts of text (too full of insight and judgment for a real two-year-old), and then follow him as he grows up in the shadow of his father, raised by a woman who was by all practical accounts, a poverty-stricken single mother.
The weakness of the novel—and I think it is major and serious one—is the narration by a youngster who is incredibly (literally incredible) precocious as both a child and a teenager, and who remembers things no one his age could have. His impressions and his reflections are all adult, and disconcertingly so. At one point in the novel, Furst tries to cover for this in “recalling” a meeting between his mother, Lenny and their lawyer:
“That’s what I remember. Being bored. Getting frustrated by the endless details. Struggling to follow them. Lost in their meaning. I remember certain repeated words and their inflections. Entrapment. Criminal conspiracy. Prove it. Evidence. Bleecker Street. Wiretaps. COINTELPRO. Extralegal. COINTELPRO. NYPD. COINTELPRO. They’re still at it. They say they’re not, but they are. Prove it. Skepticism rising off of everyone.”
He remembered COINTELPRO? Criminal conspiracy? Extralegal? A four-year-old could note “skepticism rising off of everyone?” Really? Does anyone believe this?
On the other hand, the author doesn’t romanticize the movement (even though he does apparently hold romantic notions about “normal” family life, which, of course, is what young Fred longs for but doesn’t experience.) Furst’s prose is fast-paced and evocative. His scenes are impressively constructed with the kind of detail that indicates a significant amount of research that went into the project.
In the end, the novel leaves us with a cynical view of politics and a deep ennui promulgated by the suggestion that the 1960s movements amounted to nothing more than a loud, distracting mistake by some drug-addled and troubled, however talented, people. But perhaps Furst wasn’t trying to find a point in the messiness of the time, or help us find a way out of our current political morass. Perhaps he simply wanted to tell a story of a boy and his famous, confounding, manic-depressive father. That he does, and he does that well.
👍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.
👍The Death and Life of Aida Hermandez by Aaron Bobrow-Strain – DEVOURED
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.
😒White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf – READ
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.”
😒The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner – READ/SKIMMED
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.
👍Between You and Me by Mary Norris – DEVOURED
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.
👍Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – READ
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.
👍Circe by Madeline Miller – DEVOURED
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.
👍Little Faith by Nickolas Butler – DEVOURED
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.
👍Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens– DEVOURED
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.
👍Commander in Cheat by Rick Reilly – DEVOURED
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.
👍A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – DEVOURED
👍Brass by Xhenet Aliu – DEVOURED
👍Mama's LastHug by Frans de Waal – DEVOURED
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.
👍Educated by Tara Westover – DEVOURED
👍Maid by Stephanie Land – READ
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.
👍The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish – READ
😒 The Wife by Meg Wolitzer – READ
😒 Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – SKIMMED
�� Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart - READ/SKIMMED
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.
👍 Upstate by James Wood - DEVOURED
👍 A House in the Trees by Julia Glass - DEVOURED
👍 Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin - READ
😒 The Woman in the Window - READ
👍 Unfinished Desires - READ
👍 Little Mercies - READ
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.)
👍 Sarah's Key - READ
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.
👍The President is Missing - DEVOURED
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.
👍You Think It, I'll Say It - DEVOURED
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.
👍Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion - DEVOURED
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.
👍The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis - DEVOURED
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.
👍Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - READ
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.
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.
👍Mrs. by Liane Moriarty - DEVOURED
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.
👍American Audacity by William Giraldi- READ
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:
😒 Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III- READ/SKIMMED
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.
👍 The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak - READ
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.
👍 Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs - READ
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.
😒 Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher - READ
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.
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