These will not be typical book reviews, outlining plots and critiquing writers. Nothing so academic or professional. I merely want to share my life-long journey through the wonderful world of novels. Every month you’ll find new postings — heartfelt impressions of the latest books I’ve read.
Alphabetical (by author) List of Books with Reviews in the same order, by author’s last name, below:
- Isabel Allende: The Japanese Lover
- Isabel Allende: In the Midst of Winter
- Sherman Alexie: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me -?
- Steve Almond: Candyfreak
- Alice Anderson: One Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away
- Kate Atkinson: When Will There Be Good News?
- Dennis Banks: Ojibwa Warrior
- Russell Banks: Lost Memory of Skin
- Josh Bazell: Wild Thing
- T.C. Boyle: The Terranauts
- Val Brelinski: The Girl Who Slept with God
- Robert Olen Butler: Perfume River
- Jonathan Coe: The Rain Before It Falls
- Armando Lucas Correa: The German Girl
- James Cowan: A Mapmaker’s Dream
- Michael Cunningham: The Snow Queen
- Philip K. Dick: Flow My Tears The Policeman Said
- Louise Erdrich: Shadow Tag
- Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves
- Louise Erdrich: Future Home of the Living God
- Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot
- Siobhan Fallon: The Confusion of Languages
- Jonathan Franzen: Purity
- Charles Frazier: Nightwoods
- Carlos Fuentes: Inez
- Alan Furst: Dark Star
- Christina Garcia: The Lady Matador’s Hotel
- Justin Go: The Steady Running of the Hour
- Sunetra Gupta: The Glassblower’s Breath
- David Guterson: Our Lady of the Forest
- Rosa Guy: The Sun, The Sea, A Touch of the Wind
- Jim Harrison: The Big Seven
- Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone
- Lindsay Hatton: Monterey Bay
- Mark Helprin: A Soldier of the Great War
- Richard Hoyt: Cool Runnings
- Joe Jackson: Black Elk
- Rula Jebreal: Miral
- N.K. Jemisin: The Broken Earth Trilogy –
- The Fifth Season
- The Obelisk Gate
- The Stone Sky
- James Jones: From Here To Eternity
- Doris Lessing: The Good Terrorist
- Paulo Lins: City of God
- Mario Vargas Llosa: The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
- Michael Malone: The Four Corners of the Sky
- Peter Mayle: A Good Year
- Pauline Melville: Eating Air
- Pauline Melville: The Ventriloquist’s Tale
- Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night
- Derek B. Miller: The Girl in Green
- Anchee Min: Katherine
- David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
- Brian Morton: Starting Out in the Evening
- Haruki Murakami: Sputnik Sweetheart
- R.K. Narayan: The Vendor of Sweets
- Christie Nelson: Beautiful Illusion
- Maggie O’Farrell: This Must Be The Place
- Julie Otsuka: Buddha in the Attic
- Jodi Picoult: Small Great Things
- Richard Powers: Plowing the Dark
- Annie Proulx: Barkskins
- Richard Russo: Everybody’s Fool
- Carl Sandburg: Remembrance Rock
- Budd Schulberg: Waterfront
- André Schwarz-Bart: The Last of the Just
- B.A. Shapiro: The Muralist
- Dani Shapiro: Black & White
- Jane Smiley: Barn Blind
- Irving Stone: Love Is Eternal: A Novel about Mary Todd & Abraham Lincoln
- Marshall Terry: Tom Northway
- James Alexander & Dark Rain Thom: Warrior Woman
- Leon Uris: Redemption
- Rebecca Walker: Adé
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away
- Jesmyn Ward: Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Rebecca West: The Birds Fall Down
Alphabetical by author, my impressions of each book:
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- A passionate fan of Isabel Allende since I first read one of her works more than two decades ago, I relished The Japanese Lover (2015) and believe it to be her best ever. It is now on my top ten list of all time favorite novels. Allende’s style is smooth and seductive, nothing forced, always taking the reader down alluring paths as she weaves in the heartrending, often transcendent stories, of her characters. Alma Belasco lived most of her life in a San Francisco Sea Cliffs mansion, with expansive views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and servants attending to the nine-bedroom home and gardeners working horticulture magic on the gardens surrounding it. Her wealthy Jewish family smuggled her out of Poland as the Nazis were seizing it. Though her rich American relatives welcomed her with open arms, she spent months sleeping in the closet of her elaborate bedroom, crying herself to sleep. Then she met a Japanese boy, the son of their gardener, who would become her lifelong friend and secret lover. Allende’s description of the WWII Japanese internment camps that her friend endures as a boy, re-imagines the shame Americans should feel while letting the civilized grace of the Japanese-Americans shine through, making it a bitter-sweet part of Alma’s tale. Her life’s story is one remembered from the quiet retirement home she retreats to, told to her adoring Moldovan immigrant attendant named Irina and to a mysterious friend from her past named Lenny who had come to the home to die. Allende tells Irina’s story as counterpoint to Alma’s and Lenny’s as parallel. Her epic love story is adorned throughout with the poems, simple, sweet, beautiful letters from Alma’s lifelong love, Ishimei. Few but Isabel Allende have ever achieved such richness in their prose, such breadth of history and human travails in their story telling.
- The title of Isabel Allende latest novel (2017) is taken from a quote by Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” In the Midst of Winter is true to Camus. In the middle of a huge Brooklyn blizzard two Chilean-Americans, both professors, both ‘getting on in years’ open up to the romance they’ve tried to keep at bay for years when they begin taking huge risks to help a young undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Whenever Allende writes of love, I fall more in love with her, through her big-hearted characters and through her alluring prose. In the Midst of Winter is no exception. Isabel herself, her life, her loves and her insight, is the center attraction of everything she writes.
- I knew that You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me would make me cry. Sherman Alexie still carries the scars of his childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alcoholic parents, systemic poverty and cultural deprivation, he shocks us out of white bread reality by telling us that his mother was raped and was the product of rape, that his sister, who was the product of his mother’s rape, died young, passed out drunk while her trailer home burned, that he himself was sexually molested as a child. He then cushions the shock with a scatological tale of a giant ‘grief crap’ he took during his mother’s funeral. Alexie can always make me laugh, but he didn’t make me cry talking about racism, the rez and its rape culture. I have mourned Native American oppression my whole life. But the fact that he could not forgive his mother’s lack of affection for him, that he could not forgive her though she has done her best, that made me cry. “She protected me against cruelty / Three days a week,” he said.
- Kate Atkinson is one of England’s most successful writers. Her 2008 novel When Will There Be Good News? defines the nature of her success. Noted for her crime series, Case Histories, this story begins with a horrendous crime and includes plenty of criminals — Atkinson has even inserted Jackson Brodie (a character from her previous novels) who is a private investigator and former police inspector — but at its heart this is the story of two very strong women. An irrepressible teenager named Reggie surviving on her own in Edinburgh is befriended by Dr. Hunter, a young mother and physician who, as a child, was the sole survivor of an attach by a knife-wielding crazy man which left her mother and two siblings dead. When Dr. Hunter goes missing, Reggie is the only one who is suspicious and she continues to be well ahead of the authorities finding clues and identifying the perpetrators. Both women are tough, smart and unwilling to let truly bad men ruin their lives.
- Candyfreak (2004) by Steve Almond is subtitled ‘A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.’ Almond’s comic, self-effacing touch through his opening candy mania confessions drew me into the book but his depth of knowledge – candy companies, their brands, the unique ways they’re made and the history of chocolate and confections – had me engrossed before chapter four. By the end I felt I was seeing the history of American business, from individual craftsmen and small family business to corporate take-over, through the eyes of a passionate, deeply intelligent – and, yes, very entertaining – candy lover.
- Alice Anderson – Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement (AIM) died last October (10/29/17) at the age of eighty. Throughout his remarkable life he walked the fine line between life and death. For decades the FBI wanted him dead. The Governor of South Dakota wanted him dead and the Tribal Chairman of the Pine Ridge Reservation put a bounty on his head. The FBI came close to taking him out at Wounded Knee in 1973 and again a decade later when the FBI tried to ambush him first at Pine Ridge and then on I-84 in Oregon on his way back to South Dakota in Marlon Brando’s RV. He survived dozens of other confrontations in his lifelong fight for Native American rights and detailed each one in his memoir Ojibwa Warrior. The opening line of the Chapter entitled ‘Fields of Terror’ reads, “Sometimes I’m surprised at being alive.”
- Russell Banks‘ Lost Memory of Skin plunges into a world we would just as soon ignore, which is what we usually do. Banks brings the underworld of sex offenders up to the surface where we can feel what its like to be among the lowest cast of humans, outcasts with no where to live legally than under a Florida causeway. In an attempt to rescue one of them, a young man convicted of sex with a minor (he was an immature 20, she a sexually experienced 15-year-old), a genius with a mysterious past steps in among the outcasts offering genuine help but unclear motivations. A triumph that such a raw subject can be so beautifully written, lyrical and deeply thought-provoking about the nature of human society.
- At its heart Wild Thing by Josh Bazell is a rollicking bad boy adventure. A fun read it also surprises with pieces like this: an Ojibwe explains to the main characters their offense in asking about evil spirits known among Algonquin Tribes as ‘Wendingos’: “It’s not that white people talk about First Nations people being magical, although this is kind of moronic when you look at what’s happened to us. It’s that white people don’t bother to look at what’s happened to us. They’d rather look at the teepees. And the Wendingos. The First Nations has societies. I’m not talking about Robin Hood camps in the wilderness. I’m talking about civilizations. Before Columbus got here, one in four people on Earth lived in the so-called New World. Tenochtitlan was the biggest city on Earth. We had books, and governments, and courts of law, and the best armies in existence . . . . Then European smallpox hit, and ninety-five percent of the indigenous population died. Which the Europeans pushed to ninety-seven percent through slavery and extermination.”
- The Terranauts (2016) by T.C. Boyle. Eight young scientists, four female, four male, commit themselves to a two year sequester inside a self-sustaining biosphere. What could go wrong? Boyle tells his story through the journals of three of the scientists – two of them on the inside, Dawn and Ramsay, and one, Linda, who didn’t make the cut to be on the inside so acts as support crew on the outside, bitter and driven. Setting the story in the early 1990s Boyle avoids a lot of questions about the science of the biosphere systems (which doesn’t seem all that well thought out from our point-of-view twenty-five years later) and focuses instead on the raw emotions evoked by the pressure of being locked inside and by the malfunctions of personality and equipment. Top among their vulnerabilities is sexual behavior in a closed system, pairings and re-pairings resulting in conflict and jealousy. In the end it is a very intimate tale.
- The Girl Who Slept with God, the debut novel of Val Brelinski, who now teaches at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program (Continuing Education), stems from the author’s own childhood background in rural Idaho. Two sisters raised by committed Evangelical Christian parents respond in vastly different ways to their parents’ strict rules. The oldest, seventeen, internalizes her beliefs to such a degree that she becomes a zealous missionary. Returning home pregnant, Grace contends that it was an ‘angel of God’ not a man who impregnated her. Her younger sister, Jory, celebrates her fourteenth birthday isolated with her pregnant sister in a rural house away from the prying eyes of their small town neighbors. She rebels but maintains a strong allegiance to her older sister and to her father. It’s compelling reading and ripe with fresh visions of adolescent discovery and of Idaho star-filled nights, the backdrop to their sweeping questions about life, morality and God. The story is told entirely from the POV of Jory.
- Robert Olen Butler has been writing about Vietnam for over forty years. Perfume River, an intense tale of an American family’s war scars, is not about Vietnam as much as it is about war itself. Butler brings definition as well as some understanding to the family estrangements, the psychological/emotional damage, the insidious nature of secrets held too long of four generations marred by war. Butler’s story flows seamlessly from the timeline of one soldier to another bringing their stories together at a funeral — the WWII vet who died without reconciliation with either of his sons, the Vietnam vet and the draft dodger who fled to Canada forty-sever years earlier.
- Jonathan Coe‘s narrative in The Rain Before It Falls, flows freely from the tape recordings of a dying woman. Old, ready to die, she describes the scenes and backstories of a succession of twenty photos. She intends that her story, her recording, will reach the ears of a child named Imogen with whom she lost contact many years earlier. The backstories tell of a series of mothers who are emotionally abusive and finally Imogen’s mother who was also physically abusive. The key message, explaining the dying woman’s attachment to Imogen, transcends all else in the story:
“. . . the way your mother grew up feeling unwanted and worthless and incapable of emotion, and all of these things, all of these things that were so wrong, all these unsuitable relationships and bad choices . . . Yes, it was true, none of them should ever have happened, they were all terrible, terrible mistakes, and yet look what they led to. They led to you, Imogen! And when I see Ruth’s portrait of you, it is obvious that you had to exist. There is such a rightness about you. The notion of your not existing, never having been born, seems so palpably wrong to me, so monstrous and unnatural . . . It’s not that your existence corrects all of those mistakes, or undoes them. It doesn’t justify anything. What it means . . . is this: that life only starts to make sense when you realize that sometimes — often — all the time — two completely contradictory ideas can be true.
Everything that led up to you was wrong. Therefore, you should not have been born.
But everything about you is right: you had to be born.
You were inevitable.”
- Hannah, The German Girl, is twelve years old in 1939 Nazi Germany when her Jewish family is forced to flee. Armando Lucas Correa does a masterful job of telling Hannah’s story from childhood to old age from Hannah’s point-of-view. Her months abroad the SS St. Louis with her parents and a young boy that she still remembers with love and longing at the age of eighty-seven is, she says repeatedly, the best, the happiest and the most hopeful part of her entire life. Many know the shameful true story of the SS St. Louis. Loaded with Jewish passengers, it was denied entry first into Cuba then into the U.S. and Canada. All but a few were forced to return to Europe, half of them ending up in Nazi concentration camps. Correa stayed true to history, using Hannah’s fictionalized life to evoke the empathy the true story demands. She and her mother, but not her father, were allowed to disembark in Havana where they both ended up living their entire lives. In her later years she is reunited with her grandniece named Ana (in honor of Hannah) who co-narrates the story, telling of her own tragic beginning, still in her mother’s womb when her father died in the World Trade Centers.
- James Cowan: A Mapmaker’s Dream — great, inspiring book — see full review in separate blog entitled: ‘A Mapmaker’s Dream’ – under ‘Quest for Enlightenment’ heading.
- “Cunningham follows Barrett, Tyler, Beth and Liz as they travel down decided different paths in their collective search for transcendence,” so reads one of the lines from the dust jacket of Michael Cunningham’s 2014 novel, The Snow Queen. The characters are navigating that time in life when you’re no longer young, but you’re not middle aged yet either. The transcendence they seek is, for all but one of them, a haphazard search for a larger understanding of life and in particular their lives — their close, fluid relationships, their self-destructive habits and the meaning of sex, with or without love and commitment. Cunningham’s prose is original, in part because he uses his empathy for insight rather than judgement.
- No one is a better example of how inadequate the ‘Sci-Fi’ genre is to encompass many of the authors classified within it. Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (1974) tells of a celebrity in the near future (Dick’s ‘near future’ was late 20th Century, the epilogue takes us to 2017) who wakes up to find that no one knows him, not even his mistress. The police who run the authoritarian government have no records that he ever existed. His lack of identity in a world where all citizens are monitored and all the facts of their lives are compiled in a massive central databank brings him to the attention of the all-powerful police general. Smart and sensitive, the general is also an enigma. The action, suspense and very human, odd, flawed, nuanced characters move the story along at a rapid clip. So much so that I found myself having to slow down or even backtrack to fully grasp Dick’s gems of insight and philosophy. Example (p. 119), after exhausting themselves in bed his lover explains to the ex-celeb, “You can never accomplish what your survival instinct sets out to do, so ultimately your striving ends in failure and you succumb to death, and that ends it. But if you love you can fade out and watch with happiness, and with cool, mellow, alpha contentment, the highest form of contentment, the living on of one of those you love.” In the end, after taking some questionable drugs, known later to alter a person’s grasp of time and space, the celebrity’s identity and fame restored, we’re left wondering what’s real, his identity, or his non-identity. Oddly, it’s the police general’s tears that provide an answer. The entire, mind-bending story is a tribute to an often-quoted explanation. “I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards,” Dick wrote. “In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
- Louise Erdrich drilled down to the core of her sensual, sensational, tragedy-touched writer-self when she wrote her 2010 novel, Shadow Tag. Irene America keeps two diaries. She keeps the red one in her home office hidden in a place where she knows her husband, Gil, will find it and read such passages as ‘None of the children have one molecule in common with Gil.’ Learning that the foundation of Gils success as an artist is a series of paintings called ‘America’ featuring his beautiful wife in a variety of poses, many nudes include some that female critics claim were demeaning to the model, we keep expecting Irene to reveal the truth to us in her second diary. She writes in her blue diary regularly while ensconced in a small cubicle in a bank, next to the safe-deposit box where she keeps it. What adds a very tender touch to the narrative is that we also watch the parents’ intense relationship moving closer day-by-day to the breaking point through the eyes of their four children. We fall in love with all four of them, wanting the story to turn out well for them. I will let you discover their plight as you read the book. I’ll let you wait as well for what is revealed, or not, in the blue diary.
- Three hundred eleven pages but just one inch thick, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008) bursts its covers with its intricately woven storyline, its sweeping timeline, life to life from the founding of tiny Pluto, North Dakota to its present day demise, replete with rich depictions of remarkable, everyday people. Erdrich wastes not a single word explaining why and how these lives flow together, she let’s us absorb their meaning as though we are eavesdropping on one intimate conversation after another. The banker explains how the idea of having his own wife kidnapped occurred to him quite naturally while his lover’s brother held him a gunpoint. After a brutal winter spent trying to claim the land that would become Pluto, the young survivor returns to Minnesota, buys a suit and decides to become a lawyer, naturally. The young mother turned snake handler seduces her crazed Pentecostal husband, fucks him to exhaustion, plunges a needle full of snake venom into his heart then, as her planned reward, takes her children into town for a big breakfast. The sweet violin playing of mixed Chippewa, Cree and French men enrapture and sustain one generation to the next. Secret lovers, acid trips turned into insanity and redemption, old men whetting the imagination of children with half-told, half-real stories of murders and hangings, until on page three hundred and eleven it all settles into a perfectly aligned patchwork of the lives that made up a town named Pluto. An elderly doctor discovers the identity of the man who murdered her family when she was a baby and celebrates the day she saved his life, bemoaning only the loss of her little hometown: “The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.” Adding, “Oh my, too apocalyptic . . .”
- Louise Erdrich‘s venture into a dystopian future, Future Home of the Living God features a silvery blue sonogram image on its cover. Blurred as all sonograms are it’s clear that an embryo lies within. Human genetics are devolving. Healthy babies are scarce and, therefore, sacred. A pregnant your woman named Cedar becomes a fugitive rather than risk losing her baby to the government-run hospitals. Finding refuge with the Ojibwe family that had put her up for adoption Cedar searches for a possible future with her child while uncovering the mysteries of her past.
While Erdrich’s Ojibwe roots are part of the backdrop to this story, she blends her Native beliefs with liberal Catholicism, referencing Hans Küng and Rudolf Steiner, exploring the connection between spirituality and science & nature. “Everything is penetrated with connectiveness, penetrated with relatedness,” she writes. True to the bookjacket’s declaration, this is indeed ‘a moving meditation on female agency, love, self-determination, biology and natural rights.’
- The Marriage Plot (2011) by Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides. The book jacket blurb asks, “Are the great love stories of the 19th Century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?” The Marriage Plot is both more – it is a vital exploration of the ravages of mental illness – and less – Madeleine, a college student in the early 1980s, is as spoiled and self-absorbed as she is in love. Eugenides’ writing and wit make it worth reading.
- Siobhan Fallon moved to Jordan in 2011 and currently lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The Confusion of Languages is an engaging mystery well informed by the author’s Middle Eastern experience. At its heart it’s a book about friendship. Two young women in Jordan, their husbands both stationed at the U.S. Embassy, bond within the small world of U.S. citizens. Each tests the other’s loyalty, secrets withheld, their revelations providing the pace of the mystery.
- Purity (2015) by Jonathan Franzen is a rambling novel — the good kind — diving deep into the intersecting lives of people in cold war East Germany and 60s era New York entwining the key characters and their progeny on up into modern times. Rather than summarizing the plot, here are a few excerpts to tantalize:
> The young East German risk-taker who will achieve Julian Assage level notoriety as an internet leaker, confronts his Stasi-supporting mother, “I bet you’re rethinking your decision not to abort me, right around now. It turns out to be so much more painful to wait twenty years for me to do it myself.”
> The free-spirited young woman at the center of the mystery that binds the characters: “There’s no such thing as eternal life, because you’re never going to outrun time, but you can still escape time if you’re contented, because then time doesn’t matter.”
> Franzen asserts that the internet has become the new worldwide ‘Regime.’ “Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete.”
- Nightwoods is a work of art. That what Charles Frazier does. He did so with Cold Mountain and again with Thirteen Moons. If I had known nothing of his work I would have become a Frazier fan by the middle of Chapter One: “The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in the shades of olive until they became lost in the pale gray sky.” Without forced words or beckoning enticements Frazier lets readers fall in love with Luce. Living alone on the edge of the deep Appalachian woods, letting nature and time heal the woods of family abandonment and an unprosecuted rape, Luce suddenly inherits the young children of her murdered sister. As she relearns the art of love and care a romantic wander named Stubblefield, the new owner of her rural lodge, stumbles into her life with such affability that we hold out hope for their happiness even as the sister’s murderer begins to stalk them. Nightwoods is the rare combination of beautiful literature created around a taut, suspense-filled storyline.
- Carlos Fuentes – Inez – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Dark Star (1991) by Alan Furst. The New York Times got it right, Dark Star is a “rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story.” And it is much more. In 1938 a Russian journalist writing for the Communist Party’s new formed Pravda is turned into a spy. Fluent in German, French, English and, of course, Russian, he also has the perfect cover to move about Europe and channel Nazi secrets back to his Russian handlers. He is caught in the middle of the German invasion of Poland and caught up with two young German women opposed to Hitler. He writes articles helping Stalin maintain the fiction that he is Hitler’s ally. André Szara is in as deep as any WWII intelligence operative you’ve ever read about and he does not expect to make it out alive. He is also a Jew.
- The Lady Matador’s Hotel (2010) by Cristina Garcia has an alluring book cover – one obviously take from the opening lines of the novel, “The lady matador stands naked before the armoire mirror and unrolls her long pink stockings.” In town (an unnamed Central American capital) for an all-female bullfight competition the lady matador’s story intertwines, chapter by chapter, with the stories of a diverse set of characters staying at the same hotel: a Korean expatriate managing a family garment factory who is intent on suicide, a conference of South American generals, an ex-rebel waitress plotting to kill one of the generals, a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a child and a manipulative, ball-busting adoption lawyer. Garcia writes like an intuitive, experienced mixologist. The final cocktail she pours is quite stimulating going down and leaves the reader admiring the panache of its creator.
- Critics describe The Steady Running of the Hour (2014), Justin Go’s debut novel, as a historical tour de force. They’re right. But, what kept me engrossed, making me pace myself so that the 466-page novel lasted two days, was the love story. One of the most touching and one of the saddest love stories I’ve ever read, The Steady Running of the Hour, explores the very meaning of love and its relevance in the pantheon of mankind’s’ beliefs. As a 21st Century young man seeks out the conclusion to his ancestors’ love affair nearly a century earlier, he himself falls in love. Following the research of young Tristan, who is due to inherit millions if he can prove that he descends from the love child of an early 20th Century English couple, we’re plunged into the horror of WWI trench warfare and pulled to the heights of Mt. Everest where his great grandfather died. Go tells two parallel stories, one from the point-of-view of the great climber and WWI vet, Ashley Walsingham and his lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson, and one from the point-of-view of Tristan as he unravels their lives through forgotten love letters and clues scattered across France, Germany, Sweden and Iceland a century earlier. It is a sweeping, wonderfully paced novel richly appointed with life’s everyday details that render a century of human history into delicious bite-sized morsels.
- Images of love and death, woven together as fantasy, memories and wishes, The Glassblower’s Breath by Sunetra Gupta offers up one day in the life of well-heeled, well-traveled woman living in London. Gupta’s prose is dense. The first sentence in the book is 101 words long. Though the web of images she weaves require supreme concentration the effort is made worthwhile by gems such as this:
“You have come a long way, my love, a long way from home, you found your way into a houseful of mirrors that each tell your tale, but none as well as you might have, if you had looked within, instead of among your myriad reflections, for the shape of your destiny. For mirrors have their own memories, my love, old shadows that fill new outlines.”
Married to a man she respects but does not love, the heroine of The Glassblower’s Breath — referred to throughout as ‘you’ — reminisces about past loves while trying to kindle the same spark with a stranger. Be warned of the ending, the butcher, the baker the candlestick maker and a husband feeling suddenly betrayed.
- No one writes like David Guterson. Nor should anyone try. His principal characters in Our Lady of the Forest (2004) reveal themselves in runaway rumination, page-long paragraphs that flow from personal histories to confessions of weakness and doubt about their actions and motives in the present. Ann is a sexually abused sixteen-year-old runaway hiding out in a Washington campground. While picking mushrooms in the forest surrounding a dying lumber town, she falls into a rapturous vision of the Virgin Mary. Her cynical camp neighbor Caroline manages her sudden popularity, siphoning off donation money while acutely slicing and dicing the motives of everyone involved. The town’s new young Catholic priest struggles as much with his unrequited sexual attraction to Ann as with his desire to believe in her apparition. And, Tom a former logger full of hate, feeling deep guilt over the logging accident that paralyzed his son, lives on the edge of it all, disgusted with his hope for a miracle for his son. As we run through the minds and hearts of each character we too start hoping for a miracle.
- Rosa Guy – The Sun, The Sea, A Touch of the Wind – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Jim Harrison’s The Big Seven – published in 2015, his last (he died a few months ago). The Big Seven is a follow-up book to Harrison’s 2011 novel, The Great Leader. Sunderson, the veteran U.P. cop is now retired and divorced. Fishing the streams and rivers around Marquette mellows him but the rest of the time he drinks too much, has frequent sexual encounters with inappropriately young women, gets embroiled in the lives of a large, habitually violent, drunken family inhabiting three houses and the vast wooded acreage that surround his newly acquired fishing cabin. As with all his novels, Harrison contemplates life through his characters. Sunderson’s reoccurring train of thought is on the Seven Deadly Sins. He explores his level of guilt with each, pride, greed, envy, lechery, gluttony, anger and laziness, finding that he would like to make a case for an eighth, violence. His harshest self-judgment is about the greatest failure in his life, screwing up his marriage to the woman he still dearly loves. I will dearly miss Harrison. He is so painfully, beautifully honest, his prose so smooth and natural – and all his writing seems to relate directly to my own life. His disgust with American’s deplorable history of violence, particularly to its natives, his flawed characters that I can’t help identifying with, his peerless insights into human behavior, and in his last work, his restlessness in retirement, his voice is closest to what I imagine mine to be, if I could develop it.
- Finished reading Imagine Me Gone by Adam Hanslett on a weekend walkabout. Sat outside a small museum. Though the bench was hard, the dappling shade, cool breeze and warm sunshine were a perfect offset to a somewhat grim story. A father suffering years of depression commits suicide leaving three teen children and their mother to grapple with it. Two grow up capable but distrusting of love. One – the ‘sensitive one’ — who foresaw his father’s death suffers endlessly with anxiety & depression, downing a cavalcade of prescribed mood stabilizers. (Oddly, the chapters narrated by him, are the most entertaining.) The family cannot save him and all seem enslaved to a predestined fate, standing over the graves of first the father and then the son. It struck me that I pushed on through the book with the same grim determination of the book’s characters and, like them, knowing it wouldn’t end well. The last scene, the mom remembering the evening she met her future husband in England says simply, “It’s a day I recall not in sadness but in wonder at all that followed.” Wonder?
- Margot Fiske, Lindsay Hatton’s imagined hero in Monterey Bay, a 2016 novel unfolding in the 1940’s, felt plenty of pain. She’s 15 and in love with Ed Ricketts, a brilliant, charismatic genius/amateur marine biologist made famous by John Steinbeck as Doc in Cannery Row. She is smart and a talented sketch artist, made savvy beyond her years by her world-trotting entrepreneurial father. She is not a crier. Margot, who lives on to establish the Monterey Bay Aquarium, something for which both Ricketts and her father would have been very proud, loves but never possesses the love of her life. When she’s a young woman they are already both dead. Yet her story transcends the sadness. In the midst of it, Lindsay Hatton delivers these splendid lines, evoking the voice of Steinbeck himself, explaining why Rickett’s brilliant marine collection, sketching and categorizing is useless:
- “And I tell him,” he resumed suddenly, the sharpness of his voice making her jump. “When you’ve collected every little creature from the Sea of Cortez to Alaska, when you’ve fucked everything in lipstick and a Catholic school uniform, when all your jars are finally categorized and cross-referenced and organized to some lunatics version of order, when that damn essay has been revised and rewritten for the one-millionth time, do you honestly think you’ll be any better off? Any wiser? Sure, you’ll know the ocean inside and out, but people will still be a mystery, and there’s nothing in this world more tragic than that.”
- A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin Alessandro, an old Italian WWI veteran, spends two days and nights walking with young, naïve Nicolo across the countryside east of Rome. Theirs is an accidental meeting, the old man, having tried to get the train to stop for the young man, is kicked off for his troubles. What unfolds seems predestined. Nicolo is an open book. Allessandro, a retired professor of aesthetics, ready to tell his life’s story.
When Italy joined with the Allied Powers in 1915, Allessandro joined the Navy, dreading the idea of the army’s trench warfare. Apt to his descriptions of war’s irony and chaos, he ends up in the trenches of Northern Italy. And by the middle of this 800-page tome you wonder if you, as a reader, will survive the horror, heartbreak and loss. Allessandro’s story is not an endless diatribe of the mud-filled, rat-infested troughs of dead bodies that are the trenches or the explosions of flesh and blood that happen daily and for months on end. But, it is war, on and on in all its horrible forms. He and his surviving friends are sent to Sicily to track down deserters – more death and deprivation – but are forced to join the deserters. They are caught and put in front of a firing squad. Allessandro gets a sudden reprieve but begs to die with his friends. Then, back in the Alps, he watches from his high altitude observation post as his childhood friend dies on the other side of the valley. He meets the love of his life in a hospital, looses her, spends years finding her, discovering as well the son he didn’t know he had whom he cherishes. He cannot talk his son out of joining the army at the beginning of WWII. War defeats him again and again.
At the end of Allessandro’s life story the young Nicolo says, “Signore, this my seem funny, but I want to do something for all the people in the time of which you spoke. I want to very much, but I can’t, can I.”
To which Allessandro replies, “But you can. It’s simple. You can do something just, and this is to remember them. Remember them. To think of them in their flesh, not as abstractions. To make no generalizations of war or peace that override their souls. To draw no lessons of history on their behalf. Theirs history is over. remember them, just remember them – in their millions – for they were not history, they were only men, women, and children. Recall them, if you can, with affection, and recall them, if you can with love. that is all you need to do in regard to them. and all they ask.” By immersing us in it, Helprin transcends the horrors of war with the admonition that we must never forget.
- Cool Runnings, a 1984 novel by Richard Hoyt, is the quirkiest spy novel I’ve ever read. Hoyt seems a cross between Ian Fleming and Hunter S. Thompson. The main character, Jim Quint, is himself a quirky spy novelist (his ‘James Bond’ is named Humper Staab) and freelance journalist recruited by the CIA and French Intelligence to help stop the delivery and explosion of a nuclear bomb to New York City. The title comes from my favorite part of the book, Quint in Jamaica recruiting ganja-growing Rastafarians to his cause; I love the Rasta spiced dialogue, ‘irie, cool runnings, mon’. Hoyt dances masterfully on the fine line between too much funk and wit and credible suspense.
- Joe Jackson: Black Elk — exceptional biography of Oglala holy man and healer, Black Elk. SEE ‘Black Elk’ article – under ‘Native American Justice’ heading.
- Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist, born in Haifa. She is Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. Miral (2010), her first attempt at a novel, often reads like an in-depth news story. The facts, dates, political policies and history of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle are clearly presented as basis for the story of the woman named ‘Miral’ whose story is much like that of the author. Raised in the famous Dar El-Tifel orphanage in Jerusalem with her sister, Rania (Jebreal used her real sister’s name in the story), Miral comes of age in the midst of Palestinian uprisings, witnessing the brute force of the Israeli army used routinely with protesters, befriending an Israeli girl while falling in love with a PLO leader. The outrage you might expect from the author is balanced with the open compassion she shows for the struggle of the Hebrews. The dedication at the front of her book announces her point-of-view: “To Julian. And to all Israelis and Palestinians who still believe peace is possible.” (Julian Schnabel, an American-Jewish artist was her lover during the time she penned Miral.) It is an eye-opening book, both painful and uplifting.
- N.K. Jemisin – the first black female author to win the Hugo Award for The Fifth Season in 2016, won again for The Obelisk Gate in 2017. She’s expected to win again for the third volume of the ‘The Broken Earth’ trilogy, The Stone Sky.
Her writing, crisp, fluid, original builds momentum chapter by chapter and the world she builds rivals ‘Dune’ in depth, detail and intrigue. The metaphor of an angry earth — “Father Earth is angry and he hates humans” — is poignant and her development of the millenial-long plot that led to a moonless earth trying regularly to wipe-out humans is fathoms deep.
One of the concluding lessons: “Remember, too, that the Earth does not fully understand us. It looks upon human beings and sees short-lived, fragile creatures, puzzlingly detached in substance and awareness from the planet on which their lives depend, who do not understand the harm they tried to do – perhaps because they are so short-lived and fragile and detached.”
For any fan of Sci-Fi/Fantasy this is a MUST READ:
- James Jones’ From Here to Eternity is not a love story. Neither is it a war story or a story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is the story of American men and women looking for meaning in an America that is shedding its old moral codes. Prew, trying to understand his own discontent and anger, the root cause of his imprisonment in the Army stockade, wonders, “This system here in this country was the best system the world had ever produced, wasn’t it? . . . He felt if he did not find somebody to blame pretty soon he would hate everybody.”
Men like Prew called themselves ‘thirty-year men’, wedding themselves to the Army for lack of any other options. They had left their families, rode the rails looking for work in the depressed 1930’s, went down in defeat with the socialist workers reform in factories and divested themselves of any dreams of a stable life with a wife and family. While his guru cellmate talks of the futility of social movements that address the masses — “The masses are one thing, the amalgam of individuals is another” – his hardnosed commander proclaims over cocktails with his junior officers that a sense of honor and duty among the common soldier is dead, therefore they must be governed with fear.
Having divested themselves of religion as well, Prew and his Army buddies now worship at the altar of hard drinking and easy women. “I have never laid a woman I didn’t love” has become their mantra. They believe in an ever-changing god that negates the need for forgiveness. All the women in these men’s lives realize in the end that no matter their level of passion the Army will win out over love.
- Doris Lessing was a renowned British Marxist and a Nobel Prize winner author. The Good Terrorist, published in 1985, was one of her later works. The story centers on a not-so-young woman turning a squat in London into a commune with her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. Despite her university degree Alice, mid-thirties, never tried to develop a career but spent years with her gay boyfriend (ideal partner since she hated to be touched, barely tolerant of her friends need to have sex) moving from one abandoned house to another, attending anti-government protests and working from a radical agenda that changed month to month. Alice is smart, hardworking and very good at reading people and taking on a character suited to each situation. She’s the one who always manages, money, food, planning, resources or calming down neighbors and police. Rejected in their attempt to align themselves with the IRA and with Russian Communists, it becomes clear that she and her friends will not be taken seriously until they act like the terrorists they pretend to be.
In the end, after setting off a bomb at a London hotel, killing five, wounding 30+, something Alice tried to subvert at the last minute, her friends all going their separate ways, as planned, she feels lost until a new half-baked plan comes to mind. The final paragraph: “Smiling gently, a mug of very strong sweet tea in her hand, looking this morning like a nine-year-old girl who has had, perhaps, a bad dream, the poor baby sat waiting for it to be time to go out and meet the professionals.”
Lessing was my age (mid-sixties) when she wrote The Good Terrorist having embraced the folly of her own youthful search for a radical socialist agenda. After winning the Nobel for Literature in 2007 she boasted of the British governments disclosure that she had been watched by British Secret Service for more than twenty years while, on the other hand, leftist newspapers described her as ‘one of Joe Stalin’s useful idiots. (Born in 1919, she died Nov. 17, 2013, two days before my father died.)
- City of God by Paulo Lins (1997-Brazil, 2002-U.S.) is a disturbing book. It offers up gritty, often disgusting tales from Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slum, Cidade de Deus (the City of God). While teen gangsters celebrate their heists, stalking the streets of their favela, smoking weed, drinking and rocking out to samba, malicious cops plot ambushes. Bullets spray the streets night and day while the survivors dream of the one big hit that will let them escape ‘the life.’ Some of the masses of dispossessed do escape, most by death, many by way of long prison sentences and a few by finding God or chasing dreams that lead to a way out, something the author himself, Paulo Lins, accomplished.
- Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has a long a storied history with his native Peru, the setting for his first highly acclaimed book The Green House which I read several years ago, and for The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. With Don Rigoberto, Vargas Llosa deftly weaves fantasy and reality into a sexually exotic story. The philosophical asides from Don Rigoberto’s assiduously notebook are interspersed between erotic scenes acted out by his wife, Doña Lucrecia, with Rigoberto and without him. Toward the end of the novel it becomes clear that most of the sex scenes are the fantasies detailed in his notebook and it doesn’t matter, which seems to be Vargas Llosa’s point. His fantasies are real expressions of his ardent love and sexual fervor for Lucrecia. His asides are equally enticing and at the heart of the story. “…when someone says in my hearing, ‘The Chinese,’ ‘the blacks,’ ‘the Peruvians,’ ‘the French,’ ‘women,’ or any similar expression proposing to define humans beings by membership in a collective of any kind rather than viewing that as a passing circumstance, I want to pull our a pistol – bang bang – and fire.” Whether by nationality, race, gender or sexual nature labels defy individuality. Rigoberto believes that “To be an individualist is to be an egoist.” He revels in the details of his sex life because his proclivities are the very thing that underscores his individuality. Vargos Llosa is saying that even the larger aspects of his personal history, a Peruvian writer, one of the all-time great Latin American writers, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and many others, a politically liberal man who became a citizen of Spain after losing the 1990 Peruvian presidential election do not constitute the essence of who he is. Every yearning, thought, act, wish and fantasy are part of the individual, each of us so unique that we should rage against, rebel against every label applied to us.
- Michael Malone‘s The Four Corners of the Sky may well be the happiest ‘great American novel’ I’ve ever read. Annie, the true blue Navy flying hero from a loving but complicated North Carolina family, refuses to give up on the con artist father that abandoned her at age seven. As the novel’s key mystery unfolds — the search for a 16th Century gold Madonna statue — Malone entertains us with the life stories of Annie’s family. We’re treated to the ‘peace nut’ views of the loving lesbian aunt and pun-dropping Vietnam vet / doctor who raised her, her wisecracking best friend / psychiatrist, a Shakespeare-quoting Cuban refugee and an assortment of men, young and old, who all adore Annie. It’s a complex, well-written novel, worth all 544 pages if only for the beauty of the ending.
- Going from Pauline Melville (below) to Peter Mayle is like enjoying a relaxed walk along the beach (or through the vineyards) the day after running a challenging-and-exhilarating marathon through the Redwoods. I’ve read a few Mayle books before, all are centered on pastoral life in the South of France. Like the rest A Good Year is as smooth and easy as a nice glass of Pinto Noir. Not a heavily plotted book, it has just enough suspense to be engaging. It’s a slice-of-life transporting the reader to small vineyards and quaint villages of the quiet French countryside. Much of the narrative is devoted to food and wine; every chapter reveals another mouthwatering description of French culinary traditions. And Mayle’s singular talent for being both light and fulfilling comes through especially well in his wine tasting dialogues which keep a subtle balance between a genuine love for wine and making fun of the ostentatious lip service, ritual and outrageous valuations paid to it by the connoisseurs.
- Pauline Melville‘s The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997) is centered on the Amerindian McKinnon family in Guyana. The tale’s narrator traces their history from the patriarch Alexander McKinnon’s marriage to two Wapisiana women in the early 20th Century to modern times when Chofy, a 21st Century McKinnon, leaves his wife and son in the Rupununi savannah for work in the city of Georgetown where he falls in love with an English woman. It is a beautifully written narrative that gives the reader a glimpse of the native struggle to hold onto their own magical view of the world in the face of progress, ancients ways vs. modern. McKinnon’s daughter and son are enthralled and entrapped in the legend of incest between the sun and moon, a solar eclipse. Chofy’s generation, educated, living between the old ways and modern demands, continue the struggle of their ancestors facing the added incursion of American oilmen into the Rupununi. In the epilogue the story’s narrator says, “I will say one thing, however. There are three strands of insanity in this world: love, religion and politics, each one so dangerous that it has to be kept in an institution; religion in a church or a temple like a mad dog; love confined to marriage, escaping at society’s peril; politics chained to parliaments because of the genocides and wars that take place when it gets loose.” In found an interview of Pauline Melville who said: “Being a writer is like being a window-cleaner in a house or a castle where the windows are obscured by dirt and grime. Writing is like cleaning the windows so that people can see a view of the world they have never seen before.” With The Ventriloquist’s Tale she achieved a clear, heart-rending view into her native Guyana, an even clearer view into mankind’s soul.
- Eating Air, a 2009 novel by Pauline Melville requires concentration and focus to read. Centered on a group of British anarchists, the story evolves slowly with full back-stories on new characters introduced regularly. Even halfway through her 400-page novel Melville takes the reader on a new character-development tangent with occasional asides by ‘The Narrator.’ Melville’s writing, however, is so rich, so original that she never fails to bring the new elements of the story to life, deftly weaving them, fifty pages later, back into the heart of the story. Like The Ventriloquist’s Tale she draws from her own past as a native of Guyana with present-day roots in England.
This tale presents the ghastly history of neighboring Surinam, originally a Dutch colony sharing a border with British Guyana. Decades after their terrorists acts of the Vietnam War era, the cast of revolutionaries wants to topple or at least scar a Dutch & British based world banking institution whose riches originated from their pillaging of Surinam’s natural resources while they slaughtered and/or impoverished the natives. Melville chronicles the lives of committed, or regularly re-committed, revolutionaries from their youth to middle age, presenting the whole of each life not just their political passions. Hector, the idealist who spent seven years in an Italian prison rather giving up his co-conspirators, is committed to his wife and his Down syndrome daughter. Mark, the spoiled son of a famous actress, reckless, never loyal, addicted to the thrill of terrorist acts. Victor, a playwright, anti-establishment in his writing but living off the coattails of wealthy family and friends. A gay cross-dressing pilot, his father one of the wealthy bankers. Hetty, an aloof, manipulative American woman with a beguiling head of blonde tresses who revels in causing pain and disruption wherever and whenever possible.
Rising above all these desperate characters are the two who give the entire story wings. Donny, so committed to freedom – “I don’t think about tomorrow. Never did. Never will.” — and so honest that he marries the love his life offering her no illusion about being constantly at her side; their marriage is like an infinitely long bungee cord that brings him back to her side as he bounds with reckless freedom around the globe. The beautiful ballerina, Ella, never questions Donny’s committed to her; knowing he will return to her, she dances, enjoys intimacy with the men and women around her, and leaps into his arms every time he turns up, years or decades between his appearances. Ella and Donny don’t trifle with beliefs, they just live. Donny says, “Having moral principles is against everything I believe in. I am against anybody who is for anything.” When asked what he does believe in, “Nothing. Children. The innocence of children. Humanity. Die for an idea? What a load of fucking shite.” In the end, Eating Air is a massive expression of Pauline Melville’s discontent with the world. The story’s narrator is asked if writing a novel, or art, can make any difference to the world. His (her) answer: “Probably not. But it might upset things a little. It’s one way of having a quarrel with the world. Art is what those of us do who are too frightened to be terrorists.”
- Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller has, as the NY Times attests on the book cover, “the brains of a literary novel and the body of thriller.” A old Jewish American, a U.S. Army sniper in the Korean War, who has just recently moved to Norway to live with his daughter and her husband, suddenly finds himself the sole protector of a six year old Albanian boy after he witnesses the boy’s mother being killed. The narrative encompasses the point-of-view of the tough old Jewish man, the Norwegian female police inspector as well as of members of the refugee gang members who stalk the boy. It’s a page-turner with great character insight.
- Derek B. Miller‘s The Girl in Green is a deep dive into the horrors the U.S. military helped unleash in Iraq, first with Desert Storm then with the 2003 invasion. We see the plight of innocents through the eyes of a British journalist and a veteran U.N. relief worker who beds him. We can look at the ruthless terrorist acts and devastating military responses only because of the hope the story offers — the hope that the young girl dressed in green will be saved. A smart mouthed American named Arwood Hobbes, half Don Quixote, half comic-book-reading teen soldier who never grew up drives the story forward dispensing odd doses of resolution to those that trust him.
- Katherine (1995) by Anchee Min. Katherine is the enchanting story of a young Chinese woman rediscovering life after living through the brutal, intentionally dehumanizing experiences Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Named for the American teacher who comes to China to teach English, Katherine is equal parts teacher, student and friend to Zebra who narrates her own bittersweet reawakening. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve read this year.
- David Mitchell writes with a gravitas and intelligence that few writers can achieve. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is an in-depth history lesson driven by mystery, love, enchantment and insight. Set in Japan in at the turn of the century, the year 1800 is celebrated by the Dutch merchants on their isolated wharf in Nagasaki while the Japanese, in their shogun Edo Period, are fighting to maintain their cultural integrity and their national autonomy. Although it centers around a young clerk named Jacob de Zoet, the story expands into the lifestyles of Japanese lords and ministers, Japanese women both educated and low-born and takes us all the way up into the Goto Mountains to a diabolical monastery. Mitchell writes in the vernacular of the times, using the idioms of the Dutch as well as the Japanese, half-a-dozen translators become part of the story. His writing demands disciplined reading, in the end, and throughout, well worth it.
- Brian Morton – Starting Out in the Evening – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
- Haruki Murakami – Sputnik Sweetheart – see main blog article: ‘Five Authors, Four Countries – One Theme’
From Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart: “Understanding is but the sum our misunderstandings. Just between us, that’s my way of comprehending the world, in a nutshell.”
And: “Summer vacation is nearly over, and I have to step once more into the endless stream of the everyday.”
- R.K. Narayan, the William Faulkner of Indian literature (written in English), wrote The Vendor of Sweets in 1967. It is one of a series of books Narayan wrote that was centered on a fictional, semi-urban town in southern India that he called ‘Malgudi.’ The story follows the life of Malgudi’s candymaker. Jagan, a widower struggling with his relationship with his only son, Mali. Jagan is a devout man who maintains a very strict diet of his own creation. He never indulges in sugar, despite his prosperous candy business. In his respectful dialogues with friends and colleagues he makes frequent reference to being a follower of Gandhi. He meditates daily on the Gita, a Hindu holy book. Despite his generous, thoughtful character he continues to be at a loss to understand his son, especially after Mali returns from America with a college education, a wife and a somewhat misguided scheme for a new modern business, a book-writing machine. Narayan’s light comedic tough and his sensitive narrative offer readers historic views and subtle insights into mid-20th Century Indian people progressing eagerly but gently into the modern age.
- Beautiful Illusion by Christie Nelson is a beautiful re-imagining of San Francisco is the late 1930’s. The Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge just completed, San Franciscans turn their energy and enthusiasm to making Treasure Island, newly risen from landfill and Bay dredging, into the exquisite 1939 ‘Golden Gate International Exposition’. When the Japanese contingent arrives, a young reporter delves into the mysterious plans surrounding their popular exhibit. While she seeks the anguishing truth of her own past, we travel with her to exotic ballrooms, to the city’s back alley realities and into exotic nightlife of San Francisco. With her love life entangled with both a Japanese saboteur and a brilliant dwarf, Lily, the beautiful, risk-taking reporter uncovers the Japanese plot intended to be a precursor to their Pearl Harbor attack.
- Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be The Place is rich and complex like a fine Cabernet. At its heart its a story about family, identity and true love but it is not a simple story, nor a simple family. Claudette was a world renown film star who rebelled against her fame by hiding away in a remote farmhouse in Ireland. Her second true love, Daniel, has had a complicated life both in America and in England where he studied linguistics. He seeks out the children he left behind in California while starting a new family with Claudette in Ireland but all their lives are thrown into chaos when Daniel must confront his culpability for the death of his college sweetheart. O’Farrell is a superb author; she takes the reader on a journey of life’s subtle tastes and textures while letting us love her bold, brilliant and uniquely flawed characters.
- The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie Otsuka. The Japanese women who came to America as ‘mail order’ brides in the early 20th Century had no idea what to expect. None imagined that it would be as harsh as it was or could have realized the tragic upshot of their eventual success. Otsuka speaks for all these women, singling out none: “Some of us on boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair; and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some us were from Nara . . . Some of us were from Tokyo . . .” As unique as they all were, they all suffered, most survived, becoming exemplary Americans . . . until WWII when they and their families were taken away. As she did in her earlier novel, When The Emperor Was Divine (2002), Otsuka writes prose that reads like poetry.
- If you are white and believe that you are not racist, you must read Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It is extremely bold for a white author to create, and speak for, a black character, especially one so articulate about all the little, seemingly innocuous ways in which white people betray their races bias. In the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the novel, Picoult speaks frankly about her twenty year quest to write a novel about racism in America and admits, “What right did I have to write ab out an experience I had not lived? Adding, “I grew up white and class-privileged.”
In Small Great Things Picoult proves she is up to the task. It’s the story of a middle aged black nurse, a very competent and caring nurse, who, by no fault of her own, becomes embroiled in criminal charges over the death of a newborn infant. The infant’s parents, her accusers, are devoted white supremacists. It is a superbly written story, told from the POV of the black nurse, of her white female attorney and the racist father. From this white male’s POV, Picoult story was insightful and enlightening.
- Plowing the Dark (2000) by Richard Powers. Beautifully written, emotionally and intellectually provocative, Plowing the Dark is not an easy read, nor should it be. Powers’ first transition — from the story of a tech group working on cutting-edge virtual reality systems to the plight of an American teacher captured and imprisoned in war-torn Libya – is so jarring as to make the reader wonder if it’s some sort of mistake. The stories and characters do not intersect. Instead they search the opposite poles of the human experience, offer jolts of insight, such as:
- Speaking of the artist recruited by her tech friend to help build their virtual reality: “The Adie that Spiegel had loved, the poised, potent undergrad who’d believed in the pencil’s ability to redraw the worked, was long dead the night he’d called to recruit her, a causality of adulthood.”
- “Maybe this is just perversity. But something about complete consensus would just . . . sadden me. Think of art, all the shockers and rule breakers . . . . All the good ones were either iconoclasts or revolutionaries. We need something to take up arms against. I’m not sure I want to live in a time when all battles have already been fought and won.”
- “Evolution’s most productive trick was to right things so that the idea of need grew vastly more insatiable than the needs it represented. Feeling had nowhere near ample room in which to play itself out.”
- “Progress is destruction with a compass”
- The imprisoned man reads from the Qur’an, the only book he’s allowed in solitary confinement: “Were the sea ink for the words of God, the sea would fail before the words did.” And: “Did you think to enter paradise without suffering the violence of those who have come before you?”
- In Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx delivers a harrowing account of white man’s devastation of the American forests. Her rich descriptions of the “citrine, viridian emerald” woodlands that once carpeted the entire continent of North America shifts quickly to accounts, covering three centuries, of mass butchering and despoiling of this beautiful land. Beginning in the 17th Century with vivid depiction of the lives of two Frenchmen, Charles Duquet and René Sel, working an indentured laborers felling trees in the northeast (present day New Foundland), Proulx introduces the theme that runs the length of her 717 page novel – the Christian belief in man’s dominion over all life on earth, their passionate desire to tame the lands they commandeered under the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ We hear from the native descendants of René Sel, who married into the Mi’kmaw tribe, struggling to understand the whiteman’s hunger for felling trees while many of them succumb to the life of lumberjacks for the sake of their families’ survival. From the other side, the Duquet family becomes the Duke family timber empire, one generation after the other working westward wiping our millions of acres of America’s virgin forests, then expanding to New Zealand and the Amazon jungle. The final generations in the story, native descendants of Sel and some of the Duke family defy their ancestor’s attitude of infinite forests and commit their lives to reforestation, admitting that their efforts are too little, too late. Proulx, who also wrote Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, is an impassioned writer, marshaling every detail of her stories into vivid realities that expose new truths.
- Most people know Russo’s Nobody’s Fool because of the movie by the same name that starred Paul Newman as Sully, a spirited, hard-bitten man feeling the folly of his years. For me, it was the rare occasion when I loved the movie as much as the book. (I’ve been a lifelong Newman fan.) Reading Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo I rejoiced that Paul Newman is alive and well as the aged, cantankerous Sully character in Russo’s sequel. North Bath and the small town’s failed and lovable characters need Sully’s brash courage more than ever. I found myself amazed that twenty-three years after publishing Nobody’s Fool, Russo is able to make a seamless transition to its sequel.
- Carl Sandburg: Remembrance Rock –– see article on home page: ‘An American Dialogue’.
- Before he wrote the screenplay, On the Waterfront, for which he won an Oscar, Budd Schulberg wrote Waterfront. It is — and isn’t — the same story. Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando in the movie) and Father Barry (Karl Malden) have the same grit, the same street-wise, soul-searching battles but are even more realistic in the book, without their Hollywood shine. The books ending was shunned by movie producers as too real and painful.
- André Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 novel The Last of the Just is among the most compelling books I’ve ever read about the plight of the Jewish people. The author, a Polish Jew, who fled to France with his family in the mid-1930s, traces the history of ‘The Just Men’ (36 righteous people, the ‘Lamed Vav’, who suffer for their people) back to the time of Jesus, focusing the story on the last, Ernie Levy. He and his family suffer the full wrath of the Nazis. In the later part of the book, Ernie commiserates with his young wife about why the Christians have hated the Jews so much and so long: “It’s very mysterious. They don’t know why themselves. I’ve been in their churches and I’ve read their gospel. Do you know who the Christ was? A simple Jew like your father, a kind of Hasid.” Golda, his wife chides, “No you’re kidding me.” No, no, believe me, and I’ll bet they’d have got along fine, the two of them, because he was really a good Jew, you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov – a merciful man, and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it! . . . Poor Jesus, if he came back to earth and saw that the pagans had made a sword out of him and used it against his sisters and brothers, he’d be sad, he’d grieve forever.”
- The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro plunges the reader into the depths of pre-WWII politics in America as experienced by a talented abstract artist, Alizée, obsessed with rescuing her family from Nazi-dominated Europe. It’s an incredibly well-researched historical novel that includes Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko on their way to pioneering the American Abstract Expressionist art movement, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and her nemesis, Beckingridge Long, the man responsible for blocking U.S. visas that would have saved the lives 190,000 European Jews. Another young artist, Alizée’s niece, Dainelle, provide the modern counterpoint to the story as she tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance in 1940. Shaprio’s novel is compelling throughout, the end startling as it is satisfying.
- When reading heartrending stories, I find myself hoping that it has all come from the depths of a fertile imagination, not from the life experience of the author. Black & White (2008), by Dani Shapiro, is just such a book. Fourteen years after Clara escaped New York and her childhood, she returns, reluctantly to visit her dying mother. Clara still cringes at the possibility of strangers recognizing her as ‘Ruth Dunne’s daughter.’ Her mother became an internationally celebrated photographer with a series of photos of Clara. Artistically posed in various settings, what started as quality one-on-one time with her mother when Clara was three became masterful manipulation of a teenager becoming overpowered by public recognition and by the vulnerability her mother captured so well in the photos of her nude daughter. With the support of her saintly patient husband and her own young daughter Clara reclaims and shares her childhood and works toward forgiveness as her mother’s life ebbs away, sill famous, still demanding, hoping for redemption. It’s a beautifully told story.
- Barn Blind (1980) is Jane Smiley’s first published novel. Her talent for presenting farm families, offering up diverse family members with fascinating detail, is immediately apparent in her first book. The fact of it being her first also becomes apparent, not for any lack of depth or style. The story is centered on four children, ages 13 to 18, giving themselves up to another summer of equestrian training on their mother’s horse farm, and each in their own way reacting to the dominant role their mother, Kate, plays in their lives. Smiley’s obvious familiarity with horses comes through in beautifully rendered descriptions. We get to know the horses nearly as well as the family. But, as each of Kate’s children present their point-of-view, each forecasting the adult lives waiting for them, we sense something waiting to happen, something tragic. When that moment comes at the end of the book, it’s heartrending in its poignance, but for the entire family it is a ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, a defining moment that, because it comes at the very end it leaves the reader no time to fold it back into the story.
- When I read Love Is Eternal, Irving Stone’s detailed biography of Mary Todd and Lincoln I was still thinking about Sherman Alexie’s mother, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, the previous book I had read. Mary Todd’s life was as opposite to Lillian Alexie’s as is possible. She was born to privilege and dreamt of someday living in the White House with a husband that would not only be a great president but that would love her with all his heart. She had no idea of the pain that would come with that dream fulfilled. In the first three years of the Civil War her three Confederate brothers and a brother-in-law were all killed in battle. She was accused of being a traitor to the North even while battling to restore the shabby neglected White House and supporting her besieged husband. Then her 11-year-old son, Willie, the son she cherished most, died of pneumonia. Knowing she would witness Abraham’s assassination just three years later somehow made Willie’s death all the more tragic. I wept for her, knowing that Lillian Alexie would not have and feeling that their tragic lives of diminished dreams and dying children were human fabric.
- Tom Northway by Marshall Terry*, opens with: “When he awoke, a miraculous new dawn was just beginning to come up over the glazed white land and play and dance at his uncurtained window. He lay very still, for a long moment savoring the light, feeling all through him the wonder of it.” It is Tom Northway’s 90th birthday. Throughout the day (the book) we learn of his well-lived life, his losses, his and triumphs. Happily abandoning the dental practice he hated (which he opened in 1900) he had retired to an ancestral Ohio farm, surrounded by the mostly stoic, always helpful Amish. The book ends with: “He let his eyes close, and thinking about the coming of spring, the eternal miracle, he went to sleep.” We should all live to celebrate our 90th birthday in such sweet reverie. It’s a wonderful book.
*Terry, an SMU English Professor who wrote this book in 1968 died in 2016 at age 85 — much loved, he was known on campus as ‘Mr. SMU’.
- Written by James Alexander Thom and his Shawnee wife, Dark Rain Thom, Warrior Woman tells the life story of Nonhelema, the famed female Shawnee Chief.
Well known in the early history of the United States as a peacemaker, Nonhelema spoke fluent English, French, German, a half a dozen tribal languages and the trails and peoples from Virginia and Pennsylvania to the Mississippi. The Thoms provide an indepth chronicle of the Shawnee’s duplicitous dealings with both Americans and British during the Revolutionary War through the eyes of Nonhelema. Her tribe, before white men’s interference, promoted a wonderful balance between men and women.
Women were honored, even envied for being the givers of life. Men felt the honor of being hunters and warriors to sustain and protect their families. Tribal decisions, like going to war, were a function of two councils. The men held a war council, the women a peace council. If the men voted for war but the women voted for peace, there would be no war. They made decisions like making war, or any major tribal move only when both councils agreed.
Even more than with the progression of white men’s betrayal, Nonhelema struggles with the Christian teachings highlighted by the demand for unquestioned respect and obedience by Brother David, the missionary who baptized her. At the end of her life, having tried to be a Christian and a peacemaker, she rebelled against Brother David, saying “You say we women must obey our husbands. The Master-of-Life did not make men and women to order each other about or to obey each other! He gave the man hunting to do as his way to help his wife and children, and told him to fight for his people if they were in danger. All the rest he gave to women — Man and woman, he made them both worth the same.” This novel is immensely rich, vivid and engaging.
- Only a master novelist like Leon Uris could manage to so deftly weave among a dozen characters over generations and achieve an 827-page story that is seamless. Redemption (1995) is family history (the Larkins of Ireland whom Uris introduced in his earlier novel Trinity) set on the vast stage of world history – settlement in New Zealand, the WWI Gallipoli battle and the Irish Republican fight for independence. But, except for ‘private diary’ notes from Winston Churchill scattered through the book, it never reads like history. It’s a story of passionate love, of family solidarity torn by the rivalry of fathers and sons. Uris manages to combine religious soul-searching, terrorist plots, trench warfare and irrepressible romantic love with the lyrical flow of a long Irish ballad.
- Rebecca Walker’s debut novel, Adé (2013) is a compelling love story, so concise and evocative that you will want to read all 112 pages in one sitting. Farida and her best friend, both 21st Century college students, are inspired to explore the mysteries of Africa. On a small island off the coast of Kenya, Farida falls deeply in love with a young Swahili man named Adé. She is prepared to abandon all the trappings of her American life for a simple Muslim lifestyle with the love of her life when the reality of tropical illness and civil war intercede. This short novel is at once a classic love story and a beguiling sketch of a simple, sweet lifestyle that feels almost otherworldly.
- M.O. Walsh: My Sunshine Away — great novel — go to my article ‘Transcendent Novels’ (on this blogsite) for the full review.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing reminds me of how novels began, poetry turning into prose. Jesmyn Ward accomplishes the writing mastery that straddles both. When she writes, from JoJo’s point-of-view:
“It’s raining now, the water coming down in sheets, beating against the car. Kayla sleeps, a deflated Capri Sun in one hand, a stub of a Cheeto in another, her face muddy orange. Her brown-blond afro matter to her head. Misty is humming to the song on the radio, her hair piled in a nest. Some of it escapes, a loose twig, to hang against her neck. Her hair turning dark with sweat.”
Or, Pop telling JoJo the story of Richie at Parchman:
“They put him on the long line. From sunup to sundown we was out there in them fields, hoeing and picking and planting and pulling. A man get to a point like that, he can’t think. Just feel. Feel like he want to stop moving. Feel his stomach burn and know he want to eat. Feel his head packed full of cotton and know he want to sleep. Feel his throat close and fire run up his arms and legs, his heart beat out his chest, and know he want to run.”
Her words flow like lyrics in a ballad — you can almost hear the blues chords in the background. That’s how storytelling was born, on the lips of a balladeer. In its fullness it touches our souls, transports us to the reality it describes.
I like what Anne Patchett said about said about this novel: “The connection between the injustices of the past and the desperation of the present are clearly drawn in Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book that charts the lines between the living and the dead, the loving and the broken.”
Poets like Jesmyn Ward evoke the raw realities of the past that bleed into the present — the realities that we must face in order to make a better world.
- Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down is a great book. Throughout it, I felt like I was reading a classic Russian novel, with deep intellectual moral dialogues and monologues throughout the story – something I think West intended. While the turn of the century, pre-Russian Revolution characters developed in the first half, she laid out the subtleties of the spy plot that drove the later half of the book into a compelling page-turner. After I finished the book this morning I finally read West’s forward in which she named some of the real characters that made up this novel – it was a ‘roman a clef’ as the French say (‘novel with a key’, real life overlaid with a façade of fiction).
The story is told from the point-of-view of Laura, an 18 year old woman, half-Russian, half-English (aristocratic on both sides), innocent, naïve, yet extremely well educated, fluent in five languages including two types of Russian that, as West asserts in her forward could really have existed at the turn of the century. A reader like me is even more naïve to the circumstances of the plot – the pre-socialist Russian revolutionaries, leading up to and even creating the opportunity for Lenin to take the reigns of the movement, the double agent working for the Tsar and the terrorists, and the off-handed reference to the French (most of the story takes place in France) obsession at the time with The Dreyfuss Affair. All of it so compelling, so rich with the details of fin de siècle style of art and décor, horse hooves on cobblestone, beautiful gowns, plush ladies hats and tailored suits. The final pages are priceless as Laura’s mother contemplates the coming century, believing it will be free of war, the poor masses lifted from their suffering, modern medicine letting everyone live long, healthy lives and industry making life easy, efficient and pleasant throughout the world.