Monday, October 02, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (October 1, 2023)

 It's hard for me to believe that it's already the first of October, but according to the title of this post, it must be true. It's a little cooler in this part of the country now, but we are still topping out at somewhere between 93 and 95 degrees every day, and we've had less than two total inches of rain since July 4. Let's just say it doesn't feel as if the seasons have changed even a little. 

I did finish three of the books I started last week with, and I managed to post reviews of all three: Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, Wifedom, and Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. I think that's the first time all year long that I've read three books in a row authored by women - something I used to do fairly frequently - and two more of the three I'm carrying in to this week are also written by females: The Heron's Cry by Anne Cleeves and Rabbit Hole by Kate Brody.

The Heron's Cry, a 2021 book by Ann Cleeves, is the author's second novel in her "Two Rivers" series featuring Detective Matthew Venn. I've owned a copy for over a year, but it took the recent publication of the third series book to finally get me to pick this one up. I'm not taking to the Venn character as quickly as I did to Vera, or my favorite of them all, Jimmy Perez, so I haven't felt a great urgency to read it. But I'm over halfway through it right now, and Matthew Venn is finally starting to grown on me, I think.

Rabbit Hole by Kate Brody has both feet firmly planted in contemporary culture. It's the story of a young woman whose older sister disappeared several years earlier after attending a party with high school friends. Now their father has killed himself and the woman feels guilty about not sharing everything she knew during the initial investigation of her sister's disappearance. After she starts using the internet to begin her own investigation, things go off the rails and the only person she can trust is a true crime fanatic a decade younger than her.

For Between Them, Richard Ford takes the unusual approach of sharing his memories of his parents in two entirely separate sections, the first devoted to his father, the second to his mother. The two sections were written thirty years apart. As Ford puts it, "I was one person raised by two very different people.." I love this from Ford, too, "...entering the past is a precarious business, since the past strives but always half-fails to make us who we are." As with everything else I've read by Ford, I'm finding his prose to flow very smoothly for me.

Last Day on Earth is a compilation of short stories from Eric Puchner. I haven't started reading the stories yet, but at first glance they seem to share the theme of difficult coming-of-age experiences. For instance, one boy fears his mother might really be a robot, another is desperate to keep his mother from putting his father's favorite dogs "to sleep," and one story is about a world in which parents no longer have that role. This 2017 book will be my first experience with Eric Puchner's writing.

I hope to finish at least three of these during the week, so I'll likely be starting others along the way. The most likely ones to be chosen are ones I've mentioned before like Harbor Lights, the James Lee Burke short story collection; The Lemon Man, an Australian crime novel by Keith Bruton; and Peter Skinner's coming-of-age novel Full Beaver Moon. I'm also considering a copy of Stephen King's Holly which was sent to me by someone wondering how I would react to what is said by many to be King's least disguised political rant to date. I'm not sure that I can get through it if what I've read about it is true, but I'm really curious to see if King may have jumped the shark (he has come dangerously close to doing that before) with this one, so we'll see. Maybe what I've read and been told about the novel is wrong.

Have a great reading week, y'all. Can't wait to talk with everyone during the week ahead.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You - Lucinda Williams


I first became a big fan of Lucinda Williams music after stumbling upon some of her early recordings. I remember being immediately taken by her stunning voice and phrasing. Back then her music was hard to find, but I put together a decent collection of her LPs and CDs, and then after I learned that Williams had deep roots in my part of Louisiana, and that she spent some early, musically formative, years around Houston and Austin, I wanted to learn more about her. My digging around, however, usually left me with more unanswered questions than I had when I started digging for answers. Now via her Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You,  Lucinda Williams fills in most of the blanks for me. 

Because she had lived in twelve different cities by the time she was eighteen, lots of places can lay claim to having played a significant role in the life of Lucinda Williams. Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Williams lived in Mississippi, Utah, and Georgia before she was five years old. She then spent a year in Santiago, Chile before returning to Louisiana for her pre-teen years, and even lived for a few months in Mexico before bouncing around for the next two decades between New Orleans, Fayetteville (Arkansas), San Francisco, Houston, Austin, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Nashville. 

Lucinda Williams was born to an academic father and a mother who suffered from mental illness all of her life because of the horrible sexual abuse she suffered as a child. Williams's father would eventually become a well respected writing teacher and poet, and he recognized his daughter's rebellious spirit early on, even to supporting her when she decided never to return to high school after being expelled for skipping school in order to march in peace and racial justice protests. As a result, Williams educated herself by sitting in on many of her father's creative writing workshops and befriending some of the most famous and creative writers of the day. 

"When I say, "I'm a southerner," many people think, "That must mean you're racist, you're this, you're that." There are all these stereotypes associated with being southern, which is a whole problem in and of itself. I think that's why my dad instilled in me, 'We are southerners, and we have to fight the people who think that all southerners are racist, all southerners are hicks, all southerners are stupid.' That's how I was raised. That's my South."

Nowhere is this influence more apparent than in Williams's poetic song lyrics. As confirmed in Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, her songs are largely autobiographical in nature, most of them being based on real life emotional experiences she was having with the men who were in her life at the moment (she has been happily married to Tom Overby since 2009). In the memoir, Williams includes the lyrics to many of her most personal songs and explains their often surprising origins. 

Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You offers an intimate look into the mind of a creative artist not afraid to her expose her feelings to the world. It is an honest look at who Lucinda Williams considers herself to be today at 70 years of age and how she got to be that way. My only regret is that the memoir does not address the stroke that Williams suffered in 2020, a stroke severe enough to rob her of her ability to play guitar for three years. Maybe that's another book. But she's back and she's healthy now, and I'm grateful for that.

Lucinda Williams (wikipedia photo)

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life - Anna Funder


Despite being completely mesmerized by Anna Funder's devastating take on the life of George Orwell, I'm still not sure how best to categorize Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life because of how often this biography skates right up to (and maybe just across) the line where it has to be said that the book morphs into novelization. So is it part standard biography and part novelized biography? Wait a minute, though, because there's still more to consider. Wifedom also combines strong elements of literary criticism, sociology, and feminist-leaning women's studies that even further differentiate it from any biography I've read before. There's a whole lot going on here. 

Anna Funder spent several years studying the books and papers of George Orwell and his first wife Eileen Blair, and it was only after multiple readings of Orwell's own account of his participation in the Spanish Civil War that Funder finally realized that Eileen Blair herself was in Spain at the exact same time. The way that Orwell and his previous biographers had managed so successfully to mask Eileen's presence in Spain during those months made Funder determined to learn more about Eileen O'Shaughnessy and her marriage to Eric Blair (real name of George Orwell).

And what Funder learned is not pretty.

It all boils down to the fact that without Eileen Blair, there would have been no George Orwell as we generally think of him today. Orwell, whose sex life seems to have bordered upon that of a sexual predator, saw Eileen as a free source of the labor he could not afford to pay for: housekeeper, cook, typist, researcher, editor, farm manager capable even of digging out the family septic tank, and backup sex partner. Upon Eileen's death at age 39 while pregnant with his child, Orwell finally realized and admitted, if only to himself, how important she had been in his life. His response? Not long after Eileen's death, Orwell initiated marriage proposals to several women until he finally found one willing to take on Eileen's role.

Sadly, Eileen Blair may have been her own worst enemy, even to neglecting her own health in favor of Orwell's needs and never demanding support from him when she most needed it. No doubt, the "patriarchy" of the times made it difficult for women to compete directly with men, but Eileen had the money and skills to leave Orwell any time she wanted to; she chose not to do so.

While I still admire Orwell's two classic novels (1984 and Animal Farm), and always will, I will from now on find it impossible ever to think of the author in terms other than that of the classic jerk - even for his times - that George Orwell proved himself to be. And I will always wonder why Eileen O'Shaughnessy put herself through it all.

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life is a stunner of a biography, one I will not be forgetting. 

Anna Funder (publisher site photo)

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Half-Life of a Stolen Sister - Rachel Cantor


Rachel Cantor's Half-Life of a Stolen Sister is, without doubt, the strangest book I am likely to read in all of 2023. I'm ready to give it that award right now - and I mean that as a compliment, not as a criticism. Rather than writing just any old fictionalized version of the tragic lives of the Brontë siblings and their parents, Cantor decided to take her interpretation of the Brontës a few steps further. Here, she mixes centuries by giving the Brontë siblings access to modern conveniences such as email, home movies, airplanes, television interviews, and radio interviews, etc. But wait. Before you throw your hands up and walk away from Half-Life of a Stolen Sister because of that, let me tell you that it all works brilliantly to paint an unforgettable portrait of the Brontës. 

The barebones history of the Brontë family is well known: 

  • They were a 19th century British family that produced five daughters and one son.
  • The first two daughters died in the same year at ages ten and eleven.
  • The other four children died before their fortieth birthdays (only Charlotte even came close).
  • The three youngest daughters produced classic literary masterpieces.
  • The only Brontë son was so hopelessly addicted to alcohol that the addiction controlled and ruined his life.

But what must the rather reclusive Brontës have really been like? That is precisely the question that Cantor tries to answer with Half-Life of a Stolen Sister. 

Early in their childhoods, the four remaining Brontë children discovered that they could entertain themselves by collaborating on long stories about heroic figures in other lands. The creative spark they shared even as children would eventually produce the books they are still remembered for today - but that is not the part of the Brontë story that Cantor focus on here. 

Instead, Cantor "interprets" what the relationships and strong bonds between the siblings and their father must have been like. The Brontës were a family in which family loyalty and love of each other came first, but Half-Life of a Stolen Sister gives readers a fresh way of seeing each Brontë as a unique individual. Cantor's choice to modernize their daily world makes them easier to identify with, too, helping the reader see them as actual living, breathing human beings rather than just some famous family of stick-figures from literary history. 

Brontë biographers will, of course, not want to hear it, but I come away with a better feel for who the Brontës really were from reading Half-Life of a Stolen Sister than I did from any of the Brontë biographies I've read to date. I realize that the book is speculation on the part of a single writer, but even if the details are only best guesses on Cantor's part, she has almost certainly captured the essence of perhaps the most unique literary family the world has ever seen. For the first time, they feel like real people to me.

Rachel Cantor jacket photo

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The White Lady - Jacqueline Winspear


The White Lady is only the second standalone novel that Jacqueline Winspear, best known for her long-running Masie Dobbs series, has published. Fans of the Masie Dobbs books, however, will feel right at home in the pages of The White Lady because this one is set much in the same time period of those, with its flashbacks to both World Wars I and II and the present day being set in 1947. 

The novels central character, Elinor White, is a veteran of both those wars, having first been part of the resistance movement in Belgium as a pre-teen with the kind of natural instincts that made her a deadly adversary to Belgium's German occupiers. Then just two decades later, as a young woman with the training and experience to become a resistance leader herself, she would return to Belgium to fight the Germans one more time. 

But now, Elinor is living alone in a small rural Kent village. All the locals know about her is that she is living in a "grace and favor" cottage, a privilege granted by the Crown only to those who have performed a very valuable service for their country. Villagers spot the woman on her long daily walks or shopping in the village on occasion, but she only speaks to anyone when necessary to conduct her business. She seems to have no friends or visitors, instead much preferring to enjoy the solitude that village life offers her. But while everyone speculates about what she could have possibly done to deserve the honor of her living arrangement, none of them realize that Elinor White is probably the bravest person living in Shacklehurst. Too, for good reason she is also likely to be the most guilt-ridden person living among them. 

That all changes one day when a little girl runs up and speaks to Elinor as she walks past their home. The woman is immediately drawn to the little girl, even to the point that she lingers long enough to engage the child's mother in conversation for a few minutes. From that moment on, Elinor looks forward to encountering the mother and daughter again. But when she learns that the little family is in imminent danger because Jim Mackie is being coerced into rejoining the powerful London crime family he is so desperate to escape, Elinor knows that she has to save that little girl from growing up in that lifestyle.

If anyone can save the Jim Mackie family, it will be her. And she is ready - and willing - to do the job.

The White Lady is a hard novel to pigeonhole. On the one hand, it can be called historical fiction. But it is also a coming-of-age novel, a crime novel, and a thriller involving Britain's secret services. The novel alternates flashbacks to both World Wars with Elinor's 1947 attempts to extract the Mackies from the father and brothers who are determined to force Jim back into the family business at any cost. What I found remarkable about The White Lady is that both the flashbacks and the present day segments of the story are compelling page-turners, meaning that I never regretted when one plot line segued into the next. That is certainly not always the case with novels constructed the way this one is.

There is a whole lot happening in The White Lady, and I recommend it. It is a solid four-star novel.

Jacqueline Winspear author photo

Monday, September 25, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (September 25)

 I made a good dent in my reading list this week by finishing up Holmes Entangled, Whalefall, and The White Lady. I've already posted reviews to the first two, and will post The White Lady review tomorrow. I'm struggling a little bit with Half-Life of a Stolen Sister, the Brontë family book, because of the way it switches genre and even centuries in portraying the family history. It's a long book, and with just under 100 pages to go, I still haven't figured out what to think of it. I'm also about 75% of the way through Wifedom, and I hope to finish it this week. So the carry-ins are these:

And I've already added these:

Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You (I just heard her sing that phrase in a song last night but can't remember which now) is Lucinda Williams's 2023 memoir, a long overdue book in my estimation. I've been a fan of her music and writing for a long time, and even though I'm only about 20% into this one, I've already become a fan of her prose. Her family turns out to be a whole lot more interesting than I had imagined it would be, as is Lucinda's personal journey to where she is today.

Kate Brody's Rabbit Hole is scheduled to be published on the second day of 2024, so I'm not certain exactly when I'll be posting the resulting review. May be a while before that happens. I'm so intrigued by the premise though, that I couldn't wait to read it. The plot involves a young woman who becomes obsessed with solving her older sister's disappearance from a few years earlier. It delves into the mindset of people who become obsessed with true crime books, true crime podcasts, and conspiracy theories to the point that they seem to cross over the line into weirdo world.

Also, I will most likely begin one or two other books before the week is over, and these are the most likely candidates:

James Lee Burke doesn't publish many short stories these days, but this collection will be published in January 2024. I've been a fan of everything James Lee Burke for decades, and I'm pretty excited about this compilation, excited enough that there's no way I can hold off until the end of the year to read it so this may be the week it happens. The stories are set in different parts of the country very familiar to Burke and, according to the publisher, "weave together love, friendship, violence, survival, and revenge." There's a lot there to unpack.

Full Beaver Moon is coming out around Thanksgiving, and I'm kind of intrigued that its author, Peter Skinner, donates all profits on his "creative" work to charity. This one is a coming-of-age novel about an 18-year-old biracial boy who goes looking for a lost friend somewhere in the deep South. I still don't have my copy of this one ready to go because it's going to be offered at a purchase price of only $10 or so when published. That's probably silly on my part, but it's a bit of a head-scratcher for me. His previous book, however, was well covered, so this one may come up for me this week.

The Lemon Man is a 2022 crime novel that just won Australia's prestigious Ned Kelly Award for Best International Crime Novel. This is no small deal, so I want to read The Lemon Man before it's sequel is published in early 2024. Listen to this basic plot line: an Irish hitman who makes his hits from a bicycle somehow manages to get himself designated as the caretaker of a baby boy. Now he has to figure out a way to work hits into his busy domestic schedule. This one sounds like a lot of fun.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents is exactly what it sounds like. Richard Ford is among my favorite "literary writers," and I'm curious to learn more about the people who helped shape him into who he is today. This is a short memoir, but the skimming I've done of it already indicates that it is a frank and personal account of Ford's relationship with his parents, including any regrets he has about those relationships. Should be a nice change of pace for the week if I do choose this one.

This is an unusual story about a young woman who accidentally becomes the sole caretaker of her father because her mother seems to spend most her own time living far away in Ghana. But Maddie is not happy about the situation, and when her mother finally returns to London from her latest trip to Ghana, Maddie moves out to begin living a life of her own - one in which she can make friends and advance her own career. Unfortunately, it's not going to be quite that easy for her to escape into her own life.

So there you have it. That's the plan, but I'm not feeling at all well these last couple of days, and I'm hoping to see a doctor today for some relief. Depending on how all of that goes, things may go very differently from the reading plan. I can't wait to find out if that happens.