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.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Whalefall - Daniel Kraus


If you've ever wondered, even for just a minute, what it would be like to actually be swallowed by a whale, I have just the book for you. In Whalefall that is exactly what Daniel Kraus explores. 

Seventeen-year-old Jay Gardiner is feeling very guilty about refusing to see his dying father for the last two years of the man's life. As an only son whose father expected great things from him, Jay still resents the way his father physically and emotionally abused him as a child. But now Jay fears that he will never again feel close to his mother and two sisters because of his choice to stay away from home even when his father was suffering the most. It doesn't help at all that Jay's father chose suicide over an agonizing death to cancer.

So Jay decides to look for his father's remains off the coast of northern California early one morning to make amends to his family. Monastery Beach, though, is not a place that sensible divers solo dive from even in good weather - and on the morning that Jay enters the water there, the weather is nowhere near good. Things quickly go bad for the boy.

Within minutes he is shocked to see a giant squid so close to the surface, but his shock turns into panic when he tries to swim away from the squid only to learn that part of his gear is entangled in the squid's tentacles. That's a bad situation, and Jay realizes he is in real trouble - trouble that soon gets much worse after a huge sperm whale decides to make a meal of the giant squid and accidentally swallows Jay along with his intended prey. (All of this information is included in the book jacket description.)

The rest of Whalefall is an almost minute-by-minute account of Jay's attempt to escape the whale's first (whales have four of them) stomach before his one-hour supply of air runs out. In great detail, Kraus explains exactly what is happening to Jay as the whale attempts to move his catch from one stomach to the next. As you can imagine, it all gets more painful for prey as that process progresses. 

Whalefall is definitely a thriller. There are no traditional chapters in the book, with its longest sections consisting of less than three full pages each. Rather, there are dozens of short sections headed up by the current pressure reading on Jay's oxygen tank, and as those four-digit readings steadily drop toward zero, the reader's tenseness level builds in inverse proportion. Interspersed with those sections are flashbacks to Jay's childhood that are titled by the year in which they happened. This way the reader learns exactly what happened to Jay as a boy and why he made the decisions he made. Ironically, it is only while reflecting on his relationship with his father while taking brief breaks from his struggle inside the whale that Jay finally begins to understand his father.

I suspect that Whalefall is not going to be for everyone, but if any of this makes you wonder about Jay's experience, or just makes you curious to know how it all ends, you should give this one a try.

Daniel Kraus (Simon and Schuster photo)

Friday, September 22, 2023

Movies from Books: Butcher's Crossing (2023) Official Trailer


John Edward Williams wrote a western back in 1960 about a buffalo hunter who loses it during a hunt he has put together for a naive Easterner who has come west to experience everything he's only read about. It's hard to imagine anyone these days better equipped to portray any level of insanity on film more effectively than Nicolas Cage manages it - even though Cage is barely recognizable here as a baldheaded buffalo hunter. Contributing to the overall effect is Cage's rather subdued manner of delivering his dialogue, making  his behavior on the hunt seem even more shocking.

Heck, I'm just happy to see new westerns in theaters again, and I'm hoping that Butcher's Crossing turns out overall to be anywhere as great as the background scenery shown in this official trailer. I've seen Cage in a couple of other westerns, and he's done a credible job in both, so I'm looking forward to seeing this one when it's finally released in late October (it was completed in September 2022).

Keeping my fingers crossed that Hollywood will start taking westerns seriously again at some point

Holmes Entangled - Gordon McAlpine


Holmes Entangled gives us author Gordon McAlpine's clever take on what just might have happened one day if Sherlock Holmes had been a real life London-based detective, and not the fictional detective still famous all around the world that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in his novels. 

In McAlpine's take, Sherlock is now 73 years old and firmly retired from the detecting business. But Sherlock is still Sherlock, and he can't resist going out into the world disguised as made-up university lecturer identities he creates for himself. The old detective is still clever enough to fool experts in whatever field he chooses to lecture on, and it's obvious that he can keep moving around England from university post to university post for as long as he wants to maintain the charade. 

That all changes one day, however, when Holmes receives a visit from an author he has absolutely no respect for, Arthur Conan Doyle. Holmes considers Doyle a gullible fantasist at best. But Doyle is in trouble - someone has already put a bullet very close to his spine, and now he wants Sherlock Holmes to find out who shot him, and more importantly, why they shot him. Holmes takes the case largely just to find out who tipped off Doyle as to his real identity, but this turns into an investigation that will ultimately threaten the life of Homes and those of everyone he has ever been close to (short list, that). 

Soon Holmes, while at the same time trying to protect everyone from being murdered, has put together an investigatory team consisting of himself, Doyle, and Mrs. Watson (his one-time housekeeper/landlady and the widow of John Watson, the writer who in this real world is responsible for much of Sherlock's great fame). Holmes even recruits to the team some of his Irregulars from the old days despite the fact that they are all well into middle age now and have lives of their own. 

McAlpine is a really good storyteller and this is my favorite of his books. I enjoy the twists and tweaks he puts on his reimagined past events, and this one meanders all over the place - even Edgar Allan Poe's mysterious death becomes a key clue in the investigation at one point. What I most enjoyed, though, was seeing Mrs. Watson finally getting some respect from Holmes for her mind - even to the point of him regretting that he never once asked for her help during his long career. Another highlight was seeing Holmes in yet another face to face confrontation with his nemesis of a brother.

My enthusiastic recommendation of Holmes Entangled does come with one warning. Much of the last quarter of the book gets bogged down by McAlpine's attempt to explain the basic assumptions of quantum physics to his readers. I think that because he realized that few readers were going to get his first explanation, McAlpine felt obligated to rephrase the explanation several more times as it was explained to different characters in the novel. Frankly, I still don't get it - and it all became more of a distraction than an benefit. 

That said, I still rate Holmes Entangled a four-star book, if only barely.

Gordon McAlpine jacket photo

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Crook Manifesto - Colson Whitehead


"A man has a hierarchy of crime, of what is morally acceptable and what is not, a crook manifesto, and those who subscribe to lesser codes are cockroaches."   (Page 179)

In this sequel to Harlem Shuffle, Ray Carney is at first content just to keep his head down and get on with running his thriving Harlem furniture store. In fact, Carney is doing so well selling furniture these days that he no longer has to help move stolen goods around the city as they pass from the hands of thieves into those of unscrupulous purchasers. Then, because his daughter is so eager to get her hands on Jackson 5 tickets, Carney makes the mistake of asking a favor of a crooked NYPD cop he's worked with in the past, a man who would never consider adhering to a "crook manifesto" anything like Carney's. So now Carney is back in the game whether he wants to be or not - and his crook manifesto goes up in a puff of smoke.

Crook Manifesto is divided into three distinct sections that are set in 1971, 1973, and 1976, respectively. The seventies are not kind to the Harlem section of New York City. This is a decade of record high crime levels, decaying infrastructure, crooked politicians at every level of city government, and neighborhood cops as corrupt as the criminals they claim to be chasing. It's a world in which only those with the right underworld connections are going to survive, much less thrive - and Ray Carney is hanging on only by the skin of his teeth. 

Carney's Achilles heel is his contempt for those who don't share his code, and when he starts asking questions around the neighborhood about a suspicious fire that almost kills a little boy in his sleep, Carney places himself - and everyone closest to him - in serious danger. Ray Carney is not really a good man, just a better man than the most of the ones he deals with every day. He can't explain even to himself his aching desire to make the "cockroaches" pay for their recklessness - even as his own recklessness causes Harlem to burn down all around him.

Colson Whitehead jacket photo

Monday, September 18, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (September 18)

 I'm still having trouble concentrating...seems as if my mind is always thinking more about the next thing I need to do than the actual thing I am doing. Somehow or another, though, I did end up finishing three books last week: Woman with a Blue Pencil, Teddy and Booker T, and Crook Manifesto so it wan't a lost reading week. The Jerry Lee Lewis biography I had barely started came due so I decided to table that one for a while, meaning that the only carry-in from last week will be Rachel Cantor's Half-Life of a Stolen Sister.

In addition, I've already started on these:

In this one, Gordon McAlpine imagines what it would be like if Sherlock Holmes were every bit as real a person as his real-life creator Arthur Conan Doyle. It seems as if someone has barely failed in an assassination attempt against Doyle, and now the author wants to hire Sherlock to both protect his life and figure out exactly who wants him dead. Holmes Entangled is written in the style of the original novels, but my favorite character is turning out to be Sherlock's former landlady (now Dr. Watson's widow).

I'm not at all sure what to think about this one yet. Whalefall is the story of a teenaged diver who decides to look for his father's body in rough seas off the California coast. The boy gets into serious trouble when a giant squid threatens him, but things take an even graver turn when sperm whale shows up in the same area to feed. The diver becomes entangled in the tentacles of the squid at precisely the moment the whale decides to feed on the squid. Down the gullet, along with the squid holding him in place, goes our teen diver. 

I found Jacqueline Winspear's The White Lady while browsing the current edition of Bookmarks magazine. It is rated four stars in the magazine, especially impressive since I don't know that Bookmarks goes higher than four stars in a review. The book is set in 1947 but its main character has been shaped by her WWII experiences as an agent for the British government. She is trying to make up for some of what she had to do during the war. A well written historical thriller.

Wifedom became available quicker than I thought it would, but after seeing it mentioned on a couple of blogs I follow and hearing Anna Funder speak about it on a podcast, I really hope to make a big dent it this week and finish it up next week. It's the story of George Orwell's first wife, the woman he was married to when he produced his classic works. If I understand correctly, his wife may have had a lot to do with those books herself - and Orwell supposedly treated her pretty shabbily. So...

I should mention, too, that I culled Everyone in My Family from the top of my TBR stack because...well...something had to give. I do hope still to be able to read soon the Lucinda Williams memoir Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You

Sunday, September 17, 2023

A Baker's Dozen of Bookish Podcasts...Do You Listen?

Book Fight! calls itself "a book podcast where writers talk honestly about books, writing, and the literary world," and it's hosted by writing professionals Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister. (Rated 4.4 with 233 review)

I've listened to Books and Authors for a long time and find this podcast to be one of the most consistently high-quality book podcasts out there. I've recently enjoyed episodes featuring Zadie Smith and Ann Patchett, and another titled "George Orwell Now." (Rated 4.3 with 321 reviews)

I seem to be introduced to more new-to-me writers via Simon Mayo's Books of the Year than from most of the other book podcasts I favor. I did, however, particularly enjoy two recent episodes featuring an old favorite of mine, Sebastian Faulks. (Rated 4.7 with 55 reviews)

This one from the New York Times can always be counted on to get interviews with the currently hottest writers of the moment. They've recently switched to a new host and tweaked the format a bit, so I'm still getting used to the new look. (Rated at 4.1 with 3,200+ reviews)

I don't listen to the London Review of Books podcast as often as I do some of the others because, frankly, it's often over my head or outside my area of interest. But it's a quality podcast that keeps me coming back. (Rated at 4.5 with 201 reviews)

Write-Minded bills itself as "Weekly Inspiration for Writers" but I've enjoyed many of the podcasts strictly from a reader's point of view. In fact, the most recent episode on telling stories via different points of view is fascinating. (Rated at 4.9 with 400 reviews)

So Many Damn Books has been around since 2014 but it's one of the more recent "discoveries" of mine. It seems to feature a lot of writers I'm unfamiliar with so it's been the source of several author discoveries for me. (Rated at 4.7 with 251 reviews)

Reading Through Life caught my attention because it self-describes this way: "a weekly podcast by two best friends who would love to live in a library. We believe that there is no better company than that towering pile of 73 unread novels you have sitting on the nightstand." It's like eavesdropping on two best friends at a coffee shop while they gush about the books they are reading. (Rated at 4.5 with 133 reviews)

This one is a bit different in that it features one author reading aloud the work of another and commenting on it in an interview format. Unlike most of these podcasts, The New Yorker Fiction podcast updates only monthly, but I particularly enjoyed the July episode that saw George Saunders reading Claire Keegan's short story "So Late in the Day." (Rated at 4.4 with 2,900+ reviews)

Just the Right Book is hosted by an indie bookstore owner and features a lot of nonfiction alternated with "What's New" podcasts. It's fun to hear things from a bookseller's point of view. (Rated 4.6 with 327 reviews)

Sarah and a guest discuss: "2 old books they love, 2 new books they love, 1 book they don't love, and 1 new release they're excited about." Always interesting. (Rated 4.8 with 655 reviews)

What Should I Read Next? is right at the top of my list because of the topics it covers and its presentation...not at all "bossy." I recently enjoyed, and learned a lot from, the episode that covered "how bestseller lists are compiled." (Rated 4.8 with 4,800+ reviews)

I particularly love the "Author Takeover" episodes from Fully Booked in which one author comes in to interview another about their work. Usually the two are friends so what they share is a good way to learn more about their everyday lives and how they work. (Rated 3.9 with 77 reviews)

So there you have my baker's dozen of favorite book podcasts - at least as of today because I keep discovering new ones every week or so. As you can see, all of these are highly rated, but I think their overall popularity is best gauged by the number of reviews they've harvested from listeners so I've included those numbers also. This barely scratches the surface of the world of book podcasting, so let me know if you have a particular favorite one yourselves. I'd love to check them out.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Woman with a Blue Pencil - Gordan McAlpine


I really enjoy the way Gordon McAlpine's mind works. McAlpine (who has also used the pen name Owen Fitzstephen) doesn't just write historical fiction, or crime fiction, or for that matter, any kind of novel that uses the usual kind of plot line to move it along. Instead, he adds his own special twist to those genres to create something a whole lot different. Woman with a Blue Pencil is a good example. On its face, Woman with a Blue Pencil is historical fiction covering that awful period in American history after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor when all West Coast Japanese Americans, suddenly viewed as potential spies and traitors to this country, were moved into internment camps for safekeeping and "their own good." 

Sam Sumida is an academic investigating the murder of his wife on the eve of Pearl Harbor only because authorities don't care enough about what happened to her to do a proper investigation themselves. But then Sam discovers that he has no memory of the last several weeks and that everyone he knows no longer recognizes him. Even worse, he learns that there is no public record of him ever having existed - or of his wife's murder. Unbeknownst to Sam, his investigation is about to lead him into a deadly confrontation with an anti-Japanese personal investigator who is somehow linked to Sam's murdered wife. But the real kicker in Sam's world is that he is unaware that he and his wife are merely fictional characters in a novel - and that what happened at Pearl Harbor necessitated them being stricken from that novel and replaced by characters with a more politically correct feel to them. So now if Sam is ever to figure out what happened to his wife, he is going to have to confront his fictional replacement. 

The "woman with a blue pencil" calling the shots is all-powerful, but the young Japanese author taking her advice is not ready to completely let go of Sam Sumida. 

This one is fun, and it has led me to another Gordon McAlpine novel, Holmes Unearthed, that I'll soon be reading. 

Gordon McAlpine jacket photo

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Nobody's Fool - Richard Russo


Richard Russo's 1993 novel Nobody's Fool turned out to be the first book in what would become known as Russo's "North Bath Trilogy," although the second and third books in the trilogy would not be published until 2016 and 2023, respectively. This, though, is the novel that introduced Donald "Sully" Sullivan and his messed up family to the world. Sully is one of those characters that are more lovable than not despite themselves, so I'm grateful that Russo eventually decided to write something close to 2,000 pages all told, exploring who Sully is and how he got that way.

Even when first introduced to readers, Sully is already an old man, especially physically. He's been a blue collar worker his entire life, and now even with a knee so damaged that most men would beg for the knee surgery Sully refuses to have, he is still surviving on whatever manual labor he can find on any given day. Despite having been divorced for decades, Sully is a woman's man and has never lacked for female company. He is also a drinker, and he has never lacked for drink or drinking partners.

As you probably have figured out already, Sully is also a man likely to have as many enemies as he has friends. One of Sully's eccentricities is that his acquaintances switch roles so often that he has a hard time keeping friends and enemies straight in his mind - often to his own detriment. In the North Bath trilogy, Russo has created an entirely believable little upstate New York town, and he's populated it with a cast of fully developed characters who probably deserve novels of their own. It's a world that most readers will probably be happy they don't have to live in, but it's definitely a fun place to visit. 

This year's Somebody's Fool made me want to go back and read the two earlier novels in the series, and I'm now looking forward to re-reading Everybody's Fool. If you enjoy long novels that you can fully immerse yourself in for a few days, I highly recommend the North Bath trilogy by Richard Russo.

Richard Russo jacket photo

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Teddy and Booker T - Brian Kilmeade


Brian Kilmeade is fast becoming as known for his accessible books about some of the lesser covered aspects of American history as he is already known for his conservative political commentary on radio and television. Past Kilmeade books have included volumes on Andrew Jackson's miracle win of the Battle of New Orleans, on Thomas Jefferson's "forgotten war" against the Tripoli Pirates, on Sam Houston's army of "Alamo avengers" who won Texas from Santa Ana's Mexican army, on Abraham Lincoln's relationship with Frederick Douglas, and on George Washington's Revolutionary War spy ring. This time around, Kilmeade tackles the special relationship that developed between Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington around the turn of the twentieth century.

In the two decades prior to the turn of the century, Southern backlash to the policies of Reconstruction at home and in Washington D.C. had effectively ended the Reconstruction Era. Any further progress of America's black citizens was practically impossible in many states, but as so often happens in history, the exact right people to help right this wrong came along just when they were most needed. Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington stepped up and took over where Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas left off. 

It is hard to imagine a more unlikely pair, with one born into wealth and the other into slavery. But the two also had much in common, and they worked together during and after Roosevelt's time in office to get black men appointed to positions of power they would otherwise not have achieved for decades. But it all began with a single misstep that almost doomed their efforts before they had a chance to accomplish a thing when Roosevelt, in his naive audacity, invited Washington to the Roosevelt family's private White House dinner table. The backlash was quick and it was fierce, and in the eyes of many Southerners it overshadowed anything that Roosevelt would go on to accomplish as President of the United States. 

Teddy and Booker T is a reminder of just how unique, brave, and accomplished Roosevelt and Washington were, and how important a role they played together to make this country a better place for all of its people. Their struggle was at times frustrating and dangerous, but we are very lucky that each of them came along when they did - and even luckier that they found each other. 

Brian Kilmeade author photo

Monday, September 11, 2023

What I'm Reading This Week (September 11)

 I've been a bit distracted for the last two weeks because of the beginning of the college football season, and it didn't feel as if I were turning a whole lot of pages this week. But somehow, I managed to finish four books: A Town Called Solace, The Secret Hours, Paperback Jack, and Nobody's Fool. That's probably because I enjoyed each so much that I was always happy to get back to any of them. 

I'm still working on Brian Kilmead's Teddy and Booker T, and have also started Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg, Half-Life of a Stolen Sister by Rachel Cantor, Woman with a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine, and Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead.

Crook Manifesto suddenly became available from my library, so it's the short-fuse book of the week. I've been a fan of Colson Whitehead since finally discovering him via his wonderful alternate history novel The Underground Railroad a while back. This one is, I think, the first time that Whitehead has ventured into series novels. It uses the same main characters from his previous novel, Harlem Shuffle, and gets off to a rousing start in Part I. Whitehead is just one heck of a storyteller.

I'm not very far along in any of those yet, so it's not likely to be a week with a lot of new adds to what I'll be reading, but these are the ones most likely to come up next:

I like the way Gordon McAlpine thinks, and I'm fascinated by the novel of his I'm reading now, The Woman with a Blue Pencil, so I'm looking forward to this tale about a now seventy-year-old Sherlock Holmes who is brought out of retirement by author Conan Doyle (author of the Sherlock Holmes series) in real life because someone is threatening to kill Doyle. It sounds like a fun story that is wide open for a lot of inside jokes that fans of the Sherlock Holmes books will appreciate. 

In the last few weeks, I've seen Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone featured on several of the book blogs I follow, and it sounds like something I will enjoy. It's an murder mystery written by Australian author Benjamin Stevenson, and the main character, as the title says, may be the only member of his crime family who hasn't killed someone. The book jacket makes it sound as kind of an homage to the likes of "Holmes, Christie, Chesterson..." Lots of potential here. 

I've never had the pleasure of seeing Lucinda Williams in live performance, but the singer's voice and style combination is one of the most recognizable I've ever encountered. She always comes across as such a tortured soul that I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say about her life experiences in Don't Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You. Williams is from Louisiana and according to the jacket was always told that she was "too country for rock and too rock for country." I can believe it. She's special.

Happy Reading, y'all...