Thursday, April 11, 2024

Crow Talk - Eileen Garvin


Crow Talk is one of those books that sneak up on you as you read them. I was slow to warm up to Mary Francis O'Neill, the young woman at the heart of Crow Talk, and early on she is so geographically and socially isolated that I began to wonder if I ever would. It's not that "Frankie" is an unimpressive woman. As noted in the novel's very first paragraph, Frankie is first in her University of Washington graduate school class, was the first female from her high school to win a "full ride" to that school, and was even the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree of any kind. And then there's the revealing kicker: she's also the first on either side of her family to reach the ripe old age of twenty-six without giving birth. 

Frankie has come to June Lake to regroup. She's frustrated and she's running from something, and the empty family cottage feels like her only refuge, a place where she can finally finish her thesis before getting on with the rest of her life. But there is obviously more to the story, and layer by layer, Frankie's past, her family dynamics, and the shakiness of her future are revealed. Frankie is unemployed (and perhaps unemployable), homeless, friendless, barely speaking to her family, and simply out of options. It is June Lake or nothing, even if she is the only one on the isolated lake as winter approaches. 

Then Aiden, a little autistic boy who suddenly stopped speaking a few months earlier, and Charlie, a baby crow with an injured leg, change everything. Frankie might not be able to heal herself or her family, but she's a natural when it comes to Aiden and Charlie, both of whom seem to recognize just how important Frankie might turn out to be in their own worlds. And maybe, just maybe, Aiden and Charlie Crow can return the favor.

It was only after finishing Crow Talk that I realized how fully invested I had become in the Frankie O'Neill character and how real she felt to me. Eileen Garvin has created a unique little world here filled with people I hated to see leave my own. Sure, her story is heartwarming and inspirational, but it's more than that. Much like Garvin's previous novel, The Music of Bees, Crow Talk is a painless science lesson. I came away from The Music of Bees understanding and appreciating more about the importance of bees and the intricacies of beekeeping than I ever expected to know. Crow Talk taught me about the fascinating life cycle of crows and the way that crows can interact with humans, even to recognizing the faces of their "allies." 

Eileen Garvin has become an author I trust, and I can't wait to see what she has to teach me next time around.

Eileen Garvin author photo

Look for Crow Talk on April 30.

Monday, April 08, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 8, 2024)


I can hardly believe that finally, after weeks and weeks of waiting for my turn at a library copy of the 2023 Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song, is in my hands.  I even managed to make a good start on it last week, and it looks like Prophet Song is going to have been a novel worth waiting for. Right now, I don't see it moving all the way up my personal 2023 Booker ranking list to the top spot, but that's certainly still a possibility at this point. 

As for last week's reading, it's three books finished (You Can't Joke About That, Charming Billy, and Falling by Kat Timpf, Alice McDermott, and T.J. Newman, respectively) and five in progress as I start the new week:

  • Crow Talk - Eileen Garvin
  • The Plague Albert Camus
  • Many a River - Elmer Kelton
  • Prophet Song - Paul Lynch
  • A Heart Full of Headstones - Ian Rankin
For those unfamiliar with Ian Rankin's John Rebus series, A Heart Full of Headstones is book number twenty-two in a series that has been entertaining me for more than two decades now. By this point in his life, Rebus is an unhealthy ex-cop still living in Edinburgh where covid restrictions are driving him nuts. What particularly intrigues about this one is that it opens with Rebus in the dock hoping to keep himself out of prison. Rebus's problems all seem to have started when he agreed to do a favor for his old arch-nemesis, a man even more seriously ill than Rebus who has suddenly found a conscious and wants to undo a few of his past sins with a little help from John. 

Prophet Song, the 2023 Booker Prize winner, was not even published in this country until after the winner was announced (way to go, Atlantic Monthly Press), and then the library system here decided only to purchase a handful of the wait has been a long one. Prophet Song is set in modern Ireland and reminds me a bit of Orwell's 1984 (including some of the cover art I've seen on various editions of that novel). With its multi-paged single paragraphs, this one is kind of a tough read, but the prose is more straightforward than I would have expected from that style, so it all kind of balances out in the end. 

I'm only relatively near done with one of the five I'm reading right now, so I probably won't be adding anything unexpected this week as I still have those three library books on hand that I mentioned last Monday...and the clock is ticking away on those. But who knows? I certainly didn't expect Prophet Song to show up as suddenly as it did, and it was only its immediate availability that saw the Ian Rankin novel jump the TBR queue out of nowhere like it did three days ago. Anyway, here's hoping everyone has an enjoyable reading week. Let's get started. 

Saturday, April 06, 2024

You Can't Joke About That - Kat Timpf


Let's begin with three things you should know about Kat Timpf, author of You Can't Joke About That:

  • She is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and it's often hard to tell which of the two parties she thinks is run by the biggest group of idiots. 
  • She is a libertarian comedian, columnist, and television commentator/personality - despite being labeled by those who don't like her message as "just another Fox News channel regular." It's actually rather surprising that she's even on Fox News at all.
  • She is one very smart woman.
The subtitle of of You Can't Joke About That makes very clear what to expect from the book: Why Everything is Funny, Nothing is Sacred, and We're All in This Together. If that were not clear enough already, Timpf restates the book's theme within its first few pages this way:
"The darker the subject matter, the greater the healing that laughter can bring, disarming the darkness and making the people who are feeling isolated by their trauma feel less alone."

Anyone can make claims like this one; the old cliché about "talking the talk" as opposed to "walking the walk" works pretty well in this case. Timpf may be only thirty-five years old, but she has experienced near fatal health issues that resulted in some of the most humiliating situations imaginable, experiences that would likely leave emotional scars for most people with twice her years and experience. And she did it by laughing at the absurdity of it all - and how others reacted to the way she handled those moments. 

As Timpf points out, comedians have always been the one to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Ridicule and public embarrassment are powerful tools that the powerless cannot afford to have taken away from them, and the current governmental and societal drive to censor comedians, especially of the stand-up variety, terrifies Timpf. As it should terrify all of us.

I don't know if Timpf wrote her own chapter headings. If not, she should give that person a fat bonus because those headings are some of the strongest I've ever read. Among them are these:

  • "Intention Absolutely Matters" 
  • "Don't Erase Anything"
  • "No One Wants to Hear You Whine"
  • "Words Are Not Violence"
  • "Safe Spaces Aren't Real"
You Can't Joke About That is one of the most quotable books of its type I've read in a while, so rather than try to explain Timpf's arguments in my own, certain-to-be less insightful words, I'll just share these quotes with you:
"Erasing a joke to make the past look better amounts to lying about the past...The limitation of lying is that the truth is always going to be true anyway. The kinds of jokes that people told during a time can really tell us a lot about that time."

"The words are violence crowd doesn't want conversation - at least not one on a level playing field."

"When you say that words are violence, you inherently are saying that violence is an acceptable response to words, because violence is universally considered an acceptable response to violence."

"Claiming 'words are violence' is a tool to dictate and control, all while engaging in a massive fraud that they are on the side of compassion."

And finally, my favorite point/quote of all:

"The best part of ensuring that your own voice is heard and understood is not aiming to change the way other people talk about theirs; it's to talk about yours, and to encourage other people to be able to talk about it with you and learn. The answer isn't less speech, it's more."

 It's a dirty (not so secret) shame that cancel culture has made most of us afraid to do that anymore.

If you share any of the concerns that Timpf addresses, You Can't Joke About That is a book you will want to read. Timpf pulls no punches here, and her language is sometimes crudely expressive in nature - but she has a lot to say that makes a whole lot of sense, and thank goodness she's not afraid to say it (even though she admits it makes her very, very nervous sometimes to do so).

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Ordinary Human Failings - Megan Nolan


I'm a regular reader of crime fiction and I especially enjoy police procedurals, so when I began combing through the 2024 Women's Prize for Fiction longlist Ordinary Human Failings was the one that first caught my attention. 

On its surface, the novel does not sound all that unusual: an Irish family has moved from Waterford to 1990 London hoping for a fresh start but find that the things they fled in Waterford are only amplified in London. Alcoholism, joblessness, social stigmas, and poor parenting skills are not things easily run away from, as the Greens are about to learn the hard way after the youngest member of the family, a ten-year-old, becomes the chief suspect in the murder of another little girl.

But Ordinary Human Failings, beginning as it does as a murder mystery about damaged children, class prejudice, and the cutthroat news media, sneaks up on you and turns itself into something much more than that almost before you know it. This is a literary novel filled with memorable characters, most of them trapped in a multi-generational family unit that has failed them all. It's a story about family loyalties, addiction, parental neglect, and people who have been beaten down for so long that they have long since given up on ever bettering themselves. And now a tabloid reporter wants to set the family on fire for his own personal gain.

The term literary fiction, fluid as it is these days, can be a hard term to define, but literary fiction is generally more serious and more character driven than genre fiction. Ordinary Human Failings explores what happens when an already severely damaged family is forced to endure the public pressure cooker stress that results from having one of its own publicly labeled a monster of the worst sort. It doesn't get much more serious than that, and once all the characters have been introduced, it becomes obvious that this is more than a police procedural. 

And what characters they are:

  • Carmel - the woman who fled Ireland to hide her teen pregnancy,
  • Richie, Carmel's half-brother - a man crushed by the bottle,
  • John, their father - who has largely given up on life,
  • Rose, the love of John's life - whose death stuns John,
  • Lucy, Carmel's ten-year-old daughter  - a playground bully, and
  • Tom, the tabloid reporter desperate to find the bombshell story that will make him famous - even if he has to make it up himself.
Now the family has no one to turn to except each other. Whether they come out stronger on the other side of the investigation or are finally shattered for good remains to be seen. 
"There is no secret, Tom, or else there are hundreds of them, and none of them interesting enough for you. The secret is that we're a family, we're just an ordinary family, with ordinary unhappiness like yours." - Carmel Green to Tom Hargreaves

I'm going to remember these characters and their story for a long time. 

Megan Nolan jacket photo

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

My Reading Reached an Unexpected Milestone the Other Day

My reading reached a milestone one day last week that I never expected to attain. And it all started with a book list I've somehow managed to maintain since February 18, 1970, a list that started out as simply one to record the title, author and date read for every book I complete. 

When it all started, I was 21 years old and about to get married, so I must have been thinking about all the milestones ahead of us in the coming decades, and it must have seemed like a good idea to begin a list like this one. I never, though, dreamed that I would still be doing this more than 54 years later or that the list would ever approach something like 4,000 titles. I remember thinking how great it would be to look back and see that I'd read one or two thousand books in my life. At the pace I was reading back then, what with all the demands life was making on us at the time, I didn't see the odds of hitting even those numbers as being very much in my favor. 

But last week, Megan Nolan's Ordinary Human Failings, a novel I really enjoyed, became book number 4,000 on the list. And I still find that number hard to believe considering my original goals.

Below is a post I made back in 2017 about a book that rekindled my enthusiasm about maintaining the list for as long as I possibly can. Pamela Paul is a true kindred spirit for me, and what she's done with her own list is pretty remarkable. Makes me want to go back and read My Life with Bob all over again.


It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a great while a book comes along that seems to have been written just for you.  It may be a book about some obscure hobby of yours that you figured no one else in the world cared about, or about some equally obscure figure from the past you imagined no one remembered (much less actually cared about) but you.  And in the unlikeliest of all cases, it might be a book - imagine it now, a whole book - about some weird habit of yours that you seldom speak of in public.  It is exactly that last possibility that happened to me with Pamela Paul’s My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.  Who knew there was another person in the world maintaining a decades-old list of every book they ever read?

Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, began keeping her Book of Books (the “Bob” referenced in this memoir’s title) in 1988 when she was just a high school junior.  (As a point of reference, I began my own “Bob” in 1970, a few months before I turned twenty-two.)  Paul describes Bob as “factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks,” exactly the kind of non-descript little book, I suspect, guaranteed to remain forever safe from the prying eyes of outsiders. 

In twenty-two chapters, each chapter carrying the title of one of the books listed in Bob, Paul exhibits just how precisely she is able to reconstruct segments of her past by studying Bob’s pages.  Each of the books chosen for chapters of their own remind the author of where she was both “psychologically and geographically” when she first read them.  By studying the list to see which books she read before and after the highlighted title, Paul can easily see whether the earlier books put her in the mood for more of the same or pushed her toward reading something very different.  Too, if her reading choices moved in a new direction, she can quickly determine how long that new interest or trend lasted.  And she confirmed something concerning one’s memory about which most avid readers will readily agree: Keeping a list of fiction read does very little to solidify the recall of characters or plot details – what it does do is provide a better understanding of changes in one’s own “character.”

Pamela Paul
My Life with Bob is an intimate look into the life of a woman who has made books and reading the central core of her life.  She has had many roles during her life:  student, daughter, wife, mother, etc., but I suspect that she takes equal joy in knowing that reader is an essential term others would use to describe who she is – and always has been. 

Readers are a curious lot, and one of the things we are most curious about is what others are reading.  We cannot resist browsing the bookshelves of those whose homes we visit, often altering our opinions (either upwardly or downwardly) about those being visited according to what we see on their shelves.  We find ourselves straining to read the titles of books on shelves sitting behind pictures of celebrities and politicians because we know that people are more likely to reveal their true nature and level of curiosity by what they choose to display on their private bookshelves than by what comes out of their mouths.  We can’t help ourselves; that’s the way we are.

If you are one of those people, you are going to love My Life with Bob because Pamela Paul is a kindred spirit who gets it.

Monday, April 01, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 1, 2024)


Despite being left with the feeling that I had squandered every minute of the time I spent reading one of the three books I finished last week, the week ended up having more pluses than minuses in the end, and that's all about any of us can hope for these days. I finished The Storm We Made, A Death in Denmark, and Ordinary Human Failings, and was very pleasantly surprised by Ordinary Human Failings. I've also picked up Kat Timpf's You Can't Joke About That again and pretty made good progress on a couple of other novels.   

I have a lot that I want to say about Megan Nolan's Ordinary Human Failings but I find myself wanting to let it all simmer in my mind a couple of more days before tackling a review. I had no idea what to expect of this one or its young author when I picked it up for the first time, but I found myself only reluctantly putting it down again after I had. It's only 215 pages long, but it left me feeling that I had just finished one of those long, multi-generational family sagas that I used to enjoy so much. There's a whole lot packed into this tragic story. It's a definite 5-star novel for me.

There was a little chatter last week about reading Alice McDermott, and that made me want to go back and read her National Book Award winner Charming Billy again. I don't remember many of the details about the book, but I do remember being completely caught up in the lives of Billy and his Irish-American friends and family. What I remembered most vividly about the story is its opening sequence at Billy's wake where all of Billy's old friends tell stories and speculate about his life. I've reread those pages now, and they are even better than I remembered them from my first reading. Lots to look forward to, I think.

I needed something a little less demanding, and decided to see what all of the hype is about concerning this T.J. Newman novel. I have to tell you that I just about chucked it after reading the way-over-the-top introduction to Falling, but I decided to read the first chapter before doing that, and I'm glad I did. I've only read two chapters so far, but the book seems to be very well written and nicely constructed in spite of the silly dream sequence that opens it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that turns out to be the case.

Crow Talk has been a little more difficult for me to get into than most novels, but I'm a firm believer in Eileen Garvin's work, so I'm not about to give up on this one. I'm probably 35% of the way through the book now, and now that I'm into the characters and the family dynamics of the main character, it's all becoming pretty intriguing. Garvin's characters in The Music of Bees were so vividly painted in my mind that I still remember them well, and I think that's going to be the main strength of Crow Talk, too.

So, if you throw in The Plague (one I neglected last week) and You Can't Joke About That, I begin the week with five books in progress. And depending on which ones I finish during the week, most of the more likely candidates I'll start later in the week come from the Women's Prize for Fiction longlist:

South Korean author Mirinae Lee set this one in North Korea

Liberian born author Peace Adzo Medie set this one in Ghana

Aube Rey Lescure is a French-Chinese American writer

If any of those three turn out to be as good as Ordinary Human Failings, which is part of the same longlist, I'll already consider myself fortunate to have taken a hard look at this year's prize nominees. I hope you all had a pleasant Easter weekend, and will look forward to visiting with you during the week. Read on.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Again and Again - Jonathan Evison


Again and Again is the story of an 1100-year-old man who by this point is pretty bored with life, but then who can blame him for feeling that way. Honestly, I suppose most 1100-year-old people are probably feeling the same way Eugene feels right now. Eugene's latest body, he tells us, is 106 years old, and he's feeling every one of those 106 years deep down in his bones. He's been living in an assisted living facility/nursing home for a long time, and can barely remember the last time he's had a visitor. There's just not a whole lot left for Eugene to experience this time around. And he's tired. The only reason he's still hanging around is in hope that his one true love, who is also 1100 years old, might cross paths with him again one day. Every new generation the really, really old man lives just makes it more unlikely that his longed for reunion will ever happen. 

Then someone new enters Eugene's life, and even though it's not the woman of his dreams, Eugene's world does change for the better. Eugene barely speaks to the staff of the facility anymore, much preferring his own company to smalltalk with people he doesn't care to know in the first place. But Angel, the new guy who cleans Eugene's room several times a week is such a friendly young man that Eugene feels terrible about snapping rudely at him. So almost before he realizes it, Eugene is telling Angel about his past lives (including the one in which he was a common house cat for a few years) along with what the last 106 years have been like for him.

Angel, much like the reader, is a bit skeptical about what he hears from Eugene, but a surprising thing happens. Angel and Eugene start to bond in unexpected ways - they become best friends - and they are entirely different people when they are together. Angel begins coming to Eugene for love-life advice that might help him win back his own true love - and it starts to work! Eugene has an audience for his stories, someone so hooked on the adventure stories that Eugene doesn't even care all that much whether or not Angel actually believes any of them. 

And when you hear the stories that "Geno" tells Angel, you will be as hooked as Angel was on finding out how they end. 

Just as Angel had to do, readers will have to decide for themselves just how much they want to believe of what Eugene has to say about his successive lifetimes. It's true that there are cracks in the stories, a couple of which you could drive a car through, but Eugene doesn't shy away from addressing each of them in turn. But whether the old man is 1100, or 106, or 80 years old is not what really matters. Again and Again is a story about an unlikely, some might say impossible, friendship between two very different men - and the unanticipated positive impact that friendship has on both of them. Readers leave the world of Again and Again happier and more optimistic than they entered it. And it's about time (pun intended) that happened.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

A Death in Denmark - Amulya Malladi


That A Death in Denmark had so much potential going for it compared to what it actually delivers is what makes this book so disappointing to me. The basic premise of the novel is that an ex-Copenhagen policeman, as a personal favor to someone once close to him, agrees to look into the case of an Iraqi refugee who has been convicted of the murder of a prominent right-wing Danish politician. It's true that the man had every reason to hate the dead woman and that no one could much blame him for killing her if he had, but Yousef Ahmed's family is convinced that he was framed, and they want someone to prove it so that he can come home. There was so much promise here, so many directions this one could have gone that would have offered insight into the mass migration experience that is happening all over the world today. 

But it didn't come close to delivering on all that potential. 

Instead, Malladi decided to snatch characteristics of just about every successful fictional detective of the last few decades and combine them into P.I. Gabriel Praest - a walking, talking cliché of massive proportions if there ever was one. You know the drill: jazz lover, wine and liquor connoisseur, now single and living alone but father of a young adult daughter, struggling ex-smoker, ex-cop because he caused his bosses too many problems, surprisingly sophisticated taste and opinions when it comes to clothing, cars, and art...and on and on. Praest could have been a believable enough character if he had shared only a couple of these characteristics, but claiming all of them is just pushing it. 

Even then, I think A Death in Denmark, what with its dive into the history of Danish collaboration with the country's Nazi occupiers during World War II and how that history could still be damaging to those whose family wealth is based on how greatly they profited from their collaboration, could have been quite a thriller. But then, Malladi decided to out Stephen-King, Stephen King by taking "product placement" to an even more absurd level than King sometimes takes it himself. At one point, I had to re-read an entire half page to make sure that Malladi had not slipped an actual beer commercial into her manuscript. That was the chuckle-out-loud material that forever doomed the book for me because it made me realize how many times I had already had to read catalog-like descriptions of shirts, suits, wines, art, shoes, etc. Even at the point that Praest gets shot by a Russian mafia thug, he is more concerned about the hole in his designer jacket than the hole in his body. 

I see that lots of readers do praise A Death in Denmark, and that mine is a minority opinion, so maybe I've just already read too many detective novels and thrillers to enjoy a knockoff character like Praest. I'm always looking for original characters, especially those tasked with carrying a series of books; Gabriel Praest is just not that guy. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (March 25, 2024)


I'm not real sure where last week disappeared to so quickly, but it's already time to start another reading week. I finished two books last week (Sociopath and Again and Again) and made some good progress on a couple of others, but it sure doesn't feel that way. I'm almost done with The Storm We Made and have gotten to a couple of twists in this story of Japan's WWII occupation of Malaya that leave open endless possibilities for the novels last fifty pages so it will be fun to see where that one ends up. I've also started, and almost finished, what is becoming a surprisingly disappointing detective novel by Amulya Malladi set in Denmark called A Death in Denmark - and I'm on the verge of abandoning Kat Timpf's You Can't Joke About That because I don't hear that one calling me anymore. 

A Death in Denmark is Amulya Malladi's introduction to her Danish detective series featuring Gabriel Praest. The plot is a relatively straightforward one involving powerful Danes who do not want their family history of WWII collaboration with Nazi Germany exposed to the world. When a politician threatens to do exactly that in a new book she is researching, the Russian mafia is called in and people begin to die. The problem I'm having with all of this is that Gabriel Praest is a walking, talking cliché of the worst order. 

Ordinary Human Failings is a novel I've snatched from the 2024 Women's Prize list. It's set in 1990 London and involves an Irish immigrant family caught up in a backlash after a ten-year-old child is suspected of a violent crime against another child. The main character, already pretty much crushed by the hand she's been dealt by life, has to deal with what is happening along with everything she learns about her family and its past. It all sounds pretty gloomy, I admit, but it's relatively short and should be a good way to sample the list. 

I've read the first thirty pages of this edition of The Plague by Albert Camus despite my reluctance to pick up another covid novel anytime soon. While this one is about a mysterious illness too, I want to read it because it takes place in a foreign city I'm somewhat familiar with from my time in Algeria. Despite being set in Oran about forty-five years before I visited there in the early '90s, it reminds me very much of the mysterious feeling that city left me with. The way this plague sneaks up on everyone in the city who might have stopped it has been scary to watch...a little to reminiscent of our world's early-days handling of covid.

I've also started reading Crow Talk, but after 40 pages I'm still trying to figure out what this one is all about. I chose it because I enjoyed Eileen Garvin's The Music of Bees so much that I wanted to read more from her. Lots of scene-setting and character introductions to this point.

And I will probably be adding one or two of these before the end of the week also. I say probably because I do have a one-day roadtrip planned for tomorrow that will eat up a big chunk of reading time - and could easily turn into a two-day trip:

So here we go...good reading everyone! Have a fun week.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Sociopath - Patric Gagne


I've read dozens of memoirs over the last few years, but seldom has one surprised me quite as much as Patric Gagne's Sociopath. I initially wanted to read Sociopath because of my confusion (and as it turns out, my misunderstanding) of the difference between the terms "sociopath" and "psychopath." I had come to believe that the difference between the two was based on criminal activity - psychopaths were criminals, sociopaths were just manipulative jerks. Patric Gagne has opened my eyes regarding sociopathy by first pointing out that many mental health professionals themselves don't seem to understand the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath a whole lot better than I understood it before reading Sociopath. And that's the problem.

Patric Gagne is a sociopath. She lives the life of a sociopath so she knows what she is talking about. But Gagne does not draw only from her personal experiences to reach the conclusions that she reaches about what sociopathy really is. While in college, she tried to learn more about why she was so different from all of her fellow students only to be frustrated by how little information she could find about sociopathy in the university library. Frustrated as she may have been, Gagne was so determined to learn why she is the way she is that she ultimately earned a PhD in clinical psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and became a therapist. Her mission is to help write an expanded definition of sociopathy that likens the condition to a learning disability; in this case, an inability to learn or absorb most of the spectrum of human emotion. By eliminating the negative connotation of the term, Gagne hopes that the rest of us will understand that sociopaths are not evil people, that the disorder they were born with is a treatable one. Just as importantly, she wants to give hope to others struggling to control their own antisocial behavioral compulsions. 

You only have to read the "Introduction" to Sociopath to know that you have something special in your hands. In the very first sentence, Gagne tells you that she is a sociopath. And within the book's first half-page, what she tells you about herself and other sociopaths is enough to make you more than a little bit nervous about being around people like her. But that's the point. You already are around people like the ones she describes because they are doctors, neighbors, lawyers, co-workers, school teachers, etc. They are everywhere.

If you want to learn why they behave the way they do (especially, I think,  if you've ever worked with or for a sociopath), this is a book you need to read. If you want to learn what it feels like to live the daily struggle of being a sociopath in a world in which everyone "gets it" but you, this is a book you need to read. But most of all, if you are a sociopath wanting to know more about yourself and the disability you were born with, Sociopath is definitely the book for you.

(Look for Sociopath on April 2, 2024.)

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Day - Michael Cunningham

 I admire Michael Cunningham's writing, and I think that his covid-novel, Day, is very well written. As far as covid-novels go, Day is definitely one of the better ones I've read, but maybe the books are (as a group) starting to hit a little too close to home for me to continue seeking them out. We all lived through the Year from Hell that 2020 was, and I suspect that most of us suffered some fairly traumatic experiences along the way. But now I'm finding that the more fiction I read about the covid experience, the more difficult it becomes for me to read another one. 

The thing I most admire about Day is its plot construction. Cunningham focuses on the small, extended family of Dan, Isabella, their son Nathan, and Nathan's little sister Violet. In addition, we meet Dan's brother, Garth, and the mother of his son, along with Isabella's brother, Robbie, a single, gay man who until just prior to the pandemic is living with Dan and Isabella. The really clever thing is how Cunningham slices the novel into three distinct parts: "April 5, 2019," "April 5, 2020," and "April 5, 2021," and uses that device to show just how much the family has been impacted by the previous year's experience.

Rather than risk revealing spoilers, I'll just say that the family is very different from one year to the next. Several members were already unhappy about their lives even before the pandemic, but being isolated in close quarters in such a stressful situation does not do the family any favors. In the novel's final section, it becomes obvious just how different each of the main characters now are from the ones readers met at the beginning of the novel, and how unlikely it is that any of them will ever be even remotely the same ever again.

Michael Cunningham is an amazing writer...that's probably why I found Day to be as disturbing a story as I found it, but that's also why I think you all should at least give this one strong consideration as part of your 2024 reading. 

Michael Cunningham jacket photo

Monday, March 18, 2024

How to Build a Boat - Elaine Feeney (And a 2023 Booker Prize List Ranking Update)


Elaine Feeney's How to Build a Boat was a 2023 Booker Prize nominee, and in my estimation it is one of the better ones nominated last year. How to Build a Boat does share one of the more common themes of the 2023 Booker novels in that its main character is somewhere deep on the autism spectrum, but I found it to be more optimistic and hopeful than All the Little Bird-Hearts, Study for Obedience, or This Other Eden, other nominees featuring similar main characters. 

The novel is the coming-of-age story of Jamie, a young boy about to begin his secondary schooling, his single-parent father, and the grandmother who lives next door to the pair. Jamie was born to two young students totally unprepared to raise a child, and when his mother died less than an hour after Jamie's birth and her family walked away from the baby in their deep grief, he seemed doomed from the moment he took his first breath. But Eoin, the boy's young father, made sure that did not happen, and with the help of his own mother, Eoin gives Jamie precisely the home he needs.

But as it turns out, Jamie's brilliance is offset by an equally remarkable lack of social skills, and any kind of change to his routine, especially one that requires him to meet new people, is often more than Jamie can handle. Jamie has known only one school setting in his life, a small school in which teachers and students have finally accepted him for who he is, and he's been happy there. The transition to a much larger, louder Catholic school is going to be an immense challenge for someone like him.

Luckily for Jamie, within days of his arrival at the new school two empathetic teachers (Tess, the English teacher and Mr. Foley, the woodworking teacher) spot Jamie and try to help him adjust to his new daily environment. But unluckily for Jamie, Tess and Foley are not the only ones who quickly spot him, and within minutes of his arrival at the new school Jamie becomes an easy target for the school's cast of bullies. 

By this point, you are probably wondering why I call How to Build a Boat optimistic and hopeful. It's true that there are plenty of hard days ahead for Jamie, but as it turns out, the two teachers who have taken him under their wings are as troubled in their own ways as Jamie is. The near-perfect combination of these three people might just work in a magical sort of way to the benefit of all of them. So now, on any given day, it's a question of exactly who is helping whom?

Irish Author Elaine Feeney


I find it kind of funny that the only one of the thirteen 2023 Booker Prize nominees that I've still not been able to get my hands on via my public library system is the eventual prize winner, Prophet Song. How to Build a Boat was definitely worth the wait, however, because I really enjoyed it and, I rank it high on the list of twelve Booker books I've now experienced for myself. 

As I continue to wait for Prophet Song (I'm number five on the wait-list but it only seems to be moving by one book a week on average), my updated list looks like this:

  1. The House of Doors
  2. The Bee Sting
  3. If I Survive You
  4. How to Build a Boat
  5. Western Lane
  6. All the Little Bird-Hearts
  7. Pearl
  8. Old God's Time
  9. This Other Eden
  10. Study for Obedience
  11. A Spell of Good Things
  12. The Ascension

Sunday, March 17, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (March 18, 2024)


Despite continuing to succumb to so many distractions last week, I managed to finish three of the books I've been reading. One of them, The Case of the Empty Tin, is a book I'm very happy to finally have in my rear-view mirror; and another one, Day, did not work for me nearly as well as I'd hoped it would. Day turned out to be just OK for me, but I did really enjoy How to Solve Your Own Murder enough to at least even out my derision of the Perry Mason novel mentioned. So all in all, not a terrible week after all.

Things definitely got better for me near the end of the week when I started having fun with the novel about the man who claims he's 1100 years old (only 106 year years old in his current model, however), Again and Again. And I've been pleasantly surprised that Patric Gagne's memoir, Sociopath, has been both highly informative and easy to read. But the best part of the week might just turn out to be my discovery of two new titles, both of which are very promising in their early stages:

A Death in Denmark is Amulya Malladi's first book in her Gabriel Praest series. The publisher quotes a blurb saying "Philip Marlowe meets Nordic Noir" to describe this one, and my early reading of it does give me some classic noir vibe, so maybe they're not exaggerating about that. The story sees Gabriel reluctantly agreeing to investigate the murder conviction of an Iraqi refugee as a favor to someone once close to him. What he discovers about the case leads him to believe that the man has been framed. Now what does he do?

The Storm We Made is set in Malaya in 1935 prior to the Japanese invasion when that country was still a British colony. It is the story of one family's experience under British rule and then under Japanese occupation in 1945. The story is told in alternating chapters centered on four family members during each of those periods. Rather than presenting their story chronologically, the chapters often flash backward and forward to set up what happens next after decisions and choices made or not made. It is really well written by Malaysian author Vanessa Chan.

I'm still reading in and out of Kat Timpf's You Can't Joke About That, but I'm finding it less and less compelling as I get deeper into it. I'm starting, I'm afraid, to think that it's already made it's point and is now beginning to get repetitive. I'm still hoping that's not the case, however.

So now the scary point of the week. I mentioned last week that I was curious about the 2024 Women's Prize for fiction and that I had put several books from the longlist on hold at my library. Well, guess what? All nine  (of sixteen total on the list) of the books I put on hold are ready and waiting at my branch library for pickup, something that hasn't happened quite this way in a long time. Usually the books trickle in in twos and threes...but nine? Never. My plan is to bring them all home and take a close look at each of them in hopes of uncovering something special that I want to read immediately. I do need that kind of jump-start right now, but nine new books is too overwhelming to even consider tackling when there are others I already want to read soon. Because these are so readily available, it looks to me like no one else in Harris County is much interested in the 2024 Women's Prize.

Here are the ones ready waiting for me:

  1. Ordinary Human Failings - Megan Nolan
  2. Nightbloom - Peace Adzo Medie
  3. And Then She Fell - Alecia Elliott
  4. The Blue, Beautiful World - Karen Lord
  5. 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster - Mirinae Lee
  6. Enter Ghost - Isabella Hammad
  7. Soldier Sailor - Claire Kilroy
  8. River East, River West  Aube Rey Lescu
  9. Hangman - Maya Binyam
Does anyone know anything about these titles or authors? I'd appreciate any recommendations you may have.

So it's on to the new week...Happy Reading, All!