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!

Thursday, March 14, 2024

The Case of the Empty Tin - Erle Stanley Gardner


The Case of the Empty Tin is Erle Stanley Gardner's nineteenth Perry Mason novel, so you would think that by this point, having now had so much experience writing Mason and all the other recurring series characters, that the books would be consistently satisfying ones. Well, think again. This novel is actually so bad that I may never see Perry Mason, the character, in a positive light again. So let me count the ways/reasons I so much dislike The Case of the Empty Tin:

  1. It is overly complicated, and almost as soon as one possible scenario or solution to the crime is presented, it is immediately shot down by the all-knowing Perry Mason.
  2. After a while, it seems like the theories will be added to forever, needlessly complicating an already farfetched plot.
  3. There are way too many peripheral characters too keep up with without following your own detailed character cheatsheet. 
  4. Perry Mason is most famous for having been one of the best defense attorneys of his day - and yet he does not enter a courtroom even once in this tedious tale.
  5. As a lawyer, Mason would be subject to an Ethics Code or Rules of Professional Conduct if he wanted to stay licensed - but here he takes great delight in creating false evidence, leads, and alibis. 
  6. Della Street seems to exist only so that Mason can ridicule her and explain to her (and to all the confused readers) what has just happened a few pages earlier - over and over again.
  7. If the numerous explanations to Della were not already bad enough, the novel ends with Della reading a multi-page, detailed confession from the killer - an excuse for a long recap to explain to frustrated and confused readers all the clues they have probably missed.
  8. The plot is a bore because not much ever seems to happen, and the characters are pretty much all so laughable that it's difficult to take any of them seriously.
  9. Mason is dumb enough to implicate himself and Della in murder by investigating murder scenes before the police know that anything has even happened.
  10. Perry Mason is so unethical that it's more fun to pull for his nemesis Lt. Tragg than it is for the "good guy" - and Della Street is an air-head willing to do anything and everything her "handsome" boss tells her to do.
And I won't even hold it against Gardner that The Case of the Empty Tin is as sexist and racist as any novel of the 1940s I've read in recent years. That's not a surprise, really, because Gardner is simply reflecting the thinking of the times. But what I do detest is being talked down to by an author who apparently didn't think his readers could figure this one out on their own without several pages of dry confessionary prose to explain what they had just spent several hours reading. It took me forever to read Perry Mason No. 19 because I could barely force myself to keep picking it up even when only 50 or so pages still remained to be read. I think it will be a while before I pick up another Perry Mason mystery - and that really irritates me. It also makes me sad.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

How to Solve Your Own Murder - Kristen Perrin


How to Solve Your Own Murder is a novel about an elderly woman who has been trying to prove since she was seventeen years old that someone is trying to kill her. A fortune teller told her so, and she believes it. And as it turns out, they were both right.

In 1965 Frances Adams and her two best friends stopped by a carnival fortune teller's table on a lark, expecting that they would hear one of those boilerplate, one-size-fits-all fortunes that are so easily laughed off. Instead, Frances was warned that her life would almost certainly end at the hands of a murderer. From that moment on, Frances began to watch everyone around her through new eyes - always trying to identify her potential killer before it was too late. In later years, Frances would even take to creating her own murder board, the kind you find in homicide investigations. Her photo was in the center, surrounded by all those she thought might wish her dead.

Annie Adams, Frances's great-niece, who lives alone with her mother in a house owned by the old woman has never actually met her great-aunt. Then one day, to her great surprise, Annie is asked to come to tiny Castle Knoll to attend a meeting with her aunt and several other people where an announcement of some sort is to be made. But on the very morning of that meeting, Frances finally meets her fate and a very different kind of meeting is in order. 

Frances is dead. Is it because she finally solved her own murder, but failed to prevent it?

The more Annie learns about her great-aunt, the more determined she becomes to identify the killer and to complete the task Frances spent a lifetime working on. But will Annie suffer the same fate her aunt suffered before justice can be served?

Kristen Perrin has written a mystery here that is a whole lot of fun, one that reminds me very much of the kind of classic cozy mystery written in the 1920s and 1930s. The characters are all eccentric, and there are plenty of them for the reader, and for Annie as the big city outsider trying to identify a killer, to keep track of. Chapters of Annie's first person narration are alternated with chapters featuring excerpts from Frances's teenaged diary to tie together what happened in the '60s and her death all these decades later. And I'm happy to say that Perrin plays fair with her readers in How to Solve Your Own Murder. If you don't figure out this one for yourself, rest assured that it will all make perfect sense to you at the end. No irritating bolts of lightning out of a pure blue sky from this one to irritate you.

Kristen Perrin publicity photo

Look for the United States edition of How to Solve Your on Murder on March 26.

Monday, March 11, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (March 11, 2024)


I had another of those hard-to-concentrate weeks last week that seem to be plaguing me more and more often these days. Seems like my mind was all over the place, with quick, but short, bursts of energy that pulled me in multiple directions all week long. As a result, my week didn't go at all as planned. I did finish a couple of books (Hitchcock's Blondes and How to Build a Boat) but never did get around to reviewing How to Build a Boat. And from there, my reading time was allocated all over the place: a couple of short stories from the current edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine, an hour-long listen to an audio book whose reader almost put me to sleep with his sing-song cadence before I abandoned the audiobook for good, several literary movies, and lots of bookish YouTube stuff that is always dangerous to my reading (more on this later).

I think what messed me up last week was my disappointment in the Perry Mason novel I've been reading, The Case of the Empty Tin. I'm finding it to be very repetitive and just can't suspend my disbelief to the degree that this plot is asking me to. And what's with this one anyway? It's the nineteenth book in the Perry Mason series, and with only about 25 pages left to read, Mason hasn't sniffed the inside of a courtroom yet. If this were the first Perry Mason novel I'd read, I would really not like the Mason character very much. I'll save "the why" for the review, and just say that I'm having a hard time with a defense lawyer who delights in tampering with evidence...or even creating it in order to throw the cops off. So I ended up tossing this one aside for most of the week - and my mind started looking everywhere else for something more fun to read.

And that's about the time How to Build a Boat really began to impress me, and I started having so much fun with How to Solve Your Own Murder (sound like two instruction manuals, don't they). I pretty much alternated my reading between those two for the rest of the week, along with finally getting much deeper into Michael Cunningham's Day. But not even those could hold my attention for as long as they normally would have. 

Anyway, after all of that, in addition to finishing Day and How to Solve Your Own Murder, this is what I have planned for this week:

I am really happy about being able to read James Lee Burke's latest addition to his Dave Robicheaux series early, and I hope to get started on it in the next week or two. I purposely slow my reading pace on Burke's Robicheaux novels because they come so far apart these days. The title refers to Dave's longtime partner in crimefighting Cletus Purcell. Clete and Dave have had a lifetime's experience saving each other from themselves, and there is nothing that one doesn't know about the other. Now, they are old men...very violent old men when they they have to be. In this one, Clete takes it personally when his grandniece dies of a fentanyl overdose. This is book number 24 in the series that started in 1987 with The Neon Rain.

I read just enough last week of Again and Again to learn that Jonathan Evison is a really good storyteller. At this point, narrator Eugene Miles is still introducing himself and explaining why his 106-year-old self refuses to just give up and die. It seems that Eugene has had only one true love in his life, and that despite having lived for about 1,100 years all told, he's only run into her in two of his lifetimes. He feels that dying will just put him one more lifetime farther away from her. So for now, he's content to spend his days telling his story to Geno, his latest caretaker in the home.

I need to get going (nothing like a pending review deadline to get you jumpstarted) on Sociopath this week because of its short fuse. Patric Gagne says that she started making people feel uncomfortable around her by the time she was six years old. She believes this was probably because she felt none of the emotions common to other people, and people sensed this about her. She tried to pretend but found that she could not cope with that pressure, so she turned to a life of crime, and only learned that she was something called a "sociopath" when she started college.

I mentioned earlier that watching YouTube book-videos is often dangerous to my reading plans, and it's happened again. After watching several videos on the 2024 Women's Prize for fiction, I was intrigued enough by the list to see which of the sixteen books long-listed were available at my library. I found that nine of them are in the library system, and I immediately put holds on those hoping that maybe one or two would be immediately available. As it turns out, three of the books are now on their way to my branch where they will be held for my pick up. Whether this turns out to be a project similar to what I did with the 2023 Booker Prize list remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if that were about to happen. At least this time, I would be starting relatively early (and have already read one of the sixteen) because the shortlist is not to be announced until April 13, and the winner on June 13. 

I was negligent in visiting other blogs much last week, but I hope to make up for that this week, so I'm hoping you've all had a great last few reading-days. Can't wait to see what you've been reading.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Hitchcock's Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind the Legendary Director's Dark Obsession - Laurence Leamer


Even casual viewers of Alfred Hitchcock movies have to be struck by how closely most of the lead actresses in those films resemble each other. Hitchcock's version of the ideal woman appeared over and over in his best movies, and he prided himself on being able to turn unknowns who met his physical standards into A-List movie stars. The problem was that Hitchcock wanted to control the women's personal lives as he worked with them, and he saw any unwillingness on their part to toe the line as personal betrayal. The worst possible thing any of them could ever do was to get married, and that would mark the beginning of the end for the several who dared do so.

Laurence Leamer approaches the Hitchcock legend by focusing on the women most closely associated with the best of the famous director's movies, beginning with June Howard-Tripp in 1927's The Lodger and ending with Tippi Hedron, star of The Birds  and Marnie in1963 and 1964, respectively. All told, Leamer offers short biographies of the eight actresses who worked closest with the director over his decades long career - a before-and-after-Hitchcock approach to their lives - plus a frank look at the often difficult relationship each had with Hitchcock during filming. 

These key actress are:

  • June Howard-Tripp - 1927 - The Lodger
  • Madeleine Carroll - 1935 - The 39 Steps
  • Ingrid Bergman - 1946 - Notorious
  • Grace Kelly - 1954 - Dial M for Murder
  • Eve Marie Saint - 1959 - North by Northwest
  • Tippi Hedron - 1963 and 1964 - The Birds and Marnie
  • Kim Novak - 1958 - Vertigo
  • Janet Leigh - 1960 - Psycho
I've listed the key movies, but altogether these eight actresses starred in fourteen Alfred Hitchcock movies.

Hitchcock's life is also studied in some detail in Hitchcock's Blondes, including his rather sexless marriage of many years to Alma Reville, the mother of his daughter. Alma was a valuable contributor to Hitchcock's success, even to writing important screenplays, editing others, and managing the director's entire career. As reflected in his own marriage, however, Hitchcock saw women as "lesser beings" and he purposely treated them as such. This was a particular problem with the way he treated his lead actresses, and even though it is highly unlikely that any of the women had anything approaching a sexual relationship with Hitchcock, his sexual harassment of each of them was appalling even to his many leading men of the day. Hitchcock's psychological manipulation and disregard for the physical and mental health of his actresses makes for cringeworthy reading. Unfortunately, that kind of behavior was not uncommon in the Hollywood of that era, and well beyond. 

Hitchcock's Blondes will be much appreciated by film buffs, particularly those who admire Alfred Hitchcock's body of work, but it is also an eye-opening look at a world that (hopefully) no longer exists in Hollywood. Warning: I have found myself spending hours and hours re-watching the movies highlighted in Hitchcock's Blondes, and I'm not done yet.
Laurence Leamer jacket photo

Friday, March 08, 2024

Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird - Agustina Bazterrica


I really enjoy short stories, and I probably read around 200 of them a year. Some are standalones culled from magazines, but most come from the half-dozen or so short story compilations that I read every year. I started reading short stories primarily as a way to "test drive" an author's prose style, but I've long since become a fan of the genre itself and the reading experience that can only come from short fiction. All that said, I can't remember the last time I was left so horrified, mystified, frustrated, or pleased by a single collection of stories as I was by Agustina Bazterrica's Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird. 

I suppose I should have seen it coming. After all, the Scribner publicity describes the book as a "collection of twenty brutal, darkly funny short stories" that "takes readers into their deepest fears and most disturbing fantasies." I agree with all of that except for the publisher's use of the word "funny." And it's not as if there are no really excellent stories in the collection either, because there are several. What strikes me as so unusual is that even though I loved a few of the stories, I equally despised as many as I thought were top-notch. The extreme contrast in my reaction to the stories is what I will remember most about the book.

The last story in the collection, "The Solitary Ones," about a young woman trying to make her way home on New Year's Eve's last train of the night is my favorite of the twenty. Bazterrica builds the tension in this one slowly, but steadily, until the young woman simply keeps making one bad decision after another because she is fast running out of options. 

Among the others I really like is "The Dead," a story about a little girl searching for ways to reunite her dead mother and her still very much alive father. This is one of those stories that a director with Alfred Hitchcock's skills and temperament could do so much with today. Others I enjoyed are "Perfect Symmetry," a prison story in which Bazterrica's imagery is memorable despite the brutality that evokes it, and "Earth," one of the saddest stories I have read in a long, long time.

But there are also some stories that made me feel nothing but revulsion, and that's probably exactly what the author was going for with stories about the sexual abuse of children, self-mutilation, and animal abuse. "Roberto," "The Continuous Equality of the Circumference," "A Hole in the House," "Hell," and "Mary Carminum," come to mind. And then there are stories so obtuse (like "Architecture" and "Unamuno's Boxes") that I can only guess about her intent. 

Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird is not necessarily a bad short story collection. Bazterrica wanted to shock and horrify the reader with a group of stories that define in the darkest terms imaginable what it means to be a human being. In that, she most certainly achieved her goal.

Agustina Bazterrica jacket photo

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Killers of a Certain Age - Deanna Raybourn

Deanna Raybourn's series novels are not really a good match for my reading tastes, so Killers of a Certain Age, a 2022 standalone of Raybourn's, is my first exposure to her fiction. And as it turns out, I'm surprised at how much fun I had reading this wild story about four sixty-something ex-assassins who come out of retirement to prove that they can still kill with the best of them. There's so much to like about this one that it's hard to know where to start.

What first caught my eye was the book's title. It seems that there's a lot of Boomer Fiction out there these days, but most of it is rather gloomy stuff dealing with end-of-life situations as Boomers reluctantly acknowledge that theirs is the next generation to give up the world stage. It's either that or stories about foolish old men and women who escape the facility just long enough to run off on some final adventure that mostly exists only inside their own heads. So when I spotted a title that sounded as if it might be about Boomers who not only had their wits about them but were still good at what they did, I grabbed it. 

But that alone would not have been enough to get me to read Killers of a Certain Age if the plot, the prose, and the characters had not been as exceptional as the novel's title. Mary Alice, Helen, Natalie, and Billie were recruited and trained as an all-female team of assassins in 1978 "to eliminate people who need killing" by a group that called itself The Museum. When it ran out of Nazi war criminals on the run, the group turned its attention to "dictators, arms dealers, drug smugglers, and sex traffickers." Forty years after their first mission, the women have been forced into retirement - and now they learn that The Museum has placed a kill order on the heads of each of them. So there's your big check mark on my exceptional plot requirement.

And despite the book's ultimately high body-count, the prose is filled with the kind of cleverness and wit that I always enjoy and find to be great fun. So another check mark goes to the prose.

Finally, the characters, all of them making the best of whatever level of physical and mental skills they still have, are fun to watch. These women have kind of a Golden Girls vibe to them, especially in how they relate to each other, but that's misleading because each has made four or five successful hits on the bad guys every year for the last four decades. They are as bloody and coldhearted as they have to be, but they still make you laugh with them and love them. 

For much of the twentieth century, Mary Alice, Helen, Natalie, and Billie were some of the best killers out there. But now someone wants to kill them - and the ladies are having none of it. Killers of a Certain Age is a whole lot of fun.

Monday, March 04, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (March 4, 2024)


I ended up finishing three books again last week, one I absolutely loved (Killers of a Certain Age), one I thought was above average (There There), and one that I found kind of appalling (Nineteen Claws and a Black Bird). I've also been really surprised by how much I'm enjoying the first half of Elaine Feeney's How to Build a Boat, another of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees. 

This week I'll likely finish Hitchcock's Blondes and The Case of the Empty Tin, and I hope to spend more time with Michael Cunningham's Day. I'm also relatively pleased so far with two others that I've started (both easily made it past my DNF threshold):

How to Solve Your Own Murder is about an elderly woman who has lived with the fear of being murdered ever since she was a teenager and a carnival fortune teller predicted that she would one day die at the hand of another. The woman grew to be quite wealthy, but lived in relative isolation for most of her life before deciding to leave everything she owns to a grandniece she has never met, cutting out of the will a conniving woman who was certain that she and her son would inherit it all. It all goes sideways after the grandniece responds to a summons to meet with the woman's lawyer.

Kat Timpf has fascinated me for several years now because of how often what she says or writes ends up making me look at some issue differently than I had before considering her take on it. You Can't Joke about That is, I think, her first book, and it's a strong defense of free speech and how that constitutional right relates to comedy, particularly to stand-up comedy. Timpf makes a strong argument that cancel culture is not only morally wrong, but that it is also extremely dangerous to all of us. She also presents the case that joking about the very issues most likely to anger people or about personal grief is one of the better ways to find healing for "things you probably wouldn't bring up in polite conversation." This is also a revealing personal memoir covering her career to date. 

Now for my biggest and best surprise of last week's reading:

How to Build a Boat is my 12th of 2023's thirteen Booker Prize nominees, and I'm kind of glad it came to me as late in the process as it did because it's turning out to be one of the better books on the whole list. As a group, the Booker list has been a rather gloomy bunch, with several of the books featuring characters somewhere on the autism spectrum. How to Build a Boat does feature a young man on the spectrum, but despite the bullying the boy endures at school, I'm finding this one to be much more positive and hopeful than almost everything else on the 2023 Booker list. 

I'm also likely to begin at least two of these this week:

Again and Again is about an old man who is spending his final days in a nursing home, but he insists that he is actually one thousand years old. The story seems largely to be about his bonding with his new nursing assistant, Geno. Mr. Texas is a satirical look at Texas politics that I have high hopes for because the book's author, Lawrence Wright, won the Pulitzer Prize for a nonfiction book I very much enjoyed a while back. And, Many a River is an Elmer Kelton western that I've somehow managed to miss despite Kelton having been my favorite western author since back in the '80s. 

Right now a lot of my time is being taken up by college baseball, so my page-count is suffering the consequences. But because my favorite team is off to an 11-0 start, I'm milking this season for all it's worth. The guys have a big one against that little school in Austin on Tuesday night that I'm especially looking forward to. The real competition starts on March 15 when SEC games start for us with a three-game series against Florida. For college baseball fans, it just doesn't get any better than this time of year.

Have a great week, everybody! Keep turning those pages...

Sunday, March 03, 2024

There There - Tommy Orange


Tommy Orange's 2018 debut novel could hardly have any done better for him than it did. There There was a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of that year's National Book Award. Not many first-time novelists can make that claim - but somehow, I just don't love this book.

Orange has said that he was inspired to write There There because urban Native American communities, like his own in Oakland, California, are largely invisible to the rest of the country, and he wanted to spread the stories of his people. He does that here by featuring twelve Native Americans - some are related, others grew up together, a few have not seen each other in decades - who all end up at the "Big Oakland Powwow" at the same time for what they hope will be an experience that changes their lives. As it turns out, they got that part right.

The best part of There There is the way that involving such a varied cast of characters allows Orange to explore how the Native American experience and history have impacted one generation of Natives after another. Some of the characters experienced the take-over of the old Alcatraz prison island and the protest that made news all over the world years earlier; one is trying desperately to cope with the effects of fetal alcohol poisoning; some are there to learn about a culture they themselves know very little about; another is there to find the father who has just been told that he even has a son; one or two are there to find long-lost loves; and some are there just to compete for cash prizes as dancers or drummers. But what they all have in common is the hope that the Big Oakland Powwow will be good for them.

What Orange says about his people and the urban lives they are (mostly not very successfully) living off the reservation is both eye-opening and sad. There There is the story of a people still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the American and Canadian governments' attempts to exterminate it from the face of the earth via slaughter or forced assimilation - whichever was easiest and most socially acceptable at the moment. Those efforts did not cease (if they ever really have ceased) until at least the 1960s, and the resulting despair and confusion is still very much part of Native American lives and culture today. Orange is right, it is important that their stories be heard and that they no longer have to be invisible to the rest of us.

But There There is, after all, a novel, and novels have endings - and Orange decided to end this one in a manner that doesn't work for me. I can't really explain why I feel that way without spoiling the novel for other readers. Just know that this is an important book that provides insight into the modern life experiences of a group of people few of us much think about anymore. Even if you dislike the way that There There ends as much as I do, there is a lot to take from this one.

Tommy Orange Wikipedia Photo

Friday, March 01, 2024

American Spirits - Russell Banks


The literary world suffered a great loss when author Russell Banks died of cancer in January 2023 at the age of eighty-two. Twice a Pulitzer Prize for fiction finalist, Banks came to be known as a novelist and short story writer whose work usually focused on the daily struggles and stresses of ordinary working people, those forever fated to remain on the outside looking in at others whose lives they perceive to be so much easier than their own. 

Banks's first novel, Family Life, was published in 1975 along with Searching for Survivors, his first short story collection. The Magic Kingdom, the last novel to be published during the author's lifetime, came along in 2022, some forty-seven years after Family Life. But as it turns out, there's going to be at least one more Russell Banks book for readers to enjoy because American Spirits, a collection of three loosely connected stories, will be published in just a few days (March 5, 2024). 

The three stories in American Spirits, each about eighty pages in length, or set in and around the fictional community of Sam Dent, New York. The little town is named after an early settler to the area who donated the land for the townsite on the strict condition that it be called "Sam Dent," and nothing else - certainly not some corruption of his surname such as Denton or Dentville. Unfortunately for Mr. Dent, the future would not treat his descendants kindly, and it has been all downhill for the Dents since Sam's passing. 

In "Nowhere Man," a struggling family man and his siblings decide to sell off much of the remaining family land they still hold only to have the purchaser open a private gun range and training facility for right wing militia members on the property they sell him. After the seller dares complain about the resulting noise and the now-broken promises made to him prior to the sale, his life becomes pure hell.

"Homeschooling" is set in one of Sam Dent's finer neighborhoods where two very different families struggle to figure out just what to make of each other. In one family, a woman and her wife who have adopted four black siblings live in total isolation in the large home in which they homeschool the children. In the other, a young couple naively in love with the whole idea of life in "the country" moves in next door along with their own two children. Things begin to get strange almost as soon as the two families first set eyes on each other.

The third story in American Spirits, "Kidnapped," is about an elderly couple kidnapped and held for ransom by two Canadian criminals who have come south to collect the money that the elderly couple's grandson owes the men. The utter ineptness of this pair makes them more dangerous than anyone can imagine. 

Russell Banks is not one to have ever pulled punches in his fiction, and the realistically presented stories in this collection are a vivid reminder of how quickly things can go from bad to worse in the crazy world we live in today. American Spirits is pure Russell Banks, another reminder of just how badly Banks is going to be missed.

Russell Banks in 2011 (Wikipedia Photo)