Monday, April 29, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 29, 2024)


Even though, or maybe because, I haven't been feeling particularly well for the last few days, I immersed myself into reading, movies, and music last week more than I have in a while. And the college baseball I was able to enjoy via ESPN+ was the absolute icing on the cake. So not a bad week, considering. I finished up two novels, The Man Who Smiled and Mercury, along with a non-fiction title, An American Dreamer. Of the three, Mercury is by far the one I enjoyed most, but I should have more to say about each of them in the next few days.

So where does that leave me? Well, I finally started reading my library copy of Absolution, and what can I's Alice McDermott, after all, a favorite of mine who seems to be knocking it out of the park again with this one. The set-up, at near 100 pages in, has been brilliant. I've also read the second of fourteen short stories in Joan Leegant's Displaced Persons collection, almost half of Henning Mankell's first Kurt Wallander mystery, Faceless Killers, and have been pleasantly surprised to find that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn can still make me laugh out loud despite its rather grim plot. Camus's The Plague, however, hasn't been touched in almost three weeks now.

Absolution is narrated by a rather naive young American newlywed who moved to Vietnam with her engineer husband (who had been seconded to the U.S. Navy) in the early sixties not too long before war started again in that unfortunate country. The narration is especially intriguing because the narrator is now about 80 years old and is addressing her memories of those days directly to the adult daughter of the woman who was her best friend in Vietnam in 1963. I have a long way to go, but this one promises to get a little messy before it's all done.

I'm still a little confused as to how the Kurt Wallander books have been published in this country. It seems like there are a lot of Wallander books out there, maybe even more than one series, including a series in which Wallander is a secondary character to his own daughter. Adding to my confusion, I do know that the books were not published here in the order in which they were first published in Sweden. Anyway, this is supposed to be Kurt Wallander No. 1 even though Kurt is already a rather gloomy old fart right from the first page. 

This is not the actual edition of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I'm reading, but I've always been partial to this cover, and since the LOA edition doesn't have a cover image, I decided on this one. This must be the fourth or fifth time I've read Finn but it's been a really long time since the last time. As I said up above, it's a pretty brutal story, but it is also so funny that I end up laughing a lot while reading it...especially in that bit where Huck dresses up as a little girl and pretends to be in need of help. The method used by a village woman to prove Huck is a boy in disguise vividly reminds me of a story I heard my grandfather telling when I was about seven or eight years old. (The story wasn't P.C. even in those days - probably why it stuck in my memory so vividly.)

If you read yesterday's post, you know that I'm on the verge of reassessing my reading plan - at least for a while - by purposely beginning to raid my own shelves for reading material while I still can. The way I figure it, I've let the books become more ornaments and reference material now than anything else, and that's not why I bought them, nor is it why I still treasure them. I dread having to downsize at some point, but I know it's probably inevitable for most of us. I don't mean to sound gloomy, because I'm not really feeling that way; it's more that I've always been a planner, and this feels like the time to come up with a new plan.

Here are the ones I'll be considering next. These are a mix of shelf books, library copies, and ARCs on hand:

Shelf Copy from 1971

Library Copy

ARC On-Hand

ARC On-Hand

Shelf Copy from 1982

I hope you all have great weeks in every sense of the word, and I'll look forward to seeing you on the blogs...

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Magical Nostalgia Tour


While searching my shelves for an old book that I clearly remember having purchased, I started noticing others that I haven't given any thought to in years despite how "big" they were in their day. I never did find the book I was looking for (and probably never will since so many books have passed into and out of my hands over the years that I can't remember which of them should still be with me anymore), but I ended up with a desire to experience some of those touchstone books again.

James Dickey's Deliverance is a good example. Primarily known as a Southern poet prior to Deliverance, Dickey hit the jackpot with the novel after it became a major motion picture starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, among others. Even today that movie is remembered for its "Dueling Banjos" song and an iconic line that I won't be mentioning here - but you probably know the scene I'm referring to if you've seen the movie. Dickey, himself, even had a small role in the movie as a sheriff. 

I've also spotted old hardback copies of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, James Leo Herlihy's Midnight Cowboy, and Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses that I want to re-read. I'm generally not a big fan of movies made from books I've enjoyed, but these four are some of the few novels whose movie versions have impressed me as being almost as good as the source material. 

Those are just the tip of the iceberg, but they've started me thinking that its time to do a seriously deep dive into my own shelves. I've put together a decent personal library over the last decades, and I can't help but wonder what will eventually happen to all of the books. Fewer people than ever seem to have the time or the inclination to do much book-reading these days, much less the space to house them, so I fear that most will end up being boxed up and donated to charity shops at some point - if not junked entirely. It's time for me to start enjoying the books more and reminding myself why they are there in the first place. 

I need to find a better balance, I think, between older books and those being published today. It's taken a lifetime for the ones still on my permanent shelves to find their way there - and to stubbornly hold on to their spots there - and the odds of matching their quality in new books feels like those of searching for that clichéd needle in the haystack. I've said this before, but even though the eye-candy books always get me in the end, maybe this time I'll be able to find a more achievable balance between the old and the new. 

On a lighter note...

I just read an article about poisonous book covers from the mid-1800s that used arsenic or lead to produce certain shades of green cloth that were so popular back then. Apparently the covers are still so dangerous that "experts" only handle them while wearing protective gloves. The covers are more common on books with gilded lettering on them - and now I'm wondering about the Dickens books from the mid-1860s that are on my shelves. Some of them were signed by their original owner in 1867, and now I hope they didn't kill the poor woman.

Mine are considerably nicer than these, but this will give you an idea of the type of cover I'm talking about. There is supposed to be a long list of poisonous covers somewhere on the web, but I haven't found it yet. It's a bad day when even your books are trying to kill you.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

A Heart Full of Headstones - Ian Rankin


Hard as it is for me to believe, A Heart Full of Headstones is Ian Rankin's twenty-fourth John Rebus novel. I haven't read all of them, but I have read most, and by now I think I have a pretty good feel for the kind of man John Rebus is. Maybe that's why the last couple of Rebus novels have left me feeling so sad for him - this one most of all. As A Heart Full of Headstones opens, Rebus sits in a courtroom accused of a crime as serious as many of the ones he investigated in his prime as an Edinburgh cop. But just when Rebus's past seems about to be catching up with him, he throws fuel on his own funeral pyre, and jumps on top the pile all by himself. 

The bulk of A Heart Full of Headstones is spread over the immediate eight days prior to the crime Rebus is accused of having committed, and as John Rebus novels usually do, it includes multiple, simultaneous subplots. One sees Rebus's loyal friend Siobhan Clarke working on the domestic abuse case of a fellow policeman that is about to blow up in the face of the whole department. A second involves DCI Malcolm Fox's push to build a case against a cop he believes to be among the dirtiest of all those he investigated when he was working in Internal Affairs. And the third storyline finds Rebus agreeing to do a personal favor for an elderly crime boss he's battled so closely for so long that the two seem to know more about each other now than their friends and families know about them.

What none of them realize at first is that one Edinburgh cop, a man threatening to rat out his fellow cops, is at the center of all three investigations. And when they do finally realize it, it just might be too late to minimize the damage.

What I find disheartening about A Heart Full of Headstones is exactly what makes the novel so realistic. John Rebus has always considered himself to be a good cop, a man who would do just about anything to protect the innocent and ensure that the bad guys get what is coming to them. Younger policemen still see Rebus as a kind of role model for the most effective kind of policing. If a little embarrassed by that sentiment, Rebus is also maybe a little proud of that status whether he would admit it or not. But now, a man Rebus worked with for years is about to name names and tell stories to save his own hide, and John is forced to admit something to himself he doesn't really want to face...he was a bad cop, one not above lying and falsifying evidence if that's what it took to get a predatory criminal off the streets for a while. His intentions may have been the best, but now Rebus wonders if his willingness to turn a blind eye to the real corruption in the ranks made sure that he was just spinning his wheels the whole time.

Now Rebus is an old man who can barely breathe anymore, and it may just be too late for any kind of personal redemption.

Ian Rankin is one of my favorite crime writers, and John Rebus is one of my very favorite fictional crime fighters, so a new Rebus novel is always something I look forward to reading. Still, I'm sad that Rebus has ended up here after thirty-five years (24 novels from 1987-2022). The next novel in the series will be published in the U.K. in October, and I can't wait to see what's in store for Rebus. Who is he going to end up being?

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Falling - T.J. Newman


Now don't get me wrong. T.J. Newman's Falling is a very well written thriller that kept me turning pages all the way to the end. The thing is, though, I was probably turning those pages for the wrong reason. I'll try to explain why.

Anyone who reads thrillers on a regular basis, and I've read dozens and dozens of them over the years, learns eventually that the hero is never going to die in a thriller like this one. (And that has to be the farthest thing from a spoiler alert I can imagine.) It just doesn't happen - even in standalone thrillers. It is so rare, in fact, that I often find myself hoping that an author somewhere has written a disaster-style thriller in which the hero actually does die and the bad guys win because I would very much admire the courage of a writer who managed to pull that off. So if any of you know of such a book, please let me know.

The beauty of Falling is Newman's creativity, the way that she sets up one seemingly impossible-to-survive scenario after the next and manages to find a way for the hero (in this case, it's airline pilot Bill Hoffman) to not only survive, but to turn the situation to his advantage. I can't even exaggerate how clever a plotter T.J. Newman is, or how fascinating it is to watch her come up with solution after solution for Bill Hoffman and everyone on board the airplane he's piloting.

I'll quote the back of the paperback edition of Falling to give you the basics:

"You just boarded a flight to New York. There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard. What you don't know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot's family was kidnapped. For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die. The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane. Enjoy the flight."

I'm not much of a fan of the kind of book blurbs you find on the first couple of pages and covers of a lot of paperbacks, but the blurbs for Falling really jumped out at me because of who they are attributed to: Lee Child, Gillian Flynn, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Don Winslow, Diana Gabaldon, Ian Rankin, and others. There are even numerous quotes from newspapers and journals like the Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and The Guardian. And I agree with most of them. This is an excellent thriller.

 But as those airline passengers in Falling might tell you, the real surprises all come from the ride, not from the landing.

Monday, April 22, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 22, 2024)


I did a lot of reading this past week but much of it involved "test reading" of books to see if I really wanted to read them or not. I didn't decide to keep reading all of the books I read from, but all of the "sampling," in addition to firming up my "TBR-soon" list exposed me to a handful of books and authors I would have never otherwise have experienced, so it was all time well spent in the long run. And I did finish both Ian Rankin's Rebus novel A Heart Full of Headstones and Alba De Céspedes's Forbidden Notebook (more on those to come later this week, I hope). I added another not mentioned before, An American Dreamer, and decided to permanently table the Elmer Kelton western I was reading because it's a little too YA oriented for me to take it all that seriously right now. In addition to An American Dreamer, I come into the new week reading four others: The Plague, The Man Who Smiled, Displaced Persons, and Mercury.

Mercury is one of those novels my library system underestimated demand for, so it has a much shorter time-fuse on it than I realized when I first picked it up. That means I'll be spending a lot of time with it this week so that I don't add to the wait for those behind me in line. It's taken me longer than I thought it would to get into the novel's rhythm, but at 100 pages in, it's finally starting to happen for me. It's a coming-of-age story for multiple characters, and reminds me a little bit of the kind of story that Anne Tyler writes so well. The Joseph family doesn't know what hits them when seventeen-year-old Marley comes to town and catches the eye of one of their boys...and then another of their boys.

When it comes to politics, I like to think that I'm a middle-of-the-roader, but lately I find myself drifting toward the more conservative side of the line. Even my reading has started to reflect that drift, so I wanted to read a current book that I think is written from a more liberal perspective than my own. An American Dreamer by David Finkel focuses on an Iraq war veteran trying to reconnect his vision of what America should be with what he sees happening all around him every day. What first caught my eye was not the book's title, but its subtitle: "Life in a Divided Country" because of how sad I find that phrase to be.

I hadn't planned to begin Joan Leegant's Displaced Persons quite so soon, but I was in the mood for a short story one day last week and decided to read "The Baghdadi," the first story in this fourteen-story collection, to see what I should expect from the book. And I was wowed by it, to say the least. I know that most authors lead off a compilation with a story they feel is one of the strongest in the book, but this story of an American academic's experience with a Iraqi Jew who moved to Israel fifty years earlier is so exceptional that now I can't wait to read the other thirteen.

I'm in danger of not getting to three books that I just realized are not eligible for additional check-out periods, but I'm still hoping to get to one of them this week (probably by tabling The Plague again):

So that's the plan on this Monday morning. And now I'll see what really happens. Happy Reading, y'all...

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Storm We Made - Venessa Chan


Kuala Lumpar - February 1945

"Teenage boys had begun to disappear."

 At first, the Japanese invaders were welcomed as Malayans hoped for "a better colonizer" than the British had turned out to be. But after the Japanese ended up killing more people in only three years of occupation than the British killed in more than fifty, they saw their past - and their future - much differently.

Vanessa Chan's The Storm We Made is the story of one fictional family caught squarely in the middle of what happened in Malaya between 1935 and 1945. The novel's central character, an ambitious and resentful Eurasian woman who realizes that she will remain a second class citizen in her own country as long as the British are there, dreams of a better life. And when a smooth-talking Japanese business man offers her a chance to help Malaya end its British rule - even if it means spying on her own husband - she is all in. 

The Storm We Made begins in early1945 when Cecily's family, like all of those around her, is struggling just to survive from one day to the next. Her husband's daily obsession is simply to find something for the family to eat, Cecily's to protect her children, especially her two daughters, from the Japanese soldiers who roam the city all day long "recruiting" girls as young as eight or nine years old for military brothels. But ironically, it is her son, not one of her daughters, who disappears on his fifteenth birthday.

" with the pieces she had set in motion ten years before, there was no fixing to be done. There was no coming back from this."

Vanessa Chan alternates flashback chapters to 1935 with the present to show exactly how and why Cecily planted the seeds of her own family's destruction, beginning on the night she first met Mr. Fujiwara, a prominent Japanese businessman favored by the British. Cecily, who carried the blood of the country's original Portuguese invaders in her veins, was a soft target for the persuasive Fujiwara. She already felt slighted and looked down upon by the British wives whose husbands her own husband worked with every day, and Fujiwara offered her the chance to get even with them all. Fujiwara convinced Cecily that the British would ultimately lose to Germany's aggression and would have to abandon its interests in Asia. With her help, Japan could be prepared to fill that void, and Asians would finally be given the chance to govern themselves.

"Yet perhaps this was what a woman's idealism is: not the reach for a utopia - everyone had lived long enough to know perfection was beyond reach - but the need to transform one thing into something better."

Best be careful what you wish for, Cecily. 

Vanessa Chan author photo

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Final Thoughts on the 2023 Booker Prize


As of last week's reading of Prophet Song, I'm finally ready to give a final ranking of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees as I experienced them for myself over the past few months. Obviously, my final ranking reflects only my personal experience with the nominated books. I took one final look at the list of nominees, and ended up doing a bit of last-minute juggling that I hadn't expected to be doing at all. 

I read and reviewed eleven of the thirteen nominated novels, and decided to DNF two others at about the 100-page mark of each. The DNF books are to be found, as you would expect, at the bottom of the list:

  1. Prophet Song - Paul Lynch (Reviewed on 4-14-24)
  2. The Bee Sting - Paul Murray (Reviewed on 11-18-23)
  3. The House of Doors - Tan Twan Eng (Reviewed 12-26-23)
  4. If I Survive You - Jonathan Escoffery (Reviewed 11-24-23
  5. How to Build a Boat - Elaine Feeney (Reviewed 3-18-24)
  6. Western Lane - Chetna Maroo (Reviewed 11-10-23)
  7. All the Little Bird-Hearts - Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow ( 1-17-24)
  8. Pearl - Sîan Hughes (Reviewed on 12-1-23)
  9. Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry (Reviewed on 10-27-23)
  10. This Other Eden - Paul Harding (Reviewed on 12-8-23)
  11. Study for Obedience - Sarah Bernstein (Reviewed on 2-24-24)
  12. A Spell of Good Things
  13. The Ascension

Links refer to my thoughts on each of the completed novels immediately after finishing them. I did not review or comment on the two nominees that I did not finish reading. This is one reader's response to Booker Prize 2023; make of it what you will.

Monday, April 15, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 15, 2024)

Seldom does my week go as far off course as this last one did, and it all started just two days after I posted my reading plan for that week. A routine doctor's appointment turned into two days of outpatient testing that I won't be getting answers from for another two weeks, but at least there was enough sitting around time in waiting rooms during the week for me to get a fair amount of reading done. As a result, I finished two novels that I really enjoyed: Eileen Garvin's Crow Talk and the 2023 Booker Prize winner, Paul Lynch's Prophet Song. That leaves me beginning this new week still messing around with a couple of books I seem to have informally tabled for a while (The Plague and Many a River) while also having made good progress on another, the Rebus novel A Heart Full of Headstones. I've also started two new ones that came out of nowhere to claim my attention: Forbidden Notebook by Italian author Alba de Céspedes and The Man Who Smiled by Swedish author Henning Mankell.

The Man Who Smiled is the fourth novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallender series. I'm a fan of both television series featuring Wallender (one is in Swedish, the other in BBC English), but for one reason or another I've never actually read one of the books. Fortunately, I'm pretty hazy on the all the plot details of the TV shows by now, but I still retain a clear enough impression of the Wallender character that I have a little bit of a jumpstart when it comes to getting right into the books almost immediately. This one already strikes me as being very good. 

Forbidden Notebook first saw life as a serial novel published in an Italian magazine between December 1950 and June 1951. The edition I'm reading is this 2023 Ann Goldstein translation published by Astra House. The "forbidden" aspect of the notebook is that the woman who purchases it does so illegally by insisting that it be sold to her on a Sunday at a time when only tobacco could be sold in Italy on a Sunday morning...cigarettes being so essential a product, you know. But now she has to keep its existence a secret from her husband and children because she doesn't want them laughing at a woman her age (43) keeping a private diary. The very process of putting her innermost thoughts down on paper makes her reassess her life completely.

Those are the five books I expect (whatever that's worth) to be spending the most time with this week, but I've also just acquired a couple of other interesting ones:

Displaced Persons seems like an especially timely read to me considering everything that is happening in and around Israel today. I've read Joan Leegant before and enjoyed her writing, so I'm looking forward to this collection of short stories, about half of which occur in Israel, the other half in the U.S. The world is, of course, a very complicated place for all of us to live in, but I can't imagine anyone under more pressure right now than the people of Israel and those who have family living and working there. Displaced Persons is not scheduled for publication until June 1, so this one may end up sliding two or three weeks more. 

I wish I could remember what first brought Amy Jo Burns's Mercury to my attention, but it was on hold for so long at the library that I've forgotten where I learned of it. It's a strange coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old girl who comes to Mercury, PA, all on her own to start a new life and ends up being the glue that holds a family of three roofing brothers together after they lose their mother and their family roofing business starts to fall apart around them. It has a certain amount of mystery involved, too, but I'll know more about all of that when I pick it up in a day or so. 

I do still have another handful of library books that are aging rapidly, and I might end up plucking one or two of those from that stack this week. That's the plan anyway, but life is, after all, one big surprise after another and I love the serendipitous things that happen along the way. I'll probably be just as surprised by what I end up reading as you are. (Happy Income Tax Day, America.)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Prophet Song - Paul Lynch

Ironically enough, Paul Lynch's 2023 Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song, is the last of the thirteen nominated novels (I did abandon two of them at around the 100-page mark) that I've read. I still find it difficult to understand why Prophet Song was only published in the U.S. after the Booker winner was announced, but that's exactly what Atlantic Monthly Press managed to do with it. And then my library system was slow to purchase enough copies of the novel to meet the demand for it, so it's been a long wait for my turn at this one. But, as it turns out, Prophet Song was well worth the wait.

"We were offered visas, you know, to Australia, and we turned them down, my husband said no, plain and simple, he said it was impossible to go at the time and I suppose he was right, and how could we have known anyhow, how could any of us have known what was going to happen, I suppose other people seemed to know, but I never understood how they were so certain, what I mean is, you could never have imagined it, not in a million years, all that was to happen, and I could never understand those that left, how they could just leave like that, leave everything behind, all that life, all that living..."

Prophet Song is one of the most haunting novels I've read in a long, long time. Whether by design or not, the story's full impact sneaks up on the reader just as gradually as what is happening to the main characters of the novel who do not realize the full extent of what is coming for them and their country (Ireland) until it is much too late to escape without suffering irreparable damage. Luckily for readers, in place of the permanent damage suffered by the fictional Stack family, they get to experience a novel every bit as powerful  as George Orwell's 1984.

 It all starts for the Stack family on the night that Eilish Stack opens the door to find two officers from Ireland's new secret police force, the GNSB, looking for her husband, a prominent trade unionist suspected by the GNSB of "serving enemies of the state." For Eilish, her husband Larry, and their four children, Ireland's accelerating drift toward a tyrannical government is about to become personal. Eilish is nervous, Larry is in denial about why the police would even want to talk to him, and their children are oblivious to it all. Surely this can't be happening in a country like Ireland, can it? Things like this just don't happen in the West.

But they do happen. And Eilish, even as her two sons (a seventeen-year-old and a twelve-year-old) begin to slip from her grasp, realizes that it is up to her, and only her, to make the right choices if her family is to survive at all. 

At first glance, Prophet Song can be a little intimidating because of the author's densely packed page style. The book is a series of three-or-four-page paragraphs comprised of very long sentences, and the author uses no quotation marks to flag his dialogue. That style, however, works very well here because Lynch is such a precise and clear writer that there is never any doubt about who is speaking or, no matter how long the sentence, what is being said. I found as I began reading the book's last two chapters that I was turning pages as quickly as if I were reading some mass market thriller; I couldn't wait to find out how it was all going to end for Eilish and her children. 

But what I will probably remember longest about Prophet Song is the realization of how true this is today:

"...the world is always ending over and over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore..."

Perhaps it's time that we all take those warnings more seriously.


Paul Lynch jacket photo


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.