Friday, May 31, 2024

Why We Read: On Bookworms, Libraries, and Just One More Page Before Lights Out - Shannon Reed

While it's not exactly the book I thought I'd be reading, Shannon Reed's Why We Read works well in the long run. At first I couldn't decide if I was reading a memoir or a book about the reading habits of especially avid readers. Then I figured it out: this is a memoir written by someone who largely defines herself as a Reader, someone who cannot even imagine her life without the pleasure of reading each and every single day of it. To one degree or another, I'm willing to bet that anyone bothering to read my thoughts on Why We Read feels exactly the same way.

Many of the book's sections have self-explanatory headings listing one of the reasons "why we read." Here are a few examples:

  • To Finish a Series
  • To Learn About (and From) the Past
  • To Feel Less Alone
  • To See Ourselves Across Time 
  • For Comfort
  • To Feel Superior
  • To Be Shocked
  • To Shake Up Your Perspective
  • To Learn How to Die (and How to Live)

Sections like these form the backbone of Why We Read, and Reed shares her personal experiences to illustrate each section's main points. The final two-thirds or so of the book focus on sections like these in contrast to the more humorous approach to the subject that Reed incorporates into its first hundred pages. For me, that's when the book saved itself and I firmly decided to finish it. Earlier chapters like "Signs You May Be a Female Character in a Work of Historical Fiction" ("Your name is Sarah; Your best friend is a horse; Your mother is either dead or dead set on getting you married as quickly as possible; etc.") or "Calmed-Down Classics of American Fiction for the Anxiety-Ridden" ("The Good Enough Gatsby; To Mildly Startle a Mockingbird; Fahrenheit 71 Degrees; The Beige Letter; etc.") just don't work for me. But that's not to say they won't work for you. That kind of humor never works for me, especially for as long as these lists go on.

As a fan of series fiction, I found Reed's observations on the subject particularly interesting even if I didn't agree with all of them:

"We have to orient ourselves to the world of the novel (setting, time period, closeness to or distance from our known lives), as well as the narrator and their attitude toward the world, the characters and dialogue...But a series usually only asks us to do that heavy lifting at the beginning of the first book, and from them on we can simply wander."


"...the pleasure of a series - the intimacy of its world and people - can also chafe.

Reed goes on to say that these days she's been "constructing her own" thematic series rather than relying on a single author to suck her into their world for months or years to come. That's exactly what I've noticed others doing lately as we chain-read our way through a few fiction titles about World Wars I or II, ancient civilizations, the Roaring Twenties, etc. And as Reed goes on to say, this kind of reading often leads to nonfiction titles on the same subject or period because of what we've experienced in historical fiction titles. 

Why We Read is three hundred pages long (my personal ideal length), and there are almost certainly sections and topics here that will appeal to any avid reader who gives it a try. I'm a huge fan of memoirs, and for me this is a good one, a memoir in which I found more commonality with Shannon Reed than I ever dreamed I would find. Shannon Reed is one of us, Readers. You will enjoy her company.

Shannon Reed jacket photo

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Absolution - Alice McDermott


" truth it seems to me that it's not the world that's small, only our time in it."

 Absolution opens with a 1963 tea party during which a naive newlywed is about to meet the woman who will change her forever. Tricia, the novel's primary narrator, has just arrived in Vietnam along with her husband, an engineer who has been seconded to the Navy, and the gathering is her first chance to meet some of the other American wives in the city. Tricia vividly remembers meeting Charlene and her little girl - along with the girl's baby brother who threw up all over her -  that day.

Now, some sixty years later, Tricia has reconnected with that little girl, and she is telling Rainey (and, at the same time, the reader) all about what her mother was really like in those days, exactly what Charlene was up to and how she managed to get away with it all for as long as she did. Wives in 1963 Saigon, it seems, were expected to represent their husbands' brands. That's why they were there in the first place, and that's all they were expected to worry about.  Housekeepers and nannies assured that the women had more free time on their hands than they could possibly fill with tea parties, formal dinners, and book clubs - but because the number one rule they all lived by was "never, ever embarrass your husband," anything else they got up to was risky business. 

Well, Charlene, was having none of that. And the innocently naive Tricia would prove to be the perfect "front man" for Charlene's schemes. 

Almost before she knows what is happening, Tricia is visiting a children's hospital, is deeply involved in a complicated fundraiser to buy children's toys, and is even visiting a dangerously remote jungle leper colony. She is meeting people, Americans and Vietnamese alike, who need her help, and her eyes are opening to the real world her husband and his peers want to keep hidden from her. And Peter Kelly, Tricia's Irish-American husband, knows nothing about it. 

Following Charlene's lead, Tricia is exposed to the real world and learns much about pain, suffering, courage, familial bonds, and what desperate people are capable of doing to and with each other. But most importantly, she learns who she is - and who she wants to be. Charlene may have only passed through Tricia's life for a few, brief months, but she changed it forever.

I always remember Alice McDermott's characters, and she has created some memorable ones here, but Absolution reminds me again of just how good a storyteller McDermott is. It's also a reminder of just how "small" our time in the world we live in really is. Think about it: 2024 is just as far from 1963 Saigon as 1963 is from 1900 America. So much has changed...but so much hasn't, and never will. 

Alice McDermott publisher photo

Monday, May 27, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (May 27, 2024)


After finishing two novels last week (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler and Dad Camp by Evan S. Porter), I begin the new week with three books in progress. I set Matt Haig's The Humans aside all of last week, but I'm looking forward to reading it this week, am almost halfway through Shannon Reed's Why We Read, and am completely taken with Dennis Lehane's 2023 novel Small Mercies. Of all five books I've just mentioned, I suspect that Small Mercies is going to prove to be the best of the lot.

I have mixed emotions about Why We Read at the book's halfway point. This is a collection of short essays about readers, how they became readers, and why reading is so important to so many of us. But still, it's not what I thought it would be. It often tries, I think, to be too cute and clever for its own good, even to the point of making me question at one point whether or not I would be finishing it. Too, I did not expect a memoir, but that's what Reed seems to be going for here as much as anything else - and it's not a particularly insightful memoir, at that. Still, there are some gems of insights to be mined here if only I'm patient enough to keep here I stand, shovel in hand, hoping to finish Why I Read this week.

I bought Small Mercies almost a year ago when I caught it marked down to 50% of retail not too long after it was first published, and I'm just now finally getting to it. The novel is set in 1974 Boston during the period in which Boston is about to begin bussing students in order to desegregate the city's schools. Mary Pat Fennessy, a lifetime Southie resident, is looking for her daughter who disappeared on the same night that a young black man was found dead nearby. It doesn't seem likely that the two events are connected, but Mary Pat starts asking the wrong people the wrong questions, and if she keeps it up much longer the Irish mob is going to have to shut her up. The casual racism in this story is shocking by today's standards, but it reminds me that this was the norm just fifty years ago.  

Right now, I'm limiting myself to two or three active books at a time, way down from the seven or eight I usually have going at the same time, because I'm curious as to how that might affect my comprehension and overall speed. Just a little experiment to see which style fits me best at this age. But if I do at least get to begin one or two new books this week, these are among the most likely candidates to be chosen:

It's always the wildcards, though, that make reading so much fun for me, and I wonder which ones will come out of nowhere this week to claim a spot. Have a great week, everyone, have fun.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Dad Camp - Evan S. Porter

John is in panic mode now that his almost eleven-year-old daughter is about to enter middle school. Suddenly, it seems to John that he has a pre-teen daughter who is determined to fill her life with afterschool activities that won't involve him. He has been Mr. Super Dad since Avery's birth, spending all his spare time with her, and now she's pulling away. But John is not going to give up that easily, so when he spots a special father-daughter camp for late summer, he books a week there without telling Avery about his plans. Big mistake, that.

Things don't exactly get off to a rousing start. Avery sulks during the entirety of a long drive to the remote camp; John's three cabin-mates seem to be in some kind of weird competition to see which of them can be the most obnoxious and hard to get along with; and the camp is a whole lot less physically impressive than the online brochure that lured John into signing up for the week made it out to be.

What happens during the next few days, though, is going to change the lives of four men and four little girls in a very positive, and hopefully lasting, way.

Dad Camp is a very heartfelt novel about a moment that most fathers of daughters experience at some point in their lives. It reminded me of what it was like when my own daughters were about to make the transition from elementary school to middle school - a bigger leap in so many ways than most realize until their children are there. That's why I wanted to read it in the first place, but the novel didn't quite work for me. I'm sure there's a big audience for books like Dad Camp out there; I'm just not part of it. I found it all the ups and downs, and their resolutions, too predictable to ever feel much sympathy for what the fathers are going through as they desperately try to re-bond with their girls. It was so obviously going to turn out well for all concerned in the long run that I knew there was really nothing to worry about.

I'm not a fan of Hallmark or Lifetime movies because of their predictability and overwhelming tendency for everyone to end up living "happily ever after" despite whatever trauma they first have to endure. But I know there's a huge audience for that kind of movie, my wife among them. Dad Camp would make a perfect Hallmark movie, and it deserves to find its audience. I hope it does, because they will love it.


Friday, May 24, 2024

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant - Anne Tyler


I first read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1987, and I've since considered it to be one of my two favorite Anne Tyler novels. This afternoon, some thirty-seven years later, I finished reading the novel for the second time - and the tie is broken. I'm disappointed to say that Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant did not quite live up to my memories of it. I know...I know. I've changed. Or maybe I'm not in the right mood for a novel like this one right now. Perhaps I've seen too many similar stories told by now, or maybe even seen the same story told better. Whatever the case, this re-read reminds me that you don't always get what you wish for when your pick up an old favorite for the first time in decades.

Don't get me wrong. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is an excellent novel. It's just that it's an Anne Tyler novel, and I hold Tyler and other writers I consider among the best I've ever read to a much higher standard than the standard I use to judge lesser writers by (and I know that's not fair).

As are all Anne Tyler novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is set in Baltimore. Pearl Tull is dying, and for the first time in a long, long while she is not angry at the world. She's tired of being angry at the husband who abandoned her and his three children thirty-five years earlier, and now that her children are all relatively successful adults, she doesn't have the energy to be angry at them either. Her children, though, are still struggling with the anger Pearl passed down to them. 

Cody, oldest of the three, still resents his mother for choosing his younger brother Ezra as her favorite, and he still sees Ezra more as a rival to be competed against than as a brother. Ezra, on the other hand, is so passive and easygoing, that Cody ends up largely fighting himself, not Ezra. And because this is not a touchy-feely kind of family, Jenny directs her empathy elsewhere and becomes a successful pediatrician. None of the three think much about their father anymore, and all of them have learned to get along plenty well without ever having known the man.

But Ezra, ever the idealist, won't give up on his family. He owns an unusual restaurant, a place purposely built to remind patrons of the kind of home-cooked meals they grew up on, even to Ezra occasionally choosing what meal his customers are going to have on a given night. For every big family event, Ezra invites his mother, his siblings, and their children for a special meal at the restaurant - but the Tulls have never successfully completed even one dinner. One or another of them (usually Pearl or Cody) always stalks off in a huff somewhere around the midway point of the meal - if not even before the first bites are taken. Ezra, however, is not a quitter, and he has one last chance to make it happen. 

A family dinner has been planned for right after Pearl's funeral - with one surprise guest.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is a generational saga about a family slow to learn from its past. It is a warning about what can happen when families are incapable of change, and how the sins of one generation can make life miserable for the next. Now the question is whether or not this latest Tull family dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is also going to be the last one - or if they finally get it right.

Dust jacket photo, disclaimer and all

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Clete - James Lee Burke


I finally discovered James Lee Burke in 1990, some four books into his Dave Robicheaux series, when my favorite bookseller of all time put a copy of The Neon Rain in my hands and said "you have to take this one home with you." Thirty-four years later I've enjoyed almost forty of Burke's novels, including all twenty-four Robicheaux books, and I'm thrilled that Burke is still adding to the series. But the series addition I've been itching for for a while now is one featuring Clete Purcell, Dave's soulmate, and I finally got it. 

Clete Purcell has shared most of his life's experiences with Dave Robicheaux. The two had each other's backs in Vietnam, then again as frustrated New Orleans Police Department cops, and have continued to watch over each other now that Dave is a sheriff's detective for New Iberia Parish and Clete is working as a New Iberia private detective. If one of them is in trouble, the other can be counted on to show up with guns blazing - and this time around, Clete is going to need all the firepower he can get. 

Trouble has a way of finding people like Clete Purcell even if it has to find his Cadillac convertible first. Shortly after picking the Caddy up from a local car wash, Clete wakes up to find four thugs systematically taking the car apart. What they are looking for he hasn't a clue, but Clete does have a good idea about who might have stashed something in the car without his permission. Clete's grandniece died of a fentanyl overdose, and if there's anything he hates more than fentanyl, it's the people who deal it. So it's a red hot Clete Purcell who returns to the car wash to get some answers.

But it won't be that simple because before Clete even gets started a pretty young woman calling herself Clara Bow asks him to investigate her evil ex-husband. Clara pushes all the right buttons. She's exactly the type of woman Clete can never resist rescuing, even when it puts his own life in danger, so now things are certain to get a lot more complicated for Clete Purcell and Dave Robicheaux. If they don't figure this thing out quickly, it is not only Southwest Louisiana that's in trouble - the rest of the world will pay a heavy price.

James Lee Burke paints a dark picture when it comes to good vs. evil, and he pretty much always has. When it comes to portraying evilness, Burke doesn't blink - but he saves his best writing for flawed white knights like Clete and Dave. Burke believes that a few good men willing to stop evil in its tracks no matter the personal cost can impact the world for centuries to come. Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell are two of those good men.

Longtime readers of the Dave Robicheaux series will especially enjoy Clete because they get to experience Dave through the eyes of the man who knows him best. As powerful as this story is, I still could not help but chuckle when I realized that each of the men sees the other as the craziest and most dangerous of the pair. They both believe that the other has to be protected from himself and his urges - and both of them are correct. What a team.

James Lee Burke author photo

(Clete will be published on June 11, 2024. Look for it then.)

Monday, May 20, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (May 20, 2024)

Last week turned out to be a lot different than I had anticipated it would be. First the good news: it was one of those rare weeks during which I actually finished up four books: Remarkably Bright Creatures, Displaced Persons, The Coast Road, and Clete. Even better, I really enjoyed the latter three books...a lot. 

Now for the bad news: Houston endured one of the most powerful thunderstorms in its history on Thursday night. We all know here what to expect from a hurricane or one of those tropical storms that sit atop the city for two or three days, but the intensity of this thunderstorm surprised all of us. Overnight we experienced wind gusts of up to 117 mph and sustained winds of 60 mph over much of the county. Seven people were killed, most of them from being crushed by falling trees, and well over a million people lost power anywhere from a few hours to several days. As of this morning, some 300,000 people in the area still don't have electricity - and high temperatures are going to be in the nineties all week long so I pity them. Thankfully, repair crews from Oklahoma and Louisiana are here in large numbers to help out the local utility companies. Below is an example of what that kind of wind is capable of and what the repair crews are dealing with:

These are the massive transmission towers that you see in lots of the county right-of-ways around here.

So there was that. 

Although I begin this new week with three books in progress, I'm really not far enough into any of them yet to know if they will stick: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler, Dad Camp by Evan S. Porter, and The Humans by Matt Haig. I am pretty certain that I'll be completing my re-read of the Tyler novel, and I like what I've read from The Humans so far, but Dad Camp is not really doing it for me. Only thirty pages in, and I already find myself avoiding it in favor of just about anything else I have on hand. Definitely not a good sign.

I also spent a little time slimming down my immediate TBR last week, resulting in the abandonment of two books and the decision not to begin another at all. I have two library holds to pick up this week that I'm really curious about, so I needed to make a little room for them anyway - an essay collection by Shannon Reed called Why We Read and a fantasy novel by Julia Alvarez called The Cemetery of Untold Stories. But since I'm also in the mood to pare down the number of books I have going at once, I think it was a good time to dump those three.

The only other Matt Haig novel I've read up to now is The Midnight Library, a fantasy novel I had mixed feelings about, and The Humans sounds every bit as strange as that one. It's a story about an alien from a planet much more advanced than Earth who is sent on a special mission to this planet by his leaders - a mission that Earthlings, for good reason, are not going to appreciate. The alien is at first disgusted by everything about humans, but he gradually changes his mind and learns to appreciate them. The main reason I want to try this one is because I recently enjoyed a season of a television series called Resident Alien that seems to share much the same premise. I don't know if the television shows were based on this novel - they don't appear to be - but the similarities are striking. 

Dad Camp is described this way by the Dutton people: "A heartwarming novel about a loving dad who drags his eleven-year-old daughter to 'father-daughter week' at a remote summer camp - their last chance to bond before he loses her to teenage girlhood entirely." I was in the mood for an old-fashioned feel-good novel when I chose this one, but through the first thirty pages or so, all the characters feel like such clichés that I'm struggling to get back to it. I hope it proves me wrong soon; otherwise it's going to end up in the DNF basket.

I'm curious to see if cutting back to two simultaneous reads slows me down or speeds me up. I hope that choosing the right two books will keep me invested enough that I don't stray during the week if something shinier catches my eye. It's not so much that reading six or seven books at a time hasn't worked well enough for me, because it has. It's more a desire to shake up the whole reading experience a little bit than anything else.

In the relatively immediate wings are these:

I have the feeling that I'm going to be DNFing books a lot quicker than in the recent past because it doesn't happen very often that continuing with a book I was already doubting at the 50-page mark has paid off. I'd say it happens positively for me maybe twice in every ten decisions to keep reading beyond my arbitrary page-limit. I've only abandoned seven books during 2024, but I can think of at least another half-dozen I wish I'd abandoned - and that's not a fun way to read for anyone. Thank you, Remarkably Bright Creatures.

Here's hoping that you all have great weeks, reading and otherwise. I'm looking forward to making my 220-mile roundtrip to have lunch with some old high school friends on Thursday, something I always enjoy. Happy Reading!

Friday, May 17, 2024

The Coast Road - Alan Murrin


The Coast Road, set in Ireland in the mid-nineties when divorce was still illegal in Ireland, is a story about three women and their families. The women live in one of those small towns where everyone knows the business of everyone else in town and lives to talk about it, so when Colette convinces Dolores and her husband to rent her their empty cottage, a cottage in sight of the family home, secrets are not destined to be kept for very long. And that's going to be a big problem for all three of them.

First we meet, Izzy and her husband James. Izzy is not particularly happy with James, a local politician, these days. James probably feels the same way, but he doesn't seem to focus a whole lot on anything much other than staying popular with the voting public, so he's happy enough, really, with things as they are. Next up, are Dolores and Donal, parents of three small children, who are working hard just to make ends meet. Now, Colette, who has abandoned her own three sons to live with a man in Dublin, offers them the chance to earn a little rental income on a property otherwise never used so, of course, they jump at the chance.        

The three women obviously have cracks in their marriages, but in 1995 Ireland there is little a woman can do to end an unhappy marriage or to escape an abusive husband. She is forever tied to her husband in the eyes of the law as well as, according to the Church, in the eyes of God. And this combination of Izzy, who gets roped into helping Colette see her son behind her husband's back; Dolores, whose husband recognizes just how vulnerable Colette is as soon as he sees her; and Colette, who in her despair turns to drink, is not one that is going to help anybody's marriage. 

It's hard to imagine that divorce was still illegal in Ireland only 30 years ago, but I remember what a big deal it was when the referendum on legalizing divorce passed by a one percent margin in 1995. Alan Murrin has done a remarkable job capturing that period and the quiet despair that so many thousands of Irish women experienced then. Izzy, Colette, and Dolores are three women right on the cusp of being at least offered choices they have never had before. Whether or not it will be too late for them is the rest of the story Murrin tells in The Coast Road.

And it's a good one.

Alan Murrin publisher photo

(The Coast Road will be published on June 4, 2024. Look for it then.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Displaced Persons - Joan Leegant


I generally read about ten short story compilations a year, and even though I've been doing that for quite a long time now, I've found very few story collections as consistently good as Joan Leegant's Displaced Persons.  

The stories, half of which take place in Israel and half in the United States, share a common theme hinted at by the book's title. Each features one or more "displaced persons" struggling to fit into a world that bears little resemblance to the one left behind. Some characters manage the transition with limited difficulty, some take years even to begin feeling comfortable with the change, and others never manage the job at all. Regardless, Leegant's people have more in common than not. 

The seven stories set in Israel are presented in "Part One: The East." "The East" includes stories about those who left and the people they left behind, such as "The Baghdadi," in which an Iraqi Jew moves to Israel against the wishes of his father, or the story about a young Israeli who, against the wishes of his mother, wants to make a fresh start by moving to Germany. There are stories about "displaced" Americans naive enough to get themselves into dangerous situations, such as the one about two sixteen-year-old girls whose youthful rebelliousness places them in life-altering danger they will be lucky to escape. And there are stories about others who come to Israel expecting to go back home soon only to find that they have finally found in Israel the real home they've been yearning for.

The seven stories in "Part Two: The West" are about a different kind of displacement, one in which American Jewish families are more often than not coming apart at the seams. These stories are more about generational and religious displacement than about the physical kind. Some stories tell of children who no longer feel connected to the old ways of their immigrant parents, others of disillusioned elders who have lost the faith much to the dismay of their children. There are stories here about redemption and the kind of wisdom that comes only with age and experience. They are stories about people trying to figure out who they are and where they fit into the world. 

Displaced Persons offers, I think, an especially timely glimpse into Jewish life both in Israel and in the United States, and what it is like to be caught between those two very different worlds during the turbulent times we live in today. Joan Leegant has packed so much into these twenty-something-page stories that I will remember them for a long time to come. 

Joan Leegant jacket photo

(This New American Fiction Prize winner will be published in early June 2024. Look for it then.)

Monday, May 13, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (May 13, 2024)


Remarkably Bright Creatures was one of the hottest books of 2022 and, at least in my recollection, of 2023. I got on my library wait list a little late and finally threw in the towel when I realized that it would be most of a year before I would get hold of it that way. It wasn't until this year that I thought about the novel again and decided to get back on the list - and I still started at number 65. But I had also signed up for the large print edition book and started the wait for that one in the mid-twenties. As it turns out, the wait for that edition was only three weeks, and I spent a lot of time last week finally reading Remarkably Bright Creatures. With just a few pages to go, I'm still not sure what to think of it - and that's probably not a good thing. 

I did finish up both Alice McDermott's Absolution and the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well, and made good starts on James Lee Burke's Clete and Alan Murrin's The Coast Road. Too, I've started re-reading Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the novel that turned me into a lifetime fan of Tyler's work the first time that I read it back in the eighties - and I'm down to the last short story in Joan Leegant's Displaced Persons. This was one of those weeks that I found it particularly hard to focus, so I found myself moving from book to book quicker than I normally do, with shorter bursts of reading that I don't find nearly as satisfying as reading at least fifty or so pages from one book before moving on to the next. I do hope that changes this week.

Clete is a little bit different in that it is being correctly marketed as book number 24 in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series despite Dave being very much a secondary character in the novel - at least through the first third of the book. This time around the narrator is Clete Purcell, a private investigator who has been Dave's closest friend since their days in Vietnam. Once again, Dave and Clete are dealing with some truly evil people in small town Louisiana, but it's been eye-opening to see Dave through the eyes of a man who knows him better than anyone else in the world could ever know him. (I've read the first 23 books in the series so it's interesting to learn that Clete sees him a bit differently than I see him.)

I'm about thirty percent of the way through The Coast Road and I still haven't settled into it comfortably. The characters, all of whom are women with marital problems of one degree or another, have not separated themselves in my mind yet, and that makes it hard to keep up with the intricacies of their day-to-day experiences together. It's still hard to know which of them can be relied on to tell the truth and which of them are lying to themselves. I do expect this one to suck me in soon - well at least I hope that's about to happen.

I first read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1983 or so, and it turned out to be one of those books that influenced my reading for decades to come. It made me a lifetime fan of Anne Tyler's work, and I've pretty much read everything she's ever written now. But guess what? I don't remember a whole lot about the plot anymore, only how immersed I ended up being in the world Tyler created and how fascinating I found the characters to be. This is one of those risky re-reads that I hope doesn't end up lessening my fondness for a book that's been on my shelves for a long, long time.

Oh, and I also gave up on Susan Orlean's On Animals because the pieces I read from the essay collection didn't seem to work together as a whole. Maybe if I had read them as standalone magazine articles they would have struck me differently. 

The little stack of books still waiting for their turn includes this bunch:

That's my Monday morning start to the week. I do have a couple of short road trips scheduled for later this week: a baseball game against Arkansas over in College Station and a lunch date with a few of my old high school friends down toward Beaumont, but it looks like we're in for another round of hard rains that are likely to wash out both trips. Whether that ends up translating into more reading time or more time frittered away remains to be seen. 

I hope you are all doing well, and I hope to visit a bunch of blogs this week that I missed out on last week...have fun.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

An American Dreamer - David Finkel


If cotton candy were a book, it would be called American Dreamer: Living in a Divided Country. Maybe because David Finkel is a Pulitzer Prize Winner I expected too much, but my lingering impression of American Dreamer is that no one living in the United States during the last decade will be surprised by, or much enlightened by, anything that Finkel has to say here. Any American who has paid even the least attention to what has been happening all around them (and who has the ability to express themselves on paper) could have written this one. If like me, you expected to learn how and why the country became so politically divided, and what we can do together to become more united, you are going to be disappointed.

American Dreamer opens on the morning following the 2016 election as Brent Cummings and his wife wake up to the (to them) appalling realization that Donald J. Trump is the president-elect of the United States. Cummings, an Iraq War veteran with twenty-five years of service, was born in Mississippi but moved to New Jersey with his family when he was eight years old. By November 2016, he is in charge of 750 ROTC cadets at the University of North Georgia. The book is primarily from Cummings's point of view, and how he reacts to his very conservative next-door neighbor, a wheelchair bound man who is just as thrilled as Cummings is upset about Trump's election.

Finkel observes that the two men can barely speak with each other without the distinct possibility that one, or both, of them will lose their temper and say something that there will be no coming back from. So they take to being super-polite to each other and purposely talking very little about politics at all. Consequently, they don't really know each other and never will. 

Then the book is over.

The reader has been treated to a rather short and unremarkable biography of Brent and a much less detailed one of Michael, his neighbor. It is not difficult to see which of the two men Finkel sees as the more sympathetic, especially because one of the most widely debunked charges against Trump from the last several years is mentioned several times in the book without once representing Michael's understanding of the same event. Finkel seems to believe that the two men will never really understand each other. Their political beliefs and expectations are just too far apart for that to happen. By extension, I have to wonder if Finkel sees the whole country that way, and not just these two individuals. If so, I can't agree with him.

The big problem for me is that I don't think Finkel has made a serious effort here to identify solutions or causes of America's (the world's?) political divide. American Dreamer reads more like something Finkel threw together between more serious work, and as a result it had the same impact on me as all the empty calories found inside a state fair serving of pink cotton candy...still empty, and wonder why I bothered.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Mercury - Amy Jo Burns


"Two young women arrived in this town, twenty years apart. The first was named Elise, the second named Marley. They lived in the same house. They loved the same men. They raised their children. Elise never loved Marley like a daughter, and yet together they built a family."

Elise and Marley even shared a surname. The difference is that Elise gave birth to the three Joseph boys, and Marley married one of them before giving birth to a Joseph boy of her own.

Mercury is a coming-of-age novel in which it is not always clear who is coming of age and who is doing the raising, especially when it comes to Marley. When she arrives in Mercury, Pennsylvania, Marley is more concerned with fitting in to her new high school than finding a new boyfriend. It's not like Marley dosen't know what to expect because her mother, constantly on the lookout for a better paying nursing job, is always up for a fresh start in a new town. This time, though it's going to be very different. 

Marley immediately catches the eye of one of the Jospeh boys, and before she knows it she's become a regular at the family dinner table. Right up until, that is, the moment she's unceremoniously dumped by Baylor Joseph - only to secretly take up with the steady one in the family, Baylor's younger brother, Waylon. (And yes, the notorious Joseph boys are known locally as Bay, Way, and Shay.) By nature, as well as by circumstance, Marley is a loner, but what she aches for more than anything else in the world is a family of her own and, as she sees it, a "place at someone's table." 

She gets more than she bargained for with the Josephs, becoming a surrogate mother to the youngest boy, manager of the family roofing business, and protector of the woman who never really stops resenting her. That Marley becomes as loyal a member of the Joseph family as any of them is no accident, but her ability to hold the family together is seriously tested years later by a disturbing discovery that Waylon and Baylor make in the church attic. The Joseph family has secrets...and Marley wants to help them keep it that way.

"Do you think it's possible to spend your life loving the wrong people?"   (Waylon)

"I think it's more likely that we love the right people the wrong way."      (Jade, Marley's best friend)

Mercury is one of those character-driven novels that, layer by layer, make themselves really difficult to put down. Even when I wasn't turning pages, I sometimes found myself wondering about the main characters and what Burns would reveal about them next. My biggest surprise is who the real hero of the Joseph story turns out to be, and how that realization made the book so much more memorable to me than I expected it would ever be. This one is perfect for book club reads because you'll find yourself wanting to talk about it with someone else who's read it, too. Good stuff. 

Amy Jo Burns jacket photo 


Sunday, May 05, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (May 6, 2024)


When it comes to turning pages, last week was a pretty good week, even if maybe not so good when it comes actually to finishing books. The only book I completed was Faceless Killers, the first novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander series. I do have three others near completion, with fewer than a 100 pages to go in each of them, but that means I was only able to begin one new book during the past week - and even that one was not among those I thought I'd be selecting from. I suppose I should just go ahead and admit to myself that I've temporarily (at the least) abandoned Camus's The Plague since I haven't touched it in almost a month, so that leaves me beginning the week deeply immersed in Alice McDermott's Absolution, Joan Leegant's Displaced Persons, and Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Absolution has taken me in directions I didn't expect it to go, and is turning out to be even better and more affecting than I hoped it would be. I mentioned last week that the first part of the book, by far the longest of its three sections, is narrated by an 80-year-old looking back at her days in Vietnam in the early 1960s - and that it is directed specifically at a woman the narrator remembers from those days as a child. It turns out that the second part of the novel is the second woman's narrative response to what she has been told by the older woman. It's a little like some amazing jigsaw puzzle that can only be put together by the combined memories of Tricia and Rainey. There's so much packed into the story that the book feels much longer than it really is when measured by page-count.

I've now read all seven of the short stories in Displaced Persons that are set in Israel along with three of the seven set in the U.S. The common theme of each is reflected in the book's title as Leegant weaves her way in and out of stories about people who never really feel completely at home where they are. There is always something about the past or their dreams for the future that have them yearning for something they've either once had and lost, or never had in the first place. Even though the stories average only about twenty pages each, Leegant has a special talent for creating complete worlds and deep characters within the space she allows herself. Displaced Persons reminds me exactly why I am such a fan of short stories.

On Animals is a series of essays in which Susan Orlean explains her "animalishness" to the rest of us. Like most children, Orlean was animalish when she was a little girl; she just never outgrew the attraction and has structured her life in a manner that allows her almost always to have animals around her. In her introduction Orlean says, "I think I have the same response to animals that I would if Martians landed on Earth: I would like to get to know them and befriend them, all the while knowing we were not quite of the same ilk. They seem to have something in common with us, and yet they're alien, unknowable, familiar but mysterious." I can't say that I'm overwhelmed by the first two or three essays in the book, but I'm still reading.

Their fast approaching publication dates mean that I'll likely be starting these in the next few days, but I'm hoping this still turns out to be the week that I get to start re-reading either Deliverance or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, also:

Publication Date: June 11, 2024

Publication Date: June 11, 2024

Publication Date: June 4, 2024

I hope you all have good weeks, and that you find some terrific new books to tell us about along the way. I'll look forward to hearing all about them. 

Friday, May 03, 2024

The Man Who Smiled - Henning Mankell


Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander has to be the gloomiest and grumpiest series detective I've ever run into. Sure, I could name a lot of other unhappy fictional detectives like Kurt Wallander, but unlike Wallander, the others manage to experience really good and happy times on occasion. Wallander...not so much. He wakes up gloomy and depressed about his current life - and his past life - and he stays that way until he manages to close his eyes again long enough to recycle his problems into a series of depressing or scary dreams. I bet you can't wait to read about him now, can you?

So why do I enjoy reading the Wallander series so much? After all, it's not as if I didn't already know what I was getting into when I started reading The Man Who Smiled. I've watched two multi-season television series based on the Wallander books (one in English and one in Swedish), and I'm still hoping someday to get a look at the movies based on the character. Wallander is not exactly a bundle of joy in any of those either. But he's a good man despite his many faults, especially a temper he can barely control sometimes, who gets up every morning and goes to work putting some really bad people where they belong - behind bars. You have to admire his determination.

As The Man Who Smiled opens, Wallander is still reeling from having had to shoot to death a suspect in the last case he worked on. He's all alone, walking an isolated beach in Denmark every day, and doubting that he will ever return to the job. Then a lawyer friend surprises Wallander during one of his walks and asks him to come back to Sweden to investigate the supposed suicide of that man's elderly father. Wallander refuses to do so - until he learns that the young lawyer died in an automobile accident within hours of their conversation. Kurt Wallander does not believe in coincidence. Now he has two murders to investigate - and he can do that best as a cop. He's back.

Mankell's Wallander books fit squarely into the police procedural genre, novels in which the reader follows an investigation step-by-step from its earliest days to identification and capture of the culprits. The beauty of Mankell's novels is how he presents the procedural process to the reader by letting Wallander think "out loud" while explaining his reasoning and decisions from one step to the next. This leaves room for lots of self-doubt to creep in and exposes departmental politics, Wallander's past experiences, personal relationships, and even Sweden's national psyche to readers. I've only read two of the ten Wallander novels, both written in the early nineties, but I've been surprised that both address issues that dominate the news today: mass immigration, asylum requests, borders, drugs, extremism, etc. Maybe that's why Wallander is so one was listening to him.

The Man Who Smiled is a solid mystery with a satisfying result. It is atmospheric, includes an almost super-villain and enough red herrings to satisfy the most avid mystery fan, and ends with a rousing climax that's sure to keep you turning pages. I'm circling back now to the first novel in the series, Faceless Killers.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Forbidden Notebook - Alba De Céspedes


Forbidden Notebook very much reflects the state of Italian culture, especially the relationship between husbands and wives, during the period during which it was was first published. Even so, it still surprises me that the novel was written in 1952, not written in retrospect some decades later. Thankfully, Astra House republished a Forbidden Notebook translation by Ann Goldstein in 2023, or I would most certainly have never heard of it. 

As the novel opens, Valeria is married and has a husband, a son in university, and a teen daughter about to finish high school. She's pretty much resigned herself to her life, even though she's not completely happy with being a full-time caretaker to three other adults. But all it will take is one innocent decision to change the lives of her entire family forever. 

It all begins when Valeria goes to a tobacconist to buy cigarettes for her husband one Sunday afternoon. According to Italian law, legally the shop can only sell tobacco products on Sundays, nothing else, but Valeria manages to coerce the shop owner into selling her the blank journal that catches her eye. Valeria has been bothered that she has no private space of her own to claim: her husband has his study, and her children each have a bedroom of their own. She, however, has no place to be alone, and when she gets back home that Sunday afternoon, Valeria realizes that she doesn't even have a place to hide the journal from the prying eyes of her family- much less the actual opportunity to sit and write down her own secrets and personal feelings about what goes on around her. She's never before had the time to think much about herself in relationship to her husband and children, and how she really feels about the way each of them takes for granted that she will always be there to do whatever they need her to do for them.

But Valeria figures it out. She starts staying up long after everyone else has gone to sleep with the excuse that she needs to finish up one more household task or another. Nervous as it all makes her, she has carved out a little private time for herself, and she makes the most of it. Gradually, Valeria begins to realize that the very act of composing her thoughts before putting them to paper has made her see her world and her family in a way she never has before. And she begins to realize that she wants more from life - and more importantly that she deserves more.

The author very cleverly uses Valeria's written words exclusively to tell of her transformation, so the reader is able to watch it all happen exactly as she experiences it. This works remarkably well to pace the novel in a way that allows the reader's eyes to be opened to a more realistic view of what Italian women of the fifties were experiencing layer by layer, just as Valeria was figuring it all out for herself layer by layer. 

Forbidden Notebook is a brilliant novel with a lot to say - and thanks to Astra House, you don't have to miss it.

Alba De Céspedes jacket photo