Book Report: To read or not to read

lincoln and george

Acceding to all the buzz about this book, I put it on reserve at my local library. Twice. The first time I returned it without reading because I fell victim to a case of “Overdrive overload.” All the books I’d been waiting for showed up on my Kindle in the same week. Aack! The second time I settled in for a challenging, yet beautiful ride.

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln is not yet a beloved icon. The Civil War has just begun. Lincoln is widely believed to be inept and certain to be a one-term President. When his young son dies of typhoid, Mr. Lincoln recognizes the grief that other parents are suffering in the still young war—a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000.

“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do, when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.

But those historic events only set the stage for George Saundersnovel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Yes, I had to google “bardo” and learned that it is “(in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.”

The entire novel takes place in a Georgetown Cemetery where young Willie Lincoln has been laid to rest in a borrowed crypt. That cemetery is also populated by numerous and diverse spirits who while quite chatty, aren’t exactly certain of their condition.

This novel is stylistically challenging. Each of the fictional and historic characters speaks or relates the speech of another without much connecting tissue. Their contributions may only be a word or a few lines long, like listening in on the conversation at a large cocktail party. Or perhaps it’s more like a pointillist painting or a patchwork quilt. You may need some distance to appreciate the big picture. That being said, you’ll either get on board with the way the story is told, or you’ll give up. Author Saunders says that’s fine.

Here are a few snippets of the text that give voice to the Lincolns’ grief at the loss of their boy.

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforce sadness-masks to hide any sing of their happiness, which—which went on.”

“He is either in joy or nothingness. (So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved hm so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the from of fussing and worry and doing, Only there is nothing left to do. Free myself of this darkness as I can, remain useful, not go mad. Think of him, when I do, as being in some bright place, free of suffering, resplendent in a new mode of being.”

“Mary Lincoln’s mental health had never been good, and the loss of young Willie ended her life as a functional wife and mother…Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.”

our town

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The whole “dead men talking” thing reminded me of the cemetery scenes in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, but with a much darker, deeper, more poetic edge. If it were a movie, I imagined Tim Burton might direct it because of his darkly comedic style. However Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally have secured the rights and no director has yet been named.

Vanity Fair Oscar Party, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017
Offerman and Mullally

Draw your own conclusions about reading it. It’s certainly not for everyone. The audio-book was available at my library this week, so I’m having another go. Now that I know the story, I’m enjoying the vivid voice portrayals on my morning walks and appreciating it much more.

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Book Report: What’s up with Eleanor?

51meTQ+nUJL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I listened to the brilliant reading by Cathleen McCarron of this brilliant book during walks and car rides this summer. (Thank you, Overdrive!) I found the damaged, habit-driven Eleanor utterly charming. Her very literal view of the world makes for some very humorous moments. Eleanor’s not crazy but the world certainly is. Besides, her strict adherence to routine has allowed her to keep memories of a horrendous childhood trauma at bay. However Raymond, her company’s nerdy IT guy, starts chipping away at those defenses and opens her to new experiences. Slowly. Gently.

Honeyman drops hints to Eleanor’s past throughout, but the whole truth isn’t revealed to the reader until it’s revealed to Eleanor. Perfection on a page. A lovely read and a reminder that everyday kindnesses can go a long way. Recommend.

Dreyer’s full of humor and style

Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by [Dreyer, Benjamin]

I first bought the Kindle edition after it was recommended at a writing workshop. However, about halfway through all his delightful footnotes, I realized I needed a hard copy to sit on my shelf next to The Elements of Style. Benjamin Dreyer is that good. Readers, writers, and word nerds of all sorts will enjoy his conversational, snappy (sometimes snarky) commentary on what seems to be the moving target of proper English usage, capitalization, and punctuation.

I’ve even shared some tidbits with my nine-year-old granddaughter. Do you know when “flyer” is the correct spelling and when it’s “flier”? We do, now.

Recommend, but just go ahead and buy the hard copy.

 

 

Book Report: Dive into this tale

indexThe Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

I loved this luscious, lyrical, and somewhat bawdy historical fiction. Debut author, Imogen Hermes Gowar offers readers not only a great story but also an intimate view of the culture and mores of late 18th Century London. (Click here for a tour with the author.) I’ve read enough Regency Romances (thanks Jane Austen & Wilma Counts!) to be familiar with the period, but this exquisite piece of fiction added oodles of delightful, quotidian detail to my lexicon. Foods. Utensils. Customs. Clothing. Language. Expectations. Examples: syllabub, jade, rosolio, redingote, doxy, Lascar, pelisses, dandyprat, tipsy-cake, calamanco. Reading on a Kindle allowed me to look up word without running to a dictionary. Better yet, the new words never got in the way of the story, but simply added to its depth and feeling.

Jonah Hancock is a respectable but unremarkable businessman longing for some measure of happiness after the death of his wife and child. Angelica Neal is a haughty and renowned courtesan who finds herself suddenly without a protector. Mrs. Chappell is the elderly and successful “abbess” of a “nunnery” where Angelica began her career. Through vividly drawn characters from very different worlds, Gowar explores themes of freedom, security, captivity, and ownership, suggesting that ownership harms both the owner and the owned. Everyone, as the adage reminds us, is the hero of their own story.

The interactions among these characters within and without their strict class boundaries makes for some lively conversations and insights, including this one with the aged bawd, Mrs. Chappell.

“Hypocrites!” she exclaims. ‘Who let their own daughters starve almost to death, or put them in cruel marriages, or slake their lust upon them most unnaturally. To think I do any worse by them. Tis an insult! The girls that come to me –and, mark me, their own parents bring them often enough—suffer worse abuses in their own homes that they ever will with me.”

I believe the two (yes, two!) mermaids—one dead, one alive—are stand-ins for the longings, desires, and even that fears that each of the vividly drawn characters harbors. Fortune. A child. A protector. Status. Happiness. Survival. However, “…mermaids are the most unnatural of creatures, and their hearts are empty of love.”

 

 

And from the lyrical voice of the mermaid herself, we hear her compel Mr. Hancock to her.

“A loss is not a void. A loss is a presence all its own; a loss takes up space; a loss is born just as any other thing that lives. You think your arms are empty, but I shall lie in them…I am here; you are not alone. Here I am; I am grief, the living child of your suffering. I am the grief that sits within in you; I am the grief that sits between you.”

Thank you, Ms. Gowar, for a thoroughly enjoyable journey. Recommend.

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Author, Imogen Hermes Gowar who acknowledges, “If my parents had not made me a reader, I’d be no sort of writer at all.” 

 

Book Report: Fetch this book, then sit and stay in to read it

In the Doghouse: A Couple's Breakup from Their Dog's Point of View by [Case, Teri]IN THE DOGHOUSE is loaded with what I expect from author, Teri Case–heart and hope. But DOGHOUSE contains a lot of humor too. Skip, a rescued Wolador (a wolf-lab mix), reacts to the breakup of his pack with his own brand of well-articulated dog logic. He feels sad and lonely and worries that he is to blame for the breakup of John and Lucy. Darn that Bunny, anyway.

While a couple’s undoing after ten years together is naturally fraught with emotion, telling the story from poor Skip’s point of view—along with his efforts to help Lucy cope–make it particularly sweet and poignant. Remember, a dog lives in the bow-now.

When Lucy finally stops crying, she decides to move forward and not go under. She and Skip step outside their comfort zone and get to know a few new people, together. Lucy starts a rewarding new job at an assisted living center. She and Skip connect with colorful, well-drawn neighbors in their building, including the mysterious but handsome hoarder next door and a young Harry Potter fan who also happens to be on the autism spectrum. She and Skip attend doga (dog yoga) classes. Slowly–and by fits and starts–they build a new and much larger pack.

Lucy changes, becomes a new and improved version of herself. Does she really want John back now? Skip’s not so sure that’s a good idea.

After reading two heavy, sad, dark novels peopled by dysfunctional families with abused and neglected children (you know, typical literary fiction fare) I was in need of a palate cleanser. IN THE DOGHOUSE was the perfect antidote. Sure, there is some grief and loss, but also so much light and love. And if you are a dog person—or know one—I can’t recommend this feel-good book enough.

Book Report: Motherhood is like playing with fire

51kgOTJWNXLLittle Fires Everywhere

Notions of motherhood and parenting play a central role in Celeste Ng’s second novel as they did in her first, Everything I Never Told You.  She explores this basic question: What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?” And what do we do for (and to) our children in our efforts to fulfill that duty. The book starts with a fire that destroys a home.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere. Multiple points of origin. Possible use of an accelerant. Not an accident.”

A sample of the author’s words about parenting:

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person: your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. It was a place you could take refuge, if you knew how to get in. And each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be able to return to that place again.”
“All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches…. a breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and asps it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic torch. Or, perhaps, to tend it like and eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never—could never—set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity. The key, she thought, was to avoid conflagration.”
“Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed: if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.”
“Parents, she thought, learned to survive touching their children less and less…. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.”

Recommend.

Personal note: Although I have enjoyed talking about books with you, I will be taking a break from writing about every book I read. In the new year I want to focus my efforts on a major rewrite of my novel. <heavy sigh here> Ties That Bind needs my full attention if it’s ever going to get done. There may be an occasional blurb about something I’ve LOVED, but that’s it.

I wish you a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, and productive New Year! XO

Book Report: Secrets can kill

515uxhpBakLEverything I Never Told You

This is easily the most powerful book I’ve read in a long time. The author chose an omniscient point of view–God’s eye view—and begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

The suspense comes in finding out just how the teenage Lydia Lee died. Every member of this family has a theory and each has left things unsaid for years. Their unvoiced everyday desires and concerns resonated with me. I’ll offer Celeste Ng’s own words to give you a taste of this haunting novel.

 “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mothers’ and fathers’ mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

“At the time, Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway? Still, every year, she gave Lydia another diary. Now she thinks of all those crossed out phone numbers, that long list of girls who said they barely knew Lydia at all. Of boys from school. Of strange men who might lurch out of the shadows. With on finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. When she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.”

“Little bumps pocked the page all over, as if it had been out in the rain, and Lydia stroked them like Braille with her fingertip. She did not understand what they were until a tear splashed against the page. When she wiped it away, a tiny goose bump remained. Another formed, then another. Her mother must have cried over this page, too.”

“And Lydia herself—the reluctant center of their universe—every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within. Years passed. …Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

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Author, Celeste Ng

I’ve just begun reading Ng’s well-reviewed next novel, Little Fires Everywhere.

Book Report: A hero with a passion for public service

41nczJM0fwLThe Salvation of San Juan Cajon

Last month at my 50th high school reunion, I chatted with a Michael G. Vail, a classmate who had just published his first novel. And since I know how difficult it is for unknown writers to get the word out about their books, I bought it and read it.

The title and lack of cover art gave me no clue as to the genre or subject matter. A spy thriller? Historical fiction? A military saga? So, I just started reading, hoping I could review it positively.

I am relieved to say that I can.

It turns out to be a modern heroic tale. Think Don Quixote living in Southern California in the late 20th century. Our unlikely hero, workaholic Micah Wada, is a facilities planner for the San Juan Cajon School District which is facing the impossible situation of massive overcrowding and nowhere to grow. Contentious factions, including the school board, city hall, California State Legislature, and the diverse population of the community must come to consensus or lose funding for a proposed and much needed new high school. Economic, cultural, and racial issues are pitted against each other. And then there is a suspicious death of a prominent woman.

Micah is a widower and has built his very successful professional life around solving such problems, but his failure as a father gnaws at his conscience. His teenage son ran away four years ago and he has no idea where he is.

If you have ever worked for a school or municipality, or wondered why public projects take forever to accomplish–this story will likely resonate with you. Mike’s insider knowledge–borne of a career as a manager of facilities and construction for some of California’s largest school districts—illuminates the challenges of balancing conflicting interests for the greater good.

Mike even left room at the end to carry the story forward. Good job!

Book report: A lusty, time-traveling romance

51PrW27sXWLWhile my daughter has been a fan of the STARZ TV series for a while and I’d known of the books’ popularity, I had resisted starting the series. But when the Outlander series was named the second most popular book on PBS’s Great America Read poll, I decided to give it a try just to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I had several long trips and car rides coming up and could dedicate enough time to read its 642 pages. I loaded up my Kindle and set off on what turned out to be an epic journey.

Author, Diana Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller is evident on every page–telling details, romance, adventure, sex, and history all leave a trail of breadcrumbs compelling readers to keep turning pages. And her judicious use of Gaelic and Scottish words, folklore, and culture immerse the reader deeply into the time and place.

The gist: A young and strong-willed British Army nurse, Claire Randall and her husband are enjoying a second honeymoon in Scotland after WWII when she is unexpectedly transported through a time portal at a stone circle. She finds herself suddenly in a time two hundred years in the past. Claire’s goal, at first, is to get back to her husband and her own time as quickly as she can. However, she is assaulted by a nasty Redcoat–who bears a striking resemblance to her husband—and then rescued somewhat roughly by a band of kilt-wearing Scotsmen.

And thus begins her adventure in which her nursing skills and knowledge of local flora are called into service repeatedly, mostly saving the life of the young, strapping, red-headed Jamie, who of course becomes her love (and lust) interest.

When at last Claire is offered a chance to return will she take it? Is she bound by her marriage vow to a man who hasn’t yet been born? Will she thrive as a physician or be burned as a witch?

So many scrapes. So much swashbuckling. So much sex.  All very enjoyable, but I think I’ll not read the rest of the eight-book Outlander series just now. There are simply too many other books out there winking at me and crooking their fingers. So many books, so little time.

Book Report: Just one kiss

51Y+LLxP6nL“It Only Takes a Kiss” is the second in Wilma Counts’ “Once Upon a Bride” trilogy, in which she gives three familiar stories the Regency Romance treatment. Kiss is inspired by Sleeping Beauty, but in this tale both the hero and heroine have been asleep.

Hero Whitby is her physician father’s assistant in every way allowed in her time and place. Now in her mid-twenties, she is intelligent and compassionate, but mistrustful of the men of her class. Hero has buried the reason for her mistrust—a brutal assault by some upper class boys. She remains “on the shelf.”

When a badly beaten, unconscious, and handsome stranger is brought to her father’s Devonshire clinic in the dead of night, Hero and her father patch him and wait days for him to regain consciousness. Hero finds herself drawn to him, and inspired by the fairy tale, kisses the sleeping patient.

When Alexander Stern awakens, he has no memory of his identity, although his nightmares are of bloody battles in Wellington’s army on the Peninsula.

Having read several of Ms. Counts books, I appreciate how she places her stories in the historical and social context of the period. She brings readers into the time not only with her skillful use of language but also with pertinent details of clothing, food, women’s issues, customs, and the workings of local estates. Estates were not merely grand houses, occupied by an oblivious upper class. Estates were economic centers that needed to be wisely managed and maintained. Farms, mills, breweries, mines, and all other industry worked together for the community’s well-being. The local aristocracy could make or break the system.

In Kiss, the town of Weyburn has for years been terrorized by Willard Teague, the estate’s evil steward. Teague exerts considerable power in the absence of the Weyburn heir who has been off soldiering on the Peninsula or whoring in London. Teague and his band of bully boys use the vacant estate, its mine, and farms in an increasingly violent smuggling operation. Teague employs fear and coercion to enlist the reluctant cooperation of the citizenry. And he’s got his eye on Hero as his next wife. <shudder>

Teague’s advances repulse Hero. After all, she treated his first wife for the abuse he dispensed. She also sees patients at a local home for unwed mothers, the unhappy result of men exerting their power.

“The young mothers were of two sorts: either daughters of upper class, even aristocratic families, or servant who had been seduced—or, in some cases, raped—by males in such households. The babes were most often placed with foster families.”

In fact, Hero has taken in one such child, raising little Annabelle as a member of her family.

As the story unfolds, most of what Hero holds dear in life is threatened–Annabelle’s place in her home, her position as her father’s assistant, the lives of her siblings, and her romance with the handsome stranger.

When all seems lost, Ms. Counts compels readers to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion, complete with a little swashbuckling and, of course, a happily ever after for the newly awakened lovers.