9/20/15 REVIEW OF JOYCE RENWICK’S IN PRAISE OF WHAT PERSISTS “I kept finding the goat wandering in the dining room, or standing on the front room fireplace mantel just like she was wild on some mountainside… Pie Face was just an ordinary American mongrel milk goat, mostly black with white wedges under her eyes that gave her the name…[She] weighed about a hundred pounds and would chew or lick anything in sight that might contain minerals. She bit me every time I milked her so I’d gotten to expect it.”—from “The Goat” in the posthumous collection In Praise of What Persists.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of sequels, and even a few prequels, because I’m working on a sequel of my own. I’ve also been reading a lot of books with older protagonists because my main character is in his seventies. So it was no surprise that I picked up Rachel Joyce’s The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, a follow-on to her enchanting best seller of 2012, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The principal characters are the same and the new novel is in many ways another chapter of the story, but it is neither a prequel nor a sequel. It’s an “equel.”
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
Review by Garry Craig Powell
Subtitled Why we tell stories, this book, which took the author 34 years to write, is not only Booker’s magnum opus, but one the great works of contemporary criticism. Building on Jungian archetypal psychology (and who isn’t a Jungian?) Booker’s thesis is that we read stories because we need to, in order to make sense of our lives, and more specifically because stories provide us with a blueprint for what Jung called individuation. For this reason, he contends, stories from all over the world, whether folktales or highly refined literary forms such as epic poetry or the modernist novel, or for that matter lowbrow entertainments like the James Bond movies, all tend to follow one of seven basic plots.
8/13/15 A Review of the Works of Tana French
It’s one thing when a writer wins a book award for a novel, especially if it is their first novel. But when the same writer wins awards for her subsequent novels, particularly if the novels are part of a series, you know something special is happening.
In 2008 Tana French’s debut novel, In the Woods, walked away with just about every major award for the “Best First Novel,” the Edgar, the Anthony, the Macavity, and the Barry Award. The novel was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. In 2012, her third novel, Faithful Place, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Broken Harbor, her fourth novel, won the Irish Book Award for Irish Crime Fiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the Mystery/Thriller category.
7/20/15 REVIEW OF KATIE GILMARTIN’S BLACKMAIL, MY LOVE
Yet the San Francisco we know today—the city so embracing of gay people—is not the San Francisco that existed in the 1950s when Blackmail, My Love takes place. The book resonated for me because I remember the fear I felt when, as a teenager in the early ’60s, I realized I might be homosexual and that, as I became an adult and remained wifeless, everyone else would suspect the truth.
7/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW: DARK ROAD, DEAD END BY PHILIP CIOFFARI
I love a novel that teaches me about a phenomenon or a historical event. In my past two posts, I talked about The Tilted World, which introduced me to the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. This month I want to talk about another disaster that’s taking place even as I write: the smuggling of exotic and endangered animals, stolen from their natural habitats, into the United States for profit. Dark Road, Dead End, a novel by Philip Cioffari, explores the smarmy world of animal smugglers and the law enforcement officers who risk their lives trying to shut the practice down.
I wish I could introduce you to Elena Ferrante, but I can’t. The best I can do is make a stab at introducing you to her work. To some extent, of course, that is the case with all authors, although some writers appear so often in the media, we can be lulled into thinking we really do know them.
That is not a danger with Elena Ferrante. It’s not just that Ferrante is a pen name or that the author is reclusive. It is that she has, from the start, insisted her identity remain a mystery. When her first novel, Troubling Love, came out in 1991, she told her publisher that writing it was enough. There would be no signings, no readings, no appearances at conferences. Should it win a prize, she wouldn’t even attend the ceremony. Her letter to her published explained: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.”
In her new novel Newport, Jill Morrow creates a mystery worthy of Masterpiece Theatre with unexpected and clever twists on the British model. One surprise is there is no crime and no death—until the gathering-of-the-suspects scene. And then there’s another surprise, and another.
It’s the 1920s and suave lawyer Adrian de la Noye is on a ferry to Newport. He’s on his way to an opulent sea view cottage, “beautiful in an old-fashioned, lavender-and-crepe sort of way,” at the insistence of his firm’s wealthiest client to draft a new will. At Adrian’s side is his awkward young colleague Jim Reid.
6/20/15 Re-reading Anne Tyler: “She took the bowl of peas and brought it down on his head. It didn’t break, but peas flew everywhere.” Meet Pearl, having supper with her little girl Jenny and her two teenage sons in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: “Jenny’s face was streaming with tears, but she wasn’t making a sound and Pearl seemed unaware of her.
6/13/2015—Book Review: Disarmed An Exceptional Journey, by Ginger Manley.
The subtitle “An Exceptional Journey” for Ginger Manley’s, Disarmed, is indeed an accurate description of this remarkable memoir. It is a story of a fifty-year relationship with her husband, John Manley, a relationship with a doubtful beginning. It is an inspiring account of the couple’s fortitude in overcoming horrendous physical trauma, homelessness, and the overwhelming odds of keeping their marriage intact. The divorce rate in couples with a disability is ninety percent. This is the story of how the Manley’s beat those odds.
When I was growing up, a summer reading list was big and heavy; heavy in the sense that it included those weighty tomes that you didn’t have time for during the rest of year—War and Peace, Ulysses, the Illiad. Gradually the summer list turned to beach reading, which was the exact opposite—easy books that you could read and enjoy without much thought. They provided an escape and a way to spend hours lying in the sun getting skin cancer without exerting too much effort. That seemed to lead to a burst in escapist literature of many genres: the kind of book you enjoyed but forgot as soon as you put it down.
Alexandra Fuller moved to Wyoming two decades ago—but it’s her twenty years growing up in Zambia that inhabit her psyche and her writing. I know, I know, it’s my third post in a row about Africa. And about heartbreak. I’ve been plenty of other places, and heartbreak happens everywhere, but Africa keeps coming to me.
The book is titled Leaving Before the Rains Come, words the author’s father said about deciding to sell his farm beside the Zambesi River. It refers as well to the author’s anfractuous path to leaving her marriage.
5/17/2015 – In a Fisherman’s Language
As author of the 90s Club mystery series featuring the 90 year olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, I give talks about the successes and accomplishments of people in their 90s and 100s. One of my prime examples is Captain James Arruda Henry.
5/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: THE TILTED WORLD BY TOM FRANKLIN AND BETH ANN FENNELLY (ONE OF THE BEST HISTORICAL NOVELS I’VE EVER READ)
In March 1927, after months of nearly nonstop rainfall, a levee on the Mississippi River near Greenville, Mississippi, collapsed with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls. The deluge, combined with flooding from additional breaks in the levee system, covered 27,000 square miles in 10 states up to a depth of 30 feet. Authorities have called it the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States. And yet many people have never heard of it. In their gripping new novel The Tilted World, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly have righted that omission and brought the horrors and heroism of the flood to life.
5/7/15 – Review: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
Some of my best friends are copy editors. No, really. After decades working as a journalist, and now as a novelist, I know how important copy editors can be, how often they save writers from embarrassing errors, and how underappreciated (and underpaid) they are. I’m also aware of the stereotype that suggests copy editors are obsessed, persnickety, humorless, and mean. Like most stereotypes, there’s some truth to it…but not that much.
Enter Mary Norris, the long time page OK’er at The New Yorker, and her new memoir, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. The book is actually a modified memoir—one part life story, one part inside look at the magazine, and two parts lessons on the rules of grammar and why they make sense (but sometimes don’t). Since publication last month, the book has received rave reviews, perhaps because a lot of copy editors, present and past, were selected by their publications to review it.
The Journey is the Destination: The Journals of Dan Eldon. Death by the will of the people. I didn’t want to write about this death, but can’t seem to put it aside. It’s been almost twelve years since Dan Eldon’s death on July 12, 1993. I first learned about it from the book of his journals which I picked up on the sale table at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
4/13/15 GILLIAN FLYNN TIMES THREE
Gone Girl was all the rage in 2013 and into 2014, especially with the announcement of taking the book to film. Everyone I knew that had read the novel seemed to grumble about the ending. None of them seemed to like it. In fact they were outraged, as though they’d been cheated. I’m sure they would have asked for their money back if they could. Begrudgingly (probably due to my jealousy of Flynn’s flaming success) I decided that I would just have to read the darn thing myself, but first, my journey to Gone Girl would have to begin with Sharp Objects.
4/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: LILA BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Lila is a novel about nothing and about everything. The plot is simple: an abused, neglected child is stolen by a woman and raised with a band of migrant workers until the woman disappears, and the child, now a young adult, is left to take care of herself. She spends time in a brothel in St. Louis and then one day wanders into Gilead, Iowa, where she meets John Ames, an older preacher whose wife and child died years ago.
The young woman (Lila) and John are drawn to each other by forces that maybe aren’t love, but are just as powerful. They marry, and then, almost by accident, they have a son together. That’s it. That’s the plot. And most of that story is told in flashbacks. The immediate story is the relationship between Lila and John. Within that relationship lies the mystery and the magic of Lila.
4/04/2015 – ENDINGS: MUSINGS ON STATION ELEVEN
As I pulled into the last paragraph of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven, I flipped to the last page to confirm I was nearing the end, trying to concentrate on every word and how it felt to read it because everything was about to change. I often play this game when nearing the end of an engrossing novel, superimposing my awareness of the impending close over the experience of still being in the story, doing whatever I can to prolong the moment and appreciate the incompletion. I know that yet another world is about to end for me, and I want to savor every remaining moment before I am shut out forever.
“Nowadays, you eye the young and remember…[h]ow it was to have smooth skin and a supple body, to be able to bend and squat and lift and run for a bus and skip down the stairs. To have this long unknowable future, in which lurked heaven knows what, and it is the mystery that is so alluring. Your own future is also unknowable, except that you can make a few shrewd guesses, and it is not particularly alluring.”
3/13/15 Book Review, Come Sit with Me, by George Spain
As the title, along with its subtitle, Come Sit with Me…and listen to the stories I want you to hear… suggests, this is a book for casual reading. Author George Spain’s voice echoes through the words as if a favorite uncle is telling tales of what once was and can never be again, stories you know to be true, some you know to be exaggerations, and some that you know came from the far reaches of his mind.
3/7/2015 — BOOK REVIEW: MIRIAM TOWES’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS
Miriam Toews has managed to do the seemingly impossible: Write a novel about depression and suicide that is funny, loving, witty, heartbreaking, clever, and insightful, all while contributing to the public debate over an individual’s right to die with dignity. Toews has long been a best-selling, award-winning author in her native Canada, but readers south of the border have been slow to discover her. All My Puny Sorrows, her sixth and arguably best novel, should change that.
3/04/2015 – REIMAGINING THE MOMENT
I’ve just finished reading two novels that re-envision a few days out of history, one about a famous battle, the other an obscure murder. Both novels include meticulously researched historical details, stretched here and there to fit the arc of a story and perhaps highlight a deeper truth, but still leaving readers with a fresh sense of worlds long vanished. More than that, though, both novels reminded me of the infinite richness in the smallness, shortest of moments, something all writers should remember.
2/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: WHAT THE ZHANG BOYS KNOW BY CLIFFORD GARSTANG
In social psychology, the proximity principle says that people tend to form interpersonal relations with those who are close by. What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang confirms that principle and also tests it severely by gathering a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational group of people as residents in a Washington, D.C., condominium building called Nanking Mansion. A Chinese father and his two sons, an African-American lawyer, a painter, a sculptor, a gay aspiring poet, and an unemployed woman who’s selling her jewelry so she can eat are among the people trying to make their way in this minimally refurbished building in a neighborhood that’s just beginning to turn around.
I spent a few days in Haiti last week without leaving home. My tour guide was Edwidge Danticat, and the mode of transportation was her magnificent novel, Claire of the Sea Light, which brought Haiti’s sights, sounds, smells to my senses, while introducing me to the people and their incredible courage, perseverance and hope. It was a remarkable journey, one I won’t forget for quite a while.