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.
Agnar Mykle’s Lasso Round the Moon—& a Rant about American Literary Parochialism
“So much of American fiction has become playful, cynical and evasive,” says novelist Joy Williams, and she goes on to deplore its “inconsequentialities”. I agree. And because I am ever more bored by the contemporary American novel, which strikes me, to add some adjectives to hers, as increasingly myopic, solipsistic and parochial, not to mention uninspired—especially the hip sacred cows like Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, and Miranda July—I find myself ‘playing truant’ whenever I can, running for refuge to Latin America or Europe, where writers have not yet learned to turn out the MFA novel, which generally comes in one of two flavours: either flawless technically but deadly dull, dealing with domestic melodramas (Richard Russo, Jane Smiley) or else ‘quirky’, linguistically imaginative (July, Saunders, Shteyngart, Safran-Foer) and yet shallow and pretentious.
1/20/15 Review of Joseph D. Haske’s North Dixie Highway A prologue explains that no single “Dixie Highway” exists, but instead the term applies to roads south that reach as far north as Canada. Haske’s story lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Publisher Texas Review Press offers, in part: “Weaving multiple storylines with vivid description of characters and landscape, Haske’s debut novel brings new life and a unique voice to the fiction of rural America. North Dixie Highway is a story of family bonds, devolution, and elusive revenge.”
Author reviewer Larry Fondation adds (in an Amazon editorial review) “It may be fueled by alcohol and anger, but it’s based on love and loyalty: avenging the dead, defending the living.”
12/7/14 — REREADING JAMES JOYCE’S THE DUBLINERS
This is the time of year for reconnecting with family and friends, a time to renew bonds and remember what makes a relationship special. So, too, with good books. I often find that the holidays are the perfect time to reread the classics, those priceless novels that offer something new, no matter how many times you read them.
11/20/14 “It is rather funny I think,” wrote Barbara Pym in 1939 of her novel-in-progress, Crampton Hodnet. The war prevented her from pursuing publishers, and after the war she felt the book was dated and turned her attention to another of her novels. As a result, Crampton Hodnet wasn’t published until 1985, among the last of her works to appear. Every now and then I re-read one of the thirteen novels of Pym, among my favorite novelists, a master of postwar English humor and ahead of her time in her views of male-female relationships.
11/10/2014 – BOOK REVIEW: GODS IN ALABAMA BY JOSHILYN JACKSON
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson starts with a shock and ends with an even bigger shock. Set in the tiny town of Possett, Alabama, the story is a classic example of Southern Gothic literature, which includes works by Flannery O’Connor (the queen of Southern Gothic), William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Carson McCullers. You can tell a story is Southern Gothic by its preponderance of violence, weird characters, loners, ghosts, and other grotesque occurrences in any and all combinations. Jackson’s protagonist, Arlene Fleet, fulfills most of these requirements all by herself.
10/21/15 REVIEW OF M. L. DOYLE’S THE GENERAL’S AMBITION
Given lemons, make lemonade. M. L. Doyle is no longer a Late Last Night Books blogger, so I’m taking advantage of our loss by reviewing her latest book, something I couldn’t have done while she was one of us. Whether in or out of uniform, press corps Army Sergeant Lauren Harper faces the problems of today’s Every Woman as she is drawn into a murder investigation. Her direct superior in the press corps, now divorced and without his family, imposes his affections upon her. He wants to marry her, rather than to be her best friend. Lauren once longed for this but thought it could never be. But is she in love with him now? Or is she in love with a British front-line soldier never before willing to let a woman worry about whether he will or will not return from each of his missions?