Friday, October 19, 2018

The Man Who Came Uptown

By George Pelecanos

Mulholland Books     2018
262 pages     Noir

Although The Man Who Came Uptown reads more like literary fiction than it does mystery or noir, George Pelecanos is widely understood to be a writer of crime fiction. He is also a television writer and producer. I watched two of his shows and loved them—The Wire and ‘Treme. He also wrote The Deuce.

The reason why this feels more literary than crime is that Pelecanos is an incredible storyteller who has a gift for creating believable characters with a lot of depth. Basically there are four main characters: Phil Ornazian, Thaddeus Ward, Michael Hudson, and Miss Anna. Ornazian is a private investigator who is willing and able to do bad stuff, but he feels that he is more a vigilante—killing, and robbing for the good of the community. His ethics, however, are a bit blurred, but he comes across as likable, mostly because he goes home to his wife and family every day. His partner is Thaddeus Ward, an ex-cop and now bail bondsman. Together they target criminals that they know have a lot of money. They contract some of their work; the rest they take the spoils.

Michael Hudson, on the other hand, is a nice guy who is in the county jail awaiting trial. While at the jail, he discovers literature through the gentle recommendations of the young librarian, Miss Anna. Charges are dropped through the efforts of Ornazian, and Michael returns to his mother’s home, determined to make a new start on life. He is such a believable and likable character that I was anxious to complete the book because I cared so much about him.

Of course there is crime. Ornazian reminds Michael that “he owes” him, so Michael drives for him when Ornazian and Ward go on the attack. The beauty of the book lies not so much with the plot and the crime story but with the relationship Michael develops with the librarian and with the joy Miss Anna has in recommending books to the jail prisoners. She teaches Michael to love reading through the books she recommends. The first thing he does when he gets out of jail is to buy a bookcase. Michael thinks, “When he read a book, he wasn’t in his cage anymore.” As a reader and a librarian, this brought joy to my heart.

There is a redemptive aspect of this book that moves The Man Who Came Uptown out of classic crime noir to literary fiction and moves the reader to remember the books that saved her. It was, for me, a great introduction to a wonderful author.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


By David Sedaris

Little, Brown     2018
259 pages     Humor

I have eagerly read essays by David Sedaris in his hilarious books and magazine articles over the last many years, beginning with listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on a long car trip. I saw him when he came to Kalamazoo in 2011.  So, I was overjoyed when we chose Calypso for our book club this month. The reviewer in the Guardian says that his diary-essays defy description; “he’s the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention.” Yesterday, I finished reading Calypso, and  I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it. Yes, in many ways, it is similar to his other books, but Sedaris is showing age and maturity in this collection that we have not seen before. Still funny; still ironic; still sarcastic; but just older.

The major topics of these essays are death and family. He approaches for the first time his mother’s alcoholism. We have met his mother many times in his books but her alcoholism has never been a major topic. He also talks a great deal about his aged father—with the grudging respect for the way in which his father has mellowed over the years.

Calypso is much darker and more honest that any of his other writings. Death is ever present in this volume. In the poignant story, “Now We are Five,” he tells of the first Thanksgiving at the family cottage following the suicide of his sister Tiffany. Sedaris, his siblings and their families, as well as his partner, Hugh, are trying to come to grips with what happened. Sedaris manages to put a spin on the narrative in such a way that we acknowledge their pain but smile at the way the family is able to move on. Sedaris comments, “They’ve always done that for me, my family. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

Many of the stories in this volume concern family gatherings at Sea Section, the family cottage in North Carolina. David and Hugh bought this cottage so that the family could gather several times a year. Sometimes I wonder how the family reckons with always being in the limelight of his stories. As I was reading this week, I decided to go to Google Images and see if I could find pictures of his siblings. One thing I found was an article about his brother Paul, who is a small business owner. In the article, it mentions that Paul is always having people ask him if he is related to the famous David Sedaris. Wonder how Paul felt about David writing about his liquid diet? But then, if your brother has been writing about you your entire adult life, I guess you rather get used to it.

One of the reasons that I relate so well to Sedaris is because he loves his family so much. However, in a very well-placed essay, he described how he shut his sister Tiffany out of his life. He is as shocked by his action as we, the readers, are. We who are close to our family would say, "I could never do that!" but then we have never shared that life experience.

Well, most of you know David Sedaris and his writing. The reviewer in the New Your Times says it best. “The brilliance of David Sedaris’s writing is that his very essence, his aura, seeps through the pages of his book like an intoxicating cloud, mesmerizing us so that his logic becomes ours.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food

By Arlene B. Englander

Rowman and Littlefield     2018
167 pages     Health and Wellness
The Shortlist

The subtopic for the book, Let Go of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food, is “A five-point plan for success.” And indeed it is exactly that. This is not a diet plan; there is no connected cookbook; and there is no daily eating guideline. Englander is a psychotherapist so she approaches the problem of overeating from the standpoint of the emotions. She helps her readers learn how to savor meals as a way to relearn how to eat to promote health and wellness. She uses the mnemonic device SELF to help develop awareness and growth. It includes stress, exercise, love your food, fluids and healthy foods.

Here is what Englander says about why she wrote this book: Let Go Of Emotional Overeating and Love Your Food: A Five Point Plan for Success is meant to help those who’d love to eat what they like yet be able to stop just at the point of satisfaction without overeating. By learning the difference between healthy eating (which is eating for pleasure and the satisfaction of hunger) and emotionally overeating (eating to distract ourselves from painful thoughts and feelings ), we can learn to eat in a healthier more satisfying way. What’s equally important is to learn to successfully cope with stress away from the table, so we can actually find more pleasure in and more control of, not only our eating experiences, but our lives, as well.

I read this book before a two week “taking care of myself” challenge to my wellness. Through my entire adult life, I have dieted, lost and gained, been alternately disgusted and proud of myself, and been emotional about it. Reading Englander’s book was a great start to a new chapter in my healthfulness. Easy to read and understand. Lots of good ideas.

Publisher’s Weekly review.
The book’s trailer.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Burn Zone: A Memoir

By Renee Linnell

She Writes Press     2018
305 pages     Memoir

Here is a quick summary of the book.

"After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?"

Many people search for spiritual belonging. And when you find a space or a group or a church/synagogue/mosque where you are comfortable, a great longing can be satisfied. Renee Linnell’s journey is no exception to this understanding. She says in the preface, “The only way to true joy, to true bliss, to true freedom, is to begin the work of uncovering our real selves—to chip away at the parts of us that are false, the façade we created to please our parents, the mask we built so the world would approve of us.”  The trick, however, is to know when the group is asking too much of you, when your life has lost its sense of proportion, or when you cannot function without the group.

“All my life I had been searching.” Thus begins Renee’s journey with a meditation guru and what she came to realize was a spirituality cult. It took a great amount of determination for Renee to finally realize that she needed to be in control of her own selfhood and her own destiny.  My experience, although not broad, is expansive enough that I have known several people who have been drawn to people or groups that promise them answers for their searching and questioning. My own brother and his then-girlfriend were drawn to the Children of God, a major cult of the 1970s. While they voluntarily left after several months, my brother’s good friend and his family stayed in the group for about 10 years and had to have help getting resettled when the cult dissolved.

Not all searching results in cult-like fervor or people becoming totally wrapped up in an organization or a cult. The reader gathers, however, that Renee gives 1000% to everything she does in her life, so going headfirst into the University of Mysticism seems like something she would do.

Renee Linnell’s memoir is a cautionary tale about finding purpose in life, asking appropriate questions, finding balance, and knowing when enough is enough. Great writing, great story, great reading.

Renee Linnell’s website.


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

By Tara Westover

Random House     2018
335 pages     Memoir

I finished Tara Westover’s powerful memoir, Educated, completely stunned—encouraged and heartbroken all at the same time. This morning the NY Times bestseller list has it listed at #2, and it has been on the bestseller list for 30 weeks. Obviously, it has struck a chord with the book-reading parts of the country. Perhaps it is the writing; perhaps the narrative; perhaps it is because of the controversy it has engendered. I waited to post my feelings about the book until after I had the conversation with my book group on Thursday evening. I wanted to hear what they had to say—women whose opinions I trust implicitly.

Much has been written about this memoir. It is, in brief, the story of a young woman’s understanding of her upbringing in a survivalist Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Her mother is a midwife and herbalist; her father runs a scrap yard and builds barns and sheds in the community. Other than church, the seven children in the family had little access or understanding of the outside world, because they were homeschooled. Yet, Tara and two of her brothers were so intellectually motivated that they went on to higher education. Tara, herself, gained a PhD from Cambridge University.
In part, the memoir is a horror story of a child’s memories of all the terrible things that happened—car accidents and work accidents, all of which were treated by herbal therapies and home remedies, and never with a trip to the doctor. Chief among the memories are those of a mentally unstable older brother who physically abused Tara and the other younger siblings.

Yet, Tara persisted. She had (and has) a beautiful singing voice, and had the opportunity to work with the local community theater, something that made her father really proud. She taught herself enough math to pass the college admissions exam, and graduated from Brigham Young University. After time at Cambridge and Harvard, she finished a PhD in history in 2014.

One of my book club members pointed out that Tara continued to return home to her family—over and over—until she realized that the relationship was so very toxic with her parents and her siblings that she could no longer survive if she continued. So, other than keeping in contact with her two PhD brothers and their families, she remains estranged from her family.

Here are some takeaways from the book. One is that a person can be so cloistered within a family and community that she thinks this is what the world is. As an example, it wasn’t until Tara went to college that she had any notion of the holocaust, or basic geography. Additionally, her father’s authoritarianism was so all-consuming and narcissistic, it took a basic class in psychology for Tara to realize that her father might be suffering from schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. When all you read is the Bible or the Book of Mormon, your view of the world is so very limited.

Then, it is apparent that each family member has a selective version of what actually happened within their family dynamic. The fact that Tara’s parents were not able to see her brother’s mental illness and the earnestness by which they defended him and how they couldn’t see how debilitating it was for Tara just made the reader want to scream, “Please help him! Please help her!” Yet, when the book came out, Tara’s other siblings expressed views about their childhood that were quite different from hers. Of course, this is quite common—certainly my siblings have totally different memories about our childhood than I do. The editors very wisely did a great deal of fact checking before the book was released.

A great blog posting on the Sylvan Sanctuary blog summarizes Educated in great depth, but the author also has found the other sibling’s negative comments about the book, and the family’s lawyer has even gotten into the act disputing the way she remembers her life on the mountain. Nothing, however, can take away from the riveting narration and the very skilled writing. It is a book you just can’t put down.

Earlier this summer, I read and wrote about The Gospel of Trees, the memoir of a girl who grew up in a missionary family in Haiti. The two books make great companion pieces about the psychological damage that too much religious fervor can make on a young woman’s soul.

Educated was the PBS book club book for the month of May. Here Tara is singing a favorite hymn on the PBS Newshour. Also the review in New York Times.

Saturday, September 29, 2018


By Andy Weir

Broadway Books 2017
320 pages     Science Fiction

Ever wondered what life will be like on the moon after it is settled and developed? Andy Weir explores this intriguing notion with his futuristic novel, Artemis—his follow-up the highly successful The Martian. My husband and I watched The Martian, and I suggested that we read Artemis as our morning read aloud. It was more fun for me than I anticipated, being that I am no big fan of science fiction, and the main reason is because I enjoyed getting acquainted with the protagonist and heroine, Jasmine Bashara--Jazz. My husband enjoyed it for the science.

Jazz and her father, a welder, had come to live on the moon from Saudi Arabia when Jazz was a little girl, so she really had known no other home. The reader readily acknowledges that Jazz is really smart, but she has chosen a “career” as a smuggler and porter. In an attempt to make enough money to move to larger living quarters, she signs on to commit a huge crime that involves sabotaging the colony’s aluminum factory.

Jazz is a fun character, but she is really the only fully realized character. I rather enjoyed her crass take on life, but I also appreciated her brilliance and ingenuity. Jazz really knows her science and totally understands the ways in which science is at play in everything that happens on Artemis. She uses her innate knowledge to her advantage as she undertakes the crime at hand. The other characters are only important as far as they supplement what Jazz is doing. There is a lot of rough language, but we felt that it was appropriate and probably essential to the character development. I kept wondering what actress will play Jazz when they make the movie.

The backdrop for the adventure, the small bubble-town of Artemis, is very skillfully set. The details are so clear that the reader can visualize exactly where every event is taking place and can follow the plot explicitly. All the details that made The Martian such a big hit are readily present in Artemis. It makes the novel flow easily and the morning read alouds a lot of fun.

The major strength of the novel is how accessible the author makes the science. It was one of the things that made my husband keep reading. He wants to know the facts, and Weir delivers the real world facts that keep the plot moving. The NPR reviewer says, “In keeping with the book’s matter-of-fact storytelling, characters keep flatly telling Jazz she’s brilliant and talented. But that comes across more believably when she’s contriving a clever way to disable an aggressive remote-controlled rock harvester, or open a jammed valve from inside a sealed environmental bubble.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

French Exit

By Patrick deWitt

Ecco     2018
256 pages     Literary

Frances Price is a New York socialite with a adult son, Malcolm, who lives with her, and a family cat, Small Frank, who apparently is the spirit of Frances’ dead husband, Franklin. Frances is everything you could imagine a 65-year-old socialite to be: sharp-tongued, full of preconceptions, and mannerisms. She delights in “implied insults and needling insinuations.” As an example, Frances doesn’t like Malcolm’s fiancé because she once ordered gazpacho out of season.

A scandal has defined Frances through the years in New York society. She had returned home and found her husband Frank dead in bed. Instead of calling the police, Frances went skiing for the weekend—because there wasn’t anything to be done about it. Now, Frances has no one but her son and one friend, Joan. She also has just a limited amount of money and decides to sell her apartment and move to France to live in Joan’s Paris apartment.

A French exit, by the way, means to leave a social gathering without saying your farewells. And in the first, really funny scene, she does exactly that. However, for Frances, the meaning of French exit has a slightly sinister tone to it. She actually plans to exit herself once she gets to Paris. “Sometimes the world corrected itself, she knew this, for it had so many times in her past. She understood intuitively that it would not correct itself now, though.” In other words, Frances is bored with life and wants to make her own “French exit.”

Why Malcolm joins her in Paris is one of the unanswered questions in the book. Is he so spineless that he has to follow his mother around endlessly? And indeed he does, leaving behind a fiancée who is not sure why she loves him. Susan, Malcolm’s fiancée, wonders why she had “come to care for this lugubrious toddler of a man.”

Well, once they get to Paris, they collect a cadre of crazy people, including a psychic, who calls the presence of Frances’ husband from the cat, a private investigator, a doctor named Touche, and a great cook who feeds them souffles and cocktails. Friend Joan arrives at her apartment, and she is soon followed by Malcolm’s fiancée Susan and her new boyfriend. Chaos ensues. These scenes have been compared to a Noel Coward comedy of manners. French Exit may best be called a tragic comedy, because although there is always a comic turn to everything, we know from the very beginning tragedy is just around the corner. The NPR reviewer suggests that you can’t take anything too seriously, because if you do, the entire novel falls apart.

Frankly, once I got into the premise of French Exit, I enjoyed all of it. The New Yorker calls the novel “stealth absurdism.” It took me a bit to realize that was what I was reading, but when I figured it out, I settled in and just went along for the ride. Patrick deWitt has written books in several genres, but this is his first comedy of manners. Out now,  movie The Sisters Brothers is a slapstick Western starring inept outlaws. The movie is based on another of deWitt's novels. I really wanted to see the movie before I wrote the review of French Exit, but the movie hasn’t come to Kalamazoo yet.