Wednesday, August 15, 2018

From the Corner of the Oval

By Beck Dorey-Stein

Spiegel & Grau     2018
352 pages     Memoir

“This place. This place. This place could break your heart.” With this poignant reminder, Beck Dorey-Stein begins her memoir of the five years (2012-2016) she spent as a stenographer in President Barack Obama’s White House. Beck, short for Rebecca, got the job through a rather unimaginable way. She had been working as a tutor and teacher at the Sidwell School, where the Obama girls went to school, but in an attempt to move on, she answered a Craigslist ad for a stenographer at a Washington law firm. Surprising, she finds during the second interview that it isn’t a job at a law firm at all, but a job transcribing notes “from the corner of the oval” office. Over the ensuing years, she kept meticulous notes of this incredible experience, fully aware that she was part of history in the making.

At once extremely funny and gut-wrenching, Dorey-Stein describes the men she dated (and bedded), the places she was privileged to visit, and the great friends she made among the White House staff. Once she is confident in her position and her gift for writing, she shares her reflections with White House staffers, and they all encourage her to become an author.  While she is critical of the “ladder-climbing bobbleheads” that make up a great deal of the Washington young adults, she is clear-eyed about her own experiences among those bobbleheads.

I stopped counting the number of times that Jason, the scoundrel, came to Beck’s hotel room on Presidential trips. And I laughed aloud when she was afraid that Jay Carney thought her hair straightening machine was a vibrator or the time she forgot her underwear and mentioned, “Today I’ll be traveling commando with the commander in chief.” Throughout, you never forget that Dorey-Stein is a young woman who parties a lot, drinks too much, and is far too critical of herself and her failings.

I was already feeling tremendously nostalgic for a president of integrity, grace, and humor when I opened From The Corner of the Oval. This account of Obama’s second term from the eyes of his stenographer just made watching Omarosa expose details about the Trump White House all the more painful. Dorey-Stein witnessed some of the greatest moments in the Obama years. I almost cried when she told about watching the speech after the church shootings in Charleston when Obama broke into singing “Amazing Grace.” I was touched when on Dorey-Stein’s birthday, her friends got her a ride on the Presidential helicopter and the President told her about how he met Michelle. Ah—the humanity of the man, and the humility with which he faced his job.

The most interesting review came from Paul Begala who calls it “equal parts C-Span and ‘Sex and the City.’” Other former White House staffers have expressed their impressions of this memoir, but as Begala says, you just keep rooting for Beck to succeed, become a writer (which, of course, she has) and find love. This is not a book about Obama policy or Obama wins and losses, but it  charmingly relates the brief interactions Dorey-Stein had with a wonderful man. The reader ends up being sad that the presidency is currently a laughing stock and longing, like Dorey-Stein does, for those glory days when a beautiful family brought honor to the office of President of the United States.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Becoming Starlight: A Shared Death Journey from Darkness to Light

By Sharon Prentice PhD

Waterside Press     2018
185 pages     Spiritual
The Shortlist

Although I only read parts of Becoming Starlight by Sharon Prentice, I wanted to share the book with you. It seems that currently there are a plethora of books about grief and the death of spouses and partners. Frankly, I was burned out before Becoming Starlight came from the publicist. I just couldn't relive my own grief journey again. This book, however, appears to be particularly meaningful. The theme of Prentice's memoir is grief as a spiritual journey. Prentice has a “shared death” experience at the moment of her husband’s death. Here is a summary of the book.

“Becoming Starlight is the true story of one woman’s tumultuous relationship with God during the soul-wrenching deaths of her daughter and husband, and her eventual redemption as her soul slipped over to another framework of existence—a realm of pure love and light—by means of a Shared Death Experience (SDE) at the moment of her husband’s death. 

The little known Shared Death Experience—a profound transcendent consciousness—afforded the author a peek into forever-ness, a lifting of the veil between this life and the next.

Deeply embedded in Becoming Starlight is a life-and-death struggle with Spiritual darkness and loss of faith. It’s a story brimming with the stuff of life—tremendous love, agonizing loss, quiet rage, inconsolable sorrow, and a complete fall from Grace. At the heart of it is a war between who lives and dies, a battle that brings us face to face with our own mortality.”

As well as telling the story, the concept of shared death is explored and many examples are given from Prentice’s life experience. In my own experience with death, I know that there are people who wish to die in the presence of family, thus sharing the experience. I also know that there are people who choose to die when they are alone—making death a singular experience. This would be the case for my father, who waited until it was quiet and he was alone. My husband waited until his whole family was in the room. I said, “You can go now. Everyone is here.” And everyone in the room saw and felt his spirit leave his body in a whoosh. This is the type of experience Prentice describes in great detail in her memoir.

If this book has resonance for you, here are some other books that I have read and written about—these are the most recent.

·         Waiting for You at Midnight by Vicki Salloum
·         You Are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler
·         Grief Works by Julia Samuel

Here is Sharon Prentice’s website.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Me and My Fear

By Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books     2018
40 pages     Picture Book/Children

My love affair with Francesca Sanna, her books and her illustrations, continues with Me and my Fear. Two years ago, Sanna published the outstanding book, The Journey, about refugees beginning the journey to safety. This new book, also beautifully illustrated, finds our little girl, now an immigrant, facing her fears as she reaches a new home, a new language, a new school, and no friends. Fear becomes her constant companion, and “she” (her fear) keeps growing and growing. The character, fear, is a white blob with a face. It grows and takes up the whole room, but then shrinks as the girl learns to deal with her fear. The breakthrough comes when she makes her first friend at school.

I read Me and My Fear with my granddaughter, Adela, age 7. I did have to explain to her that the white ghost-looking blob was a representation of the idea of fear. Once that was understood, Adela felt that the book was wonderful. We talked some about a girl in her class who had moved to Kalamazoo from Czechoslovakia and couldn’t speak any English. We wondered if she had the same kind of fears as the little girl in the book.

I told her that one of my current fears was falling and breaking something. I said that it was a common fear for older people. “Grandma, you’re not old!” she said. But when I asked her what her fear was, she quite surprised me by saying that she was afraid that her mommy and daddy might die and leave her and her brother alone. I told her she was experiencing  a common childhood fear, but she had a big family and if something were to happen to her parents, there would be lots of people to take care of her and her brother.

I believe that Me and My Fear is a great follow-up to The Journey. I think that it has many classroom applications, and should be used in classrooms where there are immigrant and refugee children. As with my granddaughter, some great discussion can follow for individual readers and classrooms.  The Publisher’s Weekly starred review says, “this creative depiction shows how friendship, empathy, and connection can help bring the overwhelming down to size for all.”

Friday, August 3, 2018

Collaboration: The Ways We Work Together

By Tomas Moniz and Alicia Dornadic

AK Press      2018
38 pages     Children nonfiction

Collaboration is a charming book, in both English and Spanish. It describes the manner in which the we work and play with each other and with the world around us.  It is designed for children in the early elementary grades. I read it in English with my granddaughter Adela, who is going into the second grade.

First we discussed the term collaboration, then we read the book, and then we discussed the ways in which she collaborates. She happens to be attending a summer day camp that her mother is running for a bunch of elementary school children, so she had lots of examples of collaboration. Her analysis of the book was that the words could help children understand how people work together, but she felt that some of the pictures were difficult to decipher. They are watercolors, rather monochromatic, and do need some interpretation. We also talked about how reviewing this book for my blog was also a collaboration.

My favorite lines were “the way you turn the page and I read the words and we dream the story.” I loved the thought “we dream the story.” Adela’s favorite page was “the way you sing the words I make the beat we make music.” She had just come from singing at a nursing home with her other grandma and the children from the day camp. They collaborated with guitars, drums, and a viola!

We would recommend this book for classrooms—particularly bilingual classrooms. My daughter will use it in her classroom this school year as she teaches her school children to work together.

The publisher AK Press, is primarily a publisher of adult books. This is their first foray in children’s book. It’s a meaningful start.

Maybe Congress should be sent copies and Adela will come and explain collaboration to them!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Baby Teeth

By Zoje Stage

St. Martin’s Press     2018
320 pages     Thriller/Horror

Why, oh, why did I ever start Baby Teeth? That was the question I asked myself over and over as I sat transfixed, suffering along with Suzette, a mother living in fear of her young daughter, Hanna. The plot summary of the book is almost beside the point, but here it is from the Amazon website.

The trials of parenthood are known to all: the sleepless nights, the teething, and the tantrums. In Baby Teeth, mom Suzette faces an additional trial: a young daughter, Hanna, who makes Wednesday Addams look positively angelic. Hanna is besotted with her father and violently opposed to sharing him with her mother. Withdrawn, refusing to speak, she’s waging a campaign of terror with Suzette as the prime target. But, apart from issues at school that Dad is able to excuse away, he sees no evidence of the terror his wife reports and stands ready to defend his silent angel, even against her mom. It’s the classic bad seed setup, but author Zoje Stage ups the ante, using alternating chapters to devastating effect. The swings from Suzette's panicked attempts to right the ship and fix her daughter to Hanna's chilling interior monologues drive much of the suspense in this creepy thriller. And the alternating chapter setup allows Hanna the last words, words which left me open-mouthed. Ever wanted to shout, “He’s behind you!” at a horror movie in a theater? Well, Baby Teeth may leave you wanting to howl something similar at the pages of a book.

The Hanna chapters are the most devastating because the reader is exposed to the machinations of a truly depraved mind—in a brilliant 7-year-old. At one point Hanna muses: “she knew how adults thought. They liked what they could see right in front of them, solid things. They encouraged imagination but hated anything imaginary. Hanna knew they didn’t understand how reality was malleable. It flowed on a wave in front of Hanna’s eyes, and she could choose to be outside or within it.” This, of course, is not how an ordinary child would think—but Hanna is not an ordinary child. For one thing, when she finally speaks to her mother, it is with the French accent of a child burned at the stake as a witch. No wonder Suzette is totally freaked out.

An excellent essay in the New York Times by Ruth Franklin looks at books and movies about “bad seeds.” Franklin references The Bad Seed and We Need To Talk About Kevin but particularly discusses how the mothers are the ones who suffer the worst from evil children, because the fairly absentee father can only see what is presented to him when he returns from work in the evening. In the case of Baby Teeth, he only sees his loving and adoring daughter, and all the evil Suzette reports to him seem to have no reality.

Is Suzette to blame for this evil child? Franklin asks this question as she explores how Hanna and the other psychopathic children of literature got that way? “Are some children simply born evil?” This was the thought that haunted me as I turned the last pages of the book.  Recently, my daughter who teaches in a public preschool had a 4-year-old boy in her afternoon class who was truly psychotic. By the time he came to my daughter’s classroom in February, he had already been kicked out of three other schools. He became her only charge when he was in attendance, and she had to monitor all his craziness—from manipulating his classmates, to horrendous fits, to the time he tried to strangle her. There were many days when the principal had to be in the classroom with my daughter because the boy was too manic to be contained. Eventually he was referred to mental health professionals and sent home for the rest of the school year. Like Suzette, this little boy’s mother was afraid of him and was helpless to know what to do. 

There are moments when every parent thinks that they are going crazy; there are moments when children lose control. For some children, fit throwing is a way of life, and this is the type of fear that Zoje Stage exploits in Baby Teeth. Is my fit-throwing child OK, or is there something wrong with him/her. Hopefully, none of them are like Hanna.

Here is Zoje Stage’s website. This is her first published novel and has received tremendous reviews.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Waiting For You at Midnight

By Vicki Salloum

Moonshine Cove     2018
240 pages     Fiction

In Waiting For You At Midnight, Vicki Salloum’s intimate look at grief is raw and very real—so real, in fact, that the reader forgets that it is a novel.

When Arabella Joseph’s husband Logan died of cancer in 2015, she is overcome with grief and fear. She muses, “What am I going to do without you? That is the quintessential question. How can I live a life without you? I am without any defenses. I am scared and alone and in pain.”

The narrative alternates between Arabella’s remembrances of her relationship with Logan and her struggles to move forward with her life after his death. She feels that she was only a whole person when she was with him and she initially has no understanding of what to do and when to do it.

Arabella is a writer, but also a long-time recovered alcoholic/drug addict, so her associates and friends are the people that she meets at the recovery meetings she attends on a nearly daily basis. She looks to the people in the group for friendship and companionship, but her grief and longing is so intense that she is worried that she will relapse. The relationships are powerful, and many of her recovery friends are very supportive and helpful to her. A couple of the men she meets at the meetings are interested in a relationship with her, but they also carry a great deal of baggage.

I was particularly interested in her contemplation on grief and loss. I understood the tragic journey a spouse takes when his/her partner is suffering from cancer—the dissociation, the anger, the unspeakable inability to “solve the problem.” My favorite parts, however, have less to do with Arabella’s struggles after Logan’s death than with the beautiful story of their relationship—how they found each other, how the accepted each other’s failings, and how they grew a loving and engaged marriage.

I wondered about why she wanted to have another relationship so quickly, and why she chose such damaged men to anticipate having a relationship with. Her loneliness was palpable, but the book’s climax doesn’t offer any relief from the pain which continues beyond the book’s climax. The book just stops.

This is not a cheerful book nor is it easy to read. I began it at the beach but had to put it away until I was in a more appropriate setting at home. I did, however, email the author, because in the bio it said that her husband had recently died, and the book was dedicated to him and his life. I asked her why she chose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Here is what she said: I choose to write my book as fiction because only part of it is autobiographical.  A big part of it is imagination.  Several major events in the book did not happen and many characters in the book, through inspired by people I know, were made up.  When I write, I sometimes start off with what I know and then, working in the unconscious, the imagination takes over and the result is an imaginary world that is only partly autobiographical.  However, in Waiting for You at Midnight, the voice and mood are very real.  The book, written as fiction, accomplished what I wanted it to:  it served as a tribute to my husband.  My love for him was in that book and that's all that counts.”

The value of Waiting for You at Midnight lies in its ability to help the reader understand the depth of the grief experience. At times, it almost was so close to my own grief experience that I had to catch my breath. Another book that is similar in tone but a memoir is You are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly

By Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Harper Collins     2018
464 pages     Mystery/Humor

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly describes the further adventures of the Pensioner’s League: a group of old folk’s home Robin Hoods, who are seeking to create special events for their elderly compatriots and to justly compensate the low wage workers in the nursing homes and hospitals that serve them. The book is translated from the Swedish.

This is the third book in the series, and as some reviewers have noted, perhaps it ought to be the last. It is absurdist humor at its best (?). I chose it because of the title, since I consider myself a “little old lady behaving badly,” and thus I had few expectations and quite a few laughs. Martha is the mastermind of the group, and the others take roles that utilize their skills and sometimes involve their adult children. The first crime of this episode included robbing a bank using a garbage truck to suck the money out of the safe. Of course, the truck was full of garbage, so all the loot had to be cleaned and ended up smelling of vinegar, their cleaner of choice. When they had to decide what they would do with the stolen garbage truck, they drove it into their vacationing neighbor’s pool, covered it with cement, and planted sod and bushes over it. See what I mean about absurdist!

The other adventures of the pensioners aren’t quite so funny, although they are extremely creative. And, because they are old, they never get caught and actually cause little suspicion. Additionally, the book may have been about 100 pages too long and one adventure too crazy. Of course, I have been sitting at the beach this week, so this was a perfect beach read because my brain is already fried. My next read has someone die in it, and I am having trouble getting into it—not quite appropriate for the beach.

Other books in the series besides The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly include The Little Old Lady who Broke All the Rules and The Little Old Lady who Struck Lucky Again. The book reminded me of the movie, Going in Style about old men bank robbers.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Man on the Roof

By Michael Stephenson

Amazon Digital     2018
639 pages     Thriller
The Shortlist

Michael Stephenson, the author of The Man on the Roof contacted me and asked me to look at his newest book. Stephenson is the author of several books across multiple genres. This is a self-published thriller, available through Amazon.

Here is the synopsis of the book from the author.
“Someone has been creeping in the dark while the others sleep, and they've done terrible, terrible things. 

“There was a man on your roof,” claims curmudgeonly lane-hermit Herbert McKinney. Then, he initiates an unprovoked fight with a local punk. Drama escalates when that punk's dead body is found hanging at mid-street one August morning—a boastful killer messaging their next prey. All fingers point to Herbert as the culprit. Soon, the five couples he calls neighbors come under suspicion, too. When lead detective Cady Lambert divines blackmail as the motive, eyes cross to find who hides the most shameful secret. Husband versus wife, friend versus friend, the shiny suburban veneer of innocence has been forever tarnished. As hidden deviousness boils from their pores, there lurks a thief, a pill addict and a sadist—secrets worth killing for. 

Now, as the man on the roof helps guide justice and watches devious neighbors slip in and out of sleepy houses, confusion and questions persist. Who dies next? What have they learned? Who is becoming a monster? Who already is one? And just how many secrets can a small group of multi-ethnic Ohioans have? Only one cemented truth exists: the killer will kill again. 

A tension-building psychological mystery-suspense thriller, The Man On The Roof propels the reader through a tangled, volatile and suspenseful thicket of deception, murder and friends, inviting the reader to discover the murderer and who hides which lie.

The concept of the book is intriguing, and the families that live on the suburban Ohio street are varied and interesting, although each family fills a stereotype role. Where I got bogged down was in Stephenson’s sentence structure. One Goodreads reviewer called it “clunky.” Additionally, the author needed a good strong editor to cut it down and tidy it up. Ultimately, it was the grammar mistakes and mix-ups over characters that caused me to put the book down.

On the other hand, Stephenson is the author of more than 15 books. He has a huge imagination and a tremendous tenacity. You have to give him credit for that.

The best thing about The Man on the Roof is that it is free if you are a member of Amazon Prime. If you like to read books primarily for plot, then this is a good book for you.

This is Michael Stephenson’s website.

Faith: A Journey for All

By Jimmy Carter

Simon and Schuster     2018
179 pages     Spiritual

This slim volume contains the spiritual pondering of the thirty-ninth President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.  Some of the chapters are culled from his many writings on the topic of faith as well as what he is thinking now in his 94th year.

The surprising thing to me is that Carter’s thoughts are well-researched, both biblically and theologically. It shouldn't have been a surprise. This is a man who has taught a Sunday School class all his adult life. He has researched and met many of the signature theologians of Protestantism, including Reinhold Niebuhr, William Sloane Coffin, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He quotes these (and other) theologians extensively as well as quoting many verses of scripture.

The goal of this book is to “explore the broader meaning of faith, its far-reaching effect on our lives, and its relationship to past, present, and future events in America and around the world.” He discusses faith in the context of religion, but he also discusses it in the broader dimension—in our communal lives, our individual lives, and our lives in government and secular affairs. He expresses how his faith has guided him in all his endeavors, including the political. One chapter is spent on the discussion of how he used his faith in his political life. My feeling about this chapter was that it may have been gleaned from some of his other writings. It is very interesting, although perhaps a bit out of context.

Carter believes that people must have a “foundation on which we can build a predictable and dependable existence.” He calls for people to have a central core of beliefs and standards. This, to him, is faith.

One of my favorite quotes in the book is "I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings." William Sloane Coffin. To this, Carter responds “I have always felt that my own faith has been made possible or strengthened by my sincere desire to have it, a personal blessing to me.”

He has harsh words to say to fundamentalists who say that they have the only answer. He says, “there are three words to characterize this brand of fundamentalism: pride, domination, and exclusion. In sharp contrast, Jesus espoused humility, servanthood of leaders, and breaking down walls between people.”

My church book club had a very meaningful discussion related to Faith: A Journey for All. It is written in a simple, engaging style. I recommend it for discussion groups.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Musical Road Kills

By Nevard Tellalian

Just Ain’t Write Books     2018
335 pages     Memoir
The Shortlist

Nevard Tellalian is another artist whose name I had never heard before her publicist sent me her memoir. However, I listened to some of her music and was wowed by her marvelous voice and then dipped into her memoir. What a gal! What a life! What love! What chaos!

She says, “Music has lived in every cell of my being since I was a toddler. I feel that it was a gift to be able to work at something I had an undying love for. I also feel lucky to have been plying my trade during a time when most of the pioneers of our nation’s home-grown music were still living and playing.” In that regard, Tellalian had a long relationship with Joey Ramone, but the love of her life was Jeremy John Dennis for whom she wrote the marvelous song, Stay With Me, which you can find here.

Reading Musical Road Kills is a trip. It is like having a conversation with a very animated person. The reader comes to know Tellalian like you would if you were sitting beside her on a long train ride, and she just started talking. There are lots of words written in capital letters; there are lots of sentences emphasized in bold; there are lots of unfinished sentences, lots of . . . . (this). The reader has to be willing to negotiate the territory, but when you do, the stories are incredible and the music reverberates.

One thing I especially appreciated is her assertion that people make music because they can’t live without it. She says,

It’s the music.
It’s the soul mates in music we meet along the way.
It’s the love of it that we share with them.
It’s the Ones that instruct us.
It’s the circle that always takes us back to
The Music.
Like the learning that never stops.
Like a lover you never stop yearning for.
Like the Music.

Nevard Tellalian’s website 

Friday, June 22, 2018

News of the World

 By Paulette Jiles
William Morrow     2016
209 pages     Historical Fiction

It is the winter of 1870, and Captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran and an itinerant news reader, is on the road in northern Texas heading toward his next news reading performance. He is stopped by two travelers who introduce him to a young girl that they have been commissioned to return to her family after having been captured by the Kiowa four years previously. Kidd agrees to take Johanna to her aunt and uncle in the San Antonio region for a $50 gold piece. He doesn’t quite understand why he decides to take this long perilous journey in a wagon and horses with this little girl, but he does. She seems to speak no English, but, boy, is she feisty. This unlikely pair bond as they make the journey, and the reader bonds with the characters, who are extremely well created.

The story itself is fascinating, but Jiles has also done meticulous historical research of post-Civil War Texas, native uprisings, loose-cannon war veterans, and the hard-working people who live in the small towns where Kidd rents space to read the newspaper to people hungry to find out what is going on in the world.  At the same time, Jiles inhabits her characters with a kind of metaphysical brilliance that transcends the stark surroundings. The reviewer in the Washington Post suggests that “The evil some people are capable of is never as important, in Jiles’s generous assessment, as the longing of many more people for peace, order, and love.”

Several things were important to me as I read News of the World. One is that I knew nothing about news readers—Captain Kidd’s retirement career. People were eager for him to come to their town and read the newspaper to them—the news of the world—and paid a dime to attend the reading. We are so inundated with news that we forget how little news people had in the past and how important it was to them. Jiles ties this in to the theme of her novel when Captain Kidd muses, “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says: it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.” I love that thought, and I wonder what part of my message will be remembered when I am gone.

Then, I read this book in the midst of the crisis at the border of Texas over migrant and refugee children. My heart was already broken, and I couldn’t help but equate Johanna’s crisis with the current children and their trauma. Jiles even speaks to that trauma: "Perhaps it was something like this that changed the captive children forever; the violence they had endured when they were captured, their parents killed. Perhaps it sank down in their young minds and stayed there, invisible and unacknowledged but very powerful."

Finally, our family has just discovered a 4th great grandmother, Elizabeth Graham, who was captured by the Shawnee in West Virginia at age 7 and was found 8 years later by her father in Ohio. We plan to visit her home, which is a national historic monument, later in the summer.

News of the World was a great read and fostered a great discussion at book club last night. It was a National Book Award finalist and will be a movie. Tom Hanks bought the rights and he will play Captain Kidd. Wow!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Lagos Noir

Edited by Chris Abani

Akashic Books     2018
218 pages     Short Stories/Noir

Another three Noir short story collections came to me from Akashic Books, the publisher that has specialized in noir collections from places all over the world. Each collection is edited by a native of that area, and feature stories by authors from the region. They are: Lagos Noir, Santa Cruz Noir, and Sao Paulo Noir.

I picked Lagos Noir to read first from this new batch of books because I had never read anything from Nigeria, although I have an advanced readers copy of Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo, which I planned to read in conjunction with Lagos Noir. Haven’t gotten to it yet. Grandkids got in the way of reading time.

Here is what the editor, Chris Abani, has to say about the stories he chose. “The thirteen stories that comprise this volume stretch the boundaries of “noir” fiction, but each one of them fully captures the essence of noir, the unsettled darkness that continues to lurk in the city’s streets, alleys, and waterways.”

I would like to mention two stories. My favorite was Showlogo by Nnedi Okorafor. In this story, we meet Showlogo, the neighborhood bully, 6’4” of pure muscle with an attitude to match. He farms outside the city, but because farming isn’t making any money in Nigeria any more, Showlogo has just gotten a job as a baggage handler at the airport. At the same time, he continues to terrorize the neighborhood. When the shit hits the fan and Showlogo figures out he has to escape, he hides on a plane, heading for the U.S. What happens next leaves the reader going WHAT!

The other story, Killer Ape, is by the editor Chris Abani. It is about a murder case in 1987 Lagos. When the police detective arrives on the scene, it seems apparent that the pet chimp killed the homeowner. It seems bizarre, at best, but the poignant reason for the killing is heart wrenching. I was very touched by the “unsettled darkness” of the story.

 Each story is skillfully chosen and placed in the anthology. I highly recommend this addition to the Akashic series.

I have another posting about Akashic noir books. You can find it here. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

You Lucky Dog

By Debra Finerman

Stewart’s Grove Press     2018
226 pages     Fiction

Is You Lucky Dog a love story or is it a dog story, or is it both? I began with the question as I brought the car to the shop to be serviced, book in hand. After about two hours, I had the answer to my question—and a totally serviced car. It is both—a love story and a dog story. And it’s all a bit dopey!

Emma is married to a man named Jake. She also owned a Westie named Jake when she met the human Jake. The couple and the dog have recently moved to Los Angeles, where human Jake is in a car accident with the Westie Jake on his lap. In the midst of the accident Jake feels his brain synapses sparking and sputtering, A chemicalization spreads through his body and his DNA unravels. The two Jakes fuse. Human Jake has merged into Westie Jake. Or so it seems.

The book cover says, ”a hilarious and heartwarming tale of misplaced identity. You Lucky Dog explores the mysteries of life and death, and the enduring power of love, in a heartwarming story for animal lovers and all lovers.

Yes, it’s cute—as cute as a talking dog. Of course it will please dog lovers particularly, although I think it might please people on the beach or teenage girls. It definitely was the perfect read for the auto service center.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Noir: A Novel

By Christopher Moore

William Morrow    2018
352 pages     Noir/Humor

Oh my goodness! What a hoot!  Noir: A Novel is a send-up of every pretentious noir or hard-boiled detective novel ever written.

As many of you know, I have been studying noir over the past several months, ever since I read Deadbomb Bingo Ray last year. Then Akashic Books sent me three volumes of noir and neo-noir short stories which I reviewed. Which led me to try to discover the difference between noir and neo-noir. Then, just recently, a literature professor told me that our local author Bonnie Jo Campbell’s books could be classified as “country noir.” Now that was a term I had never heard of and will be another addition to my reading agenda.

Well, anyway, let’s talk about Noir: A Novel, the humorist Christopher Moore’s newest effort. Frankly, I had never read anything by Christopher Moore, but if all his books are as funny as this one, I have got to tune in to him more frequently.

 The book takes place in 1947 as the US is getting resettled following the war. The protagonist—the main protagonist, at least—is Sam, a bartender at a grimy San Francisco saloon. The other protagonist is a snake! We meet both in the first chapter when Sam arrives at work and finds his boss dead on the floor, killed by snake venom. The bar owner, Sal, was killed by the snake that Sam had delivered to the bar because he has plans to go into the “snake whiz” business. Apparently many Asian men are eager to buy snake pee as a cure for erectile dysfunction. 

Of course there is a girl; in this case a gorgeous dime store waitress named Stilton. Sam calls her “Cheese.” He falls instantly in love with her after she walks into the bar one night. Sam says that Stilton has “the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes.”  Much of the plot hinges on Sam saving Cheese from a gathering of powerful, rich men that she has been hired to entertain at a camp in the woods outside the city.

Oh, and I almost forgot, there is an alien—a little green moon man. And a group of men—maybe government agents—out to find the little guy. At this point, any resemblance to any classical noir goes completely off the rails, and the reader just can’t stop laughing. One reviewer says: “In keeping with the noir style, there are many divergent plotlines that ultimately have to be tied up, and Moore’s solution—no spoilers here—is unique to the genre.  

The riffs on “noir speak” are incredibly funny. I found myself underlining something silly on nearly every page. For example:
·         “The fog lay spread across the city like a drowned whore—damp, cold, smelling of salt and diesel—a sea-sodden streetwalker who’d just bonked a tugboat.”
·         “If you’re planning a caper, that’s the flatfoot you want flapping after you. That mug couldn’t catch a cough in a tire fire.”
·         “he looked like a black-and-white character that had stumbled into a Technicolor movie.”

Well, I could go on and on. Those three quotes were on just 3 pages. Dashell Hammet and Raymond Chandler are probably turning over in their graves. A couple of the major reviewers, including Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly didn’t particularly like Noir: A Novel, but most likely they weren’t in the proper frame of mind. I read it over the Memorial Day weekend when the temperatures were in the 90s and my brain was as frizzled as the garden I had just planted. It all made perfect sense to me.

Christopher Moore’s website.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly

Ballentine     2017
502 pages     Literary

Lilac Girls tells a World War II story from the viewpoints of three young women: a New York socialite, Caroline; Kasia, a Polish girl, who was a political prisoner in Ravensbruck, the only major Nazi concentration camp for women in Germany; and Herta, a German doctor at Ravensbruck. The three women are connected within the narrative, although their connection is not obvious at first.

The novel begins with the invasion of Poland in 1939. Each of the three women are caught, in one way or another. Caroline works as a volunteer at the French Consulate and she is in love with a married French actor named Paul Rodierre. He returns home to France as the war becomes more threatening. Caroline is extremely well connected, and her “old money” is used to provide clothing and other goods for French families. However, she longs for Paul, and when it is finally safe, she heads to France to find him. When she arrives in France, she becomes consumed with the story of Ravensbruck, and decides to bring the victims to the United States for medical treatment.

Kasia is caught after having carried out a secret mission for the Polish Resistance. Along with her mother and sister as well as several of her neighbors in their Polish town, they are sent to Ravensbruck in Germany, where they become Nazi medical experiments. They are part of a group called the “Rabbits.” The medical experiments are terrible, and Kasia and her sister suffer terribly.

Herta is one of the doctors carrying out the medical experiments. She is not a very well-developed character, but through her we see how the atrocities were conducted on young women like Kasia.

The narrative is quite uneven. Some of my displeasure may have been because I am not very fond of stories where there are chapters dedicated to each character, the format Kelly used in Lilac Girls. That being said, the story line is compelling. It is incredible to me that there can be so many books with so many fascinating stories about World War II. Kasia’s story is particularly difficult to read because of the brutality foisted upon her and the people she knew. I wish that Herta’s story could have been fleshed out more, because I struggled to understand how a woman of her intelligence could get sucked into the atrocities that she committed.

There are pictures at the end of the book that alert us to the fact that Caroline and Herta were real people and the author discovered their story and the stories of the Rabbits after she visited Caroline’s summer home in Connecticut. One reviewer suggests that this is a “groundbreaking category of fiction that re-examines history from a female point of view. It’s smart, thoughtful and also just an old-fashioned good read.” The New York Times reviewer, on the other hand, felt that the characters were so poorly drawn as to be stereotypes. That reviewer says the book “sinks under the weight of its own ambition."

I do have to say in conclusion that our book club discussion of Lilac Girls was quite good. We were able to pick through the poorly written parts and were eager to discuss our interpretation of the book and the historical significance of the events described. That, of course, is the important part of a book club discussion, rather than to nit-pick the inconsistencies of the writing. It is, after all, Kelly’s first book. Apparently, she is writing a prequel which takes place during World War I.
Martha Hall Kelly’s website with pictures of some of the Rabbits.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


By Solange Ritchie

Stony Hill     2018
264 pages     Thriller

Dr. Catherine Powers is a forensic pathologist for the FBI. In the first book of Ritchie’s series, The Burning Man, Cat has a life-altering experience when her son is kidnapped and she is injured by a serial killer named Eric. As Firestorm begins, Eric has sent Cat a lock of her son’s hair to remind her that he is still around, still killing. And he’s looking for her.

Eric is a serial killer, specializing in young women. He has a partner—in crime and in life—David, who specializes in starting fires in the windy, dry California hills. Eric is an emergency room physician and David is a firefighter. They met when David brought in a wildfire victim to the hospital. There was an instantaneous connection, and they knew they were kindred spirits. The reader knows the inner workings of their brains, because they are explained as a stream of consciousness as the two psychopaths go about their business of death and destruction.

Cat is called in on the case when they find several dead women apparently killed by Eric. Authorities know Eric is the perp because he carves EriC on the bellies of his victims. Cat leaves her young son with neighbors and heads to California. She and her partner McGregor set about finding Eric and destroying him. At the same time that they are finding Eric, David is causing havoc all over the region starting wildfires that are truly firestorms. When Eric is found and killed, David believes that Eric has entered his body, and as David/Eric, he continues to seeks revenge on Cat and McGregor.

The plot moves as quickly as the fires David starts; these are evil men, and their menace makes for compelling reading. We struggle to fit ourselves into their brains and understand how these manic brains motivate their destructive natures. Although the plot is bloody, gory, and sexual, it is compelling and engrossing. I kept reading, hoping that these horrible men would come to a horrible end.

Cat is a compelling character. She is the consummate professional, a woman in what is traditionally a man’s profession. She relies on her drive and her intuition to lead her to these psychopaths. We are privy to some of her inner feelings and thoughts, but I am not sure that we are led to understand why she is motivated to seek these men at the expense of her child. She is seeking justice as much as Eric and David seek revenge. She feels for the dead women in an almost visceral way, blacking out when the emotion of it all gets to be too much for her. She misses her son horribly, but feels compelled to solve the case before she returns home. She is admirable in the way that she asserts her authority and stands up to her male counterparts. Her thoughts: “She is at the top of her game with the FBI, respected and admired by her colleagues, people she has worked hard to impress. She works hard for herself too. Always the overachiever. Always having to outshine everyone. That is just her way. It is how she has always been.”

I’m not a big fan, however, of Ritchie’s writing style. It is minimalist to the extreme and relies on very short sentences, few extraneous details, and questions. Lots and lots of questions. To her credit, this minimalist style moves the plot forward at a fever pitch, but it leaves the reader oddly dissatisfied. There is a lot of repetition of phrases, in both the thoughts of the killers, but also in the phrases Cat uses as she moves through the case. For example, “Eric and David are deranged psychopaths,” appears over and over in the text. If you stop reading for plot, for even a moment, you say, “Wait, I just read that a page ago.”

In an interview, Ritchie addressed her minimalist style. She says, “I also write in a somewhat linear style, and I often use the same phrase over and over in a chapter. This is for emphasis. As a lawyer, I understand the value of white space on a page and the importance of having a catch phrase that repeats in the reader’s mind.

There seem to be a lot of books currently available about psychopathic and serial killers. Add Firestorm to the list. It comes out Tuesday, May 15. I received an advanced copy from the publicist.

Solange Ritchie website.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


By Mark Kurlansky

Bloomsbury     2018
366 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

Remember the advertising campaign, “Milk. It does a body good.” from the 80s and 90s? Or the campaign “Got Milk” where celebrities had milk mustaches? Everything milk is covered in Kurlansky’s newest study of a single food topic and its place in the cultures around the world.

Wow! Who knew that so much fascinating information could be written about such a commonplace topic as milk. Of course, I have navigated the topic in many settings over my last 75 years—from my own birth and childhood, to the birth and childhoods of my children, and on and on. I had a boyfriend once whose father had a dairy farm; a niece whose in-laws have a large organic dairy farm, and I have a lactose intolerant grandson. That was the extent of my knowledge until a review copy of Milk! arrived at my doorstep.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book. “Before the industrial revolution, it was common for families to keep dairy cows and produce their own milk. But during the 19th century, mass production and urbanization made milk safety a leading issue of the day, with milk-borne illnesses a common cause of death. Pasteurization slowly became a legislative matter. And today milk is a test case in the most pressing issues in food politics, from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurization. Tracing the liquid's diverse history from antiquity to the present, historian Mark Kurlansky details its curious and crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics and economics.

One of the most interesting set of facts to me was the biological and cultural aspect of using milk. Kurlansky says that just like most mammals, humans are not genetically engineered to drink milk after the age of two. Also milk consumption tends to be cultural among tribes and peoples. I didn’t know that.

Kurlansky is a prolific author on many topics, and his research skills are in full evidence in Milk! A mind-blowing number of issues regarding milk are presented along with a 10,000 year history of the product and all the politics connected with production and distribution. Also ice cream and cheese! Numerous recipes (most of them traditional) intersperse the text adding to the delight in the reading.

I am absolutely entranced with Kurlansky’s choice of topics and his research. It’s like he is eaten up by curiosity about paper, or cod, or salt, or Havana, Gloucester, or 1968, and he goes on a research spree leading to a marvelous book. What amazing literary freedom!

The reviewer in the Wall Street Journal calls Milk! “a complex and rich survey” and “a book well-worth nursing.” By the way, the book was released yesterday, May 8. Great summer reading!