Tuesday, December 31, 2019
By Robert Dilenschneider
Citadel Press 2020
224 pages Self-Help
Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, my husband and I are going to have a meeting to make some decisions about our lives, our careers, and our futures. First, you must know, we are 80 and 76 years old, and we have made many momentous decisions in our lives, both individually and as a couple. Many of these decisions have been about how we are going to live our lives. Some of the decisions have been good; some have been not so good. The decisions we are going to make tomorrow hopefully will have an impact on what is going to happen next.
Then, into my life came the book Decisions by Dilenschneider, a different type of self help book. In this book of short essays, Dilenschneider presents decisions made by 23 people—all people with recognizable names and recognizable life stories. From Harry Truman to Malala, each of those 23 people made decisions that shaped the course of the world’s history.
Dilenschneider tells the story of the decisions made, and then summarizes each story with a list of assertions that can be gleaned from the person’s story. For example, Harry Truman had to make the decision to use the Atomic Bomb. Dilenschneider suggests that one of the lessons we can take away from that fateful decision is to have the courage to make big decisions, and the conviction to carry them through. On the other hand, we should try to get as many of the facts at hand as possible. Don’t take shots in the dark.
One of the major strengths of the book is the variety of stories that are told and the variety of life lessons to be gleaned from the stories. Interestingly, many of the stories conclude that a person needs to be prepared to take full responsibility for his/her decisions and their outcomes. From Abraham Lincoln to Mohammed Ali, taking responsibility is a great lesson to be learned.
This is a valuable book. I think that it needs to be handed to people at important points in their lives. I will hand my copy on to a daughter who works as a career coach. I think she will find it useful in her work.
Robert Dilenschneider has had a storied career. His company is called the Dilenschneider Group, Inc. Decisions is the latest in a series of career-building books.
Monday, December 30, 2019
By Alice Blanchard
Minotaur Books 2019
384 pages Police Procedural
Trace of Evil is the first of a new series by the established author, Alice Blanchard. Natalie Lockhart is a detective in the small upper-New York town of Burning Lake. This is her hometown; she knows everyone and everyone knows her. She is actually living in the home where she was raised, and her sister and niece live in the neighborhood. Natalie has followed her father’s career path as a detective, and his advice is always in her head—a nice touch, by the way.
Burning Lake has a violent history, beginning with the execution of three women for witchcraft centuries ago. Teenagers in the community flirt with witchcraft, and it all seems quite innocent until a beloved high school teacher—and a lifelong friend of Natalie—is found murdered, and a voodoo doll is found buried in her garden.
One of Natalie’s assignment as a detective is to investigate the disappearance of nine transients over several years. Nine corpses of crows have just been found at the sites where the missing persons were last seen, and Natalie is convinced that the death of her other sister might be connected with the entire mystery. Is the high school teacher’s death somehow connected as well?
There is a lot of set-up involved in the novel, including a childhood trauma that continues to haunt Natalie. There are a lot of characters, a lot of crimes being investigated, a lot of past and present movement to wade through. I felt that the story lagged for the first half, in part because of the set-up. Finally, it picks up for a momentous, heart pounding finish.
Natalie is an appealing character. She is very empathetic as she becomes totally engulfed in the case. First and foremost, she is trying to solve her friend’s death, but at the same time, she is consumed with solving the other crimes. As a result, she almost loses touch with reality, but another detective on the case, an old friend and potential lover, keeps pulling her back. She worries constantly about her niece, Ellie, who seems to have gotten herself involved with a coven of teenaged witches who seem to know something about the teacher’s death and the voodoo doll. Blanchard describes Natalie thus: “In this cynical modern day and age, there was something almost subversive about Natalie’s desire to be good in a bad world, to hunt down the bad guys and expose their deeds to the light of day.”
I was particularly impressed with Blanchard’s description of the village of Burning Lake and its heritage. It reminded me of Louise Penny’s Three Pines, Quebec. I think that the village and the characters Blanchard has created will continue to draw readers to Natalie’s cases. On the other hand, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Blanchard’s cliff-hangers. Sometimes they felt really contrived and obvious. Other descriptions were tedious to say the least. For example, “They spilled out of the gym like a basketful of apples” or “’Could be,’ she said, thick braids of discomfort knitting into her muscles.”
I am probably being picky. These were small annoyances in an otherwise absorbing mystery. I was surprised at the ending—or endings—because several crimes were solved. I look forward to the next chapter of the series.
There is a good review in Kirkus, where they call Trace of Evil “a fast-paced, intricate, and atmospheric mystery that introduces a plucky, engaging detective.”
Alice Blanchard website.
Thursday, December 19, 2019
By William Kent Krueger
Atria Books 2019
450 pages Historical Fiction
I knew when I began reading This Tender Land, that my list of best books of the year was not yet complete. Not only my list--but my heart as well--because this book filled my heart with remarkably appealing characters and a sterling plot. The book is part Huckleberry Finn and part The Odyssey, but it takes place in my home territory of Minnesota in the 1930s.
Odie, the narrator, prefaces the novel by saying that all his life he has been a storyteller, and he has this particular story to tell from the summer of 1932. He says, “The tale I’m going to tell is of a summer long ago. Of killing and kidnapping and children pursued by demons of a thousand names. There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal. And, of course, there will be hope. In the end, isn’t that what every good story is about.”
And what a story it is! Odie and his brother, Albert, are orphans who have been brought to the Lincoln residential school in Fremont County, Minnesota. They are the only white children there because the school is filled with Native American children who have been removed from their homes and brought to the school. No one knew what to do with Odie and Albert when their bootlegger father, their last surviving parent, was murdered, so they were dumped at the Lincoln school on the Gilead River. The directors of the school are evil people, but as with the rest of the story, there are people there who are kind, people who are protective, and people who are supportive. And as bad as things get—and believe me they get bad—there is always hope.
Odie, Albert, and their mute Native American friend, Moses, are always plotting an escape. The boys are hoping to get to relatives in St. Louis, but when their favorite teacher Mrs. Frost dies in a tornado, the three rescue her little girl Emmy, take the family’s canoe and escape down the Gilead River heading for the Mississippi and St. Louis. Because the boys have Emmy with them, and because they left a dead body in their wake, they are hunted by the police and by the administrators of the school. Consequently, they are always running and hiding.
Sometimes the number of challenges these voyageurs face is completely daunting, and a bit overwhelming for the reader. But somehow, the reader has endless faith in these children and their courage, determination, grit and smarts. When the circumstances seem insurmountable, they somehow find their way, occasionally having to outwit those who would do them harm. More importantly, they find themselves in the presence of those who offer them love, food, care, and hope.
The Depression is never far from the details of the story. There are shanty towns, depressed farms, tent meetings, and run-down neighborhoods. Yet, like much of what we know about life during the Depression, there was always goodness and hope. That is a theme that Krueger emphasizes again and again, from the old German who helps the children escape from the Lincoln school, to Sister Eve the Evangelist, who renews their spirits and sets them on a new path. Odie muses, “With every turn of the river since I’d left Lincoln School, the world had become broader, its mysteries more complex, its possibilities infinite.”
Krueger is a tremendous storyteller, and a master of plot. The story line seldom if ever lags, and the reader keeps turning pages. Sometimes I was so scared for the children, I couldn’t put the book down, while at other times, I was close to tears as they are helped along the way. When they finally are able to settle down, I breathed a sigh of relief, and closed the book for the final time—exhausted and exhilarated at the same moment. The reviewer in the New York Journal of Books says, “This Tender Land (is) a book you won’t own. It will own you. Long, sprawling, and utterly captivating, readers will eat up every delicious word of it.”
William Kent Krueger is most known for his Cork O’Connor Minnesota mysteries as well as the award-winning stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace. At the end of the book, Krueger talks about his process in writing This Tender Land, particularly the research he did on schools for Native American children. He also talked about canoeing and kayaking on the rivers that are featured in the book. I found his reflections on the book’s construction to be fascinating.
This is a wonderful reading adventure. I heartily recommend it. William Kent Krueger’s website.
Wednesday, December 18, 2019
By Robert Trebor
Palindrome Press 2019
179 pages Satire
It was a bizarre scenario yesterday—juxtaposing an occasional glance at the impeachment debates with reading the book The Haircut Who Would Be King by Robert Trebor. A bit surreal to say the least!
Trebor, an actor whose face I knew from television and the movies, has laced together the relationship between Putin and Trump into a giggly-style farce that is really spot on. Here is the summary of the plot—if you can call it a plot.
“A farcical sendup of Donald Trump’s rise to power and volatile partnership with Vladimir Putin...As a young boy, Donald Rump was less than precocious—a miserable student, prone to implacable tantrums, whose emotional intelligence ceased maturing at the age of 9. But the region of the brain responsible for egomaniacal self-assessment was prodigiously large. After some success and plenty more failure in real estate, he turns his attentions to reality TV and hosts a show called “Paycheck,” each episode of which concludes with Rump singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Meanwhile, Vladimir Poutine was raised by KGB agents during the early years of Khrushchev’s reign. Poutine, a latent homosexual who immerses himself in the self-consciously manly world of “physical culture,” reads magazines about bodybuilding. Crushed by the demise of the Soviet Union, he copes in the most peculiar way: “he would slip into a silver lamé gown, pop on a curly wig and perform Marlene Dietrich classics at a local drag bar.” Rump decides he’d like to try his hand at politics and recruits shock jock Alex Clamz from the popular but frothing radio show, “Disinfowarz.” He runs for president opposite Mallory Claxton, a sensible woman with a sterling career in public service. Despite a bizarre campaign and a trail of seedy scandals, Rump wins with clandestine help from Poutine. And then, the fun really begins.”
Rump’s election motto was “Make America Grate Again,” and believe me, my teeth are “grating” today. Trebor’s antics are too close to the truth to be believed, and I gasped a couple of times as I read this paragraph following the news about Trump’s letter to Nancy Pelosi.
“Rump’s medical problem involves his digestive tract being wired backwards, so that everything flows in reverse. And that’s why he talks out of his butt, and nothing but crap comes out of his mouth!”
Read The Haircut Who Would Be King at your own risk. I found it a very funny and cringe-worthy satire. So did the Kirkus reviewer who says, “Debut author Trebor displays a sharp attunement to the politically absurd and a talent for making the already peculiar into the raucously silly. The first rule of parody is that it must be genuinely funny, and the author accomplishes that repeatedly.”
Monday, December 16, 2019
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster 2019
332 pages History
Darn it! Reviewing McCullough’s most recent book, The Pioneers, is not going to be as easy a task as I assumed at the outset. My husband and I enjoyed so much reading it aloud to each other, discussing what we were learning, and plotting a visit to Marietta Ohio and surroundings, the setting for most of the book. Then I started reading reviews of the book and discovered that many reviewers were quite critical of the ways in which McCullough ignored Native American atrocities, land fraud, and racial problems in the Ohio Territory.
However, McCullough’s sub title is “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West,” and to that end, McCullough’s book achieves its goals. Because indeed, he emphasizes that American ideal, as expressed through the life histories of the Rev. Manasseh Cutler and his son, Ephram Cutler, who played lead roles in the Ohio Company and the settling of the Ohio Territory. Others who carried that ideal were General Rufus Putnam, Joseph Barker, and Samuel Hildreth. Each of these men, their wives, and their families set out to make new lives for themselves—for a variety of reasons. McCullough plumbed these men’s diaries and letters for the information he shared throughout the book, and emphasized how important the river was to the settlers and how little by little the communities were settled and industry and businesses came to the area. These were the men who had the ideals McCullough explored, including their desire to have a public university, to educate all the children, and to have a slave-free state.
The first settlers were Revolutionary War veterans who leveraged pay that Congress owed them to purchase 1.5 million acres which became Marietta and the rest of the Ohio territory. Critics say that McCullough did not explore in depth the settler’s relationship with the native peoples as well as the way the settlers decimated the forests they cleared for their farmland, their forts, and their homes.
Among the interesting stories in the book is that of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. They were Irish aristocrats who came out to the territory because Harman was Margaret’s uncle, and their marriage had been frowned upon in polite society. Their palatial home on an island in the Ohio River is still open to the public. Aaron Burr, the notorious former Vice President came to visit them, and they joined him in some nefarious activities further West. President Thomas Jefferson finally interceded by sending a man named John Graham from Virginia to stop Burr from his conspiracies with the Blennerhassetts. This really caught my attention, because my sister had just discovered that we were related to the Virginia Grahams. Was this some great, great, great uncle of ours?
My husband and I really enjoyed this book. Something was constantly piquing our interest. We are planning a trip to meander down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, explore the Native American Mounds in Marietta, and take the ferry to Blennerhassett Island on the way to visit our family in West Virginia. Apparently, there is lots to see in do in Marietta as this article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlines.
The Washington Post concludes: "The Pioneers presents American history as a grand civics lesson, in which the accomplishments of our principled forebears serve as inspirations. Rather than wrestle with the moral complexities of western settlement, McCullough simplifies that civics lesson into a tale of inexorable triumph.” That is what we will be exploring.
An interview with David McCullough on PBS.
Friday, December 13, 2019
By Daniel Goodenough
Heart’s Way Press 2016
282 pages Fiction/Self-Help
The Caravan of Remembering came across my desk recently, and I thought I would give it a nod, although I didn’t get it read. While it is fictional, it also qualifies as a self-help book. David, a graphic designer in Chicago, has reached a low point in his life. However, everything changes when he is invited to come to the “caravan of remembering.” Through this caravan, David is able to move toward a new life’s mission and receives help in answering questions such as “Why am I here?” “What am I called to do?” and “Who am I called to be to fulfill that purpose?”
These are the questions that we are all called to answer at some time or other in our lives. Goodenough has woven these questions into a dreamlike and intriguing plot, destined to provide meaning for the reader—and allow readers to look again at their own destiny and their own purpose. There is a guide to each chapter at the end of the book. It looked to me that the questions and the quotes in the guide should be considered at the end of every chapter before the reader moves on.
My feeling is that the book would be valuable at any stage of life—and perhaps at more than one time in life. I can also see it being used for a book club or a counseling group. The author suggests, “Caravan is a place to be revisited as often as needed, with a process that is both a welcome mentor and companion on the journey.” I appreciated this comment as I look back on the number of times I have had to reset my life’s mission. My husband and I did a lot of refocusing after we read David Brook’s book, The Second Mountain earlier this year. The Caravan of Remembering serves somewhat the same purpose.
Here is Daniel Goodenough’s website.
Monday, December 9, 2019
Little, Brown 2019
224 pages Essays/Humor
“I was born on the boundary line between cold and hot, at the intersection of the two elements that make a clap of thunder. I was born at the time of year when the sun wants to warm the earth but the winter has frozen it almost to the point of permanent frigidity.”
Welcome to Jenny Slate’s mind. The essays in her new book, Little Weirds vary in length from a paragraph or two to several pages long. Some are deeply personal and some are just—well—weird. She writes about her marriage ending while at the same time remembering her childhood; she celebrates her family and her friendships while deploring Donald Trump’s presidency. She is very hard on herself while at the same time looking forward to a future of self-acceptance and self-love.
The NPR reviewer was quite critical of Slate’s writing, wishing it were more like her stand-up musings. Since I knew nothing of her stand-up career, I had to watch a couple of YouTube videos to get a sense of how she is in person. Many of the videos were appearances on late night shows. Here is one visit to Seth Meyers. All of the topics appear to be deeply personal and off-the-cuff funny. Frankly, I think that she is a person that you would like to know.
I felt that the essays were very uneven and much more vague than her stand-up sets. Read it for yourself and form your own opinion. My advice, however, is to read it in little bursts. It is a bit much to read in one sitting.
Jenny Slate has a special on Netflix. It is called Stage Fright. At least now I know who Jenny Slate is.
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
By Marc Grossberg
Greenleaf Book Group 2019
378 pages Legal Procedural
I love all the places I get to visit from my easy chair when I read novels. This week I got to visit Houston, for better and for worse through The Best People. This is the Houston of legal maneuvering and judicial corruption in the early 2000s. It is the Houston of wealth and the country club, and many fascinating characters. It is the Houston of one really interesting restaurant named Eleganté, which would be fabulous to visit someday (if it were real).
Paddy Moran is the main protagonist. He is a former cop and a newly-minted lawyer who comes to Houston to make it big. He carefully watches the big-time lawyers as he makes his way connecting to the right people at the right times. It is obvious from the outset that his ambition is going to get the best of his morality.
A second narrative concerns Pilar Galt, a young single mother, who with a bit of luck and a lot of intelligence and skillful maneuvering, has risen from the barrio and met and married the richest man in town. You are aware from the beginning that Paddy and Pilar are going to follow a collision course to their doom. The novel proceeds to that pivotal moment in time. As a matter of fact, the last chapter is called “The Denouement”, which, by the way, is one of my favorite words.
There are a lot of characters, a lot of plot devices, and a lot of legal maneuvering, making the reader wonder who The Best People really are. Certainly Paddy gets his just desserts, but the denouement makes one wonder what lessons he has learned. Many reviewers called it a social satire, and I would definitely concur with that analysis. Even the title is tongue-in-cheek. One of my major take-aways is that greed and corruption are always with us, in Kalamazoo, in Houston, and in Washington. The Houston Chronicle review mentions: “His book acknowledges a naked truth about the Bayou City: it would be a lot less interesting if people weren’t willing to do whatever it took to get ahead. After all, they don’t call it ‘Hustletown’ for nothing.”
The Best People is an intense read. It involves a lot of concentration on the part of the reader, and I needed to finish it before my mind got overcome with Thanksgiving grocery lists. One of my major take-aways is that the author knows the city and its people intimately and is willing to expose its weaknesses. After all, Marc Grossberg has lived in Houston his entire life and has had a more than a 50-year career as a lawyer in the city. His knowledge is deep and his sense of irony is extremely strong.
Here is an interview with Marc Grossberg on a San Francisco television station. Marc Grossberg’s website.
Monday, November 18, 2019
By Kevin Wilson
272 pages Literary
As I was reading Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, I remembered a time long ago, when one of my children threw such a bad fit at the grocery store that I had to haul him out of the grocery cart, leave all the groceries in the cart, and quickly exit the store in disgrace. Many of us have been there—but Bessie and Roland, the children of a soon-to-be US Secretary of State burst into flames when they get agitated. Wow! Now that’s a fit to which any child should aspire!
Madison calls upon her long-time friend Lillian in desperation. Her husband’s twin 10-year-olds are coming to live with them and she needs someone to care for them. Their mother has died, and they are going to come to live on their father’s family estate in Tennessee. Jasper, Madison’s husband, is a senator and will soon be appointed Secretary of State. Bessie and Roland must be kept out of sight. Because, of course, no one can know that the children have this unbelievable “disability.” Madison, of course, doesn’t reveal this well-kept secret to Lillian, as she convinces her to come and take a nanny job on a short-term basis.
Lillian doesn’t have anything else going on in her life, and so she goes with Carl, the family’s caretaker to pick up the children. She very abruptly discovers why these children are to be housed in the guest house and hidden out of sight, and she quickly has to figure out what in the world to do with them. Lillian describes Carl as “a man who was really into watches,” which I found hugely amusing, although Carl definitely is not an “amusing” man. Thank goodness he is there, though, because as things evolve, Lillian ends up really needing his services and his problem solving skills.
There is so much to report about the book. It is extremely humorous, extremely honest, and earnestly sincere. Lillian is an incredible narrator. She is tough but extremely vulnerable with a remarkable understanding of herself and her place in the world. She is a wonderful foil for her great friend Madison, who has a similar sense of herself, but Madison is in a totally different place in the world—equally tough but also equally needy.
I became completely connected to the vulnerability of Bessie and Roland, children whose entire lives have been torn apart. They are so hungry for human attachment, and it is obvious that they are not going to receive any love from their father or step-mother. They ask Lillian, for example, if they can sleep with her, and they wind themselves around her in the night—Roland with his finger in Lillian’s mouth. They are very afraid that they will be separated from her, and she becomes equally as attached to them.
I am always looking for stories that I have not read before, and this is definitely one of those. Wilson is a terrific storyteller, and the fairy-tale, slightly lunatic quality of the narration seems totally appropriate to the subject matter. He has you laughing one minute, and crying the next, celebrating the ways in which Lillian approaches the children’s needs and desires while at the same time worrying about the possibility that the children will lose their cool and burn the house down.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the reviewer in the New York Times felt much the same way. (By the way she is the author of Fleishman is in Trouble that I reviewed a couple of months ago.) She begins her review, “Good Lord, I can’t believe how good this book is.” And she closes her review thus: “Wilson writes with such a light touch that it seems fairly impossible for the book to have a big emotional payoff. But there is, and that’s the brilliance of the novel—that it distracts you with these weirdo characters and mesmerizing and funny sentences and then hits you in a way you didn’t see coming. You’re laughing so hard you don’t even realize that you’ve suddenly caught fire.”
Nothing to See Here is a book that you will want to sit down with and read all the way through in one sitting, just so you can absorb its brilliance, without any distractions.
Kevin Wilson is the author of several novels, including The Family Fang. Here is his website.
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House 2019
304 pages Literary
Well, friends. I am a wreck. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout affected me like no book that I have read in the past several months. Was it because I identified so thoroughly with Olive as I watched her age like I am aging, or because she is a master of sarcasm, like my children accuse me of being, or because it was such a fitting and moving sequel to Olive’s story? My thinking was captivated by Olive’s life and her struggles, her burdens and her joys. I knew this woman.
Like Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again has stand-alone chapters with numerous characters from Crosby Maine that Olive interacts with intermittently. Olive has her opinion about everything, but she is willing to change her mind—very egalitarian as she deals with a rapidly changing community and world. One story line concerns the Somali Muslims that live in a neighboring community. Another mentions the problems in the national government with “that horrible orange-haired man” in the White House. In some stories, Mrs. Kitteridge is only mentioned as a former teacher, while in others she plays a major role. One story concerns a former student who is dying of cancer. Olive visits her frequently and listens to her fears and concerns. (That particular story affected me greatly.) She says to the woman, “You know, Cindy, if you be dying, if you do die, the truth is — we’re all just a few steps behind you.”
Olive replays the moments of her life—the good and the bad. She grieves over the ways she treated her first husband and son Christopher, and reaffirms the moment that she decided to pursue a relationship with her second husband. Jack. Olive and Jack are a somewhat mismatched pair, but they made the decision to have a relationship at the end of the first book, and they remain together until Jack dies. Olive bemoans the fact that she had left the house by the ocean that she had with Henry, her first husband, and now she is stuck in Jack’s house. I recently began watching the HBO series that bears her name from 2014 in order to remember her as a younger woman—the house, her husband Henry, and how she got to be the way she was. Frances McDormand played Olive brilliantly in the series.
As Olive ages in the book, her body begins to betray her, and she ends up in the community’s assisted living. Her son, Christopher, who lives in New York and seldom visits her, comes frequently and fills her life with a joy she had not expected. She has a heart attack, has trouble with her bowels and bladder, and ends up wearing Depends—"diapers for old people. . .my foolish poopie panties.”
Through it all, Olive remains as cantankerous as always. Actually, the review in the New York Times is titled, The Curmudgeon Returns. She frequently is irritated and dismissive, yet she longs for the beauty of nature and craves human companionship, even though she is not very good at companionship. In the last chapter, for example, she finally finds a friend at the assisted living, plants some roses outside her window, and lives to see them bloom the second year.
Strout marvelously captures the inner lives of her characters. She is a brilliant author, and Olive, Again is a brilliant book. Thank goodness I got to read it.
Elizabeth Strout’s website.
Thursday, October 31, 2019
By Bob Kroll
ECW Press 2019
296 pages Noir
T.J. Peterson is an ex-cop suffering from PTSD and depression. Apparently, some of the details of his fall happened in earlier books, since Fire Trap is the third book in the series. (The other books include The Drop Zone and The Hell of it All.) At any rate, the reader can glean that he lost his job after a shooting, his wife has died, his daughter is a druggie, and he and his girlfriend have reached an impasse. In the conclusion to the series, his daughter and her childhood friend are both missing, but Peterson keeps getting messages indicating that the young women are pawns in a game targeting Peterson. He springs into action to try to rescue both girls and solve a series of killings.
Peterson suffers numerous flashbacks as he searches for the women, interviews numerous sleezy characters, and uncovers the dark web of porn in his hometown of Halifax. Sometimes, the reader needs to keep a list of characters, so wide is the range of people and places Peterson investigates. One reviewer mentioned that the book would make more sense if it was read in one sitting—so intricate and involved is the book’s structure. When I finally decided I was going to finish the book and sat down to get through it, I was able to appreciate Peterson and his life situation. For example, his counselor tries to comfort him: “Life plays tricks on us, Peterson. It lines the road with obstacles. Some are more difficult than others to climb over. We never sought to bury the circumstances of your life, but to reconcile them with the torment inside your head.” About three-quarters of the way through, the plot starts to move quickly and becomes a page-turner.
The dark procedural takes place in Halifax Nova Scotia, a place I have never visited and thought I could visit by reading Fire Trap. I had met a couple from Halifax on my recent trip to Vietnam, and they convinced me to come and visit their town. Uh huh! Fire Trap was definitely not the Halifax I want to visit. Atlantic Books Today, a Canadian review site muses: “No city can possibly claim to be perfect and doubtless the municipality of Halifax, Nova Scotia is no exception. Despite its reputation as being a beautiful and outwardly friendly place to visit, Halifax cannot possibly be as idyllic a destination as tourism commercials would have us believe. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a depiction of a major Canadian city as unremittingly bleak as the metropolitan nightmare author Bob Kroll makes of Halifax.”
Bob Kroll is a career-long author. It seems wise to me that he decided to make this only a trilogy. How much more could one ex-cop suffer? Publisher’s Weekly suggests that Fire Trap is a morality tale “strictly for serious fans,” and I would concur. I am not sure that I would have completed it were it not that it had been sent to me by the publisher.
Wednesday, October 23, 2019
By Judy Stone MD
Mountainside MD Press 2019
357 pages Biography
Many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors relate how their parents/grandparents never told them anything about their Holocaust experiences. Such was the case with Judy Stone. Not until her mother was in her 90s. Then it was that she began to tell her grandchildren stories about her survival—and also, it was then that she asked her daughter to preserve the family stories.
Stone’s mother, Magdus, was not the only one with stories. Five of her six siblings, all Hungarian Holocaust survivors, as well as members of Stone’s father’s family were still alive when Stone began collecting stories. What she found were tales of remarkable resilience, ingenuity, and hidden strengths in the ways in which the families endured brutality and unspeakable horror. Their survival and arrival in the United States is chilling as well as uplifting.
The book also tells how Stone felt as a second-generation Holocaust survivor and how it affected her relationship with her mother and her own children. She remarks that "fear is a relentless legacy of the Holocaust." At the same time, Stone feels that the memory of the Holocaust must be kept alive by telling these stories and helping people move beyond antisemitism and bullying. She also fears that the current climate of nationalism is similar, in many ways, to the events that led to the Holocaust in the first place.
I was particularly touched by the book for two reasons: First, I had read how trauma can be passed on to the next generation through denial and unexpressed feelings; Stone’s narration reveals that phenomenon through her fraught relationship with her mother. Then, my sister is in the process of telling our family stories after a several-year genealogy search. I want her to read how Stone constructed her book, how she told the stories and added the documentation through pictures and other memorabilia. My sister has found that our families have been in North America since the 1600s, but through all the years, there have been many stories of loss and survival, triumph and defeat.
I love the title—Resilience—because more than a story of survival, the book is a testament to the will of one family to live purposeful, strong, and vibrant lives.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
By Beth Ruggiero York
236 pages Memoir
In her memoir, Flying Alone, Beth Ruggiero York tells the story of her young adulthood in the 1980s when she sought to learn to fly airplanes with the goal of becoming a pilot for a major airline. She says, “Those were my first impressions of the world of aviation—Rod, bottles of Canadian whiskey, working the line. . .and my flight instructor, Steve. I started as official lineperson at New England Flyers on April 27, 1985, my twenty-third birthday, four months into flying lessons. Aviation had already swallowed me whole.”
York flew for about 5 years, eventually working as a pilot for Trans World Airways, until her health no longer allowed her to work. (She has MS.) She wrote her memoir originally in the 1990s and this week, with some modifications, it has finally been published. She felt her story could be beneficial to other women who aspire to be pilots, or women who are fighting chronic illness. After she wrote her story, she put the manuscript away for nearly 30 years and has worked as a Chinese translator and a photographer.
In many ways, Flying Alone is a story that any young woman could write—a book about aspirations, love, and loss. She said that 30 years later, when she revisited her writing, she was so glad that she had written her story, and knew that with some polishing, it was a book that would resonate with other young women.
Just recently, several women my age were talking about careers—and about our career choices as well as our career options. We had grown up in the era of the Cherry Ames nursing books and the Vicki Barr stewardess books, and most of us had chosen careers in education and nursing—about theonly choices we had available to us. It was exhilarating to read about a woman brave enough to plan a career as a pilot. York’s story can serve as an inspiration to other brave young women stepping out into careers not previously available to women. We are currently in a world that the women of my generation could not have imagined. Most women are no longer “flying alone.”
Beth Ruggiero York’s website. If you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription, Flying Alone is free to download to your Kindle.
Friday, September 13, 2019
By Mike Papantonio
Waterside Productions 2019
296 pages Thriller
Lots of books are advertised as “torn from today’s headlines.” But Law and Addiction actually is.
Here is the summary:
“One week before Jake Rutledge is scheduled to graduate from law school, he receives the devastating news of the death of his fraternal twin, Blake. What makes this death even more terrible for Jake is that his brother died of a drug overdose. Until hearing of his death, Jake had no idea his brother was even using drugs.
When Jake returns home to Oakley, West Virginia, he takes a hard look at the circumstances of his brother's death. In the five years Jake has been away for his schooling, his hometown has drastically changed. Because of the opioid epidemic and the blight it has brought, many now call Oakley "Zombieland". Jake can see how his town's demise parallels his brother's.
Undeterred, the newly minted lawyer takes on the entrenched powers by filing two lawsuits. Jake quickly learns what happens when you upset a hornet's nest. The young attorney might be wet behind the ears, but he is sure there is no lawyer that could help him more than Nick "Deke" Deketomis and his law firm of Bergman/Deketomis. Deke is a legendary lawyer. When he was Jake's age he was making his name fighting Big Tobacco. Against all odds, Jake gets Nick and his firm to sign on to his case before it's too late.”
Jake is an appealing protagonist. He is modest, unassuming, and trusting. He is willing to accept the advise from Deke Deketomis, the lawyer who has appeared in Papantonio’s other novels, Law and Disorder and Law and Vengeance. Jake is also ambitious, because of his willingness to take on the “Big Three” drug companies while at the same time taking on a smaller local case for his high school “crush.” Jake soon realizes that the role of the lawyer is essential in cases such as these. “What was rarely acknowledged was the unofficial oversight role that was increasingly filled by lawyers, Without the potential threat of legal action, important checks and balances wouldn’t exist, especially in light of increasingly lax government oversight.”
My feelings about the plotline, the characters, and the writing is similar to that of the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer: “Readers, however, will have to look past wooden characters, the stilted dialogue, and the statistical information dumps to get to the novel’s well-intentioned core. Papantonio makes a passionate if clumsy case for the need to do more to fight opioid addiction.”
It is certainly a timely book. Just yesterday, the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy was front page news as word that the Sakler family, owners of the largest manufacturer of opioids, had raided the company coffers when they realized that the company was going down. And in Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff had a heartbreaking editorial about babies in West Virginia who are born addicted. Fourteen percent of babies born in West Virginia are born exposed to drugs and another five percent more are exposed to alcohol—that’s about 20 percent of all babies born in that state.
Papantonio was on the cover of the July 1 issue of Publisher’s Weekly. He is certainly carving a niche for himself in the legal procedural genre.
Sunday, September 8, 2019
By Timothy Brandoff
Akashic Books 2019
224 pages Literary
New York in 1974. Cornelius Sky (Connie) is a doorman in the building where a former First Lady and her son (think JFK Jr.) live. Connie hangs out with the teenage boy, tries to keep him safe from the prying eyes of the paparazzi, and offers him companionship and solace. Otherwise, Connie’s life is a mess.
He has estranged himself from his wife and his two young sons by his alcoholism, and finally his wife changes the locks, and Connie is out on the mean streets of the city—a city that seems to be falling apart right before his eyes. While he prides himself on his job and the great job he does buffing the marble floors, for example, he is haunted by his own past. This may be why he attaches himself to the fatherless boy and ignores his own sons.
Cornelius Sky is a superb character study, with vivid observations of Connie’s tumultuous life and the tumultuous city where he lives. Frankly, I loved Connie, in all his bruised glory. While I didn’t love the way he treated his family, I loved the way others saw the good in Connie and offered him redemption.
Most importantly, the author Timothy Brandoff is an astute observer of the human condition, and I found myself underlining entire passages of brilliant writing that moved my heart. For example, here is a description of the people in the bar Connie frequents:
“Longshoremen, mailmen, factory workers, auto mechanics, truck drivers, the unemployable, a couple of wet-brains, a misanthropic PhD or two hiding behind what they hoped people would consider academic beards of distinction, flabbergasted occupants of Chelsea’s swankier brownstones because their lives still somehow sucked despite impressive curriculum vitae and substantial earning power—all stood and drank at the bar together."
224 pages is a fairly short book but is an absolutely perfect length for Connie’s story. The Kirkus review concludes that “its detailed portrait of a self-destructive character retains a haunting power.” The reviewer is absolutely right about the “haunting power.” I read Cornelius Sky several weeks ago, and it has remained with me.
Timothy Brandoff has an interesting personal history. He wove together details from his own life as he created the character of Cornelius Sky. He is a New York City bus driver and a former doorman, following the career path of his uncle and brother. He suggests, however, that while there are aspects of the book that follow his own life’s path, he hopes that the story is “true to itself.”
I hope that Brandoff will tell more stories of the characters he meets as he drives his bus through the city.
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
By Alexander McCall Smith
256 pages Fiction
A reader doesn’t pick up an Alexander McCall Smith book to delve into an elaborate, drawn-out plot. The reader chooses to read an Alexander McCall Smith book to be entertained. The Second Worst Restaurant in France is classic McCall Smith. It is witty and wise, with delightful characters, and cracking-good dialogue. Is it brilliant? No. Is it fun? Yes.
Paul Stuart is a Scottish cookbook author. He first appears in the book, My Italian Bulldozer, which I have not read. While that book has Paul writing a food guide to Tuscany, he is now under contract to write a larger tome about the philosophy of food—a task that is formidable, and he is having trouble getting a handle on the topic.
Paul is an appealing character because, above all, he is very accommodating and understanding. We find out very early in The Second Worst Restaurant that he is not fond of cats, and he is driven away from his home by his girlfriend’s cats. A cousin, Chloe, offers to take him with her to a small village in France where she has rented a house. Paul thinks that if he separates from his girlfriend and her cats and goes to a quiet place, he might make some progress on writing his book.
When they get to the village, Paul finds that it has little to offer except a very good bakery and a very bad restaurant. Some actually consider it to be the “second worst restaurant in France.” Paul takes on the task of improving the restaurant because one of the cooks actually is quite talented. This part of the plot reads like a Restaurant Impossible episode. But again, we don’t read McCall Smith books for their sterling plots.
We read his books for characters like Chloe, who is brilliant, annoying, and memorable. Paul remarks that Chloe is a throwback to earlier times “when people made tactless remarks and rarely apologized for what they were.” Chloe can talk about everyone and everything, but Paul finds himself worrying about how much truth there is in her endless commentary. I think that Chloe is a remarkable character, and I found myself appreciating everything she had to say. Here is one quote I enjoyed: “I read the other day about a Corsican saint called St. Baltazaru of Calvi, who performed the miracle of changing wild boar into sausages without benefit of a charcutier. Apparently, he just had to touch a wild boar and it would become sausages—just like that.”
McCall Smith is an extremely prolific author of several series, all with delightful characters. The books are all a lot of fun. My favorite series remains The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, which are based in Botswana, where McCall Smith taught Law at the University of Botswana.
I needed something light and fun to read on a long plane ride, and The Second Worst Restaurant in France was perfect. It almost made me want to head to France to seek out the restaurant and see how much it had improved.
Sunday, August 4, 2019
By Kalisha Buckhanon
292 pages Literary
I try to finish most of the books that I begin, but I had trouble getting through Speaking of Summer. Several of the reviewers mentioned that it improved about half-way through, but frankly, it’s been quite a week around here, and I was not able to get to that point. I loved the title and loved the cover, but I just couldn't get through the book. Please don't let that deter you, because I believe that Buckhanon's look at Black women's worth is well worth pursuing.
Here is a plot summary:
“On a cold December evening, Autumn Spencer’s twin sister, Summer, walks to the roof of their shared Harlem brownstone and is never seen again. With her friends and neighbors, Autumn pretends to hold up through the crisis. But the loss becomes too great, the mystery too inexplicable, and Autumn starts to unravel, all the while becoming obsessed with the various murders of local women and the men who kill them.”
At first glance, Autumn does not appear to be an unreliable narrator, but we are privileged to frequent glimpses of her mental unraveling as she deals with what she perceives to be a lack of interest in a missing black woman. This, of course, is a common perception. If Summer had been a white woman, there would have been a much more rapid response to her disappearance. Her theme is always present; “women of color don’t matter in America unless we are rich and famous.”
Kalisha Buckhanon has a marvelous way with words. Sometimes I got so caught up in the language that I forgot to pay attention to what was happening in the plot, and that may be one of the major problems with the novel—it is wordy, and we become totally enmeshed in Autumn’s thoughts and her musings. There are quite a few flashbacks and current happenings that color the plot, but everything is vague and rather ungainly. One thing I did appreciate was the portrayal of Detective Montgomery, who treats Autumn with respect, and he understands Autumn’s trauma as she searches for answers about Summer.
I realize that Speaking of Summer has garnered a great deal of press and appeared on several lists, including Time Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2019 list. However, I have to agree with the Kirkus analysis, which closes with: “Unfortunately, a somewhat clumsy chase for mystery overshadows the accurate portrayal of one woman’s struggles with mental health.”
Kalisha Buckhanon’s website.
Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa Editions 2019
170 pages Literary
A Girl Returned is the totally spellbinding coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old, unnamed Italian girl, who is forced to leave the home in which she was raised and return to her birth family—a family that she has never met. She is left totally in the dark as to why this is happening; she believes that the woman who raised her is dying and that is why she has to leave.
The couple who raised her had considerable money; the family she is returned to is very poor. There are several children; three teenaged boys, a younger girl, and a baby. She cannot bring herself to call the woman “mother”, so she refers to her as “the mother.” Everyone is under lots of economic and emotional stress; the children have a great deal of work that they must do every day; and the parents treat the children with little respect and the back of the hand.
Luckily two of her new-found siblings welcome her into their lives. Vincenzo, the oldest son, and Adriana, the younger sister guide her through the transition, although Vincenzo dies unexpectedly midway through the narrative. The girl strives to gain a foothold in life, but she never stops trying to figure out what happened to her city mother, and the reason she was A Girl Returned is heartbreaking.
The girl suffers greatly from the loss of place—the loss of self. At one point she says, “I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue; the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart, I don’t know even now.” Yet, despite the anguish, she prevails, growing strong and resilient. Her spirit is indominable.
A Girl Returned is beautifully written and artfully translated. Ann Goldstein, the translator, also translated the Neapolitan Series of books by Elena Ferrante, and this book has somewhat the same feel. More than just another Italian novel, A Girl Returned explores some of the same family dynamics as well as some of the same scenery and story pacing.
I was entranced by the review in the Washington Post. The reviewer praises the author for her storytelling skills, her humor, and the way that “she knows just when and where to slip the pieces of her jigsaw into place — all while leaving emotional gaps, psychic wounds that can never heal.”
Lest the reader worry that this book may be too heavy a summer read, please be assured that it is less than 200 pages and it moves very quickly. Sad and heart-warming all at the same time. If you loved My Brilliant Friend, you will love A Girl Returned.