Friday, May 31, 2019

Deep Water Blues

By Fred Waitzkin

Open Road Media     2019
160 pages     Literary

It is always a lovely experience when you open a book with no anticipation, and then find that it matches your reading ideals. Such was the case with the novella, Deep Water Blues by Fred Waitzkin. It is the story of a paradise island in the Caribbean called Rum Cay that becomes paradise lost. It is the story of greed and misplaced expectations, love and lust, and great loss.  

While the author himself is a character in the book, the main character is an expat named Bobby Little who has created a small paradise on a remote island in the Caribbean. The boat dock, the restaurant where Bobby is the chef, and the entertainment are all courtesy of Bobby. But then, suddenly, things change. Tragedy strikes when a boat carrying Haitian migrants capsizes in the harbor, and the grisly shark-eaten bodies cast a pall over the island. Bobby struggles to regain his footing and becomes threatened by a business partner, Dennis, who conspires to take over Bobby’s kingdom.

What makes the story unique is the insertion of Fred Waitzkin, the author, into the story line as an observer to the plot. He acts as a quasi-narrator, although he is not in every scene. He is on his fishing boat, the Ebb Tide, with a couple of buddies and an artist, John Mitchell, whose drawings become an integral part of the book. He says, “Many times I’ve made the long ocean voyage to Rum Cay to troll off the southeast corner of the island. But my fishing ardor has often been dwarfed by surprises onshore, where breezy sensuous nights plunge me back into the yearnings of a younger man and where I’ve met maimed and beautiful people on the dock and a few that were evil beyond redemption.”

Somehow, Waitzkin’s addition of himself into the plot lends authenticity to the story. What is true? What isn’t? This is a great plot device and kept me reading through a lot of grisly stuff. What was going to happen next? How would it end?

Deep Water Blues is not a book I would have picked up to read on my own, which made the surprise of good writing and fascinating plot all the more desirable. Thanks to the publicist for introducing me to a a very interesting read.

 Fred Waitzkin is the author of the memoir, Searching for Bobby Fischer, which told the story of his son Josh, a child prodigy and chess expert. Many will remember the movie based on his book. This is his website.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship

By Gregory Boyle

Simon & Schuster     2017
210 pages     Spiritual

Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that works with gang members. It is the largest gang-intervention program in the world. His first book, Tattoos on the Heart, described the development of the organization, and this book, Barking to the Choir, fervently describes what Boyle has learned about faith, compassion, and the enduring power of radical kinship.

The key word to the entire book is “Kinship.” We learn early in the book that we are all kin; that even though our life experiences can be very different, at our core, we are very much the same. He says, “The moment one says, ‘This is what it was like for me’, a rebirth occurs. Locating our wounds leads us to the gracious place of fragility; the contact point with another human being. When we share these shards of excavation with each other, we move into the intimacy of mutual healing. Awe softens us for the tender glance of God, then enables us to glance in just the same way.”

Another important word is humor. Boyle tells story after story of people collapsing in laughter—sharing something silly, something stupid, or something ironic—while at the same time building community, building kinship. I was really struck by the glorious good humor by which Boyle faces the challenges of Homeboy Industries and the people who come to him wanting to make changes in their lives. He helps them facilitate change, but at the same time, he has to manage a very large operation with myriad numbers of volunteers as well as hundreds of participants. He has also had to bury over 200 participants who have died because of gang violence.

One thing he cannot tolerate is judgment. He says, “We must try and learn to drop the burden of our own judgment, reconciling that what the mind wants to separate, the heart should bring together. . . judgment, after all, takes up the room you need for loving.” He has been known to ask volunteers to leave if he sees them being too judgmental or exhibiting too much moral indignation.

Barking to the Choir is a great book for a church book club. It is easy to read, and full of relatable stories, quotable thoughts, and meaningful summaries to keep everyone talking. Additionally, I found that it followed very nicely two other books I have recently read, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton.

Here is the website for Homeboy Industries and a link to a delightful article about a speaking engagement of Father Gregory Boyle’s in the Los Angeles Times when Barking to the Choir was released.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

A Devil.Comes to Town

By Paolo Maurensig

Translated by Anne Milano Appel
World Editions     2019
120 pages     Literary

Well, for sure, I have never read this book before! Here is the brief description from the publisher.

“Everyone’s a writer in Dichtersruhe (Switzerland). The residents have one thing on their mind: literature. So when the devil turns up claiming to be a hot-shot publisher, unsatisfied authorial desires are unleashed, and the village’s former harmony is shattered. Taut with foreboding and Gothic suspense, Paolo Maurensig gives us a refined and engaging parable on narcissism, vainglory, and our inextinguishable thirst for stories.”

In only 120 pages, Maurensig weaves a story of ultimate menace and anxiety, layering detail upon detail with such skill that the reader is left breathless—when they are not smiling in amusement at the vanity of the residents of the village, and the scurrilous image of the devil.

Frankly, it took me a while to get into the story, and when I finally figured out what was going on, I had to go back and begin again with some AHA moments now more present in my mind. How easily the human psyche can be flattered! How easily the human mind can be convinced that it has something special to share with the world! How easily the human will can be led down the wrong path! As the narrator notes, “It is incomprehensible how people who are more than mature—the burgomaster, too, is by far over seventy—can behave like children lured by a stick of candy.”

Maurensig’s depiction of the devil in the guise of a publisher is spot on. “. . .everything about his person reeks of excess, his laugh is raucous, his gestures theatrical, his hair, slicked back and rather long and greasy, is dyed black; his lips are purple and thin, the corners turned up to mimic a perennial smile. . .and the voice, that voice. . .”

As I reread the devil’s description, I was remembering a time in my life when the devil came to town. I was seeking to manage the insurance money that came from my husband’s estate, when a young man came to town. He had impeccable credentials and was from a prominent Michigan family. He had a plan to expand a pizza empire, since his family was friends with the chain’s founder. A coworker introduced me (as well as several other  coworkers), and we all invested in his proposition—which turned out to be a devilish scheme. Chaos ensued when he skipped the country with all our money. Eventually, we had to hire a lawyer, and the family returned all our investments. How easily we were suckered in!

Vanity and money are two guiding principles for the devil. Maurensig tells his tale with no feelings left intact. We are all vulnerable. The Kirkus reviewer said it best, “In this very creepy novella, the award-winning Italian novelist Maurensig (Theory of Shadows, 2018, etc.) constructs a mystery with the structure of nesting dolls, folding story within story until it’s impossible to separate technique from narrative.” 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Young Jane Young

By Gabrielle Zevin

Algonquin Books     2017
294 pages     Literary

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an interview with Monica Lewinski, and as I was watching, I kept thinking, “How can someone survive such a scandal, put on a brave face, and come back out into the light again?” Gabrielle Zevin tries to answer that question with her novel, Young Jane Young, which is the story of a young woman, Aviva Grossman, who suffers through a scandal, similar to the Lewinski/Clinton scandal, and survives by changing her name to Jane Young, reinventing herself, and moving half a country away—from Florida to Maine.

The brilliance of the novel is not just the story line, which moves along rapidly, but also the way it is presented. As my sister said, “We haven’t read this book before.” The book is divided into five sections, each with a woman telling the story from her perspective, at different times, and in different formats. Rachel, Aviva’s mother begins the story by telling most of the background to the scandal in a traditional manner. This is followed by Jane Young narrating her life as an event planner in small-town Maine, a single mother, raising her elementary school-age daughter, Ruby. Ruby’s section of the book consists of emails to a pen pal in Indonesia. At this point, the book really gets interesting as Ruby tells her story in email messages. Up until now, Ruby has no notion about who her father is or that her mother has completely reinvented herself. Ruby is very smart and  with the help of the Internet, and a few misplaced words that become clues, she decides that her father must be Congressman Levin, and she sets off for Florida to confront the congressman, using all the tools she has developed as her mother’s business assistant. The most surprising section of the book is narrated by Embeth, the wife of Congressman Levin. Told in the third person, Embeth is much more feisty and humorous than you would expect; her narration enhances the story dramatically. Finally, Aviva tells her own story in a “choose your own adventure” style. This is an utterly delightful way to describes the choices she made and why she made them.

The “choose your own adventure” narration describes to perfection the choices that people make as they embark on their lives, and how each choice—good and bad—plays a role in the next choice that has to be made. Told completely from the woman’s perspective, we totally understand how men generally get away with more crass behavior than women can. Embeth, for example, talks about how she had to choose exactly the right suit to wear when her husband is confronted by the press regarding his affair with Aviva, so she can stand beside him like the dutiful wife. Of course, the congressman is affected not at all. Additionally, we have become so impacted by technology, and Young Jane Young shows the impact that the Internet and social media plays in every aspect of our lives.

Initially, Young Jane Young reads like a typical woman’s fiction beach read, but as the story develops, we are invited to delve much deeper in our thinking about women’s roles and how life evolves. I am sure we will have a great discussion at book group tonight.

Zevin is the author of another favorite book of mine, The Storied Life of AJ Fickry. When Young Jane Young was released in 2017, NPR had an excellent interview with Gabrielle Zevin.

Recently my 7-year-old granddaughter told her parents that her teacher looked just like one of the “chicks” in the Avengers movies. Her dad questioned, “Chicks?” “Yes,” she responded. “I refuse to say the word, ‘woman’ because it has ‘man’ in it.” At some point they will have to discuss the use of the word, “chick,” but it looks like there’s another Ruby in the making.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Milwaukee Noir

Tim Hennessy, Editor

Akashic     2019
291 pages     Noir

I am constantly enthralled by the way authors and editors define noir fiction, and the new book, Milwaukee Noir, which came out this week, continues to redefine the style of writing that can be considered “noir.” This collection is unique, just like the stories in all the other collections from Akashic.

The editor, Tim Hennessy, is a book seller and writer. His introduction to the book also appeared in the website Crime Reads. It appeared earlier this week on the site the day the book came out. He mentions that society doesn’t think much of Milwaukee, but he goes on to elaborate all the literary figures who have lived or died, as the case may be, in the city. Of Milwaukee he notes:

“Presently, Milwaukee is going through a renaissance—abandoned factories being converted to condos, craft breweries and distilleries pushing out corner taverns—yet at the same time it is among the most segregated and impoverished big cities in the country. The gentrification of neighborhoods outside of the downtown bear the impact of twentieth-century redlining efforts, forcing residents out due to housing demand, adding fuel to the affordable-housing crisis. Such an environment and atmosphere make excellent fodder for noir fiction—an outlook out of step with the romanticized nostalgia that Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley created of Milwaukee.”

The collection had my attention with the first name on the cover, Jane Hamilton. Her book, The Excellent Lombards, was my favorite fiction book of 2016. Her entry, Friendship, is the tale of what happens when three New York friends journey to Milwaukee to visit their friend, Sally John, who has moved to this strange midwestern city. Hamilton incorporates much of the city in the story, including the marvelous art museum right on the lake. Hamilton speaks to this: “What city would commission Santiago Calatrava to design their art museum, a city with a gorgeous body of water as backdrop, and blot it out in the approach with a third-rate heap of orange-painted steel I-beams!” She is a marvelous writer and the story, while perhaps a stretch to call it noir, doesn’t disappoint.

One of my favorite stories is by Larry Watson called Night Clerk. This is more traditional noir, as is Summerfest ’76 by Reed Farrel Coleman. My favorite line about Milwaukee is in Coleman’s story:    “. . .all I ever saw out of Lisa’s window was grayness. Oh, that’s not totally fair. It was grayness interrupted every other day by lake-effect snow.” (Lake-effect snow is the bane of the existence of any one who lives on the Lake Michigan shoreline.)
   Houston Noir is the other new addition to Akashic’s noir collection. Hope to read it next week.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Stone Circle

By Elly Griffiths

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt     2019
368 pages     Mystery

The Stone Circle is book 11 in the Dr. Ruth Galloway mystery series. Here is a recap of the story line from Kirkus Review.

“An anonymous letter brings DCI Harry Nelson memories of past sorrows and present dangers.
The letter mentions a stone circle that harks back to the 20-year-old case of a missing child. Ten years later, another missing child introduced Harry to archaeologist Ruth Galloway when he asked her to examine some bones. That case began a working relationship that turned out to be equally productive in personal terms: A short-lived affair between the two produced a child, Kate, though Harry is married and has two grown daughters. His wife, Michelle, who accepts Kate in their lives, is about to give birth to a baby who may or may not be Harry’s. A new archaeological team working near the site of the original henge finds a stone coffin containing bones. The head of the dig is Leif Anderssen, whose father, Erik, was Ruth’s mentor all those years ago. As Harry continues to receive cryptic messages, the bones of what Ruth thinks is a young girl are found near the new dig, opening up yet another old case. The police think the body is that of Margaret Lacey, who vanished from a street party in 1981. The focus at the time was on her parents; her older siblings, Annie and Luke; and John Mostyn, a neighbor and odd duck who collected stones. But nothing was ever proven, and Margaret’s body was never found. The birth of George, Michelle’s son, puts more pressure on Harry, who loves his wife and Ruth in different ways, to stay in his marriage. Nelson’s team and some friends of Ruth’s use their own areas of expertise to search for clues from the past, but when the child of Annie’s daughter, Star, is kidnapped, the present-day crisis takes center stage.”

Wow! The Stone Circle is a complicated story, made more complicated by the fact that this is book 11 in the Dr. Ruth Galloway series, and it is a very difficult series to enter at this point in the narrative. There are a lot of characters, a lot of drama swirling around those characters, and a lot of plot devices that make dropping into such a well-developed story problematic. That being said, I enjoyed the book and its main characters. Ruth Galloway is a professor of archaeology, and she is often called upon to use her archaeological skills to solve murder mysteries. I liked this aspect of the character because it is an unusual career choice, and the reader can learn bits and pieces of archaeology along with the drama.

I particularly liked the setting. North Norfolk is a part of England that I have never visited, and it sounded so beautiful, and so filled with mysterious history, that it made me want to take another trip to England just to see this part of the country.

Another thing that appealed to me is the Norwegian archaeologist who is working at a new dig site on the North Norfolk coast of England. My nephew is a Norwegian archaeologist, and I kept envisioning Will at the site rather than Leif. (Will currently is working on an early Viking site off the coast of Bergen Norway.)

A big surprise were the convoluted romantic relationships swirling around the police community. Apparently, avid readers of the series know all about these relationships, but I found it all quite interesting and unique. Apparently, Griffiths had gone back to the original book in the series, The Crossing Place, for some of the plot devices. So, perhaps this is a series that ought to be read in order. I wouldn’t recommend starting at The Stone Circle. The Kirkus review concludes that the series
never disappoints. “It’s patented combination of mysterious circumstances, police procedure, and agonizing relationship problems will keep you reading, and feeling, all night.”

Elly Griffiths website. On her website, she indicates that Elly Griffiths is her pen name. Her real name is Domenica de Rosa. Besides the Dr. Ruth Galloway series, she also writes the Stephens & Mephisto novels.

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Thread So Fine

By Susan Welch

Faodall     2019
370 pages     Historical Fiction

“St. Paul, MN, 1946: As little girls, the Malone sisters relied on each other for companionship and affection as their mother remained distant, beating back the demons of her own mysterious childhood. Now, as young women ready to embrace promising futures, their lives are instead changed by two tragedies. Their powerful bonds of love and loyalty threaten to break under the weight of trauma and loss, secrets and misunderstandings. One sister leaves, possibly forever. Heart-broken and scarred, the other vows to never let go of the invisible thread that runs between them--and in the course of her journey, discovers the true meaning of family.

Susan Welch based some of this family drama on her own birth, childhood, and upbringing. There is a lot at play—men returning from WWII, distant parents, sibling love and sibling rivalry, illness, unwed mothers, religion, and on and on. Frankly, at times, I found all of this to be a bit too much. When the author added another element to the plot line, I probably rolled my eyes.

On the other hand, to a large extent, this is the childhood that I experienced, growing up in the forties and early 50s in Minnesota. I noticed that most of the reviewers were older women, which is probably why the publicist sent the book to me in the first place. Oh—and one of the characters is named Miriam, always an eye catcher to me, who seldom sees her name in print. I remember the tuberculosis sanitarium at the edge of our community, the whispered stories of young women going away “to visit relatives” only to return with no explanation. I remember my mother in her house dress feeling trapped and like she was wasting her life. All of these elements are at play in A Thread So Fine.

Welch is a very good writer. The novel is rich in details, and the characters are finely drawn. Those who enjoy problem fiction or historical fiction—or like me, lived through those times—will enjoy A Thread  So Fine. I can see that this book would be a good book club choice, and I noticed that Welch will have a book group guide which will add to its appeal.

Here is the Kirkus review of the book, which recommends it as “an engaging and poignant historical novel.” The book was released this week. Here is Susan Welch’s website.

As for me, what I think I need, right now, is a good murder mystery. This is two “relational” books in a row, probably a new record for me.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Summer Cottage

By Viola Shipman

Graydon House  2019
384 pages     Fiction

I knew that I would love The Summer Cottage from the very first lines. “There it is! I said, rolling down the car window and sticking my head out. Even though I was a grown woman. . .there was nothing like seeing my family’s summer cottage again.” The setting for The Summer Cottage is the beach and community of Saugatuck/Douglas Michigan, about 50 miles south of our family cottages near the Lake Michigan community of Pentwater, Michigan. Saugatuck/Douglas is an awesome, artsy community with magnificent white sand beaches, trendy bars and restaurants, and great shopping. The setting is as much a part of the magic of this sweet book as are the many characters that tell the story.

Adie Lou Clarke has been coming to Cozy Cottage for all her life, so when she and her cheating husband divorce, she returns to Cozy Cottage for solace and to gain strength. Although the cottage has seen better days, Adie Lou, who has just quit her job, looks at the cottage with new eyes, wondering if she could turn it into a bed and breakfast and make a new life for herself. Encouraged by her best friend Trish, and her college son, Evan, Adie Lou sets out to reconstruct the cottage and reconstruct her life.

This is the story of her journey, the friends she makes, the local personalities that seek to confound her endeavor, and the love interest who returns from her teenage years. One of the delightful aspects of the book are the cottage rules that Adie Lou incorporates into the design of the remodel and into the inspiration for the way she will engage with the people who come to visit Cozy Cottage. The author uses those rules to guide the chapters, as well. They are:

"1. Leave your troubles at the door.
2. Soak up the sun.
3. Nap often.
4. Wake up smiling.
5. Build a bonfire.
6. Go rock-hunting.
7. Dinner is a family activity.
8. Ice cream is a requirement.
9. Be grateful for each day.
10. Go jump in the lake.
11. Build a sandcastle.
12. Boat rides are a shore thing.
13. Everyone must be present for sunset.
14. Shake the sand from your feet, but never shake the memories of our summer cottage."
Board by board and room by room, Adie Lou creates this new dream for her life. The narrative takes us through the first year--from the construction to the first months of the bed and breakfast, and the reader finds herself rooting for Adie Lou, hoping that she can make this new part of her life successful.

The book is a simple, sweet read. I found myself wishing that I were reading it on the deck of the cottage we visit on Lake Michigan every year, pausing and looking up from my reading to listen to the children playing on the beach, riding their bikes up and down the road, climbing on the huge sand dune behind the cottage, or gathering to watch the sunset. I felt very connected to the story and the vivid portrayal of cottage life.

I have visited Saugatuck many times over my years in Michigan, and I felt that the author was very much in touch with the pace of the community and the joy of cottage life. Imagine my surprise when I found that the author is a man named Wade Rouse. His pseudonym, Viola Shipman, is actually his grandmother’s name, and he writes to honor his grandmother. He obviously knows the territory because he lives in the Saugatuck community. Not only did he understand well the setting for the book, but he also did a remarkable job of telling a story from a woman’s point of view.

I am not usually a fan of beach reads, but because of my connection with West Michigan beaches, I felt very much in tune with The Summer Cottage. We are all waiting to return. As a matter of fact, my twin granddaughters, who are graduating from high school in a few weeks, made sure to find out which weeks were cottage weeks so that they could make room for Pentwater during their very busy summer. We all find our peace at the cottage.

Wade Rouse is going to make several appearances in West Michigan over the next few weeks, promoting The Summer Cottage. His appearances will culminate at the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival in Dowagiac Michigan on Friday May 17. I hope to meet him there.