Category Archives: Good for Book Groups

The Soul of a Book Lover

The task of writing a review of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is daunting.  Why?  Because I don’t want to write anything that might keep someone from reading this book. Unknown

Everybody should read this book.  And absolutely all book lovers must read this book. This book is for anyone who questions their place in the universe, and who uses books to find answers; this book is for anyone who has felt ever insignificant or superfluous or confused and turned to a poem or a short story or a novel or a history for comfort and support.  There is much to be mined in this book for comfort and for inspiration and for thought.  I carry it with me now in my shoulder bag, because An Unnecessary Woman is a book to read again and again.  It is a most necessary book about an extraordinary woman.

Aaliya Saleh is divorced, childless, and largely friendless since the death of her closest friend, Hannah, years ago.  She lives alone in the Beirut apartment she came to as a teenaged wife.  The family that remains to Aaliya wears on her nerves but never comforts her fears.

Of what is Aaliya fearful? Of affirming what she has long suspected, that her life is – and most lives are – insignificant. She tells us, the readers with whom she freely converses, that the most common epitaph on Ancient Roman headstones was Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care).  But Aaliya does care.  She cares very much, and her mode of caring is through the translations she works on, year after year.  Translating is not her job – she worked in a bookstore before it closed – but it is her lifeline, almost literally.  Aaliya is a voracious and loving reader – “I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word” – and the homage she pays to the art of writing is her gift of translating.

We first meet Aaliya after she has completed her translation for the year and celebrated with the ritual of two glasses of red wine. The celebration unfortunately (or not – we shall see) has led to Aaliya mistakenly dying her hair blue.  Over the next few days, we accompany Aaliya as she goes about considering next year’s translation project. She contemplates her lifetime of reading, while also supplying an enthralling personal history of twentieth century Beirut, most of it grueling and heartbreaking, but also with a touch of enchantment and moments of joy.

As Aaliya putters through her days, she considers the question of illusions – to what extent are our self-delusions necessary?  The illusion that what we do is important, that history matters, that our love is returned and our birthplace is eternal: what feeds our perceptions, what keeps us whole and hearty?  At times Aaliya feels she knows the characters in books better than she knows the very real people who surround her – is that good or bad, or neither?  Do we learn from books or escape into them?

Our delusions and illusions are sometimes fed by the books we read.  But at the same time, the very best books remind us again and again of what is real and what is true, “that we are more than ourselves; that we have souls…. Or perhaps not.”

The “not” is what worries Aaliya but Alameddine’s novel about this unforgettable woman about this unforgettable woman offers beautiful and persuasive proof that we all contain much more than any surface explanations of our life could convey.  And the final pages of this wonderful book – very unexpected in unexpected ways – are definitive proof of soul, not only as pertaining to Aaliya, but for all readers everywhere.  Maybe we get our souls from the books we read; maybe we put our souls into the books we read.  But there can be no doubt: book lovers have soul.

Quiet Dell: Tragedy and Redemption

I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. Unknown-1

Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”

The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.

The Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a slender but rich meditation on fate. What force directs the twists of our lives – or are all events random and therefore beyond our control? When a tiny, independent, and utterly charming cat enters the lives of a couple living in a rented guest house, the unexpected affection and reliance the narrating husband and his wife feel towards the little feline sets off a chain of disquisitions on nature, destiny, joy, pleasure, and sorrow – and on the importance of acceptance of all such gifts of fate, in the moment and of the moment. Unknown

The narrator struggles to define what he feels towards the cat and where she fits – so unexpectedly – into his life; time is passing and he knows all that he is experiencing will change and disappear, but he still tries to stop time and enjoy what he has found in his quiet corner of Tokyo. He turns to Art for guidance, including the works of an abstract artist he befriends, the words of a dying poet he has long admired, and the poems of Machiavelli. The artist tried to capture moments in time, the poet is running out of time, and Machiavelli is thwarted in his efforts to control a symbol of time, the flowing of the river Arno. Although we might associate Machiavelli primarily with the rather ruthless guidance of The Prince, it is through his poems that he shares his experience with forces beyond his control. Working with Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli sought to change the course of the Arno through Florence – but the forces of the river were too strong to divert or change. Machiavelli experienced the futility of trying to change the tide (literally and metaphorically) and put the experience into poetry: “Fortune also is unkind, boldly her long tresses/Disarranged – now here, now there,/One after the other, transform all things…”

Much as Machiavelli used poetry in an effort to understand the forces of the Arno (and of destiny), the narrator uses his writing as a way to control (and understand) the ebb and flow of his life, including his connections to friends, his wife, the cat, and time itself. But even in writing of that special time in his life when a little cat made herself guest in his home, he cannot fully grasp the import of the moments he shared with her: “All I want is to know what happened – I want to somehow grasp every detail of the events of that day, that one day like a tiny dewdrop…but now it’s all engulfed in the profound darkness of time.”

Hiraide’s writing shines a light into the connections that come from living fully in the moments of our pleasure, and the sorrow that comes when such moments pass into what he so aptly calls “the darkness of time.” Hiraide’s writing is lyrical and captivating – his description of the relationship he develops with a dragonfly mesmerizes – and I will revisit The Guest Cat with pleasure, much as I return to favorite poems and paintings and memories. Fate goes where she wishes, times passes without pause, but our experiences of events belongs wholly to us in the moment, no matter the engulfing darkness to come. IMG_7737

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide won the Kiyama Shohei Literary Award in Japan and was a bestseller in France. It was just released in its English translation; it was translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland.

The Brilliance of Ishmael Beah

The novel Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah is a brilliant book, not in terms of innovation or style, but in terms of illumination – and there is no better brilliance for a book, or for an author. In telling the story of the village Imperi and its inhabitants, Beah’s writing illuminates and animates: details of village life, past and present, become clear and vivid; its inhabitants spring into shape (and from the page) body and soul; and the surroundings of the Sierra Leone upcountry do indeed surround: reading his novel made me feel as if I myself was sitting at the feet of the elders, absorbing history and lessons and solace. That kind of storytelling is brilliance, and Ishmael Beah shines. Unknown

Beah utilizes both the lyrical verbal traditions of his country – “God and the gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day” – and the clarity of simple English – “the night that followed, the rooster started crowing at 9:00 p.m. for daybreak” – to tell a story that is at times heartbreaking, and at times inspiring, and at all times, captivating. Beah has no agenda and no grand plan either. He lets his story unfold: a village in Sierra Leone, decimated by war, rebuilds itself through love and determination; then the village is destroyed again, this time by “development” and all the attendance vices of corruption, greed, and dismissal of the past. There are victims and there are villains, but most of all, there are survivors, some by hook or by crook, and some simply by going on.

Without any power in determining the future of the village or of themselves, there would seem to be two choices available to the villagers: resignation to the corruption or joining in with the corruption. But there is a third choice, as Beah has his characters demonstrate: acceptance (so strong and positive that it is more like courage) and optimism that all is not lost, until it is all is over. As one character advises, when a family is near despair, survivors understand that “the world is not ending today, and that you must cheer up if you want to continue living in it.”

What is magical and yet so very simple, and also so incredibly strong about the book is how Beah portrays the optimism of his people. Hope is not based on undefined “things will be better tomorrow” delusions (because they probably won’t be) but on the firm belief that comfort and even happiness can be found in the here and now: “this wasn’t the place for illusions; the reality here was the genuine happiness that came about from the natural magic of standing next to someone and being consumed by the fortitude of his or her humanity.” How basic is that? And yet how very wise: wisdom not only for the villagers to live by, but for all of us.

The villagers do want to continue living in the world, even if living in their village is no longer possible. Without any rights or property, expectations or certainties, the villagers still exult in what they do have: the promise that “miracles happen every day” – the miracles of human relationships, the highs of real conversation and connection, and the guidance of stories, passed down through generations, stories that re-root and then re-apply to each new phase of life: “We must live in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness.”

Ishmael Beah offers his own tales, stories of incredible resilience – living in the radiance of tomorrow – in his wrenching memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and now in this beautiful novel, Radiance of Tomorrow. I look forward to the possibilities of many more such tales from Beah, and hold tightly to hope for all the very real people who have inspired his brilliance.

Forgotten Books, Recovered Treasure

Pacing through the website of Forgotten Books, an online library with hundreds of thousands of titles, is like walking through the aisles of a favorite bookstore. I “open” one book, skim through, and alight upon certain lines that make my decision for me (yes, I want to read this book!) and that decision leads me to another turn down another aisle, and then another, and another, choosing and perusing books all along the way. Just like in a real and wonderful bookstore, Forgotten Books provides the adventure of opening doors (books! books!) that lead to greater and greater adventure, and more discoveries – and more books. If ever there were a source for fulfilling a bibliophile’s wildest desires, short of actually having feet planted in the world’s largest bookstore and hands reaching for volume after volume, Forgotten Books is it. It is the largest online library in the world, and offers free access to much of its website (and access to all of it at reasonable prices).

I went online to Forgotten Books in search of interesting letters – I am addicted to letters, as well as books – and a one-word search for “letters” led me within seconds to such interesting books as Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830, and then onto Letters to My Son, written by William Gibson and published in 1917, and then, leaving letters behind I plunged into The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries, by Hargrave Jennings, first published in 1907 and finally, to Travels in the Old World, by the Reverend J.M. Rowl, a marvel published in 1922.

Are you kidding me? Am I in heaven? Book heaven? I had sat down to my computer and my searching with a headache, head cold, and a fever. I rose up light as air and floating on sunshine. Okay, by bedtime I was back in a feverish state, shivering under blankets and hot water bottles, but at least I had plenty of reading material to keep me company. I had my downloaded forgotten but now recovere books, all of them found during my online treasure hunt. Was I looking for the Reverend Rowl? No, of course not. But how lucky I was to find him.

Not only can out of print and hard to find books be found on Forgotten Books, but images taken from many such books can also be viewed in their original state, with some 4 million images extracted from old books and available for viewing on the site. I searched for images of Wilkie Collins, and was thrilled to find his sweet old face, over and over, along with the designs imprinted on many of his first books. Searching doesn’t stop there, with images, but goes even further. There is the ability to chart the usage of every English language word throughout publishing history or to search for words or terms in the entire online selection. I could find 500,000 books related to a search term, 500,000 books – and each and every one of them available to me!

I am a stalwart fan of the printed page and I’d rather be in a bricks and mortar bookstore than just about any place on earth but this adventure – of reading books long out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find – provides at-home access for finding books I never even knew existed. Online resources have their place – a wonderful, happy place – for fixing the addictions of book lovers everywhere. No matter where I am, or what time it is, or what state I am in (pajamas and slippers, Kleenex blotting my nose), Forgotten Books and its brethren provide a constant and beautiful feed to my need for books, all kinds and sorts of books. Addicted to books? Forgotten Books, and other online treasuries of long-gone books, will expand your universe and fulfill at least some of your desires.

Someone Extraordinary

Someone by Alice McDermott is a marvel of grace, insight, and beauty. There is no high-blown melodrama, there are no evil-doers or outlandish characters, and no improbable or extraordinary events. What is extraordinary is the way McDermott pulls us into the life of Marie; we are treated to a patchwork of recollections that veer back and forth through time and create an incredible and complete portrait of a life.  But not only one life: the novel demonstrates how every one of us is connected, through experience and influence, to the lives around us. 

Marie’s memories of her childhood in the old neighborhood (Brooklyn), the death of her father, her years as funeral parlor hostess, and as wife and mother; the changing relationship she has with her brother, the unexpectedness of marriage, the near-death experience of childbirth, all weave together, forming a picture not only of one woman but also the web of community and family around her. Marie is not seeking understanding or cohesion in recalling the moments of her life, but we, the readers, are graced with the realization: there are no ordinary lives. Each and every character in the novel is unique, and each life has an enduring impact on Marie. As her own life will have enduring impact on ours, as the grateful readers.

Having just laid to rest a beloved father-in-law, I know just how special one life can be.  Where there is kindness, love, and willingness – a willingness to seek, accept, and celebrate – there is greatness. In her exquisite novel Someone, McDermott celebrates the complexity of human experience, and its possibilities for greatness, big and small.

Women of a Certain Age

An examination of life looking back from a mature age is at the center of The Last First Day by Carrie Brown and I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck. The authors avoid the easy take on growing old and instead go for the difficult but incisive exploration of what it means – and what it takes – to be a woman of a certain age. The books are anchored by the characters of two very different women, and the writing styles of the authors are also distinct, and yet what the books share is exquisite sensitivity to the rhythms of life. We are given a close look at the choices the women have made, some good and some bad; the roles taken on, willingly and not so willingly; and the spaces they keep for themselves, isolated and inviolate. It is a mandate of human existence that we have such spaces and yet we are never really alone, ever. The past invades as much as the present, and hope for the future persists in poking its head in, no matter how impossible such hope seems.

In The Last First Day, Ruth faces a wrenching change, a move that will take her from the New England boarding school campus where she has lived most of her adult life, dutifully assisting her husband in his role as headmaster. The stability of those years was a stark contrast to her unstable childhood and now instability threatens again.

In I Married You for Happiness, Nina sits vigil by her husband, rewinding the life they’ve created together. It was a sturdy marriage and yet beneath the surface, certain deceptions, inadequacies and failures still cause pain. But what of the joy? Nina wraps herself up in both the aching and the comforting memories, just as she wraps herself, piece by piece, in assorted articles of clothing. The material and metaphysical accumulations come together, as a kind of promise for the future.

How do the choices we make early in life play out down the road? What insights gained in the past can prepare us for the coming decrepitude of our faculties? Will past joys outweigh sorrow, will memory carry us forward, will desire (not only for sex but also for friendship, food, books) fade away or can desires persist or perhaps reformulate, in greater and different ways? Ask yourself the question: what is the most important thing to me in the world. And then consider how you’ll answer the question twenty years down the line, and how it was answered twenty years ago. The women of The Last First Day and I Married You for Love take a hard look at questions of happiness, identity, and connection, throughout the varied stages of their lives. The answers they come up with will enlighten us all.

Shining Light on a Dark History

Playing St. Barbara by Marian Szczepanski is a great book, a stunning debut novel that shimmers with unforgettable characters while casting necessary light on a dark chapter in American history. Drawn to the social and political history of coal mining in southwestern Pennsylvania because of her personal connection (her grandparents were immigrant miners), Szczepanski focuses on the lives of the mothers, daughters, and wives of coal miners. Telling their stories, she illuminates the terrible burdens forced on coal mining families and the immense spirit required to endure, much less thrive, in such an environment.

I quickly found myself immersed in Playing St. Barbara, caught up in the lives of the Sweeney family: coal miner Fin, his wife Clare, and their three daughters, Deidre, Katie, and Mary Clare. The girls must find their way out of the abusive rituals exercised by their miserable father, who fights for the rights of his fellow workers but in suffering defeat after defeat, takes his frustrations out by beating on the members of his family. The girls’ individual stories of survival, along with the story of their mother, mesh to create a mesmerizing and unforgettable exploration of family, community, and responsibility, set amidst the grim history of coke mining in Pennsylvania.

In the mining towns of southwestern Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century, might made right. The H.C. Frick Coke Company relied, again and again, upon the police force to help them maintain a choking grip on their miners. When the police were not effective in breaking strikes (and backs), the Klu Klux Klan was enlisted to carry out night time raids terrifying enough to be effective: worn down miners just could not fight back. For Fin Sweeney, the only fight he can win is the one he wages daily against his own family. His wife bears the brunt of his anger but the daughters come in for their share. Each girl, in her own way, will find her way out of the town and away from the family, using the patron saint of miners, St. Barbara, as a kind of guide. Sometimes the saint is an inspiration and sometimes she is the last straw: for who can believe in a dead saint when it takes the courage of living to finally break free?

Marian Szczepanski made a believer out of me – I believe in the possibility of light and grace, even in the darkest of times, and I am more enthralled than ever by the powerful stories of women, sisters, mothers, daughters, and friends.

Shelley’s Monsters

Mary Shelley wrote the most famous monster story of all time, Frankenstein.  Or did she really? That question is just one of the literary mysteries explored by Lynn Shepherd in her mesmerizing novel, A Fatal Likeness. Was Percy Bysshe Shelley insane or cruelly narcissistic or simply misunderstood? Were his poems reflective of reality or rooted entirely in his wild and torturing (to say nothing of tortured) imagination?  Did Shelley sire the child of his step-sister-in-law Claire Clairmont, or was it Lord Byron, as the Shelley clan always claimed? And in what is a most tantalizing tangent for me (lover of letters that I am), do the surviving letters of Percy, Mary, and Claire tell the truth – or merely hint at what were dark and deep secrets for the twisted trio of lovers?  

The novel begins with the daughter-in-law of the Shelleys, Jane Gibson, desperately trying to track down papers that might besmirch the image of Percy Bysshe Shelley which Jane has spent years burnishing and promoting.  She hires a young investigator, Charles Maddox, to hunt down the papers she fears.  It quickly becomes apparent that what Jane is after is quite something else, and that Maddox is quite something more than she expected. Maddox, heir to an uncle famous both for his investigations and his honor, intently hunts down the papers but finds much, much more than mere scraps of information.  What he does with what he finds will set off a storm of released memories demanding attention, unanswered injustices clamoring for redress, and family secrets (and not only the Shelleys’) screaming to be unveiled, after being hidden in darkness for so long.

The monster within us, the monster in the mirror, the monster in the past: monsters are everywhere, and suddenly Frankenstein seems almost prophetic.  But will the ending — destroy the monster! – be the necessary remedy?  To be familiar with the novel Frankenstein, the history of the Shelleys, and the poetry of Shelley might help with unraveling the complicated plot of this amazing book but Shepherd does not assume any such prior knowledge on the part of her readers.  She offers a very helpful chart of who was related to whom, and how, and in her final notes she delineates what is based on historical fact in her novel (most of it) and what comes from her own fecund and clever imagination.

Shepherd invents just enough to tie all the open questions, undeniable facts, and potent possibilities together in a wholly believable and chilling story of love, deceit, heartbreak, revenge, and loss.  She also manages to conjure up England in the 1800s, along with a cast of characters so richly developed I could see each and every one of them before me as I read, while also incorporating the poetry of Shelley into her text, both in hidden ways and in direct quotations (and in letters!).  She’s inspired in me a whole new appreciation for Shelley, and a renewed desire to read his works, and Frankenstein, all over again. That Shepherd also used letters as clues to a most horrible crime (and the chief instigator to more than one death) sealed the deal for me: Shepherd is a marvel, and A Fatal Likeness is a must-read.




How the Light Gets In

Louise Penny has done it again. Magic. Wonderful, captivating, heart-pumping, edge-of-the-seat magic. In her ninth Chief Inspector Gamache novel, How the Light Gets In, Penny brings us to familiar territory. We are back in the isolated village of Three Pines, where cell phones and internet cannot penetrate but good food, fresh air, and used books are always within reach (my definition of heaven). Characters who have become like old and beloved friends join us across the page: Ruth, foul-mouthed but with a golden pen when it comes to poetry; Clara, talented artist known for her bad hair days and visionary portraits; Myrna, former therapist and current bookstore owner; Gabri and Olivier, owners of the bistro and the B&B, one with the voice of an angel and the other with the heart of a reformed devil; and, representing the police of Quebec Province, Armand Gamache, Isabel Lacoste, Yvette Nichol, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Constance Pineault, an old client and friend of Myrna, comes for a visit to the winter-embraced village of Three Pines. Children happily play hockey across a frozen pond, “joyful” snow blankets the houses and gardens, and villagers eagerly practice the Huron Carol for the upcoming holiday concert. Hot chocolate is never more than a step away, to drink beside a well-stocked fireplace. In such an atmosphere of peace and comfort, Constance cannot help but fall in love with Three Pines. When she leaves, she promises to return, offering an enigmatic message about the hockey games she used to play with her siblings.

How many siblings turns out to be not only the clue to her message, but also to murder. How many murders? How the Light Gets In provides more than the usual number: evil runs deep in this book and this time round, I was never certain that good, in the form of Chief Inspector Gamache, could prevail. The forces against him are more powerful than ever, and worst of all, his friend and fellow inspector, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, has fallen most horribly to the dark side.

How the Light Gets In is a story about crime (against nature and against the rules of society), corruption (personal and political), and murder (both actual and metaphysical). Hope and fear, good and evil, friendship and betrayal, love and hate, innocence and corruption: Penny explores the battling dualities that exist in all of us, and the necessity of battle (and even failure) to create resilience. Her novel about death and decay becomes a book about how to live: everything broken has a crack, but that is how the light gets in. And guided by the light, we live, even thrive. But only if the light gets in.

With a writing style that is a mix of poetry and music (sentences that roll, then break, then roll again) and a commitment to her readers that is as strong and true as Chief Inspector Gamache’s love for his fallen man in arms Jean-Guy Beauvoir, Louise Penny makes magic. In How the Light Gets In, she again conjures up place, people, and plot so vividly that there is no escaping: this is a book, like all her novels, that cannot be put down, and will be read, again and again.