Category Archives: Books

2012 Books and Thanksgiving

Thank you to the authors who make my year of reading — whether it is a book a day or a book a week — a core pleasure of my life.

Pure by Andrew Miller: Set in 1785 France, Baratte, an ambitious provincial engineer, is commissioned to clear out the oldest cemetery in Paris, disposing of the bones, destroying the attendant church and filling in the holes left behind any way he can. Miller is a marvelous writer, weaving his amazing story around the framework of his characters, each one so full of heart and muscle that they seem to come alive on the page. Or maybe it is the other way round, that his amazing characters weave and dance around the framework of his plot, a plot full of wild machinations and lofty dreams and sober realities.

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton: I just could not put the book down (and this has been true of every Bolton book I’ve ever read) because of its twisting plot (offering surprises at every turn), compelling characters (including reappearances of some of my favorites from past books), fascinating setting (the colleges of Cambridge, England) and the constantly increasing undercurrent of dread and fear. The building of tension and suspense only crested in the very last paragraph, sending me into spasms of relief and then back into the book to reread the last hundred pages all over again.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: This book is a marvel and a gem. It is hilarious and heartbreaking, and it has a message: “Be brave in love and in life.” Jess Walter, himself, is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about dreaming big, wanting more and taking on the world.

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood: This book tells the story of a man who journeys to Africa to find again the groups of nomads with whom he traveled years ago. As an anthropologist, he was always looking for the names of things as a way to define their meaning in the culture he studied and how such meaning connected to his own way of life. As a man now trying to deal with overwhelming sorrow, he finds that the name of a thing is only the place to start understanding the substance of experience, and that in the end, it is the substance that might sustain him, while the names twist away.

A Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny: Penny’s mysteries are wonderful, one after the other. In the latest, the heroic and kind Inspector Gamache finds himself behind the stonewalls of a monastery, soaking up the beauty of Gregorian chants and the ugliness of murder (along with rich stews, cheeses and wild blueberries dipped in dark chocolate — good food is always present in a Penny novel). Despite the abundance of gourmet treats, Penny doesn’t write feel-good, frothy novels with everything falling neatly into place by the finish; instead she creates real scenarios that expose the tolls exacted by real living, where good is not always rewarded and evil not always punished, where lives are overtaken by the tolls of abuse — and lives are lost.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found striking parallels in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!), but found what he needed: solace in the wild. Strayed was looking for solace, but even more, for restoration: After the death of her mother, Strayed hit rock bottom and decided the only way back to her true and good self was to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. (Some of us read tons of books to find solace and answers, some of us take long hikes.) In making that hike, she filled the hole in her heart and restored herself to sanity and strength.

And what a déjà-vu I experienced in reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a book I absolutely loved. Like Kerouac and Strayed, poor Harold has the wrong shoes on for his trek across England, but he doesn’t let pain and blisters stop him. And like Strayed, fictional Harold has a hole in his heart that needs patching up. This surprising man and his lovely story took me by the hand, and then gave my soul a good thumping (I cried buckets!) — thank you for the hike, Ms. Joyce, and I look forward to your next novel.

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam: We can all use gentle and funny reminders of how to be a good friend — and why. Klam serves up her signature wit and big heart, and inspires us all.

And for good e-books, I give thanks for: The Fulcrum Files by Mark Chisnell: Set in England just before World War II, sailor Ben Clayton, committed pacifist, finds himself involved in an international spy game involving gambling, intimidation, weapons build-up and murder. This book satisfies sailing buffs, history fans, espionage addicts, and anyone else yearning for a good, satisfying yarn; and…

No One Knows You’re Here by Rachel Howzell: Syeeda, the reporter at the heart of the novel, is a modern-day heroine, complicated and smart and tough, who discovers that a serial killer is on the loose in the back alleys of Los Angeles. Based on the Grim Sleeper killings that occurred in L.A. in the 1980s, No One Knows You’re Here is about crimes that go unnoticed (committed against the underclass) and heroes that go unsung (journalists and writers), providing not only a great book but a sharp jab in the shoulder: Are you paying attention yet? After reading this book, you most certainly will be.

Sister Fidelma Rides Again

As a longtime fan of Sister Fidelma, and her creator Peter Tremayne (penname of Peter Beresford Ellis), I am thrilled to report that the latest Fidelma mystery is a lovely pleasure to read, and a thrilling ride to take. Behold a Pale Horse does indeed feature death riding on a pale horse, over the mountains and valleys of northern Italy. Fidelma travels to the Abbey of Bobbio to visit her old mentor and finds evil in the air. Will she be able to track its source in time, using her sharp mind and dalaigh (lawyer) skills of observation, logical analysis, and conclusion? Or will the absence of her companion Eadulf cloud her mind, leaving her susceptible to possibly lethal errors of calculation?

In Behold a Pale Horse, Tremayne leads us on another enthralling journey through the supposedly Dark Ages, which in fact were much less dark than I ever supposed. Having read so many wonderful — and historically accurate — novels by Peter Tremayne, I have become enlightened as to life the seventh century, and, even better, I grow more wise about life in our twenty-first century. After all, keeping an open mind, separating religion from law, and celebrating love in all its forms are timeless lessons and eternal maxims. Keep up the time travel, Tremayne — and ride on, Sister Fidelma!

Love and the Trojan War — and Today’s Election

I loved The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. But only today do I realize how much of a political statement it is. Gay marriage? Of course! Strong single parent families? Bring ’em on! Wars? Of course not!

How well Miller captures the relationship of Patroclus and Achilles, from their first meeting as boys, through the years of their education and maturation, and right into the Trojan War, where tragedy and fate and the Gods themselves cannot vanquish a love so true and so deep. But hell on wheels, both God and men sure do their very best to test the love, and to destroy it.

As much as The Song of Achilles is about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, it is also an exploration of parental love (and, indeed, single parenting). Thetis, goddess mother of Achilles; Priam, father of Hector; Lycomedes, father of Deidameia; Chiron, father of no one but father figure to Patroclus (so much so that he takes on the name, son of Chiron, when seeking to disguise himself): all represent different variations of parental love, demonstrated in so many different ways but each one very real to me, like a kaleidoscope of my own experiences of loving and protecting my children. I can imagine myself fighting for them — and how horrible it is to imagine myself grieving for them, in the event of a terrible war.

And the Trojan War, as told by Homer in the Iliad and retold here by Miller, is a very, very terrible war. From the fateful choosing by Helen of Menelaus as her husband to her later dumping of hubby for the beautiful Paris, and the resulting launching of a thousand plus ships, Miller doesn’t flinch (as Homer didn’t flinch) from presenting the blood soaked brutality of battles, sieges, and division of the war booty.

And so it occurs to me that not only is The Song of Achilles a romantic love story and an exploration of parental love, but it is also, much like The Iliad, an anti-war polemic, powerful and convincing. Mitt Romney told Obama, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess…” No matter who wins today, I hope he takes to heart that message: we cannot kill our way out. We have to pull out of wars and stop pouring money into them.

Contrast the peace of Patroclus and Achilles’ youth, with the horrors of the years of battle, and the choice is clear: peace over war. Because in the end, it not Achilles’ glorious moments in battle that bring him back to his mother Thetis; it is through Patroclus remembering and relating their shared moments of love and peace, that Thetis finally discovers who he really was: a beautiful soul and a loving man.

Friendkeeping: a Primer

Friendkeeping by Julie Klam is the book you will want to give all your bestest friends, not as a nudge-nudge, hint-hint reminder of what it takes to be a good friend, but rather as a celebration of just how great friends can be. And if they (or you) pick up a few hints on how to be a better friend, so much the better for everyone. We all need reminding once in awhile that connection takes more than just showing up for drinks or a walk — and Klam offers the reminders with her usual big heart, goofy humor, and open admissions.

Klam tackles the big issues of friendship in Friendkeeping, including jealousy within the relationship (likening it to Kuato from the movie Total Recall – an ugly little creature that lives in her belly and rears his schadenfreude head from time to time); what happens when you love a friend but hate his/her partner (we have all been there); sharing (despite being a memoirist Klam admits that for years she couldn’t talk about her troubles with friends, either in her own life or with them. Now she understands the two-way street of sharing is vital to a good friendship — but even then, she also understand there are situations when you are there just to listen); and how to let go of friends that just are not right for you (for Julie, the deal breaker was taking a dog out for a walk without a leash — IN NYC!).

Klam also takes on, with wit and grace, the even bigger ordeals of illness, depression, and distance: those moments (or years) in friendship when more effort, understanding, and love is required. You can do it, Klam urges us all, and with her coaching, she is right: we can.

Wonderful Mantel and her Cromwell

I just finished Bring up the Bodies — and, lo and behold, look who won the Man Booker Prize again? Hilary Mantel won, first time for Wolf Hall, which I loved, and now for Bring up the Bodies, which both mesmerized and disturbed me. Did I love it? Yes, the writing is so beautiful and her psychological acuity so sharp and true, and yet the story is so awful — damn Henry VIII, damn him, damn him! But I should be damning Cromwell as well, and I cannot, because Mantel has made him so deeply human, flawed but decent. How is that possible? The torturing of Mark Smeaton had me in tears and I dare to call Cromwell decent?Because he has the will to attend the beheading of Anne Boleyn, not to gloat but to witness? Because he knows what is his king is, and what is he not? Perhaps because Cromwell understands the possibility of tomorrow: “Wreckage can be fashioned into all sorts of things: ask any dweller on the sea shore.”

The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I’ve known my whole conscious life. I remember watching the Masterpiece Theater series when I was just seven or eight years old, and singing along with the I’m Henry the VIII, I Am song of Herman’s Hermits. I await Mantel’s further volumes — after all, we are only brought to the cusp of wife number three, Jane Seymour, in Bring Up the Bodies — how many more wonderful books are in store for us all?

Alas, poor Cromwell will not be there for all the wives and thus at most, have we one or two or three more books to hope for? Keep writing, Hilary, keep writing! I will allow Mantel a day or two off to quaff champagne and get her photo taken but then it is back to work. After all, as she writes, referring to Cromwell and his dead wife and daughters: “Do not forget us. As the year turns, we are here: a whisper, a touch, a feather’s breath from you.” Don’t let us forget, Hilary, about the figures from the past: make them all real again for us, living, breathing, tangible and comprehensible.

Mantel must be read, and I warn you, it is not always easy reading, but it is captivating and hypnotizing, as in this passage:   “Jane is facing front, like a sentry. The clouds have blown away overnight. We may have one more fine day. The early sun touches the fields, rosy. Night vapours disperse. The forms of trees swim into particularity. The house is waking up. Unstalled horses tread and whinny. A back door slams. Footsteps creak above them. Jane seems hardly to breathe. No rise and fall discernible, of that flat bosom. He feels he should walk backwards, withdraw, fade back into the night, and leave her here in the moment she occupies: looking out into England.”

Mantel herself is looking out into England now, the present time of deserved literary accolades, and the past times of needy Kings, squabbling factions, and suffering people; of court painters and backstabbing ladies in waiting and covetous but gelded men behind the scenes…gelded by the king, class, or religion, but plotting to retake their own or, at the very least, bring down Cromwell, who after all, was merely the son of a blacksmith. I know how long Cromwell will last — I know my history — but in Hilary’s hands, I know so much more.

Toby’s Room: Silence and Consequences

Pat Barker is back, with another soul-rending novel set in England during World War I.  Regeneration is one of my favorite books ever, and the Regeneration Trilogy, telling the story of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, will forever be seared into my memory.

Toby’s Room again uses historical references (women allowed in to study at The Slade School of Fine Art in the early 1900s) and real-life personages (Henry Tonks, artist, surgeon, and portraitist of men disfigured by war injuries) alongside fictional characters to illustrate the true costs and burdens of war, loss, memory, and survival.

Using a woman as a centerpiece this time, Barker again plumbs the depths of human weaknesses and strengths, and examines the hypocrisies that become necessary — or at least unavoidable — during mankind’s worst manifestation of will: war.

Elinor Brooke, ambitious artist, wants nothing to do with war.  But when her brother Toby, with whom she shares an oppressive secret (in a family of secret-keepers) goes off to serve as a medical officer, and a friend from school comes under his command, her two worlds — family and art — collide. Toby turns out to have more than one secret to keep, this time from her.

What is the price of silence? Early in the book, Barker observes, “All her life, Elinor had been brought up not to know things, but not knowing didn’t keep you safe.” In a world that makes no sense, and in fact offers more visions of nightmares than of hope, it is only the knowing of things that may finally allow Elinor to reach the bottom of her well of despair — and her rising from despair to become possible.

Telling the story, relieving the silences: it is never enough to be heard, but sometimes it is all we have to offer, and all we have to take.

Toby’s Room is another great read, created out of Barker’s bare-boned style, hard and sparse and keen; made strong with her sharp observations and descriptions; and rendered unforgettable through her full-bodied characters and unflinching portrayal of war, with all its enforced silences and brutal consequences.

This is a re-posting from the summer; now that the book is out and available, I just wanted to nudge you all to read it!

Wild Joy and Tenacious Peace

I finally read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and I really liked it.  Strayed is a warm, honest, and brave woman, who in telling her story of recovery — 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail!! — won my heart. Devastated by the death of her mother, Strayed spent the first few years after the death spiraling away from her husband and siblings, and into the arms of the wrong people, with the wrong drugs and wrong answers.  Hitting rock bottom, Strayed becomes convinced that the only way back to her true and good self — the daughter her mother loved so much — is to undertake the hiking journey of a lifetime. There is a hole in her heart, as Strayed explains it, and she wants to repair that hole the best she can.  

Walking by herself for days on end, and for miles and miles seems to her to be the way to go. She knows what she needs” to go back to the wild, and back to her own true self:”…how it felt to be wild … what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunries and sunsets.  The experience was powerful and fundamental … a human in the wild.”

As a woman who turned to her own unique journey, after losing my sister to cancer, I understand why Strayed took her journey and I thank her for sharing it so beautifully and so vividly in Wild.

I read Wild side by side with The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and found so many delightful similarities in the quests of Strayed and of Kerouac. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac fictionalizes a journey he took one weekend with Gary Snyder to the top of Matterhorn in California.  Like Strayed, Kerouac had problems with packing his gear, choosing his shoes, and planning meals (and satisfying his appetite!).  And like Strayed, Kerouac craved communion with the wild, following up his trip to Matterhorn with a summer spent fire watching on Desolation Peak in Washington State.

In so many ways, the experiences of Strayed and Kerouac parallel and complement each other, and reading the two books together enriched the adventures of both for me. When Kerouac writes, “Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak…just like life,” I know that Strayed would agree — and due to both of their works, I can understand. I may not be ready just yet to take off on my own up a mountain but I do understand why a person would want to — and what wonders could be found there.

But Kerouac is more joyful in his recounting of experiences in the wild, and provides much more in the way of pure ecstasty of the senses: “Here now the earth was a splendorous thing – snow on the ground, in melting patches in the grass, and gurgling creeks, and the huge silent rock mountains on both sides, and a wind blowing, and the smell of heather. We forded a lovely little creek, shallow as your hand, pearl pure lucid water…”

I underlined paragraph after paragraph in The Dharma Bums, as I am a person, like Kerouac, deeply wedded to joy.  As he says in The Dharma Bums, “I realized I had no guts anyway, which I’ve long known. But I have joy…”

Another contrast between Kerouac and Strayed, a funny one, is their reaction to the word “hobo”: Kerouac wears the label with pride while Strayed chafes at the assumption of a man she meets on the road that she is a hobo; he reasons that if you look like one, smell like one, and are hungry like one, you are one.  Strayed denied she is a hobo, despite how she smells or looks, but she is grateful for the package of food and supplies the man leaves her with.

After finishing these two wonderful books, I returned to an old favorite of mine, The Solace of Open Spaces, written by Gretel Ehrlich.  Like Strayed, Ehrlich turns to the wild world of the west in an effort to recover and regroup after losing a loved one to cancer.  Having been in Wyoming with her dying lover, who tells her “All this space reminds me of possibility, of the life you and I could have had together…”, Ehrlich returns to find again the promise of possibility in her life. Unlike Strayed or Kerouac, who go to the mountains to find answers, Ehrlich’s wild lands are the ranch lands, the open spaces, of Wyoming.  There she learns the secret of endurance, and of love: “The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.”

The Solace of Open Spaces is a beautiful, beautiful meditation on resilience, place, and identity, and I recommend it to anyone seeking a western atmosphere, deep reflection, and quiet satisfaction.


The Poems and Letters of John Keats

As pointed out in the wonderful piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Can Opium or Illness Explain a Keats poem?, it is by reading the letters of John Keats that we can get a fuller understanding of who he was, as a man and as a most amazing poet:

“If you knew only Keats’s poems, you might assume that he was an ethereal being. But his letters give us the man, pugnacious, whimsical, proud and flawed. The Keats who succumbs to indolence is also the Keats who scrambles 640 miles on foot through the Lake District and Scotland — cold, wet and often ill — in the summer of 1818. The poet contemplating a Grecian urn is barely two years removed from his work as a dresser, a sort of intern and surgical assistant, at Guy’s Hospital in London, a place where, as Mr. Roe notes, surgery (without anesthetic) was really vivisection.”

A good collection of Keats poems can be found in Letters of John Keats,
published by Oxford Letters and Memoirs.