Book review blog
I have often thought that if over-reading were ever identified as a pathology, I would have to class myself among the most afflicted. I'm reading all the time - newspapers, ebooks on my Kindle or iPhone, audiobooks while driving, hiking, cleaning, cooking or knitting, and, still, print books which remain my favorite. I have recently discovered the world of podcasts and look forward to exploring that medium.
Writing reviews of what I read or listen to helps me sort out my thoughts and absorb what each work has to teach me, as a writer and as a human being. I'm with Pliny the Younger, who said, “No book is so bad that something good cannot be got out of it."
I hope you'll enjoy my reflections on current and classic books. If you want to let me know your own thoughts, please use the "Contact" tab to send me a message.
|Posted by mhedwig on June 18, 2020 at 2:45 PM|
For lovers of stories about celebratory getaways gone fatally wrong, here are two books that may even make the reader see the upside of staying safe at home as we wait out the COVID 19 pandemic.
The Return by Rachel Harrison is great fun, a praiseworthy debut in the grossout horror genre. Suspenseful and atmospheric. Four twenty-something friends whose post-college lives have taken them far apart from one another reunite in a quirky Catskill Mountain spa hotel. Each of the guest rooms has themed, over-the-top decor ("Lenore," with its Poe-inspired red and black furnishings, turns out to be an appropriate environment for Julie, who disappeared two years earlier and now is back, with no memory of where she's been or what happened to her. But she is disturbingly changed: once a vegetarian, now she devours meat at every meal, and her physical state is alarmingly unwell: she is odorous, emaciated, prone to losing hair and even teeth. The happy reunion weekend turns into a grisly nightmare.
The four friends are believable, individual. The main focus is on loyal Elise’s intimate friendship with, and refusal to give up on, the grotesquely altered Julie. I look forward to this author’s next. (PS: just sayin’, I hope nobody is tempted to make a movie of this; ghastly visuals!)
The Guest List by Lucy Foley merits, in my opinion, five stars in its genre: atmospheric ensemble murder mystery. Other reviews have compared it to Agatha Christie‘s Murder on the Orient Express.
Just about everyone in the wedding party for magazine editor Jules and “Survive the Night” TV star Will has a reason to hate the person who, during the stormy wedding night on a remote Irish island, gets murdered. The real surprise is the one who winds up committing the deed.
Evocative setting, well drawn characters with interesting backstories, and clues so deftly placed that I wanted to go back and reread it just to see how Foley brought it off, all add up to an immersive read.
Both books go down as easy as tart, sweet lemonade on a summer day -- and yet each treats serious themes. The Return examines the intense friendships of young women and asks what the appropriate boundaries of caring and loyalty should be. The Guest List probes the secret chambers of the human heart where grief, resentment, jealousy, and the urge for revenge reside, as perfectly preserved as the ancient corpses entombed in the peat bog of the wedding venue's eerie Irish landscape.
|Posted by mhedwig on March 13, 2020 at 6:15 PM|
I have followed the controversy over the author's "right" to write about Latinx migrants, the accusations of "cultural appropriation" hurled at her. I suspect that many of the protesters have not read the book. If they had, they could not have failed to find three-dimensional characters rendered with deep respect and sympathy, full humanity, and a level of detail that shows the author's earnest attempt to make every aspect of her story accurate.
The story itself is gripping, beginning to end. I did question one element -- why Lydia kept her interesting bookstore meetings with Xavier secret from her husband for so long. The kind of close marital relationship portrayed between Lydia and Sebastien made me believe that she would tell him immediately when such an interesting customer came into her store, and report on all Xavier's subsequent visits. Unless she had something to hide -- which she did not. That was the only weak point in the narrative for me.
Returning to the question of an author's right to portray characters of a different ethnicity or culture (or race, or gender, or sexuality, or species, for that matter), I have also recently read Julia Phillips's Disappearing Earth -- why has there been no similar protest over her "presumption" to write about native inhabitants of Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula? The two books are similar in that their authors are white Americans writing about non-American people and locations, who have nonetheless rendered their characters as believable, complex human beings and their settings with the vividness and specificity that can only come from diligent, deep research.
In each case, the authors have clearly done their utmost to enter into the life circumstances, experience, and consciousness of people very different from themselves, and have given the reader that access as well. The world would be a better place if everyone tried as hard as Cummins and Phillips have to identify with "the other" and build bridges of common humanity.
|Posted by mhedwig on January 8, 2020 at 2:25 PM|
Like her brilliant The Little Red Chairs, Edna O’Brien’s Girl tells the searing story of a young woman victimized by the political violence of men. In this case the setting is Nigeria, where Maryam is a schoolgirl captured and held prisoner for years by Boko Haram..
She becomes the “bush wife” of one of her captors, who is unexpectedly gentle; he dies, she bears his child, a little girl whom she calls only Babby and struggles to love with her broken heart and spirit.
Maryam escapes with Babby from her captors and ultimately finds her way back to her village and her bitter mother, who is dealing with her own loss and grief, her husband and son killed. The mother is now living with a brutal man, Maryam’s uncle. Babby —considered an emblem of shame because of her “infidel” paternal parentage—is taken from Maryam, given, the young woman is told, to an Auntie until the child’s fate can be decided. Despite Maryam’s urgent entreaties, no one will let her see her child or tell her anything about her.
Imprisoned by her uncle, desperate to be reunited with Babby for whom she has come to know a ferocious love, Maryam goes temporarily mad. She must escape, she must act before another innocent girl —her daughter—has her spirit, or her very life, snuffed out.
Like Fidelma in The Little Red Chairs, the narrator finds her way out of tragedy to the kindness of strangers and to a hard-won sanctuary where a fragile hope can begin to grow.
The Acknowledgments section tells a gripping tale in itself, of the author’s own demanding quest to go to Africa, meet with the survivors of the Boko Haram kidnapping, and distill their stories into the saga of this one brave Girl.
|Posted by mhedwig on September 8, 2019 at 5:20 PM|
A Better Man sadly continues, in my humble opinion, the decline in quality of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series. I listened to the first eleven or so; maybe the problem with sentence fragments that bugged me so much in this book existed in the earlier books but it didn’t come across in the Audible narration: “He saw her face as she fell, backward. Off the bridge. Arms pinwheeling. And then the splash.”
"And in each tightly.Controlled.Word.”
Also I was driven mad by the strange and unnecessary tic: “This’s” for “this is.” I mean, what’s the difference in sound? Why invent this silly new contraction? “This’s Monsieur Godin’s bank account,” “This’s just complicating things,” “This’s new, and admissible.” “Can you tell me what this’s about?”
The story begins with a threat of a hundred-year springtime flood that threatens the village of Three Pines and Montreal, but that threat dissipates midway through the book. The three detectives -- Jean-Guy Beauvoir in charge for this one last case before he leaves the force to take an executive job in Paris; Armand Gamache acting as his second-in-command; Isabelle Lacoste, back, nearly recovered from her shooting injury, as head of homicide -- are investigating the murder of a young pregnant woman who was pushed off a bridge into the icy floodwaters of the Riviere Bella Bella. The policemen are unanimous in their belief that her abusive, drunken husband killed her, but have a lot of trouble amassing admissible evidence.
I found the police procedural parts tediously detailed and frustratingly circular.The action in the climactic scene is clumsy and confusing. A not-very-well-integrated subplot is a smear campaign on social media against Clara Morrow's artwork that has dire consequences for her commercial and critical well-being. Social media also continues to attack Gamache (#gamachesux). I couldn’t help but wonder if Louise Penny has experienced social media deprecation of her recent work (if so, unfortunately, I can understand why).
The Three Pines villagers appear in this story as caricatures: Ruth and her by-now-tiresome profanity-spouting duck; the gay B&B owners, slovenly Clara, ample Myrna. The village itself has taken on the quality of a snow globe, hermetic, frozen in time, predictable (except for an unbelievably high number of murders).
I am sorry to feel this way. Ms. Penny has written some fine, moving books. And her personal notes and interviews convey that she has suffered a lot lately with the dementia and death of her husband followed by the loss of a beloved dog, and finds great consolation among her familiar and, to her, much beloved characters and setting. But her latest efforts are not working for me as a reader.
For a middle-aged foreign detective with a much-loved wife and family, in a beautiful exotic setting, I have defected to Commissario Guido Brunetti and Venice in Donna Leon’s series. That series retains its vitality and variety – though any long-running series risks sliding into a rut, which Louise Penny herself says in her introduction to this book she knew to be a danger and tried to avoid. Regrettably, I don’t feel she succeeded.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:35 PM|
A science story as accessible, fascinating and important as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was a pediatrician and head of the residency program at Hurley hospital, a public hospital in Flint, MI, in 2015, when rumors and complaints of problems with the city’s water supply began to surface. She reassured her young patients’ parents that the local health officials had told her the Flint water was perfectly safe.
But then she did more digging, and began to suspect the awful truth: when Flint made the cost-cutting decision to switch from the Lake Huron water that served Detroit to water from the polluted Flint River, the extremely corrosive nature of that water began to release lead from the ancient pipes that supplied the city. Probing the data, she verified that her patients’ blood lead levels had spiked after the water switch—and there is no safe level of lead exposure; it’s a potent and irreversible neurotoxin. Dr. Mona (as she is called) feared that thousands of her Flint babies and young children, already bearing the burdens of poverty and racism, were doomed to suffer the catastrophic longterm effects of lead poisoning.
At great cost to her health and family life she mounted a full scale battle to get a state of emergency declared, to supply bottled water and pre-mixed baby formula to Flint residents, to fight the stonewalling of bureaucrats, and get the Flint water supply switched back to Lake Huron. Ultimately she succeeded against enormous opposition.
Not only is this a stirring story of personal courage and the triumph of good science over lies and obfuscation, it is also a testimonial to the strength that immigrants bring to America—at a time when immigrants are being vilified and suspected. Hanna-Attisha’s family, and her husband’s, are Iraqi immigrants who seized the American dream in their grateful hands, became successful, and were determined to give back. Having survived the terror of Saddam‘s regime, Mona’s parents taught her to stand up against corrupt authority and to oppose injustice. Her passion for the struggling families and children of Flint, her outrage at the official unconcern for their welfare, radiates from every page. She is a true heroine, and her story is inspiring and moving.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:30 PM|
Thirty year old Eleanor Oliphant, living alone and working as a finance clerk in Glasgow, is at first an infuriating prig, judgmental, superior, utterly oblivious to her off-putting effect on other people. A good-hearted IT guy from her office persists in trying to draw her out, and because of his efforts she begins to develop interpersonal relationships for the first time in her life. But she remains lonely and deeply hopeless. Weekly phone calls from her emotionally abusive mother continually erode her confidence and gradually reveal to the reader the horrors that this young woman has suffered in her childhood.
A crisis comes, after which Eleanor embarks on a course of therapy that gradually enables her to face the truth about her past and to absolve herself of blame. There's a shocking twist at the end. Ultimately we leave Eleanor confident that-- to paraphrase -- the little part of her scarred heart that's capable of love has stirred to life and will grow.
For all the devastating sadness in this book, there's a lot of humor, too. Truly the kind of book that makes you laugh, cry, and hope the writer delivers another novel very soon.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:10 PM|
A diverting entry in the "Women in Peril" category that is my main literary indulgence and weakness.
Kept me listening ( Audible version), but the opportunistic, morally compassless Jess and the monstrously manipulative Dr Shields were two characters who deserved each other. The plot is as twisty as a mountain road with some unbelievable coincidences (the good Samaritan guy outside the Met) and some needless kinks ( the woman boutique owner), but I hung on for the ride, though my credulity got jolted overboard partway through. The male characters are mere cardboard cutouts.
Flaws notwithstanding, this team of writers has a winning touch for grabby commercial women’s fiction. I was struck by their choice to make Dr Shields speak of herself and her actions entirely in the passive voice in the parts of the novel told from her point of view, in which she addresses Jess as “you”: i.e. “a hand is placed on your arm,” “ a glass of wine is poured,” “ a silk nightgown and robe are chosen.” An interesting device to show a character unwilling or psychologically unable to claim any agency in her life because it would force her to admit her crimes.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:05 PM|
This review is reprinted from my animal advocacy blog, aheartforshelterdogs.com
Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend won the National Book Award for fiction in 2018, despite breaking nearly every rule that fiction writers today are advised to hew to: It’s sometimes rambling, it has no linear plot, it’s about the rarefied world of Writers, it’s New York-centric, it reads more like a journal or a memoir than a novel, not much is shown and much is told.
But, it’s brilliant and moving. And oh, that dog!
The narrator is a middle-aged woman, a college writing professor and writer, living in New York City. Her best friend has died, a suicide. Most of the book reads like a letter from Narrator to “You,” her deceased friend. It quickly becomes clear to the reader, even if the narrator dances around fully acknowledging it, that he was more than a friend; he was her teacher and mentor and her lifelong love. They only made love once, in their youth, when he proposed it as a sort of experiment and then never cared to repeat it. How that must have hurt her as he turned his amorous attention to numerous affairs with students and so many girlfriends (plus three wives) that someone joked at his funeral that the large room would not have held them all.
Wife Number Three (no human being, other than famous literary figures, has a name in this book) invites Narrator out for lunch one day and quickly gets to the point: her late husband wanted Narrator to take his dog. The dog is an enormous Great Dane and he does have a name: Apollo.
Narrator balks at first: her apartment is only 500 square feet, and, furthermore, her building doesn’t allow dogs. But in the end she acquiesces, telling herself – and the disapproving building superintendent – that it’s only temporary.
Apollo sees her through her grief and loneliness, and she sees him through his equally powerful, though mysterious, bereavement: “[Animals] don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.” She is determined that she and Apollo will stay together, even if they have to find a new place to live. (As it turns out, her therapist helps her get Apollo certified as an emotional support dog and so he can stay.)
Apollo becomes the love of her life. I don’t want to create the misleading impression that this is solely, or even primarily, a dog book — it’s equally about the process of grieving; the dire state of literature (“The rise of self-publishing was a catastrophe, you said. It was the death of literature”; the maddening self-absorption of today’s students (“Student A is frustrated that the program requires so many reading courses: I don’t want to read what other people write. I want people to read what I write”; the ever-more-unrewarding ordeal of being a writer today.
But, though they occupy only maybe a quarter of the book, the passages about Apollo are wonderful. Unforgettable:
“Poke. Woof. I turn my head. Apollo’s gaze is deep, his mismatched ears look sharp as razors. He licks my face and does the cha-cha thing again. He wags his tail, and for the thousandth time I think how frustrating it must be for a dog: the endless trouble of making yourself understood to a human.”
And, “Mostly I seem to ask questions. What’s up, pup? Did you have a nice nap? Were you chasing something in your sleep? Do you want to go out? Are you hungry? Are you happy? Does your arthritis hurt? Why won’t you play with other dogs? Are you an angel? Do you want me to read to you? Do you want me to sing? Who loves you? Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you wanna dance? Am I the best person you’ve ever had? Can you tell I’ve been drinking? Do these jeans make me look fat?”
And what dog lover hasn’t felt this way?: “I too have found myself so eager to get home to him that I have jumped in a cab rather than take the train. I too sing with joy at the thought of seeing him, and for sure, this love is not like any love I’ve ever felt before.”
If you consult the website doesthedogdie.com, you will know what you’re in for, which, in truth, we already knew when Nunez told us that Great Danes are short-lived and that Apollo is already well on in years. This is not a feel-good book with a happy ending.
But it is stunning in its portrayal of the hard-won triumph of love over loss. All of us face that challenge at some point; we dog lovers may go through it multiple times. What makes it worth it is, as Nunez writes, “Animals are not expelled with us from Paradise. There they remain, untroubled by such complications as the separation of body and soul, and it’s through our love and friendship with them that we are able to reconnect to Paradise, albeit by just a thread.”
|Posted by mhedwig on July 21, 2018 at 10:50 AM|
A stunning memoir of a young girl growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Tara Westover's father at first makes his living by running a junkyard, using his children as laborers in the dangerous business of processing scrap. There are frequent terrible injuries. Mother is a midwife and amateur herbalist, concocting salves and essential oils in her kitchen, making the house always smell like rotting fruits and vegetables. Whenever one of her children, or her husband, is brought home with a smashed head, broken limb or burned body, she treats them with her homebrewed remedies. Doctors and hospitals are believed to be agents of the evil government, so not even when her husband is nearly killed in an explosion do they seek medical treatment. Miraculously he survives, but is too damaged to resume his junkyard work. He joins his wife in building the essential oil business, which becomes very successful.
The six children are supposedly homeschooled, but there is no formal instruction in any conventional discipline. They learn instead their father’s crackpot theories about the “illuminati” controlling the government and the corrupt practices of the "gentiles" (anyone not adhering to his strict view of Mormonism). Their mother instructs them in her airy philosophies of chakras, herbal healing, and something she calls “muscle testing,” which involves receiving messages from the Lord via her nervous system and musculature.
Tara is physically abused by her violent older brother, Shawn (the only member of her family whom she identifies with a pseudonym, suggesting that her tell-all has had legal repercussions). Whether this molestation ever tips over into the sexual she never discloses, but his brutal physical assaults – breaking her wrist, forcing her head into the toilet to the point of near drowning -- and verbal threats to kill her are shocking enough. She tries to get her parents to accept her account of his abuse and to intervene, but they wall themselves off from the truth. Her father's explanation is always that she must have done something to provoke him, some "whorish" behavior. (His definition of whorish extends even to her rolling up the sleeves of her t-shirt as she labors in the junkyard in scorching heat.)
As she matures, she begins questioning her family’s beliefs and practices, and develops an ambition to go to college, something only one of her siblings —her older brother, Tyler—has managed to do. The obstacles are enormous; she has no knowledge of any academic subject, nor any of the necessary documents such as a birth certificate, as all the Westover children were born at home and their births kept secret from the “illuminati.“ Nevertheless, she passes the entrance exam and is admitted to Brigham Young University in Utah at age 17.
Thus begins an academic career that sets her increasingly at odds with her family, as she learns how deep her ignorance is of such events as the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, U.S. and world history and begins to diligently expand her mind. She also discovers that her father’s behavior strongly suggests bipolar disorder.
As her schooling continues, the breach with her parents widens. When she is at Harvard on a fellowship, back from England where she has studied at Cambridge University, her mother and father come from Idaho to try to reclaim her into the “true faith” of Mormonism and the family’s belief system. The conflict between her love for them and her inability to accept their world view and lifestyle causes her to have a breakdown. She is also tormented by a sense of betrayal when her mother does nothing to protect her from her brother, whose abuse escalates every time Tara visits home. Her mother's stance is that her absolute duty as a wife is to stand by her husband, and he refuses to hear anything against his son.
How Tara escapes the insanity of her past and creates a life for herself makes for riveting reading. I did have one major reservation: She alludes from time to time to a relationship with a man named Drew; at one point they are even living together. How she got from a sense of shame and fear so deep that, when her first boyfriend at age 16 tried to hold her hand she snatched it away, to cohabiting with a man outside of marriage is never explained and leaves one huge aspect of her emancipation unaddressed. I would love to read a sequel, in which she describes redefining herself as a woman and a sexual being, in contravention of the extremely prudish, retrograde and misogynistic teachings of her upbringing. I would also love the sequel to explore in depth the long term effects of her shunning by most of the people – many of them loved – in her family and hometown. Last, I would like to know what Tara Westover is doing with her hard-won education, and whether – as I hope – she is fulfilled by it.
A courageous memoir that clearly cost its author a great deal to write and publish.
|Posted by mhedwig on November 15, 2017 at 2:30 PM|
3 stars for apparent depth of research and vivid writing, but I bailed on this soon after beginning Part II. The brutality, the lack of heart sickened me, especially in the light of recent evidence that this culture wants to blow ours off the face of the earth.