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 August 7, 2017 at 2:15 PM|
My late mother’s reading tastes were very specific: “I like any book with a picture on the cover of a woman running away from a castle.”
I inherited this predilection for spooky, Gothic, or suspenseful stories about heroines in danger. My favorite of all time is Dracula, with its innocent paragon of virtuous womanhood, Mina Harker, about to complete her awful transformation into a vampire after being bitten by Count Dracula. The men who love her must pursue the evil Count from England across the continent to his castle in Transylvania and neutralize him with a stake through his heart in his coffin before the next sunrise, when he will regain his supernatural powers and Mina’s eternally undead fate will be sealed. The Christian symbolism in the story added an extra dimension to the supernatural thrills.
Along with my more literary choices in all genres, I usually have a book in the Women-in-Peril (WIP) category going – most often on audio. I have gone through so many in the past year or so that I thought I would write a roundup of brief reviews in the hope that it will aid anyone looking for a page-turning beach read or a pulse-pounding accompaniment to liven up exercise or chores.
Here are my recommendations – and warnings. Ratings are similar to those on Goodreads – 1-5, with 5 being “It was totally awesome” and 1 being “Skip it. Wish I had.”
Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Rating: 4. Grace, a buyer for Harrods in London, has a dilemma: her Downs syndrome sister, Millie, is turning 18 and will soon age out of her group home. There are no family members to take Millie in; Grace’s parents washed their hands of their daughters years ago and decamped to New Zealand, so it’s on Grace to accommodate her sister. And she loves Millie, but her job requires a lot of travel.
Then the two sisters meet Jack at a band concert in a London park. He is handsome, gracious, apparently smitten with Grace and accepting of Millie. After a short courtship Grace and Jack are married and the future seems set. At Jack’s insistence she quits her job – with regret, but making a beautiful home for Jack in the house he has built for her, maybe having children, and, in time, having Millie come to live with them, seems like a sure bet for happiness. Reality, however, turns out to be terrifyingly different.
I listened to the Audible version, excellently narrated by Georgia McGuire. I found it suspenseful, and, though audaciously plotted, believable. Overall, superior to other women- in-peril psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and I was grateful to be spared the demeaning "Girl" in the title). This book kept me on the edge of my seat, eager to listen to it at every opportunity. The "perfect" newlyweds Jack and Grace illustrate that we can never know what goes on behind the closed doors of other people's intimate relationships. (Spoiler alert: Especially when one of those doors does not open from the inside, and leads into a room painted all red and decorated with images of fear and pain....)
I balked only at a scene of unbearable animal cruelty, but cheered when Grace’s pluck – and the insight and persistence of a woman whose friendship Grace has been unable to reciprocate throughout the book – bring about ultimate justice.
The Breakdown by B.A. Paris (Rating: 2). I eagerly awaited this next outing by Paris, but was disappointed. (As with most books in this genre, I listened to the Audible version, again competently read by Georgia McGuire.) The problem with this one is that the narrator, Cass, is such a ditz. At key points in the plot, if she had taken her husband, whom she supposedly loves and trusts, into her confidence it might have brought things to a head much sooner. Instead, she keeps a burdensome secret – that she defied her husband’s instructions to avoid a certain shortcut through woods on a stormy night. On that deserted route, in lashing rain, she saw a woman in a car who appeared to be stranded; she stopped in front of the woman’s car but did not get out in the rain, figuring that the other driver would flash her lights if she wanted help. When this didn’t happen, Cass drove on, but is horrified to learn the next day that the woman was murdered, probably soon after Cass saw her. She further realizes that she knew the woman; they had met at a party and had lunch together, which had seemed to be the beginning of a friendship. Cass bears a crushing guilt, and also fears that the killer might have taken her license number and tracked her down in her isolated country home; ominous silent phone calls that have come every morning since the night of the murder stoke her terror. She also dreads the possibility that, like her mother, she is gradually succumbing to early-onset dementia – and indeed recent proofs of her forgetfulness and odd behavior confront her constantly. The mystery has a twisty ending, but I found the setup unconvincing and the narrator’s passivity maddening.
The Girl Before (#1), by Rena Olsen. Rating: 4. From childhood, Clara was raised as one of “Mama” and “Papa”’s adopted daughters on their isolated Western ranch. She was told that her real parents had abandoned her. As Clara grows into womanhood, she falls in love with their son, Glen, and raises a new brood of foster daughters, loving them as her own and grooming them for their brilliant futures as the companions of wealthy or influential “clients.” Gradually, though, certain realities intrude upon her love for her husband and her trust in her “parents.” She sees that girls who don’t adhere to the rules of the “family” organization are banished to a house at the edge of the compound where, it is clear, they have to service random men sexually. There is a murder, after which Glen is arrested and Clara is taken into custody. Gradually she comes to accept the grim truth about her husband and the nature of the family business – and about her own past. I found it a gripping psychological study and a penetrating look into the underworld of sex trafficking.
The Girl Before (#2), by JP Delaney. Rating: 2. Jane, recovering from the grief of a stillbirth, is drawn to the austere beauty and stark simplicity of the house for rent – improbably cheaply -- at One Folgate Street in London. However, to become approved as a tenant she has to answer a long checklist of eccentric and intrusive questions posed by the landlord, Edward Monkford of the celebrated Monkford architectural firm. She passes, meets Monkford, and moves into the house, and soon afterward is drawn into an affair with him. He is incredibly controlling, but she expected that from the detailed checklist about her personal habits and possessions that she had to complete in her rental application, as well as the many rules that she has to follow to maintain her tenancy. She begins to worry, however, as she gradually learns that the previous tenant, Emma, looked just like her...was also Monkford's lover... and died in a mysterious fall from the un-banistered open staircase. The narrative cuts back and forth between her experiences and those of Emma. The resolution of the mystery is clumsy; an editor could have easily saved the author from a serious plot gaffe. Still, I persevered to the end, curious to see how it all played out. An undistinguished “Girl.”
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Rating: 1. A drunken unemployed loser of a heroine, fixated on her ex-husband, takes the commuter train to London just so she can spy on a young couple, who seem to symbolize the marital happiness she has lost, happily canoodling every morning (every morning?!) on the balcony of their tidy suburban home within view of the train line. Then one day she sees the woman kissing another man on her balcony. A short time later the woman is reported murdered – and, on the night that the crime was supposed to have happened, Rachel, our heroine, comes to her senses after an alcoholic blackout to find herself inexplicably dirty and injured….Unlikable protagonist, implausible plot.
Hawkins’ most recent book, Into the Water (Rating: 3), is an improvement. It takes us into a small English village in which a succession of women since the 18th century have been murdered by being drowned in the local river. Many were suspected of being witches; one in more contemporary times plunged – or was pushed – off the cliff above the drowning pool before the shocked eyes of her young son. Now that son is a constable in the town, investigating two more drownings that have occurred: a 15-year-old girl who, as it turns out, was having an affair with her handsome schoolteacher; and a single mother, Nel Abbott, a native of the village who went abroad for years but returned with her rebellious teenage daughter to write a book about the history of the drowning pool. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and a great many toxic secrets – but I thought Hawkins did a good job with the small-town intrigue and wrapped the story up with a twist I didn’t see coming.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Rating: 3. Lo Blacklock, a London journalist traumatized by a break-in to her apartment, gets the opportunity to escape her troubles with a plum assignment aboard a luxury yacht. One night in her stateroom on the North Sea she hears sounds from the adjoining cabin that convince her a body has been thrown overboard. She sneaks a peek onto the balcony next to hers and sees streaks of blood. However, all passengers the next day are accounted for, the stains are cleared away, and when she confides her suspicions to the ship’s security chief, he treats her as though she is insane. Just as she is beginning to wonder if she is delusional, the plot takes a menacing turn. Not entirely convincing, but kind of fun.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Rating: 5. Loved listening to this, with the narrator’s winsome Australian accent. I preferred the book to the HBO series; the Australian setting and characters interested me much more than cliche upscale California and its hyper-privileged denizens, and certain character alterations and plot embellishments made for TV seemed gratuitous -- the wry and urbane character of Ed, particularly, was lost in translation from book to screen. And Madeline was diminished too.
Nevertheless, in book and on screen Moriarty has rendered one of the most truthful portrayals I’ve encountered of the way motherhood brings out the savage beast, red in tooth and claw, in otherwise reasonable women. The story centers on the parents of first graders at a privileged coastal Australian elementary school. It opens with a murder on school Trivia Night – a fundraiser to which parents have to come dressed either as Elvis or Audrey (Hepburn). We don’t find out until the end who the victim was, and who the murderer, but there are plenty of conflicts throughout – and one perilously endangered woman who conceals her bruises and distress behind a façade of beauty, privilege and domestic accord. It’s witty, funny, a sharply pointed social satire with a serious message about the violence that can breed undetected behind closed doors and closed lips.
Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes, by Amy Sutherland
|Posted by mhedwig on August 7, 2017 at 1:10 PM|
This review is reprinted from my animal advocacy blog, aheartforshelterdogs.com:
When writer Amy Sutherland and her husband, Scott, adopted Bumble Bee, an extremely fearful young dog, from a Maine shelter, they thought that their love would heal her. They also thought that they knew a lot about dogs; each had had dogs individually, and together they had raised their genial Australian shepherd. In addition, Amy was a devoted and experienced volunteer dog walker at the shelter where Bumble Bee had been brought after being impounded from under a farmhouse porch where she had lived her whole short life.
But Bumble Bee turned out to be a greater challenge than Amy and Scott were prepared for. She was not just a stray; she was feral – never having lived in a home or interacted with people. She slunk in the shadows of their house, was terrified of stairs, doorways and, most of all, of them. As sleepless nights and disrupted days began to take their toll, they asked themselves, “Why did we ruin our nice life?”
Trying to warm to the dog Amy changed her name to Penny and gave her the middle name of her beloved grandmother, Jane. Still, tensions mounted, each spouse blaming the other for perceived missteps that aggravated the dog’s fears. “We’d quit kissing each other goodnight to avoid getting our fangs tangled.” Things came to a head the morning Scott said, “It would be easier to return Penny Jane than to get a divorce.”
But Amy could not imagine becoming one of “them,” the people who returned dogs, whose breaking of the implicit commitment to lifetime care for their adopted pet made her fellow shelter workers roll their eyes and sigh. “If I become ‘them,’” she lamented, “I won’t be me.”
The crisis passed; returning Penny Jane was never mentioned again, and in time the couple became deeply attached to her. For her part the dog came to accept domestic life, though she would always be shy and never very affectionate. “For the first time,” Amy says, “I loved a dog who showed no great love for me back.” That’s the tone of this book: clear-eyed, warm-hearted, but never sentimental or cutesy.
Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes is touching, honest, funny, at times heartrending, and enormously informative about the plight of homeless dogs and the people nationwide who are working on their behalf.
Amy Sutherland devotes several chapters to her travels across the country to meet exemplary shelter and rescue workers and visit outstanding dog care facilities. There’s the woman in San Francisco who runs Muttville, a shelter just for senior dogs, so that they’re not at a disadvantage in competition with the spiffy newer-model pups as they would be in an ordinary shelter. There’s “Adopt and Shop” in (where else?) L.A., which showcases the adoptable dogs in a colorful boutique setting along with cute accessories and high-end doggy supplies. There’s Best Friends, the Utah desert sanctuary for creatures – dogs, cats, horses, others – who have lost out in the adoption lottery but who are guaranteed a peaceful, loving place to live out their days.
A team of trainers at an ASPCA facility in New Jersey focuses on the “scarediest” dogs – the ones whose aversive behavior toward people would doom their chances of adoption. Many “graduates” from this program have gone on to find permanent loving homes.
The Animal Farm Foundation in upstate New York is dedicated to reversing the stigma against pit bulls, widely considered wrong and unfair by most animal experts. Sutherland herself was at first suspicious of “pitties” but, like the great majority of shelter workers, came to love and esteem them.
These are just a few of the organizations and individuals she spotlights that are all working toward the same goal — ending canine homelessness — in a variety of ways: promoting spay/neuter; assisting needy pet owners in keeping their animals; tirelessly and creatively promoting adoptions; rehabilitating damaged dogs into good companions; transporting dogs from overpopulated areas (like my Tennessee city) to areas where strictly enforced spay and neuter laws create a shortage of adoptable animals.
These profiles are fascinating, but the book’s real heart is Sutherland’s stories of the shelter dogs she has walked, fostered, adopted herself or found homes for, loved, and, sometimes, lost.
Some of the stories are hilarious – like that of Walter Joe, her foster Jack Russell terrier who hung out on top of the clothes dryer and would not let her touch him; to avoid being bitten she had to keep the leash attached to him and tug it to get him to go for a walk, after which he would hop back up onto his warm perch. But then came the night when Amy and Scott lay down on the living room floor to watch TV and suddenly saw a small silhouette in the hallway, tentatively approaching. Walter Joe had gotten down from the dryer and come in search of…what? “A look of resolve comes over his pointed face. He suddenly races at Scott and snuggles up against my husband’s chest.” After that, he slept in the bed with them.
When their agreed-upon foster term was up, Amy and Scott returned Walter to the shelter with a great report card — “yet almost the moment the kennel door closed behind him, his eyes went black and glassy again. He growled at staffers when they looked into his kennel.” On hearing that the shelter was considering euthanizing Walter as unadoptable, Amy brought him home for good, to join Penny Jane as an exceptionally lucky dog.
This experience convinced her that some dogs, like Walter, are “homeable” but not “shelterable” – which presents shelter staff with a dilemma: they have to make their assessment of whether a dog is safe to adopt out based solely on his behavior in the stressful environment of the shelter. “The equivalent would be judging a person while he is in the hospital, stuck with IVs, anxious, bored, and with no family to comfort him. Would you see that person’s true character?”
This insight affected me greatly, since, like every shelter worker and volunteer, I have loved and grieved for some dogs who I felt sure would have done great in the right home, but who couldn’t take the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs in the shelter setting. Thus, they “lost it” and had to be euthanized.
But there is great hope in this book, in the vast network of people who care for dogs and are working for better conditions for all of them. And in the individuals like Amy Sutherland, who, day after day, show up with treats and the offer of an outing and individual human attention, to brighten — you could even say, save — the lives of shelter dogs.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 6, 2017 at 8:00 PM|
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE is brilliant, but it is not a novel, though some reviews and ads have represented it as such. It is, in fact, interconnected short stories or novellas, most centering on the same small Illinois town and its inhabitants (with one far-fetched digression into the story of a tangential character, Annie Appleby). Each story is discrete, each with its own arc and its own resolution. There is no through-line of plot; only the character of Lucy Barton, former outcast poor girl turned famous writer, loosely connects most of the stories. In short, to call this work of fiction a novel strikes me as a dishonest marketing ploy aimed at circumventing the stigma that short stories, or novellas, don't sell.
The stories are powerful, with one exception: I found "Mississippi Mary," about a grown daughter's visit to her divorced and remarried mother in Italy tedious and sentimental. But most are laser-like in their penetration to the core of their characters' vulnerabilities, quirks, defenses. Relationships take surprising turns. Not one person is sexually healthy or satisfied. People save one another from despair by quiet acts of forgiveness and kindness. That is the one fact that brings light to the general darkness of Strout's view of life and human nature.
Below is my review of this book's prequel, Strout's novel MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON:
Pointillistic account --the reader has to connect the sparsely-placed dots of plot and character development. The story centers on Lucy Barton's recalling, in artfully artless first person narrative, a period of time when she was in the hospital in NYC for weeks with a mysterious fever after an appendectomy. Scared, sad, missing her two young girls and her husband, Lucy is comforted by the arrival of her mother from Illinois. Her mother stays with her for several days, never appearing to sleep, occasionally and uncharacteristically gushing with conversation as if from a blocked up fountain -- but, at the critical moments of revelation which Lucy has longed for all her life, the older woman clams up. What was her mother afraid of in her own childhood? "Mommy" (as Lucy, revealingly, continues to call her as an adult) won't say. Does she love her daughter? - Lucy understands that "I love you" is something her mother can't utter, and won't, ever. This hospital vigil, though, offers Lucy comfort and clearly the sense of being loved.
Lucy recalls her childhood in horrific flashes: being locked in her father's truck for hours as punishment. Being teased and ostracized because of the smell of poverty she emanates; being given charity Thanksgiving meals. Those moments when her father, a traumatized WWII veteran, loses control of himself and "the Thing" emerges (only much later, glancingly, do we learn what sexual ugliness the Thing seems to involve). Lucy's marriage to William, son of German immigrants; since her father's trauma involves his wartime interactions with Germans, Lucy has to keep her husband away from her parents. She and he settle in New York City.
A chance meeting with a shy, rather ditzy seeming writer in a Soho boutique leads Lucy to take a workshop with this woman, pursuing a dream that has been vivid in her since childhood: to escape her disturbing reality through writing. The teacher encourages Lucy and tells her to be ruthless. Ruthlessly honest about the one story she has to tell -- that of her childhood. Problems in Lucy's marriage are alluded to -- but "I'm not able to write about that," Lucy tells the reader.
As the book moves into Lucy's post-hospital life the storytelling style becomes sparser, the dots wider apart. There become more and more things that Lucy seems unable to reveal. We get just enough to put together into a coherent account of her becoming a successful writer, serving her gift with life decisions that cause her and those she loves pain - ruthless in life as in her work.
I was interested but found the book too minimalistic to fully engage my deepest emotions
|Posted by mhedwig on August 6, 2017 at 7:20 PM|
Audiobook: Not recommended; too many characters with exotic names, and too complex a chronology to absorb from listening
Print book: Highly recommended. A masterwork that repays close attention
Where to begin to detail my intense reactions to Arundhati Roy’s first novel in the twenty-odd years since her prizewinning THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS? Where to start trying to summarize its complex story?
I’ll begin by saying that I first listened to it as an Audible recording, read by the author. Some listeners have complained that the author’s Indian accent was hard to understand; I didn’t find it so. In fact, I got a kick out of hearing her cultured, even tones delivering the colorful insults of the street people and outcasts who make up some of her most endearing characters -- “Sister f---ing whore” being one of the milder ones.
The audio version was problematic for me for other reasons: the huge cast of exotically-named characters to keep straight (when I read the print version of the book I felt the need to make pencil notations on the flyleaf of who various key people were and the page on which they appeared); the many Hindi or Urdu or Kashmiri words seeded throughout the narrative; the author’s habit of packing into the novel lengthy documents such as one character’s dictionary of all the Kashmiri words for revolution, insurrection, torture, weaponry, of which we get every single entry from A to Z; another character’s lunatic ravings on her deathbed, dictated to her daughter as letters and presented in the story at full length; the manifesto of a mad prophet on an 11-year hunger strike, again, presented at full length. These endless digressions strained my patience; a few excerpts would have sufficed. (These sections seemed only barely more tolerable when I read them in the printed book; the author and her readers would have profited from a strong editorial hand.)
Also, the story’s chronology leaps around and is extremely difficult to keep straight while listening.
But my main reason for immediately ordering the print version was to study and savor the beauty of the language, which flew right past in audio. As I read, my trusty pencil got constant use underlining and asterisking. Now, having read the book twice, I am confirmed in my opinion that it is monumental. Not flawless, but a masterpiece.
Central to the novel is Anjum, born a hermaphrodite but at heart a flamboyant, beautiful woman, who as a young person underwent gender reassignment surgery that left her incapable of sexual pleasure but at least removed the hateful major vestiges of maleness. Living as a hijra, an outcast eunuch, she takes refuge in a cemetery in Delhi, gradually building around the graves a home for herself and then expanding it into an inn for the homeless. The expansion continues when she later opens a funeral home on the premises that takes in the bodies of fellow outcasts who have no one else to mourn and bury them. This establishment, known as “Jannat [Paradise] Guest House and Funeral Home,” embraces people and even animals who have been rejected by society.
The other major characters in the book met at university in Delhi and became friends whose lives remain intertwined in later life: three men: Naga, Musa, and Biplab, whom everyone forever afterwards calls “Garson Hobart” because of his role in a play they were all cast in while at university -- and the woman whom all of them love, Tilo, short for Tilottama (which, in one of the languages of Southern India, means Sesame Seed).
In adulthood, Tilo is a restless soul, unable to settle into a career or a home, rebellious against the conventions of femininity, stigmatized because of her illegitimate birth and her dark skin. (Much is made of the fair/dark meritocracy of Indian society, with dark – as is lamentably the case throughout the world – being regarded as inferior.) Her true love, her only place of repose in the world, is Musa, her former friend from university. He is a young man from Kashmir who, though trained as an architect, has become a freedom fighter in his embattled home region of northern India. (Biographical information about the author reveals that one reason for her long absence from the novelistic landscape is that she has been active in the Kashmiri struggle for independence.)
Tilo and Musa's paths diverge for a time in early adulthood, during which time he marries and has a child. Only after terrible tragedy do he and Tilo reunite and begin their love affair. Their love story is beautifully told, distinctive, dramatic and heartrending. I have added it to my list of great literary romances.
They are able to seize only moments together, sometimes years apart. Musa’s stature as a leader of the Kashmiri resistance puts Tilo at great risk by association. After one night with him on a houseboat in Kashmir, after he has slipped away at dawn, Tilo is seized in a raid by soldiers of the occupying Indian Army and taken to the nearest “interrogation” (a euphemism for torture) center in Srinagar. Only the intervention of “Garson Hobart,” her university friend who is now a senior minister in the Indian government, saves her life. Traumatized by her experiences at the hands of her Indian “interrogators,” Tilo goes back to Delhi and impulsively marries her old schoolmate, Naga, now a journalist. The marriage doesn’t last; rootless once again, Tilo travels back and forth between Delhi and Kashmir, occasionally seeing Musa but never knowing if it will be the last time. In Delhi she rents an apartment from “Garson Hobart” whose ministry career has ended in disgrace because of his alcoholism, and who now owns and manages an apartment building.
The arrival into the novel of a baby is as world-altering an event in Roy’s hands as the coming of Christ in the Christian story. One night at an anti-corruption rally in the same park that houses the graveyard where Jannat Guest House resides, an unknown woman abandons her newborn baby. The hijra, Anjum. and some of her friends from the Guest House spot the child and are preparing to rescue her, when another strange woman manages to take advantage of the chaos of the crowd and make off with the baby.
That woman is Tilo, who has come to the rally and, on seeing the abandoned baby, feels a powerful maternal surge. She names the baby Miss Jebeen the Second, after (spoiler avoidance) a young child of the same name who was killed in political violence.
Utimately some residents of Jannat Guest House, led by young Saddam Hussain (the assumed name of this young “Untouchable” Hindu man has a partly hilarious, partly poignant backstory), manage to follow Tilo’s trail through the streets of Delhi to her apartment. They invite her and Miss Jebeen the Second to come live with them in their graveyard compound, which has been renamed "The Ministry of Utmost Happiness." Feeling the need for protection and support, Tilo accepts – and by the book’s end it appears that the Utmost Happiness to be found there may console her for the losses of her life, and give her, for the first time, a clear purpose. Anjum, too, the formerly lonely founder and proprietress of Jannat Guest House, finds a new joy in her role as one of the baby’s mothers.
The rest of the enormous, sometimes overstuffed narrative weaves together past and present, joy and heartbreak, rage and consolation, an intimate focus on individual characters contrasted with sweeping social commentary….Roy portrays modern day India in all its corruption and its violent and seemingly unending factionalism; but she leaves the reader with the hope that kindness and generosity will endure in the makeshift communities of the powerless and marginalized, and that a baby's tiny life may even bring redemption.
|Posted by mhedwig on July 3, 2017 at 3:05 PM|
Highly recommended. Not for the squeamish. Spoiler alert. S-Town is short for "Shit Town," which is how John B McLemore describes his small Alabama hometown (otherwise known as Woodstock) to Brian Reed, a radio serial producer. John B, as everyone calls him, is trying to get Brian and crew to come down and investigate a murder, freely confessed to and even bragged about by the murderer, who has never been charged with the crime.
That lead turns out to be a dead end, as Brian finds out when he travels to S-Town, but the character of John B fascinates him and a friendship grows between them. John B is an amazing character: a world-renowned clock maker and restorer; a lonely manic-depressive; a brilliant student of history and exponent of a radical view of global catastrophe caused by climate change; a gay man who lives with his mother and has never had a happy, lasting love affair; a native son who claims to hate his hometown yet can't leave the land that has been in his family for a century and on which, in fact, he has lavished amazing amounts of time and effort -- building, for instance, a hedge maze on the property, so large that it can be seen from a satellite. .. And this just begins to describe the many facets of this complex, brilliant, funny, profane man. His voice is striking, with its thick, lazy Southern accent and wide dynamic range, which contrasts vividly with Brian Reed's Yankee diction, clipped and restrained in the style of Ira Glass.
But at the end of Episode 2 (of 7) a shocking turn of events makes the listener wonder, "Now what?" Specifically (here's the spoiler) John B commits suicide. Nevertheless there is drama and mystery aplenty to come as Brian Reed turns his attention to plumbing John B's character and relationships, and investigating the tragedy of his death and its impact on those closest to him.
It's a Southern gothic tale to rival the most extravagant fiction, and there are often hilarious moments. But in essence it is the story of a genuine friendship between two men from vastly different worlds. Some critics have accused Brian Reed of voyeurism in his frank disclosure of the dark side of John B's compulsions (some of those revelations did make me uncomfortable, but I accepted them as efforts to fully understand this complex man). Reed has also been charged with unethical exploitation of someone who never gave his consent to have his life made public in this way (to this point, I took John B's willingness to talk for hours, candidly and in full knowledge that he was being taped, to be the equivalent of consent). But overall I was enthralled by this story and am glad that it was aired. It brought deserved recognition to John B's achievements and incredible range of talents. It might also have the positive effect of making people look at their own offbeat neighbors with more tolerance and compassion.
|Posted by mhedwig on July 3, 2017 at 2:50 PM|
Not recommended. I was drawn to this because of my lifelong love of ghost stories, but you could say this one left me...dispirited.
A decrepit old mansion in Jacksonville Florida holds 6 lives, and one spirit, captive. Three of the occupants are elderly sisters, children of the house's original owner, a greedy, loveless woman called "little Manette." The other three inhabitants are, more or less, drifters: Lane Hale and her son Theo, who are actually relatives of the old sisters; Lane is Little Manette's granddaughter. (The book is confusingly overpopulated and would have benefited from a chart of the characters and their relationships.) Mother and son have been left to fend for themselves after the abandonment of their husband and father.
And there's Dell Duval--an assumed name; he's amnesiac after being run down by a taxi cab, but feels a strong connection to the house that he must explore. He camps out under the lattice-enclosed space beneath the front porch, known only to the boy Theo, and sneaks into the house when everyone is asleep.
The spirit is that of Little Manette's mother, called Mormama, and she appears repeatedly to 12-year-old Theo, frightening and angering him with her warnings that the house is not safe and he and his mother must escape. But how? They have no money, and Lane's efforts to find employment have so far been futile. They are stuck at the mercy of the old sisters.
As for Dell, he secretly befriends the kindest of the sisters, Ivy, who is in a wheelchair after a childhood accident. Visiting her stealthily at nighttime, he initially wants to discover whether he is a relative and therefore entitled to some of whatever fortune may be locked up in the old pile, but gradually he comes to care for her. Clues as to his true identity may reside on the flash drive that was one of his few possessions to survive his taxi accident, but he can't bear to open it.
We get a great deal of the backstory of the cold-hearted Manette, who loved possessions and barely tolerated her husband or children. Her neglect caused the death of her three-year-old son.
The plot slowly unfolds, told from the multiple points of view of the characters--some in third person, others--Mormama, Theo and Lane--in first. I am no prude, but I wearied of Theo and Lane's constant profanity and weird locutions like "Woah; Wuow; zibledy; Like, zot!" And I found the pacing tryingly slow.
Finally the ending brings some drama and the solution to the mystery of Dell's true identity. But by then I was more than ready to be rid of the claustrophobic company of this unhappy family and their hanger-on, Dell.
|Posted by mhedwig on June 17, 2017 at 3:40 PM|
Recommended. A ghost story, a family story with a mystery at its heart, a testimony to the redeeming power of nature, art and friendship. I enjoyed this more than any other Gail Godwin book I've ever read.
Its young hero is 11-year-old Marcus Harshaw, recently orphaned. His hardworking single mother -- a furniture factory worker in North Carolina -- went out for pizza for the two of them one night and was killed in a car crash. Marcus is sent to live with his one living relative: Aunt Charlotte Lee, a successful artist on an island off the South Carolina coast. She is old, gruff but not unkind, wedded to her solitary schedule and her several bottles daily of red wine. But she makes room for Marcus in her life, expecting him, nonetheless, to amuse himself during the summer days until school starts.
Marcus is lonely, friendless. Before coming to South Carolina he had a violent falling-out with his former best friend i, Shelby Forster, a.k.a. Wheezer because of his asthma. Wheezer is the son of the prominent old family who own the furniture factory where Marcus's mother worked. Trouble between the two boys began the first time Wheezer came to visit Marcus in the tiny one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother, and Marcus showed him a photograph of a man his mother had told him was his father. (She had promised to tell him the whole story one day -- but her premature death prevented that.)
Wheezer was freaked out by something on his visit to Marcus's home and fled without having the lunch he'd come for; the next day at school he told everyone that Marcus slept in the bed with his mother (which was true, there wasn't room for two beds in the cramped flat) and that he was his mother's "little husband." Marcus, enraged, beat Wheezer so badly that his former friend nearly lost an eye. After that they spoke no more.
Now, in South Carolina with great tracts of time to fill on his own, Marcus becomes involved with a local sea turtle rescue effort, helping to monitor the state of the dunes where eggs are known to reside. He also is befriended by an older man, a friend of Aunt Charlotte -- Lachicotte Hayes, car restorer and scion of one of the island's oldest families. Lachicotte becomes like the father he never had. He takes Marcus to buy a bike and that opens up a new scope for the boy's days.
Marcus becomes fascinated by a derelict house at the north end of the island, subject of some of his aunt's most atmospheric paintings. Called "Grief Cottage" by the locals, it got its nickname from the fate of a family -- a mother, father and their teenaged son -- who rented it just in time to be killed by Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Marcus is disturbed by the fact that no one seems to know anything about the family, not even their names. Their bodies were never found.
Marcus bikes to the cottage every morning and evening and sits on the porch -- and it is there, one day, that he senses movement behind him and turns to see "the ghost boy" -- a wordless presence leaning in the doorway, dressed in the clothes of an earlier era. After that, Marcus converses with the ghost boy on his visits, keeping his back to the doorway so that he doesn't make the ghost -- or himself -- uncomfortable, telling the kid everything that's on his mind: his worries about the soon-to-be-hatched turtles; his loneliness; his concern about Aunt Charlotte's ever increasing wine intake. He senses an ebb and flow in the ghost's presence - a keen interest at some times, an aversive withdrawal at others.
The plot unfolds at the easy pace of a beach summer: the turtles hatch; Aunt Charlotte gets help for her drinking and Lachicotte stays with Marcus in her absence; through an elderly summer resident, Coral Upchurch, Marcus learns more about the ghost boy -- Johnny Dace was his name, and he was the friend of Mrs. Upchurch's late son when Billy Upchurch was a teenager. "A bad influence," Mrs. Upchurch says. The remaining mystery of the ghost boy is solved in a dramatic scene when Marcus visits Grief Cottage, driven there by a grief of his own.
The book ends with the older Marcus, now a doctor about to begin his residency in psychiatry. His old friend Wheezer contacts him, wanting to repair their friendship while there are still some days left to him as a terminal cancer patient. Marcus reunites with his friend, and in that meeting the book's final question is answered, the final mystery of Marcus's life resolved.
The island scenery is beautifully evoked; the turtle subplot is engaging. The ghost is done just right. One of the aspects of the book I found most moving was the capacity for friendship between so many people of widely disparate ages and backgrounds. Older people in particular are rendered as full, vibrant, vital characters with abiilities and ambitions, and I appreciated that. The ending is especially satisfying, with a twist I didn't see coming.
I switched back and forth between listening to the Audible version of the book and reading it on my Kindle. Each has its own merits. Jacob York's narration was often excellent -- especially with the voices of Lachicotte Hayes and Aunt Charlotte. Unfortunately I didn't like his voice for the young Marcus; it sounded priggish and some of the pronunciations were overly punctilious -- "Ahnt" Charlotte, "syootcase" and "dyoon" for suitcase and dune; for a young boy raised in North Carolina I would have preferred a softer Southern accent, less proper. When it got to be too much I turned to the Kindle. This showed me that the various reading media are not created equal. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and ultimately I found myself wishing for an actual printed book , so I could more easily search and backtrack and savor, and have a sense of the scope and pace of the novel that e-readers and audiobooks don't give.
Maybe I'll have to get a third copy!
|Posted by mhedwig on June 17, 2017 at 3:05 PM|
Recommended: One of the best dog stories I’ve ever read, right up there with The Call of the Wild.
Its hero, Ray, is a 57-year-old man – “too old to start over, too young to give up,” but in a sense he has given up, or, more accurately, he never felt capable, or worthy, of trying for a better life. Raised in a small Irish coastal village by a single father, Ray was never told who his mother was or what happened to her. He was kept a virtual prisoner – in body and in spirit -- by his father; he never went to school, made a friend, "held a woman's hand," held a job, or even left the house much. His father showed not the faintest glimmer of affection toward him, or ever disclosed anything of his inner life to his son.
Now his father is dead and Ray has been forced to regularly venture out into the village to apply for government assistance and obtain supplies. He feels that “Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside....when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit.”
At the book’s opening Ray sees a flyer in a store window from the local animal shelter. It shows a blurry picture of a dog with a scarred, crooked face: one eye missing, a portion of his lip gone. Drawn somehow to the picture, Ray goes to the shelter and adopts the dog, whose injuries, he is told, have come from his former career rooting badgers out of their lairs for hunters.
Ray names his dog One Eye, and they become inseparable, taking walks, sharing meals, having conversations – or rather, Ray talks, and One Eye listens, the first creature to ever show any interest in what Ray has to say. For the first time Ray loves another being, and in return receives his dog's devotion.
Disaster looms when One Eye, who still has in him the wildness of his badger hunting days, attacks another dog, and an animal control officer soon afterward comes to Ray’s house to take the offender away. Ray makes some excuse that the dog is with a neighbor – and when the officer leaves, in desperation Ray takes One Eye in the car for a meandering journey that carries them from summer into winter -- or, "simmer" into "wither."
Over the course of the trip Ray tells One Eye his life story and, at last, painfully confides a terrible secret he carries, a crushing burden of guilt and dread. One Eye loves him no less for this revelation, of course. As for the reader, when we learn the details, despite our horror we understand completely why this fearful and damaged man was driven to do what he did. We still trust, as his dog does, in Ray’s essential goodness.
It’s a tough read at times – and yet there is redemption. “I wish,” Ray says to One Eye, “I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. I wouldn’t mind living a shorter life if my short life could be as vivid as yours.” In a way, he gets his wish.
This book shows how dogs don't judge on the basis of appearance or conformity with socially-approved norms. They give their devotion without conditions. I finished it thinking that, if humans could see one another the way dogs do, people like Ray could live free from fear, and know that in someone else's eyes -- or, one eye -- they are wondrous and deserving of love.