Thursday, July 30, 2015

Calling All Conspiracy Theorists

I once thought that Jessie Ventura ("63 Docs the Government Doesn't Want You to Read") had a lock on grand conspiracy theories. That was before I read Greg Iles' "Natchez Burning." Last summer I flew through that 800-some page novel and reported on it here. It's an adrenaline-filled trip to the darkest side of human nature overburdened with horrific violence. Death by flamethrower comes to mind. I probably called it gratuitous but the more I think about it, how else could Iles convey evil in its basest form? Expect nothing less from "The Bone Tree," the second entry in this remarkably complex trilogy.

I just read at Greg's website ( that Sony and Amazon, working with actor Tobey Maguire, plan to make an original cable TV series from these books and I know that Iles is well into the final novel, prepping it for release next summer. If you want to be in on the ground floor, begin reading now.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, or Iles for that matter, his novels introduce a Mississippi native named Penn Cage. Once a prosecutor, he has returned to his hometown of Natchez to become mayor. With him is Caitlin Masters, his fiancé, descended from a long line of honored journalists and currently publisher of the local newspaper.
Together, though they often keep an unhealthy number of secrets from each other, they are working to expose members of a special branch of the Ku Klux Klan, the Double Eagles, all prominent business people, well connected politically, and with tentacles that reach deep into Mississippi and Louisiana law enforcement. No surprise there.
Not only was this group responsible for unsolved rapes and murders dating back to the 60's and the height of the civil rights era but, according to a rogue FBI agent, they may have been involved in the attempted assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the actual death of JFK in Dallas.
Iles deftly shows how complicated a multi-state, multi-police force investigation can be, especially when vital communications are stunted because of a lack of trust among the various agencies. To further muddy the waters, Penn is faced with a heart-rending conflict of interest, when his beloved father and local hero Dr. Tom Cage, becomes a fugitive from justice on a trumped up murder charge.
This series throws the cold, hard light of scrutiny on a shameful part of America's history. Because Iles writes in such a dramatic, over-the-top kind of style, you might be forgiven for saying,
 "Oh no, this couldn't have happened in this country, he's just taking literary license."
Of course, you would be wrong. Even though the plot becomes so convoluted that at times it defies logic, there's no doubt that there are too many black bodies hidden in the bone trees in the Louisiana swamps. Beginning with reconstruction and the implementation of Jim Crow laws, organizations like the KKK have operated with impunity in the south, going underground when necessary, and being legitimized under the auspices of private business. 
If you find yourself wondering why #blacklivesmatter has become a cri de coeur and you want a history lesson that's not didactic but wrapped up in 1600 pages of fiction that you simply can't put down, then begin at the beginning with "Natchez Burning," and I guarantee you'll be anxiously waiting for book number three to find out if good will finally triumph over evil.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Small Mercies" is a Small Miracle

Once again I must thank my friend and deep reader, Pat Abosch, for the recommendation of this outstanding novel by debut writer Eddie Joyce. I realized that I was in for a very special reading experience when I saw that one of my all-time favorite authors, Richard Russo, had written a blurb for the cover. I gather that Russo was a mentor for Joyce. It shows.

What Russo did for the failing mill town of Empire Falls Joyce does for a blue- collar, Irish-Italian enclave in Staten Island, bringing it to vibrant life. His characterizations of both the people and the place took me back to the small mill town of Lee, Massachusetts, where I lived for seventeen years. Joyce captures the cadence of the discussions, the family pow-wows around the kitchen table, the vague resentments between those who stayed in the hood and those who left for the bright lights of the city.

"Small Mercies" is an outstanding example of what I call the post 9/11 genre represented so powerfully by such authors as Don de Lillo ("Falling Man"), Jonathan Safran Foer ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"), or Amy Waldman ("The Submission").

These books are not about the terrorist attacks, per se, but rather, about the ramifications, sometimes on just one person, or on a small group of people. They are about the ripple effects of a single act that repeat and repeat over the years and about the "small mercies" that one must be grateful for in the face of tremendous loss.

When "Small Mercies" opens, it's been ten years since Bobby Amendola, NYFD, disappeared under the rubble of the twin towers. Still, not a day goes by that his mother Gail doesn't step into his childhood room and wonder why. Bobby's widow, Tina, is raising her two kids the best she can with the emotional support of the entire Amendola family and, as is often the case in small towns like this, the entire community. But after years of believing that there wasn't a man alive who could take Bobby's place, Tina has finally met a guy, a widower who understands the aching hole in her heart, who just might be the one.

How will this news affect Tina's relationship with Gail, with Bobby's brothers, with his dad, Michael? Bobby Jr.'s birthday is coming up and there will be the usual over-the-top fanfare at Gail and Michael's house. Tina would like to introduce Wade to the gang but is plagued with trepidation. Wade is a New Yorker, a successful hedge-fund manager, not your typical Staten Island, jeans and hoodie clad, sports-gambling, cop, construction worker, or firefighter content to hang out at the bar on Friday nights downing shots and beers. Can Tina bridge these two worlds?

With spot on, perfect prose, Eddie Joyce uses flashbacks to get inside the heads of each member of the Amendola family. And as they allow us to see their strengths, their foibles, their sins, and their moments of pure grace, readers can't help but recognize pieces of themselves. Eddie Joyce, by tapping into the ferocious sense of love and loyalty within families and small communities has performed a minor miracle. "Small Mercies" will likely be among my top ten best reads of 2015.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Quiet Novels of Unrequited Love

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

From English writer Rachel Joyce whose novel "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" was a runaway bestseller, book club darling, and nominee for the Man Booker Prize, comes a complementary book about Queenie Hennessy, the catalyst for Harold's unlikely walk across England.

I wrote glowingly of Joyce's first novel ( ) and am pleased to tell you that this, her third, is every bit as warm, loving, and heartfelt. But, it cannot stand alone. You must read Harold first to fully appreciate the story Queenie Hennessy dictates from her bed in the hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Part memoir, part confessional, Queenie's letter is to Harold. The marvelously quirky denizens of the hospice are in a state of high expectation as the news media conflates Harold's once very private, penitential 600 mile walk to ask Queenie's forgiveness before she succumbs to the ravages of cancer. But Ms. Hennessy believes that she's the one who needs to seek absolution and in so doing we readers meet a woman of passion subsumed, of love deepened by twenty years of a life alone but not lonely. If you believe that giving love is a reward in itself, whether or not it is returned, then this is the book for you.

On the other hand, if you think that twenty years is way too much time to spend pining for a lost love, then hop on board Monsieur Perdu's floating bookstore and travel with him and his unlikely followers down the Seine to Provence. Nina George's "The Little Paris Bookshop," though not as much a love song to books as I had hoped, is still a delightful summer confection.  


Jean Perdu has the heart of the best librarians. He can talk with a customer for only a few minutes and deduce exactly which book to prescribe. He considers himself an apothecary, yet this physician cannot heal himself. He is, as his name suggests, lost. Eschewing human contact, he lives on his book barge with his cats, wondering why the love of his life, Manon, left him all those years ago. We learn that Manon did send him a letter of explanation but, stubborn to the core, Perdu had set the letter aside, preferring to suffer in silence.

Not until he overhears his neighbor, Catherine, sobbing over her pending divorce does his heart begin to feel twinges of life. He suggests books. She asks him to dinner. He lends her a table. She unearths Manon's twenty year old letter and gives it back to him. What he learns sends him on a journey of discovery south to Manon's home village.

Along the way he picks up and discards various strays, not just animals but wonderfully colorful characters, like those living in Queenie's hospice, from whom Jean absorbs the wisdom of life's lessons. It is so gratifying to watch Jean's rebirth, to feel the joy as he discovers the pleasure of his physical self and the body he has left languishing for so long. Life can begin at any age if we just open our hearts and minds to it. Thank you  Nina George for the reminder.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Kent Haruf's "Our Souls at Night"

Product Details
What does that title conjure up for you? Truth and beauty was what I thought when I saw this novel on the shelf. I'd always had Mr. Haruf on my "to read" list. His trilogy which began with "Plainsong" has been highly praised. I kept telling myself, "I'll get to him, I'll get to him." Alas, Mr. Haruf died last November, but not before finishing this masterpiece of depth within a deceptively simple 179 pages.
Known for his glorification of small town life, Mr. Haruf writes about the people of Holt, Colorado, their daily lives and worries, small and large. Reading him could almost make one long for those days when neighbors watched out for one another and doors were left unlocked at night. Sure, everyone knew your business and that could be an annoyance, but generally they wished you well. Or at least, that's what Addie and Louis discovered.
I can't imagine the courage it took for Addie Moore to take those first steps, two doors down to Louis Waters' house. Both widowed, Addie and Louis had probably been watching each other for a while. How could they not when their paths crossed all the time? But that May evening when Addie knocked on Louis's door and he invited her in, the proposition she offered must have come as a bit of a shock.
Addie didn't pull any punches, she didn't equivocate. She told Louis the truth, that she's lonely, that she misses the warm comfort of a body beside her in bed, that she longs to talk with another person at the end of the day. Might he be feeling a similar longing? Would he consider spending the nights with her?
I felt such joy as I read of their awkward beginnings, Louis traipsing up to the back door of Addie's house with his pajamas and toothbrush in a paper sack. Addie offering a pre-bedtime glass of wine to calm their nerves, their gradual relaxation into routine, the lingering conversations before each drifts off to sleep, had me sighing with contentment.
Oh yes, the neighbors whispered at first, but as Addie and Louis became more sure of themselves and began appearing in public for lunch or a stroll in the park, the towns people accepted them as a couple, allowing them to see themselves that way too. The only problem? Their children.
Haruf makes astute observations about the difficulties of blending families. Why  children think that they have any right to dictate the actions of their parents has always been beyond me. More to the point, why would a parent allow his child to quarterback his decision? Don't kids trust that their folks have enough love to spread around? Or is it the money? A false sense of morality, perhaps?
 As Addie's and Louis's new found sense of well being is tested by the interference of her son I found myself reflecting on the many senior couples I know who followed their hearts rather than their heads and hoping that the author would imbue his characters with that same joie de vivre. This lovely, spare novel is a must read, the author's final gift to the reading world.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Book of Mormon - Or, Am I Becoming a Curmudgeon?

Last night my friend Don and I made our way into DC to see a production of the blockbuster play, "The Book of Mormon," at the Kennedy Center. We had purchased the tickets months ago but for some reason, which is highly unlike me, I had not done my homework ahead of time. If I had known that this musical was written by the men who gave us "South Park," I would have immediately disabused myself of the idea that we were going to see a brilliantly written, clever, smart, send-up of organized religion.

The Book of Mormon

I have scoured the Internet for a bad review of "The Book of Mormon" and am hard-pressed to find one, so let me go out on a limb here and be the first. Any readers who have been following me even for a little while should, I hope, get a sense of the type of person I am. NOT a prude! OPEN to new places, ideas, and beliefs. I revel in the physical nature of human beings but I stopped seeing humor in the scatological by the time I was ten. Apparently Trey Parker and Matt Stone have yet to outgrow it.

If it's possible that there's anyone out there who isn't familiar with this play, the premise is as follows. Two Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda, Africa, to spend two years bringing souls to Jesus Christ. The church elders, one who has a Lancelot type ego, the other who considers himself nothing more than a follower, are shocked when they discover that the denizens of this African village have bigger issues to deal with than God - AIDS, terrorism, starvation, and female genital mutilation. Where, you might wonder, does one find the humor in that?

When a tribal warlord, a caricature of Idi Amin, shoots one of the villagers dead in front of the idealistic Elder Price, Price falls apart (regretting that God didn't choose to send him to his first choice posting, Orlando, Florida) and asks for a transfer, leaving the insecure Elder Cunningham with the task of baptizing the villagers. Cunningham, a bookworm with a fabulous imagination, turns to his knowledge of Star Trek, The Hobbit, and Star Wars, to rewrite the Book of Mormon into a palatable, no, an exciting story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, you know, something the naïve "natives" can latch onto.

And here's one of the problems with "The Book of Mormon." While the music is catchy, the dance numbers terrific, and the stage performers outstanding, how does any self-respecting black actor take a role in a play meant to make him look a fool? Could the village doctor have even one other line besides, "I've got maggots on my scrotum?" I finally lost track of all the jokes that centered on penises, vaginas, and poop, realizing at some point that the audience was so young that an actually really funny reference to President Clinton and Ms. Monica Lewinsky went right over their heads!

At least I now understand why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints didn't protest en masse when this production began breaking box office records on Broadway. They come out of this looking fabulous! Some might say the tale of Joseph Smith digging up the golden tablets in his back yard in upstate New York and recognizing them as the word of God is just a little bit crazy. But with a soupcon of embellishment, Salt Lake City, Utah, ends up looking as much like paradise as Disney World. We left the theatre longing for the intelligence and nuance of "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stewart O'Nan on F. Scott Fitzgerald


Have you ever noticed how often serendipity plays out in your life? I finished this new novel, "West of Sunset," by one of my favorite writers, Stewart O'Nan, last week, but I had decided not to write about it. Then I opened my paper this weekend and saw an obit that caught my eye. True confessions - I am fascinated with good obituary writing and read them obsessively. This one was about a remarkable 98-year-old woman named Frances Kroll Ring who featured heavily in O'Nan's book.   
You see, as a very young woman, Ms. Kroll found herself working as a personal assistant to the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, becoming the last link between him, his lover Sheila Graham, and his family, while he was frantically trying to outrun time and increasingly poor health to finish the novel that would become known as "The Last Tycoon," recently released under its intended title, "The Love of the Last Tycoon."
I don't normally think of Stewart O'Nan as a writer of historical fiction, nor do I usually read it. In fact, I believe that his finest works were the two Pittsburgh novels, "Wish You Were Here," and "Emily, Alone," whose subject matter, family, old age, friendships, and daily life, was so beautifully captured. Still, the story of Fitzgerald during his Hollywood years drew me in, if for no other reason than to bemoan the fact that a man of such potential lost his way so early on.
Anyone who's ever studied Gatsby must be aware of the story of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Their life was supposed to be golden, the Princeton grad and the southern belle, gallivanting through Europe with the Hemingways, dallying on the Riviera with the Murphys. But Zelda's mental illness reared its head early on and Scott's raging alcoholism left me wondering how he managed to write as much as he did in his short life.
By the time we meet him, west of Sunset, he is a down and out screenwriter desperately trying to stay off the sauce long enough to get a few film credits under his belt and maybe sell a short story or two on the side. He lives on the generosity of friends and advances from his agent in New York. Zelda has been institutionalized back east for years, the bills astronomical, and their daughter Scottie is ready to head to college.
The novel reads more like a biography, stuffed with so many verifiable facts that I even accepted the conversations as the whole truth and nothing but. From what I've read about fiction writers who try to work in Hollywood, the frustration and years of hard work that go into a script only to have it scotched at the last minute, O'Nan perfectly pinpointed what Fitzgerald was up against. His reputation at the time was not as one of America's most highly regarded writers but as an unreliable drunk and, unfortunately, he often lived up to that rep.
"West of Sunset" is a terribly sad story of wasted genius and an informative, if dry, addition to the reams of material written about Scott and Zelda. But if you want to discover where Stewart O'Nan's true talent lies, head to the library and check out the Pittsburgh novels that I mentioned earlier. And while you're at it, look at "The Odds," a novella about a couple on the verge of either a divorce or a 25th anniversary celebration. That one showcases his true genius.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can Someone Help Me with "Language Arts?"

My head is spinning, Stephanie Kallos! I've just put down your latest novel "Language Arts," and I don't know what to think. I need a discussion group - quick! Beth Conrad? Andrea? Pat? You are the kinds of readers who could help me work through my feelings of enchantment one moment and visceral horror the next. I can only hope that the estimable Professor Elaine Newton will choose this for one of her next season's programs.

One writer I know, when asked to write a blurb for this novel, said, "It was like yoga for my heart." I can't imagine a more perfect metaphor. Yoga can be a surprisingly strenuous workout one minute and then a path to deep peace and relaxation the next. Ms. Kallos has a gorgeous writing style that makes you sit up and say "whoa!" one minute, only to leave you sighing in peaceful contemplation the next.

So many of my friends have been teachers. This book is for you! The teachers in Kallos's story are wonderfully complicated, nuanced individuals, from one of the narrators, Charles Marlow, to his grammar school mentor, Mrs. Braxton (Brax the Axe), to the nun, Sister Georgia Maria Fiducia D'Amati. Like so many devoted teachers out there, these characters truly have no idea how much of an influence they've had on their charges.

Charles and his wife Alison are raising their son Cody whose life is severely limited by autism. Eventually the overwhelming stress of accepting their son's diagnosis, prognosis, and special needs, causes a deep rift in the marriage exacerbated by their disparate methods of dealing with Cody. At times I wanted to shake Alison and say, "listen to him, talk with him," when she appeared to be talking at Charles so often.

Communication, between those with and without verbal ability, is a major theme in this complex novel. It may even take more than one reading to arrive at a conclusion as to what actually happened. You'll need to read each chapter carefully to focus on who's doing the talking and which time period you're in but it will be well worth the effort when you witness the joy of people finally making connections.

Charles, now in his late '50's, reflects on his life in Mrs. Braxton's fourth grade classroom where he was the unlikely choice for teacher's pet because of his skills in the Palmer method of penmanship. He recalls his burgeoning friendship with Dana, an exceptional, loving child with learning disabilities for whom, in the prescient way of fate, Charles displays extraordinary patience and kindness, and we meet Alison, watch the courtship, and their early bliss with Cody as a precocious baby before he regressed into his illness.

If you've read Stephanie Kallos's exquisite debut novel "Broken for You," then you'll remember the experience of spending time with a thoughtful, gracious novelist, a writer who cares about her characters and their interaction with her readers. In "Language Arts" you will meet an equally loveable group of people faced with unimaginable obstacles to the contentment we hope to get from life. How they handle these hurdles, learning to accept and forgive even when the transgressions seem unforgiveable, is a life-affirming reading experience.

Still, I'm not sure that I "got" it. Please, if you've read the book, let's talk.