Thursday, December 18, 2014


Last month I enthusiastically endorsed "Jewelweed" by David Rhodes as one of the best books I read in 2014.
Since then I've had the opportunity to return to Words, the Wisconsin town where Rhodes set his exquisite novel, in order to read the prequel "Driftless." I wondered, what if it isn't as magical? I needn't have worried.

 Driftless by David Rhodes book cover

There's something inherently good about the folks in Weeds. No matter their quirks, foibles, and differences, they are people you probably know. Their way of life may be a far cry from what we here on the east coast consider normal, it's simpler, more earnest, in a Little House on the Prairie kind of way, but damn hard work nevertheless. Rhodes respects them and so will we.

There's Cora and Grahm Shotwell, naive dairy farmers who somehow find the courage to take on the corporate giant that's been bilking them out of their fair share of earnings. Then there's Olivia, confined to a wheelchair from childhood, and her caretaker, Violet who has sacrificed much to care for her rebellious sister.

Grahm's sister Gail works in a factory and drinks herself to sleep most evenings yet she can sing like an angel, has a body to die for, and on the weekends, plays a mean bass in a country band that doesn't do her talent justice. She wonders what her life might be like if she could just get one small break.

Most special of all is the burgeoning story of Pastor Winifred who stole my heart in Jewelweed. Here we learn how she came to settle in Weeds in the first place, this young girl who seemed an enigma to her elderly congregants. She will be unyielding in her devotion to their staid practices. She will succeed at winning them over, keeping the story of her visions and voices to herself until she finds the ideal person with whom to share them.

David Rhodes is a master at capturing the zeitgeist of rural America. The story lines are deceptively simple, the characters are gloriously complex. His words and sentences, I think I've said before, often cause me to sigh with pleasure. How did he come up with that perfect metaphor? That spot on observation?

 But I guess what I love most about Mr. Rhodes is how he uses his fiction to espouse his belief that we are all connected with the most fragile threads. I can only think of John Donne's "no man is an island," when I read Rhodes and feel sure that no matter how insignificant we may think our lives are, somewhere, somehow, we've unknowingly touched another in a very significant way.

Coming up next week my top ten of the year. Start thinking about yours. I want to hear from you and I have a ton of books to give away. Got to clean out the shelves for 2015!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marilynne Robinson, So Quiet Yet So Powerful

Marilynne Robinson.jpg

Some readers are only in it for the thrill of the chase. Their novels need to move at the speed of light, keep them guessing til the end, give them an adrenalin rush. I'd never say that isn't fun but I've found that, as I'm aging, my tastes tend toward more ruminative literature. Marilynne Robinson's National Book Award finalist, "Lila," (she lost to the devastating short story collection "Redeployment" by Phil Klay), is one such ruminative novel.

Though it is a prequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning "Gilead," it can be read and thoroughly enjoyed on its own. I will, however, defy you, once you finish it, not to want to go back to read how the story of Lila and Rev. Ames plays out. Gilead is the tiny Iowa town where Rev. John Ames has lived and nurtured souls for most of his life. His first wife and only child are buried there. His existence since their untimely deaths has been filled with prayer, reading, and weekly visits with his intellectual sparring partner and childhood friend, "old Boughton", also a minister.

In fact, until he spotted Lila, sodden with rain, dressed in rags, and more than a little rough around the edges, sitting in a pew in his church, he may not have admitted to the deep well of loneliness that afflicted him. The improbable, immediate connection he feels with Lila frightens and shames him. The gap between the ages of Rev. Ames and this itinerant farm worker is formidable, the intellectual gap, one might assume, is even more daunting.

There is little physical action in this haunting novel but oh, the stimulating interior monologue as we listen in on the thoughts, questions, and hopes of Lila and John Ames, is extremely powerful. Excruciatingly slowly, they gravitate toward each other, building a tentative trust that we worry, from what we learn of Lila's past through her reminiscences, could dissolve at any time. Though she has seen the worst of human nature, she has also known the singular love of Doll, the woman who rescued her from orphanhood and raised her to be a street smart survivor.

Ms. Robinson's work is steeped in biblical quotes and verses but non-believers should not be put off. It is heartening and fascinating to listen to Rev. Ames' honest, humorous, and deeply felt responses to the unchurched Lila as he tries to explain the unexplainable mysteries of faith. The topics they tackle, the very meaning of existence, are those that all thinking people contemplate.  Thoughtful readers will feel great joy at being let in on the conversation.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Elizabeth Warren - Mad as Hell and Not Gonna Take it Any More!

Product Details  There's only one way to read Senator Elizabeth Warren's book, "A Fighting Chance," and that is to listen to it. No one else could have recorded this book but Elizabeth herself and she does a bang-up job of it. Every time she calls out some senator or congressman with a "horse pucky!" or a "jeesh!" you'll understand that this Harvard law professor has not forgotten her Oklahoma roots and the people she's fighting for.

Call me a cockeyed optimist but I live in hope that this woman will be one of the few who won't become jaded by Washington, but will continue to fight for the underdog the way she did when she was charged with forming (and then refused the right to head up) the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a result of the financial meltdown of 2008.

Ms. Warren is a passionate speaker and advocate for the least of our brothers. From a hard scrabble childhood, her dad ill and out of a job, her mom heading back to the workplace, Elizabeth was expected to find a man who made good money and marry him immediately. Dreams of college and a teaching career were poo-pooed by her mother but she secretly applied for scholarships and, when they were awarded in droves, her dad made the decision to send her on her way. Thank goodness for us!

Elizabeth Warren's specialty, when she taught at Harvard, was bankruptcy law and she must have been a hell of teacher. Warren makes sure that her readers know that bankruptcy is not a moral failing as some politicians would have us believe,  but the direct result of three major life events that could have, or have happened to many of us, job loss, illness, and divorce.

She's able to explain the most complicated financial  products and laws in such succinct language that even I, who tend to zone out over facts and figures, could easily understand the implications. And she buries forever one of the most despicable tropes to come out of the recession years, that the lower classes - read blacks and Hispanics - took on more mortgage debt than they could handle, thereby destroying the economy.

This would be laughable if it wasn't so insidious and repeated so often that folks came to believe that our measly little fifty or seventy-five thousand dollar home loans could take down Wall St. With what big banks gamble and lose in a single day the government could have paid off every home loan in America and kept folks in their homes. But that's another story.

Elizabeth's story is that of an outsider, despised and feared by big banks, who came to Washington to change things and banged her head against a big brick wall. She tells the truth about those who helped - Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank - and those who hindered - too many to name. A story about a dinner with the infamous sexist and former head of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, confirmed what I already knew. But his flat out threat, advising Warren to keep her head down or know that she will make powerful enemies, only fired her up more.

When the president's staff, and later the president himself, informed her that she could not be confirmed to head the consumer organization she founded because she was "poison" in Washington, she headed home and explored a run for the senate. Fortunately, for Massachusetts and for all of us, we know how that turned out. We have an advocate in Washington.

This is a great read, an accessible memoir, a story of David and Goliath that has only just begun. If you've wondered about "too big to fail," the great recession, the bad guys and the good guys and how the people of our country were mislead and fooled into blaming ourselves for the financial meltdown, then this is your chance to exonerate yourselves and meet a wonderful new voice for sanity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jewelweed is a Gem of a Novel

Jewellweed book cover
A thousand thanks to my literary mentor and friend Linda Holland for awarding five stars to Mr. Rhodes' exquisite novel, "Jewelweed." Linda is not prone to lavish praise unless it is really deserving. So the question is, why haven't more of us discerning readers heard of this book? Do you know that I actually had an advanced readers' copy sitting in my bookcase for months and hadn't even given it a second thought.
Like a dinner of plain old down-home cooking, Mr. Rhodes serves up simple sentences so crystal clear that each of the five senses are on high alert. No obfuscation, no high fallutin' phrases, but simple prose that pulls you into the story and doesn't let you go. We are in Words, Wisconsin, after all, a small town, yes, but a microcosm of every city everywhere.
What's so special about this book? To begin with, David Rhodes loves and respects each and every one of his characters. He treats them tenderly. They have troubles, they make huge and small mistakes, they suffer from alienation, false pride, misplaced assumptions, loneliness, and all of the other foibles that make us human. Mr. Rhodes is kind to these people and, in being so, he is kind to us as readers. I can't help but feel that he must be a lovely person, one you would want to know.
There is a plot, but it's not really necessary for me to retell it. This is a full-on, character-driven story about people whose lives intersect at just the right moments in their lives.
Why did Pastor Winifred feel the urgent need to go to the supermax prison to meet and talk with Blake Bookchester? He'd already been incarcerated for ten years for a small-time crime that was exacerbated by Blake's stubborn temper. Now he's due for parole. Might Winifred reach him through her constant gift of books? Help him acclimate to his freedom after his release?
How is it that Winifred's dreamy, scary smart son August befriends Ivan? Of all the kids at school, these two misfits seem to have an almost immediate, mystical kinship. And though Ivan's mom, Dart, distrusts everyone, scarred by years of bad men and broken dreams, she cracks open her heart just long enough to let Pastor Winnie in.
By doing so, Dart (actually Danielle) finds a job with the Roebuck clan, a multi-generational family with love to spare, a need for a no-nonsense cook/housekeeper like Dart, and an apartment for her and Ivan that's a huge step up from the one room dump over the meat locker in town.
And then there's Blake's dad Nate. A long distance trucker whose wife split when Blake was a kid, Nate did the best he could with Blake and still blames himself for Blake's downfall. Now he's a wreck. Blake may be released soon and Nate needs to get his rig home. He's been alone for so long he's unsure how the two of them will do together.
Avoiding the main highway, he takes a country road that leads him to a farmhouse where he stops to take a rest, accepting a kind offer of mashed potato pie from an elderly gent. In a glorious flight of magical realism, the very taste of the pie floods Nate's brain with memories of his cousin Bee, a woman he's loved since childhood. Could he ever reconnect with her?
When I closed the final page on this novel I sighed in pure delight. David Rhodes is a balm for the soul. This beautiful novel of time's healing properties, the eventual rightness of life, the ability to reconcile with the past, to forgive, to move on, is a joy to read. And the best news is that there's a prequel named "Driftless," which I've just checked out from the library. I'm willing to give my copy of "Jewelweed" away but it won't be easy. Comment if you'd like to share a wonderful reading experience!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Booker Prize Nominee - Us

A novel about a marriage and family in free fall was probably not the best choice of reading matter for me last week as I sat at my brother's bedside in the Ohio hospital where he was being treated for multiple debilitating side effects from his cancer therapy. I witnessed a disparate group of folks, my nieces, nephews, in-laws, and medical personnel all coming together with a common goal, to see Alan well enough to walk out that door.

I suppose it was unfair of me to expect that same cooperation from the characters in Mr. Nicholls' engaging but disturbing new novel, one that he refers to on his website as a "tragi-comedy." I found the story more tragi than comedy but I loved Nicholls' writing style and the self-deprecating voice of the narrator, Douglas Petersen.

If there were ever two people less meant for each other it had to be Douglas, an introverted, bookish scientist, and the wild child, pseudo-artist, Connie. Lessons we all should have learned by now? Physical attraction will only get you so far in a relationship. At the end of the day you really need to like one another and Connie's dismissive attitude toward Douglas and his exacting personality wore on me as a reader. On Douglas? Not so much.

In fact, inept at emotional intelligence, Douglas failed miserably at sensing the growing divide between he and his wife until the night she told him she "might" be leaving him. Ouch! Such a passive aggressive way of lowering the boom after twenty years. Connie deliberately leaves the door open and Douglas, thinking that there's still a chance of keeping his family intact, plans an elaborate European tour to celebrate their son Albie's high school graduation and their soon to be empty nest.

Nicholls alternates chapters between the current trip through France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with Doug's reminiscences of past excursions he and Connie took when their relationship was still new, before the death of their baby girl and the birth of their son Albie, a child who seemed to shrink from his dad from his first breath. The stronger the bond grew between Connie and Albie, the more Douglas was pushed to the periphery of the relationship, confused and uncomprehending. This trip, he believes, is the last chance he will have get to know his son and save his marriage.

This is a wistful kind of novel. The humor, while not the laugh out loud kind, is sardonic and the situations are oh so recognizable. I found myself hoping beyond hope that all would come right for Connie, Douglas and Albie even as I recognized that what might seem "right" to me might just not be what's right for them. This is a lovely book, a worthy nominee for the Booker prize. Just don't read it when you're down or blue. You wouldn't be giving it its due.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

It's never easy for me to bypass a book that has a photo of the Eiffel Tower gracing its cover, so the new Francine Prose was a must read.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Ms. Prose is a prolific and thoughtful writer whose books have intrigued me for years. Many of her works examine the duality of our human natures. I'm thinking of "A Changed Man," a story about a Neo-Nazi hoping to atone for his transgressions, or "Blue Angel," in which an aging literature professor tries to regain his glory days through the talent of a young, off-limits student.
With "Lovers at the Chameleon Club," Francine Prose steps fully and confidently into the historical fiction genre while retaining the nuanced psychological probing into the nature of evil. She builds slowly, but you'll be rewarded magnificently if you have patience and stay the course.
Multiple narrators, each with a very distinctive voice, tell the story which covers almost eighty years. Prose shifts her writing style every time she changes point of view, an amazing feat which I've enjoyed ever since Barbara Kingsolver used it in "The Poisonwood Bible." So we have a mash-up of young people, Gabor, a Hungarian photographer and his future wife Susanne, Lionel, an American writer, and Lily de Rossignol, the baroness with a passion for the arts, who thrill to the 1930's nightlife of a vibrant, all-encompassing Paris.
And all paths cross at the Chameleon Club where, like its color-shifting namesake lizard, men and women are free to be, for an evening at least, who they really are, gay, lesbian, transgender, cross-dressing human beings. It's here that Gabor will take the infamous photo, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, that will kick start his career and bring unwanted attention to the subject of that picture, Lou Villars.
I love a novel that makes you start to search for background material and there's a ton of it here. It seems that Prose based her Chameleon Club on a famous lesbian underground nightclub called Le Monocle.  And, I'm afraid that once I saw the above picture, Lou Villars was firmly planted in my mind.
Lou is a tragic figure in this novel, a young girl who never felt comfortable in her skin. A young woman who wanted to compete in sports with men. She loved women and though she was cared for in return, relationships didn't seem to last. Business ventures failed. Down on her luck, she was ripe for seduction, not for sex but for a stronger drive, love of country.
France, you see, was in a bad place. Prose describes it this way: "The very same government that, by raising taxes, permitting uncontrolled immigration, weakening the military, failing to control the national debt, and fostering skyrocketing unemployment, was making it impossible for them to feed their families and provide better lives for their children."
Sound familiar? Yes, many Frenchmen, like Villars, could only see one way forward, an easy fix, a return to conservatism.  As the Nazi storm troopers moved inexorably toward Paris many truly believed that Germany was coming to help France regain its pride of place in Europe. Lou was one of these.
Of course, historically we know how the story ends. Yet this amazing novel had me on the edge of my seat wondering and sadly asking, could it happen again? Could it happen here? Francine Prose is at the top of her game here as she tackles war, politics, art, sexual identity, loyalty and love. I see a book discussion in my future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Subjective Nature of Reviewing

I've been sitting here at the computer for going on four hours now trying to write an objective review of a book I really disliked. It doesn't happen often, though I'm less easily pleased the older I get. After all, I don't even have to mention the books I don't care for here on the blog. But this particular novel was sent to me by Library Journal and the deadline is Friday. It was the second one this month with which I was less than enthralled.

Of course, the author shall remain nameless until I can share it with you, but I feel like he's having me on and I just hate that. I want a writer to respect me as a reader and not fill up a novel with insider jokes and references that few folks would get. Is that asking too much? I just want a good story!

Between reading and getting my yard back in shape after a five month hiatus, I fear I've been derelict in my blogging duties. It's not that I don't have plenty on my mind but it's almost too frustrating, anger-inducing, and depressing to share. That would be politics, the media, and, of course, my brother's illness which seems to be relentlessly dogging him lately.

So tell me dear readers, what have you read lately? Contrary to what my sister thinks, it isn't always all about me! I need some recommendations - please. I have some fabulous forthcoming titles on my Nook but it hardly seems fair to rave about books you can't get hold of until 2015. Among them, Dennis Lehane's follow-up to the outstanding "Live By Night," a look at the Irish mobster Joe Coughlin and his takeover of the Cuban rum trade in Tampa, Florida. It's called "World Gone By," and will likely disappear from the ether if I don't get to it soon.

And then there's Stephanie Kallos's "Language Arts." Those of you who read her debut, "Broken for You," will know what I'm talking about - gorgeous prose. Oh, did you know that Anne Tyler has written "A Spool of Blue Thread" for a February publication date? Hey, it's almost November, don't despair. I think I'll have a give-a-way for it as soon as I've devoured it myself. Watch for it here. I'm reading as fast as I can.