First, a few words of explanation.
My usual habit is to read wildly disparate books, to completely shift gears. Because I’m so dazzled and heartened by the diversity in this world. It’s one way of participating in the diversity…I also like and appreciate that this habit is mind- and heart-expanding.
I’ve been posting my thoughts on amazon and I flirted with Goodreads, but I think maybe it’s better to tuck my reviews here with all my other stuff. Enjoy, comment if you wish. Yes, of course, spoilers…can’t be avoided.
Being a reader has made me a writer, and also a better, and braver, writer. I would also like to add: for many years, first as a young bookworm and continuing into my college career as a lit major, I hesitated to have or share opinions about books. Part of that may have been my respect for the authors, but in looking back I also think it had to do with lacking confidence or not trusting myself. How should I presume? Well. Now I’m older, I’ve done some living, I’ve done some writing of my own, and I’ve never stopped reading–and my responses and opinions are more evident to me. I understand that they are mine. Your mileage may vary, etc. We all each of us have a voice, a mind, and a heart. Here I am, finding mine, better late than never.
Louise Penny, Dead Cold (also published as A Fatal Grace)
“More than the mystery”
Fans of Canadian author Louise Penny don’t need to be persuaded to read this book, or any other title in her (now, what…?) 14-book Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec series. These are always a good read. I haven’t read them all and, perhaps regrettably (ensuing confusion about subtle subplots), I haven’t read them in order. This is the second one, after Still Life, which I also relished.
The pleasure of a mystery novel is trying to solve who did it before you reach the end of the book. Because, like any good mystery writer, Penny leaves bits of evidence and hints. I haven’t always, but I did figure out this one. Taking Gamache’s own primary advice, I listened with ears and heart.
For me, what makes books in this series such a different and rewarding experience is that, unlike, say, a Sue Grafton or a Tony Hillerman (two others I enjoy in this genre), I don’t feel like staying up all night rushing to the end or even peeking ahead. In fact, even with building tension, I don’t want the book to end.
In lesser hands, the evocative details of the settings and the passing days would be a distraction or, to an anxious reader, too many “red herrings.” Penny’s style makes me slow down and savor. Particularly the food and drink. C’mon, who wouldn’t want to sit by the fireplace in Gabri and Olivier’s country bistro and sip a brandy? Or better yet, enjoy “a rack of lamb, sending out an aroma of garlic and rosemary…tiny potatoes and steamed green beans rounding out the plate, [along with] a basket of steaming rolls and a small dish of butter balls.” I’d swirl my fine red wine in my glass and sigh happily, too. Don’t even get me started on the breakfast offerings (of course, fresh hot croissants) or the scene with the rich homemade chocolate cake and dark-roast coffee. I’m so there!
And the weather. As the title suggests, this one takes place in amid snow and ice. “Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard even to distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.” This is exactly so. Does it advance the plot? No. It just…puts the reader there.
Penny’s also generous with her characters, sharing bits of their backstories, vulnerable emotions, and hidden thoughts. All are so human, even the bad guy(s). “I often think,” Gamache confides to a subordinate, “we should have tattooed to the back of whatever hand we use to shoot or write, ‘I might be wrong.'”
Words to live by, really. At the heart of this and her other tales is an abiding belief that bad or criminal humans aren’t evil, they’re hurting. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s naive. There is a deep strength in her Gamache that allows him to explore and solve homicides, to go into the darkness, then return to the light, the good world, “grateful” and savoring people and places he cares about, not to mention those occasional bistro visits. What is that deep strength? I have known a few people who work with the bad in this world (jail guards, cops, politicians, social workers, even teachers), and they get so depleted, discouraged, bitter, and in the worst times, poisoned. What is that deep strength? For me, that’s the main mystery of this and her other titles.
Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
“All the feels!!”
Oh, I do so look forward to a new Anne Lamott book, which is usually a gift from another fan, one of my dear sisters or one of my dear friends. I want to settle down with it in a cozy, quiet room and read it with attention, and savor it. Like a special box of See’s Candy chocolate! But also like excellent chocolate, an Anne Lamott book brings me some mixed feelings, including but not limited to hope, woe, misgivings, inadequacy, ambition, and grace. Not to mention annoyance that she has the know-it-all niche in the book marketplace and a teensy tiny bit of jealousy that I seem to have no niche in the book marketplace. Also she makes me laugh out loud sometimes, and cry other times. All the f-ing feels.
First of all, no matter how ideal the reading conditions are, there is just no way I can read a book by this wise woman quickly. I pause when she tosses a piquant thought–“Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger” or “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves”–and have to digest, while my mind sparks off like a pinball, yes, just as noisy and chaotic as a pinball. How true is it? What moment or whom does it remind me of? So many memories, old and new pains and pangs and loves and fears and hopes. Okay, on one level, this is great, successful writing because it is engendering rich responses in the reader. On the other hand, it’s damned distracting.
I appreciate her, though, really. Her messages (for all her books are variations on a theme) of humor and forgiveness and awe and helping are utterly reasonable and bear repeating. Because life is hard and messy, absolutely, and as long as we live and breathe we damn sure should live and breathe.
Paul Gallico, The Snow Goose
This is a very slender, short book, a story. It was given to me long ago by my maternal grandmother; I see that she dated it 1971, so, my 10th birthday. What a book to give a child! Did I read it then? I can’t remember. I read it now, many decades and miles away.
It’s set in the marshes on the Essex coast, England, in the 1930s and ’40s. Marshes where fresh water meets the sea, with their beaches and channels and muck and grasses and migrating birds, would have meant nothing to me as a child growing up in suburban southern California, but Gallico paints a vivid picture. He gives us the “grey and blues and soft greens,” “under sombre skies,” conjuring up painterly images. He includes the constancy of the tides and seasons, the commotion of the birds, the brackish smells. There is also a ruin of a lighthouse and remains of what was once fencing poking out of where the sea has washed in past a breach in an old sea wall. How that spot came to be that way is the story.
This lonely site was once inhabited by a man named Philip Rhayader, who was a hunchback and also had a deformed hand. He retreated from the world that shunned him and had no place for him. The lighthouse had been abandoned, but there he was able to make a home. Great flocks came through and wintered over; he ended up making fenced enclosures and, if not befriending the wild creatures, at least providing them sanctuary/protection from the hunters who did not trespass on his domain, and offering them some shelter and food. Despite his handicaps, he had a good and busy life, using a small boat adeptly to run errands, explore, and observe the bird life, creating the pens, and painting his surroundings and the birds.
Into this spot came a girl from the village, Frith or Fritha (why the uncertainty, Mr. Gallico? to keep her at an emotional distance?), bearing a bird wounded by the local hunters. She was afraid of Rhayader because of the way he looked but determined to help the bird. It was a snow goose–a Canadian bird, very far indeed from its native lands. He was able to patch it up, and he shared with her his theory of how a big storm must have cast it far off its natural course. They began a sort of a friendship. The snow goose ended up leaving each spring with the native wildfowl, heading far north to their breeding grounds in Iceland and Spitzbergen. When it returned with the rest in the fall, he would joyously leave word with the postmistress in the village and Frith would come out to visit. It was a distinctive and beautiful bird, like no other. It returned most years.
Then, Dunkirk. Here again, reading this book as a child, I would have had no clue at all about WWII or the Dunkirk evacuation, but the grandmother who gave me this book surely did. Rhayader took his boat, bid a dismayed Frith goodbye after explaining how the help of all small boats was needed, and headed out. The snow goose elected to accompany him and that’s the last she ever saw of them together. The story goes that he saved many of the trapped soldiers in those desperate days, and some veterans later told tales of seeing the strange white bird and considering it an omen that they were going to live. Frith waited in vain for his return, now realizing that she loved him. The bird did return briefly to offer a farewell. She then went into his living space and found a painting she’d never seen of herself as a child, standing in his doorway with the wounded goose in her arms. She took it and left. Not long after “a German pilot on a dawn raid mistook the old abandoned light for an active military target, dived on it like a screaming steel hawk, and blew it and all it contained into oblivion.”
I sat stunned at story’s end, tears rolling down my face. I thought briefly of another war story I read last year, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and how so many, many people and places were damaged and destroyed…throughout Europe. What made this “war sucks” story hurt more was that it was so small and so delicate. Nor are we to believe that nature really recovers from the doings of men.
Why did my grandmother give this story to a 10-year-old kid? She perhaps wanted to show me a truth of the world and of her lifetime. Though I’m an adult now, the vulnerability of the world seems sharper than ever to me.
I’ve always really kind of hated stories where something good and noble is obliterated and love is denied until it is too late. In addition to “war is hell,” my tears came for these reasons. So I imagined a conversation with Granny, and now I’m 10 again, stamping my feet and sobbing, “why???” or even “it’s not fair!” But the answers are already in the story, aren’t they? The bird survived an ordeal and lived, and adapted to new landscapes, and found a new home. It came back almost every year. Rhayader actually had a good and satisfying life. He made beautiful paintings that outlived him, especially one. He and Frith shared a friendship and yes, a love, before it was too late. He died “being a man” and contributing to something important. He died so others could live. “Almost” is often the way of the world, and something is better than nothing at all and maybe even a lot. Perhaps that is also the wisdom of this sad little story, something my grandmother thought I should know.
David Sedaris, Holidays on Ice
“Is this guy funny?”
I heard this guy was funny. “A master of humor.” “Sardonic wit.” This book perennially appears in holiday displays in bookstores. I read his candid account of being a Macy’s Elf (“SantaLand Diaries”) in some other context and was both horrified and amused as he skewered the store’s training and policies, the management, his colleague elves and Santas, and especially the vain, ridiculous, greedy, hapless visitors. This year <sigh> somebody gave me a copy, touting it as “hilarious!!!” Reluctantly, I sat down to reread that essay and dive into the others that follow it in this slim volume.
My impression of the Macy’s SantaLand essay hasn’t changed because, well, people haven’t changed. The camcorders and film cameras he alludes to have been replaced by cell phones and posting to Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, etc., but other than that, it holds up. Elves aren’t always merry, some Santas are nutty or horndogs, and children are still bullied into “holiday cheer” by helicopter parents. Did I really need to be reminded of how small we all are, at the most wonderful time of the year? But seriously, this famous essay is no fun.
Onward to “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!,” lampooning a suburban family holiday newsletter that predictably reveals the writer and her family to be utterly dysfunctional. The punch line comes when a Vietnamese girl who moved into their home (the dad’s Vietnam-war love child) evidently misunderstands “watch the baby” (born to their drug-addicted daughter and her tattooed boyfriend and now being raised by the grandmother who is narrating) as “wash the baby.” A vigorous run through the laundry machine kills the infant. Nice. Ha. Ha. Ha. Perhaps we are meant to conclude that our narrator is vapid and racist and their lives richly deserve this nasty satirization and tragedy (I am trying not to type “tragedy”). Struck me as frat-boy humor. Meh. Same with a subsequent piece reviewing elementary-school holiday plays in the pretentious tones of a churlish theater critic. It didn’t work for me. Sure these shows are amateurish, but nobody (not the kids, not the adoring and enduring parents, not the schools) emerged unscathed from Sedaris’s lavish ridicule. Umm, why? Does this fellow have no sense of humor? Can’t he lighten up?
Happy to report he can. “Jesus Shaves,” an account of the students in a beginning French class trying to explain Easter–from Jesus’s resurrection to the Easter Bunny–to one of their classmates (a baffled Muslim woman from Morocco) is indeed hilarious. No humans were sneered at in the making of this particular essay. Well, not overmuch.
But most of the book is truly dreary and unfunny, even if he does have a way with words. At the root of these essays and stories is his general contempt for people. Snark for its own sake just doesn’t do it for me, sorry. Should I lighten up?
Jane Austen, Emma
“Jane Austen’s Control-Freak Heroine”
So, I was persuaded to the couch for the purpose of checking out an episode of “Downton Abbey.” I’m a middle-class American, why do I want to view the trials and tribulations of some fabulously wealthy turn-of-the-century Brits in their swanky home? I’d glimpsed a trailer wherein a lovely young woman was fretting because her Lady’s Maid was unavailable: how on earth was she going to dress herself for the ball? Sulkily, I sat and watched. And despite myself, I became captivated—not by the ‘who will dress me?’ dilemma but by the dignity of the head chef and the struggles of the closeted gay butler. And Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was, it must be admitted, irresistible, even when she didn’t speak but arched an eyebrow or departed a room in a huff.
But I checked out of the series after a while. It wasn’t just the rape of one of the downstairs girls, it was the fussy woes and relentless disasters. You wish people could just live and work, but I guess that’s not a television script.
But boring rich English people can certainly be found in other entertainments. The PBS series of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice showed the young women posed on divans in dim sitting rooms, holding open books in front of their faces and trying not to keel over from the tedium. While some may tell us that Jane Austen profiled the aristocracy of Edwardian England with documentary accuracy, the whiff of feminism is present: some of these young women were smart and curious and chafing against a confining social system. Never mind spending hours pretending to read. Though it looked like they were marking time until they scored a suitable suitor (preferably a rich neighbor), they longed for meaningful dialogue or a life that mattered.
Remembering those women, I decided one snowy winter weekend to try another Austen tale, Emma. This time, I read the book, Austen’s own words. Well, my goodness! Once again, our heroine is rich and has a fine house and endures moments of boredom with her equally fancy friends. In one scene they are so bored that bossy Emma is able to talk everyone into a clumsy game of charades. <Yawn.>
I plowed on, remembering the gay butler and the wry Dowager of Downton Abbey, muttering to myself, “these are meant to be humans.” I did not expect more than to be diverted while stuck indoors in inclement weather. Lucky for me, my drawing room is comfy and I wasn’t awaiting any callers.
Imagine my surprise when an element of Emma’s story began to resonate. If you don’t know the plot, it is essentially the story of a young lady who meddles in the lives of her friends, playing matchmaker, making “suggestions” subtle and overt, planning and fulminating over dramas of her own contrivance. In short, Emma is not merely bossy, she is a control freak.
Again and again, Emma is shown to be dead wrong. She misreads a situation, she underestimates somebody, she sets events in motion that turn out differently than she meant them to, she blunderingly thwarts the natural order of things.
I sat up on the couch to keep reading. This had my attention. Because the narrative still followed the heroine’s thoughts, rather than stepping outside and judging. Jane Austen was basically addressing “what if what I think turns out to be quite wrong?” Haven’t we all been there?
Emma’s responses were more nuanced than I would have expected.
Emma was riding high until she wasn’t. She was ignoring the red flags and hurtling onward till her moment of humbling. And when it comes—a ruh-roh moment—our heroine does not cling ferociously to her illusions. Which, having been a control freak myself upon occasion <cough>, I found intriguing. She stops. She laments, and grieves. She thinks back, ruefully reviewing the signs she missed. Also, she now notices and ponders the gaps—the things she did not know and could not know.
So to say Emma is repeatedly humbled is not quite right. I think she is a good thinker. Her strong self esteem becomes an asset. Learning to admit when you are wrong is a universal struggle few of us escape. Learning how to move past admitting you were in error—to fresh thinking, to humility, to making amends, to shutting the hell up, to learning to “live and let live,” to gaining a new understanding of what friendship really can be—well, those are concepts worth exploring.
Richard Wright, Native Son
“Remarkable and disturbing”
This is a remarkable and disturbing novel, all the more so when I am reading it in 2018 and it was published back in 1940. There are still Bigger Thomases, and ignorant and cruel white racists, what has changed? This is *not* a hyperbolic or rhetorical question: look around you, follow the news, listen.
Some may criticize the book for its theoretical/archetypal nature and themes (did Bigger truly think and feel such things? is Max for real?) but I perceive those things as strengths. It is always hard to dig down and relay truth. It’s hard to even know what truth is when one is sorely oppressed; you get divorced from reality and have no bearings, are not in touch with/have no words for your feelings. Wright’s impressive achievement is that he went there, and came back and told the tale.
As the book proceeded, I feared it was going to be a bit like Lolita, in that the author was taking us inside a depraved mind and making it hard for us to stand outside and have perspective on the heinous crimes he committed. Let’s just say this character and this author are much more complicated.
The character of Besse broke my heart and almost made me stop reading altogether, her situation was so painful and hopeless (who cares about a black woman in this story?). We know he is not tried for her death; it was more horrific that her dead and battered body was used as evidence/an exhibit (would it have been still worse if nobody had ever found her and her life and her death were forgotten?). Ugh. Tears.
Wright pulled off an ambitious, brave, heart-rending, and righteous story. Respect!
Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse
“Delicious little fantasy”
Now, to sit down and read this book, and finish it, especially in this day and age, definitely requires a suspension of disbelief. On one level is the classic plot of a plain girl (an orphan!) who not only finds out that she is in fact a princess but also discovers her own courage and powers. Along the way–Little Princess style–she finds beautiful clothing, a cozy fire, and sugar cookies laid out in her pretty little new bedroom, a fantasy friend who turns out to be real, and a mother figure who instantly loves and embraces her.
Also the birds, pets, and flowers of garden and field are abundantly beautiful and precious. A bit over the top even. Perhaps not unlike facing a tea prepared by Marmaduke: “Plum cake. Saffron cake. Cherry cake. Iced fairy cakes. Eclairs. Gingerbread. Meringues. Syllabub. Almond fingers. Rock cakes. Chocolate drops…”
And then there are the names! A perfect happy little British village called Silverydew. Marmaduke Scarlet. Jane Heliotrope. Loveday Minette. Prudence Honeybun. Peterkin Pepper. Goudge has out-cuted Beatrix Potter.
Also: scrolling through the reviews here I also notice a reader remarking, “Some of the plot hinges on aspects of Britain’s de facto caste system that I don’t respect…” Right.
Never mind all that, dearies. Let’s go for a ride.
Lodged in all this fantastic and endearing-to-treacly sweetness and adventure, you will also find piquant moments that elevate the book. Having read other books by Goudge, I was watching for such moments and I was not disappointed. I loved when our heroine, confronting her stout, rich uncle to tell him the news that he would have to stop profiting from some grazing sheep: ‘My income will be considerably depleted,’ said Sir Benjamin in rather dry tones. ‘You could eat less,’ suggested Maria helpfully. LOL!
Or how about the explanation for how Robin was able to visit far-off London? “We are really all of us two people, a body person and a spirit person, and when the body person is asleep the spirit person, who lives inside it like a letter inside an envelope, can come out and go on journeys.” The stuff dreams are made of. I stopped reading the book for a while and sat with that and found it to be insightful and, so very Elizabeth Goudge.
And last but not least, this thought on wickedness and evil: “Wicked men do suffer from fatigue a great deal, for wickedness is a very fatiguing thing.” Maybe Dick Cheney and Donald Trump are exhausted and will die in their fitful sleep? I dared to interject for a moment…
Like other readers, a reason I picked up this book was because it was endorsed by J.K. Rowling (“I absolutely adored”). Why did she adore it? Maybe for some of the same reasons I ended up enjoying it. It’s charming and occasionally, like a glimpse of light from another world or a parallel universe, wise.