Shouting Out to Book Lovers   Leave a comment

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel is subtitled “The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life.”  For anyone who’s ever been called a book worm, a book lover or a bibliophile, Bogel’s nonfiction narrative serves as affirmation of the joys and quandaries associated with reading. Yet her tone is a superior rather than embracing or endearing.

In several short chapters across less than 200 pages, the author addresses everything from being asked for book recommendations to organizing bookshelves and much more. It’s relatable to those who’d rather be in the throes of a good book than almost anything else.

Although I associate with many who feel the same way I do about reading, I’d like to think I’m not a snob when interacting with those who don’t. I don’t consider myself better than anyone who enjoys other activities, perhaps just more enriched. (This is not intended to sound disdainful.)

Bogel’s book affirms what we readers already know: we are drawn into well-written stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. Well-crafted sentences, vivid images and compelling tales are hard to beat.

Nonetheless, this book is for those interested in a quick read about all there is to love about reading — even if much is common knowledge. It also recognizes the occasional pitfalls that can come with preferring fictional characters to some living, breathing ones. (OK, so I can be a snob sometimes, too!)

I’d Rather Be Reading

Three Bookmarks

Baker Books, 2018

155 pages, including Works Referenced and Acknowledgements

Living With Tragedy   Leave a comment

I recently discovered the unexpected pleasure of Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One, which had been buried in my nightstand stack. (The unforeseen is or should be, after all, one of the joys of picking up a new book.)

Through richly developed characters, smooth transitions of the progression of time and several relatable subthemes, Anshaw has crafted a meaningful story about the impact of tragedy – even when there are degrees of separation from it.

Soon after Carmen’s wedding reception, five guests including her siblings Alice and Nick and their partners Maude and Olivia, who are all on drugs or drunk, are involved in an accident. On a dark, deserted road their car runs over a young girl.

Each passenger, as well as the wedding couple, deal with the accident in different ways. Olivia, who was driving is sent to prison where she undergoes a dramatic personality change. Alice immerses herself in her art by painting portraits of the deceased girl as she would have grown up. Carmen, who was not in the car, engages in community activism; and Nick, who is overwhelmed with guilt, tries to overcome his addictions in order to be the man Olivia insists he become.

Their success in their respective endeavors varies as time passes. This progression is smooth. It’s subtly indicated through someone’s birthday, a current event and the age of a beloved dog – among other observations.

Anshaw incorporates wry humor in this engaging, relevant narrative while portraying vivid emotional pain through familial and romantic love.

Carry the One

Four+ Bookmarks

Simon & Schuster, 2012

253 pages

Lives collide through writing and reading   Leave a comment

Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being philosophically considers the relationship between writer and reader. It’s an intriguing idea connected to numerous topics shared from the two main characters’ perspectives: one from Nao writing a diary; the other through Ruth as her reader.

Nao is a 16-year-old girl whose family recently returned to Tokyo from Northern California where she’d lived most of her life. She plans to write in her diary about her 104-year-old great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun. However, the more Nao writes, the less it’s about Jiko. Instead, she details the bullying she endures in her new school, her father’s depression and his suicide attempts. As Nao writes, she addresses her reader as if it is a single person. After all, reading is a solo experience.

Through unknown circumstances, the diary washes up on a sparsely populated island in Western Canada where Ruth and her artist/naturalist husband live. The book is in a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a collection of letters and an antique wristwatch. The letters are another cause for intrigue as Ruth discovers they were written by Nao’s uncle, a kamikaze pilot.

Ozeki describes the unforgiving conditions of island life; it’s not a place of sandy beaches and calm seas. Rather, the threat of powerful storms, rocky terrain and limited access to goods and services requires resilient residents.

As Ruth reads she comes to care about Nao and her family; she even searches for their whereabouts.  Nao, of course, knows nothing of Ruth’s existence.

A Tale for the Time Being

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2013

422, includes appendices

Murder, cabinetry and amateur sleuthing   Leave a comment

The Grenadillo Box by Janet Gleeson is a fast-paced mystery blending intrigue with humor while providing a glimpse into 18th century British social standings and related expectations.

Nathanial Hopson is apprenticed to renowned master cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. Although by all accounts, much of the artistry is at the hands of his many apprentices, including Hopson’s dear friend John Partridge, who’s suddenly gone missing.

Chippendale sends Hopson to complete work on an elaborate library in a country estate. Soon after his arrival, the lord of the manor is found dead. The cause of death is ruled suicide, however, Hopson suspects foul play. When another body is found on the property, Hopson believes the two deaths are related. An investigation ensues led by amateur sleuth Hopson. He’s a thoughtful young man but not averse to enjoying good times when they surface.

Among the clues is a small, intricately-carved box, which in itself is a puzzle with no obvious way to determine its contents. Meanwhile, the Lord’s gambling debts, his son ready to lay claim to the estate and its anticipated riches, along with a much younger wife provide plenty of motives.

Adding further intrigue are missing sets of Chippendale’s original drawings, which the celebrated craftsman charges his apprentice to locate.

In the midst of Hopson’s search for answers, Gleeson vividly describes the noises, sights and odors of the seediest parts of London. These images are contrasted with the wealth and comfort of the upper classes.

The Grenadillo Box

Four+ Bookmarks

Bantam Books, 2002

416 pages

Grief Among the Living   Leave a comment

When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River, the impact of her death weighs heavily on her parents, her older sister Johnnie Rae and the Black community in Georgetown where they live.

Although Breena Clarke’s novel, River, Cross My Heart could more easily be titled River, Break My Heart, how pre-teen Johnnie Rae processes her sister’s accident is the most interesting aspect. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes describing the residents, many who moved to this Washington, D.C., neighborhood from the south seeking a better life. By all accounts, their situations were greatly improved: jobs for the adults and schools for the children.

Johnnie Rae was tasked with caring for Clara, something she both resented and took seriously. She had only taken her eyes off the younger girl for a few minutes, and despite multiple efforts to save Clara from in the fast moving water, Johnnie Rae has no clear memory of what happened. Later, she is certain the new girl in school is Clara incarnate.

Unsurprisingly, though they were better off, the jobs were menial and opportunities were both limited and unequal. The latter is something Johnnie Rae finds especially irksome in the form of a nearby whites-only swimming pool. The Potomac is the only place she and her friends can swim and play in the water. Johnnie Rae is a natural born swimmer; something she does with ease and grace. It’s never clear how she came to be so adept. Nonetheless, being in the water is where she feels she is most herself. Eventually, a new pool opens for Blacks where she joins the swim team.

Clarke’s descriptions of the circa 1925 neighborhood, its residents and the Bynum family’s loss are vivid. However, framing this as a series of short stories rather than a novel would be more effective; there are too many detours to form a clear plot.

River, Cross My Heart

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Little, Brown and Co., 1999

245 pages

A luxurious meal in many ways   2 comments

I’d like to say I was nonchalant about dining at the exclusive Polo Lounge where I was recently the guest of a generous friend. Except I wasn’t. From the moment we turned into the drive leading to the entrance of the Beverly Hills Hotel, it was an effort not to gape at the beautiful surroundings and of the luxury represented.

As awe-inspiring as the setting is, it was overshadowed by the meal. We started with hummus. This, like everything we were served, was beautifully plated. Creamy, house made hummus sprinkled with feta is surrounded by fresh, raw vegies and grilled pieces of pita. This, also like everything served, was a substantial appetizer easily shared among four.

The lunch entrees range from salads to fish tacos, from pasta to prawns, from burgers to steak – and more. I opted for the American Wagyu hamburger. This not only took two hands to hold, but two napkins were needed in an effort to keep juicy messes from running down my chin onto my clothing. This was no ordinary burger. It featured onions caramelized in sherry, a bright orange heirloom tomato, white cheddar cheese, arugula – and for extra measure avocado slices. The brioche bun was slathered with Dijon aioli.

We finished with a decadent strawberry shortcake sundae featuring fresh strawberries, cotton candy, strawberry ice cream and more.

Polo Lounge is the place where celebrities come to be seen and ignored. I was there for the food ambiance and shared friendship: none disappointed.

Polo Lounge

The Beverly Hills Hotel

9641 Sunset Blvd.

Beverly Hills, Calif.

(Unfortunately, there were problems with my camera that day.)

Never-ending espionage   Leave a comment

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription blends humor, to be more specific it’s dry British wit, with espionage in 1940s London.

Juliet Armstrong is recruited by M15 to transcribe the recordings of conversations among British fascist sympathizers. Juliet is an unlikely candidate for such a role. She’s only 18-years-old, naïve and completely unprepared for the job, which she discovers is a learn-as-you-go experience.

Her role soon evolves from a transcriber to that of a spy – again something for which she has neither experience nor aptitude. She is somewhat successful, however, in inserting herself among the fascists; although she faces a number of close calls and near misses of having her true identify revealed.

Ten years later, Juliet is surprised to be approached by M15 again, long after she was certain her connection with the organization was over. Though older, she retains much of her naiveté and is again thrust into dealing with espionage related to a more subtle war.

Atkinson’s characters are easy to visualize. Their proper British mannerisms and decorum, even when dealing with undercover activities, is amusing. Some conversations and situations take on a near slap-stick style, resulting in some laugh-out-loud moments. Fortunately, it’s far more subtle than pie-in-the-face action.

An element of pathos exists in Juliet’s personality based on her inability to initially recognize the control M15 has on her life.

Transcription

Four Bookmarks

Back Bay Books, 2018

339 pages, including Author’s notes and sources

A fairy tale’s heroine   1 comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel, which
blends a familiar theme in the guise of a Russian folktale.

While this is more fantasy than classic Russian literature, the author does rely                                              on its characteristics, such as the patriarchal society and descriptions of                                                medieval Russia.

Vasya, whose mother died in childbirth, is a rebellious young girl; which
intensifies as she grows older. Yet, she’s sensitive to the world around her,
particularly aspects others either can’t or won’t acknowledge. This includes
woodland apparitions, water nymphs and household spirits.

Vasya’s father remarries and brings his young, extremely religious wife,
Anna, to his home in a remote village near the forest’s edge. Despite her pious
devotion, she is a malicious stepmother. She forbids the family from honoring
or acknowledging their household spirits. This, and the arrival of a priest who
supports Anna, ensures the family and villagers will endure bad luck.

The novel isn’t initially engaging, but gains momentum as Arden’s writing
becomes more vivid and her characters more fully developed. The harsh winter is
a significant element of the narrative.

The title is derived from the combating attributes of the woodland folklore
creatures and Vasya’s ultimate role with them.

It’s necessary to suspend disbelief and remind oneself that fear and joy are
part of fairy tales. This helps in recognizing the absence of nuance: there is
evil or good; magic or reality; but always a surprise.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Almost Four bookmarks

Del Ray, 2017

333 pages (includes glossary of Russian terms, Reader’s Guide and author
interview)

When a detective leaves town   Leave a comment

Even when detectives go on vacation, there’s always a crime scene nearby. What sets Devices and Desires by P.D. James apart from the pack is that Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgleish isn’t the one to solve it – at least not overtly.

Dalgleish has inherited his deceased aunt’s house, a converted lighthouse, on England’s Northern coast near a nuclear power plant. He leaves London to work on the house and to consider what to do with it.

A serial killer is on the loose in Norfolk, which keeps tensions taut. Known as “The Whistler”, the killer’s prey are young women. Yet, this is only one of the numerous threads running through the novel. The local authorities acknowledge Dalgliesh’s presence, but are determined to the find the culprit on their own. His eventual involvement is part of the mystery.

Chapters are brief, only one to four pages, and the story covers the period of a few weeks: September 15 to October 6.

The landscape descriptions are vivid, as are the townspeople’s quirks. Dalgliesh figures into many of James’ novels. Here he has just published his second book of poetry, which is less cause for celebration than might be expected. There’s an underlying cynicism regarding this accomplishment by many Dalgliesh comes into contact with.

Other themes include illicit liaisons and the dangers of atomic energy. The large number of characters also weighs down the narrative. Although some are intelligent and interesting, the problem is that there are too many to keep track of.

Devices and Desires

Three bookmarks

Warner Books, 1989

466 pages

Another Kind of American Odyssey   Leave a comment

Of the authors, dead or alive, who’d prompt me to be a groupie is Amor Towles (obviously among the latter category). His newest novel, The Lincoln Highway, is nearly 600 pages and I couldn’t wait to get lost in it. I did have to wait awhile for a copy, but once I held it in hand I felt like a kid on the first day of school: excited and apprehensive about what was to come.

Emmett Watson has just returned to his rural Nebraska home having served time for involuntary manslaughter. He plans to start a new life in Texas with his eight-year-old, wise-beyond-his-years brother, Billy, who has other ideas: to head west. He’s certain they’ll find their estranged mother in San Francisco and insists they travel the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast route.

However, Emmett’s friends, Duchess and Woolly from the work farm, appear having stowed away in the trunk of a car. They have different plans for traveling the Highway, and they steal Emmett’s prized Studebaker to head east.

Emmett and Billy’s story becomes one of reclaiming not only the car but their journey’s purpose; Duchess and Woolly have other goals. All their adventures involve a cast of characters from the sublime to the absurd. What’s initially Emmett’s story soon becomes Duchess’s – his are the first person voice chapters; the others use third person voice.

The Lincoln Highway is an odyssey filled with heroes and monsters. It’s also where friends become family – with some selfish members and some more likeable than others.

The Lincoln Highway

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Viking Books, 2021

576 pages