Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s novel about Ernest Hemingway’s wife Hadley was one of those books I let go in and out of the shop while it was bestselling, but had on my “as soon as it slows down, I’m taking it downstairs to read” list.

I guess I missed the window. Out of state recently in a thrift store, I found it lying on a neglected shelf of musty, curling books for a quarter. Although we typically eschew buying books for cash, there seemed only one course of action….

I admit that Hemingway’s Missing Suitcase of Work (if you’re not familiar with this cautionary tale, google it) has fascinated me for years, sorta like the Bermuda Triangle. So I anticipated really enjoying this book.

While I liked it, I didn’t love it, and that’s mostly down to how well McLain describes her characters. They don’t come off as nice people, the Stein/Fitzgerald/Anderson glitterati set inhabiting Paris between the wars. They come off as vapid and aggressive. Which means McLean is a really good writer.

She doesn’t try to sound like Hemingway. Hadley, as first person narrator of the book–and Hemingway’s first wife if not his first love–sounds like a lot of women trying to be their own person and also satisfy a guy.

McLain deals well with the added tensions of artistic competitiveness, both within the marriage and between the glittering members of the lit set. If you know a lot about Hemingway’s life, seeing these events from a close-but-not-the-same point of view is interesting–particularly the lost suitcase, a pivotal yet fairly quiet event just after the novel’s middle. It has the feel of just another day in the life, as McLain has written it–a bad day, but not coming out of the writing’s character to trumpet “And from that moment to this….!” There is no literary anachronism in this book.

I am glad I got to read it, but it won’t go down in history as a favorite. It turned out to be more interesting to me in relation to the Paris writing yuppies than as its own work. Which is likely why many people read it. It doesn’t disappoint, and I think it’s odd that the thing that shows what a good writer McLean is, is the thing that consigned the book to “meh” for me: that she shows the character and flawed core of all those literary heroes.

She did such a good job, I didn’t like them, or her book. But I liked her writing. Go figger. :]

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The Monday Book: THE LAST KABBALIST by Richard Zimler

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a BIG book. (I like big….. yes, okay.) It came into our shop years ago and I took it upstairs to read, and became engrossed. Read it in three nights. Then I put it back in the shop, and when I started writing the Monday Book blog, I couldn’t remember the name!

Just yesterday another copy came into the shop, and I recognized it instantly, grabbed it, and wrote this for y’all.

This is a GOOD read if you like historic epics intertwined with realistic characters. Richard Zimler’s story takes place soon after Lisbon’s 1506 massacre of “New Christians,” when the powder keg of Muslim, Christian, Jewish interaction ignited. For those unfamiliar, in the late 1400s a lot of Jews were living in Portugal, which had proved the most tolerant of the countries available to them. But in 1497(ish) Jews were hauled en masse to Christian baptism fonts and pretty much converted against their will to Christianity.

That should have kept them safe, but the world being what it is, it didn’t. Zimler’s epic picks up at the point where rumblings have started again.

The Last Kabbalist is a fascinating depiction of the interaction between not only these BIG categories of religions, but the smaller divisions and hidden links between them. Subsets of Jews and Muslims and Christians act independently within their religions, following the threads of their own lives: desire for knowledge, compassion, anger, vengeance.

And human hearts are never simple anyway. Berekiah is a young illuminator (an illustrator) who finds his uncle murdered– his uncle who apprenticed him and is the sole of religious dignity, dead with a naked girl beside him. So there’s a mystery, but also Berekiah needs to survive the riots, he’s in love with a girl, and he’s kinda trying to hold his family together.

At times awful in its depictions of violence, always insightful into how people have helped and harmed each other since history was recorded, Kabbalist is a gripping read. You felt like you could see, smell, taste, and feel the terror, hope, and desperate planning of those trying to survive.

A word of warning: don’t start Kabbalist unless you have time to read for awhile. You’re not going to put it down easily.

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The Monday Book: OUR FAMILY OUTING by Joe Cobb and Leigh Anne Taylor

a guest review by Beth O’Connor

Imagine for a moment that you have two small children, and your husband is one of four pastors at the large church where you are the minister of music. Now imagine what would happen when your husband determines that he can no longer deny the fact that he is gay.

Pain. Denial. Pain. Self-doubt. Pain. Anger. Pain. Shame. Pain. And more pain. An ocean of pain that threatened to drown everything. Yet, as deep as the ocean is, their faith in God was deeper. It was the lifeline they used to haul themselves up out of the darkness.

This is Our Family Outing, the autobiographical story Joe Cobb and Leigh Ann Taylor published in 2011 via TotalPublishingAndMedia. Told in alternating voices, Our Family Outing details Cobb and Taylor’s journey from being one very traditional family to two families who are anything but. All of the emotions in the process are poured out, from Taylor’s worst fear (What if my husband infects me with AIDS and leaves our children orphaned) to Cobb’s greatest joy (the birth of his and his partner’s second adoptive child).

Full disclosure: I discovered this book because Taylor is currently the music minister at the church I attend and my church book club went to her signing event. The book starts at the end, with Cobb and Taylor determining that they need to share their story with the world. The memoir takes you from the days they first started dating in seminary, to deciding how to tell their friends, family and co-workers, to creating separate lives in which everyone is loved and accepted for who they are.

The book can be awkward to read as Cobb and Taylor refused to avoid any of the uncomfortable situations in which they found themselves. As a reader, you will feel as though you accidently stumbled into someone’s private conversation and cannot find a way to escape from the room without being discovered. The description of their lives is deeply personal – such as Cobb’s fear that a lover from his high school years will give away his secret, to Taylor relating that early in the process her husband, “my favorite companion” did not smile at her for a year and a half.

Cobb and Taylor are not professional writers, and it shows – the writing is often clunky and disjointed. However, instead of distracting from the narrative, the raw style serves to underline how very real the story is. The book comes full circle, with the oldest of Cobb’s adoptive children playing The Game of Life and noting that everyone is along for the ride.

 

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The Monday Book: PATRON SAINT OF UGLY by Maria Manilla

ugly coverThe author of this book is a facebook friend of mine, and I got it directly from her by request, because I like books set in Appalachia and wanted to review it. It’s a  magical realism romp, set in Sweetwater, West Virginia. Normally I’m not much for magical realism, but the cast of character in Ugly just won’t quit, from the indomitable Nonna to her fierce-yet-naive granddaughter Garnet Ferrari.

Garnet has a mop of flaming red hair, and the port-wine stains all over her body replicate a map of the world. Pilgrims flock to her home, convinced that she is pretty much the reincarnation of Saint Garnet, healer of skin ailments and other miracles. (Along with truth and lies, theology gets a little tangled with practicalities in this funny, fast book.) Garnet, used to being an outcast and the victim of bullies, doesn’t have much use for people, but all those poor unfortunates give her pause. She’d really like to just convince them this is all hooey, and they should go home, but at the same time she doesn’t want to hurt them.

It doesn’t help that the family has origins in the Nebrodi Mountains of Sicily, where another saint named Garnet once presided, so the Vatican sends an emissary to investigate. Garnet’s written responses on the questionnaire to the investigating priest are some of the funniest bits in the book. Slowly she untangles a sad history of family rights and wrongs, learning that reality and myth blend in every family, and that love doesn’t always conquer all, even if it helps.

I like snarky writing, so enjoyed Garnet and Nonna’s interactions particularly well. Nonna, so patient, so reasonable, so astute behind that little-old-lady innocence, is the perfect foil for Garnet’s “please go away” attitude.

If you like magical realism, if you think Michael Malone’s Handling Sin is funny, if you love to read snappy dialogue from quirky characters, if you like bittersweet humor, you’ll enjoy this book.

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Grandma was Right?!

seriouslyWhen I was a little girl we lived next door to my father’s parents. They were strict people: no short sleeves, no jewelry (including wedding rings) no music except hymns on Sundays.

But they were also great fun, being crazier than anyone else I knew. In my house, books lined the hallway, flowed across bedroom floors, covered every flat surface. In theirs lived just three: a Bible (KJV and don’t you forget it); a strange novel from the 1920s called something like Mary of the Hazel Woods, about a mountain girl’s search for book larnin’ so she could get herself a Bible – which she did months later after taking in sewing and then walking barefoot through the woods for eight miles to buy one second-hand, repairing the cover with her sewing needle; and, for some unknown reason, a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

I don’t think they’d read the sonnets. I read every book in their house at least three times in the years they babysat me after school, and by age eleven understood that a bunch of those poems were about sex. I didn’t let on, though; I’d had enough of that self-righteous prig Mary o’ Hazel Woods.

Everyone in my family but them liked books. And although everyone in my family liked God and talked about Him a lot, Grandma and Grandpa said things the rest of us didn’t. Like He didn’t like it when people with straight hair used curlers.

So  I grew up viewing my grandparents with equal parts love and suspicion, learning not to rely too much on Grandma’s little homilies, delivered as we were cooking or sewing together. Among other things, Grandma believed women should not go to college, that when Catholics died they shot down a specially reserved chute straight into Hell, and that the people across the street were spies for the CIA.

“Why would that matter, Grandma?” I asked, still kinda stuck on the “girls shouldn’t go to college” part.

“Because they’re spying on me.”

“The CIA wants to spy on you?”

“‘Course they do. They wanna know ever’thin’ ’bout ‘ever’body in America.”

“Uhh, okay, Grandma. How do I turn this seam?”

As the years flew by, it grew simpler to filter out the silly stuff–like not having sex except to have children (which explained why some of the extended family had so many, but I kept my mouth shut)–and hang onto the stuff that seemed wise–like darning socks over a light bulb, and putting the milk into the biscuit batter last.

Trouble is, I missed a good one. All these years later, with Grandma long gone and her granddaughter crocheting her own socks after getting a PhD and then opening a bookstore, I have to admit Grandma was right about the spying. The CIA does watch everybody – or maybe it’s that NSA, or whoever’s in charge of the Internet now. Everywhere you turn it’s Edward Snowden, data mining, privacy rights, and on and on and on.

Who knew?
Grandma!

Sorry, Gran, you were right the whole time. About that. I’m still not buying that women should stay home with three books and not go to college. Love you, though, and thanks for the recipes!

 

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The Monday Book: THE CHANGELING GARDEN by Winifred Elze

garden coverWhat a weird, fun little book.

I bought The Changeling Garden in Neenah, Wisconsin, at my friend Tina’s PAPERBACK BOOK EXCHANGE. Which is a funny name for her shop because it’s a beautiful store with lots of lovely hardbacks and paperbacks on multiple subjects standing tall and proud on shelves stretching above your head, not one of those sad places with chest high shelves full of well-thumbed Penguin Classics lying sideways.

Although a book did fall on my head while I was there, so maybe there’s something to be said for chest-high shelves, Tina?

ANYWAY, Garden has a little bit of everything: reincarnation, Mayans, killer plants, environmental awareness, and space-time refraction – Oh My!

The story’s premise is that a bank is making some bad investments in rain forest deforestation, and a local woman has a house with a garden that she and her son can talk to, and there are a couple of Mayan priests from the Fourth Age running around watching the Greenhouse Effect take down the humans who shouldn’t be here any more….. yeah. Convoluted, and yet, sort of like the root structure of a tree, it builds a foundation a story can grow from.

This book is actually kind of fun. The writing is deadpan, sometimes a bit illogical, but you really don’t mind because who can help but enjoy moments like these:

(Annie, the protagonist:) “Well, stop him! He murders people!”

(Mayan time traveler:) “He’s allowed to kill people if he wants to. He’s a priest.”

Yeah. That kind of thing. This book was published in 1995, way before the Mayan calendar crisis of 2012, but its take on the preservation of plants and forests is not preachy, just tucked underneath a lot of rushed-past unexplained phenomenon. Elze’s writing kind of reminds me of Stephen King’s advice: Not everything in life is explained, so why should writing be different?

I was in the mood for something different, and this book obliged. If you’d enjoy reading about murderous plants, night flights as women turn into birds, modern day herbalist witches who really don’t want to be, and planet-surfing Mayans decked out in parrot feathers who speak in English slang because of translation headbands, you’ll like this book.

And what’s not to like about planet-surfing Mayans with translation headbands? :]

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That Ten Books Challenge Thing

authorsOh dear, that book list thing is circulating again, and a handful of people have challenged me.

One chapter of Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap contains a list of eleven books that influenced me. Anyone who’s done this challenge knows that narrowing to ten is hard, so rather than repeat those, here are eight books I swithered over when making that Little Bookstore list, plus a few published since then.

How many Hills to Hillsboro (Fred Bauer) – Published by Guideposts in the 1970s, it sat on a stack of books in my father’s office one day, whence I picked it up randomly and read it….

And read it, and read it, and read it again. Hillsboro started my lifelong affair with wanderlust. I still have that original copy. (I guess my dad never realized he owned it, since I stole it at age seven.) The book is about a family of five who bicycle across most of America. They don’t make it to the California coast before the summer is over, but that becomes part of this charming, gentle story about taking a long road trip together, replete with adventures, enlightenment, and fun.

Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap (Wendy Welch)The specifications for this list say books that have stayed with you in some way; this one pretty much changed my life. Since I wrote it, we’ve made friends with and met fascinating people—not superstars, like authors who hang out poolside with the fancy or famous—but very cool, salt-of-the-earth on Facebook types. And gone places and done stuff we wouldn’t have done before.

Jack and I still plan to visit Portugal because of all the lovely people who’ve contacted us from there. People in Poland are sending us letters now. The Korean Minister of Culture sent a congratulatory note after naming Little Bookstore a “Book of the Year” because it “uplifted the human spirit.” And lots of people visit our bookstore and tell us their stories. Which sounds all jet set, but was just a nice thing that happened because we had a story to tell that resonated with people. Yeah, this book stuck with me. :]

Winter in Moscow (Malcolm Muggeridge)Like Grapes of Wrath, this is a book that taught me about injustice, imbalance, politics versus people, and how life just sometimes goes wrong. Yet we can be humane and human in the midst of it.

Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenkey et al)This is an odd book that came out on the 1980s, detailing research on how women acquire knowledge. It lists six stages, running from just “standing in their shoes and looking out” to becoming experts in a field. It’s psychology not so much made feminist as put into an entirely feminine atmosphere. It’s amazing how much can be measured when the people measuring it are the same as the people they are measuring. Women no longer have to fit men’s square pegs into their round holes—heh, no pun intended. This book defines women’s knowledge the way women feel themselves to possess it. It underpinned a lot of my later work in storytelling, and when Brene Brown’s Ted talk on vulnerability went viral, it felt like an affirmation of how women use emotional means as valid ways of learning what they need to know, among other concepts.

This book got me in trouble in grad school, though. I still remember a professor using the term “unnecessary beauty” to describe some artifacts like water pots, etc. that had been decorated even though the objects were “just functional.” Without thinking and without raising my hand, I just shot out, “That is an entirely male construct. Ask any woman in the world whether beauty is useful, or needful, and she can give you a whole new way of seeing how her life is ruled by it—or lack of it. And what’s more, beauty is defined by men.” It all kinda went downhill from there….

Cricket Magazine, roughly 1972-1977These are probably what set me on the road to ruin as a child, teaching a love of storytelling. This was a literary magazine with high quality illustrations, stories, and articles for kids ages 10 or so. I still have my collection. Trina Schart Hyman, Jane Yolen, Shel Silverstein: all the big guns wrote for this publication. Early exposure… there’s no cure for that. :]

A Candle for St. Jude (Rumor Godden)When I made the list in Little Bookstore, I actually left this one off because it was “higher” than all the others. This is about a down-at-heel yet genteel dance school run by an old woman who was a past master, and the relationship between her, her favorite student, and her most talented ones. It explores the human heart as much as the arts world, but particularly human hearts in the arts. Because fairly often, the music (or dances, or stories, or paintings) presented at a festival is more about the politics of who gets to play, than the beauty of the playing. I love this book.

Prayers from the Ark (trans. Rumor Godden)A collection of very sweet animal poems, translated by Godden from a WWII refugee who wrote them in French in a nunnery while recovering from a breakdown. They’re lovely, and thought-provoking and sweet and sometimes the wee bit scary.

Holy Bible (semi-anonymous)Who was it that said, “If the Bible weren’t the Bible, it would be banned for all that sex and violence and anti-feminine rhetoric?” I’m not clear on everything, I’m not feeling called on to have a position statement on everything, and I don’t care to debate stuff ad infinitum. But I read the Bible at least three times a week (which is as good as “every day” actually looks for some of us). Sometimes I’m moved and motivated, sometimes I’m confused, or challenged. That’s okay. There’s that prayer thing, too. It helps.

Now, here’s the thing: authors meet other authors, and we sometimes get a lot out of each other’s books, but if you mention one book and not someone else’s, it all gets a little sad. So at the risk of offending some new authors who are bound to get left off, here are some nice people from AuthorWorld, and their books that I loved:

Saffron Cross (J. Dana Trent) – A female Southern Baptist minister meets a Hindu Monk on eHarmony, and marries him. And they decide not ‘to each his/her own’, but to participate in each other’s worship, dedicating it as their own. Fasten your theological seat belts; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

The Murderer’s Daughters (Randy Susan Myers) - a compelling novel about girls growing up in foster care, more or less – but dysfunction was never written with such lyricism.

Heart in the Right Place (Carolyn Jourdan) - Country girl making good in the city returns to the country when her dad needs help keeping his GP MD office open. Hilarity and heartbreak ensue, and some life lessons get learned.

Hooked (Tele Aadsen – she’s not finished yet. Check with Riverhead Press in 2015) Woman fishes for a living off Alaskan shore. Sex, water, salmon, self-discovery.

Second Wind (Cami Ostman) - Outrunning a divorce, she runs a marathon on every continent. And learns some interesting things about herself and other people. And icebergs.

Hiding Ezra (Rita Quillen) - There were lots of deserters in Coalfields Appalachia in the World Wars, mostly because their families really needed them more than their country. This is a compelling story about one such man.

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