A Southern Exposure by Alice Adams

Cynthia and Harry Baird relocate to Pinehill during the prewar Depression years.  They flee Connecticut to escape his low paying job, her mounting debt and dangerous flirtations.  They hope to make a new life in the South where they will become rich and fall in love again.  The Bairds are viewed as a cross between rich movie stars and naive Yankees, but they are welcomed into the many social circles of the town they have decided to call home.

Told from multiple points of view and punctuated with authentic dialog, A Southern Exposure allows the reader an inner view into the intimate societies that develop among the cast of characters.  You’ll be on the inside track of all the gossip concerning their secret fantasies, illicit affairs, social standards, fears, betrayals, depression, alcoholism, and racial issues.

Alice Adams doesn’t back down from any of the subjects that most people want to skirt today.  Rather, she tackles them head on in all their unpleasantness and delivers a brilliant work of fiction blended with history and viewed through the lens of what it truly means to be Southern.

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal.  His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story.  Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads.  The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.

Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night.  I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future.  If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.

Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause.  Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.

Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:

Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream:  to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.

What are these worlds that writers create?

Do we live in the present with the future inside us?

Are we creating futures as we write?

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it.  I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark.  If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.

On Kingdom Mountain

On Kingdom Mountain, set in Vermont in 1930, revolved around the character of Miss Jane Hubbell Kinneson, an incredibly eccentric mountain woman who carved birds, ran a bookstore, and was the last of her family to live on Kingdom Mountain.   At first Miss Jane’s forthright nature can be a little annoying; she reminded me of Anne of Green Gables on steroids.  Still, when she used her wits to deal with her cousin, Eben Kinneson, as they battled over the road he and the town fathers wanted to run over her mountain, I found myself rooting for Miss Jane.

Intertwined with the battle over Kingdom Mountain was the story of Henry Satterfield, the rainmaking aviator and grandson of a thief who stole Civil War gold and supposedly hid it on Miss Jane’s mountain.  A charming romance between Henry and Miss Jane ensued, and they worked together to solve the riddle of the missing gold, which was bound up in the mystery of her long lost uncle.  Unfortunately, the biplane pilot’s heart was set toward finding the lost treasure more than it was on making Miss Jane his bride.

My only complaint with the story was Miss Jane’s overwhelming lack of respect toward God.  Her words and actions on that topic were rooted in arrogance and ignorance.  Then again, if she didn’t agree with the writings of a secular author, she simply penciled out what they had written in a book.  So, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that she would do the same with a Bible.  Her inflexible nature caused her a lot of heartache, yet she never seemed to learn from it.

Many interesting peripheral characters were sprinkled throughout (the dog-cart man, Canvasback Glodgett, A Number One, and Sadie Blackberry) as well as rich history on the era and setting.  Rooted in his own family history, Howard Frank Mosher has written an often hilarious, sometimes melancholy tale about a simple way of life up against the encroaching threat of modernization.

Tabloid City by Pete Hamill

tabloid-cityI enjoy sharing reviews for books, movies, and music in the section of my blog by the same title. Every now and then, I mention one that didn’t quite hit the mark in my opinion because I also enjoy generating discussion on the material especially if a follower disagrees with my review.

Such is the case with Pete Hamill’s novel, Tabloid City. I would never discourage anyone from reading this book because I allow people to come to their own conclusions but mostly because I’m hoping he or she will point out what I missed. Until then, I believe this novel would appeal solely to people who lived or are living in New York and/or are currently employed or retired journalists. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into those categories.

It’s not that I find New York and journalism boring, but the way both subjects were presented in Tabloid City did nothing to pique my interest regarding them. It’s not unusual for me to grab my phone while reading to Google something for reference even if it’s a subject with which I am familiar. Many of my favorite authors spur this kind of self-education in me, and I love it.

Let me also say that I adored Forever, North River, and Snow in August also by Pete Hamill, and that one mediocre book will not keep me from reading his other works. Still, I’m not sure what the author was thinking when he wrote this jargon-filled tale. I know he writes his passions into his works (New York and journalism), and while I can bestow an A for effort here, I cannot go much beyond a D- for the result.

tabloid-city-2Tabloid City is incredibly disjointed. It’s a scattering of stories that read like newspaper clippings replete with jagged backstory and each character’s knowledge of New York, other characters, events, etc. I kept searching for continuity in this laundry list of stories, something to tie them together or make me care for the characters. Slow going defines the novel until about page 104. The thin thread of a tale about a Muslim terrorist and his police officer father and another about the demise of newspapers and libraries saved the book; otherwise I’m left feeling that this was the framework for a better story handed off too soon.

Let me end on a positive note and encourage you to read the other three books by Pete Hamill I mentioned above. Also, I haven’t read the Sam Briscoe mystery/thriller trilogy written by Pete Hamill, but fans of the books will be happy to see Sam reappear in Tabloid City.

First Class Storytelling

first-class-storytellingFans of Ivan Doig’s storytelling will not be disappointed with his novel, Work Song. The tale picks up with the character of Morgan Llewellyn, alias Morrie Morgan, after he departs the cast of characters living in Marias Coulee in The Whistling Season.

Morrie, still mourning his loss of Rose to widower Oliver Milliron, finds his way back to Montana and the copper mining town of Butte. He takes up residence in the boarding house of the lovely widow Grace Farraday where he meets Griff and Hoop, the twin-like retired miners full of life, full of the love of mining, and full of themselves.

Morrie’s first job as a funeral crier introduces him to the woes of life for the miners and their struggle with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and the Industrial Workers of the World. But it is his love of reading and a fortuitous trip to the Butte Public Library that lands him in the position of glorified errand boy for the enigmatic and terrifying ex-rancher turned library administrator, Samuel S. Sandison.

Before long, Morrie is dragged into the copper miners’ battle between Anaconda, the IWW, and the union all the while dodgingDoig_WS_5.indd company goons who try to peg him as an IWW agitator and Chicago mobsters still looking for him for the gambling debacle he perpetrated with his brother. As if that weren’t enough to keep him hopping, Morrie finds his plate even fuller when a former student from Marias Coulee, now engaged to the union leader, presses him into service on behalf of the union. The Latin-loving bibliophile can no longer stay neutral in the battle, but he must operate below his tyrannical employer’s unpredictable nature and ever-watching eye.

At the eleventh hour, Sandison, a large man with an even larger secret, comes to Morrie’s rescue. All is saved, yet Morrie, who has fallen in love with the Widow Farraday, knows he cannot stay in Butte for it is only a matter of time before the mob finds him. A final, well-placed bet secures the financial future for those Morrie has come to care for. His last goodbye to Grace, another widow he must leave behind, produces the best windfall Morrie experiences to date.

first-class-storytelling-3Doig’s tales of western life transcend the clichéd cowboy story. He writes from the working class point of view and evokes the joys and hardships of life in his beloved Montana. One of my absolute favorite authors, it was my sincere wish that he write a third novel summing up the lives of Morrie Morgan and the marvelous cast of characters spanning both the The Whistling Season and Work Song. Alas, with Ivan Doig’s passing in 2015, not only did his unforgettable characters lose their voice, literature lost one of the best storytellers known to man.

The Music of Life

the-music-of-lifeSeveral years ago while shelving AV material at the library where I used to work, I came across a CD titled The Goat Rodeo Sessions. What caught my eye, besides the unusual title, was Yo-Yo Ma on the cover. I was familiar with Yo-Yo Ma as a classically trained musician, but here he was featured on a CD devoted to music of a completely different genre. Without hesitation, I checked out the CD and couldn’t wait to listen to it on the drive home. What I heard started a love affair with a type of music I’d previously tiptoed around.

Probably what kept me from exploring this genre earlier was the fact that much of it was labeled Bluegrass. My opinion of Bluegrass included all things twangy and hick-i-fied. Yes, that is a word. What I discovered that day was something called Classical Crossover. Classical Crossover is a genre that hovers between classical and popular music, and is usually targeted at fans of both types of music. In the most common type of crossover, classically trained performers sing or play popular songs, folk music, show tunes, or holiday songs.

Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan also contributed to the CD’s eleven tracks of music based on English and Irish fiddle music that gave birth to what we know as Appalachian fiddle music. The closest I’d ever come to anything like it was the little bits of fiddle I’d heard in songs by Clannad and The Chieftains.

After listening to The Goat Rodeo Sessions, I went in search of other CDs by the same artists or those featuring similar music. I discovered Appalachian Waltz, Short Trip Home, Appalachian Journey, and Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology all of which are now in a playlist that became the soundtrack of my mind as I wrote my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. One song in particular, “Sliding Down” featuring Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Mike Marshall, epitomized John Welles’s experience in the later years of his life.

By the time John lived in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, his life had taken so many downward turns that he believed he’d never dig himself out from under them. Yet through it all, he retained a shred of hope buried deep in his heart. “Sliding Down” is the musical representation of what John felt during those years:  melancholy with a touch of optimism on the horizon that he was too afraid to reach for.

Other tracks from the above-listed CDs also played perfectly to the scenarios I wrote whether it was John as a boy on the family farm, as a student at the University of Maryland, during his relationship with the beautiful, enigmatic Garland, or the months following the D-Day Invasion. I don’t doubt that the music shaped what I wrote as if the songs were indeed a custom-made soundtrack. However, I finished writing over a year ago, so I haven’t accessed my Appalachian playlist in some time.

Last week, I had the opportunity to re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. It had been over thirty years since I had done so as an Honors English student in high school, but thanks to one of my book clubs, we revisited the classic. During one scene, Scout mentioned that Atticus liked listening to fiddle music on the radio. Suddenly my forgotten playlist rushed back to my memory. A quick check on Google confirmed that the Appalachian Mountains extend as far south as northern Alabama. As I read, all my favorite pieces became the background music for Scout, Jem, Dill, and Atticus’s adventures, and I listened to my playlist for two days straight.

By the way, the term goat rodeo refers to a chaotic event where many things must go right for the situation to work, a reference to the unusual and challenging aspects of blending classical and bluegrass music. Yo-Yo Ma described a goat rodeo saying, “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork the right decision was made then you get to a goat rodeo.” In the case of The Secrets of Dr. John Welles and To Kill a Mockingbird, the right choices weren’t always made, but somehow life worked out for the majority of those involved. This fact further reinforces my belief that the music of Appalachia is truly the music of real life.

The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies

the-conjurers-bird“Wonderful and heartbreaking all at once,” is how I described The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies to my husband upon finishing the novel.

After I made the small mistake of starting a book about a taxidermist while eating lunch, I was rewarded with no further descriptions of the process and an incredible tale of love, loss, and discovery. The story is woven back and forth through history and includes real and fictional characters blending seamlessly.

Davies’s story is his accounting of the Myterious Ulieta Bird seen only once in 1774. He recounts the factual tale of naturalist Joseph Banks and his mistress, the elusive Miss B. Then he goes further by filling in the blanks with his version of what took place.

Interlaced with Banks’s story is that of disenchanted taxidermist, John Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is drawn into the mystery of searching for the only known specimen of the Ulieta Bird which disappeared from Banks’s collection without explanation two hundred years earlier.

Along the way Fitz and his boarder, the lovely, young Katya, unravel clues that richer, more powerful people than they are also following to discover not only the Ulieta Bird but also botanical drawings worth millions supposedly hidden within the case.

the-conjurers-bird-2Readers and admirers of A. S. Byatt’s Possession will find a similar, slightly more accessible novel following two stories that converge with a satisfying conclusion. I commend Mr. Davies for keeping the tension high right up to the end where it looks as if all the wrong people triumphed. With well-placed clues, two personal histories within John Fitzgerald’s portion of the story revealing much about the character, and a convincing cast of supporting characters, The Conjurer’s Bird is a worthy novel not to be missed.

Brothers by Yu Hua

brothers-by-yu-huaWhat I loved about Brothers by Yu Hua is that within the pages of one book I found a story that made me laugh and cry over and over. The tale is both horrifyingly dark and twisted, but with seamless transition, Yu Hua writes some of the best comic scenes I’ve ever read. Life in America for the past eight years has made it possible to understand the absurdities about which Yu Hua writes, and for this reason, they are believable.

The story of Baldy Li, one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction, and his brother, Song Gang, opens right before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Scenes in which neighbors are unified in a common cause or belief and turned into enemies the very next day are chillingly similar to what is happening in the world today. When Yu Hua writes about Li Lan’s, Baldy Li’s, and Song Gang’s grief over the death of Song Fanping, I thought my heart would rip in two so great was their anguish.

The two definitions of stupidity (knowing the truth, seeing the truth, but still believing the lies, and doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result) often came to mind while I read Brothers. I’m watching the premise of the story take place right in front of my eyes as the youth of America believe they can make certain political systems work in their generation even though overwhelming evidence of failure exists in other countries. I have to wonder if they’ve forgotten the past or are purposely not being taught. In either case, we’ll all be doomed for it.

The story is engaging based on the time period and cultural differences. Yet the prose is so simple that I have to wonder if this is due to the translation from Chinese to English or if the author chose to keep his words plain. In either case, his writing style works. Another thing I noticed while reading this translation was the repetitive nature of the writing. I’ve only encountered this in one other translation, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and I wonder if this is a style particular to Asian writers. I find it lends emphasis to details and storylines.

Yu Hua broke the rules of writing brilliantly by not following plotting formulas. Two ways in which he did this was by the introduction of a new character and storylines in the last one third of the book. Not surprisingly, the pacing of the novel was not interrupted, and as a reader I wasn’t jarred out of the book. Obviously, Yu Hua writes for intelligent readers, and in this way, it reminded me of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo with its large cast of characters, interwoven storylines, and backstory. In both cases, readers willing to stay with the book to the end will absolutely not be disappointed.

I know the book was written as a criticism on political systems and to show all the evil and craziness that stems from them. I found my interest focused on the relationships of the characters enduring life under the various political systems and how their relationships were further affected by their personalities which dictated how they reacted to circumstances and each other.  I came to the conclusion that all one can probably do in such a situation is be kind, work hard, and do no harm.

Despite the depth of the tale Brothers presented, as I said there were some hilarious moments including a chicken search party, Yanker Brand underwear, and actual blind men drawing blind conclusions. But again, that’s part of Yu Hua’s ability to make a reader laugh while getting his point across. The best line though was probably Yanker Yu explaining politics to Popsicle Wang when he said, “…comfortable circumstances breed freethinking, which is why the rich love politics.” I laughed aloud as I shuddered thinking how stirred up the politicians are keeping the world.

The Incense Game by Laura Joh Rowland

the-incense-gameI recently finished book sixteen in Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mysteries Series, The Incense Game. I know I’m nearing the end of the series, there are only two more books, and while all good things must come to an end, I hate to see it actually happen.

I started several years ago with book ten, The Assassin’s Touch, and made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go back to the beginning of a series that I really didn’t have time for. Even though book ten read like a stand-alone novel, I fell in love with Sano and the cast of characters. Combined with my love of all things Japanese, I immediately broke my promise, started reading from book one, and now own all of them except for the final book.

Most of the mysteries I have read are because I stumbled upon them in a library where they had been mislabeled as regular fiction. Book ten of Ms. Rowland’s series was on the new book shelf, and the picture of a Japanese woman with a fabulous dragon tattoo drew me in. As someone who usually bypasses the shelves of mysteries, I was hooked.

All the books are rich with history from the era of the shoguns. Ms. Rowland seamlessly blends historical figures and events with fictional ones to create believable storylines. She adds a dash of the mystical martial arts to ramp up the tale without coming across like a poorly dubbed foreign film.

Sano is a realistic hero because he suffers trials and tribulations as well as successes. Of course for Sano, either situation constantly places him in a good light with his allies and a bad one with his enemies. The tension and struggle is real, and often frustrating, as the reader will want Sano to act in such a way that looks like it would resolve all his problems. However, he is bound by obedience to bushido which governs his every move.

There is always a bad person behind the mysteries Sano investigates, but the best antagonist throughout the novels has been Yanagisawa who, on top of everything else Sano endures, is constantly trying to get rid of him by whatever means necessary. No scheme is too diabolical for Sano’s archenemy including attempts on the life of Sano’s wife and children.

The cast of peripheral characters—Sano’s wife, children, friends, retainers, the Shogun—add to the depth of storytelling I have come to love from Ms. Rowland. The one character I hated to see go by the wayside was a love interest for Sano in an earlier novel. I would have liked to have seen Aoi, a beautiful woman trained in the ninja arts, to make a reappearance in a later book. This worthy character definitely would have heated things up especially if she returned after Sano married.

If you haven’t read Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro Mystery Series, I strongly suggest you do. Take it from someone who is extremely picky about her mysteries, you won’t be disappointed.

Florence Foster Jenkins

florence-foster-jenkinsPer my aunt’s suggestion, I recently watched Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg. I went in with the expectations of a hilariously funny movie, and there were some humorous moments, but overall I found it to be quite sad. In between cringe-worthy scenes where the protagonist made a fool of herself was a deeper story of love and friendship, passion for one’s chosen art form, and the true definition of success.

As usual, Streep gave a charming performance reminiscent of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Streep’s Julia Child was a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus on what she wanted and proved her abilities. As Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep portrayed a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus and ended in total embarrassment due to her overwhelming lack of talent. Not much of a stretch there except for different professions.

I don’t know if it was my parent’s high-definition television, which shows every unflattering flaw, or makeup, meant to create said flaws, but Hugh Grant, who did a decent job in the role of Jenkin’s husband, didn’t look so good. True, it’s been years since his performance in Love Actually, however, I choose to remember him as the intelligent, slightly sexy Prime Minister. Maybe because of his appearance in Love Actually, I had a hard time believing him as the weeping husband at the end of the film.

What truly made the film enjoyable for me was Simon Helberg. While I’ve always appreciated him as Howard on The Big Bang Theory, what a lovely surprise it was to see him act far beyond this role. Helberg’s Cosmé McMoon delighted with facial expressions and tones of voice that conveyed much more than the lines he spoke. As I watched him, I sensed that I’d seen his performance somewhere before. The longer I scrutinized, the more I had déjà vu regarding his portrayal of McMoon. Where had I seen this level of acting that was mysterious, charismatic, and quirky all at once?

Then it suddenly came to me. Helberg must have been channeling Gene Wilder because I’ve never seen anyone who could tantalize with just a twitch of a smile or flicker of the eyes the way Wilder did, and yet Helberg captured it perfectly and brilliantly. From that moment on, it was like I was watching Wilder himself. I have decided that Simon Helberg absolutely must remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When Gene Wilder passed away last year, my heart was broken. Now I believe I’ve found a way to overcome that grief and recapture the magic of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I know a remake exists, but it misses the mark in too many ways to count. No offense to Johnny Depp, but he’s Jack Sparrow, not Willy Wonka.

Now, one of my life’s missions is to stalk Simon Helberg on social media until I can convince him to take on the role of Willy Wonka. I’m sure he’ll agree that it must be done. He alone can reach back into our childhoods and recreate all the thrilling enchantment we experienced the first time we saw the movie.

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