Shutter Island by
Dennis Lehane. New York: William Morrow, c2003.
Shutter Island was once a fort but has been reincarnated as an asylum for the criminally insane, and Teddy and Chuck are U.S. Marshals that have come there to investigate a disappearance of an inmate.
Teddy Daniels is a war veteran whose wife has died in a fire. It has been over four years, and he is still haunted by it, suffering migraine headaches from the stress and loss. This is the first time that he and Chuck have worked together, so part of the tension in the book is the question of Chuck’s trustworthiness.
It is 1954 Maine, and Rachel Solando has vanished from her room a few nights ago—the classic locked room mystery. Everyone is very closed mouth, so the investigation is impeded, and the marshals threaten to leave without resolution.
As the story unfolds, we learn that the asylum is an experimental facility in the days before psychotherapeutic drugs. The main courses of therapy for serious mental illness are restraints, shock therapy, and lobotomies. The reader is lead to believe that there are secrets going on, and Teddy is going to uncover them to expose the hospital and free patients whom he thinks are there unjustly.
It took me a little while to get into the book, but a patron had told me it was one of the best books she had read in a long time. I couldn’t see why she said that until late in the story when it takes a big turn that this reader did not see coming.
Throughout, Teddy decodes clues that have been left by Rachel. These are simple numbers to letters deciphering, and they are clues to the reader as well. I didn’t catch on until very close to the end.
There is some profanity, but it shouldn’t be a distraction to those who prefer otherwise. The banter between the two marshals is witty and light, and the plot is driven through dialogue.
I think this is a book that is worth reading, so I’m afraid to say too much about it because I don’t want to give away the ending. Since it is a fast read, pick it up and see what you think.
Acid Row by Minette Walters. New York: Putnam’s Sons, c2002.
Minette Walters is a British author of mysteries. I have never read any other books by her, so I didn’t really know what to expect. That’s the beauty of newly tried authors; you haven’t developed a bias either way, so their writings are fresh, their styles unfamiliar.
The story takes place within a public housing project in England. The word has gotten out that the government has placed a convicted pedophile in the neighborhood, and the residents decide to organize a march to get him thrown out. The majority of the book takes place in one day.
The title comes from the name of the housing project—Bassindale Row. After a lot of vandalism, the sign reads assi d Row. This new name sums up the feelings of the residents, police, and outsiders about this place. It is a hotbed of drugs and crime, filled with decaying homes and single parents, providing a perfect avenue for social commentary on unwed mothers, poor and police relations, drug-related crime, social services, mental illness, and the working poor.
Although the march was planned as a peaceful one, some of the hoods made their own plans and blocked the entrances to the project, cutting off all police intervention. Dr. Sophie Morrison is visiting a patient in “The Row,” who is the pedophile’s father, and gets caught in the middle of the riot. Turns out, the father is more dangerous than the son, and it soon becomes evident that he is the cause of the boy’s deviant behavior.
In the meantime, a young girl has been kidnapped. The mob decides that the pedophile has her and mass hysteria ensues. There are two perspectives to the story—that of those outside the project and that of those on the inside. Many unlikely heroes are discovered during the fracas as the neighbors pull together to protect themselves and others.
There are many characters in the story, only a few of which are developed, making it difficult for a while for the reader to get into the story. Once you do, though, it moves quickly, with lots of dialogue and action. The language may be offensive to some, but it is realistic of people in the ghetto.
Although the outcome is mostly predictable, the topics raised are thought-provoking. Apparently, England’s struggle with their welfare system is as complex as ours in the United States. Ms. Walters has drawn a vivid picture of the problem in a non-judgmental way. A more cynical view of our system can be found in the book The Losers by David Eddings.
Clay's Quilt by Silas House. Chapel Hill, NC : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001
Clay’s Quilt by Silas House because I have been meaning to read it for a year—ever since hearing the author speak at the Kentucky Library Association conference. Although it was not marketed heavily, it has appeared on many lists, especially here in Kentucky, and it was never in the library when I was between books.
Silas House was born and raised in eastern Kentucky, and this, his first book, reflects his life there. I generally like Kentucky authors because I can identify with the settings and the people, the traditions and the lifestyles.
Clay is nineteen and working in a coal mine. He ands his buddies spend their free time honky-tonking, but Clay is looking for deeper meaning.
His mother was killed when he was four, and he was raised between his mother’s sister and brother. These two influences present two sides of a coin. Uncle Gabe is a drinker and partyer. There’s always a poker game and good-time buddies hanging around. Aunt Easter is devoutly Pentecostal and has provided Clay with a moral foundation. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends all contribute pieces that are sewn into the quilt that is his life.
Clay’s mother’s murder provides one plot line, while his relationship with Alma provides one of romance. As with all southern writers, community, family and the past are entwined in every aspect of the narrative.
Through vivid description and melodious language, Silas House has given us a story that moves slowly and predictably. It may not be a page-turner, but I liked the characters. They are caring and loving, and everyone has redeeming qualities. Reading this book was like sitting on the front porch, swapping stories with a friend—unhurried and familiar. I give this one a B+.
Dancing on the Edge of the Roof by Sheila Williams. New York: One World, c2002.
Juanita Louis is a 42-year-old, thrice married, single mom living in the projects of Columbus, Ohio. One day, Juanita decides to run away.
All of her children are grown, two of them still live with her, including the daughter’s daughter, and the third one is in prison. Not only does she cook, clean, do their laundry, and babysit for them, but she also puts up with their belly-aching, drug dealing, drinking, and laziness. Until she finds books as an escape.
She begins to write and dream of a better life for herself, randomly choosing Paper Moon, Montana as the place to start. Befriending a truck driver, Juanita is deposited at the diner, where her cooking skills and brash personality land her a job as the breakfast cook.
Although she is the only person of color in hundreds of miles, she fits right in with the quirky, eccentric townspeople. The reader can’t help but like them, too. Jess is the owner of the diner, who has brought French cuisine to the boonies. Juanita’s landlady, Millie, has four cats that are the reincarnations of her dead husbands and drives so fast that her sister takes bets on whether she breaks any speeding records. Peaches is her lesbian truck-driving friend who is in awe that Juanita is writing a book in which Peaches hopes to be a character.
It’s a coming-of-age story for the middle-aged. Being set free of her “crowded cages,” she is afraid of the openness of the Montana countryside but wondrous of the peaceful scenery. Millie tells her, “Whatever you are afraid to do, do it immediately. Taking risks will give you the best rewards in life.” Juanita finds this out firsthand.
In her first novel, Kentuckian Sheila Williams has created a fast-paced, thought- provoking novel of self-realization. A friend turned me on to this book, and I hope that I have turned you on to it as well.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest. Marietta Publishing, c2003.
Cherie Priest has a very local connection; her father is an anesthesiologist at Twin Lakes Regional Medical Center. She came to the hospital and to the library a few months ago to sell and autograph her book. This is her first published work.
Eden Moore is an unusual young woman in that she sees ghosts. Throughout her school life, this caused her distress. Both students and teachers picked on her because she was different. The reader doesn’t realize for a while that she is also African American.
Her Aunt Lulu raised Eden because her mother had died in childbirth, and she doesn’t know the identity of her father. After a man attempts to murder her, Eden starts investigating. Finding out that the man is actually her cousin and that her aunt is a rich white woman, she follows clues that eventually tell the story of her past.
The ghosts are three sisters that have been with her since she was very little. They had been murdered and often warned Eden of danger. They don’t interact with Eden much; mostly, she just feels their presence. The sisters don’t play as big a role as the reader would assume at first, and the story is more one of lineage than horror.
Although the story is predictable, Ms. Priest uses very unique phrasings. Lulu’s hair was “bound into submission by scarves,” and Eden’s “words fell out of [her] mouth, dropping into a pile at [her] feet.” These descriptions bring color and vivid images to the text.
Having read many novels by black women, I was not convinced that Eden is. Her words and actions do not ring true. That aside, I did enjoy this story of ghosts, magic, insanity, and incest. I kept picturing this as a Full Moon Productions movie.
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. New York: Counterpoint, c2000.
The public librarians in Kentucky and Hawley-Cooke Booksellers of Louisville have created a new award to honor Kentucky authors. Every three years, librarians from across the state will vote from a list of new titles on her favorite. The author will then be asked to attend our conference to accept the monetary award and serve as our luncheon speaker. Jayber Crow is one of the titles that has been nominated for the Kentucky Public Librarians’ Choice Award.
Wendell Berry is the living grand master of Kentucky fiction. I hate to admit it, but this is the first book of his that I have read.
This is a very sedate story—no family secrets, no surprises—but it is not predictable either. Jayber is an elderly man who is recounting his life as a small town barber somewhere in Kentucky. Although the town is fictional, it lies along the Ohio River and is familiar to all of us who have grown up here.
The river plays a big part in his life, both as a boy and later when he returns as an aging man. Not only is it important to him physically but it also signifies the fluidity of time--always moving, bringing in and taking things away.
Jayber was born in 1914, one month before WWI started and was orphaned by the flu epidemic of 1917. He left Squires Landing and Port William when he was 10, after his Aunt and Uncle die. The contrast between his life among his loving relations and friends and that at the institution is stark and is evident in his descriptions of both.
After living in Lexington for a while, he returns to his hometown during the flood of 1937 and buys a barbershop, where he soon becomes the focal point of male life. Only then did other people become important to him, enough so to include descriptions of them in his story.
Jayber is nostalgic of days past, independent, and very ethical. Much of the book is his ponderings on nature, war, religion, love, and progress. Because nature is so important to him, his surroundings are described in great detail. Being an introspective novel, there is very little dialogue or action. The slow pace of the book matches his preferred pace of life.
It took me a while to get into this book, but I did enjoy his ruminations. The characters are people we understand, his surroundings are ones we know, his history is ours.
Although I’d like to again hear Wendell Berry speak, I am going to vote for Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver for the Kentucky Public Librarians’ Choice Award.
Prey by Michael Cricton. New York: HarperCollins, c2002.
Michael Crichton is the only person to have had the number one book, the number one movie, and the number one TV show in the United States, all at the same time. Having gone to medical school and having an interest in computers, his techno-thrillers are based in scientific fact.
Xymos Incorporated is developing miniature spy cameras for the military using nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer technology. These cameras would actually be swarms of gnat-sized machines that work in conjunction with each other to become a camera lens, spying on the enemy and bringing back data. There’s a problem, though: wind blows the particles apart and they get too far away from each other to communicate. Their solution is to add computer programming and viral materials, which then wreaks havoc.
Julia works for Xymos, and her husband, Jack, is looking for a job after having lost his at a cutting edge Silicon Valley company. He is now a stay-at-home dad whose wife is turning weird. He suspects an affair. When problems arise at the Xymos Lab, Jack is called in because they have used some of his computer programs.
Like most of Crichton’s books, this one is a tale of warning. Man needs to think before he leaps into these new technologies, realizing the consequences of his actions, not only here and now but for future generations as well. Because he understands science so well, he is able to take complex theories and put them into language that anyone can understand.
Crichton weaves a good story, as usual. His main character is fully developed, the plot is fast paced, and his situations are believable. It blows my mind that computers and machines can be so small and, using distributed intelligence, can actually think and evolve. Because he takes his ideas from today’s headlines, it makes his novels all the scarier.
The River Road by Karen Osborn. New York: William Morrow, c2002.
Karen Osborn has some sort of Kentucky connection, and this book was reviewed in Kentucky Monthly a few months back.
Kay, Michael, and David are childhood friends growing up in rural Connecticut. The story opens with David jumping from a bridge to his watery death below after having ingested some acid earlier in the evening. Going through the investigation and then the trial, we hear the story through the voices of Kay, Michael, and David’s father, Kevin.
David is a good student, immersing himself in his studies. Not afraid of anything, he drove fast, took chances, and lived with intensity. Therein lies the paradox of his “suicide.”
Michael is David’s little brother who has lived in his shadow all of his life. Jealous of him, he has a mean streak and thinks some pretty violent thoughts about David and Kay.
Kay is in love with David and was with him on the bridge, promising to jump after him. When she doesn’t follow him, she feels remorse and doesn’t care that the police are accusing her committing murder. In her mind, she just might have.
None of the characters understand each other, and therefore, neither does the reader. It is not until the last couple of chapters that we get any insight into who they are. I didn’t think I liked this book because of that, but then maybe we are supposed to be in shock along with the characters. Only years after the incident, do we start to come out of it.
Themes of jealousy, drug use, sensuality, guilt, love, family, and death run throughout the story. Each in his way is dealing with the aftermath of death and the skeletons that are pushed out of the closet when that death goes public.
This is a sad and depressing novel. Most of what you know is repeated over and over between the characters and at the trial. It kept me reading, but I didn’t really feel anything for these people until the very end. In all the journals, this book is given good reviews, however, I am ambivalent about it. If you read it, you will have to let me know what you think.
Splendor in the Bluegrass. Louisville : Junior League of Louisville, c2000.
Splendor in the Bluegrass, is a cookbook by the Junior League of Louisville. All proceeds from the sales will go to fund numerous community projects.
These are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill recipes like Grandma used to make but are aimed at entertaining and amazing your guests with gourmet delights. A number of these are creations of chefs at some Kentucky restaurants, using a balance of commonly available ingredients and some more exotic ones plus those associated with Kentucky, like country ham and bourbon.
Usually, the amount of time it takes to cook a dish is directly related to how special it is in your family traditions. If it takes a lot of time to fix, you don’t have it very often. Although most of these are time-consuming, time-saving recipes include a symbol to denote that it is “quick and easy.”
Informative cooking tips are included throughout, such as “Asparagus Tips,” “Phyllo Phacts,” identifying healthy clams, and roasting peppers. There is a wine guide in the back of the book and many alcoholic drinks recipes are scattered within.
Chapters are divided by course, with the first one being on entertainment and including menus that would have been more useful if they had included the page numbers on which to find the recipes. Since the index lists recipes by main ingredient, you cannot find one by name, making the menus harder to use than they need to be.
This is a beautiful book with full-color photographs of Kentucky scenes and still lifes. I would have preferred pictures of the food. I like to see what a dish looks like when it is done. Having such could sell me to attempt a difficult recipe.
With slick pages, full-page photography, and Kentucky roots, this would make a nice gift. You can also feel good that you are donating to some very worthy causes.
Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich. New York : St. Martin’s Press, c2002.
Want to have some fun? Check out Janet Evanovich. Her series of the escapades of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum are fast-paced, humorous mysteries.
Like most series, each book can be read separately because the main story begins and ends, however, to get the most out of each, it is best to start with the first one--One for the Money--since Stephanie’s personal life does change.
Stephanie lives and works in Trenton in an area where she grew up known as “The Burg.” Like a small town, everyone knows everyone else, and there are no secrets. Stephanie has a love triangle going on with Morelli, a cop she’s known since elementary school, and Ranger, another bounty hunter who has also served as her mentor in the field.
Each of the characters is more eccentric than the next, and with each installment, you become better acquainted with them. There’s the ex-hooker friend who does the filing at the bailbond agency and rides shotgun on many of Stephanie’s attempts to bring in the bad guy. Grandma Mazur, too, likes to go along so she can carry a gun, and she also likes to attend funerals to pick up men her age. Since the sister has gotten divorced, she and her children have started showing up in the later books. Valerie is the fallen “Miss Perfect,” now living with the worrisome mom and the uninterested dad.
Cars blow up, Stephanie gets in and out of trouble, Mom cooks many a homemade meal, the hamster survives Stephanie’s terrible eating habits, long time friends and enemies abound, and the reader is thoroughly entertained. As you may have guessed, I really like these books, and the newest one Visions of Sugar Plums is no exception.
It is four days before Christmas, but Stephanie does not have time to get a tree or presents, instead she gets a guy named Diesel, who mysteriously appears in her kitchen to bring her the holiday spirit. You find out later that he has other reasons for dropping in.
In this very short book, Stephanie is after Sandy Claws, who has skipped out on bail. Mr. Claws owns a toy store and employs only “little people” to make his toys. The reader is lead to believe that he is really Santa.
Throughout the book, you wonder who Diesel really is. He can open locks without keys, and he appears and disappears—literally. Turns out he’s looking for a bad guy, too.
Of course, most ends happily. Stephanie brings her fugitive in, and Diesel subdues the wrong-doer, but the other endings I cannot tell you.
Although this one isn’t my favorite, quick repartee flavoring the dialogue, funny circumstances, and quirky descriptions of everyday things make these books a joy to read. Forget about allegory, symbolism, and underlying themes for a little while and just be entertained. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail by Bobbie Ann Mason. Random House, c2001.
Another book that has been nominated for the Kentucky Public Librarians’ Choice Award is Bobbie Ann Mason’s Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail. So that I can make an intelligent choice, I have been reading from the titles on this list. I can get caught up on my Kentucky reading, and you can hear about these that have been published in the last three years that you may have missed.
This is a collection of short stories involving mostly women and either set in Kentucky or with a Kentucky connection. I don’t usually like short stories because they tend to end so abruptly, and these stories are no different. I would just be getting involved with these people, and, boom, it’s over. The whole purpose, I guess, is to give you a glimpse into the characters’ lives, and then you as the reader fill in the rest of the story.
Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy this book. The stories revolve around decisions and circumstances in the main characters lives and their attempts to understand their choices, and I could empathize with all of them.
In “The Funeral Side,” Sandra comes home from Alaska to care for her father after his stroke. Although she wants to fulfill her obligations, she is anxious to return to the life she has made. Reminiscing about her childhood, Sandra and her father grow closer. I was intrigued by the fact that the family owned a furniture store and a funeral home next door to each other. As it turns out, back in the old days, her great-great-great grandfather was a carpenter. Because furniture makers often also built coffins, it was a natural progression for the carpenter to also become the undertaker.
“Tobrah” is the story of a 44-year old woman who ends up with custody of her 5-year old half sister. Although she had been contented to be childless, once she begins the relationship with the girl, she realizes that being responsible for a young life is just what she needs to find direction in her own.
In “With Jazz,” Donna is a middle-aged divorcee who is finding her place as she zigzags down the wild trail. Her male friend, her Friday evening ladies group, and her family all play a part in where she will end up.
There’s a little bit of language and some sexuality, but it shouldn’t deter most people from reading this. These stories are fast paced and full of dialogue, but also frustrating in that nothing is resolved.
Bobby Ann Mason generally writes about contemporary Kentucky, using brand names, song titles, and icons of current American culture to tell her stories. Those of you who are familiar with her work won’t be disappointed here. Those of you who have never read her should be able to find aspects that are appealing, but I would recommend Feather Crowns, a book based on the true story about the quintuplets that were born in Kentucky at the turn of the century. It’s my favorite of hers so far.
Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb. Dutton, c2003.
With Ghost Riders, Sharyn McCrumb has written a Civil War novel from the prospective of the North Carolina mountain country, from both present and past points of view. Having researched the period, the outcome is thought-provoking and educational.
By moving us between the past and the present, she interweaves the lives of a number of characters: Rattler, a part Cherokee healer; Nora Bonesteel, a woman with the “sight;” Tom Gentry, bent on committing suicide; and the Civil War re-enactors from present day with those from the past—Zebulon Vance, a Confederate general/politician and Malinda and Keith Blalock, Union sympathizers. Like most novels with a number of characters, it is hard to see how these will fit together, but they do so beautifully.
The Civil War was an era of brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor; one after which misdeeds are not easily forgotten. As Malinda puts it, “Wars are easier to start than they are to stop.” In this commentary, Sharyn McCrumb illustrates the harsh conditions of war on both the soldiers and their families at home, and uses Malinda as an example of women in the service and Keith as a draft dodger.
Mountain people don’t like people telling them what to do, so most rebelled against conscription. Even though they did not have an investment in the slave issue and, therefore, didn’t agree with secession, these men were forced into service. It’s ironic that the South did not want the North telling them what to do, but the Confederate government was doing just that to its own people.
The Civil War re-enactors are stirring up the ghosts, bringing the past into the present. “They will not let loose of that war. You would have thought that losing that war once would be enough for them.”
This novel works well on a number of levels—as an example of the Southern tradition of intertwining past and present, as a social commentary on the personal side of war, and as a historically accurate account of a forgotten aspect of that war. With her usual aplomb, Ms. McCrumb has written a deeply moving, hard-to-forget story of love, war, and healing, personifying Faulkner’s quote, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey by Fenton Johnson.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c2003.
Fenton Johnson grew up near the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani over in Nelson County and so was influenced by contemplatives from an early age because the monks were friends with his family. In this new book, he travels between the Zen Center in San Francisco and the monastery in Gethsemani looking for a way to regain his faith.
At an international meeting of contemplatives from all religions and from around the world, Fenton was impressed by the full respect they had for each other, in their being able to set aside differences. Since he’s been angry at the church since he was a teenager, he wants to be able to get past the differences, too, because he misses having a spiritual life.
Not only is Fenton angry at the church for having turned its back on him because of his homosexuality and being deprived of belonging but also at his father for their many conflicts and, most of all, with God for his being gay in the first place and the death of his life partner. He wants to shed this anger so that he can find peace.
The book flips back and forth between the past and the present. He recounts the history of monasticism and his personal spiritual history as well as the present state of the Catholic Church and Buddhist following in the States and his interaction with them.
Many of the tenets of the Roman Church are outcomes of its institutionalization during the reign of Constantinople, when Christianity first became an accepted religion. By going back to Jesus’ teachings, Fenton was better able to find his spirituality, understanding that religion does not mean the same as faith, that there is no enlightenment without suffering, and that God is love.
All of us reach a spiritual crossroads sometime in our lives, and Fenton has related his experience beautifully. It took me a while to read this book because I would stop and contemplate on many of the provocative issue he raises. This is such an open and honest account of these years in his recent life; he truly bares his soul to us.
I met Fenton years ago when his sister was the President of the Library Board in Washington County, where I served as the director. He had been invited to sell and autograph his first book at the Book Fair held in Frankfort, and Martha and I had gone to receive some grant money. He was very quiet and brooding, and it was not until much later that I found out his partner was dying about this time. I had not read his book yet at the time of our meeting and had not been able to converse with him about it, so reading this account makes me want to write him and thank him for penning such moving books and congratulate him for finding his peace. I have highly recommended this to a number of my friends and overwhelmingly recommend it to you.
Abraham: Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler. New York: William Morrow, c2002.
With all that is happening in the world today, this is a very appropriate book to review and one that may help the reader to understand some of the underlying issues in the conflict in the Middle East.
Abraham is the center of all three of the major religions in the world, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and each have rewritten the story to name themselves as the “chosen people.” Travelling in the Middle East and talking with people of all faiths, Bruce Feiler set out on the journey to discover the man who is the common denominator.
Most of us know the story, and the basic concepts are carried through each religion’s retelling. When he is 75 years old, Abraham is called by God to leave his home with his barren wife and set out for the “Promised Land.” In return for his faith, God promises that Abraham will be the father of many. Because his wife, Sarah, remains childless, she urges Abraham to father a child with the handmaid, Hagar. The child of that union is Ishmael, father of the 12 tribes of Arabia.
Sarah is very jealous, and she ends up pregnant with Isaac. At Isaac’s birth, Hagar and Ishmael are cast out. When Isaac is in his 20’s, God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham is going to do it, but an angel stops him.
Although the basic story is the same in the three major religions, the interpretations have changed through the generations. Feiler discusses the development of the stories and the myriad symbolism associated with each. There are many parallels between the story of Moses and the Israelites and between Isaac and Jesus.
Although the original story of Abraham was one of universal acceptance, it has become one of exclusivity. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all vie for Abraham’s heritage and believe that only they lay claim to it.
Abraham’s is an absorbing story, and Mr. Feiler has taken complicated religious issues and written a book in lay vocabulary. The book is well-researched but not academic; it brings history to life and satisfies his attempt to know the first monotheist, the father of three faiths.
For years, it was the Arabs and Israelis warring with each other, now Christians are being pulled into it as well. George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.” I like to quote Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; pictures by Harry Bliss. Joanna Cottler Books, c2003.
Something a little different. Diary of a Worm is a picture book that is meant to be read aloud to one or more little guys. I don’t usually read the picture books as my son is 20 years and won’t sit with me long enough to have the book read to him, but this one is pretty funny.
The worm is a second- or third-grader, and his entries tell about what he has done that day. He includes days at school and at play with his friend, Spider, and his family. His dad eats the newspaper, his sister’s face looks just like her rear end, and he wants to be a Secret Service Agent when he grows up. Along the way, he learns that there are good and bad things about being a worm in a big world.
The illustrations are done in watercolor, outlined in ink, which makes them very bright and appealing to children. The funny depictions charm the adult. Snapshots on the front and back covers are especially humorous, like the picture of him with a bee sting and the family vacation on Compost Island.
Although this book is written for children, there are many allusions geared to the grown-up. A lot of read-alouds do this, knowing that the adult would like to be entertained as well. Some of my favorite easy books are Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Zoom, No Jumping on the Bed, and Arthur’s Eyes—I always get a chuckle out of these.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. New York: Doubleday, c2003.
Jon Krakauer was a free-lance journalist and is now the editor of the Modern Library Exploration series. He always chooses interesting topics to write about in his books and writes in a very conversational tone, reading more like a novel than non-fiction.
In this new one, Krakauer started out with the idea of investigating the nature of religious belief but soon narrowed his focus to the Mormon faith. It begins with the 1984 murders of a young mother and her infant daughter by two Mormon fundamentalists—Ron and Dan Lafferty--then moves on to describe what led these men to commit such a crime.
The history of the Church of Latter-Day Saints is a very unique one in that it is only 173 years old and is well documented from the beginning. Joseph Smith was a very charismatic man with a lot of ambition. When he was 17, an angel appeared to him and told him of buried sacred tablets, which he was to transcribe and re-bury. This is the text that was to become The Book of Mormon.
The most fascinating aspect of Mormonism to most of us non-Mormons is the practice of polygamy, but this practice was not incorporated into the church until 20 years after Joseph’s receiving the commandment of its importance to the faith, and then its acceptance (for most) only lasted for about 50 years.
Joseph Smith liked young girls of 15 or 16 years old, and one day in 1843, he had a vision from God regarding “celestial marriage.” Although he kept it secret from the rest of his congregation, his first wife was not happy with having co-wives. It is rumored that Smith had over 40 wives, most of which had been coerced with threats of eternal damnation or enticed with the promise of salvation for the entire family. Ironically, men could take on as many virgins for wives as they wanted, but for women, sexual relations with more than one man equaled adultery.
When the federal government made things difficult on the people in Utah because of this practice, the Mormon prophets of the day received commandments from God to discontinue “celestial marriage.” Because of this split in fundamental beliefs of the church, splinter groups appeared. Ron and Dan Lafferty were recent converts to one such sect.
The Lafferty brothers murdered their sister-in-law, Brenda, and infant niece mainly because Brenda had spoken out against the fundamentalist practices. Stories of incest, rape, sexual abuse, pedophilia and sexism abound in these groups, and the Lafferty wives really didn’t want any part of the polygamous lifestyle. Brenda helped Ron’s wife to divorce him, and as far as Ron was concerned, she had committed an act that was considered so grievous as to warrant “blood atonement.” God’s laws take precedence over man’s, and digressions could only be rectified by killing the perpetrator. Sitting in a jail cell, serving a life sentence, Dan still feels he was doing God’s work.
This is a fascinating account of an American religion with a violent past. Krakauer approaches his subject objectively, as he grew up in a mostly Mormon town and has great respect for the Church. If you like accounts of modern day mysteries and adventures, try his other two books, as well—Into the Wild, a story about a bright college kid who takes to the road, and Into Thin Air, a personal account of the Mt. Everest disaster.
It Was the Goodness of the Place by Lucinda Dixon Sullivan. Louisville: Fleur-de-Lis Press, c2003.
It Was the Goodness of the Place is Lucinda Dixon Sullivan’s first book. Born and raised in Kentucky, the reader can tell this right away from her vivid descriptions of tobacco raising and Kentucky farm life in general.
It is 1948 in Western Kentucky, and Lucy and Gabe have separated after seven years of marriage because of Gabe’s rage and arrogance—she’s taking their daughter Clara to live in Hickman, and he will spend the rest of his days working to regain his family.
Although Gabe is a well-respected businessman in his 40’s, this was not always so. His family came from the wrong side of the tracks, but Gabe knew tobacco and how to deal fairly with others. When he opened the first tobacco warehouse, the ground-breaking venture made him a rich man. At first the town people resented his success and felt he didn’t know his place, but everyone came to value him when they saw how it turned their economy around.
Gabe accidentally shoots his mistress while struggling with her over a gun with which she had threatened suicide. This reader believed that the story was going to revolve around the murder case, but that isn’t the way this book goes. In fact, at each juncture, I thought I knew which way things were going to go, but the story doesn’t go in any of the directions I had expected.
Blood Canticle by Anne Rice. New York : Alfred A. Knopf, c2003.
The latest chapter in the Vampire Chronicles may very well be the last. What started as a standalone novel in 1978 with Interview with the Vampire has grown to become the new face of vampire folklore. For many of us, the last novels have not been as intriguing as the earlier ones.
In Blood Canticle, Anne Rice brings together a number of characters from The Witches of Mayfair series. She has united the vampires, the witches, the Talamasca, and the ghosts of dead Mayfairs into a rather sappy tale.
As with a lot of Rice’s books lately, a large part of the book is retelling old stories. Many of us readers probably need to have our memory jogged, but I think it is cheating.
This novel begins where Blackwood Farm left off. Lestat has just performed the “dark trick” on Mona Mayfair, Quinn’s beloved, to prevent her from dying. She had given birth to a Taltos some years ago, which destroyed her health. Now that she is well, she is obsessed with finding the baby that had been taken from her.
Mona is not a likeable character from her first appearance in the Mayfair series, and she’s more of a spoiled brat in this one. Quinn is too goofy in love with her to be taken seriously, and Lestat has become stale. One of my favorite aspects of the earlier novels was her description of New Orleans, but this is almost non-existent in this one. Rice throws in a little Catholic dogma, but there is very little conflict with the good and evil concepts of the past.
If this is not the last episode, I will continue to read these because I want to rekindle the magic that I felt the first time I was introduced to these characters. Maybe that is just nostalgia, and I am hoping for something that will never be, but I am an optimist and believe strongly in Anne Rice’s abilities as a writer.
Other vampire stories with novel takes on an old theme are Dan Simmons’ Children of the Night and Less than Human by Kentucky author, Gary Raisor. For an excursion into the vampire cult in America, Piercing the Darkness is an excellent view of what some people call the “real world.”
Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2003.
This book has been so popular that, although the Grayson County Public Library has had this for six months, I have just now gotten to read it.
Everyone knows Hillary Rodham Clinton and has an opinion of her, but I gained deeper respect for her after having read her biography. The “living history” in the title is a double entendre, being that it is the account of her life that is still pertinent and on-going and that her experiences will prove historical.
Her story begins with her family history. Because her mother suffered a terrible childhood, Hillary has been personally aware of children’s problems from the outset, which predestined her role as a children’s advocate. Raised in a working middle-class family in Chicago, she started out as a Republican like her father. In college, she was exposed to the social changes of the 60’s and found that her principles lay more with the Democratic party.
Her talent for activism and organization started at an early age through fund raising for local charities and has developed over the years. Touring the world and listening to the plight of families forged her dedication to women’s rights, human rights, and health care.
Although many were expecting some insight into the impeachment hearings of her husband, she doesn’t presume to talk for him. She does, however, speak openly of her inner conflict and how she resolved this within herself.
Because she is intelligent and outspoken, she seems to offend many people, but I found the book to be refreshing in her sincerity. Her successes are discussed, but she also points out the many mistakes she has made along the way as well. The tone is very chatty, and she has included many candid photographs. Since it is conversational, it is a quick read and one that I looked forward to each night.
The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin. New York: Hyperion, c2003.
Most of you know Steve Martin as a comedian, but did you know that he is now writing books? The Pleasure of My Company is his second novel, and I was impressed. I have always enjoyed his physical humor (the scene in All of Me when he first houses Lily Tomlin’s soul cracks me up every time); now, I can enjoy his wit in another form.
Daniel Pecan Cambridge is an obsessive/compulsive, who understands he is irrational and attempts to overcome his fears. He lives alone and fantasizes about women he sees in his very limited world. Because he fears curbs, he has to find routes around town with scooped out driveways opposite of each other. Because he has to have just the right amount of wattage output, he sleeps with lights turned on throughout his home. Because he is afraid of mass transit and definitely too scared to drive, he doesn’t leave his apartment much.
But there are a couple of people in his life: he has his at-home therapist, Clarissa, and her son; his upstairs neighbor, Philipa and her boyfriend; and Elizabeth, the apartment realtor. Although Daniel has problems, these people see deeper into his personality to find something they like. Daniel says his fear is keeping his charisma in check because “What would happen to me and to those around me if my power became uncontained? Maybe my obsessions are there to keep me from being too powerfully alluring…”
In an ironic twist, Daniel enters and wins an essay contest about why he should be chosen as the “Most Average American.” In fact, he enters twice under different names and is selected a finalist both times with contradictory viewpoints.This quirky little book gives us characters that we care about even though (or maybe because) they are so bizarre. The tongue-in-cheek humor kept me chuckling through most of this short, little book. If you don’t like Steve Martin’s humor on stage or in the movies, you probably won’t take to this book. But if you are like me, I could hear his voice narrating the story and see his face as Daniel’s and enjoy it as an old friend.
Coiled in the Heart by Scott Elliott. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, c2003.
Coiled in the Heart is Scott Elliott’s first novel. Set in Tennessee, it is the story of landed gentry that has lost most of its home place and is trying to regain it, the story of a childhood romance that wants to bloom, and the story of a mistake in youth that echoes through a grown man’s life.
Tobia Caldwell and his father are buying up the subdivision that surrounds their home, tearing down the houses and restoring the land to its original state. Once, the estate had included over 1,000 acres, but as the father needed money, he has sold off the property to developers. Because this land had been in the family for over 200 years, there is sentiment attached to it. It is ironic, however, that Tobia is using the money he made in computer technology to denounce progress.
One of the first children to move in to the new subdivision is Ben Wilson. Right off, Tobia and he do not get along. Tobia tricks Ben, who gets bitten by a cottonmouth and dies. Ben’s twin sister Merritt and Tobia become close friends and lovers, but he keeps the secret of Ben’s death “coiled in his heart.” This and the fact that the Wilson’s aren’t good enough for the Caldwells sour their romance.
At the beginning of the story, Tobia receives a letter from Merritt after not hearing from her for over 6 years. In true Southern style, this spurs his reliving the past. The chapters alternate between Tobia’s present and his history. Because it is difficult to separate the two, this device serves the novel well.
My grandmother’s farm has been sold, and I am watching homes go up on land that has never been developed before. We moved to the country to get away from people, and now they are moving in right next-door. There is a lot of history that surrounds the old farm that I feel is being trampled, so I really identified with Tobia.
But there is so much more to this novel than that. It is layered with universal themes of re-establishing the past, lost glory, first love, turbulence between social classes, sense of place. And what would a good Southern novel be without some reference to the Civil War?
Vivid descriptions and clever turns of phrase make this a very interesting read. Elliott uses unusual adjectives that are not often if ever heard, and his characters are well-drawn and likeable. In the blurbs, he has been compared with William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, William Styron, and Robert Penn Warren, indicating just how powerful this first novel is.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Boston: Little Brown Company, c2002.
Suzie Salmon was raped and murdered and sits in heaven watching her family. She was 14 years old in 1973 and still very much an innocent when a neighbor lured her away from her routine. Her body was never found.
This story takes us through the grief of losing a child and the more terrible uncertainty of not knowing what happened to her. Grief can bring us together or rip us apart; in this family, there’s a little bit of both.
Alice Sebold has done an excellent job of writing from a teenage girl’s perspective. Susie’s idea of heaven is very juvenile, and she is naïve in the beginning. As she experiences life through her family, she matures. Watching her family for almost 10 years, she learns that she has to give up earth in order to move on to the “real” heaven.
Although the premise sounds morbid, this story is an uplifting tale of family healing, hope, and dream fulfillment. It, also, is one of mystery and humor. The reader can empathize with the dad, will dislike the mother, can appreciate the boyfriend, will feel for her little brother. The plot is pretty simple, and there’s not a lot of action, but somehow the reader gets drawn into the story, and it becomes a fast read.
This novel was very popular with teenage girls, who also like the Lurlene MacDaniel books. In the blurbs, this has been likened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a pretty good read, but I wouldn’t go that far.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. New York: Doubleday, c2003.
Christopher Boone is a 15-year-old autistic boy, who is writing a story of the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Having worked with autistic children, Mark Haddon does a wonderful job of writing from Chris’ point of view. The reader is given a true glimpse of how differently their minds work.
Chris is a mathematical genius because numbers are simple and straightforward. In fact, he uses math puzzles to calm him when he becomes upset. Since he is bombarded with thoughts and notices everything, he gets nervous outside of his familiar surroundings, or when people touch him, or when his normal routine cannot be followed or when… Because he cannot fathom human emotions, he reacts to situations inappropriately, which causes much frustration for his parents.
Solving the mystery of the murdered dog proves to open new mysteries that Chris was unaware existed. After finding the murderer, he challenges himself to go outside the familiar, only to make discoveries about his parents’ relationship that he cannot understand.
Mark Haddon never leaves character. Chris muses about God, society, himself, all from the autistic point of view. The plot is slow, as it should be coming from Chris, but seeing the world through his eyes lends the reader insight into an entirely different world and makes this book a page-turner.
There’s humor in his naiveté and in his literal translation of everything, like “hitting the hay” and “laughing your socks off” and “skeletons in the closet.” There’s sadness in the poignancy of a relationship with a person who cannot love. There’s awe in the intelligence shown by a person generally perceived as “mentally handicapped.” Ironically, the story runs the gamut of human emotions, told by a boy who feels none of them.
I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I highly recommend it to you.
Bet Your Bottom Dollar by Karin Gillespie. New York: Simon & Schuster, c2004.
I couldn’t resist reading this one because of the author’s name. Bet Your Bottom Dollar is Karin Gillespie’s first novel, and it takes place in the small town of Cayboo Creek, South Carolina. Their small town economy is being affected by a big chain store moving in. Since this is a prevalent theme in most small towns today, it seems like all the Southern writers are responding to this issue in their work.
Elizabeth is a hometown girl who works at the Bottom Dollar Emporium. Much of the novel takes place in the store with her co-workers--Mavis the owner and Attalee, Elizabeth’s aging co-manager. The banter between the “girls” is light and humorous, but the plot is pretty predictable.
Elizabeth’s mom died when she was just a baby, so she was raised by her Meemaw. When Elizabeth gets a hold of her mother’s diary, she finds out that the man she always thought was her father may not be. Most readers at this point can figure out to which family she truly belongs.
A unique aspect of the book is the opening of each chapter. Ms. Gillespie has chosen clever sayings, and she notes where in the novel these have been seen, for example a sign outside of the bait shop or a bumpersticker on the back of the minister’s car. My favorites are “Change is inevitable except from a vending machine,” “If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes,” and especially, “When an old person dies, a library burns down.”
Of course, it all ends happily and there are no real surprises, but it is an enjoyable little book. Elizabeth gets a man, the dollar store remains in business, and Elizabeth discovers who she is. I’m not going to tell you who her family is; see if you figure it out before the novel’s end.
I believe this is just the first in what may become a series because the cover says “A Bottom Dollar Girls Novel.” Other humorous books in a series are Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder Gang books, and Joan Hess’ Maggody series. For light entertainment, these can’t be beat.
Dreaming Southern and The Southern Belles of Honeysuckle Way by Linda Bruckheimer.
Linda Bruckheimer is the wife of famous film and television producer, Jerry Bruckheimer. They spend their time between Hollywood and a farm near Bloomfield, KY. Because she has fond memories of growing up in Kentucky, these two novels reflect that love.
In Dreaming Southern, we meet Lila Mae Wooten and her four kids. They are leaving Kentucky because they’ve made some bad investments. The family is broke, and they are going to meet Lila’s husband Roy in California to start a new life.
The year is 1959, and it is a two-lane world. It takes Lila Mae months to drive to California because she doesn’t know how to use a map, and they stop for everything. For example, they “swing by” Alabama to visit Lila Mae’s sister whom she hasn’t seen in years and doesn’t even like but only spends 15 minutes with her.
In New Mexico, they pick up Juanita and Benny. Juanita is a Native American who makes turquoise jewelry and is leaving an abusive marriage; Benny is her arsonist son. Lila Mae needs the money that Juanita will give her to take her to see her daughter in Wisconsin, but her taking them in also demonstrates Lila Mae’s personality. She makes friends easily, and she sympathizes with everyone but her children.
Where Dreaming Southern is from Lila Mae’s point of view, Southern Belles is from the viewpoint of her three daughters. It is 40 years later, and the girls are going to Kentucky to celebrate Lila Mae’s 75th birthday. Rebecca Jean and Carleen are driving back to recreate their trip out West.
Rebecca is now on her third husband, and she is revitalizing her mother’s hometown of Blue Lick Springs, KY. Carleen is in an unhappy marriage with a controlling, philandering husband. Irene (Baby Sister) is overweight with purple hair and piercings and wasn’t old enough to remember the trip out to California, but she has gone to Kentucky to start over after her abusive marriage dissolves. Their brother, Billy Cooper, is not in the picture. He is homeless, and there is an air of mystery surrounding his whereabouts, both physically and emotionally. Lila Mae’s mother, Olive, is a rambunctious 95 year-old who is still very much in charge of the family.
This novel is all about the loss of rural America and, consequently, the past. Developers are buying up the land and subdividing it, running “Mom and Pop” shops out of business with their strip malls, and taking away the flavor by monopolizing the area with no regard to tradition. This is becoming an on-going theme in Southern literature because it is so disturbing to many of us who live here.
I hated to see these books end. The stories are humorous and thought-provoking; the dialect is colorful and the characters, flawed but loveable. Hopefully, Ms. Bruckheimer will bring them back for more misadventures in the future.