WHICH ONE DO YOU ADMIRE? WHICH MIGHT YOU TAKE FROM THE SHELF?
BEFORE WE WERE YOURS
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine Books 2017
Genre: Novel/historical fiction
Hardcover Edition: 354 pages
Source: Personal copy
This story wraps itself around the reader and as the events unfold the wrap is tighter, warmer and more suspenseful.
It is told in two voices: Rill Foss and Avery Stafford. Many reviewers spoke highly of the character Rill Foss and the scenes of Rill and her siblings stolen from their parents and kept in the Tennessee Children’s Home waiting for adoption. It was not a nice place and Rill’s voice is strong in telling the tale of her family. But it was the character of Avery Stafford who captured my heart. A young lawyer from an old South Carolina family she pours her heart and soul into learning more about her grandmother’s mysterious past.
The tale is based on the real-life scandal of the Memphis adoption organization that kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families. Wingate gives us a window into the treatment of some children in the thirties. It would seem that greed and injustice have been present in our world in places we sometimes least expect. Our heroine Avery Stafford has no inkling of such a situation, but she senses that something is not as it seems in the history of her beloved grandmother, who is now receiving care in a nursing home with a memory unit. The reader, who is told the story by Rill Foss as a young girl, knows what is going on. But it is how this author Lisa Wingate is able to fit together the pieces of this story and the feeling each represents that creates a riveting and mysterious tale.
With each passing chapter the story and the characters are more vivid and pull at the heart more strongly. For this reader, Avery is the heart of the story. As book clubs choose and discuss this story, no doubt readers will feel most strongly for different characters. Though some critics do not agree with me, I take this to be a sign that Wingate knows how to create characters as well as plots. It is far from easy to write multiple young children with clarity and interest as Wingate has done. Many readers agree. This book has been weeks on best-seller lists.
Author: Louise Penny
Publisher: Minotaur Books 2017
Genre: Fiction – Mystery
Hardcover Edition: 388 pages
Source: personal copy
Many of you have read some of Louise Penny’s best-selling Inspector Gamache novels. She lives in a small village outside of Montreal, similar perhaps to the Three Pines village of these novels. Her awards are numerous. This is because she is not only a writer of brilliant mysteries, but an outstanding writer in any category. Her prose is epic, poetic and readable.
This time the Chief Inspector, his family and his village are at the very center of the intrigue. The village is besieged by a hooded figure who stands on the village green. It is thought this figure is a “debt collector” arrived to provoke someone’s conscience. Soon a murder victim is discovered in the village church and as you might expect an engrossing mystery ensues.
This is without a doubt the best of her books that I have had the pleasure of reading. This is the book that makes me a true fan! The characters are so clear, the plot is also clear and riveting. And my concern for Gamache escalates with every chapter. Her plot involves history and present-day important issues at once. It also incorporates something of the supernatural. She has always been a master of plot. But this time caring and clarity are central to the novel. For that reason it is unforgettable!
Reading Lousie Penny is a delightful endeavor. I truly thank her! BookMarks magazine awards this one 4 stars and so do I. Don’t miss it!
Grant by Ron Chernow
The renowned author of Hamilton which sparked the popular musical has just published this comprehensive biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Word has it there’s never been a better portrait of this famous if flawed American. The following sentence ends a review by Bill Clinton in the New York Times Book Review, “ If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, his steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.”
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
This novel brings the theme of conflict between outdated and the latest technology. Many think the story is delicious fun. A robotics programmer leaves Michigan for a job in California. She discovers the San Francisco Bay’s food mecca where she comes to be gifted with sourdough starter and from there the story rises (pun intended).
The Glass Houses by Louise Penny
This is the four star thriller I am reading right now. I think it is her best yet. The Christian Science Monitor calls it an “explosive read”; another reviewer pronounces it a “poignant meditation on power, privilege and responsibility.” Many reviewers continue to praise this one.
Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla
Here is a memoir by an author who was born as an untouchable in the south of India. Bookmarks gives this one four stars and so do many other reviewers. The book purports to inform the reader on politics, misogyny, caste oppression, poverty and more.
Its All Relative by A. J. Jacobs
What is family? Where are our cousins? Who are our cousins? Follow this author’s journal to learn more about geneology in a wild and wacky sense. Actually I’m not sure what this book is about. The descriptions and info about this book both escape and entice me. I want to take a closer look.
Surprising how at times, at least to this reader, reading seems less understandable, less enjoyable than it is at its best. The day comes when books that had seemed to call so strongly, become a reading chore. And so my reading life goes this week. It wanders, capriciously, not in a good way. I try to figure it out.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
For the past several months, I hummed with excitement at the thought of reading Jessmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. How I had been captured by her nonfiction memoir Men We Reaped. I couldn’t wait to try her new novel. But this week I find myself bogged down in the book. It’s short in length; I should have finished.
The story seems repetitive, as is the life of its characters. Some of the characters are not real. Combining other-worldly characters and realistic fiction is popular these days with literary writers and critics. Though many may enjoy this kind of a read, I find the ghostly characters distracting. For me the story loses its urgency, its reality, its power.
As pictured in this story everyone in this real/unreal world takes drugs. The author means, I think, for us to understand just what these characters are up against. The scenes between the children are especially tender and even hopeful. But pain seems overwhelming. If I’m tired after 170 pages, think of the people who are living that life. For characters in Sing, Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Prison, is an expected chapter in their lives.
Prisons – Blood In the Water
It may be my reading tiredness comes of reading two books at the same time about prisons in the United States. After hearing the author speak I couldn’t wait to begin turning the pages of Blood in the Water, about the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971 and its aftermath. It is a weighty matter that in this country we have incarcerated so many people, often those who have committed minor crimes due to drug addiction and poverty. According to a report I heard on the radio today some law enforcement subscribes to the theory if you round up those accused of small crimes, the other criminals will go somewhere else.
We insist on treating drug addiction as a crime and not as an illness. We insist on putting these people in prison, an expensive endeavor leaving us less able to deal successfully with serious criminals, or the addictions. The reader of this book soon understands the militarization of police and prisons leading to war such as occurred at Attica.
If I can stick with this book perhaps my vision on the subject will clear.
Finding Hope – Reality, Grief, and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks
The third book I’m reading, Reality Grief and Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, has me thinking of the message that God has given us in the words of the ancient biblical prophets. I hear the message that neighborliness is more important than nations, more important than race, religion or ethnic origin. If this is true I believe we may want to refocus some of our energies as we strive to live in a world where the parts are less independent and isolated than may have been true in the past. The last pages of this book may help me see the hope in neighborliness.
As I read what I have written, I at least understand why my reading week has become too weighty. Clearly I need to lighten up. My shelf contains some lighter reads. It’s time for me to choose one. Wish me luck.
But, as I have the last word in this conversation with myself – burying my head in the sand may not be an answer that holds any lasting power.
Thanks to a friend and a book club, I attended the Metro Detroit Book and Author Society Luncheon held at Burton Manor in Livonia, MI. The annual luncheon features talks by well-known authors, and books are available for purchase and signing.
This year featured authors were Claire Messud, Chris Bohjalian, Heather Ann Thompson and Drew Philp, the later not able to attend. I believe this is the largest such organization in the US. Over 1000 readers were in attendance.
Claire Messud, an award winning author of six novels including The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children talked to the group about her latest book, The Burning Girl, a coming-of-age story and one that addresses the complexities of female friendship. The less glamorous friend is the narrator. Messud told the group she wrote the story about middle school friends because she believes that what happens in middle school determines who we are as adults. (I hope that is not true.) The story deals with how friendship unravels. Is that ever a happy story? As readers we bring our own stories to the story of any novel. We fill in the uncertainties of the story the author has written.
Heather Ann Thompson gave a short and dynamite talk about the writing of her Pulitzer Prize Winning nonfiction book, Blood In the Water. It chronicles the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its legacy. She began by reminding us 2 million people are behind bars in our country. What a staggering statistic; these are humans. Her book opens with the heartbreaking conditions for those behind bars at the time of the uprising in New York State. For example the 1300 men at Attica had a square of toilet tissue per person a day for their use.
She gave her audience a real look at the behind-the-scenes writing of this book. Incarceration is a subject we all need to talk about. I agree with her. The statistics and conditions shake a person’s faith in human nature. She tells the story of what really happened in 1971, what was covered up, and ultimately what happened afterwards. It is difficult to know what is more frightening: the story of what happened, the cover-up or the difficulty she had in finding the truth and writing the story. Many of the readers I attended this function with found her a most dynamic speaker and several of us wanted to obtain and read this book, in spite of its length and depth of subject matter.
Chris Bohjalian shared information about his latest book The Sleepwalker and about the misunderstood subject of sleepwalking. This novel is described as a spooky thriller about sex, secrets and the mysteries of sleep.
I have been a fan of this writer for some time. I have loved many of his books and I know he is a writer who appreciates his readers. He answers my blogs and tweets about his books. Among those I expecially liked: The Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Light In the Ruins. I’ve never been disappointed in one of his books. In The Guest Room, readers learned about sex trafficking and now with The Sleepwalker, we have the opportunity to learn about sleepwalking.
Drew Philp is the author of the memoir A $500 House in Detroit, described by the society website as the true story of a recent college graduate who wandered into Detroit and bought a ruined hulk of a once-grand house in an attempt at urban homesteading and as part history, part social commentary, part memoir. Sound interesting, doesn’t it?
Thanks to the Metro Detroit Book and Author Society for this outstanding program and the opportunity to hear about writing books from writers. Listed below are author websites:
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York
Author: Francis Spufford
Publisher: Scribner, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 299 pages
Source: Personal Copy
Short-listed for seven British Book Prizes, named novel of the year by The British Sunday Times and praised by many reviewers including Laura Miller of the New Yorker, this reader paid money and ordered from Amazon. The thought of seeing New York before the revolution was tempting indeed. For the first nearly 200 pages, this seemed a dubious decision.
Hardly as precise as reviews promised; long sentences and longer paragraphs, antique words and spellings, tried the patience of this reader. The descriptions of setting, altercations, and indeed everything went on for pages, or so it seemed. What kept this reader slowly turning pages, or skimming was a desire to know more about the historical context of the mid-18th century (the same era currently visually displayed on the TV series Outlander and Poldark, neither set in the US). In spite of the detail furnished by the author, I yearned for clarity.
A young man from England, one Richard Smith, arrives in New York, a town of 7000, bearing a note of exchange for the very large sum of one thousand pounds sterling. The plot thickens along with the writing. The merchant he deals with has two daughters and one Tabitha, is particularly interesting. Another thread to keep the reader dangling.
Here I will stop to recommend the review by Laura Miller from The New Yorker, July 2017. It is an exquisite piece of writing. Read it before you read this book, if you so choose, and no doubt the story will be clearer.
Enough already. From page 189 on, I raced to the finish. Finally the story captured me. It started to make sense. The ending, though not completely satisfactory was somewhat surprising and had the ring of truth. I admit, I tend to like my fiction realistic.
This author, Francis Spufford, much admired by many but new to me, is a master of mystery and plotting. He also produces beautiful prose, albeit in lengthy sentences: “It seemed to Smith that he had her (Tabitha) on the slenderest hook imaginable, made only of curiosity; like a fish-hook of ice, ready to shatter at too much force, or to melt at too much warmth; but that he might play her back all the way to safety on this hook, to the safe shore of her happiness and his own, if only he were subtle enough.”
Recommended with reservation. No doubt it is a book I would enjoy on a second reading. It seems to me that a reader must love serious reading, and historical fiction to tackle this one. This book is a challenge you may be glad you accepted.
Authors: Ilyasah Shabazz with Kekla Magoon
Publishers: Candlewick Press 2015
Paperback Edition: 348 pages plus Author’s Note, Timelines, Suggestions for further reading
Source: Personal copy
Each year the Michigan Humanities Council presents The Great Michigan Read. It is a book club for the entire state with focus on a single book. This year the book is X a fictionalized account of the formative years of Malcolm X, speaker, leader, and converted Muslim (1925-1965). Major author Ilyasah Shabazz is the third daughter of Malcolm X and his wife Betty Shabazz. It is described as a novel of reinvention and redemption and one which highlights the Michigan roots of this influential leader.
The Council provides books, and a reading guide to facilitate study of this book and the issues addressed. Additional information pertinent to the understanding of Malcolm’s story is part of the packet the Council distributes. This story reminds us that even when we as individuals feel powerless, each of us holds surprising power. This book is intended for all readers, young adults (I would say middle to high school students) to senior citizens. The Council strives to make literature accessible and appealing for all.
The book has many powerful themes. Unfortunately I missed the book club meeting and discussion of the book. I will point out one important theme, well articulated in the context of Malcolm’s young life and experiences. The book is strong in helping readers understand how people of color feel, especially when they come from a background of poverty.
The authors clarify rules black people must follow in our society. Some of those stated for Malcolm in the 30’s and 40’s: a black person could not say how one felt, or thought, keep your head down low when a white person passed you, use low dirty water fountains located right next to the high clean one for whites, ride in the back of the bus, not to sit down unless no white people were on board. There are things you can’t say and places you cannot go. Some of these are less frequent today and some are gone. But think, are black people today allowed to express feelings or speak about injustice as they might truly feel. What happens if they do?
As one reads this rather expected tale of Malcolm trying to find a place for himself in the 30’s and 40’s in Lansing, MI, Boston and Harlem, his experiences bring to mind experiences young black males live in contemporary society. The differences are not so great as we might at first believe. Malcolm lost his parents when he was young and though his siblings and extended family tried to assist him, the story brings home what a great loss this is for any person and how it may affect their developing beliefs.
The book speaks to a wide audience. Yes, it has much to say to a 14 year old young man from a black community, but it also teaches a white woman of 70+ years cultural celebrations and pitfalls that swirl in our midst. The book contains author’s notes, timelines and historical facts and perspectives to further enlighten readers.
The Humanities Council provides a Reader’s Guide. Of special interest to this reader was the Q and A with second author Kekla Magoon concerning in part how to approach the writing of a book with two authors. Suggested discussion questions are also included.
Malcolm Little lost his family when he was only six. He spent is early years yearning for his father, his teen years running from family and the voice of his father. It is a universal story. Reading this book, one learns about his young life and what finally led him to find his voice and become a powerful leader in the Civil Rights movement.
Thanks you Michigan Humanities Council!
Some people say that the books we truly enjoy are the ones we are thirsting to read. Assigned reading may or may not be less enjoyable. I find some truth in this. Often, a book I really want to read will totally capture me.
What’s happening for you in reading? Maybe the fall season is a time you seldom pick up a book. Or maybe, as the air chills and the sun shines, you settle into a favorite chair and go for turning pages.
I’m replenishing my lists today, while plowing through a book club selection that has yet to capture my attention. I’ll tell if you will.
Placing on hold at the library:
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.
This novel is set in the fictional town of Bois Savage, Mississippi and is written by the author of the National Book Award Winner of 2011, Savage Bones.
X by Ilyasah Shabazz daughter of Malcom X and Kekla Magoon
This book, fictionalized as a novel, has been chosen as this year’s title for the Michigan Humanities Council and the Great Michigan Read. Many years ago I was highly interested in and taught by The Authobiography of Malcolm X. I applaud the new presentation of his story for a current generation, but I’ve yet to be truly enjoying it. I recommend it as quite possibly a good audio book.
Everybody’s Talking About:
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Intertwined stories of a family and a mother and daughter in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Perhaps I should put this on hold. Have you read it?
This short post is hardly a full exploration. All there’s time for today is to dip a toe in the waters of reading.
Hope you are able to take a moment to share what you are reading. Thanks!
Sometimes when I interview readers for this blog, I ask: what book do you wish more readers would read?
Today I wish to answer my own question. Not with some thick tome, some bit of philosophy I consider very important. I answer with the title of a moving read too many of you have missed.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It is a beautiful read, a tale that scoops one up for a ride that doesn’t stop until the last page is read. Since I wrote about this book previously in a blog post, it became a finalist for the National Book Award. I expect that book clubs will love it.
In this tale of the Old West 10-year-old Johanna, captured by Kiowa raiders at age 6, has lived among them since that time. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who is a 70 year old war veteran rescues her and plans to take her to live with relatives near San Antonio. It is to be a long journey. Johanna is frightened, doesn’t remember English and is reluctant to go.
The journey is remarkable for a number of reasons. The characters are absolute standouts whose interactions and learnings along the way will amaze the reader. Joanna manages feats more exciting than Wonder Woman on a comic strip page. The author writes movingly of her characters and of Texas in the late 1870s. It is a timely story told in lovely prose.
It is a must read for history lovers and for those that are willing to see an often maligned landscape in a new light. The characters pack a real whollop. This title was named the top book of 2016 by BookPage. Oh, and it’s expected to become a film starring Tom Hanks. Perfect casting. This one I have to see. I hope you read this book and see the movie when it comes out. It’s a small book, filled with a tight, tense story, but so satisfying. Go on – give it a try!