Saturday, January 25, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon is a contemporary mystery set in a home for the elderly in England. The protagonist, Florence Claybourne, is eighty-four years old and has dementia. She is coping, helped along by two other residents: a retired general named Jack and her lifelong best friend, Elsie. And then a new resident enters the home, Gerald Price. Florence recognizes him as Ronnie Butler. But sixty years ago, Ronnie Butler drowned.

The story unfolds in bits and spurts as Florence struggles with memories she can’t quite recall and perhaps doesn’t truly want to recall. But Ronnie Butler is a dangerous man and, even after all these years, he’s out to get Florence. Jack and Elsie are on her side, but no one else believes her.

The Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly is staffed by kindly, well-meaning people who wanted more out of life. Each has an interesting back story, though most are only lightly touched upon.

The most intricate life story belongs to Florence. As the final pieces fall into place, it becomes clear how interconnected all those lives are even if they are unaware of the connections.

It is a well-plotted story with warm characters. The ending is poignant and the mystery solved satisfactorily. The book reminded me strongly of Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, which I also enjoyed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, to be released in mid-April, is the latest contribution to American Civil War history that not only takes into account environmental factors but makes the case that these factors were central to deciding the outcome.

The various chapters discuss illness (particularly infectious diseases), weather, the availability and scarcity of adequate food, terrain, use of animals and the problems associated with their use, and soldiers’ death and disability. These are placed in context more or less chronologically, although their impacts were felt throughout the course of the war.

While many of the big-picture conclusions are not revelations, the book delves into the details supporting the conclusions in a scholarly yet accessible fashion that aids in understanding. The two authors’ combined expertise makes for a wonderful synthesis of a good deal of material. For those interested in Civil War history who are not fluent in environmental history but who would like to see events examined from this angle, this book is a fine choice.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Southernmost by Silas House

Silas House is one of Kentucky’s foremost contemporary writers, yet I’d only read one of his novels, Eli the Good, until our book group chose Southernmost for our next meeting.

The protagonist, Asher Sharp, is a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a small Tennessee town who has lost the verve for the harsh, exclusionary, judgmental preaching that had made him so popular with his like-minded congregation. He has a wife who is steeped in this type of religion and a nine-year-old son who is a more independent thinker. Asher loves his son with his whole being, but he has fallen out of love with his narrow-minded wife.

An historic flood hits his community with devastating consequences. Among the newly homeless is a gay couple who had recently moved to the community. Asher offers to let them spend the night in his home, but his wife rebels. This is the beginning of the end of their marriage.

Asher’s backstory is that he had a gay brother who was shunned and abused by his mother. Asher adored the older brother, but sided with his mother and threw himself into spreading the message of hate and intolerance. He has not seen his brother in ten years, but receives occasional cryptic postcards from him. Asher is filled with regret for the way he dealt with his brother and for the self-righteous beliefs he once held and encouraged others to hold.

When he tries to preach a more inclusive message to his congregation, things blow up in his face. He’s voted out. His marriage falls apart. And he loses custody of his son. Unable to bear the loss and fearful of leaving his son to grow up under those influences, he kidnaps the boy and sets out for Key West, where he believes his brother is living.

Despite finding a place to live and work in isolation, Asher soon realizes that living on the lam is a terrible environment for a child.. But the only option now is to return to Tennessee where he will undoubtedly be arrested.

This novel is beautiful and sad. The nasty characters have also suffered and their viewpoints are understandable if unacceptable. Asher’s heart is in the right place but his actions are misguided. The message is important. The delivery is a bit preachy, but given the characters, that’s to be expected.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev

Novel with Cocaine by M. Ageyev (translated from the Russian by Michael Henry Heim) was a Christmas gift, so it didn’t sit long on my TBR pile.

M. Ageyev is a pseudonym. The author is suspected to be Mark Levi, a Russian emigre in Paris. The novel was first published in 1934. It was rediscovered and translated into English in 1984.

The narrator/protagonist, Vadim Maslennikov, is a disturbed, disturbing adolescent from an impoverished Russian household. His father is dead. Vadim is ashamed of his dreary mother who sacrifices everything for him. His cruelty to her is horrifying. Despite his laziness and aimlessness, Vadim believes himself to be exceptionally smart and on the path to becoming a wealthy lawyer.

The first part of the book covers his school days. The school is filled with awful people. Vadim fits right in.

After graduation, he settles into a life of bumming around, borrowing money, and looking for women to sleep with. He has an affair with a married woman who eventually dumps him for being an awful person.

Surprisingly, the novel is compelling, despite the repulsive narrator. He’s full of self-justification and impressed by his own psychological insights. The author does a superb job of creating a fictional character that I could not care less about, but in a world that drew me in.

With nothing to do and no one to do it with, Vadim is bored. When an acquaintance calls and invites him out to join a small group who are hoping to snort cocaine one evening, Vadim joins them. He is invited only because they are out of money and need whatever pittance he can provide. That is his first experience with cocaine and he is instantly hooked.

After the first night, he goes to the home of a wealthy school friend, who fortuitously is going away to visit a girlfriend. He tells Vadim he can housesit, and gives Vadim a wad of money to entertain himself. Vadim spends it all on cocaine.

It is an interesting, personalized narrative of cocaine’s effects, physical and psychological. Vadim eventually succumbs to his addiction.

It’s not a cheery story. It’s not one where I could feel any empathy for the characters. But it is powerfully written.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

The next book in my TBR pile is The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. This novel was extraordinary.

Billed as a literary historical mystery, it is a smartly constructed psychological study and examination into the nature of confession. Narrated by John Reve, the priest in an isolated farming community in early fifteenth century England, the novel draws the reader in slowly but is difficult to put down.

Attention has been drawn to historical inaccuracies by some reviewers, but even though anachronisms usually bother me in serious historical novels, I couldn’t get upset about them here. The novel has an outside-of-time feeling to it that is enhanced by the unfolding of the narrative backward through time.

It begins at the outset of Lent, three days after the drowning death of Tom Newman, the wealthiest, most forward-thinking man in the village of Oakham. Was the death an accident, as John Reve tiredly assures the petty, interfering dean of the district who was called in to investigate? Was it suicide? Or was it murder?

Daily life of the village must go on, with the addition of a village-wide call to confession before Lent. The priest hears the sins and concerns of his charges, assigns gentle penance, and attempts to sort out his own feelings about the dead man, about his duty to God, about his lonely life.

Each part of the novel takes us one day backward in the life of the priest, the Dean, and the community, growing closer to the answer of Newman’s untimely death. By the time we reach the “beginning” of the story, the truth has shifted. Beautifully written and thought provoking, this book is highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to put a dent in my TBR pile. The first book I pulled out was The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (And Their Muses) by Terri-Lynne DeFino.

The book is structured as a novel in a novel.

The outer skeleton focuses on the residents of the retirement home, nicknamed “the Pen.” A luxury retirement home on the beach in Bar Harbor, founded by a famous (now deceased) literary agent turned doctor, the Pen is home to such (fictional) literary giants as Olivia Peppernell and Raymond Switcher, and editor Judi Arsenault. They are old friends and sometime rivals. Their days are reinvigorated by the arrival of the most renowned writer of them all, Alphonse Carducci. He lived large and had affairs at various times with Olivia and Judi, but the love of his life was the literary agent who founded the home and bequeathed it to him.

The home is staffed by a kindly doctor/psychiatrist, unnamed nurses, and three orderlies. The orderlies, misfits and outcasts, also live in the home. Cecibel Bringer is one of these.

Cecibel suffered a horrific car crash years earlier that left her with severe scarring over half her face. Her physical scars lead her to hide from the world, but her emotional scars are even more devastating. She isn’t sure the car wreck was an accident.

Cecibel’s favorite writer is Alphonse Carducci. When he arrives, a chain reaction occurs throughout the home. Writers need to write, and they had all given up. But Cecibel becomes Alphonse’s muse. He begins writing again. Olivia catches him at it and they start trading off, writing a love story, alternating chapters and viewpoints. Judi transcribes the hand-written notes, cleaning up but not altering anything. When Olivia gets stuck, she allows Raymond to insert a character of his own. For writers, the greatest gift anyone could give them is another chance to create.

For Alphonse, it’s also a chance for one more love, one different from the whirlwind affairs of his earlier days. This time, he’s able to give more than he takes.

The story is a beautiful though sad depiction of aging and dying. The writers look back on their lives with a mixture of triumph, regret, and resignation. Cecibel’s encounters with Alphonse open her up to the possibilities of her own life and help her to confront her past.

These chapters mingle with chapters written by the residents: the story of Cecelia, Aldo, Enzo, and Tressa. Although it does, in a way, suck the reader in, the story written collaboratively by the fictional authors is kind of cheesy and cliche. It’s a fun read, and has some pretty prose, but as the authors said “no planning,” it has an appropriately sloppy plot and stereotyped characters.

The novel overall works very well as the backstories of each of the residents and orderlies unfold and become intertwined in a subdued way. The story they write adds passion and pizzazz.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Clergyman's Wife by Molly Greeley

The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice told by Elizabeth Bennett’s close friend, Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte was the shy neighbor, plain and poor, who stepped in to soothe the ruffled feathers of Mr. William Collins after Elizabeth rejected his marriage proposal. Mr. Collins was the ridiculous, pompous clergyman who was destined to inherit the Bennetts’ entailed estate. He had a living in the nearby village of Hunsford. His patron was the insupportably haughty Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Charlotte, destined to be a spinster, took matters into her own hands when she saw Mr. Collins was available and not difficult to catch. She was not in the least drawn to him, but saw life as his wife as preferable to being a burden on her family.

In The Clergyman’s Wife, Charlotte has a quiet, secure life and a beloved baby daughter to brighten it, but she is hemmed in by William’s fussiness, his bowing and scraping to Lady Catherine, and his unsuitability as a vicar. Reluctant to make a wrong step that would draw her husband’s nervous censure, she hesitates to discover what her role should be. She’s stifled.

Her life changes when a local man is enlisted to plant rose bushes near her house. Although the man, Mr. Travis, is a tenant farmer and not a gentleman, he is thoughtful, interesting, and interested. He’s easy to talk to and she finds herself opening up to him in a way she can’t with her husband. Meeting him leads her to start calling on the parishioners and making friends in Hunsford, finding a purpose. But the more time they spend together, the more dangerous their relationship becomes: they fall in love.

The story is lovely because it is so restrained. It is true to the time period, and the characters stay true to the spirit of the original.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann is an odd book to ring in the new year. Translated from the original in German, this is a compelling depiction of two late eighteenth century geniuses: Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt.

The first, Gauss, is a mathematician and astronomer. Irritable and antisocial, Gauss’s discoveries are largely made in his head. He has little patience for those who can’t keep up with his thought processes. He did marry and have a family, but his wife died and his children disappointed him.

The second, Humboldt, is an explorer and naturalist, with interests in all realms of science. Best known for an extensive expedition to the Americas, alongside a companion named Bonpland, he was an avid measurer and collector. He feared nothing except women.

This novel presents scenes from each of the men’s lives, interweaving them with a meeting in Berlin, orchestrated by Humboldt, who hopes for a collaboration.

Narrated distantly by an omniscient narrator who, deadpan, scatters in absurdities, the book relies on tell, not show. The technique works extremely well given the subject matter. Although the reader is kept at a long arm’s length from the protagonists, nevertheless portraits of the two men emerge. Readers can derive a sense of wonder at how far before their time these men were, and how much they accomplished.