Next Book Buzz
For me, the mark of an especially good book is how firmly it grabs hold of me. It’s always a pleasure to stumble across a novel that captures my attention so tightly that it has me longing to get back to it during those moments I have to pause in my reading. Here are a few of my favorite thrilling finds from 2014 that I think other readers will also be captivated by:
- “Blood Work” by Michael Connelly. Readers may be familiar with Connelly’s two series featuring detective Harry Bosch and his half-brother, lawyer Mickey Haller. “Blood Work,” a novel set in the same “universe” as the books about Bosch and Haller, follows former FBI agent and recent heart recipient, Terry McCaleb. Upon learning that his heart donor may have been murdered, McCaleb becomes deeply troubled that his own life was saved at the cost of someone else’s. Despite doctor’s orders not to, he sets out to discover just what happened to his donor and soon finds himself in the web of an insidious killer. I could not put down this book and was unprepared for the story’s twist-filled conclusion.
- “Trouble in Mind” by Jeffery Deaver. I am a big fan of Deaver’s Lincoln Rhymes books, which follow a quadriplegic former NYPD detective who uses logic and science to find the solution to mind-boggling puzzles. This collection of short stories proves that Deaver can venture outside of the world of Rhymes and still produce a whopper of a tale. I enjoyed each of these short stories, but a few stood out for me. Rhymes makes two appearances in the book, including one that begins with the disturbing revelation that he has passed away – or has he? In another tale, a man returns to his hometown where he learns his long dead father was not what he seemed. The book concludes with a fantastic novella that follows a crime statistician who believes a series of deaths are not as random as they appear. Even readers who do not normally read short stories should consider this exciting collection of thrillers.
- “People of the Book” by Geraldine Brooks. This is probably my favorite read of the past year. Brooks’ fabulous novel begins with scholars examining the bits of materials found in between the pages of an illustrated Jewish manuscript called the Haggadah, in the hopes of determining the book’s history. Chapter by chapter the story unfolds in reverse, introducing the book’s previous owners and through this, revealing how the materials found their way into the book’s pages over the centuries. Although not a traditional mystery, this story unwinds in a way that will keep readers guessing as to the exact journey the Haggadah took through the centuries. I know readers will be as enthralled as I was by Brooks’ moving novel.
It’s hard to find a good subject for a book column in December. It’s not a good time for serious subjects. (Who has the time to concentrate at the height of a shopping season?) It’s too early for books about reinventing yourself (wait till January) or humor (better for April ). So, after contemplating my options, I decided to write about books that revolve around food. (We do eat a lot this time of the year .) These are not plain cookbooks, mind you, but books that describe places many of us would love to travel to and lives that have been marked by memories of food.
The first book I’d like to feature (also my personal favorite) is “The Language of Baklava” by Diana Abu-Jaber. It is a touching memoir of a girl coming of age in two worlds: the American world of her mother and the Jordanian world of her father. Growing up without a clear sense of belonging is very disorienting for Diana, but she is not the only one who feels disoriented. So does her immigrant father, who doesn’t seem to be able to decide where he – and his family – should live. He tries to hold on to his identity by cooking his native dishes, and for his daughter, that food becomes a trail she can follow down memory lane. With recipes for all occasions – festive and sorrowful – Abu-Jaber’s book is a joy to read and a joy to use in the kitchen.
“There is something to be done at this season,” begins Nina Mukerjee Furstenau in her book “Biting Through the Skin,” as she contemplates which holiday or festival she – a person born into a family of Bengali immigrants and a raised in the American Midwest – should celebrate. Like Diana Abu-Jaber, Furstenau struggles to define her identity and her culture and to bring order to her life. She solves her longing by cooking, and – later in her life – by embracing the faith and traditions of her ancestral country. Filled with the flavors and aromas of India and peppered with recipes, Furstenau’s book is a pure sensory pleasure, as well as an eloquent meditation on one person’s life.
Would you like to go to dinner with a New York Times food critic? If you said, “Yes,” then let me introduce “Garlic and Sapphires,” by Ruth Reichl. Reichl, a Los Angeles restaurant critic, takes a similar job at the New York Times. Now in New York, she finds herself in a position that can make or break a restaurant reputation, which means that many fashionable restaurants try to prepare for her visit. To make sure that she is not recognized, Reichl decides to wear disguises: wigs, fake jewelry, etc. This allows her to see restaurants through the eyes of their average customers. Unobserved, she witnesses the rudeness of the staff, notices different portion sizes (higher-status customers get bigger portions) and even different menus (unimportant customers are offered fewer dishes). Sincere and entertaining, Reichl’s book is an eye-opener on the world of New York restaurateurs.
No food column can be complete without mentioning French cuisine, and Ann Mah’s “Mastering the Art of French Eating” is just the book to show it off. Food writer Mah comes to France with her American diplomat husband, but she soon finds herself in Paris alone, for her husband is called to Iraq. To quell her loneliness, Mah travels around the country researching its iconic dishes like cassoulet, steak, andouillette sausage and crepes – ten in all. Mah talks to butchers, restaurant owners, chefs and other food aficionados, and she learns how the history of different regions of France is reflected in the evolution of their food. Liberally peppered with French expressions and recipes (I tried her steak recipe and it worked very well!), Mah’s book is a true ode to French food.
If you like spicing your food with stories, try “Secrets of the Tsil Café” by Thomas Fox Averill or “Cinnamon and Gunpowder” by Eli Brown. And, if you want to add a little mystery to your plate, don’t forget about experienced literary chefs like Diane Mott Davidson, Joanne Fluke and Tamar Myers. Whatever your food preference, you can always find a taste of it at your public library. As they say in the restaurants, “We’re here to serve you!”
The best way to read a book is to read it without knowing anything about it. But of course there’s only so much time to read, so it’s nice that there are gentlemen out there recommending awesome books. A gentleman doesn’t review a book, he merely recommends it and maybe adds some details about the book so his posts aren’t just absurd rambles or thinly veiled political rants or pointless introductions. But the book review industry is, in large part, in the business of summarizing works and spoiling as much fun as possible. And the book review industry is an unstoppable behemoth that eats books and poops cash and then doubles back to grab some of the cash. Yes, I’ve got a finger or two clasping at the beast’s tail. How else would I be able to afford the tremendous amount of pancakes a gentleman requires to start and end his day?
I’m going to tell you some stuff about a great book, but really you should just close this page, then open and close it several more times, electronically mail the link to all your friends (encourage them to open and close it several times), regular mail it to all your enemies, post the link on your social medias, shave the URL into your hair and read “The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Faber. Really, one of the most satisfying things about this novel is the way details and plot are slowly released. If you prefer blog posts to novels or you like to know more about a book before you read it or you’re my mom, then keep reading. Might as well grab a snack. The gentleman recommends pancakes.
Michel Faber wrote this book, about a man and wife separated by immense distance, while his wife was dying of cancer. Pretty intense. Here’s a nice article if you want more details about Mr. Faber and the creation of his book.
“The Book of Strange New Things” begins with a husband and wife on the way to an airport. The husband will be whisked away for a substantial time, and though both parties see it as a necessary (glorious even) whisking, they are terribly sad to be separated. Then, matter of factly, we learn the man is going away because he’s to do some missionary work on a distant planet. Peter gets into one of those moist bed things that helps science fiction characters sleep whenever they must travel incredible distances. Bea goes home to their cat and their church. Peter arrives on Oasis (named by a contest held by the corporation that owns it) to minister to the aliens. Turns out he’s the third pastor they’ve had.
Since I didn’t read a bunch of reviews I had no idea whether the aliens were friendly or disturbingly hungry or basically just a bunch of pasta that some corporate bigwig thought it would be funny to have a pastor talk at. I also didn’t know what happened back on earth while Peter was ministering to the Jesus-loving aliens (whose faces resemble something like a walnut crossed with a couple of fetuses). I also didn’t know how Peter would acclimate to his new planet while natural disasters and human cruelty made a devastating mess of life on earth. The book is haunting and sad, but not hopeless. Kinda like eating a pancake without an absurd amount of toppings, except much more fun to consume.
I never wanted the book to end, but great things must. Also, as much as I’d like to mention pancakes again, this post must end. Have a great day, Mom!
One extremely popular title on the New York Times best seller list this fall is the legal thriller “Gray Mountain” by John Grisham. Like in all great thrillers, there is a hero pitted against a villain. Grisham’s hero is Samantha Kofer, third year associate with the prestigious Lehman Brothers law firm in New York until the financial crisis of 2008 upends her life and transplants her to the Appalachian coal country of Brandy, Virginia. There she works as an intern for the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. While defending the citizens of the county and meeting the handsome litigator, Donovan Gary, she stumbles onto deadly secrets surrounding Big Coal mining!
This highly sought after title has created a rather lengthy waiting list at the library. So, if you are currently on this list, you might like to try these titles! (Publisher’s descriptions included)
“Raylan” by Elmore Leonard
When Federal Marshall Raylan Givens squares off against a known offender, he will warn the man, “If I have to pull my gun I’ll shoot to kill.” Except this time he finds the offender naked in a bathtub, doped up and missing his kidneys. Raylan knows there’s big money in body parts, but by the time he finds out who is making the cuts, he is lying naked in a bathtub himself, Layla, the cool transplant nurse, about to go for his kidneys. It turns out all the bad guys Raylan is after are girls this time.
“Stand Up that Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze
This is the true story of an outdoorsman living alone in Western North Carolina who teams up with his neighbors and environmental lawyers to save a treasured mountain peak from the mining company. One day the author got a call from a young woman, Ashley, and her Aunt Ollie. Ashley and Ollie said they had evidence that Clark Stone Company was violating the Mining Act of 1971 up on Belview Mountain, one of the most remote and wildest places in the eastern United States. They wanted Jay, a non-practicing attorney, to sue the company to put a stop to their mining operation. This is an underdog David vs. Goliath story with lots of good guys you love, and bad guys you love to hate. Not only did the case against the Clark Stone Company set groundbreaking legal precedent, but also the good guys won a complete victory. How they did it is chronicled in this book.
“The Perfect Witness” by Iris Johansen
She had the perfect life. She had the perfect cover. She was the perfect witness, until they found her. From the blockbuster bestselling author of the Eve Duncan novels comes a new, stand-alone thriller about a woman with a photographic memory who has lived her life in the Witness Protection Program. What she once saw put her entire family in jeopardy and now, years later, her cover is blown. She’s on the run, and the lives of those she holds dear hang in the balance.
“The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses” by Kevin Birmingham tells the story of how one of the great novels of the 20th century almost didn’t come to be. Birmingham provides a look at Joyce’s life and work in the larger social context of the early 1900s. Though the contents of “Ulysses” would hardly cause an eye to bat in the present day, during the time the Irish author was writing the book censorship was thriving in the United States and Europe. In the U.S., the Comstock Act prohibited the circulation of obscene materials through the mail. Only a small handful of men were charged with defining obscenity, and their definitions tended to be broad. In addition, “Ulysses” was challenged under the Sedition Act, with the accusation that it promoted anarchy.
Portions of “Ulysses” first appeared in a Chicago-based literary magazine, The Little Review. The periodical was publishing the book in installments, right up until the editors were arrested for doing so. Fortunately for literature, Joyce had many supporters who were determined to make his novel available to the world. Ezra Pound, who called Joyce “probably the most significant prose writer of my generation,” coordinated efforts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Your Classics Maven admits that “Ulysses” can be a difficult work of literature. But she urges interested parties not to shy away from the book without at least trying. She herself has enjoyed it in the way you might enjoy being around an eccentric relative you don’t always understand, yet who supplies enough golden moments to make the occasional confusion worthwhile.
Everyone who reads fiction should know why “Ulysses” is considered important. Birmingham says the book “changed people’s ideas about what a novel is and what it can do.” The title is taken from the main character in Homer’s ancient Greek classic “The Odyssey,” and different sections of the story mirror bits of that epic. But instead of taking place over a period of decades, all of the action happens in one day. This was a new idea at the time, although it’s a familiar framing device today. Also new was Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness narration, reflecting the way people actually think, instead of tidy summations. Some passages aren’t intended to be understood so much as experienced; the Sirens’ song from Homer is represented by a string of words chosen for sound rather than meaning.
Even if you only read about Joyce’s “Ulysses” instead of working your way through its text, you’ll see its influence in other novels. Some contemporary authors dispense with quotations marks. Joyce has been there, done that. David Mitchell experiments with structure in a Joycean way. Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” changes format several times as scenes shift, which we completely accept because Joyce first showed it could be done. So even if you haven’t read “Ulysses,” by reading contemporary fiction, you’ve read “Ulysses.”
The post Classics for Everyone: Starring “Ulysses” as “The Most Dangerous Book” appeared first on DBRL Next.
In 2002, the Daniel Boone Regional Library decided to start the community-wide reading program we now know as One Read. I was excited when it was announced that the first book selection was “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf. Kent Haruf was a former teacher of mine. This connection allowed me the opportunity to interview him for the library and to chauffeur him between readings and other events. Essentially, I was paid to spend time with the man. It was the best job I’ve been given in my time working for the library.
In every class I had with him he’d start the semester with a short speech to give the class an idea of the kind of writing he did. He told us about the town of Holt, Colorado, which existed only in his books. He said Holt was the kind of small town where everyone knew each other, “from the town drunk to the town mayor.” When he said that before a One Read event in Columbia, he got a little flustered. Columbia’s mayor at the time, Darwin Hindman, was there. Kent said he realized this was the first time he’d delivered that line with an actual mayor in the audience. Before a reading in Fulton, an elderly farmer and his wife approached Kent to tell him how much they liked his book. The farmer could especially relate to a scene where a cow gallops into the character Bobby and knocks the wind out of him. He’d had that exact experience many times himself.
Now I understand the true feat Kent accomplished in the classroom. We’re talking about short stories written by people in their late teens and early twenties. (I hope I’ve burned all evidence of mine.) Class after class. And he never seemed tired of us. He never made us feel like we didn’t have the potential, and he never made us think it could be easy.
For one of his classes we read Melville’s “Bartleby The Scrivener.” After we had all shared our impressions, he told us his. He told us about a former student at another college who was very isolated. The character Bartleby reminded him of that student. The last time he had heard about the student he was working at a bakery, living in an apartment above it, and spending very little time outside of those two places. I don’t know how many years it had been since he’d had that student in class, but you could hear the concern in his voice. You could tell he felt some regret that he wasn’t able to help the young man more.
That capacity for empathy made him such a good teacher, and a great writer. He cared about all his characters deeply, and he worked hard to bring them to life. Holt was based on the different small towns in Eastern Colorado he’d grown up in. Reading his books you can tell he had a real affection for the people in those towns. His writing focused on the small moments, the ordinary. His prose was spare but illuminated the moments he described. I think reading one of his novels makes our ordinary lives feel as significant as the lives in an epic or fantastic story. Maybe more so, for their being so familiar to us.
I was a little surprised by my reaction when I found out he had died. I admire him. I value the time I got to be around him, but I had only been in touch a handful of times since I graduated, and the last time was almost seven years ago. I haven’t become a published writer. I don’t teach English. I thought he was a part of my life that had passed. But the news was a real gut punch. Despite the lack of contact, I felt this sudden hole where he used to be. I realized the lasting impression he made. Then I felt sadder for not being able to tell him that. These kinds of common experiences – unexpected loss, small regrets – are what he wrote about so eloquently. I can’t help thinking as I try to put them into words, “Kent could have said it better.”
Kent Haruf wrote his seventh novel, “Our Souls At Night” before he passed away. It’s scheduled to be published in June.
Remember those good old childhood days of playing card games in a pretty old house while drinking hot chocolate and looking out the window at the limestone wall of a prison? Well, that might not be a typical childhood memory, but it gave local author Marlene Lee plenty of inspiration for her latest book, aptly titled “Limestone Wall.” The house that overlooked the prison, which happens to be the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, belonged to one of Lee’s father’s patients, and he would take her with him to visit the woman who lived there. In “Limestone Wall,” the main character, Evelyn Grant, moves into this very house in Jefferson City.
DBRL: Your most recent book, “Limestone Wall,” is about a recently widowed woman who goes to find her estranged mother, who is in jail for murdering twin babies. It seems like there are some pretty heavy themes in this book. Could you talk about your inspiration? I know that before becoming a full-time writer you worked as a court room reporter. Did that influence your work?
ML: I should make clear that my mother never killed anyone or went to prison! When I was a girl in Jefferson City, however, she died, and I’ve always wished I could see her again. This novel was a fictional way to think about what it is like to remember the past and to bring someone back to life and then to find firm footing between reality and wish-fulfillment.
My 30 years as a court reporter no doubt influenced the novel. The scene with Evelyn in the courtroom was easy to write because I’ve been in so many courtrooms. I also sat in that empty courtroom in the Cole County Courthouse so that I could describe it accurately and better imagine what it felt like for Evelyn to sit there, lost in thought about her mother’s trial.
DBRL: The excerpt from the book on your website describes a prison waiting room in vivid detail. Did you visit any prisons as research?
ML: The prison waiting room is not based on a real waiting room. I took a private tour of the Missouri State Prison with two people who are knowledgeable about the old penitentiary and life behind the walls. At the time it was being emptied out because the prison was moving to its new site; thus, the prison in “Limestone Wall” is nearly empty of inmates because that was its condition when I saw it. I’ve visited several other prisons in other locations. Once in the state of Washington I reported the deposition of a prisoner who was going through an appeal process. I don’t pretend to know very much about prisons. I used the setting of the Missouri State Penitentiary to help build my story rather than to inform readers about the prison.
DBRL: I heard that you’re a regular at Lakota Coffee. Do you have a favorite drink there?
ML: My drink at the Lakota is the same every morning: a single-shot, skim-milk latte. It never fails to satisfy!
DBRL: Have you read any good books recently which you would like to recommend to our readers?
ML: I love the writing of Edward St. Aubyn. His semi-autobiographical novels about the character Patrick Melrose are magnificent. He has mastered the ability to make the reader feel as if she or he is living the life of the main character, both in the small details and the large events. Patrick’s life is troubled, courageous, and he fights the good fight for self-control and self-knowledge. I love Marilynne Robinson‘s wise and compassionate novels. William Styron has always been a favorite of mine. All three of these writers have a sensitive, insightful writing style that I admire. There are too many wonderful writers to include in one short list!
Marlene Lee, along with other local authors, will be speaking on a panel at the Columbia Public Library on December 13th at 1 p.m. in the Friends Room. These authors (including David Collins, Ida Fogle, Elaine Stewart, Lori Younker, Nidhi Khosla, William A. Wolff and Wayne Anderson) will be talking about their contributions to the recently published anthology of fiction and non-fiction, “Uncertain Promise.” To check out Marlene’s other events and to keep up-to-date on her writing, please visit her website.