Monday, March 12, 2018

Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick by Michael Sheldon

Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick

By Michael Shelden

Sheldon opens the book with a scene of Sarah Morewood crowning Melville with a laurel wreath at Christmas dinner, in honor of his completing Moby-Dick.

“The obvious, but unspoken, truth here is that Mrs. Morewood is in love with Mr. Melville, who is also married. Indeed, Sarah will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”

Sheldon paints a vivid portrait of the times and the inner motivations of both Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood. It reads like a terrifically romantic story, not a dry look at the facts and history.

“Melville fell completely under his lover’s spell from the moment they met in the summer of 1850. Mrs. Morewood was a singular character in the Berkshires of her day, a woman both bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate. Melville regarded her seriously as a kindred spirit, though his biographers have not. She is one of the great unsung figures in literary history.”

Some of the information given is fact but much is also conjecture.

“. . . a wild lament for forbidden love in the novel he called Pierre, didn’t soar to such heights or plunge to such depths in an emotional vacuum. The tempests in those books had their parallels in his life, and at the center of the storm was a relationship for which he was willing to risk everything.”

Sarah was clearly a passionate person. But the author assumes some things based on modern sensibilities in certain places while pointing out how different it was at that time in others. For example, he says she initiated a summer fling with Alexander Gardiner. There was some gossip in certain circles about the two of them being caught in a compromising position which must have been “more revealing than a kiss or an embrace.” But at another point he says that a large group of friends going on an overnight camping trip was scandalous. So which is it?

Neighbors gossiped about a clergyman who was spending too much time as a guest at her home. Really? With others in residence, just spending too much time there was cause for gossip.

It is a thoroughly interesting and entertaining book that delves into the lives and love of Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood but I don’t think the author fully makes his case that two of her children were by Melville. There’s no doubt they were great friends who may have loved each other passionately but that does not prove a physical relationship. Unconsummated relationships can endure all the longer for never being able to reach that stage.

Sadly, Sarah died before she turned 40, most likely of consumption. If the author is correct in only a percentage of his assertions though, some of her spirit lives on in Melville’s writing.

“The key for Sarah was always to be understood, not judged. But, of course, the world prefers to judge . . .”

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Last Coon Hunter by Joe Crance (Guest Review by Tarren Young)

The Last Coon Hunter
by Joe Crance

Reviewed by Tarren Young

Gosh, it’s hard to know where to start sometimes when reviewing a book. You want to not only do the story justice but the author as well. Sometimes the words flow and other times you have to gather your thoughts, grapple and wonder what the heck just happened when you finished the story. What happened is the fact that I sobbed my way through this story in 8 days.          

I bought Joe Crance’s book The Last Coon Hunter back in December with all kinds of crazy notions that the other pile of local authors I needed to read would be read in the month or shortly thereafter!

This is where we all laugh because I’m a mother! At Christmas! Trying to read! I wonder if that thought even crossed my brain? I don’t think there was any comprehension in that idea at all. Nope. None whatsoever.

But I did run into Joseph one night in late January, and he asked me if I’d read the book yet. Sadly, at that point, I hadn’t even opened it. Sigh. Sometimes I wish I was a faster reader or that I could read two books at one time. But I believe we are meant to read the books we are meant to read at certain times in our lives for a reason. I don’t know why, we just do. I opened the book that night and was immediately drawn into the character’s lives, desperate to know more!

Besides getting the kick in the pants I needed, this story also worked well for our book club theme for February of a historical book with a story set at least 20 years before. The Last Coon Hunter spans the years 1976 to 1993, and fits well into that theme.

I am an active reader and my copy is well loved, with several notations and highlights. Of course a few things could be tightened up here and there, but that is the case with every author. Even J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect! We all have to start somewhere, and Joe Crance started with characters that are real and heartfelt from page one.

I loved every character--well, almost every character--(I won’t spoil it for those who want to read it) from the beginning. Each of them had flaws, which is nice, because no one wants to read about flat, stagnant characters. I really don’t think I could sit and pick a favorite character. It would be like trying to tell me I had to pick a favorite child. There’s no way I could do it.

Besides the characters, I have a very soft spot for the setting of The Last Coon Hunter. Though I did not directly grow up in Painted Post, my paternal grandfather worked at Dresser Rand and my paternal grandmother worked at Corning Glass. Growing up in Tioga County, PA, Painted Post was literally my backyard.

Oddly enough though, The Last Coon Hunter reminded me more of my maternal grandfather than anything. The way the characters talked and interacted with each other, their dialects, brought to mind my maternal grandpa who was born on the homestead, in the holler, in Little Marsh, PA and was a logger with horses all his life.

My grandpa not only talked like the father, Jacob Ernst, in Crance’s book with certain dialects, but was full of life wisdom along the way. And you can bet, the life lessons that my grandpa and Jacob Ernst peppered through life and through The Last Coon Hunter story, could and did make you take a step back and realize just how much truth was in such a short sentence.

I will honestly say that I did not expect to like this book as much as I did, much less fall in love with it. Joe Crance is a natural born storyteller, not many people are, and he has only gotten better from here. His story telling style captured my heart. His characters are still lingering there as he weaves a story much like my own grandpa did. 

What I’m coming to realize is that I will never have the time to hear my grandpa’s stories again, and a healing took place through this book that I did not know I needed, and for that, I am grateful.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

The book opens with a play in Toronto starring Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack on stage. A member of the audience, Jeevan who is training to be an EMT, jumps onto the stage and performs CPR, but to no avail.

 “The lights changed, the blues and whites of the snowstorm replaced by a fluorescent glare that seemed yellow by comparison. Jeevan worked silently in the margarine light, glancing sometimes at Arthur’s face.”

Mostly, the language in the book worked beautifully. The first chapter is full of literary description, but margarine? That was a shade too far. Not a typical description and it confounded me, made me wince.

The play has ended unceremoniously and all go their separate ways. Jeevan leaves the theater after the paramedics take Arthur away and wanders a bit. His girlfriend had left him behind and he doesn’t really feel like going home to her. “The theater tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all –we –do-is-fight…”  

Chapter 2 takes us into the lives of the actors and gives us the lay of the land very sparsely, like a script, as they talk over the loss of Arthur. The last line particularly struck me. “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

In chapter 3, Jeevan gets a call from his friend who works in an ER warning him to flee the flu pandemic in the city. “If it had been anyone other than Hua, Jeevan wouldn’t have believed it, but he had never known a man with a greater gift for understatement. If Hua said there was an epidemic, then epidemic wasn’t a strong enough word.” Just the phrasing of that struck me as lovely.

We follow Jeevan a little bit but then he disappears. We meet Arthur’s ex-wives and his one child. We follow a child actor who was in the theater that night but survived the pandemic as part of a traveling symphony. The book shifts between time periods frequently but easily. “Twenty years after the end of air travel, the caravans of the Traveling Symphony moved slowly under a white-hot sky.”

Chapter 6 begins with “An incomplete list” of things that don’t exist after the pandemic. It is simple and intense. A couple of comic books play a strangely important role in the book.

An inordinate number of people who knew Arthur seem to survive, considering the sheer number of people who are estimated to have died, something like 99% of the world population. You’d still have around 74 million people but you’d expect them to be more separated. Some of it seems wildly improbable, but I’ve seen far stranger things in real life.

It’s funny, even though you know it’s a book about an incredibly severe flu pandemic, there are some characters you just don’t expect to die. No one is immune. There is one character that I just kept wondering whether he would survive into the later portion. Then one person, you get a mention of how and where she dies, and I’m just shocked. Perhaps because it is a piece of foreshadowing and the events happening at the time weren’t directly related to her death.

We drift in and out amongst these disparate threads, getting a full picture of the people who survived, some of the people who didn’t, but how they affected those that did, over a long span of years. And, in the end, it all comes together in ways I never expected. A fascinating journey. Six degrees of separation? The butterfly effect? We see the connections here, given time. It will keep you wondering until the end.

“Jeevan found himself thinking about how human the city is, how human everything is. We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world, but that was a lie, it seemed to him; it had never been impersonal at all. There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.”

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin

I find it ever so slightly odd that this novel opens with a character who is, while important to the story, absent for so much of the book. It’s an interesting choice and it lets us meet the main character, A.J. Fikry, through the eyes of someone else, at one of the lowest points in his life. An interesting choice indeed, and this book is not boring - it is full of interesting choices and beautiful writing.

We follow Amelia Loman over to Alice Island, where she is going to pitch the latest books from her company to the book store owner, A.J. Fikry. Amelia tells him that she has taken over for the previous rep, who had died, and A.J. is very rude.

From their first contact you might think A.J. is a real jerk but then the story turns and we see it from A.J.’s perspective. His beloved wife is but a ghost in his dreams, having died in a car accident almost two years before.

“She had been two months pregnant. They hadn’t told anyone yet. There had been disappointments before. Standing in the waiting room outside the morgue, he rather wished they had told people. At least there would have been a brief period of happiness before this longer period of  . . . he did not yet know what to call this.

The night after Amelia’s first visit, A.J. gets drunk while looking at his first edition book of Tamerlane. When he wakes, the book is gone. He hightails it down to the police station and has an absence seizure while talking to Chief Lambiase. The Chief insists on taking A.J. to the hospital to get checked out.

Later that year, two days before Christmas, A.J. finds a two year old child left in his bookstore. How? Why? By whom? There is a note asking him to care for the little girl. It is a Friday night on an island in the winter so he has to care for her, with a little help from his sister-in-law, for the weekend. They bond. He decides to adopt her.

“A.J. watches Maya in her pink party dress, and he feels a vaguely familiar, slightly intolerable bubbling inside of him. He wants to laugh out loud or punch a wall. He feels drunk or at least carbonated. Insane. At first, he thinks this is happiness, but then he determines it’s love. Fucking love, he thinks. What a bother. It’s completely gotten in the way of his plan to drink himself to death, to drive his business to ruin. The most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”

How Amelia comes back into the story, the truth of the baby’s parentage and how she affects the story, other twists and turns, along with many life and literary observations, make this an interesting and lovely book.

A.J. observes on reading The Luck of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte as a college student and then later in life, “Methinks I have grown soft in my middle age. But me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.”

I did find this book to be slightly uneven. Zevin tried to pack a lot in and it covers a large period of time. There were parts that felt true and made my heart sing so that it deserved a 5 star review, then there was a portion where I thought, "Isn't this over yet?" and planned to leave it at 3 stars. In its entirety, I would have hated to miss this journey. She took some chances and a few of them didn’t work as well as others but, in the end, the cumulative effect was magnificent. It deserves a good 4.5 stars. I would recommend this book to anyone.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Tightly Raveled Mind by Diane Lawson

A Tightly Raveled Mind
By Diane Lawson

Nora Goodman is a psychiatrist doing traditional daily psychoanalysis with a small number of patients in San Antonio, Texas. She and her husband, Richard, had moved to his old hometown from Chicago, at his insistence. He is a high profile psychiatrist who consults for the police and on television shows.

They are separated but have two children, Camille and Alex, typical adolescents having a hard time coping with their father having moved out of the family home. Richard is trying to get Nora back into their marriage, holding out ridiculous carrots like membership in the country club, which Nora cares nothing about.

Professor Howard Westerman is Nora’s first patient of the day. He “accidentally” blows himself up in a home lab workshop. A loose gas fitting? Sabotage? Suicide?

Allyson Forsyth is the second patient of the day, a wealthy oil heiress, but she has a great deal of trouble with her marriage. She has “a distracted aloofness that people read as a refusal to be bothered with life’s ordinary concerns. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. I understood that her depression made her move as if underwater.” She has just been to see her divorce lawyer then goes and steps off a high building and kills herself.

Nora hires a private detective, Mike Ruiz, to investigate because she is afraid her patients are being killed. The interactions with Mike develop in an off-kilter fashion to something between a relationship and a noir sexual entanglement that wasn't sexy, just disturbing.

John Heyderman is her third patient of the day, a former military sniper. “He’d been discharged from the military in body only, his internal world stuck in a perpetual cycle of horrific flashback, demonic guilt and deadening denial.” Is he the threat or in danger himself?

There is a lot of talk in the book about the terms of therapy, like countertransference. “About repression. About the power of the Unconscious to put our head up our butt and keep it there.”

The story is told in first person, past tense with A LOT of foreshadowing. “I failed to anticipate each and every one of those fatal events, not to mention the violence I would prove capable of myself.”

Halfway between an old-fashioned noir mystery like the Raymond Chandler books I used to read and a Girl on the Train thriller. The narrator seems like she should be above reproach, but she casts aspersions on her own fallibility early on, saying that she didn’t “see” this or that and that the analyst is usually as in need of therapy as the patient.

Then she goes very far astray, acting at one point as if she is in a fugue state though it could be stress and sleep deprivation.

It was an intriguing book but a bit coarse, much like a Raymond Chandler, but it wasn’t a smooth ride. It was okay, I finished it, but I wouldn't particularly recommend it to anyone I know.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
by Matthew J. Sullivan

Lydia Smith leads a very quiet existence, working in the Bright Ideas Bookstore and living with her boyfriend David, until the night that one of her favorite patrons, Joey, commits suicide by hanging himself upstairs in the bookstore. Lydia finds him. She is traumatized and, to add to her trouble, her picture is soon in the news and we find out that Lydia’s life has not always been so quiet.

“But Lydia wasn’t okay. Something had been happening inside her. An old tight knot was beginning to unravel.”

Joey has a picture on him at the time of his death. It shows Lydia and two of her friends at her birthday party from fourth grade, Raj Patel and Carol O’Toole. How did he get it? Lydia has not had contact with Raj for years. Carol is dead. Lydia was hidden under the kitchen sink the night that Carol and her parents were murdered by a hammer wielding man. The girls weren’t supposed to be there. Lydia didn’t see much from her hiding spot and the man who killed them was never brought to justice.

After that night, her father moved the two of them away. He had been the town librarian but became a prison security guard. Things did not go smoothly between Lydia and her father and she went off on her own as soon as she was old enough to do so. Now, after seeing her in the news, her starts contacting her again. So does Raj Patel. Also, the detective who investigated the Hammerman case.
It turns out that Joey left everything he had at the halfway house to her, though he burned a lot of what he had. There are messages he left behind for her. It turns out Joey had secrets of his own, a lot of them.

Characters, motivations, and events, mount up into a fascinating mosaic until we find out who the Hammerman is, at last. A solid thriller/mystery.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
by Agatha Christie

It seems odd to say it, but it was very comforting to read this murder mystery. I read quite a lot of Agatha Christie novels when I was in my middle school years. I never forgot the highly dramatic production of The Witness for the Prosecution our high school put on or the production of The Mousetrap that I was in. (Of course, I played the old lady, Mrs. Boyle.)

Christie’s standalone novels The Secret of Chimneys and They Came to Baghdad were a couple of my favorites but I also greatly enjoyed her little old knitting granny detective, Miss Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Hercule Poirot is Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective with the big mustache who uses his “little grey cells” to solve mysteries. They are usually murders, as in The Murder on the Orient Express. (I highly enjoyed and recommend the current movie from Kennth Branagh, by the way.)

Hercule Poirot, and behind him, the author Agatha Christie, were students of human nature and what people were likely to do or could not help doing.

In this case, Hercule is visiting his friend in the country, Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, when Simeon Lee is murdered in his house.

Simeon Lee has called his children home for Christmas. Alfred Lee and wife Lydia live in the house with Simeon Lee already. David Lee and his wife Hilda arrive along with George Lee, M.P. for Westeringham, and his wife Magdalene. The black sheep of the family, Harry Lee, arrives as well. Pilar Estravados has also been invited to take up residence at the house, possibly long term. She is Simeon’s granddaughter, daughter of the deceased Jennifer and her father, who died in prison. Of course there are the usual house staff, Tressilian, and valet, Horbury. We also have an unexpected visitor in Stephen Farr, who is the son of Simeon’s partner in South Africa. He just happened to be passing through and called on Simeon then was asked to stay for Christmas.

Yes, Simeon Lee has called his family home for Christmas, but it isn’t a family reunion. He’s a manipulator who loves to make trouble. He has pushed someone over the line this time, but who?

There are some very nice little twists and turns with this case and I’m not sure it can be figured out until Poirot gives his reveal of the facts we are missing at the end of the book, but I enjoy being along for the ride. It is a different time and place but the character of people is not all that different. Christie, and Poirot, make it fun to examine the motivations.