April 13, 2024

Demon Copperhead

 


Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Fiction
2022
Finished on April 12, 2024
Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)

Publisher's Blurb:

Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, this is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father's good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. In a plot that never pauses for breath, relayed in his own unsparing voice, he braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.

Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens' anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can't imagine leaving behind.

I received an ARC of Demon Copperhead in 2022. The size of Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, as well as the subject matter, made me hesitant to pick it up. I loaned the book to my mom, who told me she hated it. I loaned it to my husband, who gave up after reading a dozen or so chapters. So, it continued to languish on my nightstand, in spite of my affection for Kingsolver's books. I have read all of her novels (with the exception of The Lacuna), and many are on my list for re-reading (Flight Behavior, The Poisonwood Bible, Pigs in Heaven), so why was I so reticent to start this particular book? I'm sure I would have eventually picked it up, but when my book club selected it for our June discussion, that was nudge I needed. Realizing that it would take me a couple of weeks to read, I decided to start before our RV trip to California, knowing I would have several days of uninterrupted reading once we were on the road. Little did I know that this book would consume my waking thoughts and dreams for the next two weeks. 

I love that Kingsolver tells this tale exclusively from Demon's point of view. I quickly came to care about this resilient young boy, heartbroken over the terrible cards that were dealt to him, his mother, and many of the folks in his life. The situations that claim Demon's innocence, as well as the fragmented sentences which make up the early dialogue in the novel, held me in thrall. With each new turn of events, I couldn't help but wonder if life would ever improve for Demon. Even when it looked like he had finally found a good family situation, I worried about the other shoe falling, forcing him back out on his own, struggling to survive the cruelties of society.

I know this must be a difficult (if not impossible) read for anyone touched by the opioid crisis, and I have to admit that there were times when I didn't think I could continue reading. But Kingsolver's prose, while at times perhaps heavy-handed, never felt didactic or gratuitous. She has written an engrossing and important story, which is not merely entertainment, but rather sheds light on a serious societal problem. For this reason, the Pulitzer Prize is well-deserved. I'm eager to hear how others in my book club felt about the book and anticipate a thought-provoking discussion.

I hadn't considered reading David Copperfield before picking up Demon Copperhead, but now I'm curious to give the former a read in order to find the connections between the two stories. I'm also interested in watching Dopesick, which I understand to be an excellent series.

Passages of note:
I made my peace with the place, but never went a day without feeling around for things that weren't there, the way your tongue pushes into the holes where you've lost teeth. I don't just mean cows, or trees, it runs deeper. Weather, for instance. Air, the way it smells from having living things breathing into it, grass and trees and I don't know what, creatures of the soil. Sounds I missed most of all. There was noise, but nothing behind it. I couldn't get used to the blankness where there should have been bird gossip morning and evening, crickets at night, the buzz saw of cicadas in August. A rooster always sounding off somewhere, even dead in the middle of Jonesville. It's like the movie background music. Notice it or don't but if the volume goes out, the movie has no heart. I'd oftentimes have to stop and ask myself what season it was. I never realized what was holding me to my place on the planet of earth: that soundtrack. That, and leaf colors and what's blooming in the roadside ditches this week, wild sweet peas or purple ironweed or goldenrod. And stars. A sky as dark as sleep, not this hazy pinkish business, I'm saying blind man's black. For a lot of us, that's medicine. Required for the daily reboot. (Demon's thoughts on living in a city.)
and
"Certain pitiful souls around here see whiteness as their last asset that hasn’t been totaled or repossessed."
and
“It’s not something to fix,” he said. “It means strong. Outside of all expectation.” I looked at him. He looked at me. His hands were on his desk with the fingers touching, a tiny cage with air inside. Black hands. The knuckles almost blue-black. Silver wedding ring. He said, “You know, sometimes you hear about these miracles, where a car gets completely mangled in a wreck. But then the driver walks out of it alive? I’m saying you are that driver.”
An affecting and memorable coming-of-age tale which I doubt will ever leave me. Highly recommend!

Novelists like Kingsolver have a particular knack for making us empathize with lives that may bear little resemblance to our own. ~ Salon

Spoiler Alert: 


I was pleased with the hopeful ending...

April 2, 2024

A Month in Summary - March 2024

Little Whale Cove
Depoe Bay, Oregon
March 2024

I don't know about all of you, but I am so happy it's finally spring! I love the longer days and while we'll still see some rain for the next few months, it won't be as often as during the winter. I hope! 

It was a busy month, but I managed to get back into a good routine of going to yoga three times a week, as well as playing pickleball at least once a week. Now that the weather has improved, I hope to return to my daily walks.

My reading has been going very well. I reread two novels, continued with a favorite mystery series, started a new series, read a memoir that's been lurking on a shelf for a couple of decades (!!), read a recent release, and was spellbound by a great suspense novel. No complaints about any of these!



Books Read (click on the title for my review):

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (4/5) - reread

The Benefit of Hindsight by Susan Hill (4/5)

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (4/5) - reread

Day by Michael Cunningham (3/5)

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg (4/5)

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes (4/5)

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz (4.5/5)

Movies & TV Series:


Leave the World Behind - I read this book (on audio) in 2022 and enjoyed it, but I'd forgotten some of the details until I started watching the movie on Netflix. I really like it! Ethan Hawke was great, as were the rest of the cast. The ending was just as ambiguous as the the one in the novel, but a small departure from the book. 


You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment - I enjoyed this documentary series, but came away from it the same as I did after watching What the Health. Basically, cherry-picked stats to support a pro-vegan lifestyle, which should be taken with a grain of salt.


We Are the World: The Story Behind the Song - An enjoyable documentary featuring some of the great voices from the 80s. 


American Symphony - I went into this knowing nothing about either Jon Batiste or his wife, Suleika Jaouad. Apparently, I've been living under a rock. Worthwhile documentary about the creative genius of Batiste and his wife's battle with cancer.


MI-5 (Season Six) - Love this series! It gets a little convoluted with each new episode, but I enjoyed it and am eager to watch the next season.


Deadwind (Season One) - Entertaining police drama set in Finland. There are twelve episodes in the first season, so we'll take a break between seasons and get back to the show later this summer. 

Puzzlemania: 



Travel:

We are getting ready to head out in the RV for a trip down the coast to the Bay Area. I'm hopeful that we'll leave the rainy weather behind us in Oregon. I'm ready to break out my shorts and flip flops!

Other News:




We bought a new car! Rod has always wanted to own another sports car (we've owned a Karmann Ghia, Porsche 356C, MG Midget, MGA, Miata, and a Mini Cooper) so we decided to get a 2023 Mazda Miata (which is now called an MX-5). It is SO much fun! My brother was in town for the weekend and the weather couldn't have been nicer. Mark and Rod had a good time cruising around with the top down. Two cool dudes!

April 1, 2024

The Plot

 


Mystery/Thriller
2021
Finished on March 30, 2024
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot is a psychologically suspenseful novel about a story too good not to steal, and the writer who steals it.

Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written—let alone published—anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.

Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that—a story that absolutely needs to be told.

In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.

As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him. Who was Evan Parker, and how did he get the idea for his “sure thing” of a novel? What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?

I missed all the fuss over The Plot when it first hit the shelves in 2021, so I didn't know anything about it when I found it on the shelf at our neighborhood library. What caught my attention was this tiny blurb on the cover: "Insanely readable." - Stephen King. I have read and loved many books with King's endorsement, so I took the book home and added it to my stacks. A day later, I saw a few Instagram posts about a new book by Korelitz called The Sequel. Everyone seemed very excited about this follow-up, so as soon as I finished The Stonecutter, I immediately picked up The Plot.

Wow! I could not put the book down! This is the quintessential page-turner, but I forced myself to slow down and enjoy the read rather than rushing ahead to see how it would end. And what an ending! Of course, now I can't wait to read The Sequel, which is due out on October 1st. I went into The Plot without any knowledge of, well, the plot, and I intend to stay away from any blurbs about The Sequel. I love to be utterly surprised by a book, particularly a mystery/thriller.

In addition to the suspenseful aspect of this novel, I enjoyed the details about writing, publishing, and marketing a book. As you know, my husband is a writer (you can learn more about his books on his website), and I have spent many years working in bookstores, so it was fun to read more about the process from an author's point of view.

Meanwhile, I happen to have another book by Korelitz in my stacks. Who knew! I read so many rave reviews about various novels and eventually buy those books to add to my TBR piles. The Latecomer is one that I bought with some Christmas money, so now I'm very eager to give it a read. In addition to The Latecomer, Korelitz has six others to sample. I love discovering a new-to-me author who has a decent backlist. Whoohoo!

Have you read The Plot? I can't wait for my husband and mom to read it so I have someone with whom to discuss the big denouement. Maybe I'll recommend it to my book group for next year's reading list. 

Oh! And have you watched the HBO series, The Undoing (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant)? It's based on Korelitz's novel You Should Have Known. Great show!

More from Stephen King:
The Plot is one of the best novels I've ever read about writers and writing. It's so insanely readable and the suspense quotient is through the roof. It's remarkable. 

I agree!

March 31, 2024

Under the Tuscan Sun



Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Nonfiction - Memoir
1996
Finished on March 28, 2024
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Frances Mayes—widely published poet, gourmet cook, and travel writer—opens the door to a wondrous new world when she buys and restores an abandoned villa in the spectacular Tuscan countryside. In sensuous and evocative language, she brings the reader along as she discovers the beauty and simplicity of life in Italy. An accomplished cook and food writer, Mayes also creates dozens of delicious seasonal recipes from her traditional kitchen and simple garden, all of which she includes in the book. Doing for Tuscany what M.F.K. Fisher and Peter Mayle did for Provence, Mayes writes about the tastes and pleasures of a foreign country with gusto and passion. A celebration of the extraordinary quality of life in Tuscany, Under the Tuscan Sun is a feast for all the senses. 

I've owned a copy of Under the Tuscan Sun for so long, the pages have turned yellow! I finally decided to give it a read and enjoyed it immensely. It's the perfect sort of memoir to pick up and read a few pages (or chapters) here and there. Mayes does a marvelous job depicting her new home and surroundings in Tuscany. While not as humorous as Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, I savored the prose and descriptions of meals much more so with this book. I saw the film (starring Diane Lane) twenty years or so ago, and as I remember, I enjoyed it, but it's very loosely based on Mayes' memoir. I'm glad I read the book many years later, so as not to compare the two since they're completely different stories.

Some of my favorite passages...
The forno in Cortona bakes a crusty bread in their wood oven, a perfect toast. Breakfast is one of my favorite times because the mornings are so fresh, with no hint of the heat to come. I get up early and take my toast and coffee out on the terrace for an hour with a book and the green-black rows of cypresses against the soft sky, the hills pleated with olive terraces that haven't changed since the seasons were depicted in medieval psalters. Sometimes the valley below is like a bowl filled up with fog. I can see hard green figs on two trees and pears on a tree just below me. A fine crop coming in. I forget my book. Pear cobbler, pear chutney, pear ice, green figs (would the wasps already be in green figs?) with pork, fig fritters, fig and nocciolo tart. May summer last a hundred years.

and

As I unload my cloth sacks, the kitchen fills with the scents of sunny fruits and vegetables warmed in the car. Everyone coming home from market must feel compelled to arrange the tomatoes, eggplants, (melanzane sounds like the real name and even aubergine is better than dreary-sounding eggplant), zucchini, and enormous peppers into a still life in the nearest basket. I resist arranging the fruit in a bowl, except for what we'll eat today, because it's ripe this minute and all we're not about to eat now must go in the fridge.

and

I have considered my table, its ideals as well as its dimensions. If I were a child, I would want to lift up the tablecloth and crawl under the unending table, into the flaxen light where I could crouch and listen to the loud laughs, clinks, and grown-up talk, hear over and over "Salute" and "Cin-cin" travelling around the chairs, stare at kneecaps and walking shoes and flowered skirts hiked up to catch a breeze, the table steady under its weight of food. Such a table should accommodate the wanderings of a large dog. At the end, you need room for an enormous vase of all the flowers in bloom at the moment. The width should allow platters to meander from hand to hand down the center, stopping where they will, and numerous water and wine bottles to accumulate over the hours. You need room for a bowl of cool water to dip the grapes and pears into, a little covered dish to keep the bugs off the Gorgonzola (dolce as opposed to the piccante type, which is for cooking) and caciotta, a local soft cheese. No one cares if olive pits are flung into the distance. The best wardrobe for such a table runs to pale linens, blue checks, pink and green plaid, not dead white, which takes in too much glare. If the table is long enough, everything can be brought out at once, and no one has to run back and forth to the kitchen. Then the table is set for primary pleasure: lingering meals, under the trees at noon. The open air confers an ease, a relaxation and freedom. You're your own guest, which is the way summer ought to be. 

and

I was drawn to the surface of Italy for its perched towns, the food, language, and art. I was pulled also to its sense of lived life, the coexistence of times that somehow gives an aura of timelessness--I toast the Etruscan wall above us with my coffee every morning--all the big abstracts that act out in everything from the aggression on the autostrada to the afternoon stroll through the piazza. I cast my lot here for a few short months a year because my curiosity for the layered culture of the country is enexhaustible. But the umbilical that is totally unexpected and elides logic reaches to me through the church. 

 Marvelous armchair travel. Highly recommend!

March 28, 2024

The Stonecutter

 


The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg
Patrick Hedstrom Series #3
Mystery
2012
Finished on March 25, 2024
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Scandi-crime thriller from international bestseller Camilla Läckberg, perfect for fans of Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson.

The remote resort of Fjällbacka has seen its share of tragedy, though perhaps none worse than that of the little girl found in a fisherman's net. But this was no accidental drowning.Not only was there no seawater found in the girl's lungs--the autopsy yielded far more sinister findings. 

Local detective Patrik Hedström has just become a father. It's his grim task to discover who could be behind the murder of a child both he and his partner Erica knew well. Little Sara Florin's family history could provide the key, but how do you probe into the past of a family who has just suffered the consummate tragedy? What Patrick does not know is how Sara's death will open up the dark heart of Fjallbacka, spanning generations, encompassing a mysterious fire, thwarted ambitions, and pitting neighbor against neighbor, threatening to rip aside Fjallbacka's idyllic facade, perhaps forever.

It's been several years since I read the first two books in Camilla Lackberg's Fjallbacka series. I loved The Ice Princess, which I read in 2016, but was disappointed in The Preacher (the second installment), which I read the following month. As noted in my review (for The Preacher), I think these books are best read in print rather than on audio. Hearing the names spoken caused me great confusion, as many sounded similar to one another. There are also numerous characters to keep track of, and while reading The Stonecutter, I made a cheat sheet in order to stay on top of each new character and how they were related to one another. This third installment turned out to be a good mystery in spite of being able to unravel one of the clues about halfway in. At close to 500 pages, I did feel it could have been shorter, and I grew impatient with Hedstrom and his coworkers, wishing they'd hurry up and solve the murder mystery. At times, the detectives seemed to be fairly inept at their jobs, but Lackberg kept me guessing and overall, I was very pleased with the story. I plan to continue with the next book in the series (The Stranger) later this summer.

March 22, 2024

Looking Back - Ender's Game

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.



Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
Science Fiction
1985
Finished on March 13, 2002
Rating: 3.5/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin thinks he is playing computer simulated war games; he is, in fact, engaged in something far more desperate. The result of genetic experimentation, Ender may be the military genius Earth desperately needs in a war against an alien enemy seeking to destroy all human life. The only way to find out is to throw Ender into ever harsher training, to chip away and find the diamond inside, or destroy him utterly. Ender Wiggin is six years old when it begins. He will grow up fast.

But Ender is not the only result of the experiment. The war with the Buggers has been raging for a hundred years, and the quest for the perfect general has been underway almost as long. Ender's two older siblings, Peter and Valentine, are every bit as unusual as he is, but in very different ways. While Peter was too uncontrollably violent, Valentine very nearly lacks the capability for violence altogether. Neither was found suitable for the military's purpose. But they are driven by their jealousy of Ender, and by their inbred drive for power. Peter seeks to control the political process, to become a ruler. Valentine's abilities turn more toward the subtle control of the beliefs of commoner and elite alike, through powerfully convincing essays. Hiding their youth and identities behind the anonymity of the computer networks, these two begin working together to shape the destiny of Earth-an Earth that has no future at all if their brother Ender fails.

My Original Thoughts (2002):

2/3 of the way through - keep finding myself counting the remaining pages. It's a fun book, but drags a bit. All the training. I'm anxious for a little more action. Love all the futuristic details - laptops, instant messages, "nets," didn't exist or weren't well-known in the 80s. A few nice surprises that made me smile. Group read with Armchair Readers (online group).

My Current Thoughts:

I remember that I enjoyed this book, but not enough to go on and read more of the series. We watched the movie, starring Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, and Ben Kingsley, but I honestly couldn't tell you if I liked it.

March 17, 2024

Day

 


Fiction
2023
Finished on March 15, 2024
Rating: 3/5 (Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

As the world changes around them, a family weathers the storms of growing up, growing older, falling in and out of love, losing the things that are most precious—and learning to go on—from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours.

April 5, 2019 : In a cozy brownstone in Brooklyn, the veneer of domestic bliss is beginning to crack. Dan and Isabel, troubled husband and wife, are both a little bit in love with Isabel’s younger brother, Robbie. Robbie, wayward soul of the family, who still lives in the attic loft; Robbie, who, trying to get over his most recent boyfriend, has created a glamorous avatar online; Robbie, who now has to move out of the house—and whose departure threatens to break the family apart. Meanwhile Nathan, age ten, is taking his first uncertain steps toward independence, while Violet, five, does her best not to notice the growing rift between her parents.

April 5, 2020: As the world goes into lockdown, the brownstone is feeling more like a prison. Violet is terrified of leaving the windows open, obsessed with keeping her family safe, while Nathan attempts to skirt her rules. Isabel and Dan communicate mostly in veiled jabs and frustrated sighs. And beloved Robbie is stranded in Iceland, alone in a mountain cabin with nothing but his thoughts—and his secret Instagram life—for company.

April 5, 2021: Emerging from the worst of the crisis, the family reckons with a new, very different reality—with what they’ve learned, what they’ve lost, and how they might go on. From the brilliant mind of Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, Day is a searing, exquisitely crafted meditation on love and loss and the struggles and limitations of family life—how to live together and apart.

It's been over twenty years since I read Michael Cunningham's award winning novel, The Hours, which I picked up shortly after reading Virginia Woolf's classic, Mrs. DallowayTold from multiple points of view, Cunningham's latest novel, Day, follows a Brooklyn family on the same date (April 5th) in the years 2019, 2020 and 2021.

I don't remember much about the author's writing style for The Hours, but Day is most certainly an erudite literary work and not one to breeze through. The first section required close reading, and as I reread passages and sought the definition of several words, I grew impatient, eager for the hook to propel me into Cunningham's story. The deeper into the work I read, I realized that I didn't care about the characters (five-year-old Violet is far too precocious), and it wasn't until the final segment (set in 2021) that I was unable to put the book down. I feel I'm fairly well-read, but there are certain authors' works (Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison) with which I struggle, asking myself if I'm smart enough to "get" the underlying meaning of their prose. I wanted to love this novel, but it fell short of my expectations. However, I do plan to reread The Hours later this year. I may even add Mrs. Dalloway to my reread stack, as well.

March 15, 2024

Looking Back - The Lake of Dead Languages

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.


The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
Fiction
2002
Finished on February 24, 2002
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

Publisher's Blurb:

In the evocative tradition of Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, comes this accomplished debut of youthful innocence drowned by dark sins. Twenty years ago, Jane Hudson left the Heart Lake School for Girls in the Adirondacks after a terrible tragedy. Now she has returned to the placid, isolated shores of the lakeside school as a Latin teacher, recently separated and hoping to make a fresh start with her young daughter. But ominous messages from the past dredge up forgotten memories that will become a living nightmare.

Since freshmen year, Jane and her two roommates, Lucy Toller and Deirdre Hall, were inseparable–studying the classics, performing school girl rituals on the lake, and sneaking out after curfew to meet Lucy’s charismatic brother Matt. However, the last winter before graduation, everything changed. For in that sheltered, ice-encrusted wonderland, three lives were taken, all victims of senseless suicide. Only Jane was left to carry the burden of a mystery that has stayed hidden for more than two decades in the dark depths of Heart Lake.

Now pages from Jane’s missing journal, written during that tragic time, have reappeared, revealing shocking, long-buried secrets. And suddenly, young, troubled girls are beginning to die again . . . as piece by piece the shattering truth slowly floats to the surface.

At once compelling, sensuous, and intelligent, The Lake of Dead Languages is an eloquent thriller, an intricate balance of suspense and fine storytelling that proves Carol Goodman is a rare new talent with a brilliant future.

My Original Thoughts (2002):

Intricately plotted tale. Absorbing. A bit predictable? No, not predictable, but I did figure out part of the mystery early on, although there were still several surprises. Stayed up late reading. Engrossing.

My Current Thoughts:

I believe this is the only book that I've read by Carol Goodman. If I thought it was so terrific, why haven't I read more by her? She's written over a dozen thriller/suspense novels, so I have plenty from which to choose.

March 12, 2024

The Samurai's Garden - Updated

 

Fiction
1994 St. Martin's Griffin
First Reading: January 13, 2002
Second Reading: Mary 10, 2024
Original Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
New Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Critics nationwide have praised Gail Tsukiyama for her vivid characters and crystalline prose. They have acclaimed the exquisite beauty of her serene settings. But more than anything, readers have celebrated finding themselves in the hands of a strong storyteller with the wisdom and warm heart of an ancient soul.

On the eve of the Second World War, a young Chinese man is sent to his family's summer home in Japan to recover from tuberculosis. He will rest, swim in the salubrious sea, and paint in the brilliant shoreside light. It will be quiet and solitary. 

But he also meets four local residents--a beautiful Japanese girl and three older people. What then ensues is a tale that readers will find at once classical yet utterly unique. Young Stephen has his own adventure, but it is the unfolding story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo that seizes your attention and will stay with you forever.

Tsukiyama, with lines as clean, simple, telling, and dazzling as the best of Oriental art, has created a small, moving masterpiece.

Update:

After posting about The Samurai's Garden last year, I was eager to give it another read, and it finally made its way to my nightstand this past month. I'd forgotten so much about the story and thoroughly enjoyed it this second time around. This novel would make such a lovely movie. 

My Original Thoughts (2002):

The perfect indication of a great book is one that you hug to your chest and whisper, "Great book!" upon completion. It's also the type of book you are tempted to read again the minute you've finished. This is one of those books! Beautifully written. Lyrical. Touching. Simply lovely. I didn't want it to end, so I read slowly, savoring each sentence. Closed the book with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I want to read everything else that Tsukiyama has written. I'll give this as a gift to my book-loving friends and relatives. 

Honor, duty, loyalty. Unspoken love. Zen-like. A soothing, calm book. Beautifully "painted" images. 

My Current Thoughts:

I read this with two online book groups (The Book Spot and On the Porch Swing) and as I recall, everyone loved the book. I plan to read it again this summer while on our trip to Canada.

March 9, 2024

The Benefit of Hindsight

 


The Benefit of Hindsight by Susan Hill
Simon Serrailler #10
Fiction - Mystery
2019 The Overlook Press
Finished on March 3, 2024
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Serrailler must confront his demons as Lafferton experiences a series of shocking crimes in this 10th book in Susan Hill’s shattering crime series.

Susan Hill stuns readers once again in The Benefit of Hindsight, the 10th book in her celebrated mystery series. Now recuperated after the violent incident that cost him his arm—and nearly his life—DCS Serrailler has returned to work, though he prefers to spend his spare time sketching the medieval angels being restored on the cathedral roof. With crime rates down, Lafferton has been quiet, until one night when two men open their front door to a distressing scene. Serrailler makes a serious error of judgment when handling the incident, and the stress of this, combined with the ongoing trauma of losing his arm, takes its toll. In the tradition of the fabulous mysteries of Ruth Rendell and P. D. James, The Benefit of Hindsight is Susan Hill’s best work yet—a chilling new addition to a highly acclaimed series.

A decent installment in Susan Hill's ongoing series. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't as impressive as a few of her other recent works. There were a few loose ends, but I haven't reached the end of the series, so maybe those wil be resolved in the next book. 


March 8, 2024

Looking Back - Snow Island

Looking Back... In an effort to transfer my book journal entries over to this blog, I'm going to attempt to post (in chronological order) an entry every Friday. I may or may not add extra commentary to what I jotted down in these journals.


Snow Island by Katherine Towler
Fiction
2002
Finished on February 18, 2002
Rating: 2/5 (OK)

Publisher's Blurb:

What is life like for a girl coming of age in the shadow of World War II, a girl who lives on a small, isolated island populated by quahoggers and eccentrics?

This tender first novel follows the fate of sixteen-year-old Alice Daggett, who still feels the presence of her father who died six years earlier, and of George Tibbit, a reclusive loner who returns to the island each year in an excessive act of homage to the two women who raised him there.

Snow Island tells of their isolated lives and the impact that WWII has on all of their worlds. Both Alice and George find their lives linked, and changed, forever by the events that happen far from the small New England community that defines them.

Original Review (2002):

Disappointing. One-dimensional characters. Simplistic plot. Predictable. Reads like a YA romance novel. Probably won't read more by this author.

Current Thoughts:

I don't remember reading this book. Even the cover art is unfamiliar to me. I wonder what prompted me to read it. Was it an ARC? Recommended by a friend? Who knows!

March 6, 2024

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - Updated

 


The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Fiction
2008
Narrated by Richard Poe
21 hours and 39 minutes
First Reading: July 14, 2010
Second Reading: March 3, 2024
Original Rating: 5/5 (Outstanding!)
New Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher's Blurb:

Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar's lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar's paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles' once peaceful home. When Edgar's father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm—and into Edgar's mother's affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father's death, but his plan backfires—spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father's murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

David Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes—the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a fateful vision rendered in the falling rain—create a riveting family saga, a brilliant exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.

Early this year, I learned that David Wroblewski has written a sequel to The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a book that I read over a dozen years ago. I've always intended to give the book a second reading, so I downloaded the audio and spent seven weeks listening at every opportunity. It's a long story (21+ hours or 576 pages), and with all the rain we've recently experienced, I didn't get out for my regular walks, so it took even longer to reach the end. I enjoyed the story, but not as much as the first time I heard it. Some plot details were very familiar, and yet some (including the finale) were a complete surprise. I can't believe I'd forgotten how the story ended! 


I'm looking forward to reading Familiaris later this year (it's due out on June 4th), but it's even longer than Wroblewski's debut, clocking in at 980 pages! That's 33 1/2 hours on audio, which to compare, is about 3 hours fewer than Lonesome Dove

Rather than link to my previous review, I'm including it below in full. I'm a little sad that I didn't love this one as much as the first time around, but it's still a great story.

Original Review of July 14, 2010

I loved this book! I loved it so much that after listening to the audio, I was compelled to buy a copy for future readings. The writing is beyond lyrical; it's exquisite! The characters (human and canine) touched my heart, and Edgar and Almondine have joined the ranks of all-time favorite characters, keeping company with Scout, Owen, Leisel & Rudy, and Perry. I actually found myself thinking of Owen Meany a lot during this book; probably due to the manner in which he speaks...and the manner in which Edgar is unable to do so.

I found myself completely absorbed in the story, sitting in my parked car (both in my driveway or the parking lot at work) long after my car engine had cooled, unable to pull myself away from the narrative. The pacing is even, the suspense and foreshadowing perfectly tuned. Richard Poe is an exceptional reader and his performance of this heartfelt coming-of-age novel is to be applauded.

On man's (or boy's) best friend:

This will be his earliest memory.

Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.


The nose quivers. The velvet snout dimples.


All the house is quiet. Be still. Stay still.


Fine, dark muzzle fur. Black nose, leather of lacework creases, comma of nostrils flexing with each breath. A breeze shushes up the field and pillows the curtains inward. The apple tree near the kitchen window caresses the house with a tick-tickety-tick-tick. As slowly as he can, he exhales, feigning sleep, but despite himself his breath hitches. At once, the muzzle knows he is awake. It snorts. Angles right and left. Withdraws. Outside the crib, Almondine's forequarters appear. Her head is reared back, her ears cocked forward.


A cherry-brindled eye peers back at him.


Whoosh of her tail.


Be still. Stay still.


The muzzle comes hunting again, tunnels beneath his blanket, below the farmers and pigs and chicks and cows dyed into that cotton world. His hand rises on fingers and spider-walks across the surprised farmyard residents to challenge the intruder. It becomes a bird, hovering before their eyes. Thumb and index finger squeeze the crinkled black nose. The pink of her tongue darts out but the bird flies away before Almondine can lick it. Her tail is switching harder now. Her body sways, her breath envelops him. He tugs the blackest whisker on her chin and this time her tongue catches the palm of his hand ever so slightly. He pitches to his side, rubs his hand across the blanket, blows a breath in her face. Her ears flick back. She stomps a foot. He blows again and she withdraws and bows and woofs, low in her chest, quiet and deep, the boom of an uncontainable heartbeat. Hearing it, he forgets and presses his face against the rails to see her, all of her, take her inside him with his eyes, and before he can move, she smears her tongue across his nose and forehead! He claps a hand to his face but it's too late—she's away, spinning, biting her tail, dancing in the moted sunlight that spills through the window glass.


and

Wandering through the kennel, holding a book: Winnie-the-Pooh. He opens a whelping pen, sits. The puppies surge through the underbrush of loose straw, kicking up fine white dust as they come along. He captures them between his legs and reads to them, hands in motion before their upturned muzzles. The mother comes over and they peep like chicks when they see her. One by one she carries them back to the whelping box; they hang black and bean-shaped from her mouth. When she has finished, she stands over them, looking at Edgar in reproach.

They 
wanted to hear, he signs at her, but the mother won't settle with her pups until he leaves.

Winnie-the-Pooh is a good story for puppies. If only she would let him tell it.

I'm not sure what I expected when I first picked up this debut novel, but I was more than pleasantly surprised by Wroblewski's beautiful prose:

Inside was a calamity of plywood and mossy bedsprings and vast spider webs hanging like spinnakers between the timbers.

On trained dogs:

And the dogs, in turn, discovered that if they waited after he'd asked them to stay and disappeared into a cabin, he would always return. Together they practiced new skills he devised. They had long understood what was being asked of them during a stay, whether in the training in the yard or in town; now he asked if they would stay in a forest glade when they were hungry and the flickers pounded the ground, thumping up millipedes, or squirrels harassed them, or a rock sailed over their heads and rattled the dead leaves. Several times each day he found a likely spot shielded by sumac or bracken fern, and he placed them in guard over something small—a stick he'd been carrying that morning, say, or a bit of rag. Then he walked off into the forest, careful not to push them past the breaking point since he had no way to correct them. Later, he tied a length of fishing line to the guarded thing and asked them to move only when it moved, keeping it surrounded. When they got that right, he'd sail back into their midst signing, release! and throw himself at them to roll and tickle, toss the thing for them to catch, see to each of them in whatever way he'd learned was the greatest delight for that dog.

He learned, too, the limits of their patience, different for each of them. In a stay, Baboo was as immovable as the hills, and likely to fall asleep. Essay, ever alert, was the most tempted of any of them by the skitter of a rock pitched through the ferns. And Tinder, equally likely to stick or bolt, who twice jumped up when Essay broke her stay and licked her muzzle and coaxed her back into a sit.


I've yet to read Where the Red Fern Grows or Old Yeller, but recently I've become drawn to novels about dogs. I loved Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and now The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has found its way into my heart. Looks like I'm in good company, too:

Praise from Stephen King:

I flat-out loved The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and spent twelve happy evenings immersed in the world David Wroblewski has created. As I neared the end, I kept finding excuses to put the book aside for a little, not because I didn't like it, but because I liked it too much; I didn't want it to end. Dog-lovers in particular will find themselves riveted by this story, because the canine world has never been explored with such imagination and emotional resonance. Yet in the end, this isn't a novel about dogs or heartland America--although it is a deeply American work of literature. It's a novel about the human heart, and the mysteries that live there, understood but impossible to articulate. Yet in the person of Edgar Sawtelle, a mute boy who takes three of his dogs on a brave and dangerous odyssey, Wroblewski does articulate them, and splendidly. I closed the book with that regret readers feel only after experiencing the best stories: It's over, you think, and I won't read another one this good for a long, long time.

In truth, there's never been a book quite like The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I thought of Hamlet when I was reading it, and Watership Down, and The Night of the Hunter, and The Life of Pi--but halfway through, I put all comparisons aside and let it just be itself.

I'm pretty sure this book is going to be a bestseller, but unlike some, it deserves to be. It's also going to be the subject of a great many reading groups, and when the members take up 
Edgar, I think they will be apt to stick to the book and forget the neighborhood gossip.

Wonderful, mysterious, long and satisfying: readers who pick up this novel are going to enter a richer world. I envy them the trip. I don't re-read many books, because life is too short. I will be re-reading this one.

Final thoughts: Do not be put off by the size of this book. You will not want it to end!

Did I say I loved it?!