Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Book review of the Tobias Wolff novel, Old School

Old SchoolOld School by Tobias Wolff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can’t say I’ve ever had a hankering to get inside the mind of a teenage boy, but now that the young prep-school narrator of Old School by Tobias Wolff has opened his world to me, I’m fascinated. It helps that this boy loves writing, and his prep school places supreme importance on literary studies. Reading about his final year (1961) there, I was immersed in discussions of books, their ideas and authors, especially the three authors invited to speak: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. The boys compete to have their writings chosen by these famous authors for a mentoring appointment. Old School’s socioeconomic, political, and anti-Semitic undercurrents ground it in the 1960s. Although the novel’s ending seems a bit of a left turn, I very much enjoyed Wolff’s vivid, energetic writing.

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Garden in Paris ~ my review

A Garden in ParisA Garden in Paris by Stephanie Grace Whitson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the beginning of Stephanie Grace Whitson’s A Garden in Paris, protagonist Mary Davis brings into her Omaha home a placard reading: It is never too late to be what you might have been. This saying gives her hope in a floundering recovery from her husband’s death two years ago. Widows commonly rediscover who they are after their husbands’ deaths, but what piques Mary’s interest in this hopeful aphorism is much more complicated.

This novel takes us to Paris with Mary on her journey to revisit who she was before her marriage and see what she wants to do next. We meet a former lover and new French friends. Worried about Mary, her hostile daughter Liz and steadying fiancé follow her to Paris. There, with these people, in the unique beauty of Paris, Mary seeks and finds forgiveness, lets go of regrets, and finds joy and laughter again.

I really cared about Mary. Forgive me if this is a spoiler, but I mention that Mary’s romantic possibilities, career/hobby choices, and spiritual journey are not resolved only because I want to read the sequel, Stephanie Grace Whitson’s A Hilltop in Tuscany.

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

My review of Richard Russo's collection of short stories, Trajectory

TrajectoryTrajectory by Richard Russo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One facility Richard Russo’s characters have in common is articulating complicated motives. I enjoyed hearing their inner dialogue as they sort out what-ifs and what-just-happeneds. Russo’s insightful understanding of the human heart is matched only by his subtle humor. Although subtle, his humor sometimes elicited sobs of laughter.

Trajectory compiles four discrete, multilayered short stories with varied plots.

In “Horseman,” I found myself feeling angry and more than a little scared for Janet Moore, a college professor among misogynistic colleagues and a defiant student.

Nate, the main character in “Voice,” is haunted by incidents sparking professional and personal insecurities. It seemed that criticisms by the people in those incidents might have stemmed from their not seeing Nate’s sensitivity to the feelings of others. I kept hoping someone would appreciate this precious compassion in him.

In “Intervention,” a real estate agent debates whether to save a client from herself.

My favorite story in the Trajectory collection is “Milton and Marcus,” a screenplay within a story. Caught in realities of film-making finances, screenwriter Ryan struggles with how to come away with his integrity and creative license. The screenplay “Milton and Marcus” and Ryan’s story “Milton and Marcus” both ponder what has-beens in popular culture do to rediscover their fire in the belly.

I really enjoyed Trajectory’s stories of introspection masterfully woven with action and lively dialogue. And word choices like “the flinty wintry Yankee in me.” Richard Russo’s prose was a pleasure to read.

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Monday, September 2, 2019

Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan ~ my review

Paris by the BookParis by the Book by Liam Callanan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Liam Callanan’s novel, Paris by the Book, shows how grief plays out in Leah, and daughters, when her husband Robert mysteriously disappears. The story is well-told, at least judging by the level of angst I felt as I read. Is Robert alive? He must be dead. No, certainly he’s alive. No trace of him; he’s dead. But I can’t believe he died. I sense his presence in their neighborhood; they were a happy family—he wouldn’t just leave them—he’s in the ’hood, I feel it. On and on my speculations see-sawed, until I almost abandoned the book. Partly because it seemed the reveal would never come.

And partly because the tension of not knowing was too much to bear. In this aspect, I had more empathy with Leah’s sometimes-erratic behavior than I might have otherwise. I really did not like Leah as a person, but I was rooting for her to come out the other side of her confused emotions. Regardless of my level of affinity or empathy for Leah, however, I think I would have admired her courage to move from Milwaukee to Paris with two teenage daughters and prosper there. Experiencing Paris with this little family of expats and following them in all the plot twists and turns and ups, downs, and corkscrews of their search for Robert was an interesting emotional roller coaster for me. Not often do I use “interesting” to describe a roller coaster. :-)

In some ways this was a hard book to read because of the grief screaming from every page. Also, I had difficulty discerning if Leah and her daughters were living out a story Robert had written for them or not; while my ever-present confusion may have put me in Leah’s shoes, it also made the novel hard to read. But Paris by the Book was also easy to read, a page-turner mystery, happy-sad love story with humorous bits, and vicarious immersion into French culture.

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South Haven: I just can't say goodbye

Call me sentimental, prone to nostalgia, slow to let go of what/who has meant something to me. I am all those things. During my days in South Haven in August, for the first time in thirty-one years, the question, “Is it time to let go of my August South Haven tradition?” crept into my consciousness. For thirty-one years, South Haven has been my happy place. And I felt happy there this time as well, but … but what? I’m not sure. My sentimental attachments make this a difficult question to ponder.

Every street, every shop, every restaurant, every inch of both beaches and both piers hold many memories. The year I rented a cottage so poorly built, we could see daylight between the floor and the back wall. When my sister dropped off my young niece and nephew to spend a few days with me, bless her heart, she stayed long enough to wash black mold off the walls. When the kids left, friends arrived for a few days. Other friends and my husband have joined me in B&Bs and cottages and motels and campgrounds over the years. One summer I was thrilled to share my happy place with my parents; and it turned out to be perhaps the last summer my dad would have been able to take a trip. One August a group of friends had fun watching the Blueberry Festival parade and going to concerts by the river. Oh so many glorious sunrise beach walks, ice cream indulgences, refreshing lake breezes, foam-rubber Frisbee games on sandbars, and glowing lighthouse photos in thirty-one years.

Since my novel is partially set in “sparkling South Haven,” in 2008 a bookstore there invited me to have a book-signing event on their sidewalk. It poured rain all day, but mobs of vacationers were all smiles. They sat down at my little table, leaned in, and told how they had fallen in love with South Haven once and kept coming back, buying houses there, making family memories, and extending summer vacations there from one week to two to three to four. I shared my story of falling in love with South Haven with everyone who stopped, too. I don’t think I sold a book, but I packed up my little table display with a big smile on my face and joy in my heart.

Every year I feel nostalgia for the South Haven of the 1980s when a string quartet played beautiful music for people waiting outside a popular breakfast restaurant in a Victorian mansion. Now it is townhouses and a parking lot. To my knowledge, none of today’s SoHa eateries even serves local blueberries in their breakfasts, as that rambling restaurant once did. South Haven is proud to be “Blueberry Capital of the World,” but in the height of blueberry (and peach) season this August, we were served melon and pineapple from God knows where with our breakfast.

The changes I’ve seen over the years are too numerous to count. I suppose upon first noticing each change, I felt a little twinge of regret, but many if not most changes have been positive, and the town is still vibrant. People still smile a lot. Strangers are still friendly. Locals and vacationers still come down to the waterfront to watch the sun set behind South Haven’s iconic red lighthouse. South Haven still speaks “summer” to my heart.

This summer, however, three changes may push me toward letting go of my annual pilgrimage. (Note: I cannot bring myself to say I have decided.) One is that the locally made ice cream I look forward to all year is no longer being made. This might seem trivial, but to me it’s kind of a big deal. The tradition is walking down to the pier with Sherman’s ice cream to watch the sun set. I don’t eat ice cream the rest of the year, and Sherman’s is really really good. We did watch the sunset this year without ice cream, and it didn’t kill me, so I can probably adjust to this disappointment.

Secondly, high water levels of Lake Michigan have swallowed up all long-beach-walk sections of the beach. Now the beach is so narrow that a beach walk cannot be a free-feeling, arm-swinging long stride with eyes on the horizon. It’s more of a watch-every-step, arms-out-to-balance-yourself as you gingerly navigate what is really just the steep base of the dunes. Thirdly, South Haven’s popularity has finally priced us out of acceptable lodging. To pay $$$ a night for substandard motel accommodations a mile from town takes away considerable enjoyment.

I’ve been to a lot of nice towns in my adult life without ever feeling the connection I feel to South Haven. I can’t imagine a summer without South Haven. Having a happy place seems important enough in this acrimonious age that perhaps I could start planning now what not to spend money on this year so that next summer we can afford to rent a house or a condo with a deck or other outdoor space. Not sure how to replace those rejuvenating beach walks, but maybe I can figure this out, too. I would sure be sad to say goodbye to South Haven.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

My review of Watership Down by Richard Adams

Watership Down (Watership Down, #1)Watership Down by Richard  Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams surprisingly engaging. I am an adult, and this is an adventure story in which all characters are rabbits. I was quite surprised to be so taken with the story of the little breakout band of bunnies led by Hazel, Fiver, Silver, Bigwig, and later, Holly. Each new external challenge ~ finding new burrows, dodging danger, seeking out does ~ contains internal challenges revealing these key rabbits' personalities and strategic resourcefulness. Initial tensions during the first warren breakout and ensuing escape softened into a team spirit of trusting each rabbit's strengths. How could I help but cheer them? I found each of their victories thrilling, and I couldn't wait for their next adventure. (General Woundwort, leader of the Efrafa warren and frighteningly, cruelly evil, dampened my anticipation in some parts.)

Each rabbit warren our plucky little band, the Watership Down rabbits, encountered is its own little society with its own culture, government, rules, and habits. I delighted hearing rabbit proverbs, poetry, and terms of affection for each other. Periodically those in the main little band gathered around rabbit Dandelion, their best storyteller, to hear tales of the cunning El-ahrairah, their folk hero.

I could not help but admire the rabbits' courage, cleverness, and intimate knowledge of nature. And I was tickled by the names (like Blackberry, Bluebell, Pipkin) Adams gave his rabbit characters and their language. Most of the book is in English, of course, with a smattering of Lapine words. I loved their word for a motorized vehicle: hrududu because of the sound a vehicle makes. I finished the novel wanting to silflay, feed above ground; and I'll probably think of our elected officials as the Owsla for some time. :-)

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Going Way, Way Back … Cave Dwellings

So … in 3 B.C., Roman masons built a three-arch, interlocking-limestone-block bridge over the Calavon River. At the time, northern Italy and Spain were connected through southern France by the Via Domitia, of which this bridge was a part. As we tooled around Provence, we saw signs indicating remnants of the Via Domitia. And the bridge, Pont Julien, named after Julius Caesar, still stands a few miles outside Bonnieux. Pont Julien carried traffic for more than 2000 years, but today is reserved for bicycle traffic.
Before the village of Bonnieux came to be, settlers in the Luberon Valley lived down by the Pont Julien. At some point they felt the need to protect themselves from enemies, so they moved into limestone caves on the nearest hill.

Our Experience Luberon group got to tour one of these caves! Our first Sunday in Bonnieux, we walked down from the old church at the very top of the hill to the home of a friend of Kathy and Charley. Their friend, Michelle, gave us a tour of her family home whose bottom level (the cave) was built in the sixth century, the next level in the twelfth century, and the top level in the eighteenth century. She had learned from archeologists how the cave dwellers had lived there.

Into dim golden light, we ducked our heads through low tunnels and gingerly placed feet on uneven rock to hear Michelle tell about the early inhabitants of her family home. She showed us where spring water would have come in from a spot high on a wall. People had dug trenches to direct the water where they needed it. She showed us a little alcove where they would have hung game they had hunted. Again, trenches would have directed animal blood away. A cool pit carved into the floor would have preserved meat. People probably would have slept on a slightly elevated more-or-less flat area in the same “room.”

This beige cave led into another, and then another, all paths and walls very roughly hewn inside the mountain. In this higgledy-piggledy cave arrangement, early inhabitants crushed grapes, ground grain, skinned animals, tanned hides, and cured meats. Imagine the smells!

At some point, probably the early 1100s, the Knights Templar lived in Michelle’s caves. I am not sure if it was they who built the second level, but whoever did carved the year 1130 into the wall. Front-line soldiers lived in the bottom caves and officers lived on the next level up. A hole in the bottom-cave ceiling was a “shouting tube” through which officers could shout down orders to their men. Upstairs, the shouting hole had a stone plug in it.

Michelle’s grandfather was an expert ironworker. She showed us a model he had made for a railing he was commissioned to make for LeTrain Bleu restaurant in the Gare de Lyon in Paris. His ironwork’s ornateness was quite the contrast to the crude, but effective, chipped, gouged limestone of the cave dwellers.
Bridge photo credit: I bought this bridge postcard.