Posted by: Jeanie F | January 22, 2016

My Favorite Reads from 2015

AndTheWinnersAre

It’s always hard to look back on a previous year of reading and consider which of the books read were “the best,” particularly when “the best” is such a generic way of looking at a book. The best suspense book? The most lyrical? The one that kept me reading late into the night? The book that keeps coming back in my thoughts, long after I’ve finished the last page? Rather than trying to prioritize the books that really grabbed me last year, I thought I would pick those that stood out, and try to explain why.

So, listed in no particular order, my favorite books from 2015. Click on the titles to read the complete reviews of each:

Stoner by John Williams: If I were going to put these in order of “favorites,” Stoner would be at the top of my list. This quiet masterpiece, which I actually ended up reading twice just because I loved it so much, goes as far into the heart and soul of a literary character as any book I’ve ever read. I must disclose that almost everyone in my book club disagreed with me – they found him frustrating and unlikable, but I found him both tragic and heroic in the way he lived his life and, although it’s been months since I read it, I continue to think about him often. Maybe not for everyone but, truly, one of the most well-developed fictional characters I’ve ever come across.

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian: A book whose time has definitely come, as its release coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. This book is both historically important and, as a work of literature, a page-turner. By reading it, I learned as much about this chapter of history as did Orhan, a young Turkish man living in modern times, as he struggled to unwrap his family’s – and his culture’s – tragic past.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: Maybe it’s my years in education that made me feel such empathy for Pete Snow, a hapless social worker forced to deal with a survivalist father and his endangered child, but I really loved this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking story of a flawed man trying to do the right thing within a flawed system.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: I have never made a secret of the fact that I consider Kent Haruf to be the greatest under-recognized author of our time. Sadly, Mr. Haruf died in November of 2014, but he generously left us one last slim volume to remind us that love can grow at any time and under any circumstances – not the treacly and romantic love of romance novels, but the deep, respectful love that can exist between any two people who open themselves to the possibilities.

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson: Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, it is clear that I am not the only person who loves Mr. Johnson’s quirky, deeply insightful, understanding of the human heart. Even if you are not a lover of short stories, even if you choose to read only ONE short story from 2015, make it “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” the final story in this collection. It may change your opinion of the genre forever!

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast: You may be familiar with Roz Chast’s oddball cartoons featured frequently in The New Yorker. In this graphic novel, she has delved deeper – in fact, very deeply –  into her experience caring for her parents in the last years of their lives. It’s a serious subject, and she doesn’t try to hide the difficulty, the pathos, the frustration of the experience. Instead she tries and, I believe, succeeds, in helping us all understand that if, and when, we find ourselves in the position of caring for elderly parents, we’re not alone.

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 7, 2016

Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson

Fortune Smiles

 

Addendum: Fortune Smiles was the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for fiction. Adam Johnson’s first novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, was the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

I am the first to admit that I am probably obsessed with short stories. I love everything about them: the brevity, the concise story lines, the fact that an author can build a world and bring me into it with so few words. At the moment, I have six short story collections on my Kindle:

  • The Stories of John Cheever (Vintage International) by John Cheever – a classic
  • Honeydew: Stories and Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman – one of the great story tellers of modern times
  • The Peripetetic Coffin and Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford – The title story alone will blow your mind!
  • Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories by Paul Theroux – who doesn’t love Theroux?
  • The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel – I was hooked on Ms. Mantel from Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

In addition to these, I am a long time subscriber to the outstanding One Story publication – “One great story delivered every three weeks”

I keep this collection on my Kindle so that any time, but especially when I have finished a novel and am not yet ready to commit to a new full length selection, I can count on having something wonderful, yet accessible, at my fingertips.

I’m now excited to add Adam Johnson’s new short story collection to those that reside permanently on my Kindle. I know that there are several I will want to return to over and over.

My first exposure to Johnson’t quirky, but captivating style, was The Orphan Master’s Son, a full length novel about the absurdities of life in North Korea that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. If you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go get it.

This collection is comprised of six somewhat lengthy short stories that cover the gamut of topics:

Nirvana is the story of a tech guy whose wife, critically ill, is obsessed with the rock group, Nirvana. The story looks at love – never in the treacly, romantic sense – and loss. And who among us can ever predict where that scenario might take us?”

Hurricanes Anonymous takes us to post-Katrina lives that are shattered in the aftermath of the hurricane. You’ll meet characters you never even imagined but whom, as you read, you know for a fact had to exist.

Interesting Facts again explores the impact of illness upon a relationship as the wife, suffering from breast cancer, becomes obsessed with how long after she dies her husband will begin dating. With the dark humor that is a signature of all Johnson’s work, he tells her it might be twelve to sixteen weeks. She responds that getting a death certificate might be an issue to which her husband tells her, “I bet Keith [who works at city hall] could get me proof of death in no time. The dude owes me.”

George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine is the longest and darkest story in the collection – a true classic in every sense of the word. It is told from the point of view of a retired East German Stasi prison warden, the warden of the infamous Hohenschönhausen Prison. He is determined to prove that the prison was not the dark and deadly place that it, in fact, was, by joining tour groups and arguing his point of view with the tour guards, who are all ex-prisoners.

An interesting side note on George Orwell . . .  is that 21st Edition, a Massachusetts maker of art works, is publishing a $9,000.00 copy of this book. Their publications are made of goatskin covers, handmade paper, hand-stitched bindings, letterpress typography, and are illustrated with art photographs.  Johnson was contacted by 21st Editions, who asked for a story, and Johnson says, “When John wrote to me and asked for a story, I knew right away I’d give him my best work.”

That this story was the one he selected tells you something about it. You will never read a short story like it again, I promise.

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | December 31, 2015

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filfth

“Old Filth” is a character, and not the kind of character than the title of this engaging novel might suggest. “Filth” is, in fact, an acronym for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. This is the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a “Raj orphan” who went on to become a successful lawyer and judge in Hong Kong.

The story begins with five-year old “Eddie” being torn from his home in Malaysia where he has been raised by native women and ignored by his father, a British civil servant located in what was then known as “Malay”. Eddie’s mother had died in childbirth. It was the practice at the time for the children of British civil servants stationed in various locations around The Empire to be sent “Home”, as the UK was called by the adults. It was far from “home” for these children, many of whom saw little or nothing of their natal family after being relocated.

In Eddie’s case, he and two female cousins are sent to Wales where they are fostered by an angry and abusive woman. When they are finally removed from her care the three are separated but haunted by memories of the experience. It is, in fact, one of the defining events of Filth’s life, although the extent to which it has affected him isn’t clear until the end of the novel.

Filth is rescued by Sir, an eccentric schoolmaster, and by the family of one of Filth’s school friends, but he lives a life of both personal success and private scars. He marries well, he is venerated professionally, he is wealthy. He is also isolated, insecure, misanthropic.

In spite of his often frustrating surliness, as we learn more about his life, the events that have shaped him, we develop empathy for not only Edward Feathers, but for an entire generation of children who lived an experience that many of us know little about. It has been said of author Jane Gardam that “If Rudyard Kipling was the laureate of the British Empire, then Jane Gardam is surely the closest thing we have to a laureate of its demise” (Elizabeth Lowry, The Times Literary Supplement, 2013).

Old Filth shines a light on a dark corner of British history. It was well worth the read.

Grade: B+

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 6, 2015

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Child of God

Cormac McCarthy is never what you would call a pleasant or enjoyable read. If you decide to read a McCarthy novel you know you are about to take a walk on the dark side of life. Child of God, McCarthy’s third novel, is a dark tale: shocking, disturbing, revolting. It is also lyrical, poetic, humorous (okay, sick humor, but still . . .). When you read McCarthy you are going to encounter some of the most beautiful writing you’ve ever read, telling you one of the most horrific stories you have ever heard.

This is the story of Lester Ballard, described on the book jacket as “a violent, dispossessed man who haunts the hill country of East Tennessee.” We  meet him as he is about to have his family home sold at auction, watching would-be purchasers as

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

This celebratory atmosphere is brought to a halt when Ballard threatens to shoot the auctioneer. He is prevented from doing so when an auction attendee hits him in the head with an axe. After that, Ballard “never could hold his head right.” Severely injured, he was taken away by The County. Homeless, he goes on to locate an abandoned shack, infested with all forms of insects and rodents. And this is the best residence he has – from here he drops to more primitive environs.  Already an outcast in the community and a man of questionable intelligence – although highly developed wiliness and cunning – he begins a descent into a life of abomination.

The story is told in extremely short chapters, sometimes a single page or two, sometimes from the varying points of view of members of the Appalachian community beside which Ballard resides. There are a number of examples that indicate many are willing to overlook Ballard and his aberrant behavior , if only to exploit him. There are also moments of what might be regional humor. In one such instance, Ballard stops at Fred Kirby’s property, a local moonshiner, to buy some whiskey. All he could offer is the trade of a pocketknife, which Kirby agrees to take. Kirby leaves to get the moonshine but comes back empty handed. He hands Ballard back his knife and tells him he can’t find it. The following conversation ensues:

Cain’t find it?

No.

Well shit fire.

I’ll hunt some more later on. I think I was drunk when I hid it.

Where’d ye hide it at?

I don’t know. I thought I could go straight to it but I must not of put it where I thought it was.

Well goddamn.

This book deals with some of the worst acts man is capable of committing. I will tell you that there is not a single redemptive bone in Lester Ballard’s body; he is a completely atavistic human being.  But somehow McCarthy – as is his genius – forces us to feel a reluctant sympathy toward this horror of a man.

I’m not sure that I could recommend it too widely but, I have to say, I couldn’t put it down.

Grade: A reluctant A

Posted by: Jeanie F | July 3, 2015

Body Electric by C.E. Smith

Body Electric Cover

 

This slim little book, really a novella at 121 pages, was the winner of the 2013 Paris Literary Prize for good reason. It’s the story of a man named “Taber” – I don’t recall at any time learning if this is a first or last name – a forensic pathologist and partner in the Nashville morgue. As the story opens, he is laboring under two competing areas of concern – one, his teenage daughter, Katie, identified as “a plain, slightly overweight 17-year old girl,” who is about to be stood up by her first date to the prom. The other concern is the recent decision his partners made to allow a reality show, American Autopsy, to begin filming at the morgue. Taber is opposed to the filming, but it becomes apparent that his status as a partner doesn’t seem to carry much weight. He fears his daughter is a sitting duck for any type – “even the crudest” – of romantic attention. At the morgue, Taber worries that “the patients being filmed, the cadavers, are incapable of giving their consent.”

All of this information is relayed in the first page plus one paragraph – to say that Smith has a talent for constructing sentences to maximum efficiency is an understatement. So don’t expect that just because this is a short book, it’s a shallow or superficial story. That, it isn’t!

These two concerns merge when the boy who stands Katie up, whom Taber has begun to despise, turns up in the very morgue where Taber works. This puts Taber in more than one quandry:

* how does his dislike of the boy affect his findings for the autopsy?

* how does his dislike of American Autopsy affect his working relationships?

* how does this particular autopsy, when coupled with the reality show filming, create greater problems in his life?

* how does all of the above  impact his relationship with his daughter?

The story propels you forward and not the least because of the precise anatomical discussions of his work that are interlaced with the personal crises that he faces. Taber is a man who “autopsies” his own life, motives, and relationships with the same care and thoroughness that he brings to cadavers.

Now, there is one small problem with this book – as far as I can tell, it is only available at the Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore in Paris. It is even “currently unavailable” on Amazon.com. So, I would suggest that it might be worth a trip to France to pick up this little gem.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 8, 2015

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

 

For those of you who share my love for Kent Haruf’s fine writing, reading this book will be a bittersweet experience. Haruf died in November, leaving a legacy of some of the most human and generous books I’ve ever read. Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award, began the “trilogy” of novels about life in fictional Holt, Colorado. Although not identified as an addition to the trilogy, which also included Eventide and Benediction, this latest book is our final chapter on the town where people live physically simple, but emotionally complex, lives. What Haruf has done for us is to scale down the noise that is so often present in modern day fiction, using Holt as a microcosm to show us the depth of human nature. As Joan Silber writes in the New York Times Book Review, “. . . his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.”

Our Souls at Night is the story of a relationship that builds between a widow and a widower, both living alone and both in their early seventies. Addie Moore proposes to Louis Waters, a neighbor and mild acquaintance, that they begin to sleep together – not for sex, but to ease the loneliness that each experiences. Louis is surprised – he has only known Addie as a friend of his departed wife – but decides with some reservations that this is worth a try. The rest of the story shows their growing friendship, the way two people can gain succor from a warm heart and a curious mind. It is a life affirming story, moving and lovely.

There are a few twists and turns in the story, but this short novel – barely more than a novella – has more to do with relationship than with action. I read recently that Haruf and his wife, Kathy, worked together to finish Our Souls before Haruf died, and that the concept – talking together in bed at night, the stories, the comfort, the closeness – came from their own marriage. I like knowing this, knowing that a man who could bring people like the McPheron brothers and Victoria Rubiedeaux (Plainsong), Rose Tyler (Eventide), Dad Lewis (Benediction) and Addie and Louis to his readers, lived at least some of the beauty that he brought to us.

For myself, I finished reading Our Souls at Night with great sadness, knowing that I can expect no more of Haruf’s beautiful, spare prose, fallible yet well-intentioned characters, and celebration of the human soul. I will miss him.

Rest in peace, Mr. Haruf.

Grade: A+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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