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?


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 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+










Posted by: Jeanie F | May 25, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King


Loosely based on the life of the iconic anthropologist, Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enticing combination of romance, adventure, and the study of native tribes in New Guinea although, admittedly, the tribes are mostly fictional renderings of the actual tribes studied by Mead in the 1930s. In the “Acknowledgements” at the end of the book, King says:

While this is a work of fiction, it was initially inspired by a moment described in Jane Howard’s 1984 biography Margaret Mead: A Life and my subsequent reading of anything I could locate about anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune [Mead’s second husband], and Gregory Bateson [Mead’s third husband], and their few months together in 1933 on the Sepik River of what was then called the Territory of New Guinea.

King has changed the names to protect the possibly not-so-innocent as she has imagined what might have taken place during the short time the three of them collaborated. It is the story of both a love triangle and professional jealousy as these three characters (re-named Nell, Fen, and Bankson) come together to research a fictional tribe known as the Tams.

The interpersonal relationships form the tension within the trio – Fen’s domineering control of Nell, Nell’s professional exactitude regarding her research, of which Fen is jealous, and Bankson’s loneliness and growing love for Nell. The majority of the story is told from Bankson’s point of view with occasional additions from Nell’s letters and journals.

If this was merely the story of a love triangle, it would not have received the acclaim it has enjoyed – New York Times “One of the 10 Best Books of the Year,” The Kirkus Prize Winner, and Top 10 Books of the Year by New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vogue to name just a few. It is a book that grabs you early, gives you not only the personal and interpersonal lives of its characters, but also an intriguing look at the interplay between early anthropology and the native tribes that were studied.

The opening paragraph sets the mood for both the “otherness” of the native people, as seen by the western scientists, and the difficulties that exist between Fen and Nell:

As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.

‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.

He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.

King moves this story along at a breakneck pace, keeping the three anthropologists in a constant state of tension. The interplay with the Tam people provides an opportunity to examine the different personalities and ethics of each of the threesome through the manner with which each interacts with the tribe members.

By turns fascinating and disturbing, I would recommend it without reservation.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 15, 2015

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams


It’s not unusual for me to finish a book that I’ve loved and then look for another by the same author. That’s exactly what I did when I finished Stoner by John Williams. I discovered that Williams had written three novels – StonerAugustus (winner of the National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing. If you’ve ever perused the titles I’ve reviewed on this blog, it should be obvious that stories of the American West – both past and present – hold a special appeal for me. When I researched the titles of the two Williams’ books I hadn’t read, I found that The New York Times Book Review stated:

Harsh and relentless yet muted in tone, Butcher’s Crossing paved the way for Cormac McCarthy. It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western.

Well, there was no way I could pass that up. I ordered the book and put aside the next book on my TBR stack as soon as it arrived.

Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a young man, William Andrews, a third year student at Harvard University in 1873. Andrews decides to leave Harvard and seek “an original relation to nature” by going west after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like many young men, he is seeking self-discovery, a purer life, the ability to be one with nature which he believes can only be achieved in the American Frontier. He drops everything, grabs his life savings, and takes a coach from his New England home to Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a  town which “could be taken in almost at a glance”: six buildings built along a narrow dirt road and followed by a scattering of tents.

In Butcher’s Crossing Andrews meets up with a man known only as “Miller,” and arranges to finance a buffalo hunt. Buffalo robes are in fashion, and large sums of money can be made on buffalo hides. Andrews, Miller, Charley Hoge, a cook and wagoneer, and Fred Schneider, a skinner, take off across the prairie, headed to a mountain valley where Miller claims to have found a “secret” herd of buffalo.

What follows is the story of this hunt. Williams spares no details about the brutality of the hunt, the hardships faced by the hunters, and the bleak prospects awaiting the men when they return. Because Williams is such a precise and honest writer, this is often difficult to read. An small example occurs on the twenty-fifth day of the hunt when hundreds, maybe thousands, of buffalo have been slaughtered, skinned, and the remains left to rot in the sun:

Soon the wagon was so thickly surrounded by corpses that Charley Hoge was unable to point it in a straight direction; he had to walk beside the lead team [of oxen], guiding it among the bodies. Even so, the huge wooden wheels now and then passed over an outthrust leg of a buffalo, causing the wagon to  sway. The increasing heat of the day intensified the always present stench of rotting flesh; the oxen shied away from it, lowing discontentedly and tossing their heads so wildly that Charley Hoge had to stand many feet away from them.

This was not an easy book to read. The carnage of the buffalo hunt, the moral degradation of the men involved, the impact upon William Andrews, once so idealistic and naive, make us face the realities of the often romanticized settlement of the American West. In writing the Introduction to Butcher’s Crossing, Michelle Latiolais draws comparisons between the buffalo hunt and the US involvement in Viet Nam and Iraq. She concludes that:

John Williams’s unflinching attention in Butcher’s Crossing to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature – man’s nature – to be a horrifying prospect.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 1, 2015

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter

Here’s the thing about independent bookstores, versus Amazon or Barnes and Noble, both of which have their place. But with an indie, really almost any decent indie bookstore, you can walk in with only the vaguest notion of what you want to read, and someone in the store can lead you to exactly what you never even guessed you were looking for.

That was my recent experience at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, CA, owned by Linda Sherman-Nurick. My husband and I stopped there on our way to Palm Desert a few weeks ago, hoping to find something great to read while we were vacationing in the desert. I had a very slim idea of what I wanted – something similar to Kent Haruf or Ivan Doig, something that would take place in the western part of the country and would have a particular narrative voice. That was what I told Linda.

Linda walked up and down her well-stocked shelves for a moment, then pulled out a book. “Read the first line,” she said. “Is this what you have in mind?”

The first line read:

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

The book was The Painter by Peter Heller, and I was hooked at that first line.

Briefly, Jim Stegner is an artist, living at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado. The reviewer in The New York Times observes, I think astutely, that “The Colorado and New Mexico landscapes evoked in The Painter give the novel a deeper than usual sense of place.” The setting is so much a part of the action that it is practically a character.

While he is known as a highly successful artist in the American West, Stegner has a difficult background of violence, divorce, and tragedy. The story opens with him witnessing an act of extreme animal cruelty which sets the novel’s action into motion.

The Painter is, first and foremost, a murder story. It is not really a murder mystery, as you can see, because the opening line gives you an idea about who our protagonist might be.  It is also a story about life, about loss, about art, about love – and about fly fishing. Author Peter Heller holds an MFA in both fiction and poetry, which makes the writing lyrical, the story often moving into a contemplative mode that you rarely find in the suspense genre.

But have no doubt – there is plenty of suspense, as well as a darn good chase scene. There is also some beautiful language, as well as some interesting sociological riffs such as the following:

Why was I so hung up on anyone being brave? So what if 90 percent of artists, or people for that matter, were meek? Just wanting to get through the day without getting yelled at or run over? Just have a good meal. Most people wanted to do one thing today with a small portion of pleasure like maybe weed the garden and pick tomatoes, or make love to a spouse, or watch a favorite TV show. Maybe they wanted to sell a painting. So what? What did it matter to me?

Occasionally I found that these ruminations outside the story itself dragged it down a bit, but much of it was beautiful and often thought-provoking.

The information about art, the art industry, and specific paintings and painting styles was another diversion from the immediate story, and may put some people off. Personally, I enjoyed it, particularly since I could go to my iPad to look up paintings that are mentioned and see if I agreed with his descriptions.

The fly fishing is another story – I could have done without so much of it, but it is integral to both the story and the man, so don’t discount it.

I would never have known of this intellectually provocative, yet gripping, novel had I not happened upon Linda Sherman-Nurick and Cellar Door Books. Tomorrow – May 2 – is Independent Bookstore Day. If you don’t already know of a great bookstore near you, go to, type in your city, state, and ZIP code, and find one. Your next favorite book may be waiting for you there!

Grade: A-

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