Posted by: Jeanie F | August 5, 2014

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek


Once in a while you come across a book that surprises you – maybe because you don’t know much about it, and it turns out to be beautiful and horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Maybe because the language is so provocative, so exact, so unexpected that you end up reading it with the dictionary by your side. And maybe it’s because the author, while being totally original, sends echoes of some of your favorites such as William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy and Russell Banks. Or maybe it’s just damn good storytelling. When you’re lucky – and I was when I decided to pick up Fourth of July Creek – it’s all of the above.

Fourth of July Creek is the story of Pete Snow, a social worker in rural Montana, a man who struggles with society’s demons, but not as mightily as he struggles with his own personal ones. We meet him early on when he is called to deal with a domestic disturbance between a mother and young son. The mother shoots the kid with an air rifle, the kid leaps off the carport and attacks his mother. The two are “tearing at each other like two wet cats in a sack.” While this is going on, according to the cop on the scene, “the neighbors are out on their nice, normal lawns in their bathrobes clutched closed at the neck watching the cop trying to disentangle the two of them, taking it in like a fucking rodeo.”

This is the stuff of which Pete Snow’s life is made. To top it off, his personal life is also in shambles with a father from whom he is estranged, a brother who is a fugitive from the law, a cheating ex-wife and a difficult teenage daughter. Pete is no stoic, and his response to his problems is often as dysfunctional as that of the families he sees.

This is not necessarily an easy story to read, as you follow the adults and the children whose lives they challenge and sometimes destroy. But, oh, the writing is something you don’t come across everyday. Henderson is a man who knows how to craft an image. Here are a few examples to whet your appetite:

(Arriving at a party) A guitar boils out a crude blues through overworked speakers.

(By a campfire) The fire had burned down to white flaky ulnas.

(On taking a woman “somewhere special”) They found their way by his flashlight, and shapes of steam from the hot pools sifted lazily through the wet pines like robed ghosts of a sudatorium.

[In case, like me, “sudatorium” is unfamiliar, it means “a vaulted sweating-room of the Roman baths or thermae.” You’ll have to look up “thermae” for yourself.]

The central conflict comes when Pete encounters Benjamin, the son of a mountain “survivalist” named Jeremiah Pearl. Trying to help the boy becomes a battle of wits and wills with the father, one that alternates between hostility and manipulation on both sides. There are more than a few ways in which the men – seemingly so different – are alike, and this conflict is one of the most engrossing subplots of this complex and often disturbing novel.

If I haven’t lost you by comparing Henderson to Faulkner, I can tell you that though dark and often disturbing, this story will pull you in and keep you reading to the end. I highly recommend it.

Grade: A+


alaska-grapes-of-wrath-steinbeck (1)

In my last post I mentioned that this is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Grapes of Wrath. After rereading The Harvest Gypsies, I just had to go back and reread Grapes of Wrath. I remembered what an impact it had on me the first time I read it – probably in high school – and the two or three times I’ve read it since. Still, it’s been quite a while, and I wanted it to be fresh in my mind for my upcoming trip to the Steinbeck Museum.

Reading it against the backdrop of my recent rereading of The Harvest Gypsies enhanced the experience because of the factual information provided by Steinbeck’s reporting. I also took the opportunity to watch the Ken Burns’ PBS special, “The Dust Bowl.” If you haven’t seen it, and are interested in this critical time in our country’s past, I highly recommend it. You can also get great information from the PBS website,

I’m happy to report that my experience of returning to this classic didn’t disappoint. Even knowing exactly how it would turn out, I cheered the Joads on, hoping not only against hope but against prior knowledge of the ending, that things would work out well for them. This is a family you love – Ma, with her good sense and indomitable spirit; Tom, the rock of the family in spite of his hot head and difficult past; even self-centered Rose of Sharon who endures, if not stoically, such difficult times.

Since I can’t imagine that those of you who read this blog aren’t already familiar with the book, I won’t spend any time reviewing it. I’ll only say this: if you haven’t, you really should. It’s a great story both as literature and as social commentary. And is as relevant today as it was seventy-five years ago.

While I normally stay far away from political commentary on this blog, the close juxtaposition between reading the Joads’ experience in California and that of 57,000 Central Americans seeing refuge here today, it is impossible not to make comparisons. In fact, many of us have been following the immigration crisis currently underway along our Southwestern borders. We’ve watched Americans scream at small children and their mothers, who are fleeing violence and poverty in their native country. We’ve watched busloads of American mothers carrying signs: “Jesus wouldn’t break the law” (really???), and “Go home – we don’t want you.” This weekend was designated “National Days of Protest Against Immigration Reform Amnesty & the Illegal Immigration Surge.”

We like to think we are a kinder and more compassionate nation than the one about which Steinbeck has one Californian say of the “Okies” flooding into the state, “They bring diseases, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers.”

Obviously, to our national disgrace, we’re not.

Grade: A+

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 11, 2014

The Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck

This summer I’ll be taking a trip with a friend to Monterey, California. Among other things, we’ll be visiting the National Steinbeck Museum in Salinas. I’ve been there several times, but this year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. The Center commissioned three artists to accompany members of their staff to travel and document the Joad family’s journey along Route 66 to California. This exhibit will be on a national tour to highlight similarities between the migrant journey in the 1930s and social issues faced today.

This reminded me that when I was teaching high school English in the late 1990s my students read The Harvest Gypsies: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath, a collection of articles that Steinbeck wrote for The San Francisco News about the “Hoovervilles” of rural California. This series comprised the bulk of Steinbeck’s research for writing The Grapes of Wrath.

This prompted me to pull out my copy of The Harvest Gypsiesand reread it. I found that it is far more relevant today, following the financial crisis of 2008, than it was when my students read it.

When Steinbeck toured the migrant camps he found men who once had been self-reliant farmers on their own land reduced to poverty, humiliation, and starvation as they were forced to follow the crops through Central California in an attempt to keep their families alive. They weren’t always successful.

The circumstances Steinbeck chronicled in 1936 have many correlations to impoverished and homeless families today. A number of his conclusions – based on compassion for those who, through no fault of their own, were “so defeated that they had been cast down to a kind of subhumanity” – are just as relevant today as they were then.

This slim volume – a mere 66 pages – should be required reading for us all.

Grade: A

I am in a quandary. My book club is reading a book this month that is wildly popular and famous – weeks and weeks on the NYT best seller list, nominated for – and winning many – prestigious awards, seemingly uniformly loved, but I just do not like it.

The book is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Stephen King loved it. Ron Charles loved it. As of today, 4,134 readers on gave it five stars. I know they can’t all be wrong, but I’ve read 6% of the book (that’s right, it’s on my Kindle), I’m in the middle of what I assume is the grand inciting incident, and I’m opting to play Solitaire on my iPad rather than pick up the book and read. I need to finish the remaining 94% before June 18 when my book club meets.

If you can give me any good reasons why I’m wrong to think this is a wordy, overblown snoozefest, please let me know. Give me hope that at some point Tartt is able to write a sentence that’s shorter than 56 words long like this one:

Usually she was home just when she said she’d be, so if she was ten minutes late I began to fret; any later, and I sat on the floor by the front door of the apartment like a puppy left alone too long, straining to hear the rumble of the elevator coming up to our floor.

(The sentence that proceeds this one is at least three times as long. If Tartt simply told her story the book would be a third its current length. Do you think she was hoping to sell it by the pound?)

If, like me, you have ever found yourself swimming against the tide in your assessment of a very popular book, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Posted by: Jeanie F | June 2, 2014

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes


I have to admit that I am always drawn to black humor. Recently I had the opportunity to see Edward Albee’s play, “The American Dream,” a dark and satirical look at the American family that I found just as relevant and funny as I did when I first saw it at least twenty years ago. Although many reviewers have compared A.M. Homes novel, May We Be Forgiven, to John Cheever’s view of American life, in some ways it takes Albee’s absurdist view of the American Dream and updates it for the 21st Century. If you like weird, dark humor laced with sweet, though unrealistic, romanticism, you will enjoy this book. It was the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize for Fiction).

The story begins with a murder which results in the protagonist, Harry Silver, becoming responsible for his brother, George’s, children, home, finances, and very liberty. He has always despised his brother, so the fact that he now has to live George’s life for him is ironic. Harry is a soon-to-be-divorced, childless professor who specializes in the life and times of Richard Nixon. As a Nixon scholar, he says:

Dick Nixon was the American man of the moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American Dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all.

What we learn about Harry Silver is that he, in many ways, is the modern personification of the Nixon personality. His challenge is to right the wrongs of both his brother and Richard Nixon by trying to rise above their cynical shortcomings. Along the way he loses his wife, his professorship, and a number of the values he believed were important to him. He finds himself in situations that call into question his moral absolutes. He isn’t so much on a quest to find the American Dream as to find whether such a construct exists.

Over the course of the novel – which is exactly one year, Thanksgiving-to-Thanksgiving – Harry builds his own 21st Century family, an oddly mismatched group comprised of his brother’s children, a boy orphaned when his parents are killed in an auto accident, and the elderly parents of a young woman with whom Harry has a brief affair. This allows him to re-evaluate who he is and find that losing it all was the key to finding the life he wanted.

The ending may be a bit saccharine, but the journey is worth the time to read it.

Grade: B

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel

I can’t remember ever being quite so conflicted about writing a book review. Not because there is the slightest ambiguity concerning my reaction to the work – let me just say now that it has been a very, very long time since I have laughed/cried/been entertained by/been heartbroken by/been  so thoroughly engaged by a work of fiction. I really loved this book – in fact, loved it so much that in spite of the fact that I was on vacation in San Francisco I managed to finish it in three days. Couldn’t put it down!

No, the point of conflict for me is not in giving my fullest endorsement. It was the winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award, which should tell you everything you need to know. The conflict arises over how to tell you why you should read it without giving any of it away. It is the discovery – in fact, discoveries – that make this such an engrossing read. Around every turn there is something you didn’t know or suspect and to know anything in advance would surely destroy some – although not all – of the pleasure. . . and the pain.

So – I feel constrained in what I should say. And I’m not alone. Here’s what Barbara Kingsolver, a far more erudite reviewer than am I, had to say about this in The New York Times Sunday Book Review:

To experience this novel exactly as the author intended, a reader should avoid the flap copy and everything else written about it. Including this review. [Heed this advice – her review is full of spoilers!]

Several reviewers did attempt to parse some important themes while skirting others:

“This unforgettable novel is a dark and beautiful journey into the heart of a family . . .” (Dan Choan)

“You know how people  say something is incredible or unbelievable when they mean it’s excellent? Well, Karen Joy Fowler’s new book is excellent: utterly believable and completely credible – a funny, moving, entertaining novel . . .” Dr. Mary Doria Russell

From Kirkus, “Rosemary’s voice – vulnerable, angry, shockingly honest – is so complex . . .Technically and intellectually complex, while emotionally gripping.”

In her review, Kingsolver also said, “A novel so readably juicy and surreptitiously smart, it deserves all the attention it can get . . . [Its] fresh diction and madcap plot bend the tone toward comedy, but it never mislays its solemn raison d’etre . . .”

Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being) came the closest to identifying my own reading experience when she writes, “It’s been years since I’ve felt so passionate about a book. When I finished at 3 a.m., I wept, then I woke up the next morning, reread the ending, and cried all over again.”

I really have nothing to add except my full endorsement that you read this book. Right now. . . provided you have nothing else to do for the next eight to ten hours. Once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down.

Grade: A+


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