Posted by: Jeanie F | December 3, 2014

Comfort Books

Recently I’ve had some health issues that have kept me home and inactive much more than usual. At the beginning of this episode in my life I thought, “Great” I’ll finally have a chance to read the giant stack of TBR books that take up so much space in my office.” These are books like Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Kevin Powers The Yellow Birds – serious books that I’ve wanted to read when I could give them the attention they deserve.

There was one little flaw in my plan. My brain only craves “comfort books,” what I consider the mashed potatoes of the literary world. Tasty, easy to digest, little effort required.

A perfect example is our current book club selection, The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall. It’s a light mystery taking place in modern-day Delhi. The protagonist, detective Vish Puri, is smart, quirky, and has a good heart. The mystery is engaging enough to keep me interested, humorous enough to keep me amused, and neither dark nor violent.

I still have a few weeks of recuperation ahead of me. Does anybody have some recommendations for other “comfort books” to help me get through this tedious period of recovery?


PS – No vampires or zombies, please! 😧

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 30, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan


I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Ian McEwan for years – I either love his books or I hate them. Loved Atonement, Amsterdam, and On Chesil Beach . . . Saturday and Solar, not so much. His writing is always beautiful, even lyrical, but sometimes at the expense of the story. However, his newest book – The Children Act – is probably my all-time favorite.

At its heart, this is a story about love – between husband and wife, parents and child, and those indefinable relationships that sometimes occur in our lives.

Fiona Maye is a British High Court judge who presides over The Family Division. She is a brilliant and well-respected jurist with a reputation for thoughtful and well-supported decisions on difficult cases. Her personal life is sophisticated, well-ordered, and every bit as respectable as her professional life.

This is about to change.

The novel opens as Fiona faces two challenges – one in her personal life, one professional.

Her sixty-year old husband has announced that he wants to have an affair with a twenty-eight year old statistician, telling Fiona, “I need it. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an afterlife.”

 At the same time, she becomes involved in an emergency case concerning a seventeen-year old leukemia patient. His parents are refusing life-saving blood transfusions because, as Jehovah Witnesses, it is forbidden by their religion. The boy, Adam Henry, is within months of turning eighteen, the legal age for adulthood. His attorneys argue that he is in agreement with his parents and is prepared for whatever God intends for him. Fiona insists on visiting Adam in the hospital to judge his wishes for herself. The relationship that ensues is unexpected, creating additional turmoil in Fiona’s life.

These two events – the crisis in her marriage and the responsibility for deciding this boy’s fate – form the heart of the novel. Although there are moments when McEwan tends to digress at great length (the basis of my impatience with some of his work), I found myself caring very deeply about both Fiona and Adam.

To the extent McEwan is capable of doing so, I would say he’s written a page-turner.

Grade: A-

Posted by: Jeanie F | September 7, 2014

A New Author to Love

Larry Watson

In a response to my last post, reader Roberta Canfield said, “For Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig lovers, try Let Him Go by Larry Watson and The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.”

I’ve been very enthusiastic in my praise of both Haruf and Doig, so I couldn’t wait to follow up on two authors, unknown to me, who might be publishing work similar to theirs. I immediately downloaded Let Him Go, and was swept up in the harrowing story of a pair of grandparents set on a course to retrieve their grandson after their son’s widow left town with him. In fact, I loved it so much that as soon as I finished, I downloaded another Watson title, Montana, 1948. This one concerns a prominent family who must deal with the repercussions of one member’s illegal and perverted behavior.

I don’t want to go into more detail about the plot. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about spoilers in book reviews. But I will tell you the reasons I am such an enthusiastic convert to Larry Watson’s writing:

1. Like Haruf and Doig, these stories are grounded in the modern day West (okay, 1948 isn’t as “modern” as it used to be, but it’s close enough). In the hands of a skilled writer, there’s something nostalgic, even romantic, about the open plains, the tie to the land, the simplicity of life that is very appealing to me.

Of Dalton, North Dakota, (Let Him Go) we read:

The siren tells the town’s working citizens and students what they already know. It’s twleve o’clock, time for you to fly, too. Put down your hammer, your pencil; close your books, cover your typewriter. Go home. Your wives and mothers are opening can of soup and slicing bread and last night’s roast beef for sandwiches . . . Most drive to their homes, but a man with the width of the town to travel, from Ott’s Livestock Sales out of Highway 41 to Teton Avenue in the town’s northeast corner, walks.

Montana, 1948, places us in Bentrock, Montana, where

. . . all of northeastern Montana is hard country – the land is dry and sparse and the wind never stops blowing. The heat and thunderstorms in summer can be brutal, and the winters are legendary for the fierceness of their blizzards and the depths to which temperatures drop.

Watson knows his geographical territory, and it appears as its own character in his work.

2. Watson’s human characters are people of their time and place: direct, no nonsense, tough. They do what needs to be done, no matter how difficult or distasteful. The author seems to see his protagonists as fond friends, idiosyncratic, flawed, but with an inner strength that they (and he) can count on when needed. He writes with a clear understanding of human nature, as demonstrated in this reflection by David Hayden, the narrator of Montana, who observes:

Young people are supposed to be the impatient ones, but in most circumstances they can outwait their elders. The young are more practiced; time passes slower for them and they are constantly filling their hours, days, months, and years with waiting – for birthdays, for Christmas, for Father to return, for summer to arrive, for graduation, for the rain to stop, for the minister to stop talking, for girls to stop saying, “Not now, not yet; wait.” No, when it comes to patience, even the enforced variety, the young are the real masters.

3. Watson is a true storyteller. In both books – but especially Let Him Go – the suspense of the story, the need to know what happens next, propels the reader forward. He has the shrewd practice of closing chapters with cliffhangers, and he keeps to his story clean of unnecessary embellishment or diversion. His language is clear and crisp, his characters behave in a way that rings true and, as a reader, I found that I really cared about what happened to them. I can’t give any higher praise than that.

So, Roberta, I’m ready to move on to Jim Lynch’s The Highest Tide. Thanks for a great recommendation!

Grade: A


Posted by: Jeanie F | August 31, 2014

What’s Your Top Ten?

There’s a current challenge going around on Facebook to list your top ten favorite books. Personally, I find it almost impossible to do this, as I have favorite books in different genres, categories, connections – and my favorite book one day can be replaced by a different book the next.

Still, it’s fun to think back on books that I’ve loved, so I decided to see if I could select a book from each year since 1995 (as long as I’ve been keeping track of titles) that I could say was my “Favorite.” Here goes:

1995 – A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

1996 – In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez . . . or maybe Tortilla Curtain by T Coraghessan Boyle (see, already I’m finding it hard to choose!)

1997 – Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (but it’s hard to bypass The Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner)

1998 – Wild Swans by Jung Chang

1999 – Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (although I DID love Lambs of God) by Marele Day

2000 – No contest here – Plainsong by Kent Haruf and the beginning of my love affair with Mr. Haruf!

2001 – Blindness by Jose Saramago

2002 – Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

2003 – Half a Life by V. S. Naipul

2004 – The Known World by Edward P. Jones

2005 – Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

2006 – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

2007 – Reservation Road by John Brunham Schwartz

2008 – Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

2009 – City of Thieves by David Benioff or Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

2010 – In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenudin

2011 – Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy AND The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt AND The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

2012 – The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson AND Bring Up the Bodies (and I did love The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evision)

2013 – Oh, this was a great year: Eventide and Benediction by Kent Haruf, The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, AND The Son by Philipp Meyer

2014 – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Wow, it was so much fun to look over this list and remember some old friends, but hard to leave some off the list! You can see the whole list – and which books didn’t quite make the cut – by clicking on the “Books Read” link above.

How about you? Want to share your Top Ten, or more, with us?

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+

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