Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Winner

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Kirkus Review says of Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home that “love and family defy the expected in this engaging tale.” From Amazon’s author page on Julie Kibler, readers learn Kibler “began writing Calling Me Home after learning a bit of family lore: as a young woman, her grandmother fell in love with a young black man in an era and locale that made the relationship impossible.” That story becomes the starting point for Kibler’s Calling Me Home.

Miss Isabelle, a widow, is almost ninety; Dorrie has been Miss Isabelle’s hair stylist for over ten years. Miss Isabelle is white; Dorrie is black, almost sixty years younger than Miss Isabelle, a divorced mother of two. Dorrie and Miss Isabelle live in Arlington, TX. The last few years, Dorrie has been taking care of Miss Isabelle’s hair in Miss Isabelle’s home because Miss Isabelle gave up driving.

Dorrie does other little favors for Miss Isabelle too, not because she must, but because she enjoys helping Miss Isabelle, much as a daughter would. The two have forged an unlikely friendship and know a great deal about one another. Still, they are about to embark on a physical journey that will take them on an emotional journey for the two of them and, in doing so, they will learn even more about one another.

One Monday morning, as usual, Dorrie turns up to wash, set, and style Miss Isabelle’s hair. Miss Isabelle makes a strange request. She wants Dorrie to drop everything and drive Miss Isabelle almost one thousand miles to Cincinnati, Ohio. Readers quickly realize that Miss Isabelle is not making this request lightly or simply to take a vacation. The trip is meaningful to the ninety-year-old. Dorrie asks few questions other than how far. Miss Isabelle does request that Dorrie bring along a dress. That’s when Dorrie realizes the two are going to a funeral.

After looking at her appointment book, Dorrie sees that she can rearrange some scheduled appointments and also rely on her mother to care for Stevie and Bebe, her teenaged children. That leaves Teague, the new man in her life, the one she thinks might be different from the others because he is kind, thoughtful, and reliable. Teague is a single father of three; his wife left him deciding that being tied down to one man and three children did not suit her. He even tells Dorrie to give his number to her mother in case the mother needs help with Stevie and Bebe, acting more concerned than their biological father.

Kibler tells the story in the present day with both Miss Isabelle and Dorrie relating information about their lives, often through the crossword puzzle clues as they work through two puzzle books on the trip. Miss Isabelle also fills in her story starting in 1939 in Shalerville, KY, just across from Cincinnati. In 1939, Shalerville had signs to the town’s entrances barring Blacks from being in town after sundown, even those who worked for the white families as many did.

 

Miss Isabelle’s family is white, rich, and privileged. Her father is a physician, so he is well-known and respected in Shalervlle. Cora Prewitt, a black woman, works for the family as cook and cleaner. Her daughter Nell plays with Isabelle when they are children and then begins working in the home alongside her mother, putting an end to the childhood friendship because of the boundaries imposed by society. Cora’s son Robert also does odd jobs for the family, often washing Dr. McAllister’s car, working in the yard, and mending fences.

As a teenager, Isabelle makes a foolish and dangerous decision to meet a new school friend at a club in Newport one evening. Robert happens to see her walking in a direction he knows she should not be going, so he follows and waits in the shadows outside the club. Isabelle is naïve and accepts two alcoholic drinks from Louie, a stranger, after her friend abandons her for a young man. Louie pulls Isabelle, now quite unsteady on her feet, out into the alley, for “some air.” He begins mauling her when Robert steps out of the shadows and tells Louie to leave the young lady alone. A brief fight ensues, but Robert manages to rescue Isabelle.

He insists on taking her back to her home safely even though he is endangering himself by being in Shalerville after dark. Isabelle pleads with him not to go with her because she knows the danger for him, but he refuses to listen. They board the street car together, but she sits at the front and he at the back; they are the only riders. They get off at a point where they must then walk to Isabelle’s home.

The next day Isabelle is worried about Robert and his safety, but she cannot ask directly or risk incriminating the two of them. That evening, however, begins a relationship that cannot be, yet neither can resist the pull between them.

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Of course, Dorrie knows nothing of this story. The pictures she sees in Miss Isabelle’s home are all of white people: Max, Miss Isabelle’s late husband, and Dane, her son, also deceased. Dane did have a wife and two children who live in Hawaii. How does Robert figure into the rest of the story and whose funeral are they attending?

Isabelle finds ways to engage Robert in conversation, showing up where he is and asking him questions. They are falling in love, a much-forbidden love that will get them both in serious trouble. Earlier this year, I read The Tumbling Turner Sisters, set during the Great Depression in NYC area. In that story, the Turner sisters create a vaudeville act; on their tours, they meet a talented young black man. When they befriend him, he gets fired from his job and beaten up for socializing with white women. I worried every time that Isabelle sought Robert out that they would be discovered and with dire consequences. Robert’s life was in danger every time he and Isabelle were alone together.

On the trip to Cincinnati, Dorrie and Miss Isabelle share their stories. Dorrie still does not know why Miss Isabelle is so set on attending the funeral until they arrive at the funeral home and see the deceased. I’ll leave that to surprise the readers. No spoilers! The ending will be a tear-jerker for many.

My mother owned a beauty shop in a small town in southeast Arkansas. I grew up in the shop, listening to women talk. She did not have black clients because the beauty school she went to in Louisiana in the mid-1930s was not integrated. Unlike Dorrie, decades later, Mother did not learn how to care for black women’s hair. Mother often picked up ladies who could not drive, or no longer drove, took them to the shop, washed, set, and styled their hair, and took them home, all for a pittance. She also went to their homes if they were unable to get out easily. Often, Mother’s final gift to her client/friends was to do their hair and nails at the funeral home.

Carol F. Brill in the NY Journal of Books says of Calling Me Home, “For an avid reader, little can match the thrill of a character pulling you into her world the second she arrives on the page as Isabelle does in the opening page of Calling Me Home.” Kibler succeeds in pulling the readers into the story from the beginning.

In July, the members of my book club, READ, bring a book to share with the rest of the group. My friend Theresa Edwards shared Coming Home by Julie Kibler, and I am glad she did.

 

The Book Whisperer Gives up on a Much-Awaited Book

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Fredrik Backman became one of my favorite writers after I read A Man Called Ove. I next read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, and Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, a novella. I thoroughly enjoyed them all and eagerly awaited Beartown. I put my name on the library request list and waited and waited and waited. Finally, my turn came to check out Beartown. At long last, I was delighted to read the book, expecting the same pleasure as I had found in the other Backman stories. Sadly, I am disappointed.

I must be alone in my severe disappointment, however. According to Library Journal, in Beartown, Backman delivers “another solid offering … with many parallels for American readers and small towns everywhere.” Adrian Liang, The Amazon Book Review, praises Beartown effusively. Beginning the review with “how do I love Beartown? Let me count the ways.” Liang goes on to write thatthere are hard moments here, and readers might find difficult discoveries in their own hearts as the people of Beartown struggle with what they hope is real but fear is not. Masterful in its storytelling and honesty, [Beartown] is another winner for Backman, surpassing even his much-lauded A Man Called Ove. I would respectfully disagree.

Other reviews pay tribute to Beartown lauding “empathetic examination of the fragile human spirit.” To me, the characters are thoroughly unlikeable. They are self-centered and insular. Beartown itself is self-centered and insular. The small town is struggling with people leaving for better jobs and opportunities. Hockey becomes the focus and will either save or doom the town and its inhabitants.

The darkness in the book is not overcome, to me, by redeeming qualities in the characters because those qualities are lacking. When grown men throw up repeatedly because of nervousness over a hockey game and whether the team will win or lose, I am perplexed. Gifted teenaged athletes are allowed to act out in any manner they wish—smoking pot, using tobacco, sexually assaulting their classmates, beating up other less popular students—simply because they are good at hockey.

In too many universities around the US, including OU, we have seen this scenario come to light — privileged athletes. Coaches say they have a “zero tolerance policy,” but a gifted football player sexually assaults a female, or steals merchandise, or gets into a fight in a bar and all is forgiven. I just could not continue reading Backman’s story. Perhaps if I had felt the characters had some redeeming qualities, I might have continued.

I heard Nancy Pearl speak in Tulsa a few years ago. When an audience member asked her how she determined when to quit reading a book she did not like since she receives so many to review, she said readers should “subtract their age from 100 and read that many pages.” If they did not wish to continue, they should stop at that point. The caveat is that by the time the readers are 100, “they can judge a book by its cover.” I read 175 pages before I gave up. Others of you may persist, but this is one time I did not.

Backman’s blog is available at FredrikBackman.com.

The Book Whisperer Reviews A Read-Aloud Favorite

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Drew Daywalt wrote The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and teamed up with Adam Rex to illustrate the book. Daywalt introduces the book at this link: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062438898/the-legend-of-rock-paper-scissors.

The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors is a must-read book and even better read aloud. Kirkus Reviews wrote that The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors “will have listeners in stitches.” Booklist concurs with “purely absurd, sidesplitting humor.” Other reviews are equally strong in recommending The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

Readers can find an activity to go along with The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors at this link: https://b0f646cfbd7462424f7a-f9758a43fb7c33cc8adda0fd36101899.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/activity-guides/AG-9780062438898.pdf.

Daywalt and Rex have created the perfect read-aloud book for parents, grandparents, and children. The story is almost textured in that the fonts change from page to page and even within a page. Readers can see from Adam Rex’s picture below right that his sense of humor shines through his illustrations. The picture on the right below is from Rex’s Web site.

The story begins with Rock who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard” and Rock swaggers informing readers that he cannot be beaten. However, Rock is sad because he has no competition, so he goes on a quest to find someone who can “give him a worthy challenge.” Rock ranges far and wide, conquering each new foe and continuing to be saddened further by his success.

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Then readers meet paper who lives in “Mom’s Home Office.” Paper is also convinced that HE is “the smartest warrior in all the land.” Unfortunately, he, too, is sad because “no one could outwit him.” Like Rock, Paper goes on a expedition to find someone who can outwit him. His first foe is on “Desk Mountain” where he meets “a large and square monster.” Needless to say, Paper bests the large, square monster, also known as a printer. Paper then continues his journey.

Finally, we meet Scissors who lives “in the Kitchen Realm, in the tiny village of Junk Drawer.” She is fast and unchallenged like Rock and Paper. She decides to test herself against “a strange and sticky circle-man,” also recognized as tape. Through various trials, Scissors remains victorious and sad since no one can beat her, just like Rock and Paper.

Suddenly, Rock and Scissors face off. What will happen? When and how will Paper join this pair, forming the trio we all know as Rock, Paper, Scissors?

Drew Daywalt is the author of The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home, other books which have made quite a splash among readers, including grandparents, parents and children.  Adam Rex illustrated The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors, but he is also an author/illustrator of his own books too. One of those books is Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.

From the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books comes this perfect summation of The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors: “While kids will snicker reading [The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors] on their own, it’s perfect for a guffawing share with younger sibs or buddy read, followed, of course, by a rousing game of Rock Paper Scissors.”

Check out Drew Daywalt’s site: http://www.crayonspicturebooks.com/drew-daywalt-oliver-jeffers/. There, readers will learn the following:
Ten totally true facts about Drew Daywalt for your author report:

  1. Before becoming an author, Drew was a farmer in the 1800’s.
  2. Drew eats his weight in bamboo shoots every day.
  3. Drew is a man of 1000 faces. Unfortunately, every face looks exactly the same.
  4. The cheetah is the fastest land animal with recorded speeds of up to 80mph. Drew hopes one never chases him.
  5. In addition to being an author, Drew is also a world-renowned beekeeper.
  6. And a race car driver.
  7. Drew likes to make up stories about being a world-renowned beekeeper and race car driver. (He is neither.)
  8. Drew just made a hot cup of tea. Please retweet.
  9. Drew has three rows of razor sharp teeth designed for ripping and shredding his prey.
  10. Drew has ferocious hair and he’s not afraid to use it.

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Nonfiction Again…

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Claudia Kalb concentrates on topics in medicine, mental health, and science. She has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Scientific American, and Newsweek among other publications. Kalb has received many awards for her articles. Kalb graduated from Amherst College and went on to earn a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She is recognized for her ability to make hard topics accessible for the general reader. Kalb’s Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities, a New York Times bestseller, was published in 2016.

In 2016, People magazine identified Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities as its Book of the Week. NPR’s Weekend Edition and CBS This morning both gave in-depth reports on Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities. Other publications such as The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Forbes, Psychology Today, Parade, and The New York Post also featured the book which delves into twelve famous figures: Marilyn Monroe, Howard Hughes, Andy Warhol, Princess Diana, Abraham Lincoln, Christine Jorgensen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Betty Ford, Charles Darwin, George Gershwin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Einstein.

With the book, Kalb says “my overarching goal was to lay this all out for people in a way that they could look at it and say, ‘This looks like my friend, or my family member or a little bit like me.’ … My goal, I hope, is that by reading about these people, there’ll be some less stigmatization of mental health disorders. We all struggle with all sorts … of things in our mind[s]. I found this a way to maybe relieve people a little bit — that if they are struggling, they are not alone.”

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In the first chapter on Marilyn Monroe, Kalb explains that Monroe clearly suffered from “severe mental distress. Her symptoms included a feeling of emptiness, a split or confused identity, extreme volatility, unstable relationships, and an impulsivity that drove her to drug addiction and suicide — all textbook characteristics of a condition called borderline personality disorder.” Borderline personality disorder, Kalb goes on to explain, means the patient has symptoms that lie on the border between “two camps of psychological impairment.

Kalb writes about Frank Lloyd Wright as “one of the most self-promoted and celebrated architects in history.”  Her conclusion about his behavior is that he had narcissistic personality disorder, perhaps much like someone currently in the public eye. Wright may have recognized his own foibles, but saw no reason to change. He was successful, so he played upon that success.

The chapter on Betty Ford is particularly painful in that from the outside Betty Ford looked as if she were living a fairy tale. Unfortunately, Ford turned to alcohol which helped “smooth the prickly edges of Washington politics both on the Hill and at home.” Kalb goes on to explain that when Jerry Ford became President, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. She made public her cancer diagnosis and treatment. That public disclosure brought attention to breast cancer and women across the country made appointments for mammograms. Ford said in an interview, “[women’s reaction] was great for my self-esteem. I was kind of amaze that I was this important person.”

Kalb quotes Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, who said that “for all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness.” Did that insecurity begin with her birth? Her parents needed to produce a male heir to inherit the Spencer title. Their infant son John died within hours of his birth; there were two older daughters. Kalb writes of Diana as saying, “[My parents] were crazy to have a son and heir and there comes a third daughter.”

In examining these twelve lives, Kalb seeks out psychological studies, the celebrities’ own biographies, and other scientific studies in order to make her points. Kalb asks challenging questions about each person and then provides evidence to support her points.

The Book Whisperer Reviews TRIBE

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Sebastian Junger is the author of five books including the widely acclaimed The Perfect Storm. Junger and Tim Hetherington directed the film Retrepo won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award. Korengal  another film, allows Junger to take a more in-depth look into the men deployed in the rough mountains of Korengal Valley. Junger has often been the New York Times bestseller list. In addition to his nonfiction books, Junger is contributing editor for Vanity Fair. His other books include Fire, A Death in Belmont, and War. Not only is Junger a bestseller, he has also won a National Magazine Award and an SAIS Novartis Prize for journalism.

Tribe is a book being considered for the Friends of the Library Board’s Books Sandwiched In series for fall 2017. Junger begins with an “Author’s Note” about how he came to write Tribe. The book developed from an article Junger had written for Vanity Fair: “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Many passages from the article are also included in Tribe. Instead of footnotes which I do find distracting at times, Junger included a “Source Notes” at the end of Tribe.

Tribe begins with a story from Junger’s 1986 hitchhiking journey across the northwestern US. On that journey, he was well-prepared with a tent, food, a camp stove, sleeping bag, and cookpots. Just outside Gillette, Wyoming, Junger saw a scruffy, dirty man walking toward him. Thinking the man had come to job him, Junger was wary and on his guard. The man wanted to know where Junger was going and then asked how much food Junger had. Still thinking the man wants food or money or whatever Junger had with him, Junger replies cautiously, “Oh, I just got a little cheese.”

The man was dismayed and explained that he lived in a broken-down car and had gone into Gillette to see if he could get work for the day, but there had been none that day. Then he opened his lunch bucket and handed Junger a bologna sandwich, an apple, and a bag of potato chips, saying, “I won’t be needing this. I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

That story illustrates the man’s generosity, but Junger contends the difference is that the man had “taken responsibility for me. He’d spotted me from town and walked half a mile out a highway to make sure I was okay.” In that introduction, Junger ends with this provocative idea: “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.” Tribe was published in June 2016 during the presidential campaign….
Junge points out Benjamin Franklin’s observations about English settlers bolting into Indian society, but that Indians rarely moved into the white society. Even people captured by Indians and later rescued would often succeed in escaping or continually try to escape to go back to the Indian society. Junger likens this pull toward the tribal society to veterans who return from combat only to find they miss the companionship and connections within the platoon life. Junger contends that the loss of that intimacy could clarify the high rates of PTSD among military veterans.

To illustrate that premise, Junger delves into societies that maintain that tribal unity, a connection that has been all but lost in today’s world. Tribe goes on to explore what it means to belong. In examining the subject, Junger points out the struggles and the irony. How can veterans feel better about war than about peace? The answer lies in the fact that together we find strength. In Tribe, Junger goes on to explain how we can achieve that connection “even in today’s divided world.”

Junger concludes that “humans are so strongly wired to help one another—and enjoy such enormous social benefits from doing so—that people regularly risk their lives for complete strangers.” He goes on to explain that men and women approach these risks differently. Men often act spontaneously and impulsively in a dangerous situation while women are “more likely than men to display something called moral courage.”

At the end of Tribe, Junger relates the story of Martin H. Bauman, who died at 85. Bauman’s job-placement company had been very successful until a downturn in the 1990s. Bauman called his employees together and asked them to take a ten percent reduction in salary so that they could all keep their jobs. The employees unanimously agreed. What the employees did not know until the bookkeeper told them was that Bauman gave up his own salary altogether until the company returned to more stable ground. Junger notes that “Bauman voluntarily served his country, served his employees, and served other handicapped people by establishing a scholarship fund in his name. He clearly understood that belonging to society require sacrifice, and that sacrifice gives back way more than it costs.”

The New York Times concludes that “Junger has raised one of the most provocative ideas of this campaign season–and accidentally written one of its most intriguing political books.” The Guardian continues praise for Tribe: “An electrifying tapestry of history, anthropology, psychology and memoir that punctures the stereotype of the veteran as a war-damaged victim in need of salvation. Rather than asking how we can save our returning servicemen and women, Junger challenges us to take a hard look in the mirror and ask whether we can save ourselves.”

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Living in the Mississippi Delta

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Richard Grant, grew up in London, England, writes nonfiction and is a TV host. Apparently, he was born with a wanderlust since he has lived in and written about a wide variety of places including Tucson, AZ and Pluto, MS in the US and has done investigative journalism in a number of foreign countries. Currently, he lives in Jackson, MS. He wrote American Nomads: Travels With Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers and Bullriders. Apparently, the rule of thumb about seven-word titles escaped him. Grant also writes for Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Al Jazeera America, the Telegraph UK, and Aeon among others.

At Grant’s Web site, http://www.richardgrant.us/, read articles about his dog Savannah and her own wanderlust, an interview with Annie Proulx, and other widely varied topics.

American Nomads, a ninety-minute documentary film which Grant wrote and hosted is based on his book. The documentary takes viewers on a 6,000-mile journey through the American Southwest looking for modern-day nomads. Grant wanted to know why they chose to wander instead of settling down in one place. The cross section of those wanderers includes rodeo cowboys, punk kids, a Wall Street dropout, and retirees driving their homes around.

His most recent book is Dispatches from Pluto, recommended to me by my childhood friend Marcia Miller Johnston. We grew up in the Mississippi Delta, but on the Arkansas side. Our small town was bound on one end by the railroad track and the other by Bayou Bartholomew. My mother always said Bayou Bartholomew was “the longest and crookedest bayou in the world.” I have never looked that up because who am I to question my mother? While I digress, I relate this information to show my own familiarity with the Delta.

Grant and Mariah, his significant other whom he met in Tucson, were living in “a tiny Manhattan apartment we couldn’t afford and where “my girlfriend was on edge and my dog was depressed.” Grant decided that if he lived where “no state has a more beautiful name—Miss and Sis are sipping on something sippy, and it’s probably a sweet tea or an iced bourbon drink—but no state is more synonymous in the rest of the country with racism, ignorance, and cultural backwardness” he could “dissolve these clumsy old stereotypes, and illustrate my conviction that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America.”

Grant had met Martha Foose, author of the cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, in Oxford, MS, few years earlier. Here’s Marth’s Web site: http://www.marthafoose.com/home.php. Martha repeatedly invited Grant to visit her home in the Delta insisting the Delta is “a separate place from the rest of Mississippi, with its own unique history and culture, although nowhere on earth was more deeply Southern.” Grant drove from NYC to meet Martha in Greenwood, MS. Martha guides Grant around to towns like Pluto, Tchula, and Milestone, places so small they hardly boast any population at all, but Martha is familiar with them all and with many of the inhabitants.

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Martha talks just like my Aunt Dot used to talk, starting mid-story and mentioning names unknown to the listener, but essential, nonetheless, to the story itself. Here’s a sampling as Grant and Martha drove past a “small scruffy shack to an even smaller scruffier shack”:

“This is Miss Pat’s,” she said. “Her real name is Willie Ruth. She used to have a sign saying ‘Pat’s Kitchen,’ but it was making too much business, so she took it down. She does a plate lunch with fried chicken, three vegetables, cornbread, sweet tea and dessert, all for six bucks. I ate here every day when I was pregnant.”

Martha shows Grant her father’s home, an old plantation with “a seven-columned porch bathed in honeyed light, flower gardens and vegetable beds, the misty apricot dawn filtering through the fairytale trees.” At least that’s the picture Grant shows Mariah. And it is true to the place, minus the armadillos, snakes, wild hogs, and mosquitoes. Mariah agrees to go with Grant to Mississippi, so Grant starts looking for a mortgage, but without much luck. Finally, Martha’s father says he will lend Grant the money himself. When they meet with Butch Gary, a banker in Yazoo City, Gary surprises Grant by agreeing to loan Grant the money on the condition that “y’all have to come over to dinner with me and my wife, and tell us some stories about these places you’ve been. We don’t get out of Yazoo County as much as we should, but we’re real interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world.”

Just like that, Grant has bought a plantation in Mississippi and his plan for writing about the experience is underway. Grant writes about all he and Mariah and even Savannah must learn about living in the Delta with their nearest neighbor three miles away and a full-service grocery store at least twenty-five miles away.

One of Grant’s first stories of depth is about Dr. Arnold Smith, cancer specialist. Dr. Smith’s Web site is still available: http://cancernet.com/. There, readers can find testimonies from patients who swear by Dr. Smith and believe he saved their lives. Dr. Smith and Lee Abraham, a Lebanese lawyer, were in a feud. Eventually, Dr. Smith is accused of trying to have Abraham murdered. Here’s one article on the subject: http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/2014/10/08/judge-greenwood-doctor-unfit-to-stand-trial/16943011/. Many people in Greenwood describe Dr. Smith as “a first-rate cancer doctor…but this is not to say they thought Dr. Smith was sane. His eccentricities were legendary, and the town was well accustomed to his delusional ravings.”

Grant describes other characters such as the school board members who “hurled shoes at each other in a school board meeting.” He also mentions a man was beaten in the Greenwood Waffle House “after accusing another man’s girlfriend of wearing ‘Christmas pants’ in July.”

Grant describes his conversations with Martha because she “assumed that you knew the people involved, or had at least heard of them. This was usually the case when she was talking to people from the Delta, where everyone knows everyone, and almost never the case when she was talking to me. But it seemed rude to keep interrupting her stories to ask who was who, or how could such a thing possibly be true, so most of the time I just listened to the music of her stories and her pretty Southern accent, and let it all wash through my mind.”

When Grant tried to make sense of “the weirdness in the Delta, the eccentric characters, the bizarre crimes,” Martha told him the reasons: “isolation, humidity, toxic chemicals.”

On another road trip, Martha took Grant through Midnight, Louise, Belzoni, Hard Cash, Hushpuckena, Alligator, and Bobo. Most of these towns were no more than a wide spot in the road.  Still, Martha knows people in each place, so Grant gains entry to all the places.

Grant wrote about the ideocracies, the kindnesses, the unusual, and the weird, all found throughout the Delta. He wanted to explore race relations and to understand people there. He gets it right most of the time, exposing the good, bad, and ugly. At one point, Grant realized he “had taken on Martha’s philosophy, which was laughter to keep from crying.”

After Mariah and Grant had been in the Delta for a year, Grant admitted they had never been bored and their horizons had broadened. They decided to get married, so Martha becomes a major player in planning the wedding—a big party. Their friends from near and far filled the house for the wedding.

In reading Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto, I put so many PostIt flags to mark passages that I cannot possibly include all of the pieces in this review. I suggest you read Dispatches from Pluto and mark your own passages.

The Book Whisperer Reviews Chicago

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Until recently, I had never read a book by Brian Doyle. He has written more than ten and still going strong. I read about his most recent book, Chicago, in some article and put it on my to-read list. Last week, when I went to the library to pick up some books I had reserved, I wandered through the fiction shelves and there stood Chicago on the shelf looking back at me. I thought I should check it out along with the other three books I had in my hands.  I felt compelled to start with it even though one of the books I checked out has a waiting list for it, and I had waited a long time for it myself.

Kirkus Reviews says of Chicago, “The quiet introspection and cleareyed focus on a vibrant and powerful American city makes Doyle’s paean to Chicago a literary jewel.” I would agree. I find it hard to put into words how I feel about Chicago. I am sure, Readers, you find that hard to believe—that I am unable to find the right words. Occasionally, we encounter a book that simply grabs our attention right away; for me, Chicago is one of those books.

The unnamed narrator moves to Chicago after graduating from college. He finds an apartment in a north-side apartment building near Lake Michigan. He wants to be near Lake Michigan because “Lake Michigan is no lake at all but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers, and the faraway moan of huge invisible tankers and barges, and its occasional startling surf after storms, appealed to me greatly.”

The narrator moves into the apartment with his duffel bag and a well-used, shiny basketball. Mr. Pawlowsky, building manager and handyman, gives the narrator an introduction to the building: “pets are welcome, immense pets like emus and rhinoceri were not.” Mr. Pawlowsky goes on to say, “This is an apartment building, not a house or a hotel, and we are each on our own. Yet there is a friendly feeling to the place, and most of the residents are decent souls.”

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Our narrator soon discovers Mr. Pawlowsky is correct. Miss Elminides owns the building and lives in an apartment there while Mr. Pawlowsky takes care of maintenance and other odd jobs along with his faithful right hand, Edward, a wise dog who loves Lincoln as much as Mr. Pawlowsky does. The two of them often read Lincoln’s letters and speeches aloud in Mr. Pawlowsky’s apartment. Edward is no ordinary dog; he a wise helper and observer, even going to the neighborhood grocery store for groceries for elderly or sick neighbor in the building.

Miss Eliminides may be a school teacher; the people of the building including Mr. Pawlowsky are reluctant to intrude on one another, so the narrator finds out bits and pieces about the residents as he does the neighborhood surrounding the building and even further into other part of Chicago. Miss Eliminides received the apartment building from her grandfather who lives in Greece. Her grandfather has arranged for his friend, a lawyer in Greece, to handle the taxes and any other business related to the building. Unfortunately, the lawyer died, leaving an unscrupulous son, Giannis, who immediately steals all the money from Miss Eliminides’s account and absconds.

Of course, Miss Eliminides knows nothing of this theft until she begins receiving tax notices from the city of Chicago and other threatening mail arrives about unpaid bills relating to the apartment building. Mr. Pawlowsky learns of the trouble because Miss Eliminides confides in him. Our narrator then discovers the problem from Mr. Pawlowsky. Slowly, other members of the apartment community know of Miss Eliminides’s difficulties. They quite independently of one another seek solutions to help Miss Eiliminides. Perhaps the kindness of these strangers brought together only through living in the same apartment building engages the readers, giving a sense of the good in the world that counteracts some of the evil.

Some of the people who live in the apartment include a Navy retiree whom people rarely see, a librettist, a cricket fan, and a retired actress. Over the months the narrator lives in the building, he comes to know more and more about each person. He also explores wider areas, venturing out to other neighborhood bars, gyro cafes, and basketball courts. The narrator is a journalist with a natural curiosity, so he meets people everywhere and asks a few questions and then listens intently as people respond. He learns about people he meets on the bus, the basketball court, and cafes as well as learning about his fellow apartment dwellers.

Even those readers who do not like dogs cannot but help liking Edward who quietly appears throughout the story sharing his wisdom and his love of Lincoln. When the narrator suggests to Edward that Mr. Pawlowsky and Miss Eliminides should start a romantic relationship, Edward gently discourages the narrator from pursuing that end. The narrator does then see the error of his thinking. Edward also expounds on writers. For example, “it was Edward’s opinion that other than maybe Samuel Clemens of Missouri, there was no finer writer ever born in this country than Ray Douglas Bradbury, who said himself that his whole childhood was running to the library and the lake and the wooded ravine where anything could and did happen.”

Doyle also adds baseball to the story of Chicago, as how could he not? He mentions games and players of the time. He takes Denesh, the cricket fan who lives in the building, to his first baseball game.

I have been trying to think of comparisons to other literature as well as understanding why Chicago appeals to me. In working on this review, I hit upon an idea. Chicago and Doyle’s writing of it reminds me of stories like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson or Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. These are both quiet stories set in English villages, each with a cast of characters contributing to the story. Doyle’s characters in Chicago, including the city itself, work together to produce a good story. The apartment building becomes a village of its inhabitants; then Doyle expands into the city of Chicago to add other factors.

Brian Doyle, editor of Portland Magazine at the U of Portland, has written both fiction and nonfiction. He also writes essays and poetry, in short, a renaissance writer. Do not confuse this author, Brian James Patrick Doyle, with Canadian author Brian Doyle, or astrophysicist Brian Doyle, or former Yankee baseball player Brian Doyle, or actor Brian Doyle-Murray.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews The Orphan’s Tale

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Pam Jenoff received degrees from George Washington U and Cambridge U. Her first job after completing her master’s in history from Cambridge was at the Pentagon as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. One of her duties included helping families of victims in the Pan Am Flight 103. She was also instrumental in the recovery at the Oklahoma City bombing. She then was assigned to the US Consulate in Krakow, Poland, developing expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. In 1998, Jenoff attended law school at the U of Pennsylvania. She has worked as an attorney and now teaches law at Rutgers as well as working on her fiction. She has written ten novels. The Kommandant’s Girl, an international bestseller, was nominated for a Quill award.

The Orphan’s Tale is Jenoff’s most recent book. It has received critical acclaim. In The Orphan’s Tale, Jenoff has created two strong female characters who begin as enemies, but who become steadfast friends, helping one another in a time of great distress, escaping from German persecution during WWII. Noa, a young Dutch woman, has been cast out of her home because she became pregnant by a German soldier. At the home for unwed mothers where she finds shelter, she finds she must give up her baby for adoption, not what she has planned.

Even after the baby is born, Noa cannot return home, so she finds a menial job cleaning the train waiting room in exchange for a meager salary and a tiny room where she can sleep. One evening, she hears cries coming from a railroad car and investigates to find the car is full of Jewish infants, some of whom are already dead because of exposure and/or starvation. Without giving a second thought, she grabs one baby and flees. She takes the baby into the attic of the train station and then tries to think about what she will do. The child is a boy whom she calls Theo; the baby taken from her was a boy. Theo has been circumcised, thus identifying him as Jewish, so Noa must keep him safe and out of harm’s way.

Knowing she cannot keep the baby at the train station or she will be discovered. She flees into the night with Theo. She wraps Theo inside her coat, taking nothing else with her. It is winter with snow on the ground, so her trip is more than harrowing. She has no plan and nowhere to go, but she must leave the train station.

Falling in the snow with Theo, Noa blacks out. She wakes to find she is with a troupe of circus performers. Peter, the circus clown, found Noa and Theo in the snow and brought them to shelter. Her immediate concern is for Theo, but Herr Neuhoff, the circus owner and ringmaster, assures her Theo and she are both safe. Noa claims Theo is her brother. Her story is that following their mother’s death, Noa takes Theo and flees from their abusive father.

Herr Neuhoff says Noa can stay with the circus, but she will have to pull her weight by learning to be an aerial performer and that Astrid will train Noa. At this point, the story alternates between Noa’s telling of the events and Astrid’s.

Astrid Sorrell, born Ingrid Klemt, is part of a talented Jewish circus family. She has married a German officer, Erich Sorrell. They are happy together until he comes home one evening with divorce papers and tells her they must divorce. He has no choice because she is Jewish. She leaves their apartment and goes to her hometown, but she cannot find her family. A German family is living in her home; she dares not to even ask about her family, her mother, father, and three brothers. She finds the Neuhoff Circus and asks for a job. Herr Neuhoff, knowing her reputation and skill, gladly takes her on as primary aerialist despite the dangers of her being Jewish.

When Astrid learns she must train Noa to become an aerialist and knows the two will have to work closely together, Astrid is determined it will not work. She does not know of Noa’s own determination and skill because Noa has trained as a gymnast, so she is not completely unsuited to be on the trapeze.

Their working together at first is testy and uncomfortable. Both have secrets that they do not want to share with each other or the other performers. Working together and having to depend on one another for safety during the high trapeze acts tears down the barriers between them. They begin to trust one another in other ways besides in the air.

The story takes the predictable turns in that danger lurks everywhere for the circus and particularly for Noa, Theo, and Astrid. They don’t count on Peter’s arrest or the circus’s being turned back into German held-strongholds. Readers recognize and understand the dangers that the characters face at every turn. Astrid and Peter have turned to one another for solace and find comfort with each other. Noa thrives as an aerialist and in caring for Theo. Astrid, too, comes to love not only Noa like a sister, but Theo as if he were her nephew.

The turns in the story keep readers turning pages. Jenoff writes well of the period of time and the dangers facing all the characters including Herr Neuhoff and his other performers. Read the book for the whole story!

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews Oprah’s Latest Selection

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Last week, I was watching CBS This Morning when Oprah Winfrey announced her new book club selection: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. Then Gayle King introduced Imbolo Mbue and talked with her about Behold the Dreamers. I logged into the Tulsa City-County Library site and searched for Imbolo Mbue, thinking I would reserve the book and have to wait for its arrival. Imagine my surprise when I was #1 on the reserve list. For once, I did not have to wait for a much anticipated book.

Behold the Dreamers has received a great deal of attention since its publication in August 2016. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book, longlisted for the PEN/Open Book Award, and was named an ALA Notable Book. Behold the Dreamers was also named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The New York Times Book Review, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Public Library, BookPage, and Kirkus Reviews.

Reviewers use words like remarkable, poignant, insightful, and caustic in describing the prose and the story. Michael Schaub, writing for NPR, calls Behold the Dreamers “a remarkable debut. Mbue is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ear for dialogue — there are no false notes here, no narrative shortcuts, and certainly no manufactured happy endings. It’s a novel that depicts a country both blessed and doomed, on top of the world, but always at risk of losing its balance. It is, in other words, quintessentially American.”

Jende Dikai Jonga dreams of a better life for himself and his girlfriend Neni and son Liomi. Growing up in Limbe, Cameroon, Jonga and Neni have little hope for advancement or even permanent jobs. When Neni becomes pregnant, her father has Jonga imprisoned because Jonga does not have enough money to suit Neni’s father. Sadly, that first child, a girl, dies when she is an infant. Later, Neni gives birth to a son, Liomi.

Jonga saves his money and comes to New York where his cousin Winston, a successful lawyer, helps Jonga find a job. Winston came legally and then joined the army and earned his education. Jonga saves enough to bring Neni and Liomi to New York where he and Neni are married. After driving a cab for a time, Jonga lands a really good job with Winston’s help again with Clark Edwards, an executive with Lehman Brothers. Jonga becomes Edwards’ chauffeur, taking Edwards to work and meetings, but also driving Cindy Edwards to her job and appointments as well as taking their young son Mighty to school, piano lessons, and playdates. Vince Edwards, the elder son, is a student at Columbia, but Jonga occasionally drives him to appointments as well. Thus, Jonga gets to know the whole family including the nanny and housemaid.

Jonga also becomes acquainted with Leah, Clark Edwards’ secretary. Leah continually pumps Jonga for bits of news about where Jonga takes Clark, but Jonga knows enough to steer clear of telling anything about the trips or what he overhears in the car.

Mbue becomes a bit heavy-handed in drawing the characters. Clark and Cindy Edwards have everything they could possibly want, money, beautiful homes, friends in high places, social events, and status, but they are not happy. Enter Jonga and Nemi, struggling to make ends meet in New York and hoping to have a better life for themselves and their son, but they are happy together—at least most of the time.  Inevitably, Clark turns to mistresses, possibly prostitutes, while Cindy drinks too much alcohol and takes prescription drugs.  That part seems a bit clichéd.

Jonga and Neni get caught up in the struggle going on within the Edwards’ marriage. Add to that the coming downfall of Lehman Brothers. What will that do to Jonga’s job? Neni is working as a health aide and going to college; she dreams of being a pharmacist. She studies hard and keeps her grades high. Neni also takes a temporary job at the Edwards’ vacation home. That job proves to be a turning point and one that will figure most importantly in the story later.

On Winston’s advice, Jonga hires Bubakar, a lawyer, to help Jonga and Neni get green cards which would then lead to citizenship. Bubakar promises over and over that he knows how to handle immigration and that he will succeed for Jonga and Neni.

When Lehman does collapse, Jonga does not immediately lose his job as he has feared. Clark gets another job with Barclay’s, so Jonga continues driving  the family to their appointments. Cindy Edwards becomes more and more stressed, causing her to drink and abuse the prescription drugs.

Vince causes his family heartache because he leaves law school to look for truth. He rejects his father’s notion of success and wants to spend his life helping others. To that end, he goes to India. Ironically, he would not be able to make that trip without his father’s money.

Jonga loves America and wants the best for his family. Neni, too, loves the bustle of New York and see her dream of becoming a pharmacist a real one. Because of Cindy Edwards, Clark is forced to fire Jonga, leaving him bereft. Jonga thinks he can get a job driving a cab again, but finds the jobs are really difficult to get now. He takes two and then three dishwashing jobs, working every day and still making less than he made as a chauffeur. With the birth of their daughter, Jonga and Neni have another reason to wish for citizenship. They name their daughter Amatimba Monyengi which means she has returned and happiness.

More bad news arrives from immigration. Jonga is denied his application. Now, with less money coming in and the threat of deportation looming, Jonga and Neni begin to disagree. The two have saved a great deal of money by being careful with what they spend. Finally, Jonga decides the great American experiment is over and that they should return to Cameroon. Neni is adamantly against the return. She comes up with desperate schemes such as divorcing Jonga in order to marry an American, earn her green card, and then divorce and return to Jonga. Then she considers allowing her adjunct professor and his partner to adopt Liomi so Liomi can stay in the US and become a citizen. These schemes are just that, desperate ideas which she does finally discard.

The ending of Behold the Dreamers may surprise readers. Along the way, the story takes a variety of twists and turns. The most expected concern the Edwards family: Clark’s unfaithfulness, Cindy’s drug and alcohol abuse, Vince’s rejection of his parents’ values, and Mighty’s wish for a family like Jonga and Neni’s.  Behold the Dreamers is well worth reading.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews the Second Li Du Mystery

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In a recent post, I wrote about Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. In Jade Dragon Mountain, Hart introduces Li Du, an exiled librarian in 18th century China, who determines the murderer in a remote province just when the Emperor is arriving on a long-planned visit. In fact, Li Du foils plans to harm the Emperor himself, thus receiving pardon from his exile. Readers of Hart’s first book know to expect more from Li Du and The White Mirror does not disappoint. Hart also reintroduces Hamza, the storyteller, who helps Li Du in solving the murder(s).

Still, despite the pardon, Li Du is not ready to return to the Celestial City, so he travels with a group of traders in a caravan through the Tibetan mountains. Upon arrival at Lord Doso’s estate, the caravan encounters a dead monk sitting on a bridge, apparently deceased from a self-inflicted knife wound. However, to add to the horror, above the knife, the monk’s clothes are torn; on the center of his chest, “vivid pigments, beaded with frozen rain, were smeared into the shape of a white circle framed in gold and blue.” The white circle represents a mirror; questions will arise whether the mirror is a reflection or an allusion.

Soon, Li Du and her companions discover the dead monk is Dhamo, a painter, who lives in the temple in the mountains above the estate. Although the murderer has taken great pains to make the death look like suicide, Li Du quickly surmises the death is by murder, not suicide. He quietly goes about finding the clues to prove the murder and expose the murderer, but not before another murder occurs and other mysterious threats befall various members of the household and its guests. To compound the mystery, Li Du has difficulty determining what Dhamo was thinking in the days before his death.

The mirror becomes a symbol as the Chhoshe explains: “the mirror is a symbol of the enlightened mind…. It sees objects as they are, and it reflects them as they are. It does not alter or distort what passes before it, as we alter and distort what passes before our eyes.”

Lumo, an elderly female hermit who lives on the edge of the estate, tells Li Du, “No one knew [Dhamo] well. Dhamo sustained himself on the company of his own mind.” Besides Lumo, Li Du must consider a number of other suspects who might have murdered Dhamo. Doso’s household is large. His wife Kamala is the primary cook and keeps a close eye on her young children. Pema, Doso’s adopted son, will inherit the estate since the oldest son Tashi has been anointed as the Chhoshe or tulku, “a custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerment and trained from a young age by students of his predecessor.” Tashi has returned to the monastery and is uncertain of his plans.

Other members of the household include Yeshe, crippled by an attack by thieves, and befriended by Doso who allows Yeshe to remain on the estate. Yeshe is grateful for the patronage and would give his life to protect Kamala and the children.

Khampa is the leader of the caravan; Li Du has traveled with the caravan from Dayan. Khampa plans to trade tea and other commodities once the caravan gets through the mountains. Already at the estate, Paolo Campo is a priest who hopes to find evidence of past Christians in the area. He becomes convinced the devil is afoot when Dhamo is discovered. Andruk is an interpreter who accompanies Campo. Another mysterious guest is Sera-tsering who gets under Hamza’s skin by undercutting his stories with her own or by giving the ending of one of his stories. Sonam is another visitor, but he is well-known at the estate since Pema is his nephew. A final guest is Rinzen who purpose is also unknown until Li Du reveals all at the end of the story.

Li Du painstakingly uncovers one truth after another and one secret after another. He must depend upon his powers of observation and his innate intelligence in order to put the clues together. At first, everyone is a suspect until Li Du can meticulously sort through everyone’s whereabouts at the time of the murders and also sort out motives. Sonam is the next victim and he dies in a cave where Pema goes to paint beautiful pictures on the walls of the cave, a secret place known only to him and Tashi from their boyhood. Pema does show the cave to his uncle, but Pema is not there when Sonam dies.

Hart weaves into the story politics of 18th century China and Tibet along with information about the true Dali Lama and the false one.

Throughout The White Mirror, Li Du reminisces about his days in the Celestial City and his mentor Shu who was put to death for conspiring against the Emperor. Li Du’s exile results from his association with Shu. Li Du remembers a conversation with Shu: “If all the poets are arrested except those who write on topics that please the Emperor, then our empire’s poetry will be lifeless. No one who is afraid to put the right word into place can write good poetry.” Those lines are meaningful today, not just about writing poetry, but about writing the truth.

Dhamo is a painter who paints on silk for monasteries across the country. Do those paintings have something to do with his death? Is it the place where the painting is going that is important, the person who commissioned it, or the subject matter itself? Li Du must unravel all the clues to determine the truth. The paintings, called thangka, are painted on cotton or silk and depict a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala.

As Li Du unravels the clues, he discovers deception in a variety of people, but is that deception enough to have caused the murder of two men? Khampa has agreed to meet Sonam at the estate in order to purchase fraudulent tax documents that will allow him to keep the money he makes on selling his tea bricks once he gets through the mountain pass. Is that a reason for murder? If so, why would it involve the monk Dhamo? Add to the intrigue the unrest between China and Tibet and the seeking of the true Dali Lama.

Once Li Du has figured out who has committed the murders, he confides in Hamza, most of what he knows. Li Du knows he can trust Hamza and also that discussing the clues with Hamza helps Li Du make the connections clear. Like Hercule Poirot, Li Du gathers all the members of the household and the guests in the kitchen and explains what he has put together from the clues he has discovered.

Li Du keeps readers engaged in the story. The intrigue builds as more people become suspects until Li Du connects the dots and exposes the murderer. The White Mirror is an excellent sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain, and I hope Li Du will have further adventures soon.