Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Book Whisperer Reviews Perfect Little World

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Kevin Wilson published The Family Fang in 2012. I read the book then, but I did not write a blog about it because I was not keeping the blog as faithfully as I do now. Ann Patchett describes The Family Fang as “a comedy, a tragedy, and a tour-de-force examination of what it means to make art and survive your family…. The best single word description would be brilliant.”

The Fang family parents make “strange and memorable things” in the art world—performance art. They create a scene in public and then record the outcome. For example, they dress their son Buster who is nine as a female contestant in the Little Miss Crimson Clover beauty pageant as a way to challenge child beauty pageants. In another performance, Buster and older sister Annie are on a plane with their parents. Over the intercom, the father asks the mother to marry him, only to be turned down. The dysfunction is so great that the parents call the children Child A and Child B. The story is captivating and worth reading.

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Wilson has followed The Family Fang with Perfect Little World. Maureen Corrigan, whose reviews on NPR are a delight, describes Wilson as “such an inventive and witty writer, that it was only after I’d finished Perfect Little World and was no longer caught up in the story, that I realized how many ideas he raises here, how many kinds of family arrangements he scrutinizes, among them biological, chosen, nuclear, communal, broken and bandaged. The utopian Infinite Family Project may be flawed from the get-go, but Wilson’s ‘perfect little world’ of a novel pretty much lives up to its title.”
The premise in Perfect Little World is simple: create a perfect little world. Dr. Preston Grind whose own parents, both psychologists, raised him under their own plan of child rearing. They wrote a book about the experiment with their son: The Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing. Preston’s parents loved and nurtured their son, but they also constantly created discomfort. They wanted to reinforce the notion that “the world was difficult and unpredictable, parental love was unwavering.”

The Grinds contended that “the world itself was harsh and unpredictable…. The failure of many parents was that they tried to create a false and ultimately unhelpful view of the world with regard to their children, seeking at all times to provide comfort and to make life free of complication.” Their method of “constant friction,” they contended, would make children “adaptable, more capable of handling whatever challenge might present itself.” Readers may strongly feel that the biggest challenge Preston has faced has been his own parents.

Preston shows such aptitude that by the time he is eight, his parents conclude their experiment is a success and they spend the rest of their lives touting the method of child rearing as a way to prepare children to be exceptional. Preston himself skips grades, receives a BA from Brown University when he is fifteen. He then receives a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Harvard at twenty.

Dr. Grind, now in his thirties, still looks too young to be an accomplished clinical psychologist. He himself has written a book called The Artificial Village. That book catches the attention of Brenda Acklen, matriarch of the Acklen grocery store chain and billionaire. Brenda met her husband in an orphanage where they both found themselves when their parents could not take care of them. Unlike many stories of orphanages, Brenda and her husband, now deceased, experienced happy times at the orphanage, feeling that all the children there were their brothers and sisters. The children were well-treated, so Brenda’s memories of the time in the orphanage are happy.

Now, Brenda would like to fund an experiment with Dr. Grind at the helm: The Infinite Family. Mrs. Acklen envisioned “a family that is larger than just a husband and wife and their children. I’m talking about a place where everyone is connected and everyone cares for each other equally.” The project will last for ten years, and Mrs. Acklen hopes the friendships and relationships forged over the ten years will carry forward into the rest of the participants’ lives.

Izzie, Isabelle Poole, is fresh out of high school and pregnant by her high school art teacher, Hal Jackson, a member of a prominent and wealthy family. Hal says he loves Izzie and wants to marry her, but he never wants to have children. Izzie, already motherless since her mother’s untimely death, and fatherless in most senses of the word since her father works and then drinks himself into oblivion each evening, wants to have the baby. Because of the Jackson’s connections, Hal’s father being a well-known obstetrician, the family asks Mrs. Acklen to include Izzie and her baby in Dr. Grind’s Infinite Family project.

Dr. Grind and his grad assistants cull through numerous applicants and personal interviews, ultimately choosing nine couples, all expecting their first child around the same time. Izzie also is included as a soon-to-be single mother. Mrs. Acklen tells Dr. Grind that he needs “to make these families understand that we’re doing something important. That [Infinite Family project] is going to make their lives so much better than they would have been otherwise.”

Participants in the project all have separate housing, but the babies are kept in a communal nursery. Parents and the grad assistants take turn caring for the children twenty-four hours a day, rotating duties. The children do not know which parents are theirs since they are all cared for equally by all members of the community. When the children are five, five years into the Infinite Family project, the parents will be revealed to the children and the children will then join their parents in the individual homes.

Participants in the project receive free food and housing and education. The adults can choose what they would like to do. For example, Izzie, fresh out of high school, pursues a degree in art. Julie, already a published author, uses her time to write a new book. Jeremy and Callie grow organic vegetables for the project’s kitchen. All the parents and fellows take turns cooking.

Izzie is particularly fond of working in the kitchen because she has worked in a barbeque café and has learned how to prepare perfect barbeque pork. At the café, she also forged a strong friendship with Mr. Tannehill, the man who prepares the barbeque. In fact, their bond is so strong that Izzie names her son for Mr. Tannehill: Cap. Mr. Tannehill continues to figure in Izzie’s life, becoming a grandfather to Cap.

As readers might expect, the Infinite Family project runs along smoothly for some time, but cracks begin to appear in the relationships. Suffice it to say, these people are human and subject to foibles. Add to those shortcomings the death of Mrs. Acklen who has funded the project. When her granddaughter Patricia takes over, Dr. Grind is dismissed. All the participants receive $100,000 to start their new lives. They have all taken advantage of the educational opportunities offered during their time in the Infinite Family project. The project is ending at year seven.

Readers may or may not be surprised by the ending of the story, but they will feel satisfied that the story has ended with a clear direction toward the future.

Kevin Wilson may seem like an unlikely novelist. He has a master’s degree in computer science, software engineering, and multimedia systems. He has taught college classes and tutored students in computer science. He now teaches fiction at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Learn more about Kevin Wilson at his Web site: http://www.wilsonkevin.com/.

At the following link, listen to Kevin Wilson reading from The Family Fang:

The Book Whisperer Reviews Two Nonfiction Books

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Today’s blog covers two books by Dorothea Brande: Becoming a Writer and Wake Up And Live! After reading Nina George’s Little French Bistro, I researched George before writing a blog post about the novel. Nina George mentions Wake Up And Live! by Dorothea Brande as a book that motivated her to strike out as a writer.

Naturally, I became interested in reading Brande. When I looked her up, I also discovered another book of interest by her: Becoming A Writer.

Becoming A Writer was published in 1934. It contains seventeen chapters and a final word called “In Conclusion: Some Prosaic Pointers.” The book is a practical guide for writers, covering such topics as the difficulty of writing, cultivating a writer’s temperament, and my favorite, “Pick Up Fresh Words.” Brande tells her readers to look for useful words wherever they can find them. However, she also admonishes them to be careful that the words fit the rest of the prose. She says that “a thesaurus is a good tool if it is used as it is meant to be.”

Brande reminds writers to read their own work with fresh eyes. Seek changes that will turn the text into “effective, diversified, vigorous prose.” Brande’s advice throughout the book is practical and sensible. She suggests reading one’s own work as if it were the work of a stranger.

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Brande intersperses the book with writing exercises as well. For example, in Chapter Three, she describes an exercise for the aspiring writer to try. It involves imagining that the writer is standing by a door. Then the would-be writers ask questions of themselves about themselves and then about whoever may be in the room. Brande reminds her readers that the exercise “is a primer lesson in considering oneself objectively.”

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Becoming a Writer provides good, practical advice to writers. One piece of advice I particularly like is that Brande reminds her readers that “would-be writers are bookworms, and many of them are fanatical about books and libraries.”  Published in 1934, Becoming a Writer does end with some advice no longer applicable: “The professional writer should have two typewriters, a standard machine and a portable—preferably a noiseless portable.” Obviously, that advice is outdated, but the rest of Brande’s advice is spot-on.

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In 1936, Dorothea Brande published Wake Up And Live! It has been called “one of the very greatest self-help books ever written.” The book is practical and offers sound advice on finding one’s own happiness and success in life. In fact, The New York Times Book Review calls the book “eminently sensible and practical.”

Brande tells readers, “There is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.” She goes on to remind her readers that “where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier.”

Dorothea Brande was born in Chicago, the youngest of five children. She attended the University of Michigan where she earned her Phi Beta Kappa key; later, she went to the University of Chicago. In her first job, she was a reporter in Chicago and then circulation manager for American Mercury magazine. She became an associate editor of Bookman magazine which later changes its name to American Review. In those pre-internet and pre-online course days, Brande operated a correspondence school for hopeful writers. In addition to Wake Up And Live! and Becoming A Writer, Brande wrote Most Beautiful Lady and Letters to Philippa, and other fiction.

At the link below, find a video of inspirational quotations from Dorothea Brande

http://dai.ly/x55q984

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Winner

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Some books are hard to read. They are not difficult to read because of the vocabulary or syntax, but because of the subject matter. Take Me With You by Catherine Ryan Hyde is one of those books I have found hard to read and hard to stop reading. It was nominated for the Books Sandwiched In book review series for the fall of 2017, but it was tabled at the nomination meeting because copies of the book were not readily available from the library for members of the committee or the reading public at large.

Take Me With You has been re-nominated for consideration for the spring 2018 Books Sandwiched In series at the Central Library since copies are now available. I had the book on my reserve list and it arrived at my library just before the spring nomination meeting.

August Schroeder, a high school science teacher in San Diego, takes his dog Woody on a long summer trip in an RV, planning to go to Yellowstone. Unfortunately, his RV breaks down before August gets out of California. Wes is the tow truck driver and mechanic who takes August and his RV in for repairs. August has budgeted carefully for his trip and has not counted on the extra cost for repairs, especially so early in the journey.

The repairs take several days, so August remains on the grounds living in the RV while waiting or Wes to complete the work. Wes has two sons, Seth, 12, and Henry, 7. The boys’ mother has left some time ago. Wes makes several abortive attempts to ask August something important, but keeps backing away. Finally, August tells Wes to spit it out and let the chips fall where they may. August has told Wes that the trip to Yellowstone is important to him, but that he will not be able to make the trip since the repairs will use up money earmarked for the trip.

Wes offers to complete the repairs free including any parts if August will take Seth and Henry on the trip with him. Finally, Wes explains that he will be spending three months in jail and that he has no one to take care of the boys. If August will take them on the trip, Wes can complete his time and be ready to take the boys back in September before school resumes. Wes will go to jail for drunk driving, not his first offence or his first jail stay. Previously, the boys have stayed with their aunt who tells Wes she will not keep the boys again, thinking he will stay sober. Twice, the boys have gone to foster care. The last time, Henry returned home mute although Wes suspects Henry whispers to Seth.

At first, August is reluctant to take on two young boys, but the more he thinks about the situation, the more he decides that he can care for the boys for the summer. The story becomes more complicated when readers learn that August is going to Yellowstone to spread some of his son Philip’s ashes there. Philip, 19, died two years ago when he was riding to the grocery store with his mother and their car was broadsided by a driver who ran a red light.

Maggie, August’s now ex-wife, had been drinking when the accident occurred, but she was not over the legal limit, and she was not at fault in the accident. Philip’s death causes very different reactions in his parents. His mother continues to drink while August stops drinking and begins attending AA meetings.

Seth overcompensates for his father’s alcoholism and lack of parenting by trying to be overly responsible, especially in caring for Henry. Children of alcoholic parents often become very responsible or very irresponsible. Perhaps because Seth knows Henry needs some stability, Seth becomes responsible, even when he was only seven and Henry was two.

Seth discovers that August attends AA meetings because August has planned for the meetings even before he left San Diego. Seth then asks to attend a meeting with August. August finds an open meeting so that Seth can attend to learn about alcoholism; that’s when Seth starts planning an intervention to hold with Wes upon their return at the end of the summer.

Seth and Henry are good companions; they do everything they can to make August glad he has taken them along. The boys have never been more than fifty miles from their own home, so they are intrigued by the travels. August is a good host and the four of them, August, Woody, Seth, and Henry, gradually become more comfortable with one another. Of course, Woody cheerfully accepts the children as his new playmates from the start.

The trip certainly becomes important to all. August feels Wes has betrayed him because August learns the jail sentence will not end in September in time for the boys to start school. It will end in December, after Christmas. Wes has lied about the number of times he has been jailed as well. These lies leave August feeling a bit bewildered. By now, he cares deeply for Seth and Henry and does not want to see them go into foster care again. The three agree that the boys will live with August go to school in San Diego until their father’s release at the end of December.

Shortly before the trip ends, however, Wes delivers important news: he will be released in September after all and will wear an ankle bracelet restricting him to his property until the end of December. The boys and August are crushed. August knows he can do nothing more than leave the boys with their father despite also knowing Wes will resume drinking as soon as he can and by whatever method he can.

Take Me With You is a moving story. Sadly, August cannot take Wes’ children home to San Diego. Although they promise to keep in touch, the calls are infrequent and then almost stop until Seth is in college and Henry is fifteen. In the eight years between the lifetime trip to Yellowstone and other parks, Wes has continued to drink, frequently staying out all night as he used to do. August has also undergone serious changes; he has developed distal muscular dystrophy which causes him to tire easily. In addition, he has trouble walking and has begun using two canes, knowing the disease will progress into more serious disabilities over time.

This time, Seth and Henry rescue August and Woody, taking them on a summer trip in the old RV. The boys become August’s caretakers, helping him in and out of the RV and making sure he is comfortable as they revisit some parks from their previous trip. What August does not know is that the boys have a big surprise planned for the end of the trip.

Take Me With You is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story. Kirkus Reviews calls Take Me With You “a story about good people doing their best to survive, combined with a message that will cause readers to close the book feeling a bit more hopeful about humanity.”

Catherine Ryan Hyde has written over thirty books. She is an enthusiastic hiker which explains August’s passion for hiking, a love which he passes along to Seth and Henry as they trek through national parks. August does not realize that he is also creating a lifelong desire in Seth to climb mountains. Seth continues the training he begins on the trip with August and learns all he can about being a mountain climber, much to August’s consternation when they take the second trip together eight years later.

Visit Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Web site: www.catherineryanhyde.com.

She also writes a blog at http://www.catherineryanhyde.com/blog/2017/9/1/uk-german-and-australian-readers-september-is-your-month.

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Considers Themes for Book Clubs

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Since I call myself the Book Whisperer and choose books for my long-standing book club and alternate choosing in another small book club, I constantly look for books that will be engage the members. In the large book club, I develop a theme and then find books to fit the theme. Or I find a particular book that I think the book club will enjoy and build a theme around it, choosing other books to fit.

Often, developing the theme is fairly easy. For example, I read The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman and felt the large book club would like it. Now, to build a theme around the book. It centers on the loss of a child or the longing for a child, so I began looking for other books that would fit into the theme. We read three books for each theme, so I was one-third of the way toward my goal.

Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought” link is occasionally helpful in choosing other books. However, that ploy is not always the best one since some of the books in that link will differ markedly from the ones I am choosing.

My searches for novels about longing for a child, or loss of a child took me to The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey and Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline. Those two books completed the quest for the three books.

Recently, Off the Shelf, www.offtheshelf.com, provided me with a number of themes I will be researching in the coming months. For example, author Kate Morton wrote an article for Off the Shelf about novels that explore past and present. In 2009, I had selected The House at Riverton by Kate Morton for the book club. I continued to follow her subsequent novels and enjoyed them, so I felt her selections would be not only interesting, but also intriguing.

Morton suggested The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin, In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl, A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, and The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I have read Ruth Rendell, but not A Dark-Adapted Eye. Rebecca is, of course, a long-time favorite. At any rate, all of the books Morton names would interest the members of the book club, so they have gone into a list.

The next Off the Shelf article to catch my attention was “From Narnia to Castle Leoch 6 Magical Books That Transcend Time.” The books included in that article are The Green Darkness by Anya Seton, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and Time and Again by Jack Finney.

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Alas, I chose a time travel theme some time ago only to find that one of the founding members of the book club intensely dislikes time travel books. The Time Traveler’s Wife and Time and Again were among the books for that theme along with To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. I will explore these books on my own since I have already read three of them including Outlander.

One can choose a theme and then find books to fit the theme. Alternatively, find a book that will engage the book club members and then locate other books to fit the theme. Either method will work to keep members reading, discussing, and enjoying literature of all types.

 

The Book Whisperer is Truly Disappointed

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After a long wait for The Best of Adam Sharp to arrive from the library, I started reading with anticipation. Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, his first two books, are favorites. I especially liked The Rosie Project, so I expected to be as glad to read The Best of Adam Sharp. Sadly, I am extremely disappointed. Bethanne Patrick in The Washington Post sums up the story: “Unfortunately, in The Best of Adam Sharp, Adam’s playlist (iterated in full at the end) can’t cement an ill-considered plot in which music scarcely seems to matter, except as a conceit that brings the protagonists together.”

Suffice it to report that the story is mundane and unbelievable. The characters are lame. They do not elicit sympathy or interest. If you liked The Rosie Project, don’t waste your time on The Best of Adam Sharp.

When Graeme Simsion visited Tulsa to promote The Rosie Project, I went to see him at the Circle Cinema. He is a delightful speaker and friendly. He mingled with the crowd and gladly took pictures with anyone who asked, including me.

I try to expand my reading repertoire by choosing new authors. In two recent cases, I have eagerly awaited new books by favorite authors only to be disappointed. The first was Fredrik Backman’s Beartown which did not interest me at all. In fact, I stopped reading about half way through! The second is Simsion’s The Best of Adam Sharp. For the near future, I should try some new authors!

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews an Oklahoma Story

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My friend and colleague Sally Bright told me about a book club that meets in the Broken Arrow Historical Museum: Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma. The book club is part of the Oklahoma Humanities. From the Oklahoma Humanities Web site: “Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma (LTAIO) offers more than your average book club for adults. With the added benefit of a humanities scholar to inform and broaden discussions, participants are able to explore the human experience through literature in meaningful and thought-provoking ways.

A series consists of 4-5 sessions, each featuring a book from the chosen discussion theme. A humanities scholar opens each session telling about the author’s life, giving historical context to the book, sharing its contemporary relevance, and explaining how the book ties into the overarching theme. Participants then discuss their own thoughts about the book.”

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I missed the first session in the book club when members discussed Leaves in the Wind by LaDonna K. Meinders. I will be joining when the club discusses Hurrah For My New Free Country by Leon Charles Fouquet. Fouquet’s twin granddaughters Rosalie Fouquet Davis and Mathilde Fouquet Ruggles compiled and edited their grandfather’s journals which he kept from the time he was a young boy. The journals began as gifts from his mother, and Fouquet developed the lifelong habit of recording his experiences.

Leon Fouquet was born in France on 12 December 1849, an only child. When his father became ill and had to be hospitalized, Leon’s mother sent him to live with his uncle and two aunts in Paris. In 1860, Leon’s father died, so Leon’s mother came to Paris to live also. Leon had four years of schooling. He describes the teasing he experienced. The other boys called him “Red Squirrel” and teased, “Go climb a tree” because Fouquet means squirrel.

Because schooling after age ten required that parents pay for the child to attend, Leon ended his formal education and became apprenticed to “a firm to learn the trade of packer, box, and trunk maker.” Instead of teaching him the trade, though, the boss sent Leon throughout the city delivering goods. As a result, he earned his salary and tips. He gave the salary to his mother, but he saved the tips for himself.

Leon was quite industrious from an early age. He was a quick study and had a pleasant disposition, so he advanced in all the jobs he took. He was also careful with his money and saved as much as he could. At first, he thought he wanted to become a doctor; then he decided he would like to go to military college and travel the world. His mother and aunts objected violently to this new ambition. His family told Leon stories about “the new wild country of America.” They persuaded him in1868 to go to America to seek his fortune. Aunt Francoise and Uncle Gaillard lived near Leavenworth, Kansas, so Leon booked passage on a ship to New York and then would travel to Kansas to join his aunt and uncle.

Readers follow Leon on his trip to the US and then on to Kansas to his aunt and uncle’s. He was helpful to his aunt and uncle, always willing to work hard. Leon worked many kinds of jobs over the years. Those jobs included freighter, ferryman, farmer, storekeeper, and postmaster. He remained cheerful and optimistic despite economic downturns and disappointments in various businesses. Even when he did work for promised pay that did not materialize, Leon took the disappointment in stride and carried on.

He describes buffalo hunts in Kansas along with meeting people of all sorts. He also meets Native Americans, some of whom he feared; most often, however, he found ways to communicate with the Native Americans. He met the Foucher family, who had also immigrated from France. Their daughter Mathilde quickly caught Leon’s eye. Leon and Mathilde were married 6 November 1875 in Wichita. By this time, Leon’s mother had come to the US also.

Leon and Mathilde’s first son, Charles, arrived on 5 October 1876 and daughter, Emily Marie, was born 5 July 1878. Their second daughter, Rose Modeste was born 1 October 1879 followed by Alice Renee on 27 January 1881. Sadly, Alice died the following August. Blanche arrived on 17 January 1883, but died in July. Hermance Pearl was born 27 February 1886. Leon Eugene, a second son, arrived on 18 February 1890. Leon wrote of the happiness of having his sons and three daughters and the heartbreak of losing three infant girls: “In these last five years, we have learned the meaning of joy and grief—life and death.”

Leon was an inventor as well as entrepreneur. Because two of the infants died during summer heat, he invented a cooling device that would “help cool the rooms for the feeble and sick.” It could even dispense medication through the water in a reservoir. Because of that invention, he became a member of the American Inventors Association. Physicians invited Leon to attend the meeting of the South Kansas Medical Society where the doctors endorsed his cooling invention. Although Leon received a patent on the device and it was manufactured, he says he “did not prosper from it.”

After living in Kansas and very briefly in Rich Hill, MO, Leon and his family moved to Oklahoma. They settled near Chandler at a place they called Dreamland Fruit Farm. They planted three thousand apple trees and six thousand peach trees. They also had twelve acres of grapes and six in berries. Below is a picture of early Chandler about the time Leon and his family lived in the area.

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Leon and Mathilde celebrated their golden wedding on 6 November 1925 with a party that included most of the adult children and grandchildren. The seven children produced a large number of grandchildren. Leon and Mathilde’s descendants are spread across the US. The Fouquets’ story represents one of the many about hard-working immigrants who came to a young, free country and made a good life for themselves and their families.

Library Journal says of Hurrah For My New Free Country that Leon Fouquet’s “optimism never flagged.” The review also goes on to report that “a few famous names slip into the story, but [Hurrah For My New Free Country] is first and foremost a fine example of an average pioneer’s narrative.”

Dreamland Fruit Farm is gone, but Sparks Vineyard and Winery located in Sparks, OK, credits Leon Fouquet and his family for paving the way to vineyards in OK.

The next book in The Oklahoma Experience: In Our Own Words include The Cherokee Strip by Marquis James, On Coon Mountain by Glen Ross, Flight from Innocence by Judson Jerome.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite

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My friend and colleague Lu Ann introduced me to MC Beaton a few years ago. Since then, I have read both Hamish McBeth and Agatha Raisin mysteries by Beaton. I have not delved into her many romance titles, but I am sure they are great fun as well.

On a recent trip into a bookstore, I found Dishing the Dirt, an Agatha Raisin mystery I had not read, so I purchased it along with several other books. I took Dishing the Dirt on a recent trip. It is a good companion for a plane ride. Agatha never disappoints. Fans know to expect Agatha to discover a body, uncover the clues, and solve the mystery while the police bumble along trying to figure out what has happened and why.

Of course, Agatha still looks for Mr. Right and lives next door to her ex, the hunky writer, James Lacey. Dishing the Dirt involves the death of Jill Davent, a so-called psychologist who has moved to Agatha’s village. A large number of people instantly become suspects, including Agatha at the top of the list because the village gossip overhears Agatha threaten Jill if Jill “dishes dirt” on Agatha’s early years of growing up with alcoholic parents in a poor neighborhood. Agatha would like to keep her past a secret which, of course, makes Agatha’s past fair game in Jill’s distorted brain.

Other villagers are also possible suspects since Jill has been blackmailing or has tried to blackmail any number of them after they have revealed secrets during their sessions with Jill. Sir Charles Fraith, Agatha’s friend and sometime lover, shows up with astonishing regularity. Often, he arrives just in the nick of time despite Agatha’s ambivalent feelings about him. More than once, Sir Charles has saved Agatha’s life and it happens again in Dishing the Dirt.

Readers also know to look for Toni and Simon, Agatha’s employees who help her with cases, large and small. Simon continues to be in love with the beautiful Toni, but he suddenly finds a new love in policewoman Ruby, an ambitious sort who is using Simon to get information to advance her career. Then Ruby ends up dead in her car in the lane by Agatha’s home. This death adds another layer to the investigation.

I imagine Agatha’s village home to look like the picture below. Agatha, who does not cook, often goes to the local pub. I can imagine her in one like the one pictured below.

Of course, we also see Mrs. Bloxley, the vicar’s wife, who remains to be a calming influence on Agatha. Mrs. Bloxley is kind and always has a level head, so she has become an effective sounding board for Agatha as she tries to figure out who has killed Jill and who is trying to kill Agatha herself.

Other villagers are murdered, so the mystery deepens. Who is the killer and what will stop the madness? Agatha keeps working steadily turning up more and more clues until she finally has the killer’s name worked out.

The New York Journal of Books reminds readers “with Dishing the Dirt, MC Beaton proves that “once you meet Agatha Raisin, you’ll keep coming back.” That’s true. The stories are great fun and Agatha lives to solve yet another mystery. Beaton’s Web site is www.MCBeaton.com.

The Book Whisperer Is Saddened

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I began reading The Lauras by Sara Taylor with great anticipation. The story opens with Alex listening from her bedroom to yet another loud and endless argument between the parents. Suddenly, all goes quiet. Then Alex’s mother opens Alex’s bedroom door, and says, “Get up, Alex. Now.” Still dressed for bed, Alex finds her “muddy-soled hiking boots” and jumps into the backseat of the car. Alex’s gender is kept from the readers. I decided Alex is female, but other readers may choose to see the character differently.

Thus begins a journey across Virginia to Florida to California. The Atlanta Journal reviews The Lauras this way: “Taylor’s resplendent prose evokes the emotional journey of making peace with the past, the sanctuary that is driving in a car with the windows down, radio at full blast and the sense of timelessness inherent in days measured only by fuel and miles.” If only that were true.

Taylor certainly is a talented writer. She writes, “The clouds were pink. We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning, before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” Later, mother and daughter stop and Alex observes that “the sky was white over a whiter beach and even whiter breakers, all tinged a faint blue from the tint of the windshield glass. Out of the dark, foaming ocean a sun was rising, massive and red.” The descriptions evoke the place for the readers with clarity.

Early on, the police stop Ma because Alex’s dad has reported that Ma has taken his daughter. Ma tells the police that she is not married to Alex’s father and that his name is not on the birth certificate; therefore, he has no rights. The police let them go.

Alex’s mother has never shared much of her background with Alex. On this trip, Alex discovers much about her mother that has been unknown. Along the way, Alex also learns about herself. The trip is difficult; the two have little money and Ma must find a job as quickly as possible. In each town, as they move steadily, Ma finds one and sometimes two jobs. She also finds them apartments that are appallingly alike regardless of where they are. The first apartment was “above a little grocery store with a porch and a staircase up to it out back, beside the dumpsters. It was one room with cheap pressboard furniture: a kitchen table with chairs, an awful couch, and a bunk bed; there was a hotplate in a corner and no TV,”

For those who have read Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, the living conditions Alex and Ma encounter on their journey are achingly familiar regardless of what state they enter. Ma’s jobs are as waitress and bartender, all low-paying jobs that require most of her time. Thus, Alex spends a great deal of time alone.

Readers soon learn the Lauras represent a series of girls Ma has met as she moved from foster home to girls’ home to foster home when she was a teenager. Ma tells Alex about the Lauras, a bit at a time, bleeding the stories out as they ride through the country.

Alex finally realizes the places Ma takes her are part of a greater plan as Ma comes to terms with her past, dragging Alex along for the ride.

I did not like the story despite the fact that Taylor writes well and despite the praise The Lauras has received in reviews. The story is full of child abuse, starting with Ma as she is shuttled from one foster home or girls’ home to another and including Alex in the next generation. I find the story difficult to read because of the child abuse.

The New York Journal of Books sums up The Lauras: “This book describes the lifestyles and realities of those at the bottom on the economic pile—those on the run, sleeping in cars and working in motels, who shop at the Salvation Army and drink endless coffee refills at greasy roadside diners—with great empathy, giving complexity and dignity to those often ignored or caricatured.” I can agree with that description.

The Lauras is Sara Taylor’s second book; her first is The Shore. Taylor grew up in rural Virginia. She earned a BFA from Randolph College and followed that with an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia where she continues to work toward a Ph.D. in censorship and fiction. She is married and lives in Reading with her husband when she is not in Norwich working on her degree. At her Web site, readers will find links to additional fiction by Taylor:
https://sarataylor.co/.

I received a free copy of The Lauras by Sara Taylor for this review from Blogging for Books: http://www.bloggingforbooks.com/.