Sunday, October 14, 2012

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS – Ernest Hemingway

OOPS! While cleaning out my computer files I found this review from March that I forgot to post. Dang-it I hate it when that happens. So belatedly here is my review of a classic Hemingway.

I believe the Jay county Public Library book discussion group may have had one of its best discussions ever! Four of us had read this Hemingway book before and two of us when we were teens. This group enjoys picking up a classic every so often and even though as a group this wasn't our favorite we were all actually quite happy to have read it or reread it.

Let me begin by saying that my morning walking partner Susie and I both read this as teens and we both loved it then. So we spent some mornings reminiscing and analyzing why this time around we didn't “love” it. To make a long discussion short, I would say that when we were teens and being naive we found the love story romantic and believable and perhaps the shocking violence was exciting. Also both of us no doubt had been exposed to Hemingway in our English class anthologies and could feel grown up reading a classic which we could understand and didn't take too long.

The whole book takes place over a four day period in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Robert Jordan, an American professor has joined the International Brigades in order to aide the republican guerrillas fight the nationalists. He has been sent to lead a band to dynamite a significant bridge outside of Segovia. With the guerrillas is a beautiful young woman whom they rescued from a derailed train. The band is loosely held together by Pablo and his wife Pilar.

Over the three days and nights there is unrest among the guerrilla band members and discord with a neighboring band. Theft and murder ensue, and yet there is time for Jordan to become romantically involved with the young woman Maria. Now, there is no description of love making, even though you know it is going on and no swearing because in his infinite wisdom Hemingway substituted every expletive with phrases like, “go defile yourself,” or “I will obscenity in the milk.” This to me was somewhat annoying. I found it humorous that no expletives were allowed in this book while we read many pages of decapitations, mutilations, rapes, and tortures. I wondered how many novels in the 1930s were written like this. Sad to say in all my library classes we did not cover that.

One benefit from rereading this book was that I was prodded to refresh my memory about the Spanish Civil War and Hemingway history. Also, once again as I read the last chapter I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to get to the end of the action.

SWAMPLANDIA – Karen Russell

I must confess a bit of trouble starting this one and I kept hoping it would move faster until achieving the halfway point when suddenly I had to finish it. Two different book clubs I attend have discussed this title recently forcing me to think about the writing, characters, and plot in more detail thus adding to my appreciation.


In the Everglades of Florida lives the unusual Bigtree family. They own and operate an amusement park featuring alligator wrestlers. To say the least the life of this family is not conventional. They are messy, eccentric, very unusual, and happy. When the featured wrestler and matriarch Hilola dies of cancer, the oldest sibling, Kiwi runs away, and Dad leaves his two girls, Ava who is thirteen and Osceloa who is 16, alone for a few weeks in an effort to acquire some funds to keep the park afloat. Troubles multiply, danger lurks in the swamp, Dad doesn't come home.

The heart of the book is about the sisters Ava and Osceola alone in Swamplandia but there are rich and meaty chapters about Kiwi. The seventeen year old has taken a job at a rival park, The World of Darkness, based on the Book of Revelation from the Bible and Dante's Inferno. He wants desperately to be able to make enough to send home finances and also to go to college. Kiwi is my favorite character. His home-schooled education has not prepared him to navigate a world he little understands. Thankfully he is very bright and also acquires friends who help him.

Back in Swamplandia Ava struggles to take care of the park and alligators. When a government abandoned dredge drifts close by Osceola concocts fantasies of a ghost lover and one day disappears into the swamp to be with him. Soon an unusual stranger called the Birdman appears and offers to help Ava find her lost sister in the under world. The two embark on a surreal and dark journey. The writer's style is particularly engaging in these chapters. One wonders while reading what is real and what is fantasy and if the Birdman is a good character or not. These chapters contain a bit of swamp history too about the Melaleuca project in Florida of the late 1800s, dredging of the Everglades, and the killing of the Seminole people.

It was enjoyable to live with this quirky family for a bit. Visiting the grandfather in his nursing home comprised of docked houseboats was surprising and shocking as well. I found myself well able to see their house, the gator wrestling arena, and to visualize the museum. It was disappointing to not have more of a story for the Red Seth though.

A creative piece, not at all what I expected but worth the read. I found it artful, fantastical, gothic, and often funny. The book began with a quote from Through the Looking Glass and I did feel like I was down the rabbit hole while immersed in Swamplandia.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

MADE FOR GOODNESS – Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu

Alas, I have been lax in reporting my reading. Actually months have gone by and the stack on my desk of books read to blog about is getting very tall. This was Zion Lutheran's First Tuesday class choice for the month of April. Also my friend Paula has read all or most of Desmond Tutu's works and named her youngest son in honor of him. Therefore I was looking forward to this book and I wasn't disappointed. Besides the fact that Pastor Mark can make any discussion fascinating, there was enough food for thought to make our group into an animated sharing session.


I won't go into the merits of this Nobel-winning holy man, you can look all of that up for yourself if you need to do so. I just want to talk about this book. The premise of this book is that humans are made in the image of God and therefore are full of goodness, love, and creativity. The important thing then is to see ourselves this way and to strive to be good servants, to care, have empathy, compassion, love our enemies, and work hard in this life to change things for the better.

Tutu interweaves vignettes from his life, many which are painful and ugly but also many that are beautiful and inspiring to make all his points. My favorite chapter might be #4 “Free to Choose.” Along with quoting Ghandi, “be the change we want to see,” and citing many times when making choices isn't easy Tutu assures the reader that Making good and right choices is often far from easy. God respects our right to choose and isn't going to send angels down on wings to make it clear but we are charged with doing the best we can and living with blessings and consequences of our choices.

Chapter 8 is really good too (well they are all good) “Why Does God Let Us Sin?” This chapter reminds me a bit of some of the work in Phillip Gulley's book If Grace is True. Like Gulley, Tutu reminds us that all humans are God's beloved children, not only Christians but all people. We need to face the fact that even our worst enemies may not burn in hell. God calls us to goodness but we may choose not to go. Conscience plays a big part and we should listen to these whispers from God. When he says, “Did you have to do/say that?” “Was that necessary?” “Couldn't you say a kind word here?” “Forgive.” “Give.”

In Chapter 9 Tutu talks about helping others heal by offering the “listening ear.” We don't have to have the answers or fix the problems, we just need to listen. There are plenty of other great lessons here but those are my favorites. This is a one afternoon read but one that I will want to turn to again and to pass along to a valued friend.

The Tutu's speak from experience with love, wisdom, and true goodness. I can only hope to be like them someday. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

THE PHILOSOPHER'S APPRENTICE - James Morrow


Do you totally understand your own moral compass? Does anyone? Why do we all see morality differently? I certainly think about morals and try constantly to evaluate my beliefs. While I do try to stick by my beliefs and back them up with faith and facts I also have very close friends who feel that my compass is “off” so to speak. They believe that their brand of morality is better, cleaner, or more Christian than mine. Obviously I don't believe them but I also know that as I have aged I have changed my compass somewhat and probably will again, but so might they.

Mason Ambrose is a Darwinian ethicist who has read about, studied, researched, and grappled with morality and written a book intended to be his doctoral thesis. When he fails to complete that process he takes a job on a remote island for a reclusive millionairess, Edwina Sabacthani. He is hired to tutor Sabathani's teenage daughter who apparently has amnesia to the pint of being a tabula rasa or blank slate. His job is to develop in her psyche a moral compass. Soon Ambrose discovers that Sabacthani and her assistant Vincent Charnock have been experimenting with genetically engineering plants, animals, and humans. They have created by artificial means three “daughters” for Edwina who is herself terminally ill. The girls were created by inserting DNA into donor eggs. The fetuses were then aged in a special vat or ontogenerator which speedily advanced them to the desired age after which each child's brain was advanced with the use of programing from a “dunce cap.” Donya is chronologically aged to five, Yolly to eleven, and Londa is 15.

Taking note of the following quotation as a bit of foreshadoing, it was clear early on to me that the daughters Sabathani would not end up well:
In recent years I'd seen Max Crippen's sculpture of the Crucifixion rendered entirely in LEGOs, Valerio Caparelli's Norman Rockwell-style painting of God inseminating the Virgin Mary on their first date, and Leonard Steele's rock opera set in the Vatican's luxury suite for retired pedophile priests, but what Edwina and Charnock had achieved was sacrilege of a wholly different order, blasphemy beyond the meaning of the word. (pp.87-8 of the paperback)
Upon Edwina's death the girls are assigned guardians and trust funds. Ambrose heads off to begin his own life. Londa and Yolly create an empire for helping women including a multi-million dollar complex housing lawyers, medical consultants, and activists of all kinds working on women's social issues. Ambrose and his wife, Natalie face serious health issues leading them to choose abortion over endangering Natalie's life. Ultra religious fanatics join forces to destroy the Sabacthani empire. Vincent Charnock becomes depressed and reclusive from guilt about what he has done with the Sabacthanis and sells his creation machine to the religious fanatics. Soon populating this book are aging creatures made from aborted fetuses, animatronic non-humans, and “created” people called immaculoids who are programmed to accomplish specific tasks.

This book pretty much satirizes everything, religion, atheism, pro-choice, pro-life, capitalism, socialism you name it. Actually, I think that is the point. All philosophies, even those based on goodness or philanthropy, if allowed to reach the fevered pitch of radicalism, become not only ineffective but harmful. The plot is complicated, the characters are colorful, and one must pay attention to detail. But I must say I really liked The Philosopher's Apprentice very much. We discussed it last evening at the Jay County Public Library book group and I did not hear anyone say they did not like it. Many said it was a hard read but worth it. It behooves me to say I did have to look up references to mythology, philosophy, vocabulary, and some people referred to. Not as smart as I thought I was apparently.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

WHEN GOD TALKS BACK – T. M. Luhrmann


Reading this book was instigated by a discussion at our church book group. We were reading Desmond Tutu's new book (this will be in a separate blog) and discussing prayer when we started talking about how some of our friends and coworkers speak about prayer differently than we do and that sometimes we don't quite understand how to respond. Then this book appeared on NPR so my friend and I decided to look it over. To clarify – we don't think there is anything wrong with thinking or doing things differently than we do, but we want to understand why certain denominations do and say the things they do that seem so different from what we have grown up believing. Understanding is the key. When a few times that I have tried to gently ask a person who attends a charismatic or fundamentalist type church questions the response was often a defensive quip like, “It's in the Bible just read it.” That is not really helpful to broaden understanding, so to a book we went.

Reading the first several chapters of this book was very enjoyable. The history of the evangelical or charismatic movement across the nation was interesting. However, the author is an anthropologist and the book soon began to feel like a doctoral dissertation that became a book and I began to drown in information too technical for me. Do you know the difference between apophatic and kataphatic prayer? I read about it and still don't get all of the nuances. The best parts of the book for me were the footnotes.

The author was kind and respectful towards her study subjects. Too often those who don't agree with their subjects end up making fun of them and that is not what I was looking for. I wanted background and explanation without opinion or criticism. Luhrmann seemed professional, sincere, and careful.

Lurhmann explained that perhaps the biggest difference between these types of sects or denominations and those I grew up with is that they have made the break from academic Bible study such as we know. They do not care so much about the historic background of the texts. They are reading them as messages specifically to the reader. Mainstream denominations insist that pastors be educated, that it is important to study who wrote the original texts, why and for whom they were written, how many times and into what languages they were translated, and also discussions of what they mean for us today.

Reading about how differently we all view prayer was most enjoyable and educational. It was so interesting to read about training the mind, de-centering, reaching an almost a trancelike state in order to feel that God is talking to one directly. However, that same chapter offers up stories of girls praying about hair styles, what color to polish their toenails, and talking about God as being their “boyfriend” which I did not enjoy. But still, it is good to see that when people talk about  how they pray and about God being beside them and talking to them they are sincere and simply view the world differently than some others. Luhrmann covered worship demonstrations also like swaying, waving of uplifted hands, crying, and shouting during services. I would have to say that I am not comfortable with those things but it is good for me to read about why it is done and to be understanding.

When Luhrmann discussed demon possession, tongue speaking, and faith healing she did so with reverence except for one little humorous interjection. I am an introvert so those things will probably never be on my agenda. But, if that makes some people feel closer to God then that is what they need. There is so much more in this scholarly book like; spiritual direction sessions, God as therapist, singing as prayer, the feel good blurries, emotional cascading, and becoming a prayer warrior that I simply don't have time for right now. But if you want to understand these things and have not grown up with it this book is for you.

If I am to be entirely honest I would have to say that it is comforting to me also to learn that this movement is relatively a new thing beginning around the mid to late 1800s. The reason that is comforting to me is that since for almost 2,000 years Christians worshipped without it so... I'm ok.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

THE MARRIAGE PLOT – Jeffry Eugenides


Just finished this book today. Muncie Kennedy Library group discussed it last Thursday but I couldn't make it so I put off reading it. Having previously read Middlesex which I loved and Virgin Suicides which I did not, I was looking forward to trying another by Eugenides. Once I started it this past Sunday afternoon I had a hard time putting it down. It was so exciting to start a book where all the characters are readers and everyone is enamored of higher education. There are so many references to books, and authors, and studies it felt like being young and in college again. My friend, Mike who also attends the Kennedy group said that he and another group member didn't really click with this book but the rest did. Upon finishing it I will tell you that I was so entranced during the first half that it was rating it four to four and a half stars out of five and numerous sticky notes were everywhere. Then... yesterday I got to about the middle of the chapter “Pilgrims. From there to the end there are only five sticky notes. The last few chapters became tedious but the book ended with a very good and satisfying conclusion.

Eugenides does not disappoint when it comes to the overlapping and interesting plot, great expressive language, and clear character development. In this book he takes the reader through a roller coaster of emotion with a bi-polar/manic-depressive man. The book itself is not so much about him but the two other people whose lives are closely connected to his. Having known a few bi-polar people, the examination up close of the illness as presented in this novel by Eugenides was fascinating and as far as I could tell fairly portrayed.

In 1982 Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell become freshmen at Brown University. Mitchell is a shy, not sure what he wants to do with his life, religious scholar and is almost immediately smitten with Madeleine. Madeleine is a beautiful, brilliant, English major studying semiotics, and through the eyes of Mitchell perfect. Leonard is a large, ruggedly handsome, promiscuous, and charismatic philosophy major. You can see where this is going romantically. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, and Leonard mostly loves himself.

My friend Mike talked about this novel being in the “deconstruction” style and so it is. The first chapter starts with graduation day and then works backwards through the college years of the three main characters. The college chapters are great, full of interesting situations, wild parties, a lot of weed smoking, and getting high. But also of wonderful conversations about books, authors, theories, ideas, and philosophy. One of my favorite pages is 57 when Leonard and Madeleine talk about becoming famous and Leonard says, “My goal in life is to become an adjective.” They then try to decide if they want their last names to be made adjectives ending in esque, ish, or ian. I myself wondered if my last name of Dann could become Dannish, Dannesque, or Dannian as in, “Oh that is so Dannesque!” when someone says something profoundly articulate.

By senior year Madeleine has let her life be ruled by Leonard and Mitchell has come to the conclusion that he is destined to always be her friend and never her lover and he vows to move on and get over her eventually. One of my favorite Mitchell thoughts is when he sees Madeleine with her lover and, “In Madeleine's face was stupidity Mitchell had never seen before. It was the stupidity of all normal people. It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable.” I found that to be a thought I myself have proposed to my own children about people who are too pretty. Perhaps that is why I identified with Mitchell? I really enjoyed his character. The Mitchell chapters were interesting and full of adventure and it was fun to watch him evolve into a man ever searching for real meaning in life.

By contrast after graduation the Leonard and Madeleine chapters devolve into madness and care-taking, stress and uncertainty. Leonard is not a likeable character and Madeleine became tiresome. Also I hate to admit it but it became apparent a man wrote this book in the descriptions of the love making that were way too graphic, weird, and actually not erotic. The description of bi-polar behavior, the warning signs, the treatments, the effects of the drugs, and the behavior modifications family members must deal with were expertly worked into the chapters taking these two through their first year out of college and attempting to start a life together. Some of the situations did make my heart race with worry and I had to hurry through to find out what terrible things happened to Leonard during his breaks with reality. A section I did like was when Madeleine examines her love of 19th century classics by authors like Austin and Bronte and goes off to a conference where she meets new friends and decides on a future path for herself. I then had hope that she would dump Leonard and fly on her own. Oh well.

After graduation Mitchell and his friend Larry took off on an adventure across Europe. Mitchell's plan was to end up in India volunteering for Mother Teresa which he did but not before a bit of a side trip involving a homosexual encounter. Mitchell ends up back in New York at the same time as Madeleine and Leonard soon after another of Leonard's psychotic breaks. The ending chapters I must say were great. I was afraid things were going to end up too neatly tied up and with everyone happy ever after (I hate it when that happens). There was an ending and closure and it was good.



Friday, March 9, 2012

IN THE WOODS – Tana French


My friend, Sherry recommended this book more than a year ago. As my hand walked across my shelf of unread books many times I kept not choosing it. Why? I have no idea. But last month during group at the Kennedy Library in Muncie, Indiana a delightful young woman mentioned it and said she would be reading all of Tana French's books which spurred me to go home and pick it up. It does have a sticker on the front announcing it as an Edgar Award Winner (2007) so I had a hint it might be a good mystery.

It certainly had the creep factor going. This is one of those plot within a plot books. Rob Ryan, is a police investigator for the murder squad in Ireland. He is also lucky enough to have as his partner his best friend, Cassie. When Rob and Cassie are assigned to investigate a murder of a young dancer it takes them to the very village where Rob grew up in Knocknaree, just outside of Dublin. Twenty years earlier as 12-year-olds, Rob and his two friends went into the local woods to play and the only one to ever return was Rob who cannot remember anything of that day. While investigating the bludgeoning death of Katy Devlin a young, bright, pretty, and lovable 12-year-old girl of Knocknaree, Rob stumbles upon some old evidence and begins to think he can put together the pieces of the disappearances of twenty years before. And there the plots get mingled.

Along with the creepiness of the past unexplained crime, there are so many sad characters in the present. Those left in Knocknaree who cannot move on or move away for fear of not being there in case their lost loved one returns and those affected by the loss of a lovely young girl whom everyone seemed to adore. The Devlin's are devastated by the loss of their child. Mrs. Devlin is in deep depression and there is something odd about the oldest girl who is extremely over-protective of their other daughter who is mentally handicapped. Rob himself is a sad person. He relives parts of his childhood in an attempt to try to remember more. The loss of his two best friends as a child haunts him continually. It's also really sad that he can't seem to have a lasting relationship, not even with his own best friend.

There are many characters and many suspects in both stories. The only thing is, I pretty much new early on who murdered Katy Devlin, or at least who had instigated the crime. I don't want to be too hard on this book because there were parts of it I really liked and I do think this author has promise and would consider reading another of her books. But, I found a lot of the angst between Rob and Cassie a bit contrived and overdone. Some of the description, especially of police procedure became tedious for me but a lot of crime novel readers like that so I tried to overlook it. This 400+ page book could have used (IMHO) some better editing and been half as long and a better read. But I did like the mixing of the crimes, and the characters seemed real to me with normal emotions. Except for Rob, he is way too easily seduced by Katy's older sister. At his age and with his experience he should have been a lot better at dealing with her and recognizing her deception. Rob is just too dense for me to like. Cassie is much more perceptive and tells Rob what he needs to look for, and is right every time. But he never listens to her! I also didn't like it that more isn't revealed about the old crime. After all his investigating, Rob gets no closer to solving that mystery. Hopefully in another of her books he gets closure.

THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE – Alan Bradley


Once in a while I pick up a book simply because the cover calls out to me. I always told my students not to rely on covers to choose and yet... The beautiful shaded jadite green of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie caught my eye. Coupled with a delightfully dead very black crow with postage stamp stuck on its bill shouted to my psyche to take it home, which I did from the used book store for a mere $8. I reasoned that even if I didn't like it the book would serve to inject a punch of color to one of my many bookshelves. Who could not be captured by any book whose first sentence on the back cover contains the words “wickedly brilliant?” Also listen to this first line on the first page! “It was as black in the closet as old blood.” The last thing I checked before heading to the store front was the author info since I wasn't familiar with the name. I read there the sentence, “He lives in British Columbia with his wife and two calculating cats.” Hooked, I was.

This mystery comedy is set in and around a crumbing old mansion, Buckshaw in the 1950 English countryside. In this mansion are living the de Luce's, an aging widower, three daughters, and a butler/caretaker older man. Mrs. Mullet, the cook housekeeper comes and goes each day. The sisters, Daphne, Ophelia, and Flavia are at odds with each other as most siblings are when young. Eleven year old Flavia de Luce is the youngest the protagonist of the tale and the narrator. Flavia is extremely precocious, intelligent, and aspires to one day be a famous scientist. In the attic of the old house is a very elaborate chemistry lab left by an uncle and once used by Flavia's mother, Harriet de Luce before her mysterious demise on a far off expedition years ago. There Flavia spends hours studying, writing, and plotting revenge on her sisters. Her speciality is poisons.

Introduce, a mysterious stranger, a dead bird, a rare postage stamp, and a dead man in the cucumber patch. Of course the local authorities are bumblers of the case and Flavia begins to investigate the crime getting herself into danger and complications. Yes, there is silliness, but it is a one afternoon lark of a read. I am thinking precocious preteens and early teen readers could get hooked on this series if offered to them in the right way. Kids who enjoyed the Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events books might move on to this series particularly if they like a their humor mixed with the macabre, and a bit of fancy language tossed in. I certainly don't know many teens or preteens that know the meaning of philatelic (study of stamps and postal history), vicissitude (state of being changeable), copacetic (very satisfactory), or boulevardier (man-about-town). But then most adults I know don't either. I don't know if they keep them there forever, but there was a really nice trailer on the Amazon page for this book called, “Take a Tour of Buckshaw with Flavia de Luce” that is fun. Also there is the Flavia de Luce website http://www.flaviadeluce.com/ and I see that three more books in this series have already been released.

Alan Bradley is Canadian. I guess I have to say I haven't read many canadian authors. Oh well, should I put this book here on the shelf between Pilgrim's Progress and My Collected Stories by H.G. Wells? Think I will...done. 



WHAT'S THE LEAST I CAN BELIEVE AND STILL BE A CHRISTIAN? - Martin Thielen


First Tuesday book discussion with Pastor Mark Strietelmeier always lasts well over an hour and we finally, after two hours, had to just decide it was late and time to disband. This was a great read for us. Mark doesn't pick the books we read, it is a group decision and we don't always like what we pick. This was a suggestion and I wasn't sure it would be “my cup of tea” as referring to the title I thought it would be shallow or vapid. Oops, mea culpa. The title actually originated from a question Thielen was asked by a friend of his who was/is an atheist. It occurred to him that for an unbeliever or the questioning one this was a great question which lead to some deep thinking and resulted in this delightful book written in an easy conversational style. It was in actuality quite affirming for me and I would venture to say for most, if not all of the attendees last Tuesday.

The author is a Methodist pastor of Lebanon First United Methodist Church in Tennessee. He has several pages dedicated to his own faith journey and descriptions of how and why he evolved from being a fundamentalist to being a biblical scholar and then to becoming a pastor of a church in the “mainstream” Christian community of today. But the meat of the book is divided into two parts; the things you don't need to believe, and the things that are essential to believe. Sounds simple, no?

The first half of the book covering all the things that a Christian person does NOT have to accept was presented in such a kind and caring way that it gives one the relief of knowing he or she is not alone in thinking that it is not necessary to accept all of the rightist-fundamental rhetoric that is so popular right now. Thielen covers all his points in detail and with historic background. When I read that the concept of the rapture is not Biblical or historically Christian I felt much relief for not even knowing about it until the 1980s. What a joy to be told by a preacher and scholar that it is perfectly alright for me/us to not accept any of the following; inerrancy of all the Bible texts, God causes tragedy for retribution, women should be subservient, evolution is heresy, you cannot doubt, you do not need to care about the environment, the rapture, only Christians go to Heaven, God loves only straight people, the Bible should be taken literally, and last but not least... its ok for one to be loud, obnoxious and judgmental with doctrine. Thank you Pastor Thielen!

The second half of the book is dedicated the good news about following Jesus. What it means to be the ones who focus on the Gospels, spread the Word, give and accept grace. When reading the second half I felt validated but also I saw that any person reading this book could see that there is a real and healthy alternative to following a path of close-minded and judgmental religion. Here is a favored quote from Thielen stating his purpose:
That alternative is positive, vibrant, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life- giving moderate and mainline faith. And that kind of faith—centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—answers the big questions of life including: Where is God? What matters most? What brings fulfillment? What about suffering? And is there hope?
In concise clear chapters Thielen expands on where the theological ideas presented in his book come from, the historic background, what they are specifically saying and why we do or don't have to accept them. What specifically does Thielen mean when he talks about  “mainline faith” I'm not 100% sure but he did refer to the following at some point: Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans (ELCA), Catholics, and Episcopalians, and maybe some others I'm not sure. But I would guess if you read his book you would know if you are mainline or not.

Just an aside - one of favorite chapters happens to be the last which tackles the question, “Do mainline Christian believe in getting saved?” I live in rural Indiana and one major thorn in my side has been people asking me, “Have you been saved?” Besides the fact that it really isn't any of their business, they ask because if you don't give the right answer it gives them an opening to preach to you. I have many times opted for the answer Mark gave us many years ago which is, “Yes, about 2,000 years ago. It was a Friday, the sky turned black...” but of course that is not what they mean. I have been a christian all my life as have most of my friends and relatives. In a nutshell, this chapter makes it clear that salvation can be sudden or gradual and both are valid. You do not have to nail it down to moment in time with a major show of a testimony after an alter call. According to Thielen alter calls were invented in the 1800s out West. Interesting, no?

I liked this book a lot. Hope you will too.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TO MUCH (AGAIN) – Allison Bartlett


This book was reviewed by me two years ago when I first read it. I am doing so again because I have just reread it and attended a book discussion group about it. The plan is to review it, tell you what the group said and then go check and see how different my feelings are from the first time I read it.

My second reading occurred this past Monday. Book group (Adams Central Literati) was scheduled for Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. and the plan was to just skim and reread favorite parts. However, once started I reread the whole book cover to cover and was entranced with this story about the bibliokleptomaniac John Gilkey. Gilkey is a notorious rare and expensive book thief from California. For many years he has plagued book sellers all over the world but mostly in California. Bartlett studied the man, and the crimes, but also did her research about rare books (what qualifies), passion for collecting, and the particular sociopathic illness Gilkey exhibits. I found her book to be well-researched and incredibly interesting.

John Gilkey has spent many years honing his craft of thieving and creating exotic rationalizations for why he shouldn't be guilty of anything. He needs those books, they are too expensive for him to buy, therefore he only does what he “has to do” to acquire them. It is interesting that he comes from a whole family of kleptomania. Much of the book is based on interviews with Ken Sanders, a book dealer, shop owner, and self-proclaimed John Gilkey investigator. Sanders has a shop in Salt Lake City, has been a victim of Gilkey in the past and has since dedicated a lot of time keeping tabs on him. He has spent much effort helping other dealers and the authorities to combat Gilkey crime sprees. Sanders is an interesting character all his own. I checked out his website about his store and I would like to visit there someday.

Two people of the seven attending Literati stated that they did not “like” this book. One disliked it so much she couldn't force herself to finish it. (sigh) Ok, here is a lesson for all of you attending or wanting to attend a book group. It doesn't make for good discussion to talk like that. Better to say, something less off-putting like “it wasn't my personal interest and I didn't find the time to finish it,” but better yet finish it and then talk about the hangups you had with it without making others feel insulted. It is perfectly understandable for a well-read and literary person to state that the writing style was below par, stilted, or that there were no interesting word choices or phraseology. All good points but leaving the floor open for others to say that they noticed that too but were invested in getting to the story, studying the crimes, thinking about this unusual personality and reflecting on where this man's life is going to end up.

I do have to admit that in the beginning I found the writing style a bit loose and sometimes I had to reread parts to get a better picture of who exactly she was talking about. We did discuss the fact that the author is or was a journal article writer and we felt this influenced her style and perhaps was why the book felt less-literary than many that we read. One person in group appeared to actually dislike Bartlett as he felt she should have informed on Gilkey when she became aware of his criminal activities. Others of us felt she did what she needed to do to collect her data, probably followed journalistic protocol, and was not obliged to inform the authorities. You can find on the Internet Ken Sanders web sites and some documentation about the crimes and Gilkey. Apparently Gilkey is still “collecting” and since most book sellers know who he is, he is now stealing from libraries, possibly.

Ok, now I am going to look at my old review at (http://literatireflections.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html) and see if I said any of the same things....

I'm back. That one was better. I did find out that since 2009 Gilkey has been incarcerated several times but is out now and is on the prowl. Where do you suppose he keeps all those books now? Also I forgot to mention that I love the cover of this book too. So many beautiful books.... I want them.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

FACTORY GIRLS – Leslie T. Chang


I started this book before Christmas and just recently finished it. It is one of those nonfiction reads that you can, and must for mental health reasons, put down for a few days before picking it up again. No worries about losing your place or forgetting what you read because you will be brooding about it the whole time you are not reading.

Chang is herself of Chinese descent. She notes that being obviously of Chinese heritage helped open doors for her during her research that many before her had difficulty obtaining. She actually lived among the factory girls and scoured the cities herself interviewing the workers for her data gathering. Interspersed with the research are stories of Chang's own family exodus from China and the country's history also. Chang's own grandfather had emigrated to the USA to go to college, returned to China to help his country progress, was murdered and eventually became a hero to his descendents. All of this is woven into a very understandable and engrossing book. This book is well constructed, interesting, and well documented. I would like to find a group reading this for discussion as my book is full of sticky notes!

According to Chang since China is still a male-dominated culture, rural families still strive to have male children. They will and often do have many female children in pursuit of an heir. The males inherit all the property and assets and usually are the only children sent for further education after elementary school. In the 1990s the surplus female children began to flood the cities for work in the American factories. These girls may be anywhere from 12 to 15 when they arrive and will stay usually only until they are in their early 30s when they will feel pressured to marry and move back to the rural areas. If they can and are smart enough some will save wages to educate themselves further. Those who can educate themselves will become professionals, factory bosses, or they will emigrate.

The factory girls live in dormitories in the factory compounds. They have little, their relationships are superficial, and they are transient. Some will transfer to better jobs, some will tire and go home, and some will meet men and start homes. Many simply disappear into lives of prostitution or are killed and no one knows where they went. Chang delivers her material in a very matter of fact way so that you know the problem is complex. It is not as simple as - The Unites States puts a bunch of factories here and slaves work in them. It is true U.S. investors put factories in China and girls will make the products for very little per day. However, there are still millions of young people in China who need jobs. Families in China are still having too many children in the quest for males. Americans still want cheap goods. Americans will not make these goods as cheaply as Chinese workers will.

Chang's book lets you get to know some of these workers. She lived with them, went home to the farms with them, listened to and documented their hopes and dreams. There are other books on the market now that will give you a picture of the upwardly mobile, educated, and wealthy of China but this one is a look at the rural people who have seen, in only twenty years, the focus of their country turn from agriculture to industry and technology. The new generation of floating population is creating new classes of its own. Height is very important in this new generation that is just barely free from starvation. Each factory practices its own version of class discrimination too. If you read this book you will be entranced with the worker's stories. It isn't dark, or somber but it isn't sugar-coated either.

STORIES I ONLY TELL MY FRIENDS – Rob Lowe


Finally getting to my Christmas books. I was skeptical about this one because typically star bios are not for me. But Stories I Only Tell My Friends got such good reviews that I weakened and asked for a copy for Christmas. So glad I did too. It was actually very entertaining and fun.

Lowe came from very well-educated, intelligent, and loving parents. He became interested in acting at a very young age while growing up in Dayton, Ohio where he often acted in civic productions. He seemed, according to this memoir, a pretty well-adjusted child, a good student, a hard worker, and talented. He did suffer from his parents divorce and subsequent breakup of his mother's second marriage as well. His mother did end up moving herself and her sons to California where the Sheen's were neighbors and Rob became good friends with Emilio. Lowe relates many tales of vying for acting parts in Hollywood, navigating neighborhood life, and continuing high school. Before becoming an adult Rob was virtually living on his own in a bungalow behind the family home and basically became the major bread-winner of the family.

Chapters contain many descriptions of Lowe's first encounters with people who would later become famous. Too many to mention them all but as he rose to stardom he met and acted with many young actors including Robert Downey Jr., Michael J. Fox, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. His stories are well written, fun and funny. He doesn't disparage anyone either which I appreciate.

There are a few dark chapters of substance abuse and rehab but even those are not written heavy handedly. Nor does he do any “poor me” or whining about being taken advantage of or blaming anyone else for his troubles. Indeed he seems to take responsibility for his problems.

One of my favorite excerpts is on page 151 when he reflects on his relationship with his own father and what he has learned about what teenage boys really need.
“They absorb incrementally, through hours and hours of observation. The sad truth about divorce is that it's hard to teach your kids about life unless you are living life with them: eating together, doing homework, watching Little League, driving them around endlessly, being bored with nothing to do, letting them listen while you do business, while you negotiate love and the frustrations and complications and rewards of living day in and day out with your wife.”
He has remained married to the same woman for over 20 years and seems to dote on his two sons. Their family story is quite wonderful. While he did not have the stability he feels is so important, he seems dedicated to providing that for his sons. Even so he seems not at all bitter towards his parents and proudly examines the strengths each gave to him and his brothers.

It is clear that Lowe very much valued his acting experience on The West Wing TV series. He takes pride in being part of an unusually high brow project that was demanding, sophisticated, and delivered to the American public quality TV performances. I also learned from him in that chapter that sometimes one must realize that even though you know you are doing a good job, and you know you could do more or do it better if given a chance, if others don't see it, then it is time to move on. That it is OK, and not anything to be bitter about. A book that takes an afternoon to read and when you are done you give a big sigh and a “thank you” before you lay it aside.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

THE CHERRY LOG SERMONS – Fred Craddock



Zion First Tuesday Class discussed this book for the second time this past Tuesday. Sadly Pastor Mark shared that Reverend Craddock is ill and no longer is strong enough to preach. Previously Craddock was Professor Emeritus of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was also Minister Emeritus at Cherry Log Christian Church in Cherry Log, Georgia. In 2001 he was named by Newsweek one of the top 10 preachers in the country. I really enjoyed his book and am so sorry to hear this news.

Originally when Mark hinted he wanted to share this title I didn't want to hurt his feelings but I had no desire to read a whole book of sermons. Now I love my church and our pastor is a great guy and a very good preacher, but I am always ready to go home by the end of service and I couldn't imagine myself sitting for hours reading sermon after sermon. I was so wrong. This is narrative in an easy comfortable style. Each chapter begins with a New Testament reading then Craddock talking about his interpretation, thoughts, and insights. So much brilliance. My responses ran from, “hmmmm,” “really?” to “I think that way too!” He presents his material in a conversational manner, is never heavy handed or judgmental, and I never once felt like I heard echoes of Bible-thumping. So there you have it, a great read to make one ponder and do a little introspection. It's a very pretty book too. The cover is classy with an interesting picture and lovely type. If there is a significance to some of the letters in the title being white I wish someone would enlighten me. It looks like they are like that for a reason but I couldn't figure it out nor why three of them are in italics. Anyone?

The first line to capture my attention was in the first 
chapter on page 5. Craddock says, “I get sick and tired of people always thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up.” The second one was at the bottom of that same paragraph, “I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three-pound Bible and say, “Just do what the Book says.”” When I read those thoughts I said, Me too! After all I live in the middle of the Bible-thumping belt. All my life I have been surrounded by those who profess to know exactly what a “good Christian” is and I particularly love it when they are saying such things with a raised eyebrow insinuating that you may not be one of them. Craddock makes so much sense and makes me feel at home.

My favorite sermons were numbers 8 “What God Wants This Church to Do” and 13 “Who Am I to Judge Another?” The first is based on Matthew 28:16-20. Craddock begins this sermon with a story about going with his family to a Star Wars movie which leads into thoughts about prequels, sequels, having doubts, and knowing what to do. On page 44 he says, “There have been times and places when and where people have been emotionally coerced, socially coerced, even militantly coerced into following Jesus...because somebody misunderstood what it means to make disciples.” He also said he has known some to coerce even at funerals which he calls, a “sub-Christian” thing to do.

Chapter 13 is based on Romans 14:1-12 and on page 74 Craddock gives his interpretation as thus:
“Paul said, If you want to eat just vegetables, just eat vegetables. If you want to eat meat, eat meat. But quit picking on each other. Stop forcing everybody else to fit into your pattern of eating meat, not eating meat, drinking wine, not drinking wine, keeping the Sabbath, not keeping the Sabbath. In other words, Paul said, Knock it off. Whatever you do, whether you drink or not, whether you eat or not, whether you keep the Sabbath or not. Do it to the honor and the praise of God and not in some self-righteous way to judge someone else.” Yea Craddock!

There are so many other good chapters too and if you read this book you will think about the “disease of the successful,” what is integrity, how to approach reading the Bible and many other things to make you go hmmmm. He truly preaches the love of God and how to be a humble witnessing servant. I wish I could know him personally and can only hope I meet him some day. 

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER – Carson McCullers


My hands must have touched a copy of this title innumerable times throughout my career. One or more copies always resided in my library and this title was on our school AP English reading list, but for some reason I never picked it up myself. This year the Adams Central Adult Literati made this a winter reading choice. Seven members attended group and six of us liked it. The seventh didn't dislike it but it wasn't her cup of tea. I liked it very much indeed. We had a great and detailed discussion. This book was published in 1940 and illuminated many issues pervasive in our nation and our culture. As we discussed we realized so much has changed in 70 years and yet so much is still the same.

Silly as it may seem to seasoned readers and to other librarians, I was not aware McCullers was a female and I was finished with the book before I realized that the picture on the cover of my book is her! I have, since finishing the book, looked her up and found many interesting facts. For instance the character Mick and many events containing her are somewhat biographical. Describing what this novel is about is no easy task. With no defined or sequential plot I will say it is a book about people (and there are many of them to keep track of) living and maneuvering in the subcultures of the South during the late 1930s. It almost has the feel of a memoir. It is a coming-of-age story, a story of extreme loneliness, struggle, oppression, and civil disobedience.

In a small town close to Atlanta the reader gets a glimpse of the lives of 17 people whose paths cross and whose lives intersect. They often misunderstand each other and some live their existence not knowing that another is nearby who could or would be of support if they would just reach out. All of the characters have a relationship with one man, Mr. Singer, a deaf mute who lives at the Kelly boarding house. He is like the hub of a big wheel of dysfunctional and lonely people who seek him out because in his presence they feel valued and special. Each character actually attributes to Mr. Singer qualities they believe he has which fill their needs. Whether he has these or not the reader doesn't know. But as each person spends time with him, talking to him, watching his reactions, reading his notes, they work out what they think and what they must do.

Mick Kelly is trying to grow up while shouldering much responsibility. Her father has had an accident which prevents him from holding down any job where he must walk or stand and therefore he is trying to make a go of a watch repair shop in their home. Her mother runs the boarding house with the help of a local black woman. Mick is, in my opinion, the best character in the book. She has drive and spunk with great interest in literature and music. She aspires to study and leave the area to have great adventures one day.

Doctor Copeland the local black doctor supports his community with a purpose and drive that are nearly super human. But he lives a lonely existence since he alienated his family who fled long ago to the home of his in-laws. His children fear him and yet he still tries to instill some drive to better their lot in life only for his “sermons” to fall on deaf ears. Even though it is easy to feel sympathy for the family and to see why they wanted to be away from him, it is still heart breaking witnessing his loneliness for them and feeling his frustration with their lack of motivation and their use of black slang and improper English which he feels is so denigrating. Mr. Singer is the only white person the doctor has ever trusted and feels is an equal.

Jake Blount is a drifter and a drunk. He gets a job as a carnival worker while also reading books about philosophy. The reader doesn't know why he has isolated himself from family and friends but he has some of the best thoughts and lines in the book for examining the times and mores of the 1930s. My favorite is on page 158. Referring to our founding fathers these lines speak volumes;
“They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that means every man was equal in the sight of Nature....This didn't mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live.”
The paragraph is much longer and says a lot more but that is the essential part. How much that same sentiment remains today!

Biff the local cafe owner is a wonderful character also. His wife dies leaving him alone and pining for children. He loves his neighbors and he particularly loves Mick Kelly. He gives away food and watches out for his patrons. I think his loneliness is the most troubling because the reader knows he is passionate and good and could be a wonderful family man if he could just reach out.

The scene that haunts me the most happens quickly close to the end of the book. Several are together in Mr. Singer's room and they find they cannot communicate in each other's presence. No one ever asks Singer about his feelings or wants or plans. He is the loneliest one of all and no one seems to notice.

Those are only my favorite characters. This book is so full of things to think about and characters to ponder. Dysfunction and loneliness a plenty to examine, social issues to break your heart and beautiful writing. What else could you want?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

THE NIGHT CIRCUS – Erin Morgenstern


The Night Circus has been on my bookshelf for a month now and it was with much anticipation I finally was free enough to sit down to enjoy. I new it was going to be a wonderful artistic read, or I thought I could tell that by looking at the cover and end sheets. So lovely, it is one of the most attractive books I have purchased in a long time. Black shiny cover with white, red, and swirls of silver showing a tattooed arm holding up a tiny black and white circus with tents and a clock. The whole feel of the tangible book is magical and mysterious. I was not disappointed. This is one of those books that is tasty to examine before you start.

There was a fair amount of prepublication hype for this book which helped and hindered my reading. Being a debut novel I was prepared to dismiss a few annoying elements but some hype led me to expect things that did not develop. For instance the pr about star-crossed lovers was overdone. The lovers, Celia and Marco aren't very fleshed out with clear personalities and therefore, as a reader, I wasn't much invested in them. Plus the love story doesn't even start until over half of the novel has transpired. The introduction of Bailey, a farm boy who loves the circus, changed the whole feel of the book for me and I was by then tuning out my environs to sink into the story. Bailey, along with the twins Widget and Poppet, born in the circus to the animal trainers, and the circus itself are the real personalities that I cared about. The circus appears to be a living breathing entity with a personality and all the performers are integral to the life of the circus.

I would call this an ethereal, Gregory Maguire type fantasy novel. It even has a mysterious clock like Maguire's Wicked, characters who never age, people who aren't who they seem to be, mystery, and magic. While Celia and Marco seem flat there are a multitude of other interesting characters such as Isobel the fortune teller, Tsukiko the tattooed contortionist, Barris the architect, and Freidrick the clock maker.

Trespassers Will Be Exsanguinated,” how could you not like a book with lines like that? This book is rich in interesting language and the well-turned sentence. Some members of book group were put off by the construction of the novel since the chapters are not chronological and the perspective shifts. I have to admit it did make it a bit difficult and I had to flip back once in a while but I even liked that aspect. If one tries reading this novel via an e-reader the flipping may be annoyingly cumbersome. There is a lot going on and many characters.

Le Cirque des Reves/The Night Circus is conceived at one of the much coveted culinary delightful “Midnight Dinners” of Chandresh LeFevre. Lefevre presents his plans to those who become the designers and collaborators; Friedrick Theissen the clock maker, Scottish sisters Tara and Lainie Burgess business consultants, Mme Padva the costume designer, and Ethan Barris the architect. Lefevre envisions a different kind of circus than one of elephants and clowns. He wants a magical show of enchantments and beauty. So begins this adventure.

Hector Bowen (Prospero the Enchanter) and Mr. A.H. (Alexander) are centuries old magicians who groom and then place two of their pupils in a “game” for which the players will need to figure out the rules and who their opponent is on their own. Both of the budding young magicians become involved with The Night Circus and the circus becomes the venue for their game. Celia becomes an illusionist in the circus and Marco becomes the personal assistant to Chandresh the owner/designer. The circus is a work of art and beauty all its own. The Night Circus travels the world, seems to appear magically, opening at dusk, closing at dawn, and the enchanted visitors while becoming enamored of the circus never suspect that they witness real magic. There are many mysterious and wonderful sights in the circus such as The Ice Garden, The Tree of Wishes, The Stargazer, living statues, the Cloud Maze, and of course the wonderful clock.

So many sub-plots to keep track of too! Celia and Marco know they are players in a game but they don't know the rules or how to determine who wins so they become collaborators in the circus and fall in love. A farm boy who wants to leave home for college or adventure but whose father expects him to take over the family farm becomes friends with Poppet and Widget, twin performers in the circus. Reveurs, like modern day groupies follow the Night Circus all over the world and dress in black with red scarves. Those associated with the circus become aware that they no longer age. Mr. Barris falls in love with the Scottish sisters. Isobel is in love with Marco but he does not love her back. Oh my and that isn't all!

Loved it, loved the adventure, even loved the non-linear plot and the many characters.

One thing I didn't love. In the beginning and at the breaks between chapters there is a constellation. I, nor any one at book group could find out what it is! Annoying.

Surprising – there is no dedication page. I like those usually and missed it.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

SARAH'S KEY – Tatiana De Rosnay


Ahh, that is my release from having just finished Sarah's Key. I have actually been meaning to read this title since we had a guest speaker two years ago at school who spoke about surviving the Holocaust. She recommended it. The Jay County Public Library Book Group has chosen to read it for January so I was spurred into picking it up again.

The book is constructed about half way in alternating chapters from 1942 to I believe 2002. The 1942 chapters contain the heart wrenching narrative of Sarah Starzynski who at 10 and not understanding what is going on locks her little brother in a secret cupboard to keep him safe as her family is being arrested. The 2002 chapters deal with an American journalist Julia Jarmond who does research in order to write an article covering the 60th anniversary of a little known and almost never talked about event that is a blot on the French psyche. Apparently on July 16, 1942 following Nazi orders, thousand of French Jews were arrested by the French police, held in inhuman conditions and then sent to be executed at Auschwitz. This event was/is called Vel' d'Hiv referring to the winter athletic stadium where the families were held before being sent to their deaths.

Eventually, the book is narrated just from Julia's perspective. As Julia researches she finds that her family has a dark and lasting connection to Sarah Starzynski. She then becomes obsessed with finding out all the details of Sarah's life and death. Julia is also 45, pregnant, married to a Frenchman and in a troubled marriage. The time shifting in the beginning was more interesting to me than after the shift to present tense only happened. The first half of the books kept me much more engaged also but overall I have to say I liked the book.

It isn't the first time for looking at the behavior of the French during the Nazi occupation and wondering at their inaction and silence. Several contemporary books have asked us to ponder their silence and their desire to “not know” parts of their own history or to examine their collective behavior during WW II. Our American culture is no different. We all want to believe we would be different, better, braver, but would we?

Not all of the characters are well-rounded and I really wanted Julia to evolve as a stronger person. The love story in the end seemed contrived. But the character of Sarah will stay in my mind's eye a long time.

I'll have to come back and make a new entry after group meets this month. Wondering what they will say.


THE BOTTOMS – Joe R. Lansdale


Late in blogging about The Bottoms. AC Adult Literati discussed this book early in December. I was not personally familiar with Lansdale and had not remembered the reviews so had no preconceived ideas of what I was about to encounter. My my, what a bloody and often quite shocking book! I would call it a southern, pre-civil rights, coming of age, murder, mystery. At one of his websites Lansdale is called a Mojo storyteller and The Bottoms is often called a mix of horror and mystery, which it is.

As a group we all jumped right in to discuss. No one made comments about not liking it or having adverse feelings which surprised me a bit as that often happens when a book has ugly parts. We were all repulsed early and yet drawn into the story with a need to finish it quickly.

The Bottoms has that ethereal, mysterious, foggy feel where half the time you feel disoriented and confused. Sometimes you are sure what is happening when a twist appears and you are no longer sure. Set in the 1933 bottomlands of the Sabine River, Texas this is horror, mystery, but also a tale of a boy learning to deal with adulthood in pre-civil rights South, learning right from wrong, and how to be a good man. Harry is an aging man when he relates to the reader his memorable pre-teen year when he and his sister discovered a body of a murdered and mutilated black woman. More murders ensue. Solving the crimes when black lives were not considered valuable and a black prostitute not worth investigating at all seemed almost impossible. There are suspects many. A new barber, the Klan, a young doctor, even Goat Man, a local mythological creature, are all suspect at one point or the other. Harry and his sister, Tom continue to roam the Bottoms alternately uncovering clues and putting themselves directly in the path of danger. A spunky grandma comes to stay and adds color and excitement to the story.

It was excellent. I read it on my Nook. I prefer to have hardcopies of book group books so I can leaf through and add sticky notes. The highlighting and noting in my Nook is too cumbersome.


Friday, January 6, 2012

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE – Aimee Bender


A friend of mine suggested a different public library group since sometimes I come away disappointed in the local one. He goes to one in Muncie which is about 35 miles from my house. This was the December book choice for that library book group. I really enjoyed the book and the group so I may go back.

While making drop offs at the Goodwill Store it is a must to schedule enough time to go in and check out the books. One day this summer The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake attracted my attention. A colleague last year had suggested it as a good read and the book has a beautiful cover for which I am a sucker every time. The dust jacket is robin's egg blue with a nice piece of yellow layer cake with chocolate icing, mmmm. Even the title page is a lovely work of typographic art with a combination of script and type. A treasure found for $1.50!

Delicious cover, delicious read. Aimee Bender has created a book so engrossing it's hard to put down once begun. Nine-year-old Rose becomes aware of her extrasensory perception in her taste buds as she tastes the lemon cake her mother made for her birthday. As she eats the cake Rose realizes she can feel her mother's emotions and they are not what she would expect. With horror Rose realizes her mother is depressed, confused, unhappy, and has feelings of desperation. These are not things the child expects or wants to know. From that day Rose must navigate around food being careful when, where, and what she eats. She can now feel the emotions of every food preparer. Her life becomes a complicated dance around food, eating mostly prepackaged and factory prepared foods to evade the overwhelming and often scary emotions contained in the food. As her gift/curse matures she learns that food also reveals its heritage. She can tell what part of the country a farm is where eggs come from, meat may reveal if the animals were content, food handlers emotions relay to Rose if they are decent people or jerks.

Rose also has to navigate complicated family dynamics. Older brother Joseph seems to be the favored child. A boy of unusual brilliance, social inadequacy, and a strange ability to disappear. Mom smothers Joseph and battles her depression and feelings of being adrift until she settles on a course of woodworking projects. Dad is dedicated yet aloof from his family. He loves his family but has a strange phobia to hospitals and seeks security in workaholism. Rose has a crush on Joseph's friend George who appears to be the only stable person in her life. The sadness of the lemon cake is not limited to Rose's mother's sadness. The sadness for Rose is that her gift and her family so cripple her life that while her peers and friends move on to college and to young adult lives, Rose remains behind and at home.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake felt somewhat like a thriller and also like supernatural mystery. Reading it felt similar to reading a Niffennegger novel and at one point I really did feel like Joseph might be a time traveler. It is also a coming-of-age novel and one feels a true sadness for Rose while hoping and believing she will prevail in the end. One thing that was a bit of a put-off for me was the absence of quotation marks. I am never sure what that is all about. Perhaps there is some new literary movement to dispense with such and I have read many recent novels where they are not used. However, usually I can navigate through a novel like this pretty well, but this one left me pondering sometimes as to who was speaking, and often I wasn't sure if the person was actually speaking out loud or thinking. But some of the prose was breathtakingly beautiful.

One gentleman at book group did not warm up to the book and thought it contrived but the rest of us really liked it. I would read it again.