Author: priscilla


Byrd-standup.jpgThe first time I read anything about Kim Church’s debut novel Byrd was on Largehearted Boy. She put together a playlist for that blog’s Book Notes series, and I liked the playlist. While I’ve discovered many new bands through Largehearted Boy and the Book Notes series, sometimes I feel as though authors go to an awful lot of trouble to list the most obscure musical acts possible (with the exception of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Nick Cave, who all seem obligatory for about every third list…not that there’s anything wrong with that). Here were artists and songs I knew from childhood: The Allman Brothers, The Doobie Brothers, Nina Simone, Carol King.

As much as I liked her playlist, I was also intrigued by her explanations of how the songs connected to her novel. When I saw it was available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to get a review copy. Byrd is a book about unrequited love, but also something deeper than that, because Addie Lockwood’s real unrequited love–if it can be called anything as simple as that–is her love for the son she gave up, a boy she calls Byrd, and the ideas and ideals she gave up with him. This story of a mother giving up her child for adoption is an unusual one because Addie is 32 when she decides to give up Byrd for adoption. Not to say that any story of giving up a child for adoption is typical, but Addie is at an age when a lot of married women start having children—or worrying about having children, with that proverbial biological clock tick-tocking, so her point of view is different than say, a high school or college student in the same position.

I picked up Byrd late on a Friday afternoon and I finished it the next day. I haven’t read a book that quickly in years. The book begins with Addie and her not-yet love interest Roland Rhodes, the book’s central figures, in 1965 when they are in the fourth grade. Told from various characters’ third-person point of view (including Addie and Roland), we catch glimpses of them alone and with each other as their relationship evolves (and then dissolves) over the course of their lives. Although Addie and Roland’s relationship is the central relationship in the book (well, besides Addie’s “relationship” with Byrd, which is one-sided, as Addie writes letters to him over the years), we also experience Addie’s relationship with her parents and friends, and Roland’s relationship with another woman and with the son they have together. The chapters that are devoted to other characters—Addie’s mother and father, her brother Sam, and Roland’s girlfriend Elle, are some of the most poignant in the novel, and they add a depth to the characters that we would not get if the story simply alternated between Addie and Roland, or stayed with only one of them.

I might as well cut to the chase. I am not much of a crier, but when I got to the end of Byrd (and maybe a few times before that), I cried. For about an hour, I cried. I wasn’t sobbing, but I continued to well up, and even now if I think about certain scenes in the novel, it brings tears to my eyes. And the beauty of it is that nothing in this novel is overworked or melodramatic. It’s the hush, the lonely hopefulness, the complexity of love and disappointment that drive the narratives of everyday life that really shine here. I highly recommend it, with 5/5 stars.

Byrd is a quiet book. Most of the time I don’t mind that my blog is not more popular, but when I find a book like Byrd, which was published by the terrific independent publisher Dzanc Books, I wish I had a wide readership so that I could help it build the attention it deserves. (Thanks goodness for Largehearted Boy, which will hopefully give it a wider audience.)

Read an interview with Kim Church here.

I received my copy of Byrd from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Not For Nothing

NotForNothing-Standup.pngWhen I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night, to lull myself back to sleep, I work on on a blog post in my head. This happens at least once a week, and when it does I never get out of bed and actually bother to write anything. I always think I will remember everything in the morning, but of course that line of thinking also assumes that the first thing I will do when I get out of bed is go to the computer, or at the very least grab a pen and a notebook, and capture everything from the night before, the way one would record a vivid dream for later analysis. Me? I play with the cat, drink a glass of water, get up and make the bed, go downstairs for coffee. By the time I am on my second cup of coffee, The Today Show has usually obliterated most of the original or interesting thoughts that might have remained from the night before. Ah, the perils of morning television.

Last night as I lay awake I wrote a post in my head about Not For Nothing by Stephen Graham Jones. I finished the book a few weeks ago, but I have been thinking about it a lot. Here’s some of what remained of my thoughts when I awoke this morning:

  • If Larry McMurtry wrote crime fiction in the second person, this is the kind of book he would have written.
  • In cities, there are jobs. In small towns, there are simply things that have to get done. Somebody has to run the car wash, the burger stand, or say, the storage unit facility.
  • People who leave small towns are resented and admired in equal measure. People who come back from the big city are generally considered to have come to their senses, but also viewed with some suspicion. (And remember, the “big city” is relative. When you’re from a town with less than 1,000 residents, one with 100,000 residents seems huge.)
  • Someone is nodding on almost every single page in this book. I’m afraid that readers will think this is an author’s tic. Because I am from West Texas, I know very well that people there actually communicate this way. A nod can mean many things: an agreement, a disagreement, a laugh, an apology, an expression of love, an ending to a conversation or even a relationship. (See again McMurtry, Larry, Horseman, Pass By or The Last Picture Show. See Hud starring Paul Newman. If you must, see Friday Night Lights, only watch it with the sound off at least half the time. You can’t get away with all that nodding in television drama.)
  • If people pick up this novel because they are curious about the second-person narrative, I hope they stay for the story. Even though it has a mystery with all the requisite (but not expected!) twists and turns, I found it to be much more than a crime novel (see yet again, McMutry, Larry).

Not For Nothing is the story of “you,” one Nicholas Bruiseman of Stanton, Texas. You went to school with the same kids all the way through your junior year of high school. You were a fat kid, and it earned you the nickname St. Nick. You had a case of sticky fingers in your later years. You had a secret, sweet moment with a girl in high school that left an indelible impression on your mind and heart. Nobody thought you would amount to much, but you went to Midland and became a cop. And then you had to come back to Stanton because being a cop doesn’t always mean being smart. It doesn’t mean who you are or meant to be won’t catch up with you sooner or later, as everyone is happy to remind you when they see you. You have a darker side, but you also have a wry sense of humor and know not to take yourself too seriously when you can help it. You take a job as caretaker for storage units, and one day that girl you were sweet on through high school, maybe longer, shows up. She wants to hire you to watch her husband, the football hero who made your life hell as a kid. And then the football hero shows up later, after she’s gone. He wants you to watch his wife.

And the rest is about you trying to figure out what game they’re playing, to understand why people are disappearing or dying. But also the rest is you trying to get through the day to day of the life you live now and to figure out how you can help other people you see hurting who don’t need a wannabe private-eye but a friend. And that’s the most interesting part of the book, and Jones does such a seamless job of telling Nick’s story, your story, that you willingly go along. And in fact you will forget you are reading in second person, most likely, because you’ll be able to smell the hot air, see the big sky, taste the chopped barbecue sandwich or the stale burrito from the convenience store. I highly recommend it, with 4/5 stars. (The novel, that is–not the convenience store burrito.)

I admit I might be a bit prejudice in the novel’s favor because I spent my first thirteen years going back and forth between Lubbock and Odessa, and through Big Spring and Sweetwater every other small town on I-20 on the way to Dallas when I went there to visit family. I haven’t been to West Texas in 20 years—I haven’t even lived in Texas since 1999—but I still see it and feel it vividly. It’s a place that once it’s in you, it’s always in you.

If you’re interested in why Jones chose to write the novel in second person, you can read his blog post about it at the Dzanc Books blog.

If you’re interested in what real Texans look like as opposed what y’all think they look like, then you should check out sponglr.

I received my copy of Not For Nothing through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Things I Want That Aren’t Books

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, we are supposed to list the top ten bookish things we want to own that aren’t books. The truth is, I am really interested in trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have, not add to it, and when it comes to bookish things, the thing I want most is more books. But in the spirit of things, I’ll play along as well as I can, without showing you something really original, like say, ten different bookshelves or a bunch of t-shirts with catchy book things on them. (Hi, I like to alienate people.)

1. A trip to the library at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The Reading Room and Special Collections at the Rijksmuseum mostly contain books on art history. I am not an art historian by any means but just look at all the treasure in this room in my favorite museum in my favorite city. Even better, when I leave the museum and walk around Amsterdam, I see book stores on every street. Heaven.

2. A dedicated room for my personal library. Actually, I go back and forth on this one. I see pictures of other people’s personal libraries and like any book lover I drool a little bit. But then I think, if all my books are in the library, and not in the living room or piled all over the house as they are now, how will people know I am a reader? What if all they see if the television and the XBOX? No no no. Books everywhere, library too! (And yes, I said I don’t want to accumulate stuff. Books aren’t stuff! They are books!) This one in Belgium looks nice, and I could easily pop over to Amsterdam when I felt like it.

3. I want my goddam books back. Sorry to go all Holden Caulfield on you, but seriously, I want back the books I have loaned to friends over the years. (Not talking about family. At least I know where those books are.) Yes, it is my own fault for trusting people who say they love books and love to read and yadda yadda. Now, when I borrow books from people…*side-eyes bookshelf* *dies of embarrassment*

4. The Riverside Shakespeare. Yes, I know this is technically a book, but really it’s a collected work. Of plays and sonnets and whatnot. That just happen to be in book form. This was the text for my university Shakespeare class in the age of Nirvana, and I sold it back because I needed the money. Maybe you all could live on words, but I needed ramen. I have always regretted selling it, and while I don’t exactly loll around reading the Bard all day, it would be wonderful to have a trusted reference nearby for when I want to look up a line, or just peruse for the hell of it.

The Riverside Shakespeare

This cover is much more attractive than versions with a giant Shakespeare head.

5. The Oxford English Dictionary. Because it’s not a book (or books) it’s a dictionary and it’s for my personal library, duh. It’s a REFERENCE TOOL. Seriously, though: right now I am reading The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon, and this fantastic dystopian novel is all about etymology and the philosophy of language and the ways technology is changing communication, and it has reminded me of the joy of looking up words and understanding their history, how their meanings have changed over time. If you are a reader and you are not interested in WORDS, then something is wrong with you.

The Oxford English Dictionary

6. Page numbers on my Kindle books. I think I had an option on my old Kindle to display page numbers instead of percentages (at least for some books), but now I am using the Kindle app on my Android tablet and I am back to seeing percentages. It also shows me how much time I have left to finish the book at my current reading pace, which makes me feel like I am in training and need to speed up. It’s like RunKeeper, only for reading. ReadKeeper. Reading is supposed to be relaxing, FFS!

7. And while I am on the subject (sort of) of my Android tablet, I would like to have a pretty tablet cover. no, it doesn’t have to look like a book. I have a Nexus 7. Apparently nobody who owns a Nexus 7 except for me would like an attractive cover. Apparently only iPad and Samsung Galaxy owners want pretty covers. It also would have been nice if the cover I ended up with hadn’t emitted a sickening chemical smell for the first two weeks that was so bad I couldn’t use it and had to keep it in the garage. Do you think I should be worried about the faint glow in the area where it sat while it aired out?


What I’d like…


What I’ve got…smell isn’t so bad anymore, really. You get used to it.


8. Electronic copies of my books. I would happily pay a higher price to get an electronic copy of any physical book I buy. For one thing, reading in bed or sometimes in other places I won’t mention here is so much easier on an e-reader. For another thing, when I travel for work and I am in the middle of reading a physical book (especially a chunkster), I have to leave the book behind, which means that I have to start another book on my Kindle. This upsets me greatly. I am not good at serial reading. Not good at all.

9. Disinfected, clean library books. You know what I mean. Water damage. Unidentifiable stains. Skeevy-looking library patrons with head colds who look like they might take out a bag of Funyuns and a melty bar of chocolate and start eating over the pages of an open book any second. Take the money from all those ten cent late fee fines and buy some sanitizer, people. (Seriously, library, hold patrons accountable for wrecking books. MAKE THEM PAY.)

10. Time. What do you mean I can’t own time? I want it. We all want it, I know. More time to read ALL THE BOOKS.

I’m All Out of Love

Have you ever fallen out of love with an author? Recently on NetGalley I requested a book of stories by a writer whose stories and novels I used to love. I have read at least five of this author’s books (three collections, two novels), and one collection in particular I have recommended many times to people who were interested in reading short stories but were not sure where to start.

I was excited about this new story collection. (And I’ll confirm that I am not talking about Lorrie Moore’s Bark, which I own in hardback but have not even opened yet.) The first story was one I had already read when it was published elsewhere. I remember thinking it was okay. On second reading, I was even less impressed.

This author does tend to visit the same themes over and over again, but a lot of authors (Alice Munro, for example) do that successfully over the course of an entire career. I can appreciate this, as long as I continue to see the author handling certain themes or subject matter in new ways—when I can see the author has turned the thing this way, and then again that way, and realized that perhaps long-held ideas were misguided, or the result of pride or vanity or anything, really.

What I found in this new collection was that this author seems to have stopped seeing things through the prism of age or changing culture or world events and is instead viewing them through a single lens, one with an old prescription. I feel as though I have seen these characters before, in these same situations, responding in the same ways, and it leaves me thinking, “Really? Again?” It’s like watching an old friend repeatedly make the same mistakes. Or maybe it’s the way I’m reading? My expectations were too high, perhaps?

I am being purposely coy and not naming names (or even revealing gender) because I feel that I can still recommend the author’s past books. But I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing this one, and I’ll never suggest it.

The Tie That Binds

The Tie That Binds CoverKent Haruf is not a writer for everyone. For example, if you have no interest in what goes on, say, outside of Brooklyn, or anywhere in between New York City and San Francisco (or Los Angeles or Seattle), then Kent Haruf is probably not an author for you. Or if you have no interest in stories about real families dealing with real struggles, not in a sensational, reality TV, Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo sort of way. (I don’t know, what other reality TV families are there? Ah, the Duggars. They probably should have had a guest spot on True Detective.)

The Tie That Binds was Haruf’s debut novel, and it introduces readers to the small, fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where all of his subsequent novels are set. An 80-year old woman, Edith Goodnough, has been charged with murder. As the novel opens, a journalist from the Denver paper has come to town to get the story. When the journalist arrives at the house of Sanders Roscoe, who has lived next door to Edith for his whole life, he’s told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business and get the hell out of town. Sanders is our narrator, and after he banishes the journalist he turns his gaze directly to us, the readers, and begins to to tell the story of Edith Goodnough, her brother Lyle, and her father, Roy.

“Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.”

Sanders starts at the very beginning, when Roy and his wife Ada traveled to Holt from Iowa, before Edith and Lyman were born. Sanders has learned the history of the Goodnough family from his father, John, who lived with his mother, the county midwife, on the property next door.

On Roy: “He was a mean sort of private man. I know from personal experience with him, and more muleheaded even than he was private. He hated like the very goddamn to be dependent on anyone for anything.”

What follows is a mystery of sorts, and also the simple stories of lives lived on the plains. What Haruf shows in his spare yet rich prose is how often those can be one and the same thing. After her mother dies, even though she is courted by John, Edith chooses to remain unmarried. Her brother Lyman, on the other hand, hotfoots it out of town for the next several decades, leaving Edith alone to care for their ailing, angry, abusive father.

Any other writer might feel the need to give Edith a dark secret to explain her choice. In short, she feels duty-bound. Lyman sends her postcards from all the places he visits across the United States, and she pins them to the living-room wall, an armchair journeyman awaiting his return. Eventually Roy dies, Lyman returns home, and for a while things are good:

In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun. Or good times. Or better, just the day-in, day-out mean rich goodness of being alive, when at night you lie down in the warm dark pleased with your corner of the world, and then you wake up the next morning still pleased with it, and you know that, too, while you lie there for a time listening in peace to the mourning doves calling from the elm trees and telephone lines, until finally the thought of black coffee moves you up out of bed and down the stairs to the kitchen stove, so that once again you begin it all afresh, with pleasure, with eagerness even. Because yes, Edith had that for a while. During that period it was written all over her face. Her brown eyes shone and snapped for six years.

And then life interferes for the worse. An accident happens, and it changes the nature of the life that Lyman and Edith built together in that short six years. In the end, it leads Edith to murder.

The Tie That Binds is a novel where nothing much happens, yet I’m afraid of giving anything away. If nothing else, that shows how deep Haruf goes into ordinary lives to tell a story–or better, to show that these are stories worth telling. In this first novel I can see all the hallmarks of his later works. The only clue that he might be a less confident writer than in his later novels is how he uses the framing device of the journalist to introduce the real story to the reader. I suspect if this were one of his later novels, he might have found another way in. However, it doesn’t detract from the story, either.

I find it funny that the book synopsis includes this sentence: “As Roscoe shares what he knows, Edith’s tragedies unfold: a childhood of pre-dawn chores, a mother’s death, a violence that leaves a father dependent on his children, forever enraged.” If those things are Edith’s tragedies, then they are also the tragedies of thousands of people across the plains in the early Twentieth century, people living a rough and demanding life on the high plains or prairies of the nation’s middle states. I suppose Edith could be seen as a tragic figure, but for me she emerged as someone who made choices that mystified Sanders Roscoe but made plain, clear sense to her. Ultimately, that is one thing I love about Haruf as a writer: his characters might be ordinary, but they are never without mystery. Four out of five stars.

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A Land More Kind Than Home (and In-Defense of Three Stars)

A Land More Kind Than Home CoverWiley Cash got a lot of love for his debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, and rightly so. Told from alternating first-person points of view, A Land More Kind Than Home is the story of faith and religion gone awry. Adelaide Lyle is the town midwife, and she opens the story by explaining why she left the church that was home and family to her for decades in the tiny western North Carolina town where she lives. After another congregant in the church is killed during some….er, questionable worship practices (and the death covered up by the Reverend Chambliss and Adelaide’s fellow congregants), Adelaide decides she must shield the congregation’s children from things that are happening inside the church. She comes to an uneasy agreement with Reverend Chambliss that she will care for the children while the adults worship, an arrangement that seems to work until the day that Julie Hall decides to take her autistic son to the church.

The story’s other narrators are Jess, a nine-year old boy whose mother is one of the church’s congregants, and the Sheriff Clem Barefield. Through Jessie, we learn exactly what happens to his brother inside the church that later leads to his death. Sheriff Barefield rounds out the story by introducing more of the Hall family and its connection to a tragedy in his own family decades earlier.

The story is not a wholly original one, in that the reader can easily guess what is going to happen to Jess’s brother (nicknamed Stump) in that backwoods evangelical country church. But to Cash’s credit, he expertly paces the events surrounding what happens to Stump and Jess, weaving in the Sheriff’s backstory in way that shows us the ties that bind and those that have been torn. In addition, the ending is something of a surprise in terms of choices some of the characters make.

Cash easily could have been much more heavy-handed with all the religious material, but he does a good job of showing how good people can be caught up by a more powerful personality, especially when that personality is promising them everlasting salvation. Reverend Chambliss would have been right at home as a character in HBO’s True Detective, but that’s less because he’s a stereotype than because he’s a simple fact in some parts of the South. Not long after I finished Cash’s book, a news story broke about a preacher in Kentucky killed as a result of snake-handling.

Cash also does a good job moving between characters. In particular, the reader understands Jess’s distress and confusion as he tries to manage what he sees happening to his family due to his mother’s devotion to the church even after Stump’s death.

I hope it doesn’t seem that I am damning this book with faint praise by giving it three out of five stars. It is a solid, well-written debut, one that makes me eager to read Cash’s latest, This Dark Road to Mercy. I’m giving it three stars primarily because the story is not wholly original, and neither are the characters. The author has some characters make interesting choices at the end, but that doesn’t make the book ground-breaking in any way. That said, this novel is definitely worth reading, and Cash will be a writer to watch.

And on the three-star rating: Lately I feel I’ve been grading on a curve. I’ve been giving solid, well-written books four or sometimes even five stars. But some of those books weren’t great, and it occurred to me one day that there is absolutely nothing wrong with three stars. Lately, I think that three stars have generally come to mean, “Meh, it was okay.” To me, three stars means that author got most things right: the writing, the pacing, the character development, the story. But I’ve decided to save those fourth and fifth stars for books that sweep me away, that show me something wholly original, that make me marvel and wonder at the effort–or effortlessness–of the writing.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Just HAD to Buy…But Are Still Sitting on My Bookshelf

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants are asked to revisit any past topic, so I picked one with which I think many readers can identify—books I simply HAD to have at the moment, but that have consequently sat on my bookshelf untouched for months or even years.

First, the real books, hardback and paperback, that I just HAD to have:

  • The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – When I first started this blog in 2009, everyone was reading Wilkie Collins, it seemed, and although I am not the biggest fan of Nineteenth century literature, I decided that this might be the book that would change my mind. And who knows, perhaps it would have, had I ever even bothered to read the first page.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbary – This was another title, along with The Book Thief and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, that everyone seemed to be reading in 2009, so I HAD to have it. The only one of those popular titles I eventually read was The Book Thief.
  • The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye – I bought this because Gillian Flynn promoted it on the Today Show when she was touring for her book Gone Girl. I’m a big fan of Flynn’s writing, and I’m always curious to know what my favorite authors are reading. I remembered that I had seen this at the grocery store, so I went that same afternoon and bought it. I’m sure it’s good. Gillian Flynn said so.
  • The Ambassadors (Penguin Classics) CoverThe Ambassadors, Henry James – Every now and again I get this idea that I am going to go back to being a Serious Reader, because being a Serious Reader will make me an all-around Better Person. I’m not a complete fool, and I know I will never read Ulysses (seriously, no desire) and probably will never make it around to reading Proust, so James seemed like the safe choice. No idea why I chose The Ambassadors over any of this other novels. (Full disclosure: The only works of Henry James I have read are Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw.)
  • Essence and Alchemy, Mindy Aftel – My first blog was a perfume blog. First I read Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, about the famed “nose” and perfume critic Luca Turin, and I had planned to read this. Turned out I was less interested in the mechanics and more interested in, as they say, the juice itself. I am sure this book is fascinating. Someday I might find out.
  • The Art of Eating, M.F.K. Fisher – A huge chunk of a book filled with Fisher’s essays about food and eating food. I bought this in the early days of my perfume blogging. I probably had some silly fantasy of becoming a real all-around asthete.
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov – This was another book that so many book bloggers I follow and admired have recommended year after year. At least I actually own a copy. Baby steps.
  • 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus CoverThe last three books on this list: Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, and David Goldfield’s America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, were all purchased at the beginning of 2013 when I decided that I needed to read more non-fiction. They are lined up on top of a bookshelf in my office, mocking me ever so quietly.

And also, as a bonus, five Kindle purchases:

  • All Things, All at Once, Lee K. Abbott – I bought this last year because I was reading an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn (which I just recently purchased an also have not read yet) and she was talking about what an influence Abbott was for her. I bought this story collection right away. All it takes is someone whose book I think I might like talking about books they liked…and I’m done for.
  • A Naked Singularity, Sergio de la Pava – Someone at The Millions listed this as a “favorite” read for 2012, and also, it was on sale. And also, I don’t read enough foreign authors. And clearly, I still haven’t.
  • Catching Fire (The Hunger Games #2) CoverCatching Fire, Suzanne Collins – I bought this in 2011 because I had read The Hunger Games and it was on sale. Now I’ve seen the movie, which I know probably isn’t exactly like the book, and maybe not even as good, but probably there’s no chance now that I will read it or Mockingjay. I am terrible about trilogies and series. I dont’ know why I bother. But while we’re on the subject, what’s going to happen now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone?
  • Damage Control, Denise Hamilton – I read a review of this on NPR one day right before I was getting ready to go on a trip, and it sounded like a good vacation read so I bought it. This is sort of cheating because I actually did read part of it, but I lost interest very quickly and cannot really remember what it is even about.
  • The Hangman’s Daughter, Oliver Pötsch – It was on sale! I was sure I’d read a pretty good review of it somewhere! (This is actually the story of most unread/partially read titles on my Kindle.)

What books did you just HAVE to buy that you never actually got around to reading?

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Reader’s Journal: Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River CoverA guilty pleasure of mine is following the fashion critics Tom & Lorenzo. I like a pretty dress as much as the next person, and I like the fact that all in all, their criticism never takes an overly personal or ugly turn. (They also happen to do an interesting wardrobe analysis of Mad Men called Mad Style.) Now and again, as they review red-carpet looks, they’ll rate a look as GTNYD, or “Girl, that’s not your dress.” Essentially the idea is that while there’s nothing wrong with the dress and nothing wrong with the person wearing the dress, the two would be better off without each other.

Considering this approach, I’m afraid that I would have to rate Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River thusly: BINYR, or “Book, I’m not your reader.”

This is a tough review to write. I was excited to read Once Upon a River and I expected to love it; after all, Campbell’s story collection American Salvage, which contains two of the seed stories for Once Upon a River, was one of my favorite reads of 2013. And while I still believe wholeheartedly that Campbell is a fine writer whose works are well worth the time, I really struggled to get through this novel.

Once Upon a River tells the story of Margo Crane. Growing up along the Stark River in northern Michigan, fifteen-year-old Margo’s world shifts after a string of difficult events (beginning with the departure of her mother and rape by her uncle) affect Margo and her family. She leaves home just shy of her sixteenth birthday, striking out alone with fantasies of somehow being able to survive alone in the wilderness. Margo idolizes Annie Oakley and dreams of finding someone to love and care for. Sadly, the first person she finds is a man three times her age. Apparently, Margo is not only a capable young woman–a crack shot who can also skin animals and fish for her supper–but she is also beautiful. (And mostly silent, because after the incident with her uncle, she stopped talking for the most part.) She willingly becomes the man’s lover, and while he is kind to her for most of their time together, there’s something disturbing about the way he fetishizes her beauty, her reticence, and her wild nature. There are three more men, two she gives herself to willingly because she is lonely and looking for someone to love.

Once Upon a River, for this reader, is the story of a heart-breakingly lonely person. Margo is only eighteen when the book ends, and she is pregnant and alone. Through a lucky turn of events she has found a way to put a roof over her head. What bothers me about the book is how much it seems to romanticize Margo’s longing, as well as her isolation. She pictures herself as a wolf girl who who can live on her own in the wild, or as a sharp-shooter like Annie Oakley. In reality, she has been abused and abandoned, endured tragic loss. She is uneducated and has few prospects beyond hunting and trapping, keeping the crops safe for farmers and selling skins along the Kalamazoo river. She’s carrying a child she has no real way to care for; she has no support system, no medical care.

In reviews, this book is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Walden. I suppose if Huck had been abused by Jim and then started turning tricks along the river, sure, these books would be more alike. This is not a criticism of Margo as a character, because she does use her wits to survive. But the story is quite bleak, and I’m somewhat surprised at how reviewers have romanticized this book. I don’t think of myself as a prude, but I’m bothered by the idea that this young, abused female character is somehow seen as plucky and adventurous. She uses sex to survive; she uses it as her shelter because she is so alone. (And yes, in some ways she does feel and own desire as well. I don’t want to disempower the character by taking that away from her.) And while I know that not every sexual act that follows an abusive one is tainted by said abuse, the men in Once Upon a River love Margo for her silence, for her wildness, for being an empty vessel into which they can pour themselves. She finally commits her own act of violence against a man out of necessity, and in a sense it drives her into further isolation. I don’t find the fact that she is pregnant and alone at the end (although she is happy, and as I said, she finds a certain stability) to mean that she has finally found something to fill her life up with, found someone of her very own to love. If you’ve seen any documentaries or even reality shows about teen pregnancy, then you know that this is the fantasy of so many teen mothers–that finally, they’ll have someone of their own to love, someone who’ll also be required on some level to love them and want them, too.

The plusses–because honestly, there are a few–are that the story is simply so well written, and Campbell clearly knows and loves the landscape. I am a sucker for a writer who can make place as much a character in a book as the people who inhabit it, and Campbell makes the river come to life. And although I was exasperated by Margo’s story and her relentless bad luck at times, she is well-drawn and the reader cannot help but pull for her. To put down the book and not see Margo through to the end would have meant another kind of abandonment she simply did not deserve.

In the end, my own ideas and ideals fail this book. While I realize that I meant to believe that Margo has her own quiet strength, that she is a survivor–and indeed, I think that’s true–I cannot get past the fact that a quiet reserve so often isn’t enough in this world.

*image from; all links are unaffiliated with this blog

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

Revisiting: The Secret History Soundtrack

secrethistoryNote: In honor of the official publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch tomorrow, I though it would be fun and fitting to re-post this soundtrack for The Secret History that I originally posted March 3, 2009.  I’ve also updated the post below to include a  link to the soundtrack in Spotify. Happy listening!

Several weeks ago I came across a post on American Bibliophile that challenged readers to create a soundtrack for their favorite books. Immediately this was something I wanted to do, but little did I realize how difficult it might be. First, which book should I pick? I have many favorite novels: Plainsong, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, The Bright Forever, Franny and Zooey, and Rabbit, Run, just to name a very few. I finally settled on The Secret History because I had certain songs I associated with that book from the very first time I read it. Still, that brought up another dilemma: What sort of soundtrack should I create? Should I stick to a certain time period (i.e., if the song wasn’t around when the book was published, should I be allowed to use it?) or to a certain mood? Should I create it as though it were a movie soundtrack or pick songs for each of the characters?

After thinking about it for well over a week, I decided to go with the mood (and songs that were around when or before the book was published), following the chronology of events in the book. Without further ado, I present for you my soundtrack for The Secret History. I hope you enjoy it! In fact, I hope you’ll join the challenge!

Updated:  I’ve created this playlist in Spotify. You can listen to it here.

“Blue Bell Knoll” – The Cocteau Twins. This song has opens with an ethereal beginning and moves into a swirling, windswept feel that grows in intensity through the end of the song. I think it fits the opening of the book, where Richard first quietly reveals Bunny’s murder and then backtracks to tell us the story of how he decided to go to Hampden College.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” (Note: This is NOT a spoiler; it’s the first sentence of the book.)

“Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first few days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

“Three to Get Ready” – Dave Brubeck Quartet. This neat little jazz number makes me think of Richard watching the other Greek students on campus, and going to visit Julian, and realizing he wants to be a part of their world (as he imagines it). This song has the feeling of dappled sunlight and late fall afternoons, where there’s still a bit of warmth in the air, and everything in the world feels like a possibility.

“And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought the better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the great flock of possibilities drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that–like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes–I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor–voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.”

“Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (‘Tragic’), D. 417: Adante” – Franz Schubert. This piece is so pretty, but it has an undertone of melancholy that befits this section. The time during fall leading up to Christmas, when Richard spends weekends with the others at Francis’s family home in the country, is the most idyllic time for Richard, but he’s already told us it’s not to last.

“It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.”

“Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off…”

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis…we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.”

“Road, River, and Rail” – The Cocteau Twins. This is one of the songs I’ve always associated with this book, mainly because the mood of the song fits so well (one good thing about The Cocteau Twins, half the time it’s impossible to know what she’s singing about, so no other meaning imposes itself on the song). Christmas break is approaching, the others are leaving, and Richard has nowhere to go, so he finds a place to stay in Hampden. This song evokes for me the feelings I think Richard has, being left behind.

“The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty.”

“I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In the dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave.”

“Shipbuilding” – Elvis Costello. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I picked this song because of the mood, and also because the whole idea of rumors and half-truths reflects the confusion Richard feels about what’s happening in his circle of friends. The ease that existed before Christmas has been replaced by a tension that cannot long be contained.

“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.”

“Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character…He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented…Now that the old trusted channel markers had, so to speak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.”

“The Pan Piper” – Miles Davis. This song has the perfect sort of eerie feeling of being in the woods in the early spring: the dark, wet trees; the damp, musty earth. Richard and the others are in the woods to execute part of their plan to kill Bunny, when he happens upon them and fate takes its course.

“The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them–green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; no bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal against the darkening sky, the heavy air.”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division/ “True Faith” – New Order. I picked these songs for the sections where Richard and his friends are waiting for Bunny to be discovered, for the truth to be revealed–and once it is revealed, for the funeral. As time passes, they grow more irritable and unsure of each other.

“After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four in the morning.”

“Phantasiestucke (Three Fantasy Pieces). Op. 73” – Robert Schumann. This longer piece works well as the group unravels further, as each person deals with the consequences of the murder.

“I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? …so much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know…I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.”

“Mother of Pearl’ – Roxy Music. If I were making this soundtrack for a movie, I would edit out the first minute and thirty seconds to get to the heart of this song, which has the feeling of a fine party that has ended, a melancholy idea of what cannot be sustained: “I’ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine/But now I see that something just out of reach growing very Holy Grail…” Many years later, Richard goes to meet with a few friends from that time, and finds it wrenching to part:

“Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.”