One Vacant Chair–Joe Coomer

Another amazing book that I almost passed by on the shelf, which goes to show that I’m a poor judge of what is good for me.  I’m so glad I pulled it out and, to confess to being somewhat superficial, the cover image drew me in.  A painting of a chair.   Some covers show a photograph of a modern aluminum chair.  That is no good for this book.   The flyleaf said something about an aunt who painted only chairs and I thought, gimmicky, but it worked, and I added it to my pile.

Sarah is overweight and middle-aged.  She creates Christmas ornaments for Hallmark, but does not believe in Jesus.  She has just discovered that her husband was cheating on her and, although he wants to mend things, she is not sure.  Her grandmother, who disliked her and vice versa, just died and they are forced to attend the funeral together.  Awkwardness ensues made more awkward by the eccentricity of her grandmother’s caregiver, her Aunt Edna.  Aunt Edna collects and paints chairs and the novel sucked me in as Sarah described moving these mismatched chairs to a vacant lot for the funeral service.  Aunt Edna is the school lunch lady, the youngest daughter who stayed home to care for her elderly parents while her older siblings left Texas for jobs and lives elsewhere.  Her father died many years ago of pancreatic cancer and her mother had been an arthritic invalid with a variety of accompanying illnesses ever since.

But Aunt Edna is not bitter.  She loved her mother dearly and what emerges is a beautiful and complex mother-daughter relationship that broke my heart while it reassured me of the truth of real love.   The will reveals that Edna will inherit the house and Grandma wants her ashes scattered in Scotland, which she had fallen in love with from a coffee table book given to her by her grandson.  The oldest sister, Margaret, who speaks economically and, instead, uses exaggerated body language to communicate and tyrannize her family, challenges both requests and insists that her parents spend their eternal rest together.  The compromise is to disinter Grandpa, cremate his remains, and carry both sets of ashes to Scotland.  At the conclusion of the meal, Sarah decides not to return home with her husband, but to stay behind to help Aunt Edna deal with the bureaucracies of the disinterment as well as the foreign travel.

Sarah and Aunt Edna go on a diet and Sarah begins drawing again, with some guidance from Aunt Edna.  Any stiffness is broken by James, the blind black man who canes Aunt Edna’s chairs and who is in love with Aunt Edna.  A short time after the funeral, Edna accepts his proposal of marriage and Sarah realizes she will have to decide where to go once the Scotland trip is over.  Edna is trying to teach her to see again in order to draw.  James is trying to teach her to see the way he sees and gradually, Sarah begins to see through her anger.

The trip to Scotland is priceless as two Texas women descend on a land of greenery and moisture.  Sarah realizes she loves travel, pushes herself to experience life to the fullest, and receives two painful revelations that drive the plot of the remainder of the book.

The novel is written in the first-person, but as a retrospective account.  From this we know that Aunt Edna’s paintings have become famous and that many scholars and others have offered endless speculation about her life and motivations.  One of my favorite plot elements is Edna’s decision to put her parents’ ashes in wooden boxes that she paints with chairs and her realization, after a museum visit in Edinburgh, that humans have been putting remains in boxes for thousands of years.

Having watched my parents lose their fathers in recent years, I am conscious of the visceral pain of losing a parent and I dread when they lose their mothers.  Because of these experiences, the scene in which Sarah and Edna scatter the last of the ashes and Edna, crying, sticks her ash-covered hands in her mouth so she will not have to let go of the last of her mother, was wrenching where for others it might be more nauseating.

Coomer creates thoroughly engaging characters who guide us through a meditation on life and death and the relationship between and the place of love in the midst of it all, familial and romantic love.  This is a book that will not leave me any time soon.  It even made me want to try my hand at painting chairs.

Finished 6/25/12


Nicholas Cooke: Actor, Soldier,Physician, Priest-Stephanie Cowell


I have read several of Cowell’s novels and have only now come to her first, Nicholas Cooke.  Cowell enters the Elizabethan world she knows so well from her studies and Renaissance festival experience to create Cooke, son of a hanged man and a prostitute, himself a refugee from the law fled from Canterbury to London and saved by Kit Morley, later apprenticed to John Heminges and friend to William Shagspere.  Nicholas becomes one of the actors with Heminges’ troop, later a star of the Globe, but is always troubled by a calling to the priesthood for which he no longer feels fit.  He runs away to war in Ireland with Essex and marries Heminges’ daughter and fathers several children , buys and tries to restore the chapel to which he fled as a young man, and then, finally, studies medicine and Oxford and receives ordination after befriending an ailing and aging bishop.

Cowell creates a complex and likeable protagonist and, in the process, made me fall further in love with Heminges, the man who seems to have kept so many geniuses together.

I regret that Nicholas is not a historical figure, but Cowell has made him so realistic that I’m sure somewhere there was a Nicholas Cooke, even if she did not find him exactly in the records.

Finished 6/23/12

The Slow Moon–Elizabeth Cox

Cox does it again.  She grabs the reader by the poo-poo by page two and then slowly and deliciously unravels a complex tale of family and community in the context of small-town Tennessee.  The Slow Moon begins with the kind of party many American teenagers attended–someone’s parents are out of town and kids converge, the social machine greased with alcohol and whispers of drugs alongside the natural impetus of youthful sexuality.  Crow and Sophie leave the party, having predetermined that tonight is “the night.”  Sophie is adventurous and takes the lead, telling Crow to lie down on the leaves and removing her own clothes.  Nature progresses a little too far before the responsible bell goes off and Crow has to run back to his car, parked a distance from the house to fool the neighbors (who are, as always, assumed too silly to realize their neighbors’ house is full of people and noise despite the lack of cars in the driveway).  From there, it all goes wrong.  Crow dashes off in his underwear and is detained when some young women park next to his car and chat.  When he returns to Sophie, she is blooded and bruised and his response, to flee, reveals that he has not yet made it to manhood, despite the DNA evidence left in her body.

The remainder of the novel traces Crow’s experience of going to trial, Sophie’s experience of living with gang rape in the months following, and the search for the culprits as the town struggles to live with the fact that we can’t tell by looking who the good guys and who the bad guys really are.

This is a tough novel to end as a writer, I assume.  How do you end the story of coping with gang rape?  How do you end a story of betrayal that is revealed only at the end?  The slow unraveling makes the novel compelling, but leaves Cox closing with a scene a little too sweet to seem likely.  Perhaps this comes from the fact that, despite the novel’s opening with the gang rape of Sophie, she is not the main story line.  Cox’s focus is on the boys and their mothers and even Sophie’s mother.  Sophie is the narrative device around whom the story is built, which ends up putting the reader in the place of the rapists:  using Sophie to fulfill our own needs without considering her as a fully-developed person whose life will be shattered by our rough intrusions and leaves Cox wanting to reassure us that it’s all ok when she needed to do the opposite.

Finished 6/12/12

The Glass of Time–Michael Cox

I’m blaming it on The Last Dickens, which I picked up while on vacation and stuck without anything to read.  I had steered clear of historical fiction, particularly historical mystery fiction, for a long time, but now I’m back and drawn to the 19th century.  I’m also trying to stay true to my project of going through the library shelves and, since Cox is in the Cs, it was read this now or wait until the project was over.

A note unrelated to the actual text.  It is amazing the different iterations of cover art.  This particular version contains a black and white image of what looks to be a generic sort of Victorian brick building, maybe an estate, but on closer inspection, the building itself is quite intriguing because the steps are flanked by stone greyhounds.   Yes, greyhounds rather than lions.  It’s Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire and the photograph comes from the Marsden Archives, which features the fantastic and supernatural.  Interesting choice for the cover art here.

In medieval art, dogs signify loyalty, which is a theme in this novel.  Young Esperanza “Alice” Gorst comes to Evenwood in Northhamptonshire on an undefined mission from her guardian, Madame de l’Orme, and tutor, Mr. Thornhaugh, to secure the position of and serve as lady’s maid to Landy Tansor, whose story and two sons intrigue young Alice.  Madame de l’Orme promises Esperanza that she will outline the details of her mission in three letters to be delivered by the end of the year.  All she knows to start is that she is to get as close to Lady Tansor as possible, while watching her own back.

Lady Tansor is widowed, but she mourns not her husband, rather her fiance and youthful love, a dreadful poet, Phoebus Daunt, who had been named heir to the Tansor fortune in light of Lord Tansor’s lack of a son.  Daunt had been murdered, reputedly by his school friend, Edward Glyver, who then disappeared from history.  Emily Carteret, whose own father had recently been murdered in a suspected theft, was subsequently chosen by Lord Tansor as his heir and she left promptly for Europe to mourn and returned with a Polish husband and infant son.  Esperanza’s father was Edwin Gorst, now buried in Paris alongside her mother, who died shortly after her birth.  Madame de l’Orme, a family friend & herself a widow, undertook to raise Esperanza.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.  What is fun is that, even though the major plot line is clear early on, several of the twists are not and Cox manages to leave the trail of bread crumbs in an entertaining and suspenseful way.  Esperanza is so loyal to her mission that she betrays a growing sense of friendship and her own heart in order to accomplish it.  Lady Tansor is so loyal to her dead lover that she commits sin after sin in order to carry out his mission.  Esperanza, who seems the soul of loyalty, in the end is less loyal than the selfish Lady Tansor, maybe because Esperanza’s mission is carried out for her late father, who is revealed to have been less loyal than Esperanza might have hoped.

Cox engages in some of the Da Vinci Code methodology that has become de rigor for historical mystery and includes footnotes regarding Victorian literature and names, which throws an oddly scholarly edge to a novel that is written as a first-person account of this undefined mission.

It’s a good historical mystery read that privileges the love relationship over that of mere friendship and that provides several twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and this in the first person.  Not an easy task.

Finished 6/10/12

The Peach Keeper–Sarah Addison Allen

What is it about the South that makes all relationships seem more complex, all bonds deeper?  Sarah Addison Allen sets The Peach Keeper in Walls of Water, North Carolina, a town divided between the hiker newbies and the old-school Southern families from the town’s logging day origins and her main character, Willa,  bridges these worlds by owning a sporting goods store in the “new” part of town while being a descendant of the family who built the town mansion, The Blue Ridge Madam, only recently restored.    Willa’s family lost their fortune and their good name in the youth of her grandmother, who became pregnant without being married and went from the privileged child growing up in the Blue Ridge Madam to the maid of her former friends.  Willa, the class prankster in grade school, portrays herself as a screw-up who made good following the death of her father, and is haunted by regrets for her childish resentments of her family’s lack of wealth and for not fulfilling what she believed were her father’s goals for her.

Paxton is her former classmate and the daughter of the current leading family in Walls of the Water, but, like Willa, she has issues.  She still lives with her parents, only recently finding enough independence to move to the pool house, and is in love with a man she is certain is gay.  Paxton has overseen the restoration of the Blue Ridge Madam as a bed and breakfast in her role as the president of the Women’s Society Club, founded by her grandmother and Willa’s the year that Willa’s family lost the Madam.  Both grandmothers now reside in a senior care facility, with Paxton’s grandmother retreating into bitterness and Willa’s into dementia.  Paxton is a perfectionist who is haunted by her own imperfection, starting with her body, about which her mother constantly reminds her.

Paxton’s handsome twin, Colin, is home to complete the landscape restoration for the Madam and a chance encounter with Willa at the site begins a romance that, together with Paxton’s love for her fashionista-friend, Sebastian, forms the subplot of the novel.  The major plot line is revealed when the removal of an old peach tree on the property  unearths a skeleton and some artifacts that lead Paxton and Willa on a quest for answers as to why their grandmothers founded the society the year Willa’s family left the Madam and why they allowed themselves to grow so far apart in the intervening years.

The novel is a little too rosy:  women come to each other’s aid as a natural instinct and men who once identified as gay do not stay so, but Allen creates two memorable characters and a memorable setting for her tale of the way history is always influencing the present, and that’s an easy sell for me.

Finished 6/4/12

The Last Dickens–Matthew Pearl

This book is amazing.  I had read Pearl’s earlier work, The Dante Club, but had not followed his work since.  I happened upon this novel while on vacation and am delighted.  Dickens is dead and his last novel unfinished–or is it?  James Osgood, of Osgood and Field, Dickens’ American publishers, becomes involved in the search for Dickens last pages as he investigates the death of his employee, Daniel Sand.  Daniel happens to be the brother of the young widow, Rebecca Sand, who is one of the women to recently join the firm’s office and who joins Osgood on his quest.  The story moves from Boston to New York to England to India and back and between the time of Dickens’ death and his first American tour, but Pearl brings it all together in a masterful conclusion.  In the meantime, he explores issues of gender, early publishing, and New York politics in the late nineteenth century that make this more than just a historical crime drama.  Now I have to find The Poe Shadow.

Finished 5/21/12

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English–Natasha Solomons

This is a wonderful little novel.  Mr. Rosenblum and his wife and daughter escape Nazi Germany in early days and flee to England.  Upon arrival, Rosenblum is given a pamphlet on how to be British and he attends to it with the same degree of intention that he gives to all his endeavors, adding his own annotations.  He builds a fortune in the carpet industry.  He is stymied only in his efforts to join a golf club, where he encounters the wall of British anti-Semitism.

If you can’t beat ’em, build your own.  Rosenblum sees a crumbling old country home with acreage advertised and he moves his wife out of London into what seems to her the wilderness.  Rosenblum has never even golfed, but, as with his pamphlet on being British, he studies the masters and begins work on the course.  His work on the course at all hours with his own hands overcomes the prejudices of his rural neighbors, many of whom he eventually employs to help him in the course construction.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblum are struggling to find their place.  Mrs. Rosenblum has lived a life of loss and depression since arriving in England.  She cannot enjoy their successes knowing that they escaped the Nazis when her family did not.  She is particularly haunted by the shades of her mother and brother, whose artifacts she keeps in a box.  She and Mr. Rosenblum have grown widely apart.  She resents his assimilation as a betrayal of their lost family and he resents her sullen refusal to adjust to their new circumstances.  Both are somewhat adrift with their only child off to university and clearly avoiding them.  She follows her father’s lead in assimilating, which becomes most clear when her father realizes she has changed her last name to Rose.  This, combined with the loss of Mrs. Rosenblum’s artifacts to a flood in the house, brings everything to a crisis as she nearly succeeds in committing suicide.  This tragedy causes Mr. Rosenblum to reprioritize and the couple begin to come back together, even over the golf course.

A series of betrayals threaten Mr. Rosenblum’s realization of his golf course dream, but with the help of his wife, new friends, and a golf legend, the course opens and Rosenblum realizes he is fully English.

Solomons manages to deal with tragically painful issues of inhumanity without writing a purely dark story.  Rosenblum’s almost endless optimism and his comic efforts with the golf course relieve the horror of the period’s anti-Semitism, even in the land of those portrayed as the “good guys.”

Finished 5/23/12