Big Magic–Elizabeth Gilbert


I quite like Elizabeth Gilbert, but this was not always true. I read Eat, Pray, Love because some dear family members raved about it on Facebook.  I found Gilbert spoiled and precious.  I liked her more after seeing the film adaptation, in part because I like Julia Roberts.  I began appreciating Gilbert through her Facebook page, shared by a writer/artist friend.  Big Magic sealed my new assessment.

Gilbert encourages all of us to embrace our artistic impulses. Art becomes a way to survive modern life, and particularly, although she does not frame it this way, the crises of midlife.

“By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it [creativity] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.”

Gilbert’s message could echo the Nike slogan, Just Do It. Do not worry about what others think.  Do not worry about perfection.  The process has value.  Focus on the big magic.

Read the book. The chapters are short. Some are better than others.  They are easily skimmed for the best bits.


Under the Harrow–Flynn Berry

under the harrow


Summer screams for murder mysteries, thrillers, and multi-generational sagas that require flowers somewhere on the paperback cover—or a quirky font on a light solid background. Berry’s thriller is a perfect read.  She begins with a C.S. Lewis epigraph from which she draws the title.  I am not sure how Lewis would have felt about the novel itself, however.  Berry writes in clipped sentences that, in the beginning, feel almost like script notes and stage directions.  Each sentence is so spare that it pulls you forward to the next and the next to discover what the narrator really has to tell you.

Berry’s use of a limited first-person narrator builds on the suspense started by her style. The technical writing style builds trust in Nora as a narrator, but events begin to shake that trust.  Nora is a landscaper’s assistant.  She lives in London.  Her sister, Rachel, lives in a small village and works as a nurse in a hospital.  She owns a house and a German shepherd.  They are, for all intents and purpose, orphans.  Their father is homeless and addicted.  They are headed for a vacation in Cornwall.  We learn about their lives as Nora daydreams on the train on her way to Rachel.  We are still in her daydream when she enters the house and sees the dog hanging from its leash from a staircase bannister and ends up cradling Rachel’s dead body.  As the hours and early days go by, Nora forgets Rachel is dead when she is not focused on finding her killer.  Nora puts her life on hold.  She quits her job, sublets her flat and takes up residence in the one inn in the village.

Berry complicates the murder investigation with an unsolved brutal attack Rachel suffered as a teenager. The circumstances of that attack drag modern biases and issues into the heart of the investigation.  How responsible are women for becoming victims when they drink and engage in sexual behavior? Most of us would say of course they are not responsible for being victimized, but as the past comes into the present, Berry pushes the boundary between our rational and our emotional responses.  What were they thinking?  Why weren’t they more careful?  Where is the line at which you judge someone to be a slut?  How do we judge someone who has sought help for mental illness?  Someone who comes from a very broken family?

Under the Harrow is Berry’s first novel. As a thriller, it succeeds in pulling a reader in and dragging her forward.  Berry feints and keeps us guessing.  Like many such novels, especially early novels, the intense pace of the novel cannot be satisfied by the ending.  Berry acknowledges this, ending the novel with a ——.

Well worth the quick read at a spare 219 intense pages. Berry has succeeded in the genre of Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and anything by Ruth Ware.



The Rest of Us Just Live Here–Patrick Ness


Mikey’s mom is a state senator (you don’t need to say state, she tells everyone).  His younger sister, Mel, developed an eating disorder during their mom’s last campaign thanks to a heartless campaign manager’s comment about her weight.  They protect their youngest sister, Meredith, from their mother’s career and their father’s alcoholism.

Mikey suffers from anxiety and OCD.  He becomes stuck in loops of hand washing, door locking, etc.  And he worries about everyone’s safety, which is legitimate because, in addition to his family issues, his town is plagued by a supernatural something killing indie kids in his high school.

His best friend, Jared, is gay (and half divine) and, although they’ve “done stuff” together, Mikey is pretty sure he is not gay.  He has a crush on their friend, Henna, who is available, but he still can’t summon the nerve to tell her and graduation is looming.  Then she invites the new guy, Nathan, to their group prom date, and crisis approaches.

Ness has written a novel about sexuality, mental illness, and the fear of growing up set against the backdrop of vampires, blue-lit zombies, and supernatural powers. But a gentle, start-of-the-chapter, backdrop.  A quick, easy read.

Finished 2/22/17





A Long Way From Verona–Jane Gardam


A librarian recommended this book as part of a column for NPR–books you missed in x year.  The cover is lovely and modern and the story is lovely and historical.  WWII England, actually, with whiffs of the wardrobe and C.S Lewis’s Narnia in the distant background as children leave London for the “countryside” to be safe, only to have their school blown up by an English pilot trying to land and discharging his payload with poor aim.

WWII England is the setting, but this story is really about a young writer, Jessica Vye, whose father was a schoolmaster and then a parson who writes political columns in his study for the New Statesman and, she discovers, is somewhat famous for them.

Jessica feels different from everyone–peers, family, neighbors.  She is not, she notes, popular, but does have one good friend, Florence and some other friends who hang around because of Florence.  She rubs her teachers the wrong way.  She is bright and writes what she knows is a wonderful essay–spends all weekend on it–and eagerly awaits the praise she knows it deserves, only to be berated in front of the class for having spent too much time on it and for not burning it when she thought it was good because anything you think is good is rubbish and should be burned.  Cheery.

An author visits Jessica’s school and she slips him a bit of her writing and asks him to tell her if it is any good, but to say nothing if it is not.  Just before her family moves, she receives a letter telling her she is a writer.  Later she reads a terrible book given to her by a librarian and her heart sinks when she realizes it was written by the visiting author.

She survives a bombing raid in Dunedin Street and realizes the cool handsome boy with whom she was falling in love is still a child.  After days of sleeping following the experience, she writes a poem in one sitting that needs no revision and, again, gives it to a teacher and asks her to decide if it is any good and to submit it to a national poetry contest if it is and to say nothing if it is not.  When she wins, she is stunned, certain it is a mistake and the teacher and the contest judges were rubbish.

Jessica not only feels herself different and separate.  In a few instances, she sees herself floating above her body; she watches herself as an observer.

She finds her mother ridiculous, her little brother too infantile for his age, her father brilliant but too distant and distracted.

Jessica is a fascinating character around whom interesting events happen and in whom interesting interior monologues occur. The prose is haunting.  Jessica’s isolation may resonate with many of us–whether as adults or reflecting back on our adolescence.

Finished 2/19/17

The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family–Roger Cohen

I did not purposely begin this book at the time that the Trump administration began, but the early events of that administration made reading this book particularly challenging.  In the West, we like to believe that we have moved beyond the ethnic hatred and the moral lassitude that fueled the Holocaust.  Other people now enact genocides.  We know better.


Cohen is not a historian.  He is a journalist who dives into his family history to better understand his mother’s mental illness, which he and his sister discover as young adults.  His journey takes him to Lithuania, from which his grandparents escaped to South Africa in time to avoid the extermination that met so many of their neighbors.  Cohen’s mother’s mental illness, he finds, runs through her family.  Whether its roots are genetic or environmental, or a combination of both as DNA strained to cope with the trauma of leaving one’s homeland and then survivor guilt and the cognitive dissonance of accepting South African racism in order to avoid being subjected to the type of racism you had fled in the first place, is unclear.

Cohen’s ancestors left Lithuania in the nineteenth century.  Cohen traces their story as well as the stories of those who stayed.  Ongoing trauma haunts Cohen’s memoir–the trauma of ostracism, the trauma of exile, the trauma of survivor’s guilt, the trauma of sacrificing others to save yourselves, and so on.

While the United States was struggling to respond to an immigrant ban that seemed to be crafted to target Muslims without expressly banning Muslims, I struggled to read about the ways in which Lithuanians, Soviets, and Nazis slowly (or not so slowly) defined Jews as others and found avenues to excuse their extermination.  I also struggled to understand what made those who protected Cohen’s ancestors stand up when those around them stood down or helped commit evil.  I struggled further to understand why those brave individuals were rewarded with imprisonment and death.  Where is the “good guy wins in the end?”

There is no win in this tale.  Cohen’s grandparents and many other Jews escaped Lithuania for South Africa only to become complicit in the oppression of those native to South Africa.  When apartheid became official policy, many Jews left, including Cohen’s parents.  His mother, raised in privilege and sunshine, found England a difficult adjustment and the mental illness that plagued her family caught up with her there.  She was institutionalized and received electroshock therapy when Cohen was just three and missed his birthday.  She was institutionalized again following the birth of his sister, with what we might now call post-partum depression.

Cohen traces his family history to trace the losses and explain the suppressed trauma that may have emerged through mental illness. He traces the illness through his family tree, up to his cousins living in Israel and trying to cope with the need for a Jewish state while seeing the hypocrisy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Cohen also traces his branch of the family’s decision to reject Jewish religious practice, as well as their inability to avoid the consequences of being labeled Jewish, the quiet anti-Semitism of the British that seemed welcome after the violent anti-Semitism of the Continent, and his own relief at finding himself in company with those who don’t quite belong upon moving to New York.  Cohen explores the ways in which his family’s story moved him to pursue journalism and the stories of others who no longer fit in.

Cohen’s experiences have left him with a pessimistic view, a belief that, at the end of the day, most of us will choose our tribe over what is right.  He tries to end on a note of hope, an idea that someday we will find a way to live together peacefully, but the it is an optimism not supported by his narrative.

The Girl from Human Street will stay on my shelf.  Many of its most poignant lines are already posted on my Facebook wall and written on my memory.  I highly recommend Cohen’s memoir, but I do not promise it will be an easy journey.

Finished 2/13/17

The Life of Death and Sophie Stark–Anna North


The premise is interesting.  The life and death of the main character told through her stories with multiple narrators.  And a film critic.

Sophie is a waif from Iowa who does not know how to connect with people, but she sees them more clearly than others.  The novel begins with the story of Allison, whose story Sophie turns into a film and nearly destroys Allison in the process.  Then her brother, Robbie, who introduced her to film-making and who she leaves behind in Iowa to find fame in New York.  Then Jacob, the musician who becomes her husband and whose pain she makes into her greatest film.  Then Daniel, her first film who comes back to her after he is broken.  Then George, whose film she whisked from under his nose.  Back to Allison.  Then Robbie.  And Sophie’s masterpiece, to bring together those she loved to tell the story of her life and death.

It’s a bit self-absorbed, the tragic life and death of an artist who just can’t fit in, who can’t handle real life, who sacrifices herself for a beautiful death.  This is Anna North’s second novel.  From her author photo, she is very young herself, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a staff editor for the New York Times.

The characters are interesting.  The plot is interesting.  The idea is different from the usual abused woman disappears and the novel spends 200+ pages revealing where she went.  Instead, the title tells us she dies and the novel spends 200+ pages telling us how and why she died.  Do young women survive the novels whose titles they inhabit in the 2010’s?

Finished 1/23/17

Behind Closed Doors–B.A Paris


My oldest daughter and her friends, all in their early twenties, chose this book for their book club and, after they had discussed it, I inherited it.  I had just finished a string of murder mysteries and needed a break from suspense, so I put it away. This week, needing a quick read, I picked it back up.  I soon wished I had not.

Based on the blurbs at the start of the book, which I read only after I had finished the last page, this is one of those books that was self-published, gained attention from bloggers, and so gained a publishing contract.  It follows themes similar to those of a famous self-published novel that made it big–50 Shades (which I have not read, full disclosure).  The main character, Grace, is a successful fruit buyer for Harrod’s.  She specializes in exotic fruit, so has traveled and is, therefore, somewhat worldly.  Her parents did not want children and certainly did not want her younger sister, Millie, who suffers from Down’s syndrome.  Millie would have been aborted but from Grace’s protests and Grace took over much of the responsibility for raising Millie and, as an adult, has taken on responsibility for her care once she finishes boarding school.  Men have come and gone from Grace’s life, usually leaving after realizing her commitment to care for her special needs sister.  Men until perfect Jack, a handsome and successful lawyer who defends victims of domestic abuse and who adores Millie and agrees to her moving in with them when he proposes to Grace after a short courtship.

I found the first half of the novel very frustrating.  Grace ignores warning signs in a man around the age of 40 who has never been married and is physically gorgeous and economically prosperous.  For instance, she has to insist on sex.  He does not want Millie to be a bridesmaid.  Jack chooses a house for the couple without allowing Grace to see it.  Everything has to be a surprise/secret.

Millie falls and breaks her leg on the way into the ceremony, but Jack insists the ceremony continue without her.  He disappears on the wedding night, becomes rude, and still she plows forward.  No one but Grace is surprised when he turns out to be a controlling abusive asshole.  He does not rape her, in fact is not interested in her sexually.  He does not beat her.  Instead, he emotionally and mentally tortures her.  Part of that torture is the knowledge that he has only married her to have the opportunity to torture her sister, whose fear will be unfiltered.

Jack is a sadistic bastard who deserves what happens to him in the end, and reading about his comeuppance is the only consolation this novel offered me.  For most of the novel, which blessedly I was able to speed read, I marveled at what in our culture has young women wanting to read this type of “romance.”  I remember reading Beatrice Small and thrilling at the moments when the rough hero manhandled the heroine and then turned into the thoughtful lover she knew he could be.  Is this type of novel the evolutionary product of Beatrice Small?  I was parts horrified, parts social scientist observing the way that each scene dished up new levels of control and horror for Grace the way a dominatrix might dole out lashes with a whip or whatever a dominatrix does outside of the confines of Hollywood comedies.

I usually leave copies of the books I have read at a “little library” spot in my neighborhood.  I feel badly enough about this book that I am not sure it is a public good to offer up this book for anything more than paper recycling.

Finished 1/17/17