Thursday, January 28, 2016

Eleanor by Jason Gurley

There has been a great deal of discussion among well-established book bloggers in recent years about whether panning a book is quite the thing to do. I have certainly done so in the past, sometimes with great relish, but more often with a sense that even a book I could not abide was one that got published and one for which at least a few people plunked down their hard earned money to own. 

This stands in stark contrast to the dozens and dozens of books I have written which have seen light of day, and for which people have paid, of course. 

Any author -- even one who has written a lousy book -- gets a grudging amount of respect from me, because the author bothered to stay the course and put their homely child out there, front and center, and dodged ink-dripping slings and arrows from people like me. 

So that discussion began to niggle at me, and I began to tone down my pans. I make an intentional effort to find something of value in any book I finish, and to let you know what that was. I am not a compulsive book-finisher; if I am not engaged in the least, I don't hesitate to quit reading and pick up another in my pile. Of course, for years and years this was easy to do, since I walked into a bookstore full of books every working day. The Next Book was always just waiting right there. It's different now that I'm not doing that for a living anymore. What I have here at home is what I have. (Just like you people have been stuck with all this time.) 

This cruel fact won't likely change my habits overmuch, but it will surely keep me looking for a book's heart a bit longer than I might otherwise have spent. 

Such was the case with Jason Gurley's time and dimension bending novel, Eleanor.  This sentence from the blurb on the cover of the advance copy drew me in: 

This raw and beautiful story about the intensity of loss
and the complex relationships of families looks unflinchingly
at how grief can make us strangers to ourselves--and the 
unexpected ways in which family can save us. 

Having spent the better part of the past five years grieving personal losses, and coming to terms with the ways in which "grief can make us strangers to ourselves" in my own life, well, I just had to read this. 

A terrible accident claims the young life of Eleanor's identical twin, Esmerelda. Her mother, Agnes, retreats to bitterness and the bottle, and her father, Paul, leaves the family. While Eleanor's relationship with her father continues, it is a pale reflection of what it had been before the death of her sister. Gurley's deeply moving depiction of the family dynamic through the years that follow the accident had an emotional heft that suggests he is no stranger to the bitter wells of grief himself. 

I give nothing away when I tell you that Eleanor, as she grows, finds herself ripped from this world into other dimensions, many times over. During those absences from this world, time continues to pass, and when she returns to "us," it is often hours or days--or more--later. 

I could have traveled here with Gurley, except that the interludes of this second (or whatever ordinal number it might be) dimension began to bog things down considerably. These passages ceased to be mysterious and became laborious. During some of them I thought to stop reading the book entirely, but I had begun to have such a maternal need for things to work out for Eleanor in our world that I just didn't want to abandon her like her parents had done. 

When I was nearing the end I had a sense that when I finished I'd do so struck by the beauty and fresh insight that the novel, read in its entirety, had offered. Water, rivers, oceans, rain; all play pivotal roles in Eleanor. It would have been fitting, had I needed to wipe away a tear or two. 

I finished it last night. 

Dry as dust, my eyes were. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that Eleanor has been well and enthusiastically reviewed in other quarters. 


Publication date: January 2016
Crown Publishers

Postscript:  Years ago I read a novel that also made use of the imagery of moving water as an allegory for the natural cycles of life. It was extraordinary. That novel, written for young readers, was Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting. I read it as an adult, and it gets my enthusiastic recommendation.  

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Invisible City - Julia Dahl

For the longest time I resisted reading mysteries until I was persuaded to try Elizabeth George's A Great Deliverance. I was hooked, not just on her but on the genre. When I began my career as a bookseller, we did nice trade in mysteries, but by the time the store closed I daresay more than half of the works of fiction we sold were mysteries. Since more and more of our customers were making the leap, it behooved me to continue reading them even more. Hey! What can I say? It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. 

This is why I chose Invisible City to read, though. One of the mystery writers I jumped to after reading that Elizabeth George novel was Faye Kellerman. Her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series was a fascinating insight into the life of devout Judaism. I am drawn to lives of devotion that don't mirror what my own Christian faith looks like. After all, Christians hold that we are to go out into the world, but in Orthodox Judaism (and conservative Islam, for that matter), remaining separate from the world is paramount. The exercise of that call to separateness varies, of course, and the practices that Kellerman's Rina Lazarus follows are the sort that always seem lovely and do-able to me, even as they remained foreign.

Invisible City bore the "Staff Pick" sticker that we employed at the bookstore, and in this case was placed there by the owner. It was one of the last books I bought there, persuaded as I was by that sticker and also because it was a mystery involving Hasidic Jews. All I really knew about them was what I occasionally saw in the news, usually when their culture collided with ours. I have found them a curiosity, what with their somber clothes and unusual hair styles and hats. Like Amish, they can be identified easily by their outward appearances. What is it to live a practice of faith in which you voluntarily announce by your dress and hairstyle or hair covering, "I choose to stand apart from you?"

When an Hasidic Jewish woman's body is discovered in a scrap pile belonging to her husband's business, normal investigative channels into the crime are hampered by concessions made to the Orthodox community by local law enforcement. Since Rebekah Roberts, a stringer for a newspaper, is in the area when the body is discovered it falls to her to get the scoop. She becomes particularly curious about and involved in the lives of this community after discovering that one of the officers involved is a friend of her mother, who abandoned Rebekah in order to return to her Orthodox roots. His involvement, as liaison between the Hasidics and the police department, opens doors for Rebekah that provide her access to people and places to which the outside world is typically unwelcomed. 

I was drawn in by Rebekah's own curiosity about the mother she has never known, and a faith she has never shared. Dahl's sensitivity to those who practice Orthodox Judaism is obvious, and serves to draw back a curtain for the reader in order that we may peer beyond the merely curious into understanding. 

I am looking forward to reading the next in the series, as soon as I can get my hands on it. Where's a great bookstore when you NEED one? 

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Undertaker's Daughter by Kate Mayfield

My fascination with all things morbid is something I trace back to a time when, for some reason that escapes me now but likely had something to do with one or more older siblings being mean to me, I had to sit on the other side of a closed door while they watched "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte." 

When you're an impressionable child and one of your most vivid earliest memories is the sound of a head going thunk-a-tah-thunk-a-tah-thunk-a-tuh down the winding staircase of a tragedy-haunted mansion, you either become a life-long 'fraidy cat or you develop a penchant for exploring the darker sides of life. 

It's telling, too, that among my favorite books as a child, right up there on the list with a lovely collection of illustrated poems and stories called My Brimful Book, was a Reader's Digest special edition coffee table book on prehistoric Native Americans, primarily because it involved quite a lot of human sacrifice. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that I was drawn to this memoir by Kate Mayfield. Morbid curiosity gets me every time. I hate the cold, sterile funeral homes that are part of our landscape now, but there was a time when the undertaker and his family were just as likely to live on a floor above them as anywhere else. This is part of the history of American death that has held great interest to me, and one about which I hoped to learn a great deal more by reading The Undertaker's Daughter.

Mayfield's memoir starts out as oddly sweet and often funny as I'd hoped it would be. Her father was clearly a man she adored, and the two of them had a relationship that hinged good-naturedly on what he knew to be her hero worship of him. As Mayfield draws him for most of the book, he's not so much a Gomez Addams kind of dad as he is a Jim Anderson one. It just happens that what father knows best is how to take care of bodies, both living and dead. 

The memoir takes an abrupt turn when the author drops the thread of her story, and rather inexplicably begins to divulge one ugly secret after another. It ceased to be a quirky tale of a family who never quite fit in and became what felt was the author's determined effort to paint herself in a heroic light against the backdrop of the shortcomings and tragedies of her family. The disconnect Kate began to feel from her family was mirrored by the disconnect I began to feel from her. 

The most beautiful writing Mayfield accomplished was in the ongoing story of Agnes Davis, the eccentric lady in red who befriends Kate and her father. Her mysterious past, her penchant for red, and the hold she holds over the imaginations of people long after her death; well, that could have been story enough.

I honestly think that if all the stories that became this memoir had been written as related essays, I would have been enthusiastic. The Undertaker's Daughter was a People magazine pick, so somebody liked it. 

It just wasn't me. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Widow by Fiona Barton

On one of my last days as a bookseller a customer asked if I had ever read Alice Sebold's bestselling novel The Lovely Bones. I confessed that I had started it but had put it down rather quickly. There are just some things that are off-putting to me, and the harming of a child is one of them. 

Even one of my most favorite writers, Susan Hill, nearly lost me with her novel The Soul of Discretion, because of its frank portrayal of sexual crimes against children. I continued to read it and ultimately thought it was a very strong entry in her series, but still find myself resistant to the subject matter, most especially, as it happens, when it is written to be consumed as entertainment. 

Had I picked up even the tiniest idea that Fiona Barton's forthcoming novel The Widow dealt with a missing-and-presumed-dead child, I'm not sure I would have added it to my stack. All the jacket cover on the ARC told me was this: 

When the police started asking questions, Jean Taylor turned into a different woman. One who enabled her and her husband to carry on when more bad things began to happen...But that woman's husband died last week. And Jean doesn't have to be her anymore.

There were references to her husband's terrible crime, but nary a mention that it involved a child. I am always curious, when a person is convicted of a heinous crime, about how a spouse who lived with them (usually a wife) could have done so without a clue. And, if they had had a clue, what living with that must have felt like. Or what would that moment of discovery feel like if the first inkling that there was something off was the moment a spouse was put in handcuffs? 

So, that's why I decided to read this one, but even after Barton revealed what the crime had been, her writing carried me along. Her use of multiple voices (The Widow, The Detective, The Reporter) was effective at putting the crime to stage left and focused instead on the aftermath. She also tells the story in jumbled chronological order, which I found to be less effective.  

Barton succeeds at making The Widow a fascinating character study of a woman who finds herself trapped in a space between the person she truly is and the one into which she has allowed herself to be molded by others. 

I can easily recommend this one (as does the blurb on the ARC jacket) to fans of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins' Girl on a Train.

Publication date: March 1, 2016
Published by New American Library 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Welcome to 2016, and my odds and ends from 2015!

There is a short stack of books I read in recent past months that I just never got around to reviewing. Because I want to start 2016 off fresh, I just have to get those off my to-do-blog list. 

I'm looking forward to reading more in 2016 than I have in the last few years. I began to really fall off on my pace for a number of reasons, most of which don't bear examination. As a wise friend reminds me constantly, it is what it is. Losing my job as a bookseller will free me up considerably to read solely for myself, and I'm already enjoying being able to stop making lists of which customers just have to read a book I've loved, or who should be gently steered away from one. I never read a book alone, really. My customers were always swimming around in my head, and I welcomed having every one of them in my reading brain for these past many years. Not having them there anymore is bound to affect my reading experience. 

All of that said, here are the books that I've read of late but haven't written about. I'll make this as quick and painless as possible. 

I can really blame my reviewing lethargy in recent months at least partially on this one. For weeks and weeks -- both before and after its release -- it's all we talked about in the store. I don't know that I have anything truly fresh to say about it at this point, but here are some of my condensed thoughts. If you have suffered through any conversation about it with me before now, there'll be nothing new here, so y'all can just scroll on down. 

1. I'm glad I read it, which is not the same thing as saying that I really liked it. 

2. I was sort of jazzed by the thought that when her friends in New York, the Browns, gave a very young Harper Lee a subsidized year in that city to sit and write the book she needed to write, this was what spilled out, in its imperfect, messy glory. 

3. I need friends like the Browns. 

4. Every child of the South who has left has looked back with a critical eye, and made an effort to distance themselves from the worst parts of it by separating themselves from all of it. Somehow, almost to a one they discover that they love more about their home than they hate, and learn that you can embrace the culture of the South even if you don't (and shouldn't) love all its bits and pieces. This plays out with great clarity in this novel. 

5. Virtually no child of the South who grew up here in the many years before the Civil Rights movement doesn't understand that fundamentally good people can hold fundamentally bad beliefs. I grew up in a household in which it went without saying that racial slurs were not permitted, one in which those who cared for us were as beloved as blood kin (and in some cases, even more); but it was also a household in which I didn't ever think to ask if Ida Mae had a family of her own, or wonder what her life was like when she stepped out of ours. The promise of this novel is borne out, though, in the realization that each successive generation of decent people have been able to let go a layer of the vestiges of racism, even as we still have work to do. 

6. Reading GSAW is a stunning example of how valuable is the work of a great editor. Ms. Lee's editor, Tay Hahoff, must be applauded for her recognition of where the diamonds lay amidst all the coal. Her role in the enduring success of what became Ms. Lee's finished novel cannot be overstated. It is so easy these days to have a novel published without going through the hands of a gifted editor, and it breaks my heart that there may be another To Kill a Mockingbird out there, hidden under layers of unpolished writing. 

7. And finally, no, I do not think Ms. Lee was manipulated, taken advantage of, or coerced into publishing this glorified manuscript. I'm beyond wanting to argue the point with anyone. I know very well the reputation of her friend Wayne Flynt, and hold him in highest regard. I believe he knows her better than any living soul, and his opinion has held the greatest weight for me. 

The rest of the reviews are, mercifully, more abbreviated. 


Reading Ruth Ware's thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, was the literary equivalent of binge-watching one of those Netflix series that rightfully never won an award but was perfect while you were stuck in bed recovering from a little outpatient surgery. I recommend it for those sorts of circumstances, as it was a more than adequate way to kill some time. 

Published in hardcover August 2015
Available in paper edition April 19, 2016
Scout Press
Simon & Schuster, Inc. 


I happened to start reading Lindsay Starck's gloomily lovely novel Noah's Wife at the very beginning of what would turn out to be more than a week of constant rain here in my town. Noah is an energetic young preacher who asks to be the replacement for a clergyman who wound up stepping into a river and drowning under mysterious circumstances. The small town in which this church is located is being swallowed up by unrelenting rain. Obviously a retelling of sorts of the story of that Noah, but on occasion I felt the author was laboring to make the allegory fit that narrative. There were some lovely moments, and more than a few beautiful turns of phrase. Here's one I dog-eared: 

"We all belong to to someone else, in one way or another. There's all kinds of people who have shaped us, made us who we are--not just the people we keep close to to us, but also tens and hundreds of other people we don't even remember, strangers we stood behind in line and talked to for a minute."

On sale January 26, 2016
G.P. Putnam's Sons


I am fascinated by the lifestyle of polygamists. I have two children whose names I often mixed up while they were little; how does a man with a gazillion of them keep it all straight? And who are the women who enter into these marriages? Ruth Wariner grew up in one of these families, in a compound just beyond the border in Mexico. While her mother was married first to one of the founders of this particular group, her remarriage after his death placed her way down on the spousal totem pole of Wariner's stepfather. They lived a life of physical and emotional and practical deprivation, and my heart so very nearly broke for her and her sibblings so very many times I lost count. I could not put this book down, although it was not as insightful or poetic as Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle. I am happy to recommend it, though, and would have directed people who loved Walls' memoir to it.

On sale January 5, 2016
Flatiron Books

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