Thursday, March 14, 2019

Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

Oh, readers, you are in for quite a ride. If you’ve yearned for a fine novel like those by Kent Haruf and David Rhodes, Nickolas Butler’s  Little Faith is the novel that you who adored Plainsong, All Souls at Night, and Driftless will love. Opening with a scene in a small cemetery where 65-year-old Lyle is entertaining his beloved five-year-old grandson Isaac while his wife Peg and daughter Shiloh shop in Minneapolis, the novel quickly delivers the reader to a quiet way of living. Lyle opines, “The world, he knew, was divided into two camps of people, as it so often is, or as it so oftentimes and simply reduced to being, those who find cemeteries places of sadness and eeriness, and those, like him, who felt here a deep and abiding unity and evenness, as if the volume in his life were suddenly dimmed down, the way he imagined it might be, floating in outer space, looking out over everything – the immensity of it all. For Lyle, this was a place to be close to people long gone. A free and quiet place off to the side of things. A place to touch not just his memories, but his future.” Lyle and Peg’s first child, son Peter, who died when he was an infant is buried in this cemetery as are the others Lyle fondly remembers from a lifetime spent in the area.

Daughter Shiloh grew up in the Lutheran Church in their town, but “her faith had grown in ferocity since her childhood. She no longer drank even so much as a light beer, a margarita, or a Bartles & James, and insisted on prayers before every meal. She wore more conservative clothing, quoted scripture frequently, and challenged Lyle and Peg with questions of their own faith.

On those Sundays, since she and Isaac had moved back home, she politely attended church with her parents, only to visit another church later, this one in La Crosse, in an old movie theater. And she would spend her entire afternoon and early evening there, in fellowship, she would explain. Lyle understood churchly fellowship, but only in the context of two or three mugs of wan coffee and polite chitchat, after which, wasn’t it time to head home and mow the lawn? Or rake some leaves? Perhaps clean the gutters or pull weeds?

The truth was, Lyle did not believe in God – or at least, wasn’t sure he did. It began after Peter passed away. As if the will to believe, the energy to believe had been sapped from him.”

While Lyle had stopped believing, he’d never stopped attending church and he suspected that there were millions of others like him who attended “as much out of routine or obligation as out of any real fervor or belief.” Peg wouldn’t let him go; “she believed for him, and in him, too, somehow.”

Since his retirement, Lyle had worked part-time in an orchard and he cherished days spent there and loved it when Isaac accompanied him and they shared apple cider and lunch together amid the apple trees. “Oh, he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.” So when Shiloh asks Lyle and Peg to attend her church, they go and keep going despite Lyle’s dislike of the rock music and of Steven, the know-it-all young man wearing “new blue jeans made to look old,” who is the pastor of the church.

Soon Shiloh and Isaac move to be near her new job, church, and Steven who becomes her fiancé. While Lyle feels that he’s always on eggshells around the “new” Shiloh, he’s willing to give up a lot to be near Isaac. But all that is tested when Isaac becomes ill and Shiloh and Steven insist that their faith will heal him. What happens tests all of them and the beauty of the way Nick Butler tells the tale, is that every reader will see what’s happening through their own beliefs.

Butler brilliantly divides the books by the seasons beginning and ending with spring and thus embeds the reader in the cycle of life that the book shares. He also uses nature, particularly the apple orchard to show that for Lyle the land and the orchard are Eden thus it’s extraordinarily difficult for him to see why anyone would leave that paradise for false idols.

This is a novel for everyone and it’s one that’s almost impossible for this reader to review because I want to share every word of it with you so that you, too, will feel the beauty and comfort of it washing over you. That Nick Butler isn’t yet forty proves the words of Acts – “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Nick Butler provides the reader with an exquisite world complete with a dreaming older man who shows us the way. I’ve loved all Butler’s novels, but with this one, he’s created holy ground.

Summing it Up: Little Faith is the novel readers have been wishing for since Kent Haruf’s All Souls at Night. It’s an engaging, thought-provoking tale of a grandparent’s love for his grandson and for the life he’s blessed to live. It’s a novel of gratitude for the natural world and of the threats to the things we hold sacred. Give yourself a gift, read Little Faith. It’s an epiphany wrought on paper.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: March 5, 2019

What Others are Saying:

Publishers Weekly: “This is storytelling at its finest.”

Wall Street Journal: “[A] tender and perceptive novel... An open-minded inquiry into the nature of religious belief, in both its zealous and low-key forms... “Little Faith” is [Butler’s] best so far, unafraid of sentiment yet free of the kitsch.”

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The River by Peter Heller

The prologue of this magnificent adventure story shows the reader that the coming tale will be more than a travelogue of two college kids on a canoe trip. Wynn and Jack have been smelling smoke for two days and they know that they’re approaching a forest fire – “who knew how far off or how big, but bigger than any they could imagine.” The prologue teases the reader with what’s to come via Wynn and Jack’s encounter with “two men and a plastic fifth of Ancient Age bourbon drunk on a summer morning.” In those first few pages, they also glimpse a couple they hear arguing. Through these brief foretastes, Peter Heller, the author of the spectacular Dog Stars and The Painter, offers glimpses of the troubles to come before he helps us know and care for protagonists Jack and Wynn. 

Heller tells us that Jack, who grew up on a Colorado ranch, is grieving the death of his mother then shares how that grief feels. “When Jack got accepted at Dartmouth, his Dad said, ‘Your mother would be over the moon.’ Over the moon. She was over the moon. It was almost exactly how he had been thinking of her these past years. When he walked halfway to the horse barn on a cold night and stood in the frozen yard and watched the moon climb over Sheep Mountain, he sometimes whispered, ‘Hi, Mom.’ He wasn’t quite sure why, it just seemed that if she were to be anywhere it would be there. Maybe it was because his favorite book when he was very little was Goodnight Moon. She had read it to him over and over, and after she drowned he kept the battered copy on the little shelf above the bed and sometimes fingered the worn corners and flipped through it before he slept. And it was books he took solace in. When he wasn’t out on the ranch, or riding the lease, or fishing.”

At Dartmouth, he met Wynn and “He and Wynn had that in common, a literary way of looking at the world. Or at least a love of books, poetry or fiction or expedition accounts.” The two had met on a freshman orientation trip backpacking through the White Mountains. “Jack was startled. He’d never had conversations like this with another kid, and he’d never imagined anyone else his age would love to read as much as he did – especially a guy who seemed to be able to more than handle himself in the woods. They were best friends from that first day, and whatever else they were doing, they never went very long without trading books.”

As the two friends row their way through a Canadian wilderness, Heller presents us with unique, yet earthbound views of the trip. “His fly hit the water and was met with a small splash and tug. A hard tug, and Wynn’s spirit leapt and the rod tip doubled and quivered and he felt the trembling through his hand and arm and, it seemed, straight to his heart, where it surged a strong dose of joy into his bloodstream.”. . . “It was not a long fight and not a huge fish, but it was a fourteen-inch brown—who knew how they had come to live way up here – big enough, the first like him they’d seen, and with a gratitude and quiet joy he did not know he still had, he got the slapping fish up on the rocks and thanked him simply and thwacked him on a smooth stone and the golden trout went still. Phew. Lunch. A few more like that and they’d be set for the day.”

Despite their need to return to civilization quickly, Jack and Wynn turn around to warn the men and the couple about the impending fire and they find Mia, the woman they’d heard previously. She’d been left to die by her husband who now knew that they knew what he’d done so they were all targets with more than the fire to fear. Thus the novel turns from a simple adventure tale to a harrowing page-turner with the reader wondering if anyone will survive.

As they take turns sitting watch at night, each ponders their lives. Jack sits observing Wynn and thinks, “Wynn was an angel in a way. He slept usually as soon as his head hit the pillow or rolled up jacket, he slept easily and hard because, Jack figured, his conscience was clear and he had faith in the essential goodness of the earth and so felt cradled by it.
Imagine. That’s what Jack thought. Imagine feeling that way. Like God had you in the palm of his hand or whatever.”. . . “It sort of awed Jack. Sometimes, usually, it made him crazy.”

The River is part thriller, part adventure tale, and part elegy. The sum of those parts is an extraordinary view of what’s important in life. It’s simply spectacular.

Summing it Up: The River’s exquisite sentences celebrate nature and epitomize the best aspects of true friendship. It’s a thriller. It’s an outdoor lover's dream of an adventure tale. It’s quite simply one great novel. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: March 5, 2019
What Others are Saying:
“Using an artist’s eye to describe Jack and Wynn’s wilderness world, Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Heller has transformed his own outdoor experiences into a heart-pounding adventure that’s hard to put down.” –Library Journal (Starred Review)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English: an Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s been a snowy, icy, chilly, and sometimes gloomy winter here in Chicagoland and I was contemplating hopping on a flight to escape until I opened the pages of Benjamin Dreyer’s magnum opus and without removing my slippers vacationed on every page. This handbook and style guide delivers sage advice for those of us who have an ongoing love affair with the English language while entertaining us by stating the rules in such a fresh and wry manner that we feel both smarter and happier for having read them. It’s also part memoir and the recollections Dreyer shares on working with writers like Richard Russo as Random House’s copy chief make it a page-turner.

If my mother were alive, we’d be spending hours on the phone reading to each other from almost every page. Mom, a former English teacher and lover of wry Noël Coward style humor, would have adored the entire book, but I think her favorite sentence might have been in the Peeves and Crotchets chapter regarding "INVITE (AS A NOUN): If your life expectancy is so limited that you don’t have the time to issue an invitation, you might not be up to throwing that party." I can almost hear her chuckling.

Having fervently believed that my worn copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Roget’s Thesaurus, and my Merriam-Webster dictionary are the only volumes I need within reach of my laptop, I’ve had to create additional space for what I’m already calling simply Dreyer’s. I need it there for quick advice and so I can turn to a random page and laugh when my brain is stuck.

In the chapter titled “A Little Grammar is a Dangerous Thing,” Dreyer skews the pretentious with: "Q. Is it 'It is I who is late' or It is I who am late'?  A. It’s 'I’m late.' Why make things more complicated than they need to be?"
His pronouncement on the word data made me spit my iced tea. "DATA: It’s a plural, it’s a singular, it’s a breath mint, it’s a dessert topping. The data supports the consensus that ‘data’ is popularly used as a singular noun, and it’s neither worth fussing over this nor raising the existence of the word 'datum.'  Move on already."

So, move on already. Move on to your nearest independent bookstore and pick up a copy of Dreyer’s English. While you’re there, grab a few extras to give as graduation gifts this spring.   

Summing it Up: Dreyer’s English is the best style guide since Strunk & White and it belongs in every home and office. It will make you smarter. It will make you a better writer. It will make you grateful that Benjamin Dreyer is alive.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Dessert, Five Stars, Gourmet, Nonfiction, Sushi
Publication date: January 29, 2019

What Others are Saying:
Publishers Weekly:

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

The Last Romantics uses a technique I can’t remember having read previously in the same manner – and I love it. Renowned poet, Fiona Skinner looks back on her childhood with her siblings in the year 2079 when she’s 102 and is questioned about the inspiration for her most famous poem. Fiona was the youngest of four when her father died and her mother took “The Pause,” an extended period in which the children had to raise themselves. The effects on Renee, the responsible eldest child, sweet Caroline, Joe, the athlete and charmer, and Fiona who observed everything with her keen eye reverberate for almost a century in Conklin’s steady hands. 

When the children are older, the novel closely follows star athlete Joe and his increasing problems, but even when endearing Joe's troubles can't be escaped, it's Fiona's astute observations that carry the book. From Fiona's blog detailing her sexual escapades to the poetry that brings her respect and acclaim, the novel captures Fiona's thoughts with a clever touch with simple yet not simplistic sentences like this one: "If you live long enough and well enough to know love, you will break someone's heart."

A novel set in the year 2079 is bound to touch on climate change and a changed world and The Last Romantics handles the issues well without belaboring them or turning a delicious narrative into a book in which issues trump story. The 2079 world is the setting for the novel: it isn't its raison d'etre. 

There are numerous plot twists in this family saga and attempting to name or describe them would diminish them so I'll simply suggest that you read The Last Romantics instead. Some think the novel resembles Ann Patchett's Commonwealth and both brilliantly describe four siblings and their growth, but I think The Last Romantics is more similar to Ian McEwan's Atonement in the ethereal outlook with which the narrator turns to the past to make sense of life.

Many readers liked Conklin's 2012 debut novel The House Girl.  I was not one of the book's fans so I wasn't sure I wanted to read The Last Romantics. I'm glad I overcame my concerns as Conklin’s growth since The House Girl is phenomenal.

Summing it Up: If you like family sagas filled with detours that feature elegant and clever writing, The Last Romantics is a novel you should read. It's also one that begs for discussion and that will have book clubs comparing the characters to their own families. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma's Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: February 5, 2019

What Others Are Saying:
Kirkus Reviews:
Publishers Weekly:
Shelf Awareness: 

“It is a brave thing to write in the voice of a world-renowned centenarian poet, but damn if Tara Conklin doesn’t pull it off. In fact, all of the luxuriously spun characters in The Last Romantics, entwined via that impossible web we call family, unfold over their many years with the perfect balance of familiarity and wonder that makes turning their pages such a pleasure."
Laurie Frankel, New York Times bestselling author of This Is How It Always Is

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Best Books of 2018!

I spent most of 2018 renovating a townhouse and moving from our home of twenty-two years to our new home while work was still in progress. My ability to concentrate as walls came down, drywall went up, and dust found its way into the tiniest of openings left me questioning my sanity. Thankfully, great books offered me escape, mental stimulation, and the ability to see that life existed beyond the demands of building inspectors with Napoleonic tendencies. 

Yesterday, on the first day of the New Year, my son helped me move several boxes from our basement to the second-floor loft where the best cabinet makers built me new bookshelves. As I unloaded and began alphabetizing my favorites, I recalled how so many of them had enriched my life. These are the best books I read in 2018. Descriptions of all of them are on my annual list. Titles with a hashtag (#) have links to full reviews. See also the 2018 lists of the Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers and the Best Books for Escape. 

The Best Book of 2018!
Educated by Tara Westover will knock you over with a feather with prose that places you inside the exceptional life of Tara Westover. This memoir holds its own beside Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle as the best examples of resilience and hope in modern literary history. Tara Westover’s survivalist family kept her working at home so she didn’t attend school until she was 17. With little help, she taught herself enough to get into college where she didn’t know about the Holocaust or that she should wash her hands after using the toilet. This riveting page-turner features magnificent prose. Read it and select if for your book club.

The Best Novels I Read in 2018 (in alphabetical order because I love them like my children and cannot select a favorite):
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (2017)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
There There by Tommy Orange
The Unmade World by Steve Yarbrough
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandan Hobson

The Best Historical Novel I Read in 2018 (set at least 50 years ago):

Book shelving in progress thanks to Crestwood Custom Cabinets*

The Best Books for Book Clubs I Read in 2018 (in addition to those listed in the best books above all of which would be great for book clubs):
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (2016)
Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (2014)
The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan (2017)
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak (2017)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy (2012)
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

The Best Debut Fiction I Read in 2018 (also great for book clubs):
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
Only Child by Rhiannon Navin
There There by Tommy Orange
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

The Best Books for Book Clubs Looking for an Easy Read and a Good Discussion:
How Hard Can It Be? By Allison Pearson
The Story of Arthur Truluv and Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg
Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (2017)

The Book You Must Read After You Read Hillbilly Elegy:
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

The Book You Must Read to Understand the Opioid Crisis and Its Effect on All of Us:
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

The Book You Need to Read and Discuss to Understand the Importance of the Great Lakes:
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Book You Must Read and Discuss to Understand Microaggressions (and if you don’t know what that means, read this short book):
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014)

The Book You Need to Read to Understand the “Other” Border:
Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border by Porter Fox

*The world’s best cabinet makers are the team at Crestwood Custom Cabinets in Crestwood, Illinois (708-385-3167) who built our kitchen, bathroom, and wet bar cabinets and bookshelves for us. Their work is exquisite. They think outside the box and they do so in a timely manner. They're one of the reasons I survived 2018.