Saturday, April 27, 2019

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

When Miriam Toews who grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada that she left at age 18, found the true story of 130 Mennonite women and children in Bolivia who were drugged and raped for four years, she wondered how the women might have responded when they learned the truth of their abuse. Beginning in 2005, the rulers of their community, told the victims who ranged from three to sixty years old, that ghosts had attacked them. With her knowledge of the patriarchal nature of Mennonite culture, Toews took this dismal historical event and turned it into a propulsive novel showing how eight Mennonite women in an isolated Bolivian farming community reacted. The year is 2009 and most of the colony’s men have traveled to the city to bail out the accused attackers so the eight have just two days before the men return to meet secretly to decide what they should do. As all of the women of the colony are illiterate, they ask August Epps, a shunned man who has returned to the colony, to keep “minutes” of their talks.

The eight are from two families and range from giggly teens to stern grandmothers. They’re hiding in the barn so the women who remain loyal to the rapists won’t learn of their meeting. Mariche Loewen asks the questions “should the women avenge the harm perpetrated against them? Or should they instead forgive the men and by doing so be allowed to enter the gates of heaven? We will be forced to leave the colony, she says, if we don’t forgive the men and/or accept their apologies, and through the process of this excommunication we will forfeit our place in heaven.”  Scrivener Epps adds a note to the minutes after her comments: “This is true, I know, according to the rules of Molotschna.”

One woman who is pregnant from the rape wonders who they will be if they leave the only life they’ve ever known. Another woman who takes care of the children while the women meet only speaks when she's with children since the trauma of the assaults against her. There were horrendous acts of abuse especially with the three-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped, but they’re leavened by the women’s humor as they crack jokes at each other and imagine the men in dunce caps. That Toews doesn’t detail the abuse itself but instead shows the reader how the women respond after that abuse, makes the novel palatable.

This is a story about women so it seems inconceivable that it’s told by a man taking down their words especially when those words are so intimate and painful. Through the filter of August’s voice, the reader is able to learn of the women’s fate and thus become akin to a jury listening to lawyers and witnesses detail that abuse. That the women are unable to do more than write their own names makes the possibility of leaving almost impossible and as Agata explains: “August, she says, we know how to write our names. That’s all. And it takes me longer to write my name than to plant a crop of canola. Greta laughs. And to harvest it the next fall, she says. Mariche says that she doesn’t actually know how to write her name, she’s been too busy to learn. I will help you later, offers Ona. When we have more time.”

While these women can’t read or write, they quote the Bible with ease and use scripture and life lessons to demonstrate a profound ability to reason. They resemble a Greek chorus with philosophical statements belying their lack of education. When confronted with the possibility of plotting, Agata says, “There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.” When I read that line, I wished that the title of the novel had been Only Women Talking. Then as I read on, I realized that Toews’ title is the more universal. She’s addressing all of us in this book. She’s putting the world on notice that women will someday have the ability to control their own lives as long as they continue to make noise. Women Talking is about women talking to make a difference, shouting the truth, and banding together to bear witness.

Summing it Up:  Women Talking is an astonishing and inspiring novel that erupts on the page. It could be, as Margaret Atwood herself writes, “right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”  Yet, it’s a thoroughly original and fierce manifesto that is foremost an irresistible story that readers will be tempted to read in one sitting. This reader read it quickly then immediately read it again to savor it. Read this future classic then find someone to talk with you about it. Your book club might just talk all night about this one. The “me too” movement may spark interest in this novel, but its themes will resonate far beyond our current conversations.

Read the New Yorker interview with the author for insight into the crime, the novel, and the author. Read all the interviews and reviews. This novel has created an enormous and worthy dialogue. That a book has generated this much conversation and writing in publications as diverse as The Christian Century, Entertainment Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal means it’s one you must read.

Note: Toews, like Atwood, is Canadian and American readers don’t seem as aware of Canadian authors as they are of those in the U.S. Toews’ six previous novels are also exceptional. I adored her semi-autobiographical novel All My Puny Sorrows that I reviewed here:

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: April 2, 2019

Author Website: is a Facebook page managed by the author’s publisher.

Interviews with the Author:

What Others are Saying:

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The Six is the type of novel I seldom select. Novels about drugs, celebrities, and rock rarely attract me. However, novels that feature addictive writing, passionate characters, and propulsive storylines always grab me. Because so many people I respected were talking about Daisy Jones & The Six, I picked it up after dinner one night planning to read just the first chapter. Three hours later, engrossed in the book, I forced myself to go to sleep. When I awoke the following morning, I immediately began reading and didn’t stop until the tears began rolling down my cheeks as I devoured the final pages of a novel that captured me hook, line, and sinker.

Daisy Jones & The Six immerses the reader into the life of Daisy, a singer experimenting with sex, drugs, and the party scene, in late sixties Los Angeles just as her voice begins to gain her recognition as something special.  It presents the parallel story of The Six, a band led by stubborn singer/songwriter Billy Dunne. The novel blends both tales when a producer sees that putting Daisy and Billy together is the key to creating a unique sound that audiences will love and that more importantly will sell records and sell out concert venues.

What propels the novel and makes it impossible to leave, even for an instant, is that it’s told as an oral history “compiled and edited from conversations, emails, transcripts, and lyrics” by the author narrating it from behind the scenes. This makes the book feel as if the reader has fallen into a rock documentary film. When you read Daisy Jones & the Six, you are embedded into the ethereal world that was the 1970s music scene replete with the energy, creativity, passion, and insecurity that made it so fragile.

The tension between Billy and Daisy and their recognition of each other as both talented and threatening is shown here:
“BILLY: I could tell, as we were singing it, that we had everybody. When the song finished, the crowd started screaming, I mean actually screaming.
DAISY: I just knew, at that show, that we had something special. Just knew it.
            And it didn’t matter how much of an asshole I thought Billy was. When you can sing like that with someone, there’s a small part of you that feels connected to them. That sort of thing that gets under your skin and doesn’t easily come out.
            Billy was like a splinter. That’s exactly what he was like.”

Billy was the leader of The Six and he had big plans. Just before the band was to embark on its first tour, Billy found out that his girlfriend Camila was pregnant. Billy, Camila, and two other band members explain:
“BILLY: The moment I knew she was pregnant I felt we had to make sure we were a proper family.
CAMILA: Karen knew an ordained minister. She got his number from a friend of hers and we called him late that night. He came right over.
EDDIE: It was four in the morning.”

After the wedding:

“KAREN: They kissed each other and I could tell Camila was tearing up. Billy picked her up into his arms. He ran her upstairs and we all laughed. I paid the minister guy because Billy and Camila forgot to.”

Billy’s picking Camila up and carrying her up the stairs is exactly the way the novel picks up its readers and carries them away to a land of romantic tension, rock music, strong women, substance abuse, and the difficulty of protecting artistic integrity. That Billy forgets to pay the minister illustrates how he forgets about everyone except himself and how he doesn’t have an inkling of what’s going on around him. Daisy, with her unrelenting ambition to write her own songs and to be her own person, doesn’t see beyond herself either, especially to notice how she changes the band dynamic. The combination of these two immovable rock stars on a collision course makes for a dynamic, unique, staccato-paced novel that isn't ultimately about rock 'n roll, celebrities, or drugs. It's about us. It's a novel that shows readers how to be authentic humans in a world that seldom values love and sacrifice over celebrity.

Summing it Up: Daisy Jones and The Six is a magnificent novel that you’ll read in a day and remember forever. I still have trouble believing that it’s fiction as the characters are absolutely real to me. Fall into the surreal world of 1970s rock ‘n roll with a cast of talented, determined, headstrong, and ultimately endearing characters.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: March 5, 2019
What Others are Saying:

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: