Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

I almost set this book aside as its title and beginning chapters made me fear it would be twee and simplistic but thankfully I stayed with it and would encourage readers to do the same with this thoughtful moral fable.  The book begins with Agnès Morel, a tall, dark, slender woman known to many inhabitants of the cathedral town of Chartres as someone who “had made herself useful in the small ways that help to oil the wheels of daily life.  She was an accomplished ironer, a reliable babysitter and was known to “sit” naked for Robert Clément (the last activity making her less desirable to some in the first capacities).  She made a reputation as a conscientious cleaner.”   Agnès had arrived in Chartres twenty years previously and the cathedral’s current dean, the Abbé Paul, had found her sleeping in a porch niche. Since then she’s cleaned the church giving special attention to the famed labyrinth’s darkened paving stones that drew her there.  One of Agnès’ virtues was that she didn’t say much.  The tranquility she exhibits endears her to most of the town.

Agnès was a foundling, raised by nuns. She was bright and excelled at numbers but seemed to the nuns incapable of learning to read or write.  When she was fourteen and inexplicably pregnant, the sisters sent her off to a discreet nursing home where she bore a son who was removed from her immediately after his birth.  Agnès returned to the convent in a troubled state and spent time in psychiatric care before her move to Chartres.  As the novel wends its way back and forth between Agnès present life in Chartres and her previous sojourns, she transforms the lives of each of the people who work beside her.  Yet, as Agnès enters each life, elements of sin and moral dilemmas reveal themselves.

Agnès is ridden with anxiety especially when nasty gossip threatens to derail her quiet life. Her constant labors allow her to avoid confronting her past and she notes that “boredom is a luxury of a life lived without fear.”   Agnès’ gift is her simple, philosophical manner coupled with her droll wit which subtly captures the reader as it does the people she meets.  The second half of the book contains several mysterious circumstances that threaten Agnès and others. In this way the book is reminiscent of the book and movie Chocolat, in both setting and in the way in which Agnès seemingly arrives with the wind and alters life in the cathedral town while revealing unseemly secrets.  The novel also has the sensibility and wisdom of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Devotees of Louise Penny’s psychological mysteries will also enjoy Vickers’s use of darkness and light to explore second chances and evil.

Francophiles and those who embrace the lessons of the labyrinth will race to read this novel but all who want a contemporary morality play and psychological drama with a discreet “aha” will cherish this savory morsel.  Vickers’s former life as a psychoanalyst surfaces in her portraits of troubled characters.

Summing it Up:  Read this subtle, yet jubilant, rumination on life, love, faith, sin, and hope held together with a bow that is Agnès, a character you won’t soon forget. Reading The Cleaner of Chartres is a bit like eating a chocolate croissant with a rich cup of coffee in a patisserie in a small French village while looking out the window on the townspeople going about their day. All you observe may not be as it seems so linger awhile and settle into its rhythm as you learn what’s behind the facade. 

Rating:  5 stars

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

Publication date: June 27, 2013

Author’s Website:

What Others are Saying: 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Mission by Peter Robertson

Good mysteries grab you from the get-go and Mission’s simple four-page opening chapter doesn’t disappoint: “In the morning, on the occasion of my forty-eighth birthday, I rode my bicycle, received a text from my best friend, drank a free cup of coffee, and helped pull a dead body from a flooded creek.” 

After wrestling the body from between two rocks onto the grass an EMT and a Boulder, Colorado cop gently lifted the body and the impossibly thin young man’s loose trousers slid down revealing him. The cop yanked his trousers up and after the body was removed, one of two college-aged cyclists who had stopped to help “chose to speak, and the wordless eloquence of the moment was indelibly transformed. ‘Dude.  Did you see the size of his dick?’  I did.  And they did.  We all did.”

Thus begins Peter Robertson’s second mystery featuring Tom, a Scottish expat first introduced in Permafrost, a mystery set in Chicago and northern Michigan ten years previouslyAfter learning that this was the second body of a homeless man to be hauled from the surging waters of Boulder creek in the last month, Tom has an inkling that there might be more involved than two unrelated accidents.  Tom, a mostly retired businessman who moved from Chicago to Boulder after his marriage ended, leads a routine life funded by a business ably run by his friend Nye so he has the time to follow his hunch. 

Tom’s investigations lead him to the Boulder Library where many homeless men and women spend their days, to Faith Community Church on a Sunday night when the homeless guests line up for Dora’s famous meatloaf and a spot on one of the thin mattresses laid out side by side on the church floor, as well as to the bridge over the creek where over forty-four people stood carrying their possessions awaiting a bus to a bed for the night.

Armed with little more than his research into the patterns of Boulder’s homeless and the physiological aberration of the victim he helped pull out of the creek, Tom doggedly searches for a reason for the drownings. Those who read Permafrost will appreciate Tom’s evolution into a more multi-faceted character. Mission shows Robertson’s growth particularly in his crisp sentences, in the ways he helps the reader get to know characters through their actions instead of through long descriptions. In both books, Robertson uses Tom’s choice of music to follow what’s going on inside his head.  Robertson provides a playlist of the music which gave this reader more insight into Tom than chapters of words could have done. Robertson spent ten years reviewing mysteries for Publishers Weekly and his knowledge of what works in the genre shows.

A business trip takes Tom to Scotland where he learns more of his past and begins the soul searching that makes him care even more about the homeless who seem to have too few to care about them. Robertson absolutely nails Faith Community’s Sunday night site with its meals, mattresses, and routines. Robertson and his family belong to the same church I attend in Chicago’s southern suburbs and his descriptions perfectly evoke winter Sunday evenings there where volunteers and homeless guests spend the night together.

Summing it Up: Read this for a traditional mystery with a unique setting and a compelling protagonist.  Read it for its humanity and for an up close and personal look at the volunteers and guests in church homeless shelters. I can’t wait for the next installment as the last pages of Mission have me anxious to learn more about Tom and perhaps about a certain homeless man. This is no Chinese Carryout, read it and forget it, mystery.  Tom’s interactions will stick with you just as Dora’s lovingly prepared meatloaf does for those lucky enough to arrive in time to get it.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars,  Mysteries and Thrillers, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition

Publication date: May 26, 2013

Music Selections in Mission:

What Others are Saying:

On Permafrost: The welcome beginning of a superbly smart and addictive series." - Doug Stanton, best-selling author of In Harm's Way and Horse Soldiers

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link

Mardi Jo Link’s fierce love for her three sons oozes from every page of this ode to tenacity, honesty, authenticity, and creative survival skills. Bootstrapper: from Broke to Bad Ass on a Northern Michigan Farm begins in June, 2005, when Link’s boys were aged fifteen, eleven and eight and she divorces their father because “he sleeps and smokes his way through life. Because he refuses to take any real action against his longtime perpetual melancholy.”  Her husband didn’t understand her either – “Do you think it’s been easy for me” he’d shouted . . . “Waking up every goddamn morning next to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?”  Yes, this “Rebecca” is inherently optimistic even when the odds are piled haphazardly like a drunken Jenga tower ready to tumble down upon her and the small farm where she and her boys live.  Despite the improbability of their being able to keep it all together, Link grabs a firm hold on her new life: “I’m claiming my sons, the farm, the debt, the other debts, the horses, the dogs, and the land.  I’m claiming our century-old farmhouse, the garden, the woods, the pasture, the barn, and the Quonset-hut garage.   They’re all mine now, and this is how I will raise my boys: on cheerful summer days and well water and BB guns and horseback riding and dirt. Because I’m claiming our whole country life, the one I’ve been dreaming of and planning out and working for since I was a little girl.  

Last night the full moon hung low and close, like a glistening teardrop on the earth’s dark eye, threatening to spill.  It didn’t, though, and neither did I. A month is a bill cycle, a mortgage cycle, and may become a child-support cycle, but a month is also a moon phase and a growing phase.  Our financial lives, our emotional lives, and our cosmic lives are irrevocably intertwined.

If I can follow the moon, if I can remember that both waxing and waning are only temporary, a natural cycle continually renewed and nothing to get too attached to, we’ll make it.  I just have to stay solvent for thirty days at a time.  And then another thirty.  And another.”

Link’s financial planning won’t ever be featured on Forbes or Bloomberg and it’s soon evident that in claiming her boys, her farm and her debts that she and her boys must find creative ways to eat that don’t involve any layout of cash.  They tend their vegetable garden, can and freeze food for the winter, raise a pig and several chickens, and win a year’s supply of bread by growing prize-worthy giant zucchini. Christmas day finds the four building a bonfire for an outdoor Christmas dinner of hot dogs and S’mores with a round of “Silent Night” sung on their very own land.  Adversity strikes when their freezer dies as Link is in bed with the flu and they lose the rest of the winter’s food.  The heating bills are so high she and the boys forage for wood and stoke their old fireplace to keep warm. Link makes some imprudent decisions and there are times when she isn’t very likable but she’s always doggedly determined and funny –yes, unceasingly funny. Life on the edge is just that, one step from disaster but Link will not let them give up. 

In one of my favorite scenes, they awake to a February snow so deep it takes the four of them over five hours shoveling a scoop at a time to clear their driveway.  “And for the first time in a long time, I’m proud of us.  Proud enough even to balance my camera on the flat hood of the farm truck, set the automatic timer, and take a picture.  Looking at the image, at my sons’ faces, I’m pretty sure that they’re proud of themselves, too. My memory of this day is dominated by smiles. . . Then Link recalls a platitude in her divorce manual: “Parents are role models for their children and need to set a good example for them. Children imitate the behaviors and attitudes of their parents.”  She says to herself: If I can model hard work, that will at least be something.”

Link uses the moon’s cycles to begin each chapter of her memoir with the next phase of the moon and an epigraph to signal the arc of their lives. She takes the reader down the rabbit hole that is her tenuous hold on her land, her family, and her dreams. Her story builds as she goes from bitterness and disappointment to faith that her prayers will be answered.  As the devil’s moon rises in June, 2006, Link realizes that she’s spent a year asking for things – “Please help me survive this flu. Please let us keep the Big Valley. Please.”  All her prayers are answered although not all with the answers she sought and she begins ruminating on faith:

“Faith, whether it’s in Jesus, or a church, or the power of the human mind to connect, isn’t ever going to be a meaningful force in my life if it’s always one-sided.  Faith, connection, spirituality – none of it means very much if it’s always with the please, please, please, but never a single thank-you. 

Readers, if you take one thing from this book, it will be Link’s fierce work ethic, her absolute resolve that if she just works hard and teaches her sons to work hard, that they will succeed and they will succeed with gratitude in their hearts.  How could anyone not love a mother who models that kind of intense resolve.

Summing it Up: Mardi Jo Link begins her book as a funny, somewhat bitter, acerbic woman hell-bent on keeping her boys and their rural life style.  Read the book to see how her humor and unyielding grit help her find love and hope on a northern Michigan farm.  Shed a tear or two and laugh out loud as you share the ride that is motherhood with this authentic woman who uses much more than just her boots to pull herself out of misery and insolvency into a life well lived.

Caveat: I consider Mardi Link a friend; we met several years ago at a writing workshop and I was immediately impressed by her honesty, her talent, her kindness, and her humor.  For me, it’s pure joy to see all those qualities soar in this memoir.  I have tried to be objective in my assessment of her writing as I see all the qualities I first observed in Mardi Jo Link the person revealed on every page of this stunner.

Rating:  5 stars

Category: Non fiction, Dessert, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication date: June 11, 2013

Author’s Website:

Publisher’s Website and Excerpt:  

What Others are Saying: 

“A heroic-comic saga of single motherhood, pure stubbornness, and the loyalty of three young sons. And more than that, an honest account of the working poor, the people who buy day-old bread, patronize libraries, rarely go to movies, and don't need your sympathy. Just a break now and then.”
     —Garrison Keillor

Monday, June 3, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Beginning with Saboor, a poor Afghani in a small village in 1952, telling a beautiful fable to his children Abdullah, age ten and Pari, age three, Hosseini alerts the reader that the lives of this family will follow Saboor’s tale and wake them in the night for the rest of their lives.  Abdullah adores his little sister and seems more her father and soul mate than brother.  Their mother died giving birth to Pari and she means everything to Abdullah. Saboor’s second wife Parwana has born two sons and they’ve lost one in infancy to winter’s privations and she works endlessly to keep her baby alive.  Parwana’s brother Nabi has left their small village and is a cook and chauffeur for Suleiman, a wealthy Kabul man, who marries Nila, a poet, who doesn’t fit Kabul society’s rules. She sinks into depression because she cannot have children.

Nabi, who has a crush on Nila, wants to alleviate her sadness. So he arranges for Nila and Suleiman Wahdati to adopt Pari to save her from possible death in the cold winter thus mirroring the fable their father told the children.  Abdullah is crushed beyond imagining when Pari is left with the Wahdatis. Pari is young enough to adapt to her new family without any obvious problems. She brings life to the Wahdati marriage.  They dote on her, read to her, take her to the park and become a family thus forming a marriage that never seemed to have any depth of feeling before her arrival. Nabi is a cinematic observer of the marriage:
“I remember that when my parents fought, they did not stop until a clear victor had been declared. It was their way of sealing off unpleasantness, to caulk it with a verdict, keep it from leaking into the normalcy of the next day.  Not so with the Wahdatis. Their fights didn’t so much end as dissipate – like a drop of ink in a bowl of water, with a residual tint that lingered.”

Later Suleiman has a stroke and Nila can’t cope with his illness so she and Pari move to Paris and leave all connections to Afghanistan behind.   Nila’s poetry brings her critical acclaim but depression and alcoholism reduce her. Pari spends her childhood thinking her father has died and not knowing that she has other family.  Pari loves mathematics and problems with solutions.  She senses that something is missing from her life but doesn’t have any idea of what it might be.  The novel explores the lives of those left behind in Afghanistan through a series of minor characters and flashbacks.

And the Mountains Echoed shows the effects of extreme poverty and what it can force a family to do. It’s filled with Hosseini’s imaginative language and characters but the unessential stories of an Afghan warlord, two cousins from America looking for their inheritance and a Greek’s long, long journey to becoming a doctor in Kabul spoil the flow of the central story of siblings Pari and Abdullah and how their separation changed their lives.  Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times adored this novel and she’s rarely effusive.  Kirkus Reviews panned it.  Most Hosseini fans will love it.

Summing it Up: Read this for the beautiful fable that begins the novel and for the way the stories of Pari and Abdullah mirror the fable. Enjoy Hosseini’s imaginative characters and his exploration of the Afghani diaspora as you put up with some minor characters’ contrived lives when they interrupt a simple story of sibling love and separation.

Rating: 3.5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: May 21, 2013

Author’s Website:

What Others are Saying: 

New York Times: