Monday, November 23, 2015

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night is Kent Haruf’s last book. Haruf died in November 2014, before the novel’s publication. Our Souls, like his previous title, Benediction, reflects the wisdom of a man looking at his own mortality through the lens of a good life, a life well lived. The novel’s focus is on happiness, one of the most elusive of topics to convey.  It’s far easier to write about murder, mayhem, and dysfunctional characters than it is to describe common people experiencing day-to-day contentment.

Holt, Colorado, the small town setting of all Haruf’s novels including the acclaimed Plainsong and Benediction, is the home of Addie Moore and Louis Waters.  Addie and Louis embody the seemingly undistinguished, rural setting in their commonplace simplicity. The novel opens with two simple sentences, “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.” 

I wanted to suggest something to you.


Yes. A Kind of proposal. . .

I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.

What? How do you mean?

I mean we’re both alone.  We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.

You don’t say anything. Have I taken your breath away? she said.

I guess you have.

I’m not talking about sex.

I wondered.

No, not sex.  I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying in bed together and you staying the night.  The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Yes, I think so.

And so it begins. And what begins is the gift of 179 pages of quiet, eloquent wonder that will captivate even the most cynical reader. In a small town, people talk so the fact that Louis and Addie are together is fodder for gossip and many find their behavior unseemly. After Addie’s son’s wife leaves him, he takes his six-year-old son Jamie to stay with Addie. Louis thinks that will be the end of their arrangement.  It isn’t as Louis provides a calm, male presence in Jamie’s turbulent life. Addie’s son doesn’t approve, though, and complications arise.

Last week, I spoke to three groups about books to buy for holiday giving. At the last of these sessions for an organization that supports writers and reading, a member noted that she’d read Our Souls at Night aloud to her husband as he lay with his head in her lap. I can’t imagine a better way to enjoy this marvel of a novel that celebrates love so exquisitely.  

It’s tempting to simply link this post to author Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous review in London’s The Guardian. I hope the following quote from it will entice you to read her entire review and the book itself.
“The voice is quiet. All the darkness is there, but we’re looking at the light. A lamp in a bedroom in a small town in Colorado.

Summing it Up: Read this book to experience the simple joy of ordinary love. Read it to ponder Louis’s words. “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. And come sleep with you at night.” 

Many of us recite the line “on earth as it is in heaven” daily. Our Souls at Night embodies those words. Give a copy to someone you love.

Note: Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are set to star in the film version of the novel.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club
Publication date: May 26, 2015
What Others are Saying:

New York Times:

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Laure is a widow in her forties. She’s mugged outside her Paris apartment.  Laurent Letellier, a bookseller, finds her purse. It has no phone or ID – just a pen, perfume, trinkets, and a small red Moleskine notebook filled with handwritten thoughts. He delivers it to the police, but they’re busy with other activities so he takes the bag home and looks for clues to the owner. After he begins reading the little red notebook containing Laure’s thoughts, he falls under their spell and wants to meet their author. Without a name to go on, Laurent begins his quest and the reader jumps aboard for the ride entering the enchanting world of Laure, Laurent, and Paris, a place where two good people seem destined to meet. 

The Red Notebook is a short novel, just 159 delightful pages that are quite enough to make you smile. The book has a whimsical air and evokes both the spirit and sense of joy one feels when first falling in love.

Author Antoine Laurain uses his pen as an accomplished chef might wield a whisk. Laurain whips words into a froth that result in a romance that will make you certain you’ve whiled away the morning outside a Paris café eating a luscious pain au chocolat accompanied by hot chocolate topped with hand-whipped cream.

Summing it Up: This is a quintessentially French tale that fans of The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the movie Amélie will adore. It’s elegant, charming, and I’m already casting the film in my mind.

Note: This week we’re mourning the terrorist attacks in Paris.  What better time could there be to celebrate the city of light by reading a book in which love triumphs?

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Dessert, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Tapas, Book Club
Publication date: April 17, 2015 (U.S.)
What Others are Saying:
Booklist: “. . .elegant, witty, lighthearted – and somehow very French.”

Foreword Reviews: “This tender and charming romance, written with characteristic Gallic flair, is part mystery and part love story. Flawlessly written, it does everything right and, at the end, leaves a smile of satisfaction.”

The Guardian: “A hymn to la vie Parisienne. . . enjoy it for its fabulistic narrative, and the way it teeters pleasantly on the edge of Gallic whimsy.”

Library Journal: “Its gentle satirical humor reminded me of Jacques Tati’s classic films. Fans of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog will want this.”

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Walk in the Animal Kingdom by Jerry Dennis

It took me over two weeks to read Jerry Dennis’s A Walk in the Animal Kingdom: Essays on Animals Wild and Tame. That may not seem long to most readers, but I read very quickly and I usually devour books in gulps.  A Walk in the Animal Kingdom, however, made me slow down. It made me stop to look out the window, to put on boots and head into the woods, and to recall moments with beloved pets and curious children.

When I read a book, I stick small Post-It flags on pages that I love or want to remember. I can almost determine my joy in a book by the number of flags within it. When I finished Animal Kingdom there were almost as many flags as there were chapters. Flags marked passages like “Noticing our own and other people’s responses to nature is paramount because part of our work is to cultivate a state of sustained wonder as we seek clues to why we’re on this fecund planet and how we should conduct ourselves during our stay. If some of the clues come from the behavior of ants in a colony or trout in a creek, so be it. Our job is to seek knowledge wherever we can.” In a nutshell, A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is a book that will help you cultivate that state of sustained wonder as you observe
and live on this remarkable planet.

Books I love usually take me places I’ve been and help me recall people I cherish. Animal Kingdom continually placed me in the kitchen of the house where I lived when my children were younger and there was always a dog underfoot and critters to watch in the woods beyond our backyard. I heard my son’s voice and saw him cradling this yet unwritten book as he’d interrupt me to ask if I knew that humans have “binocular vision” so we can focus on distant objects because we’re predators. “Ma,” he’d say, “did you know that humans are predators?” He’d then tell me about prey animals with their eyes set back on their skulls allowing them 360-degree vision. Just as I was chopping onions for dinner, he’d return to ask if I knew that migrating birds follow north-south roads because they’re convenient and that pheasants and other gallinaceous (he’d stop to ask how to pronounce that term) birds go to roads and their shoulders to seek gravel, which their gizzards require to aid digestion. He’d tell me that songbirds take dust baths in the sand and drink from puddles in gravel roads. He’d then glance outside and ask if he should refill our birdbath.

Jerry Dennis makes facts sing. Most of us know of the collective nouns designating groups of animals like a “gaggle” of geese and we’ve seen and enjoyed listings of them. In Animal Kingdom, we learn that “these words go back centuries to a time when the aristocratic classes of Europe cultivated mannerisms and ways of speaking that could separate them from the common herd.” He tells us that “rattling off those terms was a fashionable mark of erudition.” He even shares some humorous ones I’d never heard like an “impertinence” of peddlers and a “melody” of harpists. Sharing these facts show his feeling that “our lives are made of moments that cluster together, like flocks. If we step back far enough we can sometimes see a pattern, and sometimes it’s beautiful.”

This book is eminently accessible because Dennis uses self-deprecating humor to depict his own foibles as he enlightens us to their counterparts in the wilder animal world. As he copes with growing older, he shares his wisdom, “I keep finding strange hairs sprouting from my ears. Like everyone, I try to find comfort where I can. It helps to cultivate a cheerful attitude, to spend a lot of time outdoors, to hang out with young humans and old dogs. Old dogs are especially therapeutic. I love their serene disregard of all things temporary and frivolous, the way their loyalties grow solid and rich and unconventional, the way they can doze for hours in the sun, their legs kicking as if dreaming of puppyhood and rabbit chases. Wake an old dog gently, lure him with a hand tapped invitingly on your knee, and he pries himself up, groaning and stiff. He always comes to you, tail wagging, ready for one more game.”

A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is graced by the exquisitely intricate drawings of acclaimed artist Glenn Wolff who has illustrated over thirty books and hundreds of articles in publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. These drawings embed the wonder of the natural world into the reader in a visceral manner that allows the book to bypass the intellect and enter the soul.

Summing it Up: A Walk in the Animal Kingdom is a book you savor. You keep it on your coffee table and read a chapter at a time. If you’ve wondered why we both adore animals (our pets) and fear them (snakes) this book will answer your questions and renew your childhood curiosity, Both the perfect gift for the inquisitive kid and the learned adult, Dennis’s book packed with keen observations and magical, eloquent words that are complemented by Wolff’s intricate drawings form a package you’ll continually unwrap with delight. Buy this book for every animal lover you know.

Rating:  5 stars  
Category: Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Super Nutrition

Publication date: July 1, 2015

Author Website:

What Others are Saying:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

White Collar Girl by Renée Rosen

White Collar Girl is Renée Rosen’s third historical novel, all of which are set in Chicago. It follows Dollface, a tale of the mob in the Roaring Twenties, and What the Lady Wants, the story of Marshall Field, his mistress, and Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871. Both were clever novels that Chicagoans should savor. Rosen’s third book shows her growth as an author and perfectly captures 1950s Chicago life and politics under the new Daley machine. Jordan Walsh is a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune who yearns to escape the “society” pages for real news especially the graft and corruption of the city. Her boyfriend is jealous of her success, she gets little support from her family, and her inexperience causes her to make some consequential errors. 

When Jordan begins to delve into the story that her brother who was killed by a hit-and-run driver was investigating before he died, she won’t let it go. Her father says she has the family curse. "That's what reporters do. We question. We probe. We go into those dark places that scare everyone else. They even scare us, but we still do it because we have to. We just have to."

If you’re looking for something to fill the void now that Peggy from Mad Men has vanished from your TV screen, this tale perfectly evokes the times and the roles women played in the 1950s. It’s a meticulously researched view of Chicago politics yet it’s also a compelling page-turner.

I’ve lived in the Chicago area since 1970 and I remember living and working in the city during the first Mayor Daley’s reign.  Rosen captures the times, the scandals, the players, and the difficulty women had gaining respect in the workplace in a town ruled by “good old boys.”

Summing it Up: Chicagoans will devour this as they revisit Riccardo’s, the Berghoff, and other places Rosen evokes perfectly. Readers without Chicago connections will find this glimpse of the politics and corruption of Chicago both informative and entertaining.

Readers living in or near Chicago will be able to hear Rosen speak at a host of events listed here

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Dessert, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
Booklist: “Informed by interviews with the real-life journalists of the era and brimming with historical detail, Rosen’s tale zooms Walsh through a combination of investigative derring-do, a family tragedy, and various romantic complications. … White Collar Girl is a riveting read, both as a trip back to the misogynistic workplaces of the Mad Men era and as an enjoyable look at a scrappy street reporter doing her work.”
White Collar Girl is an unforgettable novel about an ambitious woman’s struggle to break into the male-dominated newspaper world of the 1950s.
Sara Gruen, New York Times Bestselling Author of Water for Elephants

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thicker Than Blood by Jan English Leary

Thicker Than Blood by Jan English Leary details the turbulent life of Andrea, a thirty-eight-year-old, single, white woman, who adopts Pearl, an African-American child abandoned at a Chicago church. Andrea is sure that her experience settling refugee families will help her handle the challenge of the adoption. As the novel shifts in time through the first nineteen years of Pearl’s life following multiple viewpoints, the reader sees the challenges of motherhood, racial identity, economics, and idealism.

Leary’s use of food and eating as a coping mechanism, a connection, and a way of seeing people is insightful. Pearl’s love of food and her increasing girth show rather than tell of Pearl’s difficulties. Leary also demonstrates how the families Andrea assists use food to assimilate while colorful, multicultural restaurants reflect the diversity of Andrea and Pearl’s neighborhood. The Thanksgiving dinner chapter skillfully allows the reader to get to know the members of Andrea’s extended family. Watching as Andrea’s sister Joanne attempts to host the perfect Thanksgiving that derails when “telling what we’re thankful for” goes nowhere, her anorexic daughter Blair takes three green beans and arranges them side by side on her empty plate, and husband Mitchell drinks too much and escapes into football. After Pearl trips spilling the gravy and breaking a family heirloom, Joanne attacks her and Grandmother Nancy intervenes and accuses Joanne of caring more about the dish than her niece and notes how exhausted Joanne is from trying to create the perfect holiday. Every reader will recognize members of their own family in this scene and thus become involved in what happens to them.

When Pearl hits adolescence, her weight gain, her early sexual activity, and her inappropriate behaviors signal her difficulty fitting in at her mostly white, mostly wealthy private school and the white world of her family. Despite Andrea’s intentions, Pearl’s stormy teen years threaten to destroy their relationship, yet Andrea refuses to see what’s happening.

“God, Mom. Get a clue.”. . . “Those white girls are not my friends.”

Yet, it’s tough for Mom to get a clue as the chaos that has become her existence and secrets that have been carefully guarded begin to infect her carefully constructed life.

The book successfully juggles a plethora of plot twists that would be impossible to summarize in a single review. While readers will quickly turn the pages to find out what the engaging characters will do next, it would be impossible for them not to stop to consider the multiple issues the book introduces. While this novel is about one family, it’s really about every parent-child relationship. It’s about identity, family, motherhood, race, economics, adoption, idealism, control, secrets, and ultimately about whether love is enough.

Summing it Up: Thicker Than Blood is a gripping novel of a family formed by interracial adoption that is fundamentally the story of all families. Readers will find that the fast pace of the story is tempered by its ability to force contemplation of some big questions. Thicker Than Blood evokes Chicago neighborhoods flawlessly. Chicagoans will relish seeing places they know and others will find it an accurate representation of a unique city.

If you happen to be in the Chicago area, you can attend a Reading and Launch Party, Friday, November 6, 2015, 7:30 p.m. at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., Chicago
Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 23, 2015
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:
It is rare that a contemporary novel offers the heart-shattering wisdom of Thicker Than Blood. Its portrayals of the always-shifting “American identity,” it offers readers insight into how we have perceived the “American dream” during the past three generations. Jan English Leary's novel masterfully unfolds the stories of unforgettable characters at the moments when they are making and losing and returning to and abandoning all their first assumptions of home and of family. 
—Kevin McIlvoy, author of 57 Octaves Below Middle C, The Complete History of New Mexico, Hyssop, Little Peg, The Fifth Station

With great empathy and insight, Leary portrays a mother-daughter relationship that is both unconventional and universal.
—Katherine Shonk, author of The Red Passport and Happy Now?

Written with uncommon grace and profound insight, Thicker Than Blood is a brave and poignant novel.
—Lynn Sloan, author of Principles of Navigation

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover deserves to win a prize for being the best book with the worst title in many a year. The Japanese Lover is a lovely, magical novel, a literary romance, and an ode to aging gracefully which makes it all the more disturbing that it’s saddled with such an unrepresentative moniker.

This eloquent novel illustrates as one line in it states, “How exuberant and boisterous the universe is. . . It turns and turns, and the only constant is everything changes.” Isabel Allende’s words illuminate the universe through the lives of three very different characters.

Elderly Alma Belasco is a wealthy artist who’s chosen to move to Lark House, a progressive home for the aged. Lark House is what old people’s homes should be – a colorful, caring place where residents are valued. As a young child, Alma was sent to live with relatives in San Francisco at the beginning of World War II while her parents stayed in Europe and died in the concentration camps. Alma, a lonely child, formed a friendship with the Japanese gardener’s son, Ichi Fukuda, which later bloomed into a forbidden romance.

Alma hires Irina Bazili, an immigrant working at the home, as her assistant and secretary and Irina’s painful past is slowly revealed. Irina avoids intimacy especially as Alma’s grandson, Seth, begins to court her and both of them try to discover Alma’s secret life. This is particularly evident as a way for Irina to escape her own past.

Irina found relief from her own uncertainties. She wanted to be like Alma and live in a manageable reality, where problems had definite causes and solutions, where there were no dreadful creatures lurking in her dreams, no lecherous enemies spying from every street corner. Hours with her were precious and Irina would willingly have worked for free.

A cache of Ichi’s letters to Alma reveal that the two have been meeting secretly for years and that their relationship offers both romance and mutual support.

                                                                                                October 22, 2001
Yesterday, Alma, when at last we could meet to celebrate our birthdays, I could see you were in a bad mood. You said that all of a sudden, without us realizing it, we have turned seventy. You are afraid our bodies will fail us, and of what you call the ugliness of age, even though you are more beautiful now than you were at twenty-three. We’re not old because we’re seventy. We start to grow old as soon as we are born, we change every day, life is a continuous state of flux. We evolve. The only difference is that now we are a little closer to death. What’s so bad about that? Love and friendship do not age.

Summing it Up: Allende hits all the high notes in this accessible novel of separation, loss, anxiety, and love that conquers all. The ending is absolutely spot-on perfect.

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Author Website:
What Others are Saying: