Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday Salon: Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson
July 1, 1949-May 24, 2017

     On December 29, 2016, I discovered an overwhelming, urgent, need to purchase Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. This often happens to me. I know the exact date, because I am still using the sales slip as a book mark. This urgent need (99% of the time I obey these epiphanic book desires) might have been because I had recently read Train Dreams (a brief review is here), or it might have just been one of those communications from the great Book World in the sky. I had read "Emergency" numerous times (in Alice La Plante's excellent The Making of a Story). And when I got home with Jesus' Son I did start reading. But at some point I put the book down and went about my life. But when I really, urgently, needed to read Jesus' Son, it was right there for me. Thank you, messages from the Book World in the sky.

     Yesterday I sat down and read Jesus' Son straight through. Cover to cover. Each time I finished a story, I would stop and wonder what kind of ecstatic madman angel wrote these stories. Then I would look at the covers, front and back, and read all the words. The blurbs, the descriptions, they were just mortal faded words. I tried at the end of each story to come up with a sentence, or a phrase even, that might be adequate to express the sheer, pure, shining genius of these stories. Nope. Couldn't do it. Next to the incredible perfection of these stories, there was not a sentence or a phrase that didn't sound hollow.


     That is the only word that approaches an adequate description of the book that has become synonymous with Denis Johnson's name. If you have ever, even once in your life, been ecstatically drunk or high, then you have some sense of the narrative structure of Jesus' Son. Each story is the fragmented yet unified dream vision of a narrator who has sunk so low it is hard to imagine anyone sinking lower and not being in hell.

     Johnson neither deifies nor exaggerates nor demonizes his characters. And yet they see angels. The fact that the angels turn out to be the faces of actors on a drive-in movie screen does not in any way detract from the religious experience.

     If I told you that this book is about junkies and drunks and people who do loathsome things, would that attract or repel you? Neither response is relevant, because Johnson is doing something outside those categories. Something like what Dostoyevsky or William Blake did--offer an ecstatic, visionary, light-filled and spiritual account of all that seems to be the lowest and least spiritual in humankind.

     Now that I've read Jesus' Son (and I will be rereading this book over and over), I'll be starting Tree of Smoke today (yes, I got a message to buy that one too). The other book I've heard about again and again is Fiskadoro--that goes on the list.

     Denis Johnson was a poet as well as a novelist and story writer. Here are some links to his poems:

     Appreciations of Denis Johnson from:

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Concepcion and the Baby Brokers

Concepcion and the Brokers and Other Stories Out of Guatemala
Deborah Clearman
Rain Mountain Press
paperback, 236 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Rain Mountain Press

     Deborah Clearman has a beautiful, engrossing, and enlightening collection of stories in Concepcion and the Baby Brokers. Set primarily in Guatemala, this collection allows the reader to glimpse the daily lives of Todosanteros--the inhabitants of the community of Todos Santos. The opening novella, A Cup of Tears, tells the story of a third-world baby farm, a kidnapping, and a New Jersey couple who come to Guatemala to adopt a toddler. What the couple doesn't know is that the toddler is one of two twin boys who were kidnapped by their wet nurse, Concepcion. In just under one hundred pages, Clearman illuminates the lives of Concepcion, Prudencia, who is complicit in the kidnapping, and who works for a wealthy baby broker, Lala, the inconsolable mother of the kidnapped toddlers, and Sunshine, the New Jersey woman who believes she is offering an orphan a better life. Clearman imbues each of these characters with compassion. The novella is gripping in its depiction of the forces that drive each of the characters--gangs, drugs, poverty, and abuse--but ultimately it is optimistic about the human capacity for love and sacrifice.

     Although each of the stories in this collection stands on its own, I loved the fact that place holds them all together. Whether transplanted to Guatemala City, Washington, D.C., or Michigan, the characters remain Todosanteros, and the connections between the characters and their community bind the stories together. While reading this collection, I learned quite a bit about the customs and daily life of the people of Guatemala--a life that was totally unknown to me. As a reader, I look first and foremost for believable characters, for story, and for that ineffable magic that gifted writers create. But if the story transports me to, and lets me understand, a world previously unknown to me, that's something special. These stories do all of that.

     In "The Race," a young man returns from Michigan to Todos Santos and spends his earnings to impress his father, his community, and the village girls while participating in an annual horse race. The story intertwines the story of the race and the whole history of the young man's life in the village--his victimization by a childhood bully, his abandonment by his father, and his love for a village girl. Clearman is able to do more in the pages of a story than some writers are able to accomplish in a novel.

     The stories in this collection often focus on the interaction between Guatemalans and Americans, whether the Americans are tourists, or those who have come to stay. In "English Lessons" Jorge is married to an American college instructor--but he becomes George in his English lessons, as he navigates living in two worlds, one in which he is happy to speak Spanish and work as a landscaper, and one in which he tries to make his American wife happy by learning English and visiting a fertility clinic. In another story, a transplanted American has become an almost saintly figure, offering advice to people of the village as he recovers from a nearly fatal illness. In this story, "Saints and Sinners," innocence and guilt are not so easily assigned.

     The stories in Concepcion and the Baby Brokers offer no easy solutions to the deeply difficult problems of their characters--but the author offers insight, compassion, and the dignity of beautifully observed and truthful portrayals of the lives and loves of her characters.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday Coffee in May

The Month of May

This month is a month of deadlines and distractions. My AP students took their Literature and Composition exam on May 3rd, and my ninth graders will be taking the End-of-Course exam for English 1 in about two weeks. As the school year winds up, there is not much time for reading for pleasure.

But I do it anyway.

Honestly, I don't know how I would survive my job or my life without the consolation of books.

Although this year has been a tough one for my reading life (fewer books finished than normal, lots of books begun and then set aside) here are some of the books that have been sustaining me recently:

Lab Girl, a memoir by scientist and professor Hope Jahren. I've been reading this book mostly at night, about a chapter at a time, but I've picked up the pace recently. I can't begin to explain just how amazing this book is. First of all, Jahren is an astonishingly good writer. I mean GOOD. She is also hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. She makes everything about plants, geology, science, and the workings of a scientific lab absolutely enthralling. And her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated field is riveting.

The Ambassadors by Henry James. When I was an English major in college I loved Henry James. Now, I'm wondering if anyone even reads him anymore--someone must, surely. I picked up The Ambassadors to see whether I still had the focus and ability to concentrate to read James. The reality is that the ability to focus deeply on the type of sentences and precise details you get with Henry James is something that requires practice. My life and my job have left me with fractured attention. But I am slowly making my way.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This 490 page panoramic historical novel set in Korea and Japan hit the sweet spot for me. It is a beautiful, profound, entrancing book. I was lost, completely immersed, in this story of a Sunja, a young girl who becomes pregnant by a married man. Sunja lives with her widowed mother, who runs a boardinghouse. In a twist of fate, a young Christian minister comes to stay in the boardinghouse, and rescues Sunja from her shameful situation by marrying her and taking her to Japan, where most of the story takes place. I will be posting a full review of this novel, but suffice it to say for now that it is splendid.

As the school year comes to an end, I'm looking forward to reading for pleasure, sheer, pure pleasure, and reading all the time.But even now, when it seems like there is no time for it, I will be reading.

What have you read lately that hit the sweet spot for you? Do you find as life gets more and more busy and stressful, that you need to read more, not less?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: Mississippi Blood

Mississippi Blood
Greg Iles
hardcover, 704 pages
William Morrow
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes & Noble
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

     Mississippi Blood is the absolutely stunning conclusion to the Natchez Burning trilogy by Greg Iles. This third novel is far and away the best of the three, and the first two books were superb. Iles manages to create a thriller with courtroom scenes that evoke To Kill a Mockingbird, and action that rivals the very best in the genre. It's rare that a book so immensely readable and compulsively fast-paced also goes so deep in historical significance. In Mississippi Blood, the secrets and mysteries of Penn Cage's family merge with the history of the South in all its bitterness.

     The loathsome villain of the trilogy, Snake Knox (whose evil is of Biblical proportions) is at the center of the action in Mississippi Blood. For those who haven't read the first two books (do that post haste) Snake Knox is a member of a unique offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan called the Double Eagles. Snake and his illegitimate son, Alois, haunt the edges of the main action of the novel much of the time. Penn Cage's father, Dr. Tom Cage, has been accused of murder in the death of his former nurse--and former lover--Viola Turner. Back in the 1960's, Dr. Cage and Viola had an intimate affair, once that was illicit both because Cage was married, but also because Cage was white and Viola was black.

     Mississippi Blood continues the saga that began with Natchez Burning: unsolved murders dating back to the Civil Rights era, including the murder of Viola's brother Jimmy. The second book in the trilogy, The Bone Tree, solved the crimes committed decades before, and ended with the heroic death of Henry Sexton, a journalist. The novel also ended with the devastating death of Caitlin Masters, Penn Cage's wife-to-be, who was pregnant with the couple's child.

     This last novel in the trilogy opens with Penn being shut out by his father as Dr. Cage's trial approaches. Quentin Avery, already a familiar figure to readers from previous novels, has agreed to represent Dr. Cage, but Aver's decisions mystify and worry the son, and both Avery and Dr. Cage refuse to explain. New characters include a young black writer, Serenity Butler, who has come to Natchez to write about the case. She's  beautiful, accomplished, and a former soldier with formidable skills, Together Serenity and Penn try to uncover the facts--and the truth--about Viola Turner's death.

     It's not just his father Penn is trying to save; after the shattering losses he has suffered, he is trying to save his family and some semblance of the life he once had. But he soon discovers that the life he thought he had may have just been an illusion all along.

     Mississippi Blood is a deeply satisfying conclusion to the Natchez Burning trilogy. This book is more than just a thriller or a courtroom procedural, it is a book about history, the South, and the price the country is still paying for the sins of the past. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: By the Wayside

By the Wayside: Stories
Anne Leigh Parrish
paperback, 246 pages
Unsolicited Press
Purchase Links:
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Two things stand out for me about Anne Leigh Parrish's writing: her ability to create quirky, compelling, and entirely believable characters, and her incredible eye for detail. The telling details enliven her stories, and emblazon her stories and their characters in my memory.

     Parrish is the author of two previous story collections and a novel, and every piece of her writing that I have read has stayed with me. Sometimes I will read a novel and quite enjoy it, but later find myself unable to remember much of anything about it. With Anne Leigh Parrish's work, I find that those memorable details and compelling characters stick with me, almost like real people I have known.

     In By the Wayside, Parrish brings together an eclectic collection of stories, including touches of magical realism, touches of actual magic (including a wish-granting genie), and historical fiction. In "Trial by Luck," the serious fractures in a couple's relationship are laid bare by an encounter with a genie. By turns realistic and unreal, the core of the story is the differences in the way Jonathon and Laurie see the world, and even the genie, in entirely different ways. This fast-moving story almost had a "Twilight Zone" feel to it, and I loved the surprise ending.
     In "How She Was Found" a graduate student finds an ancient skeleton, and her own power in a male-centered world. In "Smoke" a young girl finally finds her rage, and an escape from a shameful secret. In "The Professor" a woman examines her past and finds the motivation to move forward in a different way.

    I think my favorite story in this collection was "Where Love Lies." I'm still thinking about this story, and I'm still not sure I know how it ends. "The Keeper of the Truth" is another story that ends with a sentence that can be interpreted more than one way. The stories in this collection often seem to resonate long after you finish reading them, and often I would find myself closing the book when I finished a story, to give myself time to think before starting the next one. 

     The characters in Anne Leigh Parrish's stories are often damaged people, people who have lost love or never had it; parents who are neglectful, children who are smarter or more knowing than their parents, husbands and wives who deceive. But each of the characters is written in such a humane and compassionate way that the reader suspends judgment and instead looks for understanding. These are mostly ordinary people doing mostly ordinary things--and then sometimes throwing it all by the wayside. 

     I highly recommend By the Wayside. In fact, I would recommend Anne Leigh Parrish's entire body of work; she's writing finely detailed and memorable fiction, and she's an author you need to know.

     Also by Anne Leigh Parrish:  All the Roads That Lead From Home (stories); Our Love Could Light the World (stories); and What Is Found, What Is Lost, a novel.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's Tale
Pam Jenoff
paperback, 368 pages

     The Orphan's Tale is a haunting story set in Germany and France during World War II. Told in alternating chapters by two characters, Astrid and Noa, The Orphan's Tale is an unusual twist on the World War II historical novel. The story takes place within a traveling circus, and Astrid and Noa are aerialists. Each woman has a secret, and each has an unimaginable strength. Readers will be held in suspense by the questions and mysteries at the heart of this novel, and the tale has some of the mystery and magic of a circus act.

     Noa is sixteen and has been sent away by her family after becoming pregnant with the child of a Nazi soldier. She flees from her native Netherlands, and goes to Germany, where she has her baby taken from her after giving birth in a facility for the Lebensborn program. She finds a job as a cleaner in a railroad station in Germany, and a spontaneous act of mercy leads Noa to run again--this time with a Jewish infant she has rescued from a railway car filled with dead and dying Jewish infants.

     Noa runs into the forest, terrified and freezing. She is discovered by Peter, a talented clown in the traveling circus. In the circus, Noa and the baby boy she has rescued find shelter.

    At the circus, Noa meets Astrid, an aerialist whose Nazi officer husband has divorced her because she is a Jew. The circus is hiding more than one Jew, and there are tensions among the performers. Astrid agrees to train Noa as a aerialist, not really believing the newcomer will make it. The developing relationship between Astrid and Noa, and the dazzling descriptions of Astrid and Noa's act, offer a tense counterpoint to the threat of discovery by the SS.

     Pam Jenoff's beautiful descriptions of circus life make this well-researched historical novel haunting and poignant. The inherent danger of a trapeze act, performed high in the air, and depending on timing and trust, works with the shifting narrative perspectives, which blend seamlessly. This story of two women, their secrets, their friendship, and their sacrifices will find an audience among lovers of historical fiction.Especially recommended for readers interested in World War II.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday Coffee: Reading Right Now, A Miscellany (Sunday Salon)

     Six days a week I get up early, by necessity or choice. But Sundays..... To quote Wallace Stevens:
Sunday Morning
          Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
          Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
          And the green freedom of a cockatoo
          Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
          The holy hush of ancient sacrifice
          She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
          Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
          As a calm darkens among the water-lights.

I've always loved this Stevens poem (there's more...I just quoted the first few lines). Poetry often captures a mood or a sensation that I can't fully express. And there are times that poetry is essential for my life. Recently I've been reading more poetry, (Walt Whitman, John Keats, Mary Oliver, Ocean Vuong, Derek Walcott). It's so easy to find a poem: two of my go-to web sites are Poetry Foundation and Poets.org.

     And if you don't have time for a whole poem, how about a few lines? I love the "life lines" page on Poets.org, where people share lines of poetry that are meaningful to them. This is a good place to browse and explore what poetry can mean for us

     One more favorite site: Favorite Poem Project is practically addictive. On this site, people of all ages, vocations, and walks of life share their favorite poem. It is simple and it is beautiful. Here is one example.

    My reading has really been all over the place this week.I started The Nightingale (which I do plan to finish), but then I picked up Trollope's Can You Forgive Her, and have been reading along with JoAnn of Lakeside Musing as part of her #PalliserParty. How could I resist a group read of Trollope's political Palliser novels?

    This week I also finished reading The Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and in an unprecedented book-buying binge over the last couple of weeks, I ordered her We Should All Be Feminists, and picked up The Thing Around Your Neck from my local bookstore. Other books I bought: George Orwell's Why I Write and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as The Forsyte Saga. This all despite the fact that I already own an embarrassing number of books (many unread), and there is conclusive evidence that I have a very limited amount of time to actually read all those books. But I find a way, and I find the time, because reading continues to be one of the great and abiding pleasures of my life.

     Do you have a poet or poem that you turn to for comfort? What have you been reading lately? Do you buy or order more books than you can humanly read?