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

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: Love May Fail

Love May Fail
Matthew Quick
hardcover, 416 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Love May Fail made me laugh as many times as it made me cry--and I stopped counting the sobs after about the fourth time.

    I absolutely adored this book.

    I didn't want to pick up another book for a while....because I didn't want this book to leave my heart and mind.

    When Portia Kane graduated from high school, her beloved English teacher gave her (and all his students) a card, the size of a driver's license, welcoming her to the "Human Race," and advising her to "make daring choices, work hard, enjoy the ride, and remember--you become exactly whomever you choose to be." So when Portia ends up eighteen years later, crouching in her own bedroom closet with a gun, it's safe to say that her life has not gone as planned. Instead of getting her degree in English and writing a novel, Portia has married a pornographer with a sex addiction and hasn't written a word in years.

     Love May Fail, by Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, takes the reader on a wild ride. I won't even attempt to summarize the plot of the novel; I'll just say that Love May Fail is as epically messy as real life, and filled with characters who are both deeply flawed and deeply lovable. When Portia catches her husband in flagrante delicto, she begins a quest--first to find, and then to save, her high school English teacher, Nate Vernon.

     I don't want to ruin this book for anyone by saying why Mr. Vernon (in Portia's mind) needs saving. I will tell you that he has a one-eyed poodle named Albert Camus.

     I will tell you that Portia's quest takes her from Florida, where she has lived in luxury, to South Jersey, where her mother, a hoarder, lives among piles of detritus and stacks of Diet Coke with Lime. There Portia rediscovers her love for heavy metal bands, meets a metal-head five-year-old named Tommy, and Tommy's former heroin-addict uncle, Chuck, a bartender and aspiring teacher. Along the way Portia encounters an unusual nun with a feisty attitude, and takes on tasks worthy of the term "Quixotic."

     Love May Fail is about the epic and disastrous ways in which we humans can screw up, but also about how basic decency and goodness can prevail. Love may fail, but author Matthew Quick succeeded in making me fall in love with his characters, and with their stories. It's not easy being a member of the human race. But Love May Fail is a funny, deeply generous, and ultimately beautiful look at the perils and pleasures of being human.

Monday, June 22, 2015

What Do You Read When You Are Feeling an Inconsolable Sorrow

     I could say that we need comfort, solace, and love right now. And I wouldn't be wrong. But we need something else; I need something else. I need truth.

     It is all to easy to call the massacre of nine worshipers at Emanuel AME church a senseless killing, or to pretend not to understand "where such hatred comes from."

    But that is a lie. Right now, more than anything, I need words of truth. What do you read when your country is being torn apart by a refusal to finally admit to and do the work of repairing the damage done by centuries of white supremacy? You have to read words of truth. Comfort and solace are stale crumbs compared to truth and justice.

     What do you read when you are feeling an inconsolable sorrow? You might begin with James Baldwin. You might begin with The Fire Next Time.

     The first essay in The Fire Next Time offers some hard truths. In "My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emanciption," Baldwin talks about the brutal systematic racism that his father, uncle, brother, and nephew have encountered and continue to encounter. But worse, says Baldwin, is the innocence of whites who pretend the system doesn't exist:

" I know what the world has done to my brother, and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it."

     The crime that Baldwin accuses white America of is not knowing and not wanting to know of the destruction and devastation of black lives: "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."

     Further, Baldwin tells his nephew: "The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it."

     Baldwin is as relevant today as he was in 1962. Reading his essays and fiction is like stepping into the bracing, cold air and the clear and glorious light of truth after stumbling in darkness.

"I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believe that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers--your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it."

     Baldwin is just one writer who tells the truths we need to face. His message still seems radical: He outlines the purposeful destruction of a people, and then he prescribes love and truth as the way forward.

     It is ironic that a cold-hearted, cold-blooded killer, who intended to start a "race war" should have instead inspired an outpouring of unity, grace, and love. The way forward is through truth, truths told with grace and lived out with love.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Consumption

Heather Herrman
Hydra, 288 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     This was just one of those books that didn't work for me. Before I go into why I didn't enjoy Consumption, I'd like to talk about what the author, Heather Herrman did well, and why you might like this book more than I did.

     But first, a little bit about the plot: John and Erma are a married couple who are a bit down on their luck. John, an English professor, lost his job first. Then Erma lost her job as an advocate for abused women. So they are moving across the country, heading for Maine (a nod to Stephen King?), where John is going to work for Erma's relative. The couple are traveling with an old Honda and a moving van, accompanied by their dog, Maxie.

     Maxie is by far my favorite character in this book.

     Not that the human characters aren't well-written, because they are. But Maxie is a really well-drawn, individual dog, and she's integral to the plot.

     So John and Erma are having a tough time in their marriage and their lives, and it's about to get tougher because Erma's car dies along the highway in Montana. And as luck would have it, they break down right outside a town right out of a horror movie. At least, in terms of plot, this scenario reminded me of a horror movie, where you get that bad feeling early and often.

     Cavus, Montana, is a town built on evil, an evil that can't be entirely eradicated. According to the Native American tribe that tried to drive settlers away, no one should try to live in the area because of this ineradicable evil, which the author depicts as rising up from an abandoned mine.

     But for a town built right on top of evil, Cavus seems deceptively calm and welcoming. Sheriff Riley stops and helps the young couple, putting them up at his Aunt Bunny's. And John and Erma are incredibly lucky, because they are just in time for the annual Festival Day......

     Herrman establishes her main characters well, and puts them in an ominous situation. For a minute I thought the Festival was going to be some kind of Shirley Jackson, Lottery-esque event. Especially when the Festival was alluded to constantly by all the supernaturally cheerful small town characters. Instead the plot headed in a much more Stephen King-like direction. My problem with the book was two-fold: I didn't believe some of the plot details (mostly having to do with the Sheriff and his behavior), and there was just a little too much blood and gore for me (definitely a matter of taste). The gore just seems to be an element of the horror genre, and I'm not sure that horror fans would be put off at all.

     Herrman's plot is carefully crafted, and she is after much more than a simple scare-fest. She obviously put a lot of thought into the ideas of her book, as well as the overall shape of her book. The form that evil takes in her novel doesn't just come out of nowhere--there are cultural and social underpinnings to the form evil takes in the novel. So even though Consumption was not my dish, it may very well be the perfect meal for horror fans.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Coffee: Time for Summer Reading!

     Summertime, and the living is easy! 

June 9th was the last work day for me until August 10th, and I am unapologetically happy about that.

      Of course, I plan to spend a good part of my summer reading!

     Because I am a teacher....

1. Yes, I have my summers off. Yes, I love it. No, I do not get paid for this.
     The general public seems to have a gross misperception about this whole "summers off" thing. First of all, teachers are most decidedly not paid for this time: out paychecks are for actual time worked, but are stretched out over the whole calendar year. And yes, it's really, really nice to have this stretch of time off...but understand that many teachers take on other jobs during this time, or do what I do: divide our time between recuperating from the past school year and preparing for the next one.

2. I never actually stop thinking about my work as a teacher. This summer I will be working on my planning and curriculum for next year, as well as doing plenty of reading of professional literature and works that support my instruction for the coming year.

3. I am always, always learning. That's one thing I love about my job. It pushes me to constantly learn more about my content area, about the latest research in my field, and about the science of the brain and learning.

4. I am a glutton for books. I can't wait to dig into my reading lists, and the stacks of books that are waiting for me. 

     Here's what I'm reading today:
An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope

     This year is the 200th anniversary of Trollope's birth, so I have made it a goal to read as many of his books as possible. So far, the Autobiography is delightful. After a fairly somber and depressing beginning (Trollope and his family faced illness, financial problems, and all sorts of adversity) Trollope's narrative is getting really good. I'm in the midst of reading about Trollope's work habits, his methods for writing his novels, and the slow ascent of his success as a novelist, all while he worked away for the British Post Office.

     One thing I have noticed is that despite a resurgence of interest in Trollope, his books aren't always easy to find. The Barsetshire and Palliser novels aren't too difficult to find, but I'm trying to track down an edition of The Three Clerks, which was evidently one of Trollope's favorites among his own novels. So far I haven't found exactly the right book (combination of a nice edition with a not-too-high price). This problem makes me think that there is something to be said for holding on to books, or making proactive purchases! Even as I am seriously considering culling my own bookshelves, I am realizing that there is such a thing as scarcity in the book world.

     The list of books I plan to read and want to read over the summer is too long for this post. The longing for certain books, the desire to read just such a book at a particular time--that is a whole post in itself. I'll just share one book that I recently purchased and am looking forward to reading:

A Writer's Diary by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I'm really looking forward to reading this beautiful book.

Other plans for the summer:

1. Writing every day!
2. Sleep. Not too much of it, but a little more than I get during the school year.
3. Moving every day: a walk, some yoga, dancing in the kitchen--something!
4. Cleaning up/culling/organizing my bookshelves. Yes, I think I'm ready.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Review: The Mapmaker's Children

The Mapmaker's Children
Sarah McCoy
hardcover, 320 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Sarah McCoy has written an enthralling novel that combines elements of historical fiction with women's fiction and contemporary fiction. That she pulls this off is a tribute to her storytelling gift. The Mapmaker's Children brings together heroines from distinctly differing historical periods, and weaves a tale that ultimately comes together in a most satisfying way.

     Eden Anderson is a wife who has settled into a historic home in New Charlestown, West Virginia. Her husband seems nearly perfect: handsome, affectionate, successful. But after years of struggling to conceive a child, accumulating medical bills and disappointment, the couple is drifting apart. In fact, Eden is considering her options, and divorce might be one of them. How her story intersects with that of the daughter of American radical abolitionist-prophet John Brown is not immediately clear, but by the end of the novel, McCoy brings together the stories of these two very different women.

     One of the appeals of the historical novel is that the reader is drawn imaginatively into a past that is only partially known. John Brown is most famous for his failed insurrection and attack at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Even though the attack itself failed, and Brown was captured and hanged for his crime, it is considered to have been one of the important instigating events of the Civil War. Brown's sons are often mentioned: Oliver and Watson were killed at Harper's Ferry. But I have never heard mention of John Brown's daughters, and McCoy takes an imaginative leap in bringing Brown's widow, and his daughters, Annie and Sarah, to life in The Mapmaker's Daughter. Sarah is a fascinating figure: like her father, she was an abolitionist. She was befriended by Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott. Sarah was also a talented artist; this talent plays a large role in the novel, as McCoy imagines Sarah using her artistic skills in the abolition cause.

     Sarah's story takes the reader from North Elba, New York, to New Charlestown, to Boston. McCoy succeeds in creating a believable character, fully fleshed out, with not only a desire to help the abolitionist cause, but also to move beyond the restricted life of the typical woman of her period. Sarah meets and falls in love with a young man who seems perfect for her in every way, but the narrative does not follow the expected plot lines of a romance.

     In the parallel story of Eden, McCoy has her character struggling with how to redefine her life along new plot lines. At the same time, Eden is finding her way as a new member of her small community, while she tries to solve the mystery of the hidden trap door in her historic home, and the mysterious doll head she finds in a hidden cellar.

     While initially I couldn't work out how these seemingly divergent story lines related, the novel drew me in with its vividly realized characters. The time preceding and during the Civil War is one that has always interested me, and I already have an interest in the brave abolitionists who worked on the Under Ground Rail Road helping slaves flee captivity. Much of the novel is told in the form of letters and other documents, which helps give a feeling of immediacy. The character of Eden, who I initially found somewhat annoying, became endearingly familiar by the novel's end. And in the contemporary story, the fictional characters of the town of New Charlestown were so appealing that I would be tempted to move there, and maybe try to get a job at Ms. Silverdash's bookstore. When the ends are all tied together at the book's close, the result is purely satisfying. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction, women's fiction, and characters who are portrayed with compassion and empathy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Review: Let Me Die in His Footsteps

Let Me Die in His Footsteps
Lori Roy
hardcover, 336 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Let Me Die in His Footsteps captured me from the first pages. Set in rural Kentucky, Lori Roy's novel drew me in with captivating characters, an unsolved mystery, and an intense sense of place. The story begins in 1952, with Annie Holleran on the cusp of womanhood. Annie has the "know-how," the ability to intuit what others don't see or know. She also has a family filled with secrets and conflict; her Aunt Juna, who left Kentucky shortly after Annie was born, was known for having the "know-how" too. Juna also was at the center of a spectacular crime that led to a public hanging, and the death of her younger brother. Annie "favors" her Aunt Juna, with her blonde hair and black eyes; some people think (and Annie fears) that Annie resembles Juna in other ways as well.

     Lori Roy has created a narrative that is complex and layered. The story shifts back and forth between 1952, with Annie seeking a glimpse of her future husband in a neighbor's well at midnight, and discovering a body instead, and 1936, the year that Dale Crowley disappeared, and Joseph Carl Baine was hanged. It takes almost the whole novel for Roy to lead the reader to an understanding of how all the threads of this story come together, and when the reader finally gets there, the effect is stunning.

     I loved the atmospheric setting of Let Me Die in His Footsteps. Roy expertly develops a sense of a clannish community with deeply rooted customs, and equally deeply rooted mistrust of what is only dimly understood. The families in this kind of community have lived side by side for generation upon generation, and their stories are known by all. The Hollerans and the Baines are neighbors, But ever since Joseph Carl was hanged on the basis of Juna's accusations, the Hollerans have steered clear of the Baines.

    The complications in Let Me Die in His Footsteps go back a generation, to the sisters Sarah and Juna. Juna is an uncanny young woman, feared by everyone, even her father and sister. She seems to be an Eve or Lilith figure in this novel, leading many into temptation. Juna's sister Sarah is in love with their neighbor Ellis Baine, but he seems not to know or care that Sarah exists. On a fateful day, Sarah manipulates events so that she can encounter Ellis; to do this, she sends her sister Juna out into the fields with their little brother Dale. Dale never returns.

     The relationships and plot twists in Let Me Die in His Footsteps are complex, complicated, and not easily summarized. That's part of the draw with this novel: the author takes the time to delineate family relationships and generational conflicts. In the end, the novel takes several surprising turns, ending with a few surprises I never would have predicted.

     The novel has a timeless feeling; although the specific religious beliefs of the community aren't stated, it's clear the life of these people revolves around church and family, and their beliefs are conservative and superstitious. One of the unexplained customs of the folk in this book is that young girls who reach their "Ascension Day" (the date halfway between their fifteenth and sixteenth birthday) go to look into a well at midnight on that date, looking for a vision of their future husband. The girls then name the subject of their vision, which usually leads to courtship. It seems like and unusual bit of female agency in a male-dominated culture. Another unusual touch in the book is that the Holleran family (which Sarah marries into, and Annie is born into) grows lavender, rather than the tobacco that everyone else in the area farms.

     The novel Let Me Die in His Footsteps reminds me of most is one of my favorite books: East of Eden  by John Steinbeck. The reason I make this connection is the generational conflict in the story, as well as the Biblical overtones. And the character of Juna reminds me quite a bit of Steinbeck's Cathy.

     Lori Roy succeeds in creating an enthralling story that combines romance, mystery, conflict, and violence in a way that is both timeless and entirely realistic. This is a novel I will be thinking about for some time to come.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: A Deadly Wandering

A Deadly Wandering
Matt Richtel
hardcover, 416 pages
William Morrow
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Two things made me interested in reading Matt Richtel's A Deadly Wandering: my work as a teacher, and my own experience as a driver--sometimes distracted myself, but more often the appalled observer of drivers who clearly had lost sight of the driving task.

     As a high school English teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of technology on attention. From what I can see and understand of my own students, their cell phones and other devices are not just extensions of them, they are very nearly part of the "self" of the average teenager. I see the anxiety teenagers experience when they are separated from their devices, and I see the inability to focus that is caused by the proximity of devices.

     A Deadly Wandering is a fascinating account of a fatal car accident, in which a nineteen-year-old driver caused the death of two rocket scientists on their way to work. Reggie Shaw had no memory of the accident itself, but he swore that he had not been texting at the time of the accident.

     Matt Richtel tells the story of the accident, and of some tenacious investigators (among them, the police officer who first responded to the accident), and of the eventual trial. Interwoven with this compelling narrative are interviews with scientists conducting the latest research on the science of distraction and attention. The result is an immersive, riveting narrative.

     A Deadly Wandering is one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read, on a topic that could hardly be more timely or important. What is our technology doing to us and our brains? How are human beings being altered by the technology that was supposed to free us? And how and why have we become slaves to our technology?

     I highly recommend A Deadly Wandering. I guarantee one thing: after reading this book, you will think twice about pulling our your cell phone while you are driving. You will definitely learn important information about how daily (let's face it, for most of us, constant) use of devices, especially while multi-tasking, has a damaging effect on our ability to focus, or function. While the factual and scientific aspects of A Deadly Wandering are gripping, readers will find that Matt Richtel has created compelling portraits of the main players in the tragic deadly accident, and the resulting investigation. The book is emotionally involving, mostly because of the depth of the reporting. Reggie Shaw is depicted both dispassionately, and compassionately--that is to say fairly, but with a real depth of understanding.

     I devoured A Deadly Wandering in one weekend, and honestly can't think of a single negative thing to say about this book. I'm still thinking about the people in this book, and definitely feel I understand my own brain better. This book will change the way I think about focus and attention, and how I interact with technology.

For more information about Matt Richtel and A Deadly Wandering: