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, September 18, 2016

Review: The Bone Tree

The Bone Tree
Greg Iles
paperback, 832 pages
William Morrow 
A review copy of this book was provided by TLC Book Tours

     I'm still thinking about The Bone Tree, and I suspect I will be for a while. Sometimes the worst thing about finishing a book is letting go of the characters, and right now I have a huge book hangover--and I have quite some time to wait for the third book in the Natchez Burning trilogy. The publication date for Mississippi Blood is March 28, 2017. Thank goodness for backlist.

     If you were to take a Greek Tragedy, dress it up in modern clothes, and give it a Southern drawl, then you might come up with the trilogy Greg Iles decided to write about history, race, blood, and the South.

     In a case of synchronicity, my AP students and I have been reading and discussing Oedipus Rex for the past couple of weeks, and we've been asking lots of questions about fate.One question that comes up repeatedly is whether Oedipus would have been better off if he hadn't gone looking for so many answers. Asking questions may end in wisdom, but first comes pain.

     The Bone Tree picks up right where Natchez Burning left off, with Penn Cage and Caitlin Masters having just survived a brutal abduction and near death reckoning with the wealthy and corrupt Brody Royal. Cage and Masters, with the help of heroic journalist Henry Sexton, have uncovered some of the truth about the race crimes that took place during the sixties, but they've also apparently stumbled onto something even bigger than that: they seem to have uncovered a connection to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. And Penn Cage is still trying to find his father, Dr. Tom Cage, who has jumped bail after having been accused of a mercy killing--he's implicated in the death of his former nurse, Viola Turner.

     Natchez Burning begins with the accusation of murder against Dr. Cage, charges brought by Penn Cage's political enemy, District Attorney Shad Johnson. Even more shocking for Penn is the revelation that Viola Turner's son, Lincoln Turner, may in fact be Dr. Cage's son--Penn's half-brother.

     The Bone Tree brings together one of the darkest periods of history in the United States, and explores a possible conspiracy involving the Mafia, the Double Eagles (an offshoot of the KKK), and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If at times the historical exposition and explanation of the conspiracy cause the action to flag a bit, Iles more than makes up for it by keeping the reader riveted during tense, heart-stopping scenes involving characters the reader cares about. Iles doesn't hesitate to bring his characters to the highest pitch of danger, and life stops for the reader in the last third of the book. Iles is a genius at pacing and narrative tension. The stakes are high in The Bone Tree, and there isn't a single character or a single relationship that isn't taken to the brink and beyond in this splendid novel. Iles never lets his reader down, which is why I will fill the waiting time until Mississippi Blood with other Iles books, like Turning Angel and The Devil's Punchbowl. Highly recommended for fans of Ken Follett, Alan Furst, and even William Faulkner. Iles combines the suspense and tension of a thriller with the depth of literary fiction. The Natchez Burning trilogy is intelligent, gripping, and memorable.

For more about the Natchez Burning trilogy and other books by Greg Iles:


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review: Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning
Greg Iles
William Morrow paperbacks
816 pages
reprint edition
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Natchez Burning brings together several of my obsessions. I grew up with an awareness of the Civil Rights movement, although I was very young at the height of the movement. Still, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his movement made an indelible mark on my childhood, and his assassination, along the the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy colored my memories of that time. And today, I spend time reading about (and teaching) the literature and history of the Civil Rights movement. So a contemporary thriller that reaches back into that past has an immediate appeal for me--and many of the crimes of that era, especially crimes committed in the deep South, are unsolved and buried in the shallow grave of the not-so distant past. Add to this the obvious spiritual debt Iles owes to one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, and I am, to say the least, receptive.

     Greg Iles has found a rich thematic ground to mine in this trilogy, of which Natchez Burning is the first book (The Bone Tree is just being released, and the third book in the trilogy, Mississippi Blood, is coming soon). The trilogy features Penn Cage, a character Iles first introduced in The Quiet Game. Cage is a lawyer, a widower, and a father. The death of his wife Sarah from breast cancer is important to character development in The Quiet Game, which also involves an unsolved mystery from the past. The Quiet Game also introduced Caitlin Masters, a newspaper publisher, editor, and reporter; by the time Natchez Burning rolls around (the fourth Penn Cage novel), Caitlin Masters and Penn Cage are engaged and on the cusp of marriage. Cage also has a young daughter, Annie.

     In Natchez Burning, Penn Cage's father, a well-respected physician who is practically a saint in his community, is accused of a crime involving the death of a patient who has been suffering from terminal cancer. The accusation, and the connection between Dr. Tom Cage and the patient (his former nurse, Viola Turner), unexpectedly opens up a whole dark history of crime, sexual secrets, and the Ku Klux Klan. As Cage begins to investigate the past, while his father maintains a frustrating silence, he uncovers a connection to a group, called the Double Eagles, that is even more evil and sinister than the Klan. Cage's path, and his investigation, intersects with that of Henry Sexton, a local journalist who has toiled in semi-obscurity at a weekly newspaper, doggedly pursuing the story of the deaths of two Civil Rights workers, as well as the deaths of Albert Norris, owner of a local music shop, and a young musician who made the deadly mistake of becoming sexually involved with a young white woman, who happens to be the daughter of a powerful businessman.

     Iles ratchets up the tension as each of the stories evolves and the past and the present come hurtling together. Even though this book is over 800 pages, I finished it in five days, mostly because I was unwilling to put it down for any length of time. And there is nothing more pleasurable than a long immersive book that is deftly plotted and beautifully written. And the best thing of all is when you have the next book in the series right on hand, so you don't have to leave the world of the novel.

     Because Natchez Burning is part of a trilogy, much of the mystery at the heart of the book remains unsolved at the close of the novel. What is revealed is the large cast of corrupt and dangerous characters at the heart of the world of the novel; the novel ends with some questions answered and resolved, but with many others unanswered. And most readers wouldn't have it any other way.

     I'm one of those readers who usually likes to read series books in order, but in this case, I don't think the reader needs to have read the previous Penn Cage novels. Iles is adept at plot summary (he's much better at it than I am) and with filling in gaps in the reader's knowledge of his characters and their histories. In this novel, I loved the way Iles created both minor and major characters who were vibrant and compelling; I particularly liked Henry Sexton, an old-school journalist with a collection of Moleskine notebooks and an allegiance to uncovering the truth.

     Iles knows the world of his characters very well, having spent most of his youth in Natchez, Mississippi. Anyone who has done even a little bit of reading about the Civil rights era knows that the Klan and the police were often one and the same, and that there was very little justice for people of color in the South. It is all too credible that disappearances, deaths, and brutal crimes remain unsolved but not unsolvable, and Natchez Burning gives the past an immediacy and intensity that make for compelling reading. I can't wait to go on to the next book in the series, The Bone Tree (and to be honest, I've already started it). Natchez Burning marries the literary novel and the thriller in a profound meditation on some of the darkest days of our past.

For more information on Greg Iles and his books, go to www.gregiles.com

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Review: The Big Thing

The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even If You're a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me
Phyllis Korkki
Hardcover, 256 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     The appeal of Phyllis Korkki's book begins right in the title: how can you not warm to an author who admits to being a lazy, self-doubting procrastinator right in the title. Right away I'm thinking, this author will not judge me.

     I'm pretty sure that I am the perfect audience for this book. I don't usually read self-help books, but I read a lot of books about writing. I mean a lot. I have filled shelf upon shelf with books about how to write your novel/short story/memoir/you fill in the blank. I have always wanted to write a book; I always thought I would write a book. But, your "Big Thing" or project doesn't have to be a book. It could be a business you want to start, any artistic project you might want to name (a Reggae album), a philanthropic foundation, or even a marriage.

     After reading The Big Thing, I even began to think that a lifelong reading plan could be a Big Thing. If I came up with a product (a library, a book, a museum of books) or even if I didn't, if my project was planned, incremental, and important to me, it could be my Big Thing.

     But it probably still is a book. That is the Big Thing I want to complete, and The Big Thing has been immensely helpful to me as I think through why I want to complete such a project, what that project might mean to me, and how I might realistically complete it.

    Korkki is a journalist and editor who works full-time for the New York Times. She has a demanding job, a limited amount of time and energy, and yet she finally figured out how to get her Big Thing done: hence this book. Very meta.

     Along the way, Korkki engages in self-examination in the most self-deprecating and comforting way (after all, she did finish her book, and she's just as flawed as I am!).

     She also uses her substantial journalistic skills to interview a panoply of experts, from mindfulness teachers, to posture experts, to an actual child prodigy artist. She is a superb interviewer and reporter, and makes herself almost invisible as she tells engaging stories about virtually every aspect of tackling a big important project. She tells you why you procrastinate, and why you shouldn't; how you should breathe, sit, and even work in bed if you like to emulate Proust. She even tells you how to know whether you should maybe just give up on your Big Thing.

     But you probably shouldn't give up. Instead, you should go out and buy The Big Thing, possibly the friendliest and most encouraging book a procrastinator could ask for. Don't put it off: go out and get The Big Thing and do your Big Thing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review: A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice

A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations
Christine Hale
paperback, 274 pages
Apprentice House
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     The best way for me to represent this unusual memoir would be with a mind map. A visual representation would be an appropriate response to this very original and complex book. There are repeated images patterns, and themes, interwoven in a complex and deeply absorbing meditation on life as experienced by one woman.

     Christine Hale has chosen an interesting approach to telling her story: instead of presenting a chronological narrative, she presents her life as a series of moments or vignettes, weaving back and forth in time, and coming back again and again to the repeated patterns and themes of her life.

     A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice explores a woman's life from the perspective of her relationships and roles in the lives of others; Hale is presented in her roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and in each role she grasps at intimacy and the desire for something in return. Whether she is talking about her embattled and enmeshed relationship with her abusive mother, or her longing for an elusive love, Hale addresses her "beloved" love object as "You" throughout the book, further emphasizing the repetition of patterns of clinging, suffocation, and loss.

     Images, emblems, themes and patterns are repeated throughout the narrative: the "You" (an ever-changing object of love, obsession, and even anger); desire, abuse; depression, dreams; writing; and Buddhist practice. One story-line that helps weave the many moments together is a story involving tattoos that the author and her two children receive--tattoos that symbolically and physically connect the family and the pieces of the story.

     In some ways Hale's story is a very ordinary tale of an ordinary life. What makes this memoir engaging and unique is the way the author weaves together the insights she has gleaned from her life; she presents her mistakes, her pain, and her shame in a subdued and calm tone that aims more for understanding and enlightenment than drama.

     Hale seems never to try to make herself seem either better or worse than she really is. A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice is a poetic meditation, the storm of emotion recollected in a state of calm. Because of the psychological insight and emphasis on Buddhist practice, I think this memoir would especially appeal to Buddhist practitioners, spiritual seekers, and those in recovery from abuse or depression. Hale brings a mature wisdom and spiritually insightful perspective to her meditation on her life, a story that many women will relate to--or at least find extremely compelling.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Middlemarch #EliotAlong Week 4

The Middlemarch #EliotAlong is hosted by Bex at An Armchair by the Sea
Week Four: Chapters 43-56

The idea of summarizing or discussing all that takes place in this section of Middlemarch is daunting. At this point I absolutely didn't want to put this book down, and was completely captivated by the intelligence, depth, and compassion of the author.

My copy of Middlemarch is filled with underlined sections, scribbled marginalia, and long statements like this one: This is one of my favorite chapters. Eliot enters into each of her characters so completely. Casaubon is monstrous without knowing it, wanting to imprison Dorothea even after his death...And the chapter is gripped with morbidity.

I scrawled that note at the top of chapter 48.With Casaubon and Bulstrode, Eliot creates characters who are hiding weaknesses, and deep, dark sins against others. But the author avoids an overly simplistic, externalized version of her characters. Instead she delves deeply into their souls, and the reader enters into the most private thoughts of Casaubon and Bulstrode (not always pleasant). Eliot delicately articulates the rationalization and extensive self-deceit that allows these characters to continue to sin against others, while trying to appear virtuous.

Characters such as Dorothea, Lydgate,  Farebrother, Caleb Garth, Mary Garth, and even Fred Vincy, are to some degree unselfish, caring more for the happiness (and goodness) of others than for their own happiness. Eliot makes it clear that such virtue is not necessarily rewarded by happiness.

I'm making that sound so much more boring and moralistic than it is. The experience of reading Middlemarch is intense. The reader is in the hands of a brilliant writer, and is carried away by intensity of emotion and identification with the characters.

At the same time, Eliot is giving the reader an entertaining lesson in: village life, social climbing and elitism, the caustic power of gossip, and the reluctance of most people to adjust to change and progress. I'm struck by how relevant some of this is: in Victorian England rising industrialism was changing people's lives, and for some that change was devastating. It's not that different from the rise of technology and the loss of manufacturing jobs here in the United States. There was political upheaval going on too, and Eliot manages to get it all into this panoramic novel.

There are so many themes to talk about in this novel, but one that I think is really interesting is the idea of the importance of work or vocation. Dorothea is searching for something to do, something to give some purpose to her life. Fred Vincy needs to find a respectable profession so he can live a life of purpose (and marry Mary). Will keeps casting about for something useful to do. And Caleb Garth seems to epitomize the perfect balance, as someone who has found true happiness in his work. He wants nothing more than to be useful, and his most perfect happiness is found in his family and his work.  One of my very favorite passages in Middlemarch is one where Caleb speaks to Fred Vincy about his reverence and respect for work:
"You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think that it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying , There's this and there's that -- if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is -- I wouldn't give twopence for him" -- here Caleb's mouth looked bitter , and he snapped his fingers -- "whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do." Chapter 56 (562)
That's just one example of Eliot's ability to articulate her characters' deepest and most profound feelings (whether those feelings are shameful or beautiful). Middlemarch is a book that a reader can go back to again and again, it is such a deeply human story.

Feedback please! Are you reading Middlemarch now, or have you read it in the past? What are your thoughts on this incredible novel?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Other Shores, Other Worlds

Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. There is nothing like a list, and there is no list I love more than a book list. This week's Top Ten Tuesday is Top Ten Books Set Outside the U.S. That We've Enjoyed. Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity made a great suggestion on twitter (@TriniCapini) that the TTT list include other worlds and other universes, which I thought was genius! My list includes real and imaginary places.

1. Snow by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winning novelist, lives and writes in Turkey. This multi-layered, evocative novel is set in the provincial city of Kars (also the Turkish word for snow). A beautiful book.
2. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. This wildly inventive and immersive novel goes back and forth in time, and is set in England, Iceland, and Ireland.
3. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. An eerie and disturbing novel set in a dystopian version of Sweden.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This stunning fantasy trilogy is set in a parallel universe that is very similar to Oxford, England.
5. Red Rising by Pierce Brown. My students could not put down this fast-paced YA novel set on Mars.
6. The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. If you haven't read this biopunk science fiction novel set in Thailand, you owe it to yourself to do so. Weird and wonderful.
7. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. Another wholly original work of fantasy that creates a world like no other.
8. Arcadia by Iain Pears. Partially set in a recognizable England, partially set in a possible future (maybe parallel) universe, partially set within a created world.
9. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I heard/saw people talking about this book for the longest time, then finally took the bait. This book has everything: witches, Oxford, vampires, the Bodlieian Library, timewalking, history. Perfect.
10. Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami. Two fantastic novels that have so many layers of meaning and beauty--set in Japan.

What books have you liked or loved that are set in other countries--or other universes?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: Remember My Beauties

Remember My Beauties
Lynne Hugo
Switchgrass Books
paperback, 194 pages
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

     Lynne Hugo is a sensitive writer with a feel for character and the way real people can let themselves and others down. I had read and very much liked a previous novel of hers, A Matter of  Mercy,  so I was pretty sure I would like Remember My Beauties, and I wasn't wrong.

     Remember My Beauties is a slim novel that most readers can probably finish in a couple of days, but the story is pretty hard to put down. It took me a little while to become fully immersed in this book, but once the story got going, I found myself caught up in the pain and sorrow of Jewel, one of those women who is trying to be everything to everyone. She is married for the second time, and her husband Eddie is specializing in getting on her nerves. She has a drug-addicted daughter she keeps trying to rescue, aging parents she is caring for, and a job on top of it all.

     Jewel's parents are struggling: her father is blind, her mother, Louetta, needs constant care due to rheumatoid arthritis; not only that, but there are the horses to think of. Jewel's father, Hack, a former horse breeder and trainer, can't stand the thought of letting go of his "beauties"--the horses who require as much care as Hack and Louetta.

     It's exhausting just thinking about it.

     I think many readers will relate to the highly imperfect life that Jewel is living. She is an ordinary woman called on to do heroic tasks every day, and no one thanks her for it. When Hack and Louetta tell Jewel that her estranged brother, Cal, is coming for a visit, Jewel is ready to quit. What happens next is sometimes painful, sometimes funny, and always involving for the reader. Hugo creates gritty, realistic characters and shows the compassionate and surprisingly redemptive power of family love.

     One thing that really stands out in this novel is the depiction of the interactions between humans and horses. Hugo brings to life the beauty of the relationship between people and horses. This slim novel is just the thing for readers who like stories that realistically show the pain and humor of family life.