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, August 21, 2015

Review: Crooked Heart

Crooked Heart
Lissa Evans
hardcover, 288 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Set in England during World War II, Crooked Heart is the story of the odd shapes that love sometimes take. I like the title of this book because it works on two levels--the main characters have hearts that are warped by lost, but they are also "crooked" another way. The story begins with Noel Bostock, a ten-year-old orphan, living with his godmother in London. The godmother, Mattie, is an aged iconoclast who was once a suffragette; she suffers from dementia, and as her disease progresses, Noel works arduously to cover for her. Noel himself is a bit of a misfit: intelligent, but unpopular at school. When children begin to be evacuated from London during the Blitz, Noel is determined not to go, but after Mattie's death he has no choice.

     Sent to the the countryside, Noel waits to be chosen by a family. But he's an unappealing child, and is finally taken in by Vee, a desperate single mother, only for the money provided by the government. But Vee and Noel turn out to have something in common, and they end up being a perfect team of con artists.

     I loved the characters in this book, and the way that Lissa Evans made me love the characters without a single speck of sentimentality. In the end I was completely in love with Crooked Heart and its crooked, flawed, lovable people.

     Evans quietly builds her narrative with unexpected detail and a delicious sense of irony. Vee is opportunistic and canny, and her reasons for taking Noel in are wholly selfish. But the reader begins to see how heroic and terribly flawed Vee is, and that makes her seem both real and admirable. She's tragically deluded about the character of her son, the product of an affair in which she was unceremoniously dumped. Vee has taken a lot of knocks in life, and she does what she has to to survive. Her ferocious survival instinct, and her continued capacity for love make her refreshingly complex. And Noel is just as complicated and in need of love and nurturing. They make an odd pair, but they do make a pair.

     Crooked Heart is a quirky book, and I don't think I've fully conveyed its charm; let me just say that Crooked Heart surprised me, and in all the right ways. I highly recommend this novel for people who enjoy beautiful writing, a unique take on a familiar historical period, and a total lack of sentimentality. Despite the lack of sentiment, Crooked Heart is an emotionally powerful novel.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Review: Orphan #8

Orphan # 8
Kim van Alkemade
paperback, 416 pages
William Morrow Paperbacks
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Kim van Alkemade's debut novel, Orphan #8, is an impressive achievement--and it's one of my favorite books so far in 2015.

     What makes this novel so perfect? First of all, Alkemade has written a beautifully textured historical novel, rooted in fact and a fascinating, somewhat obscure corner of history. She writes so convincingly about two distinct periods of history (the early 20th century and the early 1950's) that the reader just revels in the sensory detail. And she creates a richly imagined world, peopled with compelling characters.

     The novel begins in a tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York. Visha and Harry Rabinowitz are making ends meet by taking in boarders and living mostly on soup and boiled potatoes. Their two young children, Rachel and Sam, are suddenly and dramatically left alone in the world (a moment Alkemade handles masterfully). Rachel, who is only four years old, ends up in the Hebrew Infant Home, where she becomes part of a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Mildred Solomon, one of a very few female doctors working in that time period.

     The chapters set in the early part of the century (beginning in 1919) alternate with chapters set in 1954; Rachel has become a nurse in the Old Hebrews Home, in the hospice wing. Dr. Solomon, now dying of bone cancer, comes into Rachel's care. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to understand the nature of Dr. Solomon's experiments, and the cost of the experiments for Rachel. At the same time, Rachel herself grows to see how Dr. Solomon has profoundly affected her life and her health.

     Alkemade uses the alternating chapters to build tension, as the reader starts to put together the full story of Rachel's life. What I loved about Orphan # 8 was the moral and narrative complexity of the novel. Much of the book is firmly rooted in real historical events, and there is a section at the end of the book detailing the historical basis for the novel. The narrative takes the reader from New York to Colorado and back to New York again. The story of what happens to Rachel and her brother Sam seems almost unbelievable, but it is based on actual events and places, which adds to the sense of historical richness. I also loved the fact that Alkemade created a complex character in Rachel, a girl who has to make her way in the world without the support of parents or family. Along the way, Rachel discovers that she is deeply attracted to women, and her romantic relationships with women are depicted in a way that develops naturally out of the narrative. Orphan #8 is so nuanced, lyrical, and beautiful, and the novel manages to do so many things with grace and insight. It's really hard to believe that this is a first novel because it is so gorgeously written, fully imagined, and perfectly realized.

     Orphan #8 pretty much includes every element I love to find in a work of fiction. For those who love historical fiction, you are in for a treat. I would recommend Orphan #8 for readers of literary fiction, those looking for a nuanced presentation of lesbian characters, and readers of literary fiction.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: The Wonder of All Things

The Wonder of All Things
Jason Mott
paperback, 304 pages
a review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     This is one of those books I know I'm going to be thinking about for a long time. Jason Mott's first novel, The Returned, was inspired by a dream, and was hugely successful. The Wonder of All Things explores territory that includes the spiritual realm, and asks big moral and philosophical questions. While The Returned asked what would happen if people began to suddenly return from the dead, The Wonder of All Things asks what happens when a young girl has the gift of healing.

     Ava is an ordinary thirteen-year-old girl living in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina. Her father is the town sheriff, and her mother, Heather is dead. Her father's second wife, Carmen, is pregnant. When the whole town of Stone Temple gathers for an air show, a plane crashes and Ava and her friend Wash are trapped beneath debris. It is then that the town, and the world, find out about Ava's gift. Captured on cell phone video is the dramatic moment when Ava heals her best friend; one moment Wash is bleeding from his side, and the next moment, after Ava lays her hands on the wound, he is completely healed.

     Jason Mott uses the premise of this story to explore deep questions of the nature of loss, love, and the responsibility we all have to others. There is nothing simple or simplistic about The Wonder of All Things; Ava's gift is real, but it doesn't come without a cost. And when the world finds out about Ava's gift, the little town of Stone Temple becomes part of a media circus, with desperate people, religious seekers, a television preacher, and masses of reporters all chasing after a rather frightened young girl.

     One of the techniques Mott uses in the novel is alternating chapters set in the present with flashback chapters that explore Ava's early childhood, and her close relationship with her mother, Heather. The flashback chapters are poetic and emotional, capturing the intense closeness of the mother daughter bond, and the deep sadness of Heather, who suffered from depression.

     The other relationship that reverberates throughout the novel is Ava's friendship with Wash, whom she met when they both were six years old. I loved the friendship between these two characters, especially when the book-nerdy Wash reads Moby Dick out loud to Ava.

     I imagine that The Wonder of All Things will be a book that sparks a lot of conversations; it is a perfect book club read, one that causes readers to consider the deeper implications of the questions raised by the book's events. All of the major characters have suffered some kind of loss, and many are struggling spiritually. The novel doesn't offer easy answers, but asks questions that the reader will reflect on long after closing the covers of this book. This is a riveting pager turner: highly recommended.

Jason Mott has an author web page for more information about his books:

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: Coloring Flower Mandalas

Coloring Flower Mandalas: 30 Hand-Drawn Designs for Mindful Relaxation
by Wendy Piersall
Ulysses Press
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher

     Adult-coloring books are increasingly popular. I wish I would remember what first attracted me to coloring, but all I know is that it was immediately one of my favorite stress-relieving activities. At first I was skeptical....after all, I studied art for years. weren't coloring books kind of....uncreative?

     Definitely not! There is a whole world out there of adult coloring books, and they allow for a surprising amount of creativity; it almost feels like a collaboration between you and the artist. And the benefits were immediate, at least for me.

     Among the coloring books I've worked in lately is Wendy Piersall's Coloring Flower Mandalas. Mandalas are a common theme in adult coloring books, probably because the mandala, a Hindu and Buddhist symbol, is associated with meditation and wholeness. Mandalas also tend to be fairly complex and detailed, which helps create the focus and stillness that make coloring feel like a meditative activity.

     Coloring Flower Mandalas was everything I look for in an adult coloring book. I have a range of coloring books at home; when this one came in, it took a place of pride on my desk. I color when I have time, when I feel a need to decompress. My desk holds a pencil sharpener, and a wide variety of colored pencils at the ready. I find it works for me to just keep a coloring book and materials handy. Then, I can sit down and go to work whenever I have a few minutes to spare.

     Wendy Piersall's mandalas offer a perfect focus for the adult colorist. (If that is a real term, I'll be surprised. But "colorer" definitely is not a word.). The mandalas are beautiful, and filled with enough detail to require focus....but not so much intricacy as to make the colorist feel eye strain. In addition, the pages offer some variety. Some of the mandalas are depictions of a single flower, while other mandalas are more pictorial (see below).

     Adult coloring books allow for a surprising range of creative responses. You decide what materials to use (crayons, markers, colored pencils), how hard or soft to bear down, how to layer colors, what colors to use. In the end, you have a work of art that is a collaboration between you and the coloring book designer.

     Here are a couple of pages I completed in Coloring Flower Mandalas:

     If you haven't colored for awhile (maybe years!), here are a few suggestions for how to get started:
  •  You can certainly use markers (fine tipped) or crayons, but I think colored pencils offer the best results and are the easiest materials to use. But try all the options and see what works for you. Maybe the smell of crayons will enhance your experience and help make coloring a calm and restful activity.
  • Try not to be perfectionistic, or competitive about coloring. Remember, the whole idea is to lapse into a relaxed and meditative state!
  • Be intuitive in your use of color. Go with the colors you are naturally attracted to. But a smaller range of colors will give your page a more consistent feel. Maybe you want to go completely wild with colors--if so, why hold back? If you aren't sure what colors work together, find a color wheel on line to remind yourself of which colors are complementary.
  • Set aside a space where you can sit quietly without interruption. Put your digital devices out of sight (and earshot!).
  • Above all, have fun. This is about creating a state of mind, not creating a perfect work of art (although you might be surprised at how good your results are).
     Wendy Piersall has several other coloring books, and I'm looking forward to trying them all out. For novice or experts at adult coloring, I highly recommend Coloring Flower Mandalas.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity

Top Ten Tuesday is a Bookish meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

This week's topic is: Ten Books That Celebrate Diversity/Diverse Characters.

Today isn't even Tuesday--that was yesterday, but I'm still thinking about the topic and my list. It occurs to me that diverse characters are more important than ever, because through reading about characters of every hue and orientation, readers develop empathy, a quality that is sorely needed in this world. I almost didn't know where to begin--or end--with this list, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Jaqueline Woodson's beautiful memoir Brown Girl Dreaming will appeal to readers of all ages. The memoir is composed of a series of poems, and begins with Woodson's birth in Ohio, takes the reader to South Carolina, where Woodson witnessed both segregation and the resistance against Jim Crow practices. The author warmly conveys the love and nurturing she experienced from her family.

2. James Alan McPherson should be better known and better read. He is a Pulitzer-prize winning author of several books; his short story collections Elbow Room and Hue and Cry are essential reading.

3. Octavia Butler was a ground-breaking author in the genre of speculative fiction. A good place to begin is Parable of the Sower.

4. James Baldwin is one of the most brilliant Americans to ever put pen to paper. I recommend reading all of his books, the essays and the novels. His Giovanni's Room was way ahead of its time in its depiction of a love affair between two men. My favorite Baldwin novel is Another Country.

5. Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, a book about black slave owners. His short story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children are gorgeously written and endlessly compassionate looks at the lives of the urban poor in Washington, D.C.

6. I'm absolutely in love with Attica Locke's character Jay Porter, the protagonist of two thrillers, Black Water Rising and Pleasantville. Locke writes fast-paced, immersive thrillers with a social conscience.

7. Walter Mosley is best known for his crime fiction, although he's written in several genres. I find his books completely addictive. He's probably best known for his Easy Rawlins books, starting with Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a feature film starring Denzel Washington.

8. Another writer I find addictive is Sarah Waters. I love, love, loved Fingersmith, but I think Tipping the Velvet might be my favorite of her books. This historical romance about male impersonators and music-hall performers is completely enthralling.

9. Leslea Newman is probably most famous for her children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. She was scheduled to speak at the University of Wyoming for National Coming Out Day in October of 1998; she flew across the country and was present when the world was made aware of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was a student at the University. To this day, Newman carries a photo of Matthew Shepard in her wallet. Her book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, is a collection of poems in various voices.

10. Here's the thing: there are so many amazing writers out there telling stories that feature diverse characters. And so many of them are awesome. Keeping my list to ten is unrealistic. So here are a few writers to check out if you haven't already: Cynthia Bond, Natalie Baszile, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon, Celeste Ng, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Ta Nehisi Coates, Junot Diaz.

Reading about all kinds of lives being lived in all kinds of neighborhoods and worlds is crucial for developing the ability to empathize with and understand others. And its a matter of life and death.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Oh Lord, this book.

Go Set a Watchman is bad. So much worse than I could have imagined.

But so very instructive.

It's a coming of age tale.... If, by "coming of age," you mean "how to grow up morally and emotionally by placing your feet solidly on top of an entire race....and how to justify it."

This is a book that you could say shouldn't have been published, but maybe it had to be. Maybe we, collectively, all Americans (and white folks, I'm talking about us), maybe we needed a good slap in the face. Maybe we needed to come face to face with just how big the lies are that we've been telling ourselves.

To Kill a Mockingbird was never America's defining book about race and justice. We just liked to think so. Atticus Finch, especially as played by Gregory Peck, played so well to white ideas of the gentleman, of the myth of individual nobility and justice.

Didn't you always, in your heart of hearts, suspect it wasn't true?

Shouldn't we have known that it was too easy, it couldn't be true.

It is not possible to live within the structure of white supremacy and structural racism as a white person and not benefit from the structure, thereby becoming complicit.

Go Set a Watchman is full of paternalism, racial superiority, bigotry.... in other words it's American.

If you haven't read Go Set a Watchman yet, you probably should read it. I guess. Just be prepared: it is repulsive, disgusting, disillusioning. Not for what it tells us about Atticus Finch, but for what it tells us about ourselves and the lies we need to tell ourselves.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Problem With Atticus Finch

     The hullabaloo over Go Set a Watchman is unavoidable, and it is a book I will definitely be reading. But my interest is cultural as well as literary, and I guess I don't hold To Kill a Mockingbird in the kind of reverence that many others do. Yes, I have read the novel, half a dozen times. I've taught the novel in my high school classroom. But I certainly don't place this book, or any of its characters, on a pedestal.

     There are many things to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel offers one perspective on racism in the South. It exposes the casual racism and injustice that are still endemic. TKAM has humor, an unerring narrative voice, and great characters. And yes, Atticus Finch is an admirable man, an indelible character. Who can ever forget the scene where Atticus shoots a mad dog in the street, or the incredible grace and dignity which he displays in the courtroom. And his advice to Scout, to walk around in someone else's skin before judging them--these are all great moments.

     But TKAM and its characters have their limitations. And it has always troubled me that this most revered novel is often treated as the ultimate novel about racism.

     The trouble is that TKAM is written from the point of view of a white character, is written by a white author, and depicts the white world. TKAM is a great novel--I'm not disputing that. But is tells a very narrowly framed story (from a racial perspective). And much of what the novel is about (coming-of-age, family conflicts, education) exists outside the racial conflicts of the story.

     The trouble is that Atticus Finch is another variation on the white savior. The character of Tom Robinson is thinly constructed--he is present as more of a symbol than a fully developed human being.

     So if Atticus turns out to be more complicated, and more racist, in Go Set a Watchman, I won't be devastated. I'll be interested.

     I'll be interested in the moral complexities of writing about race in America. I'll be interested in the ways in which white writers evade or face those complexities.

     But I won't look to a single novel, or two novels, for an understanding of racism.

     And I'll definitely look to black writers to tell me about the experience and effects of racism in this great, flawed country of ours.

     I'll read James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Inside. Baldwin is a truth teller.

     I'll read Jesmyn Ward, especially her devastating memoir, Men We Reaped.
     I'll read Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. If you want to know and understand the felt experience of racism in America, this volume is an excellent place to start.

     I'll read Kiese Laymon's How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.

     I'll read Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me was just published. And if you want your heart thoroughly broken, read his piece in the Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."

     I'll read Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Alan McPherson, Ernest Gaines, Richard Wright, Nella Larson, Edward P. Jones.

     To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully written novel, but it is a narrow sliver of life. If TKAM moves readers, then good. If Atticus Finch inspires readers, then good. But there are truth tellers out there, and we should be reading them all.