Tag Archives: book reviews

Point Omega — Don DeLillo

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Don DeLillo does with language what Arvo Pärt does with music. Their work yields little when casually approached. But it rewards close attention with spare and beautiful lines capable of containing truth. Point Omega was a pleasure to read for its pure artistry, if not for its compelling characters.

The characters are barely limned in this slim novel. Richard Elster is an aging academic who spent some time drafted to help create a language with which to sell the Iraq War to the American public. He worked with top level political strategists, looking for a linguistic architecture to frame the war, to give it shape and meaning. Disillusioned in the end, he has retreated to the remote California desert, a landscape so sere and austere that it is as powerful as a character in this book.

Jim Finley is a much younger filmmaker who wants to place Elster against an industrial wall in Brooklyn and film him talking about his experience, his deep cogitation about it and his conclusions about what it all means. Finley joins Elster in his ramshackle dwelling in the desert where time loses all significance and philosophical questions are endlessly debatable over drinks on the porch.

When Elster’s twentyish dreamy daughter arrives from New York, sent away by her mother after a sinister date begins to stalk her by telephone, the dynamic of the story shifts. Elster has been postulating, in and out of his cups, about the absence of time in the desert and the Teilhardian concept of the omega point when the human imagination has exhausted itself and something cataclysmic occurs. The philosophical choices seem to be oblivion or a profound illumination. Finley is no closer to convincing Elster to document his own soul and story and Elster appears to be disappearing into the stark landscape.

Then something cataclysmic does happen but it is in no way theoretical and profundities are rendered meaningless by its mystery. Elster’s daughter disappears. One day they return from picking up groceries and she simply isn’t there. The search for the “otherworldly” Jessica lends some drama to the story but no answers. Tragedy takes away words. Elster no longer speaks. Finley can’t remember the passionate obsession with making his film. Search helicopters break the desert silence.

The events in Point Omega are framed by another kind of stillness, an art installation in which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is played in a bare room in a gallery, slowed and stretched to fill 24 hours. The excruciating slow motion mesmerizes a faceless character who returns to the gallery day after day to stand in a corner and experience the obliteration of known time. The silent, painstaking screening, detailed at length in the beginning and end of the story, inspires more contemplation of the nature of reality and perception.

This is a beautiful book, packed with Big Questions about life and meaning but not overly concerned with plots and people. DeLillo is a pure pleasure to read but the usual pleasures of slipping into a book are absent here. You are in thrall to DeLillo’s deserts, the real and the metaphoric ones. The journey will leave you uneasy, impressed and a little bit empty–rich in images and no closer to the truth than when you ghosted into the nameless gallery with Norman Bates on the first page.

 Point Omega  Don DeLillo | Scribner 2010

Are You Somebody? – Nuala O’Faolain

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Ireland is such a myth of mist and legend to those of us whose ancestors made their wretched way here and promptly buried their secrets. We have no history but we have the legacy – the enchantment of stories, the entrancement of drink, the scars of deprivation and humiliation passed down for generations. Ireland seems to me to be a land of lilt and loss and Nuala O’Faolain’s unsparing memoir provides plenty of both.

She was one of nine children – I remember an Irish-American family in one of the parishes where I grew up who were admired for their twelve. As if the rest of the families hadn’t quite made the cut as Catholics, as if that family was restocking the ranks of the faithful and we fell woefully short. The Ireland O’Faolain writes about lived on in the diaspora, too.

Growing up she had a mostly missing, charming father, a mother who adored him but was quickly overwhelmed by babies, poverty, an absent philanderer and a retreat into drink. New siblings arrived year after year and Nuala barely got to know them. Mammy was a voracious reader. Daddy was a journalist and raconteur. Young Nuala absorbed their gifts, and the rigid definition of what it means to be adult and female and the blessed forgetfulness at the bottom of a bottle. Her escapades sneaking off to dances got her kicked out of the local parochial school and sent to boarding school where she failed to reform. She pitched her life against the constraints of a country in which women had few options and managed to win scholarships to university and to Oxford. She became a producer for the BBC and a columnist for The Irish Times.

It is to her credit that the litany of lovers–many lovers–and drinking and failures and rescues holds up. These are not revelations in any surprising sense. The society that shaped her was slow to accept the autonomy of women and to grant them options for work, for romance, for making meaning of their lives. But nowhere was it much better and families everywhere hold each other in the same suffocating thrall. So we travel her bumpy life with her and marvel at what she achieved and recognize in her stories our own.

O’Faolain the journalist does a good job reporting on herself without pity or embellishment. She traces the spiral that circles her back on herself through episodes, lovers and leavings and shares her hard won introspection without fanfare. “Are you somebody?” is a question asked when you might just be recognizable, maybe a minor celebrity, a person whose name might be known. But it’s the deeper question as well, one O’Faolain has spent a lifetime asking. In the end she still wants what she was trained all her life to want, the answer to the question revealed in the eyes of someone who loves her. It doesn’t seem like a lot to ask but it is everything. People are each unhappy in their own way, lonely in their own lives, she finds. Extricating a life from the tentacles of family and society’s suffocating constraints is a life’s work.

O’Faolain died of lung cancer in 2008. Her memoir was a bestseller and she took some comfort from the outpouring of recognition and emotion that it generated among readers, especially women. But she claimed in the book and in interviews shortly before her death that she never felt like a success, always felt on the cusp of beginning her life. Despite the intelligence and optimism that she chronicled in Are You Somebody?, the story affirms that what goes missing in our earliest years creates wounds that never heal.

Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman   Nuala O’Faolain | Henry Holt and Company First Owl Books Edition 1999

The Hero and the Crown — Robin McKinley

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Robin McKinley does literate fantasy with enormous intelligence and a sure command of story. Her re-imaginations of Beauty and the Beast and Sleeping Beauty are revelatory and emotionally satisfying. Her heroines are strong and believable in ways more female protagonists should be. The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal for its characters as much as its flawless craft. The story draws you into a world that seems real from its first detail to its last litter of puppies in the middle of the royal featherbed. It is Aerin’s story but it is a classic hero’s journey and every girl who reads it should get a few ideas. Every boy who reads it should re-examine a few.

Aerin is the king’s daughter, child of a mother who died at her birth, a mother who was considered by the good folk of Damaria to be a witch. So Aerin’s place in the kingdom is far from assured and she is the merciless taunt of her gorgeous and shallow cousin who schemes for power and position. The people believe Aerin may be a witch-child, a sol who has no apparent magical gifts, uncommon blazing red hair and white skin and a tendency toward unladylike pursuits.

From earliest childhood, Aerin has been inseparable from her friend Tor, the appointed first sola or heir to a king with no male children. Tor teaches her swordplay and confides in her but even Tor can’t define where Aerin fits in and what she is meant to be. She heals and tames her father’s injured war horse who has been turned out to pasture, teaching herself to ride hands-free and wield sword and spear on horseback. When she discovers an old formula for a fire-shielding ointment, she determines to perfect the recipe and become a dragon-killer—the dragons being fiercely volcanic vermin that terrorize the countryside, although they bear little resemblance to the legendary flying monsters that are long gone from Damaria.

Arlbeth, the king, refuses to take his daughter to battle with threatening dissidents from the North so Aerin sets out in secret to destroy Maur, the horrifying Black Dragon now returned, a massive evil presence laying waste to villages and farms at the outskirts of the kingdom. Her adventures are epic, her encounters deadly and the consequences of the lethal struggle with Maur set events in motion that spin wildly through tragedy, deep magic, heroism and destruction to the story’s conclusion.

McKinley has written another terrific tale, a fantasy with no fairytale princess but a tough, smart and battle-scarred heroine who shies away from the people who mistrust her and is desperate to prove her place. Aerin is funny, irreverent and brave. She is also impulsive, awkward and a miserable dancer. Her uncanny empathy with animals and the powerful magic she doesn’t realize she has propel her on a journey into a Tolkienesque hell that she undertakes as if fate compels her. Fate does. Aerin is no ordinary mortal but she is an extraordinary heroine and her quest captivates us. I rooted for her, even as I wanted to shout, “Go back! This is a really bad idea!” But there is no turning back. The losses are losses that can’t be redeemed; the victories are bittersweet. The story unspools as intensely visual as a film and I was sorry to leave the world McKinley created as I turned the last page.

 The Hero and the Crown    Robin McKinley | Firebrand 2002

Why Not Say What Happened? — Ivana Lowell

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Ivana Lowell is a person cobbled together out of careless bits of the damaged, larger-than-life characters who were her legendary family. The biological ancestry is the star-crossed and very alcoholic Irish Guinness clan, titled and landed British aristocracy, and some confusion in the region of actual parentage. Her revolving cast of relatives and serial stepfathers included the poet Robert Lowell, whose name she was given, and the colorful companions of her extravagantly social, unconventional and decidedly undomestic mother. Why Not Say What Happened? is a memoir sprinkled with high-profile names – painters, writers, filmmakers, actors, royalty, politicians – lists from social registers and from tabloid headlines, and rosters of the incredibly rich.

Lowell lived on estates that were grand and never centrally heated. The children were often housed in another wing, neglected, abused and gathered into the manic warmth of parental attention and parties just often enough to be imprinted with all of it. The child Ivana is molested by a servant, scalded, scarred for life and nearly killed in a kitchen accident and alternately fussed over and abandoned. But second-best caviar is all she knows so, like any child, she adapts. The theater that is her life is a perpetually alluring road show she learns to navigate and emulate.

Why Not Say What Happened? is a very sad chronicle of terrible tragedies and near criminal culpability that reads like a juicy novel. The rich are different—normal life is a money-fueled, exalted procession of privileged experiences, invaluable connections, flights to this and that exotic place and flights from uncomfortable brushes with reality. But Lowell is so resilient, or so enabled, that she prevails through bout after bout of drunkenness and rehab, madcap moments and memorable parties, screen shots of cinematic clarity and lucid introspection. All the broken people in her world adore and despise each other, cling to and castigate each other, love each other in some original fashion that usually looks nothing like love.

The mystery of Lowell’s father, a question raised in the beginning of the book, doesn’t begin to haunt her until after her mother’s death. But the truth of it, and the lies, deceptions and utter narcissism that hides from her a true identity informs her whole life. Money and position kept Ivana Lowell far from a dirty and seamy death in the streets. Her talent for telling a good story on herself gives us a glimpse behind the moth-eaten velvet curtain that hides her particular stage from view. It is an interesting mess of a life that was doomed from the start but spun itself out in joys and sorrows anyway. She’s a likable character in this book. A character from another world at once fabulous, appalling, fascinating and just plain awful. But eccentricity makes for page-turners and spilling secrets lures readers on. Why Not Say What Happened? is high-level gossip, engagingly divulged.

The death of Caroline Guinness, Ivana Lowell’s mother, is where it falters. Caroline was a destructive force as impossible to overlook as a Category 5 hurricane. Once she leaves the stage, the lurid headlines vanish, too. The encounter with DNA and finding a father, the ill-conceived marriage and the next generation of Guinness girls, the ongoing struggle with the family’s curses aren’t neatly resolved in a happily ever after. This tale full of sound and fury doesn’t signify nothing but it doesn’t deliver epiphanies either. Ivana Lowell’s life is what it is, spangled in glitter, weighted with regrets, some truth uncovered, a few more lies waiting in the wings to bring the curtain down.

 Why Not Say What Happened?: A Memoir (Vintage)   Ivana Lowell | Alfred A. Knopf 2010

Falling Man — Don DeLillo

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Before I started booklolly in earnest, I experimented with a few days of reading and blogging to see if I could read a book a day. It was tough but definitely doable and, being the sort of person who heads right into the thick of a guerrilla war to discover the truth about it, I created a blog and sat down to read. This book is one of the early experiments–saved it because the book is interesting and the read was relevant to its location and the day I read it. 

I grabbed Don DeLillo’s Falling Man from a display shelf at the library, thinking it would be the perfect novel to read on September 11th. I confess to my own hardcover copy of Underworld, spine cracked but never really started due to single-parent-small-child-around-house-who-has-time-to-read-huge-books-? syndrome. It isn’t getting read for this challenge either because there aren’t enough hours in one day and DeLillo is worth reading slowly enough to savor. That said, Falling Man was probably not the best choice for 9-11.

Everyone has their story about where they were and what they were doing on that day, at that moment, and most particularly when the towers came down. I have mine. I have the futile attempt to protect a four-year-old from too much knowledge, too burning a memory of that day. I have the images—the man in a suit, clutching a briefcase and covered in white ash, trudging up Central Park West hours after, not looking, not seeing, just walking. He might have been DeLillo’s Keith, minus the glass shards and the blood.

What was ripped apart on that day was the fabric of the world we imagined we lived in. Just ripped like the old canvas of a circus tent, ripped right across your heart. The grief was sharp, personal and inexplicable—meaning I could never explain it and still can’t. Meaning certain sights will always bring tears to my eyes and shadows hover not far out of sight, ready to cast a pall. Sadness and loss are tangible things; they drain all the energy from the day and from your body. September 11th, ten years later, spun the wheel backwards and it was as if the planes veered out of the blue into black smoke, flames and everything falling  just yesterday.

So, Falling Man. Very very beautiful and true in its detail and a potent reminder. Keith walks down the stairs, away from the buildings, out of the mushroom cloud of debris and dust, to the apartment of his estranged wife who is sure he died in the towers where he worked. In some way, he did. In the same way, Lianne stops feeling safe, moves in a dream through the streets to the emergency room, accepts the husband who reappears in her life by accident and then cannot leave. Lianne is haunted by her father’s Alzheimer’s and his refusal to watch his memory fade. Lianne’s mother is deliberately fading before her eyes. Lianne’s child, and Keith’s, Justin, is self-composed beyond his years and has his own stories about what happened on 9-11. He takes binoculars on playdates to search the skies out the window for planes.

Even those who escaped the inferno and the collapse never escaped from that moment and that day. DeLillo’s people replay their memories like an endless tape loop, revisit their own minds for what they can’t remember, don’t bother to reinvent themselves, seem incapable of moving on. There is healing from events so huge and so terrible that they stop time but this nation did not choose healing and these characters can’t find it. There is loss that saturates everything it touches and lingers in the air. Falling Man slowly collects the fragments of that day and holds them up to the light. Bits and pieces surface and fade back into the rubble of memory. Lives bob, float and swirl in the eddies. Desolation seeps into the soul and stains it forever.

9-11 was a game-changer. From that day forward we began to live in a different world. There are many ways of falling. DeLillo captures the brief angels spilled from a hundred stories up, the performance artist dangling in his suit from hotel balconies and railroad trestles, the tower survivors who walked away but did not really survive, the witness in thrall to an altered landscape, half understood. Falling Man is a beautifully wrought book and very sad. I wish I’d chosen to read it on some other day when the ghosts of loss hovered farther back and the consolation of small, normal things was not so overshadowed.    

Falling Man: A Novel   Don DeLillo | Scribner  2007

River of Smoke — Amitav Ghosh

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River of Smoke opens in something of a muddle and it takes a while to get into the story. Had I not committed to finishing the books I start each day, I might have abandoned it at several points. But I’m glad I didn’t. Amitav Ghosh is a modern-day Dickens, writing dense, visual depictions of a nineteenth-century world with Dickensian conventions that give the story a deeper authenticity, if not fluidity. Five hundred seventeen really, really packed pages is not a smart choice for a daily read—I’m not a speed reader so it took forever–but it was time spent in a convincingly rendered world.

The novel is the second in a trilogy detailing the time of the opium trade with China. Sea of Poppies, book one, apparently sketches the lives of compelling characters in India where the British have become poppy farmers to produce the export that enriches them in China. River of Smoke takes up where the first book leaves off but it isn’t a smooth transition. A character from book one, Deeti, who is prominent in the opening chapters of book two, just disappears along with her story and we are cast adrift in a different tale of ships in a storm, holds awash in opium sludge, and Indian Parsi merchants gambling fortunes on a single boatload of the contraband drug, all accounts heavily salted with local patois.

Language is both Ghosh’s ace and an obstacle to entry into the book. The opening chapters are stuffed with so much pidgin, patois and whatever that I had no idea what was going on and began to get a little testy at my exclusion from the story for the sake of show-off linguistic mastery. But the Babel that punctuates the entire book is actually a valuable device to establish the individual characters, contrasting cultures, and mixed-race/mixed-class society in old Canton, the epicenter of the opium trade. I got past the idioms and pidgin and learned to use some of the linguistic constructs to tell who was speaking, and to whom.

Three ships limp into Canton harbor after the storm, the Anahita, Bahram Modi’s exquisite three-masted opium hauler, The Redruth, a two-masted brig collecting specimens for the lucrative botanical trade, and the Ibis, a schooner carrying indentured servants from India to the Far East. Descriptions of the storm and the ships are detailed and the research in this and every aspect of the novel is prodigious. Modi, the opium trader, is linked intimately to China, India and the British traders so his story is an illuminating thread to follow through the book.

Ghosh has written a dissertation on the economics of opium, Chinese horticulture, the sights and sounds of the developing ports of Canton (now Guangzhou), Macau and Hong Kong (a near-deserted island in 1838 when the Opium Wars began). Modi, the Parsi trader, has a gourmand’s appreciation for a good meal in any language and he embraces China, its wonders, and one of its women with enthusiasm. His illegitimate son makes a cameo appearance in the book but I spent a lot of time wondering when Ah Fat, the son, would turn up again as he seemed important but faded out pretty quickly.

The foreign traders’ enclave in Canton is painted meticulously as is the glib insistence on Free Trade, a holy writ to the opium importers who look suspiciously like the unbridled and unprincipled capitalists amassing stupendous wealth through exploitation in our own time. Brutality abounds—some deaths are flatly announced and nuanced later; some gruesome threats are foretold explicitly. People and their motives are described minutely and that helps in sorting out the large cast of characters. Set-pieces, like an interview with the exiled Napoleon on St. Helena, are colorful and convincing. One device, the lengthy, stylized letters written by a gay artist to his childhood friend, succeeds in delivering a boatload of information about the crisis in Canton as the stand-off over opium smuggling unfolds. But the correspondence is jam-packed, pages-long and obvious in its didactic intent—that observation does pull you out of the book and remind you of a history lesson.  

Ghosh is a good storyteller—I did fall under the sway of the book and was happy I had resisted the urge to set it aside. River of Smoke—the name refers to China’s Pearl River that carried the ships full of raw opium to Canton and upriver to the interior—is history made vivid and unforgettable. It’s too much to swallow in one big gulp. But, despite my detachment from the characters, who arouse more curiosity than empathy, I wanted to find out what happens. I did learn a lot about a place I have only visited briefly and an era I knew only by name. I’m still not sure about the disappearing characters but suspect they have bigger roles in book one and the concluding volume.

One definite takeaway from River of Smoke: next time I read a book by Amitav Ghosh, I’ll give myself a week to finish it.           

 River of Smoke: A Novel  Amitav Ghosh | Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2011

Cuba and the Night — Pico Iyer

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I arrived in Miami, unwilling refugee from the North, just as waves of Cubans arrived in Miami, revolutionary casualties from an offshore island to the South. My best friend in Catholic school was the American daughter of an Italian-American mafia casino manager who fled the island once Batista fell. I shared an office in one of my first jobs in television with Carlos Prio’s daughter, a young woman raised to be a princess, who was privileged, delightful and sad.

On days when my father and I drifted in his small fishing boat in the Gulfstream, lines trailing behind us in the impossibly blue water, eyes squinting for a flash of silver that would signify dinner, we would talk about Cuba. Next week, next month, next year, we would cross the slender divide of the Florida Straits to fish for its legendary tarpon and marlin, as soon as the blockade lifted, when it was safe to go. I dreamed of Havana, exotic, seedy, tropical and haunted by Hemingway. My Spanish is still Miami street lingo and the Cuban accent has complicated my life more than once. We never made it to Havana. Castro soldiers on but my father is long gone, the Gulfstream polluted, that promise unfulfilled.

Pico Iyer has logged his time there, though. His novel, Cuba and the Night, was gathering dust on my shelves for years before I added it to the stack of books to read on this impossible book-a-day quest. Video Nights in Kathmandu was so much fun to saunter through that I thought this novel would be a jaunt across an island forbidden to me. When I realized it was more like Graham Greene does Horny in Havana, I set it aside. Now, with the dust blown off, it was ready to be tackled again.

Iyer captures a particular moment in the long, slow dissolution of Cuban society through a particular lens. The photographer who stars in this book is an itinerate shooter, a guy who keeps the world at a distance through the viewfinder of his camera. He’s the classic war photographer without a war, at loose ends, scraping the rough places for an adrenalin rush, wary of being pinned down. And he’s lonely. His life is running on empty and there are moments when that knowledge catches him like a big steel hook.

Richard is slick and practiced at working the local scenes to get the shots he needs, the booze that fuels his nights and the girls to share his bed. He has an eye for beauty shots amid poverty and irony amid political ideals that don’t pan out. He can spot a gorgeous hooker in drag a mile off. But he doesn’t see Lula coming and when he begins to wonder what she wants from him he’s already thrashing on the end of a line.

Iyer is a favorite writer of mine and his skills are in evidence in this cinematic glimpse of Cuba in decline, people finessing a bleak survival, rum, salsa and sequins standing in for dreams. Lula, or Lourdes, is unpredictable enough to keep you guessing, as she does Richard. But I could see the trajectory of this story from the opening sentence, a paragraph-long evocation of heat and night and sex for sale that paints the desperation of a country trapped in time and facing nothing much to relieve it. Not Hemingway with his loaded, macho haiku. But rich enough in detail to embroider loss with vivid threads of sights and sounds and the stink of the unwashed streets.

Normally, stories that hold no surprises don’t hold my attention. These characters were lifted from a life I knew—the photographers, the slick operators, the backstreet entrepreneurs, the desperate women, the hesitant voyeurs. But Iyer is an engaging writer and I don’t have the luxury of setting aside a book on a day when I’ve committed to finishing it, so I did. Could have written the ending without reading it. Sorry that a client called for a rush overnight rewrite when I still had 150 pages to go. Even sorrier that the hours of web sweatshop work to earn less than it takes to pay the bills were ahead of me. Rushed the ad copy, wrote the online crap, read until I saw double. Remembered the sun beating down as an open boat gently rocked on the ocean current and my father and I sat silent, each with our dreams of a Cuba we would never see.

Cuba and the Night: A Novel   Pico Iyer | First Vintage Contemporary Edition 1996

Scarlet Nights — Jude Deveraux

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I decided to read a romance. Romances are astonishingly popular and sell like candy and, as an underemployed writer, I wondered if writing romance novels might be a more certain way of earning a living than writing corporate marketing brochures or not-for-profit newsletters. Some cursory research later I concluded that romance writers can rest easy—there won’t be any competition from this corner any time soon. Romances are thick with their own conventions and speak an acquired language that is as coded as a tech manual. They have so many specifically defined categories that just picking one to specialize in would be hard. Reading one is another story—much simpler.

Scarlet Nights by Jude Deveraux was a whole bagful of candy, the kind you start eating like potato chips and stop stuffing your face with when you reach the bottom of the bag. The cover is pink. The hero is ripped. The heroine is beautiful, vulnerable, somewhat virginal and a wicked cook. Oh, and Mike the hero can cook, too. He cooks for Sara, the heroine, and he cleans up. Also works out pre-dawn, is a master of every kind of martial art known to humankind and has a hidden compartment in the trunk of his leather-upholstered car loaded with sophisticated weapons. Which he can use—excellent marksman, high-level undercover cop. He is a vulnerable soul as well and wears very expensive clothes, never went to college, likes opera—although he thinks Andrea Bocelli is an opera singer, hmmmm–and makes a mean margarita. What’s not to love about this guy? Heroine does not love him for about 15 minutes. Then she tells herself why she could not possibly love him for about 250 pages.

It’s fun to read. All the women are either besties or hate each other since high school. Most of them are pregnant or want to be. Everyone is having sex like mad, except the hero and heroine, naturally, for a while. And murder is afoot in a small town in which everyone knows everybody else’s business but more or less likes them anyway. I liked the book. The women are spunky and stick up for themselves, despite all being hellbent on procreation. The men are somewhat flummoxed by the feisty women but bravely take charge at every opportunity and do sweet, secret things to keep the lovely ladies safe. There are enough brand names and luxury items to remind you of how life used to be when people actually had money, bought things and occasionally aspired to high thread-count sheets and meals in expensive restaurants.

Sara gets a huge rock, a massive fortune and a major stud. Mike gets a pretty girl, an historic farm and a perfect life. Some very buff men run around bare-legged and bare-chested in kilts which everyone finds incredibly sexy. Hook-ups happen in baths, showers, on tabletops, beds, hand-loomed carpets and the backs of leather-upholstered cars. It’s the magical dream of the fifties come to life in the wrecked 21st century. He’s got your back, everything you ever wanted, an insatiable (but tender) appetite for sex and a jones for you that will never die. She’s got a pure heart, a stubborn streak, non-stop homemaking talents, an art history degree and a fabulous figure.

The story begins at Once upon a time (because who lives like this any more? Who ever did?) and concludes with …and they lived happily ever after (because that’s exactly what you were rooting for, that gauzy life so exactly the opposite of your harried, micro-waved, five-pounds-perpetually-overweight existence). In between there are threats, villains, mysteries, evil plots, long-buried secrets, shocking discoveries and homemade cookies with bits of lavender in them. Cookies with lavender. Beats ordinary chocolate chip with walnut hands-down. There is nothing at all believable in this book. I enjoyed it immensely.

Scarlet Nights: An Edilean Novel   Jude Deveraux |  Atria Books   2010

The Tree — John Fowles

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On a wide swale in the center of a Little Havana side street, a gnarled tree spread its canopy over a motley collection of bright bits and foul garbage around its trunk. The tree stood a little ways down from my bel canto teacher’s rambling house, the neighborhood gone slightly seedy but the voodoo tree an anomaly nonetheless. Residents didn’t approve of it but they kept their distance. I ventured in to catalog the offerings now and again: a chicken head, two yellow feet with bloody stumps, random pennies and the odd silver coin, candle stubs, bits of paper with scribbled writing impossible to decipher, pictures torn from magazines, letters in sealed envelopes, plastic and glass beads, airline liquor bottles, mostly empty.

There was never any paper money under the tree, no headless dolls with pins stuck in them, but always the sense of someone watching, a sour sense of ill-will and desperation. It was Santeria, I learned, the Afro-Cuban animist religion of a poorer class of refugee. Neither I nor, apparently, the city parks department had the temerity to risk any engagement with that tree. I took nothing; I left nothing. The offerings rotted in the shade and sun.

I hadn’t thought of the voodoo tree in years, until something in John Fowles’ hardcover essay The Tree triggered the memory. No idea what that might have been. Fowles’ trees are a loftier sort, more apt to channel Tolkien than some demonic Orisha. But they are powerful beings in his world, symbols for all of nature, the vertical reproach to human alienation.

Fowles wrote this essay in the late seventies with a prescience about the current state of the environment that would be stunning if we hadn’t already known then what we know now. We are destroying ourselves. We are ravaging the planet, barricaded in our cities and living willfully blind. We have forgotten the mysteries of the dark wood, the truth of druids, the significance of a living tree. Science has given us names for the deciduous and the evergreen that can never capture the unnamable things that they are. We no longer believe in magic so magic has fled.

The Tree does not sentimentalize this. It is a cold, clear accounting of how we tame trees, prune them, harvest them, cut them down and make things of them. The tale tells of wandering in a numinous lostness, of forests as metaphors, of writing fiction as blind as owls in daylight, blinking at the blank page, wondering what will come next. Fowles finds solace and revelation in his forests and small copses and isolated stands of birch and oak. He scrambles with us over scraggy slopes and tors of granite and shale to a hidden wood–primeval trees stunted, intertwined and untouched, fraught with silence, alive with ferns, mosses and lichens–sanctuary for birds and old spirits. He tells us his writing is a pale thing next to a tree. That to capture a tree in words is as impossible as reproducing a symphony in a painting.

John Fowles has some glorious fiction to his name: The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, The Aristos. The Tree is an argument for the intuitive, the wisdom conferred only by presence, the acknowledgment that, refusing to see with the heart, we begin to die. Fowles called this encounter with trees, creature to creature, the return to “green chaos.” It is the place he went to find his stories, the wild, still, unpredictable woods that blur the borders between dreaming and waking.

We are losing this mysterious planet we only half-know. We have no name for the spirit in the tree that is our spirit, too, so we classify the tree, cull it or conserve it at will, espalier it, trim it, cultivate it in an arboretum, a tree museum. Maybe we need a return to gifts of chicken feet, copper pennies left in offering, midnight ululations. Maybe we need to sit with trees, walk among them, read at their feet, listen for the slight rustling that signals the beginning of a story, the invitation to green chaos, before it is too late.

The Tree   John Fowles | The Ecco Press 1983

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011