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

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: Mercury

Margot Livesey
Hardcover, 336 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes and Noble

     There is a loaded gun at the center of Mercury. As writer Anton Chekhov famously warned, a story that contains a loaded gun must eventually allow the gun to be fired, or the gun has no place in the story. Margot Livesey does not violate Chekhov's rule in her newest novel.

     Livesey, author of many other novels, including The Flight of Gemma Hardy and Eva Moves the Furniture is originally from Scotland, although she has lived and taught in the United States for many years. In Mercury, one of the narrators is a Scottish immigrant; Donald is an optometrist and former eye surgeon who has settled into a seemingly happy life in a suburb outside Boston. His wife, Viv, is American, an optimist and dreamer, who believes that she can still do something big with her life. After a career in finance, Viv has settled into a less demanding job managing her best friend's stable, and the couple seem to have a life that works: two young children, liberal values, an egalitarian marriage. The only grief in their lives is the sadness and loss that Donald still feels after the death of his father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease.

     Yet into this happy and almost complacent life come secrets, silent yearnings, and distance. Donald has donned what Viv calls his "astronaut's suit" and she feels shut out from his emotions. And Viv has fallen in love with a beautiful powerful horse--named Mercury--who she fancies will redeem her youthful dream of success in the world of horse shows. As Donald and Viv slowly orbit away from each other, the little secrets they keep from each other become betrayals.

     The novel is divided into three parts, with the first and last sections narrated by Donald, while Viv tells her own story in the middle section. The theme of blindness (spiritual, moral, actual) is introduced through Donald's profession, and through the character of Jack, a blind classics professor who is Donald's close friend. Livesey is especially good at depicting friendships--both the friendships of Donald and Jack, and Viv's friendships with female friends (her best friend Claudia, Mercury's owner Hilary). Livesey also captures the odd dynamics of friendship among couples. The network of friendships and work relationships is artfully drawn, and Livesey creates fully realized characters who are sympathetic (some more so than others). Donald, despite his reserved nature and obvious flaws, turns out to be almost entirely sympathetic, even when he is making horrible decisions, The same can't always be said of Viv, although Livesey gives Viv her say.

     Mercury turns out to be a novel about moral decisions, and finding out that right and wrong are not always as obvious as we might have thought. What happens when you must choose between two people you love? What happens when you discover that you are not as morally correct as you once thought?

     Mercury doesn't provide easy answers to these questions, but it does offer very human answers. I appreciated this novel for the moral complexity of the situation, and because the characters and situation were quite believable and real. I'm not sure this book qualifies as a thriller, mostly because it is more character driven than plot driven. But the narrative does push toward an act of violence that can't be taken back, and both the event and the aftermath are complex and devastating. There are no easy answers in Mercury but the questions are ones that most readers will find compelling.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday Salon: Sunday Coffee and Time to Reflect

Time to Reflect

     Getting back into a rhythm and routine at school has been a challenge this year. We had a new start time, new administration, new schedule, and so many changes and deadlines that it was just overwhelming. Add to that all the things that go along with family life, and there just hasn't been much time for reflection. So this morning it felt wonderful to sleep late, and let my husband bring me coffee in bed. I've neglected my blog because there just wasn't enough time, so if there's anyone left to read this--thanks for bearing with me.

What I've Been Reading

     The Pulitzer Prize Committee has my unrelenting love for the last two fiction winners:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2015)
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016)

     I can't wait to see what the committee comes up with for 2017. The Sympathizer is set in Vietnam near the end of the war. The unnamed narrator is a double-agent, who is in the South Vietnamese army but spying for North Vietnam, while also feeding information to the CIA. The novel is a completely enthralling story that is engaging on the narrative level, as well as the moral level. The author interview included in the reader's guide confirmed my sense that Nguyen owed a debt to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, one of my favorite books. If you haven't read The Sympathizer yet, you should.

     Both the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and the 2015 winner, Adam Johnson teach at Stanford. Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is set in North Korea, and this is another book that I could absolutely not put down. I thought it was just brilliant. Like The Sympathizer, The Orphan Master's Son is virtually impossible to summarize. Both novels are about fragmented characters responding to historical and political extremes, and each book is deeply absorbing and beautifully written. I read the two books back to back and it was a great reading experience.

In the Classroom

     If you are a teacher (bless you), then you will understand what it means when I say I have three preps this semester. I feel like I'm running on a treadmill, constantly in danger of falling off the back. The three different classes are reading: poetry (in AP Literature); Frankenstein (in English 4 Honors); and Lord of the Flies (in English 4). 

     On top of trying to read (or reread) along with my students, I'm also reading Crime and Punishment (ardent love), Jim Burke's What's the Big Idea for my personal professional development. And then there are the books that I've committed to review. It's a lot of reading. I'm reading Crime and Punishment (again) because I have several students reading that novel for independent reading. I want to encourage my students to stick with this very challenging book, and to be able to answer their questions and discuss the book with them. Plus, I really love this novel, and I'm enjoying rereading it.

     The balance between independent reading and whole class books in the English classroom is a tricky one. My number one priority is to build readers: I want to have students leave my classrooms with a reading habit....I want them to be addicted to reading. To build this habit, I give students time to read in class, and I give them choice about what they read. Here is a brief list of just some of the books students are currently reading in my classroom:

The Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi
Some Boys by Patty Blount
Golden Son by Pierce Brown
Nineteen Minutes and The Pact by Jodi Picoult
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Blind Assassin and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

     That's just a tiny snapshot of the range of books my students are reading (there are 88 students altogether in my three classes). Most students have completed at least one book; most are on their second or third book. A few have read more (as many as eight or nine books). They are all reading the books that speak to them and engage them, and they are all developing as readers.

    To make this independent reading plan work, I have to be constantly talking to my students about what they are reading. I read alongside students, get to know them as readers, and recommend books I think they will like. I also have an awesome partner in my media specialist (Leah). She is amazing. She can almost always send a student out of the library with the perfect book. And she has helped me immeasurably with lessons, as a co-instructor, and with recommendations. 

     Building readers is my passion as a teacher. I try to focus on the important things (reading, writing, thinking) and keep my eyes on the prize. If students walk out of my classroom as real readers, thinkers, writers, then I have done my job.

     If you are reading this blog, you are a reader. How did you become the reader you are? How did you develop the reading habit?

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?