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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: Mississippi Blood

Mississippi Blood
Greg Iles
hardcover, 704 pages
William Morrow
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes & Noble
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

     Mississippi Blood is the absolutely stunning conclusion to the Natchez Burning trilogy by Greg Iles. This third novel is far and away the best of the three, and the first two books were superb. Iles manages to create a thriller with courtroom scenes that evoke To Kill a Mockingbird, and action that rivals the very best in the genre. It's rare that a book so immensely readable and compulsively fast-paced also goes so deep in historical significance. In Mississippi Blood, the secrets and mysteries of Penn Cage's family merge with the history of the South in all its bitterness.

     The loathsome villain of the trilogy, Snake Knox (whose evil is of Biblical proportions) is at the center of the action in Mississippi Blood. For those who haven't read the first two books (do that post haste) Snake Knox is a member of a unique offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan called the Double Eagles. Snake and his illegitimate son, Alois, haunt the edges of the main action of the novel much of the time. Penn Cage's father, Dr. Tom Cage, has been accused of murder in the death of his former nurse--and former lover--Viola Turner. Back in the 1960's, Dr. Cage and Viola had an intimate affair, once that was illicit both because Cage was married, but also because Cage was white and Viola was black.

     Mississippi Blood continues the saga that began with Natchez Burning: unsolved murders dating back to the Civil Rights era, including the murder of Viola's brother Jimmy. The second book in the trilogy, The Bone Tree, solved the crimes committed decades before, and ended with the heroic death of Henry Sexton, a journalist. The novel also ended with the devastating death of Caitlin Masters, Penn Cage's wife-to-be, who was pregnant with the couple's child.

     This last novel in the trilogy opens with Penn being shut out by his father as Dr. Cage's trial approaches. Quentin Avery, already a familiar figure to readers from previous novels, has agreed to represent Dr. Cage, but Aver's decisions mystify and worry the son, and both Avery and Dr. Cage refuse to explain. New characters include a young black writer, Serenity Butler, who has come to Natchez to write about the case. She's  beautiful, accomplished, and a former soldier with formidable skills, Together Serenity and Penn try to uncover the facts--and the truth--about Viola Turner's death.

     It's not just his father Penn is trying to save; after the shattering losses he has suffered, he is trying to save his family and some semblance of the life he once had. But he soon discovers that the life he thought he had may have just been an illusion all along.

     Mississippi Blood is a deeply satisfying conclusion to the Natchez Burning trilogy. This book is more than just a thriller or a courtroom procedural, it is a book about history, the South, and the price the country is still paying for the sins of the past. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: By the Wayside

By the Wayside: Stories
Anne Leigh Parrish
paperback, 246 pages
Unsolicited Press
Purchase Links:
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours

     Two things stand out for me about Anne Leigh Parrish's writing: her ability to create quirky, compelling, and entirely believable characters, and her incredible eye for detail. The telling details enliven her stories, and emblazon her stories and their characters in my memory.

     Parrish is the author of two previous story collections and a novel, and every piece of her writing that I have read has stayed with me. Sometimes I will read a novel and quite enjoy it, but later find myself unable to remember much of anything about it. With Anne Leigh Parrish's work, I find that those memorable details and compelling characters stick with me, almost like real people I have known.

     In By the Wayside, Parrish brings together an eclectic collection of stories, including touches of magical realism, touches of actual magic (including a wish-granting genie), and historical fiction. In "Trial by Luck," the serious fractures in a couple's relationship are laid bare by an encounter with a genie. By turns realistic and unreal, the core of the story is the differences in the way Jonathon and Laurie see the world, and even the genie, in entirely different ways. This fast-moving story almost had a "Twilight Zone" feel to it, and I loved the surprise ending.
     In "How She Was Found" a graduate student finds an ancient skeleton, and her own power in a male-centered world. In "Smoke" a young girl finally finds her rage, and an escape from a shameful secret. In "The Professor" a woman examines her past and finds the motivation to move forward in a different way.

    I think my favorite story in this collection was "Where Love Lies." I'm still thinking about this story, and I'm still not sure I know how it ends. "The Keeper of the Truth" is another story that ends with a sentence that can be interpreted more than one way. The stories in this collection often seem to resonate long after you finish reading them, and often I would find myself closing the book when I finished a story, to give myself time to think before starting the next one. 

     The characters in Anne Leigh Parrish's stories are often damaged people, people who have lost love or never had it; parents who are neglectful, children who are smarter or more knowing than their parents, husbands and wives who deceive. But each of the characters is written in such a humane and compassionate way that the reader suspends judgment and instead looks for understanding. These are mostly ordinary people doing mostly ordinary things--and then sometimes throwing it all by the wayside. 

     I highly recommend By the Wayside. In fact, I would recommend Anne Leigh Parrish's entire body of work; she's writing finely detailed and memorable fiction, and she's an author you need to know.

     Also by Anne Leigh Parrish:  All the Roads That Lead From Home (stories); Our Love Could Light the World (stories); and What Is Found, What Is Lost, a novel.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: The Orphan's Tale

The Orphan's Tale
Pam Jenoff
paperback, 368 pages

     The Orphan's Tale is a haunting story set in Germany and France during World War II. Told in alternating chapters by two characters, Astrid and Noa, The Orphan's Tale is an unusual twist on the World War II historical novel. The story takes place within a traveling circus, and Astrid and Noa are aerialists. Each woman has a secret, and each has an unimaginable strength. Readers will be held in suspense by the questions and mysteries at the heart of this novel, and the tale has some of the mystery and magic of a circus act.

     Noa is sixteen and has been sent away by her family after becoming pregnant with the child of a Nazi soldier. She flees from her native Netherlands, and goes to Germany, where she has her baby taken from her after giving birth in a facility for the Lebensborn program. She finds a job as a cleaner in a railroad station in Germany, and a spontaneous act of mercy leads Noa to run again--this time with a Jewish infant she has rescued from a railway car filled with dead and dying Jewish infants.

     Noa runs into the forest, terrified and freezing. She is discovered by Peter, a talented clown in the traveling circus. In the circus, Noa and the baby boy she has rescued find shelter.

    At the circus, Noa meets Astrid, an aerialist whose Nazi officer husband has divorced her because she is a Jew. The circus is hiding more than one Jew, and there are tensions among the performers. Astrid agrees to train Noa as a aerialist, not really believing the newcomer will make it. The developing relationship between Astrid and Noa, and the dazzling descriptions of Astrid and Noa's act, offer a tense counterpoint to the threat of discovery by the SS.

     Pam Jenoff's beautiful descriptions of circus life make this well-researched historical novel haunting and poignant. The inherent danger of a trapeze act, performed high in the air, and depending on timing and trust, works with the shifting narrative perspectives, which blend seamlessly. This story of two women, their secrets, their friendship, and their sacrifices will find an audience among lovers of historical fiction.Especially recommended for readers interested in World War II.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sunday Coffee: Reading Right Now, A Miscellany (Sunday Salon)

     Six days a week I get up early, by necessity or choice. But Sundays..... To quote Wallace Stevens:
Sunday Morning
          Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
          Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
          And the green freedom of a cockatoo
          Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
          The holy hush of ancient sacrifice
          She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
          Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
          As a calm darkens among the water-lights.

I've always loved this Stevens poem (there's more...I just quoted the first few lines). Poetry often captures a mood or a sensation that I can't fully express. And there are times that poetry is essential for my life. Recently I've been reading more poetry, (Walt Whitman, John Keats, Mary Oliver, Ocean Vuong, Derek Walcott). It's so easy to find a poem: two of my go-to web sites are Poetry Foundation and Poets.org.

     And if you don't have time for a whole poem, how about a few lines? I love the "life lines" page on Poets.org, where people share lines of poetry that are meaningful to them. This is a good place to browse and explore what poetry can mean for us

     One more favorite site: Favorite Poem Project is practically addictive. On this site, people of all ages, vocations, and walks of life share their favorite poem. It is simple and it is beautiful. Here is one example.

    My reading has really been all over the place this week.I started The Nightingale (which I do plan to finish), but then I picked up Trollope's Can You Forgive Her, and have been reading along with JoAnn of Lakeside Musing as part of her #PalliserParty. How could I resist a group read of Trollope's political Palliser novels?

    This week I also finished reading The Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, and in an unprecedented book-buying binge over the last couple of weeks, I ordered her We Should All Be Feminists, and picked up The Thing Around Your Neck from my local bookstore. Other books I bought: George Orwell's Why I Write and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as The Forsyte Saga. This all despite the fact that I already own an embarrassing number of books (many unread), and there is conclusive evidence that I have a very limited amount of time to actually read all those books. But I find a way, and I find the time, because reading continues to be one of the great and abiding pleasures of my life.

     Do you have a poet or poem that you turn to for comfort? What have you been reading lately? Do you buy or order more books than you can humanly read?


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sunday Salon: Reading and Resistance

Can Reading Be a Form of Resistance?

     The last couple of months I've been reading, thinking, absorbing and processing the results of November's election. But this week was different. After January 20th, I began asking myself what I was going to do. Because I can't just sit back and watch the apocalypse.

     Any thinking person who is shaken by the idea that elected officials can present "alternative facts" when they don't like the actual facts needs to read George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." Here are a couple of relevant excerpts:
"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombed from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification."
 George Orwell wrote his essay in 1946. It is just as true today. And there's this:
"Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

     We as readers can seek the truth, be careful and scrupulous readers of political language, and be willing to spend the time and effort to cull the real stories, the real truth,behind the obfuscations and lies of politicians and those who serve them. And then we can really resist--on social media, on the streets, and through contacting our elected officials. But first we have to make the effort to be informed and intelligent--and not to be credulous consumers of "fake news" (once known more bluntly as lies).

The Reading Public Wants an Explanation 

     With the advent of "alternative facts" coming from the White House, readers across in the United States and Great Britain are looking for answers, and they are turning to books. As has been widely reported, George Orwell's 1984 is now a bestseller, along with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Clearly, the reading public believes we are moving toward a dystopian, dangerous future. The Sinclair Lewis novel It Can't Happen Here is sold out on Amazon, as is Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism.

     If reading dystopian fiction makes you feel better (or worse), or if it is just what you're doing to cope or process, I'd recommend Octavia Butler's prescient Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. And if you're thinking about climate change and the environmental impact of an administration seemingly hostile to science, I'd recommend Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, starting with Annihilation.

     And I haven't even touched on the catastrophic, devastating policies of this administration for public education. But I think that requires a whole separate post.

     Tell me, how do you resist?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Salon: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking Back

     Well it's been 2017 for twenty-two days, and I am finally writing a wrap-up for my 2016 reading. But first, a brief aside:

On Teaching

     After fifteen years of teaching, I can honestly say, there is no such thing as a typical year. This year has brought many changes: a new principal, new start times, a new schedule, and now, new classes. Just before Winter break, I found out my schedule for January had changed and I would have two new classes to teach (a grade level I last taught fifteen years ago). I was definitely given the opportunity to turn down the change, but I decided to kind of "take one for the team." The new classes added to my schedule are college prep and honors ninth grade English. The good news is that I absolutely love my new students, and I love the classes. But teaching a whole new curriculum is a challenge, especially on such short notice.

     So here's my schedule for this semester: AP Literature and Composition (which I love teaching), and English 1, English 1 Honors.  In every class I teach I emphasize independent reading (students read books of choice). Since I have taught mostly upperclassmen for years, any suggestions of stories, novels, or other works that work well for ninth graders would be truly appreciated.

     Now, about last year:  it was a good reading year, but teaching and other facts of life mean that my total books read for the year was only 70. I envy people who find a way to read more. Many of the books I read were over 500 pages though, so maybe I shouldn't feel too bad.

What I read and Loved

     In 2016 I read fifteen classics. I think I can do better than that.

Here are my favorite books out of those I read in 2016 (most were not published in 2016):
1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. This book is inventive, enthralling, and almost impossible to summarize. Just trust me, you should read it.
2. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. A chilling futuristic novel set in Sweden. The main character is a woman over 50 with no children or husband. She is declared "dispensable" and goes to live in "The Unit" where she will eventually be euthanized and her organs harvested.
3. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Sci-Fi with an emphasis on climate change. Part of a trilogy.
4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I've been meaning to read this novel forever, and it is every bit as good as people say it is.
5. Snow by Orhan Parmuk. Gorgeous and complex novel set in Turkey.
6. Pond by Claire Bennett. More a collection of vignettes or short stories than a novel, this lush book is beautifully written, almost poetry.
7. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. An incredible work. The novel opens with the fall of Vietnam. A story of divided self, and also an immigration story. Stunning.
8. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. I came to this novel a little late, but it has to be one of the best books I've ever read. Set in North Korea.
9. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. Set in the Rust Belt, these short stories are everything. This is a book I know I will reread many times.
10. Upstream by Mary Oliver. This might be the most beautiful and most consoling book I read in 2016. Again: this is one I will reread more than once. Essays from a beloved contemporary poet.
11. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. A short novella that packs a surprising amount into a slim volume.
12. The Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. A beautifully written panoramic story set in India and Texas.
13. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I don't know why I waited so long to read this book. I'm now an ardent Adichie devotee. Cannot recommend this one highly enough. Set in the U.S. and Nigeria. I really didn't want this book to end. It has humor, romance, the immigrant experience--everything.
14. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. If the underground railroad really was underground.... Whitehead defies classification but he's always brilliant.
15. Parable of Talents by Octavia Butler. This was actually my last book of 2016. I read The Parable of Sowers a few years ago, and always meant to read this sequel. But when I found out that there was a right-wing president in the book whose campaign slogan was "Make America Great Again" I felt I had to read this. Butler was a ground-breaking African-American writer who died far too young. She anticipated the future so well that it's almost scary. Ultimately this is a hopeful book, but there is much in it that is dark.

Looking Forward

     I really want to focus on reading books I love! Life is too short for dull books. In 2017 I want to read even more, and I want to read books that excite me, books that feed my soul, books that feed my mind.

     Here's what I've read so far: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (loved); The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (loved). In the middle of: Maude Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (her only novel) and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.


     What books have you read and absolutely loved? What books would my ninth graders love?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review: The Golden Son

The Golden Son
Shilpi Somaya Gowda
William Morrow Paperbacks
432 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Harper Collins Purchase Link
Barnes & Noble Purchase Link

     The Golden Son is one of the last books I read in 2016, and definitely one of the best books I read this year. This is one of those rare books that satisfies the reader in every way: the story is engrossing and immersive; the scope of the novel is satisfyingly large, yet the reader doesn't get lost among a cast of minor characters; and most importantly, the ending is both gratifying and convincing. How many times have you finished a book, loving everything except the ending? This is a book that will make you neglect your family, ignore your friends, and finally get off of social media!

     Shilpi Somaya Gowda has published one other novel, Secret Daughter. For this, her second novel, she seems to have poured everything she ever knew or observed about life into a single book. I've always loved books about the immigrant experience, and The Golden Son explores this territory with the story of Anil Patel, the oldest son of an important farming family in a small village in western India. Anil is on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor when he lands a coveted residency in Dallas, Texas, where he finds himself tested in entirely new ways. He struggles to make sense of a system and a country where he initially feels excluded and unequipped. Eventually Anil starts to find his way, but struggles to balance his sense of duty to India and his family with his new responsibilities and demands at the hospital.
     As he is adjusting to his new country and to the competitive atmosphere at the hospital, Anil becomes the arbiter of disputes for his village. As Gowda creates the world of the hospital, and captures the exhaustion and disorientation of Anil, she also creates the world of rural India, where Anil's childhood friend Leena is preparing for her marriage to a man she has barely spoken to.

     Without melodrama or condescension, Gowda portrays the life of the villagers who live by a caste system, and live according to ancient laws and patterns. Leena leaves her beloved parents after some negotiations, and goes to a place remote from everyone and everything she has ever known. When the marriage and her new husband shatter Leena's dreams, she is isolated, frightened, and left with a difficult choice. How Leena's dilemma is resolved, and where Anil fits into the solution, is just one of the important plot developments in this novel about culture, tradition, and change.

     The Golden Son offers a satisfying cultural immersion in two different worlds: the world of the immigrant adjusting to life in America, and the world of a changing India. Gowda creates a panoramic landscape that includes both worlds, and the places where those worlds intersect. This is a beautifully written novel that satisfies the reader on so many levels: the characters, the well-realized settings, and the intersecting plots. Highly recommended.