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, 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.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Short But Powerful

Do You Have Time for a Cup of Coffee?

     No? Me neither. Let's have one anyway. Know what my life's been like lately? I leave for work in the dark and I come home from work in the dark. The only thing I want to do is throw myself onto my bed. Sometimes I go to bed at 8:00 or 8:30. Sometimes I sit up grading essays. What am I not doing? Finishing big fat juicy novels in a week. It took me forever to finish The Blind Assassin.

     So, here's my antidote for when life is too busy, too messy, and too overwhelming for a long and powerful book: read something short and powerful. Here are some suggestions.

1. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. This entrancing work of fiction is a series of linked vignettes--some with more narrative tension than others--all from the perspective of a solitary woman living in an isolated cottage in Ireland. This book is lovely, lyrical, enchanting. At 208 pages, it is a relatively quick read.

2. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. At 116 pages, this little book is so gorgeous and affecting you will wonder why people bother to write longer books. Train Dreams is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century. This little book captures history at the ground level, but is also suffused with emotion and myth. Simply beautiful.

3. Ayiti by Roxane Gay. The author is better known for Bad Feminist, An Untamed State, World of Wakanda, and her mordantly funny twitter feed. Ayiti, 121 pages, is an introduction to the author through a series of brief stories set in Haiti.

4. Drown by Junot Diaz. Powerful linked stories set in Santo Domingo and New York.So good they will make you glad you are alive to read them. 208 pages.

5. Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. If I could, I think I would live entirely in the world of Mary Oliver. A modern-day Romantic and Transcendentalist, Oliver will make you look at life and nature with fresh eyes. 128 pages.

6. American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The most beautiful, gritty, disturbing, real stories about people you feel you can touch they are so deeply imagined. Incredible, graceful, compassionate writing. 170 pages.

     There you have it: six short but powerful books that will remind you that you are a reader, and why.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: I'll Take You There

I'll Take You There
Wally Lamb
Hardcover, 272 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Harper Collins Purchase Link:
Barnes & Noble Purchase Link:

     I've been an ardent fan of Wally Lamb since his first novel, She's Come Undone. Lamb's writing is a touchstone for me: I love his complex, layered plots, the slow unfolding of the character's lives and histories, the dense psychological complexity of his stories. My two favorite Lamb novels are I Know This Much is True and The Hour I First Believed. Each of those books plumbs the depths of trauma and ends with a sense of redemption. In that sense I'll Take You There is a "typical" Wally Lamb novel.

     Despite that similarity, this latest Wally Lamb novel surprised me. First of all, there is a supernatural angle: the protagonist, Felix Funicello, is a film scholar who runs a movie club in an old vaudeville theater, and it is in this theater that Felix encounters the ghost of a pioneering feminist director, Lois Weber. This plot device was slightly jarring for me at first, but as I read on I became more comfortable with Lois and the other ghosts who popped in and out of the novel. Felix takes a trip into his own past over the course of several weeks, courtesy of Lois, who shows Felix ghostly "movies" of his own childhood....movies that he can enter and exit at will.

     Much of the plot revolves around Felix's childhood memories, which are often painful, especially when it comes to his relationship with his sister, Frances. Felix's family members are keeping a secret, and in Wally Lamb novels (and often in life) secrets usually come out, eventually.

     Although there is a male protagonist (and narrator), I'll Take You There focuses in on women: their history, their obstacles, and the many ways in which women have had to bear a heavy burden for their gender. Felix's sisters, his mother, his feminist ex-wife Kat, and his new feminist daughter Aliza all have prominent roles in the narrative.

     The film metaphor worked on some levels, and I kept waiting for some kind of surprise ending or epiphany or metaphor that would make the idea of Felix watching films of his childhood click into place for me. But it turned out to be a device that fit into the character's life and evoked a sense of nostalgia....but no weird revelation like I expected. My favorite scenes in the book were the childhood scenes from the "movies" of Felix's life, and the very last page, where the book came together for me in a very satisfying way.

     I didn't realize until I finished I'll Take You There that a previous novel features Felix and his family (Wishin' and Hopin'). Since I enjoyed the book without reading the previous book, I don't see why other readers won't. I found this novel to be lighter in mood and texture than Lamb's other books (although there is definitely darkness here too). Readers who enjoyed Wishin' and Hopin' will probably also like I'll Take You There; devoted Lamb fans will find much to love in this newest novel.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Descent

Tim Johnston
paperback, 387 pages

     Descent is every hyperbolic adjective a book reviewer ever fell back on: riveting, compelling, enthralling, achingly lyrical. I'm almost at a loss for words to explain why I think this book is so good and why you should read it--but I'll try.

     Tim Johnston takes a situation and a premise that is naturally compelling: the Courtlands, an ordinary family from Wisconsin, are visiting the mountains of Colorado in one last family vacation before oldest daughter Caitlyn heads off to college. Caitlyn, a gifted runner, goes off with her younger brother Sean in the early morning hours to explore the mountain roads and paths: Caitlyn is running, and Sean is riding a mountain bike. While their parents are back at the hotel room, a sinister stranger in a jeep runs over Sean, injuring him severely. He then persuades Caitlyn, against her instincts, to get into his jeep to go for help. It is as if she disappeared into thin air.

     What makes Descent more than just a thriller (although it is thrilling) is all that makes literary fiction literary. Johnston creates a sense of place that is artful, and adds so many layers of meaning to this beautifully crafted novel. He captures the beauty, the danger, and the isolation of the mountain landscape. And his plot turns not just on the mystery and absence of Caitlyn's disappearance, but also the fissures that develop into chasms within the family that is left behind.

     Angela and Grant Courtland are trying to rebuild a damaged marriage when their daughter disappears. The distance that opens between them after their daughter's kidnapping is both geographic and emotional. Grant gives up his contracting business and moves to the Colorado mountains to continue the search--even after three years pass, he is no closer to healing, closure, or acceptance. Angela goes back home to Wisconsin with Sean, who never fully recovers from the injury to his knee and leg. Eventually he becomes a restless nomad, haunted by guilt and anger.

     There is absolutely nothing predictable in the resolution to this book. Caitlyn, while victimized, never becomes a victim. She's one of my favorite characters in this layered and subtle book: she is fierce, smart, and totally believable. Johnston achieves something really special in Descent: he creates a page-turner that is also a sensitive meditation on families, chance, and fate.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday Salon:: After Matthew

     On October 4th I was having a normal school day, more worried about grading deadlines than the hurricane that was apparently barreling toward us all along. The next morning I was on the highway, headed toward the Charlotte, North Carolina area, having hastily prepared to be away from home for a few days. 

     I brought school work, my computer, and plenty of books. As it turned out, I spent much of my "hurrication" glued to social media, getting updates about the hurricane. Waiting and wondering was definitely the most stressful and difficult thing. I spent time with my friends and family, and tried to take my mind off the threat of Hurricane Matthew, but knowing that a hurricane is hurtling toward your home is not a good feeling. Especially since my husband had decided to stay home.

     What happened: on Friday night and into early Saturday morning, Matthew slammed into Hilton Head Island, where I live. The complex where I live (everything in Hilton Head is called a "villa" but our home is part of what looks like a very ordinary apartment complex) was nearly unscathed. We didn't have electricity or water for about a day, but there was very little damage, not even flooding. Other parts of the island were not so lucky. Parts of the island were totally devastated, and the dock where my husband earns his living was completely destroyed.

     The evacuation order wasn't lifted for our country until Monday, and Hilton Head Islanders didn't get the okay to return until Tuesday afternoon. I left on Wednesday morning, a full week after I first evacuated. I can't even begin to express the relief I felt on getting home and actually seeing for myself the totally intact building where I live. And my totally intact husband.

     Our island is a beautiful place, and part of the beauty comes from the many, many trees--some of them gigantic, ancient live oaks. Now there is a symphony of chain saws as workers cut up the many fallen trees. My overall feeling is a sense of gratitude: things could have been so much worse.

     Tomorrow I will see my students for the first time in almost two weeks. Some of them may have lost their homes, or had their homes damaged. Some of them may have lost clothing, furniture, or school supplies in the hurricane or flooding. Some of their families may have taken a financial hit from the expenses of evacuation. It's going to be a challenge to get back to work and pick up where we left off. 

     What did I read during this time? Not as much as you might expect. I finally finished my reread of Crime and Punishment. What an emotionally and psychologically intense book! It is definitely one of my favorite classics, but it took me a long time to read. Part of that was due to teaching and reviewing responsibilities. But I also think that Crime and Punishment requires a level of attentiveness and focus that not all books demand.

  I did get a chance to delve into Jim Burke's book What's the Big Idea? It's really difficult to find time for professional development reading when I'm in the midst of teaching, so it was nice to have time to read this excellent book. I got lots of great ideas and instructional strategies for my teaching.

     After Crime and Punishment, I thought I would try Descent, which is billed as an "enthralling thriller." So far I'm really liking it, and the writing is very good.

     Back to school tomorrow....this should be interesting. How was your week? What are you reading?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Running From Matthew

How It Started

     Last Tuesday I was having a fairly normal school day. Hurricane Matthew was well out on the periphery of my consciousness. I was thinking about planning, grading, deadlines, and delivering instruction. In between teaching and duties, I started to hear rumors about mid-morning. Hurricane Matthew was on a course that would possibly impact our area. Several people came to tell me that they had heard South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was going to order an evacuation of coastal South Carolina, and that school would be cancelled for the rest of the week. I started texting my daughter (she's living upstate on her own) and making plans. By third block we still hadn't heard anything official, but there were rumors flying about. Some of my students were scared or worried, and some of them were texting their parents. I teach all seniors this year, and many of my students had never had to evacuate for a hurricane. The last evacuation we had in this area was in 1999. By the end of third block we were openly discussing the possibility that there wouldn't be school for the rest of the week, and I was pleading with my students to bring their copy of Frankenstein if they had to evacuate. We were kept in suspense literally until the last minute: Nikki Haley had her press conference at 3:00, and at 3:30 the information that we were under evacuation order was public. Our school day ends at 3:40, and the announcement was made over the school loudspeaker at 3:39.

Getting Out

     I live on an island, accessible by a single bridge, I had texted my husband, but when I called him at the end of the school day, he was in the midst of preparing to secure the boats he's responsible for: he works for a small, family-owned company that offers boat tours and dinner cruises.  My first job was to secure a rental vehicle, which wasn't easy, even though I had reserved one earlier in the day. My daily commute is made in an Acura that has 203,000 miles on it---not the car you want to take on a long and arduous journey. The car rental place was in a state of panic, with the phone ringing continuously. Somehow I drove away in the last available car. I give my mother all the credit for this one: she taught me tenacity and a certain kind of authoritative attitude. When I left the car rental place there were more than a dozen island visitors or residents waiting in line, hoping that a car would be returned before the place closed.

     When I got home I started to pack because Matthew was a category 4 storm, and I wasn't going to hang around to see what it would do to our little island. It was a surreal experience, and looking back I don't think I was thinking all that clearly. I remembered my medication, books, and phone chargers, but I didn't pack a single pair of shoes. I walked out wearing an old pair of flip-flops that I wear around the house. At the last minute I ran back in and grabbed one sweater.

      My husband was already committed to staying the next day to work. They have a very small fleet (five boats) and he and a few other employees spent most of that day (evacuation day) moving the boats from the commercial dock to a spot between two small islands. They secured the vessels, removed electronics, dropped anchor, and hoped for the best. That took the entire day (mandatory evacuation for the area started Wednesday at 3:00 p.m.). Miraculously, the boats are apparently okay. A local captain did a post-hurricane trip around the area and reported that the boats look good.

     Wednesday morning I left Hilton Head at 8:00 a.m. It was a horrible feeling. I hated leaving my husband behind. I knew he had to work, and I knew he still had a vehicle and could leave if he wanted to. But my husband is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there is no place to evacuate: there is no bridge! He's been through a major hurricane there, and he's physically strong and a survivor. Still, it was a bad feeling leaving him behind.

     Because I left so far ahead of the official evacuation order, I avoided much of the traffic. I did hit a big traffic jam on I-26, as this is where all the Charleston evacuees were. A drive that should have taken less than four hours took five, but I count myself lucky. I reached the Charlotte, NC area by 2:00 p.m.

My Word of Advice

     Evacuate. If you possibly can, leave. There are no material belongings that matter more than your safety and your life. Leave as early as you can, preferably before the official evacuation time. Traffic will only get worse. I think one reason people don't leave is that they dread being caught in the evacuation traffic, or they are afraid they won't be able to get back when they want to. But if you don't leave, you may be stuck in place for days or even weeks. There will be no power, no water, and no access to food or water. Every gas station in my area was out of gas by Thursday. Many stores were out of water. Then, after the hurricane hit, there was no electricity to run gas pumps or stores anyway. ATM machines were empty.

The Worst of It

     The worst part was the waiting. My husband was alone in our apartment. He didn't want to leave and kept assuring me that he would be fine. Horrible images ran through my head, and I became instantly addicted to social media. I watched the hurricane move toward our coastline, and it was excruciating waiting and wondering. I was on the phone with my husband constantly quizzing him about who was still there at our apartment complex, and urging him to leave.

When the Hurricane Hit

     The hurricane made landfall on our island on Friday night through the early hours of Saturday morning. At about 4:00 a.m. it got intense, but somehow our building made it through the storm intact. I think this is because we are on slightly higher ground, and because our building doesn't have any trees right next to it. Hilton Head has a natural beauty that comes from an abundance of vegetation, including beautiful old live oaks and other tall trees. But our trees are all well away from the building.

The Next Day: Silence

     Thank goodness my husband kept cell service throughout the ordeal. The community where I teach, a few miles inland, is just getting some cellular service. My husband had no water, no electricity, and no contact with the outside world. The fire stations had evacuated the island on Thursday. He was truly on his own. Since I had internet access, I became my husband's contact with the outside world. I was on social media constantly, and locals formed an informal network that was really kind of amazing. A surprising number of people stayed on Hilton Head, and they were sending videos out relatively early. I was giving my husband reports about when fire and rescue personnel returned to the island, where one little grocery store was open on the island (they had no power, but brought locals in a few at a time--shopping by flashlight, cash only). There was no power or water on the island the first day, but by that evening, my husband had power. I still can't believe it, but I'm so relieved. If I was unable to talk to him it would have been awful, and he had no way to charge his phone. Note: get an extra phone battery and a car charger.


     It takes time for things to return to normal.When a hurricane lands on your community, things aren't going to return to normal right away. Fortunately, we had no loss of life in our area. Things can be replaced. 

     There were trees everywhere on Hilton Head. Roadways were entirely blocked throughout the island. A few intrepid islanders posted videos that showed the destruction.

     It's been a week since I evacuated. They only started letting people back into our county a couple of days ago. I still can't go home. The roadways had to be cleared, and fire stations and the local hospital had to be restored. Tomorrow afternoon they will begin to let people back onto the island. From what I understand, cars started lining up on the bridge yesterday. I'll wait one more day.

Firefighters Are Awesome

     As soon as the firefighters returned to the island they started going door to door checking on people. They stopped by on Sunday, and were back again yesterday. They chat with my husband and offer him water and food. They'll be back again tomorrow.

People Love Their Normal Lives

     My friends and colleagues ended up everywhere: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio. Lots of people went to Augusta, Macon, Atlanta. Charlotte is full of evacuees. My sister and her family were in Charlotte, having evacuated from Charleston. I got to have lunch with my Charleston family, and dinner with Hilton Head friends all in one day. But everyone is ready to get back to their normal lives. People are anxious about their homes. Those who are able to get back cry tears of reliefe.

Evacuation is Expensive and Strenuous

     Have a plan. Really. If you live paycheck to paycheck, evacuating can be incredibly stressful. It can hit you so hard in the wallet. I was lucky: lucky to have a regular paycheck, lucky to have a safe vehicle to use, lucky to have a place to go. 

Fun Stuff I Did During My Evacuation

     I watched Netflix (don't have time for that during the school year). I caught up on Luther, watching two seasons in two days. I read, but not as much as I expected to. I'm almost finished with Crime and Punishment. I bought a book (one!) because a trip to the bookstore was inevitable. But mostly I was on my computer, anxiously looking for news of how things were going back at home. I was on the phone with my husband constantly. If his phone had gone out it would not have been good. If there is a next time, I hope we will be together, because being separated for this amount of time is not good for either of us.

What I Learned

      It's the people in my life that matter. I wasn't worried about my stuff. Well, okay, I worried about my books. I'm happy that the library I accumulated over decades is intact. The rest of it--just doesn't matter.

     The friendships and family relationships I have sustained me through this ordeal. I kept in constant contact with friends and family, and that is what kept me going.

     I really hope I never have to evacuate again, but I learned a few things about how to do that, too. And next time I will pack at least one pair of shoes.

Going Home

     I hope to be going home on Wednesday. I may kiss the ground.


     We are so fortunate to live in a place with the resources and infra structure to handle weather emergencies when they happen. Haiti was completely devastated by Matthew, and had a horrifying loss of life. Friends of ours were part of the recovery operations after the earthquake, and the schools they helped build after the earthquake are gone. It's heartbreaking. We are lucky, lucky, lucky. Our actions need to reflect that. We should give from our abundance.

     Nikki Haley handled the evacuation and public safety issues from the hurricane amazingly well,

      My students and I will be back in the classroom next week, Together.

     How did Hurricane Matthew affect you? Have you ever fled a natural disaster?

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Review: News of the World

News of the World
Paulette Jiles
hardcover, 224 pages
William Morrow
A review copy was provided through TLC Book Tours
Purchase Links:
Harper Collins
Barnes and Noble

     Paulette Jiles is best known as the author of Enemy Women, but I have the feeling that News of the World will gain Jiles even more attention. The National Book Foundation just announced the finalists for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, and News of the World is on the list.

     News of the World is a historical novel, a meditation on the strange phenomenon of Indian captives who return as changed people, and a love letter to the power of story. The narrative follows Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War who travels Texas reading the "news of the world" from newspapers, to paying customers. Kidd is stoic, wise, a messenger (his most cherished memories are from his Army years when he was a solitary messenger, carrying essential news). He is traveling and reading the news in Wichita Falls, winter, 1870, when he makes a strange bargain For a single gold coin he will take a strange and wild girl, once held captive by Kiowa Indians, back to her only living relative in San Antonio.

     Johanna is ten years old, and was taken captive by the Kiowa at six. Her immediate family was murdered; her only living relatives are an aunt and uncle she probably can't remember. She has forgotten English, and wants desperately to be returned to the Kiowa and her adoptive Indian mother She wants no part of dresses, shoes, or Captain Kidd.

     Jiles creates the feel of post-Civil War Texas--a state with dangerous raiders, violent political disagreement, and criminal gangs. It is through this dangerous territory that Kidd must transport a distrustful and unwilling child.

     This is one of those rare novels with a central character who is convincing, complex, and yet uncompromisingly moral. As Kidd gets closer to his destination, he and Johanna begin to build trust and understanding--just as he is about to hand her over again to unknown and perhaps untrustworthy strangers.

     News of the World blends artistry and beautiful prose style with gritty humor and cultural insight. As I read, the contemporary writer I was most reminded of was Cormac Mcarthy: Jiles has a similar style (fluid, seemingly effortless sentences), but with a slightly less portentous touch. I thought about the wonderful novel True Grit too; rarely has a novelist created a believable, unsentimental, and realistic relationship like the one between Johanna and Captain Kidd.

     Jiles also writes with sensitivity and insight about the strangeness of the returned captive; forever changed by life among the Kiowa, unimpressed by houses and things, and with the courage of a warrior.

     This is one of the best historical novels I have read; it wears its learning lightly, but the book is steeped in history. Fans of Cormac McCarthy, or readers interested in Texas history will find much to love in News of the World, but so will those who love story, or who simply want to be reminded that there is good in the world.