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

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.

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.