In early October, I found myself and my two cats evacuating with neighbors from Atlantic Beach, FL, to Orlando, to escape hurricane Matthew. On the laIn early October, I found myself and my two cats evacuating with neighbors from Atlantic Beach, FL, to Orlando, to escape hurricane Matthew. On the last Thursday of November, I will sit down with these same neighbors to share a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude: my neighbors and I (and the cats) were spared the hurricane’s wrath. Along with pumpkin pie and a bottle of wine, I’m bringing to the celebration author Melanie Kirkpatrick’s excellent book, Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience. I intend to share with guests passages written by famous Americans taken from one of the book’s several sections, “Readings for Thanksgiving Day.” I’m leaning toward firsthand accounts by William Bradford and Edward Winslow of the Pilgrims’ feast in Plymouth in 1621, but I’m also drawn to author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of a childhood lesson learned from the Dakota Territory in the 1870s. There’s no question but that I will share with my neighbors F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Turkey Cocktail Recipe” (“To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.”). I may also challenge guests to guess which president tried to change the holiday to an earlier date from the traditional last Thursday in November and how that went over (hint: there was a national uproar). Kirkpatrick’s writing gift and talent for making history come alive have combined to give us a fine account of our nation’s beloved holiday. It is a book I know will engender good conversation, and I am eager to bring it to the celebration....more
Growth in 'dark, wintry, dug-up times' Only a gifted artist can lead others into the pathway of a broken heart and move them to find in its darkest chaGrowth in 'dark, wintry, dug-up times' Only a gifted artist can lead others into the pathway of a broken heart and move them to find in its darkest chambers a light, a shared humanity. Author Melinda Worth Popham does this in Grace Period: My Ordination to the Ordinary, a memoir describing the circumstances of her life that led her to Yale Divinity School: a beloved teenage daughter suffering an intractable depression who rejected Popham, a husband who emotionally withdrew from the marriage, their divorce, and an adored son who left home for boarding school. She honors her readers by revealing her life with its missteps and flaws, its searing loneliness, and she does it with gentle humor, muted sorrow and honesty, always offering insights that stun with their truth. She is a great writer: her language yields analogies that are luminous as an icon, some extending for paragraphs before ending in utter perfection. The author has been down on her knees more than once and her soul has passed through fire: the wonderful part is that through her story she comforts, heals, and gives courage and hope to the rest of us by deepening our understanding of being.
Amanda Scott’s Moonlight Raider captures the reader’s attention from the first page with its sympathetic heroine and her tragic circumstances: on theAmanda Scott’s Moonlight Raider captures the reader’s attention from the first page with its sympathetic heroine and her tragic circumstances: on the cold fall night of her cruel forced marriage, Molly Cockburn flees into the rough Scottish Borders, pursued by furious relatives and with nowhere to go, until a powerful lord finds her hiding in the wilderness. Their attraction is intense, but Scott creates daunting headwinds that threaten the engaging young people, keeping readers turning the pages to find out what is to become of Molly and the Lord of Rankilburn. The descriptions of physical passion and emotional engagement strike perfect notes even as Scott, a master of Scottish history and dialogue, deftly weaves in details of the land and of Medieval Scottish life and laws. ...more
Finding Love in the Desert Places Skywater unfolds a spellbinding journey with a small band of coyotes, whose distinct natures and ultimate fates areFinding Love in the Desert Places Skywater unfolds a spellbinding journey with a small band of coyotes, whose distinct natures and ultimate fates are as deeply moving as characters in a Shakespearean play. After their well is poisoned in the Sonoran desert, the coyotes follow their leader to find what is believed to be the promised ancestral place of endless life-giving water. The coyotes face many dangers in the merciless worlds they navigate on their quest to reach Skywater: sharpshooter riflemen at a military proving ground; rivers; deadly highways; baited traps. The power of this story goes far beyond the perils the hunted and weary coyotes face: it comes from Melinda Worth Popham’s ability to see something wonderful in the unloved suffering outcast, in the rejected, and to convey its worthiness and wonder to the reader. The writing is extraordinary. On every level, Skywater is a transformative story.
Reviewed by Elle Thornton I just finished reading Johnnie Come Lately and immediately returned to page one so I could have the pleasure of reading agaiReviewed by Elle Thornton I just finished reading Johnnie Come Lately and immediately returned to page one so I could have the pleasure of reading again this bighearted story about the Kitchen family of Portion, Texas. Quite simply I do not want the story to end. And I’m glad to learn author Kathleen M. Rodgers is writing a sequel. I love the characters in Rodger’s novel, the generous voice of the story, its language, insights and humor, the wise descriptions of emotion, the plotting, the perfect-pitch tension, pacing, and drama in even the smallest scenes. It was so easy to identify with the Kitchen family and the sorrows, failures and challenges in their lives, but most especially it’s easy to fall in love with Rodger’s engaging protagonist, Johnnie Kitchen. Johnnie has come a long way since the days early in her life when her emotionally unstable mother disappeared and the terrifying eating disorder bulimia nearly killed the vulnerable young girl. We meet her after she’s married and become the mother of three young people in various stages of taking wrong turns and finding themselves. But the focus is Johnnie and her quest to make sense of old family secrets and tragedies, her desire to win her husband’s forgiveness and her longing to find her mother and learn the identity of her father. Throughout, she’s stalked by the terrifying demon of self-destruction. This novel is a little like a spring day in Texas beneath storm clouds and slanting rays of sunshine, where, alongside a gritty highway, millions of exquisite wildflowers bloom. ...more
Mike Addington’s The Home Place opens like a wide-angle photograph in grainy black and white reflecting the novel’s homThe Home Place By Mike Addington
Mike Addington’s The Home Place opens like a wide-angle photograph in grainy black and white reflecting the novel’s homespun Georgia setting and prohibition years of the last century. The scene: a hard-scrabble farm worked by a sprawling goodhearted family, and a hamfisted patriarchal figure, Matt, riding herd on everyone. As the century progresses, the book’s wide-angle focus narrows like a pair of hardened slit eyes. The close-ups involve Matt’s strapping sons and a filthy gambling joint owned by a bootlegging villain. This evocative story of earth’s cyclical cruelty offers readers fast-paced dialogue and gritty details; the fight scenes in this prize-winning novel are especially excellent. I look forward to reading much more of Addington’s work. ...more
With Cracks in the Sidewalk, Bette Lee Crosby brings her growing numbers of fans the kind of likeable characters, nearly unbearable situations, and viWith Cracks in the Sidewalk, Bette Lee Crosby brings her growing numbers of fans the kind of likeable characters, nearly unbearable situations, and villainous losers that kept us turning pages in her books Small Change and The Twelfth Child. Cracks in the Sidewalk proves yet again that Crosby has a genuine gift for showing us how in life’s smallest moments––a child’s hand held in our own––even the most battered souls can triumph over prolonged suffering. Descriptions of a lead character’s devastating illness and final hours are impressive for their detail and touching for the heartfelt emotion the author conveys. This book also includes Crosby’s deft and thoroughly entertaining descriptions of courtroom sparring....more
Open to the first page of My Chemical Mountain and it's immediately apparent why author Corina Vacco won the Delacorte Prize for a first young adult nOpen to the first page of My Chemical Mountain and it's immediately apparent why author Corina Vacco won the Delacorte Prize for a first young adult novel: characters, dialogue and descriptions are brilliant–– sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking and always deeply real and deeply felt. Above all this book is so clearly a standout because of Vacco's incredible prose: her analogies are just amazing, the writing a passionate trip into another world. She uses the language of contamination, evil, and destruction in a way no one else has, and the effect is truly breathtaking. Vacco is a writer of rare talent and great power. I am privileged to read her work. ...more
From its opening pages this book puts the reader at the heart of a mystery and does not let go. This happy result comes from the following: an imaginaFrom its opening pages this book puts the reader at the heart of a mystery and does not let go. This happy result comes from the following: an imaginative story involving an unlikely friendship that works because it is rooted in the believable and pulls at the heartstrings; a writer who understands pacing, plotting, character, dialogue, and, best of all, how to construct scenes with impact! I hadn't anticipated being scared. But to my delight, I got the shivers reading this story. I'm looking forward to more from this author. ...more
I read Robert Coram’s portrait of a brilliant man, Marine Lt. Gen. Victor H. "Brute" Krulak, with intense personal interest. That is because Brute menI read Robert Coram’s portrait of a brilliant man, Marine Lt. Gen. Victor H. "Brute" Krulak, with intense personal interest. That is because Brute mentions the late B. Gen. Edward C. Dyer, who with others helped make helicopters an enduring part of the Marine Corps. Gen. Dyer is my father. Coram gives readers a story of great breadth: Beyond the complexities of Lt. Gen. Krulak, his flaws and remarkable accomplishments, the author describes the Marine Corps, its relationship with other branches of the military, its history, failures, and triumphs. I have benefited from reading the historian’s clear prose describing how the “A” bomb made amphibious landings outmoded after WWII, how the helicopter created a whole new dimension to waging war and revitalized the Corps’ mission.
I wish to share with readers the following small amount of historical information. Gen. Dyer’s official Marine Corps biography describes him as “a pioneer in the night fighter, air warning and helicopter phases of Marine aviation.” An obituary in a Washington, D.C., newspaper describes him as “one of the first Marine aviators to be trained as a helicopter pilot.” (Washington Star-News, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1975). In 1931 he made among the first night landings (fixed-wing) at sea (Scouting Squadron 15-M with the USS Lexington and the USS Saratoga). Later he trained as a helicopter pilot at Sikorsky Aircraft in 1947. He flew among the earliest helicopters. He understood and loved them. He understood their potential.
In an Oral History Transcript for the Marine Corps Historical Division (1973), Gen. Dyer describes the attitude when the first Marine helicopter squadron was approved. “A lot of my contemporaries were unhappy with the idea” since helicopters meant less funding for fixed-wing aircraft. In addition there was “a sincere belief on the part of many Marine aviators . . . that a helicopter was nothing but an aeronautical monstrosity, just a collection of nuts and bolts that would probably never amount to anything . . . they had no belief in its future whatever.”(Oral Transcript 201)
Gen. Dyer volunteered for the job of organizing the unloved fledgling squadron based in Quantico. He commandeered desks and file cabinets, acquired a hangar and barracks, and recruited pilots, mechanics, electronics specialists and clerks. These few brave and adventurous souls set the rag-tag squadron on its way to later success.
Gen. Dyer told his interviewer that the men who volunteered for the squadron “were a good group of people, and I think they all did a splendid job, as we would see later.” (Oral Transcript 210). He was the organizer and he was the first commander of HMX-1 (H for helicopter, M for Marine, X for experimental, and 1 for the first). It got off the ground with just five Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopters. Today HMX-1 has the honor of flying the U.S. president to and from his engagements.
Coram’s writing is detailed, and this fascinating story of Lt. Gen. Krulak is altogether accessible to those coming to the subject of military history, helicopters and the Marine Corps for the first time. Readers will find it hard to put this book down whether they are new to or long familiar with all the compelling subjects it tackles. ...more
This book is written with the skill and heart of a story-teller and equally so with the scholar's unshakable regard for facts. A former Wall Street JoThis book is written with the skill and heart of a story-teller and equally so with the scholar's unshakable regard for facts. A former Wall Street Journal deputy editor who has spent years living in Asia, Kirkpatrick develops solid arguments for ways to change a country that is frozen in time. Because of her credentials and the story she tells so well, her ideas are certain to command the attention of policy makers. But beyond Washington and New York, many readers may be moved to act once they've read the harrowing narratives, the descriptions of ordinary souls bravely helping others, once they've read Kirkpatrick's careful portrait of a grotesque and unimaginably cruel regime....more
After the gold band has been tossed aside and the wedding vows are in tatters, can a story featuring Cupid help mend a person? With Christmas right ar After the gold band has been tossed aside and the wedding vows are in tatters, can a story featuring Cupid help mend a person? With Christmas right around the corner, it seemed like reading such a book might be the equivalent of open-heart surgery without the anesthesia. Well I’m glad to report that after only a few pages into Bette Lee Crosby’s new book I began to smile. Soon I was actually laughing.
From reading Spare Change and The Twelfth Child, I’m familiar with Crosby’s story-telling talent, love of character and language, her delight in complications: it’s all in this book right along with the author’s sense of how life can work sometimes, how there can be miracles. And so as I read I left off brooding and took up cheering Cupid on as he helps a pair of older singles, a hapless young woman, and a stray dog. It’s a story that heals as much through its humor as its wisdom, a story made up of dreams such as we all are made of.
SEE THE BLOG AUGUST 2014 POSTED AT THE END OF THIS 2012 REVIEW: The beginning of women’s economic independence; the hippie hangover from the late 1960sSEE THE BLOG AUGUST 2014 POSTED AT THE END OF THIS 2012 REVIEW: The beginning of women’s economic independence; the hippie hangover from the late 1960s; Vietnam: however you may judge the 1970s, the decade touched many young lives that were at a fragile turning point, lives like that of Annette, the lead character in Alle Wells’ engaging novel Leaving Serenity. We first meet Annette in 1996 when her new life as Nikky Harris is firmly established the way a Mercedes is perfectly tuned. We also meet her exceedingly sour mom and unlikable siblings, followed by a journey back in time to the south of the 50s and Annette’s roots in the small North Carolina town of Serenity. Wells portrays Annette’s early life as circumscribed by church, grocery, bakery, drug store and beauty parlor. It was for many girls a suffocating time with few ways to escape miserable loneliness and self-images so poor as to be dangerous.
Wells conveys the 50s through skillful descriptive details, but her talent comes into full play as the author shows us Annette in the 1970s, the decade when most of the novel’s action takes place: a new car, a bankroll earned from working at a cafe, and a gorgeous hippie boyfriend seem to be all that’s needed for fulfillment away from Serenity. But Annette’s journey leads to the worst that the 70s offered.
When a mentor with supreme confidence in her comes on the scene, Annette fades and Nikky emerges. Tom the mentor quickly helps her build a new life from wardrobe to a new nose and more fetching bosoms. Considering how much Tom gives Nikky with no sexual demands ever made, I’d have welcomed more emotional interaction between the two and a rounding out of the story when she finally sees her father again. But perhaps Nikky will come into her emotions in another novel by Alle Wells. My hope is there will be many more.
SEE BELOW: BLOG POST AUGUST 10,2014: Revisiting a Book Review
I know it just isn’t done, at least it has never come to my attention before: a book review being changed by the reviewer. I mean, we write our reviews and that’s it. Our minds are made up and we don’t change them.
But two years after I wrote about Alle Wells’ fine novel Leaving Serenity, I’ve thought often about the story of her heroine, Nikky/Annette, and her relationship with a man who becomes her mentor and business partner. I confess that at the time I wrote the review, I didn’t understand what Wells had achieved with her portrait of Nikky.
Over time, though, my thoughts kept returning to the book and what I’d written about it. And over time I began to appreciate the character arc Wells developed in Nicky and the total rightness of the kind of relationship she has with Tom. In Leaving Serenity, Wells reveals how a character becomes who she is. She does it with great skill, creating a fully human character in a situation that is fully believable. This is a great achievement.
It seems like a book that has the power to keep a reader thinking about its characters and story for two years deserves an upgrade, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. Five Stars for Alle Wells’Leaving Serenity, and for the reviewer, the satisfaction of feeling like I’ve grown.
Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as Truman Capote’s opening paragraph to In Cold Blood includes a description of white grain elevators rising from the hard Kansas land “as gracefully as Greek temples.” The ending of the book comes in a cemetery where four members of the slain Clutter family are buried. The wooded cemetery is on a slight plateau overlooking wheat fields, and their graves are away from the trees not far from the fields. On a visit to the burial ground, the solemn lead detective in the case turns from the grave-site toward his home. Capote writes this concluding sentence; it must be among the most beautiful in American literature: “Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”
Linking Greek temples to Kansas grain elevators sets the tone for what’s about to unfold between the beginning and the end: it is an American story possessing elements of Greek tragedy: Nobility and dignity in the face of death, the slaughter of a family considered among the very finest in the community, the tragedy spurred by a grotesque mistaken notion on the part of the killers.
Capote’s descriptions of the land, the people, the blood-soaked events, his mastery of the kind of detail that brings humans to life on paper, even those long dead, detail that shows us the men who committed the murders so that we might know them, carries this book to the height of literary accomplishment. This book is a true masterpiece. ...more
It’s hard to let go of stories I love, and that’s been true for me of Bette Lee Crosby’s work. Her book Spare Change is wise in the ways of life’s iroIt’s hard to let go of stories I love, and that’s been true for me of Bette Lee Crosby’s work. Her book Spare Change is wise in the ways of life’s ironies, its sorrows and evil, and the goodness that human beings offer one another. In Spare Change her engaging lead characters find themselves in desperate situations that seemingly have no solution: for eleven-year-old Ethan Allen, it’s hard to imagine darker things than what he goes through early on in this book. This is an author who knows how to increase tension and worry her readers half to death, but then she leads them to a better place: we come away understanding something more of ourselves and others. What I miss when I finish her books is her sympathetic eye, her ability to convey both horror and humor, and her wonderful gift for voices. She brings all this richness to her readers, never leaving their hearts empty....more
I know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight.I know I’m in the presence of fine writing if I find myself studying how the author achieved a passage’s clarity and rightness, its emotional weight. And I know I’m in the presence of a great story if I cry over it. I experienced both as I read Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr., a narrative of the lives of three former slaves, a Yankee woman and her adopted African-American sister at the end of the Civil War. A Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper columnist, Pitts unfolds dramatic scenes and dialogue that sounds just the right emotional notes: gravely formal, restrained, ironic. I found myself admiring equally the author’s use of period detail along with the kind of flesh-and-blood descriptions that make an historic novel live, make it breathe. A case in point: his handling of names that white masters arrogantly attached like clothespins to their slaves as opposed to using a man or woman’s actual name. It’s worth noting that Pitts doesn’t simply mention this and move on: he develops a touching scene so that I felt the dehumanizing impact of an evil system that turned even names into raw pain and degradation. Yet Pitts shows the subtleties and contradictions that existed, then as now, in our tangled lives: for example, the slave-master who, albeit briefly, appears to sense the humanity of his one-time slave through a common loss. As I followed the emotional and physical journey of his characters in the ravaged South, Pitts succeeded in making me feel the cruelties, the disappointments, confusion and painful loss that newly freed men and women bravely faced at the end of the war. The author’s prose is unadorned and taut, and it generates near unbearable tension as we travel into a world where freedom is filled with danger. And yes love and hope. I highly recommend Freeman most of all because it is a wonderful, moving story. ...more
The Twelfth Child’s lead character, Abigail Anne Lannigan, captured me from the book’s opening words and kept hold of me to the end. Some of the reasoThe Twelfth Child’s lead character, Abigail Anne Lannigan, captured me from the book’s opening words and kept hold of me to the end. Some of the reasons I like this book so much have to do with the story’s generous animating spirit and the care the author takes to show us the people and events that shape Abigail into the character I've come to know. The details that create a sense of person, time, and place, are carefully etched so that I felt like I was riding a horse on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley back in 1912, drinking champagne in a speakeasy during Prohibition, living in a modest home in Virginia and enjoying a snack from Dunkin Donuts. The author Bette Lee Crosby has done far more than give us a life and a heart to understand and care about: she’s created the wonderful music of a real voice, Abigail’s voice, and given us her thoughts, her delightful language as she thinks about people and situations. Then too in telling Abigail’s story, Crosby takes admirable risks, for instance in the matter of leaps in time from youth to old age as well as changes in point of view from first to third-person narration and back again. The fact is, though, it’s skillful, and it all works. When I finished the book, I realized Abigail has become a friend. I suspect Abigail won’t ever let me go, in fact, and this is a real joy to feel. To me this is the kind of magic only our very best authors can achieve. ...more