Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

This family puts the “hard” in hardscrabble — a mother dead from childbirth 8 years prior, a hard-drinking father who shambles about trying to take care of his family, and four children each following their own path to survival. 17-year-old Randall aims for the one basketball camp spot that may get him scout-spotted; 16-year-old Skeetah applies hyper focus to China, his prize pitbull, and her new litter, hoping for cash sales; Esch has sex with any boy who asks — it’s all she feels she has to offer; and 8-year-old Junior simply doesn’t want to be left behind. When Esch finds herself pregnant, she looks to China, Greek mythological figures such as Medea, and even the hurricane itself for insight into what it means to be a mother in her world.

Ward is the master of setting the scene — both external and internal — through small details. She manages to portray raw emotions through the tiniest gesture, or even absence of look or touch without ever resorting to over dramatization. It was a difficult book for me to read as I read casual violence, low expectations, poverty, and children being raised by circumstance rather than design — but speaking through Esch, she doesn’t focus on any of that. From Esch’s perspective, this is what life is, and she is optimistic about her survival, her family, and her community. Although Esch is as the center of the story as the first person narrator, the book is filled with wonderfully portrayed men — each focussed on their own story, some flawed, but most are good men trying to do right in the world in which they find themselves.

In truth I enjoyed Sing, Unburied Sing more — perhaps because I read it first, or perhaps because I read this equally powerful novel a little too soon afterwards. I found it disturbing to read and yet found that I couldn’t put it down. I read it within a 24 hour period.

The Orphan of Salt Winds by Elizabeth Brooks

Thanks to NetGalley and Tin House Books for an advance review copy. The Orphan of Salt Winds will be published on Jan. 16, 2019.

Writing: 4 Characters: 3.5 Plot: 3

A dark and moody historical drama set against English marshes on the eve of WWII. Virginia — a ten-year-old orphan — comes to live at Salt Winds as the adopted daughter of Clem and Lorna. Clem is the author of wildlife books and Lorna a somewhat reluctant housewife. Tension unfurls at a steady and insidious pace as Virginia works to makes sense of the strain between her adoptive parents and the perfidious and disagreeable neighbor Max Deering. When a German aviator crashes into the marsh, events unfold that lead to a terrible denouement. Alternating chapters take place in 2015 when Virginia, in her dotage and still haunted by past events, spies a young girl clinging to the marsh wall in the bitter winds.

The writing is very good and the tension palpable. The descriptive prose brings the marshes and the time to life. The pacing is a bit slow for my taste with not enough story to warrant the length, and I would have liked a more upbeat ending. One of the more interesting aspects of the book for me is the way Virginia’s (and therefore our) understanding of individual characters changes over time. For example, Clem is the sympathetic character at the start — he behaves like a father while Lorna doesn’t seem to know what to do with the role of mother that has been foisted upon her. However, over time Virginia begins to see, and understand, how circumstance shaped Lorna and how she finally pushes through a learned submissiveness to become the person she needed to be. It’s interesting to realize that we see everything through the eyes of a ten- to twelve-year-old, and later through the eyes of the (somewhat bitter) old woman she becomes.

Good for fans of Kate Morton.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for an early review copy  which will publish November 27, 2018

Writing:5 Characters: 4.5 Plot: 4

A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA. Abramović’s sits in silence in a large room furnished only with a table and two chairs. Without speaking, she gazes into the eyes of those who choose to sit across from her. From museum opening until closing, Marina does not speak, move, eat, drink, or go to the bathroom. Expecting only modest participation, by the end of the 75 days people are lining up the night before to get a chance at participating. By the end, over 1500 people had sat and over 500,000 had observed either in person or online.

The book delves into the internal experiences of those who participate — either by sitting or by observing. The reflections on art, life, and meaning that emerge from the beings brought together by this piece are incredible, with fresh insights on every page. Abramović says her pieces are “establishing an energy dialog” and that she is “only interested in art that can change the ideology of society.” Some fascinating background on Abramović’s personal history and other pieces are included — I was half way through the book before I realized that this was a real artist and a real piece. Heather Rose has not fictionalized any real people or events but has instead built a story around the deep and transformative impact the piece had on those who bore witness. In some cases we get whole storylines, in others simply passing comments. It was brilliantly done.

Some of the longer storylines follow Arky Levin — a composer of film scores whose beloved wife is sinking into what may be the last stages of a long-term, eventually fatal, genetic condition; Jane Miller, a 54-year old middle school art teacher from the South who is grieving her recently deceased husband; Brittika Van Der Sar, a pink-haired Asian adoptee from the Netherlands writing her PhD on Abramović; and Healayas Breen, a tall and gorgeous media personality.

It brought me to tears many times — not through drama but because of the nakedness of the human experience portrayed as the art “captures moments at the heart of life.”

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Writing: 5 Coverage: 5

An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence. Jefferson didn’t fit the traditional view of a “hero.” He was an intellectual with refined tastes and while he played a huge role in the establishment of the new country, he played a small, and often maligned, role in the revolutionary war itself.

His politics focused unwaveringly on liberty — he felt that a personal liberty would create a sense of free inquiry that would help usher in “the reign of reason” and pave the way to a “war-free world of open markets.” He applied this focus on liberty and free inquiry to everything — including religion. We have him to thank in large part for the separation of church and state that formed part of the country’s foundation. While he professed a deep belief in God, he stood firm against the establishment of religion. He hoped that “subjecting religious sensibilities to free inquiry would transform faith from a source of contention into a force for good.”

When he finally became president, he said he would spend his presidential years “pursuing steadily my object of proving that a people, easy in their circumstances as ours are, are capable of conducting themselves under a government founded not in the fears and follies of man, but on reason… This is the object now nearest to my heart.” In his first presidential address — fresh from electoral machinations and utter hatred between his party (the republicans) and the federalists — he brought people together by pointing out that they were experiencing a difference of opinions, not of principle. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear this message a little more often today?

I started the book with a negative view of Jefferson (gleaned from reading the Hamilton and Adams biographies) and left with a far more positive view. While Jefferson was obviously a consummate politician, I didn’t really see the hunger for power that Meacham claimed, although Jefferson was an excellent wielder of power. He was raised to be a leader — on a large plantation if not of the whole country. He clearly would have preferred a life at home, engaging in his curiosities, and spending time with the family that he cherished. In his last years, he was able to indulge in the life of the mind that he craved. He created a university that was to be based on “the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

It was hard to align this image of a man I grew to admire — one who fought for liberty, scientific enquiry, and religious tolerance, who believed in education for women, and who cared deeply for family and friends — with the man who kept slaves, and fathered children with his wife’s enslaved half-sister. Many have suggested that it was a different time with a different set of norms while others have pointed out that there was a strong abolitionist movement already and that a few of his local contemporaries had already freed their slaves. I liken it to meat eaters today — I can see a vegetarian future where the norm is horror at the thought of killing animals to eat their meat; but although we are exposed to that opinion today, the norm is still to eat meat, even if there is a part of us that thinks there is something “slightly unpleasant” about it. Regardless, I’m not willing to throw away the good that a person has done because they participated in a practice that I find abhorrent today.

Excellent book both for the fair coverage and the Pulitzer-worthy writing. Strongly recommended.

The Quiet Side of Passion by Alexander McCall Smith

Writing: 5 Characters: 4 Plot: 3

New words (to me):
• akrasia: the state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgment through weakness of will.
• tricoteuse: a woman who sits and knits (used especially in reference to a number of women who did this, during the French Revolution, while attending public executions).
• rumbustious: boisterous or unruly
• lactucian : the essence of lettucehood, from Latin lactuca (lettuce) — this is a word made up by our protagonist — but it is a good one!))

Another installment of the Edinburgh based Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel is the editor (and owner) of the Journal of Applied Ethics (as well as the wife and mother). Her life is “lived under a moral microscope” and we are treated to her inner philosophical musings as well as her external adventures.

These “adventures” come from noticing things that aren’t as they should be and getting involved in bringing them to rights. In this book, she meets another character with the same tendency who is able to put it into words: “I can’t stand not being able to do something about things that I think need to be sorted.” I identify with this in a big way!

I love McCall Smith’s writing — his use of language is impressive. I have read most of his 59 (!) books and I still have to use the dictionary for new words with each one. The Dalhousie books explore the moral landscape in which we all dwell but of which we are mostly unaware. As examples, in this book she thinks about loyalty and betrayal, the morality of human-robot relationships, and whether or not music has a moral flavor. The “action” in this installment concerns Isabel’s attempt to get some assistance in the form of an Italian au pair (for the children) and a Philosophy PhD student (for the journal). She also uncovers a potential untruth on the part of a fellow nursery school mum with rather large ramifications.

Thoroughly enjoyable BUT this is the first book of the series in which I found myself slightly irritated by Isabel’s allowing herself to be taken advantage of so easily out of “kindness” and making constant excuses for other people’s poor or selfish behavior. While it all works out in the end she really should know a little better by now!

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Writing: 4 Plot: 3 Characters: 5 World building: 5

The third book in Chambers’ Wayfarer series, this volume is the origin story for human introduction into the Galactic Commons. The Fleet is the set of 30 homestead ships that launched the human diaspora from poisoned Earth into the rest of the Galaxy. Many generations later humans have been accepted into the Galactic Commons and dwell planet side with many other (mostly technologically superior) alien species across a wide variety of locations — and yet the Fleet lives on as an active community with a strong culture of family, community, self-reliance (almost) and sharing.

Orbiting around a sun gifted to them by another species, the Fleet lives on and this book follows the storylines of five representative Fleet characters: Tessa, a young Fleet mother questioning her role in evolving Fleet culture; Eyas, a caretaker responsible for respectfully composting human remains and inserting them back into the ecosystem; Isabel, an archivist charged with maintaining all human knowledge and experience; Kip, a youngster lured into bad behavior who is seeking his place in the world; and lastly Sawyer, a planet dweller considering the Fleet as a potential home. Interspersed in the narrative are dispatches sent by Gluh’loloan, a somewhat slimy but very friendly, visiting Harmagian ethnographer who seeks to understand Fleet (and human origin) culture.

While still enjoyable, I found this installment a little weaker than the previous two. While the worlds and cultures and characters are thoroughly depicted and quite interesting, there really isn’t a compelling story line to bring it all together. I’m also a little disappointed at the disparity between the male and female characters — the females are the strong characters while the males are side characters, or hopelessly naive, young and immature. I’ve noticed this in previous Chambers’ books — it’s not a huge problem but I do prefer a little more gender equality!

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Characters: 4 Plot: 3 Writing: 3.5
Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an early review copy of Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg, which will publish November 13, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

A feel-good, women’s fiction book following further adventures of the folks in Mason, MO. Lucille Howard, the crotchety octogenarian supporting character from last year’s The Story of Arthur Truluv, is the star of this installment. She is being haunted by a fairly friendly Angel of Death while her neighbors Jason and Abby are being haunted by a terrible diagnosis and her new employee, Iris Winters, finally finds herself finally in a place that feels like home. An uplifting tale — some small town romance, great scenes between Lucille and some precocious and well described kids, and some fantastic descriptions of baking (both the physics behind and the tasting thereof). A thoroughly enjoyable read, however a little disappointing after The Story of Arthur Truluv ( which I found far more beautiful, insightful, and inspiring.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Writing: 5 Topic coverage: 5
Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Library Book by Susan Orleans, which will publish October 16, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Ostensibly the story of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees, this book is so much more. With captivating prose, Susan Orleans tells the broader story — many meticulously researched threads exploring the fire itself, the arson investigation, the mechanics of book restoration, the building architecture, and the history of the L.A. library and of libraries in general. Sprinkled throughout are biographical vignettes of the players: librarians and Library Directors, volunteers who came in droves to help with the book rescue, firefighters, arson investigators, security chiefs and the hapless man accused of setting the fire. Each chapter starts with the catalog records of three to four relevant books and proceeds to delve into one of the threads in a little more depth.

The story is a very personal one for the author as well — her love of books and libraries shines through brightly. One (short) chapter covered the emotional trials involved with her actually trying to burn a book in order to experience the physical process.

Some tidbits:

• In Senegal a polite way of saying someone has died is to say that his or her library has burned.
• The shipping department moving books between branches: “It is as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”
• “A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re alone.”
• A particularly impressive map collection — “it was one more piece of the bigger puzzle the library is always seeking to assemble — the looping, unending story of who we are”

Normally not a big non-fiction reader, I was absolutely unable to set it down and polished it off in a couple of days. Great for fans of Mary Roach.