They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine (Audio Book – Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Story: 4.5/5 Characters: 5/5

I love Schine’s books. She is better able to get into the head of wildly different people than almost anyone I can think of. This book is a story about aging and the multiple familial pressures and experiences that are inextricably linked to the process. Joy is the octagenarian matriarch of a New York Jewish family whose husband is ever more rapidly sinking into dementia. When he dies about half way through the book, her children are anxious to solve her loneliness and despair but she is equally anxious to mourn in the way she chooses and to maintain her own life, rather than be absorbed into one of theirs (or, God forbid, be stuffed into an assisted living facility).

I loved so much about this book which was brought to life magnificently by the narrator who has the NY Jewish grandma voice down cold. The ongoing reflection about her own aging; her deep mourning for her far-less-than-perfect husband who she had nevertheless loved completely; her equally deep love for her children coupled with an outrageously growing irritation at their increasing need to boss her around and intrude on her own life plans; the search for belonging when a long term spouse dies — it’s all there and wrapped beautifully in the every day experiences of herself, her children, and her grandchildren. Joy has a wicked sense of humor, a realistic handle on what is happening, and an old flame perking up the picture, so this is by no means a depressing book. Just completely insightful. While the other characters — her two children, her daughter’s wife, all three grandchildren — were fleshed out fully, it was clearly Joy that I resonated with (despite her annoying lack of organizational skills and the fact that I am almost 30 years younger!)

I listened to this on audio so I don’t have captured quotes, but here are some of the concepts I just loved reading about: Joy thinks of her own mother and how she (Joy) could not understand her (the mother) the way she had needed to be understood when she (the mother) was aging. Joy begins to feel there is another person in the apartment and it was she. She had to constantly watch “it” to make sure it took its pills and didn’t fall etc. She doesn’t want to be a burden, but if she is one, she wishes others could carry her with more grace.

One more note — the title comes from the Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse.” It’s quite apt.

August Blue by Deborah Levy (Literary Fiction – Audio Book)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A beautiful book about self-discovery, identity (in the classic sense), and a search for “home” amidst the angst and displacement of Covid. The music and musical themes that lay at the absolute center of the story had wonderful depth and were enlightening, inspiring, and real. I listened to this as an audio book. It was narrated by Alix Dunmore who was so good that I’m seeking out her other narrations because she put a voice to the prose so very well.

Elsa M. Anderson — a former child prodigy — was at the height of her career as a pianist when she walked off the stage in Vienna in the middle of a performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Now there is a pandemic on, her teacher (who adopted her at age six) is dying far away in Sardinia, and Elsa is roaming Europe, teaching a few lessons, playing very little, and allowing herself to go wherever currents take her. She sees a woman in Athens who she feels is her double, and sees her repeatedly throughout the story, serving as a kind of foil that both drives Elsa and causes her to reflect.

The writing is beautiful — poetic, but not to the point of losing content. I would have many quotes if I weren’t listening to it without an opportunity to write them down. I loved the other characters and the interactions that allowed Elsa to learn more about herself with every engagement. I loved the role of music and how it informed the very way she thought. I loved the way she taught music sensitivity to a young and brilliant student with an overbearing parent. I love the interplay between music, life, and emotions that comprises the mind of a true musician. I loved the fact that the ending didn’t really tell you what would happen in the future, but I was left with a sense of where she was going simply from “living her life” with her. In case you can’t tell, I loved this book!

Lastly, while I don’t have an exact quote, I very much liked Elsa’s answer when her friend mocked her (Elsa’s) interest in Isadora Duncan, who he said was “ridiculous.” Elsa retorted that she (Isadora) had to be ridiculous because she was making something new. That made me think.

Thank you to Macmillan Audio and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 6th, 2023

Orchid Child by Victoria Costello (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 3/5 plot: 4.5/5 characters 3.5/5

Kate is a neuroscientist, on her way to a new position in Ballymore, Ireland having been fired from her prestigious New York City based position after an ill-advised affair with her married boss. Ballymore has an historically high rate of schizophrenia, and she has been hired to work on a new followup study on the descendants of the original 1970 work. She brings along her newly adopted nephew, Teague, who is suffering from schizophrenic symptoms and whose therapeutic care is part of the new job package.

What ensues is a tangled, multi generational story (the narrative follows two timelines — Kate’s story in 2002 and the history of her family from 1920 through 1974). Between the two, we are exposed to Irish folklore, long term feuds based in the Irish “Troubles,” druids, and (most interesting to me) multiple approaches to treating and supporting schizophrenics. These approaches include support from therapists following real (I checked) research results, recommendations from “Mad Pride” activists who avoid medical intervention for mental illness, and the consideration that those who claim to hear the voices of their dead ancestors, really can.

There were enough interesting (and new to me) concepts to keep me reading to the end — I really wanted to know what happened. I thought the writing could use some editing — it was messy with a lot of rambling details and I found the dialog a bit stilted. I liked some of the characters more than others and definitely found the different attitudes towards schizophrenia fascinating. I didn’t personally like the main character, although I know I’m supposed to! Of course, I’ve never walked in her shoes (and the author’s bio suggests that she has), so I can’t really judge. My favorite part was reading about treatment modalities based on new (around the 2002 timeframe) research in neuro-epigenetics and the Orchid Child hypothesis (google it). The focus was primarily on the help people need and mostly avoided any discussion of the very real danger some mentally ill people could be to others when not adequately supervised / managed — I always wish reports and stories could be more balanced in this regard.

Some quotes, which reflect more of the plot than the writing style:

“In the parlance of researchers, they were the orchids, prone to dysfunction. When faced with the stressful choice of which lever to push to get their next drink of syrupy water, orchids sat and trembled with indecision. Their luckier peers, her control group, born with a longer form of the same gene, were hardy like dandelions — a group with which she wholly identified.”

“The Celts called it second sight. In our profession, we throw it all under the label of psychosis. Or we assigned patients different positions on a spectrum of abnormality.”

“You all suffer from the same wound, which festers as each generation fails to face it head on.”

“Let’s say you re-enter your body with the intention of telling the story of what happened to you today in whatever medium you choose. You can be sure that one of your ancestors is seeing and feeling that story in his on time as a powerful premonition.”

Thank you to Between the Lines Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be publlished on June 13th, 2023

Dreams of Arcadia by Brian Porter (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/4 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4/4

A gentle book about an East Texas veterinarian who leaves Houston (and the end of a disappointing marriage) for the rural lands of his father’s youth. The main character is very human and very relatable — he is supported by a whole array of well depicted and quite real people from the individuals in the small town to his many relatives, most of whom he hasn’t seen in years (or has never actually met). There is quite a bit of description of the landscape, the real (and brand new to me) day to day big (and small) animal vet cases and procedures, and his own internal thought processes. As he works to solve the little (but critical) every day mysteries that populate his profession and interpersonal engagements, he is able to find a place for himself that feels (finally) like home. I particularly liked the solution to the issue of one family’s ailing cows when no diagnostic test could turn up any problems. I won’t give it away here!

Thank you to Legacy Book Press LLC and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 27th, 2023

Harold by Steven Wright (Literary Fiction?)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters : 2/5
A deeply interior book with constantly catchy and cerebral writing. The narrative purports to be the thoughts of an obviously gifted and unusual seven-year old boy, primarily while he is sitting in a classroom absolutely not paying attention to the woman in charge. Harold has “tangent festivals in his head” — what a great way to put it! While I’ve read other interior novels, they often seem to focus on neuroses and over thinking, while this one is focussed purely on imagination.

I very much enjoyed the writing and the constant stream of bizarre and connected thoughts — my own brain works that way and it was fun experiencing someone else’s stream. Every thought in Harold’s head presents itself as a well-depicted bird flying through a rectangle in his head. I liked the imagery. However, to be honest, I did get a little bored with the book about half way through — the novelty wore off and I began to notice that Harold’s thoughts were more bitter, superior, and snide than comical (yes, I realize that that is the very definition of comedy for some people, but not me). I also started realizing that there was a fair amount of misogyny — his thoughts on his mother, the young, pretty girl he is obsessed with (Elizabeth), and his teacher are all pretty negative in stereotypical ways. For example, on Elizabeth: “Said the pretty very very smart, blonde girl who years later would send several men to their emotional deaths.”

A couple of good quotes:
“Harold loved living in the circus in his head. He saw his mind as a soup made up of a mixture of what was on the inside of his head and what was on the outside of his head. He considered himself a brain chef.”

“Harold thought that an echo was audio plagiarism.”

Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 16th, 2023

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Another book by Pip Williams — author of The Dictionary of Lost Words — about an element of The Oxford University Press (aka Clarendon Press) during the early 1900s. While Dictionary focused on those working to compile the OED, Bookbinder focuses on those working in the physical production of the books.

The eponymous bookbinder is Peggy Jones — a young woman who is working in the “Bindery” — the all-female component of the Press, which focussed on folding and preparing the pages of books. There is an absolutely fascinating 1925 silent video titled “Oxford University Press and the Making of a Book” which really helped me visualize Peggy’s work.

Peggy has been working at the Press with her neurodivergent (my term, not the way it is described in the book) twin sister since the age of 12 (they are now ~22). She has always wanted more — she longs for an education, longs to read and have opinions on the books she is folding — but feels that is impossible for someone of her background. She reads bits as she folds (watch the video — you’ll see how difficult that is), and the canal boat they live in is literally papered with scraps of books that did not meet quality requirements, but certainly meet hers.

The time period covered spans WWI — from 1914 to 1918 — with Peggy’s quest for “more” tied in with opportunities at the Press, the fight for women’s suffrage, and her volunteering with recuperating soldiers and Belgian refugees — all arisising from the upheaval of everyday life. Williams did an excellent job of bringing this time period to life, I was able to feel all the complex emotions of that insane time in a manner that felt very time appropriate.

I found the beginning a little muddy and confusing, but once I got into it, I very much enjoyed the story — particularly the vibrant and believable characters: the twin sister, some of the refugees, the canal community, and various suffragists, librarians, and female students. Every one was drawn deeply and was a person I would want to know. I also loved the details of how the Press was run, women’s colleges (which at the time were not allowed to confer degrees), access to libraries, and classical study. And of course, the ultimately successful effort of a woman from the “wrong side of the tracks” to attain an education and make more of herself.

Two interesting quotes:
“When we bound these books, I thought, they were identical. But I realised they couldn’t stay that way. As soon as someone cracks the spine, a book develops a character all its own. What impresses or concerns one reader is never the same as what impresses or concerns all others. So, each book, once read, will fall open at a different place.”

“The words used to describe us define our value to society and determine our capacity to contribute. They also … tell others how to feel about us, how to judge us.”

Thank you to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 1st, 2023

About People by Juli Zeh (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5

Dora — a 36-year old advertising creative — thinks a lot. It doesn’t necessarily make her happy, but the stubborn core inside her makes her bristle at any hint of absolute truth, absolute authority, or socially enforced groupthink. Her long-term boyfriend, Robert, has become obsessed with climate change, steadily ramping up his insistence on (her) behavior modification to meet his right-thinking absolutes. When Covid hits, he retargets his laser focus on lockdown adherence and becomes unbearable in close quarters. Dora escapes to a dilapidated house in a small village for a breath of fresh air and finds herself in an AfD (right-wing German populist party) hotbed with the self-proclaimed Village Nazi as a neighbor. Thus begins an unasked for opportunity for a deeply introspective and stubbornly think-for-yourselfer to contemplate existence, humanity, and the nature of moral certitude while the world goes nuts around her.

Had I known anything about the author when I picked this book up, I wouldn’t have been as surprised as I was by how good it was — Zeh is an award winning German author and former judge. I realize that I haven’t kept up with European authors at all in the last decades. The writing / translation is excellent. Through a widely variable set of characters — her rigid climate activist boyfriend, the neo-Nazi next door, her highly confident (veering on the arrogant) neurosurgeon father, advertising colleagues, and a slew of village denizens — Zeh is able to cover a wide range of viewpoints on both specific hot topics (e.g. climate change, covid) as well as general socio-political attitudes towards life.

I loved this mildly satirical look at the way we humans cope with life — “mildly” satirical because it didn’t feel unkind to me. We all have our weaknesses, biases, rationalizations, and expectations and figuring out how to accept that ourselves and others seem like one of the more important problems to tackle. I appreciated Dora’s stubborn insistence on doing her own thinking and doing a lot of it. I loved the way explanation and depth was present in every argument, regardless of the character spouting it. It helped me to (surprisingly) be able to empathize with all of the characters, not just the ones I liked.

There were a lot of great quotes — here are a few:

“She follows the rules and regulations. But her thoughts remain free. Nobody can force her to view the beer drinkers outside the Spatis as treasonous public enemies.”

“What happened to the old certainty that there are no absolute certainties, which is why everything needs to be doubted, debated, and thought about? Dora couldn’t understand how Robert could feel so completely certain his lifestyle was so superior. She just didn’t follow.“

“The era of endless self-pity and constant complaining, JoJo will say. When everyone is always offended, afraid, and feels like they’re in the right. What a combination.”

“Take away the possibility of escape, and every refuge turns into a prison.“

“That sense of superiority is a long-acting poison that devours all humanity from the inside. “

“Then life prescribed her a neighbor. A nazi behind a wall. He was ugly and he stank. If he had been a product, he would’ve gotten only one star in the customer reviews on Amazon.”

“She’s often wondered what, exactly, lies behind this racism-triggered stiffness. Maybe a quandary. A series of impossible either-or decisions: Be a moralizer, or be a coward. Follow your convictions, or society’s expectations — or go for a third option and follow your aversion to conflict.”

“Everyone’s busy being interesting and important. And successful, of course, in both their professional and their personal lives. It’s a rat race of conformists outcompeting one another to come across as something special, someone different.”

“Of course there’s no law stating that neo-Nazis can’t appreciate hydrangeas. But it’s a jarring notion nevertheless. It poses a threat to the life-affirming yet mistaken idea that good and evil can easily be distinguished from one another.”

Thank you to World Editions and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 3rd, 2023

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5
As with all of Schine’s writing, this is (at least) a two for one story. It is the story of identical, red-haired twins who — across their lifetimes — are simultaneously striving to bind tighter around each other and struggling to separate. Both fascinated by words and grammar, they take residence in diametrically opposed viewpoints on the nature and purpose of language. Daphne is writing a popular grammar column called “The People’s Pedant” , while Laurel cobbles together stories from phrases sampled out of old letters. As a child, Daphne collects words she likes, even if she has no idea what they mean, while Laurel looks them up and can’t understand the pleasure of a word without meaning. Daphne wants language to be correct, Laurel wants language to grow and be what people actually speak opining that “standard English is really just the dialect of the elite.”

We watch the two diverge in a kind of novelistic time lapse photography accompanied by constant wordplay (which I loved). As the twins grow older, we watch them dive into their love of language and watch their brains shifting with their observations. They love finding obsolete meanings in dictionary listings because “Obsolete meanings were treasures of infinite value and no use.”

Each chapter begins with a word and definition from Johnson’s dictionary circa a very long time ago. These are both fun and historically enlightening as you get a real sense of how language continually evolves. Some examples: Conversableness (the quality of being a pleasing companion; fluency of talk); Scrine (a place in which writings or curiosities are reposited); Collectitious (gathered up); Oberration (the act of wandering about); Genial (that which contributes to propagation); Citess (a city woman).

Everything is quotable. Schine has the best grasp (and obvious love for) language. I learned so many new words: fugacious (fleeting), diplopia (double vision), privity (private communication, joint knowledge), and my favorite — edacious (eating; voracious; devouring; predatory; ravenous; rapacious; greedy). And while we are enjoying the deep dive into all aspects of the beauty of language, we do so in the context of prose that is intricate in the nature of depicting full personalities in all their complexities and seeming incongruities. It’s simply wonderful to read.

“In an aquarium-like glassed-in enclosure, a tall woman and a short man shook their fists at each other, silent behind the glass, like exotic fighting fish.”

“There is something fair and just in what we do. Grammar is good. I mean ethically good. If you think of all these words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”

“Grammar makes you respect words, every individual word. You make sure it’s in the place where it feels the most comfortable and does its job best.”

“It was so draining, worrying about finding love, as if it were an upcoming exam.”

“Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.”

“But Michael suspected Larry was as smart as anyone, just not paying attention. Like a Galapagos tortoise, he had no need to pay attention. He had no predators. He was protected by an expansive carapace of good nature, money, and family status.”

“The little girl with the hair that surely harbors a large bird of prey gave her an astonished look. It was not a look of astonished liberation, as Laurel momentarily hoped. It was a look of astonished pity.”

“They played with the words, as if they were toys, mental toys, lining them up, changing their order, and involving them in intrigues of love and friendship and bitter enmity.”

“Arthur had never understood how someone so humorless could claim to uncover the secrets of another person’s soul.”

“What is a soul if not a repository of the absurd? Expectations, disappointments, grievances, good wishes.”

“And Brian smiled and thought families were not so bad. They were like these pigeons, cooing and puffing up and scrapping for crumbs. Like every other kind of creature.“

Kunstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine (Literary Fiction / Audio book)

Twenty-something Julian Kunstler — somewhat ineffective in his attempt at adulting — is sent to care for his ninety-something grandmother Mamie and her elderly dogsbody of unknown origin, Agatha, during Covid. Venice, California is a lovely place to wait out a pandemic — almost too lovely as Julian feels guilt at his own safety while others dwell in fear and panic. They pass the time with Mamie’s stories — of her own times of isolation, fear, and survivor guilt as an 11-year old Jewish emigre from Vienna who lucked into safety through the intense efforts of Hollywood’s artistic community to extract as many Jews as possible from Germany in 1939.
This was truly a wonderful book — full of stories suffused with reality and a painstakingly reconstructed sense of time and place. We hear the stories as well as the inner thoughts / reactions of both of them, giving an evolving insight into two distinct characters with wildly different contexts taking in the same information. Spectacularly presented.
With these stories, Schine manages to evoke not just the physical space of Venice Beach / Hollywood in the 40s, but the mental and cultural space as well. Music, language, philosophy, meaning, existence, and the nature of memory pervade conversations and thoughts. Music in particular suffused everything — Mamie came from the most cultured of Viennese Jews, her father a composer and mother a writer. She supported herself as a violinist, and I loved the way she took up violin as a youngster because she found the piano an oppressive instrument — as it missed all the notes in between while the violin could get them all. Many Hollywood stars of that era (mostly emigres like Mamie) feature in the stories: Greta Garbo, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and others. Her discussions with Schoenberg are priceless — they discuss the “emancipation of the dissonance.” (I can’t stand dissonance in my music but I sure enjoyed reading about the Schoenberg’s thoughts on the subject!). There are parallels between Mamie and Julian — the guilt of being safe while their friends and family are decidedly not, the isolation, the feeling that the world they know is collapsing — and Mamie wants to help Julian make spiritual and ethical progress in his life. To understand the need for joy and to be able to live fully.
Listening to the audio book while walking I had to stop every five minutes to write something down — I was so afraid of losing it (unfortunately, I have a crap memory). I felt like every page had a life lesson available to anyone who wanted to catch it. I would have had a lot of quotes, but could not capture them in time with the audio format. I did manage to remember one: “ Ones trauma becomes banal when it is trotted out too many times.”
Hard to believe I hadn’t heard of Catherine Schine before this. I read so much that I am literally shocked to find such an excellent writer with plenty of previous work that I don’t know. I listened to this on audio and loved it. The reader did an excellent job of portraying the voices — I sometimes found the “elderly” voice she used for Mamie to be a bit difficult to hear but I adapted.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

I love Ann Patchett’s books. The reflective, perfectly paced books focus on life and the intricate intersections between characters that give life its shape. This story follows Lara along a dual timeline. In the present, she is the mother of three grown daughters, each pursuing different interests — one will take over the orchard Lara and her husband run in Northern Michigan; one will be a vet; and one longs to be an actress. The narrative takes a jump backwards as she tells her daughters the story of her pre-orchard life. Some parts are stories well loved and often told, others have not been told before, and a few are only whispered in her own mind (and — obviously — to us).

This previous life features Lara the actress — once on the fast track to fame and glory. The threads come together beautifully, as always — Patchett is a master of her craft. The stories don’t really go the way you would imagine because life never does. No twisty surprises, just different paths taken, each a result of experiences and self insight. I was completely drawn in from page one and never felt like stopping. Would happily befriend her whole family.

Thank you to Harper and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 8th, 2023