Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 26, 2019.
Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 4.5

69-year old leading Cambridge economist Professor Chandra is a shoe-in for the Nobel prize in Economics — except that he doesn’t get it. Divorced, distant from his three children, and frustrated with the new tenor of academic life, this “non event” coupled with a silent heart attack sends him off on an unintended, Siddhartha-like quest for personal enlightenment (naturally starting with a sabbatical at UC Bella Vista in Southern California).

His journey takes him to unlikely places — both physical and emotional. He is tricked into attending a weekend workshop at Esalen; he visits his ex-wife and new, annoying husband in Boulder in order to see his troubled daughter Jasmine; he searches for a way to reach his middle daughter Radha — an angry Marxist who hasn’t spoken to her conservative father in over two years; and visits his son Sunil’s highly successful Hong Kong-based “School for Mindful Business” (based on principles completely antithetical to his own). He learns that he is human and not infallible and finds himself more OK with that than he would have expected.

Excellent and insightful writing — wry and witty with deliciously pithy and often hysterical articulations of his evolving viewpoints. Lots of interesting commentary about psychology, economics, spirituality, achievement and the personal search for meaning and happiness.  I appreciate that while he learns more about himself, his priorities, and his relationships, he does not relinquish his intellectual interests or accomplishments.

Some great lines:

Brief but scathing summary of the identity politics Radha adheres to:
“‘West’ … ‘bourgeois’ … ‘capitalist’ … these words would fly from her lips like tiny swastikas, her knuckles turning white, her jaw clenched, her eyes hard as Siberian pickaxes as she sentenced most of the world to the gulag for their crimes against ideology.”

“An Indian Miss Havisham with an Emeritus Professorship and a takeaway menu.”

“… but he couldn’t help believing meditation was best suited to those with less mind to be mindful of: sociologists, for example, or geologists”

“Humans were like those snowflakes against the window, buffeted by winds no one understood.”

“Chandra accepted the phone as if he’d been handed a small but quite genuine lump of plutonium.”

“They seem to come pre-offended, forsaking any analytical content in favor of emotion and outrage.”

“But the undergraduates were even worse than in Cambridge: arrogant, unhygenic, and brazen, convinced that lazy platitudes and fallacious arguments would earn them nothing but praise if delivered with sufficient conviction.”

“King’s was Chandra’s least favorite college. It was the intellectual equivalent of a Disney princess, fluttering its eyelashes at tourists who didn’t know any better.”

“It was what Chandra loathed most about liberals — their shameless self-righteousness, as if the species’ failings were always someone else’s fault, while anything they did, murder and arson included, were heroic acts in the service of liberty and justice.”

The Lost For Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5+

Welcome to the spiky interior world of Loveday Cardew. By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

Loveday has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” Not bad!

She works for Archie — the rich, eccentric, and larger than life (in more ways than one) bookstore owner who feels that “good relationships are more important than being able to see your feet.” Through the accidental recovery of a Liverpool Poet book, she meets Nathan — a cravat wearing poet who daylights as a magician. Nathan teaches her that you can “write a different story for yourself” — both in terms of the future and the impact you allow from the past.

The book is simultaneously a tender love story, a positive recovery tale, and a foray into the literary world. There is no catalog of horrors, but we do follow the trajectory of a woman who is establishing her own life in the wake of a tragic childhood event. I appreciate that this event is not painted in black and white — there is a realistic complexity to understanding how things happened the way they did and what she can do to become a fully realized human being. Here is a hint — performance poetry has an unexpected role to play!

A great comic style. As an example, when admitting that used book stores have to pulp the extras, Loveday says: “Five million copies of The Da Vinci Code were published in 2003. How many of them does the world still need fifteen years later? A lot less than five million.” (FYI, personally, I might suggest “a lot less than five” — not a huge fan).

Some of my favorite lines:

“She seemed the type who went through her days tutting like a pneumatic disapproval machine.”

“Nathan came over and the nearer he got the more I wanted to run, and cry, and touch him, and blurt, and hide, and kiss him and generally behave as though Barbara Cartland had just sneezed me out.” Love the comic ending on a sentence that was hurling into heavy-duty romance territory!

“It felt as though his words, rather than heading out into the air, were falling off the edge of his lower lip, drooping into my hair, and sliding down the side of my head and into my ear.”

Top recommendation!