Category Archives: Book Review

Still Learning!

It is interesting how a visitor can come to your hometown and bring such new information!  It may not be unusual because the tourist has hit the books and knows exactly what he or she is  looking for; whereas, the locals trudge right pass unknown treasures everyday.

To that point, a friend and I stopped to ask several locals for the MLK Memorial in Atlanta and we were shocked when several hunched their shoulders as if to say, “I dunno.”  After a while, it became both comical and mostly tragic and we found the humor in it rather than burst into tears.  That was in the late 70’s.

But, I digress.  This is about Brian Doyle’s book Chicago which I recently finished and relished. A lot of places were familiar but I had to admit that he gave me several lessons though this has been a home base for many moons.  Doyle came here for five seasons right after graduating from Notre Dame.  He wrote for a magazine and it was his task to find stories about everyday people.

Yes, I will ashamedly admit that Mr. Doyle had to tell me that Lincoln Park, which I have visited trillions of times was named for Abraham Lincoln. Maybe I knew it some point. I knew that the streets in the Loop are named for the US Presidents, but I guess the fact that the parks were named for them escaped me.

And that mighty Grant Park is named for Ulysses S. Grant and our beloved Jackson Park for Andrew Jackson.  I think I recently recall that Washington Park was named for George Washington because of the recent statue controversy.

In some aspects, I am just as guilty as those people were in Atlanta on that sunny day. In our busy, rapid lives, we rush right by these monuments as we hurry to catch a bus or wave down a taxi. We miss so much!

This book, Chicago, took me up and down so many traveled roads He added the love and cohesion of community, the importance of the generosity of spirit and the role of writers who help keep it real when people get lost in the shuffle. Doyle reminded us of the beauty of storytelling and how those stories keep us going as we remember past events.

And lastly, Brian Doyle talked about the name of Chicago which came from the Potawatomi  Native Americans.  Chicagouate or chicagoua was a form of garlic/onion which grew in abundance to where they say the river poured into the lake.  Further research revealed the Native Americans only traded with their kin.  Thus, Jean Point Baptist Dusable married a Potawatomi woman and was then able to participant in trading.  It has been written that she was ‘crucial to his success.’

Chicago recently renamed Lake Shore Drive to Jean Baptiste Point Dusable Lake Shore Drive. Yes, it is a mouth full, but it seeks to get the historical facts somewhat straight. What we do know is the trade industry gained traction from the point where the Chicago River empties into Lake Michigan. And the rest, as they say, is history.  Many thanks to Mr. Doyle who left us too soon, but whose words and good works shall remain.

Lynn M.
October 23, 2021

Rendered Speechless!

This is a spoiler alert! When I recently finished Louise Erdrich’s book The Night Watchman, I was rendered speechless by one of the subplots, not the main plot, of this engaging novel. One of the focal characters, Patrice (Pixie) is the breadwinner for her indigenous Chippewa family. 

She is the only one in the family who has a job, and she works at a jewel factory performing very delicate operations. Her father is broken from the many onslaughts of reservation life, and he has become an abusive alcoholic who is often gone away from the family. No one looks forward to his infrequent returns, especially their mother because of what they all must endure when he is at home.

Her older sister, Vera, has moved away to the Big City but is now considered to be missing and the family is deeply concerned about her. Pixie puts her job on the line as she borrows days from her co-workers to venture into the Big City to look for her sister. She is tricked at the train station and ends up in a would-be perilous situation herself. She temporarily works at a bar swimming in a fish-like tank with dyed water for the customers’ entertainment. 

One of their friends, a boxer named Wood Mountain, senses that she could be in danger, and he goes to the city to make sure that she is okay. No one will tell them where Vera is at that time, but they do end up bringing back Vera’s infant son after Pixie makes her get-away from  the bar.

The family embraces the baby and all cuddle and nurture him as Pixie returns to her regular job. She eventually begins to fall in love with Wood Mountain and finally gives into him as her first lover. Overtime, Vera surfaces and she has been detained against her will and trafficked on a ship. When she is used and nearly dead, they discard her on the side of a road in Duluth and fortunately a medic finds and helps her. 

Vera makes it back home, but she is damaged both physically and spiritually. They are happy to see her and she falls back into the embraces of the family. By, then, Wood Mountain is extremely attached to the child and often frequents the family home. And then, it happens. 

Pixie returns home from work one day and notices the rhythm between Vera and Wood Mountain as tries to say he loves them both. But Pixie, says, “No. It is not going to happen like that!”  Instead, she agrees to help fix up a small house on the property for Vera, Wood Mountain, and the baby Thomas Achilles.  

 I see Pixie going on to greater heights like on to college or choosing some new path for herself.  She has the strength of character to do so, but this part rendered me speechless. How much can one give? And how much can one accept from another’s labors? It reminded me of the movie The Valley of the Dolls, when Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) walked away with a wrangled, wildly beating heart but definitely moving on! 

Lynn M. 
July 28, 2021 

The (Other) You: A Book Review

Joyce Carol Oates’ latest collection of short stories, The (Other) You is filled with ruminations about life’s journey. She ponders what life would be like if we had chosen other paths or made different choices. In fifteen short stories, she makes us think about our mortality as we look back over our years of living.

She has written stories that cause us to think deeply about the what-if’s as she takes us through snippets of her own journey as a literary writer. As she quibbles with a beloved spouse whose health is declining during a disappointing trip abroad, she has us thinking about the depth of enduring relationships. Yet, we are rudely awakened as we see that nothing lasts forever and she also notes how close friends and co-workers are aging and facing health challenges.

She visits her childhood home after many years and sees and hears about what happened to some her former classmates. Though she holds onto precious memories, the present conditions there do not mirror her past recollections. There are only fractures of what she experienced strewn here and there, once again reminding her that life is ever-moving and nothing stays the same.

In one story, a character wonders why her loved ones cannot see her, only to realize that she is no longer alive and they are mourning her accidental demise. Or, in other instances she experiments with speaking from several characters’ points of view though they are all involved in the same scenario.

Oates takes many risks, as she writes in a variety of genres and a couple of her stories even border on horror. She makes the valid point that we unconsciously dismiss the importance of others due to our own stereotypical beliefs. She labeled her writing best when she called it speculative fiction. She certainly makes us appreciate the gifts of our current paths which shaped us into who we are today because other choices would have molded us into becoming someone else!

Lynn M.

April 10, 2021

Cane by Jean Toomer

I first read Cane by Jean Toomer in college many years ago and I chose to revisit it after its title came up in a conversation.  Maya Angelou wrote:  “A breakthrough in prose and poetical writing …. This book should be on all readersand writers’ desks and in their minds.”   Those are her profound words about this collection of prose, poems, and brief vignettes

I am still enjoying Toomer’s book but I paused to write these words about Cane.  “This work is very lyrical.  It should be sung or at least read aloud as the spoken word to fully capture the rhythm and rapture of these moving stories and tales.”

He tells stories of people that he has either observed or met.  He truly sees them and hears their hearts whether their stories end happily or unhappily. There is an underlying beat like the hooves of feet on pavement as his characters flow through their lives.

This is such a re-gift for me during this summer’s readings because it has even greater meaning.  The words are like vintage wine that have increased in value over time.  I have matured and I can better see the depth of this writer’s craft. He was able to truly replicate life on a printed canvas.

I strongly agree with Dr. Maya and I think every writer should have a copy of Cane on the desk and in the personal library.  Jean Toomer, a writer from the Harlem Renaissance Era, has successfully put stories in multiple forms as he pours his words in a bottle to be kept as an eternal capsule in time!

Lynn M.

July 18, 2020

Candide in 2020!

The other day, I was surprised to see that Candide by Voltaire was trending in 2020 on Twitter.  It was written in 1759 and I read it many years ago, but I chose to revisit it to see why it is currently quite the rave.  I finished it in a couple of days and took copious notes to make sure that I did not miss a beat. 

Candide is a young man who is put out of his dwelling after he is caught exchanging kisses behind a screen with Cunégonde, the master’s daughter.   He is turned out and his mentor-philosopher Pangloss travels with him as they embark upon many adventures.  Though he cannot understand why these things are happening to him, Pangloss constantly assures him that, “All is for best.”

They travel far and wide and Pangloss also tells him that “All effects have a cause.”  He sees so many horrors along the way and hears that Cunégonde and her family have been slaughtered.  As he carries on, he discovers that she did indeed survive, and his entire goal is to be reunited with his beloved.

Everywhere Candide goes, he witnesses the cruelty that men inflict upon each another.  He is baffled when he sees that some of them pray regularly while still being mean and insensitive to his fellow man.  He talks to those who have been tortured, lost body parts, enslaved and brought low by life’s circumstances.

He continually looks for the silver lining as he listens to others’ stories.  He even meets former kings, princes and sultans who have lost their positions and fortunes.  He is shocked by one prominent man who has everything but finds no pleasure in anything nor anyone.

Candide travels from France through Europe and even makes it to South America where he finally finds Cunégonde alive and still beautiful; but before they can reunite, he has to run from the authorities for a murder he had committed along the way.  They are separated again and he vows to make it back to her though she is being hotly pursued by a wealthy Argentinian.

Finally, things begin to come full circle and Candide is reunited with other loved ones that he thought had perished.  Miracles continue to happen and he again finds his beloved Cunégonde, who is no longer beautiful. Woe! 

Yet, life has altered him and his viewpoints and he has learned that, “All is for best.”  He has seen through his winding journey that the greatest evils are, “Weariness, vice and want.”  He knows that he should not sit idly by, but stay busy. He moves on as he and his new wife cultivate their own garden together!

Lynn M.

July 11, 2020

The Fisher King: A Poetic Review

Oh! Ménage a’ trois,
In Gay Paree’.

A child’s prying eyes,
Combustion – but sees.

Ran away to be free.
Came back and left wanton baby.

Real family later shows up,
Stakes a claim on the pedigree.

Truths roll out about one who takes care,
Of Sonny’s grandson. She’s left with a stare.

No weapon to fight with; no plan in sight. 
After that curtain tear, no escape in the night.

Sitting still in speechless shame.
Hattie won’t have a stake on Little Sonny’s name!

Fisher King 2

Lynn M.                                                                August 31, 2019

Catching Fireflies: A Book Review

Catching Fireflies book coverTony Rocca and his wife Mira left their London jobs and moved to Tuscany, Italy. He was a journalist and she was a travel agent, but they agreed to leave city life behind, and venture into the quaint countryside of Italy. They purchased an old farm that was in sore need of repair and love with the intent of turning it into a small hotel.

 Sounds easy enough right? Well, not really. The red tape, bureaucracy and mistrust of foreigners combined to make them think that they had made a huge mistake. They lived at another location while the repairs were being made and their landlady proved to be a thorn in their sides for many years to come. They moved into their hotel but whenever they felt that there had been some level of sabotage, they would look at each other and call the jealous woman’s name and say, “Mafalda.”

 However, they stayed the course and after going through a host of workers, they finally got the hotel up and running. There are colorful photographs in the book to show how their beloved Collelungo looked before and after its repairs. They also worked the vineyards on their property and became grape growers and sellers of fine wine. What they accomplished is just short of miraculous!

 Tony Rocca is a very descriptive writer who uses beautiful metaphors, similes and analogies as he makes his readers see and feel the Italian landscape. As I sit here listening to the late summer cicadas sing, I remember Tony writing about the sounds of the cicadas and the light from the illusive fireflies. The Italian children sang:

Firefly, firefly come to me,
I will give you the bread of the king.
The bread of the king and of the queen-
Firefly, firefly come to me.

 Interestingly, our area has an unusual amount of both cicadas and fireflies this summer. One of our local weathermen talked about watching the fireflies light up his backyard the other night and he said that we have more this year because of the rainy spring.

We used to watch the neighborhood boys catch them when I was a child. They put them in Mason jars that had holes punched in the lids so the bugs could breathe. We called them lightening bugs and it was amazing to see how they could they could turn on their lights at will.

Yet, quite like the intriguing yet short-lived fireflies, all good things must come to an end. The bureaucracy and red tape eventually caught up with the Roccas and a long-standing court case brought their Italian years to an end. They had to move on from the Collelungo, but the fond memories are forever etched in the psyches of Tony, Mira and all those that they met and touched during their twelve-year stay!

Lynn M.                     August 3, 2019

 

Britt-Marie Was Here: A Book Review

Britt-Marie

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman features a 63-year old woman named Britt-Marie who is determined to find a job after leaving her husband, Kent.  She helped him raise his two children from a former marriage and has never held down a job.

She doesn’t know her own value nor strength because he often criticized her and told her she had no sense of humor.  She leaves after he continually cheats on her and comes home smelling like pizza and strange perfume.

Britt-Marie goes to the unemployment office and the lady working there lets her know that she has nothing for her.  But Britt-Marie, who appears to be sporadic in her thinking, goes back everyday and almost begins to harass the woman. She even cooks for her and plants herself into the office worker’s everyday life.  She often calls the woman on her cell phone and the confused and exasperated woman from the unemployment office finally tells her that she has found one job.

It is as a caretaker for a recreation center in a town called Borg about 25 miles away. Britt-Marie packs up her car and heads to Borg and thus the story unfolds.  The author uses an interesting technique of making the reader wonder if Britt-Marie is mentally sound.  Perhaps this is Blackman’s way of sharing how broken she was from living with a domineering husband and being raised in the shadows of her preferred, now deceased sister.

However, Britt-Marie forges ahead and silently has a persistence and resolve that shock those around her.  She finds the recreation center after meeting the woman who ran the pizza shop which was also the main eatery, the post office and the car repair shop.  Borg had fallen on hard times after the trucking company left town.  It was where the men worked and most of the women work at the town hospital.

Borg has become a city of broken dreams and hopelessness. There are For Sale signs in almost every lawn. But Britt-Marie has a cleaning fetish and she keeps her baking soda and special cleanser called Faxin, on hand.  It provides her the therapy that she needs as she dives in and cleans the dirty and long forgotten Rec Center.  As she is going in the center one day, she is knocked unconscious by a soccer ball.

When she regained consciousness, there are children standing around her and this is how Vega, Omar and host of others make their way into her life.  Overtime, she cleans their jerseys, reignites their hearts and eventually becomes their soccer coach.  The town is inspired, and they too attend the games and the For-Sale signs start coming down

Britt-Marie also uses her cleaning frenzies to clean the dirty pizza shop.  She sets things in order in a variety of ways and even reawakens the town’s enthusiasm and interest in soccer. Subtly, her thinking processes seem to iron out and her confidence begins to climb like the mercury on a thermometer.

Many s take notice of her and she makes friends with the woman in the pizza shop who is called Somebody along with a few others.  This is the first time that she’s ever really had friends.  The local policeman, Sven takes a special liking to her. They start having coffee together and she trusts him to drive her around after her car is damaged.

And then, as she is recovering and growing, her husband Kent shows up.  He convinces her to come back home and promises her that the affair is over.  He comes to Borg and is first quite arrogant but backs down and appears to be somewhat reformed. She keeps putting him off until she can tie up some loose ends.

Kent uses his business acumen and helps her go to the city council and get a soccer pitch for the kids’ soccer team.

The book closes with Britt-Marie walking and thinking.  She had knocked on Sven’s door though he was not there.  He had asked her to do so many times in the past.  Kent is waiting at a hotel for her to knock on his door the next morning.  Yet there is a slight indication that he knew it might be too late for him.

The reader is unsure which door Britt-Marie knocks on to start another chapter of her life.  But one thing is certain; Britt-Marie left a big mark on the hearts on the people of Borg.

Lynn M.                                                                                         May 13, 2019

You Get What You Need!

 

The Blue Bottle Club: Newly Repackaged Edition

The Blue Bottle Club by Penelope J. Stokes is a well-crafted piece.  I also read another work by Stokes called Circle of Grace where she used creative techniques to tell the tale.  Her writings seem to mirror life as she shows how the puzzle pieces fall together after her characters are confounded by life’s mysteries.

In this book, Brendan Delaney is a news reporter who is doing a story on a historic landmark that is about to be demolished in Ashville, North Carolina.  It is a huge house that once belonged to the Cameron family and was later used for other city events.  As she is about to leave the property, a guy on her crew gives her a blue-bottle that he had found in the attic.

She tucks it away and later discovers that it has four notes inside written by four teen girls.  They each write what they would like to achieve in life and vow to remain friends on that Christmas Day in 1929, the year of the stock market crash.

It is now some 65 years later, and Brendan immediately wonders what became of the women who would now be in their 80’s if still alive.  This story seems to pull on her and is just the impetus she needs because she has begun to lose her drive for her job and her faith had been waning for quite some time.

With her station manager’s approval, she takes on the momentous task of searching for Leticia Cameron, Adora Archer, Eleanor James and Mary Love.  Did Leticia marry her beloved wealthy boyfriend and have lots of babies as she had vowed?  Had Adora become a successful actress in Hollywood?  Had Eleanor become a social worker like  Jane Addams? And, had Mary Love become a great artist and painter as she dreamed?

Brendan, who rarely prayed had uttered the prayer,” Please God.  Please let them still be alive.” After that, she followed a lead and went to a nearby church that the Archer family had once attended.   She met the current pastor and sure enough, he referred her to Dorothy Parker, a senior in her 90’s who lived at the local home for the aged.  From there, the door to discovery swung open as Brendan was pointed to the whereabouts of Leticia Cameron who was a short distance away.

Brendan’s journey begins as she hopes to interview each woman and see how their lives turned out.  In her search for the truth, Brendan finds a new-found faith, friendships and a sense of belonging.  But what happened in these women’s lives?  Did she find them all still alive as she had prayed?

Read this remarkable story which is filled with life lessons, faith and perseverance. See how these four women’s lives turned out in the long run.  The Blue Bottle Club is filled with many strong prayers and Brendan comes out much richer in the end.

The Rollin’ Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want best exemplifies the message of this book.  Push play and enjoy this 1969 version of their song!

Lynn M.                                                                                   January 19, 2019

 

Good ’til the Last Drop!

See the source image

I had to read The Octopus by Frank Norris in college but at the time, I was too young and immature to appreciate Norris’ writing talent and I had no interest in the story itself.  But I just finished The Pit: The Story of Chicago and I was mesmerized by his ability to paint such clear images through his choice of words and of course, the locale of Chicago kept me on the edge of my seat.

The Pit takes place in the early 1900’s and it is set in the heart of Chicago.  I could see every step that Curtis Jadwin and Laura Dearborn took before and after they married.  They settled off North Avenue close to the Conservatory in Lincoln Park.  She often spent her lonely evenings riding her horse over to the park where she listened to the waves of Lake Michigan for consolation.

Her husband was a financial guru, known as the Unknown Bull who privately controlled the stock market.  Wheat was king at the time.  He worked at the Board of Trade Center which is located at the south end of LaSalle.  Coincidently, my first job in the Loop was steps away so it was easy to envision him going in and out of the building.

The only things that seemed different about places such as The Palmer House or the rumbling of the elevated train was the time and era.  The men and women dressed differently and were still traveling by horse and buggy, but the Chicago streets are the same and the gamut of human emotions that the characters felt remain unchanged.

This story, the second of a trilogy, shows how people get so caught up in the game of winning that they lose sight of what is truly important in life.  Jadwin controls the stock market and has already amassed millions but cannot let go of the fervor of the chase.

The Jadwins’ mansion is humongous, and they do not even remember all of the rooms in their home.  Laura has many gowns, yet she does not have anywhere to wear them all. They have a summer home at Lake Geneva but eventually, they do not have time to get there because Jadwin needs to stay on top of the game of speculating the wheat prices.  It gets to the point where he stays in a downtown hotel and does not always go home to Laura.

Invariably, it all begins to come crashing down after Jadwin’s identity is exposed and his dear friend kills himself. Jadwin finally loses all his wealth.  As things spiral out of control, Laura seriously considers having an affair with an artist-friend who always loved her.

Jadwin physically and mentally breaks down and after a near-death experience, he vows to start anew. The beautiful, self-centered Laura stops focusing on her own personal needs and nurses her husband back to health.  The Pit closes with him and Laura leaving Chicago and heading out west to start a new business venture.  They have just a little more than the clothes on their backs, but they have finally realized that the greatest of these is love.

Lynn M.                                                                                December 15, 2018