Tag Archives: Book Review

Anne Lamott novel reveals story in ephemera

I found Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe at a library book sale of one sort or another, and I snatched it up because her Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is one of my all-time favorites, one of those books that has survived many edits of my personal library. Lamott is a hilarious, provocative writer who hides bits of wisdom in everyday circumstances. She succeeds in Blue Shoe.

In Bird by Bird, she writes, “Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in the story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.”

Blue ShoeThat pretty much sums up the plot of Blue Shoe. There’s a lot of character in it, and eventually, something happens. You might learn more than you care to about the weather or the children’s games or the scent of urine in an old folks home, but you’ll also laugh about a trip to a grocery store and cry about a pet’s demise.

I prefer nonfiction to fiction probably because I’m a journalist. I like true stories. Blue Shoe reads a lot like nonfiction in that is tells the story of what could be a real life: A woman recovering from divorce misses her father and decides to track down the man he was.

Let’s just say, he was a bit creepy.

But life is like that. Messy shit happens. And lonely daughters sometimes find out their heroes have feet of clay.

The title comes from a blue rubber tchotchke that the main character finds left behind by her father in his old van. It should be thrown away, but she carries it with her as a thing of value, a totem, a security blanket. It turns out this piece of clutter truly is imbued with meaning.

I find the meaning people give to seeming junk to be endlessly fascinating, so Blue Shoe rings true for me. Why do people keep grandma’s coleslaw dish or the pressed penny from a carnival or an old T-shirt they’ll never fit into again? Because there’s a story in it. You might appreciate the story Lamott reveals in the Blue Shoe.

Book about Texas is best appreciated for the journey, not the destination

I invested in God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State when it came out 2018 in hardcover because I intuited that I might settle in Texas at some point. I thought I ought to learn something about the state.

undefinedLawrence Wright’s book certainly taught me something, that Texas is a state of contradictions. It’s big and it’s intimate. It’s conservative and it’s liberal. It’s rich and it’s poor. Its people value ancient natural resources and space-age technology, religion and themselves, independence but also community. Whatever you might want in lifestyle or geography, you can probably find in Texas.

According to the acknowledgments, the book came to be when Wright’s editor at The New Yorker asked him to “explain Texas,” exactly what a transplant needs. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Wright covers a lot of ground in this story, a little bit memoir and a lot of history and politics. He is clearly left-leaning, but his book paints a balanced picture of a state known for both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

The writing, as you would expect from such an esteemed correspondent, is lovely, but not in love with itself. Here’s how Wright describes Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger:

It has a big hole near the bridge, worn through by Willie’s pinky and ring fingers. Pick marks have scored the face paper thin. The entire instrument feels sheer, the frets worn down to nearly nothing. It’s been signed many times—Leon Russell used a pocketknife—but the signatures are fading into the patina. If you saw this guitar at a garage sale, you would walk on by.

Wright is a keen observer who understands what makes Texas distinctive in so many ways. He devotes whole chapters to the state’s unique politics (“The Cradle of Presidents” and “Sausage Makers”), music (“The City of the Violet Crown”) and geography the defines it (“Borderlands”). Ever been to Buc-ee’s? “It is the largest convenience store in the world—a category of achievement that only Texas would aspire to,” he writes, and then describes in the sort of detail an extraterrestrial visitor would appreciate and understand.

If I have a problem with this book, it’s that it lacks a narrative, or at least one I could follow. This is a book about place, not person. I began reading it in late 2018 and it wasn’t absorbing enough to keep my attention. It wasn’t until I bought property in Texas that I returned to it and finally finished it. It’s good in pieces, just not compelling as a whole. But whether you aspire to be a Texan or not, it’s a good little piece about a mighty big state.

Talking to Strangers may be enjoyed best by having the author talk to you

True confession: I somehow got subscribed to Audible for a whole year before questioning the money that was being deducted from my bank account. When I figured it out, I had eleven credits to use. I’m too cheap to just let them go, so I scanned the available titles, downloaded eleven books in a half hour and cancelled the subscription.

To wring value out of my lax bookkeeping, I had to create a new habit in order to listen to my library of audio books. Because not listening to them would be almost as wasteful as not downloading them.

Talking to StrangersFortunately, a twenty-hour drive from Texas to Wisconsin was on the calendar. Thus, I found myself listening this past week to Malcolm Gadwell’s Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know.

Was it better than coronavirus coverage on National Public Radio? Infinitely. Was it better than listening to the same old songs on Sirius’ ’80s on 8? By far.

Those twenty hours didn’t exactly fly by (mostly because I’m too old to ignore the inevitable aches and pains that accumulate by sitting in one position for so long), but they did go quickly, and I learned a lot of useful facts along the way.

For example, do you think CIA spies must be very good at spotting liars? Well, they’re not.

Do you think suicide is the result of depression? Well, yes, but not only that.

Do you know why binge drinking is a major factor in campus rapes? You might have your suspicions, but Gadwell spells it out for you.

Then he ties all these conclusions about the challenges of talking to strangers in a professionally wrapped package that explains why encounters between white cops and black people have the potential for going terribly, terribly wrong.

Using sociological and psychological research, Gadwell challenges commonly held views all while telling a fascinating story. I already knew I liked his approach, having read his books The Tipping Point, Blink and David and Goliath. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, you’ll probably remember some of the research and facts he shares. His stories stick with you. (And I can’t emphasize too much: even if you don’t care about horrors brought to light by Black Lives Matters, you’ll understand the liars, alcoholics and suicide victims in your life a lot better.)

Hearing Gadwell make his points in his own voice elevates the experience even more. In the audiobook version of Talking to Strangers, you’ll also hear the voices of people he interviewed—scientists, criminologists, military psychologists. Court transcripts are brought to life with re-enactments. You actually hear the contentious arrest of Sandra Bland by the side of the road in Texas. As Gladwell revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath, you hear directly from many of the players in these real-life tragedies. Plus, there’s a theme song! The audio book is so much more than any standard audio book.

If you have a curious mind and want to fill it with something other than noise, try Gadwell’s audio book. Whether you’re a stranger, or just strange enough to have a bunch of Audible credits to spend and a long drive ahead of you, you might agree with my suggestion.

Novel captures essence of Minnesota through its food and drink

If you like beer or pie or Minnesota, you will love this book.

The Lager QueenThe Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal is about a pair of Minnesota sisters and their families. One sister inherits the family farm when Dad dies, one sister gets nothing. How would their lives have turned out differently if the poorer sister got her fair share?

With the proceeds from the farm, the seemingly fortunate sister brews beer and builds a successful company with the motto, “Drink lots. It’s Blotz.” The other sister bakes award-wining pies at the local nursing home. Oh, the power of pie!

“She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.”

I picked up this book last year after hearing an interview on National Public Radio with the author about how he channels the voices of the older ladies in his family; he nails them. His Minnesota phrasing is on point, and he evidently has experienced Minnesota winters:

“Walking to work afterward, it began to snow, and Diana remembered when she’d been thrilled by the sight of the stuff. As a little kid without a lot of toys, snow was versatile, inexhaustible, and dynamic. It was all the toys. Now, it just made her late to work.”

I laughed out loud when a character had to put the kibosh on a something. Stradal is less successful with Diana, the youngest character, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of this book.

The other thing he’s surprising successful with is mixing socio-economic classes. Both poor and rich characters rang true for me.

The plot skips around in time, so if that bugs you, beware; it makes sense to the plot so it’s worth going with the flow. The ending had me in tears.

Sweet distraction

Who doesn’t like honey? Even if you’re not the type to get a daily fix of it, you probably like the concept of it: Sweet, sticky, translucent gold, 100 percent natural. It is, perhaps, rare to find someone who likes bees. In concept, they’re all right, crucial players in the ecosystem, but up close, they’re bugs. Who sting.

In the end though, you can’t have honey without bees. Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Secret Life of Bees might inspire affection for those honey makers. Bees are major characters in this story set in South Carolina in 1964. Here’s one scene that encourages admiration of the bees, not just the honey:

According to August, if you’ve never seen a cluster of beehives first thing in the morning, you’ve missed the eighth wonder of the world. … Fifty feet away you will hear it, a humming that sounds like it came from another planet. At thirty feet your skin will start to vibrate. The hair will lift on your neck. Your head will say, Don’t go any farther, but your heart will send you straight into the hum, where you will be swallowed by it. You will stand there and think, I am in the center of the universe, where everything is sung to life.

Kidd’s way with words speaks to my heart. She describes feeling as ribbons trailing behind a character and climatic events that might cause the moon to break loose and fall out of the sky.

Secret Life of BeesImmediately, I fell in love with Lily, the poor little white girl longing for her mother who died under mysterious circumstances when Lily was 4. That mystery propels the story along as Lily is led to the home of three eccentric black sisters who sell honey and worship Our Lady of Chains, a black Madonna. Along the way, Lily witnesses racism, engages in a first kiss, experiences sorrow and learns the values of writing a journal.

The story ends satisfactorily, too, which is nice for having invested several hours in the reading. And then I found out Kidd started our writing memoirs, so maybe I need to read more of her work.

The book came out in 2002 and has been on the bestseller list, so I’m late to the party (as usual), but if you haven’t read The Secret Life of Bees, you might enjoy learning the secret.

From garden to soup pot: Autumn lessons

Nothing transforms vegetables like roasting them in a hot oven. And a run through the blender. Gotta have the blender.

I’m obsessed with roasting vegetables. Thirty minutes in a hot oven brings out the natural sweetness of savory stuff in a way that makes you forget what you’re eating is good for you. And it’s so dagnabb’ed easy, too.

If you’re keeping track, you’re just now realizing you haven’t heard much lately from Minnesota Wonderer (or Minnesota Transplant, whatever she’s calling herself). Yup, I’ve been up to my eyeballs in insurance paperwork. Not for myself, Lord no, for various clients who require insuring (which is pretty much all of us, if you’re being legal or you’re just plain risk-averse). In any case, I haven’t been blogging.

Oh, and there’s this other big project I have on the horizon. By big, I mean ginormous. Like, the only thing bigger in terms of financial commitment and time frame would be having a child. But I’m not quite ready to share that project. When I am ready, you’ll hear about it, I assure you.

In the meantime, I took a breath from paperwork on Saturday, and I made a pot of soup. And it was some kind of soup. So I feel compelled to share. Just in case you, too, have a garden of junk peppers you’re considering letting go to Jack Frost.

Animal VegetableI’m reading this book, you see. In between paperwork and project planning and meal prep, I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. The fiction author wrote this memoir with her husband Steven L. Hopp and her daughter Camille Kingsolver to share their family’s experience with eating local for a year, that is, consuming only food that was produced locally. That meant a lot of gardening, farmer’s markets and organic chicken. And no bananas or avocados.

Her premise is that locally produced food is better for the environment, society and the human body, and she makes her point in a pretty compelling way. I mean, I’m not going to become a gardener or make my own cheese, but I’m inspired to pay better attention to where the food I’m putting in my mouth comes from.

banana-peppers.jpg

So I paid a visit to a friend’s garden on Saturday afternoon and picked all of his overripe banana peppers (with his permission). Did you know those lime green peppers turn red after a while? Me neither, but they do. The sun was shining in a way that it might not do again for six months or more, and we haven’t had a hard frost yet this autumn. I also picked one — one! — red hot jalapeno pepper. While I was picking my way through the overgrown weeds, I spied a few red-and-green tomatoes, too. Upon inspection, I discovered they weren’t perfect but they were pretty much free of bugs.

Thus inspired, I dug through the crisper drawer and found a stalk of celery, a carrot, a half of a yellow sweet pepper, a half an onion and two cloves of garlic. I can’t vouch for their local provenance, but I’d already purchased them so I was wasting-not-wanting not.

roasted veggies

A little bit of chopping (a very little bit) left me with this pan of vegetables to roast. I doused them in olive oil, salt and pepper, set the oven to 425 degrees, and I headed for the shower.

spicy red pepper soupThirty minutes later, I dumped the whole mess into the blender, added a cup of water, a teaspoon or so of Better Than Boullion and a dash of tomato paste I saved from the previous day’s chili (that’s the cheap Minnesotan in me, I can’t throw away perfectly good food, even a tablespoon of tomato paste). Whirr, whirr, and I had the world’s tastiest, couldn’t-be-better-for-you Spicy Red Pepper Soup (all I needed was the one — one! — jalapeno pepper for the spice; I suspect jalapenos left on the vine this long might be hotter than the season’s early fare). I simmered it a bit on top the stove (just so I could enjoy the aroma, but it didn’t hurt to let it spend some time melding flavors). I added a bit more olive oil (because … olive oil! It’s good for you and tastes delicious, too). Then I ladeled it into a bowl, sprinkled it with parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper, and dug in. Wow, was it good.

So the lessons here are many:

  • Don’t believe you’re ever too busy to make dinner. It’s good for the soul and the body to chop and roast and be creative.
  • Don’t let an abundance of garden harvest go to waste. Think of a new way to consume it. Or invite a friend to scour for vegetable jewels.
  • Roasting and blending makes anything better. Sure, fresh is good, and who doesn’t like a good salad? Well, a lot of people don’t like salad, let’s be honest. But it’s harder to find soup haters. Smells good, warms the tummy, takes all the hard edges off produce. Roasted vegetable soup can inspire a lot of admirers. Get cookin’.

full on spicy red pepper soup

 

 

Ready to chuck your life in the ‘burbs? Consider full-time glamping

It’s not everyone’s wish for their retirement, but a lot of Americans dream of touring the country full-time in an RV.

I know, crazy, right? Middle-aged folks spend years working like maniacs in order to buy more couches/paint/600-count sheets for their McMansions. But when they think of retirement, they want to travel instead of spending time mowing their perfectly manicured lawns.

Honestly, living full-time in an RV has a lot of appeal for a person tired of acquiring stuff and interested in cultivating experiences.

pacearrowNow, let me just state for the record: By “RV,” I don’t necessarily mean the 1983 Pace Arrow that my Beloved and I enjoyed for many happy months one winter (click here for what remains my favorite story about one of our Pace Arrow trip). That motor home was a great deal, but it was, well, a little old. And sort of cramped. And very, very harvest gold. I mean, it was pretty dependable for the most part, but then, my Beloved is pretty handy with a wrench, too. When I say “RV” in the context of “full-time RVing,” I mean those modern campers with slide-outs. And flat-screen TVs. And king-sized beds. It’s glamping (glamorous camping), not camping. You get the picture, right?

Full-time living in a modern RV is appealing because it forces you to decide what’s really important to carry with you (probably not those rarely worn evening dresses or those ratty towels you can’t bear to donate or toss). It gives you the freedom to clean only one bathroom. And it gives you the opportunity to foist the responsibility for most dinners on your grill-master mate.

Plus, because the RV has wheels, you can explore a new place every day (or week or month).

IMG_5665IMG_5664Author Anita S. Henehan explores this lifestyle in two books I picked up recently at the RV/Motor Home Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Ind.: How to Run Away from Home After 50: A True RV Adventure and Tales from the Road: Adventures of Mid-Life Runaways.

Henehan’s books are a bit uneven. She’s got an amazing back story, and her writing has a nice “letters from home” style, but there’s not a lot of “how to” in How to Run Away from Home After 50. Her second book (Tales from the Road) is probably more useful for folks considering the full-time RV lifestyle because the second half is filled with details about all the can’t-miss sites a traveler, well, can’t miss. Interestingly, Henehan managed to write the books and keep her toe in her art business while traveling full-time. Talk about an inspiration!

In any case, Henehan succeeds in portraying full-time RVing as an appealing and doable lifestyle. Makes me wanna to go glamping!

The setting is war, but the story is pulse-poundingly beautiful

It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, so I don’t need to waste my breath telling you it’s a good book, but I will share a tiny shred of some of the writing that makes All the Light We Cannot See so lovely to read:

Doerr“Don’t you miss the world?”

He is quiet; so is she. Both ride spirals of memory.

“I have the whole world here,” he says, and taps the cover of [a book by] Darwin. “And in my radios. Right at my fingertips.”

Her uncle seems almost a child, monastic in the modesty of his needs and wholly independent of any sort of temporal obligations. And yet she can tell he is visited by fears so immense, so multiple, that she can almost feel the terror pulsing inside him. As though some beast breathes all the time at the window panes of his mind.

Anthony Doerr’s novel is summarized thusly by the Pulitzer Prize committee: “an imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.”

I don’t always agree with folks who award Pulitzers (see my review of The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, a book I hated quite passionately despite its status as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2012), but in this case, I concur with the powers that be. All the Light We Cannot See is haunting and beautiful, and I enjoyed reading it very much. You might, too.

Lamott book of essays inspires laughter, tears

I appreciate author Anne Lamott because she writes about faith so simply and directly: “Jesus had an affinity for prisoners. He had been one, after all.” Or she writes something so honest, you just want to hug her because she seems to understand you: “I have sometimes considered writing a book called All the People I Still Hate: A Christian Perspective, but readers would recoil.”

Small VictoriesSo I loved her collection of essays, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Lamott just has a way of finding truth — and humor — in otherwise bland everyday moments like skiing poorly and airplane turbulence. Reading her work is like sipping tea; I joyfully savor it.

My favorite pieces in the book were “Forgiven,” about her Enemy Lite, a seemingly perfect parent of another child in her son’s first grade class,  and “Dad” which moved me to tears when she wrote about reading her father’s journal decades after his death. I also enjoyed “Matches,” about online dating (most of the time, I feel Lamott is my simpatico, but when she wrote that sex “is not on the women’s bucket lists. I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” I literally said out loud, “Ah .. no. You are not speaking for all women”).

One other small niggle: She regularly railed against President George W. Bush (apparently a number of the essays were written during his administration). I don’t particularly like him either, but her strongly negative feelings sometimes got in the way of her point. I began to wonder if the title of the book was a statement about the 2000 election. I imagine some readers might not be able to get past her politics.

Still, if you’re looking for a dose of hope, joy and grace served up with a dash of humor and honesty, you might like Small Victories.

Apocalyptic novel is an action-packed Revelation

In a quick perusal of the table of contents, author Roger Colby’s “This Broken Earth” looks like an adventure story crossing the world told from rotating points of view, but at its heart, it’s the story of Clayton, a survivor of the demise of the United States as we know it.

This Broken Earth“This Broken Earth” concerns itself with “what’s next,” but without giving too much away, this story is an apocalyptic one not a post-apocalyptic one. Cue “The End” by the Doors: “This is the end, my only friend, the end.”

Clayton is a reluctant evangelist on a mission. On his way, he encounters a meteor shower, gun battles and miracles that some of his fellow travelers find unbelievable.

The novel comes in three parts described as “Book 1,” “Book 2” and “Book 3”: “U.S. of After,” “The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan” and “Babylon the Great.” They’re really parts of the same book. Reading only one part would be highly unsatisfactory.

I picked up “This Broken Earth” for three reasons:

  1. Colby describes himself as a Christian writer in the same vein as C.S. Lewis.
  2. He writes an interesting blog about self-publishing at “Writing is Hard Work.”
  3. I got the Kindle version for free. Who doesn’t like free? (Even now, the Kindle version is only $2.99).

As Colby alludes to in his reader’s note, I think “This Broken Earth” is meant to be one man’s version of the Bible’s Book of Revelation, which I find nearly impossible to digest with all its symbolism and allegorical language. Instead, “This Broken Earth” reads almost like documented eye-witness accounts of all the characters, sort of like the narrative fictionalization of Jonathan Kirsch without the historical background.

Colby’s use of rotating points of view is unevenly successful. Sometimes, the non-stop action bulldozes character development, the female characters are a bit cardboard (they’re nice window dressing, but they’re single-dimensional) and I had no time for some of the minor characters such as Howard, Hafiz and Hui. But I especially like Clayton and Gideon.

Evangelical Christians will appreciate that the Holy Spirit speaks like the Old Testament, and gun enthusiasts will appreciate the attention to detail — I couldn’t care less what kind of gun was being wielded.

By the time you get to Book 3, you won’t be able to put “This Broken Earth” down.