Tag Archives: Book Review

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.

If anger were only so predictable

I read author Lorna Landvik novels because they’re often set in Minnesota. While I also like diving into foreign and exotic lives when I read memoir, I enjoy the familiarity of my home state in Landvik’s fiction.

However, plot is not her strong point.

BonBonsHer books are character driven, so readers need to enjoy the journey, not necessarily the destination. Unfortunately, the characters in “Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons” tended toward the stereotypical, the plot hinged on by-the-numbers predictability and I missed the sense of place I normally find in her books. Though set in a suburb of Minneapolis, it could have been set in almost any suburb in America.

I liked the book and Landvik’s writing, don’t get me wrong, but there were no surprises. “Angry Housewives” tells the life stories of five women who get to know each other in the neighborhood book club which meets monthly for 30 years from 1968 to 1998. We cover all kinds of familiar ground: Vietnam War, protests, gay rights, the suburban shame of domestic violence, young mothers popping out babies like so much champagne, secret adoption, mothers going back to work, mothers who mourn their lost youth when their children graduate and move away, etc., etc. Oh, and as usual in a Landvik novel, someone dies. Or almost dies. It’s foreshadowed in the prologue, so I’m not giving anything away.

With so many characters, it took a good 100 pages for me to keep them straight. By then, though, I was interested in how things turned out. I read most of this book while on the stepmill, and it was perfect for that — the sort of story that distracts you without requiring a lot of thinking. I’d recommend if you’re looking for a beach read this week.

‘Butter’ captures the small-town flavor of the 1970s

At 46, I sort of dread shopping. I hate the long drive to any store worth visiting, the enormous parking lots with accidents hiding behind every sight-line-blocking minivan, the other shoppers who don’t get out of my way and the underpaid, impatient clerks.

OK, not all the other shoppers are rude and not all the clerks are uncaring, but I hope you understand my point: Modern-day shopping in the suburbs lacks joy.

But it wasn’t that way 30 years ago. Back when kids walked to school uphill both ways, malls were special and rare. Teenagers like me who grew up in small Midwestern towns shopped on Main Street where local merchants owned and operated the stores. In Wadena, where I grew up, there were stores like Zosel’s Hardware, Brink’s Jewelry and Krause Drug.

Ah, Krause Drug, a sprawling pharmacy and gift shop offering everything from crystal candlesticks and greeting cards to aspirin and nail polish. I remember a lot of 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon dates with my girlfriends when we walked downtown (yes, walked), window shopped and coveted the Maybelline makeup near the counter at Krause Drug.

butterThat’s just one of the reasons I enjoyed reading author Anne Panning’s novel “Butter.” She gets the details right. Set in small-town Minnesota in the 1970s, Panning’s novel is a love note to little towns growing up – or dying – amidst the corn fields of a different time. The coming-of-age story is about Iris, an 11-year-old whose parents’ marriage is disintegrating. You will fall in love with Iris even if you don’t love the story, described by some reviewers as “disquieting.” Here’s an excerpt:

Sylvie and I celebrated by hanging around downtown and taking our time browsing through all the stores. We looked at colored pens on strings with scented ink at Walt’s Drugstore. We checked out the barrettes and Slinkys at Ben Franklin, and bought big full-size Charleston Chews, strawberry and chocolate. We even took our shoes off on the walk home and felt the warm grainy sidewalk so nice under our bare feet.

Iris’ father runs a creamery, and Panning writes about full-fat milk products with beauty and reverence, thus the title “Butter.” Like his marriage, Iris’ father’s creamery is losing traction as convenience stores with names like “Stop & Go” gain popularity (“My father never liked it when people called it a store. It always had to be the creamery. A store was there you bought dog food and toilet paper, he used to say”).

Like the small town in which it’s set, the story doesn’t stretch too far. There are no vampires or doomsday scenarios, but Panning successfully captures the warmth of family and the sorrow of losing it. Anyone who enjoys fiction would love it, but especially readers who know anything about small towns, Minnesota or the ’70s.

More about “Butter”:

  • I appreciated Panning’s handling of adoption and family so much, I’m guest blogging about it today on author Laura Dennis’ blog “The Adaptable (Adopted) Ex-Pat Mommy.” Check that out here.
  • And, while I’m tackling a manuscript about the year I turned 15, I’m writing about the voice of young narrators on my author blog here.

In the words of David Foster Wallace, ‘maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain’; in my words, ‘this book is a pain in the …’

Can a book about monotony be interesting?

Nope, not if we’re talking about David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King.”

I guess it’s book review week here at Minnesota Transplant. First, David George Haskell’s “The Forest Unseen” last Thursday, then Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” on Sunday. And tomorrow, I’m writing about Anne Panning’s “Butter.”

The Pale KingToday’s review is not very complimentary, however. I hated “The Pale King.”

I really wanted to like it. Supposedly, I write like Wallace (read more about that comparison here, ugh).

Wallace was an award-winning American novelist, short-story writer and essayist widely known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest.” “The Pale King” is unfinished because Wallace committed suicide in 2008 before completing it. It was among the three fiction finalists last year for the Pulitzer Prize; none of them was actually awarded the prize when the committee couldn’t reach a majority vote.

I wasn’t particularly interested in the Internal Revenue Service, which the novel is about, but because I might write like Wallace and because it was nominated for a Pulitzer, I thought I ought to read it. I was willing to give it a try even knowing it didn’t have an ending.

But “The Pale King” is nothing more than an unedited manuscript. It’s a mess of run-on sentences, positively inane descriptions of IRS regulations and story fragments that go nowhere. Some chapters go on for unending pages while one chapter is only 7 short sentences. If this is how I write, I’m embarrassed.

I’m thinking this is a trick played on us by the New York publishing elite. Half way through this 592-page doorstop, I felt like a country bumpkin invited to a high-class party where the host serves haddock sautéed in toasted bread crumbs, aioli sauce spiked with pickled cucumbers, a cheese course and buttered rolls, all accompanied by a raft of silverware I have no idea how to use. I would have preferred a Filet-O-Fish sandwich — no silverware and easier cleanup. I can imagine the Pulitzer committee looking down their noses at me, part of the common rabble, who can’t pass for First Class at dinnertime.

There are moments of brilliance in “The Pale King,” snippets such as:

… men for whom landings like this yaw-wobbled horror just past are business as usual. Paunched and blotchy men in double-knit brown suits and tan suits with attaché cases ordered from in-flight catalogues. Men whose soft faces fit their jobs like sausage in its meaty casing.

And:

She was maybe fifty, and very thin and tendony, and had the same asymmetical beehive coiffure as two different older females in my own family, and was made up like an embalmed clown, the stuff of nightmares.

And:

After Houston, her favorite doll had been the mere head of a doll, its hair prolixly done and the head’s hole threaded to meet a neck’s own thread; she had been eight when the body was lost and it lay now forever supine and unknowing in weeds while its head lived on.

[Note to those in steerage: Prolixly is the adverb form of prolix, which means “extended to great, unnecessary, or tedious length; long and wordy,” as in “The Pale King” appears to be written in a manner most prolix. Feel like someone’s talking over your head yet?]

But even Wallace’s notes to himself betray the awfulness of the story: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” He also writes, “bliss … is on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom,” but the only bliss I felt upon finishing his book was a sense of relief, both that I was done and that Wallace is dead so my review won’t hurt his feelings.

By the way, there is no ending (as I expected), and I still don’t know who the pale king is.

There are far too many books in the world that actually tell a story with moments of brilliance and clever turns of phrase. Don’t waste your time here.

Tomorrow: A book I loved, “Butter” by Anne Panning. It has an ending (even if I didn’t like it, I appreciated it).