Tag Archives: Book Review

‘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.


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.


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).

Tolle book puts new perspective on, well, everything

The title makes it sound like a self-help book, but author Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” is unlike any self-help book I’ve ever read (after hearing me rave about this book recently, you knew this review was coming, didn’t you?).

NewEarthInstead of presenting a long list of ways to combat your problem, whatever it is, Eckhart offers one thing and one thing only:

Live in the moment.

To summarize, that’s your life’s purpose.

Not to be organized. Not to be a good mom (or a good anything — in fact, good is just a “fragmented perception of the wholeness of life”). Not to make money. Not to save the planet. Not to worship God (though being present is a form of that).

Just live in the moment. That’s it.

But it’s complicated, which is why it takes him 309 pages to explain it. Eckhart’s philosophy involves the ego, the difference between I and me, “pain-bodies,” awareness and enlightenment, and he uses common language to describe these intangible concepts. Some people accuse Eckhart of being redundant, but I admired his attempts to describe this way of interacting with the world in different ways. I enjoyed the deep-thinking journey.

Ah, I enjoyed the journey! I am living in the moment! I am enlightened!

Whoa, stop right there. Eckhart explains as soon as you think you’re enlightened, you’re not. This enlightenment business is a constant battle with the ego.

If the measure of a book is how much it changes your life, this book was great for me.

Here’s a small example: Today is Father’s Day, so my Beloved wanted — felt entitled to — a certain meal for breakfast. My stepson, fresh from his workout, “didn’t feel good.” So they sat on the couch this morning reading Yahoo! news while I labored in the kitchen over three different cooking pots and a 5-pound watermelon that was loath to be sliced.

I was resentful. My thoughts were anything but charitable: Why was I making breakfast? My Beloved isn’t my father! I’m not the one who wants scrambled eggs and sausage? I don’t even like watermelon! And I’ll be the one to clean up this whole mess!

But Eckhart counsels in his book that there are only three ways to do anything: Acceptance. Enjoyment. Enthusiasm. “Not what you do, but how you do what you do determines whether you are fulfilling your destiny. And how you do what you do is determined by your state of consciousness.”

“Resentful” and “wishing away” my breakfast chores would not be considered aware and enlightened.

So I changed my attitude. I observed my resentful self, so attached to my role and my Sunday morning. I adjusted, and starting accepting, if not enjoying, this breakfast-making process of the present moment. I tried to create perfect little cubes of watermelon. I paid attention to the sausage so it wouldn’t burn. I enjoyed the sizzle of the eggs as they hit the hot oil.

I wasn’t 100% successful in combating my resentfulness or being present in the moment, but my Sunday morning wasn’t ruined.

If this description sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to you, you probably won’t like “A New Earth.” Eckhart says not everyone is ready to be enlightened, i.e., to understand the concepts he touts, and they won’t like his book. I think it’s a brilliant way to combat bad reviews: “Only the unenlightened wouldn’t like this book” (I need to remember that for my next book).

To be clear, I think this book is the beginning of enlightenment, not the end. But if you’re looking for a little Eastern philosophy served up with a side of Jesus to help you combat the chatter of your mind, “A New Earth” might be a good start.

Looking for other books suggestions? Check here.

Author tells how Bible stories about harlots, seductresses and rape victims are worth reading and understanding

These are Bible stories you’ll rarely hear on Sunday mornings in church — stories of incest, rape, mutilation and seduction.

The Sunday liturgy in Catholic and Lutheran churches I’ve attended abides by a three-year reading cycle that covers most, but not all, of the Bible. A regular church goer will hear some passages in what seems like an over-and-over pattern (Jesus is feeding 5,000 again?), while some sections and books are never read and rarely used as the basis for sermons.

HarlotAuthor Jonathan Kirsch tackles some of those rarely studied stories in “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible.”

Says Kirsch in his opening: “The stories that are retold here will come as a surprise to many readers precisely because, over the centuries, they have been suppressed by rabbis, priests and ministers uncomfortable with the candor of the biblical storytellers about human conduct, sexual or otherwise.”

If you believe the Bible was written by God’s fingers, you might not appreciate Kirsch’s thoughtful discussions of the origins of the Bible and his occasional treatment of the book as literature rather than the inspired word of God, but I found Kirsch to be respectful even when he was being academic.

Kirsch retells the Bible stories in common English in sort of a “historical fiction” approach alongside an English translation of the Bible, and then he explores possible meanings in historical and contemporary texts. In his analysis are seven stories from the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible:

  • The story of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:1-38).
  • The rape of Dinah (Genesis 34:1-31).
  • Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38:1-26). This is the story on which the title of Kirsch’s book is based.
  • Zipporah and Moses (Exodus 4:24-26).
  • Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11:1-40).
  • The Levite traveler and his concubine (Judges 19:1-28).
  • The rape of another woman named Tamar by her brother who was also King David’s son Amnon (2 Samuel 13:1-22).

Did you know Lot (the man whose wife was turned to salt when she turned around the witness the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) had sex with his daughters who bore children by him? Did you know Moses had a wife and son? Have you ever even heard of Jephthah?

After reading Kirsch’s book, I have a new appreciation for all these characters, especially the female ones. If you think the Bible skims over the stories of women, Kirsch’s approach will open your eyes to the possible feminist themes woven throughout the Old Testament.

Don’t miss the appendix in back about “Who Really Wrote the Bible.” It explains a lot about how the Bible came together and some reasons for some of the confusing and sometimes redundant passages.

When I finished “Harlot,” I went back to my bookshelf to find another similar book I found useful in understanding the story of King David, the little shepherd who slayed Goliath, wrote Psalms, committed adultery with Bathsheba and ruled Israel hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Turns out Jonathan Kirsch also wrote “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel,” too.

A quick Google search reveals Kirsch is quite prolific having written books about Moses, Revelations and more. I’ll have to check them out.


There’s certainly some ‘great’ in ‘Great Mysterious’

The story is not neat and the protagonist is one of those arrogant New York drama queens, but author Lorna Landvik has a way of making her characters grow on you.

Lorna LandvikAs I pondered the content of my second novel, my sister — an avid fiction reader — suggested I read Landvik’s “Welcome to the Great Mysterious.” Whether I learned anything from Landvik about writing, plotting or “sweetness,” I’m glad I spent a little time in her book.

“Welcome to the Great Mysterious” is the story of Broadway star Geneva Jordan who is called to return to her Minnesota roots for a month to babysit for her 13-year-old nephew, a boy with Down’s syndrome. After much squirming at the uncomfortableness of it all, she succumbs and, as a sweet story goes, she finds love and happiness.

Landvik certainly can turn a phrase:

  • “After a lifetime of good health, our parents, now living in a retirement community in Arizona, had finally drawn the sorry-you-lose cards.”
  • “A sob I didn’t even know was gathering jumped out of my throat, and I realized that darkness — not a darkness of light but a scarier, deeper one — had crawled into my arms.”
  • “All of the male midlife crisis clichés he had started to fondle during our last months together, he now fully embraced — especially the need to hold on to his youth by holding on to the nearest twenty-two-year-old.”
  • “The trees, dressed in gaudy reds and maroons and golds, stand there like a chorus line costumed by Roy Dale, lifting their skirts when the wind passes by.”

And despite the advertising for sweet, I was caught by the emotion in the story, sobbing at the loss near the end of the book. When an author can push you to tears, you know she’s doing something right.

I appreciated Landvik’s writing so much, I asked for more of her books for Christmas.

Cross this fence at your own risk

Zach Abrams’ “Ring Fenced” is like a popcorn action movie — it’s got suspense, but the thrills are supported by a raucous sound track and a lot of hot air.

The book is about Benjamin, a.k.a. Benjie, Ben, Bennie and Jamie, a Londoner with as many secret lives as you can count on your hand. Wholly unlikable in any persona he inhabits, he’s a flashy banker, a fun-weekends father, an obedient Orthodox Jewish son, a porn writer and a motorcycle-wheeling lover surrounded primarily with beautiful but  blind women who know only one side of Benjamin.

Don’t worry, Benjamin gets what’s coming to him. In a way.

No matter what he’s wearing or who he’s fooling, Benjamin appreciates music. While I was familiar with only some of the songs he uses to soothe his inner demons, I imagine his music set the scene as accurately as some of the quoted lyrics.

As for the hot air, I found the book’s descriptions to be like two-thirds of Americans — flabby. Detailed descriptions of banking deals, highway detours and amusement park attractions did nothing to move the plot forward. With a good editor, this self-published book could easily have been one-third shorter. For example, at one point Benjamin, a.k.a. Bennie in this chapter, parks the family car:

“Approaching he realized the position in front had also been vacated and, so as to enable an easy exit, he drove through to the front of the ‘dido’, the acronym his family had taken to applying to a ‘drive in drive out’ space.”

Was an easy exit required later in the story? No. Was “dido” used a metaphor for exiting the jams Benjamin finds himself in? No. It, like many other sentences, was simply a clever waste of space.

If you love metaphor, don’t look for it here. At a crucial plot turn, the author’s rambling descriptions finally run out: “The noise was incredible.” Alas, at the risk of sounding like a syntactical Scrooge, “incredible” is about as descriptive as “amazing,” which topped the 2012 list of words that should be banished from the English language.

While Benjamin was odious and some descriptions superfluous, I wished for more details about his devout mother, his long-suffering wife and his techie American business partner. To me, these were the people whom the story was really about — sorry souls duped by a dissociative sociopath. In particular, Abrams missed a flashing-red-stoplight opportunity for irony in Benjamin’s relationship with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, who recognized him in one scene. The man with an impaired memory “knew” him when no one else really did. The scenes with Benjamin’s family of origin rang true, and this American Lutheran found the descriptions of Benjamin’s, aka Benjie’s Jewish faith and practices compelling.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the book is the reader. I don’t like popcorn fiction, and I don’t read for distraction (I use online Scrabble for that). Give me real people caught in surreal but true circumstances anytime.

I read this book on Kobo, as I read all my ebooks lately. But I would have paid half as much on Kindle: Only $1.49.

Memoir takes you on psychological adventure through eyes of adopted woman with bipolar disorder

Author Laura Dennis’ memoir “Adopted Reality” tells the story of how expectations of personal perfection inevitably lead to sorrow and failure.

It’s a universal story of our flawed humanness. As a fellow mess, I appreciated the lesson that we don’t have to be perfect to be loved.

For Dennis, her sense of self-worth and her desire to maintain unreasonably high standards arise from her feelings about being adopted:

“I hadn’t been wanted, but now I was wanted. The Dennises were my second chance, chosen especially for me. … My child’s mind deduced that the Dennises could also give me away. So I decided to be the Best Child Ever.”

More than a story of adoption, however, this is a story of bipolar disorder. Dennis describes in painful and surprising detail how her mind unraveled as she descended into a manic episode involving hallucinations about being a bionic spy who caused 9/11 and a death-defying escape from a mental hospital.

Part of Dennis’ trip to “crazy town” (her words, not mine) involved her obsession with her dance career and the typical dancer’s compulsion to be thinner. Any woman who has ever felt too fat will be able to relate.

Dennis does an admirable job of describing her adoption experience by giving credit where credit is due without glossing over the pain she felt about being given away. I was brought to tears by her birth mother’s and birth grandfather’s words about their love for her, even in her absence during her childhood, and I was so happy to read how both her mothers supported her through her mental illness. As a stepmother, I related to both of Dennis’ mothers in one way or another.

I appreciated Dennis’ straight-forward writing style and description, but sometimes I felt like she glossed over important details, especially near the end of her story. After her manic episode and diagnosis of bipolar disorder, she announces she quit her medications cold turkey and a chapter later, the story is done. Sanity can’t be that simple. Dennis is otherwise a good storyteller, and I liked the character Dennis created enough to want to hear more of her story.

I have exchanged a couple of emails with Dennis and the existence of the book itself is evidence that Dennis turned out OK.

Anyone who is adopted, a dancer or bipolar and anyone who knows and loves such a person will appreciate “Adopted Reality: A Memoir” for its honesty, drama and ultimately the peace Dennis finds with her adopted reality.

I enjoyed reading this book on my iPad with my Kobo app. The app is free and downloading ebooks is easy at Kobo.com. Kindle is not the only game in town so consider giving Kobo a try (my memoir is available at Kobo, too, and so are thousands of other books from big name publishers and self-published authors). Check it out.