Tag Archives: Reviews

Capote thriller wrapped up my year in books

The last book I read in 2015 was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and I read it in one day.

In Cold BloodA classic, it is, and for good reason. I chose it because I qualified it as “a book that came out the year I was born,” as prescribed by the 2015 PopSugar Reading Challenge, which I took seriously until the very last day of 2015. In Cold Blood came out in 1965, which, if you want to get technical about it, is a year before I was born, but it was one of the year’s talkers the year I was born, so be it.

Capote (appropriately named as Truman — true man) told the story of the Clutter family quadruple murder in 1959 by two, well, cold killers who eventually meet their end with a hangman’s noose. The story, getting into the both the victims’ and the killers’ heads as Capote does with exacting descriptions, is chilling. I’m not a fan of capital punishment, but this book drives home why it exists. I can’t imagine the amount of research Capote undertook to write the story, but it amazed this true-story writer.


As I closed the last page, I claimed to have read 51 books in 2015, 12 short of my goal. And to be fair, I included my running journal, my own book (How to Look Hot & Feel Amazing in Your 40s) and three books I designed in 2015 in the tally (hey! I read them, too!). I read 12 books I couldn’t classify in the challenge, and failed to read 13 books PopSugar prescribed (a popular author’s first book, a book at the bottom of your to-read list, a book that scares you, a book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit, a trilogy, a book with a color in the title, a book that takes place in your hometown, a book that was originally written in a different language, a book written by an author with your same initials, a play and a banned book).

Still, by following the challenge, I read quite a few books I never would have read otherwise, including In Cold Blood. There were also Anne of Green Gables, Seconds, Vintage Munro and Of Human Bondage. So, I expanded my horizons, and that’s what good books are meant to do.

I’m not attempting to read 63 books in 2016 or accomplish any challenge, PopSugar’s or otherwise. It was too much guilt, I’ll be honest, when I was savoring a book or choosing one that didn’t qualify in the challenge. Reading is a pleasure not a chore, and I don’t need any more guilt in my life.

So, speaking of pleasure, my favorite books in 2015 included The Light of the World, All the Light We Cannot See and  Pioneer GirlWhat were your favorites? Maybe you’ll recommend my next great read.

Two books: One documents the history of a swamp, the other navigates a quagmire of grief

My favorite assignment in English composition in high school was writing compare-and-contrast papers.

(Only a writer would put “writing a paper” in a favorite things list.)

I like puzzles, and I enjoyed figuring how two pieces of writing were similar or different.

Today on Minnesota Transplant, we shall compare and contrast the two books I finished reading this week: “a book with more than 500 pages” and “a book you can finish in a day,” two check marks in my 2015 Reading Challenge by PopSugar.

The SwampIt took me about a month to read author Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise (if I’m being honest, the book has only 458 pages, and that includes 81 pages of footnotes I didn’t read, but this my challenge, and I’m rounding up, OK?). I picked it up because I spent a month in Chokoloskee, Florida, in the heart of the Everglades.

If you think Florida is overrun with traffic, people, gated communities and Mickey Mouse, spend a little time in Chokoloskee. It’s quiet, rugged and close to nature.

I’ll be honest with you: It was nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Grunwald would probably be happy to hear that. His book is an impressively researched history of the Everglades beginning 300 million years ago and concluding with a complicated pact to “save the Everglades” in 2000 (with a few notes bringing readers up to date in 2006). His premise is that developers, Big Sugar, government and especially the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have ruined the Everglades, and that the River of Grass — the only place like it in the world — would be best preserved in a completely natural state.

Its natural state is a swamp, rife with bugs and crocodiles and perpetual flooding.

Listen, I appreciate birds and clean water as much as the next person, but I have to confess I’m also a fan of supermarkets and paved roadways. I like green spaces, but I guess I think groomed landscaping can be pretty, too.

I learned a lot about the ecology of this unique chunk of land, but the politics, backroom deals, big money and big egos described in the book were far more sickening to me than the loss of thousands of acres of crocodile breeding grounds. I came away from Grunwald’s tome thinking, “Is development so bad?”

Walking Through the ShadowsMeanwhile, I finished Karen Todd Scarpulla’s Walking Through the Shadows: The Year After while traveling from the heart of Florida to Alabama.

Scarpulla tells the story of a single year — the year after her ex-husband died — and how she, her teenage children and those around him coped with his passing. She picks up the pieces after spending a year caring for him as he dies of cancer so their son and daughter can get to know him better. Like the Everglades’ crocodiles and money-grubbing developers, Walking Through the Shadows has a few prickly characters and deceitful twists. Hers is a story of forgiveness and making the best of a bad situation (maybe some environmentalists mourning the death of the Everglades could take notes).

Like most memoirs, Walking Through the Shadows tells one person’s perspective, unlike The Swamp, which covers pretty much every angle. Because it reads more like a memoir, I’ll share a full review of Scarpulla’s book tomorrow on my writing blog.

Environmentalists and anyone who visits Florida (isn’t that pretty much all Americans?) would appreciate The Swamp while memoir fans and anyone caring for someone dying of cancer (unfortunately, that might be a lot of Americans, too) would benefit from Walking Through the Shadows. Bottomline, I liked both books because I learned something from each of them.

If depressing subject matter is up your alley, read this book

Well, reading the book gives me the opportunity to check off “a book with antonyms in the title” from my 2015 PopSugar Reading Challenge, but that’s the best I can say about Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo.

As my mother recently remarked about my blog, “What I like about what you write is that we are never left wondering what you really think about a subject!”

beautiful foreversI hated this book. I spent money and time on it only so I could contribute to the conversation about it in book club. I wish I could forget the smell of trash and sewage, the images of death and the intractability of the problems exposed in this story. To be fair, many readers in my book club gave the book a 5 out of 5 rating for its investigative journalism and educational value.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of Abdul (and about a hundred other residents — try keeping all of them straight) and his life in Annawadi, an illegal slum of trash, sewage and corruption outside the Mumbai airport. Author Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writes poetically and politically about the horrors of poverty in India; she thoroughly covers “life” and “death” but I found zero “hope” in the narrative.

It’s a true story, I found out at the end in reading the author’s note. I wish it would have been placed at the beginning of the book. Though thoroughly documented (she goes to great pains to point out), I found Boo’s pitying, judging perspective to be overwhelming.

This is one of those books that gets good reviews because the author suffered so much in getting the story (oh, and she’s from New York, at least part of the time; everything that comes out of the New York literary scene is wonderful). It uses a lot of big words  — wow, I’m so impressed with your command of the English language (thank goodness I read it on Kindle with its click-to-define dictionary). This work is not for anyone who prizes a logical plot and compelling distraction.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is daring, I’ll give it that, and dark. Proceed at your own risk.

Book describes magnificent construction, tragic end of the (rail)road

Having spent some time in the Florida Keys recently, I was intrigued enough in the area’s history to pick up Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean.

If you haven’t ever driven down the Overseas Highway connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland, it’s worth a week’s vacation to do it sometime (preferably when it’s 40 below zero where you live). It’s a beautiful thrill driving, quite literally, over the ocean.

Today, it’s a highway — not a railroad — that connects the islands trailing Florida’s peninsula.

last trainSo I began reading about entrepreneurial Henry Flagler and his magnificent Key West Railroad knowing the ending — that the railroad no longer exists.

But this compelling book was a page turner anyway.

Flagler earned his fortune with Standard Oil (apparently a wholly different story because it’s addressed here only to explain how divergent were his efforts in Florida compared to his wealth-building in the oil business). It required Flagler’s vision, millions of his dollars and years of perseverance to accomplish his goal.

Key West Railroad was constructed in the early part of the 20th century and torn asunder by a hurricane in 1935. Author Les Standiford’s descriptions of the raw power of hurricane forces terrified me. I will never be the person who sticks around to see a hurricane for myself; I would prefer not to have my face sandblasted off in 200 mph winds, thank you very much.

The book would also delight an engineer as it goes to some lengths to describe the challenges undertaken by Flagler in building structures that had not been attempted, let alone conceived, elsewhere.

I walked on one of the bridges originally constructed by Key West Railroad. After the railroad company’s demise, the bridge deck was turned into a roadway. Then in 1982, the roadway became a pleasant place for a stroll. Nowadays, hundreds of walkers and bikers a day traverse the pathway, which ends abruptly at  Pigeon Key. Looking over the edge into the clear, shallow waters, I saw sharks and stingrays meandering through the seaweed.

end of the road

Here, to the left of the abrupt end of the Flagler’s bridge, you can see the modern roadway. Apparently, one span of the Seven-Mile Bridge was demolished to deter walkers from going further south and possibly to make way for boating traffic.

The Last Train to Paradise was an instructive literary testimony to the terrible sacrifices made to construct a highway one might otherwise take for granted.

‘Stylishly written,’ but not my style

Doc Ford is a man’s man, as described by at least one reviewer on Barnes & Noble.

Brilliant. Brave. Generally unemotional, even when blameless men are executed and fed to the sharks.

It is his amoral nature I object to. When he slept with two women in one night in Randy Wayne White’s debut novel in the Doc Ford series, Sanibel Flats, I was disgusted.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Sanibel FlatsI asked for and received Sanibel Flats for Christmas because I wanted to get a flavor for the series about the marine biologist detective set in Fort Myers, Fla., where I’ve vacationed countless times in order to enjoy my beloved Minnesota Twins in spring training.

This mystery features a complex and interesting plot, well-drawn characters and just enough violence to make it intense without being especially lurid (I would much rather read about a vulture pecking out a dead man’s eyes than actually see it). And gasp-out-loud surprises. You gotta love that in a mystery.

So Sanibel Flats has all the ingredients of a good novel. And I can see why there are 20 more tales in the series.

But I probably won’t be picking up The Heat Islands, despite the clever trail of crumbs White left readers to feed on in Sanibel Flats. I’m not a fan of mysteries in general, and I don’t like Doc Ford enough to care how he drifts through his less than honorable escapades. My perspective on such books mirrors Doc Ford’s view of bad news:

“He rarely looked at a newspaper. Didn’t understand the nation’s habit of clubbing itself each morning with a list of tragedy and doom before trying to go cheerfully into the day. Like arsenic, it had to have a cumulative effect.”

Munro short stories earn long praise

She’s from Canada (which, if you check an atlas, isn’t too far from Minnesota). And she won a Noble Prize for her writing.

So I thought I ought to check out author Alice Munro, even though I don’t normally read short stories. Or at least, not Short Stories in the formal term (if you think about it, some Facebook posts might be considered short stories).

Vintage MunroMy parents gave me Vintage Munro for Christmas, and like a long winter’s nap, I settled in. And I must say, I liked it.

Of course, I loved Munro’s lovely descriptions of ordinary things, like trying on clothes: “The fit was all right–the skirt shorter than what she was used to, but then what she was used to was not the style. There was no problem with the suit. The problem was with what stuck out of it. Her neck and her face and her hair and her big hands and thick legs” (from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”).

Her works are like puzzles. They end ambiguously, and you find yourself turning to the beginning to figure out how the title applies to the story. I went a little crazy after reading “Carried Away” when a character appears in the story 30 years after he was decapitated. How did that happen? What did that mean? I turned to Google to discover the symbolism. Munro is a thinker like that.

“If you read a lot of Alice Munro’s works carefully, sooner or later, in one of her short stories, you will come face to face with yourself,” said Professor Peter Englund in the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. “This is an encounter that always leaves you shaken and often changed, but never crushed.”

I found that line in “Differently,” a story of a woman who finds a lover, then finds herself: “Trouble began, perhaps, as soon as they said that they loved each other.”

Like a short story writer who earns Noble Prizes, Munro writes of small things and big things: health care decisions and death, letters and love, errands and endings. She is worth picking up.

My Top 5 best books I read in 2014

It’s the time of year to assess one’s accomplishments and progress in the past 12 months, and today I’m sorry to admit I’ve read only 21 books in 2014.

I’m a writer after all, and good writers read. My goal was to read 57 books so I didn’t achieve even half my aspiration. I know this thanks to the Goodreads Reading Challenge which tracks my reading achievements meticulously. I also know I have 138 books marked “to read,” which symbolizes nearly seven years of reading at the rate I’m going.

So I need to step it up in 2015.

While I set some new goals, I’m sharing my favorite books from the past year so if you’re interested in adding to your already long reading list, here are some good ones.

I’m giving Honorable Mentions to two fiction books and one memoir:

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn lives up to the hype. Reading the book is an experience. I saw the movie, too, and I have to appreciate Ben Affleck’s portrayal of a thoroughly unlikable guy, but the book is even better. Read with popcorn if necessary.

“The Middle Place” by Kelly Corrigan was the second-best memoir I read this year. Corrigan writes about cancer with humor, and I loved her nonlinear storytelling.

I chose only one fiction book and one memoir as my Best In Show reads this year, so “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt has to settle for an Honorable Mention, but I love this book so much I’m still carrying it around (and I mean that literally). The writing is descriptive in fresh ways, and the story is so satisfying. The only thing wrong with this book is the length, and that’s only a problem if you’re trying to read 57 books in a year. I still savored every word.

My Best In Show award for fiction goes to a fine book recommended by many friends who got to it sooner than I did: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver has been around a while, but it’s still a marvelous read that raises real and important questions about the world while telling a compelling story. I’m reminded to read more Barbara Kingsolver.

Interestingly, like “The Poisonwood Bible” is set in the Congo, my Best In Show memoir is also set in an exotic locale: “A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story” tells the story of Afghanistan’s recent history while telling the personal story of memorist Qais Akbar Omar. I met him when he spoke at this year’s Association of Personal Historians annual conference, and the only thing better than his book is hearing him share his humor and earnestness in person.

In my review of “A Fort of Nine Towers” from my blog on memoirs and writing, I called it “a piece of literature, an enlightening historical and cultural document and a beautifully told story.” Even two months after finishing it, I remember how I wept when I closed the last page, so sorry the story had ended but relieved knowing Qais Akbar Omar was still living and creating more if his story. That’s a sign of a great memoir and book.

Have you read something amazing in 2014? I’m making my list for 2015, and I’d love to hear recommendations. Here’s to more good reads in the coming year.

Novel about girls, men proves provocative

Cris Mazza weaves together the stories of a virgin dork, a teenage siren and a pair of pitiable sex slaves in the novel Various Men Who Knew Us As Girls.

various menThough I tend toward nonfiction, I picked up this book because one of the “various men” is a teacher who has sex with a teenage student (sound familiar? if not, get thee forthwith to Amazon to pick up a copy of my memoir, “The Percussionist’s Wife”). I was curious how an author might handle such a story in a fictional setting.

Set in the mid-2000s with vast flashbacks to the late ’70s, Various Men reads like a memoir (indeed, the foreword reads, “Because this is a true story, I’ve had to change all the names, even my own. The rest is true”). The interplay between the different stories is inspired; the juxtapositioning raises questions about desire and harassment and thoroughly muddies the line between socially acceptable and criminal.

Hester is the main character, the late-blooming dork. Hester. Really, I know. Clearly an obvious reference to the adulterous protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. There are probably other literary references that went over my head, and Mazza’s choice of Cabaret as a major device might reference decadence and heartbreak or it might mean more than that; I’m not sure.

The whole book reads like that, like there’s an inside joke a more astute reader might catch. The conditional verb forms in the flashbacks are awkward and interfere with a compelling narrative, especially in the beginning, but the story climaxes (yes, I just said that) satisfactorily. Though she runs the risk of self-conscious belly button gazing (she admits as much and then writes, “Tell their story, leave your extraneous self-absorption out of it. Please realize: it’s too late now), Mazza successfully explores the nature of sensuality, sexuality and pornography, and she refuses to classify any character in black or white, predator or victim.

Like some of its characters, the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

By the way, I notice Mazza, a Chicagoland author, released a second edition with a new cover last month.


If you haven’t read this novel yet, read it now because it’s good, like a hot dog (and this review is full of spoilers)

Nick arrives home on his fifth anniversary to find a crime scene and his wife missing.

Who abducted her and possibly killed her?

Right. It’s always the husband. The husband always did it.

Or did he?

That’s the set-up for Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl.

gone girlThis was the It book of late 2012 and early 2013, and I read enough reviews to pique my interest and invest in the hardcover. As part of my “what matters” resolutions this year, I resolved to read only “good” books — books considered classics, ones that made “best of” lists, bestsellers or at least books positively reviewed by someone I respect. When I managed to read only 34 books in 2013 (despite resolving to read a book a week), I realized how few books I’ll be able to digest in a lifetime, so I want to make them good ones.

Gone Girl has sold at least 3 million copies, so it qualifies. I pulled it off my bookshelf and began reading.

This book is spell binding.

And I don’t even like fiction that much. Or mysteries. Or thrillers.

The characters are unlikable. The narrators are unreliable. There are a lot of expletives.

There are unbelievable plot twists. The ending is less than satisfying (one-star reviewers on Amazon, by far, hate the ending).


I. Could. Not. Put. It. Down.

I stayed up reading ’til midnight last night, and I accomplished nothing today until I was done.

Despite being unlikable, these characters demanded I stick around to find out how their story turns out.

Here’s where the spoilers begin: This book is best enjoyed if you don’t know what happens. If you have even an inkling that you want to read this book, READ NO FURTHER.


This book is an experience to savor, and I don’t want to taint it. So stop reading now if you don’t want me to ruin it for you.


Not kidding.

I liked Gone Girl because I could relate. Nick, the husband, is an out-of-work writer. He and Amy, his amazing wife, live in the Midwest. Nick cheats on his wife with one of his students. Amy observes that in the suburbs, Republicans go to Sam’s Club and Democrats go to Costco. “And everyone buys in bulk because — unlike Manhattanites — they all have space to store twenty-four jars of sweet pickles.”

I adored Gillian Flynn’s writing and wit. One of Flynn’s best lines is a commentary on readers and a lot of book reviewers:

“It’s good.” She chirps the last bit as if that were all to say about a book: It’s good or it’s bad. I liked it or I didn’t. No discussions of the writing, the themes, the nuances, the structure. Just good or bad. Like a hot dog.

Despite the unreliable narrators and preposterous twists (really? Amy anticipated Plan B? and C? and D?), the plotting is brilliant. I wish I would have thought of it.

I have to confess: Halfway through the book, I was rooting for Amy. Hating Nick for demanding that Amy be Cool Amy, for turning away from her when she revealed she didn’t like everything he liked and for finding solace in the arms of another (younger) woman. Hoping Amy’s revenge scheme would work and that Nick would pay for being a callow narcissist.

But Amy is a sociopath and she goes too far. The book, in its soul (if it has a soul, and I’m not sure it does) is about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong. It’s a mystery. I read it like I could figure it out, and you can’t figure it out. There’s no figuring out some things. Some things are mysteries. As unsatisfying as the ending is, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the characters.

Gone Girl is good. I liked it. Like a hot dog.

Not sure what to read next? How about a book about what to read next

If you, like me, make resolutions, and if you, like me, resolve to read more in 2014, and if you, like me, appreciate a quick read once in a while, and if you, like me, like free books, then you should check out “Best Books of 2013: Reader’s Guide.”

Reader's GuideThe Amazon Books Editors put out this little book outlining their favorite picks in 2013. Their choices include fiction and nonfiction.

Each chapter, if you call them that (the book is only 92 pages and it covers 20 picks), describes a book and offers an extra, like a review or an author interview. As an author myself, I love reading what other authors have to say, but even if you’re not a writer, the insight from the author might help you decide whether to read their book.

Not only can you mark Book 1 off your list of books to read in 2014, but you’ll have a whole bunch of new titles to consider reading next. I’ve already added “Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt and “Tenth of December” by George Saunders to my reading list.

Because this is Amazon, after all, every single book is available on Kindle and “Best Books” itself is available only as an ebook on Kindle. So you have to have a Kindle (or a Kindle app on your iDevice or Droid) to enjoy it, but the good news is, it’s free. Here’s the link (you’re welcome).