Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

Book List from Author Christina Clancy

When the independent bookstore Where the Sidewalk Ends sponsored a Zoom discussion recently of Christina Clancy’s new book, The Second Home, the author graciously  panned her camera to her pile of books, precariously tilting in a pile nearby.  She offered a few books to pre-order, and some now available in her stash.  I decided to find out more about each, to better decide if I wanted to read any.  I am still waiting for her book to arrive, but, in the meantime, her book list is full of good ideas.  Here are her recommendations and my notes on each:

Books to Pre-Order

  • Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie – publication September, 2020 – “coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s quest for acceptance in post-World War II Japan.”
  • The Kindest Lie by Nancy Johnson – publication February, 2021- “following the merging lives of Ruth, a black female engineer who seeks out the child she gave away, and Midnight, a young white boy struggling to find his place in the very poverty Ruth managed to escape.”
  • Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson – publication January 2021  – from the publisher: “A novel about divorce, marriage, and everything that comes in between (money, class, ambition, and opportunity), Better Luck Next Time is a hilarious yet poignant examination of the ways friendship can save us, love can destroy us, and the family we create can be stronger than the family we come from.

Books Available Now

  • Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson  – Joanna Rakoff reviewed the book on the New York Times Sunday Book Review with the headline: Screwball Comedies.  “…set in 2009, (the story) begins with a nod to a real-life scandal: a Madoff-style swindler has worked his charm on Mimi Banning, a reclusive writer. She was on the brink of losing not just her house but also the copyright to her book. Mimi calls her editor, Isaac Vargas. She’s ready to write another novel, provided he supply her with “a huge advance and an assistant, bankrolled by the publisher.” Vargas sends Mimi his own girl Friday, Alice, a bossy, pragmatic Nebraskan, thinking she’ll keep his star writer on track to meet her deadline…High jinks ensue.”

 

  • The Grace Year  – thriller by Kim Liggett – “In Garner County, girls are told they have the power to lure grown men from their beds, to drive women mad with jealousy. They believe their very skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, the potent essence of youth;{consequently}, they are banished for their sixteenth year, to release their magic into the wild so they can return purified and ready for marriage. But not all of them will make it home alive.”

 

  • Remembrance – historical fiction by Rita Woods  – Denny Bryce in his review for NPR says: “Rita Woods’ debut Remembrance is a complex story of loss and survival told across 200 years by four women, united by the color of their skin and the supernatural powers they command. It’s an ambitious, absorbing novel…Woods creates memorable characters in all four settings, each with a distinct purpose that helps make the impossible relatable. Remembrance is a well-researched, epic historical fantasy that, despite its flaws, delivers upon the themes of pain and suffering, loss and survival — and how they can drive the creation of a safe place that by its very existence is timeless.”

 

  • Summer Longing – light beach read by Jamie Brenner – “Ruth Cooperman moves to Provincetown, Mass., hoping to slow down. She finds an abandoned baby on the front porch of her rented beach house. Couple Elise and Fern move back in to the cottage they rented to Ruth to care for the infant rather than call the authorities. Ruth’s quiet retirement becomes even more crowded after her estranged daughter, Olivia, agrees to visit, while Ruth continues her search for a house to buy…Elise and Fern bond with the baby and dream of making her their own. However, the mystery of the baby’s mother lurks in the background, and Ruth’s tenuous relationship with her daughter, as well as the connections created as the town comes together to support Elise, Fern, and the baby, will soon be tested.

And the Books I Plan to Read First

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson – from the New York Review of Books: “Tove Jansson distills the essence of the summer…into twenty-two crystalline vignettes. This brief novel tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and Sophia’s grandmother, nearing the end of hers, as they spend the summer on a tiny unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. The grandmother is unsentimental and wise, if a little cranky; Sophia is impetuous and volatile, but she tends to her grandmother with the care of a new parent. Together they amble over coastline and forest in easy companionship…{and} discuss things that matter to young and old alike: life, death, the nature of God and of love…”

The Imperfects by Amy Myerson –  “The estranged Miller siblings Beck, Ashley and Jake find themselves together for the first time in years, forced to confront old resentments and betrayals, when they find a secret inheritance hidden among their dead grandmother’s possessions—the Florentine Diamond, a 137-carat yellow gemstone that went missing from the Austrian Empire a century ago. They begin investigating her past only to realize how little they know about their brave, resilient grandmother. As the Millers race to determine whether they are the rightful heirs to the diamond and the fortune it promises, they uncover a past more tragic and powerful than they ever could have imagined, forever changing their connection to their heritage and each other.  Inspired by the true story of the real, still-missing Florentine Diamond.”

I read Amy Myerson’s first book – The Bookshop of Yesterdays:  my review

A Book Recommendation from Its Author – The Sword and the Shield

I had to admire Peniel Joseph against the backdrop of bookshelves proudly displaying multiple copies of The Sword and the Shield – not the spines, but the covers lined up on a wall of bookshelves behind him, as he discussed the controversy of tearing down monuments with Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour.  What great publicity.  Of course, I had to find the book and of course he is the author.

In a review of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.,  Mark Whitaker for the Washington Post notes:

“Joseph, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, has made his name studying the Black Power movement and wrote the definitive biography of Stokely Carmichael, the mercurial leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In turning to King and Malcolm, he ventures into far more densely covered historical territory… {and}  for the most part he smartly zeros in on the relatively brief period during which King and Malcolm actively influenced each other, even if they had no personal contact. It is a fascinating story, full of subtle twists and turns, that unfolded in three phases.”

The New York Times offered an excerpt from the book – you can check it out here.

This might be a good time to revisit their lives by reading the book.

 

Redhead By the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s quirky characters always resonate with me, from the annoying travel writer in The Accidental Tourist to meddling Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Her setting in  Redhead By the Side of the Road is once again Baltimore, and again she has family as the fulcrum for examining the life of her hero.

Micah Mortimer is a forty something bachelor who manages an old apartment house for the free rent in the basement, and dabbles in computer repair with his small company Tech Hermit.  Micah has a structured and organized life, bordering on obsessive – the kind of guy who must have all the pencils sharpened and lined up, if he used them, and has a schedule for cleaning, eating, waking up, and most of his life.  Although he has had girlfriends, Cass, an elementary school teacher, is the latest he has lost, and he is befuddled by what he did to make her leave him.

Brink, a young freshman in college, and the son of Micah’s first love, appears suddenly at his doorstep.  Brink is running away allegedly looking for his birth father, but the real reasons surfaces later.  Micah gives the boy coffee and a place to sleep for one night, assuring Brink he could not be his father (he never slept with his mother), and then sends him away when the boy refuses to call his mother to reassure her.  Eventually, Brink confesses and reunites with his family, but not before he ruffles old memories in Micah.

The redhead at the side of the road makes an appearance only twice in the story, and both times this reader wonders if it is symbolic of Micah getting older with his eyesight starting to fail, or some manifestation of his own deperate life – the redhead appears to be sitting, huddled with her head down and clasping her knees.  The first time the redhead appeared, I laughed out loud when Tyler revealed the true identity.  The second time, I wondered if his not seeing clearly said something about his relationships.

Through a series of incidents with his family – all older sisters and broods; with Lorna, Brinks’s mother; and with a funny assortment of customers needing help with their computers, Micah reevaluates his life and comes to a moment of awakening.  The ending reveals his vulnerability and offers hope for better connections with human nature. Tyler wryly reaffirms it’s always a good time to change your life.

This might be the best time to read Tyler’s story, not only for Tyler’s subtle humor but also for her message.   When all of us are experiencing our routines being changed through circumstances we cannot control, reading about a man whose life seemed happy with his ordinary regimen and suddenly has to adjust to outside forces is relatable.  It’s comforting to know he not only survived but life got better – eventually.

Related Review: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2016/06/21/vinegar-girl-by-anne-tyler/

 

Gothic Thrillers: The Guest List and The Sea of Lost Girls

For now, I am content with easy mysteries and psychological thrillers; I just finished reading The Guest List by Lucy Foley and The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman.  Both reminded me of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies with a cast of women betrayed by a male villain, who satisfyingly  gets his at the end – with a surprise twist.

The Sea of Lost Girls

Goodman’s tales are old friends; I’ve read The Lake of Dead Languages (2001) through to The Widow’s House (2017).  The Sea of Lost Girls has her usual Gothic flavor, set in an academic setting, this time in an old boarding school in Maine, with a haunting past of dead girls and ghosts.  Tess, the heroine and former student, returns as a teacher with a past.  A young girl is murdered near the beach with suspects ranging from the heroine’s son to her former lover and her husband.  Goodman weaves the psychological thriller around the lives of past abuses and present day secrets.  A fun and quick read.

The Guest List

Foley’s The Guest List has a wedding fueling its thrills and a remote Irish island provides the chills. The horror on the night of the wedding jolts the opening, and the rest of the story backtracks to lead the reader to the big reveal.

The groom is a handsome TV star, but slowly his chiseled looks take on the aura of a Dorian Gray.  His college buddies confirm his background and lurid past, as they party as the guests from hell.  Five narrators, each marking separate chapters, slowly weave the story to its surprise ending: the wedding planner and owner of the island, the bride, her young half sister and bridesmaid, the best man and old college buddy of the groom, and Hannah, the wife of Charlie, former lover of the bride.  The story evolves slowly, giving the reader time to assimilate the characters and try to guess the victim as well as the murderer, but it was a surprise to me.  Fun and satisfying.