The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.

Seasonal Work – Short But Not Sweet

I am usually not a fan of short stories, unless they are by Saki or O’Henry, but my tastes have changed during the neverending pandemic. Laura Lippman’s collection of sassy and wry short stories in Seasonal Work has small bites of reality mixed with humor, and sometimes horror. Just right for the impatient cynic who needs a bit of time being in somebody else’s world – but only for a short time. Lippman notes her stories were written between 2007 and 2019 but her Baltimore settings are often much earlier – before the world turned upside down with the pandemic but also before awareness of language and ideas became more carefully adjudicated.

Lippman offers a peek into the lives of children, a grifter stepfather, a woman in her prime, a book stealer, a con artist, victims who get revenge, a ghost who finally escapes into the light, and more.

One of my favorites is “The Everyday Wife” with references to watching the Watergate trial and The NewlyWed game on TV in the seventies. Judith, the young bored wife, has a mother who calls her every morning to check in. Judith walks the neighborhood and soon discovers its secrets with an exciting event leading to Judith working for NSA. I have a friend who worked for NSA and her response was close to Judith’s when asked what she did: “I can’t tell you…”

Having recently seen the movie “Enola Holmes” about Sherlock’s younger sister who yearns to be a detective like her brother, I had high expectations for eleven year old Sheila Locke-Holmes in Lippman’s collection. With “Harriet the Spy” as her tutor, Sheila snoops but accidentally uncovers a piece of her father’s past in her mother’s jewelry box. The ending has a poignant lesson in growing up.

The collection is divided into four sections, with three stories in each section. The last section has “Slow Burner,” about a cheating husband, a suspicious wife, and an extra cell phone. The last story, “Just one More,” the only story updated to today, is set during the pandemic. Amazing what people will do to stay entertained during lockdown.

All the stories feature strong women and follow the O’Henry model of ending with a surprise but more in keeping with Edgar Allan Poe. In some cases, you will know it is coming, but others are unexpected.

A great colllection of short stories. I thought I might just read one and come back later, but I found myself looking forward to the next and the next, until I’d read them all. But, beware, if you are looking for a cozy mystery, Lippman does not go there. Revenge and murder are more her style.

One of my favorite books by Laura Lippman is “Sunburn” – here’s my review from when it was first published in 2018:

In Sunburn, Lippman keeps the reader off balance, acknowledging as the story opens that Polly Costello has killed her abusive husband and abandoned her two girls, one disabled with cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, Polly seems to be a sympathetic character – her life sentence is pardoned by the governor, and she wins an insurance settlement against the hospital where her disabled daughter was born. The handsome private detective, hired by a crooked insurance salesman for his share of the money, falls in love with her. Will he turn her in or run away with her? Lippman’s clever twists are not that simple, and she maintains the suspense – juggling the good guys and bad guys, and flipping intentions back and forth with another murder in the middle of it all. It’s fun to read, and the ending is a satisfying surprise I did not predict.

A Single Rose

In a rare interview, French author Muriel Barbery explained her love of Kyoto – a love beautifully revealed in her latest book – A Single Rose. Barbery noted:

“…we have long been lovers of Japanese culture and since we moved to Kyoto, a town that we are head over heels in love with, our feelings for this country have been confirmed. Our fascination began mostly as an aesthetic one, and has remained so: we are fascinated by the ability to create pure beauty, at the same time refined and pure; the kind of thing you see in the slow, sweet sumptuousness of Ozu’s films, in the splendor of the Japanese gardens, in the discreet sophistication of ikebana … It has had us under its spell for over ten years. And we are still at the dawn of our discoveries … But what we also love about Japan, without negating its somber and terrible face, is its repertoire of behaviors: the subtle politesse, the sense of security that results from social solidarity, a very special form of candor, as well. We don’t know how long these things can resist the infernal spirals of the contemporary world, but for now they make life here incredibly sweet and civil.”

A Single Rose tells the story of forty- year old Rose, who travels from France to Kyoto for the reading of her estranged Japanese father’s will. The story reads like a meditation with descriptions of gardens and temples, interspersed with notes on culture and folklore. The plot is simple snd predictable, but Barbery’s strength is transporting each reader to his or her own reflective inner world.

A short but worthwhile read, the book offers some quiet solace in these times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Christmas Just Isn’t The Same

It’s been a while – no real excuses except feeling too distracted to write – but not to read. I have a list I will share, but first – Joan Didion. I remember reading The White Album years ago, and when I heard of her death, I had to stop reading my current book to find an old copy. Her first line lives on as one of the best first lines of a book – “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Enough to inspire me to reread it to discover what Didion’s words might mean to me now, forty years and a never-ending pandemic later, and if they would have the same impact. I struggled to think of a current writer who has the same impact with her clarity of observations.

Zadie Smith in her tribute to Didion in The New Yorker, noted:

It is a peculiarity of Joan Didion’s work that her most ironic formulations are now read as sincere, and her sincerest provocations taken with a large pinch of salt. Perhaps when your subject is human delusion you end up drawing that quality out of others, even as you seek to define and illuminate it. How else to explain the odd ways we invert her meanings? We tell ourselves stories in order to live. A sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo.”

Joan Didion’s name may be more familiar to modern audiences than her work, except perhaps for “The Year of Magical Thinking,”(she wrote five novels, six screenplays, and fourteen works of nonfiction), but it’s never too late to read books guaranteed to inspire, jolt, and perhaps persuade you – “…while everyone else drank the Kool-Aid, she stuck to Coca-Cola …”

Books I Have Been Reading Recently

Never by Ken Follett – slow start but picks up into a roller coaster ride – watch out for the ending

The Book of Magic by Alice Hoffman – the fourth book of witchery – fun to read and wish you were part of the Owens family of witches

Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France by Katie Quinn – a better version of Eat, Pray, Love with the author’s tongue-in-cheek memoir, good information, and a few great recipes.

Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen – the first in a trilogy. The book made the Washington Post’s top ten for 2021. The story revolves around an associate pastor at a Protestant church in suburban Chicago who’s troubled by his own envy and adultery. “The novel presents an electrifying examination of the irreducible complexities of an ethical life.” Take the time to savor Franzen’s use of words, and the inevitable thoughtfulness he will instill in you, as you read.

The Party Crasher by Sophie Kinsellla – read just for fun – book candy

What I am Reading Now

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weil – I hope it has a happy ending…

Books on My To Read List

  • Gilded by Mariss Meyer
  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
  • These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
  • A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader by Fran Lebowitz
  • The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier
  • Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

Huck Finn on the Lincoln Highway

A reviewer recently noted Amor Towles’ new novel The Lincoln Highway follows the theme of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Just for fun, I thought I’d try to compare them.

If ever there were a rapscallion like Huck, it would be Duchess, the young escapee from Salina prison, who hides out in the trunk when the Sheriff takes Emmett back home to attend his father’s funeral, and then “borrows” Emmett’s inheritance. Instead of rambling down the Mississippi on a raft, they are driving down the old Lincoln Highway in a Studebaker.

All the boys are on an adventure, and the characters they meet could more closely align with the journey of the Odyssey, neatly used as an inspiration in the book of heroes by Professor Abacus Applenathe, a gift from the town’s librarian to Billy, the eight year old younger brother of Emmett. Billy still believes in dreams and magic, while Emmett and Duchess are jaded at eighteen, one looking for easy street, the other for a better life.

I’ll leave it to you to connect the characters they meet to famous literary or mythological counterparts, but Penelope is there, in the form of Sally – true and waiting.

It’s a fun road trip to make, although the switchbacks at each chapter to another character speaking can be disconcerting. In the end, some keep traveling the highway while others come to their roads end.

For more details, check out NPR’s Heller McAlpin’s review – https://www.npr.org/2021/10/05/1043187103/amor-towles-the-lincoln-highway-review