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

American Dirt

I was inclined to not like this book with so much going against it  – Oprah picked it for her book club and several literary reviewers were critical of the author’s credentials to write about the topic. From the moment I started reading American Dirt, I could not put it down.  Jeanine Cummins does not have the easy style of  Isabel Allende or Sandra Cisneros nor the entrancing wording of Zafon or the magic of Marquez, but she knows how to tell a story.

American Dirt is the tale of a mother and her son trying to escape from a Mexican drug cartel after they witnessed the brutal murder of everyone they loved, including their grandmother, at a family barbecue. Luca is the brave intelligent eight year old with a penchant for memorizing geographical details; his mother, Lydia, is the college educated book store owner. Her husband Sebastian was the investigative journalist whose inflammatory articles precipitated the slaughter.

Following  Lydia and Luca as they narrowly escape through roadblocks, walk miles in the scorching heat, and hoist themselves onto the tops of cargo trains, creates a thrilling and breathless image of migrants trying to escape. Their flight to the North, as they leave behind their home, their language and culture, and their lifetime friends is depicted as their the only choice to be able to survive.

Cummins sometimes reverts to flowery descriptions, perhaps trying to balance the horrors, and sprinkles Spanish idioms and words into conversations, perhaps to offer authenticity. Both can be annoying distractions.  As the story develops, the journey is harrowing and fearful, with the tenseness of a thriller and the expectation and hope that all will be well in the end.  Cummins’ characters reveal the best and worst of themselves and of humanity.

The book ends on a hopeful note, with room for speculation about what new challenges the future will bring, but Cummins adds fifteen pages in her notes and acknowledgements at the end, explaining the purpose of the book, how she wrote it, and why she hopes reading it will change readers’ view of migrants and border policy – perhaps stirring the controversy she now finds in some of the reactions to the book.

The story is a thrilling page-turner.  Although the characters and scenes may be stereotypical, the historical notes are disturbing and timely.  As far as whether or not Cummins had the right to write the book, Leon Krauze noted in Slate:

“There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu…”

However, he goes on to say Cummins’ main characters are frauds.  Migrants fleeing to the North ” are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy.”  And, he notes, leaders of drug cartels could never be Bill Gates in this or any life, as the author suggests in describing her villain, Javier, the handsome aspiring poet who loves to read “Love in the Time of Cholera” (another Oprah pick).

Right, this is fiction, isn’t it?  Not a documentary.  Is the danger that some readers will forget?  Maybe…

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Although Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek uses the Pack Horse Library of the Kentucky hills as her setting, her story revolves around the life of a “blue” woman raised in poverty and suffering the ignorance and prejudice of her backwoods neighbors for having blue skin color..

I was anxious to read Richardson’s tale after learning about the controversy comparing JoJo Moyes’ recent book –  The Giver of Stars – to hers.  Both use the Pack Horse Library of the WPA (President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration) of the nineteen thirties to tell their stories.  Read my review of Moyes’ book here – https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/12/the-giver-of-stars/.

There are similarities but Richardson tells the better tale.

Cussy thinks she is the last of the blue people, those whose skin is blue – later discovered as congenital methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder reducing the level of oxygen in the blood.  Richardson introduces this phenomenon not only within the ignorance of the townsfolk’s reaction to someone who is different but also with the medical background and supposed cures Cussy endures for a while to be white.

As a Pack Horse librarian, Cussy rides her stubborn mule Junia to deliver books to the poor living in the hills. Her hard life matches her neighbors but through her kindness, courage, and determination, she manages to instill a love of reading and change lives through books.

A few of Cussy’s mishaps and adventures resemble those of Moyes’ characters, but Richardson develops a unique focus in her heroine.  Following Cussy on the trail to deliver books introduces many of the same kinds of folks encountered in the hills of Moyes book, but only a few draw special interest.  Cussy’s life as a “blue” has more impact.

I had not known about the “blue” people of the Kentucky hills and Richardson provides a unique addendum to her book with pictures and more research information.  I almost skipped reading this book, thinking I knew all I needed from Moyes book but The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is worth reading.  Richardson gives a different perspective to poverty and prejudice, while writing an informative and entertaining tale.

 

New Books to Read in 2020

Some of my favorite authors have new books this year:

  1. Sophie Hannah – Perfect Little Children
  2. Chris Bohjalian – The Red Lotus
  3. Hilary Mantel – The Mirror and the Light
  4. Donna Leon – Trace Elements
  5. Carol Goodman – The Sea of Lost Girls
  6. Anne Tyler – The Redhead by the Side of the Road
  7. Isabel Allende – A Long Petal in the Sea
  8. Lisa Gardner – When You See Me

 

  1. Sophie Hannah (Author of The Nightingale and How to Hold a Grudge) has a new suspense mystery coming in February – Perfect Little Children:

” Beth hasn’t seen Flora for twelve years. She doesn’t want to see her today—or ever again. But she can’t resist. She parks outside the open gates of Newnham House, watches from across the road as Flora arrives and calls to her children Thomas and Emily to get out of the car.

There’s something terribly wrong. Flora looks the same, only older. Twelve years ago, Thomas and Emily were five and three years old. Today, they look precisely as they did then. They are Thomas and Emily without a doubt, but they haven’t changed at all. They are no taller, no older. Why haven’t they grown? How is it possible that they haven’t grown up?”

 

2. If you need more suspense, Chris Bohjalian (The Flight Attendant) has The Red Lotus coming in March:

” an American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met.”

3. For fans of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel is finally delivering the third book in the trilogy in March – The Mirror and the Light:

“With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision.”

4. Need a taste of Italy?  Donna Leon returns with a new Guido Brunetti mystery in Trace Elements, March 2020:

“When a dying hospice patient gasps that her husband was murdered over “bad money,” Commissario Brunetti softly promises he and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, will look into what initially appears to be a private family tragedy. They discover that the man had worked in the field, collecting samples of contamination for a company that measures the cleanliness of Venice’s water supply, and that he had recently died in a mysterious motorcycle accident. Piecing together the tangled threads, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region. But justice in this case proves to be ambiguous, as Brunetti is reminded it can be when he reads Aeschylus’s classic play The Eumenides.”

5. Carol Goodman (The Lake of Dead Languages) has a new romantic mystery coming in March – The Sea of Lost Girls:

“Tess has worked hard to keep her past buried, where it belongs. Now she’s the wife to a respected professor at an elite boarding school, where she also teaches. Her seventeen-year-old son, Rudy, whose dark moods and complicated behavior she’s long worried about, seems to be thriving: he has a lead role in the school play and a smart and ambitious girlfriend. Tess tries not to think about the mistakes she made eighteen years ago, and mostly, she succeeds.

And then one more morning she gets a text at 2:50 AM: it’s Rudy, asking for help. When Tess picks him up she finds him drenched and shivering, with a dark stain on his sweatshirt. Four hours later, Tess gets a phone call from the Haywood school headmistress: Lila Zeller, Rudy’s girlfriend, has been found dead on the beach, not far from where Tess found Rudy just hours before. The more Tess learns about Haywood’s fabled history, the more she realizes that not all skeletons will stay safely locked in the closet.

6. And Anne Tyler, one of my favorite authors, has a new book in April: The Redhead by the Side of the Road:

“about misperception, second chances, and the sometimes elusive power of human connection…”

Can’t Wait?  These are coming in January:

7. Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal in the Sea

“From the New York Times bestselling author of The House of the Spirits, this epic novel spanning decades and crossing continents follows two young people as they flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in search of a place.”

8. Lisa Gardner’s When You See Me

Detective D. D. Warren, Flora Dane, and Kimberly Quincy—in a twisty new thriller, as they investigate a mysterious murder from the past…which points to a dangerous and chilling present-day crime.”

 

My Favorite Books of 2019

What did you read this year?  Did you keep a list?  Do you remember the good ones?

It’s almost Christmas Eve, and I have a few books on my shelf I may finish before the end of the year, but I decided to stop to look back on the books I read in 2019, I found a few with stories still resonating with me, and others with plots I could not remember.

When this Sunday’s New York Times ran an article on the front page on Where the Crawdads Sing, i was reminded how much I liked that book.  Although I read the book in 2018, it is still at the top of the best seller list, and worth mentioning this year.  Alexandra Alter in her New York Times article details the book’s unlikely success, selling more print copies “than any other adult title this year – fiction or nonfiction…blowing away the combined print sales of new novels by John Grisham, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen King.”

The book has it all – a murder mystery, a survival story, romance, a little useful information, and a recommendation from a famous movie star – but it also has a page-turning compelling narrative mixed with beautiful explanations of nature.  The author, after all, spent years in the wild herself studying lions and tigers and elephants.  Like many writers, Delia Owens is a loner and an observer.  She wrote this – her first work of fiction – approaching seventy years old and after divorcing her husband of forty years.  It’s never too late.

I reviewed the book when it was first published and immediately starting recommending it.  Here is my review:

https://nochargebookbunch.com/2018/08/22/book-club-bait-compare-a-novel-and-a-nonfiction-study-by-the-same-author/

If you haven’t read the book, it’s never too late.

Favorite books from 2019 I remember:

January:   The Overstory by Richard Power – I read this twice to not embarrass myself in a new book club, but I could probably read it again and find more I missed.  I hesitated to recommend the book because it was dense and difficult, but if you want a challenge on a cold winter night, give it a try.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/01/12/the-overstory/

February:  The Dakota Winters by Tom Barbash – If you are a fan of John Lennon, you will enjoy this and possibly find it a good book club pick. Here is my review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/02/28/the-dakota-winters/

March:  The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – A Story for dog lovers.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/03/09/early-spring-fever/

April:  Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley – It’s complicated, but the characters are finely drawn with unexpected consequences in the Tessa Hadley style.  My review:https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/04/18/late-in-the-day/

In May and June, life got in the way, and I did not feel like reading or writing, but finally books lured me back.

July:   The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware – a friend gave me a preview copy of this thriller and it was just what I needed to get me back into reading. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/07/28/the-turn-of-the-key-by-ruth-ware/

August:    Lady in the Lake by Laura Lipman – a thriller with a surprise ending. My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/08/22/lady-in-the-lake-by-laura-lippman/

September:   The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Patchett says she writes the same story each time she writes a book, but this one resonated with me because I grew up in her setting.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/09/25/the-dutch-girl/

October:  This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger – I agree with my friend about Krueger’s style being close to Kent Haruf.  An easy book and a promising book club pick.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/10/15/this-tender-land/

November: The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett – An old peaceful treasure set in Maine.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/11/08/historical-diversions-chevalier-and-orne/

December: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper and Carlson Ellis – A picture book with a perennial message.  My review: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2019/12/21/the-shortest-day/

 

Please share your favorite books.  I am always looking for another good book to read.  

Happy Holidays – here’s hoping Santa brings lots of good books under your tree.