Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Irish writer Sebastian Barry's prose reads like poetry. It sings; it has cadence, rhythm; it is often so beautiful that it breaks your heart. It reminds me of the poetry of his fellow countryman, William Butler Yeats, and that is high praise indeed. Even a visceral account of a battle between the Army and a Sioux village reads like poetry, powerful in its brutal beauty. Consider this passage:

"Fire, fire, men, calls our sergeant, and we reload like lunatics and fire. Powder, ball, ram, cap, cock, and fire. Powder, ball, ram, cap, cock, and fire. Over and over, and over and over Death at his frantic task in the village, gathering souls. We work in our lather of strange sorrow, but utterly revengeful, fiercely so, soldiers of intentful termination, of total annihilation. Nothing else will slake our thirst. Nothing else will fill our hunger."

Narrating the story is the Irishman Thomas McNulty, who as a young teenager stows away on a ship to America to escape the famine in Ireland. Together with his chance-met companion John Cole, he finds work in a rough mining town, dressing as a woman and dancing with the men in the saloon. Soon, as the two age, they can no longer be convincingly female, so they sign up with the U.S. Army to fight Indians. When the Civil War breaks out they fight for the Union in an all-Irish regiment, even directly confronting another all-Irish regiment from the Confederacy. After the war's end, Thomas and John Cole still have obstacles to overcome and battles to fight before they can enjoy the peace they had sought in America.

This is a story about genocide. It is a story of war and its terrors, and about the blood-lust of battle that can overwhelm even the best of men. It is a story of America in the making. But most of all it is a story about love--the love of Thomas and John Cole for their adopted Sioux daughter and the love, both spiritual and physical, of the two for each other.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. It tells a fascinating story in language that is lyrical and addictive. What more could you want?


I would also highly recommend Barry's A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture. Barry is my favorite living writer.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


I hated this book. However,I don't quarrel with the glowing reviews which praise Canin's writing. If A Doubter's Almanac had been poorly written I would not have hated it as much, because it would not have become real to me. But I did believe it and I did become so involved that I wanted to step into the book and drown the central character in his pond or, at the very least, to spit on him and call him nasty names.

This is the generation-spanning story of an intellectually gifted family. Central to the plot is Milo Andret--a mathematical genius (perhaps), a narcissist (most certainly), an alcoholic (always), a remote father (except when he is teaching his son math), and a horrible husband (until he just walks out on his wife and children). And yet, as he is dying a lingering death from liver failure, his ex-girlfriend (who is married to someone else), his ex-wife (the one he walked out on), his son (who had followed his father's example into addiction), and his daughter (whom he had continually denigrated) all gather worshipfully around him. It seems that all wrongs should be forgiven of someone who has a beautiful mind.

I think I'll go throw up now.

I don't believe that being smarter than most gives a person permission to be a bigger a**hole than most. I don't believe that a superior intellect is an excuse for alcohol or drug addiction. I do believe that someone who has lived an egocentric life without regard for others deserves to die alone. I view Milo's family's forgiveness as no more than further enabling him to maintain his grandiose ideas of himself. Perhaps that was what the author intended me to feel, but I don't believe so. It seems to me that Canin is implying that allowances should be made for those whose minds move on an elevated plane.

To be fair to Canin, he does portray Milo's son Hans as someone who eventually learns from his father's mistakes, to an extent.

This is a very personal review influenced by my life experience. It should not be understood as an impartial review of the book.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


First, let me say that I love Michael Chabon's writing no matter what kind of book he writes, and he has written in several genres. I love his exuberance and dry wit and striking images, even as I realize that he overwrites at times. He seems to be taking such joy in the process of writing itself, and I respond to that by taking joy in the reading of it.

Chabon's newest book is a fictionalized memoir of the life of his grandfather--the stories imparted to him as the grandfather was lying in what would prove to be his deathbed. In the author's note, Chabon says, "I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it." The book is presented as "A Novel," so its probably fair to assume that it is partly true but that it also includes a few (or many) fanciful bits.

As Chabon's tells it, his grandfather, rendered uncharacteristically loquacious by painkillers, spoke to him in a random fashion about the events of his life--of his wartime experience as a "headhunter" for Nazi scientists in just-liberated Europe; of his life-long fascination with rockets and the moon; of his love for his wife despite her episodes of madness; of his time in prison for the assault of his boss; of his businesses, both failed and successful; of his late-life love affair.

This is a story about memories that may or may not be truth and about lies that may or may not be preferable to the truth. It is a story about a life fraught with near despair that still contained happiness "in the cracks." It is a very engaging and wonderfully written story, indeed, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, January 20, 2017


What are the odds that two novels with almost exactly the same unusual narrative framework and pattern would be written by two authors and published in the same year? And yet, that happened this year, with the two books being Barkskins by Annie Proulx (reviewed here earlier this month) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. In both, the authors follow two family lines down through several generations, devoting alternating chapters to members from the two strands. At 300 pages, Homegoing is less than half the length of Barkskins and, in my opinion, is twice the better book.

Gyasi's novel begins in 18th century Ghana, following two half-sisters who are unaware of each other. Effia becomes the "wife" of an Englishman and lives in the Cape Coast Castle, while Esi is captured and imprisoned in a dungeon under the castle, awaiting transportation in a slave ship to America. One thread of the narration then follows Effia's descendants in Ghana, through the centuries of tribal warfare, the slave trade, and British colonization. Alternating with those accounts are the stories of Esi's descendants in America, through slavery, the precarious early days of freedom, and the Great Migration to the North. Both strands end in the present day, presenting a picture of generations of people shaped by events largely beyond their control.

While Proulx's characters rather tediously repeat the same patterns of behavior over and over again, before (often abruptly) dying, Gyasi's characters are much more interesting, as they react in different ways to changing situations that reflect the history of the times portrayed. As another plus, each chapter in Homegoing is structured as a short story, satisfyingly complete in itself. The ending brings the two family strands together in what some might consider an overly hopeful manner, as old wounds are healed. But then what else but hope can keep us from giving up in despair.

This is an extraordinary novel which I enthusiastically recommend.


Homegoing has been included on many Best of 2016 lists and won the award for best first novel from the National Book Critics Circle.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


To the Bright Edge of the World is one of those books that I read really slowly because I did not want it to end. Books like this are the reason I am addicted to reading. I am always looking for my next literary "high"--a novel I can fall into and believe in so completely that I forget the rest of the world.

Ivey tells the story of the 1885 exploratory journey of Colonel Allen Forrester and two companions through the uncharted wilds of Alaska and of his wife Sophie's journey of self-discovery as she waits for him back home. Along with their alternating diary accounts, Ivey also includes a few diary entries from other participants, as well as photographs, news articles, maps, and a framing story of letters from a Forrester descendant who has donated the material to an Alaska museum. The result is an account that seems absolutely true. Each "writer" has his or her own voice and reveals aspects of character which would be normally hidden from the world. These became real people to me.

Colonel Forrester's diary narrates a suspenseful and harrowing confrontation with the Alaska landscape in all its danger and wild beauty. This tale could have constituted an adventure story all by itself. Sophie's diary tells of her quietly courageous confrontation with the expectations for women by society of the time. This, also, could have consumed an entire novel. The two strands are brought together by the fact that through their disparate journeys the two learn some of the same lessons.

Throughout the accounts, Ivey inserts incidents of magical realism: a newborn baby found underneath a tree with the umbilical cord being the root, a shape shifting shaman who becomes a raven, ghosts of the dead in a mountain pass. Surrounded as these incidents are by realistically described activities, they become especially believable. Magic still existed at "the bright edge of the world."

I could add many other praises here, such as the book has lovely sentences and clever composition and a stellar plot, but it is perhaps enough to say that it enchanted me. It is probably not the one that will win the most awards for books published in 2016, but it will most likely be the one I most enjoyed reading.

Saturday, January 14, 2017


This is a novel with an agenda; it wants to convince us that it was always and is still a mistake to go around clear-cutting forests and destroying whole environments, whether prompted by plain ignorance of the consequences or by greed for the profits. Proulx takes 713 pages to convey her message. Dr. Seuss got the same message across in 72 pages in The Lorax, plus his book rhymed and had quirky illustrations. Despite the fact that Barkskins carries an important truth, despite the fact that it is a much praised book (although not universally lauded), despite the fact that Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize winning author (The Shipping News), I had to slog my way through. I was tempted to give it up after the first 200 pages.

The plot follows two families from 1693 through 2013, beginning with the arrival in Canada from France of two indentured workers, Rene' Sel and Charles Duquet. Rene' stays to fulfill his contract and becomes a land owner, eventually marrying a Native woman. Charles runs away and becomes a fur trapper and later begins a timber business. Generation after generation, the Duquet descendants (with the family name changed to Duke) grow richer and richer as they exhaust forest after forest, moving from Canada to Maine to North Carolina and even to New Zealand. Meanwhile, the mixed-heritage Sel descendants struggle as their environment is destroyed, ironically often accepting work as tree cutters out of their desperation to survive.

Proulx tells story after story of the lives of the men and women from these two families, with some being given more space to develop than others. The Duke family members are always on the look-out for new ways to make money from the timber business, for new forests to cut. Then they die. The Sel family members are always attempting to remember their past while finding a place for themselves in what has become a white-man's world. Then they die. Time after time, just as I became involved in a character's life story, the author killed him (or her) off. After a couple of hundred pages, she pretty much lost my interest as essentially the same stories were told again and again, with only the names and the details changed.

In my opinion as a reader, a more effective method of imparting a message would be to concentrate on one specific situation and cast of characters rather than to attempt to cover hundreds of years with such a large number of characters that family trees have to be provided to keep track. I believe Proulx lost the effectiveness of her intent in the tedium of her telling.


In addition to The Lorax, Ron Rash's excellent novel Serena carries the same environmental message and, in addition, tells a fascinating story.

Sunday, January 8, 2017


Tolstoy wrote, "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This story of two unhappy families begins when a full-of-himself District Attorney arrives uninvited to a christening party at the house of a cop and his beautiful wife. The D.A., who is escaping from the neediness of his pregnant wife and three young children at home, brings a bottle of gin and most everyone gets drunk and he kisses his hostess. Thus the troubles begin for the four adults and six children, as two marriages dissolve and new family groups are formed. The novel follows their lives for five decades as they deal with resentments, grief, guilt, and betrayals, coming to terms with their place in life and with each other in sometimes unexpected ways.

The situation of broken apart families is not a particularly original one perhaps, but the way Patchett tells it is. She does not follow a linear time line or a consistent viewpoint; she jumps backward and forward and from person to person, and it works beautifully. Her characters become more than their stereotypes--the capable sister, the quiet sister, the rebellious brother, and so forth--and assume the roles of complex people. Her writing is elegant.

Patchett's 2001 novel Bel Canto is one of my all-time favorites, and I have read her novels since with a bit of disappointment because they were not as good. This one comes close.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Often a novel which has been heavily promoted and has become a best seller, and even an award winner, turns out to be a disappointment to me, not nearly as good as I had expected. That is NOT the case with The Underground Railroad. It is not only a marvelously well written and spellbinding book but also an important book, in the sense that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby are important books. These have something to give us beyond the masterful writing and suspenseful plots and sympathetic characters. They help us better understand our world.

As the story begins, Cora is a field slave on a Georgia cotton plantation which has a sadistic owner and a brutal overseer. When one of the male slaves proposes that she accompany him in escaping, she initially refuses but changes her mind when she is severely beaten for an infraction, sexually groped by her owner, and then sees another slave beaten, castrated, doused with oil and roasted. Their method of escape, he tells her, will be the Underground Railroad, what the reader automatically believes will be that historical network of abolitionists and safe houses leading to the North and freedom. But in a surprising turn of events, this underground railroad is an actual subterranean tunnel with tracks and a locomotive.

Reading this first part, I thought to myself, "There's nothing new here; the situation even sounds almost unbelievably exaggerated. And what's the point of this underground railroad gimmick?" Then, as the story progresses, Cora sees skyscrapers at their first destination, and I suddenly realize that this is not an account of a literal journey but of a metaphorical journey from slavery to full freedom, which is still ongoing. Each stop along the way presents a different response to the problem of freedom and racial relations. The situations are exaggerated, as was the opening, but the reader can see in each one familiar aspects of the racially troubled American experience, not just of then but of now.

I have an almost irresistible impulse to discuss each step of Cora's journey in detail, with my interpretation, but that would be unfair to a potential reader, particularly because Whitehead has written this in such a subtle way that it allows each reader to take away differing aspects. Just please read it for yourself.


The Underground Railroad won this year's National Book Award and is included on 42 "Best of 2016" lists. I highly anticipate that it will be a strong contender for the 2017 Pulitzer. It is that good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear." If those words are familiar to you, you reveal yourself to be from the generation who grew up in the heyday of the Western, the 1940s and '50s, when radio programs such as The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke thrilled listeners, and cowboy movies starring the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey, and later John Wayne, drew audiences to the theaters. When television came along, Western series too numerous to count filled the network schedules. Novels by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour dominated drugstore book racks. The conquering of the Western frontier had inspired the creation of the American equivalent to England's Knights of the Round Table. Lawmen, cowboys, and horse soldiers fought for the right and protected the weak and innocent. Their adversaries were not Black Knights, but rustlers, outlaws, and Indians on the warpath.

Fascination with the Western has waned. When I was a kid, my brothers and cousins and I pretended to be cowboys. Now my grandson pretends to be a Jedi knight or a zombie hunter. It's still good versus bad, but sadly the Western, that uniquely American mythology, has slipped into relative unpopularity.

After reading ten Westerns selected from "Best of..." lists on the internet and from the recommendations of friends, I have selected my own list of Best Westerns, many being books I had already read in the past. What did I look for? An interesting story that transcends formula, with complex characters and originality in the writing--just what I would look for in any novel. In addition, the dialogue is particularly important in Westerns, because not all writers are successful in reproducing the vernacular of a specific region and of a time gone by. High quality description of the setting also frequently becomes important, because often the Western landscape helps to determine the action.

Here are my favorites.

The story of a lynching. Clark utilizes many of the stereotypes of the Western genre to examine the dynamics of mob violence. This book tells a suspenseful character-driven story with implications for any time, any place. It is my favorite Western novel.

A plucky girl enlists the help of a cantankerous aging lawman and an ambitious Texas Ranger in a quest to track down her father's murderer. Most people are familiar with the story from one or the other of the two True Grit movies, but the book is, of course, much better.

Two ex-Texas Rangers undertake a cattle drive from Texas to Montana and have plenty of adventures along the way. McMurtry proves himself to be right up there with Dickens when it comes to telling a long, engrossing story with memorable characters.

Mountain men confront nature and Indians in the high country of the Northwest in the years before the western migration. This book is beautifully written, with outstanding dialogue and meticulous setting descriptions.

A pampered girl from Virginia ends up in a loveless marriage to a cowboy from the Texas plains, where she tries to survive drought and "winds from Hell." This novel is the only Western I know of that is written from a woman's point of view. It is melodramatic and probably only believable to someone who has lived "where the wind comes sweeping down the plain." I believed it, totally.

The last gunman of the Old West finds a way to die with dignity. Swarthout transcends stereotypes and delivers the unexpected in a short and quietly powerful novel about the ending of the lawless days. Don't imagine you already know the story just because you've seen the John Wayne movie.

Small-time cattlemen confront big-time ranchers in this realistic story set in the Panhandle of Texas, from the author voted by the Western Writers of America as the Greatest Western Writer of All Time. Kelton's dialogue is, as always, particularly outstanding.

Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and the dastardly assassin Jack McCall live (and die) again in this often darkly comic novel of the Old West in Dakota Territory. Dexter combines historical fact and popular legend and spices it with a keen sense of the ridiculous to tell a one-of-a-kind story.

An affable and seemingly mild-mannered town constable confronts gross injustice by reverting to his violent, army tracker past. Leonard's writing is immediate and suspenseful, and he is especially adept at characterization.

Back when outlaws were as famous as movie stars are today, an obsessed fan shoots the (retired) robber Jesse James in the back while he is hanging a picture. This is more a character study than a chronicle of events. Also excellent is Hansen's Desperadoes, about the Dalton Gang.

Some might wonder why I have not included the extraordinary revisionist Westerns of Cormac McCarthy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Blood Meridian. While I recognize that they are outstanding, perhaps works of genius, they are bloody and brutal and not books that I would choose to read more than once. I also have not included Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, a book I love, because it is probably a bit too fanciful to be classified as a true Western.


For readers who did not recognize the quotation at the beginning of this blog entry, here is the full quotation as made by the announcer at the beginning of a popular radio program and later a television series: "In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!"

I'm hearing the William Tell Overture in my head right now.

Monday, January 2, 2017


Grass Kingdom has a relatively modern Western setting, specifically cattle ranches in the Hill Country of Texas during the 1930s and early '40s. It tells a soap opera-like story of three intertwined families as they battle drought, mesquite thickets, rustlers, and each other to carve out modern dynasties. It reminds me very much of the television show Dallas, and like that modern day Western, it is addictive, although often a guilty pleasure because the writing is actually not very good at all.

Sherman has the annoying habit of describing in detail the most mundane of actions. For example, here is his account of a man lighting his pipe: "He dug into his saddlebags, fished out his pipe and a battered can of Prince Albert. He shook tobacco into the briar bowl, tamped it down with his thumb. Wedging the pipestem between his teeth, he took a small box of wooden matches from his shirt pocket. He took one stick out, raked it along the sandpaper side. The sulfurous head exploded into flame with a hiss of escaping gas. Matt touched thee flame to the tobacco, drew air through the pipe. The tobacco caught and he shook out the match. He mashed the charred head between his thumb and forefinger until it grew cold." He also describes almost every character, even minor walk-ons, in detail, and even includes their horses: ""The big rangy Tennessee Walking Horse paced at the end of his manila tether.The sorrel gelding stood sixteen and a half hands high, with four white stockings, flax mane and tail, a small white blaze on its forehead. The horse was six years old, the usual high sheen of its curry-combed hide fading after two days of trail dust and range sweat." This 482-page book could have been cut by a third if all the extraneous bits had been left out.

I also found it annoying that Sherman's geographical/weather picture of Texas is wrong. The only actual real town he mentions is Bandera, and I live about 100 miles west of there, so I know the area. He begins his story in February and tells of flowers blooming and the weather so hot that men become bathed in sweat while just standing around talking. It may be relatively warm in this part of Texas, but it's not tropical. He also mentions several times that the characters smell the Gulf of Mexico, and that's just not possible from Bandera or its vicinity.

Also, some of the grammar is jarringly bad, with misplaced and dangling modifiers and suchlike.

But as I said initially, the story is addictive.


Amusingly, the writer hired to concoct the back--of-book story description on my paperback copy of the novel obviously had not actually read the book, because he says that the characters are "determined to carve a piece of the Texas panhandle...."