I  am a transcendence junky. The books I admire most on the ones where the protagonist evolves. While, I’ve tried to open my mind to books without transcendence, my reaction to the two books I’m reviewing show that I still need to work on my closed mind.

Lori Roy

In her review of Let Me Die In His Footsteps by Lori Roy, Marilyn Stasio (crime book reviewer for the New York Times Book Review) said, “But its true colors emerge in the rich textures of the narrative, and in the music of that voice, as hypnotic as the scent coming off a field of lavender.” Maybe it was that voice that kept me reading this southern gothic novel because the plot was a dark as the Okfenokee Swamp at 2 am on a moonless night. Or, maybe it was my warped enjoyment of the challenges created by people who live in a different time and place than me. I’m not writing a full review because the ending shocked me. Being blindsided by an author is not a feat I appreciate.



What I do welcome is the character of Cassie Dewell in the new C.J. Box novel Badlands. I’ve been a Box fan for many years, but his Joe Picket series has been getting worn-out as Box searches for new adventures for Joe.

Badlands starts in the heat and humidity of North Carolina, but moves to the frozen tundra of  North Dakota. Cassie Dewell has taken the job of lead investigator in the sheriff’s department of the newly booming oil town of Grimstad. With the creation of Cassie, Box has crafted a character I like. She is tough, calm, and smart. When she finds a severed human head in the refrigerator in her department owned apartment during her first evening in town, rather than scream or freak out she quietly places a necessary phone call.

Part of Badlands is from the point of view of Kyle Westergaard, a twelve year old boy born with fetal alcohol syndrome. One morning, while delivering newspapers on the frigid tundra Kyle witnesses something he doesn’t understand, and finds a package that only brings him trouble. While the plot is a fairly standard — bad drug guys versus the police — it is Kyle riding his bicycle along the snowy roads in twenty below zero temperatures that propels the story forward.

More Than Oatmeal

Bowls of steaming oatmeal were taken out of the dumb waiter by two ladies. In my head I thought, “Oh, I’m in trouble if this is breakfast.” On my palette, oatmeal belongs in cookies and meatloaf, I have not and will never eat creamy oatmeal for breakfast. Meals at The Clearing are served family style, with the thirty or so students sitting at four long tables. The food is passed from right to left, family style. When handed the large bowl of oatmeal, I did not take a portion. Rather, I smiled at the person sitting to my left and murmured a comment about not caring for oatmeal.  Lucky for me, after the oatmeal, the rest of breakfast arrived in the dining room via the dumb waiter.   IMG_0038 The above picture is the Lodge at The Clearing Folk School in Door County Wisconsin where in September, 2006 I had my first of many years of passing along the breakfast oatmeal. According to my records, I took this picture May, 2008, during which time I attend Poetry Camp. Constructed from native limestone, the Lodge may seem almost church like, particularly with the soaring, many paned window that points toward the sky. A similar window is out of sight of this picture on the opposite wall.   These windows frame the lounge where students often congregate before meals and during the evenings. The view out of these windows, provides a feeling of peaceful serenity across the various landscapes, including a scene to the west all the way to the bay, where sunsets are showcased in all their fiery glory. Behind the two sets of white paned windows on the lower floor is the kitchen. It is in this small kitchen that all the magnificent meals are prepared. The bell, in the archway to the right of the kitchen windows, calls us to meals. In the morning the first bell is rung at 7:00 A.M., with the bell rung again at 7:15 A.M, and breakfast served promptly at 7:30 A.M. On the pole at the top of the stairs, which supports the small roof over the second floor doors, there is a small red object. It is a hummingbird feeder. Its location is perfect as there have been many meals where a tiny hummingbird comes to the feeder, and provides entertainment for the diners. Under the birdfeeder on the stone stairway support is an item that resembles a clock. Oh, but it is not, because at The Clearing one doesn’t need a clock, with the bell to call you to meals, rather it is a thermometer. Another notable object is the path light found near the bottom of the staircase. It provides lights to the stairs and the adjoining path. It is by this flagstone path that one arrives at the Lodge from their cabin, or the schoolhouse, or the workshop. Wood shingles cover the various roofs, add architectural interest to the Lodge. And, help the Lodge fold itself into the surrounding nature. The lodge is surrounded by trees, grass and a variety of plants. Later in the summer the plants by the path light will bloom in a variety of glorious colors.   One year, after dinner (which is the noon meal), we left the lodge to discover a large bull snake in the grass next to the row of flowers. The Clearing has become a place of respite and relaxation for me. The classes are not graded, there are no tests. Making new friends, seeing the creations of others, and sitting on a bench at the top of the cliff overlooking the bay, with a pen in one hand, and a notebook in the other gives me bliss filled weeks. The Lodge is the anchor within which all students come together at least three times a day for meals. At the beginning of each week, the dining room is relatively quiet, but as people get to know and appreciate each other, the noise level rises with the sound of lively conversation. It is within this glorious structure that one experiences the true meaning of community and fellowship that is The Clearing.

Make Believe World

Girl Train

I’m inclined not to read books on The New York Times Bestseller lists. Over twenty years ago I read a James Patterson book, and found the ending disgusting, so I don’t read Patterson. He has two books from his writing factory on this week’s NYT’s list. David Baldacci, wrote one good book, Absolute Power — the movie version with Clint Eastwood was entertaining — but, since then Baldacci just churns them out. Last summer I tried to read a Baldacci while at The Clearing, and it bored me, which just about the worst sin a book can commit. There is a Baldacci book on this week’s list. Clive Cussler, also, has a book on this week’s list, but at age 83 he’s picked up a coauthor, who probably wrote most of the book.

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins meets my criteria for a worthy mystery/thriller. The protagonist, Rachel, is a true tortured soul. She can’t accept her divorce, even though her philandering ex-husband got another woman pregnant, while Rachel desperately wants her own baby. Rachel has lost her job, but keeps riding the train from the suburbs into London every day. She drinks and drinks and drinks. Her daily train trips take her past her old home, and some young neighbors she never knew. Rachel invents a fantasy life for the couple, but when the woman goes missing, Rachel learns her imaginary scenarios to be false. Rachel then becomes more than observer, as she thinks she knows something important to solving the mystery, and goes to the police. Labelled an unreliable witness by the police, Rachel is left floundering around the edges, causing mess after mess.

A tortured soul, a true “who done it,” and a vivid setting are my benchmarks for a commendable mystery/thriller, and The Girl on Train has all of these. On this week’s NYTs bestseller fiction list, this book is now number two.

European Chase

SwimmerSometimes it is fun to read a book, and not think too much about it as I move through the pages. Particularly, since I spent most of May, head first into the “Shakespeare in America” mooc. The Swimmer by Joakim Zander is an excellent book to read in such a manner. I just floated through it as if I was lying on a raft in the sun on a deep, blue/green lake.

Of the espionage genre, The Swimmer, begins in Damascus, Syria, in July 1980 when the wrong person is killed in a car bombing. A man, who is the swimmer, and his infant daughter survive, while his wife is killed. The story then moves ahead to Brussels in December, 2013, where Kara, an assistant to a Social Democratic member of the European Parliament, receives an email from her former lover, Mahmoud. Mahmoud is now in a Ph.D. program at Uppsala University in Sweden, and he has a received an unsigned email from a former colleague. Too add a little more intrigue, George is introduced. George works for a Brussels marketing firm and is asked to do some work for a company called Digital Solutions.

The folks at Digital Solutions comprise a private company hired in the past by the CIA to do some nasty work for the CIA. These folks do not want the extent of this work to become public knowledge and will pursue whatever means possible to keep it a secret. Kara, Mahmoud and George, all innocent bystanders, get caught up in the conspiracy.

After the character introductions, the story takes off a quick pace that pulled me along through chase from Brussels to Paris, back to Brussels, then on to Sweden. If these folks are going to survive, they’re going to have to figure out the Digital Solutions problem. In the meantime, the swimmer is flailing around in the pool of treachery.

After I finished The Swimmer, I reread The New York Times review that had led me to this book. The reviewer didn’t like the book, and gave away the ending in the first few sentences of his review. How, unpleasant of him to do so.

To Be or Not To Be

I’ve been trying to thing of a good way to write about my amazing experience with the mooc “Shakespeare in Community,” but most of my drafts have sounded like term papers. So let me try this, and please keep reading, I’ll try not to bore you with my love of Shakespeare, and the fun I had with this mooc.

Why take Shakespeare, especially through a mooc? Answer, it is free, thousands of people participated, there were no hour long lectures, there was a forum for lively discussions on various topics, and students got to post their work on Facebook. Also, I was curious, and needed something to do to stimulate my aging brain.

The mooc was sponsored by the University of Wisconsin, and the staff involved, actively participated. The marvelous Jesse Stommel, who is an assistant professor of Hybrid Pedogogy was the leader, and so the class was focused on using digital tools. To my amasement I learned about Wordle,, Ngran Viewer and Coggle. My favorite was Wordle, a tool that takes a section of text and turns it into a word cloud. Here is a word cloud I created using part of the “Once more unto the breach” speech from Henry V.

Unto breach4

I put the name Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing” through Ngran Viewer and created a graph of how many times the name appears in history from 1400 to the present. Yes, it might be considered a weird thing to do but that is what Ngran Viewer does. Others did more complex analysis of multiple words. It isn’t a tool that is useful in ordinary life but neither is the calculus I was forced to take in college and Ngran Viewer is much more fun than calculus.

In conclusion — oops that is a term paper phrase – I thoughly enjoyed my four weeks emersed in “Shakespeare in Community.”

Is It Pretentious?

Every week I read “The New Yorker.” Most weeks I read all the articles, but do not read the short fiction, as I find it pretentious. Or, at least, I’ve always said I thought it is pretentious. However, since I don’t read it, how do I really know? When the June 8 & 15 issue arrived in my mailbox, and I discovered it is the summer fiction issue, I decided to give at least a couple of stories a try.

Zadie SmithThe first story is “Escape From New York” by Zadie Smith. I’ve not read any novels by Smith, so I started the story with no expectations. While, I’m not sure she intended the story to be funny, I found myself giggling, as I gradually figured out who Smith meant by the protagonist named Michael. The events occur on a serious, difficult day that seems to be September 11, 2001. Michael and his two friends, Elizabeth and Marlon are terrified. To get away from the city, Michael rents a Toyota Camry. When Michael pulls up in front of the Carlyle Hotel to pick up Marlon and Elizabeth, Marlon calls the car a “hunk of junk.” But, Marlon shouldn’t complain as he’s not wearing shoes, so how is he going to walk miles like many New Yorkers did that awful day. The trio takes off for Pennsylvania. I think that is enough of the story for now. “Escape From New York” is not pretentious, rather, it is entertaining, well written, and had a worthy plot.

FranzenThe second story, “The Republic of Bad Taste” by Jonathan Franzen was much longer that “Escape,” and crawled on so long, I flipped ahead pages to see how many more I had to get to the end. I have read Franzen’s novels, and found them to be respectable reads. Franzen, also earned more of my respect, when he said that Oprah books were chosen primarily for women readers which irritated Oprah.  Since, I avoided Oprah books as they all seemed to fall into the category of “oh, poor me, I had a bad childhood,” I agreed with Franzen’s assessment.

“Republic” takes place in the mid-1980s in East Berlin. Andreas Wolf, lives in a church basement, as he finds the government ridiculous. He counsels “teenagers on how to overcome promiscuity and alcohol dependency and domestic dysfunction and assume more productive positions in a society he despised.” Andreas enjoys sex with all the vulnerable young women he meets in his work. The rest of the plot is too predictable and boring to summarize. “Republic” was a big disappointment. While, it isn’t really pretentious, it is a poorly written, silly story.

My dilemma as to whether or not to read “The New Yorker” short stories continues. Maybe, I’ll keep trying to read them in future issues, but if I encounter many more stories like Franzen’s, I’ll stop. There are too many other things to read.

To Catch a Thief

unbecomingWhat an odd story I thought when I finished reading Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm. Now, two days later, I still find the story odd, but, admit that I read the book quickly, so something in it held my attention.

We first meet Grace when she is twelve and living in Garland, Tennessee. Grace’s family has had an unusual history, and didn’t really form a true family unit until Grace was ten. Grace meets Riley Graham, whose family is wealthy, and his friends Alls and Greg. Riley’s parents, in particular his mother, welcome Grace into their home, almost as if she is their child. As she go through her teen years, Grace gradually turns into a thief. At first, she takes items from the Graham’s home, then she figures out how to steal a valuable painting from a local historical museum. Sweet Grace doesn’t steal the painting herself, but it does get stolen, and she does end up in possession of it. Riley and Alls end up in prison and Grace escapes to Europe, where she works in a shop restoring antiques including jewelry. That’s a summary of about half the story.

Scherm, a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University Of Michigan, has created interesting characters and a compelling plot in her first novel. The novel doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, but, the time switches are smooth, and seem to make sense as method to tell Grace’s story.

In the middle of the night last night I figured out the problem with this book. The character of Grace was not believable. Scherm made Grace sweet, kind, and a little shy. But, these characteristics are all external. Scherm doesn’t give the reader the internal Grace which is needed to understand why Grace turned into  a thief.  As a result, I felt unsatisfied with the story’s  conclusion.

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