Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Aminata is an African girl in the late 1700s who is whisked away to the New World by slave traders. It soon becomes clear, in this first-person saga, that she is actually quite remarkable. She learns to read and write, performs midwife duties for blacks and whites alike, and masters three languages, all before she is 20. She has 2 big flaws, though. One is that she is too trusting and thus sets herself up for betrayal time and again. Secondly, she has an obsession with returning to her village in Africa, regardless of the fact that she has no family there. We know from the outset that she spends her final days in England, assisting the abolitionists in Parliament to end the slave trade, if not slavery itself. There's a history less here, if you can separate fact from fiction. After the Revolutionary War, the British rewarded Black Loyalists in the U.S. with transport to Canada, then later to a new settlement in Sierra Leone. Aminata is a part of this migration—swept along from New York to Shelburne, Nova Scotia, to Halifax, and finally back to Africa. Her story, though, is more about loss than adventure. Her husband Chekura and she are separated for years at a time, and then when we think they'll finally have some peace together, fate steps in and deals them yet another devastating blow. Her two children, one born into slavery and sold, the other born free and abducted, are never far from her thoughts and serve as constant reminders that nothing is constant or predictable for Africans in the New World. Aminata is always an anomaly, set off first by her education and then later by the fact that she is one of the dwindling few actually born in Africa. She is a survivor, but this book is relentlessly sad, and I think that the author could have celebrated Aminata's triumphs to give us an occasional break. Even the happy moments at the end are tainted with the sense of a life completed but never enjoyed. She doesn't come across as spunky but seems to trudge from one hopeless setting to another, mired in the past and never hopeful for the future nor comforted by the legacy of progress, slight as it may have been, that she leaves in her wake.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ONE DAY by David Nicholls

I thought that this book was supposed to be funny, but it didn't strike me that way. In fact, to me, it was immensely sad, about two people who obviously love each other and stay in touch for years but keep making choices that stymie their opportunities to have a romantic relationship. The book's gimmick is that each chapter takes place on July 15, a year later than the previous chapter, starting with 1988. I found this structure to be choppy and not conducive to really burying myself in the lives of the two characters. Careful not to make too much happen on the same day of each year, the author gives us too many days that are either unpleasant or just plain boring. Even so, two very important events DO take place on July 15, and that's coincidence enough. Emma is a left-leaning, attractive woman with subzero self-confidence who aspires to change the world around her, or at least the world in her immediate vicinity. Dexter is a handsome, even "beautiful," man with a privileged background and alcoholic tendencies. In fact, he seems to be drunk on July 15 more often than not, so let's just elevate him to a full-blown alcoholic. His substance abuse leads to the downhill slide of his on-screen late-night TV career, while Emma struggles to find her life's calling, weighed down by her self-image and a very unfunny boyfriend who moonlights as a comedian. The big question is "will they" or "won't they" eventually get together, but this uncertainty wasn't enough for me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


One reviewer described this novel as "abundantly delicious," and I couldn't agree more. When I read a book like this, it becomes the gold standard, and almost everything else pales in comparison. One chapter, which begins with the eating of a peach, is just the juiciest love scene ever but as chaste as the Jane Austen novel that apparently inspired this book. As the twentieth century draws to a close, two sisters with opposite personalities live in the Berkeley area. The older, Emily, is the brilliant originator of a dot-com startup. The younger, Jess, is a perennial flower-child student, involved with an environmentally holier-than-thou treehugger named Leon. Emily's boyfriend Jonathan has his own dot-com startup in the Boston area, so that their relationship is long-distance, with neither party willing to give up his/her company to move to the other coast. Although theirs would appear to be the perfect match otherwise, Jonathan lacks Emily's moral compass and is ruthless in his quest for market share. Jess, however, is the central character who finds part-time work in a bookstore, owned and operated by George, who made millions at Microsoft at a tender age, and now indulges his love of rare books and fine cuisine. Those two obsessions come together when he happens upon a collection of old, rare cookbooks. Jess signs on to help him catalog these books but is really more interested in the handwritten love notes, drawings, and menus that the now-deceased owner tucked in between the pages. I hungrily devoured and savored every word of this sumptuous, delectable novel, but I think the most appropriate adjective for it is "passionate"—passion for food, books, trees, success, whatever, but especially for a kindred spirit who at first appears to be anything but.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Dennis Smith and I were classmates in high school. Now I'm blogging about books, but he's actually writing books. His debut is The Trilogy of Swamp Hattie, a compilation of three books about an evil ghost. Now that there are no more new Harry Potter books on the horizon, Swamp Hattie can provide you with your supernatural fix. Dennis's books have elements of The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies, and, like both of those trilogies, the second Swamp Hattie book concludes with a dark cliffhanger. Swamp Hattie, "an evil ghost," has made it her mission to spread disaster and mayhem all around St. Augustine and beyond, but her tale is ultimately a fable of redemption---a sort of fairy tale. Some authors impress me with their thorough research, but every single line of these books rhymes with another line, and that's no small feat. Dennis is a pathologist and even finds rhymes for medical terms. With Chris Armstrong's vivid and intricate illustrations, these books are the sort that you'll want to pass along to your grandchildren.

I normally steer clear of works with heavy religious overtones, and there's a significant dose of spirituality here. However, I choose to interpret the roles of God and Satan, as depicted in these books, more as metaphors for good and evil. There is also a fair amount of violence but not any more than you would find in a Harry Potter book. I recommend reading the books aloud to get the full effect of, and an appreciation for, the rhyming.

The books make beautiful gifts or keepsakes, whether you choose the glossy hardbound Collector's Edition or the pocketsize paperback, and are available for purchase at This colorful web site has contests and giveaways, plus more info on the books, the author ("Hattie's Daddy"), and the artist.

Friday, July 8, 2011

EINSTEIN'S DREAMS by Alan Lightman

What if time stood still? What if time ran fast for some people and slow for others? What if time ran backwards? What if time were not continuous? What if we knew the future? Would we try to derail it or resign ourselves to its inevitability? These are a few of the scenarios that Lightman proposes, ostensibly as Einstein's dreams while he was writing his paper on relativity. These various imaginings are delightful but devoid of characters and plot and therefore do not exactly constitute a novel in the usual sense, and, from a physics standpoint, I didn't get the point. There are a very few conversations between Einstein and Besso, his sounding board at the patent office, but these scenes are too infrequent. I loved the suggestion that Einstein denied many patent requests as impractical but sent back suggestions for overcoming the flaws to the submitter. My favorite vignette is one about a world in which people build their houses on stilts, because time moves slower at higher altitudes. This seems to be a quirky reverse take on Einstein's gravitational time dilation theory, which explains why the atomic clock in Greenwich, England runs slower than the one in Boulder, Colorado. Einstein's theory predates the invention of atomic clocks. Incredible.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A VIRTUOUS WOMAN by Kaye Gibbons

This short, bittersweet love story is a welcome change from the ponderous novels about impoverished and victimized women that I've been reading lately. Ruby, who took up smoking in defiance of her first husband, has died of lung cancer at 45, leaving behind her 65-year-old second husband Jack, a tenant farmer. Jack and Ruby alternate first-person narration of their marriage, and the final chapter is a third-person omniscient narrator, perhaps because Jack is too grief-stricken to continue. Apart from that, we get a taste for all of the memorable moments in their lives, a mixture of both blissful and tragic events, and of the people who made the most impact on their lives, both positive and negative. The most notable is Jack's best friend Burr, who marries Tiny Fran, pregnant by another man and not tiny at all, in return for land of his own. Tiny Fran is a bitter and unpleasant woman, whose coddled son Roland is even more malicious. Burr and his daughter June are constantly having to pick up the pieces of the physical and emotional wreckage that Roland and Tiny Fran have left in their wake, and Burr is ultimately Jack's savior in lifting him up out of bottomless grief. There is even a bit of humor when Jack hires a fat housekeeper with bad knees and no intention of actually doing any work. Mirroring a marriage that was cut short by illness, this enchanting book is not quite long enough.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


An old man, Sam Peek, has just lost his wife Cora, and his grown children are concerned that he can't take care of himself. Sound familiar? When Sam starts talking about a white dog that no one else has seen, his daughters become increasingly convinced that their father is sinking into dementia. The dog is real, though, and Sam, still in possession of his sense of humor, gets a kick out of inventing dog sightings, just to enjoy his family's horrified reaction. His feistiness gets out of hand, however, when he takes off on a road trip to a college reunion, without telling anyone where he's going. Though a little fearful of the consequences, I enjoyed his pranks, while at the same time, I felt that his kids were very justified in their concern. He may be in command of his faculties, but his judgment is not sound at all. This book is very eloquent in its rendition of this balancing act that many of us have to perform with our aging parents—keeping them safe without threatening their freedom. I thought that the book was a little bit lightweight and too fable-like, but I always enjoy reading about familiar places, particularly in Georgia. Elberton, Madison and Athens all get a mention, so that the setting is just as familiar as the storyline.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

THE MUSIC LESSON by Katharine Weber

A 41-year-old woman should know better than to get involved with a charismatic 25-year-old Irish revolutionary in an art heist. She's romantically involved with him, too, and I guess that is supposed to explain her ridiculous behavior. Patricia Dolan is an American art historian of Irish descent, recovering from the death of her child and the subsequent dissolution of her marriage and is therefore susceptible to the persuasiveness of Mickey O'Driscoll. Still, I just don't buy it. She seems to live in a dream world, especially while renting a house in rural Ireland, and it's obvious that she's being used. It also seems a little farfetched and certainly foolhardy that Mickey would trust Patricia with housing a stolen Vermeer being held for ransom. She periodically extricates the painting from its hiding place and removes the protective glass to see it more clearly. Her carelessness in the handling of this priceless treasure will obviously become her undoing but not in the way you might expect. Basically, I guess I'm just fed up with books about smart women with no sense when it comes to men, especially handsome men with no scruples. Somehow women authors get away with this, and I don't think we'd be as likely to accept these characterizations from male authors. In any case, I'm sure I'm missing the point, which must have to do with Patricia's shame and anguish when she finds out the terrible price that she has paid for her dimwittedness. There is a twist at the end, but it doesn't undo the tragedy that's taken place or my exasperation with the narrator.

Monday, July 4, 2011

TRACKS by Louise Erdrich

I made two mistakes in reading this book. First, I read it very quickly, and I think that's why I tended to get the relationships of the characters confused. Second, this book is one of a series, and, although its events occur first, it was written later. Therefore, perhaps the author intended for the reader to be already familiar with the characters. The book has alternating narrators. One is Nanapush, a Chippewa elder, who is telling Lulu her mother's story. Lulu's mother is Fleur, the central character in the book, a beguiling woman whose parents died from a white man's disease. The other narrator is Pauline, half-white, vengeful and somewhat crazy, who becomes a nun bent on self-flagellation, perhaps attempting to assuage guilt from having lured Fleur's lover toward a young, beautiful girl. I was somewhat puzzled that Nanapush seemingly so easily forgives a huge betrayal by his lover, Margaret, and I was amused by Fleur's wily act of trickery at the end.