Tag Archives: literature

Music Review: ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ by Bob Dylan

A retro-review of a classic album..

Thoughts inspired by the music.

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Well, I try my best
To be just who I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

– “Maggie’s Farm”

Many confuse the reality of old with the definition of classic. Old is old. Many of us have, or are beginning to, understand just how much fun that is. A classic maintains its relevance over time. It is not of its time but, rather, for all time.

And, so, the Nobel committee conferred the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature upon Bob Dylan, who has referred to himself as both “a song and dance man” and “just a guitar player.” Bono (the lead singer of U2) said in Rolling Stone that Dylan “busted through the artifice to get to the art.” [Or, perhaps, the heart. -ed.] Many people enjoy any opportunity to suggest that Dylan cannot sing (to which I refer you to “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” from Greatest Hits Volume II, “Love Minus Zero” from MTV Unplugged, Blood on the Tracks. the outtakes included on Tell Tale Signs, such as “Girl From the Red River Shore,” etc., etc., etc.) But, people are welcome to their opinion.

And that is the point. The Nobel committee shared its opinion. Allow me to share mine.

When I was growing up, there was this concept called “The Canon.” It was what every educated person needed to read. Beowulf, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the like. Well, my father was an English major and, like any good son, I could not imagine anything better than being like him. Now I realize I never stood a chance. He remains one helluva man. I can only hope people speak as highly of me when all is said and done as they do of him. Fat chance, but I do my best. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I love you, Dad.

So, I became an English major, and I got angry with business majors and engineers who never read anything. Dammit, how can you get a degree without reading Hamlet? Everybody has to read this stuff during their formal education or they never will. Well, I was wrong. First, you have to allow people to willingly expose themselves to ideas, imagine different alternatives, and see that their reality is not the only reality. Example: I read Moby Dick in my 30s. It was among the most tedious and disagreeable texts that I ever read – voluntarily or by force (Tristam Shandy and Clarissa excluded). Others would argue that it is great literature. Well, put this in front of a 16-year-old kid (it was traditionally a novel included in the sophomore high school curriculum), and don’t be surprised if young adults refuse to read “literature” again.

Recent events have re-energized those who are inclined to take their shots at Dylan. Perhaps some are envious that their ideas do not resonate with the soul to the extent that many of his do. I cannot help that. Let me remind you that Fitzgerald was oft criticized in his time as being “too autobiographical.” Does anyone wish that they had written The Great Gatsby? I sure as hell do.

So what is literature, if not a tool to provoke one to think and feel ideas and emotions that they have not previously experienced via their everyday existence? What is it if it does not spark in one the imagination to move beyond what they thought possible? Emotion sparks thought; rather than the other way around.

Many associate Dylan and 1965 with the Newport Jazz Festival and the instant that he “went electric.” But between March 22, 1965, and May 16, 1966 – 14 months, Dylan released three of the most seminal pieces of art of the 20th/21st century, these being Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Arguably, the thoughts, themes, and ideas that resonate here had not been expressed with this intensity in this time frame and in a manner that so challenged the social mores. No other works exposed the nature of the human soul so candidly since the 1490s (if you get my drift).

In The Mayor of McDougal Street, Dave Von Ronk, who was considered the king of Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the late 50s/early 60s, addressed the hidden sore spot of Dylan’s rise to fame. He said, essentially, that if you are the guy who writes “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” then you are the guy, period. Enough said.

“Hard Rain” was first released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. And one could turn to “Chimes of Freedom” and “My Back Pages” from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan to suggest that his transformation from folk-protest singer to humanist-muse was not only in progress, but already completed.

Humans, however, do not tolerate change easily. So Bob decided to discard the subtle and get even more explicitly in our faces.

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The reason why Bringing It All Back Home blew the roof off of it all is “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Bob Dylan never claimed to be a poet but he wrote/sang this: “Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky/With one hand waving free/Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands/With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves/Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” Include one of the greatest love songs ever written in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” – which most people, other than Rick Nelson fans, don’t even know exists: “The bridge at midnight trembles/ The country doctor rambles/Bankers’ nieces seek perfection/Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring/The wind howls like a hammer/The night blows cold and rainy/My love she’s like some raven/At my window with a broken wing.”

Then there’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which includes lines such as, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying,” “But even the president of the United States must have to stand naked,” “I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to,” and “While money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

The album ends with “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a brilliant effort in and of itself, but even more poignant when it is revealed to be a bridge to Highway 61.

And so, after this, ridiculously great works such as “Desolation Row,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again),” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Shooting Star,” “Mississippi,” and many, many more phenomenal artistic creations – most of which the general populace has not had the time to absorb or brain capacity to digest, live in our collective psyche. And Dylan continues to create and perform.

Make of what it what you will. That’s your right. But, while placing poetry against music may have begun a long time ago, everyone in the music industry that followed Dylan has pointed to him as the transformational artist of this century and the pivot point for all that came next. (Rolling Stone magazine labeled Highway 61 as “The album that changed everything!”) And, the last time I checked, music was an art form.

For those who are hung up because Dylan is not a “singer,” in some purist’s definition, ask yourselves this: “How does it feel?”

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bringing-it-all-back-home-outtake

Again, for those who argue that Bob Dylan is not a poet, he never claimed to be. But he invented his own language; a language that changed the world. Is inventing a language worthy of the Nobel prize? You decide.

Genius is by definition untouchable by the rest of us, which is why it is genius. Artists possess the courage to attack and slay conventional wisdom, which makes them unique. Bob Dylan ended Bringing It All Back Home with “Baby Blue,” whose final lines are: “Strike another match, go start anew/And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Indeed.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel; a story about life, love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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Good Night

night night

Night, Night, Sleep Tight: A Novel of Suspense by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, $14.99, 320 pages)

The setting is Los Angeles, California, and the time is May 1985. Deidre Unger, a woman whose life was forever altered by an event that took place 22 years earlier, finds her father, screenwriter Arthur Unger, drowned in the swimming pool at his sadly neglected house. Deirdre has come from her home in San Diego to assist in readying the house for sale. Her father’s untimely death appears to be an accident but that might not be the case. Deirdre can’t rely on her brother Henry who lives at the house to help her make sense of what has happened. Henry is a slacker and he lives a hazy existence.

Much of Deirdre’s life has been spent limping along on the leg and foot that were crushed in the wreck of Arthur’s Austin Healy convertible back in 1963. The circumstances surrounding the middle of the night drive and subsequent crash are a bit cloudy for her due, in no small part, to the trauma she suffered as a result. As she works to uncover the reason her father has died, Deirdre encounters people from her childhood – a neighbor boy, Tyler Corrigan, and Realtor Joelen Nichol, her best friend.

night night sleep tight wide

Author Hallie Ephron uses her childhood in Beverly Hills and a true-life spectacular only-in-Hollywood event that fascinated her as a pre-teen to underpin this memorable suspense novel. That event was the stabbing death of super glamorous actress Lana Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato. This was no ordinary lover’s spat; Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane was the killer.

Although characters Joelen Nichol and her mother, Bunny, have a past not unlike Turner and Crane, the similarity ends there. Ephron uses her considerable writing skills to draw the reader into a cleverly woven plot while maintaining a tone that places this book in the category of literature. The treatment of the scenes is cinematic and yet subtle. Readers who are familiar with southern California will easily see the places and scenes in their minds.

Hallie Ephron

The initial attraction to this Ephron’s work was spurred by this reviewer’s enjoyment of her sister Nora’s writing; however, Hallie now has a new fan. I look forward to reading her past and future works.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Quiet Emotional Work

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff (Knopf, $25.95, 249 pages; Vintage, $15.95, 272 pages)

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In his novel The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield uses the phrase, “quiet emotional” in place of the more typical “quite emotional.” This is a quiet emotional memoir about how Salinger helped a young woman, Joanna Rakoff, find her role, her place, her calling in life – which was to become a writer.

“Have you read Salinger?” Rakoff asks the reader. “Very likely you have. Can you recall the moment you encountered Holden Caulfield for the first time? The sharp intake of breath as you realized this was a novel, a voice, a character, a way of telling a story, a view of the world unlike any you’d previously encountered. I loved Holden, in his grief-fueled rage.”

My Salinger Year is a comfortable, entertaining and engaging story that does not have pretensions of being cinematic. However, Rakoff writes quite well, as in this selection, about the difference between Marc, a friend who is getting married, and Don, Rakoff’s then-boyfriend (and a sad choice of one):

“You ready for the big day?” Don asked Marc, patting him on the back. He was trying for cheer, for bonhomie, which gave him the aspect of an actor in a community theater production…

“I don’t know,” said Marc, with an enormous smile. When he smiled, he seemed to radiate pure waves of goodwill and genuine happiness. This was, I supposed, the difference between Marc and Don: Marc was fully at home in the world, content with life. He needed, he wanted, nothing more than what he had. Don wanted everything, everyone; Don wanted and wanted.

Although this true tale is about Rakoff’s work at a literary agency at the start of her professional career, it’s also a story about what happens when she leaves behind her “right guy” in Berkeley, and takes up with Don in Manhattan. Don is so clearly and absolutely wrong for her. The reader will feel some frustration while reading about her out-of-phase life with Don, a person who refused, without explanation, to take her to his best friend’s wedding.

The writer is now happily married to the “right” person, but she’s quite forthcoming about the fact that she made a key mistake in the game of love as a young woman. Fortunately, she was able to escape into the writings of J. D. Salinger, as she did on the weekend of the wedding that she was blocked from attending.

“All through that weekend, even as I ripped through his entire oeuvre, I kept having to put the books down and breathe. He shows us his characters at their most bald, bares their most private thoughts, most telling actions. It’s almost too much. Almost.”

Rakoff only met Salinger once but spoke to him often on the telephone. He convinced her to do what she needed to do for herself – for her own happiness. His advice convinced her to leave the safety and security of the agency job after just 12 months. It was a job that would get her no closer to writing than reading manuscripts.

Near the end of My Salinger Year, Rakoff learns of Salinger’s death and reacts to it in a touching way. Salinger was, and will remain, her rescuer, her larger-than-life hero.

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Salinger was an artist who touched many people through his work. He continues to reach and touch them to this day, as when high school students experience The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey for the first time. It was his work and its effect on others that exhausted him and caused him to seek comfort in isolation: “For years, he’d tried to respond to his fans. But the emotional toll grew too great.”

While Salinger may have remained as distant as Joe DiMaggio on his later years, there’s no denying the fact that he left behind his bold, major impact on the world of literature.

“Salinger was not cutesy. His work was not nostalgic. There were no fairy tales about child geniuses traipsing the streets of Old New York.”

“Salinger was nothing like I’d thought. Nothing.”

“Salinger was brutal. Brutal and funny and precise. I loved him. I loved it all.”

You may love this book.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This review initially appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-salinger-year-joanna-rakoff/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-My-Salinger-Year-by-Joanna-Rakoff-5676983.php

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Carry On

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco Press; $27.99; 432 pages)

A reader often selects a book because they like the author, heard it was good, or finds the subject interesting, only to meander through the pages discovering that, for whatever reason, it was not what they had hoped for.   Many avid readers will likely read through most books at various levels of enjoyment with the hope that it is the “next” book that really lights them up, only to find that it is just another decent book which they’ve had the pleasure to read.   Then, without warning, comes that “next” book – the one they whip through so fact they are sad when it comes to an end.   For this reviewer, that “next” book is Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the spectacular memoir chronicling her husband’s abrupt passing and the loving life they shared.

Oates’ husband, Ray Smith, dies unexpectedly from an infection after being hospitalized for pneumonia.   There were no indications that this outcome was likely, and in the process of outlining the events of her husband’s passing and her subsequent grief and guilt, Oates highlights many aspects of their life together.   They met in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, and together founded The Ontario Review, with Ray serving as editor until his death.   An interesting feature of this account is Oates’ struggle to publish the final issue, as Ray’s untimely passing left many loose ends in their lives.   More interesting, as they shared a life in letters, is her continual references to literature and their acquaintances and friends as she tries to make sense of this new life that she must elect to live.

Oates contemplates suicide continuously throughout the book, and for a time is addicted to sleeping pills/antidepressants.   She refers to herself in the third person as a “widow” ad nauseam, but just about the time the reader is inclined to say, “Get over it,” is when the intentionality of this term hits home even more.   The concept of being without her husband so dominates her life, that there is nothing else to her existence other than “widowhood.”

What is clear throughout is her undying love and affection for Ray Smith.   It is amazingly touching to be exposed, in such an utterly raw and unabashed manner, to the magnitude of Oates’ feelings for her husband.   Ironically, as close as they were, they rarely shared in their professional pursuits, and he did not read her fiction.   Upon his death, she deliberated excessively over reading the manuscript of his unpublished novel Black Mass, in which he consternates over his Catholicism, but, finally, she cannot resist the urge any longer.

If one were to debate who is the greatest living American author, it would likely come down to two, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth.   It is interesting that Oates mentions Roth on numerous occasions in the book, especially since many women despise Roth, and that Oates comes across as a feminist in much of her fiction.   The two are similar in that, among their many works, they have written non-fiction tales of death; Roth, in Patrimony, discusses the loss of his father.   It is a lesson to all readers not to commingle the work with the writer.

There are about 50 pages two-thirds to three-quarters though the memoir, in which one begins to wonder how many times they have to encounter the fact that the author is a widow, is depressed, etc.   The book slows down a bit, before it recovers.

After someone passes, the living understandably focus on those that remain, and, inevitably, much of this memoir deals with Oates’ difficulty in dealing with Smith’s passing.   However, though people who have lost a spouse will undoubtedly identify with much of what Oates goes through, it is clear that her intent is to honor her husband, which she does here in impeccable fashion.

One of the running jokes of Oates’ career is that because she is so prolific, a reader can hardly keep track of her output.   Some posit that she would have received even greater acclaim for her work if only the critics could keep up with her.

Don’t make the mistake of losing track of this one.   It is simply too good to miss.

This review was written by Dave Moyer, and we interpret it as being the equivalent of a highly recommended rating.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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For You Blue

Up From the Blue: A Novel by Susan Henderson (Harper; $13.99; 317 pages)

Warning: You should not take a glance at Up From the Blue, the debut novel from Susan Henderson, while you’re reading another book.   I did and found it was impossible to return to the other book until I’d completely finished this well-told and very different story.   It is the tale of Tillie Harris, an eight-year-old girl, whose mother disappears during a family move in 1975.   Tillie’s mother has been depressed and disturbed, but never suicidal.

Tillie herself is a free spirit, a younger version of her mother who should never have married an uptight Air Force officer-engineer who designs war missiles for the Pentagon.   We first meet Tillie as a pregnant adult woman who, because of some unique circumstances, must rely on her estranged father to help her get through the early delivery of her first child.   Her father’s presence at the George Washington University Hospital in D.C. is the last thing Tillie wants but time and fate deprive her of other options.   We start the story in present times before retreating to the nightmare that began in ’75.

This is not a horror story, but it is a story of a monster – the man who is Tillie’s father.   He is a cold quasi-human being, controlling and calculating, but one who people mysteriously defer to:

Even when he’s not wearing his uniform, my dad is giving orders and people just carry them out.

This is the man who supervised the dropping of almost 90,000 tons of bombs during the Persian Gulf War, but it is his actions at home that destroyed both a family and Tillie’s hope.   The young Tillie grew up wondering, “Where were the police asking if I wanted to keep my father with us or send him to jail?”

Little else of the storyline can be divulged without giving away too much.   Henderson offers the reader a highly original voice.   Once you identify with and latch on to the character of Tillie, you simply want to know what happens next in her troubled but realistic life.   Interestingly and ironically, the one recent novel with a similar voice shares the word Blue in its title – The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen.   Cohen’s novel is one that can’t be put down and is one that approaches a seemingly predictable ending before the apple cart is upset.   The same may be said about Up From the Blue.

“Sometimes what you fear, what you spend all your energy avoiding or pushing down, is not as terrifying as you thought.”

As a public service, we repeat the warning given earlier.   Do not pick up this novel unless you have time in your busy life to read it all the way through.   But if you don’t have the time, make the time.   Henderson is an author to watch and you’ll want to brag that you read her back when she was just starting out.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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Guilty of the Crime

The False Friend: A Novel by Myla Goldberg (Doubleday; 272 pages; $25.95)

There’s a saying that has been going around for years in the fields of entertainment and sports, “When the legend conflicts with the truth, always choose the legend.”   The distinction between the public story and actual events is what preoccupies Celia, the female protagonist of The False Friend.   Celia, an Illinois State Auditor, lives in Chicago but she’s returned to her small hometown in the formerly forested wilds of New York State to make a confession.   It seems that twenty years earlier Celia and her best friend Djuna and three other girls walked into a dense forest; only four of them walked out.   Djuna was never seen again.

The official story of Djuna’s disappearance is that she was picked up by a man driving a car – a man who stopped on the road by the edge of the forest and convinced her to get into the car.   That man was her killer.   This is the public story that the four girls told to the police and to their parents.   It was never questioned.   But Celia was the girl walking closest to Djuna on that fateful day and she’s now willing to disclose what factually happened…  Or, what she believes in her mind’s eye actually happened.

Celia has a somewhat naive faith in the premise that once she tells her version of the truth everything will be made better.   She also thinks that her former classmates will readily accept her version of the truth.   She’s seeking absolution and is excited that it’s about to be granted to her belatedly.   But the funny thing is that once she meets with the other girls (those willing to communicate with her), they don’t buy into her story.   Each one is absolutely certain that she saw Djuna being lured into the stranger’s automobile.

Author Myla Goldberg does a fascinating job of translating what is essentially a small story into a larger one about our roles and responsibilities in society.   If all of those around us wish to accept one version of events, of facts, what right do we have to say they’re wrong?   Sometimes there’s far more comfort to be had in the public story, the legend, than in simpler frail human events.

When reading this novel, each reader will come to think of certain events in his/her own childhood.   We may be sure that things happened a certain way on a certain date, only to find that our family members are wedded to an entirely different version.   Telling those around you that they’re wrong only makes them feel uncomfortable, if not angry.   (Thus, we all have sometimes accepted the group’s story instead of our own.)

Goldberg has created a fascinating and extremely engaging novel in Friend.   Her calm, deliberate style will call to mind Catherine Flynn (The News Where You Are) or Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass).   The uncertainty over an event that happened decades earlier is also a bit similar in storyline to Lisa Unger’s recent novel Fragile.

Goldberg’s talented prose will cause the reader to read and re-read several lines such as these:

“The school building itself was utterly unchanged…  The opposite edge of the walk displayed a gray boulder the size of a crouching child.   On it were carved the words JENSENVILLE HIGH, Gift of 1993…  The rock reminded Celia of a marker designating the future resting place of herself and her former classmates, all of them to be interred beneath in eternal, obligatory return.”   (Whew)

At the conclusion of The False Friend, Celia must make a critical choice – Will she continue to dispute the perceived history of a local tragedy or will she come to side with the community’s accepted version of events?   You will need to read this intelligently told tale to find out what decision she makes.   You will then wonder if you would have made the same choice.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The False Friend will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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Our Book Ratings System

As you may notice in visiting this site, we do not rank or score books with letter grades or numbers or stars – either white or gold ones.   We simply recommend books, of whatever genre, or do not recommend them.   The most precious resource we have in life is time, and so we attempt to make a determination here as to whether a particular book is worth your time.

If you don’t see a recommendation at the end of the review, the book in question is not recommended.   When we do recommend a book it will fall into one of three categories, as follows.

Recommended – This is a book, fiction or non-fiction, which may contain up to four or five writing flaws which were not corrected in the editing process.   However, it is clear on the whole (and by a margin that clearly exceeds 51%) that this is a book that will justify the time you devote to it.

Well Recommended – A book in this category may contain two or three flaws or editing omissions, but it’s exemplary and likely to rank in the top quartile (top 25%) of books on the market.

Highly Recommended – Books like these are likely in the top 10% of those released in the current and prior calendar year.   They may contain one or two errors but are nevertheless close to perfection in both content and presentation.

Some books will fall into the Recommended or Well Recommended category because they are well written, but Highly Recommended books tend to require a junction of great writing with a great theme and near-flawless execution.   Finally, we are considering adding a new category, Essential.   Essential books are novels or non-fiction books released in prior years that should be a part of any well-rounded reader’s experience.   Two examples that immediately come to mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Independence Day by Richard Ford.   The latter was the winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.   (“It is difficult to imagine a better American novel appearing this year.”   Publishers Weekly, 1995)

Independence Day was reviewed on this site on October 30, 2009 (“American Tune”).

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White Room

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier (Henry Holt & Co.; $25.00; 304 pages)

“…my house, my home, had become something deep and comforting to me, far beyond what I’d ever expected to find or feel in an unprofessional world, or a world outside of ideas, of letters and literature.”

“…most men tend to live one-dimensional lives…”

Have you ever watched one of those home improvement shows on a channel like HGTV where you patiently wait through the whole show for the big reveal at the end – and then the end is a disappointment?   That’s kind of the way I felt about reading this book, which I wanted to like more than I did.   There was just less here than I expected to find.

This is basically the story of a romance between an academic homeowner, Joy Harkness, and a handyman-carpenter by the name of Ted Hennessey.   Joy leaves the politics of Columbia University to teach in an innovative new program at Amherst College in Massachusetts.   She has plenty of money so she buys her first real home, which is a run-down Victorian.   Of course, it needs to be run-down in order for Teddy to enter the picture.

It was the character of Teddy Hennessey that just did not add up for me and made the read slower than it should have been.   When we first encounter Teddy, he’s the handyman who listens to The Who cassettes all day on his boom box.   That’s when he’s not reciting the poetry of Yeats, from memory no less.   Now, really, what are the chances of hiring a handyman like that?   Well, virtually none in the real world.   Highly improbable to say the least.

“I’ll always be her child!” he snarled.

Oh, but then we think that maybe Teddy’s a closet intellectual who is just dying for the chance to go to college, something that Joy can help him with, right?   No, it turns out that Teddy is afraid of going to school because then he’d have to leave his sainted mother who has him wrapped around her finger like a 9-year-old.   So we’re left with a man-child who is simply not likeable (at least I can’t think of any male I know who would feel any sympathy for him).   Why the once-married, yet independent, Joy is attracted to the wuss that is Teddy is a sheer mystery.

Since the romance between Teddy and Joy appears to be doomed – he, by the way, calls her “man” – Joy develops an attraction to her abode.   This is merely a comforting, if hardly an earth shattering, premise on which to build a novel…

“I turned and noticed, as I climbed up the steps to the porch, that my house looked warm and welcoming.   The rooms were lit, glowing from within; the colors they reflected were soft and inviting.   There was life in this house, and I was part of it.”

There was also a lot of crying in this book.   “Tears ran down my face and puddle around my nose before soaking the pillow.   I didn’t know why I was crying…”   “I’ve cried more this year than in the past twenty combined.”   “(I) cried until I didn’t think there could possibly be any liquid left in my body.”   I’m not sure why the otherwise solid – and growingly feminist – protagonist needs to experience such intense crying jags, another confusing factor.

One more confusing thing concerns a major scene in the book.   Joy’s married-but-separated friend Donna is savagely attacked by her former husband.   Donna’s ex uses a golf club to beat her nearly to death; pieces of her scalp are found on the club by the police.   Donna apparently has several broken bones in her face and is in critical condition.   She is rushed to the hospital for life-saving surgery and facial reconstruction.   A number of characters in this story act commendably, taking care of Donna’s children during the time that she’s away.   Eventually, Donna returns home on Valentine’s Day and the very thing the reader wants to know goes hauntingly unanswered – what does her face look like?   (It’s as if the character departs as a human but returns as a ghost.)

On the plus side, there’s some nice humor:  “I went into the dressing room and emerged from the curtain in outfit after outfit, like a puppet in a Punch and Judy show.”   But as for the ending of this story, it just seemed to me to run out of steam rather than conclude in a definitive (and logical) way.

Some will be attracted to this book because of its promise of a type of late-in-life feminism, or the notion that someone can, in a sense, partner with one’s surroundings.   Both are promising and positive notions but they did not eliminate a sense of hollowness.   Still Diane Meier has a nice, entertaining writing style; she’s a smoother version of Anna Quindlen.

“I had no story, or, at least, none that I could see.   But my vantage point was, perhaps, too close to the shore to see that I had, at last, begun to swim toward my own life.”

For the right reader, there may be lessons here that will assist in commencing a journey of self-examination and discovery; for that it is never, ever, too late.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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After the Goldrush

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby (Avon; $14.99; 339 pages)

“I was thinking about what a friend had said, I was hoping it was a lie…”   Neil Young

“I could always heal the birds,” he admits…  Echo takes his hand, “Joseph says that birds are the only creatures that have blind faith.   This is why they are able to fly.”

Ilie Ruby has crafted a magically moving novel composed of disparate elements: a tragic childhood death, a kidnapped woman, American Indian (Seneca) ghosts and spirits, wolves that interact with humans, unrequited love, and a parent’s illness.   The book is also replete with dysfunctional families who, sadly, may represent normality in American life.   Dysfunctional families are fueled by shame and secrets, and the secrets are kept until they must be divulged in order to save lives.

Two of the key characters in The Language of Trees are Grant Shongo and Echo O’Connell.   Grant is a half-blooded Seneca with the power to cure sick and wounded birds and animals.   He is also a person who cannot cure himself.   Then there’s Echo, who feels that she is lost in her life in spite of the fact that she’s true to herself.   Echo is the one person in the story who is free, except that she’s not aware of it.   And, except for Echo, the book is populated with characters that are haunted by the past – literally and figuratively – as they search for peace and redemption.

“Happiness is just as hard to get used to as anything else.”

The Language of Trees is written in a cinematic style.   It begins slowly and it takes the reader some time to absorb all of the many characters and to understand the personal issues affecting them all.   There’s also more than a touch of mysticism and magic to the story.   There are unique and spiritual events that will seem almost commonplace to those with even a touch of Native American blood.   (The author demonstrates a great deal of respect for Indian folklore and beliefs.)

What is initially calm builds to a highly dramatic and satisfying conclusion.   Coming to the final pages, I was reminded of the style of Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides, which found this reader both excited and sad that the journey was about to end.   As with Conroy’s novels, Ruby leaves us with a life’s lesson, which is that one must let go of the demons of the past in order to “not (be) afraid of the future anymore.”   Once the nightmares of the past have been left behind, we are free to soar like birds.

At its conclusion, this novel has the power to transport the reader to a better place.

“Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.”   (N. Young)

The Language of Trees is nothing less than masterful and transformational.   Let’s hope that we will not have to wait too long for Ms. Ruby’s next novel.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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