Ghost Wall

51cmihoku8lA man insists you build a wall; why would you do what he demands? Sarah Moss addresses abusive power, fear, and complacency in a suspenseful melodramatic tale about a wall.

In this short (130 pages) riveting tale, 17-year-old Silvie and her parents spend a few summer weeks in the North British woods with a group of college students and their archeology professor, trying to reenact the lives of ancient Britons from the Iron Age. They eat only what they can gather, and wear soft moccasins and scratchy tunics.

When Silvie’s abusive father, a bus driver by trade, beats her for bathing in the stream, the tale escalates into a horror story climaxing with the reenactment of the ghost wall of the title, referring to the ancient Briton practice of placing ancestors’ skulls overlooking a camp. One of the college students, Molly, not only befriends Silvie but saves her from what quickly becomes a nightmare Silvie seems unable to prevent herself.

With references to the famous bog people throughout the story, a prologue describing the sacrificial rite, and Silvie’s memory of having once fallen into the bog –

“the bog seals around you…{filling} the inner skins of every orifice, seeping and trickling through the curls of your ears, rising like a tide in your lungs, creeping cold into your vagina, it will embalm you from the inside out,”

the reader can anticipate terror in the seemingly innocuous field trip. But Moss has a clear message too, and thankfully Sylvie’s father gets what he deserves.

How to Hold a Grudge

41k6fdqjmzl._sy346_  Self improvement books usually don’t work for me, but Sophie Hannah’s How to Hold a Grudge or The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life gave me some good laughs. Despite her organized approach to changing “resentment to contentment,” with quizzes to identify the grudge and a “grudge-fold path” to control them, Hannah clearly forgives but doesn’t forget.

Hannah uses incidents in her own life as examples, and her humorous approach may offer some consolation to those of us who recognize similar incidents in our own lives.  Her stories are funny but still poignant and sometimes worthy of revenge – which Hannah does not condone.  Everybody needs a safe place and Hannah believes grading her grudges, and storing them in her grudge cabinet after she has dissected them with her grudge meter is a better way – most of the time.  Writing them down and letting them simmer overnight does help, but I wonder if Hannah would consider good advice someone gave me once – destroy your incriminating diaries like Jane Austen.

Grudges appear in my life everyday, and my grudge cabinet is like my bookshelves – brimming over with always room for more.   I should probably reread Hannah’s book to rate them and laugh – or privately scream at them as she suggests – but now I have a grudge against her for reminding me of all those incidents I thought I had forgotten.

Once Upon a Time…a few books with happy endings

No matter the journey – from Moriarty’s clever twists and heart-stopping foils to Elizabeth Berg’s magical realism, Diane Setterfield’s Gothic mystery, and Tara Westover’s shocking revelations – when the ending neatly slays the dragons, and the good guys win – all is well with the story.

51-+rlhp5gl._ac_us218_Nine Perfect Strangers

Liane Moriarty knows how to spin a tale and she does not disappoint in her latest page turner Nine Perfect Strangers.  Nine strangers at an upscale spa connect in her tale of self discovery, with humor, mystery, and a few heart stopping thrills.  Each has a different motive for signing up for the ten day rejuvenation plan, from the young couple who need marriage counseling after winning the lottery to the overwrought romance writer who has been taken in by an internet scam.  Others include the thirty something woman with four girls whose husband left her for a twenty something, a handsome gay divorce attorney, an over-the-hill sports hero, and a grieving family of three. Throw in a Russian overachiever with diabolical intent, and Moriarty once again has produced a fun and thrilling fast ride.

513lhruwtul._ac_us218_Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Setterfield creates a Gothic mystery around a “dark and stormy night” during the winter solstice over one hundred years ago with a mute child brought back from the dead after drowning in the river.  Three separate families claim the girl as their own – Helena and Anthony Vaughan believe she’s their kidnapped daughter; Robert and Bess Armstrong think she’s their illegitimate grandchild ; and Lily White hopes she’s her lost sister.  As the plot meanders through the town and the river, I sometimes got lost in the flashbacks. The complicated mystery is solved quickly at the end, but the rapid decompression may give you the bends.  Like Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale, Once Upon a River has scenes shifting through time with strong characters at the helm.

th  Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Elizabeth Berg knows how to dish out comfort, and in Night of Miracles the food helps.  You’ll be salivating at the midnight chocolate cake, the butterscotch dreams, and the cream cheese lemon bars   Lucille Howard from The Story of Arthur Trulove returns in the familiar town of Mason, Missouri, where she is now at eighty-eight years old teaching classes on baking.  Arthur’s adopted daughter, Maddy, and his granddaughter, continue to be a part of her life.  A few new characters add flavor:  Iris Winters, looking for a fresh start in a new town; Monica, the waitress; Tiny, a local man and frequent customer pining for Monica; the young couple next door to Lucille facing a health crisis, and their son Lincoln. When Lucille receives an ethereal night visitor in her dreams, the angel of death in jeans and a flannel shirt,  you will wonder if no more sequels are forthcoming.  Nonetheless, the story is full of good people doing good things for each other – oblivious of the rancor in the outside world – a tonic and a lesson of hope.

41qzuq2h2wl._ac_us218_Educated by Tara Westover

If happy endings make you smile, this coming of age memoir will make you gasp.  With a fundamentalist upbringing on a Morman Idaho homestead, Tara Westover embellishes her hard journey to success and graduate degrees in Education.  Although she admits she might have gotten some of the facts mixed up, memory being what it is (especially when you’ve suffered a number of head injuries from car crashes and beatings), Westover’s harrowing account of survival is sometimes difficult to digest.  Her tale is her catharsis, but not everyone will want to know all those details. Hopefully, she’ll move on to using her Cambridge Ph.D. to write about other topics.

The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.

Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

unknownAlthough I haven’t read all the books still on my to read pile from last year, I am already thinking about new books to be published soon in 2019.

Here are five I want to read, with more to come:

  1. The Suspect by Fiona Barton – a psychological thriller
  2. The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley – a Flavia de Luce mystery
  3. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – historical fiction with actress Hedy Lamarr as the main character
  4. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman – romantic comedy with one woman’s trash becoming another woman’s treasure
  5. Spring by Ali Smith – the next installment of her seasons