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.

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

 

My Favorite Books of 2018

6cr5kd9LiLooking back is sometimes easier than looking forward.  Scrolling through my reviews for 2018 brought back connections I made through books, and, as I tried to identify one book from each month, I remembered the year.  I found a book for each month except June, and the one posting for that month titled A Prescription for Comfort Books  was a reminder of my fall.

Here are my favorites for 2018 – have you read any?

  • January, 2018 – I started the year with Roz Chast’s Going Into Town, my favorite book of the year.
  • February, 2018 – a complicated puzzle of lives and loves – The Maze at Windermere by Gregory Blake
  • March, 2018 – Eleanor Roosevelt and her true love in Amy Bloom’s White Houses
  • April, 2018 – a thrill a minute in Christine Mangan’s Tangerine
  • May, 2018 – Ruth Ware returns with another mystery thriller in The Death of Mrs. Westaway
  • June, 2018 – oh, my aching back – a good title for my memoirs
  • July, 2018 – Anne Tyler returns to Baltimore in Clock Dance
  • August, 2018 – Delia Owens, a naturalist, writes her first fiction book in Where the Crawdads Sing
  • September, 2018 – a creepy thriller – Louise Candish’s Our House
  • October, 2018 – the power of women in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls
  • November, 2018 – a children’s book with a message for adults by Kate DiCamillo – Louisiana’s Way Home
  • December, 2018 – nonfiction – The Library Book by Susan Orleans