Posted by: Jeanie F | April 28, 2013

Eventide by Kent Haruf

In a recent post, I reviewed the third book in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy, Benediction. The first book in this series was Plainsong. Today, nearly thirteen years after I read it, it remains one of my top ten books of all time. Somehow I skipped over the middle book, Eventide. Since I so loved the other two, I decided I’d better go back and see what happened in between.

It is by no means necessary to read these books in order. While there is a sequential view of life in Holt, CO, each book stands squarely on its own. And Eventide didn’t disappoint. It picks up with the McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, elderly ranchers living outside of Holt. Here’s how the book opens:

They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer.

This style is part of what makes all of Haruf’s writing so powerful. The spare, precise language succinctly evokes the time, the place, the people, the tone. Seemingly unadorned, these books contain some of the most beautiful and striking images I’ve ever read. The review hits it squarely: “Haruf’s books are so low-key and straightforward that a careless reader might miss the fact that they are about everything that life has to offer: love, sorrow, malice, understanding, and the connections that make and keep us human.”

There are several story lines to follow: that of the McPheron brothers and their teenage charge, Victoria Roubideaux; Luther and Betty Wallace, a mentally disabled couple raising their children as they try to negotiate the intricacies of modern society; DJ, an eleven-year-old boy responsible for himself and his elderly and infirm grandfather. The gist of the book is the individual struggles of these people and the small ways they provide succor to each other and others in their path.

This description may put you off by sounding sentimental or maudlin, but that’s because I don’t possess the same facility with language that Haruf does. He breathes life into his characters and situations with the most delicate of tools: exquisite writing. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Ron Charles, book editor for the Washington Post, had to say about Haruf and Eventide:

It works only because Haruf describes their ordinary tragedies in prose that’s strikingly unadorned. Their struggles are raised by this clarity to such an extraordinary vision that at the end of some chapters I was left wondering, Who in America can still write like this? Who else has such confidence and humility?

Quotations don’t do it justice, anymore than a tuft of prairie grass could convey the grandeur of an open plain. Every decoration has been stripped away, leaving a narrative that almost never hazards an interior thought or authorial comment, forcing the story to rest entirely on Haruf’s flawless selection of detail and ear for dialogue.

This is easy to do badly, as a thousand Hemingway imitators know, but Haruf never missteps, and I wish his books were required reading for anyone learning to write.

If you want to see how a true master writes, if you want to meet characters who will stay with you for days, weeks, years after you close the book, if you want to find faith in the human spirit, then pick up one of these stellar books.

Grade: A+

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 21, 2013

The Abundance by Amit Majmudar

As anyone who reads my blog regularly knows, I rarely accept advance review copies of new books. There are two reasons for this: first, most of the offers I receive are books written in genres I don’t read (fantasy, sci fi, etc.) and, second, I worry about having to write an uncomplimentary review of a book that has been offered. However, when I was asked if I would like to read The Abundance, I was interested. I’m always interested in novels that deal with assimilation into American culture, and I especially like books whose main characters come from India, a place that fascinates me, but which I never wish to visit (too many people, too much poverty – I’m not an intrepid traveler).

The blurb promised, “The Abundance is a luminous, bittersweet novel of India and the American Midwest, immigrants and their first-generation children, and the power of cooking that bridges the gulf between them.” It sounded like something I would be interested in, and I happily accepted the offer.

Two things happened which may somewhat influence my review, and I want to be completely transparent about this:

  1. Due to my own technological ineptitude, there was a delay in my receiving a digital copy of the book. The publisher kindly mailed a hard copy to me.
  2. During the brief delay while I waited to receive the book, I read Kent Haruf’s new novel, Benediction.

Why would this influence my review? Both novels are end-of-life stories in which the main character is diagnosed with, and then succumbs to, cancer. Both take the reader through the process of dealing with the diagnosis and, subsequently, reviewing their lives and relationships. In other words, these are similar novels in terms of content and emotional weight. They are very different novels in terms of style and form, and it’s difficult to make unbiased comparisons. Please keep this is mind as you read this.

The Abundance focuses on the protagonist’s relationship to her daughter, Mala, which has been strained through most of Mala’s life. When the book opens Mala is a grown woman with children of her own. After learning of her mother’s illness, she and her mother come to terms, and to closeness, as Mala takes on the responsibility of learning the native recipes that her mother makes. Along the way we get a good view of life for middle class immigrants trying to negotiate the terrain between the old ways of their youth and the American practices of their grown children.

On this front, the book didn’t disappoint. This is a family that only suffers cultural chasms, not poverty, ignorance, language barriers, etc., as many new immigrants experience. Majmudar does a fine job of helping us understand what those might be. I appreciated the front row seat into a way of life that is outside my personal experience.

However, for me, the book was “neither fish nor fowl” – in other words, the internal conflict of the mother (who is unnamed, which bothered me) is directed toward her children to the point that we rarely feel her own emotional turmoil. Both the physical and spiritual experience that we would expect to be part of this story are largely glossed over. We never get close enough to the children to truly understand their own conflicts and motivations. As I read, I found myself engaged in the story but always expecting something that was never delivered.

The impact of this book, for me, is synonymous with a fast food meal - my appetite is sated, but not satisfied.

Grade – C

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 10, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

It isn’t often that I finish a book and feel that I know, and love, the characters. Kent Haruf’s writing always does this to me. When the book ends, I feel like I’ve said goodbye to some old friends.

Benediction is the third in a trilogy of novels about life in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. It seems to be somewhere northeast of Denver and light years away from any metropolitan city I’ve ever visited. Life is slower, people are more connected – not necessarily better, nicer, more tolerant, but the citizens of Holt seem to live with the agreement that they ARE each others keepers when times get hard.

And in Benediction, time gets hard for Dad and Mary Lewis. The book opens in the doctor’s office where “they could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.” Where matters stood was that Dad – so-called by everyone, related or not – didn’t have much time left. When they return home, the couple sit outside to consider what needs to be done. Mary brings him a beer.

He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.

It is with exactly this spare and devastating prose that Haruf takes us through the last days of a man’s life. Dad wasn’t a perfect man; he was a perfectly believable man who regrets his mistakes, loves his family, is respected by his community, and moves slowly toward redemption at the end of his life. As a man of the world, he fears he will leave only a small ripple. He has Mary drive him past the hardware store he owns, now run by his employees, and as he looks through the window at a man making a purchase, he begins to cry. Later he says, “It was only a simple little goddam thing. That’s all it was.” When she says, “What was, honey?” he replies:

Me crying in town back there at the store. That’s what set me off. It was my life I was watching there. That little bit of commerce between me and another fellow on a summer morning at the front counter. Exchanging a few words. Just that. It wasn’t nothing at all.

But in spite of Dad’s dismissal, we see the impact that his life had – good and bad – on those who moved within his circle. We come to love and understand him. Through his eyes we see the beauty and wonder of a simple life.

The book is introduced with a definition of “benediction” – the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness. Through Dad’s eyes, and those of his loving family and community, we experience the poignancy, the humanity, and the fragility of a blessed life.

Grade: A+

To read the review I WISH I had written but Ursula K Le Guin did write, for The Guardian, go here.

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 22, 2013

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

This book is a funny, satirical novel that lampoons Seattle, helicopter moms, Microsoft, and a score of other modern-day targets. Written in a variety of formats – e-mail, faxes, documents, bills, letters - it portrays the complexity of modern communication (and miscommunication). But while the novel is often laugh-out-loud funny, it is still a book with a heart.

Bernadette is a complex heroine: a non-practicing architect, a past winner of the Macarthur genius grant, and a serious agoraphobic. She is married to Elgin, a top Microsoft inventor and the star of the “fourth most viewed TED Talk.” She is the mother of a 15-year old daughter, Bee, a bright prodigy at her middle-tier, eco-friendly, progressive private school. To say that Bernadette is unorthodox is more than an understatement. She is so reluctant to leave her home, she hires a “virtual assistant” in India to electronically “run” her errands; she moves her family into a building that was once a home for wayward girls; she wears a fishing vest for the convenience of having her glasses, keys, etc. readily available.

The mothers at Bee’s school (whom Bernadette refers to as “gnats”) scorn her. The architectural world she has abandoned considers her a mysterious and iconic revolutionary. Her husband fluctuates between admiration of and frustration over her, when he isn’t too preoccupied to think about her at all. Her daughter loves her.

One of the strengths that Semple brings to this story is to make Bernadette a sympathetic character, not just another eccentric crazy. You see her through the eyes of her husband and daughter, and you root for her the whole way through.

The action revolves around an upcoming trip to Antarctica to reward Bee for her achievements at school. Bernadette, of course, is dreading it, which sets off a series of events that culminate in her disappearance. The documents that comprise the book help solve the mystery of where Bernadette has gone and what she has done.

This book is often laugh-out-loud funny, and it’s impossible not to enjoy the roasting that the oh-so politically correct moms, school, and city get. But underneath it all is a story of a damaged woman who fiercely loves her family – and whose family fiercely loves her.

Grade – A

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 16, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner , by Dutch author Herman Koch, has been a European best seller since 2009. The story is a dark tale told by an unreliable narrator, Paul Lohman, a story that twists and turns as we learn more about Lohman and his “happy” family.

Lohman is a family man, living with his wife, Clare, and their 15-year-old son, Michael. The story takes place in the course of a single evening in which Paul and Clare go out to dinner with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. It is immediately clear that the relationship between the brothers is tense, Paul being resentful of Serge’s success. Serge is a politician poised for a winning bid for Prime Minister. It isn’t immediately clear what Paul does, but we see right away that he isn’t in Serge’s league.

The story unfolds through the course of the dinner and the action is, in fact, separated by the individual courses: aperitif, appetizer, main course, etc. By the middle of the meal we know that Paul’s son, Michael, and Serge’s son have committed a terrible crime. They haven’t been caught yet, but the parents have come together to discuss how it should be handled. That they can’t agree is widely foreshadowed by the obviously rivalry between the men.

This is a subtle, dark book in which nothing is really as it seems. It kept me interested most of the way through although, for my taste, it was a little anti-climatic. The plot was doled out a bit too slowly, the characters became a bit unbelievable. Still, it has its strong points and may, in fact, make a better movie than the book.

Grade: B

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 5, 2013

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen


Lust! Murder! Lies! Sex! This novel, based on a real-life event, has it all!

In 1927 Ruth Snyder and her lover, Judd Gray, conspired to murder Ruth’s husband, Albert. This is a fictionalized version of the events that led up to Albert’s untimely demise, and the famous trial that followed.

The story is a familiar one: a young, unhappy woman has made the mistake of marrying an older man whom she doesn’t love. Her husband, Albert, seems to share her ambivalence. In fact, he keeps a large oil painting of his deceased previous fiancé prominently displayed in the bedroom and has named his boat after her. He gives Ruth an amazing amount of freedom, especially considering the times, to go out with other male “pals”. It is on one of these outings that she meets Judd Gray, a handsome lingerie salesman who has his own problems at home. The two, Ruth and Judd, begin a steamy love affair that soon has turned Judd into an alcoholic and has Ruth plotting her husband’s murder. There could hardly be two more inept murderers, and the police quickly bring them to justice.

This is no who-dun-it.

At first it wasn’t clear exactly what Hansen had in mind when he decided to write about this event, which was widely chronicled at the time and about which several non-fiction accounts have been written. It seems that he was interested in exploring what brought these two morally bankrupt, but once law-abiding, people together. He has done a fine job of laying the foundation for the crime.  By turns funny, pathetic, and shocking – but never boring - Hansen lets us see how this may have transpired: the initial attraction and seduction, the manipulation, the human weaknesses. He then follows the famous trial, during which Ruth does everything possible to throw Judd under the bus. Ultimately I came away with a modicum of sympathy (tinged with disdain) for the hapless Judd. Ruth just had it coming!

Grade: B

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