Archive for March, 2011

The Illumination

Monday, March 21st, 2011

By Kevin Brockmeier

The Short Take:

This book is brilliant! No pun intended. Once again, Brockmeier has penned a novel that defies categorization. Though his central concept could come straight from a sci-fi movie, this incredibly moving tale of human love, loneliness, and pain is rich, nuanced, and heartbreakingly beautiful.


Brockmeier is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Brief History of the Dead, so I had high expectations going into his newest effort. He did not disappoint.

A sudden, world-wide change impacts everyone personally, yet this global alteration is nothing compared to the effect a book of love notes has on six individuals. As this book passes from one person to another, so does the story. Each of the six main characters struggle with the human hunger for connection and companionship, yet each struggle takes a unique form.

Moving, often profound, and beautifully written, The Illumination certainly brightened my reading world.

A Little Plot:

Suddenly and for no known reason, all human suffering emits light: hangnails, hunger, toothaches, cancer, every form of pain emits a visible light that brightens, fades, and changes along with the pain. Everyone’s physical suffering is visible to all. But not the suffering of the human soul.

For one lonely woman,a new widower, an abused autistic child, a missionary with uncertain faith, a writer who every spoken word hurts, and a homeless man with a special power it is not this illumination that changes their lives as much as a book. Single sentence love notes were written by the widower every day of his marriage and then copied into journals by his now-deceased wife.

These messages of love haunt each person who comes to possess this book in different ways. Some find pain, some find a strange comfort. In a way, that also describes Brockmeier’s incredible novel.

I couldn’t find a web site for Brockmeier, but to see his Random House page, click here.

Take Me Home

Monday, March 14th, 2011

By Brian Leung

The Short Take:

I didn’t expect to like this book set in a late 1800s Wyoming coal town filled with white and Chinese miners who are beyond wary of each. Wrong! This story of the relationship between an independent woman and a Chinese cook swept me away completely.


I’m not wild about the wild west. And seemingly doomed romances are not my thing either. While I can’t deny those two statements somewhat apply to this novel, they just don’t adequately describe it.

First of all, it’s more a story about survival, trust, and friendship than it is about love. It’s about the ability to see past differences to find commonalities. It’s about maintaining your humanity in an inhumane setting. And this flat, arid Wyoming territory certainly qualified as inhumane. Treeless, waterless, harsh — Leung conveys its soul-crushing emptiness well.

These are the elements that won me over. Of course, I also love a feisty, daring heroine and Miss Addie, the main character, certainly fills that bill.  Addie’s wonderings about her own mother’s ability to abandon her husband and children without a word also play an important role in the unfolding of this tale.

Take Me Home was certainly different from what I suspected and surprised me repeatedly. I liked it for all those reasons. And though the resolution was certainly more bitter than sweet, it felt just right.

A Little Plot:

Addie joins her brother Tom  on his failing Wyoming homestead. Tom wants to join the coal miners while Addie stays on his land. To bolster their income, Addie decides to hunt game and works out an arrangement with a Chinese cook, Wing Lee, to buy her game for the meals he prepares.

The rest of the plot revolves largely around how their relationship develops, as each fights tremendous feelings of loneliness and isolation. There’s a tragic accident, a heroic rescue, a marriage of convenience, and a riotous climax. Hints of the latter’s outcome are revealed piecemeal throughout the book in segments set some 40 years later.

If you want to know more about the author and this book click here.


Thursday, March 10th, 2011

By Nina Revoyr

The Short Take:

This tragic tale of extreme racism in a small Wisconsin town in 1974 really shook me up. The events are experienced by a half-Japanese little girl but considered anew by her adult self. It’s a powerful tale of loyalty gone wrong and the insanity of blind hatred.


This is not a gentle book. It’s hard edged and clear eyed about racism in an all-white, tight-knit community that can’t even accept little Michelle, a half-Asian child that’s the granddaughter of a prominent and respected citizen. When an African-American professional couple comes to town, pretty much all hell breaks lose.

Revoyr wisely references the 1974 Boston riots over school desegregation in her novel. Even then I had trouble accepting racism this strong at that point in time (in my native South, we were past that stage by then). So I asked Revoyr about it and she had the solid background to substantiate her plot.

Despite her ethnicity, Michelle is adored by her grandfather, Charlie. However, his tolerance reaches no further and he is the stalwart center of the town’s unbending racial attitudes. For him and his friends, there is no place in their community for African-Americans.

Small town loyalty is the second pillar supporting Revoyr’s plot. Alliances are so strong they hold even against evidence of child abuse: Lifelong friends are deemed simply incapable of such actions.

Ten-year-old Michelle cannot understand a lot of the attitudes and events rocking her world. For that reason, including the voice of the adult Michelle brings welcome perspective to the narrative. She can articulate the feelings a child has but simply cannot explain.

Though it is a set in the past, this book has great relevance today. This powerful novel reminds us that sometimes what we consider to be strengths are actually flaws. Certainty can easily be a liability. This is a worthy read. It reminds of us what was and helps us to see what is.

A Little Plot:

As the only non-white around, Michelle is either picked on or ignored by almost everyone in Deerhorn, where she has been abandoned to her grandparents. Her life is filled with fear, except when she is beside her adored grandfather or alone with her dog, Brett.

When a black couple is brought into town by the medical clinic, the town’s focus shifts and tensions rise to code red. She is a nurse, he a needed substitute teacher. The townsfolk are aghast .

As her grandfather is a leader, Michelle’s home becomes the hub for plots to drive them away. She doesn’t understand what is driving her grandfather and his friends and instead feels a bond with this hated couple.

Tragedy is inevitable.

If you want to know more about Nina Revoyr, this book, or her other novels, click here. And look for this book. It will hurt but it’s worth it.

The Weird Sisters

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

By Eleanor Brown

The Short Take:

As a book lover myself, it’s hard not to like a book in which every character also loves books. But this family drama about three loving yet rivalrous sisters has much more to recommend it.


Start with the whimsy of a Shakespeare scholar naming his daughters Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Then give those three grown women some serious flaws along with individual crises they face just at the point their mother is fighting breast cancer. Bring them back together in their childhood home and you have the makings of the perfect family storm.

This book could have gone really sappy, ultra-cute, or melodramatic easily. But Brown neatly sidestepped all that in her debut novel. The three sisters are each unique characters and nicely defined. They love each other, but there’s not a lot of “like” in their relationships. Nor do any of them have much “like” for the life they’ve been living so far, either. They’re not just running to help their Mom, they’re trying to run away from themselves.

Unlike a lot of books in this general category, there’s nothing over the top here. Everyday problems and annoyances are enough to get under people’s skin and move the story forward. The dialogue, relationships, and characters all feel genuine. The small college town of Barnwell feels just as true — with all its limitations along with those familiar comforts.

You might think you can predict the ending, and you might even be partially right (I was largely wrong). But, right or wrong, the journey is still a delight.

A Little Plot:

Rosalind never wants to leave Barnwell, she likes being close to her parents and her nice, ordered life. But her beloved fiance has a major opportunity at Oxford and wants her to come to England with him. Meanwhile, Bianca is living the fast life in New York City, picking up men and expensive designer clothes but paying for it all with embezzled funds. Cordelia has been living a drifter’s life, following rock bands and living hand to mouth when she discovers she is pregnant.

Their mother has cancer, which is the perfect excuse for each of them to move back home while they figure out what to do next. Their dilemmas and as well as their complex relationships provide plenty of fodder for a whole book — a whole book so engaging I could barely put it down for two days.

If you want to know about Eleanor Brown and her novel, just click here.

Cleopatra: A Life

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

By Stacy Schiff

The Short Take:

This fascinating biography not only gives you a much better understanding of this last of the Egyptian pharaohs, it also illustrates the huge gulf between the majestic culture of the Alexandrians of Egypt and the muscular, conservative outlook of the Roman people. It was a real eye opener for me.


I freely admit that my image of Cleopatra VII was largely shaped by Hollywood movies. I did know that the Ptolemys — the 32nd and last dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs — were one messy family and actually Greek, not Egyptian. But I had no idea just how messy and murderous their family tree was. Yowza!

I also had no idea that Alexandria was a much more cultured, orderly, and prosperous place than Rome at that time. The vast differences between the two cultures as well as the superior attitude the Romans took over all other peoples were deftly described by Schiff and gave me a more balanced vision of this Mediterranean world.

Schiff also presents good evidence of Cleopatra VII as a smart, confident woman was raised to rule and well suited to her job. Schiff delves past the work of centuries of pro-Roman writers who considered Cleopatra a scheming seductress and the enemy of all things Roman. Schiff looks into the actual history of the time to see how all the pieces fit together as well as referencing those disparaging writings.

The result is a fascinating book that not only expands historical knowledge but also adds nuances to one’s understanding of relations between Rome and Egypt as well as between Cleopatra and her two famous lovers.

A Little Plot:

You probably already know the mainpoints — Hollywood has been close enough with actual events if not in tone: first Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony. But there is so much more to Cleopatra’s story. She fought for her crown and her country, ruling successfully for 20 years. She strived to keep Egypt free of the Roman yoke by choosing alignments that should strengthen her position. She never gave up.

Huzzahs to Schiff for giving us a much richer portrait of this capable and clever leader of a great civilization!

If you want to visit Stacy Schiff’s website and learn more about her, her book, and its reception, click here.


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March 2011