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LaurenBDavis

LAUREN B. DAVIS

Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.

Something Remains - Santur Hassan Ghedi

An insightful first novel from a talented writer with a great sense of his characters' interior worlds. 

The Dinner - Herman Koch, Sam Garrett

The narrator's voice was wonderfully written -- highly unreliable and with snark to spare. I would have given the book more stars were it not for the implausible set-up. By this I mean: I find it hard to believe that anyone, let alone a highly public politician, would meet at a highly public and terribly posh restaurant to discuss the horrific murder he has just discovered his child, along with that child's cousin, committed. Because the premise struck me as ridiculous, it tainted my view of the rest of the book.

Dragonfish - Vu Tran

It was fine. A distracting read and well paced, but long letter passages slowed the pacing and the fact that the object of desire -- Suzy/Hong -- remains off camera, distances the reader.

The Waterworks - E.L. Doctorow

I adore Doctorow. I love the sound of his sentences and his vision. I don't know how WATERWORKS slipped under my radar, so I'm grateful to Ta-Nehesi Coates for his recent recommendation in the NYTimes. It is, as Coates says, a strange and beautiful book. The narrator's voice is elegant and the tone perfect. The images are similar to those Mark Helprin plays with in WINTER'S TALE and REFINER'S FIRE -- Victorian and otherworldly, mechanical and dreamlike. The pacing is perfect and the way in which Doctorow unspools the mystery at the core of the plot masterful. My only complaint is that it ended so soon.

Ten Trees and a Truffle Dog: Sniffing Out the Perfect Plot in Provence - Jamie Ivey

Well, I received this book as a gift. I don't think the world needs another book about someone trying to build a house in Provence, no matter how charmingly written, and this one does have its moment. Still. I'm quite sure that's been done, possibly done to death.

As someone who lived in France for many years, I recognize the frustrations and stereotypes, the problematic landlords and dizzying bureaucracy as well as some of the colorful stock characters. The dog training bit was new, and frankly horrifying. It sounded more like animal abuse that dog training. Although perhaps it shouldn't surprise me. When I lived in France my neighbors would go off on a month-long vacation the first of August, tossing their dogs outside as they drove off. If they were alive when they got back, wonderful, if not, get a new dog. When I protested I was called weak, and laughed at. People said, "It's a dog, Lauren, not a child." Now, let it be known some people I knew treated their animals wonderfully, with much care and respect, but I was often depressed by animal care in France. And yes, pony is still on the menu, as it is in Iceland.

But I digress. This book is fine, but the problem is it's all been done before. For those of you who can't get enough of this sort of book, you'll probably enjoy it. For those of you who love France, but may be ready for something a little different, may I suggest M.F.K. Fisher? "Two Kitchens in Provence." Brilliant.

Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life - Thomas  Moore

I read this book years ago and found it entirely worthwhile. This year, I read it again for a faith group I'm part of. It held up well to a second reading, so many years apart. There's a great deal of wisdom here on how to attend to one's soul while living fully in the world. This is not a self-help book, not pop psychology or new age -- it's grounded in diverse theological wisdom, Jungian theory (as well as that of James Hillman, who wrote the terrific "The Soul's Code), and classical imagery.

The only chapter that felt a bit off to me was the one on illness, in which the author posits -- while trying hard not to -- that we bring on our own illnesses from soul sickness. While I may believe we are indeed making the planet sick and that can't help affect our own bodies, I'm wary of the idea our emotions are responsible for all illness. Mine you, Moore, keeps insisting that's not what he's saying, but it sounds like he is.

What I found most useful was his work on depression on how it does us no good to run from our shadows and the dark places in our lives -- not only is there much wisdom to be found down there in the dark, but much healing as well. Something I've found true in my own life.

The Pumpkin Eater - Penelope Mortimer

An astonishing work about a woman's soul-killing entrapment in a 1960s marriage. Well ahead of its time. For those of us who grew up during that period, it rings sadly true. The title is perfectly chosen.

Fates and Furies - Lauren Groff

I'm afraid I found this rather hard going. Groff is undeniably talented, but this book tries so very hard to be literary that the story and my concern for the characters got lost in the pyrotechnics. It felt overwritten and too self-aware. On top of that, I found much of the plot lacked credibility.

Elsewhere - Richard Russo

Russo's memoir of life with his mentally ill mother -- how it formed him, how it haunts him. Having been raised by a mentally ill mother myself, I identified with it enormously, although my mother's illness was not the same as Russo's mother's. Still, the confusion, the weight, the strangulation of such a relationship is undeniable and Russo captures it beautifully.

This is also a memoir of life in a rust-belt factory town, and the difficult poverty-entrapped lives of its inhabitants. Readers familiar with Russo's fiction will recognize it.

For writers, this is a generous piece of writing, for we see how a writer mines his or her own life for inspiration and voice, and in that way reminds me of Isabel Huggan's BELONGING, which I also recommend.

Winter: Five Windows on the Season - Adam Gopnik

I wanted so very much to like this book, as I enjoy Gopnik's writing and, more to the point, I was raised in Quebec where we say, "winter is my country." Gopnik's research is excellent, but I found his approach to the essays didn't allow him enough hooks to hang his personal hat, if you know what I mean. He is at his best when his insight and wit are applied to his own life, his observations about his surroundings and his fellow humans. Here, he explores concepts of winter -- romantic, radical, recuperative, recreational and the last, called (with a bit of a thunk), "remembering". He looks at history, science, art and literature, but fails to do the very things I hoped he would do, which is to evoke the season and to illumine it through the lens of his experience. This is more a history of winter than anything else. While there is much to admire in his thoroughness, in the end I only longed for actual winter all the more.

What on earth are the children doing?

Bad Influence - William Sutcliffe

What are the children up to? Good lord. This brought back a number of unpleasant memories about the sort of cruelty and violence children can be capable of, as well as the terrible hunger to belong, at any costs.

 

Ten-year-old Ben is lonely, with his best friend Olly away for a while. He meets Carl -- older, bigger, tougher, a bit odd, and decidedly dangerous. An early scene involving a chain saw is truly terrifying, although no blood is spilled, which is a testament to the power of Sutcliffe's writing.

 

When Olly returns and makes friends with Carl, things begin to unravel. Violence escalates, as does the tone of menace, which is so beautifully balanced with humor (not to mention witty little drawings). The power struggle of children is agonizingly accurate and very dark indeed.

 

The climax of the book is truly disturbing, even if the denouement lacked a slight edge, for me. A tiny bit more insight at the end-- applied with the same masterfully indirect brush Sutcliffe uses in the rest of the book -- would have tipped it over to five stars. A quibble, though. Recommended.

Hard Times In A Hard Land

Independent People - John A. Thompson, Halldór Laxness

An astonishing novel, about the brutal realities of rural life in an isolated croft in northern Iceland during the 1930s.  For this (and other work) the author won the Nobel Prize. Completely unsentimental and devastatingly harsh, it is nonetheless full of humo -- A  sort of Icelandic Beckett, if you will, with the same sense of the absurd and the dark. It is a scathing social critique and an important work. Highly recommended. 

An inspirational Curmudgeon

The Road to Character - David Brooks

An interesting and thought-provoking, although flawed, exploration on what character means, and how one acquires it. Brooks writes spiritually biographical essays on Barbara Perkins, Dorothy Day, General Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Samuel Johnson, George Elliot and St. Augustine, people he feels exemplify the virtues of humility, service to others, spiritual struggle (read: the struggle against sin), rectitude and moral courage in a way that no contemporary apparently does. He presents these as long-lost, old-fashioned virtues, and spends a good deal of time admonishing us against the ills of the "me-generation", social media and soulless accomplishment. There's much to admire and to be inspired by in these pages. He paints wrestling for character as an attractive, and ennobling activity, if not comfortable a comfortable one, and one can't argue with that.

 

Brooks' scholarship is as broad as one would expect from someone with his credentials and it serves the work well. My discomfort came with his repeated insistence that one not trust one's inner voice, which, if I'm reading him correctly, he seems to equate with an immature, self-serving ego. However, he forgets that St. Ignatius of Loyola posited that one of the ways one makes contact with God, and discerns God's will, is through the Examen of Consciousness -- in essence a way of listening to the God-connected wisdom of one's soul. Brooks takes an 'either/or' position, rather than an 'and' position, which is off-putting and unfortunate. One can both devote one's life to serving the world, and to responding to what the world asks of one, as well as cultivating a healthy, indeed, deeply nourishing, relationship with one's intuition, or soul, as communicated through the senses, through dreams, and through intuitive knowing. John O'Donoghue has done wonderful work on this and I would be interested to know what Brooks might make of that. It felt like a gap in his knowledge-base.

 

As well, I think there are a number of more modern examples, such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier... that Brooks might have chosen to focus on. Doing so would have illustrated that God (you'll forgive the word if you find it too fraught, feel free to replace it with whatever you're more comfortable with) remains ever faithful to us.

 

The book reads with more of a curmudgeonly tone -- like one's well-educated uncle scolding the younger generation with all their flippery and narcissism -- than I suspect he intended, and it may put off readers. I hope it doesn't, because there is, as I said, much to be admired here, much to spark self-examination, and much to inspire.

The World More Full of Weeping - Robert J. Wiersema

Wonderful novella by a talented writer. Inspired by a line from Yeats' poem, "The Stolen Child", this is a magical tale of innocence and loss and wonder. The pacing is terrific and the prose delightful. Well done. Recommended.

Brilliant! Read this book.

The Good Son - Paul McVeigh

Full disclosure -- I met Paul last year at a short story conference and heard him read a story there that floored me, it was so wonderful. Then, in April of this year, I saw him again, in Ireland, and heard him read from this book. The reading was fantastic -- animated, funny, absolutely crackling with energy, and to be honest I was a bit concerned the book itself might not live up to my expectations after that performance. I needn't have worried. This book is astonishing.

It's hard to believe this is a first novel, it's so good. Set in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland during "The Troubles", THE GOOD SON is a masterful combination of tragedy and humor, stirred into a batter of scathing social commentary. So much more than a simple coming of age book, and yet somehow it manages that as well. Paul McVeigh is a writer we'll be hearing a great deal from in years to come. Highly recommended. Well done, sir.

A Life Like Other People's - Alan Bennett

What an amazing piece of writing. It's heartbreaking. It's without what Ferdinand Mount of the Spectator called, "a drop of splother", meaning no self-indulgence, no writerly artificial pyrotechnics, no sentimentality, just brave, searingly honest and often surprisingly hilarious writing. Alan Bennet has long been one of my favorite writers, this book also makes him one of my favorite humans. It's beyond memoir. It's art.