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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.

The Outward Room - Millen Brand, Peter Cameron

Madness. Wholeness. Healing through the tiny details of a life lived among others who care for us, and the terrible fragility we all navigate. This is a classic. So much larger than can be contained within its pages.

 

THE OUTWARD ROOM is the best kind of philosophical book: one rooted in story, in character, and one in which the word 'philosophical' never appears, and yet it asks all the important questions, and does so brilliantly, in a mere 230 pages.

 

Reward yourself. Read this book.

Chocky - John Wyndham, Margaret Atwood

Wyndham. What a visionary. And this is a wonderful story, in part mystery, in part psychological thriller, in part family story, in part sci-fi, and in all ways, utterly hopeful, well, almost utterly.

 

And did I mention timely? Given the threat we pose to the planet, this book remains pertinent.

No Beast So Fierce - Edward Bunker

I'm sure this was groundbreaking when it first came out, but now it feels sadly dated. Or perhaps I've just read too many of these sorts of memoirs, or... known too many people like this. 

To the Wedding - John Berger

A stunningly beautiful meditation on love and death told in multiple voices, like a choir. The sensual details are intoxicating, as is Berger's tenderness and hope for us frail humans, even in the face of a terrible, unchangeable fate. 

The Wreath - Sigrid Undset, Tiina Nunnally

A wonderful medieval romance, written by a Nobel Prize winner in 1928. It's said that no one writes about the medieval world as Undset did, and I can well believe it.

 

A love story, as well as a story about obligation, pride, honor and sin, it has a little something for everyone. The first of three books centering around Kristin Lavransdatter, this one chronicles her life from birth, through tempestuous first passion, to her marriage.

 

She's quite the classic heroine, willful and strong, determined to live for love in spite of the traditional strictures of the time. It's impossible not to cheer for her and wish her well. 

The Development of Moral Theology: Five Strands (Moral Traditions series) - Charles E Curran

A significant contribution to our understanding of the development of moral theology. Accessible and enlightening, this is a useful book for anyone seeking to understand what differentiates Catholic moral theology from the rest of Christian ethics. 

The Girl in the Red Coat - Kate Hamer

A solid and readable novel about a child, Carmel, who goes missing. Not a mystery, since the book is told in alternating short chapters, one from Beth, the mother's POV and one from the child's. The reader's interest is held by wondering how both will cope and what Carmel's ultimate fate will be. And perhaps that's where the tension lagged someone for me. I was far more intrigued by the Carmel's story than the mother's.

 

In Beth's chapters I kept waiting for her to be haunted by the images of what might, indeed, have befallen Carmel. Murder? Abuse? Slavery? But, while Beth is understandably gutted and obsessed with finding her daughter, she dwells more on her own possible complicity and what's actually happening to Carmel doesn't enter her mind. That felt off to me, unless the author is implying she's a narcissist.

 

There are come gaps in the narrative. For one thing, the child ends up on another continent and yet we are never told how she gets there, although she was clearly drugged. No one on a plane or boat, train or customs office thought to question this odd 'family' of little means and obviously-mixed parts? How did they afford fake papers? Birth certificate? Passport? Was she smuggled in a container? It felt as though the author simply couldn't figure out a way to do it, but wanted the religious sect that kidnapped Carmel to be based in the US. Very odd.

 

Then too, Carmel never felt in any serious danger. A tough and unpleasant and sad and awful spot? Sure. But not enough for thriller material, and not psychologically deep enough to stand up against similar books by other writers such as Ian McEwan's CHILD IN TIME, for example.

 

But, it's a quick afternoon read and this is the season for such things.

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

Lovely read. Nail Gaiman's the perfect author to breathe fresh life into the Norse tales of badly behaving, violent, tricky, lustful, flawed, and complicated gods. 

The Moor's Account: A Novel - Laila Lalami

Although I can appreciate the importance of this book's subject matter and admire the scope of Lalami's research, I found the protagonist lacked depth and the narrative dragged in places. I was more caught up in the story of Mustafa's life as a young person, prior to his enslavement, than in the episodic adventures of his journey among the Indigenous peoples of America; he seemed much more of a complete person in these sections, whereas in the present-tense of the book he felt like little more than a vessel for the tale.

 

Perhaps if I wasn't already aware of the horrors of early contact I would have been more engaged and certainly, if this perspective on history is new to you, you'll find it worthwhile.

Silence - Shusaku Endo

An extraordinary novel about the conflicts of faith. Endo examines personal faith, the silence of God, the dissonance of faith versus experience and what it means to be good. Of course, he also examines the cultural clash between Japanese Buddhism and 17thc Portuguese Christianity. And it's a bloody, gruesome, violent clash full of torture, cruelty, and martyrdom. So, what does it mean to be Christian in the face of such suffering? What is our responsibility to God, and to our fellow human beings?

 

The narrative lives in the intersection between belief and questioning. In the preface to the edition I have, Martin Scorsese writes: "It's this painful, paradoxical passage — from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion — that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully, and beautifully in SILENCE." He goes on to say that SILENCE is "the story of a man [Father Rodriguez] who learns —so painfully —that God's love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present . . . even in His silence."

 

It is also the narrative of Judas, that great and wretched betrayer. Here the spirit of Judas is inhabited by the cowardly and craven Kichijiro, although perhaps not only by him. That is for the reader to decide. Endo forces us to confront one of the most disturbing questions in Christianity. Who was Judas? What was Christ's response to Judas and what did it mean? As Scorsese points out, with the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, "these questions have become even more pressing."

 

The writing is more distanced — particularly in the first part of the novel, far less in the later sections — than might be comfortable for contemporary Western readers, by which I mean more summary than scene. However, if one perseveres, the rewards, at least for this reader, are significant.

 

I will be thinking about and re-reading this work for some time. There is so much to mine here, especially in the last section, where the philosophical and theological questions come into sharp, and agonizing relief.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel - Amor Towles

Thank you, Mr. Towles. I adored this book, in no small part because I adore Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, the central character from whose point of view the book is told. He is, in the true sense of the word, a gentleman: well educated, well read, well spoken, witty, loyal, and kind, one who rejects ennui as the sign of a lazy mind, who adapts to changing circumstances with flexibility and sees humility as a virtue in no way at odds with dignity. A gentleman never complains. A gentleman understands good manners are intended to be used to put others at ease, never to embarrass.

 

The other important character is the Metropole Hotel of Moscow, where our Count remains under house arrest for decades. It becomes his world, and therefore the world of the reader, a backdrop to the disturbing events of Russia from the 1920s to the 1950s. This is not a dark book, although it is not without pain. No book of Russia could possibly be written without pain -- Russia IS pain, after all. But we are inside the heart and mind of the unflappable, intellectually supple and resilient Count, and therefore we understand we are as safe as the travel-weary traveler sitting down to dinner in the grand restaurant where eventually -- because everyone in the Soviet Union must work, comrade -- Count Rostov becomes head waiter.

 

The writing is luscious. The wit is laugh-out-loud funny, the characters charming and alive, and the ending completely satisfying.

 

My only regret is that the Count is not a real person I can invite to dinner.

Tour de force

Ill Will - Dan Chaon

What a ride! Unsettling. Alarming. Irresistible. Riveting. Alluring. Brilliantly structured, and quite risky, but entirely accomplished.

 

Yes, it's a thriller, but so much more. And yes, we may have seen characters like this before, but not, in my experience, written with such audacity.

 

Highly recommended.

Mister White: A Dark Thriller - Grey Matter Press, Anthony Rivera, John C. Foster

Mister White is an exquisite piece of horror writing. First and foremost, it is horrible. Just horrible, and I mean that in the best way. It's gory, it's spine-tingling, it's alarming, it's shocking, and the pace is fast enough to keep you reading long past your bedtime, although I'm not sure you're going to want to read it in the dark.

 

Foster's taken some risks here, combining the horror genre with a spy thriller set-up. Hard to pull off, but he manages it with aplomb.

 

There are a couple of wonderful reviews of the novel, which I'm happy to direct you to:

 

Here at "This is Horror": http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/book-review-mister-white-by-john-c-foster/

 

and here at "The Horror Bookshelf": https://thehorrorbookshelf.com/2016/12/04/john-c-foster-mister-white-review/

I

f horror's your bag, this is the book for you.

Thirteen Ways of Looking: Fiction - Colum McCann

A marvel of a book. What is it about these Irish writers? Colum Toibin, Billy O'Callaghan, Kevin Barry? The music of the Gaelic infuses every sentence. I've read a good deal of McCann's work over the years and each book continues to delight. The voices in this collection are at once humorous, poignant, and trilling with life. 


McCann was assaulted on the street in NYC during the writing of these stories and the aftermath of that incident, which resulted in him being quite severely injured, echoes along every page. You can read more about it in the victim statement posted on his website ColumMcCann.com. There's also an excellent review of the book in the NYTimes, which you can find here: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/bo...

I should add that I had the pleasure of meeting McCann a few years ago at the Toronto International Festival of Authors. He is as handsome and as charming as he is talented and insightful.

 

 



Highly recommended. And the audio version is terrific, narrated by the man himself.

The Grifters - Jim Thompson

A noir classic from one of the great masters of the genre. 

Bad Feminist: Essays - Roxane Gay

Roxane gay is smart and astute and brave and candid and funny. The writing is accessible, clear, and thoughtful.

 

These essays, which cover a range of topics from racism to what makes an (imperfect) feminist to critiques of books like LEAN IN and movies such as DJANGO, are insightful and thought-provoking. Like the best essays, there's something here to make everyone a little bit uncomfortable, and Gay doesn't spare herself the discomfort either. How kind and clever or her to allow us to admit out own warts and wrinkles in the face of her own admissions of imperfection. Well done.

 

And, on a personal note, how delighted I was to find such a terrific critical essay on the topic of THE HELP, a book I loathed, and for which I have taken a great deal of abuse for loathing. Thanks, Roxane.

 

Reading these essays was like having a long conversation with the smartest and wittiest of friends. Highly recommended.