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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.

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.

Lost Cantos of the Ouroboros Caves: Expanded Edition - Maggie Schein, Jonathan Hannah, Pat Conroy

5 out of 5 stars.... Is it possible to give more stars? I'd like to. Having said that, I'm not sure how, precisely, to review this marvel. It's a collection of stories quite unlike anything I've read before, and that's saying something, my friends, since I read a great deal.

 

Schein holds a Ph.D. in Ethics and teaching at the University of South Carolina. Her philosophical training serves her well here, as these stories are certainly philosophical. Peter S. Beagle said of her stories, "They are genuinely philosophical in a way which is very rare, frightening in a way far removed from scary, and, most impressively, they are often philosophically frightening — which is almost unheard of." Even he says he hasn't read anything remotely like them in a long time.

 

Yes, that long time... it brings to mind old tales, myths, sacred stories of ancient cultures, and those are precisely the tales Schein draws from. Her understanding of myth and folk tale is impressive, but so, too, is her understanding of the yearnings, fears, passions of the human (and at times non-human) heart.

 

Medicine men, monks, immortals, witches, seekers, wise talking animals, all make their appearances. In fact, the world Schein creates is one in which everything, everyone, from tree to priest, vibrate with life and the sacred power of story.

 

Truly, I feel these are stories with the power to transform. HIGHLY recommended.

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy - Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Jeffrey Ford, Genevieve Valentine, Maureen F. McHugh, Delia Sherman, Kathe Koja, Elizabeth Wein, Elizabeth Bear, James P. Blaylock, Kaaron Warren, Leanna Renee Hieber, Dale Bailey, Veronica Schanoes, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner, Car

Loved it. Wonderful collection. There might be one or two stories that aren't quite as strong as the rest, but it hardly matters. They are imaginative, well-constructed, and a great deal of fun. I particularly enjoyed the stories who owe a debt of inspiration to the Brontes, Austen and Trollop. I'm a big fan of most things Datlow and Windling (the editors) do, and this is no exception. 

Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother's Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul - Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Although I am not (officially) a Catholic, I have always been impressed how Catholicism embraces the feminine. This may sound odd, considering the way the boys in the Vatican treat women, but I don't think it is. There is something older, wilder, more female and, dare I say, more deeply attuned to Spirit than the rules, regulations, glitter and power of Vatican city. Many of the nuns I've met get this.

Estes brings this older, darker, more vibrant female to the fore, and she does it with great respect to the goddess who those of us who feel at home with more earth-borne and yup, pagan, roots can identify with. Did not the Lady of Guadalupe appear on a site sacred to the Indigenous people of Mexico? She did. Not, I contend, to displace her, but to assure those who believed in her that a simple change of name really changes nothing. She is still here, among us.

That's an experience I've had at a number of Christian sites in France and Wales; sites built upon much older sacred sites. The power of the sacred transcends shifts in religious fashion.

So, all this to say that Estes works hard in this book to reconnect us to that timeless and powerful female energy and she does a hell of a job, incorporating stories, poems, prayers, visual art and song to draw us in.

If this sort of thing interests you I urge you to put aside any prejudices you may have (and we all do) and take a wander. I think you'll enjoy it, and it will enrich you.

Bird, Blood, Snow - Cynan Jones

I'm a fan of Jones' work, and admire what he did with this difficult tale. Peredur is perhaps the least accessible of Mabinogion tales and doesn't, as Jones admits, stand up to the tale of Percival, its twin-tale, if you will. But, my, the threads Jones plies here. What a complex web of forms. I'm not generally a fan of work that is more meta, more about form than character and plot but I make an exception for this work. He's a lovely writer (although be warned, there is much violence and gore here) and has clearly thought a great deal about how to approach this challenging text. It's a gift to the reader.

If you're not familiar with the Peredur tale, before your read the book you might wish to read the afterward, where the original version of the myth is told, and Jones' comments concerning his approach.

Thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended.

The Green Fairy Book - Andrew Lang Ed.

One of the classics. Read all the colours!

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life - James Martin

An absolutely terrific book. Fr. Martin is funny, practical and inspiring. Not just for Jesuits... not just for Christians... fine thoughts here on the art of living in kindness and connection.

I Stand at the Door and Knock: Meditations by the Author of The Hiding Place - Corrie ten Boom
I have enormous respect for Corrie ten Boom, and certainly she's one of the most inspiring figures of 20th c. Christianity. This book, however, although full of her quiet, solid, faith, exposed a dogmatic approach that I find too narrow. This is entirely personal, and shouldn't deter anyone who is of a more conservative bent.
 
 

 

Wild Gestures - Lucy  Durneen

These are beautifully crafted stories of loss, yearning and missed opportunities. Durneen -- whom I am delighted to call my friend -- has a gift for interiority. There is something of Henry James in the depth of insight here, written in luscious prose. The dialogue is perfect, and full of wit, but perhaps what remains unsaid speaks loudest. The layers of subtext are masterfully done and leave the reader haunted and inspired. I can't wait to read whatever Durneen chooses to write next.

My being the author's friend in no way corrupts my praise. It's a fantastic book.

Bad Blood - Lorna Sage

Fascinating memoir of respected British academic Lorna Sage's family, their (especially given the times) rather shocking behaviors and how those behaviors affected the author. There's much to be found on the net about Sage, who sadly died much too young at 57, seven days after winning the Whitbread award for this book. There's an excellent review of this book on the Guardian website, here:

 

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/sep/09/biography

 

A highly affecting read. Recommended.

An Unnecessary Woman - Rabih Alameddine

Last night I dreamed I wandered the streets of Beirut. That's the power of this novel; it creates a world so complete, a character so alive, they become part of the reader's psyche.

 

I'm generally not a big believer in back-of-the-book blurbs (which can be more politically motivated than authentic responses to the text), but these capture the nuances of this novel so well, I offer them here in lieu of a review.

 

“An Unnecessary Woman dramatizes a wonderful mind at play. The mind belongs to the protagonist, and it is filled with intelligence, sharpness and strange memories and regrets. But, as in the work of Calvino and Borges, the mind is also that of the writer, the arch-creator. His tone is ironic and knowing; he is fascinated by the relationship between life and books. He is a great phrase-maker and a brilliant writer of sentences. And over all this fiercely original act of creation is the sky of Beirut throwing down a light which is both comic and tragic, alert to its own history and to its mythology, guarding over human frailty and the idea of the written word with love and wit and understanding and a rare sort of wisdom.”—Colm Toibin

 

"The extraordinary if “unnecessary” woman at the center of this magnificent novel built into my heart a sediment of life lived in reverse, through wisdom, epiphany, and regret. This woman—Aaliya is her name—for all her sly and unassuming modesty, is a stupendous center of consciousness. She understands time, and folly, and is wonderfully comic. She has read everything under the sun (as has her creator, Alameddine), and as a polyglot mind of an old world Beirut, she reminds us that storehouses of culture, of literature, of memory, are very fragile things indeed. They exist, shimmering, as chimeras, in the mind of Aaliya, who I am so happy to feel I now know. Her particularity, both tragic and lightly clever, might just stay with me forever."—Rachel Kushner

 

"There are many ways to break someone's heart, but Rabih Alameddine is one rare writer who not only breaks our hearts but gives every broken piece a new life. With both tender care and surgical exactness, An Unnecessary Woman leads us away from the commonplace and the mundane to enter a world made of love for words, wisdom, and memories. No words can express my gratitude for this book."
—Yiyun Li

 

What an extraordinary book. Can't recommend it highly enough.