Thursday, June 29, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past #4

This Thursday, I'm featuring a non-fiction book about a fiction writer's reading life.  My Reading Life by Pat Conroy was published in November 2010.  This brilliant author of so many best sellers, including my favorite of Beach Music, died in March of 2016, and the world lost a talented, compassionate, and funny man.  In reading My Reading Life, one can feel the essence of Pat Conroy, as it is the story of his life just naturally told in what he read and where he was and how it affected him and who was instrumental in his reading/life. 

First up is the jacket description of My Reading Life, followed by my review of the book.  Even if you've never read a Pat Conroy novel, you will find the book fascinating.  Of course, if you have read Conroy, My Reading Life will charm you in tune with what you've read, especially now that he is gone from us. 

Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is a voracious reader. Starting as a childhood passion that bloomed into a life-long companion, reading has been Conroy’s portal to the world, both to the farthest corners of the globe and to the deepest chambers of the human soul. His interests range widely, from Milton to Tolkien, Philip Roth to Thucydides, encompassing poetry, history, philosophy, and any mesmerizing tale of his native South. He has for years kept notebooks in which he records words and expressions, over time creating a vast reservoir of playful turns of phrase, dazzling flashes of description, and snippets of delightful sound, all just for his love of language. But for Conroy reading is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

In My Reading Life, Conroy revisits a life of reading through an array of wonderful and often surprising anecdotes: sharing the pleasures of the local library’s vast cache with his mother when he was a boy, recounting his decades-long relationship with the English teacher who pointed him onto the path of letters, and describing a profoundly influential period he spent  in Paris, as well as reflecting on other pivotal people, places, and experiences. His story is a moving and personal one, girded by wisdom and an undeniable honesty. Anyone who not only enjoys the pleasures of reading but also believes in the power of books to shape a life will find here the greatest defense of that credo.

This book is the type of book that I love and dread simultaneously. I literally found myself hanging on every word (and they are such magical, illustrious ones)as I slowly turned the pages, fearing that I might miss yet another pithy, entertaining statement from Mr. Conroy. OK, so the only "dread" aspect of my relationship to this book is the arduous task of noting all I wanted to remember with post-it flags and highlighter marks, not to mention looking up a few words whose meaning I obsessively had to learn. There is so much to love in what Pat Conroy conveys to us about his reading life, a prolific one to say the least. Conroy must be the best-read author ever. I'm not sure when he finds the time to write, but, of course, I'm most grateful that he does. I was fortunate to hear this wordsmith speak at a book festival, and remember hanging on his every word then, not just smart this Southern charmer is but laugh-out-loud entertaining. Reading this book was akin to listening to the silver-tongued tale spinner himself. Insights into Pat Conroy's life and growth as an artist are, of course, an inexorable part of what he has read and why. Seemingly ordinary people, starting with his bibliophilistic mother, places, authors, and books devoured are given separate chapters in which Conroy brings each alive with his memory and their value. Gene Norris, a high school mentor/teacher may be singularly responsible for my beloved author channeling his love or reading and writing into a path of genius. I felt a moment of epiphany when Conroy talks about "exactness" as being a "virtue" and responsibility of a writer. As with all meaningful writing, this love story to reading will prompt you to read more, both of Conroy and others. I count meeting Pat Conroy at that book festival as one of the highlights of my reading life. Fortunately, I didn't know just how smart he was at the time, as his down-to-earth Southern civility and habitual smile belie the erudition of his demi-god status. His bearing and manner invite you to blurt out whatever is on your mind, and he greets it with interest and grace. Reading his story of his reading life, as if there is any other kind, one gains  understanding of how an author so brilliant could be so humble. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw: Reading Room Review

I have a fondness for mystery/crime set in isolated settings, so The Birdwatcher, set in the harsh, bleak landscape of the Kent coast and with backstory integrated from the segregated factions of Northern Ireland in the late 70s, The Birdwatcher solidly checks that box.  Setting is a major player in this standalone by Shaw, with it influencing the action in dark, reclusive ways.   And, the setting, with its solitary and inaccessible features is reflective of the characters that Shaw so deftly draws, their secrets and their fears keeping them apart from the warmth of companionship.  Rather like a locked-room mystery in which one must determine how the players all there in front of us were able to elude our grasp of the guilty.  And, like a locked-room tale, this novel is not a thunderous roar of action, but instead is a slow, meticulous sifting of the evidence and connections to a crime.  The story is a police procedural with a dogged determination by the main character to get it right, and that takes a bit of time. 

Sergeant William South has worked as a policeman on the Kent coastal lands and the Dungeness area for over twenty years.  He is quite content to work as a routine policeman in the community and has no experience with murder cases.  That dearth of experience is self-imposed, as he early on decided that his past as a murderer should preclude any involvement with it in his job.  He is an avid birdwatcher, having started the practice as a boy, and it is this activity and work that comprise his life, nothing more.  His contentment, however, takes a hard hit when a new detective sergeant, DS Alex Cupidi, shows up, and due to the force being short staffed, William is assigned to help her get her bearings.  Unfortunately, that help includes accompanying DS Cupidi on her way to a murder scene.  That murder scene turns out to be William’s neighbor and only quasi friend, Bob Raymer, who was a fellow birder. 

The brutality of the murder is shocking to all, and there are no obvious suspects.  Like William and others that lived in that remote region, Bob Raymer kept himself to himself.  William realizes just how little he knows about the man who lived only a hundred yards away from him.  Although William’s official involvement in the murder case of his friend wanes after the discovery of the body and subsequent interviews, his personal interest doesn’t.  It has stirred old memories of another murder, and the book begins its backstory of William as a thirteen-year-old in Northern Ireland during the ethno-nationalist conflict called “The Troubles.”   It was another harsh setting with a grim story of his home life, where his father was a violent, angry man and his mother one of the two victims of the father’s abuse.  Developments in the present-day case serve as an impetus for William to come to terms with the murder he committed as a youth and to ensure that justice is served in his friend’s death.  A physical connection of the past crime to the present one cannot be ignored by William.  Shaw does an exceptional job of transitioning from the dangerous conflict of Ireland past to the desolate present of the coast of Kent, and we, along with William, see an unfolding of the conflict and pain inside him.

William’s character is a study in how one’s past affects one’s future, and raises the question of how a life burdened with secrets can sustain itself without facing those secrets and demons.  The author has given us a character that is a complexity of interesting, peaceful, closed-off, and amiable.  That William accepts a forced friendship (from a plea of Alex Cupidi) of Cupidi’s daughter Zoe, who is also interested in birding, and that he seems to care about Cupidi’s and Zoe’s lives reveal a glimmer of hope for his bonding with other people.  Shaw doesn’t shy away from dealing with how people and relationships can be the biggest mysteries of all. 

The Birdwatcher is the first novel that I’ve read by William Shaw, and I will be going back to check out his Breen and Tozer series.  Fans of Peter May should be especially drawn to The Birdwatcher, as May has mastered the setting of isolation long ago, and Shaw does a superb job here. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

Today's selection for Throw Back to my reading is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.   It was an important book for me historically, as well as introducing me to Josephine Tey's writing.  In English history, King Richard III is a controversial figure.  Although Richard III only ruled for two years, his reign is rich in historical significance.  With his death on August 22, 1485, the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses both came to an end.  There is the persistent story of how he killed the two princes in the tower to make his rule secure.  To this day, there are strong feelings about whether Richard murdered his nephews and was a bad person or whether he was egregiously slandered.  After reading The Daughter of Time years ago, I became a staunch supporter of Richard III and his innocence.  Of course, the fictional book did for me what all good reading does, it led me to more reading about the subject matter.  It's a short book, and I highly recommend it. 

Book Description:
"One of the best mysteries of all time" (The New York Times)—Josephine Tey recreates one of history’s most famous—and vicious—crimes in her classic bestselling novel, a must read for connoisseurs of fiction, now with a new introduction by Robert Barnard.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.

The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne: Reading Room Review


There are parts of this story that are hard to read, but any story that has its origins in a brutal kidnapping of a young teenager is not going to be a pleasant tale.  And, the events and feelings being narrated by the daughter born into the circumstances of the kidnapper raping the mother is going to deal with complex and disturbing issues.  That the daughter of that unholy union didn’t know her father was also her and her mother’s jailer until the daughter was twelve contain memories that to her were “normal,” but to others are untenable.  Living isolated in a wilderness where animals are hunted and survival of the fittest is in constant play makes for some uncomfortable moments, too.   But, again, this is not a story with which you are supposed to be comfortable.  The narrator is a survivor of an unimaginable situation whose demons in the form of her violent father come back to haunt her in the flesh when she is in her late twenties and has a family of her own.

Helena Pelletier is the daughter of her mother’s abduction, and she has miraculously managed to move past the trauma of her younger years and is now married with two young daughters and living in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. The trauma has not left her without scars, but she is grateful for her life of normality and the love of her family.  Then, her father, Jacob Halbrook, the man who ruined her mother’s life and twisted hers breaks out of prison, killing two guards.  The manhunt for this dangerous criminal is centered where the clues lead, but Helena knows her father deliberately left those clues to throw the police off the track of where he’s really headed.  And, Helena, who knows this man better than anyone, knows he is headed for her and her family.  Having learned tracking and survival skills at her father’s knee, she also knows that she is the only one who can recapture him.

The reason I found this book fascinating is that we are given insight into how a child born into such a disastrous situation thinks, or how she comes to process and accommodate her past into her present and future.  The author uses alternating chapters of Helena’s past and present to acquaint readers with the years Helena spent as a daughter unaware of her parentage origins.  While we see the man who fathered her as a monster, an object of disdain, Helena’s perception is colored by the isolation of living in a wilderness and not knowing any other example of what families were until she was twelve and loving a father who taught her everything she knew.  To say her feelings and thoughts are outside of most people’s realm of relevancy is an understatement.  But, this story presents a perspective that is important to consider when our “normal” isn’t someone else’s.    

Karen Dionne tackles this difficult subject matter with a directness that doesn’t avoid the ugliness or discomfort of the story.  Life is scary and cruel and unfair in a world where a young girl is kidnapped by a narcissist and gives birth to a child.  That child deserves to tell her story like it was and is, without any sugar coating.  Dionne’s description of the UP of Michigan was an educational one for me, as I’m completely unfamiliar with that area.  The description of the marshland where Helena grew up shows both the beauty and the harshness of its isolated setting, a metaphor for Helena's life there.  The use of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Marsh King excerpts at the beginning of Helena’s early years chapters serves as the allegory for good vs. evil in man’s nature, begging the question which is stronger, and more specifically which is stronger in Helena.  

The Marsh King’s daughter is a book that will haunt you, but it is also a book that will keep you completely engaged in its uniqueness and well-paced plot.  The characters are presented in all their rawness of culpability and trauma, but the examination of a mind and a person who must overcome disturbing origins to emerge as an accepted member of society is a harrowing story worth experiencing.