By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Initially, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, appears to be the story of a world-weary man enduring an evening out with his wife and another couple, Serge and Babette, at an upscale, Amsterdam restaurant.  The musings of the narrator, Paul Lohman, revolve around the restaurant’s Art Deco decor, the waitresses in black pinafores and a waiter’s elaborate description of a tiny plate of olives. It’s clear that Paul does not want to be in this restaurant with these people — he would much rather be with his beloved wife, Claire, at the cozy café down the street.  But as the dinner proceeds, things take a turn in an unexpected direction.

The author has divided the book into chapters correlating to the courses of a meal.  The story becomes darker as each course reveals more about the shared history of the couples.  The appetizers come with a benign discussion of the latest Woody Allen movie.  By dessert, the veil of pleasantries has been stripped away and each character has shown the less than palatable side of his or her nature.

Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son.  These boys, Michel and Rick, together with Beau, of an unknown age and adopted from Africa by Serge and Babette, play a part in this feast.  In fact, their actions form the unspoken reason for the meeting.  Flashbacks to earlier days reveal the power plays, petty jealousies and resentments between the various players that may have led to this uncomfortable dinner.

The exaggerated mannerisms of the waiter, using his pinky finger to indicate which minuscule portion of food he is going to explain next, juxtaposed with the increasingly unruly emotions of Paul and the erratic behavior of Babette, add texture and interest to this story.  It is as if a tidal wave builds underneath the calm surface of the sea.  Each character takes actions and makes moral choices that may surprise readers.  At the end of the book, the elegant champagne aperitif is long forgotten and the ice cream dessert is left melting in a puddle.

The writing in this book is simple and straightforward.  The first-person narrative allows readers to see into Paul’s mind and follow his thought processes as the evening deteriorates.  Readers who enjoy compelling family stories and novels that address moral struggles will find much to contemplate in this provocative book.


The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

“Mom could make small things seem miraculous.  That was her talent.”

After Bartholomew Neil’s mother died, he finds a form letter from Richard Gere  in her dresser drawer.  This letter, dated 2008, advocates the boycotting of the summer Olympics due to the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese.  While Bartholomew knows that it’s a form letter, he takes this discovery as a sign to begin a correspondence with Richard Gere.  These funny and touching letters tell this character driven story of what happens to Bartholomew after his mother’s death.

Bartholomew has never held a job in his nearly 40 years.  He took care of his mother after his father was killed by the Klu Klux Klan for being a Catholic.  He and his mother went on adventures around Philadelphia and watched reruns of favorite movies like Pretty Womanstarring her favorite actor, Richard Gere.  Bartholomew writes in one of his letters, “Mom said, just like Julia Roberts said to you in the movie, ‘I want the fairy tale for you, Bartholomew.  If I couldn’t have it, I want it for you.  So keep believing in fairy tales, okay?…'”

The Neils are all staunch Catholics and, following the mother’s death, the local priests hire a grief counselor, Wendy, to work with Bartholomew.  He sets a new life goal — to go to a bar and have a drink with a friend.  He has never really had a friend before.  Wendy wants him to find a group of friends and go out into the world.  Bartholomew gets the feeling that Wendy does not think much of the way his mother raised him.

Father McNamee, an alcoholic, bipolar priest,  is devastated by Mrs. Neil’s death.  He declares himself defrocked in the middle of a mass and moves in with Bartholomew.  The priest alternately drinks and prays and waits for the Lord to speak to Bartholomew. Although the other priests try to talk Bartholomew into kicking Father McNamee out of the house, he allows the troubled priest to remain, kneeling in the living room and praying silently.

Bartholomew tries to stay calm, ignoring the angry man who lives inside him.  This voice tells him that he’s a moron, that he’s strange, that people think he’s worthless. Bartholomew goes to the library and tries to work up the courage to talk to the “Girlbrarian” whom he has admired for many years.  He makes plans to follow Wendy’s suggestions, then attempts to save her (with the help of Father McNamee) when her life goes wrong.  He finally makes a friend, of sorts, in the foul-mouthed, cat-lover Max who has been paired with Bartholomew in group therapy. Bartholomew makes many changes in his heretofore settled life, struggling with each one.

The Good Luck of Right Now, by the author of The Silver Linings Playbook,  is more than just a quirky book with eccentric characters.  This is a story of a human being seeking his “flock” and trying to come to turns with a new life after a predictable and comfortable past.  As Bartholomew says, “…it just couldn’t be helped, because life was always evolving and changing, and therefore, no matter how much we’d like to, we would never, ever have that moment again — even if we tried with all our might to re-create it, going so far as wearing the same exact clothes even, we would fail, because you cannot beat time; you can only enjoy it whenever possible, as it zooms by endlessly.”

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The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg

“The rest of the day, Sookie kept catching glimpses of herself in the mirror.  She knew she looked the same on the outside.  She walked and talked like the same person.  But she didn’t know who or what she was on the inside.”

Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama has survived the weddings of all three of her daughters — one of which featured dogs, cats and a turtle as bridal attendants.  She feels that she has earned a long rest dedicated to fixing up her yard and dealing with the greedy blue jays that are driving the smaller birds away from her bird feeders.  Then a registered letter arrives that turns Sookie’s whole world upside down.

Growing up in Point Clear, Sookie never met the high expectations of her beautiful and flamboyant mother, Mrs. Lenore Simmons Krackenberry.  While Sookie joined all the clubs and participated in activities that Lenore felt were necessary for any Southern girl of quality (especially a Simmons), her heart was never in it.  In college, Sookie tried to follow Lenore’s advice to be perky and “date, date, date,” but in her senior year she decided to marry Earle Poole, Jr., a kind dental student.  Lenore thought the Pooles were a decent family, but she was appalled by their big ears.  She didn’t want her grandchildren to have those ears.

The mysterious letter informs Sookie that she’s adopted.  For a person who has based so much of her identity on her family name and connections, this news is devastating.  Sookie has no idea who she is, if she’s not a Simmons.  And who are these people, the Jurdabralinskis of Pulaski, Wisconsin?  Sookie knows nothing about Wisconsin or Polish people.  Could this be why she likes cheese so much?

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg, moves between the present-day life of Sookie Poole and the history of the Jurdabralinksi family in the days of the Great Depression and World War II.  Sookie’s birth family were Polish immigrants who worked hard and saved enough to open a Phillips filling station.  The four daughters and one son all pitched in to meet the strict standards of the Phillips company, while Poppa slept on a cot in the station to meet the needs of late night drivers. When the beloved son Wink enlisted in the army as a pilot and Poppa fell ill, the oldest sister, Fritzi, and the rest of the girls took over the business.  People came from miles away to see the Jurdabalinski girls who would glide on their roller skates to fill the tank and check the oil of every customer.  When not working hard, the four Jurdabralinski siblings took to the sky, learning to fly from an itinerant air show pilot.  As the war continued to escalate, the three sisters volunteered to fly for Uncle Sam as Women Airforce Service Pilots.

This book explores family, relationships, self-esteem, narcissism and other serious topics in a light-hearted manner.  Flagg perfectly captures the tone of the small Southern town and takes you back in time to the Midwest in the 1940’s.  Flagg also writes about the involvement of women as pilots in World War II, delivering a fascinating slice of little-known history.  If you are seeking a laugh-out-loud funny book with lots of heart, give this one a try.


Someone Else’s Love Story

“I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.  It was on a Friday afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had been boiled red.”

Shandi Pierce has enough on her plate. She’s single-handedly raising her young son, moving to Atlanta to finish college, and playing referee for her constantly feuding Jewish mother and Christian father.  The last thing that she needs is to be caught in the middle of an armed robbery in a convenience store.  Then a tall hero, William Ashe, steps in to save the day, and Shandi feels that fate has finally sent her a soul mate.

But William has his own problems.  He grieves for an unthinkable loss.  And while he appreciates Shandi’s help, the thought of opening up to another person — much less falling in love — seems impossible.  William likes things to be a certain way, he likes order and predictability.  Shandi and three-year-old Nathan represent the antithesis of predictability.

Both William and Shandi have best friends who play important roles in this story. Walcott has stood by Shandi since the event that resulted in what she insists on describing as the “virgin birth” of her son. Paula has coached William through human interactions since high school.  His “autastic” way of approaching the world has made relationships difficult, and tough-as-nails Paula acts as his social translator.

Jackson addresses issues of family, faith, friendship and destiny in the character-driven Someone Else’s Love Story.  While she includes plenty of humor, the difficulties endured by William, Shandi and the people in their lives will touch your heart.  Jackson’s descriptive, quintessentially Southern language draws pictures that embroider the story with a strong sense of place: “still as a pond rock,” for example, or “discount talking cricket-bug.”

When you turn the last page of the book, you will feel as if you know these people.  And you will realize that for Shandi and William, love is not always what it seems to be, and that life can be full of all kinds of miracles.  As William says, “Miracle is another word for magic, and magic is only science unexplained.”


Longbourn, by Jo Baker

JacketSarah, a servant at an estate in Hertfordshire in the early 1800’s, dreams of falling in love and visiting London — 20 miles and a different life away. Between washing the dirty linens of five sisters and their parents, mucking the pigs, and making soap, she daydreams of the parents she barely knew.  In Longbourn, by Jo Baker, Sarah works for the Bennett family of Pride and Prejudice and, while that story unfolds in the background, it is Sarah’s search for love and meaning beyond her menial job that drives the plot in this outstanding work of historical fiction.

Unlike other housemaids, Sarah was born to a loving mother and father with a cozy cottage in the countryside. When they passed away, Sarah was sent to an orphanage and, at the age of 6, employed at Longbourn.  Her superior and stand in mother is Mrs. Hill.  Mr. and Mrs. Hill serve as butler and housekeeper at the estate, and watch over the small staff.  They are joined years later by Polly, another orphan.  These four servants are responsible for all the work on the estate — cooking, cleaning, running errands, chauffeuring; making clothes, cleaning clothes, mending clothes; feeding animals, tending animals, slaughtering animals.

Sarah would like nothing more than to see the world outside of their small village.  She works from predawn to late at night, with her only excursions consisting of walks to town to purchase items for the family, or deliver letters.  She wonders if she will ever fall in love, and flirts with a footman from a nearby estate.  So when a new manservant, James, is hired at Longbourn — quickly, and under strange circumstances — Sarah is at first hopeful, but then disappointed at his thin face, dirty fingernails, and suspicious past.  Much like Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, it takes awhile for Sarah to see James for who he really is.  But just as secrets are revealed and their relationship is developing, they are  taken away from each other.

Prequels and sequels to classic literature are a dime a dozen, with some being more successful than others.  It is the quality of the writing that raises Longbourn above other attempts to add to Jane Austen’s body of work. Baker’s book also makes the Longbourn estate a very real place: the damp, chilly mornings; the muddy roads; the horses running in the pasture; the emerging crocuses Mrs. Bennett planted as a young bride.  As Baker writes in the author’s note, “When a meal is served in Pride and Prejudice, it has been prepared in Longbourn. When the Bennett girls enter a ball in Austen’s novel, they leave the carriage waiting in this one.”  This attention to detail will please Austen enthusiasts, but the story itself will please all lovers of historical fiction.

Longbourn is a story of love outside the landed gentry, and the life of servants in the early 19th century.  For fans of Jane Austen’s books, historical fiction, or Downtown Abbey, Longbourn is a respectful retelling that also stands on its own as an excellent piece of historical fiction.


The Preservationist, by Justin Kramon

“He was a preservationist.  That was how he put it to himself, the word he used for the particular way he got by.  He’d never been able to let go of things easily. He understood there was a quirkiness to it, the kind of trait people might scoff at, like they would at someone who learned to play the mandolin or darned his own socks.”

The Preservationist, by Justin Kramon, tells the story of three people who are haunted by secrets.  Sam, a bit of a misfit, approaches his 40th birthday with dread.  Julia, beset by grief, attempts to become the carefree college freshman she might have been if it hadn’t been for the accident.  And Marcus, shy and tongue-tied, assuages his own guilt by losing himself in music.  This sensitive, yet heart-pounding, thriller is told from the multiple points of view of these three characters, as it hurtles towards an unpredictable conclusion.

Julia, pretty and circumspect,  hides her awkwardness beneath a layer of heavy sarcasm.  She has a superficial relationship with her roommate and a painfully difficult one with her parents.  She enjoys a casual date with Marcus, but soon finds the time she spends with Sam to be a peaceful escape from her feelings of not fitting in at the college.  Sure, Sam is a little odd, but he really likes her and (at the same time) requires so little from her.

When Marcus tries to warn her off Sam.  Julia begins to wonder if Marcus is a little unbalanced.  A series of campus rapes and some disturbing incidents in her dorm room leave Julia feeling unsafe.  She is not sure who to trust or where to turn.

Aside from being an exciting thriller, this book has both humor and some truly touching moments. At one point, Julia says of those who have died, “She feels like these people are with her, like there’s a world ahead where they all live, where she can touch them, where her voice can reach their ears.”

If you are looking for strong characters, wry humor and a page-turning read, pick up The Preservationist.  Those who enjoyed The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, or Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, should fly through this intriguing literary thriller.


Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen KingOctober is my favorite month of the year.  Brisk fall air, colorful leaves falling from trees and, best of all, Halloween.  It is a time for thrills and chills, trick and treats.  I was lucky enough to get the treat of reading Stephen King‘s latest book, Doctor Sleep, and I enjoyed every word of it.

Most of us know a little story called, The Shining.  Terrifying imagery abounds when I remember the movie: blood gushing from elevators, creepy ghost girls staring from endless hallways, and, of course, Jack Nicholson screaming maniacally, “HERE’S JOHNNY!”  Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the book version of The Shining, which differs from the movie (both are good, but the book is better).  Now, readers get to meet Danny Torrence, the little boy who almost died at the hands of his father in the Overlook Hotel, all grown-up.

Poor Dan doesn’t have it easy.  After the horrific events that occurred in his childhood, it’s hard to blame him for trying to numb his pain with alcohol.  Drinking does something else for Dan as well: it dulls his “shine,” the mystical power he has that ended up saving his life at the Overlook Hotel.  While this “shining” can be helpful at times, mostly it fills Dan’s mind with information and images that he doesn’t want.  So Dan drifts from town to town, job to job.  It’s as if he’s running from his past, and running from himself.  But, as we all know, everything catches up to us eventually.

After hitting rock-bottom, Dan attempts another fresh start.  He ends up in a small New Hampshire town, whose claim to fame is “Tinytown,” an amusement park with a scale model train that tourists can ride up into the mountains.  Something about this town beckons to Dan, so he decides to stay and try to clean up his act.  He makes new friends, goes to AA, and eventually gets a job in a hospice.  There he earns the nickname, “Dr. Sleep,” since he has an uncanny knack for knowing when people are about to pass away, and in helping them through their transition to the other side.

At over 500 pages, this book is an epic ride that spans the country, not to mention other dimensions, as well as other-worldly beings, too.  The tale culminates with Dan coming up against an ancient group of supernatural evil-doers, who live off the pain of others.  Along with a very special little girl, Dan is once again thrust into a nightmare that forces him to confront his true self, and to finally face the past that he has run from for so long.

The great Stephen King strikes again with a spellbinding adventure that simultaneously terrifies and delights.  It’s been a while since a book has captivated me as completely as this one did. As a long-time dedicated fan of his work, all I can say is, well done, Mr. King, keep ’em coming.


The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Rosie Project“Humans often fail to see what is close to them and obvious to others.”

Genetics Professor Don Tillman has a “Wife Problem.”  His physique, intelligence and income should make him attractive to the opposite sex. Logically.  But the 39-year-old bachelor recognizes that something a little less…quantifiable…detracts from his appeal. Sure, he has a blind spot about a mile wide when it comes to social niceties — Don is a literalist who bemoans, “why, why, why can’t people just say what they mean?”  In fact, his clinical approach both inside and outside his lab can be severely off-putting to any first date.  So he’s settled on a different tack, to separate the genomes from the plasmids. He devises a questionnaire to help him identify a suitable candidate for the future Mrs. Tillman.  No vegetarians, smokers, or gaudy jewelry wearers need apply.

Enter Rosie Jarman.  Though Don observes that she possesses none of the traits that he has identified for an ideal breeding partner, he remains curiously drawn to her. Together, they embark upon another project, dubbed the Father Project, in search of Rosie’s genetic father.  As Don goes to increasingly ridiculous lengths to obtain DNA samples (on the sly) from various men, Rosie asks the geneticist why he’s so eager to help.  Rationally, Don doesn’t have a response to her question. But then he’s faced with the reality of Rosie.  And he finds himself hurtling down the highway, “kidnapped” in a red Porsche convertible; memorizing a book of cocktail recipes in three days; and escaping through a fourth-story window.  And enjoying every minute of it.

It just so happens that there is a genetic component to Tillman’s social maladjustment — he has Asperger’s syndrome.  Don’s a little late with the lab results on this one — his love of routine and impatience with small talk are just parts of his personality (he thinks).  Naturally, Don’s factual, deadpan narration only adds to the comedy in this offbeat, oddball romance. 

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion, tells the humorous story of how love transforms one scientist’s carefully calibrated existence.  Readers who enjoyed Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, should try this laugh-out-loud debut novel.


House Odds, by Mike Lawson

“Molly Mahoney was about two twitches away from a nervous breakdown.”

Joe DeMarco is not your everyday attorney.  Instead of sitting in a fancy office with a view of Washington D.C., he works from a closet-sized room in the sub-basement of the U.S. Capitol.  His official title is “Counsel Pro Tem for Liaison Affairs,” which does not explain DeMarco’s job at all.  In reality, he works for Massachusetts Congressman, John Mahoney, taking care of things that Mahoney may not want traced back to his office.  In House Odds, by Mike Lawson, DeMarco finds himself up to his neck in situations that require his own special brand of creative problem solving.

Molly Mahoney, the Congressman’s mousy middle daughter, has been arrested for insider trading, and Mahoney wants DeMarco to make the problem go away.  DeMarco is sure that Molly has been framed — she’s just not the type to do something illegal — besides, where would she come up with a half million dollars?  Molly works as an engineer, lives in a mostly unfurnished apartment and drives a broken-down old car.

So DeMarco sets out to fix the problem, dealing with tricky lobbyists, slimy casino managers and some truly scary thugs.  The story twists and turns in the way that really good thrillers do.  DeMarco is a likeable character, but certainly not without flaws. He uses charm when he can, and violence when charm doesn’t work.  The Congressman is a powerful figure, used to getting his way and not averse to exerting his authority to manipulate the outcome of any situation.  His long-suffering wife, Mary Pat, serves as a voice of conscience to her husband and their children.

Politics, gambling, organized crime and the financial markets combine in an explosive way in this novel.  Long forgotten deaths and back-room deals come to light, as DeMarco tries to fix the problems for his boss, while staying true to his own rather flexible moral code.  DeMarco knows that almost everyone involved in this situation, with the exception of a zealot SEC employee, has dirty hands.  It’s tough to try to resolve an issue when there’s no real “good guy” to come out on top.

House Odds is the eighth book  in the Joe DeMarco series.  While it stands on its own, you may want to start with the first in the series, The Inside Ring. Fans of David Baldacci and Vince Flynn should enjoy this well-crafted page-turner.


Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent“Sometimes, after talking to the Reverend, my mouth aches.  My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.”

The debut novel, Burial Rites, by Australian Hannah Kent, tells the haunting story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an Icelandic servant who is sentenced to death for the part she allegedly played in the brutal murder of her master, Natan Ketilsson, and another man, back in 1828.  While she awaits execution, Danish authorities send the 33-year-old woman to the remote town of Kornsá, to stay with a local family.  Initially, the family dreads the prospect of harboring the convict on their humble croft, or farm.  But as Agnes works alongside them, she begins to share her account of the events that led to that fateful night, both with the family, and with the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur (Toti).  This story — in a country where Icelandic sagas play such an important part in the lives of the people — transforms how they view the young woman, and her crime.

Hannah Kent based her novel on the true tale of the last two people executed in 19th century Iceland, which was then under Danish rule.  It’s clear that the author has done extensive research — some of the letters that she includes are translations of archival documents from that time.  But as much as Kent grounds her book in facts and biographical details, this work of historical fiction stands on its own literary merits.  There is a spare precision to her prose, which captures the bleak beauty of Iceland’s harsh climate and landscape.  The narration gracefully shifts between the omniscient third-person and the confessional first-person perspective of Agnes, whose words practically vibrate with intelligence and life.

As I was reading, I could picture (and hear, and smell) the dank turf house where the family lives, with its mold and its drafts, and experienced the claustrophobia of a single shared room (badstofa) where the croft’s residents live and sleep.  This helped draw me in to the interior lives of the novel’s characters, with their quiet observations and reflections.  Kent steeps her book in a moody atmosphere that mirrors the grim hopelessness of a condemned woman’s world.

Readers who enjoy dark literary fiction, such as A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks, or Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood, should check out this book.