Dory L.'s blog

A House in the Sky

ISBN: 
9781451645606

This memoir is as compelling as any thriller, and much better written than most. In it a young Canadian describes how she escaped her family’s poverty and dysfunction in a small town in Alberta by reading National Geographic mags cover to cover. The family was so poor that she had to earn money to buy the used magazines herself, but while reading them she not only discovered the world, but was able to dream of a better, more interesting life.

Amanda didn’t have the money for college, so instead she became a waitress at high-end clubs and restaurants in Calvary when the money from oil and gas was flowing. She soon began to travel internationally to South America, India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Edgy, dangerous places appealed to her and those far off the tourist track. She went to Read more »

The Best American Essays 2013

ISBN: 
9780544103887

The Best American Series may seem like a boring reading choice, but whenever I choose a volume from it, I am rewarded to discover new and unfamiliar authors. Plus, reading this series helps me to nudge my book selections in fresh directions. Wilderness writer Cheryl Strayed edited The Best American Essays 2013 and her intriguing selections offered lots of surprises.

Here are examples of a few of the titles: “Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel,” “Highway of Lost Girls,” “My Father’s Women,” “I’m Jumping off the Bridge,” and “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon.”  In “I’m Jumping off the Bridge” Kevin Sampsell, a bookseller at Portland’s Powell Books—my favorite bookstore in the world, described dealing with a suicidal patron and how artfully he handled it. But as the essay continues, you realize that the bookseller had considered suicide himself.

In the chilling “Highway of Lost Girls” Vanessa Veselka decided to investigate the murder of some female hitchhikers in the 1980s. During that time period, she had a terrifying experience while hitchhiking.  A truck driver had exited the highway and transported her down a back road. He stopped and pulled out a knife demanding that she climb in the Read more »

Knocking on Heaven's Door

ISBN: 
9781451641974

If you are taking care of a very sick parent or other close relative, this is the book for you. Katy Butler, a journalist, tells the end-stories of both her parents. She lived on the left coast; they, in Connecticut when one day her father, Jeffrey, suffered a severe stroke.  Shortly after the stroke, his cardiologist recommended a pacemaker, and her mother and Katy agreed. This was without talking about any of the ramifications while he was well and could understand the consequences. His GP was against it; he had seen too many patients with hearts “outliving” the rest of their bodies.

Jeffrey recovered somewhat but by this time his type A wife has made him surrender both his belt and his wallet.  The former Wesleyan history professor was bored silly. During a week visit, Katy arranged for her dad to be picked up by a special van and brought to the pool where he used to swim.  Katy made the journey with him two days to show him the ropes, and bought him a new watch that thrilled him. His wife had also hidden his nice silver watch.  Katy’s dad loved the cheap watch and the sense of independence it gave him. After Katy left, he continued the van/swimming trips for a long time.

The book also covers Katy’s extremely difficult relationship with her mother. Did you guess that there were issues?  Katy’s two brothers took little part in caretaking their Dad because they did not get along with their mother either.  She was very controlling about their diet as adults, their haircuts, their clothes, and especially their failures in life. Read more »

Bride of the Sea

ISBN: 
9781619021198

If you like the sea, especially bordering isolated northern islands, this novel might appear to you. It’s atmospheric and literary with beautiful descriptions of the light, the beach and the Atlantic. Throughout the book, the sea is more threatening than warming.

It’s also very similar to a modern fairy tale.  A literature professor, who by the way studies fairy tales, falls in love with his young student. He invents an end-of-term party to get to know her better and then begins to date her. In fine restaurants, she is half-wild and licks her fingers and then his while eating lobster.  She is mum about her past and her family.  She often arrives with wet hair that is so blond it looks white; he later discovers that she has webbed feet. They marry, but without any family or friends to witness it. Her choice of a honeymoon spot is the wild Orkney coast where it is cold, rainy and remote.

Richard is obsessed with his young wife who is never named.  Instead of working on his new book, he gazes at her through their vacation cottage’s wide windows. She spends most of her days outside wandering the beach or just watching the sea.  Nights they have sex, and then she wakes up terrified by her dreams. Read more »

Jane Has Her Say

ISBN: 
9780307958341

I love this new age of biography where not only famous people’s lives are examined but also everyman’s or in this case everywoman’s. Of course, Jane Franklin’s life would have faded into history were it not for her very famous older brother. But this compelling biography gives a very interesting account of the life of an ordinary, rather poor Boston woman during the time period of the Thirteen Colonies.

Jane grew up in a big family and Ben was six years her senior, and he taught her to read. They corresponded their whole lives, and were for many years the last two left from their nuclear family. Many of Jane’s letters have been lost, but can be somewhat reconstructed from her brother’s responses to them. Like her brother, she was very opinionated and thought of Benjamin as her “second self.”

At age fifteen, she married a saddler named Mecom, and for the next twenty plus years, she was either pregnant or nursing children. She had twelve children and all but one died before she did. Most, unfortunately, died as adults which was less common at that time. Her husband was not a good provider and eventually went crazy. So Jane and her children boiled and sold soap from home.

Her letters to her brother and his gifts of books, many of which he had printed himself, gave her an intellectual life that she otherwise would not have had.  They shared many secrets from the rest of the family, some of them jokes. Read more »

A Year of Loss

ISBN: 
9781400069439

Paul Harding’s second novel after his Pulitzer-prize winning Tinkers is heartbreak of a novel.  One Sunday in the lovely New England village of Enon, Charlie Crosby takes a solitary walk at a bird sanctuary. He had invited his 13 year-old daughter Kate but she chose to go swimming instead with her girlfriend.  That afternoon while she is biking home from the lake, a distracted mother runs over her.  Charlie’s life changes forever.

The first casualty of Kate’s death is Charlie’s marriage to Susan.  Apparently, Kate had been the glue holding their union together, and when he is so overcome with grief that he can do nothing but lie on the couch and cry, his wife first begs for his help then gets angry.

Then in an intense moment of grief, wanting to feel real physical pain, he pounds the stairway wall and breaks his wrist. Susan takes him to the emergency room but a few days later leaves for her parent’s house in Minnesota.

The novel is essentially focused on two characters, the village of Enon—it’s presence is almost human and palpable--and Charlie, who has long studied the village’s history.  Charlie, who starts to abuse prescription drugs and alcohol, wanders the village mostly under cover of night.  Read more »

The Garden of Evening Mists

ISBN: 
9781602861800

This beautiful historical novel is set in an exotic place, rural Malaya, after World War II before it became the country of Malaysia. It’s also one of the rare novels that is centered on a Japanese garden.

The narrator, Teoh Jun Ling, a woman of Straits Chinese heritage, has just retired from her career judging war criminal cases. Previous to that, she was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. In fact, she was the only person to survive; after being tortured there, she developed a great hatred for all things Japanese. Yet her dear sister, Yun Hong, who died at camp, always had a passion for Japanese gardens after she had visited the island nation as a child.

Yun Ling returns to the highlands to see old friends and also to visit the tea plantation of Yugiri where an ex-Japanese, Aritomo, has long worked a spectacular garden.  Although she is repulsed at asking a favor from someone Japanese, she requests that Aritomo build a Japanese garden in her sister’s memory.

He adamantly refuses. But then a few days later suggests an alternative. If she is willing to serve as his apprentice, he will teach her how to create her own. Read more »

Hippie Child: How a Young Boy Helped Parent his New-Age Mom

ISBN: 
9781401324605

Think your childhood was non-mainstream? A little kooky? Perhaps on the bizarre side? Well check out the hand Josh Safran was dealt being born in the early 70s in a commune in San Francisco during the height of Flower Power and the counter-culture.

Safran makes his childhood—first in city communes; later in remote cabins in the mountain wilderness actually sound happy.  Credit his mother, Claudia, for that.  Highly intelligent, emotionally warm, full of passion for political change and hope for a just world, Claudia imparted to Josh many values.  Yet, she also barely kept food on his plate and never gave him a beautiful home. In fact for one three month period, they lived in a visqueen shelter on tree stumps in a rain forest. Yet these are failings of poverty not intent. Much worse were allowing her lovers to abuse him and to threaten them both by driving under the influence of alcohol on icy mountain roads, often in the dark.

The book is sad, poignant, funny, and a surprising page turner from beginning to end. Check out this hook of an opening sentence “By the time I was ten, I had hitchhiked thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of remarkably strange people.”  Here’s a short list of them: Crazy John, Uncle Tony (no blood relation), conniving Bob, deal-making Read more »

Bobcat and Other Stories

ISBN: 
9781616201739

If you like short stories don’t skip this new collection, Bobcat. Rebecca Lee’s stories about architects, matchmakers, academics, depressed children, a writer’s spouse, and student plagiarists are absorbing and continually offer fresh surprises. Lee writes fluid yet beautiful prose that cuts immediately to the chase.

In the story “Min,” the title character’s father, Albert, works in Hong Kong to resettle Vietnamese refugees for the UN. One summer Min invites his college friend to visit Asia with him for the summer.  Although they are close friends, Min and Sarah are not in love. 

While there, Sarah discovers that the promised job that Albert has chosen for her is to find Min a wife. Sarah’s only training is to read the notes Albert’s mother left when she selected her own son’s bride. Here are a couple examples: “Possibility—Midnight black hair, walk is like a leopard, carnal desires strong,” and “Monkey woman, scurries through the day, loves confusion.” Read more »

River Inside the River

ISBN: 
9780393239744

What a beautiful collection Gregory Orr’s tenth book of poetry is--moving, lyrical, concise, thought-provoking and full of a rich humanity. Orr has had a difficult life. As he describes in one poem, he accidentally shot his brother in a hunting accident as a child and his mother died a few months later. He doesn’t say from heartache but that is implied.

The book is divided into three sections. The first “Eden and After” offers an overabundance of infinitive titles including: “To Speak,” “To See,”  “To Write,” “To Embrace,” “To Stray,” and a couple I can’t mention here. The poems are much deeper and broader than the titles might imply.  And yes, they are about Adam and Eve’s time in the Garden of Eden and their later fall as these lines from “To Build” reveal: “No longer could they rest / Each night inside / God’s breath / As in a tent that kept / Them from the cold.”

The second section is more literary. It’s called “The City of Poetry.” Individual poets are mentioned including: Francois Villon, Coleridge, /Rimbaud, Sappho, etc. but it’s more a praise song to poetry itself: “There’s only one river / That flows / Through the city / But different poems / Call it different names.” Read more »

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