November Road – even better the second time around

January 30, 2020 at 1:46 pm (Book review, books)

I want to begin this post by quoting from an article by Lauren Groff that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Groff’s piece is a review of American Dirt, a new book by Jeanine Cummins. This novel, which I have not read, has provoked a veritable firestorm of commentary in the press for the past week or so. If you have not been following the story, click here and here for articles that pretty well summarize what the dust-up is all about.

(Flatiron Books, publisher of American Dirt, has just issued a mea culpa so abject that, to my mind, it borders on groveling. Not that it’s inappropriate, but – well, read it and judge for yourself.)

What is of particular interest to me in Lauren Groff’s article is her summation of the qualities she looks for in a novel:

….obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview.

I have just reread November Road by Lou Berney, and I’m happy to report that all of the above qualities richly inform this novel. One thing that Lauren Groff did not mention is the quality of the plotting. Is it original and beautifully executed? Gosh yes!

In a previous post, I summarize what November Road is about. Allow me to quote myself:

It’s late November, 1963. We meet the following in quick succession:

A small town housewife and mother – think June Cleaver undermined by a restless streak (and a well-intentioned alcoholic husband). Throw in a small time hood and glad hander steeped in the ethos of the Big Easy. Then there’s a vicious mob boss and his highly unconventional enforcer.

It’s a combustible combination. And into its midst bursts an assassination that shakes the world. What has that got to do with this oddball cast of characters? More that you’d think….

This was an amazing read. Toward the end I got so tense and agitated, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to race through the rest of the book or hide it under a stack of magazines – anything to avoid the conclusion I was dreading.

Memorable lines, spoken after a snappy exchange of dialog:

Guidry laughed and glanced at her, taking a fresh look. He liked a woman who could hit the ball back over the net.

An outstanding thriller, on a par with The Bomb Maker.

All I can say is that as much as I enjoyed this book when I first read it, I loved and appreciated it even more the second time around.


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Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

January 25, 2020 at 1:55 am (Best of 2019, Book review, books)

  To start with, I had no desire to read this book. My recollection of Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘Troubles,’ at their appalling height in the early 1970s, held nothing good for me, certainly nothing that I cared to revisit. Yet Say Nothing kept appearing on ‘Best’ lists. To be more specific: It was on the ‘Ten Best Books of 2019’ lists posted by the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. So I changed my mind….

This was a rough reading experience. In the beginning, there was so much murder and mayhem, so much killing and destruction, that I didn’t think I’d make it through. But gradually, the author’s focus narrowed to several individuals: the Price sisters, Dolours and Marian, and a woman named Jean McConville. There are numerous significant supporting players, one of which is Gerry Adams, purportedly a past member of the Provisional IRA – he denied it – who transitioned into a political role. He was president of Sinn Fein from 1983 to 2018.

Marian Price, left, and Dolours Price

If these look like mug shots, they probably are. Dolours and Marian were both front line fighters in the Provisional IRA. Both did time in prison, for various terrorist acts, including the notorious placing of four car bombs in London in 1973. (Two were defused; the other two exploded.)

In a curious turn of events, Dolours, after serving her prison term, married a movie star. This was actor Stephen Rea, who gained fame in the sensational 1992 thriller, The Crying Game.

Dolours Price and Stephen Rea, married in 1983

Sure, she managed to get herself a dreamboat husband, but she harbored plenty of anger toward Gerry Adams:

There is a concept in psychology called “moral injury,” a notion, distinct from the idea of trauma, that related to the ways in which ex-soldiers make sense of the socially transgressive things they have done during wartime. Price felt a sharp sense of moral injury; she believed that she had been robbed of any ethical justification for  her own conduct. This sense of grievance was exacerbated by the fact that the man who steered republicanism on a path to peace was her own erstwhile friend and commanding officer, Gerry Adams. Adams had given her orders, orders that she faithfully obeyed, but now he appeared to be disowning the armed struggle in general, and Dolours in particular. It filled her with a terrible fury.

(Dolours and Stephen Rea had two sons together. They divorced in 2003.)

I mentioned above a woman named Jean McConville. Here she is, with three of her children and her husband Arthur:

By 1972, Jean McConville was a widow. She had given birth fourteen times. Ten of the children survived; they ranged in age from a daughter, aged twenty, to six-year-old twin boys.

One night around 7:00, there was a knock on the door. A gang of people burst into the apartment, members of an IRA squad called the Unknowns. They demanded that Jean go with them. She was hustled out the door, down the stairs and into a waiting car. That was the last any of the children saw of their mother.

There is a lot going on in this book, and there are numerous individuals to keep track of. The story is for the most riveting. But for this reader, anyway, nothing compares to the disappearance of Jean McConville. What was ultimately done to her is, to my mind, one of the cruelest, most  heinous, and most unforgivable crimes ever committed.

I finished Say Nothing some weeks ago. I have not stopped thinking about the fate of Jean McConville.



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Reading year 2020 gets off to a great start…

January 20, 2020 at 9:25 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

…with these three terrific novels:


A shooting in self-defense by a Korean shop owner reverberates years later in a completely unexpected and shocking way. This is a no holds barred look at the tensions between the African-American and Korean communities of Southern California. But it is no sociological treatise; rather, it is about real individuals in tough situations, trying yet somehow failing to make things right.

Vivid characters, a gripping plot, excellent writing – all the ingredients for a top notch work of fiction.


Kamchatka is a peninsula located in the Far East of Russia. It is the site of some three hundred volcanoes, about thirty of which are currently active. Between four and seven can be expected to erupt each year.

And there is more:

In late summer, Kamchatka’s abundant rivers run red with the crush of salmon racing upstream; it is the only place left where all six species of wild Pacific salmon return to spawn. An estimated 20,000 brown bears roam its enchanted forests of Russian rock birch and other trees, growing fat and mostly happy off salmon.

From “Forged by Volcanoes, Kamchatka Offers Majestic, Magnetic Wilds,” New York Times

Having first come to this exotic locale as a Fulbright Scholar in 2011, Julia Phillips knew she wanted to set a novel here.

It was like this enormous setting for a locked-room mystery. Kamchatka’s really contained historically and geographically. There were very few people and no foreigners going in and out of it during the Soviet period. There are no roads connecting it to the mainland. In that isolation, it’s incredibly beautiful and distinctive.

From a Paris Review interview with Julia Phillips

Kamchatka is like a character in the book. The characters themselves are utterly believable; their dilemmas and crises are  compelling and urgent.

What a wonderful novel this is!

And this one was a real gift. I don’t remember where I read about it, but I had placed a hold on it at the library, and when the reserve came in, it jumped at once to the top of my to-read list.

This is the story of a family of Moroccan immigrants: a mother, a father, and two very Americanized  grown daughters. Nora, one of these, is the main character. I found myself completely caught up in her travails and triumphs.

The Other Americans is very much a story about grief, the kind of grief that can strike any human being and lay that person low for who knows how long. While I was immersed in this novel, I was also reading a piece in The New Yorker entitled “Grief” by V.S, Naipaul. Naipaul, who died in 2018, says this:

We are never finished with grief. It is part of the fabric of living. It is always waiting to happen. Love makes memories and life precious; the grief that comes to us is proportionate to that love and is inescapable.

This is the painful lesson that Nora learns, and grows, to a degree, to accept.

For me, this novel resonated powerfully partly because of its setting in California’s Mojave Desert. At one point, Nora’s father Driss observes:

It was a cold, clear day in December, and there was snow on the peaks of  the Little Bernardino Mountains. The valley was a blanket of high grass and mesquite and yucca,slowly warming up under the morning sun, and after the road dipped and rose and turned, we reached the first grove of Joshua trees. How hard the believers make it to get into heaven, I thought, when  they have all this right here.

This is a place that is very special to me. My parents used to winter over in the Coachella Valley nearby. My father loved the place. My mother resented being taken away from her lifelong friends in New Jersey, but even so, she eventually succumbed to the enchantment of the desert. As for me, I loved it instantly.

Ah, Joshua Tree, I miss you.

So – there you have it, three outstanding novels by three exceptionally gifted writers. All, by the way, would make excellent book club selections. Disappearing Earth and The Other Americans in particular have ambiguous conclusions which I would love to discuss with another reader.


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Stop the presses! It’s the return of Susan B. Anthony

January 18, 2020 at 9:38 pm (Family, History)

Now in third grade, Etta was assigned  a biography project. Her subject was Susan B. Anthony.

According to her Mom, she really got into it. So much so that she seems to have channeled her subject. This was the result:

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Adventures in Abstract Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art – and some other places as well

January 14, 2020 at 12:21 am (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

by Jack Whitten  December 5, 1939-January 20, 2018

by Julie Mehretu


These works, and many more, are featured in an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of  Art entitled “Generations: A History of Black Abstract Art.”

What an exuberant display of talent and inventiveness! I enjoyed it so much that I went twice.

One of the explanatory signs at the beginning of the exhibit stated this:

Racism put black artists in a double bind: both under pressure to make positive representations of black people and seen by many as less creative and therefore less capable of making original abstract paintings.

It might be partly because I’m Jewish – and am currently reading an extremely depressing book about antisemitism and the notorious blood libel accusation leveled at Jews, even in this country – dismissive generalizations like the one quoted above really make me angry.

At any rate, Generations is a  wildly successful refutation of that sentiment. Here are a few more examples:

by Martin Puryear

I was powerfully drawn to this painting. This man, barely discernible, yet fully alive. He seems to struggle out of the darkness – rather not to struggle, but to emerge without effort – and with such a wonderful smile!

by Norman Lewis   July 23, 1909-August 27, 1979

Lewis’s painting is called Autumn Flight. With its stirring depiction of flight, it put me in mind of one of the first works of sculpture I came to know as a  child: Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space:

This work, entitled Eastern Star, reminded me of I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold by Charles Demuth:

I made these two visits to the BMA with my dear friend Robbie, a ‘Roberta’ like myself. Having been at Goucher College together in 1960s, we’ve know each other forever! A sweeter, more steadfast companion one could never ask for.

Robbie and I wondered why certain works appealed to us more than others. One obvious reason is the presence of a veritable explosion of color. Who doesn’t love and crave bright colors? Just about everyone, I think, from childhood on. (This is especially true of those of us who have to live through ‘the bleak midwinter’ every year.)The first painting on top is a good example of intense coloration, as is Shinique Smith’s delightful fabric creation precisely entitled Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red, Pink; here’s yet another, somewhat more subtle, Afternoon by Norman Lewis:

I found the following passage on the site aided my understanding of the appeal of certain works of abstract art:

The divide between abstraction and figuration is a false, but helpful, dichotomy. Painters who are primarily concerned with the interactions between color, line, and form also make marks and shapes that may suggest body parts, landscapes, and objects traditionally relegated to still lifes. Even monochrome paintings can conjure familiar settings: A gray canvas might evoke a rock face, while a blue one may suggest the sea.

The BMA made this very informative and nicely illustrated little booklet available free of charge to museum goers. I’m grateful to them for this generous act:

Once again, I can’t emphasize enough  that there are quite a few more artists represented in this exhibit than I have highlighted here. Generations runs through this Sunday the 19th. It would  be very worth your while to see it.

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