‘This sly, cold arbiter of the fates of the bail-seeking and the creditor-pursued looked at Jack as if he were weary of him.’ – Jack, by Marilynne Robinson

October 30, 2020 at 7:30 pm (Book review, books)

Jack is an unusual work of fiction. I was going to say that you need to have read Marilynne Robinson’s other Gilead novels before reading this one, but I changed my mind about that. Coming to it cold would have its own enchantment and its own challenges.

Jack does not have much of a life. His main problem is that he has trouble holding down  a job. Actually, he has another problem, just as severe. He is a thief. The urge comes upon him as an impulse, to simply take  things that don’t belong to him. He secretly rejoices in the opportunity to do so.

Much of the early part of the novel takes place at night, in a graveyard. Jack has encountered Della Miles there, a young African American woman  who teaches school. She’s the daughter of a Methodist minister; Jack is the son of Reverend Boughton of the Presbyterian church. Jack and Della engage in one of the seemingly endless conversations that can sometimes try the patience of the reader. Hang in there, though; some really good stuff works its way to the surface.

At one point, the subject of nihilism comes up. In a typically insouciant manner, Jack declares that “…meaninglessness…has its pleasures.” Della disagrees:

Meaninglessness would come as a terrible blow to most people. It would be full of significance for them….That’s where I always end up. Once you ask if there’s meaning, the only answer is yes. You can’t get away from it.

There is nothing insouciant about Della. Such questions as this are deeply fraught, to be treated with the utmost seriousness.

Della is solemn and beautiful, Jack’s very opposite, and he falls in love with her. I haven’t mentioned that the place is St. Louis; the time is mid-twentieth century America. Talk about fraught.

They walked along through the ranks and clusters of the dead. Forever hoisting their stony sails, waiting for that final wind to rise.

At length, Jack comes to consider sin and its consequences. He wants to test his ideas and their ffect on Della:

“I suppose sinning is doing harm. Agreed?  And everything is vulnerable to harm, one way or another. Everybody is vulnerable. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. All that breakage, without so much as an intention behind it half the time. All that tantalizing fragility.

Jack comes to the conclusion that he will henceforth be to aspire to harmlessness. In his view, this is a noble aspiration. One wonders at Jack’s use of that word ‘tantalizing,’ in the above disquisition. He himself later regrets the phraseology. He calls harmlessness “A banner with a strange device.”

One sentence about Jack really struck me powerfully: “He has made an early start on a wasted life.”

Yet now he had a purpose. He had found Della. He loved her and wanted to protect her. But given the time and place in which they both live, this will be next to impossible. Her family, gentle and loving as they are, try to point this out to him, to both of them. Racist assumptions on the part of the people they encounter casually erupt as sharp, stinging barbs – more so for me as the reader, I felt, than for Della and Jack, who endured them with a kind of gorgeous stoicism.

The two are as fixed as stars in their purpose.

Marilynne Robinson has a wide ranging mind. At times it seems as if she is daring you to follow her along a difficult path. Her locutions can be challenging; her enormous vocabulary, even more so. Some readers may find this off putting. I can understand that. For me, the underlying power of the narrative made everything right about this book. Rarely have I cared as much about fictional characters as I came to, where Della and Jack are concerned. That caring stayed with me, long after I had finished the novel.

A rare and transcendent reading experience, I would  call it.

Marilynne Robinson


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‘I didn’t want to have this idea. It hunted me down.” The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

October 21, 2020 at 7:10 pm (Book review, books)

Three teenagers – siblings who live in a village near Oxford – are walking home from school when they catch sight of a boy, similar to them in age, lying in a field adjacent to the road that they themselves are walking along. He is quite still, seemingly insensate.

They – Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan – cross the field for a closer inspection. It is obvious that the boy is injured. Hurt, but alive. In fact, they each hear him whisper a single word: cow? coward? cowslip?

Watching the vein pulsing in his temple, his chest rising and falling, he had sensed that the boy had made his way to a place of safety; to wake him would be to hurl him back into hardship.

From this incident, an engrossing narrative unfolds. Matthew takes it on himself to discover the identity of the boy’s assailant, while Zoe pursues a love affair with an older American whom she has met by chance. Duncan – the youngest, an adoptee, a gifted artist and an especially lovable child, decides to launch a quest for his “first mother.” They are each, in other words, on a quest.

The three should not have been walking home from school, to begin with. Their father, a man with a most unusual profession, was supposed to pick them up. But he failed to appear. There was a reason.

Some years ago, a book group I was in discussed an earlier novel by Margot Livesey. I believe it was  The House on Fortune Street. I’ve always meant to read another novel by this author. Now I have, and I loved it. I slowed down the pace of my reading toward the end, hating the thought of finishing it.

Highly, highly recommended.

Margot Livesey

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The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi, by Richard Grant

October 14, 2020 at 3:28 pm (Book review, books)

This is Natchez:

Monmouth Plantation


Rosalie Mansion


Stanton Hall

Dunleith Historic Inn

So is this:

Author Richard Grant is clearly fascinated by the history of Natchez, its present day existence, and the people who call it home. In addition, Grant, a native of Great Britain, brings a unique perspective to the stories he relates and the individual denizens with whom he engages.

The Deepest South of All brings to life many aspects of this singular place, but what comes through again and again, is the struggle by the city’s people to come to terms with its past.

The town and the surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South, including some of the most opulent and extravagant. Looking at these Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate mansions, their beauty seemed inseparable from the horrors of the regime that created them. The soaring white columns, the manacles, the dingy apartment buildings at the Forks of the Road, the tendrils of Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled old trees, the humid fragrant air itself: everything seemed charged with the lingering presence of slavery, in a  way that I’d never experienced anywhere else.

(I should mention that at first glance, The Deepest South of All reminded me of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But whereas that book took a somewhat bemused, not to mention highly entertaining look at the city of Savannah and its curious customs – I vividly recollect the ‘Married Women’s Card Parties’ – The Deepest South of All is, in my view, decidedly more somber, both in tone and in content.)

Threading its way throughout this narrative is a story stranger than fiction: that of a prince from the nation of Guinea. He was called Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, also known as Ibrahima.   There is also a documentary on this subject, available on Amazon Prime. Here is a trailer:

As much as I liked this book and in particular appreciated Grant’s terrific writing, I was frustrated by two seemingly inexplicable omissions. First, there were no photographs or illustrations of any kind; second, there was no bibliography save mention of the book pictured above. In my opinion, The Deepest South of All would benefit greatly by being reissued in a larger format with illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography.

Even in its present form, this book would be an excellent choice for a book group discussion.

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The Minotaur by Barbara Vine; or, I should have known what would happen….

October 4, 2020 at 8:20 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

It was late one night. I was reading more and enjoying it less – sometimes as many as five different titles at once!. Like everyone else, I was slowly going covid- confinement crazy. Suddenly I was notified via email that I could download a title by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell for a reasonable sum. 

I knew I’d read The  Minotaur when it came out in 2005. I remembered virtually nothing about it. So why not? I downloaded it, and began reading, just to remind myself of the story. Two days later, having ignored everything else I was reading, I finished it.

Well. What did I expect? The power of Rendell’s narratives still amazes me. I was hooked, hopelessly, from the first page.

A young woman named Kerstin Kvist travels from her native Sweden to England. She has a boyfriend in London whom she wants to spend time with. But they are not yet at the stage of moving in together, so she must find somewhere to stay. A friend recommends that she apply for a position in the Essex countryside with a family named Cosway. They have a mentally disabled son and desire someone to provide some companionship for him and at the same time to watch over him and keep him from harm.

Thus does Kerstin come to live with the Cosways. The family consists of the mother Julia, four daughters, and John, the afflicted son. All save one of the daughters live in Lydstep Old Hall, the family manor house. Ida, the eldest daughter, is the family drudge, doing virtually all the housework including meal preparation. The next two daughters, Ella and Winifred, are eccentric but in radically different ways. Zorah, the youngest, is independently wealthy, coming and going from Lydstep at erratic, unpredictable times.

I have to say, they are among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. Despite wanting to yell at them at regular intervals, I could not stop reading about them.

I should mention that this story is told in retrospect, in the first person. It actually takes place in the nineteen sixties, although you’d hardly know it, so isolated do Old Lydstep Hall and its inhabitants seem to be.

It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I found this book so compelling. You do get the sense, right from the start, that events are building towards some awful climax. Rendell is a master at creating an atmosphere of accumulating dread. The only authors I know that are her equal in this dire craft are Ian McEwan and Edgar Allan Poe.

By the by, a strange thing about the narrator. The proper Swedish pronunciation of her name, Kerstin,  is ‘Shashtin.’ I verified this by means of Google Translate. Not that I actually doubt it: Ruth Rendell’s mother was born in Sweden to Danish parents  and brought up in Denmark. (Her father was English.) The pronunciation of her name is at issue throughout the novel.

Oh, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, how I do miss the unforced genius that flowed from your pen! But I will be returning to your oeuvre more frequently, now that I know that it can still exerts such power over me.

Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) 1930-2015

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Introducing Ketupa Blakistoni!

October 3, 2020 at 6:34 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

The enigmatic fish owls, when they appear, are surprisingly un-owl-like, not  gliding down from the trees so much as “dropping” like sacks. At a meter high,they are at once imposing and comical, a jumble of feathers with ragged, twitching ear tufts.
So states Tucker Malarkey, the wonderfully named New York Times reviewer. “They seem endearingly awkward creatures,” he later adds, “stalking the river bank like hunched feathery gnomes, peering for glimmers of fish, then hurling themselves talon-first into  the current.”
  One can only be grateful that Jonathan Slaght and his Russian counterparts willingly expend so much time, energy, money on their quest, the nature of which is to survey  the Blakiston fish owl population with a view to aiding the conservation of this endangered species. This research involves much slogging through ice cold conditions, both wet and dry, in Primorye, a maritime territory in Russia’s  Far East. There’s also a great deal of waiting around. This requires much patience on the part of the researchers, and also, at times, on the reader’s part.
But persevere, I exhort you! There are numerous enjoyable anecdotes recounted along the way. You will encounter some wonderful writing:

The frost overnight had formed a crust on the deep snow, bearing the owl’s weight and yielding just enough to leave clear, crisp indentations on the sparkling surface. The owl had walked with a calm swagger, each toe pad clearly articulated and its two hind talons raking lines in the snow like a spur-heeled cowboy in the rodeo dust. The sun glistened brilliantly off the marks, scars on a field of diamonds. It was beautiful, and I felt almost like a voyeur: the owl had been here in darkness and secret, but the snow left evidence of its path for me to marvel at.

The outcome with regard to conservation  is cautiously optimistic. And finally, for his troubles – and they were many! –  Jonathan Slaght earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
I admit that in the course of reading Owls of the Eastern Ice, I fell in love with this wondrous avian being. One of the first things that Slaght tells us about fish owls is that they make a strange, almost unearthly sound when calling to one another in the depths of the forest. You can hear it on the Cornell Ornithology Lab site.
Owls of the Eastern Ice was recently nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction for the year 2020.

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