Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout*****

mynameislucybartonElizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer winning author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Her new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, may be her strongest work yet. I was lucky enough to get my DRC free of charge from Random House and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. My thanks go to both of them.

Right about here is where I often start examining various aspects of a new novel: setting, plot, character development, as well as its political undertones, if there are any, and there usually are. But this book defies that sort of compartmentalization. If you want a label for it, we could call it a fictional memoir, but that doesn’t really do it justice either. In fact the entire work is a gloriously detailed character sketch. The setting exists only to develop the character. The dialogue exists for the same purpose. Lucy Barton is developed as much by what is not said—or maybe more so—as by what is. The plot, which also exists to develop character, is fluid, apart from the fact that Lucy’s story begins in the hospital following an appendectomy and she is out by the conclusion. But in between, we bounce around to various times in the character’s life; we share her dreams, her memories, her phobias…and because Strout is part author, part magician, we just can’t put it down.

Well, that’s not completely true. I was reading the first half at night, and suddenly realized that this was not a story I wanted impacting my own dreams, so I deliberately put it aside, choosing to reread a celebrity memoir before I turned off my light. I could fall asleep with Tom Petty in my head, but I would surely have nightmares with Lucy Barton.

Lucy is so pathetically lonely that she hangs on the kind words of the doctor in the hospital, almost as if he were a surrogate father. There has been so little affection in her life.

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

Strout uses repetition as figurative language in a way I haven’t seen done before. I’ve seen it used many times by other writers for emphasis; I’ve seen it used in a house-that-jack-built way by a couple of really strong writers to create suspense. Strout writes in the first person, as should be clear from the title, and in this case, repetition is used to build mood; in a number of places, I get the feeling that repetition is being used to make us believe something that may not be true. She protests too much; she is repeating herself either to convince us, or to convince herself. Hell, maybe it’s both. She repeats the same thing about a character from her past so often that I am half convinced the person she speaks of is imaginary; one has to wonder.

Barton’s back-story is one of stark, terrible white rural poverty. The protagonist and her entire family lived in a rented garage; one room, freezing cold. The children in the family were so badly dressed, so badly groomed that other children would not sit next to them on the school bus, and they were whispered about at school, “equally friendless and equally scorned”.

To some extent this could be called a mother-daughter novel, because almost all of the dialogue and much of the plot consists of the shared memories between Lucy and her mother, there in the hospital. As they echo one another, there is a cadence that shows that no matter what happened while Lucy was growing up, there is closeness between the two of them; Lucy would have more if it were offered. But the conversation is a kind of almost church-like call and response, a sort that is often seen among family members in smaller snippets. Much of the conversation is just neighbor gossip, but so much more is said in the way that Lucy and her mother speak to each other.

Barton is thrilled to have her mother there, nearly cannot believe she has actually come to sit with her, and as they converse, bits and pieces tumble out, and other bits are suppressed, but our protagonist thinks about them, and so we are in on all of it. And the sense of horror builds, builds, and builds some more. Brief snapshots of horrific events blink in and back out again, juxtaposed with that which is common and normal—the terror of being locked in the truck as child, and then we are talking about Lucy’s own children going to a play date, and about Lucy’s appendix. And by giving us the briefest glimpse of the horror, and letting us know in the author’s own brilliant way that this snapshot is not the half of it, there’s oh, so much more—the effect is tremendously chilling, and at the same time, oh so human.

And ultimately, whether her mother visits her or not; whether Lucy is financially well off or stone cold broke; whether she is married or single; Lucy is alone. Her solitude is positively visceral.

This novel won’t be available until January 2016, and that’s a shame, because it’s an amazing October read. But we will take a good case of the shivers along with stellar literary fiction when we can get it, and this novel comes highly recommended. Absolutely brilliant!

The Festive Christmas Book, by Norma Jost Voth ****

Where have I been, you may wonder. The truth is, I have been swallowed up not only in the holiday season, but also by the most recent bio of Napoleon, which clocks in at 993 pages, and Elizabeth George’s Just One Evil Act, which is over 700.

Meanwhile, I thought I would take a fond trip down memory lane and tell you about one of my favorite Christmas books. It is not newly published, but a person can get anything on the internet these days, and it makes a wonderful gift also. And hey…you just never know when you may need to make dinner for eighty people! How many cookbooks can tell you how to do that?

This was given to me at Christmas nearly 20 years ago by a really good friend.

thefestivechristmasbookAs a cookbook (or primarily, a baking book) I haven’t found it all that useful. Of course, by the time I got it, I had enough cookbooks, baking books, and related volumes (barbecue, confections, and so on) to fill a six-shelf bookcase. Perhaps if I’d received this one without already knowing what to do over the holidays, I’d have used it more.

The main joys this little treasure represents are the stories that precede each set of recipes. The recipes are broken down according to cakes, cookies, and breads “of Christmas”, and this essentially means that the recipes all come from Europe and the USA, with a couple of brief nods elsewhere. (At least the authors do not claim it represents the whole world, as some Euro-centric compilations have been known to do.)

There are stories that either go with, or precede, many of the recipes. And that is why my friend gave this to me, and why I have kept it over many moves of house since then, paring my cookbook collection down to less than half its former self. When I don’t really feel like hitting the kitchen so much as curling up in a cozy armchair thinking about baking, this is a lovely (and aesthetically rendered) little volume. There’s a lot more chat to it than any ordinary cookbook, and it is just right to fit comfortably in one’s hand.

Charming!

Here’s what is good (to me) about the recipes, just in reading them. NONE of them uses a pre-packaged mix as an “ingredient”. If a person wants to buy cookie dough already in a roll in the supermarket’s refrigerator section, let them go do it, and likewise cake and cookie mixes. These should not form the basis for a scratch recipe, to my way of thinking.

In the end, the part I liked–stories, lore, culture–were the bits that I needed, having already been handed down a score of family recipes that I already love.

For stories and recipes from the Old Order Amish (dinner for 80), the Greeks,Irish,Scandinavians,Germans, Moravians, Polish, and a few from Mexico as well, curl up and enjoy. And a note to those newly in charge of a celebration: don’t try to do everything! A little goes a long way.

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past: A Ballad Novella *****

norabonesteelI’m a long-time fan of Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novels (and now a novella); they are sure fire hits. Thank you to Net Galley and Abdingdon Press for the ARC.
I feel compelled to mention that the kindle galley was so full of formatting issues as to render it unreadable. I hope the publishers will correct this issue before it is released. I was able to read it with no trouble at all once I moved it to my desk top.

But back to our story.

We have parallel stories, and the setting is Christmas, of course. The story lines, one of Christmas present, which features Sheriff Arrowroot being ordered to drag an elderly man to jail on Christmas Eve, appears to have a dead-sure predictable ending, except that it doesn’t. That’s all I’m giving away in this case.

The more flavorful thread is Nora Bonesteel’s. The Bonesteel women have “the sight”. Those who have followed McCrumb’s novels already know that, but a reminder doesn’t hurt. Nora is asked out to solve a haunted manse issue for some new-comers. I found this part vastly amusing.

The setting, for those unfamiliar with McCrumb’s work, is in the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of her novels that taught me how to pronounce the word correctly (all soft “a”s, as in apple). Her love of place comes through on the page, and as much as I love the Pacific Northwest where I have lived for most of my life, while I read this, a part of me positively yearn for the Smoky Mountains, which I only visited once as a (oh the shame) tourist. It’s a rare kind of engagement. You can say she casts a spell over the reader, if you wish.

Ah. But that leads us to the descriptor I read in Net Galley. It is described there as a “Christian” novella. I confess it gave me pause. There are Christian novels, and there are Christian novels. Some are so heavy handed that they make terrible literature, from a critical viewpoint: we’re racing along, plot-wise, when someone announces that they should go to the Lord with their problem. A page and a half of long-winded prayer follows. Lather, rinse, repeat. I didn’t want to find myself stuck with a book like that, but a strong writer builds a bond of trust with her readers, and my sense was that McCrumb was unlikely to trash her own work in such a manner. I was correct, and the story is great. The single religious reference is central to the plot and is entirely consistent with the setting. Also, sometimes “Christian” is a sort of code to let the reader know there will be no profanity or sweaty sex scenes, and frankly, I was just as glad to be spared those.

To sum up, McCrumb is a master writer, a mystery champ, and a brilliant novelist whose work with Appalachian setting and tradition stands alone in an otherwise crowded field. Pick up a copy now. You can enjoy it and then pass it around for family and friends to enjoy. The quirky humor and redolent, traditional setting are sure to please anyone who loves Christmas and a good read.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, by Otto Penzler *****

TheBigBookofXmas

I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the Goodreads.com giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.

The Christmas Train, by Rexanne Becnel****

thechristmastrainRexanne Becnel has written a brief, sweet, sentimental story that can only play at Christmas time. Were I to read this story in February, I would roll my eyes. In April, I would stick two fingers down my throat and make little retching noises.

Note that although the publisher bills this as a romance, it is really a love story between many family members, and the protagonist is a child. A great big thank you goes to Net Galley and Simon & Schuster for the ARC.

In October, in November, in December, I sigh contentedly. It really is about the season. Maybe those of us who celebrate this season find permission in it to drop our guards and bury our noses in sentimental stories. It did me a world of good!

Anna is ten years old, and her beloved Nana Rose, the grandmother with whom she has lived most of her life, has died. Her mother can’t wait to spend the money from the sale of Nana Rose’s house, and has no intention of raising her own child for those remaining childhood years. She sends a quick message off to Anna’s father in Iowa telling him the kid is coming and it’s his turn. Then she takes her kid to the train station and dumps her there. First, though, the rules require she find an adult for her ten-year-old to travel with. She finds a very elderly, fragile woman who is headed for the same train stop as Anna, and after a quick conversation to line things up, she drops her girl with the gran-stand-in and books it. Done.

Anna is devastated, and she is afraid of the father her mother claimed had never wanted her. She fantasizes about remaining with the sweet old lady, who reminds her a bit of her own late grandmother. But this old lady has problems of her own.

The tale is beautifully paced, and the characterizations absolutely believable. I could imagine being the child, and I could imagine being the elderly lady.

I dove into this tender bit of prose late one evening and waking with the flu, picked it up again and stayed with it till satisfied, when the last page was turned. After all, I couldn’t abandon the child, and I had to see to the elderly woman, too.

The ending was a little over the top, and if I had my way, I would delete one sentence, but hey, it’s Christmas. Well, almost.

Highly recommended for those who love Christmas!