Mosquitoland by David Arnold

March 13th, 2015 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Immediately, this book had three things going for it – a great first sentence, the fact that it is a road trip narrative, and the Greyhound bus that the protagonist is sitting atop on the front cover is taking her to Cleveland, Ohio (my hometown).  The first sentence is – “I am Mary Iris Malone, and I am not okay”.  In fact, that single sentence is the only one in the first chapter  titled A Thing’s Not a Thing Until You Say It Out Loud.  Mim Malone is 16  years old, she lives with her father and new step-mother in Jackson, Mississippi (aka Mosquitoland), and her mother is very sick in Cleveland.  During her happier “Young Fun” days, she lived with her mother and dad in Ashland, Ohio, so when she decides to get on the Greyhound for Cleveland, 947 miles away, she is sort of going home.  Of course, often the theme of YA novels that deal with divorce teaches you can’t revisit the past, even if you make it to Cleveland in time for Labor Day, a day Mim and mom made special together  when times were good.

The sections of the novel are marked by cities and miles to go.  Passages of Mim’s cheeky first person narration are interspersed with letters she write to Aunt Isabel, in which she refers to herself as Our Heroine and signs off Mary Iris Malone _ Mother-effing Mother-Saver.  Of course she meets a cast of cleverly drawn characters, of course she has scrapes with good and terrible luck.  Of course her father and step-mom are worried sick and intervene.  Those details are pretty predictable.  What isn’t so predicable is Mim’s wisdom and raw honesty.  As she says, “Opening scenes are funny, because you never know which elements will change over time and which will stay the same.  The world was, and is, mad.”

I loved Mim, and although this book is recommended for 12 and up, I loved this book.  David Arnold had made a brilliant debut! He is also a musician and his book trailer offers a great sneak peak at the story and his musical talents.

I close too many book reviews “If I was still teaching” but I would truly put this on a short list of books to preview for Book Circles and class reads.  I want to meet Mim and sit next to her on the bus.  Even if I’m already in Cleveland.

The Best Little Bookshop in England – and a review of Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

December 14th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Before we travel, I always research the best independent bookstores in the areas we will be visiting. I figured that the Cotswolds in England would be so dotted with charming little book shops that it would be difficult to see them all. All of my research seemed to point me in the direction of Jaffe and Neale Bookshop and Cafe in charming Chipping Norton. We had no difficulty finding the place, as cafe tables sat in front of the building where large Books are my Bag banners hung in the front windows. The bookstore felt homey, with many nooks for reading throughout and even some comfy chairs scattered around. I would have gladly spent all day there, but we had an agenda for the day that involved visiting the nearby Hook Norton brewery in time for lunch.

I had been reading Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a perfectly appropriate novel to read while driving around the British countryside. I saw Joyce’s new novel, Perfect, on a shelf and carried it over to the cashier to ask if this new book lived up to the delight of Harold Fry. The woman I spoke with assured me that it did, but after I explained that I was an American on vacation who really did NOT need another book in her suitcase – that if I bought a book in England at all, I could only buy one – she took it as a challenge and recommended that perhaps I should consider Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black instead.

Now I was tempted. A signed copy of a book not yet available in the U.S. was worth considering, so I took the two novels to one of those inviting book nooks for comparison and consideration. I was zeroing in on a choice when I noticed that my husband was engaged in a conversation with a gentleman who he was leading my way. Alerted by his wife at the cashier’s station, Patrick Neale wondered if David was with the American woman who could only buy one book in the UK. He was personally interested in the choice I was about to make since, in addition to being the proprietor of the shop, he is the current president of the British Booksellers Association – and a fascinating person to talk with about books.

David and I chatted with him about his shop and recommended some of our favorite bookstores in American. We told him about our experiences as English teachers, how we were in England for the wedding of a former student, and our favorite books in general. When he finally got around to recommending my one book for purchase, he picked up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. I knew Barnes from his slim novel The Sense of an Ending , which I had read and reviewed in 2012. Neale described the novel as one with no single word out of place. He was suggesting Barnes new book – which was also thankfully slim for my suitcase.

Levels of Life is a three part memoir of sorts that begins with a section about hot air ballooning, moves into a consideration of the nuances of historical photography, and finishes with Barnes own grief suffered at the loss of his wife in from a brain tumor in 2008. It is a difficult book to recommend to friends because the last section sounds like it would be so depressing. However, the overarching premise of all three parts is “You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed.” I was personally delighted to find mention of Dame Ellen Terry in the second section, which describes photographs of actress Sarah Bernhardt taken by the 19th-century photographer and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (later known simply as Nadar). Terry was Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and the subject of my undergraduate Independent Study thesis at The College of Wooster. The book’s pacing and its weaving of historical details and naturalistic descriptions reminded me of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams – two of my favorite essayists. In the end, it is life affirming rather than deflating. The metaphor of the hot air balloon and the precariousness of its flight carries the reader to consider many levels of living and loving. I put off reading the book – and writing this review – because I knew the experience would be difficult to describe for my readers. One day in my life several things were put together – the coincidence of finding the perfect Brisith bookstore, meeting the most charming British bookseller and being handed a deeply moving book that will resonate with me for as long as my photographs of my matchless vacation with my husband remain – and my reading life was changed.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

December 1st, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

My favorite book of the year!  Amazon’s Book of the Year!  One of the New York Times five top works of fiction for 2013!  What else to I have to say to get you to put this book at the top of your Christmas list.

Thirteen year old Theo Decker and his mother have just finished admiring The Goldfinch, a legendary painting by Carel Fabritius, in a New York art museum when a bomb blast rocks the building.  Theo’s mother is killed, and although Theo escapes, he does so with two items that will change his life forever – an heirloom ring given to him by the dying grandfather of a girl who had caught Theo’s eye AND the Fabritius painting.   The rest of the novel follows Theo through repeated moves and losses, friendships and relationships, adventures and drug-induced skirmishes.  There is something in this book for everyone.

I agree with Stephen King, who likened the scope of the narrative to Dickens when he reviewed the book for the New York Times .  He also called it the sort of book that comes along only a few times per decade.  Such is the pattern of Donna Tartt.  I first read The Little Friend in 2002, when I received it as a Christmas gift from my, then, new husband David.  He gave me the book and an Amish rocker that Christmas, and I sat in the rocker and rarely left it until I finished the book.  I went back and read her earlier novel, The Secret History, so I guess that puts me among the Tartt fans who have been waiting over a decade for her next work.  Tartt labors over her story telling, immersing herself in writing, rarely granting interviews and never apologizing for the time that passes between masterpieces.

I decided not to wait for the book from the library, and downloaded the Kindle version to my iPad and also ordered the Audible audio book so could enjoy listening to the book while I walked and while I worked in the sewing room.  It helped to get me through the nearly 800 pages more quickly, because once I got in to the narrative, I wanted to stay in.  In fact, although it is one of those rare books that I didn’t want to finish reading, I pressed through til the end, staying up late on the night before Thanksgiving.  And as soon as I finished the book, I wanted to start re-reading.  The last several pages struck me as a love song to art, in all its forms, and were so lovely that it would do a disservice to the whole book to quote anything out of context.

I LOVED THIS BOOK!  Final comment.  You be the judge.

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu

August 10th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

How to Read the Air was reviewed as one of several recommended summer “road trip” novels, but I remember becoming interested in Dinaw Mengestu back when he was chosen by the New Yorker in 2010 as one of the 20 Under 40 authors to read. This is no ordinary road trip novel and Mengestu is an extraordinary storyteller. The book traces two trips – one taken by Ethiopian immigrants Yosef and Mariam to Nashville and one taken by their adult son, Josef who is anxious to retrace his parents’s tragic travel so that he might learn what truth it can shed on his own his own trouble marriage. Alternating between chapters set in the past and the present, the reader is gradually given a glimpse of the strife of acclimation – to a new land, a new language, a new job, a new relationship, and even the promise of a new life. Lush with contemplative passages about how to read the signs of life, I found myself wanting to take the journey of this novel slow.

The Lion is In by Delia Ephron

July 10th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)


The cover of this novel says it all. Delia Ephron is out to entertain in this interrupted road trip novel. Tracee, Lana and Rita are all running away from something. Tracee is a kleptomaniac in a stolen wedding gown; Lana is an alcoholic with a keen eye for trouble; and Rita, who the two others pick up hitchhiking, is escaping a harsh minister husband. Their car crashes just in front of The Lion, a tired bar that houses a jukebox, a few regular customers and a neglected and retired circus lion in a cage inside the joint! Short chapters, crazy convergences, lion tricks and colorful characters make this a perfect summer chick read.

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

June 28th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Jacket.aspxI am a huge Isabel Allende fan and have read almost everything she has ever written, including essays and interviews.  Back in the days when Borders was in town, I once hastily pre-ordered a copy of one her books, and when it arrived, it was in Spanish.  The English edition wasn’t even available yet.  My love affair began with House of Spirits, a book full of magical realism.  Finally, after a few historical novels, Allende is back to story telling in the style of House of Spirits.

Maya is a nineteen year old in a heap of contemporary trouble.  She has been raised in Berkeley, California by her grandparents and hasn’t been herself since the death of her Popo.  Drugs, porn, violence, and a string of the wrong friends propel her grandmother to send Maya far, far away – to the remote Chilean island of Chiloe.  There her grandmother’s friend, Manuel Arias, an introvert more than twice Maya’s age, has promised to oversee Maya’s removal from society.  No internet, no contact with her past – only notebooks to record her past and recovery.  Told as first person journal entries, the story of Maya’s troubled past is revealed, along Allende’s most complete assessment of Chilean political history.  Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende was killed in the bloody aftermath of the military coup that created a harsh military dictatorship, lead by General Augusto Pinochet.  This history is interwoven with revelations of character relationships near the novel’s end.

This may not be Allende’s best, but the book is dedicated to the “teenagers of my tribe” and is best read as a cautionary tale.  In recent interviews, Allende has shared just how autobiographic some of the events in this novel really are.   Two of her husband’s adult children have died of drug related causes.  Maya may be a mess in the beginning, as the Spanish cover of the novel clearly shows, but she pulls through with determination.


The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

June 12th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

Rudyard Kipling’s How the Leopard Got its Spots is one of many pieces of literature that The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards alludes to. Perhaps the most telling allusion is the line from an Emily Dickinson poem – “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”, since Jansma’s book is a series of slanted tales told by a highly unreliable narrator. The fact that you never really even know this narrator’s name enhances the colorful telling of the chapters that read more like individual interconnected tales than a novel. The narrator makes it clear in the opening chapter that he is a writer, and piques the reader’s interest by announcing “I’ve lost every book I’ve ever written.” His life story – from childhood to adulthood – is told through episodic adventures that take him all over the planet. Europe, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Iceland. For a while, he assumes the identity of Professor Wallace and teaches Methods and Practices of New Journalism in Dubai. This entertaining chapter includes a portion of one of Wallace’s supposed lectures on truth in journalism which announcing that, “Ours is a new generation of plagiarists. Armed with Wikipedia and Google, we can manufacture our own truths”. Throughout the novel he maintains a rivalry with Julian, who is also an author, and a romantic quest for Evelyn, who eventually becomes a princess.

At one point, the narrator muses, “Somewhere, once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer.” Jansma is clearly a reader’s writer. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a reader’s theme park of a novel. Holden Caulfield narrating The Princess Bride. Scattered throughout are literary references, doppelgängers and leopard sightings – real and imaginary. I enjoyed this book largely because Jansma fuels my faith in the value of literary fiction.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid

May 12th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)


Oh I do love a book that you don’t want to finish reading because reading it is so lovely! Those books don’t come along very often, but with the help of a knowledgable sales woman at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC this one made its way into my hands. Moshin Hamid is an author I discovered last year when I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist – which has lately been made into a movie! I loved the novel and look forward to seeing the movie.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is couched as a self-help book and written in second person. Chapter headings suggest earnest instructions for attaining wealth – Get an Education, Learn from a Master, Work for Yourself. In each chapter, the individual that the speaker is giving instructions to ages until the final section – Have an Exit Strategy – when the end is near. This nameless individual learns about life, love and business in a nameless Asia location, and ultimately realizes what is more important than riches.

I don’t know whether I agree with the reviewers who make Gatsby comparisons. I do agree with the sales clerk who convinced me to buy the book that it is one you long to dip back into – reread sections – because the prose is as liquid as the cover image. Near the end, the narrator cautions,

We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees.

If I were still teaching, this is a book I would love to discuss with students. A relative short read, it will be a good book club book. One that Dave Eggers calls “Completely unforgettable”.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

May 4th, 2013 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)


Ron Currie Jr. came on my reader radar when colleagues at the high school started shoving copies of his Everything Matters in my face a few years back. Currie is a rising talent, having won a Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public library in 2007 for his first books, God is Dead. I was excited when I recently spotted this new novel on the Recent Releases display at one of the coolest independent bookstores I have visited in a long time – Malaprop’s Books in Asheville, NC. I broke my moratorium on book buying and started reading it in the car, read more in the hotel, finished it as soon as I got home, so I could give it to that Currie-loving colleague – my rationalization for buying a new book in the first place. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is an experiment in metafiction. Ron Currie is both author and main character ( a la Tim O’Brien). One of the first things a reader notices is that some of the pages are only about one third covered with text. Some half full. Not many full consecutive pages in the book at all. This is because Currie jumps subjects like a jack rabbit. Some pages are about Ron’s unquenchable love for the elusive Emma. Some are about his father’s death. Some are about being banished to a Caribbean island where he is frequently violently knocked around by locals. Some are, most obscurely, about Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, predicted to occur in 2045. I kept turning pages because the book began with a hefty promise for excitement.

The first thing you need to know about me is that I am a writer. . . . I quit writing for one reason, then stayed for another. The first reason was I killed myself, which obviously makes it hard to go on writing.

Ron Currie’s suicide propels the narrative but details and motives are murky and I didn’t end up believing any part of the story that the authoritative narrative voice promises is completely capital T – true. I wanted to love it – but in the end the ploy was as flimsy as the title.

The Red House by Mark Haddon

August 6th, 2012 | Posted by Lackey in My Reading Life - (0 Comments)

I am a fan of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, so I was excited to get his new novel from the library even though my husband had downloaded the opening chapter and found it very confusing.  For the first 100 pages I kept thinking he was writing the new Ulysses.  And not exactly in a good way.  The stream-of-consciousness, switching of narrators every paragraph made me crazy.  Then I backed off, considered the challenge and did what I tell my students to do – keep a little chart of character relationships on a bookmark.  Since the plot concerns an estranged brother and sister bringing their families together following the death of their mother to mend on holiday at a remote estate, the relationships are central.  And messy.  I finally let the syncopated rhythm of the book carry me and I learned – once again – that all families are both flawed and essential.

Look for all my other book reviews at my book blog – myreadinglife.blogspot.com