Tishomingo Blues (Leonard)

There are a handful of authors I return to on a regular basis just because they are so reliably good – Unsworth, Toibin, McCann, McCarthy, Leonard. Leonard, the King of Cool, is also a writing lesson. Always economical, his characters talk and act like people. Not necessarily people you’d want to meet, but people. Though this is 387 pages, it’s a quick read. Leonard only paints in the necessary colors. That’s not to say things are simple. This is a story of crossing and double-crossing. Oh, and Civil War history and the Blues. I love how Leonard conjures people (the main character is a high-diver), places, and conflicts so clearly, that it was easy to make the movie in my head, something I always love to do.

The Candymakers (Mass)

Children’s author Wendy Mass ventures into territory where angels – and most other authors – fear to tread. One would assume that stories set in candy factories would be pretty much off limits because of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Mass takes the risk. There’s an interesting premise here – about secrets and that even children have them – and Mass’ use of shifting perspectives makes sense here. But the Daisy character is ridiculous and some aspects of Miles’ initial section made me think about stopping the book. It seemed like this section was confusing or even disturbing our children. But we stayed with it. There are things to like here – aspects of teamwork, that parents are not all bad, the details about the candy contest – but overall, I’d suggest skipping this one.

Lungs Full of Noise (Mellas)

When I saw that this collection had won The Iowa Short Fiction Award, I was expecting something along the lines of Paul Harding and Marilynne Robinson. You know, slow-paced plot and elegant, graceful sentences. The drama of real life, not the opera of so much of contemporary fiction. I could not have been more wrong.

These are strange and powerful stories, ones that make Marquez look mellow. With the exception of “opal one, opal two” (which probably should come earlier in the collection and almost certainly deserves more attention than I gave it),   Now that I think about it, many of the stories are about girls and women. There is a violence to stories like “Dye Job” and “Quiet Camp” that is still ringing in my ears. “So Many WIngs” is haunting; “Beanstalk” is beautiful.

So read it. . . and read it slowly. In my lifelong quest to encourage children to read, I may even share 1-2 of the stories with students. “This is allowed,” I will say. “Let your imagination run wild.”

I do worry about Mellas though. What will she do next? Will she feel pressured to top herself?

Becoming a High Performance Mentor: A Guide to Reflection and Action (Rowley)

This is a useful book. It contains key ideas and questions for a mentor to consider. I don’t think I disagreed with or misunderstood any of it. I’ll keep it near my desk as a point of reference. There’s just one thing.

It didn’t really need to be a book. Rowley is a very dry and academic writer. There’s a demoralizing pattern to this book. Rowley will say there are 5 steps to X task. Then he’ll offer a paragraph / page on each of the topics.  But there’s little beyond the bold headlines or the topic sentences.

A book to skim and refer to, not to read.

Orfeo (Powers)

It took me a while to decide to try this one. I think it was the National Book Award consideration that did it. That, and I’d enjoyed The Echo Maker. It took me some time to get into this story that’s partly about music and partly about biology, but when the two strands – and I use the word deliberately – came together, I was really impressed. The book’s final third is both earned and elegant. I first started marking sentences just shy of the 300th page, and the underlining came fast and furious after that. Powers’ always good writing rises to new levels. Powers’ story intersects with the contemporary incidents that are alluded to more than described; still, they are essential. As much as his protagonist, Peter Els, wanted to compose a brave new world, he now lives in one. While I can’t say I followed all of the insights offered about music or its history, I followed enough to make this quite a worthwhile read.

And, in the way one of Els’ compositions intersects (much to his chagrin) with real life, this book did as well. Consider –

You Can Help Write A Modern Symphony About Detroit; Composer Asks For Your Sounds Of The City

The Luminaries (Catton)

Someone somewhere will undoubtedly write a dissertation on the astrological significance of this novel, but it won’t be me. I read and subsequently ignored the Author’s Note to the Reader and the Character Chart and just lost myself in the story. This book is a majestic and epic accomplishment. An outsider arrives. A story unfolds. Then the outsider becomes part of the story. Catton manages a huge ensemble of characters in a deft and sophisticated manner. I feel like I would know any of them if I ran into them on the street. She also conjures late 19th century New Zealand with remarkable clarity. There is a mystery at the center of this tale, but if you don’t waste  your time trying to solve it, you will end up just enjoying the way Catton unravels it, the violence and the racism as well as the humanity and the sweetness.

And Catton wrote this when she was 28. What will she do next?

The Space Between Us (Umrigar)

As a newcomer to Ohio, I was interested in learning more about local authors. Umrigar lives in Cleveland and teaches at Case Western Reserve University. Someone at the university recommended that I start not with her newest book or her first, but this one, and she was absolutely right. What a remarkable piece of fiction. It is just so well put together in terms of both form and content. The characterizations are pitch perfect, the descriptions are beautiful and the writing is stunning. I ended up pulling out post-its to flag some of my favorite passages, but it is a small simile that will stay with me. When Umrigar has Sera, an upper class character, visit her maid, Bhima, in the slum, Umrigar describes the flies as being “as thick as guilt.” 4 breathtaking and perfect words. Out came the post-its. What’s also remarkable here is how Umrigar depicts the two central characters with such precision, grace and empathy, that when they clash, I could understand each woman’s perspective. Moreover, I wanted to step into the scene and try to mediate the situation. Umrigar’s novel works on so many levels, as a story about families, as a story about class, as a story about gender, and as a story about India. The third to last paragraph of the novel is a beautiful ode to the country. This brings me to the ending. Umrigar had me completely set up, with an earlier discussion of what men can do and women can’t. The Awakening was, as I’m sure Umrigar meant it to be, splashing around in my head, and then Umrigar, with elegant restraint, surprised and gladdened me.

Good books allow you to make movies in your head. This is one I’ll watch over and over. Even the title is perfect.