Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

A poet’s quiet, beautifully composed, powerful story of self-healing by viewing the paintings of Vermeer will be a balm to troubled minds as well as satisfying to lovers of art and memoir.

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Poet Michael White’s unusual and riveting memoir, Travels in Vermeer, opens in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody battle. White lost his first wife to cancer, but counts this second marital tragedy as a “total loss,” of faith as well as of his partner. Reeling, he flies to Amsterdam (“all I’d wanted was an ocean behind me”), and heads to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandts. But what he sees instead is The Milkmaid, a tiny painting by Johannes Vermeer. The maid evokes a “tingling at the back of [his] scalp,” and this knee-buckling discovery inspires a plan, hatched on the museum grounds, to devote his breaks from teaching university-level creative writing to traveling the world viewing all the Vermeers he can. For the next 14 months, he chases the life-changing insights and soothing, healing effect provided by the Dutch master’s small-scale, intuitive paintings, in which he sees expressions of love.

White studies biographies and art criticism about Vermeer, while visiting museums in The Hague, Washington, D.C., New York City and London. The reader shares in this lucid examination of Vermeer’s remarkable lighting techniques, occasional trompe l’oeil and the solitary women who feature in his work (alongside a few group scenes and landscapes). White sheds light as well on his difficult childhood, including a scene when his mother dumps him unannounced at his father’s apartment, following their divorce: unlike White’s own daughter, he was an apparently unwanted son. While Vermeer occupies the bulk of this brief, eloquent book, a few scenes from White’s battle with alcoholism and his tentative success with Alcoholics Anonymous round out a self-portrait sketched with great feeling in few words. Only a poet could communicate so economically, in language deserving of contemplatively paced reading.

White’s descriptions competently guide even the most unfamiliar or untrained reader through an appreciation of the mechanics and mysticism of Vermeer’s art. Readers will regret the lack of reproductions of the paintings under consideration; but as he observes upon meeting Girl with a Pearl Earring, “reproductions are useless.”

Travels in Vermeer is a thoroughly user-friendly piece of art education, but it is even better as a thoughtful, spare memoir of pain and recovery, unusually formatted and exquisitely moving. For a companion piece, consider White’s previously published book of poetry inspired by the same journey, entitled Vermeer in Hell.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 daubs.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.

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Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 clicks.

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor

Weighty subjects and introspection never bog down Taylor’s quirky characters as they rush toward a surprising finish.

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Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, by Daniel Taylor, is a slim, funny, thoughtful novel about mental illness, academia, self-knowledge, and philosophy, with a murder mystery thrown in.

Jon Mote, a failed husband and failed graduate student, lives with his sister on a houseboat in St. Paul, Minnesota. When the widow of a murdered professor calls, asking him to look into the death of his former dissertation director, Mote is reluctant—his usual part-time research work involves, for example, the history of popcorn or insurance rates—but he needs the money. Alongside his incessantly sunny but unwell sister, Judy, Mote will have to revisit his own past, as well as that of the highly accomplished Doctor Pratt, who turns out to have a surprising number of enemies. The voices in Mote’s head grow more insistent as the case stresses his fragile grip on reality. Despite her own handicaps, Judy may have to hold things together.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on February 27, 2015 by ForeWord Reviews.

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My rating: 7 zippers.

Teaser Tuesdays: Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

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What a beautiful book. I had the added feeling of synchronicity, that it handles a move from Texas to my very region of Washington state. But even without sharing those personal details with this family, I think this is a moving story. And then these lines.

There was a bar for every loneliness, he suspected. A bar for every sad story, and one for every joy. All of those things, contained in the shifting glass, the water rings and fingerprints across old wood, the smell of sweat.

I’m a sucker for writing about bars, as place and atmosphere. Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

A quirky, memorable debut novel about things we miss, large and small.

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Janina Matthewson’s first novel, Of Things Gone Astray, is startlingly beautiful, both ridiculous and poignant. A handful of people in London wake up one morning to find that they have lost things that matter very much to them. Delia can no longer find her way around the neighborhood she has always lived in; Mrs. Featherby’s house suddenly has no front wall; Marcus’s piano is missing its keys; Robert’s place of work is not where it belongs, though no one else seems to be missing it (a whole building!), and his colleagues’ numbers have vanished from his phone. These bizarre, surreal absences make no sense, but must be accepted as fact because they are blatant, physical. Meanwhile, a little boy named Jake finds himself attracted to lost things: he collects the contents of the Lost and Found room at school, labels and organizes objects that will likely never see their owners again.

On its face, this is a fantasy, an otherworld fortunately accessible only through prose. But Matthewson’s sensitive prose helps us to consider what matters, and the means by which we hang on to those things. Through no overt metaphor, this mystical, whimsical, dreamy world of the lost and the retrieved suggests a fresh and heartfelt new way of thinking, as Jake, in his concern for lost things, may lose track of something far more important and intangible.

Of Things Gone Astray is a stunning, heartbreaking, thought-provoking song of love and memory and family and life, with something to offer any reader, bereft or not.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 cakes.

Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

A reformed drug dealer gets pulled back into the game in this tense, bloody thriller with a strong sense of place and a soft heart.

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Suitcase City by Sterling Watson (Weep No More My Brother) opens with an extended flashback to protagonist Jimmy Teach’s time in small-town Florida. At the time, Teach has just finished a brief career in professional football and is back in the game of smuggling drugs, or in his words, operating as a “maritime consultant.” When a business deal with Guatemalans goes sour, Teach competently cleans up the mess, and moves on.

The bulk of Teach’s story then takes place nearly 20 years later, in late 1990s Tampa, Fla., where a rundown neighborhood called Suitcase City gives the novel its name. Teach is reformed, more or less: he’s vice-president of sales at a pharmaceutical company and has rebuilt a relationship with his teenaged daughter after his wife’s (her mother’s) death. But a little incident inside a bar one Friday afternoon–a tiny mistake, a single piece of rotten luck–and suddenly Teach finds himself worried about losing his house, his job, the relationship he’s built with his daughter, and maybe his own life.

Suitcase City is nearly halfway over before the reader finds out who Teach’s enemies are and what the present beef is about, but this lengthy plot development is never boring or slow–quite the opposite. Every moment is riveting, making this a difficult book to look up from at all; the reader is every bit as concerned as Teach over the maddening mystery of who or what in his past is pursuing him, and why. To get answers and solutions, Teach has to look into his past as well as consider his future. Along the way, he gets his hands dirty with blood, gore, prostitutes and drug dealers more sophisticated than anyone involved in his “maritime consulting” two decades ago.

Watson’s magic is in pacing and taut prose, in the details that make his Florida setting so compelling–boats and bilge, lobsters and golf–and in a father’s love for his daughter. Diverse characters enliven Teach’s world, including his charming daughter, a pushy reporter and a colorful pair of police detectives who represent a range of competence and demeanor. In the end, Teach is flawed but likable, and Suitcase City is an absorbing thriller, a vivid adventure in a bright, humid, perilous underworld.


This review originally ran in the February 13, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 tee times.

The Lincoln Theatre presents Romeo and Juliet, the musical

lincolnThe Historic Lincoln Theatre in a town near mine advertised a new musical version of Romeo and Juliet, and I needed little convincing. My parents and I drove down for one of the last productions.

The theatre is beautiful, an old movie house with ornately painted walls, a small lobby and an “art bar” in an adjoining alcove. An orchestra was seated at audience level off to one side of the stage. The music was well performed, and as far as design, it was often a benefit to the play, and sometimes not. The group scenes were fun with the addition of song and dance (the choreography was quite good, playing up the bawdy bits). There were definitely times as well when Shakespeare’s script would have been better spoken than sung – the musical format a little bit forced, you know. Especially in his back-and-forth dialog, his repartee, Shakespeare is pretty near perfect on his own, and those lines should have been left alone. So for the music, a mixed score; but honestly, you’d have to do a lot more than this to mess up Shakespeare, so my criticisms are slight and good-natured; it was great fun to see.

A bigger problem was what I’ll call technical difficulties: our seats were in the second row, with the orchestra curling up along one side of us and the players right in front. They had microphones, but the speakers were behind us. The balance between instrumental music and actors’ voices was badly off: we often couldn’t hear what they were saying or singing at all. (Luckily we know the play well, and the acting makes much clear.) At intermission halfway through we moved well back in the theatre, and the sound quality was so drastically improved – quite good now! – that I’m only sorry we waited that long. We partly missed the balcony scene in that first half. Once the sound issues were resolved by our reseating, I have little to nitpick.

The acting was quite good. Mercutio was outstanding; Juliet’s nurse was great fun; and Romeo and Juliet themselves were, as one would hope, the stars of the show. The actors represented a wide age range, which is again as it should be: Juliet was played by a senior in high school, and though Romeo is listed as a college graduate, he felt plenty youthful for his role. Tybalt is a mere child at 14! But a pretty burly 14, and pulled off the impetuosity required. While Juliet was wonderful – and a fine singer, once I could hear her – I admit Romeo was my favorite actor. He was handsome, dreamy-eyed, romantic and passionate; it was just right.

This play (and so much of Shakespeare) stands the test of time. It was written more than 400 years ago, and I’ve seen it repeatedly, but it’s still so fresh and affecting: every time I ache for Romeo to wait just a little bit longer, for Juliet to wake up in time, for Tybalt to listen to Romeo’s pleas, for Mercutio to recover. And although I had considered myself a little too jaded for this, I admit the romance got to me again, and clearly will the next time I see this play performed. It’s just too good. Shakespeare has his audience wrapped up; the romance and the tragedy are every bit as alive in 2015 as when he wrote these lines in the 1590’s.

There is comedy here, too. I don’t know the histories so well and so won’t comment; but even in his tragedies there is bawdy, physical humor or wordplay. Different interpretations can play these lines up more or less; this one inserted a few pelvic thrusts to good comedic effect.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the musical adaptation; it was often fine and only occasionally the merest bit heavy-handed, but the play as presented by talented actors was outrageously fun and moving and I’d see it again. But I’d sit further back.


Rating: 9 vials for Shakespeare, 8 for the production, 7 for sound.
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