Chicago by Brian Doyle (audio)

On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that rough and burly city in the middle of America, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake.

This novel is everything I love best about Doyle: joy and celebration even where there is tragedy and pain; minutia and multitudes; exuberance and multiplicity… but where I am accustomed to seeing these elements applied to natural settings (even when peopled), here we have it in an urban setting, which I found surprising. But not disappointing: I’m originally a city girl (even if I have an affinity for greener spaces), and I really appreciated the celebration of the urban here. (Also, Chicago is a setting I have encountered in a lot of fiction lately, and I appreciated having it shown to me again from yet another angle. It’s beginning to feel familiar.)

I have a hard time saying anything new or intelligent about Doyle’s writing, which I love so much. This novel spans just a year and change, which is the length of our protagonist/narrator’s residence in the titular city, although he is clear – from a distance of years – that he’s never loved any other city so well. A good chunk of the action takes place in the apartment building where he lives, and all the significant characters live there. This is less our narrator’s story, in fact, than it is the story of the building’s occupants and of the city itself. Those occupants include: the man who’d invented children’s propeller hats; two young women from Arkansas who work in advertising; an Armenian librettist; two hermit brothers; four dapper businessmen; a retired movie actress; a man who had once raised cheetahs; a Trinidadian cricket player; Mrs. Manfredi, who makes transcendent empanadas; a Scottish tailor and a detective; and old Mr. McGinty, who never loses when he bets on the horses. Even more central are Mr. Pawlowsky, the loveable maintenance man (retired from the Navy and a great fan of Abraham Lincoln); an even bigger fan of Lincoln’s, the wise and knowing dog Edward (who lives with Mr. Pawlowsky although no one could say either “owned” the other); and Miss Elminides, Greek heiress and owner of the building, artistic and benevolent and mysterious. This list already has the flavor of Doyle in it: wide-ranging, delightfully detailed, wondrous, mostly real but a little bit magical.

In Third Coast Review, Susannah Pratt writes, “To the extent that Chicago is a three hundred-page love letter to the city… it is fair to ask whether the book is a worthwhile read for those without firsthand knowledge of it. I am the wrong person to ask…” (she’s from there), but here I am, the right person to ask! (I’ve been in Chicago just once, for a professional conference, and saw almost none of it.) I loved this book. It’s not especially plot-heavy. Events certainly happen, most importantly to the narrator, Mr. Pawlowsky, Edward, and Miss Elminides; but if I were to detail them as plot the book would feel a little thin. No, rather this is a series of character sketches, with the city of Chicago as important a character as any; and it is a list, in joyous Doyle fashion, of the kinds of people who are in the world and the kinds of things that happen to them, both surprising and everyday (which are often the same things), and it is a celebration that these things and people are in the world. I don’t know what else to tell you.

Here are some of my favorite lines and passages, because that’s the best way to know what Doyle is up to.

You cannot edit your life, and even if I was today offered the chance to never meet her, and so not leave the city I loved, I would decline, for life is a verb, life swerves and lurches no matter how cautious and careful your driving, and I would not be who I am, surrounded by those I love most in this world, had I not left Chicago when I did.

You cannot edit your life. We can’t go backwards, only forwards. Life is a verb? Well, it is decidedly a noun, whose verb form is to live, but I will accept this from Doyle (who likes to say that lots of words are verbs, actually).

I have wandered through and marveled at many cities since my years in Chicago–cities all over the world, from the ancient seethe of Rome to the glinting brio of Sydney; cities on the shoulders of mountains, cities by the lip of the sea; so very many cities astraddle rivers, or camped for centuries where two rivers meet; cities looming out of the flat plains like huge shards of light and glass, cities insisting on themselves amid inhospitable deserts, cities huddled defiant and disgruntled against endless ice and snow, cities wrapped like long urban shawls around the curving shores of bays; and each of these cities had a flavor and a character all its own, formed of more than merely locale and climate, and the accident of its original economic or military excuse.

What lover of cities could resist this long exultant sentence?

I decided not to reproduce a lovely bit where the detective calls a certain baseball game for a gathered group of neighbors, but it actually made me cry, around 100 pages in.

And then there is a poem which is read aloud by a teacher to her classroom of students. I have searched for this poem online and can’t find it in the world outside this novel, so I think it’s Doyle’s own work, although his fictional teacher character attributes it within that fictional world (to an unnamed poet) – if anyone knows differently, please correct me.

The day that I turned thirty was a wintry
Day with summer and apples and hawks
In it and I realized that every day was an
Epic birthday if you think about it so I’m
Thirty today and ten and ninety and love
Finds me and there is a mink in the creek
And everything is happening all the time
Including backwards and we had best be
Attentive which I will try to be every hour
Henceforth and you too and let us burble
To each other about what we see, cousins
And sisters and brothers as we all are yes

Summers and apples and hawks in it.

This audiobook is delightfully performed by Wayne Mitchell, and I love the voices he does – like Mr. Pawlowsky, whose S’s are generally Sh’s, so that the ‘city’ is always the ‘shitty,’ which never ceased to amuse me. I was lost in this novel the entire time. But that said, I need it in print form too, because there were too many wonderful lines that I didn’t grasp as well as I’d liked. This is one I’ll definitely read again.

I know I’m just raving. The brief version of this review is: it’s like everything Doyle writes, wonderful and whimsical, but about a city instead of a forest or an ocean or a town this time, which is also awesome. You should read it.


Rating: 9 rooftops.

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (audio)

Housekeeping note: I expect this will be my last Wednesday post of the season, if not the year. I am heading into a fall semester that I expect will be especially stressful, so I’ll return to a twice-weekly format, posting on Mondays and Fridays. Thanks for reading, friends!


This is just the third in the Dave Robicheaux series, dating back to 1989. I’ve been following Burke’s Robicheaux for decades (perhaps not back to 1989, when I was 7 years old). While this one showed some of the qualities I love about the series, I’m not sure it’s aged well in some ways. Or (as usual) maybe that’s me, the reader, needing something different at this time. It’d be interested to check in with a more recent book in the series – there are now 23 – and see how I react.

Dave Robicheaux runs a bait shop in New Iberia, Louisiana. He’s retired from both the New Orleans Police Department and from New Iberia’s; his wife Molly is recently dead, murdered in their bed; his adopted daughter Alafair (a refugee orphan from El Salvador) is a new member of the household. His old college roommate Dixie Lee turns up, mostly drunk and high and talking about overheard conversations about hiding bodies. Dave is haunted by Molly’s ghost and his father’s, and his own sobriety, held carefully at bay by AA meetings. But he can’t resist looking into Dixie Lee’s accusations, which overlap with Dave’s own past entanglements with a certain oil company. Facing murder charges thanks to a frame, Dave takes Alafair and travels up to Montana to track this mystery, getting involved with both the Mafia and the Blackfeet tribe, and plenty of unsavory characters. (Including Clete Purcell, who I’m always glad to see.)

Among the things I appreciate about the Robicheaux books is Burke’s evocative descriptions of the natural landscapes, showcased by landscapes like New Iberia and Montana (the two classic Burke settings). I’ve always found these books to lie at the literary end of the mystery genre’s spectrum; pacing is often sedate, in favor of evocation and atmosphere, and you might say, at the expense of a snappy plot. Dave’s wrestling with his demons (plenty of them internal, without considering his external enemies) treads a fine line between noir moodiness, and tiresome wallowing. He’s a certain kind of classic detective protagonist, like Connelly’s Harry Bosch: self-destructive, deeply antagonistic toward authority, violent, introspective, iconoclastic. Perhaps I am beginning to turn away from this type, as a reader, especially when they have physically satisfying but emotionally problematic sex with younger women.

The mystery plot of this book took far too long to resolve, for me. It was more enjoyable as lovely writing and studies on character and setting. Possibly the audio format was the wrong choice here, because it tends to take me longer than reading. I’m not sure how much of my trouble with this book was about me the reader, and I’m reluctant to criticize Burke, who I have long appreciated, but all I can report on is my own experience. Again, I wonder if this read better in 1989. I did catch one statement about race that I found problematic (to be fair, expressed by the character Robicheaux rather than the author Burke, but still to be considered). Next time I return to this series, I’ll look for a recent installment for comparison.

This audio performance by Mark Hammer is notable for its variety of accents, a different voice for each character. But I feel it contributed to the stately pace, too.

One thing that has not changed: there is no messing with Burke’s sentence-level writing about place. Here’s one sample from each setting.

The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep, early morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into southern Louisiana, as it always does after the long gray rains of February. Along East Main in New Iberia the yards were filled with blooming azalea, roses, and yellow and red hibiscus, and the trellises and gazebos were covered with trumpet vine and clumps of purple wisteria.

In the Jocko Valley I watched a rain shower move out from between two tall white peaks in the Mission Mountains, then spread across the sky, darken the sun, and march across the meadows, the clumped herds of Angus, the red barns and log ranch houses and clapboard cottages, the poplar windbreaks, the willow-lined river itself, and finally the smooth green hills that rose into another mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. Splinters of lightning danced on the ridges, and the sky above the timberline roiled with torn black clouds. Then I drove over the tip of the valley and out of the rain and into the sunshine on the Clark Fork as though I had slipped from one piece of geographical climate into another.

As for the rest, your mileage may vary, as always.


Rating: 6 ice cream cones.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (audio)

From the author of The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, comes this novel about his third, Martha Gellhorn. Each novel focuses on the woman first, with Hemingway in a supporting role. This one is told from Gellhorn’s first-person point of view, with very few, brief glimpses into Hemingway’s own perspective – I enjoyed these but I think it was wise to limit them. We follow Gellhorn from young womanhood, early in her writing career, into meeting Hemingway in her 20s – he’s married to Pauline – and into the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds the talent she will be best known for: she becomes one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. The arc of their relationship defines the novel’s timeline, but it is as much the story of the woman. Such a fiery relationship with such a larger-than-life figure as Hemingway does threaten to dominate, but one of the things I love about Gellhorn is that there was so much more to her than this, and I think McLain communicates that.

A little like with The Trespasser, I felt a slowdown in the middle of this book. I’m not sure it’s a criticism of McLain, or simply the fact that Hemingway is a difficult character: mythic, swaggering, enormous, and perhaps difficult to write without becoming a sort of cardboard cut-out who makes dramatic (not to say predictable) pronouncements. I even considered the possibility that I’m a bit sick of him; maybe I’ve read too many fictional treatments of the man. I definitely rolled my eyes at Gellhorn’s hand-wringing and devotion over her selfish, cruel, immature lover, but I had to remind myself that this nonsense is likely perfectly realistic. Which doesn’t make it any easier to sit in.

Whatever that was about, McLain pulled me back. It’s definitely a good strategy, I think, to keep Gellhorn front and center. Along with Hadley, she’s my favorite of Hemingway’s wives; she didn’t entirely take his shit, and had a formidable career of her own. She refused to sublimate, which is why their marriage failed, but it’s why she got to keep herself, too. In the end, I was left feeling really good about this read, although it hadn’t always been easy to take in. Kirkus writes, “Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man,” and well, yes. Welcome to Hemingway.

It’s been a long time since I read The Paris Wife – almost ten years – which I remember loving without reservation. But I suspect I’m a more critical reader now, so I’m not certain at this distance that the first was a better book. Certainly I recommend Love and Ruin for the Hemingway completist, and I think it’s a good overview of the Gellhorn story. Kirkus further writes that “it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in [Gellhorn’s] own memoir and published letters,” but I don’t know why that has to be such a criticism. Having that information presented in a stylish fictionalization seems like a service, and I found it an enjoyable read.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

The Trespasser by Tana French (audio)

The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, starring Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran. Conway is chafing at her mistreatment by the rest of the murder squad, the good old boys’ club that hates her (she interprets) for being a woman, for having brown skin, for not playing their games. Moran’s all right, a good partner, and more or less loyal – she brought him into the squad, after all – but she has trouble trusting him entirely. It’s just a part of her personality, and/or, a result of the continuing abuse and harassment she experiences.

They work the night shift, and keep getting assigned low-level domestics and bar fights. Until Aislinn Murray: a Dream Date Barbie-type in a magazine-perfect flat, with a shadowy past. The squad pushes Conway and Moran to settle this one quickly, by charging the obvious suspect: a new boyfriend who had a date with Aislinn the night she died. But the two young detectives have some more complicated theories in mind. The Trespasser is part “straight” murder mystery, as they race to solve Aislinn’s murder, but it’s also part murder-squad intrigue, and a hefty part psychological drama: Conway has some formidable strengths, but it seems one of her greatest weaknesses is a certain suspicion, not to say paranoia, that makes it hard for her to trust Moran or anyone. In Tana French’s signature style, much of the turmoil of the story takes place not in exterior action but inside Conway’s head, as she argues with herself about what she can believe in.

In the middle, this one got a bit slow for me, and like The Witch Elm could have used some acceleration; but by the end, it zipped along as cracklingly as the best of French’s work. I still hold The Likeness to be her finest, but this one is solid.

And then, holy smokes, talk about amnesia. I just searched this blog for previous Tana French reviews and found that I’d read this one shortly before its 2016 publication. I can’t believe it – not for a moment did it feel familiar. I’m losing my mind. Previous review here, and I’m keeping the rating. This reading seems a bit different from that first experience in that I detected a slow-down in the middle; also, reading vs. listening makes a big difference with French’s atmospheric, heavily Irish stories. I love hearing them done aloud with the accents and the musical lilt and pacing, and wouldn’t want to consider reading them if I had the audio version available!

I can’t believe I forgot this book.


Rating: 8 schemes.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart (audio)

When I heard, some years ago, that the author of The Drunken Botanist had written a women-centered detective story, you can bet I couldn’t wait to get to it. Because it’s a touch longer than I usually have time for, it took me some four years to get to it, but I finally did, in a very nice audio format performed by Christina Moore.

Constance Kopp lives with her two younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, on the family farm in the New Jersey countryside, even though their brother keeps insisting they sell it and move into town, because three “girls” shouldn’t be out there on their own. In the summer of 1914, their buggy is struck by an automobile driven by silk merchant Henry Kaufman. Constance insists that Kaufman should pay for damages, but Kaufman is a jerk and sort of a gangster type, and he refuses. The rest of 1914 and well into ’15 are absorbed with the Kopp-Kaufman conflict: Kaufman and his unsavory friends harass and stalk the Kopp sisters, eventually attempting to burn down their house and shooting at them, and sending letters threatening to kidnap young Fleurette and demanding money. At every point the “girls” (Fleurette is a teenager, but Constance is closer to 40 than 30) are encouraged to just let this thing drop, but Constance will not be deterred. She sues Kaufman for the damages and then pursues charges against him for the rest of the violence and threats; a friendly local sheriff’s assistance is critical to her persistence. Constance will prove a better detective than many real detectives, and this novel ends with her being offered just such a job. (The series of “Kopp Sisters” novels follows that thread.)

These events are closely based on the true Kopp sisters, and if you want to avoid spoilers for the novel, you’ll avoid reading the history just yet, too.

I had mixed feelings for this one. It’s got a solid plot, but one that dragged on far longer than it needed to; well-portrayed characters with complexity and flaws and quirks, but a bit more likeability would have helped me enjoy them far more. (I don’t require that I absolutely love all, or even any, characters in a book. But there has to be enough that I invest in them in some way. And while I appreciated Constance quite a bit, and Sheriff Heath, almost everyone else grated. You don’t want your reader to spend most of your book exasperated.) I dig the feminist pluck, the setting in time, and the period-appropriate details. The sisterly interactions were cute at first, but started to irritate me. I was often impatient. Nearly 500 pages? This novel could have been done in half that, I think, and would have been a snappy ripping little novel at that length. I would definitely be signing up for book 2 in the series in that case; as it is, I’m not sure I won’t look into it, which is of course a vote of some confidence. But I’m not sure I will, either, because it bogged down for so long. Why was this book as long as it was? We spent entirely too much time watching the same things happen over and over again.

The reading of this audio format was above average. I enjoyed the voices for the different characters and the contribution to Constance’s character.

Some high points for sure, but I can’t give a strong recommendation. Many readers have loved this book, so feel free to seek other opinions. To each her own.


Rating: 6 blue bands.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly (audio)

I am considering a few possibilities about this book. 1) Michael Connelly has fallen down a little bit recently. 2) I saw a version of this story on the TV show Bosch, and the book coming second hurt its reception somewhat. 3) I think it might be #1 actually.

There are two storylines to this novel that run side-by-side. One is the pharmacy shooting in which a father-and-son pair of pharmacists are murdered in an apparent professional hit. Bosch and his colleagues at the San Fernando PD quickly link this to a possible ring of pill runners, and Bosch will end up going undercover as an opioid addict and getting into all kinds of mess. In the other thread, a decades-old case resurfaces when it looks like a convicted killer Bosch busted as just a baby detective will be released from Death Row. Bosch knows in his heart that the investigation was righteous and the guy is guilty, but worse still, it’s alleged that he planted evidence in the original case, so now his reputation is on the line.

The actual plotlines, both of them, are compelling. But many things about this book rubbed me wrong.

First, the reading of the audiobook by Titus Welliver – who plays Bosch on the TV show – sounded like a good idea. I think he’s an excellent Bosch onscreen. But it turns out that to read the audiobook, he has to play not only Bosch but all the other characters as well, and this may be beyond his range. Early on, a less-experienced detective has to go talk to the widow/mother of the murdered pharmacists, she expresses concern over the emotional challenge of this job – and Welliver delivers this in a monotone. Oh, no, I thought.

Did Connelly always over-explain like this? I am no kind of expert on the criminal justice system, except to the extent that I am an avid reader of murder mystery/crime procedurals and watcher of the same genre of television shows… It doesn’t seem like I should feel this impatient with the explanations of acronyms and procedures and why Harry might think or do a certain thing. Likewise, I’ve begun to pick up on a dialog tic that gets under my skin: police detective partners, say, explaining their actions or thought processes to each other out loud in a way that I just don’t believe they’d do in real life, for the benefit of the reader. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I can’t recall Connelly doing it before. Also, Harry Bosch is a pretty laconic guy. I think of him as being not big on explaining, let alone over-explaining. I don’t buy that Haller and Bosch’s banter would involve so much explanation. They move in the same circles, they speak most of the same lingo, and they’re pretty close. I think they’d operate with a lot more shorthand than we’ve got here. The ease with which a certain opioid addict is convinced, by a stranger, to take a cold-turkey cure felt unrealistic. There were just a lot of details that felt inauthentic.

But the worst thing came right at the end – and I said this just the other day. The ending of a book leaves the lingering impression! At the end of the book, Bosch is handed a solve on an old case. A woman long missing and considered dead – most likely murdered by her husband – turns up under a new identity and tells Bosch she had to flee her abusive marriage. “You have to stop looking for me,” she says. Bosch is angry with her for wasting the department’s resources in the search; his boss wants to have her charged with fraud. They are also offended that she left her baby behind with the abuser, who later gave said baby up for adoption. She doesn’t show remorse. The anger that Bosch and boss feel toward this woman pissed me off, you guys. We live in a culture that privileges male abusers over their victims. A woman like this likely couldn’t get out any other way – don’t make me laugh by saying she should have called the cops. She got out in the way she could. And if she caused department resources to be misspent? If she fucked up her kid’s life? That makes her a less-than-perfect victim, and gosh knows we only like our victims perfect. What’s funny, though, is that Bosch is the man of “everybody counts or nobody counts.” This was just the scenario for him to demonstrate that a victim of intimate partner violence, even though she made some choices we’d like to judge her for, deserved to take her own freedom where she could find it. It would make a lot more sense to get mad at the system that offered her no other out – and Bosch has plenty of experience getting mad at the system. He’s progressive enough to care about the rights of sex workers, but apparently not to extend his compassion to a survivor of domestic violence. This ending felt hypocritical, not to say misogynistic, and left a terrible taste in my mouth.

I’m sorry to feel so disenchanted here with one of my long-time favorite authors. And I can’t quite explain this: has Connelly changed so much? Have I? With beers or bicycles it’s hard to say, because you can’t go back in time. But in this case I have the classics, the early works – The Black Echo, The Black Ice, The Poet – to go back to. Hmm…

The plot, the mystery itself, is still solid. I can feel the old Harry Bosch underneath it all. But this edition did not work for me at all. Maybe I’ll hunt down one of those classics and double-check things. And I think I’ll still tune in to the recently-released season six of the show Bosch – assuming I can put this book behind me. Hope it’s a fluke.


Rating: call it 6 sealed envelopes just for old time’s sake.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (audio)

Hello, yes, it’s Wednesday! With school just about done, I’m returning to book reviews as a more-or-less full-time venture, and social distancing is still in full effect, so it seems I’ll be producing plenty of blog content for the summer and we’re going back to a three-day-a-week schedule. Thanks for tuning in.


I have loved Susan Vreeland’s ekphrastic fiction for years now. In spirit of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring or Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, this 2007 novel fictionalizes the story of the real-life painting Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

It opens with Renoir riding his three-wheeled steam-cycle to a village on the Seine outside of Paris to paint. We immediately meet several of the characters who will become models for his ground-breaking painting; and it does revolve around characters. While this is in part the story of the painting itself coming into being, issues of composition and light and technique, it is most about people. Renoir chases women; he is obsessed with beauty and must “love” (read: make love to) all his female models. He is also committed to “the impressionists” as a group and a movement. After reading Émile Zola’s indictment of the impressionists, that they “are inferior to what they undertake. The man of genius has not yet arisen,” Renoir knows he must get ambitious. He plans an enormous painting that will be landscape, figure painting, study of light and personality all in one. This novel follows him from discontent and conception through to the end of the painting, plus a years-later epilogue-style reflection.

But again: people. Renoir selects his models carefully, and then navigates their comings and goings; several bow out and new ones must join; he agonizes over the problem of having 13 around a dinner table (an unacceptable reference to the Last Supper), and must make a number of replacements. (Vreeland’s Author’s Note explains that all the models in her novel are the true and established models of Renoir’s painting, with the exception of the 14th, a brief glimpse of a man whose identity is unknown.) These changes in lineup, as well as the luncheons where the modeling and painting actually takes place, are the drama and plot of the novel. Over eight Sundays (the limited span of painting opportunity, because of seasonally changing light), the party meets to flirt and drink and joke and laugh and love. They take boating trips, of course, and several boat races close out the season. Part of the overall feel of the novel is this laughter, love, and conviviality. Partly too it is stressful and sad, but Renoir is always chasing joy.

Most of the story is told from a limited-third-person perspective that follows Renoir, but a handful of chapters track a few of the models. I think these might have been my favorites, actually: Renoir is engaging, and it makes sense that he forms the heart of this story in some sense, but he can be a bit exasperating (especially in his womanizing), and I loved getting to know some of his models a little better. The chapter that followed Angèle might have been my favorite departure from Renoir’s self-absorption. He is an engaging character in his own right, but not always very likeable.

The general feeling is indeed one of the appreciation of beauty, joy, and living in the moment, which (at least as portrayed here) are pillars of Renoir’s own worldview. I enjoyed being immersed in such appreciations, and in the love of lines, colors, light, and brushwork. I genuinely liked almost every character we met, and it felt like escaping into something lovely to rejoin this audiobook. (As I’m saying about everything I read and take in these days, I can’t separate the experience of this book from the pandemic. This one took me longer than usual because I usually listen to audiobooks in the gym and while driving, and midway through this book I lost access to the gym and had nowhere to go. It was a delicious escape, though, when I did get into it.) There was also an elegiac tone to things, especially late, and especially in the character of Alphonsine, who closes things out for us. She’s a somewhat tragic figure who I would happily spend more time with. In fact, I loved the women of this story most of all. I think Vreeland does women beautifully, especially in my favorites of hers, The Forest Lover and Clara and Mr. Tiffany.

Karen White’s reading of the audiobook feels right to me, and I greatly appreciate having all that French spoken aloud for me; it is a language I find confounding, and I can’t imagine how I would have heard all the names and vocabulary in my head if I’d read it off the page myself. I’m so glad I found this book in this format. I learned some things about art, about impressionism, and about period France; in the author’s note, Vreeland notes where she stuck to the historical record and where she diverged, and I feel pretty good about historical accuracy here. (Divergences were minor enough, and my retention vague enough, that I don’t think I’m leaving with any meaningful misinformation.) I’m still a fan of this author, who, incidentally, I just learned died in 2017. Luckily there are still a number of her novels that I haven’t yet read; I will look forward to those.

Lovers of historical fiction, art and ekphrasis, human dramas, and beauty for its own sake should take note.


Rating: 8 canotiers.

The Hero by Lee Child (audio)

Not a Jack Reacher novella, but an essay. Lee Child (as himself, for the first time in my reading experience) explores the concept of “the hero,” as archetype and as cultural tradition, in this hour-and-change. It opens with the history of opium, or rather of humans’ relationship to opium, in its various forms, as revealed by the archaeological record. This brings us to the book’s subject via that coined name for an opium derivative: heroin, as relates to hero. Etymology as guiding principle! I love it! Some of the reviews on Goodreads are laughably harsh, but that’s an issue of people not appreciating etymology or failing to grasp the concept of “essay” (and to be fair, some of these poor souls thought they were getting a Reacher novella. Which actually I did as well, but I transition between Reacher and the essayistic form more easily than some).

From opium and heroin we move through archaeology and the history and development of human societies (comparison of homo sapiens to homo neanderthalensis), including the move from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, always with a focus on the developing importance of storytelling. Storytelling, Child writes, is a survival mechanism, part of evolution. “Encouraging, empowering, emboldening stories… somehow made it more likely the listener would still be alive in the morning.” Stories are instructive, he explains, and developed from the first use of language which was strictly nonfiction. There was no evolutionary advantage to claiming that there was a predator over the next rise, or prey or berries to be had around the next bend of the river, if it wasn’t true. The move to fiction was a big jump, and had to serve other purposes. Encouraging, empowering, emboldening, and instructing. The girl who met a tiger and ran fast and got away; later, the girl who met a tiger but she carried an axe and successfully fought it off.

Which brings me to a feature of this essay that I appreciate: that it centers women. Child tracks his own link to early homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens through the female line. As his own mother had no female child, he considers that line to have died out. Women tend to be the storytellers, and the early protagonists, in the histories he tells. It’s refreshing, when history is so often male-centered.

Another central feature is the importance of language, etymologies, and the joys and rigors of linguistics. (Child’s daughter Ruth is a linguist.) Words matter; and they tell stories. Rivals were originally in competition for rivers or for riverfront real estate. Heroin is named for the concept of the hero.

Reacher’s usual confidence in making logical connections and claiming theories is recognizable here as Child’s own. I’m not an academic in the field of human evolution as told through the archaeological record, nor am I a linguist; I have the sense that he sets forth some theories that are perhaps less than orthodox, but he does so with great assurance. It’s a style of writing that works well for me. This is Reacher as an academic. Jeff Harding’s narration feels spot-on.

A contemplation of language, story, and the archetypal (and ever-evolving) hero in human history: if this stuff sounds like your cuppa, and especially if you like Reacher too, do yourself a favor and check out this novella-length essay. It’s engrossing. (Also, there’s a nice, representative sample available here. Or another here.) Or if you just want a laugh, go check out those Goodreads reviews. Not every book for every reader…


Circe by Madeline Miller (audio)

Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles, follows with another retelling from Homer’s great works with Circe. Remember, Circe was the witch-goddess who turned Odysseus’s men to swine on her enchanted island, then slept with him, and successfully tempted him to stay with her there for a year before he was able to tear himself away and continue on his ill-fated journey home (eventually successful in that he gets there, but not in too many other senses). Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph named Perse.

I had no idea that Circe had such an extended backstory – I knew her only from the Odyssey. Her story is further enlarged upon in Miller’s lovely telling here: her birth and childhood in the halls of the gods, ignored and unliked by her immortal parents, teased and picked on by the nymphs. Her love of the fisherman Glaucus, and his transformation; his love for the nymph Scylla, and Circe’s spell that transforms her in turn to the monster Scylla we know (again, from the Odyssey and other sources). Her minor role in the punishment of Prometheus, another god with a sympathy for mortals, and her eventual banishment to the island Aeaea (pronounced in this audiobook as ai-aye-uh). Then, her centuries (recall, Circe is immortal) on the island, developing her skills of witchcraft and enjoying a few sexual liaisons: first, with Hermes; later, with Daedalus; and eventually with her most famous guest, Odysseus.

Spoilers follow below (in white text – highlight to read). These are features of Circe’s history that come from myth; but they were stories I’d never encountered before, for all my love of Odysseus’s story, so they may be new for some of you, as well.

We get a lushly detailed version of Circe’s turning men to swine episodes, from her point of view and more justified than in Homeric tellings. We meet Odysseus, well into the length of Circe; and while it’s all been lovely, I have of course been leaning toward this event. Well, Odysseus through Circe’s eyes is rather a different beast (no pun intended), although recognizable. They have a relationship; his men get restless; he prepares to leave, but not before Circe (following a message from Hermes) passes on the prophecy regarding his visit to the underworld. She advises him; he pours the blood and waits for Tiresias, etc. (Pardon my glossing; this is where I know the story well.) And then… After his departure, and without his knowledge, Circe gives birth to Odysseus’s son, Telegonus. His name is a play on that of Telemachus, Odysseus’s older son with Penelope; it also means ‘born afar,’ which for Circe means born far from his father’s land of Ithaca, yes, but also far from her own family – far from the whole world, you might say. Telegonus is a difficult baby but a fine young man.

From his birth, the grey-eyed goddess Athena tries to kill him, but she won’t say why. Because of this threat, Circe worries. She spins massive spells that bear down on her; she works herself weary to protect her child; and she shelters him beyond even the average protective mother. But of course, she can’t keep him away from the world forever. It is Hermes, in fact, who secretly helps him build a boat with which to leave sheltering Aeaea. Telegonus is determined to go find his father. In one of her acts of astonishing strength, Circe wins the poison tail of the older-than-old sea god Trigon, with which she poison-tips a spear for Telegonus – to keep him safe, she thinks. But as is so often the case in Greek myth, this poison spear instead becomes the instrument of fulfilling another prophecy. In an accident, born of the miscommunication of their first meeting, Telegonus’s spear grazes Odysseus, and the yearned-for father dies. I had never known how Odysseus died! Telegonus ends up bringing Penelope and Telemachus back home to Aeaea with him, which Circe does not initially appreciate; but more unforeseen events will arise from here, not all bad. (I have to leave something untold, don’t I.)

Whew.

I was exhilarated by the retelling of Odysseus’s time spent with Circe, and its fallout, following him beyond the end of the Odyssey. All of Circe was compelling and well-told, with style; but I was always waiting for this, the headline act. I was intrigued by a different version of Odysseus than the one I’ve known before. Miller’s is a testier, more temper-prone, less admirable man. And while I don’t like having my heroes messed with, this worked out well for me. Miller’s Odysseus fits within Homer’s; they are not at odds. He was always a little apt to cruelty, and certainly self-serving, the cunning one. And Circe’s perspective necessitated the changes, I think.

A feminist retelling? I suppose, in the spirit of Atwood’s Penelopiad or Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, the women’s version might always read that way. I feel like that’s a simplification, though. It might be better classified as a correction of “history told by victors.” The victors tend to be men, but it’s not just that; it’s their power and ruthlessness and erasure of others. This is at least as much about correcting erasure (generally) as it is about the woman’s POV. Although, those men to swine, man. Well done, Miller.

I do love this Circe, who is (especially when younger) mercurial and passionate, stronger than she realizes (in her witchcraft, yes, but in other ways as well), and eventually a crafty and wise woman. She is loyal and devoted but also clever and practical. She is, in fact, Odysseus’s match. For fans of the mythology, I feel there is much to love here.

And for those less familiar, still: the storytelling is nuanced and full and rich. It might perhaps drag a bit, especially as we wait for Odysseus to appear (or is that just those of us who do know the original stories, and feel he’s the headline?); it’s a longish book. But episodes along the way intrigue and compel, too. I loved the Daedalus/Minotaur subplot.

This audio version, read by Perdita Weeks, is luscious, with a rich accent I’d call vaguely British (I am not good with accents). (Weeks is Welsh.) It feels… sumptuous. This lends a certain effect to the novel that may not suit every reader; it’s a bit grand; but it felt right for the story and for Circe’s larger-than-life (indeed, immortal) story. I’d spend another 12 hours this way, easy. I can’t wait for what’s next from Madeline Miller.

Circe is absolutely recommended for fans of the Greek myths, and for anyone who likes a good, involved, winding yarn about men and women and gods and power struggles and grudges and fantastic magic, and more.


Rating: 8 ground-up leaves.