Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Following on Ward’s excellent (nonfiction) Men We Reaped, I found her earlier novel Salvage the Bones, read by the same narrator, Cherise Boothe. This one I loved less for a while in the middle, but I loved it at the end. And I’m afraid my one real criticism of this novel is my fault and not Ward’s. I’ve read 14 and a half books since I started listening to this audiobook – the shape of my life involves so little listening time these days. The long middle of the book dragged for me; I felt the pacing was off, but it might be the pace at which I took the story in, and not the pace at which the story is told.

Esch is fifteen years old, the only girl in the family. She has three brothers. Skeetah, sixteen, is entirely consumed by his love for his fighting pit bull, the china-white China. Randall, seventeen, is a gifted basketball player, whose friends occupy much of Esch’s attention – especially Manny, who she can’t keep her eyes off of. Then there’s Junior, seven, fed and diapered by Esch and Randall after their mother died giving birth. They live in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and their father is present, but only physically. He is drunk and a bully, and more concerned with hurricane season than his four children. Only halfway into these pages do we hear the name Katrina for the first time.

The novel opens with China giving birth in a poorly lit shed to her first litter of puppies. The whole family gathers round. Skeetah is rapt; his dog and her puppies are his whole world. Esch watches him watching them. He is the brother she is closest to, but China’s motherhood also holds new meaning for the girl, who is just realizing she is pregnant. In the novel’s twelve day span, from the birth of China’s puppies to the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation of their coastal town, that pregnancy feels like the subtext of every other story: Daddy’s obsession with the approaching storm; Skeetah’s obsession with his dogs; Randall’s focus on his sport; Junior’s low-level whining and neediness; Manny’s distance from the girl he treats as sex toy and not human; Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which Esch is reading for school. This thread makes a significant contribution, even though its screen time (if you will) is brief. Esch is captivated by the strength and singlemindedness of Medea, the crooked model of motherhood she presents. In the world of Bois Sauvage – poverty, lack of parenting, the closeness of siblings who care for each other when no one else does – Medea offers a surprising outside point of reference. Also, I read the same book for school at the same age (under very different personal circumstances), and I found the parallel striking.

There is a stagnant time in the novel’s middle, again, where I got a little adrift. And again, it may have been my slow reading (listening) pace. But Esch takes her time acknowledging her pregnancy; she vomits and can’t get enough to eat; China’s puppies begin to die one by one; Daddy behaves badly; the weather hangs heavy and humid. Actually, the weather and restiveness feel a lot like the time before a hurricane hits. Also, Manny is such a terrible guy that I got sick of him very quickly and was forced to spend more time considering his awfulness than I’d have liked. So there was a hard bit for me in the middle.

But once Manny’s betrayal becomes clear, and the storm begins its approach, things pick back up. The stakes rise before the water does; there is a dog fight, and a human one (or several). In the end, this novel considers the profound effects of Katrina and the fierce love of kids who look out for each other. The account of the storm itself is striking and impactful. Esch is a hero, not a victim.

Katrina: the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive. Left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sunstarved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and saltburned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is a mother we’ll remember, until the next mother with large merciless hands committed to blood comes.

Motherhood is bloody when it is taught by Medea, and by China, the mother who fights and rips, whose white coat is streaked with blood in her victories. Her own mother is gone, so Esch learns this fierceness. It’s not romantic or pretty, perhaps, but it is something to marvel at.

There is no question that this story is beautifully told and I think masterfully told, my problems with pacing notwithstanding (again, perhaps mea culpa). Ward continues to impress. I am hypnotized by the storm, and the storm in Esch. I do recommend this novel, and Boothe’s narration here.


Rating: 8 shoes.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (audio)

A classic whodunit from Agatha Christie, starring Hercule Poirot, but told through the first-person narration of a character that (as far as I know) appears for the first time in the Poirot-universe. This means we get to see him from afar at first, and recognize him before the narrator understands who we’re dealing with. It’s pure fun. I love the humor and the characters – all of whom, admittedly, are a bit cartoonish, but in entertaining ways. Perhaps the best part of this audio production is the reading by Hugh Fraser, who plays Hasting in the long-running television series I was raised on. The protagonist and first-person narrator of this novel is a Hastings-like character, a stand-in if you will, during the period that Hastings is off living in the Argentine. To have the Hastings actor playing the Hastings-like character, bouncing off Poirot in the loveable way that they do, was just a harmonic moment for me.

Also in classic fashion, the mystery here is clever, ever-twisting and chock-full of red herrings, and the murder takes place in a literal locked room. Everyone is hiding something and harboring overlapping and hidden loyalties. The plot is far from central, however, at least to my enjoyment. (As an aside, I might be a special kind of mystery reader. I can reread the same mystery with no memory of the solution; the plot-level puzzle is rarely my focus; I’m there for characters and relationships. But I might be weird in this regard.) It’s all in the people – here, the caricatures – and the humor. Christie is comfort food, and this is quintessential Christie.


Rating: 7 dropped items.

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke (audio)

I reviewed Heaven, My Home, which comes second in this series. My father reviewed the highly-regarded first novel Bluebird, Bluebird, and now I’m finally catching up.

Pops did a good job with the high points of this one, and I remember Heaven very fondly (I rated it 8 fingers). There’s no question in my mind that Locke is at her best in handling the complex, nuanced, contradictory nature of Texas history and relationships (particularly in regards to race, but of course there’s more there too). The social justice questions, with no easy resolutions, are Locke’s greatest strength. I found the murder mystery part of this novel less compelling. And I should acknowledge that this audiobook took me way too long to finish, so maybe I didn’t give it the fairest shot in terms of my slow reading (listening) pace. It did get a little draggy for me in the middle; I think the contemplative interiority of Ranger Mathews’ thought processes and turmoil was a mite slow for my personal tastes. Which is related to my bigger concern with the book: I had trouble believing in Mathews (as a fictional character who ‘rings true’), and I had trouble caring deeply about his problems, because he exasperated me.

I had trouble with some of his unprofessional behaviors. Not morally, but in terms of believability: does he really get away with it? The drinking on the job, and the blurred boundaries with the murder victim’s widow, and with Geneva, a powerful matriarch in the small town where he’s investigating a couple of murders. It often felt to me like he was amateur at his job – I expected him to have it together more, or at least be better about hiding his boozing. He sure does rush off half-cocked. And while the widow’s character also made me a little impatient, I bought that this is who she would be. Everyone else feels believable; it’s just Mathews. I’m familiar with the self-destructive, loner, problems-with-authority police detective in fiction – it’s a type, and one I rather specialize in. But this one feels like he’s not very high-functioning in his self-destruction, if that makes sense, and it just rang less true for me.

I do not require that I like a character in order to care what happens in a plot. But there has to be some stakes that I can engage in, and I struggled with that here. My problems with Mathews were distracting.

More compelling was the conflict Mathews feels about the law, nicely encapsulated in his two role models, twin uncles who respectively work(ed) as a lawyer and a Texas Ranger. He’s been drawn in both directions, and still feels the pull of the law, although most of all in the pressures applied by others.

It made him sad, the degree to which this kind of credit hogging mattered to Greg, that three years behind a desk had made him so desperate for the climb that a double homicide was seen as an opportunity first and a crime against nature second. But wasn’t Darren a little guilty of this, too?

…Maybe justice was messier than Darren realized when he’d first pinned a badge to his chest; it was no better or worse than a sieve, a cheap net, a catch-as-catch-can system that gave the illusion of righteousness when really the need for tidy resolution trumped sloppy uncertainty any day.

And,

He got it confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.

Point very well taken. Although, Mathews can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for these musings, rather than a fully human character.

I did really enjoy the local culture of Lark, Texas, the blues and the home cooking at Geneva’s. And the complex relationships, which Pops refers to in his review, were well drawn (and feel very real).

Narrator J. D. Jackson has a nice voice but sometimes plays this one with a hair more drama than I needed – again, a little distracting.

Some good stuff here, but a lot that bothered me, too. If I’d started here I wouldn’t have read Heaven, My Home, which I think is a superior book. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next for Ranger Darren Mathews.


Rating: 6 plates to go.

Copperhead by Alexi Zentner (audio)

I was quite entranced by Touch and so I jumped into Copperhead with nothing but the author to go on. It’s quite a different book, ambitious, and good, but flawed. This novel takes on the timely – not to say trendy – topic of race and racism in contemporary America. I don’t question Zentner’s earnest commitment to the topic, but it’s a tricky thing to execute seriously in fiction without getting a little overwrought.

Our protagonist is 17-year-old Jessup, a high school senior in Cortaca, New York (a thinly disguised Ithaca, with Cortaca University obviously Cornell). He’s a talented football player and excellent student, but still wrong-side-of-the-tracks because of his family’s hand-to-mouth existence, the trailer they live in, and the fact that his brother and step-father are serving prison sentences for the deaths of two Black college students in what was either self defense or a hate crime, depending on who’s telling the story. Jessup’s mother and sister still attend the Blessed Church of the White America. Jessup would tell you he’s not a racist; his girlfriend is Black. He resents that people judge him for his family history and their association with the white supremacist church.

This is all background information; the novel’s action takes place over four days, Friday night’s football game through Monday night’s protests, but it is action-packed. What might be called a series of unfortunate events explodes into increasing posturing, grandstanding, violence. Jessup is pressured to choose sides. Zentner’s greatest accomplishment is the empathy his reader feels for this kid. We don’t like to spend much of our compassion on white supremacists, but this novel ticks boxes for two intellectual puzzles I’ve long been interested in: 1, the concept that bigots are made or taught, not born, and there’s somebody there, at some early-enough point, that I do feel for. And 2, the question of when we begin to hold a person responsible for his own crimes – the abused child we feel for, but when he grows up to be an abuser we don’t; at what age or stage is the cut-off? I feel like Jessup’s character begs both these questions. He is in some ways a good kid. And while he’s far more fair-minded than some of his family and church, he’s also a white supremacist, by default rather than by hate. The puzzle of Jessup himself I think is well-expressed; we stay with his close third-person perspective throughout the novel, and I find it easy to like and sympathize with him, even though he’s problematic too. I find it realistic that (especially) a 17-year-old boy with such a troubled past would have the kinds of blind spots that Jessup has. That doesn’t mean I think it’s all okay, but I think it’s realistic.

The events that kick off (no pun intended) the weekend’s action are a bit contrived, in terms of narrative: a perfect-storm sequence. Sometimes life really does work in such strange ways, but it is also clearly a novelistic device to get the issues moving that Zentner needs to address. That’s more or less okay with me, but the mechanics of plot here are showing a bit more than some might like. Characters other than Jessup are less well developed than he is (also understandable; a lot has been put into this protagonist, and there’s less left over for everybody else). Things get a little ham-fisted with the stepfather, David John, who is just such a great guy aside from the white supremacist business… and this allows Jessup to wonder how it’s possible for a racist to be such a deeply decent dude? (The answer, staggeringly obvious to everyone but Jessup, is that he’s deeply decent to white people. But honestly, I do buy Jessup’s blindness on this account – again, as one of those believable blind spots. Seventeen years old!) Where the novel goes most wrong is in the final events and epilogue: wrapping up this complicated and fraught story is a challenge, and Zentner was maybe a little overcommitted to a redemption narrative. Only in the final pages (minutes, in my audiobook) does the novel, which excels in drawing out my sympathies, descend into morality tale. It gets a little graceless. Again, Zenter’s earnest good intentions are not in question, and it’s a pretty good morality tale, one that will yield good discussions in classrooms and book clubs. But as a novel, the last bit is a bit cringey.

There are some beautiful, moving, thoughtful moments, and absolutely memorable images, and I think Jessup’s character is all win. The complexities of family, legacy, and the taught-and-learned nature of hate are well illustrated. Copperhead took on an ambitious mission, and as a novel, doesn’t quite stand up to that tall order, but it gives us plenty to think about. I think its greatest accomplishment was in how much I empathized with Jessup, and how uncomfortable I felt with my own empathy – not always a pleasurable experience, but an instructive one. I was certainly engaged throughout, and I do recommend this read, with a few caveats. I respect Zentner’s work here, and I’ll look for more from him.


Rating: 7 text messages.

Blue Moon by Jack Reacher (audio)

I’m going to say this is the best Reacher I’ve encountered in a while. They can be a little up-and-down. But this is classic, vintage Reacher: he blows through town without intending to stay. He sees a (relatively minor) injustice about to play out, and sticks his toe in. Events snowball; he has no fear; he takes on each progressively trickier scenario until he’s chest-deep in it, but he keeps winning. He meets a nice woman and they have an intense, time-limited, but ultimately satisfying time together, both in terms of the sex and the other action. He rides off into the sunset (so to speak). What’s new here is that he builds up a little posse; I can’t think of another example offhand in which he teams up with more than one other person (or maybe two). I found the mix of characters in that posse fun, even if they’re not super well developed. This is a Reacher book, after all. We know better than to get too attached to anyone else.

Other reviewers (on Goodreads and the like) are frequently not so pleased with this installment as I am. For one thing, to each her own; some of Child’s more highly-rated novels have not been among my favorites. For each book, a reader in a time and place, is part of it. Some of the complaints I saw noted that the plotline is unrealistic in many of its details: two rival gangs, Albanian and Ukrainian, in a mid-sized middle-American city (I sure wish I knew which one, but Child doesn’t like to specify), get into a sort-of turf war, with Reacher in the middle. Really, he’s responsible for the body count each ascribes to the other. Many, many deaths receive almost no police response (because the gangsters have bought off the police, naturally). Reacher is Superman. His short-term girlfriend takes up the fight with surprising alacrity. It’s true, all of this is wildly unrealistic; but buying into that is absolutely part of the Reacher experience. I didn’t find this one any more so than usual. If realism is a concern, I’m not quite sure how you got to be a Reacher fan. Oh – and some reviewers were bothered by the excessive violence. Now, if violence is a concern, same answer: Reacher may not be for you. That said, this novel definitely has a higher-than-average body count, so take note.

All the usual good stuff plus a little new good stuff (but not too much, because familiarity is part of the comfort). I am comforted.

This audiobook is narrated by Scott Brick. I have been missing Dick Hill’s work, but Brick has been growing on me, I suppose; I enjoyed this performance. It felt like returning to a place I know and love. Yes, a place of unrealistic plot lines, superheroes, and lots of violence. The good news is it’s only fiction, friends.


Rating: 7 cell-phone pictures.

“The American Paradox,” lectures by Heather Cox Richardson

If you haven’t been receiving Heather Cox Richardson’s daily email “Letters from an American,” you’ve been missing out. She’s also been producing (prodigiously) several series of lectures on YouTube, including “American Paradox,” which we’re told follows the main themes and points of her recent book, How the South Won the Civil War. The paradox Richardson refers to is baked thoroughly into this country: that “all men are created equal” but that “all” doesn’t mean “all”; non-white men, and non-men, as well as certain classes of men, have been excluded from the beginning, and quite purposefully so. As we’ve moved as a country toward the idea that more people should receive equal chances in life, there has been a traditional pushback that is still alive and well, based in the fear that more equality for some people somehow means less equality for the original “all men,” meaning white men with a certain amount of money and power. Richardson portrays these points through storytelling, beginning well before the founding of the U.S., and catching up with Trump’s presidency. This lecture series has nine installments of about an hour apiece.

I listened to Richardson speak while working around the house, which means she didn’t always have my total attention, but I still got a lot out of the experience. I love her infectious enthusiasm for her subject – I feel there’s nothing so inspirational as an expert really excited about their field, and she definitely qualifies. As she occasionally reminds us, she delivers these lectures without notes. It’s astonishing the depth of her knowledge, and I am very comfortable with the trade-off that she is sometimes unsure of a precise date. I also really love the connections Richardson makes across disciplines (something I’ve been working to show my students this past semester), like noting the trajectory of Shakespeare’s playwriting career against world history and technologies, as in: The Tempest‘s setting in the Bahamas places that late-career play in time, as England colonizes that part of the world, a project made possible by new designs in sails and therefore in the shapes of boats. Literature, world history, and shipbuilding technologies are all a part of the same story! This exhilarates me. She also includes references to popular books, movies and television at different points in history, noting their subtle political or ideological contributions to culture, which is a method I recognize from Stamped, where I also appreciated it.

The central paradox in our country-as-concept didn’t feel like a new idea to me, but I think she presents it so logically that this series could serve as an introduction. (Who doesn’t hear the irony in “all men are created equal,” I don’t know, but I guess they’re out there.) For me the most exciting aspects of these talks were Richardson’s mastery of her material, how neatly she integrates interdisciplinary material into a single thread, her avid storytelling, and the big-picture perspectives she brings (which is what I love most about her email Letters). She is definitely, as my father says, a “history wonk,” a geek (I say in the most loving spirit) who excels at and loves storytelling. As my father again notes, this can “result in some enthusiastic ‘really cool!’ diversions into personalities and anecdotes that risk diluting her narrative,” and she sometimes has to pause to clarify that a story might be ‘really cool’ in terms of research and meaning-making, while being abhorrent in terms of what actually happened. This can be a bit jarring, but I think if we accept Richardson’s history-geekness, we can appreciate what she has to offer, which is an extraordinary body of knowledge and ability to draw connections and see patterns, and a boundless, contagious love for her work. I’d take a history class with her any day.

If you’re still learning our history (and who isn’t?) and if you feel that it sheds light on our present and future (which I think it certainly does), I highly recommend Richardson’s expert teachings, free and online for the taking.


Rating: 9 mules downstream.

Auberon by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Early in listening to this novella, I was pleased to be returned to the world of Corey’s imagination (and guided by the familiar reading voice of Jefferson Mays, thank goodness). By the time I looked up and saw that it was half over, I felt a little perplexed by the failure of the plot to draw me in. By the end, I felt frankly disappointed. It was a mildly entertaining return to the worlds of The Expanse, and I do not regret it, but this installment is not a stand-out. I recommend it for completist fans only; Auberon is not a good representation of the extraordinary power of this series.

Auberon is a recently settled planet, even more recently under the control of the far-reaching arm of Laconia. The novella begins when Laconian Governor Rittenaur arrives to take power, hoping to establish a firm but not abusive government. His wife, Dr. Mona Rittenaur, is to take over research operations. In an early scene (and one of the more gripping ones), a sinister older man named Erich with one bionic arm threatens the new Governor, referring to an old Earth western frontier tale: “silver or lead?” he asks, meaning will this leader be purchased by bribe or take a bullet? In the end it is a different vulnerability entirely that will expose Rittenaur to the forces on Auberon.

I found Erich’s scenes (and the bionic arm itself) the most compelling parts of this story. The characters of Governor and Dr. Rittenaur, and the moral challenges they each face, were perhaps meant to be the central and most moving bits, but I found they both fell a little flat, perhaps for lack of development. The original/central foursome of The Expanse–Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex–captured my heart completely (and make the whole series work), because they are complex, loveable but conflicted, deeply, fully developed as characters with backstories. A little more investment in the Rittenaurs might have made this novella work, but such is the challenge of the novella-length story. (For the record, Corey has sometimes knocked this shorter format out of the park. Just not here.) For me, Auberon didn’t really work. It was a fine few hours, but like I said, I don’t especially recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next Expanse novel or novella, though! This one just whetted my appetite again.


Rating: 6 automatic movements.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.

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.
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