Review of “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is not directed to the inattentive (or squeamish) reader. It can seem abstruse and unreadable at times, and contains a lot of Spanish that is not translated. Rather than be put off, however, I found the writing to be extraordinary.

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McCarthy’s grandiloquence is reminiscent of Faulkner in A Fable or Melville in Moby Dick. When he is not waxing eloquent, McCarthy writes simple direct sentences, albeit with an elevated vocabulary. Indeed, much of the book consists of the simple dialog of uneducated cowboys, accurately and slangily rendered. Moreover, the events described are harrowing in the extreme, enough to rivet the attention of any reader with handy access to an unabridged dictionary in both English and Spanish.

The story is about white scalp-hunters in the American southwest in the id-19th Century. The principal protagonist is an incredibly tough and resourceful unnamed “kid,” who joins a company of savage white Indian hunters. They have contracted with the Mexican government to kill pesky Apaches. The company is paid by the scalp (or sometimes the entire head) of their victims. Lest we sympathize too much with the Native Americans, what they do to their human prey [in this story, at any rate] is even more horrific.

The kid is marginally more moral than most of his companions, who kill not only the target Apaches but also the occasional hapless Mexican or their horses, mules, or dogs when it suits them. McCarthy’s universe, however, seldom awards good deeds although it often punishes bad ones. The company comes to a bad end when it lets down its guard and is decimated by the Yuma tribe. The survivors do a pretty good job of further reducing their number as they turn against one another in a desperate effort to salvage gold, weapons, horses, and water.

McCarthy excels at materializing his landscapes; the Sonora Desert figures prominently in this book in the way it imposes hardships on all the living things that pass through it. In the 19th century, it was a hellish land in which only tough, harsh people prospered or even endured. Having lived in Tucson for ten years, I can vouch that McCarthy accurately depicts the geography and topography of the area.

Evaluation:  This book clearly aspires to greatness, and by and large it succeeds.  It is very gruesome, and could legitimately be considered to be a Dante-esque tour of Hell, with The Kid as our guide. The ending disappointed me; it is a bit mystical and diffuse.  But maybe I just didn’t understand it. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Note: A number of academics and critics have named Blood Meridian as one of the greatest modern American novels.

Published by Random House, 1982

Kid Lit Review of “How To Catch A Star” by Oliver Jeffers

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Raise your hand if you had a poster in your dorm at college with this famous Herman Hesse passage from Damien:

And she told me about a youth who had fallen in love with a planet. He stood by the sea, stretched out his arms and prayed to the planet, dreamed of it, and directed all his thoughts to it. But he knew, or felt he knew, that a star cannot be embraced by a human being. He considered it his fate to love a heavenly body without any hope of fulfillment and out of this insight he constructed an entire philosophy of renunciation and silent, faithful suffering that would improve and purify him. Yet all his dreams reached the planet. Once he stood again on the high cliff at night by the sea and gazed at the planet and burned with love for it. And at the height of his longing he leaped into the emptiness toward the planet, but at the instant of leaping “it’s impossible” flashed once more through his mind. There he lay on the shore, shattered. He has not understood how to love. If at the instant of leaping he had had the strength of faith in the fulfillment of his love he would have soared into the heights and been united with the star.”

I’m betting Oliver Jeffers was one of those people. (And, yes, I was one). This first book by him as both author and illustrator reminds me a great deal of Hesse.

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This book begins:

One there was a boy
and the boy loved stars very much.
Every night the boy watched the stars from his window
and wished he had one of his very own.”

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The boy tries various ways to catch a star, including climbing to the top of the tallest tree he could find. But still, he cannot reach it.

One night he sees a shooting star, and the next morning, on the beach, he sees a starfish sea shell, and is ecstatic to think that he caught a star of his very own.

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Well, thank heavens! You wouldn’t want the boy to take the route of the character from the story recounted in Damien. This is a much better ending!

Jeffers is a whimsical and humorous illustrator, using watercolors and vague looking characters and landscapes so that, as he said in an interview, “people all over the world think that the boy is one of their friends and that the geography is where they’re from. And that allows people in and to fill in the details with their own personal details. So he’s a little bit of me, a little bit of everyone else who’s reading the story.”

Evaluation: This entertaining story is about the rewards of persistence, and maybe faith and ingenuity as well. In the ten years since the publication of this very popular book, there has also been a coloring book version, a star gazer kit, and even theatrical productions for kids based on the story.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2004

Review of “To Dwell In Darkness” by Deborah Crombie

London detectives and spouses Duncan Kincaid and Emma James each are working on difficult murder cases. Kincaid is in charge of investigating a case in which an anti-development activist set off a lethal white phosphorus incendiary grenade, instead of the innocuous smoke bomb he meant to release. The protestor was incinerated, and several bystanders were injured, including Kincaid’s friend Tam and Kincaid’s wife’s partner, Melody Talbot, who was on the scene at the St. Pancras train station for a concert by her boyfriend Andy.

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Kincaid has recently been transferred from Scotland Yard to Holborn station, so he has a new team to get to know in addition to figuring out what happened at St. Pancras. But he finds himself once again relying on Doug Cullen, his brilliant former detective sergeant from the Yard, who is recovering from a badly broken ankle, and has time to help. Melody also surreptitiously works on the case; she feels personally invested because of having witnessed it. At the same time, she assists Gemma in finding evidence to indict a very canny rapist/murderer.

One of my favorite things about the Duncan Kincaid detective series is the juxtaposition of warped evil people and the crimes they commit, with Duncan’s diverse, messy, warm, loving network of family and friends. So many detectives have personal lives that are dark in some way, featuring struggles with painful pasts, relationships gone bad, and/or addiction. Detective Superintendent Kincaid and his wife Detective Inspector Gemma James are not without worries, but they are more of the sort shared by everyone – the security of your job, the safety of your kids, or whether or not the kids should be allowed to keep stray kittens.

Evaluation: I think this series is excellent (this is the sixteenth installment). This newest book is best savored if you start back at least a few books, although it isn’t really necessary.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Review of “The Bone Orchard” by Paul Doiron

I was very happy to see Paul Doiron had written another book in the Mike Bowditch series about a Maine game warden. (In Maine, game wardens are full law-enforcement officers, with all the powers of state troopers: “They are the ‘off-road police.’”)

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Mike, 27, was a game warden for three years, but he recently resigned to become a fishing guide in the rugged outland Down East. (In Maine, “Down East” refers to the coast of the U.S. state of Maine from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border.) Mike had worked in the Midcoast of Maine (between Portland and Acadia National Park) but had been transferred Down East because of a number of acts of insubordination. He got tired, as he said, of being resented and criticized, so he decided to change careers.

Two months into his new position, he heard that his former supervisor, friend, defender, and mentor, Sergeant Kathy Frost, had been suspended and was the target of an official inquiry and public outrage after having been forced to kill a suicidal Afghan war veteran. Mike goes down to see her and offer support, and finds himself in the middle of a lethal attack on Kathy by a sniper. Mike is injured, but Kathy may be dead; she is in a coma and no one knows if she will recover.

Mike, as usual, can’t keep himself out of the investigation. He knows a lot of the wardens and police consider him an “arrogant asshole,” but he thinks that if that epithet means he trusts his own intelligence over the collective wisdom of the state police, then he will plead guilty to that description. In addition, he feels obliged to help take care of Kathy’s older brother Kurt, a Vietnam vet with a serious drinking problem. In a nice meta touch (meta in terms of the challenge of creating nuanced characterization), Mike tries to figure out just who Kurt is:

Every time I thought I’d gotten a handle on who Kurt Eklund was, he’d do or say something to slip from my grasp. He was a miserable mess of a person who deserved understanding or, at least, compassion. No, he was a cruel and manipulative asshole with no regard for others.”

Mike saves some lives, threatens a lot more, and of course, solves the crime. It causes him to rethink leaving the profession, and gets the other wardens to rethink their negative assessment of him.

Discussion: Doiron is a good writer, the former editor of Down East Magazine, and a Registered Maine Guide. He clearly loves his state, and will have you ordering travel literature from the Maine Visitors Bureau!

This series is not without romantic elements, but they were not really of much interest to me. (And in any event, Doiron is much better at limning male characters than females.) Mike’s love affair with Maine is much more compelling, in my opinion.

The title is not really all that descriptive, except in a metaphorical sense.

Evaluation: This is a good detective series with excellent background information on Maine and on what it means to work as a warden there. It is not necessary to have read the previous books, but as with any series, the story is more meaningful if you start it from the beginning.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2014

(Partial) Review of “Dangerous” by Shannon Hale – DNF (Did Not Finish)

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This is a book marketed as YA that seemed more Middle Grade or Tween to me. The protagonist is a young girl named Maisie Danger Brown who has always wanted to be an astronaut in spite of having only one hand because of a congenital disorder. That would never stop Maisie, however, and she enters and wins a contest to attend Howell Astronaut Boot Camp created by billionaire Bonnie Howell “to ignite the love of science in the teenage mind.”

At the camp, Maisie brushes off cruel remarks about her hand, meets a cute boy, and gets her first kiss. All that is great. But the deal breaker for me is the part about the adults who are running the camp. They are not only absurdly eccentric (fine perhaps for being scientists but not for running a big successful business) but also they inexplicably and amazingly allow Maisie and five of her camp mates to handle some secret alien artifacts, about which they claim to know nothing. The objects invade the bodies of the kids, endowing them with superpowers (but of course, could have infected them lethally instead). Holy X-Teens! Where is the Hazmat Team? More importantly, where are the lawyers?

Evaluation: The premise of this book is just too absurd in too many parts for me to carry on reading. The adults are stupid in ways often common in Middle Grade books, but not really believable once you get past that level. It hurts to feel let down by Shannon Hale, although she doesn’t disappoint in terms of providing yet another plucky, admirable female heroine. It’s possible the story gets better, but I couldn’t get past the ridiculous, almost campy [pun intended] set-up.

Note: Speaking of puns, this book has some great ones. Maisie’s father is a punster (hence Maisie being named so that she could say “Danger is my middle name….”), and I wished we readers could spend more time with him . . . .

Published by Bloomsbury, 2014

Review of “Relish: My Life In The Kitchen” by Lucy Knisley

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The author of this palatable graphic memoir begins by telling us:

The book you’re reading contains a collection of my favorite stories, crammed with the taste-memories that draw them up through my mind from years ago.”

She writes, “I hope that you find your own appetite piqued….”

Well she couldn’t have been more correct about that!

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Knisley was raised by food-oriented parents, who had food-oriented jobs and food-oriented friends, and we get to know about many of them in this not-necessarily-in-chronological-order salmagundi of food stories and suggestions.

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Knisley clearly loves food, and peppers her account with recipes, colorful pictures of baking, cooking, and eating, and anecdotes about food-related experiences. My favorite chapter has to do with trying to recreate a particularly wonderful croissant she found in a small bakery in Venice:

The layers were flaky and buttery, concealing the fresh jam in the depths of the thickest part of the crescent, where the pastry was so soft that it nearly disintegrated in my mouth. Unspeakably good.”

After innumerable unsuccessful attempts, she gave up, concluding:

I suspect that the ingredient I lacked in Chicago was the anticipation and delight of waking on a morning of possibilities, far from home and school, in an ancient, watery city.”

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I could so relate to this. I have had so many similar failures of replication, only to conclude that atmosphere and mood play huge roles in taste!

Evaluation: This little volume may never replace Marcel Proust in English departments for a paean to the evocative power of food, but for my money, it’s way more enjoyable. The art work is bright and colorful, and the text even includes restaurant recommendations. Food lovers will savor this mouth-watering tribute to food.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by First Second Books, 2013

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Review of “The Winter Guest” by Pam Jenoff

This is a story about an 18-year-old Polish girl in 1940 who falls in love with an injured American Jewish intelligence officer. His plane had crash-landed in an attempt to rendezvous with the Polish Resistance. Helena finds Sam in the woods near her small cottage, and helps him to find shelter and safety in a nearby abandoned chapel.

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Helena and her twin sister Ruth are the sole caretakers now of their three younger siblings. Their father is dead and their mother is in a hospital dying of cancer. Although they have hardly any food, Helena takes what she can to Sam. She keeps the relationship a secret, knowing Ruth would not approve.

Over time and through her discussions with Sam, Helena develops more sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Poland, while Ruth channels her own pain and fear into increasing resentment of the Jews.

When Helena learns something that could imperil all of their lives, she knows she has to convince Ruth they must leave. She tells Ruth about Sam, because he has offered to help them get out. But Ruth, jealous of Helena and resentful of Sam, takes a fateful step that may get all of them killed.

Discussion: The author nicely weaves a bit of background into the story about what happened in World War II to both Jews and non-Jews in Poland, as well as providing some insights into Polish anti-Semitism.

Some of the turns the plot took, however, just seemed to stretch the limits of believability, such as – to name just one, Helena’s ease in making contact with a prominent leader of the Resistance. But to me, the most improbable part of the book was the Epilogue. Obviously I can’t say why I think it could not have happened, but the author didn’t provide any information to counter my skepticism either. Nor was there an adequate explanation for whatever happened in the time gaps alluded to in the Epilogue.

Evaluation: I think this book is worth reading for the perspective it offers on the situation in Poland in 1940. The build-up to the dénouement has a terrific level of suspense – mostly, however, because the ending provided by the author was so unlikely that one wouldn’t really have guessed it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harlequin MIRA, 2014

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