The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

A painting of the hills of the titular island of Monte Cristo

About thirty years ago, I read The Three Musketeers and loved it. Recently, my book club decided to read The Count of Monte Cristo, so I was very much looking forward to reading it. It is the story of Edmonde Dantes. He has everything going for him until it all falls apart in one night. In prison for a crime he has not committed, he gives up on life until a fellow prisoner tunnels into his cell. The two form a friendship that motivates him to survive and find a way out of the prison to rejoin those he loves and punish those who put him there.

This book was written as a serial in the newspaper from 1844 to 1846. It shows. There is a lot of story within a story. It feels a bit like a very entertaining soap opera. However, I was not as put off by it as I was by the interminable descriptions of Dickens or the tedious histrionics of Hugo. Edmonde (the titular Count of Monte Cristo) is a very likeable person for the first half of the book. I found him and his behavior much less likeable as the story progressed.

In the end, this book was much too long. It is literally the length of three books! If not for wanting to find out how it ends and the fact that I was reading it for my book club, I am not sure I would have finished it. One thing is for sure. In the future, I have no plans to read classics originally written as serials. Even so, the story is interesting. I can definitely see why it held newspaper readers’ attention for two years. But I can’t understand why people still love it so much today.

My rating: 3/5

Those We Thought We Knew by David Joy

Translucent snake coils up the front cover over a green background

On September 8, I attended the final event in David Joy’s book tour for his novel Those We Thought We Knew. As he opened that discussion, he invited all of us to sit in our discomfort as we engaged in civil discourse about a difficult subject—race and its legacy in our country. While not the subject of his novel, it is the context and a large part of the conflict within it. Because the novel takes place within thirty minutes of where I live, this book and the conversation that evening really hit home.

The story is about a woman in college at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC. Her grandmother lives in Sylva where her mother was raised. However, she grew up mostly in Atlanta and came to school at WCU to confront the racism she had felt her whole life, just simmering below the surface. The personification of that is a confederate statue in a place of prominence in downtown Sylva. This statue is not made up for the story. It actually still exists. She decides to bring attention to it in a way that kicks up a hornet’s nest and sets the story going.

While the novel is primarily a mystery, it deals with the differing experience of white and black in the mountains of western North Carolina. This is seen at its most challenging in the relationship between the sheriff (white) and the young woman’s grandmother (black). They grew up together, and the sheriff and her late husband went fishing and hunting together regularly as adults. At one point, they have an uncomfortable discussion. The sheriff is confused about why everything is getting stirred up. It was never like that before. Maybe other places, but not there. The grandmother eventually feels the need to point out to him that it was always there, but because he is white he has never had to deal with it.

The mystery is gripping and the storytelling is marvelous. The author really understands how to bring out the beauty in his descriptions of the mountains. But this is not a comfortable story. It’s not meant to be. At the book talk, the author made the point that the work that needs doing on race is work for white folks. And we need to stop asking for black folks to do that work. White supremacy and racism are problems created by white people that can only be addressed by white people. The author’s hope is that this book can help bring people together to have uncomfortable conversations in safe places like around kitchen tables similar to that where the sheriff and the grandmother talked, knowing that they are safe in their love for each other.

I highly encourage you to read this book and watch the video of the book talk.

My rating: 5/5

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

Green background of a block print of the roofs of houses with snow falling on them

I loved Claire Keegan’s short novel Foster that I read earlier this year. So over my recent vacation, I read her Christmas novelette Small Things Like These. In it a man in Ireland lives his life at Christmas time wondering about his own past as he decides what to do about his future.

Keegan’s prose is immersive. You can feel the cold and damp as well as all the emotions. The protagonist helps those in his community of struggling families. It being Ireland, he also helps the local convent where he unexpectedly comes across a young girl who may not be being treated properly. Whether to do something about it is a serious struggle for him. It could mean hardship for him in a profound way. I’ll leave the resolution for you to discover.

This is wonderful work by Keegan. I am now officially a fan and will be alert to anything new she writes. I have to say that it wasn’t quite as good for me as Foster was. Still, fantastic storytelling about real people that are relatable.

My rating: 4/5

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

A man at the center of three large trees stares down into his open, empty hands.

For our July historical fiction book, my book club selected to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I had previously read two books by the same author—The Grapes of Wrath in high school and Of Mice and Men when my daughter was in high school. While I liked both of those books, if it wasn’t for my book club, I’m not sure I would ever have read East of Eden. I am so glad I read it as it is now one of my favorite books of all time.

The book was written by Steinbeck for his sons. He wanted them to know about his family and the Salinas valley in California where he grew up. Steinbeck’s grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, is a close friend of the main character in the novel, Adam Trask. The book tells the story of Adam and his two sons, Caleb and Aron. It is often described as a modern retelling of Cain and Abel. I think it is more accurate to say that it explores the same themes as the story of those two brothers. And those themes are universally human—good, evil, justice, family, duty, responsibility. In short, the human condition.

And that is why this book is one of my favorites. I generally read a lot of science fiction. My favorite kind of sci fi is stories that take what is happening today and push it into the near future, exploring how the changes affect people and how they deal with what it means to be human. This book does the same thing, but instead of looking forward into the future, it looks back into the past. There are a lot of really human characters with lots of flaws. The author treats them all with respect. While the first chapter or two are a little slow, it grabbed me right after that and wouldn’t let go. I can see why Steinbeck considered this his master work.

My rating: 5/5

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Background of line drawn images in red and blue against a black backdrop. The images are of plants and letters. Over all this is the title and author.

For Pride Month, my book club decided to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. That’s a lot to recommend it. I have to say I was not disappointed. In fact, I read the entire book in one day this past Sunday, all 288 pages.

The book is an epistolary novel told through letters written by Celie. On page one is the shocking revelation that she was sexually abused by her father at the age of fourteen, having two children by him. She is married off to a man who really wants to marry her sister Nettie. From there it goes on to tell about her relationships with her husband, his children, and a woman that Celie falls in love with. Most of the letters are addressed to God. But as her relationship to and understanding of God changes, so does who she addresses her letters to.

This novel touched me deeply. Not only is it about family and overcoming trauma, it is about growing into real adulthood and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality. To my sense, this sense of spirituality as based in nature and her laws really rings true. In its approach to the divine, it reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

There is a whole section that describes the experience of missionaries in Africa. They try to help the natives they live amongst even as powers beyond their control slowly encroach on their village, forever changing their way of life. This reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that I read in college back in the late 80s. Just like then, the truth of that experience was a gut punch.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe this book is “authentic”. It feels true to the human experience in its challenges, ugliness, joys, and triumphs. Despite the sometimes bleak situations, the book left be feeling warm and hopeful about how we as humans can grow and improve.

My rating: 5/5

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

A man walking away from a lamp post looks back in trepidation. The background is a giant open book with the book title on it.

In the book club that I manage, we read a book in a different genre each month. This month our theme is works in translation, and we read The Shadow of the Wind. It was originally published in Spanish, and the edition we read was translated by Lucia Graves.

The story takes place mostly in Barcelona, Spain from 1933 to 1955. This era covers the Spanish Civil War that took place during the Second World War. This was a very difficult time for Spanish citizens and is a very important part of the story.

The book starts when a ten-year-old boy reads a book also called The Shadow of the Wind. The boy is captivated and stays up all night to finish it. As he begins to look for other books by the author, he finds it a struggle. And so his young life becomes a journey to learn about this mysterious author of what he learns is a rare book.

As the book unfolds, we learn about the life of the author. In many ways the boy’s life becomes a mirror of the author’s. They both fall in love with a girl forbidden to them. And as the story comes to the climax, their lives begin to intersect.

This book is a love story and adventure as well as a bildungsroman and a thriller. But despite the excellent writing and captivating story, at times I found myself wondering why I cared. And at times I found myself confused between the story of the boy and the author. In the end, I also felt that the book was a little longer than it needed to be. Despite these shortcomings, I did enjoy the novel. I wish I could highly recommend it. But if subject matter appeals to you, it might be right up your alley.

My rating: 3.5/5

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

A painting of a blue upholstered reading chair sitting in front of a wall of bookshelves with ladder on the edge of the cover.

Anne Bogel is the host of the podcast called What Should I Read Next? On the show, she interviews guests and gives them suggestions as to what they might want to read next. I highly recommend it. She has a gentle, friendly way of connecting with people that never comes off as pushy or demanding. I get that same feeling from her book I’d Rather Be Reading.

The book is collection of essays about the reading life. In them, we learn that Anne bought a house next door to a library (jealous!), that you can tell a lot about someone by their favorite book, and that sometimes the book finds you. The essays tend to be short and easy to read. They are very well-composed, packing a lot into such a small place. In short, it is lot of fun for nerds like me that love to read. Nothing really new here, just comforting words from a fellow book lover.

My rating: 3.5/5

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Book title and author text on a blue background

In 1986, Toni Morrison published her only short story called Recitatif. It was republished last year as a hard cover book with an introduction by Zadie Smith. This is a story that everyone needs to read, especially with the different interpretations on the state of race in our country.

The story is that of two women who meet as young girls in an orphanage. One is black, the other is white. We follow the girls as they become women, wives, and mothers, dipping in and out of each others’ lives. There is something very special about this story and the way the author tells it, but I can’t say what it is without giving it away. And, please, do not read the introduction before the story. Read the story first! The introduction gives away what makes the story special and will ruin your first read.

This story is important today both for what it shows in the relations between these two women as well as what it intentionally leaves out. It leaves us asking some very important questions about how we view race and why. Most importantly, it doesn’t give us any of the answers but leaves us to work that ourselves, together.

My rating: 5/5

Too Literary for Me

Cathedral book cover

As I set out on my year of short fiction, I looked through my “to read” list of books for short story collections. One of these was Cathedral by Raymond Carver. It came to my attention in part because it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I decided to read it for my first short story collection of the year.

I am a huge fan of the short story form in part because of the influence of O. Henry. He is well-known for his use of irony and quick turns at the end of his stories. I also appreciate how due to their brevity, short stories often simply dip into a characters life and then leave without necessarily resolving everything or tying it all in a neat bow. Sometimes it is messy, like real life. Many of the stories in Cathedral have this last quality, perhaps all of them. Despite this, I have to say that I wasn’t a fan of Carver’s style.

The stories in this collection have as their theme in some way relationships, mostly friendship and marriage. And while the stories are quick glimpses into their lives, they didn’t feel like they had that much to say about them. I found them voyeuristic rather than entertaining or challenging. The writing is amazing, but I just didn’t understand why I was reading about these people. What was the point? Perhaps the stories were a bit too literary for me.

Deep Relationships

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow book cover

There has been a lot of hype this year about Gabrielle Zevin’s novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. It is all deserved. The book is a tale of lifelong friendship that starts in a children’s hospital. Sadie and Sam go on to become world-famous video game programmers. Many reviewers have focused on that last aspect of the novel, but the story is much deeper than that.

This is a story that any person can identify with. These friends support each other, fight, go through periods of not speaking, and still care deeply and struggle together and with each other. It is a tale of relationship more than anything else. And it is an engrossing story supremely well-told.

The author uses what some may call gimmicks in a few places. For instance, one chapter is a he said/she said where the same experiences are told from the point of view of each of the main characters. Another chapter is told in the second person (you). However, in each case, the method of writing serves the storytelling well. At the end of the book I felt I had been taken a deep into the lives of very real people from whom I learned a lot about the struggles and rewards of deep relationship.