Sunday, March 24, 2019


I loved this novel. It's beautifully written, atmospheric, and full of heart without being predictable or sentimental. It is also unusual because it's focalized through three different characters--two in first-person and one in third-person, a feat that I think is hard to pull off convincingly. Here, it works. Set in the South in present-day, it concerns three women--Ginny age 45, Liza age 30, and Mosey age 15. When a willow tree is dug up to build a pool for physical therapy to help the Liza recover from what looks like a stroke, a box is discovered that, when opened, reveals a tragedy that's been kept hidden for fifteen years. The novel doesn't slot neatly into one or two genres: it's a mystery, a love story, a coming-of-age story ... and it's the story of three women at once, all fumbling and loving and longing. Yet there's a wry humor to certain passages that keeps it from becoming over-wrought. The author has several other books (and one forthcoming in July, NEVER HAVE I EVER) and I'm not sure how the heck it took me this long to find her. Reminds me a bit of early Kingsolver and Laurie Colwin. Would recommend.

Thursday, February 28, 2019


I am the coordinator for a parenting roundtable at my son's school, and another parent recommended this book for our selection this semester. Overall, I found it an insightful and practical read that represents listening as an intentional activity (not just maintaining silence while the other person speaks) that conveys something in return to the speaker. The book outlines the fears and anxieties that keep us from being the listeners we mean to be and suggests ways to reframe our thoughts and how to implement better strategies in our daily lives (for example, effective vs. ineffective questions with your teen, the value of restraint, the importance of remembering that just because we listen to someone else's POV doesn't mean that we are locked into agreeing with it, or that we won't get our turn to talk).

"It isn't that we're bad listeners; it's our hidden emotional agendas that crowd out understanding and concern. When we clear away automatic emotional reactions--criticism, fear, hurt--we get to compassion, curiosity, and tenderness."

"One reason people doubt that we understand how they feel is that we fail to let them know we heard them. Silence is ambiguous. ... The point isn't to convey that you understand but to convey that you're trying to."

The author provides plenty of anecdotes from his practice and his own family life for illustration, and often provides bits of humor, which acknowledges that we're all trying and flawed. I've already implemented one change. When my daughter called to tell me about a situation she's dealing with at college, I know not to jump in and offer a quick fix; but this time, instead of trying to sense what she wanted from me, I asked outright and openly: "Are you sharing this to let me know what's going on (which I appreciate) or would you like a suggestion?"

Some of the book retraces principles we find in the more "pop" psychology books, about inquiring first rather than jumping to making judgments, but even that is pretty well theorized without getting laden with PhD jargon.

My one gripe with this book, and it has to do with the assumptions underpinning its project, is that Nichols begins: "Nothing hurts more than the sense that the people we care about aren't really listening. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known." That is absolutely true, so far as it goes. But I think he doesn't quite acknowledge that we also need to have other people's stories told to us. We grow with those, and they are a gift that I (at least) crave. Otherwise, why would we read books, for example? This question is sort of outside the realm of the book; I just felt he might have acknowledged that need. I do think that in this hurried world, listening is undervalued and underachieved; there are a lot of people who don't get enough listening, who don't have enough of that sense that they matter. So this book addresses a prevalent and painful issue.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tana French, THE WITCH ELM

I will always read anything by Tana French. The emotional tension she creates among her characters, and between the protagonist and the reader, is astonishing. I don't know anyone else who does it as well, for me. But the ending of this fell a bit flat for me--the sudden revelations by the cousins felt a bit unearned; and, frankly, the protagonists final desperate acts felt somewhat implausible. Still, a great read. But it's not going to dislodge French's FAITHFUL PLACE from my favorite top 5 mysteries ever. :)


Such a powerful book. I think the first time I read it I was 15 ... and I'm not sure I understood the nuances and layers and even the language. But this time, my heart just ached ... and that hurricane scene just kills me.


I'd give this 3.5 stars, rounding up for some really beautiful, spare language, which is Penney's strong suit. This novel feels to be an exploration of two landscapes: one geographic (of the arctic in the late 1800s) and one sexual. The arctic plot arc held my interest--partly because I know next to nothing about it. The problem with the exploration of the sexual landscape is there's only so much you can do with a narrative arc about sex. It falls flat, after a while. The tension vanishes; and having the sex scenes become more graphic just doesn't make up for it. The arctic exploration plot, though--and the conniving and competitiveness of the various explorers--was very good. I finished the book, and my heart ached at the end for Flora's loss. However I have to admit, I never quite felt I got inside her feelings, in the same way that I was inside the characters of Penney's first, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES--which is still one of my fave novels of the past decade, and a book I recommend to anyone who loves good historical fiction.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Evocative and very well written, this novel was years in the development and writing, and it is ambitious. It holds in lovely tension the two narratives of epic world events (from Japan's invasion in 1910 through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) and of the delicate turns of individual lives for members of a Korean family living in Japan. I was stunned by the racism; it's overt and institutionalized and pervasive. I was also compelled by her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of her previous book, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES; in it, she traces her many fumbles and challenges as a writer. I'm a new fan; I'm going to go hunt down FREE FOOD now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Shannon Baker, BITTER RAIN

I'm a sucker for a sturdy, no-nonsense, deeply ethical woman P.I. figure. This one is a sheriff, with a fair amount of emotional baggage and some sketchy men for colleagues. Set on the border of Nebraska/South Dakota, adjacent to a Lakota "rez," this book tackles some of the problems faced by young Native Americans trying to figure out their place in the world. Fans of Sue Grafton's series will find Kate Fox a likable protagonist.