I was delighted to learn from Sharyn Skeeter, my fellow ACT Theatre board member, that her novel “Dancing with Langston,” which I reviewed in December, was the gold award winner in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards in Multicultural Adult Fiction. Congratulations to her!
As someone who was given a mug that says “I am silently correcting your grammar” – not entirely in jest – I knew I would love “The Grammarians,” by Cathleen Schine. The grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words. They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, they continue their verbal infatuation – until this love begins to push them apart. Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English, while Laurel, who gives up teaching to write poetry, is drawn instead to the chameleon nature of the written and spoken word, claiming that “What people call ‘standard’ English is really just the dialect of the elite.” Ultimately, they actually go to war over custody of their family’s most prized heirloom: Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language. Even if you are not excited by the prospect of reading about dueling grammarians (I feel heads nodding), Schine’s playful writing in this charming comedy will quickly reel you in. “Words and students, Laurel thought – they could be recalcitrant, out of order, trying to slip by without being noticed. But once you got them working together, unobtrusive and efficient, it was beautiful.” And, “If you think of all those words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.” As a reader, how can you resist?
In “Cavedweller,” by Dorothy Allison, when Delia Byrd packs up her old Datsun and her daughter Cissy and gets on the Santa Monica Freeway heading south and east, she is leaving everything she has known for ten years: the glitter of the rock ‘n’ roll world; her dreams of singing and songwriting; and a life lived on credit cards and whiskey with a man who made promises he couldn’t keep. Delia Byrd is going back to Cayro, Georgia, to reclaim her life – and the two daughters she left behind. This is a sweeping novel of the lives of four women, set in the gritty place Delia comes from, filled with sadness and regret as well as love, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. You come to know these stubbornly determined characters well and to understand their fragilities as well as their strengths, set against the rhythms of a small Southern town. A big part of Cissy’s adjustment to being dragged across the country (her view of the trip) is discovering the joy she finds in exploring the nearby caves. “Buddhists strove for nirvana. Christians aimed for heaven. But girl who believed in nothing, who just loved the dark, where did she go?” Caves are where she belongs – “I guess I’m just a cave dweller,” she tells her friend. Allison is a wonderful storyteller, and I loved this book, especially because I found the resolution of the lives of these complex characters so satisfying.
Over decades, Ryszard Kapuscinski filed dispatches from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Latin America, and, most often, Africa, initially in the service of a Polish youth journal as its first and only foreign correspondent and later for the Polish Press Agency. When he was just out of university in 1955 Poland, Kapuscinski told his editor that he’d like to go abroad, thinking maybe Czechoslovakia, but found himself in India, where he discovered his life’s work – understanding and describing the remotest parts of the world, from sunrise at Persepolis to Louis Armstrong performing in Khartoum. Kapuscinski’s final book, “Travels With Herodotus,” is about his travels with a volume of Herodotus, the “father of history,” as his companion, a man so bound by his fifth-century B.C. experience that he had never heard of China or Japan, didn’t know about Australia or Oceania, knew nothing about the existence of the Americas, and actually knew little about western and northern Europe. Kapuscinski took the book with him everywhere, moving seamlessly in his writing from observations of his own contemporary travel to Herodotus’ accounts of ancient battles led by fearless leaders who ultimately helped to shape our world. Here is Kapuscincki on the construction of the Great Wall of China, built over thousands of years with “dedication and devotion,” and “exemplary discipline” – “This is how the world’s energy is wasted.” We are reminded when reading about the ancient world – limited in size as it was – that complex leaders, fierce battles, and territorial disputes have always been with us.
As a former journalism major and editor, I thoroughly enjoyed “The Hard Way: The Odyssey of a Weekly Newspaper Editor,” by Alexander B. Brook, which The Washington Post called “Easily one of the best books ever written about journalism.” Sandy Brook, a Yale graduate and wartime Navy fighter pilot who worked as a fisherman, ranch hand, reporter and lumberjack before becoming a Wall Street executive, decided in 1958 to leave the urban business life and buy the rundown weekly Star in Kennebunk, Maine. Over the next 20 years he built it into a prize-winning crusader for open government and environmental responsibility, doing so in the face of significant political and commercial pressure. Brook tells his story with lively dialogue and colorful – often combative – detail, in a book which is a behind-the-scenes look at how the press operates and how newspapers can influence our society and democracy at the local level. He fought one battle after another for the causes he believed in as he continued to buy up other local newspapers in Southern Maine and eventually renamed the paper The York County Coast Star – all the while barely keeping himself financially solvent. Of his country newspaper career, he said, “I used the paper to expose corruption, hypocrisy, privilege unfairly used, and authority unwisely squandered.” Brook had a simple formula: just tell the truth, and that is what he does in this engaging memoir with passion and humor. You find yourself rooting for him every step of the way, so are happy to learn that in 2000 the New England Press Association elected Brook to its Hall of Fame.
What a delight it was to come across “The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane,” by Seattle author David George Gordon, just when I was desperate to read a “real book” rather than my Kindle, as I eagerly await the reopening of the King County Library! Not my cup of tea, you say? You have no idea how fascinating their lives can be. This is a playful and thoughtful book about everything from snail sex to the manufacture of synthetic slug slime (see – I knew you’d be enticed). Gordon a naturalist by education and training, introduces us to how these creatures surf on slime, breathe, hitchhike to new places, and even think. They have ingenious ways to defend themselves when under attack, including jettisoning their tails, jumping, and giving off a garlic odor that is effective at repelling hedgehogs and other predators. An authority on West Coast land slugs and snails, Barry Roth, tells the story of a coworker who decided to abandon his religious study to become a student of malacology – the branch of biology that includes slugs and snails. “But why?” his parents asked. His reply – “Slugs and snails are living reminders that not everyone gets to be an eagle.” In “Gardening for Independence,” Barbara and Mort Mather write, “There was a time when we thought we had a slug problem, they annoyed us so. However, we brought the problem under control more by changing our attitude than by controlling the slugs.” The illustrations by Karen Luke Fildes, Gordon’s wife, are totally charming, not a word normally associated with slugs.
Mysteries: Because his books are older, thus immediately available for download, as well as really good, I have stayed with Lawrence Block for a while (thanks, brother Bob!). In “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes,” ex-policeman Matthew Scudder is still solving crimes as an unlicensed private detective in New York. He becomes involved in three separate intertwined mysteries involving multiple dead bodies, stolen money and other complications, but the real story is Matt’s drinking and how it affects his work. Per the title, “And so we’ve had another night of poetry and poses, and each man knows he’ll be alone when the sacred ginmill closes.” (Song by Dave Van Ronk) I know nothing about video games, so particularly enjoyed that they were a major part of “reward seeker” Colter Shaw’s latest attempt to help police solve crimes and private citizens locate missing persons in Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Never Man.” A young woman has gone missing in Silicon Valley, and in searching for her Shaw finds himself thrust into the heart of America’s tech hub and the cutthroat billion-dollar videogaming industry, as he fears a madman has brought to life a deadly game. Lots of suspense and a cool hero.
A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us. Franz Kafka, novelist (1883-1924)