Author Archives: robgieszl

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
A New York Times Notable Book, 2013

Recently, a friend placed before me a request: please read The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates.  You see, she herself had read this novel and was interested in discussing it with someone, a situation with which I can relate.  So I agreed, despite its plot type residing well outside my typical reading boundary.  And I am so glad that I did.

Set in the year 1905 and in Princeton, New Jersey, the story is ostensibly the work of a historian who has acquired new materials related to the terrible happenings of that year, which involved several prominent families of Princeton.

At this time, much is taking place in the normally tame town of Princeton and its famous university.  Woodrow Wilson, university president, is embroiled in a power struggle with an influential dean, the daughter of one of the oldest Princeton families leaves her groom at the altar for a recently arrived visitor of dubious origin, and ghosts have begun to make their presences known.

Following the storylines of several characters, Ms. Oates crafts an incredibly engaging story, which takes twists and turns that constantly pique the interest of the reader.  What is real?  What is imagined?  And will the reader ever learn which is which?  Along the way, historical personages with ties to Princeton, including Grover Cleveland and Upton Sinclair, make their cameos and reveal aspects of the history of Princeton not well known.

And while at a length of six hundred sixty-nine pages this is not what one would consider a short book, the plot pushes the reader along at a remarkable rate.  An exceptionally novel story, Ms. Oates awes the reader with her imaginative characters and wonderful prose.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In 1935, the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt founded an important federal program intended to provide employment opportunities to the throngs of workers left unemployed as a result of the Great Depression: the Works Progress Administration.  And it is from this unprecedented federal program that the Pack Horse Library program was born, a program whose primary purpose was the distribution of books via horse to isolated communities in the eastern Appalachian counties of Kentucky.  Those who engaged in this venerable work became known as Pack Horse Librarians.

When Kentucky native Kim Michele Richardson learned about this program, she became fascinated with those who worked so hard to bring enlightenment to so many and set off on a multi-year research endeavor.  The result?  In 2019, Ms. Richardson published her debut work of fiction, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, which tells the story of Pack Horse Librarian Cussy Mary Carter, called the book woman by those she served.  While a fabricated character, the research Ms. Richardson executed in preparation for her writing of this book is obvious.

Cussy is a well-drawn character for whom it is easy to cheer, since her life is one with many difficulties.  Among these challenges is the fact that she is one of the last of the “blue people of Kentucky,” a group of Kentuckians of the past who, due to a genetic disorder, possessed skin the color of blue and were treated with disdain and prejudice by many.  Add to this poverty and a lack of opportunities of any kind, and one is left with a rather sympathetic character.  But Cussy is not one to let any obstacle stand in her way, and her journey is one fraught with both hardship and danger, but also of love and deep friendship.  And the reader accompanies Cussy through this amazing story, sharing in her losses and triumphs.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

When I first read a review of Fresh Water For Flowers, I found myself drawn to the protagonist, a woman named Violette Toussaint who tends to a cemetery in modern-day France.  Despite the setting (or perhaps because of), I was intensely interested in how the author, Valerie Perrin, would develop this fictional character in such a setting.  I was not disappointed.

Initially, the reader learns of Violette’s childhood as an orphan and how she met the love of her life, Phillipe, and while this was engaging, a broken plot was introduced that provided glimpses of the past and present, from varying viewpoints, in which several storylines and additional characters emerged.  And it was clear that somehow they were all connected – but how?  This drove me to almost frantically read this book, as I became almost desperate for answers to questions that seemed to multiply as the story progressed.

Employing lovely prose, Ms. Perrin examines the lives of characters propelled by pasts and emotions that are simply too powerful to suppress or ignore.  What I find incredible is how the author introduced a seemingly simple story and then added layers, which created a wonderful sense of mystery that left the reader guessing until the very end.  I suppose, it felt as though one were slowly ascending a plot with uncertainty at its summit that then leads to the other side and a slow descent to resolution – although, resolution in this case is not equivalent to a happy ending.

A best-selling author in her home country of France, Fresh Water for Flowers is the first novel by Ms. Perrin to be translated in to English. Hopefully, this will not be the last.

– Review by Rob, Crescent Hill Branch

Dining with the Famous and Infamous by Fiona Ross

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is diningrob.jpg

Recently and quite by chance, I came across mention of a book entitled Dining with the Famous and Infamous published in 2016 and authored by Fiona Ross.  Now, whenever the opportunity arises to mix different things I enjoy into one experience, I typically leap with little thought.  Since I consider myself a person with rather broad proclivities toward the gastronomic along with an inclination for the printed word, with this book involving both, I placed a reserve on it immediately.  When it arrived, I was not disappointed.

The book contains five chapters that divide the diners into categories, with each person begin given a mere four or five pages each: artists, movie stars, musicians, writers, and “the nuts.”  This is an outstanding format in that it allows the reader to jump from person to person based on his or her personal preferences.  I admit that I began with the writers, with Evelyn Waugh first up to bat and being introduced with the following:

Cecil Beaton’s diaries famously record the death of Evelyn Waugh in 1966: “Evelyn Waugh is in his coffin.  Died of snobbery.”

Well, a good laugh is an excellent way to begin any reading, really.  And it continued on to C.S. Lewis:

He had unusual views about boiled eggs, though: when Roger Lancelyn Green offered Lewis a hard-boiled egg on the train from Oxford to Cambridge, he refused.  “No, no, I musn’t!” insisted Lewis.  “It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac.  Of course, it’s all right for you as a married man – but I have to be careful.” 

Indeed.

While unshakably partial towards the writer, I must be honest that the anecdotes relating to movie stars and musicians were quite a bit spicier (and I refer not to the food), and I am fond of spice.  From Liz Tylor’s love affairs with food (and men) to the whirlwind/tornado/tsunami that was the The Rolling Stones of the 1960s, the stories paint a picture of decadence that is apparently the status quo in the world of the halls of rock and the silver screen.

Naturally, Ms. Ross would be remiss if recipes were omitted.  Highlights include:

“Get Gassed” Vodka and Grapefruit Juice (Andy Warhol)

Chicken Cacciatore to Woo Arthur Miller (Marilyn Monroe)

Cornmeal Okra (Woody Guthrie)

Goat Curry (Ian Fleming)

Oysters (Casanova)

Of course, the full recipe details are provided in the book.

Revisiting a Childhood Disappointment – The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

          When I was a child, I recall stories and anecdotes, related to me by adults, of the power and wonder of the children’s book The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Subsequently, the book assumed a somewhat mythic aura that intimidated me to a sufficient degree that I delayed its reading.  Then one day, I came across a copy and made the decision to open myself to its power and, thus, move to a higher plane of understanding and awareness.  However, I was sorely disappointed and found the story ridiculous and pointless.

          Move forward in time by many years to the present, and I, now an adult, found myself once again gazing at the cover of The Little Prince with its seemingly prosaic sketch, this copy having been returned to the library in which I work.  It is then that I decided to reread this book from my past and gauge the tale from the viewpoint of an older person with far more life experience, and my reaction could not have been more different.  I no longer viewed the simplicity of the story as ridiculous; rather, this only added to the clarity of its messages.  And the plot that I previously saw devoid of any real action and, therefore, pointless, now conveyed to me a story of sublime profundity.

          When I think of how other authors investigate the same themes of this book – the journey from childhood to adulthood, love and friendship, avarice and pride – my awe of what Mr. Saint-Exupery accomplishes in less than one hundred pages only grows. It is no wonder that The Little Prince has sold more than four million copies and been translated in to over two hundred fifty languages and dialects since its publication in 1943.

          This past Saturday, my book discussion group met and discussed The Little Prince, based on my recommendation, and in my fourteen years with this group, this was one of the best discussions, in my mind at least, we have ever had.  And I found it interesting that several who remember reading it when younger were also unimpressed at their first readings (one even threw the book in the trash after its finish), and upon this second attempt, everyone seemed quite moved.  For this reason, I encourage a revisit or even a first reading of what is now a favorite book.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

“We didn’t know it then, but our fairy tale was about to begin.”

“In those first few weeks, I had no idea that our story would be one so full of love.  When I adopted Juniper, I thought she needed me, but every time I see her snaggletoothed smile, I realize I need her, too.” – Jessika Coker, author of Juniper

The world presents before us a dichotomy: the good and the bad.  While this may well be a grossly oversimplified view of our world, my point is that we experience in our lives both good and bad, highs and lows, etc., and it seems far too easy to become focused on those less pleasant aspects of our lives here on earth.

With this in mind, I felt it appropriate for my review this month to be of a book whose focus is the pleasant, a simple “feel-good” story.  And why not?  It is immensely satisfying and uplifting to read about the wonderful things of which people are capable, and Juniper, the Happiest Fox is a book that very much accomplishes this.

To begin, I must place before you an admission: due to the literature of my youth and of conventional folklore, the fox is an animal towards whom I have always felt a certain level of disdain.  Despite not owning fowl or other animal stock vulnerable to the fox, I have always felt a great sense of mistrust toward them.  And then there is the fact that I am the proud owner of a Wire Fox Terrier, who, as her breed name implies, finds as primary quarry the fox.  Well, Ms. Coker and her slim book have revised my feelings regarding this widely-decried “beast.”

Ms. Coker is a person who has since childhood felt a great love for all animals, and as she aged and collected experiences in veterinary clinics and animal rescue organizations, the fox became an especially beloved creature for her.  One day, she received word that there was a litter of kits in need of a good home.  When she arrived, the runt, who was no larger than the hand of a small child, called to her heart, and since in Native American culture juniper is employed to keep negativity at bay, it seemed the perfect name for this tiny ball of fur with an unforgettable snaggletooth that added to her perfection.

Thus, the adventures, filled with trials and tribulations, began for Ms. Coker and her Juniper.  This is a short read filled with anecdotes and lovely pictures that depict the love and affection that is possible between man and “beast.”  I would recommend this for anyone in need of a pick-me-up in a world that, perhaps, offers too many opportunities for pick-me-downs.

“Juniper gives me hope.  She is my constant reminder that there is still, goodness, purity, and unconditional love in this world.  The world can be heavy, but there’s still a little bit of magic if you know where to look.” – Jessika Coker, author of Juniper

Formats Available:  Book, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Stressed? Anxious? A Little Blue? Go Forth and Forest Bathe…

“When was the last time you strolled in a forest or walked through woodland so beautiful it made you stop and marvel? When did you last notice the spring buds unfurling or look closely at the frost patterns on a winter leaf? I wonder, instead, how many hours you spent looking at a screen today…”  —  Dr. Qing Li

Dr. Li, Associate Professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, has recently authored Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, a charming book that details Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, which in Japan has become a widespread preventative therapy to assist in promoting one’s optimal health.

The human, regardless of nationality, is becoming increasingly disconnected from nature and more involved with technology, as indicated by the following statistics mentioned in Forest Bathing:

     ‣ “The urban population worldwide grew from just 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014…”

     ‣ “By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s projected 9 billion population will live in cities.”

     ‣ “…the average American now spends 93 percent of their time indoors…That makes only one half of one day spent outdoors in a week.”

     ‣ “…people in the US spend as much as ten hours and thirty-nine minutes a day consuming media.”

In reaction to these trends, Dr. Li sets before the reader the case for increasing one’s exposure to and time within a forest and includes scientific and well-documented research on the benefits of forest bathing that includes, among other things, a reduction of blood pressure, increased energy, the strengthening of the immune system, and heightened concentration.

And one need not spend countless hours in a forest; rather, an excursion of as little as two hours is sufficient time to reap some health benefits, which is welcome news considering the hectic nature of everyday life in the world today.

Interspersed among the book’s pages are wonderful pictures depicting beautiful trees and forest scenes, an addition that adds considerably to the beauty and appeal of this book.

The following is a selection of titles owned by the Louisville Free Public Library that provides ideas of where one might go locally and in the region to enjoy forest bathing:

Formats Available:  Book, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

While The Shadow of the Wind is not the first book to have found its way into my heart, the story and its characters most certainly sculpted a palace in my memory, a labyrinthine palace populated by a wide assemblage of characters.

The Shadow of the Wind takes place in Barcelona, Spain, in the years after the Spanish Civil War, which, as with many civil wars, was especially bloody and brutal.  The protagonist, a young boy named Daniel Sempere, assists his father in the family-owned bookstore.

When Daniel is ten years old, his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a secret and magical library where books consigned to oblivion are kept waiting for the day when a reader discovers them.  On this occasion, since this is Daniel’s first visit, he is allowed to choose a book.

And it is his particular selection and the mystery surrounding its author, Julian Carax, that begins a quest for Daniel in which he journeys into the shadows of Barcelona in search of answers, a journey in which he meets both friend and foe and learns a great deal about life along the way.

This is a captivating story peppered with mystery and suspense, love and hate, humor and terror with these elements combining to form a true tour de force.

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” 

And I would say that The Shadow of the Wind has tremendous spirit and strength.

– Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Perception Versus Reality: a review of The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus

Perception versus reality – how often are the two completely unrelated?  Throughout the years, numerous authors, philosophers, poets, and others have attempted to explore this question.  Mr. Henry James, that behemoth in the firmament of American literature, employed, for example, his novels to aid in developing within the reader the ability to move past perception and into reality.

In the words of Betty Suchar at a presentation before the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Henry James’ “Portrait of a Lady,” 2013):

“James believed that the skill the author possessed in composing the various scenarios played out in the character’s mind had the potential to assist intelligent readers in the complicated challenge of understanding human relationships and in developing their ability to rehearse options in their own mind before making decisions. Since motives are often hidden or misleading, readers could sharpen their ability to interpret human nature only if his novels were ambiguous.”

Now, what has this to do with the debut novel, The Unfortunates authored by Sophie McManus, you may ask, about which this review was to focus?  Well, I believe that Ms. McManus has aptly succeeded in giving the reader characters who, on first meeting, leave a very particular impression.  Cece and her son, George, heirs to a great robber baron fortune, seem cultivated, polished, and self-assured.  But once again, it is what lies beneath, hidden from sight, that is most important, and as the novel progresses, Ms. McManus begins to provide subtle hints that, when upon close inspection, there are actually cracks in the marble and all that glitters is most decidedly not gold.

This strong debut novel draws realistic characters who lead lives of quiet desperation, a desperation that slowly becomes visible as subtle hints become more pronounced when failures and tragedies are no longer avoidable and must then be faced.  And small decisions of the past, seemingly insignificant when taken on their own, rise from that past and merge to create unforeseen disasters.  Or were they foreseeable?  Decisions of her past, in Cece’s parlance, constitute “the unfortunates.”  Ah, the euphemism is such a useful tool in that wonderfully human game of self deception.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” 

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.”  — Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending

Formats Available:  Book, eBook

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

 

Carousel Books – Part I

In my reading life, there is a selection of choice books that I refer to as my carousel reads.  These are books that I read time and again, with the common thread among them being the wisdom, inspiration, and uplift I believe they have brought to my life.

The other day, and for reasons still unknown to me, my copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, which I inherited from my paternal grandmother, called to me from among the scores of other books surrounding it in the bookcase where it rested, saying, “It is time.”  Since I am one who is rarely contrary to talking books, I removed it from its repose and began to read.

But first, a few words about Mr. Gibran. Born in 1883 in Lebanon, Mr. Gibran demonstrated early in his life an innate talent with the arts, which was of such magnitude that he lived the vast majority of his life as an expatriate successfully working as both an artist and writer, the products of which brought him worldwide celebrity.  In fact, an article from the January 7, 2008 issue of The New Yorker said of Mr. Gibran:

“Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time. Second is Lao-tzu. Third is Kahlil Gibran…” 

Wow.  I would say this statement provides a definite perspective.

As to The Prophet, first published in 1923, it is a brilliant meditation upon life and the conditions in which we humans find ourselves, conditions  not rooted in a particular religious philosophy or nationality; in other words, it is universal.  Ruminating on such subjects as love, work, friendship, and beauty, the reader is provided a lens through which life is examined with a unique perspective, and it is this perspective that I find refreshing and is the reason for my return to its pages.

During this most recent reading, one passage immediately drew my attention:

“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.  Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.”

And further, as example:

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

With countless other profound phrases and erudition, I imagine that The Prophet would make for a strong candidate for the select lists of carousel books of others; thus, joining in a perpetual celebration of the human condition that this lovely book provides.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Formats Available:

  • Regular Type
  • Large Type
  • eBook
  • Audiobook on CD
  • Downloadable Audiobook
  • DVD