Monthly Archives: November 2014

What Makes A Good Life?

A biography of literature’s first essayist organized around twenty-one answers to the question: How to Live?

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer

Bakewell’s exploration of Michel de Montaigne gives us a good sense of the man, his time and his philosophy…or rather his attempt to arrive at a philosophy. Montaigne was an admirer of the Skeptic and Stoic branches of Hellenic thought, which basically tells people to a) question everything and b) take life as it comes. This is a great prescription for studying the world and one’s own mind, but wasn’t all that conducive to one’s health and safety in a time of religious fanaticism and civil strife.

The author does a good job presenting the complicated political and religious conflicts of the time in a way that is understandable to those without specific knowledge about life in 16th-century France. She also shows us how Montaigne, a politician as well as a thinker, managed to negotiate his way through these troubles while keeping his humanity in tact.

Some chapters are harder work than others. Bakewell juggles three time lines: biographical, historical and literary. It requires time and close attention to take it all in. For me, it was the literary time line that lagged. All the intrigue about the many versions of the essays produced in Montaigne’s lifetime and then the petty intellectual battles surrounding the editing and interpretation of the work through the centuries got a bit tedious.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent introduction for Montaigne and it made me add his daunting ESSAYS to my reading list.

Great Characterization Trumps “Taboo” Theme

Brother and sister musicians struggle to keep their sexual relationship a secret.

The Sinister Urge

The Sinister Urge

Lilli began her musical career with The Wires and was on her way to the top when she quit in a dramatic public display. A couple of years later she and her brother Elm launch a successful comeback with The Munsterz. The main conflict is meant to center around The Munsterz and The Wires ending up as co-judges on a reality television series. But although we get the sense that Adam, The Wires lead singer, still has a thing for Lilli (and is behind the threats of exposure she and Elm receive), the real tension is between the siblings and a world that just can’t understand their complicated relationship.

On the surface this is a titillating erotic romance of the “forbidden fruit” variety. However, there’s a lot more to THE SINISTER URGE than incest. Newton gives us characters with plenty of psychological and emotional complexity. This can leave the reader thrown off balance as they find that they’re actually rooting for Lilli and Elm. It’s comes as a surprise how truly innocent they are. Their feelings for each other are genuine. The love and protectiveness they have for one another can’t help but move you.

The plot itself is well paced with plenty of laugh-’til-you-pee moments. Even the sex is playful rather than raunchy.

Newton does jump back and forth in time a lot. Flashbacks are jarring by nature. When the points-of-view also switch, well, at some points it can take a paragraph or two to figure out whose head you’re in. Also, I would have preferred Newton had made it clear from the beginning that the book had a cliffhanger ending. I’m not crazy about them to begin with. To have no warning is a little annoying.

Flashbacks and cliffhanger ending aside, THE SINISTER URGE is a touching, funny book. I’m looking forward to finding out how things resolve for Lilli and Elm.

The Long, Lonely Road to Self-Knowledge

A writer recounts her explorations into the nature of silence and the conflict between the social and inner worlds for those trying to add more silence to their lives.

A Book Of Silence

A Book Of Silence

Maitland doesn’t hold back. In tones that alternate between bravery and stubbornness, she questions her own motives in retiring from a large part of the social world. She also demonstrates reasonable objectivity when detailing the benefits and possible dangers of a life spent in silence.

I would warn potential readers that Maitland is a lover of primary and secondary sources. She’s a scholar as well as a writer. The historical and philosophical discussion can get dense, even turgid in spots. Chapter four, Silence and the Gods, is especially challenging in this respect. And chapter six, Desert Hermits, required a real effort to absorb. I’m incapable of ignoring a footnote, so I spent a lot of time flipping to the back of the book.

A BOOK OF SILENCE is a fascinating look at the contemplative life by a woman who struggles to put her ideals into practice in a society that doesn’t particularly value introspection. It isn’t an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one.

A Character in Search of a Challenge

A lawyer recovering from the unexpected death of her mother is forced to turn detective when her special needs cousin is accused of killing his music teacher.

Death by Didgeridoo (A Jamie Quinn Mystery, #1)

Death by Didgeridoo

This short, fast-paced mystery features a protagonist with a darkly humorous outlook on life. Jamie Quinn’s life isn’t particularly self-directed. She became a lawyer because she didn’t know what else to do with her English degree. She took on a cat she hates, because it was her mother’s. And now she’s turned amateur detective because her cousin Adam, who has Asperger Syndrome, is suspected of cracking his music teacher over the head with his didgeridoo. Turns out Jamie is pretty good at finding stuff out. With the help of her friend Grace and a womanizing PI named Duke Broussard, she pieces together the truth behind the murder.

This book has a lot going for it. Hollywood, Florida makes a great setting for murderous shenanigans. All of the characters have something to offer. Jamie is a likable and has a strong enough point of view to carry the book. Duke is hilarious. Dog-loving Adam is delightful. And there is even a hint of romantic tension in the form of prickly State Attorney Nick Dimitropoulos.

The plot itself is thin in spots. Venkataraman needed to delve a little deeper and expand this book by a good fifty pages. Jamie comes upon clues and vital information a little too easily. Legal obstacles are sailed over with a phone call or a well-timed doctor’s appointment. We don’t get the sense that Adam is ever in real jeopardy. There needed to be more suspects and more lines of investigation. Almost the first thing we learn from Jamie is what a creep the victim was. He’s made plenty of enemies over his lifetime, but we don’t get to meet many of them. Those we do are cleared of wrong-doing almost immediately.

In spite of the issues I had with DEATH BY DIDGERIDOO, I like Jamie and would read another mystery featuring her.

Every Choice has its Consequence

Out to annoy her father, a rebellious young woman goes on a date with an unworthy guy unaware that she’s in danger of becoming the latest victim of a three-hundred-year-old family curse.

The Hanging Tree: A Novella

The Hanging Tree: A Novella

This is a quick, entertaining story. Cash manages to pack a lot of action and characterization into a short piece. He also has quite a few historical jumps. These work because they all center on a limited number of characters, the spirits inhabiting a tree known locally as The Hanging Tree. It’s been the scene of tragedies going back centuries–all the result of the vicious behavior of colonial-era Reverend Harmond toward a healer named Goody Bennett and her granddaughter Claire.

It was a little difficult keeping track of the spirits at first. The book description says there are five in total. Looking back, that’s correct, but it seems there’s more at first. Probably because Cash has them interact with one another a while before actually naming all of them. So it isn’t apparent that the “sullen, angry” spirit who rarely reveals herself is actually Claire. Or that the young girl spirit and the “Gibson Girl” are one and the same. There’s also a cat named Remedy, who proves vital to the resolution of the plot.

As with other of Cash’s work, the reader here needs to be comfortable with the author’s tendency to “tell” via summation and back story rather than to show everything in full scenes. Luckily, there’s enough going on so that this habit of compression doesn’t tip into under-development.

THE HANGING TREE isn’t scary, but it is fun and full of atmosphere.