The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture

Sebastian Barry (Adult Fiction)

The Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital is scheduled for demolition.  All current patients are to be evaluated in order to determine whether they are mentally suitable for integration into the community.  This process goes fairly well until Dr. William Grene has to make a recommendation concerning Roseanne McNulty—a patient nearing her one hundredth year and who has spent over half of her life in hospitals.  Her original paperwork has long since vanished and the only history he has to go on are a combination of Roseanne’s memory of her past, the notes from a Catholic priest in her hometown of County Sligo, Ireland, and diary entries that she personally has made throughout her hospital commitment.  Can Dr. Grene put together enough of Roseanne’s past in order to safely and confidently determine her future?

The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was the recipient of the Costa Book of the Year Award, and named a Best Book of the Year by Boston Globe and Economist.  For such a heralded book, it makes me wonder why I am seemingly in the minority for disliking it so much.  Firstly, this is one of those rare books that I was tempted—more than once—to discard and just move on to something else.  Although the writing was beautiful and the descriptions and details were vivid and elaborate, the stories of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene were boring and failed to capture either my imagination or interest.  Imagine being on a boat surrounded by beautiful sights, smells, and sounds and just when your anticipation for your upcoming excursion has reached its apex, you are kindly told to get out.  Of course, the obvious response would be, “But, we haven’t GONE anywhere yet.”  This is exactly what this story felt like…an abundance of artistry surrounding a journey to nowhere.  Secondly, I think Barry has built his entire story on a false premise.  Given the fact that Roseanne is nearing the century mark, her health is failing, she has spent almost sixty years in an infinitely convalescent state, and her mental capacity is such that neither she nor the evaluating psychiatrist can determine fact from fiction, why is this “evaluation” even taking place?  It’s clearly a nonstarter.

I finished this book with the singular purpose of providing an honest review, which I cannot do unless the entire book has been read.  After a very long two weeks, I am able to move on with life for this book is now done as is this review.  By my rating, this is clearly not the worst book that I’ve ever come across, but it certainly is far from being an award winner which is why I placed it squarely in the middle.  I wish I could have loved it as much as so many others undoubtedly did, but its draw and praises have left me as clouded and confused as the mind of our aged and sympathetic centenarian heroine.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (J)

And Now Miguel

…and now Miguel    

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

“I am Miguel.  For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel.  But for me, often, it is a very great trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Miguel is a Chavez and in the Chavez family there is always one thing—sheep.  To raise sheep is the work of the family.  Wherever you find a Chavez man, you’ll find a flock of sheep.  Miguel lives near Taos, New Mexico and is straddled between two brothers who have it easy: little Pedro is small and has all that he wants and big brother Gabriel is old enough that anything he wants he can get.  But being Miguel is not so easy.  What he wants, what he truly desires, is to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the Chavez men take the sheep to graze each summer.  But year after year, Miguel is left behind.  How can he prove to his father that he is finally ready for this responsibility?  But since he is only Miguel, he knows that this will not be an easy thing to do.

…and now Miguel is based on actual people whom Krumgold spent time with and got to know.  Hearing him tell Miguel’s story and his desire to prove himself worthy to a father he adores and respects is intimate and personal.  The reader deeply connects with Miguel as he attempts to be needed and longs to make a difference.  Miguel’s biggest obstacle is not his will or desire, but simply time.  As his mother once said to him, “To become something different from what you are, it takes more than being strong.  Even a little time is needed as well.”  How often do we find ourselves pursuing opportunities that we know we aren’t ready for?

This story has so many positive messages and relatable situations for young readers (aged ten and above).  Unfortunately, it does lag quite a bit near the end when Miguel and Gabriel discuss the strengths and weaknesses of making a wish, which is actually the two coming into their own spiritual awakening through the recognition of Devine intervention and providence.  This was a weighty and lengthy dialogue between the two that could have been greatly condensed and had the same effect.  Although this is a pivotal moment for the two brothers, the momentum of the story ultimately suffered and was never able to fully recover.

Miguel reminds us that things don’t always go the way we wish or plan for life always seems to get in the way somehow.  Big surprises or unexpected announcements are never delivered or received in the way in which we hope.  Miguel is a deeply devoted boy who, in the end, realizes that his life—his fate—is not in his control.  He must rely on his faith in knowing that everything will work out as it should.  His mother and father understand this, Gabriel understands this…and now Miguel will understand this and will realize that by him just being Miguel has already made a great difference.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller

The Distinguished Guest

The Distinguished Guest

Sue Miller (Adult Fiction)

“It is probably fair to ask to what extent Lily Maynard is conscious of the effect she makes, but it’s not a question you’ll easily find the answer to.”

Lily Roberts Maynard reached literary fame at age seventy-two with The Integrationist: A Spiritual Memoir.  She’s had moderate success with various fictional short stories that followed, but nothing to the scale of her memoir.  Now Lily, who was once celebrated and sought after, finds herself living in relative seclusion with her architect son, Alan, and his wife as Parkinson’s disease slowly consumes her body and mind.  Finding themselves once again under the same roof, both Lily and Alan confront decisions made in the past while trying to find a way to move forward.

This is the third book by Sue Miller that I’ve read (the other two being The World Below and Lost in the Forest) and I continue to find myself underwhelmed with her work.  The Distinguished Guest is described as a “moving story of a mother and son”, but in reality, Miller gives us a story of a mother and son…and her late husband…and her deceased parents, as well as a son…and his wife…and his two siblings…and his two sons.  Throw in a visiting journalist who has her own messy backstory and you have a novel simply overburdened and overwhelmed with relationships.  This might be the reason I have trouble connecting with Miller’s books.  She inundates her stories with too many character profiles, backstories, and conflicts that spread the reader’s focus entirely too thin and leave little or nothing left to hold onto.  Just as “too many cooks spoil the broth”, Miller gives us far too many relationships that ultimately spoil the story.

I wish I liked this book more since there are several interesting and important issues that Miller encounters head on: race relations, religious faith versus spirituality, social conformity, and infidelity.  But these subjects are not enough to lift The Distinguished Guest from its own emotional saturation and social mire.  Ayn Rand once said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”  In this case, a few less cooks would have made for a much more pleasing broth.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton

lunch at the piccadilly

Lunch at the Piccadilly

Clyde Edgerton (Adult Fiction)

Carl Turnage is watching his beloved Aunt Lil—the last leaf of his family tree—slowly slip through his fingers.  Seeing that she is no longer safe living alone in her apartment and quite unreliable behind the wheel of her car, Carl sends her to a convalescent home to recuperate after suffering from a fall.  There she joins several other residents including Flora Talbert (who owns four colored housecoats and has an obsession with footwear), Clara Cochran (has a glass eye and a penchant for spewing obscenities), Maudie Lowe (the little woman), Beatrice Satterwhite (owns the “Cadillac” of walkers), and L. Ray Flowers (who is quick with a sermon and always looking for a song).  Despite the laidback atmosphere that Rosehaven Convalescence Center offers, Aunt Lil isn’t ready to take it easy just yet.  She wants adventure and she is bound and determined to find it…one way or another.

Lunch at the Piccadilly clocks in at 238 pages (not counting the Epilogue).  After reading ninety-three percent of the book, it inexplicably fell apart.  It was absolutely agonizing to see this witty and charming book careen so horribly and fatally off course.  The last few pages lacked what the entire book simply overflowed with:  heart and soul.  Edgerton’s novel was a poignant, funny (with a few laugh-out-loud moments), and compassionate book with characters dealing with loss of mobility, loss of independence, and loss of memory.  He gives us several women with an insatiable zest for life, but know that the mortality clock is ticking louder and louder with each passing day.  Why this same passion and fervor failed to carry through until the last page is both confusing and disappointing.  However, the ending wasn’t the only problem.  There was also a salacious backstory that kept resurfacing throughout various points of the story.  This past event between two of Rosehaven’s residents really had no purpose, lent no value to the story, and only managed to introduce some unneeded drama and friction.  Also, L. Ray’s need to break out into lengthy religions sermons broke the momentum of the story and was irritating at best.

It truly was heartbreaking and frustrating to see a book with this much promise and value self-destruct so quickly.  I felt a little duped in the emotional commitment I invested in caring about these sassy, snarky, and spirited seniors who are making the best of what little life they have left.  In the end, I felt as if this book was like one of Rosehaven’s residents who stands steadfastly by the front door, waiting for visiting family or friends that will never come.  No matter how many times I might flip back in the book, looking tirelessly for my sense of closure, I realize that that too will never come.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

Brady Udall

“If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.  As formative events go, nothing else comes close.”

Seven-year old Edgar Mint is what you might call a “miracle boy”.  The son of a drunk, heartsick mother and absentee, wannabe cowboy father, he survives a near-fatal accident only to live a life in reverse.  His early years are filled with heartache, hard choices, and terrible consequences while later on he enjoys the sheltered, unfettered, and uncluttered life of a child.  Throughout his entire life, Edgar is always being saved and, quite frankly, he’s getting pretty sick of it.  But once he finds religion, Edgar finally realizes what his God-given purpose is: to find and forgive the man who nearly killed him.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint is undoubtedly one of the most entertaining and immersive books that I’ve read in quite a long time.  Udall doesn’t waste a single word on frivolous details or superfluous backstories.  Instead, he gives us a rich story that neither lags, stalls, or grows tedious.  Every chapter is thoughtful, engaging, and provocative, and Udall takes great care in introducing us to Edgar and slowly allowing us to care about this peculiar and resilient little outcast.  Throughout his journey, Edgar meets his share of heroes and villains, teasers and tormentors, bullies and a best friend.  He survives physical, verbal, and emotional abuse and faithfully captures every thought and memory through an old Hermes Jubilee typewriter: “I typed because typing, for me, was as good as having a conversation.  I typed because I had to.  I typed because I was afraid I might disappear.”

I can’t remember the last time when a book so deeply transported me into a fictional world or when I felt so drawn to a character.  Edgar’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.  All too young, he accepts misfortune as his constant companion yet attempts to turn every bad situation into a learning experience.  Edgar’s comical take on either the harshest of circumstances or the cruelest of individuals is both pitiful and inspiring.  Thankfully, hope runs eternal for our miracle boy and when he finds someone who truly loves and cares for him, Edgar realizes that being saved might not be such a bad thing after all.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg (YA)

The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the Estby family is just one auction away from losing their family farm.  They must either raise more than $1,000 or lose everything.  Inspired by her daughter Clara’s story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days, family matriarch Helga begins writing letters seeking a financial sponsor who will pay them to walk from Washington to New York.  When a publisher in New York City offers them $10,000 to make the cross-country trek, the game is officially…so to speak…afoot.

Based on the true story of 17-year old Clara Estby’s walk across America, Carole Estby Dagg gives us the ultimate mother-daughter road trip story.  Using newspaper articles and journal entries, Dagg reconstructs the 4,600-mile journey made by her great-grandmother and great-aunt.  Since the story is based on actual events, the author does take several artistic liberties when presenting us with Helga’s and Clara’s adventures.  I really loved this book until I read the Author’s Note at the end, where I learned exactly what embellishments were made.  I was disappointed when fact and fiction were revealed, but understand how these particular fabrications gave Clara a little more depth of character.  However, the incredible journey these two women embarked upon made these particular elaborations unnecessary.  Helga and Clara survived highwaymen, lava fields, floods, heat, snowstorms, near starvation, personal injuries, and dehydration.  Along the way, they also met Indians, political dignitaries, and managed to make a positive impact toward the advancement of women’s suffrage.

Early in the book, Clara mentions that the only thing she has in common with her mother is the gap between their front teeth.  By the end of their multi-million step journey, Clara realizes that despite their differences, the bond between mother and daughter may be pulled, flexed, and twisted, but will never be broken.

Rating: 4/5