The Road to Lichfield ~by Penelope Lively

Other reviewers have called this book quiet,  but I would rather just call it boring. That said,  it’s an old Booker Prize short-lister (1977)  and I read and almost always enjoy Booker Prize material with the Booker Prize reading group.    In this novel,  the elderly and widowed father of Anne Lenton,  a middle-aged  married woman with children,  is dying in a nursing home.  So she leaves her husband and children in Berkshire to go to the not-too-distant Lichfield,   where he resides intending to help him straighten out his affairs.  While there she meets her father’s very nice but sad and lonely married neighbor and yes,  within a short time they become lovers.

The Road to Lichfield
by Penelope Lively
1977 / 209 pages  (Kindle)
Rating:   6.5 

While sorting through her father’s affairs  a banker tells her that for many years moderate-sized checks have been sent to one Betty Barron who lives in another town.   Anne is curious and investigates.

Meanwhile,  in her own home town,  Anne is cajoled into helping preserve a very old house called Splatt’s Cottage.    Well,  Anne is a history teacher and values history so she gets involved there, too.

The characters seemed a bit flat and predictable to me – and their names are Anne,  Don,  David,  Paul,  Betty,  Mary, etc.  Only Graham Stanton, a film producer and Anne’s chubby brother,  has an interesting name – or maybe that was a very common name in the UK in the 1970s.    And maybe the story is about normal humans and “universal themes, ”  so to speak.

There is one shining part in the book  – the 80-year old James Stanton has some kind dementia and drifts from our shared reality into his own world.  These passages are beautifully rendered and endearing.

Otherwise the writing was clear but lackluster –  actually,  the writing was kind of ponderous for the type of book I thought it was supposed to be.  Maybe with a British accent the rhythm would have taken hold.    The setting did nothing for me but I suppose it was written for people who knew the area.    The theme of history and skeletons in old closets was a bit interesting –  be careful before you go digging around in artifacts and documents of the past.

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My Name is Lucy Barton ~ by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton, our first person protagonist, is having some medical complications from an appendectomy and is in the hospital for several weeks.  She misses her husband and daughters,  but during this time her mother travels from Amgash, Illinois to see her and stay with her in the hospital.  For five days the two women just sit quietly or they reminisce or gossip and bond in a way they’ve never done before.   The reminiscing is not about their own lives,  but about the lives of people they knew.   Lucy’s childhood home was quite desolate and because she was bright and determined,  she left,  got out  via college,  moved to New York and a career as a writer.  The story is from the vantage point of many years after the events.


My Name is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout
2016 / 191 pages – Kindle
Rating:   9.25

This is a story of families,  love, poverty,  fear,  pride and the judgmental nature of people all tangled up.   In the wonderfully well written over-arching story as well as in  the vignettes Strout packs a powerful punch about judgmental attitudes and love.

Lucy Barton was raised in severe poverty plus serious emotional pain and abuse.   The attitudes of neighbors, classmates and even parents were very judgmental and based primarily on the family’s poverty.   They become very isolated,  and although she marries and has children,  Since childhood Lucy  has found people to love in unlikely places.

Lucy loves her mother very much but it seems not to be reciprocated in an inhibited way.    Still the two bond in a rather awkward way in Lucy’s hospital room.  And it all works –

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At the Existentialist Cafe:  Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

I’d been eye-balling this book and then voila – it was selected as the discussion read at All-nonfiction Group!   Okay – so I looked forward to it – I don’t read the group selections until a couple weeks prior to the discussions because I tend to forget details and some of my excitement gets lost.  It was worth the wait.

I’ve read some philosophy but not really very much outside of the excerpts for a 101 class.  I’ve read more books “about” philosophy and philosophers,  biographies,  histories,  etc.  So I come to this little tome with some background but nothing substantial.   I did fall in love with Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism,  what I read in popular media,  back in high school – 1965-66?  –  I suppose that helps a bit.


At the Existentialist Cafe:  Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
by Sarah Bakewell 2016

2016 / 328 pages  (Kindle)
rating:  10  / – history- biography- philosophy

This is  not a book about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir alone – the main starting place is Edmund Husserl the philosopher who worked on something called phenomenology – the philosophy of phenomenon –   experiences and consciousness or how we perceive experiences (apricot cocktails for instance).  I’d heard of Husserl,  but was completely ignorant of his actual ideas.  (See The Elegance of the Hedgehog for my prior knowledge  – lol).

The book also addresses other existentialists, or thinkers closely related to them,  of the day,  Martin Heidegger,  Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,  Raymond Aron,  Richard Wright,  Hannah Arendt,  Karl Jaspers,  Arthur Koestler,  Václav Havel,  Iris Murdoch and more.   Although I have it from good sources that the philosophy is well done,  it’s mostly a history and biographies as they relate to the philosophy.   Bottom line –  it’s fascinating.

With each philosopher Bakewell seems to take a compassionate,  but not terribly sympathetic,  view.  There is no heroizing or demonization of anyone –  not even Heidegger or Beauvoir.  As much as she can,  she’s looking at these people in their own environment.  She admits she’s most drawn to Merleau-Ponty but very much admires Sartre and Beauvoir.   She says she’s not drawn to Heidegger at all but she could have fooled me because I was very drawn to her description and analysis – (Yes,  he was a mean little person,  but Iris Murdoch liked him.)

One of the important aspects of phenomenology and existentialism is the connection between Being,  experience,  freedom and contingency.   Contingency adds the context of environment – and the way Bakewell presents the material is very,  very much in keeping with that idea.   These philosophers did not just think up their ideas in a vacuum – they were intimately affected by their world including Nazi Germany,  World Wars I and II,  as well as the atomic bomb and the Cold War.  They were affected by each other.   They were human beings living in a very complex world.   They each had experiences which changed them.

Bakewell writes clearly and is able to explain complex ideas in a very entertaining way.  She gives life and humor to what could be a very tedious subject (even if I am a history buff).  I read slowly to really be immersed and besides,   I didn’t want the book to end. Also,  I am reading in my own little  Heideggerian “forest” –    (go read the book to see what I mean).

The cafe imagery fits nicely – the history is done wonderfully well and I see the phenomenology in all of it.  I felt it.  I experienced the read.   🙂    (High praise.)

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The Keepers of the House ~ by Shirley Ann Grau

I listened to this years ago – one of my first Audio books –  and I was amazed.  So I was more than willing to read it again when it came up as a selection in the Modern Fictionreading group.  It really is a modern classic.


The Keepers of the House
by Shirley Ann Grau
1964 / 320 pages
read by Anna Fields  9h 17m
rating:  9  /  classic US 

Abigail Howland has lived in her grandfather’s rural Alabama house for a long time.  Her mother was born and raised there and returned after a time in England.  And her grandfather lived there –  in fact,  there were a couple generations of Howlands who lived there prior to that.   It’s an old,  rich,  well-established family.

But there are other children who are Abigail’s half-aunts and uncles.  Children of her grandfather and his “freejack,”*  long term housekeeper, Margaret.      The town knew,  but nobody talked about it.

The tale follows these characters as they live through the Civil War period to the very early 1960s just prior to the days of the active Civil Rights movement.  Each of these characters three has sections devoted to their point of view.

It seems slow at times,  but it builds to a somewhat tricky ending with the interracial characters in a land of bigotry.   But the major characters are so carefully well drawn and the ambiance of the setting so delicate it’s totally worth the wait,  the slow building of tension which seems to explode at the end.

This was written in 1964 – the same era as To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee/1960 ) and perhaps more like Go Set a Watchman,  but some time after some of Faulkner’s best works where race is a motif and it shows.  –  There is a haunted feeling to Southern Gothic,  a feeling of lush magic and evil and the ghosts of slaves – it’s in The Keepers of the House,  too.

It took awhile for me to see that the “honesty”  the reviews talk about is there – especially for the era?   And it gets spectacularly racist by today’s standards-  it feels odd that the country once felt like that,  did those things –  but I lived through it albeit in the North.

What about this book gave it the Pulitzer Prize for Lit?     It is very nicely written and definitely an American story –  still (spoiler) don’t look for a happy ending.

* “Freejack” was the term given to black men who were granted their freedom upon discharge from the the 1812-1815 War against the British. Their freedom was given as compensation for having served the United States under the command of Andrew Jackson. Large groups of freejacks tended to keep to themselves, resulting in the founding of the area known as New Church.

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The Force ~ by Don Winslow

The hero is corrupt – specifically,  a New York City detective sergeant has gone bad -actually,  this is basically a really good cop who has gone very bad.  Winslow tells us the story of his fall and it’s gritty – very gritty –  as well as a page-turner.

I’ve been a fan of Winslow for years and read several of his early novels,  but was mesmerized by The Power of the Dog  and The Cartel.   I was expecting a lot from The Force and it was almost there.


The Force
by Don Winslow
2017 / 480 pages (Kindle) 
read by Dion Graham 13h 26m
rating A+   –   Crime

Denny Malone is a 3rd generation police officer  in New York City.  He thinks of himself as a good cop and he loves his family,  the city,  and  maybe most of all,  the elite Special Task Force which he heads.  But why do only the bad guys make money,  the stuff he and so many other officers need for their families.   He and the others o the force see it every day.  He and the force have opportunities in one form or another almost every day.

“How do you cross the line? Step by step.” 

The book opens with Denny in jail and then we’re taken back to how it all happened.  It’s very fast -paced,  tension filled and,  as I said before,  gritty.  The desire for money,  legal or not,  is pervasive among the police, attorneys,  judges and others.  It starts out with the  sellers of heroin but spreads like an addiction.   Denny and “the force”  got deeply involved.

The story is told almost entirely from Denny’s point of view – almost to the point of stream of consciousness at times.  It occasionally gets a bit much to have him going on and on about the streets and his history but not often and it rarely interrupts the suspense.   Denny is wonderfully well drawn but the other characters are almost sketches.

The tension is what makes the book.  We know Denny is in jail from the prologue – the main story is how he got there –  who took him down,  what for,  who else got hurt,  etc.  And as the plot gets more complicated with more characters involved,  the suspense is ratcheted up.  What will Denny eventually do –  where it the bottom?  What motivates good cops going bad is the main idea/theme I suppose.  It works.

I enjoyed The Cartel much more.   It was more creative and the writing and story were better.   The Force seems like it’s been done before in some way,  the focus on violence and corruption in the NYPD seems almost gratuitous.

That said,  I’ll be waiting for Winslow’s next book – he is very prolific.

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In the Name of the Family ~ by Sarah Dunant

I’ve read a couple books by Dunant over the last few years ago and have not been impressed.   The prior books were “Sacred Hearts” and “Blood and Beauty”,   Dunant’s 1st book in this series about the Borgias.   Nevertheless, several members of one of my reading groups adore her work and  I succumbed.

In the Name of the Family
by Sarah Dunant
2016 / 480 pages
read by Nicholas Boulton 14h 11m
Rating:  7.5 /  historical fiction 
(sequel to Blood and Beauty) 

I generally enjoy historical fiction,  but there are some highly regarded novels which can grate on me and I’m at a loss to know why.  I have a suspicion they have too much historical information which is too closely intertwined with the fictional elements.

In my opinion,  it would be a good idea to have some background in the story of the Borgia family prior to reading the book.   Blood and Beauty is a good start but unless you read the books back-to-back it’s probably not enough and even then,  In the Name of the Family goes on through the births and deaths of many of the major characters.

Following the daily doings of the Borgia family is one thing,  but making up possible events and dialogue and feelings to accompany the history is different for me because I start wondering about sources – letters and diaries and court documents?   And in the case of the Borgias much of it turns into speculation because what sources there are happen to be seriously biased.    I’m perfectly aware that several of the popes of this era produced children.  (That might have been a shocker back when I was in the 8th grade).

Using Machiavelli as a character from whom we get a decided perspective Dunant points at those events from which The Prince came.   Those are kind of “aha” moments if you’re familiar with The Prince.   (I am but I read it long ago.)

I’m also not particularly fond of over-written and cliche-ridden prose which it sometimes felt like, although it shone in other places.   I suppose that kind of style fits the time and place,  I’m just not fond of that kind of rich and powerful arrogance.  (You cannot write about Pope Alexander IV with simple prose like you would Pope Francis or someone.)

On the plus side –  yes there is a plus side with several aspects  –  the characters of Lucrezia and Machiavelli are wonderfully well drawn and the Duke of Ferrera is viscerally ugly.   Seeing Lucrezia and Machiavelli presented in a sympathetic light is interesting – if not new in Lucrezia’s case.    This is no Wolf Hall with the interior monologue of a revisionist Thomas Crowell,  although there seem to be light leanings in that direction with Machiavelli’s mental consideration of all that transpires around him.

The setting is abundant with the details of household life for the family, especially that of the women involved.  It feels a bit like Dunant is showing off her research although it never gets obtrusive.  Still,  when Leo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s David show up along with Machiavelli it seems to get a bit much,  even if they certainly were all in Rome at the time.
I was a bit confused when it came to the battles and political solutions – I suppose it came out in the end.  The health concerns are an intriguing peek into the concerns of the times and women’s issues.

Interesting re the historical Lucrezia Borgia and her wealth:

These characters are still mysterious and intriguing to us today in the 21st century and at this point it’s probably impossible to tease out the truth from the plethora of evidence even if period legal documents are available.  So if you like fictionalized history which is what this is –  enjoy!

Nicholas Boulton does an incredible job of narrating.


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Hot Milk ~ by Deborah Levy

Sofia Papastergiadis is a very bright young woman trying to finish her PhD in anthropology, but who is stuck working at a coffee bar in London.   Mainly she has some family and personal issues.   For one thing she’s almost terminally attached to her mother Rose who has been divorced from her father for a long time.    Rose has apparently lost the use of her feet and she’s also very sensitive to many things including water.

Hot Milk
by Deborah Levy
2016/  224 pages
rating –  8.25  –  general fiction- literary
(Man Booker Short List – 2016) 


Sofia and Rose travel to Almaria on the Mediterranean coast of Spain to see a specialist,  but Doctor Gomez has some unusual ideas – he may actually be a quack and a rather dangerous one at that.  Rose is probably a hypochondriac, anyway,   blocking her own ability to live a full life and tying Sofia down to care for her.

Meanwhile,  Sofia’s father has lived in Athens for some time and has married a much younger woman.  Together they now have a new child.  This presents more problems with immature entanglement.

While they’re spending about a month in Spain Sophia  meets a few people at the beach between her mother’s appointments.  There’s Ingrid who is a kind of goddess and ____,   a young health care worker who rubs her back with ointment to soothe the jellyfish stings,  there’s a horse trainer and a masseuse.  And there’s Ingrid’s boyfriend.   There’s also a cafe owner and his dog Pablo.

There are a myriad of themes running through this wonderfully well-written novel.  There’s freedom and love and entrapment to start –  fraud and self-delusion.   I suppose those are the major themes Levy explores as she maneuvers her characters into various combinations while the first-person Sofie works on becoming more “bold”  and take risks.  Sofia is hugely sympathetic – at least to me – she’s smart and funny and sweet,  but really kind of pathetic.

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