Review: Marie Ponsot’s Collected Poems

Product DetailsMarie Ponsot published her first volume of poetry in 1956. After a twenty-five-year hiatus, she returned to poetry in 1981 and continues to publish today in her nineties. Thus, her Collected Poems is substantial and difficult to summarize in a limited space. Ponsot often finds inspiration from her life. Subjects vary from the major to the mundane: from her divorce to non-vegetarian cooking, from grief at various loses to bird watching, from a friend’s birthday to burning old papers. She also seems equally at ease with both formal and less strict forms. To all of this, Ponsot brings a strong classical background, a poet’s eye for connections, a delightfully defiant sense of a woman’s place, especially as she ages, but, most of all, an exquisite command of language. Many lines are a joy to read aloud and will remain with the reader. For example, in “Pourriture Noble” or “Noble Rot,” Ponsot takes a refreshing view of aging, concluding: “Age is not / all dry rot. / It’s never too late. / Sweet is your real estate.” Marie Ponsot’s Collected Poems is a testament to a life well lived and an art well practiced.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book for San Francisco Book Review.)

Review: The House on the Edge of Night

Product DetailsIt is difficult to know where to begin in describing Catherine Banner’s truly excellent debut novel. Set on the Mediterranean island of Castellamare and covering almost one-hundred years, The House on the Edge of Night tells the story of four generations as they face world wars, economic collapse, fascism, and the advent of modernity. However, this novel is so much more than that. Night begins when a young doctor with no family arrives on the island in 1914 and begins collecting the stories of its inhabitants. Those stories open each part of the book, lending the character’s stories a mythic quality. As the lives of Esposito, his descendants, and the other islanders unfold over the next several decades, a sort of quiet magic envelops their lives and irresistibly draws the reader in. Furthermore, Banner masterfully imbues the lives of her characters with a sense of continuity in the bonds of family and friendship through the generations despite the hardships they face. Overall, Night is an absolute delight for the reader and should not be missed.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book for Seattle Book Review.)

Review: Artist’s Sketchbook

Product DetailsFor the amateur artist, working from real life may provide a significant challenge. With so many changing variables in a real life situation, working from a photograph seems far less stressful. In her latest book, however, Cathy Johnson not only makes “on the spot” sketching seem possible for the average artist, but strongly preferable.

In Artist’s Sketchbook, Johnson addresses technical aspects of sketching from real life, including supply considerations and issues unique to a variety of different environs. She also provides exercises and informative step-by-step demonstrations throughout the book. Nevertheless, her approach to “on the spot” art is what makes this book so valuable. Johnson explains that working from real life provides a depth and freshness to the end result, which may not be possible with a photograph. This result is unsurprising, as Johnson recommends seeking subjects that speak to the artist’s heart and bringing a deep, abiding curiosity to object or locale. For readers, sketching from real life becomes not a formidable challenge, but a creative opportunity for capturing the beauty of our everyday lives. Those artists who think sketching from real life beyond their ability may suddenly find themselves grabbing their sketch kit and heading for the door.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book for Manhattan Book Review.)

Review: Faithful

Product DetailsIn Faithful, teenager Shelby Richmond is driving one winter night with her friend, Helene, when they become involved in a horrific car accident, which leaves Helene in a vegetative state. Unable to forgive herself, Shelby in effect stops living that night, and Faithful is the story of the painstaking process by which she slowly pieces her life together to become whole again. At the same time, this is an Alice Hoffman novel, and the supernatural is at play: miracles begin to be attributed to Helene after the accident, and an angel who appeared to Shelby on the night of the accident remains a presence in her life. That said, the real strength of Hoffman’s writing is her ability to see the magical or mystical in the everyday without those elements becoming the focus of the work. Rather, the supernatural merely enhances the human emotions and actions at play. While an angel seems to oversee Shelby’s life, her recovery is complicated and occurs primarily because of Shelby’s own efforts. This perfect balance of the mystical with gritty realism makes Faithful an incredibly satisfying novel.

(Received in exchange for a copy of book via Netgalley.)

Review: Summerlong

Product DetailsIn Summerlong, a mysterious young woman named Lioness appears on an island in the Pacific Northwest and enters the lives of middle-aged, long-term partners, Abe Aronson and Joanna Delvecchio, and Joanna’s adult daughter, Lily. As these three become increasingly aware of Lioness’s unique abilities and troubling past, their own lives become more tumultuous. When the havoc subsides, what will remain?

Based in Greek myth, Summerlong is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series for adults and is equally compelling. Here, just as Abe, Joanna, and Lily become strangely mesmerized by Lioness, so too the reader becomes so drawn into this novel that it is impossible to put aside.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book via Netgalley.)

Book Review: Miss Seeton Cracks the Case

Product DetailsMiss Emily Dorothea Seeton is a sleuth like no other. Trouble seems to follow the sweet, retired art teacher, who is either the law’s greatest asset or nightmare, depending on the officer queried. Armed with her ever-present brolly and her art supplies, she purports to draw culprits, but in fact makes bizarre sketches for Scotland Yard that baffle until fairly eccentric connections are made to reveal the culprit.

In Miss Seeton Cracks the Case, Scotland Yard faces not one but two criminal gangs. The Sherry Gang befriends those in need to gain entry to their homes, only to dope them with drugged sherry and steal their victims blind while they sleep. Meanwhile, the Dick Turpin gang hijacks buses to steal the occupants’ valuables at gunpoint. Both gangs have detectives at a loss, despite Miss Seeton’s sketches depicting pirates and the World War II bombing of Britain. To make matters worse, the village of Plummergen in which Seeton lives houses some of the most imaginative gossips in all of fiction. Two in particular, Miss Nuttel and Mrs. Blaine who are not-so-affectionately known as “the Nuts,” seem to have it out for the oblivious Miss Seeton.

This ninth entry in the Miss Seeton series began by Heron Cavic in the late 1970’s and now written by Hamilton Crane is a wonderful satire of the elderly female sleuth. Seeton deduces nothing and makes subconscious connections seemingly out of thin air, while accidentally tripping robbers with her brolly, pondering her vacuum purchase, and wondering if she has gingerbread for her adopted nephew. Miss Marple would cringe. Moreover, the inhabitants of Plummergen are truly hysterical with their beyond outrageous suppositions. Overall, Miss Seeton Cracks the Case is a delightfully funny, cozy mystery.

(Reviewed in exchange for copy of book via Netgalley.)

Book Review: The Muse

Product DetailsThe Muse revolves around two interconnected story lines. In the 1960s, Olive Schloss moves with her art dealer father and her depressive socialite mother to a Spain on the verge of revolution. There, the secretly artistically-gifted girl falls in love with Isaac Robles, a revolutionary, and befriends his sister, Teresa. Robles becomes Schloss’ muse, spurring her to paint brilliant works. These paintings are passed off as Robles’ to Schloss’ father, as tensions rise between the characters and in Spain. In late 1960’s England, a young writer from Trinidad, Odette Bastien, becomes a typist at the Skelton Institute of Art. There, she comes to the attention of an older woman, Marjorie Quick, but when Bastien’s boyfriend brings a lost Robles’ painting in for evaluation, Quick begins to lose control.

Jessie Burton has written a truly enjoyable novel in large part due to her complex characters, whose motivations are subtle and multi-faceted. Furthermore, Burton has a gift for pacing her novel, smoothly switching between story lines at the perfect moment to leave the reader wanting more. Finally, The Muse addresses the sexism and racism of the times without being cliché. Overall, The Muse is a genuinely enjoyable novel.

(Reviewed in exchange for copy of book for Manhattan Book Review.)

Book Review: One Ordinary Sunday

Product DetailsThe premise of Paula Huston’s One Ordinary Sunday is really quite simple. She attempts to explain the power of Sunday Mass in her own life for herself and for those who do not really understand what occurs during Mass. To do so, she researches Church fathers and contemporary theologians, popes and Christian historians. She proceeds to meticulously examine each aspect (and sometimes individual lines) of the Mass, tracing them as far back as their Jewish roots. To stop here, however, would only tell half the story.  As Huston sits in her pew reviewing her research, she also reveals her own inner struggles: her vague, gray feeling of grief over the deaths of those she has lost, her worries for her grandchildren’s futures, and her discomfort with aspects of the Mass because of her Protestant upbringing. Indeed, in one poignant quote, Huston says, “Do I understand all of it? No. Do I believe it? I am trying.” Therefore, the beauty of One Ordinary Sunday is how it reveals the coming together of human beings, with their problems, doubts, and sorrows, to be transformed by a 2,000-year-old liturgy which is suspended in time, pulsing, and occurring around the world on any given Sunday. In capturing that coming together of human frailty with ancient liturgy, Huston encapsulates the power of Sunday Mass for those who may feel disconnected from it.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book via Netgalley.)

Book Review: Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics

Product DetailsIn Illuminating the Way: Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics, Christine Valters Paintner applies the modern psychological concept of archetype, or “primordial blueprint” in human consciousness, to twelve famous and not-so-famous figures. She then leads readers on a gentle inward journey to hidden insights into their own psyches’ light and shadows. Her choice of monks and mystics is refreshing and unexpected at times: Francis of Assisi, King David, the Virgin Mary, Dorothy Day, Desert Mother Amma Syncletica, Brigid of Kildare, Brendan of Nursia, the Old Testament’s Miriam, Rainier Maria Rilke, Hildegard of Bingen, and Thomas Merton. Each of these provides a basis for an archetype: the Inner Fool, the Sovereign, the Mother, the Orphan, the Warrior, the Healer, the Pilgrim, the Sage, the Prophet, the Artist, the Visionary, and the Monk. She addresses each monk or mystic and his or her related archetype in a separate chapter in which she provides a reflection on the person in question, a discussion of the “light” and “shadow” aspects of each archetype, and a connection to a Gospel story. She then suggests a meditation and a mandala practice. Finally, she lists questions for reflection and includes a poem addressing that monk or mystic as a closing blessing.

Although raised in a Catholic home, I have never felt any real appreciation for long-dead monks, mystics or saints. I believe this is in part because many were rather eccentric and their lives were far removed from my experience of the world. However, Valters Paintner’s application of the concept of archetype to their lives suggested a new lens through which to view my own inner life that I found insightful. For this reason, I think this book has significant value for both personal introspection and for group study.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book via Netgalley.)

Book Review: Seasons in My Garden

Product DetailsIn Seasons in My Garden, Sr. Elizabeth Wagner ponders through each season the grounds of her home at the Transfiguration Hermitage in Windsor, Maine to discover thought-provoking meditations and reflections. Sr. Elizabeth often starts with an unexpected observation then gently leads the reader to an equally unanticipated insight. A tree crashing in the road on Christmas Eve leads to questions about human vulnerability and peace. Liturgical ordinary time during summer induces a discovery of the extraordinary in less celebrated moments. Autumn with its final blaze of color provides an opportunity to look inward and see our true selves, or God, as the light begins to diminish. Furthermore, although she encourages readers to follow their own questions to mystery or their dreams, Sr. Elizabeth also provides an interesting account of the daily life and challenges of a contemplative in a semi-eremitical community. In sum, Seasons in My Garden is a lovely book with insights to be savored.

(Reviewed in exchange for a copy of book via Netgalley.)