The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris by David McCullough. I don’t know what the title has to do with this book. Maybe someone can explain it. It’s about Americans who lived in Paris from the 1830s until the turn of the last century -- American artists, physicians, politicians, architects, sculptors, musicians and writers – most of them household names now in the 21st century. They all sought educational opportunities and the experience of living and working and learning in the City of Light. Among those profiled in the book are Samuel Morse (yeah, yeah, he invented the telegraph, but unknown to many, including me, he was also an acclaimed artist); James Fenimore Cooper; Louis Gottschalk; George Healy; Oliver Wendell Holmes; Mark Twain; Augustus Saint-Gaudens; Harriet Beecher Stowe; John Singer Sargent; Mary Cassatt and more.
McCullough often unfolds details of their lives day-by-day, working from multiple journals and letters. Lots of information is crammed into this book, but it’s all interesting. Most of these people loved the city of Paris and described it in glowing detail. Reading was slow going, but well worth the time. ★★★ out of four stars.
Untether by JT Mestdagh. What an inspiring memoir. JT was born with VADER syndrome, a mismash of birth defects affecting the spine and digestive tract. At age 25, he has already endured some 16 surgeries. When he was in elementary school he also had trouble learning to read and was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. Teachers gave up on him and he was asked to leave the private school he was attending. But JT, his parents and grandparents and friends and doctors didn’t give up.
The book – written in his own voice – tells how he overcame each roadblock, kept a positive attitude and thrived. JT has become a master of overcoming setbacks. This is the most inspiring and most heartwarming of memoirs. It’s self-published, something that often puts me on guard, but this one is very expertly done and includes photos and quotes and anecdotes. JT is an amazing young man. ★★★★ out of four stars.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. This book has everything: engaging characters, a plot that jogs along but not in an obvious predictable way, a turning point, then a climax and a finish that the reader does -- but doesen't -- expect. Xavier is the son of Valerie (a black woman) and Tom (who is white). Tom died when Xavier was young, so Valerie is a single mother. Xavier is a good student, an accomplished classical guitarist, a nice kid. They live in a good – integrated -- neighborhood. Behind their house Brad and Julia and their two daughters, Juniper and Lily, live in their brand new fancy schmantzy house with a pool. Xavier and Juniper become involved in a teenage romance.
Valerie is angry and frustrated because the construction of Brad and Julia’s house has caused the gigantic historic oak tree on her property to wither and die. Everybody in this book has a significant secret. And most unusual: the novel is told in the second person. The narrator for the story is the neighborhood, a collective community, the neighbors. Great story telling. ★★★★ out of four stars.
Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. The trouble with Anne Tyler’s novels? They’re over too soon. This also proves what I like about her writing style -- economy. Micah Mortimer’s business is called Tech Hermit and it describes his personality to a T. He lives alone, locked into a meticulous self-imposed schedule of chores. He's also an expert in solving clients’ problems with their computers. He has a girlfriend, Cass. One day a teenager, Brink, knocks on Micah’s door and claims Micah might possibly be his father. The result of Brink’s appearance takes an involved, twisted turn and upends life as Micah knows it. The circuitous route leads to a quite satisfying conclusion.
What do I mean by economy, you ask?
Instead of writing a whole page describing Micah’s sister, Tyler writes:
“Am I going to have to go to the wedding?” Micah asked (his sister). He disliked weddings; they always felt so crowded.
“Of course you have to go to the wedding. You’re family.”
“I didn’t have to go to Nancy’s wedding.”
“Nancy isn’t married.”
“She’s not?” Micah took a moment to adjust to this. Nancy had three children.
That’s it. We know something about Nancy and we know something about Micah from this briefest of interactions. ★★★★ out of four stars.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley. This started off nicely. A group of college friends gather every year to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. They’ve gotten together this time in a hunting lodge in Scotland. (Sounds like an Agatha Christie mystery, doesn't it?) Hmmm, the lodge is isolated. Of course there’s a blizzard, which isolates the group even more. And of course, ta daaaaaa, there’s a murder. Everybody has a motive, which is also very Christie-ish. I like Christie's mysteries, but this imitation was too much. The reader doesn’t know the murderer until the end, as is usually the case, but the reader doesn’t even know the murderee until the end. The point of view varies from chapter to chapter, which is OK with me, but Foley drags this story out, stretching it until I was tempted to give up and toss it over my shoulder. Alas, I wanted to know who was dead and who did it. The author goes into way too much detail inside each character’s head. I got frustrated, even angry, and kept thinking: “Get it over with. Solve the murder and let’s all go home.” ★★ out of four stars.