Affirming Antidotes: Best Books to Save Your (Literary) Soul Following (Literary) Fiascos

What’s this? Two book reviews in a row? What’s Wing’s World morphing into now?

Don’t worry. This post is entirely situational. As in, given the SITUATION I was in, last post, of having read a book as godawfully depressing as it was brilliant, the moroseness of which is now a distant memory due to the book that fell into my hands just after I wrote that post.

A HEARTWARMING book. A laugh-and-cry, go-ahead-and-recommend-this-book-to-everyone book (but especially to sisters, Minnesotans, and lovers of pie and beer–that is to say, Minnesotans).

And more importantly (to me): a book which is all those things AND excellently written.

I’m talking about The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal.

I was mentally bookmarking all kinds of passages even before I knew I wanted to blog about this book. Right off the bat, I was impressed with the intuitiveness of Stradal’s similes:

She looked at money like how a motorcycle driver looks at asphalt. The more of it you see, the farther you can go, but a single mistake with it can finish you. (p. 17)

…he didn’t crumple in the grass like someone wrestling with death, he lay still like someone waiting to be kissed. (p. 82)

Together they could pass the time like a couple of empty boats tied to a fenced-off pier, and it was beautiful. (p. 91)

The LOL parts were really too frequent to capture, but here’s one of my faves:

He glanced at her and pursed his lips. “On second thought, I don’t know. You white Minnesotans sure like things bland. I like the ramen there the way it is now. You start eating there, it’s gonna mess things up.”

“That’s probably true,” Diana said. “But I like spicy things.

He seemed mildly impressed. “Oh yeah? What’s your favorite spice?

“Butter,” she said.  (p. 205)

Hahahahaha. Here’s another gem, featuring one of the protagonists, pregnant:

“I’ll like it when it’s over,” ___ said, watching their pizza arrive, suddenly wanting it all for herself.

Their waitress, who was younger than them, and had the careless vibe of someone merely working for extra spending money, somehow couldn’t help herself. “You’re not supposed to say that,” she said. “Pregnancy is a miracle.”

“This pizza’s a miracle,” ___ said. “Pregnancy can suck it.”  (p. 242)

Stradal’s ease with implicit metaphors is even more impressive in its lack of impressiveness. I mean, he throws stuff out there which simply sounds NATURAL:

She dog-paddled through the rest of the day. (p. 185)

Before she could pour a glass of her own beer, or even order a bag of malt, there was a long, shallow puddle of bureaucracy she had to wade through. (p. 240)

But what gets me the most about this author is the fact that he’s a man writing in the perspective of women–three different main characters, all female–and he doesn’t eff it up. Scenes having to do with sex or childbirth he doesn’t dwell on, as if paying tribute to his own lack of understanding, but in other scenes, having to do with the psyche of women in a man’s trade? He NAILS it. Here, he describes the effect on the least sympathetic of the main characters, rendering her…sympathetic.

The men at or near her level across the industry were often exhausting. Very early she’d been spiritually and emotionally corroded by the roomfuls of them at various industry gatherings, men who talked over her, explained to her, asked her to fetch them lunch or coffee, planted and reaped her self-doubt. In the underpopulated women’s restrooms at brewers’ conventions, she’d sometimes hear of industry women experiencing far worse, but ___ quit attending these caustic functions before she personally experienced anything horrifying. (p. 335)

Even closer to the emotional bones:

The car accident that killed ___’s parents last June revealed a lot to her, especially the fact that every adult and almost every other person her age didn’t understand her, no matter what they’d been through. As a new kid in a new town, living with her kind but exhausted grandma ___, she had to set herself to a frequency that no one could tune in, just to make every day tolerable. (p. 90)

Or simply:

He laughed again… “Need anything from the kitchen?”
“No,” she said. “I have everything I need.”

As her husband vanished upstairs, she lay on the couch, took a deep breath, and almost believed it.  (p. 155)

Without giving anything away, I can divulge that the book’s main plot derives from a lifelong rift between two sisters. I’m not saying anything about the ending. But these two characterizations, one for each sister, epitomize the author’s deftness with character. When you read the book for yourself, they will speak even louder:

She halted in the doorway between those rooms, her blood full of sparks. (p. 347)

…and:

She was as calm as a small town on Christmas morning. (p. 348)

Is it true that I’ve just written a book review consisting almost entirely of quotes? And with one single lousy picture? Yes. Yes, it is. Because sometimes the words are enough.

So thank you, Mr. J. Ryan Stradal, for renewing my faith in good, positive-energy lit. And for the rest of y’all: What other novels would you put in this category? Got any more hidden gems for me?

Hurts So Good: When A Book’s Too Painful To Recommend, But Too Powerful Not To

Anyone else ever have this conversation?

Friend: “So what’re you reading these days?”

You: “Omigod this BOOK. It’s so INTENSE. The plot is masterful, and the details are so IMMERSIVE. It has a total hold on me.”

Friend: “Wow, sounds like I should read that next. What’s it called? Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

You: “Ummm…sure. But it’s also really super sad. It’s kind of bumming me out, to tell the truth.”

Friend: “Oh. No thanks. I don’t need more of that in my life.”

You: “But it’s so GOOD!”

Renoir, Woman Reading (courtesy f_snarfel, Creative Commons)

Anybody? Anybody?

My latest engagement with an entry in the Bummer-of-the-Month-Book-Club is the Pulitzer winner The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It’s been around a few years, and only fell into my hands by accident–somehow finding its way onto my bedside pile without any known recommender. I picked it up and, as perfect illustration of the cliche, found myself hooked by the first page.

Damn it. Had I read the blurbs, I probably would have passed. But I’m not a blurb-reader.

This book is PAINFUL to read. For starters, it’s set in North Korea. Additionally, it’s set in North Korea. And, as if that weren’t enough–North Freakin’ KOREA.

But those Pulitzer-givers know a thing or two about literature. Not only does the book twine different genres–identity odyssey, thriller, love story–it also switches point of view here and there, from close-third person narrative of the main character, to state-run propaganda blasts repurposing the very story you are reading, to a first-person accounting, up close–way too close–to North Korea’s vicious prison “life,” by an unnamed but increasingly conflicted interrogator.

And the writing? I’ll let it speak for itself.

Jun Do’s reward for these achievements was a listening post in the East Sea, aboard the fishing vessel Junma. His quarters were down in the Junma’s aft hold, a steel room big enough for a table, a chair, a typewriter, and a stack of receivers that had been pilfered from downed American planes in the war. The hold was lit only by the green glow of the listening equipment, which was reflected in the sheen of fish water that seeped under the bulkheads and constantly slicked the floor. Even after three months, Jun Do couldn’t stop visualizing what was on the other side of those metal walls: chambers of tightly packed fish sucking their last breath in the refrigerated dark.” (p. 40)

I would love to be able to talk with someone about this book, to discuss questions and groove over passages. But I don’t want to give it to anyone without warning, and most people, once warned, sensibly pass. That got me thinking about other books in this category. Here are a few that come to mind:

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. He’s one of my, let’s say top three, favorite 20th century authors. Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer winner, is incredibly sad, but I can still recommend it to anyone, especially over the age of 30. But this book kind of destroyed me for a while.

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. I mean, it’s about the Civil War, so that’s a teensy hint I should have taken.

Probably the queen of books too terribly powerful to pass on to people you like is Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Please read it anyway, if you haven’t yet. But give yourself lots of breathing time.

So I’m wondering…what other books would you nominate for this category? Shall we start a TPRTPN* Book Club?

*see title of this post

“Living and Dying Without a Map”: Companionship for People Suddenly Rocketed to Planet Cancer

I have never had cancer, and neither has any close member of my family, other than my grandfather who died when my father was still a child. So I don’t know. But I imagine a diagnosis of terminal cancer, for oneself or one’s dearest, to feel like being yanked away to a unknown world on the dark side of the moon–a planet which healthy people don’t think about enough to realize they’re not thinking about it.

So I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a book titled Living and Dying Without a Map: One Family’s Journey Through the World of Glioblastoma, despite the hauntingly lush black-and-white photo on its cover. I only chose this book because I knew the author, and I thought I knew the story.

Nancy Ewert, a long-time Lopez Islander, is also one of the founders of the Quaker Meeting here which I attend. And my very first day attending, the month we moved here–August of 2010–I walked into a Meeting focused on support for the Ewert family. Nancy and her husband Greg and their three nearly-adult daughters were still reeling that day from Greg’s shockingly sudden diagnosis of brain cancer at the age of 61.

Greg–a beloved teacher at our island’s middle school–was given a year to live. He lived for two. And I watched, humbled, from the sidelines as this family that represented the very core of our island community struggled to reshape its life on Planet Cancer.

Photo by Greg Ewert. The man was, among other things, a hell of a photographer.

There are many cancer books out there. I cannot speak to how they compare to this one. All I know is, Nancy’s book is one of the rawest, truest forms of memoir I’ve ever encountered, and here’s why: it is composed entirely of journal entries. And almost entirely from those two intense years.

God bless Caringbridge. Greg Ewert’s brain tumor introduced me to the website, whose founders envision “a world where no one goes through a health journey alone.”  I’ve become more familiar with it since 2010, through the health challenges of other friends. In this book, Nancy’s and Greg’s Caringbridge postings become the main narrative vehicle, carrying us along on their story now as much as they did almost ten years ago.

But these sections are interspersed, even more intimately, with entries from Nancy’s personal journal  at the time. I can’t imagine the guts that took.

Nancy’s first Caringbridge post in the book begins, “Greg has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It is shocking, terrifying and sad for all of us.”

But her first personal journal entry reads, “Oh God, Greg has a brain tumor. How can I even write these words?”

Catch the difference in tone? Ripping that curtain aside, allowing readers into that personal, personal shock and pain–THAT is what makes this book different. Like being ushered from the waiting room straight into the ICU.

Nancy shares her exhaustion. Her anguish at being so needed by husband and daughters and family and friends that nothing is left for her own emotional needs. Her anger at having to explain why she’s even feeling angry. Gratitude, yes, plenty–but also pure seething confusion. These entries lay it all out there–sometimes very, very admirable, sometimes–whoa! Honest! And REAL.

And even though I’ve never lived on Planet Cancer, if and when I have to? These are the words I’d turn to–not for comfort, but for company in my fearful despair. Which, I suppose, may be a kind of comfort after all.

Greg’s Caringbridge entries form another part of the story’s arc–an insider view, obviously. His first one reads:

Only one week ago our family vacation was rudely interrupted by a trip to the urgent care facility because I was having difficulty forming my words–not like me!

Over the course of the next nearly two years, until Greg finally had to switch to dictation and then stopped writing during those last weeks, he shares his outrage at having his future ripped away; his wry-but-fierce personification of his tumor (“B.T.”) and his strong, humbled, grateful spirit (“the Griz”). He shares the deepening of his gratitude for his family and loved ones and community to a point impossible to describe without maybe imagining of the lyrics of “Amazing Grace.” He shares humor, and–

oh, I thought while reading, how unfair that I only got to meet this man after he’d been given a year to live!

But then…how much more of a gift is this book, bringing him to life for people who never got to meet him, or travel to Lopez Island, but are trapped on Planet Cancer and looking desperately for someone to please, please just hold their hand?

If you or a loved one have had to make that journey–Nancy Ewert’s book will hold your hand as you walk in the darkness.

 

Stay With Me: A Novel That’s Doing Just That

Ever had one of those post-partum lulls in your reading life, where you’re kind of in mourning for the last book you just read? Absolutely sure you’ll never find another one anywhere near as engaging?

I’ve been in such a slump for the last month (aided by my tendency to go straight back to Harry Potter in Spanish whenever the book fairy starts nagging). But I found the solution: stomp into your local library, pick up a book almost at random—ooh, bright cover!—and start reading RIGHT THERE.

Luckily for me, I chose Ayobami Adebayo’s new novel Stay With Me. Set in modern Nigeria, it tosses the reader directly into this scene: a young, urban wife finds her in-laws on her doorstep…bringing with them her husband’s brand-new, beautiful second wife. Which he has said nothing about.

But this is not A Thousand Splendid Suns. Yejide’s husband Akin loves her desperately. He doesn’t want another wife. What he wants…needs, requires…is a baby. Preferably a son. Or two. Which Yejide, in four years of marriage, has not produced.

That is ALL I’m going to reveal about the plot. What makes this book so poignant and gripping is that, despite its setting half a world away, and despite the cultural disjunct of plural marriage and in-laws who are in charge of the wife, Yejide is such a completely modern woman that THIS very American woman instantly related to her.

I’m so glad I happened to grab this book when I finally got stern with myself and said, “Grab something.” Here’s hoping, if you are looking for a good book or just trying to make yourself look, that you end up doing the same.

 

 

 

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Why I Have To Say “Relatable”

Bias Alert: 

  1. Like most English teachers, I shudder at the newly-developing word, “relatable.”
  2. My family and I LOVE the Daily Show; Jon Stewart practically raised our children.

So you might not think we’d love his replacement, Trevor Noah. But you’d think wrong. We loved Trevor from the beginning (forgiving him his occasionally juvenile humor the same way we forgave Jon his old-Jewish-guy schtick).

And now that I’ve read Trevor’s memoir, Born a Crime, I admire him on a whole new levelAnd I admire his mother more.

I only wish I had finished Trevor’s book before Christmas, so I could have given it to everyone I love. I don’t want to tell you too much about it; the book is comprised of anecdotes, to divulge any of which would spoil your joy in reading.

But I will tell you this. Although Trevor claims a different nationality, gender and race (OK, half different–but in South Africa that MEANS different) from mine, I found his story more…RELATABLE than anything I’ve read in the past year. He doesn’t just write of racial injustice–though there’s plenty of that, growing up in the last days of apartheid. He writes of topics I, privileged white American female, RELATE to:

  • adolescent yearnings to belong
  • a complex relationship with religion
  • self-consciousness over appearance
  • heartbreak (over the opposite sex, pets, family members)
  • joy in his own gifts (languages, foot speed–and you’ll see why that’s important!)
  • deep, unshakable love for his AMAZING mother

The book is also really stinkin’ funny, but that’s something I simply appreciate rather than relate to, because, alas, I am not so gifted.

And it’s shockingly sad. Something else I, thanks be, cannot relate to. But Trevor makes his family’s sadness ACCESSIBLE, and that’s close enough. Also–“accessible” is a real word.

Have you read it? Please add your review here. If not, do yourself or someone you love a favor and read Born a Crime as soon as you can.

 

Harry Potter: Mi Placer Culposo

I have a new guilty pleasure–or should I say, un nuevo placer culposo. It masquerades as a virtue, which is why I feel guilty. I’m pretty far gone, but public confession may yet save me, so I’ll give it a try.

I, a middle-aged woman with much better things to do, have been binge-reading Harry Potter Book Six…for the fourth time. In Spanish. So I get to call it Spanish practice and feel good about myself.

But really, I’m just binge-reading Harry Potter because…shh…I love it.

Of course that’s not my only form of Spanish study. I have a couple of textbooks, a DVD, and a group of friends with the same earnest desire to converse without undue embarrassment with the many Spanish-speaking folks in our little community. We meet regularly to go over our exercises and hold stilted conversations. I love my little practice group, but the Harry Potter idea –I have no desire to share that with anyone.

Just give me Harry Potter Y El Misterio del Principe (all the titles are different), my Google Translate, and pen + paper, and I can lie on the couch for HOURS, reading aloud to myself as though I were my own ten year-old.

Oh, homework time? Yay!

Oh, homework time? Yay!

Why Book Six? Well…heh…I figured I’ve re-read Books One through Five so VERY often that they wouldn’t prove enough of a challenge, being engraved in my brain and all. And I gave myself a binge-read of Book Seven (in English) for Christmas.

Hi, my name is Gretchen, and I’m a Potterhead. (¿Soy una Pottercabeza?)

The bad news is, I love this “practice” so much, it’s pushed aside most of my other reading. And at my few-pages-per-hour pace, I’m falling a bit behind my own reading list.

Also, my Spanish muttering is keeping my Mate awake.

The good news–I’m learning a TON of vocabulary! Now if I can just find someone in town who wants to discuss varitas magias (magic wands)…

Y ahora, discúlpeme, pero tengo que practicar.

 

 

 

 

“This Kid Reviews Books”: You Gotta Meet This Cool Kid

OK, I have a slight ulterior motive in choosing this moment to introduce you to Erik, a.k.a. This Kid Reviews Books: he’s just reviewed mine! But I am totally enamored of This Kid’s approach to literature aimed at his age group, and wanted to share him with you anyway. Here’s what he says on his “About” page:

Hi, my name is Erik. I love books, so that’s why I have this blog . The reason I’m doing this is for parents to approve of a book, and for kids to find an excellent book too! Speaking of kids, did you know that I am one too? I am 9 1011 12 years old. I got the idea for this blog when my grandmom told me she was shopping for a book for me and didn’t know what to buy and a kid in the store told her to get me “The Strange Case of Origami Yoda”. He said it was a good book and that I would like it, so she bought it. Well, it is a good book and I did like it. I thought that if my grandmom would take the advice of a kid maybe “this kid” (me) could help other kids and grown-ups looking for books for kids, find books they like. Plus my Mom is always trying to find “appropriate” books for me so I am going to include some of her and my Dad’s thoughts on some of the books I read.
Don’t you love him already? OK–now it’s time to hear from Erik directly:

This Kid Reviews Books

flyingThe Flying Burgowski

By Gretchen K. Wing

254 pages – ages 12+

Published by Gretchen K Wing on February 25, 2014

Synopsis- 14-year-old Jocelyn Burgowski knew her life was terrible. She actually preferred her flying dreams to her real-life – getting lost in her thoughts about flying. On her next birthday, amazingly, she CAN fly! She just leaps into the air and all of a sudden, her life was perfect! Her jerk of a brother was leaving to live with their alcoholic Mom (on the main land) for the summer, she got his job, and now she really could fly! Perfect… not so much. She finds out that she’ll be going to stay with her Mom too. In the very crowded city! This means little open spaces and no room to fly and right next to all the problems she thought she was leaving behind.

What I Thought- This was…

View original post 160 more words

Why The Boys in the Boat Will Be the Next “Chariots of Fire”

Go read the book NOW. Well, sometime in the next couple of years. That’s how long it will take Miramax to make the movie. Which you will also want to see.

But don’t, don’t, don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of discovering this story of the boys in the boat via paper. Need some reasons?

1. The Boys in the Boat is the most incredible story you’ve never heard. When you read about the improbable journey of 9 University of Washington boys (who had only started rowing 4 years before) going head-to-head with the fascist Germans and Italians at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, you will think, as I did: “WHOA. Why hasn’t this story been out there along with Jesse Owens’s?”

(I mean, I have a Master’s in U.S. History from the University of Washington, for goodness’s sake–and this was all news to me! 80,000 people watching a boat race on Lake Union? Really???? How did I not know this?)

cover

2.The Boys in the Boat is about individual grit and endurance. It’s also about team unity to a ridiculously intricate degree. This must be why author Daniel James Brown says that he gets daily emails from people on both sides of the political spectrum saying, “If only people from the other side would read this book…!”

(Note: Daniel James Brown. Not that other Dan Brown. This one understands character development.)

3. It’s a thrilling underdog sports story. Think Seabiscuit times 9. (Or 10 or 11, if you count they boys’ coach and their zen-master English boat builder.)

(And face it, Seabiscuit’s a horse, so he didn’t leave much in the way of letters and diaries to comb through, as Brown did so meticulously.)

4. It’s a character study of the most inspiring kind, appealing to both females and males, old and young. Joe Ranz, the rower who dropped his story into Brown’s lap just months before dying, was left motherless at five, pushed out of the family by his stepmother at 14, and learned that he could only rely on himself to survive. Then, four years later, he had to completely un-learn this lesson in order to be able to trust his teammates, keep his seat in the boat, and help propel them to victory.

(And of course this is all in the depths of the Depression, so Ranz is desperately poor, working on a cliff face at the Grand Coulee Dam site, for goodness’s sake, over the summer, living in a boarding house, eating people’s leftovers…Brown says that what drew him to Ranz’s story was the way he teared up when talking about “the boat”–by which he meant all nine of them. It will tear you up too.)

5. Brown’s level of researched detail is astounding. He says a reader once challenged him about his description of the UW coach chewing gum during a tense race–halting the chewing–then chewing again at the end. “How could you possibly know that?” His answer: about 25 eyewitness accounts, sportswriters of the time. He claims nothing in the book is made up, and I see no reason not to believe him.

(YES. Readable history for the masses!!!)

If I were critiquing style, I would say that the book’s narration felt a little grandiose in places, a bit inflated. But that’s nitpicking. It’s mostly seamless, and the racing scenes are riveting.

So here’s my prediction: This movie, when it’s made, will be the next Chariots of Fire. Everyone will see it. Everyone will hum the inspiring theme tune. Everyone will cheer when it wins an Oscar for best…whatever. Democracy vs. Fascism. Individual Grit vs. the Team.The Greatest Generation…as boys. In a boat.

Have you read it? Please give your impressions HERE! Or chime in with some other greatest-story-never-told.

 

Virtual Book Club, Anyone? The Goldfinch, Canada, and A Tale for the Time Being: Teenagers Adrift in an Adult Sea

This is NOT a book review. It’s an invitation.

By strange coincidence, each of the last three books I’ve read this summer has featured a teenager whose life is wrenched awry by the actions of adults. These are NOT “young adult” novels by any stretch. They are a reminder that young adults can be a microcosm of the human spirit: fate vs. self-determination, culture vs. character, all within the confines of a body whose only constant is change.

Book #1 is the most well-known: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. As I was wolfing it down during a trip, it seemed like everyone I met was reading it too. Problem is, no one who lives close to me has read it, and once I finished it, I was dying to talk about it! So I engaged in a mini-virtual book club with a friend via email, which was so rewarding, I thought of enlarging it to the blogosphere.

Read the book? Post a discussion question, or an observation. Anyone else who’s read it can take it from there.

The Goldfinch is a mind-blowing book, and it will probably be made into a movie. But don’t wait for that. Read it soon. (Not wanting to buy the hardback, not willing to wait for the long library list to dwindle, I snarfed it up on Kindle.) Favorite supporting character: Boris, the Russian teen with the Australian accent and the heart that refuses to harden, no matter what it’s exposed to.

goldfinch

But let me tell you about the other two books! (And maybe The Goldfinch will be out in paper by the time you’re done with them.) 

Richard Ford’s Canada is probably the hardest read, in that it takes time. The deliberate pace is, in fact, part of the book’s theme–but you won’t know that until you’ve read it. I’ll borrow the words of a reviewer here to give you a quick idea of it:

“Canada, Richard Ford’s long-awaited new novel, is not one to be rushed. While the plot sounds sensational — robbery, murders, a flight across the Canadian border — Ford’s laconic, measured prose forces the reader to slow the pace and savor the story. This is a novel about actions, intentions, and consequences as well as about belonging, introspection, and the solitary nature of life. Powerful and atmospheric, Canada will excite and gratify Ford’s fans and introduce newcomers to a masterful American writer.”  –Tova Beiser, Brown University Bookstore, as cited on Indiebound.org

Favorite supporting character: Canada itself. Yes, the country. Read the book, then we can talk about that.

canada

The third book is probably the fastest and most page-turning read: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It features two narrators: Ruth, the middle-aged author who finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach of her remote island in western Canada, and Nao, the sixteen year-old Japanese girl who…of course…wrote that diary. Best supporting character: Nao’s 104 year-old great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, with whom Nao communicates by texting. This book also messes with the whole relationship between author, reader and story. Mind-blowing. But I’ve used that term already, huh.

Tale

So…have you read any of these? If so, please chime in! If not, click over to indiebound.org, or rush to your favorite local bookstore to get one, or all three.  Read fast, THEN chime in. I’ll wait.

 

 

From the Author of Cloud Atlas, Another Ridiculously Good Read

Let me apologize up front for not writing about President Kennedy today. I figure others will pick up the slack. I need to write about a book.

I’d love to sum it up in a pithy, “Two words for ya–” but unfortunately, this book has a MOUTHFUL of a title. Ready?

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell.

Read this.

Read this.

Normally my “can’t-put-it-down” books are mysteries–especially ones by Elizabeth George. But this literary novel has me in its clutches, and not for the usual reasons.

Oh, it’s got the goods all right. Sympathetic hero with a blind spot? Check. Ridiculously authentic, obviously-well-researched setting (Japan circa 1800)? Check. Crackling dialogue (seamlessly “translated” from Dutch and Japanese yet!)? Sensory detail of the most intimate and unexpected kind? Aching love story? Political intrigue? Breathless plot twists? Evil villains? Check, check, check, check, check, and…check.

But here’s what really gets me about this novel, grammar nerd that I am: its simple declarative sentences.

An example, chosen randomly from page 194:

Uzaemon glimpses the enormity of the risk he is taking.

Would they bother with a warrant? Or just dispatch an assassin?

Uzaemon looks away. To stop and think would be to abort the rescue.

Feet splash in puddles. The brown river surges. Pines drip.

I think I’m in love.

…THIS JUST IN! I wrote the above before arriving at page 451. That’s where I found this paragraph:

Gulls wheel through spokes of sunlight over gracious roofs and dowdy thatch, snatching entrails at the market place and escaping over cloistered gardens, spike-topped walls, and triple-bolted doors. Gulls alight on whitewashed gables, creaking pagodas, and dung-ripe stables; circle over towers and cavernous bells and over hidden squares where urns of urine sit by covered wells, watched by mule drivers, mules, and wolf-snouted dogs, ignored by hunchbacked makers of clogs; gather speed up the stoned-in Nagasaki River and fly beneath the arches of its bridges, glimpsed from kitchen doors, watched by farmers walking high, stony ridges…

Do you hear it yet? Feel it? Read the passage aloud. 

It RHYMES.

And it goes on like this, this single paragraph, for nearly a page and a half, all gorgeous internal rhyme hidden amidst sense-snatching detail like some kind of literary sleight-of-hand. The final sentence of the paragraph ends this way:

…where their flight began, over the balcony of the Room of the Last Chrysanthemum, where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.

I think I read that last sentence holding my breath, hearing the paragraph, like the gulls, wheel full circle back to where its flight began.

As far as I’ve noticed, this is the only paragraph in the book like this–and Mitchell throws it out there on page 451 like, “Hey, yeah, see what I could do if I wanted? I could write this whole book in rhyme if I felt like it. Dare me?”

I’m telling ya: this former English teacher and lifelong reader & writer gets chills.

But I need to finish this book, and it’s your turn now. Do you have a book which you love as much for its use of sentence structure or language as for the story? Should I read it? Tell, tell.