Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Nevermore Favorites for 2020

Since this is the end of 2020--pause for cheers-- we decided to list some of the books that delighted our Nevermore members during this dismal year.

Elizabeth Berg is a favorite author for many in Nevermore, and this year her book Confession Club came up a number of times.  It is a feel-good story set in a small Missouri town.  A group of women gathers each week to share stories about their lives and to support one another. Some of the characters were already familiar to those who had read the other books Berg had set in the same town (Night of Miracles and The Story of Arthur Truluv) but you don’t need to have read those to enjoy this one.      


Our next book was a nonfiction offering, Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Retelling by Mo Rocca in which he pays tribute to people, things, and concepts which he feels have not received their due. It is beautifully written, well researched, and often funny.  Rocca is a compassionate author who treats all the subjects with respect.  There is a great deal of background for each entry which covers a wide variety of people and subjects, including Audrey Hepburn, disco, Thomas Paine, Prussia, Sammy Davis, Jr., and dragons.  The section on Billy Carter was a favorite of one Nevermore reader. He was interviewed after he was sober and reflected on his behavior during his brother’s presidential years. Another was quite taken by the history of the station wagon.  All agreed that this was definitely a must read!    


An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helen Tursten made the list again this year!  It was quite a sensation in 2019 and made a return this year as people looked for some escapism.  Translated from the original Swedish, this slim book of stories tells about Maud, an 88 year old who has arranged her life as she wants and intends to keep it that way, including her rent-free apartment which she inherited.  Maud will do whatever needs doing to keep things the way she likes, and that may include murder.  One reader said she loved Maud because she knows how to solve problems.


Other authors who made an impression this year:


Noah Gordon for his historical series Cole, which included The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice aka Choices.  The books follow the Cole family of physicians who have The Gift, a sixth sense which tells them of impending death.  The saga begins in the Dark Ages and concludes in the modern era.


Erik Larson for his fascinating non-fiction, including his most recent book, The Splendid and the Vile which looks at Winston Churchill and his family during the Blitz.  Some of his other titles which came up during the year were Dead Wake (about the sinking of the Lusitania), Thunderstruck (about Marconi, mass communication, and a murder), and Devil in the White City (about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer).


John Scalzi is a science fiction/fantasy author who caught the fancy of several Nevermore members, first through his collection of short fiction A Very Scalzi Christmas and then through his series which started with Old Man’s War. While not usually slapstick, Scalzi’s work employs humor to good effect which surprised one reader who didn’t know that science fiction could be funny.

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of Mutts and the Art of Patrick McDonnell

Reviewed by Jeanne

I’m a long-time fan of the Mutts strip.  It’s funny, sweet, endearing, and I am fascinated by the artwork.  I own several of the books, both the collections of strips and the picture books. I also own the predecessor to this volume, Mutts:  The Comic Art of Patrick McDonnell. 

For those new to Mutts, it is a long running comic strip featuring Earl, a happy dog, and Mooch, a bewildering cat.  Earl loves his human Ozzie devotedly, and Mooch is fond of his humans, Millie and Frank.  There’s also a whole cast of characters, from Guard Dog to Shtinky to Crabby and the Fatty Snax deli man.  Along the way, the strip has evolved from a simple three panels with a gag to a sensitive, thoughtful strip that espouses kindness to all living things without being didactic. I’ll admit I have teared up at some. 

And if you are indeed new to Mutts, I would suggest you start with a collection of the strips, just to familiarize yourself with McDonnell’s style to be able to appreciate The Art of Nothing.  While strips are included, the book is more of a “behind the scenes” look at McDonnell, his influences, and how he works.  It includes sketches for strips and goes through the process of how these are turned into the strips we see in newspapers, early versions of some strips, and the artist’s commentary.  I have always particularly enjoyed the Sunday title panels, the single panel which has the strip’s name; sometimes these are dropped by an individual paper so they can’t be an integral part of that week’s strip.  Many strips just use the same panel week after week, but McDonnell uses it as a sort of tip of the hat to other artists.  Sometimes one just won’t be familiar to me.  There are a number of the panels shown in this book, explaining the attributions from N.C. Wyeth’s The Giant to Andy Warhol to a Frank Zappa album cover to The Big Lebowski. Of course, some of my favorites pay homage to classic children’s books such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Interspersed with the art are comments from McDonnell himself, talking about his life, his influences, and the real life inspiration for some of his characters.  It’s no surprise to learn that Charles Schultz is one of his heroes, but it’s nice to know that the two had a very cordial relationship.  One of the early pieces in the book is a photo of a sheet from a newspaper with the first printed Mutts strip and the notation, “Good start, Sparky.”  McDonnell’s taste is art is expansive, covering a lot of eras, style, and cultures.

This is a real treat for fans and a fascinating look at the artistic process for anyone interested in comic art.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Nevermore: My Sunshine Away, March, Calypso, Water Is Wide, Night Strangers, Birchbark House, 1491


This week’s Nevermore opened with the book My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh.  Set in Baton Rouge in the 1980s, the book is narrated by a 14 year old boy with a crush on Lindy Simpson, a slightly older neighborhood girl.  The seemingly idyllic area is rocked when Lindy is raped and our narrator is determined to bring the perpetrator to light.  Although the themes are dark, our reviewer said that the crime isn’t the real focus of the book.  It is suspenseful but it’s more a coming of age story as told by an appealing character.  The one criticism of this otherwise well written book is that at several points the narrator would start to impart some important piece of information only to say, “I’ll tell you about that later.”  She found that quite frustrating, but still recommends the book.


Another literary delight was March by Australian author Geraldine Brooks which imagines the life of Mr. March, father of the Little Women family.  In the book, he is largely absent because of the Civil War which was raging at the time.  Brooks tells that hidden part of March’s story, basing the tale (as did Louisa May Alcott) on the real Alcott family.  Our reviewer found it well written and intriguing, and the entire group took an interest in the “story behind the story.”


David Sedaris’ Calypso continues to delight readers and listeners.  Again, it was in audio book format, as listener after listener praised Sedaris for his wonderful and expressive voice.  Most had first heard him on NPR, either as part of “This American Life” or else one of the other programs.  Everyone has found his stories of family dynamics to be quite relatable and very, very funny.  The current listener has moved on to another collection of his essays, this one with a seasonal theme:  Holidays on Ice.

Poisoner in Chief by Stephen Kinzer took the group discussion into darker territory.  Starting in the 1950s, chemist Sidney Gottlieb worked with the CIA on various drugs and techniques for mind control.  The idea was to attempt to re-program people, and to develop interrogation techniques to break even the most stubborn of prisoners.  Experiments were even carried out on civilians without their knowledge, sometimes with horrifying results.  Gottlieb’s research is still used today.  It’s a book both fascinating and appalling in equal measure, and should be required reading.


 While Pat Conroy is best known for his novels such as The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, one of his first books was actually a memoir.  The Water Is Wide is his account of teaching on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina in 1969.  His pupils knew very little of life in the outside world beyond the island.  Conroy sought to expose them to the wider world, wanting to make a positive difference in their lives. The book is based on Conroy’s experiences but has been somewhat fictionalized, including the name of the island.  The book is recommended.


The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian is set in a small town in New Hampshire.  Chris, his wife Emily, and twin daughters have just moved to town in search of a new start after the crash of a plane Chris was piloting which resulted in the deaths of 39 passengers.  At first, the family enjoys the attentions of the new neighbors and exploring the house, but soon strange things begin happening.  Some of the local women seem to be taking a lot of interest in the couple’s daughters and Chris thinks he can hear some of the dead passengers.  Our reader says it was kind of a weird book, rather scary, but interesting.  She didn’t think it was one of his best but still good.


Next up was The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Set in 1847 near what is now called Lake Superior, the story centers around Omakayas, an Ojibwa (Chippewa) girl, and her family.  Rich with detail and history, our reader felt that Erdrich’s books should have a much wider audience and recommend her work to all.  Most of her books deal with Native American culture—Erdrich herself is Chippewa—and all are excellent.

Finally, 1491:  New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann was promoted as a fascinating look at pre-European North and South America.  Mann wants to dispel the idea that it was a pristine wilderness but was instead host to sophisticated societies and cultures who created cities, governmental structures, advanced agricultural techniques, and more.  Mann makes sometimes complex subjects very accessible to the average reader.  Our reviewer praised the book and found it fascinating.