book review – ‘the dream lover: a novel of george sand’ by elizabeth berg

the dream loverI’m not as familiar with the work of George Sand as I should be, but rarely can I let a fictional work about an author’s life that I find even half-interesting slip by without taking at least a peek.

Blurb (Amazon): At the beginning of this powerful novel, we meet Aurore Dupin as she is leaving her estranged husband, a loveless marriage, and her family’s estate in the French countryside to start a new life in Paris. There, she gives herself a new name—George Sand—and pursues her dream of becoming a writer, embracing an unconventional and even scandalous lifestyle. Paris in the nineteenth century comes vividly alive, illuminated by the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of a woman who defied the confines of society. Sand’s many lovers and friends include Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval, and Alfred de Musset. As Sand welcomes fame and friendship, she fights to overcome heartbreak and prejudice, failure and loss. Though considered the most gifted genius of her time, she works to reconcile the pain of her childhood, of disturbing relationships with her mother and daughter, and of her intimacies with women and men. Will the life she longs for always be just out of reach—a dream? Brilliantly written in luminous prose, and with remarkable insights into the heart and mind of a literary force, The Dream Lover tells the unforgettable story of a courageous, irresistible woman.

I adored this novel, and one of the immediate draws is Berg’s writing. I must admit that I’ve not read anything else by Berg, so I can’t make any types of comparison on that level. But I can say that The Dream Lover is a novel splendidly written. [I love the blurb’s language – ‘luminous prose.’] I appreciate the experimentation with language that we encounter in the current generation of modern writers, but this novel is different. Berg does not attempt an experimental style of writing, rather she hearkens back to an older feel and style which is immensely appropriate, given the novel’s time and subject. Berg hits the mark – The Dream Lover reads like an autobiography written by someone with the skill and discipline of George Sand. On a related theme, my second note (I actually make review notes while reading) is that the novel is deftly and perfectly edited. Rarely do I find a novel which gets such high marks on both writing and editing.

Then we get to heart of the matter – our story. I enjoyed the way the novel was constructed, essentially moving back and forth, alternating chapter by chapter, from memories in the more distant past to events framed as contemporary to the time of writing. This style of organization is not all that uncommon, though not commonly carried out as well as Berg manages. Berg makes clear, in the afterward, that the novel follows one potential story of George Sand’s life (of which there are varying and differing biographies, and an autobiography with a less than entirely reliable narrator). With her chosen set of life events, Berg is the master. Every character, every action, every interaction, all ring true. You feel like you come away having met George Sand…and you have, at least one version of her.

My main inspiration in writing book reviews is to share books that I love with other people (though I occasionally have to pen a negative review as well), and my interaction with a book as I read it is one of my main sources of information in my reviews. Blurbs tell the story; I don’t like to write book reports. On this, The Dream Lover wins in every category. I love how Berg is able to vividly express Sand’s love for writing – intense, passionate, exciting. Reading this novel also inspired me to work more on my own writing projects. This is one of the best kinds of novels, inspiring readers to pursue the things they love without hesitation.

A few parting notes…the book contains a nuanced look at relationships and how they develop (good and bad) and the dynamics that impact them (again both good and bad). It was also interesting to see and consider how people interact with different segments of society depending on their own maturity level and place in that same society. The people she (Sand) knew, and whom we come at least in part to know in the novel, were amazing (Lizst, Chopin, Hugo, Flaubert, a cadre of writers, poets, journalists, artists, singers, actors, the politically active) – it was lovely to run into these major figures of history, and to realize how people know one another, and have relationships with one another…and we, perhaps, never even consider those connections through the passage of history.

It is so nice to read a novel about such an amazing woman and writer; she truly was amazing as a woman in Paris of her day, from her success to appearance to how she chose to live her life. I hope to see more books of this type in general – it brings a great appreciation for ‘The Person’ to the reader of the novel.

I did love this book, and it joins my shortlist of “best books Matthew has read in 2015.” I will heartily recommend it to all of the readers I know, and I look forward to discovering more of Berg’s writing (and dipping into George Sand) as well.

book review – ‘black dove, white raven’ by elizabeth wein

book review black dove, white ravenEvery now and then I like to have a break from the novels I normally prefer, and in these brief periods I often find myself reading those books marketed as “YA.” I like to discover new books for my kids, and see what is being written and sold to the youth of today. Usually I am somewhat disappointed, but not this time…

Blurb (Amazon) Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes-in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat. Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation? In the tradition of her award-winning and bestselling Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein brings us another thrilling and deeply affecting novel that explores the bonds of friendship, the resilience of young pilots, and the strength of the human spirit.

The blurb for this book actually does a pretty decent job of setting up the action of the book – I often wonder why book descriptions are often so different than what you actually find between the cover…like someone is trying to drum up excitement and sell a book…how about just writing good books that sell themselves? Like this one! {Rant over.}

All in all, this is just a fun book. The story is well told, well developed, and interesting. You get to know the characters, and you care not only about the two central protagonists, but also about the villagers and monasteries and people in Ethiopia at large. Black Dove, White Raven really combines a lot of things that make for a good reading experience – writing, story, characters, education (of the reader) – and in this combination, a good book is born.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it’s written. Yes, Wein is a talented author, but the construction of this book is also wonderful. One of the main characters, Em, writes a letter to the Emperor Haile Selassie (of Ethiopia, where they are living at the time) regarding Teo. With this letter, she includes various other pieces – flight journal reports, school reports, journal entries. Her goal, in this letter, is to paint the story of Teo’s life for Selassie, in the hopes that the Emperor will help this young man (who has become a pilot in his army). This is the document we read – Em’s letter, and accompanying documents, for the Emperor. A construct that could have been a mess, but was handled in a lovely way by Wein.

Readers of Black Dove, White Raven will encounter some serious issues in the book – slavery, war, death, family, friendship, morality – but they are looked at in a way that I think the target audience can digest and engage. The book will give them something to think about, and that is always a good thing. [A note about the target audience – officially 7-12 grade, 12-18yo – I thought it would likely appeal more to the 10-15yo age group, and my kids in that age group would have no problem with either reading level or content.]

As a personal note, I appreciated Wein’s exploration and engagement of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Many of us in the west aren’t very aware of this ancient faith – Wein does an excellent job introducing the reader (accurately) to a little history, a little practice, a little belief…and one very big (but well known) secret! I have been enamored of Ethiopia, and her church, for many years now, so this was another favorite piece of the book for me.

This is a book I would definitely recommend, and I will add it to my list of books to gift to my own children as well!

the poetry of gwyndyn alexander – reviews, links, and comments

poetsI met Gwyndyn (virtually, of course) on Facebook. I honestly don’t remember the story of how that meeting was initiated, but we chatted a while, and she sent me review copies of her two newest works of poetry – poets are not useful and Once Upon A Childhood. She is an amazing artist. An amazing poet. There’s no way for me to ‘dance around’ and slowly let my perspective dawn on the reader, and I wouldn’t want to approach this post in that way. Gwyndyn is a force to be heard and digested. As I was finalizing this post, I also received her newest book, On the Loom of the Fates.

This isn’t a typical book review post for me, rather it’s more of an introduction of an author to a reading public that perhaps doesn’t know her very well. Gwyndyn, as I said above, is an amazing artist. As should any poet, she has a firm grasp on the minutia of language – from word choice to form, subject to shape – these poems infiltrate your very being. Her poems have a variety of topics and purposes, from information to education to thought provocation. Regardless of the root of the poem, virtually every one of them found me closing the book afterward, to think, and to experience.

A powerful poem, in my estimation, has the power to change us. I don’t mean in a didactic way; I don’t mean instructing the foolish masses in something higher and greater. Good poems put some idea/concept/event in front of our minds in a new way, which allows us to interact with it in a new and more profound way. This possibility for transformation, enlightenment, understanding – the poem places our soul into our hands, and offers us the opportunity to look deeply, and make conscious decisions about where to go from this very moment.

Gwyndyn Alexander writes this kind of verse – verse that offers humankind the chance for something better.
About Gwyndyn T. Alexander
Ms. Alexander is a Pulitzer nominated poet, who has been published in the New Yorker and many other magazines and literary reviews. She is a Katrina survivor from New Orleans, who has been living in Austin, Texas since losing her home and business to the Great Levee Failure.

She has just published her first volume of poetry in 20 years. This book (poets are not useful) deals with her abusive childhood, her recovery, her experiences with Katrina, and scathing indictments of the misogyny still prevalent in today’s society.

The author Judith Tarr read an advanced copy of the book and had this to say: “These poems pierce the heart and twist the knife. Dark, visceral, and beautiful.”

The book is available on in both print and Kindle editions. 10% of all sales to

Gwyndyn’s latest full length book of poetry, poets are not useful
Blurb (Amazon) – Gwyndyn Alexander is a feminist poet from New Orleans. This book spans twenty years, detailing her abusive childhood, her recovery, her love for New Orleans, and the triumph of a broken soul healing and finding her voice.
My review – I’ve already said a good bit about Gwyndyn and her writing, and it makes putting together more formal “book reviews” a little more difficult, for me, at least. So perhaps the larger context of this post can largely serve as a giant book review. This is one hell of a book of poetry. Gwyndyn writes with candor, a brutal honesty, that, melded with her feel for language, creates gut wrenching poems of power. I know from my own writing how healing and transformative the writing of a poem can be…from that experience, I can only image how cathardic both the writing and publication of these magnificent morsels must have been for their author. By the end of your reading, as you’ve traveled through anger, sorrow, resignation, and healing, you will feel (even if only for that moment) that ‘in this very moment, there is nothing more useful than these poems.’

Gwyndyn’s chapbook, Once Upon A Childhood
My review (from Amazon) –
“You never wanted a daughter…” – powerful poems from word one
I now have two books of Gwyndyn Alexander’s poetry, and I have been deeply impressed with her writing. These poems are not easy to read, not easy to sit with, and certainly not easy to think about. But please do – read, and sit, and think. For me, with a somewhat similar background in some regard, that is precisely the point – taking out the horror, and the pain, and the tears, and offering them to us for our own. Sometimes with anger, sometimes with sadness, but always with a clarity and a vision that reminds me of some of my favorite poets. If you haven’t, you must read Gwyndyn Alexander.

Gwyndyn’s newest book, On the Loom of the Fates
This is the newest chapbook from Gwyndyn, not even yet available on Amazon. She was kind enough to send me a review copy so that I could add it to this post. I am not typically one to say “this is my favorite,” but I think that this is my favorite collection (as a whole) of poetry by Gwyndyn that I’ve read. Most of the poems use themes and female characters from the world of mythology, weaving together contemplations of the modern (and eternal) struggles of women with our vision of these women from the past. Who would have imagined a poem about Medusa that ends so beautifully: “When we realize/our beauty/our power/we will end/our isolation/and rise up as one./We are the serpents/in the garden./We are one./ One beauty./One power./Gorgons, all,/and proud.” Yet again Gwyndyn has taken stories, themes, and images from our collective history and presented us with something both beautiful and provoking. I am excited to see more!

Author page on Facebook –

I wanted to include, in all of this, at least one sample poem from Gwyndyn, and she has been gracious enough to agree that I could post here a poem, in its entirety. Read this poem, and then go and buy her books!

On the Loom of the Fates (the title poem from her newest book)photo (1)
See us weaving here, us women:
our loom is framed with your bones,
strung with your sinews, your hair.

What do we weave?

Our fingers blur,
a picture emerges…
a life
lost love
a death.

We never tire, we sisters.

We never thirst.

The images you live do not move us.

What, to us,
is one more thread?

Support Writers (and ALL artists whose work you enjoy) [a post by Gwyndyn Alexander]
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts and memes lately about creativity and productivity and what ‘counts’ as work.
Here’s the thing: art is work. Writing is work. Creating is work.
The fact that people don’t feel a need to pay what it’s worth is not a problem with the artists or the writers or the work itself.
If you want artists and writers to keep creating, to make more things for you to enjoy, encourage them. Buy their work. Review their work. Take 10 seconds to share their posts and help expose their work to new audiences.
I’ve heard from people that 99 cents is too much to pay for ten poems. 9 cents a poem isn’t good value, apparently. I should just write for free.
Don’t expect writers and artists to give you more freebies, to write you a poem for yourself or your friends for free, to draw you a picture or cartoon or anydamnedthing.
If you love to read, watch movies, have cool art to hang in your home, you are a consumer. Pay for the work you love. Support the artists.
Just because your favorite author is on Facebook, don’t expect them to post free content for you. Just because your friend is an author, don’t expect free copies of the work.
In my case, a single poem represents about ten or 15 hours of work. Actual hard work.
If you don’t like what I do, great, that’s your business.
But if your friend is an artist, or a writer, or whatever…support them. If their art is not your cup of tea, fine. If they’re your friend, though, take the time to share their work so that others can see it who maybe would like it just fine if they knew it existed.
If you can post a meme, you can click the share button on a friend’s post. If you want more art in the world, do your part to help the artists you know.
If you get a free book or movie or comic or anything from an artist, review it. It’s a gift, not a right.
It’s hard work to spend hours and weeks and months creating something. It’s much harder with the internet and the new art paradigm to have to promote it, as well. Most of us aren’t any good at self-promotion. Word of mouth is the only way for artists and writers to make a living at all.
If we can’t pay the bills, we can’t create. If you want what people create, you have to take an active role in helping the artists get their work out there.
Support the artists you love. Share. Review. Tell your friends about their work. Or you’re going to see more and more artists creating less and less work because their time has to be devoted to things that take away from the work, just to make ends meet.

book review – ‘repeat’ by neal pollack (publication 3/24/15)

book review repeatThis was another book that, on receiving the ARC, I thought “not exactly my cup of tea.” It happens. You start reviewing books, and you get a good number of books that aren’t necessarily what you might have pulled off the shelf and bought for yourself. But the screenwriter angle was interesting, and the general premise didn’t seem too bad…

Blurb (Amazon) – Through strange metaphysical circumstances, failed screenwriter Brad Cohen finds himself caught in an infinite time loop, forced to relive the first forty years of his life again and again. Each “repeat,” Brad wakes up in the womb on what was supposed to be his fortieth birthday, with full knowledge of what’s come before. In various timelines, he becomes a successful political pundit, a game-show champion, a playboy, and a master manipulator of the stock market, but none of them seem to lead him out of his predicament. As he realizes he wants to break out of the loop and find the love of his life—the one he hadn’t appreciated the first time around—Brad tries, fails, and tries again to escape the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth. Repeat answers the question: If you could live half your life over, would you do things differently? Be careful what you wish for! Repeating is enough to drive a dude crazy.

The first order of business – this is actually a decently written book. The “catch” is more in the story than purely in the writing, but the quality doesn’t distract from the flow of the novel in most places. Repeat is engaging and interesting. Pollack takes an age-old sort of storyline (going to Hollywood and failing there), full of cliche, and somehow largely manages to avoid writing a cliche novel.

About the first 20% of the novel is the setup for what is to come, and there are places where the writing just can’t quite support the story that our author is trying to tell. The structure never collapses, but there are a number of times when it was pretty rocky for me. The saving grace throughout the novel is humor – sometimes laugh out loud funny, but often simply the type of humor that causes the reader to smirk and shake his head.

The first time the protagonist “repeats,” I thought Pollack did a great job with relaying to the reader the thoughts going through the mind of the “new” infant. In fact, it had me asking myself a question which I found even more interesting than the actual issues posed in the book – ‘are we born with enormous amounts of knowledge that we slowly forget?’

About 50% of the way through the novel our protagonist wakes up as an infant for the third time (if you count his first life, of which we only experience a little bit in the first part of the book) and I dreaded it before I even started the chapter. I was growing tired of the conceit. But thankfully Pollack skipped to new sections in this new life. During life #4 the style of the book changes entirely (as does his personality) and it’s for the best — the book moves faster through an ever increasing number of incarnations, skipping most of the details and focusing more on emotions and longings.

Brad (our main character) is sad and miserable both from the repetition of life and missing his wife, which left me with the big question – why not just repeat his decisions from life #1 and meet and marry her again? Low and behold…well, I’ll leave that discovery to you.

Not my favorite book of the year by a long shot, but a decent read.

Buy Repeat Now

book review – ‘hausfrau’ by jill alexander essbaum

hausfrauThis was yet another ARC I received for review, and honestly I wasn’t terribly interested or excited about the book. It looked like a decent read. Looks can be deceiving. And deceiving can be pleasantly surprising.

Blurb (from Amazon): Anna was a good wife, mostly. For readers of The Girl on the Train and The Woman Upstairs comes a striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning—“a modern-day Anna Karenina tale.” Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her. But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back. Intimate, intense, and written with the precision of a Swiss Army knife, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves.

Firstly, Essbaum is a very competent writer, even shockingly good from time to time (though mostly solidly above average). She has a knack for turning otherwise mundane statements into powerful moments in the text. Her writing brings the characters to life and lends an immediate credibility to the novel. A well deserved credibility, I might add.

I enjoyed the interwoven story of Hausfrau, moving rapidly back and forth through time and scenarios. Always tight enough that the reader never loses the flow of events, but broken just enough to allow the mind freedom to work. This is ene of the best done story lines of its type that I’ve come across in a recently published book.

Hausfrau basically follows a miserable woman in her search for fulfillment and happiness. She seeks it in sex – ultimately, in being known. This is not the most subtle of plot lines, but done gracefully here, without too much repetition or spite.

The terrible sadness and even disturbing scenes of the novel are deep, thoughtful, and, frankly, beautifully handled. And I, personally, greatly appreciated the references and discussions of Carl Jung, which factor heavily in several segments of the novel.

If Essbaum writes more, I will assuredly read it.

I particularly love a novel that leaves me thinking, that leaves me with a thought worth considering. These books live on, and hold the possibility of changing people, helping us adapt, helping us sort out life.

The book has left me pondering one specific question – how many women (or people in general) have affairs (or ruin their lives in other ways) for the exact reason as this main character: they are sad, unhappy (which doesn’t de facto = sad), alone, lost, in an unfamiliar place (literally or metaphorically), and desperately seek respite? And the related, follow up question – can they (and/or their situation) ever truly be healed?

Buy Hausfrau: A Novel Now!

There were a lot of quotes I liked in the book…this is just a small sample of one: