What People Are Reading, December 2016

“Happy December!  What are you reading nowadays?”

  • Susan (college friend and romantic near-miss): The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit.  Also picked up A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty and Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.
  • Ann (used to be an advisee at the community college newspaper): The Oxford Map Companion.  She works for the publisher.
  • Nikki (former colleague):  Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
  • JB (former dorm mate): Between books and wanted a recommendation.  I suggested any Michael Lewis he hadn’t already read and Heat by Bill Buford.
  • Kayla (former co-worker at the engineering firm):  Didn’t have my number in her phone, so she asked who it was, even though I asked her last month the same question in FB messenger, worded exactly the same way except “November” instead of “December.”  So I told her it was God and that I missed spending time with her.
  • Susannah (former colleague):  Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildMissoula by John Krakauer, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, and Do You Think What You Think You Think by Jeremy Stangroom and Julian Baggini.  She took a photo of her stack and said, “One is for a philosophy project with two students, one is for fun, one is for the holidays, one is because I’m officially an angry feminist since the election, one is to keep me humble.  Guess which is which.”  I got them all on my third guess, which was super fun.
  • Faye (former department chair):  Deep Work by Cal Newport, Creation Regained by Albert M. Wolters, and Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle.
  • Penny:  New cozy mystery series by Laura Childs, about a tea shop owner.
  • Charles (HS classmate): Just finished The Greatest Salesman in the World by Og Mandino.  Next is The Obstacle is the Key by Ryan Holiday.
  • Julie (former coworker): The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman.
  • Marc (HS classmate): Bone Tree by Greg Iles.

Several non-respondents.  To be edited later if I hear from anyone else.




You Up?

The Raiders got smushed by the Chiefs Thursday night. It was a tough loss, and in that one game, the Raiders went from the first seed in the AFC to the fifth seed. It’s a crazy game sometimes. I’m just grateful for the winning season. All I wanted this year was a better-than-.500 record, and they nailed that down three weeks ago. I’ll save higher hopes for next year, now that they’ve proven themselves contenders.

My fantasy team locked down a playoff spot too.  I’m the defending champion in our league, which goes back nearly twenty years.  This week is the last week of our regular season, with the playoffs the next two weeks.  I feel pretty good about my chances; my team has scored more points than anyone else in the league so far this season.

Despite those two highlights, it’s been a crappy football season.  The overall quality of play has been terrible, and there are no great teams in the entire league.  There are a handful of good teams, a handful of bad teams, and a whole lot of mediocre teams in the middle.  I still enoy the games, though.  Football’s pretty good even when it’s bad.

I got called back for a second interview this week.  I’m feeling pretty good about it without getting my hopes up.  My first interview went better than any I’ve had in many years.  I just didn’t feel nervous.  Didn’t talk too much.  Smiled a lot.  I did have difficulty sitting still; my chair was uncomfortable for sitting up straight in.  I’m sure that was noticable.

I was hoping to revise my 43 Things list this month, but the site’s been down since 2015, I was disappointed to discover.  I really liked the concept.  Might have to do my own version of it, you know?  Post my 43 things here, in anticipation of that site relaunching some day.  Kind of annoyed I never copied my list in case the site went down.

I got up early this morning to meet Anto for breakfast, after about 45 minutes of sleep.  I got busy Friday night just doing some household tasks, and then my Dr. Ken review took a little longer than I expected.  I texted a friend (the woman who was my supervisor at the engineering firm for like a month before she took work elsewhere) about the second interview, figuring she was probably asleep and hoping I wouldn’t wake her.

But she was up, so we traded texts for about an hour while I got myself ready and then made my way into town.  It was a nice exchange, one of those that reminds you you have friends even though you fancy yourself a loner.  She shared a few things that have been bugging her, and I offered only sympathy with no fix-it solutions (this is growth, I am convinced).  Mostly it just felt good to communicate so well with a woman, something that’s been largely lacking in my life this past year or so.  We only worked together a month, but I’m really grateful we connected so immediately.

Lately, I’ve been asking friends at the beginning of each month about what they’re reading.  It’s an effort to connect about something I care a lot about, a much better question than how are the kids.

This is what I’m reading.

  • Due or Die by Jenn McKinlay.  I have like two chapters left and have been reading it since August.
  • U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton.  Just started.
  • Summerland by Michael Chabon.  My first Chabon novel.  It’s pretty terrific so far.
  • Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford.  This one’s to review for one of my clients.

I have to kind of cram that last one so I can meet my deadline Monday, so that will be my focus Sunday.  I have some other work to submit for the lawyer too.  I’ve got stuff ready to show but have been having trouble keeping myself organized for some reason.  I’m usually good at that when it comes to my writing assignments.

Something there is about that text exchange Saturday morning.  I’m still turning it over in my brain.  Might have to explicate in this space leter.


Review: Refugee

Refugee (Bio of a Space Tyrant, Book 1)
By Piers Anthony (1983)

The main character in Piers Anthony’s Refugee is named Hope Hubris, something that doesn’t take as long to get used to as one might think. Hope is a refugee from one of Jupiter’s moons, forced to flee with his family toward Jupiter when an impulsive act of violence against a wealthy white boy leaves his Hispanic parents no reasonable alternative. With his parents and two sisters, he boards a space bubble, a crude transport designed for utility, not comfort or speed, and his family is mistreated before it even blasts off: the space bubble is overbooked, overloaded, and under-provisioned.

The passengers learn almost immediately how vulnerable their craft is when it is boarded by space pirates who do horrible violence to the refugees. The bubble is easy pickings, as it has no real defenses, and its occupants have nowhere to turn for help. The entire novel, except for one lengthy sequence on the surface of another moon, is a series of encounters with pirate ships, each taking its share of whatever the harried refugees have to offer. It’s not pretty, and it gets progressively uglier with each episode.

I’ve read about ten Anthony novels, which is a tiny dent in his bibliography—I count thirty-nine published books just in the 1980s—and his works have always had a strange, dark tint about sex and violence. Mostly sex. Most of it is hinted at in punny titles and the freedom that made-up worlds in fantasy and science fiction afford, but this novel is many shades darker, with such cynicism about sex that I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish this six-novel series. While it does not glorify violent sexual encounters, the cynical telling is nearly too much to endure, which I suspect is the point: these refugees have to confront some of the worst evil in others and the survivalist instincts in themselves just for the tiniest hope of a better life for their children, and of course not all of them will make it.

Still, the telling seems to cross a line from horrifying to fascinating. I believe quite firmly that some time before they enter their teens, children need a close-up look at a dead dog at the side of a road. They have to hold their literally morbid curiosity up against their realization of death’s finality, and come away with some kind of vague sense of the value of life. It’s a terrible thing to ponder, this need to look right at death in order to understand life, and Anthony seems to feel this way also about rape vs. sex, sex vs. love, and even bodies vs. people. Is it an artistic statement, or chilling titillation? Or is Anthony making the case that, like children unable to look away from the dead dog, we are unable to confront our darkest truths without feeling the same thrill?

I could make a legitimate case for any of these possibilities, but I’m not sure I want to. It’s practically pornographic, the way Anthony engages our emotions in dealing with this stuff, and I just don’t have the heart for it anymore. I’ve already decided I will at least begin book two, Mercenary, but I’ve hit my threshold for cynicism. A dip below this line, and I think I’m done.

Refugee is an interesting story with a mostly compelling narrative arc and characters I really care about, but a person can handle only so much revulsion while rooting for characters to rise above this revulsion. For me, it’s this much.

2.5 of 5 stars. I sorta like it.

Review: Good Enough to Dream

Good Enough to Dream
by Roger Kahn (1985)


“I have lived variations of this moment, with authors, physicians, lawyers and bartenders. Layers of acquired, mannered sophistication fall away to passion when they talk of distant baseball dreams that failed.”

Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer was published in 1972. Thirty years later, Sports Illustrated named it the second best sports book of all time, saying it was a baseball book “the same way Moby Dick is a fishing book … no book is better at showing how sports is not just games.”

A copy of that esteemed story of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers has been on my shelf forever, a tribute both to its place in the sports canon and my penchant for biting off more books than I can chew. On the same shelf for even longer is Good Enough to Dream, also by Kahn. I first read it in the early 1990s, and it has survived multiple (though not multiple enough) cullings of the collection, one of my ten favorite baseball books.

I read it again this summer, a season in which I paid more attention to my favorite sport than I had in many years, sensing since the early days of spring training that 2016 would be historic. The Chicago Cubs were months away from winning their first World Series in 129 years, something so mind-blowing and deep-hitting that I yearned to get back in touch with the fan I used to be, before the days of fantasy baseball. I remembered baseball in Kahn’s book about his year managing a single-A minor league team the way I remembered my earliest baseball cards, not as some commodity or billion-dollar-enterprise, but as something to be treasured because it is beautiful.

I don’t know if anything in baseball will ever be as beautiful for me as Rickey Henderson’s headfirst slide into a stolen second base or Phil Niekro’s knuckleball floating past opponents who could only wave their bats at it. I’m not thirteen anymore, and I’ve seen too many Jose Cansecos and Mark McGwires to be certain of anything.

But the 1983 Utica Blue Sox were the only team in the New York—Penn League without a parent club in the Major Leagues. This meant its players didn’t have a next level to aspire to, at least not the way their opponents did. If the young men on the other side of the field performed well enough, they’d be promoted through the system, someday to make the big-league club. The best a Blue Sox could aspire to was catching the eye of a scout and being purchased by a real team the next season, one with built-in upward mobility.

This is the team that sportswriter Roger Kahn purchased, serving as its president and daily head of operations, making decisions out of a trailer, about a budget that didn’t have room to purchase jackets for its players because it first had to make good on bills unpaid in seasons past by previous owners.

“These fellows I hear are coming back,” I said. “Hendershot, Jacoby. Moretti. Coyle. Are they really major league prospects? How good are they?”

Joanne stood on her high heels in the infield and thought for a while. Then she said, “They’re good enough to dream.”

Why would one of the most successful sportswriters in America put himself in that trailer, mediating disagreements between coaches who had nobody better to coach and players who had nowhere better to play? Because baseball is beautiful, perhaps nowhere more than at its lowest levels, where young men who were legends of their high-school teams, and slightly older men who were about to run out of opportunities, clung to the hope that their time had not yet run out on their dreams of playing professionally the game they loved.

Kahn’s account of that season and the men who played it is one of the best things I’ve ever read about baseball. This recent reading reminded me not only of how much I adore this game, but how many of my own unrealized dreams are still in play. It’s a great book.

Four and a half stars out of five. I love it.

See You in the Funny Pages

peanutsI’ve been a fan of comic strips for almost as long as I remember. Literally. My earliest memories go back to when my family lived on a small, man-made island in San Francisco Bay, and that was when I discovered something in the newspaper worth looking at, in that year right before kindergarten, when I was learning to read.

My love for the form is something I’ve never really written about, and I think it’s something I want to explore.  This list is a warmup for that.

In order, my favorite comic strips of all time.  I’m counting one-panel comics as “strips” for the purposes of this list.  You know why.

  1. Peanuts (and it’s not even close)
  2. Bloom County
  3. Calvin and Hobbes
  4. FoxTrot
  5. The Far Side
  6. Zits
  7. Frazz
  8. Pearls Before Swine
  9. The Boondocks
  10. Dilbert
  11. Get Fuzzy
  12. Life in Hell
  13. B.C.
  14. The Wizard of Id
  15. 9 Chickweed Lane
  16. Beetle Bailey
  17. Dennis the Menace
  18. Pibgorn
  19. University of Diverse City
  20. Slice o’ Life

Once upon a time, my favorites included Nancy, Garfield, Family Circus, and Berry’s World, but they don’t make the list now because except for Berry’s World, I no longer find them funny and can’t remember why I ever did.  I have also admired for short stretches of time For Better or Worse, Sherman’s Lagoon, Shoe, Baby Blues, and Liberty Meadows, but I never stuck with them long enough to develop a real liking.

Review: I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies

I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love by Tim Kurkjian (2016)

13475097_10155073767467818_1919828450667402095_oTim Kurkjian is my favorite person in baseball. There is nobody else in the wide landscape of sports commentary more knowledgeable, passionate, mystified, articulate, or amused by the game, and he is regularly cited as the person at ESPN most beloved by his colleagues. To hear him speak of the game, in either tree or forest view, is to be reminded of the boyish reverence many of us had as youngsters and to temper our sentimentality with the reality of millionaires playing a game in a park.

It’s far too easy to become cynical about professional sports, and baseball in particular, but Kurkjian refuses to go there, even while confronting the disheartening truths any honest fan faces. What I love most about him is the seriousness with which he talks about the game in its own context, while keeping the game in the larger context of real life. In I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies, he begins with a treatise on why baseball is the best game, then follows it with chapters about how difficult it is, how tough the players are, the poetic and musical sounds of the game at the major league level, and other particular interests he has in the game’s deepest crevices.

Much of the book is delivered in quick hits of curious anecdotes: a quick item about a peculiar game’s finish, followed by something funny Buck Showalter once said, followed by a little-known fact about Fenway Park. Some of those quick hits are great:

The Phillies in the 1960s had shortstop Bobby Wine and second baseman Cookie Rojas, a period known as the Days of Wine and Rojas.

Infielder Craig Counsell played parts of sixteen years in the major leagues despite looking like a librarian.

To not look at the data is foolish, but to look at the data as having all the answers is even more foolish. It is a collision of new-school statistics and statisticians against old-school managers, coaches, and instructors. Neither side is right, neither is wrong; there is so much to be gained from listening to both sides.

However, it pains me to say this because there are few things I enjoy in my media consumption more than listening to Kurkjian talk about baseball, but while each little story is fascinating, as grouped together in this collection, they are not very good reading. They lack the rhythm and flow of good baseball writing, which at its best mimics the rising and receding action of a good baseball game. Sloppy editing exacerbates the problem.

There are exceptions. The chapters on superstition and baseball’s idiotic “unwritten rules” are much better structured, with nice progressions of thought and more reflective commentary. Especially strong is his “Obits” chapter, in which he pays tribute to the late Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, Earl Weaver, and Mike Flanagan, and I enjoyed an entire chapter about the inside look at the official scoring of baseball, an aspect of the game seldom covered in baseball books.

Tim Kurkjian is famous for being able to recite such painstakingly specific lists at his top ten shortstops in history, or his ten best Yankees of all time. I can relate to his geekiness, for I’ve spent quite a bit of time composing and revising my own lists. Alas, although this is a decent read with a plus fastball and a crippling curve, it has trouble establishing a rhythm and it gets too distracted by the runner at first. It won’t be cracking my list of top ten baseball books.

Three stars out of five.

By Hook or by Book

Some of the shots that pop up when you do a tag search for #bookstagram. It's bibliophile porn.

Some of the shots that pop up when you do a tag search for #bookstagram. It’s bibliophile porn.

And now, a few comments on something I know almost nothing about.  Reckless speculation alert.

I’m fond of taking photos of the books I’m reading and then sharing them on social media.  This is mostly because

  • I like books, and photos of them make me happy.
  • I like talking about books, and putting my current reading out there invites comment.
  • Social media, more than anything else except possibly engagement (and I mean possibly, because I think I might still participate even without it), is about presence.  The original Twitter prompt was “What are you doing?”  I still hold that as the thing I love most about the platforms.  And since books are such a big part of my life, of course my lifestream is going to have a lot of books in it.
  • I like having a photo of each book I review, so I can include the image with the review.  It helps me cement the titles and reviews in my mind.  And it looks cooler.

I often use hashtags like #bibliophile on my book photos.  This leads total strangers to my photos for likes, and occasional follows (my following them, and their following me).  I will occasionally do a tag search for book-related terms just to see what else is out there.

This has led me to an almost mind-boggling number of accounts who exist for the sole purpose of sharing book porn.  I mean, not pornography porn, but photos of books that make book lovers go “Ooooh.”  It’s definitely a kind of lasciviousness that bibliophiles will relate to.

I followed a few of these book-heavy accounts on IG (who call themselves bookstagrammers), but then I noticed some weird patterns.  First, some books find their way into a lot of photos.  I get that they’re popular titles, but I’m talking about across long periods of time within one bookstagrammer’s feed.  This kind of makes sense, if the titles are favorites, but the bookstagrammers are apparently reading so many books, it seems a little weird that a two-year-old title will keep finding itself in one person’s photos.

Second, a few of the popular bookstagrammers often get books from publishers.  In pretty wrapping.  And in the photo captions, there’s a note like, “Thanks to ______ Books for the loot!”  I also don’t have a problem with this, except the problem of occasional jealousy.  But heck, some of these bookstagrammers get a LOT of books this way, more than it seems they could possibly read.  I guess that’s not really the point anyway.  The books are finding their way into the hands of people who will take lovely photos of them, and then those photos will be seen by thousands (tens of thousands in a few cases) of book lovers.

Third.  Um.  Well.  It seems to me that almost all (like, we’re talking 90% or more) of the bookstagrammers are women, and about half of that 90% are youngish.  The ones who have tens of thousands of followers are youngish and pretty, and feature themselves in many of their book photos.  I actually think the selfie thing with the books is pretty great, and I may adopt the aesthetic in my own book photography.  But there’s so much similarity in these book selfies that I wonder if the really popular bookstagrammers aren’t receiving tips (or instructions) from marketers.

I have this weird feeling that the cute young women are being sought by the publishers, which I am also okay with, except.

I don’t begrudge anyone their audiences or sponsorships or whatever, but it does make me question some of the authenticity of these bookworms.  I guess that’s not fair, but there it is.  I just want to know that the book lovers in my world really, really love books.  I never thought I’d have to wonder this about people.  It makes me kind of sad.


Review: Kernel of Truth

Kernel of Truth by Kristi Abott (2015).

kernel of truthAs a teen, Rebecca Anderson was known in her small town of Grand Lake, Ohio as a rebel, never in enough trouble to be put away, but in enough to be suspicious just for hanging around. She’s back now, with a culinary degree and after a failed marriage to a celebrity chef, to run a gourmet popcorn shop in a tourist-friendly part of town, but she finds that earning the respect and trust of those who knew her when—and everyone knew her when—is difficult, if not impossible.

So when her mentor, a popular chocolatier, is found murdered, it’s not long before people are whispering about her possible involvement. The suspicion is preposterous, but Becca’s fierce independent streak and minimal respect for rules keeps putting her in bad places at bad times. The person who killed her dear friend—and it isn’t her—is still out there, and she’s determined to find out who it is, to protect herself and her reputation.

Author Kristi Abbot has all kinds of fun telling us Becca’s first story. Her playful dialogue and narration had me laughing aloud several times, adding an extra layer of enjoyment to an enjoyable genre:

”As for your latest lifesaving activities, I’m pretty sure you’re protected under the Good Samaritan law.” He looked up at me sharply. “Your actions weren’t willful or wanton, were they?”

“I wasn’t aware I could be wanton pulling someone out of a vehicle.” I hadn’t been wanton in a very long time. I wasn’t even sure I remembered what wanton felt like.

“I’ll take that as a no, then.” He marked something down on his legal pad while muttering, “Not wanton.”

The mystery itself is just north of average, but the character is likeable, and she is developed well enough to make her involvement in solving the mystery more believable than most in this genre. The strength of the writing boosts it an extra half star and makes me eager for a follow-up.

4 of 5 stars.

Review: A Corner of White

A Corner of White (The Colors of Madeleine #1) by Jaclyn Moriarty (2012).

a_corner_of_whiteI love dragons, ancient prophecies, and motley crews of talented adventurers, but they promulgate a sense of sameness in a genre whose very title – fantasy – defies sameness. So a novel like Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, with its imaginative story and nary a sorcerer, is a nice reminder that speculative fiction can be so much more.
This is not to say that the novel is lacking any tropes familiar to fans of the form. It’s got spells, creatures who don’t exist in real life, and a this-world-that-world construct to place it determinedly in the realm of the fantastic. Still, it’s the author’s remarkably creative story that impresses most, and the way otherworldly elements serve the development of two main characters as they exist in a brilliant, deliberate unfolding of events whose anticipation without drawn-out suspense is as savory as its eventual quasi-resolution.

Madeleine never thought she’d find herself in a small apartment in Cambridge where her mother takes sewing jobs to keep them fed and sheltered, not when they are both used to a jet-set life in the finest hotels in the world’s glamorous cities. She is regularly reminded of how far her life has tumbled, her mother set on being a contestant on a game show as her best prospect for a better life. She has a few friends with whom she is homeschooled, but she has so little in common with them that she keeps them at arm’s length, hoping instead for some kind of return to the privileged life she once knew.

Elliot has returned home to the small village of Bonfire, where he is something of a local hero. His prowess on the fields of play makes him popular with his schoolmates, while his initiative in fixing others’ problems endears him to teachers, law enforcement, and other citizens. Yet even while the villagers admire him, they whisper pityingly behind his back, for he has recently suffered tragedy and loss in seemingly tawdry circumstances he refuses to acknowledge.

Madeleine and Elliot navigate the unfairnesses of teenhood with its attendant, universal joys and sorrows, while dealing with additional sorrows unique to each. Readers might predict some of the plot’s hinted-at certainties, but they will not predict how they arrive at those certainties, and this is where half the novel’s beauty lies.

The other half is in its lovely narrative prose. It is by turns clever:

Where are they now? she thought. Her iPod, her iPhone, her iPad, the I-ness of her life? Her mind stretched around in its memories, searching for her things: She saw her phone on the hotel bedside table in Paris; her iPad in her Louis Vuitton urban satchel; her iPod slipping from her pocket in the restaurant, the night before she ran away.

and lovely:

We sparkled and glittered and flew through the world, but it was only an illusion of flight. We were trapped in the orbit of a man who was no longer truly there.

If the story doesn’t break your heart, the writing will.

I turned the pages slowly, savoring every chapter, and although this is the first book in a trilogy, I’m in no hurry to get to the rest of it. In fact, I’m going to read this again before I move to book two.

4.5 of 5 stars.

Review: Pierced by the Sun

Pierced by the Sun by Laura Esquivel, translated by Jordi Castells (2015)
Originally A Lupita le gustaba planchar (2014)

piercedbythesunAfter four years of undergraduate study (preceded by four years of undergraduate goofing off), I finally graduated with my English degree in 1995. I’d avoided English as a major for a long time, because even though it had always been my best subject, I’d worried that formal study would damage my lifelong love of reading. It didn’t do that, but for those last two years, it definitely turned reading into a life-sucking, non-paying job, so I spent the first couple of post-graduation months happily avoiding books.

When it was finally time to throw myself back into the pages, the first two novels I attacked were Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, both of them worthy of the honor. I enjoyed them both a great deal, but the wistful, sensual magic of the Esquivel novel was like a gentle, warm reminder of why I loved reading and why I’d finally settled on English as my major. It will always have a special place in my heart because of when it came along in my life and how it welcomed me into the resumption of my bookworm ways.

That was twenty-one years ago, and I hadn’t read another Esquivel novel since, until I was presented with the opportunity to read her latest, Pierced by the Sun, a month before its release. I knew it was time to reacquaint myself.

Lupita is a police officer in a city in Mexico. When a local official is murdered while she directs traffic nearby, she becomes wrapped up in the investigation. The turmoil weakens her enough to let in the demons she’s tenuously kept at bay for some time. She has been the victim of abuse, at the hands of more than one man, and she has in turn abused others around her. She relapses into self-destructive behavior while continuing to seek peace in the menial mundanities of her everyday life while piecing together the circumstances surrounding the murder.

[box type=”shadow”]Boy, did she like it! She liked to drink until she was completely lost. What she liked the most about drinking was not being present, that feeling of self-evasion, of disconnection, of liberation, of escape. Alcohol offered her an excellent alternative to being herself without actually dying.[/box]

Titles of chapters all begin with “Lupita Loved,” as in “Lupita Loved to Iron,” “Lupita Loved Booze,” and “Lupita Loved to Dance,” and the titles are quick images of this conflicted woman tortured by her past, wrestling with her present, and still finding love and beauty in bringing life up from the soil, or gazing at the stars as they tell their stories from the heavens. Esquivel has something to say about modern Mexico, and while it’s a bleak picture, it’s made up of millions of beautiful things, some of which point to some kind of hope for something better.

Esquivel’s prose is mostly spare, much as it is in Like Water for Chocolate. Sentences are short and simple, but they find elegance in the details they highlight, and in the way they follow each other, a musical style that’s pleasing and somehow exotic, as when she sees a murder suspect in the dance hall on Friday night:

Lupita had three options: go after the man and arrest him, go back to Captain Martinez and tell him about it so he could handle the arrest, or go find some cocaine and enjoy the rest of the night. She chose the last one.

Pierced by the Sun is a short novel that takes its time, both qualities I appreciate in a good story, but the writer stops one chapter short of a satisfying read. Lupita is given a chance to forgive herself, and the narrative voice expands, rather abruptly, into a larger statement about Mexico, but then it leaves us there when one last image of Lupita, perhaps ironing shirts, or maybe making breakfast for a lover, would have brought the arc back to earth. If the novel is meant only to be a treatise on Mexico’s straying from  its wonderful history, I suppose it’s fine as it is, but then it’s a waste of a good story. If it’s also meant to give us this character and this story in this time and this place, it owes us a better conclusion, and this is the novel’s only real shortcoming.

Three of five stars: I like it.