Author: Timothy Merrill Page 1 of 3

THE WIFE UPSTAIRS, by Rachel Hawkins

When I first saw the title, and without knowing anything about the book, I was immediately reminded of Jane Eyre, and Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife imprisoned in a third floor attic room. Then, I opened to a page prior to Part I, and there’s a quote from Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, an excellent read. I thought that was interesting. Then, I turned the page and Part I is titled, JANE.

This confirmed it. The Wife Upstairs is a contemporary mystery story that in some way mirrors the outlines of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, but set in Alabama, not England; from English Gothic to Southern Gothic

Jane is a dog-walker for wealthy clients in Thornfield Estates, an exclusive neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. She is not at all like Brontë’s Jane. Although she was an orphan, she’s profane, scheming, irreligious. One day, she is almost run over by a young man in a sports car. His name is Eddie Rochester. We learn that his wife has been missing along with his wife’s best friend, for more than six months. His wife’s name is Bea neé Mason; her first name used to be Bertha. And the similarities mount.


Jane / Jane

John Rivers / St. John Rivers (both involved in religious work)

Blanche Ingraham / Blanche Ingram

Eddie Rochester / Edward Rochester

Bea (Bertha) Mason Rochester / Bertha Mason Rochester

Helen Burns / Helen Burns

Thornfield Estates / Thornfield Hall

And more …

I should have paid more attention to the characters and their JE link and it would have helped me to foresee some of what happens in the novel’s denouement. Of course, there’s a fire. But a twist that happens and which I could have foreseen, I didn’t.

“Reader, I married him” becomes, “Reader, I fucked him,” — which I thought was crass, and again illustrated that Hawkin’s Jane is not at all like Brontë’s Jane.

Still, The Wife Upstairs is a page turner, and for those who love Jane Eyre, it is doubly interesting, even approaching clever.

By the way, another “don’t miss” new book is Shuggie Bain, the 2020 winner of the Booker, by Douglas Stuart. I will try to get a review posted soon.

The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy

Finished reading The Moviegoer, a book which was not at all what I thought it would be, and for which I did not care one bit. This is two in a row that perhaps succeed brilliantly as literary works of art, but fail miserably as stories worth reading. This one, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, has a thin, thread of a storyline stitched through the novel, which, if culled and placed together in a linear way would occupy a mere handcloth of narrative. Instead, what we have here is a patchwork quilt of a novel in which the storyline is so light as to be almost invisible. Percy is often funny, but this first person stream of consciousness is too Falknerian or Jocycean. And perhaps the book, which is not about somebody who goes to the movies, is about the protagonist’s search for God and meaning, but the reader has to care. I absolutely didn’t care if Binx Bolling found God, found meaning … Percy didn’t make me interested in anything Bolling was saying. Most of the novel is a detour. Think of a map of Old Jerusalem. That’s how this book reads. This was Percy’s debut novel and it won a Pulitzer Prize, as did Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Draw your own conclusions.

FOURTH QUARTER 2020: Suggestions from What I Read

Super Good Read: 5 Stars

  1. The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, by William Manchester (NF)
  2. Shining Through, by Susan Isaac
  3. Die Trying, by Lee Child
  4. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck
  5. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles
  6. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Also Very Good: 4 Stars

  1. Unnatural Death, by Dorothy Sayers
  2. The Affair, by Lee Child
  3. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult
  4. Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie
  5. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie
  6. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell
  7. Tripwire, by Lee Child
  8. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Selected Notes

  1. The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

Although the story is set in the 2000s, the novel is about the Holocaust and the possible discovery of a Nazi living (still living!) in, of all places, a little village in New Hampshire where’s he been for years and years, married, and a German teacher for 40 years. But the novel is also a story within a story within a story, like a series of Russian nesting dolls. The small story is the story that Minka writes. She is the girl in concentration camps who is now the grandmother of the novel’s protagonist. It’s a story about the undead, and brothers and monsters who don’t seem monsters, and I think Picoult uses it as an allegory for the protagonist’s moral and ethical dilemmas concerning how evil people can do good things, living ordinary banal lives after committing unspeakable atrocities against human beings.

The second story is the story of Minka, the girl/grandmother whose story takes up most of Part II if not all of it.

And the third, largest story, is the broad canvas of the novel itself involving Sage Singer, 25 (who has sisters Pepper and Saffron) who loves to bake and works the midnight shift as a baker. She is a loner, has a scar from a car accident in which her mother died, is in a relationship with a married man. Another male appears in the story however, Leo, who works in a division of the FBI who still tracks Nazis. So the question is: is this man Sage has come to know a Nazi, and if so, how can it be proved, and so on. There’s a nice twist at the end, and Picoult provides a satisfying conclusion.

If one is tired of reading stories about the Holocaust, then this book isn’t for you. I was surprised that it has not been made into a movie. But there are so many good Holocaust movies, I am not sure people would flock to the theaters to see it, and at any rate, many theaters these days are closed.

  1. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salmon Rushdie

His sixth novel, and not his finest. I appreciated the book as a literary masterpiece, but it was so riddled with esoterica and arcane references that it all got in the way of a good story. The Orpheus and Eurydice template was interesting as were the cultural references of the time period, late 1950s through 1990, and the intersections of East and West, et cetera. But, it was exhausting.

  1. Tobacco Road, by Erskine Caldwell

Finished Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, published in 1932 and a few years later turned into a movie directed by John Ford. Some of Caldwell’s novels were banned, and I can see why: A 12-year girl married off, a 16-year-old boy “rubbing and hugging” a 35-year-old woman preacher, Bessie, a widow, or the other way around. She was doing the rubbing and hugging. Everybody sleeping in the same bed. Abject poverty. Conditions in the early days of the Great De-pression especially in the South were on a par with the Third and Fourth World. I can picture what Caldwell describes because I have seen it in Egypt, India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and other parts of southeast Asia.

  1. Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

Five stars for Shining Through, although it is slow going at the beginning. Chapters are long, and things didn’t pick up for me until Chap-ter 4. It’s 1940, and in Europe the war is well under way. The heroine of the story is Linda Voss who speaks German as well as English, and she has some Jewish blood in her. She’s a 30-something secretary who worships her Adonis of a boss, a lawyer named John Berryman. But he’s married to the daughter of a highly placed attorney/spy in what came to be known as the OSS, the preducsor to the CIA. Then his wife leaves him, and the story begins to pick up. Linda and her boss begin a torrid affair, she gets pregnant, they married, she miscarries, they stay married but it is loveless, and then the ex-wife shows up, and when there’s an opportunity to replace a spy inside Germany itself, right in Berlin, she takes it. She is there for almost two years, and her intel is important, but one day there’s a disaster, and she has to get out. By now, there’s only 20 pages left in the book, and some of the last minute developments I had seen coming for some time. But, riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps not riveting, but well worth the read.

However, Hollywood turned it into a movie which turned out to be a disaster. The cast included Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith, John Guilgud, etc. The problem was that 75 percent of Isaac’s book was not in the film. For example, no John Berryman. No Nan Leland Berryman, no Gladys, etc. The skeleton of the book was there, but the flesh they hung on the bones made the film an entirely different story. It received Razzie Awards for worst film of 1992, Worst Actor, Worst Actress, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay. Michael Douglas would have been fine as John Berryman, but not Edward Leland, and Melanie Griffith was miscast as Linda Voss. The needed someone very sportive and active like perhaps Demi Moore (I am trying to think of the 80s), or perhaps Geena Davis, or Linda Carter (Wonder Woman). Whoever was in charge of casting should have been drummed out of Hollywood.

  1. Kinfolk, by Pearl Buck

This was a pleasure to read and anyone who has lived in China would appreciate it. It is set in the 1940s when China was torn with civil strife. But this is not a war novel. Instead it is a study of the ancient conflict that arises when traditional ways collide with immoveable political and ciultural forces. Buck does this neatly by beginning her story with a Chinese family in New York. The parents are Chinese, but the children are American-born and thus American citizens. A series of events takes the children back to China, through Shanghai and then to Peking. And still later, they return to their ancestral home. The ending is not dramatic but quite ordinary and mundane as befitting perhaps the life the protagonist has chosen. This is not Buck’s most well-known book, but one of her best. Frankly, I enjoyed it more than The Good Earth.

  1. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I began reading as a skeptic, wondering how a plot could be sustained for 400 pages, and initially, my fears seemed to be confirmed. But there is, in fact, a story, and the last quarter especially becomes intriguing. But that said, the writing itself is erudite, clever, masterful. I loved the allusions, the quirky expressions, the develop-ment of a wide cast of different characters. I appreciated the way he ages the Count (at 30 he can do 30 stretches in the morning; at 60 he can do 5). I wish Nina could have been reintroduced, but that might have been too sentimental. The ending surprised me, but it was satisfying. I had hoped for a different denouement. And I loved the relationship the count and the actress Anna developed. This novel, set in Moscow from 1922 well into the 1950s was interesting because I became politically aware in the 1950s and remember NK well. Excellent read, and I would love to see a TV or film adaptation. There are many humorous incidents that would make good television.

  1. Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

Story is set in Victorian England, about 1890 and onward, and is the account of two people in love, but then one leaves the relationship and the other falls apart. Destitute, Nan King works the streets, and is rescued by a domineering person who keeps her for sexual plea-sure. This relationship too comes to a disastrous conclusion, and the girl, once again down and out finds, by chance, someone she’d known previously, and in fact  was supposed to meet—and didn’t. Her new friend is an activist in the socialist moment in England. [Spoiler alert] Although she encounters her first love in the final pages of the novel, she rejects the intreaties to return, and instead stays with her current lover, and the reader for once sighs, because she’s made a wise choice.

All of the parties involved are women. This is Les Lit, and there are some steamy sexual scenes. I learned some new words, for sure. But this is so well written, so very interesting that you can’t stop read-ing. You know there are sexual theme from the title of the book, that the first line of the novel has oysters in it, that the protagonist occupation as a girl was bearding and preparing oysters, that her first lover is “Kitty” and so on. This, apparently has been made into a mini-series by the BBC, but I don’t know how the producers get around the sex scenes. Perhaps they’re just suggested.

  1. Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy Sayers

Excellent. Written in the no nonsense, no fluff style of those early detective novels, a la Christie et al. In this book, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother George is accused of murdering his sister’s (and Peter’s as well) neerdowell fiancé. The title is goofy. Taken from Hebrews 12:1, where the King James has it: “a cloud of witnesses.” The meaning of title implies that the characters in the novels are the clouds, i.e. nebulous, etheral and transitory things who witness or provide testimony. She could have done better. Second Wimsey novel, and in this one, he still more rambunctious than the later laconic persona Sayers develops for him.

THIRD QUARTER 2020: Suggestions from What I Read

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Super good reads: 5 Stars

52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain

53. Socrates, by Paul Johnson (NF)

55. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
56. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (NF)
58. The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
61. 1776, by David McCullough (NF)
62. Leonardo, by Frank Zöllner (NF)
64. The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver
65. The Rim of the Prairie, by Bess Streeter Aldrich
66. Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
67. The Sixteen Pleasures, by Robert Hellenga
68. Monet, by Christoph Heinrich
69. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver
76. Lord Peter Views the Body, by Dorothy Sayers

Also very good: 4 stars
52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain
54. Echo Burning, by Lee Child
57. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
70. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
73. Love Among the Ruins, by Robert Clark
79. Inferno, by Dan Brown

Selected Notes:

52. The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, by Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories includes “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” (the story that launched Twain’s career) and several other short stories such as “The 1,000,000 Bank-Note,” “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” and “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” This latter one explored the folly of

Mr. White’s Confession

After reading, Love Among the Ruins, I decided to try another of Robert Clark’s novels, this time Mr. White’s Confession. Now, having read two of his novels, I probably won’t read more until I’ve been in such a happy, joyous state of mind and until our culture has become a magical and wondrous state of Arcadian optimism and civil cooperation, that my therapist tells me that I need a reality check; some-one who can dampen my enthusiasm and remind me of the dark days in which evil happens, killers are not apprehended and law enforcement is corrupt. Then, I will pick up Clark again. I enjoyed this novel immensely — at first. The premise is interesting. There are some bad guys (crooked cops), and there is a protagonist whom I’m sure will be proven innocent. So, I’m confident the killer of two beautiful models and aspiring actresses will be caught, that the eccentric Mr. White will be exonerated and that good will triumph over evil. Then, as the book moved into the second half, I got the feeling that this would not happen, that Clark would need to remind us of what we already know: that the world is a manifestly dark place where corruption exists, where good does not always win out and where hopes and dreams often crumble to dust under the weight of bad luck or bad choices.

3 stars

Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis

Since I had come to a new section of The Last Lion by William Manchester, I interrupted my reading of it to read a murder mystery by Cara Black, Murder on the Ile Saint-Louis. This book is about the fifth or sixth book in a series featuring Aimée Leduc, a private detective in Paris. In this story, a baby is left in her care, a woman pleads for help, a couple of people are murdered and it’s tied to an eco-group trying to stop the signing of an accord between the government and an oil company that would pollute the North Sea. The group is set up, and there are bombings, dark operatives, corrupt CEOs, a blond killer, book-sellers, Polish aristocrats, hit men, and a homeless woman who talks to her long-lost daughter, Paulette, who was put on a train for Auschwitz in 1942. In fact, there are a lot of characters, including her business partner, a dwarf, René. The whole thing was dense, with the specific gravity of lead, and fast — careening toward a conclusion, difficult to see signposts along the way since the reader is suffering from whiplash. This is one case in which the movie will no doubt be better than the book.

2 stars. Find this review and all my reviews on Goodreads.

Black and Blue

Black and Blue, by Anna Quindlen

I read One True Thing a number of years ago and just came across this book which somehow found its way into my library. The theme is domestic violence. Oprah selected it as a book of the month or something in 1999. Fran, after years of abuse, takes her 10-year old son, and flees to Florida where she has a new name, new job and a new life. The plot is not complicated: She cannot let her husband, a cop, know where she is. She finds a new friend and there’s a love interest. But of course Fran (now Beth) does stupid things, like calling her sister and getting herself in the newspapers and on TV when she came to the aid of an accident victim (she’s a nurse).

None of this is imaginative, and rather predictable. Spoiler alert: The ending, indeed the book itself, is not taut with fright as say, the narrative in Sleeping with the Enemy. In fact, it’s relatively tame. Her abuser is not brought to justice and gets the kid. So the book is depressing, joyless — which may be the point. Quindlen inflicts on the reader the abuse she describes: We may not be black, but at the end, we’re definitely blue.

3 stars. Find this review and more of my reviews on Goodreads.


The Sixteen Pleasures

Enjoyed this novel very much, although the ending could have been more decisive than it was, but I was satisfied. Was not able to predict some of the turns and developments. Not formulaic in any way. The story involves a young woman signing on to help restore books in Florence after a devastating flood. She comes across a rare book of erotic poems and drawings, and it’s got to be worth a fortune. The volume, found in a convent, just might save the convent and its library from an overreaching bishop. Along the way, the author treats us to a lot of art history, and the heroine becomes a figure in the art of her own life including several romances. Those who enjoy art lit books such as Artemisia by Alexandra Lapierre, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Falling Angels and The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, will enjoy this. Sadly, Robert Hellenga died only last month (July 2020). I would like to read another of his novels.

Keep on Shoulding

Halo Top Creamery got its start in 2012 when former attorney, Justin Woolverton decided that he needed to find a lower calorie alternative to traditional ice cream. Another attorney, Doug Boulton joined him in the quest.

Today, Halo Top lite ice cream is sold in pints around the world. According to Wikipedia, “In July 2017, [it] became the best-selling ice cream pint at grocery stores in the United States, surpassing in popularity the Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs brands, which previously held that distinction for years.”

One of their TV adverts features a plus-size gal dancing in a way that leaves no one misunderstanding: This girl is a large. No problem with that. Far from it. In fact, the text that accompanies her dancing goes like this:

Socrates and Jesus

In the 1966 spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood as Blondie (or, The Man with No Name), says to Tuco, played by Eli Wallach: “In this world there’s two kinds of people: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”

It’s a common trope: “There’s two kinds of people in the world: Those who — and you can fill in the rest. For example:

  • Those who are PC; and those who are MAC.
  • Those who give; and those who take.
  • Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world; and those who don’t.
  • Those who wear masks in public; and those who don’t.
  • Those who hate Trump; and those who love him.
  • Those from red states and those from blue states.
  • Those whose minds are set like a Home Depot post in Quikrete cement; and —

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Copyright 2021 Timothy Merrill